Earn free cash with your breasts

November 12th, 2013 6 Comments By Thewlis

bf 300x225 Earn free cash with your breastsWe’re always on the lookout for new and interesting ways to make money here at Bitterwallet, so this latest Government-funded initiative really caught our eye. And not (just) because it’s related to female body parts. The problem is that it’s well, a bit niche, as you need to be a breastfeeding mother in order to get the cash for, well, doing what comes naturally. Yes, breastfeeding is what breasts are actually for.

In a new pilot scheme, breastfeeding mothers in deprived areas of Sheffield and Chesterfield will get paid £200 in shopping vouchers for breastfeeding their child in a scheme co-funded by the government and medical research organisations. The aim is to improve the breastfeeding rates in these areas, where the average rate of breastfeeding is just 25% at 6-8 weeks, compared with a national average of 55%. If the scheme is successful, a national scheme could be rolled out next year.

Operation of breastfeeding will be confirmed by midwives and health visitors, and the full £200 will only be paid after six months of breastfeeding, although those stopping after 6-8 weeks should pocket up to £120.

Dr Clare Relton, of Sheffield University who are leading the project said she hoped the financial incentives would create a culture where breastfeeding was seen as the norm.

“It is a way of acknowledging both the value of breastfeeding to babies, mothers and society,” she added.

But Janet Fyle, of the Royal College of Midwives, was less impressed:

“The motive for breastfeeding cannot be rooted by offering financial reward. It has to be something that a mother wants to do in the interest of the health and well-being of her child.”

Breastfeeding should appeal to those on lower incomes as there is no need to pay for formula milks, bottles and sterilising equipment, not withstanding the oft-quoted health benefits for the baby. But, as the statistics themselves show, financial considerations are unlikely to form a large part of any decision-making process in deciding whether or not to breastfeed. However, rewarding those who do will presumably contribute to a generally more positive view of doing it.

Besides, breastfeeding for money is not actually new- wet nurses were very popular in Victorian times and are still seen as a symbol of status in some areas of China. Still, the scheme is likely to be unpopular with those who don’t, or can’t breastfeed, and with those wondering why people should get paid to feed their own children…

Is getting stuff for free worth the aggro?

September 21st, 2013 13 Comments By Thewlis

free 300x225 Is getting stuff for free worth the aggro?Most people think of Facebook as merely a social/anti-social network full of Friends you never see. But for some people, Facebook is also a shopping site- more recently Facebook has become awash with local selling sites, as people realised they could avoid the crippling costs of both eBay/Paypal and Royal Mail, by selling their crap to someone who lived down the road.

However, as the economic squeeze has tightened, and persisted, there are a growing number of ‘free’ ‘thrift’ and ‘recycle’ pages springing up around the country. Again, these are mostly locally based, and the idea behind them is that, just because you don’t want something, someone else might be able to put it to good use, either as is, or they might upcycle (paint) it.

Sounds good in theory. Why not save serviceable items from landfill and help out a neighbour on the way?

Unfortunately, it seems is less simple in practice. Taking just a small sample of sites available, they are full of rules, arguments and (if admins are to be believed) threats of physical violence, all in pursuit of someone’s old toaster. The main issues can be split into the following categories:

First commenter. Some sites stipulate that the first person to comment should get the item. However, this invariably means that some slug somewhere with no job and nothing better to do than troll Facebook free sites ends up getting everything. All day.

Greed. See above. Some sites have bans on people getting  more than a certain number of items per day. These are (we can only hope) only children who never learned to share.

Sob stories. The only alternative to the First Commenter to determine who gets the free item seems to be Worst Lifestory method. Here, would-be owners of whatever item compete to tell the most heart-wrenching stories in order to earn the favour of the person donating. Clearly it doesn’t matter if said stories are actually true.

Car booters. Free sites are full of disgruntled donators who have found their clock/shoes/tv stand for sale at a local car boot. It is irrelevant that they were going to chuck the item, and have given it away (ie relinquished any rights of ownership) over the item. If anyone’s making a profit on the item, they should be. Particularly if the enterprising car booter is also an inventive sob-story writer.

Wanted ads. Yes, I’d like a new 42” HD TV too, but I don’t expect someone to give me one for nothing. The requests on these sites can be increasingly bizarre, from equipment to start a plumbing business, a new coat, to a rug to cover the stain on the floor before the midwife comes. Still, if you don’t ask…

Many of these sites get hundreds of posts a day, allowing you to trawl through photos of other people’s crap to your heart’s content- just so long as you are also prepared to put up with the swearing, insults, threats, shocking spelling and whingeing that goes along with it*.

So do you use these sites? Are they worth the effort or is it just another excuse for people to moan at each other and do the charity shop out of a few bob?

* come to think of it, sounds a bit like our comments section

According to a You Gov consumer research report, commissioned by First Assist Insurance Services (who, coincidentally, provide private healthcover), many of us are expecting NHS services to decline, with half of us thinking about paying for additional cover. 48% of people surveyed polled expect the service provided by the NHS to deteriorate in the next year, and 59 per cent expecting waiting times to increase.

Maintenance of Government spending levels was also a concern, with 48% anticipating a fall in NHS funding. Many people think some services should be cut to allow greater funding for more universal health concerns, with tattoo removal, cosmetic surgery and weight loss surgery being top of the list.firstassist not available nhs 500x334 Half of us would pay to cover NHS shortfalls?

As a result, 41% of respondents said they would (definitely or possibly) consider private healthcare products. Nine per cent have already purchased cover, which could mean that half of the UK will end up paying to supplement the insufficient NHS provision.

firstassist buy private health 500x227 Half of us would pay to cover NHS shortfalls?

But is this a good thing? If people can afford to pay, should they, or should the NHS be truly universal and free?  Are there just too many people not paying enough in taxes?

mbn shark wideweb  470x3210 300x204 Water companies are taking the used toilet waterThe thing about privatisation is that it’s a really good idea-on paper. Business become efficient; costs are minimised and customer service maximised so everyone wins. Unfortunately, the problem with privatisation is that it involves capitalism, where someone is always out to make a buck. And that someone is never the consumer.

Now, it seems, even industry regulators are annoyed with the free market, and the associated right of private companies to do as they want (and they generally want to make as much profit as possible), with both the current and former heads of Ofwat openly criticising the naughty behaviour of some water companies.

Both Jonson Cox, chair of Ofwat and former chief Sir Ian Byatt are particularly narked over the large dividends water companies have paid out to their shareholders, many of whom are now private equity firm investors. Instead of paying out profits to shareholders (as a public/private company normally does), they think any excess over a ‘reasonable amount’ of dividend should in fact be returned to customers in the form of a bill rebate. Kind of how it used to work before privatisation.

Supporting a report by thinktank CentreForum, Sir Byatt advocated “some form of dividend control” where “payments of dividends above those assumed by the regulator when setting price limits, would be accompanied by reductions in the tariffs paid by customers”. Mr Cox told the Telegraph last month that some water companies’ profit levels and tax-reducing corporate structures were “morally questionable”.

To further annoy the regulator, many water companies are described as borrowing ‘excessively’, while paying out large dividends. This makes perfect sense for a profit-making company, as loan interest is tax deductible, but dividend payments are not. The final bugbear is Thames Water’s attempt to secure public (taxpayer) funding for its multi-billion pound “super sewer” project, despite earning huge profits (and paying no tax. Allegedly) in recent years.

The problem, of course, is that water companies are selling a commodity we all need, but much like the energy companies, have become a victim of their own success. The whole point of privatisation was to make companies more efficient and thereby profitable, but now that they are doing (very) well, this is no good either. Ofwat already caps the prices that can be charged for water, and this includes an element of profit. Surely if water companies can make large profits on top of that they either deserve those profits owing to impressive cost savings and excellent business management, or Ofwat is setting the prices wrongly.  And any number of private companies get handouts from the Government to support their own, profit-making businesses; Amazon and Honda and Jaguar to name but a few. And while energy bills are sky-rocketing, are water bills at an average of £32 a month for all the fresh running water you could want really so extortionate?

Answers on a postcard.

gal attendant united jpg 232x300 Apologists are United for passenger thrown off planeMatthew is 26 years old, writes a popular blog about the airline industry and is a frequent flyer – so frequent, in fact, that he’s due to hit a million airmiles accumulated with United Airlines.

The guts of the story is this: Matthew was flying from Newark to Istanbul in business class. He wanted to write a review of the new cabins and took a single photo , while seated, of the headrest in front. A flight attendant warned him it was against company policy to take photos of the aircraft (it’s arguable whether it is or not), and went on to chastise another passenger for doing similar. As a frequent flyer, Matthew felt the need to apologise, so he said to the attendant:

“I want you to understand why I was taking pictures. I hope you didn’t think I was a terrorist. Here is my business card [offering her one]. I write about United Airlines on an almost-daily basis and the folks at United in Chicago are even aware of my blog.”

This exchange led to Matthew being led away by an airline representative and, eventually, a conversation with the captain:

Captain: Sir, you are not flying on this flight.

Me: Can you tell me why?

Captain: My FA tells me she told you to stop taking pictures and you continued to take pictures.

Me: That’s a lie, captain. She told me stop taking pictures and I stopped. I did try to explain to her why I was taking pictures—I am a travel writer [I offered him one of my business cards and he too refused to accept it].

Captain: Look, I don’t care. You are not flying on this flight. You can make this easy or make this difficult. We’ll call the police if we have to.

Me: Why are you threatening me? Your FA is lying—I did not disobey any crewmember instruction.

Captain: Look, we’re already late. I’d advise you to get off this plane now. Make it easy on yourself. Don’t make us bring the police in. Goodbye.

That’s the short version; the full details are available on Matthew’s blog. The bottom line is that Matthew is angry at the flight attendant because she lied to the captain by claiming he ignored her and continued taking photos:

 I did nothing wrong and the FA who lied about me should be held to account by United. Surely, a liar is more of a security threat than a passenger who wants to take a picture of his seat.

I have nothing to hide other than my humiliation for being thrown off a flight on the pretense of a mistruth.

Several passengers on the same flight have commented on the blog and verified key aspects of Matthew’s story, but there’s plenty of support for his version of events, but what’s more interesting is the reaction from others reading the story. Not those who think Matthew is an idiot for using the word “terrorist’ (after all, one terrorist attack 11 years ago should mean we should never try and deny being one), but those who are adamant that Matthew was an idiot for taking the time to apologise in the first place:

Learn how to swallow your pride and keep your mouth shut.

Suck it up princess in future when in business class just kick back, smile be happy and enjoy the flight.

There is a reason for the airlines rules. It is to protect the public and I would like to be safe as a single mother of two girls. I suggest passengers get on the flight, behave and have respect for other passengers as well as the flight crew.

Reading your version of events, United is mostly to blame. you share some of the blame though. She told you to stop taking pictures, and right or wrong, you should have just stopped and let the matter go.

Hate to say it, but you should have stopped taking the pictures (like you did), apologize, and not mention the subject again.

The best thing to do at this point is STFU, work it out with UAL, and hope that they don’t flag you onto the no-fly list.

Thanks to the internet we’ve become world-class complainers; everyone has a voice, including those who have nothing to say and no right to say it. Social media is worse, full of customers telling half-truths and outright lies in a bid to extract compensation from companies. In amongst all the bluster, however, are genuine grievances, concerns and complaints. The bottom line is that ‘passengers’ are ultimately ‘customers’ too – so how did we get to the point where so many feel they’re not allowed to speak onboard a plane, let alone complain?

What say you, avid reader? Apologist nonsense or passenger lunacy?

Tax Credits changes- a low blow?

February 15th, 2012 13 Comments By Thewlis
blood from stone Tax Credits changes  a low blow?

picture from strategystew.com

Now that all that ridiculous furore about certain bankers’ measly £1million bonus has all died down, politicians can get back to more serious financial matters. Like explaining to an estimated 212,000 ( or 82,000 if you are currently in Government) households why their tax credit income is going to fall by a quarter or more in two months’ time.

The changes, coming in from 6 April this year, are not new, but the extent of the application of the changes means that it is not just the middle classes with child benefit facing a drop in income. The region with the most affected households likely to be London (46,205), followed by the North West (26,845), West Midlands (22,675) and Yorkshire and the Humber (20,225).

From April, couples with at least one child need to jointly work 24 hours a week, with one working at least 16 hours a week, to continue to receive the ‘working’ element of the tax credits. Previously the minimum working requirement was 16 hours. The full working element is worth up to £3,870 per year.

The example shown on the Direct.gov website of a married couple with one child, where one parent works 16 hours a week earning £13,000 shows a drop in tax credits of £19 a week , down from £81 to £62 a week. This equates to a drop of 23.5% in tax  credits. And assumes the worker is capable of earning nearly £17 an hour.

Treasury Minister Chloe Smith’s excuse, as given to BBC News, was that that the policy was part of “what we have to do as a country to get out of the enormous deficit mess left by Labour,” adding that it was not unfair because it “levels two parent households with what lone parents have to do.”

Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Rachel Reeves said “This is a deeply unfair change from a government that is increasingly out of touch with parents feeling the squeeze and struggling to juggle work and family life.”

Now. At  this point, if you work long hours and still have little disposable income, you may be struggling to find sympathy for those affected, even for the 470,000 children who have no say in the matter. However, whatever your personal feelings, if we look at the changes purely on a practical level, it isn’t hard to see why Labour are rubbing their hands at the mess the Government has created for themselves.

Firstly, while it may be easy to demand people conjure up an extra 8 hours work per week, if you are unskilled and facing/experiencing long-term unemployment, actually getting extra work is likely to prove more difficult. Even those with a job are often facing cuts to their hours, rather than being offered overtime.

Secondly, this change only applies to parents with at least one child. While those with children of school age could probably find the time (if not perhaps the work) to work 8 or 16 hours a week, what about those with pre-schoolers? Even assuming the free nursery places are available, at 15 hours per week, term time only, it is difficult even in a booming recession to find an 8 hour per week plus job that fits these criteria.

Thirdly, what exactly is the Government trying to achieve with these changes? Presumably they want people on benefits to work harder for their free money, but if an employer only has 48 hours work per week, increasing the minimum requirement to 24 hours would effectively put one person out of a job- surely the ideal would be three people working 16 hours a week rather than two at 24 hours each, if we want to encourage as many people as possible into work?

And assuming people find it too difficult to achieve the increased minimum, what are they going to do instead? Live apart? The new requirement only applies to couples, so by booting a parent out, a single parent could regain that money. Stop working altogether? Employment Support Allowance and Income Support could leave them better off.

While the motives behind the changes may be laudable, ish, the reality for thousands of families is going to be much more difficult. The Government defend the changes by pointing out that the child element of child tax credit will increase in April by inflation of 5.2% and that fuel duty and council tax (bearing in mind how those people on benefits drive gaz guzzler cars and pay council tax on their council house) have been frozen.

That’s OK then.

The death of online price comparison

December 23rd, 2011 40 Comments By Paul Nikkel

ciao1 300x118 The death of online price comparisonThe news of Microsoft selling off Ciao to the mid-size French company LeGuide.com has us scratching our heads here at Bitterwallet HQ and wondering if we are seeing the end of online price comparison. The golden days seem to be behind us as the old big names slump in traffic and value. Ciao was bought by Microsoft for a half-billion dollars only a few years ago but has been bought in cash by a company with EBT of €8.6m and a market cap of only €51m. Kelkoo was bought by Yahoo back in 2004 for €450m and sold a scant 4 years later for a rumoured fraction of the price. Pricegrabber jumped on the mid-2000 sales club by selling to Experian for a half-billion and has slipped down the traffic rankings since then.

It seems the heady valuations of 6 years ago haven’t panned out as the sector has declined in popularity even though online shopping has grown massively. Indeed it seems illogical that price comparison portals with their early head start haven’t become the defacto starting point for online shopping. While other ecommerce sites such as codes, group shopping, cashback, and deals have exploded, the comparison sites have taken a distant back seat.

There are two probable reasons for this decline: (1) comparison sites were built on the idea of a rational consumer, someone who was carefully planning and executing on their purchases, (2) the model and traffic of price comparison in the first decade was built around traffic arbitrage and search rather than genuine consumers.

Let’s take apart reason two first. The initial boom of price comparison was built on the back of organic search as comparison sites churned out millions of pages optimised to rank on the long tail of model number and product search. If you think back to 2004 you probably remember doing a model number search and seeing nothing but page after page of comparison sites ranking for these keywords. Google slapped down these rankings on an individual basis with site penalties in the subsequent years but their recent focus culminating in Panda has made this a central part of Google’s ranking algorithm. In a nutshell Google doesn’t want pages rankings which are simply link collections to other sites – they want unique content or some value add. Second, the early comparison models were built around CPC (cost-per-click) payments from retailers to the comparison sites. A little bit of simple math (buy incoming clicks for less than outgoing clicks) meant they were able to funnel through large amounts of traffic from cheap sources and simply arbitrage the pricing. This practice has declined as cheap traffic sources have declined and retailers improved their source value attribution tracking and moved away from CPC towards performance models. Lastly, the entrance of Google into the comparison market with Froogle (now Google Shopping/Product Search) and mainly the promotion of these Google Shopping results to the top of the results page has meant that organic traffic for comparison has pretty much dried up.

The second reason is not as simple but I think strikes to the core of why comparison was valued so highly at its peak. When shopping tools are built we often consider the end user to be a rational and ideal future self – the kind of future self that will eat healthy, budget carefully, bike to work and never get *that* drunk again. In reality our present self is very different and driven more by soft social and psychological factors rather than logical reasoning. In the sector of online shopping the price comparison site is more of a tool for the rational future self which is not the mode most people are in when they make a purchase. On paper it looks like the price comparison site would be a necessary piece of the online shopping boom – after all wouldn’t every single purchase be checked on a price comparison before going through checkout?

In the end it seems that convenience and reputation are still as powerful online as offline. Consumers continue to keep Amazon as the largest online shop because they trust the service, enjoy the convenience and more or less believe that it’s probably a reasonable price they are paying. Sites like Groupon have shown that consumers will happily purchase without comparison based on the narrative of the sale (50% off!!) and the time pressure (today only!).

A third reason for the decline in price comparison may be that the online market has become increasingly large and less transparent. With the boom in private sale sites where prices are hidden behind a registration wall, special discounting services like Amazon Prime, and, again, sites like Groupon where prices are short-term and limited, it has become difficult to compare true prices. Simply put, the price is harder to compare than in early online shopping days where the number of merchants was limited and prices were easier to compare like-for-like.

A last bit to throw in is that as online shopping has become the norm and more brands have become trusted consumers may be less likely to visit price comparison as a trust reference and product discovery mechanism.

After all that waffling on – what say you the Bitterwallet consumer? Have you found your price comparison use habits shifting? Do you remember using comparison sites more in the past?

There’s few things I like musing about more than what comes next for high street retail. Anyone reading Bitterwallet or active on HUKD probably agrees with me that the high street electronics chains are a terminal case without much reason to look into resuscitation options – the recent Best Buy and Comet collapses back that up – so we don’t have much to talk about there. Let’s move straight to what the future of the high street may look like for electronic retail presuming that big box dies.

The biggest problem for any bricks and mortar retailer is that there isn’t an information gap for consumers anymore. You could look at the past decades of high street retail as being an arbitrage of information – the chains knew where to buy goods cheap and the consumer couldn’t easily compare the prices and sources for goods. The retailer was able to profit off the consumer not easily knowing whether their pricing was good or poor. On top of the pricing information gap you also had an information gap where the average consumer did not have a reliable source (we’re talking large scale adoption of internet) of information on what product was suitable for needs, reviews, and other unbiased advice. So the consumer was really reliant on the high street retailer for product/sector advice as well as honesty in pricing competitively.

Now that information gap is gone and the average consumer is becoming more and more product savvy (they don’t need the retailer’s help in evaluating a product) and price savvy. This is becoming even more pronounced now that mobile has come of age and we’re able to product *and* price check in store.

High street retail has pretty much become a free product showroom for Amazon to sell products. We are already at the point where a consumer can walk into a store, check out the physical product, compare online and buy immediately from an online retailer for delivery today (admittedly only in the major centres aka London). The b&m retailer is supporting that purchase without making a pence from it and Amazon (plus the consumer) is laughing all the way to the eBank.

Oddly, combined with this shift to buying online using the barcode of the physical product we also seem to like buying online to pick up offline… which is the reverse of the above trend. Argos have been issuing profit warnings but it does seem to be the case that many are buying from Argos online to pick up in store – thereby getting the pricing advantages of online with the immediacy of product pickup.

Even when things fall apart in the current high street/big box model there does seem to be value in a physical presence for consumers, whether it’s for immediate purchasing gratification or to evaluate physical products. And yet there doesn’t seem to be a way to support a physical presence and remain competitive on price. So what could the new models of electronic retailing look like?

best buy logo 3 300x200 Best Buy throws in the towel. Is this the beginning of the end for big box electronics?By now we’ve all heard the bell toll for Best Buy UK. After the flurry of launch hype (Bitterwallet included) and high hopes for a US chain breaking in and destroying the doldrums of UK big box retail (Bitterwallet included) we’re left with nothing but 11 mega stores for Currys or Comet or a mini Ikea to move into.

The harsh part of the story seems to be that Best Buy did not fail because the UK incumbents were too smart, too strong, too price conscious. During the 2010/2011 period where they went head to head we’ve seen troubling revenue numbers at DSGi and Comet and no great spark of competitive innovation. It may be fair to say that Best Buy did not lose in the UK market because DSGi/Comet won but rather because they all lost and Best Buy was the one with the least to lose by jumping out.

Indeed, while we can surely imagine the suits at DSGi/Comet patting themselves on the back for holding off the US invader, the truth is probably that they themselves are next to fall. Inside the story spun out by Best Buy is the point that smartphones and tablets have meant that fewer buyers are coming to the electronic retail stores for the classic sectors of computing and TVs. As consumers we all know the desktop computer sector is dead and notebooks are quickly following (the slumping fortunes of Dell and HP also indicate this) and the golden days of the LCD cycle (do you even remember when you said goodbye to your monitor CRT or TV CRT???) are now far behind.

So for what will our modern consumer wander the aisles of a big box electronics store? Half the store filled with legacy entertainment formats (CDs, DVDs, MP3 players), passé electronics (desktop computers, TVs we already have) and the other half with overpriced accessories (hello dealextreme), AV equipment (another moribund mainstream sector best served by specialist retailers and online), white goods, cameras (digital consumer rush is over also) and a collection of random handsets equally served by the ten high street shops you pass on your walk to work from the station/carpark.

The big box brands profited greatly off the past consumer gold rushes – cashing in on the switch to LCD from CRT and the growth of personal computing. However they’re failing to stake any real ground in the newest gold rush – mobile and tablet computing.

So what say you? Are we seeing the end of big box electronic retailing? Without even touching the question of pricing (which is generally ludicrous) will we be sending our kids off to PC World to buy their jetpacks 10 years hence?

Picture 61 The days are already getting shorter at this London hotelIt’s because of hotel rooms like this that I’m already of the firm opinion that everything within a mile radius of Paddington station could be set fire to and London would be none the poorer for it. I swore I’d never return but the bank balance insisted otherwise, so it was with a heavy heart I paid £84 and checked into the Lancaster Court Hotel.

I could piss and moan about the fire doors being propped open; the room’s main lightswitch being at the normal height of a light switch, except on a draw string; no toilet in the room, and only one working toilet on three floors; a bedside lamp that had been screwed into the top of a piece of furniture purpose-built but serving no purpose at all; wardrobe doors that refuse to close etc.

None of that has irritated me as much as the WiFi set-up. Yes, you’ve got to pay – I think it’s shortsighted but it’s to be expected. What’s upsetting is how the Lancaster Court Hotel (and hotels using the same third party set-up, no doubt) redefines the length of a day:

Picture 51 The days are already getting shorter at this London hotel

What’s that? You checked in at 3pm and paid for a day’s worth of internet service? Your WiFi will be looking to suck your wallet dry further before you wake up, sir. This room cost £84 a night. Internet service costs £20 from an afternoon check-in to departure the next morning. No toilet for three floors? No problem – the WiFi takes the piss.

kindle drink book 240x300 Are Kindle Books a threat to your personal privacy?We quite like ebooks here at Bitterwallet. However, software freedom activist (no, I haven’t made that job title up) Richard Stallman has now told us we are wrong to like Kindle and that it and Amazon are evil privacy thieves.

In an article entitled The Dangers of eBooks, the founder of the Free Software Foundation warns that “technologies that could have empowered us are used to chain us instead” and has called on consumers to reject eBooks until they “respect our freedom”. Heavy stuff.

His issue is with the Digital Rights Management (DRM) code such as that embedded in Kindle books sold by Amazon as an example of such restrictions on our personal liberty. He also thinks it’s all a bit Big Brother (as in the original 1984 book, rather than a trashy TV programme) as a cash buyer can purchase a book anonymously from a book shop, but Amazon requires identification to by a Kindle book, and can therefore identify you and your reading habits. Best not purchase ‘Bombs 101’ or ‘How to rob a bank’ then. In an exquisite turn of irony, Amazon actually used its DRM in 2009 to wipe a book from everyone’s Kindles without permission. The book? George Orwell’s 1984

Stallman, founder of the GNU project offering free software, unsurprisingly also has an issue with the proprietary software used by Amazon on Kindles. He also points out that in some countries the Kindle book purchaser does not actually own the book. Amazon does. Sounds like we’re getting back into Spotify argument territory here…

Of course, companies like Amazon using DRM claim that the controls are necessary to ensure author protection, as in the absence of such tight restrictions, people could just share or swap ebooks. Just as they currently do with actual books, then.

Stallman reckons that levying a tax on ebooks and Kindle books that is then distributed out to authors based on their popularity, or building in a non-compulsory ‘thanks’ payment mechanism into ebook readers would help protect and reward authors. Bearing in mind that ebooks are already subject (in the UK) to VAT at 20% where printed books are not, and the fact that some paperback books are cheaper than their electronic counterpart, adding tax may not be the best move here. And how many people really ever pay for something when they don’t have to? Do you?

So what do you think- is the ease of Kindle worth sacrificing your anonymity for? Do you care if Amazon know what you are reading? Have you read 1984? Are you scared?

 Persistent text marketing, fictional solicitors and suspect ads. Wonga.com aren’t so friendly now.You’ve all heard of Wonga, with their jolly adverts and cartoonish website. Lending money to people at a ‘representative’ APR of 4214% is not a serious business at all. It’s fun! And with Moneysupermarket.com reporting a 400 per cent increase in people looking for payday loans since the beginning of the year, it’s popular too.

But a Bitterwallet reader who had availed himself of Wonga’s services contacted us, concerned about the SMS marketing he was receiving, and was powerless to stop. Now we don’t like to hear of powerless consumers, nor do we think pursuing people who, in all likelihood, have already got money worries with offers of easy cash, is particularly responsible of Wonga as a lender. So we investigated.

We started with the texts themselves. Now, as a Wonga victim customer you are required to give them a mobile number so they can text you a PIN number that you must enter on the website in order to get your cash. Clearly this is how they get your mobile number.

Our guy repaid his loan on time, but has been receiving text messages every couple of months ever since. And he can’t stop them. Upon logging into his account the only preference he can change states “Communications preference- Would you like to receive Wonga news, offers and service updates via email?” Absolutely no mention of SMS messages. And even when this box is ticked ‘no’, the SMS keep on coming. We asked Wonga about the continual receipts of SMS. They said it was “an isolated glitch.” We’ll leave you to decide whether you believe them.

But even considering the SMS messages themselves, as you can see in the picture, there is no option to unsubscribe in the SMS, something that directly contravenes the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (upheld by the Information Commissioners Office) which say they should ensure that “you were given an opportunity to refuse the marketing when your details were collected and, if you did not refuse, you were given a simple way to opt out in every future communication”. Wonga’s privacy policy offers the following gems on the subject of marketing communications “If you ticked “yes” but no longer wish to receive such communications, please visit the My Account page, login and change your communication preference at any time, or follow the instructions in the message itself.” The first doesn’t cover SMS and the second is non-existent.

So given Wonga have already breached these regulations, what about the principle of sending messages offering money to the cash-strapped? Not that Wonga have a great reputation here- they were heavily criticised last year when their sponsorship of the free new years eve tube allowed them to advertise “sometimes you need extra cash” to the drunk and happy, with not the merest whisper of an APR. A quick search for ‘Wonga’ also reveals less than transparent debt collection tactics, with customers receiving threatening letters from ‘Solicitors’ firms’ that are really just made up trading names of Wonga or its parent company Quickbridge UK Ltd.

Well, when we asked Wonga about how responsible this was, after raving on about how responsible a lender they are (something repeated ad nauseum all over their website) they sent us a copy of their Code of Conduct. And the number one operating principle?

“you will never be sold, encouraged or forced to borrow more credit than required”

So, sending an unsolicited text offering credit to someone who has not expressed a need for credit is clearly not encouraging them to borrow. As that would contravene their own code of conduct. But it’s OK- Wonga told us “we sometimes remind customers that we’re here to help if we haven’t seen them in a while, but we never hard-sell our service.” So that’s what it is. A reminder.

So we contacted the Office of Fair Trading, who grant Wonga its credit licence to see whether there was any official wrongdoing. And unsurprisingly, they offered no help. The SMS data protection issue is one for the Information Commissioner, and the OFT definition of ‘responsible lending’ is doing a credit check. No more, no less. However the OFT did say that they would take customer complaints into account when considering whether to revoke a licence.

So, aside from a slapped wrist from the ICO, which will most likely end up in an unsubscribe link in the SMS, will Wonga change? Unlikely. In an interview with the Guardian last week, Wonga founder and former investment banker Errol Damelin said “We are the good guys… [we offer] an important social service. To have social mobility you have to have credit available to people where it’s required and where it’s appropriate.”

So Wonga can legitimately call themselves responsible lenders, and consider themselves an aid to social mobility. Welcome to toothless regulation in the UK 2011.

o2logo mediacentre 300x224 O2 customers back on the line  but no compensation for loss of connectionIf you were an O2 customer in North or East London, East Sussex or Kent yesterday, you may have found your service a little lacking.  For 16 hours, people trying to use their phones in these areas could not make calls, or send or receive texts and e-mails.

The reason was not a technical glitch, or a satellite falling over, it was a good old fashioned smash and grab. Thieves broke in to O2′s East London network point and damaged equipment, which led to the service breakdown. O2 said it did not know how many of its 22 million customers were affected, and so are not offering compensation.

The company claim they cannot offer anything to customers because “the nature of mobile services means that it is not possible for operators to derive which customers may or may not have used their mobiles in an affected area”. Granted, it might be difficult to track or prove which sales reps, for example, drove through the affected areas and couldn’t get a signal, but what about the people who live or work there?

So O2 are copping out of the compensation. But should they have felt the need to offer compensation anyway? After all, they were not responsible for the thieves who damaged the equipment? On the other hand, they are a service provider, and for 16 hours they did not offer a service? What if someone missed an important and valuable call? What if someone died because they couldn’t speak to someone (OK this is unlikely, but nevertheless possible). O are we now just a nation of money-grabbers?

Thoughts please…

ecolabs Corporate Bullying  support Team Eco labs.orgSometimes it’s just not enough that you are a multi-million pound US corporation, sometimes you just need to pick on someone *much* smaller than you to make your cock feel bigger.

“With sales of $6 billion and more than 26,000 associates, Ecolab is the global leader in cleaning, sanitizing, food safety and infection prevention products and services.” EcoLabs, on the other hand,  is a small non-profit environmental education organisation based in London.

Despite the fact thatthe UK EcoLabs was formed and registered two years before the US company registered trademarks in the UK, EcoLab Inc. claims that the UK EcoLabs is infringing their trademark by using the name “Eco labs” and they are attempting to legally steal their www.eco-labs.org domain name from them.

Now, we aren’t ones to get involved in other people’s domestics, but we think this one is a little too shameful to go by unnoticed. For two years running this voluntary group have had to pay legal fees to fend off takedown requests. Of course if you have deep American pockets, this is not a problem, but for a small not-for-profit?

EcoLabs put it best themselves “The prefix ‘ECO‘ is in common usage, being shorthand for the term ‘ecological’. The term LABS‘ refers to the research and development conducted as part of our communication design practice. Both words are so common that it is absurd for a corporate entity to assume the legal right to prevent others from combining these two ideas together. We are willing to share the common use of ‘eco’ and ‘labs’ with everyone.

“The legal costs to defend ourselves are high by our standards (since most of the work we do we do for free). Despite what seems like an enormous waste of time and money, we feel it is important to not back down. If you are concerned with corporate encroachment of the English language (or if you think our resources are worthwhile) please consider helping with our legal fees”.

They need £800 to defend their case in Minneapolis at the end of May, and have so far raised £50. The open rights group have joined the crusade and besides, where are you going to find a cheaper and more satisfying way to kick a big fat American butt?

kindle 300x168 Now you can go compare prices of Kindle books and iBooks. Sort of.

photo by kodomut on flickr.

A UK online bookstore is being hailed as the ‘Go Compare’* of the digital publishing world, after becoming the first e-tailer to stock all three main formats of ebook, Kindle, ePub and iBooks.

UK sales of digital books increased last year by 20 per cent to £180m, according to the latest figures from The Publishers Association and the demand for eBooks in the UK continues to rise, fuelled by the growing popularity of digital readers such as Amazon’s Kindle and titles by bestselling authors including Stieg Larsson.

Peter Crawshaw, Director and Co-Founder of Lovereading.co.uk , says “having the world’s first one-stop shop will greatly benefit consumers, making comparing and buying eBooks as simple and straightforward as possible.”

Not that we are cynical you understand, but we thought we’d have a go. We started with current trendy book The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest which costs £5.24 in paperback, £6.89 on ePub and £2.44 on Kindle. But there was no price comparison for iBooks. We then tried Harry Potter, and couldn’t find an iBook comparison price on any of them.

In fact, it took us a while, but we did eventually find a comparable book. Bloody Valentine by James Patterson, could be purchased in Kindle format for £1.56, which would save you 23p on the ePub price of£1.79 and a massive 43p on the iBooks price £1.99. All of which, incidentally, were more than the paperback price of £1.49. Or if Jeffrey Archer is more your thing, his latest novel The Fourth Estate sells for £7.99 on iBooks, £5.70 on Kindle or £5.24 in paperback.

Much of the problem is that Apple’s iBookstore is less well-stocked than your local Big Society funded library, so finding an e-book that you are interested in reading is the first challenge. And when you do find one, it is likely to be cheaper on Kindle, in paperback or both. So why bother? Even better, why not just read the millions of free eBooks that are out there- either because they are out of copyright or because we handily located these sources of free reading material for you last Christmas. We just keep on giving.

Anyway, nice try lovereading, but we ain’t buying it.

* other price comparison websites are available.