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This subscription social network is happy to be an Albatross in a pandemic

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In discussions of ethically dubious social networks, Facebook is the usual reference choice. But spare a thought for subscribers of InterNations, a Munich-based social networking community for expats, who have found themselves unable to obtain refunds for full-year payments charged in the middle of the coronavirus crisis.

InterNations has operated an expat networking experience since 2007, offering a free “Basic” tier of membership that gives users some access to site content and community-organized events (if they pay an entry fee); or a premium tier which requires shelling out for a year’s subscription up front to get free/reduced price entry to networking events, plus access to some additional site features.

The German company appears to be a fan of nominative determinism — having named the subscription tier of membership “Albatross,” given how difficult it is for users to exit once they upgrade from Basic to paying, perpetually renewing contract.

Several former members told us their memberships were auto-renewed for a full year without any warning in the middle of the pandemic. When they contacted InterNations to request a refund they were point-blank refused — with the company saying they were bound by the terms of the contract they’d entered into when they paid to upgrade the year before.

In emails we’ve reviewed between users and InterNations’ staff, the company repeatedly ignores requests for refunds.

One U.K.-based user, who told us she had signed up to use the service to attend networking events in London and Paris, where she traveled regularly for work, found herself put on furlough in March when the U.K. went into lockdown. She only noticed the InterNations subscription had auto-renewed when she saw a charge as she was checking her bank statement.

She contacted InterNations to request a refund — pointing out there were now no physical events near her, nor would she be able to attend in-person networking events for the foreseeable future due to shielding as a result of personal vulnerability to the health risk posed by COVID-19. But InterNations still refused to refund her subscription.

Instead it offered to put the year’s Albatross membership on hold until 2022 — suggesting she might be able to make use of the services she’d just been billed for in two years’ time.

“Many of the people complaining feel aggrieved by InterNation because the entire event offering is very much voluntary and community based. It relies on people stepping forward to organise groups of people to attend events, walks, screening etc. Most of them do not make financial gain out of it,” she told us.

“So for this organisation not to be looking after its very own community feels like a slap on our faces.”

“My local gym froze my membership from April 2020 without any of its members having to request it. They informed us by email they would do this. I was able to cancel in July without any question asked,” she added. “If my small gym is able to do this, how come InterNations is not stopping the auto-renewal of the membership at such a time?

“When everyone almost worldwide is worrying about their health, their livelihood, their relatives, we are not remembering to cancel or to stop memberships.”

Another user, who signed up to the service after moving from the U.S. to Singapore, told us he was sent repeated payment demands in the middle of the coronavirus crisis after his on-file credit card had expired — which meant InterNations couldn’t auto-collect his payment.

He told it he wanted to cancel the subscription but it told him he would only able to delete his account if he paid up for a full second year. Eventually he said he felt he had no choice but to pay the demand for around $100 in order that he could downgrade from Albatross to Basic and have his account deleted.

“I was (and still am) a paid subscriber and during the height of the pandemic I never received an offer of ‘free months’ of membership,” he said. “Instead, all I got was a deluge of threatening emails about how they couldn’t process my credit card information. Nothing even remotely about whether I was sick or even still alive. They just wanted my credit card details.”

A third user, who signed up for the service after moving to Hanoi, summed up her experience as “not the best.” She pointed us to a blog post in which she recounts a similar story — finding herself charged for a renewal in the middle of the coronavirus without any advance warning and having forgotten to cancel the subscription herself.

“I didn’t realise I’d been charged until a notification from PayPal arrived in my inbox,” she writes. “Say, what? Where was the email reminder? Where was the ‘now due’ invoice that is the hallmark of good business? Turns out InterNations don’t send them.”

This user was finally able to obtain a refund — but only via disputing the charge through PayPal. She got no joy asking for her money back from InterNations itself.

A deluge of similar complaints about the company can be seen on Trustpilot — where InterNations has an 81% “bad” rating at the time of writing.

“An annual membership was taken from my account, and refund was refused. A year on and I am being threatened with non payment of a new invoice,” writes one reviewer.

“I cancelled my membership the past two years and every year it shows that I didn’t and their records conveniently show no record of my cancellation. Then they will refuse refunds,” recounts another.

“InterNations contacted me via automated email about my membership payment being due. When I responded, asking to cancel membership since I haven’t logged in in months and can’t afford membership during these times, they refused to help,” says another irate reviewer. “They make it impossible to do this simple task. They’re greedily unable to help with anything other than take your money. No empathy. All they have to do is cancel the membership.”

“They don’t even send a reminder for end of membership. Some people have seen their credit card debited, without any reminder. And if your credit card you registered has expired, they keep harassing you and threaten you,” runs another despairing former user.

In emails to users who are requesting a refund which we’ve seen, InterNations simply points them to German law — which does appear to be the legal sticking point here. As a number of expat blogs warn, service contracts in Germany can be a lot harder to get out of than into.

Though, of course, it’s unlikely to have been immediately clear to people signing up to a global social network in cities like Hanoi and Singapore that they needed to understand German contract law before hitting “subscribe.”

BEUC, the European consumer rights group, told us there’s no pan-EU requirement for a notification to be actively sent to users ahead of an auto-renewal of a services contract — and the lack of such a notification ahead of the InterNations subscription renewal is one of the key recurring complaints.

“EU law only requires the consumer to be informed of the final price and the contractual conditions,” a spokesperson said, noting that consumer rights can vary substantially from member state to member state as the area isn’t harmonised at EU level.

So, while BEUC noted that, for example, Belgium law does have a specific provision which allows the consumer to terminate a contract at no cost after its tacit renewal — Germany, self evidently, does not. Although domestic pressure appears to be growing for reform of its one-sided contract rules.

When we put the various complaints we’d heard about refunds and cancellations (and indeed dark patterns) to InterNations, its founder and co-CEO, Malte Zeeck, said the company does not breach consumer law — and further claimed it “clearly communicates” subscription renewals to users.

“InterNations is operating on a standard subscription model like many other businesses, which is at no point in breach of consumer protection laws,” he said. “Subscriptions are renewed automatically, which is clearly communicated at the beginning of each subscription period, in each invoice, and in every user’s membership and account settings. This is also where a subscription can be canceled at any time, without a notice period that has to be observed.

“Our members have a continual visual reminder of their membership status through the Albatross symbol found on their profile picture. They can also always see their current membership status by visiting their membership page.”

And while he conceded that InterNations had had to cancel in-person events “during the height of the pandemic” he said it substituted this reduction in service by offering “additional free months of membership” and “working very hard to respond to the situation and find ways for our members to still meet and spend time together online.”

“After only a few weeks, we already offered over 500 online activities worldwide to help expats and global minds connect and share experiences — more online events were being added every day,” he added. “In addition, our users continued to benefit from other online networking and information features our premium membership offers. Since restrictions on in-person events are being lifted around the world, we have started to offer many opportunities for our members again to meet in person.”

EU consumer protection rules do bake in requirements that contract terms be fair — with provisions intended to protect against things like one-sided changes to a service without a valid reason. But it’s pretty clear that InterNations could argue a pandemic is a valid reason for canceling in person events and replacing them with online networking. So angry users are unlikely to find much solace there.

Still, maintaining such an inflexible and user hostile attitude during a pandemic does look risky for InterNations and its reputation, given new users are likely to be far less easy for it to net now that the coronavirus has settled like a dead calm on so much foreign travel.

So while it might be legally entitled to sit and claw in revenue from people who — living through a pandemic and worried about things like their jobs, health and loved ones — forgot to cancel a subscription that only comes round once a year, it’s hardly a recipe for long-term customer loyalty.

Indeed, we’ve seen these kind of auto-renewing subscription gigs crop up in the e-commerce space in years past. And none of those dubious tactics went the distance.

Tricking consumers into recurring payments is never a good long-term business strategy, and it certainly isn’t now that reputational damage can scale all over social media in seconds. (To wit: Irate InterNations users have been organizing via Twitter and have set up a website to amplify negative reviews where they urge people to boycott the service.)

None of the people who’ve been stung by InterNations’ auto-renewing subscription are likely to forget to cancel a second time so won’t be a source of recurring revenue in future. And treating users like so much chum when the company also relies upon their community spirit to power its service looks like a rotten business model long past its sell-by-date. (However many members InterNations claims have contacted it “to say how much our online events have helped them to stay in touch with people and also stay positive during a period of self-isolation,” a minority of satisfied customers are being drowned out by all the angry online views.)

In the meanwhile, it’s certainly curious to encounter a niche social network that’s happy operating with as little regard for users’ wishes as some of the far more maligned giants of the category. To the point where its website displays information regarding the European Commission’s “online dispute resolution” platform in small print right on the contacts page. Er, perhaps Facebook should take note.

On unhappy users, Zeeck only had this to say: “We are sorry that some of our former members perceive this differently and were not happy with the benefits our membership offered them. We are always taking our users’ feedback seriously and are working hard to provide a great experience for them. At the same time, we are aware that it is hard to have the perfect solution for everybody, and there will always be detractors.”

But perhaps he’s been taking cues from Mark Zuckerberg’s neverending apology tours.

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What can ChatGPT do?

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ChatGPT Explained

ChatGPT is a large language model developed by OpenAI that is trained on a massive amount of text data. It is capable of generating human-like text and has been used in a variety of applications, such as chatbots, language translation, and text summarization.

One of the key features of ChatGPT is its ability to generate text that is similar to human writing. This is achieved through the use of a transformer architecture, which allows the model to understand the context and relationships between words in a sentence. The transformer architecture is a type of neural network that is designed to process sequential data, such as natural language.

Another important aspect of ChatGPT is its ability to generate text that is contextually relevant. This means that the model is able to understand the context of a conversation and generate responses that are appropriate to the conversation. This is accomplished by the use of a technique called “masked language modeling,” which allows the model to predict the next word in a sentence based on the context of the previous words.

One of the most popular applications of ChatGPT is in the creation of chatbots. Chatbots are computer programs that simulate human conversation and can be used in customer service, sales, and other applications. ChatGPT is particularly well-suited for this task because of its ability to generate human-like text and understand context.

Another application of ChatGPT is language translation. By training the model on a large amount of text data in multiple languages, it can be used to translate text from one language to another. The model is able to understand the meaning of the text and generate a translation that is grammatically correct and semantically equivalent.

In addition to chatbots and language translation, ChatGPT can also be used for text summarization. This is the process of taking a large amount of text and condensing it into a shorter, more concise version. ChatGPT is able to understand the main ideas of the text and generate a summary that captures the most important information.

Despite its many capabilities and applications, ChatGPT is not without its limitations. One of the main challenges with using language models like ChatGPT is the risk of generating text that is biased or offensive. This can occur when the model is trained on text data that contains biases or stereotypes. To address this, OpenAI has implemented a number of techniques to reduce bias in the training data and in the model itself.

In conclusion, ChatGPT is a powerful language model that is capable of generating human-like text and understanding context. It has a wide range of applications, including chatbots, language translation, and text summarization. While there are limitations to its use, ongoing research and development is aimed at improving the model’s performance and reducing the risk of bias.

** The above article has been written 100% by ChatGPT. This is an example of what can be done with AI. This was done to show the advanced text that can be written by an automated AI.

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Google December Product Reviews Update Affects More Than English Language Sites? via @sejournal, @martinibuster

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Google’s Product Reviews update was announced to be rolling out to the English language. No mention was made as to if or when it would roll out to other languages. Mueller answered a question as to whether it is rolling out to other languages.

Google December 2021 Product Reviews Update

On December 1, 2021, Google announced on Twitter that a Product Review update would be rolling out that would focus on English language web pages.

The focus of the update was for improving the quality of reviews shown in Google search, specifically targeting review sites.

A Googler tweeted a description of the kinds of sites that would be targeted for demotion in the search rankings:

“Mainly relevant to sites that post articles reviewing products.

Think of sites like “best TVs under $200″.com.

Goal is to improve the quality and usefulness of reviews we show users.”

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Google also published a blog post with more guidance on the product review update that introduced two new best practices that Google’s algorithm would be looking for.

The first best practice was a requirement of evidence that a product was actually handled and reviewed.

The second best practice was to provide links to more than one place that a user could purchase the product.

The Twitter announcement stated that it was rolling out to English language websites. The blog post did not mention what languages it was rolling out to nor did the blog post specify that the product review update was limited to the English language.

Google’s Mueller Thinking About Product Reviews Update

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Product Review Update Targets More Languages?

The person asking the question was rightly under the impression that the product review update only affected English language search results.

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But he asserted that he was seeing search volatility in the German language that appears to be related to Google’s December 2021 Product Review Update.

This is his question:

“I was seeing some movements in German search as well.

So I was wondering if there could also be an effect on websites in other languages by this product reviews update… because we had lots of movement and volatility in the last weeks.

…My question is, is it possible that the product reviews update affects other sites as well?”

John Mueller answered:

“I don’t know… like other languages?

My assumption was this was global and and across all languages.

But I don’t know what we announced in the blog post specifically.

But usually we try to push the engineering team to make a decision on that so that we can document it properly in the blog post.

I don’t know if that happened with the product reviews update. I don’t recall the complete blog post.

But it’s… from my point of view it seems like something that we could be doing in multiple languages and wouldn’t be tied to English.

And even if it were English initially, it feels like something that is relevant across the board, and we should try to find ways to roll that out to other languages over time as well.

So I’m not particularly surprised that you see changes in Germany.

But I also don’t know what we actually announced with regards to the locations and languages that are involved.”

Does Product Reviews Update Affect More Languages?

While the tweeted announcement specified that the product reviews update was limited to the English language the official blog post did not mention any such limitations.

Google’s John Mueller offered his opinion that the product reviews update is something that Google could do in multiple languages.

One must wonder if the tweet was meant to communicate that the update was rolling out first in English and subsequently to other languages.

It’s unclear if the product reviews update was rolled out globally to more languages. Hopefully Google will clarify this soon.

Citations

Google Blog Post About Product Reviews Update

Product reviews update and your site

Google’s New Product Reviews Guidelines

Write high quality product reviews

John Mueller Discusses If Product Reviews Update Is Global

Watch Mueller answer the question at the 14:00 Minute Mark

[embedded content]

Searchenginejournal.com

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Survey says: Amazon, Google more trusted with your personal data than Apple is

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survey-says:-amazon,-google-more-trusted-with-your-personal-data-than-apple-is-–-phonearena
 

MacRumors reveals that more people feel better with their personal data in the hands of Amazon and Google than Apple’s. Companies that the public really doesn’t trust when it comes to their personal data include Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram.

The survey asked over 1,000 internet users in the U.S. how much they trusted certain companies such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon to handle their user data and browsing activity responsibly.

Amazon and Google are considered by survey respondents to be more trustworthy than Apple

Those surveyed were asked whether they trusted these firms with their personal data “a great deal,” “a good amount,” “not much,” or “not at all.” Respondents could also answer that they had no opinion about a particular company. 18% of those polled said that they trust Apple “a great deal” which topped the 14% received by Google and Amazon.

However, 39% said that they trust Amazon  by “a good amount” with Google picking up 34% of the votes in that same category. Only 26% of those answering said that they trust Apple by “a good amount.” The first two responses, “a great deal” and “a good amount,” are considered positive replies for a company. “Not much” and “not at all” are considered negative responses.

By adding up the scores in the positive categories,

Apple tallied a score of 44% (18% said it trusted Apple with its personal data “a great deal” while 26% said it trusted Apple “a good amount”). But that placed the tech giant third after Amazon’s 53% and Google’s 48%. After Apple, Microsoft finished fourth with 43%, YouTube (which is owned by Google) was fifth with 35%, and Facebook was sixth at 20%.

Rounding out the remainder of the nine firms in the survey, Instagram placed seventh with a positive score of 19%, WhatsApp was eighth with a score of 15%, and TikTok was last at 12%.

Looking at the scoring for the two negative responses (“not much,” or “not at all”), Facebook had a combined negative score of 72% making it the least trusted company in the survey. TikTok was next at 63% with Instagram following at 60%. WhatsApp and YouTube were both in the middle of the pact at 53% followed next by Google and Microsoft at 47% and 42% respectively. Apple and Amazon each had the lowest combined negative scores at 40% each.

74% of those surveyed called targeted online ads invasive

The survey also found that a whopping 82% of respondents found targeted online ads annoying and 74% called them invasive. Just 27% found such ads helpful. This response doesn’t exactly track the 62% of iOS users who have used Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature to opt-out of being tracked while browsing websites and using apps. The tracking allows third-party firms to send users targeted ads online which is something that they cannot do to users who have opted out.

The 38% of iOS users who decided not to opt out of being tracked might have done so because they find it convenient to receive targeted ads about a certain product that they looked up online. But is ATT actually doing anything?

Marketing strategy consultant Eric Seufert said last summer, “Anyone opting out of tracking right now is basically having the same level of data collected as they were before. Apple hasn’t actually deterred the behavior that they have called out as being so reprehensible, so they are kind of complicit in it happening.”

The Financial Times says that iPhone users are being lumped together by certain behaviors instead of unique ID numbers in order to send targeted ads. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says that the company is working to rebuild its ad infrastructure “using more aggregate or anonymized data.”

Aggregated data is a collection of individual data that is used to create high-level data. Anonymized data is data that removes any information that can be used to identify the people in a group.

When consumers were asked how often do they think that their phones or other tech devices are listening in to them in ways that they didn’t agree to, 72% answered “very often” or “somewhat often.” 28% responded by saying “rarely” or “never.”

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