Committed to privacy, Snips founder wants to take on Alexa and Google, with blockchain

Committed to privacy, Snips founder wants to take on Alexa and Google, with blockchain
Earlier this year we saw the headlines of how the users of popular voice assistants like Alexa and Siri and continue to face issues when their private data is compromised, or even sent to random people. In May it was reported that Amazon’s Alexa recorded a private conversation and sent it to a random contact. Amazon insists its Echo devices aren’t always recording, but it did confirm the audio was sent.
The story could be a harbinger of things to come when voice becomes more and more ubiquitous. After all, Amazon announced the launch of Alexa for Hospitality, its Alexa system for hotels, in June. News stories like this simply reinforce the idea that voice control is seeping into our daily lives.
The French startup Snips thinks it might have an answer to the issue of security and data privacy. Its built its software to run 100% on-device, independently from the cloud. As a result, user data is processed on the device itself, acting as a potentially stronger guarantor of privacy. Unlike centralized assistants like Alexa and Google, Snips knows nothing about its users.
Its approach is convincing investors. To date, Snips has raised €22 million in funding from investors like Korelya Capital, MAIF Avenir, BPI France and Eniac Ventures. Created in 2013 by 3 PhDs, and now employing more than 60 people in Paris and New York, Snips offers its voice assistant technology as a white-labelled solution for enterprise device manufacturers.
It’s tested its theories about voice by releasing the result of a consumer poll. The survey of 410 people found that 66% of respondents said they would be apprehensive of using a voice assistant in a hotel room, because of concerns over privacy, 90% said they would like to control the ways corporations use their data, even if it meant sacrificing convenience.
“Сonsumers are increasingly aware of the privacy concerns with voice assistants that rely on cloud storage — and that these concerns will actually impact their usage,” says Dr Rand Hindi, co-founder and CEO at Snips. “However, emerging technologies like blockchain are helping us to create safer and fairer alternatives for voice assistants.”
Indeed, blockchain is very much part of Snip’s future. As Hindi told TechCrunch in May, the company will release a new set of consumer devices independent of its enterprise business. The idea is to create a consumer business that will prompt further enterprise development. At the same time, they will issue a cryptographic token via an ICO to incentivize developers to improve the Snips platform, as an alternative to using data from consumers. The theory goes that this will put it at odds with the approach used by Google and Amazon, who are constantly criticised for invading our private lives merely to improve their platforms.
As a result Hindi believes that as voice-controlled devices become an increasingly common sight in public spaces, there could be a significant shift in public opinion about how their privacy is being protected.
In an interview conducted last month with TechCrunch, Hindi told me the company’s plans for its new consumer product are well advanced, and will be designed from the beginning to be improved over time using a combination of decentralized machine learning and cryptography.
By using blockchain technology to share data, they will be able to train the network “without ever anybody sending unencrypted data anywhere,” he told me.
And ‘training the network” is where it gets interesting. By issuing a cryptographic token for developers to use, Hindi says they will incentivize devs to work on their platform and process data in a decentralized fashion. They are starting from a good place. He claims they already have 14,000 developers on the platform who will be further incentivized by a token economy.
“Otherwise people have no incentive to process that data in a decentralized fashion, right?” he says.
“We got into blockchain because we’re trying to find a way to get people to participate in decentralized machine learning. We’ve been wanting to get into consumer [devices] for a couple of years but didn’t really figure out the end goal because we had always had this missing element which was: how do you keep making it better over time.”
“This is the main argument for Google and Amazon to pretend that you need to send your data to them, to make the service better. If we can fix this [by using blockchain] then we can offer a real alternative to Alexa that guarantees Privacy by Design,” he says.
“We now have over 14000 developers building for us and that’s really completely organic growth, zero marketing, purely word of mouth, which is really nice because it shows that there’s a very big demand for decentralized voice assistance, effectively.”
It could be a high-risk strategy. Launching a voice-controlled device is one thing. Layering it with applications produced by developed supposedly incentivized by tokens, especially when crypto prices have crashed, is quite another.
It does definitely feel like a moonshot idea, however, and we’ll really only know if Snips can live up to such lofty ideals after the launch.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Panasonic to move its European HQ out of the UK because Brexit

Panasonic to move its European HQ out of the UK because Brexit
Chalk up yet another Brexit deficit: Japanese electronics firm Panasonic will be moving its European headquarters from the UK to Amsterdam in October because it’s worried about the tax implications if it stays, the Nikkei Asian Review reports.
The company is concerned it could face tax liabilities if the UK shifts its corporate tax regime as a result of Brexit.
Laurent Abadie, CEO of Panasonic Europe, told the publication Japan could treat the U.K. as a tax haven if the country lowers its corporate rate — as the government has indeed suggested it will to try to make itself a more attractive destination for businesses once it’s outside the European Union’s trading bloc.
In November 2016 the UK Prime Minister announced a review of the country’s corporate tax rate — saying the government could move to substantially cut the rate below the current 20%.
Prior to that, former chancellor George Osborne pledged to cut the rate to below 15%.
At the same time as announcing the rate review, the PM unveiled a package of business-focused measures — intended to try to quell fears around Brexit. Although a rate cut evidently isn’t friendly to every business.
In the case of Panasonic, it’s concerned that if the U.K. gets designated a tax-haven by Japan it could be saddled with back taxes back home. So moving to stay regionally headquartered within the European Union removes that risk.
Abadie also told the Nikkei Asian Review that moving its regional HQ to continental Europe will help it avoid any barriers to the flow of people and goods thrown up by Brexit.
The shape of any deal — or even whether there will be a deal between the UK and the EU, post-Brexit — still remains to be seen just a few months before the UK is scheduled to exit the EU, in March 2019. So businesses are having to make key decisions based on possible or potential outcomes.
Meanwhile the UK’s regulatory influence in the region continues to be diminished…

In terms of trade, access to talent, and regulatory influence, we're relegating ourselves to the second division.
— Ian Dunt (@IanDunt) August 30, 2018

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Femtech hardware startup Elvie inks strategic partnership with UK’s NHS

Femtech hardware startup Elvie inks strategic partnership with UK’s NHS
Elvie, a femtech hardware startup whose first product is a sleek smart pelvic floor exerciser, has inked a strategic partnership with the UK’s National Health Service that will make the device available nationwide through the country’s free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare service so at no direct cost to the patient.
It’s a major win for the startup that was co-founded in 2013 by CEO Tania Boler and Jawbone founder, Alexander Asseily, with the aim of building smart technology that focuses on women’s issues — an overlooked and underserved category in the gadget space.
Boler’s background before starting Elvie (née Chiaro) including working for the U.N. on global sex education curriculums. But her interest in pelvic floor health, and the inspiration for starting Elvie, began after she had a baby herself and found there was more support for women in France than the U.K. when it came to taking care of their bodies after giving birth.
With the NHS partnership, which is the startup’s first national reimbursement partnership (and therefore, as a spokeswoman puts it, has “the potential to be transformative” for the still young company), Elvie is emphasizing the opportunity for its connected tech to help reduce symptoms of urinary incontinence, including those suffered by new mums or in cases of stress-related urinary incontinence.
The Elvie kegel trainer is designed to make pelvic floor exercising fun and easy for women, with real-time feedback delivered via an app that also gamifies the activity, guiding users through exercises intended to strengthen their pelvic floor and thus help reduce urinary incontinence symptoms. The device can also alert users when they are contracting incorrectly.

Elvie cites research suggesting the NHS spends £233M annually on incontinence, claiming also that around a third of women and up to 70% of expectant and new mums currently suffer from urinary incontinence. In 70 per cent of stress urinary incontinence cases it suggests symptoms can be reduced or eliminated via pelvic floor muscle training.
And while there’s no absolute need for any device to perform the necessary muscle contractions to strengthen the pelvic floor, the challenge the Elvie Trainer is intended to help with is it can be difficult for women to know they are performing the exercises correctly or effectively.
Elvie cites a 2004 study that suggests around a third of women can’t exercise their pelvic floor correctly with written or verbal instruction alone. Whereas it says that biofeedback devices (generally, rather than the Elvie Trainer specifically) have been proven to increase success rates of pelvic floor training programmes by 10% — which it says other studies have suggested can lower surgery rates by 50% and reduce treatment costs by £424 per patient head within the first year.
“Until now, biofeedback pelvic floor training devices have only been available through the NHS for at-home use on loan from the patient’s hospital, with patient allocation dependent upon demand. Elvie Trainer will be the first at-home biofeedback device available on the NHS for patients to keep, which will support long-term motivation,” it adds.
Commenting in a statement, Clare Pacey, a specialist women’s health physiotherapist at Kings College Hospital, said: “I am delighted that Elvie Trainer is now available via the NHS. Apart from the fact that it is a sleek, discreet and beautiful product, the app is simple to use and immediate visual feedback directly to your phone screen can be extremely rewarding and motivating. It helps to make pelvic floor rehabilitation fun, which is essential in order to be maintained.”
Elvie is not disclosing commercial details of the NHS partnership but a spokeswoman told us the main objective for this strategic partnership is to broaden access to Elvie Trainer, adding: “The wholesale pricing reflects that.”
Discussing the structure of the supply arrangement, she said Elvie is working with Eurosurgical as its delivery partner — a distributor she said has “decades of experience supplying products to the NHS”.
“The approach will vary by Trust, regarding whether a unit is ordered for a particular patient or whether a small stock will be held so a unit may be provided to a patient within the session in which the need is established. This process will be monitored and reviewed to determine the most efficient and economic distribution method for the NHS Supply Chain,” she added.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

UK report highlights changing gadget habits — and our need for an online fix

UK report highlights changing gadget habits — and our need for an online fix
A look back at the past decade of consumer technology use in the UK has shone a light on changing gadget habits, underlining how Brits have gone from being smartphone dabblers back in 2008 when a top-of-the-range smartphone cost ~£500 to true addicts in today’s £1k+ premium smartphone era.
The report also highlights what seems to be, at times, a conflicted relationship between Brits and the Internet.
While nine in ten people in the UK have home access to the Internet, here in 2018, some web users report feeling being online is a time-sink or a constraint on their freedom.
But even more said they feel lost or bored without it.
Over the past decade the Internet looks to have consolidated its grip on the spacetime that boredom occupied for the less connected generations that came before.
The overview comes via regulator Ofcom’s 2018 Communications Market report. The full report commenting on key market developments in the country’s communications sector is a meaty, stat and chart-filled read.
The regulator has also produced a 30-slide interactive version this year.
Commenting on the report findings in a statement, Ian Macrae, Ofcom’s director of market intelligence, said: “Over the last decade, people’s lives have been transformed by the rise of the smartphone, together with better access to the Internet and new services. Whether it’s working flexibly, keeping up with current affairs or shopping online, we can do more on the move than ever before.
“But while people appreciate their smartphone as their constant companion, some are finding themselves feeling overloaded when online, or frustrated when they’re not.”
We’ve pulled out some highlights from the report below…

Less than a fifth (17%) of UK citizens owned a smartphone a decade ago; the figure now stands at 78% — and a full 95% of 16-24 year-olds. So, yeah, kids don’t get called digital natives for nothin’
People in the UK check their smartphones, on average, every 12 minutes of the waking day. (‘Digital wellbeing’ tools clearly have their work cut out to kick against this grain… )
Ofcom found that two in five adults (40%) first look at their phone within five minutes of waking up (rising to 65% of the under 35s). While around a third (37%) of adults check their phones five minutes before lights out (again rising to 60% of under-35s). Shame it didn’t also ask how well people are sleeping
Contrary to a decade ago, most UK citizens say they need and expect a constant Internet connection wherever they go. Two thirds of adults (64%) say it’s an essential part of their life. One in five adults (19%) say they spend more than 40 hours a week online, up from 5% just over ten years ago
Three quarters (74%) of people say being online keeps them close to friends and family. Two fifths (41%) say it enables them to work more flexibly

Smartphone screen addicts, much?

Seventy-two per cent of adults say their smartphone is their most important device for accessing the Internet; 71% say they never turn off their phone; and 78% say they could not live without it
Ofcom found the amount of time Brits spend making phone calls from mobiles has fallen for the first time — using a mobile for phone calls is only considered important by 75% of smartphone users vs 92% who consider web browsing on a smartphone to be important (and indeed the proportion of people accessing the Internet on their mobile has increased from 20% almost a decade ago to 72% in 2018)
The average amount of time spent online on a smartphone is 2 hours 28 minutes per day. This rises to 3 hours 14 minutes among 18-24s

Social and emotional friction, plus the generation gap…

On the irritation front, three quarters of people (76%) find it annoying when someone is listening to music, watching videos or playing games loudly on public transport; while an impressive 81% object to people using their phone during meal times
TV is another matter though. The majority (53%) of adults say they are usually on their phone while watching TV with others. There’s a generation gap related to social acceptance of this though: With a majority (62%) of people over the age of 55 thinking it’s unacceptable — dropping to just two in ten (21%) among those aged 18-34
Ofcom also found that significant numbers of people saying the online experience has negative effects. Fifteen per cent agree it makes them feel they are always at work, and more than half (54%) admit that connected devices interrupt face-to-face conversations with friends and family — which does offer a useful counterpoint to social media giant’s shiny marketing claims that their platforms ‘connect people’ (the truth is more they both connect & disconnect). While more than two in five (43%) also admit to spending too much time online
Around a third of people say they feel either cut off (34%) or lost (29%) without the Internet, and if they can’t get online, 17% say they find it stressful. Half of all UK adults (50%) say their life would be boring if they could not access the Internet 
On the flip side, a smaller proportion of UK citizens view a lack of Internet access in a positive light. One in ten says they feel more productive offline (interestingly this rises to 15% for 18-34 year-olds); while 10% say they find it liberating; and 16% feel less distracted

The impact of (multifaceted and increasingly powerful and capable) smartphones can also be seen on some other types of gadgets. Though TV screens continue to compel Brits (possibly because they feel it’s okay to keep using their smartphones while sitting in front of a bigger screen… )

Ofcom says ownership of tablets (58% of UK households) and games consoles (44% of UK adults) has plateaued in the last three years
Desktop PC ownership has declined majorly over the past decade — from a large majority (69%) of households with access in 2008 to less than a third (28%) in 2018
As of 2017, smart TVs were in 42% of households — up from just 5% in 2012
Smart speakers weren’t around in 2008 but they’ve now carved out a space in 13% of UK households
One in five households (20%) report having some wearable tech (smart watches, fitness trackers). So smart speakers look to be fast catching up with fitness bands

BBC mightier than Amazon …

BBC website visitor numbers overtook those of Amazon in the UK in 2018. Ofcom found the BBC had the third-highest number of users after Google and Facebook
Ofcom also found that six in ten people have used next-day delivery for online purchases, but only three in ten have used same-day delivery in 2018. So most Brits are, seemingly, content to wait until tomorrow for ecommerce purchases — rather than demanding their stuff right now

What else are UK citizens getting up to online? More of a spread of stuff than ever, it would appear…

Less general browsing/surfing than last year, though it’s still the most popular reported use for Internet activity (69% saying they’ve done this in the past week vs 80% who reported the same in 2017)
Sending and receiving email is also still a big deal — but also on the slide (66% reporting doing this in the past week vs 76% in 2017)
Social media use is another popular but slightly less so use-case than last year (50% in 2017 down to 45% in 2018). (Though Twitter bucks the trend with a percentage point usage bump (13% -> 14%) though it’s far less popular overall)
Instant messaging frequency also dropped a bit (46% -> 41%)
As did TV/video viewing online (40% -> 36%), including for watching short video clips (31% to 28%)
Online shopping has also dropped a bit in frequency (48% -> 44%)
But accessing news has remained constant (36%)
Finding health information has seen marginal slight growth (22% -> 23%); ditto has finding/downloading information for work/college (32% -> 33%); using local council/government services (21% -> 23%); and playing games online/interactively (17% -> 18%)
Streaming audio services have got a bit more popular (podcasts, we must presume), with 15% reporting using them in the past week in 2017 up to 19% in 2018. Listening to the radio online is also up (13% -> 15%)
However uploading/adding content to the Internet has got a bit less popular, though (17% to 15%)

One more thing: Women in the UK are bigger Internet fans than men.
Perhaps contrary to some people’s expectations, women in the UK spend more time online on average than men across almost all age groups, with the sole exception being the over 55s (where the time difference is pretty marginal)…

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Dixons Carphone says millions more customers affected by 2017 breach

Dixons Carphone says millions more customers affected by 2017 breach
A Dixons Carphone data breach that was disclosed earlier this summer was worse than initially reported. The company is now saying that personal data of 10 million customers could also have been accessed when its systems were hacked.
The European electronics and telecoms retailer believes its systems were accessed by unknown and unauthorized person/s in 2017, although it only disclosed the breach in June, after discovering it during a review of its security systems.
Last month it said 5.9M payment cards and 1.2M customer records had been accessed. But with its investigation into the breach “nearing completion”, it now says approximately 10M records containing personal data (but no financial information) may have been accessed last year — in addition to the 5.9M compromised payment cards it disclosed last month.
“While there is now evidence that some of this data may have left our systems, these records do not contain payment card or bank account details and there is no evidence that any fraud has resulted. We are continuing to keep the relevant authorities updated,” the company said in a statement.
In terms of what personal data the 10M records contained, a Dixons Carphone spokeswoman told us: “This continues to relate to personal data, and the types of data that may have been accessed are, for example, name, address or email address.”
The company says it’s taking the precaution of contacting all its customers — to apologize and advise them of “protective steps to minimize the risk of fraud”.
It adds it has no evidence that the unauthorized access is continuing, having taken steps to secure its systems when the breach was discovered last month, saying: “We continue to make improvements and investments at pace to our security environment through enhanced controls, monitoring and testing.”
Commenting in a statement, Dixons Carphone CEO, Alex Baldock, added: “Since our data security review uncovered last year’s breach, we’ve been working around the clock to put it right. That’s included closing off the unauthorised access, adding new security measures and launching an immediate investigation, which has allowed us to build a fuller understanding of the incident that we’re updating on today.
“Again, we’re disappointed in having fallen short here, and very sorry for any distress we’ve caused our customers. I want to assure them that we remain fully committed to making their personal data safe with us.”
Back in 2015, Carphone Warehouse, a mobile division of Dixons Carphone, also suffered a hack which affected around 3M people. And in January the company was fined £400k by the ICO as a consequence of that earlier breach.
Since then new European Union regulations (GDPR) have come into force which greatly raise the maximum penalties which regulators can impose for serious data breaches.
Last month, following Dixon’s disclosure of the latest breach, the UK’s data watchdog, the ICO, told us it was liaising with the National Cyber Security Centre, the Financial Conduct Authority and other relevant agencies to ascertain the details and impact on customers.
Of the 5.9M payment cards which Dixons disclosed last month as having been compromised, it said the vast majority had been protected by chip and PIN technology. But around 105,000 lacked the security tech so Dixons said at the time could therefore have been compromised.
It’s the additional 1.2M records containing non-financial personal data — such as name, address or email address — that have been revised upwards now, to ~10M records, which constitutes almost half the Group’s customer base in the UK and Ireland.
The spokeswoman told us the Group has approximately 22M customers in the region.
https://www.ncsc.gov.uk/guidance/ncsc-advice-dixons-carphone-plc-customers

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

PSA: Drone flight restrictions are in force in the UK from today

PSA: Drone flight restrictions are in force in the UK from today
Consumers using drones in the UK have new safety restrictions they must obey starting today, with a change to the law prohibiting drones from being flown above 400ft or within 1km of an airport boundary.
Anyone caught flouting the new restrictions could be charged with recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or a person in an aircraft — which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both.
The safety restrictions were announced by the government in May, and have been brought in via an amendment the 2016 Air Navigation Order.
They’re a stop-gap because the government has also been working on a full drone bill — which was originally slated for Spring but has been delayed.
However the height and airport flight restrictions for drones were pushed forward, given the clear safety risks — after a year-on-year increase in reports of drone incidents involving aircraft.
The Civil Aviation Authority has today published research to coincide with the new laws, saying it’s found widespread support among the public for safety regulations for drones.
Commenting in a statement, the regulator’s assistant director Jonathan Nicholson said: “Drones are here to stay, not only as a recreational pastime, but as a vital tool in many industries — from agriculture to blue-light services — so increasing public trust through safe drone flying is crucial.”
“As recreational drone use becomes increasingly widespread across the UK it is heartening to see that awareness of the Dronecode has also continued to rise — a clear sign that most drone users take their responsibility seriously and are a credit to the community,” he added, referring to the (informal) set of rules developed by the body to promote safe use of consumer drones — ahead of the government legislating.
Additional measures the government has confirmed it will legislate for — announced last summer — include a requirement for owners of drones weighing 250 grams or more to register with the CAA, and for drone pilots to take an online safety test. The CAA says these additional requirements will be enforced from November 30, 2019 — with more information on the registration scheme set to follow next year.
For now, though, UK drone owners just need to make sure they’re not flying too high or too close to airports.
Earlier this month it emerged the government is considering age restrictions on drone use too. Though it remains to be seen whether or not those proposals will make it into the future drone bill.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Trump just noticed Europe’s $5BN antitrust fine for Google

Trump just noticed Europe’s BN antitrust fine for Google

In other news bears shit in the woods. In today’s second-day President Trump news: ‘The Donald’ has seized, belatedly, on the European Commission’s announcement yesterday that Google is guilty of three types of illegal antitrust behavior — with its Android OS, since 2011 — and that it is fining the company $5 billion; a record-breaking penalty which the Commission’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, said reflects the length and gravity of the company’s competition infringements.

Trump is not! at all! convinced! though!

“I told you so!” he has tweeted triumphantly just now. “The European Union just slapped a Five Billion Dollar fine on one of our great companies, Google . They truly have taken advantage of the U.S., but not for long!”

Also not so very long ago, Trump was the one grumbling about U.S. tech giants. Though Amazon is his most frequent target in tech, while Google has been spared the usual tweet lashings. Albeit, on the average day he may not necessarily be able to tell one tech giant from another.

Vestager can though, and she cited Amazon as one of the companies that had suffered as a direct result of contractual conditions Google imposed on device makers using its Android OS — squeezing the ecommerce giant’s potential to build a competing Android ecosystem, with its Fire OS.

Presumably, for Trump, Amazon is not ‘one of our great companies’ though.

At least it’s only Google that gets his full Twitter attention — and a special Trumpian MAGA badge of honor call-out as “one of our great companies” — in the tweet.

Presumably, he hasn’t had this pointed out to him yet though. So, uh, awkward.

Safe to say, Trump is seizing on Google’s antitrust penalty as a stick to beat the EU, set against a backdrop of Trump already having slapped a series of tariffs on EU goods, and Trump recently threatening the EU with tariffs on cars — in what is fast looking like a full blown trade war.

Even so, Trump’s tweet probably wasn’t the kind of support Google was hoping to solicit via its own Twitter missive yesterday…

#AndroidWorksButTradeWarsDon’t doesn’t make for the most elegant hashtag.

But here’s the thing: Vestager has already responded to Trump’s attack on the Android decision — even though it’s taking place a day late. Because the EU’s “tax lady”, as Trump has been known to vaguely refer to her, is both lit and onit.

During yesterday’s press conference she was specifically asked to anticipate Trump’s tantrum response on hearing the EU antitrust decision against Google, and whether she wasn’t afraid it might affect next week’s meeting between the US president and the European Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker.

“As I know my US colleagues want fair competition just as well as we do,” she responded. “There is a respect that we do our job. We have this very simple mission to make sure that companies play by the rulebook for the market to serve consumers. And this is also my impression that this is what they want in the US.”

Pressed again on political context, given the worsening trade relationship between the US and the EU, Vestager was asked how she would explain that her finding against Google is not part of an overarching anti-US narrative — and how would she answer Trump’s contention that the EU’s “tax lady… really hates the US”.

“Well I’ve done my own fact checking on the first part of that sentence. I do work with tax and I am a woman. So this is 100% correct,” she replied. “It is not correct for the latter part of the sentence though. Because I very much like the US. And I think that would also be what you think because I am from Denmark and that tends to be what we do. We like the U.S. The culture, the people, our friends, traveling. But the fact is that this [finding against Google] has nothing to do with how I feel. Nothing whatsoever. Just as well as enforcing competition law — well, we do it in the world but we don’t do it in a political context. Because then there would never, ever be a right timing.

“The mission is very simple. We have to protect consumers and competition to make sure that consumers get the best of fair competition — choice, innovation, best possible prices. This is what we do. It has been done before, we will continue to do it — no matter the political context.”

Maybe Trump will be able to learn the name of the EU’s “tax lady” if Vestager ends up EU president next year.

Or, well, maybe not. We can only hope so.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

Europe updates its predatory pricing investigation against Qualcomm over UMTS baseband chips

Europe updates its predatory pricing investigation against Qualcomm over UMTS baseband chips

On the heels of Google getting served a $5 billion fine by the EU over monopolistic practices related to its Android operating system, the European Commission today resurfaced another ongoing case in the world of large U.S. tech companies. The EC said that it has added to its investigation into Qualcomm and its predatory pricing of UMTS baseband chips. Specifically, today the Commission has sent more details relating to elements of the “price cost” test that it had applied to measure just how much below cost Qualcomm was selling UMTS baseband chips to edge out competitors.

If the case is decided against Qualcomm, the company could face an additional fine of up to 10 percent of its worldwide revenues. In 2009, these were $10.4 billion, while in 2017, global turnover was over $22 billion.

The original, 2015 case was based on a complaint filed by Icera — once a big player in baseband chips — and dates back to practices between 2009 and 2011 and alleged that Qualcomm used its market position to negotiate artificially low prices for UMTS chips — used in 3G phones — in order to oust out Icera. Others that made similar chips include Nvidia.

Qualcomm has wasted little time in responding to the notice posted by the EC.

“This investigation, now in its ninth year, alleges harm in 2009-2011, to a competitor who chose years later to exit the market for reasons unrelated to Qualcomm,” said Don Rosenberg, general counsel and executive vice president of Qualcomm in a statement. “While the investigation has been narrowed, we are disappointed to see it continues and will immediately begin preparing our response to this supplementary statement of objections. We belief that once the Commission has reviewed our response it will find that Qualcomm’s practices are pro-competitive and fully consistent with European competition rules.”

Qualcomm is already in the middle of appealing a $1.23 billion fine in the EU over LTE chip dominance in the iPhone, related to deals that were made with Apple at the expense of another big rival of Qualcomm’s, Intel. (Never mind that Apple and Qualcomm are also in the middle of a patent dispute.)

This older case, as Qualcomm points out, has been narrowed since it was first announced almost exactly three years ago. And while we don’t know what the exact details of the supplementary objections are and whether they have expanded them again (we have contacted the EC to try to find out), the Commission also notes in its short statement — printed in full below — that sending an update to its calculations doesn’t necessarily imply the outcome of this case.

Statement below.

The European Commission has sent a Supplementary Statement of Objections to Qualcomm Inc. This is a procedural step in the Commission’s ongoing investigation under EU antitrust rules looking into whether Qualcomm engaged in ‘predatory pricing’. The Commission sent a Statement of Objections to Qualcomm in December 2015 detailing its concerns. In particular, the Commission’s preliminary view is that between 2009 and 2011 Qualcomm sold certain UMTS baseband chipsets at prices below cost, with the intention of eliminating Icera, its main competitor in the leading edge segment of the market at that time. UMTS chipsets are key components of mobile devices. They enable both voice and data transmission in third generation (3G) cellular communication. The Supplementary Statement of Objections sent today focuses on certain elements of the “price-cost” test applied by the Commission to assess the extent to which UMTS baseband chipsets were sold by Qualcomm at prices below cost. The sending of a Supplementary Statement of Objections does not prejudge the outcome of the investigation. More information is available on the Commission’s competition website, in the public case register under the case number AT.39711.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

Google gets slapped with $5BN EU fine for Android antitrust abuse

Google gets slapped with BN EU fine for Android antitrust abuse

Google has been fined a record breaking €4.34 billion (~$5BN) by European antitrust regulators for abusing the dominance of its Android mobile operating system.

Competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager has tweeted to confirm the penalty ahead of a press conference about to take place. Stay tuned for more details as we get them.

In a longer statement about the decision, Vestager said:

Today, mobile internet makes up more than half of global internet traffic. It has changed the lives of millions of Europeans. Our case is about three types of restrictions that Google has imposed on Android device manufacturers and network operators to ensure that traffic on Android devices goes to the Google search engine. In this way, Google has used Android as a vehicle to cement the dominance of its search engine. These practices have denied rivals the chance to innovate and compete on the merits. They have denied European consumers the benefits of effective competition in the important mobile sphere. This is illegal under EU antitrust rules.

In particular, the EC has decided that Google:

  • has required manufacturers to pre-install the Google Search app and browser app (Chrome), as a condition for licensing Google’s app store (the Play Store);
  • made payments to certain large manufacturers and mobile network operators on condition that they exclusively pre-installed the Google Search app on their devices; and
  • has prevented manufacturers wishing to pre-install Google apps from selling even a single smart mobile device running on alternative versions of Android that were not approved by Google (so-called “Android forks”).

The decision also concludes that Google is dominant in the markets for general internet search services; licensable smart mobile operating systems; and app stores for the Android mobile operating system.

During the press conference Vestager said the Commission had determined that Google had breached its competition rules with Android since 2011. (Although its press release also notes that during 2013, after being called out by the Commission, Google gradually stopped making illegal payments to device manufacturers to exclusively pre-install Google Search. “The illegal practice effectively ceased as of 2014,” it adds.)

“The decision today concludes that the restrictions Google imposed on manufacturers and network operators using Android have breached [EU] rules since 2011,” said Vestager. “First that’s because Google’s practices have denied rival search engines the possibility to compete on their merits. They made sure that Google search engine is pre-installed on practically all Android devices, which is an advantage that cannot be matched.

“And by making payments to major manufacturers and network operators on condition that no other search app or search engine was pre-installed — well, then rivals were excluded from this opportunity.”

“Google’s practices also harmed competition and further innovation in the wider mobile space, beyond just Internet search — and that’s because they prevented other mobile browsers from competing effectively with the pre-installed Google Chrome browser.

“Finally they obstructed the development of Android forks. This could have provided a platform for rival search engines as well as other app developers to thrive.”

She raised the example of Amazon’s Android fork, Fire OS, as a rival Android platform that has suffered from Google’s contractual arrangements with device manufacturers.

“In 2012 and 2013 Amazon tried to license to device manufacturers its Android fork, called Fire OS. It wanted to co-operate with manufacturers to increase its chances of commercial success. And manufacturers were interested but due to Google’s restrictions, manufacturers could not launch Fire OS on even a single device,” she said.

“They would have lost the right to sell any Android phone with key Google apps. Nowadays, very few devices run with Fire OS. Namely only those manufactured by Amazon themselves. And this is not a proportionate outcome. Google is entitled to set technical requirements to ensure that functionality and apps within its own Android ecosystem runs smoothly. But these technical requirements cannot serve as a smokescreen to prevent the development of competing Android ecosystems.

“Google cannot have its cake and eat it.”

Vestager also made a point of characterizing Google’s actions as monopolistic towards data, saying that by blocking rival apps and services it “also denied rivals access to valuable data from increased user traffic which in turn could have allowed rivals to improve their products”.

What about breaking Google up?

During the press conference she was asked several times about whether breaking up Google might not be a more effective remedy than the cease & desist decision the Commission has reached today — which hands responsibility for Google to come up with a compliance remedy for its illegal behavior with Android (albeit, subject to ongoing monitoring by the Commission).

She replied that she wasn’t sure that breaking up Google would make for an effective competition remedy, arguing there are “no silver bullets” to ensuring competitive markets.

“Here we have a decision that is very clear, which will allow mobile device producers to have a choice — that will us, as consumers, to have a choice as well. That’s what competition is about. And I think that is much more important than a discussion of whether or not breaking up a company would do that,” she said, when asked whether she would exclude the possibility of breaking up Google — so she was sidestepping a direct answer to that.

“I think what will serve competition is for more players to have a real go, to be able to reach consumers so that we can use our choice to find what suits us the best,” she added. “Test out new search engines, new browsers, have maybe a phone that works in a slightly different way [via an Android fork]… maybe the totality of the phone, in the way it was presented, that would work to allow others to compete on the merits, to show consumers what can we do, what have we invented, this is where we put our efforts, this is the that innovation we want to present for you. This I think would enable competition.”

She also emphasized the importance of passing proposed EU legislation related to transparency and fairness for businesses that are reliant on online platforms.

“I think there is a very important discussion which is to discuss how to pass the legislation that my colleagues have tabled — legislation that will ensure that you have transparency and fairness in the business to platform relationship,” she said.

“So that if you’re a business and you find that ‘oh, my traffic has stopped’, that you know why it happened, when it happened and what to do to get your traffic back…. Because this will change the marketplace, and it will change the way we are protected as consumers but also as businesses.”

Google has tweeted an initial reaction to the decision, claiming Android has created “a vibrant ecosystem, rapid innovation and lower prices”.

A company spokesperson confirmed to us that it will appeal the Commission’s decision.

In a lengthy blog post response, CEO Sundar Pichai expands on the company’s argument that the Android ecosystem has “created more choice, not less” — writing for example:

Today, because of Android, there are more than 24,000 devices, at every price point, from more than 1,300 different brands,including DutchFinnishFrenchGermanHungarianItalianLatvianPolishRomanianSpanish and Swedish
phone makers.

The phones made by these companies are all different, but have one thing in common — the ability to run the same applications. This is possible thanks to simple rules that ensure technical compatibility, no matter what the size or shape of the device. No phone maker is even obliged to sign up to these rules — they can use or modify Android in any way they want, just as Amazon has done with its Fire tablets and TV sticks.

He also has a veiled warning about the consequences should Google’s “free distribution” model for Android come unstuck, writing:

The free distribution of the Android platform, and of Google’s suite of applications, is not only efficient for phone makers and operators—it’s of huge benefit for developers and consumers. If phone makers and mobile network operators couldn’t include our apps on their wide range of devices, it would upset the balance of the Android ecosystem. So far, the Android business model has meant that we haven’t had to charge phone makers for our technology, or depend on a tightly controlled distribution model.

The fine is the second major penalty for the ad tech giant for breaching EU competition rules in just over a year — and the highest ever issued by the Commission for abuse of a dominant market position.

In June 2017 Google was hit with a then-record €2.4BN (~$2.7BN) antitrust penalty related to another of its products, search comparison service, Google Shopping. The company has since made changes to how it displays search results for products in Europe.

According to the bloc’s rules, companies can be fined 10 per cent of their global revenue if they are deemed to have breached European competition law.

Google’s parent entity Alphabet reported full year revenue of $110.9 billion in 2017. So the $5BN fine is around half of what the company could have been on the hook for if EU regulators had levied the maximum penalty possible.

“It’s a very serious illegal behavior”

The Commission said the size of the fine takes into account “the duration and gravity of the infringement”.

It also specified it had been calculated on the basis of the value of Google’s revenue from search advertising services on Android devices in the European Economic Area (per its own guidelines on fines).

Pressed during the press conference on how the Commission had determined the size of the penalty, which is double the penalty it issued in the Google Shopping case, Vestager emphasized the time period over which it had been going on, the fact of it having three components, and the effect of it, combined with Google’s rising turnover — adding finally for emphasis: “It’s a very serious infringement. It’s a very serious illegal behavior.”

Google will have three months to pay the fine but has confirmed it will appeal the decision — and legal wrangling could drag the process out for many years.

Vestager confirmed that while antitrust fines must technically be paid to the EU within the three month deadline they are placed in a closed account until the end of any appeals process — meaning the money cannot be used in the meanwhile.

So, in the Android case, the $5BN will likely be locked up until the late 2020s — assuming Google’s appeals aren’t successful. Should Google fail to overturn the Commission’s decision in the courts, Vestager said the money would be returned to EU Member States “using the same key as the contribution to the European budget”.

“You can impose a fine if someone has done someone wrong, you cannot impose a fine because you need the money. That would be wrong,” she added. “This of course means that it will take quite some time… if we win in court — and I can assure you we have done our best to make that possible — then, eventually, the money will come back to Member States to serve European citizens.”

Prior to the Commission’s record pair of fines for Google products, its next highest antitrust penalty is a €1.06BN antitrust fine for chipmaker Intel all the way back in 2009.

Yet only last year Europe’s top court ruled that the case against Intel — which focused on it offering rebates to high-volume buyers — should be sent back to a lower court to be re-examined, nearly a decade after the original antitrust decision. So Google’s lawyers are likely to have a spring in their step going into this next European antitrust battle.

The latest EU fine for Android has been on the cards for more than two years, given the Commission’s preliminary findings and consistently prescriptive remarks from Vestager during the course of what has been a multi-year investigation process.

And, indeed, given multiple EU antitrust investigations into Google businesses and business practices (the EU has also been probing Google’s AdSense advertising service — a separate investigation that Vestager today confirmed remains ongoing).

The Commission’s prior finding that Google is a dominant company in Internet search — a judgement reached at the culmination of its Google Shopping investigation last year — is also important, making the final judgement in the Android case more likely because the status places the onus on Google not to abuse its dominant position in other markets, adjacent or otherwise.

Announcing the Google Shopping penalty last summer, Vestager made a point of emphasizing that dominant companies “need to be more vigilant” — saying they have a “special responsibility” to ensure they are not in breach of antitrust rules, and also specifying this applies “in the market where it’s dominant” and “in any other market”. So that means — as here in the Android case — in mobile services too.

While a one-off financial penalty — even one that runs to so many billions of dollars — cannot cause lasting damage to a company as wealthy as Alphabet, of greater risk to its business are changes the regulators can require to how it operates Android which could have a sustained impact on Google if they end up reshaping the competitive landscape for mobile services.

In search of a remedy

At least that’s the Commission’s intention: To reset what has been judged an unfair competitive advantage for Google via Android, and foster competitive innovation because rival products get a fairer chance to impress consumers. Although it is avoiding prescribing any specific remedies — beyond telling Google to stop it.

For instance Vestager was asked whether the Commission might want Google to send push notifications to existing Android users to highlight alternatives, and thereby offer a remedy to consumers who had already been impacted by the choice constraints it placed on device makers and carriers.

“It is for Google to figure out how to lift this responsibility,” she told reporters. “It’s for them to do this… Google may make that kind of choice [i.e. sending push notifications] — on that we have taken no position.”

However the popularity and profile of Google services suggests that even if Android users are offered a choice as a result of an EU antitrust remedy — such as of which search engine, maps service, mobile browser or even app store to use — most will likely pick the Google-branded offering they’re most familiar with.

That said, the antitrust remedy could have the chance to shift consumers’ habits over time — if, for instance, OEMs start offering Android devices that come preloaded with alternative mobile services, thereby raising the visibility of non-Google apps and services. Which is clearly the Commission’s hope.

Interestingly, Google has been striking deals with Chinese OEMs in recent months — to brings its ARCore technology to markets where its core services are censored and its Play Store is restricted. And its strategy to workaround regional restrictions in China by working more closely with device makers may also be part of a plan to hedge against fresh regulatory restrictions being placed on Android elsewhere. 

Complainants in the EU’s earlier Google Shopping antitrust case continue to express displeasure with the outcome of the remedies Google has come up with on that front. And in a pointed statement responding to news that another EU antitrust penalty was incoming for Android, Shivaun Raff, CEO of Foundem, the lead complainant in Google Shopping case, said: “Fines make headlines. Effective remedies make a difference.”

So the devil will be in the detail of the Android remedies that Google comes up with.

“The decision requires Google to bring its illegal conduct to an end within 90 days in an effective manner,” said Vestager today. “At a minimum, our decision requires Google to stop and not to re-engage in the three types of restrictions that I have described. In other words our decision stops Google from controlling which search and browser apps manufacturers can pre-install on Android devices, or which Android operating system they can adopt. But it is Google’s sole responsibility to make sure that it changes its conduct in a way that brings the infringements to an effective end.”

“We will monitor this very closely,” she added, warning that failure to comply would invite further penalty payments — of up to 5% of the average daily turnover of Alphabet for each day of non-compliance, back dated to when the non-compliance started. “Our decision requires Google to change the way it operates and face the consequences of its action.”

Aptoide, one of the original app store complainants — which filed an antitrust complaint with the European Commission in 2014 complaining that Google’s policies did not allow any alternative app stores which competed with the Play Store to be valid content — welcomed today’s decision, albeit cautiously, as a “positive first step”. So there’s a lot of ‘wait and see’ in the air.

CEO Paulo Trezentos told us: “The EU’s ruling justifying our antitrust arguments is a positive first step forward, for a market more open, more competitive and better tailored for the users. It is these types of decisions that push industries to bigger levels and we hope that this will help everyone evolve.”

On the Google Shopping compliance front, Vestager had some additional words of warning for Google — saying: “We have not yet taken a position on whether Google has complied with the decision. And since we haven’t done so this remains very much an open question.”

She also said the Commission is continuing to investigate other elements of Google’s business practices related to other vertical search services.

“I cannot prejudge the outcome of these ongoing investigations,” she said, also citing the ongoing AdSense probe, and adding that they continue to be “a top priority for us”.

Android as an antitrust ‘Trojan horse’

The European Commission announced its formal in-depth probe of Android in April 2015, saying then that it was investigating complaints Google was “requiring and incentivizing” OEMs to exclusively install its own services on devices on Android devices, and also examining whether Google was hindering the ability of smartphone and tablet makers to use and develop other OS versions of Android (i.e. by forking the open source platform).

Rivals — banding together under the banner ‘FairSearch‘ — complained Google was essentially using the platform as a ‘Trojan horse’ to unfairly dominate the mobile web. The lobby group’s listing on the EU’s transparency register describes its intent as promoting “innovation and choice across the Internet ecosystem by fostering and defending competition in online and mobile search within the European Union”, and names its member organizations as: Buscapé, Cepic, Foundem, Naspers, Nokia, Oracle, TripAdvisor and Yroo.

On average, Android has around a 70-75% smartphone marketshare across Europe. But in some European countries the OS accounts for an even higher proportion of usage. In Spain, for example, Android took an 86.1% marketshare as of March, according to market data collected by Kantar Worldpanel.

In recent years Android has carved an even greater market share in some European countries, while Google’s Internet search product also has around a 90% share of the European market, and competition concerns about its mobile OS have been sounded for years.

Last year Google reached a $7.8M settlement with Russian antitrust authorities over Android — which required the company to no longer demand exclusivity of its applications on Android devices in Russia; could not restrict the pre-installation of any competing search engines and apps, including on the home screen; could no longer require Google Search to be the only general search engine pre-installed.

Google also agreed with Russian antitrust authorities that it would no longer enforce its prior agreements where handset makers had agreed to any of these terms. Additionally, as part of the settlement, Google was required to allow third parties to include their own search engines into a choice window, and to allowing users to pick their preferred default search engine from a choice window displayed in Google’s Chrome browser. The company was also required to develop a new Chrome widget for Android devices already being used in Russia, to replace the standard Google search widget on the home screen so they would be offered a choice when it launched.

A year after Vestager’s public announcement of the EU’s antitrust probe of Android, she issued a formal Statement of Objections, saying the Commission believed Google has “implemented a strategy on mobile devices to preserve and strengthen its dominance in general Internet search”; and flagging as problematic the difficulty for Android users whose devices come pre-loaded with the Google Play store to use other app stores (which cannot be downloaded from Google Play).

She also raised concerns over Google providing financial incentives to manufacturers and mobile carriers on condition that Google search be pre-installed as the exclusive search provider. “In our opinion, as we see it right now, it is preventing competition from happening because of the strength of the financial incentive,” Vestager said in April 2016.

Google was given several months to respond officially to the antitrust charges against Android — which it finally did in November 2016, having been granted an extension to the Commission’s original deadline.

Thriving competition?

In its rebuttal then, Google argued that, contrary to antitrust complaints, Android had created a thriving and competitive mobile app ecosystem. It further claimed the EU was ignoring relevant competition in the form of Apple’s rival iOS platform — although iOS does not hold a dominant marketshare in Europe, nor Apple have a status as a dominant company in any EU markets.

Google also argued that its “voluntary compatibility agreements” for Android OEMs are a necessary mechanism for avoiding platform fragmentation — which it said would make life harder for app developers — as well as saying its requirement for Android OEMs to use Google search by default is effectively its payment for providing the suite for free to device makers (given there is no formal licensing fee for Android).

It also couched “free distribution is an efficient solution for everyone” — arguing it lowers prices for phone makers and consumers, while “still letting us sustain our substantial investment in Android and Play”.

In addition, Google sought to characterize open source platforms as “fragile” — arguing the Commission’s approach risked upsetting the “balance of needs” between users and developers, and suggesting their action could signal they favor “closed over open platforms”.

During today’s press conference, Vestager was asked whether she has concerns that the costs of handsets might rise should Google respond to the antitrust remedy by deciding to charge a licensing fee for OEMs to use Android, instead of distributing it for free.

She pointed to the revenue Google generates via the Play Store. “The revenue made from that is quite substantial so I think there is still a possibility for Google to recoup the investment made in developing the Android operating system,” she suggested.

“I think a number of different choices can be made by Google and it is for Google to make these choices,” she added. “What we see in general is that competition makes prices come down, gives you better choices. So you can have a theory that prices will come up, it is as likely that prices will come down because of more competition. The thing is now it’s open — there can be competition as to how this should work. And that’s the very point of the decision.”

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

EU’s Google Android antitrust decision incoming…

EU’s Google Android antitrust decision incoming…

A decision in a long running EU antitrust probe of Google’s Android OS is due to land shortly.

European Commission officials are trailing a press conference with competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager — to announce an “antitrust decision” at 1pm CET, with a link to watch the event streamed live.

Bloomberg is reporting the EU’s fine for Android will be in the region of $5BN — which would be the largest ever antitrust penalty handed down by the Commission.

The case focuses on whether Google has abused its market dominance and crowded out rivals by taking steps to ensure its own-brand apps and services are pre-loaded on Android devices.

In April, Reuters reported on a 2016 document it had reviewed which said the Commission planned to levy a large fine against Google and would also order the company to stop giving revenue-sharing payments to smartphone makers to pre-install only Google Search. Reuters also reported then that Google would be ordered to stop requiring its own Chrome browser and other apps to be installed alongside Google’s Play store.

The Commission will confirm the full details of its Android decision in the next few hours.

Stay tuned for more as we get it… 

Update: Full report here.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch