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Ahead of third antitrust ruling, Google announces fresh tweaks to Android in Europe

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Google is widely expected to be handed a third antitrust fine in Europe this week, with reports suggesting the European Commission’s decision in its long-running investigation of AdSense could land later today.

Right on cue the search giant has PRed another Android product tweak — which it bills as “supporting choice and competition in Europe”.

In the coming months Google says it will start prompting users of existing and new Android devices in Europe to ask which browser and search apps they would like to use.

This follows licensing changes for Android in Europe which Google announced last fall, following the Commission’s $5BN antitrust fine for anti-competitive behavior related to how it operates the dominant smartphone OS.

tl;dr competition regulation can shift policy and product.

Albeit, the devil will be in the detail of Google’s self-imposed ‘remedy’ for Android browser and search apps.

Which means how exactly the user is prompted will be key — given tech giants are well-versed in the manipulative arts of dark pattern design, enabling them to create ‘consent’ flows that deliver their desired outcome.

A ‘choice’ designed in such a way — based on wording, button/text size and color, timing of prompt and so on — to promote Google’s preferred browser and search app choice by subtly encouraging Android users to stick with its default apps may not actually end up being much of a ‘choice’.

According to Reuters the prompt will surface to Android users via the Play Store. (Though the version of Google’s blog post we read did not include that detail.)

Using the Play Store for the prompt would require an Android device to have Google’s app store pre-loaded — and licensing tweaks made to the OS in Europe last year were supposedly intended to enable OEMs to choose to unbundle Google apps from Android forks. Ergo making only the Play Store the route for enabling choice would be rather contradictory. (As well as spotlighting Google’s continued grip on Android.)

Add to that Google has the advantage of massive brand dominance here, thanks to its kingpin position in search, browsers and smartphone platforms.

So again the consumer decision is weighted in its favor. Or, to put it another way: ‘This is Google; it can afford to offer a ‘choice’.’

In its blog post getting out ahead of the Commission’s looming AdSense ruling, Google’s SVP of global affairs, Kent Walker, writes that the company has been “listening carefully to the feedback we’re getting” vis-a-vis competition.

Though the search giant is actually appealing both antitrust decisions. (The other being a $2.7BN fine it got slapped with two years ago for promoting its own shopping comparison service and demoting rivals’.)

“After the Commission’s July 2018 decision, we changed the licensing model for the Google apps we build for use on Android phones, creating new, separate licenses for Google Play, the Google Chrome browser, and for Google Search,” Walker continues. “In doing so, we maintained the freedom for phone makers to install any alternative app alongside a Google app.”

Other opinions are available on those changes too.

Such as French pro-privacy Google search rival Qwant, which last year told us how those licensing changes still make it essentially impossible for smartphone makers to profit off of devices that don’t bake in Google apps by default. (More recently Qwant’s founder condensed the situation to “it’s a joke“.)

Qwant and another European startup Jolla, which leads development of an Android alternative smartphone platform called Sailfish — and is also a competition complainant against Google in Europe — want regulators to step in and do more.

The Commission has said it is closely monitoring changes made by Google to determine whether or not the company has complied with its orders to stop anti-competitive behavior.

So the jury is still out on whether any of its tweaks sum to compliance. (Google says so but that’s as you’d expect — and certainly doesn’t mean the Commission will agree.)

In its Android decision last summer the Commission judged that Google’s practices harmed competition and “further innovation” in the wider mobile space, i.e. beyond Internet search — because it prevented other mobile browsers from competing effectively with its pre-installed Chrome browser.

So browser choice is a key component here. And ‘effective competition’ is the bar Google’s homebrew ‘remedies’ will have to meet.

Still, the company will be hoping its latest Android tweaks steer off further Commission antitrust action. Or at least generate more fuzz and fuel for its long-game legal appeal.

Current EU competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, has flagged for years that the division is also fielding complaints about other Google products, including travel search, image search and maps. Which suggests Google could face fresh antitrust investigations in future, even as the last of the first batch is about to wrap up.

The FT reports that Android users in the European economic area last week started seeing links to rival websites appearing above Google’s answer box for searches for products, jobs or businesses — with the rival links appearing above paid results links to Google’s own services.

The newspaper points out that tweak is similar to a change promoted by Google in 2013, when it was trying to resolve EU antitrust concerns under the prior commissioner, Joaquín Almunia.

However rivals at the time complained the tweak was insufficient. The Commission subsequently agreed — and under Vestager’s tenure went on to hit Google with antitrust fines.

Walker doesn’t mention these any of additional antitrust complaints swirling around Google’s business in Europe, choosing to focus on highlighting changes it’s made in response to the two extant Commission antitrust rulings.

“After the Commission’s July 2018 decision, we changed the licensing model for the Google apps we build for use on Android phones, creating new, separate licenses for Google Play, the Google Chrome browser, and for Google Search. In doing so, we maintained the freedom for phone makers to install any alternative app alongside a Google app,” he writes.

Nor does he make mention of a recent change Google quietly made to the lists of default search engine choices in its Chrome browser — which expanded the “choice” he claims the company offers by surfacing more rivals. (The biggest beneficiary of that tweak is privacy search rival DuckDuckGo, which suddenly got added to the Chrome search engine lists in around 60 markets. Qwant also got added as a default choice in France.)

Talking about Android specifically Walker instead takes a subtle indirect swipe at iOS maker Apple — which now finds itself the target of competition complaints in Europe, via music streaming rival Spotify, and is potentially facing a Commission probe of its own (albeit, iOS’ marketshare in Europe is tiny vs Android). So top deflecting Google.

“On Android phones, you’ve always been able to install any search engine or browser you want, irrespective of what came pre-installed on the phone when you bought it. In fact, a typical Android phone user will usually install around 50 additional apps on their phone,” Walker writes, drawing attention to the fact that Apple does not offer iOS users as much of a literal choice as Google does.

“Now we’ll also do more to ensure that Android phone owners know about the wide choice of browsers and search engines available to download to their phones,” he adds, saying: “This will involve asking users of existing and new Android devices in Europe which browser and search apps they would like to use.”

We’ve reached out to Commission for comment, and to Google with questions about the design of its incoming browser and search app prompts for Android users in Europe and will update this report with any response.

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AT&T failed to fix Ohio man’s broken Internet service for a month

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Ohio resident John Sopko had to go a month without his AT&T fixed wireless Internet service because the company repeatedly failed to diagnose and fix the problem, the Akron Beacon Journal reported today. AT&T finally figured out this week that the antenna on Sopko’s roof was broken and had to be replaced, but not until after a parade of support calls and technician visits.

Sopko said he isn’t a big Internet user but that his girlfriend and her 17-year-old son are. The son has “been at his grandmother’s since four days after [the outage] started because he needs it for school,” Sopko said. Sopko’s house is either in or near an area where AT&T received US government funding to deploy service.

Sopko’s service stopped working on October 30. Rebooting the modem did nothing, so he called AT&T’s service phone number and “followed directions to reboot the system.” That again did nothing, so AT&T sent a technician to his home in Akron, but the tech just repeated the steps that Sopko had already taken, according to the report:

“He went and turned everything off and plugged it back in,” Sopko said. Same result—no connection.

AT&T sent out a second technician, on Nov. 8. “He did the same thing,” Sopko said. “He said it was an engineering problem and was going to send an email.”

More frustration, no explanation from AT&T

Sopko didn’t hear back from AT&T, so he called the company again a couple of days after the second technician visit, the Beacon Journal article said. “They said they were ‘troubleshooting’ and said it would be back up in a couple of hours,” he told the newspaper.

The service did not come back online within a couple of hours, and Sopko said he had to “chase them down” again because AT&T didn’t call him back. He was eventually able to schedule a technician appointment for November 23. But on that day, “he received another text, confirming an appointment for Nov. 26. A text on Nov. 26 confirmed an appointment for 2 pm to 4 pm. Sopko said he may not have responded in time to that text, so a new appointment was set for Dec. 3,” the newspaper reported.

The Beacon Journal report continued:

Sopko called the service line again on Nov. 26, talking to a customer representative. “I don’t want to be mean to you,” he told the representative. “But this has been going on for 28 days now. Why?”

The representative couldn’t give a solid answer, which frustrated Sopko even more. “I’m buying a product that I can’t use,” he said. “Tell me lightning hit a tower; tell me something.”

AT&T’s government funding

Finally, Sopko was contacted on Tuesday of this week by an AT&T rep, and the company sent what Sopko called a “more advanced technician” to his house on Wednesday. The technician tested the antenna, found it wasn’t working, and replaced it.

“That ‘antenna’ was a fixed wireless unit the company had installed about a year and a half before. The units are primarily used in rural areas where cable lines aren’t in place,” the Beacon Journal noted.

Ohio is one of 18 states where AT&T received $428 million from the Federal Communications Commission per year for seven years starting in 2015 to deploy 10Mbps Internet using fixed wireless technology to 1.1 million homes and small businesses. It’s not clear whether Sopko’s home is counted in that deployment, but his address on East Voris Street is very close to other Akron properties where the FCC map shows subsidized deployment by AT&T.

AT&T still trying to “determine what happened”

Sopko “received a bill on Tuesday for a month’s service he didn’t get” but later received bill credits “and a gift card for his troubles,” the Beacon Journal reported. AT&T told the newspaper that “our technicians restored Mr. Sopko’s Internet service and he is satisfied.”

We asked AT&T for an explanation of why it took a month to diagnose and fix the problem. The company didn’t explain but said it is looking into the matter.

“Clearly, this is not an acceptable customer experience and did not meet our expectations for how we serve our customers,” AT&T told Ars today. “We have apologized to Mr. Sopko and credited his account. We are reviewing this case to determine what happened and to prevent it from happening again.”

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iPhones of US diplomats hacked using “0-click” exploits from embattled NSO

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The iPhones of nine US State Department officials were infected by powerful and stealthy malware developed by NSO Group, the Israeli exploit seller that has come under increasing scrutiny for selling its wares to journalists, lawyers, activists, and US allies.

The US officials, either stationed in Uganda or focusing on issues related to that country, received warnings like this one from Apple informing them their iPhones were being targeted by hackers. Citing unnamed people with knowledge of the attacks, Reuters said the hackers used software from NSO.

No clicking required

As previously reported, NSO software known as Pegasus uses exploits sent through messaging apps that infect iPhones and Android devices without requiring targets to click links or take any other action. From there, the devices run hard-to-detect malware that can download photos, contacts, text messages, and other data. The malware also allows the operator to listen to audio and view video in real time.

NSO has long come under fire for selling its wares to governments hostile to journalists and dissidents. Facebook sued NSO in 2019 after Pegasus was discovered to have used the company’s WhatsApp to infect the iPhones of 36 journalists. Last month, Apple sued NSO after learning Pegasus infected 37 iPhones belonging to journalists, human rights activists, and business executives. Critics said the targets didn’t meet the criteria NSO says is required for its powerful spyware to be used. Also last month the Biden administration’s Commerce Department blocked the export, re-export and in-country transfer of NSO technology.

An NSO spokesperson said in a statement that after learning of the allegations by Reuters, it immediately terminated the responsible customer’s access to its system while it looks into the matter. NSO officials wrote:

On top of the independent investigation, NSO will cooperate with any relevant government authority and present the full information we will have. To clarify, the installation of our software by the customer occurs via phone numbers. As stated before, NSO’s technologies are blocked from working on US (+1) numbers. Once the software is sold to the licensed customer, NSO has no way to know who the targets of the customers are, as such, we were not and could not have been aware of this case.

Reuters said that while the iPhones targeted in this case were all registered to overseas numbers, the target’s affiliation with the US government was obvious because they all used Apple IDs that were associated with email addresses ending in state.gov. The news outlet said the actions taken against the State Department officials “represent the widest known hacks of US officials through NSO technology.”

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Ransomware attack on Planned Parenthood steals data of 400,000 patients

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Ransomware hackers broke into a Planned Parenthood network and accessed medical records or other sensitive data for more than 400,000 patients of the reproductive health care group.

The disclosure came in a sample letter posted to the California attorney general’s website and a release published by the organization. Both said that the intrusion and data theft was limited to patients of Planned Parenthood’s Los Angeles chapter. Organization personnel first noticed the hack on October 17 and conducted an investigation.

“The investigation determined that an unauthorized person gained access to our network between
October 9, 2021 and October 17, 2021, and exfiltrated some files from our systems during that time,” the letter stated. It went on to say: “On November 4, 2021, we identified files that contained your name and one or more of the following: address, insurance information, date of birth, and clinical information, such as diagnosis, procedure, and/or prescription information.”

The release said that the intruder “installed malware/ransomware and exfiltrated some files from its systems during that time.” The organization said it has no evidence the stolen data has been used for fraudulent purposes. Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles spokesman John Erickson didn’t respond to a question asking if the organization could rule out that possibility.

Ransomware has become a scourge that hits both Fortune 500 firms and small nonprofits alike. The criminals behind the attacks routinely extort money, with the threat to not only lock up victims’ computer networks, but also to leak sensitive data online if the ransom goes unpaid. There are no reports of any of the Planned Parenthood data being published.

In May, hackers hit Colonial Pipeline with a ransomware attack that caused disruptions in gasoline distribution in the southeastern United States. A few weeks later, JBS SA, the world’s biggest meat producer, suffered a ransomware attack that shut down operations at five of the biggest JBS beef plants in the US. A Canadian JBS beef plant that processes almost a third of the country’s federally inspected cattle was also shut down.

Nonprofit organizations, meanwhile, have also been menaced by ransomware, with hospitals, homeless shelters, and community groups all in the crosshairs. Earlier this year, data belonging to a Planned Parenthood chapter in the District of Columbia was also held for ransom.

Word of the latest Planned Parenthood attack comes as the availability of abortions in many states has come under threat in state legislatures. The US Supreme Court on Wednesday heard oral arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of a Mississippi law that effectively bans the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

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