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This early GDPR adtech strike puts the spotlight on consent

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Android, Apps, artificial intelligence, China, data processing, data protection, Europe, european union, Facebook, Fidzup, GDPR, General Data Protection Regulation, Google, location based services, mobile advertising, mobile device, online advertising, privacy, retail, smartphone, TC, terms of service | No Comments

What does consent as a valid legal basis for processing personal data look like under Europe’s updated privacy rules? It may sound like an abstract concern but for online services that rely on things being done with user data in order to monetize free-to-access content this is a key question now the region’s General Data Protection Regulation is firmly fixed in place.

The GDPR is actually clear about consent. But if you haven’t bothered to read the text of the regulation, and instead just go and look at some of the self-styled consent management platforms (CMPs) floating around the web since May 25, you’d probably have trouble guessing it.

Confusing and/or incomplete consent flows aren’t yet extinct, sadly. But it’s fair to say those that don’t offer full opt-in choice are on borrowed time.

Because if your service or app relies on obtaining consent to process EU users’ personal data — as many free at the point-of-use, ad-supported apps do — then the GDPR states consent must be freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous.

That means you can’t bundle multiple uses for personal data under a single opt-in.

Nor can you obfuscate consent behind opaque wording that doesn’t actually specify the thing you’re going to do with the data.

You also have to offer users the choice not to consent. So you cannot pre-tick all the consent boxes that you really wish your users would freely choose — because you have to actually let them do that.

It’s not rocket science but the pushback from certain quarters of the adtech industry has been as awfully predictable as it’s horribly frustrating.

This has not gone unnoticed by consumers either. Europe’s Internet users have been filing consent-based complaints thick and fast this year. And a lot of what is being claimed as ‘GDPR compliant’ right now likely is not.

So, some six months in, we’re essentially in a holding pattern waiting for the regulatory hammers to come down.

But if you look closely there are some early enforcement actions that show some consent fog is starting to shift.

Yes, we’re still waiting on the outcomes of major consent-related complaints against tech giants. (And stockpile popcorn to watch that space for sure.)

But late last month French data protection watchdog, the CNIL, announced the closure of a formal warning it issued this summer against drive-to-store adtech firm, Fidzup — saying it was satisfied it was now GDPR compliant.

Such a regulatory stamp of approval is obviously rare this early in the new legal regime.

So while Fidzup is no adtech giant its experience still makes an interesting case study — showing how the consent line was being crossed; how, working with CNIL, it was able to fix that; and what being on the right side of the law means for a (relatively) small-scale adtech business that relies on consent to enable a location-based mobile marketing business.

From zero to GDPR hero?

Fidzup’s service works like this: It installs kit inside (or on) partner retailers’ physical stores to detect the presence of user-specific smartphones. At the same time it provides an SDK to mobile developers to track app users’ locations, collecting and sharing the advertising ID and wi-fi ID of users’ smartphone (which, along with location, are judged personal data under GDPR.)

Those two elements — detectors in physical stores; and a personal data-gathering SDK in mobile apps — come together to power Fidzup’s retail-focused, location-based ad service which pushes ads to mobile users when they’re near a partner store. The system also enables it to track ad-to-store conversions for its retail partners.

The problem Fidzup had, back in July, was that after an audit of its business the CNIL deemed it did not have proper consent to process users’ geolocation data to target them with ads.

Fidzup says it had thought its business was GDPR compliant because it took the view that app publishers were the data processors gathering consent on its behalf; the CNIL warning was a wake up call that this interpretation was incorrect — and that it was responsible for the data processing and so also for collecting consents.

The regulator found that when a smartphone user installed an app containing Fidzup’s SDK they were not informed that their location and mobile device ID data would be used for ad targeting, nor the partners Fidzup was sharing their data with.

CNIL also said users should have been clearly informed before data was collected — so they could choose to consent — instead of information being given via general app conditions (or in store posters), as was the case, after the fact of the processing.

It also found users had no choice to download the apps without also getting Fidzup’s SDK, with use of such an app automatically resulting in data transmission to partners.

Fidzup’s approach to consent had also only been asking users to consent to the processing of their geolocation data for the specific app they had downloaded — not for the targeted ad purposes with retail partners which is the substance of the firm’s business.

So there was a string of issues. And when Fidzup was hit with the warning the stakes were high, even with no monetary penalty attached. Because unless it could fix the core consent problem, the 2014-founded startup might have faced going out of business. Or having to change its line of business entirely.

Instead it decided to try and fix the consent problem by building a GDPR-compliant CMP — spending around five months liaising with the regulator, and finally getting a green light late last month.

A core piece of the challenge, as co-founder and CEO Olivier Magnan-Saurin tells it, was how to handle multiple partners in this CMP because its business entails passing data along the chain of partners — each new use and partner requiring opt-in consent.

“The first challenge was to design a window and a banner for multiple data buyers,” he tells TechCrunch. “So that’s what we did. The challenge was to have something okay for the CNIL and GDPR in terms of wording, UX etc. And, at the same time, some things that the publisher will allow to and will accept to implement in his source code to display to his users because he doesn’t want to scare them or to lose too much.

“Because they get money from the data that we buy from them. So they wanted to get the maximum money that they can, because it’s very difficult for them to live without the data revenue. So the challenge was to reconcile the need from the CNIL and the GDPR and from the publishers to get something acceptable for everyone.”

As a quick related aside, it’s worth noting that Fidzup does not work with the thousands of partners an ad exchange or demand-side platform most likely would be.

Magnan-Saurin tells us its CMP lists 460 partners. So while that’s still a lengthy list to have to put in front of consumers — it’s not, for example, the 32,000 partners of another French adtech firm, Vectaury, which has also recently been on the receiving end of an invalid consent ruling from the CNIL.

In turn, that suggests the ‘Fidzup fix’, if we can call it that, only scales so far; adtech firms that are routinely passing millions of people’s data around thousands of partners look to have much more existential problems under GDPR — as we’ve reported previously re: the Vectaury decision.

No consent without choice

Returning to Fidzup, its fix essentially boils down to actually offering people a choice over each and every data processing purpose, unless it’s strictly necessary for delivering the core app service the consumer was intending to use.

Which also means giving app users the ability to opt out of ads entirely — and not be penalized by not being able to use the app features itself.

In short, you can’t bundle consent. So Fidzup’s CMP unbundles all the data purposes and partners to offer users the option to consent or not.

“You can unselect or select each purpose,” says Magnan-Saurin of the now compliant CMP. “And if you want only to send data for, I don’t know, personalized ads but you don’t want to send the data to analyze if you go to a store or not, you can. You can unselect or select each consent. You can also see all the buyers who buy the data. So you can say okay I’m okay to send the data to every buyer but I can also select only a few or none of them.”

“What the CNIL ask is very complicated to read, I think, for the final user,” he continues. “Yes it’s very precise and you can choose everything etc. But it’s very complete and you have to spend some time to read everything. So we were [hoping] for something much shorter… but now okay we have something between the initial asking for the CNIL — which was like a big book — and our consent collection before the warning which was too short with not the right information. But still it’s quite long to read.”

Fidzup’s CNIL approved GDPR-compliant consent management platform

“Of course, as a user, I can refuse everything. Say no, I don’t want my data to be collected, I don’t want to send my data. And I have to be able, as a user, to use the app in the same way as if I accept or refuse the data collection,” he adds.

He says the CNIL was very clear on the latter point — telling it they could not require collection of geolocation data for ad targeting for usage of the app.

“You have to provide the same service to the user if he accepts or not to share his data,” he emphasizes. “So now the app and the geolocation features [of the app] works also if you refuse to send the data to advertisers.”

This is especially interesting in light of the ‘forced consent’ complaints filed against tech giants Facebook and Google earlier this year.

These complaints argue the companies should (but currently do not) offer an opt-out of targeted advertising, because behavioural ads are not strictly necessary for their core services (i.e. social networking, messaging, a smartphone platform etc).

Indeed, data gathering for such non-core service purposes should require an affirmative opt-in under GDPR. (An additional GDPR complaint against Android has also since attacked how consent is gathered, arguing it’s manipulative and deceptive.)

Asked whether, based on his experience working with the CNIL to achieve GDPR compliance, it seems fair that a small adtech firm like Fidzup has had to offer an opt-out when a tech giant like Facebook seemingly doesn’t, Magnan-Saurin tells TechCrunch: “I’m not a lawyer but based on what the CNIL asked us to be in compliance with the GDPR law I’m not sure that what I see on Facebook as a user is 100% GDPR compliant.”

“It’s better than one year ago but [I’m still not sure],” he adds. “Again it’s only my feeling as a user, based on the experience I have with the French CNIL and the GDPR law.”

Facebook of course maintains its approach is 100% GDPR compliant.

Even as data privacy experts aren’t so sure.

One thing is clear: If the tech giant was forced to offer an opt out for data processing for ads it would clearly take a big chunk out of its business — as a sub-set of users would undoubtedly say no to Zuckerberg’s “ads”. (And if European Facebook users got an ads opt out you can bet Americans would very soon and very loudly demand the same, so…)

Bridging the privacy gap

In Fidzup’s case, complying with GDPR has had a major impact on its business because offering a genuine choice means it’s not always able to obtain consent. Magnan-Saurin says there is essentially now a limit on the number of device users advertisers can reach because not everyone opts in for ads.

Although, since it’s been using the new CMP, he says a majority are still opting in (or, at least, this is the case so far) — showing one consent chart report with a ~70:30 opt-in rate, for example.

He expresses the change like this: “No one in the world can say okay I have 100% of the smartphones in my data base because the consent collection is more complete. No one in the world, even Facebook or Google, could say okay, 100% of the smartphones are okay to collect from them geolocation data. That’s a huge change.”

“Before that there was a race to the higher reach. The biggest number of smartphones in your database,” he continues. “Today that’s not the point.”

Now he says the point for adtech businesses with EU users is figuring out how to extrapolate from the percentage of user data they can (legally) collect to the 100% they can’t.

And that’s what Fidzup has been working on this year, developing machine learning algorithms to try to bridge the data gap so it can still offer its retail partners accurate predictions for tracking ad to store conversions.

“We have algorithms based on the few thousand stores that we equip, based on the few hundred mobile advertising campaigns that we have run, and we can understand for a store in London in… sports, fashion, for example, how many visits we can expect from the campaign based on what we can measure with the right consent,” he says. “That’s the first and main change in our market; the quantity of data that we can get in our database.”

“Now the challenge is to be as accurate as we can be without having 100% of real data — with the consent, and the real picture,” he adds. “The accuracy is less… but not that much. We have a very, very high standard of quality on that… So now we can assure the retailers that with our machine learning system they have nearly the same quality as they had before.

“Of course it’s not exactly the same… but it’s very close.”

Having a CMP that’s had regulatory ‘sign-off’, as it were, is something Fidzup is also now hoping to turn into a new bit of additional business.

“The second change is more like an opportunity,” he suggests. “All the work that we have done with CNIL and our publishers we have transferred it to a new product, a CMP, and we offer today to all the publishers who ask to use our consent management platform. So for us it’s a new product — we didn’t have it before. And today we are the only — to my knowledge — the only company and the only CMP validated by the CNIL and GDPR compliant so that’s useful for all the publishers in the world.”

It’s not currently charging publishers to use the CMP but will be seeing whether it can turn it into a paid product early next year.

How then, after months of compliance work, does Fidzup feel about GDPR? Does it believe the regulation is making life harder for startups vs tech giants — as is sometimes suggested, with claims put forward by certain lobby groups that the law risks entrenching the dominance of better resourced tech giants. Or does he see any opportunities?

In Magnan-Saurin’s view, six months in to GDPR European startups are at an R&D disadvantage vs tech giants because U.S. companies like Facebook and Google are not (yet) subject to a similarly comprehensive privacy regulation at home — so it’s easier for them to bag up user data for whatever purpose they like.

Though it’s also true that U.S. lawmakers are now paying earnest attention to the privacy policy area at a federal level. (And Google’s CEO faced a number of tough questions from Congress on that front just this week.)

“The fact is Facebook-Google they own like 90% of the revenue in mobile advertising in the world. And they are American. So basically they can do all their research and development on, for example, American users without any GDPR regulation,” he says. “And then apply a pattern of GDPR compliance and apply the new product, the new algorithm, everywhere in the world.

“As a European startup I can’t do that. Because I’m a European. So once I begin the research and development I have to be GDPR compliant so it’s going to be longer for Fidzup to develop the same thing as an American… But now we can see that GDPR might be beginning a ‘world thing’ — and maybe Facebook and Google will apply the GDPR compliance everywhere in the world. Could be. But it’s their own choice. Which means, for the example of the R&D, they could do their own research without applying the law because for now U.S. doesn’t care about the GDPR law, so you’re not outlawed if you do R&D without applying GDPR in the U.S. That’s the main difference.”

He suggests some European startups might relocate R&D efforts outside the region to try to workaround the legal complexity around privacy.

“If the law is meant to bring the big players to better compliance with privacy I think — yes, maybe it goes in this way. But the first to suffer is the European companies, and it becomes an asset for the U.S. and maybe the Chinese… companies because they can be quicker in their innovation cycles,” he suggests. “That’s a fact. So what could happen is maybe investors will not invest that much money in Europe than in U.S. or in China on the marketing, advertising data subject topics. Maybe even the French companies will put all the R&D in the U.S. and destroy some jobs in Europe because it’s too complicated to do research on that topics. Could be impacts. We don’t know yet.”

But the fact of GDPR enforcement having — perhaps inevitably — started small, with so far a small bundle of warnings against relative data minnows, rather than any swift action against the industry dominating adtech giants, that’s being felt as yet another inequality at the startup coalface.

“What’s sure is that the CNIL started to send warnings not to Google or Facebook but to startups. That’s what I can see,” he says. “Because maybe it’s easier to see I’m working on GDPR and everything but the fact is the law is not as complicated for Facebook and Google as it is for the small and European companies.”

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Google’s parental control software Family Link now supports Chromebooks

Posted by | Apps, children, chromebooks, family, family link, Google, kids, Mobile, parental controls, parents | No Comments

Since its public debut in fall 2017, Google’s parental control software, dubbed Family Link, has been steadily expanding, both in terms of its capabilities and its reach. Today, it’s making the jump beyond smartphones for the first time, with newly added support for Chromebook computers. As on Android devices, parents will now be able to manage their child’s use of a Chromebook — including by setting time limits, managing the apps that can be downloaded, setting content filters and more.

As a Family Link household ourselves, I’ve found I prefer managing my child’s device from a single, dedicated app, rather than having to dig around in the iPhone’s settings — as I did when my daughter used to tote an iPod. (Parental controls moved to “Screen Time” on iOS 12, by the way, in case you’re wondering where the “Restrictions” section went.)

With Family Link, you can configure nearly every aspect of device usage, including content restrictions on apps, movies, TV and other media. Helpfully, you can enable settings across the Google ecosystem, as well. For example, you can turn on Google’s SafeSearch, enable a mature content filter in Chrome (or even limit Chrome to select websites), disable the child’s access to third-party apps on Google Assistant and more.

You also can track your child’s location, locate or ring a lost device (you’ll do this often) and monitor and manage screen time and device bedtime schedules.

Now parents can configure these sorts of settings on a Chromebook, too. (However, only select Chromebooks support Google Play apps.)

The expansion makes Chromebooks a more compelling option for families. Already, there are a number of affordable Chromebooks that will work well for the child’s first computer, but Family Link can also work on a shared device, Google says.

That is, the software can manage the child’s account when they’re logged in. Parents can also manage the child’s Google account from Family Link and remotely lock a supervised account, if need be.

The support for Family Link on Chromebooks follows the shutdown of Chrome’s parental controls earlier this year. At the time, we suspected that the features would make their way over to Family Link in the months ahead.

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What China searched for in 2018: World Cup, trade war, Apple

Posted by | Android, Apple, artificial intelligence, Asia, Baidu, China, Entertainment, Facebook, Google, huawei, iQiyi, Netflix, oppo, producer, Qualcomm, quantum computing, search engine, shenzhen, smartphone, TC, Tencent, world cup | No Comments

Soon after Google unveiled the top trends in what people searched for in 2018, Baidu published what captivated the Chinese in a parallel online universe, where most of the West’s mainstream tech services, including Google and Facebook, are inaccessible.

China’s top search engine put together the report “based on trillions of trending queries” to present a “social collective memory” of internet users, said Baidu; 802 million people have come online in China as of August, and many of them use Baidu to look things up daily.

Overall, Chinese internet users were transfixed on a mix of sports events, natural disasters, politics and entertainment, a pattern that also prevails in Google’s year-in-search. On Baidu, the most popular queries of the year are:

  1. World Cup: China shares its top search with the rest of the world. Despite China’s lackluster performance in the tournament, World Cup managed to capture a massive Chinese fan base who supported an array of foreign teams. People filled bars in big cities at night to watch the heart-thumping matches, and many even trekked north to Russia to show their support.
  2. U.S.-China trade war: The runner-up comes as no surprise, given the escalating conflict between the world’s two largest economies. A series of events have stoked more fears of the stand-off, including the arrest of Huawei’s financial chief.
  3. Typhoon Mangkhut: The massive tropical cyclone swept across the Pacific Ocean in September, leaving the Philippines and South China in shambles. Shenzhen, the Chinese city dubbed the Silicon Valley for hardware, reportedly submitted more than $20.4 million in damage claims after the storm.
  4. Apple launch: The American smartphone giant is still getting a lot of attention in China even as local Android competitors like Huawei and Oppo chip away at its market share. Apple is also fighting a legal battle with chipmaker Qualcomm, which wanted the former to stop selling certain smartphone models in China.
  5. The story of Yanxi Palace: The historical drama of backstabbing concubines drew record-breaking views for its streamer and producer iQiyi, China’s answer to Netflix that floated in the U.S. in February. The 70-episode show was watched not only in China but also across more than 70 countries around the world.
  6. Produce 101: The talent show in which 101 young women race to be the best performer is one of Tencent Video’s biggest hits of the year, but its reach has gone beyond its targeted young audience as it popularized a meme, which made it to No. 9 on this list.
  7. Skr: A buzzword courtesy of pop idol Kris Wu, who extensively used it on a whim during iQiyi’s rap competition “Rap of China,” prompting his fans and internet users to bestow it with myriad interpretations.
  8. Li Yong passed away: The sudden death of the much-loved television host after he fought a 17-month battle with cancer stirred an outpouring of grief on social media.
  9. Koi: A colored variety of carps, the fish is associated with good luck in Chinese culture. Yang Chaoyue, a Produce 101 contestant whom the audience believed to be below average surprisingly rose to fame and has since been compared to a koi.
  10.  Esports: Professional gaming has emerged from the underground to become a source of national pride recently after a Chinese team championed the League of Legend finals, an event regarded as the Olympics for esports.

In addition to the overall ranking, Baidu also listed popular terms by category, with staple areas like domestic affairs alongside those with a local flavor, such as events that inspire national pride or are tear-jerking.

This was also the first year that Baidu added a category dedicated to AI-related keywords. The search giant, which itself has pivoted to go all in AI and has invested heavily in autonomous driving, said the technology “has not only become a nationwide buzzword but also a key engine in transforming lives across the globe.” In 2018, Chinese people were keen to learn about these AI terms: robots, chips, internet of things, smart speakers, autonomous driving, face recognition, quantum computing, unmanned vehicles, World Artificial Intelligence Conference and quantum mechanics.

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Watch Google CEO Sundar Pichai testify in Congress — on bias, China and more

Posted by | algorithmic accountability, Android, artificial intelligence, bias, China, Google, Government, House Judiciary Committee, Policy, Social, Sundar Pichai, United States | No Comments

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has managed to avoid the public political grillings that have come for tech leaders at Facebook and Twitter this year. But not today.

Today he will be in front of the House Judiciary committee for a hearing entitled: Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices.

The hearing kicks off at 10:00 ET — and will be streamed live via our YouTube channel (with the feed also embedded above in this post).

Announcing the hearing last month, committee chairman Bob Goodlatte said it would “examine potential bias and the need for greater transparency regarding the filtering practices of tech giant Google”.

Republicans have been pressuring the Silicon Valley giant over what they claim is ‘liberal bias’ embedded at the algorithmic level.

This summer President Trump publicly lashed out at Google, expressing displeasure about news search results for his name in a series of tweets in which he claimed: “Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good.”

Google rejected the allegation, responding then that: “Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology.”

In his prepared remarks ahead of the hearing, Pichai reiterates this point.

“I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way. To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests,” he writes. “We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions—and we have no shortage of them among our own employees.”

He also seeks to paint a picture of Google as a proudly patriotic “American company” — playing up its role as a creator of local jobs and a bolster for the wider US economy, likely in the hopes of defusing some of the expected criticism from conservatives on the committee.

However his statement makes no mention of a separate controversy that’s been dogging Google this year — after news leaked this summer that it had developed a censored version of its search service for a potential relaunch in China.

The committee looks certain to question Google closely on its intentions vis-a-vis China.

In statements ahead of the hearing last month, House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy, flagged up reports he said suggested Google is “compromising its core principles by complying with repressive censorship mandates from China”.

Trust in general is a key theme, with lawmakers expressing frustration at both the opacity of Google’s blackbox algorithms, which ultimately shape content hierarchies on its platforms, and the difficulty they’ve had in getting facetime with its CEO to voice questions and concerns.

At a Senate Intelligence committee hearing three months ago, which was attended by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, senators did not hide their anger that Pichai had turned down their invitation — openly ripping into company leaders for not bothering to show up. (Google offered to send its chief legal officer instead.)

“For months, House Republicans have called for greater transparency and openness from Google. Company CEO Sundar Pichai met with House Republicans in September to answer some of our questions. Mr. Pichai’s scheduled appearance in front of the House Judiciary Committee is another important step to restoring public trust in Google and all the companies that shape the Internet,” McCarthy wrote last month.

Other recent news that could inform additional questions for Pichai from the committee include the revelation of yet another massive security breach at Google+; and a New York Times investigation of how mobile apps are location tracking users — with far more Android apps found to contain location-sharing code than iOS apps.

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Google Fit gets improved activity logging and a breathing exercise

Posted by | activity tracking, Android, Apps, Google, Google Fit, Mobile | No Comments

Google Fit, Google’ s activity-tracking app for Android, is getting a small but meaningful update today that adds a few new features that’ll likely make its regular users quite happy. Some are pretty basic, like the launch of a Fit widget for your Android home screen, while others introduce new features like a breathing exercise (though that will only be available on Wear OS), an updated home screen in the app itself and improved activity logging.

The app got a major redesign earlier this year and in the process, Google introduced Heart Points as a way of tracking not just the length but also the strenuousness of your activities. Those are tracked automatically as you go about your day, but since Fit also lets you log activities manually, you didn’t really get a chance to log the intensity of those exercises. Now, however, you can adjust the intensity in your quest for getting more Heart Points.

The other major new feature is the exact opposite of strenuous exercise: a breathing exercise for those moments when you want to calm down. For some reason, Google decided that this feature is Wear OS-only right now. I’m not quite sure why that’s the case, but if you don’t have a Wear OS watch, you’ll just have to figure out some other way to keep calm and bugger on.

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Google Maps’ new personalized suggestions come to iOS

Posted by | Apps, Google, Google-Maps, Maps, Mobile, personalization, suggestions | No Comments

A more personalized version of Google Maps is now arriving on iOS. At Google’s I/O developer conference earlier this year, the company introduced a series of new features designed to help Google Maps users learn what’s happening around them, track area businesses to receive updates about their events and promotions and receive personalized suggestions of places to visit, dine and more. The latter now appear in a “For You” tab in the revamped Google Maps app, which first arrived on Android this June.

Today, the feature is rolling out more broadly.

According to Google, the “For You” tab is now making its way to more than 130 additional countries on Android and is launching on iOS across 40+ countries.

When switching over to this tab, you’ll see any number of suggestions — from newly opened places to visit or restaurants to try to new pop-ups to new menu items at favorite restaurants and restaurant suggestions Google thinks you’d like to try. It bases these on your personal tastes and preferences it’s inferred from your use of the Google Maps app, including what sort of businesses you search and follow.The “For You” tab can also help you with travel planning, by making suggestions of places before you depart, Google notes.

To get better recommendations, you’ll want to follow local businesses you like in Google Maps, or even neighborhoods you frequent, to personalize your suggestions further.

The feature is part of a larger overhaul of Google Maps that’s aiming to challenge Facebook as the place where businesses offer updates of their goings-on, news about their sales, events and other information they want to share with customers — as well as target potential new customers through ads and being featured in users’ recommendations.

In October, Google Maps launched the “Follow” button for tracking businesses, and last month rolled out a new “Google My Business” app for business owners, so they could more easily create and publish content to their business profile on Google.

With these products in place — content publication tools and the ability for users to follow that content — Google is now ready to turn those signals into personalized suggestions. You’ll find it at the bottom of the Google Maps app, where it will show you potential “matches” (and the percentage for the match), plus news about recent openings, trending spots and other suggestions.

The company says the “For You” tab is rolling out starting today across the new markets and on iOS.

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The Epic Games Store is now live

Posted by | Android, epic games, first person shooters, fortnite, Gaming, Google, Google Play Store, Kleiner Perkins, lightspeed venture partners, unreal engine, Unreal Tournament | No Comments

It’s a busy week for Epic Games . Fresh from pushing out a major season 7 update for Fortnite, so the gaming giant has taken the wraps off its own games store.

First announced earlier this week, the Epic Games Store is targeted squarely at Steam — the giant in the digital game commerce space — and it quietly went live today.

Right now there’s a small cluster of games available, including Hades, a new title from Supergiant Games that is in “early access” for $19.99, and Epic’s own Fortnite and Unreal Tournament, both of which are free. But Epic is saying that’s there’s a lot more to come. In particular, the store will offer a free game every two weeks, starting with Subnautica from December 14-17 and Super Meat Boy from December 28 until January 10.

What is most interesting about the store is the revenue split, which is just 12 percent. That has set off a change at Valve, the firm behind Steam, as we reported earlier this week:

While Valve will continue to take an App Store-like 30 percent from sales of game makers with less than 10 million in revenue, that figure drops to 25 percent until they hit 50 million revenue, from which point the slice drops to 20 percent.

All in all, the store is very early-stage, but you can imagine that Epic is working to add more flesh to the bones. It makes absolute sense that the company is aiming to capitalize on the phenomenal success of Fortnite — which was estimated to be grossing as much as $2 million per day in the summer — by building a destination for gamers. Indeed, a big clue came from its decision to bypass the Google Play Store and offer its Android app directly from its website — that’s a move that is estimated to cost Google around $50 million in lost earnings in 2018.

“As a developer ourselves, we have always wanted a platform with great economics that connects us directly with our players,” Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney told TechCrunch in an emailed statement sent earlier this week. “Thanks to the success of Fortnite, we now have this and are ready to share it with other developers.”

The Epic Games Store is part of a wider vision that prompted a range of investors to pump $1.25 billion into the company in October. That round has participation from the likes of KKR, Kleiner Perkins and Lightspeed Venture Partners and it is said to value the Epic Games business — which also includes Unreal Engine for game development — at more than $15 billion.

Epic is the only gaming firm to go after Valve this year. Discord introduced a game store in August — just months earlier, Valve appeared to go after Discord with the rollout of its own gamer chat system.

So everyone is going after everyone, but Epic’s big advantage continues to be Fortnite.

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Google is killing off Allo, its latest messaging app flop

Posted by | Android, Apps, Assistant, computing, Google, Google Hangouts, imessage, machine learning, messaging apps, slack, SMS, Software, technology, Verizon, WhatsApp | No Comments

It’s official: Google is killing off Allo.

The messaging app was only launched in September 2016, but it was pretty much flawed from the word go, with limited usage. Google was, once again, painfully late to the messaging game.

The company said it had ceased work on the service earlier this year, and now it has announced that it’ll close down in March of next year.

“Allo will continue to work through March 2019 and until then, you’ll be able to export all of your existing conversation history from the app,” Google said in a blog post. “We’ve learned a lot from Allo, particularly what’s possible when you incorporate machine learning features, like the Google Assistant, into messaging.”

Google said it wants “every single Android device to have a great default messaging experience,” but the fact remains that the experience on Android massively lags iOS, where Apple’s iMessage service offers a slick experience with free messages, calling and video between iPhone and iPad users.

Instead of Allo, Google is pushing ahead with RCS (Rich Communication Services), an enhanced SMS standard that could allow iMessage-like communication between Android devices.

But “could” is the operative word. The main caveat with RCS is that carriers must develop their own messaging apps that work with the protocol and connect to other apps, while the many Android OEMs also need to hop on board with support.

As I wrote earlier this year, with RCS, Google is giving carriers a chance to take part in the messaging boom, rather than be cut out as WhatsApp, Messenger, iMessage and others take over. But the decision is tricky for carriers, who have traditionally tightly held any form of income until the death. That’s because they won’t directly make money from consumers via RCS, though it allows them to keep their brand and figure out other ways to generate income, such as business-related services.

Verizon has already signed up, for one, but tracking the other supporters worldwide is tricky. Another problem: RCS is not encrypted, which flies in the face of most messaging apps on the market today.

Elsewhere, Google is keeping Duo — the video chat service that launched alongside Allo — while it continues to develop Hangouts into an enterprise-focused service, much like Slack .

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Google Fi now officially supports most Android devices and iPhones

Posted by | Android, app-store, fi, Google, iOS, iPhone, LG, Mobile, Motorola, project fi, Samsung, smartphones, TC, vpn | No Comments

Google is making a major move to expand the availability of its Fi wireless service.

It’s been a few years since Google launched Project Fi with the promise of doing things a bit differently than the large carriers. Because it could switch between the cell networks of multiple providers to give you the best signal, the service only ever officially supported a select number of handsets. You could always trick it by activating the service on a supported phone and then moving your SIM card to another (including an iPhone), but that was never supported.

That’s changing today, though. The company is opening up Fi — and renaming it to Google Fi — and officially expanding device support to most popular Android phones, as well as iPhones. Supported Android phones include devices from Samsung, LG, Motorola and OnePlus. iPhone support is currently in beta, and there are a few extra steps to set it up, but the Fi iOS app should now be available in the App Store.

One thing you might not get with many of the now-supported phones is the full Fi experience, with network switching and access to Google’s enhanced network features, including Google’s VPN network. For that, you’ll still need a Pixel phone, the Moto G6 or any other device that you can buy directly in the Fi store.

Fi on all phones comes with the usual features, like bill protection, free high-speed international roaming and support for group plans.

To sweeten the deal, Google is also launching a somewhat extraordinary promotion today: If you open a new Fi account — or if are an existing user — you can buy any phone in the Fi shop today and get your money back in the form of a travel gift card that you can use for a flight with Delta or Southwest, or lodging with Airbnb and Hotels.com. There’s some fine print, of course (you need to keep your account active for a few months, etc.), but if you were looking at getting Fi anyway, like to travel and want to get a Pixel 3 XL, that’s not a bad deal at all.

The fine print is below:

Travel on Fi with Any Device Purchase Promotion Terms (Google Fi)

Limited time, 24-hour offer applies to any qualifying device purchased from fi.google.com from 11/28/18 12:00 AM PT through 11/28/18 11:59 PM PT, or while supplies last. When you purchase a qualifying device on fi.google.com, you can redeem a travel gift card in the amount you paid for the device, excluding taxes (details below).

To qualify for this promotion, a device must be activated within 15 days of device shipment and remain active for 60 consecutive days within 75 days of device shipment. The device must be activated within the same plan that was used to purchase the device. Activation must be for full service (i.e., activation does not apply to a data-only SIM).

This offer is available for new Google Fi customers as of 11/28/18 12:00 AM PT and existing, active Google Fi customers. If the customer is new to Google Fi, the customer must transfer (port-in) their current personal number over to Google Fi during sign up. The number being transferred must be currently active and have been active with the previous carrier and the customer since 8/28/18 12:00 AM PT.

After the terms have been satisfied, the customer will receive an email from Google Fi (around 75 – 90 days after device activation) with instructions on how to obtain a gift card from Tango subject to Tango’s terms and conditions. The user can redeem gift card amounts with select travel partners: Airbnb, Delta Airlines, Hotels.com, and Southwest Airlines. Gift cards may also be subject to the terms of the travel partners.

If Fi service is paused for more than 7 days or cancelled within 120 days of activation, the value of the gift card will be charged to your Google Payments account to match the purchased price of the device. Limit one per person. This offer is only available for U.S. residents ages 18 and older, and requires Google Payments and Google Fi accounts. Unless otherwise stated, this offer cannot be combined with other offers. Offer and gift card redemption are not transferable, and are not valid for cash or cash equivalent. Void where prohibited.

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Google faces GDPR complaint over ‘deceptive’ location tracking

Posted by | Android, Apps, Europe, european union, GDPR, General Data Protection Regulation, Google, google search, Mobile, Norwegian Consumer Council, privacy, smartphones, TC | No Comments

A group of European consumer watchdogs has filed a privacy complaint against Google — arguing the company uses manipulative tactics in order to keep tracking web users’ locations for ad-targeting purposes.

The consumer organizations are making the complaint under the EU’s new data protection framework, GDPR, which regulators can use to levy major fines for compliance breaches — of up to 4 percent of a company’s global annual turnover.

Under GDPR, a consent-based legal basis for processing personal data (e.g. person’s location) must be specific, informed and freely given.

In their complaint, the groups, which include Norway’s Consumer Council, argue that Google does not have proper legal basis to track users through “Location History” and “Web & App Activity” — settings which are integrated into all Google accounts, and which, for users of Android -based smartphones, they assert are particularly difficult to avoid.

The Google mobile OS remains the dominant smartphone platform globally, as well as across Europe.

“Google is processing incredibly detailed and extensive personal data without proper legal grounds, and the data has been acquired through manipulation techniques,” said Gro Mette Moen, acting head of the Norwegian Consumer Council’s digital services unit in a statement.

“When we carry our phones, Google is recording where we go, down to which floor we are on and how we are moving. This can be combined with other information about us, such as what we search for, and what websites we visit. Such information can in turn be used for things such as targeted advertising meant to affect us when we are receptive or vulnerable.”

Responding to the complaint, a Google spokesperson sent TechCrunch the following statement:

Location History is turned off by default, and you can edit, delete, or pause it at any time. If it’s on, it helps improve services like predicted traffic on your commute. If you pause it, we make clear that — depending on your individual phone and app settings — we might still collect and use location data to improve your Google experience. We enable you to control location data in other ways too, including in a different Google setting called Web & App Activity, and on your device. We’re constantly working to improve our controls, and we’ll be reading this report closely to see if there are things we can take on board.

Earlier this year the Norwegian watchdog produced a damning report calling out dark pattern design tricks being deployed by Google and Facebook meant to manipulate users by nudging them toward “privacy intrusive options.” It also examined Microsoft’s consent flows, but judged the company to be leaning less heavily on such unfair tactics.

Among the underhand techniques that the Google-targeted GDPR complaint, which draws on the earlier report, calls out are allegations of deceptive click-flow, with the groups noting that a “location history” setting can be enabled during Android set-up without a user being aware of it; key settings being both buried in menus (hidden) and enabled by default; users being presented at the decision point with insufficient and misleading information; repeat nudges to enable location tracking even after a user has previously turned it off; and the bundling of “invasive location tracking” with other unrelated Google services, such as photo sorting by location.

GDPR remains in the early implementation phrase — just six months since the regulation came into force across Europe. But a large chunk of the first wave of complaints have been focused on consent, according to Europe’s data protection supervisor, who also told us in October that more than 42,000 complaints had been lodged in total since the regulation came into force.

Where Google is concerned, the location complaint is by no means the only GDPR — or GDPR consent-related — complaint it’s facing.

Another complaint, filed back in May also by a consumer-focused organization, took aim at what it dubbed the use of “forced consent” by Google and Facebook — pointing out that the companies were offering users no choice but to have their personal data processed to make use of certain services, yet the GDPR requires consent to be freely given.

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