Shareholders start wrestling Zuckerberg for Facebook control

Five Facebook shareholders are fighting back against Mark Zuckerberg’s control of the company he founded after several scandals have plummeted share price.

Citing privacy outrages, political influence, the proliferation of fake news and data leaks, the asset managers are hoping to raise support to remove Zuckerberg as Chairman. The reputation and credibility of Facebook as a business which can effectively operate in the digital economy has certainly been called into question, though considering Zuckerberg himself control 60% of the Facebook voting rights, it might prove to be a difficult battle.

New York City Pension Funds, Illinois state treasurer Michael Frerichs, Rhode Island state treasurer Seth Magaziner, Pennsylvania treasurer Joe Torsella, and Trillium Asset Management are the troublesome shareholders, though the filing should be viewed as nothing more than symbolic. With Zuckerberg’s control over Facebook coming close to a dictatorship, it is unlikely anything will change. That will not prevent investors from complaining however.

At the time of writing, the Facebook share price was standing at $159, having started the year at $181 and reaching a peak of $271 in July. This is the lowest since July 2017, a period which has seen Facebook get grilled by politicians over fake news and political influence, Cambridge Analytica dragging the company down and data breaches leaking personal information to nefarious actors. While Facebook will always be a target for hackers and the bottom-dwellers of the internet, the shareholders are calling into question Zuckerberg’s ability to manage the business.

“Facebook plays an outsized role in our society and our economy,” said New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. “They have a social and financial responsibility to be transparent – that’s why we’re demanding independence and accountability in the company’s boardroom.

“We need Facebook’s insular boardroom to make a serious commitment to addressing real risks – reputational, regulatory, and the risk to our democracy – that impact the company, its shareowners, and ultimately the hard-earned pensions of thousands of New York City workers. An independent board chair is essential to moving Facebook forward from this mess, and to re-establish trust with Americans and investors alike.”

This is not the first time Zuckerberg has faced a challenge to his reign. Three of the aforementioned funds also supported a proposal in 2017 to create an independent board, though many of the largest shareholders voted against the proposal. This new filing, which also suggests the creation of an independent board chair to improve oversight, is set to feature at the 2019 AGM, with the troublesome shareholders stating they will be drumming up support over the coming months.

What is worth noting is this is not a revolutionary idea. Most other companies, especially multinationals, appoint an independent board to oversee operations and maintain transparency for shareholders. It is common business practice. Perhaps the steamroller success of Facebook and the continuous supply of profits have convinced shareholders this is not necessary at Facebook, but the declining share price is certainly something to worry about. Facebook is under pressure from numerous different governments, consumer groups and regulators, and Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to want to do much about it.

The UK is an excellent example of inaction from Zuckerberg. After ignoring numerous calls to appear in-front of a Parliamentary committee, the UK Government has threatened Zuckerberg with a summons should he ever set foot in the country again. It is difficult to imagine any other multi-national business taking this approach to criticism and condemnation.

While the filing might be nothing more than a PR statement, it is clear the shareholders are not happy with the way Zuckerberg is running the business. Unfortunately, it might appear the socially-incompetent Zuckerberg is under little pressure to do anything about it considering his voting power. Ironically, the social media giant seems the closest thing to a dictatorship the US has to offer the world.

The Children Act: US lawmakers asking to know how YouTube collects data on children

US Congressmen have demanded Google CEO answers questions on how YouTube tracks the data of minors.

Anyone who has been a parent to toddlers or pre-schoolers in the last dozen years must have felt, like it or not, YouTube has been a wonderful thing. It does not only provide occasional surrogate parenting but also delivers much genuine pleasure to the kids, from entertainment to education, with sheer silly laughter in between.

Meanwhile we have also recognised that YouTube can be a pain as much as a pleasure. The pre-roll and interstitial ads on such content are all clearly pushed at kids, in particular game and toy shopping; recommendations are based on what has been played therefore encouraging binge watching; not to mention the disturbing Peppa Pig or Micky Mouse spoof parodies that keep creeping through, a clear sign that, while you are watching YouTube, “YouTube is watching you”.

But neither the pleasure nor the pain should have been there in the first place, because, though not many of us have paid attention, “YouTube is not for children”, as the video service officially puts it. In its terms of service YouTube does require users to be 13 years and above. But, unlike Facebook, which would lock the user out unless he has an account, anyone can watch YouTube without the need of an account. An account is only needed when someone intends to upload a clip or make a comment. Even in situation like this, children can pretend to be above the age limit by inputting a faked date of birth, or simply by using someone else’s account. And YouTube has known that all along, it even teaches users how to make “family-friend videos”. Admit it or not, YouTube is for children.

Following complaints from 23 child and privacy advocacy groups to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), two congressmen, David Cicilline (D) of Rhode Island, and Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska, sent a letter to Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai on September 17, demanding information on YouTube’s practices related to collection and usage of data of underaged users. The lawmakers invoked the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act 1998 (COPPA), which forbids the collection, use or disclosure of children’s online data without explicit parental consent, and contrasted it with Google’s terms of service which give Google (and its subsidiaries) the permission to collect user data including geolocation, device ID, and phone number. The congressmen asked Google to address by October 17 eight questions, which are essentially related to:

  • What quantity and type of data YouTube has collected on children;
  • How YouTube determines if the user is a child, what safeguard measures are in place to prevent children from using the service;
  • How children’s content is tagged, and how this is used for targeted advertising;
  • How YouTube is positioning YouTube Kids, and why content for children is still retained on the main YouTube site after being ported to the Kids version

Google would not be the first one to fall foul of COPPA. In a recent high-profile case, FTC, which has the mandate to implement the law, fined the mobile advertising network inMobi close to $1 million for tracking users’, including children’s location information without consent.

This certainly is a headache that Google can do without. It has just been humiliated by the revelation that users’ location data was still being tracked after the feature had been turned off, not to mention the never-ending lawsuits in Europe and the US over its alleged anti-trust practices. It also, once again, highlights the privacy minefield the internet giants find themselves in.  Facebook is still being haunted by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, while Amazon’s staff were selling consumer data outright.

Nine years before COPPA came into force, an all-encompassing Children Act was passed in the UK in 1989. In one of its opening lines the Act states “the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.” This line was later quoted by the author Ian McEwan in his novel, titled simply “The Children Act” (which was recently made into a film of the same title). In that spirit we laud the congressmen for taking the action again YouTube’s profiteering behaviours. To borrow from McEwan, sometimes children should be protected from their pleasure and from themselves.

Apple hands Chinese government the keys to the iEmpire

On one side of the world US Politicians are attempting to ban Chinese vendors on the grounds of national security, while on the other Apple has potentially handed control of its users’ data to the Chinese government.

The new agreement, which was publicised through a WeChat post (thank you Google translate), between Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD), the original Apple partner in China, and Tianyi, China Telecom’s cloud storage business unit, will see the latter store both iCloud accounts and their encryption keys. There are ways around the suspect situation, users can elect to have data stored on different servers in other regions, though it is not a simple process.

With tensions on the rise once again between the two countries, this development is likely to be a clunky spanner in the works. Apple will point out it is simply being compliant to regulations by storing data locally, though there have been fears in recent months the set up would grant the Chinese government easier access to data. Handing control of the data over to state-owned telco China Telecom is hardly going to ease any of these worries.

The decision to move Chinese iCloud accounts onto Chinese servers was made back in January, though there was considerable criticism at the time. Apple defended its position, claiming it was the only was it could continue to offer iCloud services in the country, though Human Rights campaigner warned of the dangers to dissidents and critics of the government.

Amnesty International has pointed out on several occasions the suspect nature of the arrangement, primarily concerning local laws. The foundation claims many provisions of Chinese law offer inadequate protection to privacy, freedom of expression and other rights, therefore should GCBD be compelled legally to offer the government access to private data, there would have to be a mechanism in place to ensure the request did not violate the users’ human rights.

At the time, Apple promised there were no back-doors or suspect channels in the GCBD partnership, but this development will see all photos, notes, emails, and texts stored on government-owned servers. It is certainly a worrying change to the status quo. As it stands, access to data will now be decided by Chinese courts, with the encryption keys controlled by the state-owned telco.

Apple might have a public stance which is pro-privacy, but if local partners can be forced to decrypt data without having to consult Apple or US courts, objections from the US firm are as pointless as classical musical enthusiasts in Slough. When the Chinese government hands a request for information on the grounds of a criminal investigation, there is little which can be done to challenge or refuse the request.

The iLeader of course publicly and officially objects to invasion of users’ privacy, that is PR 101 after all, but is it actually doing anything aside from blindly hoping the situation changes at some undefined in the future. Its a position of convenience for the iChief.

DirecTV users can voice control their set-top boxes with Alexa

DirecTV announced today that users of several models of its set-top boxes will be able to select programs, start and stop play, as well as control recording functions with voice, using Amazon’s AI personal assistant Alexa.

The announcement on its official Twitter account, supported by a glossy picture, may look a giant leap for DirecTV, but is only a small step for the AI industry, in a perverse application of Neil Armstrong’s famous line. This is not only because DirecTV is late. Amazon updated its Video Skill API in March this year, to support apps to add recording, launcher, and state reporting functions. Four poster boys were listed as leading vendors to endorse the updates, DISH, Verizon, TiVo, and DirecTV. They largely came to the party in that chronological order.

To make voice bots work properly is tricky, and no one has done a fantastic job. In the set-top box use case, if there is one function that users have to go back to the physical remote control to perform, it will defeat the whole purpose of voice control user interface. In an earlier iteration of Alexa powered DISH menu, users could not open the top level “Guide”, nor did the menu recognise Netflix as a channel.

Even if the functions are enriched, there is also the thorny issues of accuracy, ambient noise, and accents, which can put users off. Different research has shown that large number of users would give up voice bots like Siri, Cortana, Google Home, etc. after registering high enthusiasm at the beginning.

Probably most critically there is the concern for privacy. Alexa is among the better performers among competing voice bots, largely thanks Echo, which has dominated the smart speaker market. However, Alexa found itself famously, or infamously, in the centre of an Echo “eavesdropping” controversy in May this year, missing the background conversation as voice command, according to Amazon’s version of the story.

So, there is still a long way to go before we can all embrace voice control both hands free and worry free. Before that, all progress will just be small steps.

Apple demonstrates its conflicted position on smartphone addiction with iOS 12

Gadget giant Apple made its devices more addictive while at the same time offering some tools to help people cope in the latest version of its mobile OS.

The latest version of iOS – 12 – has a bunch of novelty features apparently designed to appeal to children, including adjustable animated emojis, novelty camera effects and shared augmented reality experiences. At the same time it seemed to acknowledge its responsibility for ensuring kids occasionally leave the house and interact with the real world by introducing more tools to help limit smartphone use.

“We’re very excited about the new communications features we’re bringing to iPhone and iPad with Memoji, a more personal form of Animoji, fun camera effects and Group FaceTime,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s SVP of Software Engineering. “With iOS 12, we’re enabling new experiences that weren’t possible before. We’re using advanced algorithms to make AR even more engaging and on-device intelligence to deliver faster ways to get things done using Siri.”

“In iOS 12, we’re offering our users detailed information and tools to help them better understand and control the time they spend with apps and websites, how often they pick up their iPhone or iPad during the day and how they receive notifications.

“We first introduced parental controls for iPhone in 2008, and our team has worked thoughtfully over the years to add features to help parents manage their children’s content. With Screen Time, these new tools are empowering users who want help managing their device time, and balancing the many things that are important to them.”

Here are the main things introduced in iOS 12:

  • Faster – Apple chucked out various suspiciously rounded-off percentages to show how much faster everything is when you use the new OS.
  • Shared AR experiences – persistent AR experiences tied to a specific location, object recognition and image tracking are all part of the second generation of Apple’s ARKit for developers.
  • Fun stuff – Memojis are Animojis that you can personalise, just when you thought they couldn’t get any funner. There are also new camera filters and things you can superimpose onto images to make them yet more fun.
  • Group FaceTime – group audio/video calling.
  • Siri shortcuts – suggestions and shortcuts to Siri commands that the Apple AI reckons you might want to use at a given time and place.
  • Saving you from yourself – giving users more power over things like notifications and augmenting the ‘do not disturb’ function to stop people getting in touch when you’re trying to concentrate on stuff.
  • Saving your kids from themselves – Screen Time is the feature that allows you to monitor how much time you or your kids spend on the device and on specific apps. It also allows you to limit the amount of time spent on an app and block access to the whole device at certain times.
  • Privacy – a tweak to the Safari browser are designed to help block social media “Like” or “Share” buttons and comment widgets from tracking users without permission.

“It came as little surprise that Apple introduced a suite of apps to address the growing levels of addiction to mobile devices,” said Ben Wood of CCS Insight. “The tools specifically designed to analyse and manage the amount of time kids spends on Apple devices will be a welcome, but potentially alarming new feature for many parents.”

“Apple’s focus on social responsibility closely followed that of Google at I/O and illustrates a new appreciation among the tech giants of their role in helping people manage their daily engagement with technology”

“It’s a smart move for Apple to reflect the current concerns around security and privacy with new tools to prevent web companies from actively tracking your browsing activity. Although it will be largely transparent to most consumers, it will help further Apple’s efforts to differentiate its products from rivals with strong security credentials.”

These tools are all well and good but if parents are looking to Apple to teach their kids balance and moderation then they might want to consider the extent of their own reliance on devices. A decade after the start of the modern smartphone era people seem to be increasingly questioning their relationship with these ubiquitous gadgets and how insidiously reliant on them we have become. That’s healthy and Apple is wise to accommodate it.

Facebook’s shareholder meeting reveals investor tensions

Investors are demanding and sometimes inconsiderate of the ebbs and flows of the business world, but Facebook’s Annual Shareholder meeting demonstrated the frustrations and fears surrounding the company’s precarious position.

The last couple of months have seen Facebook as the recipient of some pretty intense criticism and scrutiny, primarily from politicians and the media, but this meeting has the potential to cause some very considerable damage. Mark Zuckerberg might be able to ignore MPs in the UK, or brush off ignorant questions from Senators in the US, but awkward and condemning comments from those who are pumping money into the profit machine should be a monumental concern from the ironically socially-inept and privacy enthusiast CEO.

“So if, privacy is a human right as stated by Microsoft CEO and we condemn that Facebook’s poor stewardship of customer data is tantamount to a human rights violation,” said Christine Jantz from NorthStar Asset Management, who was proposing a change in stockholding voting to redistribute control, allowing each share of the company an equal vote.

“It is evident to us that Facebook’s piggybacking of risk oversight onto the audit committee, no matter how well utilized, is not up to the task,” said Will Lana of Trillium Asset Management and Park Foundation, who proposed the foundation of a risk oversight committee. “The purpose of the audit committee is to focus on financial reporting processes, not on big picture risk oversight.”

“Controller DiNapoli recently pointed out that, hundreds of millions of social media users are at risk of being exposed to fake news, fake speech and sexual harassment, if the company cannot enforce its own user agreements,” said Patrick Doherty of the New York State Common Retirement Fund, which co-sponsored a proposal to create an annual content governance report. “Unless safeguards are put in place, the Company is at risk of financial losses and serious reputational damage. Facebook needs to confront that its customers and its investors want protection against abuses of the platform.”

We should point out there are few shareholders meetings where investors stand-up and praise the management team and the operations. The investors are investing to make money, and as far as they are concerned, it could always be done better. But Facebook is generally a company which has been protected from criticism. Generating 50-odd% year-on-year revenue growth consistently offers a bit of breathing room, but not even Q1’s revenue of $11.795 billion, 50% more than 2017, could ease the tensions of scandals, poor reputation management or failure to meet public expectations. Facebook has been protected from many incidents of bad press over the years, but the swell pro-privacy voices is becoming deafening; investors are starting to worry, with some just cause as well.

Recent research from Pew Research Centre suggested other social media platforms are out-performing Facebook for engagement, the business is being sued by Max Schrems for GDPR forced-consent, while there have been calls to break-up the social media empire over monopoly fears and Zuckerberg could actually be arrested next time he enters the UK for refusing to answer questions in-front of a Parliamentary Select Committee. The concerns are becoming very real, very quickly.

Aside from the worries about reputation management and the bottom line, representatives also reacted to various other trends in the business world. The sheer breadth of criticisms aimed at Facebook during this meeting, and of course in the press and political arenas over the last couple of months, is starting to paint a worrying picture.

Fake news and fake accounts were once again concerns, as was inclusion and diversity, with one shareholder seemingly suggesting efforts were nothing more than simple window dressing. Political bias of the organization, as well as the moderators who decide what content is considered appropriate for us, was called into question, as well as the social responsibilities of the company in ensuring rent prices does not destroy the current community in Menlo Park, where an additional 30,000 Facebook employees will need to find somewhere to live.

Facebook was founded in 2004 and its CEO is 34 years old. The company is doing an excellent job at pretending to be an adult organization, but realistically it has only been in existence for 14 years, and only facing genuine inspection since going public in 2012. In this short period of time it has not been able to create the right operating model which stands up against the scrutinies of today economy and society. Multi-billion year-on-year increases on the spreadsheets papered over the cracks in the business for a few years, but there are beginning to widen.

Industry reacts as Europe tries to tame the Wild Wild Web

For years it has been more accurate to describe the digital landscape as a lawless frontier than a bountiful, connected economy, but while Europe attempts to tame the beast, industry is hitting back.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) deadline might have passed in the midst of a flurry of emails attempting to re-qualify leads for continued spam, but the communications industry isn’t taking time to lick its wounds. Next on the agenda to ensure privacy and data protection standards and rights are maintained in the bloc is the e-Privacy regulation, implementation targeted for 2019, and the lobbyists are hitting the bureaucrats hard already. The argument here is a simple one; rules kill innovation. It is hard to argue this point; without rules imagine what could be done, but what would be the cost? Rules in place for a reason, and one of those reasons is when money is concerned, people cannot always be trusted.

The e-Privacy regulation, which was initially intended to be released in conjunction with GDPR, hopes to add further clarity to a number of principles of GDPR and while also enhancing protections to consumers. While GDPR was created to enshrine Article 8 of the European Charter of Human Rights in terms of protecting personal data, ePR will focus on Article 7 in respect to a person’s private life.

The communications industry might not be happy with the changes to regulations, warning there would be a cost to growth and innovation, but in truth these organizations have been operating in a lawless economy, where the consumer had few protections. These companies have been taking advantage of the fact regulators were struggling to keep up with the evolution of the communications space; realistically these rules should have been in place for years, but such is life and the realities of the public sector.

On the more dramatic side, you can have a look at the video below:

Like A Bad Movie – App-ocalypse from Like A Bad Movie on Vimeo.

This video was brought to the world through a coalition of associations using the tagline #LikeaBadMovie. It is PR at its most stereotypical; a loose grasp on the facts, exaggerated, melodramatic, theatrical and over-the-top. Who should we be thanking for such a production? Interactive Advertising Bureau Europe, World Federation of Advertisers, European Association of Communications Agencies and Association of Commercial Television in Europe, amongst others. As you can imagine, these organizations are funded by the companies who have been benefitting from the lawless digital landscape, such as Microsoft, Verizon, Google, Amazon and Snap.

e-Privacy regulation is the new battlefront for these organizations as they seemingly lost out when it came to GDPR. Using Transparency International’s Integrity Watch tracker, we the last couple of weeks have been littered with meetings between the most influential figures in the European Commission and lobbyists representing some of the worlds’ largest communications companies. Specific content of the meetings does not have to be declared, there is likely to be some commercially sensitive information, but just using the search function with keywords such as e-Privacy, GDPR and Electronic Communication Code a series of meetings are uncovered. Some of the most active lobbyists include the likes of Facebook Ireland, ETNO, Microsoft, Google, Symantec and Deutsche Telekom.

We still might be trying to dig through the horde of GDPR emails, the legal (and financial) backlash of non-compliance might still on the horizon and we still don’t quite know how these rules will impact innovation, but the industry is not sticking around. GDPR was yesterday’s problem, e-Privacy is the next regulation for the industry to try and derail.

Key announcements from Facebook’s developer conference

This year’s edition of Facebook’s developer conference was always going to be an interesting one, with executives scuttling away from the Cambridge Analytica fallout.

As with every year, it would be fair to expect some blockbuster announcements, but considering the nefarious maze the firm is currently negotiating, fire-fighting privacy concerns should also be on the agenda. So what did we gather from Day One?

Advertising business concedes a little bit of leverage

Personalised and targeted advertising has been a big topic over the last couple of weeks. CEO Mark Zuckerberg got a grilling from US legislators on the topic, while CTO Mike Schroepfer received the same condemnation from a Select Committee of MPs in London. At the annual extravaganza, there was always going to be a nod to privacy enhancements.

The new feature, which will be known as Clear History, will allow users to opt-out of the practice of collecting and monetization of web browsing history through social media plug-ins on third-party websites. This has always been a contentious issue for the social media giant, which denied the practice until 2014, but now it has at least conceded some ground to critics. Others might argue it should be opt-in, but this is at least progress.

This is not to say Facebook will stop collecting information on where else you go on the internet, but if you opt-out, you won’t be included in any advertiser’s targeting through the platform. Facebook will still collect and store the information, but it will be anonymised and only used for analytical purposes. If you choose to request to have your personal information deleted, it won’t happen immediately. Facebook has stated it will be deleted within 90 days, which doesn’t sound promising, but there are no time limits as it stands.

Cashing in on the online dating craze

Broadcasting whether you’re in a relationship or single has been one of the long-standing features of Facebook, pretty much since its inception, but now it is actually going to do something with that information.

Alongside data privacy plans, Zuckerberg also used the stage at F8 to announce a new dating platform for Facebook. This seems like a logical step for the social media giant, it is after all used to authenticate users on third-party dating apps such as Tinder or Bumble. The data collected from any dating application will sit separately from the rest of the platform, and the team has not detailed how it will monetize such a venture. It would be fair to assume it would be through advertising, as the pay-to-play model isn’t really in the Facebook DNA.

The platform will not necessarily attempt to partner you with people you already know, but work on various different other factors similar to apps which are on the market now, and does present the opportunity to normalize the idea further. While the stigma of online dating has largely been removed, there will still be those who do not trust the idea. Facebook could add credibility.

Facebook is going through a period of scrutiny and criticism at the moment, but it doesn’t seem to have had a massive impact just yet. People are still using Facebook and the #DeleteFacebook hashtag never had any material impact. People like to be enraged to give off the impression they are good people, but who realistically changed their lifestyle.

The online dating industry is worth in the region of $3 billion as it stands, though Facebook could accelerate this figure. And it does appear investors believe so as well. Following the announcement, share price in future competitor Match Group, which owns OkCupid, PlentyOfFish and Tinder, plunged 23% before recovering slightly in overnight trading.

Match Group Share price

VR actually becomes affordable for mass market?

Virtual reality is an area which has been closely watched by Facebook for some time now, though it might have just released a product which can take the segment to the next level.

Oculus Go is now available in 23 countries, starting at $199 for 32 GB of storage and rising to $249 for the 64 GB model. While this would still be deemed expensive, it is getting to the levels which most would consider affordable. This has been the problem for VR to date; it is simply inaccessible to the mass market, finding home for niche gaming communities and commercial applications. Could this be a game-changer?

Two questions remain. Firstly, can the same, premium experience be delivered for this price? And secondly, will there be the ecosystem to support the hardware.

Looking at the specs, a 538ppi 2560 x 1440 WQHD, fast-switch LCD display sounds promising, while the team has also been working with partners like Xiaomi and Qualcomm to optimize performance. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821 chip will be paired with Facebook’s automatic Dynamic Throttling feature to improve energy efficiency for smoother frame rates, while a built-in lithium ion battery will power about two hours for games and up to 2.5 hours for streaming media and video. The specs are promising.

On the content side, Facebook has said it has more than 1,000 titles to choose including Jurassic World: Blue, MasterWorks: Journey Through History and Space Explorers. The key here will be providing enough content to lure users away from traditional screens, but also to manage the quality of the content. Facebook needs to make the Quality Controller role its own here if VR is going to be a new avenue of profit.

New tools for businesses

In terms of diversification success stories, Facebook has done well to engage the commercial world. While it might not look like much from the surface, creating a platform where all businesses, not just those in the FMCG world, can meaningfully engage consumers was a successful move. Part of this was creating a successful platform for customer services, which has most recently manifested itself in the form of bots.

Facebook has said there are now 300,000 bots on the platform, sending 8 million messages a day. Adoption of the technology should be considered successful, now the Messenger platform is due for another makeover, this time with AR on the mind.

Though it is still in private beta mode, the Camera Effects Platform can now be integrated into Messenger, allowing companies to prompt users into using various filters on their devices. For the shopping experience, this is a great move forward, potentially removing a buyers nervousness at not being able to visualise products. AR is still in the early days, but this is one of the more common usecases discussed over the years.

GDPR is just the beginning as Europe targets ‘digital sweat factories’

The European Data Protection Supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli has set his sights on Silicon Valley’s biggest internet players with an agenda to tackle the ‘unbalanced ecosystem’ being created in the digital economy.

The message here is simple; the tech giants are abusing their power and scale over the general population and Buttarelli is going to try and put a stop to it. The upcoming GDPR will have an impact on the way in which data is collected, controlled and monetized, but we get the impression this is only the beginning of the European assault on a technology industry which does not hold privacy in the same regard.

“The digital information ecosystem farms people for their attention, ideas and data in exchange for so called ‘free’ services,” Buttarelli said in a blog post. “Unlike their analogue equivalents, these sweatshops of the connected world extract more than one’s labour, and while clocking into the online factory is effortless it is often impossible to clock off.”

Buttarelli has taken the view that the technology firms are taking advantage of the user. Whether it is only offering privacy to those who can pay for the service, or using over-the-top legal jargon to confuse and justify any activities the firm sees fit, the user is always on the back foot. A prime example is the bombardment of privacy policy emails in the run up to GDPR. Buttarelli has slammed the hostile approach to securing consent, believing it to be a contradiction of the principles of the pro-privacy GDPR.

“If this encounter seems a take-it-or-leave it proposition – with perhaps a hint of menace – then it is a travesty of at least the spirit of the new regulation, which aims to restore a sense of trust and control over what happens to our online lives,” said Buttarelli.

While Buttarelli is possibly exaggerating some of his point for emphasis, we do have a bit of sympathy for his position. The technology giants do take advantage of the masses, while privacy is quickly becoming a bargaining chip.

Companies like Facebook or Amazon are masters at implementing the incremental game. This is a common strategy throughout the technology world, and works incredibly effectively. New ideas and features are drip fed to the community and gradually normalized. These are such minor changes, the user doesn’t usually notice the difference and it just becomes part of the wall paper. Once a small change has been accepted, it is supplemented by another minor alteration, and so on.

The fable describing a frog being boiled alive is very similar. If you drop the frog in boiling water, it will simply jump out, but start with cold water, raising the temperature gradually, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The way in which internet players have gradually increased our openness and acceptance of what should not be considered private information is the same. Compare what Facebook is now to what it was 10 years ago.

The incremental steps forward have taken the machine to a new dimension, asking us for information we would not have been comfortable giving away a decade ago, but now it is amazingly simple. Some might not object to the situation we find ourselves in today, but that it the power of gradual normalization; you have no concept of how far you have travelled. The concept of normality has been distorted to something new, something which is more appetizing to the technology giants.

Another interesting point to consider is the disregard of the technology giants when writing or amending terms and conditions. This for us is a complete abuse of position, as written into the terms and conditions is a clause which states some of these firms don’t have to consult, or even notify, the user when the contract is being changed. We find this, quite frankly, astonishing as surely it contradicts the entire process of gaining consent, making the original signature completely redundant.

GitHub, YouTube, Lastpass, Yahoo, Amazon, Netflix, Microsoft, Apple, WordPress, WhatsApp and Skype are the guilty parties here.

We would recommend reading the entire blog here, and while you should bear in mind some of these points are exaggerated, expect an assault on the technology industry. Buttarelli and other data protection authorities clearly believe the internet players are acting outside of their remit, abusing the trust and vulnerability of the user. We would expect there to be some new regulations to shake the foundations of the information economy over the next couple of months.

GDPR has altered the landscape, going some way to curb the powers of the internet giants, but this will only be the beginning. Buttarelli is seemingly on a crusade to reign back the influence of Silicon Valley.


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