Posts tagged ‘antitrust’


The EU lands Google with another fine—but will Google change?

19.07.2018


Zain Ali

The EU gets it when it comes to fines. Rather than the paltry US$17 million certain US states’ attorneys-general stung Google with some years ago for hacking Iphones, they’ve now fined the search engine giant €4,340 million, on top of its earlier fine of €2,420 million over anticompetitive behaviour.
   That US$17 million, I mentioned at the time, amounted to a few hours’ income at Google.
   As the EU’s competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager noted on Twitter, ‘Fine of €4,34 bn to @Google for 3 types of illegal restrictions on the use of Android. In this way it has cemented the dominance of its search engine. Denying rivals a chance to innovate and compete on the merits. It’s illegal under EU antitrust rules. @Google now has to stop it’.
   Google forces manufacturers to preinstall Chrome if they want to install Google Play. The EU also notes that virtually all Android devices have Google Search preinstalled, and most users never download competing apps, furthering Google’s dominance of search. Google pays manufacturers and cellphone networks to preinstall the Google search app on their phones, and prevented manufacturers from installing Google apps if their versions of Android were not approved by Google.
   DuckDuckGo, my search engine of choice, welcomed the decision. It noted:

   This last Tweet is particularly damning about Google’s deceptive practices (or, as I call them, ‘business as usual’ for Google):

   That’s consumer confusion on top of restrictive contracts that promote market dominance and anti-competitive behaviour.
   This is a very petty company, one that shut down Vivaldi’s Adwords account after its CEO gave some interviews about privacy.
   Of course I’m biased, and I make no apology for it—and anyone who has followed my journey on this blog from being a Google fan to a Google-sceptic over the last decade and a half will know just how Google’s own misleading and deceptive conduct helped changed my mind.
   Google’s argument, that many Android manufacturers installed rival apps, clearly fell on deaf ears, and understandably so. While I’m sure Android experts can think up examples, as a regular person who occasionally looks at phones, even those ones with rival apps still ship with the Google ones. In other words, there’s simply more bloat. I’ve yet to see one in this country ship without a Chrome default and Google Play installed, often in such a way that you can’t delete it, and Google Services, without getting your phone rooted.
   I did read this in the Murdoch Press and thought it was a bit of a laugh, but then maybe my own experience isn’t typical:

The impact of any changes mandated by the EU decision on Google’s ability to target ads to users—and to its profitability—is an open question. The two apps targeted in the EU decision, Google’s search and its Chrome browser, are extremely popular in their own right. Consumers are likely to seek them out from an app store even if they weren’t preinstalled on the phone, said Tarun Pathak, an analyst at research firm Counterpoint.

   I just don’t believe they would, and I made it a point to get a phone that would, happily, have neither. By buying a Chinese Android phone, I escape Google’s tracking; by seeking out the Firefox browser, I get to surf the way I want. That choice is going to create competition, something that Google is worried about.
   The Wall Street Journal also states that despite the earlier fine, Google’s shopping rivals said little or nothing has actually happened.
   With all of Google’s misdeeds uncovered on this blog over the years, I’m really not surprised.
   The EU is, at the very least, forcing some to examine just how intrusive Google is. It might soon discover how uncooperative Google can be.

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A quick read from Prof Stephen Hawking in Wired UK

14.03.2018

The late Prof Stephen Hawking’s interview with Condé Nast’s Wired UK is excellent, and a quick read. For those following me on the duopoly of Facebook and Google, here’s what the professor had to say:

I worry about the control that big corporations have over information. The danger is we get into the situation that existed in the Soviet Union with their papers, Pravda, which means “truth” and Izvestia, which means “news”. The joke was, there was no truth in Pravda and no news in Izvestia. Corporations will always promote stories that reflect well on them and suppress those that don’t.

   That last bit definitely applies to a lot of the media today, especially those owned outside our country.
   The rest makes for a great read as Prof Hawking talks about AI, the anti-science movement, Donald Trump, and what humanity needs to do urgently in science. Here’s that link again.

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It can’t be that hard to rank media meritoriously, if only the big players had the will

14.03.2018


US Department of Defense

Keen to be seen as the establishment, and that means working with the military–industrial complex, Google is making software to help the Pentagon analyse drone footage, and not everyone’s happy with this development.

The World Economic Forum’s ‘This is the future of the internet’ makes for interesting reading. It’s not so much about the future, but what has happened till now, with concerns about digital content (“fake news”), privacy and antitrust.
   Others have written a lot about search engines and social media keeping people in bubbles (or watch the video below, but especially from 5′14″), but the solution isn’t actually that complex. It’s probably time for search engines to return to delivering what people request, rather than anticipate their political views and feed them a hit of dopamine. They seem to have forgotten that they exist as tools, not websites that reinforce prejudices.
   Duck Duck Go has worked well for me because it has remained true to this; but others can do it, too.
   However, there needs to be one more thing. Instead of Facebook’s botched suggestion of having everyday people rate news sources, which I believe will actually result in more “bubbling”, why not rank websites based on their longevity and consistency of delivering decent journalism? Yes, I realize both Fox News and MSNBC will pass this test. As will the BBC. But this weeds out splogs, content mills, and websites that steal content through RSS. It actually takes out the “fake news” (and I mean this in the proper sense, not the way President Trump uses it). The websites set up by fly-by-nighters to make a quick buck, or Macedonian teenagers to fool American voters, just disappear down the search-engine indices. Facebook can analyse the same data to check whether a source is credible and rank them the same way.
   It could be done through an analysis of the age of the content, and whether the domain name had changed hands over the years. A website with a healthy archive going back many years would be ranked more highly; as would one where the domain had been owned by the same party for a long period.
   Google’s Pagerank used to look at incoming links, and maybe this can still be a factor, even if link-exchanging is no longer one of the basic tenets of the web.
   There’s so much good work being done by independent media all over the world, and they deserve to be promoted in a truly meritorious system, which the likes of Google used to deliver. Shame they do not today.
   We do know that its claim that analysing the content on the page to determine rank hasn’t worked, if some of the results that pop up are any indication. Instead, we see Google News permit the most ridiculous content-mill sites and treat them as legitimate sources; in 2005 such behaviour would be unthinkable by the big G. As to Facebook, they’ll boost whomever gives them money, so ethics don’t really score big there.
   Both these companies must realize they have a duty to do right by the public, but they should also know that it’s in their own interests to be honest to their users. If trust increases, so can usage. They might even ward off some of the antitrust forces looming on the horizon; fairness certainly will help Google’s future in Europe. But they seem to have forgotten they are providers of tools, perhaps reflecting their principals’ desires to be seen as tech celebrities or power-players.
   Google already has the technology to deliver a fairer web, but I sense it doesn’t have the desire to. I miss the days when Google, in particular, was an enfant terrible, there to shake things up. Now it exists to boost its own properties or rub shoulders with the military–industrial complex. Everyone’s keeping an eye on Alphabet’s share price. Forget the people or ‘Don’t be evil.’
   As I have said often on this blog, there lies a grand opportunity for others to fill the spaces that Google and Facebook have left. A new site can play a far more ethical game, maybe even combine what these two giants offer. If Altavista, once the world’s biggest website, and Myspace, once the king of social networks, can be toppled, then so can these two. Yet at their peak, neither appeared to be vulnerable. Who would have thought back in 1998 that Altavista would be toast? (The few that did, and you are out there, are visionaries.)
   So who is best poised out there to deliver such tools? It would seem now is the time to start, and as people realize that this way is better, be prepared to scale, scale, scale. Remember, Google once did the same thing to oust Altavista, by figuratively building a better mousetrap. Someone just needs to take that first step.

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Posted in business, culture, internet, media, politics, publishing, social responsibility, technology, USA | No Comments »


Does TPPA redux protect Big Tech?

25.01.2018


SumOfUs/Creative Commons

Prof Jane Kelsey, in her critique of the still-secret Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (formerly the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement [TPPA]) notes in The Spinoff:

The most crucial area of the TPPA that has not received enough attention is the novel chapter on electronic commerce—basically, a set of rules that will cement the oligopoly of Big Tech for the indefinite future, allowing them to hold data offshore subject to the privacy and security laws of the country hosting the server, or not to disclose source codes, preventing effective scrutiny of anti-competitive or discriminatory practices. Other rules say offshore service providers don’t need to have a presence inside the country, thus undermining tax, consumer protection and labour laws, and governments can’t require locally established firms to use local content or services.

   If this new government is as digitally illiterate as the previous one, then we are in some serious trouble.
   I’m all for free trade but not at the expense of my own country’s interests, or at the expense of real competition, and the Green Party’s position (I assume in part operating out of caution due to the opaqueness of the negotiations) is understandable.
   Protecting a partly corrupt oligopoly is dangerous territory in a century that will rely more heavily on digital commerce.
   While there may be some valid IP reasons to protect source code, these need to be revealed in legal proceedings if it came to that—and one hopes there are provisions for dispute settlement that can lift the veil. But we don’t really know just how revised those dispute settlement procedures are. Let’s hope that Labour’s earlier stated position on this will hold.
   Google has already found itself in trouble for anticompetitive and discriminatory practices in Europe, and if observations over the last decade count for anything, it’s that they’ll stop at nothing to try it on. Are we giving them a free ride now?
   Despite Prof Kelsey’s concerns, I can accept that parties need not have a presence within a nation or be compelled to use local content or services. But the level of tax avoidance exhibited by Google, Facebook, Apple et al is staggering, and one hopes that our new government won’t bend over quite as easily. (While I realize the US isn’t part of this agreement, remember that big firms have subsidiaries in signatory countries through which they operate, and earlier trade agreements have shown just how they have taken on governments.)
   She claims that the technology minister, the Hon Clare Curran, has no information on the ecommerce chapter’s analysis—and if she doesn’t have it, then what are we signing up to?
   However, Labour’s inability to be transparent—something they criticized the previous government on—is a weak point after a generally favourable start to 2018. The Leader of the Opposition is right to call the government out on this when his comment was sought: basically, they were tough on us when we were in government, so we hope they’ll live up to their own standards. Right now, it doesn’t look like it. I suspect Kelsey is now the National Party fan’s best friend after being vilified for years. Bit like when Nicky Hager (whom one very respected MP in the last Labour government called a right-wing conspiracy theorist) wrote Seeds of Distrust.
   And the solutions that Kelsey proposes are so simple and elegant that it’s daft they weren’t followed, since they are consistent with the Labour brand. I know, trade agreements can stay confidential at this stage and this isn’t unprecedented. But that’s not what Labour said it wanted. At least these suggestions would have shown some consistency with Labour’s previous positions, and given some assurance that it’s in charge.

What should a Labour-led government have done differently? First, it should have commissioned the revised independent economic assessment and health impact analyses it called for in opposition. Second, it should have shown a political backbone, like the Canadian government that also inherited the deal. Canada played hardball and successful demanded side-letters to alter its obligations relating to investment and auto-parts. Not great, but something. New Zealand should have demanded similar side-letters excluding it from ISDS as a pre-requisite for continued participation. Third, it should have sought the suspension of the UPOV 1991 obligation, which has serious Treaty implications, and engaged with Māori to strengthen the Treaty of Waitangi exception, as the Waitangi Tribunal advised. Fourth, it should have withdrawn its agreement to the secrecy pact.

   I once joked that National and Labour were basically the same, plus or minus 10 per cent. On days like this, I wonder if I was right.

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Posted in business, globalization, New Zealand, politics, technology | 1 Comment »


Vodafone sends me invoices and spam (and I’m not even a customer)

29.09.2012

I recently posted this apt quotation on my Tumblr:

It’s marketing 101—[Vodafone New Zealand] seem to breach the rules quite regularly and you’d have to hope that these significant fines are a signal to them that they can’t continue to do that.

It’s from Sue Chetwin, CEO, Consumer New Zealand, on how Vodafone is cavalier about staying within the letter of the law in the Fair Trading Act.
   I can believe it. Because Vodafone sent me an invoice for 22¢ on September 7:

   And it is the principle: because since 2006, I have not been a Vodafone customer. And since 2009, one of my companies has not been a Vodafone customer. In fact, since March 2009, I have no ties with Vodafone whatsoever, either personally or as a director of a company that uses Vodafone.
   On the same invoice is an ‘Opening balance from last statement’ for $4·21, which they debited from my credit card on February 25, 2011. But that time, I received no invoice—they just went ahead and did it.
   When I called Vodafone, I was told that the charges were made on a calling card that was still valid. Problem: I have never had a calling card with Vodafone.
   And now, today, they revealed that they took $24 in 2010.
   But as Vodafone is guilty of 21 breaches of consumer law in a July case alone—and was found guilty of misleading customers over Vodafone Live and its $1 a day services the year before—you can summarize that something is very rotten there.
   I’d swore I’d never go back—nek minnit, they’ve acquired TelstraClear. Oligopoly much?
   At Vodafone’s request via Twitter, I have emailed them the following. It does contain the usual pleasantries at the beginning and the end, omitted here for brevity. This summarizes the entire case so far.

This is further to SS’s request on Twitter that I send you these details. I will note that two customer services’ officers on the call care centre have also been investigating.
   Attached you’ll find a bill that I was sent via email on September 7. You’ll see it’s for 22¢, and that in April 2011, another $4 was debited from my credit card. A phone call to Vodafone today revealed that over $20 was taken in 2010.
   The problem with all of this is that I have not been a Vodafone customer since March 2009. If you want to split hairs, I actually haven’t been one since 2006, I believe, but one of my companies was between 2006 and 2009.
   Here’s what I recall.

• Became an Ihug customer in 1998, but left Ihug for Saturn in 2000. I kept some toll calls with Ihug but switched back to TelstraClear some time during that decade. Your records show the account was closed in 2006—although I was also told a contradictory statement that the account was not closed.
• Lucire Ltd. was a Vodafone customer on a three-year contract between March 2006 and March 2009. I am a director of that company.

   Here’s what I understand from Vodafone (gleaned from conversations on September 8, 9 [I think] and 29).

• In 2010, Vodafone debited over $20 (I believe $24) from my credit card. In 2011, it debited $4. In 2012, I get a bill for 22¢. (Note: I’ve never received a bill from you since I left except for the 22¢ charge.)
• I have been told various things. On September 8–9, I was told that the 2011 and 2012 charges were due to a calling card. (Note: I have never had a Vodafone calling card.)
• Today I was told that the charges were due to toll calls. (Note: TelstraClear has handled all my toll calls since 2006, if not before.)

   I was promised a refund of the $4 in one of the early September phone calls. My credit card statement shows no such refund. I have confirmed that the credit card details you hold are correct. Worryingly, they are also current—which they cannot be if I left you in 2009 and my credit card originally expired that year.
   I also began receiving spam from you this week for a cellphone number that was with you, but has not been with you since 2009.
   Here’s what I don’t get if I was still a customer:

• I don’t hear from you guys for three years. All of a sudden I start getting spam from you;
• I’ve never received a single invoice from you for the money you’ve taken—at least not till September 7, 2012.

   So I’m pretty sure you know that I’m not a customer of yours.
   Now, I’m willing to take my share of the blame. I should be reading every line of my credit card statement. But, I’d also like you guys to refund what you’ve charged since I ceased being a customer.

   There’s also the buggy Air New Zealand site where they shifted the blame to me for not clearing the cookies or understanding how the back end of their website works, but I’ll leave that for another day. What they didn’t figure was my taking screen shots of what I did.

PS. (October 15): Vodafone has just emailed me asking that my credit card details be updated. So much for ‘We have made sure your account is cancelled.’ But since they updated them unilaterally in 2009, I imagine they will just do it again. Air New Zealand, meanwhile, sorted out its bug and apologized, so there will be no post about that.—JY

P.PS. (October 15): I’ve been on the phone with Vodafone. Now I’m told that in June 2009, I was charged $116·30; in July 2009, $43·43; in August 2009, $63·51. All for toll calls. All while not being a Vodafone customer. The amounts appear to have been debited from my credit card each time. No invoice was ever received this end though Vodafone claims that they sent them to me via email. This is dodgy already since I have never opted for emailed invoices, and that they had always come in the post prior. Lucire Ltd. was a Vodafone cellphone customer till, I recall, March 2009, and up till then, I had invoices mailed to me. I was an Ihug customer (allegedly till 2006) and also had invoices mailed. So why the change? I still find this very, very hard to believe—it’s as though Vodafone cheekily took money knowing that I was not a customer and is using email as an excuse—just as it originally claimed that I had a ‘calling card’ and that that was the reason I received my 22¢ bill.—JY

P.P.PS. (October 15): TelstraClear says I have been with them for tolls since May 6, 2008, which is later than I thought, and also later than the 2006 date Vodafone gave in the last September phone call. It doesn’t change the core argument though, but it does give us a precise date on which to start any inquiry.—JY

P.P.P.PS. (October 16): Chris from Vodafone calls and can find charges almost every month from May 2009, a few in 2010, and one in 2011. He’s promised to get them refunded. It really sounds like I’ve paid for tolls twice. He’s as puzzled as I am why I have never been posted bills since that was how Vodafone always did it while I was a customer till March 2009. Apparently the 2011 refund was never done.—JY

P.P.P.P.PS. (October 27): No sign of any refunds on my credit card statement.—JY

P.P.P.P.P.PS. (October 27): Aimée says she has organized a refund of NZ$433·11, which appears to be the total debited from me without notice between May 2009 and April 2011. (More disturbing is that my previous credit card expired in November 2009, so how they managed to continue billing without my updating my details is beyond me.)—JY

P.P.P.P.P.P.PS. (November 3): Vodafone emails me a PDF credit note for $433·11. Is it over? I hope so!—JY

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Posted in business, culture, New Zealand | 3 Comments »