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Europe’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, set for expanded role in next Commission

Posted by | Android, Apple, artificial intelligence, digital economy, e-commerce, Europe, european commission, european parliament, european union, Facebook, financial services, France, Google, Margrethe Vestager, Mariya Gabriel, online disinformation, Policy, TC, Trump administration, United Kingdom, United States, Vera Jourova | No Comments

As the antitrust investigations stack up on US tech giants’ home turf there’s no sign of pressure letting up across the pond.

European Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen today unveiled her picks for the next team of commissioners who will take up their mandates on November 1 — giving an expanded role to competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager. The pick suggests the next Commission is preparing to dial up its scrutiny of big tech’s data monopolies.

Under the draft list of commissioners-designate, which still needs to be approved in full by the European Parliament, Vestager has been named executive VP overseeing a new portfolio called ‘Europe fit for the digital age’.

But, crucially, she will also retain the competition portfolio — which implies attention on growing Europe’s digital economy will go hand in glove with scrutiny of fairness in ecommerce and ensuring a level playing field vs US platform giants.

“Executive vice-president Margrethe Vestager will lead our work on a Europe fit for the digital age,” said von der Leyen at a press conference to announce her picks. “Digitalization has a huge impact on the way we live, we work, we communicate. In some fields Europe has to catch up — for example in the field of business to consumer but in other fields we’re excellent. Europe is the frontrunner, for example in business to business, when we talk about digital twins of products and procedures.

“We have to make more out of the field of artificial intelligence. We have to make our single market a digital single market. We have to use way more the big data that is out there but we don’t make enough out of it. What innovation and startups are concerned. It’s not only need to know but it’s need to share big data. We have to improve on cyber security. We have to work hard on our technological sovereignty just to name a few issues in these broad topics.

“Margrethe Vestager will co-ordinate the whole agenda. And be the commissioner for competition. She will work together with the commissioner for internal market, innovation and youth, transport, energy, jobs, health and justice.”

If tech giants were hoping for Europe’s next Commission to pay a little less attention to question marks hanging over the fairness of their practices they’re likely to be disappointed as Vestager is set to gain expanded powers and a broader canvas to paint on. The new role clearly positions her to act on the review of competition policy she instigated towards the end of her current mandate — which focused on the challenges posed by digital markets.

Since taking over as Europe’s competition chief back in 2014, Vestager has made a name for herself by blowing the dust off the brief and driving forward on a series of regulatory interventions targeting tech giants including Amazon, Apple and Google . In the latter case this has included opening a series of fresh probes as well as nailing the very long running Google Shopping saga inherited from her predecessor.

The activity of the department under her mandate has clearly catalyzed complainants — creating a pipeline of cases for her to tackle. And just last month Reuters reported she had been preparing an “intensive” handover of work looking into complaints against Google’s job search product to her successor — a handover that won’t now be necessary, assuming the EU parliament gives its backing to von der Leyen’s team.

While the competition commissioner has thus far generated the biggest headlines for the size of antitrust fines she’s handed down — including a record-breaking $5BN fine for Google last year for illegal restrictions attached to Android — her attention on big data holdings as a competition risk is most likely to worry tech giants going forward.

See, for example, the formal investigation of Amazon’s use of merchant data announced this summer for a sign of the direction of travel.

Vestager has also talked publicly about regulating data flows as being a more savvy route to control big tech versus swinging a break up hammer. And while — on the surface — regulating data might sound less radical a remedy than breaking giants like Google and Facebook up, placing hard limits on how data can be used has the potential to effect structural separation via a sort of regulatory keyhole surgery that’s likely to be quicker and implies a precision that may also make it more politically palatable.

That’s important given the ongoing EU-US trade friction kicked up by the Trump administration which is never shy of lashing out, especially at European interventions that seek to address some of the inequalities generated by tech giants — most recently Trump gave France’s digital tax plans a tongue-lashing.

von der Leyen was asked during the press conference whether Vestager might not been seen as a controversial choice given Trump’s views of her activity to date (Europe’s “tax lady” is one of the nicer things he’s said about Vestager). The EU president-elect dismissed the point saying the only thing that matters in assigning Commission portfolios is “quality and excellence”, adding that competition and digital is the perfect combination to make the most of Vestager’s talents.

“Vestager has done an outstanding job as a commissioner for competition,” she went on. “At competition and the issues she’s tackling there are closely linked to the digital sector too. So having her as an executive vice-president for the digital in Europe is absolutely a perfect combination.

“She’ll have this topic as a cross-cutting topic. She’ll have to work on the Digital Single Market. She will work on the fact that we want to use in a better way big data that is out there, that we collect every day — non-personalized data. That we should use way better, in the need for example to share with others for innovation, for startups, for new ideas.

“She will work on the whole topic of cyber security. Which is the more we’re digitalized, the more we’re vulnerable. So there’s a huge field in front of her. And as she’s shown excellence in the Commission portfolio she’ll keep that — the executive vice-presidents have with the DGs muscles to deal with their vast portfolios’ subject they have to deal with.”

In other choices announced today, the current commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel, will be taking up a new portfolio called ‘Innovation and Youth’. And Sylvie Goulard was named as ‘Internal Market’ commissioner, leading on industrial policy and promoting the Digital Single Market, as well as getting responsibility for Defence Industry and Space.

Another executive VP choice, Valdis Dombrovskis, looks likely to be tackling thorny digital taxation issues — with responsibility for co-ordinating the Commission’s work on what’s been dubbed an “Economy that Works for People”, as well as also being commissioner for financial services. 

In prepared remarks on that role, von der Leyen said: We have a unique social market economy. It is the source of our prosperity and social fairness. This is all the more important when we face a twin transition: climate and digital. Valdis Dombrovskis will lead our work to bring together the social and the market in our economy.”

Frans Timmermans, who was previously in the running as a possible candidate for Commission president but lost out to von der Leyen, is another exec VP pick. He’s set to be focused on delivering a European Green Deal and managing climate action policy.

Another familiar face — current justice, consumer and gender affairs commissioner, Věra Jourová — has also been named as an exec VP, gaining responsibility for “Values and Transparency”, a portfolio title which suggests she’ll continue to be involved in EU efforts to combat online disinformation on platforms.

The rest of the Commission portfolio appointments can be found here.

There are 26 picks in all — 27 counting von der Leyen who has already been confirmed as president; one per EU country. The UK has no representation in the next Commission given it is due to leave the bloc on October 31, the day before the new Commission takes up its mandate.

von der Leyen touted the team she presented today as balanced and diverse, including on gender lines as well as geographically to take account of the full span of European Union members.

“It draws on all the strength and talents, men and women, experienced and young, east and west, south and north, a team that is well balanced, a team that brings together diversity of experience and competence,” she said. “I want a Commission that is led with determination, that is clearly focused on the issues at hand — and that provides answers.”

Commissioners elect

“There’s one fundamental that connects this team: We want to bring new impetus to Europe’s democracy,” she added. “This is our joint responsibility. And democracy is more than voting in elections in every five years; it is about having your voice heard. It’s about having been able to participate in the way our society’s built. We gave to address some of the deeper issues in our society that have led to a loss of faith in democracy.”

In a signal of her intention that the new Commission should “walk the talk” on making Europe fit for the digital age she announced that college meetings will be paperless and digital.

On lawmaking, she added that there will be a one-in, one-out policy — with any new laws and regulation supplanting an existing rule in a bid to cut red tape.

The shape of the next Commission remains in draft pending approval by the European Parliament to all the picks. The parliament must vote to accept the entire college of commissioners — a process that’s preceded by hearings of the commissioners-designate in relevant parliamentary committees.

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At-home blood testing startup Baze rakes in $6 million from Nature’s Way

Posted by | Baze, biotech, fda, funding, Gadgets, Health, labcorp, Nature's Way, nutrients, nutrition, Recent Funding, science, Startups, United States, vitamin-d, vitamins | No Comments

By now, the venture world is wary of blood testing startups offering health data from just a few drops of blood. However, Baze, a Swiss-based personal nutrition startup providing blood tests you can do in the convenience of your own home, collects just a smidgen of your sanguine fluid through an MIT manufactured device, which, according to the company, is in accordance with FDA regulations.

The idea is to find out (via your blood sample) which vitamins you’re missing out on and are keeping you from living your best life. That seems to resonate with folks who don’t want to go into the doctor’s office and separately head to their nearest lab for testing.

Most health professionals would agree it’s important to know if you are getting the right amount of nutrition — Vitamin D deficiency is a worldwide epidemic affecting calcium absorption, hormone regulation, energy levels and muscle weakness. An estimated 74% of the U.S. population does not get the required daily levels of Vitamin D.

“There are definitely widespread deficiencies across the population,” Baze CEO and founder Philipp Schulte tells TechCrunch. “[With the blood test] we see that we can actually close those gaps for the first time ever in the supplement industry.”

While we don’t know exactly how many people have tried out Baze just yet, Schulte says the company has seen 40% month-over-month new subscriber growth.

That has garnered the attention of supplement company Nature’s Way, which has partnered with the company and just added $6 million to the coffers to help Baze ramp up marketing efforts in the U.S.

Screen Shot 2019 08 30 at 2.27.12 PMI had the opportunity to try out the test myself. It’s pretty simple to do. You just open up a little pear-shaped device, pop it on your arm and then press it to engage and get it to start collecting your blood. After it’s done, plop it in the provided medical packaging and ship it off to a Baze-contracted lab.

I will say it is certainly more convenient to just pop on a little device myself — although it might be tricky if you’re at all squeamish, as you’ll see a little bubble where the blood is being sucked from your arm. For anyone who hesitates, it might be easier to just head to a lab and have another human do this for you.

The price is also nice, compared to going to a Quest Diagnostics or LabCorp, which can vary depending on which vitamins you need to test for individually. With Baze it’s just $100 a pop, plus any additional supplements you might want to buy via monthly subscription after you get your results. The first month of supplements is free with your kit.

Baze’s website will show your results within about 12 days (though Schulte tells TechCrunch the company is working on getting your results faster). It does so with a score and then displays a range of various vitamins tested.

I was told that, overall, I was getting the nutrients I require with a score of 74 out of 100. But I’m already pretty good at taking high-quality vitamins. The only thing that really stuck out was my zinc levels, which I was told was way off the charts high after running the test through twice. Though I suspect, as I am not displaying any symptoms of zinc poisoning, this was likely the result of not wiping off my zinc-based sunscreen well enough before the test began.

For those interested in conducting their own at-home test and not afraid to prick themselves in the arm with something that looks like you might have it on hand in the kitchen, you can do so by heading over to Baze and signing up.

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Zhiyun’s Smooth-Q2 aims to be the most portable quality smartphone gimbal available

Posted by | Bluetooth, Camcorders, cameras, contents, dji, equipment, Gadgets, Gimbal, gimbalstabilization, hardware, iPhone, Kickstarter, osmo, smartphone, smartphones, TC, technology, United States, Zhiyun | No Comments

Zhiyun has been steadily rolling out new gimbals for smartphones and dedicated cameras for a few years now, and the company’s quality and feature set has improved dramatically over time. Now, it’s launching the Zhiyun Smooth-Q2 smartphone gimbal on Kickstarter, with the aim of delivering a “truly pocket-size” gimbal that has all the bells and whistles you could ever want or need.

The Smooth-Q2 is indeed a portable powerhouse — the company sent me a pre-production unit to test, and though it’s not the final shipping hardware, it already works and feels like a polished, quality device. The first thing you’ll notice right away about the Smooth-Q2 is its size — it can indeed slip inside a coat or pant pocket, though you’ll need a fairly deep one to make that work. Even if you don’t necessarily have a compatible pocket, it’s hard to beat the Smooth-Q2 for sheer portability, and that’s bound to save you some packing space when you’re getting ready for your next trip.

Smooth Q2 1

There’s another recently released small-size smartphone gimbal on the market — the DJI Osmo Mobile 3. That has a clever method of folding down for easier packing, but the Smooth-Q2’s design, while similar in overall footprint, means it’s much easier to put in your actual pocket (or pack in a bag’s side pocket) than is the DJI version. And while both are incredibly easy to balance even if you’re a gimbal novice, I found the Zhiyun was actually the simpler of the two.

The Zhiyun Smooth-Q2 also feels more solidly constructed, though its simpler controls (it doesn’t have a trigger around or a zoom lever) may leave some creators wanting. There are some other advantages here, too, however — a quick release spring-loaded clip means you can detach your smartphone quickly for other uses without unbalancing the gimbal, and go right back to shooting when you’re done. Plus, you can connect via Bluetooth and control your smartphone’s native camera app directly, instead of relying on their ZP Play app — which you can still use for features like object tracking.

The Smooth-Q2 offers 16 hours of battery life, so you should easily make it through a day without requiring power, and it can do time lapses, with or without programmed motion, and a vortex mode for capturing crazy rotational footage. It has an aluminum body that should be able to withstand less-than-careful stowage in your bag.

In terms of quality, the Smooth-Q2 really delivers in early testing with my iPhone XS Max, and I’ve included two quick sample clips so you can see for yourself. These are shot in the gimbal’s basic PF mode, in which the camera pans as you turn the gimbal side to side.

Zhiyun’s crowdfunding these, but the company’s history and reputation mean that you can count on them to deliver. The entry-level price is set at $109 U.S. for backers, which is a $30 discount off the planned retail cost, and they should ship to backers in October, according to the company.

Smooth Q2 2

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Mario Kart Tour arrives on iOS and Android on September 25

Posted by | Android, Apps, entertainment software association, Gaming, Japan, Mario, mario kart, miitomo, Mobile, Nintendo, TC, United States, video gaming | No Comments

Nintendo’s next mobile game, Mario Kart Tour, will be available on iOS and Android devices starting on September 25. The official Twitter account for the game revealed the launch date, and shared the pre-registration link where users of both platforms can sign up to get the game when it launches.

The mobile installment of Nintendo’s incredibly popular cart-racing franchise was originally announced last year, and at that time had a planned launch window of sometime before the end of March 2019. Nintendo later updated that date to sometime during this summer in order to “improve [the] quality of the application and expand the content offerings after launch,” according to a statement in one of the game-maker’s earnings reports.

September 25 is technically after the end of summer, the last day of which is officially September 23, but it’s pretty close. Nintendo also released Dr. Mario World earlier this year, so it’s been a busy year for the company in terms of launching mobile adaptations of its popular franchises.

Mario Kart Tour had a closed beta in the U.S. and Japan, which was Android-only, earlier this year. Details from the beta include a look at the rather expansive roster, as well as a lot of in-game purchase mechanics that might frustrate fans of the main series.

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Google falls to third place in worldwide smart speaker market

Posted by | alibaba, Amazon, Amazon Echo, Assistant, Baidu, China, echo, Gadgets, Google, google home, hardware, smart speakers, Speaker, United States, voice assistants, voice computing, Xiaomi | No Comments

The global smart speaker market grew 55.4% in the second quarter to reach 26.1 million shipments, according to a new report from Canalys. Amazon continued to lead the race, accounting for 6.6 million units shipped in the quarter. Google, however, fell to the third spot as China’s Baidu surged ahead. Baidu in Q2 grew a sizable 3,700% to reach 4.5 million units, overtaking Google’s 4.3 million units shipped.

China’s market overall doubled its quarterly shipments to 12.6 million units, or more than twice the U.S.’s 6.1 million total. The latter represents a slight (2.4%) decline since the prior quarter.

Baidu’s growth in the quarter was attributed to aggressive marketing and go-to-market campaigns. It was particularly successful in terms of smart displays, which accounted for 45% of the products it shipped.

“Local network operators’ interests on the [smart display] device category soared recently. This bodes well for Baidu as it faces little competition in the smart display category, allowing the company to dominate in the operator channel,” noted Canalys Research Analyst Cynthia Chen.

Meanwhile, Google was challenged by the Nest rebranding in Q2, the analyst firm said.

The report also suggested that Google should introduce a revamped smart speaker portfolio to rekindle consumer interest. The Google Home device hasn’t been updated since launch — still sporting the air freshener-style looks it had back in 2016. And the Google Home mini hasn’t received much more than a color change.

Instead, Google’s attention as of late has been on making it easier for device manufacturers to integrate with Google Assistant technology, in addition to its increased focus on smart displays.

Amazon, by comparison, has updated its Echo line of speakers several times while expanding Alexa to devices with screens like the Echo Spot and Show, and to those without like the Echo Plus, Echo Dot, Echo Auto and others — even clocks and microwaves — as sort of public experiments in voice computing.

That said, both Amazon and Google turned their attention to non-U.S. markets in Q2, the report found. Indeed, 50% of Amazon’s smart speaker shipments were outside the U.S. in Q2, up from 32% in Q2 last year. And 55% of Google’s shipments were outside the U.S., up from 42% in Q2 2018.

table ifnal final

Beyond the top 3 — Amazon, Baidu and now No. 3 Google — the remaining top five included Alibaba and Xiaomi, with 4.1 million and 2.8 million units shipped in Q2, respectively.

The rest of the market, which would also include Apple’s HomePod, totaled 3.7 million units.

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Mobile gaming is a $68.5 billion global business, and investors are buying in

Posted by | apple music, applovin, Blackstone, Column, communications apps, computing, Electronic Arts, epic games, France, Gaming, Germany, Glu Mobile, ketchapp, KKR, Mobile, mobile devices, mobile game, niantic, pokemon, Riot Games, RSS, Seismic, Seismic Games, social media, Spotify, supercell, Sweden, TC, Tencent, ubisoft, United Kingdom, United States, voodoo, washington DC, White House, Zynga | No Comments
Omer Kaplan
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Omer Kaplan is CMO and co-founder at ironSource.
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By the end of 2019, the global gaming market is estimated to be worth $152 billion, with 45% of that, $68.5 billion, coming directly from mobile games. With this tremendous growth (10.2% YoY to be precise) has come a flurry of investments and acquisitions, everyone wanting a cut of the pie. In fact, over the last 18 months, the global gaming industry has seen $9.6 billion in investments and if investments continue at this current pace, the amount of investment generated in 2018-19 will be higher than the eight previous years combined.

What’s interesting is why everyone is talking about games, and who in the market is responding to this — and how.

The gaming phenomenon

Today, mobile games account for 33% of all app downloads, 74% of consumer spend and 10% of all time spent in-app. It’s predicted that in 2019, 2.4 billion people will play mobile games around the world — that’s almost one-third of the global population. In fact, 50% of mobile app users play games, making this app category as popular as music apps like Spotify and Apple Music, and second only to social media and communications apps in terms of time spent.

In the U.S., time spent on mobile devices has also officially outpaced that of television — with users spending eight more minutes per day on their mobile devices. By 2021, this number is predicted to increase to more than 30 minutes. Apps are the new prime time, and games have grabbed the lion’s share.

Accessibility is the highest it’s ever been as barriers to entry are virtually non-existent. From casual games to the recent rise of the wildly popular hyper-casual genre of games that are quick to download, easy to play and lend themselves to being played in short sessions throughout the day, games are played by almost every demographic stratum of society. Today, the average age of a mobile gamer is 36.3 (compared with 27.7 in 2014), the gender split is 51% female, 49% male, and one-third of all gamers are between the ages of 36-50 — a far cry from the traditional stereotype of a “gamer.”

With these demographic, geographic and consumption sea-changes in the mobile ecosystem and entertainment landscape, it’s no surprise that the game space is getting increased attention and investment, not just from within the industry, but more recently from traditional financial markets and even governments. Let’s look at how the markets have responded to the rise of gaming.

Image courtesy of David Maung/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Games on games

The first substantial investments in mobile gaming came from those who already had a stake in the industry. Tencent invested $90 million in Pocket Gems and$126 million in Glu Mobile (for a 14.6% stake), gaming powerhouse Supercell invested $5 million in mobile game studio Redemption Games, Boom Fantasy raised $2M million from ESPN and the MLB and Gamelynx raised $1.2 million from several investors — one of which was Riot Games. Most recently, Ubisoft acquired a 70% stake in Green Panda Games to bolster its foot in the hyper-casual gaming market.

Additionally, bigger gaming studios began to acquire smaller ones. Zynga bought Gram Games, Ubisoft acquired Ketchapp, Niantic purchased Seismic Games and Tencent bought Supercell (as well as a 40% stake in Epic Games). And the list goes on.

Wall Street wakes up

Beyond the flurry of investments and acquisitions from within the game industry, games are also generating huge amounts of revenue. Since launch, Pokémon GO has generated $2.3 billion in revenue and Fortnite has amassed some 250 million players. This is catching the attention of more traditional financial institutions, like private equity firms and VCs, which are now looking at a variety of investment options in gaming — not just of gaming studios, but all those who have a stake in or support the industry.

In May 2018, hyper-casual mobile gaming studio Voodoo announced a $200 million investment from Goldman Sachs’ private equity investment arm. For the first time ever, a mobile gaming studio attracted the attention of a venerable old financial institution. The explosion of the hyper-casual genre and the scale its titles are capable of achieving, together with the intensely iterative, data-driven business model afforded by the low production costs of games like this, were catching the attention of investors outside of the gaming world, looking for the next big growth opportunity.

The trend continued. In July 2018, private equity firm KKR bought a $400 million minority stake in AppLovin and now, exactly one year later, Blackstone announced their plan to acquire mobile ad-network Vungle for a reported $750 million. Not only is money going into gaming studios, but investments are being made into companies whose technology supports the mobile gaming space. Traditional investors are finally taking notice of the mobile gaming ecosystem as a whole and the explosive growth it has produced in recent years. This year alone mobile games are expected to generate $55 billion in revenue, so this new wave of investment interest should really come as no surprise.

A woman holds up her cell phone as she plays the Pokemon GO game in Lafayette Park in front of the White House in Washington, DC, July 12, 2016. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Government intervention

Most recently, governments are realizing the potential and reach of the gaming industry and making their own investment moves. We’re seeing governments establish funds that support local gaming businesses — providing incentives for gaming studios to develop and retain their creatives, technology and employees locally — as well as programs that aim to attract foreign talent.

As uncertainty looms in England surrounding Brexit, France has jumped on the opportunity with “Join the Game.” They’re painting France as an international hub that is already home to many successful gaming studios, and they’re offering tax breaks and plenty of funding options — for everything from R&D to the production of community events. Their website even has an entire page dedicated to “getting settled in France,” in English, with a step-by-step guide on how game developers should prepare for their arrival.

The U.K. Department for International Trade used this year’s Game Developers Conference as a backdrop for the promotion of their games fund — calling the U.K. “one of the most flourishing game developing ecosystems in the world.” The U.K. Games Fund allows for both local and foreign-owned gaming companies with a presence in the U.K. to apply for tax breaks. And ever since France announced their fund, more and more people have begun encouraging the British government to expand their program, saying that the U.K. gaming ecosystem should be “retained and enhanced.” But, not only does the government take gaming seriously, the Queen does as well. In 2008, David Darling, the CEO of hyper-casual game studio Kwalee, was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to the games industry. CBE is the third-highest honor the Queen can bestow on a British citizen.

Over in Germany, and the government has allocated €50 million of its 2019 budget for the creation of a games fund. In Sweden, the Sweden Game Arena is a public-private partnership that helps students develop games using government-funded offices and equipment. It also links students and startups with established companies and investors. While these numbers dwarf the investment of more commercial or financial players, the sudden uptick in interest governments are paying to the game space indicate just how exciting and lucrative gaming has become.

Support is coming from all levels

The evolution of investment in the gaming space is indicative of the stratospheric growth, massive revenue, strong user engagement and extensive demographic and geographic reach of mobile gaming. With the global games industry projected to be worth a quarter of a trillion dollars by 2023, it comes as no surprise that the diverse players globally have finally realized its true potential and have embraced the gaming ecosystem as a whole.

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T-Mobile customers report outage, can’t make calls or send text messages

Posted by | Mobile, mobile phone, privacy, Security, T-Mobile, telecommunications, text messaging, United States | No Comments

T-Mobile customers across the U.S. say they can’t make calls or send text messages following an apparent outage — although mobile data appears to be unaffected.

We tested with a T-Mobile phone in the office. Both calls to and from the T-Mobile phone failed. When we tried to send a text message, it said the message could not be sent. The outage began around 3pm PT (6pm ET).

Users took to social media to complain about the outage. It’s not clear how many customers are affected, but users across the U.S. have said they are affected.

A T-Mobile support account said the cell giant has “engaged our engineers and are working on a resolution.”

In a tweet two hours into the outage, chief executive John Legere acknowledged the outage, adding that the company has “already started to see signs of recovery.”

T-Mobile is the third largest cell carrier after Verizon (which owns TechCrunch) and AT&T. The company had its proposed $26.5 billion merger with Sprint approved by the Federal Communications Commission, despite a stream of state attorneys general lining up to block the deal.

Updated with acknowledgement by chief executive John Legere.

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Disney+ comes to Canada and the Netherlands on Nov. 12, will support nearly all major platforms at launch

Posted by | Android, Apple, apple inc, apple tv, Australia, Canada, chromecast, computing, Disney, e-commerce, espn, Google, Hulu, iOS, iPad, iPhone, Media, Netflix, Netherlands, New Zealand, operating system, playstation, TC, United States | No Comments

Disney+ will have an international launch that begins at the same time as its rollout in the U.S., Disney revealed. The company will be launching its digital streaming service on November 12 in Canada and The Netherlands on November 12, and will be available in Australia and New Zealand the following week. The streaming service will also support virtually every device and operating system from day one.

Disney+ will be available on iOS, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Android, Android TV, PlayStation 4, Roku and Xbox One at launch, which is pretty much an exhaustive list of everywhere someone might want to watch it, leaving aside some smaller proprietary smart TV systems. That, combined with the day-and-date global markets, should be a clear indicator that Disney wants its service to be available to as many customers as possible, as quickly as possible.

Through Apple’s iPhone, iPad and Apple TV devices, customers will be able to subscribe via in-app purchase. Disney+ will also be fully integrated with Apple’s TV app, which is getting an update in iOS 13 in hopes of becoming even more useful as a central hub for all a user’s video content. The one notable exception on the list of supported devices and platforms is Amazon’s Fire TV, which could change closer to launch depending on negotiations.

In terms of pricing, the service will run $8.99 per month or $89.99 per year in Canada, and €6.99 per month (or €69.99 per year) in the Netherlands. In Australia, it’ll be $8.99 per month or $89.99 per year, and in New Zealand, it’ll be $9.99 and $99.99 per year. All prices are in local currency.

That compares pretty well with the $6.99 per month (or $69.99 yearly) asking price in the U.S., and undercuts the Netflix pricing in those markets, too. This is just the Disney+ service on its own, however, not the combined bundle that includes ESPN Plus and Hulu for $12.99 per month, which is probably more comparable to Netflix in terms of breadth of content offering.

 

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Most EU cookie ‘consent’ notices are meaningless or manipulative, study finds

Posted by | Advertising Tech, america, Android, cookies, data processing, data protection, data security, ePrivacy Regulation, Europe, european union, Facebook, France, GDPR, General Data Protection Regulation, Germany, Google, information commissioner's office, instagram, law, online advertising, privacy, spamming, TC, United States, University of Michigan | No Comments

New research into how European consumers interact with the cookie consent mechanisms which have proliferated since a major update to the bloc’s online privacy rules last year casts an unflattering light on widespread manipulation of a system that’s supposed to protect consumer rights.

As Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force in May 2018, bringing in a tough new regime of fines for non-compliance, websites responded by popping up legal disclaimers which signpost visitor tracking activities. Some of these cookie notices even ask for consent to track you.

But many don’t — even now, more than a year later.

The study, which looked at how consumers interact with different designs of cookie pop-ups and how various design choices can nudge and influence people’s privacy choices, also suggests consumers are suffering a degree of confusion about how cookies function, as well as being generally mistrustful of the term ‘cookie’ itself. (With such baked in tricks, who can blame them?)

The researchers conclude that if consent to drop cookies was being collected in a way that’s compliant with the EU’s existing privacy laws only a tiny fraction of consumers would agree to be tracked.

The paper, which we’ve reviewed in draft ahead of publication, is co-authored by academics at Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany, and the University of Michigan in the US — and entitled: (Un)informed Consent: Studying GDPR Consent Notices in the Field.

The researchers ran a number of studies, gathering ~5,000 of cookie notices from screengrabs of leading websites to compile a snapshot (derived from a random sub-sample of 1,000) of the different cookie consent mechanisms in play in order to paint a picture of current implementations.

They also worked with a German ecommerce website over a period of four months to study how more than 82,000 unique visitors to the site interacted with various cookie consent designs which the researchers’ tweaked in order to explore how different defaults and design choices affected individuals’ privacy choices.

Their industry snapshot of cookie consent notices found that the majority are placed at the bottom of the screen (58%); not blocking the interaction with the website (93%); and offering no options other than a confirmation button that does not do anything (86%). So no choice at all then.

A majority also try to nudge users towards consenting (57%) — such as by using ‘dark pattern’ techniques like using a color to highlight the ‘agree’ button (which if clicked accepts privacy-unfriendly defaults) vs displaying a much less visible link to ‘more options’ so that pro-privacy choices are buried off screen.

And while they found that nearly all cookie notices (92%) contained a link to the site’s privacy policy, only a third (39%) mention the specific purpose of the data collection or who can access the data (21%).

The GDPR updated the EU’s long-standing digital privacy framework, with key additions including tightening the rules around consent as a legal basis for processing people’s data — which the regulation says must be specific (purpose limited), informed and freely given for consent to be valid.

Even so, since May last year there has been an outgrown in cookie ‘consent’ mechanisms popping up or sliding atop websites that still don’t offer EU visitors the necessary privacy choices, per the research.

“Given the legal requirements for explicit, informed consent, it is obvious that the vast majority of cookie consent notices are not compliant with European privacy law,” the researchers argue.

“Our results show that a reasonable amount of users are willing to engage with consent notices, especially those who want to opt out or do not want to opt in. Unfortunately, current implementations do not respect this and the large majority offers no meaningful choice.”

The researchers also record a large differential in interaction rates with consent notices — of between 5 and 55% — generated by tweaking positions, options, and presets on cookie notices.

This is where consent gets manipulated — to flip visitors’ preference for privacy.

They found that the more choices offered in a cookie notice, the more likely visitors were to decline the use of cookies. (Which is an interesting finding in light of the vendor laundry lists frequently baked into the so-called “transparency and consent framework” which the industry association, the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), has pushed as the standard for its members to use to gather GDPR consents.)

“The results show that nudges and pre-selection had a high impact on user decisions, confirming previous work,” the researchers write. “It also shows that the GDPR requirement of privacy by default should be enforced to make sure that consent notices collect explicit consent.”

Here’s a section from the paper discussing what they describe as “the strong impact of nudges and pre-selections”:

Overall the effect size between nudging (as a binary factor) and choice was CV=0.50. For example, in the rather simple case of notices that only asked users to confirm that they will be tracked, more users clicked the “Accept” button in the nudge condition, where it was highlighted (50.8% on mobile, 26.9% on desktop), than in the non-nudging condition where “Accept” was displayed as a text link (39.2% m, 21.1% d). The effect was most visible for the category-and vendor-based notices, where all checkboxes were pre-selected in the nudging condition, while they were not in the privacy-by-default version. On the one hand, the pre-selected versions led around 30% of mobile users and 10% of desktop users to accept all third parties. On the other hand, only a small fraction (< 0.1%) allowed all third parties when given the opt-in choice and around 1 to 4 percent allowed one or more third parties (labeled “other” in 4). None of the visitors with a desktop allowed all categories. Interestingly, the number of non-interacting users was highest on average for the vendor-based condition, although it took up the largest part of any screen since it offered six options to choose from.

The key implication is that just 0.1% of site visitors would freely choose to enable all cookie categories/vendors — i.e. when not being forced to do so by a lack of choice or via nudging with manipulative dark patterns (such as pre-selections).

Rising a fraction, to between 1-4%, who would enable some cookie categories in the same privacy-by-default scenario.

“Our results… indicate that the privacy-by-default and purposed-based consent requirements put forth by the GDPR would require websites to use consent notices that would actually lead to less than 0.1 % of active consent for the use of third parties,” they write in conclusion.

They do flag some limitations with the study, pointing out that the dataset they used that arrived at the 0.1% figure is biased — given the nationality of visitors is not generally representative of public Internet users, as well as the data being generated from a single retail site. But they supplemented their findings with data from a company (Cookiebot) which provides cookie notices as a SaaS — saying its data indicated a higher accept all clicks rate but still only marginally higher: Just 5.6%.

Hence the conclusion that if European web users were given an honest and genuine choice over whether or not they get tracked around the Internet, the overwhelming majority would choose to protect their privacy by rejecting tracking cookies.

This is an important finding because GDPR is unambiguous in stating that if an Internet service is relying on consent as a legal basis to process visitors’ personal data it must obtain consent before processing data (so before a tracking cookie is dropped) — and that consent must be specific, informed and freely given.

Yet, as the study confirms, it really doesn’t take much clicking around the regional Internet to find a gaslighting cookie notice that pops up with a mocking message saying by using this website you’re consenting to your data being processed how the site sees fit — with just a single ‘Ok’ button to affirm your lack of say in the matter.

It’s also all too common to see sites that nudge visitors towards a big brightly colored ‘click here’ button to accept data processing — squirrelling any opt outs into complex sub-menus that can sometimes require hundreds of individual clicks to deny consent per vendor.

You can even find websites that gate their content entirely unless or until a user clicks ‘accept’ — aka a cookie wall. (A practice that has recently attracted regulatory intervention.)

Nor can the current mess of cookie notices be blamed on a lack of specific guidance on what a valid and therefore legal cookie consent looks like. At least not any more. Here, for example, is a myth-busting blog which the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) published last month that’s pretty clear on what can and can’t be done with cookies.

For instance on cookie walls the ICO writes: “Using a blanket approach such as this is unlikely to represent valid consent. Statements such as ‘by continuing to use this website you are agreeing to cookies’ is not valid consent under the higher GDPR standard.” (The regulator goes into more detailed advice here.)

While France’s data watchdog, the CNIL, also published its own detailed guidance last month — if you prefer to digest cookie guidance in the language of love and diplomacy.

(Those of you reading TechCrunch back in January 2018 may also remember this sage plain english advice from our GDPR explainer: “Consent requirements for processing personal data are also considerably strengthened under GDPR — meaning lengthy, inscrutable, pre-ticked T&Cs are likely to be unworkable.” So don’t say we didn’t warn you.)

Nor are Europe’s data protection watchdogs lacking in complaints about improper applications of ‘consent’ to justify processing people’s data.

Indeed, ‘forced consent’ was the substance of a series of linked complaints by the pro-privacy NGO noyb, which targeted T&Cs used by Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Google Android immediately GDPR started being applied in May last year.

While not cookie notice specific, this set of complaints speaks to the same underlying principle — i.e. that EU users must be provided with a specific, informed and free choice when asked to consent to their data being processed. Otherwise the ‘consent’ isn’t valid.

So far Google is the only company to be hit with a penalty as a result of that first wave of consent-related GDPR complaints; France’s data watchdog issued it a $57M fine in January.

But the Irish DPC confirmed to us that three of the 11 open investigations it has into Facebook and its subsidiaries were opened after noyb’s consent-related complaints. (“Each of these investigations are at an advanced stage and we can’t comment any further as these investigations are ongoing,” a spokeswoman told us. So, er, watch that space.)

The problem, where EU cookie consent compliance is concerned, looks to be both a failure of enforcement and a lack of regulatory alignment — the latter as a consequence of the ePrivacy Directive (which most directly concerns cookies) still not being updated, generating confusion (if not outright conflict) with the shiny new GDPR.

However the ICO’s advice on cookies directly addresses claimed inconsistencies between ePrivacy and GDPR, stating plainly that Recital 25 of the former (which states: “Access to specific website content may be made conditional on the well-informed acceptance of a cookie or similar device, if it is used for a legitimate purpose”) does not, in fact, sanction gating your entire website behind an ‘accept or leave’ cookie wall.

Here’s what the ICO says on Recital 25 of the ePrivacy Directive:

  • ‘specific website content’ means that you should not make ‘general access’ subject to conditions requiring users to accept non-essential cookies – you can only limit certain content if the user does not consent;
  • the term ‘legitimate purpose’ refers to facilitating the provision of an information society service – ie, a service the user explicitly requests. This does not include third parties such as analytics services or online advertising;

So no cookie wall; and no partial walls that force a user to agree to ad targeting in order to access the content.

It’s worth point out that other types of privacy-friendly online advertising are available with which to monetize visits to a website. (And research suggests targeted ads offer only a tiny premium over non-targeted ads, even as publishers choosing a privacy-hostile ads path must now factor in the costs of data protection compliance to their calculations — as well as the cost and risk of massive GDPR fines if their security fails or they’re found to have violated the law.)

Negotiations to replace the now very long-in-the-tooth ePrivacy Directive — with an up-to-date ePrivacy Regulation which properly takes account of the proliferation of Internet messaging and all the ad tracking techs that have sprung up in the interim — are the subject of very intense lobbying, including from the adtech industry desperate to keep a hold of cookie data. But EU privacy law is clear.

“[Cookie consent]’s definitely broken (and has been for a while). But the GDPR is only partly to blame, it was not intended to fix this specific problem. The uncertainty of the current situation is caused the delay of the ePrivacy regulation that was put on hold (thanks to lobbying),” says Martin Degeling, one of the research paper’s co-authors, when we suggest European Internet users are being subject to a lot of ‘consent theatre’ (ie noisy yet non-compliant cookie notices) — which in turn is causing knock-on problems of consumer mistrust and consent fatigue for all these useless pop-ups. Which work against the core aims of the EU’s data protection framework.

“Consent fatigue and mistrust is definitely a problem,” he agrees. “Users that have experienced that clicking ‘decline’ will likely prevent them from using a site are likely to click ‘accept’ on any other site just because of one bad experience and regardless of what they actually want (which is in most cases: not be tracked).”

“We don’t have strong statistical evidence for that but users reported this in the survey,” he adds, citing a poll the researchers also ran asking site visitors about their privacy choices and general views on cookies. 

Degeling says he and his co-authors are in favor of a consent mechanism that would enable web users to specify their choice at a browser level — rather than the current mess and chaos of perpetual, confusing and often non-compliant per site pop-ups. Although he points out some caveats.

“DNT [Do Not Track] is probably also not GDPR compliant as it only knows one purpose. Nevertheless  something similar would be great,” he tells us. “But I’m not sure if shifting the responsibility to browser vendors to design an interface through which they can obtain consent will lead to the best results for users — the interfaces that we see now, e.g. with regard to cookies, are not a good solution either.

“And the conflict of interest for Google with Chrome are obvious.”

The EU’s unfortunate regulatory snafu around privacy — in that it now has one modernized, world-class privacy regulation butting up against an outdated directive (whose progress keeps being blocked by vested interests intent on being able to continue steamrollering consumer privacy) — likely goes some way to explaining why Member States’ data watchdogs have generally been loath, so far, to show their teeth where the specific issue of cookie consent is concerned.

At least for an initial period the hope among data protection agencies (DPAs) was likely that ePrivacy would be updated and so they should wait and see.

They have also undoubtedly been providing data processors with time to get their data houses and cookie consents in order. But the frictionless interregnum while GDPR was allowed to ‘bed in’ looks unlikely to last much longer.

Firstly because a law that’s not enforced isn’t worth the paper it’s written on (and EU fundamental rights are a lot older than the GDPR). Secondly, with the ePrivacy update still blocked DPAs have demonstrated they’re not just going to sit on their hands and watch privacy rights be rolled back — hence them putting out guidance that clarifies what GDPR means for cookies. They’re drawing lines in the sand, rather than waiting for ePrivacy to do it (which also guards against the latter being used by lobbyists as a vehicle to try to attack and water down GDPR).

And, thirdly, Europe’s political institutions and policymakers have been dining out on the geopolitical attention their shiny privacy framework (GDPR) has attained.

Much has been made at the highest levels in Europe of being able to point to US counterparts, caught on the hop by ongoing tech privacy and security scandals, while EU policymakers savor the schadenfreude of seeing their US counterparts being forced to ask publicly whether it’s time for America to have its own GDPR.

With its extraterritorial scope, GDPR was always intended to stamp Europe’s rule-making prowess on the global map. EU lawmakers will feel they can comfortably check that box.

However they are also aware the world is watching closely and critically — which makes enforcement a very key piece. It must slot in too. They need the GDPR to work on paper and be seen to be working in practice.

So the current cookie mess is a problematic signal which risks signposting regulatory failure — and that simply isn’t sustainable.

A spokesperson for the European Commission told us it cannot comment on specific research but said: “The protection of personal data is a fundamental right in the European Union and a topic the Juncker commission takes very seriously.”

“The GDPR strengthens the rights of individuals to be in control of the processing of personal data, it reinforces the transparency requirements in particular on the information that is crucial for the individual to make a choice, so that consent is given freely, specific and informed,” the spokesperson added. 

“Cookies, insofar as they are used to identify users, qualify as personal data and are therefore subject to the GDPR. Companies do have a right to process their users’ data as long as they receive consent or if they have a legitimate interest.”

All of which suggests that the movement, when it comes, must come from a reforming adtech industry.

With robust privacy regulation in place the writing is now on the wall for unfettered tracking of Internet users for the kind of high velocity, real-time trading of people’s eyeballs that the ad industry engineered for itself when no one knew what was being done with people’s data.

GDPR has already brought greater transparency. Once Europeans are no longer forced to trade away their privacy it’s clear they’ll vote with their clicks not to be ad-stalked around the Internet too.

The current chaos of non-compliant cookie notices is thus a signpost pointing at an underlying privacy lag — and likely also the last gasp signage of digital business models well past their sell-by-date.

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Google Travel adds flight price notifications and a limited-time flight price guarantee

Posted by | Android, computing, Google, google search, google travel, Google-Maps, machine learning, Pricing, TC, Transportation, United States, world wide web | No Comments

tp animation full no zoom alpha 1Google is building out its travel product with more features to convince you to use it to book flights and plan trips directly, instead of having to go anywhere else. The company is adding more sophisticated pricing features, including historical price comparison for specific itineraries — and notifications about when a price is likely to spike or when it’s at the absolute lowest. It’s also offering a pricing guarantee for bookings made in the next couple of weeks, so you’ll get be refunded the difference if Google says a flight price won’t drop and it subsequently does.

For any flights booked through Google that originate in the U.S. (regardless of destination) between August 13 and September 2, for which Google sends you an alert notifying you that the price is predicted to be at its lowest, the company will alert you if it does drop and then send you a refund on the price difference between what it predicted (i.e. what you paid) and the lowest actual fare.

It’s an attractive deal, and the limited-time offer is probably only even available because this is new and Google wants to make sure people feel absolutely comfortable trusting their predictions. The company likely has the most readily available cross-airline information about flight availability, route popularity and price in the world, however, backed by some of the most sophisticated machine learning on the planet, so it sounds like it’s probably a pretty safe bet for them to make.

Google Travel is also adding a number of features once you actually book you trip — it’ll suggest next steps for planning your trip, and then help you find the best neighborhoods, hotels, restaurants and stuff to do. Plus, reservations and other trip details will automatically carry over to the Google Maps app on your iOS or Android.

Overall, it’s clear that Google is making an aggressive play to own your overall travel and trip planning — and it has the advantage of having more data, better engineering and a whole lot more in the way of design skills when compared to just about every dedicated travel booking company out there.

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