A weekly round up of news and views from the tech, creative and business world.
In the Prime of its life
Happy Birthday Amazon! The international behemoth turns 20 this month, after two decades spent pioneering many areas in user experience design: from the now (in)famous Customers Who Bought This Also Bought recommendation engine, to one-click purchasing, crowdsourcing of mundane tasks, instant tech-support over video, delivery via drone, the emergence of product reviews as a platform for comedy and the art of completely over-packaging tiny things.
The key to Amazon’s explosive success has been a devotion to constant innovation and aggressively loss-making business model. Items sold through Amazon are cheaper than their competitors, but lead to more overall sales. The inability of small businesses to compete with this model is considered a major factor in the decline of high-street stores. In response, the French government banned free shipping, which is why Amazon.fr now charges €0.01 for delivery.
Amazon has also faced controversy over the labour practises that underpin its extensive infrastructure. Although the company’s mammoth fulfilment warehouses are praised for bringing employment to economically deprived areas like Rugeley in the UK, Ben Roberts’ photography for the Financial Times and the fake ‘A Living-Wage For All Amazon Workers’ reveal the extreme pressures put on the workforce.
As Amazon expands its ambitions, new competition comes into view, with businesses as diverse as retail, publishing, media, entertainment, smartphones, tablets and e-readers. Recently, established delivery businesses have expressed concern over plans to deploy Amazon vans and even drones, in an attempt to kill the dreaded ‘we missed you’ delivery card.
Amazon has always sought to innovate and revolutionise the way we shop; edging out its competitors on the high-street by offering the cheapest and easiest way to buy almost anything. For the consumer, this offers unrivalled convenience and value, but at a cost that is making small businesses and governments increasingly uncomfortable.
Russia is drafting a bill to reduce reliance on foreign technology suppliers, including Microsoft, IBM, HP and Cisco. This comes after the Obama administration implemented sanctions on Russian banks, energy and defence companies, as punishment for interference with the Ukraine. After reports that US tech companies may follow suit, Russia preemptively put their own proposal in place, accelerating an existing bill aimed at supporting local IT production and reaching self sufficiency.
Russia’s Executive Secretary of the Commission for the State Duma, Andrey Chernogorov, stated, “given the current international tensions, substituting imports with local software and hardware becomes the key to ensuring self sufficiency.” The growing fear of bugs and backdoors installed in targeted products, which could leak information back to the US, will also impact the use of imported components.
This move will undoubtedly dent the profits of the US organisations in question. Foreign vendors together account for 67% of software and 90% of hardware currently used in Russia, and HP and IBM alone had a combined revenue from Russian sales of $6.3 billion last year.
When you think of Wikipedia vandalism you probably think of a bored thirteen-year-old substituting a public figure’s job description to “bollocks” or something comparatively innocuous and banal. Or maybe the rightful appointment of Tim Howard as the United States Secretary of Defense during the world cup. Sometimes it’s hard for us to imagine that this vandalism, something usually done by trolls for internet-sport, could be perpetrated by politicians and governmental entities to a strategic political end.
There have been several times in the past where a notable party has edited their own Wikipedia page, or vandalised another, and it has led to a public controversy. There’s a Wikipedia entry dedicated to detailing those times, and further posts about conflict of interest editing in the UK and the US specifically. Recently, somebody within the Russian Office of Propaganda was caught editing the Wikipedia page about flight MH17, placing the blame on Ukraine.
Wikipedia’s strength comes from its openly editable format, but this also proves to be a double-edged sword in these events. How can we preserve the spirit of Wikipedia without limiting who can contribute? Bots. Twitterbots, specifically. The Russian edit about MH17 was caught by the Twitterbot “Госправки” or @RuGovEdits. RuGovEdits works by detecting whenever a change to Wikipedia is made by IP addresses known to be coming from within the Russian government. As soon as it detects this, it posts a tweet announcing that an edit has happened and links to the article that was edited. This bot was inspired by ParliamentEdits, a Twitterbot created by Tom Scott that uses If This Then That to post a tweet whenever an edit made to Wikipedia comes from an IP address within the British Parliament. There is also a bot called CongressEdits that does this same thing for the US Congress. The source code for these bots is available online for anybody to make their own, and versions of the bots have now appeared in Canada, Australia, South Africa, The Netherlands, and Israel, with surely more to come. At times it can feel like the modern technological world is rife with opportunities for the powers-that-be to exploit for their own benefit; it can leave the regular man feeling downtrodden and discouraged. However, with inventions like the Edit bots, and the good work of organisation’s like Privacy International, we stand a chance of maintaining control through access to information.
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