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Amazon threatens to move jobs out of Seattle over new tax | Technology

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Amazon has threatened to move jobs out of its hometown of Seattle after the city council introduced a new tax to try and address the homelessness crisis.

The world’s second-biggest company has warned that the “hostile” tax, which will charge firms $275 per worker a year to fund homelessness outreach services and affordable housing, “forces us to question our growth here”.

Amazon, which is Seattle’s biggest private sector employer with more than 40,000 staff in the city, had halted construction work on a 17-storey office tower in protest against the tax.

Pressure from Amazon and other big employers, including Starbucks and Expedia, had forced councillors to reduce the tax from an initial proposal of $500 per worker. The tax will only effect companies making revenue of more than $20m-a-year.

The tax is expected to raise between $45m and $49m a year, of which about $10m would come from Amazon.

The company said it would restart building work on the tower but may sublease another new office block to reduce its tax bill.

“We are disappointed by today’s city Council decision to introduce a tax on jobs,” said Drew Herdener, an Amazon vice-president. We remain very apprehensive about the future created by the council’s hostile approach and rhetoric toward larger businesses, which forces us to question our growth here.”

Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, is the world’s richest man with a $133bn fortune.

Campaigners said the company should be forced to take financial responsibility for Seattle’s cost of living, which has forced many families on to the streets. There are almost 12,000 homeless people in Seattle region, equating to the third-highest rate per capita in the US. Last year 169 homeless people died in Seattle. The city declared a state of emergency because of homelessness in late 2015

Before the council vote on Monday, more than 100 people marched through Amazon’s campus and held a rally outside the company’s new spherical greenhouses, some holding signs saying “Tax Amazon”.

Seattle councillor Teresa Mosqueda said: “People are dying on the doorsteps of prosperity. This is the richest city in the state and in a state that has the most regressive tax system in the country.”

The vote was passed unanimously, with several council members saying they were voting reluctantly in favour of the lower rate for the tax after Seattle’s mayor, Jenny Durkan, threatened to veto a higher rate.

“This was a tough debate. Not just here at city hall, but all across this city,” Durkan, said. “No one is saying that this will solve everything, but it will make a meaningful difference. This legislation will help us address our homelessness crisis without jeopardising critical jobs.”

Politicians from 50 other US cities wrote an open letter to Seattle council in a show solidarity with the councillors attempt to tackle Amazon’s impact on the city.

“By threatening Seattle over this tax, Amazon is sending a message to all of our cities: we play by our own rules,” the letter said.

Starbucks had also fought against the tax, with its public affairs chief, John Kelly, accusing the city of continuing to “spend without reforming and fail without accountability, while ignoring the plight of hundreds of children sleeping outside”.

He added: “If they cannot provide a warm meal and safe bed to a five-year-old child, no one believes they will be able to make housing affordable or address opiate addiction.”

Marilyn Strickland, the head of Seattle’s chamber of commerce, voiced business leaders’ opposition to the tax. “Taxing jobs will not fix our region’s housing and homelessness problems,” she said.

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Rise of contraceptive apps sparks fears over unwanted pregnancies | Society

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Growing numbers of women are using contraceptive apps, but experts have warned they could lead to unwanted pregnancies.

The Swedish app Natural Cycles, the only certified app for contraception, has seen a surge in the number of members from the UK in the past year with almost 200,000 signed up, an increase from 5,000 in 2016.

Sarah Hardman, the director of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare’s clinical effectiveness unit in Edinburgh, expressed concern that while some women were very pleased with contraception apps, others had had unwanted pregnancies while using them.

“We don’t have a good indication yet of how successful the average woman in the street in the UK is going to be when using them,” she said.

She added: “I would express concern about people knowing what they need to know before they use it and not just thinking: ‘this is modern because it’s an app and it’s something new, so it’s better and more effective’. It’s not – it’s just very different.”

Hardman said she understood there would be women who wanted to avoid hormones. “For them, they may say: ‘I understand that this is not as effective as lots of contraceptives, you need to work hard to get it right and it’s not a disaster if I did get pregnant.’ It’s about choice for women but it’s about making choices in an informed way and knowing something’s limitations.”

In the past few years, there has been a growth in the number of contraceptive apps. These include Kindara – which allows you to track everything from your body temperature to the appearance of your cervical fluid – to Ovia, which lets you monitor your moods, periods and other metrics. The apps work by pinpointing when you ovulate and when you are most fertile.

Natural Cycles requires women to input their temperature every morning. It then calculates their menstrual cycle and informs them when they can have sex without protection.

The app met with controversy earlier this year when it was reported to Swedish authorities after a hospital found 37 cases of unwanted pregnancies among women relying on it for contraception.

Natural Cycles said the efficacy of the app was backed by a wealth of clinical data: a study of 22,785 women demonstrated an effectiveness rate of 93%.

Hardman said: “It’s a good study as it has lots of women involved but they are women who went out to specifically look for something different for contraception … maybe they had problems on the pill … they chose to use this app, so may be more motivated than the average woman on the street.”

Raoul Scherwitzl, the chief executive of Natural Cycles, said: “It is important to note that our typical users are age 30 on average, in a stable relationship with a regular daily routine – and are willing to take their temperature on a daily basis and use protection on fertile days. Our users do tend to be highly motivated.”

The concept of tracking fertility has roots in the work of gynaecologists Hermann Knaus and Kyusaku Ogino, who in the 1930s revealed that ovulation occurs in the mid-point of the cycle. Their discovery led to the development ofcontraceptive practices such as methods involving daily temperature readings and checking the consistency of cervical mucus.

Hardman said: “We will not know how it works for the general population until it’s been out there and used and, at that point, we would love to be pleasantly surprised. But looking at the general population, we know people can use pills and condoms and not always use them perfectly, and the overall failure rate can be quite high. That is why we are concerned.”

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Belgium is right to class video game loot boxes as child gambling | Keza MacDonald | Games

Belgium is right to class video game loot boxes as child gambling | Keza MacDonald | Games

Yesterday, the Belgian minister of justice, Koen Geens, announced the result of an investigation that the country’s Gaming Commission conducted into video game “loot boxes”, a mechanic that lets players pay real money for a chance at winning virtual items. It found that three popular games – Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Fifa 18 – were in violation of gambling legislation. This is a significant finding, because controversy over loot boxes has been raging for at least six months: are they actually a form of gambling? Worse, are they a form of gambling that is particularly appealing to children?

Belgium’s Gaming Commission has decided that, yes, they are, and the publishers in question should remove loot boxes from their games or face fines. (EA and Blizzard, publishers of two of the games in question, did not respond to requests for comment on how they plan to comply; a Valve spokesperson said that the company is “happy to engage with the Belgian Gambling Commission and answer any questions they may have.”) There might be no financial incentive to buying loot boxes – you never win any money – but they are still a game of chance. “A dialogue with the sector is necessary,” said Geens: “It is often children who come into contact with such systems and we can not allow that.”

EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II, subject of a loot box controversy last year.
The company has said it will no longer offer them. Photograph: Electronic Arts

Often when governments get involved with trying to legislate over video games – as President Trump threatened to do after the Florida school shooting in February – it comes from a place of moral panic, and a lack of understanding of games themselves. A spurious causal link is drawn between video games and violence, or truancy, or mental health problems in young people. Despite decades of research showing no correlation between violent games and violent behaviour, and despite the fact games are played and enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people without social collapse.

In the case of loot boxes, though, the Belgian government is spot on. There are better ways to make money than applying gambling principles to video games that ought to be harmless fun.

Loot boxes exist because video-game development on a large scale is an increasingly expensive business. The development costs of blockbuster-style games have increased tenfold in 10 years, according to data compiled by industry veteran Raph Koster, with budgets now running into hundreds of millions of dollars. Players, however, are reluctant to accept price increases; a newly released game still costs £50-£60, pretty much the same as it did 15 years ago. Pricing hasn’t even kept up with inflation.

To address the shortfall, video game publishers have devised various ways of enabling players to spend extra money. For instance, DLC (downloadable content) offers virtual cosmetic items to customise a character, new story chapters to play through, or extra maps to battle upon – all optional. It has also become customary to offer a “season pass” to players – pay an extra £10 to £30 or so, and you’ll have access to all the extra content that’s released for a game over time. Online modes keep people playing for months or years rather than weeks, and players can pay to customise a character or buy a new car or in-game apartment – usually with either real money, or in-game money that takes time to earn.

Loot boxes, however, are a fairly new invention – one that crossed over from free-to-play smartphone games, which have traditionally been less scrupulous about wheedling money out of players (and, perhaps consequently, been more successful at doing so). With a loot box, you pay for a chance to obtain a virtual item – usually with real money. It’s a slot-machine style system where, although you’re guaranteed to get something on every spin, the chance of getting what you actually want is vastly reduced.

This works on the same part of the brain as any game of chance; the dopamine hit is enjoyable, but potentially addictive, and hard to resist. Players quite regularly spend hundreds on loot boxes – just ask players of Fifa Ultimate Team, who can buy Team Packs in the hope of unlocking a coveted player.

The Belgian report found several issues with loot boxes: the rewards are uncertain, causing an emotional reaction; players can be misled into believing they are buying an advantage; popular YouTubers and other celebrities promote them; the actual chance of receiving particular items is often hidden from the player. The exposure of these chance mechanics to children was a particular concern.

“Mixing games and gambling, especially at a young age, is dangerous for mental health,” said Geens. “We must ensure that children and adults are not presented with games of chance when they are looking for fun in a video game.”

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a game deemed in contravention of Belgian gambling laws. (Photo from 2016’s championship in Moscow.)

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a game deemed in contravention of Belgian gambling laws. (Photo from 2016’s championship in Moscow.) Photograph: Kommersant via Getty Images

Gamers everywhere would welcome the removal of these insidious inventions. There is nothing worse than feeling forced to spend money to keep up in a video game, especially when spending money doesn’t even guarantee you the item that you want. Adults might find it easy to resist the appeal of new gun skins in Counter-Strike, or outfits for Overwatch characters, but for the teens who predominantly play these games, that perspective may be lacking.

One need only look to Fortnite, one of the most popular games in the world right now, to see things done right: in Fortnite you can pay about £8 for a Battle Pass every few months, which unlocks fun new challenges and lets you earn all the new stuff you could want, just by playing.

Games are getting more and more expensive to make, but the video games industry should not need to employ the tricks of the gambling industry to plug the gap. If the Belgian government’s decision leads to a Europe-wide ruling on loot boxes, hopefully publishers will be forced to come up with better ways to monetise their games – and players might have to get comfortable with the idea of paying more for them in the first place.

This article was amended on 26 and 27 April 2018 to include a statement from Valve and to correct the spelling of Koen Geens’ last name.

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Can Instagram keep its nose clean? | Technology

Can Instagram keep its nose clean? | Technology

It has been a rough few weeks for Facebook since the Observer reported the Cambridge Analytica data breach. The scandal revealed how the political consulting firm might have raked up the personal information of at least 87 million Facebook users in order to influence them with tailored political ads, sent the social network’s stocks into a tailspin, triggered the #DeleteFacebook movement – and regaled the planet with the cringefest that was CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the US Senate. But if Facebook’s reputation has seen better days, one of the company’s most valuable assets has come out of the kerfuffle practically unscathed.

Instagram, the photo-sharing platform Facebook acquired in 2012 for $715m, has not yet come up in the debate over Facebook’s cavalier attitude to user data protection, despite being of a piece with the longer-running social network (and being headquartered just a few blocks from Facebook’s Menlo Park campus in California). Prominent members of the #DeleteFacebook campaign, such as SpaceX’s Elon Musk, singer Cher, and Playboy magazine, are still pretty much present and active on Instagram. The app’s apparent immunity to whatever befalls its owner, and the possibility that this might not last, even led a Reuters analyst to recommend that Facebook spin off Instagram as a separate company, to shield it from reputational contagion.

Instagram’s cast-iron popularity confirms its emerging status as Facebook’s crown jewel. The app is gaining users at a breakneck pace: it only took it five months to leap from 700 million users in April 2017 to 800 million in September. It is especially popular with younger people: in March 2018, a survey by the Pew Research Center found that 71% of Americans aged 18 to 24 were on Instagram, and that more than half of them visited it daily. And it trounces other platforms at the engagement game: 2017 research by business intelligence firm L2 revealed that Instagram accounted for 92% of interactions taking place on social media, if only Facebook, Twitter and Instagram itself were considered; that dropped to a still whopping 42% if YouTube was also taken into account. According to consumer data firm Statista, this year Instagram is expected to make up almost 28% of Facebook’s net mobile advertising revenue.

“If you measure success through the size of a community and then multiply it for engagement, Instagram gets 10 times the engagement that Facebook gets,” says L2 founder and New York University professor Scott Galloway. “In many ways, it’s currently the most successful platform in the world.”

Part of that success boils down to Instagram’s intrinsic qualities. Its visual-first model may be more appealing than Twitter’s or Facebook’s text-heavy makeup. In the absence of a share function, users only post their own pictures and videos, so there’s no angsty clutter of links and reposts that took the joy out of other social networks.

“The genius of Facebook was the same [as Instagram’s] core habit: seeing other people’s photos,” says Nir Eyal, an angel investor, and author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. “On Facebook, that core habit was polluted with all the other junk in our feed. That’s causing a lot of the move to Instagram: people don’t want all the news, debate and politics.”

On the other hand, it’s hard not to feel that Instagram lucked out, effectively airbrushing its public image amid Facebook’s whirlwind of scandals. It is worth noting, too, that many people do not know that Instagram belongs to Facebook: according to a recent DuckDuckGo survey, 56.9% of Americans are unaware of the connection. Not that Facebook or Instagram were ever keen on emphasising that connection in their marketing material – a stance that, in retrospect, has paid off.

Yet Instagram shares many of the problems and flaws that have catapulted Facebook into the spotlight. The blight of fake news and foreign interference has marred Instagram at least as much as it has Facebook: according to Facebook’s own testimony before the US Congress, last year, 170 Instagram accounts were found to have spread propaganda from Russia’s Internet Research Agency, compared to only 120 Facebook pages.

“Instagram is as large a component of election propaganda as Facebook, if not larger,” says Jonathan Albright, a data journalist and research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

Although Instagram has not cropped up in the Cambridge Analytica affair, the ads appearing on the platform can be tailored for custom audiences directly from Facebook’s advertising dashboard – by leveraging Facebook data.

In the wake of the scandal, Facebook has hastened to make sure that Instagram’s data privacy practices were improved. In early April, Instagram suddenly shut down access to its application programming interface (API), disrupting several third-party apps relying on it to glean user analytics. Days later, Instagram announced it was creating a tool that would enable users to download all the data they have shared on the platform – a move that brought it in line with Facebook (which made data portability possible in 2010) and with the EU’s soon-to-be-implemented General Data Protection Regulation.

In time, Instagram is also likely to come under increased scrutiny for other long-running but unsolved issues, such as its impact on young users’ mental health, and the rise of Instagram influencers – people who make a living by featuring brands and products in their pictures for a fee. The field is unregulated, lacks transparency and is prone to abuse and fraud. But Instagram could be in the process of sorting the issue out, and possibly even making some money along the way.

Instagram’s artsy vibe and relative independence protected it from the flak lobbed at its parent company. But as the photo-sharing service coasts towards a billion users, its shortcomings cannot just be covered with a dreamy filter: the way Instagram handles these challenges will come to define it.

Get the picture (l-r): Elon Musk posts on Instagram despite calling to #DeleteFacebook; Kim Kardashian endorses a fitness shake; a paid partnership post; a repost of rightwing propaganda. Photograph: Instagram

Potential pitfalls for Instagram

Russian roulette
According to Tow Center’s Jonathan Albright, Instagram was one of Russia’s platforms of choice for sharing propaganda memes and videos ahead of the US presidential election in 2016. And while Facebook pegged the number of American Instagram users reached by propaganda at around 20 million, Albright thinks that number could be much higher, as trolls resorted to third-party apps such as Regrann to repost content multiple times. Posts on Instagram might also have been more engaging than those shared on Facebook, possibly because of Instagram’s sleeker interface.

“Instagram had better engagement for these posts versus Facebook,” Albright says. “Facebook gets messy, people post their pictures, embeds, previews, and the comments on the post get really disorganised. Instagram had better engagement for outrage, for people really getting angry and commenting more on-topic.”

While Instagram has removed the 170 profiles thought to be linked to Russia, Albright says that it has not actually got rid of all the propaganda disseminated on the platform.

“The only things that were taken down were the original accounts, so if there’s any kind of screenshot or repost, it’s still around,” he says. “[Instagram] didn’t go back and filter or search anything.” He says that, as of last month, some of the Russian-made memes could still be found lurking on Instagram.

Celebs for sale
The airbrushed world of Instagram has helped bring about a new profession – that of online influencers. Influencers are social media users who, having commanded a high follower count, partner with brands to feature products in their posts, in exchange for freebies or money. While many niche “micro-influencers” ask brands for relatively small amounts, Instagram-famous personalities can make thousands of pounds for every picture, with celebrities such as Kim Kardashian charging up to $500,000 a post.

Influencers’ activity on Instagram increased by 198% between 2016 and 2017, according to online marketing research firm Klear. The irresistible rise of this new category has created a host of new problems. Brands started fretting about “fake influencers”, followed by spurious armies of bots. Advertising authorities in various countries requested that influencers acknowledge that they are paid for promoting products, by adding the hashtag #ad to their posts. Last year, Instagram launched a branded content tool, which allows influencers to tag their partner brands more visibly in their posts. The feature was officially rolled out to enhance transparency, and to provide brands with insights about the performance of influencers’ posts online. But according to Callum McCahon, strategy director at social media firm Born Social, it could end up changing the way the influencer industry works. “Brands could be asked to pay for promoting their influencers’ posts and increasing their reach,” he said. “Instagram could then make money from brands boosting their influencers’ pictures. That’s not officially confirmed as of today, but that’s what Facebook did in the past.”

a teenage girl cries on the sofa reading a text message

Negative impact: academics and others have suggested that Instagram can make young people feel bad about their appearance and lifestyle. Photograph: Aleksandr Davydov/Alamy Stock Photo

Mental health
In May 2017, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) published a report on social media’s impact on the mental health of young people. Instagram was labelled as the platform with the worst impact on its young users’ mental wellbeing. Problems ranged from anxiety- and depression-inducing imagery, to bullying, to body image issues. A more recent study from the University of Notre Dame in Fremantle, Western Australia revealed that young women exposed to the luridly filtered existences of Instagrammers were likely to feel bad about both their appearance and their general lifestyle and career.

Over the past few months, Instagram seems to have taken notice, introducing new tools, such as comment filters and pop-up alerts for problematic hashtags, that could help alleviate some of the mental health problems highlighted by researchers.

Then, in April 2018, during a Bloomberg event, the company announced the launch of a dedicated “wellbeing team” with the goal of making Instagram a “safer place, a place where people feel good”. The group’s strategy is still unclear, but at least it seems that Instagram has acknowledged that with greater power comes greater responsibility.

“It is surprising that Instagram has only recently launched the wellbeing team,” said Dr Becky Inkster, an honorary research fellow at the University of Cambridge, who contributed to the RSPH study. “They need to be far more proactive with how they handle potential negative effect and harm.” Inkster is optimistic, however, about Instagram leading the way to better understanding of how images affect our mental welfare. “Instagram can be a big player, and help in this area,” she says.

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Google to improve YouTube Kids app to let parents control what children watch | Technology

Google to improve YouTube Kids app to let parents control what children watch | Technology

Google is updating its YouTube Kids app to improve the control over the videos and channels that can be watched by children.

YouTube Kids is a separate app for smartphones and tablets that provides access to a subset of the videos available on the main site. There have been 70bn video views since the app, which is used by 11m families, launched in 2015. In the app’s biggest change yet, Google is giving parents much greater control over what their children can find and watch.

In controls rolling out later this year, parents will be able to manually approve individual videos or channels that their children can access through the app, giving them the ability to pre-vet and handpick a collection of videos to ensure they are appropriate.

Google is also creating collections of videos and channels from trusted channels such as Sesame Workshop and the YouTube Kids team, so that parents can select only the collections or topics they would like their children to have access to.

James Beser, product director for YouTube Kids, said said: “From collections of channels from trusted partners to enabling parents to select each video and channel themselves, we’re putting parents in the driver’s seat like never before.”

YouTube Kids settings. Photograph: Google

In addition the firm will limit the video recommendations the app will make to only those from channels that have been verified by the YouTube Kids team, when parents turn off the search function within the app. Previously recommendations could include content from any video or channel that is accessible through the YouTube Kids app, not just those verified by Google’s team.

Google is also rolling out signed-in profiles for YouTube Kids across Europe, the Middle East and Asia this week, which means parents can create individual profiles for each of their children on shared devices.

Beser said that the current version of the app will still be available for those who are content to use it, but that Google was continuing to “fine tune” its filters for the more open selection of content, encouraging parents to block and flag content they do not see as appropriate.

Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, saw the move as broadly positive, but said that more parental controls do not absolve Google of its responsibility to keep inappropriate content out of the YouTube Kids app.

“It’s been clear for a long time now that algorithmic filtering on YouTube Kids doesn’t work and giving parents the ability to select more human-reviewed content is an improvement,” Golin said. “But let’s not forget that most kids are watching the main YouTube platform, where they not only exposed regularly to inappropriate recommendations and content, but also ensnared by Google’s troubling data collection practices.”

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WhatsApp raises minimum age to 16 for Europeans ahead of GDPR | Technology

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WhatsApp is raising the minimum user age from 13 to 16, potentially locking out large numbers of teenagers as the messaging app looks to comply with the EU’s upcoming new data protection rules.

The Facebook-owned messaging service that has more than 1.5 billion users will ask people in the 28 EU states to confirm they are 16 or older as part of a prompt to accept a new terms of service and an updated privacy policy in the next few weeks.

How WhatsApp will confirm age and enforce the new limit is unclear. The service does not currently verify identity beyond requirements for a working mobile phone number.

WhatsApp said it was not asking for any new rights to collect personal information in the agreement it has created for the European Union. It said: “Our goal is simply to explain how we use and protect the limited information we have about you.”

WhatsApp’s minimum age will remain 13 years outside of Europe, in line with its parent company. In order to comply with the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which comes into force on 25 May, Facebook has taken a different approach for its primary social network. As part of its separate data policy, the company requires those aged between 13 and 15 years old to nominate a parent or guardian to give permission for them to share information with the social network, or otherwise limit the personalisation of the site.

WhatsApp also announced Tuesday that it would begin allowing users to download a report detailing the data it holds on them, such as the make and model of the device they used, their contacts and groups and any blocked numbers.

GDPR is the biggest overhaul of online privacy since the birth of the internet, giving Europeans the right to know what data is stored on them and the right to have it deleted. The new laws also give regulatorsthe power to fine corporations up to 4% of their global turnover or €20m, whichever is larger, for failing to meet the tough new data protection requirements.

WhatsApp, founded in 2009 and bought by Facebook for $19bn in 2014, has come under pressure from some European governments in recent years because of its use of end-to-end encryption and its plan to share user data with its parent company.

In 2017 European regulators disrupted a move by WhatsApp to change its policies to allow it to share users’ phone numbers and other information with Facebook for ad targeting and other uses. WhatsApp suspended the change in Europe after widespread regulatory scrutiny, and signed an undertaking in March with the UK Information commissioner’s office to not share any EU citizen’s data with Facebook until GDPR comes into force.

But on Tuesday the messaging firm said it wanted to continue sharing data with Facebook at some point. It said: “As we have said in the past, we want to work closer with other Facebook companies in the future and we will keep you updated as we develop our plans.”

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How to get rich quick in Silicon Valley | Corey Pein | News

How to get rich quick in Silicon Valley | Corey Pein | News

The most desirable career of the 21st century, with numerous advantages over other fast-growing occupations such as hospice carer and rickshaw driver, is being a billionaire. Prior to the incorporation of US Steel in 1901, the world didn’t have a single billion-dollar company, much less a billion-dollar individual. Today, more people than ever are becoming billionaires – 2,000 and counting have made the great leap upward, according to the “global wealth team” at Forbes. And the US’s hottest billionaire factory is located in the most hyped yet least understood swath of suburban sprawl in the world: Silicon Valley.

Despite what you may have heard, hard work in your chosen trade is absolutely the stupidest way to join the billionaires club. In Silicon Valley, the world’s most brilliant MBAs and IT professionals discovered a shortcut to fabulous riches. Ambitious Ivy Leaguers who once flocked to Wall Street are now packing up and heading west. The Valley’s startup founders, investors, equity-holding executives and fee-taking middlemen have thrived above all. Inspired by their success, my idea was to move to Silicon Valley, pitch a startup and become obscenely rich. I left home with some homemade business cards showing my new email address, [email protected], and a bunch of half-baked ideas.

The first thing I needed was a place to stay. The best deal I could find on short notice was a place I called Hacker Condo. Like most Bay Area newcomers, I was relying on the short-term apartment rental app Airbnb. At $85 (£59) per night, the place cost less than the market average, but was still more than I could afford. On the upside, it was in what the real estate hucksters called SoMa – a trendy San Francisco neighbourhood well suited to my journalistic and entrepreneurial purposes. Once a low-rent manufacturing district, the south of Market Street area had become the go-to place for startups seeking industrial-chic open-plan offices, although the poor and homeless had not yet been fully purged.

The ad for Hacker Condo stated an express preference for techies: “We would like to welcome motivated and serious entrepreneurs who are looking to expand their network,” it said. Perfect. The best part: “No bunk beds.” I told the hosts that I was an “embryo-stage” startup founder and author. The hosts didn’t own the place. I looked it up: the mortgage was held by some European guy who seemed to spend most of his time surfing at a resort and dabbled in the tech business as a hobby. The legal status of this rental arrangement was, let’s say, unclear.

I rang the buzzer for a unit labelled TENANT. A man answered right away. He had been waiting. After a moment, the door opened, and I met my new roommate, a gangly Kiwi. We took the elevator three floors up and entered a silent, beige-carpeted hallway. Our unit was No 16. The first thing I noticed inside was a small mountain of men’s shoes. Hacker Condo was modern and more spacious than seemed possible from the outside. The unit was spread over three floors. The furniture consisted of a picnic bench and a sectional sofa spanning the width of the living room. I counted five other short-term tenants. The Kiwi told me that soon, some Norwegian guys – a whole startup team – would be moving in. We calculated that Hacker Condo would soon have three more guests than it had beds.

“What’s the key situation?” I asked.

“There’s one key,” the Kiwi said.

“One key?” I said. “For everybody?”

There were more tricks to learn, as a consequence of the possibly illicit nature of this type of rental arrangement and the evident stinginess of our Airbnb hosts. The Condo Hackers never came in through the front door. It was too conspicuous. I followed the Kiwi down to the ground-floor garage, then outside to the rear of the building. He showed me how to slide my hand along a grate to locate the tiny combination safe that contained the exterior door key. It was best to do this when no one was looking.

I knew not to spend too much time getting to know my flatmates, for we were all rootless high-tech transients, our relationships temporary, our status revocable.

The room I had booked was available for only two weeks. As soon as I connected to the wifi network, I would need to start looking for another place. “My” room had five beds in it. I thought I had paid for a private space. I double-checked. The listing clearly stated “no bunk beds”, but down in the fine print I finally found the words “shared room”.

Two weeks was not enough time to find an apartment in San Francisco. Not on my budget. Rents were higher than in New York or London. One-beds were running at about $3,000 per month; studios, about $2,500; shares, $1,500; and illegal crap shares, $1,000. It was the same deal across the bay to the east in Oakland and Berkeley, as well as to the south in the Silicon suburbs of Redwood City, Palo Alto and Mountain View. Whatever I might save in rent by living on the periphery I would lose in transportation costs and time.

These “hacker houses” were the products of disruptive innovation in the urban property market. The city was once riddled with small apartments and single-family homes that sheltered trifling handfuls of obsolete labourers and their unproductive children, often for decades at a stretch. But the tech boom let such so-called family homes reach their full potential as investment properties. Some hacker houses were attached to startup investment incubators or shared workspaces. Others amounted to little more than flimsy bunks in a windowless room. A number of trend-savvy investors purchased or leased dozens of residential properties around the Bay Area to rent out in this fashion.

Although I envied them from my dark and squalid quarters, the San Francisco long-timers who lived in rent-controlled apartments were in situations nearly as precarious as my own. I met a musician who lived in a $600 rent-controlled apartment in the Mission. When I met her, she was terrified that her landlord would evict her and sell the building so that it could be rented out at six times the price to white techie colonisers such as myself.

With landlords eager to cash in, formal evictions had increased 55% in five years. More often, though, landlords simply bullied their tenants into packing up. “Tenants are getting evicted for having cups in their cupboards. The landlords say it’s clutter. They’ll say anything. Eventually the tenants just give up,” a lawyer for a tenants’ rights organisation told me. His employer, the Eviction Defense Collaborative, was itself getting evicted from its offices so that the landlord could rent the space to a tech startup.

My earnings potential had plummeted when I stopped writing software and started writing for newspapers. I now looked with envy at the techies, the winners, the pioneers. They had ideas. They had momentum. Most important, they had money. Why not me?

I wasn’t just changing careers and jumping on the “learn to code” bandwagon. I was being steadily indoctrinated in a specious ideology. As proud as I was of having learned new skills, I didn’t understand that the only way to turn those skills into a livelihood was to embrace the economy of the digital world, where giant corporations wrote the rules.

My idea was to pitch a tech startup and get obscenely rich while writing a book about how to pitch a tech startup and get obscenely rich – the Silicon Valley way.

To save money, I took to cooking my own meals most of the time. This was when I discovered that it was much easier to launch a tech startup if you could afford to always have food delivered and never had to deal with mundane chores such as doing laundry, washing dishes or buying groceries. As one Twitter wag observed, San Francisco’s “tech culture is focused on solving one problem: what is my mother no longer doing for me?”

I never felt older nor crankier than when watching these “digital natives” stumble through the daily rituals of adulthood. One of the kids, an overachieving Ivy Leaguer whose Google internship demanded an advanced understanding of high-level mathematics, was completely baffled when it came to using a simple rice cooker. I explained the process: put in rice, add water, press the button labelled “cook”. He grew increasingly flustered, and I suspected he wanted me to make the rice for him. He managed to sauté a boneless, skinless chicken breast, but only by following the instructions on the package to the letter.

“How did it turn out?” I asked.

“It’s terrible. Bland,” he said. “I’m full, that’s all that matters. I don’t care how it tastes.”

When I first heard about Soylent, the startup selling a gooey “meal replacement beverage” powder with a determinedly “neutral” flavour, I wondered what sort of miserable insensates would choose to subsist on such glop. Now I knew.

It may have been better for everyone when the overpaid nerds stayed home. “They’re importing children to destroy the culture,” one bar owner told me.

Airbnb employees at work in San Francisco. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Indeed, to overhear the baby-faced billionaire wannabes exchanging boastful inanities in public could be enraging. Their inevitable first question was: “What’s your space?” Not “How’s it going?” Not “Where are you from?” But: “What’s your space?”

This was perhaps the most insufferable bit of tech jargon I heard. “What’s your space?” meant “What does your company do?” This was not quite the same as asking: “What do you do for a living?” because one’s company may well produce no living at all. A “space” had an aspirational quality a day job never would. If you were a writer, you would never say “I’m a writer”. You would say “I’m in the content space”, or, if you were more ambitious, “I’m in the media space”. But if you were really ambitious you would know that “media” was out and “platforms” were in, and that the measure – excuse me, the “metric” – that investors used to judge platform companies was attention, because this ephemeral thing, attention, could be sold to advertisers for cash. So if someone asked “What’s your space?” and you had a deeply unfashionable job like, say, writer, it behooved you to say “I deliver eyeballs like a fucking ninja”.

In my former life I would have sooner gouged out my own eyeballs than describe myself in such a way, but in post-recession, post-boom, post-work, post-shame San Francisco, we all did what we had to do to survive.

I was beginning to become acquainted with the infinite solipsism of my new milieu. We were grown men who lived like captive gerbils, pressing one lever to make food appear and another for some fleeting entertainment – everything on demand. Airbnb and Foodpanda served the flesh, Netflix and Lifehacker nourished the soul.

I relied on sites such as EventBrite and Meetup to keep my social calendar full and my expenses down. I went to a party at the Yelp office – like most of the freebies around town, it was advertised online. The venue was a forbidding art deco tower – the old PacBell building, constructed for the California branch of the national telephone monopoly in its heyday. Now the tower’s largest tenant was a website that allows anonymous semi-literates to post critiques of local establishments. Most of the crowd seemed to work at Yelp, and felt obliged to stick around for the event. But there was something else keeping these people here – an overriding anxiety about unfamiliar spaces.

Life outside the startup bubble was frightening and unpredictable. Inside, it was safe. “Fun” was mandatory in the Bay Area tech world, and inebriation strongly encouraged. The bar at Yelp, for instance, featured three kegs of high-end craft beer and an array of wines and spirits. This was not a temporary selection for the benefit of us honoured guests, but a permanent fixture of the commissary. Normally open only to employees, the Yelp Cafe had a perfect five-star rating … on Yelp. “Well, looks like I’m never leaving my office compound!” one reviewer wrote.

A corporate recruiter explained to me the forces driving the “perks war”, an escalating tit-for-tat of such freebies as steak dinners delivered to employees’ desks, free laundry service, free bikes and bike repair, free concierge service and, of course, free drinks.

“They might get a $20 steak, but with the extra time they’ve stayed at work, they’ve provided an extra $200 in value to their employer,” the recruiter said. Thus the seemingly lavish enticements were a way to attract profit-producing programmers, who were in exceedingly high demand, without offering higher salaries. The perks also provided effective cover for the companies’ slave-driving work schedules.

My flatmates seemed happy with the arrangement, at least at first. “Everything they say about Google is true,” one intern told me after his orientation at the Googleplex. “There are 20 cafeterias, a gym – everything.” Early each weekday morning, he and the other Googlers in his neighbourhood swiped their ID cards to board a chartered bus parked near the Bart station, then rode 35 miles to Mountain View. They started working onboard the bus, which was equipped with wifi, and didn’t leave the campus until about 8pm, when another bus ferried them home after they ate at the company cafeteria. This was a pretty standard deal at the big Silicon Valley companies. Even rinky-dink startups in SoMa warehouses offered free catering. “The perks, man!” another roommate, a non-Googler, raved after arriving home at 10pm from his first day on the job.

“I worked until 9pm because dinner is free if you work that late … And they’ll pay for your cab home,” he went on. That became his routine, and he never questioned it. Come to think of it, like a lot of his contemporaries, he never questioned anything.

In this milieu, a certain tolerance for phoniness was prerequisite. It was not enough to have the right skills, put in your time and get the job done – you had to be fucking pumped about your job. Certain specialities were in more demand than others. Any chump with a humanities degree could talk his or her way into a marketing job, but programmers were harder to come by. One sunny day, I followed the waterfront to the event center at Pier 27 and signed in to the DeveloperWeek conference.

DevWeek, as everyone called it, was basically a week-long recruitment fair sprinkled with slideshows and panel talks. It was jarring to see employers desperate to hire, not the other way around. In 2010s America, the only place that was always hiring, apart from Silicon Valley, was the local US army recruiting centre. Hundreds upon hundreds of people had flocked here to look for a better job and still there were not enough applicants to fill all the openings for “Java Legends, Python Badasses, Hadoop Heroes”, and other gratingly childish classifications describing various programming specialities. Techies would call themselves just about anything to avoid the stigmatising label of “worker”. They could only face themselves in the mirror if their business card proved that they were rock stars or ninjas or something romantic and brave and individualistic – anything but the truth, anything but a drone.

I had an important realisation at DevWeek: I wasn’t the only one bluffing my way through the tech scene. Everyone was doing it, even the much-sought-after engineering talent. I was struck by how many developers were, like myself, not really programmers, but rather this, that and the other. A great number of tech ninjas were not exactly black belts when it came to the actual onerous work of computer programming. So many of the complex, discrete tasks involved in the creation of a website or an app had been automated that it was no longer necessary to possess knowledge of software mechanics. The coder’s work was rarely a craft. The apps ran on an assembly line, built with “open-source”, off-the-shelf components. The most important computer commands for the ninja to master were copy and paste.

Employees at the Square Inc headquarters in San Francisco

Employees at the Square Inc headquarters in San Francisco. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Barack Obama’s White House had endorsed Silicon Valley’s “learn to code” campaign – it was an official government job-creation programme. With the traditional US job market still a smouldering charcoal pit after the 2008 crash, computer programming skills were promoted as one sure way to attain the sort of prosperity and stability Americans had over many decades come to expect.

And yet, many programmers who had “made it” in Silicon Valley were scrambling to promote themselves from coder to “founder”. There wasn’t necessarily more money to be had running a startup, and the increase in status was marginal unless one’s startup attracted major investment and the right kind of press coverage. It’s because the programmers knew that their own ladder to prosperity was on fire and disintegrating fast. They knew that well-paid programming jobs would also soon turn to smoke and ash, as the proliferation of learn-to-code courses around the world lowered the market value of their skills, and as advances in artificial intelligence allowed for computers to take over more of the mundane work of producing software. The programmers also knew that the fastest way to win that promotion to founder was to find some new domain that hadn’t yet been automated. Every tech industry campaign designed to spur investment in the Next Big Thing – at that time, it was the “sharing economy” – concealed a larger programme for the transformation of society, always in a direction that favoured the investor and executive classes.

In the first seven years after the 2008 crash, 16 million people left the US labour force. And in that same period, thanks to Silicon Valley’s timely opportunism, the country gained an endless bounty of gigs. Tech startups, backed by Wall Street, swept in to offer displaced workers countless push-button moneymaking schemes – what Bloomberg News called “entrepreneurialism-in-a-box”. Need fast cash? Take out a “peer-to-peer” loan, or start a crowdfunding campaign. Need a career? Take on odd jobs as a TaskRabbit or pitch corporate swag as a YouTube “vlogger”. Nine-to-five jobs with benefits and overtime may be in the process of getting disrupted out of existence, but in their place we have the internet, with endless gigs and freelance opportunities, where survival becomes something like a video game – a matter of pressing the right buttons to attain instant gratification and meagre rewards.

More than a third of American workers now qualify as “freelancers” or “contingent workers” – that is, their livelihoods are contingent upon the whims of their managers. That’s because the choice to become entrepreneurs has been made for them. The destruction of social welfare, public education and organised labour has created what might be called the 50 Cent economy, a system structured to offer only two options: “Get rich or die trying.” George W Bush called it the “ownership society”. Obama, smitten with his Silicon Valley donors, gave us “Startup America”. And Donald Trump, history’s luckiest winner, reigned over a nation of “losers”. Under the latest iteration of the American Dream, if you aren’t a billionaire yet, you haven’t tried hard enough.

The contemporary equivalent of an entry-level job in the corporate mailroom was a work-from-home service called Mechanical Turk, operated by Amazon, the $136bn online retailer controlled by Jeff Bezos. The idea with Mechanical Turk was to create a digitised assembly line featuring thousands of separate “human intelligence tasks”, designed to be completed within seconds and paying pennies. Academic surveys found that many Turkers worked more than 30 hours per week for average wages of under $2 per hour. Yet these workers were considered self-employed small business owners. Their work was commissioned by social scientists seeking to cut costs on large-sample surveys, but also by profit-minded companies that hired hundreds of Turkers as needed, instead of a full- or part-time employee.

Another sharing economy upstart called Fiverr was a catalogue of freelance “gigs”, from illustration to translation, all sold at a fixed cost of $5. Launched in 2010 by two Israelis, Fiverr raised more than $50m in investment within five years, on annual revenue of $15m. Silicon Valley investors praised the founders’ “incredible vision” and swooned over the “liquidity, velocity and engagement” the company brought to the global marketplace.

It was remarkable what people were willing to do for $5, or more like $3.92 after service fees. A lot of ads promised custom website development. Others offered quick-and-dirty logos, proofreading, or résumé writing. I hoped to forge my place in the strange niche of bargain basement flat-fee consulting. Thousands of people were paying $5 to strangers for direction on matters they found too difficult, too stressful or too trivial to face alone. Fiverr’s terms of service forbade “nonsense” and “uncool stuff” but the service seemed to tolerate ads like one for an Amazon “Kindle ghostwriting machine”; or another for tools designed “to cheat likes on social networks”; and still another for “a profitable forex cheating strategy” – an obvious scam that Fiverr marked for a while as “recommended”. I had entered a murky ethical realm. I scanned gigs methodically. I learned that it paid to over-promise. No matter was too momentous:

“I will teach you to make Life and Death Decisions for $5.”

This gig was listed by a Fiverr-certified “top-rated seller” who claimed experience as a broker of precious metals.

“I will help you Survive the Fatal Ebola Virus Epidemic for $5.”

As far as I knew, there was no cure for Ebola. But who was I to argue with a five-star-rated seller? Could 2,679 customers be wrong?

On the site’s discussion boards, sellers swapped stories of unfair competition from scammers, insufficient payments from Fiverr, capricious rules, meagre sales and endless hours. Some sounded genuinely desperate. Fiverr even sent its workers emails about increasing productivity by avoiding depression. Full-time Fiverring took a physical toll, as well, with many slavish gig-peddlers reporting rapid weight gain. “I know what you mean! I bought some jeggings this weekend,” one woman wrote. Another commenter saw opportunity. “If anyone is interested,” he wrote, “I’m putting together a Fiverr gig where I will be offering online fitness coaching.”

Fiverr offered a glimpse at the new model worker: a fat, depressed con artist forever scheming against his comrades, egged on by the distant architects of the virtual marketplace– the only real winners. The company eventually embraced this image and celebrated it with a subway ad campaign featuring a fatigued-looking model with frizzy hair and circles under her eyes. “You eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice,” the ad said. “You might be a doer,” it concluded. When busy-ness became a status symbol, the glamorisation of exhaustion was inevitable.

A sign supporting Proposition F to restrict short-term rentals via companies such as Airbnb in San Francisco

A sign supporting Proposition F to restrict short-term rentals via companies such as Airbnb in San Francisco. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

I found Corey Ferreira through his website,, which was a marketing vehicle for his ebook, Fiverr Success: $4,000 a Month. 8 Hours of Work a Week. Having made a decent amount on Fiverr, Ferreira had found rates of pay had halved. Faced with slowing business, he had adopted a new approach: he could “sell the method”. He got the idea from a book called The Laptop Millionaire, which describes “a guy’s journey from being basically homeless to making money online. One of the things he talks about is making ‘information products’.” Hence Fiverr Success by Corey Ferreira was born, selling “hundreds” of copies at $17.

The book marked a transition for Ferreira, as he spent less time doing labour-intensive web design and more time searching for the cold fusion of internet marketing: “passive income.” “I remember when eBay started,” he told me. “I was kinda young. Everybody was talking about how to make money on eBay. I remember somebody telling me, ‘During a gold rush, you should sell shovels’.”

I felt he had let me in on some oracular wisdom. Don’t dig for gold: sell shovels to all the suckers who think they’ll get rich digging for gold. To post an ad on Fiverr was to announce one’s status as an easy mark. To hawk get-rich-quick manuals to all those eager Fiverrers, however, was to join the exalted ranks of the shovel merchants.

My Airbnb landlord, I realised, was a shovel merchant. As was the company that rented me server space for website hosting. As were the “startup community organisers” selling tickets to conferences and networking parties. As were the startup awards shows and Hacker News and the whole Silicon Valley economic apparatus promoting the ideal of individual achievement. We startup wannabes were not entrepreneurs. We were suckers for the shovel merchants, who were much cleverer than the thick-skulled “innovators” who did all the work while trading away the rewards.

For a business incompetent such as myself, this concept of selling a method, rather than a straightforward product or service, was revelatory. I understood this lesson as an extension of that old saying about teaching a man to fish instead of just giving him a fish. Now the idea was: you made him pay for fishing lessons, offering student loans if necessary, and failed to mention that you had already depleted the pool. In a late capitalist society with dwindling opportunities for cash-poor workers and few checks on entrepreneurial conduct, what could be better to sell than false hope? This was a smart business.

Unfortunately, the techie hustlers can be a little too clever for their own good – and ours. With decades of unwavering support from the military-industrial complex, Congress and Wall Street, the pallid princelings of Silicon Valley rewrote the rules of the global economy in their favour. The public, fooled as it was by the tech industry’s slick marketing and lulled by the novelty and convenience of its gadgetry, might be forgiven for missing some early warning signs. (Remember when the Google guys used to rhapsodise about beaming the internet – with the attendant targeted advertising – directly into people’s brains? It doesn’t sound so far-fetched and quirky now, does it?)

If we are feeling generous, the same retrospective clemency could even be shown to politicians who mistook Silicon Valley for just another well-heeled lobby looking for favours, and to the reporters who were suckered by the rapid rise of “revolutionary” companies such as Theranos and Uber. But the builders of our digital dystopia – the tech titans themselves, and their armies of engineers – have no such excuses. They will talk about the mistakes they have made. They will express regret for their oversights and make a show of contrition. Don’t be fooled.

The dark side of Big Tech, which many consumers are only beginning to come to grips with, is not some byproduct of California-style “conscious capitalism” – an unfortunate misstep in an otherwise heroic effort to “change the world”. Profit-hunger, philistinism and misanthropy are and always have been at the core of the enterprise. The new breed of Silicon Valley billionaires knew exactly what they were doing. The plan was to take all the money and run – to Mars, if necessary.

Adapted from Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley, published by Metropolitan Books in the US, and forthcoming from Scribe in the UK

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Thousands of Android apps potentially violate child protection law | Technology

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Thousands of child-directed Android apps and games are potentially violating US law on the collection and sharing of data on those under 13, research has revealed.

A study conducted on 5,885 child-directed Android apps from the US Play Store, which are included in Google’s Designed for Families programme, found that well over half of the apps potentially violated the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa).

“We identified several concerning violations and trends,” wrote the authors of the Proceedings on Privacy Enhancing Technologies, led by researchers at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. “Overall, roughly 57% of the 5,855 child-directed apps that we analysed are potentially violating Coppa.”

Among the apps, 4.8% had “clear violations when apps share location or contact information without consent”, 40% shared personal information without applying reasonable security measures, 18% shared persistent identifiers with their parties for prohibited purposes such as ad targeting, and 39% showed “ ignorance or disregard for contractual obligations aimed at protecting children’s privacy”.

The researchers found that 28% of the apps accessed sensitive data protected by Android permissions and that 73% of the tested apps transmitted sensitive data over the internet.

“While accessing a sensitive resource or sharing it over the internet does not necessarily mean that an app is in violation of Coppa, none of these apps attained verifiable parental consent: if the [automated testing] was able to trigger the functionality, then a child would as well,” the researchers wrote.

“This is an incredibly important study that clears demonstrates that many apps for children are violating Coppa at a massive scale,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood. “Many kids’ apps are sharing personal information with third parties who do data-driven personalised marketing, the very thing Coppa was supposed to guard against.”

The researchers said that Google had taken steps to help enforce Coppa compliance, with the Designed for Families programme that provides developers of children’s apps with information on the law and requires certification that apps comply. But they said “as our results show, there appears to not be any (or only limited) enforcement”.

While the researchers surmised that it is likely that “many privacy violations are unintentional and caused by misunderstandings of third-party Software Development Kitss” that are used to build the apps, they urged Google to do more active vetting process of apps for Coppa compliance.

The researchers also analysed whether apps with potential Coppa violations were part of the US Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Safe Harbor programme, under which developers submit their apps for certification that they are Coppa-compliant. They found that few apps are actually certified under Safe Harbor and of those that are “potential violations are prevalent”.

“Based on our data, it is not clear that industry self-regulation has resulted in higher privacy standards; some of our data suggest the opposite. Thus, industry self-regulation appears to be ineffective,” the researchers wrote.

Golin said: “It’s also clear that self-regulation efforts – both Google’s attempts to ensure Coppa compliance at the app store level and the Safe Harbor certification programme – are failing families. As has been demonstrated time and time again, self-regulation is no substitute for sustained government enforcement.”

Jeffrey Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, said: “For years, the FTC has failed to address how both Google and Facebook routinely undermine consumer privacy.”

“However, the FTC has just been through [an] earthquake-like wake up call, given the revelations that Facebook allowed companies like Cambridge Analytica to seize data on 87 million people … Parents are confronted with a nearly impossible task. Given the dominance of the Google App platform and the interest young children have in apps, it’s not practical for a parent to have to spend time trying to decipher the complex connections that drive the ad supported App industry.

“That’s why we hope the FTC has finally awoken from its long digital privacy slumber.”

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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GoFindMeAHome: why crowdfunding is many homeless people’s last resort | Technology

GoFindMeAHome: why crowdfunding is many homeless people’s last resort | Technology

Dave Schulman’s long decline toward homelessness began 18 years ago, when, as a reserve police officer in southern California, he fell from a wall and seriously injured his neck during a response to a robbery call. In the years that followed, he lost his ability to work, his wife left him and the bank foreclosed on his Costa Mesa house. Depressed and in constant pain, he has recently been on verge of losing the trailer that he now calls home, because his truck broke and he could no longer move it from place to place.

But Schulman’s luck changed in January, when a former police colleague recognized that he was on the edge of losing everything and organized a GoFundMe fundraising campaign


“It was partly me just realizing that this guy was about to go off a cliff,” said Clay Epperson, the former officer who organized the campaign. “He was days away from being on the street with nothing.”

With little hope of help from social service agencies, more and more people like Schulman are relying on online fundraising sites to avoid homelessness or even to get off the streets.

In the last three years alone, people have created more than 280,000 GoFundMe campaigns related to homelessness, raising more than $69m from over 1 million donations, according to statistics retrieved by GoFundMe after a request from the Guardian. Other crowdfunding sites, such as YouCaring, HandUp and YouHelp, also handle thousands of campaigns for people seeking to avoid homelessness each year.

Depending on which way you look at it, this development is either an uplifting testament to the compassion of strangers or an indictment of a broken social safety net. Only about one in four Americans in need of government housing assistance actually receive it.

“The government is there to help and there are many great NGOs there to help, but with all of these institutions and systems in place, many people fall through the cracks,” said Rob Solomon, the CEO of GoFundMe. “Income inequality is a gigantic issue and that drives a lot of these campaigns.”

Dave Schulman with his friend Clay Epperson outside Dave’s trailer in Fullerton, Orange County. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

Experts warn that such sites hardly offer a level playing field to get help to the neediest.

“It’s a shift away from distributing resources to where they will do the most good, to more of a popularity contest” said Jeremy Snyder, an associate professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, who has studied the effects of crowdfunding on medical patients and others in need. “If you have a large social network, media savvy and the ability to use computers, you tend to do well. But that might not match up with those who need the help the most.”

The implications, he said, are troubling. “I think in a one-off way, crowdfunding is a powerful way to help someone,” he said. “But if this is the new way to address homelessness, it’s very concerning.”

Crowdfunding campaigns to fight homelessness have achieved some high profile successes. One homeless man in Philadelphia ended up getting over $400,000 to buy a home, after he gave his last $20 to help a women whose car had broken down and his story went viral.

Supporters of a UC Berkeley student named Ismael Chamu raised nearly $100,000, after a Los Angeles Times article revealed that, while he was attending one of the nation’s most prestigious research universities, he and his immigrant family were living in a trailer with no heat and no sewage hookup and were about to be evicted.

Lower-profile recipients include Jennifer Polk of Ventura, California. When her landlord gave her three days to come up with late payments or be evicted from her apartment, Polk was told she couldn’t get government housing help because she hadn’t already been homeless for 24 hours.

So Polk, 34, who was juggling several jobs and trying to break into comic book illustration, took matters into her own hands. She put up a GoFundMe page titled “Homeless Prevention” and implored her social media contacts to “PLEASE I beg of you donate! We have 3 days to get this!”

After three days, she only had half of the $3,000 she needed to avoid eviction. In the end, however, she said the donations were enough for a deposit on a new place.

“It was basically a Hail Mary,” said Polk, who now has a new rental and a new job in classic comics restoration. “At least it helped me raise the money to remain housed.”

Ismael Chamu, a UC Berkeley student, was able to raise money to help find a home.

Ismael Chamu, a UC Berkeley student, was able to raise money to help find a home. Photograph: YouCaring

But not everyone is so fortunate.

A single mother in the Detroit area started a campaign on YouCaring to raise $1,500 for a deposit on a new apartment, after her landlord told her she had to leave because of a remodel. She only raised $150. Another mother posted pictures of her two young children, who were with her in a family shelter, and pleaded for people to help her get money for a deposit, but raised a mere $350.

Skills needed for successful crowdfunding campaigns “tend to match up with markers of privilege”, said Snyder, noting that the best crowdfunders may be those who are the most educated and are best at marketing themselves.

Still, Megan Hustings, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said crowdfunding sites could inspire a profound emotional shift in givers.

“These are the kinds of acts of compassion that we should encourage,” she said. “Once someone is hooked on caring and taking action, maybe that can become addictive.”

The GoFundMe for Schulman, the reserve police officer, could hardly have come at a more critical juncture in his life.

He settled his disability claim for his police-force injury years ago and had little income. Although had had a career as a computer programmer and private investigator in addition to working for the police on weekends, he now suffers so much pain he cannot sit in front of a computer.

But the campaign and the encouraging notes people sent him helped lift the depression and loneliness he had suffered for years. The efforts to help him raised about $10,000. Supporters have offered him a place to park his trailer and may have even found him permanent housing. The police friends he has reconnected with are helping him secure a more regular income and obtain treatments that may reduce his pain, and he aspires to join the workforce again so he can become independent.

“It’s a wonderful thing: people you know and people you don’t even know, they read your story and help you,” said Schulman.

“It’s not just financial, it’s the kind of help a friend would give.”

Alastair Gee contributed reporting to this story.

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Hey! Algorithms, leave them kids alone: Chips with Everything podcast | Technology

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Subscribe and review: Acast, Apple, Spotify, Soundcloud, Audioboom, Mixcloud. Join the discussion on Facebook, Twitter or email us at podcasts[email protected]

These days, we hear a lot about algorithms. The word tends to crop up when some or other tech company is forced to apologise for whatever new scandal has thrown them into the spotlight. Whether the issue is big data and profiling, or search results and suggested content, it is the algorithm that gets the blame.

The latest victims are children, and the troublesome algorithms responsible may not be long for this world. At the beginning of April, BuzzFeed News reported that YouTube is planning to release a new version of its supposedly child-friendly platform YouTube Kids that bucks the trend of relying on algorithms, and instead opts for “curation” by human beings.

The reason?

Currently, child users of YouTube and YouTube Kids are able to follow links to videos that seem safe in the suggestions bar but turn out to be inappropriate or even highly disturbing.

To discuss the implications of an algorithm-free YouTube platform, Jordan Erica Webber is joined by Dr Vicki Nash, of the Oxford Internet Institute, and Andy Burrows, of the NSPCC.

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