Guardian uncovers evidence that employee of online lender abused anti-payday loans campaigner Stella Creasy on Twitter
The MP and anti-payday loans campaigner Stella Creasy has demanded an apology from the online lender Wonga after a Guardian investigation uncovered evidence that an employee of the firm has been using an anonymous Twitter account to publicly attack her, calling her mentally unstable.
Wonga’s slogan and adverts promise “straight talking money”, but company computers appear to have been used to post anonymous comments on blogs critical of its practices and there is evidence that a second Wonga employee has deleted criticism from its Wikipedia page.
A computer in the Wonga offices appears to have been used to remove from the company’s Wikipedia page a reference to controversy over its sponsorship of Newcastle United Football Club and to delete the category of “usury” under the See Also section.
Wonga admitted on Tuesday a “junior employee” might have made unauthorised comments online and would face disciplinary action if found to have been responsible for the abusive tweets. It defended its right to correct “inaccurate” entries on Wikipedia.
Wonga has faced mounting criticism for targeting low-income customers with short-terms loans charging an annualised interest rate of 4,214%, but the evidence seen by the Guardian suggests at least one employee has been fighting back by using so-called “sock puppet” accounts to attack critics and post favourable comments underneath articles about the firm.
One Twitter account, traced to someone operating within Wonga’s London office, called Creasy “mental”, “nuts”, and a “self-serving egomaniac” because of her campaigning against the controversial firm and the wider payday loans market.
Creasy said: “Wonga have been less than positive about the arguments I’ve made about cost-capping [of short-term loans] and have been the most virulent and aggressive about defending the industry as a whole. They will obviously stoop to many levels and this is just one of them. I would expect an apology.”
The Twitter account was operated in the name of @DanielSargant1, but it was closed shortly after the Guardian questioned Wonga about its provenance.
Someone using the same unusual spelling of this name also left a comment defending Wonga – calling the firm “a rare British tech success story” – on an article critical of Wonga on a blog called the Silicon Roundabout Reboot. His comment came from the same internet protocol (IP) address as that used by Luke Manning, editor of OpenWonga (a Wonga-owned website that aims to educate consumers about the brand), when he also made a comment on the blog.
An IP address is a unique set of numbers, much like a telephone number, that computers use to communicate with one another. Computers that share a router to connect to the internet will appear to have the same IP address. Manning confirmed that he had left the comment attributed to OpenWonga using Wonga’s computer system, but said he did not know who had left the comment attributed to Daniel Sargant.
A Wonga employee has used the same IP address to edit its Wikipedia page over the last three months, the latest amendment being made at the end of October.
“Conflict of interest editing” is a controversial practice that is “very strongly discouraged” by Wikipedia. The website allows anyone to edit its content, but the site maintains a neutral point of view policy. Its rules say adding material that appears to advance the interests or promote the visibility of an article’s author, the author’s family, employer, clients, associates or business, places the author in a conflict of interest.
A Wonga spokesman said: “We can confirm one of our junior employees may have made unauthorised comments on a blog, and elsewhere on the web, while not identifying themselves correctly. This is an issue that Wonga takes extremely seriously, as we are committed to openness and transparency. We are now carrying out a full investigation and, if the employee is found to be responsible, they will face serious disciplinary action.”
Insiders claim Manning is not the employee Wonga suspects as the source of the Twitter abuse and that he only made minor changes to the Wikipedia entry. Someone using the Wonga.com IP address began editing the Wiki page in August, when it removed substantial portions from the criticism section. A note justifying one edit stated: “Added other side of the debate in question, for balance.”
The latest edit carried out on 29 October 2012 removed reference to a blog entry on the Harvard Business Review website that described Wonga as “the worst business model in the world”. Someone using the Wonga IP address also changed the name of the product from “Payday loan and short-term high-interest credit” to “Short-term credit”.
However, Wonga is not alone in trying to improve its image on Wikipedia: the Central Intelligence Agency, the Vatican and Sony have all been exposed on Wikipedia for editing their own pages or employing others such as public relations agencies to carry out edits on their behalf.
The Wonga spokesman said: “Like many organisations, Wonga regularly reviews its Wikipedia entry to ensure it is both accurate and comprehensive. In doing so we adhere to a strict policy. We will add material that is both factually correct and we believe of interest to readers, plus we will occasionally seek to remove inaccurate material. We would not attempt to remove accurate material, even if negative, in keeping with the guiding principles of Wikipedia.”
The Wonga spokesman said: “We are still carrying out our investigation, which will look all concerns raised but, to be clear, we do not condone any form of misleading or aggressive behaviour, on or offline.”
The Wonga revelations come on the same day that the regulator, the Office of Fair Trading, wrote to all 240 payday lenders highlighting “emerging concerns” over poor practices in the market, including “aggressive” debt collection practices.
Analysts have claimed the $1bn ruling will make phones more expensive, but Microsoft and others will continue to compete
Once upon a time, Steve Ballmer blasted Apple for asking its customers to pay $500 for an Apple logo. This was the “Apple tax“, the price difference between the solid, professional workmanship of a laptop running on Windows, and Apple’s needlessly elegant MacBooks.
Following last week’s verdict against Samsung, the commentariat have raised the specter of an egregious new Apple tax, one that Apple will levy on other smartphone makers who will have no choice but to pass the burden on to you. The idea is this: Samsung’s loss means it will now have to compete against Apple with its dominant hand – a lower price tag – tied behind its back. This will allow Apple to exact higher prices for its iPhones (and iPads) and thus inflict even more pain and suffering on consumers.
There seems to be a moral aspect, here, as if Apple should be held to a higher standard. Last year, Apple and Nokia settled an IP “misunderstanding” that also resulted in a “tax” … but it was Nokia that played the T-Man role: Apple paid Nokia more than $600m plus an estimated $11.50 per iPhone sold. Where were the handwringers who now accuse Apple of abusing the patent system when the Nokia settlement took place? Where was the outrage against the “evil”, if hapless, Finnish company? (Amusingly, observers speculate that Nokia has made more money from these IP arrangements than from selling its own Lumia smartphones.)
Even where the moral tone is muted, the significance of the verdict (which you can read in full here) is over-dramatised. For instance, see this Wall Street Journal story of 24 August sensationally titled After verdict, prepare for the ‘Apple tax':
After its stunning victory against rival device-maker Samsung ElectronicsCo, experts say consumers should expect smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices that license various Apple Inc, design and software innovations to be more expensive to produce.
“There may be a big Apple tax,” said IDC analyst Al Hilwa. “Phones will be more expensive.”
The reason is that rival device makers will likely have to pay to license the various Apple technologies the company sought to protect in court. The jury found that Samsung infringed as many as seven Apple patents, awarding $1.05bn in damages.
The $1bn sum awarded to Apple sounds impressive, but to the giants involved, it doesn’t really change much. Samsung’s annual marketing budget is about $2.75bn (it covers washer-dryers and TVs, but it’s mostly smartphones), and, of course, Apple is sitting on a $100bn+ cash hoard.
Then there’s the horror over the open-ended nature of the decision: Apple can continue to seek injunctions against products that infringe on their patents. From the NYT article:
…the decision could essentially force [Samsung] and other smartphone makers to redesign their products to be less Apple-like, or risk further legal defeats.
Certainly, injunctions could pose a real threat. They could remove competitors, make Apple more dominant, give it more pricing power to the consumer’s detriment … but none of this is a certainty. Last week’s verdict and any follow-up injunctions are sure to be appealed against until all avenues are exhausted. The Apple tax won’t be enforced for several years, if ever.
And even if the “tax” is assessed, will it have a deleterious impact on device manufacturers and consumers? Last year, about half of all Android handset makers – including ZTE, HTC, Sharp – were handed a Microsoft tax bill ($27 per phone in ZTE’s case), one that isn’t impeded by an obstacle course of appeals. Count Samsung in this group: The Korean giant reportedly agreed to pay Microsoft “between $10 and $15 – for each Android smartphone or tablet computer it sells”. Sell 100m devices and the tax bill owed to Ballmer and Co exceeds $1bn. Despite this onerous surcharge, Android devices thrive, and Samsung has quickly jumped to the lead in the Android handset race (from Informa, Telecoms & Media):
Amusingly, the Samsung verdict prompted this gloating tweet from Microsoft exec Bill Cox:
Windows Phone is looking gooooood right now.
(Or, as AllThingsD interpreted it: “Microsoft to Samsung. Mind if I revel in your misfortune for a moment?”)
The subtext is clear: Android handset makers should worry about threats to the platform and seek safe harbour with the “Apple-safe” Windows Phone 8. This will be a “goooood” thing all around: If more handset makers offer Windows Phone devices, there will be more choices, fewer opportunities for Apple to get “unfairly high” prices for its iDevices. The detrimental effects, to consumers, of the “Apple tax” might not be so bad, after all.
The Samsung trial recalls the interesting peace agreement that Apple and Microsoft forged in 1997, when Microsoft “invested” $150m in Apple as a fig-leaf for an IP settlement (see the end of the Quora article). The interesting part of the accord is the provision in which the companies agree that they won’t “clone” each other’s products. If Microsoft could arrange a cross-license agreement with Apple that includes an anti-cloning provision and eventually come up with its own original work (everyone agrees that Microsoft’s Modern UI is elegant, interesting, not just a knock-off), how come Samsung didn’t reach a similar arrangement and produce its own distinctive look and feel?
Microsoft and Apple saw that an armed peace was a better solution than constant IP conflicts. Can Samsung and Apple decide to do something similar and feed engineers rather than platoons of high-priced lawyers (the real winners in these battles)?
It’s a nice thought, but I doubt it’ll happen. Gates and Jobs had known one another for a long time; there was animosity, but also familiarity. There is no such comfort between Apple and Samsung execs. There is, instead, a wide cultural divide.
241010-2012: UK-Rawtenstall: IP telephone services
Publication date: 28-07-2012 | Deadline: 05-09-2012 | Document: Contract notice
French firm needs more financial incentives if it is to proceed with new nuclear plant in Cumbria, says CEO Gérard Mestrallet
The government’s energy policy has suffered a fresh blow when GDF Suez, the French firm behind plans to build a new nuclear plant in Cumbria, said it needed more financial incentives if it was to proceed.
Gérard Mestrallet, chairman and chief executive of GDF, said he wanted talks with the government about a fixed or minimum price for producing nuclear energy: “We are, with our partners, going to take a decision in 2015 [on building a new plant at Sellafield]. Today it is very difficult to invest in a nuclear power plant without clear visibility.”
The government has promised to provide a fixed carbon price to make nuclear investment more attractive, but Mestrallet said this was “not enough and something is missing”.
It was difficult to invest in a deregulated energy market, such as that in the UK, without a guaranteed minimum or fixed price specifically for electricity generated by nuclear power, he argued.
The comments will send a shockwave through Whitehall because they come just weeks after the German utilities RWE and E.ON said they would not proceed with plans to build new nuclear plants at Wylfa in Wales and Oldbury in Gloucestershire.
The German firms run the Horizon joint venture in Britain. They cited concerns about financing the projects as well as costs associated with Germany’s abandonment of nuclear power in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident in Japan. This would leave only GDF and the major French electricity producer EDF in the race to build new atomic plants in the UK.
GDF has its own joint venture with Iberdrola of Spain called NuGen which insisted after the E.ON and RWE announcement that it remained “committed” to its planned 3.6 gigawatt plant at Sellafield.
But Mestrallet’s words make clear that GDF will only proceed if the British government makes further concessions to nuclear, something industry critics feared would happen.
The GDF warning came as the French grip on Britain’s energy infrastructure tightened with a plan to take full control of International Power (IP) for around £7bn.
IP operates key power stations around the country including the gas-fired plant at Satend near Hull and a coal-fired facility at Rugely, in Staffordshire, as well as many others abroad.
The move could exacerbate concerns about the undue influence of companies partly owned by the French state such as EDF, Areva and GDF – which have already big stakes in the British energy market. The French government is the biggest shareholder in GDF with 36%.
GDF, the world’s largest independent power producer, bought 70% of IP in 2010, but has now agreed to buy the remaining stake for 418p a share.
Mestrallet said the acquisition of the minority stake in IP constituted a major step that would “allow the group to fully capture growth in fast growing markets”.
He denied further control by GDF of the UK business could be anything but good and said EDF was a “competitor” not a French state collaborator.
An earlier offer from GDF at 390p a share had been resisted by the British company’s board but Sir Neville Sims, chairman of the committee of independent directors at IP, said he had no difficulty recommending the new offer.
It represented a price that “fairly reflects the company’s position in international power generation markets and its inherent growth potential,” he said.
The independent directors will recommend that shareholders vote in favour of the deal at the annual meeting on 15 May. The deal would be the second biggest this year after Glencore International’s offer for mining group Xstrata.
Angelos Anastasiou, a utility analyst with Investec Securities, said this was the right price for a business of this sort, adding: “We see the offer progressing smoothly to its conclusion.”
But the acquisition by GDF follows the purchase by EDF of nuclear operator British Energy and the growing influence of French nuclear engineering firm, Areva.
Jonathon Porritt, director of sustainability group Forum for the Future, recently expressed deep misgivings about the situation. He said in the Guardian last month: “UK energy policy is being manipulated and subverted to make it possible for French nuclear power companies (EDF and Areva) to start building four new reactors in the UK – two at Hinkley Point in Somerset and two at Sizewell in Suffolk.”
IP runs six UK power stations including some wind farms. It has recently reduced the power output from a Teesside gas plant from 1,875 megawatts to 45MW, describing the commercial environment in Britain as “challenging”.
But of particular interest to GDF is IP’s 6,600-MW building programme abroad, mostly in developing countries. Almost three-quarters of recent operating income has come from nations like Brazil, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.
10740-2012: B-Erembodegem: IP telephone services
Publication date: 12-01-2012 | Deadline: 05-03-2012 | Document: Contract notice