Posts tagged ‘law’


Facebook’s ad targeting: evidence now filed with the Better Business Bureau

04.12.2016


As of today, I’ve sent off my evidence to the US Better Business Bureau so they can continue their investigation of Facebook. The DAA was too gutless to investigate but the BBB, by contrast, gives a damn.
   Let me note here that I have nothing against Facebook making a buck. I just ask that it do so honestly, that it does what it says.
   Facebook claims that you can opt out of targeted advertising, and that you can edit your preferences for that targeting, the same was what Google did in 2011. It was revealed then that Google lied, and the Network Advertising Initiative was able to follow up my findings and assured me it would work with them to sort their procedures out.
   If you opt out of targeting, Facebook continues to gather information on you. The BBB noted to me in April that if I could show that Facebook was targeting based on personal information I did not provide (e.g. if you fed in a fake location as your home in Facebook and it serves you ads based on your real location), then it could be a violation of their principles. This is pretty easy to prove: just go to any ad in your feed, click on the arrow in the right-hand corner, and click ‘Why was I shown this ad?’ In most cases, your actual location will have something to do with it.
   Secondly, there is a potential link between the preferences Facebook has stored on you—the ones they say they would not use—and the ads you are shown. Facebook claims you can edit those preferences but as I showed last week, this is not true. Facebook will, in fact, repopulate all deleted preferences (and even add to them), but thanks to the company itself providing me with the smoking gun, I was able to connect those shown preferences with ads displayed between March and December 2016. It casts doubt on whether Facebook is actually targeting me based on freely given information, especially since, for example, I am being served ads for Oh Baby! when I don’t have kids. (Oh Baby!, meanwhile, is one of the preferences in its settings.)
   My Google investigation took three months; this took between eight and nine.
   We’ll see if the BBB will take quite as long—they might, because they say they tend to be inundated with complaints about Facebook, but find that most cases do not violate their principles. But I’ve shown them not only examples along the lines of what they suggested, but a few that go even further.

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The lies and myths of Facebook, and what the tech press is too scared to investigate

29.11.2016

Lie no. 1: ‘We want to show you ads that you’ll find relevant. That’s why we have ad preferences, a tool that lets you view, add and remove preferences we created for you based on things like your profile information, actions you take on Facebook and websites and apps you use off Facebook.’ ‘Choose an interest to preview examples of ads you might see on Facebook or remove it from your ad preferences.’

This is BS. You can remove all you like (mine has tended to be completely blank for most of 2016) but in the last few days, Facebook has been repopulating this page. This is despite my having Facebook interest-based ads switched off. There’s actually no need, then, for Facebook to keep these, and many of them are inaccurate anyway. Yet various advertising bodies, of which Facebook is a member, are too scared to investigate.


Here’s my ads’ preferences’ page on June 14. I had been keeping an eye on this, and keeping it clear since March 2016.


Even as late as October 25, 2016, there were very few things in there. While Facebook shouldn’t be collecting this data, at least it allowed me to delete it—as it claims you can. And no, I’ve never heard of Mandy Capristo.


Regularly since November 27, 2016, Facebook has repopulated this page, putting all deleted preferences back. This was how it looked on November 28. Within hours Facebook would repopulate it, so any deleting is useless.


Not only has Facebook repopulated the page, by today it’s added even more preferences. I’ve been through five rounds of repopulation now.


A check of my Facebook ad preferences shows that interest-based advertising is switched off. This is as bad as Google in 2011.
 

Lie no. 2: ‘We’ve worked with F-Secure and Trend Micro to incorporate free anti-malware software downloads directly into our existing abuse detection and prevention systems. These are the same systems that help us block malicious links and bad sites from among the trillions of clicks that take place every day on Facebook.’

More BS (links and a lot of comments here and here). There’s plenty of evidence to show that Facebook’s so-called detection systems target certain accounts. A computer identified as having malware, necessitating a user to download their so-called anti-malware products, still works for other users, who aren’t confronted with the same prompts. Companies like Kaspersky clam up and even delete comments when you begin asking them about the programs Facebook gets you to download. Once downloaded, they can’t even be found in your installed programs’ list: they are hidden. No one in the tech press wants to cover this. Scared? We’ve our theory about why they want to slow down some users, and there’s some suggestion that you can ignore the warnings and log into Facebook several days later—the same thing that has happened to users in the past whose Facebook accounts have become faulty due to their database issues. Coincidence?
 

‘We’re also testing a new tool that will let people provide more information about their circumstances if they are asked to verify their name. People can let us know they have a special circumstance, and then give us more information about their unique situation.’

There have been instances of the drag community, for instance, whose accounts have simply vanished with no means of defending themselves and giving Facebook those circumstances. Facebook claimed that the above applied to the US only in December 2015. However, in 2014, Chris Cox of Facebook wrote, ‘Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name.’ Try telling that to the people who have lost their accounts and never given a chance to give their side of the story.
 

Facebook has 1·79 billion monthly active users.

While I can’t counter this myself, there’s plenty of evidence to show that the site has problems with spammers and bots. If you run a large enough group, there’s a good chance that the majority of new members in your queue are not human. Therefore, you might not actually be reaching the number of people you want in Facebook’s calculations. Since the ad preferences have some very strange information on users, I’m not that convinced about the accuracy of targeting anyway. Facebook is complicit in spam by supporting click farms, according to Veritasium.

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Posted in business, internet, media, technology, USA | No Comments »


No surprises as Facebook slips to third in Alexa, but tech press misses it

17.04.2016


Above: Facebook’s latest move: ensuring that notifications for messages go to its own app. If you choose not to install it, tough. (Actually, you can reach your messages if you had bookmarked your old message index, and through some digging you can still get there. However, your old habit of clicking on the number won’t work any more.)

I notice that Facebook has dropped to third in Alexa this week, but none of the tech press has covered it.
   I know the usual arguments: Alexa isn’t the best way of measuring audience stats; everyone (including us) has dropped because of the way Firefox has changed its status bar, thereby omitting a lot of users from its sample; Facebook itself will have recorded no real drop in user numbers (though we also know a lot of these so-called active users are bots and spammers, as we see heaps each day); and that Alexa doesn’t capture mobile data, where people are spending far more time these days.
   It does seem rather hypocritical, however, given that the same tech press applauded and wrote heaps of articles when Facebook overtook Google in Alexa. Some hailed it as the rise and rise of Facebook. There were tones of how unassailable it had become.
   However, its number-one position was remarkably fleeting and it quickly dropped back to second, where it has been for years, apart from that one blip.
   Facebook’s position has been usurped by Google’s YouTube. I make no predictions on whether this is fleeting or not, but it doesn’t look good for Facebook. I just don’t see any YouTube hate out there. If you dislike reading the comments from the world’s keyboard warriors sitting in their underwear at home, a few cookie settings will render them invisible. YouTube becomes a remarkably tolerable site.
   Earlier this month, a report found by my friend William Shepherd showed that personal sharing on Facebook had dipped by 21 per cent.
   I have said for years that ‘Facebook is the new Digg,’ a place where news is shared, not personal updates, though it appears it has taken a while for the company to realize this. Looking at some of the bugs on the site over the years, I’m not surprised Facebook missed it: for months it acted as though its entire user base was in California, with the website stuck at the end of each month till it got to the 1st in its home state. Now it is kicking users off over fake malware accusations when it’s more likely, and this is my guess based on how the site has behaved over the years, that its databases are dying. Liking, sharing and commenting fail from time to time.
   Given this, and its many other problems—including the breach of policies outlined by some of the groups it participates in, impacting on user privacy—no wonder it’s experiencing this drop.
   I see personal updates again that I saw a day before, because relatively few of my 2,300 friends write them any more. The trend has shifted, and a lot of users must have noticed what I did many years ago.
   At Medinge Group we have long advocated transparency in brands, and Facebook’s actions run counter to a lot of what we have proposed.
   We believe that sooner or later, people wise up—something we said about Enron at one of the first meetings I attended in 2002.
   In fact, the way Facebook behaves tends to be combative, and for a 21st-century firm, its attitudes toward its user base is very 20th-century, a “them and us” model. It’s not alone in this: I’ve levelled similar accusations against Google and I stand by them. Since my own battle with them over malware, and a more recent one over intellectual property (where I was talking to a Facebook employee who eventually gave up when things got into the “too hard” basket), I’ve found dozens of other users via Twitter who have been kicked off the service, yet are running clean, malware-free machines. The blog post I wrote on the subject has been the most-read of the pieces I have authored in 2016, and certainly the most commented, as others face the same issue.
   While both giants will claim that they could not possibly have the sort of one-to-one relationship with their user bases in the same way as a small business can, it’s clear to me that big issues aren’t being flagged and dealt with at Facebook. When I read the link Bill sent me, my first reaction was, ‘Why did it take so long for someone there to realize this?’
   Let’s not even get started on the way both companies treat paying their fair share of tax.
   It’s not about the number of people experiencing any given issue, it’s about the severity of the issue that a small number of people experience. By the time a larger vocal minority experiences it, the damage has gone a lot further.
   Facebook does listen to some of these cases: I remember when it limited bot reports to 40–50 a day, at a time when it was not uncommon to find hundreds a day on the site. I complained, and after a few months, Facebook did indeed remove this limit.
   But I regard that as an exception.
   Its forced downloads of so-called malware scans that even its supplier refuses to answer for (could they have nefarious purposes?), and now the latest last week—ensuring that all message notifications in a mobile browser link to its Messenger app, resulting in a 404 for anyone who does not have it installed—are rendering the website less and less useful. In my case, I just use it less. We’re not going to download privacy-invading apps on our phone—we’re busy enough. We want to manage our time and if that means we only get to Facebook messages when we are at our desks, then so be it. Some might abandon it altogether.
   Its other move is ceasing the forwarding from www.facebook.com to m.facebook.com on mobile devices, so if you had the former bookmarked, you’re not going to see anything any more. Some browsers (like Dolphin) came with the former bookmarked. Result: a few more legit users, who might not know the difference, gone.
   If there’s no trust, then regardless of the money you have, you’re not a top brand, nor one that people really wish to associate with.
   Facebook, of course, knows some of this, which is why it has bought so many other firms where there’s still personal sharing, such as Instagram and Whatsapp.
   It knows if there’s another site that comes along that gets public support, as it did when it first started, people will abandon Facebook en masse.
   Curiously, even this past week alone, it seems intent to hurry them along. There must be some sort of corporate goal to see if it can reach fourth, just like Flight of the Conchords.

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Posted in branding, culture, internet, USA | 1 Comment »


Your preferences mean nothing: Facebook still profiles you, even after you switch off interest-based ads

15.02.2016

A few years ago, I discovered that Google was monitoring and gathering user preferences even after one had opted out. Google would initially put an opt-out cookie that went with your browser when you first opt out, which is exactly what every other ad network does—but, then, within 24 hours, it would replace it with its standard cookie and begin tracking you again. It counted on people not returning to their ad preferences page, and the ploy may have worked for some two years before I discovered it, and reported it to the Network Advertising Initiative, who confirmed the error.
   The NAI says that Google has remedied that, and I trust that it has. It didn’t stop Google from hacking Iphone users the following year, circumventing the ‘Do not track’ feature on the Safari browser, till they got busted by the Murdoch Press.
   It seems these big Silicon Valley firms think they are a law unto themselves, as is evidenced by their approach to taxation, for instance, and it appears Facebook is now doing the same thing as Google when it comes to getting advertising preferences on you. In their world, user preferences are something to be spat on, not observed.
   Facebook has often switched things on in its user preferences that you had switched off earlier, but I don’t remember them having touched those settings for a few years. But a leopard doesn’t change its spots. Recently, I discovered that Facebook had indeed turned on my advertising preference tracking, under ‘Ads based on my use of websites and apps’. I had it set to ‘No’; a month ago, I discovered this was set to ‘Yes’.
   I promptly switched it off, but had discovered that Facebook had compiled quite the dossier on me on January 20. Had I agreed to it, this would have been fine; and I use Facebook’s targeting myself from time to time marketing to users that I believe have agreed to be tracked and marketed to.


Above: Facebook compiled a big dossier on my preferences for its ad targeting, though when you open it up, there are entries that bear no resemblance to what I like.

   However, there are two worrying points here. The obvious one is Facebook disrespecting user preferences and collecting data on us—and there has been plenty of debate on just where those data go thanks to Mr Snowden. Secondly, for marketers, the data that Facebook has gathered are, to some degree, laughable.
   As I reviewed and deleted I discovered things in there that I had no interest in whatsoever. In the time that Facebook had gathered data on me, it had supposedly built up a profile on me that was made up of over 1,000 points (above is the summary, though I have expanded this out to have a good read). I found, in my profile, that I was supposedly into search engine marketing, Westpac, dentistry, NASSCOM (not sure what this is), radar, cosmetology, unmanned aerial vehicles, ClickZ, Marabou (chocolate), miniskirts, high-heeled footwear (yes, I can understand that publishing a fashion magazine might have added these), National Basketball Association, the Houston Astres (who?), Leicester City FC, TNA Knockout, the Australia national rugby union team (fortunately, the All Blacks were accurately recorded), World Tag Team Championship (WWE), and the Authority (professional wrestling); I discovered that Facebook thinks Occupy Wall Street is a ‘Religious Center’. Now, some of these will have come from websites I may have browsed at, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to my liking these things: what if you had browsed an article about the arrest of a child molester? Don’t ask me where the Aussie rugby and wrestling come from, as I don’t visit their sites or even news articles about either.
   I spent considerable time deleting all of them, doing myself and Facebook a favour. Naturally, I switched off the tracking.


Above: My ad preference tracking is switched off. End of story? Unfortunately, not: Facebook doesn’t care what you’ve put in here.

   I do think it is positive that Facebook reveals this, as it could have kept our preferences hidden, as it has done for years. It is only right that consumers are given a choice.
   However, where are the ethics to continue doing it after a user has switched it off?
   Because that’s exactly what Facebook does, and, like Google, you can’t pretend to me that these are all accidents. These are companies that believe they can do whatever they like, and intentionally have created systems to do so.
   Interestingly, when I approached the US DMA about this data-gathering on January 22, I received no response, unlike the NAI, which got back to me after I furnished proof of Google’s activities. At that point I had not told them who was doing it, I simply asked them what its position was, with its code of conduct, if a member were to gather data on a person even after that person had opted out.
   Within two days, Facebook had built up a new profile about me, of just over 100 items. I checked with the DAA, which has a website where you can see if the opt-out cookies are present, and it confirmed that Facebook’s was. It seems, then, that Facebook does not honour its own opt-out cookie, exactly the same as Google. Whether it uses this data or not is immaterial: it shouldn’t be gathering them for the duration of the time I choose to be opted out. I haven’t approached the DAA yet, but I will do after I get everything together.
   The items, incidentally, were still laughable; even more so, because of the smaller number. By the 24th, I was apparently a fan of Bandcamp and the company Excite (remember them?), but to my recollection I had not visited any site about either. And the next day there were a few dozen data points, where apparently I liked B movies, Berlin (the band), the immune system, the MG ZR, Frank de Boer, Gracia Baur, sandals, Presbyterianism, the Mandarin language, and Trinidad and Tobago. Again, where this all came from, I have little clue.



Top: Within two days, Facebook had a number of points about me, despite my having chosen to have its advertising-preference tracking switched off. It’s Google all over again. Above: The DAA confirms that Facebook’s opt-out cookie is present, although as I’ve discovered, it makes no difference.

   And so on. Every few days I’d go in there, have a peek, and have a laugh, and noted that my tracking preference was still set to ‘Off’.
   I have accused Facebook of arrogance and this is yet another example. I’ve also accused them of incompetence.
   You’ll have got to this point wondering why I still use it if I dislike the tracking. For a start, I shouldn’t have to put up with user preferences being ignored, if the setting has been provided, and if Facebook itself has been notified (I have contacted them). And as long as I have an account, which, unfortunately I need to administer business pages and groups, the tracking will continue, even if I do not use any features for my personal Timeline. (In fact, I hardly do any more; to the point where Facebook always has, in my feed, a top post showing me what I did x years ago when I log in; reminding me, ‘Gosh, didn’t we have it good together?’ liked a jilted lover.) By my own choice, I use Facebook’s messaging a lot (but not its app) and some very close friends contact me exclusively through that, and I’m going to have to continue there, too, because there is some utility. I also realize the irony of having a “like” button on this blog.

   In other words, I’ve minimized my activity with the site where I realistically can, and right now I don’t care if I can no longer like, post, share or comment, which was becoming a very, very regular bug with Facebook anyway. (It’s now getting more commonplace, as other friends begin getting the same symptoms with increasing frequency; it seems I hit the point before they did.)
   Like with Google, whose privacy gaffes saw me minimize my contact with them, I’ve de-Facebooked where I can; and I accept I can go further (e.g. regular logging out and cookie-blocking). I’ll see where things go after I contact the DAA.

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Posted in business, internet, marketing, USA | 3 Comments »


Google and Facebook should not head “top brands” lists when consumers do not trust them

10.02.2016

I’ve always been surprised when I see Google or Facebook appear on any “top brands” lists. It’s branding 101 that a strong brand must have loyalty, awareness, positive associations, perceived quality, as well as proprietary assets, based on the model from David Aaker, and implicit in this, I always thought, was trust. You can neither be loyal to something you don’t trust, nor can you have positive brand associations toward it, nor perceive an untrustworthy thing to possess quality. According to a survey from a consultancy, Prophet, which looked at over 400 brands across 27 industries, polling nearly 10,000 customers, we don’t trust either Google or Facebook. Neither makes it into the top 50; those that make it into the top 10 are Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Netflix, Nike, Chick-fil-A, Amazon, Spotify, Lego, and Sephora. Google slots in at 55th, and Facebook at 98th.
   To me, the Prophet approach makes far more sense, as for years—long before Edward Snowden revealed the extent of us surveillance under PRISM—I had been blogging about privacy gaffes and other serious issues behind both companies.
   People may find Google and Facebook to have utility and enjoyment, yet we willingly volunteer plenty of private information to these sites. We do not trust what they do with this information. Adweek notes that in a separate survey, Facebook was the least trusted brand when it came to personal information, making it worse than the US federal government. There have been so many occasions where users have found certain privacy settings on Facebook altered without their own intervention; and I’ve constantly maintained that, with the bots and spammers I encounter daily on the social network, its claims of user numbers are difficult to accept. In fact, if you have Facebook’s advertising preferences set to reject tracking, the site will not stop doing so, compiling a massive and sometimes inaccurate picture of who you are. What it does with that, given that you have told the site that it should not use that information, is anyone’s guess. It makes you wonder why that data collection continues. At least Google (now) stops tracking advertising pref­erences when you ask it to.
   These surveys indicate that consumers are wising up, and it opens both Google and Face­book up to challenge.
   Google dethroned the biggest website and search engine in the world when it was released, so no one’s position is guaranteed. Duck Duck Go, a search engine far better at privacy, has chipped away at Google’s share; and I find so much Facebook fatigue out there that it could follow Myspace into irrelevance. When I hear those speak of these two companies’ positions as being unassailable, I take it with a grain of salt.
   We already have seen peak Facebook (and Twitter, for that matter), for when it came to Super Bowl stats this year, there was a massive 25 per cent drop in activity. Interestingly, despite the trending #RIPTwitter hashtag last week, I don’t agree with those who think Twitter is heading into oblivion, for the simple fact that the site is less invasive and seemingly more honest than Google and Facebook. Those same experts, after all, said that Google Plus would be the Facebook-killer, while I consistently disagreed from day one.
   The Medinge Group predicted correctly in the early 2000s when it was stated that consumers would desire greater integrity and transparency from all their brands, something reflected in our book, Beyond Branding. I don’t believe that we are so different when it comes to dealing with online brands.
   This is, then, a welcome challenge for all businesses, to ensure that they demonstrate transparency to their audiences. We have remained very constant in our treatment of private information: for the most part, unless you’ve agreed to it, we don’t store it at our company. There is some information that goes to our advertising networks through cookies. We admit we could have a clearer privacy policy. But for us, we don’t want to lose your trust, because in bad times, it’s the one thing we can hang on to. It’s not something Google or Facebook seem to be aware of as they tend to ignore users’ demands and queries.
   In the last 24 hours, author Holly Jahangiri found an illustration depicting child pornography on Facebook that had been reported by many of her friends—only for Facebook to deem it constantly acceptable, despite what it states in its own terms and conditions. It was only when she Tweeted about it that Facebook finally responded publicly; and only when she involved a US government agency did the page disappear. The pressure of accountability like that against dishonest companies tells me Twitter will be around for a while yet.

   The trend this year, I believe, is the ongoing rise of challengers to these two brands. When the tipping-point against them occurs, I do not yet know. But now, I sense that it’s closer than ever.

This blog post is an adaptation of the editorial in issue 35 of Lucire.

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Posted in branding, business, internet, marketing, technology, USA | 5 Comments »


It’s all going fines at Volkswagen

05.01.2016

Volkswagen Golf VIIGeneral Motors’ fine in 1995 for 470,000 cars using defeat devices against EPA testing: US$11 million. Volkswagen’s fine in 2016 for 580,000 cars using defeat devices against EPA testing: potentially US$40,000 million (or $40 billion, as the Americans say). The local companies get off far easier in the US. In fact, GM can even get a US$49,500 million bail-out from Uncle Sam. I realize there’s a difference between a settlement and a claim, but I wonder if Volkswagen’s going get away with paying less than a figure in the milliards.

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The fall and rise and fall of Kim Dotcom, and why, according to the US, watching YouTube makes us all criminals

26.12.2015

In response to a friend’s Facebook post applauding the possibility that Kim Dotcom would get extradited, two days ago. It’s unedited, other than the inclusion of a link and a note, and I apologize for the grammatical errors.

Surely this remains the only case in the history of humankind where copyright is a multi-jurisdictional criminal matter? And if getting rich off copyrighted material is a crime, then YouTube has a longer history of letting this happen and rewarding users for it. The principal difference that I can see is that YouTube (through its parent Google) dodges paying New Zealand tax,* which seems to be a position our government is comfortable with. I’m not saying I like Dotcom—who I think is only out for himself and yes, he comes across as a dick—but fair’s fair. Nor am I saying I support copyright infringement, but under New Zealand law that’s a civil matter that should be fought by the infringed, not by governments. (In the US there is a criminal provision but the guy hasn’t ever been there nor was his company based there.)
   When I read the prosecution’s case it falls down at some basic hurdles. They say the defendants infringed. But they don’t say what they infringed. You’ve got to have this, especially if you’re going to prosecute this as a crime. The guy has a right to know exactly what’s at issue. And Megaupload stored stuff, they weren’t the infringers. Even if they knew about it, there’s no crime knowing about criminal copyright infringement. If the US position holds true, then when we go to YouTube to view a full-length movie or TV programme that someone has uploaded in order to make money for themselves, it would actually make us criminals. I’m not comfortable with this.
   I see an appalling double standard when it comes to how this bloke is dealt with, e.g. he is dissed for spending money funding a political party but Colin Craig gets a pass for doing the same thing at exactly the same time. He is dissed for showing us how our government monitors us by bringing in Glenn Greenwald yet we all applaud Greenwald when he does it overseas. I find it interesting how he went from Public Enemy No. 1 when he was first arrested, to admired underdog for quite a lengthy period when Kiwis realized copyright law was on his side, and now he’s back to Public Enemy No. 1 again after exposing the flaws in our security services and trying to do us a favour with the flop that was ‘the moment of truth’. Guess we really hate it when a foreign-born New Zealand resident tells us how things should be, but we love telling foreigners about gun laws, imperialism and inequality.
   If the guy is to go to prison, then let it be for an actual crime.

* PS.: Yes, it’s technically legal to run things through a Bermuda tax haven and pay yourselves back for stuff.

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Posted in internet, New Zealand, politics, technology, USA | No Comments »


When mistrust brings us together

13.11.2015

I can be staunch on IP protection in a lot of cases—but in the case of Martin Shkreli of Turing Pharmaceuticals AG hiking the price of an Aids drug from $13·50 to $750 per pill, not so much (for obvious reasons). If you’re in pharmaceuticals, then there has to be some element of wanting to benefit enough of humankind so that they can be, well, alive to better society—or, if you want to be monetarist about it, so they can consume more products and services. Whichever side of politics you’re on, productive people are a good thing for everyone except the arms’ industry. Yet the pharmaceutical industry is the one that’s trying to patent natural ingredients and phenomena—and that’s a step too far. It was something we were taught at law school that could not happen—how can a corporation own nature?—so for the industry to challenge both that jurisprudence smacks of greed. If you didn’t originate it, you shouldn’t be able to own it. Even if it could be protected, nature has been around long enough for that protection to have lapsed. Patenting genes? Please.
   Sure, everyone has the right to make a buck from intellectual endeavours, but their track record needs to be a lot cleaner. Why was there so much opposition to TPPA et al? Because there had been far too many cases of corporations taking the piss when it came to basic rights and established laws, and governments haven’t upped their game sufficiently. I love the idea of global trade, the notion “we’re all in this together”, but not at the expense of the welfare of fellow human beings. Simply, I give a shit. Hiking the price of something that costs $13·50 to $750 is laziness at the very least—let’s profit without lifting a finger—and being a douchebag at the worst. And I don’t believe we should reward either of these things.
   I have a friend who is against vaccinations—not a position I agree with—but his rationale boils down to his mistrust of Big Pharma. And why should he trust them, with these among their worst cases? (As far as I know, he doesn’t oppose other forms of IP protection.) Somewhere, there’s something that kicks off various positions, and corporate misbehaviour must fuel plenty.
   Meanwhile, here’s Martin Shkreli’s point of view, where he doesn’t see his actions as wrongful, as told on Tinder, and as told by Yahoo. His view is that Turing isn’t making a profit and he needs to find ways where it does. He has a duty to his shareholders. It seems incredibly short-term—one would hope that innovation is what turns around a pharmaceuticals’ business—and we come back to the notion that it all feels a bit lazy.

A version of this post originally appeared on my Tumblog.

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Posted in business, leadership, social responsibility, USA | 1 Comment »


Volkswagen’s scandal won’t spread to other German car groups

24.09.2015


If you want a humorous take on what happened at Volkswagen this week, the above video sums it all up.

During my 2010 mayoral campaign, I noted that if New Zealand did not diversify its economy to have more of a focus on technology, there could be a problem. Relying on primary products (I didn’t say dairy specifically) wasn’t something a western economy should be doing and, of course, one signal that things would change in Wellington would be my idea for free, inner-city wifi. I wasn’t trying to be a smart-arse; I was just pointing out an obvious fact, one that has taken many years for others to be concerned about, with Fonterra payouts dipping. News travels slowly.
   Right now, this Reuter article (sorry, folks, having grown up in New Zealand where ‘NZPA–Reuter’ was in the newspapers every day, the plural form doesn’t come naturally to me) suggests that the Volkswagen débâcle could harm other German car makers. How great that harm is depends on how tied those brands are to the German nation brand. The danger is, according to the article, that with the German car industry employing 775,000 people, and car and car parts being the country’s most successful export, a dent in their reputation could have drastic effects for an economy. According to Michael Hüther of the IW economic institute, the car industry is at the core. Having other industries that are strong is important to any economy, and Germany has ensured that, despite one taking a knock, it has others that will keep it ticking over. Nearly 70 per cent of the German economy is in services. There will be worries in foreign exchange, but I doubt we’re going to see other German car makers tanking because of this.
   But Volkswagen, some argue, is very wedded to the German psyche. Its founding, which no one really talks about because you’d have to mention the war, ties it to the state, and its postwar resurrection was borne out of the British Army wanting to get the people of the former KdF-Stadt some gainful employment. It was the great German success, the company whose Käfer became a world-beater, overtaking the Ford Model T in terms of units made.
   The VW symbol is very German, borne from their graphic design ideas of the 1930s. The German name, the quirkiness of the Käfer, its relative reliability, and its unchanging appearance probably tied VW and Germany closer together in terms of branding. For years, you would associate Volkswagen with ‘Made in Germany’, just as you would with Mercedes-Benz and BMW, even if a sizeable proportion of their production is not German at all today. (Mercedes and BMW SUVs are often made in the US; Volkswagen makes its Touareg in Slovakia. Volkswagen is one of the biggest foreign players in China, and in Brazil it’s practically considered a domestic brand.)
   Think of the postwar period: Germans weren’t always smart about how to market their cars. BMW had a bunch of over-engineered cars that were completely unsuited to the market-place, such as the heavy, baroque 501; it wound up making the Isetta under licence toward the end of the decade because it was in such deep trouble. Volkswagen eschewed fashion in favour of a practical little car that, too, placed engineering ahead of marketing fads. From this, the idea of German precision engineering was enhanced from its prewar years, because engineering was, by and large, top priority. Mercedes-Benz, being far more successful at selling its luxury cars to the rich than BMW, cemented it and added cachet and snobbery.
   It was only the foreign-owned makers in Germany that went for fashion, such as Ford and Opel, selling convention to the masses wrapped in pretty clothes: the Ford Taunus TC had styling excesses demanded by Ford president Bunkie Knudsen at the time of its development, but it broke no new ground underneath.
   Nevertheless, any time Ford sources from Germany, whether it’s for the US market or here in New Zealand, the notion of “German precision” seeps through in the marketing; when the sourcing changed, as has happened with the Focus here, it’s very quietly dropped. The German car manufacturers carved themselves a nice, comfortable niche, thanks to an earlier era which, to some extent, no longer exists.
   Mercedes-Benz decided it was not about ‘Made in Germany’ some years ago, favouring ‘Made by Mercedes’, and turned itself into a marketing-led organization; quality suffered. Volkswagen, in its quest to become the biggest car maker in the world, and the master of everything from Škoda to Bugatti, did what GM did years before, by allowing each brand to maintain its character but sharing the stuff that customers didn’t see. It, too, became more marketing-led, and it’s not had a stellar performance in owner surveys for a while.
   You could say that there has been a gradual separation between the brands and what we hold about the German national image in our minds. The “Germanness”, which once accounted for the companies charging a premium, has been decreasing; Volkswagens, in many parts of the world, are affordable again, even in the US where the NMS Passat is built locally in Tennessee. South African- and Mexican-sourced Volkswagens in New Zealand are cheaper in constant dollars compared to their predecessors of a generation before. The German image is not gone altogether—the name, graphics and the æsthetic of the product see to that—but it does mean the effects of the scandal might not spread to other brands as much as some commentators think.
   The original study that showed Volkswagen was cheating on its emissions’ tests in the US, which is nearly two years old by now (it makes you wonder why it only surfaced in the media this week), also showed that BMW performed better than what it claimed. It’s not impossible for the other manufacturers to separate themselves from Volkswagen, because their individual brands have become strong. Thanks to the weaker relationship between Volkswagen and the German brand, this scandal will likely confine itself to the single car group. It’s not great news for the world’s biggest car maker, but its compatriots should see this as an opportunity more than a threat.

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Posted in branding, cars, culture, globalization, marketing, media, USA | 2 Comments »


YouTube switches on my search history again, all in the quest to get more personal data

24.09.2015


Check your YouTube settings: even if you switch off your search history, Google may turn it on again

Here I was, telling friends that 2014 marked the first year in which I didn’t have to call Google out over something, be it privacy breaches, deceptive conduct, or simply not measuring up to its claims.
   As usual, I spoke too soon, as tonight I stumbled across another example of Google saying one thing and doing another. All in the quest to get data on you, without you knowing.
   Last time that happened, Google had to change its practices regarding its Ads Preferences Manager, a system where it claimed you could opt out, where it then inserted an opt-out cookie, but, when you weren’t looking, removed the opt-out cookie and began tracking your preferences again. Now, if only it sold diesel cars, there’d be an uproar in the US media.
   But it was all sorted very quietly, with the Network Advertising Initiative forcing Google, its largest member, to stop its deceptive conduct.
   This was a year before the Murdoch Press exposed Google for hacking Iphone Safari browser users, for which the company was eventually fined $17 million, or four hours’ earnings. Again, if only it was selling diesel cars, the fine would be a thousand times greater.
   This one’s related: the tracking of your history on YouTube. Google wants to track your data so it can customize advertising to you, since Doubleclick, its advertising unit, makes milliards a year. I had suspected it was going on in July 2014, since the site was delivering a large number of motoring advertisements to me, but needed to gather more proof. Like the investigation I made into Ads Preferences Manager four years ago, I should have checked Google’s settings; at the time I didn’t, thinking that Google would be incredibly stupid, callous and ignorant to manipulate user settings again after getting busted twice in the last five years for disrespecting them. But when the punishment is four hours’ earnings, with hindsight, of course, it wasn’t afraid.
   I have had my YouTube history turned off for years, ever since I first discovered Google’s cheating over monitoring. However, in 2012, YouTube had switched this on again, without my intervention. You could argue that I had forgotten, that I must have switched it back on myself, as unlikely as that would be. Nevertheless, I was sufficiently concerned that I blogged about it in November, noting that I had found myself with a YouTube viewing and search history earlier that year. It’s something I would have deleted and turned off again in 2012.
   What did I find when I checked my YouTube history today, now that Google has revamped its account management interface? You guessed it: a search history. It’s not complete—it doesn’t have everything I’ve searched for—but it does begin again on July 23, 2013. This jumps ahead to August 14 and 23, then October 3; June 23 and 30, July 3 and 4, 2014; then August 24 through 27, 2015. You have to ask yourself: how does Google have a search history for someone whose search history was turned off in 2012 (and even before then)? The only conceivable answer to me is that Google switches it on again without your permission, and it was indeed on again when I visited the Privacy Check-up pages today.
   I also have a watch history, with videos in March, April, November and December 2012.
   I shan’t be deleting either, as this will serve as a record of the fact Google still messes around with our privacy settings regularly. But I will say again, today, that I had to “pause” the search history for YouTube again, and I’ll check in again later, although not three years later, to see if Google switches it back on.
   I was surprised to find that I have a YouTube account, and Google gave me the option to delete my zero videos, playlists, subscriptions and subscribers. However, if I proceeded, and I might after this investigation, the above histories would also vanish.
   We may have another Ads Preferences Manager case on our hands, one where the US and tech media will just shrug its shoulders and proclaim Google to be the Almighty on which their jobs hinge. At worst, some states’ attorneys-general will go after them for another few hours’ pay.

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Posted in internet, media, technology, USA | No Comments »