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Is Europe closing in on an antitrust fix for surveillance technologists?

Posted by | Android, antitrust, competition law, data protection, data protection law, DCMS committee, digital media, EC, Europe, european commission, european union, Facebook, General Data Protection Regulation, Germany, Giovanni Buttarelli, Google, instagram, Margrethe Vestager, Messenger, photo sharing, privacy, Social, social media, social networks, surveillance capitalism, TC, terms of service, United Kingdom, United States | No Comments

The German Federal Cartel Office’s decision to order Facebook to change how it processes users’ personal data this week is a sign the antitrust tide could at last be turning against platform power.

One European Commission source we spoke to, who was commenting in a personal capacity, described it as “clearly pioneering” and “a big deal”, even without Facebook being fined a dime.

The FCO’s decision instead bans the social network from linking user data across different platforms it owns, unless it gains people’s consent (nor can it make use of its services contingent on such consent). Facebook is also prohibited from gathering and linking data on users from third party websites, such as via its tracking pixels and social plugins.

The order is not yet in force, and Facebook is appealing, but should it come into force the social network faces being de facto shrunk by having its platforms siloed at the data level.

To comply with the order Facebook would have to ask users to freely consent to being data-mined — which the company does not do at present.

Yes, Facebook could still manipulate the outcome it wants from users but doing so would open it to further challenge under EU data protection law, as its current approach to consent is already being challenged.

The EU’s updated privacy framework, GDPR, requires consent to be specific, informed and freely given. That standard supports challenges to Facebook’s (still fixed) entry ‘price’ to its social services. To play you still have to agree to hand over your personal data so it can sell your attention to advertisers. But legal experts contend that’s neither privacy by design nor default.

The only ‘alternative’ Facebook offers is to tell users they can delete their account. Not that doing so would stop the company from tracking you around the rest of the mainstream web anyway. Facebook’s tracking infrastructure is also embedded across the wider Internet so it profiles non-users too.

EU data protection regulators are still investigating a very large number of consent-related GDPR complaints.

But the German FCO, which said it liaised with privacy authorities during its investigation of Facebook’s data-gathering, has dubbed this type of behavior “exploitative abuse”, having also deemed the social service to hold a monopoly position in the German market.

So there are now two lines of legal attack — antitrust and privacy law — threatening Facebook (and indeed other adtech companies’) surveillance-based business model across Europe.

A year ago the German antitrust authority also announced a probe of the online advertising sector, responding to concerns about a lack of transparency in the market. Its work here is by no means done.

Data limits

The lack of a big flashy fine attached to the German FCO’s order against Facebook makes this week’s story less of a major headline than recent European Commission antitrust fines handed to Google — such as the record-breaking $5BN penalty issued last summer for anticompetitive behaviour linked to the Android mobile platform.

But the decision is arguably just as, if not more, significant, because of the structural remedies being ordered upon Facebook. These remedies have been likened to an internal break-up of the company — with enforced internal separation of its multiple platform products at the data level.

This of course runs counter to (ad) platform giants’ preferred trajectory, which has long been to tear modesty walls down; pool user data from multiple internal (and indeed external sources), in defiance of the notion of informed consent; and mine all that personal (and sensitive) stuff to build identity-linked profiles to train algorithms that predict (and, some contend, manipulate) individual behavior.

Because if you can predict what a person is going to do you can choose which advert to serve to increase the chance they’ll click. (Or as Mark Zuckerberg puts it: ‘Senator, we run ads.’)

This means that a regulatory intervention that interferes with an ad tech giant’s ability to pool and process personal data starts to look really interesting. Because a Facebook that can’t join data dots across its sprawling social empire — or indeed across the mainstream web — wouldn’t be such a massive giant in terms of data insights. And nor, therefore, surveillance oversight.

Each of its platforms would be forced to be a more discrete (and, well, discreet) kind of business.

Competing against data-siloed platforms with a common owner — instead of a single interlinked mega-surveillance-network — also starts to sound almost possible. It suggests a playing field that’s reset, if not entirely levelled.

(Whereas, in the case of Android, the European Commission did not order any specific remedies — allowing Google to come up with ‘fixes’ itself; and so to shape the most self-serving ‘fix’ it can think of.)

Meanwhile, just look at where Facebook is now aiming to get to: A technical unification of the backend of its different social products.

Such a merger would collapse even more walls and fully enmesh platforms that started life as entirely separate products before were folded into Facebook’s empire (also, let’s not forget, via surveillance-informed acquisitions).

Facebook’s plan to unify its products on a single backend platform looks very much like an attempt to throw up technical barriers to antitrust hammers. It’s at least harder to imagine breaking up a company if its multiple, separate products are merged onto one unified backend which functions to cross and combine data streams.

Set against Facebook’s sudden desire to technically unify its full-flush of dominant social networks (Facebook Messenger; Instagram; WhatsApp) is a rising drum-beat of calls for competition-based scrutiny of tech giants.

This has been building for years, as the market power — and even democracy-denting potential — of surveillance capitalism’s data giants has telescoped into view.

Calls to break up tech giants no longer carry a suggestive punch. Regulators are routinely asked whether it’s time. As the European Commission’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, was when she handed down Google’s latest massive antitrust fine last summer.

Her response then was that she wasn’t sure breaking Google up is the right answer — preferring to try remedies that might allow competitors to have a go, while also emphasizing the importance of legislating to ensure “transparency and fairness in the business to platform relationship”.

But it’s interesting that the idea of breaking up tech giants now plays so well as political theatre, suggesting that wildly successful consumer technology companies — which have long dined out on shiny convenience-based marketing claims, made ever so saccharine sweet via the lure of ‘free’ services — have lost a big chunk of their populist pull, dogged as they have been by so many scandals.

From terrorist content and hate speech, to election interference, child exploitation, bullying, abuse. There’s also the matter of how they arrange their tax affairs.

The public perception of tech giants has matured as the ‘costs’ of their ‘free’ services have scaled into view. The upstarts have also become the establishment. People see not a new generation of ‘cuddly capitalists’ but another bunch of multinationals; highly polished but remote money-making machines that take rather more than they give back to the societies they feed off.

Google’s trick of naming each Android iteration after a different sweet treat makes for an interesting parallel to the (also now shifting) public perceptions around sugar, following closer attention to health concerns. What does its sickly sweetness mask? And after the sugar tax, we now have politicians calling for a social media levy.

Just this week the deputy leader of the main opposition party in the UK called for setting up a standalone Internet regulatory with the power to break up tech monopolies.

Talking about breaking up well-oiled, wealth-concentration machines is being seen as a populist vote winner. And companies that political leaders used to flatter and seek out for PR opportunities find themselves treated as political punchbags; Called to attend awkward grilling by hard-grafting committees, or taken to vicious task verbally at the highest profile public podia. (Though some non-democratic heads of state are still keen to press tech giant flesh.)

In Europe, Facebook’s repeat snubs of the UK parliament’s requests last year for Zuckerberg to face policymakers’ questions certainly did not go unnoticed.

Zuckerberg’s empty chair at the DCMS committee has become both a symbol of the company’s failure to accept wider societal responsibility for its products, and an indication of market failure; the CEO so powerful he doesn’t feel answerable to anyone; neither his most vulnerable users nor their elected representatives. Hence UK politicians on both sides of the aisle making political capital by talking about cutting tech giants down to size.

The political fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal looks far from done.

Quite how a UK regulator could successfully swing a regulatory hammer to break up a global Internet giant such as Facebook which is headquartered in the U.S. is another matter. But policymakers have already crossed the rubicon of public opinion and are relishing talking up having a go.

That represents a sea-change vs the neoliberal consensus that allowed competition regulators to sit on their hands for more than a decade as technology upstarts quietly hoovered up people’s data and bagged rivals, and basically went about transforming themselves from highly scalable startups into market-distorting giants with Internet-scale data-nets to snag users and buy or block competing ideas.

The political spirit looks willing to go there, and now the mechanism for breaking platforms’ distorting hold on markets may also be shaping up.

The traditional antitrust remedy of breaking a company along its business lines still looks unwieldy when faced with the blistering pace of digital technology. The problem is delivering such a fix fast enough that the business hasn’t already reconfigured to route around the reset. 

Commission antitrust decisions on the tech beat have stepped up impressively in pace on Vestager’s watch. Yet it still feels like watching paper pushers wading through treacle to try and catch a sprinter. (And Europe hasn’t gone so far as trying to impose a platform break up.) 

But the German FCO decision against Facebook hints at an alternative way forward for regulating the dominance of digital monopolies: Structural remedies that focus on controlling access to data which can be relatively swiftly configured and applied.

Vestager, whose term as EC competition chief may be coming to its end this year (even if other Commission roles remain in potential and tantalizing contention), has championed this idea herself.

In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today program in December she poured cold water on the stock question about breaking tech giants up — saying instead the Commission could look at how larger firms got access to data and resources as a means of limiting their power. Which is exactly what the German FCO has done in its order to Facebook. 

At the same time, Europe’s updated data protection framework has gained the most attention for the size of the financial penalties that can be issued for major compliance breaches. But the regulation also gives data watchdogs the power to limit or ban processing. And that power could similarly be used to reshape a rights-eroding business model or snuff out such business entirely.

#GDPR allows imposing a permanent ban on data processing. This is the nuclear option. Much more severe than any fine you can imagine, in most cases. https://t.co/X772NvU51S

— Lukasz Olejnik (@lukOlejnik) January 28, 2019

The merging of privacy and antitrust concerns is really just a reflection of the complexity of the challenge regulators now face trying to rein in digital monopolies. But they’re tooling up to meet that challenge.

Speaking in an interview with TechCrunch last fall, Europe’s data protection supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, told us the bloc’s privacy regulators are moving towards more joint working with antitrust agencies to respond to platform power. “Europe would like to speak with one voice, not only within data protection but by approaching this issue of digital dividend, monopolies in a better way — not per sectors,” he said. “But first joint enforcement and better co-operation is key.”

The German FCO’s decision represents tangible evidence of the kind of regulatory co-operation that could — finally — crack down on tech giants.

Blogging in support of the decision this week, Buttarelli asserted: “It is not necessary for competition authorities to enforce other areas of law; rather they need simply to identity where the most powerful undertakings are setting a bad example and damaging the interests of consumers.  Data protection authorities are able to assist in this assessment.”

He also had a prediction of his own for surveillance technologists, warning: “This case is the tip of the iceberg — all companies in the digital information ecosystem that rely on tracking, profiling and targeting should be on notice.”

So perhaps, at long last, the regulators have figured out how to move fast and break things.

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Facebook is the new crapware

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Android, Apps, crapware, Facebook, privacy, Samsung, samsung galaxy s8, smartphones, Social, social media | No Comments

Welcome to 2019, where we learn Facebook is the new crapware.

Sorry #DeleteFacebook, you never stood a chance.

Yesterday Bloomberg reported that the scandal-beset social media behemoth has inked an unknown number of agreements with Android smartphone makers, mobile carriers and OSes around the world to not only pre-load Facebook’s eponymous app on hardware but render the software undeleteable; a permanent feature of your device, whether you like how the company’s app can track your every move and digital action or not.

Bloomberg spoke to a U.S. owner of a Samsung Galaxy S8 who, after reading forum discussions about Samsung devices, found his own pre-loaded Facebook app could not be removed. It could only be “disabled,” with no explanation available to him as to what exactly that meant.

The Galaxy S8 retailed for $725+ when it went on sale in the U.S. two years ago.

A Facebook spokesperson told Bloomberg that a disabled permanent app doesn’t continue collecting data or sending information back to the company, but declined to specify exactly how many such pre-install deals Facebook has globally.

Samsung told the news organization it provides a pre-installed Facebook app on “selected models” with options to disable it, adding that once disabled, the app is no longer running.

After Bloomberg’s report was published, mobile research and regular Facebook technical tipster Jane Manchun Wong chipped in via Twitter to comment — describing the pre-loaded Facebook app on Samsung devices as “stub.”

Aka “basically a non-functional empty shell, acts as the placeholder for when the phone receives the ‘real’ Facebook app as app updates.”

Samsung only ship the stub version of Facebook on their phones. It’s basically a non-functional empty shell, acts as the placeholder for when the phone receives the “real” Facebook app as app updates https://t.co/KHdkF9fFyK

— Jane Manchun Wong (@wongmjane) January 8, 2019

Albeit many smartphone users have automatic updates enabled, and an omnipresent disabled app is always there to be re-enabled at a later date (and thus revived from a zombie state into a fully fledged Facebook app one future day).

While you can argue that having a popular app pre-installed can be helpful to consumers (though not at all helpful to Facebook competitors), a permanent pre-install is undoubtedly an anti-consumer move.

Crapware is named crapware for a reason. Having paid to own hardware, why should people be forever saddled with unwanted software, stub or otherwise?

And while Facebook is not the only such permanent app around (Apple got a lot of historical blowback for its own undeleteable apps, for instance, finally adding the ability to delete some built-in apps with iOS 12), it’s an especially egregious example given the company’s long and storied privacy-hostile history.

Consumers who do not want their digital activity and location surveilled by the people-profiling giant will likely crave the peace of mind of not having any form of Facebook app, stub or otherwise, taking up space on their device.

But an unknown number of Android users are now finding out they don’t have that option.

Not cool, Facebook, not cool.

Another interesting question the matter raises is how permanent Facebook pre-installs are counted in Facebook’s user metrics, and indeed for ad targeting purposes.

In recent years, the company has had to revise its ad metrics several times. So it’s valid to wonder whether a disabled Facebook app pre-install is being properly accounted for by the company (i.e. as minus one pair of eyeballs for its ad targeting empire) or not.

We asked Facebook about this point, but at the time of writing it declined to comment beyond its existing statements to Bloomberg.

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The year social networks were no longer social

Posted by | 2018 Year in Review, Apps, Mobile, Social, social media, social network, Tech fatigue | No Comments

The term “social network” has become a meaningless association of words. Pair those two words and it becomes a tech category, the equivalent of a single term to define a group of products.

But are social networks even social anymore? If you have a feeling of tech fatigue when you open the Facebook app, you’re not alone. Watching distant cousins fight about politics in a comment thread is no longer fun.

Chances are you have dozens, hundreds or maybe thousands of friends and followers across multiple platforms. But those crowded places have never felt so empty.

It doesn’t mean that you should move to the woods and talk with animals. And Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn won’t collapse overnight. They have intrinsic value with other features — social graphs, digital CVs, organizing events…

But the concept of wide networks of social ties with an element of broadcasting is dead.

From interest-based communities to your lousy neighbor

If you’ve been active on the web for long enough, you may have fond memories of internet forums. Maybe you were a fan of video games, Harry Potter or painting.

Fragmentation was key. You could be active on multiple forums and you didn’t have to mention your other passions. Over time, you’d see the same names come up again and again on your favorite forum. You’d create your own running jokes, discover things together, laugh, cry and feel something.

When I was a teenager, I was active on multiple forums. I remember posting thousands of messages a year and getting to know new people. It felt like hanging out with a welcoming group of friends because you shared the same passions.

It wasn’t just fake internet relationships. I met “IRL” with fellow internet friends quite a few times. One day, I remember browsing the list of threads and learning about someone’s passing. Their significant other posted a short message because the forum meant a lot to this person.

Most of the time, I didn’t know the identities of the persons talking with me. We were all using nicknames and put tidbits of information in bios — “Stuttgart, Germany” or “train ticket inspector.”

And then, Facebook happened. At first, it was also all about interest-based communities — attending the same college is a shared interest, after all. Then, they opened it up to everyone to scale beyond universities.

When you look at your list of friends, they are your Facebook friends not because you share a hobby, but because you’ve know them for a while.

Facebook constantly pushes you to add more friends with the infamous “People you may know” feature. Knowing someone is one thing, but having things to talk about is another.

So here we are, with your lousy neighbor sharing a sexist joke in your Facebook feed.

As social networks become bigger, content becomes garbage.

Facebook’s social graph is broken by design. Putting names and faces on people made friend requests emotionally charged. You can’t say no to your high school best friend, even if you haven’t seen her in five years.

It used to be okay to leave friends behind. It used to be okay to forget about people. But the fact that it’s possible to stay in touch with social networks have made those things socially unacceptable.

Too big to succeed

One of the key pillars of social networks is the broadcasting feature. You can write a message, share a photo, make a story and broadcast them to your friends and followers.

But broadcasting isn’t scalable.

Most social networks are now publicly traded companies — they’re always chasing growth. Growth means more revenue and revenue means that users need to see more ads.

The best way to shove more ads down your throat is to make you spend more time on a service. If you watch multiple YouTube videos, you’re going to see more pre-roll ads. And there are two ways to make you spend more time on a social network — making you come back more often and making you stay longer each time you visit.

And 2018 has been the year of cheap tricks and dark pattern design. In order to make you come more often, companies now send you FOMO-driven notifications with incomplete, disproportionate information.

I created a new Facebook account just so I could access an Oculus thing. Despite having no friends, apparently I’m really missing out on a whole lot of “fun” activity from all these specifically-named people I don’t know. And I have two notifications already! “Cool.” pic.twitter.com/uBHicji3pj

— Nick Farina (@nfarina) October 1, 2018

This isn’t just about opening an app. Social networks now want to direct you to other parts of the service. Why don’t you click on this bright orange banner to open IGTV? Look at this shiny button! Look! Look!

This navigation bar makes no sense Facebook. Also it’s an insult to trick people’s brains with animated ✨ to foster engagement pic.twitter.com/eMGxbh7r4a

— Romain Dillet 🙃 (@romaindillet) November 27, 2018

And then, there’s all the gamification, algorithm-driven recommendations and other Skinner box mechanisms. That tiny peak of adrenaline you get when you refresh your feed, even if it only happens once per week, is what’s going to make you come back again and again.

Don’t forget that Netflix wanted to give kids digital badges if they completed a season. The company has since realized that it was going too far. Still, U.S. adults now spend nearly six hours per day consuming digital media — and phones represent more than half of that usage.

Given that social networks need to give you something new every time, they want you to follow as many people as possible, subscribe to every YouTube channel you can. This way, every time you come back, there’s something new.

Algorithms recommend some content based on engagement, and guess what? The most outrageous, polarizing content always ends up at the top of the pile.

I’m not going to talk about fake news or the fact that YouTubers now all write titles in ALL CAPS to grab your attention. That’s a topic for another article. But YouTube shouldn’t be surprised that Logan Paul filmed a suicide victim in Japan to drive engagement and trick the algorithm.

In other words, as social networks become bigger, content becomes garbage.

Private communities

Centralization is always followed by decentralization. Now that we’ve reached a social network dead end, it’s time to build our own digital house.

Group messaging has been key when it comes to staying in touch with long-distance family members. But you can create your own interest-based groups and talk about things you’re passionate about with people who care about those things.

Social networks that haven’t become too big still have an opportunity to pivot. It’s time to make them more about close relationships and add useful features to talk with your best friends and close ones.

And if you have interesting things to say, do it on your own terms. Create a blog instead of signing up to Medium. This way, Medium won’t force your readers to sign up when they want to read your words.

If you spend your vacation crafting the perfect Instagram story, you should be more cynical about it. Either you want to make a career out of it and become an Instagram star, or you should consider sending photos and videos to your communities directly. Otherwise, you’re just participating in a rotten system.

If you want to comment on politics and life in general, you should consider talking about those topics with people surrounding you, not your friends on Facebook.

Put your phone back in your pocket and start a conversation. You might end up discussing for hours without even thinking about the red dots on all your app icons.

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Popular avatar app Boomoji exposed millions of users’ contact lists and location data

Posted by | Android, california, database, General Data Protection Regulation, privacy, Security, social media, Software, spokesperson, web browser | No Comments

Popular animated avatar creator app Boomoji, with more than five million users across the world, exposed the personal data of its entire user base after it failed to put passwords on two of its internet-facing databases.

The China-based app developer left the ElasticSearch databases online without passwords — a U.S.-based database for its international customers and a Hong Kong-based database containing mostly Chinese users’ data in an effort to comply with China’s data security laws, which requires Chinese citizens’ data to be located on servers inside the country.

Anyone who knew where to look could access, edit or delete the database using their web browser. And, because the database was listed on Shodan, a search engine for exposed devices and databases, they were easily found with a few keywords.

After TechCrunch reached out, Boomoji pulled the two databases offline. “These two accounts were made by us for testing purposes,” said an unnamed Boomoji spokesperson in an email.

But that isn’t true.

The database contained records on all of the company’s iOS and Android users — some 5.3 million users as of this week. Each record contained their username, gender, country and phone type.

Each record also included a user’s unique Boomoji ID, which was linked to other tables in the database. Those other tables included if and which school they go to — a feature Boomoji touts as a way for users to get in touch with their fellow students. That unique ID also included the precise geolocation of more than 375,000 users that had allowed the app to know their location at any given time.

Worse, the database contained every phone book entry of every user who had allowed the app access to their contacts.

One table had more than 125 million contacts, including their names (as written in a user’s phone book) and their phone numbers. Each record was linked to a Boomoji’s unique ID, making it relatively easy to know whose contact list belonged to whom.

Even if you didn’t use the app, anyone who has your phone number stored on their device and used the app more than likely uploaded your number to Boomoji’s database. To our knowledge, there’s no way to opt out or have your information deleted.

Given Boomoji’s response, we verified the contents of the database by downloading the app on a dedicated iPhone using a throwaway phone number, containing a few dummy, but easy-to-search contact list entries. To find friends, the app matches your contacts with those registered with the app in its database. When we were prompted to allow the app access to our contacts list, the entire dummy contact list was uploaded instantly — and viewable in the database.

So long as the app was installed and had access to the contacts, new phone numbers would be automatically uploaded.

Yet, none of the data was encrypted. All of the data was stored in plaintext.

Although Boomoji is based in China, it claims to follow California state law, where data protection and privacy rules are some of the strongest in the U.S. We asked Boomoji if it has or plans to inform California’s attorney general of the exposure as required by state law, but the company did not answer.

Given the vast amount of European users’ information in the database, the company may also face penalties under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which can impose fines of up to four percent of the company’s global annual revenue for serious breaches.

But given its China-based presence, it’s not clear, however, what actionable repercussions the company could face.

This is the latest in a series of exposures involving ElasticSearch instances, a popular open source search and database software. In recent weeks, several high-profile data exposures have been reported as a result of companies’ failure to practice basic data security measures — including Urban Massage exposing its own customer database, Mindbody-owned FitMetrix forgetting to put a password on its servers and Voxox, a communications company, which leaked phone numbers and two-factor codes on millions of unsuspecting users.


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Limiting social media use reduced loneliness and depression in new experiment

Posted by | depression, Facebook, Health, instagram, Mobile, psychology, science, Snapchat, Social, social media | No Comments

The idea that social media can be harmful to our mental and emotional well-being is not a new one, but little has been done by researchers to directly measure the effect; surveys and correlative studies are at best suggestive. A new experimental study out of Penn State, however, directly links more social media use to worse emotional states, and less use to better.

To be clear on the terminology here, a simple survey might ask people to self-report that using Instagram makes them feel bad. A correlative study would, for example, find that people who report more social media use are more likely to also experience depression. An experimental study compares the results from an experimental group with their behavior systematically modified, and a control group that’s allowed to do whatever they want.

This study, led by Melissa Hunt at Penn State’s psychology department, is the latter — which despite intense interest in this field and phenomenon is quite rare. The researchers only identified two other experimental studies, both of which only addressed Facebook use.

One hundred and forty-three students from the school were monitored for three weeks after being assigned to either limit their social media use to about 10 minutes per app (Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram) per day or continue using it as they normally would. They were monitored for a baseline before the experimental period and assessed weekly on a variety of standard tests for depression, social support and so on. Social media usage was monitored via the iOS battery use screen, which shows app use.

The results are clear. As the paper, published in the latest Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, puts it:

The limited use group showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression over three weeks compared to the control group. Both groups showed significant decreases in anxiety and fear of missing out over baseline, suggesting a benefit of increased self-monitoring.

Our findings strongly suggest that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in well-being.

It’s not the final word in this, however. Some scores did not see improvement, such as self-esteem and social support. And later follow-ups to see if feelings reverted or habit changes were less than temporary were limited because most of the subjects couldn’t be compelled to return. (Psychology, often summarized as “the study of undergraduates,” relies on student volunteers who have no reason to take part except for course credit, and once that’s given, they’re out.)

That said, it’s a straightforward causal link between limiting social media use and improving some aspects of emotional and social health. The exact nature of the link, however, is something at which Hunt could only speculate:

Some of the existing literature on social media suggests there’s an enormous amount of social comparison that happens. When you look at other people’s lives, particularly on Instagram, it’s easy to conclude that everyone else’s life is cooler or better than yours.

When you’re not busy getting sucked into clickbait social media, you’re actually spending more time on things that are more likely to make you feel better about your life.

The researchers acknowledge the limited nature of their study and suggest numerous directions for colleagues in the field to take it from here. A more diverse population, for instance, or including more social media platforms. Longer experimental times and comprehensive follow-ups well after the experiment would help, as well.

The 30-minute limit was chosen as a conveniently measurable one, but the team does not intend to say that it is by any means the “correct” amount. Perhaps half or twice as much time would yield similar or even better results, they suggest: “It may be that there is an optimal level of use (similar to a dose response curve) that could be determined.”

Until then, we can use common sense, Hunt suggested: “In general, I would say, put your phone down and be with the people in your life.”

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WhatsApp is finally adding stickers

Posted by | Android, Apps, Brian Acton, computing, Facebook, Jan Koum, social media, social network, Software, sticker, WhatsApp | No Comments

WhatsApp is finally adding stickers to its hugely popular messaging app. The company said today that support for stickers will roll out to Android and iOS users over “the coming weeks.”

Initially, the app’s 1.5 billion users will have a seemingly limited selection with the first packs provided by WhatsApp’s own design team and some “other artists” chosen by the company.

However, that’s likely to change in the future since WhatsApp will allow anyone to add stickers that can be used inside the app.

It’s taking an interesting route to enabling that. Would-be sticker artists will need to publish their packs as an app on the Google Play or Apple App Store. From there, users can download the apps and then make use of the packs inside WhatsApp. The company has provided a template that it claims requires “minimal development or coding experience.”

A full guide on the sticker submission process can be found here.

Other messaging apps have taken a different approach.

Line — which pioneered the concept of stickers — takes a very curated approach, with sticker packs approved by the company itself. That walled garden approach has helped it curate the best selection of stickers, many of which are paid. That’s nothing to be scoffed as since Line makes hundreds of millions of dollars from sticker purchases every year.

Telegram has the most open sticker platform. Anyone can make and publish stickers in just minutes, but that leads to its own problems such as plagiarism and differing levels of quality.

Either way, WhatsApp’s move into stickers is very much a Facebook -led move.

The service’s founders — Jan Koum and Brian Acton — have both left the social network under controversial terms, at least according to Acton himself.

Prior to the acquisition deal, both men were very vocally opposed to advertising, games and other functions. They deemed them trivial and believed that they detracted from the core focus of WhatsApp: simple and fast messaging.

At this point, their ethical ship has long since sailed with Facebook introducing features like a business service and ad integrations with Facebook, while there are plans to roll out payments and other features that Koum and Acton would no doubt have railed against. It’s enough to make you vomit over the side of your yacht in the Mediterranean.

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Facebook’s ex-CSO, Alex Stamos, defends its decision to inject ads in WhatsApp

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Alex Stamos, Android, Apple, Apps, Brian Acton, e2e encryption, encryption, Facebook, Instant Messaging, Jan Koum, privacy, Sheryl Sandberg, signal foundation, Signal Protocol, Social, social media, WhatsApp | No Comments

Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, who left the company this summer to take up a role in academia, has made a contribution to what’s sometimes couched as a debate about how to monetize (and thus sustain) commercial end-to-end encrypted messaging platforms in order that the privacy benefits they otherwise offer can be as widely spread as possible.

Stamos made the comments via Twitter, where he said he was indirectly responding to the fallout from a Forbes interview with WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton — in which Acton hit at out at his former employer for being greedy in its approach to generating revenue off of the famously anti-ads messaging platform.

Both WhatsApp founders’ exits from Facebook has been blamed on disagreements over monetization. (Jan Koum left some months after Acton.)

In the interview, Acton said he suggested Facebook management apply a simple business model atop WhatsApp, such as metered messaging for all users after a set number of free messages. But that management pushed back — with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg telling him they needed a monetization method that generates greater revenue “scale”.

And while Stamos has avoided making critical remarks about Acton (unlike some current Facebook staffers), he clearly wants to lend his weight to the notion that some kind of trade-off is necessary in order for end-to-end encryption to be commercially viable (and thus for the greater good (of messaging privacy) to prevail); and therefore his tacit support to Facebook and its approach to making money off of a robustly encrypted platform.

Stamos’ own departure from the fb mothership was hardly under such acrimonious terms as Acton, though he has had his own disagreements with the leadership team — as set out in a memo he sent earlier this year that was obtained by BuzzFeed. So his support for Facebook combining e2e and ads perhaps counts for something, though isn’t really surprising given the seat he occupied at the company for several years, and his always fierce defence of WhatsApp encryption.

(Another characteristic concern that also surfaces in Stamos’ Twitter thread is the need to keep the technology legal, in the face of government attempts to backdoor encryption, which he says will require “accepting the inevitable downsides of giving people unfettered communications”.)

I don’t want to weigh into the personal side of the WhatsApp vs Facebook fight, as there are people I respect on both sides, but I do want to use this as an opportunity to talk about the future of end-to-end encryption. (1/13)

— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) September 26, 2018

This summer Facebook confirmed that, from next year, ads will be injected into WhatsApp statuses (aka the app’s Stories clone). So it is indeed bringing ads to the famously anti-ads messaging platform.

For several years the company has also been moving towards positioning WhatsApp as a business messaging platform to connect companies with potential customers — and it says it plans to meter those messages, also from next year.

So there are two strands to its revenue generating playbook atop WhatsApp’s e2e encrypted messaging platform. Both with knock-on impacts on privacy, given Facebook targets ads and marketing content by profiling users by harvesting their personal data.

This means that while WhatsApp’s e2e encryption means Facebook literally cannot read WhatsApp users’ messages, it is ‘circumventing’ the technology (for ad-targeting purposes) by linking accounts across different services it owns — using people’s digital identities across its product portfolio (and beyond) as a sort of ‘trojan horse’ to negate the messaging privacy it affords them on WhatsApp.

Facebook is using different technical methods (including the very low-tech method of phone number matching) to link WhatsApp user and Facebook accounts. Once it’s been able to match a Facebook user to a WhatsApp account it can then connect what’s very likely to be a well fleshed out Facebook profile with a WhatsApp account that nonetheless contains messages it can’t read. So it’s both respecting and eroding user privacy.

This approach means Facebook can carry out its ad targeting activities across both messaging platforms (as it will from next year). And do so without having to literally read messages being sent by WhatsApp users.

As trade offs go, it’s a clearly a big one — and one that’s got Facebook into regulatory trouble in Europe.

It is also, at least in Stamos’ view, a trade off that’s worth it for the ‘greater good’ of message content remaining strongly encrypted and therefore unreadable. Even if Facebook now knows pretty much everything about the sender, and can access any unencrypted messages they sent using its other social products.

In his Twitter thread Stamos argues that “if we want that right to be extended to people around the world, that means that E2E encryption needs to be deployed inside of multi-billion user platforms”, which he says means: “We need to find a sustainable business model for professionally-run E2E encrypted communication platforms.”

On the sustainable business model front he argues that two models “currently fit the bill” — either Apple’s iMessage or Facebook-owned WhatsApp. Though he doesn’t go into any detail on why he believes only those two are sustainable.

He does say he’s discounting the Acton-backed alternative, Signal, which now operates via a not-for-profit (the Signal Foundation) — suggesting that rival messaging app is “unlikely to hit 1B users”.

In passing he also throws it out there that Signal is “subsidized, indirectly, by FB ads” — i.e. because Facebook pays a licensing fee for use of the underlying Signal Protocol used to power WhatsApp’s e2e encryption. (So his slightly shade-throwing subtext is that privacy purists are still benefiting from a Facebook sugardaddy.)

Then he gets to the meat of his argument in defence of Facebook-owned (and monetized) WhatsApp — pointing out that Apple’s sustainable business model does not reach every mobile user, given its hardware is priced at a premium. Whereas WhatsApp running on a cheap Android handset ($50 or, perhaps even $30 in future) can.

Other encrypted messaging apps can also of course run on Android but presumably Stamos would argue they’re not professionally run.

“I think it is easy to underestimate how radical WhatsApp’s decision to deploy E2E was,” he writes. “Acton and Koum, with Zuck’s blessing, jumped off a bridge with the goal of building a monetization parachute on the way down. FB has a lot of money, so it was a very tall bridge, but it is foolish to expect that FB shareholders are going to subsidize a free text/voice/video global communications network forever. Eventually, WhatsApp is going to need to generate revenue.

“This could come from directly charging for the service, it could come from advertising, it could come from a WeChat-like services play. The first is very hard across countries, the latter two are complicated by E2E.”

“I can’t speak to the various options that have been floated around, or the arguments between WA and FB, but those of us who care about privacy shouldn’t see WhatsApp monetization as something evil,” he adds. “In fact, we should want WA to demonstrate that E2E and revenue are compatible. That’s the only way E2E will become a sustainable feature of massive, non-niche technology platforms.”

Stamos is certainly right that Apple’s iMessage cannot reach every mobile user, given the premium cost of Apple hardware.

Though he elides the important role that second hand Apple devices play in helping to reduce the barrier to entry to Apple’s pro-privacy technology — a role Apple is actively encouraging via support for older devices (and by its own services business expansion which extends its model so that support for older versions of iOS (and thus secondhand iPhones) is also commercially sustainable).

Robust encryption only being possible via multi-billion user platforms essentially boils down to a usability argument by Stamos — which is to suggest that mainstream app users will simply not seek encryption out unless it’s plated up for them in a way they don’t even notice it’s there.

The follow on conclusion is then that only a well-resourced giant like Facebook has the resources to maintain and serve this different tech up to the masses.

There’s certainly substance in that point. But the wider question is whether or not the privacy trade offs that Facebook’s monetization methods of WhatsApp entail, by linking Facebook and WhatsApp accounts and also, therefore, looping in various less than transparent data-harvest methods it uses to gather intelligence on web users generally, substantially erodes the value of the e2e encryption that is now being bundled with Facebook’s ad targeting people surveillance. And so used as a selling aid for otherwise privacy eroding practices.

Yes WhatsApp users’ messages will remain private, thanks to Facebook funding the necessary e2e encryption. But the price users are having to pay is very likely still their personal privacy.

And at that point the argument really becomes about how much profit a commercial entity should be able to extract off of a product that’s being marketed as securely encrypted and thus ‘pro-privacy’? How much revenue “scale” is reasonable or unreasonable in that scenario?

Other business models are possible, which was Acton’s point. But likely less profitable. And therein lies the rub where Facebook is concerned.

How much money should any company be required to leave on the table, as Acton did when he left Facebook without the rest of his unvested shares, in order to be able to monetize a technology that’s bound up so tightly with notions of privacy?

Acton wanted Facebook to agree to make as much money as it could without users having to pay it with their privacy. But Facebook’s management team said no. That’s why he’s calling them greedy.

Stamos doesn’t engage with that more nuanced point. He just writes: “It is foolish to expect that FB shareholders are going to subsidize a free text/voice/video global communications network forever. Eventually, WhatsApp is going to need to generate revenue” — thereby collapsing the revenue argument into an all or nothing binary without explaining why it has to be that way.

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Movado Group acquires watch startup MVMT

Posted by | Clothing, Facebook, Fashion, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, lacoste, movado, MVMT, social media, Startups, TC, Tommy Hilfiger, Wearables | No Comments

The Movado Group, which sells multiple brands, including Lacoste, Tommy Hilfiger and Hugo Boss, has purchased MVMT, a small watch company founded by Jacob Kassan and Kramer LaPlante in 2013. The company, which advertised heavily on Facebook, logged $71 million in revenue in 2017. Movado purchased the company for $100 million.

“The acquisition of MVMT will provide us greater access to millennials and advances our Digital Center of Excellence initiative with the addition of a powerful brand managed by a successful team of highly creative, passionate and talented individuals,” Movado Chief Executive Efraim Grinberg said.

MVMT makes simple watches for the millennial market in the vein of Fossil or Daniel Wellington. However, the company carved out a niche by advertising heavily on social media and being one of the first microbrands with a solid online presence.

“It provides an opportunity to Movado Group’s portfolio as MVMT continues to cross-sell products within its existing portfolio, expand product offerings within its core categories of watches, sunglasses and accessories, and grow its presence in new markets through its direct-to-consumer and wholesale business,” said Grinberg.

MVMT is well-known as a “fashion brand,” namely a brand that sells cheaper quartz watches that are sold on style versus complexity or cost. Their pieces include standard three-handed models and newer quartz chronographs.

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UK report highlights changing gadget habits — and our need for an online fix

Posted by | Amazon, BBC, Brits, computing, digital media, eCommerce, Europe, Gadgets, generation z, Google, Instant Messaging, internet access, Mobile, mobile phone, ofcom, online purchases, online shopping, smartphone, smartphones, social media, United Kingdom | No Comments

A look back at the past decade of consumer technology use in the UK has shone a light on changing gadget habits, underlining how Brits have gone from being smartphone dabblers back in 2008 when a top-of-the-range smartphone cost ~£500 to true addicts in today’s £1k+ premium smartphone era.

The report also highlights what seems to be, at times, a conflicted relationship between Brits and the Internet.

While nine in ten people in the UK have home access to the Internet, here in 2018, some web users report feeling being online is a time-sink or a constraint on their freedom.

But even more said they feel lost or bored without it.

Over the past decade the Internet looks to have consolidated its grip on the spacetime that boredom occupied for the less connected generations that came before.

The overview comes via regulator Ofcom’s 2018 Communications Market report. The full report commenting on key market developments in the country’s communications sector is a meaty, stat and chart-filled read.

The regulator has also produced a 30-slide interactive version this year.

Commenting on the report findings in a statement, Ian Macrae, Ofcom’s director of market intelligence, said: “Over the last decade, people’s lives have been transformed by the rise of the smartphone, together with better access to the Internet and new services. Whether it’s working flexibly, keeping up with current affairs or shopping online, we can do more on the move than ever before.

“But while people appreciate their smartphone as their constant companion, some are finding themselves feeling overloaded when online, or frustrated when they’re not.”

We’ve pulled out some highlights from the report below…

  • Less than a fifth (17%) of UK citizens owned a smartphone a decade ago; the figure now stands at 78% — and a full 95% of 16-24 year-olds. So, yeah, kids don’t get called digital natives for nothin’
  • People in the UK check their smartphones, on average, every 12 minutes of the waking day. (‘Digital wellbeing’ tools clearly have their work cut out to kick against this grain… )
  • Ofcom found that two in five adults (40%) first look at their phone within five minutes of waking up (rising to 65% of the under 35s). While around a third (37%) of adults check their phones five minutes before lights out (again rising to 60% of under-35s). Shame it didn’t also ask how well people are sleeping
  • Contrary to a decade ago, most UK citizens say they need and expect a constant Internet connection wherever they go. Two thirds of adults (64%) say it’s an essential part of their life. One in five adults (19%) say they spend more than 40 hours a week online, up from 5% just over ten years ago
  • Three quarters (74%) of people say being online keeps them close to friends and family. Two fifths (41%) say it enables them to work more flexibly

Smartphone screen addicts, much?

  • Seventy-two per cent of adults say their smartphone is their most important device for accessing the Internet; 71% say they never turn off their phone; and 78% say they could not live without it
  • Ofcom found the amount of time Brits spend making phone calls from mobiles has fallen for the first time — using a mobile for phone calls is only considered important by 75% of smartphone users vs 92% who consider web browsing on a smartphone to be important (and indeed the proportion of people accessing the Internet on their mobile has increased from 20% almost a decade ago to 72% in 2018)
  • The average amount of time spent online on a smartphone is 2 hours 28 minutes per day. This rises to 3 hours 14 minutes among 18-24s

Social and emotional friction, plus the generation gap…

  • On the irritation front, three quarters of people (76%) find it annoying when someone is listening to music, watching videos or playing games loudly on public transport; while an impressive 81% object to people using their phone during meal times
  • TV is another matter though. The majority (53%) of adults say they are usually on their phone while watching TV with others. There’s a generation gap related to social acceptance of this though: With a majority (62%) of people over the age of 55 thinking it’s unacceptable — dropping to just two in ten (21%) among those aged 18-34
  • Ofcom also found that significant numbers of people saying the online experience has negative effects. Fifteen per cent agree it makes them feel they are always at work, and more than half (54%) admit that connected devices interrupt face-to-face conversations with friends and family — which does offer a useful counterpoint to social media giant’s shiny marketing claims that their platforms ‘connect people’ (the truth is more they both connect & disconnect). While more than two in five (43%) also admit to spending too much time online
  • Around a third of people say they feel either cut off (34%) or lost (29%) without the Internet, and if they can’t get online, 17% say they find it stressful. Half of all UK adults (50%) say their life would be boring if they could not access the Internet 
  • On the flip side, a smaller proportion of UK citizens view a lack of Internet access in a positive light. One in ten says they feel more productive offline (interestingly this rises to 15% for 18-34 year-olds); while 10% say they find it liberating; and 16% feel less distracted

The impact of (multifaceted and increasingly powerful and capable) smartphones can also be seen on some other types of gadgets. Though TV screens continue to compel Brits (possibly because they feel it’s okay to keep using their smartphones while sitting in front of a bigger screen… )

  • Ofcom says ownership of tablets (58% of UK households) and games consoles (44% of UK adults) has plateaued in the last three years
  • Desktop PC ownership has declined majorly over the past decade — from a large majority (69%) of households with access in 2008 to less than a third (28%) in 2018
  • As of 2017, smart TVs were in 42% of households — up from just 5% in 2012
  • Smart speakers weren’t around in 2008 but they’ve now carved out a space in 13% of UK households
  • One in five households (20%) report having some wearable tech (smart watches, fitness trackers). So smart speakers look to be fast catching up with fitness bands

BBC mightier than Amazon

  • BBC website visitor numbers overtook those of Amazon in the UK in 2018. Ofcom found the BBC had the third-highest number of users after Google and Facebook
  • Ofcom also found that six in ten people have used next-day delivery for online purchases, but only three in ten have used same-day delivery in 2018. So most Brits are, seemingly, content to wait until tomorrow for ecommerce purchases — rather than demanding their stuff right now

What else are UK citizens getting up to online? More of a spread of stuff than ever, it would appear…

  • Less general browsing/surfing than last year, though it’s still the most popular reported use for Internet activity (69% saying they’ve done this in the past week vs 80% who reported the same in 2017)
  • Sending and receiving email is also still a big deal — but also on the slide (66% reporting doing this in the past week vs 76% in 2017)
  • Social media use is another popular but slightly less so use-case than last year (50% in 2017 down to 45% in 2018). (Though Twitter bucks the trend with a percentage point usage bump (13% -> 14%) though it’s far less popular overall)
  • Instant messaging frequency also dropped a bit (46% -> 41%)
  • As did TV/video viewing online (40% -> 36%), including for watching short video clips (31% to 28%)
  • Online shopping has also dropped a bit in frequency (48% -> 44%)
  • But accessing news has remained constant (36%)
  • Finding health information has seen marginal slight growth (22% -> 23%); ditto has finding/downloading information for work/college (32% -> 33%); using local council/government services (21% -> 23%); and playing games online/interactively (17% -> 18%)
  • Streaming audio services have got a bit more popular (podcasts, we must presume), with 15% reporting using them in the past week in 2017 up to 19% in 2018. Listening to the radio online is also up (13% -> 15%)
  • However uploading/adding content to the Internet has got a bit less popular, though (17% to 15%)

One more thing: Women in the UK are bigger Internet fans than men.

Perhaps contrary to some people’s expectations, women in the UK spend more time online on average than men across almost all age groups, with the sole exception being the over 55s (where the time difference is pretty marginal)…

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Chat app Line gets serious about gaming with its latest acquisition

Posted by | Apps, Asia, computing, Facebook, facebook messenger, Fundings & Exits, Gaming, Indonesia, iPhone, iTunes, Japan, line, messaging apps, Messenger, Nintendo, payments, ride hailing, social media, Software, taiwan, Thailand, WhatsApp, world wide web | No Comments

Line, the company best-known for its popular Asian messaging app, is doubling down on games after it acquired a controlling stake in Korean studio NextFloor for an undisclosed amount.

NextFloor, which has produced titles like Dragon Flight and Destiny Child, will be merged with Line’s games division to form the Line Games subsidiary. Dragon Flight has racked up 14 million users since its 2012 launch — it clocked $1 million in daily revenue at peak. Destiny Child, a newer release in 2016, topped the charts in Korea and has been popular in Japan, North America and beyond.

Line’s own games are focused on its messaging app, which gives them access to social features such as friend graphs, and they have helped the company become a revenue generation machine. Alongside income from its booming sticker business, in-app purchases within games made Line Japan’s highest-earning non-game app publisher last year, according to App Annie, and the fourth highest worldwide. For some insight into how prolific it has been over the years, Line is ranked as the sixth highest earning iPhone app of all time.

But, despite revenue success, Line has struggled to become a global messaging giant. The big guns WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger have in excess of one billion monthly users each, while Line has been stuck around the 200 million mark for some time. Most of its numbers are from just four countries: Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia. While it has been able to tap those markets with additional services like ride-hailing and payments, it is certainly under pressure from those more internationally successful competitors.

With that in mind, doubling down on games makes sense and Line said it plans to focus on non-mobile platforms, which will include the Nintendo Switch among others consoles, from the second half of this year.

Line went public in 2016 via a dual U.S.-Japan IPO that raised over $1 billion.

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