Categories
The Industry

The Declining Search Engine?

ask-jeevesThere is a subtle battle going on for control of the web. The web as we have come to know it is built upon the search engine. Those who’ve been on the web long enough remember search engines like Archie, Excite, Aliweb, Infoseek, AltaVista and Ask Jeeves. Today Google dominates the search market along with others including Bing, Yahoo and DuckDuckGo. Search engines operate by the simple premise of ‘crawling’ through publicly available web spaces and categorizing web pages by topics that can be searched.

But we might have reached the point in the life of the web where the search engine will decline in value. This is because search engines rely on public content and an ever-increasing amount of our collective information is now being created for and stored in the dark web. This term refers to networks which use the public internet but which require specific software to access.

The best example of the dark web is social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. There are huge amounts of content now created for and stored inside of these platforms. Facebook is the best example of this. There are now many businesses that no longer have a web site but which instead have a Facebook page. There are many organizations that do the same and that communicate with members only through a Facebook group. Every social media site has something similar. For instance, there are now thousands of articles that are written for and published within LinkedIn.

But the dark web includes a lot more than just social media. Corporations and trade associations now routinely keep information hidden from the general public by requiring password access to read whatever they have published. You can understand the motivation behind this – a trade association might have more luck recruiting members if membership includes access to unique content.

But corporations also hide a lot of content that used to be public. For example, cable companies like Comcast require a customer to enter a valid address before showing them current products and prices. Those prices used to be openly published, but the act of asking for an address now ‘hides’ this information from search engines. Comcast certainly wants this iformation hidden since they don’t offer the same prices everywhere.

While the information behind corporate and trade association web sites is already unavailable to search engines, for now the information behind most social media sites is still searchable. But there is nothing that requires it to stay that way. Google and Facebook are now engaged in a fierce battle to win web advertising and there is nothing to stop Facebook from flicking a switch and hiding all of its content from Google search. To do so would instantly devalue Google since businesses listed only within Facebook would disappear from the search engine results.

It almost seems inevitable that this day will come, and probably not long from now. Both Google and Facebook have requirements from stockholders to continue to grow and both businesses are fueled largely by advertising revenue. It’s hard to think at some point that Facebook won’t deliberately try to gain an edge in this battle.

But the consequences of the dark web to all of us an ever-increasing lack of information. I remember spending evenings in the early days of the web just browsing the web for interesting content. It seems like every college and high school pushed huge amounts of interesting content onto the web – because in those early days that’s what the web was all about. All of the content from textbooks and homework assignments were on the open web for anybody to read. But there is no longer any major motivation to push information to the web. And many schools and universities are now behind a dark web wall as well.

The web has shifted massively towards entertainment and content is no longer king. Most of the early content-heavy web sites have died since they’ve either been pulled down or are no longer maintained. And so every day more content is removed from the web, and every day search engines become a little less valuable to the human race.

We may already be in a world where there is more useful data on the dark web than on the open one. Facebook and a few others could push the search engines onto the road to decline. History has already shown us that search engines can come and go. Excite was one of the first web companies that sold for billions, but the company that bought it, @Home went bankrupt. There is nothing to say that the Google search engine or any other is something that we can always rely on. And in fact, they may just fade away someday due to irrelevance.

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The Industry

I Cut the Other Cord

It’s the day before Thanksgiving and rather than talk about anything too serious I’m going to talk about my experience in cutting the other cord – the social media cord. I recently left Facebook – and it feels great.

I’ve been on Facebook for years. I had over 200 friends that were a mix of family, people I went to schools with and various other people I’ve met over time. When I first got on Facebook many years ago it was a fun experience. I was able to catch up with old high school friends and was able to see what my family was up to. It really was a social site in the true spirit of that phrase, and my memory is that my Facebook feed in those days were mostly personal postings from my friends and very little else.

But over the years a lot new things crept into the Facebook feed and it became far less personal. I would bet that not more than 10% of my recent feeds were things directly posted by my friends. Instead my feed became a long stream of ‘news’ articles and a ton of other impersonal content.

Facebook is currently under fire for allowing too much ‘fake’ news on the platforms that critics say influenced the election. Companies like the New York Times or the Huffington Post pay to suggest content on Facebook in the hope of driving people to their own content. These sponsored posts apparently drive several billion dollars a year to Facebook. But not everybody is the New York Times and there are lots of other websites paying to post much more questionable content. Facebook says they are going to figure out how to ban the worst of these sites from adding fake news or misleading content.

But I don’t think that will put a dent in the problem. The fact is that any one of Facebook’s 1.65 billion members can link to any web site that doesn’t violate things like Facebook’s ban on nudity. And since personal posts can go viral and I can’t imagine the amount of untrue content will decrease a whit.

The fake content is not all political. A huge percentage of the things I see on almost any topic have the same problem. I would venture to say that most of the posts I see talking about nutrition, global warming, vaccinations, or almost any other current topic are also untrue or misleading. I would estimate that as much as half of the ‘content’ I saw on my feed was of questionable veracity.

I’m one of those people that hates obvious untruths and I would routinely tell my friends when they had posted something untrue. I’m guessing they will be glad to see me gone, because nobody ever thanked me for this! I’m afraid Facebook was turning me into the cranky neighbor sitting on the porch and trying to fix the world by pointing out untruths. But it is clear that I’ve been trying to swim against the tide.

My wife, as usual, gets things a little faster than me and she dropped Facebook a while back because the tone was growing so mean. Regardless of the topic the whole site now invites trolling and argumentation.

The other thing that has been bothering me about Facebook is that the company has been getting really sophisticated in collecting information about us and is either using it for advertising or selling it to others. I’ve grown more uncomfortable over time that everything I do on the site has been helping Facebook create a detailed profile on me. I sit and watch my friends take ‘quizzes’ that ask them a bunch of personal questions that they would never answer for a stranger. But companies have become good at disguising this data gathering as something fun.

I haven’t dropped some other social media sites because they serve purposes that benefit me. For example, I only use Twitter to follow people in the telecom industry or to follow my favorite sports teams. I post these blogs on Twitter but I rarely comment or read comments there. And I use LinkedIn as my online rolodex since it gives me a quick way to contact colleagues that I may have lost track of otherwise. The way I use these sites doesn’t have any negative aspects for me.

I can tell you that dropping Facebook has been a positive experience and I’m never going back. It was a time eater that could nibble away from a few minutes to hours on some days. The obviously fake, false and untrue content that has overtaken the platform was driving me crazy. And I feel glad to no longer be feeding my likes, preferences and opinions into the advertising grist mill. I heartily recommend leaving Facebook to anybody that is bothered by these same things. Facebook started as something fun, but I recommend anybody who is not having that original fun any longer to drop the site and spend your time elsewhere. I can tell you that it feels really great to let go of something so negative.

Categories
The Industry

Free Broadband from Facebook

Facebook is talking to the FCC about launching a free Internet service in the US. This would provide a subset of the Internet for free to anybody with a smartphone and would provide such things as news, health information, job sites, and of course Facebook.

This would obviously benefit many people that can’t afford access to the web. Today the national broadband penetration of households that have some kind of access to the web is around 82%. Some of those without broadband live in rural places that don’t have access. Some don’t want Internet access. And the rest would like web access but can’t afford it.

Facebook has launched a similar product around the world in 53 emerging markets in the Middle East, Asia Pacific and Latin America. This is offered under the name Free Basics.

But the free product ran into problems and has been banned in India due to the fact that it violates net neutrality. The Indian net neutrality laws aren’t too different than our own laws and the service is what called zero-rated, meaning that any use of this plan is not counted against a data plan from a participating ISP.

In India the biggest complaint about the product was that it was restricted only to those things that Facebook wanted customers to see and not to the wider Internet. But in Facebook’s favor, it was free.

For this to work in the US, Facebook will need to find a US cellular partner which would not count usage of the app against a data plan. I recall that Facebook was close to this a few years ago in a partnership with T-Mobile that would have provided free access to a suite of products called GoSmart.

But more importantly, Facebook needs to convince the FCC that this is not a violation of net neutrality. The FCC has not formally made any pronouncements about zero-rating of wireless content, but it has talked to the major wireless carriers about the zero-rating they are already doing today.

This is the kind of situation that is really tough for regulators. With this kind of product Facebook could be providing some sort of free access to the web for millions of people in the country that might otherwise not have it. Even if it’s a scrubbed and sanitized piece of the web, it’s hard to find anything wrong with the results of that. People could buy a smartphone with no data plan and have access to parts of the web.

But the downside to the FCC is the same one faced by the Indian regulators. Once you let Facebook do this then the genie is out of the bottle and there doesn’t seem to be any way that the FCC could stop other kinds of zero-rating.

The dilemma is that Facebook is not quite like other companies. I am sure that somehow this isn’t costing Facebook too much and they might even make a little money from the idea. But Mark Zuckerberg seems to be on an altruistic mission to bring broadband access to the whole world. He has already used this idea to bring free broadband to many millions, and his goal is to bring it to billions.

But even with the altruism, this has certainly been good for Facebook – they had 1 billion users in 2015 and are now are reported to have over 1.7 billion users. That’s a lot of people to advertise to and to gather data from, which is how Facebook makes its money.

And of course, no matter how altruistic Facebook might be, nobody would expect the same motives from other large companies like Comcast, AT&T or Verizon. One of the main fears that drove the creation of net neutrality is that we could end up with a web that is filtered by the biggest ISPs and that the openness of the web would be killed by deals like the one Facebook wants to do. The web brought to you by Comcast is not the same web that we know today – and I think it’s a web that we don’t want as a society. But if we take the first step and let a big company like Facebook filter the web, we could be headed down the path where almost all future web access is filtered.

Categories
Current News

Industry Shorts – August 2016

The following are a few topics I which found interesting but don’t require a full blog entry:

FCC to Allow Cable Black-outs. The FCC has officially decided that it is not going to intervene in the many disputes we see these days between programmers and cable operators. Only a few years ago this was a fairly rare occurrence, but you can’t read industry press without seeing some new dispute – many of which are now leading to content black-outs when the two sides can’t reach a resolution.

The FCC has always been allowed to intervene in disputes and routinely did so a decade ago. The American Cable Association which represents small and medium cable companies wants the FCC to be more active today to protect against abuses by the programmers, but the agency has decided to let the market work to resolve disputes. There have been over 600 blackouts since 2010 and the frequency seems to be accelerating.

Blogger Loses Life’s Work. Google recently hit the news when it disabled access to 14 years of blogs as well artwork, photograph, a novel and even the Gmail account that was being stored online by Dennis Cooper. The blogger claims he received no notice until his work disappeared and Google won’t tell him why he was cut off or if his content still exists. Cooper’s blog always contained controversial content and was a popular destination for fans of experimental literature and avant-garde writing.

His case highlights the intersection of first amendment rights versus the ability of private corporations like Google to allow or not allow content on their private platforms. Google has slowly been cutting back on storage services such as Google News Drives and Google Groups and Cooper’s content might not even still exist. If anything, this case highlights the importance of backing up content offline. It also raises the issue of how permanent anything is on the web.

AT&T Testing Drone Cell Sites. AT&T has been testing the use of drones as flying cell sites to use during big events. Large events always overwhelm local cellular sites and drones might be the answer to give access to many people in a concentrated area.

The company has already been using a technology that it calls COWs (Cells on Wheels) that are brought to large sporting events to provide more coverage. But the hope is that drones can be deployed more quickly and for a lower cost and provide better service. Of course, this just means more of a phenomenon I’ve seen a few times in recent years where people in the stands at a football game are watching the same game on their cellphone instead of looking at what is in front of them.

Huawei Creates 10 Gbps Cable Platform. We are in the earliest stages of deployment of gigabit broadband using DOCSIS 3.1 on cable systems and Chinese vendor Huswei claims to have already created a 10 Gbps platform using the new standard.

The company faces several hurdles to deploying the technology in the US since the company is under scrutiny by the US for doing business with North Korea and with Iran during the recent embargo. But the biggest issue with a cable company offering gigantic bandwidth over coaxial cable is freeing up enough bandwidth in a cable TV network to do so. Cable companies have to free up at least 24 empty channels to offer a gigabit over coax and it seems unlikely that are willing to try to open up a lot more channels than that for higher bandwidth. The only realistic scenario for going much larger than a gigabit is to migrate a cable network to IPTV and make the whole network into a big data pipe – but this is a very costly transition that means a new headend and new settop boxes. .

Facebook Develops Mobile Access Point. Facebooks has developed a shoebox size access point that can support wireless transmissions including 2G, LTE and WiFi. The box is hardened for the harshest conditions, is relatively low-powered and is intended as a way to expand Internet coverage around the world in poorer areas. Most of the world now connects with the Internet wirelessly and this access point can enable customers with a wide range of devices to gain access.

 

Categories
The Industry

The Changing Face of Advertising

There has been talk for a number of years of advertising dollars shifting from television to the Internet, and it looks like maybe this is finally starting to happen. Consider the recent advertising revenues from Viacom and Facebook.

Viacom is one of a handful of the big programmers and owns such channels as Comedy Central, MTV, and Nickelodeon (along with Paramount Pictures). This has always made Viacom one of the powerhouses in attracting advertisers along with other large programmers like Disney, Fox, Comcast, Warner Brothers, and a few others. Viacom’s ad revenues in the first quarter of this year were $1.123 B, down slightly from $1.172 B a year ago.

But Facebook’s ad revenues were $5.201 B for the first quarter of this year, up from $3.317 B a year ago. It’s pretty obvious that the big web companies are starting to win the advertising battle. For all of 2015 the total advertising for television was $80.4 B, down slightly from $82.0 B in 2014. But in 2015 the advertising revenues for just Facebook and Google had grown to $84.5 B and is still growing rapidly.

This is not particularly surprising since ratings for television as a whole are plummeting. People are watching traditional television less and are watching more and more video on the web. It seems like the battle between television advertising and web advertising has passed a milestone and that web advertising is now dominant for the first time. I have no idea how fast (or by how much) television advertising will fall, but it looks inevitable that it will.

What does this trend mean to small cable providers? I think it matters a lot because advertising revenue is a major source of revenue for programmers. To the extent that advertising revenues drop for them there is going to be more pressure for them to raise programming rates to cable companies even faster to make up for the revenue difference.

But that could lead into a classic death spiral. Rapidly rising cable TV rates is one of the major factors in driving people towards alternate programming. Many cord cutters and cord shavers cite the cost of traditional cable as a big reason they are looking for alternatives. The more that programmers raise rates, the more eyeballs they are going to lose, and one assumes the more revenue they will lose.

Programmers are also starting to get some pushback from small cable operators. There are a handful of smaller cable systems with less than a million customers in total that have dropped Viacom completely in the last year due to the unreasonable rate increases the company is demanding. I have a number of small cable clients who – when they do the math – realize that they are either losing money on cable or are getting close to the time when they will lose money. Once a company gets to that point then dropping programming is a natural response. It’s better to cut costs and lose customers when you are losing money rather than to keep shoveling money out the door to the programmers.

The programmers are also facing an FCC that is leaning more and more towards giving customers more choices in programming. You can see this in the recent NPRM for settop box reform where they want the cable companies to include ‘channel slots’ for alternate programming like Netflix. The FCC has yet to act on the open docket that is looking at the rights of companies to put content onto the Internet – but it’s clear that the FCC favors consumer choice.

And all of the big cable companies are now implementing or looking to implement skinny bundles. These are smaller packages of just the channels that people want to watch, at a much lower cost to consumers than the big traditional packages. The cable companies want to get off the treadmill of paying huge amounts for programming, and skinny bundles reduce and reset the bar. The cable companies also want to offer an alternative to people to stop them from totally dropping the cable company.

It’s a tough time to be a cable company because margins on the cable product keep tumbling. But it’s starting to also be a rough time for the programmers. Probably the best thing that can happen to the programmers is for Wall Street to lower their stock price to reset the expectations for earnings performance. At that point maybe the whole industry can take a pause and see if they can salvage what is looking like a slowly sinking ship.

Categories
The Industry

OTT Update – April 2016

It continues to be a very busy year in terms of companies launching or modifying online packages of programming.

DirecTV. Probably the biggest new announcement is that AT&T and DirecTV have announced a suite of online packages. This is not surprising after they have seen the success of Sling TV launched by Dish Networks. The two satellite companies have an edge over everybody else trying to launch OTT packages due to the apparent ability to use the content they buy for satellites onto the internet.

Pricing hasn’t been announced yet, but there are three packages being mentioned:

  • DirecTV Now is promising to replace online what you buy today from the satellite. So expect this to be packages with prices similar to the satellite packages. The biggest question will be how much local programming they are going to able to include in the package. This package is interesting in that there has always been a lot of homes that could not buy satellite due to the inability to see a satellite well or due to restrictions of some kind on using a dish.
  • DirecTV Mobile is a smaller set of programming to be aimed at smartphones, although anybody can watch it. DirecTV is promising this will be affordable.
  • DirecTV Preview will be a free service that is ad-sponsored. It will contain content from AT&T’s Audience Network and Otter Media. This seems similar to Verizon’s Go90 app.

Sling TV. Sling TV has continued to add packages of options to its base offering. But their big news is that they have made a deal with ABC to add ABC local content to the web. This is the first case I know of where a local network will be made available to anybody on line. This is being included by Sling TV as part of a Broadcast Extra package that adds additional channels for $5 per month.

One of the main draws for people on network TV is local programming – news, weather and sports. It will be interesting to see how Sling handles this. I know when I lived in the Virgin Islands that the only network TV available on the island carried news from New York City and I don’t think anybody there watched it.

Sony Vue TV. Sony has reconfigured their Vue TV from a $50 per month package down to a skinny bundle for $30. Sony didn’t have much luck with the $50 price tag and recently lowered it to $40.

The Sony offering is interesting in that it uses the Playstation 4 game console and the service comes with a built-in DVR. Rather than carry live network programming the new Vue offering provides next day access to a number of network TV series.

The biggest drawback of the offering is that there are not nearly as many homes with a Playstation 4 compared to other OTT packages that can be viewed on any device. Furthermore, the offering only supports one TV with one box.

Facebook. It was announced a month ago that both Facebook and Twitter were trying to obtain the rights to show Thursday night NFL football. But Facebook withdrew and the football is going to Twitter.

But this doesn’t mean that Facebook doesn’t have big aspirations as a video platform. They are putting a lot of effort into Facebook Live which they think can be a viable competitor to YouTube. It’s easy for my generation to forget that sites like YouTube has become a video powerhouse and Facebook wants to do something similar. Surveys have suggested that the platform that people adopt when young will influence how they watch video for life.

Facebook is also considering creating a skinny bundle that combines Facebook Live with some of their own content. With over a billion members on the platform they certainly have a good starting point.

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The Industry

Facebook as a Communications Alternative

The way that people and businesses communicate is changing rapidly. I can use my own family as a good example of this. In tech terms I am old school and my preferred mode of communications is email, plus I talk to a lot of people each week on the phone or in person. I only send two or three business text messages out each week. I send this blog out by Twitter, but I rarely communicate with anybody using Twitter. I use social media mostly for friends and family.

But then I look at my teenage daughter who is very representative of her generation. She never emails, and I mean never. She will talk to somebody on the phone only if there is no alternative (meaning to me). She texts a ton – and not just with SMS or other texts on her phone, but also using various messenger services and social networks as well. She will only use Facebook to share things with a few of us oldsters. And she exchanges silly pictures and such with friends using several picture and video services.

There is almost no crossover between her generation and mine and her generation looks upon all the ways my generation communicates as old and obsolete. This certainly has to put a shiver up the spine of anybody in the business of supplying traditional communications. I saw a survey this week that said that 25% of people don’t use their cellphones to make phone calls – and it’s not too hard to figure out which generation that is.

I’ve been hearing it said for probably two decades that telephony is a commodity and it’s finally starting to come true. For example, Facebook is making a big push to convince small businesses to communicate with their customers through Messenger. They aren’t doing this because there is money to made in the communication, but rather in the local advertising that think will come along with businesses making them their primary communications tool.

Facebook is starting into this venture with huge potential because they claim to already have over 50 million small business pages on their social network. They recently gave businesses the ability to communicate with people directly on Messenger rather than forcing people to post public messages. They are also working on click-to-Messenger from ads so that a customer can communicate instantly with an advertiser. They are also considering allowing the option for ‘blast’ messaging where a business could send messages to many followers at the same time (for pay of course).

And all of this is being driven by wanting to lure more companies to advertise on Facebook and by the desire to keep users within the Facebook realm when they want to do ecommerce. The communications part of this is an afterthought. But it’s clear that Facebook’s vision of future communications doesn’t require a telephone number or an email address and that anybody inside Facebook can interact with others directly with Messenger.

They are not the only big web company that wants to do this. There are changes happening everywhere. There was a lot of talk last year about building free voice connections into a number of browsers. Twitter is lengthening the size of their messages to allow people to have longer and more meaningful communications as an alternative to email. Even LinkedIn is enabling businesses to send bulk messages to their contacts.

And every one of these trends is a direct assault on traditional communications. When the younger generations are in the workforce they are still going to want to communicate in these new ways instead of with emails or phone calls (and many already do).

I saw another survey recently that said that people become attached to the way that they learn to watch video. It said that kids who grew up mostly watching YouTube are not buying traditional cable TV and continue to prefer YouTube and alternate sources of video. And I think the same thing is true for general communications. If my daughter gets into the workplace and is forced to use email she will begrudgingly do so. But given an alternative she will communicate in the way that is most comfortable and productive to her – and that is a world without traditional telecom.

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Technology

Why No Redundancy?

I usually load a blog every morning between 7:00 and 8:00 eastern. But today my Internet was down. I first noticed then when I woke up around 2:30. Don’t even ask why I was up then, but that is not unusual for me. My Internet outage was also not that unusual. I have Comcast as my ISP and they seem to go out a few times per month. I’ve always given them the benefit of the doubt and assumed that a few of the late night outages are due to routine network maintenance.

So I grab my cell phone to turn on my mobile hot spot. Most of the outages here last an hour or two and that is the easy way to get through outages. But bam! – AT&T is out too. I have no bars on my LTE network. So my first thought is cable cut. The only realistic way that both carriers go out in this area is if the whole area is isolated by a downed fiber.

I check back and hit a few web sites and I find at about 3:00 that I have a very slow Facebook connection, but that it’s working. I can get Facebook updates and I can post to Facebook, but none of the links outside of Facebook work. And nothing else seems to be working. This tells me that Facebook has a peering arrangement of some kind with Comcast and must come into the area by a different fiber than the one that was cut.

So I start looking around. The first thing I find is that Netflix is working normally, just as fast as ever. So now I have a slow Facebook feed and fast Netflix and still nothing else. After a while Google starts working. It wasn’t working earlier, but it seems that I can search Google, although none of the links work. This tells me that Comcast peers with Google but that the Google links use the open Internet. I force a few links back through the Google URL just to see if that will work and I find that I can read links through Google. No other search engines seem to be working.

The only other think I found that worked with the NFL highlight films and I was able to see the walk-off blocked punt in last night’s Ravens – Browns game. It’s highly unlikely that the NFL has a peering relationship with anybody and they must have a deal with Google.

So now I know a bit about the Comcast Network. They peer with Netflix, Google and Facebook – and since these are three of the largest traffic producers on the web that is not unusual. And at least in my area the peering comes into the area on a different fiber path than the normal Internet backbone that has knocked out both Comcast and AT&T.

But I also now know that in my area that Comcast has no redundancy in the network. I find this interesting because most of my small clients insist on having redundancy in their networks. Of course, most of them operate in rural areas that are used to getting isolated when cables get cuts – it happened for many years with telephone lines and now with the Internet.

But I can see that Comcast hasn’t bothered creating a redundant network. This particular outage went for 7 or 8 hours which is a bit long, so this must be from a major fiber cut. But I look at a map of Florida and it is a natural candidate to have rings. Everybody lives on one of the two coasts and there are several major east-west connector roads. This makes for natural rings. And if our backbone was on a ring we wouldn’t even know there was an outage. But with all of their billions of dollars of profits, neither Comcast nor AT&T wireless cares enough about redundancy to have put our area backbone on a ring.

And I also don’t understand why they don’t have automatic alternate routing to bypass a fiber cut. If Netflix, Facebook and Google were connected everything else could have been routed along those same other fibers. That is something else my clients would have done to minimize outages for customers.

This is honestly unconscionable and perhaps it’s time we start clamoring to the FCC to require the big companies to plow some of their profits back into a better network. These same sort of outages happened a few times to the power grid a decade ago and the federal response was that the electric companies had to come up with a better network that could stop rolling outages. I know some of my clients that are electric companies spent some significant dollars towards that effort, and it seems to have worked. Considering how important the Internet has become for our daily lives and for commerce perhaps it’s time for the FCC to do the same thing.

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The Industry

The Battle for Eyeballs

There is an interesting aspect of the web that happens behind the scene and that doesn’t get a lot of press: the tracking and maximizing of web views on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Large content providers like the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and the New York Times very closely monitor how many shares they get on the various sites. The reason that shares matter is that the more eyeballs they get to look at their pages, the more they make from advertising. It’s easy to forget that advertising drives the web, but to these companies advertising is the major, and in some cases the only source of revenue.

Following is a list from NewsWhip showing the 10 largest content providers, based on Facebook shares, for August, 2015. Some of these are familiar names, but some post content under various names that a Facebook reader would more likely recognize.

Content providers are currently in a bit of a panic because the largest social media sites are working very hard to keep eyeballs on their own pages. When somebody clicks on a web article on Facebook they are sent away from Facebook and they often don’t return. Social media sites know that keeping eyeballs on their site increases their own ad revenues.

Twitter recently launched Moments, a space for content that stays inside the Twitter platform. Twitter directly creates content for Moments and has also invited partners to write and create content inside the Twitter platform. Facebook has been doing similar things through its Trending Topics pages that lead you to content within Facebook. They are also looking at a more aggressive platform they are calling Notify. LinkedIn probably started the trend and has enlisted heavy hitters from various industries to write content directly inside their site.

It’s a tough time to be a content creator. They are already seeing a downward trend in revenue due to ad blockers. It will be that much harder to make money as a content provider if they have to also compete the social media sites directly for content. After all, the social media sites know a lot more about what each of us is interested in, and companies like Facebook can use that knowledge to entice us to view content that they think is of interest to us.

The content creators have a real concern. For example, the Huffington Post has lost about 2 million Facebook shares per month over the course of this year. The issue matters to web users, because it is the content creators that make the web worth visiting. I personally use Twitter as a way to find articles about various tech industries and I am not that much interested in personal tweets by the people I follow. I am sure that many other people use these platforms the same way – as a way to follow topics they are interested in. But whenever large sums of money are involved somebody is always going to be scheming to capture market share, and the tug of war for advertising eyeballs is in full force.

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The Industry

US and Europe at Odds over Privacy

A few weeks ago I wrote about the various battles currently raging that are going to determine the nature of the future Internet. None of these battles are larger than the battle between spying and surveillance, and citizens and countries that want to protect their citizens from being spied upon.

Recently, we’ve seen this battle manifest in several ways. First, countries like Russia and Thailand are headed down a path to create their own fire-walled Internet. Like the Chinese Great Firewall, these networks aim to retain control of all data originating within a country.

But even where the solution is not this dramatic we see the same battle. For instance, Facebook is currently embroiled in this fight in Europe. Facebook might have been singled out in this fight because they already have a bad reputation with European regulators. That reputation is probably deserved since Facebook makes most of their money from their use of customer data.

But this fight is different. The Advocate-General of the European Court of Justice (their equivalent of the Supreme Court) just ruled against Facebook in a ruling that could affect every US Internet company doing business in Europe. The ruling has to do with the ‘safe harbor’ arrangement that has been used as the basis for transferring European customer data back to US servers. The safe harbor rules come from trade rules negotiated between the US and the European Union in 2003. These rules explicitly allow what Facebook (and almost everybody else) is doing with customer data.

The Advocate-General has ruled that the EU was incorrect in negotiating the safe harbor rules. He says that they contradict some of the fundamental laws of the EU including the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the equivalent to our Constitution. He says the safe harbor rules violate the basic rights of citizens to privacy. He explicitly says that this is due to NSA spying, and that by letting Facebook and others take European data out of the country they are making it available to the NSA.

This ruling is still not cast in concrete since the Court of Justice still has to accept or reject the recommendations from the Advocate-General. However, they accept these recommendations most of the time. If this is upheld it is going to create a huge dilemma for the US. Either the NSA will have to back off from looking at data from the US companies, or else US companies won’t be able to bring that data out of Europe.

For companies like Facebook this could be fatal. There are some commercial web services that could be hosted in Europe to operate for Europeans. But social media like Facebook operate by sharing their data with everybody. It would be extremely odd on Facebook if an American couldn’t friend somebody from Europe or perhaps be unable to post pictures of their vacation while they were still in Europe. And this might put a real hitch in American companies like Google and Amazon doing business in Europe.

Such a final ruling would send US and EU negotiators back to the table, but in new negotiations safe harbor rules would no longer be an option. This ruling could bring about a fundamental change in the worldwide web. And this comes at a time when Facebook, of all companies, is talking about bringing the rest of the human race onto the web. But perhaps, as a consequence of NSA and surveillance by other companies, each country or region might end up with a local web, and the worldwide web will be a thing of the past.

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