Where I Stand on the Proposed Merger of T-Mobile and Sprint

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UPDATED (May 26, 2018): REVOKING MY SUPPORT FOR THIS MERGER: With word yesterday that T-Mobile is paying duplicitous, lying fascists like former Trump campaign manager and current confidant Corey Lewandowski — and other members of the same consulting firm — for “how to kiss up to sociopathic, racist Donald Trump” advice, I hereby revoke my support for this merger. On its own terms, in an isolated universe, it makes sense. But if the cost of success for the merger is this kind of disgusting kowtowing and feeding of the beast, then the price is far too high. T-Mobile CEO John Legere has one hell of a lot to answer for on this one. ANYTHING for the merger, right John? The road to hell is paved with attitudes like yours.

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Some proposed mergers are disasters for consumers. Back in 2011, AT&T tried to merge with T-Mobile, sending a chill down the spine of longtime T-Mobile subscribers like me (I’ve been with T-Mobile since the first day of Google Android availability with the original “G1” phone — now nearly 10 years ago). Twice before, I’d been unwillingly dragged into AT&T mobile services by mergers.

The proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile was abandoned when the Obama Justice Department wisely filed to block it.

In the years since, T-Mobile and Sprint have had an on-again, off-again courtship regarding a potential merger. Today they announced a definitive agreement to actually merge. Even under Trump, regulatory approval of the merger (which could take at least a year) is by no means guaranteed, since it would reduce the number of major mobile carriers in the USA from four to three.

I am, however, fairly sanguine about this merger proposal based on the descriptions I’ve seen this morning. The combined company will be firmly under T-Mobile’s control, with T-Mobile’s current CEO and COO retaining their positions, and the combined entity reportedly named — you guessed it — T-Mobile. Magenta for the win!

And frankly, at this stage of the game, I see this combined firm as being the most effective practical competition against the serious telecom bullies like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Charter.

The devil is always in the details, but at least the potential for this merger ultimately being significantly consumer-positive seems to be in the cards.

We shall see.

–Lauren–

My Initial Impressions of Google’s New Gmail User Interface

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Google launched general access to their first significant Gmail user interface (UI) redesign in many years today. It’s rolling out gradually — when it hits your account you’ll see a “Try the new Gmail” choice under the settings (“gear”) icon on the upper right of the page (you can also revert to the “classic” interface for now, via the same menu).

But you probably won’t need to revert. Google clearly didn’t want to screw up Gmail, and my initial impression is that they’ve succeeded by avoiding radical changes in the UI. I’ll bet that some casual Gmail users might not even immediately notice the differences.

This will all come as a great relief to many Gmail users, who have watched with increasing alarm the recent march of Google UIs toward low contrast designs that are difficult for many persons to read (e.g. as discussed in “Does Google Hate Old People?” – https://lauren.vortex.com/2017/02/06/does-google-hate-old-people).

I certainly won’t take credit for Gmail not falling into that kind of design trap, but perhaps Google has indeed been taking some previously stated concerns to heart.

The new Gmail UI is what we could call a “minimally disruptive” redesign of the now “classic” version. The overall design is not altered in major respects. So far I haven’t found any notable missing features, options, or settings. My impression is that the back end systems serving Gmail are largely unchanged. Additionally, there are a number of new features (some of which are familiar in design from Google’s “Inbox” email interface) that are now surfaced for the new Gmail.

Crucially, overall readability and usability (including contrast, font choices, UI selection elements, etc.) seem so close to classic Gmail (at least in my limited testing so far) as to make any differences essentially inconsequential. And it’s still possible to select a dark theme from settings if you wish, which results in even higher contrast.

So overall, my sense is that Google has done an excellent job with this interface refresh, and I’m hoping that the philosophy leading to this design — particularly in terms of user interface readability and ease of use — will carry over to other Google products and services going forward.

My kudos to the Gmail team!

–Lauren–

Google Reportedly Plans New Protections for YouTube Kids — Let’s Get Them Right!

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Reports are circulating that Google plans to implement some important new protections for their YouTube Kids offering, in particular providing a means for parents to ensure that their children only see videos that have been human-curated and/or are from appropriately trusted YouTube channels.

The goal would be to avoid children being exposed to the kinds of sick garbage that currently still manages to seep into YouTube Kids recommendation engine suggested videos.

I have been calling for exactly this kind of approach for YouTube Kids, and I applaud such efforts by the YouTube team.

However, if some details of these reports are accurate, there are a couple of important provisos that I must mention.

First, the “curated/trusted” YouTube Kids video mode will supposedly be an opt-in feature — needing to be explicitly enabled (e.g., by parents).

By default, children would reportedly continue to see the algorithmic recommendations complete with the creepy contamination.

Since we’re dealing with kids viewing videos, not adults, this new human-curated mode should absolutely be the default, which could optionally be disabled by parents if they really wanted their children to see the full algorithmic flow.

The calculus when determining appropriate defaults is entirely different for children, and depending on busy parents to pay attention to these kinds of settings is problematic at best, so this is a situation where the most ethical and responsible action on Google’s part would be for the “safest” settings to prevail as defaults.

Secondly, it’s crucial in the long run that the same YouTube Kids features and content options are ultimately available not only as mobile apps but on ordinary browser platforms as well.  Most children don’t limit their video viewing only to phones!

All that said, if Google is indeed moving ahead toward human-curated and approved YouTube Kids video suggestions, this is a notably positive step, and would be an important acknowledgment by Google that in some cases, algorithms alone are insufficient to adequately deal with our complex online content ecosystems.

–Lauren–

How YouTube’s Ad Restrictions Have Gone Very Wrong

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In the wake of the horrific shooting attack at YouTube headquarters, global attention has been drawn to Google’s content and monetization policies for YT, since the shooter apparently had a number of public grievances against YT in these regards (“Tragically, the YouTube Shooting Attack Is Not a Complete Surprise” – https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/04/04/tragically-the-youtube-shooting-attack-is-not-a-complete-surprise).

Part of what makes this all confusing is that Google’s recent series of YT policy changes — popularly called “Adpocalypse” — has included a number of different elements, some of which appear to have been much more appropriate than others.

The result is that many YT users who’ve been playing by the rules have been unfairly tossed into the dumpster along with the real abusers.

For example, I support Google’s moves to crack down (via demonetization and/or removal) on YT videos/channels that contain hate speech or other content that is clearly in violation of YT Terms of Service or Community Standards. In fact, I feel that Google has not gone far enough in some respects to deal with specific categories of violating, potentially dangerous content (“On YouTube, What Potentially Deadly Challenge Will Be Next?” – https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/04/02/on-youtube-what-potentially-deadly-challenge-will-be-next). I’ve also proposed techniques to help quickly detect truly abusive content (“Solving YouTube’s Abusive Content Problems — via Crowdsourcing” – https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/03/11/solving-youtubes-abusive-content-problems-via-crowdsourcing).

But along the way, Google made the misguided decision to drastically curtail which YT users could run ads to monetize their videos, essentially slapping “the little guys” in their faces. These users’ ads never brought in much money by Google standards, but every dollar counts to ordinary folks like you and me!

Why did Google do this? I suspect that they felt this to be a convenient time to shed the large number of small uploaders who didn’t bring in much revenue to Google. And conveniently, Google could argue (largely disingenuously, I believe)  that this was actually part of their broader anti-abuse efforts as well.

One can understand why Google would prefer not to bother evaluating small YT channels for terms compliance. But the reality is that the worst abusers often have among the largest YT followings — sometimes with millions of subscribers and/or large numbers of video views. 

By virtue of these very non-Googley and significantly draconian monetization restrictions applied to small, completely non-abusing YT channels and users, vast numbers of innocents are being condemned as if they were guilty. 

–Lauren–

Tragically, the YouTube Shooting Attack Is Not a Complete Surprise

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I didn’t get much sleep last night. For many years I’ve feared the kind of attack that occurred at YouTube headquarters yesterday. Employees severely injured — the shooter dead by her own hand.

I’ve spent time looking over the attacker’s online materials — her website and available videos.

What’s immediately clear is that she had smoldering grievances against Google’s YouTube, that exploded yesterday in a rampage of innocent blood and her own self-destruction. Her father apparently knew that she “hated YouTube” — and had warned police that she might be headed there.

Google will no doubt bolster its physical security in the wake of this tragedy, but of course that merely pushes the zone of risk out to the perimeters of their secure areas.

Haunting me regarding the shooter’s online statements is that one way or another, I’ve seen or heard so much similar to them, so many times before.

For many years, Google and YouTube users have come to me in desperation when they felt that their problems or grievances were being ignored by Google. If you’ve been reading my posts for any significant length of time, you’ve seen me discussing these matters on numerous occasions.

The common thread in the stories that I hear from these users — usually by email, sometimes by phone — are feelings of frustration, of desperation, of an inability to communicate with Google — to get what they consider to be at least a “fair shake” from the firm when they have Google-related problems.

I’ve not infrequently pondered the possibility that one day, an upset, desperate Google user would become violent, potentially with deadly results especially given the flood of easily available firearms in this country.

YouTube related issues have typically been a big chunk of these user concerns brought to me, as have been Google account access issues generally. I’ve tried to help these users when I could, e.g., please see: “The Google Account  ‘Please Help Me!’ Flood” – https://lauren.vortex.com/2017/09/12/the-google-account-please-help-me-flood – and many other posts.

For well over a decade (most recently late last month) — both publicly and directly to Google — I’ve repeatedly urged the creation of Google “ombudsman” or similar roles, to provide more empowered escalation and internal policy analysis paths, and to help provide an “escape valve” for better dealing with the more serious user issues that arise. Just a couple of my related posts include:

“Why Big Tech Needs Big Ethics — Right Now!” – https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/03/24/why-big-tech-needs-big-ethics-right-now

“Google Needs an Ombudsman” Posts from 2009 — Still Relevant Today” – https://lauren.vortex.com/2017/04/03/google-needs-an-ombudsman-posts-from-2009-still-relevant-today

Google has always rejected such calls for ombudsmen or similar roles. Google has said that ombudsmen might have too much power (this definitely need not be the case — these roles can be defined in a wide variety of ways). Google has insisted that ombudsman concepts couldn’t scale adequately to their ecosystem (yet other firms with very large numbers of customers have managed to employ these concepts successfully for many decades).

The reality is that Google — filled to the brim with some of the smartest and most capable people on the planet — COULD make this work if they were willing to devote sufficient time and resources to structuring such roles appropriately.

Google’s communications with their users — along with related support and policy issues — have always collectively been Google’s Achilles’ heel.

While one would be reasonable to assume that the number of aggrieved Google users inclined to physically attack Google and Googlers is extremely limited, the fact remains that desperate people driven over the edge can be expected to sometimes take desperate actions. This is not by any means to excuse such horrific actions — but these are the facts.

Google and its services have become integral parts of people’s lives — in some cases more so than even their own families.

Google turns 20 this year. It’s time for Google to truly take responsibility for these issues and to grow up.

–Lauren–