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July 18, 2018
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Google gets slapped $5BN by EU for Android antitrust abuse

in Advertising Tech/Android/antitrust/Apps/competition commission/Delhi/eu/Europe/fairsearch/Google/Government/India/Margrethe Vestager/mobile/Politics/TC by

Google has been fined a record breaking €4.34 billion (~$5BN) by European antitrust regulators for abusing the dominance of its Android mobile operating system.

Competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager has tweeted to confirm the penalty ahead of a press conference about to take place. Stay tuned for more details as we get them.

In a longer statement about the decision, Vestager said: “Today, mobile internet makes up more than half of global internet traffic. It has changed the lives of millions of Europeans. Our case is about three types of restrictions that Google has imposed on Android device manufacturers and network operators to ensure that traffic on Android devices goes to the Google search engine. In this way, Google has used Android as a vehicle to cement the dominance of its search engine. These practices have denied rivals the chance to innovate and compete on the merits. They have denied European consumers the benefits of effective competition in the important mobile sphere. This is illegal under EU antitrust rules.”

In particular, the EC has decided that Google:

  • has required manufacturers to pre-install the Google Search app and browser app (Chrome), as a condition for licensing Google’s app store (the Play Store);
  • made payments to certain large manufacturers and mobile network operators on condition that they exclusively pre-installed the Google Search app on their devices; and
  • has prevented manufacturers wishing to pre-install Google apps from selling even a single smart mobile device running on alternative versions of Android that were not approved by Google (so-called “Android forks”).

The decision also concludes that Google is dominant in the markets for general internet search services; licensable smart mobile operating systems; and app stores for the Android mobile operating system.

Google has tweeted an initial reaction to the decision, claiming Android has created “a vibrant ecosystem, rapid innovation and lower prices”.

A company spokesperson also confirmed to us it will appeal the Commission’s decision.

This story is developing… refresh for updates… 

The fine is the second major penalty for the ad tech giant for breaching EU competition rules in just over a year — and the highest ever issued by the Commission for abuse of a dominant market position.

In June 2017 Google was hit with a then-record €2.4BN (~$2.7BN) antitrust penalty related to another of its products, search comparison service, Google Shopping. The company has since made changes to how it displays search results for products in Europe.

According to the bloc’s rules, companies can be fined 10 per cent of their global revenue if they are deemed to have breached European competition law.

Google’s parent entity Alphabet reported full year revenue of $110.9 billion in 2017. So the $5BN fine is around half of what the company could have been on the hook for if EU regulators had levied the maximum penalty possible.

The Commission said the size of the fine takes into account “the duration and gravity of the infringement”. It also specified it had been calculated on the basis of the value of Google’s revenue from search advertising services on Android devices in the European Economic Area (per its own guidelines on fines).

Google will have three months to pay the fine but is likely to appeal — and legal wrangling could drag the process out for many years. (Although if it does not pay the fine within that timeframe penalty payments of up to 5% of the average daily worldwide turnover of the company can be applied.)

Prior to the Commission’s record pair of fines for Google products, its next highest antitrust penalty is a €1.06BN antitrust fine for chipmaker Intel all the way back in 2009.

Yet only last year Europe’s top court ruled that the case against Intel — which focused on it offering rebates to high-volume buyers — should be sent back to a lower court to be re-examined, nearly a decade after the original antitrust decision. So Google’s lawyers are likely to have a spring in their step going into this next European antitrust battle.

The latest EU fine for Android has been on the cards for more than two years, given the Commission’s preliminary findings and consistently prescriptive remarks from Vestager during the course of what has been a multi-year investigation process.

And, indeed, given multiple EU antitrust investigations into Google businesses and business practices (the EU has also been probing Google’s AdSense advertising service).

The Commission’s prior finding that Google is a dominant company in Internet search — a judgement reached at the culmination of its Google Shopping investigation last year — is also important, making the final judgement in the Android case more likely because the status places the onus on Google not to abuse its dominant position in other markets, adjacent or otherwise.

Announcing the Google Shopping penality last summer, Vestager made a point of emphasizing that dominant companies “need to be more vigilant” — saying they have a “special responsibility” to ensure they are not in breach of antitrust rules, and also specifying this applies “in the market where it’s dominant” and “in any other market”. So that means — as here in the Android case — in mobile services too.

While a one-off financial penalty — even one that runs to so many billions of dollars — cannot cause lasting damage to a company as wealthy as Alphabet, of greater risk to its business are changes the regulators can require to how it operates Android which could have a sustained impact on Google if they end up reshaping the competitive landscape for mobile services.

At least that’s the Commission’s intention: To reset what has been judged an unfair competitive advantage for Google via Android, and foster competitive innovation because rival products get a fairer chance to impress consumers.

However the popularity and profile of Google services suggests that even if Android users are offered a choice as a result of an EU antirust remedy — such as of which search engine, maps service, mobile browser or even app store to use — most will likely pick the Google-branded offering they’re most familiar with.

That said, an antitrust remedy could have the chance to shift consumers’ habits over time — if, for instance, OEMs start offering Android devices that come preloaded with alternative mobile services, thereby raising the visibility of non-Google apps and services.

Interestingly, Google has been striking deals with Chinese OEMs in recent months — to brings its ARCore technology to markets where its core services are censored and its Play Store is restricted. And its strategy to workaround regional restrictions in China by working more closely with device makers may also be part of a plan to hedge against fresh regulatory restrictions being placed on Android elsewhere. 

Although complainants in the EU’s earlier Google Shopping antitrust case continue to express displeasure with the outcome on that front. And in a statement responding to news that another EU antitrust penalty was incoming for Android, Shivaun Raff, CEO of Foundem, the lead complainant in Google Shopping case, said: “Fines make headlines. Effective remedies make a difference.”

So the devil will be in the detail of the remedies.

 

Android as an antitrust ‘Trojan horse’

The European Commission announced its formal in-depth probe of Android in April 2015, saying then that it was investigating complaints Google was “requiring and incentivizing” OEMs to exclusively install its own services on devices on Android devices, and also examining whether Google was hindering the ability of smartphone and tablet makers to use and develop other OS versions of Android (i.e. by forking the open source platform).

Rivals — banding together under the banner ‘FairSearch‘ — complained Google was essentially using the platform as a ‘Trojan horse’ to unfairly dominate the mobile web. The lobby group’s listing on the EU’s transparency register describes its intent as promoting “innovation and choice across the Internet ecosystem by fostering and defending competition in online and mobile search within the European Union”, and names its member organizations as: Buscapé, Cepic, Foundem, Naspers, Nokia, Oracle, TripAdvisor and Yroo.

On average, Android has around a 70-75% smartphone marketshare across Europe. But in some European countries the OS accounts for an even higher proportion of usage. In Spain, for example, Android took an 86.1% marketshare as of March, according to market data collected by Kantar Worldpanel.

In recent years Android has carved an even greater market share in some European countries, while Google’s Internet search product also has around a 90% share of the European market, and competition concerns about its mobile OS have been sounded for years.

Last year Google reached a $7.8M settlement with Russian antitrust authorities over Android — which required the company to no longer demand exclusivity of its applications on Android devices in Russia; could not restrict the pre-installation of any competing search engines and apps, including on the home screen; could no longer require Google Search to be the only general search engine pre-installed.

Google also agreed with Russian antitrust authorities that it would no longer enforce its prior agreements where handset makers had agreed to any of these terms. Additionally, as part of the settlement, Google was required to allow third parties to include their own search engines into a choice window, and to allowing users to pick their preferred default search engine from a choice window displayed in Google’s Chrome browser. The company was also required to develop a new Chrome widget for Android devices already being used in Russia, to replace the standard Google search widget on the home screen so they would be offered a choice when it launched.

A year after Vestager’s public announcement of the EU’s antitrust probe of Android, she issued a formal Statement of Objections, saying the Commission believed Google has “implemented a strategy on mobile devices to preserve and strengthen its dominance in general Internet search”; and flagging as problematic the difficulty for Android users whose devices come pre-loaded with the Google Play store to use other app stores (which cannot be downloaded from Google Play).

She also raised concerns over Google providing financial incentives to manufacturers and mobile carriers on condition that Google search be pre-installed as the exclusive search provider. “In our opinion, as we see it right now, it is preventing competition from happening because of the strength of the financial incentive,” Vestager said in April 2016.

Google was given several months to respond officially to the antitrust charges against Android — which it finally did in November 2016, having been granted an extension to the Commission’s original deadline.

In its rebuttal then, Google argued that, contrary to antitrust complaints, Android had created a thriving and competitive mobile app ecosystem. It further claimed the EU was ignoring relevant competition in the form of Apple’s rival iOS platform — although iOS does not hold a dominant marketshare in Europe, nor Apple have a status as a dominant company in any EU markets.

Google also argued that its “voluntary compatibility agreements” for Android OEMs are a necessary mechanism for avoiding platform fragmentation — which it said would make life harder for app developers — as well as saying its requirement for Android OEMs to use Google search by default is effectively its payment for providing the suite for free to device makers (given there is no formal licensing fee for Android).

It also couched “free distribution is an efficient solution for everyone” — arguing it lowers prices for phone makers and consumers, while “still letting us sustain our substantial investment in Android and Play”.

In addition, Google sought to characterize open source platforms as “fragile” — arguing the Commission’s approach risked upsetting the “balance of needs” between users and developers, and suggesting their action could signal they favor “closed over open platforms”.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Google launches its first WeChat mini program as its China experiments continue

in Apps/Artificial Intelligence/Asia/China/Delhi/Google/India/Politics/TC/Tencent/WeChat by

Google is continuing to test new strategies in China after the U.S. search giant released its first mini program for WeChat, the country’s hugely popular messaging app.

WeChat is used by hundreds of millions of Chinese people daily for services that stretch beyond chat to include mobile payments, bill paying, food delivery and more. Tencent, the company that operates WeChat, added mini programs last year and they effectively operate like apps that are attached to the service. That means that users bypass Google Play or Apple’s App Store and install them from WeChat.

Earlier this year, Tencent added support for games — “mini games” — and the Chinese firm recently said that over one million mini programs have been created to date. Engagement is high, with some 500 million WeChat users interacting with at least one each month.

WeChat has become the key distribution channel in China and that’s why Google is embracing it with its first mini program — 猜画小歌, a game that roughly translates to ‘Guess My Sketch.’ There’s no English announcement but the details can be found in this post on Google’s Chinese blog, which includes the QR code to scan to get the game.

The app is a take on games like Zynga’s Draw Something, which puts players into teams to guess what the other is drawing. Google, however, is adding a twist. Each player teams up with an AI and then battles against their friends and their AIs. You can find an English version of the game online here.

Google’s first WeChat mini program is a sketching game that uses AI

The main news here isn’t the game, of course, but that Google is embracing mini programs, which have been christened as a threat to the Google Play Store itself.

‘When in China… play by local rules’ and Google has taken that to heart this year.

The company recently introduced a Chinese version of its Files Go Android device management app which saw it join forces with four third-party app stores in China in order to gain distribution. This sketching game has lower ambitions but, clearly, it’ll be a learning experience for Google that might prompt it to introduce more significant apps or services via WeChat in the future.

Indeed, Google has been cozying up to Tencent lately after inking a patent deal with the Chinese internet giant, investing in its close ally JD.com and combining on investment deals together, including biotech startup XtalPi.

That’s one side of a new initiative to be more involved in China, where it has been absent since 2010 after redirecting its Chinese search service to Hong Kong in the face of government pressure. In other moves, it has opened an AI lab in Beijing and a more modest office in Shenzhen while it is bringing its startup demo day event to China for the first time with a Shanghai event in September.

Finally, in a touch of irony, Google’s embrace of WeChat’s ‘app store-killing’ mini programs platform comes just hours before the EU is expected to levy a multibillion-euro penalty onit for abusing its dominant position on mobile via Android.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Dems and GOP unite, slamming Facebook for allowing violent Pages

in Apps/Censorship/conspiracy theories/Delhi/Facebook/fake news/Google/Government/house of representatives/India/infowars/Opinion/Policy/Politics/Social/YouTube by

In a rare moment of agreement, members of the House Judiciary Committee from both major political parties agreed that Facebook needed to take down Pages that bullied shooting survivors or called for more violence. The hearing regarding social media filtering practices saw policy staffers from Facebook, Google and Twitter answering questions, though Facebook absorbed the brunt of the ire. The hearing included Republican Representative Steve King ask “What about converting the large behemoth organizations that we’re talking about here into public utilities?”

The meatiest part of the hearing centered on whether social media platforms should delete accounts of conspiracy theorists and those inciting violence, rather than just removing the offending posts.

The issue has been a huge pain point for Facebook this week after giving vague answers for why it hasn’t deleted known faker Alex Jones’ Infowars Page, and tweeting that “We see Pages on both the left and the right pumping out what they consider opinion or analysis – but others call fake news.” Facebook’s Head of Global Policy Management Monica Bickert today reiterated that “sharing information that is false does not violate our policies.”

As I detailed in this opinion piece, I think the right solution is to quarantine the Pages of Infowars and similar fake news, preventing their posts or shares of links to their web domain from getting any visibility in the News Feed. But deleting the Page without instances of it directly inciting violence would make Jones a martyr and strengthen his counterfactual movement. Deletion should be reserved for those that blatantly encourage acts of violence.

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) asked about how Infowars’ claims in YouTube videos that Parkland shooting’s survivors were crisis actors squared with the company’s policy. Google’s Global Head of Public Policy and Government Relations for YouTube Juniper Downs explained that “We have a specific policy that says that if you say a well-documented violent attack didn’t happen and you use the name or image of the survivors or victims of that attack, that is a malicious attack and it violates our policy.” She noted that YouTube has a “three strikes” policy, it is “demoting low-quality content and promoting more authoritative content,” and it’s now showing boxes atop result pages for problematic searches, like “is the earth flat?” with facts to dispel conspiracies.

Facebook’s answer was much less clear. Bickert told Deutch that “We do use a strikes model. What that means is that if a Page, or profile, or group is posting content and some of that violates our polices, we always remove the violating posts at a certain point” (emphasis mine). That’s where Facebook became suddenly less transparent.

“It depends on the nature of the content that is violating our policies. At a certain point we would also remove the Page, or the profile, or the group at issue,” Bickert continued. Deutch then asked how many strikes conspiracy theorists get. Bickert noted that “crisis actors” claims violate its policy and its removes that content. “And we would continue to remove any violations from the Infowars Page.” But regarding Page-level removals, she got wishy-washy, saying, “If they posted sufficient content that it would violate our threshold, then the page would come down. The threshold varies depending on the different types of violations.”

“The threshold varies”

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) gave the conservatives’ side of the same argument, citing two posts by the Facebook Page “Milkshakes Against The Republican Party” that called for violence, including one that saying “Remember the shooting at the Republican baseball game? One of those should happen every week.”

While these posts have been removed, Gaetz asked why the Page hadn’t. Bickert noted that “There’s no place for any calls for violence on Facebook.” Regarding the threshold, she did reveal that “When someone posts an image of child sexual abuse imagery their account will come down right away. There are different thresholds for different violations.” But she repeatedly refused to make a judgement call about whether the Page should be removed until she could review it with her team.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Showing surprising alignment in such a fractured political era, Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin of Florida said “I’m agreeing with the chairman about this and I think we arrived at the same exact same place when we were taking about at what threshold does Infowars have their Page taken down after they repeatedly denied the historical reality of massacres of children in public school.”

Facebook can’t rely on a shadowy “the threshold varies” explanation any more. It must outline exactly what types of violations incur not only post removal but strikes against their authors. Perhaps that’s something like “one strike for posts of child sexual abuse, three posts for inciting violence, five posts for bullying victims or denying documented tragedies occurred, and unlimited posts of less urgently dangerous false information.”

Whatever the specifics, Facebook needs to provide specifics. Until then, both liberals and conservatives will rightly claim that enforcement is haphazard and opaque.

For more from today’s hearing:

News Source = techcrunch.com

Google’s new ‘Grab and Go’ project helps business loan Chromebooks to their employees

in chrome os/chromebook/computing/Delhi/Enterprise/Google/India/Politics/spokesperson/TC by

At Google, the company offers a ‘Grab and Go’ program that allows employees to use self-service stations to quickly borrow and return Chromebooks without having to go through a lengthy IT approval process. Now, it’s bringing this same idea to other businesses.

Chromebooks have found their place in education and a number of larger enterprise companies are also getting on board with the idea of a centrally managed device that mostly focuses on the browser. That’s maybe no surprise, given that both schools and enterprises are pretty much looking for the same thing from these devices.

At Google, the system has seen more than 30,000 users that have completed more than 100,000 loans so far.

While Google wants others to run similar programs (and use more Chromebooks in the process) it’s worth noting that this is a limited preview program and that Google isn’t building and selling racks or other infrastructure for this. As a Google spokesperson told us, Google will give companies that want to try this the open source code to build this system and advise them through the setup and deployment. It will also engage with partners to help them build the hardware or set up a ‘Grab and Go’ as a service system.

Employees who want to use one of these ‘Grab and Go’ stations simply pick up a laptop, sign in and move on with their day. When they are done, they simply return the laptop. That’s it. Easy.

That’s not quite as exciting as Google building and selling racks of Chromebooks, but this project is clearly another move to bring Chromebooks to the enterprise. Specifically, Google says that this program is meant for frontline workers who only need devices for a short period of time, as well as shift workers and remote workers.

News Source = techcrunch.com

The Google Assistant app will walk you through your day

in Apps/Assistant/Delhi/Google/Google Assistant/India/Politics by

Google’s Assistant app mostly functions as a surrogate for its line of connected Home devices. But what about all of that information it’s aggregating? The company will start putting that to use, providing a “visual snapshot” of the day to come.

The new feature, rolling out to the app on Android and iOS today, pulls in a bunch of relevant information from across Google services, including calendar, reminders, stocks, package deliveries, flights, restaurant/movie reservations and suggested Actions. It also provides travel times to and from appointments to offer up a better idea of when to leave.

More features will be rolling out soon, including notes from Google Keep,  Any.do, Bring and Todoist, along with parking reminders, nearby activities and recommendations for music and podcasts. In other words, the Google Assistant app is angling to become your one stop shop for — well, basically ever single thing you do in a given day.

While Amazon’s Alexa play has been centered around commerce, it’s pretty clear that Google’s in it for the same reason as always: information. Using a voice controlled smart speaker is yet another way to gather all of that data from a user, and now it’s being out to use in a single spot.

It’s an obvious play — and an important reminder of just how much information these companies have on us at a given time.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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