Pet cameras and activity trackers are flying off the shelves. Demand for anti-chew sprays, automatic feeders and water fountains for pets has rocketed, and dog walkers and sitters are being inundated with inquiries.
As lockdown restrictions ease, dog owners are snapping up products and services that will enable them to monitor and care for their pets while they are out at work.
The recent boom in pet ownership means many “pandemic puppies” – pets who were acquired to provide companionship or family entertainment during lockdown – have rarely experienced being home alone, while older dogs have also become accustomed to having their owners around all the time.
“A lot of these dogs are going to have separation anxiety when their owners go back to work,” said Debs Webster, owner of Woof Squad, a dog-walking service in Cheshire that specialises in small to medium dogs. As well as spending six hours a day walking dogs herself, Webster says she has had to hire two new walkers to meet demand from new clients. “I’m going to take on another person next month. I think by the time everyone goes back to work, my client base will probably have doubled.”
At Deansford Kennels, just outside Kidderminster, Robin Depper is also experiencing an unprecedented increase in demand for his services. Bookings for kennel boardings have increased tenfold since March, he says, but following the pandemic he is now more focused on providing “doggie daycare”. “We have been inundated with inquiries for daycare services since people have started going back to work. I’ve never seen anything like it in the 37 years I’ve run these kennels.”
At his paddocks in the countryside, dogs spend the day playing together and going for walks, so they “never feel lonely” without their owners. This kind of daycare is especially popular with new dog owners, he said, who want to be sure their dogs feel safe and “entertained” as they return to working outside the home.
Other owners are turning to subscription services that provide music and TV programmes designed to help dogs overcome anxiety, loneliness and boredom while they are home alone. Spotify and Amazon Prime have started offering playlists and TV shows made specifically for pets, while the streaming service RelaxMyDog has seen an 18% rise in subscribers over the past six weeks. Nicknamed “Petflix”’ by users, RelaxMyDog takes dogs stuck in front of the TV on “virtual walks”, with the camera often positioned at the height of the dog and a soundtrack that is meant to help them “chill”.
“Demand is certainly increasing as people prepare to go back to the office – especially among owners of ‘pandemic puppies’ who did not prepare well enough for the reality of pet ownership,” said founder Amman Ahmed.
Business is also booming at PetTech.co.uk. “Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a 50% increase in demand for smart pet feeders, which are automatic feeders of dry food that people can control from an app,” said owner Michael Wainwright.
Other popular products include water fountains, which provide the pet with a constant flow of fresh water, and pet cameras with motion sensors, night vision and two-way audio. “If your dog or cat’s being naughty, you can tell them to stop doing what they’re doing,” he said. Some cameras also enable owners to remotely dispense a treat if the dog obeys their voice commands.
At the chain Pets at Home, there has been a “massive growth” in the number of dog owners buying pheromone calming solutions for their anxious pooches, says director Claire Gavin. “They mimic the mother dog’s pheromones and have a calming influence when the dog is left.”
Fitness trackers, which enable owners to check just how much exercise the dog walker has given their dog, are also proving popular, along with long-lasting natural chews that safely occupy a dog who is left alone in the house, and anti-chew sprays that deter bored dogs from gnawing the furniture.
But Gavin is concerned by the growth she is seeing in sales of puzzle toys, which dogs love because they dispense treats when the dog solves the puzzle. “Some of them have little bits and pieces that could prove a choking hazard.”
Jenna Kiddie, head of canine behaviour at Dogs Trust, was in favour of cameras that allow owners to monitor their dogs for signs of separation anxiety. “An owner able to see this can take action to help their dog. However, owners should be mindful that automatic treat dispensers and owner intercom technology could cause inadvertent reinforcement of undesirable behaviours.”
The security guru Bruce Schneier once famously observed that “surveillance is the business model of the internet”. Like all striking generalisations it was slightly too general: it was strictly true only if by “the internet” you meant the services of a certain number of giant tech companies, notably those of Facebook (including WhatsApp and Instagram), Google (including YouTube), Twitter and Amazon.
The trouble is (and this is what gave Schneier’s aphorism its force) that for a large chunk of networked humanity, especially inhabitants of poorer countries, these walled gardens are indeed what people regard as “the internet”. And that’s no accident. Although Chinese smartphones are pretty cheap everywhere, mobile data tends to be prohibitively expensive in poor countries. So the deal offered by western tech companies is that data charges are low or zero if you access the internet via their apps, but expensive if you venture outside their walled gardens.
Of all the companies, Facebook was the one that first appreciated the potential of this strategy. It offered a way of signing up a billion new users in hitherto underserved parts of the world, thereby reducing the digital divide between the global north and the south. This meant that it could be spun as a philanthropic initiative, initially badged as internet.org and then as Free Basics. The app gave users access to a small selection of websites and services that were stripped of photos and videos and could thus be browsed without paying for mobile data. The rationale was that Free Basics would provide a taster of the internet, which would let people see the value of being connected. Conveniently, though, it also made Facebook the gateway to the internet for these new users. It was the default setting, as it were, in an online world where most people never change defaults and so functioned as a gateway drug for online addiction.
Rather to Facebook’s surprise, Free Basics was not universally welcomed in some of its target territories. The most vocal opposition came in India, the most important market outside of the west, where ungrateful critics perceived it an example of “digital colonialism” and it was eventually blocked by the country’s telecoms regulator on the grounds that it violated the principle of net neutrality by explicitly favouring some kinds of online content while effectively blocking others. Beyond India, however, Free Basics seems to be thriving, being used by “up to 100 million” people in 65 countries, including 28 in Africa.
Last May, Facebook launched a kind of Free Basics 2.0 called Discover. It’s a mobile app that can be used to browse any website using a daily balance of free data from participating mobile network partners. Effectively, it strips out all website content that’s data-intensive (images, video, audio) and displays a pared-down version of the site. “We’re exploring ways to help people stay on the internet more consistently,” explains the Facebook blurb. “Many internet users around the world remain under-connected, regularly dropping off the internet for some period of time when they exhaust their data balance. Discover is designed to help bridge these gaps and keep people connected until they can purchase data again.”
Sounds good, eh? But a recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, on how Discover works in the Philippines (where it has replaced Free Basics) found that not all websites seemed to be stripped for onward viewing. When accessing Facebook through Discover, for example, it wasn’t stripped much – just 4% of images were removed from Instagram, compared with more than 65% of images on other popular sites such as YouTube and e-commerce platform Shopee. The inference was that Discover rendered Facebook’s own services far more functional than those of its competitors. Charged with this, the company blamed a “technical error” that had since been resolved.
Maybe it has, but it might not be wise to trust what Facebook has to say on questions such as this. It’s not that long ago, for example, that it offered its users Onavo Protect, a free virtual private network (VPN) app that would protect their privacy. The company is now being sued by Australia’s competition and consumer commission (ACCC) for using Onavo to allegedly spy on users. “Through Onavo Protect,” said the regulator, “Facebook was collecting and using the very detailed and valuable personal activity data of thousands of Australian consumers for its own commercial purposes, which we believe is completely contrary to the promise of protection, secrecy and privacy that was central to Facebook’s promotion of this app.” Facebook responded that it was “always clear about the information we collect and how it is used”, that it had cooperated with the ACCC’s investigation and that it “will continue to defend” its position in response to the regulator’s filing.
You get the point? Maybe surveillance isn’t the only business model of the internet. Hypocrisy runs it a close second.
The husband of an Amazon financial executive was sentenced on Thursday to 26 months behind bars for insider trading of the web giant’s stock.
Viky Bohra, 37, of Bothell, Washington, reaped a profit of $1,428,264 between January 2016 and October 2018 by buying and selling Amazon stock using eleven trading accounts managed by himself and his family.
Bohra was able to pocket these big gains because he got copies of Amazon’s confidential financial figures from his wife, Laksha Bohra, who worked as a senior manager in the mega corp’s tax department. Laksha had access to Amazon’s earnings before the numbers were publicly disclosed and reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Her husband “obtained” this secret information, despite her being repeatedly warned to not leak the confidential data, and used it to favorably trade in Amazon stock and options.
“This defendant and his wife were earning hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and bonuses from their jobs in tech – but he was not content with that – greedily scheming to illegally profit by trading Amazon stock,” Acting US Attorney Tessa Gorman, said in a statement.
“This case should stand as a warning to those who try to game the markets with insider trading: there is a heavy price to pay with a felony conviction and prison sentence.”
The FBI began sniffing around, and the Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington filed criminal charges [PDF] against Viky in 2020. He pleaded guilty in November to securities fraud. The prosecution had asked the courts for a 33-month sentence.
Separately, he was also charged by the SEC and told to cough up $2,652,899 in disgorgement, interest, and penalties.
“Mr Bohra knew exactly what he was doing and was driven solely by greed,” Donald Voiret, an FBI Special Agent leading the Seattle Field Office, added. “With his nearly unlimited access and knowledge of securities trading, he undermined public trust in our financial markets.”
Laksha Bohra was suspended from her job in 2018 and resigned shortly after, according to a lawsuit filed by the SEC [PDF], and will not face criminal charges as part of Viky’s agreement to plead guilty. ®
Stripe Tax automates much of the calculating and collecting of levies like VAT and sales tax for businesses.
Fintech giant Stripe is rolling out a new product to automate businesses’ tax compliance.
Stripe Tax, which was built at the company’s engineering hub in Dublin, helps businesses to automatically calculate and collect sales taxes, VAT and goods and service taxes where they do business.
The product has been rolled out in 30 countries and all US states. Stripe Tax manages the requirements for tax collecting from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. This ensures merchants are in compliance with local tax rules but without the headache of managing it themselves.
According to a 2020 report from Stripe, two-thirds of businesses say that managing tasks like tax compliance inhibits their growth and takes up time that could otherwise be spent on product development.
The matter of tax has become more complex with the mix of physical and digital goods and sales across borders.
Non-compliance with taxes, even through accidental oversight, can lead to serious sanctions or interest-laden tax bills for businesses.
Stripe Tax calculates taxes due by determining an end customer’s location and products they’re buying. It adapts as changes to tax regimes come into effect and generates reports for businesses on the levies calculated and collected.
“No one leaps out of bed in the morning excited to deal with taxes,” Stripe co-founder John Collison said. “For most businesses, managing tax compliance is a painful distraction. We simplify everything about calculating and collecting sales taxes, VAT and GST, so our users can focus on building their businesses.”
Large companies, including News UK, have started using the product.
“Directly integrating Stripe Tax into our subscriptions platform will save us countless hours, time that can be better spent elsewhere,” Ruan Odendaal, head of subscriptions platform at NewsUK, said.