UK’s Digital Markets Unit starts work on pro-competition reforms

A new UK public body that will be tasked with helping regulate the most powerful companies in the digital sector to ensure competition thrives online and consumers of digital services have more choice and control over their data has launched today.

The Digital Markets Unit (DMU), which was announced in November last year — following a number of market reviews and studies examining concerns about the concentration of digital market power — does not yet have statutory powers itself but the government has said it will consult on the design of the new “pro-competition regime” this year and legislate to put the DMU on a statutory footing as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Concerns about the market power of adtech giants Facebook and Google are key drivers for the regulatory development.

As a first job, the unit will look at how codes of conduct could work to govern the relationship between digital platforms and third parties such as small businesses which rely on them to advertise or use their services to reach customers — to feed into future digital legislation.

The role of powerful intermediary online gatekeepers is also being targeted by lawmakers in the European Union who proposed legislation at the end of last year which similarly aims to create a regulatory framework that can ensure fair dealing between platform giants and the smaller entities which do business under their terms.

The UK government said today that the DMU will take a sector neutral approach in examining the role of platforms across a range of digital markets, with a view to promoting competition.

The unit has been asked to work with the comms watchdog Ofcom, which the government named last year as its pick for regulating social media platforms under planned legislation due to be introduced this year (aka, the Online Safety Bill as it’s now called).

While that forthcoming legislation is intended to regulate a very wide range of online harms which may affect consumers — from bullying and hate speech to child sexual exploitation and other speech-related issues (raising plenty of controversy, and specific concerns about associated implications for privacy and security) — the focus for the DMU is on business impacts and consumer controls which may also have implications for competition in digital markets.

As part of its first work program, the government said the secretary of state for digital has asked the DMU to work with Ofcom to look specifically at how a code would govern the relationships between platforms and content providers such as news publishers — “including to ensure they are as fair and reasonable as possible”, as its press release puts it.

This suggests the DMU will be taking a considered look at recent legislation passed in Australia — which makes it mandatory for platforms to negotiate with news publishers to pay for reuse of their content.

Earlier this year, the head of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which the DMU will sit within, told the BBC that Australia’s approach of having a backstop of mandatory arbitration if commercial negotiations between tech giants and publishers fail is a “sensible” approach.

The DMU will also work closely with the CMA’s enforcement division — which currently has a number of open investigations into tech giants, including considering complaints against Apple and Google; and an in-depth probe of Facebook’s Giphy acquisition.

Other UK regulators the government says the DMU will work closely with include the data protection watchdog (the ICO) and the Financial Conduct Authority.

It also said the unit will also coordinate with international partners, given digital competition is an issue that’s naturally globally in nature — adding that it’s already discussing its approach through bilateral engagement and as part of its G7 presidency.

“The Digital Secretary will host a meeting of digital and tech ministers in April as he seeks to build consensus for coordination on better information sharing and joining up regulatory and policy approaches,” it added.

The DMU will be led by Will Hayter, who takes up an interim head post in early May following a stint at the Cabinet Office working on Brexit transition policy. Prior to that he worked for several years at the CMU and also Ofcom, among other roles in regulatory policy.

 

#apple, #australia, #big-tech, #competition-and-markets-authority, #digital-markets-unit, #europe, #european-union, #facebook, #financial-conduct-authority, #g7, #google, #ofcom, #online-harms, #online-safety-bill, #policy, #social-media-platforms, #uk-government, #united-kingdom

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Amazon argues it’s not liable for product that severely injured toddler

Amazon argued yesterday before the Texas Supreme Court that it should not be held liable for defective products sold through its site.

Over the years, several customers have been injured by defective products they purchased on the site from third-party sellers, including one woman whose eye was blinded by a defective dog leash and another who was burned by a laptop battery. The case currently before the Texas Supreme Court involves a 19-month-old toddler who suffered permanent damage to her esophagus when she ingested a lithium-ion battery that popped out of a knockoff remote control. 

For years, Amazon has claimed that it is not liable in such cases since it functions as a middleman for sales made through its Marketplace platform.

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#amazon, #big-tech, #court-case, #liability, #policy, #texas

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Biden will nominate Big Tech critic and antitrust star Lina Khan to the FTC

Biden didn’t campaign on getting tough against Big Tech, but his early actions are speaking louder than his words.

The White House confirmed its intentions to nominate Lina Khan to the FTC Monday, sending a clear signal that his administration will break from the Silicon Valley-friendly precedents of the Obama era. Politico first reported Biden’s planned nomination of Khan, which will be subject to Senate confirmation, earlier this month.

Lina Khan is a star of the antitrust movement, insofar as a topic like regulating big business can produce one. Khan is best known for a paper she published as a law student in 2017 called “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox.” The paper argues that thinking about what qualifies as monopolistic behavior hasn’t kept pace with how modern businesses operate, particularly within the tech sector.

She believes that a modernized approach to antitrust must look at market forces in a big picture way instead of only examining traditional measures like price and output:

“My argument is that gauging real competition in the 21st century marketplace — especially in the case of online platforms — requires analyzing the underlying structure and dynamics of markets. Rather than pegging competition to a narrow set of outcomes, this approach would examine the competitive process itself. Animating this framework is the idea that a company’s power and the potential anticompetitive nature of that power cannot be fully understood without looking to the structure of a business and the structural role it plays in markets. Applying this idea involves, for example, assessing whether a company’s structure creates certain anticompetitive conflicts of interest; whether it can cross-leverage market advantages across distinct lines of business; and whether the structure of the market incentivizes and permits predatory conduct.”

As associate law professor at Columbia, Khan also contributed to a comprehensive report from the House’s antitrust subcommittee last year that set the stage for major antitrust reform that could trim back Big Tech’s considerable overgrowth.

Khan isn’t the only high-profile tech antitrust crusader in the Biden administration’s orbit. In early March, Biden named Columbia law’s Tim Wu to shape technology and competition policy at the National Economic Council. Wu came up with the term “net neutrality” and is well known as an advocate for an open internet. In 2018, Wu authored “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age,” a treatise calling out corporate consolidation in tech as a looming political and economic threat.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is leading tech-focused antitrust reform efforts through the Senate’s own antitrust subcommittee, praised Khan’s nomination. “We need all hands on deck as we work to take on some of the biggest monopolies in the world, and President Biden is making his commitment to competition policy clear,” Klobuchar said in a statement provided to TechCrunch.

“Lina’s experience working both in Congress and at the Federal Trade Commission and as an advocate for competitive markets will be vital as we advance efforts to strengthen enforcement and protect consumers.”

#biden-administration, #big-tech, #ftc, #government, #lina-khan, #tc, #the-battle-over-big-tech

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Why Big Tech is facing regulatory threats from Australia to Arizona

Why Big Tech is facing regulatory threats from Australia to Arizona

Enlarge (credit: Jackie Niam | Getty Images)

Last week, Arizona’s House of Representatives approved legislation to prohibit platform owners like Apple and Google from locking app makers into their own payment systems. The bill passed only narrowly, and it must be approved by the Arizona Senate and Gov. Doug Ducey before it can become law. But regardless of the bill’s ultimate fate, the vote is the latest sign of a dramatic shift in public attitudes toward Silicon Valley’s most powerful companies.

For the first two decades of the Internet era, there was a broad consensus that politicians shouldn’t tie Silicon Valley companies down with burdensome rules and regulations. Companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Uber were widely admired. In 2007, presidential candidates from both parties made pilgrimages to associate themselves with Google. In 2015, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and other Republican hopefuls tripped over each other to position themselves as the most Uber-friendly candidate.

Tech companies’ prestige bolstered their political power. Those who proposed regulations to rein in tech companies—or in some cases just wanted to subject them to the same rules as other companies—were often dismissed as out-of-touch reactionaries and enemies of progress.

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#antitrust, #arizona, #australia, #big-tech, #policy, #uncategorized

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Brave is launching its own search engine with the help of ex-Cliqz devs and tech

Brave, the privacy-focused browser co-founded by ex-Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, is getting ready to launch an own-brand search engine for desktop and mobile.

Today it’s announced the acquisition of an open source search engine developed by the team behind the (now defunct) Cliqz anti-tracking search-browser combo. The tech will underpin the forthcoming Brave Search engine — meaning it will soon be pitching its millions of users on an entirely ‘big tech’-free search and browsing experience.

“Under the hood, nearly all of today’s search engines are either built by, or rely on, results from Big Tech companies. In contrast, the Tailcat search engine is built on top of a completely independent index, capable of delivering the quality people expect but without compromising their privacy,” Brave writes in a press release announcing the acquisition.

“Tailcat does not collect IP addresses or use personally identifiable information to improve search results.”

Cliqz, which was a privacy-focused European fork of Mozilla’s Firefox browser, got shuttered last May after its majority investor, Hubert Burda Media, called time on the multi-year effort to build momentum for an alternative to Google — blaming tougher trading conditions during the pandemic for forcing it to pull the plug sooner than it would have liked.

The former Cliqz dev team, who had subsequently been working on Tailcat, are moving to Brave as part of the acquisition. The engineering team is led by Dr Josep M Pujol — who is quoted in Brave’s PR saying it’s “excited to be working on the only real private search/browser alternative to Big Tech”.

“Tailcat is a fully independent search engine with its own search index built from scratch,” Eich told TechCrunch. “Tailcat as Brave Search will offer the same privacy guarantees that Brave has in its browser.

“Brave will provide the first private browser+search alternative to the Big Tech platforms, and will make it seamless for users to browse and search with guaranteed privacy. Also, owing to its transparent nature, Brave Search will address algorithmic biases and prevent outright censorship.”

Brave getting into the search business is a reflection of its confidence that privacy is becoming mainstream, per Eich. He points to “unprecedented” growth in usage of its browser over the past year — up from 11M monthly active users to 26M+ — which he says has mirrored the surge in usage earlier this year seen by the (not-for-profit) e2e encrypted messaging app Signal (after Facebook-owned WhatsApp announced a change to its privacy policies to allow for increased data-sharing with Facebook through WhatsApp business accounts).

“We expect to see even greater demand for Brave in 2021 as more and more users demand real privacy solutions to escape Big Tech’s invasive practices,” he added in a statement. “Brave’s mission is to put the user first, and integrating privacy-preserving search into our platform is a necessary step to ensure that user privacy is not plundered to fuel the surveillance economy.”

Brave Search will be offered as a choice to users alongside a roster of more established third parties (Google, Bing, Qwant, Ecosia etc) which they can select as their browser default.

It will also potentially become the default (i.e. if users don’t pick their own) in future, per Eich.

“We will continue to support ‘open search’ with multiple alternative engines,” he confirmed. “User choice is a permanent principle at Brave. Brave will continue to offer multiple alternative choices for the user’s default search engine, and we think our users will seek unmatched privacy with Brave Search. When ready, we hope to make Brave Search the default engine in Brave.”

Asked how the quality of Tailcat-powered results vs Google Eich described it as “quite good”, adding that it “will only get better with adoption”.

“Google’s ‘long tail’ is hard for any engine to beat but we have a plan to compete on that front too, once integrated into the Brave browser,” he told us in an email interview, arguing that Google’s massive size does offer some competitive opportunities for a search rival. “There are aspects where Google is falling behind. It is difficult for them to innovate in search when that’s the main source of their revenue.

“They are risk-averse against experimenting with new techniques and transparency, while under pressure from shareholders to tie their own businesses into scarce search engine results page (SERP) area, and pressure from search engine optimization (SEO).”

“On questions such as censorship, community feedback, and algorithmic transparency, we think we can do better from the get-go. Unlike other search engines, we believe that the only way to make big improvements is to build afresh, with the know-how that comes from building,” he added. “The option of using Bing (as other search offerings do) instead of building the index exists but it will get you only as far as Bing in terms of quality (and as with such offerings, you’ll be wholly dependent on Bing).”

Brave is aiming for general availability of Brave Search by the summer — if not late spring, per Eich. Users interested in testing an early iteration can sign up for a waitlist here. (A test version is slated as coming in “the next few weeks”.)

The name Tailcat is unlikely to be widely familiar as it was an internal project that Cliqz had not implemented into its browser before it was shut down.

Eich says development had been continuing at Burda — “in order to develop a full-fledged search engine”. (When the holding company announced the shuttering of Cliqz, last April, it stated that Cliqz’s browser and search technologies would be shut down but also said it would draw out a team of experts — to work on technical issues in areas like AI and search.)

“Cliqz offered the SERP-based search engine but had not implemented Tailcat in its browser yet,” said Eich. “After Cliqz shut down last April, a development team at Burda continued to work on the search technology under the new project name Tailcat in order to develop a full-fledged search engine. The team hoped to find a long-term home for their work to continue their mission, and are thrilled to be part of Brave.”

The financial terms of the acquisition are not being disclosed — but we’ve confirmed that Burda is becoming a Brave shareholder as part of the deal.

“We are very happy that our technology is being used at Brave and that, as a result, a genuine, privacy-friendly alternative to Google is being created in the core web functions of browsing and searching,” said Paul-Bernhard Kallen, CEO of Hubert Burda Media, in a supporting statement. “As a Brave stakeholder we will continue to be involved in this exciting project.”

While Brave started out focused on building an alternative browser — with the idea of rethinking the predominate ad-funded Internet business model by baking in a cryptocurrency rewards system to generate payments for content creators (and pay users for their attention) — it now talks about itself as a pro-privacy “super app”.

Currently, the Brave Browser bundles a privacy-preserving ad platform (Brave Ads); news reader (Brave Today); and offers a Firewall+VPN service — which it will be further adding to with the forthcoming search engine (Brave Search), and a privacy-preserving video-conferencing service (Brave Together) that’s also in the pipeline.

The unifying brand proposition for its ‘super app’ is a pledge to provide users with genuine control over their online experience — in contrast to mainstream alternatives.

 

#big-tech, #brave, #brave-search, #cliqz, #privacy, #search-engine, #tc

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Big Tech opens wallet for publishers as Australian news code looms

Close-up photography

Enlarge / Close-up photography (credit: John Lamb | Getty Images)

Google and Facebook are rushing to agree to deals with Australian publishers, offering them the most generous licensing terms in the world in an attempt to persuade Canberra not to apply rules forcing tech groups to pay for news.

MPs began debating legislation on Wednesday to enact the news media bargaining code, which the EU, UK, and Canada are considering as a model for similar regulations to support publishers in their own jurisdictions.

While Google has multi-million-dollar licensing deals with publishers in almost a dozen countries, people involved in negotiations told the Financial Times the sums now under discussion in Australia were “multiple times” the size of those agreements.

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#big-tech, #facebook, #google, #newspapers, #policy, #publishing

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EU chief warns over ‘unfiltered’ hate speech and calls for Biden to back rules for big tech

In a speech to the European Parliament today marking the inauguration of US president Joe Biden, the president of the European Commission has called for Europe and the US to join forces on regulating tech giants, warning of the risks of “unfiltered” hate speech and disinformation being weaponized to attack and undermine democracies.

Ursula von der Leyen pointed to the shock storming of the US capital earlier this month by supporters of outgoing president Donald Trump as an example of how wild claims being spread and amplified online can have tangible real-world consequences, including for democratic institutions.

“Just a few days ago, several hundred [Trump supporters] stormed the Capitol in Washington, the heart of American democracy. The television images of that event shocked us all. That is what happens when words incite action,” she said. “That is what happens when hate speech and fake news spread like wildfire through digital media. They become a danger to democracy.”

European institutions are also being targeted with “hate and contempt for our democracy spreading unfiltered through social media to millions of people”, she warned, pointing to similarly disturbing attacks that have taken place in the region in recent years. Such as an attempt by right-wing extremists in Germany to storm the Reichstag building last summer and the 2016 murder of UK politician, Jo Cox, by a fascist extremist.

“Of course, the storming of the [US] Capitol was different. But in Europe, too, there are people who feel disadvantaged and are very angry,” she said, suggesting feelings of exclusion and injustice can make people vulnerable to believing the “rampant” conspiracy theories that platforms have allowed to circulate freely online, and which she characterized as “often a confused mixture of completely absurd fantasies”.

“We must make sure that messages of hate and fake news can no longer be spread unchecked,” she added, reiterating the case for regulating social media by pressing the case for imposing “democratic limits on the untrammelled and uncontrolled political power of the Internet giants”.

The European Commission has already set out its blueprint for overhauling the region’s digital rulebook when it unveiled the draft Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act last month. Although it won’t be including hard legal limits on disinformation in the package — preferring to continue with a voluntary, but beefed up code of conduct for content that falls into a grey area where it may be harmful but isn’t actually illegal.

von der Leyen said the aim for the regulations is to ensure “if something is illegal offline it must also be illegal online”. The Commission has also said the tech policy package is about forcing platforms to take more responsibility for the content they spread and monetize.

But it’s not yet clear how the proposed laws will ultimately tackle the tricky issue of how assessments are made to remove (or reinstate) speech; and whether platforms will continue to make those judgements (under a regulator’s guidance and watchful eye), or whether they end up entirely independent of platform control.

What the Commission has suggested is closer to the former but the proposal has to go through the EU’s co-legislative process — so such details are likely to be debated and could be amended prior to adoption into law.

“We want the platforms to be transparent about how their algorithms work. We cannot accept a situation where decisions that have a wide-ranging impact on our democracy are being made by computer programs without any human supervision,” von der Leyen went on. “And we want it laid down clearly that internet companies take responsibility for the content they disseminate.”

She also reiterated the concern expressed in recent days about the unilateral actions taken by tech giants to close down Trump’s megaphone — echoing comments by political leaders across Europe earlier this month who dubbed the display of raw platform power, from companies like Twitter, as ‘problematic’; and said it must result in regulatory consequences for tech giants.  

“No matter how right it may have been for Twitter to switch off Donald Trump’s account five minutes after midnight, such serious interference with freedom of expression should be based on laws and not on company rules,” she said, adding: “It should be based on decisions of politicians and parliaments and not of Silicon Valley managers.”

In the speech, the EU president also expressed hope that the Biden administration will be inclined to arc toward Europe’s agenda on digital regulation — as part of the anticipated post-Trump reboot of EU-US relations.

The Commission recently adopted a new transatlantic agenda in which it laid out a number of policy areas it hopes for joint-working with the US — with tech governance key among the areas of hoped for policy cooperation.

von der Leyen reiterated the idea that a joint Trade and Technology Council could be “a first step” toward the EU and US fashioning a “digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide”.

“It is in this digital field that Europe has so much to offer the new government in Washington,” she suggested. “The path we have taken in Europe can be an example for approaches at international level. As has long been the case with the General Data Protection Regulation.

“Together we could create a digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide: From data protection and privacy to the security of technical infrastructure. A body of rules based on our values: human rights and pluralism, inclusion and protection of privacy.”

While there’s evidently a keen appetite in the EU to reset US relations post-Trump, it remains to be seen how much of a policy reboot the Biden administration will usher in vis-a-vis big tech.

He has not been as vocal a critic of platform giants as other Democratic challengers for the presidency. And the Obama administration, which he of course served in, had very cosy ties to Silicon Valley.

Concerns have also been raised in recent days about Biden’s potential picks for a key appointment at the justice office — in light of antitrust probes of big tech vs the prospective appointees’ deep links to tech giants and/or promotion of historical mergers. So it hardly looks like a model for a full and clean reset.

While the tricky issue of pro-privacy reform of US surveillance laws — which EU commissioners have warned will be needed to resolve the legal uncertainty clouding data transfers from the region to the US (and which tech giants themselves have largely avoided in their own lobbying) — seems likely to need legislation from Congress, rather than being a change that could be driven solely by the Biden administration.

The chances of the incoming president being inclined to champion such a relatively wonky tech-policy issue when he has so much else in his ‘needs urgent attention’ in-tray also seem relatively slim. But even slender odds can look promising after the Trump era.  

#biden, #big-tech, #digital-services-act, #eu, #europe, #platform-regulation, #policy

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Survey: Americans think Big Tech isn’t so bad after all

In government, there’s rare bipartisan consensus on taking down Big Tech .

Capping a 16-month investigation, a Democratic-controlled House committee recently identified Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google as monopolies that snuff out competition and innovation, equating the Big Four to oil barons and railroad tycoons of the late 19th century.

Only days later, the Trump administration sued Google to stop it from “unlawfully maintaining monopolies” by seeking court orders that could include its breakup.

And yesterday, in separate but coordinated lawsuits, the Federal Trade Commission and 48 attorneys generals from blue and red states alike sued Facebook to undo its “predatory” and “illegal” acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp. When President-elect Joe Biden takes office next month, his administration is widely expected to proceed with both federal antitrust cases against Google and Facebook.

Big Tech, both parties agree, has become too big for our good.

The typical American doesn’t always see it the same way. Their assessment changes based on how the issue is framed.

As consumers, Americans generally see technology as a positive, based on our research.

When we at The Harris Poll asked directly whether Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are monopolies that limit competition and innovation, American adults overwhelmingly side with the House Judiciary Committee’s findings. Most also say Google should be broken up, with nearly half saying dismantling Facebook would also encourage innovation and protect consumers. Go get ‘em trust-busters, they seem to cheer.

But when asked broadly about categories of digital services the Big Four lead in — web search, e-commerce, streaming services or social media — Americans just as overwhelmingly tell us their favorite providers are not monopolies at all.

In the view of most Americans, there’s abundant competition and choice throughout the digital marketplace. Lowercase big tech, the majority says, promotes innovation and boosts the nation’s standing around the world. Big, in other words, doesn’t automatically mean bad.

Most Americans, of course, are not antitrust lawyers or macroeconomists expert at detecting monopolies and quantifying their market impact. They view Big Tech primarily as consumers, making judgments based on their own experiences and feelings rather than court-admissible data. As consumers, Americans generally see technology as a positive, based on our research.

In our survey of 2,069 representative adults in the U.S., almost two-thirds say that every day they use a search engine like Google and go to social media like Facebook. At least once a week, almost half shop on Amazon or another online general store and two-thirds stream video through apps such as Google’s YouTube, Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime Video.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased their loyalty. Cooped-up day after day, half of American adults say they’re streaming more video than they did a year ago, for instance, while a third is shopping more online. If consumers are feeling abused by Big Tech — and more than half do say big tech companies fail to always do right by their customers — they’re not riled up enough to click elsewhere.

American consumers also don’t feel like captives without options. Google’s market share in internet search on mobile devices is 94%, which probably fits anyone’s definition of a monopoly. Yet even though 55% of Americans agree that Google has too much power and should be severed from YouTube and Gmail, four of five say there are adequate alternatives.

Nearly twice as many survey respondents, in fact, say there are too many choices for search engines (19%) than too few (11%). Americans judge the markets for social media, video and audio streaming, e-commerce and other digital services like Apple Pay and Google Pay as similarly competitive.

Despite Big Tech’s market dominance, American consumers don’t think these companies are hurting their rivals, either. Though three-quarters of Americans see Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook as monopolies, four of five people say tech giants promote innovation in their industries and two-thirds say these companies promote competition and enhance the nation’s global reputation.

College grads and those 45 years old and up are slightly more likely to see Big Tech as a driver of innovation and competition, though all demographic groups share these high opinions.

Because I’m also not an antitrust lawyer or macroeconomist, I’m in no position to say whether the bipartisan legal crusade against Big Tech is warranted. But based on our polling, I can offer insights on how Americans will react to the Justice Department’s antitrust case against Google as it goes to trial and other actions Congress or regulators may take to reduce Big Tech’s dominance.

When we separate Americans’ narrow take on individual companies from their perceptions of the digital realms consumers inhabit daily, we see little reason for the federal government to blow up Big Tech. Another cautionary finding: Barely half of the representative American adults in our poll even think regulators and lawmakers are the right groups to determine whether a company is too big.

If these companies eventually are downsized, though, the typical American consumer probably won’t mourn for the Not-Quite-As-Big Tech that results, as long as their trusted apps, search engines, shopping sites, streaming services and social media sites are still freely — and, in their minds, abundantly—available.

#amazon, #antitrust, #apple, #big-tech, #column, #facebook, #google, #government, #policy, #social, #social-media

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Europe will push to work with the US on tech governance, post-Trump

The European Union said today that it wants to work with US counterparts on a common approach to tech governance — including pushing to standardize rules for applications of technologies like AI and pushing big tech to be more responsible for what their platforms amplify.

EU lawmakers are anticipating rebooted transatlantic relations under the incoming administration of president-elect Joe Biden.

The Commission has published a new EU-US agenda with the aim of encouraging what it bills as “global cooperation — based on our common values, interests and global influence” in a number of areas, from tackling the coronavirus pandemic to addressing climate change and furthering a Western geopolitical agenda.

Trade and tech policy is another major priority for the hoped for reboot of transatlantic relations, starting with an EU-US Summit in the first half of 2021.

Relations have of course been strained during the Trump era as the sitting US president has threatened the bloc with trade tariffs, berated European nations for not spending enough on defence to fulfil their Nato commitments and heavily implied he’d be a lot happier if the EU didn’t exist at all (including loudly supporting brexit).

The Commission agenda conveys a clear message that the bloc’s lawmakers are hopeful of a lot more joint working — toward common goals and interests — once the Biden administration takes office early next year.

Global AI standards?

On the tech front the Commission’s push is for alignment on governance.

“The EU and the US need to join forces as tech-allies to shape technologies, their use and their regulatory environment,” the Commission writes in the agenda. “Using our combined influence, a transatlantic technology space should form the backbone of a wider coalition of like-minded democracies with a shared vision on tech governance and a shared commitment to defend it.”

Among the proposals it’s floating is a “Transatlantic AI Agreement” — which it envisages as setting “a blueprint for regional and global standards aligned with our values”.

While the EU is working on a pan-EU framework to set rules for the use of “high risk” AIs, some US cities and states have already moved to ban the use of specific applications of artificial intelligence — such as facial recognition. So there’s potential to align on some high level principles or standards.

(Or, as the EU puts it: “We need to start acting together on AI — based on our shared belief in a human-centric approach and dealing with issues such as facial recognition.”)

 

“Our shared values of human dignity, individual rights and democratic principles make us natural partners to harness rapid technological change and face the challenges of rival systems of digital governance. This gives us an unprecedented window of opportunity to set a joint EU-US tech agenda,” the Commission also writes, suggesting there’s a growing convergence of views on tech governance.

Talks on tackling big tech

Here it also sees opportunity for the EU and the US to align on tackling big tech — saying it wants to open discussions on setting rules to tackle the societal and market impacts of platform giants.

“There is a growing consensus on both sides of the Atlantic that online platforms and Big Tech raise issues which threaten our societies and democracies, notably through harmful market behaviours, illegal content or algorithm-fuelled propagation of hate speech and disinformation,” it writes.

“The need for global cooperation on technology goes beyond the hardware or software. It is also about our values, our societies and our democracies,” the Commission adds. “In this spirit, the EU will propose a new transatlantic dialogue on the responsibility of online platforms, which would set the blueprint for other democracies facing the same challenges. We should also work closer together to further strengthen cooperation between competent authorities for antitrust enforcement in digital markets.”

The Commission is on the cusp of unveiling its own blueprint for regulating big tech — with a Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act due to be presented later this month.

Commissioners have said the legislative packages will set clear conditions on digital players, such as for the handling and reporting of illegal content, as well as setting binding transparency and fairness requirements.

They will also introduce a new regime of ex ante rules for so-called gatekeeper platforms that wield significant market power (aka big tech) — with such players set to be subject to a list of dos and don’ts, which could include bans on certain types of self-preferencing and limits on their use of third party data, with the aim of ensuring a level playing field in the future.

The bloc has also been considering beefing up antitrust powers for intervening in digital markets.

Given how advanced EU lawmakers are on proposals to regulate big tech vs US counterparts there’s arguably only a small window of opportunity for US lawmakers to influence the shape of EU rules on (mostly US) big tech. But the Commission evidently views rebooted relations, post-Trump, as presenting an opportunity for it to influence US policy — by encouraging European-style platform rules to cross the pond.

It’s fond of claiming the EU’s data protection framework (GDPR) has set a global example which has influenced lawmakers around the world. So its intent looks to be to double down — and push to export a European approach to regulating big tech back to where most of these giants are based, even as the bloc’s other institutions are still debating and amending its proposals.

Next-gen mobile security

Another common challenge the document points to is next-gen mobile connectivity. This has been a particular soapbox of Trump’s in recent years, with the ALL-CAPS loving president frequently taking to Twitter to threaten and bully allies into taking a tough line on allowing Chinese vendors as suppliers for their next-gen mobile infrastructure, arguing they are too great a national security risk.

“We are facing common challenges in managing the digital transition of our economies and societies. These include critical infrastructure, such as 5G, 6G or cybersecurity assets, which are essential for our security, sovereignty and prosperity — but also data, technologies and the role of online platforms,” the Commission writes, easing into the issue.

EU lawmakers go on to say they will put forward proposals “for secure 5G infrastructure across the globe and open a dialogue on 6G” — as part of what they hope will be “wider cooperation on digital supply chain security done through objective risk-based assessments”.

Instead of a blanket ban on Huawei as a 5G supplier the Commission opted to endorse a package of “mitigating measures” — via a 5G toolbox — at the start of this year, which includes things like beefing up network security requirements on carriers and risk profile assessments of suppliers. So it looks to be hoping the US can be convinced in the value of a joint approach to standardizing these sorts of security assessments — aka, ‘no more nasty surprises’ — as a strategy to reduce the shocks and uncertainty that have hit digital supply chains during Trump’s presidency.

Increased cooperation around cybersecurity is another area where the EU says it will be pressing US counterparts — floating the idea of joint EU-US restrictions against attributed attackers from third countries in the future. (A proposal which, should it be taken up, could see coordinated sanctions against Russia, which has previously been identified by US and European intelligence agencies running malware attacks targeted at COVID-19 vaccine R&D.)

Easing EU-US data flows

A trickier area for the tech side of the Commission’s plan to reboot transatlantic relations is EU-US data flows.

That’s because Europe’s top court torpedoed the Commission’s US adequacy finding this summer — stripping the country of a privileged status of ‘essential equivalence’ to data protection standards as the EU.

Without that there’s huge legal uncertainty and risk for US businesses that take EU citizens’ data out of the region for processing.

Guidance from EU regulators on how to lawfully secure their data transfers makes it clear that in some instances there simply won’t be any extra measures or contractual caveats that can be added to fix the risk entirely. The solution may in fact be data localization in the EU. (Something the Commission’s Data Governance Act proposal, unveiled last week, confirmed by allowing for Member States to set conditions for the most sensitive types of data — such as prohibiting transfers to third countries.)

“We must also openly discuss diverging views on data governance and see how these can be overcome constructively,” the Commission writes on this thorny issue, adding: “The EU and the US should intensify their cooperation at bilateral and multilateral level to promote regulatory convergence and facilitate free data flow with trust on the basis of high standards and safeguards.”

Commissioners have warned before there’s no quick fix for the EU-US data transfer issue — but a longer term solution would be a convergence of standards in the areas of privacy and data protection.

And, again, that’s an area where US states have been taking action. But the Commission agenda pushing for “regulatory convergence” to ease data flows sums to trying to convince US counterparts of the economic case for reforming Section 702 of FISA…

Digital tax and tech-trade cooperation

Digital tax reform is also inexorably on the Commission’s agenda since no agreement has yet been possibly on this stickiest of tech policy issues.

On this it writes that both the EU and the US should “strongly commit to the timely conclusion of discussions on a global solution within the context of OECD and G20” — saying this is vital to create “a fair and modern economy, which provides market-based rewards for the best innovative ideas”.

“Fair taxation in the digital economy requires innovative solutions on both sides of the Atlantic,” it adds. 

Another proposal the EU is floating is to establish a EU-US Trade and Technology Council — to “jointly maximise opportunities for market-driven transatlantic collaboration, strengthen our technological and industrial leadership and expand bilateral trade and investment”.

It envisages the body focusing on reducing trade barriers; developing compatible standards and regulatory approaches for new technologies; ensuring critical supply chain security; deepening research collaboration and promoting innovation and fair competition, saying there should also be “a new common focus on protecting critical technologies”.

“We need closer cooperation on issues such as investment screening, Intellectual Property rights, forced transfers of technology, and export controls,” it adds.

The Commission announced its own Intellectual Property Action Plan last week, alongside the Data Governance Act proposal — which included support for SMEs to file patents. It also said it will consider whether reform the framework for filing standards essential patents, encouraging industry to engage in forums aimed at reducing litigation in the meanwhile.

#artificial-intelligence, #big-tech, #digital-regulation, #europe, #european-union, #platform-regulation, #policy, #privacy, #security, #tech-governance

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Europe to limit how big tech can push its own services and use third party data

European lawmakers are taking aim at big tech’s ability to push its own services in search results at the expense of rivals, with Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager confirming today that a legislative proposal due in a few weeks will aim to ban what she called “unfair self-preferencing”.

The concern is that so-called gatekeeper platforms have the ability to manipulate the way that they rank different businesses — and “show their own services more visibly than their rivals”, she said in a speech.

The Commission is expected to propose a package of legislative measures next month to update long-standing EU ecommerce rules and propose new strictures for platforms with significant market power (aka gatekeepers) — making good on its earlier pledge to reboot digital regulation.

In her speech to the EPC Digital Clearinghouse today, Vestager confirmed that the Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act (DMA) will be introduced in a few weeks’ time.

The Commission is surely enjoying its timing, here, with grumblings of political discontent against big tech over the pond and the US Department of Justice having just filed an antitrust case against Google. Although the EU executive’s proposals for reworking digital rules have been years in the making.

Vestager said the DSA will update the existing E-Commerce Directive — by requiring digital services to “take more responsibility for dealing with illegal content and dangerous products”, including by standardizing processes for reporting illegal content and dealing with content reports and complaints.

“Those new responsibilities will help to keep Europeans just as safe online as they are in the physical world. They’ll protect legitimate businesses, which follow the rules, from being undercut by others who sell cheap, dangerous products. And by applying the same standards, all over Europe, they’ll make sure every European can rely on the same protection – and that digital businesses of all sizes can easily operate throughout Europe, without having to meet the costs of complying with different rules in different EU countries,” said Vestager.

She also confirmed increased transparency requirements would be in the package — such as related to content takedowns and recommendations; and also disclosures for online ads, including both who’s paying for an ad and “why we’ve been targeted by a certain ad”.

The DMA proposal will have two components, per Vestager: A “clear list of dos and don’ts” for “big digital gatekeepers”, which she said “will be based on our experience with the sorts of behaviour that can stop markets working well”; and a “harmonised market investigation framework” that will span the EU’s single market — giving the executive the power to preemptively intervene in digital markets to address structural problems before they become entrenched and lead to baked in Internet monopolies.

Recent press reports have suggested that the list of dos and don’ts that’s coming down the pipe for big tech could be lengthy — although the final detail remains to be seen.

But a ban on some forms of self-preferencing will certainly be on that list.

Google’s preferencing of its own services in search results has been on the European Commission’s antitrust radar for years — with a multi-year investigation into its Shopping search comparison service culminating in a $2.7BN fine in 2017 and an order to Google to cease abusive self-preferencing. Despite that action rival price comparison services have continued to complain it’s still not playing fair. Hence the Commission deciding more needs to be done now.

Another restriction Vestager confirmed affected major dual marketplaces — which are set to face future EU controls is on how they can use third party sellers’ data. She argued that the asymmetry of platforms both having access to sellers’ data and competing against those third parties in other markets “can seriously damage fairness” — saying the proposal “aims to ban big gatekeepers from misusing their business users’ data in that way”.

Again it’s an issue that’s been on the Vestager’s radar for some time. Last year, for example, the Commission opened a formal investigation into ecommerce giant Amazon’s use of merchant data (although that probe remains ongoing).

The other core plank of the DMA involves reform of digital competition rules, as EU lawmakers look to evolve the regulatory toolbox to keep pace with digital business.

“We face a constant risk that big companies will succeed in pushing markets to a tipping point, sending them on a rapid, unstoppable slide towards monopoly — and creating yet another powerful gatekeeper,” said Vestager, explaining the push for a harmonised set of rules to tackle structural problems in digital markets across the EU.

The risk of leaving it to EU Member States’ national competition authorities to tackle such issues is “a fragmented system, with different rules in different EU countries”, she went on, adding: “We’ve come to a point where we have to take action. A point where the power of digital businesses – especially the biggest gatekeepers – threatens our freedoms, our opportunities, even our democracy. And where the trust that successful digitisation relies on is becoming seriously frayed.”

The message to tech giants from the EU’s executive is an unwavering “things are going to have to change” — with enforced responsibility coming down the pipe to replace patchy self-regulation.

Vestager also made it clear the Commission is paying attention to how the future rebooted digital rules will be enforced — which is a key point given how a lack of uniformly vigorous enforcement has taken some of the shine off the EU’s rebooted data protection framework (because decision powers are held at the Member State level).

The commissioner said “effective enforcement” will be a vital component of the DSA package, arguing that: “To really give people trust in the digital world, having the right rules in place isn’t enough. People also need to know that those rules really work – that even the biggest companies will actually do what they’re supposed to. And to make sure that happens, there’s no substitute for effective enforcement.”

This means the package will include measures aimed at improving the way national authorities cooperate — “to make sure the rules are properly enforced, throughout the EU”, as she put it.

“Our proposal won’t change the fundamental principle, that digital services should be regulated by their home country. But it will set up a permanent system of cooperation that will help those regulators work more effectively, to protect consumers all across Europe. And it will give the EU power to step in, when we need to, to enforce the rules against some very large platforms,” she added.

The Commission is also clearly banking on the DMA as its key enforcement lever against big tech’s market-denting bulk — by being able to intervene proactively as a way to foster and sustain competition.

And with anger at big tech riding high across Europe the Commission likely feels confident in getting bu-in from EU Member States’ representatives on the EU Council and the elected members of the European Parliament — support that it’ll need to get its legislation proposals across the line.

 

#antitrust, #big-tech, #digital-markets-act, #digital-services-act, #eu, #europe, #margrethe-vestager, #platform-regulation, #policy

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Trump hints at stopping “powerful” big tech in latest ‘get out the vote’ tweet

If there was any doubt that yesterday’s flogging of big tech CEOs by Senate republicans was anything other than an electioneering stunt, president Trump has thumped the point home by tweeting a video message to voters in which he bashes “big tech” as (maybe) too powerful but certainly in need of being “spoken to” and (maybe) more.

The not-so-subtle suggestion being that a vote for Trump is a vote to break up the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter .

In the video Trump signposts the DoJ’s antitrust suit against Google — ending with a call to his supporters to get out the vote. So the president is brandishing an anti-big tech message as the latest cudgel in his culture war, just a few days ahead of the 2020 US presidential election.

“For a long time I’ve been hearing about how powerful big tech is, whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or Google or any of them,” he begins the video, before making a quick vanity-dig about winning the 2016 election regardless of the “powerful” platforms being “totally against me”, as he glibly claims — entirely failing to mention that Facebook actually allowed its network to be a free and unfettered conduit for millions of pieces of anti-Clinton, pro-Trump propaganda cooked up in Russia.

Instead, he segues into a claim that the platforms have taken their power to a “a new level”, as he puts it — accusing them of “suppressing the corruption of Joe Biden” by ‘not letting the stories out’.

This is a direct reference to Trump’s Democrat challenger for the White House, and an indirect reference to a controversial New York Post story about a cache of emails purported to have been found on laptop hardware owned by Biden’s son Hunter — but which carry the distinct whiff of another election-focused political disinformation operation.

The big difference this time around is that ‘big tech’ is rather more alive to the reputational risks to their platforms and companies if they’re found ignoring another orchestrated episode of election interference.

Hence both Facebook and Twitter limited the sharing of the Post’s story.

Twitter initially blocked links to it citing its hacked materials policy — though it later revised the policy after Republicans screamed ‘censorship’. And CEO Jack Dorsey got plenty more grilling on that theme at yesterday’s Senate hearing as Republican senators used the hearing as an opportunity to try to mint gotcha soundbites on bogus claims of big tech’s ‘anti-conservative bias & censorship’.

The tech CEOs mostly had to sit there and be bashed as it’s not politic for them to suggest Republicans might be experiencing more content moderation vs liberals because they break the rules more. Instead the electioneering pantomime ran on for hours.

Trump is just closing the loop on the politically biased soundbite fest by trying to turn tedious and trumped up claims of anti-conservative bias into a bald ‘get out the vote’ message to his base.

“Big tech has to be spoken to and probably in some form has to be stopped,” is the closest he gets to an actual policy position here. So Trump voters shouldn’t get their hopes up that he might actually deliver a break up of Facebook et al either.

The ironies are of course hot and heavy, given evidence shows social media algorithms’ baked in preference for spreading controversial/outrageous content further and faster than the blander, more nuanced stuff that’s likely to be closer to the truth. Simply put, it’s human nature to click on the crazy stuff — and ad-funded platforms are fuelled by eyeball engagement. So lies have been great for big tech’s bottom lines.

That then means these very same ‘big tech’ platforms tend to amplify Republican messaging — certainly of the Trumpian flavor, i.e. where trumped up claims, lacking in evidence and/or reality, are preferred. (Like, say, Trump calling Mexicans rapists or claiming the pandemic is over as thousands continue to die. Or that he has immunity from COVID-19 when the scientific consensus is we don’t know how long a person may be immune after fighting off the virus and we know some people have been reinfected with COVID-19, and so on.)

So the scale of the nonsense being peddled by Trump’s Republican party is indeed very strong and very powerful. But then, well, we haven’t been in Kansas for a long time.

At the time of writing Twitter has also not placed any kind of contextual labelling on Trump’s tweet — despite the contents of the video arguably containing misinformation about big tech itself. But that’s just one more irony to add to the steaming pile.

And if you’re feeling a pang of pity for the tech CEOs caught in this partisan bind it pays to remember they made their bed by claiming to operate community and content policies they didn’t — and still don’t — properly enforce. Which makes Trump their very own monster.

#antitrust, #big-tech, #content-moderation, #government, #social, #social-media, #trump, #twitter, #us-presidential-election-2020

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The Justice Department has filed its antitrust lawsuit against Google

The Justice Department said it has filed its long-awaited antitrust lawsuit against Google, confirming an earlier report from The Wall Street Journal.

In the suit, the Justice Department is expected to argue that Google used anticompetitive practices to safeguard its monopoly position as the dominant force in search and search-advertising, which sit at the foundation of the company’s extensive advertising, data mining, video distribution, and information services conglomerate.

It would be the first significant legal challenge that Google has faced from U.S. regulators despite years of investigations into the company’s practices.

A 2012 attempt to bring the company to the courts to answer for anti-competitive practices was ultimately scuttled because regulators at the time weren’t sure they could make the case stick. Since that time Alphabet’s value has skyrocketed to reach over $1 trillion (as of today’s share price).

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, holds a commanding lead in both search and video. The company dominates the search market — with roughly 90% of the world’s internet searches conducted on its platform — and roughly three quarters of American adults turn to YouTube for video, as the Journal reported.

In the lawsuit, the Department of Justice will say that Alphabet’s Google subsidiary uses a web of exclusionary business agreements to shut out competitors. The billions of dollars that the search giant collects wind up paying mobile phone companies, carriers and browsers to make the Google search engine a preset default. That blocks competitors from being able to access the kinds of queries and traffic they’d need to refine their own search engine.

It will be those relationships — alongside Google’s insistence that its search engine come pre-loaded (and un-deletable) on phones using the Android operating system and that other search engines specifically not be pre-loaded — that form part of the government’s case, according to Justice Department officials cited by the Journal.

The antitrust suit comes on the heels of a number of other regulatory actions involving Google, which is not only the dominant online search provider, but also a leader in online advertising and in mobile technology by way of Android, as well as a strong player in a web of other interconnected services like mapping, online productivity software, cloud computing and more.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, UNITED STATES – 2020/02/23: American multinational technology company Google logo seen at Google campus. (Photo by Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A report last Friday in Politico noted that Democrat Attorneys General would not be signing the suit. That report said those AGs have instead been working on a bipartisan, state-led approach covering a wider number of issues beyond search — the idea being also that more suits gives government potentially a stronger bargaining position against the tech giant.

A third suit is being put together by the state of Texas, although that has faced its own issues.

While a number of tech leviathans are facing increasing scrutiny from Washington, with the US now just two weeks from Election Day, it’s unlikely that we are going to see many developments around this and other cases before then. And in the case of this specific Google suit, in the event that Trump doesn’t get re-elected, there will also be a larger personnel shift at the DoJ that could also change the profile and timescale of the case.

In any event, fighting these regulatory cases is always a long, drawn-out process. In Europe, Google has faced a series of fines over antitrust violations stretching back several years, including a $2.7 billion fine over Google shopping; a $5 billion fine over Android dominance; and a $1.7 billion fine over search ad brokering. While Goolge slowly works through appeals, there are also more cases ongoing against the company in Europe and elsewhere.

Google is not the only one catching the attention of Washington. Earlier in October, the House Judiciary Committee released a report of more than 400 pages in which it outlined how tech giants Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Facebook were abusing their power, covering everything from the areas in which they dominate, through to suggestions for how to fix the situation (including curtailing their acquisitions strategy).

That seemed mainly to be an exercise in laying out the state of things, which could in turn be used to inform further actions, although in itself, unlike the DoJ suit, the House report lacks teeth in terms of enforcement or remedies.

#alphabet, #amazon, #android, #apple, #big-tech, #europe, #facebook, #google, #google-campus, #leader, #mobile-technology, #online-advertising, #online-search, #operating-system, #operating-systems, #search-advertising, #search-engine, #tc, #texas, #trump, #united-states

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Big tech has 2 elephants in the room: Privacy and competition

The question of how policymakers should respond to the power of big tech didn’t get a great deal of airtime at TechCrunch Disrupt last week, despite a number of investigations now underway in the United States (hi, Google).

It’s also clear that attention- and data-monopolizing platforms compel many startups to use their comparatively slender resources to find ways to compete with the giants — or hope to be acquired by them.

But there’s clearly a nervousness among even well-established tech firms to discuss this topic, given how much their profits rely on frictionless access to users of some of the gatekeepers in question.

Dropbox founder and CEO Drew Houston evinced this dilemma when TechCrunch Editor-in-Chief Matthew Panzarino asked him if Apple’s control of the iOS App Store should be “reexamined” by regulators or whether it’s just legit competition.

“I think it’s an important conversation on a bunch of dimensions,” said Houston, before offering a circular and scrupulously balanced reply in which he mentioned the “ton of opportunity” app stores have unlocked for third-party developers, checking off some of Apple’s preferred talking points like “being able to trust your device” and the distribution the App Store affords startups.

“They also are a huge competitive advantage,” Houston added. “And so I think the question of … how do we make sure that there’s still a level playing field and so that owning an app store isn’t too much of an advantage? I don’t know where it’s all going to end up. I do think it’s an important conversation to be had.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) said the question of whether large tech companies are too powerful needs to be reframed.

“Big per se is not bad,” she told TC’s Zack Whittaker. “We need to focus on whether competitors and consumers are being harmed. And, if that’s the case, what are the remedies?”

In recent years, U.S. lawmakers have advanced their understanding of digital business models — making great strides since Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg answered a question two years ago about how his platform makes money: “Senator, we sell ads.”

A House antitrust subcommittee hearing in July 2020 that saw the CEOs of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple answer awkward questions and achieved a higher dimension of detail than the big tech hearings of 2018.

Nonetheless, there still seems to be a lack of consensus among lawmakers over how exactly to grapple with big tech, even though the issue elicits bipartisan support, as was in plain view during a Senate Judiciary Committee interrogation of Google’s ad business earlier this month.

On stage, Lofgren demonstrated some of this tension by discouraging what she called “bulky” and “lengthy” antitrust investigations, making a general statement in favor of “innovation” and suggesting a harder push for overarching privacy legislation. She also advocated at length for inalienable rights for U.S. citizens so platform manipulators can’t circumvent rules with their own big data holdings and some dark pattern design.

#antitrust, #big-tech, #data-protection, #digital-regulation, #disrupt-2020, #europe, #gdpr, #government, #platforms, #policy, #privacy

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Kamala Harris brings a view from tech’s epicenter to the presidential race

Joe Biden’s decision to name California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate in the quest to unseat President Trump means that the next White House could be occupied not only by a Black woman — a historic milestone by any account — but also by someone who built a career in the tech industry’s front yard.

Born in Oakland, Harris served as San Francisco district attorney and later as the attorney general for California before being elected to the state’s Senate in 2016. And while the newly named vice presidential nominee is likely to bring a deeper understanding of the tech industry to the race, her positions on how a Democratic administration should approach tech’s most powerful companies during an unprecedented moment of scrutiny aren’t exactly crystal clear.

Harris attracted considerable support from Silicon Valley executives in her bid for the Democratic nomination, outpacing other candidates in donations from employees from large tech companies early on. While that support shifted around throughout the race and many donors in tech supported multiple candidates, the industry is likely to be happy with Biden’s selection.

Notably, Harris was elected as California attorney general in 2010 and served two terms, overseeing the tech industry through a large portion of its most explosive growth — a measure that likely proves more meaningful in assessing her stance toward regulating the tech industry than the things she said along the campaign trail.

Still, those were arguably simpler times for Silicon Valley, and ones that predated current hot-button conversations around issues like election interference, misinformation wars and antitrust enforcement.

Playing it safe

As the primary developed and then-rival Elizabeth Warren carved out a posture critical of big tech, Harris seldom waded into thorny issues around regulating the tech industry. During an October debate, Harris avoided a question asking about concerns over second order effects if big tech companies were broken up, instead redirecting to the safer political territory of Trump’s Twitter account. Dodging meatier points about tech accountability, Harris called on Twitter to suspend the president’s account for violating its rules, calling the issue “a matter of safety and corporate accountability.”

Earlier this year, in response to a straightforward question asking if companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon should be broken up, Harris again dodged, though signaled that she is concerned in how those companies handle user data.

“I believe that tech companies have got to be regulated in a way that we can ensure the American consumer can be certain that their privacy is not being compromised,” Harris said. Harris also expressed her concerns about user privacy in a 2018 Twitter thread.

“Millions of Americans have no idea how much data Facebook is collecting, from tracking their location and IP address, to following their activities on other websites,” she wrote.

“In the real world, this would be like someone watching what you do, where you go, for how long, and with whom you’re with every day. For most, it would feel like an invasion of privacy.”

A focus on Facebook

In other critiques of tech, Harris has mostly concentrated on Facebook, denouncing its role in spreading Russian disinformation during the 2016 presidential race and expressing worries over how the company handles the data it collects.

When given the chance to press Mark Zuckerberg in person, Harris zeroed in on the company’s handling of the Cambridge Analytica data misuse to its users. More recently, Harris co-authored a letter to Facebook along with Colorado Senator Michael Bennett after the audit’s largely unflattering results were published, pressing the company on election concerns.

“Although the company has shown a recent willingness to rein in disinformation with respect to COVID-19, it has not shown equal resolve to confront voter suppression and learn the lessons of the 2016 election,” the senators wrote. “We share the auditors’ concern that Facebook has failed to use the tools and resources at its disposal to more vigorously combat voter suppression and protect civil rights.”

In another letter to the company, Harris criticized Facebook’s fact-checking policies for climate-related misinformation in light of a New York Times report.

In spite of the harsh talk, Harris seems to be on fairly friendly terms with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who congratulated her on the nomination Tuesday. Back in 2013, Harris apparently contributed to the marketing effort around Sandberg’s now-ubiquitous book Lean In, sharing her own story. Harris also spoke at a cyberbullying event hosted at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters in 2015 and the two were photographed onstage together.

Antitrust on the back burner?

While we have a handful of public statements from Harris about her views on tech, there’s plenty more that we don’t know. The way she positioned herself in relation to other candidates during the primary might not wholly reflect the kind of priorities she would bring to the vice presidency, and we’ll likely be learning more about those in the coming days.

Right now there are many, many crises on the table for the next administration. If regulating big tech looked like a huge campaign issue back in the pre-pandemic political landscape of 2020, conversations around police brutality and the devastating American failure to contain the coronavirus are now at the fore. Whether issues around antitrust regulation and reining in tech’s power will make it off the back burner remains to be seen, and there are plenty of national five-alarm fires to be put out in the meantime.

While her potential position as the nation’s next vice president doesn’t mean that Harris would be tasked with shaping tech policy or spearheading antitrust efforts, her deep connections to tech’s geographic hub could prove consequential in a Biden presidency and its priorities.

In spite of some question marks around her policy approaches, Harris is a known quantity for the tech industry — one who understands Silicon Valley and who, per her track record, doesn’t look keen to take on the industry’s biggest companies in spite of some recent tough talk. Whatever tech policies emerge out of a Biden/Harris campaign, the fresh vice presidential nominee is connected to tech in a more meaningful way than any other contender for the spot. That alone is something to watch.

#2020-election, #big-tech, #government, #kamala-harris, #tc

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Technologists: Consider Canada

America’s technology industry, radiating brilliance and profitability from its Silicon Valley home base, was until recently a shining beacon of what made America great: Science, progress, entrepreneurship. But public opinion has swung against big tech amazingly fast and far; negative views doubled between 2015 and 2019 from 17% to 34%. The list of concerns is long and includes privacy, treatment of workers, marketplace fairness, the carnage among ad-supported publications and the poisoning of public discourse.

But there’s one big issue behind all of these: An industry ravenous for growth, profit and power, that has failed at treating its employees, its customers and the inhabitants of society at large as human beings. Bear in mind that products, companies and ecosystems are built by people, for people. They reflect the values of the society around them, and right now, America’s values are in a troubled state.

We both have a lot of respect and affection for the United States, birthplace of the microprocessor and the electric guitar. We could have pursued our tech careers there, but we’ve declined repeated invitations and chosen to stay at home here in Canada . If you want to build technology to be harnessed for equity, diversity and social advancement of the many, rather than freedom and inclusion for the few, we think Canada is a good place to do it.

U.S. big tech is correctly seen as having too much money, too much power and too little accountability. Those at the top clearly see the best effects of their innovations, but rarely the social costs. They make great things — but they also disrupt lives, invade privacy and abuse their platforms.

We both came of age at a time when tech aspired to something better, and so did some of today’s tech giants. Four big tech CEOs recently testified in front of Congress. They were grilled about alleged antitrust abuses, although many of us watching were thinking about other ills associated with some of these companies: tax avoidance, privacy breaches, data mining, surveillance, censorship, the spread of false news, toxic byproducts, disregard for employee welfare.

But the industry’s problem isn’t really the products themselves — or the people who build them. Tech workers tend to be dramatically more progressive than the companies they work for, as Facebook staff showed in their recent walkout over President Donald Trump’s posts.

Big tech’s problem is that it amplifies the issues Americans are struggling with more broadly. That includes economic polarization, which is echoed in big-tech financial statements, and the race politics that prevent tech (among other industries) from being more inclusive to minorities and talented immigrants.

We’re particularly struck by the Trump administration’s recent moves to deny opportunities to H-1B visa holders. Coming after several years of family separations, visa bans and anti-immigrant rhetoric, it seems almost calculated to send IT experts, engineers, programmers, researchers, doctors, entrepreneurs and future leaders from around the world — the kind of talented newcomers who built America’s current prosperity — fleeing to more receptive shores.

One of those shores is Canada’s; that’s where we live and work. Our country has long courted immigration, but it’s turned around its longstanding brain-drain problem in recent years with policies designed to scoop up talented people who feel uncomfortable or unwanted in America. We have an immigration program, the Global Talent Stream, that helps innovative companies fast-track foreign workers with specialized skills. Cities like Toronto, Montreal, Waterloo and Vancouver have been leading North America in tech job creation during the Trump years, fuelled by outposts of the big international tech companies but also by scaled-up domestic firms that do things the Canadian way, such as enterprise software developer OpenText (one of us is a co-founder) and e-commerce giant Shopify.

“Canada is awesome. Give it a try,” Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke told disaffected U.S. tech workers on Twitter recently.

But it’s not just about policy; it’s about underlying values. Canada is exceptionally comfortable with diversity, in theory (as expressed in immigration policy) and practice (just walk down a street in Vancouver or Toronto). We’re not perfect, but we have been competently led and reasonably successful in recognizing the issues we need to deal with. And our social contract is more cooperative and inclusive.

Yes, that means public health care with no copays, but it also means more emphasis on sustainability, corporate responsibility and a more collaborative strain of capitalism. Our federal and provincial governments have mostly been applauded for their gusher of stimulative wage subsidies and grants meant to sustain small businesses and tech talent during the pandemic, whereas Washington’s response now appears to have been formulated in part to funnel public money to elites.

American big tech today feels morally adrift, which leads to losing out on talented people who want to live the values Silicon Valley used to stand for — not just wealth, freedom and the few, but inclusivity, diversity and the many. Canada is just one alternative to the U.S. model, but it’s the alternative we know best and the one just across the border, with loads of technology job openings.

It wouldn’t surprise us if more tech refugees find themselves voting with their feet.

#big-tech, #canada, #column, #data-mining, #donald-trump, #government, #opentext, #opinion, #policy, #publishing, #shopify, #silicon-valley, #startups, #tc, #toronto, #trump-administration, #washington

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Australia now has a template for forcing Facebook and Google to pay for news

Australia is closing in on a legally binding framework to force adtech giants Facebook and Google pay media companies for monetizing their news content when it’s posted to their social media platforms or otherwise aggregated and monetized.

Back in April the country’s government announced it would adopt a mandatory code requiring the tech giants to share ad revenue with media business after an attempt to negotiate a voluntary arrangement with the companies failed to make progress.

Today Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has published details of a first pass at that mandatory code — which it says is intended to address “acute bargaining power imbalances” between local news businesses vs the adtech duopoly, Google and Facebook.

The draft follows a consultation process before and after the release of a concepts paper in May, in which the ACCC sought feedback on a range of options. More than 40 submissions were received, it said.

Under the proposed code the ACCC is suggesting a binding “final offer” arbitration process as a way to avoid platforms seeking to drag payment negotiations. Under the proposal they’d get three months’ “negotiation and mediation”, after which an independent arbitrator would choose which of the two parties’ final offer is “the most reasonable”, doing so within 45 business days.

“This would ensure disagreements about payment for content are resolved quickly. Deals on payment could be reached within six months of the code coming into effect if arbitration is required,” the ACCC writes.

The code also aims to enable groups of media businesses (such as local and regional publications) to collectively negotiate to get a better deal out of platforms use of their content.

On the enforcement front, the draft proposes that non-compliance — such as not bargaining in good faith or breaching minimum commitments — can lead to infringement penalties, with the maximum set at $10M or 3x the benefit obtained or 10% of a platform’s turnover in the market in the last 12 months (whichever is greater). So Facebook and Google could potentially be on the hook for fines running to many millions of dollars if they are found to have breached such a code.

The scope of the code’s application looks broadly enough drawn that it seems intended to try to prevent platforms from dodging payment by simply switching off a single news-focused products (such as Google News). Google did just that in Spain instead of paying for reuse of news snippets there (and it remains switched off in the market). But the ACCC’s proposal also applies to Google search and Discover so Google would have to forgo showing any Australian news content to avoid the revenue share — which is a far bigger switch to flip.

Another interesting aspect of the proposal would require the platforms to give news media businesses around a month (28 days’) notice of algorithm changes that are “likely to materially affect” referral traffic to news and/or the ranking of news behind paywalls; and also for “substantial” changes to the display and presentation of news, and advertising directly associated with news.

Another notable requirement is for platforms to give news media businesses “clear information” about the data they collect via users’ interactions with news content on their platforms — such as how long people spend on an article; how many articles they consume in a certain time period; and other data about user engagement with news across platform services.

This aspect of the proposal looks intended to tackle the problem of dominant platforms using their market power to maintain their grip on the attention economy by being able to monopolize access to data by blocking content producers from being able to access information about how Internet users are engaging with their work.

Platforms like Facebook have sought to centralize others’ content to their advantage — applying market power to encourage content to be posted in a place where only they have full access to interaction data. This breaks the link between news producers and their own audience, making it harder for them to perform analytics around articles or respond to changes and trends in consumption behavior.

Being cut off from so much user data also makes it harder for media outlets to cultivate closer relations with consumers of their product — something that looks increasingly vital for developing successful additional revenue streams, such as subscription offers, for example.

“There is a fundamental bargaining power imbalance between news media businesses and the major digital platforms, partly because news businesses have no option but to deal with the platforms, and have had little ability to negotiate over payment for their content or other issues,” said ACCC chair, Rod Sims, commenting on the proposal in a statement.

“In developing our draft code, we observed and learned from the approaches of regulators and policymakers internationally that have sought to secure payment for news. We wanted a model that would address this bargaining power imbalance and result in fair payment for content, which avoided unproductive and drawn-out negotiations, and wouldn’t reduce the availability of Australian news on Google and Facebook.”

“We believe our proposed draft code achieves these purposes,” he added.

The proposal contains more suggestions aimed at breaking down the power imbalance between the two adtech giants and news producers. One element would require them to publish proposals for recognizing original news content on their services — which sounds like an ‘exclusive’ label (to go alongside ‘fact-checked’ labels platforms can sometimes choose to apply).

The pair would also need to provide news media businesses with what the ACCC dubs “flexible user comment moderation tools” — such as the ability to turn off comments on individual stories posted to a platform.

The theme here is increased agency for news businesses vs Facebook and Google so they have a better chance to shape public debate happening around their own content — platforms having also gobbled up the sorts of conversations which used to happen via a newspaper’s letters’ page.

In terms of eligibility, the ACCC says media businesses would be eligible for payment for platforms’ content reuse if the online news content they produce “investigates and explains issues of public significance for Australians” or “issues that engage Australians in public debate and inform democratic decision-making; or issues relating to community and local events”.

Other criteria include adhering to minimum levels of professional editorial standards; maintaining a “suitable degree” of editorial independence; operating in Australia for the main purpose of serving Australian audiences; and generating revenue of more than $150,000 per year.

The code, which would initially only apply to Facebook and Google (though the ACCC notes that other platforms could be added if they gain similar market power), is not intended to capture any non-news content producers, such as drama, entertainment or sports broadcasting.

In a statement responding to the proposal Google expressed deep disappointment. Mel Silva, MD of Google Australia, said:

Our hope was that the Code would be forward thinking and the process would create incentives for both publishers and digital platforms to negotiate and innovate for a better future – so we are deeply disappointed and concerned the draft Code does not achieve this. Instead, the government’s heavy handed intervention threatens to impede Australia’s digital economy and impacts the services we can deliver to Australians.

The Code discounts the already significant value Google provides to news publishers across the board – including sending billions of clicks to Australian news publishers for free every year worth $218 million. It sends a concerning message to businesses and investors that the Australian Government will intervene instead of letting the market work, and undermines Australia’s ambition to become a leading digital economy by 2030. It sets up a perverse disincentive to innovate in the media sector and does nothing to solve the fundamental challenges of creating a business model fit for the digital age.

We urge policymakers to ensure that the final Code is grounded in commercial reality so that it operates in the interests of Australian consumers, preserves the shared benefits created by the web, and does not favour the interests of large publishers at the expense of small publishers.

Facebook had far less to say — sending a line attributed to William Easton, its MD for Australia & New Zealand — which says it’s reviewing the proposal “to understand the impact it will have on the industry, our services and our investment in the news ecosystem in Australia”.

In terms of Australia’s next steps, further consultation will take place on the draft mandatory code during August, with the ACCC saying it will be finalised “shortly after”.

More details about the draft code can be found here.

While regulation being applied to big tech now looks like a given in multiple jurisdictions around the world — with US lawmakers alive to the damage flowing from a handful of hyper-powerful homegrown tech giants— the question of how fair and effective it will be is very much up in the air.

One potentially problematic element of Australia’s approach with this news ad revenue share is that it does not appear to tackle Facebook’s and Google’s abusive model of surveillance capitalism — which remains under regulatory scrutiny in Europe — but seems set to further embed the media with data-mining business models that work by stripping consumers of their privacy to target them with behavioral ads.

Critics contend that a myriad of harms flow from behavioral advertising — from time-wasting clickbait at the low end to democracy-denting disinformation and hate speech at the other. Meanwhile other less intrusive types of ad-targeting are available.

A section of the proposed code that touches on “the privacy of platform users” notes only that: “The draft code’s minimum standards require digital platforms to provide clear information about the data they currently collect through news content. However, the code does not include any requirements for digital platforms to increase sharing of user data with news media businesses. Accordingly, the code does not have an impact on the privacy protections currently applicable to digital platform users.”

#advertising-tech, #australia, #big-tech, #facebook, #google, #media, #news-media, #policy, #privacy, #social-media-platforms, #tc

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Google’s “no choice” screen on Android isn’t working, says Ecosia — querying the EU’s approach to antitrust enforcement

Google alternative Ecosia is on a mission to turn search clicks into trees. The Berlin based not-for-profit reached a major milestone earlier this month, having used ad revenue generated by users of its privacy-sensitive search engine to plant more than 100 million trees across 25 countries worldwide — targeted at biodiversity hotspots.

However these good feels have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Ecosia has seen its monthly revenues slashed by half since COVID-19 arrived in Europe, with turnover falling from €2.6M in February to just €1.4M in June. It’s worried that its promise of planting a tree every 0.8 seconds is at risk.

It has also suffered a knock to regional visibility as a result of boycotting an auction process that Android OS maker Google has been running throughout this year, as a response to a 2018 Commission antitrust decision that found the tech giant had violated EU competition rules in how it operates the smartphone platform — including via conditions placed on phone makers to pre-load its own services (like Google search) as device defaults.

An auction process now determines which rival search engines appear on a search ‘choice screen’ Google began showing to Android users in Europe in the wake of the Commission decision. Currently, Google offers three paid slots via the auction to non-Google search engines. Android users setting up a new device always see Google’s own search engine as one of the four total options.

The tech giant’s rivals have consistently argued this ‘pay to play’ model is no remedy for its anti-competitive behavior with Android, the world’s dominant smartphone OS. Although most (including DuckDuckGo) felt forced to participate in its auction process from the get-go. Forgoing the most prominent route to the Android search market isn’t exactly a luxury most businesses could afford.

Ecosia, a not-for-profit, was the last major hold out. But now it says it’s been forced to end its boycott in a bid to remain competitive in the region. This means it will participate in the next auction round for the Android choice screen — scheduled for the beginning of Q4. If it wins any per country slots it will appear as a search choice option to those Android users in future, though likely not til next year given the length of the auction process.

It remains highly critical of Google’s pay-to-play model, arguing it’s no remedy for the antitrust violations identified by the Commission. It also laments that EU lawmakers are taking a ‘wait and see’ approach to determining whether Google’s ‘remedy’ is actually restoring competition, given all the evidence to the contrary.

“The main reason why we boycotted the auction is because we think it’s highly unfair and anticompetitive,” says Ecosia CEO Christian Kroll, speaking to TechCrunch via video chat. “Not only do we think that fair competition shouldn’t be sold off in an auction but also the way the auction is designed basically makes sure that only the least interesting options can win.

“Since we have a business model where we use most of our revenues to plant trees we basically can’t really win in an auction model. If you’re already a search engine that’s quite well known… then you have a lot of cannibalization effects through this screen. So we’re basically paying for traffic that we would get for free anyway… So it’s just super unfair and anticompetitive.”

Kroll expresses emphatic surprise that the Commission didn’t immediately reject Google’s auction model for the choice screen — saying it seems as if they’ve learned nothing from the EU’s earlier intervention against Microsoft’s tying of its Internet Explorer browser with its dominant desktop OS, Windows. (In that case the saga ended after Microsoft agreed to implement a ballot screen offering a choice of up to 12 browsers, which paved the road for Google to later gain share with its own Chrome browser.)

For a brief initial period last year Google did offer a fee-less choice screen in Europe, pushing this out to existing Android devices — with search rivals selected based on their market popularity per country (which, in some markets, included Ecosia).

However the tech giant said then that it would be “evolving” its implementation over time. And a few months later an auction model was announced as incoming for new Android devices — with that ‘pay-to-play’ approach kicking off at the start of this year.

Search rivals including DuckDuckGo and Qwant immediately cried foul. Yet the response from the Commission has been to kick the can — with regulators offering platitudes that said they would “closely monitor”. They also claimed to be “committed to a full and effective implementation of the decision”.

However the missing adjective in that statement is ‘fast’. Google rivals would argue that for a remedy to be effective it needs to happen really fast, like now — or, for some of them, the risk really is going out of business. After all, the Commission’s Android antitrust decision (which, yes, Google is appealing) already dates back two full years

“I find it very surprising that the European Commission hasn’t rejected [Google’s auction model] from the start because some of the key principles from what made the choice screen successful in the Microsoft case have just been completely disregarded and been turned around by Google to turn the whole concept of a choice screen to their advantage,” says Kroll. “We’re not even calling it the ‘choice screen’ internally, we just call it the ‘auction screen’. And since we’re now stopping to boycott we call it the ‘no choice screen’.”

“It’s Google’s way to give the impression that there’s free choice but there is no free choice,” he adds. “If Google’s objective here would be to create choice for the user then they would present the most interesting options, which are the search engines with the highest marketshares — so definitely us, DuckDuckGo and maybe some other players as well. But that’s not what they’re trying to do.”

Kroll points out that another German search rival to Google, Cliqz, had to pull the plug on its anti-tracking alternative at the start of this year — meaning there’s now one less homegrown anti-tracking rival to Google in play. And while Ecosia feels it has no choice but to participate in Google’s auction game Kroll says it also can’t know whether or not participating will result in Ecosia overpaying Google for leads that then mean it generates less revenue and can’t plant as many trees… Or, well, any trees if the worst were to happen.

(NB: Kroll was speaking to TechCrunch ahead of signing an NDA that Google requires participants of the auction to sign which puts a legal limit on what they can say about the process once they’re involved — which, in turn, is a problematic element that another European search rival, Qwant, has also complained is unfair… )

“We don’t have any choice left, other than to participate,” adds Kroll. “Because we want to have access to the Android platform. So basically Google has successfully bullied everyone to play to its own rules — and it’s a game where Google is not only the referee but also they get a free ticket and they are also players…

“Somehow Google magically convinced the public but I think also the European Commission that they need to generate revenue in an auction because they have so many costs through the Android development and so on. It is of course true that they have costs… but they are also generating massive profit through the deals that they then make with the device makers and those profits are not at all shared.”

Kroll points out that Google shells out a (reported) $12BN per year to be the default search engine in Safari on Apple’s iOS platform — even as it pays nothing to get in front of the vast majority of mobile searchers’ eyeballs via Android (and does the same with Chrome).

“If they would pay the same amount of money for those platform they would soon be bankrupt,” he argues. “So they are getting all this for free and they are also getting other benefits for free — like having the Play Store preinstalled, like having Google Maps preinstalled, YouTube preinstalled and so on — which are all revenue sources. But they’re not sharing any of those revenue. They just try to outsource all of the costs that they have to their competitors, which is I think very unfair.”

While Alphabet, Google’s parent entity, doesn’t break out Google Play revenue specifically from within a generic “advertising” bucket when it reports its financials, data from SensorTower for the first half of 2020 suggests it generated $17.3BN in Play Store revenue alone over this six-month period, up 21% year-over-year. And Play is just one of the moneyspinners Google derives via ‘free’ Android.

Since the Commission’s antitrust 2018 decision against Android Kroll argues that nothing has changed for search competitors like Ecosia which are trying to offer consumers a more interesting value exchange for their clicks.

“What Google is doing very successfully is they’re just playing on time,” he suggests. “Our competitor, Cliqz, already went bankrupt because of that. So the strategy seems to work really well for Google. And we also can’t afford to lose access to those platforms… I really hope that the European Commission will actually do something about this because it has been done successfully in the Microsoft case and we just need exactly the same.”

Kroll also flags DuckDuckGo’s design suggestions for “a fair choice screen” — which we covered here last year but which Google (and the Commission) have so far simply ignored.

He suspects regulators are waiting to see how the market looks in another year or more. But of course by then it may be too late to save more alternative search engines from a Cliqz-style demise, thereby further strengthening Google’s position. Which would obviously be the opposite of an antitrust remedy.

Commissioner Margrethe Vestager already conceded last year that another of her interventions against the tech giant — the Google AdSense antitrust case — is an example of “enforcement that hasn’t succeeded because it has failed to restore competition”. So if she’s not careful her record on failed remedies could dent her high profile reputation for being an antitrust chief who’s at least willing to take on tech giants. Where competition is concerned, it must be all about outcomes — or what are you even doing as claimed law ‘enforcers’?

“I always fear that the point might come when big corporates are more powerful than our public institutions and I’m wondering if this point isn’t already reached,” adds Kroll, positing that it’s not clear whether the EU — as an economic and political project now facing plenty of its own issues — will have enough resilience to be able to enforce its own competition law in the near future. So really his key point is: If not now, when? (Or, well, how?)

It’s certainly true that there’s a growing disconnect between what the Commission is saying around competition policy and digital markets — where it’s alive to the critique that regulatory interventions need to be able to move much faster if they’re to prevent monopoly power irreversibly tipping these markets (it’s currently consulting on whether to give itself greater powers of intervention) — and its hands-off approach to how to remedy market failure. tl;dr there’s no effective enforcement without effective remedies. So dropping the ball after the fact of a decision really defeats the whole operation.

Vestager clearly recognizes there’s a problem in the digital context — telling the EU parliament last year: “We have to consider remedies that are much more far reaching”. (Albeit, still not committing to having much more far reaching remedies.) Yet in parallel she preaches ‘wait and see’ as her overarching philosophy — a policy ‘push-pull’ which seems to be preventing the unit from even entertaining taking on a more agile, active and iterative role in supporting markets towards actual restoration of competition. At least not before a lengthy consultation exercise which further kicks the can,

If EU lawmakers can’t learn the lessons from their own relatively recent digital antitrust history (Microsoft tying IE to Windows) to effectively enforce what is a pretty straightforwardly similar antitrust case (Google tying search & its other services to Android), you have to question why they think they need new antitrust tools to properly tackle digital monopolies now. Given they don’t seem able to effectively wield the tools they’ve already got.

It does rather look increasingly like the current crop of EU regulators have lost conviction — and/or fallen prey to risk aversion — in the face of platform power moves. (To wit: There are whispers the Commission is preparing to wave through Google’s acquisition of Fitbit, on paper-thin promises from Google, despite major concerns raised about privacy and increased data consolidation — which, if true, would again mean the Commission ignoring its own recent history of naively swallowing other similar tech giant claims.)

“My feeling is, what has happened in the Microsoft case… there was just somebody in the Commission crazy enough to say this is what the decision is and you have to do it… And maybe it just takes those kind of guts. That’s then maybe a political question. Is Vestager willing to really pick those battles?” asks Kroll.

“My feeling is if people really understand the situation then they would care but you actually need to do a little bit of explaining that it’s not good to have a dominant player that is in such an important sector like search, and that is basically shutting down the market for everybody else.”

Asked what his message is for the US lawmakers now actively eyeing antitrust concerns around Google — and indeed much of big tech — Kroll says: “I’m a fan of competition and I also admire Google; I think Google is a very clever company but I think there is a point reached where there’s so much concentration of power that it gets dangerous for society… We’ve been suffering quite a lot from all the dominance that Google has in the various sectors. There are just things that Google are doing that are obviously anticompetitive.”

One specific thing he suggests regulators take a close look at is how much money Google pays Apple to be the default search option on Safari. “It’s paying more money than it can actually afford to win the Safari search volume — that I think is very anticompetitive,” he argues. “They already own two-thirds of the market and they basically buy whatever’s left over so that they can just cement their dominance.

“The regulators should have a very close look at that and disallow Google to participate in any of those bids for default positions in other browsers in the future. I think that would even be beneficial for browsers because in the long term there would finally be competition for those spots again. Currently Google’s just winning them because they’re running out of options and there are not many other search providers left to choose from.”

He also argues they need to make Google repair “some of the damage they’ve done” — i.e. as a result of unfairly gaining marketshare — by enforcing what he calls “a really fair choice screen”; non-paid and based on relevance for users. And by doing so on Android and Chrome devices. 

“I think until a year ago if you visited Google.com with your Safari browser or Firefox browser then Google would recommend to install Chrome. And for me that’s a clear abuse of one dominant position to support another part of your company,” he argues. “Google needs to repair that and that needs to happen very quickly — because otherwise other companies might [go out of business].”

“We’re still doing okay but we have been hit heavily by corona and we have a huge loss in revenue. Other companies might be hit even worse, I don’t know. And we don’t have the same deep pockets that the big players have. So other companies might disappear if nothing’s done soon,” he adds. 

We reached out to Google and the European Commission for comment.

A Google spokesperson pointed us to its FAQ about the auction. In further remarks which they specified could not be directly quoted they claimed an auction is a fair and objective method of determining how to fill available slots, adding that the revenue generated via the auction helps Google continue to invest in developing and maintaining Android.

While a spokeswoman for the Commission told us it has been “discussing” the choice screen mechanism with Google, following what she described as “relevant feedback from the market, in particular in relation to the presentation and mechanics of the choice screen and to the selection mechanism of rival search providers”.

The spokeswoman also reiterated earlier comments, that the Commission is continuing to monitor Google’s choice screen implementation and is “committed to a full and effective implementation of the decision”.

However a source familiar with the matter said EU lawmakers view paid premium placement for a few cents as far superior to what Google was offering rivals before — i.e. no visibility at all — and thus take the view that that something is better than nothing.

#advertising-tech, #alphabet, #android, #antitrust, #apple, #berlin, #big-tech, #chrome, #chrome-os, #cliqz, #competition-law, #duckduckgo, #ecosia, #europe, #european-commission, #european-union, #fitbit, #google, #ios, #margrethe-vestager, #microsoft, #microsoft-windows, #operating-systems, #play-store, #policy, #privacy, #qwant, #safari, #search-engine, #search-engines, #smartphones, #tc, #united-states

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This early Facebook investor wants to find smart students a job at the next Facebook

For many college seniors, school is a time for self-exploration, considering options, leisurely contemplating the future.

Yet that’s rarely the case for computer engineering students who either attend the world’s best universities or rise to the very top of their classes. Almost immediately after choosing their courses during the first week of school, they typically find themselves at their college career fair, wondering if they should interview with the likes of Google or Facebook . More, when they do, they often receive an offer with a signing bonus and often with a 48-hour exploding deadline.

The perception is that saying no means becoming forever blacklisted by that outfit. But serial founder turned investor Ali Partovi — who has enjoyed success over his career with, and alongside, twin brother Hadi  — insists it’s smoke and mirrors. “There are only so many great students graduating, and there are way, way, way more jobs to be filled than there are CS graduates. Like, the students should be giving the companies deadlines.”

To get out that message — that students have options and needn’t allow big tech companies to narrow these prematurely — Partovi is organizing something new. Through his four-year-old networking organization, Neo, and its associated venture fund, he is staging a kind of virtual matchmaking extravaganza on August 8 that introduces students to an entirely different kind of opportunity.

Called Neo Startup Connect, the idea is to introduce students who Neo has itself vetted to fast-growing — but stable — companies like the design software Figma, which just announced $50 million in Series D funding last week.

Partovi thinks there are opportunities to learn a wider number of things at companies like have closer to 100 people than 45,000 (Facebook) or even 120,000 (Google). He also maintains that there’s a world of startups that students might find more aligned with their interests, if only they knew more about them.

“Every day, I’ll be talking to a someone who is a top student from, let’s say, Princeton, and this person tells me that she’s passionate about health care and machine learning, and she has a job offer to join Goldman Sachs. And I’ll be like, ‘Why would you go join a bank or a hedge fund?’”

Partovi says he’s worried that not enough students are “doing something that’s adventurous or maximizing their potential and instead going the safe route.” Connecting them to earlier-stage companies is his way of countering the trend.

Of course, it’s in Partovi’s interests to foster all of these connections. In fact, Neo Startup Connect is a natural offshoot of what Neo has been working on in recent years, which is trying to identify the most talented engineering talent coming out of schools and promising to invest in anything the students might launch later on based on the belief that they’ll invariably become successful. The approach that has become more widespread throughout Silicon Valley, but it means playing the long game. With Neo Startup Connect, Partovi can have a more immediate impact on someone’s future, as well as strengthen Neo’s relationships to companies that Neo has either backed in the past or might like to back in the future.

In addition to Figma, some companies participating in the event include Forethought, a past TechCrunch Battlefield winner whose AI systems boost customer support productivity; and Notion, a buzzy maker of collaboration software that announced $50 million in funding at the start of the month and counts famed angel investor Ram Shriram as an early backer. None are backed by Neo.

Other participants that have received funding from Neo include the on-demand trucking platform Convoy, which closed on $400 million in Series D funding late last year; Bubble, a no-code point-and-click programming tool that has disclosed just $6.25 million in seed funding to date; and the AI chip company Luminous, which last year raised $9 million in seed funding, including from Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, Uber cofounder Travis Kalanick, and current Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi (who happens to be Partovi’s first cousin).

As for the advantage to the students themselves, Neo is promising to not only widen their eyes and their opportunity set, but to make the application process easier by first screening them itself using a coding assessment program used by Quora and other companies, as well as through in-person interviews. (These will be conducted by Partovi, along with a “mix of seasoned veterans from the Neo community,” he says.)

Whether that screening process fully satisfies participating companies is a question mark. For example, Kris Rasmussen, the vice president of engineering at Figma, says via email that while Neo “does a great job of surfacing highly qualified candidates for us from their community,” he adds that “all Figma candidates go through the same technical interview process.”

In other words, there are no shortcuts.

Neo’s definitely endorsement counts for something, however. Partovi is highly networked. He also a solid track record of investing in talented founders, including Mark Zuckerberg and Drew Houston of Dropbox.

“I’ve come to trust that when Ali has vetted someone, they’re going to be world-class in terms of both IQ and EQ,” says Deon Nicholas, the CEO of Forethought, who said participating in the August event is a “no-brainer. The only hard part is to make sure [the participating students] don’t take offers from Google.”

Which raises the question of whether it’s so terrible to start a career with a tech giant in the first place.

Partovi himself interned at Microsoft as a Harvard student, then bounced between Oracle and a tech startup after graduating. Nicholas worked for some sizable companies, too, including Dropbox and Pure Storage.

Not to put too fine a point on things, but Rasmussen also worked for Microsoft straight out of college, though he spent less than a year with the corporate behemoth. Asked over email if he regretted logging time with the company before heading into the startup world and eventually to Figma, he skipped over the question.

Is it possible — we ask Partovi —  that freshly minted college graduates can learn a lot from inside a big company, including how that company works with startups (useful information to know if the intention is to start a company some day)?

Is it possible the credential boosts their earning potential? Gives them more options?

Partovi says he “won’t argue” with any of these questions. “Different paths are right for different individuals — from a corporate job, to joining a startup, to starting your own.”

Unfortunately,” he continues, “even for the most entrepreneurial, top-performing students, the startup path has systemic impediments. It’s unmapped, unguided, intimidating, and has structural obstacles.” If Neo can help remove these obstacles so those engineers can succeed on the startup path, he’ll have succeeded.

In a world where big companies continue to absorb the best talent, often via exploding offer letters — and potentially at the expense of newer upstarts that might grow and thrive and perhaps even outgrow them at some point — society might also benefit from a little intervention in the way things currently work.

It might not be such a gamble, in any case. According to one former recruiter for Google, most candidates who turn down the company stay on its radar.

In some cases, it will keep trying to hire them for the rest of their lives.

(Note: If you’re a student who is interested in participating in Neo Startup Connect, the outfit opened registration today and will be screening candidates through the end of June. Partovi says the plan is to accept and try place roughly 150 individuals.)

#ali-partovi, #big-tech, #facebook, #figma, #forethought, #neo, #notion, #recruiting, #tc, #venture-capital

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