Listen Up!

I love the Internet’s response to new forms of advertising.

Specifically, I’m talking about Burger King’s recent attempt to hijack TV viewers’ cell phones and Google Home devices.

In case you missed it, BK ran–and is still running–an ad that deliberately uses the “OK Google” activation phrase to trigger any gadget in earshot to start reading the Wikipedia page about their Whopper burger.

The response? The page in question was almost immediately edited to describe the burger as “cancer-causing” and to list cyanide in its ingredients.

Allegedly, a senior BK executive tried to change the page to something more complimentary, only to have his edits removed.

So, yeah, I think that’s the perfect response. Google, who apparently were not warned about the ad in advance, modified their software’s response to ignore the ad. While I’m sure many people appreciate that, it does raise a few questions.

Let’s not forget that most of Google’s billions of dollars come from advertising. Suppose BK had come to Google and said, “Hey, we want to tie a TV ad to your devices. Here’s a stack of money.” Does anyone think Google’s response would have been “Buzz off”? I’m guessing it would have been more along the lines of “How big is the stack?”

And then there’s the privacy aspect. This contretemps should serve as a reminder that “OK Google” does not use any kind of voice recognition to limit requests to the device’s owner. Nor can the phrase be changed. I’ve complained about that before: not only does it lead to multiple devices trying to respond to a single request, but it also makes it simple for outright malicious actions.

Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft are equally guilty here–Alexa, Siri, and Cortana have fixed, unchangeable triggers too.

And now, perhaps, we’re seeing why none of the manufacturers want to let users personalize their devices’ voice interaction. If we could change the trigger phrase, or limit the device to taking instructions from specific people, then the manufacturers wouldn’t be able to sell broadcast advertising like this.

If the only way you can prevent random strangers from using your phone is to turn off the voice feature, then you don’t own your phone.

Microsoft is making it harder and harder to turn Cortana off. Microsoft is also putting more and more ads in Windows. Do you sense a connection?

How long will it be before you can’t turn Siri and Google off?

And editing Wikipedia pages will only get us so far in defending ourselves.

Google was able to turn off the response to BK’s ad-spam. But they could just as easily have changed the response to read from an internally-hosted page or one housed on BK’s own servers. Either way, Internet users wouldn’t be able to touch it, at least not without opening themselves up to legal liability for hacking.

The most annoying part of this whole debacle is that now I’m craving a hamburger. I won’t be getting one at Burger King, though.

Another Really Bad Idea

Monday’s Chron had a story documenting one of the worst ideas I’ve ever seen.

It’s a profile of a company called Reviver and their “rPlate” product, which, they say “modernizes and reinvents the license plate for the 21st century.”

What’s wrong with the license plate that it needs modernization and reinvention? There seem to be three major problems: renewing your auto registration is expensive and time-consuming, license plates are boring, and they can’t be monetized.

Let’s take those in order, shall we?

The rPlate could potentially store a credit card number and use it to renew the registration “at the push of a button”. Is registration really that much of a problem? How long does it take you? When I get the bill once a year, I pay it online, and when the new sticker shows up, I put them on the plate. I doubt it takes more than fifteen minutes of my time. Yeah, there’s also the time spent on getting the smog check, but automating the renewal process won’t change that.

But let’s say Reviver is correct, and those fifteen minutes are an insupportable burden. Letting the plate pay the bill and update it’s image of the sticker would, of course, require the plate to have some kind of a network connection via Wi-Fi or cellular. I presume Reviver is sufficiently security-conscious to put that button inside the car, not on the plate where anybody walking through a parking lot could push it. But really, does anyone think their security is good enough to keep your credit card information safe? We’ve already seen cameras, TVs, and light bulbs hijacked and used in DDOS attacks. How optimistic are you that your license plate wouldn’t be misused the same way?

And don’t forget that there would need to be a software update at the DMV to accept those automated registrations and send back the instruction to update the tag. Just what we all need: another avenue for attackers to break into the DMV’s database. Think for a moment about how much information the DMV has on you. It’s not just your vehicles, after all. Organ donor status. Voting registration. Medical information.

Plates are boring. Yeah, they are, but so what? If you don’t like the standard plate, support a worthy cause by getting a special design, or pay a little extra for a personalized plate. But that, in Reviver’s opinion, is so 20th century.

When your car isn’t moving, the rPlate can show “Amber alerts and weather warnings, as well as custom messages from the driver…along with images”. Why not? It’s got that Internet connection, so why not make use of it? I don’t know about you, but when I’m sitting at a red light, I really don’t want the drivers behind me and in the next lane over looking at my license plate; I want them watching the road.

And how much control can, or will, Reviver exercise over those custom messages? “Go [sports team]” is relatively harmless, but what about “Kill [political figure]”? Presumably they’d include a filter for offensive words, but who gets to decide what words are on that list? How many Internet filters block access to gay rights organizations and breast cancer survivors’ groups? And it’s much harder to filter images. I suspect the first hardcore porn pictures will show up within twelve hours of the plates going on sale.

There’s also the chance (somewhere between 99% and 100%) that someone will figure out how to hack the plates via that Internet connection to put their own pictures and messages on tens of thousands of plates. Think those ads people leave on your windshield are annoying? Wait until they start hijacking your license plate to hype their hair and nail salons, DJ performances, and political candidates.

But that Internet connection is really the heart of the whole plan. No matter how bad an idea the automated renewal and message display options may be, they’re not going away, because they’re the excuse to include that designed-in vulnerability. Why? Reviver is quite upfront that they plan to sell advertising.

I’m sure they have the loftiest of intentions to control the content of the ads to avoid offensive content, but even companies with long experience in advertising don’t always get that right.

I’m also sure that the states will appreciate their cut of the ad revenue–and the ability to use that Internet connection to track where your car has been. Who needs license plate cameras and red light cameras when your car will cheerfully offer a time-stamped report of every mile you drive?

And I’m quite sure that we’re not going to get a kickback of any of the ad money–we may even pay an annual subscription fee for the use of the plates (on top of the cost of registration; what was that about saving money?)–for the privilege of being a mobile billboard and being tracked far more precisely than ever before.

Small Bites

A collection of small items that don’t seem to warrant entire posts of their own.

Engadget reported last week that, as their headline put it, “Researcher finds huge security flaws in Bluetooth locks”. Briefly, he found that twelve of sixteen locks he bought at random had either no security or absolutely horrible security. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that those remaining four locks are safe, just that the researcher, Anthony Rose, didn’t immediately find problems.

Does this come as any surprise? It shouldn’t. Given how often we’ve seen Internet of Things manufacturers give no thought whatsoever to security, the surprising thing is that four of the locks weren’t trivially hackable.

Police and alarm manufacturers will tell you that it’s impossible to actually secure your house against a break in. The goal is to make it a harder target than your neighbors’ houses. Clearly, your best bet today is to buy a bunch of Bluetooth locks–and give them to all your neighbors!

Moving on.

I said that the new Ghostbusters movie wasn’t doing as well at the box office as it deserved. Apparently Sony agrees. According to Gizmodo (among many sources), the direct loss–before figuring add-on income from licensing and merchandise–could be as much as $70 million.

As a result, plans for a sequel are on hold. Instead, Sony is focusing on an animated TV show for 2018 and an animated movie for 2019.

OK, yeah, animation is potentially cheaper than live action, especially if you don’t have to pay full price for the actors. But it does rather make Ghostbusters something of a second-tier property.

And if you’re the betting sort, the smart money says neither the TV show nor the movie will feature the women who starred in this year’s film–and then, if the animation does well, it’ll be held up as further “proof” that women can’t carry a movie without male help.

Complete change of subject.

Audi is going to launch a new feature in some of its 2017 cars. Correction: IMNSHO, it’s a misfeature. They’re going to add a countdown timer on the instrument panel and heads-up display to let drivers know when red lights will turn green.

Seriously. And if Audi does it, you know everyone else will follow suit.

I don’t know how people drive where you are–or near Audi headquarters–but around here, people stretch yellow lights well beyond any rational limit. Give drivers a timer, and they’re going to accelerate as soon as it hits zero, without even looking at the traffic light, much less checking for oncoming traffic that didn’t even enter the intersection until their light was red.

The only way this could even begin to be sensible or safe would be if automakers lock out the accelerator (and horn!) until the onboard sensors confirm that the light is green, the car in front (if any) is beginning to move, and there’s no vehicle in the intersection. I regard this as highly unlikely to happen.

So, given my grumpiness in regard to new technological “advances,” you may be surprised to hear that I’m strongly in favor of this next announcement.

According to Ford CEO Mark Fields, the company is actively developing fully autonomous cars intended for ride-hailing services. They expect to have them on the market by 2021.

I’ll be blunt here: I dislike taxis and their modern would-be successors in large part because there’s no way to know whether the driver will (just to pick a few examples at random) cross solid lines changing lanes, speed, use the mirrors before changing lanes, or come to full stops at red lights and stop signs.

There’s no guarantee that an autonomous car will drive any better than any random human–and, putting on my QA hat for a moment–you can be certain that every single automaker’s self-driving car will have buggy software.

But at least autonomous cars will be more consistent. Get in a car that drives itself, and you’ll know what to expect from the driver. I find that idea soothing.

Finally, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about this last item.

It seems that the Hacienda Mexican Restaurant chain in South Bend, Indiana thought it would be a good idea to put up billboards advertising their food as “The Best Mexican Food This Side Of The Wall.”

The signs are coming down. According to Executive Vice President Jeff Leslie, the company “didn’t expect the backlash.”

Let that sink in for a moment. This is a chain of Mexican restaurants that’s so out of touch with Hispanics, that they thought associating themselves with Trump’s Wall was a good advertising strategy.

I know the connection between an ad and the product it’s hyping is tenuous at best, but this really takes the tortilla. If the company has that big a disconnect with its roots, what are the chances that it’s food is any good at all, much less the best north of Nueva León? Small bites, indeed.

Gone Too Far

There are a lot of good reasons not to watch the Super Bowl–Jackie has fifty of ’em. The problem is that I’m not sure that would accomplish anything.

Wait, let me amend that. You’ll feel better. It’s worth doing on that basis alone.

But, let’s face it, the game will go on. I’m convinced that even if everybody in the world boycotted the game this year, it would still be played next year. The phrase “too big to fail” gets thrown around far too often, but this does seem to be a legitimate usage. Blame the commercials and the halftime show.

The halftime show has taken on a life of its own. I know–and you probably do too–people who tune in just for the halftime show. Blame Janet Jackson for making it “must see TV”–and M.I.A. and Katy Perry’s Left Shark for keeping interest up. Even people who don’t turn on the TV on Super Bowl Sunday hit the Internet to find out what new controversy each new show produces.

And the commercials. Talk about the tail wagging the dog! Jackie points to a 2014 survey that found “78 percent of Americans look forward to the commercials more than the game“. Seventy-eight percent. Let that sink in. If the survey bears anything like a correspondence to reality, it means 87 million people watched the 2014 Super Bowl for the ads, compared to only 24 million who tuned in for the game.

That’s great news for the advertisers, of course, and as long as people hit the Internet to check out the commercials, the advertisers really don’t care if they boycott the game itself. And people do. The tag “Super Bowl commercial” has acquired a cachet all out of proportion to any actual value the ads have.

I’m being serious here. According to USA Today, last year’s top advertisement was Budweiser’s “Lost Dog” spot. Ask yourself two questions: “Do you remember that ad, and, if so, did you remember it before you clicked the link?” and “Did the ad make you want to buy Budweiser beer, or even think about buying it at any point in the past year?”

Unless you and all of the other 114,399,999 Americans who watched the Super Bowl last year can answer yes to both of those questions, Budweiser wasted their advertising money. Even leaving aside the cost to make the ad (because I can’t find any numbers on that), the Super Bowl placement cost $9 million, or a bit under eight cents per US viewer. Did the ad make you buy enough Bud for Anheuser-Busch to make eight cents profit?

Decline of civilization, anyone?

Wrong Way

Hi! Happy December! Welcome to the quiet period between the Thanksgiving-time sales and the–wait… What? Ack! Get away, get away! (At this point, you should picture me flailing my arms wildly, batting at the swarming objects around my head. What objects? Allow me to explain.)

Two years ago, I took note of the impending disappearance of “Black Friday” and its imminent replacement by “Black November,” in which the post-Thanksgiving sales would stretch earlier and earlier until the took over the entire month of November stretching the event so thin that it disappeared into the background noise.

I’m pleased to say that events appear to be moving in accordance with my prediction. Several retailers began their Black Friday sales at least a week before Thanksgiving–I’ve got an e-mail here somewhere from Best Buy promoting a Black Friday deal on Friday the 20th, for example. At this rate, Black November will be a reality by 2020, and we can finally eat our turkey in peace.

Unfortunately, there’s another trend I completely missed, and it’s not nearly so positive. I speak of “Cyber Monday Inflation”.

For those of you fortunate enough to have missed it, “Cyber Monday” is the first Monday after Thanksgiving. Supposedly it’s the day that everyone does their online shopping because they’re back at work after the four day weekend and can use the high-speed network connection in the office instead of their slow dial-up connection at home.

Yeah, not so much the case these days. Digital divide notwithstanding, the odds are good that if you have an Internet connection at home, it’s at least as fast as your share of the office connection. Hell, if you’ve got a 4G cell signal, your phone is likely to pull up Target.com faster than your office computer–if you can get through at all. Target’s system was so overwhelmed this year they had to restrict access. In other words, they had to turn customers away! This is not the kind of shopping experience that promotes brand loyalty, y’know?

Bottom line, Cyber Monday is a legacy of an earlier, darker era. In an ideal world, it would go away.

This isn’t an ideal world, as a quick scan of my inbox shows. Calendars.com sent me a new “Cyber Monday” promotion. Uh, guys, today is Tuesday. Dell, God help us, has declared this “Cyber Week for business”. More than thirty different companies have sent me ads with the word “Cyber” in the subject today.

Knock it off!

Not only have we granted you the entire month of November for your pre-Christmas sales, but we’ve even grudgingly admitted that with Thanksgiving over, it’s acceptable to begin the Christmas advertisements. Cyber Monday is bad enough, but the Cyber Monday Inflation is simply unacceptable double-dipping.

Look, let me put it in simple terms. Nobody can run in high gear all the time. Give us a little down time to catch our breath and we’ll come back refreshed and ready to spend again. I’ll even calendar it for you:
– November 1-30: Black November. Hit us with your doorbusters.
– December 1-7: Quiet Time. Any business that advertises a sale during this period will be required to collect sales tax at 150% of list price.
– December 8-22: Christmas Sales. Go for it, repetitive songs and all.
– December 23-24: Last Minute Sales. Give us those specials deals along with free or discounted emergency shipping.
– December 25: Do whatever you want. I’m not going to turn on the TV, check my e-mail, or open the newspaper.
– December 26: Post-Christmas Sales. Deep discounts on whatever you couldn’t unload earlier.
– December 27-October 31: Regular advertising. Holiday-themed sales allowed within one week of the actual date of a holiday.

Stick to that schedule, and I promise to stop complaining. Deal?

Good News, Mostly

How about some good news? Yeah, I know it’s a bit out of character for me, and I’m sure I’ll be back to my usual curmudgeonly self soon. Until then, enjoy the sunshine (but hope for rain).

Did you hear that Philips found a way to get kids to enjoy brushing their teeth? According to Gizmodo, the app that comes with the Sonicare for Kids toothbrush proved so popular that children not only brushed their teeth willingly, they actually brushed them more than the minimum recommended amount.

I still think that gamification is overused and often counterproductive, causing “players” to get wrapped up in the acquisition of points or banners at the expense of the actual work they originally set out to perform. But in this case, it seems that Philips used the technique well and tied the reward directly to the action. Nice job!

That said, it’s not entirely good news. The app proved so popular that kids resisted going to bed so they could keep playing with the app. Philips had to quickly turn around an update that would encourage players to go to sleep. That does make me wonder: most dentists recommend brushing after every meal. Does the app take the time of day into account, and encourage kids to go to school after breakfast? What about on weekends?

But I’m trying to be positive here, so I won’t get bogged down in the details. Kudos to Philips for actually making kids brush their teeth. I’m tempted to pick up one of their toothbrushes and see if it encourages me not to skimp on brushing.

Moving on.

Ars reports that the Food and Drug Administration is reconsidering how it regulates homeopathic “remedies” and the Federal Trade Commission (which is responsible for prosecuting fraudulent business activities) will be holding hearings next week on “Homeopathic Medicine & Advertising”. (The well-known and respected Science-Based Medicine blog has more details than Ars provides.)

Before I talk about the downside–and, regrettably, there’s some bad news here too–let me summarize why this is good news:

Homeopathic “remedies” do not work. If you already understand why they do nothing, feel free to skip ahead a couple of paragraphs.

Homeopathy is based on two “laws” that have no scientific foundation whatsoever. These are the “Law of Similars” and the “Law of Infinitesimals”. The first states that you can cure a disease with a substance that causes the same symptoms in people who don’t have the disease: cure an upset stomach by eating something that makes you throw up. The second says that the less of the curative substance you take, the stronger it is, so the strongest “medicine” has no active ingredients. Bitten by a snake? Have some more venom. But not very much, or it won’t work. Better yet, have some water that was mixed with a tiny dab of venom. Even better, mix that tiny drop of venom into an Olympic-sized swimming pool of water, and then mix in ten more pools of water. Now you’re getting close to homeopathic doses.

If you think this sounds familiar, maybe you’re thinking of the well-known principles of magic: the laws of similarity and contagion. These are the principles behind voodoo dolls, for example. A voodoo doll supposedly works because it looks like the intended victim (similarity) and is made with the victim’s hair, fingernails, or clothing (contagion). One wonders why conservative Christians aren’t threatening to burn homeopaths for witchcraft. But I digress.

So the good news is that the FTC is considering cracking down on producers of homeopathic “remedies” who can’t prove their claims that the quack nostrums actually do something. With no effective FDA monitoring of manufacturers’ claims, and no effective FTC monitoring of advertising, homeopathic “remedies” fill the shelves of drugstores, pharmacies, and (arguably worst of all) pet stores. The trash pushes out medicines that can actually cure diseases, and millions of people spend billions of dollars on “cures” that do nothing.

To my mind, that makes the prospect of FDA and FTC regulation not just good news, but great news.

So what’s the bad news?

As the Science-Based Medicine post linked above points out, the panelists at the FTC’s hearing are heavily skewed toward the homeopathic industry. The list is dominated by professors from schools that teach homeopathy, executives and lawyers from companies that sell homeopathic “remedies”, and advertising consultants who have previously testified against changes to the FDA’s practices.

That could mean next week will be a lot of sound and fury with no practical results. On the brighter side, that’s a good description for much of what governments do. I suppose that means the real good news is that the FTC’s hearings can’t make the situation any worse.

Some People Never Learn

Bet you thought I was going to talk about the Apple Watch.

You’re almost right. Apple didn’t really say anything new yesterday. OK, so now we know when we can buy the watch (preorders start today, actual orders and in-store purchases start in two weeks). We also know how much it’ll cost (anywhere from $350* to well over $10,000, depending on model and features). Everything else was revealed at last September’s “event” or has been discussed ad nauseum since then.

* OK, OK, $349. You can use the extra dollar to feed the parking meter while you stand on line outside the Apple Store on the twenty-fourth.

I’m still less than fully-whelmed. I’m sticking with my Christmas Kidizoom watch–thanks, Erin!–until I see a feature that will benefit me, rather than just Apple’s bottom line. That shouldn’t take more than three or four iterations of the Apple Watch. By which time, I’ll have charged my Kidizoom less than fifty times–have fun tethering yourselves to yet another charger, oh lovers of all things Apple. Yes, I’m getting more than two months per charge. The Apple Watch is expected to get eighteen hours–in a device that’s intended to monitor your health.

What I did find interesting about Apple’s “Spring Ahead” event was how tone-deaf they are. Their customers have been complaining for years about having to delete their own data to make room on their devices for iOS upgrades. So what did Apple do with yesterday’s iOS 8.2 update? They included an Apple Watch app which is installed on every iPhone that takes the upgrade. Wait, it gets better: like other critical Apple-installed apps (Game Center, iBooks, and Clock, for example) the app cannot be uninstalled. Didn’t Apple learn anything from last year’s U2 fiasco? Even better, if you don’t have an Apple Watch, the app will display an advertisement.

Oh, well. At least the Apple Watch app doesn’t get installed on iPads and iPods. Mind you, there’s no reason why it should be on those devices, since the Apple Watch only works with iPhones. But this is Apple, after all. If they can put an non-deletable advertisement on the phones, why shouldn’t they put it on other devices as well. After all, if you’ve got an iPad, you really ought to have an iPhone too, right? And as long as you’re picking up that must-have iPhone 6 Plus, you can pick up a gotta-have-it watch as well…

More tone-deafness: Apple finally realized that the $99 price tag on their Apple TV device wasn’t competing well against the $50 Roku, $39 Amazon Fire TV, and $35 Chromecast. So they drastically reduced the price: effective immediately, you can pick up an Apple TV for only $69. Yes, Apple has always cost more, justifying it with claims of “It just works” and “It’s aesthetically awesome”. Unfortunately, their competition also “just works”, and aesthetics are a personal matter. At this point, Apple TV’s only real distinguishing feature is the ability to be a receiver for AirPlay. Is that really worth a 40% price premium to the average consumer?

WQTS 07

Advertising, as I understand it, is the art of making people aware of a product and convincing them they must have it. Sounds simple–especially the first part–but apparently not.

This advertiser is having trouble with the first part.
wqts71
With a what?

My first thought was that it’s with a boat, but I’m not totally sold on that idea. All of the boats are showing wakes. If Google can use barges for mobile “interaction centers,” why shouldn’t these people use shipping containers for mobile farewells to the dearly departed? Especially convenient if you’re going to spread the ashes at sea. OK, maybe not.

They’re obviously shipping something–“all kinds of goods”–to Eritrea. Maybe it’s “with a course”? I don’t know. I’d assume the ship’s navigator would know where he was going. Probably not worth advertising. Or, since it mentions “conveniently secured,” perhaps it’s “with a lock”. That might work. But if that’s the major selling point, you really ought to be more specific.

Then there’s this advertiser, who’s having trouble with the second part of the process.
wqts72
It’s clear they’re pushing cat litter deodorizer, an easily-understood product with a clear market. And yet they completely fail to convince me that I need to buy it.

I’m the first to admit that I sometimes snuggle the cats, which means I wind up getting a nose full of their scent. And yeah, some of them can be stinky at times*. But I don’t go shoving my nose into their “area“. It’s even questionable whether cats have an area in that sense. Millions of people my age grew up with that euphemism, and will make the same association. Suggesting that we want to sniff our cats that way isn’t likely to encourage us to buy the product. And, let’s face it, the cats–who routinely shove their noses into each other’s areas–don’t want to smell deodorizer. They want to smell the cat they’re sniffing.

* Not Ms. Kokoro, of course, who has the sweetest smelling fur of any cat I’ve ever met.

In short, advertisers need to consider all the connotations of the words they use.

Moving on.

Advertising encourages a certain amount of vagueness. In the case of some products–think perfume–it’s not just encouraged, it’s apparently a requirement.

Other fields aren’t as easygoing. I wouldn’t trust a navigator who told me to head “thataway”. Other professions require precision. Baseball, for example. Pitchers need precise control to get strikes. Lawyers spend their lives arguing over the exact meaning of words and phrases.

And there’s medicine. Would you trust a doctor who doesn’t know who you are?
wqts73
I had to fill out this form recently. I won’t ding whoever created the form too much over the redundancy in asking about drinking liquids (there aren’t a whole lot of solids one can drink or liquids one can eat–though apparently Jello is considered a liquid. But I digress.) I’ll also let the oddity of asking about my PCP at the end of the form slide (shouldn’t that be at the top along with my insurance information?)

It’s that middle question that stumped me for a while. I finally wrote “Second Base.”

A Big Step Forward and a Small Stumble Backward

Got another case of crossed wires here.

For the last couple of days, the Internet has been celebrating Mozilla’s announcement of “Firefox Developer Edition”. For the 90% of you reading this who aren’t web developers, FDE is the familiar Firefox browser–albeit a frequently updated version of the browser that includes “experimental”* features–with an integrated selection of tools for creating and debugging websites and web apps.

* In more standard language, the browser portion of FDE is Firefox’s pre-beta release. By using that version, Mozilla is clearly hoping Firefox developers will “eat their dogfood” and use FDE to develop Firefox. Not unreasonable, even if it does have some interestingly recursive implications (“Is this a bug in Firefox or the development environment?” “Yes!”)

What’s getting slightly less press is Mitchell Baker’s blog post on Firefox’s tenth anniversary. (Mitchell is Chair of the Mozilla Foundation. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that his statement reflects Mozilla’s official position.)

The post is well-worth the few minutes it’ll take you to read it, but if you’re in a tl;dr mood, it boils down to this: Firefox saved the Web from being taken over by Microsoft, and now it will save the Web from big business.

In other words, the mission hasn’t changed, but there are far more targets now. As he says, “I don’t want to be owned and tracked by giant multinationals or governments, or told which of the Web’s astonishing possibilities I’m allowed to enjoy. I don’t want that for the rest of the world’s citizens either.” A laudable sentiment–as long as you don’t own one of those multinational corporations or control a government. Hold that thought.

The third recent announcement from Mozilla crosses those wires I mentioned in the first sentence. The latest release of Firefox–the regular browser, not the Developer Edition–includes two features to enhance user privacy. The first is that the popular DuckDuckGo* search engine is now built in; that means it’s as easy to set DDG as your default search engine as for Google, Bing, or Yahoo. The second is the addition of a “Forget” feature. In two clicks you can delete all cookies and all internal records of sites you’ve visited in the past five minutes, two hours, or twenty-four hours. A morning-after pill for your search history, if you will (though Mozilla would probably rather you didn’t).

* DDG’s popularity is due in large part to their promise to never track what searches you’re making.

Sounds like the new release supports the mission, doesn’t it? Except for one little thing. According to Slashdot, this release also rolls out advertising on the directory tiles page. Haven’t seen directory tiles? Open a new, blank tab, and by default Firefox will throw up a set of thumbnails of sites you visit frequently and have visited recently. Some like it, some hate it. But now there will be a new reason to hate it, as some of those tiles will be filled with ads. The page I linked above says it will only affect new users, and only for the first thirty days, but that was written nine months ago. Plans could have changed–and even if they haven’t, that feature is under Mozilla’s control, not the users’. It could change tomorrow.

There’s an old saying about using a long spoon when eating with the Devil. Taking advertising money to support a tool dedicated to reducing the influence of advertisers calls for a very long spoon.

Corporate Malfeasance

Apparently this is the time of year when I get pissed off about advertising. Last week, it was* Organic Valley’s casual disregard for science, logic, and their customers’ intelligence.

* Still is, actually

Then there’s this piece of trash produced by Comcast:
Comcast camping ad (Click to enlarge for readability.)

I sat on this for a couple of weeks to give my ire a chance to subside. It hasn’t, so I’m going to vent a bit.

Comcast, with casual disregard for tradition, has co-opted a piece of childhood. Yeah, OK, I know they’re hardly unique in that, but I find this a particularly egregious example. Damn it, the backyard campout isn’t about watching movies. A computer has no place in a kid’s tent. The backyard campout is for looking at the stars, eating junk food, and telling time-honored scary stories. Oh, and hoping that those noises outside the tent are just the neighborhood raccoon, rather than the neighborhood psycho with hooks for hands*.

* Mind you, the raccoon’s claws are likely sharper than the psycho’s hooks, but the raccoon is much cuter. That excuses a lot of questionable behavior, right?

Look, I’m not questioning Comcast’s right to advertise the wonderful advantages of Wi-Fi in the backyard. I’m sure there are some, even if I can’t think of any off the top of my head. If they want to promote watching movies in the yard, how about connecting that laptop to a TV and showing the whole family gathered around it on the deck (every family has a deck in the backyard, don’t they?) Or show the kids using a tablet to look up information about a frog they’ve found in the yard. Obviously, I’m not going to make it in the ad industry, but the point stands: there are ways to show off their service without crushing a hallowed tradition under a steamroller.

But wait: the ad gets worse. Did you notice the text at the bottom? “…with a plan to create more than eight million hotspots across the nation.” That plan is to use their customers’ routers as hotspots. As Ars reported earlier this year, when Comcast sends customers new modems with built-in Wi-Fi routers, they’re sending them pre-configured with a public hotspot. Yes, customers can turn it off, but Comcast doesn’t go out of their way to advertise the feature or make it easy to turn off.

They do charge customers seven dollars a month to rent the modem/routers, though. That’s a pretty good deal for Comcast, getting their customers to subsidize expansion of Comcast’s hotspot network.

Comcast is currently pushing the new modem/routers on customers via paper mail and robocalls warning them that their “devices need to be upgraded in order to fully maximize our service offerings”. Isn’t that a nicely worded phrase? It suggests that the change is of direct benefit to the customer, when it’s actually all about a direct benefit to Comcast.

As the final touch, the letters warn customers who are using Comcast’s voice telephony that–unlike their current modem–the new modem/router will not include a backup battery. Unless the customer purchases a battery, they’ll lose phone service if the house’s power goes out. Read that again: the customer must buy a battery from Comcast for a device that they rent from Comcast in order to maintain the same level of service they have now.

I’m starting to froth at the mouth, so I’ll wrap up before someone calls Animal Control to report a rabies-infected koi in the neighborhood. No doubt they’ll think I caught it from the raccoons that invaded my backyard campout. You know the one: the only one in the whole community that didn’t show movies on a laptop.