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  • feedwordpress 22:31:55 on 2021/01/17 Permalink
    Tags: , , content moderation, , , , , , policy, section 230   

    Stop Talking About Section 230. Start Talking About The Business Model. 


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    No. No. No.

    For the past several years, I’ve led a graduate-level class studying the early history of Internet policy in the United States. It runs just seven weeks – the truth is, there’s not that much actual legislation to review. We spend a lot of the course focused on Internet business models, which, as I hope this post will illuminate, are not well understood even amongst Ivy-league grads. But this past week, one topic leapt from my syllabus onto the front pages of every major news outlet: Section 230. Comprised of just 26 words, this once-obscure but now-trending Internet policy grants technology platforms like Facebook, Google, Airbnb, Amazon, and countless others the authority to moderate content without incurring the liability of a traditional publisher.

    Thanks to the events of January 6th, Section 230 has broken into the mainstream of political dialog. Slowly – and then all of a sudden – the world has woken up to the connection between the disinformation flooding online platforms and what appears to be the rapid decay of our society.

    Difficult and scary narratives need a villain, and the world’s found one in Section 230, pretty much the only law on the books that can reasonably be connected to this hot mess. No matter if you’re liberal or conservative, it’s pretty easy to logic your way into blaming 230 for whatever bothers you about the events of the past ten days.

    For folks on the left, the narrative goes like this: The insurrectionists were radicalized by online platforms like YouTube and Facebook. These platforms have failed to moderate disinformation-driven conspiracy theories like QAnon, or the blatant lies told by politicians like Trump. (When they finally did – two days after the coup attempt – it was far too little, far too late!). The reason they can get away with such blatant neglect is Section 230. Clearly, 230 is the problem, so we should repeal it! Unfortunately, our President-elect has endorsed this view.

    The conservative view ignores any connection between political violence and 230, focusing instead on seductive but utterly wrong-headed interpretations of First Amendment law: Big Tech platforms are all run by libtards who want to crush conservative viewpoints. They’ve been censoring the speech of all true Patriots, kicking us off their platforms and deleting our posts. They’ve been granted this impunity thanks to Section 230. This is censorship, plain and simple, a violation of our First Amendment rights. We have to repeal 230! Naturally, our outgoing President has adopted this view.

    The debate is frustratingly familiar and hopelessly wrong. The problem isn’t whether or not platforms should moderate what people say. The problem is in whether or not the platforms amplify what is said. And to understand that problem, we have to understand the platform’s animating life force: Their business models.

    It’s The F*cking Business Model!

    Three years ago I wrote a piece arguing that Facebook could not be fixed because to do so would require abandoning its core business model. So what does that model do? It’s really not that complicated: It drives revenue for nearly every modern corporation on the planet.

    Let that settle in. The platforms’ core business model isn’t engagement, enragement, confirmation bias, or trafficking in human attention. Those are outputs of their business model. Again, the model is simple: Drive sales for advertisers. And advertisers are companies – the very places where you, I, and nearly everyone else works. They might be large – Walmart, for example – or they might be small – I  got an ad for weighted blankets from”Baloo Living” on Facebook just now (HOW DID THEY KNOW?!).

    When advertising is the core business model of a platform, that platform’s job is to drive sales for advertisers. For Facebook, Google, Amazon, and even Apple, that means providing existential revenue to tens of millions of companies large and small. This means that “Big Tech” is fundamentally entangled with our system of modern capitalism.

    And killing Section 230 does nothing to address that fact.

    Let’s get back to the distinction I drew above – between moderating content (the focus of 230) and amplifying that content, a practice Section 230 never anticipated. To understand amplification, you need to understand a practice that nearly all advertising-driven platforms have adopted in the past ten years: Content feeds driven by algorithms. The Wall St. Journal seems to have just woken up to this practice, pointing out in a recent technology column that Social-Media Algorithms Rule How We See the World. Good Luck Trying to Stop Them. The piece does a fine job of pointing out what anyone paying attention for the past decade already knows: Our information diet is driven by algorithms we don’t understand, serving not the health of the public dialog, but rather the business model of social media companies and their advertising customers. The conclusion: We’ve lost all agency when it comes to what we consume.

    All About Agency

    But before feeds became our dominant consumption model, we happily outsourced our agency to journalistic media brands – and to the editors and journalists who worked for those media brands. Some of us still curate our news this way – but our ranks are thinning. Back before platforms became our dominant media platform (all of ten years ago!), anyone who wanted to read the news had to exert a critical, if often fleeting form of agency. We decided which media outlets we would regularly pay attention to. We chose to read The New York Times or the Post (or both), The Wall St. Journal or The Economist. Media brands stood as proxies for a vastly more complicated and utterly overwhelming corpus of information we might potentially consume. The job of the journalists at those media outlets was to curate that information into a coherent diet that conformed to whatever that media outlet’s brand promised: “All the News Fit to Print” if you’re the Times, aloof neoliberal analysis if you’re The Economist.

    But that’s not how the vast majority of Americans get their news these days. If anything, Facebook has given tens of millions of people who otherwise might not seek out the news an illusion of news literacy thanks to whatever happens to show up in their feed. For those who do want to chose a news diet, we might parrot the agency of the pre-feed days by following this or that new brand on Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter. But in the feed-driven environment of those platforms, articles from The Economist, The Times, or The Journal must compete, post for post, with the viral videos of flaming Zambonis and titillating proofs of elaborate child pornography rings shared by your friends. Given the platforms’ job is to drive revenue for its advertisers, which group do you think gets more amplification? You already know the answer, of course. Hell, it turns out Facebook has known the answer for years, and has consciously chosen to show us low quality information over accurate journalism. How do we know? It has a “News Ecosystem Quality” index – a SOMA-like tuning fork for its algorithms that dials up quality information whenever things might turn a bit too ugly. Let THAT sink in.

    Given all of this, it’s seductive to conclude that the best way to limit bad information on platforms is to ask the platforms to moderate it away,  threatening them with repeal of 230 to get there. But that’s a terrible idea, for so many reasons I won’t burden this essay with a recitation (but please, read Mike Masnick if you want to get smart fast).

    A far better idea would be to coax that critical layer of agency – the human choice of trusted media brands – back to the fore of our information diet in one way or another. And if we don’t like our choices of media brands, we should start new ones, smarter ones, more responsive ones that understand how to moderate, curate, and edit information in a way that both serves the public good and understands the information ecosystem in which it operates. (Yes, yes, that’s a self serving reference.)

    As a society we’ve at least come to admire our seemingly intractable problem: We’re not happy with who’s controlling the information we consume. The question then becomes, how can we shift control back to the edge – to the consumer of the information, and away from algorithms designed to engage, outrage, and divide?

    I’m of the mind this can be done without sweeping Federal legislation – but legislation might actually be helpful here, if it contemplates the economic incentives driving all of the actors in this narrative, including the businesses who currently pay Facebook and its peers for providing them revenue.

    In short, I think it’s time to hack the economic incentives which drive the platforms. Section 230 is a dodge – we’re obsessing on a 26-word law that offers nearly every contestant in the dialog a convenient dodge from a far larger truth: No one wants to threaten the profits of our largest corporations. And given I’ve been on for a while, I’m going to stop now, and get into how we might think differently in the next installment. Thanks for reading, and see you soon.

    —-

    This post is one of a series of “thinking out loud” on our current media ecosystem. Here are a few others:

    Media and Marketing Leaders: It’s Time to Stand Up For Truth  

    Facebook Is Finally Admitting It’s A Publisher

    Marketers: Your Role In Social Discourse Is Critical

    Marketers Have Given Up on Context, And Our National Discourse Is Suffering

    An Open Letter To American Corporations: It’s Good Business (and Smart Marketing) To Support Quality Journalism

     

     
  • feedwordpress 22:51:41 on 2020/12/23 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , , , misinformation, , policy, , predictions 2020, , ,   

    Well That Was A Year: A Review of My 2020 Predictions 


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    From the Department of Didn’t See THAT Coming…

    Yes, it’s true: Last year, I did not predict a global pandemic in 2020. COVID is a gravitational force that warps everything it touches, so I approach this annual ritual of self-grading with trepidation. As I start, I honestly don’t remember what I predicted twelve months ago…but regardless, I’m expecting a train wreck. I’ll read each one in turn, repeat the prediction below, and then free associate some thoughts on what actually transpired. Grab a glass of your favorite beverage…and let’s go:

    1. Facebook bans microtargeting on specific kinds of political advertising. OK, Facebook did NOT do this – well, not exactly. What the company DID do was ban political advertising altogether – but only in the week before, and a short period after the US election. Of course, you can certainly say that by banning all political advertising, the company ended up banned microtargeting as a result. So that’s one argument for giving myself a “Nailed it.” If that’s too weak an argument, let’s go to the fine print in my original prediction: “The pressure to do something will be too great, and as it always does, the company will enact a half-measure, then declare victory.” And that is exactly what the company did. I mean, exactly. I also wrote: “The company’s spinners will frame this as proof they listen to their critics, and that they’re serious about the integrity of the 2020 elections. As with nearly everything it does, this move will fail to change anyone’s opinion of the company. Wall St. will keep cheering the company’s stock, and folks like me will keep wondering when, if ever, the next shoe will drop.” Yup. Nailed it.
    2. Netflix opens the door to marketing partnerships. This prediction requires a bit of clarification. I was not claiming Netflix would open the door to advertising on its platform, but rather that it “may take the form of a co-produced series, or branded content, or some other “native” approach, but at the end of the day, it’ll be advertising dollars that fuel the programming.” What I didn’t realize when I made this prediction was that Netflix was already deep into product placement deals for its Netflix Originals, and that it had already made sure the money changed hands somewhere else (such as between a production company and a brand).  There is no doubt that marketing money positively benefits NetFlix’s bottom line – and the  practice absolutely accelerated in 2020, as did everything streaming-related during COVID. But there was not a significant shift in NetFlix policy related to marketing that I can find, so I’m going to say I whiffed on this one.
    3. CDA 230 will get seriously challenged, but in the end, nothing gets done, again. This is exactly what happened. In fact, it’s happening as I type this – Trump is just vetoed a veto-proof defense funding bill because it doesn’t repeal 230, and Biden has already indicated he plans on rethinking 230 next year. But even though tens of millions of American citizens became familiar with Section 230 this year, nothing came of all that noise. Nailed it.
    4. Adversarial interoperability will get a moment in the sun, but also fail to make it into law. OK I have GOT to stop writing predictions about obscure academic terminology. I mean, what the actual f*ck? What I was trying to say was this: In 2020, there would be a robust debate about the best ways to regulate Big Tech, and the ideas behind “adversarial interoperability” would get a rigorous airing. This did not happen, and just like Jeffrey Katzenberg, I blame COVID. Exactly no one wanted to debate tech policy in the middle of a global pandemic. Making things worse, toward the end of this year multiple governmental agencies decided it was time to go after Big Tech, and they went batshit with proactive lawsuits – the DOJ and a majority of states sued Google (three times, no less), the FTC sued Facebook, and I’d put money more suits are coming (looking at you, Apple and Amazon). The suits revolve around antitrust law, so the debate will now be dominated by whether or not the government can prove its case in court.  This effectively postpones intelligent debate about remedies for years. I find this state of affairs deeply annoying. But a grade must be given, and that grade is a whiff, unfortunately.
    5. 2020 will also be the year “data provenance” becomes a thing. Literally stop me from ever writing predictions after hitting the flash evaporator, OK?! This was another policy-related prediction, and if I was going to miss #4 above, I’m certainly going to whiff here as well. In the very rare case you want to know what I was on about, this is how I described the concept: “The concept of data provenance started in academia, migrated to adtech, and is about to break into the broader world of marketing, which is struggling to get its arms around a data-driven future. The ability to trace the origin, ownership, permissions, and uses of data is a fundamental requirement of an advanced digital economy, and in 2020, we’ll realize we have a ton of work left to do to get this right.” Well, in fact, if you believe Google Trends, “data provenance” did have a marked lift in 2020. Does that qualify it for “becoming a thing”? I have no f*cking idea. And again, thanks to COVID, marketers were not exactly focused on public ledgers and blockchain in 2020. Note to self: Stop predicting that something will “become a thing.” Inane. Whiff.
    6. Google zags. Oh man, oh man, I feel so close on this one. I mean, there are still a few days left in 2020, right? I honestly think this is about to happen. Here’s how I explained it one year ago: “Saddled with increasingly negative public opinion and driven in large part by concerns over retaining its workforce, Google will make a deeply surprising and game changing move in 2020.” Google’s problems with both public perception (hello, three government lawsuits!) and an unhappy workforce only deepened this year – the Timnit disaster was just the most public of its struggles. But so far the company hasn’t produced a dramatic “game changing” move. Sure, the FitBit acquisition finally closed, but if that proves material, I’ll … start using a FitBit again. I firmly believe that Google must make a game changing move, and soon, if it’s going to keep its mojo. But….it certainly hasn’t happened yet. So…sigh…Whiff.
    7. At least one major “on demand” player will capitulate. Just weeks into 2020, I was well on my way to a “Nailed It” here. The tide was turning on the entire category: Uber was in trouble and badly below its IPO price, GrubHub was a falling knife looking for a buyer, PostMates had shelved its IPO dreams. And then…COVID reordered the universe, making on demand everything an essential part of quarantine life.  The entire category was supercharged – I mean, DoorDash at 19 times sales?!?! – and yet another of my predictions bit the dust. F U, COVID. Whiff.
    8. Influencer marketing will fall out of favor. Well, if ever there was a year to be sick of influencer marketing, it’d be this one. But no, with sports and entertainment programming suspended for the majority of the year, all that marketing budget had to go somewhere, and lord knows it wasn’t going to support news (despite that being the most engaged and highest growth category of all). So…brands threw in even more with influencers.  In my explanation I predicted that influencer fraud would be a huge problem – and by most accounts it is (the last figure I could find was 1.3 billion in 2019 – which was roughly 20 percent of the overall market!). But…influencer marketing did not fall out of favor, Charlie D’Amelio is making $50K per post, and damnit, I whiffed again.
    9. Information warfare becomes a national bogeyman. Finally, a slam dunk. Man, I was starting to question myself here. “Deep fakes, sophisticated state-sponsored information operations, and good old fashioned political info ops will dominate the headlines in 2020,” I wrote. Yep, and true to form, 2020 saved the scariest example for the end of the year. Nailed it.
    10. Purpose takes center stage in business. Here’s one prediction where COVID actually accelerated my take toward a passing grade. The year began with BlackRock’s stunning declaration that it would make investment decisions based on climate impact. Once COVID and the George Floyd murder came, nearly the entire Fortune 500 recalibrating their communication strategies around racial, gender, and climate equity issues. Last year I wrote “I expect plenty of CEOs will feel emboldened to take the kind of socially minded actions that would have gotten them fired in previous eras.” Whether it was P&G on climate and race,  Nike saying “Don’t Do It,” or nearly every major sports league standing with the Black Lives Matter movement, companies have taken previously unimaginable stands this year. Nailed It.
    11. Apple and/or Amazon stumble. Sure, Apple did pay up to half a billion to bury its “batterygate” scandal but let’s be honest, you  forgot about that, right? Even the publication of a terrifying expose of worker conditions in iPhone manufacturing plants failed to dent the company in 2020. But what you likely will remember is the Epic Fortnite story – and to me, that’s the stumble that tips my prediction to a “Nailed it.” Apple’s response to Epic was ham fisted and short sighted. The company  misread regulators’ appetite for antitrust, deeply injured its reputation amongst developers, and exposed the iOS App Store – the source of its most important growth revenues – as a pristine monopoly just begging for a Federal compliant. Meanwhile, while Amazon profited handsomely from COVID, the company’s reputation has only worsened in 2020. A drumbeat of negative press about unsafe working conditions, union busting, and anticompetitive practices culminated in a broadside from one of its own – Tim Bray, a respected technologist (and early reader of Searchblog) who penned a damning Dear John letter to his former employer  in May. Despite the strength of both companies’ stock prices, I think it’s safe to say that both Apple and Amazon stumbled in 2020. Nailed It.

    So there you have it, my review of how my predictions fared in 2020. Five right, six wrong, for a batting average of .454. Far better than last year, where I hit just .300, but far below some of my best. Still, not bad if you factor in COVID’s impact on nearly everything. Next week I’ll be writing Predictions 2021 – let’s hope this is the start of a trend.


    Previous predictions:

    Predictions 2020

    Predictions 2019

    2019: How I did

    Predictions 2018

    2018: How I Did

    Predictions 2017

    2017: How I Did

    Predictions 2016

    2016: How I Did

    Predictions 2015

    2015: How I Did

    Predictions 2014

    2014: How I Did

    Predictions 2013

    2013: How I Did

    Predictions 2012

    2012: How I Did

    Predictions 2011

    2011: How I Did

    Predictions 2010

    2010: How I Did

    2009 Predictions

    2009 How I Did

    2008 Predictions

    2008 How I Did

    2007 Predictions

    2007 How I Did

    2006 Predictions

    2006 How I Did

    2005 Predictions

    2005 How I Did

    2004 Predictions

    2004 How I Did

     
  • feedwordpress 01:20:40 on 2020/10/14 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , policy, speech   

    Facebook Is Finally Admitting It’s A Publisher 


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    The video above is from a conversation at The Recount’s SHIFT event last month, between Nick Clegg, Facebook VP, Global Affairs and Communications, and myself. If you can’t bear to watch 30 or seconds of video, the gist is this: Clegg says “Thank God Mark Zuckerberg isn’t editing what people can or can’t say on Facebook, that’s not his or our role.”

    One month later, with Trump down in the polls and the political winds shifting, well, let’s just say the company has changed its tune. Dramatically. Not only has it banned Holocaust denial, it’s also banned anti-vax advertising and taken steps to pro actively manage the disinformation shitshow that will be the Trump campaign post election.

    Witness this quote, from Zuckerberg himself, in his recent post framing why Facebook will now ban Holocaust denial from the platform: “Drawing the right lines between what is and isn’t acceptable speech isn’t straightforward, but with the current state of the world, I believe this is the right balance.”

    Excuse me while I point out the most fucking obvious thing in the world when it comes to what an editor actually does: We draw lines about what is is and isn’t acceptable, either as fact, as truth, as hypocrisy, or what is in the public interest. That’s the damn job of journalists: To call bullshit. And regardless of Facebook’s longstanding claims to not be a publisher or a journalistic entity, the truth is, these actions prove the company understands it is an arbiter of facts, truth, and the public interest. The  simple reality is this: The company has tried to have it both ways for Too. Fucking. Long. It’s time we treat Facebook for what it is: A media company, subject to the norms, responsibilities, and behaviors we all expect and demand from our media providers.

     

     
  • feedwordpress 22:01:00 on 2020/04/19 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , policy, , , , , ,   

    New Research Shows Why and How Zoom Could Become an Advertising Driven Business 


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    As the coronavirus crisis built to pandemic levels in early March, a relatively unknown tech company confronted a defining opportunity. Zoom Video Communications, a fast-growing enterprise videoconferencing platform with roots in both Silicon Valley and China, had already seen its market cap grow from under $10 billion to nearly double that. As the coronavirus began dominating news reports in the western press, Zoom announced its first full fiscal year results as a public company. The company logged $622.7 million in revenue, up 88% from the year before. Zoom’s high growth rate and “software as a service” business model guaranteed fantastic future profits, and investors rewarded the company by driving its stock up even further. On March 5th, the day after Zoom announced its earnings, the company’s stock jumped to $125, more than double its price on the day of its public offering eleven months before. Market analysts began issuing bullish guidance, and company executives noted that as the coronavirus spread, more and more customers were sampling Zoom’s easy-to-use video conferencing platform.

    But as anyone paying attention to business news for the past month knows, it’s been a tumultuous ride for Zoom ever since. As the virus forced the world inside, demand for Zoom’s services skyrocketed, and the company became a household name nearly overnight. Zoom’s “freemium” model – which offers a basic version of its platform for free, with more robust features available for a modest monthly subscription fee – allowed tens of millions of new users to sample the company’s wares. Initially, Zoom was a hit with its new user base – stories of Zoom seders, Zoom cocktail parties, and even Zoom weddings gave the company a consumer-friendly vibe. Here, again, was the story of a scrappy Valley startup with just the right product at just the right time. According to the company, Zoom’s monthly users  leapt from a high of 10 million to more than 200 million – an unimaginable increase of 2,000 percent in just one month.

    Just as quickly, however, Zoom became the subject of controversy. Like Google and Facebook before it, Zoom’s success as a product comes from an unwavering focus on convenience. Zoom makes it as easy as possible to use its platform. Employing invisible technical tricks, Zoom engineers made the platform easy to install, easy to share, and … easy to hack. Press reports about “Zoom bombing” began dominating the headlines, and as reporters dug in, so did reports of significant (and long ignored) security failings. Large corporations, state governments, and school districts banned the company’s products. Media outlets began to investigate the company’s Chinese roots – only to discover that the young firm had mistakenly routed user sessions through its servers in mainland China. Zoom responded quickly, freezing product development and focusing entirely on responding to critical security issues. The company then updated its privacy policies, in response to criticism that it might use user data in the same ways that Google and Facebook currently do (more on that below).

    But with China and the United States entering a third year of an increasingly heated trade war, and now blaming each other for the origin of the novel coronavirus, Zoom finds itself in an extraordinary position that no amount of crisis communications can overcome.  Zoom’s founder and CEO, Eric Yuan, is a Chinese ex-pat and naturalized American citizen. More than 700 of his 2,500+ employees live and work in China. Until March of this year, Yuan was held up as an example of the best that global capitalism can offer – an ingenious immigrant who bootstrapped his way to America and leveraged hard work, smarts, and venture financing into a multi-billion dollar fortune.

    Now Zoom’s brand – and its future – live under storm clouds of suspicion. In just four weeks, the company has inherited the full force of the American “techlash.” And the companies previously at the center of that storm – in particular the “Big Four” of Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon – are  happy to pass along that unpleasant mantle. What might it do next?

    * * *

    As some readers know, I’ve been a student of the “Big Four” for more than two decades. For the past 18 months, that work has focused on the terms of service and privacy policies of the Big Four. Thanks to the work of researchers and faculty at Columbia’s School of International Public Affairs and Graduate School of Journalism, we’ve published a study of the underlying architecture of the Big Four’s core policies, a visualization we call “Mapping Data Flows.” This tool breaks down and compares each company’s core privacy and data use policies, with a goal of giving both ordinary consumers and academic researchers insight into the architecture of control currently dominating our economy’s relationship to data.

    Given its very recent and extraordinary rise as a consumer tool, we decided to apply this approach to Zoom’s terms of service and privacy policy as well. You can find our initial findings here.

    As with every research project, our study of Zoom’s policies began with a working hypothesis. One of the most interesting findings from our initial study of the Big Four was how similar their policies were – they all collect vast sums of data, and their terms of service allow them nearly unlimited usage of that data. And of course, all four granted themselves the right to collect, process, and employ user data for the purpose of pursuing advertising businesses – a multi-hundred billion dollar industry driving what Harvard scholar Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” We therefore asked ourselves two questions: First, would Zoom’s current terms of service and privacy policies allow them to join the Big Four in the pursuit of an advertising business? And second, given Zoom is (or was) an enterprise facing (focused on business users), as opposed to a consumer facing platform, would its privacy policies and terms of use be markedly different from the Big Four?

    The short answer to that first question is yes. And for the second? That’d be a no. As the first image below demonstrates, Zoom collects a ton of data, and its policies are quite similar to those of its Big Four cousins.

    Figure 1 – Zoom’s Data Collection visualized

    But exploring that first question – whether Zoom might become an advertising-driven business – yielded even more interesting insights:

    Figure 2 – Zoom’s data collection for purposes of Advertising.

    As the illustration from our new visualization above demonstrates, our research shows that nearly all data collected from Zoom user sessions may be used for the purpose of advertising. Despite the clarification of Zoom’s privacy policies posted on March 29th around usage of data from user sessions, nothing material changed in its actual policies. Indeed, the company writes that “We are not changing any of our practices. We are updating our privacy policy to be more clear, explicit, and transparent.”

    To be clear, Zoom does not currently run an advertising business along the lines of Facebook, Google, Apple, or Amazon’s (and yes, both Apple and Amazon have significant data-driven advertising businesses, they just don’t like to talk about them). So why, in their own policies, do they reserve the right to use all collected data for the purpose of “advertising”?

    As any lawyer will tell you, words are slippery things. Certainly in the context of Zoom’s current business, the word “advertising” covers the company’s role as an advertiser – as a brand that uses data to market to current and potential customers using platforms like Google or Facebook. But a careful reading of the company’s policies reveal how easily the same words could allow the company to pivot from advertiser to provider of advertising, should the company wish to. In other words, there’s nothing stopping the company from joining the Big Four as a major player in the provision of advertising services, should it wish.

    How might Zoom do such a thing? And  given its current privacy backlash, why would Zoom ever consider such a move?

    Let’s start with the How, then we’ll cover the Why.

    As I mentioned at the start of this piece, Zoom’s current business is based on what folks in the tech industry call a freemium SaaS (software as a service) model. The company makes a version of its platform available to anyone for free, and then “upsells” those free users to a paid version that has more bells and whistles, like the ability to record, larger numbers of participants on a videoconference, and so on. Pricing starts at $15/month, scaling up to thousands a month for large customers. This model is most often employed for enterprise customers (Slack is a good example), but it’s also found success in consumer-facing applications, where more often than not users pay to get rid of ads (think YouTube or Hulu). Regardless of whether the service is enterprise or consumer focused, free users always outnumber paying ones by an order of magnitude or more.

    One of the most difficult elements of a freemium SaaS model is luring those free users “down the funnel” into paying for a monthly subscription. So how might Zoom convince its bumper crop of roughly 190 million new consumers to start paying up?

    By now you’ve probably figured out where I’m going with all this. Zoom could implement a free service that’s supported by advertising, then encourage users to pay for a version that’s ad free. Doing so would be ridiculously simple: Just as with YouTube, Zoom could force its users to watch a “skippable” pre-roll video ad before the start of each videoconference (and it could use its data trove to make those ads extremely targeted).  Well aware that such an interruption would be an annoyance at best, Zoom could then offer to strip the ads out for customers who paid a small subscription service of, say, $5 a month. If just one quarter of its customer base decided to do so, Zoom’s revenues would jump by $250 million a month – adding a cool $3 billion a year to its top line revenue, nearly all of which would be pure profit. The resulting advertising business could easily add hundreds of millions, if not billions more. That’s five times more revenue than the company reported in its last fiscal year.

    Which brings us to the “Why” of this admittedly speculative (but nevertheless quite reasonable) exercise. And that why comes down to capitalism. Zoom is a public company with a massive valuation – more than $40 billion at the time of this writing. That gives it an unsustainable price to earnings ratio of roughly 1,750 – 76 times larger than the S&P average. The pressure to “grow into” those outsized expectations is enormous. Zoom is staring at a multi-billion dollar business model just begging to be implemented. For its shareholders, board, and senior executives, the question isn’t why it should be adopting the business model that made Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon the most valuable companies in the world. Instead, the question is simply this: Why shouldn’t it?

    In another post, we’ll explore answers to that question (and how Zoom, if it’s thoughtful, could help reimagine the core architecture of surveillance capitalism). For now, take a spin around our newest visualization, give us input in the comments below. Thanks for reading, and take care of yourself – and others – out there.

    ###

    The Mapping Data Flows project is seated at Columbia SIPA – we are grateful for the support of Dean Merit Janow, as well as the support of the Brown Institute at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, the Omidyar Network, and faculty and staff including Mark Hansen, Juan Francisco Saldarriaga, Zoe Martin, Matthew Albasi, Natasha Bhuta, and Veronica Penney. Hat tip as well to Doc, who’s been focused on these issues for decades as well. 

     
  • feedwordpress 22:01:00 on 2020/04/19 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , policy, , , , , ,   

    New Research Shows Why and How Zoom Could Become an Advertising Driven Business 


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    As the coronavirus crisis built to pandemic levels in early March, a relatively unknown tech company confronted a defining opportunity. Zoom Video Communications, a fast-growing enterprise videoconferencing platform with roots in both Silicon Valley and China, had already seen its market cap grow from under $10 billion to nearly double that. As the coronavirus began dominating news reports in the western press, Zoom announced its first full fiscal year results as a public company. The company logged $622.7 million in revenue, up 88% from the year before. Zoom’s high growth rate and “software as a service” business model guaranteed fantastic future profits, and investors rewarded the company by driving its stock up even further. On March 5th, the day after Zoom announced its earnings, the company’s stock jumped to $125, more than double its price on the day of its public offering eleven months before. Market analysts began issuing bullish guidance, and company executives noted that as the coronavirus spread, more and more customers were sampling Zoom’s easy-to-use video conferencing platform.

    But as anyone paying attention to business news for the past month knows, it’s been a tumultuous ride for Zoom ever since. As the virus forced the world inside, demand for Zoom’s services skyrocketed, and the company became a household name nearly overnight. Zoom’s “freemium” model – which offers a basic version of its platform for free, with more robust features available for a modest monthly subscription fee – allowed tens of millions of new users to sample the company’s wares. Initially, Zoom was a hit with its new user base – stories of Zoom seders, Zoom cocktail parties, and even Zoom weddings gave the company a consumer-friendly vibe. Here, again, was the story of a scrappy Valley startup with just the right product at just the right time. According to the company, Zoom’s monthly users  leapt from a high of 10 million to more than 200 million – an unimaginable increase of 2,000 percent in just one month.

    Just as quickly, however, Zoom became the subject of controversy. Like Google and Facebook before it, Zoom’s success as a product comes from an unwavering focus on convenience. Zoom makes it as easy as possible to use its platform. Employing invisible technical tricks, Zoom engineers made the platform easy to install, easy to share, and … easy to hack. Press reports about “Zoom bombing” began dominating the headlines, and as reporters dug in, so did reports of significant (and long ignored) security failings. Large corporations, state governments, and school districts banned the company’s products. Media outlets began to investigate the company’s Chinese roots – only to discover that the young firm had mistakenly routed user sessions through its servers in mainland China. Zoom responded quickly, freezing product development and focusing entirely on responding to critical security issues. The company then updated its privacy policies, in response to criticism that it might use user data in the same ways that Google and Facebook currently do (more on that below).

    But with China and the United States entering a third year of an increasingly heated trade war, and now blaming each other for the origin of the novel coronavirus, Zoom finds itself in an extraordinary position that no amount of crisis communications can overcome.  Zoom’s founder and CEO, Eric Yuan, is a Chinese ex-pat and naturalized American citizen. More than 700 of his 2,500+ employees live and work in China. Until March of this year, Yuan was held up as an example of the best that global capitalism can offer – an ingenious immigrant who bootstrapped his way to America and leveraged hard work, smarts, and venture financing into a multi-billion dollar fortune.

    Now Zoom’s brand – and its future – live under storm clouds of suspicion. In just four weeks, the company has inherited the full force of the American “techlash.” And the companies previously at the center of that storm – in particular the “Big Four” of Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon – are  happy to pass along that unpleasant mantle. What might it do next?

    * * *

    As some readers know, I’ve been a student of the “Big Four” for more than two decades. For the past 18 months, that work has focused on the terms of service and privacy policies of the Big Four. Thanks to the work of researchers and faculty at Columbia’s School of International Public Affairs and Graduate School of Journalism, we’ve published a study of the underlying architecture of the Big Four’s core policies, a visualization we call “Mapping Data Flows.” This tool breaks down and compares each company’s core privacy and data use policies, with a goal of giving both ordinary consumers and academic researchers insight into the architecture of control currently dominating our economy’s relationship to data.

    Given its very recent and extraordinary rise as a consumer tool, we decided to apply this approach to Zoom’s terms of service and privacy policy as well. You can find our initial findings here.

    As with every research project, our study of Zoom’s policies began with a working hypothesis. One of the most interesting findings from our initial study of the Big Four was how similar their policies were – they all collect vast sums of data, and their terms of service allow them nearly unlimited usage of that data. And of course, all four granted themselves the right to collect, process, and employ user data for the purpose of pursuing advertising businesses – a multi-hundred billion dollar industry driving what Harvard scholar Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” We therefore asked ourselves two questions: First, would Zoom’s current terms of service and privacy policies allow them to join the Big Four in the pursuit of an advertising business? And second, given Zoom is (or was) an enterprise facing (focused on business users), as opposed to a consumer facing platform, would its privacy policies and terms of use be markedly different from the Big Four?

    The short answer to that first question is yes. And for the second? That’d be a no. As the first image below demonstrates, Zoom collects a ton of data, and its policies are quite similar to those of its Big Four cousins.

    Figure 1 – Zoom’s Data Collection visualized

    But exploring that first question – whether Zoom might become an advertising-driven business – yielded even more interesting insights:

    Figure 2 – Zoom’s data collection for purposes of Advertising.

    As the illustration from our new visualization above demonstrates, our research shows that nearly all data collected from Zoom user sessions may be used for the purpose of advertising. Despite the clarification of Zoom’s privacy policies posted on March 29th around usage of data from user sessions, nothing material changed in its actual policies. Indeed, the company writes that “We are not changing any of our practices. We are updating our privacy policy to be more clear, explicit, and transparent.”

    To be clear, Zoom does not currently run an advertising business along the lines of Facebook, Google, Apple, or Amazon’s (and yes, both Apple and Amazon have significant data-driven advertising businesses, they just don’t like to talk about them). So why, in their own policies, do they reserve the right to use all collected data for the purpose of “advertising”?

    As any lawyer will tell you, words are slippery things. Certainly in the context of Zoom’s current business, the word “advertising” covers the company’s role as an advertiser – as a brand that uses data to market to current and potential customers using platforms like Google or Facebook. But a careful reading of the company’s policies reveal how easily the same words could allow the company to pivot from advertiser to provider of advertising, should the company wish to. In other words, there’s nothing stopping the company from joining the Big Four as a major player in the provision of advertising services, should it wish.

    How might Zoom do such a thing? And  given its current privacy backlash, why would Zoom ever consider such a move?

    Let’s start with the How, then we’ll cover the Why.

    As I mentioned at the start of this piece, Zoom’s current business is based on what folks in the tech industry call a freemium SaaS (software as a service) model. The company makes a version of its platform available to anyone for free, and then “upsells” those free users to a paid version that has more bells and whistles, like the ability to record, larger numbers of participants on a videoconference, and so on. Pricing starts at $15/month, scaling up to thousands a month for large customers. This model is most often employed for enterprise customers (Slack is a good example), but it’s also found success in consumer-facing applications, where more often than not users pay to get rid of ads (think YouTube or Hulu). Regardless of whether the service is enterprise or consumer focused, free users always outnumber paying ones by an order of magnitude or more.

    One of the most difficult elements of a freemium SaaS model is luring those free users “down the funnel” into paying for a monthly subscription. So how might Zoom convince its bumper crop of roughly 190 million new consumers to start paying up?

    By now you’ve probably figured out where I’m going with all this. Zoom could implement a free service that’s supported by advertising, then encourage users to pay for a version that’s ad free. Doing so would be ridiculously simple: Just as with YouTube, Zoom could force its users to watch a “skippable” pre-roll video ad before the start of each videoconference (and it could use its data trove to make those ads extremely targeted).  Well aware that such an interruption would be an annoyance at best, Zoom could then offer to strip the ads out for customers who paid a small subscription service of, say, $5 a month. If just one quarter of its customer base decided to do so, Zoom’s revenues would jump by $250 million a month – adding a cool $3 billion a year to its top line revenue, nearly all of which would be pure profit. The resulting advertising business could easily add hundreds of millions, if not billions more. That’s five times more revenue than the company reported in its last fiscal year.

    Which brings us to the “Why” of this admittedly speculative (but nevertheless quite reasonable) exercise. And that why comes down to capitalism. Zoom is a public company with a massive valuation – more than $40 billion at the time of this writing. That gives it an unsustainable price to earnings ratio of roughly 1,750 – 76 times larger than the S&P average. The pressure to “grow into” those outsized expectations is enormous. Zoom is staring at a multi-billion dollar business model just begging to be implemented. For its shareholders, board, and senior executives, the question isn’t why it should be adopting the business model that made Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon the most valuable companies in the world. Instead, the question is simply this: Why shouldn’t it?

    In another post, we’ll explore answers to that question (and how Zoom, if it’s thoughtful, could help reimagine the core architecture of surveillance capitalism). For now, take a spin around our newest visualization, give us input in the comments below. Thanks for reading, and take care of yourself – and others – out there.

    ###

    The Mapping Data Flows project is seated at Columbia SIPA – we are grateful for the support of Dean Merit Janow, as well as the support of the Brown Institute at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, the Omidyar Network, and faculty and staff including Mark Hansen, Juan Francisco Saldarriaga, Zoe Martin, Matthew Albasi, Natasha Bhuta, and Veronica Penney. Hat tip as well to Doc, who’s been focused on these issues for decades as well. 

     
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