INDEPENDENT NEWS

Waymo Luddites, the right to disconnect, NZ streaming, consu

Published: Thu 15 Feb 2024 12:30 PM
You can hear me talking about these topics on RNZ Nine-to-Noon with Kathryn Ryan. .
Angry mob wreck Waymo self-driving car
On Saturday a crowd smashed up and set fire to a Waymo self-driving car in San Francisco.
Waymo is part of Alphabet or Google and has been working on driverless cars for years.
The attackers were at a Chinese New Year celebration in San Fransisco’s Chinatown. They used a firework to set the car ablaze.
At the time the car was moving, without a driver, down a street that was crowded with pedestrians.
Cheering
While one group of people were attacking the car, another much larger group was watching. The San Francisco Standard report includes video footage where you can hear the crowd cheering the attackers on.
Thankfully, there were no passengers in the car at the time.
Many of the mainstream media reports say the reasons for the attack were not clear.
Motive?
The fact that an empty driverless car was attempting to push through the crowd might well have caused resentment. Crowds can lose their temper with car drivers in similar circumstances.
Waymo tried to play down the event. A spokes-critter told Reuters it was a one-off event.
That’s spin and not the whole story. There have been a number of similar attacks on driverless vehicles. This one happens to be one of the biggest and the most visible. It was dramatic and caught on film.
Messing with driverless cars
Organised groups have attempted to block the cars and others put traffic cones on the car roofs… that stops the sensors from working. In effect the cars have to halt in their tracks.
There is wider context here. In parts of the world and in certain communities there is growing anger about big tech companies in general. Tech giants have recently laid off huge numbers of employees in San Fransisco. That won’t help, but there’s no question any of that was behind the attack.
A more telling context is that late last year one of Waymo’s rivals, a driverless cab company called Cruise, had its licence to operate suspended after one of its cars hit a pedestrian and dragged them along the road.
Accidents will happen
Since then a cyclist was knocked off their bike. That upset cyclists, but again disgruntled cyclists don’t appear to be behind the attack.
In another incident a driverless car crashed into a fire truck. There are stories about herds of driverless cars mysteriously converging on areas causing traffic chaos.
New Luddites?
Is this the start of human resistance to our new overlords?
That’s unlikely. It has more to do a lot of pent-up anger and there was an opportunity for that to boil over. If we see more attacks on driverless cars then there could something significant going on.
Yet there are growing signs of discontent with big tech in general. In the 19th century England’s Luddites smashed textile the machinery that threatened their livelihoods. The modern equivalent would be writers and artists smashing the data centres that run the AI applications that are ruining their lives. There’s next to no chance of that happening, modern data centres are built like fortresses.
Australia passes Right To Disconnect law
This includes (for now) jail time for bosses who email after-hours.
Simon Sharwood covers the story at The Register.
Australia last week passed a Right To Disconnect law that forbids employers contacting workers after hours, with penalties including jail time for bosses who do the wrong thing.
The criminal sanction will soon be overturned – it was the result of parliamentary shenanigans rather than the government’s intent – and the whole law could go too if opposition parties and business groups have their way.
The federal law means that managers can’t ring employees outside work hours and expect an immediate response. As Sharwood points out, the odd way the law passed through Australia’s sometimes chaotic Parliament means that, temporarily, it is a criminal offence, but that wasn’t the original intention and looks set to be overturned.
Australia not unique
There are similar right to disconnect laws in parts of Europe.
It’s a potentially difficult area to legislate. Companies often give workers phones, iPads or laptops in the expectation they will be on call outside work hours. Huge numbers of employees catch up on their work in evenings or at the weekend. They may not love this, but the practice is well established.
The new law can’t realistically apply to every worker in every circumstance.
In my line of work, an editor might reasonably want to send a reporter to a news incident at the start of the day, not wait for them to hit the office before dispatching them.
It’s common for a sub-editor working nights to call an off duty journalist to clarify something written in a story. Stopping this would make news media far less efficient.
On-call jobs
Then there are the communications executives who work on call outside normal office hours. The PR for a electricity company may have to field media calls if there’s a major outage overnight.
No doubt there are many similar stories in other industries.
Australia’s Coalition, the opposition, says it will repeal the law if elected in 2025.
It’s a safe bet the current New Zealand government has no plans for similar legislation.
Ten years of streaming television in New Zealand
In 2014 thousands of Kiwis were signed up to the US version of Netflix. The official New Zealand service started in early 2015. About a year earlier a company called Coliseum Sports Media began selling English football as a streaming service.
You may remember Lightbox and Quickflix from that time. Sky TV’s Neon service began in 2015.
Given the blurry dates, why do I say we’ve had ten years of streaming?
Fibre adoption
Because if you look at a graph of New Zealand fibre adoption over the years there are three big upticks. The first started in 2014 as people turned on to streaming. The second was in the run up to the Rugby World Cup and the third was when everyone was sent home to work or study at the start of the Covid pandemic.
2014 was when it became clear the decision to build a fibre network was visionary. Over the next year New Zealand showed the second fastest rate of fibre adoption in the world. The one country with faster adoption was Japan.
In 2014 the fibre network was small, the majority of early streamers would have used VDSL or even ADSL services on copper networks. While these technologies could cope with streams, the fibre experience was noticeably better and delivered higher quality pictures.
Since 2014 Lightbox merged with Neon. Spark took over the rights to English football, then became Spark Sport offering football with other codes before leaving the field to Sky.
Streaming proliferation
Dozens of other streaming services have emerged… too many if you ask me.
And the prices have shot up. Today Sky Sport Now is more than twice the price of the original Premier League pass… although it includes a lot more other sports.
Entertainment focused streaming services are all about twice the price they were a decade ago and each now seems to offer less programming… what’s more Netflix used to encourage password sharing but that’s now banned.
Price increases
Streamers are in the process of pushing advertising supported programming. Instead of cutting prices, they now offer non-advertising options at a higher price.
It’s a disguised price increase that, if it happened in a national market, could attract the attention of regulators. Given the popularity of streaming and its international natures, it’s unlikely anyone will act. And anyway, those advertising supported options are proving popular with audiences.
Until streaming services arrived in New Zealand you needed a VPN and in cases an overseas address to buy them on the international market. This was never illegal, but it was something of a grey area, media companies tend to licence material country-by-country, so a film that Netflix has the US rights for might have a different rights owner in New Zealand.
The alternative in those days was piracy. There were lots of stories about piracy… you may remember something one of the ISPs offered called ‘Global Mode’.
Either way, streaming almost killed off video and music piracy. But now prices are going up and streaming companies are introducing advertising and otherwise making their services worse, piracy is coming back.
Google moving customers of free services to paid plans
Over the weekend Google reached 100 million subscriptions for its Google One service. This is a paid version of its Gmail, Google Drive and Photos. The services were originally free and have been for years, but paying customers get more storage.
There are different plans, the cheapest costs NZ$3.50 a month for 100 GB of storage. There’s a plan with 2TB for $17 a month and if you’re keen you can pay $37 a month for a plan with 2TB and AI tools.
The free version of Gmail and Google Docs remain in place, but many people are running out of storage. The company’s plan is to move as many people as possible on to its paid for plans.
YouTube showed the way
Google has done much the same with YouTube. 20 years after offering everything for free and cutting a swath through the entire computer market, the company now wants these products to earn their keep.
Its business grade G-Suite switched from free to paid years ago. You can’t open a free business grade account these days.
Sure there is value in Google’s products. No-one is suggesting otherwise. Yet customers paid a non-cash price. Google mined customer data to sell ads and feed its AI engine.
Eventually you will have to pay for Gmail, Google Docs and everything else (except search) from Google that has been free for as long as most of us can remember.
Why is this happening now? Gmail and other Google services have been successful, they are, in effect, monopolies. It’s hard to leave Gmail and go elsewhere. And anyway, all those elsewhere’s cost money. By moving customers of these services to paid plans Google is cashing in on 20 years of investment and good will.
Waymo Luddites, the right to disconnect, NZ streaming, consumers pay for Gmail was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.
Digitl
Freelance journalist.
Auckland-based Bill Bennett writes technology and business stories that are directly relevant to New Zealand readers.
His emphasis is on telecommunications, but he also covers other aspects of technology and business. You can find his features in the New Zealand Herald and hear him regularly on RNZ Nine to Noon and the NZ Tech Podcast.
Bennett's The Download Weekly newsletter is published every Friday. You can sign up for it here. If you want to support his work, you can make a donation to his PressPatron account.
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