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August 07 2012

14:00

Tired of Text Spam and Dropped Cell Phone Calls? You're Not Alone

Think you're the only one ready to throw your cell phone out the window the next time you have a dropped call or text spam? You're not alone, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. The survey found that cell phone problems are a common reality for the 280 million users in the United States.

The report identified four major cell phone problems: 72 percent of all cell users experience dropped calls, 68 percent of all cell users receive unwanted sales or marketing calls, 69 percent of text messaging users in the U.S. receive unwanted spam or text messages, and 77 percent of those who use Internet on their cell phones experience slower than desirable download speeds.

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The report also surveyed the frequency of all four mobile phone problems as experienced by smartphone owners. And in all four cases, smartphone owners reported higher incident rates. The largest margins are in spam and unwanted texts -- 29 percent of smartphone owners compared with 20 percent of other cell owners -- and slow download speeds -- 49 percent of smartphone owners compared with 31 percent of other cell owners.

Limited Solutions to Block Spammers

There are several ways people may attempt to remove cell phone nuisances from their daily lives. Step one is to contact your mobile carrier and request the available spam-blocking services.

University of New Hampshire student Feier Liu uses a non-smartphone and first called her mobile carrier to block a spam number about three years ago. The service was free, but only blocks individual numbers. Liu said she hasn't received a spam call since. She is certainly a lucky one.

Another service introduced back in March also counts on mobile users to vigilantly report spam text messages. North American mobile carriers have adopted a centralized spam-reporting service, which collects spam complaints into a shared database to help carriers identify and stop spammers. In practice, users forward spam texts to the shortcode 7726 (or SPAM), prompting the carrier to request the spam number.

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Allin Resposo, a web designer and smartphone user, has been reporting every spam text to 7726 since the service was introduced. Resposo hasn't seen an obvious decrease in spam and said that the spam texts are never from the same number.

While smartphones experience more problems, they paradoxically enable more possible solutions. A search for "block spam" on Google Play brings up dozens of apps created to block spam calls and texts. Most of these apps have ratings of four stars or more and could be worthwhile efforts for Android users. However, because of Apple's restrictions on developers, similar apps are not available for the iPhone, which, according to a prior Pew report, is used by some 53 million people in the U.S.

Finding Digital Authenticity

The Pew report stated, "It is against the law in the U.S. to place unsolicited commercial calls to a mobile phone when the call is made by using an automated random-digit dialing generator or if the caller uses a pre-recorded message." Yet spam phone calls, like those offering free cruises to the Bahamas with a pre-recorded "[fog horn] This is your captain speaking" are as real as ever. Clearly, spammers are evolving faster than legislation.

In fact, they may be piggybacking on our mobile dependence. The report also noted that non-white cell owners experience all four of the common cell phone problems at higher weekly rates than white cell owners, possibly due to the fact that "African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to rely on their cell phones as their primary or exclusive phones for calling and for Internet access."

Does all this indicate that more mobile usage equals more problems?

In a world where there are 14 million spam accounts on Facebook and probably similarly disturbing figures on other social networks, it's not hard to imagine that spammers on these mobile-enabled networks will find a way to spam our mobile devices.

Jenny Xie is the PBS MediaShift editorial intern. Jenny is a rising senior at Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying architecture and management. She is a digital-media junkie fascinated by the intersection of media, design, and technology. Jenny can be found blogging for MIT Admissions, tweeting @canonind, and sharing her latest work and interests here.

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February 03 2012

15:00

This Week in Review: Twitter’s censorship compromise, and Facebook files with big numbers

Twitter spells out its censorship policy: Just a couple of weeks after the SOPA/PIPA fight came to a head, Twitter pushed the discussion about online censorship a bit further when it announced late last week a new policy for censoring tweets: When Twitter gets requests from governments to block tweets containing what they deem illegal speech, its new policy will allow it to block those tweets only to readers within that country, leaving it visible to the rest of the world. Twitter will send notice that it’s blocked a tweet to the censorship watchdog Chilling Effects.

As the Guardian and The New York Times noted, much of the initial response among Twitter users consisted of complaints about censorship and the chilling of free speech in countries with oppressive regimes. The policy had critics elsewhere, too: BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin said “it’s hard to see this as anything but a huge setback and disappointment,” and the international group Reporters Without Borders sent an open letter to Twitter questioning the policy and urging the company to reconsider. And later, BoingBoing’s Rob Beschizza pointed out that even though Twitter implied that it had already been blocking tweets at the request of governments (which would have made the new policy a reduction in censorship), it’s never actually done so — only in response to legal challenges on copyright issues.

But perhaps surprisingly, Twitter had far more defenders than critics among media observers. Alex Howard of GovFresh put together the most comprehensive roundup of opinions on the subject, praising Twitter himself for “sticking up for users where it can.” Two free-speech advocates, Mike Masnick of TechDirt and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian York, made similar arguments: When a government is demanding censorship, Twitter can either refuse and be blocked entirely in that country, or it can comply. Twitter, they said, has chosen the latter in as limited and transparent fashion as possible.

Others, like The Next Web’s Nancy Messieh, commended Twitter for shifting the censorship focus to the government — as Reuters’ Paul Smalera argued, the gray box noting that a tweet has been censored in a certain country is a black mark for that government, not Twitter. The broadest argument in Twitter’s defense came from sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who, in addition to these arguments, also praised Twitter for its transparency and for allowing users an easy way to circumvent censorship.

Still others weren’t firmly on either side regarding the policy itself, but pointed to larger issues surrounding it. Media prof C.W. Anderson said that while Twitter did the best it could under the circumstances but showed it doesn’t have any values that override its place as a business: “non-market values are, in the long run, incompatible with the logic of the market, and what Twitter is trying to do now is reconcile what it believes with what the market needs it to do.” Tech pioneer Dave Winer called for people to learn to be able to organize themselves outside of Twitter’s infrastructure and the possibly of censorship.

In a pair of thoughtful posts, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram advised caution in trusting Twitter, recognizing that like Google and Facebook, it’s a business whose interests might not align with our own. The EFF’s York and Eva Galperin encouraged users and observers to keep a close eye on Twitter in order to keep them accountable for adhering to their professed beliefs.

Facebook goes public: Facebook’s much-anticipated filing for a public stock offering came on Wednesday, and The New York Times and Danny Sullivan at Marketing Land have the best quick-hit summaries of the S-1 document. The big numbers are mind-bogglingly big: 845 million monthly active users, $5 billion in stock, $3.71 billion in revenue last year, $1 billion in profit. Of that revenue, 85% came from advertising, and 12% came from the social gaming giant Zynga alone. (All Things D has the background on that relationship.) And when you average it out, Facebook’s only getting $4.39 in revenue per active user.

Aside from the numbers, among the other items of interest from the filings was its risk assessment — as summarized by Mashable, it sees slowing expected growth, difficulty in making money off of mobile access, competition from the likes of Google and Twitter, and global government censorship as some of its main risk factors. There’s also Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to shareholders, annotated with delightful snark by Wired’s Tim Carmody, which includes the explanation of a company code Zuckerberg calls “The Hacker Way.” Forbes’ Andy Greenberg made one of the first of what’s sure to be many comparisons between The Hacker Way and Google’s “Don’t Be Evil.” GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram took note of the grandiosity of Zuckerberg’s stated mission to rewire the world.

Two main questions emerged in commentary on the filing: How much is Facebook really worth? And what happens to Facebook now? To the first question, as The New York Times pointed out on the eve of Facebook’s filing, the company’s massive net worth is a stark indicator of the booming value of personal data collected online. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum took the opposite tack, wondering why Facebook gets so little money out of each of its hundreds of millions of users before concluding that “Facebook is still a young business figuring out how to sell ads and figuring it how aggressive it can get without ticking off users.”

To the second question, Mathew Ingram noted that going public is usually a way for tech companies to get the financing they need to build up for some major growth — something Facebook has already done. So, he asked, is this just an attempt for Facebook’s employees and backers to cash out, and the end of the company’s most productive growth phase? Leaning on tech entrepreneurship leader John Battelle, Wired’s Tim Carmody and Mike Isaac reasoned that Facebook is mature enough already that in order to attain the growth it’s promising, it needs to be in the midst of some massive changes as a company. A couple of guesses at some of those specific changes: More ads and purchases of tech companies (Fast Company) and a big ramp-up in mobile ads (Marketing Land).

Murdoch’s candor amid scandal: The phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. has continued to spread (rather quietly here in the States, but much more prominently in the U.K.), and it may have turned yet another corner with the arrest last weekend of four journalists from News Corp.’s Sun, significantly deepening the scandal beyond the now-defunct News of the World, where it began.

News Corp. has also turned over an enormous new trove of data which, along with the arrests, could begin to seriously threaten News Corp.’s other British newspapers, including the Times, according to the Guardian’s Nick Davies. British j-prof Roy Greenslade reported that many Sun staffers are worried that they may not be part of News Corp. much longer.

In the midst of all this, Murdoch’s feisty Twitter account continues unfettered, prompting praise from The New York Times’ David Carr for his refreshing candor. Mathew Ingram agreed that this “sources go direct” approach should be viewed as a boon, not a challenge, to serious journalism. The AP’s Jonathan Stray had perhaps the best summation of the relationship between sources using their own platforms and journalism: “When they want you to know, sources will go direct. When they don’t… that’s journalism.”

Reading roundup: It was a relatively quiet week outside of the big Twitter and Facebook stories, but there were still some cool nuggets to be found:

— Facebook’s relatively new Twitter-like Subscribe feature continues to draw complaints of rampant spam. Those criticisms have been led by Jim Romenesko, but this week the New York Daily News and Slate’s Katherine Goldstein chimed in, voicing concerns in particular about inappropriate comments directed toward women. Meanwhile, Mashable’s Todd Wasserman said Subscribe is ruining the News Feed.

— Big news in the journalism-academy world: Columbia and Stanford are teaming up to create a new Institute for Media Innovation, thanks to a $30 million gift from longtime Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown.

— Jay Rosen posted an inspiring interview with the Chicago Tribune’s Tracy Samantha Schmidt, gleaning some useful insights on how to nurture an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit within a large organization, rather than a startup.

— Megan Garber of The Atlantic presented the results of a Hot or Not-style study that determined what type of Twitter content people like. Here’s what they don’t like: Old news, Twitter jargon, personal details, negativity, and lack of context.

Rupert Murdoch photo by David Shankbone and original Twitter bird by Matt Hamm used under a Creative Commons license.

January 28 2011

15:30

February 28 2010

12:59
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