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Google still claimed to be blocking search rivals on Android, despite Europe’s antitrust action

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Mobile licensing changes made by Google this fall, when it tweaked terms for OEMs wanting to license its Android smartphone platform on devices destined for the European market, don’t appear to be offering succour to search rivals — despite being triggered by an antitrust ruling intended to reset the competitive playing field.

The European Commission found the search giant guilty of anti-competitive practices related to its Android platform this summer, slapping the company with a $5BN fine. The decision required Google cease practices judged to be illegally skewing the market and do so within 90 days.

It was the second such major EC antitrust finding against Google, after last year’s Google Shopping ruling, when the company was warned that having been found dominant in search it had a “special responsibility” to avoid breaching antitrust rules in any market it plays in.

Google disputes the Commission’s findings of competitive abuse in both cases, and has lodged legal appeals.

But the nature of competition law demands action in the meanwhile, given the threat of punitive penalties for any continued breach. So in October Google responded to the Commission’s Android ruling by updating its regional compatibility agreement to provide a route for OEMs to unbundle key services from the Android OS — rather than requiring its suite of Google apps be pre-loaded for devices to get the Play Store.

However it also incorporated licensing fees for some unbundled configurations (e.g. Android + Play Store). At the same time it said it would not charge any fee to include search or Chrome. And it said it was offering incentives for OEMs to place its eponymous, market dominating search engine (and/or browser) prominently on their devices — despite one of the behaviors the Commission judged illegal being payments Google had made to certain large manufacturers and mobile carriers to exclusively pre-install Google Search.

The Commission did not prescribe specific remedies for the anticompetitive behaviours it pegged to Android — saying it’s “Google’s sole responsibility to make sure that it changes its conduct in a way that brings the infringements to an effective end”.

Though it warned it would closely monitor the company’s conduct, noting that any finding of continued non-compliance would risk fresh fines — of up to 5% of the average daily turnover of Alphabet for each day of non-compliance.

The key word there is “effective” — in terms of what the Commission is watching for.

Meanwhile Google’s dominant position in search naturally makes it the smartphone consumer’s go-to choice — which in turn means there’s a natural incentive for device makers not to ditch Google as the search default. At least for mainstream devices.

But Google’s new European licensing terms for Android appear to be piling additional pressure on OEMs not to switch even for more experimental and/or regional device launches, according to privacy-focused search engine Qwant.

The suggestion is Google’s licensing changes have essentially blocked the launch of an Android device with Qwant search rather than Google as the default.

Pay to install

Its experience suggests Google’s initial ‘remedy’ — far from delivering an “effective end” to the competitive infringements the Commission found — is actively steering OEMs away from search alternatives and rival companies.

Qwant, a French startup, launched its non-tracking search offering back in 2013, and has been on a growth tear on its home turf in recent months — winning over high profile users in the public sector as concern has risen about Silicon Valley’s intrusive grip on user data.

The French National Assembly and the French Ministry of the Armed Forces Minister announced this fall they’d switch to Qwant instead of Google as their default.

Of course the startup is still a minnow compared to Google. But it’s growing: Qwant tracks queries rather than users (given it doesn’t track people), and it says it generated 2.6BN queries in 2016; which grew to 9BN last year; and is now on track to end this year with around 18BN queries.

“So if we think about it that means that last year we were three days of Google; this year six days of Google — not so bad!” says co-founder Eric Leandri.

“In France we have now more than 6% of the market,” he continues. “In Germany something like 2%. And we are still growing. We do growth of 20% by month for the last four months. The growth in our revenue is two digit too, by month.”

Earlier this year it had been hoping to make additional regional marketshare gains by securing a deal to be pre-loaded on Android smartphones destined for European markets. A spokesman tells us it has a framework agreement with Huawei. (The Chinese Android OEM is second only to Samsung in global marketshare terms, according to analysts.)

The Commission’s antitrust ruling opened the door to this possibility, given it banned Google from prohibiting OEMs from launching non-Google approved Android forks. So after the ruling things were looking good for Qwant, with the startup on the cusp of securing a device deal for a few European countries, as Leandri tells it. 

He blames Google’s licensing changes for putting the kibosh on a launch they’d been expecting to be able to announce in November. Early that month the startup pinged us to trail forthcoming news — of “a major partnership that will allow us to accelerate in the smartphone market” — only to go silent.

A few weeks later it got in touch again to say it had had to postpone the announcement.

“We are very near to one or two deals to be by default or in the list of search engines in some Android cell phone made by a very large Asian manufacturer… Just for Europe, and just for some countries in Europe but we are talking about 10 million or 20 million of cell phones,” says Leandri now.

“And when we have won the bid against Google in October then Google start to say that in Europe you have to pay $40 for Android. So now if you install Qwant you have to pay $40 and if you install Google they give you some cash.”

“Before it was impossible to bid against Google because Google was blocking everything. Now you can — but now the solution of Google is you have to pay $40 if you don’t install Google by default with Chrome just on the bar. You know the bar that is fixed on Android. And this is again an abuse of their dominant position,” he adds.

“Because if I want, for example, 10 million smartphones, the guy has to pay $400M to Google. Do you really think they will pay $400M to Google just to install Qwant?”

Google’s rebuttal of the Commission’s antitrust finding for Android has focused on claims that its approach of free licensing combined with a bundle of Google services has generally enabled competition to thrive in the mobile app ecosystem, as well as claiming lower prices are a “classic hallmark… of robust competition”.

Yet Qwant’s experience offers a clear counterpoint, underlining how challenging it remains to try to compete with Google’s core search business when the same company also dominates the smartphone market and can just throw the levers of Android’s licensing terms to configure how much ‘appetite’ OEMs have for investing in alternative search defaults (given tiny hardware profit margins in the Android space).

After Qwant won over Huawei to building a device with its search engine in prime position, Leandri says it was Google’s changes to the licensing terms for Android that threw a spanner in the works.

“After that pressure then the manufacturer doesn’t know how to react now,” he says, confirming he believes there’s currently no chance for the device to be launched. Not without further changes to how Android operates in the market — i.e. further regulatory intervention.

“So we will work a lot with the European Commission to stop that,” he adds. “But again, again my question is why Google goes that way?”

We reached out to Google to ask about the fees it would charge an OEM wanting to launch an Android device with Google Play but without Google search as the default in Europe.

We also asked how charging a fee for Android if OEMs don’t also bundle Google services can help increase competition, per the Commission’s intention.

At the time of writing Google had not responded to our questions.

We also reached out to Huawei for comment and will update this story with any response.

Even if Qwant and Huawei get their way, and European buyers in a handful of countries are able to choose to buy an Android device with a little search localization as its differentiating out-of-the-box twist, Leandri isn’t under any illusions that a majority of consumers will still switch back to Google of their own accord — given its dominance of search.

He reckons those who’d stick with a non-Google search choice might be as low as a third or 40%. 

But his point is that, as it stands, Qwant doesn’t even have the chance to try competing against the Google Goliath on its own terms. And he argues that’s simply not fair. 

“Google has billions to make advertisement to ask people to switch, right. And they can even do advertisement on the Play Store for zero because they control the Play Store. Why they don’t come back to a normal market where we are all on the same line and they just compete with advertisement, with pushing their products, with a better proposition of value. It’s crazy, it’s crazy!” he says.

“They have 95% of the market, and on that market they expect that if they don’t have the search by default there then they don’t do money with the Play Store. This is bullshit. They do billions of euros with the app on the Play Store each year. With the 30% that they take on the apps. So this is not true. This is not true, sorry.

“So right now this is our goal and my main work actually is just to obtain the right to have a fair competition — a simple, fair competition.”

“I don’t want to dismantle Google. I don’t want Google to be fined 10BN. I don’t care. The only thing I want is to have the right to have a fair competition,” he adds.

We asked the European Commission to respond to Qwant’s experience, and for an update on its monitoring of Google’s compliance with the Android antitrust ruling.

A spokeswoman declined to comment on an individual case but we understand the Commission has been sending questionnaires to market players as part of its compliance monitoring.

It’s clear the regulator’s intention with the Android decision was to expand consumer choice by creating opportunities for competition that didn’t exist before — including for rival search and browser providers to be able to compete on the merits with Google when it comes to pre-loading their products on Android devices.

So if the Commission’s monitoring efforts confirm instances where competition is being blocked, as appears the case here with Qwant, further interventions will surely follow.

Leandri also points out that Google made much the same arguments vis-a-vis ‘fair competition’ more than a decade ago — when it called for the then computing incumbent, Microsoft, not to stand in the way of Internet upstarts by bundling MSN search into its Internet Explorer web browser. 

“The market favors open choice for search, and companies should compete for users based on the quality of their search services,” said Marissa Mayer in 2006, then Google’s vice president for search products. “We don’t think it’s right for Microsoft to just set the default to MSN. We believe users should choose.”

“I totally agree with what they say in 2006! Just exchange Microsoft for Google and that’s it!” he says now, adding: “We have to fight because there is not a lot of other way. But I stop fighting tomorrow as soon as I have a fair competition.

“I’m not waiting for the Commission to make the competition. Right now the percentage of growth that I have in France it’s not based on the Commission who has won or not. It’s based on our value proposition.”

Leandri is also president of the Open Internet Project, a European organization whose members lobby for regulatory action to rein in what they view as Google’s abusive dominance of digital markets, and which was also involved in the Google Shopping complaints — though he points out that in the Android case three of the five complainants are American. 

“We are the only European. So the problem is not only for a small startup in Europe. Who, y’know, complained because ‘Google is so cool’. And we are so dumb. And so ridiculous. But the problem is for Oracle, it’s for the Fair Search. It’s not for kids.”

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UK worries Starlink and OneWeb may interfere with each other, plans new rules

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Enlarge / Artist’s impression of low-Earth-orbit satellites like those launched by SpaceX and OneWeb.

A UK government agency is worried that OneWeb, SpaceX’s Starlink, and similar low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite-broadband systems could block each others’ signals.

Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, proposed new rules today in a report that details its interference concerns. Ofcom also said it intends to amend satellite licenses already issued to SpaceX and OneWeb to require coordination of frequency use. Without new requirements, the risk of interference could prevent competition by shutting new players out of the market, Ofcom said.

Non-geostationary satellite orbit (NGSO) systems are more complex than the traditional geostationary type because they use hundreds or thousands of satellites, Ofcom noted. “Satellite dishes need to track these satellites as they move across the sky, unlike existing satellite networks, where the dishes are fixed pointing at a single satellite which is stationary in the sky,” the Ofcom report said. Because so many low-Earth-orbit satellites are being launched, “there is a risk of satellites from two different operators appearing to be in the same part of the sky,” causing interference known as “in-line events” in which multiple operators’ satellites are lined up in the sky, Ofcom wrote.

This interference can affect uplink and downlink transmissions between satellites and user terminals that serve individual homes, the report said. The interference can also affect links between satellites and the Gateway Earth stations that connect to the Internet backbone.

“Since NGSO satellites are moving relative to each other and relative to the ground, in-line events may individually only be brief, maybe a few seconds,” Ofcom wrote. “However, if an in-line event occurs and causes interference, it may take longer for the terminal to reconnect to the network. The interference could continue to repeat over time, reoccurring in a regular pattern which will depend on the orbits of the respective systems.”

Outages from interference

Users could lose service when there’s interference to either the user terminal or gateway earth stations, but interference to a gateway station would affect many more users. “[T]he impact of interference on gateway links would be much greater than on individual user links as each gateway provides connectivity for many users (perhaps hundreds or thousands of users depending on the design of the system), so a loss of connection due to interference at the gateway will be experienced more widely across the network,” Ofcom wrote.

Gateway Earth stations operated by different companies “are likely to require large minimum separation distances” of tens of kilometers to avoid interference, Ofcom wrote. In contrast, “multiple GSO [geostationary satellite orbit] gateways can be located on a single site” without causing harmful interference to each other.

The Ofcom report listed five NGSO constellations that are planned or already semi-operational. The biggest example is SpaceX, which is offering beta service from 1,500 already-launched satellites and has over 4,400 satellites planned for its initial phase. Amazon’s Kuiper division hasn’t launched a satellite yet, but it has 3,236 satellites planned in its initial phase, the report noted.

OneWeb—which is co-owned by the UK government and Bharti Global—has launched over 200 satellites and has plans for 648 satellites in its initial phase. Telesat and Kepler round out the list, with plans for 298 and 140 satellites, respectively.

Here’s the Ofcom chart listing low-Earth-orbit satellite networks:

Coordination difficult

The US Federal Communications Commission in 2017 adopted rules, including power limits, to minimize the danger of interference in NGSO systems. The FCC adopted different rules for different slices of spectrum. In the 17.8 to 18.3 GHz band, for example, the FCC said, “while terrestrial use of this band is significant, there are areas, particularly rural areas, where terrestrial deployment is less dense and by using mitigating techniques like siting considerations, off-axis rejection, and shielding, we expect FSS [fixed-satellite service] earth stations will be able to operate successfully without receiving harmful interference… If interference does occur, earth stations can switch to other bands not shared with terrestrial users or use alternative mitigation techniques.”

The FCC also imposed specific conditions to prevent interference and space debris on licenses awarded to SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon, and others.

Ofcom is worried that the global system for coordinating satellites, overseen by the International Telecommunication Union [ITU], isn’t good enough to prevent NGSO problems. “The potential for harmful interference between different satellite systems is usually managed by operators cooperating with each other under the ITU satellite coordination procedures,” Ofcom wrote.

The agency added:

However, coordination between NGSO systems is proving to be more challenging due to the dynamic nature of these systems, combined with operators having differing rates of deployment (some operators holding older filings will not deploy their systems for a few years) and changing their architecture over time. We are therefore concerned that NGSO satellite services could be deployed before an appropriate level of coordination has been possible with other operators.

Ofcom is also worried about the coexistence of user terminals when two or more companies provide LEO satellite service in the same area:

A lack of agreement over how user terminals of different systems can coexist in the same area and band could restrict competition as a result of earlier deployed systems hindering later ones. Once one operator starts deploying user terminals, other operators wishing to launch services using the same band may expect to experience harmful interference from the existing user terminals. In the worst case, this could mean that the quality of their broadband services would not be sufficiently reliable in order to enter the market. Nonetheless, the established player could have an incentive to cooperate given that the interference is likely to be mutual, i.e. their services could be degraded as well.

New rules, license changes

Ofcom said its goal in issuing new rules is to minimize interference while encouraging competition. The agency proposed, among other things, “an additional explicit license condition requiring NGSO licensees to cooperate so they can co-exist and operate within the UK without causing harmful radio interference to each other.” Ofcom said it also intends to “[i]ntroduce checks when we issue new NGSO licenses so that these are only granted if all systems (existing and new) are able to coexist and provide services to end users” and implement new conditions letting Ofcom “take action to resolve degradation to services if this were to occur at a particular location or location(s) in the UK.”

To preserve competition, Ofcom said it will “introduce a competition check” into its licensing process to account for the “technical constraints that the gateway or user terminals could create on future licensees.” Ofcom said:

In particular, in a market that was concentrated, if there was limited prospect of the licensee system and future systems (applicants) being able to technically coexist, then this could form a barrier to future entry to the market. As a result, we are proposing that a key piece of information that applicants should provide when applying for a network license is credible evidence about the technical ability for their system and future systems to coexist. This would include evidence about the flexibility of their system and/or what reasonable steps new licensees could easily undertake to protect them. This information would also be used when assessing whether it is reasonable for new applications and existing services to coexist, to understand the reasonableness of mitigations being undertaken by existing licensees.

Ofcom said it plans to review all NGSO licenses to determine which companies are using the same frequencies. The agency said it will also amend the existing licenses held by SpaceX Starlink, OneWeb, and Kepler. The changes would require “NGSO licensees to cooperate with the other NGSO licensees operating in the same frequencies so they can coexist,” and allow Ofcom “to require operators to take action in cases of interference between NGSO systems which impacts the provision of services to users in particular location(s) in the UK.”

Ofcom said it will take comments on its proposals until September 20, 2021.

We contacted SpaceX about Ofcom’s report and will update this article if the company provides a 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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