The UpStream

Tumblr makes stunning policy change: deleting all NSFW content

posted Saturday Dec 8, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Tumblr makes stunning policy change: deleting all NSFW content

Blogging platform Tumblr has always had a complicated relationship with adult content. Despite always officially supporting it, they have closed accounts for years for doing things that were not against the platform's terms of service. In particular, gay adult blogs have had a harder time with being closed for not violating policy. On the other hand, the platform has also had a problem with illegal content being posted to the site, often without any repercussions.

Adding to Tumblr's dual nature with NSFW content is their relationship with Apple. It is a well-known fact that Apple's app guidelines leave a lot to be desired when it comes to the things that apps can and cannot do. For example, they censored the dictionary because it included "objectionable content." In this case, the objectionable content was words and their definitions. Facts can be offensive to some people, but that one was over the line. They also require dating and hookup platforms that allow nude photos to prevent those photos from being viewed on the iOS versions of their apps.

It was only a few weeks ago that Apple pulled the Tumblr app from the App Store, citing exactly these issues. In particular, it had to do with the presence of illegal content, but also involved their inclusion of adult content in the app. Some agreement was reached between Apple and Tumblr's owners Verizon, which brought the app back within a couple of days. The details of the agreement were not made public, but we are starting to get an idea of what might have happened.

This week, Tumblr announced that they would purge all adult content from the platform. As of December 17, 2018, all adult content will be gone, and blogs might be closed. According to the announcement,

There are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content. We will leave it to them and focus our efforts on creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community.

However, this is not really true. No other platform allows content creators to interact with their fans quite the way that Tumblr does. The reality is that Verizon is likely trying to appease Apple with this move. The fast turnaround and the timing make it pretty obvious why this is happening. Unfortunately for users, a lot of non-adult content is being flagged as objectionable, as part of the pre-purge preparations.

We have seen sports photographers have photos of swimmers and divers have photos from competitions flagged as objectionable. You might be able to understand how a photo of a boy or man in a swim brief might get flagged, other types of content are, as well. Many bloggers are having photos of shirtless men flagged as objectionable. It seems that the rushed nature of the move is not making for a smooth process.

In addition, the platform is about to lose a large percentage of its userbase. Most of the internet knows that the primary use of Tumblr is adult-oriented content. By banning the thing that makes the platform popular, they might just see the platform collapse entirely, whcih is what Google experienced when they tried the same thing a few years ago.

A wild Steam challenger appeared: Epic Games Store

posted Saturday Dec 8, 2018 by Scott Ertz

A wild Steam challenger appeared: Epic Games Store

Just a few years ago, if you wanted to purchase a videogame on PC, you almost certainly were going to do it through Valve's Steam Store. Steam was the undisputed king of the gaming world. Today, that scenario is no longer a reality. Between the Microsoft Store, Discord Store, EA Origin, and more, Valve has never seen so much competition.

One thing that is consistent across the majority of the current game stores (with the exception of publisher-owned stores) is that the platforms take a large cut of the sale. For example, on Steam, publishers get only 70 percent of the game's sale. On the Microsoft Store, publishers get 80 percent of the game's sale. This large percentage is part of why companies like EA have built their own launchers and stores to eliminate the margin loss.

This week, another game store has come to try and challenge Steam, while addressing the concerns of publishers. Building on their unbelievable success with Fortnite, Epic Games has announced the Epic Games Store. Not only did they announce it, they launched it publicly. The feature that will set Epic apart is the 88 percent that publishers get to keep. A 12 percent cost of goods is amazingly low, so there is a possibility that they could succeed here.

This is not Epic's first challenge to traditional game distribution. When they released Fortnite for Android, they eschewed Google's Play Store entirely, preferring instead to distribute directly from their website. For most people, this installation method was new and scary, as they had to turn off some security features on Android (at least during the installation process). What they found was that people were willing to take the risk in order to get the game.

That is an important aspect of developing a new storefront: getting people to use it. If they can attract publishers through their lower margin and attract gamers with the quality or quantity of games, they might actually have a chance in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Chinese smartphone companies mired in surging new global concern

posted Saturday Dec 8, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Chinese smartphone companies mired in surging new global concern

Over the past few years, fears over Chinese smartphones manufacturers has grown. In the US, under the previous administration, Congress banned the import of any Huawei phones, later downgraded from an outright ban to a governmental ban. Under the current administration, bans were renewed and expanded to include ZTE, and then reduced once again. Following the US lead, Japan has reportedly banned governmental use of both manufacturers' handsets.

These bans come from reports of Chinese government-backed software included on the phones, with the intent to log keystrokes and data transmissions. These fears were raised after several security firms raised concerns over some software discovered deep inside the Android operating system installed on handsets tested. Handsets are not the only concern, however, as UK telecom company BT has announced they will not use Huawei's hardware for their 5G installation and will, in fact, remove all existing Huawei hardware over the next 2 years.

Adding to Huawei's global troubles is the arrest of CFO and deputy chairman, Meng Wanzhou. She was arrested by Canadian authorities at the request of US law enforcement, with extradition expected quickly. While charges have not been made public, it is likely that it has to do with violations of international sanctions against Iran. The company has reportedly shipped handsets to the country, despite sanctions over human rights concerns.

During the last Olympic games, Samsung had to scramble to deal with the sanctions themselves. While not shipping handsets to Iran regularly, their plan, as a title sponsor, was to give special phones to every Olympian. Unfortunately, sanctions prevented them from following through on the gifting to both Iran and North Korea. Olympians from those nations were required to return the phones after the games. Huawei could certainly learn a lot from the commitment of Samsung in this case.

This will not be the end of troubles for these two manufacturers, however. With 5G installations underway internationally, Huawei stands to lose a lot in their network infrastructure sales. And, if more countries follow the lead of the US and Japan, handset sales will be a problem, as well.

YouTube may make original content free, cut most new programming

posted Friday Nov 30, 2018 by Scott Ertz

YouTube may make original content free, cut most new programming

YouTube is always trying new ideas to monetize the platform. That is because video streaming is an expensive process, and making it profitable can be incredibly difficult. A couple of years ago, the brand tried something new: YouTube Red, a paid version of the platform that removed ads and gave access to original programming. This service was replaced by YouTube Premium earlier this year but additional changes may be coming to the service over the next year.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, YouTube may make original content free on the platform, with ads supporting the cost of production. This decision is likely being made for a number of reasons. The most likely is that not enough consumers are signing up for YouTube Premium to be able to pay for the content. By allowing everyone to watch the content, they expand their overall viewership and generate some new revenue off of ad sales, which is really the platform's bread and butter.

In addition to making content freely available, it is said that YouTube is considering cutting back on the amount of original content they produce. For the most part, the experiment with original content from YouTube has been a bust, as many of their contracts have been with existing YouTube creators who lock some of their content behind Premium. Since Red was announced, however, Patreon has come in and taken a lot of the wind out of the service's sails.

In response to the drop in interest for locked content, YouTube has added a number of actual series, but it might have been too little, too late. The value of Premium has dropped because those who might have paid for a subscription to see bonus material from their favorite YouTubers have moved to Patreon. That limits how much exposure these series have now behind their paywall. Expanded viewership will mean more potential revenue, assuming that these originals are worth watching.

There is no timeline for the change, as no decision has been made internally, according to the report.

Google ignoring privacy issues with Dragonfly, employees unhappy

posted Friday Nov 30, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Google ignoring privacy issues with Dragonfly, employees unhappy

Since word first got out about Google's Dragonfly project, a censored version of their search engine to acquiesce to China's internet filters, there has been a lot of concern, both externally and internally. The concern got worse when it was revealed that the company planned on connecting search history to users' phone numbers. The Chinese government has been known to imprison its citizens simply for searching about specific topics, such as democracy - something Google has previously assisted with.

Adding to the worries over Dragonfly, this week a 14-year veteran of the company, Yonatan Zunger, spoke about the corporate policies being ignored in the project. As the person in charge of implementing a privacy review of Dragonfly, Zunger said that Google executives, in particular, the head of operations in China Scott Beaumont, dismissed all of the privacy concerns raised by the review. He said,

(Beaumont) did not feel that the security, privacy and legal teams should be able to question his product decisions, and maintained an openly adversarial relationship with them -- quite outside the Google norm.

Google, on the other hand, claims that the issues being raised by Zunger are false.

This is an exploratory project and no decision has been made about whether we could or would launch. As we've explored the project, many privacy and security engineers have been consulted, as they always are. For any product, final launch is contingent on a full, final privacy review but we've never gotten to that point in development. Privacy reviews at Google are non-negotiable and we never short circuit the process.

All of this has not stopped employees from reacting to the project, however. With the revelation of phone number correlation, a number of employees left the company. Those who have stayed have voiced their concerns, some loudly. A few dozen employees wrote a public letter to the company requesting that they drop Dragonfly entirely. In the letter, the employees say,

Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be. The Chinese government certainly isn't alone in its readiness to stifle freedom of expression, and to use surveillance to repress dissent. Dragonfly in China would establish a dangerous precedent at a volatile political moment, one that would make it harder for Google to deny other countries similar concessions.

As more governments are trying to censor the internet, most notably in the European Union, a private, censored version of Google Search would show these governments that it is not only possible but already a reality, to completely remove certain topics from the web. Having a strongly controlling authority, like the Chinese government or the EU, with the ability to wipe content from the web for their is a scary prospect, and being aided by Google makes it not only worse, but seem a legitimate option.

FTC to look into legality of videogame loot boxes

posted Friday Nov 30, 2018 by Scott Ertz

FTC to look into legality of videogame loot boxes

Over the last year or so, the topic of loot boxes has become a focal point of countries around the world. This controversial practice involves a game either giving or selling players a box which represents a number of unknown items. Loot boxes have never been particularly popular with gamers, as most people want to know what they are buying unless there is an incentive for not knowing (grab bags in retail, for example).

Last year, EA took the concept up a notch with Star Wars: Battlefront II, which was met with anger from gamers. In time, the company admitted defeat, but left the door open to return the process in the future. The problem with the game was that purchasing loot boxes was almost required to advance through the game. In fact, the game would require 4,500 hours of gameplay (roughly 6 months) or $2,100 to complete. Neither of these options was particularly likely.

The US Federal Trade Commission has decided to look into the legality of loot boxes. In particular, they are worried about the relationship between loot boxes and gambling. Senator Maggie Hassan said in a hearing,

So given the seriousness of this issue, I think it is in fact time for the FTC to investigate these mechanisms to ensure that children are being adequately protected and to educate parents about potential addiction or other negative impacts of these games.

Loot boxes definitely have a lot of similarities to gambling, especially when they are purchased versus rewarded. You spend money and receive an unknown collection of items with an unpredictable combined value. For example, look at Overwatch. A loot box could potentially contain 4 sprays (stencils), icons, or voice lines: all of which are low value. It could also contain a costume or costume piece, or potentially all costumes and costume pieces, all of which are worth far more than the previous collection. The rush that comes with the potential of what you could get is very similar to the rush you get when pulling the handle on a slot machine.

The investigation process is in the very early stages, as the US Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee has only just asked the FTC to look into the process. If their findings are anywhere similar to those of other countries, regulations over the process are likely to follow.

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