Opinion

Zuckerberg misunderstands the huge threat of TikTok

Posted by | Apps, bytedance, Entertainment, Facebook, instagram, Mobile, Opinion, Snapchat, Social, Startups, TC, tiktok, Video | No Comments

“It’s almost like the Explore Tab that we have on Instagram” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in leaked audio of him describing TikTok during an all-hands meeting. But it’s not. TikTok represents a new form of social entertainment that’s vastly different from the lifelogging of Instagram where you can just take a selfie, show something pretty, or pan around what you’re up to. TikToks are premeditated, storyboarded, and vastly different than the haphazard Stories on Insta.

That’s why Zuckerberg’s comments cast a dark shadow over the future of the Facebook family of apps. How can it beat what it doesn’t understand? He certainly can’t ignore it. Facebook’s copycat Lasso has been installed just 425,000 times since it launched in November, while TikTok has 640 million installs in the same period outside of China. Oh, and TikTok has 1.4 billion total installs beyond China to date.

TikTok Screenshots

TikTok

Casey Newton of The Verge today published two hours of audio and transcripts from two internal-only all-hands Q&As held by Zuckerberg at Facebook in July. His comments touch on the company’s plan to fight being broken up by regulators, especially if Elizabeth Warren becomes President. He thinks Facebook would win, but on resorting to suing the government, he says “does that still suck for us? Yeah.” Zuckerberg also describes how Facebook is working to launch a payments product in Mexico and elsewhere by year’s end as Libra deals with regulatory scrutiny.

But beyond his comments on regulation, it’s his pigeonholing of TikTok that’s most alarming. It foreshadows Facebook failing to win one of the core social feeds that its business depends on. Perhaps his perspective on the competitor is evolving, but the leak portrays him as thinking TikTok is just the next Snapchat Stories to destroy.

Zuckeberg’s Thoughts On TikTok

Here’s what Zuckerberg said about TikTok during the internal Q&A sessions, (emphasis mine):

So yeah. I mean, TikTok is doing well. One of the things that’s especially notable about TikTok is, for a while, the internet landscape was kind of a bunch of internet companies that were primarily American companies. And then there was this parallel universe of Chinese companies that pretty much only were offering their services in China. And we had Tencent who was trying to spread some of their services into Southeast Asia. Alibaba has spread a bunch of their payment services to Southeast Asia. Broadly, in terms of global expansion, that had been pretty limited, and TikTok, which is built by this company Beijing ByteDance, is really the first consumer internet product built by one of the Chinese tech giants that is doing quite well around the world. It’s starting to do well in the US, especially with young folks. It’s growing really quickly in India. I think it’s past Instagram now in India in terms of scale. So yeah, it’s a very interesting phenomenon.

And the way that we kind of think about it is: it’s married short-form, immersive video with browse. So it’s almost like the Explore Tab that we have on Instagram, which is today primarily about feed posts and highlighting different feed posts. I kind of think about TikTok as if it were Explore for stories, and that were the whole app. And then you had creators who were specifically working on making that stuff. So we have a number of approaches that we’re going to take towards this, and we have a product called Lasso that’s a standalone app that we’re working on, trying to get product-market fit in countries like Mexico, is I think one of the first initial ones. We’re trying to first see if we can get it to work in countries where TikTok is not already big before we go and compete with TikTok in countries where they are big.

We’re taking a number of approaches with Instagram, including making it so that Explore is more focused on stories, which is increasingly becoming the primary way that people consume content on Instagram, as well as a couple of other things there. But yeah, I think that it’s not only one of the more interesting new phenomena and products that are growing. But in terms of the geopolitical implications of what they’re doing, I think it is quite interesting. I think we have time to learn and understand and get ahead of the trend. It is growing, but they’re spending a huge amount of money promoting it. What we’ve found is that their retention is actually not that strong after they stop advertising. So the space is still fairly nascent, and there’s time for us to kind of figure out what we want to do here. But I think this is a real thing. It’s good.

To Zuckerberg’s credit, he’s not dismissing the threat. He knows TikTok is popular. He knows it’s growing in key international markets Facebook and Instagram depend on to keep user counts rising. And he knows his company needs to respond via its standalone clone Lasso and more.

Facebook Lasso Screenshots

Lasso

But while TikToks might look like Stories because they’re vertical videos, and TikTok might algorithmically recommend them to people like Instagram Explore, it’s a whole ‘nother beast of a product and one that may be harder than it seems to copy.

To crystallize why, let’s rewind to Snapchat. With the launch of Stories, it started to blow up with US teens. Facebook’s attempts to clone it in standalone apps like Poke and Slingshot never gained traction. In fact, none of Facebook’s standalone apps have succeeded unless they splintered off an already-popular piece of Facebook like chat and users were forced to download them like Messenger. It wasn’t until Zuckerberg stuck his clone of Stories front-and-center atop Instagram and Facebook that Snapchat’s user count went from growing 18% per quarter to shrinking. There, Facebook used the same strategy laid out in Zuckerberg’s comments — push its good-enough clone in countries where the original isn’t popular yet.

But Facebook was fortunate because Stories really wasn’t that dissimilar to the content users were already sharing on Instagram — tiny biographical snippets of their lives. Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel had originally invented Stories as a vision of Facebook’s News Feed through the lens of an ephemeral camera. All users had to know was “I take the same videos, but shorter and sillier, posted more often, and then they disappear”. The concept of Instagram and Facebook didn’t have to change. They were still about telling friends what you were up to. Choking off TikTok’s growth will be much more complicated.

Why TikTok Is Tough To Clone

TikTok isn’t about you or what you’re doing. It’s about entertaining your audience. It’s not spontaneous chronicling of your real life. It’s about inventing characters, dressing up as someone else, and acting out jokes. It’s not about privacy and friends, but strutting on the world stage. And it’s not about originality — the heart of Instagram. TikTok is about remixing culture — taking the audio from someone else’s clip and reimagining the gag in a new context by layering it atop a video you record.

TikTok Remixes

That makes TikTok distinct enough that it will be very difficult to shoehorn into Instagram or Facebook, even if they add the remixing functionality. Most videos on those apps aren’t designed to be templates for memes like TikToks are. Insta and Facebook’s social graphs are rooted in friendship and augmented by the beautiful and famous, but don’t encompass the new wave of amateur performers TikTok elevates. And since each post to the app becomes fodder for someone else’s creativity, a competitor starting from scratch doesn’t offer much to remix.

That means a TikTok clone would have to be somewhat buried in Instagram or Facebook, rebuild a new social graph, and retrain users’ understanding of these apps’ purpose…at the risk of distracting from their core use cases. This leaves Facebook hoping to grow its standalone TikTok clone Lasso which TechCrunch scooped a year ago before it launched last November. But as we’ve seen, Facebook struggles growing brand new apps, and that effort is further hindered by its increasingly toxic brand and sheen of uncoolness. Nor does it help that Facebook must divert development resources to comply with all the new privacy and transparency obligations as part of its $5 billion FTC fine and settlement.

The Next Feed

Facebook’s best bet is to assess the future value of the ads it could run on a successful TikTok clone and apply some greater fraction of that grand sum to competing directly. It’s already made some smart additions to Lasso like tutorials for how to remix and the option to add GIFs as sections of your video. But it’s still failing to gain serious traction in the US. While typical videos on the TikTok homepage where I’m spending a few hours a week have hundreds of thousands of Likes, the top ones I saw in my Lasso feed today received 70 or fewer.

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TikTok trounces Facebook’s Lasso in the US iOS App Store charts

I had Sensor Tower run some analysis comparing TikTok with Lasso since its launch last November, and found that Lasso gets 6 downloads for every 1000 for TikTok in the US. Some more stats:

  • US Total Downloads Since November: Lasso – 250,000 // TikTok – 41.3 million
  • US Downloads Per Day Since November: Lasso – 760 // TikTok – 126,000
  • Average US Google Play Social App Chart Ranking: Lasso – #155 // TikTok – #2

Beyond the US, Lasso has only launched in one other market, Mexico in April, where it’s been faring better but could hardly even be considered a competitor to TikTok. Facebook needs to lean harder into Lasso:

  • Mexico Total Downloads Since April: Lasso – 175,000 // TikTok – 3.3 million
  • Mexico Downloads Per Day Since November: Lasso – 1,000 // TikTok – 19,000

Facebook Lasso Logo

Zuckerberg may need to find a coherent place for TikTok style features inside Instagram and potentially Facebook. That could be another horizontal row of previews like with Stories and/or a header on the Explore page dedicated to premeditated content. Certainly something more prominent than a single button like IGTV that still no one is asking for. One opportunity to best TikTok would be building a dedicated remix source browser into the Stories camera to help users find content to put their own spin on.

Facebook will also need to buy out top TikTok creators to make videos for it instead, and even quasi-hire some of the most prolific video meme or challenge inventors to give users trends to jump on rather than just one-off clips to watch. Its failure to offer IGTV stars monetization has led many to ignore that platform, and it can’t afford that again.

If Zuckerberg approaches TikTok as merely an algorithmic video recommender like Explore, Facebook will miss out on owning the social entertainment feed. If he doesn’t decisively move to challenge TikTok soon, its catalog of content to remix will grow insurmountable and it will own the whole concept of short form performative video. Snapchat’s insistence on ephemerality makes it incompatible with remixing, and YouTube isn’t nimble enough to reinvent itself.

If no American company can step up, we could see our interest data, faces, and attention forfeited to an app that while delightful to use, heralds Chinese political values at odds with our own. If only Twitter hadn’t killed Vine.

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Facebook promises not to stop politicians’ lies & hate

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, Facebook Election Interference, Facebook Fake News, Facebook Policy, Government, Media, Mobile, Nick Clegg, Opinion, Social, TC | No Comments

Facebook confirms it won’t fact check politicians’ speech or block their content if it’s newsworthy even if it violates the site’s hate-speech rules or other policies. This cementing of its policy comes from Facebook’s head of global policy and communication Nick Clegg, who gave a speech today about Facebook’s plans to prevent interference in the 2020 presidential election.

But by seeking neutrality, Facebook may become complicit in the misinformation and malevolence some politicians will use it to spread. It leaves users to fend for themselves as they try to discern fact from fiction and opinion from reality. Clegg claims the idea is for users to “judge what politicians say themselves.”

Isn’t that disgorgement of responsibility already what Facebook was doing by merely routing false news links to fact checkers and affixing their verdicts to shares of the content while still leaving it up on the site? To now say politicians can’t be fact-checked directly at all sets a critical and questionable precedent.

Nick Clegg

Facebook’s head of global policy and communications, Nick Clegg

“We don’t believe, however, that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny,” writes Clegg, the former deputy Prime Minister of the U.K. “That’s why Facebook exempts politicians from our third-party fact-checking program . . .This means that we will not send organic content or ads from politicians to our third-party fact-checking partners for review.”

Yes, it prevents direct censorship of politicians and leaves critique to the media. Yet it also ignores how Facebook turns any voice into a publication, amplified by engagement-seeking algorithms distributed to billions of people. Users often treat Facebook as the internet and what they see on the internet as true.

Facebook doesn’t want false news distorting voters’ decisions ahead of the 2020 elections. However, the year-old “no fact-checks” rule and three-year-old “protected newsworthy speech” rule effectively elevate whatever comes out of a politicians mouth as above consequence.

If they share a debunked link, that can be labeled as wrong and demoted, but what they say is free to proliferate and confuse people. Not even a politician’s ads are subject to fact check, so you can spread whatever lies you want on Facebook as long as you’re rich enough and running for office. Facebook only draws the line at allowing content from politicians that would cause real-world harm, or running politicians’ ads that violate its policies.

This is certainly easier operationally for Facebook. It doesn’t have to be responsible for paying in-house staff or outside fact checkers to assess politicians’ diatribes. And it won’t as often end up in the cross-hairs of elected officials claiming Facebook is biased against them.

Some could see the benefit of these rules being that Facebook could never directly censor a politician unless they directly threatened people. If speaking for themselves from their own accounts, they get what’s close to free speech.

But it ignores how politics has evolved in the post-truth era. Rather than win with facts, it’s easier just to shout lies or insults loud and frequently enough that they’re accepted at face value, rebroadcast and culturally ingrained. Sensationalism spreads further than what’s level-headed. The fact check never gets as many shares as the incendiary claim. And those with a bully pulpit can keep an iron grip on their megaphone.

Facebook may not want to be the arbiter of truth, or even be considered “media,” but it transmits falsity without question; it’s not a platform, it’s a pawn.

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How Peloton made sweat addictive enough to IPO

Posted by | Apps, Conspicuous self-actualization, Entertainment, Exercise, Exit, Fundings & Exits, Gaming, hardware, Health, IPO, Media, Opinion, Peloton, Reviews, Social, Startups, TC, Video | No Comments

It makes lazy people like me work out. That’s the genius of the Peloton bicycle. All you have to do is velcro on the shoes and you’re trapped. You’ve eliminated choice and you will exercise. Through a succession of savvy product design choice I’ll break down here, Peloton removes the friction to getting fit. It’s the leader in a movement I call “pushbutton health”. And this is why I think Peloton will be a big succes no matter what short-term investors do when it IPOs this week after raising $994 million in venture capital.

Peloton Bike Photo

The bike

Basically, Peloton is a $2300 stationary bike with an iPad stuck to the front. The $40 per month subscription unlocks thousands of live and on-demand video cycling classes where instructors positively yell at you. When you think you’re tired already, they look into your eyes, tell you “you got this”, the soundtrack crescendos, you crank up the resistance, and you pedal harder at home. The resulting endorphin rush is addictive, and you find yourself persuading friends they need a Peloton too.

That viral loop which adds to its 500,000 subscribers is how Peloton plans to raise ~$1.16 billion going public this week at an ~$8 billion valuation. Its revenue doubled this year as it began to dominate the connected exercise equipment market, though losses quadrupled as it burned cash to become a household name. But after riding 110 of 150 days I’ve been home since buying its bike, I’m confident in the company. Whatever it invests now to build its lead will likely be paid back handsomely by its increasingly handsome customers who can’t bear to clip out. Here’s why.

Peloton Class

Peloton classes are recorded in front of a live studio audience of riders

The Brilliance Of This Bike

The Shoes – Usually the activation energy to start a workout requires dragging yourself to the gym or suiting up to face the elements outside. That can be daunting enough that you rarely do. But once you slip into the Peloton bike shoes, you can hardly walk normally which means you can hardly procrastinate. You’re home so you don’t even need clothes. Just a few velcro straps and you’re over the hump and resigned to exercise.

The Clips – Home gym equipments reduces the barrier to entry but also the barrier to exit. You can tell yourself you’ll keep doing push-up sets or squats jumping rope, but you can stop any time. Yet after you’re clipped into the Peloton bike, you’re almost assured to keep pedaling until the instructor gives you that end-of-ride congratulations.

Peloton Shoes

Just put the shoes on and you’ll exercise

The Schedule – You can get a sweat in just 10 or 20 minutes going hard on a Peloton. Combined with zero commute, that means you’ll practically always be able fit in a ride regardless of how busy you are. No more “I don’t have time to make it to the gym so I’ll just skip out”. When my calendar gets crunched or I dawdle a little before deciding to ride, classes as short as 5 minutes ensure there’s no weaseling out.

The Instructors – I wish I had these coaches to motivate me through sorting email. Peloton’s 20+ instructors range from hippie-dippie gurus to no-nonsense trainers that fit your personality type. You find yourself craving your favorite’s special brand of relentless positivity. I burn far more calories in a shorter time than exercising solo because they inspire me to push a little harder or they slow their countdown to add a couple all-out seconds to the end of a sprint. They’re even becoming celebrities, with bankers lining up for selfies during Peloton’s IPO road show. Sick of them? You can always Scenic Ride through video of some of the world’s prettiest bike paths.

Peloton Instructors

Peloton instructors (from left): Alex Toussaint, Emma Lovewell, Ben Alldis, and Leane Hainsby

The Intimacy – You’re eye-to-eye with those instructors as they stare into the camera and out of the giant screen bolted to your handlebars. That generates intimacy despite them broadcasting to thousands. Even in person, a SoulCycle coach across the room can feel further away. You’re mostly guided by audio cues, but their gaze compels you to perform. Peloton almost feels like FaceTime, and that’s a sense of connection many long for more of these days.

The Pavlovian Response – Your brain quickly begins to associate the sounds of Peloton with the glowing feeling of finishing a workout. The rip of the velcro shoe straps, the click of clipping into the bike, but most of all the instructor catch-phrases. You get hooked on hear the bubbling British accent of “I’mmmm Leeaannne Haaaaainsby” as she introduces herself, Ben Alldis’ infectious “You got 5, you got 4…” countdowns, or Emma Lovewell reminding you to “Live, learn, love well”. That final ‘namaste’ followed by wiping down the bike and jumping in a cold shower forms a ritual you’re inclined to repeat.

Peloton Class

Eye-contact with the instructors creates an intimate bond

The Soundtrack – Popular songs are more than just a pump-up accompaniment to Peloton classes. Your pedaling pace is often pegged to the tempo, with sprints starting when the beat drops. As your legs tire, you feel obliged to maintain your speed so you don’t fall behind the drums. You can even search classes by music genre and preview each’s playlist. Peloton has paid out $50 million in royalties for its music, and faces $300 million-plus in lawsuits for copyright infringement. But having the best tunes to bike to might end up worth the penalty since it helped Peloton race ahead in a lucrative market.

The Bike As Decor – Most home exercise equipment ends up in a closet or as a clothing rack. By designing its bicycles for beauty, Peloton coerces you to place them conspicuously in your home. You might have seen the hysterical Twitter thread parodying this practice, but it’s funny because it’s true. You’re a lot more likely to ride it if it’s central to your home (ours is between our bed and the doors to the veranda), and you’ll be embarassed if visitors ask about it and you haven’t hopped on recently.

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“A good place for your Peloton bike is between your kitchen and your living room facing the cactus garden so you always remember virtual spin class” –ClueHeywood on Twitter

The Network Effect – Many of these smart product design moves could be copied by competitors. But by amassing a community of 1.4 million members to date, Peloton benefits from social features and economies of scale. You can ride together with pals over video chat, send each other digital high fives, or race and compare achievements. Each friend that joins Peloton is one more reason not to sign up for a competitor. The whole concept virtual personal training is being legitimized. And the cost of producing more classes gets spread wider as membership grows.

The Shared Accounts – Peloton has even built in a way to feel noble about your sanctimonious prosyletizing about how it “jumpstarted your metabolism”. Each $39 on-bike subscription allows unlimited accounts on up to three devices, so you can hook up some friends if you convince them to buy the big-budget gadget.

Peloton High Five

High-five fellow riders as you virtuall pass them

The Growth Hacks – Peloton streaks are for adults what Snapchat streaks are to kids: a clever way to reward consistent usage. But beyond the achievement badges displayed on your profile, you’ll get in-ride leaderboards full of people to proudly pass, progress bars to fill by pedaling, and kilojoule output high scores to beat. Peloton makes exercise a game you want to win.

The Shoutouts – Yet Peloton’s most explicit levering of our psychology comes from the in-class name-drop shoutouts instructors give. Whether mentioning the screen names of a few participants at the start of a session or congratulating users hitting their 50th, 200th, or 500th ride, the recognition pushes people to join the dozen live-streamed classes each day that add urgency to the on-demand catalog. Proof it works? People strategize to ensure their 100th ride is a long live class to maximize the chance of a shout-out.

Peloton Century Club Free Shirt

A free cult shirt after your 100th ride

The ‘Transcendence’ – Peloton minimizes the isolation from working out at home. In fact, its whole product enables people to feel ‘glamorous’ and ‘manifested’ yet nonchalant in ways going to a sweaty gym or using a personal trainer can’t. It’s like being able to buy a little piece of the smug satisfaction and in-group affiliation of going to Burning Man. That’s why the company even sends you a free “Century Club” t-shirt when you hit your 100th ride. You’re meant to feel cool sharing that you “Peloton”, using the startup’s name as a verb.

Peloton Conspicuous Self Actualization 2

Conspicuous Self-Actualization

Still, Peloton has plenty left to optimize. There’s room to expand use of its camera to offer premium one-on-one coaching, head-to-head racing, group video chat with friends, and augmented reality filters to make people feel comfortable on screen and take shareable selfies. A wider range of intense but short classes could appeal to overworked professionals who picked Peloton precisely because they don’t have an hour for the gym.

Novelty could come from celebrity guest instructors, or themed classes for pre-gaming for a night out, fans of a particular artist, or songs about a certain topic. And it should definitely have some iconic sounds like an om or singing bowl chime that play before each class to center you and after to release you.

Most excitingly, the Peloton screen has the potential to be a platform for exercise-controlled gaming and apps. Whether pedaling to escape zombies chasing you or piece together a puzzle, maintaining an output level to keep your cross-hairs locked on an enemy plane as you dogfight, or making a garden bloom by growing each flower during a different interval, Peloton could evolve riding to be much more interactive. Apps could offer training simulators for different sports focused on sprints for basketball or marathons for soccer. Or just put Netflix on it! By opening up to outside developers, Peloton could build a moat of extra experiences competitors can’t match.

With the strengths and opportunities of its core product, Peloton is poised to absorb more of your fitness time and money. It’s already branching out with yoga, meditation, lifting, bootcamp, and jazzercise classes you can do standing next to your bike or without one on its $19 per month app. Its second gadget is a $4300 treadmill.

From there it could break into more of the “pushbutton health” business. I categorize these as wellness products and services that rely on convenience instead of your will power. Think delivery health food instead calorie-counting apps that are a chore. My pushbutton regimen includes Peloton, six salads per week dropped off in batches by Thistle, monthly packages of Nomiku vacuum-sealed meals that RFID scan into its sous vide machine, and a Future remote personal trainer who nags me by text message.

Peloton Coaching

It’s easy to get hooked on the positivity

Peloton could easily dive into selling meal kits, personal training, or a wider range of workout clothes to compete with Lulu Lemon. If it’s the center of your fitness routine, the company could become a gateway to new health products it owns or partners with.

I’m bullish on Peloton because I’m betting people are going to stay busy, lazy, and competitive. It offers the effectiveness of a spin class but with scheduling flexibility. It removes every excuse for staying on the couch. And in an age of visual communication where many seek to share both the journey to and the destination of an Instagrammable body and the discipline to ge there, Peloton provides conspicuous self-actualization through consumerism. Plus, finishing a ride feels damn good.

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13 ways to screw over your internet provider

Posted by | broadband, cloudflare, Comcast, dns, Gadgets, Google, internet access, isp, modem, net neutrality, Netflix, Opinion, Router, streaming services, TC, telecommunications, Verizon, vpn | No Comments

Internet providers are real bastards: they have captive audiences whom they squeeze for every last penny while they fight against regulation like net neutrality and donate immense amounts of money to keep on lawmakers’ good sides. So why not turn the tables? Here are 13 ways to make sure your ISP has a hard time taking advantage of you (and may even put it on the defensive).

Disclosure: Verizon, an internet provider guilty of all these infractions, owns TechCrunch, and I don’t care.

1. Buy a modem and router instead of renting

The practice of renting a device to users rather than selling it or providing it as part of the service is one of the telecommunications industry’s oldest and worst. People pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars over years for equipment worth $40 or $50. ISPs do this with various items, but the most common item is probably the modem.

This is the gadget that connects to the cable coming out of your wall, and then connects in turn (or may also function as) your wireless and wired router. ISPs often provide this equipment at the time of install, and then charge you $5 to $10 per month forever. What they don’t tell you is you can probably buy the exact same item for somewhere between $30 and $100.

The exact model you need will depend on your service, but it will be listed somewhere, and they should tell you what they’d provide if you ask. Look online, buy a new or lightly used one, and it will have paid for itself before the year is out. Not only that, but you can do stuff like upgrade or change the software on it all you want, because it’s yours. Bonus: The ISP is limited in what it can do to the router (like letting other people connect — yes, it’s a thing).

2. Avoid service calls, or if you can’t, insist they’re free

I had an issue with my Comcast internet a while back that took them several visits from a service tech to resolve. It wasn’t an issue on my end, which was why I was surprised to find they’d charged me $30 or so every time the person came.

If your ISP wants to send someone out, ask whether it’s free, and if it isn’t, tell them to make it free or ask if you can do it yourself (sometimes it’s for really simple stuff like swapping a cable). If they charge you for a visit, call them and ask them to take it off your bill. Say you weren’t informed and you’ll inform the Better Business Bureau about it, or take your business elsewhere, or something. They’ll fold.

When someone does come…

3. Get deals from the installer

If you do end up having someone come out, talk to them to see whether there are any off the record deals they can offer you. I don’t mean anything shady like splitting cables with the neighbor, just offers they know about that aren’t publicized because they’re too good to advertise.

A lot of these service techs are semi-independent contractors paid by the call, and their pay has nothing to do with which service you have or choose. They have no reason to upsell you and every reason to make you happy and get a good review. Sometimes that means giving you the special desperation rates ISPs withhold until you say you’re going to leave.

And as long as you’re asking…

4. Complain, complain, complain

This sounds bad, but it’s just a consequence of how these companies work: The squeaky wheels get the grease. There’s plenty of grease to go around, so get squeaking.

Usually this means calling up and doing one of several things. You can complain that service has been bad — outages and such — and ask that they compensate you for that. You can say that a competing ISP started offering service at your location and it costs $20 less, so can they match that. Or you can say your friend just got a promotional rate and you’d like to take advantage of it… otherwise you’ll leave to that phantom competitor. (After all, we know there’s often little or no real competition.)

What ISPs, and, more importantly, what their customer service representatives care about is keeping you on as a customer. They can always raise rates or upsell you later, but having you as a subscriber is the important thing.

Note that some reps are more game than others. Some will give you the runaround, while others will bend over backwards to help you out. Feel free to call a few times and do a bit of window shopping. (By the way, if you get someone nice, give them a good review if you get the chance, usually right after the call or chat. It helps them out a lot.) Obviously you can’t call every week with new demands, so wait until you think you can actually save some money.

Which reminds me…

5. Choose your service level wisely

ISPs offer a ton of choices, and make it confusing on purpose so you end up picking an expensive one just to be sure you have what you need. The truth is most people can probably do pretty much everything they need on the lowest tier they offer.

A 1080p Netflix stream will work fine on a 25 Mbps connection, which is what I have. I also work entirely online, stream high-def videos at a dozen sites all day, play games, download movies and do lots of other stuff, sometimes all at the same time. I think I pay $45 a month. But rates like mine might not be advertised prominently or at all. I only found out when I literally asked what the cheapest possible option was.

That said, if you have three kids who like to watch videos simultaneously, or you have a 4K streaming setup that you use a lot, you’ll want to bump that up a bit. But you’d be surprised how seldom the speed limit actually comes into play.

To be clear, it’s still important that higher tiers are available, and that internet providers upgrade their infrastructure, because competition and reliability need to go up and prices need to come down. The full promise of broadband should be accessible to everyone for a reasonable fee, and that’s still not the case.

6. Stream everything because broadcast TV is a joke

Cord-cutting is fun. Broadcast TV is annoying, and getting around ads and air times using a DVR is very 2005. Most shows are available on streaming services of some kind or another, and while those services are multiplying, you could probably join all of them for well under what you’re paying for the 150 cable channels you never watch.

Unless you really need to watch certain games or news shows as they’re broadcast, you can get by streaming everything. This has the side effect of starving networks of viewers and accelerating the demise of these 20th-century relics. Good ones will survive as producers and distributors of quality programming, and you can support them individually on their own merits. It’s a weird transitional time for TV, but we need to drop-kick them into the future so they’ll stop charging us for a media structure established 50 years ago.

Something isn’t available on a streaming service? 100 percent chance it’s because of some dumb exclusivity deal or licensing SNAFU. Go pirate it for now, then happily pay for it as soon as it’s made available. This method is simple for you and instructive for media companies. (They always see piracy rates drop when they make things easy to find and purchase.)

This also lets you avoid certain fees ISPs love tacking onto your bill. I had a “broadcast TV fee” on my bill despite not having any kind of broadcast service, and I managed to get it taken off and retroactively paid back.

On that note…

7. Watch your bill like a hawk

Telecoms just love putting things on your bill with no warning. It’s amazing how much a bill can swell from the quoted amount once they’ve added all the little fees, taxes and service charges. What are they, anyway? Why not call and ask?

You might find out, as I did, that your ISP had “mistakenly” been charging you for something — like equipment — that you never had nor asked for. Amazing how these lucrative little fees tend to fall through the cracks!

Small charges often increase and new ones get added as well, so download your bill when you get it and keep it somewhere (or just keep the paper copies). These are really handy to have when you’re on the phone with a rep. “Why wasn’t I informed my bill would increase this month by $50?” “Why is this fee more now than it was in July?” “Why do I pay a broadcast fee if I don’t pay for TV?” These are the types of questions that get you discounts.

Staying on top of these fees also means you’ll be more aware when there are things like mass refunds or class action lawsuits about them. Usually these have to be opted into — your ISP isn’t going to call you, apologize and send a check.

As long as you’re looking closely at your bill…

8. Go to your account and opt out of everything

When you sign up for broadband service, you’re going to get opted into a whole heap of things. They don’t tell you about these, like the ads they can inject, the way they’re selling this or that data or that your router might be used as a public Wi-Fi hotspot.

You’ll only find this out if you go to your account page at your ISP’s website and look at everything. Beyond the usual settings like your address and choice of whether to receive a paper bill, you’ll probably find a few categories like “privacy” and “communications preferences.”

Click through all of these and look for any options to opt out of stuff. You may find that your ISP has reserved the right to let partners email you, use your data in ways you wouldn’t expect and so on. It only takes a few minutes to get out of all this, and it deprives the ISP of a source of income while also providing a data point that subscribers don’t like these practices.

9. Share your passwords

Your friend’s internet provider gets him streaming services A, B and C, while yours gives you X, Y and Z. Again, this is not about creators struggling to get their content online, but rather all about big media and internet corporations striking deals that make them money and harm consumers.

Share your (unique, not reused!) passwords widely and with a clean conscience. No company objects when you invite your friends over to watch “Fleabag” at your house. This just saves everyone a drive!

10. Encrypt everything and block trackers

One of the internet companies’ many dirty little deals is collecting and selling information on their customers’ watching and browsing habits. Encrypting your internet traffic puts the kibosh on this creepy practice — as well as being good security.

This isn’t really something you can do too much to accomplish, since over the last few years encryption has become the rule rather than the exception, even at sites where you don’t log in or buy anything. If you want to be sure, download a browser plug-in like HTTPS everywhere, which opts you into a secure connection anywhere it’s available. You can tell it’s secure because the URL says “https://” instead of “http://” — and most browsers have other indicators or warnings as well.

You should also use an ad blocker, not necessarily to block ads that keep outlets like TechCrunch alive (please), but to block trackers seeded across the web by companies that use sophisticated techniques to record everything you do. ISPs are among these and/or do business with them, so everything you can do to hinder them is a little mud in their eye.

Incidentally there are lots of ways you can protect your privacy from those who would invade it — we’ve got a pretty thorough guide here.

11. Use a different DNS

Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

On a similar note, most ISPs will usually be set up by default with their own “Domain Name Service,” which is the thing that your browser pings to convert a text web URL (like “techcrunch.com”) to its numerical IP address.

There are lots of these to choose from, and they all work, but if you use your ISP’s, it makes it much easier for them to track your internet activity. They also can block certain websites by refusing to provide the IP for content they don’t like.

TechCrunch doesn’t officially endorse one, but lots of companies offer free, fast DNS that’s easy to switch to. Here’s a good list; there are big ones (Google, Cloudflare), “open” ones (OpenDNS, OpenNIC) and others with some niche features. All you need to do is slot those two numbers into your internet configuration, following the instructions they provide. You can change it back at any time.

Setting up a VPN is another option for very privacy-conscious individuals, but it can be complicated. And speaking of complicated…

12. Run a home server

This is a bit advanced, but it’s definitely something ISPs hate. Setting up your home computer or a dedicated device to host a website, script or service seems like a natural use of an always-on internet connection, but just about everyone in the world would rather you sign up for their service, hosted on their hardware and their connection.

Well, you don’t have to! You can do it on your own. Of course, you’ll have to learn how to run and install a probably Unix-based server, handle registry stuff, install various packages and keep up to date so you don’t get owned by some worm or bot… but you’ll have defied the will of the ISP. That’s the important thing.

13. Talk to your local government

ISPs hate all the things above, but what they hate the most by far is regulation. And you, as a valued citizen of your state and municipality, are in a position to demand it. Senators, representatives, governors, mayors, city councils and everyone else actually love to hear from their constituency, not because they desire conversation but because they can use it to justify policy.

During the net neutrality fight, a constant refrain I heard from government officials was how much they’d heard from voters about the issue and how unanimous it was (in support, naturally). A call or email from you won’t sway national politics, but a few thousand calls or emails from people in your city just might sway a local law or election. These things add up, and they do matter. State net neutrality policies are now the subject of national attention, and local privacy laws like those in Illinois are the bane of many a shady company.

Tell your local government about your experience with ISPs — outages, fees, sneaky practices or even good stuff — and they’ll file it away for when that data is needed, such as renegotiating the contracts national companies sign with those governments in order to operate in their territories.

Internet providers only do what they do because they are permitted to, and even then they often step outside the bounds of what’s acceptable — which is why rules like net neutrality are needed. But first people have to speak out.

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Indie developer flooded with racist, misogynist abuse after announcing Epic partnership

Posted by | epic games, Gaming, indie games, Opinion | No Comments

The two developers of an indie game called Ooblets have been subjected to “tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands” of abusive messages following their decision to put their game on the Epic Games Store. It’s a worrying yet entirely unsurprising example of the toxic elements of the gaming community and their strangely unlimited hatred for Epic.

Ooblets is a game by a husband and wife team that looks like a sort of farming/dancing/collecting simulator with a fun, cute style. They’ve been developing it for a couple of years now with the help of Patreon supporters, and are getting closer to release.

In the process of lining up where and how to sell the game, the two entered into a contract with the Epic Games Store, which in exchange for near-term exclusivity would guarantee the developers the income they might have gotten if they’d decided to launch on multiple storefronts.

This practice adds some stability to what can be a very unpredictable sales environment, and as a side effect gave the two a fund upfront to finish development without having to rely on their Patreon supporters — whom they told about the new deal and consulted about what should happen next.

To be clear, the game will still be able to be bought and played by pretty much everyone on PC, just using a different storefront. Like if the chips you prefer started being sold at 7-Eleven instead of AM/PM. Except you can go to either one just by clicking your mouse.

But when they announced the news to the broader internet, it drew down on Ben and Rebecca Cordingley the ire of the easily provoked gaming world, specifically those who believe that Epic’s purchase of exclusives for its nascent gaming storefront is an affront to all that is sane and good in this world.

Immediately the two were inundated with messages “on every conceivable platform” telling them to die, swallow bleach, get raped, and both accusing Ben of anti-Semitism and mocking his being Jewish. Some, he said, went so far as to doctor video to make it seem like he had posted something then deleted it.

Horrified and taken aback by this massively disproportionate response to two people deciding to make a deal that should benefit their game and not affect their supporters (their patrons on Patreon were never promised the game, let alone on a specific platform), Ben wrote a post with his thoughts on the matter. You can read it here, along with some rather disturbing excerpts of the attacks on him and his wife.

These attacks are likely ongoing — in fact, the new post has probably just stoked the fire, and the two can look forward to a few more weeks of being told to kill themselves or that someone is going to find them and assault them.

The backlash against Epic over the last year has been perplexing to watch. The new storefront was created in the wake of Fortnite’s success to act as a dark horse challenger to the reigning champ of the PC gaming world, Valve’s Steam. Releasing on Steam has been a foregone conclusion for most PC games for years, but recently that practice has been challenged as companies like Epic and Ubisoft created their own launchers and game stores.

Flush with Fortnite cash, Epic has relied on two things to grow its storefront, which began (and remains) rather lackluster compared to its more mature and popular competitors. First, it has simply picked a number of games each month to give away for free, no strings attached — and not shovelware either, but actually great games that people want. Second, they’ve arranged for upcoming games to release exclusively on their platform.

Paid exclusivity is of course by no means new, especially not in the gaming community, where exclusivity among platforms has been the rule since the ’80s, when it was Mario versus Sonic, to today, when it’s Halo versus Destiny or a hundred others. Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and many others pay huge amounts to lock in developers for years, sometimes buying them outright so their games will be released exclusively on a certain platform. Epic seems to be joining a fairly large club.

Steam has many features Epic doesn’t, it is true. The community of recommendations, mods, forums and gamified purchasing on Steam is unmatched anywhere else. But for the purpose of buying and launching a game, the two are pretty evenly matched. It’s understandable that people might be upset when a game they are looking forward to disappears from their wishlist on Steam, or that they have to download another app in order to launch some games. But this inconvenience is, let’s be honest, minimal.

It’s sad reading not just the initial outrage at the pair’s decision — which, as they explained, is helpful for them as developers and lets them finish the game with less financial uncertainty — but at the justification that many have put forward that by joking about how angry people get about the Epic thing in the original post, Ben was inviting the abuse he received. These “they should have known” or “they were asking for it” people seem to want the developer’s perceived tone to have equal importance as the thousands of death threats they received subsequently.

From Ben’s post:

I’d challenge anyone to be on the receiving end of this for a few minutes/hours/days to not come to the conclusion that a huge segment of the broader gaming community is toxic.

There’s a strange relationship a segment of the gaming community has with game developers. I think their extreme passion for games has made them perceive the people who provide those games as some sort of mystical “other”, an outgroup that’s held to a whole set of weird expectations. These folks believe they hold the magic power of the wallet over developers who should cower before them and capitulate to any of their demands. You can see this evidenced by the massive number of angry people threatening to pirate our game in retaliation to any perceived slight.

It’s hard to see the effects or scope of what a massive mob of online harassment is doing to someone until you’re on the receiving end of it. It’s also really hard to realize when you’re unwittingly part of a harassment group because you’ve been so convinced by the mob mentality that your anger and target are justified.

Ben and Rebecca are far from the first to be the target of this type of mob, and let’s not forget that 8chan got its start as a refuge for “gamergate” diehards who had been ejected from other platforms. The original toxic gamer outrage factory is now known for being an incubator for white nationalist terrorists. Threats from the collective fragile internet ego are manifesting in bullets and taking lives with frightening frequency.

If you’d like to support the game and developer, which I already intended to do before this unseemly furore, you can follow the developers and see the latest over at Ooblets.com.

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The real risk of Facebook’s Libra coin is crooked developers

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, Cambridge Analytica, cryptocurrency, Developer, Facebook, Facebook Cryptocurrency, facebook platform, Facebook Policy, Libra Association, Libra Cryptocurrency, Mobile, Opinion, payments, Policy, Security, Social, TC | No Comments

Everyone’s worried about Mark Zuckerberg controlling the next currency, but I’m more concerned about a crypto Cambridge Analytica.

Today Facebook announced Libra, its forthcoming stablecoin designed to let you shop and send money overseas with almost zero transaction fees. Immediately, critics started harping about the dangers of centralizing control of tomorrow’s money in the hands of a company with a poor track record of privacy and security.

Facebook anticipated this, though, and created a subsidiary called Calibra to run its crypto dealings and keep all transaction data separate from your social data. Facebook shares control of Libra with 27 other Libra Association founding members, and as many as 100 total when the token launches in the first half of 2020. Each member gets just one vote on the Libra council, so Facebook can’t hijack the token’s governance even though it invented it.

With privacy fears and centralized control issues at least somewhat addressed, there’s always the issue of security. Facebook naturally has a huge target on its back for hackers. Not just because Libra could hold so much value to steal, but because plenty of trolls would get off on screwing up Facebook’s currency. That’s why Facebook open-sourced the Libra Blockchain and is offering a prototype in a pre-launch testnet. This developer beta plus a bug bounty program run in partnership with HackerOne is meant to surface all the flaws and vulnerabilities before Libra goes live with real money connected.

Yet that leaves one giant vector for abuse of Libra: the developer platform.

“Essential to the spirit of Libra . . . the Libra Blockchain will be open to everyone: any consumer, developer, or business can use the Libra network, build products on top of it, and add value through their services. Open access ensures low barriers to entry and innovation and encourages healthy competition that benefits consumers,” Facebook explained in its white paper and Libra launch documents. It’s even building a whole coding language called Move for making Libra apps.

Apparently Facebook has already forgotten how allowing anyone to build on the Facebook app platform and its low barriers to “innovation” are exactly what opened the door for Cambridge Analytica to hijack 87 million people’s personal data and use it for political ad targeting.

But in this case, it won’t be users’ interests and birthdays that get grabbed. It could be hundreds or thousands of dollars’ worth of Libra currency that’s stolen. A shady developer could build a wallet that just cleans out a user’s account or funnels their coins to the wrong recipient, mines their purchase history for marketing data or uses them to launder money. Digital risks become a lot less abstract when real-world assets are at stake.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook raced to lock down its app platform, restrict APIs, more heavily vet new developers and audit ones that look shady. So you’d imagine the Libra Association would be planning to thoroughly scrutinize any developer trying to build a Libra wallet, exchange or other related app, right? “There are no plans for the Libra Association to take a role in actively vetting [developers],” Calibra’s head of product Kevin Weil surprisingly told me. “The minute that you start limiting it is the minute you start walking back to the system you have today with a closed ecosystem and a smaller number of competitors, and you start to see fees rise.”

That translates to “the minute we start responsibly verifying Libra app developers, things start to get expensive, complicated or agitating to cryptocurrency purists. That might hurt growth and adoption.” You know what will hurt growth of Libra a lot worse? A sob story about some migrant family or a small business getting all their Libra stolen. And that blame is going to land squarely on Facebook, not some amorphous Libra Association.

Image via Getty Images / alashi

Inevitably, some unsavvy users won’t understand the difference between Facebook’s own wallet app Calibra and any other app built for the currency. “Libra is Facebook’s cryptocurrency. They wouldn’t let me get robbed,” some will surely say. And on Calibra they’d be right. It’s a custodial wallet that will refund you if your Libra are stolen and it offers 24/7 customer support via chat to help you regain access to your account.

Yet the Libra Blockchain itself is irreversible. Outside of custodial wallets like Calibra, there’s no getting your stolen or mis-sent money back. There’s likely no customer support. And there are plenty of crooked crypto developers happy to prey on the inexperienced. Indeed, $1.7 billion in cryptocurrency was stolen last year alone, according to CypherTrace via CNBC. “As with anything, there’s fraud and there are scams in the existing financial ecosystem today . . .  that’s going to be true of Libra too. There’s nothing special or magical that prevents that,” says Weil, who concluded “I think those pros massively outweigh the cons.”

Until now, the blockchain world was mostly inhabited by technologists, except for when skyrocketing values convinced average citizens to invest in Bitcoin just before prices crashed. Now Facebook wants to bring its family of apps’ 2.7 billion users into the world of cryptocurrency. That’s deeply worrisome.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 10, 2018. (Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Regulators are already bristling, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. Democrat Senator Sherrod Brown tweeted that “We cannot allow Facebook to run a risky new cryptocurrency out of a Swiss bank account without oversight.” And French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told Europe 1 radio that Libra can’t be allowed to “become a sovereign currency.”

Most harshly, Rep. Maxine Waters issued a statement saying, “Given the company’s troubled past, I am requesting that Facebook agree to a moratorium on any movement forward on developing a cryptocurrency until Congress and regulators have the opportunity to examine these issues and take action.”

Yet Facebook has just one vote in controlling the currency, and the Libra Association preempted these criticisms, writing, “We welcome public inquiry and accountability. We are committed to a dialogue with regulators and policymakers. We share policymakers’ interest in the ongoing stability of national currencies.”

That’s why as lawmakers confer about how to regulate Libra, I hope they remember what triggered the last round of Facebook execs having to appear before Congress and Parliament. A totally open, unvetted Libra developer platform in the name of “innovation” over safety is a ticking time bomb. Governments should insist the Libra Association thoroughly audit developers and maintain the power to ban bad actors. In this strange new crypto world, the public can’t be expected to perfectly protect itself from Cambridge Analytica 2.$.

Get up to speed on Facebook’s Libra with this handy guide:

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YouTube will let bigot monetize if he removes link to homophobic merch

Posted by | Apps, Entertainment, Media, Mobile, Opinion, Policy, Social, TC, WTF, YouTube | No Comments

YouTube has made the weakest, least courageous response to mass backlash regarding its ruling yesterday that right-wing personality Steven Crowder’s racist and homophobic attacks on Vox video producer Carlos Maza didn’t violate its policies. Now YouTube says it’s demonetized Crowder’s channel because his “pattern of egregious actions has harmed the broader community” …but it will restore Crowder’s ability to earn a cut of YouTube ad revenue as long as he removes the link in his videos/channel to his offensive merchandise shop and fixes “all of the issues” with his channel. Specifically, Crowder’s shop sells [Warning: disturbing language not condoned by TechCrunch] “Socialism is for f*gs” t-shirts, baby onesies and beer-pong cups.

[Update: In the wake of this article and YouTube’s focus on his homophobic slur shirts, Crowder has removed the hateful merchandise from his store.]

The unwillingness to remove Crowder from YouTube counters the frequent calls by conservative politicians and pundits that they’re discriminated against on social media. Instead, it seems YouTube is too scared of being called bias to do what’s right and enforce its policies that dictate Crowder’s content or whole channel be removed. And even if Crowder does make YouTube’s required fixes, which it’s yet to publicly detail, he can still toe the line of its hate speech policies while promoting his merchandise shop within his videos.

To clarify, in order to reinstate monetization on this channel, he will need to remove the link to his T-shirts.

— TeamYouTube (@TeamYouTube) June 5, 2019

Sorry for the confusion, we were responding to your tweets about the T-shirts. Again, this channel is demonetized due to continued egregious actions that have harmed the broader community. To be reinstated, he will need to address all of the issues with his channel.

— TeamYouTube (@TeamYouTube) June 5, 2019

YouTube needs to completely rethink its approach to policy and enforcement here. Otherwise it’s likely to embolden harassers and bigots across the internet.

For those just stumbling into this social media policy dumpster fire, Canadia-American conservative commentator Crowder publishes politically inflammatory videos to his 3.8 million YouTube subscribers. They often include hosting bad faith “debates” with those who disagree with him, where he uses twisted rhetoric, aggression and obstinance to goad guests into getting angry so he can paint them as crazy and wrong. He’s also known for targeting specific media figures with verbal abuse, which leads his followers to harass them in en masse.

In this case, Crowder called Vox’s Maza a “gay Mexican” and “lispy queer,” amongst other hate speech-laden taunts across multiple videos. Last week Maza compiled a viral Twitter thread detailing the abuse and imploring YouTube to enforce its policy that bans hate speech and harassment.

Yesterday, YouTube tweeted its confusing and contradictory ruling from a review of Crowder’s videos. “While we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies . . . As an open platform, it’s crucial for us to allow everyone–from creators to journalists to late-night TV hosts–to express their opinions w/in the scope of our policies. Opinions can be deeply offensive, but if they don’t violate our policies, they’ll remain on our site . . . Even if a video remains on our site, it doesn’t mean we endorse/support that viewpoint.”

That makes zero sense considering YouTube’s policy expressly forbids this kind of content, and says it will be taken down. YouTube specifically bans content that’s deliberately meant to “humiliate someone,” that includes “hurtful and negative personal comments/videos about another person” or features hate speech regarding “ethnicity” and “sexual orientation.” Crowder’s content violates all of these rules, and so consistent enforcement would require its removal.

That’s why the public momentarily applauded today when YouTube announced that it suspended Crowder’s monetization. This still fell far short of what YouTube’s policies dictate, but it at least meant that Crowder couldn’t monetize his YouTube views directly, even if he could still promote his merchandise, live events and Patreo-paid subscription page. Then the internet got rightfully mad again when YouTube said he just had to remove the link to his homophobic t-shirt shop to regain monetization, given he could just promote the shop in his videos while still benefiting from his YouTube reach.

And then just as this article was published, YouTube made yet another flip-flop and apologized for all the confusion (that it caused by waffling). It now claims that “this channel is demonetized due to continued egregious actions that have harmed the broader community. To be reinstated, he will need to address all of the issues with his channel.” Yet YouTube did not respond to a request for details about exactly what must be changed.

At least in the wake of this article and YouTube’s insistence he delink offensive merch from his channel, Crowder has removed the “Socialism is for f*gs” merchandise from his shop. But he’s sure to find new ways to stoke his hateful base while avoiding a full YouTube suspension.

Crowder repeatedly links his YouTube channel and videos to his merchandise shop selling shirts featuring homophobic slurs

It’s tough to even know where to begin criticism of YouTube’s behavior here:

  • YouTube ignored Crowder’s abuse of Maza and others for years while earning money from a hateful audience
  • It only took a closer look after Maza’s thorough exposé on abuse from Crowder received 20,000 retweets and got media attention
  • YouTube claimed that “while we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies,” despite clearly violating its policies
  • The company had the gall to put out a blog post about its “ongoing work to tackle hate” without any reference to the Maza situation
  • A day after saying he didn’t violate policy, YouTube reversed itself and claimed Crowder did violate policies; however, he’s only getting demonetized, some believe because he’s popular, brings his fans to YouTube and Google might face allegations of anti-conservative bias if it suspended him
  • YouTube repeatedly refused to be transparent about why Crowder’s content was or wasn’t in violation of its policies, or what he’d need to change to be remonetized; it has refused to put anyone on the record, and even emailed responses to our press inquiries were answered by an anonymous Google Press email account
  • YouTube has not made any statement about ceasing to recommend Crowder’s videos in its algorithm, which has been repeatedly shown to radicalize people by showing them more and more extreme fringe content

Hopefully this will be a turning point in news coverage and public perception of Google and YouTube. Facebook’s spread of misinformation and Twitter’s failure to police harassment have dominated the conversation of social media’s dangers to society. But it’s YouTube that willfully suggests the most salacious and eye-catching content to users to keep them watching ads, even if it’s promoting bigotry. And since it pays stars directly, unlike Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat, it’s uniquely responsible for creating a profession out of hatred.

Perhaps this situation will lead to more calls from viewers and advertisers to #BoycottYouTube. But if members of the tech community really want to drive change, they should message their friends who work at YouTube or Google and ask why they work at a company that operates this way. That monetizes harassment and radicalization while refusing to take a strong stand against it. When backlash hits not just pecks at Google’s profits but harms its recruiting efforts in a brutally competitive talent market, that’s when we might finally see it do the right thing.

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Facebook talked privacy, Google actually built it

Posted by | Apps, artificial intelligence, Developer, Facebook, facebook privacy, Google, Google I/O 2019, google privacy, Mark Zuckerberg, Mobile, Opinion, Policy, privacy, Sundar Pichai, TC | No Comments

Mark Zuckerberg: “The future is private”. Sundar Pichai: ~The present is private~. While both CEO’s made protecting user data a central theme of their conference keynotes this month, Facebook’s product updates were mostly vague vaporware while Google’s were either ready to ship or ready to demo. The contrast highlights the divergence in strategy between the two tech giants.

For Facebook, privacy is a talking point meant to boost confidence in sharing, deter regulators, and repair its battered image. For Google, privacy is functional, going hand-in-hand with on-device data processing to make features faster and more widely accessible.

Everyone wants tech to be more private, but we must discern between promises and delivery. Like “mobile”, “on-demand”, “AI”, and “blockchain” before it, “privacy” can’t be taken at face value. We deserve improvements to the core of how our software and hardware work, not cosmetic add-ons and instantiations no one is asking for.

AMY OSBORNE/AFP/Getty Images

At Facebook’s F8 last week, we heard from Zuckerberg about how “Privacy gives us the freedom to be ourselves” and he reiterated how that would happen through ephemerality and secure data storage. He said Messenger and Instagram Direct will become encrypted…eventually…which Zuckerberg had already announced in January and detailed in March. We didn’t get the Clear History feature that Zuckerberg made the privacy centerpiece of his 2018 conference, or anything about the Data Transfer Project that’s been silent for the 10 months since it’s reveal.

What users did get was a clumsy joke from Zuckerberg about how “I get that a lot of people aren’t sure that we’re serious about this. I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now to put it lightly. But I’m committed to doing this well.” No one laughed. At least he admitted that “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

But it shouldn’t have to. Facebook made its first massive privacy mistake in 2007 with Beacon, which quietly relayed your off-site ecommerce and web activity to your friends. It’s had 12 years, a deal with the FTC promising to improve, countless screwups and apologies, the democracy-shaking Cambridge Analytica scandal, and hours of being grilled by congress to get serious about the problem. That makes it clear that if “the future is private”, then the past wasn’t. Facebook is too late here to receive the benefit of the doubt.

At Google’s I/O, we saw demos from Pichai showing how “our work on privacy and security is never done. And we want to do more to stay ahead of constantly evolving user expectations.” Instead of waiting to fall so far behind that users demand more privacy, Google has been steadily working on it for the past decade since it introduced Chrome incognito mode. It’s changed directions away from using Gmail content to target ads and allowing any developer to request access to your email, though there are plenty of sins to atone for. Now when the company is hit with scandals, it’s typically over its frightening efficiency as with its cancelled Project Maven AI military tech, not its creepiness.

Google made more progress on privacy in low-key updates in the runup to I/O than Facebook did on stage. In the past month it launched the ability to use your Android device as a physical security key, and a new auto-delete feature rolling out in the coming weeks that erases your web and app activity after 3 or 18 months. Then in its keynote today, it published “privacy commitments” for Made By Google products like Nest detailing exactly how they use your data and your control over that. For example, the new Nest Home Max does all its Face Match processing on device so facial recognition data isn’t sent to Google. Failing to note there’s a microphone in its Nest security alarm did cause an uproar in February, but the company has already course-corrected

That concept of on-device processing is a hallmark of the new Android 10 Q operating system. Opening in beta to developers today, it comes with almost 50 new security and privacy features like TLS 1.3 support and Mac address randomization. Google Assistant will now be better protected, Pichai told a cheering crowd. “Further advances in deep learning have allowed us to combine and shrink the 100 gigabyte models down to half a gigabyte — small enough to bring it onto mobile devices.” This makes Assistant not only more private, but fast enough that it’s quicker to navigate your phone by voice than touch. Here, privacy and utility intertwine.

The result is that Google can listen to video chats and caption them for you in real-time, transcribe in-person conversations, or relay aloud your typed responses to a phone call without transmitting audio data to the cloud. That could be a huge help if you’re hearing or vision impaired, or just have your hands full. A lot of the new Assistant features coming to Google Pixel phones this year will even work in Airplane mode. Pichai says that “Gboard is already using federated learning to improve next word prediction, as well as emoji prediction across 10s of millions of devices” by using on-phone processing so only improvements to Google’s AI are sent to the company, not what you typed.

Google’s senior director of Android Stephanie Cuthbertson hammered the idea home, noting that “On device machine learning powers everything from these incredible breakthroughs like Live Captions to helpful everyday features like Smart Reply. And it does this with no user input ever leaving the phone, all of which protects user privacy.” Apple pioneered much of the on-device processing, and many Google features still rely on cloud computing, but it’s swiftly progressing.

When Google does make privacy announcements about things that aren’t about to ship, they’re significant and will be worth the wait. Chrome will implement anti-fingerprinting tech and change cookies to be more private so only the site that created them can use them. And Incognito Mode will soon come to the Google Maps and Search apps.

Pichai didn’t have to rely on grand proclamations, cringey jokes, or imaginary product changes to get his message across. Privacy isn’t just a means to an end for Google. It’s not a PR strategy. And it’s not some theoretical part of tomorrow like it is for Zuckerberg and Facebook. It’s now a natural part of building user-first technology…after 20 years of more cavalier attitudes towards data. That new approach is why the company dedicated to organizing the world’s information has been getting so little backlash lately.

With privacy, it’s all about show, don’t tell.

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‘The Division 2’ is the brain-dead, antipolitical, gun-mongering vigilante simulator we deserve

Posted by | games, Gaming, Opinion, review, TC | No Comments

In The Division 2, the answer to every question is a bullet. That’s not unique in the pervasively violent world of gaming, but in an environment drawn from the life and richly decorated with plausible human cost and cruelty, it seems a shame; and in a real world where plentiful assault rifles and government hit squads are the problems, not the solutions, this particular power fantasy feels backwards and cowardly.

Ubisoft’s meticulous avoidance of the real world except for physical likeness was meant to maximize its market and avoid the type of “controversy” that brings furious tweets and ineffectual boycotts down on media that dare to make statements. But the result is a game that panders to “good guy with a gun” advocates, NRA members, everyday carry die-hards, and those who dream of spilling the blood of unsavory interlopers and false patriots upon this great country’s soil.

There are two caveats: That we shouldn’t have expected anything else, from Ubisoft or anyone; and that it’s a pretty good game if you ignore all that stuff. But it’s getting harder to accept every day, and the excuses for game studios are getting fewer. (Some spoilers ahead, but trust me, it doesn’t matter.)

To put us all on the same page: The Division 2 (properly Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, which just about sums it up right there) is the latest “game as a service” to hit the block, aspiring less towards the bubblegum ubiquity of Fortnite and than the endless grind of a Destiny 2 or Diablo 3. The less said about Anthem, the better (except Jason Schrier’s great report, of course).

From the bestselling author of literally a hundred other books…

It’s published by Ubisoft, a global gaming power known for creating expansive gaming worlds (like the astonishingly beautiful Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey) with bafflingly uneven gameplay and writing (like the astonishingly lopsided Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey).

So it was perhaps to be expected that The Division 2 would be heavy on atmosphere and light on subtlety. But I didn’t expect to be told to see the President snatch a machine gun from his captors and mow them down — then tell your character that sometimes you can’t do what’s popular, you have to do what’s necessary.

It would be too much even if the game was a parody and not, as it in fact is, deeply and strangely earnest. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

EDC Simulator 2

The game is set in Washington, D.C.; its predecessor was in New York. Both were, like most U.S. cities in this fictitious near future, devastated by a biological attack on Black Friday that used money as a vector for a lethal virus. That’s a great idea, perhaps not practical (who pays in cash?), but a clever mashup of terrorist plots with consumerism. (The writing in the first Division was considerably better than this one.)

Your character is part of a group of sleeper agents seeded throughout the country, intended to activate in the event of a national emergency, surviving and operating on your own or with a handful of others, procuring equipment and supplies on the go, taking out the bad guys and saving the remaining civilians while authority reasserts itself.

You can see how this sets up a great game: exploring the ruins of a major city, shooing out villains, and upgrading your gear as you work your way up the ladder.

And in a way it does make a great game. If you consider the bad guys just types of human-shaped monsters, your various guns and equipment the equivalent of new swords and wands, breastplates and greaves, with your drones and tactical launchers modern spells and auras, it’s really quite a lot like Diablo, the progenitor of the “looter” genre.

Moment to moment gameplay has you hiding behind cover, popping out to snap off a few shots at the bad guys, who are usually doing the same thing 10 or 20 yards away, but generally not as well as you. Move on to the next room or intersection, do it again with some more guys, rinse and repeat. It sounds monotonous, and it is, but so is baseball. People like it anyway. (I’d like to give a shout-out to the simple, effective multiplayer that let me join a friend in seconds.)

But the problem with The Division 2 isn’t its gameplay, although I could waste your time (instead) with some nitpicking of the damage systems, the mobs, the inventory screen, and so on. The problem with The Division 2 isn’t even that it venerates guns. Practically every game venerates guns, because as Tim Rogers memorably paraphrased CliffyB once: “games are power fantasies — and it’s easy to make power fantasies, because guns are so powerful, and raycasting is simple, and raycasting is like a gun.” It’s difficult to avoid.

No, the problem with The Division 2 is the breathtaking incongruity between the powerfully visualized human tragedy your character inhabits and the refusal to engage even in an elementary way with the themes to which it is inherently tied: terrorism, guns, government and anti-government forces, and everything else. It’s exploitative, cynical, and absurd.

The Washington, D.C. of the game is a truly amazing setting. Painstakingly detailed block by block and containing many of the most notable landmarks of the area, it’s a very interesting game world to explore, even more so I imagine if you are from there or are otherwise familiar with the city.

The marks of a civilization-ending disaster are everywhere. Abandoned cars and security posts with vines and grass creeping up between them, broken and boarded up windows and doors, left luggage and improvised camping spots. Real places form the basis for thrilling setpiece shootouts: museums, famous offices, the White House itself (which you find under limp siege in the first mission). This is a fantasy very much based in reality — but only on the surface. In fact all this incredibly detailed scenery is nothing more than cover for shootouts.

I can’t tell you how many times my friend and I traversed intricately detailed monuments, halls, and other environments, marveling at the realism with which they were decorated (though perhaps there were a few too many gas cans), remarking to one another: “Damn, this place is insane. I can’t believe they made it this detailed just to have us do the same exact combat encounter as the entire rest of the game. How come nobody is talking about the history of this place, or the bodies, or the culture here?”

When fantasy isn’t

Now, to be clear, I don’t expect Ubisoft to make a game where you learn facts about helicopters while you shoot your way through the Air and Space Museum, or where you engage in philosophical conversation with the head of a band of marauders rather than lob grenades and corrosive goo in their general direction. (I kind of like both those ideas, though.)

But the dedication with which the company has avoided any kind of reality whatsoever is troubling.

We live in a time when people are taking what they call justice into their own hands by shooting others with weapons intended for warfare; when paramilitary groups are defending their strongholds with deadly force; when biological agents are being deployed against citizenry; when governments are surveilling and tracking people via controversial AI systems; when the leaders of that government are making unpopular and ethically fraught decisions without the knowledge of their constituency.

Ultimate EDC simulator

This game enthusiastically endorses all of the previous ideas with the naive justification that you’re the good guys. Of course you’re the good guys — everyone claims they’re the good guys! But objectively speaking, you’re a secret government hit squad killing whoever you’re told to, primarily other citizens. Ironically, despite being called an agent, you have no agency — you are a walking gun doing the bidding of a government that has almost entirely dissolved. What could possibly go wrong? The Division 2 certainly makes no effort to explore this.

The superficiality of the story I could excuse if it didn’t rely so strongly on using the real world as set dressing for its paramilitary dress-up-doll fantasy.

Basing your game in a real world location is, I think, a fabulous idea. But in doing so, especially if as part of the process you imply the death of millions, a developer incurs a responsibility to do more than use that location as level geometry.

The Division 2 instead uses these deaths and the most important places in D.C. literally as props. Nothing you do ever has anything to do with what the place is except in the loosest way. While you visit morgues and improvised mass graves piled with body bags, you never see anyone dead or dying… unless you kill them.

It’s hard to explain what I find so distasteful about this. It’s a combination of the obvious emphasis on the death of innocents, in a brute-force attempt to create emotional and political relevance, with the utterly vacuous violence you fill that world with. It feels disrespectful to itself, to the setting, to set a piece of media so incredibly dumb and mute in a disaster so credible and relevant.

This was a deliberate decision, to rob the game of any relevance — a marketing decision. To destroy D.C. — that sells. To write a story or design gameplay that in any way reflects why that destruction resonates — that doesn’t sell. “We cannot be openly political in our games,” said Alf Condelius, the COO of the studio that created the game, in a talk before the game’s release. Doing so, he said, would be “bad for business, unfortunately, if you want the honest truth.” I can’t be the only one who feels this to be a cop-out of pretty grand proportions, with the truth riding on its coattails.

Perhaps you think I’m holding game developers to an unreasonable standard. But I believe they are refusing to raise the bar themselves when they easily could and should. The level of detail in the world is amazing, and it was clearly designed by people who understand what could happen should disaster strike. The bodies piled in labs, the desolation of a city overtaken by nature, the perfect reproductions of landmarks — an enormous amount of effort and money was put into this part of the game.

On the other hand, it’s incredibly obvious from the get-go that very, very little attention was paid to the story and characters, the dialogue, the actual choices you can make as a player (there are none to speak of). There is no way to interact with people except to shoot them, or for them to tell you who to shoot. There is no mention of politics, of parties, of race or religion. I feel sure more time was spent modeling the guns — which, by the way, are real licensed models — than the main “characters,” though it must have been time-consuming to so completely to purge those characters of any ideas or opinions that could possibly reflect the real world.

One tragedy please, hold the relevance

This is deliberate. There’s no way this could have happened unless Ubisoft, from the start, made it clear that the game was to be divorced from the real world in every way except those that were deemed marketable.

That this is what they considerable marketable is a sad sort of indictment of the people they are selling this game to. The prospect of inserting oneself into a sort of justified vigilante role where you rain hot righteous lead on these generic villains trampling our great flag seems to be a special catnip concoction Ubisoft thought would appeal to millions — millions who (or more importantly, whose wallets) might be chilled by the idea of a story that actually takes on the societal issues that would be at play in a disaster like this one. We got the game we deserved, I suppose.

Say what you will about the narrative quality of campaigns of Call of Duty and Battlefield, but they at least attempt to engage with the content they are exploiting to sell the game. World War II is marketable because it’s the worst thing that ever happened and destroyed the lives of millions in a violent and dramatic way. Imagine building a photorealistic reproduction of wartime Stalingrad, or Paris, or Berlin, and then filling it not with Axis and Allied forces but simplified and palatable goodies and baddies with no particular ethos or history.

I certainly don’t mean to equate the theoretical destruction of D.C. with the Holocaust and WWII, but as perhaps the most popular period and venue for shooters like this, it’s the obvious comparison to make thematically, and what one finds is that however poor the story of a given WWII game, it inevitably attempts to emphasize and grapple with the enormity of the events you are experiencing. That’s the kind of responsibility I think you take on when you illustrate your game with the real world — even a fantasy version of the real world.

Furthermore Ubisoft has accepted that it must take some political stances, such as the inclusion of same-sex player-NPC relationships in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey — not controversial to me and many others, certainly, but hardly an apolitical inclusion in the present global political landscape. (I applaud them for this, by the way, and many others have as well.) It’s arguable this is not “overt” in that Kassandra and Alexios don’t break the first wall to advocate for marriage equality, but I think it is deliberately and unapologetically espousing a stance on a politically and societally charged issue.

It seems it is not that the company cannot be overtly political, but that it decided in this case that to be political on issues of guns, the military, terrorism, and so on was too much of a risk. To me that is in itself a political choice.

I do think Ubisoft is a fantastic company and makes wonderful games — but I also think the decision to completely divorce a game with fundamentally political underpinnings from the real politics and humanitarian conditions that empower it is a sad and spineless decision that makes them look both avaricious and inhumane. I know they can do better because others already have and do.

The Division 2 is a good game as far as games go. But games, like movies, TV, and other media, are very much art now, deserving of criticism as to their ideas as well as their controls and graphics; and as art, The Division 2 is as much a barren wasteland scoured of humanity as the D.C. it depicts.

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