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Is Europe closing in on an antitrust fix for surveillance technologists? – TechCrunch

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The German Federal Cartel Office’s decision to order Facebook to change how it processes users’ personal data this week is a sign the antitrust tide could at last be turning against platform power.

One European Commission source we spoke to, who was commenting in a personal capacity, described it as “clearly pioneering” and “a big deal”, even without Facebook being fined a dime.

The FCO’s decision instead bans the social network from linking user data across different platforms it owns, unless it gains people’s consent (nor can it make use of its services contingent on such consent). Facebook is also prohibited from gathering and linking data on users from third party websites, such as via its tracking pixels and social plugins.

The order is not yet in force, and Facebook is appealing, but should it come into force the social network faces being de facto shrunk by having its platforms siloed at the data level.

To comply with the order Facebook would have to ask users to freely consent to being data-mined — which the company does not do at present.

Yes, Facebook could still manipulate the outcome it wants from users but doing so would open it to further challenge under EU data protection law, as its current approach to consent is already being challenged.

The EU’s updated privacy framework, GDPR, requires consent to be specific, informed and freely given. That standard supports challenges to Facebook’s (still fixed) entry ‘price’ to its social services. To play you still have to agree to hand over your personal data so it can sell your attention to advertisers. But legal experts contend that’s neither privacy by design nor default.

The only ‘alternative’ Facebook offers is to tell users they can delete their account. Not that doing so would stop the company from tracking you around the rest of the mainstream web anyway. Facebook’s tracking infrastructure is also embedded across the wider Internet so it profiles non-users too.

EU data protection regulators are still investigating a very large number of consent-related GDPR complaints.

But the German FCO, which said it liaised with privacy authorities during its investigation of Facebook’s data-gathering, has dubbed this type of behavior “exploitative abuse”, having also deemed the social service to hold a monopoly position in the German market.

So there are now two lines of legal attack — antitrust and privacy law — threatening Facebook (and indeed other adtech companies’) surveillance-based business model across Europe.

A year ago the German antitrust authority also announced a probe of the online advertising sector, responding to concerns about a lack of transparency in the market. Its work here is by no means done.

Data limits

The lack of a big flashy fine attached to the German FCO’s order against Facebook makes this week’s story less of a major headline than recent European Commission antitrust fines handed to Google — such as the record-breaking $5BN penalty issued last summer for anticompetitive behaviour linked to the Android mobile platform.

But the decision is arguably just as, if not more, significant, because of the structural remedies being ordered upon Facebook. These remedies have been likened to an internal break-up of the company — with enforced internal separation of its multiple platform products at the data level.

This of course runs counter to (ad) platform giants’ preferred trajectory, which has long been to tear modesty walls down; pool user data from multiple internal (and indeed external sources), in defiance of the notion of informed consent; and mine all that personal (and sensitive) stuff to build identity-linked profiles to train algorithms that predict (and, some contend, manipulate) individual behavior.

Because if you can predict what a person is going to do you can choose which advert to serve to increase the chance they’ll click. (Or as Mark Zuckerberg puts it: ‘Senator, we run ads.’)

This means that a regulatory intervention that interferes with an ad tech giant’s ability to pool and process personal data starts to look really interesting. Because a Facebook that can’t join data dots across its sprawling social empire — or indeed across the mainstream web — wouldn’t be such a massive giant in terms of data insights. And nor, therefore, surveillance oversight.

Each of its platforms would be forced to be a more discrete (and, well, discreet) kind of business.

Competing against data-siloed platforms with a common owner — instead of a single interlinked mega-surveillance-network — also starts to sound almost possible. It suggests a playing field that’s reset, if not entirely levelled.

(Whereas, in the case of Android, the European Commission did not order any specific remedies — allowing Google to come up with ‘fixes’ itself; and so to shape the most self-serving ‘fix’ it can think of.)

Meanwhile, just look at where Facebook is now aiming to get to: A technical unification of the backend of its different social products.

Such a merger would collapse even more walls and fully enmesh platforms that started life as entirely separate products before were folded into Facebook’s empire (also, let’s not forget, via surveillance-informed acquisitions).

Facebook’s plan to unify its products on a single backend platform looks very much like an attempt to throw up technical barriers to antitrust hammers. It’s at least harder to imagine breaking up a company if its multiple, separate products are merged onto one unified backend which functions to cross and combine data streams.

Set against Facebook’s sudden desire to technically unify its full-flush of dominant social networks (Facebook Messenger; Instagram; WhatsApp) is a rising drum-beat of calls for competition-based scrutiny of tech giants.

This has been building for years, as the market power — and even democracy-denting potential — of surveillance capitalism’s data giants has telescoped into view.

Calls to break up tech giants no longer carry a suggestive punch. Regulators are routinely asked whether it’s time. As the European Commission’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, was when she handed down Google’s latest massive antitrust fine last summer.

Her response then was that she wasn’t sure breaking Google up is the right answer — preferring to try remedies that might allow competitors to have a go, while also emphasizing the importance of legislating to ensure “transparency and fairness in the business to platform relationship”.

But it’s interesting that the idea of breaking up tech giants now plays so well as political theatre, suggesting that wildly successful consumer technology companies — which have long dined out on shiny convenience-based marketing claims, made ever so saccharine sweet via the lure of ‘free’ services — have lost a big chunk of their populist pull, dogged as they have been by so many scandals.

From terrorist content and hate speech, to election interference, child exploitation, bullying, abuse. There’s also the matter of how they arrange their tax affairs.

The public perception of tech giants has matured as the ‘costs’ of their ‘free’ services have scaled into view. The upstarts have also become the establishment. People see not a new generation of ‘cuddly capitalists’ but another bunch of multinationals; highly polished but remote money-making machines that take rather more than they give back to the societies they feed off.

Google’s trick of naming each Android iteration after a different sweet treat makes for an interesting parallel to the (also now shifting) public perceptions around sugar, following closer attention to health concerns. What does its sickly sweetness mask? And after the sugar tax, we now have politicians calling for a social media levy.

Just this week the deputy leader of the main opposition party in the UK called for setting up a standalone Internet regulatory with the power to break up tech monopolies.

Talking about breaking up well-oiled, wealth-concentration machines is being seen as a populist vote winner. And companies that political leaders used to flatter and seek out for PR opportunities find themselves treated as political punchbags; Called to attend awkward grilling by hard-grafting committees, or taken to vicious task verbally at the highest profile public podia. (Though some non-democratic heads of state are still keen to press tech giant flesh.)

In Europe, Facebook’s repeat snubs of the UK parliament’s requests last year for Zuckerberg to face policymakers’ questions certainly did not go unnoticed.

Zuckerberg’s empty chair at the DCMS committee has become both a symbol of the company’s failure to accept wider societal responsibility for its products, and an indication of market failure; the CEO so powerful he doesn’t feel answerable to anyone; neither his most vulnerable users nor their elected representatives. Hence UK politicians on both sides of the aisle making political capital by talking about cutting tech giants down to size.

The political fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal looks far from done.

Quite how a UK regulator could successfully swing a regulatory hammer to break up a global Internet giant such as Facebook which is headquartered in the U.S. is another matter. But policymakers have already crossed the rubicon of public opinion and are relishing talking up having a go.

That represents a sea-change vs the neoliberal consensus that allowed competition regulators to sit on their hands for more than a decade as technology upstarts quietly hoovered up people’s data and bagged rivals, and basically went about transforming themselves from highly scalable startups into market-distorting giants with Internet-scale data-nets to snag users and buy or block competing ideas.

The political spirit looks willing to go there, and now the mechanism for breaking platforms’ distorting hold on markets may also be shaping up.

The traditional antitrust remedy of breaking a company along its business lines still looks unwieldy when faced with the blistering pace of digital technology. The problem is delivering such a fix fast enough that the business hasn’t already reconfigured to route around the reset. 

Commission antitrust decisions on the tech beat have stepped up impressively in pace on Vestager’s watch. Yet it still feels like watching paper pushers wading through treacle to try and catch a sprinter. (And Europe hasn’t gone so far as trying to impose a platform break up.) 

But the German FCO decision against Facebook hints at an alternative way forward for regulating the dominance of digital monopolies: Structural remedies that focus on controlling access to data which can be relatively swiftly configured and applied.

Vestager, whose term as EC competition chief may be coming to its end this year (even if other Commission roles remain in potential and tantalizing contention), has championed this idea herself.

In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today program in December she poured cold water on the stock question about breaking tech giants up — saying instead the Commission could look at how larger firms got access to data and resources as a means of limiting their power. Which is exactly what the German FCO has done in its order to Facebook. 

At the same time, Europe’s updated data protection framework has gained the most attention for the size of the financial penalties that can be issued for major compliance breaches. But the regulation also gives data watchdogs the power to limit or ban processing. And that power could similarly be used to reshape a rights-eroding business model or snuff out such business entirely.

The merging of privacy and antitrust concerns is really just a reflection of the complexity of the challenge regulators now face trying to rein in digital monopolies. But they’re tooling up to meet that challenge.

Speaking in an interview with TechCrunch last fall, Europe’s data protection supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, told us the bloc’s privacy regulators are moving towards more joint working with antitrust agencies to respond to platform power. “Europe would like to speak with one voice, not only within data protection but by approaching this issue of digital dividend, monopolies in a better way — not per sectors,” he said. “But first joint enforcement and better co-operation is key.”

The German FCO’s decision represents tangible evidence of the kind of regulatory co-operation that could — finally — crack down on tech giants.

Blogging in support of the decision this week, Buttarelli asserted: “It is not necessary for competition authorities to enforce other areas of law; rather they need simply to identity where the most powerful undertakings are setting a bad example and damaging the interests of consumers.  Data protection authorities are able to assist in this assessment.”

He also had a prediction of his own for surveillance technologists, warning: “This case is the tip of the iceberg — all companies in the digital information ecosystem that rely on tracking, profiling and targeting should be on notice.”

So perhaps, at long last, the regulators have figured out how to move fast and break things.



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Apple Unleashed: Everything we can expect

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Slightly over a month after its September event, Apple is set for an “Unleashed” October event. This second product launch of the fall on October 18 is scheduled a day before Google’s much-anticipated Pixel event. Strategically timed or not, the Apple event is not going to have any competitive iPhones to show. The highlight of the “Unleashed” event will be the new MacBook Pros powered by an upgraded in-house processor.

Once again, it wouldn’t be an in-person event; it will be livestreamed from Apple’s Cupertino headquarters for the world to follow. It will kick off at 10am Pacific Time on Monday, which is unusual, since Apple products are generally released on Tuesdays. To an extent, this is cleverly timed to hog up Google’s limelight.

Apple as we know has already launched iPhone 13 lineup along with the Apple Watch Series 7 and new iPads, it is exciting to understand what is in store for the latest launch event. We are definitely going to see the upgraded ARM-based M1 chipset – likely called M1X – which will find its way into the revamped MacBook Pros, in the Mac Mini, and maybe a larger iMac.

Perhaps, there is no concrete information about the M1X Macs but a recent leak does confirm the possibility of long-rumored AirPods 3 to join the party. The new AirPods were earlier expected to release along with the new iPhones, that hasn’t happened, so we are hopeful the earbuds will make an appearance on Monday.

How to watch the event?

Before we delve deeper into the expected products, let’s run through how you can watch the event live. In case you miss the livestreaming, we will be covering the product launches as and when they happen here on Slashgear.

The “Unleashed” event will be streamed live on Apple’s website or on the Apple TV app. It will also be aired on the Apple channel on YouTube, so you can tune in to your preferred medium at 10am PT on October 18.

The revamped MacBook Pro

The next-generation Apple processor designed specifically for the Mac is expected to get more than just an incremental upgrade. The M1 chip launched last year has proven its worth with powerful features and incredible efficiency. The chipset revolutionized the MacBook Pro in 2020; in 2021, the processor with upgraded performance and efficiency will power the notably distinct MacBook Pro beyond ordinary expectations.

When Apple introduced the M1 chip, it informed that the transition from Intel to Apple’s own silicon will take about “two years” to complete. Into the second year now, we expect the journey is almost complete and the potent new chipset is ready. It can replace the Intel processing in the larger-screen MacBook Pro and take the performance of the smaller Pro to an exciting new high.

Actually, two MacBook Pro variants are launching this year. The 13.3-inch model from the previous year goes out and a resized 14-inch MacBook Pro will debut, which is likely to arrive alongside a 16-inch model. Since both the variants will run on the same graphics-enhancing M1X processor, Apple may deliver two separate options of its SoC for either MacBook. The difference may be in the GPU and storage variants.

Besides the incredible processing, the MacBook Pro is for the first time in five years allegedly receiving a redesign in line with the trusted form factor of the iPhone 13. The flat-edge design that launched with the iPhone 12, will add a nice appeal to the new MacBook Pro that will arrive without the Touch Bar but a 1080p webcam.

The laptop is also likely to arrive with mini-LED panel boasting 120Hz refresh rate. There is a chance it will feature a thinner bezel and include slots for SD card and HDMI. The MagSafe charging is allegedly making a comeback to the Apple MacBook Pro.

AirPods 3

The probable launch of AirPods 3 is a rumor that doesn’t seem to settle. Whenever we discuss the pre-launch expectation of an Apple event the next-generation AirPods invariably pop up in discussion. The much-anticipated earbuds might launch this time after failing us in September when they should have logically arrived with the iPhones.

The redesigned, entry-level AirPods 3 are likely to launch with a shorter stem and a wireless charging case, similar to the AirPods Pro. There have been leaks suggesting them with silicone ear tips. Despite how close they get to the AirPods Pro, the third-gen AirPods will be an affordable alternative without ANC.

The final thoughts

In the lead-up to the second fall event, there have been half-baked stories about a few other probabilities. Notable Apple analyst Mark Gurman thinks a high-end Mac Mini powered by the improved in-house chip is on the cards. Announcement of a release date for the company’s macOS Monterey is also likely at the event. The desktop operating system was previewed at the WWDC 2021, albeit a small update, it will still be exciting to know a possible date for its release.

This is more or less what we can expect. Apple however has a knack for pulling out the unexpected, so we’ll only know what’s what on Monday when Apple goes Unleashed. There could be some surprises but 14 and 16-inch MacBook Pros powered by M1X SoC is going to be the biggest highlight.

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Tinder’s latest feature helps users find dates for in-person weddings

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If taking a total stranger as your plus one to a wedding doesn’t sound like a bad idea to you, Tinder is back with a new feature that’ll make the entire process easier. The company has announced a feature called Plus One that, as you’d expect, lets users alert others that they’re looking for a date to take to a wedding.

Tinder announced its new Plus One feature on Thursday, stating that it has teamed up with WeddingWire to help users find someone to take as a date to a wedding. The feature is available in the app’s Explore section, ensuring users are able to make their particular needs known to others who may want to tag along.

The team-up with WeddingWire, meanwhile, is to launch a ‘Wedding Guest Grant’ giveaway that’s now live. With this, the first 100 people to join the Plus One section in Explore will get $460 toward the cost of a wedding — the average amount WeddingWire says people spend to show up as guests.

Many in the industry are bracing for an anticipated onslaught in weddings later this year and through 2022. The reason is — you guessed it — because of the wedding postponements that occurred in 2020 and most of 2021 due to the pandemic.

The combination of readily available vaccines in many places, as well as cheap rapid COVID-19 tests and loosened travel restrictions, have made in-person weddings a safer option again. According to Tinder, it has seen the number of users adding “plus one” to their profiles increase 45-percent since the start of 2021.

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Steam Blockchain games ban: Good news for NFT and crypto alike

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An update to Valve’s rules for games on Steam effectively bans all Blockchain games that use cryptocurrencies or NFTs. This is GOOD news if you’re a cryptocurrency or NFT holder, at the moment, as it represents another public acknowledgement of the real-world value of cryptocurrencies and NFTs alike.

It’s not clear yet if this means that any sort of game using ANY sort of blockchain tech will be removed – but it DOES stop all blockchain-based digital tokens from playing a part in games on Steam. Information was shared by the folks behind the game Age of Rust, a game that’s built with blockchain tech that allows the exchange of NFT in accordance with puzzle solving gameplay.

SEE TOO: What is NFT? (for the crypto-newb)

If we’re looking at the situation from the perspective of the developers of a game like Age of Rust, this is certainly a setback. It might just be a temporary setback, but it IS a setback. These developers will need to find a new way to distribute their games – which might mean they need to work with less well-known game hosting platforms.

The developers of Age of Rust suggested that Valve told them that “Steam’s point of view is that items have value and they don’t allow items that can have real-world value on their platform.” So if you were wondering if a company as big as Valve considered those bits of code you were earning in your games to have any value outside of the games you’ve been playing… there’s your answer.

Now it’ll be interesting to see the point at which Valve must acknowledge the difference between in-game cryptocurrency and NFT exchange and in-game purchases, and whether there’ll be any further distinction between the two in future updates to Steam’s set of rules for hosted games. Given Steam’s use of tradeable achievement cards, tokens, and the like, it would not be shocking to find Valve incorporating non-fungible tokens (NFTs) into their platform at a higher level in the near future.

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