Archive for the ‘Business’ category

Facebook privacy: broken by design

May 15, 2012

The big story of the week is the Facebook IPO, the largest public offering since Google. Facebook makes a huge profit off the social network of millions. Unfortunately, I think Facebook does this by exploiting private, personal details.

About a month ago, I bid farewell to Facebook. My outrage was over Facebook’s support for CISPA legislation. More broadly, my problem with Facebook comes from its approach to privacy.

It’s easy to see that Facebook privacy is a total failure. A Google search for Facebook privacy settings claims 700 million links. Why should it take that many documents to explain how to maintain control over your privacy? And Wikipedia’s Criticism of Facebook has 13 sections on “privacy concerns”.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that privacy in Facebook is a contradiction. Facebook wants to reassure its users that it cares about privacy. In fact, you can’t view most personal updates and pictures from your friends and family until you sign up for a Facebook account. And I agree that this helps protect Facebook against pedophiles and other criminals that essentially killed MySpace.

But I don’t think that Facebook is altruistic when it comes to privacy. Facebook privacy is really a very clever marketing strategy that helped Facebook to grow: to see personal information, you have to sign up for a Facebook account. And remember that Facebook’s real customers aren’t you and me. It’s the advertisers, and they are paying for personal information about Facebook users. What music do you Like? What restaurants do you Like? What do you Like to do with your spare time? What phone do you Like to use to post on Facebook? All so that Facebook can tailor specific ads for you.

So there’s a fundamental conflict between the needs of its paying advertisers and the desires of its users. And this will only get worse once Facebook must answer to Wall Street.

In short, Facebook privacy is broken by design.

I wish this were only about ads. If so, I could simply not Like anything on Facebook, and simply post tiny details for my close friends and family. But when Facebook pledged its support for CISPA, I realized that Facebook has little respect for its users. If CISPA is enacted, a government employee can ask – without court order – for personal information from Facebook or other online services. Suppose you post that you’re frustrated that a police officer just stopped you for speeding on such-and-so street, and then the police start to harass you for posting about their speed trap. Or if you post pictures of your brand new car, and a tax agent decides to scrutinize your tax records. Or you post how TSA screening makes you feel uncomfortable, so the TSA singles you out for porno screening for the rest of the year.

Some may think that I’m just being paranoid. I simply want to be in control over what is private and what is public. And I have little trust for what Facebook will do with my private information.

I suppose I will have to login again to Facebook, since too many close friends and family use Facebook to post important personal news. But when I do, I’m going to really limit what I share, because I think that Facebook and I have very different views on privacy.

Big brother is watching you – online

April 30, 2012

That’s what we can expect if CISPA becomes law.

CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, sounds reasonable at first glance: let’s fight crime and prevent terrorists from using online systems as a safe haven to gather and devise their next plan.

However, the law is far too broad and lacks key checks-and-balances that can prevent abuse.

The ACLU: “The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act would create a cybersecurity exception to all privacy laws and allow companies to share the private and personal data they hold on their American customers with the government for cybersecurity purposes. The bill would not limit the companies to sharing only technical, non-personal data. Instead, it would give the companies discretion to decide the type and amount of information to turn over to the government. If shared in good faith compliance with the statute, these entities would receive full liability protection and would be immune from criminal or civil liability, even after an egregious breach of privacy. Further, once an individual’s information is shared with the government, there would be no restriction on the use of that information. It could be used for any purpose whatsoever and shared with any agency. While such data might be used for cybersecurity purposes, there would be no bar on the government also using it to conduct fishing expeditions for criminal, immigration or other purposes.”

In contrast, a court order is required for a wiretap. From my perspective, that seems to have been effective. So why aren’t there similar safeguards in CISPA?

Unfortunately, CISPA isn’t a theoretical issue. Major tech companies AT&T, Facebook and Verizon pledged allegiance to CISPA. Do AT&T, Facebook or Verizon have personal information about you? Don’t expect that to remain private if CISPA becomes law.

At least Microsoft came to its senses by backing away from its initial support of CISPA.

Meantime, the government has adopted the most hypocritical double standard. On the one hand, the US government celebrates how the internet brings freedom across the world. Just this week, Obama announced new sanctions for Iran and Syria, which are using electronic surveillance to crack down on their citizens: “These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them.”

What specifically is targeted here? Iran is “identifying Internet users through their IP address, monitoring e-mail and online activity of individuals critical of the regime; requiring owners of Internet cafes in Iran to install equipment to aid the government in monitoring the activities of the Iranian public.”

Exactly the same privileges the US government wants through the CISPA law. Shameful.

[In fairness, I do realize that Obama has announced his intention to veto CISPA. Yet, I’m sure there are supporters of CISPA who also agree with Obama’s speech and executive order against Iran and Syria.]

Please, contact your Senators and tell them that

  1. The scope of CISPA must be narrowed
  2. CISPA requires checks-and-balances to prevent abuse of power

In the meantime, don’t look for me to post personal information on Facebook. If that’s not clear already, wait for an upcoming post.

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Et tu, eBay?

May 10, 2011

Today, one of the biggest technology acquisitions was announced: Microsoft buys Skype for $8.5 billion. I have read conflicting analyses of the deal: some people applaud it as a way to improve Microsoft’s offerings in internet communications, while others say that Microsoft grossly overpaid.

I have just one question: how will Microsoft make a success out of Skype when eBay failed?

Yes: eBay previously bought Skype, then later sold it off at a loss. At the time eBay bought Skype, people said that eBay would get great value from synergies: buyers could chat instantly with sellers online and improve the online shopping experience. Except these so-called synergies didn’t materialize, and eBay sold Skype at a loss.

So what’s new now? Ah yes, more promises of ‘synergies’ with Microsoft’s Windows Messenger, Xbox, Windows Phone 7, Lync and a number of other technologies that few have heard of. Except, Microsoft already has chat, voice and video calling in these products today. In other words, Skype is redundant with a wide range of existing Microsoft technologies.

So what did Microsoft buy, exactly? A brand? $8.5 billion seems like a lot to pay for a brand that’s not exactly a household name.

And why will Microsoft make Skype profitable when eBay couldn’t? At least eBay didn’t have the technology; with Microsoft, it seems like they spent a fortune to buy technology they already had.

(I am aware that Skype had a patent issue that was resolved after eBay sold them. Again, if Skype was so valuable after the patent issue was resolved, eBay could have bought them back.)

Cheaper eBook readers? Meh.

June 21, 2010

Today, there was a big price drop in two eBook readers: first the Nook, then the Kindle.

Even at the current prices, I see a dim future for dedicated eBook readers like the Kindle or Nook. First, they are too expensive – both in terms of the devices and the content. As I wrote a few months ago, electronic books have many disadvantages thanks to Digital Rights Management: there are few ways to share electronic books, a device is locked to a single online store, and it is nearly impossible to convert your existing library to electronic books. (All of these problems are solved on digital music players).

Furthermore, dedicated eBook readers like the Kindle or Nook lack the versatility of an Apple iPad. With an iPad, not only can you read books, but you can watch movies, play games and browse the web. And with an iPad, you can buy electronic books from multiple sources besides Apple. In fact, you can use an iPad to read electronic books from both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Amazon touts that you can subscribe to electronic magazines on the Kindle. Sorry, but no magazine we get is available electronically on the Kindle.

Earlier, I said that there was a big price drop in two eBook readers. I didn’t say “two popular eBook readers” because I doubt that either one would make the bestseller list.

Google in China

January 13, 2010

The web is abuzz with the story that Google may abandon its presence in China. The news started when Google SVP David Drummond wrote about how Google identified hacking of accounts belonging to Chinese activists. The western response has been predictable:

  • Thanking Google for standing up for human rights
  • Claiming that this gives Google the excuse to close an unsuccessful Chinese division

What hogwash.

If Google really wants to stand up for human rights, they should maintain their presence. Google gives a real alternative to the official Chinese presence on the Internet. Google gives a number of tools such as Blogger and Gmail that let activists communicate their perspective on human rights with Chinese citizens and the rest of the world.

And if Google is using this as an excuse to close an unsuccessful Chinese division, that’s a bad business decision. It doesn’t matter whether Google has the top position in terms of market share. The only thing that matters is whether the Chinese division of Google is profitable for the company. I don’t have any inside information, but I would be surprised if it isn’t profitable. In comparison, Apple Mac computers have a small market share – especially outside the USA. But the Mac is a profitable product for Apple, and Apple isn’t going to stop selling them simply because it has less than 10% global market share.

Shame on Google. It’s a bad decision from both a humanitarian and a business perspective.

P.S. I realize that Google may need to close the China office to protect its employees. Perhaps, but they could always maintain a Chinese site through offices in Taiwan, Singapore or even Mountain View.

Broadband Bill of Rights

December 6, 2009

High-speed internet is no longer a luxury. It’s a fundamental service in developed nations. Individuals rely on internet access for countless activities: communications, shopping, jobs and schoolwork, news, information. Businesses rely on the internet to attract and interact with customers.

Many articles offer suggestions to fix the state of broadband internet. Most are highly biased. Articles written from the perspective of the consumer speak of an entitlement to broadband, complaining bitterly about even the most trivial reductions in service. Articles written from the perspective of the service providers speak of wasteful consumers who threaten to crash networks and bankrupt the businesses.

To protect consumers and businesses – and preserve productivity – we need a Broadband Bill of Rights. Here is my suggestion.

Article 1: Consumers have the right to unlimited internet access, but do not have the right to unlimited internet access for a fixed price.

There shall be no caps on the use of internet. You shall be entitled to download anything, anytime. However, you do not have the right to unlimited use at a fixed price. Broadband providers shall be free to charge based on your use of the internet. If they want to offer unlimited packages for a fixed price, that’s great. But there shall be no government mandate to offer fixed price, unlimited internet.

Article 2: All legal content is created equal.

There shall be no discrimination in terms of network traffic. All legal communications shall have full and equal access to the network. Network providers shall be forbidden from any traffic shaping that discriminates based on the type of communications. Especially for competing services such as voice and television. Peer-to-peer file sharing of legal content such as Linux distributions shall also be protected.

Article 3: Consumers have the right to reliable service.

If the broadband provider does not meet the promised level of service, you shall be entitled to a refund. The promised level of service shall include both a speed guarantee and an uptime guarantee. The refund shall be granted automatically – customers need not ask for a refund. And if a provider is consistently failing to meet its guarantees, you shall be entitled to terminate your contract without any penalties.

Article 4: No exclusive or locked hardware.

All hardware shall be enabled to work on compatible networks. Furthermore, no network provider may have an exclusive contract to sell a particular hardware device. For instance, the Apple iPhone shall be sold only as an unlocked phone that can be used on any compatible GSM network, and Apple shall make the iPhone available to competing GSM network operators such as T-Mobile USA. However, network providers may continue to offer discounted hardware in return for a long-term service contract. Furthermore, a hardware vendor is not required to make its hardware available for all network technologies. For instance, Apple may continue to offer the iPhone exclusively for GSM networks – Apple is not required to offer a CDMA version of the iPhone.

Article 5: The pricing plan shall be plain and clear.

There shall be no hidden fees. When there is an introductory discount, the regular rate shall be clearly written in all promotional and pricing information.

Article 6: A customer may terminate a contract without penalty if the operator makes changes to the contract terms.

At the time a contract is started, the network operator shall spell out all its charges for the duration of the contract. If the network operator makes any changes to the costs or services during the period of the contract, the customer shall have the opportunity to terminate the contract without penalty.

Article 7: No usage-based pricing without monitoring tools.

If a network operator offers a use-based pricing plan, they shall provide clear tools to monitor the bandwidth use and costs incurred. This requirement is waived for unlimited use plans.

Article 8: Government shall foster broadband competition.

1 billion served

April 23, 2009

One key innovation of the iPhone (and iPod Touch) was the App Store, an online marketplace for 3rd party applications. Today, Apple will reach one billion applications downloaded through the App Store.

This has inspired many people to write applications for the iPhone. This week, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that amateurs are learning how to create applications for the iPhone.

Unfortunately, this shows. So many of the applications are garbage. How many fart and bikini girl applications do we need? Seriously, how many high school boys own iPhones?

As for the serious applications, many are ill-conceived or badly coded. For example, today I tried an application that is supposed to scan a UPC barcode and check prices. I grabbed a few items around my home but it failed to read every barcode. And it was so slow that I could have typed the numbers much, much faster. Granted, much of the problem is due to the limitations in the iPhone’s camera. But why didn’t the developer consider this before taking the time to develop the application?

Other good ideas are ruined with bad implementations. For example, I rely on an electronic grocery list – first for my Treo, now for my iPhone. But most of them for the iPhone force you to use its limited keyboard and menus for data entry. Why do this when you sync your iPhone with a full computer? (Those that realize this suffer from miserable desktop or web applications).

Furthermore, many applications really do not need to be standalone applications – they could be as good or better as pure web applications. However, the economics of the App Store rewards standalone applications, so I don’t expect to see much innovation in terms of iPhone web applications. That’s unfortunate.

I’ve read some iPhone ‘developers’ complain that iPhone applications have such a low selling price. The solution? Produce better applications. Considering the low quality of so many applications, I’m not willing to pay more than a dollar or two for most iPhone applications.

There are a few applications that really make my iPhone much more useful. The remaining 95% of applications are a waste. At least they don’t cost too much.

Meantime, I wish I had a bit more free time to write some Apps myself. I have a few good ideas but no time. Though I worry that only the fart and bikini apps are making real money.