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A review of the payday loans algorithm in 2018

May 22, 2018 No Comments

For several years, the search term ‘payday loans’ has regularly attracted more than 200,000 searches per month on Google.co.uk. Whether providing loans or generating leads, the payday loans industry has notoriously been big business and at its peak, was estimated to be worth around £2 billion per year.

Because of this, the top positions on Google’s SERPs for ‘payday loans’ have been a hugely lucrative and sought-after search term; and subsequently was dominated by SEO professionals using massive manipulation to hack their way to the top of the search results.

Until 2013, page one for payday loans barely listed a real payday loan company. Instead, the listings were made up of ‘hacked sites’ including bicycle sales, women’s magazine and frankly, just random domain names that once clicked on redirected to a dubious data capture form.

 

 

Introducing the payday loans algorithm

With customer data at risk and a mountain of complaints from UK consumers (and similar results in the US), Google reacted and introduced an official “payday loans algorithm” in June 2013. For the search giant to acknowledge a particular search term – demanding its own algorithm and focusing on a micro-industry across the pond – it was certainly out of the ordinary and we are yet to see any other industry treated in the same regard.

The payday loan algorithm update was rolled out over a two-month period. The first payday loan update occurred in June 2013, followed by Payday 2.0 on 16 May 2014 and Payday 3.0 which was rolled out shortly thereafter in June 2014.

Whilst the first algorithm change was a general clean up, payday loans algorithm 2.0 focused on targeting spammy queries, abusing Google+ accounts, doorway and hacked websites. Payday loans 3.0 was geared towards tackling spamming links including links of low quality, reciprocal links, forums, blog networks and websites which require paid submissions in exchange for a link.

Soon after the rollout of Payday 3.0, the search results were essentially cleaned up and have since been a much clearer representation of how rankings for payday loans should be by showing legitimate companies.

Those websites that were targeted by changes in the algorithm were subsequently penalized from Google searches, which included dropping 10 pages or even off the face of Google altogether. There were a handful of sites that had previously dominated the SERPs and then ceased to maintain any online real estate including Tide U Over and Red Wallet.

 

Bringing payday to today

The payday loans business took another drastic change following the introduction of FCA regulation in January 2015. Whilst the industry remains lucrative, the number of companies’ active has diminished significantly in the last three years – from 200 lenders to around 40 and originally hundreds of comparison sites to around a dozen. Margins have been hit by the introduction of a price cap, keeping the daily interest at a maximum of 0.8% and tougher regulation on the selling of data – leading to much higher operating costs and barriers to entry.

While there have not been any additional releases of the payday loans algorithm, Google is still keeping an eye on it and even implemented a ban on PPC ads for payday loans in 2016. The outcome was far stricter in the US than in the UK where lenders and comparison sites can still show paid ads but are required to show proof of their regulatory license to Google before going live.

 

How to successfully rank for payday loans in 2018

Fast forward to 2018 and there are 10 legitimate companies ranking in the top 10 for ‘payday loans’ in the organic search on Google.co.uk.

Our SEO company has successfully ranked five of the websites that are currently positioned in the top 10 and based on the success we have seen, we have identified some of the main trends below, which seem to be very specific to a payday loans algorithm and differ to the techniques used for ranking for other keywords in loans and insurance.

 

Direct lenders win over comparison websites: All websites positioned in 1 to 10 are essential providers of payday loans, known as ‘direct lenders’ and not comparison websites. While the main comparison sites in the UK dominate the search results for things like life insurance, car insurance and personal loans, none of these companies come near the top 3 pages for ‘payday loans’ despite all having a landing page to target this keyword.

In positions 1 to 20, there is only one comparison website that features all the lenders and we are responsible for their SEO. However, their homepage resembles a more direct lender with a calculator and apply now button versus a comparison table format.

Brands win over exact match or partial match domains: There is no website listed in the top 10 that has the word ‘payday’ in their domain, suggesting that Google prefers to see brands over exact match or partial match domains. Compare this to other industries where logbookloans.co.uk ranks first for ‘logbook loans’ and two companies ranking on page one for ‘bridging loans’ that include the main keyword in their domain name.

Keeping in line with the brand theme, sites that rank well will have quality traffic from several sources including direct, paid, social and email. To benefit their SEO, the users should have high engagement rates, high average time on site and low bounce rates. This can be hugely beneficial for search rankings but is not an isolating factor. Companies such as Sunny and Lending Stream advertise heavily on TV and will generate good direct traffic as a result, but their lower search rankings do not correlate with enhanced direct traffic.

Domain age less relevant: Whilst several industries such as car insurance use the age of the domain as an important ranking factor, this seems to be less relevant for payday loans. Notably, 3 of the top 5 that rank (Cashfloat, Drafty and StepStone Credit) are less than two years old. This could be attributed to accumulating less spam and a history of low-quality links compared to much older domains.

Links still win… domains with more links tend to outrank those with fewer links. Interestingly, around 7 of the top 10 seem to have similar domains linking to them, suggesting there are some links that Google clearly values in this industry. However, finding the balance here is key as some of these similar links have a very low DA and spammy link history. Understanding which will work well will be the difference between better search positions or a penalty.

Strong user experience: A strong UX making it clear where to apply for a payday loan is proving to be more effective than providing thousands of words explaining what payday loans are. Keeping in line with user intent, successful websites are making use of calculators, images and videos to drive the application and not provide thin content.

Room for alternatives: Two sites currently in the top 5 for payday loans are offering alternatives (StepStone Credit and Drafty.) This could highlight Google’s moral obligation to offer a variety of products and not just high-cost short-term loans, thus alluding to whether they are in fact manually organizing the SERPs themselves.

 

To conclude, the usual SEO techniques of brand building, link acquisition and good user experience still apply to rank well in a modern payday loans algorithm. However, there is no doubt that payday loans in 2018 still requires a very specific approach; which can be achieved by looking at the sites that rank successfully and getting a feel of what content they write and what links they get.

In an ideal scenario, we should see MoneyAdviceService ranking top of the tree since it has the most authority and has numerous links from every single payday loans company in the UK – but as they sit on page 3 and have for some time, this is proof that the beast of ranking for payday loans surely has a mind of its own.

Search Engine Watch


A review of the payday loans algorithm in 2018

May 22, 2018 No Comments

For several years, the search term ‘payday loans’ has regularly attracted more than 200,000 searches per month on Google.co.uk. Whether providing loans or generating leads, the payday loans industry has notoriously been big business and at its peak, was estimated to be worth around £2 billion per year.

Because of this, the top positions on Google’s SERPs for ‘payday loans’ have been a hugely lucrative and sought-after search term; and subsequently was dominated by SEO professionals using massive manipulation to hack their way to the top of the search results.

Until 2013, page one for payday loans barely listed a real payday loan company. Instead, the listings were made up of ‘hacked sites’ including bicycle sales, women’s magazine and frankly, just random domain names that once clicked on redirected to a dubious data capture form.

 

 

Introducing the payday loans algorithm

With customer data at risk and a mountain of complaints from UK consumers (and similar results in the US), Google reacted and introduced an official “payday loans algorithm” in June 2013. For the search giant to acknowledge a particular search term – demanding its own algorithm and focusing on a micro-industry across the pond – it was certainly out of the ordinary and we are yet to see any other industry treated in the same regard.

The payday loan algorithm update was rolled out over a two-month period. The first payday loan update occurred in June 2013, followed by Payday 2.0 on 16 May 2014 and Payday 3.0 which was rolled out shortly thereafter in June 2014.

Whilst the first algorithm change was a general clean up, payday loans algorithm 2.0 focused on targeting spammy queries, abusing Google+ accounts, doorway and hacked websites. Payday loans 3.0 was geared towards tackling spamming links including links of low quality, reciprocal links, forums, blog networks and websites which require paid submissions in exchange for a link.

Soon after the rollout of Payday 3.0, the search results were essentially cleaned up and have since been a much clearer representation of how rankings for payday loans should be by showing legitimate companies.

Those websites that were targeted by changes in the algorithm were subsequently penalized from Google searches, which included dropping 10 pages or even off the face of Google altogether. There were a handful of sites that had previously dominated the SERPs and then ceased to maintain any online real estate including Tide U Over and Red Wallet.

 

Bringing payday to today

The payday loans business took another drastic change following the introduction of FCA regulation in January 2015. Whilst the industry remains lucrative, the number of companies’ active has diminished significantly in the last three years – from 200 lenders to around 40 and originally hundreds of comparison sites to around a dozen. Margins have been hit by the introduction of a price cap, keeping the daily interest at a maximum of 0.8% and tougher regulation on the selling of data – leading to much higher operating costs and barriers to entry.

While there have not been any additional releases of the payday loans algorithm, Google is still keeping an eye on it and even implemented a ban on PPC ads for payday loans in 2016. The outcome was far stricter in the US than in the UK where lenders and comparison sites can still show paid ads but are required to show proof of their regulatory license to Google before going live.

 

How to successfully rank for payday loans in 2018

Fast forward to 2018 and there are 10 legitimate companies ranking in the top 10 for ‘payday loans’ in the organic search on Google.co.uk.

Our SEO company has successfully ranked five of the websites that are currently positioned in the top 10 and based on the success we have seen, we have identified some of the main trends below, which seem to be very specific to a payday loans algorithm and differ to the techniques used for ranking for other keywords in loans and insurance.

 

Direct lenders win over comparison websites: All websites positioned in 1 to 10 are essential providers of payday loans, known as ‘direct lenders’ and not comparison websites. While the main comparison sites in the UK dominate the search results for things like life insurance, car insurance and personal loans, none of these companies come near the top 3 pages for ‘payday loans’ despite all having a landing page to target this keyword.

In positions 1 to 20, there is only one comparison website that features all the lenders and we are responsible for their SEO. However, their homepage resembles a more direct lender with a calculator and apply now button versus a comparison table format.

Brands win over exact match or partial match domains: There is no website listed in the top 10 that has the word ‘payday’ in their domain, suggesting that Google prefers to see brands over exact match or partial match domains. Compare this to other industries where logbookloans.co.uk ranks first for ‘logbook loans’ and two companies ranking on page one for ‘bridging loans’ that include the main keyword in their domain name.

Keeping in line with the brand theme, sites that rank well will have quality traffic from several sources including direct, paid, social and email. To benefit their SEO, the users should have high engagement rates, high average time on site and low bounce rates. This can be hugely beneficial for search rankings but is not an isolating factor. Companies such as Sunny and Lending Stream advertise heavily on TV and will generate good direct traffic as a result, but their lower search rankings do not correlate with enhanced direct traffic.

Domain age less relevant: Whilst several industries such as car insurance use the age of the domain as an important ranking factor, this seems to be less relevant for payday loans. Notably, 3 of the top 5 that rank (Cashfloat, Drafty and StepStone Credit) are less than two years old. This could be attributed to accumulating less spam and a history of low-quality links compared to much older domains.

Links still win… domains with more links tend to outrank those with fewer links. Interestingly, around 7 of the top 10 seem to have similar domains linking to them, suggesting there are some links that Google clearly values in this industry. However, finding the balance here is key as some of these similar links have a very low DA and spammy link history. Understanding which will work well will be the difference between better search positions or a penalty.

Strong user experience: A strong UX making it clear where to apply for a payday loan is proving to be more effective than providing thousands of words explaining what payday loans are. Keeping in line with user intent, successful websites are making use of calculators, images and videos to drive the application and not provide thin content.

Room for alternatives: Two sites currently in the top 5 for payday loans are offering alternatives (StepStone Credit and Drafty.) This could highlight Google’s moral obligation to offer a variety of products and not just high-cost short-term loans, thus alluding to whether they are in fact manually organizing the SERPs themselves.

 

To conclude, the usual SEO techniques of brand building, link acquisition and good user experience still apply to rank well in a modern payday loans algorithm. However, there is no doubt that payday loans in 2018 still requires a very specific approach; which can be achieved by looking at the sites that rank successfully and getting a feel of what content they write and what links they get.

In an ideal scenario, we should see MoneyAdviceService ranking top of the tree since it has the most authority and has numerous links from every single payday loans company in the UK – but as they sit on page 3 and have for some time, this is proof that the beast of ranking for payday loans surely has a mind of its own.

Search Engine Watch


Where to watch Zuckerberg’s meeting with EU MEPs on Tuesday

May 21, 2018 No Comments

The Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s meeting with elected representatives of the European Union’s ~500 million citizens will be livestreamed after all, it was confirmed today.

MEPs had been angered by the original closed door format of the meeting, which was announced by the EU parliament’s president last week. But on Friday a majority of the political groups in the parliament had pushed for it to be broadcast online.

This morning president Antonio Tajani confirmed that Facebook had agreed to the 1hr 15 minute hearing being livestreamed.

A Facebook spokesperson also sent us this short statement today: “We’re looking forward to the meeting and happy for it to be live streamed.”

When is the meeting?

The meeting will take place on Tuesday May 22 at 18.15 to 19.30CET. If you want to tune in from the US the meeting is scheduled to start at 9.15PT /12.15ET.

Tajani’s announcement last week said it would start earlier, at 17.45CET, so the meeting appears to have been bumped on by half an hour. We’ve asked Facebook whether Zuckerberg will meet in private with the parliament’s Conference of Presidents prior to the livestream being switched on and will update this story with any response.

Where to watch it online?

According to Tajani’s spokesperson, the meeting will be broadcast on the EU parliament’s website. At the time of writing it’s not yet listed in the EPTV schedule — but we’re expecting it to be viewable here.

Who will be meeting with Zuckerberg?

The Facebook founder will meet with EU parliament president Tajani, along with leaders of the parliament’s eight political groups, and with Claude Moraes, the chair of the EU parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) committee.

It’s worth noting that the meeting is not a formal hearing, such as the sessions with Zuckerberg in the US Senate and Congress last month. Nor is it a full Libe committee hearing — discussions remain ongoing for Facebook representatives to meet with the full Libe committee at a later date.

What will Zuckerberg be asked about?

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal, MEPs are keen to discuss concerns related to social media’s impact on election processes with Zuckerberg.

Indeed, the impact of social media spread online disinformation is also the topic of an ongoing enquiry by the UK parliament’s DCMS committee which spent some five hours grilling Facebook’s CTO last month. Although Zuckerberg has thrice declined the committee’s summons — preferring to meet with EU parliamentarians instead.

Other topics on the agenda will include privacy and data protection — with Moraes likely to ask about how Facebook’s business model impacts EU citizens’ fundamental rights, and how EU regulations might need to evolve to keep pace, as he explained to us on Friday.

Some of the political group leaders are also likely to bring up concerns around freedom of expression as pressure in the region has ramped up on online platforms to get faster at policing hate speech.


Social – TechCrunch


Star Wars News: Life After ‘Solo’ May or May Not Include a Lando Movie

May 21, 2018 No Comments

Will Donald Glover be getting his own ‘Star Wars Story’? It’s not impossible!
Feed: All Latest


Star Wars News: Life After ‘Solo’ May or May Not Include a Lando Movie

May 21, 2018 No Comments

Will Donald Glover be getting his own ‘Star Wars Story’? It’s not impossible!
Feed: All Latest


Analyzing the AdWords Distance Report

May 21, 2018 No Comments

The distance report provides a unique view of your geographic data. The report helps users understand how distance from a location impacts search ad performance.

Read more at PPCHero.com
PPC Hero


Analyzing the AdWords Distance Report

May 21, 2018 No Comments

The distance report provides a unique view of your geographic data. The report helps users understand how distance from a location impacts search ad performance.

Read more at PPCHero.com
PPC Hero


EU parliament pushes for Zuckerberg hearing to be live-streamed

May 19, 2018 No Comments

There’s confusion about whether a meeting between Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the European Union’s parliament — which is due to take place next Tuesday — will go ahead as planned or not.

The meeting was confirmed by the EU parliament’s president this week, and is the latest stop on Zuckerberg’s contrition tour, following the Cambridge Analytics data misuse story that blew up into a major public scandal in mid March. 

However, the discussion with MEPs that Facebook agreed to was due to take place behind closed doors. A private format that’s not only ripe with irony but was also unpalatable to a large number of MEPs. It even drew criticism from some in the EU’s unelected executive body, the European Commission, which further angered parliamentarians.

Now, as the FT reports, MEPs appear to have forced the parliament’s president, Antonio Tajani, to agree to live-streaming the event.

Guy Verhofstadt — the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats group of MEPs, who had said he would boycott the meeting if it took place in private — has also tweeted that a majority of the parliament’s groups have pushed for the event to be streamed online.

And a Green Group MEP, Sven Giegold, who posted an online petition calling for the meeting not to be held in secret — has also tweeted that there is now a majority among the groups wanting to change the format. At the time of writing, Giegold’s petition has garnered more than 25,000 signatures.

MEP Claude Moraes, chair of the EU parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) committee — and one of the handful of parliamentarians set to question Zuckerberg (assuming the meeting goes ahead as planned) — told TechCrunch this morning that there were efforts afoot among political group leaders to try to open up the format. Though any changes would clearly depend on Facebook agreeing to them.

After speaking to Moraes, we asked Facebook to confirm whether it’s open to Zuckerberg’s meeting being streamed online — say, via a Facebook Live. Seven hours later we’re still waiting for a response, including to a follow up email asking if it will accept the majority decision among MEPs for the hearing to be live-streamed.

The LIBE committee had been pushing for a fully open hearing with the Facebook founder — a format which would also have meant it being open to members of the public. But that was before a small majority of the parliament’s political groups accepted the council of presidents’ (COP) decision on a closed meeting.

Although now that decision looks to have been rowed back, with a majority of the groups pushing the president to agree to the event being streamed — putting the ball back in Facebook’s court to accept the new format.

Of course democracy can be a messy process at times, something Zuckerberg surely has a pretty sharp appreciation of these days. And if the Facebook founder pulls out of meeting simply because a majority of MEPs have voted to do the equivalent of “Facebook Live” the hearing, well, it’s hard to see a way for the company to salvage any face at all.

Zuckerberg has agreed to be interviewed onstage at the VivaTech conference in Paris next Thursday, and is scheduled to have lunch with French president Emmanuel Macron the same week. So pivoting to a last minute snub of the EU parliament would be a pretty high stakes game for the company to play. (Though it’s continued to deny a U.K. parliamentary committee any face time with Zuckerberg for months now.)

The EU Facebook agenda

The substance of the meeting between Zuckerberg and the EU parliament — should it go ahead — will include discussion about Facebook’s impact on election processes. That was the only substance detail flagged by Tajani in the statement on Wednesday when he confirmed Zuckerberg had accepted the invitation to talk to representatives of the EU’s 500 million citizens.

Moraes says he also intends to ask Zuckerberg wider questions — relating to how its business model impacts people’s privacy. And his hope is this discussion could help unblock negotiations around an update to the EU’s rules around online tracking technologies and the privacy of digital communications.

“One of the key things is that [Zuckerberg] gets a particular flavor of the genuine concern — not just about what Facebook is doing, but potentially other tech companies — on the interference in elections. Because I think that is a genuine, big, sort of tech versus real life and politics concern,” he says, discussing the questions he wants to ask.

“And the fact is he’s not going to go before the House of Commons. He’s not going to go before the Bundestag. And he needs to answer this question about Cambridge Analytica — in a little bit more depth, if possible, than we even saw in Congress. Because he needs to get straight from us the deepest concerns about that.

“And also this issue of processing for algorithmic targeting, and for political manipulation — some in depth questions on this.

“And we need to go more in depth and more carefully about what safeguards there are — and what he’s prepared to do beyond those safeguards.

“We’re aware of how poor US data protection law is. We know that GDPR is coming in but it doesn’t impact on the Facebook business model that much. It does a little bit but not sufficiently — I mean ePrivacy probably far more — so we need to get to a point where we understand what Facebook is willing to change about the way it’s been behaving up til now.

“And we have a real locus there — which is we have more Facebook users, and we have the clout as well because we have potential legislation, and we have regulation beyond that too. So I think for those reasons he needs to answer.”

“The other things that go beyond the obvious Cambridge Analytica questions and the impact on elections, are the consequences of the business model, data-driven advertising, and how that’s going to work, and there we need to go much more in depth,” he continues.

“Facebook on the one hand, it’s complying with GDPR [the EU’s incoming General Data Protection Regulation] which is fine — but we need to think about what the further protections are. So for example, how justified we are with the ePrivacy Regulation, for example, and its elements, and I think that’s quite important.

“I think he needs to talk to us about that. Because that legislation at the moment it’s seen as controversial, it’s blocked at the moment, but clearly would have more relevance to the problems that are currently being created.”

Negotiations between the EU parliament and the European Council to update the ePrivacy Directive — which governs the use of personal telecoms data and also regulates tracking cookies — and replace it with a regulation that harmonizes the rules with the incoming GDPR and expands the remit to include internet companies and cover both content and metadata of digital comms are effectively stalled for now, as EU Member States are still trying to reach agreement. The directive was last updated in 2009.

“When the Cambridge Analytica case happened, I was slightly concerned about people thinking GDPR is the panacea to this — it’s not,” argues Moraes. “It only affects Facebook’s business model a little bit. ePrivacy goes far more in depth — into data-driven advertising, personal comms and privacy.

“That tool was there because people were aware that this kind of thing can happen. But because of that the Privacy directive will be seen as controversial but I think people now need to look at it carefully and say look at the problems created in the Facebook situation — and not just Facebook — and then analyze whether ePrivacy has got merits. I think that’s quite an important discussion to happen.”

While Moraes believes Facebook-Cambridge Analytica could help unblock the log jam around ePrivacy, as the scandal makes some of the risks clear and underlines what’s at stake for politicians and democracies, he concedes there are still challenging barriers to getting the right legislation in place — given the fine-grained layers of complexity involved with imposing checks and balances on what are also poorly understood technologies outside their specific industry niches.

“This Facebook situation has happened when ePrivacy is more or less blocked because its proportionality is an issue. But the essence of it — which is all the problems that happened with the Facebook case, the Cambridge Analytica case, and data-driven advertising business model — that needs checks and balances… So we need to now just review the ePrivacy situation and I think it’s better that everyone opens this discussion up a bit.

“ePrivacy, future legislation on artificial intelligence, all of which is in our committee, it will challenge people because sometimes they just won’t want to look at it. And it speaks to parliamentarians without technical knowledge which is another issue in Western countries… But these are all wider issues about the understanding of these files which are going to come up.  

“This is the discussion we need to have now. We need to get that discussion right. And I think Facebook and other big companies are aware that we are legislating in these areas — and we’re legislating for more than one countries and we have the economies of scale — we have the user base, which is bigger than the US… and we have the innovation base, and I think those companies are aware of that.”

Moraes also points out that U.S. lawmakers raised the difference between the EU and U.S. data protection regimes with Zuckerberg last month — arguing there’s a growing awareness that U.S. law in this area “desperately needs to be modernized.”

So he sees an opportunity for EU regulators to press on their counterparts over the pond.

“We have international agreements that just aren’t going to work in the future and they’re the basis of a lot of economic activity, so it is becoming critical… So the Facebook debate should, if it’s pushed in the correct direction, give us a better handle on ePrivacy, on modernizing data protection standards in the US in particular. And modernizing safeguards for consumers,” he argues.

“Our parliaments across Europe are still filled with people who don’t have tech backgrounds and knowledge but we need to ensure that we get out of this mindset and start understanding exactly what the implications here are of these cases and what the opportunities are.”

In the short term, discussions are also continuing for a full meeting between the LIBE committee and Facebook.

Though that’s unlikely to be Zuckerberg himself. Moraes says the committee is “aiming for Sheryl Sandberg,” though he says other names have been suggested. No firm date has been conformed yet either — he’ll only say he “hopes it will take place as soon as possible.”

Threats are not on the agenda though. Moraes is unimpressed with the strategy the DCMS committee has pursued in trying (and so far failing) to get Zuckerberg to testify in front of the U.K. parliament, arguing threats of a summons were counterproductive. LIBE is clearly playing a longer game.

“Threatening him with a summons in UK law really was not the best approach. Because it would have been extremely important to have him in London. But I just don’t see why he would do that. And I’m sure there’s an element of him understanding that the European Union and parliament in particular is a better forum,” he suggests.

“We have more Facebook users than the US, we have the regulatory framework that is significant to Facebook — the UK is simply implementing GDPR and following Brexit it will have an adequacy agreement with the EU so I think there’s an understanding in Facebook where the regulation, the legislation and the audience is.”

“I think the quaint ways of the British House of Commons need to be thought through,” he adds. “Because I really don’t think that would have engendered much enthusiasm in [Zuckerberg] to come and really interact with the House of Commons which would have been a very positive thing. Particularly on the specifics of Cambridge Analytics, given that that company is in the UK. So that locus was quite important, but the approach… was not positive at all.”


Social – TechCrunch


Does Google’s Duplex violate two-party consent laws?

May 19, 2018 No Comments

Google’s Duplex, which calls businesses on your behalf and imitates a real human, ums and ahs included, has sparked a bit of controversy among privacy advocates. Doesn’t Google recording a person’s voice and sending it to a data center for analysis violate two-party consent law, which requires everyone in a conversation to agree to being recorded? The answer isn’t immediately clear, and Google’s silence isn’t helping.

Let’s take California’s law as the example, since that’s the state where Google is based and where it used the system. Penal Code section 632 forbids recording any “confidential communication” (defined more or less as any non-public conversation) without the consent of all parties. (The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press has a good state-by-state guide to these laws.)

Google has provided very little in the way of details about how Duplex actually works, so attempting to answer this question involves a certain amount of informed speculation.

To begin with I’m going to consider all phone calls as “confidential” for the purposes of the law. What constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy is far from settled, and some will have it that you there isn’t such an expectation when making an appointment with a salon. But what about a doctor’s office, or if you need to give personal details over the phone? Though some edge cases may qualify as public, it’s simpler and safer (for us and for Google) to treat all phone conversations as confidential.

As a second assumption, it seems clear that, like most Google services, Duplex’s work takes place in a data center somewhere, not locally on your device. So fundamentally there is a requirement in the system that the other party’s audio will be recorded and sent in some form to that data center for processing, at which point a response is formulated and spoken.

On its face it sounds bad for Google. There’s no way the system is getting consent from whomever picks up the phone. That would spoil the whole interaction — “This call is being conducted by a Google system using speech recognition and synthesis; your voice will be analyzed at Google data centers. Press 1 or say ‘I consent’ to consent.” I would have hung up after about two words. The whole idea is to mask the fact that it’s an AI system at all, so getting consent that way won’t work.

But there’s wiggle room as far as the consent requirement in how the audio is recorded, transmitted and stored. After all, there are systems out there that may have to temporarily store a recording of a person’s voice without their consent — think of a VoIP call that caches audio for a fraction of a second in case of packet loss. There’s even a specific cutout in the law for hearing aids, which if you think about it do in fact do “record” private conversations. Temporary copies produced as part of a legal, beneficial service aren’t the target of this law.

This is partly because the law is about preventing eavesdropping and wiretapping, not preventing any recorded representation of conversation whatsoever that isn’t explicitly authorized. Legislative intent is important.

“There’s a little legal uncertainty there, in the sense of what degree of permanence is required to constitute eavesdropping,” said Mason Kortz, of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. “The big question is what is being sent to the data center and how is it being retained. If it’s retained in the condition that the original conversation is understandable, that’s a violation.”

For instance, Google could conceivably keep a recording of the call, perhaps for AI training purposes, perhaps for quality assurance, perhaps for users’ own records (in case of time slot dispute at the salon, for example). They do retain other data along these lines.

But it would be foolish. Google has an army of lawyers and consent would have been one of the first things they tackled in the deployment of Duplex. For the onstage demos it would be simple enough to collect proactive consent from the businesses they were going to contact. But for actual use by consumers the system needs to engineered with the law in mind.

What would a functioning but legal Duplex look like? The conversation would likely have to be deconstructed and permanently discarded immediately after intake, the way audio is cached in a device like a hearing aid or a service like digital voice transmission.

A closer example of this is Amazon, which might have found itself in violation of COPPA, a law protecting children’s data, whenever a kid asked an Echo to play a Raffi song or do long division. The FTC decided that as long as Amazon and companies in that position immediately turn the data into text and then delete it afterwards, no harm and, therefore, no violation. That’s not an exact analogue to Google’s system, but it is nonetheless instructive.

“It may be possible with careful design to extract the features you need without keeping the original, in a way where it’s mathematically impossible to recreate the recording,” Kortz said.

If that process is verifiable and there’s no possibility of eavesdropping — no chance any Google employee, law enforcement officer or hacker could get into the system and intercept or collect that data — then potentially Duplex could be deemed benign, transitory recording in the eye of the law.

That assumes a lot, though. Frustratingly, Google could clear this up with a sentence or two. It’s suspicious that the company didn’t address this obvious question with even a single phrase, like Sundar Pichai adding during the presentation that “yes, we are compliant with recording consent laws.” Instead of people wondering if, they’d be wondering how. And of course we’d all still be wondering why.

We’ve reached out to Google multiple times on various aspects of this story, but for a company with such talkative products, they sure clammed up fast.

Mobile – TechCrunch


Does Google’s Duplex violate two-party consent laws?

May 19, 2018 No Comments

Google’s Duplex, which calls businesses on your behalf and imitates a real human, ums and ahs included, has sparked a bit of controversy among privacy advocates. Doesn’t Google recording a person’s voice and sending it to a data center for analysis violate two-party consent law, which requires everyone in a conversation to agree to being recorded? The answer isn’t immediately clear, and Google’s silence isn’t helping.

Let’s take California’s law as the example, since that’s the state where Google is based and where it used the system. Penal Code section 632 forbids recording any “confidential communication” (defined more or less as any non-public conversation) without the consent of all parties. (The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press has a good state-by-state guide to these laws.)

Google has provided very little in the way of details about how Duplex actually works, so attempting to answer this question involves a certain amount of informed speculation.

To begin with I’m going to consider all phone calls as “confidential” for the purposes of the law. What constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy is far from settled, and some will have it that you there isn’t such an expectation when making an appointment with a salon. But what about a doctor’s office, or if you need to give personal details over the phone? Though some edge cases may qualify as public, it’s simpler and safer (for us and for Google) to treat all phone conversations as confidential.

As a second assumption, it seems clear that, like most Google services, Duplex’s work takes place in a data center somewhere, not locally on your device. So fundamentally there is a requirement in the system that the other party’s audio will be recorded and sent in some form to that data center for processing, at which point a response is formulated and spoken.

On its face it sounds bad for Google. There’s no way the system is getting consent from whomever picks up the phone. That would spoil the whole interaction — “This call is being conducted by a Google system using speech recognition and synthesis; your voice will be analyzed at Google data centers. Press 1 or say ‘I consent’ to consent.” I would have hung up after about two words. The whole idea is to mask the fact that it’s an AI system at all, so getting consent that way won’t work.

But there’s wiggle room as far as the consent requirement in how the audio is recorded, transmitted and stored. After all, there are systems out there that may have to temporarily store a recording of a person’s voice without their consent — think of a VoIP call that caches audio for a fraction of a second in case of packet loss. There’s even a specific cutout in the law for hearing aids, which if you think about it do in fact do “record” private conversations. Temporary copies produced as part of a legal, beneficial service aren’t the target of this law.

This is partly because the law is about preventing eavesdropping and wiretapping, not preventing any recorded representation of conversation whatsoever that isn’t explicitly authorized. Legislative intent is important.

“There’s a little legal uncertainty there, in the sense of what degree of permanence is required to constitute eavesdropping,” said Mason Kortz, of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. “The big question is what is being sent to the data center and how is it being retained. If it’s retained in the condition that the original conversation is understandable, that’s a violation.”

For instance, Google could conceivably keep a recording of the call, perhaps for AI training purposes, perhaps for quality assurance, perhaps for users’ own records (in case of time slot dispute at the salon, for example). They do retain other data along these lines.

But it would be foolish. Google has an army of lawyers and consent would have been one of the first things they tackled in the deployment of Duplex. For the onstage demos it would be simple enough to collect proactive consent from the businesses they were going to contact. But for actual use by consumers the system needs to engineered with the law in mind.

What would a functioning but legal Duplex look like? The conversation would likely have to be deconstructed and permanently discarded immediately after intake, the way audio is cached in a device like a hearing aid or a service like digital voice transmission.

A closer example of this is Amazon, which might have found itself in violation of COPPA, a law protecting children’s data, whenever a kid asked an Echo to play a Raffi song or do long division. The FTC decided that as long as Amazon and companies in that position immediately turn the data into text and then delete it afterwards, no harm and, therefore, no violation. That’s not an exact analogue to Google’s system, but it is nonetheless instructive.

“It may be possible with careful design to extract the features you need without keeping the original, in a way where it’s mathematically impossible to recreate the recording,” Kortz said.

If that process is verifiable and there’s no possibility of eavesdropping — no chance any Google employee, law enforcement officer or hacker could get into the system and intercept or collect that data — then potentially Duplex could be deemed benign, transitory recording in the eye of the law.

That assumes a lot, though. Frustratingly, Google could clear this up with a sentence or two. It’s suspicious that the company didn’t address this obvious question with even a single phrase, like Sundar Pichai adding during the presentation that “yes, we are compliant with recording consent laws.” Instead of people wondering if, they’d be wondering how. And of course we’d all still be wondering why.

We’ve reached out to Google multiple times on various aspects of this story, but for a company with such talkative products, they sure clammed up fast.

Mobile – TechCrunch


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