Category: Digital Publishing News

How Smart TVs in Millions of U.S. Homes Track More Than What’s On Tonight

The growing concern over online data and user privacy has been focused on tech giants like Facebook and devices like smartphones. But people’s data is also increasingly being vacuumed right out of their living rooms via their televisions, sometimes without their knowledge.

In recent years, data companies have harnessed new technology to immediately identify what people are watching on internet-connected TVs, then using that information to send targeted advertisements to other devices in their homes. Marketers, forever hungry to get their products in front of the people most likely to buy them, have eagerly embraced such practices. But the companies watching what people watch have also faced scrutiny from regulators and privacy advocates over how transparent they are being with users.

Samba TV is one of the bigger companies that track viewer information to make personalized show recommendations. The company said it collected viewing data from 13.5 million smart TVs in the United States, and it has raised $40 million in venture funding from investors including Time Warner , the cable operator Liberty Global and the billionaire Mark Cuban.

Samba TV has struck deals with roughly a dozen TV brands — including Sony, Sharp, TCL and Philips — to place its software on certain sets. When people set up their TVs, a screen urges them to enable a service called Samba Interactive TV, saying it recommends shows and provides special offers “by cleverly recognizing onscreen content.” But the screen, which contains the enable button, does not detail how much information Samba TV collects to make those recommendations.

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A PR firestorm around Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert’s $5.5 billion Detroit project shows that money isn’t the biggest challenge he faces in revitalizing the city

Dan Gilbert, the billionaire owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, has been transforming downtown Detroit for almost a decade. Since moving his mortgage company Quicken Loans to the neighborhood in 2010, he’s invested $3.5 billion (with $2.1 billion in development) through his real estate firm Bedrock.

With a roster of around 100 properties in or around the downtown area, it’s the most ambitious private project in Detroit, a city that recently survived bankruptcy and had developed a reputation around the world as a ghost town, a post-apocalyptic shell of a once great American city.

But even though Detroit’s downtown is now filled with bright new storefronts, renovated office buildings, and fast-moving construction sites, it’s still a city of around 670,000 people who have dealt with years of strife, corruption, neglect, and poverty. Many Detroiters are rightfully skeptical of change. And that came to a head last year, when a Bedrock ad sparked a major controversy in July.

If you don’t live in Detroit or aren’t aware of its history, the ad, which primarily features a crowd of young adults with the words, “See Detroit Like We Do,” may seem benign. But the lack of context that went into it is exactly why it became such a problem, and why it shows that community relations, not access to capital, is the biggest challenge in Gilbert’s massive undertaking.

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In a city that is 80% black and largely working class, the poster seemed to communicate that Bedrock stood for a new Detroit for and by white people working for their companies, where a white downtown could thrive while minority neighborhoods would continue to languish. Local Detroit media ran with the story and it blew up on social media in the worst way possible.

Business Insider spoke with Gilbert in May, for an episode of our podcast “Success! How I Did It,” and he explained why he publicly apologized for and denounced the poster.

As he wrote in a Facebook post last year, “Although not intended to create the kind of feelings it did, the slogan/statement we used on these graphics was tone deaf, in poor taste and does not reflect a single value or philosophy that we stand for at Bedrock Development or in our entire Family of companies.”

Gilbert told us that Bedrock had developed a variety of ads featuring a diverse group of people around the city (he posted the full ad series on Facebook). A contractor they hired put up the first ad downtown and planned on finishing the rest on Monday. But Gilbert acknowledged that regardless of the images used, he found the slogan itself condescending and had not personally approved  it.

“Who cares how ‘we see Detroit’?!” he wrote on Facebook. “What is important is that Detroit comes together as a city that is open, diverse, inclusive and is being redeveloped in a way that offers opportunities for all of its people and the expected numerous new residents that will flock to our energized, growing, job-producing town where grit, hard-work and brains meld together to raise the standard of living of all of its people.”

But even after the poster was taken down and the slogan abandoned, Gilbert needs to convince remaining skeptics in the city that Bedrock and the rest of the Rock Ventures companies. He told us his companies employ 4,000 people in Detroit, and that they have been instrumental in blight removal (destroying abandoned or ruined properties) and the rejuvenation of homes outside of downtown. He also acknowledged that Rock Ventures could have a better line of communication with the neighborhoods outside of the downtown area, and that his Detroit project is indeed holistic.

“There’s no way businesses can be successful by having really bad neighborhoods and a successful downtown,” he told us. “It just doesn’t work that way.”

Trump’s Threat to Democracy

EYESTwo political scientists specializing in how democracies decay and die have compiled four warning signs to determine if a political leader is a dangerous authoritarian:

1. The leader shows only a weak commitment to democratic rules. 2. He or she denies the legitimacy of opponents. 3. He or she tolerates violence. 4. He or she shows some willingness to curb civil liberties or the media.

“A politician who meets even one of these criteria is cause for concern,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, both professors at Harvard, write in their important new book, “How Democracies Die,” which will be released next week.

“With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century,” they say, which sounds reassuring. Unfortunately, they have one update: “Donald Trump met them all.”

A survey that year found that the Venezuelan public overwhelmingly believed that “democracy is always the best form of government,” with only one-quarter saying that authoritarianism is sometimes preferable. Yet against their will, Venezuelans slid into autocracy.

“This is how democracies now die,” Levitsky and Ziblatt write. “Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.”

We tend to assume that the threat to democracies comes from coups or violent revolutions, but the authors say that in modern times, democracies are more likely to wither at the hands of insiders who gain power initially through elections. That’s what happened, to one degree or another, in Russia, the Philippines, Turkey, Venezuela, Ecuador, Hungary, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Poland and Peru.

Venezuela was a relatively prosperous democracy, for example, when the populist demagogue Hugo Chávez tapped the frustrations of ordinary citizens to be elected president in 1998.

Likewise, the authors say, no more than 2 percent of Germans or Italians joined the Nazi or Fascist Parties before they gained power, and early on there doesn’t seem to have been clear majority support for authoritarianism in either Germany or Italy. But both Hitler and Mussolini were shrewd demagogues who benefited from the blindness of political insiders who accommodated them.

Let me say right here that I don’t for a moment think the United States will follow the path of Venezuela, Germany or Italy. Yes, I do see in Trump these authoritarian tendencies — plus a troubling fondness for other authoritarians, like Vladimir Putin in Russia and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines — but I’m confident our institutions are stronger than Trump.

It’s true that he has tried to undermine institutions and referees of our political system: judges, the Justice Department, law enforcement agencies like the F.B.I., the intelligence community, the news media, the opposition party and Congress. But to his great frustration, American institutions have mostly passed the stress test with flying colors.

“President Trump followed the electoral authoritarian script during his first year,” Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude. “He made efforts to capture the referees, sideline the key players who might halt him, and tilt the playing field. But the president has talked more than he has acted, and his most notorious threats have not been realized. … Little actual backsliding occurred in 2017.”

That seems right to me: The system worked.

And yet.

For all my confidence that our institutions will trump Trump, the chipping away at the integrity of our institutions and norms does worry me. Levitsky and Ziblatt warn of the unraveling of democratic norms — norms such as treating the other side as rivals rather than as enemies, condemning violence and bigotry, and so on. This unraveling was underway long before Trump (Newt Gingrich nudged it along in the 1990s), but Trump accelerated it.

Sweeping Plan Would Overturn Equal Access to the Internet

lightbulbThe Federal Communications Commission announced on Tuesday that it planned to dismantle landmark regulations that ensure equal access to the internet, clearing the way for companies to charge more and block access to some websites. The proposal, put forward by the F.C.C. chairman, Ajit Pai, is a sweeping repeal of rules put in place by the Obama administration. The rules prohibited high-speed internet service providers from blocking or slowing down the delivery of websites, or charging extra fees for the best quality of streaming and other internet services for their subscribers. Those limits are central to the concept called net neutrality.

The action immediately reignited a loud and furious fight over free speech and the control of the internet, pitting telecom giants like AT&T against internet giants like Google and Amazon, who warn against powerful telecom gatekeepers. Both sides are expected to lobby hard in Washington to push their agendas, as they did when the existing rules were adopted. “Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet,” Mr. Pai said in a statement. “Instead, the F.C.C. would simply require internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them and entrepreneurs and other small businesses can have the technical information they need to innovate.”

The proposal from Mr. Pai, a Republican, is widely expected to be approved during a Dec. 14 meeting in a 3-to-2 party line vote from the agency’s five commissioners. But some companies will probably put up a legal fight, or actions by lawmakers, to prevent it from taking hold.

The clear winners from the move would be the giant companies that provide internet access to phones and computers, which have fought for years against broadband regulations. A repeal of the rules would allow the companies to exert more control over the online experiences of American consumers.

Big online companies like Amazon say that the telecom companies would be able to show favoritism to certain web services, by charging for accessing some sites but not others, or by slowing the connection speed to some sites. Small online companies say the proposal would hurt innovation. Only the largest companies, they say, would be able to afford the expense of making sure their sites received preferred treatment.

And consumers, the online companies say, may see their costs go up to get quality access to popular websites like Netflix. The action “represents the end of net neutrality as we know it and defies the will of millions of Americans,” said Michael Beckerman, chief executive of the Internet Association, a lobbying group that represent Google, Facebook, Amazon and other tech firms.

But Mr. Pai said the internet rules were adopted to stop only theoretical harms. He said the old rules limited consumer choice and stifled investment in network expansion and upgrades. He has also argued that the existing internet rules stop internet service companies from experimenting with new business models that could help them compete with online businesses like Netflix, Google and Facebook.

The plan to repeal the existing rules, passed in 2015, also reverses a hallmark decision by the agency to declare broadband as a service as essential as phones and electricity. That move created the legal foundation for the current rules and underscored the importance of high-speed internet service to the nation. It was put in place by Tom Wheeler, an F.C.C. chairman under President Obama. Mr. Pai signaled his intention to dismantle the existing rules in April. The action on Tuesday by Mr. Pai, who was appointed chairman by President Trump, is the centerpiece of a deregulatory agenda that has also stripped television broadcasters, newspapers and telecom companies of a broad range of regulations meant to protect the public interest.

The telecom companies on Tuesday cheered Mr. Pai’s proposal. “The removal of antiquated, restrictive regulations will pave the way for broadband network investment, expansion and upgrades,” said Jonathan Spalter, the chief executive of USTelecom, an industry lobbying group. But consumer advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers said the move would harm consumers and internet businesses that have relied on the rules to ensure all content is equally available, and to make sure that speech is not stifled by broadband companies putting up barriers to certain internet sites.

Consumer groups say broadband companies have been incredibly profitable under the net neutrality rules and have expanded their networks into new communities and with faster speeds, despite complaints the rules hamper their businesses. “Your internet service provider will be free to make online fast lanes and favor the content of its choice,” said Gigi Sohn, a former senior adviser to Mr. Wheeler at the F.C.C. “That it will take away your control of your internet experience and give it to Comcast, AT&T and Verizon.”

Tyranny of the Minority

26goldbergWeb-master768Since Donald Trump’s cataclysmic election, the unthinkable has become ordinary. We’ve grown used to naked profiteering off the presidency, an administration that calls for the firing of private citizens for political dissent and nuclear diplomacy conducted via Twitter taunts. Here, in my debut as a New York Times columnist, I want to discuss a structural problem that both underlies and transcends our current political nightmare: We have entered a period of minority rule.

I don’t just mean the fact that Trump became president despite his decisive loss in the popular vote, though that shouldn’t be forgotten. Worse, the majority of voters who disapprove of Trump have little power to force Congress to curb him.

A combination of gerrymandering and the tight clustering of Democrats in urban areas means that even if Democrats get significantly more overall votes than Republicans in the midterms — which polls show is probable — they may not take back the House of Representatives. (According to a Brookings Institution analysis, in 2016, Republicans won 55.2 percent of seats with just under 50 percent of votes cast for Congress.)

And because of the quirks of the 2018 Senate map, Democrats are extremely unlikely to reclaim that chamber, even if most voters would prefer Democratic control. Some analysts have even suggested that Republicans could emerge from 2018 with a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority.

Our Constitution has always had a small-state bias, but the effects have become more pronounced as the population discrepancy between the smallest states and the largest states has grown. “Given contemporary demography, a little bit less than 50 percent of the country lives in 40 of the 50 states,” Sanford Levinson, a constitutional law scholar at the University of Texas, told me. “Roughly half the country gets 80 percent of the votes in the Senate, and the other half of the country gets 20 percent.”