NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launches to ‘touch the sun’

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launches to ‘touch the sun’
Update: Launch successful!
NASA’s ambitious mission to go closer to the Sun than ever before is set to launch in the small hours between Friday and Saturday — at 3:53 AM Eastern from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, to be precise. The Parker Solar Probe, after a handful of gravity assists and preliminary orbits, will enter a stable orbit around the enormous nuclear fireball that gives us all life and sample its radiation from less than 4 million miles away. Believe me, you don’t want to get much closer than that.
If you’re up late tonight (technically tomorrow morning), you can watch the launch live on NASA’s stream.
This is the first mission named after a living researcher, in this case Eugene Parker, who in the ’50s made a number of proposals and theories about the way that stars give off energy. He’s the guy who gave us solar wind, and his research was hugely influential in the study of the sun and other stars — but it’s only now that some of his hypotheses can be tested directly.
(Parker himself visited the craft during its construction, and will be at the launch. No doubt he is immensely proud and excited about this whole situation.)

“Directly” means going as close to the sun as technology allows — which leads us to the PSP’s first major innovation: its heat shield, or thermal protection system.

There’s one good thing to be said for the heat near the sun: it’s a dry heat. Because there’s no water vapor or gases in space to heat up, find some shade and you’ll be quite comfortable. So the probe is essentially carrying the most heavy-duty parasol ever created.
It’s a sort of carbon sandwich, with superheated carbon composite on the outside and a carbon foam core. All together it’s less than a foot thick, but it reduces the temperature the probe’s instruments are subjected to from 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit to 85 — actually cooler than it is in much of the U.S. right now.
Go on – it’s quite cool.
The car-sized Parker will orbit the sun and constantly rotate itself so the heat shield is facing inward and blocking the brunt of the solar radiation. The instruments mostly sit behind it in a big insulated bundle.
And such instruments! There are three major experiments or instrument sets on the probe.
WISPR (Wide-Field Imager for Parker Solar Probe) is a pair of wide-field telescopes that will watch and image the structure of the corona and solar wind. This is the kind of observation we’ve made before — but never from up close. We generally are seeing these phenomena from the neighborhood of the Earth, nearly 100 million miles away. You can imagine that cutting out 90 million miles of cosmic dust, interfering radiation and other nuisances will produce an amazingly clear picture.
SWEAP (Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons investigation) looks out to the side of the craft to watch the flows of electrons as they are affected by solar wind and other factors. And on the front is the Solar Probe Cup (I suspect this is a reference to the Ray Bradbury story, “Golden Apples of the Sun”), which is exposed to the full strength of the sun’s radiation; a tiny opening allows charged particles in, and by tracking how they pass through a series of charged windows, they can sort them by type and energy.
FIELDS is another that gets the full heat of the sun. Its antennas are the ones sticking out from the sides — they need to in order to directly sample the electric field surrounding the craft. A set of “fluxgate magnetometers,” clearly a made-up name, measure the magnetic field at an incredibly high rate: two million samples per second.
They’re all powered by solar panels, which seems obvious, but actually it’s a difficult proposition to keep the panels from overloading that close to the sun. They hide behind the shield and just peek out at an oblique angle, so only a fraction of the radiation hits them.
Even then, they’ll get so hot that the team needed to implement the first-ever active water cooling system on a spacecraft. Water is pumped through the cells and back behind the shield, where it is cooled by, well, space.
The probe’s mission profile is a complicated one. After escaping the clutches of the Earth, it will swing by Venus, not to get a gravity boost, but “almost like doing a little handbrake turn,” as one official described it. It slows it down and sends it closer to the sun — and it’ll do that seven more times, each time bringing it closer and closer to the sun’s surface, ultimately arriving in a stable orbit 3.83 million miles above the surface — that’s 95 percent of the way from the Earth to the sun.
On the way it will hit a top speed of 430,000 miles per hour, which will make it the fastest spacecraft ever launched.

Parker will make 24 total passes through the corona, and during these times communication with Earth may be interrupted or impractical. If a solar cell is overheating, do you want to wait 20 minutes for a decision from NASA on whether to pull it back? No. This close to the sun even a slight miscalculation results in the reduction of the probe to a cinder, so the team has imbued it with more than the usual autonomy.
It’s covered in sensors in addition to its instruments, and an onboard AI will be empowered to make decisions to rectify anomalies. That sounds worryingly like a HAL 9000 situation, but there are no humans on board to kill, so it’s probably okay.
The mission is scheduled to last seven years, after which time the fuel used to correct the craft’s orbit and orientation is expected to run out. At that point it will continue as long as it can before drift causes it to break apart and, one rather hopes, become part of the sun’s corona itself.
The Parker Solar Probe is scheduled for launch early Saturday morning, and we’ll update this post when it takes off successfully or, as is possible, is delayed until a later date in the launch window.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

NASA’s Open Source Rover lets you build your own planetary exploration platform

NASA’s Open Source Rover lets you build your own planetary exploration platform
Got some spare time this weekend? Why not build yourself a working rover from plans provided by NASA? The spaceniks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have all the plans, code, and materials for you to peruse and use — just make sure you’ve got $2,500 and a bit of engineering know-how. This thing isn’t made out of Lincoln Logs.
The story is this: after Curiosity landed on Mars, JPL wanted to create something a little smaller and less complex that it could use for educational purposes. ROV-E, as they called this new rover, traveled with JPL staff throughout the country.
Unsurprisingly, among the many questions asked was often whether a class or group could build one of their own. The answer, unfortunately, was no: though far less expensive and complex than a real Mars rover, ROV-E was still too expensive and complex to be a class project. So JPL engineers decided to build one that wasn’t.
The result is the JPL Open Source Rover, a set of plans that mimic the key components of Curiosity but are simpler and use off the shelf components.
“I would love to have had the opportunity to build this rover in high school, and I hope that through this project we provide that opportunity to others,” said JPL’s Tom Soderstrom in a post announcing the OSR. “We wanted to give back to the community and lower the barrier of entry by giving hands on experience to the next generation of scientists, engineers, and programmers.”
The OSR uses Curiosity-like “Rocker-Bogie” suspension, corner steering and pivoting differential, allowing movement over rough terrain, and the brain is a Raspberry Pi. You can find all the parts in the usual supply catalogs and hardware stores, but you’ll also need a set of basic tools: a bandsaw to cut metal, a drill press is probably a good idea, a soldering iron, snips and wrenches, and so on.
“In our experience, this project takes no less than 200 person-hours to build, and depending on the familiarity and skill level of those involved could be significantly more,” the project’s creators write on the GitHub page.
So basically unless you’re literally rocket scientists, expect double that. Although JPL notes that they did work with schools to adjust the building process and instructions.
There’s flexibility built into the plans, too. So you can load custom apps, connect payloads and sensors to the brain, and modify the mechanics however you’d like. It’s open source, after all. Make it your own.
“We released this rover as a base model. We hope to see the community contribute improvements and additions, and we’re really excited to see what the community will add to it,” said project manager Mik Cox. “I would love to have had the opportunity to build this rover in high school, and I hope that through this project we provide that opportunity to others.”

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Newly legal 3D-printed gun blueprints targeted by state lawsuits

Newly legal 3D-printed gun blueprints targeted by state lawsuits
Hot on the heels of the effective legalization of 3D models used to print firearm components, 21 states have filed a joint lawsuit against the federal government, alleging not only that decision is dangerous but also that it’s illegal for a number of reasons. But the lawsuit may backfire via the so-called Streisand Effect, further entrenching the controversial technology.
Earlier this month brought the news that the U.S. government dropped its case against Cody Wilson and his companies dedicated to the proliferation of 3D models of firearm parts. There are still restrictions on how guns can be made and sold, but the files containing 3D data and allowing people to print components seem to have been determined not to fall under those rules.
This was unwelcome news for those in favor of stricter gun control laws, a group apparently including the attorneys general of 21 states. Bob Ferguson, AG for Washington, announced that his team would be leading a lawsuit intended to block the federal actions that legalized this particular form of data.

Court victory legalizes 3D-printable gun blueprints

“These downloadable guns are unregistered and very difficult to detect, even with metal detectors, and will be available to anyone regardless of age, mental health or criminal history. If the Trump Administration won’t keep us safe, we will,” he said in a press release issued today.
They allege that the administration needs the Defense Department to sign off on the decision, and that Congress needed to be notified 30 days in advance. The decision is also held (owing to a lack of on-record citations or consultations) to be “arbitrary and capricious,” and thus illegal under the Administrative Procedure Act.
The Tenth Amendment also gives states the right to regulate firearms, and the filers say that the federal action deprives them of this right and is therefore unconstitutional.
That’s all well in order, but the danger posed by these files is overestimated, as is the ability of the government, state or federal, to curtail their distribution. If this lawsuit is successful, it will have little or no effect on 3D printed guns at all.
“The status quo – which currently ensures public safety and national security by prohibiting publication of firearm design files on the Internet – should be maintained,” reads a letter sent from a number of AGs to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and AG Jeff Sessions.
At the risk of dipping into an extremely charged debate and sensitive political topic (I’ve added the “Opinion” tag just in case), the status quo does no such thing. It must be said that if effective gun control is the goal, there are far more important steps to pursue. Loopholes abound in existing regulations, for instance gun show purchases of unregistered firearms and “80 percent lowers,” which are a quite legal method for creating them.
Furthermore, any attempt to remove something from the internet is doomed to failure, as we have seen again and again, often enough that the phenomenon has its own nickname, the Streisand Effect. Workarounds for illegal content are numerous and effective, and presumably the type of person interested in printing their own gun will not be shy about using a VPN or torrent site. If anything, a concerted effort to remove something from the internet usually causes that thing to be permanently maintained online as a sort of middle finger to the authorities. It’s not in the internet’s DNA to forget.
While it’s true that outlawing the 3D models would give prosecutors and investigators more to work with, the nefarious actors of the world haven’t been waiting with bated breath on the outcome of the previous lawsuit. Criminals, terrorists, foreign adversaries and so on in the first place don’t even need these files to obtain or create unregistered guns in the first place, nor would their being illegal deter them in the least.
The lawsuit may, it is true, tie up and possibly bankrupt Wilson and his supporters, but that’s not much of a victory and certainly doesn’t make anyone safer. Unfortunately this particular demon isn’t going back in the box.

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

NASA’s 3D-printed Mars Habitat competition doles out prizes to concept habs

NASA’s 3D-printed Mars Habitat competition doles out prizes to concept habs
A multi-year NASA contest to design a 3D-printable Mars habitat using on-planet materials has just hit another milestone — and a handful of teams have taken home some cold, hard cash. This more laid-back phase had contestants designing their proposed habitat using architectural tools, with the five winners set to build scale models next year.
Technically this is the first phase of the third phase — the (actual) second phase took place last year and teams took home quite a bit of money.
The teams had to put together realistic 3D models of their proposed habitats, and not just in Blender or something. They used Building Information Modeling software that would require these things to be functional structures designed down to a particular level of detail — so you can’t just have 2D walls made of “material TBD,” and you have to take into account thickness from pressure sealing, air filtering elements, heating, etc.
The habitats had to have at least a thousand square feet of space, enough for four people to live for a year, along with room for the machinery and paraphernalia associated with, you know, living on Mars. They must be largely assembled autonomously, at least enough that humans can occupy them as soon as they land. They were judged on completeness, layout, 3D-printing viability and aesthetics.

So although the images you see here look rather sci-fi, keep in mind they were also designed using industrial tools and vetted by experts with “a broad range of experience from Disney to NASA.” These are going to Mars, not paperback. And they’ll have to be built in miniature for real next year, so they better be realistic.
The five winning designs embody a variety of approaches. Honestly all these videos are worth a watch; you’ll probably learn something cool, and they really give an idea of how much thought goes into these designs.

Zopherus has the whole print taking place inside the body of a large lander, which brings its own high-strength printing mix to reinforce the “Martian concrete” that will make up the bulk of the structure. When it’s done printing and embedding the pre-built items like airlocks, it lifts itself up, moves over a few feet, and does it again, creating a series of small rooms. (They took first place and essentially tied the next team for take-home case, a little under $21K.)

AI SpaceFactory focuses on the basic shape of the vertical cylinder as both the most efficient use of space and also one of the most suitable for printing. They go deep on the accommodations for thermal expansion and insulation, but also have thought deeply about how to make the space safe, functional, and interesting. This one is definitely my favorite.

Kahn-Yates has a striking design, with a printed structural layer giving way to a high-strength plastic layer that lets the light in. Their design is extremely spacious but in my eyes not very efficiently allocated. Who’s going to bring apple trees to Mars? Why have a spiral staircase with such a huge footprint? Still, if they could pull it off, this would allow for a lot of breathing room, something that will surely be of great value during a year or multi-year stay on the planet.

SEArch+/Apis Cor has carefully considered the positioning and shape of its design to maximize light and minimize radiation exposure. There are two independent pressurized areas — everyone likes redundancy — and it’s built using a sloped site, which may expand the possible locations. It looks a little claustrophobic, though.

Northwestern University has a design that aims for simplicity of construction: an inflatable vessel provides the base for the printer to create a simple dome with reinforcing cross-beams. This practical approach no doubt won them points, and the inside, while not exactly roomy, is also practical in its layout. As AI SpaceFactory pointed out, a dome isn’t really the best shape (lots of wasted space) but it is easy and strong. A couple of these connected at the ends wouldn’t be so bad.
The teams split a total of $100K for this phase, and are now moving on to the hard part: actually building these things. In spring of 2019 they’ll be expected to have a working custom 3D printer that can create a 1:3 scale model of their habitat. It’s difficult to say who will have the worst time of it, but I’m thinking Kahn-Yates (that holey structure will be a pain to print) and SEArch+/Apis (slope, complex eaves and structures).
The purse for the real-world construction is an eye-popping $2 million, so you can bet the competition will be fierce. In the meantime, seriously, watch those videos above, they’re really interesting.

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

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

Court victory legalizes 3D-printable gun blueprints

Court victory legalizes 3D-printable gun blueprints
A multi-year legal battle over the ability to distribute computer models of gun parts and replicate them in 3D printers has ended in defeat for government authorities who sought to prevent the practice. Cody Wilson, the gunmaker and free speech advocate behind the lawsuit, now intends to expand his operations, providing printable gun blueprints to all who desire them.
The longer story of the lawsuit is well told by Andy Greenberg over at Wired, but the decision is eloquent on its own. The fundamental question is whether making 3D models of gun components available online is covered by the free speech rights granted by the First Amendment.
This is a timely but complex conflict because it touches on two themes that happen to be, for many, ethically contradictory. Arguments for tighter restrictions on firearms are, in this case, directly opposed to arguments for the unfettered exchange of information on the internet. It’s hard to advocate for both here: restricting firearms and restricting free speech are one and the same.
That at least seems to be conclusion of the government lawyers, who settled Wilson’s lawsuit after years of court battles. In a copy of the settlement provided to me by Wilson, the U.S. government agrees to exempt “the technical data that is the subject of the Action” from legal restriction. The modified rules should appear in the Federal Register soon.
What does this mean? It means that a 3D model that can be used to print the components of a working firearm is legal to own and legal to distribute. You can likely even print it and use the product — you just can’t sell it. There are technicalities to the law here (certain parts are restricted, but can be sold in an incomplete state, etc.), but the implications as regards the files themselves seems clear.
Wilson’s original vision, which he is now pursuing free of legal obstacles, is a repository of gun models, called DEFCAD, much like any other collection of data on the web, though naturally considerably more dangerous and controversial.
“I currently have no national legal barriers to continue or expand DEFCAD,” he wrote in an email to TechCrunch. “This legal victory is the formal beginning to the era of downloadable guns. Guns are as downloadable as music. There will be streaming services for semi-automatics.”
The concepts don’t map perfectly, no doubt, but it’s hard to deny that with the success of this lawsuit, there are few legal restrictions to speak of on the digital distribution of firearms. Before it even, there were few technical restrictions: certainly just as you could download MP3s on Napster in 2002, you can download a gun file today.
Gun control advocates will no doubt argue that greater availability of lethal weaponry is the opposite of what is needed in this country. But others will point out that in a way this is a powerful example of how liberally free speech can be defined. It’s important to note that both of these things can be true.
This court victory settles one case, but marks the beginnings of many another. “I have promoted my values for years with great care and diligence,” Wilson wrote. It’s hard to disagree with that. Those whose values differ are free to pursue them in their own way; perhaps they too will be awarded victories of this scale.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Verizon and others call a conditional halt on sharing location with data brokers

Verizon and others call a conditional halt on sharing location with data brokers

Verizon is cutting off access to its mobile customers’ real-time locations to two third-party data brokers “to prevent misuse of that information going forward.” The company announced the decision in a letter sent to Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who along with others helped reveal improper usage and poor security at these location brokers. It is not, however, getting out of the location-sharing business altogether.

(Update: AT&T and Sprint have also begun the process of ending their location aggregation services — with a caveat, of which below.)

Verizon sold bulk access to its customers’ locations to the brokers in question, LocationSmart and Zumigo, which then turned around and resold that data to dozens of other companies. This isn’t necessarily bad — there are tons of times when location is necessary to provide a service the customer asks for, and supposedly that customer would have to okay the sharing of that data. (Disclosure: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch. This does not affect our coverage.)

That doesn’t seem to have been the case at LocationSmart customer Securus, which was selling its data directly to law enforcement so they could find mobile customers quickly and without all that fuss about paperwork and warrants. And then it was found that LocationSmart had exposed an API that allowed anyone to request mobile locations freely and anonymously, and without collecting consent.

When these facts were revealed by security researchers and Sen. Wyden, Verizon immediately looked into it, they reported in a letter sent to the Senator.

“We conducted a comprehensive review of our location aggregator program,” wrote Verizon CTO Karen Zacharia. “As a result of this review, we are initiating a process to terminate our existing agreements for the location aggregator program.”

“We will not enter into new location aggregation arrangements unless and until we are comfortable that we can adequately protect our customers’ location data through technological advancements and/or other practices,” she wrote later in the letter. In other words, the program is on ice until it can be secured.

Although Verizon claims to have “girded” the system with “mechanisms designed to protect against misuse of our customers’ location data,” the abuses in question clearly slipped through the cracks. Perhaps most notable is the simple fact that Verizon itself does not seem to need to be informed whether a customer has consented to having their location polled. That collection is the responsibility of “the aggregator or corporate customer.”

In other words, Verizon doesn’t need to ask the customer, and the company it sells the data to wholesale doesn’t need to ask the customer — the requirement devolves to the company buying access from the wholesaler. In Securus’s case, it had abstracted things one step further, allowing law enforcement full access when it said it had authority to do so, but apparently without checking, AT&T wrote in its own letter to Sen. Wyden.

And there were 75 other corporate customers. Don’t worry, someone is keeping track of them. Right?

These processes are audited, Verizon wrote, but apparently not an audit that finds things like the abuse by Securus or a poorly secured API. Perhaps how this happened is among the “number of internal questions” raised by the review.

When asked for comment, a Verizon representative offered the following statement:

When these issues were brought to our attention, we took immediate steps to stop it. Customer privacy and security remain a top priority for our customers and our company. We stand-by that commitment to our customers.

And indeed while the program itself appears to have been run with a laxity that should be alarming to all those customers for whom Verizon claims to be so concerned, some of the company’s competitors have yet to take similar action. AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint were also named by LocationSmart as partners. Their own letters to Sen. Wyden stressed that their systems were similar to the others, with similar safeguards (that were similarly eluded).

In a press release announcing that his pressure on Verizon had borne fruit, Sen. Wyden called on the others to step up:

Verizon deserves credit for taking quick action to protect its customers’ privacy and security. After my investigation and follow-up reports revealed that middlemen are selling Americans’ location to the highest bidder without their consent, or making it available on insecure web portals, Verizon did the responsible thing and promptly announced it was cutting these companies off. In contrast, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint seem content to continuing to sell their customers’ private information to these shady middle men, Americans’ privacy be damned.

AT&T actually announced that it is ending its agreements as well, after Sen. Wyden’s call to action was published, and Sprint followed shortly afterwards. AT&T said it “will be ending [its] work with these aggregators for these services as soon as is practical in a way that preserves important, potential lifesaving services like emergency roadside assistance.” Sprint stopped working with LocationSmart last month and is now “beginning the process of terminating its current contracts with data aggregators to whom we provide location data.”

What’s missing from these statements? Among other things: what and how many companies they’re working with, whether they’ll pursue future contracts, and what real changes will be made to prevent future problems like this. Since they’ve been at this for a long time and have had a month to ponder their next course of actions, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect more than a carefully worded statement about “these aggregators for these services.”

T-Mobile CEO John Legere tweeted that the company “will not sell customer location data to shady middlemen.” Of course, that doesn’t really mean anything. I await substantive promises from the company pertaining to this “pledge.”

The FCC, meanwhile, has announced that it is looking into the issue — with the considerable handicap that Chairman Ajit Pai represented Securus back in 2012 when he was working as a lawyer. Sen. Wyden has called on him to recuse himself, but that has yet to happen.

I’ve asked Verizon for further clarification on its arrangements and plans, specifically whether it has any other location-sharing agreements in place with other companies. These aren’t, after all, the only players in the game.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

Here’s Mary Meeker’s essential 2018 Internet Trends report

Here’s Mary Meeker’s essential 2018 Internet Trends report

Want to understand all the most important tech stats and trends? Legendary venture capitalist Mary Meeker has just released the 2018 version of her famous Internet Trends report. It covers everything from mobile to commerce to the competition between tech giants. Check out the full report below, and we’ll add some highlights soon. Then come back for our slide-by-slide analysis of the most important parts of the 294 page report.

  • Internet adoption: As of 2018, half the world population, or about 3.6 billion people, will be on the internet. That’s thanks in large part to cheaper Android phones and Wifi becoming more available, though individual services will have a tougher time adding new users as the web hits saturation.
  • Mobile usage: While smartphone shipments are flat and internet user growth is slowing, U.S. adults are spending more time online thanks to mobile, clocking 5.9 hours per day in 2017 versus 5.6 hours in 2016.
  • Mobile ads: People are shifting their time to mobile faster than ad dollars are following, creating a $7 billion mobile ad opportunity, though platforms are increasingly responsible for providing safe content to host those ads.
  • Crypto: Interest in cryptocurrency is exploding as Coinbase’s user count has nearly quadrupled since January 2017
  • Voice: Voice technology is at an inflection point due to speech recognition hitting 95% accuracy and the sales explosion for Amazon Echo which went from over 10 million to over 30 million sold in total by the end of 2017.
  • Daily usage – Revenue gains for services like Facebook are tightly coupled with daily user growth, showing how profitable it is to become a regular habit.
  • Tech investment: We’re at an all-time high for public and private investment in technology, while the top six public R&D + capex spenders are all technology companies.

Mary Meeker, analyst with Morgan Stanley, speaks during the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010. This year’s conference, which runs through Nov. 17, is titled “Points of Control: The Battle for the Network Economy.” Photographer: Tony Avelar/Bloomberg via Getty Images

  • Ecommerce vs Brick & Mortar: Ecommerce growth quickens as now 13% of all retail purchases happen online and parcel shipments are rising swiftly, signaling big opportunities for new shopping apps.
  • Amazon: More people start product searches on Amazon than search engines now, but Jeff Bezos still relies on other surfaces like Facebook and YouTube to inspire people to want things.
  • Subscription services: They’re seeing massive adoption, with Netflix up 25%, The New York Times up 43%, and Spotify up 48% year-over-year in 2017. A free tier accelerates conversion rates.
  • Education: Employees seek retraining and education from YouTube and online courses to keep up with new job requirements and pay off skyrocketing student loan debt.
  • Freelancing: Employees crave scheduling and work-from-home flexibility, and internet discovery of freelance work led it to grow 3X faster than total workforce growth. The on-demand workforce grew 23% in 2017 driven by Uber, Airbnb, Etsy, Upwork, and Doordash.
  • Transportation: People are buying fewer cars, keeping them longer, and shifting transportation spend to rideshare, which saw rides double in 2017.
  • Enterprise: Consumerization of the enterprise through better interfaces is spurring growth for companies like Dropbox and Slack.
  • China: Alibaba is expanding beyond China with strong gross merchandise volume, though Amazon still rules in revenue.
  • Privacy: China has a big opportunity as users there are much more willing to trade their personal data for product benefits than U.S. users, and China is claiming more spots on the top 20 internet company list while making big investments in AI.
  • Immigration: It is critical to a strong economy, as 56% of top U.S. companies were founded by a first- or second-generation immigrant.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch