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April 21, 2019
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Google starts rolling out better AMP URLs

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Publishers don’t always love Google’s AMP pages, but readers surely appreciate their speed, and while publishers are loath to give Google more power, virtually every major site now supports this format. One AMP quirk that publisher’s definitely never liked is about to go away, though. Starting today, when you use Google Search and click on an AMP link, the browser will display the publisher’s real URLs instead of an “http//google.com/amp” link.

This move has been in the making for well over a year. Last January, the company announced that it was embarking on a multi-month effort to load AMP pages from the Google AMP cache without displaying the Google URL.

At the core of this effort was the new Web Packaging standard, which uses signed exchanges with digital signatures to let the browser trust a document as if it belongs to a publisher’s origin. By default, a browser should reject scripts in a web page that try to access data that doesn’t come from the same origin. Publishers will have to do a bit of extra work, and publish both signed and un-signed versions of their stories.

 

Quite a few publishers already do this, given that Google started alerting publishers of this change in November 2018. For now, though, only Chrome supports the core features behind this service, but other browsers will likely add support soon, too.

For publishers, this is a pretty big deal, given that their domain name is a core part of their brand identity. Using their own URL also makes it easier to get analytics, and the standard grey bar that sits on top of AMP pages and shows the site you are on now isn’t necessary anymore because the name will be in the URL bar.

To launch this new feature, Google also partnered with Cloudflare, which launched its AMP Real URL feature today. It’ll take a bit before it will roll out to all users, who can then enable it with a single click. With this, the company will automatically sign every AMP page it sends to the Google AMP cache. For the time being, that makes Cloudflare the only CDN that supports this feature, though others will surely follow.

“AMP has been a great solution to improve the performance of the internet and we were eager to work with the AMP Project to help eliminate one of AMP’s biggest issues — that it wasn’t served from a publisher’s perspective,” said Matthew Prince, co-founder and CEO of Cloudflare. “As the only provider currently enabling this new solution, our global scale will allow publishers everywhere to benefit from a faster and more brand-aware mobile experience for their content.”

 

News Source = techcrunch.com

eMarketer predicts digital ads will overtake traditional spending in 2019

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This is the year when the money spent on digital advertising will finally overtake spending on traditional ads — at least according to the latest forecast from eMarketer.

The research firm is predicting that U.S. digital ad spend will increase 19.1 percent this year, to $129.3 billion, while traditional advertising will fall 19 percent, to $109.5 billion. That means digital will account for 54.2 percent of the total, while traditional will only represent 45.8 percent.

Not surprisingly, most of the digital ad money is going to Google and Facebook . However, eMarketer says Google’s share of the market will actually decline, from 38.2 percent last year to 37.2 percent this year, and Facebook’s share will only grow slightly, from 21.8 percent to 22.1 percent.

Apparently, Amazon is the main beneficiary here, with its U.S. ad business set to expand by more than 50 percent, accounting for 8.8 percent of total spend.

“The [Amazon] platform is rich with shoppers’ behavioral data for targeting and provides access to purchase data in real-time,” said eMarketer forecasting director Monica Peart in a statement. “This type of access was once only available through the retail partner, to share at their discretion. But with Amazon’s suite of sponsored ads, marketers have unprecedented access to the ‘shelves’ where consumers are shopping.”

The firm also forecasts that by 2023, digital will account for more than two-thirds of total ad spending.

News Source = techcrunch.com

2018 really was more of a dumpster fire for online hate and harassment, ADL study finds

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Around 37 percent of Americans were subjected to severe hate and harassment online in 2018, according to a new study by the Anti-Defamation League, up from about 18 percent in 2017. And over half of all Americans experienced some form of harassment according to the ADL study.

Facebook users bore the brunt of online harassment on social networking sites according to the ADL study, with around 56 percent of survey respondents indicating that at least some of their harassment occurred on the platform. — unsurprising given Facebook’s status as the dominant social media platform in the U.S.

Around 19 percent of people said they experienced severe harassment on Twitter (only 19 percent? That seems low); while 17 percent reported harassment on YouTube; 16 percent on Instagram; and 13 percent on WhatsApp .

Chart courtesy of the Anti-Defamation League

In all, the blue ribbon standards for odiousness went to Twitch, Reddit, Facebook and Discord, when the ADL confined their surveys to daily active users. nearly half of all daily users on Twitch have experienced harassment, the report indicated. Around 38% of Reddit users, 37% of daily Facebook users, and 36% of daily Discord users reported being harassed.

“It’s deeply disturbing to see how prevalent online hate is, and how it affects so many Americans,” said ADL chief executive Jonathan A. Greenblatt. “Cyberhate is not limited to what’s solely behind a screen; it can have grave effects on the quality of everyday lives – both online and offline. People are experiencing hate and harassment online every day and some are even changing their habits to avoid contact with their harassers.”

And the survey respondents seem to think that online hate makes people more susceptible to committing hate crimes, according to the ADL.

The ADL also found that most Americans want policymakers to strengthen laws and improve resources for police around cyberbullying and cyberhate. Roughly 80 percent said they wanted to see more action from lawmakers.

Even more Americans, or around 84 percent, think that the technology platforms themselves need to do more work to curb the harassment, hate, and hazing they see on social applications and websites.

As for the populations that were most at risk to harassment and hate online, members of the LGBTQ community were targeted most frequently, according to the study. Some 63 percent of people identifying as LGBTQ+ said they were targeted for online harassment because of their identity.

“More must be done in our society to lessen the prevalence of cyberhate,” said Greenblatt. “There are key actions every sector can take to help ensure more Americans are not subjected to this kind of behavior. The only way we can combat online hate is by working together, and that’s what ADL is dedicated to doing every day.”

The report also revealed that cyberbullying had real consequences on user behavior. Of the survey respondents 38 percent stopped, reduced or changed online activities, and 15 percent took steps to reduce risks to their physical safety.

Interviews for the survey were conducted between Dec. 17 to Dec. 27, 2018 by the public opinion and data analysis company YouGov, and was conducted by the ADL’s Center for Technology and Society. The non-profit admitted that it oversampled for respondents who identified as Jewish, Muslim, African American, Asian AMerican or LGBTQ+ to “understand the experiences of individuals who may be especially targeted because of their group identity.”

The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, according to a statement from the ADL.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Is Europe closing in on an antitrust fix for surveillance technologists?

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The German Federal Cartel Office’s decision to order Facebook to change how it processes users’ personal data this week is a sign the antitrust tide could at last be turning against platform power.

One European Commission source we spoke to, who was commenting in a personal capacity, described it as “clearly pioneering” and “a big deal”, even without Facebook being fined a dime.

The FCO’s decision instead bans the social network from linking user data across different platforms it owns, unless it gains people’s consent (nor can it make use of its services contingent on such consent). Facebook is also prohibited from gathering and linking data on users from third party websites, such as via its tracking pixels and social plugins.

The order is not yet in force, and Facebook is appealing, but should it come into force the social network faces being de facto shrunk by having its platforms siloed at the data level.

To comply with the order Facebook would have to ask users to freely consent to being data-mined — which the company does not do at present.

Yes, Facebook could still manipulate the outcome it wants from users but doing so would open it to further challenge under EU data protection law, as its current approach to consent is already being challenged.

The EU’s updated privacy framework, GDPR, requires consent to be specific, informed and freely given. That standard supports challenges to Facebook’s (still fixed) entry ‘price’ to its social services. To play you still have to agree to hand over your personal data so it can sell your attention to advertisers. But legal experts contend that’s neither privacy by design nor default.

The only ‘alternative’ Facebook offers is to tell users they can delete their account. Not that doing so would stop the company from tracking you around the rest of the mainstream web anyway. Facebook’s tracking infrastructure is also embedded across the wider Internet so it profiles non-users too.

EU data protection regulators are still investigating a very large number of consent-related GDPR complaints.

But the German FCO, which said it liaised with privacy authorities during its investigation of Facebook’s data-gathering, has dubbed this type of behavior “exploitative abuse”, having also deemed the social service to hold a monopoly position in the German market.

So there are now two lines of legal attack — antitrust and privacy law — threatening Facebook (and indeed other adtech companies’) surveillance-based business model across Europe.

A year ago the German antitrust authority also announced a probe of the online advertising sector, responding to concerns about a lack of transparency in the market. Its work here is by no means done.

Data limits

The lack of a big flashy fine attached to the German FCO’s order against Facebook makes this week’s story less of a major headline than recent European Commission antitrust fines handed to Google — such as the record-breaking $5BN penalty issued last summer for anticompetitive behaviour linked to the Android mobile platform.

But the decision is arguably just as, if not more, significant, because of the structural remedies being ordered upon Facebook. These remedies have been likened to an internal break-up of the company — with enforced internal separation of its multiple platform products at the data level.

This of course runs counter to (ad) platform giants’ preferred trajectory, which has long been to tear modesty walls down; pool user data from multiple internal (and indeed external sources), in defiance of the notion of informed consent; and mine all that personal (and sensitive) stuff to build identity-linked profiles to train algorithms that predict (and, some contend, manipulate) individual behavior.

Because if you can predict what a person is going to do you can choose which advert to serve to increase the chance they’ll click. (Or as Mark Zuckerberg puts it: ‘Senator, we run ads.’)

This means that a regulatory intervention that interferes with an ad tech giant’s ability to pool and process personal data starts to look really interesting. Because a Facebook that can’t join data dots across its sprawling social empire — or indeed across the mainstream web — wouldn’t be such a massive giant in terms of data insights. And nor, therefore, surveillance oversight.

Each of its platforms would be forced to be a more discrete (and, well, discreet) kind of business.

Competing against data-siloed platforms with a common owner — instead of a single interlinked mega-surveillance-network — also starts to sound almost possible. It suggests a playing field that’s reset, if not entirely levelled.

(Whereas, in the case of Android, the European Commission did not order any specific remedies — allowing Google to come up with ‘fixes’ itself; and so to shape the most self-serving ‘fix’ it can think of.)

Meanwhile, just look at where Facebook is now aiming to get to: A technical unification of the backend of its different social products.

Such a merger would collapse even more walls and fully enmesh platforms that started life as entirely separate products before were folded into Facebook’s empire (also, let’s not forget, via surveillance-informed acquisitions).

Facebook’s plan to unify its products on a single backend platform looks very much like an attempt to throw up technical barriers to antitrust hammers. It’s at least harder to imagine breaking up a company if its multiple, separate products are merged onto one unified backend which functions to cross and combine data streams.

Set against Facebook’s sudden desire to technically unify its full-flush of dominant social networks (Facebook Messenger; Instagram; WhatsApp) is a rising drum-beat of calls for competition-based scrutiny of tech giants.

This has been building for years, as the market power — and even democracy-denting potential — of surveillance capitalism’s data giants has telescoped into view.

Calls to break up tech giants no longer carry a suggestive punch. Regulators are routinely asked whether it’s time. As the European Commission’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, was when she handed down Google’s latest massive antitrust fine last summer.

Her response then was that she wasn’t sure breaking Google up is the right answer — preferring to try remedies that might allow competitors to have a go, while also emphasizing the importance of legislating to ensure “transparency and fairness in the business to platform relationship”.

But it’s interesting that the idea of breaking up tech giants now plays so well as political theatre, suggesting that wildly successful consumer technology companies — which have long dined out on shiny convenience-based marketing claims, made ever so saccharine sweet via the lure of ‘free’ services — have lost a big chunk of their populist pull, dogged as they have been by so many scandals.

From terrorist content and hate speech, to election interference, child exploitation, bullying, abuse. There’s also the matter of how they arrange their tax affairs.

The public perception of tech giants has matured as the ‘costs’ of their ‘free’ services have scaled into view. The upstarts have also become the establishment. People see not a new generation of ‘cuddly capitalists’ but another bunch of multinationals; highly polished but remote money-making machines that take rather more than they give back to the societies they feed off.

Google’s trick of naming each Android iteration after a different sweet treat makes for an interesting parallel to the (also now shifting) public perceptions around sugar, following closer attention to health concerns. What does its sickly sweetness mask? And after the sugar tax, we now have politicians calling for a social media levy.

Just this week the deputy leader of the main opposition party in the UK called for setting up a standalone Internet regulatory with the power to break up tech monopolies.

Talking about breaking up well-oiled, wealth-concentration machines is being seen as a populist vote winner. And companies that political leaders used to flatter and seek out for PR opportunities find themselves treated as political punchbags; Called to attend awkward grilling by hard-grafting committees, or taken to vicious task verbally at the highest profile public podia. (Though some non-democratic heads of state are still keen to press tech giant flesh.)

In Europe, Facebook’s repeat snubs of the UK parliament’s requests last year for Zuckerberg to face policymakers’ questions certainly did not go unnoticed.

Zuckerberg’s empty chair at the DCMS committee has become both a symbol of the company’s failure to accept wider societal responsibility for its products, and an indication of market failure; the CEO so powerful he doesn’t feel answerable to anyone; neither his most vulnerable users nor their elected representatives. Hence UK politicians on both sides of the aisle making political capital by talking about cutting tech giants down to size.

The political fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal looks far from done.

Quite how a UK regulator could successfully swing a regulatory hammer to break up a global Internet giant such as Facebook which is headquartered in the U.S. is another matter. But policymakers have already crossed the rubicon of public opinion and are relishing talking up having a go.

That represents a sea-change vs the neoliberal consensus that allowed competition regulators to sit on their hands for more than a decade as technology upstarts quietly hoovered up people’s data and bagged rivals, and basically went about transforming themselves from highly scalable startups into market-distorting giants with Internet-scale data-nets to snag users and buy or block competing ideas.

The political spirit looks willing to go there, and now the mechanism for breaking platforms’ distorting hold on markets may also be shaping up.

The traditional antitrust remedy of breaking a company along its business lines still looks unwieldy when faced with the blistering pace of digital technology. The problem is delivering such a fix fast enough that the business hasn’t already reconfigured to route around the reset. 

Commission antitrust decisions on the tech beat have stepped up impressively in pace on Vestager’s watch. Yet it still feels like watching paper pushers wading through treacle to try and catch a sprinter. (And Europe hasn’t gone so far as trying to impose a platform break up.) 

But the German FCO decision against Facebook hints at an alternative way forward for regulating the dominance of digital monopolies: Structural remedies that focus on controlling access to data which can be relatively swiftly configured and applied.

Vestager, whose term as EC competition chief may be coming to its end this year (even if other Commission roles remain in potential and tantalizing contention), has championed this idea herself.

In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today program in December she poured cold water on the stock question about breaking tech giants up — saying instead the Commission could look at how larger firms got access to data and resources as a means of limiting their power. Which is exactly what the German FCO has done in its order to Facebook. 

At the same time, Europe’s updated data protection framework has gained the most attention for the size of the financial penalties that can be issued for major compliance breaches. But the regulation also gives data watchdogs the power to limit or ban processing. And that power could similarly be used to reshape a rights-eroding business model or snuff out such business entirely.

The merging of privacy and antitrust concerns is really just a reflection of the complexity of the challenge regulators now face trying to rein in digital monopolies. But they’re tooling up to meet that challenge.

Speaking in an interview with TechCrunch last fall, Europe’s data protection supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, told us the bloc’s privacy regulators are moving towards more joint working with antitrust agencies to respond to platform power. “Europe would like to speak with one voice, not only within data protection but by approaching this issue of digital dividend, monopolies in a better way — not per sectors,” he said. “But first joint enforcement and better co-operation is key.”

The German FCO’s decision represents tangible evidence of the kind of regulatory co-operation that could — finally — crack down on tech giants.

Blogging in support of the decision this week, Buttarelli asserted: “It is not necessary for competition authorities to enforce other areas of law; rather they need simply to identity where the most powerful undertakings are setting a bad example and damaging the interests of consumers.  Data protection authorities are able to assist in this assessment.”

He also had a prediction of his own for surveillance technologists, warning: “This case is the tip of the iceberg — all companies in the digital information ecosystem that rely on tracking, profiling and targeting should be on notice.”

So perhaps, at long last, the regulators have figured out how to move fast and break things.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Zimbabwe’s government faces off against its tech community over internet restrictions

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After days of intermittent blackouts at the order of the Zimbabwe’s Minister of State for National Security, ISPs have restored connectivity through a judicial order issued Monday.  

The cyber-affair adds Zimbabwe to a growing list of African countries—including Cameroon, Congo, and Ethiopia—whose governments have restricted internet expression in recent years.

The debacle demonstrates how easily internet access—a baseline for all tech ecosystems—can be taken away at the hands of the state.  

It also provides another case study for techies and ISPs regaining their cyber rights. Internet and social media are back up in Zimbabwe — at least for now.   

Protests lead to blackout

Similar to net shutdowns around the continent, politics and protests were the catalyst. Shortly after the government announced a dramatic increase in fuel prices on January 12, Zimbabwe’s Congress of Trade Unions called for a national strike.

Web and app blackouts in the Southern African country followed demonstrations that broke out in several cities. A government crackdown ensued with deaths reported.

“That began Monday [January 14]. A few demonstrations around the country become violent…Then on Tuesday morning there was a block on social media: Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp,” TechZim CEO Tinashe Nyahasha told TechCrunch on a call from Harare.

On January 15, Zimbabwe’s largest mobile carrier Econet Wireless confirmed via SMS and a message from founder Strive Masiyiwa that it had complied with a directive from the Minister of State for National Security to shutdown internet.

Net access was restored, taken down again, then restored, but social media sites remained blocked through January 21.

Data provided to TechCrunch from Oracle’s Internet Intelligence research unit confirm the net blackouts on January 16 and 18.

VPNs, government response

Throughout the restrictions, many of Zimbabwe’s citizens and techies resorted to VPNs and workarounds to access net and social media, according to Nyahasha.

Throughout the interruption TechZim ran updated stories on ways to bypass the cyber restrictions.

The Zimbabwean government’s response to the net shutdown started with denial—one minister referred to it as a congestion problem on local TV—to presidential spokesperson George Charamba invoking its necessity for national security reasons.

Then President Dambudzo Mnangawa took to Twitter to announce he would skip Davos meetings and return home to address the country’s unrest—a move panned online given his government’s restrictions on citizens using social media.    

The Embassy of Zimbabwe in Washington, DC and Ministry for ICT did not respond to TechCrunch inquiries on the country’s internet and app restrictions.

Court ruling, takeaways

On Monday this week, Zimbabwe’s high court ordered an end to any net restrictions, ruling only the country’s president, not the National Security Minister, could legally block the internet. Econet’s Zimbabwe Chief of Staff Lovemore Nyatsine and sources on the ground confirmed to TechCrunch that net and app access were back up Tuesday.  

Zimbabwe’s internet debacle created yet another obstacle for the country’s tech scene. The 2018 departure of 37–year President Robert Mugabe—a  hero to some and progress impeding dictator to others—sparked hope for the lifting of long-time economic sanctions on Zimbabwe and optimism for its startup scene.

Some of that has been dashed by subsequent political instability and worsening economic conditions since Mugabe’s departure, but not all of it, according to TechZim CEO Tinashe Nyahasha.   

“There was momentum and talk of people coming home and investing seed money. That’s slowed down…but that momentum is still there. It’s just not as fast as it could have been if the government had lived up to the expectations,” he said.  

Of the current macro-environment for Zimbabwe’s tech sector, “The truth is, it’s bad but it has been much worse,” Tinashe said

With calls for continued protests, Monday’s court ruling is likely not the last word on the internet face-off between the government and Zimbabwe’s ISPs and tech community.

Per the ruling, a decision to restrict net or apps will have to come directly from Zimbabwe’s president, who will weigh the pros and cons.

On a case by case basis, African governments may see the economic and reputational costs of internet shutdowns are exceeding whatever benefits they seek to achieve.

Cameroon’s 2017 shutdown, covered here by TechCrunch, cost businesses millions and spurred international condemnation when local activists created a  #BringBackOurInternet campaign that ultimately succeeded.

In the case of Zimbabwe, global internet rights group Access Now sprung to action, attaching its #KeepItOn hashtag to calls for the country’s government to reopen cyberspace soon after digital interference began.

Further attempts to restrict net and app access in Zimbabwe will likely revive what’s become a somewhat ironic cycle for cyber shutdowns. When governments cut off internet and social media access, citizens still find ways to use internet and social media to stop them.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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