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Most EU cookie ‘consent’ notices are meaningless or manipulative, study finds

Posted by | Advertising Tech, america, Android, cookies, data processing, data protection, data security, ePrivacy Regulation, Europe, european union, Facebook, France, GDPR, General Data Protection Regulation, Germany, Google, information commissioner's office, instagram, law, online advertising, privacy, spamming, TC, United States, University of Michigan | No Comments

New research into how European consumers interact with the cookie consent mechanisms which have proliferated since a major update to the bloc’s online privacy rules last year casts an unflattering light on widespread manipulation of a system that’s supposed to protect consumer rights.

As Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force in May 2018, bringing in a tough new regime of fines for non-compliance, websites responded by popping up legal disclaimers which signpost visitor tracking activities. Some of these cookie notices even ask for consent to track you.

But many don’t — even now, more than a year later.

The study, which looked at how consumers interact with different designs of cookie pop-ups and how various design choices can nudge and influence people’s privacy choices, also suggests consumers are suffering a degree of confusion about how cookies function, as well as being generally mistrustful of the term ‘cookie’ itself. (With such baked in tricks, who can blame them?)

The researchers conclude that if consent to drop cookies was being collected in a way that’s compliant with the EU’s existing privacy laws only a tiny fraction of consumers would agree to be tracked.

The paper, which we’ve reviewed in draft ahead of publication, is co-authored by academics at Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany, and the University of Michigan in the US — and entitled: (Un)informed Consent: Studying GDPR Consent Notices in the Field.

The researchers ran a number of studies, gathering ~5,000 of cookie notices from screengrabs of leading websites to compile a snapshot (derived from a random sub-sample of 1,000) of the different cookie consent mechanisms in play in order to paint a picture of current implementations.

They also worked with a German ecommerce website over a period of four months to study how more than 82,000 unique visitors to the site interacted with various cookie consent designs which the researchers’ tweaked in order to explore how different defaults and design choices affected individuals’ privacy choices.

Their industry snapshot of cookie consent notices found that the majority are placed at the bottom of the screen (58%); not blocking the interaction with the website (93%); and offering no options other than a confirmation button that does not do anything (86%). So no choice at all then.

A majority also try to nudge users towards consenting (57%) — such as by using ‘dark pattern’ techniques like using a color to highlight the ‘agree’ button (which if clicked accepts privacy-unfriendly defaults) vs displaying a much less visible link to ‘more options’ so that pro-privacy choices are buried off screen.

And while they found that nearly all cookie notices (92%) contained a link to the site’s privacy policy, only a third (39%) mention the specific purpose of the data collection or who can access the data (21%).

The GDPR updated the EU’s long-standing digital privacy framework, with key additions including tightening the rules around consent as a legal basis for processing people’s data — which the regulation says must be specific (purpose limited), informed and freely given for consent to be valid.

Even so, since May last year there has been an outgrown in cookie ‘consent’ mechanisms popping up or sliding atop websites that still don’t offer EU visitors the necessary privacy choices, per the research.

“Given the legal requirements for explicit, informed consent, it is obvious that the vast majority of cookie consent notices are not compliant with European privacy law,” the researchers argue.

“Our results show that a reasonable amount of users are willing to engage with consent notices, especially those who want to opt out or do not want to opt in. Unfortunately, current implementations do not respect this and the large majority offers no meaningful choice.”

The researchers also record a large differential in interaction rates with consent notices — of between 5 and 55% — generated by tweaking positions, options, and presets on cookie notices.

This is where consent gets manipulated — to flip visitors’ preference for privacy.

They found that the more choices offered in a cookie notice, the more likely visitors were to decline the use of cookies. (Which is an interesting finding in light of the vendor laundry lists frequently baked into the so-called “transparency and consent framework” which the industry association, the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), has pushed as the standard for its members to use to gather GDPR consents.)

“The results show that nudges and pre-selection had a high impact on user decisions, confirming previous work,” the researchers write. “It also shows that the GDPR requirement of privacy by default should be enforced to make sure that consent notices collect explicit consent.”

Here’s a section from the paper discussing what they describe as “the strong impact of nudges and pre-selections”:

Overall the effect size between nudging (as a binary factor) and choice was CV=0.50. For example, in the rather simple case of notices that only asked users to confirm that they will be tracked, more users clicked the “Accept” button in the nudge condition, where it was highlighted (50.8% on mobile, 26.9% on desktop), than in the non-nudging condition where “Accept” was displayed as a text link (39.2% m, 21.1% d). The effect was most visible for the category-and vendor-based notices, where all checkboxes were pre-selected in the nudging condition, while they were not in the privacy-by-default version. On the one hand, the pre-selected versions led around 30% of mobile users and 10% of desktop users to accept all third parties. On the other hand, only a small fraction (< 0.1%) allowed all third parties when given the opt-in choice and around 1 to 4 percent allowed one or more third parties (labeled “other” in 4). None of the visitors with a desktop allowed all categories. Interestingly, the number of non-interacting users was highest on average for the vendor-based condition, although it took up the largest part of any screen since it offered six options to choose from.

The key implication is that just 0.1% of site visitors would freely choose to enable all cookie categories/vendors — i.e. when not being forced to do so by a lack of choice or via nudging with manipulative dark patterns (such as pre-selections).

Rising a fraction, to between 1-4%, who would enable some cookie categories in the same privacy-by-default scenario.

“Our results… indicate that the privacy-by-default and purposed-based consent requirements put forth by the GDPR would require websites to use consent notices that would actually lead to less than 0.1 % of active consent for the use of third parties,” they write in conclusion.

They do flag some limitations with the study, pointing out that the dataset they used that arrived at the 0.1% figure is biased — given the nationality of visitors is not generally representative of public Internet users, as well as the data being generated from a single retail site. But they supplemented their findings with data from a company (Cookiebot) which provides cookie notices as a SaaS — saying its data indicated a higher accept all clicks rate but still only marginally higher: Just 5.6%.

Hence the conclusion that if European web users were given an honest and genuine choice over whether or not they get tracked around the Internet, the overwhelming majority would choose to protect their privacy by rejecting tracking cookies.

This is an important finding because GDPR is unambiguous in stating that if an Internet service is relying on consent as a legal basis to process visitors’ personal data it must obtain consent before processing data (so before a tracking cookie is dropped) — and that consent must be specific, informed and freely given.

Yet, as the study confirms, it really doesn’t take much clicking around the regional Internet to find a gaslighting cookie notice that pops up with a mocking message saying by using this website you’re consenting to your data being processed how the site sees fit — with just a single ‘Ok’ button to affirm your lack of say in the matter.

It’s also all too common to see sites that nudge visitors towards a big brightly colored ‘click here’ button to accept data processing — squirrelling any opt outs into complex sub-menus that can sometimes require hundreds of individual clicks to deny consent per vendor.

You can even find websites that gate their content entirely unless or until a user clicks ‘accept’ — aka a cookie wall. (A practice that has recently attracted regulatory intervention.)

Nor can the current mess of cookie notices be blamed on a lack of specific guidance on what a valid and therefore legal cookie consent looks like. At least not any more. Here, for example, is a myth-busting blog which the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) published last month that’s pretty clear on what can and can’t be done with cookies.

For instance on cookie walls the ICO writes: “Using a blanket approach such as this is unlikely to represent valid consent. Statements such as ‘by continuing to use this website you are agreeing to cookies’ is not valid consent under the higher GDPR standard.” (The regulator goes into more detailed advice here.)

While France’s data watchdog, the CNIL, also published its own detailed guidance last month — if you prefer to digest cookie guidance in the language of love and diplomacy.

(Those of you reading TechCrunch back in January 2018 may also remember this sage plain english advice from our GDPR explainer: “Consent requirements for processing personal data are also considerably strengthened under GDPR — meaning lengthy, inscrutable, pre-ticked T&Cs are likely to be unworkable.” So don’t say we didn’t warn you.)

Nor are Europe’s data protection watchdogs lacking in complaints about improper applications of ‘consent’ to justify processing people’s data.

Indeed, ‘forced consent’ was the substance of a series of linked complaints by the pro-privacy NGO noyb, which targeted T&Cs used by Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Google Android immediately GDPR started being applied in May last year.

While not cookie notice specific, this set of complaints speaks to the same underlying principle — i.e. that EU users must be provided with a specific, informed and free choice when asked to consent to their data being processed. Otherwise the ‘consent’ isn’t valid.

So far Google is the only company to be hit with a penalty as a result of that first wave of consent-related GDPR complaints; France’s data watchdog issued it a $57M fine in January.

But the Irish DPC confirmed to us that three of the 11 open investigations it has into Facebook and its subsidiaries were opened after noyb’s consent-related complaints. (“Each of these investigations are at an advanced stage and we can’t comment any further as these investigations are ongoing,” a spokeswoman told us. So, er, watch that space.)

The problem, where EU cookie consent compliance is concerned, looks to be both a failure of enforcement and a lack of regulatory alignment — the latter as a consequence of the ePrivacy Directive (which most directly concerns cookies) still not being updated, generating confusion (if not outright conflict) with the shiny new GDPR.

However the ICO’s advice on cookies directly addresses claimed inconsistencies between ePrivacy and GDPR, stating plainly that Recital 25 of the former (which states: “Access to specific website content may be made conditional on the well-informed acceptance of a cookie or similar device, if it is used for a legitimate purpose”) does not, in fact, sanction gating your entire website behind an ‘accept or leave’ cookie wall.

Here’s what the ICO says on Recital 25 of the ePrivacy Directive:

  • ‘specific website content’ means that you should not make ‘general access’ subject to conditions requiring users to accept non-essential cookies – you can only limit certain content if the user does not consent;
  • the term ‘legitimate purpose’ refers to facilitating the provision of an information society service – ie, a service the user explicitly requests. This does not include third parties such as analytics services or online advertising;

So no cookie wall; and no partial walls that force a user to agree to ad targeting in order to access the content.

It’s worth point out that other types of privacy-friendly online advertising are available with which to monetize visits to a website. (And research suggests targeted ads offer only a tiny premium over non-targeted ads, even as publishers choosing a privacy-hostile ads path must now factor in the costs of data protection compliance to their calculations — as well as the cost and risk of massive GDPR fines if their security fails or they’re found to have violated the law.)

Negotiations to replace the now very long-in-the-tooth ePrivacy Directive — with an up-to-date ePrivacy Regulation which properly takes account of the proliferation of Internet messaging and all the ad tracking techs that have sprung up in the interim — are the subject of very intense lobbying, including from the adtech industry desperate to keep a hold of cookie data. But EU privacy law is clear.

“[Cookie consent]’s definitely broken (and has been for a while). But the GDPR is only partly to blame, it was not intended to fix this specific problem. The uncertainty of the current situation is caused the delay of the ePrivacy regulation that was put on hold (thanks to lobbying),” says Martin Degeling, one of the research paper’s co-authors, when we suggest European Internet users are being subject to a lot of ‘consent theatre’ (ie noisy yet non-compliant cookie notices) — which in turn is causing knock-on problems of consumer mistrust and consent fatigue for all these useless pop-ups. Which work against the core aims of the EU’s data protection framework.

“Consent fatigue and mistrust is definitely a problem,” he agrees. “Users that have experienced that clicking ‘decline’ will likely prevent them from using a site are likely to click ‘accept’ on any other site just because of one bad experience and regardless of what they actually want (which is in most cases: not be tracked).”

“We don’t have strong statistical evidence for that but users reported this in the survey,” he adds, citing a poll the researchers also ran asking site visitors about their privacy choices and general views on cookies. 

Degeling says he and his co-authors are in favor of a consent mechanism that would enable web users to specify their choice at a browser level — rather than the current mess and chaos of perpetual, confusing and often non-compliant per site pop-ups. Although he points out some caveats.

“DNT [Do Not Track] is probably also not GDPR compliant as it only knows one purpose. Nevertheless  something similar would be great,” he tells us. “But I’m not sure if shifting the responsibility to browser vendors to design an interface through which they can obtain consent will lead to the best results for users — the interfaces that we see now, e.g. with regard to cookies, are not a good solution either.

“And the conflict of interest for Google with Chrome are obvious.”

The EU’s unfortunate regulatory snafu around privacy — in that it now has one modernized, world-class privacy regulation butting up against an outdated directive (whose progress keeps being blocked by vested interests intent on being able to continue steamrollering consumer privacy) — likely goes some way to explaining why Member States’ data watchdogs have generally been loath, so far, to show their teeth where the specific issue of cookie consent is concerned.

At least for an initial period the hope among data protection agencies (DPAs) was likely that ePrivacy would be updated and so they should wait and see.

They have also undoubtedly been providing data processors with time to get their data houses and cookie consents in order. But the frictionless interregnum while GDPR was allowed to ‘bed in’ looks unlikely to last much longer.

Firstly because a law that’s not enforced isn’t worth the paper it’s written on (and EU fundamental rights are a lot older than the GDPR). Secondly, with the ePrivacy update still blocked DPAs have demonstrated they’re not just going to sit on their hands and watch privacy rights be rolled back — hence them putting out guidance that clarifies what GDPR means for cookies. They’re drawing lines in the sand, rather than waiting for ePrivacy to do it (which also guards against the latter being used by lobbyists as a vehicle to try to attack and water down GDPR).

And, thirdly, Europe’s political institutions and policymakers have been dining out on the geopolitical attention their shiny privacy framework (GDPR) has attained.

Much has been made at the highest levels in Europe of being able to point to US counterparts, caught on the hop by ongoing tech privacy and security scandals, while EU policymakers savor the schadenfreude of seeing their US counterparts being forced to ask publicly whether it’s time for America to have its own GDPR.

With its extraterritorial scope, GDPR was always intended to stamp Europe’s rule-making prowess on the global map. EU lawmakers will feel they can comfortably check that box.

However they are also aware the world is watching closely and critically — which makes enforcement a very key piece. It must slot in too. They need the GDPR to work on paper and be seen to be working in practice.

So the current cookie mess is a problematic signal which risks signposting regulatory failure — and that simply isn’t sustainable.

A spokesperson for the European Commission told us it cannot comment on specific research but said: “The protection of personal data is a fundamental right in the European Union and a topic the Juncker commission takes very seriously.”

“The GDPR strengthens the rights of individuals to be in control of the processing of personal data, it reinforces the transparency requirements in particular on the information that is crucial for the individual to make a choice, so that consent is given freely, specific and informed,” the spokesperson added. 

“Cookies, insofar as they are used to identify users, qualify as personal data and are therefore subject to the GDPR. Companies do have a right to process their users’ data as long as they receive consent or if they have a legitimate interest.”

All of which suggests that the movement, when it comes, must come from a reforming adtech industry.

With robust privacy regulation in place the writing is now on the wall for unfettered tracking of Internet users for the kind of high velocity, real-time trading of people’s eyeballs that the ad industry engineered for itself when no one knew what was being done with people’s data.

GDPR has already brought greater transparency. Once Europeans are no longer forced to trade away their privacy it’s clear they’ll vote with their clicks not to be ad-stalked around the Internet too.

The current chaos of non-compliant cookie notices is thus a signpost pointing at an underlying privacy lag — and likely also the last gasp signage of digital business models well past their sell-by-date.

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Higher Ground Labs is betting tech can help sway the 2020 elections for Democrats

Posted by | america, Barack Obama, Betsy Hoover, Brad Parscale, Brandwatch, breitbart news, Cambridge Analytica, campaign manager, Chris Sacca, Civis Analytics, communication tools, computing, CRM, democratic party, donald j trump, Facebook, Forbes, Google, greylock, Higher Ground Labs, Hillary Clinton, Insight Venture Partners, LinkedIn, mitt romney, Mobile, ngp van, online tools, paris, PayPal, president, presidential election, Reid Hoffman, republican national committee, republican party, republicans, Ron Conway, Shomik Dutta, social media, social media tools, Software, sv angel, TC, technology, Uber | No Comments

When Shomik Dutta and Betsy Hoover first met in 2007, he was coordinating fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign and she was a deputy field director for the campaign.

Over the next two election cycles the two would become part of an organizing and fundraising team that transformed the business of politics through its use of technology — supposedly laying the groundwork for years of Democratic dominance in organizing, fundraising, polling and grassroots advocacy.

Then came Donald J. Trump and the 2016 election.

For both Dutta and Hoover, the 2016 outcome was a wake-up call against complacency. What had worked for the Democratic party in 2008 and 2012 wasn’t going to be effective in future election cycles, so they created the investment firm Higher Ground Labs to provide financing and a launching pad for new companies serving Democratic campaigns and progressive organizations.

As the political world shifts from analog to digital, we need a lot more tools to capture that spend,” says Dutta. “Democrats are spending on average 70 cents of every dollar raised on television ads. We are addicted to old ways of campaigning. If we want to activate and engage an enduring majority of voters we have to go where they are (and that’s increasingly online) and we have to adapt to be able to have these conversations wherever they are.”

Social media and the rise of “direct to consumer” politics

While the Obama campaign effectively used the internet as a mobilization tool in its two campaigns, the lessons of social media and mobile technologies that offer a “direct-to-consumer” politics circumventing traditional norms have, in the ensuing years, been harnessed most effectively by conservative organizations, according to some scholars and activists.

“The internet is a tool and in that sense it’s neutral, but just like other communication tools from the past, people with more power, with more resources, with more organization, have been able to take advantage of it,” Jen Schradie, an assistant professor at the Observatoire sociologique du changement at Sciences Po in Paris, told Vox in an interview earlier this month.

Schradie is a scholar whose recent book, “The Revolution That Wasn’t,contends that the internet’s early application as a progressive organizing tool has been overtaken by more conservative elements. “The idea of neutrality seems more true of the internet because the costs of distributing information are dramatically lower than with something like television or radio or other communication tools,” she said. “However, to make full use of the internet, you still need substantial resources and time and motivation. The people who can afford to do this, who can fund the right digital strategy, create a major imbalance in their favor.”

Schradie contends that a web of privately funded think tanks, media organizations, talk radio and — increasingly — mobile applications have woven a conservative stitch into the fabric of social media. The medium’s own tendency to promote polarizing and fringe viewpoints also served to amplify the views of pundits who were previously believed to be political outliers.

Essentially, these sites have enabled commentators and personalities to create a patchwork of “grassroots” organizations and media operations dedicated to reaching an audience receptive to their particular political message that’s funded by billionaire donors and apolitical corporate ad dollars.

Then there’s the technology companies, like Cambridge Analytica, which improperly used access to Facebook data for targeting purposes — also financed by these same billionaires.

“The last six years have witnessed millions and millions of dollars of private Koch money and Mercer money that have gone to pretty sophisticated data and media efforts to advance the Republican agenda,” says Dutta. “I want to even the scale.”

Dutta is referring to Charles and David Koch and Robert Mercer, the scions and founder (respectively) of two family dynasties worth billions. The Koch brothers support a web of political advocacy groups, while Mercer and his daughter were large backers of Breitbart News and Cambridge Analytica, two organizations that arguably provided much of the policy underpinnings and online political machinery for the Trump presidential campaign.

But there’s also the simple fact that Donald Trump’s digital strategy director, Brad Parscale, was able to effectively and inexpensively leverage the social media tools and data troves amassed by the Republican National Committee that were already available to the candidate who won the Republican primary. In fact, in the wake of Romney’s loss, Republicans spent years building up profiles of 200 million Americans for targeted messaging in the 2016 election.

“Who controls Facebook controls the 2016 election,” Parscale said during a speaking engagement at the Romanian Academy of Sciences, according to a report in Forbes.

Parscale, now the campaign manager for the president’s 2020 reelection campaign recalled, “These guys from Facebook walked into my office and said: ‘we have a beta … it’s a new onboarding tool … you can onboard audiences straight into Facebook and we will match them to their Facebook accounts,’ ” according to Forbes .

During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton’s team made 66,000 visual ads, according to Parscale, while the Trump campaign made 5.9 million ads by leveraging social media networks and the language of memes. And in the run-up to the 2020 election, Parscale intends to go back to the same well. The Trump campaign has already spent more than $5 million on Facebook ads in the current election cycle, according to The New York Times outspending every single Democratic candidate in the field and roughly all of the Democrats combined.

Reaching higher ground

Dutta and Hoover are working to offset this movement with investments of their own. Back in 2017, the two launched Higher Ground Labs, an early-stage company accelerator and investment firm dedicated to financing technology companies that could support progressive causes.

The firm has $15 million committed from investors, including Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and a partner at Greylock; Ron Conway, the founder of SV Angel and an early backer of Google, Facebook and Twitter; Chris Sacca, an early investor in Uber; and Elizabeth Cutler, the founder of SoulCycle. Already, Higher Ground has invested in more than 30 companies focused on services like advocacy outreach, polling and campaign organizing — among others. 

Screen Shot 2019 07 01 at 5.36.26 AM

The latest cohort of companies to receive backing Higher Ground Labs

“It is vitally important that Democrats learn to do their campaigns online,” says Dutta. “The way you recruit volunteers; the way you poll sentiment; the way you target and mobilize voters has to be done with online tools and has to improve in the progressive movement and that’s the job of Higher Ground Labs to fix.”

For-profit companies have a critical role to play in election organizing and mobilization, Dutta says. Thanks to government regulation, only private companies are allowed to trade data across organizations and causes (provided they do it at fair market value). That means advocacy groups, unions and others can tap the information these companies collect — for a fee.

The Democratic Party already has one highly valued private company that it uses for its technology services. Formed from the merger of NGP Software and Voter Activation Network, two companies that got their start in the late 1990s and early 2000s, NGP VAN is the largest software and technology services provider for Democratic campaigns. It’s also a highly valued company, which received roughly $100 million in financing last year from the private equity firm Insight Venture Partners, according to people familiar with the investment. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“Our vision has been to build a platform that would break down the painful data silos that exist in the campaigns and nonprofit space, and to offer truly best-in-class digital, fundraising and organizing features that could serve both the largest and the smallest nonprofits and campaigns, all with one unified CRM,” wrote Stu Trevelyan, the chief executive of NGP VAN + EveryAction, in an August blogpost announcing the investment. “We’re so excited that others, like our new partners at Insight, share that vision, and we can’t wait to continue innovating and growing together in the coming years.”

Can startups lead the way?

Even as private equity dollars boost the firepower of organizations like NGP VAN, venture capitalists are financing several companies from the Higher Ground Labs portfolio.

Civis Analytics, a startup founded by the former chief analytics officer of Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, raised $22 million from outside investors, and counts Higher Ground Labs among its backers. Qriously, another Higher Ground Labs portfolio company, was acquired by Brandwatch, as was GroundBase, a messaging platform acquired by the nonprofit progressive advocacy organization ACRONYM.

Other companies in the portfolio are also attracting serious attention from investors. Standouts like Civis Analytics and Hustle, which raised $30 million last May, show that investors are buying into the proposition that these companies can build lasting businesses serving Democratic and progressive political campaigns and corporate businesses that would also like to rally employees or personalize a marketing pitch to customers.

These are companies like Change Research, an earlier-stage company that just launched from Higher Ground Labs accelerator last year. That company, founded by Mike Greenfield, a serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was the first data scientist working on the problem of fraud detection at PayPal, and Pat Reilly, a communications professional who worked with state and local Democratic politicians, is slashing the cost of political polling.

“I wanted to do something for American democracy to try and improve the state of things,” Greenfield said in an interview last year.

For Greenfield, that meant increasing access to polling information. He cited the test case of a Kansas special election in a district that Donald Trump had won by 27 points. Using his own proprietary polling data, Greenfield predicted that the Democratic challenger, James Thompson, would pose a significant threat to his Republican opponent, Mike Estes.

Estes went on to a 7% victory at the ballot, but Thompson’s campaign did not have access to polling data that could have helped inform his messaging and — potentially — sway the election, said Greenfield.

“Public opinion is used to ween out who can be most successful based on how much money they’re able to raise for a poll,” says Reilly. It’s another way that electoral politics is skewed in favor of the people with disposable income to spend what is a not-insignificant amount of money on campaigns.

Polls alone can cost between $20,000 to $30,000 — and Change Research has been able to cut that by 80% to 90%, according to the company’s founders.

“It’s safe to say that most of the world was stunned by the outcome [of the presidential election] because most polls predicted the opposite,” says Greenfield. “Being a good American and as a parent of a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old, providing forward-thinking candidates and causes with the kind of insight they needed to win up and down the ballot could not only be a good business, but really help us save our democracy.”

Change Research isn’t just polling for politicians. Last year, the company conducted roughly 500 polls for political candidates and advocacy groups.

“The way that I’ve described Change Research to investors is that we want to simultaneously move the world in a better direction and having a positive impact while building a substantial business,” says Greenfield. “We’re only going to work with candidates and causes that we’re aligned with.”

Being exclusively focused on progressive causes isn’t the liability that many in the broader business community would think, says Dutta. Many Democratic organizations won’t work with companies that sell services to both sides of the aisle.

For Higher Ground Labs, a stipulation for receiving their money is a commitment not to work with any Republican candidate. Corporations are okay, but conservative causes and organizations are forbidden.

“We’re in a moment of existential crisis in America and this Republican party is deeply toxic to the health and future of our country,” says Dutta. “The only path out of this mess is to vote Republicans out of office and to do that we need to make it easier for good candidates to run for office and to engage a broader electorate into voting regularly.”

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Huawei can buy from US suppliers again — but things will never be the same

Posted by | america, Android, Asia, China, Companies, donald trump, g20, Google, huawei, mobile phones, operating system, president, Ren Zhengfei, smartphones, supply chain, telecommunications, Trump administration, United States | No Comments

U.S. President Donald Trump has handed Huawei a lifeline after he said that U.S. companies are permitted to sell goods to the embattled Chinese tech firm following more than a month of uncertainty.

It’s been a pretty dismal past month for Huawei since the American government added it and 70 of its affiliates to an “entity list” which forbids U.S. companies from doing business with it. The ramifications of the move were huge across Huawei’s networking and consumer devices businesses. A range of chip companies reportedly forced to sever ties while Google, which provides Android for Huawei devices, also froze its relationship. Speaking this month.

All told, Huawei founder and chief executive Ren Zhengfei said recently that the ban would cost the Chinese tech firm — the world’s third-larger seller of smartphones — some $30 billion in lost revenue of the next two years.

Now, however, the Trump administration has provided a reprieve, at least based on the President’s comments following a meeting with Chinese premier Xi Jinping at the G20 summit this weekend.

“US companies can sell their equipment to Huawei. We’re talking about equipment where there’s no great national security problem with it,” the U.S. President said.

Those comments perhaps contradict some in the US administration who saw the Huawei blacklisting as a way to strangle the company and its global ambitions, which are deemed by some analysts to be a threat to America.

President Trump has appeared to soften his tone on Chinese communications giant Huawei, suggesting that he would allow the company to once again purchase US technology https://t.co/4YNJCyKLTg pic.twitter.com/jr45f40ghP

— CNN International (@cnni) June 29, 2019

Despite the good news, any mutual trust has been broken and things are unlikely to be the same again.

America’s almost casual move to blacklist Huawei — the latest in a series of strategies in its ongoing trade battle with China — exemplifies just how dependent the company has become on the U.S. to simply function.

Huawei has taken steps to hedge its reliance on America, including the development of its own operating system to replace Android and its own backup chips, and you can expect that these projects will go into overdrive to ensure that Huawei doesn’t find itself in a similar position again in the future.

Of course, decoupling its supply chain from US partners is no easy task both in terms of software and components. It remains to be seen if Huawei could maintain its current business level — which included 59 million smartphones in the last quarter and total revenue of $107.4 billion in 2018 — with non-US components and software but this episode is a reminder that it must have a solid contingency policy in case it becomes a political chess piece again in the future.

Beyond aiding Huawei, Trump’s move will boost Google and other Huawei partners who invested significant time and resources into developing a relationship with Huawei to boost their own businesses through its business.

Indeed, speaking to press Trump, Trump admitted that US companies sell “a tremendous amount” of products to Huawei. Some “were not exactly happy that they couldn’t sell” to Huawei and it looks like that may have helped tipped this decision. But, then again, never say never — you’d imagine that the Huawei-Trump saga is far from over despite this latest twist.

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Opera adds a free VPN to its Android browser app

Posted by | Ad blocking, america, Android, Apps, Asia, computing, Europe, freeware, Opera, search engines, Software, vpn, Web browsers | No Comments

Opera became the first browser-maker to bundle a VPN with its service, and now that effort is expanding to mobile.

The company announced today that its Android browser app will begin offering a free VPN. The feature will be rolled out to beta users on a gradual basis. The VPN is free and unlimited, and it can be set to locations in America, Europe and Asia as well as an “optimal” setting that hooks up the fastest available connection. Switching on the VPN means that user traffic data isn’t collected by Opera, while it makes it harder for websites to track location and user data.

There are granular settings too, which include limiting VPN usage to private tabs and switching it off for search engines to get more local results.

Opera previously offered a free VPN app for Android and iOS, but that project was closed last year. The new strategy, it seems, was to bake that technology directly into the browser to give it a more competitive advantage and use the tech to bring more users into the Opera ecosystem. There’s no word on an iOS launch.

“The reason why we are including this built-in VPN in our Android browser is because it gives you that extra layer of protection that you are searching for in your daily mobile browsing,” the company — which listed on the Nasdaq last year — said in a blog post.

The VPN — which is powered by a 2015 acquisition — is one of a number of privacy features that Opera offers. Others include cookie dialog box blocking, cryptojacking and ad blocking. The company has also offered support for crypto with the addition of a crypto wallet, support for Web 3 apps and — as of this week — a feature that lets users buy crypto from inside their browser.

Besides its core apps, Opera also offers a “Touch” browser that is optimized for devices that don’t have a home button. It launched on Android and expanded to iOS late last year.

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Video game revenue tops $43 billion in 2018, an 18% jump from 2017

Posted by | america, computing, Earnings, Electronic Arts, Entertainment, entertainment software association, esa, fortnite battle royale, Gaming, HBO, Netflix, Reed Hastings, sensor tower, streaming services, TC, video game, YouTube | No Comments

Video game revenue in 2018 reached a new peak of $43.8 billion, up 18 percent from the previous years, surpassing the projected total global box office for the film industry, according to new data released by the Entertainment Software Association and The NPD Group.

Preliminary indicators for global box office revenues published at the end of last year indicated that revenue from ticket sales at box offices around the world would hit $41.7 billion, according to comScore data reported by Deadline Hollywood.

The $43.8 billion tally also surpasses numbers for streaming services, which are estimated to rake in somewhere around $28.8 billion for the year, according to a report in Multichannel News.

Video games and related content have become the new source of entertainment for a generation — and it’s something that has new media moguls like Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings concerned. In the company’s most recent shareholder letter, Netflix said that Fortnite was more of a threat to its business than TimeWarner’s HBO.

“We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO,” the company’s shareholder letter stated. “When YouTube went down globally for a few minutes in October, our viewing and signups spiked for that time…There are thousands of competitors in this highly fragmented market vying to entertain consumers and low barriers to entry for those with great experiences.”

“The impressive economic growth of the industry announced today parallels the growth of the industry in mainstream American culture,” said acting ESA president and CEO Stanley Pierre-Louis, in a statement. “Across the nation, we count people of all backgrounds and stages of life among our most passionate video game players and fans. Interactive entertainment stands today as the most influential form of entertainment in America.”

Gains came from across the spectrum of the gaming industry. Console and personal computing, mobile gaming, all saw significant growth, according to Mat Piscatella, a video games industry analyst for The NPD Group.

According to the report, hardware and peripherals and software revenue increased from physical and digital sales, in-game purchases and subscriptions.

U.S. Video Game Industry Revenue 2018 2017 Growth Percentage
Hardware, including peripherals $7.5 billion $6.5 billion 15%
Software, including in-game purchases and subscriptions  

$35.8 billion

 

$30.4 billion

18%
Total: $43.3 billion $36.9 billion 18%

Source: The NPD Group, Sensor Tower

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This wristband detects an opiate overdose

Posted by | america, carnegie mellon, Gadgets, Health, medicine, pittsburgh, TC, Wearables | No Comments

A project by students at Carnegie Mellon could save lives. Called the HopeBand, the wristband senses low blood oxygen levels and sends a text message and sounds an alarm if danger is imminent.

“Imagine having a friend who is always watching for signs of overdose; someone who understands your usage pattern and knows when to contact [someone] for help and make sure you get help,” student Rashmi Kalkunte told IEEE. “That’s what the HopeBand is designed to do.”

The team won third place in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Opioid Challenge at the Health 2.0 conference in September and they are planning to send the band to a needle exchange program in Pittsburgh. They hope to sell it for less than $20.

Given the more than 72,000 overdose deaths in America this year, a device like this could definitely keep folks a little safer.

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Presidential alerts we really hope Trump won’t send…

Posted by | america, donald trump, Emergency Alert System, Google, Government, Mobile, president, text messaging, Twitter, United States, White House | No Comments

Move over Twitter, President Trump now has the power to send every phone in the land a simultaneous message — thanks to the new “presidential alert”, tested by FEMA yesterday.

What’s it for? The idea is to enable the president of the United States to warn the nation of major threats — such as a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

FEMA did already have the power to mass text US phones, via the National Wireless Emergency Alert System devised by the Bush administration in 2006, which has been used for sending alerts about national emergencies like weather events or missing children at a local level.

But now the system has been expanded to allow for the White House to compose and send its own ‘presidential alert’ to all phones in a national emergency situation.

There is no opt-out.

Repeat: No opt-out.

Fortunately Congress did limit the substance of these alerts — to “natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other man-made disasters or threats to public safety”, further stipulating that:

Except to the extent necessary for testing the public alert and warning system, the public alert and warning system shall not be used to transmit a message that does not relate to a natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other man-made disaster or threat to public safety.

But bearing in mind the ‘rip it up’ record of the current holder of office of the president of the US, there are no copper-bottomed guarantees about how ‘threat to public safety’ might be interpreted by president Trump.

So it remains a slightly mind-bending concept that the president could, say after a 3am binge-watch of his favorite TV show, fire out an alert entirely of his framing to EVERY US PHONE.

Technology is indeed a double-edged sword.

Here are a few ideas of presidential alerts we really hope Trump won’t be sending…

  • an accidental photo of a body part after he couldn’t figure out how to use the system and hit send accidentally
  • a text message intended for his son-in-law
  • “Donald Trump”
  • covfefe
  • an even worse spelling mistake, e.g. mangling the name of another world leader — like French president “Manuel Macaroon”
  • actual insults directed at other world leaders, e.g. suggesting Emmanuel Macron has a dandruff problem
  • threats of thermonuclear war
  • an unfortunate spoonerism, e.g. ‘the rockets are cot numbing’
  • a love sonnet to president Kim Jong-Un
  • encouragement to Russia to hack political opponents’ emails
  • a recipe for a “beautiful” chocolate cake
  • his golf handicap
  • an affiliate link to a brochure of Trump Tower
  • US stock market numbers
  • investment advice
  • an affiliate link to buy The Art of The Deal
  • any other book recommendations at all
  • a love sonnet to Ivanka Trump
  • a claim that the hurricane isn’t actually as bad as FEMA’s alert says it is
  • #MAGA
  • “Lock her up”
  • “His testimony was very credible, very credible”
  • “You also had some very fine people on both sides”
  • any claim about the size of the crowds at his inauguration
  • any claim about historical precedence and what his administration has achieved
  • all forms of self congratulation
  • his thoughts on the UN
  • his thoughts on NATO
  • his thoughts on the EU
  • his thoughts on China
  • his thoughts on the Queen
  • anything at all about women
  • “Melanie”
  • all insults about “the failing New York Times”
  • a heart emoji + the words “Tucker Carlson”
  • any text that includes the words “Fox & Friends”
  • any text that includes the phrase “America first”
  • a photo of Melania reclining on gilt furniture, in a gilt room, with some gilt statues
  • a selfie with anyone, especially Nigel Farage
  • any text written in ALL CAPS
  • any text ending with the word “Sad!”
  • his travel itinerary for his next trip to the Winter White House
  • a love sonnet to president Putin
  • ‘exciting’ real estate opportunities
  • credit for Brexit
  • a threat to Twitter not to shadowban conservative voices
  • “You’re fired!”
  • “Build the wall!”
  • “Mission accomplished!”
  • anything at all about president Obama
  • all sports commentary
  • anything containing the word “winning”
  • his thoughts on climate change
  • his thoughts on environmental protection
  • his thoughts on the safety of radioactive substances
  • a list of reasons why the Iran deal was a mistake
  • his thoughts on anything at all to do with the rest of the world
  • a photoshopped picture of Justin Trudeau to make him look ugly
  • diet advice
  • travel advice
  • fashion advice
  • complaints that Google is biased
  • anything about tax — unless it’s his own tax returns
  • a message to Peter Thiel asking him to come back
  • a message asking where the nearest KFC is
  • a message asking where he left his last bucket of KFC
  • a really boring and slightly blurred photo of the inside of Air Force One
  • any message about anything at all he saw on TV last night
  • “Ha-ha you can’t opt out!”
  • “Genius”
  • his thoughts

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Tushy is the simple bidet for every toilet

Posted by | america, bathrooms, bidet, Gadgets, hygiene, kaust, plumbing, sanitation, TC, toilets, tokyo university | No Comments

If there’s one thing I envy in the global spirit and character its the appreciation of a fine bidet. Hygiene being close to godliness, one can imagine the huddled scientists at CERN and KAUST and Tokyo University creating scientific marvels, secure in the knowledge that their posteriors were as clean and crisp as their lines of thought. The same can be said of peoples of all continents who celebrate the occasional fountainal intrusion, from those who use bidets complete with birdsong to hide their doings to those with a simple hose next to the can.

But America, that land of the free and the home of the brave, can’t join in the fun? Is there no bidet culture in Dear Columbia? Pshaw. After all, there’s something called Tushy.

This simple bidet system is the gateway drug to posterior enjoyment. I’ve been trying to install a proper bidet in my home since 2007. The problem I discovered was that the design of my toilet did not allow for something large and heavy up against the toilet tank. Because the system was so large I couldn’t fit it in place of the seat, resulting in endless heartbreak. I was almost going to swap out my toilet for one of a simpler designed but luckily the Tushy is the low-cost, low tech solution I was looking for.

It works by sitting in line with the tank refill line. You simply connect the line to the Tushy and then connect a line from the Tushy to the tank. The water that would normally go into your bowl is routed through a little movable nozzle and up into your backside. The water, obviously, is cold. You can also turn it so the water cleans the nozzle, and important health and safety addition.

Bear in mind that the Tushy is as simple as it gets. It doesn’t blow out fine perfumes, it doesn’t steam or mist you, and it doesn’t play birdsong. But it costs $69 and seems to work just fine in my testing. In fact, I’m thinking of Tushying up the whole house since it doesn’t actually need electricity or any plumbing changes.

Tushy also sells an $84 Spa model that connects to your hot water line for a bit of warmth. But that’s for the coddled few who can’t manage a little cold water.

Why is this important? Because all innovation is important, for one. The changes in lifestyle associated with tech are moving out of the esoteric into the basic, a fact that should give us all a bit of a giggle. If electrified scooters in SF are a sign of the apocalypse, things like the Tushy are a sign of a renaissance. After all, the clean innovator is the happy innovator.

Ultimately ideas like Tushy will lead us to a new world of butt hygiene. Perhaps, one day, all of us will have a bidet in our homes and offices. Perhaps one day we will be able to break the shackles of toilet paper. And perhaps, one day, we will join the ranks of men and women who enjoy a good squirt in the morning. Until then, Tushy does its business.

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Our digital future will be shaped by increasingly mobile technologies coming from China

Posted by | alibaba, alibaba group, Amazon, america, america online, Android, Apple, AWS, China, Column, eCommerce, Expedia, Facebook, Getty-Images, Google, Michael Moritz, Mobile, operating systems, Priceline, shanghai, smartphone, TC, United States, WeChat, world wide web, Yahoo | No Comments

Since the dawn of the internet, the titans of this industry have fought to win the “starting point” — the place that users start their online experiences. In other words, the place where they begin “browsing.” The advent of the dial-up era had America Online mailing a CD to every home in America, which passed the baton to Yahoo’s categorical listings, which was swallowed by Google’s indexing of the world’s information — winning the “starting point” was everything.

As the mobile revolution continues to explode across the world, the battle for the starting point has intensified. For a period of time, people believed it would be the hardware, then it became clear that the software mattered most. Then conversation shifted to a debate between operating systems (Android or iOS) and moved on to social properties and messaging apps, where people were spending most of their time. Today, my belief is we’re hovering somewhere between apps and operating systems. That being said, the interface layer will always be evolving.

The starting point, just like a rocket’s launchpad, is only important because of what comes after. The battle to win that coveted position, although often disguised as many other things, is really a battle to become the starting point of commerce.  

Google’s philosophy includes a commitment to get users “off their page” as quickly as possible…to get that user to form a habit and come back to their starting point. The real (yet somewhat veiled) goal, in my opinion, is to get users to search and find the things they want to buy.

Of course, Google “does no evil” while aggregating the world’s information, but they pay their bills by sending purchases to Priceline, Expedia, Amazon and the rest of the digital economy.  

Facebook, on the other hand, has become a starting point through its monopolization of users’ time, attention and data. Through this effort, it’s developed an advertising business that shatters records quarter after quarter.

Google and Facebook, this famed duopoly, represent 89 percent of new advertising spending in 2017. Their dominance is unrivaled… for now.

Change is urgently being demanded by market forces — shifts in consumer habits, intolerable rising costs to advertisers and through a nearly universal dissatisfaction with the advertising models that have dominated (plagued) the U.S. digital economy.  All of which is being accelerated by mobile. Terrible experiences for users still persist in our online experiences, deliver low efficacy for advertisers and fraud is rampant. The march away from the glut of advertising excess may be most symbolically seen in the explosion of ad blockers. Further evidence of the “need for a correction of this broken industry” is Oracle’s willingness to pay $850 million for a company that polices ads (probably the best entrepreneurs I know ran this company, so no surprise).

As an entrepreneur, my job is to predict the future. When reflecting on what I’ve learned thus far in my journey, it’s become clear that two truths can guide us in making smarter decisions about our digital future:

Every day, retailers, advertisers, brands and marketers get smarter. This means that every day, they will push the platforms, their partners and the places they rely on for users to be more “performance driven.” More transactional.

Paying for views, bots (Russian or otherwise) or anything other than “dollars” will become less and less popular over time. It’s no secret that Amazon, the world’s most powerful company (imho), relies so heavily on its Associates Program (its home-built partnership and affiliate platform). This channel is the highest performing form of paid acquisition that retailers have, and in fact, it’s rumored that the success of Amazon’s affiliate program led to the development of AWS due to large spikes in partner traffic.

Chinese flag overlooking The Bund, Shanghai, China (Photo: Rolf Bruderer/Getty Images)

When thinking about our digital future, look down and look east. Look down and admire your phone — this will serve as your portal to the digital world for the next decade, and our dependence will only continue to grow. The explosive adoption of this form factor is continuing to outpace any technological trend in history.

Now, look east and recognize that what happens in China will happen here, in the West, eventually. The Chinese market skipped the PC-driven digital revolution — and adopted the digital era via the smartphone. Some really smart investors have built strategies around this thesis and have quietly been reaping rewards due to their clairvoyance.  

China has historically been categorized as a market full of knock-offs and copycats — but times have changed. Some of the world’s largest and most innovative companies have come out of China over the past decade. The entrepreneurial work ethic in China (as praised recently by arguably the world’s greatest investor, Michael Moritz), the speed of innovation and the ability to quickly scale and reach meaningful populations have caused Chinese companies to leapfrog the market cap of many of their U.S. counterparts.  

The most interesting component of the Chinese digital economy’s growth is that it is fundamentally more “pure” than the U.S. market’s. I say this because the Chinese market is inherently “transactional.” As Andreessen Horowitz writes, WeChat, China’s  most valuable company, has become the “starting point” and hub for all user actions. Their revenue diversity is much more “Amazon” than “Google” or “Facebook” — it’s much more pure. They make money off the transactions driven from their platform, and advertising is far less important in their strategy.

The obsession with replicating WeChat took the tech industry by storm two years ago — and for some misplaced reason, everyone thought we needed to build messaging bots to compete.  

What shouldn’t be lost is our obsession with the purity and power of the business models being created in China. The fabric that binds the Chinese digital economy and has fostered its seemingly boundless growth is the magic combination of commerce and mobile. Singles Day, the Chinese version of Black Friday, drove $25 billion in sales on Alibaba — 90 percent of which were on mobile.

The lesson we’ve learned thus far in both the U.S. and in China is that “consumers spending money” creates the most durable consumer businesses. Google, putting aside all its moonshots and heroic mission statements, is a “starting point” powered by a shopping engine. If you disagree, look at where their revenue comes from…

Google’s recent announcement of Shopping Actions and their movement to a “pay per transaction model” signals a turning point that could forever change the landscape of the digital economy.  

Google’s multi-front battle against Apple, Facebook and Amazon is weighted. Amazon is the most threatening. It’s the most durable business of the four — and its model is unbounded on two fronts that almost everyone I know would bet their future on, 1) people buying more online, where Amazon makes a disproportionate amount of every dollar spent, and 2) companies needing more cloud computing power (more servers), where Amazon makes a disproportionate amount of every dollar spent.  

To add insult to injury, Amazon is threatening Google by becoming a starting point itself — 55 percent of product searches now originate at Amazon, up from 30 percent just a year ago.

Google, recognizing consumer behavior was changing in mobile (less searching) and the inferiority of their model when compared to the durability and growth prospects of Amazon, needed to respond. Google needed a model that supported boundless growth and one that created a “win-win” for its advertising partners — one that resembled Amazon’s relationship with its merchants — not one that continued to increase costs to retailers while capitalizing on their monopolization of search traffic.

Google knows that with its position as the starting point — with Google.com, Google Apps and Android — it has to become a part of the transaction to prevail in the long term. With users in mobile demanding fewer ads and more utility (demanding experiences that look and feel a lot more like what has prevailed in China), Google has every reason in the world to look down and to look east — to become a part of the transaction — to take its piece.  

A collision course for Google and the retailers it relies upon for revenue was on the horizon. Search activity per user was declining in mobile and user acquisition costs were growing quarter over quarter. Businesses are repeatedly failing to compete with Amazon, and unless Google could create an economically viable growth model for retailers, no one would stand a chance against the commerce juggernaut — not the retailers nor Google itself. 

As I’ve believed for a long time, becoming a part of the transaction is the most favorable business model for all parties; sources of traffic make money when retailers sell things, and, most importantly, this only happens when users find the things they want.  

Shopping Actions is Google’s first ambitious step to satisfy all three parties — businesses and business models all over the world will feel this impact.  

Good work, Sundar.

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