France fines Google for being vague

The French regulator has swung the GDPR stick for the first time and landed it firmly on Google’s rump, costing the firm €50 million for transparency and consent violations.

The National Data Protection Commission (CNIL) has been investigating the search engine giant since May when None Of Your Business (NOYB) and La Quadrature du Net (LQDN) filed complaints suggesting GDPR violations. The claims specifically suggested Google was not providing adequate information to the user on how data would be used or retained for, while also suggesting Google made the process to find more information unnecessarily complex.

“Users are not able to fully understand the extent of the processing operations carried out by Google,” the CNIL said in a statement.

“But the processing operations are particularly massive and intrusive because of the number of services offered (about twenty), the amount and the nature of the data processed and combined. The restricted committee observes in particular that the purposes of processing are described in a too generic and vague manner, and so are the categories of data processed for these various purposes.”

This seems to be the most prominent issue raised by the CNIL. Google was being too vague when obtaining consent in the first instance, but when digging deeper the rabbit hole become too complicated.

Information on data processing purposes, the data storage periods or the categories of personal data used for the ad personalization were spread across several pages or documents. It has been deemed too complicated for any reasonable member of the general public to make sense of and therefore a violation of GDPR.

When first obtaining consent, Google did not offer enough clarity on how data would be used, therefore was without legal grounding to offer personalised ads. Secondly, the firm then wove too vexing a maze of red-tape for those who wanted to understand the implications further.

It’ll now be interesting to see how many other firms are brought to the chopping block. Terms of Service have been over-complicated documents for a long-time now, with the excessive jargon almost becoming best practise in the industry. Perhaps this ruling will ensure internet companies make the legal necessities more accessible, otherwise they might be facing the same swinging GDPR stick as Google has done here.

For those who are finding the NOYB acronym slightly familiar it might be because the non-profit recently filed complaints against eight of the internet giants, including Google subsidiary YouTube. These complaints focus on ‘right to access’ clauses in GDPR, with none of the parties responding to requests with enough information on how data is sourced, how long it would be retained for or how it has been used.

As GDPR is still a relatively new set of regulations for the courts to ponder, the complaints from NOYB and LQDN were filed almost simultaneously as the new rules came into force, this case gives some insight into how sharp the CNIL’s teeth are. €50 million might not be a monstrous amount for Google, but this is only a single ruling. There are more complaints in the pipeline meaning the next couple of months could prove to be very expensive for the Silicon Valley slicker.

Loon bolsters connectivity credentials with advisory board signings

Alphabet’s latest X graduate Loon has added industry heavyweights to its advisory board as the business searches for commercial credibility in the world of connectivity.

As the ludicrous dream starts to become a reality, Loon has added three industry veterans to its ranks. Former McCaw Communications CEO Craig McCaw, Evernote CEO Ian Small and Verizon EVP Global Media & New Business Marni Walden will all be added to the roster, bringing with them years of experience and, perhaps more importantly, connections in the telco space.

“As Loon transitions to a commercial business and looks to partner with MNOs worldwide, we’re adding some serious expertise to our ranks with a new Advisory Board that brings together top wireless innovators with decades of experience in the industry,” Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth wrote in a blog post.

For those who have missed out on this blue-sky thinking idea, Loon is Alphabet’s latest attempt to branch into the connectivity segment. Previous efforts might have been a flop, just have a look at the success brought through Google Fiber, but this is something slightly different; its attempting to create a new segment rather than steal business from established players.

By floating these massive balloons 18-23km above the earth for periods of up to 100 days, the Loon team claims each balloon can create a connectivity cone with coverage to a ground area 80km in diameter. The balloons are fitted with a broad-coverage LTE base station and a high-speed directional link used to connect between balloons and back down to the internet infrastructure on the ground.

In an industry which has constantly struggled to bridge the digital divide due to the expense of deploying infrastructure, this is a genuinely innovative approach to providing connectivity. It helps lessen the financial pressures of delivering the internet, adding to the connectivity mix.

Back in November at AfricaCom, Westgarth gave some insight into the business on the main conference stage. At the time he announced the beginning of a commercial relationship with Telkom Kenya, as well as outlining the wider ambitions of the business. This is an idea which has big commercial potential, most of which will be in the developing markets. These are after all areas where ARPU is low and deployment is staggered. It would appear to be the perfect mix for Loon’s proposal to bring the internet to the masses.

These appointments however perhaps suggest Loon is not a firm satisfied with the developing markets alone. These are three US executives who have considerable experience in the domestic market. Of course, there will be connections in the international space with telcos in the developing nations, but perhaps Loon has spotted an opportunity in the US. These executives would certainly help pave the way for conversations across the homeland.

Of course, this is just a theory and the PR team have been, just as you would expect, pretty evasive when asked the question. However, the digital divide is certainly a challenge in the US. For those who are lucky enough to live in the cities, they’ll have no concept of connectivity challenges, but the vast expanses and challenging terrain of the US open up numerous, huge not-spots, despite what the telcos actually tell you.

Loon has been touted as an innovation for the developing markets but seeing as the US telcos are clueless as how to solve the domestic digital divide, why not. These executives will certainly know the right people in the right places.

US operators belatedly act to protect user location data

AT&T and Verizon announced that they will terminate all remaining commercial agreements that involve sharing customer location data, following a report exposing the country’s mobile carriers’ failure to control data sharing flow.

Jim Greer, a spokesman for AT&T, said in a standard email to media: “Last year, we stopped most location aggregation services while maintaining some that protect our customers, such as roadside assistance and fraud prevention.” Referring to the Motherboard exposé, Greer continued, “In light of recent reports about the misuse of location services, we have decided to eliminate all location aggregation services — even those with clear consumer benefits.”

This is similar to the position T-Mobile’s CEO John Legere adopted when responding to the criticism from the US Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Verizon also announced that the company will sever four remaining contracts to share location data with roadside assistance services. After this Version will need to get customers’ explicit agreement to share their data with these third-party assistance companies. Sprint, which was also caught out by the Motherboard report, is the only remaining nation-wide carrier that has not announced its plan on the issue.

This is all good news for the American consumers who are concerned with the safety of their private data. On the other hand, mobile operators have hardly been the worst offenders when it comes to compromising the privacy and security of customer data. Earlier, Google was exposed to have continued tracking users’ location even after the feature had been switched off, while Facebook has been mired in endless privacy controversies.

Monetising user data is only a side and most likely insignificant “value-add” business for the mobile operators, because they live on the service fees subscrbers pay. But it is the internet heavyweights’ lifeline. This may sound fatalistic but it should not surprise anyone if the Facebooks and the Googles of the world come up with more innovative measures to finance the “free” services we have benn used to.

EU Advisor tells France to forget about global ‘right to be forgotten’

The Advocate General of the European Court of Justice has given his opinion on the ‘right to be forgotten’ conflict between France and Google, and its good news for the ‘do no evilers’.

Advocate General, Maciej Szpunar, has been pondering the implications of the ‘right to be forgotten’ saga for some months now, and the opinion is relatively simple; France does not have the right to impose its own considerations on a company which operates outside its jurisdiction.

The French regulator can force Google to de-list search results on the grounds of privacy in France, and generally across the EU, though it does not have the authority to impose itself on the companies worldwide footprint. As the Advocate General notes, the repercussions of such a ruling would have too much potential to cause damage in various other scenarios.

The case is somewhat of a tricky one, as it does have implications in the contentious world of privacy/free speech/accountability. And while the European Court of Justice does not have to follow the opinion of the Advocate General, it generally does.

“This is a really important case pitting fundamental rights to privacy against freedom of expression,” said Richard Cumbley, Partner and Global Head of Technology at law firm Linklaters. “The case highlights the continuing conflict between national laws and the Internet which does not respect national boundaries.

“The opinion contains a clear recommendation that the right to remove search results from Google should not have global effect. There are a number of good reasons for this, including the risk other states would also try and supress search results on a global basis. This would seriously affect people’s right to access information.”

The case dates back to the early months of 2018, with the CNIL, France’s data protection watchdog, suggesting the search giant should have to enforce any ‘right to be forgotten’ rulings to all of its domains instead of just that of the home nation of the challenging regulator. Google, and various other free speech advocacy groups, have been suggesting France and the European Union are attempting to impose their own data privacy position on the rest of the world.

Looking at the ramifications, those of us who have more long-term considerations would certainly be thankful of Szpunar’s opinion. As Cumbley points out above, this case could be used as evidence by other nations to supress free speech or opinions which are not in-line with the political climate. Precedent is everything in the legal community, and while it hopefully does not intend to, France may be aiding more authoritarian governments in trying to impose its privacy demands on Google.

What is worth noting is that this opinion is not an official ruling from the European Court of Justice, though it does generally head in the same direction as the Advocate General.

Google unveils Assistant delights at CES

It wasn’t going to be long before Google stole the show with a horde of updates to the virtual assistant. And in fairness, some of them look pretty useful.

Who is leading the smart assistant battle varies depending on who you are talking to, but the importance of this segment is consistent throughout. With more users becoming comfortable with the voice UI, buying power will gradually shift away from the smartphone screen and onto connected devices. Whoever has the best and most prominent virtual assistant will control the relationship with the consumer.

Google might dominant search revenues for the moment, but the smart home and the connected economy are changing the status quo; the Google Assistant is one of the ways the firm will stay relevant. So, what is new?

To kick things off, the team has launched Google Assistant Connect, a platform for device manufacturers to bring the Google Assistant into their products in an affordable and easy-to-implement way. This is an important step for the Google team to take, as it allows for scale. Google’s speakers and smart products will not dominate the smart home forever. Sooner or later, traditional brands will take the lion’s share of spend as the mass market will be more comfortable buying from the trusted, specialised brands. But the ambition for Google in the smart home should be in the software not the products.

Google needs to make it as easy as possible for appliance and device manufacturers to incorporate the virtual assistant. Just as it is with the search engine, scale is everything. The more users Google is interacting with, the more accurate its algorithms become and more money its advertising models can generate.

As it stands, the Google Assistant currently works with over 1,600 home automation brands and more than 10,000 devices. This number will only accelerate as the mass market acceptance of smart home devices and applications becomes more apparent.

Another area which has been targeted by the firm in recent months has been automotive. Back in September, Google was named as the technology partner of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, allowing it to embed the Android operating system directly in vehicles. Last year, the alliance sold a combined 10.6 million vehicles in 200 markets across the world. At CES, Google announced a number of new features which would increase the usability of its applications in the car.

One of the updates is to bring the Assistant to Google Maps. Not only will the Assistant help with navigation, but users will be able to use voice commands to send messages to friends, such as estimated time of arrival. The Assistant can also be commanded to search for points of interest or stop-off points along the designated route. It’s a useful little update.

The final update which we like to draw attention to is focused on travel. Before too long, users will be able to instruct the Google Assistant to check them into flights (starting with US domestic flights), and also book hotel rooms at the destination. How effectively this will work remains to be seen, and it will be interesting to see how many hotels the Assistant has to choose from (as well as the price ranges), but again, it is a useful update.

Virtual assistants are not new, but they are becoming increasingly normalised in the eyes of the consumer. The voice UI is starting to make a genuine impact on the technology landscape the sci-fi image of tomorrow might not be as ridiculous as once though. Perhaps if someone nails AR glasses the smartphone screen might become redundant sooner rather than later.

The HTC fall from grace is quite remarkable

In years gone, HTC was one of the most successful and sought-after smartphone brands worldwide, but time has not been kind for the Taiwanese firm as financials for 2018 emerge.

Back in 2012, your correspondent had a One X model HTC and it was a very good phone. Due to a slight malfunction more recently, there was also a couple of months with a second-hand HTC 10. It wasn’t a phone which set the world on fire (although ask Samsung how that went down), but it was a perfectly good device. Unfortunately, it appears the brand is just not doing enough right.

As you can see from the table below, 2018 has not been a kind year as the team brought in revenues of 23.7 billion New Taiwan Dollar (NTD), 61% down on 2017.

Month Revenue Year-on-year comparison
January 3,404 -27.03%
February 2,613 -44.04%
March 2,772 -46.66%
April 2,099 -55.47%
May 2,445 -46.03%
June 2,230 -67.64%
July 1,400 -77.41%
August 1,389 -53.72%
September 1,256 -80.71%
October 1,307 -78.44%
November 1,474 -73.98%
December 1,352 -66.36%
Full year 23,741 -61.78%

All figures in New Taiwan Dollar (millions)

Just as a comparison to previous years, in 2017 HTC brought in revenues of 62.120 billion NTD, 2016 was 78.161 billion NTD and 2015 was 121.684 billion NTD. If you go all the way back to 2012, the team brought in a remarkable 465.795 billion NTD.

Of course, you have to bear in mind the business has offloaded a substantial part of its business to Google for $1.1 billion, most notably c.2000 engineers who were working on the Pixel device anyway and a horde of IP, but HTC is still running as a standalone business. Back in November, Sprint announced it was partnering with Qualcomm and HTC to develop a mobile ‘smart hub’ that will run on 5G next year.

Every now and then it is useful just to look back through the years and remember how different things were. HTC used to be one of the mobile industry’s heavyweights, alas, no more. RIP HTC.

Google wins FCC approval for gesture control tests

Google has finally won regulatory approval from the FCC to start testing the more advanced features of Project Soli, a radar-based motion sensor to allow the user to control devices through gestures.

The approval document, which you can read here, will allow Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects unit greater freedoms in testing the technology, which might look familiar if you are a fan of Tom Cruise’s Minority Report. Just when innovation is grinding to a halt in the smartphone segment, Google’s whacky scientists are working on something which could completely revolutionise the smartphone.

Project Soli initially came to be in 2015, though due to concerns the radar system would interfere with other spectrum users, power levels were limited. However, the waiver now allows Google to play with higher power levels while users can also operate the devices when on airplanes.

The idea is of course very simple. Radar sensors are in a small chip which features in the device, which detect hand and finger movements with high accuracy. Various different movements could be used to operate different features of a smart device, perhaps making the touch-screen redundant in the future. Check out the video at the bottom of the page for more details.

Interestingly enough, the FCC has not only decided Google is allowed to pursue this technology as there are no technical reasons not to do so, but also believes this project could be in the public interest.

“We further find that grant of the waiver will serve the public interest by providing for innovative device control features using touchless hand gesture technology,” the document states.

The last few years have been a bit of a baron time for smartphone innovation. Apple’s recent financial bombshell perfectly demonstrates this; not even Apple can rise above the mediocrity of innovation and grow revenues. This sort of innovation might just be what the smartphone segment needs.

And perhaps this is a sign of things to come; who knows what a smartphone or smart communications device will look like in the future. Maybe users will revert back to having two separate devices; one specialised for entertainment and the other for communications. With gesture control and voice recognition technologies, is there any need for a screen if communications is the purpose? And if you don’t need a screen, do you need such a big battery? Devices could become significantly smaller and much more power efficient.

Over the last 20 years, mobile communications devices have changed significantly. From big to small and back to big, foldable, slidable and closable, through colourful, sleek and offensive, the concept of the mobile device has always been changing. Who knows what it will actually look like in ten years’ time…

Google has apparently pulled the plug on its censored search engine for China

Google bowed to pressure by terminating its data analysis system that is vital to its planned re-entry into China with a censored search engine.

Dragonfly, the Google project to develop a search engine that would satisfy China’s censorship requirements relies on pre-empting the appearance of search results that the Chinese authorities may find offensive. To do so, Google has used 265.com, a Chinese internet portal based in Beijing it purchased in 2008, two years before it pulled out of China, to gather user behaviour data, mainly search habits. The Google team then compare what the users would see if the same search terms were used on the uncensored Google and eliminate those sites that are blocked by China’s Great Firewall. The data is then fed into the prototype Dragonfly search engine to produce results that would be acceptable to the Chinese censorship system.

According to a new report from the website The Intercept, Google has decided to shut down this data analysis system it has established with Baidu, which the search on 265.com is directed to, to harvest data. Instead the engineering team is using search queries by Chinese speaking users in other markets like the US or south-eastern Asian countries, which would be very different from what the users behind the Great Firewall would be generating and therefore defeating the very purpose of a censored search engine. Though this decision may not have explicitly spelt the death penalty for Dragonfly, it is a very close one.

A couple of factors must have played important parts in the decision-making process. Employee revolt is the first one. When Dragonfly was first exposed, an increasing number of employees have signed an internal petition to stop the project, reminiscing the company’s “Don’t Be Evil” manifesto. The very idea that Google would ponder creating a censored version for China may be a shock to most employees, but not unimaginable considering the different leaderships. Sergey Brin, who was at the helm of Google when the company shut down its China operation in 2010 as a protest, spent his childhood in the former Soviet Union, therefore had first-hand understanding of what censorship is about. Sundar Pichai, on the other hand, lacks similar sense and sensibility, having grown up in India, the largest democracy in the world.

Another source of internal pressure has come from the Privacy and Security teams. It has been reported by different media outlets that Scott Beaumont, Google’s head of China operation and the main architect behind Dragonfly, has deliberately kept the privacy and security teams in the dark as long as possible. For a company of Google’s nature, which lives on users’ trust in its willingness and capabilities to guard the security of their data, protests from these internal teams must have had the management ears. On the other hand, the fact that executives like Beaumont could carry on his secret project as long as it has must be a surprise to outside observers.

The strongest external pressure has come from the Congress. Pichai was grilled by the American law-makers last week when he was challenged by the Congressman David Cicilline (D-R.I). “It’s hard to imagine you could operate in the Chinese market under the current government framework and maintain a commitment to universal values, such as freedom of expression and personal privacy.” Pichai conceded that there was “no plans to launch a search service in China,” though he had declined to provide a positive confirmation to the Congress’ demand that Google should not launch “a tool for surveillance and censorship in China”.

With the latest decision to terminate data harvesting from 265.com, it seems Dragonfly or similar projects are put into a long hibernation.

Aussies question whether Google and Facebook are overstepping boundaries

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is shining the light of concern on Google and Facebook, seemingly one of the first steps towards regulatory overhaul.

Of course, there is no question the internet giants should be under greater regulatory scrutiny, though creating the red-tape maze does take time. The Digital Platforms Inquiry Preliminary Report released by the ACCC is just the first bureaucratic step in the dance which will take place over the coming months. Google and Facebook are in the crosshairs, though how long it will take to overhaul the dated and swiss-cheese like rules is anybody’s guess.

“The ACCC considers that the strong market position of digital platforms like Google and Facebook justifies a greater level of regulatory oversight,” said ACCC Chair Rod Sims.

“Australian law does not prohibit a business from possessing significant market power or using its efficiencies or skills to ‘out compete’ its rivals. But when their dominant position is at risk of creating competitive or consumer harm, governments should stay ahead of the game and act to protect consumers and businesses through regulation.”

There are several issues which are being raised through the report, though the important one seems to be the breadth and depth of influence which the internet players can wield. These are platforms which did begin their journey as curators or hosts of information, and despite pleas this position continues, their role in society has evolved at the same rate at which their bank accounts have grown. The ACCC is suggesting these platforms have an incredible influence on society, which they of course do, and this should be reflected in future regulation.

For the likes of Google and Facebook, there is another fight on the horizon. These are organizations which have enjoyed a relatively light-touch regulatory landscape, perhaps owing to the fact rule makers are not able to keep pace with the evolution of technology and the digital economy, though the world is starting to wake up. Recent scandals concerning privacy, location tracking, the dissemination of information and the depth of knowledge on the consumer are ensuring governments are taking this segment seriously now.

Looking at the specifics of this report, the ACCC is concerned about echo chambers being created thanks to personalisation algorithms. The lack of transparency is a concern here, as users might be unknowingly led down a biased news feed. Perhaps this would explain the polarised opinions we are seeing nowadays; not enough people are being exposed to both sides of the argument.

Other points raised by the report focuses on the depth of information collected on the user by these platforms, which far exceeds what the user has expressly given permission for, and also the ‘take it or leave it’ approach to T&Cs. The influence of these platforms due to the amount of information collected and the opaque ranking system might well be creating beasts which could favour certain businesses or political parties, a position which might be considered dangerous.

One of the proposals put forward in the report is to prevent Chrome being installed as a default browser on mobile devices, computers and tablets and Google’s search engine being installed as a default search engine on internet browsers. This is one example of how the Australian government is aiming to dilute the influence of Google, though it is important to note this report is not specifically directed at Google alone. Other proposals include modifications to the Privacy Act, which would (in theory) offer the consumer more choice and power.

For any fundamental changes to happen in government there are appropriate and measured steps to take. These steps involve research, consultations, as well (seemingly) endless debates and lobbying. This should be viewed as the first steps towards gaining greater regulatory influence over the internet players who have enjoyed greater freedoms over other businesses.

The world is starting to wake up and realise the internet players cannot be regulated in the same way as traditional businesses. It might be long overdue, but sooner or later the balance of power and influence will shift into a fairer and more sustainable position.

Google bids adieu to Allo

Google has finally called it a day on Allo, its attempt to compete with WhatsApp, to focus on its Messages product.

The concept of Allo was an interesting one to say the least, but it never took off. Launched back in September 2016, Allo made use of the artificial intelligence capabilities in Google. The platform included a number of features geared around making the app smarter which, if used excessively enough, meant you wouldn’t even have to message someone yourself. The dream was to take the unnecessary you out of the conversation.

And it didn’t work out well for Google.

Investments in the platform were frozen earlier this year, with many of the features being migrated across to the Messages platform. This is a product area which will get more attention at the expense of Allo, Google’s version of 15 minutes of fame.

“Thanks to partnerships with over 40 carriers and device makers, over 175 million of you are now using Messages, our messaging app for Android phones, every month,” Google said on its blog. “In parallel, we built Google Allo, a smart messaging app, to help you get more done in your chats and express yourself more easily.

“Earlier this year we paused investment in Allo and brought some of its most-loved features – like Smart Reply, GIFs and desktop support – into Messages. Given Messages’ continued momentum, we’ve decided to stop supporting Allo to focus on Messages.”

Users can export any contacts and conversations to the Messages platform, but in March 2019, Allo will say goodbye.

As far as we can see Allo failed for one reason. Google tried to steal market share in the messaging space by over-engineering the idea. For a messaging platform to be successful, it doesn’t have to be overly complicated, it just has to work. WhatsApp is not complicated, but it works and has scale. Google tried to be Google, and it didn’t work.

The concept of simplicity winning over an industry should be a very familiar one for Google, as it is what the entire enterprise is built on. The Google search engine might be an impressive feat of engineering behind the scenes, but presented to the user it is a simple, functional and accurate search engine. Google has set its place in the search world with a simple product and no-one else can compete.

We wouldn’t want Google to stop experimenting with weird and wonderful ideas, some great products have emerged while the ludicrous Loon is starting to gather pace, but you have to take the rough with the smooth when you let your imagination run wild. This is one example of Google having better ideas.