While the internet has created new opportunities for media and audiences alike, those opportunities have come at a price. Traditional media organisations now compete with giant digital platforms, not only for the attention of readers, but also for the advertising revenue that was once their lifeblood.
Adding insult to injury, the digital platforms compete for audiences’ attention partly by distributing the news content that was first created and published by those now-struggling media organisations.
This not only damages the media and public discourse, it is harmful to taxpayers.
Plekhanova says Google paid A$426.5 million in Australian digital service tax in 2018. That’s 66.5 times the amount of tax paid in New Zealand: “Given the New Zealand economy is about a seventh the size of Australia’s, this is an extremely wide disparity”.
There are also rules forcing Google and Facebook to compensate publishers when they piggyback off their original content.
The idea of a digital service tax isn’t that unusual. Other countries have a similar tax.
All of this makes sense. We let the overseas media giants freeload here. Part of their income depends on services that have been provided by taxpayers. Some of that income even comes direct from government agencies which buys advertising on the two social media giants.
It amounts to a net transfer from the New Zealand taxpayer’s pocket to social media investors: some of the richest people in the world.
Ideally the OECD would deal with this problem. But that’s been a long time coming and the money continues to flow in one direction only.
Plekhanova comes unstuck when suggesting taxing or charging tech giants will help local media survive. The damage was done ages ago. Survival depends on more than taxing the giants and anyway, up to a point the main local media outlets depend on the tech giants to reach their audience.
So, yes, let’s tax Google and Facebook like countries tax extractive industries. And, at least, stop pour government money into their coffers. But let’s not kid ourselves this is going to fix our media problems.
According to Botsight, I am “almost certainly a bot”. Or at least my Twitter account is.
Botsight says it uses artificial intelligence to decide if there is a human or a bot behind a Twitter account. The software was developed by NortonLifeLock, which was formerly part of Symantec.
The goal is to help fight disinformation campaigns. It’s hard to argue with the sentiment behind this.
Botsight in a browser
You install Botsight as a browser extension. NortonLifeLock says it works with the major browsers. It turns out that mainly means Chrome. There’s no support for Safari and when I first tested the Firefox version that wasn’t delivering. These things happen with beta software. It’s no big deal.
Then, when Twitter is running in your browser, Botsight flags whether an account is likely to be human or a bot. You have to use the office Twitter website. A green flag shows an account that is likely to be human, red tells users to be wary.
The flags also show percentages. In my case the score is 80 percent, that’s enough for alarm bells to ring.
At Botsight says, I’m “almost certainly a bot”.
The developers say they collected terabytes of data then looked at a number of features to determine if an account is human or not. The software uses 20 factors to make this decision.
More AI nonsense
NortonLifeLock says its AI model detects bots with a high degree of accuracy. It’s a typical AI claim and like many of them, doesn’t stand up too well when tested in the real world.
No doubt a lot of Botsight readers who encounter my Twitter wit and wisdom will assume the worst.
It’s not going to happen, but that could be grounds for a defamation action. Sooner or later someone is going to sue a bot for character assassination.
Like it says at the top of the story I’m on the wrong side of this equation.
I asked NortonLifeLock how come I’m identified as a bot. Daniel Kats, the principal researcher at NortonLifeLock Research Group says there are three main reasons.
The first is my Twitter handle: @billbennettnz.
“The reporter’s handle is quite long, and contains many “bigrams” (groups of two characters) that are uncommon together. This is a sign of auto-generated handles (ex. lb, tn, nz). It’s also quite a long handle, which in our experience is common of bots.”
I didn’t have much choice here. My given name includes that tricky LB combination. I doubt changing Bill to William would have made any difference.
There are a lot of other Bill Bennetts in the world. Others got to the obvious Twitter handles first. Mine tells people I’m in New Zealand. Trust me, the alternatives look more bot-like.
The only practical way to change this is to kill the account and start Twitter again from scratch. It is an option.
Following too many
Botsight’s second alarm is triggered by my follow to follower ratio. It turns out that following 2888 people is ’an usually high number, especially in relation to the number of followers”. Kats says it is no common for a human to follow that many others.
Well, that’s partly because I use Twitter to follow people who might be news sources.
The idea of letting bots or AI bot detectors dictate behaviour bothers me. Yet, if Botsight thinks I’m a bot, it’s possible other researchers and analytical tools looking at my account think so too. We can’t have that. Perhaps I should cull my follow list.
So, please don’t take offence if you’re unfollowed. I need to look more human. Only up to a point. On one level I don’t care what a piece of software thinks about me. On another, I get a fair bit of work come to me via the Twitter account so it may need a bit more care and attention.
Not enough likes
The third sign that I’m a bot is that my number of favourite is low. Favourite is the official Twitter terms for liking a tweet. Apparently I don’t do this as much as other humans.
On the other hand, I link to a lot of web posts. Linking lots and not favouriting much is, apparently, a sign of a bot.
The Botsight software could take note that I often get involved in discussion threads on Twitter. That’s something that a human would do, but would be beyond most bot accounts.
From the bot’s mouth:
Well, there you have it. I’m a bot. Perhaps that means I should put my freelance rates up.
Of course, any AI model is only as good as the assumptions that are fed into it. This is where lots of them fall down. We’ve all heard stories of AI recruitment tools or bank loan tools that discriminate against women or minorities. Bias is hard coded.
This is nothing like as bad. On a personal level I’m not unduly worried or offended by Botsight. Yet it does give an insight into the power and potential misuse or misinterpretation of AI analysis.
The story didn’t get a run in any reputable New Zealand media.
Contrast this with the extensive coverage Microsoft got the following day when it announced it was opening a New Zealand cloud region.
The Microsoft story was everywhere. It popped up at Stuff, RNZ and Reseller News among others. There were overseas runs at TechCrunch, CRN and Computerworld.
The prime minister even talked about it on TV.
My point here isn’t about New Zealand media giving the overseas company a bigger run than the local company. Although that could be a story in its own right – see Comparing the stories below.
What the contrast between two stories show is how much damage the lack of local technology coverage does to New Zealand’s home grown technology sector.
No-one here has the resources to file a story that is, by local standards, somewhat significant.
No one is watching, does anyone care?
We no longer have a native technology press. It’s a situation which, presumably, will be worse again if or when Stuff is no longer operating as a separate entity.
Last month Bauer Media closed its New Zealand operation shutting off Peter Griffin’s excellent regular features in the Listener.
The most visible remaining NZ tech title, Reseller News, is run out of Australia, with a part time local reporter. The Herald, Stuff, RNZ and Newsroom all have the occasional story, but it is mainly sporadic and far from comprehensive coverage.
An exception would be Juha Saarinen’s regular Herald columns.
This web site is also sporadic. There are stories here, but they are written in between my paying journalism work. That means it can’t be timely.
There are a couple of other outlets, but the big picture is that New Zealand can no longer sustain a commercial tech publishing sector with the resources to cover stories like the Catalyst Cloud storage launch.
Filling the vacuum are many overseas sites. Whatever their merits, they are not going to zoom in on the activities of a local cloud provider.
Comparing the stories
There’s no question the arrival of a New Zealand Microsoft cloud region is the bigger news story. Microsoft is the world’s second largest cloud operator, it has many customers here and there is a pent-up demand for a world-scale cloud operator to open shop in New Zealand.
In contrast, the Catalyst story, is, in effect, not much more than a feature update.
There are interesting angles to the Catalyst story. The cost of its Object Storage is on a par with costs for world scale cloud operators. It costs three cents a month to store a gigabyte.
The ‘everything is stored in New Zealand’ angle would be important, but then it’s also an important part of Microsoft’s story. And, no doubt, Microsoft could make the same claim about only using renewable energy.
What this illustrates is the uphill battle a company like Catalyst has to be heard above the noise.
It must be galling for people at Catalyst and other New Zealand technology companies to do something innovative like introducing low cost cloud storage only to wake the following day and see a rival’s news splashed around the place.
Longer term it is a worry. Wikipedia says:
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is a philosophical thought experiment that raises questions regarding observation and perception.
Tech companies need that observation and perception. New Zealand’s tech sector no longer has either.
In The VR winter Benedict Evans writes about virtual reality and its failure to take off:
We tried VR in the 1980s, and it didn’t work. The idea may have been great, but the technology of the day was nowhere close to delivering it, and almost everyone forgot about it. Then, in 2012, we realised that this might work now. Moore’s law and the smartphone component supply chain meant that the hardware to deliver the vision was mostly there on the shelf. Since then we’ve gone from the proof of concept to maybe three quarters of the way towards a really great mass-market consumer device.
My first encounter with virtual reality was in the 1980s. It was so bad it was laughable. Then again it had a second run of interest in the mid-1990s. There were consumer plays which were only a little less awful than the 1980s experience. Huge unwieldy headsets and odd gloves were all part of the deal.
Silicon Graphics teased journalists with a vision of how the technology might work for business analytics. It sounded convincing at the time.
The idea went something along these lines:
“Imagine you are standing in a field and all the waves of grass are blowing around. Each blade represents a data point – maybe the sales performance of individual outlets or even counter staff working for a multinational retail chain. One or two blades are, perhaps, a different colour. You walk over and investigate these. The purple blade is your best performance sales person. The red one is your worst performer.
And so on…”
While this sounded plausible to the audience in 1995, in hindsight it seems faintly ridiculous. Although there may be many powerful data analysis applications of immersive three-dimensional worlds, finding employee of the month this way seems daft when the results would leap out of an everyday spreadsheet.
A more practical and topical use of immersive three-dimensional graphics might allow researchers to walk around and explore a giant model of, say, a virus to help identify weak spots that medicine or a vaccine could address.
In his story, Evans works through most of the reasons why virtual reality never took off. In part it was always too niche. He offers other reasons, but I think he misses something in his story.
I’ve yet to see a VR experience which is not so bad that I’m embarrassed for the people who made it. There was a VR presentation at an Auckland press conference a year or so ago. Apart from feeling slightly sick and disoriented during the presentation, it was, to say the least unimpressive.
Three years ago at Mobile World Congress a slew of mobile handset companies showed VR systems based on phones. There were at least seven displays, but between them there were only two pieces of content on show. Most shared the same roller coaster ride VR demonstration.
At the time I noted that the fact so many huge names had to show the same content at one of the world’s biggest tech events implied there’s precious little worthwhile content. At last year’s Mobile World Congress, the most visible VR content was the same demonstration. The technology may or may not have been better. Either way it left me cold. Yet the companies pushing it hadn’t bothered to invest in creating the content to show it off.
Virtual reality killer content
There is a chicken and egg here. Put aside for one moment the clunky graphics, the fact that movement isn’t smooth and the possibility of toppling over or vomiting from VR sea sickness.
For VR to take off it needs killer content, but creating immersive, high resolution content is expensive. Far more expensive per minute of content than the cost of a blockbuster movie. And yet almost everyone can watch a blockbuster movie. Only a handful of people can watch VR. Not enough to make it worth creating that blockbuster content.
So until this is resolved or until someone creates a mainstream business application using the technology, VR going to remain a backwater. Every so often the idea will get dusted down and presented again before it’s put back in the too hard basket.
Facebook and Google will be forced to share advertising revenue with Australian media companies after the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, instructed the competition watchdog to develop a mandatory code of conduct for the digital giants amid a steep decline in advertising brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
This is the same steep advertising decline that has New Zealand media companies in a tail spin. Things have been tough for nearly 20 years. Depending on which set of numbers you read, Facebook and Google take as much as 85 percent of the advertising revenue that media companies once made.
Media extinction event
Elsewhere pundits have described the Covid-19 pandemic as the extinction trigger for traditional media. The comparison is with the meteor that wiped out most dinosaurs.
Frydenberg said it was only fair that media companies that created the content got paid for it.
“This will help to create a level playing field,” he said.
The communications minister, Paul Fletcher, said the decision was about a strong and sustainable news media ecosystem.
If we are realistic, it is too late to talk about a “strong and sustainable news media ecosystem”. Today’s game is all about survival.
Level playing field
Likewise “level playing field” is a nice idea, but we’re talking about a playing field where one side has 85 percent and the other has 15 percent.
Yet Frydenberg is correct when he says it is only fair that the media companies that create content should be paid for their work. The same goes for small publishers and individual journalists.
It’s correct to say Google doesn’t take much material from media companies. Often it isn’t much more than a headline and an opening paragraph. Although that is where most of the gold sits in a news story.
Google gives something back in the way of a link to the original story. Yet often, once a Google reader has seen the head and the opening par, the incentive to click a link has gone.
It’s more complicated with Facebook. Sometimes people cut and paste entire stories into Facebook posts. That means when someone reads the story in that timeline, Facebook gets to sell the advertisement, not the publisher. It means Facebook gets rich on someone else’s work. But then that is the Facebook business model.
The flip side of this argument is that media outlets are dependent on Facebook and Google to deliver those links to help readers find stories. It’s a form of dependency that means relying on the parasite that is eating you to also continue feeding you.
Australia’s approach may not be the best way of tackling the problem. Yet it is good to recognise that there is a problem and to attempt to tackle it.
If recent history is any guide, the big social media firms will resist. They will spend a fortune on legal and lobbying attempts to overturn the decision. By the time that fight draws to a conclusion there will a quite different media landscape.