May 092017
 
How do mobile phone users reduce costs

Last week Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced the social media platform will be hiring three thousand content moderators following a string of shocking incidents on the company’s live streaming service.

Facebook were the most successful of the generation of businesses promising algorithms and the user community – coupled with common sense – would act as gatekeepers.

That was handy for their business models, as the reduced administration costs would mean a much more scalable and profitable business.

Managing users’ sins

Along with Google, AirBnB and Uber, Facebook found that relying on users’ feedback and their own algorithms wasn’t enough to cover the myriad of sins humans commit or one in a million edge cases which occur a thousand times a day when you have a billion daily users.

Even the biggest of the web2.0 companies, Google, found their core business being shaken as the limits of algorithmic advertising were explored and advertisers didn’t like where their brands were appearing.

Most striking was AirBnB who quickly found ignoring aggrieved landlords didn’t work when you’re a billion dollar company. Uber, Facebook and Google have similarly found the “we’re just an agnostic distribution platform” doesn’t fly when you’re boasting millions of users.

Freelancer and the sugar daddies

Which brings us to Freelancer, the labour sites were always problematic in this space as services are rife with ripoffs, misunderstandings and inexperienced operators – on both the seller and buyer side.

Another problem though which seems to be appearing is the advertising of adult services on this site, such as this advert which appears to be either an advert for a sugar daddy or a webcam performer – the mangled English makes it hard to tell.

Bizarrely a Freelancer administrator has removed some of the advert’s content but has left the post itself up.

Clicking on the related links brings up a whole range of strange projects including someone who needs a photoshop expert to insert an individual into sex photographs.

Holding the service harmless

It’s hard to say whether these posts comply with Freelancer’s Terms and Conditions as they are the usual vaguely written screeds seeking to shift all responsibility away from the company which have become the norm with online services.

The reputational risk to Freelancer though is real, as company listed on the Australian Stock Exchange it has public investor base and, given its competitive market, it has to appear respectable to user – becoming a Tindr for adult performers – is probably not where organisation would like to be positioned.

Hitting the profit margin

Ultimately though Freelancer’s problem in this space is the same as most online platform services, the promise of negligible administrative costs is an illusion as managing a large user base brings up legal, regulatory, reputational and even political risks as Facebook is finding.

Like many of the early promises of the internet, the idea of a hands off platform where users do the work while owners sit back and pocket profits has gone. Where there’s people and edge cases, there’s risk and those profits may not be as great as they appear.

Mar 022017
 
how are we using data in our business

Last week I wrote a piece for Fairfax Metro – the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age – looking at how government agencies and private credit companies are mining data.

That story sparked a range of interest with my doing a twenty minute segment on ABC Brisbane today on the topic which morphed into a deeper discussion on surveillance, particularly with the Australian government’s ‘metadata’ laws.

I’ll also be talking on ABC Radio Perth on Monday, March 6 about this story at 6.15am local time (9.15am Sydney and Melbourne).

In the wake of the Australian government’s Centrelink scandala national disgrace that is only getting worse – it’s worthwhile discussing exactly what data is being gathered and how it is being used.

The answer is almost everything with commercial operators like Experian pulling in data from sources ranging from credit card applications to social media services although store loyalty cards remain the richest information source.

As the Australian Tax Office spokesperson pointed out, none of this is particularly new as they have been collecting bank deposit data since the Federal government introduced income taxes in the 1930s.

The arrival of computers in 1960s changed the scale and scope of tax offices’ abilities to track citizens’ finances and gave rise to the major commercial credit bureaus.

With the explosion of personal electronics and internet connected devices in recent years along with increased surveillance powers being granted to government and private agencies, that monitoring is only going to grow.

The best citizens can expect is to have their data protected and respected with financial providers only using what is ethical and relevant in determining our access to banking and insurance products.

Politically the only way to ensure that is to make it clear through the ballot box, the question is do we care enough?

Nov 032016
 
the taxi industry is being disrupted by mobile apps

It’s often easy to underestimate the effects of regulation on the development of industries and innovation.

Around the world jurisdictions are struggling with balancing regulation and innovation, last week in the UK Uber lost an employment tribunal case 0ver the employment status of its employees . While in Switzerland the country is struggling with rules over Blockchain as the nation tries to build a ‘Crypto Valley’.

Striking the right balance in regulation isn’t trivial. As the development of Silicon Valley’s finance models shows, government rules were critical to how the venture capital sector has evolved.

The US Small Business Investment Act of 1958 was the first step in the sector’s development with the creation of “Small Business Investment Companies” (SBICs) to fund and manage smaller enterprises in the United States. In 1978 the sector received a greater boost when pension funds were allowed to invest in the sector.

We’re now seeing a similar thing happening in the US where the Digital Millennium Copyright Act – a law passed to protect the Twentieth Century business models of record companies and movie studios – is being softened to allow end users to examine and maintain the software on the devices they own.

If the trial is allowed to become permanent, it will almost certainly see a far freer and innovative software environment which may even help overcome some of the security problems with the Internet of Things.

Often though that balance isn’t correctly struck and recently we’ve seen many poor decisions that have concentrated power, particularly in the financial and airline industries where governments have allowed huge conglomerates to dominate their markets which stifles innovation and growth.

Those innovation stifling regulations though don’t guarantee companies’ survival as the taxi industry discovered. Despite reams of laws and regulations protecting their licenses, Uber effectively blew up the business as they offered travellers a far better option to the often poor services provided by local cab companies.

Regulation is always going to be a balancing act between protecting the community’s interest and allowing business and society to evolve. It’s one reason why as citizens and taxpayers we need to be demanding our governments are open and transparent in their dealings and law making.

Aug 052016
 
Computer security is evolving in a time of social media

One of the sad truths of today’s online world is that dissidents, lawyers and journalists are ripe targets for governments that want to suppress who they perceive to be their enemies.

At the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas today, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Eva Galperin and Cooper Quintin gave a demonstration of just what lengths governments will go in hacking their opponents.

In When Governments Attack, Galperin and Quintin illustrated how Syria, Ethiopia and Vietnam are all countries whose hacking campaigns they’ve encountered but the particular focus was on Operational Menul, which resolved around the Kazakhstan regime’s attacks on its opponents.

The government of Nursultan Nazarbayev is well known for its corruption, intolerance and global harassment of its opponents as Quintin and Galperin showed. What’s of particular interest to them is the use of off the shelf malware tools.

Using cheap commodity tools has the advantage of not leaving distinctive patterns that may give investigators hints to who has developed the malware. The downside of course is that most anti-viruses can detect these tools.

For the regimes this is not such a problem as most of their targets are relatively unsophisticated, as most of the activists, lawyers and journalists targeted by government agencies or their contractors do not have high level tech skills or use advanced security tools.

Another concern is how private contractors are employed by these governments. An interesting tactic used by the EFF is to commence legal proceedings against US based corporation for operations they’ve conducted against dissidents visiting or living in the United States.

Galperin and Quintin have three conclusions from examining these attacks.

  • Attacks don’t need to be sophisticated to work
  • None of this research is sexy
  • The tools and actors are not sophisticated

While the tools and actors in these sad tales are not sophisticated, the costs to the targets are usually high as they and their families can be subject to terrible consequences.

As we increasingly see both simple and sophisticated software tools available to be used against citizens we can expect to see more abuses by governments around the world. The job of organisations like the EFF is not going to get easier any time soon.

We citizens though need to do what we can to demand safeguards and legal protections from our governments. Those of us in democracies should be making that clear at the ballot box.

Mar 292016
 

One of the truisms of modern business is we live in an API economy where open Application Programming Interfaces allow software companies to connect their platforms that builds an ecosystem of developers and extends the functionality of their products.

But what happens when an API shuts down or a company starts applying the web2.0 principles of draconian legal terms and conditions to its data feeds? Pinboard, “the social bookmarking application for introverts” is illustrating how serious legalese can be for developers.

Maciej Cegowski, Pinboard’s founder, decided the terms and conditions imposed by popular automation site If That Then This (IFTTT) were too demanding and pulled his service from the platform.

In a blog post he lays out exactly why, citing IFTTT’s demands for rights over his service along with the option of  the plaftorm being able to assign those rights to third parties.

For developers, IFTTT’s terms are almost impossible as the platform strips them of their intellectual property rights and restrains their trade. It’s a classic case of legal over-reach which is all too common in the control obsessed tech industry.

As we’re seeing software vendors releasing platforms to manage IoT devices through APIs and cloud services making their plethora of APIs a selling point, access to these becomes a serious matter for the software industry.

There is a worrying aspect for users in this as well, as those relying on Pinboard services driven through IFTTT are now effectively stranded and have to look for another site that provides similar functions.

While Pinboard is quite small, a larger service shutting down its APSs could have dramatic effects. This is even truer with Internet of Things devices that could use a service like IFTTT to run key functions.

Designing devices and services to cater for the possibility an API or web service may become unavailable needs to be priority for IoT vendors while for developers and users, the risk a service may stop is something that should never be far from their minds and factored into the business and purchasing decisions they make.

Feb 082016
 

Who is responsible for the effect of renegade computer programs is going to become a serious legal topic as an increasing number of things become ‘intelligent” and connected to the internet.

Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is one of the first regulators to start looking at how companies’ algorithms. In their just released rules for wholesale traders, the FCA sets out the responsibilities for companies and their managers.

“We are determined to embed a culture of personal responsibility within the banking sector,” says the FCA’s Acting Chief Executive Tracey McDermott. “Clear individual accountability should focus minds, drive up standards, and make firms easier to run and to supervise. And if things go wrong, it will allow senior managers to be held to account for misconduct that falls within their area of responsibility.”

The definition of ‘misconduct’ when an algorithm goes awry will undoubtedly prove contentious, as will the idea of ‘personal responsibility’ in the banking sector.

While it’s too tempting to be dismissive of such move in the financial services industry, the FCA’s regulations are a pointer of what most industries are going to face over the next ten years as the more devices make decisions for themselves or communicate with other equipment over the Internet of Things.

In many areas the question of who is responsible for a rogue computer program will be left to the uncertainties of the legal system with no doubt many surprises, injustices, inconsistencies and unintended consequences so the earlier regulators develop a framework for dealing with mishaps the better.

Should the IoT start delivering on its promise of a connected world a poorly designed algorithm in even what should be relatively trivial devices or services may have the potential to cause massive disruption and damage. It’s hard not to imagine many other regulators in other industries are looking at how to attribute responsibilities, if not minimise risk, in a smart connected world.

Jan 192016
 
censorship on the internet and social media

The Libertarian dream of a free trade zone out of reach of authorities on the Dark Web has come to an end reports Wired.

Ironically it’s not the authorities that have discredited these sites but the untrustworthiness of the various contraband services’ operators that have doomed these illicit marketplaces.

While there’s still potential for these dark web markets to evolve into something more robust their current failure shows that radically changing existing institutions and systems is rarely happens quickly and without cost, as those with stolen Bitcoins are learning.