Dogs, ducks, and sales tax

Herewith some meanderings about transparency, evil, and search engines. Only connect, as Goethe said. Or was it E.M.Forster? Better Google it.

My latest Mastercard statement (patience, dear reader) got me fuming. It had a whole bunch of “foreign transaction” fees – 2.75% each. Never seen that before. My first reaction was to start thinking about getting my card from a different bank. However, it seems that actually this charge was always there but bundled up inside the exchange rate quoted. A change of legislation now requires card suppliers to explicitly specify the fee, separately from the rate applied. So that’s good isn’t it? A better informed consumer has more power.

Part 2. On my latest US trip the sales tax thing bugged me, as it usually does. An item is labelled as $7 in the store. You are just getting the exact notes out when the store chappie says “seven dollars forty four please” and suddenly you have another three ounces of coinage. When you tell them that in the UK the tax is already in the price, they are generally mystified. When they do understand, they will say that the UK method sounds like a bad idea. You see, they want you to know that they are charging you only seven dollars;  its the government that is charging you that forty four cents, buddy. Just remember that next time you vote. So that’s bad isn’t it? I just want to know the real price please. Whoop, whoop, personal inconsistency alarm

Part 3. Read article in Observer today about Google and the future of search. Bit of a puff piece really, but never mind. Towards the end the article there were links to a couple of alternative search engines which I hadn’t seen before. One is Dogpile. Lovely name, nice look, but seems to be just an aggregation of other engines. The other is DuckDuckGo . This is a v.interesting beast. They make a big thing of (a) not tracking you, or passing on your search terms to the websites you click on, and (b) not filtering and ordering the results you get based on your location and search history. You can read about the filtering issue here. With Google, you live inside in a search bubble fitted around yourself; different people will get different results. So… this is good, isn’t it, because Google are efficiently giving you what you want ? Or…. maybe this is bad, because prejudices are re-inforced, and we don’t know how we are being manipulated?

Part 3a. The comment stream after that Observer article has a bi-polar argument about whether Google is a visionary force transforming our world, or just a bunch of good old fashioned cynical capitalist bastards, manipulating what we do to make money. Hmm. Both and neither I think. There are much easier ways to make vast amounts of money, so cynicism doesn’t look like the right explanation. I think folks at Google really do want to do groovy and visionary and positive things, and they also really do want to make money out of us. Both at once.

The Internet joined up all the pipes. The Web set up taps that could run water from anywhere. Yahoo and Google ran water through all the pipes. The world seemed transparent. We could live in the whole world at once. Google said “don’t be evil !” and lo, there was a brave new world.

Too good to last of course.

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14 Responses to Dogs, ducks, and sales tax

  1. Ross says:

    The Santander Zero card (a Mastercard) is the best way to make a purchase in foreign currencies – they always give you the current exchange rate without any additional charges. Unfortunately, you can’t get them any more. This page keeps track of the current best cards for foreign currency transactions:

  2. Ross says:

    All of these reports on the Filter Bubble are biased themselves. None of them mention Google’s pws=0 option!

    You can still get an unfiltered search on Google. It may not be the default Google search method – Google genuinely thinks that their default is better for you and hence for them – but they are not intentionally preventing you from receiving unfiltered results.

    Just Google something and then re-enter the search URL with a &pws=0 added to the end of it – you’ll see the results change to the unfiltered ones. BBC’s Digital Planet tested this via all of its listeners around the world – everyone got the same result with pws=0.

    Then the only bias you have is Google’s generic algorithm, if its not good enough for you then you are free to try out the competition. Personally, personalised web search doesn’t trouble me – it gets what I want more reliably, which is what the point of web search is for me. If I’m a journalist wanting to research a variety of opinions then I just need to learn the tools of the trade. I don’t Google for news or opinions, for these I turn to my usual sources anyway. ;-)

  3. I like the convenience of having an all-inclusive price. I know the tax rate and, even if I don’t, what matters is what I have to pay.

    With credit cards, part of the point of having a credit card is not to worry about the exact sum when paying :-) so it is not a disadvantage to have the costs broken down on the bill.

    With regard to fees vs. exchange rates: there have always been both methods. Go somewhere where there are lots of currency-exchange booths. Some advertize “no commission” but of course make money on the (worse, for you) exchange rate. Others claim the best rates but make money on a commission. If the commission is a percentage, it really doesn’t make much difference, but if the commission is a flat fee, this might be better when exchanging a lot of cash. With a credit card, of course, you generally have no choice, so it doesn’t matter. Still, I like the idea of separating the out-of-country charge from the exchange rate. (Note that on the Continent, it is possible to be in a different country without a different currency.)

  4. telescoper says:

    Mastercard? Does that still exist?

  5. Clive Page says:

    Andy, you need a credit card from the Post Office (actual provider is, I think, Allied Irish Bank). It has no currency exchange fees on overseas transactions. I’ve had one for a few years, and it’s saved quite a bit compared to the other rapacious card-issuers. There are one or two others that are nearly as good, e.g. Nationwide has a card that’s fee-free in Europe but not I think beyond that.

    The other thing to be aware of is foreign merchants who are “tourist aware” and offer you the chance to be charged in sterling at their choice of exchange rates. They are always supposed to give you the chance to decline this, and you always should, but I’ve been ripped off once or twice, e.g. by car hire companies who don’t follow the rules.

  6. Albert says:

    Seems these are two unrelated issues. The bills are about having information about knowing full costs. A good thing since it allows me to compare prices. In contrast, Google is about giving someone else all personal information about you. It is of no benefit to me, and I am supposed to give this freely while allowing google to sell it on. A good thing? Even if google is idealistic and ‘good’, this may not be the case 5 years from now. But I am not convinced by google’s ‘goodness’. This is the company that spied on home networks (‘oops – it was an accident’) and emails. Neither is google covered by EU privacy laws (apparently?) and there is litle privacy protection in the US for non-US citizens. Excellent product (at least the search engine – some of their other products are not too great) but on balance I’d make this a ‘bad’. Or at least ‘high risk’.

  7. Today, while I was at work, my cousin stole
    my iphone and tested to see if it can survive a 25 foot drop, just so she can be a
    youtube sensation. My iPad is now broken and she has 83 views.

    I know this is entirely off topic but I had to share it with someone!

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