Inside OSN Streaming’s digital transformation

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A year after OSN rebranded its streaming platform WAVO to OSN Streaming, it has unveiled a brand new digital-first platform. (Screenshot)
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Chief technology officer at OSN Peter Riz. (Supplied)
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A year after OSN rebranded its streaming platform WAVO to OSN Streaming, it has unveiled a brand new digital-first platform. (Screenshot)
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Updated 25 July 2021

Inside OSN Streaming’s digital transformation

  • How OSN delivered a digital-first product in six months

DUBAI: A year after OSN rebranded its streaming platform WAVO to OSN Streaming, it has unveiled a brand new digital-first platform, putting technology and content at its core.
In October 2020, OSN Streaming changed its look and feel, but the technology remained the same. It was around the same time that the company decided to digitally overhaul the platform, delivering an entirely new user experience. 
“My early estimation was that we need to have 12-18 months,” Peter Riz, chief technology officer at OSN, told Arab News.
However, six months was a “very aggressive timeline” for a development such as this, he added. Riz and his team had to devise a hybrid approach using six different modules to achieve this vision. The next step was to find a way to bring together the modules in a seamless manner, because running them separately was not sustainable or cost-effective.
The two key areas of the rebrand were multiple user profiles — including dedicated children’s profiles — and content presentation focusing on enhanced search and discovery.
Content presentation and discovery were critical to the user experience, said Riz. The first layer was presenting content to each user based on the general interests of that audience segment determined by factors such as age and location. 
The second and more challenging layer was navigating personal user preferences. For example, Western expats generally watch movies and shows from the West, but also like watching certain Arabic dramas, explained Riz. The platform was also designed to learn from user behavior and tailor recommendations over time.
Riz said: “We wanted to show users the content we believe is relevant, so the question became: How do we do this quickly, and how do we give all this control to the editorial and marketing team?”


The answer came in the form of a custom technological component called the Customer Experience Builder (CXB). “The CXB is a new type of innovation from a technical point of view,” added Riz, because it enables the company to add new features and updates to various touchpoints — such as the mobile app, web browser, and TV apps — through one common system.
Digital disruption has been driven, in part, by a rapid change in user behavior, making it more important than ever before for companies to be able to adapt and improve their digital services quickly.
“OSN was not only able to deliver this new platform very quickly using the CXB, but we can continuously improve the experience,” said Riz. From building the CXB from scratch to writing new code, the new platform is a technological innovation for OSN.
“We changed the entire environment,” said Riz. “There is no legacy code in the new environment so every line of code that the engineers created to deliver the service is new.”
Since the launch of the new platform, OSN has been making tweaks through the CXB suite every two weeks. “Most of the logic, or ‘magic’ as we sometimes call it, happens on the backend,” he added.
Although these changes are almost imperceptible to users, they have a profound impact on how people discover and watch content on the platform, said Riz, resulting in OSN doubling content consumption on the platform.
Streaming companies reached their peak during the coronavirus disease pandemic, as more people spent time indoors and cinemas shut down. The surge in new users has forced these platforms to innovate in order to sustain their growth.
So, what is next for these companies?
“The real differentiator is still the content and how we present this content,” said Riz. “We are continuously working to find new content sources and secure current partnerships.”
Streaming platforms, including OSN, are also looking for new kinds of partnerships that will see them diversifying into gaming and audio. OSN, for instance, partnered with multi-player video game “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” (PUBG) to provide PUBG Mobile players an exclusive opportunity to access the OSN Streaming app.
On the technology side, OSN continues to measure multiple factors such as streaming quality, load time, lags, or delays, to constantly improve the user experience. When there is a new update on any operating system, the company immediately runs tests to see if it affects the performance of the OSN Streaming platform. It is also working on adding alternative payment methods, in addition to credit cards, to the platform.
But, behind it all, “you need to continue that invisible, seamless and perfect technology,” said Riz.
It is all about “continuous improvement and continuous innovation to bring the content to the audience, increase the partnerships and support the entire digital economy to grow and unlock all the potential in the region,” he concluded.

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Google cyber-threat arm exposes Tehran’s online espionage

Updated 16 October 2021

Google cyber-threat arm exposes Tehran’s online espionage

  • An Iranian-government aligned group has tried to steal personal information and passwords of notable individuals across Europe and the US through 2021
  • Iran set to continue on the same cyber-espionage path despite the exposure of their tactics, expert tells Arab News

Tech giant Google has exposed how Iranian-backed groups attempt to use its platforms to carry out espionage on behalf of the government in Tehran.

In a blog post released on Thursday, Google’s Threat Analysis Group exposed the work of APT35, a shady hacking group that Google said is linked to the Iranian government.

Ajax Bash, of TAG, said: “This is the one of the groups we disrupted during the 2020 US election cycle for its targeting of campaign staffers. For years, this group has hijacked accounts, deployed malware, and used novel techniques to conduct espionage aligned with the interests of the Iranian government.”

APT35 “regularly conducts phishing campaigns targeting high risk users,” Bash said.

In one instance, he said, Iranian hackers targeted lecturers from a British university — the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London — and impersonated them in an attempt to trick others in the academic community into divulging their personal information and passwords. This form of cyber espionage is called credential phishing.

“APT35 has relied on this technique since 2017 — targeting high-value accounts in government, academia, journalism, NGOs, foreign policy, and national security,” said Bash.

“Credential phishing through a compromised website demonstrates these attackers will go to great lengths to appear legitimate — as they know it’s difficult for users to detect this kind of attack.

“One of the most notable characteristics of APT35 is their impersonation of conference officials to conduct phishing attacks,” said Bash. He explained that Iranian-backed operatives impersonated officials from the Munich Security Conference and an Italian think-tank to steal passwords and information.

Amin Sabeti, the founder of Digital Impact Lab and an Iran-focused cyber security professional, told Arab News that Google’s blog exposes how Iran continues to build on its national cyber security strategy.

“This report shows again that Iranian state-backed hackers are very good in social engineering and they have improved their technique,” he said.

“For example, using a legitimate website to convince the target to enter the credential details of their online account is something new that we didn’t see a few years ago.”

Sabeti also said that, despite Google unmasking Iran’s cyber-espionage activity, it is unlikely that they will change their strategy entirely.

“I think we will see the same techniques but with new ideas.”

Google’s Bash said: “We warn users when we suspect a government-backed threat like APT35 is targeting them. Thousands of these warnings are sent every month, even in cases where the corresponding attack is blocked.  

“Threat Analysis Group will continue to identify bad actors and share relevant information with others in the industry, with the goal of bringing awareness to these issues, protecting you and fighting bad actors to prevent future attacks.”

Decoder

Credential phishing

It is a form of cyber attack in which hackers impersonate a reputable entity or person to steal user ID or email addresses and password combinations, then use the victim's credentials to carry out attacks on other targets.


Microsoft shutting down LinkedIn app in China amid scrutiny

The company said in a blog post Thursday it has faced a “significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China.” (File/AFP)
Updated 15 October 2021

Microsoft shutting down LinkedIn app in China amid scrutiny

  • LinkedIn will replace its localized platform in China with a new app called InJobs

REDMOND, Washington: Microsoft is shutting down its main LinkedIn service in China later this year as Beijing tightens its internet rules.

The company said in a blog post Thursday it has faced a “significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China.”

Microsoft is the latest American tech giant to lessen its ties to the country after years of trying to tailor its services to the demands of government censors.

LinkedIn said it will replace its localized platform in China with a new app called InJobs that has some of LinkedIn’s career-networking features but will not include a social feed or the ability to share posts or articles.

Chinese regulators have been escalating a broad crackdown on the internet sector, seeking to exercise greater control over the algorithms used by tech firms to personalize and recommend content. They have also strengthened data privacy restrictions and expanded control over the flow of information and public opinion.

LinkedIn in March said it would pause new member sign-ups on LinkedIn China because of unspecified regulatory issues. China’s internet watchdog in May said it had found LinkedIn as well as Microsoft’s Bing search engine and about 100 other apps were engaged in improper collection and use of data and ordered them to fix the problem.

Several scholars this summer reported getting warning letters from LinkedIn that they were sharing “prohibited content” that would not be made viewable in China but could still be seen by LinkedIn users elsewhere.

Tony Lee, a scholar at Berlin’s Free University, told The Associated Press in June that LinkedIn didn’t tell him which content was prohibited but said it was tied to the section of his profile where he listed his publications. Among his listed articles was one about the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and another comparing Chinese leader Xi Jinping with former leader Mao Zedong.

Lee said Thursday it is “wishful thinking for LinkedIn to maintain its presence in a different form” without social media elements, its distinctive selling point against other online job boards. He said LinkedIn is better off pulling out of the country entirely than “practicing censorship dictated by China” that damages the company’s worldwide credibility.

It’s been more than seven years since LinkedIn launched a site in simplified Chinese, the written characters used on the mainland, to expand its reach in the country. It said at the time of the launch in early 2014 that expanding in China raised “difficult questions” because it required censoring content, but that it would be clear about how it conducts business in China and undertake “extensive measures” to protect members’ rights and data.

Microsoft, which is based in Redmond, Washington, bought LinkedIn in 2016. LinkedIn doesn’t disclose how much of its revenue comes from China, but it reports having more than 54 million members in mainland China, its third-largest user base after the U.S. and India.

“LinkedIn once served a crucial role, as the only social media network on which Chinese and Western colleagues could communicate away from (Chinese Communist Party) censorship and prying eyes,” said Eyck Freymann, another scholar who received a censorship notice letter this year, in a text message Thursday.

Freymann, a doctoral student in China studies at Oxford University, said it is “shameful that Microsoft spent months censoring its own users — and, worse, pressuring them to self-censor” but that the company ultimately made the right choice to pull the plug.

Google pulled its search engine out of mainland China in 2010 after the government began censoring search results and videos on YouTube. It later considered starting a censored Chinese search engine nicknamed Project Dragonfly but dropped the idea following internal protest in 2018.

Other US-based social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are blocked within China.

Microsoft’s own search engine, Bing, was temporarily blocked in China in early 2019, leading the company’s president, Brad Smith, to reveal that executives sometimes have difficult negotiations with the Chinese government over censorship and other demands.

“We understand we don’t have the same legal freedom that we do in other countries, but at the same time, we stick to our guns,” Smith told Fox Business News in January 2019. “There are certain principles that we think it’s important to stand up for, and we’ll go at times into the negotiating room and the negotiations are sometimes pretty darn direct.”

Adding to the sensitivities this year was a massive hack of Microsoft’s Exchange email server software that U.S. officials have blamed on criminal hackers associated with the Chinese government.

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Dentsu retains Standard Chartered global media remit

Updated 14 October 2021

Dentsu retains Standard Chartered global media remit

  • Assignment covers Standard Chartered’s global markets including the Middle East and Pakistan

DUBAI: Dentsu International has been selected as Standard Chartered’s media agency of record for a further five years, after having successfully defended the account in a competitive pitch.
The assignment covers Standard Chartered’s global markets across media planning, strategy, and buying, including the Middle East, and Pakistan.
Sumeet Single, country head of corporate affairs, brand, and marketing for Standard Chartered Bank, said: “Dentsu continues to deliver a deep knowledge of our business and how we can drive growth through media.
“Working with a partner with shared values and ambitions has created a strong partnership for us to build on, and I look forward to what the future holds.”
Ramzy Abouchacra, the chief executive officer of Carat MENA, said: “We have built a fantastic partnership with Standard Chartered over the past four years, helping them on a journey of digital transformation and delivering performance with purpose.”
He added that the agency was excited for the next five years, “as we realize a vision for growth delivered through our one Dentsu service model.”


Facebook to change rules on attacking public figures on its platforms

Updated 13 October 2021

Facebook to change rules on attacking public figures on its platforms

  • The social media company says it is changing its approach on the harassment of journalists and "human rights defenders"
  • Facebook is under wide-ranging scrutiny from global lawmakers and regulators over its content moderation practices

DUBAI: Facebook will now count activists and journalists as “involuntary” public figures and so increase protections against harassment and bullying targeted at these groups, its global safety chief said in an interview this week.
The social media company, which allows more critical commentary of public figures than of private individuals, says it is changing its approach on the harassment of journalists and “human rights defenders,” who it says are in the public eye due to their work rather than their public personas.
Facebook is under wide-ranging scrutiny from global lawmakers and regulators over its content moderation practices and harms linked to its platforms, with internal documents leaked by a whistleblower forming the basis for a US Senate hearing last week.
How Facebook, which has about 2.8 billion monthly active users, treats public figures and content posted by or about those figures has been an area of intense debate. In recent weeks, the company’s “cross check” system, which the Wall Street Journal reported has the effect of exempting some high-profile users from usual Facebook rules, has been in the spotlight.
Facebook also differentiates between public figures and private individuals in the protections it affords around online discussion: for instance, users are generally allowed to call for the death of a celebrity in discussions on the platform.
The company declined to share a list of other involuntary public figures but said they are assessed on a case-by-case basis. Earlier this year, Facebook said it would remove content celebrating, praising or mocking George Floyd’s death, because he was deemed an involuntary public figure.
Facebook’s Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis said the company was also expanding the types of attacks that it would not allow on public figures on its sites, as part of an effort to reduce attacks disproportionately faced by women, people of color and the LGBTQ community.
Facebook will no longer allow severe and unwanted sexualizing content, derogatory sexualized photoshopped images or drawings or direct negative attacks on a person’s appearance, for example, in comments on a public figure’s profile.


Facebook unveils new controls for kids using its platforms

the Facebook "like" sign at Facebook's corporate headquarters campus in Menlo Park, California. (File/AFP)
Updated 11 October 2021

Facebook unveils new controls for kids using its platforms

NEW YORK: Facebook, in the aftermath of damning testimony that its platforms harm children, will be introducing several features including prompting teens to take a break using its photo sharing app Instagram, and “nudging” teens if they are repeatedly looking at the same content that’s not conducive to their well-being.
The Menlo Park, California-based Facebook is also planning to introduce new controls for adults of teens on an optional basis so that parents or guardians can supervise what their teens are doing online. These initiatives come after Facebook announced late last month that it was pausing work on its Instagram for Kids project. But critics say the plan lacks details and they are skeptical that the new features would be effective.
The new controls were outlined on Sunday by Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs, who made the rounds on various Sunday news shows including CNN’s “State of the Union” and ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” where he was grilled about Facebook’s use of algorithms as well as its role in spreading harmful misinformation ahead of the Jan. 6 Capitol riots.
“We are constantly iterating in order to improve our products,” Clegg told Dana Bash on “State of the Union” Sunday. “We cannot, with a wave of the wand, make everyone’s life perfect. What we can do is improve our products, so that our products are as safe and as enjoyable to use.”
Clegg said that Facebook has invested $13 billion over the past few years in making sure to keep the platform safe and that the company has 40,000 people working on these issues. And while Clegg said that Facebook has done its best to keep harmful content out of its platforms, he says he was open for more regulation and oversight.
“We need greater transparency,” he told CNN’s Bash. He noted that the systems that Facebook has in place should be held to account, if necessary, by regulation so that “people can match what our systems say they’re supposed to do from what actually happens.”
The flurry of interviews came after whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former data scientist with Facebook, went before Congress last week to accuse the social media platform of failing to make changes to Instagram after internal research showed apparent harm to some teens and of being dishonest in its public fight against hate and misinformation. Haugen’s accusations were supported by tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents she secretly copied before leaving her job in the company’s civic integrity unit.
Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, a watchdog for the children and media marketing industry, said that he doesn’t think introducing controls to help parents supervise teens would be effective since many teens set up secret accounts any way. He was also dubious about how effective nudging teens to take a break or move away from harmful content would be. He noted Facebook needs to show exactly how they would implement it and offer research that shows these tools are effective.
“There is tremendous reason to be skeptical,” he said. He added that regulators need to restrict what Facebook does with its algorithms.
He said he also believes that Facebook should cancel its Instagram project for kids.
When Clegg was grilled by both Bash and Stephanopoulos in separate interviews about the use of algorithms in amplifying misinformation ahead of Jan. 6 riots, he responded that if Facebook removed the algorithms people would see more, not less hate speech, and more, not less, misinformation.
Clegg told both hosts that the algorithms serve as “giant spam filters.”
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who chairs the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights, told Bash in a separate interview Sunday that it’s time to update children’s privacy laws and offer more transparency in the use of algorithms.
“I appreciate that he is willing to talk about things, but I believe the time for conversation is done,” said Klobuchar, referring to Clegg’s plan. “The time for action is now.”