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Google’s former advertising VP starts a subscriber-only search engine

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Enlarge / Neeva doesn’t even have a logo yet, let alone any useful screenshots—so enjoy this remixed version of a 1940s coin-operated toilet cover dispenser instead.

In November 2017, Sridhar Ramaswamy—the head of Google’s $95 billion advertising arm—left the company after a scandal concerning advertisements for major corporations found on YouTube videos that put children in questionable situations. Ramaswamy told The New York Times that shortly after that incident, he decided that he needed to do something different in his life—because “an ad-supported model had limitations.”

Ramaswamy’s startup company, Neeva, is that “something different”—and though it, too, is a search engine, it seeks to sidestep some of Google’s problems by avoiding the ads altogether. Ramaswamy says that the new engine won’t show ads and won’t collect or profit from user data—instead, it will charge its users a subscription fee.

Neeva’s approach follows an old truism that says if you pay for something, you’re a customer—but if you get it for free, you’re a product. That’s likely to be a very difficult sell, to a public that has come to expect a service to be “free” and doesn’t often care very much about privacy aspects. Even if we handwave the difficulty of acquiring a market, other privacy-focused players are expressing significant doubt about Neeva’s approach.

Privacy-focused competitors have doubts

Search engine DuckDuckGo is probably the best-known privacy-focused Google competitor. DuckDuckGo serves ads but doesn’t track its users individually—its CEO, Gabriel Weinberg, says the ads are a practical necessity. “If you want the most impact to help the most people with privacy, you have to be free,” he said, “because Google will be free forever.”

However, DuckDuckGo may not be the most relevant comparison to Neeva. The new search engine is planned to be a second-tier provider, with public results sourced from Bing, Weather.com, Intrinio, and Apple. It also plans to offer its users the ability to link cloud accounts such as Google G Suite, Microsoft Office 365, and Dropbox. In addition to providing search results directly from these private sources, Neeva will include that data in building a profile to personalize search results for each user.

Startpage is a closer analogue to Neeva’s proposed model. Like Neeva, Startpage sources search results externally—in its case, directly from Google. Unlike Neeva, Startpage still shows Google ads and collects a cut of the proceeds. But it shows those ads without attempting to personalize them for the user—no profile is built, and the user’s potentially identifying information is stripped from the queries passed along to Google as well.

Startpage CEO Robert E.G. Beens reached out to Ars by email shortly after Neeva’s launch. He expressed extreme skepticism about Neeva’s model—he describes the connections to private data, personal profile building, and long-term data retention as “a hacker’s dream, and a user’s nightmare.” He expressed equally strong opinions about Neeva’s actual privacy policy, calling it “a joke—and not a funny one,” after remarking that “marketing messages can claim almost anything, but a privacy policy has legal status.”

We should note that there are two different sections of Neeva’s site that appear to address privacy concerns—a Digital Bill of Rights prominently featured in the company’s about page, and the official Privacy Policy, linked more austerely from the footer of each page.

Problematic privacy policy

Neeva’s Digital Bill of Rights appears to be just the sort of marketing message Beens alluded to. It makes lofty statements about users’ rights to privacy, controls to data collection, data usage transparency, and user ownership of their own data. It further declares that companies in general should respect those rights—but it makes no outright promises about whether or how Neeva will respect them. The closest thing to a concrete statement of policy on the page is a line at the bottom stating “we at Neeva stand by [these values], in solidarity with you.”

We do <strong>not</strong> share, disclose, or sell your personal information with third parties. Except when we do.
Enlarge / We do not share, disclose, or sell your personal information with third parties. Except when we do.

Neeva’s Privacy Policy, by contrast, is a standard legal document and reads like one. It’s also much more concrete and lays out some troubling details that sound opposed to the lofty ideals expressed in Neeva’s Digital Bill of Rights. The section Disclosing Your Information to Third Parties even seems to contradict itself.

Neeva opens that section by saying it does not share, disclose, or sell your personal information with third parties “outside of the necessary cases below”—but those necessary cases include “Affiliates,” with the very brusque statement that Neeva “may share personal information with our affiliated companies.”

Although the subsections on both Service Providers and Advertising Partners are hedged with usage limitations, there are no such limits given for data shared with “Affiliates.” The document also provides no concrete definition of who the term “Affiliates” might refer to, or in what context.

Long-term private data retention

More security-conscious users should also be aware of Neeva’s Data Retention policy, which simply states “we store the personal information we receive as described in this Privacy Policy for as long as you use our Services or as necessary to fulfill the purposes for which it was collected… [including pursuit of] legitimate business purposes.”

Given that the data collection may include direct connection to a user’s primary Google or Microsoft email account, this might amount to a truly unsettling volume of personal data—data that is now vulnerable to compromise of Neeva’s services, as well as use or sale (particularly in the case of acquisition or merger) by Neeva itself.

Current availability

Neeva is currently in limited beta testing and not available for general use. Interested potential users can join a waitlist to become an early tester.

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YouTube flags horror video as “for kids,” won’t let creator change rating

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Enlarge / YouTube thinks the dark and creepy “Local58TV” series is for kids.

Google’s wonderful content moderation bots are at it again. After previously doing things like including suicide instructions in a children’s video, and the whole Elsagate problem, YouTube is now flagging a horror video as “for kids.” Worst of all, this is against the creator’s wishes. The video was previously flagged as for ages 18 and up, and YouTube decided it was for kids and won’t let the creator restore its content rating.

The video in question is from horror series Local58TV. The creator, Kirs Straub, checked his account over the weekend to find that his not-for-kids content has been spotted by YouTube’s content moderation AI, and automatically marked for kids.

“For kids” in this context means Google has flagged the video for inclusion in the “YouTube Kids” app, which is a separate interface for YouTube that is supposed to only show a “safe” curated slice of YouTube. The “Kids” flag also means the video is forced to comply with US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), so comments are turned off.

Local58TV has millions of views across its nine videos and is famous enough to have a Wikipedia page. The channel’s about page describes itself as “ANALOG HORROR AT 476 MHz. Unsettling shorts in the found footage/VHS aesthetic from Kris Straub.” The channel’s most popular video, “Contingency,” is a faux public service announcement from the “US Department for the Preservation of American Dignity.” The message, set to an ultra-creepy rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, declares that America has lost the war and was forced to surrender. Before the occupiers arrive though, you can “take America with you” by murder/suiciding your family. The video continues with instructions. This is obviously not the type of channel that is for kids!

YouTube, this title does not mean what you think it means.
Enlarge / YouTube, this title does not mean what you think it means.

YouTube doesn’t get the Local58TV vibe though. It automatically flagged one episode, titled “Show For Children” as for children. You can see how an AI bot might get its wires crossed from that title, but it immediately says “Not for Children” in the description, and the creator, Straub, originally set the video’s age rating as “18+” when it was uploaded.

The episode is a black-and-white cartoon where a cute cartoon skeleton wanders around a graveyard looking for a cute cartoon girlfriend skeleton, only to find horrifying, more realistic skeletons and other creatures in the open graves. At the end of the video, seemingly from depression, the cute skeleton lays down in a grave and dies, turning into a realistic skeleton. The cartoon is something an AI bot might not understand, but a human could immediately tell the unsettling video is not kid-friendly. YouTube is certainly not hurting for money having done $28.8 billion in revenue last year, but it does not hire a significant number of human moderators.

YouTube not only flagged a video explicitly marked as “inappropriate for kids” as “made for kids” it also won’t let the creator change it back. The video’s content is now labeled “Made for kids (set by YouTube)” and Straub is forced to file an appeal with YouTube to get the video’s age rating corrected.

Even if you’re using robots for moderation, it doesn’t make a ton of sense for YouTube to be in this position. For every single video upload, YouTube asks if a video is kid-friendly or not. Since YouTube already has this data, it’s not clear why it would ever try to automatically categorize videos, especially by lowering an age rating that was explicitly set as “adults only.” For something as delicate and subjective as whether or not certain content should be viewed by a kid, it seems like Google should be erring on the side of caution.

🎵 One of these things is not like the others! One of these things, doesn't belong! 🎵
Enlarge / 🎵 One of these things is not like the others! One of these things, doesn’t belong! 🎵

At press time, Straub went public with the issue 20 hours ago and it hasn’t been resolved. The “Team YouTube” Twitter account said it was “looking into” the complaint nine hours ago. You can tell the video is still flagged for children due to the disabled comments section and the “Try YouTube Kids!” ad at the bottom. You also only get suggestions for other “kids” content, which, at a glance, does not appear to feature as much death as the usual Local58TV content.

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IDC: “All eyes will be on Apple” as Meta’s VR strategy “isn’t sustainable”

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Enlarge / The Oculus Quest 2.

A recent media release from market research firm IDC predicts that Meta (the parent company of Facebook) may not be able to compete in the mixed-reality business in the long run if its strategy remains unchanged.

The media release offers a bird’s-eye view of the virtual reality hardware marketplace. In the release, IDC research manager Jitesh Ubrani said that, while “Meta continues to pour dollars into developing the metaverse, [the company’s] strategy of promoting low-cost hardware at the expense of profitability isn’t sustainable in the long run.”

A similar concern was raised by tech industry analyst Ming-Chi Kuo late last month. Kuo predicted that Meta would make moves to scale down investment in virtual reality, creating an opening for Apple and other competitors. He also wrote that Meta’s practice of selling VR headsets at a loss is unsustainable.

Currently, Meta owns 90 percent of the VR headset market, according to the IDC release. In distant second is ByteDance’s Pico, at just 4.5 percent. Overall, VR headset shipments jumped 241.6 percent year over year in the first quarter of 2022. But the industry faced significant supply issues in Q1 2021, contributing to “a favorable comparison” for this year’s Q1.

Like Kuo a couple of weeks ago, IDC research director Ramon Llamas said that “all eyes will be on Apple as it launches its first headset next year.” Apple’s headset is expected to be much more expensive than Meta’s offerings, driving up the average unit price for the product category across the board, and Llamas believes Apple’s offering “will appeal primarily to a small audience of early adopters and Apple fans.”

In other words, don’t expect the first Apple headset to ship vastly more units than Meta’s Oculus Quest 2 right out of the gate. It’s just a first step in a long-term plan to own the mixed-reality market. As several reports over the past couple of years have noted, that plan will ultimately involve low-cost AR glasses and other products that will seek to broaden the user base for mixed-reality hardware.

Apple and Meta are not the only companies working on mass-market mixed-reality hardware products. We reported in April that Amazon posted several job listings soliciting candidates who can help the company build an “advanced” AR/VR product. And in December, we learned from job listings that Google plans to build a new augmented-reality device and operating system.

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How to turn off Gmail’s new sidebar (and other ways to deal with New Gmail)

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The new desktop Gmail design started rolling out this weekend. If you use the default theme, you’ll know it has arrived when your entire Gmail interface turns blue. Gmail’s new design first entered an opt-in preview in February, and after gathering feedback and fixing a few things, Google is pushing the design out to everyone. Everyone dislikes Gmail changes, so let’s talk about what’s different and how to turn it back.

A few things have changed between now and the February preview. The most striking change is the all-blue color scheme. Google’s blog post says: “You’ll notice the new navigation now features Material You, our updated, fresh look and feel for your Google apps.” “Material You” launched with Android 12 as a color-coordinated theming system that matched your OS color scheme with your wallpaper. There’s no color-matching with Gmail’s “Material You,” though, just the blue color scheme.

Gmail still has a theme system, so you can change the color to whatever you want. Click on the settings gear in the top right and then under the “theme” section, click “view all.” The background closest to Old Gmail is the solid “soft grey” background option. To truly match the Old Gmail background, you would want “white,” but that’s not an option. (You can also pick from your Google Photos collection via a “my photos” link at the bottom, and I tried uploading a solid-white background, but trying to apply it only brings up an error message). This “theme” screen is also where you can apply Gmail’s weirdly hidden dark mode: Just pick the black background option, and everything will switch over to light text on a dark background.

The other change you might want to make involves fixing our biggest complaint with New Gmail: that new, giant sidebar. Google has long had the strategy of shoving whatever new products it wants to promote into Gmail, and the new Gmail design comes with a big, full-height sidebar featuring only four icons: one for Gmail, two for Google Chat (Google’s latest messaging app), and one for Google Meet (Google’s version of Zoom meetings). Gmail already has a sidebar, but this new design adds a second sidebar, which feels like a big banner ad for Google’s other communication apps. Thankfully, in between the February preview and this on-by-default rollout, Google apparently listened to feedback and added the option to turn off the sidebar.

This new “no-sidebar” option isn’t very obvious, but you can kill the Gmail sidebar by turning off Google Chat and Google Meet. Just head to the settings gear, then the “Customize” link under “Chat and Meet.” Un-tick both checkboxes, and the sidebar will disappear, allowing you to reclaim a lot of screen real estate. It’s strange that New Gmail works this way when Old Gmail put Gmail controls, Google Chat, and Google Meet all in a single, adjustable sidebar, but that’s what Google chose to do.

Turning off the two-sidebar layout not only makes New Gmail look a lot more like Old Gmail—it also makes the regular Gmail sidebar work the way it used to. With the two-sidebar layout, clicking the hamburger button to collapse the sidebar only shows the app switcher and not any of the Gmail controls—you see links for Google Chat and Google Meet instead of “Inbox,” “Stars,” “Spam,” etc. When you turn off Google Chat and Meet, though, collapsing the Gmail sidebar once again shows Gmail controls inside Gmail! Huzzah.

If you really don’t like the new Gmail, you still can, for at least a little while longer, opt out of the new design. Click the settings gear, and you should still see a “Go back to the original view” option. This won’t last forever, though, and you’ll have to get used to New Gmail eventually. The original version was rough, but Google seems to have listened to the complaints about the second sidebar. If you tick the right settings boxes, you’ll see that there is no longer much difference between New Gmail and Old Gmail.

Listing image by Google

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