competition

Seized cache of Facebook docs raise competition and consent questions

Posted by | Android, api, competition, Damian Collins, data protection law, DCMS committee, Developer, Europe, european union, Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, Onavo, Policy, privacy, Six4Three, Social, social network, terms of service, United Kingdom, vpn | No Comments

A UK parliamentary committee has published the cache of Facebook documents it dramatically seized last week.

The documents were obtained by a legal discovery process by a startup that’s suing the social network in a California court in a case related to Facebook changing data access permissions back in 2014/15.

The court had sealed the documents but the DCMS committee used rarely deployed parliamentary powers to obtain them from the Six4Three founder, during a business trip to London.

You can read the redacted documents here — all 250 pages of them.

In a series of tweets regarding the publication, committee chair Damian Collins says he believes there is “considerable public interest” in releasing them.

“They raise important questions about how Facebook treats users data, their policies for working with app developers, and how they exercise their dominant position in the social media market,” he writes.

“We don’t feel we have had straight answers from Facebook on these important issues, which is why we are releasing the documents. We need a more public debate about the rights of social media users and the smaller businesses who are required to work with the tech giants. I hope that our committee investigation can stand up for them.”

The committee has been investigating online disinformation and election interference for the best part of this year, and has been repeatedly frustrated in its attempts to extract answers from Facebook.

But it is protected by parliamentary privilege — hence it’s now published the Six4Three files, having waited a week in order to redact certain pieces of personal information.

Collins has included a summary of key issues, as the committee sees them after reviewing the documents, in which he draws attention to six issues.

Here is his summary of the key issues:

  • White Lists Facebook have clearly entered into whitelisting agreements with certain companies, which meant that after the platform changes in 2014/15 they maintained full access to friends data. It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not.

Facebook responded

  • Value of friends data It is clear that increasing revenues from major app developers was one of the key drivers behind the Platform 3.0 changes at Facebook. The idea of linking access to friends data to the financial value of the developers relationship with Facebook is a recurring feature of the documents.

In their response Facebook contends that this was essentially another “cherrypicked” topic and that the company “ultimately settled on a model where developers did not need to purchase advertising to access APIs and we continued to provide the developer platform for free.”

  • Reciprocity Data reciprocity between Facebook and app developers was a central feature in the discussions about the launch of Platform 3.0.
  • Android Facebook knew that the changes to its policies on the Android mobile phone system, which enabled the Facebook app to collect a record of calls and texts sent by the user would be controversial. To mitigate any bad PR, Facebook planned to make it as hard of possible for users to know that this was one of the underlying features of the upgrade of their app.
  • Onavo Facebook used Onavo to conduct global surveys of the usage of mobile apps by customers, and apparently without their knowledge. They used this data to assess not just how many people had downloaded apps, but how often they used them. This knowledge helped them to decide which companies to acquire, and which to treat as a threat.
  • Targeting competitor Apps The files show evidence of Facebook taking aggressive positions against apps, with the consequence that denying them access to data led to the failure of that business.

Update: 11:40am

Facebook has posted a lengthy response (read it here) positing that the “set of documents, by design, tells only one side of the story and omits important context.” They give a blow-by-blow response to Collins’ points below though they are ultimately pretty selective in what they actually address.

Generally they suggest that some of the issues being framed as anti-competitive were in fact designed to prevent “sketchy apps” from operating on the platform. Furthermore, Facebook details that they delete some old call logs on Android, that using “market research” data from Onava is essentially standard practice and that users had the choice whether data was shared reciprocally between FB and developers. In regard to specific competitors’ apps, Facebook appears to have tried to get ahead of this release with their announcement yesterday that it was ending its platform policy of banning apps that “replicate core functionality.” 

The publication of the files comes at an awkward moment for Facebook — which remains on the back foot after a string of data and security scandals, and has just announced a major policy change — ending a long-running ban on apps copying its own platform features.

Albeit the timing of Facebook’s policy shift announcement hardly looks incidental — given Collins said last week the committee would publish the files this week.

The policy in question has been used by Facebook to close down competitors in the past, such as — two years ago — when it cut off style transfer app Prisma’s access to its live-streaming Live API when the startup tried to launch a livestreaming art filter (Facebook subsequently launched its own style transfer filters for Live).

So its policy reversal now looks intended to diffuse regulatory scrutiny around potential antitrust concerns.

But emails in the Six4Three files suggesting that Facebook took “aggressive positions” against competing apps could spark fresh competition concerns.

In one email dated January 24, 2013, a Facebook staffer, Justin Osofsky, discusses Twitter’s launch of its short video clip app, Vine, and says Facebook’s response will be to close off its API access.

As part of their NUX, you can find friends via FB. Unless anyone raises objections, we will shut down their friends API access today. We’ve prepared reactive PR, and I will let Jana know our decision,” he writes. 

Osofsky’s email is followed by what looks like a big thumbs up from Zuckerberg, who replies: “Yup, go for it.”

Also of concern on the competition front is Facebook’s use of a VPN startup it acquired, Onavo, to gather intelligence on competing apps — either for acquisition purposes or to target as a threat to its business.

The files show various Onavo industry charts detailing reach and usage of mobile apps and social networks — with each of these graphs stamped ‘highly confidential’.

Facebook bought Onavo back in October 2013. Shortly after it shelled out $19BN to acquire rival messaging app WhatsApp — which one Onavo chart in the cache indicates was beasting Facebook on mobile, accounting for well over double the daily message sends at that time.

Onavo charts are quite an insight into facebook’s commanding view of the app-based attention marketplace pic.twitter.com/Ezdaxk6ffC

— David Carroll 🦅 (@profcarroll) December 5, 2018

The files also spotlight several issues of concern relating to privacy and data protection law, with internal documents raising fresh questions over how or even whether (in the case of Facebook’s whitelisting agreements with certain developers) it obtained consent from users to process their personal data.

The company is already facing a number of privacy complaints under the EU’s GDPR framework over its use of ‘forced consent‘, given that it does not offer users an opt-out from targeted advertising.

But the Six4Three files look set to pour fresh fuel on the consent fire.

Collins’ fourth line item — related to an Android upgrade — also speaks loudly to consent complaints.

Earlier this year Facebook was forced to deny that it collects calls and SMS data from users of its Android apps without permission. But, as we wrote at the time, it had used privacy-hostile design tricks to sneak expansive data-gobbling permissions past users. So, put simple, people clicked ‘agree’ without knowing exactly what they were agreeing to.

The Six4Three files back up the notion that Facebook was intentionally trying to mislead users.

In one email dated November 15, 2013, from Matt Scutari, manager privacy and public policy, suggests ways to prevent users from choosing to set a higher level of privacy protection, writing: “Matt is providing policy feedback on a Mark Z request that Product explore the possibility of making the Only Me audience setting unsticky. The goal of this change would be to help users avoid inadvertently posting to the Only Me audience. We are encouraging Product to explore other alternatives, such as more aggressive user education or removing stickiness for all audience settings.”

Another awkward trust issue for Facebook which the documents could stir up afresh relates to its repeat claim — including under questions from lawmakers — that it does not sell user data.

In one email from the cache — sent by Mark Zuckerberg, dated October 7, 2012 — the Facebook founder appears to be entertaining the idea of charging developers for “reading anything, including friends”.

Yet earlier this year, when he was asked by a US lawmaker how Facebook makes money, Zuckerberg replied: “Senator, we sell ads.”

He did not include a caveat that he had apparently personally entertained the idea of liberally selling access to user data.

Responding to the publication of the Six4Three documents, a Facebook spokesperson told us:

As we’ve said many times, the documents Six4Three gathered for their baseless case are only part of the story and are presented in a way that is very misleading without additional context. We stand by the platform changes we made in 2015 to stop a person from sharing their friends’ data with developers. Like any business, we had many of internal conversations about the various ways we could build a sustainable business model for our platform. But the facts are clear: we’ve never sold people’s data.

Zuckerberg has repeatedly refused to testify in person to the DCMS committee.

At its last public hearing — which was held in the form of a grand committee comprising representatives from nine international parliaments, all with burning questions for Facebook — the company sent its policy VP, Richard Allan, leaving an empty chair where Zuckerberg’s bum should be.

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Google tweaks Android licensing terms in Europe to allow Google app unbundling — for a fee

Posted by | Android, antitrust, Apps, chrome os, competition, Europe, Google, google-chrome, Mobile, operating system, play store, smartphones | No Comments

Google has announced changes to the licensing model for its Android mobile operating system in Europe,  including introducing a fee for licensing some of its own brand apps, saying it’s doing so to comply with a major European antitrust ruling this summer.

In July the region’s antitrust regulators hit Google with a recordbreaking $5BN fine for violations pertaining to Android, finding the company had abused the dominance of the platform by requiring manufacturers pre-install other Google apps in order to license its popular Play app store. 

Regulators also found Google had made payments to manufacturers and mobile network operators in exchange for exclusively pre-installing Google Search on their devices, and used Play store licensing to prevent manufacturers from selling devices based on Android forks.

Google disputes the Commission’s findings, and last week filed its appeal — a legal process that could take years. But in the meanwhile it’s making changes to how it licenses Android in Europe to avoid the risk of additional penalties heaped on top of the antitrust fine.

Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google’s senior vice president of platforms & ecosystems, revealed the new licensing options in a blog post published today.

Under updated “compatibility agreements”, he writes that mobile device makers will be able to build and sell Android devices intended for the European Economic Area (EEA) both with and without Google mobile apps preloaded — something Google’s same ‘compatibility’ contracts restricted them from doing before, when it was strictly either/or (either you made Android forks, or you made Android devices with Google apps — not both).

“Going forward, Android partners wishing to distribute Google apps may also build non-compatible, or forked, smartphones and tablets for the European Economic Area (EEA),” confirms Lockheimer.

However the company is also changing how it licenses the full Android bundle — which previously required OEMs to load devices with the Google mobile application suite, Google Search and the Chrome browser in order to be able to offer the popular Play Store — by introducing fees for OEMs wanting to pre-load a subset of those same apps under “a new paid licensing agreement for smartphones and tablets shipped into the EEA”.

Though Google stresses there will be no charge for using the Android platform itself. (So a pure fork without any Google services preloaded still wouldn’t require a fee.)

Google also appears to be splitting out Google Search and Chrome from the rest of the Google apps in its mobile suite (which traditionally means stuff like YouTube, the Play Store, Gmail, Google Maps, although Lockheimer’s blog post does not make it clear which exact apps he’s talking about) — letting OEMs selectively unbundle some Google apps, albeit potentially for a fee, depending on the apps in question.

“[D]evice manufacturers will be able to license the Google mobile application suite separately from the Google Search App or the Chrome browser,” is what Lockheimer unilluminatingly writes.

Perhaps Google wants future unbundled Android forks to still be able to have Google Search or Chrome, even if they don’t have the Play store, but it’s really not at all clear which configurations of Google apps will be permitted under the new licensing terms, and which won’t.

“Since the pre-installation of Google Search and Chrome together with our other apps helped us fund the development and free distribution of Android, we will introduce a new paid licensing agreement for smartphones and tablets shipped into the EEA. Android will remain free and open source,” Lockheimer adds, without specifying what the fees will be either. 

“We’ll also offer new commercial agreements to partners for the non-exclusive pre-installation and placement of Google Search and Chrome. As before, competing apps may be pre-installed alongside ours,” he continues to complete his trio of poorly explained licensing changes.

We’ve asked Google to clarify the various permitted and not permitted app configurations, as well as which apps will require a fee (and which won’t), and how much the fees will be, and will update this post with any response.

The devil in all those details should become clear soon though, as Google says the new licensing options will come into effect on October 29 for all new (Android based) smartphones and tablets launched in the EEA.

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EU fines Asus, Denon & Marantz, Philips and Pioneer $130M for online price fixing

Posted by | antitrust, asus, Boston Acoustics, competition, competition law, consumer electronics, Denon & Marantz, eCommerce, Europe, european union, Gadgets, hardware, Marantz, Margrethe Vestager, Philips, price - fixing, Pricing | No Comments

The European Union’s antitrust authorities have issued a series of penalties, fining consumer electronics companies Asus, Denon & Marantz, Philips and Pioneer more than €110 million (~$130M) in four separate decisions for imposing fixed or minimum resale prices on their online retailers in breach of EU competition rules.

It says the four companies engaged in so-called “fixed or minimum resale price maintenance (RPM)” by restricting the ability of their online retailers to set their own retail prices for widely used consumer electronics products — such as kitchen appliances, notebooks and hi-fi products.

Asus has been hit with the largest fine (63.5M), followed by Philips (29.8M). The other two fines were 10.1M for Pioneer, and 7.7M for Denon & Marantz.

The Commission found the manufacturers put pressure on ecommerce outlets who offered their products at low prices, writing: “If those retailers did not follow the prices requested by manufacturers, they faced threats or sanctions such as blocking of supplies. Many, including the biggest online retailers, use pricing algorithms which automatically adapt retail prices to those of competitors. In this way, the pricing restrictions imposed on low pricing online retailers typically had a broader impact on overall online prices for the respective consumer electronics products.”

It also notes that use of “sophisticated monitoring tools” by the manufacturers allowed them to “effectively track resale price setting in the distribution network and to intervene swiftly in case of price decreases”.

“The price interventions limited effective price competition between retailers and led to higher prices with an immediate effect on consumers,” it added.

In particular, Asus, was found to have monitored the resale price of retailers for certain computer hardware and electronics products such as notebooks and displays — and to have done so in two EU Member States (Germany and France), between 2011 and 2014.

While Denon & Marantz was found to have engaged in “resale price maintenance” with respect to audio and video consumer products such as headphones and speakers of the brands Denon, Marantz and Boston Acoustics in Germany and the Netherlands between 2011 and 2015.

Philips was found to have done the same in France between the end of 2011 and 2013 — but for a range of consumer electronics products, including kitchen appliances, coffee machines, vacuum cleaners, home cinema and home video systems, electric toothbrushes, hair driers and trimmers.

In Pioneer’s case, the resale price maintenance covered products including home theatre devices, iPod speakers, speaker sets and hi-fi products.

The Commission said the company also limited the ability of its retailers to sell-cross border to EU consumers in other Member States in order to sustain different resale prices in different Member States, for example by blocking orders of retailers who sold cross-border. Its conduct lasted from the beginning of 2011 to the end of 2013 and concerned 12 countries (Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway).

In all four cases, the Commission said the level of fines were reduced — 50% in the case of Pioneer; and 40% for each of the others — due to the companies’ co-operation with its investigations, specifying that they had provided evidence with “significant added value” and had “expressly acknowledg[ed] the facts and the infringements of EU antitrust rules”.

Commenting in a statement, commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who heads up the bloc’s competition policy, said: The online commerce market is growing rapidly and is now worth over 500 billion euros in Europe every year. More than half of Europeans now shop online. As a result of the actions taken by these four companies, millions of European consumers faced higher prices for kitchen appliances, hair dryers, notebook computers, headphones and many other products. This is illegal under EU antitrust rules. Our decisions today show that EU competition rules serve to protect consumers where companies stand in the way of more price competition and better choice.”

We’ve reached out to all the companies for comment.

The fines follow the Commission’s ecommerce sector inquiry, which reported in May 2017, and showed that resale-price related restrictions are by far the most widespread restrictions of competition in ecommerce markets, making competition enforcement in this area a priority — as part of the EC’s wider Digital Single Market strategy.

The Commission further notes that the sector inquiry shed light on the increased use of automatic software applied by retailers for price monitoring and price setting.

Separate investigations were launched in February 2017 and June 2017 to assess if certain online sales practices are preventing, in breach of EU antitrust rules, consumers from enjoying cross-border choice and from being able to buy products and services online at competitive prices. The Commission adds that those investigations are ongoing.

Commenting on today’s EC decision, a spokesman for Philips told us: “Since the start of the EC investigation in late 2013, which Philips reported in its Annual Reports, the company has fully cooperated with the EC. Philips initiated an internal investigation and addressed the matter in 2014.”

“It is good that we can now leave this case behind us, and focus on the positive impact that our products and solutions can have on people,” he added. “Let me please stress that Philips attaches prime importance to full compliance with all applicable laws, rules and regulations. Being a responsible company, everyone in Philips is expected to always act with integrity. Philips rigorously enforces compliance of its General Business Principles throughout the company. Philips has a zero tolerance policy towards non-compliance in relation to breaches of its General Business Principles.”

Anticipating the decision of the EC, he said the company had already recognized a 30M provision in its Q2 2018.

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