Record fine for nuisance calls firm

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A firm has been handed a record fine for nuisance calls after making more than six million automated calls in a solar panel marketing campaign. Glasgow-based Home Energy & Lifestyle Management Ltd has been fined £200,000 by the Information Commissioner.
Complainants described being powerless against calls or finding that calls were filling up answer machines. The company blamed another firm it hired to make calls and said it was appealing against the ruling.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said that the company conducted a massive automated call marketing campaign offering “free” solar panels. One complainant told the ICO that they had been waiting for news of a terminally ill family member and could not ignore the phone.
“The bottom line is companies trying to sell a product have got to stick to the rules. Nuisance phone calls are a modern pest,” said the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham. “People expect the Information Commissioner and other agencies to close this down and we’re now closing down on these phone pests.”

The ICO said an organisation should have people’s permission, which specifically names the company concerned, in order to make automated calls, but the company admitted it did not know what the rules were. To give that permission, consumers have to tick a box saying they are interested in a particular product from a particular company.
“This company’s ignorance of the law is beyond belief. It did not even bother to find out what the rules were and its badly thought out marketing campaign made people’s lives a misery,” said Steve Eckersley, head of enforcement at the ICO.
The firm is also obliged to provide a means for consumers to stop receiving such calls, but in some cases it failed to do so. The Telephone Preference Service, which enables people to opt out of unsolicited calls, only applies when there is a real person on the end of the phone.
In this case Home Energy & Lifestyle Management (Helms) used special software to send automated messages, which can be repeated frequently. The company – part of the government’s Green Deal initiative – was also misleading people in the calls as the solar panels were not free, the ICO said.
However, Helms hit back, claiming that the campaign had stopped before the ICO investigation commenced and blaming another company for the issues raised. “Helms had significant difficulty in fully co-operating with the ICO, owing to the failure of the third party company to give any information to verify and explain the extent of the calls made,” the company said in a statement from its lawyer.
It said the ICO had “seemingly disregarded” its representations and vowed to appeal, as well as taking action against the other company

Adblock Plus to appoint whitelist watchdog

The company behind the internet’s most popular advert-blocking plug-in has pledged to open up its controversial “whitelist” to outside scrutiny. Eyeo – the maker of AdBlock Plus – plans to set up an “independent board” that will inspect which ads it allows to circumvent its technology.
The company behind the internet’s most popular advert-blocking plug-in has pledged to open up its controversial “whitelist” to outside scrutiny. Eyeo – the maker of AdBlock Plus – plans to set up an “independent board” that will inspect which ads it allows to circumvent its technology.
The move coincides with its launch of an extension for iPhones. It also comes the day after Eyeo successfully defended itself against Germany’s biggest publisher.
One expert said that it was too early to know how much of a difference the latest move would make, but added that many leading website operators were unlikely to be swayed by it.
“They’re commercial enterprises and they want to make as much money as they can,” said Ian Maude from the research firm Enders Analysis. “But I do sympathise with the ad-blockers and internet users to the extent that you are now seeing vast volumes of data being gathered about people’s behaviour without their express permission via trackers used by advertisers, and that’s not a desirable outcome.”
Eyeo has faced criticism because of its business model: it provides its plug-ins to the public free, but charges publishers and websites a fee for “support services” to help them ensure certain ads get through. To qualify, the ads cannot be “annoying” or “intrusive”. For example, pop-ups and ads that automatically start playing sounds cannot qualify for AdBlock Plus’s whitelist.
Google, Amazon and Microsoft are among those reported to have paid the Cologne-based firm. However, several German publishers resisted and attempted to sue the firm, claiming it was “a constitutional right of the press to advertise”.
On Tuesday, Axel Springer became the latest company to have its case rejected by the courts. It was the fifth legal action of its kind. Eyeo’s latest move may help it head off further legal battles.

Eyeo says it hopes to have the new review board in place by the end of next year, and eventually plans to give it full control over the whitelist’s rules.
“Users determined the original criteria and can object in our forum to whitelisting proposals – but since we were the only ad-blocker to offer such a compromise, we have taken on a large role in the day-to-day maintenance of the criteria,” said AdBlock Plus’s co-founder Till Faida in a statement. “We have been looking for a way to make the Acceptable Ads programme completely independent while also updating the criteria to evolve with changing forms of online advertising. An independent board solves both issues.”

In addition, she highlighted that only a minority of the 700 publishers and websites currently on AdBlock Plus’ whitelist had paid it money. She put the figure at about 10%.
Mr Maude noted that did not necessarily mean the two things were unrelated. “Every company that pays Eyeo is on the whitelist, so there clearly is a connection between paying and being whitelisted,” he said.
The launch of Eyeo’s extension for the Safari web browsers on iPhones and iPads follows Apple’s decision to allow such plug-ins to work in iOS 9. The mobile operating system was released earlier this month, and several other smaller start-ups have already launched ad-blocking plug-ins of their own.
One of the most popular services, Peace, was pulled shortly after its release, when its developer said he did not feel good about being “the arbiter of what’s blocked”. A leading alternative, Crystal, instead shares use of Eyeo’s whitelist. Like Adblock Plus, it also allows customers to opt out of the list and block ads altogether. Some organisations have taken steps to discourage the use of the technology.
The news site Cnet has prevented some of its content from being viewable when it detected ads were being blocked. And the Interactive Advertising Bureau has announced plans to offer smaller publishers a script that lets them detect consumers using ad-blocking tech as well.

The IAB added that it was also exploring legal action of its own.

London taxi hire proposals would ‘be an end’ to the way Uber operates

Uber has said a consultation on private hire regulation could spell an end to way the taxi-hailing app operates.

Uber has said a consultation on private hire regulation could spell an end to way the taxi-hailing app operates.
Transport for London (TfL) is to consult on plans to demand a new English language test, a map-reading assessment, a fixed landline and the chance to book seven days in advance.
Uber said: “If adopted these [rules] would mean an end to the Uber people know and love.”
Black cab drivers have argued regulations need to be tightened. There has been growing pressure on city legislators, most recently when cab drivers protested outside City Hall.
The Uber app connects customers and nearby drivers using GPS technology and gives an estimate of the fare. It generally charges lower fares than traditional firms and drivers rely on technology for navigation. Transactions are cashless using pre-registered bank details.
TfL says the consultation seeks to “raise standards across the industry” following an “exponential” growth in the private hire industry and technology.
Uber said it was a deliberate target and if the proposals went ahead they would raise prices and increase congestion in London.
Gareth Mead, from Uber, said: “If you think that this is supposed to be a public consultation, well I think the public are not at the heart of the proposals that have been made so far. I think if the recommendations do progress then clearly we would need to change the way we approach the service and ultimately it ends up being more clunky which is not what people want.”
A leaked copy of the rules for consultation includes: Specific requirement for an English language test; New training for private hire vehicles; Operators must provide a specified fare prior to a booking being accepted and Fixed landline must be available at all times
Uber says TfL’s consultation includes implementing a minimum wait time between booking and starting a trip which would also penalise the hire firm.
Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, has accused Uber of benefiting from a “lax regulatory system”.
Garrett Emmerson, from TfL, said: “No final decisions have been made and we’re keen to hear a range of views from the trade and from Londoners too.” He added TfL had 3,000 operators of private hire companies in the capital and the proposed regulations would apply to all of them.

BT CEO delivers vision for Britain’s digital future

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BT Chief Executive Gavin Patterson today unveiled the company’s ambition to deliver Britain’s digital future, cementing the nation’s future prosperity as the G20’s leading digital economy.
Ninety per cent of UK premises can already access fibre broadband, putting the UK top of the EU’s largest countries, according to Ofcom.
Speaking at BT’s Delivering Britain’s Digital Future conference in London, Patterson announced pledges designed to go further and: tackle slow speeds in hard-to-reach parts of the country; achieve a step-change in speeds overall, with ultrafast rollout starting next year; improve customer service, through a number of commitments unveiled by Openreach.
Patterson said: “For the past five years, the UK has been the largest digital economy in the G20, by percentage of GDP. We think the UK has an even brighter future ahead if we make the right decisions today.We want to forge an ultrafast future for Britain and stand ready to help government deliver the broadband speeds necessary for every property to enjoy modern day internet services, such as high definition TV streaming and cloud computing. To achieve this, we need a collaborative effort across industry and government.”
Universal Minimum Speed: Patterson committed BT to supporting government in delivering a new universal minimum broadband speed of 5-10Mbps, enough for everyone in the UK to enjoy popular internet services like high definition video.
Patterson emphasised the need for a supportive regulatory and government policy environment to bring about a commercially viable investment. He also cited new technologies developed at BT’s Adastral Park research laboratories, which should help boost slow speeds for many hard-to-reach premises. Industry-leading research there includes tests on promising new technologies such as “wireless to the cabinet” and “long reach VDSL”, to help bring higher speed broadband to hard-to-reach communities.
Patterson also pledged the company would introduce a satellite broadband service for some of the UK’s more remote premises by the end of the year.
Extend fibre broadband beyond UK’s current plans for 95% of premises
Patterson announced BT’s desire to go “further and faster” on fibre broadband.
He made clear BT would “never say no” to providing faster broadband to communities, promising the company would instead explore innovative funding and technical solutions. He said 90 communities were already benefitting from this approach.
The BT chief executive said the UK would go beyond government’s current 95% target for fibre availability, thanks to “success dividend” clauses in contracts covering rollout co-funded by BT, Whitehall and local councils.
The clauses mean BT has to reinvest or return money if take-up exceeds certain levels in areas where public funds have been used. A sum of £130m is already being released and is potentially available to get the UK towards having fibre available at 96% of premises. A greater proportion of premises will have access to fibre broadband than can access mains gas.
He also announced plans to supply fibre broadband for all new housing developments, either through BT’s own efforts or in cooperation with developers.
From Superfast to Ultrafast speeds, reaching 10m premises by end of 2020
Patterson stressed the potential benefit to homes and smaller businesses from ultrafast broadband technology. These services will sit beside “Ethernet” broadband services which already offer ultrafast speeds to larger businesses and organisations which can pay for bespoke dedicated lines.
Patterson went beyond his January statement on ultrafast broadband, to say BT’s new services of 300-500Mbps would reach 10m homes and smaller businesses by the end of 2020, and the majority of premises within a decade. A 1Gbps service will be provided for those that want even faster speeds. The connections on offer would be a combination of Fibre-to-the-Premises technology, as well as new technology, which uses existing Fibre-to-the-Cabinet technology.
Delivering a step-change in customer service for all: new Openreach charter Joe Garner, the Openreach chief executive, said there was more to do on service. He emphasised his organisation’s progress on service, exceeding all 60 Ofcom service standards in 2014/15, as well as hiring 3,000 extra engineers, reducing installation waiting times, fixing faults faster and halving complaints. Garner made clear his ambition to exceed by 6% Ofcom’s 2017 minimum standards for delivering new connections on-time.
He also cited “View My Engineer” as a key step forward. This is a new service which gives customers text progress updates plus their engineer’s name and mobile number should they need to make contact.
He highlighted an issue which arises because customers often cannot deal direct with Openreach, but can only deal with their retail broadband provider. Garner declared he is open to having Openreach deal directly with end-customers, subject to consulting Ofcom and telecom providers.
New Report from KPMG values impact of BT programme at £20 – £30 Billion
At the conference, a new report was also unveiled by consultants KPMG, valuing the impact of BT’s future commitments as worth £20 – £30 billion to the UK economy over the next decade.

More people die by taking selfies than by shark attacks

There have been a few tragic news stories about selfie deaths in the past year or so, but until now it hasn’t been so clear exactly how rife the selfie death phenomenon really is.

There have been a few tragic news stories about selfie deaths in the past year or so, but until now it hasn’t been so clear exactly how rife the selfie death phenomenon really is.
You may be more afraid of sharks than selfies, but actually statistically the latter is more deadly. 

There have been twelve recorded selfie deaths in 2015 so far, compared to eight people dying because of shark attacks.

Most of the selfie-related deaths have been due to falling. The next most common is when people are trying to take a selfie, and they’re hit by a moving vehicle.
Selfie deaths have become so rife in Russia that the government released a guide detailing how not to die while taking a picture of yourself. In the guide, it is advised that selfie takers don’t balance on dangerous surfaces or pose with loaded weapons, among other tips.

Yellowstone National Park has also been plagued by the problem, issuing a warning about taking selfies with bison after five people were gored. Another man was close to losing a hand after posing with a rattlesnake, and more than one person has died snapping themselves with loaded guns.

These are just a few examples. There is a comprehensive list on Wikipedia of all the known selfie-related deaths and injuries, and it includes 19 separate incidents since 2014.
Most of the people involved were between 18 and 22 years old, and the accidents ranged from a man being electrocuted while climbing on a train to a pilot crashing a light aircraft, killing himself and a passenger, and multiple instances of people dying while posing with guns.


The ‘dumb’ mobile that gives you your life back

“I think the ‘always on’ life is probably even worse than having a poor diet,” says Petter Neby, founder of Swiss consumer electronics company Punkt. “Every day we are consuming more trash, and becoming more detached from real life and the ability to deal with situations head-on. Just look around, it’s a disaster – and the sociological issue of our times.”
“I think the ‘always on’ life is probably even worse than having a poor diet,” says Petter Neby, founder of Swiss consumer electronics company Punkt. “Every day we are consuming more trash, and becoming more detached from real life and the ability to deal with situations head-on. Just look around, it’s a disaster – and the sociological issue of our times.”
Neby is an ebullient man on a mission, an entrepreneur who wants us to rediscover the lost art of conversation and the spontaneous beauty of chance encounters. That’s why his company, founded in 2008, makes sleek and easy-to-use devices that do one thing very well, but nothing more, allowing you to focus on “having a life and living”, as he likes to say – something technology often derails.
Punkt’s latest product, the MP 01, is a back-to-basics mobile phone. Launched at the London design festival, and designed by the British industrial designer Jasper Morrison, Punkt’s artistic director, the phone is a pared-down black affair with slightly raised, rounded buttons and a gently angled shape that makes it easy to hold.
But it’s the MP 01’s functional simplicity that sets it apart from today’s smartphones. Users can make and receive calls and texts, check a calendar for dates, store 3,000 contacts in the address book and leave themselves reminder notes on the home screen. And that’s it. Unlike the so-called brick or flip phones of yore, however, it can import phone contacts from a computer via USB cable and can be used with the same phone number as your smartphone, when twinned with your SIM card.
Morrison and Neby believe the tide is turning against intrusive technology that endlessly demands your attention. “I think we are more aware than before of feeling stupid looking at our screens,” says Morrison. “And the objects themselves have become so big that they are just not that handy for making calls any more. I think there is a niche. A couple of years ago I wouldn’t have said that, but it’s gone our way since we started designing it.”
He’s right. There is a growing appetite and market for products and apps explicitly aim ed at helping the user “shut off”. There’s the yet-to-launch Kickstarter-backed Light Phone, a credit-card-sized phone “designed to be used as little as possible”. It only takes and makes calls, and works either on its own or in conjunction with your existing phone thanks to a simple call-forwarding app. Elsewhere, French company Lekki has been successfully selling “revamped” classic Nokia phones, while Microsoft relaunched the basic Nokia 105 in June.
But will a desire to rebalance our tech-mad lives translate into a £229 investment for what is essentially a second phone that only allows talk and texts? “We are quite realistic: we are not out to replace the iPhone,” says Morrison. “But as smartphones get bigger and bulkier, there is a place for something small and simplified, without all the functions.”

Neby says he has been using the MP 01 phone all summer, but only at night or at the weekends. “My smartphone is my office but when I come back in the evening my office hours need to stop. And so I switch it off.” If he needs to make a call to someone later in the evening, there is no chance of him seeing any of the distracting notifications that have accumulated on his smartphone, no temptation for him to engage. “With a smartphone if you are not very disciplined you are suddenly drawn in,” he says. That’s why Neby decided to ditch his smartphone when he went on holiday. “It was such a relief. I don’t think I had a 100% holiday in years.”
And that’s what it comes down to. The prospect of taking a single-function phone on holiday is terrifying, but almost certainly worth trying – for that sense of freedom and liberation that comes from doing something other than staring at a screen for a change. Or even nothing at all. As Neby says: “This is about taking back your life. It’s serious stuff.”

Uber to move into 100 more Chinese cities

Controversial app-based taxi service Uber plans to expand into 100 Chinese cities over the next 12 months.
Controversial app-based taxi service Uber plans to expand into 100 Chinese cities over the next 12 months.
Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick announced the move at an event in Beijing held by one of Uber’s Chinese investors, Baidu. The service is already available in around 20 cities in the country. The expansion puts it head-to-head with local rival Didi Kuadi which recently raised $3bn in funding.
China’s internet-linked transport market is rapidly becoming the world’s biggest and is proving lucrative for Uber.
Mr Kalanick said the firm had gone from a tiny 1% share of the lift-hailing market in China nine months ago to its current 30%-35% market share. He did not specify what percentage of this was for private cars and what for taxis, where it faces tough competition from dominant player Didi Kuadi.
New regulations governing lift-hailing services in China are expected later this year. Mr Kalanick said he welcomed the new rules but in other parts of the world, regulation is proving a thorn in its side.
Last week, a judge in California paved the way for Uber drivers to sue the company over their status. Some drivers claim they are employees rather than contractors and, as such, should be allowed to claim expenses and receive tips.

BT promises to bring call centres back to the UK

BT is to stop using Indian call centres for frontline customer services after its customers told the company they prefer to talk to UK-based workers. Since 2003 the telecoms giant which has more than 10 million customers in the UK has used call centres in Bangalore and Delhi to supplement its UK operations.
BT is to stop using Indian call centres for frontline customer services after its customers told the company they prefer to talk to UK-based workers. Since 2003 the telecoms giant which has more than 10 million customers in the UK has used call centres in Bangalore and Delhi to supplement its UK operations.
Currently half of BT’s customer calls are dealt with at centres in the UK. But after “listening to its customers” the company has pledged that more than 80% of calls will be answered in the UK by the end of 2016, and that it will go further in years to come.
BT said it has already created more than 1,000 new UK jobs to meet this commitment, and plans to create “hundreds of other customer call centre positions in the UK over the next year”. The company has 20 contact centres in the UK, from Wales and Cornwall to the Midlands and Scotland.
BT said it would continue to outsource back-office work and functions that do not involve taking customers’ calls offshore. However, the move will be seen as an admission that the cost-cutting measure has largely backfired.
Telecoms customers have long complained of poor customer service with staff unable to sort out basic problems.
John Petter, chief executive of BT Consumer, said: “Our customers have told us that they would prefer to speak to a contact centre in the UK when they call us.
“When we launched BT Mobile earlier this year we located customer service in the UK and our customers have valued that. We think doing this for our other products is one way in which we can boost the service that we offer customers. Our offshore partners have provided a good level of service, however we believe that now is the right time to commit more investment to the UK and that this is something customers will appreciate.”
He said BT has also invested in new systems to assist its advisers and improve customer services.
Last week the consumer group Which? reported that not being able to ring a call centre based in the UK was the nation’s biggest customer service bugbear. Nearly half of those surveyed by the organisation said they were irritated by call centres not being based in the UK.

BBC planning Netflix-style service for US

The BBC is planning to launch a subscription-based video streaming service in the United States.
The BBC is planning to launch a subscription-based video streaming service in the United States.
BBC director general Tony Hall said he wanted to “try out businesses that go direct to the public” to boost the income of BBC Worldwide. The new service, which could launch in 2016, will not affect agreements with other services such as Amazon and Hulu. One expert told BBC News the service would probably appeal to a “niche” audience.
Lord Hall said the new service would showcase the “best of British” television to audiences in the US. “We’re launching a new over-the-top video service in America offering BBC fans programmes they wouldn’t otherwise get – showcasing British actors, our programme-makers – and celebrating our culture,” he said in a speech on Thursday.
Over-the-top services distribute television programmes through the open internet without a traditional cable or satellite provider controlling the content.

A BBC spokeswoman said its programmes would still broadcast on US TV channels, and that the new service was not designed to compete with products such as Netflix, which stream content from a number of partners.
“The subscription service will complement our existing footprint in the USA. Other video streaming services remain an important part of our business plan to ensure we bring the best of British to our audiences,” she said.

Lord Hall said he hoped to boost the income of BBC Worldwide to £1.2bn over the next five years, to help fund new BBC programmes. “We need to raise commercial income to supplement the licence fee so we can invest as much as possible in content for UK audiences,” he said. “Without that income, we can’t continue what we already do for the UK in drama or natural history.”
One analyst told the BBC a streaming service may not be the “ray of light” the corporation wanted.
“There is growth in online video and consumers are willing to pay a small sum to access entertainment online,” said TV analyst Michael Underhill from Enders Analysis. “But the BBC trialled an international version of its iPlayer service in a number of countries for four years. That was either a long experiment, or a flop. People like services that offer them all the shows they want, but don’t necessarily know which broadcaster produced them. Netflix and services like it are popular because they offer a breadth of programmes. I don’t think there will be a huge number of people signing up for niche services. And if every broadcaster launched its own, it would start to get messy for consumers.
“My hunch is, I don’t see that future existing.”

Call blocking firm fined for making cold calls itself

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A firm selling call blocking devices has itself been fined for making unsolicited calls to those who have opted out of receiving them.
Cold Call Eliminations, based in Chichester, made calls to the elderly, including cancer sufferers. One was said to have been left “badly shaken”. They were registered on the Telephone Preference Service (TPS), so should have been exempt from such calls. The company, which has been fined £75,000, refused to comment.
The Information Commissioner, which issued the fine, said the company was trying to sell subscriptions for a device which did exactly the same as the free service offered by the TPS. Over a period of nearly two years, the commissioner’s office and the TPS received 382 complaints from people who were registered on the TPS.
“This company clearly knew the law, but continued to break it by calling people on the TPS,” said Steve Eckersley, the ICO’s head of enforcement. “It is clear some of the people called by this company were very distressed by the calls and, as some of the people receiving the calls were elderly or vulnerable, this was an aggravating factor.”
Examples of complaints against the company: i) 

“This company has ‘conned’ my mother out of £84.99 for an unnecessary service … my parents are 87 and 86 respectively; my father is suffering from dementia.” ii) 

“I am looking after my elderly mother who has terminal cancer. She initially answered and I could see I needed to intervene as I could hear the sales guy not giving up. Please do something and stop this blight on my mum’s last days.” iii) 

“My father is 85 years old and recently lost his wife of 60 years. He doesn’t understand where companies like this get his personal information from to cold call him. They are also trying to extract £85 to allegedly block cold calls.” iv) 

“I was unsure what the call was about and I am elderly. I don’t understand technological talk but I ended up agreeing to a purchase I didn’t need because the sales person was able to convince me to buy it. My daughter and a friend have been trying to resolve the problem for me.”


Mr Eckersley said: “It is ironic that the products they were trying to sell should have blocked the very calls they were making.”
When asked the company said it had no comment to make on the fine, and nobody was available to answer whether it would appeal against the decision. It is not the first company to be fined after promising to block nuisance calls. In August, Point One Marketing – trading as Stop the Calls – was fined £50,000 by the Information Commissioner. The company, based in Bournemouth, was said to have operated in a “bullying and aggressive way”.