Are They Listening? Cox Media Group says they can eavesdrop on private communications..

Just after Thanksgiving the Cox Media Group (CMG) began marketing an advertising product that they say targets consumers based on private conversations heard by smart devices. This bold claim generated a good amount of media scrutiny, with most outlets saying Cox’s claimed capabilities were exaggerated. CMG has since taken their “active listening” marketing page down.

In my latest video I demonstrate how it’s possible to listen in on private conversations without ever having to upload audio data – just transcriptions generated by on-device AI. Smartphone processors have had enough horsepower to do this since at least 2017 if not earlier.

I conducted an experiment to test these capabilities. Using a piece of software called MacWhisper, which utilizes OpenAI’s models for on-device transcription, I transcribed a conversation from my home. The software efficiently converted the audio into text, which was then uploaded and summarized using ChatGPT. The results were surprisingly accurate and detailed, capturing various topics from health concerns to shopping plans.

The resulting transcript uploaded to ChatGPT was only 3k in size – a file small enough to be transmitted in just a few seconds using a 1980’s 1200 baud modem and mere milliseconds on a modern broadband connection. If anyone was monitoring the network traffic coming out of a smart television a transmission that small would likely be dismissed as just some random telemetry.

And you don’t even need a powerful computer to transcribe text on device. Google Pixel phones since the Pixel 4 could do it and Apple has had this capability since the iPhone X’s release. Conceivably every TV, phone, tablet, smart speaker and just about any other device made in the last five years is fully capable of on-device transcription.

In a statement, CMG denied they were listening to conversations but did not deny somebody else might be:

“CMG businesses do not listen to any conversations or have access to anything beyond a third-party aggregated, anonymized and fully encrypted data set that can be used for ad placement.

So it’s entirely possible they’re working with a third party vendor that is conducting this activity through apps running on smart devices. CMG could just be buying the “output” of this transcription and AI processing. As of this posting CMG did not respond to my follow-up question asking if they were doing just that.

Is it legal? Cox Media Group thinks so. From their now deleted marketing page:

While the Cox Media Group’s claim about their advertising product could have been exaggerated, I demonstrated that it is now entirely plausible to listen in on private conversations, transcribe the audio to text in real time on-device, and transmit back very small blobs of text that can be interpreted by AI for advertising targeting.

I’d like to believe that CMG’s claims were exaggerated but it’s entirely possible advertisers have found a new way to invade our privacy for profit.

Playstation Removing All Discovery Channel Media – Including Customer Purchases – on December 31st

Yes you read the headline correctly. Sony, in a Friday afternoon bad news dump, notified users that video content from Discovery will be removed from the Playstation store and any purchases will also be removed from user libraries. This is yet another reminder that in this digital world we own nothing. See more in my latest video.

Unlike physical media, where ownership is tangible and enduring, digital purchases are ephemeral, often subject to the whims of content providers and platform policies. Even when “purchasing” media, users are merely purchasing a license giving them access to the content. The fine print of Sony’s licensing agreement says they can revoke the license any time they want for any reason.

Unless as otherwise stated in this Agreement, SCEA, at its sole discretion, may indefinitely suspend, or discontinue any and all online access to content at any time, including for maintenance service or upgrades, without prior notice or liability.”

So how can we safeguard access to our media? One method involves the direct capture of content using software like OBS. While this process is time-consuming, it offers one avenue to preserve access to shows and movies that you’ve paid for. However, this solution isn’t without its drawbacks, primarily the effort and technical know-how required. And also it may violate the Digital Milenium Copyright Act (DMCA) which prohibits the circumvention of encryption protecting the content which is required to do a direct capture.

The best option of course is to purchase physical copies of movies and TV shows, whether on DVD or Blu-ray, which will remain accessible regardless of the changing digital landscape. Physical discs often include special features and additional content, enriching the viewing experience. Unfortunately, the market for physical media is declining, and not all content is available in this format.

Movies Anywhere is another alternative that helps spread the risk across multiple platforms. This service allows digital media purchased on one platform (like Amazon) to be made accessible on other platforms too. Most Blu-Rays now come with a “digital code” option that is often redeemable through Movies Anywhere.

Vudu also has an affordable solution called “Disc to Digital” that allows US consumers to scan the back of a DVD or Blu-Ray movie and have the film added to their digital library for under $5. The film gets added to the user’s Vudu library but the film will show up on other services through Movies Anywhere. I reviewed the service a few years ago.

For those with physical media collections, tools like MakeMKV and Handbrake facilitate the creation of personal digital archives that can be used with personal media servers like Plex.

Another option is the use of streaming service recorders like PlayOn (compensated affiliate link). This tool enables the recording of content from streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, though it operates in a legal gray area and raises questions about compliance with service terms and the legality of retaining content after canceling a subscription to the service the content was recorded from.

Unfortunately this dust up with Sony and Discovery is only the tip of the iceberg. I suspect we will be hearing more stories about purchases of music, movies, TV shows and games disappearing from libraries in the coming years. And unfortunately there’s not much we can do about it given the terms of service that allow the companies to do it.

Exposing More Brands Behaving Badly on YouTube..

My latest video shows another example of how influencer agencies pay YouTube creators to make “reviews” that are actually advertisements.

This video was sparked by a tweet from Mike Rose, CEO of No More Robots, a game publisher. Rose expressed his frustration about how nearly every YouTuber he reached out to wanted to be paid to review his game.

As you can imagine Rose’s tweet stirred up quite a bit of push-back, with some respondents saying it’s entirely possible to make an “honest” review when also being compensated by the game developer or brand.

But is that the case? Let’s take a look at influencer agency Crowdcreate and how they recently communicated with me in regards to a review they wanted done for a client. They approached me with an offer to review a product for payment that directed what should be covered in the review and required the brand’s pre-approval before the video was uploaded (among other things).

Transparency should be key in this industry. Viewers deserve to know if a video is sponsored, if the product was received for free, or if the brand had any editorial input. This transparency is not just a matter of ethics but also a legal requirement in many countries. Unfortunately most of the reviews Crowdcreate solicited on behalf of their client were not disclosed properly by the creators.

The underlying issue here are the changing dynamics of content creation and consumption. In the tech space as products become more integrated and less groundbreaking, capturing audience excitement becomes more challenging. This, coupled with the algorithmic nature of platforms like YouTube, makes organic content reach to followers and subscribers increasingly difficult. Creators are thus pushed towards more lucrative, yet potentially less ethical, forms of content like paid reviews.

To be clear I have no problem with creators doing paid sponsorships – in fact I do them on occasion too. But what I do have a problem with are creators who do not adequately disclose to the audience the nature of the relationship with the brand and how the brand influenced the content. This, in my opinion, crosses the line from an honest review to a paid advertisement, a distinction that is not always made clear to the audience.

You can read more about my ethics and disclosure policy here.

Are YouTube’s Advertiser Friendly Policies Too Draconian? Or Are Advertisers Not Being Fair to Independent Creators?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve delved into some pressing issues affecting small and medium-sized creators on YouTube. One of the most significant concerns is the invalid traffic issue, where creators have seen a drastic reduction in their ad revenue without any clear explanation from YouTube.

In my latest video, I discuss YouTube’s advertiser friendly policies. Are they too restrictive? I believe they are, especially when we consider the evolving media landscape. It seems that advertisers might be giving YouTube a harder time, or perhaps YouTube isn’t advocating enough for its creators.

For instance, YouTube, despite being one of the world’s largest websites with over a billion monthly viewers, faces challenges with monetizable video inventory. Not every video qualifies for monetization due to YouTube’s ad-friendly policies or other related criteria. This has led to frustrations among advertisers who are finding it challenging to place their ads on desired YouTube content. The introduction of YouTube Shorts has also reportedly cannibalized the core YouTube business, making it harder for advertisers to book long-form ads.

YouTube’s response to these challenges is to try and squeeze more advertising inventory out of their existing stock of videos. They’re doing this through becoming more aggressive in restricting ad-blockers and have removed most of the ad placement controls creators used to have when uploading videos. They’re also now automatically running mid-roll ads during livestreams.

Driving the problem might be that only a fraction of YouTube videos can be monetized thanks to the very heavy restrictions YouTube was forced to bring to the platform. The root of these restrictive policies can be traced back to the “adpocalypse” a few years ago. Major advertisers paused their YouTube ad purchases after objectionable videos were found to be paired with their ads. YouTube’s quick fix was to implement an algorithmically driven system to determine video suitability for advertising. Over time, these guidelines have become more restrictive, with many creators finding it challenging to navigate the ever-changing rules.

For example, Juane Brown from the Blancolirio channel, an expert in aviation, has faced numerous limitations in monetizing his insightful analysis of aircraft accidents. Combat Veteran Reacts, a channel that provides valuable insights into global conflicts from a US Army combat veteran, has also faced challenges in monetizing coverage of the conflict in Ukraine.

What’s even more concerning is that while YouTube’s policies are becoming stricter, major advertisers are placing ads on content on other platforms that would clearly violate YouTube’s guidelines. For instance, violent movies like American Psycho that violate numerous policies on YouTube are fully monetized on Peacock with ads from major brands like Subaru, Progressive Insurance, Adobe, TJ Maxx and more.

There was a time when pay-tv channels like HBO (now Max) could push the envelope as they did not have to worry about offending advertisers. But in this new era most of the major streaming providers, including Max, are running ads on that very same content.

So, how can we address this? Trust is a significant factor. Why can’t YouTube develop some level of trust with responsible professional creators who are contributing useful information and discussion to the world? Shouldn’t creators with a track record of responsible reporting be trusted with major brand advertising especially if those brands are advertising on similar content on other platforms?

Instead YouTube treats all creators with an equal layer of distrust, paying content moderators to watch every single video uploaded from channels that have never had an advertiser friendly violation.

Moreover, YouTube needs to advocate for its creators. If platforms like Peacock can have ads on content like American Psycho, why isn’t YouTube pushing back on advertisers to get them to loosen up for responsible independently produced content that is just as valuable as what major media organizations provide?

I fear this is another example of YouTube continuing their corporate march to make themselves more like TikTok and Instagram, rewarding fluff over substance. What sets YouTube apart are the many independent voices that for the first time in history can be heard at enormous scale.

I hope at some point they’ll get back to their roots and build upon their strengths versus emulating their competitors.

The Silent Crisis on YouTube : Invalid Traffic Revenue Clawbacks Decimating Small channels

The other day I received a concerning message in my YouTube analytics. The message indicated that ads had been limited on one or more of my videos due to “invalid traffic.” The ambiguity of the message left me puzzled. Which videos were affected? What financial implications would this have for my channel? I explore this brewing crisis in my latest video.

I wasn’t alone in this. A quick search revealed that several other creators, especially smaller channels like mine, were facing similar issues. Some reported losing up to 80 and 90% of their revenue with no clear explanation from YouTube beyond the vague explanation of “invalid traffic.”

YouTube’s response to this has been, to put it mildly, unsatisfactory. Their support articles mostly point fingers at creators, suggesting that the invalid traffic might be due to automated or incentivized traffic from third parties, or even friends playing videos from playlists all day long. I can confidently say that I’ve never engaged in such practices. I’ve built my channel from the ground up over a decade, always focusing on genuine content and organic growth.

What’s even more frustrating is the lack of clear communication from YouTube. When I reached out to their support, I was met with evasive answers. They wouldn’t specify which of my videos were affected or provide any clarity on the potential financial impact I can expect.

Speculating on the cause, I believe that channels like mine, which rely heavily on search traffic, might be getting penalized. About 42% of my traffic comes from people searching for specific product reviews. If YouTube’s algorithms can’t distinguish between genuine and “invalid” search traffic, channels like mine stand to lose a significant portion of their revenue.

But this issue is just the tip of the iceberg. YouTube seems to be undergoing an identity crisis. Their recent push towards “shorts” to compete with platforms like TikTok has had unintended consequences. Their usual communication discipline is appearing to break down as evidenced through a leak of their internal debates to a Financial Times reporter. The platform’s shift in focus to be more like TikTok and Instagram has affected how long-form content is recommended, leading to decreased visibility for creators like me.

The core strength of YouTube has always been its long-form content. But with the platform’s current trajectory, it feels like they’re sidelining creators who’ve been with them from the start. The lack of clear communication and support only exacerbates the feeling of being undervalued.

While I remain hopeful for the future, YouTube needs to address these issues head-on. Clear communication, better support for creators, and a re-evaluation of their current strategies are crucial. Only then can they rebuild the trust that seems to be eroding with each passing day.

YouTube Kills External Linking Because TikTok Does It?

YouTube announced this weekend that they will be disabling external links in the video description and comments for YouTube Shorts videos. This is the subject of my latest video.

This change, set to take effect on August 31st, has left me concerned for small and mid-sized creators who rely on affiliate marketing links for a portion of their revenue. When I first started making videos affiliate links drove most of my channel’s income and still represent a sizable portion of my overall revenue.

Affiliate links pay the creator a commission for sales that are generated from a user clicking on the link. What I really like about affiliate marketing is that it disincentivizes false advertising, as any returns made on an affiliate generated sale are deducted from the commission paid to the creator.

That’s why I was very disappointed to see the official response from YouTube’s “Creator Liaison,” Rene Ritchie, who said in a Twitter post that this was “the same as Reels and TikTok” and creators on those platforms were doing just fine.

I’ve always believed that YouTube offers a unique platform that stands out from its competitors through generous (and transparent) revenue sharing on long form videos, great discovery features, and the ability to use external links for affiliate marketing and other purposes.

The introduction of this restriction feels like a step backward – especially as their spokesperson devalues his own brand by comparing it to platforms that are the absolute worst for creator monetization. Perhaps Rene’s experience as a content creator and the creators he associates with are not struggling the way most monetized creators do on the platform. Some of us would prefer not to do the type of payola that clogs up TikTok and Reels.

One of the arguments presented by YouTube for this change revolves around security concerns, specifically the risk of scams and hacks appearing in comment threads. But YouTube solved that problem years ago by holding comments with links for moderation if the creator enables that feature (I do). Rene also rejected the idea of allowing those in the YouTube partner program to continue linking as he thinks it would make them a target for phishing attacks. But large creators are already the targets of phishing attacks as Linus Tech Tips found out a few months ago.

What I think is happening here is that YouTube is trying to get their own affiliate program off the ground which does work with Shorts. This new feature embeds affiliate links in the video itself but is limited only to retailers that agree to work with YouTube who presumably takes a cut of the action.

While this program has potential, my experience with it so far has been underwhelming. The click-through rates and conversions from YouTube’s affiliate links are significantly lower than my personally generated affiliate links and very few retailers that sell the types of products I cover are participating in the YouTube program.

I hope that YouTube will reconsider this decision and continue to support creators of all sizes. I love YouTube because it’s not a payola cesspool like their competitors. If that’s the vision for Shorts, fine. But the people I know at YouTube want to do better than that. And after all, it’s the creators who drive the platform, and their voices should be heard.

The Perils of Centralized Platforms

A few months ago I started look at ways to follow Indieweb principles in how I produce and consume content. On the consumption side I spent some time freshening up my RSS reader with a blob of feeds that I have been tracking for almost twenty years now. As for creation I set up this blog and looked at ways to syndicate content from the blog out to other places.

In my latest video in this series we take a look at how it’s all working six months later. I also look at some ways to decentralize other parts of my work, including video using a federated platform called Peertube.

It’s been fun exploring how open source developers are engineering ways to replicate the experience and reach potential of centralized platforms but in a way that’s completely decentralized. Join a server if you want or spin up your own – either way you’re in control of your content and data. And the best part is that there’s no owner who can pull the plug on it.

The past few weeks have shown the perils of centralization with Twitter’s ongoing drama and the collapse of centralized crypto exchanges. In many ways centralizing things on the Internet runs counter to its design doesn’t it? With the proliferation of much faster upstream broadband there’s a lot of opportunity in the decentralized “fediverse.” I think this will likely be as much of a focus in the 2020s as centralized networks were in the 2010s.

Don’t feed the trolls

The problem with social media as I see it is as follows: attention seeking narcissists troll other narcissists who then air grievances seeking attention from their followers who in turn amplify the original attack in the hopes of being noticed by the aggrieved for doing so.

It’s a self perpetuating cycle that unfortunately the social engines are tuned to promote and profit from.