Posts tagged ‘monopoly’


Capitalism falls down when it’s rigged

04.12.2019

Martin Wolf, writing in the Financial Times, touches on a few points that resonate with my readings over the years.
   He believes capitalism, as a system, is not a bad one, but it is bad when it is ‘rigged’; and that Aristotle was indeed right (as history has since proved) that a sizeable middle class is necessary for the functioning of a democracy.
   We know that the US, for instance, doesn’t really do much about monopolies, having redefined them since the 1980s as essentially OK if no one gets charged more. Hence, Wolf, citing Prof Thomas Philippon’s The Great Reversal, notes that the spikes in M&A activity in the US has weakened competition. I should note that this isn’t the province of “the right”—Philippon also shows that M&A activity reduced under Nixon.
   I alluded to the lack of competition driving down innovation, but Wolf adds that it has driven up prices (so much for the US’s stance, since people are being charged more), and resulted in lower investment and lower productivity growth.
   In line with some of my recent posts, Wolf says, ‘In the past decade, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft combined have made over 400 acquisitions globally. Dominant companies should not be given a free hand to buy potential rivals. Such market and political power is unacceptable. A refurbishment of competition policy should start from the assumption that mergers and acquisitions need to be properly justified.’
   History shows us that Big Tech’s acquisitions have not been healthy to consumers, especially on the privacy front; they colluded to suppress wages before getting busted. In a serious case, according to one company, Google itself commits outright intellectual property theft: ‘Google would solicit a party to share with it highly confidential trade secrets under a non-disclosure agreement, conduct negotiations with the party, then terminate negotiations with the party professing a lack of interest in the party’s technology, followed by the unlawful use of the party’s trade secrets in its business.’ (The case, Attia v. Google, is ongoing, I believe.) Their own Federal Trade Commission said Google ‘used anticompetitive tactics and abused its monopoly power in ways that harmed Internet users and rivals,’ quoting the Murdoch Press. We see many undesirable patterns with other firms there exercising monopoly powers, some of which I’ve detailed on this blog, and so far, only Europe has had the cohones to slap Google with massive fines (in the milliards, since 2017), though other jurisdictions have begun to investigate.
   As New Zealand seeks to reexamine its Commerce Act, we need to ensure that we don’t merely parrot the US and UK approach.
   Wolf also notes that inequality ‘undermines social mobility; weakens aggregate demand and slows economic growth.’ The central point I’ve made before on Twitter: why would I want people to do poorly when those same people are potentially my customers? It seems to be good capitalism to ensure there’s a healthy base of consumers.

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The newer the Instagram, the buggier; and why no one should use Google Drive

24.11.2019

I’ve discovered that the newer the Instagram, the buggier it is. We’ve already seen that it can’t cope with video if you use Android 7 (a great way to reduce video bandwidth), and, earlier this year, filters do not work.
   I downgraded to version 59 till, last week, Instagram began deleting direct messages as its way to force me to upgrade. Neither versions 119 or 120 are stable, and are about as reliable as one of Boris Johnson’s marriages, although they have fixed the filter problem.


   Neither version has an alignment grid to aid you to adjust an image so it’s square, even though Instagram’s own documentation says it remains present. Presently, only Tyler Henry and other psychics can see the grid:


   Holly Jahangiri tells me that she has a stable Instagram on Android 9, and another good friend informs me that Instagram still gives him an editing grid on IOS, which reminds me of the débâcle of Boo.com many years ago: it only worked with the latest gear, at HQ, but never worked with older browsers, and certainly never transmitted in a timely fashion on the broadband of the early 2000s (and to heck with anyone unfortunate enough to still be on dial-up).
   I will keep downgrading till the grid is back for us non-clairvoyants, as it’s a feature I use, though I imagine I could run the risk of getting to one with a grid but inoperable filters. I doubt, however, that the video frame rate on Android 7 has been fixed, and since my earlier phone no longer charges (well, it does, but I have to drive to Johnsonville to the repair shop to do it), I’ve saved up oodles of video content.
   I also can’t tag locations in the new Instagrams. I can try, but the window showing me the locations doesn’t like keyboards. If you can’t enter the first word quickly enough, then you’re stuck in a situation where you have to keep tapping to get your keyboard back.
   It’s pretty unacceptable that a year-old phone is already incompatible with an app, but I guess you have to remember that no self-respecting geek working for Big Tech would have old gear.
   Speaking of Big Tech, I can’t work out why people still use Google Drive. I wasted 80 minutes last night trying to download around two gigabytes of images for work. All Google Drive does is say it’s ‘Zipping 1 file’, and after it’s ZIPped, that is all it does. There’s no prompt to download, no prompt to sign in, no automatic download, nada. You can click (if you catch it in time) the message that it’s ready (which I did on the third attempt), but that does nothing.

   I imagine this is Google’s way of saving on bandwidth and it is utterly successful for them as nothing is ever transmitted.
   The ZIPping process took probably 15–20 minutes a go.
   A comparable service like Wetransfer or Smash just, well, transfers, in less than the time Google Drive takes to archive a bunch of files.
   I also notice that Google Drive frequently only sends me a single image when the sender intends to send a whole bunch. There’s no age discrimination here: both an older friend and colleague and a young interviewee both had this happen in October when trying to send to me. It is, I suspect, all to do with an interface that hasn’t been tested, or is buggy.
   Basically: Google Drive does not work for either the sender or the recipient.
   This morning a friend and colleague tried to send me more files using this godawful service, and this time, Google Drive at least gave me a sign-on prompt. Even though I was already signed on. Not that that does anything: you never, ever log in. However, for once, the files he tried to send me actually did come down in the background.

   I should note that for these Google Drive exercises, I use a fresh browser (Opera) with no plug-ins or blocked cookies: this is the browser I use where I allow tracking and all the invasiveness Google likes to do to people. Now that it has begun grabbing Americans’ medical records in 21 states without patient consent in something called ‘Project Nightingale’ (thank you, Murdoch Press, for consistently having the guts to report on Google), we’re in a new era of intrusiveness. (I’m waiting for the time when most Americans won’t care that Google, a monopoly, has their medical records, after the initial outcry. No one seems to care about the surveillance US Big Tech does on us, which puts the KGB and Stasi to shame.)
   Looking at Google’s own help forums, it doesn’t matter what browser you use: even Chrome doesn’t work with Drive downloads in some cases.

   The lesson is: stop using Google Drive for file transfers, as Smash does a better job.
   Or, better yet, stop using Google. Get a Google-free phone, maybe even one from Huawei.

Meanwhile, I see WordPress’s Jetpack plug-in did this to my blog today without any intervention from me. I imagine it did an automatic update, which it was not set to do.

   There’s untested software all over the place, ignoring your settings because it thinks it knows better. News flash, folks, your programs don’t know better.
   A great way for one tech company to get rid of criticisms of another tech company for a few hours, I guess, harming its ranking in the process. Google itself has done it before.
   Farewell, Jetpack. Other than the stats and the phone-friendly skin, I never needed you. I’m sure there are alternatives that don’t wipe out my entire blog.

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Big Tech and advertising: the con is being revealed

13.11.2019

People are waking up to the fact that online advertising isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
   Last month, Bob Hoffman’s excellent The Ad Contrarian newsletter noted, ‘I believe the marketing industry has pissed away hundreds of billions of dollars on digital fairy tales and ad fraud over the past 10 years (in fact, I’m writing a book about it.) If I am right, and if the article in question is correct, we are in the midst of a business delusion unmatched in all of history.’ He linked to an article by Jesse Frederik and Mauritz Martin (also sent to me by another colleague), entitled ‘The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising’ in The Correspondent. In it, they cast doubt over the effectiveness of online ads, hidden behind buzzwords and the selection effect. If I understand the latter correctly, it means that people who are already predisposed to your offering are more likely to click on your ads, so the ads aren’t actually netting you new audiences.
   Here’s the example Frederik and Martin give:

Picture this. Luigi’s Pizzeria hires three teenagers to hand out coupons to passersby. After a few weeks of flyering, one of the three turns out to be a marketing genius. Customers keep showing up with coupons distributed by this particular kid. The other two can’t make any sense of it: how does he do it? When they ask him, he explains: “I stand in the waiting area of the pizzeria.”

   The summary is that despite these companies claiming there’s a correlation between advertising with them and some result, the truth is that no one actually knows.
   And the con is being perpetuated by the biggest names in the business.
   As Hoffman noted at the end of October:

A few decades ago the advertising industry decided they couldn’t trust the numbers they were being given by media. The result was the rise of third-party research, ratings, and auditing organizations.
   But there are still a few companies that refuse to allow independent, third-party auditing of their numbers.

   No surprises there. I’ve already talked about Facebook’s audience estimates having no relationship with the actual population, so we know they’re bogus.
   And, I imagine, they partly get away with it because of their scale. One result of the American economic orthodoxy these days is that monopolies are welcome—it’s the neoliberal school of thinking. Now, I went through law school being taught the Commerce Act 1986 and the Trade Practices Act 1974 over in Australia, and some US antitrust legislation. I was given all the economic arguments on why monopolies are bad, including the starvation of innovation in their sector.
   Roger McNamee put me right there in Zucked, essentially informing me that what I learned isn’t current practice in the US. And that is worrisome at the least.
   It does mean, in places like Europe which haven’t bought into this model, and who still have balls (as well as evidence), they’re happy to go after Google over their monopoly. And since our anti-monopoly legislation is still intact, and one hopes that we don’t suddenly change tack (since I know the Commerce Act is under review), we should fight those monopoly effects that Big Tech has in our country.
   What happens to monopolies? Well, if past behaviour is any indication, they can get broken up. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is simply recounting American history when she suggests that that’s what Facebook, Google and Amazon should endure. There was a time when Republicans and Democrats would have been united on this prospect, given the trusts that gave rise to their Sherman Act in 1890, protecting the public from market failures like these. Even a generation ago, they’d never have allowed companies to get this influential.
   Also a generation ago, we wouldn’t swallow the BS an advertising platform gave us without something to back it up. Right now, it seems we don’t have anything—and the industry is beginning to cry foul.


Lorie Shaull/Creative Commons Attribution–Share Alike 2·0

Regardless of your political stripes, Sen. Elizabeth Warren calling for the break-up of Big Tech made sense as recently as a generation ago.

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Google collects more enemies—we haven’t been critical enough of it

05.09.2017

My complaints about Google over the years—and the battles I’ve had with them between 2009 and 2014—are a matter of record on this blog. It appears that Google has been making enemies who are much more important than me, and in this blog post I don’t mean the European Union, who found that the big G had been abusing its monopoly powers by giving its own properties priority placement in its own search results. (The EU, incidentally, had the balls to fine Google €2,420 million, or 2·5 per cent of Google’s revenues, unlike various US states’ attorneys-general a few years ago, who hit them with a $17 million bill, or four hours’ income for Google.)
   It’s Jon von Tetzchner, the co-founder and CEO of Vivaldi, who blogged on Monday how Google hasn’t been able to ‘resist the misuse of power.’
   Von Tetzchner was formerly at Opera, so he has had a lot of time in the tech world. Opera has been around longer than Google, and it was the first browser to incorporate Google search.
   As you’ve read over the years, I’ve reported on Google’s privacy breaches, its false accusations of malware on our sites, its favouring big sites over little ones in News, and (second-hand) the hacking of Iphones to gather user data. Google tax-dodging, meanwhile, has been reported elsewhere.
   It appears Google suspended Vivaldi’s Adwords campaigns without warning, and the timing is very suspicious.
   Right after von Tetzchner’s thoughts on Google’s data-gathering were published in Wired, all of Vivaldi’s Google Adwords campaigns were suspended, and Google’s explanations were vague, unreasonable and contradictory.
   Recently there were also revelations that Google had pressured a think-tank to fire someone critical of the company, according to The New York Times. Barry Lynn, ousted from the New America Foundation for praising the EU’s fine, accused the Foundation for placing Google’s money (it donates millions) ahead of its own integrity. Google denies the charge. He’s since set up Citizens Against Monopoly.
   It’s taken over half a decade for certain quarters to wake up to some of the things I’ve been warning people about. Not that long ago, the press was still praising Google Plus as a Facebook-killer, something I noted from the beginning would be a bad idea. It seems the EU’s courage in fining Google has been the turning point in forcing some to open their eyes. Until then, people were all too willing to drink the Google Kool-Aid.
   And we should be aware of what powerful companies like Google are doing.
   Two decades ago, my colleague Wally Olins wrote Trading Identities: Why Countries and Companies Are Taking on Each Other’s Roles. There, he noted that corporations were adopting behaviours of nations and vice versa. Companies needed to get more involved in social responsibility as they became more powerful. We are in an era where there are powerful companies that exert massive influences over our lives, yet they are so dominant that they don’t really care whether they are seen as a caring player or not. Google clearly doesn’t in its pettiness over allegedly targeting Vivaldi, and Facebook doesn’t as it gathers data and falsely accuses its own users of having malware on their machines.
   On September 1, my colleague Euan Semple wrote, ‘As tools and services provided by companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon become key parts of the infrastructure of our lives they, and their respective Chief Executives, exert increasing influence on society.
   ‘How we see ourselves individually and collectively is shaped by their products. Our ability to do things is in our hands but their control. How we educate ourselves and understand the world is steered by them. How we stay healthy, get from one place to another, and even feed and clothe ourselves is each day more dependent on them.
   ‘We used to rely on our governments to ensure the provision of these critical aspects of our lives. Our governments are out of their depth and floundering.
   ‘Are we transitioning from the nation state to some other way of maintaining and supporting our societies? How do we feel about this? Is it inevitable? Could we stop it even if we wanted?’
   The last paragraph takes us beyond the scope of this blog post, but we should be as critical of these companies as we are of our (and others’) governments, and, the European Commission excepting, I don’t think we’re taking their actions quite seriously enough.

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Online publishing: how the players we dealt with changed in 2016

12.01.2017


Above: Brave Bison’s predecessor, Rightster, left much to be desired in how it dealt with publishers, while investment commentators had concerns, too.

Twenty-sixteen had some strange developments on the publishing front.
   First, we noticed Alexa rankings for a lot of sites changed. Facebook itself went from second to third, where it has stayed. Our own sites dropped as well, across the board, even though our own stats showed that traffic was pretty much where it was. In Autocade’s case, it was rising quickly.
   We checked, and Alexa had announced that it had increased its panel again in 2016. There was an announcement about this in 2014, but things improved even more greatly during the last Gregorian calendar year, specifically in April. (April 2016, it seems, was a huge month of change: read on.) This means Alexa began sampling more people to get a more accurate picture. Given that Facebook fell as well as us, then we drew the conclusion that the new panel must include audiences in China and other non-Anglophone places. It makes sense: Alexa is a global service and should take global data points. Never mind that we’ve suffered as a result, we actually agree with this approach. And we’re taking steps in 2017 to look at capturing extra traffic with our content.
   Alexa, when we approached them, said it could not comment about the origins of the panellists. Again, fair enough. We’ve made an educated guess and will work accordingly.
   Secondly, there were two ad networks whose advertising disappeared off our sites. The first, Gorilla Nation, started dropping off long before 2016. In 2015, we asked why and were asked to fill out some form relating to Google ads. Anyone who’s followed this blog will know why that was unpalatable to us—and we want to make sure our readers don’t fall victim to Google’s snooping, either. I’m not saying that Google ads don’t appear at all—it’s the largest advertising network in the world, and its tentacles are everywhere—but if I can avoid opening our properties up to Google willingly, then I’ll do so.
   It’s a shame because we’ve worked exceedingly well with Gorilla Nation and found them very professional.
   We have, sadly, entered an era where—as found by my friend and colleague Bill Shepherd—online advertising is controlled by a duopoly. In The New York Times, April 18, 2016 (italics added): ‘Advertisers adjusted spending accordingly. In the first quarter of 2016, 85 cents of every new dollar spent in online advertising will go to Google or Facebook, said Brian Nowak, a Morgan Stanley analyst.’ I don’t think this is fair, as they’re not the ones generating the content. Google has also managed to game services like Adblock Plus: they’ve paid for their ads not to be blocked. (Better has more information on why certain ad blockers are ineffective.) It’s not difficult to see why native advertising has increased, and this is generally more favourable to the publisher. In 2017, it’s time to build up the advertising side again: two years ago we already saw quarters where online overtook print in terms of ad revenue.
   Burst Media’s ads also disappeared, and we had been working with them since 1998. Now called Rhythm One, they responded, ‘We recently migrated to a new platform and your account was flagged by an automated process as part of that. All that being said—we can absolutely get you live again.’ That was April. I added one of their team to Skype, as requested, but we never connected—the helpful staff member wasn’t around when I called in. Again, a bit of a shame. As I wrote this blog post, I sent another message just to see if we could deal with the matter via email rather than real-time on Skype.
   At least this wasn’t a unilateral cessation of a business arrangement, which Rightster sprung on us without notice in April. Rightster’s Christos Constantinou wrote, ‘It is with regret that we inform you that from yesterday we ceased providing video content services to your account.’ This wasn’t the first change Rightster sprung on us—its code had changed in the past, leaving big gaps in our online layouts—and soon after, everyone there clammed up, despite an initial email from another Rightster staffer that feigned surprise at what had happened. Mr Constantinou never picked up phone calls made since that point, and we couldn’t get an answer out of them. No breaches of their terms and conditions were ever made by us.
   We were only interested in a small handful of their video sources anyway, all of whom exist on other platforms, so one would have thought that it was to Rightster’s advantage to continue working with a well respected brand (Lucire). A bit of digging discovered that the firm was not in good shape: a pre-tax loss in the first half of 2015 of £11·5 million, with shares trading in October of that year at 10·50p per share, down from its float price of 60p. That year, it was forecast by Share Prophets that things would only get worse for the firm, and they were proved right within months. Not long after ceasing to work with us (and presumably others), Rightster became Brave Bison Group, restructured, and became a ‘social video broadcaster’, but it was still burning cash (to the tune of £1·3 million, according to the same website in July 2016).
   Gorilla Nation and Burst’s slots have largely been replaced by other networks as well as ads secured in-house, while Rightster effectively did us a favour, though its opaqueness didn’t help. In fact, when they didn’t answer questions, it was only natural to surf online to investigate what was going on. Initially, there was some negative stuff about Burst, though my concerns were put to rest when they emailed me back. With Rightster, there was no such solace: finding all the news about the firm being a lemon confirmed to me that we were actually very lucky to have them farewell us.
   We revived an old player that we used, through Springboard, itself linked to Gorilla Nation, so we’re still serving advertising from them, just in a different form. Video content has not vanished from the Lucire sites, for those who are interested in it.
   How a company behaves can be linked to how well it ultimately performs, and what it’s worth. Given our treatment by Rightster, it wasn’t that surprising to learn that something was rotten in Denmark (or London). Maybe that first staff member was genuinely surprised, with employees not being told about their company running out of money. And unless things have truly changed within, it could well continue to function dysfunctionally, which will give those AIM columnists more ammunition.

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