Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Should I allow a team work-from-home day?

Posted in analysis, botch, business, Employment, fail by commorancy on February 13, 2020

mai-tai-beachI worked at a company which, at the team leader level, endorsed a once-a-week work-from-home day. I can now definitively state, “No, you shouldn’t allow or offer full team work from home days.” Let’s explore why.

Day Off?

The biggest reason not to allow such a work-from-home day is that it is typically treated as a “day off”. This is even true of the managerial staff. At the business where I worked and on this specific day, after we had our “morning teem meeting”, everyone went their separate ways doing whatever they pleased… and it was usually not work related.

This becomes a very difficult situation for those who are consigned to pager duty for that week. When you need to get in touch with someone to resolve a problem, it can become nearly impossible to reach them while during office hours on “work from home” day.

Work from home days should be limited to individuals rather than teams, assuming you wish to allow this perk at all. For example, allow an individual to choose a work from home day and allow that single individual to work from home on that day. That leaves the rest of the team in the office performing their daily routines. This allows for timely problem resolution in almost every case. Even then, if the team member who is at home is needed, they can typically be reached. It also allows other teams to get in touch with your team should the need arise.

Rant

The biggest problem I personally experienced with a “work from home” perk day was that I had no choice in it. If I showed up in the office on the work-from-home day, no one was there. The desks were all empty. Even if I were at the office, I still had the same problem. car-drivingEveryone else was running around in their cars or doing something other than work. This meant that even after spending a long time locating a co-worker, trying to get someone’s mind wrapped around a work problem might take ages longer than normal.

Their thoughts were on driving their car or picking up groceries or ferrying their kids or whatever their assumed “day off” tasks entailed. Their minds were clearly not focused on work. This meant that waiting for people to get back in front of their computers and get into the correct mindset might take an hour or longer. That’s an hour that a problem is not getting resolved. It’s an hour that’s causing delays because they are not doing what they are being paid to do.

This is a big work ethic problem. If I’m handling the pager and I’m expected to resolve problems, some of which I have no first hand knowledge how to resolve, I’ll need someone else’s involvement to help me understand the system that’s broken. Yet, the person with the expertise is out running around instead of working at the their computer at home (where they are supposed to be).

Knowledge Transfer

Some of this might be considered a documentation problem or a knowledge transfer problem. I agree, it is. But, there are many, many companies where selective staff choose to keep their knowledge close to the vest rather than documenting it. This is usually a sign of job security… that this person believes that if they openly document what they are doing, that they will have no value to the company.

This situation is particularly a problem if the person also happens to be the team leader. As a subordinate, I’m not tasked to manage a manager. Though, I can strongly urge them to document. However, that’s not the working relationship. I can ask, but they don’t have to comply. In many cases, they don’t and won’t comply. This leaves me back at square one. I’ll need their help to resolve the problem… every time until I can reverse engineer what they know. What they know about the systems is in their brain and in no one else’s. Until I spend hours reverse engineering that system to understand what they know, I’ll always need their help. That’s job security.

Worse, many times, these folks have PGP locked all of the doors. This means that even were I to try and reverse engineer what they did, I can’t even resolve the problem because I’m led to a PGP locked door. This means that they hold the literal key and they must be the one to open it. For this reason, teams must be in the same office together through the work day… rather than separated across city distances at various dwellings. Businesses rent office spaces for a reason. By having a team “work from home”, it means that the office rental space isn’t being used and the monthly rental money is being, at least on that day, wasted.

Work from Home

I will, however, state that work from home CAN work, if it’s implemented properly. A manager can allow one of their subordinates to work from home IF they are properly monitored. Monitoring means keeping in contact with the person via chat servers, email and pagers. Communication is your friend. That doesn’t mean pestering the person, but it does mean regularly staying in touch when the need arises. Clearly, if there is no need of this person, then let them work in silence. But, pinging them occasionally via email, chat or messaging will give you (as a manager) a sense that the person is at home in front of their computer doing work, not running around in their car taking care of non-work business. At the same time, there’s the “out of sight, out of mind” problem. If a person is out of the office, the optics from other staff might cause issues. Allowing one person to work from home means they’ve gotten a perk no one else may be getting. Offering this to one person means offering it to all staff.

Working from home is, however, a double edged sword. While on the receiving end, I did find the freedom itself is nice enough and not having to spend for the gas and wear and tear on my vehicle is cool. The difficulty is that when the team isn’t together, it kills a work day where things could have gotten done. That forces doubling up on work the following day when we all, again, meet in the office. Doubling up on work is difficult at the best of times, but moreso if that day happens to be Friday.

Teams should work together every day, each week. They should work on projects together, manage the business together and functionally be a team IN the office. You can’t be a team when the team isn’t together.

HR Advice

If a manager or executive approaches you about having a team “work from home” day, you should seriously discuss these downsides with them. The biggest problem is that it kills productivity between team members.

For example, we had our team “work from home” day on Thursday. In fact, it was the worst of all possible days to offer this. It’s the day before Friday… the day when everyone has mostly “checked out”. Friday is one of the worst days for productivity because people are concerned with the bar or a party or the weekend. Their minds are not on the work day at hand. Their minds are on the end of the day and the weekend.

By having the team “work from home” day set to Thursday, this means that it will effectively be a 3 day work week. There is Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday which supports solid team efforts. Then there’s a break on Thursday which means a huge loss of productivity for the final two work days of the week. Some people may even schedule Friday off which effectively offers a 4 day weekend breaking productivity even further.

If a manager or leader is thinking of a setting up “work from home” day, the only two days where it’s feasible is Tuesday or Wednesday. I wouldn’t allow any other days… definitely not Friday or Monday and definitely not Thursday. I also wouldn’t allow a work from home day every week. That’s too frequent.

Working from Home

Don’t get me wrong, being able to work from home is nice on the surface, but it’s horrible for business logistics. You hired your team to be in your rented office space and work together as a team. Having that team work from home can be difficult to keep track of people… particularly when other teams need access to these staff members. Other teams must put requests on hold when a full team is out of the office.

In fact, it’s almost unheard of to allow an entire team out of the office for a single day, let alone every single week. Business must be conducted every day, not just the days when people feel inclined to show up.

The difficulty, however, comes when a VP or executive proposes a “work from home” effort. While I understand there might be a personal issue requiring this VP to be at home on a specific day, he could have simply set up his own personal work from home day solely for himself. Keep the rest of the team in the office. Instead, he endorsed an entire team work from home day… a mistake.

Personally, that (and a number of other problems surrounding this person and another manager) didn’t work for me and I had to leave that job. Jobs are already difficult enough without throwing in these unnecessary wrenches. I felt the team didn’t get enough done throughout the week, partly because of this incorrectly placed “work from home” day, but also because of sheer lack of team bonding. The manager over the team really did nothing to attempt to bond the team together… instead leaving us to our own devices. This is a separate problem, just like the knowledge transfer issue above, but it definitely compounded with the work from home issue to create a large set of problems which made working for this company much more difficult than it should have been.

Team Bonding

athletesLet’s talk about team bonding for a moment. Every work team is effectively “thrown together”. It’s a bunch of people who don’t know one another initially, but must find common ground to get work done as a team. To that end, the team must have the occasional get together to allow some time away from work to talk and mingle, but that time can also be used by managers to discuss how overall work efforts are progressing.

Team outings need to offer, first, a work related meeting that discusses ongoing metrics that affect the team. If the team is in charge of keeping the servers functioning, then the meeting should discuss these efforts. If there are efforts to secure the servers, then it should discuss the security efforts. Whatever projects are currently underway, these should also be discussed so that all team members are aware of who is doing what projects and who might be needed to help these projects succeed.

Then, after the formalities of work related discussions end, the team will be free to mingle, talk and eat dinner or play video games or whatever fun team bonding activities have been scheduled. At the office, there’s limited time to bond with your co-workers other than at lunch. Having out of the office team bonding events is important to make give the team time to talk about things other than work.

When a workplace offers “work from home”, this activity completely disrupts the ability of co-worker bonding in the workplace. Without a monthly or quarterly team bonding event, there’s no way for co-workers to functionally bond… leaving a scattered team.

Team bonding is important to ensure that work efforts proceed efficiently and normally. Otherwise, you get conflict between team members who refuse to work with one another because each person thinks that their project is the most important… when all projects are important, but no more important than the next person’s project. Still, the projects are all for the benefit of the employer, thus it is the manager’s responsibility to make sure the staff manage the priorities of those projects accordingly.

Team Perks

As a team leader, consider the perks you offer your team carefully. Don’t choose perks like “work from home” because eventually (yes, even you) will abuse it. But, that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that a work from home day sacrifices productivity for that and the following day. Be careful when choosing perks that sacrifice two or more days of team productivity. If you plan to allow a work from home perk, choose to allow it for a one-on-one basis so that you can control who is out of the office when.

By making this change, you be in better control over when key people are in and out of the office. Full team “work from home” days should not be permitted or offered. If you currently support such a one-day-a-week perk, you should rethink this stance.

If you are a manager over a team that already has a once-a-week work from home day, you should stop this perk immediately! Be careful to offer a compensating perk once you get rid of this one, such as individual work from home days which are scheduled well in advance. Or, alternatively, allow team members to arrive late, leave early or have flex shifts on specific days as long as their in-office hours offer a minimum of 3-4 hours of overlap with other team members. With such a retooling of this perk, the team will work together in the office every day, offering much more weekly productivity and provide better team bonding.

If this article helped your situation, please leave a comment below letting me know how you managed your work situation.

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How To: Portals in No Man’s Sky

Posted in botch, video game design, business by commorancy on February 9, 2020

NoMansSky3While there have been a number of articles describing the portal travel system within No Man’s Sky, it seems that these articles leave out some very important details and restrictions when traveling by portal. Let’s explore.

Finding a Portal

The difficulty with using a portal is finding one. Portals look like a Stargate from the SG1 TV series. In fact, they “dial” almost identically to the SG1 gates, thus requiring glyphs to complete the “dialing sequence”. Once a sequence is input, the gate will either open or fail to open. Putting in random values may lead to a world, but it can also lead to your own peril.

If you choose to dial a random sequence, you should make sure to have a current saved game position that you can go back to if it ends up some place perilous. I should also mention that for the first portal you find, you’re going to need to repair each portal glyph button with varying resources. Expect to carry a bunch of various resources like Indium, Sodium Nitrate, Oxygen and so on to repair the entire panel.

NoMansSky-PortalFinding a portal, however, can be a real challenge. With that said, there are multiplayer quest lines (you can reach these from the Anomaly space station) that will lead you to a portal as part of the quest line. Once you complete one of these basic quests that lead you by starship to a world with a portal, build a base near that portal before you use it. Place a terminus on your base and you can always return to that base right near the portal for use later. You’ll thank me for this advice later. Once you find a portal on a world, it’s always a good idea to build a small foothold base near it so that you can return and reuse that portal later. Otherwise, you’ll be hunting for a portal again once you leave it. Once you have a base near a portal, you can then find portals on other worlds. It’s a complicated process to get back to remote portals, but suffice it to say that it can be done in defiance of the below documented restrictions.

The second way to locate a portal is that you can accidentally happen upon portals on worlds simply by flying over them. If you happen to find a portal through happenstance, create a base near it so you can return to it and use it later. You can reuse any portal you find. You really only need access to one portal in the game. All others are extraneous. However, if Hello Games decides to add world destruction scenarios into the game (not currently in the game), then you might want to have access to several different portals in your chain of bases.

The third way to locate a portal is to use a structure scanner or an acquired navigational map to find one, but this is a hunt in the dark. The scanners (and maps) only locate a close / random structure and may not locate a portal. Though, every world appears to have a portal somewhere on it… including moons apparently. Airless worlds might be easiest to locate a portal as there are no clouds to get in the way of scouting by air.

Using a Portal

Using a portal is easy. To find the portal address of a world, you simply need to enter photo mode. Once in photo mode, a glyph sequence like the following…NoMansSky-GlyphsLarge (to the current closest planet) will appear on the bottom left corner of the screen. You can then snapshot this screen and use these symbols to get back to that world’s portal.

NoMansSky-GlyphsIn fact, using Photomode is the easiest way to find a portal address for a given world. Using the glyphs on your screen snap will land you at that world’s portal. You can then leave a Save Beacon at the portal location to find your way back there easily while revisiting in your ship.

Unfortunately, here is where the restrictions for portals come into play. Using a Save Beacon only really works if you’re within jumping distance of the world. If you’re hundreds of thousands of light years away, it’s going to take you a long while to get back to that world by ship.

Portal Restrictions

When you use a portal to reach a destination, Hello Games has designed some heavy restrictions on that solar system you are visiting via portal. These restrictions include:

  1. You cannot use the Galactic Map while visiting a system via portal. The open portal apparently creates “interference”.
  2. You cannot create a Base Computer on any world in the system you are visiting via portal. This means you cannot build a base there. However, you can leave a Save Beacon behind which will allow you to return to that specific ground location on that planet after you have returned back through the portal and flown there in your starship.
  3. You cannot shut down a portal at all… either on the visiting side or on the dialing side. On the dialing side, you can dial a new system and that will override the currently open portal.
  4. You cannot dial a portal while still on the visiting side. In fact, the dialing controller will not even raise out of the ground. You can only dial on the side where you began.
  5. You cannot dial out of any other portal on any other planet in the visiting system. In fact, all portals on all worlds, for whatever reason, only allow you to return to your dialing point. This means even if you leave the dialed world and head to another world in that system… and then you manage to find the location of the portal on another planet there, you still can’t dial out. You’ll find that that portal (and every other portal) is currently open back to your dialing world.
  6. The Terminus at the local space station is shut down and locked. You cannot use a terminus to leave that visited system.
  7. You cannot call the Anomaly Station (Nada and Polo’s ship) while visiting a system through a portal.
  8. You cannot call your freighter.

NoMansSky2These restrictions are intended to dead end you in the solar system you’re visiting by portal. You can’t leave that system in any other way than back through the portal. You can’t build on any of the worlds you’ve visited while through the portal, with the exception of certain small tech devices like a Save Beacon or a Message Beacon. As I said above, you can’t build a Base Computer on any planet in a Portal visited system. You also can’t leave that solar system in your ship. You can travel from planet to planet in that system. You can pick up resources and return with them through the portal, but you cannot use the Galactic Map to leave the system. You must head back to the open portal and return to your dialing point to continue playing.

Save Beacon

The only sort-of workaround here (at least to find the world again) is to leave a Save Beacon behind on one or several of the worlds. You can then hop into your ship from your own system (the dialing system), then use the Galactic Map to navigate back to that system. Once there, you can then use your Save Beacon to lead you back to that specific portal point on that world.

If you travel to that same system with your ship using Hyperdrive, there is no problem building Base Computers or any other structures. Basically, if you find a particularly compelling system via portal, you must return back through the portal and then use your ship’s Hyperdrive to get you back there. Of course, it could be many thousands of light years away… so there’s that.

Commentary

I can’t really understand the unnecessary portal restrictions within No Man’s Sky. In Stargate SG1, there were no similar restrictions. The one rule in Stargate SG1, though, is that you couldn’t return back through an already open gate. Gates in SG1 were one way. If someone tried to return through an already open Gate, the person would be fried. This is the reason that after traveling through a Gate in SG1, the gate would shut down. This meant that the person visiting via the portal would need to dial back out to open their own portal back to the originating world. This is how No Man’s Sky should work.

I want to understand the developer’s rationale here. I do. But, I must counter any such argument that this is an exploration game. There’s absolutely no reason why we can’t use a portal to travel to another system as open-ended exploration, then continue our journey from there or build as we see fit.

If the developers are concerned that we’ll shortcut our way to the center of the galaxy, restrict that. If the dialed system is at or near the center or within a small diameter of the center, then restrict how travel is handled. Don’t restrict every solar system simply because you’re trying to keep us from using a portal to get to the center. Even then, this restriction is somewhat stupid.

Portals are Mostly Worthless

Ultimately, the restrictions imposed on visiting portal worlds make them a novelty form of travel, but entirely useless. You can only use them to “see” a specific world. You can’t use a portal for any other travel purposes.

Once you understand the heavy restrictions imposed when using portals, you’ll quickly realize the futility of using them. Basically, Hello Games wasted their time building this portal system feature. Unless Hello Games chooses to lift these unnecessary portal restrictions, the best way to travel is strictly by Hyperdrive. There are no such silly restrictions when traveling by Starship or Freighter… at least none that I know of.

Consider that it’s also a major hassle to portal to a world, drop a beacon, travel back via portal then hop into your starship and make your way back there. Yeah, it’s a real pain in the ass. I don’t get why game developers feel the need to place such silly restrictions all over games when they are entirely unnecessary.

NoMansSky4No Man’s Sky is supposed to be an open exploration game. Why close off avenues of game play when using a built-in travel system? If I choose to build on a world in a portal system, let me. If I want to use the Galactic Map, there should be no problem. If I want to use the Terminus to get back home, that’s my choice. These stupid restrictions should not exist in No Man’s Sky. Hear me, Hello Games!

The only restrictions that should exist are restrictions on traveling to worlds within 10,000 light years of the center. Simply place the restrictions on these worlds and systems. Don’t allow portal travel at all to these worlds. Force the player to fly in by ship. Honestly, though, what difference does it make if the player flies in by ship or arrives by portal? Why does it matter if the player has chosen to use a portal instead of a starship?

Video games should allow players to travel in whatever method they choose, even if it ruins their own game experience. What difference does it really make if the gamer flies to the center by ship or arrives by portal? However, if you must, place restrictions on key worlds… but don’t restrict the entire game of billions of worlds strictly for a very small subset use case. 🧐

If this article helped you better understand No Man’s Sky‘s portals, please let me know in the comments below.

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Fallout 76: Where to find Deathclaw Hide

Posted in botch, business, video game design by commorancy on February 6, 2020

NukaColaPA-fIf you’re trying to complete the Possum challenge for Leatherworker, you’re probably looking for Deathclaw Hide. Let’s explore.

Possum Challenges

The one thing about the Possum Challenges is that there’s always this “one thing” you can’t seem to find (or do). With the Leatherworker challenge, this one is no different. I have no idea why Bethesda feels the need to make these challenges drastically more difficult by limiting the ability to find the things you need. For example, the Possum Electrician challenge is entirely broken. There’s no way to actually succeed with this challenge because the ‘Restore power to a Power Plant’ challenge won’t complete no matter how many times you “Light Up” the Poseidon Power Plant.

Fallout 76_20200206065538

With pretty much every other animal in the game, you can find their hide on them when you kill them. Perhaps not all of the time, but at least 50% of the time. This would mean you need to kill a minimum two of these animals to find its hide.

With the Deathclaw, unfortunately, Bethesda took Deathclaw Hide off of a Deathclaw’s drop list which you only find out after spending time and ammo to kill several Deathclaws. So, no longer does a Deathclaw drop Deathclaw Hide. This makes the Leatherworker Possum challenge nearly impossible… until you know where to look.

Fallout 76_20200206065455

Thanks, Bethesda.

Rant Mode On

At this point, I can’t believe this is an oversight. In fact, I believe that it isn’t. I believe these changes are intentional by people within Bethesda. To consider this unnecessary change as anything more than accidental in among so many other “accidental” changes is naïve. There is absolutely no way Bethesda is this mistake prone. No way! No company makes so many mistakes in writing code. No one does this. One or two mistakes here and there I can accept as accidental. With Fallout 76, it’s been a series of mistakes after a series of mistakes after even more mistakes.

In fact, it’s almost like Fallout 76 came to exist through a series of mistakes. No one (let alone a company as big as Bethesda) makes that many “accidental” mistakes and still produces a semi-functional product. No! These changes are not accidental, incidental or unintentional. No company operates like The Keystone Cops (too young for this reference?   ⃪ click here).

These mistakes are definitely intentional! They have been introduced by Bethesda’s engineers intentionally. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps job security? No company I’ve seen introduces bugs intentionally… except Bethesda and software engineers hoping for …

Job Security

What exactly is “Job Security” in the software and technical professions? I’ll explain.

Many technical staff are not confident in their own skills or abilities. Their job insecurity sees them play games to make themselves appear “more valuable” and, thus, help their prospects with job security. Everyone wants to be considered a valuable team member. Unfortunately, playing this “job security” game in the way described below is highly unethical, but few technical staff see it this way.

By Technical Staff, I’m referring to software engineers, software designers and software coders. I also include systems administrators, systems engineers and systems architects as well. All of these technical roles have the ability to play such games to help increase their perceived “value” to the company.

No one wants to be considered obsolete by their employer. To that end, many software designers, engineers and even systems administrators, choose to keep their jobs secure by engineering their own continued necessity. How do technical employees engineer their own continued necessity? By introducing system breaking bugs. If things are “broken”, the company will continue to need someone to “fix” it.

How this situation manifests is that these folks break small things here and there. They don’t break the whole system, though they could very easily do this if they wanted. No, instead, they engineer breakage in small tertiary components. They engineer situations that are just problematic enough to be annoying, but not problematic enough to keep the product from working entirely. Though, I have worked with some folks who will and have chosen to break the entire system, bringing down the entire product for several hours.

There’s a fine line when considering breaking small things versus large things. Breaking the whole system is a firing offense. If you break the entire system such that no one can use it for hours, that’s something that will get at least one person fired. This doesn’t afford job security. Just the opposite, in fact. Breaking the entire system will get someone fired.

Breaking tiny tertiary pieces isn’t a firing offense (at least as long as the engineer doesn’t go blabbing about what they did). In fact, breaking something small is usually seen as unintentional by most bosses. After all, a boss might think, “Why would they break this tiny thing intentionally?” For this thinking logic, such small things are assumed to be a bug.

Many software engineers (and similar people in similar lower level positions) take advantage of this flawed managerial thinking logic and choose to break underlying, but very small components. Why? As this section states, job security. If small things are continually broken, the company will need someone who “knows that code” to fix it. Hence, continued employment for that person. Yes, it’s a shitty thing to do, but people also want to remain employed. When you hire bright people to write code, you also hire their scheming minds. Expect them to take advantage of such internal managerial flawed rationales to their own benefit.

How does this relate to Deathclaw Hide? It relates because the person who manages this specific portion of Fallout 76 wants to remain employed by Bethesda. If they break something small, Bethesda will eventually turn to them to ask them to fix it once enough people complain. See, job security does sometimes work… as long as they don’t get caught at it. It seems that too many employees at Bethesda are playing the “Job Security” game at the expense of Fallout 76. After all, this video game is already mostly a piece of junk. No one is going to see a few more mistakes as any more than “par for The Whitespring golf course”.

Rant over.

So where can I find Deathclaw Hide?

I’m coming to that. I wanted to rant a little about Bethesda before I got to this point. Since Deathclaw Hide no longer spawns on Deathclaws after you kill them, you must rely on loot containers and via other means.

Unfortunately, it seems that the same engineer who removed Deathclaw Hide from the loot drop list for Deathclaws also seems to have removed it from the drop list for regular containers as well. This means you won’t find it in toolboxes, wooden containers, coolers, safes or any other similar containers. I know. I’ve spent days culling through every container I could find looking for it. Deathclaw Hide doesn’t even spawn in Deathclaw nests!

I even went looking in non-conventional places. I started searching through Scorchbeast nests. Specifically, the nests in Watoga. I rationalized that Scorchbeast nests tend to turn up unusual bones and stuff. There is a nest on top of Watoga’s Municipal Building (where Mayor for a Day is located). There is also a nest on top of Watoga’s Civic Center. While these nests both spawn all sorts of goodies, such as Scorchbeast Hide, Scorchbeast Brain, Scorchbeast Meat and Scorchbeast Heart, it doesn’t spawn anything related to Deathclaws.

However, the Scorchbeast Guano piles will occasionally spawn Deathclaw Hands. Unfortunately, these don’t count towards the Possum Leatherworker challenge, even though Deathclaw Hands provide 3 leather. Go figure.

After spending time making various runs to these Scorchbeast Nests, I then had another thought.

Fissure Sites

I realized that I was going about this all wrong. Around the lip of every fissure is an array of dead animals. I also realized long ago that existing already-dead carcasses in the game spawn the hide of the dead animal.

While a Bethesda engineer decided to remove Deathclaw Hide from the live Deathclaw drop list, he/she forgot to remove it from the already dead carcasses that you can find around Appalachia. For example, there’s an already dead Yao Guai at the Abandoned Waste Dump. This permanently dead carcass spawns Yao Guai hide. If you ever need Yao Guai hide for any challenge, make your way to the Abandoned Waste Dump and pick it up. No need to kill anything. Just loot and be done.

This is why I began thinking, “Where can I find already dead Deathclaw carcasses in this game?” That’s when it dawned on me to visit the fissure sites.

Sure enough, there are already dead Deathclaw (and other) carcasses around the lip of fissures. Deathclaw Hide still spawns on these already dead Deathclaw carcasses. Yay! No need to run around killing Deathclaws if we don’t have to, eh? If you’re looking for Deathclaw Hide, you’ll want to visit the lip of the fissure sites to loot these already dead Deathclaws. The difficulty, of course, is that these fissures tend to spawn a crap ton of Scorched and at least one Scorchbeast, in addition to irradiating you. Be prepared with RadShield, RadX, Radaway or Power Armor and also be prepared to take out the enemies… or, alternatively, use the Sneak card to sneaky sneak your way in and out without being easily detected.

Unfortunately, you will only find one hide per carcass. Even then, it doesn’t always spawn. But, it spawns more often than anywhere else. Fortunately, there are 9 fissure sites around Appalachia that you can visit and check out the dead Deathclaw carcasses. At least one of them will have a hide. If you server hop, you can probably find all 5 of the hides that you’ll need to complete the Possum Leatherworker challenge.

I have found that the fissure sites are the most reliable places to locate Deathclaw Hide in Fallout 76. That is, until another engineer chooses to remove Deathclaw Hide from the loot drop list for these already-dead Deathclaws at the fissure sites, too. 😕

Good Luck.

If this article helped you, please leave a comment below. If you know of the location for other dead Deathclaw carcasses around Fallout 76 (besides fissures), please let me know where you found it in the comments below.

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Fallout 76: Vault 94 to close

Posted in botch, business, video game design by commorancy on January 24, 2020

Fallout 76_20200124171712

Vault 94 was to be one of the first “group dungeons” (i.e., vault raid) to come to Fallout 76’s Wasteland. Vault 94 is scheduled to close when Wastelanders opens. Let’s explore.

Group Raid Areas

With every online game that Bethesda has produced, at some point during the game’s online lifecycle, Bethesda introduces higher level group dungeons. These dungeons usually entail the need to be at least level 50 or higher and you’ll need pretty decent weapons and armor to survive. So, with that, Bethesda introduced Vault 94 as a group raid area within Fallout 76 sometime around August 20th of 2019. No, it hasn’t been open for every long at all. When something is bad, though… *shrug*

Hodge Podge

After having visited Vault 94 myself, I can conclusively say, “It’s a mess.” Oh, and what a mess it is… in more ways than one. Not only is the plant life overgrowth abundant throughout the vault, finding anything in the disaster of a vault is an absolute chore… and that’s even if there weren’t a single enemy down there. What’s worse is the reward, but we’ll come to that topic soon enough.

Throw on top of the fact that the entire interior is an unmitigated disaster of a design, you have a never ending smorgasbord of enemies thrown at you continually. From Ghouls to Mirelirks to Mirelirk Kings to pretty much you name it and it’s in down there. I’m surprised they didn’t throw a Yao Guai, Mothman and a Scorchbeast in, too.

Lag City

It’s not so much that there shouldn’t be enemies there, it’s that the enemies are so densely packed in that space that, when combined with the overly detailed plant overgrowth 3D environment, the game’s engine simply can’t keep up. It gets so laggy, you can barely even run and shoot. I can’t even imagine taking a team of 4 people down there with miniguns. The entire run would come to a crawl. It would become so laggy, it would be pointless to try. It’s bad enough with two people down there.

Bethesda way overcompensated with this vault and pushed the engine way beyond its limits. It’s also quite clear that Bethesda didn’t even bother to run any performance or gamer tests to determine how badly this challenge ultimately failed. Yes, if you’re really diligent and patient (and can wade through the myriad of problems), you can complete the dungeon and get your ending reward. The problem is, that end reward so very much sucks. It’s honestly one of the worst reward drops I’ve seen from Bethesda.

The point is, this raid is ultimately pointless. It’s overly difficult with the number of enemies thrown at you, but it’s made much more difficult by the fact that the interior frame rate lags so badly that you sometimes have to give up and leave. It’s just that bad.

Reward?

The biggest part of the problem with Vault 94 is actually its final reward. A great reward is the only reason to even consider going into Vault 94. Sadly, the weak reward and laggy play actually gives us no reason to go there. Without a reason to go down there, it’s a pointless exercise. Let’s get to it, then. The rewarded power armor skin is absolutely hideous. It’s not even the slightest bit “cool looking”. It’s so ugly, in fact, that that’s the sole reason no one wants to make this vault run. The armor set looks just like the interior of Vault 94, covered with overgrown plants. It’s not something that most people would want to wear, unless you want to look like an armor covered Poison Ivy from various comic books.

Why spend all of that time and effort fighting with the crap ton of enemies in a badly designed vault under HEAVY lag only to receive a hideously ugly PA skin as a result? It is a crappy skin worth less than 500 Atoms. You’ve spent a crap ton of your ammo and stimpaks to make that run and then you get an ugly worthless skin? Really? Clearly, no gamer wants to spend their time and resources doing this, just as Bethesda’s stats support. Bethesda needs to rethink its reward system. If you can’t make the reward worthy of spending the time, effort, ammo and stimpaks, no one will make the run. That’s exactly what’s happening with Vault 94.

It’s not even like power armor is actually very useful in Fallout 76. Bethesda has nerfed the usefulness and strength of power armor so much that you can actually do better out of power armor than you can in it. It also costs way too much to keep power armor repaired and then there’s the fact that you burn through Fusion Cores every few minutes now… when early in 2019 a Fusion Core could last you several days. Yeah, making the Vault 94 run is so not worth it. Locating 100% topped up Fusion Cores is nearly impossible unless you’re willing to take on the challenge of a possible PVP activity by taking over the Poseidon, Thunder Mountain or Monongah power plant workshops. This on top of Vault 94’s crapfest reward? Yeah, no. Even then, Bethesda could cause these workshops to begin dropping Fusion Cores of random lower charged amounts even from a Fusion Core Processor in the future, thus making Power Armor even more worthless than it already is.

In fact, not only is Bethesda continually nerfing every part of Fallout 76, making it worse and worse and requiring longer and longer grinding efforts, they’re also nerfing quest end rewards giving us less and less value at the end of each new quest. Instead, they choose to put those “great looking” things in the Atomic shop where you have to pay for them… instead of placing the items into the game as reward drops. Come on, Bethesda. You can seriously do better. If you can’t give us a reason to want to make a vault run, we’re not going to run it and you will simply have wasted months worth of programming efforts on nothing. You must make the end reward drop worth our time and effort and worthy of draining us of our ammo, thus giving us solid reasons to make that run!

Closure

From Bethesda’s January 16th’s Inside the Vault:

Through community feedback we’ve received and our own monitoring since that time, we’ve decided that Vault 94 and its Missions are not delivering the quality of experience that we had hoped to provide. As a result, we are currently planning to shut down Vault 94 alongside the release of the Wastelanders update.

It’s no wonder then that Bethesda’s recent stats show that Vault 94 barely has any visitors. Vault 94 is a crapfest extraordinaire. Not only is the reward incredibly bad, the dungeon itself is a horrid laggy mess. Bethesda would actually have to try harder to actually make a worse group dungeon than Vault 94.

Sometimes you just have to say, “Good riddance to bad rubbish” and with Vault 94, it’s far too long in coming. This dungeon needed a redesign the day it arrived. Yet, Bethesda entirely ignored gamer complaints. Unfortunately, we don’t know the exact release date of Wastelanders, so we don’t know the exact date of Vault 94’s closure.

Oh, and Bethesda states they will move that sucky power armor skin reward to some other location so we can get it in some other way after Vault 94 closes. Yeah, like we all want that ugly power armor skin? I don’t think so. Here’s what Bethesda states:

When the Vault is disabled, we are planning to make all of its rewards, including the exclusive Power Armor sets and Vault Steel, achievable through other means.

As if we’re going to be anywhere close to excited for that power armor skin or vault steel when it becomes available “through other means”. Don’t think so.

If you really, really personally love this lagfest of a vault, then you’ll want to make sure to run it a few times before it disappears. Personally, the last time I was in that vault is the last time I’ll ever be in that vault. Yes, it really IS that bad.

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Apple and Law Enforcement

Posted in Apple, botch, business, california by commorancy on January 14, 2020

apple-phoneApple always seems to refuse law enforcement requests. Let’s understand why this is bad for Apple… and for Silicon Valley as a whole. Let’s see how this can be resolved.

Stubbornness

While Apple and other “Silicon Valley” companies may be stubborn in reducing encryption strength on phones, reduction of encryption strength isn’t strictly necessary for law enforcement to get what they need out of a phone device. In fact, it doesn’t really make sense to reduce encryption across all phone devices simply so law enforcement can gain access to a small number of computer devices in a small set of criminal cases.

That’s like using a sledgehammer to open a pea. Sure, it works, but not very well. Worse, these legal cases might not even be impacted by what’s found on the device. Making all phones vulnerable to potentially even worse crimes, such as identity theft and stealing money in order to prosecute a smaller number of crimes which might not be impacted by unlocking a phone doesn’t make sense.

There Are Solutions

Apple (and other phone manufacturers) should be required to partner with law enforcement to create a one-use unlocking system for law enforcement use. Federal law could even mandate that any non-law enforcement personnel who attempts to access the law enforcement mode of a phone would be in violation of federal law. Though, policing this might be somewhat difficult. It should be relatively easy to build and implement such one-use system. Such a system will be relatively easy to use (with the correct information) and be equally difficult to hack (without the correct information).

How this enforcement system would work is that Apple (or any phone vendor) would be required to build both law enforcement support web site and a law enforcement mode on the phone for law enforcement use only. This LE support server is naturally authentication protected. A verified law enforcement agent logs into Apple’s LE system and enters key information from/about a specific device along with their own Apple issued law enforcement ID number. Apple could even require law enforcement officers to have access to an iPhone themselves to use FaceID to verify their identity before access.

The device information from an evidence phone may include the iPhone’s IMEI (available on the SIMM tray), ICCID (if available), SEID (if available), serial number, phone number (if available) and then finally a valid federally issued warrant number. Apple’s validation system would then log in to a federal system and validate the warrant number. Once the warrant is validated and provided the required input data specific to the phone all match to the device (along with the Apple’s law enforcement ID), Apple will issue a one-time use unlocking code to the law enforcement agent. This code can then be used one time to unlock the device in Law Enforcement Mode (LEM).

To unlock an evidence device, the agent then boots the phone into LEM (needs to be built by Apple) and then manually enters an Apple-generated code into the phone’s interface along with their law enforcement ID. The law enforcement mode then allows setup and connection to a local WiFi network (if no data network is available), but only after entering a valid code. The code will then be verified by Apple’s servers and then the phone will be temporarily unlocked. Valid entry of a law enforcement code unlocks the device for a period of 24 hours for law enforcement use. There is no “lock out” when entering the wrong code when the phone is in “law enforcement mode” because these codes are far too complex to implement such a system. Though, the phone can reboot out of LEM after a number of wrong attempts. You simply can’t randomly guess these codes by trial and error. They are too complex and lengthy for this.

This specific one-use code allows unlocking the device one time only and only for a period of 24 hours. This means that phone will accept that specific code only once and never accept that specific code again. If law enforcement needs to unlock the phone again, they will have to go through the law enforcement process of having Apple generate a new code using the same input data which would then generate a new code, again, valid for only 24 hours.

A successfully used LE code will suspend all phone screen lock security for a period of 24 hours. This means that the only action need to get into a phone for up to 24 hours (even after having been powered off and back on) is by pressing the home key or swiping up. No touch ID or Face ID is needed when the phone is unlocked during this 24 hour period. This allows for use of this phone by multiple people for gathering evidence, downloading information or as needed by law enforcement. This mode also suspends all security around connecting and trusting iTunes. iTunes will also allow downloading data from the phone without going through its “trust” security. After 24 hours, the phone reboots, deletes LE configuration parameters (such as WiFi networks) and reverts back to its original locked and secured state.

The iPhone will also leave a notification for the owner of the phone that the phone has been unlocked and accessed by law enforcement (much the same as the note left in luggage by the TSA after it has been searched). If the phone still has Internet access, it will contact Apple and inform the Apple ID that the phone has been unlocked and accessed by law enforcement. This Internet notification can be suspended for up to 30 days to allow law enforcement time enough to get what they need before the system notifies the Apple ID owner of access to that device. Though, I’d recommend that Apple notify the owner right away of any access by law enforcement.

How to use the code

When a valid generated Apple law enforcement code is entered into the phone in LEM, the phone calculates the validity of the code based on an internal process that runs on the phone continuously. While the phone is validly being used by its owner, this process will periodically sync with Apple’s LE servers to ensure that an iPhone’s LEM process will work properly should the phone fall into the possession of law enforcement. This information will have to be spelled out and agreed to in Apple’s terms and conditions. Apple’s servers and the phone remain synchronized in the same way as RSA one-time keys remain synchronized (within a small calculable margin of error). Thus, it won’t need to synchronize often.

How to use Law Enforcement Mode

This mode can be brought up by anyone, but to unlock this mode fully, a valid Apple issued law enforcement ID and one-use code must be entered into an iPhone for the mode to unlock and allow setup of a WiFi network. Without entry of an Apple issued law enforcement ID number or because of successive incorrect entries, the phone will reboot out of LEM after a short period time.

Law Enforcement ID

A law enforcement ID must be generated by Apple and these IDs will synchronize to all Apple devices prior to falling under law enforcement possession. To keep this list small, it will remain compressed on the device until LEM successfully activates, at which time the file is decompressed for offline validation use. This means that a nefarious someone can’t simply get into this mode and start mucking about easily to gain entry to a random phone. It also means someone can’t request Apple issue a brand new ID on the spot. Even if Apple were to create a new ID, the phone would take up to 24 hours to synchronize… and that assumes that the phone still has data service (which it probably doesn’t). Without data service, the phone cannot synchronize new IDs. This is the importance of creating these IDs in advance.

Apple will also need to go through a validation process to ensure the law enforcement officer requesting an ID is a valid officer working for a legitimate law enforcement organization. This in-advance validation may require a PDF of the officer’s badge and number, an agency issued ID card and any other agency relevant information to ensure the officer is a valid LE officer or an officer of the court. This requires some effort on the part of Apple.

To get an Apple law enforcement ID, the department needing access must apply for such access with Apple under its law enforcement support site (to be created). Once an Apple law enforcement ID has been issued, within 24 hours the ID will sync to phones, thus activating the use of this ID with the phone’s LEM. These IDs should not be shared outside of any law enforcement department. IDs must be renewed periodically through a simple validation process, otherwise they will expire and fall off of the list. Manufacturers shouldn’t have to manage this list manually.

Such a system is relatively simple to build, but may take time to implement. Apple, however, may not be cool with developing such a law enforcement system on its own time and dime. This is where the government may need to step in and mandate such a law enforcement support system be built by phone manufacturers who insist on using overly strong encryption. While government(s) can legislate that companies reduce their encryption strength on their devices to avoid building a law enforcement system as described, instead I’d strongly recommend that companies be required to build a law enforcement support and unlocking system into their devices should they wish to continue using ever stronger encryption. Why compromise the security of all devices simply for a small number of law enforcement cases? Apple must meet law enforcement somewhere in the middle via technological means.

There is also no reason why Apple and other device manufacturers are denying access to law enforcement agents for phone devices when there are software and technical solutions that can see Apple and other manufacturers cooperate with law enforcement, but yet not “give away the farm”.

I don’t even work for Apple and I designed this functional system in under 30 minutes. There may be other considerations of which I am not aware within iOS or Android, but none of these considerations are insurmountable in this design. Every device that Apple has built can support such a mode. Google should also be required to build a similar system for its Android phones and devices.

Apple is simply not trying.

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Rant Time: Google’s Lie

Posted in botch, business, california, rant by commorancy on January 7, 2020

finger-512I’ve already written an article or two about YouTube giving content creators the finger. I didn’t really put that information into this article’s context so that everyone can really understand what’s actually going on at YouTube, with the FTC and with Google. Let’s explore.

Lies and Fiction

Google has asserted and maintained, since at least 2000 when COPPA came into effect, that it didn’t allow children under age 13 on its platforms. Well, Google was caught with its proverbial pants down and suffered a $170 million fine at the hand of the FTC based on COPPA. Clearly, Google lied. To maintain that lie, it has had to do a number of things:

  1. For YouTube content creators, YouTube has hidden its metrics for anyone under the age of 13 from viewer stats on YouTube. What that means to creators is that the viewer metrics you see on your stats page is completely inaccurate for those under the age of 13. If Google had disclosed the under 13 age group of stats on this page, Google’s lie would have unraveled far faster than it did. For Google to maintain its lie, it had to hide any possible trail that could lead to uncovering this lie.
  2. For other Google platforms (Stadia, Chromebook, Android phones, etc), they likely also kept these statistics secret for the same reasons. Disclosure that the 12 and under age group existed on Google meant disclosing to the FTC that they had lied about this age group using its services all along.
  3. For Android phones, we’ll let’s just say that many a kid 12 and under have owned Android phones. Parents have bought them and handed them over to their children. For the FTC to remain so oblivious to this fact for years is a testament to how badly operated this portion of the government is.
  4. Google / YouTube had to instruct engineers to design software systems around this “we don’t display under age 13 metrics” lie.

Anyway, so lie Google did. They lied from 2000 all of the way to 2019. That’s almost 20 years of lying to the government… and to the public.

YouTube’s Lie

Considering that even just one COPPA infraction found to be “valid” could leave a YouTube channel owner destitute. After all, Google’s fine was $170 million. Because a single violation could cost a whopping $42,530, it’s a major risk simply to maintain a YouTube channel.

Because of the problem of Google perpetuating its lie about 12 and under for so long, this lie has become ingrained in Google’s corporate culture (and software systems). What this means is that for Google to maintain this lie, it had to direct its engineers to write software to avoid showing any statistic information anywhere that could disclose to anyone that Google allows 12 and under onto any of its platforms, let alone YouTube.

This also means that YouTube content creators are entirely left in the dark when it comes to viewer statistics of ages 12 and under. Because Google had intended to continue maintaining its “we don’t serve 12 and under here” lie, it meant that its systems were designed around this lie. This meant that any place where 12 and under could have been disclosed, this data was specifically culled and redacted from view. No one, specifically not YouTube content creators, could see viewer metrics for anyone 12 and under. By intentionally redacting this information from its statistics interfaces, no one could see that 12 and under were actually viewing YouTube videos or even buying products. As a creator, you really have no idea how many 12 and under viewers you have. The FTC will have access into YouTube’s systems to see this information, even if you as a content creator do not.

This means that content creators are actually in the dark for this viewer age group. There’s no way to really know if this age group is being accurately counted. Actually, Google is likely collecting this information, but they’re simply not disclosing it over public interfaces. Though, to be fully safe and to fully protect Google’s lie, they might have been purging this data more often than 13 and older data. If they don’t have the data on the system, they can’t be easily caught with it. Still, that didn’t help when Google finally did get caught and were fined $170 million.

Unfortunately, because Google’s systems were intentionally designed around a lie and because they are now already in place, undoing that intentional design lie could be a challenge for Google. They’ve had 19 years worth of engineering effort build code upon code avoiding disclosure of 12 and under using Google’s platforms. Undoing 19 years of coding might be a problem.

Swinging back around to that huge fine, this leaves YouTube in a quandary. It means that content creators have no way to know if the metrics that are being served to content creators are in any way accurate. After all, Google has been maintaining this lie for 19 years. They’ve built and maintained their systems around this lie. But now, Google must undo 19 years of lies built into their systems to allow content creators to see what we already knew… that 12 and under have been using the platform probably since 2000.

For content creators, you need to think twice when considering setting up a channel on YouTube. It doesn’t matter what your content is. If that content attracts children under 13, you’re at risk. The only type of channel content that cannot at all be seen as “for kids” is content that kids would never watch. There is really only a handful of content type I can name that wouldn’t appeal to children (not an exhaustive list):

  1. Legal advice from lawyers
  2. Court room video
  3. Horror programs
  4. Political programs
  5. Frank sex topics

It would probably be easier to state those types of programs that do appeal to children:

  1. Pretty much everything else

What that means is topics like music videos, video game footage, cartoons, pet videos, singing competitions, beauty channels, fashion channels, technology channels and toy reviews could appeal to children… and the list goes on. You name it and pretty much every other content type has the possibility of attracting children 12 and under… some content more than others. There’s literally very little that a child 12 and under might not consider watching.

The thing is, when someone decides to create a channel on YouTube, you must now consider if the content you intend to create might appeal to children 12 and under. If it’s generalized information without the use of explicit information, children could potentially tune in. Though, YouTube doesn’t allow true adult content on its platform.

Google’s lie has really put would-be channel creators into a huge bind with YouTube, plummeting the value of YouTube as a platform. For monetization, not only is there now the 1,000 subscriber hurdle you must get past and you must also have 14,000 views in a month, but now you must also be cognizant of the audience your content might attract. Even seemingly child-unfriendly content might draw in children unintentionally. If you interview the wrong person on your channel, you might find that you now have a huge child audience. Operating a YouTube Channel is a huge risk.

YouTube’s Value as a Platform

With this recent Google change, compounded by Google’s lie, the value of YouTube as a video sharing platform has significantly dropped. Not only did Google drop a bomb on its content creators, it has lied to not only the government, but to the public for years. With the FTC’s hand watching what you’re doing on YouTube, YouTube really IS moving towards “big government watching” as described in George Orwell’s book 1984. Why Google would allow such a deep level of governmental interference over its platform is a major problem, not just for Google, but for the computer industry as a whole. It’s incredibly chilling.

$42,530 per COPPA violation is not just small change you can pull out of your pocket. That’s significant bank. So much bank, in fact, that a single violation could bankrupt nearly any less than 100,000 subscriber channel on YouTube.

Not only do you have to overcome YouTube’s silly monetization hurdles, you must attempt to stay far away from the COPPA hurdle that YouTube has now foisted on you.

Google’s Mistake

Google did have a way to rectify and remediate this situation early. It’s called honesty. They could have simply fixed their platform to accurately protect and steer 12 and under away from its properties where they don’t belong. It could have stated that it did (and does) allow 12 and under to sign up.

If Google had simply been honest about 12 and under and allowed 12 and under to sign up, Google could have set up the correct processes from the beginning that would have allowed not only Google to become COPPA compliant, but by extension allow YouTube creators to remain compliant through Google’s tools. Google should have always remained in the business of protecting its creators from governmental interference. Yet, here we are.

In fact, the COPPA legislation allows for parental permission and consent and it’s not actually that hard to set up, particularly for a large organization like Google. For Google, in fact, it already has mechanisms it could leverage to attempt to obtain verifiable parental consent. If Google had chosen to setup and maintain a 12 and under verifiable parental consent program all along, YouTube content creators could have been left off of the hook. Instead, YouTube has given content creators the finger.

If YouTube content creators must share in Google’s lack of COPPA compliance, then content creators should equally share in a Google created parental consent system. Parental consent isn’t that hard to implement. Google could have spent its time building such a system instead of lying.

Trust and Lies

When companies as big as Google participate in lies of this magnitude, you should seriously question any business you do with such a company. Companies are supposed to be ethically bound to do the right thing. When companies don’t do the right ethical thing and perpetuate lies for years, everyone must consider how much you trust that company.

What else are they lying about? It’s difficult to trust someone who lies. Why is it any different when a company chooses to lie?

When that lie can cost you $42,530 per violation, that’s what comes out of lying. Google not only didn’t protect its content creators, it perpetuated a lie that has now left its content creators hanging out to dry.

This is why YouTube as a content creator platform is about as worthless as it can possibly be… not only for the lie and COPPA, but also the monetization clampdown from 2017-2018. Every year has brought another downside to YouTube and for 2019, it’s Google’s lie.

For large creators who have an entrenched large audience and who are making ad revenue bank from their audience (at least for the moment), I understand the dilemma to ditch YouTube. But, for those content creators who make maybe $5 a month, is it worth that $5 a month to risk $42,530 every time you upload a video? Worse, the FTC can go back through your back video catalog and fine you for every single video they find! That’s a lot of $42,530 fines, potentially at least one per video. Now that’s risky!

Solutions

There are solutions. The biggest solution, ditch YouTube for other video platforms such as Facebook, SnapChat, Vimeo or DailyMotion. If you’re live streaming, there’s YouNow, Twitch and Mixer. You’re not beholden to YouTube to gain an audience and following. In fact, with the huge black COPPA cloud now permanently hanging over YouTube, it’s only a matter of time before the FTC starts its tirade and cements what I’m saying here in this article. For small and medium sized creators, particularly brand new creators, it’s officially time to give YouTube the finger-512 (just as Google has given us the finger-512). It’s long past time to ditch YouTube and to find an alternative video sharing platform. You might as well make that one a 2020 New Year’s resolution. Let’s all agree that YouTube is officially dead and move on.

Just be sure to read the fine print of whatever service you are considering using. For example, Twitch’s terms and conditions are very explicit with regards to age… no one under 13 is permitted on Twitch. If only Google had been able to actually maintain that reality instead of lying about it for nearly 20 years.

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Why Rotten Tomatoes is rotten

Posted in botch, business, california by commorancy on December 31, 2019

cinema-popcornWhen you visit a site like Rotten Tomatoes to get information about a film, you need to ask yourself one very important question, “Is Rotten Tomatoes trustworthy?”

Rotten Tomatoes as a movie review service has come under fire many times for review bombing and manipulation. That is, Rotten Tomatoes seem to allow shills to join the service to review bomb a movie to either raise or lower its various scores by manipulating the Rotten Tomatoes review system. In the past, these claims couldn’t be verified. Today, they can.

As of a change in May 2019, Rotten Tomatoes has made it exceedingly easy for both movie studios and Rotten Tomatoes itself to game and manipulate the “Audience Score” ratings. Let’s explore.

Rotten Tomatoes as a Service

Originally, Rotten Tomatoes began its life as an independent movie review service such that both critics and audience members can have a voice in what they think of a film. So long as Rotten Tomatoes remained an independent and separate service from movie studio influence and corruption, it could make that claim. Its reviews were fair and for the most part accurate.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. In February of 2016, Fandango purchased Rotten Tomatoes. Let’s understand the ramifications of this purchase. Because Fandango is wholly owned by Comcast and in which Warner Brothers also holds an ownership stake in Fandango, this firmly plants Rotten Tomatoes well out of the possibility of remaining neutral in film reviews. Keep in mind that Comcast also owns NBC as well as Universal Studios.

Fandango doesn’t own a stake in Disney as far as I can tell, but that won’t matter based on what I describe next about the Rotten Tomatoes review system.

Review Bombing

As stated in the opening, Rotten Tomatoes has come under fire for several notable recent movies as having scores which have been manipulated. Rotten Tomatoes has then later debunked those claims by stating that their system was not manipulated, but then really offering no proof of that fact. We simply have to take them at their word. One of these allegedly review bombed films was Star Wars: The Last Jedi… where the scores inexplicably dropped dramatically in about a 1 month period of time. Rotten Tomatoes apparently validated the drop as “legitimate”.

Unfortunately, Rotten Tomatoes has become a bit more untrustworthy as of late. Let’s understand why.

As of May of 2019, Rotten Tomatoes introduced a new feature known as “verified reviews”. For a review’s score to be counted towards the “Audience Score”, the reviewer must have purchased a ticket from a verifiable source. Unfortunately, the only source from which Rotten Tomatoes can verify ticket purchases is from its parent company, Fandango. All other ticket purchases don’t count… thus, if you choose to review a film after purchasing your ticket from the theater’s box office, from MovieTickets.com or via any other means, your ticket won’t count as “verified” should you review or rate the movie. Only Fandango ticket purchases count towards “verified” reviews, thus altering the audience score. This change is BAD. Very, very bad.

Here’s what Rotten Tomatoes has to say from the linked article just above:

Rotten Tomatoes now features an Audience Score made up of ratings from users we’ve confirmed bought tickets to the movie – we’re calling them “Verified Ratings.” We’re also tagging written reviews from users we can confirm purchased tickets to a movie as “Verified” reviews.

While this might sound like a great idea in theory, it’s ripe for manipulation problems. Fandango also states that “IF” they can determine “other” reviews as confirmed ticket purchases, they will mark them as “verified”. Yeah, but that’s a manual process and is impossibly difficult to determine. We can pretty much forget that this option even exists. Let’s list the problems coming out of this change:

  1. Fandango only sells a small percentage of overall ticket sales for a film. If the “Audience Score” is calculated primarily and solely from Fandango ticket sales alone, then this metric is a horribly inaccurate metric to rely on.
  2. Fandango CAN handpick “other” non-Fandango ticket purchased reviews to be included. Not likely to happen often, but this also means they can pick their favorites (and favorable) reviews to include. This opens Rotten Tomatoes up to Payola or “pay for inclusion”.
  3. By specifying exactly how this process works, this change opens the Rotten Tomatoes system to being gamed and manipulated, even by Rotten Tomatoes staff themselves. Movie studios can also ask their employees, families and friends to exclusively purchase their tickets from Fandango and request these same people to write “glowing, positive reviews” or submit “high ratings” or face job consequences. Studios might even be willing to pay for these positive reviews.
  4. Studios can even hire outside people (sometime known as shills) to go see a movie by buying tickets from Fandango and then rate their films highly… because they were paid to do so. As I said, manipulation.

Trust in Reviews

It’s clear that while Rotten Tomatoes is trying to fix its ills, it is incredibly naive at it. It gets worse. Not only is Rotten Tomatoes incredibly naive, this company is also not at all tech savvy. Its system is so ripe for being gamed, the “Audience Score” is a nearly pointless metric. For example, 38,000 verified reviews based on millions of people who watched it? Yeah, if that “Audience Score” number isn’t now skewed, I don’t know what is.

Case in point. The “Audience Score” for The Rise of Skywalker is 86%. The difficulty with this number is the vast majority of the reviews I’ve seen from people on chat forums don’t rate the film anywhere close to 86%. What that means is that the new way that Rotten Tomatoes is calculating scores is effectively a form of manipulation itself BY Rotten Tomatoes.

To have the most fair and accurate metric, ALL reviews must be counted and included in all ratings. You can’t just toss out the vast majority of reviews simply because you can’t verify them has holding a ticket. Even still, holding a ticket doesn’t mean someone has actually watched the film. Buying a ticket and actually attending a showing of the film are two entirely separate things.

While you may have verified a ticket purchase, did you verify that the person actually watched the film? Are you withholding brand new Rotten Tomatoes account reviewers out of the audience score? How trustworthy can someone be if this is their first and only review on Rotten Tomatoes? What about people who downloaded the app just to buy a ticket for that film? Simply buying a ticket from Fandango doesn’t make the rating or reviewer trustworthy.

Rethinking Rotten Tomatoes

Someone at Rotten Tomatoes needs to drastically reconsider this change and they need to do it fast. If Rotten Tomatoes wasn’t guilty of manipulation of review scores before this late spring change in 2019, they are now. Rotten Tomatoes is definitely guilty of manipulating the “Audience Score” by the sheer lack of reviews covered under this “verified review” change. Nothing can be considered valid when the sampling size is so small as to be useless. Verifying a ticket holder also doesn’t validate a review author’s sincerity, intent or, indeed, legitimacy. It also severely limits who can be counted under their ratings, this skewing the usefulness of “Audience Score”.

In fact, only by looking at past reviews can someone determine if a review author has trustworthy opinions.

Worse, Fandango holds a very small portion of all ticket sales made for theaters (see below). By showing all (or primarily) scores tabulated by people who bought tickets from Fandango, this definitely eliminates well over half of the written reviews on Rotten Tomatoes as valid. Worse, because of the way the metric is calculated, nefarious entities can game the system to their own benefit and manipulate the score quickly.

This has a chilling effect on Rotten Tomatoes. The staff at Rotten Tomatoes needs roll back this change pronto. For Rotten Tomatoes to return it being a trustworthy neutral entity in the art of movie reviews, it needs a far better way to determine trustworthiness of its reviews and of its reviewers. Trust comes from well written, consistent reviews. Ratings come from trusted sources. Trust is earned. The sole act of buying a ticket from Fandango doesn’t earn trust. It earns bankroll.

Why then are ticket buyers from Fandango any more trustworthy than people purchasing tickets elsewhere? They aren’t… and here’s where Rotten Tomatoes has failed. Rotten Tomatoes incorrectly assumes that by “verifying” a sale of a ticket via Fandango alone, that that somehow makes a review or rating more trustworthy. It doesn’t.

It gets worse because while Fandango represents at least 70% of online sales, it STILL only represents a tiny fraction of overall ticket sales, at just 5-6% (as of 2012).

“Online ticketing still just represents five to six percent of the box office, so there’s tremendous potential for growth right here.” –TheWrap in 2012

Granted, this TheWrap article is from 2012. Even if Fandango had managed to grab 50% of the overall ticket sales in the subsequent 7 years since that article, that would leave out 50% of the remaining ticket holder’s voices, which will not be tallied into Rotten Tomatoes current “Audience Score” metric. I seriously doubt that Fandango has managed to achieve anywhere close to 50% of total movie ticket sales. If it held 5-6% overall sales in 2012, in 7 years Fandango might account for growth between 10-15% at most by 2019. That’s still 85% of all reviews excluded from Rotten Tomatoes’s “Audience Score” metric.  In fact, it behooves Fandango to keep this overall ticket sales number as low as possible so as to influence its “Audience Score” number with more ease and precision.

To put this in a little more perspective, a movie theater might have 200 seats. 10% of that is 20. That means that for every 200 people who might fill a theater, just less than 20 people have bought their ticket from Fandango and are eligible for their review to count towards “Audience Score”. Considering that only a small percentage of that 20 will actually take the time to write a review, that could mean out of every 200 people who’ve seen the film legitimately, between 1 and 5 people might be counted towards the Audience Score. Calculating that up, for very 1 million people who see a blockbuster film, somewhere between 5,000 and 25,000’s reviews may contribute to the Rotten Tomatoes “Audience Score”… even if there are hundreds of thousands of reviews on the site.

The fewer the reviews contributing to that score, the easier it is to manipulate that score by adding just a handful of reviews to the mix… and that’s where Rotten Tomatoes “handpicked reviews” come into play (and with it, the potential for Payola). Rotten Tomatoes can then handpick positive reviews for inclusion. The problem is that while Rotten Tomatoes understands all of this this, so do the studios. Which means that studios can, like I said above, “invite” employees to buy tickets via Fandango before writing a review on Rotten Tomatoes. They can even contact Rotten Tomatoes and pay for “special treatment”. This situation can allow movie studios to unduly influence the “Audience Score” for a current release… this is compounded because there are so few reviews that  count to create the “Audience Score”.

Where Rotten Tomatoes likely counted every review towards this score before this change, after they implemented the new “verified score” methodology, this change greatly drops the number of reviews which contribute to tallying this score. This lower number of reviews means that it is now much easier to manipulate its Audience Score number either by gaming the system or by Rotten Tomatoes handpicking reviews to include.

Fading Trust

While Rotten Tomatoes was once a trustworthy site for movie reviews, it has greatly reduced its trust levels by instituting such backwards and easily manipulable systems.

Whenever you visit a site like Rotten Tomatoes, you must always question everything you see. When you see something like an “Audience Score”, you must question how that number is calculated and what is included in that number. Rotten Tomatoes isn’t forthcoming.

In the case of Rotten Tomatoes, they have drastically reduced the number of included reviews in that metric because of their “verified purchase” mechanism. Unfortunately, the introduction of that mechanism at once destroys Rotten Tomatoes trust and trashes the concept of their site.

It Gets Worse

What’s even more of a problem is the following two images:

Screen Shot 2019-12-23 at 7.26.58 AM

Screen Shot 2019-12-23 at 7.26.24 AM

From the above two images, it is claimed Rotten Tomatoes has 37,956 “Verified Ratings”, yet they only have 3,342 “Verified Audience” reviews. That’s a huge discrepancy. Where are those other 34,614 “Verified” reviews? You need to calculate the Audience Score not solely on a phone device using a simplistic “rate this movie” alone. It must be calculated in combination with an author writing a review. Of course, there are 5,240 reviews that didn’t at all contribute to any score at all on Rotten Tomatoes. Those audience reviews are just “there”, taking up space.

Single number ratings are pointless without at least some text validation information. Worse, we know that these “Verified Ratings” likely have nothing to do with “Verified Audience” as shown in the images above. Even if those 3,342 audience reviews are actually calculated into the “Verified Ratings” (they probably aren’t), that’s still such a limited number when considered with the rest of the “Verified Ratings” so as to be skewed by people who may not have even attended the film.

You can only determine if someone has actually attended a film by asking them to WRITE even the smallest of a review. Simply pressing “five star” on the app without even caring is pointless. It’s possible the reviews weren’t even tabulated correctly via the App. The App itself may even submit star data after a period of time without the owner’s knowledge or consent. The App can even word its rating question in such a way as to manipulate the response in a positive direction. Can we say, “Skewed”?

None of this leads to trust. Without knowing exactly how that data was collected, the method(s) used and how it was presented on the site and on the app, how can you trust any of it? It’s easy to see professional critic reviews because Rotten Tomatoes must cite back to the source of the review. However, with audience metrics, it’s all nebulous and easily falsified… particularly when Rotten Tomatoes is intentionally obtuse and opaque for exactly how it collects this data and how it is presents it.

Even still, with over one million people attending and viewing The Rise of Skywalker, yet Rotten Tomatoes has only counted just under verified 38,000 people, something doesn’t add up. Yeah, Rotten Tomatoes is so very trustworthy (yeah right), particularly after this “verified” change. Maybe it’s time for those Rotten Tomatoes to finally be tossed into the garbage?

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What went wrong with Disney’s Star Wars

Posted in botch, business, entertainment by commorancy on December 22, 2019

StarWarsLogoRoundedThis article is not intended to review The Rise of Skywalker, even though it is in the theaters as I write this. I will write a lengthy review of this final film later. No, this article is intended to explain what went wrong at Disney with Disney’s not-so-recently acquired Star Wars property. Let’s explore.


Star Wars as a Serial

When George Lucas envisioned Star Wars, he envisioned it as a new take on the Saturday morning “Damsel in Distress” story. In fact, he held true to that vision throughout the Star Wars Original Trilogy (Episodes 4, 5 and 6) and even into the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy (Episodes 1, 2 and 3). I’ll deep dive into how these two separate trilogies manifested this “Damsel in Distress” Saturday morning serial ideal.

Prequels

While George’s Prequel trilogy story idea was, for the most part, a snoozefest, George maintained and held true to his Saturday morning serial idea of the female heroine coming under constant distress. If you review Padmé Amadala’s role in films 1, 2 and 3, this idea is readily apparent. In the first film, Padmé’s planet of Naboo comes under fire requiring help… and she, with the help of two Jedi, makes her way to Coruscant to plead her case. Along the way, she runs into all sorts of treacherous situations where her new found Jedi colleagues have to bail her out. These situations are not necessarily of her own making, but they are situations that require rescuing her. In The Phantom Menace, however, there weren’t a lot of occasions where Padmé needed rescuing personally, but there were global situations that warranted her protection by the Jedi.

However, this constant motif of peril and rescue is an important story element in George’s Star Wars universe no matter the form it takes. This situation happens with more and more regularity as the prequels progress, putting Padmé in ever more and more perilous situations requiring rescue by someone… someone like Obi-Wan on Geonosis and again someone like Anakin. Further we see Anakin rescue her again and again once he becomes her lover. This peril and rescue story element sets up incredible tensions and keeps the story narrative flowing properly. It also breeds another story motif which I’ll describe shortly.

Even as much as the acting was stilted and wooden, this “Damsel in Distress” motif comes through clear as day.

Midquels

During Episodes 4, 5 and 6, Princess Leia is the damsel. In these films, once again, Leia is set into ever more and more perilous and precarious situations requiring rescue by Luke, Han, Chewy and on occasion, even Lando. It’s a never ending motif that lends credence to the story and helps the audience keep its eye on the ball.

I’ll point out a few of these. Leia’s rescue by Luke during the swing across in A New Hope. Leia’s rescue by Han from Hoth Base in The Empire Strikes Back. Leia’s rescue by Han at the end of Return of the Jedi after being injured. Leia’s rescue from being Jabba’s slave. There’s nothing more motivating to another character and satisfying from the audience than getting the damsel out of harm’s way. Such a situation allows a character to overcome insurmountable odds to achieve success to save the damsel. This one is yet another motif that is common in Star Wars… “Overcoming Insurmountable Odds”. This motif is in all of the films, even Disney’s versions. But, the two concepts of “Damsel in Distress” and “Overcoming Insurmountable Odds” go hand-in-hand. The characters need motivation to put themselves in very dangerous situations (and for the audience to believe it — eye on the ball). Thus, rescuing the a lead character, male or female, is just the motivation the character needs.

After all, Luke’s motivation for defeating the Death Star in Star Wars was predicated on saving Princess Leia (and the rest of the rebellion, of course). Luke, however, had personal stakes in this fight. Even Han’s last minute rescue of Luke was born out of both vying for Leia’s attentions. Both Luke and Han knew what they stood to lose (or gain). Luke then was able to overcome insurmountable odds by leveraging the force.

Disney’s Sequels

Here’s were things begin to go awry, but not right from the start. The Force Awakens manages to keep both the “Damsel in Distress” and the “Overcoming Insurmountable Odds” motifs mostly in-check throughout most of the film. In fact, The Force Awakens uses Finn as the agent to carry this motif along throughout most of this first Sequel film. Unfortunately, this motif remained relatively paper thin and Finn is unable to “save” Rey most of the time simply because Rey is not in danger. However, JJ is very good at copying ideas, but not at implementing them properly. For this first film in the final trilogy, these two important story motifs manage to maintain their place mostly within The Force Awakens, but only weakly. Although, by the end of The Force Awakens, these motifs begin to fail by seeing Rey become far too powerful and far too independent way before she should have. In fact, by the end of the film, Rey was so capable of managing to save herself, no other characters really needed to be there to help her.

By the second film, The Last Jedi, the “Damsel in Distress” motif was entirely tossed aside. No more saving Rey. It just wouldn’t be a motif in the film at all. Rey was such an independent and powerful “Mary Sue” that she could handle any situation with ease. No need to have Finn, Poe or any other character feel the need to “save Rey”. For as far as they were concerned, she didn’t need saving. The removal of the “Damsel in Distress” motif yanked out one of the core themes of this “Saturday Morning Serial”. It also left many fans disenchanted by this change in direction of Star Wars.

By The Rise of Skywalker, not only does the series entirely abandon the idea of “Damsel in Distress”, it throws the idea in the face of audience as entirely unnecessary. It states definitively that Rey is a “Mary Sue” of the highest order and is fully capable of rescuing herself without need of anyone else. No longer is Star Wars about being a team effort, it’s about a single person’s rise to power… something which the Jedi order actually forbid.

…. And here is where Disney’s Star Wars falters ….

By The Last Jedi, Rey is so capable of saving herself that there’s no need for anyone to “come save her”, not even when strapped into an interrogation chair when Kylo is laying the figurative thumbscrews to her.

When Leia is trapped in a cell on the Death Star in A New Hope, Luke and Han hatch a plan to save her against impossible odds… and they succeed, even if not for the garbage shoot. When Rey is trapped in a cell on Kylo’s carrier, no one hatches any plans to save Rey. She has to save herself. In The Rise of Skywalker, it goes way beyond that. Rey has become so powerful and self-sufficient, anyone trying to “save” her would look like an idiot. This is the reason why Disney’s Star Wars has more in common with fan fiction than it does actual canon. Disney has effectively turned Star Wars into a series about wish fulfillment.

Star Wars was not and has never been about empowering the female lead to become entirely self-sufficient and “save the galaxy” by herself (like Holdo). Star Wars was also not about wish fulfillment. Star Wars is about having a team of people save each other, but specifically still managing to afford the “Damsel in Distress” motif at times. Even still, it wasn’t always the damsel who always needs saving in Episodes 1 through 6, but Leia did need help relatively frequently. After all, Leia did have to rescue Han after being frozen in Carbonite and sent to Tattoine… an alternate form of “Damsel in Distress”. This motif is not always about rescuing a female. It’s about a team effort of rescuing each other against great odds.

While the “Damsel in Distress” motif may be considered a bit antiquated in these more female empowering times, it still has a place in storytelling… and in particular, it is a key element of Star Wars that simply can’t be discarded. Star Wars is, for better or worse, stories about the female ending up in situations needing assistance by her male cohorts. Though, setting up the reverse in today’s times might be perfectly acceptable.

Unfortunately, Disney has lost its way in this franchise. It sacrificed the core “Damsel in Distress” motif to its own sociopolitical ideals of “female independence and empowerment”. Female independence is not a central theme in the Star Wars cinematic universe and never has been. Star Wars is a story about working together as a “team” (male or female) to create a positive end result.

Listening to Leia’s speech on Hoth to her pilots right before battle sums up what Star Wars is about. I can hear some people saying, “Well it should be about female independence”. I counter with, look at how that turned out for both The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker… hint: not well. Even trying such shtick as “Role Reversal” (aka 2016’s Ghostbusters) is so obvious as to what it is, it’s almost impossible to avoid the backlash. The Star Wars universe has already overcome such petty squabbles such as “female” versus “male”. In Star Wars, the characters live in a universe where the most important thing is SURVIVAL, not which gender is most important.

While a Star Wars TV series may be able to expand on many different motifs, including delving into female empowerment, due its lengthy episodic nature, theatrical releases have only a few precious minutes to unfold a story that makes sense using the existing Star Wars motifs. Holding true to the Star Wars original story methodologies and ideals would have fared far better for Disney than what we were handed in Disney’s trilogy.

I liken this problem to the idea of “tossing out the baby with the bathwater”. It may solve a certain problem, but it creates more problems than it solves (aka JJ’s 2009’s Star Trek reboot). With Disney, that’s where we are… and that’s why Disney’s Star Wars films consistently draw fan ire, contempt and criticism.

This article is not intended to describe everything wrong with Disney’s Star Wars. Instead, it is intended to draw attention where Disney first went astray from what Star Wars is fundamentally designed to be. Clearly, there are many, many more story and situational problems within Episodes 7, 8 and 9. However, all of these other problems stemmed directly or indirectly from the primary problem described above.

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Rant Time: Flickr is running out of time & money?

Posted in botch, business, california by commorancy on December 19, 2019

Flickr2I received a rather questionable email about Flickr allegedly from Don MacAskill, CEO of SmugMug.

Unfortunately, his email is also wrapped in the guise of email marketing and arrived through the same marketing channel as all other email marketing from Flickr.

Don, if you want us to take this situation seriously, you shouldn’t use email marketing platforms to do it. These emails need to come personally from you using a SmugMug or Flickr address. They also shouldn’t contain several email marketing links. An email from the CEO should contain only ONE link and it should be at the very bottom of the email.

The information contained in this letter is not a surprise in general, but the way it arrived and the tone it takes is a surprise coming from a CEO, particularly when it takes the format of generic email marketing. Let’s explore.

Flickr Pro

I will place the letter at the bottom so you can it read in full. The gist of the letter is, “We’re running out of money, so sign up right away!”

I want to take the time to discuss the above “running out of money” point. Here’s an excerpt from Don’s email:

We didn’t buy Flickr because we thought it was a cash cow. Unlike platforms like Facebook, we also didn’t buy it to invade your privacy and sell your data. We bought it because we love photographers, we love photography, and we believe Flickr deserves not only to live on but thrive. We think the world agrees; and we think the Flickr community does, too. But we cannot continue to operate it at a loss as we’ve been doing.

Let’s start by saying, why on Earth would I ever sign up for a money losing service that is in danger of closing? Seriously, Flickr? Are you mad? Don’t give me assurances that *I* can save your business with my single conversion. It’s going to take MANY someones to keep Flickr afloat if it’s running out of money. Worse, sending this email to former Pro members trying to get us to convert again is a losing proposition. Send it to someone who cares, assuming there is anyone like that.

A single conversion isn’t likely to do a damned thing to stem the tide of your money hemorrhaging, Flickr. Are you insane to send out a letter like this in this generic email marketing way? If anything, a letter like this may see even MORE of your existing members run for the hills by cancelling their memberships, instead of trying to save Flickr from certain doom. But, let’s ignore this letter’s asinine message and focus on why I decided to write this article.

Flickr is Dead to Me

I had an email exchange in November of 2018 with Flickr’s team. I make my stance exceedingly clear exactly why I cancelled my Pro membership and why their inexplicable price increase is pointless. And yes, it is a rant. This exchange goes as follows:

Susan from Flickr states:

When we re-introduced the annual Flickr Pro at $49.99 more than 3 years ago, we promised all grandfathered Pros (including the bi-annual and 3-month plans) a 2-year protected price period. We have kept this promise, but in order to continue providing our best service to all of our customers, we are now updating the pricing for grandfathered Pros. We started this process on August 16, 2018.

With this being the case, bi-annual Pros pay $99.98 every 2 years, annual Pros pay $49.99 every year, and 3-month Pros pay $17.97 every 3 months. Notifications including the price increase have been sent out to our users starting from August 16.

I then write back the following rant:

Hi Susan,

Yes, and that means you’ve had more than ample time to make that $50 a year worth it for Pro subscribers. You haven’t and you’ve failed. It’s still the same Flickr it was when I was paying $22.48 a year. Why should I now pay over double the price for no added benefits? Now that SmugMug has bought it, here we are now being forced to pay the $50 a year toll when there’s nothing new that’s worth paying $50 for. Pro users have been given ZERO tools to sell our photos on the platform as stock photos. Being given these tools is what ‘Pro’ means, Susan. We additionally can’t in any way monetize our content to recoup the cost of our Pro membership fees. Worse, you’re displaying ads over the top our photos and we’re not seeing a dime from that revenue.

Again, what have you given that makes $50 a year worth it? You’re really expecting us to PAY you $50 a year to show ads to free users over the top of our content? No! I was barely willing to do that with $22.48 a year. Of course, this will all fall on deaf ears because these words mean nothing to you. It’s your management team pushing stupid efforts that don’t make sense in a world where Flickr is practically obsolete. Well, I’m done with using a 14 year old decrepit platform that has degraded rather than improved. Sorry Susan, I’ve removed over 2500 photos, cancelled my Pro membership and will move back to the free tier. If SmugMug ever comes to its senses and actually produces a Pro platform worth using (i.e., actually offers monetization tools or even a storefront), I might consider paying. As it is now, Flickr is an antiquated 14 year old platform firmly rooted in a 2004 world. Wake up, it’s 2018! The iStockphotos of the world are overtaking you and offering better Pro tools.

Bye.

Flickr and SmugMug

When Flickr was purchased by SmugMug, I wasn’t expecting much from Flickr. But, I also didn’t expect Flickr to double its prices while also providing nothing in return. The platform has literally added nothing to improve the “Pro” aspect of its service. You’re simply paying more for the privilege of having ads placed over the top of your photos. Though, what SmugMug might claim you’re paying for is entirely the privilege of the tiniest bit more storage space to store a few more photos.

Back when storage costs were immense, that pricing might have made sense. In an age where storage costs are impossibly low, that extra per month pricing is way out of line. SmugMug and Flickr should have spent their time adding actual “Pro” tools so that photographers can, you know, make money from their photos by selling them, leasing them, producing framed physical wall hangings, mugs, t-shirts, mouse pads, and so on. Let us monetize our one and only one product… you know, like Deviant Art does. Instead, SmugMug has decided to charge more, then place ads over the top of our photos and not provide even a fraction of what Deviant Art does for free.

As a photographer, why should I spend $50 a year on Flickr only to gain nothing when I can move my photos to Deviant Art and pay nothing a year AND get many more tools which help me monetize my images? I can also submit them to stock photo services and make money off of leasing them to publications, something still not possible at Flickr.

Don’s plea is completely disingenuous. You can’t call something “Pro” when there’s nothing professional about it. But then, Don feels compelled to call out where they have actually hosted Flickr and accidentally explains why Flickr is losing money.

We moved the platform and every photo to Amazon Web Services (AWS), the industry leader in cloud computing, and modernized its technology along the way.

What modernization? Hosting a service on AWS doesn’t “modernize” anything. It’s a hosting platform. Worse, this hosting decision is entirely the cause of SmugMug’s central money woes with Flickr. AWS is THE most expensive cloud hosting platform available. There is nothing whatsoever cheap about using AWS’s storage and compute platforms. Yes, AWS works well, but the bill at the end of the month sucks. To keep the lights on when hosting at AWS, plan to spend a mint.

If SmugMug wanted to save on costs of hosting Flickr, they should have migrated it to a much lower cost hosting platform instead of sending empty marketing promises asking people to “help save the platform”. Changing hosting platforms might require more hands on effort for SmugMug’s technical staff, but SmugMug can likely half the costs of hosting this platform by moving it to lower cost hosting providers… providers that will work just as well as AWS.

Trying to urge past subscribers to re-up into Pro again simply to “save its AWS hosting decision”, not gonna happen. Those of us who’ve gotten no added benefit by paying money to Flickr in the past are not eager to return. Either give us a legitimate reason to pay money to you (add a storefront or monetization tools) or spend your time moving Flickr to a lower cost hosting service, one where Flickr can make money.

Don, why not use your supposed CEO prowess to have your team come up with lower cost solutions? I just did. It’s just a thought. You shouldn’t rely on such tactless and generic email marketing practices to solve the ills of Flickr and SmugMug. You bought it, you have to live with it. If that means Flickr must shutdown because you can’t figure out a way to save it, then so be it.

Below is Don MacAskill’s email in all of its unnecessary email marketing glory (links redacted):

Dear friends,

Flickr—the world’s most-beloved, money-losing business—needs your help.

Two years ago, Flickr was losing tens of millions of dollars a year. Our company, SmugMug, stepped in to rescue it from being shut down and to save tens of billions of your precious photos from being erased.

Why? We’ve spent 17 years lovingly building our company into a thriving, family-owned and -operated business that cares deeply about photographers. SmugMug has always been the place for photographers to showcase their photography, and we’ve long admired how Flickr has been the community where they connect with each other. We couldn’t stand by and watch Flickr vanish.

So we took a big risk, stepped in, and saved Flickr. Together, we created the world’s largest photographer-focused community: a place where photographers can stand out and fit in.

We’ve been hard at work improving Flickr. We hired an excellent, large staff of Support Heroes who now deliver support with an average customer satisfaction rating of above 90%. We got rid of Yahoo’s login. We moved the platform and every photo to Amazon Web Services (AWS), the industry leader in cloud computing, and modernized its technology along the way. As a result, pages are already 20% faster and photos load 30% more quickly. Platform outages, including Pandas, are way down. Flickr continues to get faster and more stable, and important new features are being built once again.

Our work is never done, but we’ve made tremendous progress.

Now Flickr needs your help. It’s still losing money. Hundreds of thousands of loyal Flickr members stepped up and joined Flickr Pro, for which we are eternally grateful. It’s losing a lot less money than it was. But it’s not yet making enough.

We need more Flickr Pro members if we want to keep the Flickr dream alive.

We didn’t buy Flickr because we thought it was a cash cow. Unlike platforms like Facebook, we also didn’t buy it to invade your privacy and sell your data. We bought it because we love photographers, we love photography, and we believe Flickr deserves not only to live on but thrive. We think the world agrees; and we think the Flickr community does, too. But we cannot continue to operate it at a loss as we’ve been doing.

Flickr is the world’s largest photographer-focused community. It’s the world’s best way to find great photography and connect with amazing photographers. Flickr hosts some of the world’s most iconic, most priceless photos, freely available to the entire world. This community is home to more than 100 million accounts and tens of billions of photos. It serves billions of photos every single day. It’s huge. It’s a priceless treasure for the whole world. And it costs money to operate. Lots of money.

Flickr is not a charity, and we’re not asking you for a donation. Flickr is the best value in photo sharing anywhere in the world. Flickr Pro members get ad-free browsing for themselves and their visitors, advanced stats, unlimited full-quality storage for all their photos, plus premium features and access to the world’s largest photographer-focused community for less than $5 per month.

You likely pay services such as Netflix and Spotify at least $9 per month. I love services like these, and I’m a happy paying customer, but they don’t keep your priceless photos safe and let you share them with the most important people in your world. Flickr does, and a Flickr Pro membership costs less than $1 per week.

Please, help us make Flickr thrive. Help us ensure it has a bright future. Every Flickr Pro subscription goes directly to keeping Flickr alive and creating great new experiences for photographers like you. We are building lots of great things for the Flickr community, but we need your help. We can do this together.

We’re launching our end-of-year Pro subscription campaign on Thursday, December 26, but I want to invite you to subscribe to Flickr Pro today for the same 25% discount.

We’ve gone to great lengths to optimize Flickr for cost savings wherever possible, but the increasing cost of operating this enormous community and continuing to invest in its future will require a small price increase early in the new year, so this is truly the very best time to upgrade your membership to Pro.

If you value Flickr finally being independent, built for photographers and by photographers, we ask you to join us, and to share this offer with those who share your love of photography and community.

With gratitude,

Don MacAskill
Co-Founder, CEO & Chief Geek

SmugMug + Flickr

Use and share coupon code [redacted] to get 25% off Flickr Pro now.

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Am I impacted by the FTC’s YouTube agreement?

Posted in botch, business, california, ethics, family by commorancy on December 16, 2019

kid-tabletThis question is currently a hot debate among YouTubers. The answer to this question is complex and depends on many factors. This is a long read as there’s a lot to say (~10000 words = ~35-50 minutes). Grab a cup of your favorite Joe and let’s explore.

COPPA, YouTube and the FTC

I’ve written a previous article on this topic entitled Rant Time: Google doesn’t understand COPPA. You’ll want to read that article to gain a bit more insight around this topic. Today’s article is geared more towards YouTube content creators and parents looking for answers. It is also geared towards anyone with a passing interest in the goings on at YouTube.

Before I start, let me write this disclaimer by saying I’m not a lawyer. Therefore, this article is not intended in any way to be construed as legal advice. If you need legal advice, there are many lawyers available who may be able to help you with regards to being a YouTube content creator and your specific channel’s circumstances. If you ARE HERE looking for legal advice, please go speak to a lawyer instead. The information provided in this article is strictly for information purposes only and IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE.

For Kids or Not For Kids?

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With that out of the way, let’s talk a little about what’s going on at YouTube for the uninitiated. YouTube has recently rolled out a new channel creator feature. This feature requires that you mark your channel “for kids” or “not for kids”. Individual videos can also be marked this way (which becomes important a little later in the article). Note, this “heading” is not the actual text on the screen in the settings area (see the image), but this is what you are doing when you change this YouTube creator setting. This setting is a binary setting. Your content is either directed at kids or it is not directed at kids. Let’s understand this reasoning around COPPA. Also, “kids” or “child” is defined in COPPA any person 12 or younger.

When you set the “for kids” setting on a YouTube channel, a number of things will happen to your channel, including comments being disabled, monetization will be severely limited or eliminated and how your content is promoted by YouTube will drastically change. There may also be other subtle changes that are as yet unclear. The reason for all of these restrictions is that COPPA prevents the collection of personal information from children 12 and under… or at least, if it is collected that it is deleted if parental consent cannot be obtained. In the 2013 update, COPPA added cookie tracking to the list of items that cannot be collected.

By disabling all of these features under ‘For Kids’, YouTube is attempting to reduce or eliminate its data collection vectors that could violate COPPA… to thwart future liabilities for Google / YouTube as a company.

On the other hand, setting your channel as ‘Not For Kids’, YouTube maintains your channel as it has always been with comments enabled, full monetization possible, etc. Seems simple, right? Wrong.

Not as Simple as it Seems

You’re a creator thinking, “Ok, then I’ll just set my channel to ‘Not for Kids’ and everything will be fine.” Not so fast there, partner. It’s not quite as simple as that. COPPA applies to your channel if even one child visits and Google collects any data from that child. But, there’s more to it.

YouTube will also be rolling out a tool that attempts to identify the primary audience of video content. If YouTube’s new tool identifies a video as content primarily targeting “kids”, that video’s “Not for Kids” setting may be overridden by YouTube and set as “For Kids”. Yes, this can be done by YouTube’s tool, thus overriding your channel-wide settings. It’s not enough to set this setting on your channel, you must make sure your content is not being watched by kids and the content is not overly kid friendly. How exactly YouTube’s scanner will work is entirely unknown as of now.

And here is where we get to the crux of this whole matter.

What is “Kid Friendly” Content?

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this question. Your content could be you reviewing toys, it could be drawing pictures by hand on the screen, it could be reviewing comic books, you might ride skateboards, you might play video games, you might even assemble Legos into large sculptures. These are all video topics that could go either way… and it all depends on which audience your video tends draw in.

It also depends on your existing subscriber base. If a vast majority of your current active subscribers are children 12 and under, this fact can unfairly influence your content even if your curent content is most definitely not for kids. The fact that ‘kids’ are watching your channel is a problem for ANY content that you upload.

But you say, “My viewer statistics don’t show me 12 and under category.” No, it doesn’t and there’s a good reason why it doesn’t. Google has always professed that it doesn’t allow 12 and under on its platform. But clearly, that was a lie. Google does, in fact, allow 12 and under onto its platform. That’s crystal clear for two reasons: 1) The FTC fined Google $170 million for violating COPPA (meaning, FTC found kids 12 and under are using the platform) and 2) YouTube has rolled out this “for kids / not for kids” setting confirming by Google that 12 and under do, in fact, watch YouTube and have active Google Account IDs.

I hear someone else saying, “I’m a parent and I let my 11 year old son use YouTube.” Yeah, that’s perfectly fine and legal, so long as you have given “verifiable consent” to the company that is collecting data from your 11 year old child. As long as a parent gives ‘verifiable consent’ for their child under 12 to Google or YouTube or even to the channel owner directly, it’s perfectly legal for your child to be on the platform watching and participating and for Google and YouTube to collect data from your child.

Unfortunately, verifiable consent is difficult to manage digitally. See the DIY method of parental consent below. Unfortunately, Google doesn’t offer any “verifiable consent” mechanism for itself or for YouTube content creators. This means that even if you as a parent are okay with your child being on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram or even Snapchat, if you haven’t provided explicit and verifiable parental consent to that online service for your child 12 and under, that service is in violation of COPPA by handling data that your child may input into that service. Data can include name, telephone number, email address or even sharing photos or videos of themselves. It also includes cookies placed onto their devices.

COPPA was written to penalize the “web site” or “online services” that collect a child’s information. It doesn’t penalize the family. Without “verifiable consent” from a parent or legal guardian, to the “web site” or “online service” it’s the same as no consent at all. Implicit consent isn’t valid for COPPA. It must be explicitly given and verifiable consent from a parent or legal guardian given to the service being used by the child.

The Murky Waters of Google

If only YouTube were Google’s only property to consider. It isn’t. Google has many, many properties. I’ll make a somewhat short-ish list here:

  • Google Search
  • Google Games
  • Google Music
  • Google Play Store (App)
  • Google Play Games (App)
  • Google Stadia
  • Google Hangouts
  • Google Docs
  • Google’s G Suite
  • Google Voice
  • Google Chrome (browser)
  • Google Chromebook (device)
  • Google Earth (App)
  • Google Movies and TV
  • Google Photos
  • Google’s Gmail
  • Google Books
  • Google Drive
  • Google Home (the smart speaker device)
  • Google Chromecast (TV device)
  • Android OS on Phones
  • … and the list goes on …

To drive all of these properties and devices, Google relies on the creation of a Google Account ID. To create an account, you must supply Google with certain specific identifying information including email address, first and last name and various other required information. Google will then grant you a login identifier and a password in the form of credentials which allows you to log into and use any of the above Google properties, including (you guessed it) YouTube.

Without “verifiable consent” supplied to Google for a child 12 and under, what data Google has collected from your child during the Google Account signup process (or any of the above apps) has violated COPPA, a ruleset tasked for enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Yes, this whole situation gets even murkier.

Data Collection and Manipulation

The whole point to COPPA is to protect data collected from any child aged 12 and under. More specifically, it rules that this data cannot be collected / processed from the child unless a parent or legal guardian supplies “verifiable consent” to the “web site” or “online service” within a reasonable time of the child having supplied their data to the site.

As of 2013, data collection and manipulation isn’t defined just by what the child personally uploads and types, though this data is included. This Act was expanded to include cookies placed onto a child’s computer device to track and target that child with ads. These cookies are also considered protected data by COPPA as these cookies could be used to personally identify the child. If a service does not have “verifiable consent” on file for that child from a parent or guardian, the “online service” or “web site” is considered by the FTC in violation of COPPA.

The difficulty with Google’s situation is that Google actually stores a child’s data within the child’s Google Account ID. This account ID being entirely separate from YouTube. For example, if you buy your child a Samsung Note 10 Phone running Android and you as a parent create a Google Account for your 12 or under child to use that device, you have just helped Google violate COPPA. This is part of the reason the FTC fined Google $170 million for violations to COPPA. Perhaps not this specific scenario, but the fact that Google doesn’t offer a “verifiable consent” system to verify a child’s access to its services and devices prior to collecting data or granting access to services led the FTC to its ruling. The FTC’s focus, however, is currently YouTube… even though Google is violating COPPA everywhere all over its properties as a result of the use of a Google Account ID.

YouTube’s and COPPA Fallout

Google wholly owns YouTube. Google purchased the YouTube property in 2006. In 2009, Google retired YouTube’s original login credential system and began requiring YouTube to use Google Accounts to gain access to the YouTube property by viewers. This change is important.

It also seems that YouTube is still operating itself mostly as a self-autonomous entity within Google’s larger corporate structure. What all of this means more specifically is that YouTube now uses Google Accounts, a separately controlled and operated system within Google, to manage credentials and gain access into not only the YouTube property, but every other property that Google has (see the short-ish list above).

In 2009, the YouTube developers deprecated their own home grown credentials system and began using the Google Accounts system of credential storage. This change to YouTube very likely means that YouTube itself no longer stores or controls any credential or identifying data. That data is now contained within the Google Accounts system. YouTube likely now only manages the videos that get uploaded, comments, supplying ads on videos (which the tracking and manage is probably controlled by Google also), content ID matching and anything else that appears in the YouTube UI interface. Everything else is likely out of the YouTube team’s control (or even access). In fact, I’d suspect that the YouTube team likely has entirely zero access to the data and information stored within the Google Accounts system (with the exception of that specific data which is authorized by the account holder to be publicly shown).

Why is this Google Accounts information important?

So long as Google Accounts remains a separate entity from YouTube (even though YouTube is owned by the same company), this means that YouTube can’t be in violation of COPPA (at least not where storage of credentials are concerned). There is one exception which YouTube does control… its comment system.

The comment system on YouTube is one of the earliest “modern” social networks ever created. Only Facebook and MySpace were slightly earlier, though all three were generally created within 1 year of one another. It is also the only free form place left in the present 2019 YouTube interface that allows a 12 or under child to incidentally type some form of personally identifying information into a public forum for YouTube to store (in violation of COPPA).

This is the reason that the “for kids” setting disables comments. YouTube formerly had a private messaging service, but it was retired as of September of 2019. It is no longer possible to use YouTube to have private conversations between other YouTube users. If you want to converse with another YouTube viewer, you must do it in a public comment. This change was likely also fallout from Google’s COPPA woes.

Google and Cookies

For the same reason as Google Accounts, YouTube likely doesn’t even manage its own site cookies. It might, but it likely relies on a centralized internal Google service to create, manage and handle cookies. The reason for this is obvious. Were YouTube’s developers to create and manage their own separate cookie, it would be a cookie that holds no use for other Google services. However, if YouTube developers were to rely on a centralized Google controlled service to manage their site’s cookies, it would allow the cookie to be created in a standardized way that all Google services can consume and use. For this reason, this author supposes a centralized system is used at YouTube rather than something “homegrown” and specific to YouTube.

While it is possible that YouTube might create its own cookies, it’s doubtful that YouTube does this for one important reason: ad monetization. For YouTube to participate in Google Advertising (yet another service under the Google umbrella of services), YouTube would need to use tracking cookies that the Google Advertising service can read, parse and update while someone is watching a video on YouTube.

This situation remains murky because YouTube can manage its own internal cookies. I’m supposing that YouTube doesn’t because of a larger corporate platform strategy. But, it is still entirely possible that YouTube does manage its own browser cookies. Only a YouTube employee would know for certain which way this one goes.

Because of the ambiguity in how cookies are managed within Google and YouTube, this is another area where YouTube has erred on the side of caution by disabling ads and ad tracking if a channel is marked as ‘for kids’. This prevents placing ad tracking cookies on any computers from ‘for kids’ marked channels and videos, again avoiding violations of COPPA.

The FTC’s position

Unfortunately, the FTC has put themselves into a constitutionally precarious position. The United States Constitution has a very important provision within its First Amendment.

Let me cite a quote from the US Constitution’s First Amendment (highlighting and italics added by author to call out importance):

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The constitutional difficulty that the FTC has placed themselves in is that YouTube, by its very nature, offers a journalistic platform which is constitutionally protected from tortious interference by the United States government. The government (or more specifically, Congress) cannot make law that in any way abridges freedom of speech or of the press.

A video on YouTube is not only a form of journalism, it is a form of free speech. As long as YouTube and Google remain operating within the borders of the United States, United States residents must be able to use this platform unfettered without government tortious interference.

How does this imply to the FTC? It applies because the FTC is a governmental entity created by an act of the US Congress and, therefore, acts on behalf of the US Congress. This means that the FTC must uphold all provisions of the United States Constitution when dealing with matters of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press.

How is does this problem manifest for the FTC? The FTC has repeatedly stated that it will use “tools” to determine if a YouTube channel’s content is intended for and is primarily intended to target children 12 and under. Here’s the critical part. If a channel’s content is determined to be targeting children 12 and under, the channel owner may be fined up to $43,530 per video as it will have been deemed in violation of COPPA.

There are two problems with the above statements the FTC has made. Let’s examine text from this FTC provided page about YouTube (italics provided by the FTC):

So how does COPPA apply to channel owners who upload their content to YouTube or another third-party platform? COPPA applies in the same way it would if the channel owner had its own website or app. If a channel owner uploads content to a platform like YouTube, the channel might meet the definition of a “website or online service” covered by COPPA, depending on the nature of the content and the information collected. If the content is directed to children and if the channel owner, or someone on its behalf (for example, an ad network), collects personal information from viewers of that content (for example, through a persistent identifier that tracks a user to serve interest-based ads), the channel is covered by COPPA. Once COPPA applies, the operator must provide notice, obtain verifiable parental consent, and meet COPPA’s other requirements.

and there’s more, which contains the most critical part of the FTC’s article:

Under COPPA, there is no one-size-fits-all answer about what makes a site directed to children, but we can offer some guidance. To be clear, your content isn’t considered “directed to children” just because some children may see it. However, if your intended audience is kids under 13, you’re covered by COPPA and have to honor the Rule’s requirements.

The Rule sets out additional factors the FTC will consider in determining whether your content is child-directed:

  • the subject matter,
  • visual content,
  • the use of animated characters or child-oriented activities and incentives,
  • the kind of music or other audio content,
  • the age of models,
  • the presence of child celebrities or celebrities who appeal to children,
  • language or other characteristics of the site,
  • whether advertising that promotes or appears on the site is directed to children, and
  • competent and reliable empirical evidence about the age of the audience.

Content, Content and more Content

The above quotes discuss YouTube Content becoming “covered by COPPA”. This is a ruse. Content is protected speech by the United States Constitution and is defined within the First Amendment (see above). Nothing in any YouTube visual content when published by a United State Citizen can be “covered by COPPA”. The First Amendment sees to that.

Let’s understand why. First, COPPA is a data collections Act. It has nothing whatever to do with content ratings, content age appropriateness or, indeed, does not discuss anything else related visual content targeted towards children of ANY age. Indeed, there is no verbiage within the COPPA provisions that discuss YouTube, visual content, audio content or anything else to do with Freedom of Speech matters.

It gets worse… at least for the FTC. Targeting channels for disruption by fining them strictly over content uploaded onto the channel is less about protecting children’s data and more about content censorship on YouTube. Indeed, fining a channel $42,530 is tantamount to censorship as it is likely to see that content removed from YouTube… which is, indeed, censorship in its most basic form. Any censorship of Freedom of Speech is firmly against First Amendment rights.

Since the FTC is using fines based on COPPA as leverage against content creators, the implication is that the FTC will use this legal leverage to have YouTube take down content it feels is inappropriate targeting 12 and under children, rather than upholding COPPA’s actual data protection provisions. Indeed, the FTC will actually be making new law by fining channels based on content, not on whether data was actually collected in violation of COPPA’s data collection provisions. Though, the first paragraph may claim “data collection” as a metric, the second paragraph is solely about “offending content”… which is entirely about censorship. Why is that? Let’s continue.

COPPA vs “Freedom of Speech”

The FTC has effectively hung themselves out to dry. In fact, if the FTC does fine even ONE YouTube channel for “inappropriate content”, the FTC will be firmly in the business of censorship of journalism. Or, more specifically, the FTC will have violated the First Amendment rights of U.S. Citizens’ freedom of speech protections.

This means that in order for the FTC to enforce COPPA against YouTube creators, it has now firmly put itself into the precarious position of violating the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. In fact, the FTC cannot even fine even one channel owner without violating the First Amendment.

In truth, they can fine under only the following circumstance:

  1. The FTC proves that the YouTube channel actually collected and currently possesses inappropriate data from a child 12 and under.
  2. The FTC leaves the channel entirely untouched. The channel and content must remain online and active.

Number 2 is actually quite a bit more difficult for the FTC than it sounds. Because YouTube and the FTC have made an agreement, that means that YouTube can be seen as an agent of the FTC by doing the FTC’s bidding. This means that even if YouTube takes down the channel after a fine for TOS reasons, the FTC’s fining action can still be construed as in violation of First Amendment rights because YouTube acted as an agent to take down the “offending content”.

It gets even more precarious for the FTC. Even the simple the act of levying a fine against a YouTube channel could be seen as a violation of First Amendment rights. This action by the FTC seems less about protecting children’s data and more about going after YouTube content creators “targeting children with certain types of content” (see above). Because the latter quote from the FTC article explicitly calls out types of content as “directed at children”, this intentionally shows that it’s not about COPPA, but about visual content rules. Visual content rules DO NOT exist in COPPA.

Channel Owners and Content

If you are a YouTube channel owner, all of the above should greatly concern you for the following reasons:

  1. You don’t want to become a Guinea Pig to test First Amendment legal waters of the FTC + COPPA
  2. The FTC’s content rules above effectively state, “We’ll know it when we see it.” This is constitutionally BAD. This heavily implies content censorship intent. This means that the FTC can simply call out any content as being inappropriate and then fine a channel owner for uploading that content.
  3. It doesn’t specify state if the rule applies retroactively. Does previously uploaded content become subject to the FTC’s whim?
  4. The agreement takes effect beginning January 1, 2020
  5. YouTube can “accidentally” reclassify content as “for kids” when it clearly isn’t… which can trigger an FTC action.
  6. The FTC will apparently have direct access to the YouTube platform scanning tools. To what degree it has access is unknown. If it has direct access to take videos or channels offline, it has direct access to violate the First Amendment. Even if it must ask YouTube to do this takedown work, the FTC will still have violated the First Amendment.

The Fallacy

The difficulty I have with this entire situation is that the FTC now appears to be holding content creators to blame for heavy deficiencies within YouTube’s and Google’s platforms. Because Google failed to properly police its own platform for 12 and under users, it now seeks to pass that blame down onto YouTube creators simply because they create and upload video content. Content, I might add, that is completely protected under the United State Constitution’s First Amendment as “Freedom of Speech”. Pre-shot video content is a one-way passive form of communication.

Just like broadcast and cable TV, YouTube is a video sharing platform. It is designed to allow creators to impart one-way passive communication using pre-made videos, just like broadcast TV. If these FTC actions apply to YouTube, then they equally apply to broadcast and cable television providers…. particularly now that CBS, ABC, NBC, Netflix, Disney+ (especially Disney+), Hulu, Vudu, Amazon, Apple and cable TV providers now also offer “web sites” and “online services” where their respective video content can (and will) be viewed by children 12 and under via a computer device or web browser and where a child may is able to input COPPA protected data. For example, is Disney+ requiring verifiable parental consent to comply with COPPA?

Live Streaming

However, YouTube now also offers live streaming which changes the game a little for COPPA. Live streaming offers two-way live communication and in somewhat real-time. Live streaming is a situation where a channel creator might be able to collect inappropriate data from a child simply by asking pointed questions during a live stream event. A child might even feel compelled to write into live chat information that they shouldn’t be giving out. Live streaming may be more likely to collect COPPA protected data than pre-made video content simply because of the live interactivity between the host and the viewers. You don’t get that level of interaction when using pre-made video content.

Live streaming or not, there is absolutely no way a content creator can in any way be construed as an “Operator” of Google or of YouTube. The FTC is simply playing a game of “Guilty by Association”. They are using this flawed logic… “You own a YouTube channel, therefore you are automatically responsible for YouTube’s infractions.” It’s simply Google’s way of passing down its own legal burdens by your channel’s association with YouTube. Worse, the FTC seems to have bought into this Google shenanigan. It’s great for Google, though. They won’t be held liable for any more infractions against COPPA so long as YouTube creators end up shouldering that legal burden for Google.

The FTC seems to have conveniently forgotten this next part. In order to have collected data from a child, you must still possess a copy of that data to prove that you actually did collect it and that you are STILL in violation of COPPA. If you don’t have a copy of the alleged violating data, then you either didn’t collect it, the child didn’t provide it, you never had it to begin with or you have since deleted it. As for cookie violations, it’s entirely a stretch to say that YouTube creators had anything to do with how Google / YouTube manages cookies. The COPPA verbiage states of deletion under Parental Consent:

§312.4(c)(1). If the operator has not obtained parental consent after a reasonable time from the date of the information collection, the operator must delete such information from its records;

If an “operator” deletes such records, then the “operator” is not in violation of COPPA. If an “operator” obtains parental consent, then the “operator” is also not in violation of COPPA. Nothing, though, states definitively that a YouTube creator assumes the role of “operator”.

This is important because Google is and remains the “operator”. Until or unless Google extends access to its Google Accounts collected data to ALL YouTube creators so that a creator can take possession of said data, a creator cannot be considered an “operator”. The YouTube creator doesn’t have (and never has had) access to the Google Account personal data (other than what is publicly published on Google). Only Google has access to this account data which has been collected as part of creating a new Google Account. Even the YouTube property and its employees likely don’t even have access to Google Account personal data as mentioned. This means that, by extension, a YouTube creator doesn’t have a copy of any personal data that a Google Accounts signup may have collected… and therefore the YouTube content creator is NOT in violation of COPPA, though that doesn’t take Google off of the hook for it.

A YouTube content creator must actually POSSESS the data to be in violation. The FTC’s burden of proof is to show that the YouTube content creator actually has possession of that data. Who possesses that data? Google. Who doesn’t possess that data? The YouTube content creator. Though, there may be some limited edge cases where a YouTube creator might have requested personal information from a child in violation of COPPA. Even if a YouTube creator did request such data, so long as it has since been deleted fully, it is not in violation of COPPA. You must still be in possession of said data to be in violation of COPPA, at least according to how the act seems to read. If you have questions about this section, you should contact a lawyer for definitive confirmation and advice. Remember, I’m not a lawyer.

There is only ONE situation where a YouTube content creator may be in direct violation of COPPA. That is for live streaming. If a live streamer prompts for personal data to be written into the live chat area from its viewers and one of those viewers is 12 or under, the creator will have access to COPPA violating personal data. Additionally, comments on videos might be construed as in violation of COPPA if a 12 and under child writes something personally identifying into a comment. Though, I don’t know of many content creators who would intentionally request their viewers to reveal personally information in a comment on YouTube. Most people (including content creators) know the dangers all too well of posting such personally identifying information in a YouTube comment. A child might not, though. I can’t recall having watched one single YouTube channel where the host requests personally identifying information be placed into a YouTube comment. Ignoring COPPA for a second, such a request would be completely irresponsible. Let’s continue…

COPPA does state this about collecting data under its ‘Definitions’ section:

Collects or collection means the gathering of any personal information from a child by any means, including but not limited to:

(1) Requesting, prompting, or encouraging a child to submit personal information online;

(2) Enabling a child to make personal information publicly available in identifiable form. An operator shall not be considered to have collected personal information under this paragraph if it takes reasonable measures to delete all or virtually all personal information from a child’s postings before they are made public and also to delete such information from its records; or

(3) Passive tracking of a child online.

The “Enabling a child” section above is the reason for the removal of comments when the “for kids” setting is defined. Having comments enabled on a video when a child 12 and under could be watching enables the child to be able to write in personal information if they so choose. Simply by having a comment system available to someone 12 and under appears to be an infraction of COPPA. YouTube creators DO have access to enable or disable comments. What YouTube Creators don’t have access to is the age of the viewer. Google hides that information from YouTube content creators. YouTube content creators, in good faith, do not know the ages of anyone watching their channel.

Tracking a child’s activities is not possible by a YouTube content creator. A content creator has no direct or even incidental access to Google’s systems which perform any tracking activities. Only Google Does. Therefore, number 3 does not apply to YouTube content creators. The only way number 3 would ever apply to a creator is if Google / YouTube offered direct access to its cookie tracking systems to its YouTube content creators. Therefore, only numbers 1 and 2 could potentially apply to YouTube content creators.

In fact, because Google Accounts hides its personal data from YouTube content creators (including the ages of its viewers), content creators don’t know anything personal about any of its viewers. Which means, how are YouTube content creators supposed to know if a child 12 and under is even watching?

Google’s Failures

The reality is, Google has failed to control its data collection under Google Accounts. It is Google Accounts that needs to have COPPA applied to it, not YouTube. In fact, this action by the FTC will actually solve NOTHING at Google.

Google’s entire system is tainted. Because of the number of services that Google owns and controls, placing COPPA controls on only ONE of these services (YouTube) is the absolute bare minimum for an FTC action against COPPA. It’s clear that the FTC simply doesn’t understand the breadth and scope of Google’s COPPA failures within its systems. Placing these controls on YouTube will do NOTHING to fix COPPA’s greater violations which continue unabated within the rest of Google’s Services, including its brand new video gaming streaming service, Google Stadia. Google Stadia is likely to draw in just as many children 12 and under as YouTube. Probably more. If Stadia has even one sharing or voice chat service active or uses cookies to track its users, Stadia is in violation for the same exact reasons YouTube is… Google’s failure of compliance within Google Accounts.

Worse, there’s Android. Many parents are now handing brand new Android phones to their children 12 and under. Android has MANY tracking features enabled on its phones. From the GPS on board, to cookies, to apps, to the cell towers, to the OS itself. Talk about COPPA violations.

What about Google Home? You know, that seemingly innocuous smart speaker? Yeah, that thing is going to track not only each individual’s voice, it may even store recordings of those voices. It probably even tracks what things you request and then, based on your Google Account, will target ads on your Android phone or on Google Chrome based on things you’ve asked Google Home to provide. What’s more personally identifying than your own voice being recorded and stored after asking something personal?

Yeah, YouTube is merely the tippiest tip of a much, much, MUCH larger corporate iceberg that is continually in violation of COPPA within Google. The FTC just doesn’t get that its $170 million fine and First Amendment violating censorship efforts on YouTube isn’t the right course of action. Not only does the FTC’s involvement in censorship on YouTube lead to First Amendment violations, it won’t solve the rest of the COPPA violations at Google.

Here’s where the main body of this article ends.

Because there are still more questions, thoughts and ideas around this issue, let’s explore a some deeper ideas which might answer a few more of your questions as a creator or as a parent. Each question is prefaced by a ➡️ symbol. At this point, you may want to skim the rest of this article for specific thoughts which may be relevant to you.


➡️ “Should I Continue with my YouTube Channel?”

This is a great question and one that I can’t answer for you. Since I don’t know your channel or your channel’s content, there’s no way for me to give advice to you. Even if you do tell me your channel and its content, the FTC explicitly states that it will be at the FTC’s own discretion if a channel’s content “is covered by COPPA”. This means you need to review your own channel content to determine if your video content drives kids 12 and under to watch. Even then, it’s a crap shoot.

Are there ways you can begin to protect your channel? Yes. The first way is to post a video requesting that all subscribers who are 12 and under either unsubscribe from the channel or alternatively ask their parents to provide verifiable consent to you to allow that child to continue watching. This consent must come from a parent or guardian, not the child. Obtaining verifiable consent is not as easy as it sounds. Though, after you have received verifiable parental consent from every “child” subscriber on your channel, you can easily produce this consent documentation to the FTC if they claim your channel is in violation.

The next option is to apply for TRUSTe’s Children’s Privacy Certification. This affords your YouTube channel “Safe Harbor” protections against the FTC. This one is likely most helpful for large YouTube channels which tend to target children and which make significant income through ad monetization. TRUSTe’s certification is not likely to come cheap. This is the reason this avenue would only be helpful for the largest channels receiving significant monetization enough to pay for such a service.

Note, if you go through the “Safe Harbor” process or obtain consent for every subscriber, you won’t need to set your channel as ‘for kids’. Also note that “Safe Harbor” may not be possible due to Google owning all of the equipment that operates YouTube. Certification programs usually require you to have direct access to systems to ensure they continue to comply with the terms of the certification. Certifications usually also require direct auditing of systems to ensure the systems comply with the certification requirements. It’s very doubtful that Google will allow an auditing firm to audit YouTube’s servers on behalf of a content creator for certification compliance… and even if they did allow such an audit, YouTube’s servers would likely fail the certification audit.

The final option is to suspend your channel. Simply hide all of your content and walk away from YouTube. If you decide to use another video service like DailyMotion, Vimeo, or Twitch, the FTC may show up there as well. If they can make the biggest video sharing service in the world bow down to the FTC, then the rest of these video sharing services are likely not far behind.

➡️ “I don’t monetize my channel”

This won’t protect you. It’s not about monetization. It’s about data collection. The FTC is holding channel owners responsible for Google irresponsible data collection practices. Because Google can’t seem to police its own data collection to shield its end users from COPPA, Google/YouTube has decided to skip trying to fix their broken system and, instead, YouTube has chosen pass their violations down onto their end users… the YouTube creators.

This “passing off liability” action is fairly unheard of in most businesses. Most businesses attempt to shield their end users from legal liabilities by the use of its services as much as possible. Not Google or YouTube. They’re more than willing to hang their end users out to dry and let their end users take the burden of Google’s continued COPPA violations.

➡️ “My content isn’t for kids”

That doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the FTC thinks it is. If your content is animated, video game related, toy related, art related, craft related or in any way might draw in children as viewers, that’s all that matters. Even one child 12 and under is enough to shift Google’s COPPA data collection liabilities down onto your shoulders.

➡️ “I’ve set my channel as ‘not for kids'”

This won’t protect you. Google has a tool in the works that will scan the visual content of a video and potentially reclassify a video as “for kids” in defiance of the channel-wide setting of “not for kids”. Don’t expect that the channel-wide setting will hold up for every single video you post. YouTube can reclassify videos as it sees fit. Whether there will be a way to appeal this is as yet unknown. To get rid of that reclassification of a video, you may have to delete the video and reupload. Though, if you do this and the content remains the same, it will likely be scanned and marked “for kids” again by YouTube’s scanner. Be cautious.

➡️ “I’ll set my channel ‘for kids'”

Do this only if you’re willing to live with the restrictions AND only if your content really is for kids (or is content that could easily be construed as for kids). While this channel setting may seem to protect your channel from COPPA violations, it actually doesn’t. On the other hand, if your content truly isn’t for children and you set it ‘for kids’ that may open your channel up to other problems. I wouldn’t recommend setting content as ‘for kids’ if the content you post is not for kids. Though, there’s more to this issue… keep reading.

Marking your content “for kids” won’t actually protect you from COPPA. In fact, it makes your channel even more liable to COPPA violations. If you mark your content as “for kids”, you are then firmly under the obligation of providing proof that your channel absolutely DID NOT collect data from children under the age of 13. Since the FTC is making creators liable for Google’s problematic data collection practices, you could be held liable for Google’s broken data collection system simply by marking your content as ‘for kids’.

This setting is very perilous. I definitely don’t recommend ANY channel use this setting… not even if your channel is targeted at kids. By setting ‘for kids’ on any channel or content, your channel WILL become liable under COPPA’s data collection provisions. Worse, you will be held liable for Google’s data collections practices… meaning the FTC can come after you with fines. This is where you will have to fight to prove that you presently don’t have access to any child’s collected data, that you never did and that it was solely Google who stored and maintained that data. If you don’t possess any of this alleged data, it may be difficult for the FTC to uphold fines against channel owners. But, unfortunately, it may cost you significant attorney fees to prove that your channel is in the clear.

Finally, it’s entirely possible that YouTube may change this ‘for kids’ setting so that it becomes a one-way transition. This means that you may be unable to undo this change in the future. If it becomes one way, then a channel that is marked ‘for kids’ may never be able to go back to ‘not for kids’. You may have to create an entirely new channel and start over. If you have a large channel following, that could be a big problem. Don’t set your channel ‘for kids’ thinking you are protecting your channel. Do it because you’re okay with the outcome and because your content really is targeted for kids. But, keep in mind that setting ‘for kids’ will immediately allow the FTC to target your channel for COPPA violations.

➡️ “I’m a parent and I wish to give verifiable parental consent”

That’s great. Unfortunately, doing so is complicated. Because it’s easy for a child to fabricate such information using friends or parents of friends, giving verifiable consent to a provider is more difficult for parents than it sounds. It requires first verifying your identity as a parent, then it requires the provider to collect consent documentation from you.

It seems that Google / YouTube have chosen not yet set up a mechanism to collect verifiable consent themselves, let alone for YouTube content creators. What that means is that there’s no easy way for you as a parent to give (or a channel to get) verifiable consent easily. On the flip side as a content creator, it is left to you to handle contacting parents and collecting verifiable consent for child subscribers. You can use a service that will cost you money or you can do it yourself. As a parent, you can do your part by contacting a channel owner and giving them explicit verifiable consent. Keep reading to understand how to go about giving consent.

Content Creators and Parental Consent

Signing up for a service that provides a verifiable consent is something that larger YouTube channels may be able to afford, But, for a small YouTube channel, collecting such information from every new subscriber will be difficult. Google / YouTube could set up such an internal verification service for its creators, but YouTube doesn’t care about that or complying with COPPA. If Google cared about complying with COPPA, they would already have a properly working age verification system in Google Accounts that forces children to set their real age and which requires verifiable consent from the parent of a child 12 and under. If a child 12 and under is identified, Google can then block access to all services that might allow the child to violate COPPA until such consent is given.

It gets even more complicated. Because YouTube no longer maintains a private messaging service, there’s no way for a channel owner to contact subscribers directly on the YouTube platform other than posting a one-way communication video to your channel showing an email address or other means to contact you. This is why it’s important for each parent to reach out to each YouTube channel owner where the child subscribes and offer verifiable consent to the channel owner.

As a creator, this means you will need to post a video stating that ALL subscribers who are under the age of 13 must have have parental consent to watch your channel. This child will need to request their parent contact you using a COPPA authorized mechanism to provide consent. This will allow you to begin the collection of verifiable consent from parents of any children watching or subscribed to your content. Additionally, with every video you post, you must also have an intro on every video stating that all new subscribers 12 and under must have their parent contact the channel owner to provide consent. This shows to the FTC that your channel is serious about collecting verifiable parental consent.

So what is involved in Do It Yourself consent? Not gonna lie. It’s going to be very time consuming. However, the easiest way to obtain verifiable consent is setting up and using a two-way video conferencing service like Google Hangouts, Discord or Skype. You can do this yourself, but it’s better if you hire a third party to do it. It’s also better to use a service like Hangouts which shows all party faces together on the screen at once. This way, when you record the call for your records, both yours and the parent+child’s faces are readily shown. This shows you didn’t fabricate the exchange.

To be valid consent, both the parent and the child must be present and visible in the video while conferencing with the channel owner. The channel owner should also be present in the call and visible on camera if possible. Before beginning, the channel owner must notify the parent that the call will be recorded by the channel owner for the sole purposes of obtaining and storing verifiable consent. You may want to ensure the parent understands that the call will only and ever be used for this purpose (and hold to that). It is off limits to post these videos as a montage on YouTube as content. Then, you may record the conference call and keep it in the channel owners records. As a parent, you need to be willing to offer a video recorded statement to the channel owner stating something similar to the following:

“I, [parent or guardian full name], am 18 years of age or older and give permission to [your channel name] for my child / my ward [child’s YouTube public profile name] to continue watching [your channel name]. I additionally give permission to [your channel name] to collect any necessary data from my child / my ward while watching your channel named [your channel name].”

If possible, the parent should hold up the computer, tablet, phone or device that the child will use to the camera so that it clearly shows the child account’s profile name is logged into YouTube on your channel. This will verify that it is, indeed, the parent or legal guardian of that child’s profile. You may want to additionally request the parent hold up a valid form of picture ID (driver’s license or passport) obscuring any addresses or identifiers with paper or similar to verify the picture and name against the person performing consent. You don’t need to know where they live, you just need to verify the name and photo on the ID matched the person you are speaking to.

Record this video statement for your records and store this video recording in a safe place in case you need to recall this video for the FTC. There should be no posting of these videos to YouTube or any other place. These are solely to be filed for consent purposes. Be sure to also notice if the person with the child is old enough to be an adult, that the ID seems legit and the person is not that child’s sibling or someone falsifying this verification process. If this is a legal guardian situation, this is more difficult to validate legal guardianship. Just do your best and hope that the guardian is being truthful. If in doubt, thank the people on the call for their time and then block the subscriber from your channel.

If your channel is owned by a corporation, the statement should include the name of the business as well as the channel. Such a statement over a video offers verifiable parental consent for data collection from that child by that corporation and/or the channel. This means that the child may participate in comment systems related to your videos (and any other data collection as necessary). Yes, this is a lot of work if you have a lot of under 13 subscribers, but it is the work that the U.S. Government requires to remain compliant with COPPA. The more difficult part is knowing which subscribers are 12 and under. Google and YouTube don’t provide any place to determine this. Instead, you will need to ask your child subscribers to submit parental consent.

If the DIY effort is too much work, then the alternative is to post a video requesting 12 and under subscribers contact you via email stating their YouTube public subscriber identifier. Offer up an email address for this purpose. It doesn’t have to be your primary address. It can be a ‘throw away’ address solely for this purpose. For any account that emails you their account information, block it. This is the simplest way to avoid 12 and under children who may already be in your subscriber pool. Additionally, be sure to state in every future video that any 12 and under watching this channel must have their parental consent or risk being blocked.

Note, you may be thinking that requesting any information from a child 12 and under is in violation of COPPA, but it isn’t. COPPA allows for a reasonable period of time to collect personal data while in the process of obtaining parental consent before that data needs to be irrevocably deleted. After you block 12 and under subscribers, be sure to delete all correspondence via that email address. Make sure that the email correspondence isn’t sitting in a trashcan. Also make sure that not only are the emails are fully deleted, but any collected contact information is fully purged from that email system. You want to make sure that not only are all emails deleted, but any collected email addresses are also purged. Many email services automatically collect and store email addresses into an automatic address list. Make sure that these automatic lists are also purged. As long as all contact data has been irrevocably deleted, you aren’t violating COPPA.

COPPA recognizes the need to collect personal information to obtain parental consent:

(c) Exceptions to prior parental consent. Verifiable parental consent is required prior to any collection, use, or disclosure of personal information from a child except as set forth in this paragraph:

(1) Where the sole purpose of collecting the name or online contact information of the parent or child is to provide notice and obtain parental consent under §312.4(c)(1). If the operator has not obtained parental consent after a reasonable time from the date of the information collection, the operator must delete such information from its records;

This means you CAN collect a child’s or parent’s name or contact information in an effort to obtain parental consent and that data may be retained for a period of “reasonable time” to gain that consent. If consent is not obtained in that time, then the channel owner must “delete such information from its records”.

➡️ “How can I protect myself?”

As long as your channel remains on YouTube with published content, your channel is at risk. As mentioned above, there are several steps you can take to reduce your risks. I’ll list them here:

  1. Apply for Safe Harbor with TrustArc’s TRUSTe certification. It will cost you money, but once certified, your channel will be safe from the FTC so long as you remain certified under the Safe Harbor provisions.
  2. Remove your channel from YouTube. So long as no content remains online, the FTC can’t review your content and potentially mark it as “covered by COPPA.”
  3. Wait and see. This is the most risky option. The FTC makes some claims that it intends proving you had access to, stored and maintained protected data from children. However, there are just as many statements that indicate they will take action first, then request proof later. Collecting data will be difficult burden of proof for most channels. It also means a court battle.
  4. Use DYI or locate a service to obtain verifiable parental consent for every subscriber 12 and under.

➡️ “What went wrong?”

A whole lot failed on Google and YouTube’s side. Let’s get started with bulleted points of Google’s failures.

  • Google has failed to identify children 12 and under to YouTube content creators.
  • Google has failed to offer mechanisms to creators to prevent children 12 and under from viewing content on YouTube.
  • Google has failed to prevent children 12 and under from creating a Google Account.
  • Google has failed to offer a system to allow parents to give consent for children 12 and under to Google. If Google had collected parental consent for 12 and under, that consent should automatically apply to content creators… at least for data input using Google’s platforms.
  • Google has failed to warn parents that they will need to provide verifiable consent for children 12 and under using Google’s platform(s). Even the FTC has failed to warn parents of this fact.
  • YouTube has failed to provide an unsubscribe tool to creators to easily remove any subscribers from a channel. See question below.
  • YouTube has failed to provide a blocking mechanism that prevents a Google Account from searching, finding or watching a YouTube channel.
  • YouTube has failed to identify accounts that may be operated by a child 12 and under and warn content creators of this fact thus allow the creator to block any such accounts.
  • YouTube has failed to offer a tool to allow creators to block specific (or all) content from viewers 12 and under.
  • YouTube has failed to institute a full ratings system, such as the TV Parental Guidelines that sets a rating on the video and provides a video rating identifier within the first 2 minutes, thus stating that a video may contain content inappropriate for certain age groups. Such a full ratings system would allow parents to block specific ratings of content from their child using parental controls. This would allow parents to prevent not only children 12 and under from viewing more mature rated YouTube content, it lets parents block content for all age groups handled by the TV Parental Guidelines.

➡️ “I’m a creator. Can I unsubscribe a subscriber from my channel?”

No, you cannot. But, you can “Block” the user and/or you can “Hide user from channel” depending on where you are in the YouTube interface. Neither of these functions are available as features directly under the Subscriber area of YouTube Creator. Both of these features require digging into separate public Google areas. These mechanisms don’t prevent a Google Account from searching your channel and watching your public content, however.

To block a subscriber, enter the Subscribers area of your channel using Creator Studio Classic to view a list of your subscribers. A full list of subscribers is NOT available under the newest YouTube Studio. You can also see your subscribers (while logged into your account) by navigating to https://www.youtube.com/subscribers. From here, click on the username of the subscriber. This will take you to that subscriber’s YouTube page. From this user page, locate a small grey flag in the upper portion of the screen. I won’t snapshot the flag or give its exact location because YouTube is continually moving this stuff around and changing the flag image shape. Simply look for a small flag icon and click on it, which will drop down a menu. This menu will allow you to block this user.

Blocking a user prevents all interactions between that user and your channel(s). They will no longer be able to post comments on your videos, but they will still be able to view your public content and they will remain subscribed if they already are.

The second method is to use “Hide user from channel”. You do this by finding a comment on the video from that user and selecting “Hide user from channel” using the 3 vertical  dot drop down menu to the right of the comment. You must be logged into your channel and viewing one of your video pages for this to work.

Hiding a user and blocking a user are effectively the same thing, according to YouTube. The difference is only in the method of performing the block. Again, none of the above allows you to unsubscribe users manually from your channel. Blocking or hiding a user still allows the user to remain subscribed to your channel as stated above. It also allows them to continue watching any public content that you post. However, a blocked or hidden user will no longer receive notifications about your channel.

This “remaining subscribed” distinction is important because the FTC appears to be using audience viewer demographics as part of its method to determine if a channel is directing its content towards children 12 and under. It may even use subscriber demographics. Even if you do manage to block an account of a child 12 and under who has subscribed to your channel, that child remains a subscriber and can continue to search for your channel and watch any content you post. That child’s subscription to your channel may, in fact, continue to impact your channel’s demographics, thus leading to possible action by the FTC. By blocking 12 and under children, you may be able to use this fact to your advantage by proving that you are taking action to prevent 12 and under users from posting inappropriate data to your channel.

➡️ “What about using Twitch or Mixer?”

Any video sharing or live streaming platforms outside of and not owned by Google aren’t subject to Google’s / YouTube’s FTC agreement.

Twitch

Twitch isn’t owned or operated by Google. They aren’t nearly as big as YouTube, either. Monetization on Twitch may be less than can be had on YouTube (at least before this COPPA change).

Additionally, Twitch’s terms of service are fairly explicit regarding age requirements, which should prevent COPPA issues. Twitch’s terms state as follows of minors using Twitch:

2. Use of Twitch by Minors and Blocked Persons

The Twitch Services are not available to persons under the age of 13. If you are between the ages of 13 and 18 (or between 13 and the age of legal majority in your jurisdiction of residence), you may only use the Twitch Services under the supervision of a parent or legal guardian who agrees to be bound by these Terms of Service.

This statement is more than Google provided for its creators. This statement by Twitch explicitly means Twitch intends to protect its creators from COPPA and any other legal requirements associated with minors or “children” using the Twitch service. For creators, this piece of mind is important.

Unfortunately, Google has no such creator piece of mind. In fact, the whole way YouTube has handled COPPA is sloppy at best. If you are a creator on YouTube, you should seriously consider this a huge breech of trust between Google and you, the creator.

Mixer

Mixer is presently owned by Microsoft. I’d recommend caution using Mixer. Because Microsoft allows 12 and under onto its ID system, it may end up in the same boat as YouTube. It’s probably a matter of time before the FTC targets Microsoft and Mixer with similar actions.

Here’s what Mixer’s terms of service say about age requirements:

User Age Requirements

  • Users age 12 years and younger cannot have a channel of their own. The account must be owned by the parent, and the parent or guardian MUST be on camera at all times. CAT should not have to guess whether a parent is present or not. If such a user does not appear to have a guardian present, they can be reported, so CAT can investigate further.
  • Users aged 13-16 can have a channel, with parental consent. They do not require an adult present on camera. If they are reported, CAT will take steps to ensure that the parent is aware, and has given consent.

This looks great and all, but within the same terms of service area it also states:

Users Discussing Age In Chat

We do NOT have any rule against discussing or stating age. Only users who claim to be (or are suspected to be) under 13 will be banned from the service. If someone says they are under 13, it is your choice to report it or not; if you do report it, CAT will ban them, pending proof of age and/or proof of parental consent.

If someone is streaming and appears to be under 16 without a parent present, CAT may suspend the channel, pending proof of parental consent and age. Streamers under 13 have a special exception, noted [above].

If you’re wondering what “CAT” is, it stands for Community Action Team (AKA moderators) for Mixer. The above is effectively a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. It also means Mixer has no one to actively police the service for underage users, not even its CAT team. It also means that Mixer is aware that persons 12 and under are using Mixer’s services. By making the above statement, it opens Mixer up to auditing by the FTC for COPPA compliance. If you’re considering using Mixer, this platform could also end up in the same boat as YouTube sooner rather than later considering the size of Microsoft as a company.

Basically, Twitch’s Terms of Service are a better written for creator piece of mind.

➡️ “What is ‘burden of proof’?”

When faced with civil legal circumstances, you are either the plaintiff or the defendant. The plaintiff is the party levying the charges against the other party (the defendant). Depending on the type of case, burden of proof must be established by the plaintiff to show that the defendant did (or didn’t) do the act(s) alleged. The type of burden of proof is slightly different when the action is a civil suit versus a criminal suit.

Some cases requires the plaintiff to take on the burden of proof to show the act(s) occurred. But, it’s not that simple for the defendant. The defendant may be required to bring both character witnesses and actual witnesses which may, in fact, establish a form of burden of proof that the acts could not have occurred. Even though burden of proof is not explicitly required of a defendant, that doesn’t mean you won’t need to provide evidence to exonerate yourself. In the case of a civil FTC action, the FTC is the plaintiff and your channel will be the defendant.

The FTC itself can only bring civil actions against another party. The FTC will be required to handle the burden of proof to prove that your channel not only collected the alleged COPPA protected data, but that you have access to and remain in possession of such data.

However the FTC can hand its findings over to the United States Department of Justice which has the authority to file both civil and criminal lawsuits. Depending on where the suit is filed and by whom, you could face either civil penalties or criminal penalties. It is assumed that the FTC will directly file its legal actions against COPPA as civil suits… but that’s just an assumption. The FTC does have the freedom to request the Department of Justice handle the complaint.

One more time, this article is not legal advice. It is simply information. If you need actual legal advice, you are advised to contact an attorney who can understand your specific circumstances and offer you legal advice for your specific circumstances.

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