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Google is getting caught in the antitrust net

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NurPhoto | Getty

Being a global company has its perks. There’s a lot of money to be made overseas. But the biggest US tech companies are finding out that there’s also a downside: Every country where you make money is a country that could try to regulate you.

It’s hard to keep track of all the tech-related antitrust action happening around the world, in part because it doesn’t always seem to be worth paying close attention to. In Europe, which has long been home to the world’s most aggressive regulators, Google alone was hit with a $2.7 billion fine in 2017, a $5 billion fine in 2018, and a $1.7 billion fine in 2019. These sums would be devastating for most companies, but they are little more than rounding errors for a corporation that reported $61.9 billion in revenue last quarter.

Increasingly, however, foreign countries are going beyond slap-on-the-wrist fines. Instead, they’re forcing tech companies to change how they do business. In February, Australia passed a law giving news publishers the right to negotiate payments from dominant internet platforms—effectively, Facebook and Google. In August, South Korea became the first country to pass a law forcing Apple and Google to open their mobile app stores to alternate payment systems, threatening their grip on the 30 percent commission they charge developers. And in a case with potentially huge ramifications, Google will soon have to respond to the Turkish competition authority’s demand to stop favoring its own properties in local search results.

The consequences of cases like these can ripple far beyond the borders of the country imposing the new rule, creating natural experiments that regulators in other countries might emulate. The fact that Google and Facebook have acquiesced to Australia’s media bargaining code, for example, might accelerate similar efforts in other countries, including Taiwan, Canada, and even the US. Luther Lowe, who as Yelp’s senior vice president of public policy has spent more than a decade lobbying for antitrust action against Google, refers to this phenomenon, approvingly, as “remedy creep.”

In other cases, the companies being forced to change their business model abroad might decide to adopt the shift globally before they’re forced to. After settling an investigation by Japan’s Fair Trade Commission, Apple decided to implement the solution—allowing audio, video, and reading apps to link to their own websites to accept payment—globally.

“Sometimes it’s the market driving it: The companies decide it’s too costly to make different compliance strategies in different markets,” said Anu Bradford, a professor of international and antitrust law at Columbia University. “Or, sometimes, it’s in anticipation of copycat regulation: They know it’s out there, and they’re not going wait for the Russians or Turkish to do their own case.”

While it hasn’t gotten quite the same level of media attention as Australia and South Korea, the case in Turkey could end up being the biggest deal. That’s because it cuts to the heart of how Google uses its power as the gatekeeper for most internet traffic.

The case is about what’s called local search, like when you look for “restaurants near me” or “hardware store.” This is a huge category of search traffic—nearly half of all Google searches, according to some analysts. Google’s critics and competitors have long complained that Google unfairly uses its dominance to steer local search results to its own offerings, even when that might not be the most helpful result. Think about how, if you search on Google for “Chinese restaurant,” the top of the results page will probably feature a widget that Google calls the OneBox. It will include section of Google Maps and a few Google reviews of Chinese restaurants near you. You’ll have to scroll down to find the top organic results, which may be from Yelp or TripAdvisor.

This dynamic has exasperated Google critics and competitors for years. One of those aggrieved competitors, Yelp, initiated the case in Turkey by lodging a complaint with the country’s competition authority. Google argues that its local search results are designed to be maximally helpful for users, not to pad its own bottom line. But the Turkish regulators disagreed, concluding that Google “has violated Article 6 of the Turkish Competition Law by abusing its dominant position in the general search services market to promote its local search and accommodation price comparison services in a way to exclude its competitors.” (I’m quoting a translation provided by a Turkish lawyer.) In April they imposed a fine of about $36 million. That’s less than Google earned every two hours, on average, in 2020. But while the fine was trivial, the rest of the decision was not. The authority issued a preliminary ruling ordering Google to come up with a way of displaying local search results that doesn’t favor itself over competitors.

For now, the case is in limbo. The competition authority still has to issue a “reasoned opinion” laying out its conclusions in detail. Then, Google will get the chance to submit its proposal for complying with the ruling. It will be up to the competition authority to decide whether that proposal is good enough or not.

This isn’t Google’s first rodeo in Ankara. In 2018 the competition authority made a similar ruling about Google Shopping, finding that Google privileged itself over other comparison-shopping sites. This came on the heels of an analogous European Union case, but with an important difference: In that case, the EU accepted Google’s solution, even though its competitors argued it was inadequate. The Turkish authorities did not. That gave Google a choice: come back with a solution the regulators would accept, or pull the plug on Google Shopping in Turkey. The company chose the latter option, simply shutting down its comparison shopping module in the country.

Google could do the same thing in the current case. But the stakes would be far higher. Local search is a much bigger share of the overall search pie, and Turkey, with a population of 85 million people, is a big place. Giving up on local search would be taking away a commonly used feature in a large market. That means the company has a greater incentive to propose a fix that won’t get rejected by the competition authority. But that in turn raises a complimentary risk: Any solution adopted in Turkey could be demanded elsewhere.

“If you’re one of these globally dominant companies, the downside is, if one of those jurisdictions becomes a live example in the wild of an antitrust remedy, there’s a huge domino-effect risk,” said Yelp’s Luther Lowe. “Because suddenly, Amy Klobuchar can hold up her smartphone in a Senate hearing where Sundar Pichai is testifying and say, ‘Mr. Pichai, I have my Turkish VPN activated right now, and it appears that Turkish consumers are getting a better deal than Minnesota consumers.’”

What might that look like? Google hasn’t publicized any proposed remedies; Emily Clarke, a spokesperson, said the company is waiting for the full opinion to be released before it can figure out what its legal obligations are. Yelp argues that whoever wins the organic search results should also win the right to have its API power the OneBox results, on the theory that Google’s own algorithm has already deemed them the most relevant result. In other words, if a search right now leads to a Google Maps result in the OneBox, but the first link below that is from Yelp, then Yelp should get to populate the OneBox instead—meaning you would see Yelp reviews first, not Google reviews, when trying to figure out where to get dinner.

Such a change, if adopted widely, could dramatically reshape the flow of a great deal of internet traffic. As the analyst Rand Fishkin noted in 2019, more than 50 percent of Google searches end without the user clicking to another site. That’s partly because, as the Markup documented last year, Google’s own properties or “direct answers” make up well more than half of the first page a user sees when searching on mobile.

“If this jurisdiction compels them to behave in an interoperable and non-discriminatory way, that basically reverts the original mechanism of Google as kind of a turnstile,” said Lowe. “You get just a huge torrent of traffic to third party services.”

It’s easy to see why a company like Yelp wants a crack at top billing. The question is whether Turkey’s regulators will force Google to give it to them—and, if so, whether Google will go along or send Turkish users back to the original 10 blue links. Either way, the consequences will probably not stay confined to Turkey’s borders. US tech companies conquered the world. Now the world wants to conquer back.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

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Continuous scrolling comes to mobile Google Search

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Enlarge / See that spinny thing at the bottom of the page? It’s going to load more search results any second now…

Google

Google is rolling out a big update to mobile search today: continuous scrolling.

Now, instead of making you tap to load the next page after your usual 10 links of search results, Google will just load the next page.

The company hopes that continuous scrolling will get people to look at more search results and that a longer supply of results is better for more open-ended search questions. The blog post notes that “most people who want additional information tend to browse up to four pages of search results.” If you search on your phone, you’ll find that continuous scrolling lasts for exactly four pages before the familiar “show more” link pops up. When Google automatically loads the next page, it also sticks an ad before the next page of search results.

Google said that “this new Search experience is starting to gradually roll out today for most English searches on mobile in the US.” It seems to work on the Google Search app and the website.

Listing image by Sean Gallup | Getty Images

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Fixes for AMD Ryzen performance, other Windows 11 issues rolling out to testers now

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Enlarge / A PC running Windows 11.

Microsoft

Now that Windows 11 is out, the arduous process of fixing the new operating system’s bugs can begin. The OS got its first Patch Tuesday update earlier this week, and now another update is rolling out to Windows Insiders in the Beta and Release Preview channels. It fixes a long list of early problems with Windows 11.

The headliner here is a fix for a problem affecting L3 cache latency on AMD Ryzen processors. According to AMD, the bug can reduce performance by 3–5 percent. The Windows 11 update released earlier this week may have actually made the problem worse, but at least a fix is imminent.

The L3 latency bug is one of a pair of problems that AMD identified with Windows 11 earlier this month. The other Windows 11 problem AMD identified, which can prevent high-core-count, high-wattage Ryzen chips from correctly assigning work to the processor’s fastest individual cores, will be fixed via an AMD driver update.

The Release Preview Insider channel is usually a Windows update’s last stop before public distribution. A post shared on Reddit suggests that the Windows update is being targeted for release on Tuesday, October 19th, while the AMD driver update for the other problem should be released two days later, on the 21st.

Other bugs addressed in the Windows 11 update include one that prevented some upgraders from seeing the new Taskbar or using the Start menu, a PowerShell bug that can fill up a storage volume with “an infinite number of child directories” when you try to move a directory into its own child directory, and a number of problems that could cause freezes, crashes, and slowdowns.

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MacBook Pros, an “M1X” chip, and other stuff to expect at Apple’s October event

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Enlarge / Apple could be getting ready to show us the next stage of the MacBook Pro’s development.

Another month, another Apple event. Fresh off a September event that delivered new updates for the entire iPhone lineup, some new iPads, and a gently tweaked Apple Watch, Apple is preparing for another event on Monday, October 18. And this time, we’re expecting the company to focus on the Mac, which is still in the middle of a transition from Intel chips to the Apple Silicon chips that are making new Macs feel exciting and important in a way they haven’t in years.

We’ll be following along live starting at 10 am Pacific on Monday, but in the meantime, we’ve gathered all the current rumors and put together a list of things we’re most likely to see (as well as one or two things that aren’t as likely). The short version is that Apple should finally be gearing up to show us high-performance Apple Silicon chips.

The “M1X” chip, or whatever it’s called

Just as the MacBook Air, the newest 13-inch MacBook Pro, the Mac mini, and the 24-inch iMac all use the same M1 chip, we expect the next round of Macs to share the same silicon as well. Commonly referred to as the “M1X,” the chip’s exact specifications are a bit of a mystery, since Apple’s chip designs are among its best-kept secrets. But it’s not hard to guess the general gist of what we’ll be getting—new chips that improve upon the performance of the Intel processors they’re replacing while also enabling a dramatic increase in battery life. Recent Intel MacBook refreshes have struggled to provide one or the other of these things, but the M1 Macs managed to do both.

To replace the higher-end Intel Macs, the M1X will need to have just a bit more of everything compared to the M1: more processor cores, more GPU cores, and support for more monitors and Thunderbolt and USB ports. Without adapters or docks, the M1 can drive only two screens at once, including the computer’s internal display. We’d also expect configurations with more than 16 GB of RAM, the current maximum for M1 Macs.

A report from late last year suggested that a higher-performance chip destined for the MacBook Pros could include as many as 16 of Apple’s performance cores, though more recent reporting suggests we could be looking at a chip with eight performance cores and two low-power efficiency cores. Even eight performance cores should be able to outpace the 4-, 6-, 8-, and 10-core processors in today’s Intel Macs. The M1X will also reportedly be available with either 16 or 32 GPU cores, compared to the seven or eight GPU cores included in the standard M1 (Apple could also improve graphics performance by increasing memory bandwidth, as it has done in some older iPad processors, but we haven’t heard anything specific about that).

New MacBook Pros

New MacBook Pros that replace the four-port 13-inch MacBook Pro and the 16-inch MacBook Pro are the thing we’re most likely to get out of Monday’s event.

Apple’s first few Apple Silicon Macs were very conservative from a design standpoint—the MacBook Air, two-port MacBook Pro, and Mac mini all put new guts into computers that looked identical to the ones they were replacing. But the new MacBook Pros could be a bit more adventurous, in the vein of the 24-inch iMac.

For example, persistent rumors claim that the 13-inch MacBook Pro could become a 14-inch MacBook Pro. And breadcrumbs left in some macOS betas suggest that Apple is working on laptops with higher-resolution screens that could obviate the need for the scaled, non-native resolution that all current MacBooks use out of the box. With a more efficient chip, Apple could also take the opportunity to shrink the 16-inch MacBook Pro’s huge 100 WHr battery, reducing the 4.3-pound laptop’s size and weight. Other improvements could include more energy-efficient mini LED backlighting for the displays and possibly even a 120 Hz refresh rate (the reporting for the 120 Hz refresh rate is thin, but it would dovetail nicely with macOS Monterey’s support for external monitors with variable refresh rates).

Other rumors suggest that Apple will walk back some of the more controversial changes made to the MacBook Pro back in 2016, the last time the laptops got a comprehensive overhaul. Alleged schematics from earlier this year suggest that the MagSafe power connector could make a return, along with a full-size HDMI port and an SD card slot. These changes would reduce the number of Thunderbolt ports to three, but having a few kinds of ports would still make the laptops more convenient to use, on balance, for people who frequently use external displays or SD cards. The Touch Bar may also be removed in favor of a physical row of function keys.

A faster Mac mini

The 2020, M1-equipped Apple Mac mini.

The 2020, M1-equipped Apple Mac mini.

Samuel Axon

We’d say the new MacBook Pros are pretty much a sure thing, but there are a couple of less-likely-but-still-possible Mac refreshes Apple could introduce.

Apple already has an Apple Silicon Mac mini, but you may have noticed that the company continues to sell a version of the 2018 Intel Mac mini with more ports and up to 64GB of RAM. Recent rumors suggest that Apple could replace this machine with a sort of “Mac mini Pro,” which would leverage the M1X’s improved performance and expanded connectivity. The current Apple Silicon Mac mini is great for basic use or even light photo and video editing, but an M1X Mac mini would be a better workstation for code compilation or professional video editing, tasks that generally take advantage of all of the processing performance they can get.

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