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Targeted ads offer little extra value for online publishers, study suggests

Posted by on May 31, 2019 in Adtech, Advertising Tech, Alphabet, behavioral advertising, digital advertising, digital marketing, display advertising, Europe, Facebook, General Data Protection Regulation, IAB, Marketing, Media, Online Advertising, Privacy, programmatic advertising, Randall Rothenberg, Richard blumenthal, targeted advertising, United States | 0 comments

How much value do online publishers derive from behaviorally targeted advertising that uses privacy-hostile tracking technologies to determine which advert to show a website user?

A new piece of research suggests publishers make just 4% more vs if they were to serve a non-targeted ad.

It’s a finding that sheds suggestive light on why so many newsroom budgets are shrinking and journalists finding themselves out of work — even as adtech giants continue stuffing their coffers with massive profits.

Visit the average news website lousy with third party cookies (yes, we know, it’s true of TC too) and you’d be forgiven for thinking the publisher is also getting fat profits from the data creamed off their users as they plug into programmatic ad systems that trade info on Internet users’ browsing habits to determine the ad which gets displayed.

Yet while the online ad market is massive and growing — $88BN in revenues in the US in 2017, per IAB data, a 21% year-on-year increase — publishers are not the entities getting filthy rich off of their own content.

On the contrary, research in recent years has suggested that a large proportion of publishers are being squeezed by digital display advertising economics, with some 40% reporting either stagnant or shrinking ad revenue, per a 2015 Econsultancy study. (Hence, we can posit, the rise in publishers branching into subscriptions — TC’s own offering can be found here: Extra Crunch).

The lion’s share of value being created by digital advertising ends up in the coffers of adtech giants, Google and Facebook . Aka the adtech duopoly. In the US, the pair account for around 60% of digital ad market spending, per eMarketer — or circa $76.57BN.

Their annual revenues have mirrored overall growth in digital ad spend — rising from $74.9BN to $136.8BN, between 2015 and 2018, in the case of Google’s parent Alphabet; and $17.9BN to $55.8BN for Facebook. (While US online ad spend stepped up from $59.6BN to $107.5BN+ between 2015 and 2018.)

eMarketer projects 2019 will mark the first decline in the duopoly’s collective share. But not because publishers’ fortunes are suddenly set for a bonanza turnaround. Rather another tech giant — Amazon — has been growing its share of the digital ad market, and is expected to make what eMarketer dubs the start of “a small dent in the duopoly”.

Behavioral advertising — aka targeted ads — has come to dominate the online ad market, fuelled by platform dynamics encouraging a proliferation of tracking technologies and techniques in the unregulated background. And by, it seems, greater effectiveness from the perspective of online advertisers, as the paper notes. (“Despite measurement and attribution challenges… many studies seem to concur that targeted advertising is beneficial and effective for advertising firms.”

This has had the effect of squeezing out non-targeted display ads, such as those that rely on contextual factors to select the ad — e.g. the content being viewed, device type or location.

The latter are now the exception; a fall-back such as for when cookies have been blocked. (Albeit, one that veteran pro-privacy search engine, DuckDuckGo, has nonetheless turned into a profitable contextual ad business).

One 2017 study by IHS Markit, suggested that 86% of programmatic advertising in Europe was using behavioural data. While even a quarter (24%) of non-programmatic advertising was found to be using behavioural data, per its model. 

“In 2016, 90% of the digital display advertising market growth came from formats and processes that use behavioural data,” it observed, projecting growth of 106% for behaviourally targeted advertising between 2016 and 2020, and a decline of 63.6% for forms of digital advertising that don’t use such data.

The economic incentives to push behavioral advertising vs non-targeted ads look clear for dominant platforms that rely on amassing scale — across advertisers, other people’s eyeballs, content and behavioral data — to extract value from the Internet’s dispersed and diverse audience.

But the incentives for content producers to subject themselves — and their engaged communities of users — to these privacy-hostile economies of scale look a whole lot more fuzzy.

Concern about potential imbalances in the online ad market is also leading policymakers and regulators on both sides of the Atlantic to question the opacity of the market — and call for greater transparency.

A price on people tracking’s head

The new research, which will be presented at the Workshop on the Economics of Information Security conference in Boston next week, aims to contribute a new piece to this digital ad revenue puzzle by trying to quantify the value to a single publisher of choosing ads that are behaviorally targeted vs those that aren’t.

We’ve flagged the research before — when the findings were cited by one of the academics involved in the study at an FTC hearing — but the full paper has now been published.

It’s called Online Tracking and Publishers’ Revenues: An Empirical Analysis, and is co-authored by three academics: Veronica Marotta, an assistant professor in information and decision sciences at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota; Vibhanshu Abhishek, associate professor of information systems at the Paul Merage School of Business, University California Irvine; and Alessandro Acquisti, professor of IT and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

“While the impact of targeted advertising on advertisers’ campaign effectiveness has been vastly documented, much less is known about the value generated by online tracking and targeting technologies for publishers – the websites that sell ad spaces,” the researchers write. “In fact, the conventional wisdom that publishers benefit too from behaviorally targeted advertising has rarely been scrutinized in academic studies.”

“As we briefly mention in the paper, notwithstanding claims about the shared benefits of online tracking and behaviorally targeting for multiple stakeholders (merchants, publishers, consumers, intermediaries…), there is a surprising paucity of empirical estimates of economic outcomes from independent researchers,”  Acquisti also tells us.

In fact, most of the estimates focus on the advertisers’ side of the market (for instance, there have been quite a few studies estimating the increase in click-through or conversion rates associated with targeted ads); much less is known about the publishers’ side of the market. So, going into the study, we were genuinely curious about what we may find, as there was little in terms of data that could anchor our predictions.

“We did have theoretical bases to make possible predictions, but those predictions could be quite antithetical. Under one story, targeting increases the value of the audience, which increases advertisers’ bids, which increases publishers’ revenues; under a different story, targeting decreases the ‘pool’ of audience interested in an ad, which decreases competition to display ads, which reduces advertisers’ bids, eventually reducing publishers’ revenues.”

For the study the researchers were provided with a data-set comprising “millions” of display ad transactions completed in a week across multiple online outlets owned by a single (unidentified) large publisher which operates websites in a range of verticals such as news, entertainment and fashion.

The data-set also included whether or not the site visitor’s cookie ID is available — enabling analysis of the price difference between behaviorally targeted and non-targeted ads. (The researchers used a statistical mechanism to control for systematic differences between users who impede cookies.)

As noted above, the top-line finding is only a very small gain for the publisher whose data they were analyzing — of around 4%. Or an average increase of $0.00008 per advertisement. 

It’s a finding that contrasts wildly with some of the loud yet unsubstantiated opinions which can be found being promulgated online — claiming the ‘vital necessity’ of behavorial ads to support publishers/journalism.

For example, this article, published earlier this month by a freelance journalist writing for The American Prospect, includes the claim that: “An online advertisement without a third-party cookie sells for just 2 percent of the cost of the same ad with the cookie.” Yet does not specify a source for the statistic it cites.

(The author told us the reference is to a 2018 speech made by Index Exchange’s Andrew Casale, when he suggested ad requests without a buyer ID receive 99% lower bids vs the same ad request with the identifier. She added that her conversations with people in the adtech industry had suggested a spread between a 99% and 97% decline in the value of an ad without a cookie, hence choosing a middle point.)

At the same time policymakers in the US now appear painfully aware how far behind Europe they are lagging where privacy regulation is concerned — and are fast dialling up their scrutiny of and verbal horror over how Internet users are tracked and profiled by adtech giants.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this month — convened with the aim of “understanding the digital ad ecosystem and the impact of data privacy and competition policy” — the talk was not if to regulate big tech but how hard they must crack down on monopolistic ad giants.

“That’s what brings us here today. The lack of choice [for consumers to preserve their privacy online],” said senator Richard Blumenthal. “The excessive and extraordinary power of Google and Facebook and others who dominate the market is a fact of life. And so privacy protection is absolutely vital in the short run.”

The kind of “invasive surveillance” that the adtech industry systematically deploys is “something we would never tolerate from a government but Facebook and Google have the power of government never envisaged by our founders,” Blumenthal went on, before a few of the types of personal data that are sucked up and exploited by the adtech industrial surveillance complex: “Health, dating, location, finance, extremely personal details — offered to anyone with almost no restraint.”

Bearing that “invasive surveillance” in mind, a 4% publisher ‘premium’ for privacy-hostile ads vs adverts that are merely contextually served (and so don’t require pervasive tracking of web users) starts to look like a massive rip off — of both publisher brand and audience value, as well as Internet users’ rights and privacy.

Yes, targeted ads do appear to generate a small revenue increase, per the study. But as the researchers also point out that needs to be offset against the cost to publishers of complying with privacy regulations.

“If setting tracking cookies on visitors was cost free, the website would definitely be losing money. However, the widespread use of tracking cookies – and, more broadly, the practice of tracking users online – has been raising privacy concerns that have led to the adoption of stringent regulations, in particular in the European Union,” they write — going on to cite an estimate by the International Association of Privacy Professionals that Fortune’s Global 500 companies will spend around $7.8BN on compliant costs to meet the requirements of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). 

Wider costs to systematically eroding online privacy are harder to put a value on for publishers. But should also be considered — whether it’s the costs to a brand reputation and user loyalty as a result of a publisher larding their sites with unwanted trackers; to wider societal costs — linked to the risks of data-fuelled manipulation and exploitation of vulnerable groups. Simply put, it’s not a good look.

Publishers may appear complicit in the asset stripping of their own content and audiences for what — per this study — seems only marginal gain, but the opacity of the adtech industry implies that most likely don’t realize exactly what kind of ‘deal’ they’re getting at the hands of the ad giants who grip them.

Which makes this research paper a very compelling read for the online publishing industry… and, well, a pretty awkward newsflash for anyone working in adtech.

 

While the study only provides a snapshot of ad market economics, as experienced by a single publisher, the glimpse it presents is distinctly different from the picture the adtech lobby has sought to paint, as it has ploughed money into arguing against privacy legislation — on the claimed grounds that ‘killing behavioural advertising would kill free online content’. 

Saying no more creepy ads might only marginally reduce publishers’ revenue doesn’t have quite the same doom-laden ring, clearly.

“In a nutshell, this study provides an initial data point on a portion of the advertising ecosystem over which claims had been made but little empirical verification was completed. The results highlight the need for more transparency over how the value generated by flows of data gets allocated to different stakeholders,” says Acquisti, summing up how the study should be read against the ad market as a whole.

Contacted for a response to the research, Randall Rothenberg, CEO of advertising business organization, the IAB, agreed that the digital supply chain is “too complex and too opaque” — and also expressed concern about how relatively little value generated by targeted ads is trickling down to publishers.

“One week’s worth of data from one unidentified publisher does not make for a projectible (sic) piece of research. Still, the study shows that targeted advertising creates immense value for brands — more than 90% of the unnamed publisher’s auctioned ads were sold with targeting attached, and advertisers were willing to pay a 60% premium for those ads. Yet very little of that value flowed to the publisher,” he told TechCrunch. “As IAB has been saying for a decade, the digital supply chain is too complex and too opaque, and this diversion of value is more proof that transparency is required so that publishers can benefit from the value they create.”

The research paper includes discussion of the limitations to the approach, as well as ideas for additional research work — such as looking at how the value of cookies changes depending on how much information they contain (on that they write of their initial findings: “Information seem to be very valuable (from the publisher’s perspective) when we compare cookies with very little information to cookies with some information; after a certain point, adding more information to a cookie does not seem to create additional value for the publisher”); and investigating how “the (un)availability of a cookie changes the competition in the auction” — to try to understand ad auction competition dynamics and the potential mechanisms at play.

“This is one new and hopefully useful data point, to which others must be added,” Acquisti also told us in concluding remarks. “The key to research work is incremental progress, with more studies progressively adding a clearer understanding of an issue, and we look forward to more research in this area.”

This report was updated with additional comment


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Cat vs best and worst robot vacuum cleaners 

Posted by on May 11, 2019 in cat, Gadgets, Home Appliances, Home Automation, laser, Roborock S6, robot, robotic vacuum cleaner, Robotics, Rowenta, TC, Vacuum | 0 comments

If you’ve flirted with the idea of buying a robot vacuum you may also have stepped back from the brink in unfolding horror at the alphabetic soup of branded discs popping into view. Consumer choice sounds like a great idea until you’ve tried to get a handle on the handle-less vacuum space.

Amazon offers an A to Z linklist of “top brands” that’s only a handful of letters short of a full alphabetic set. The horror.

What awaits the unseasoned robot vacuum buyer as they resign themselves to hours of online research to try to inform — or, well, form — a purchase decision is a seeming endless permutation of robot vac reviews and round-ups.

Unfortunately there are just so many brands in play that all these reviews tend to act as fuel, feeding a growing black hole of indecision that sucks away at your precious spare time, demanding you spend more and more of it reading about robots that suck (when you could, let’s be frank, be getting on with the vacuuming task yourself) — only to come up for air each time even less convinced that buying a robot dirtbag is at all a good idea.

Reader, I know, because I fell into this hole. And it was hellish. So in the spirit of trying to prevent anyone else falling prey to convenience-based indecision I am — apologies in advance — adding to the pile of existing literature about robot vacuums with a short comparative account that (hopefully) helps cut through some of the chaff to the dirt-pulling chase.

Here’s the bottom line: Budget robot vacuums that lack navigational smarts are simply not worth your money, or indeed your time.

Yes, that’s despite the fact they are still actually expensive vacuum cleaners.

Basically these models entail overpaying for a vacuum cleaner that’s so poor you’ll still have to do most of the job yourself (i.e. with a non-robotic vacuum cleaner).

It’s the very worst kind of badly applied robotics.

Abandon hope of getting anything worth your money at the bottom end of the heap. I know this because, alas, I tried — opting, finally and foolishly (but, in my defence, at a point of near desperation after sifting so much virtual chaff the whole enterprise seemed to have gained lottery odds of success and I frankly just wanted my spare time back), for a model sold by a well-known local retailer.

It was a budget option but I assumed — or, well, hoped — the retailer had done its homework and picked a better-than-average choice. Or at least something that, y’know, could suck dust.

The brand in question (Rowenta) sat alongside the better known (and a bit more expensive) iRobot on the shop shelf. Surely that must count for something? I imagined wildly. Reader, that logic is a trap.

I can’t comment on the comparative performance of iRobot’s bots, which I have not personally tested, but I do not hesitate to compare a €180 (~$200) Rowenta-branded robot vacuum to a very expensive cat toy.

This robot vacuum was spectacularly successful at entertaining the cat — presumably on account of its dumb disposition, bouncing stupidly off of furniture owing to a total lack of navigational smarts. (Headbutting is a pretty big clue to how stupid a robot it is, as it’s never a stand-in for intelligence even when encountered in human form.)

Even more tantalizingly, from the cat’s point of view, the bot featured two white and whisker-like side brushes that protrude and spin at paw-tempting distance. In short: Pure robotic catnip.

The cat did not stop attacking the bot’s whiskers the whole time it was in operation. That certainly added to the obstacles getting in its way. But the more existential problem was it wasn’t sucking very much at all.

At the end of its first concluded ‘clean’, after it somehow managed to lurch its way back to first bump and finally hump its charging hub, I extracted the bin and had to laugh at the modest sized furball within. I’ve found larger clumps of dust gathering themselves in corners. So: Full marks for cat-based entertainment but as a vacuum cleaner it was horrible.

At this point I did what every sensible customer does when confronted with an abject lemon: Returned it for a full refund. And that, reader, might have been that for me and the cat and robot vacs. Who can be bothered to waste so much money and time for what appeared laughably incremental convenience? Even with a steady supply of cat fur to contend with.

But as luck would have it a Roborock representative emailed to ask if I would like to review their latest top-of-the-range model — which, at €549, does clock in at the opposite end of the price scale; ~3x the pitiful Rowenta. So of course I jumped at the chance to give the category a second spin — to see if a smarter device could impress me and not just tickle the cat’s fancy.

Clearly the price difference here, at the top vs the bottom of the range, is substantial. And yet, if you bought a car that was 3x times cheaper than a Ferrari you’d still expect not just that the wheels stay on but that it can actually get you somewhere, in good time and do so without making you horribly car sick.

Turns out buyers of robot vacuums need to tread far more carefully.

Here comes the bookending top-line conclusion: Robot vacuums are amazing. A modern convenience marvel. But — and it’s a big one — only if you’re willing to shell out serious cash to get a device that actually does the job intended.

Roborock S6: It’s a beast at gobbling your furry friend’s dander

Comparing the Roborock S6 and the Rowenta Smart Force Essential Aqua RR6971WH (to give it its full and equally terrible name) is like comparing a high-end electric car with a wind-up kid’s toy.

Where the latter product was so penny-pinching the company hadn’t even paid to include in the box a user manual that contained actual words — opting, we must assume, to save on translation costs by producing a comic packed with inscrutable graphics and bizarro don’t do diagrams which only served to cement the fast-cooling buyer’s conviction they’d been sold a total lemon — the Roborock’s box contains a well written paper manual that contains words and clearly labeled diagrams. What a luxury!

At the same time there’s not really that much you need to grok to get your head around operating the Roborock. After a first pass to familiarize yourself with its various functions it’s delightfully easy to use. It will even produce periodic vocal updates — such as telling you it’s done cleaning and is going back to base. (Presumably in case you start to worry it’s gone astray under the bed. Or that quiet industry is a front for brewing robotic rebellion against indentured human servitude.)

One button starts a full clean — and this does mean full thanks to on-board laser navigation that allows the bot to map the rooms in real-time. This means you get methodical passes, minimal headbutting and only occasional spots missed. (Another button will do a spot clean if the S6 does miss something or there’s a fresh spill that needs tidying — you just lift the bot to where you want it and hit the appropriate spot.)

There is an app too, if you want to access extra features like being able to tell it to go clean a specific room, schedule cleans or set no-go zones. But, equally delightfully, there’s no absolute need to hook the bot to your wi-fi just to get it to do its primary job. All core features work without the faff of having to connect it to the Internet — nor indeed the worry of who might get access to your room-mapping data. From a privacy point of view this wi-fi-less app-free operation is a major plus.

In a small apartment with hard flooring the only necessary prep is a quick check to clear stuff like charging cables and stray socks off the floor. You can of course park dining chairs on the table to offer the bot a cleaner sweep. Though I found the navigation pretty adept at circling chair legs. Sadly the unit is a little too tall to make it under the sofa.

The S6 includes an integrated mopping function, which works incredibly well on lino-style hard flooring (but won’t be any use if you only have carpets). To mop you fill the water tank attachment; velcro-fix a dampened mop cloth to the bottom; and slide-clip the whole unit under the bot’s rear. Then you hit the go button and it’ll vacuum and mop in the same pass.

In my small apartment the S6 had no trouble doing a full floor clean in under an hour, without needing to return to base to recharge in the middle. (Roborock says the S6 will drive for up to three hours on a single charge.)

It also did not seem to get confused by relatively dark flooring in my apartment — which some reviews had suggested can cause headaches for robot vacuums by confusing their cliff sensors.

After that first clean I popped the lid to check on the contents of the S6’s transparent lint bin — finding an impressive quantity of dusty fuzz neatly wadded therein. This was really just robot vacuum porn, though; the gleaming floors spoke for themselves on the quality of the clean.

The level of dust gobbled by the S6 vs the Rowenta underlines the quality difference between the bottom and top end of the robot vacuum category.

So where the latter’s plastic carapace immediately became a magnet for all the room dust it had kicked up but spectacularly failed to suck, the S6’s gleaming white shell has stayed remarkably lint-free, acquiring only a minimal smattering of cat hairs over several days of operation — while the floors it’s worked have been left visibly dust- and fur-free. (At least until the cat got to work dirtying them again.)

Higher suction power, better brushes and a higher quality integrated filter appear to make all the difference. The S6 also does a much better cleaning job a lot more quietly. Roborock claims it’s 50% quieter than the prior model (the S5) and touts it as its quietest robot vacuum yet.

It’s not super silent but is quiet enough when cleaning hard floors not to cause a major disturbance if you’re working or watching something in the same room. Though the novelty can certainly be distracting.

Even the look of the S6 exudes robotic smarts — with its raised laser-housing bump resembling a glowing orange cylonic eye-slot.

Although I was surprised, at first glance, by the single, rather feeble looking side brush vs the firm pair the Rowenta had fixed to its undercarriage. But again the S6’s tool is smartly applied — stepping up and down speed depending on what the bot’s tackling. I found it could miss the odd bit of lint or debris such as cat litter but when it did these specs stood out as the exception on an otherwise clean floor.

It’s also true that the cat did stick its paw in again to try attacking the S6’s single spinning brush. But these attacks were fewer and a lot less fervent than vs the Rowenta, as if the bot’s more deliberate navigation commanded greater respect and/or a more considered ambush. So it appears that even to a feline eye the premium S6 looks a lot less like a dumb toy.

Cat plots another ambush while the S6 works the floor

On a practical front, the S6’s lint bin has a capacity of 480ml. Roborock suggests cleaning it out weekly (assuming you’re using the bot every week), as well as washing the integrated dust filter (it supplies a spare in the box so you can switch one out to clean it and have enough time for it to fully dry before rotating it back into use).

If you use the mopping function the supplied reusable mop cloths do need washing afterwards too (Roborock also includes a few disposable alternatives in the box but that seems a pretty wasteful option when it’s easy enough to stick a reusable cloth in with a load of laundry or give it a quick wash yourself). So if you’re chasing a fully automated, robot-powered, end-to-cleaning-chores dream be warned there’s still a little human elbow grease required to keep everything running smoothly.

Still, there’s no doubt a top-of-the-range robot vacuum like the S6 will save you time cleaning.

If you can justify the not inconsiderable cost involved in buying this extra time by shelling out for a premium robot vacuum that’s smart enough to clean effectively all that’s left to figure out is how to spend your time windfall wisely — resisting the temptation to just put your feet up and watch the clever little robot at work.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Scalable, low cost technologies needed to repair climate, Cambridge professor suggests

Posted by on May 10, 2019 in cambridge university, carbon capture, carbon neutral, climate change, Europe, Global Warming, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, GreenTech, UK government, United Kingdom | 0 comments

Cambridge University has proposed setting up a research center tasked with coming up with scalable technological fixes for climate change.

The proposed Center for Climate Repair is being co-ordinated by David King, an emeritus professor in physical chemistry at the university and also the UK government’s former chief scientific adviser.

Speaking to the BBC this morning King suggested the scale of the challenge now facing humanity to end  greenhouse gas emissions is so pressing that radical options need to be considered and developed alongside efforts to shift societies carbon neutral and shrink day to day emissions.

“What we do over the next 10 years will determine the future of humanity for the next 10,000 years. There is no major centre in the world that would be focused on this one big issue,” he told BBC News.

In an interview on the BBC Radio 4’s Today program, King said the center would need focus on scalable, low cost technologies that could be deployed to move the needle on the climate challenge.

Suggested ideas it could work to develop include geoengineering initiatives such as spraying sea water into the air at the north and south poles to reflect sunlight away and refreeze them; using fertilizer to regreen portions of the deep ocean to promote plankton growth; and carbon capture and storage methods to suck up and sequester greenhouse gases so they can’t contribute to accelerating global warming.

On the issue of nuclear power King said interesting work is being done to try to develop viable nuclear fusion technology — but also pointed to untapped capacity in renewable energy technologies, arguing there is an “ability to develop renewables far more than we thought before”.

If established, the Center for Climate Repair, would be attached to the university’s new Cambridge Carbon Neutral Futures Initiative, which is a research hub recently set up to link climate-related research work across the university — and “catalyse holistic, collaborative progress towards a sustainable future”, as it puts it.

“If [the Center for Climate Repair] goes forward, it will be part of the Carbon Neutral Futures Initiative, which is led by Dr Emily Shuckburgh,” a spokeswoman for the university confirmed.

“When considering how to tackle a problem as large, complex and urgent as climate change, we need to look at the widest possible range of ideas and to investigate radical innovations such as those proposed by Sir David,” said Shuckburgh, commenting on the proposal in a statement.

“In assessing such ideas we need to explore all aspects, including the technological advances required, the potential unintended consequences and side effects, the costs, the rules and regulations that would be needed, as well as the public acceptability.”


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Flipkart ranked highly for ‘fairness’ of working conditions in India gig platform study

Posted by on Mar 26, 2019 in Apps, Asia, business models, Deliveroo, eCommerce, Europe, Flipkart, Germany, gig economy, India, Ola, online platforms, Oxford Internet Institute, South Africa, TC, Uber, United Kingdom, university of Manchester, workers rights | 0 comments

The Oxford Internet Institute has published what it bills as the world’s first rating system for working conditions on gig economy platforms.

The Fairwork academic research project is a collaboration with the International Institute of Information Technology Bangalore, the University of Cape Town, the University of Manchester, and the University of the Western Cape.

As the name suggests, the project focuses on conditions for workers who are being remotely managed by online platforms and their algorithms — creating a framework to score tech firms on factors like whether they pay gig economy workers the minimum wage and ensure their health and safety at work.

The two initial markets selected for piloting the rating system are India and South Africa, and the first batch of gig economy firms ranked includes a mix of delivery, ride-hailing and freelance work platforms, among others.

The plan is to update the rating yearly, and to also add gig economy platforms operating in the UK and Germany next year.

Fairness, rated

Fairwork’s gig platform scoring system measures performance per market across five standards — which are neatly condensed as: Fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management, and fair representation.

Platforms are scored on each performance measure with a basic point and an advanced point, culminating in an overall score. (There’s more on the scoring methodology here.)

Most of the measures are self explanatory but the emphasis on fair contracts is for T&Cs to be “transparent, concise, and provided to workers in an accessible form”, with the contacting party subject to local law and identified in the contract.

While, in instances of what those behind the project dub “genuine” self-employment, terms of service must be free of clauses that “unreasonably exclude liability” on the part of the platform.

For fair management, a good rating demands a documented process and clear channel of communication through which workers can be heard; decisions can be appealed; and workers be informed of the reasons behind the decisions.

The use of any decision-making algorithms must also be transparent and result in “equitable outcomes for workers”. And there must also be identified and document policy to ensure equity in areas such as hiring and firing, while any data collection must be documented with a clear purpose and explicit informed consent.

Fair representation calls for platforms to allow workers to organize in collective bodies regardless of their employment status and be prepared to negotiate and co-operate with them.

Critical attention

Criticism of the so called ‘gig economy’ has dialled up in recent years, in Western markets especially, as the ‘flexible’ working claims platforms trumpet have attracted closer and more critical scrutiny.

Policymakers are acting on concerns that demand for casual labor is being exploited by increasingly powerful tech firms which are applying algorithms at scale while using self-serving employment classifications designed to workaround traditional labor rights so they can micromanage large-scale workforces remotely while sidestepping the costs of actually employing so many people.

Trenchant critics liken the result to a kind of modern day slavery — arguing that rights-denuded platform workers are part of a wider beaten down ‘precariat’.

A report last year by a UK MP was more nuanced but still likened the casual labor practices on UK startup Deliveroo’s food delivery platform to the kind of dual market seen in 20th century dockyards, suggesting that while the platform could work well for some gigging riders this was at the exploitative expense of others who were not preferred for jobs in the same way — with a risk of unpredictable and unstable earnings. 

In recent years a number of unions have stepped up activity to support contract and casual workers used by the sector, as the number of platform workers has grown. Even as gig platforms have generally continued to deny granting collective bargaining to their ‘self-employed’ workers.

Against this backdrop there have also been a number of wildcat style ‘strikes’ by gig economy workers in the UK triggered by sudden changes to pricing policies and/or conditions, or focused more broadly on trying to move the needle on pay and working conditions.

A UK union-backed attempt to use European human rights law to challenge Deliveroo’s refusal to grant collective bargaining rights for couriers was dismissed by the High Court at the end of last year. Though the union vowed to appeal.

Regardless of that particular set-back, pressure from policymakers and the publicity from legal challenges attached to workers rights have yielded a number of improvements for gig workers in Europe, with — for example — Uber announcing it would expand free insurance products for drivers across much of the region last year. And it’s clear that scrutiny of platforms is an important lever for improving conditions for workers.

It’s with that in mind that the researchers behind Fairwork have launched their rating system.

“The Fairwork rating system shines a light on best and worst practice in the platform economy,” said Mark Graham, professor of Internet geography at the University of Oxford, commenting in a statement. “This is an area in which for too long, very few regulations have been in place to protect workers. These ratings will enable consumers to make informed choices about the platforms and services they need when ordering a cab, a takeaway or outsourcing a simple task.”

“Our hope is that our five areas of fairness will take a life of their own, and that workers, platforms and other advocates will start using them to improve the working conditions across the platform economy,” he added.

And now to those first year scores in India and South Africa…

Best and worst performers

In India, ecommerce giant Flipkart came out on top of the companies ranked, with its delivery and logistics arm eKart scoring 7/10.

Though — if it wants to get a perfect 10 — it’s still got work to do on contracts, to improve clarity and ensure they reflect the true nature of the relationship, according to the researchers’ assessment.

Flipkart also does not recognize a body that could support collective bargaining for its workers.

Three tech platforms shared the wooden spoon for the worst conditions for Indian gig workers, according to the researchers’ assessment — namely: Food delivery platform Foodpanda and ride-hailing giants Ola and Uber which scored just 2/10 apiece, fulfilling only the minimum wage criteria and failing on every other measure.

UberEats, Uber’s food delivery operation, did slightly better — scoring 3/10 in India, thanks to also offering a due process for decisions affecting workers.

While in South Africa the top scorer was white collar work platform NoSweat, which got 8/10. On the improvements front, it also could do a little more work to make its contracts fairer, and also doesn’t recognize collective bargaining.

Bottom of the list in the country is ride-hailing firm Bolt (Taxify) — which scored 4/10, hitting targets on pay and some conditions (mitigating task-specific risks), while also offering a due process for decisions affecting workers, but failing on other performance measures.

Uber didn’t do much better in South Africa either — coming in second to last, with 5/10. Though it’s notable the company does offer more protections for workers there vs those grafting on its platform in India, including mitigating task-specific risks and actively seeking to improve conditions (such as by offering insurance).

Reached for comment on its Fairwork ratings, an Uber spokesperson sent this statement:

Uber wouldn’t be what it is without drivers — they are at the heart of the Uber experience. Over the past years we have made a number of changes to offer a better experience with more support and more protection, including our Partner Injury Protection programme, new safety features and access to quality and affordable private healthcare coverage for driver-partners and their families. We will continue to work hard to earn our partners trust and ensure that their voices are heard as we take Uber forward together.

There’s clearly no one universal standard for Uber’s business where working conditions are concerned. Instead the company tunes its standard to the local regulatory climate — offering workers less where it believes it can get away with it.

That too suggests a stronger spotlight on conditions offered by gig economy platforms can help improve workers’ lot and raise standards globally.

On the improvements front the Fairwork researchers claim the project has already led to positive impacts in the two pilot markets — claiming discussions are “ongoing” with platforms in India about implementing changes in line with the principles, including with a platform that has some 450,000 workers.

Though they also point out the first-year ranking show the overwhelming majority of India’s platform workers are engaged on platforms that score below their Fairwork basic standards (with scores <5/10) — which covers more than a million gig economy workers.

In South Africa another positive development they point to is alcohol delivery platform Bottles committing to supporting the emergence of fair workers’ representation on its platform, after collaborating with the project.

The local NoSweat freelance work platform has also introduced what the researchers couch as “significant changes” in all five areas of fairness — now having a formal policy to pay over the minimum wage after workers’ costs are taken into account; a clear process to ensure clients on the platform agree to protect workers’ health and safety; and a channel and process for workers to lodge grievance about conditions.

Commenting in a statement, Wilfred Greyling, co-founder of NoSweat said the project had helped the company “formalise” the principles and incorporate them into its systems. “NoSweat Work believes firmly in a fair deal for all parties involved in any work we put out,” he said, adding that the platform is “built on people and relationships; we never hide behind faceless technology”.

This report was updated with comment from Uber


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Telegram gets 3M new signups during Facebook apps’ outage

Posted by on Mar 14, 2019 in Apps, China, encryption, Europe, Facebook, instagram, internet censorship, Iran, messaging apps, messaging services, Moscow, Pavel Durov, Privacy, russia, Social, Social Media, Telegram, vk | 0 comments

Messaging platform Telegram claims to have had a surge in signups during a period of downtime for Facebook’s rival messaging services.

In a message sent to his Telegram channel, founder Pavel Durov’s just wrote: “I see 3 million new users signed up for Telegram within the last 24 hours.”

It’s probably not a coincidence that Facebook and its related family of apps went down for most of Wednesday, as we reported earlier. At the time of writing Instagram’s service has been officially confirmed restored. Unofficially Facebook also appears to be back online, at least here in Europe.

Durov doesn’t offer an explicit explanation for Telegram’s sudden spike in sign ups, but he does take a thinly veiled swipe at social networking giant Facebook — whose founder recently claimed he now plans to pivot the ad platform to ‘privacy’.

“Good,” adds Durov on his channel, welcoming Telegram’s 3M newbies. “We have true privacy and unlimited space for everyone.”

A contact at Telegram confirmed to TechCrunch that the Facebook apps’ downtime is the likely cause of its latest sign up spike, telling us: “These outages always drive new users.”

Though they also credited growth to “the mainstream overall increasing understanding about Facebook’s abusive attention harvesting practices”.

A year ago Telegram announced passing 200M monthly active users. Though the platform has faced restrictions and/or blocks in some markets (principally Russia and Iran, as well as China) — apparently for refusing government requests for encryption keys and/or user information.

In Durov’s home country of Russia the government is also now moving to tighten Internet restrictions via new legislation — and thousands of people took to the streets in Moscow and other Russian cities this weekend to protest at growing Internet censorship, per Reuters.

Such restrictions could increase demand for Telegram’s encrypted messaging service in the country as the app does appear to still be partially accessible there.

Durov, who famously left Russia in 2014 — stepping away from his home country and an earlier social network he founded (VK.com) because of his stance on free speech — has sought to thwart the Russian government’s Telegram blocks via legal and technical measures.

The Telegram messaging platform has of course also had its own issues with less political downtime too.

In a tweet last fall the company confirmed a server cluster had gone down, potentially affecting users in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Although in that case the downtime only lasted a few hours.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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