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.

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.

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.

Broadcasters Roll Out Restrictive DRM Encryption on ATSC 3.0 Broadcasts

In my latest video I discuss the concerning trend of broadcasters introducing encryption and Digital Rights Management (DRM) to ATSC 3 broadcasts in the United States. This move, while seemingly about preventing piracy and illegal re-transmission of signals, could significantly limit consumers’ ability to consume content in the way they want.

While consumers can watch ATSC 3 content live on next-gen certified televisions, they may face restrictions when trying to use apps like Plex or Channels for DVR recordings or outside-the-home viewing. There’s also the looming question of whether an Internet connection might be required to watch broadcast TV in the future.

I suspect that the motivation behind this move is largely to protect their re-transmission fee revenue broadcasters collected on a per-subscriber basis from cable companies and streaming services. Some estimates have it as high as $15 billion annually.

However, this shift towards DRM and encryption raises several questions and concerns. One of the most pressing is whether broadcasters could eventually charge consumers to watch what should be free television. While broadcasters are barred from doing so by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), I wouldn’t be surprised to see some broadcasters lobbying the FCC to allow it.

Another concern is the future of free TV content. As networks transition into streaming services, there’s a risk that high-quality content may become exclusive to paid streaming, leaving only local news and less desirable content for free broadcast TV. We’re already seeing examples of NBC, through Peacock and CBS, through Paramount+ offering content exclusive to those streaming apps that are not available on broadcast.

Given these concerns, I believe it’s crucial for consumers to voice their objections to the introduction of DRM in ATSC 3 broadcasts. I recommend reaching out to your senators and representatives, particularly those who have shown interest in accelerating the rollout of the ATSC 3 standard, to bring this issue to their attention.

Since this video was uploaded I heard from a bunch of viewers who were recently impacted by this change. Here’s what Matthew Mello sent to me on Twitter this morning:

Here the Comcast owned affiliate encrypts their ATSC 3 over the air signal making it more difficult to tune for free. If you want to DVR content or watch on a phone you’ll have to subscribe to cable to get those features – with Comcast picking up subscription AND retransmission fees.

There’s a reason the FCC used to limit media ownership in a market!

As a consumer and a tech enthusiast, I’m keeping a close eye on these developments. If DRM gets activated where I live I’ll be sure to share my experiences and continue to advocate for consumer rights in the broadcasting industry. Until then, I encourage everyone to stay informed and take action to protect our access to free over-the-air TV.

I am Opting out of the Facebook Class Action Settlement

Facebook settled a privacy lawsuit for $725 million related to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and other data sharing practices from 2007 to 2022. Over 200 million people in the United States are automatically included in the class unless they opt out.

In my latest video we take a look at the settlement and why I think the lawyers and Facebook / Meta are the only ones who really benefit.

The lawyers involved in the case are set to receive 25% of the settlement fund, which amounts to about $181 million. Users are expected to receive just a couple of bucks each depending on the length of time they have been Facebook users. The settlement also prevents users from participating in any future lawsuits against Facebook or their parent company Meta regarding any issue related to data sharing that took place throughout the fifteen years the lawsuit covers.

Anyone in the United States that had a Facebook account between 2007-2022 will automatically be included in the class even if they don’t file for a compensation claim. That means unless individuals take the effort to opt-out they will be barred from any legal action against Facebook should additional data sharing scandals and or damages arise in the future.

To opt out of the settlement and preserve your rights, you can visit the Facebook lawsuit website and follow the opt-out instructions.

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.

The Quickbooks Price Increase and Why I Hate Subscription Software

I like bookkeeping… In fact I love bookkeeping. I also

I learned the art as a kid working at my Dad’s business where I helped process accounts payable, receivable, payroll, invoicing, etc. If you stay on top of it you always know where your business is at with just a glance and Uncle Sam will stay off your back.

When the YouTube channel started making some money I purchased a copy of Quickbooks for Mac to balance the books. Over the years I’d have to upgrade to the newer version mostly because Intuit, the makers of Quickbooks, would require upgrades when new versions of OS X came out. They never added any substantially new features but it’s really hard to add new features to the practice of bookkeeping that’s pretty well established.

A few months ago Inuit announced that Quickbooks for Mac was moving to a subscription model. I was not happy – if the last ten years were any indicator this was more of a money grab vs. an effort to improve the product.

I started looking for alternatives but sadly I couldn’t find anything.. Intuit really cornered this market. So I did some research and determined that Quickbooks Online’s entry plan was going to be less expensive and offer the functionality I needed. It would also let me work across multiple computers a little easier than the desktop version. So I bit.

Transferring data was a nightmare. Importing from Mac Quickbooks was broken at the time and nobody from Intuit said anything so I wasted a few hours trying to get it to import. I eventually borrowed a friend’s Quickbooks for Windows, imported the file, and then sent that over to Quickbooks Online. Not a good first impression. Oh and they started charging you regardless of whether or not your data makes it there.

The interface is a little different but the entry level version of Quickbooks Online does the job for me. I kinda like being able to keep my books up to date from my phone too.

Just like before nothing really changes with the product month-to-month. In fact it’s exactly the same as what it was when I first subscribed back in November. Yet Intuit extracts $25 a month for the privilege. What’s worse is the constant upselling I get when I log in, hoping I’ll take one of their loans, apply for their checking account, subscribe to their payroll service, etc. I feel like they should be paying me!

Some example ads

Yesterday I got an email from Intuit telling me that they’ll now be taking $30 a month vs. the $25 I had been paying. Am I getting anything new for that? Nope. Just more money for the marketing department desperately trying to upsell me.

This is why if I have a choice between a purchased license and a subscription I almost always choose the purchase option. Developers can get lazy when they’re guaranteed income every month. I’m happy to pay an upgrade price for new and useful features. I dropped Adobe when they moved to subscription and found great alternatives like Pixelmator.

So why not switch? There are some alternatives out there like Wave Accounting but none of these alternative services import data from Quickbooks. So in order to move I either have to manually key in all of my history or abandon it. That’s a no-go for me. You’d think if a company was serious about competing with Quickbooks they’d develop a migration path!

So I’m stuck. But I’ll keep looking.