After Facebook scrutiny, is Google next?

Facebook has taken the lion's share of scrutiny from Congress and the media for its data-handling practices that allow savvy marketers and political agents to target specific audiences, but it's far from alone. (AP)
Updated 21 April 2018
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After Facebook scrutiny, is Google next?

MENLO PARK, California: Facebook has taken the lion’s share of scrutiny from Congress and the media for its data-handling practices that allow savvy marketers and political agents to target specific audiences, but it’s far from alone.
YouTube, Google and Twitter also have giant platforms awash in more videos, posts and pages than any set of human eyes could ever check. Their methods of serving ads against this sea of content may come under the microscope next.
Advertising and privacy experts say a backlash is inevitable against a “Wild West” Internet that has escaped scrutiny before. There continues to be a steady barrage of new examples where unsuspecting advertisers had their brands associated with extremist content on major platforms.
In the latest discovery, CNN reported that it found more than 300 retail brands, government agencies and technology companies had their ads run on YouTube channels that promoted white nationalists, Nazis, conspiracy theories and North Korean propaganda.
Child advocates have also raised alarms about the ease with which smartphone-equipped children are exposed to inappropriate videos and deceptive advertising.
“I absolutely think that Google is next and long overdue,” said Josh Golin, director of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google-owned YouTube’s advertising and data-collection practices earlier this month.
YouTube has repeatedly outlined the ways it attempts to flag and delete hateful, violent, sexually explicit or harmful videos, but its screening efforts have often missed the mark.
It also allows advertisers to avoid running ads on sensitive content — like news or politics — that don’t violate YouTube guidelines but don’t fit with a company’s brand. Those methods appear to have failed.
“YouTube has once again failed to correctly filter channels out of our marketing buys,” said a statement Friday from 20th Century Fox Film, which learned that its ads were running on videos posted by a self-described Nazi. YouTube has since deleted the offending channel, but the Hollywood studio says it has unanswered questions about how it happened in the first place.
“All of our filters were in place in order to ensure that this did not happen,” Fox said, adding it has asked for a refund of any money shared with the “abhorrent channel.”
YouTube said Friday that it has made “significant changes to how we approach monetization,” citing “stricter policies, better controls and greater transparency.” It noted it allows advertisers to exclude certain channels from ads. It also removes ads when it’s notified they are running beside content that doesn’t comply with its policies.
“We are committed to working with our advertisers and getting this right,” YouTube said.
So far, just one major advertiser — Baltimore-based sports apparel company Under Armor — had said it had withdrawn its advertising in the wake of the CNN report, though the lull lasted only a few days last week when it was first notified of the problem. After its shoe commercial turned up on a channel known for espousing white nationalist beliefs, Under Armor worked with YouTube to expand its filters to exclude certain topics and keywords.
On the other hand, Procter & Gamble, which had kept its ads off of YouTube since March 2017, said it had come back to the platform but drastically pared back the channels it would advertise on to under 10,000. It has worked on its own, with third parties, and with YouTube to create its restrictive list.
That’s just a fraction of the some 3 million YouTube channels in the US that accept ads, and is even more stringent than YouTube’s “Google Preferred” lineup that focuses on the most-popular 5 percent of videos.
The CNN report was “an illustration of exactly why we needed to go above and beyond just what YouTube’s plans were and why we needed to take more control of where our ads were showing up,” said P&G spokeswoman Tressie Rose.
The big problem, experts say, is that advertisers lured by the reach and targeting capability of online platforms can mistakenly expect that the same standards for decency on network TV will apply online. In the same way, broadcast TV rules that require transparency about political ad buyers are absent on the web.
“There have always been regulations regarding appropriate conduct in content,” says Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys Inc., a New York customer research firm. Regulating content on the Internet is one area “that has gotten away from everyone.”
Also absent from the Internet are many of the rules that govern children’s programming on television sets. TV networks, for instance, are allowed to air commercial breaks but cannot use kid-oriented characters to advertise products. Such “host-selling” runs rampant on Internet services such as YouTube.
Action to remove ads from inappropriate content is mostly reactive because of lack of upfront control of what gets uploaded, and it generally takes the mass threat of boycott to get advertisers to demand changes, according to BrandSimple consultant Allen Adamson.
“The social media backlash is what you’re worried about,” he said.
At the same time, politicians are having trouble keeping up with the changing landscape, evident by how ill-informed many members of Congress appeared during questioning of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg earlier this month.
“We’re in the early stages of trying to figure out what kind of regulation makes sense here,” said Larry Chiagouris, professor of marketing at Pace University in New York. “It’s going to take quite some time to sort that out.”


America revisits ‘Pizza Bomber’ mystery with new Netflix series

Updated 26 May 2018
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America revisits ‘Pizza Bomber’ mystery with new Netflix series

WASHINGTON: As bank heists in America go, this was one of the weirdest: in 2003, a pizza delivery man walks into a bank with a bomb around his neck and a note demanding a quarter of a million dollars.
Police in Pennsylvania apprehend him, but shortly thereafter, the explosive device goes off, ripping a hole in his chest that kills him minutes before the bomb squad arrives.
Netflix has now come out with a mini-series on the robbery and returns to a question that has divided opinion for 15 years: was that man, one Brian Wells, a willing accomplice, or was he the unwitting victim of a bizarre plot?
The four fast-moving episodes of “Evil Genius,” directed by Barbara Schroeder and Trey Borzillieri, look back at all the puzzles that made up this heist in Erie, a small city in the Great Lakes region.
It all begins when Wells, 46, walks into a branch of PNC Bank with a gun shaped like a cane. Around his neck is a collar with a bomb on a timer.
He hands over a note demanding $250,000, but was given just over $8,000, and leaves sucking on a lollipop he grabbed from the counter.
In his hand he carries pages of rambling, hand-written instructions for a sort of a scavenger hunt for keys and combinations hidden around Erie that would remove the collar.
But he never got as far as that hunt. Wells was apprehended near the bank, and handcuffed. Police realized he was wearing a bomb, and kept their distance.
That scene was filmed and broadcast by TV stations around the world.
“I don’t know if I have enough time now,” Wells told police. He said he had been tricked while delivering pizzas.
“I am not lying,” Wells said as he sat on the sidewalk. “It’s gonna go off.”
The collar starts to beep. Wills gets more and more agitated. Then it explodes and kills him.
To recover the explosive device, police had to cut off Wills’ head.
Then, in the following days, odd things start happening in Erie.
Robert Pinetti, a former colleague of Wells, is found dead in his home, apparently the victim of a drug overdose.
Then another man, Bill Rothstein, tells police there is a body in his refrigerator.
The body is that of James Roden, boyfriend of one Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, whom Rothstein describes as a woman who manipulates people.
Diehl-Armstrong, once a brilliant student noted for her striking good looks, suffers from bipolar disorder. Twenty years earlier, she was accused of murdering her then-boyfriend, but argued she had acted in self-defense and was acquitted at trial.
It gets even more complicated, so pay attention.
According to a drug addict named Kenneth Barnes, Diehl-Armstrong planned the bank heist so as to get money to hire him as a hitman to take out her own father, whom she accused of spending the money due her as part of her inheritance.
Rothstein, a former boyfriend of Diehl-Armstrong and a mechanically-gifted eccentric, allegedly designed the bomb.
Diehl-Armstrong is therefore the “Evil Genius,” as the Netflix series is entitled.
Obsessed by this woman, co-director Borzillieri communicated with her for more than 10 years, in writing and over the phone, to better understand the case — becoming particularly focused on the subject of Brian Wells.
“In the beginning, very much like the residents of Erie and law enforcement, I believed that he was involved in this case and did so for a good long while,” said Borzillieri.
“By the end of the journey, my opinion is that he was innocent,” he told AFP.
A long FBI probe found that Wells was a “co-conspirator” — a conclusion which meant that the others involved in the plot could not legally face the death penalty for his murder.
“I think the whole plan initially started out as a way for them all to make some money. But it developed into more than just making money. It became almost a game to them. A diabolical, maniacal game,” said FBI special agent Jerry Clark.
Diehl-Armstrong, who died of cancer last year aged 68, also fascinated Schroeder, who is a journalist.
“Marjorie can be abrasive and off-putting, but she is also fascinating. She is like a train wreck where you have to turn your head and look and then she keeps your attention because she is eloquent,” said Schroeder.
“She was the most fascinating female I have ever come across.”
The last episode of Evil Genius adds a reasonable clue to the so-called Pizza Bomber mystery — previously unheard testimony from a prostitute named Jessica Hoopsick.
Hoopsick claimed she became friends with Wells and developed feelings for him, despite the fact that he was also a paying client, and says she wants to resurrect his reputation and name.
She says she was paid by Diehl-Armstrong and her people to recruit an easy target for their heist plans. She says she suggested Wells.
“He had no idea what would happen to him,” Hoopsick says in the Netflix series.