Texas Leads US States Suing Google For Anti-Competitive Practices

 

Several US states led by Texas filed suit against Google Wednesday over alleged anti-competitive practices, branding it an “internet Goliath” that had eliminated competition in online advertising and was harming consumers.

“This Goliath of a company is using its power to manipulate the market,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a brief Twitter video announcing the suit.

Google rigged ad auctions, taking advantage of its position serving up advertising as well as online search results, Paxton contended.

“If the free market was a baseball game, Google positioned itself as the pitcher, the batter and the umpire,” he said in the short video clip.

Legal details of the suit and names of other states involved were not mentioned in the video or at the Texas attorney general’s website.

Amazon, TripAdvisor, Yelp and other internet firms that involve recommending products or services have complained that Google favors its own offerings in general search results.

Google’s long-running business model based on free services and advertising is already being put to the test in a landmark antitrust lawsuit filed by the US Justice Department.

The US government filed its blockbuster lawsuit in October accusing Google of maintaining an “illegal monopoly” in online search and advertising.

The country’s biggest antitrust case in decades, it opens the door to a potential breakup of the Silicon Valley titan.

The politically charged case, which could take years to play out, draws new battle lines between the US government and Big Tech, with potentially major implications for the sector.

But the government is likely to face challenges proving monopoly allegations against the tech firm, which grew into one of the world’s most successful companies by leveraging its powerful search engine for a network of services such as maps, email, shopping and travel that feed its data-driven digital advertising.

Legal experts point to the fact that it may be difficult to show Google’s conduct was illegal under the longstanding “consumer welfare” standard in monopoly cases because its services are largely free.

The case — joined by 11 states, all of which have Republican attorneys general — comes against a backdrop of fierce political backlash against Big Tech giants that have extended their dominance in recent years.

The Justice Department argues that Google has cemented its monopoly position using deals with device makers to ensure its apps and services are prominently displayed, and sometimes can’t be deleted.

Google called the Justice Department lawsuit “deeply flawed.”

Gmail Service Disrupted In New Google Mishap

 

Google’s cloud-hosted email service suffered a “significant” disruption Tuesday, just a day after it went down during a massive outage of the internet giant’s platform.

Google said on a status dashboard that it had Gmail operations back in order shortly before 0000 GMT, about two and a half hours after people started complaining of problems.

“We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your patience and continued support,” Google said in the status dashboard notice.

“Please rest assured that system reliability is a top priority at Google, and we are making continuous improvements to make our systems better.”

Google did not disclose the number of users affected or the precise cause of the trouble.

READ ALSO: WHO Urges Use Of Masks During Christmas Celebration

The problem with Gmail affected “a significant subset of users,” the company said in a post.

Gmail users encountered error messages, high latency and other unusual behavior at the service, according to Google.

A massive blackout on Monday temporarily disrupted popular Google services such as Gmail and video-sharing platform YouTube, derailing the remote learning, work and entertainment that people have come to rely on during the pandemic.

About 17,000 people reported Gmail service problems at a peak point at about 2:30 pm (2230 GMT) in California, where Google has its headquarters, according to the website Downdetector.

Other Google services such as YouTube, Maps and search appeared to be operating normally.

The broad outage on Monday lasted about 45 minutes.

Services that require users to log into accounts such as YouTube or Gmail had “higher error rates” than usual, resulting in people being denied access, Google said of the Monday outage.

Google indicated on its dashboard during that outage that it involved services for “the majority of users.”

Already ubiquitous, online services have become more critical this year amid the Covid-19 pandemic, as millions work from home and students take their classes online.

Disruptions to online service providers are not unusual. Amazon Web Services (AWS), the Amazon subsidiary specializing in on-demand cloud services for businesses and individuals, experienced a major technical outage in November.

EU To Unveil Tough Measures To Curb Tech Giants

This file illustration taken on October 1, 2019 shows the logos of mobile apps Facebook and Google displayed on a tablet in Lille, France. DENIS CHARLET / AFP
This file illustration taken on October 1, 2019 shows the logos of mobile apps Facebook and Google displayed on a tablet in Lille, France. DENIS CHARLET / AFP.

 

The European Union on Tuesday will unveil tough draft rules targeting tech giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook, whose power Brussels sees as a threat to competition and even democracy.

The landmark proposals — which come as Silicon Valley faces increasing scrutiny around the world — could shake up the way Big Tech does business by menacing some of the globe’s biggest firms with mammoth fines or bans from the European market.

EU sources told AFP the long-trailed legislation would see the internet behemoths facing fines of up to 10 percent of their EU turnover for breaking some of the most serious competition rules.

It also proposes banning them from the EU market “in the event of serious and repeated breaches of law which endanger the security of European citizens”, one of the sources said.

The Digital Services Act and its accompanying Digital Markets Act will lay out strict conditions for doing business in the EU’s 27 member countries as authorities aim to rein in the spread of disinformation and hate speech online, and Big Tech’s business dominance.

Around ten of the largest companies — including Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft — would be designated as internet “gatekeepers” under the legislation and subjected to specific regulations to limit their power over the market.

But the proposals will go through a long and complex ratification process, with the EU’s 27 states, the European Parliament, and a lobbying frenzy of companies and trade associations, influencing the final law.

“The idea is not to do away with the large platforms, but to impose rules on them to prevent them from posing risks to our democracy,” the EU’s industry commissioner Thierry Breton said.

– Illegal content –

The details of the proposals have until now been carefully guarded by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, even though a few have leaked.

France and the Netherlands have already come out in favour of Europe having all the tools it needs to rein in the gatekeepers, including the power to break them up.

The main intention of the new rules is to update legislation that dates back to 2004, when many of today’s internet giants either did not exist or were in their infancy.

For the past decade the EU has taken the lead worldwide in trying to grapple with the power of big tech, for example slapping billions in antitrust fines on Google, but critics believe the method has been too cumbersome and done little to change behaviour.

The EU has also ordered Apple to pay billions of euros in back taxes to Ireland but that decision was quashed by the EU’s highest court.

The Digital Services Act is now being touted as a way to give the commission sharper teeth in pursuing social media platforms when they allow illegal content online, such as extremist propaganda, hate speech, disinformation and child pornography.

Activist group Avaaz called the proposed legislation a “bold and brave move” and insisted Brussels must make sure it is fully enforced.

“This is a strong framework and the EU has the heft and democratic values to hold the platforms to account, regulate the reach of disinformation and protect the free speech of the users,” Avaaz legal director Sarah Andrew said.

Under the Digital Markets Act, the EU is seeking to give Brussels new powers to enforce competition laws more quickly and to push for greater transparency in their algorithms and use of personal data.

Tech giants will also need to inform the EU ahead of any planned mergers or acquisitions under the regulations, Breton said.

The EU’s moves comes as regulators around the world have increasingly become concerned about the financial and social power of big tech.

US authorities have taken up the call, with several major antitrust cases putting Google under the gun in addition to a legal bid to strip Facebook of its Instagram and Whatsapp products.

Britain’s government was on Tuesday also expected to announce proposed legislation to tackle “online harms” by introducing the threat of huge fines for internet giants.

 

Tech Giants Will Need To Inform EU Of Takeover Plans

A photo combination created on December 10, 2020 showing visual identities of internet giants Facebook, Netflix, Twitter and Google.
A photo combination created on December 10, 2020 showing visual identities of internet giants Facebook, Netflix, Twitter and Google.

 

Tech giants will need to inform the European Union ahead of any planned mergers or acquisitions under tough new regulations set to be unveiled this week, the bloc’s industry commissioner Thierry Breton said Monday.

The EU is set to present on Tuesday its new Digital Services Act and its accompanying Digital Markets Act to lay out strict conditions for internet giants to do business in the 27 countries.

The biggest tech firms will be designated internet “gatekeepers”, subject to specific regulations to limit their power over the market.

“We’re going to require big platforms to notify us before they make an acquisition” as part of the new regulations, Breton told France Inter radio.

Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon, and maybe others, will almost certainly be slapped with the designation.

There has been growing concern among European and US regulators that the big tech firms have used purchases as a way to nip in the bud potential rivals.

Examples inlcude Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and Whatsapp as well as Google’s purchase of YouTube and Waze.

Breton said the prior notification requirement would be a world first and was squarely aimed at the gargantuan firms whose client bases and market capitalisations “give them a predatory capacity” over other firms.

The EU believes that much like big banks that were deemed “too big to fail” and subjected to special oversight by financial regulators following the 2008 financial crisis, so too should big tech firms.

“Because when one is very big there are greater responsibilities,” Breton said.

He added, “My role is to set rules, and if they are not adhered to there will be sanctions.”

But Breton also warned that if these sanctions are repeatedly not respected “they could ultimately result in a breakup”.

The proposals will go through a long and complex ratification process, with the EU’s 27 member states, the European Parliament, and company lobbyists and trade associations influencing the final law.

France and the Netherlands have already come out in favour of Europe having all the tools it needs to rein in the gatekeepers, including the power to break them up.

AFP

Google Services Experience Outage Globally

In this file photo taken on January 22, 2019 a technician passes by a logo of US internet search giant Google during the opening day of a new Berlin office of Google in Berlin. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP
In this file photo taken on January 22, 2019 a technician passes by a logo of US internet search giant Google during the opening day of a new Berlin office of Google in Berlin. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

 

A massive outage knocked Google services including Gmail and video sharing platform YouTube offline across much of the globe Monday.

WIthin minutes, social media sites were awash with hashtags including #googledown and YouTubeDOWN as hundreds of millions of internet users tried vainly to connect to the US search engine.

Google indicated the outage had affected all of its services for the “majority” of users.

California Seeks To Join Justice Department Antitrust Case Against Google

A file photo of a court gavel.
A file photo of a court gavel.

 

California will join the US government and 11 other states in bringing lawsuits against Google for abusing its market dominance, the state’s top prosecutor said Friday. 

“Google’s market dominance leaves consumers and small businesses with little choice when it comes to internet search engines,” Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement.

“By using exclusionary agreements to dominate the market, Google has stifled competition and rigged the advertising market.”

The US Justice Department and 11 states in October brought a civil case against Google for pursuing an illegal monopoly in its search functions and in its advertising research services.

Google, founded in 1998 and headquartered in California, has often been accused of abusing its power to exclude competitors.

It is the default search engine on many devices, and its Chrome web browser and mobile operating system Android dominate the market.

The US Justice Department also accuses it of forcing consumers and advertisers to use its services on Android devices on apps that cannot be deleted, such as Google Maps.

On Wednesday the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and prosecutors representing 48 states and territories also announced they had filed a complaint against Facebook for abusing its market dominance.

-AFP

Five Things To Know About The EU Tech Rule Revolution

The hearing is titled “Examining the Dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google.”

 

The European Union will unveil major proposals to regulate Big Tech on Tuesday, in what could force a revolution in the way Google and Facebook do business.

The rules, packaged in a so-called Digital Services Act, will not only attempt to crack down on disinformation and hate speech, but restrain Silicon Valley’s giants from making undisputed claims on new markets.

The proposal marks the start of a long process to legislation, which will include a bruising phase of negotiations with lobbyists, member states and the European Parliament that could take years.

Here is a first look at what the EU executive is likely to propose on December 15.

– Gatekeepers –
If the world’s biggest banks are too big to fail, the internet will now have “gatekeepers”, digital superstars more powerful than many governments, seen as urgently needing their own rules.

The EU believes that Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon hold all the keys in the online world, with an ability to dictate their own rules and to snuff out potential rivals as soon as they emerge.

To end this, the EU is writing up a set of dos and don’ts specifically for the gatekeepers.

This could stop a company like Google “self-preferencing” Google Maps in search results. It could stop Apple from forcing app-makers to use its store for payments, denying the iPhone-maker its huge cut in the proceeds.

“For the world’s biggest gatekeepers, things are going to have to change. They are going to have to take more responsibility,” said the EU’s executive vice president Margrethe Vestager.

– Stop the hate –
From Twitter to TikTok, all the major online actors are signed up to the EU’s codes of conduct for hate speech and disinformation, but playing by the rules is voluntary.

This would change with the EU’s proposal: if the likes of YouTube or Snapchat are caught allowing terrorist or criminal content to spread, this could be punished with hefty fines levied by a new European agency.

But, in a disappointment to some, the EU will not make platforms fully liable for this illegal content. Brussels fears that big tech would limit free speech to simply stay out of court.

– Competition –
Big tech moves very quickly, but EU competition enforcement moves very slowly.

In a series of cases, it was only after nearly a decade of EU procedures that Google was slapped with billions of euros in fines, long after many of the complainants were crushed by the search engine juggernaut.

“There’s one thing that competition law cannot do and that is revive the dead,” said Olivier Guersent, a senior EU official.

Under the rubric called the Digital Markets Act, the EU is seeking to give Brussels new powers to enforce competition laws more quickly, and also put a stop to buyouts even if the evidence is not yet entirely clear.

At the back of everyone’s mind are Facebook’s “killer app” purchases of WhatsApp and Instagram, small companies that in hindsight could have challenged the social network’s supremacy.

– No black box –
The proposal will also seek to open the black box of how big tech chooses the content it displays and to whom.

Big tech’s secret sauce for algorithms has become a growing concern, with governments seeing platforms encouraging bias, amplifying sensational or fake news and more generally posing a threat to a stable society.

“One of the main goals of the Digital Services Act… will be to protect our democracy, by making sure that platforms are transparent about the way these algorithms work –- and make those platforms more accountable for the decisions they make,” Vestager said.

– Fair shopping –
In a direct shot at Amazon, the proposal will also seek to curb how gatekeepers use the business data of companies operating on their platforms. What stops Amazon from proposing its own products when it sees the success of others sold via its website?

With privileged insights into transactions and communication, platforms can use that information to fine-tune their own products, conquering new markets unfairly.

Digital Privacy: France Imposes 135m Euros Fine On Google, Amazon

(FILES) A file photo taken on November 20, 2017 shows logos of US multinational technology company Google displayed on computers’ screens.  LOIC VENANCE / AFP

 

France’s CNIL data privacy watchdog said Thursday it had fined two Google units a total of 100 million euros and an Amazon subsidiary 35 million euros over advertising cookies.

The regulator said the fines were “for having placed advertising cookies on the computers of users … without obtaining prior consent and without providing adequate information.”

A cookie is a small piece of data stored on a user’s computer browser that allows websites to identify users and remember their previous activity.

The CNIL said when a user visited the website google.fr, several cookies used for advertising purposes were automatically placed on his or her computer, without any action required on the user’s part.

READ ALSO: Facebook Anti-trust Suits Seek To Separate Instagram, Whatsapp

It said a similar thing happened when visiting one page on the amazon.fr website.

CNIL said this type of cookie “can only be placed after the user has expressed his or her consent” and thus violated regulations on receiving prior consent.

It faulted Google for providing insufficient privacy information for users as it did not let them know about the cookies which had been placed and that the procedure to block them still left one operational.

CNIL also said Amazon had not provided clear or complete information about the cookies it placed on computers of users until a redesign in September 2020.

Google also stopped placing cookies on the computers of users without consent in September, CNIL said, but added it still does not provide a sufficient explanation for their use.

The regulator said “no matter what path the users used to visit the website, they were either insufficiently informed or never informed of the fact that cookies were placed on their computer.”

The 35-million-euro ($42-million) fine is on the Amazon Europe Core subsidiary.

CNIL imposed fines of 60 million euros on Google LLC and 40 million euros on Google Ireland Limited.

 

AFP

Facebook, Google To Pay For News Content In Australia

This file illustration taken on October 1, 2019 shows the logos of mobile apps Facebook and Google displayed on a tablet in Lille, France. DENIS CHARLET / AFP
This file illustration taken on October 1, 2019, shows the logos of mobile apps Facebook and Google displayed on a tablet in Lille, France. DENIS CHARLET / AFP

 

Facebook and Google could be required to pay news outlets for their content in “world-first” legislation set to be introduced to Australia’s parliament on Wednesday.

In one of the most aggressive moves to check the power of the US digital giants, Canberra plans to compel the companies to pay media organisations when their platforms host their content or face millions of dollars in fines.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the new rules, first mooted in July, will be introduced to parliament Wednesday and are expected to come into effect next year.

“This is a huge reform. This is a world first. And the world is watching what happens here in Australia,” he said.

READ ALSO: Italy Fines Apple $10m Over Water-Resistant iPhones

The new media law will apply to Facebook’s “News Feed” and Google searches.

The firms will be required to compensate Australian media outlets, including public broadcasters ABC and SBS, who were initially excluded from plans.

The government has decided to exempt other popular platforms such as YouTube and Instagram from the rules.

Measures to force transparency around the closely guarded algorithms that tech firms use to rank content were also watered down.

Frydenberg said the tech giants will now be required to notify media companies only when “conscious changes” to algorithms would have a “significant impact” on search rankings, with 14 days’ notice rather than the 28 days first suggested.

Australia initially proposed a voluntary code of conduct, but toughened its stance after deciding the “unequal bargaining position” between traditional news media businesses and digital platforms would prevent fair deals being struck.

Frydenberg said the two sides would still be encouraged to reach commercial agreements but if that failed they would be sent to binding arbitration.

The initiative has been closely watched around the globe, as news media worldwide have suffered in an increasingly digital economy where advertising revenue is overwhelmingly captured by big tech firms.

Facebook has warned it could block users and media organisations in Australia from sharing news stories if the law comes into effect.

In a blog post in August, the company’s managing director for Australia and New Zealand said the legislation “misunderstands the dynamics of the internet.”

Google in turn has warned that “the way Aussies use Google is at risk”.

An Australian review that led to the proposed changes found that for every $100 spent on online advertising, Google captures $53 while Facebook takes $28 and the rest is shared out among others.

The crisis has been exacerbated by the economic collapse caused by the coronavirus pandemic, with dozens of Australian newspapers closed and hundreds of journalists sacked in recent months.

AFP

UK To Impose Tougher Rules On Google, Facebook

This file illustration taken on October 1, 2019 shows the logos of mobile apps Facebook and Google displayed on a tablet in Lille, France. DENIS CHARLET / AFP
This file illustration taken on October 1, 2019 shows the logos of mobile apps Facebook and Google displayed on a tablet in Lille, France. DENIS CHARLET / AFP

 

Britain announced Friday it will set up a watchdog to regulate tech giants such as Facebook and Google and improve their transparency on using people’s data and personalised advertising.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport said in a statement that the new regulator, the Digital Markets Unit, will “govern the behaviour of platforms that currently dominate the market, such as Google and Facebook”.

The aim is “to ensure consumers and small businesses aren’t disadvantaged”, it said.

The unit is being created after the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said in July that existing laws were not effective and a new regulatory regime was needed to control internet giants that earn from digital advertising.

The CMA has backed the new rules while it has not taken direct action against Facebook and Google.

“Our new, pro-competition regime for digital markets will ensure consumers have choice and mean smaller firms aren’t pushed out,” said Business Secretary Alok Sharma.

Britain acknowledged the online platforms bring “huge benefits for businesses and society” but said the “concentration of power amongst a small number of tech companies” was curbing growth and innovation in the industry, which could have “negative impacts” for the public.

A new statutory code will aim to make the tech giants “more transparent about the services they provide and how they are using consumers’ data”, it said.

Consumers will be able to choose whether to see personalised advertising, the government said.

The new regulator will be launched in April and could have powers to “suspend, block and reverse decisions of tech giants”, order them to take actions and impose fines.

The new code could also mean online platforms have to offer fairer terms to news publications.

There have been calls for Facebook and Google to give a larger share of their advertising revenue to media organisations whose content they use.

According to the CMA, last year around 80 percent of the £14 billion ($18.7 billion, 15.7 billion euros) spent on digital advertising went to Google and Facebook.

Newspapers are dependent on the online giants for traffic, with around 40 percent of visits to their sites coming via Facebook and Google.

Google reacted by saying it wants to “work constructively” with the new regulator.

Facebook is preparing to launch its Facebook News service in the UK, which works with news media and includes original reporting.

It said it remains “committed to working with our UK industry partners to find ways to support journalism and help the long-term sustainability of news organisations”.

-AFP

Google To Invest $1bn In Deals With News Partners Worldwide

 

Google plans to invest $1 billion on partnerships with news publishers worldwide to develop a “Showcase” app to highlight their reporting packages, CEO Sundar Pichai said in a statement Thursday.

“This financial commitment — our biggest to date — will pay publishers to create and curate high-quality content for a different kind of online news experience,” Pichai said.

Google has locked horns with publishers repeatedly in recent years over its reluctance to pay for displaying articles, videos and other content in its search results, which has become a vital path for reaching viewers as print subscriptions fade.

It is currently in a standoff with several European media groups, including Agence France-Presse, over its refusal to comply with a new EU law governing digital copyrights.

The US giant says it should not have to pay to display pictures, videos or text snippets alongside search results, saying it drives hundreds of millions of visits to publishers’ websites each month.

It also points to millions of euros invested to support media groups in other ways, including emergency funding during the Covid-19 crisis.

Pichai said Google had already signed up almost 200 publications in several countries, including Der Spiegel in Germany and Brazil’s Folha de S. Paulo, but the list lacked any from the United States or France.

Google News Showcase, he said, will highlight “the editorial curation of award-winning newsrooms to give readers more insight on the stories that matter, and in the process, helps publishers develop deeper relationships with their audiences.”

The new product would be available first on Google News via its Android platform and later on Apple’s iOS, and eventually be added to search results and Google’s Discover feed of tailored content for users.

“It will start rolling out today to readers in Brazil and Germany, and will expand to other countries in the coming months where local frameworks support these partnerships,” Pichai said.

-AFP

Google Unveils New Pixel Handsets With 5G Wireless

 A Pixel smartphone sets a 2-meter (6.5 foot) perimeter for safe social distance as Scott Burns crosses the living room of his home in the Silicon Valley city of Santa Cruz on May 29, 2020. (Photo by Glenn CHAPMAN / AFP)

 

Google on Wednesday unveiled two new smartphones with 5G wireless capability under its Pixel brand, which showcases the Android mobile system but has limited market share.

The new Pixel 5 will start at $699 for US customers and its reduced-price Pixel 4a with 5G at $499, the California tech giant announced at a streamed event.

The phones will be available from October 15 in the US and other markets.

The new handsets are “packing more helpful Google features into phones backed by the power and speeds of 5G,” said Google vice president Brian Rakowski.

 

Android smartphone users on May 29 had a new way to keep their distance from others – a tool that lets them know when people are getting closer than pandemic guidelines recommend.

 

The announcement puts Google, for the moment, ahead of Apple in the 5G smartphone race, with a 5G iPhone widely expected to be unveiled in the coming weeks. It also positions Google with a competitively priced 5G device as consumers begin looking for upgrades.

Google’s Pixel handsets have won positive reviews for their powerful cameras and integrated artificial intelligence, but have failed to crack the top ranks of the smartphone market dominated by the likes of South Korea’s Samsung, Apple and China’s Huawei.

The Pixel devices nonetheless serve as a showcase for Google and Android, integrating hardware and software, and the newest Google applications.

“Google has pivoted its Pixel line from competing at the highest price points to offering more value, but the competition has intensified in the mid-tier market as well,” said Avi Greengart of the consultancy Techsponential.

“That leaves the Pixel 5 again trying to differentiate itself on its camera and software.”

 

 

The launch comes with the global smartphone market struggling from the pandemic-induced economic crisis and with many consumers waiting for 5G devices.

Total smartphone sales were down 16 percent in the second quarter, according to research firm IDC, whose survey showed Huawei leading the market ahead of Samsung, Apple, and Chinese firms Xiaomi and Oppo.

At Wednesday’s event, the company also announced a ramped-up version of its Google TV platform which competes against Roku and Amazon’s Fire TV.

“The new Google TV experience brings together movies, shows, live TV, and more from across your apps and subscriptions and organizes them just for you,” said Google TV senior director Shalini Govilpai.

Also unveiled was a new Nest Audio smart speaker which is 75 percent louder and has 50 percent stronger bass than its original smart speaker with the Google Home brand, according to the company.

 

 

-AFP