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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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Sean Gallagher and an AI expert break down our crazy machine-learning adventure

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We’ve spent the past few weeks burning copious amounts of AWS compute time trying to invent an algorithm to parse Ars’ front-page story headlines to predict which ones will win an A/B test—and we learned a lot. One of the lessons is that we—and by “we,” I mainly mean “me,” since this odyssey was more or less my idea—should probably have picked a less, shall we say, ambitious project for our initial outing into the machine-learning wilderness. Now, a little older and a little wiser, it’s time to reflect on the project and discuss what went right, what went somewhat less than right, and how we’d do this differently next time.

Our readers had tons of incredibly useful comments, too, especially as we got into the meaty part of the project—comments that we’d love to get into as we discuss the way things shook out. The vagaries of the edit cycle meant that the stories were being posted quite a bit after they were written, so we didn’t have a chance to incorporate a lot of reader feedback as we went, but it’s pretty clear that Ars has some top-shelf AI/ML experts reading our stories (and probably groaning out loud every time we went down a bit of a blind alley). This is a great opportunity for you to jump into the conversation and help us understand how we can improve for next time—or, even better, to help us pick smarter projects if we do an experiment like this again!

Our chat kicks off on Wednesday, July 28, at 1:00 pm Eastern Time (that’s 10:00 am Pacific Time and 17:00 UTC). Our three-person panel will consist of Ars Infosec Editor Emeritus Sean Gallagher and me, along with Amazon Senior Principal Technical Evangelist (and AWS expert) Julien Simon. If you’d like to register so that you can ask questions, use this link here; if you just want to watch, the discussion will be streamed on the Ars Twitter account and archived as an embedded video on this story’s page. Register and join in or check back here after the event to watch!

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Kaseya gets master decryptor to help customers still suffering from REvil attack

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Kaseya—the remote management software seller at the center of a ransomware operation that struck as many as 1,500 downstream networks—said it has obtained a decryptor that should successfully restore data encrypted during the Fourth of July weekend attack.

Affiliates of REvil, one of the Internet’s most cutthroat ransomware groups, exploited a critical zero-day vulnerability in Miami, Florida-based Kaseya’s VSA remote management product. The vulnerability—which Kaseya was days away from patching—allowed the ransomware operators to compromise the networks of about 60 customers. From there, the extortionists infected as many as 1,500 networks that relied on the 60 customers for services.

Finally, a universal decryptor

“We obtained the decryptor yesterday from a trusted third party and have been using it successfully on affected customers,” Dana Liedholm, senior VP of corporate marketing, wrote in an email on Thursday morning. “We are providing tech support to use the decryptor. We have a team reaching out to our customers and I don’t have more detail right now.”

In a private message, threat analyst Brett Callow of security firm Emsisoft said: “We are working with Kaseya to support their customer engagement efforts. We have confirmed the key is effective at unlocking victims and will continue to provide support to Kaseya and its customers.”

REvil had demanded as much as $70 million for a universal decryptor that would restore the data of all organizations compromised in the mass attack. Liedholm declined to say if Kaseya paid any sum in exchange for the decryption tool. Kaseya has since patched the zero-day used in the attack.

That means that, for the time being, it’s not publicly known if Kaseya paid the ransom or received it for free from either REvil, a law enforcement agency, or a private security company.

In the days following the attack, REvil’s site on the dark web, along with other infrastructure the group uses to provide technical support and process payments, suddenly went offline. The unexplained exit left victims and researchers worried that the data would remain locked up forever, since the only people with the ability to decrypt it had vanished.

Where did it come from?

REvil is one of several ransomware groups believed to operate out of Russia or another Eastern European country that was formerly part of Soviet Union. The group’s disappearance came a few days after President Joe Biden warned his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that, if Russia didn’t rein in those ransomware groups, the US might take unilateral action against them.

Observers have speculated since then that either Putin pressured the group to go quiet or the group, rattled by all the attention it received from the attack, decided to do so on its own.

Some of the companies victimized by the attack include Swedish grocery store chain COOP, Virginia Tech, two Maryland towns, New Zealand schools, and international textile company Miroglio Group.

REvil is also behind a crippling attack on JBS, the world’s biggest producer of meat. The breach caused JBS to temporarily close some plants.

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AT&T nightmare: Woman had to wait 3+ months for broadband at new home

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Enlarge / Lovie Newman tells News 4 San Antonio about having to wait nearly four months for AT&T Internet service.

AT&T reportedly forced a San Antonio woman to wait nearly four months to get Internet service at her new home, and she didn’t get close to solving the problem until she asked a local news station for help.

“Lovie Newman planned for a smooth transition into her new home, including scheduling a transfer for her AT&T high-speed Internet service in advance,” according to a report Tuesday by News 4 San Antonio.

The house Newman moved into was apparently newly built and not yet connected to AT&T’s network, but it sounds like the months-long wait was due primarily to mistakes by AT&T technicians and customer-service problems. In what Newman called “a complete nightmare,” AT&T continually rebuffed her attempts to get Internet service.

Newman scheduled an installation appointment for April 1, but when the day came, AT&T called to say, “we need to reschedule,” she told the news station. Initially, Newman “was told there was a service outage in her new far East Side neighborhood,” News 4 journalist Darian Trotter reported. “Technicians were working on it, but she says they had no idea when service in the area would be restored.”

“I wasn’t hearing back, and I kept getting rescheduled and pushed around to different departments,” Newman said.

“You never came to my house”

Newman was able to schedule another installation appointment in May after the outage was fixed, but installers never came to her house. “For three and a half months, she says she made countless efforts to get connected, including the one time she got an appointment and eagerly waited for technicians to arrive,” News 4 said.

Newman was at home waiting for installers to arrive when she got a message from AT&T saying, “we missed you,” she told News 4. “I’m like, ‘you never came to my house. How did you miss me?'” AT&T installers had mistakenly gone to a different address in Alamo Heights, the report said.

“Out of desperation, she considered switching service providers,” but “an online search of at least three companies revealed service in her neighborhood wasn’t available.” The TV station’s video report shows that those three providers were Charter Spectrum, Grande Communications, and Google Fiber.

“I put in my address and it said, ‘not available,'” Newman said. Newman was afraid of losing her job because of the lack of AT&T Internet service, but News 4 said that “Newman’s employer was able to make special accommodations to keep her working.”

Even though AT&T has dragged its feet for months, its website says that service should be readily available to Newman. We entered Newman’s address into AT&T’s online availability checker, and it reports that fiber-to-the-home service is available where she lives:

AT&T gets moving after hearing from reporter

After months of waiting for AT&T to provide a broadband connection, Newman contacted Trotter at News 4 over two weeks ago. The station reached out to AT&T, and while the company initially did not reply to the media organization, the prospect of news coverage got AT&T’s attention.

The news video showed an email sent to Newman on July 8 from an employee in an AT&T executive office. “The AT&T Office of the President (OOP) received a communication from a local news media reporter,” the email said. “However, since you are our customer, I wanted to reach out to you directly.”

The week after that July 8 email, News 4 “received a statement from a spokeswoman saying, ‘our team has already begun looking into this and is in contact with Ms. Newman,'” Trotter said in the news report. Newman was still waiting for service to be installed this week when the News 4 report aired. “I want my Internet to be installed, up and running by this weekend,” she told the station.

Due to News 4 prodding AT&T into action, it seems that Newman is finally close to getting connected—nearly four months after AT&T abruptly canceled her first installation appointment. “After we got involved, Newman says techs have recently installed wiring, and an Internet box has been set up outside her home,” Trotter said at the end of his report. “Everything is ready, she just needs to schedule the installation.”

We contacted Newman and AT&T today about whether service has been or will soon be installed and will update this article if we get new information.

Newman’s AT&T nightmare unfortunately not unique

Newman’s ordeal is similar to one we wrote about in April. In that case, Comcast had an error in its coverage map and falsely told the customers that Internet service would be available at their new home. The couple, Edward Koll and Jo Narkon, then paid Comcast $5,000 for a network extension, but the project kept getting delayed. Comcast finally provided Internet service after Koll contacted Ars and we reached out to Comcast’s public relations department.

Koll and Narkon ended up waiting six months for cable Internet and had to use unreliable and data-capped cell service that entire time. We’ve written other stories over the years about Comcast falsely telling customers that they could get service. After our article about Koll and Narkon published a few months ago, we heard from a few more people in Comcast territory who were incorrectly told that Internet service would be available at their homes.

We also wrote about a frustrated AT&T-using family in Mississippi in November 2020. AT&T had falsely promised Kathie McNamee and her family U-verse Internet service of about 5Mbps, which is slow by today’s standards but still much faster than what they ended up getting. Ultimately, AT&T only provided the family speeds of up to 768kbps over its legacy DSL network and has not upgraded its network there or in many other areas where glacially slow AT&T speeds are the norm.

This kind of AT&T home-Internet problem is nothing new. Back in 2015, we wrote about a family in Georgia that couldn’t get AT&T Internet at a home they bought even though their neighbors and the home’s previous owners had service. AT&T said it didn’t have enough capacity to hook up additional customers.

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