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From star ratings to video views, beware fake internet stats

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Most of us know by now that we can’t trust everything we see online. But just how much of the internet is fake? It’s more than you might expect.

Fabricated content stretches far beyond just fake news, viral hoaxes and manipulated images, as experts caution that much of the web’s traffic is manipulated, too — from app downloads and YouTube views, to ad engagement, Yelp reviews and Amazon ratings.

Indeed, it appears that even the population of the internet itself — and the activity it generates — can’t be taken at face value.

So while people are right to be wary of what they see online, half of those “people” are probably bots anyway. In other words, fake users watching fake content. And considering the questionable nature by which views are often tallied, perhaps the view counts themselves are fake, too.

To a certain extent, all the metrics are fake.– Frank Pasquale, University of Maryland

According to Frank Pasquale, a law professor at the University of Maryland and author of The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms Behind Money & Information, this kind of manipulated web activity is extremely prevalent.

“To a certain extent,” he says, “all the metrics are fake.”

If that seems surreal, it should; metrics are the engine of the internet, after all.

When it comes to fake views, as much as half of YouTube’s traffic in recent years has been found to be bots. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Quantified information — such as video views, product ratings and ad impressions — inform what we do as individuals, as well as how marketing dollars are spent.

As markers of what we value, what we find interesting or entertaining, and how long we spend engaged, if those metrics can’t be trusted, it can distort everything we understand about the online world. Like Alice in Wonderland, with her giant tea cups and tiny doors, size is suddenly an arbitrary factor — and ultimately useless.

The value of metrics

How has this come to be? As it is, advertisers pay for impressions.

This is a lucrative business for online platforms and those involved in selling ad space, considering that pretty much everything on the internet that users don’t pay for is powered by ad sales.

And those ad sales are driven by metrics.

Given how pervasive online advertising is, you’d assume there would be a demand for more certainty with regards to how metrics are generated. But there is very little transparency about who is engaging with ads — and if they’re even human.

This is a sampling of some of the totally fake reviews that propelled a totally fake restaurant to the No. 1 spot on TripAdvisor in London. (TripAdvisor)

Meanwhile, as consumers, we use metrics to inform our decisions. Whether it is Yelp, Amazon or Facebook, we look at ratings and reviews to help us make our decisions about things like where to eat or what to buy. And when users are looking for a tutorial on YouTube, they’re likely to infer that the ones with more views are more popular — and thus superior.

But this can be dangerous, Pasquale warns, because “when something seems popular, it also seems trustworthy.” In this way, the same mechanisms being used to sell us products are also being used to sell ideologies.

“It’s not just agencies buying ads,” Pasquale said. “It’s also groups that are … buying themselves to the top of search results, so that viewers think their extremist messaging [is] a really popular or widely held view.”

For the most part, we’re blind to the mechanisms of how we come to see what we see online — or more generally, how things come to be popular, prevalent or appealing.

“Someone can bid two pennies more than someone else to be at the top of search terms,” said Pasquale. That can result in fringe groups buying the optics of legitimacy through a combination of fake views and purchased prominence.

Indeed, when it comes to fake views, in recent years, as much as half of YouTube traffic has been found to be bots.

According to a report by bot-detection firm White Ops into a Russian operation called “Methbot,” this masquerade can be quite sophisticated, as bots charade as humans, moving a mouse around the screen, faking clicks, and logging into fake social network accounts.

Inside what have come to be referred to as “click farms,” rows and rows of unmanned smartphones play the same videos and download the same apps — all to bolster apparent interest.

So while it’s not like someone is hacking YouTube’s code to manually inflate video views, the view counts we see are no more representative of, well, what we would consider “real” views by real people.

These digital simulacra are the product of more than a decade of metrics-driven growth in which there’s been little regulatory oversight — and profit to be gained from inflating numbers.

“On one level, there is this winking alliance between the people at the platforms and the people in ad tech,” said Pasquale, who explains there are many related entities profiting off of too-good-to-be-true metrics — none of which are too keen to break the lucrative myth.

But according to some experts, the desire by bad actors to game the system through bots and other tactics will ultimately backfire.

Restoring trust

Each year, public relations firm Edelman produces an annual report called the Trust Barometer. According to spokesperson Sophie Nadeau, that research tells us that “fake metrics and engagement has the potential to contaminate the entire ecosystem in a way that’s bad for business, and bad for trust in key institutions like business, media and government.”

So what can be done about all of this fakery? Is it even possible to sort through the hype and deception? Or is it too late? Are we now mere tourists in a bot-filled world?

According to Nadeau, “it’s critical for business to demand accuracy of information, spend on quality, be agents for positive change in this area and advocate for transparency.”

For Pasquale, the solution is regulation.

“It needs to be illegal for companies to peddle false metrics,” he said. “There needs to be fines or penalties for gaming the system like this.”

Ultimately, the evident illegitimacy of so much of the web, its users and their supposed activity is the result of an over-reliance on automation and machine-driven efficiency, fuelled by greed and the desire for rapid growth.

“It’s an example of the failure of quantitative, automated metrics to take over the roles of human editors or gatekeepers,” said Pasquale.

If that’s true, he says the solution seems simple enough: If we don’t want the internet to be overrun by bots, it can’t be run by algorithms. It’s their digital world — or ours. If we truly want to take the internet back, he says, we need a lot more humans involved in online-vetting processes.

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Wedding attack and tech: How OpenText’s investigations service beats the traditional approach

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At its heart, an investigation is a hunt for relevant facts in order to tell a story — a story that drives strategies for organizations, including law firms.

Tracy Drynan, head of OpenText Recon Investigations — a seamless end-to-end service that helps companies and law firms find evidence for all types of investigations including internal investigations, litigation assessments, compliance and regulatory investigations, c-suite vetting and more — says these stories are a more powerful tool than most people think.

The team led by Drynan arms both in-house and external counsel with the information needed to guide their corporate and outside lawyers with the information needed to guide their clients: an investigation empowers them. What differentiates OpenText Recon is the speed with which the team utilizes specialized tools and workflows to efficiently locate evidence. This approach gains insights into patterns, gaps and relationships in a fraction of the cost of a traditional eDiscovery review, and more quickly gathers the relevant facts to create that critical story.

“Whether it be litigation or a regulatory investigation or an internal audit, often time is of the essence,” Drynan says. “Being able to make decisions that affect your bottom line, your liability, your risks which ultimately challenge your resources, even public opinion, is critical.”

Too often, an archaic model is applied to investigations — one derived when we still existed in a paper society — that analyzes all available information but doesn’t actively hunt for relevant facts, and that produces a disconnect. An efficient model does not need to analyze every piece of information.

“It’s flawed for this reason,” Drynan says. “When you review a set of information, even when you apply advanced analytics and information retrieval science, it is still at the end bucketed for a team to analyze it contiguously. In a way, we are still following the pre-electronic paradigm — we are reviewing almost paper documents one by one, and that unfortunately is handicapping both the talent and the technology in the hunt for the facts.”

While lawyers may make a living hunting facts and building narratives, Drynan would argue their approach could be improved and points out that many of the companies hired by firms to help out during an investigation still apply that outdated model. OpenText Recon breaks that pattern and approaches the hunt differently — they don’t compartmentalize anything, which means the team can identify patterns more easily. Those patterns become the clues, which become the facts, that become the story that allow lawyers to make those critical decisions. The result is not a stack of documents, but a more nuanced report outlining the important facts to analyze.

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Canada takes aim at Netflix, Airbnb in $6.5B big-tech tax plan

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Canada’s federal government is planning to force foreign-based technology firms such as Netflix Inc. and Airbnb Inc. to charge their users a sales tax in a move aimed at boosting the government’s coffers by as much as $6.5 billion over the next five years. 

The new taxation plans, outlined in the government’s Fall Economic Statement, attempt to level the playing field between Canadian companies and foreign-based digital corporations that were largely exempt from paying federal sales taxes. Some provinces — such as Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Quebec — introduced taxes on streaming services like Netflix earlier this year. 

The government announced Monday that any foreign-based company selling digital products or services to consumers in Canada will be required to collect and remit the Goods and Services Tax or Harmonized Sales Tax. The new tax changes are proposed to begin on July 1, 2021. 

“Canadians want a tax system that is fair, where everyone pays their fair share, so the government has the resources it needs to invest in people and keep our economy strong. That is why we are moving ahead with implementing GST/HST on multinational digital giants and limiting stock option deductions in the largest companies,” said Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, in prepared remarks. 

“And Canada will act unilaterally, if necessary … to apply a tax on large multinational digital corporations, so they pay their fair share just like any other company operating in Canada.”

Those taxes will include any sales on products or services made through digital marketplace platforms, sales to Canadians of goods that are located in Canadian fulfillment warehouses, as well as any companies whose platforms help to facilitate short-term rental accommodations in Canada. 

However, the new taxation moves wouldn’t see streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime Video, Walt Disney Co.’s Disney+, and Spotify Technology SA meet certain Canadian-content requirements, something the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission​ recommended be adopted rather than introduce new tax measures in a wide-ranging report released earlier this year. 

The CRTC estimates that those streaming services record annual revenue of roughly $5 billion, according to its most recent financial data. The federal broadcast regulator said in January that Ottawa should require foreign streaming services to invest in local programming rather than “digital taxes” that would likely get passed down to consumers. 

“It is more appropriate to establish a regime that requires such online streaming services that benefit from operating in Canada to invest in Canadian programming that they believe will attract and appeal to Canadians,” the report said. 

Ottawa will also consider new corporate-level taxes for foreign-owned digital corporations and is working with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to develop a framework it expects to provide further details on in the next budget. It expects the new measure will result in $3.4 billion in new tax revenue over the next five years once it is introduced sometime in 2022. 

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RevoluGROUP Canada Inc. RevoluPAY To Pursue Dubai Financial Services Authority PSP License

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia(GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — RevoluGROUP Canada Inc. (TSX-V: REVO), (Frankfurt: IJA2) (the “Company”) is pleased to announce that it has dispatched Company advisor Erik A. Lara Riveros to pursue the petition of a Payment Service Provider (“PSP”) Money Service Business License in the Dubai International Financial Centre (“DIFC”) from the Dubai Financial Services Authority.

Corporate Rational For a PSP License in Dubai

In May 2020, RevoluPAY was granted the European PSD2 license. In September, RevoluPAY received Pan-European passporting approval to operate in 27 E.U. countries. The Company has further expanded its international open banking reach through definitive agreements (“DA”) with BBVA, Flutterwave, and Thunes. Additionally, via direct PSD2 SEPA passporting, the Company added sixty-eight countries and territories to its financial operations roster. In November, the Company submitted petitions for both the analogous United States MSB licenses and the Canadian FINTRAC license. The MEASA region of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia is a significant financial hub that necessitates exposure for both financial operations and a strategic base for the region’s operations. The Company considers the DIFC an excellent regional hub, having introduced robust legislation for payment services providers (“PSP”) like RevoluPAY.

Furthermore, DIFC conveniently fills the timezone gap for a global financial center between London and New York’s leading financial centers in the West and Hong Kong and Tokyo in the East. Company advisor Erik A. Lara Riveros is duly accredited with the Dubai Financial Services Authority, which should aid the Company’s plans to obtain the Dubai PSP license and establish a corporate financial hub in the region. The Company has diligently prepared all required documentation, and Mr. Lara Riveros arrives in Dubai on the 4th of December 2020 to initiate the license petition process. The global operations of RevoluPAY expect to benefit from the multi timezone capability garnered from a supplementary and PSP licensed subsidiary domiciled in the MEASA region.

License Sought in Dubai

The Company intends to pursue the Category 3D license, which covers the following activities, “Providing or Operating a Payment Account, executing Payment Transactions or Issuing Payment Instruments, including creating and maintaining accounts for executing payment transactions, issuance of personalized sets of procedures agreed upon by the users and the provider, for initiation or execution of payment instructions.”

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