Video Game Streaming Bans

I don’t frequently write about video games (in fact, this may be my first or maybe second time), but I am known to dabble in games from time-to-time. In any case, I recently heard the story of DrDisRespect and his recent ban from Twitch.

DrDisRespect refers to himself as the “most ruthless competitor in game history” and is known for streaming games like Fortnite, PUBG, and Call of Duty. He earned a reported $1.8 million from his 32,000 subscribers in 2019 per twitchfollowers.com.

Yeah, $1.8 million. By playing video games.

He was banned by Twitch recently for no discernible reason. I’m not going to go into the details of the ban, but theScore esports had a nice video summing it up, here.

These bans happen all the time. Many fans complain that the bans are not always consistent, and Twitch’s policies aren’t very well defined. Ill-defined policies would not normally be a problem for your average gamer who plays for fun, but these streamers play for serious money. Given the money at stake, clear policies and fair application are a must for Twitch, but you’ll find that both are lacking.

Twitch Guidelines

Twitch publishes its guidelines here. They outlaw pretty straightforward stuff like breaking the law, violence, hateful conduct (including hate speech), and nudity. However, the application of these guidelines lacks clear guidance to their users.

Nudity seems obvious, but it’s anything but clear. For example, a Brazilian streamer named Gabriel “Gabepeixe” Baptista was banned in September 2019, because a Pink Floyd poster was displayed on one of his streams. The poster was from Pink Floyd’s “Back Catalogue” album cover, which depicted nude women (though, in a reasonably tasteful way, showing only their backs, hence “Back Catalogue”). He was banned for three days.

Compare that to a popular streamer named Kaitlyn “Amouranth” Siragusa, who on September 8, 2019, had a “wardrobe malfunction” which revealed actual nudity. She was banned for three days. She has been known to skate the line of sexual conduct in the past and has been banned two more times in 2020.

Identical bans for clearly non-identical behavior. I’m not explicitly taking sides here. Frankly, I don’t care what people choose to do online (within some reason, I guess), but I think it’s interesting that the punishment appears to be the same regardless of the actual offense.

Further, Twitch appears to have a “three-strike rule” in that if you get three bans, your ban becomes permanent. But many big-name streamers bypass this rule. For example, Amouranth was banned three times, the last time was on May 10, 2020. But her stream was reinstated in less than 24 hours.

Other streamers, like DrDisRespect, don’t seem as lucky since his latest ban appears to be permanent.

Why Does This Matter

These bans involve streamers who make thousands, and sometimes millions, of dollars. It seems to me that clarity is very important when you’re dealing with people’s livelihoods. I don’t know the exact cost of these bans, and, in fact, some streamers may net subscribers from their bans. It seems like bans have a big effect on the economic ecosystem that exists on a platform like Twitch. That ecosystem is complicated and there are winners and losers, but you would think some clarity is necessary for long term health. How will a platform like Twitch continue to attract top-tier talent when that talent can be punished unfairly?

This also highlights the perils of making money on someone else’s platform. Twitch owns the court, and it can take its ball and go home whenever it pleases. Twitch and other social media outlets are private companies, they can police them any way they please. The trouble is that these streamers don’t really have any other choice. It’s not like they can drive as much traffic to their own site. But then they have to play by Twitch’s rules, regardless of how unclear they may be.

The streamers do have one advantage, though. Once they are popular, they can leave and take a ton of viewers (and money) with them.

The last thought I had was that Twitch (and other social media giants) are responsible for policing their own users, the same users that make them money. Ninja, the Fortnite streamer, made a reported $5.4 million from streaming in 2019. Imagine how much Twitch made on him. Now let’s assume he did something to get banned. I imagine that Twitch has a lot of incentive to reinstate him regardless of his actions. I’d say they have millions of reasons to keep him around.

It’s almost like the system maintains room for Twitch to make subjective, final decisions. By publishing guidelines that are not explicit, Twitch can basically do what it wants. That means it can protect the streamers it wants to protect and punish those it doesn’t value.

The Effect of COVID on Small Business

With case numbers rising across numerous states in the US, many have started to question what the long-term effects of COVID will be on small businesses. Here in Illinois, small businesses have just now started to partially open. If we have a second spike, as many experts are predicting and the data is suggesting, how will that affect these businesses that have already been hit?

Small Business Data

Reliable data on small business is hard to come by. I don’t know of any groups collecting and analyzing data in real-time. The data that is available is frequently not as useful as it appears. For example, some sources list small businesses as any business with less than 500 employees. That’s obviously far from small.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence about what businesses are going through. As a manager of a firm that primarily works with small businesses, I have many stories from clients about their operational health. But that data is very specific to the company’s location and area of work. Data that covers broad swaths of American small business is tricky to find.

However, the US Chamber of Commerce recently published a poll of small businesses that appears to have good data backing it up. I have no idea what the US Chamber of Commerce is. ‘Chamber of Commerce’ is usually a title for a local community of businesses, it’s not a common title for a national organization. Given that, I believe the US Chamber of Commerce is a private company or an association of companies. In any case, you can see their original report here.

Their data was interesting. They reported that 41% of small businesses are fully open and 38% are partially open. About 19% of small businesses are temporarily closed, and 1% are permanently closed. Who is the 1% that took the survey despite their business being closed? I suspect that number may be underrepresented.

The report stated that 43% of business owners are ‘very concerned’ about the impact of COVID, which was down from 53% in May. Also, 53% of small businesses reported good overall health. In fact, 24% of business owners went so far as to say that the US economy was ‘good.’

This is touted by the article as a good sign, but I suggest that the reverse of that stat is that 76% of small businesses reported that the US economy was not good. And, by the way, economists would agree. The stock market may be doing well, but the market is not the only indication of a stable, healthy economy.

Another fascinating stat, 50% of business owners expect next year’s revenues to increase and 19% expect them to decrease. These numbers are slightly more positive than in May, but consider what is being said. Fifty percent think revenue in 2021 will increase. Notice, we aren’t talking about 2020. Given how bad 2020 has been for small business, how is it that 100% don’t think next year will be better? I find that stat concerning.

The fact is that these stats are not positive. Most business owners are legitimately concerned about this year and next, and that is without a second spike of cases occurring this fall (or right now).

Businesses Were Struggling Before COVID

NBC recently reported that a study involving 1.4 million small urban businesses done by JPMorgan Chase Institute found that nearly 29% of businesses were not profitable. That was as of September 2019. That study also found that nearly half of those businesses surveyed had no more than two weeks of cash on hand (article).

The fact is that many small businesses were failing before COVID hit, the pandemic simply sped up the process.

Now, even in the wake of the stay-at-home orders being lifted, many businesses don’t believe they can afford to carry on with normal operations. According to a LendingTree survey of 1,260 small businesses, approximately half of small businesses fear that they can’t reopen.

I have been saying this for weeks. The economy is not a light switch. Flipping it on does not guarantee demand for services. Businesses cannot operate at 50% or 25%, they don’t have the margins to survive such a downturn. Even if the stay-at-home orders are lifted, these businesses may not make it.

Business May Shift from Small Businesses to Larger Businesses

An article by The Washington Post considered what they called ‘micro-firms,’ or businesses with fewer than 10 employees (article). They interviewed Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics, and he said that he wouldn’t be surprised if over 1 million micro-firms ultimately fail due to COVID. Given that there are approximately 30 million small businesses in the US, that would be about 3% of all small businesses. That’s about 30,000 businesses here in Illinois.

But something else to consider, those small businesses frequently transact with other small businesses. That means that when some go under there may be ripples in the small business community.

Large businesses will have a better chance at survival because they are more likely to have cash reserves and be able to borrow money. In fact, the Federal Reserve has made borrowing money easier than ever. Therefore, we may see a shift in our economy away from small businesses and towards larger businesses. I don’t know what that means for customers, but as a small business owner, I believe the movement away from small, local business would be a tremendous loss.

What Happens When We See a Second Spike in COVID?

I don’t see how the numbers could get better if we see a second spike. Businesses that are close to shuttering would almost certainly close. Continued unemployment would mean less demand for products and services offered by these small businesses, which could lead to even more closures.

Business will come back, that’s the beauty of the market, but this current crop of small businesses may see extremely high attrition rates. Time will tell how these closures will ripple out. Will we see impacts on commercial landlords? What about tax revenues?

I expect that this gets much worse before it gets better.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Geofencing

Over the last few years, the concept of geofencing has become a mainstay in marketing circles, and more recently it has become useful to law enforcement. It’s powerful technology that can be used for good or evil, depending on which side of law enforcement you’re on. I believe that location data is intruding on our privacy in ways that we don’t entirely understand, and the geofencing debate brings many of the problems into the light.

How does geofencing work?

Essentially, companies or law enforcement draw an imaginary boundary on a digital map and all cell phone location data is collected within that boundary. Then the company can use the location data to sell users something or law enforcement can use the data to question witnesses or make arrests.

The concept of geofencing was originally used to provide businesses a way to target potential customers in a hyper-local way. For example, a store could offer all people within one block a coupon for discounted merchandise. Another example was a car dealership offering people leaving a rival dealer competitive financing (article).

I have personally seen this work in legal marketing. I had a company pitch me on the idea of showing my ads for personal injury work to people visiting the local emergency room. That was a few years ago so that gives you an idea of how long this technology has been around.

The technology works because of two things: (1) everyone has a smartphone and (2) virtually all of us are unwittingly giving our location data to a company (probably Google, but there are others). Given that 95% of American adults have a smartphone, this data collection and use are extensive and its applications are numerous.

In comes law enforcement. Of course, this technology is extremely useful to police. They do the same thing as companies – they create an area and track all cell phone data within the area. That data is provided anonymously to detectives who then create a list of suspects based on cell phone movements. This has been used to solve a variety of cases including home invasions and murders (NY Times article).

On its face, this all sounds good, but let’s break it down and discuss where this technology potentially goes awry.

The Good of Geofencing

Geofencing can help law enforcement solve crimes that could not normally be solved. It helps to locate suspects and witnesses. There have been a number of high-profile cases solved using location data collected by Google. For example, the NY Times article I cited earlier is about solving a murder that, without geofencing, would have likely gone unsolved.

Catching bad guys who wouldn’t have been caught using normal means is great. It helps make the world safer and makes it harder to get away with crime.

The Bad of Geofencing

Many of the stories where geofencing was used to solve a crime involve the questioning and arrest of innocent people. That occurs because geofencing warrants cast a huge net. These warrants can cover multiple blocks of distance and time frames stretching into days or weeks. Potentially hundreds or thousands of people can be included in these sweeping warrants.

Imagine for a second being arrested for a crime you did not commit simply because your cell phone was located near the commission of a crime. Suddenly, it’s on you to provide an alibi or to explain why you aren’t the criminal responsible for the crime. Assuming you have that kind of evidence, you could still end up imprisoned for days or weeks until everything gets sorted out.

You might be thinking that warrants of that scope probably come under tremendous scrutiny from judges. I suspect that you are wrong. When I was a prosecutor, officers would routinely come into court to ask the judge (any judge) to sign warrants. I don’t recall a judge ever refusing to sign a warrant. In fact, I don’t recall a judge ever really asking any questions about the warrants. Usually, the judge just signed them, maybe asking a couple of generic questions of the officer. Not exactly the oversight that we would hope for.

There is the added problem that judges may not understand what geofencing is. We have an aging judiciary who frequently struggles with basic technology, and these warrants are not offered with an expert to explain how thousands of users’ data will be collected as part of a geofencing warrant. In fact, and with no disrespect to law enforcement, officers are disincentivized from offering that kind of information to judges because if they had all of the information, judges may refuse to sign such warrants.

The fact is that this kind of data collection ropes many people into a criminal investigation who would not normally be suspects. That level of contact with law enforcement is not usually good for the average citizen.

The Ugly of Geofencing

This mass collection of data could mean real trouble for protestors and social activists. For example, police could collect data on the entire protestor-controlled region set up in Seattle. Then, using that data, they could determine who was most active in the protests and arrest those people. The mere fact that this technology exists may encourage people to avoid protests for fear of being targeted by law enforcement.

Look, I’m not a doomsayer. I know that what I just wrote is a stretch. However, the technology could absolutely be used to police otherwise lawful actions. It’s extremely important that we put limitations on police use of technology before it gets out of hand.

Conclusion

Geofencing is an incredibly powerful tool. It can be used by law enforcement to solve previously unsolved crimes. But if unchecked, the technology could easily be used to oppress freedoms and incarcerate people needlessly.