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February 23, 2019
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‘There’s no way the US can crush us,’ Huawei founder claims

in Asia/Australia/Beijing/Canada/ceo/CFO/Delhi/huawei/India/Iran/Japan/Meng Wanzhou/New Zealand/Politics/Ren Zhengfei/smartphones/telecommunications/The Financial Times/Translator/U.S. government/United Kingdom/United States/Vodafone by

Huawei’s founder has come out fighting against the U.S. government after he claimed that “there’s no way the US can crush us.”

Ren Zhengfei, who founded the telecom company in 1987, doesn’t often make public statements, but, in a rare interview with the BBC, he defiantly claimed that Huawei’s business is growing stronger amid pressure from the U.S. government, which is pursuing criminal charges over alleged business dealings in Iran. Under those charges, CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested during a trip to Canada.

“The world needs Huawei because we are more advanced. Even if they persuade more countries not to use us temporarily, we could just scale things down a little bit,” Ren told the BBC via a translator. “Because the U.S. keeps targeting us and finding fault with us, it has forced us to improve our products and services.”

Ren called the arrest of Meng — his daughter, who may be extradited to the U.S. — a “politically-motivated act [that] is not acceptable.”

“There’s no impact on Huawei’s business due to Meng Wanzhou’s loss of freedom, in fact, we are growing even faster,” he said. “They may have thought that if they’ve arrested her, Huawei would fall but we didn’t fall. We are still moving forward.”

In a rare interview, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei spoke to the BBC about pressure from the US government and the arrest of his daughter, the company’s CEO, in Canada

Legislation bans the government and contractors from using Huawei kit — which includes a range networking equipment and infrastructure tech as well as smartphones — but the U.S. has also sought to convince its international allies to follow suit. Australia, New Zealand and Japan have done so, the latter banned ZTE and Huawei equipment in December, while espionage heads from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.K. — fellow Five Eyes members — were said to have agreed to do so, too, at the end of 2018.

However, just this week, Huawei won a reprieve in the U.K. this week when the Financial Times reported that British intelligence chiefs believe that concerns around spying — the U.S. has accused Huawei of acting as a proxy to Beijing — can be managed. That could leave U.K. operators free to move ahead and work with the Chinese company to build out their 5G networks.

That apparent vote of confidence, which is in stark contrast to the U.S. position, could see Huawei double down on its efforts and presence in the U.K.

“We will continue to invest in the U.K, we still trust in the U.K. and we hope that the U.K. will trust us even more. We will invest even more in the U.K. because, if the U.S. doesn’t trust us, then we will shift our investment from the U.S. to the U.K. on an even bigger scale,” Ren told the BBC.

The U.K’s about-turn is something of a surprise. Pressure from the U.S. saw Vodafone pause purchases from Huawei while a government panel report published last year could “provide only limited assurance that any risks to UK national security from Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s critical networks have been sufficiently mitigated.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Nissan’s old Leaf batteries can power this smart pop-up camper for one week

in Automotive/Cars/Delhi/India/microwave/Nissan/Opus/Politics/smartphones/transport/Transportation/United Kingdom by

Nissan has turned its old Leaf batteries into an off-grid camping companion.

The automaker’s Nissan Energy subsidiary worked with camper manufacturer Opus to create the ultimate “smart” pop-up trailer that integrates cells recovered from its first-generation electric vehicles to provide off-grid power. Add in one to two recharges of the accompanying 400W solar panel accessory and campers can listen to tunes and use their smartphones and other devices, including a microwave, for about 7 days, the companies said. The battery pack can be recharged by the solar panel in 2 to 4 hours.

The Nissan x OPUS concept camper debuted this week at the The Caravan, Camping and Motorhome Show in the UK. Inside the smart camper — code for LED lighting and USB sockets for charging — is a veritable glamping wonderland. You can almost smell the pour-over coffee.

Unlike many other concepts that debut at auto shows, components of the Nissan x OPUS are actually coming to market. The Air Opus is already available with a base price of £15,995 (a bit more than $20,000). The Nissan Energy ROAM product will launch in European markets later this year. Pricing for the ROAM wasn’t immediately available.

This isn’t the first time Nissan’s ROAM unit has shown up in a concept product either. It was featured earlier this year in Nissan’s NV300 concept van designed for woodworkers. Nor is this Nissan’s first foray into the secondary battery market. In November, Nissan launched Nissan Energy to create an ecosystem for owners of its electric vehicles. The idea is for owners to be able to connect their cars with energy systems to charge their batteries, power homes and businesses or feed energy back to power grids. The company said at the time, that it will also develop new ways to reuse electric car batteries.

“The Nissan x OPUS concept is a real-world example of how Nissan Energy ROAM can integrate into our lifestyles – in this case the hugely popular leisure activity of camping,” Nissan Energy managing director Francisco Carranza said in a statement.

The concept pairs the Air Opus, a novel off-road pop-up camper that inflates in 90 seconds, with Nissan Energy’s portable power pack called ROAM. The ROAM unit is mounted in a special compartment at the front of the camper, where it can provide a power supply to both the 230-volt circuit and the 12-volt circuit. The battery pack can also be removed and recharged via a standard 230v domestic socket, or by plugging into a solar panel accessory.

The ROAM unit has a storage capacity of 700Wh and a power output for 1kW. That’s enough power to keep smartphones charged and the lights on. The Nissan x Opus camper has a 230v outlet, USB sockets, a 4G mobile WiFi hotspot for up to 10 devices; and even a digital projector with pull-up screen to watch movies. There’s also a 230v portable microwave and a two-burner gas stove and a fridge.

You can watch the marketing video here.

News Source = techcrunch.com

UK parliament calls for antitrust, data abuse probe of Facebook

in Advertising Tech/app developers/Artificial Intelligence/ashkan soltani/business model/Cambridge Analytica/competition law/data protection law/DCMS committee/Delhi/election law/Europe/Facebook/Federal Trade Commission/GSR/India/information commissioner's office/Mark Zuckerberg/Mike Schroepfer/Moscow/Policy/Politics/privacy/Russia/Security/Social/social media/social media platforms/United Kingdom/United States by

A final report by a British parliamentary committee which spent months last year investigating online political disinformation makes very uncomfortable reading for Facebook — with the company singled out for “disingenuous” and “bad faith” responses to democratic concerns about the misuse of people’s data.

In the report, published today, the committee has also called for Facebook’s use of user data to be investigated by the UK’s data watchdog.

In an evidence session to the committee late last year, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) suggested Facebook needs to change its business model — warning the company risks burning user trust for good.

Last summer the ICO also called for an ethical pause of social media ads for election campaigning, warning of the risk of developing “a system of voter surveillance by default”.

Interrogating the distribution of ‘fake news’

The UK parliamentary enquiry looked into both Facebook’s own use of personal data to further its business interests, such as by providing access to user data to developers and advertisers in order to increase revenue and/or usage; and examined what Facebook claimed as ‘abuse’ of its platform by the disgraced (and now defunct) political data company Cambridge Analytica — which in 2014 paid a developer with access to Facebook’s developer platform to extract information on millions of Facebook users in build voter profiles to try to influence elections.

The committee’s conclusion about Facebook’s business is a damning one with the company accused of operating a business model that’s predicated on selling abusive access to people’s data.

Far from Facebook acting against “sketchy” or “abusive” apps, of which action it has produced no evidence at all, it, in fact, worked with such apps as an intrinsic part of its business model,” the committee argues. This explains why it recruited the people who created them, such as Joseph Chancellor [the co-founder of GSR, the developer which sold Facebook user data to Cambridge Analytica]. Nothing in Facebook’s actions supports the statements of Mark Zuckerberg who, we believe, lapsed into “PR crisis mode”, when its real business model was exposed.

“This is just one example of the bad faith which we believe justifies governments holding a business such as Facebook at arms’ length. It seems clear to us that Facebook acts only when serious breaches become public. This is what happened in 2015 and 2018.”

“We consider that data transfer for value is Facebook’s business model and that Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that ‘we’ve never sold anyone’s data” is simply untrue’,” the committee also concludes.

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment on the committee’s report.

Last fall the company was issued the maximum possible fine under relevant UK data protection law for failing to safeguard user data from Cambridge Analytica saga. Although Facebook is appealing the ICO’s penalty, claiming there’s no evidence UK users’ data got misused.

During the course of a multi-month enquiry last year investigating disinformation and fake news, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee heard from 73 witnesses in 23 oral evidence sessions, as well as taking in 170 written submissions. In all the committee says it posed more than 4,350 questions.

Its wide-ranging, 110-page report makes detailed observations on a number of technologies and business practices across the social media, adtech and strategic communications space, and culminates in a long list of recommendations for policymakers and regulators — reiterating its call for tech platforms to be made legally liable for content.

Among the report’s main recommendations are:

  • clear legal liabilities for tech companies to act against “harmful or illegal content”, with the committee calling for a compulsory Code of Ethics overseen by a independent regulatory with statutory powers to obtain information from companies; instigate legal proceedings and issue (“large”) fines for non-compliance
  • privacy law protections to cover inferred data so that models used to make inferences about individuals are clearly regulated under UK data protection rules
  • a levy on tech companies operating in the UK to support enhanced regulation of such platforms
  • a call for the ICO to investigate Facebook’s platform practices and use of user data
  • a call for the Competition Markets Authority to comprehensively “audit” the online advertising ecosystem, and also to investigate whether Facebook specifically has engaged in anti-competitive practices
  • changes to UK election law to take account of digital campaigning, including “absolute transparency of online political campaigning” — including “full disclosure of the targeting used” — and more powers for the Electoral Commission
  • a call for a government review of covert digital influence campaigns by foreign actors (plus a review of legislation in the area to consider if it’s adequate) — including the committee urging the government to launch independent investigations of recent past elections to examine “foreign influence, disinformation, funding, voter manipulation, and the sharing of data, so that appropriate changes to the law can be made and lessons can be learnt for future elections and referenda”
  • a requirement on social media platforms to develop tools to distinguish between “quality journalism” and low quality content sources, and/or work with existing providers to make such services available to users

Among the areas the committee’s report covers off with detailed commentary are data use and targeting; advertising and political campaigning — including foreign influence; and digital literacy.

It argues that regulation is urgently needed to restore democratic accountability and “make sure the people stay in charge of the machines”.

Ministers are due to produce a White Paper on social media safety regulation this winter and the committee writes that it hopes its recommendations will inform government thinking.

“Much has been said about the coarsening of public debate, but when these factors are brought to bear directly in election campaigns then the very fabric of our democracy is threatened,” the committee writes. “This situation is unlikely to change. What does need to change is the enforcement of greater transparency in the digital sphere, to ensure that we know the source of what we are reading, who has paid for it and why the information has been sent to us. We need to understand how the big tech companies work and what happens to our data.”

The report calls for tech companies to be regulated as a new category “not necessarily either a ‘platform’ or a ‘publisher”, but which legally tightens their liability for harmful content published on their platforms.

Last month another UK parliamentary committee also urged the government to place a legal ‘duty of care’ on platforms to protect users under the age of 18 — and the government said then that it has not ruled out doing so.

“Digital gangsters”

Competition concerns are also raised several times by the committee.

“Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like ‘digital gangsters’ in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law,” the DCMS committee writes, going on to urge the government to investigate whether Facebook specifically has been involved in any anti-competitive practices and conduct a review of its business practices towards other developers “to decide whether Facebook is unfairly using its dominant market position in social media to decide which businesses should succeed or fail”. 

“The big tech companies must not be allowed to expand exponentially, without constraint or proper regulatory oversight,” it adds.

The committee suggests existing legal tools are up to the task of reining in platform power, citing privacy laws, data protection legislation, antitrust and competition law — and calling for a “comprehensive audit” of the social media advertising market by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority, and a specific antitrust probe of Facebook’s business practices.

“If companies become monopolies they can be broken up, in whatever sector,” the committee points out. “Facebook’s handling of personal data, and its use for political campaigns, are prime and legitimate areas for inspection by regulators, and it should not be able to evade all editorial responsibility for the content shared by its users across its platforms.”

The social networking giant was the recipient of many awkward queries during the course of the committee’s enquiry but it refused repeated requests for its founder Mark Zuckerberg to testify — sending a number of lesser staffers in his stead.

That decision continues to be seized upon by the committee as evidence of a lack of democratic accountability. It also accuses Facebook of having an intentionally “opaque management structure”.

“By choosing not to appear before the Committee and by choosing not to respond personally to any of our invitations, Mark Zuckerberg has shown contempt towards both the UK Parliament and the ‘International Grand Committee’, involving members from nine legislatures from around the world,” the committee writes.

“The management structure of Facebook is opaque to those outside the business and this seemed to be designed to conceal knowledge of and responsibility for specific decisions. Facebook used the strategy of sending witnesses who they said were the most appropriate representatives, yet had not been properly briefed on crucial issues, and could not or chose not to answer many of our questions. They then promised to follow up with letters, which—unsurprisingly—failed to address all of our questions. We are left in no doubt that this strategy was deliberate.”

It doubles down on the accusation that Facebook sought to deliberately mislead its enquiry — pointing to incorrect and/or inadequate responses from staffers who did testify.

“We are left with the impression that either [policy VP] Simon Milner and [CTO] Mike Schroepfer deliberately misled the Committee or they were deliberately not briefed by senior executives at Facebook about the extent of Russian interference in foreign elections,” it suggests.

In an unusual move late last year the committee used rare parliamentary powers to seize a cache of documents related to an active US lawsuit against Facebook filed by a developer called Six4Three.

The cache of documents is referenced extensively in the final report, and appears to have fuelled antitrust concerns, with the committee arguing that the evidence obtained from the internal company documents “indicates that Facebook was willing to override its users’ privacy settings in order to transfer data to some app developers, to charge high prices in advertising to some developers, for the exchange of that data, and to starve some developers… of that data, thereby causing them to lose their business”.

“It seems clear that Facebook was, at the very least, in violation of its Federal Trade Commission [privacy] settlement,” the committee also argues, citing evidence from the former chief technologist of the FTC, Ashkan Soltani .

On Soltani’s evidence, it writes:

Ashkan Soltani rejected [Facebook’s] claim, saying that up until 2012, platform controls did not exist, and privacy controls did not apply to apps. So even if a user set their profile to private, installed apps would still be able to access information. After 2012, Facebook added platform controls and made privacy controls applicable to apps. However, there were ‘whitelisted’ apps that could still access user data without permission and which, according to Ashkan Soltani, could access friends’ data for nearly a decade before that time. Apps were able to circumvent users’ privacy of platform settings and access friends’ information, even when the user disabled the Platform. This was an example of Facebook’s business model driving privacy violations.

While Facebook is singled out for the most eviscerating criticism in the report (and targeted for specific investigations), the committee’s long list of recommendations are addressed at social media businesses and online advertisers generally.

It also calls for far more transparency from platforms, writing that: “Social media companies need to be more transparent about their own sites, and how they work. Rather than hiding behind complex agreements, they should be informing users of how their sites work, including curation functions and the way in which algorithms are used to prioritise certain stories, news and videos, depending on each user’s profile. The more people know how the sites work, and how the sites use individuals’ data, the more informed we shall all be, which in turn will make choices about the use and privacy of sites easier to make.”

The committee also urges a raft of updates to UK election law — branding it “not fit for purpose” in the digital era.

Its interim report, published last summer, made many of the same recommendations.

Russian interest

But despite pressing the government for urgent action there was only a cool response from ministers then, with the government remaining tied up trying to shape a response to the 2016 Brexit vote which split the country (with social media’s election-law-deforming help). Instead it opted for a ‘wait and see‘ approach.

The government accepted just three of the preliminary report’s forty-two recommendations outright, and fully rejected four.

Nonetheless, the committee has doubled down on its preliminary conclusions, reiterating earlier recommendations and pushing the government once again to act.

It cites fresh evidence, including from additional testimony, as well as pointing to other reports (such as the recently published Cairncross Review) which it argues back up some of the conclusions reached. 

“Our inquiry over the last year has identified three big threats to our society. The challenge for the year ahead is to start to fix them; we cannot delay any longer,” writes Damian Collins MP and chair of the DCMS Committee, in a statement. “Democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalised ‘dark adverts’ from unidentifiable sources, delivered through the major social media platforms we use every day. Much of this is directed from agencies working in foreign countries, including Russia.

“The big tech companies are failing in the duty of care they owe to their users to act against harmful content, and to respect their data privacy rights. Companies like Facebook exercise massive market power which enables them to make money by bullying the smaller technology companies and developers who rely on this platform to reach their customers.”

“These are issues that the major tech companies are well aware of, yet continually fail to address. The guiding principle of the ‘move fast and break things’ culture often seems to be that it is better to apologise than ask permission. We need a radical shift in the balance of power between the platforms and the people,” he added.

“The age of inadequate self-regulation must come to an end. The rights of the citizen need to be established in statute, by requiring the tech companies to adhere to a code of conduct written into law by Parliament, and overseen by an independent regulator.”

The committee says it expects the government to respond to its recommendations within two months — noting rather dryly: “We hope that this will be much more comprehensive, practical, and constructive than their response to the Interim Report, published in October 2018. Several of our recommendations were not substantively answered and there is now an urgent need for the Government to respond to them.”

It also makes a point of including an analysis of Internet traffic to the government’s own response to its preliminary report last year — in which it highlights a “high proportion” of online visitors hailing from Russian cities including Moscow and Saint Petersburg…

Source: Web and publications unit, House of Commons

“This itself demonstrates the very clear interest from Russia in what we have had to say about their activities in overseas political campaigns,” the committee remarks, criticizing the government response to its preliminary report for claiming there’s no evidence of “successful” Russian interference in UK elections and democratic processes.

“It is surely a sufficient matter of concern that the Government has acknowledged that interference has occurred, irrespective of the lack of evidence of impact. The Government should be conducting analysis to understand the extent of Russian targeting of voters during elections,” it adds.

Three senior managers knew

Another interesting tidbit from the report is confirmation that the ICO has shared the names of three “senior managers” at Facebook who knew about the Cambridge Analytica data breach prior to the first press report in December 2015 — which is the date Facebook has repeatedly told the committee was when it first learnt of the breach, contradicting what the ICO found via its own investigations.

The committee’s report does not disclose the names of the three senior managers — saying the ICO has asked the names to remain confidential (we’ve reached out to the ICO to ask why it is not making this information public) — and implies the execs did not relay the information to Zuckerberg.

The committee dubs this as an example of “a profound failure” of internal governance, and also branding it evidence of “fundamental weakness” in how Facebook manages its responsibilities to users.

Here’s the committee’s account of that detail:

We were keen to know when and which people working at Facebook first knew about the GSR/Cambridge Analytica breach. The ICO confirmed, in correspondence with the Committee, that three “senior managers” were involved in email exchanges earlier in 2015 concerning the GSR breach before December 2015, when it was first reported by The Guardian. At the request of the ICO, we have agreed to keep the names confidential, but it would seem that this important information was not shared with the most senior executives at Facebook, leading us to ask why this was the case.

The scale and importance of the GSR/Cambridge Analytica breach was such that its occurrence should have been referred to Mark Zuckerberg as its CEO immediately. The fact that it was not is evidence that Facebook did not treat the breach with the seriousness it merited. It was a profound failure of governance within Facebook that its CEO did not know what was going on, the company now maintains, until the issue became public to us all in 2018. The incident displays the fundamental weakness of Facebook in managing its responsibilities to the people whose data is used for its own commercial interests.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Alibaba’s Ant Financial buys UK currency exchange giant WorldFirst reportedly for around $700M

in alibaba/alibaba group/alipay/Ant Financial/Asia/asia pacific/Banking/China/Companies/Delhi/Economy/Europe/Finance/financial services/India/mobile payments/moneygram/online marketplaces/online payments/Payments/Politics/remittance/Southeast Asia/spokesperson/TC/The Financial Times/U.S. government/United Kingdom/United States by

Ant Financial, the financial services behemoth affiliated with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, has made its first big move into Europe. It’s acquired London-headquartered payments company WorldFirst in a deal that sources tell us is valued at around $700 million.

(That price would also line up with multiple reports from December claiming the two were in talks for an acquisition of around £550 million, or $717 million at current exchange rates.)

This isn’t your average multi-hundred million dollar acquisition. The deal was confirmed by WorldFirst in a note to customers while Alibaba, which curiously didn’t put out an official press release, acknowledged the acquisition to us through a spokesperson.

Yet despite a relatively under-the-radar outing, the deal has potentially significant consequences. It not only underscores the strong market connections between China and Europe, but also the margin (and thus strategic) pressures that many smaller remittance companies are under in the wake of larger companies like Amazon building its own money-moving services, as well as competition from local players in Asia.

One of a number of globally active money remittance services, 15-year-old WorldFirst lets businesses and consumers move money between countries at prices that are lower than regular banks.

The company claims to have transferred over £70 billion ($90 billion) for customers since 2004, with more than one million transfers made each year. WorldFirst is a player in the competitive remittance market, in which migrant workers send money home to family, who can make transfers online or in person at WorldFirst outlets.

Ant Financial is best known for its Alipay service, which is China’s dominant mobile payment app with over 550 million registered users. Alibaba owns one-third of Ant, which is valued at as much as $150 billion, and it has been pushing to expand its empire outside of China and beyond Asia Pacific, too.

“Alipay and WorldFirst’s capabilities and international footprints are highly complementary,” WorldFirst co-founder and chief executive Jonathan Quin wrote in an internal memo obtained by TechCrunch.

According to Quin, WorldFirst will retain its brand and become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ant Financial. Many merchants in the UK already accept Alipay, which has expanded to cater for Chinese tourists spending money overseas.

“The tie-up will add WorldFirst’s international online payments and virtual account products to Alipay’s range of technology solutions,” an Ant Financial spokesperson told TechCrunch without disclosing the size of the buyout.

WorldFirst has been financed by private equity investors and, as a private company, it keeps its financial details closely held, but in August 2018 it noted that it had transferred more than $95 billion for some 160,000 customers — businesses and individuals included. A source told us its GMV was around $10 billion a year.

But sources noted that it was under pressure of its own that would have made securing a deal with Ant even more of a priority.

“That whole sector of payments from the West to China sellers for e-commerce is under massive margin pressure from Amazon going direct with its own service, plus new China based entrants PingPong, LianLian and Airwallex,” one executive very close to the remittance space told us. “WorldFirst had recently seen low to declining growth because of this.” Another source said that it had been shopping itself around.

(The Amazon reference is related to Amazon PayCode, a new service it has built with Western Union to let people in markets where Amazon has not launched a local site to pay for goods in local currencies on its platform. The deal was first announced in October last year, and has seen the two companies offering payment alternatives in places like Thailand and Kenya to remove the need to transfer payments in other ways, via Alipay or whatever transfer service a seller or buyer might use.)

The acquisition gives Ant Financial a massive international boost, and for the first time a presence in Europe, but it comes amid some stumbles for the company in its other attempts to expand internationally.

Notably, the company agreed to acquire Nasdaq-listed MoneyGram for $1.2 billion in 2017 after it won a bidding war for the global payment company. Ultimately, however, the deal was blocked by the U.S. government. Bruised by the episode, which set its plans back by a year, Ant went on to raise an enormous $14 billion funding round last summer during which time it presumably kicked off the search for a MoneyGram alternative.

While WorldFirst is based out of the UK, the company last year made a key move to expand its US operations when it was announced in August that it would acquire the retail money transfer business of San Francisco-based startup Wyre, which had built the network on blockchain technology but was selling it to focus on the other side of its business, providing currency exchange APIs to larger B2B customers.

It looked like all systems go for WorldFirst to move deeper in the US after that. But then, the company abruptly announced on February 20 that it planned to close the U.S-based business. The move may have been made to prevent a repeat of that scuppered MoneyGram acquisition.

WorldFirst is closing its business in the U.S. in a move widely seen as a precursor to its acquisition by Ant Financial

Outside of the U.S. and China, Ant Financial has aggressively expanded its presence in Asia through a series of investment deals that have seen it put $200 million into Kakao Pay in Korea, and find similar deals in Southeast Asia. The overall strategy appears to be to replicate the success of Alipay in China, where it offers mobile payments and digital financial services that cover loans, banking and wealth management.

In a show of its global ambition, Alipay just this week announced a deal to bring its payment option to U.S. Walgreens stores. A previous partnership with point-of-sale company First Data added Alipay to four million retail partners Stateside, and the company has similar deals in Europe and parts of Asia.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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

in Android/antitrust/competition law/data protection/data protection law/DCMS committee/Delhi/digital media/EC/Europe/european commission/European Union/Facebook/General Data Protection Regulation/Germany/Giovanni Buttarelli/Google/India/instagram/Margrethe Vestager/Messenger/photo sharing/Politics/privacy/Social/social media/social networks/surveillance capitalism/TC/terms of service/United Kingdom/United States by

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

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