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IBM sues Zillow over patents: Are they trolling, or should Zillow chill?

(TECHNOLOGY) Zillow has snatched up quite a few patents in the last couple years; IBM says they’ve had enough, and decides to sue. Are they right to?

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IBM sues Zillow

In a classic case of the big baddie against the little guy, two unlikely contenders–IBM and Zillow, respectively–duke it out over a patent. Their scuffle represents a much larger issue that, despite efforts by the Obama administration, still plagues businesses countrywide to this day.

Patent trolling is a practice we’ve discussed a few times on this platform, but here’s a quick refresh: Large companies, such as IBM, often find it more cost-effective to register for patents that they don’t use and then sue smaller companies for infringing on their patents rather than simply using the patents to develop.

While IBM is quick to justify its lawsuits in cases such as these, the fact that there are so many cases to begin with seems indicative of an overarching problem. IBM’s net worth–a cool $115 billion–absolutely crushes Zillow’s comparatively paltry $7 billion net worth; looking at this situation as anything other than bullying is disingenuous at best.

The problem is, IBM doesn’t see the situation that way.

According to GeekWire, IBM’s lawsuit alleges that one of IBM’s patents–software and computing attributes that “analyze the quality and desirability of a geographic area and [use] list-based searches that let users see the results on a map that fits within their screen”–precedes Zillow’s similar features, thus constituting patent infringement. As such, IBM finds itself positioned to strike.

IBM asks for two major concessions: that Zillow pay royalties based on the “billions” they have generated in revenue as a result of their search mechanics (a sketchy claim at best), and that Zillow be banned from using services that resemble the referenced patents in the future.

From a company that had over 110,000 patents registered to its name in the last 20 years, this is a bit rich–especially given that Zillow isn’t exactly encroaching on IBM’s clientele.

No one’s here to sing Zillow’s praises by any means. Zillow has proved that they aren’t against registering multiple patents; in the last 10 years, Zillow has logged 17 patents, one of which appears to reference searching within a site-embedded engine that takes into account multiple criteria. Sound familiar? It should–sites all over, from family-friendly options to decidedly NSFW ones, all utilize a similar feature.

So, in this case of bullies bullying each other, what’s the underlying problem?

Unfortunately, IBM’s example sets an uncomfortable precedent for patent trolling going forward. While the Obama administration’s patent reform addressed the issues of “overly broad patents” and required companies to provide specific details about the patents for which they apply, it appears that IBM’s lawsuit does little to skirt this legislation, instead plowing fully through it to make a point.

In other words, because of IBM’s monetary endowment, they essentially get to do as they please–and even a business as highly valued as Zillow can do little to stop their momentum.

Make no mistake: IBM is engaging in patent trolling, Zillow is taking the brunt of their attack, and it seems like IBM is only getting started as they leveled similar suits against other tech companies in the past couple of years.

If you think this doesn’t affect your tech startup, think again. IBM may be an exception in the wealth department, but if they win this lawsuit, it’s possible that patent-trolling companies countrywide will feel emboldened to take action of their own. Zillow may be the first high-profile victim of this kind of behavior, but it certainly won’t be the last.

And, as consumers, we should expect more from the companies that seek to innovate on our behalf.

Jack Lloyd has a BA in Creative Writing from Forest Grove's Pacific University; he spends his writing days using his degree to pursue semicolons, freelance writing and editing, oxford commas, and enough coffee to kill a bear. His infatuation with rain is matched only by his dry sense of humor.

Real Estate Technology

Should HUD allow facial recognition use in public housing?

(TECH) The Department of Housing and Development allows public housing authorities to use facial recognition technology on tenants totally unchecked.

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facial recognition

Would you feel comfortable if someone was monitoring you, your family, and your neighbors in your neighborhood through facial recognition? What if there was no way to know what information they were collecting, or how it would be used?

If your answers to those questions were “no” and “hell no” respectively, then listen to this:

The Department of Housing and Urban Development does not keep track of how facial recognition tech is used in public housing. Like, at all. Nor have they researched how facial recognition is used, or instituted policies to control its usage.

HUD leaves that responsibility to the individual authorities that oversee housing programs.

Complexes that put up facial recognition cameras have been met with protests, but tenants don’t have widespread federal protections to back them up – yet.

Facial recognition is an exploding and lucrative industry that is completely fraught with controversies and concerns. Here’s the biggest ethical elephant in the room – the current industry offerings still consistently struggle to correctly identify the faces of folks who are not white men. Black women are often the hardest for facial recognition software to identify, and while accuracy among transgender individuals has not been widely studied, one can speculate that it would be pretty poor too.

This bears a philosophical resemblance to putting police and metal detectors in underfunded public schools, a practice that a growing number of experts say is actively destructive to students. It invites problems with the law where there would otherwise be none, leaving permanent barriers in the lives of ordinary people.

Criminal allegations, even false or trivial ones, can carry dire consequences for individuals and families in public housing. One could face civil asset forfeiture or eviction, or be cut off from other government benefits and relief programs in the future, to list a few. These are already statistically bigger problems in the lives of non-white non-men, so facial recognition is well-positioned to exacerbate existing inequality.

This story is just one of the latest examples of the recklessness that follows facial recognition, as well as those who supposedly regulate it, at every turn. For instance, Clearview AI is a new facial search engine that scrapes all publicly available image data for faces, including photos others may have taken and posted without your knowledge. One by one, Clearview builds up vast image repositories that can go back for years, and then makes those repositories available to be searched by law enforcement. The company has been accused of ending “privacy as we know it.”

These products, while undoubtedly impressive, have a high potential for misuse. Living in public housing is not a crime, and performing intimate surveillance on innocent people against their will is highly unethical. Everyone deserves a say in what goes on where we live, regardless of what we’ve got in the bank.

HUD has no excuse, and they should have taken decisive action long ago. But hey, late would be better than never.

This story was first published here in July 2020.

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Real Estate Technology

Seeking accessibility options? Google Maps can help you find them

(REAL ESTATE TECHNOLOGY) Google Maps makes it easier to see which locations are wheelchair-accessible. Accessibility Is now marked easily as an icon next to the name of locations.

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If you are one of the 13.7% of adults in the US who have a disability which makes it difficult to walk or climb stairs, it is now easier to find out accessibility details of businesses or other destinations using the Google Maps app.

Though the feature was previously available, it required users to seek it out separately for each destination in the “About” section of the app. The new “Accessible Places” feature rolled out on Global Accessibility Awareness Day marks destinations that have wheelchair-accessible entrances with a prominently displayed icon, and information about the availability of accessible seating, parking, and restrooms.

Though accessibility features are often initiated through work and advocacy to help people with disabilities, it is something that even those without mobility challenges often seek out, and from which they can benefit. For example, if a person is pushing around a stroller with a 30-pound toddler inside; they might want to know the accessibility details when planning their outings to know where they will or will not encounter an accessible entrance. This is also a helpful tool for those planning for groups with varying levels of mobility.

Right now the Google Maps app has wheelchair accessibility information for more than 15 million places around the world, according to the Google produced blog The Keyword. This number is continuously increasing as volunteers and business owners add updates.

If you run a business with accessible entrances, seating, parking, or restrooms, you might want to give the feature a try, and make sure that all of the efforts you have put into making your location accessible are noted accurately. If you have updates to add, you can do so here. Google reports that 120 million Local Guides have already shared accessibility information from around the world for this feature.

To enable this update on the Google Maps iOS or Android app, go to “Settings”, select “Accessibility,” and turn on “Accessible Places.”

google maps settings

The rollout of this feature started with the United States, Australia, Japan, and the United Kingdom; with Google claiming support for more countries is on the way. According to The Wheelchair Foundation there is a global population of over 130 million people who use wheelchairs. This user-friendly feature has a large potential audience to benefit from having accessibility information at their fingertips.

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Real Estate Technology

Boost your web productivity with Motion, now available on Firefox

(REAL ESTATE TECH NEWS) Motion, the acclaimed time-saving browser app, is now available on Firefox. Keep yourself organized and accountable, right in your browser.

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Motion the browser app open on a neatly organized white desk.

If your attention span is anything like mine, all of this screen time over the last year has been brutally difficult, especially when it comes to simple things like staying on task and not checking Twitter 100 times in one hour. Luckily, a productivity app called Motion might help you get that time back.

Motion is an in-browser app originally designed for Google Chrome. The team behind it recently launched a Firefox version as well, effectively doubling your browser choices. While it isn’t free for long-term use, you can give the app a try for five days without paying a cent.

The call to action on Motion’s landing page is bold, yet oddly corroborated by those who use it: With the right settings, you can reclaim up to 2 hours of lost time per day. This includes, but is not limited to, time spent browsing social media, looking through complex file management systems (we’re not naming names, but Motion happily will), and negotiating with your planning app of choice.

In fact, given permission, Motion throws away most of your daily annoyances and replaces them with its own reimagined versions thereof. For example, Motion can replace your Google Drive and Gmail interfaces with a lightweight, easy-to-navigate version that—in theory—cuts down on navigation time. Motion also gives you a smart scheduler to automate at least some of your calendar tasks, and it won’t fail to hold you accountable for clicking onto a social media tab.

Actually, the social media behavior exhibited by Motion might be the most endearing (or most frustrating, depending on your level of addiction) aspect it offers. The app has settings that can hide newsfeeds, remind you (politely) to hurry up when you absolutely must check Facebook, and display an announcement that tells you how much time you have spent checking your socials for the day.

There are a ton of nuanced and personalizable features that Motion includes that aren’t covered here, but the end takeaway is this: Motion can save you a ton of time if you’re willing to let it do so. Whether you use Chrome or Firefox for your various nefarious deeds, this app is a must-try if you’ve been struggling to stay on-task.

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