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EU privacy proposal could dent Facebook, Gmail ad revenue

January 11, 2017

By Julia Fioretti | BRUSSELS
Online messaging services such as WhatsApp, iMessage and Gmail will face tougher rules on how they can track users under a proposal presented by the European Union executive on Tuesday which could hurt companies reliant on advertising.

The web companies would have to guarantee the confidentiality of their customers’ conversations and get their consent before tracking them online to target them with personalized advertisements.

For example, email services such as Gmail and Hotmail will not be able to scan customers’ emails to serve them with targeted advertisements without getting their explicit agreement.

Most free online services rely on advertising to fund themselves.

Spending on online advertising in 2015 was 36.4 billion euros, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB).

The proposal by the European Commission extends some rules that now apply to telecom operators to web companies offering calls and messages using the internet, known as “Over-The-Top” (OTT) services, and seeks to close a perceived regulatory gap between the telecoms industry and mainly U.S. Internet giants such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft.

It would allow telecoms companies to use customer metadata, such as the duration and location of calls, as well as content to provide additional services and so make more money, although the telecoms lobby group ETNO said they remain more constrained than their tech competitors.

The proposal will also require web browsers to ask users upon installation whether they want to allow websites to place cookies on their browsers to deliver personalized advertisements.

A previous version of the proposal would have forced browsers to set the default settings as not allowing cookies which are the small files placed on people’s computers when they visit a website containing information about their browsing activity.

“It’s up to our people to say yes or no,” said Andrus Ansip, Commission vice-president for the digital single market.

Online advertisers say such rules would undermine many websites’ ability to fund themselves and keep offering free services.

“It will particularly hit those companies that … find it most difficult to talk directly to end users and what I mean by that is tech companies that operate in the background and sort of facilitate the buying and selling of advertising rather than the ones that the user directly engages with,” said Yves Schwarzbart, head of policy and regulatory affairs at the IAB.

“There is no doubt that it is time for the entire ecosystem to become more transparent and fair to all of the stakeholders. Users want easy access to trustworthy sources of information while feeling safe with the data they share,” Elad Natanson said.

Companies falling foul of the new law will face fines of up to 4.0 percent of their global turnover, in line with a separate data protection law set to enter into force in 2018.

The proposal will need to be approved by the European Parliament and member states before becoming law.

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Google’s ad tracking is as creepy as Facebook’s. Here’s how to disable it

October 26, 2016

Google in June deleted a clause in its privacy settings that said it would not combine cookie information with personal information without consent.
ince Google changed the way it tracks its users across the internet in June 2016, users’ personally identifiable information from Gmail, YouTube and other accounts has been merged with their browsing records from across the web.

An analysis of the changes conducted by Propublica details how the company had previously pledged to keep these two data sets separate to protect individuals’ privacy, but updated its privacy settings in June to delete a clause that said “we will not combine DoubleClick cookie information with personally identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent”.

ProPublica highlights that when Google first made the changes in June, they received little scrutiny. Media reports focused on the tools the company introduced to allow users to view and manage ad tracking rather than the new powers Google gained.

DoubleClick is an advertising serving and tracking company that Google bought in 2007. DoubleClick uses web cookies to track browsing behaviour online by their IP address to deliver targeted ads. It can make a good guess about your location and habits, but it doesn’t know your true identity.
Google, on the other hand, has users’ (mostly) real names, email accounts and search data.

At the time of the acquisition, a number of consumer groups made a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission arguing that bringing these data sets together would represent a huge invasion of privacy, giving the company access to more information about the internet activities of consumers than any other company in the world.

Sergey Brin reassured privacy campaigners, saying: “Overall, we care very much about end-user privacy, and that will take a number one priority when we talk about advertising products.”

In 2012, Google made a controversial update to its privacy policy to allow it to share data about users between different Google services, but it kept DoubleClick separate.

In practice, this means that Google can now, if it wanted to, build up even richer profiles of named individuals’ online activity. It also means that the DoubleClick ads that follow people on the web could be personalized based on the keywords that individuals use in Gmail.

Google isn’t the first company to track individuals in this way. Facebook has been tracking logged-in users (and even non-users) by name across the internet whenever they visit websites with Facebook “like” or “share” buttons.

Google says that the change is optional and is aimed at giving people better control over their data.

“Google is actually quite late to this game. By now, most of the websites you visit are already sharing your activity with a wide network of third parties who share, collaborate, link and de-link personal information in order to target ads,” said Jules Polonetsky from Future of Privacy Forum.

“Some users may appreciate relevant advertising, many others may not. What’s critical is that there are easy ways for those who want to avoid the more robust types of data targeting to be able to take easy steps to do so.”
Technology companies argue that such tracking allows them to deliver much more targeted, relevant advertising across the internet. Paul Ohm from the Center of Privacy and Technology at Georgetown law school told Propublica that the fact that Google kept personally identifiable information and DoubleClick data separate was “a really significant last stand”.

“It was a border wall between being watched everywhere and maintaining a tiny semblance of privacy. That wall has just fallen.”

A Google spokeswoman said that its advertising system had been designed before the smartphone revolution, and that the update in June made it easier for users to control their ad preferences across multiple devices.

The company says that more than one billion Google users have accessed the ‘My Account’ settings that let them control how their data is used.

“Before we launched this update, we tested it around the world with the goal of understanding how to provide users with clear choice and transparency,” Google said. “As a result, it is 100% optional – if users do not opt-in to these changes, their Google experience will remain unchanged. Equally important: we provided prominent user notifications about this change in easy-to-understand language as well as simple tools that let users control or delete their data.”

Users that don’t want to be tracked in this way can visit the activity controls section of their account page on Google, unticking the box marked “Include Chrome browsing history and activity from websites and apps that use Google services”.

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Google Chrome Will Start Shaming Unencrypted Websites in January

September 9, 2016

Starting in January of 2017, Google’s Chrome browser will start flagging some websites that don’t use web encryption as “Not Secure”—the first step in Google’s eventual plan to shame all sites that don’t use encryption.
In the last couple of years, the web has seen a tremendous rise in the number of websites that use encryption, which is displayed by that little green lock next to the site’s address and an extra “s” at the end of HTTP. The increase in the use of HTTPS web encryption has been part of a collective effort to improve security and privacy on the web, often under the banner of the campaign “Encrypt All The Things.”
At the beginning of this year, Google hinted—without announcing it officially—that it was going to flag all unencrypted websites as insecure, as Motherboard reported. At the time, Parisa Tabriz, who manages Google’s security engineering team, said that Google’s intention was to “call out” websites that still were on HTTP as “unsafe.”
On Thursday, Google officially announced its anti-HTTP plan. The company isn’t going to shame all unencrypted websites all at once, but start only with HTTP sites that ask users to input passwords or credit cards. These sites will be flagged as “Not secure” in the Chrome address bar.
Then, in the future—Google is not saying exactly when yet—Chrome will flag all sites that don’t use TLS encryption as “Not secure” and also display a red triangle indicator, which Chrome already uses when users go to a dangerous website.
“We definitely do plan to label all HTTP pages as non-secure eventually,” Emily Schechter, the Chrome Security product manager, told Motherboard, explaining that the company didn’t want to all of a sudden flood users with warnings. “We really wanted to be careful about it and we wanted to get it right.”
Schechter explained that Google’s main worry is that displaying alerts for all HTTP sites right away would lead users to see too many warnings and, eventually, ignore them. In other words, Google wants to educate users about the risks of unencrypted websites striking the right balance and without leading them to what’s called as “warning fatigue,” a term that indicates when users get so used to warnings that they stop paying attention.
Google also wanted to announce the change before it was implemented to give webmasters time to migrate to HTTPS and not get caught by surprise, Schechter said.
While it seems like a small change, HTTPS provides multiple protections for users. Not only does it ensure that hackers and spies can’t easily intercept passwords and other sensitive data travelling on the internet, it also ensures that the site you’re looking at really is the site you want, and not an imposter. Without HTTPS, it’s trivial for a hacker sitting in the same public WiFi you’re using, or government spies, to spy on you and interfere with the sites you go to trick you into giving up sensitive information.
With this move, Google is pushing for even more HTTPS adoption. And at this point, an HTTPS-only future seems inevitable. Google reported that nowadays, more than half of the sites visited by Chrome users are encrypted already.

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The Selling Point Of Google’s New Messaging App Is Not Encryption, It’s Surveillance.

May 18, 2016

The buzziest thing Google announced at its I/O conference Wednesday was Allo, a chatbot-enabled smartphone messaging app that looks to take on iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and the Facebook-owned WhatsApp.
Early sentiment about Allo is overwhelmingly positive: It looks beautiful, lets you doodle on images before you send them, comes with stickers as well as emojis, and it’s the first Google product to offer end-to-end encryption, which is certainly a good thing.
But if you care at all about your privacy, you should not use Google Allo.
Allo’s big innovation is “Google Assistant,” a Siri competitor that will give personalized suggestions and answers to your questions on Allo as well as on the newly announced Google Home, which is a competitor to Amazon’s Echo.
On Allo, Google Assistant will learn how you talk to certain friends and offer suggested replies to make responding easier. Let that sink in for a moment: The selling point of this app is that Google will read your messages, for your convenience.
Some reporters have lauded Allo for having an “Incognito Mode,” which will turn on end-to-end encryption for a specific conversation, meaning that, in theory, neither Google, nor hackers, nor law enforcement will be able to read messages sent in this mode. Incognito Mode is indeed a good thing to enable if you are going to use Allo, but a better idea would be to stay away from the app altogether.
Google would be insane to not offer some version of end-to-end encryption in a chat app in 2016, when all of its biggest competitors have it enabled by default. Allo uses the Signal Protocol for its encryption, which is good. But as with all other Google products, Allo will work much better if you let Google into your life.
Google is banking on the idea that you won’t want to enable Incognito Mode, and thus won’t enable encryption.
Lots of people use Chrome’s Incognito Mode for searching for porn or other sensitive or embarrassing stuff, but how many people use Incognito for every search? Likewise, it’s smart to turn off location history in Google Maps because once Google has that data, it’s out of your control. As with any app that collects personal data, it’s hard to know where that data will eventually end up: in the hands of a hacker or law enforcement, for example. However, turning off location history means you have to type in your full home address every time you want directions home.
With Allo, the stated purpose of the app is to have a Google bot integrated into a messaging app, so that it can specifically learn more about you. In doing so, the messages you send to your friends will be more tailored—maybe it’ll suggest a coffee shop that’s halfway between you and the person you’re flirting with, for example. Google will have your express permission to mine your conversations for both your own benefit and the benefit of the company’s business interests (Gboard, Google’s new keyboard app with Google integration, has many of the same problems).
Allo is fundamentally different in this way than Hangouts or Gchat. With those two programs, Google showed no interest in injecting its own suggestions into what you type and thus showed no interest in learning more about you.
Allo, on the other hand, is the first major messaging app to have the express purpose of learning everything about you, further fleshing out Google’s already comprehensive profile of you. And so, of course it’s going to be less fun or useful when you’ve turned off that core feature. In that sense, it’s also entirely different than Facebook Messenger’s ‘M’ assistant bot (which may actually be a human). With M, you are speaking one-on-one with a bot, the bot isn’t monitoring every single thing you say to your friends.
One final note about Allo’s place in the current encryption debate: The FBI only started getting upset about the state of crypto after Apple and Google announced that they were going to turn on encryption on their smartphones by default. Before those announcements, encrypting your iPhone or Android device was possible and easy, but few people actually did it.
And so my point isn’t that Allo is evil or Google is evil. But Allo’s security and privacy features are skin deep at best, and we should treat the app for what it is: Yet another chance for Google to learn more about you.
We’ve seen time and time again that people only use privacy tools when they are seamless and don’t affect the overall experience of using the app or program. With Allo, collecting data is core to the value it’s offering. Google is giving consumers two options: Insecure with a wonderful user experience, or secure with an inferior experience. What do you think the masses are going to choose?
By Jason Koebler
www.motherboard.vice.com

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Google And Microsoft Have Made A Pact To Protect Surveillance Capitalism

May 11, 2016

Two bitter rivals have agreed to drop mutual antitrust cases across the globe. Why? To fend off the greater regulatory threat of democratic oversight. Microsoft and Google, two of the world’s greatest monopolies, have been bitter rivals for nearly 20 years. But suddenly, in late April, they announced a startling accord. The companies have withdrawn all regulatory complaints against one another, globally. Rather than fighting their battles in public courts and commissions, they have agreed to privately negotiate.
This is a gentleman’s agreement. The specifics are secret, but the message on both sides is that the deal reflects a change in management philosophy. Microsoft’s new chief, Satya Nadella, is eager to push the vision of a dynamic, collaborative Microsoft, partnering with everyone from Apple to Salesforce.
The most dramatic of these partners is Google, a company that has long been considered Microsoft’s great arch-rival.
The wind started to change in September, just after Sundar Pichai became Google’s chief executive, when the two companies agreed to stop feuding over patents – a first step toward the current agreement. The common corporate line is that the companies want to compete on products, not court cases.
But this public relations gambit masks two far more interesting tales. One is about Microsoft and its desperate chase for relevance. The other is about Google, money and power. Both are part of a broader, deeply worrying narrative – a story about how tech companies are busy redrawing the lines around our lives, and facing little resistance in doing so.
Nobody ever wants to start a legal fight. Fractious, painful and wasteful, they divert huge resources, often for little productive gain. But this in itself fails to explain Microsoft’s decision to drop pending regulatory complaints against Google in Europe, Brazil and Argentina, as well as to cease funding and participating in lobby groups that it has backed for eight years, such as FairSearch.org and ICOMP, the Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace. So what does explain it?
It could be seen as a pragmatic move. Microsoft’s profits still exceed Google’s, but the ratio has been in decline for a decade. Meanwhile, since 2012, Apple has outstripped both companies combined (even if recent figures suggest this momentum might be slowing). A suite of regulatory enquiries into Google’s alleged abuses of its monopoly will continue even in Microsoft’s absence – both in places where Microsoft has filed complaints (Europe, Brazil, Argentina) and in others where it hasn’t, such as India.
With Microsoft’s withdrawal, it is clear that the remaining complainants in these fights – generally small, niche internet businesses – are legitimate critics in their own right. But then again, it takes serious coordination and resources to sustain and succeed in antitrust fights. Winning, especially in a broad and generally impactful manner, is a much taller order without a deep-pocketed supporter such as Microsoft.
But there’s another possible, rather more cunning, motive. Microsoft today is facing a very different business ecosystem to the one it dominated in the 1990s. It needs to adapt. And it appears to want to do so by positioning itself at the heart of what Satya Nadella describes as “systems of intelligence”.
Explaining this concept at Hannover Messe 2016, Nadella defined systems of intelligence as cloud-enabled digital feedback loops. They rely on the continuous flow of data from people, places and things, connected to a web of activity. And they promise unprecedented power to reason, predict and gain insight.
This is unbridled Big Data utopianism. And it is a vision that brings Microsoft squarely into Google territory. So maybe Microsoft is pulling out of regulatory battles because it doesn’t want to shoot itself in the foot. For emeritus Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff, this gets to the core of the Google-Microsoft deal.
Zuboff is a leading critic of what she calls “surveillance capitalism”, the monetization of free behavioral data acquired through surveillance and sold on to entities with an interest in your future behavior. As she explained to the Guardian: “Google discovered surveillance capitalism. Microsoft has been late to this game, but it has now waded in. Viewed in this way, its agreement with Google is predictable and rational.”
And here the most sinister upshot of Microsoft’s decision to stop needling Google with legal disputes becomes clear. “A key theme I write about is that surveillance capitalism has thrived in lawless space,” says Zuboff. “Regulations and laws are its enemy. Democratic oversight is a threat. Lawlessness is so vital to the surveillance capitalism project,” she continues, “that Google and Microsoft’s shared interest in freedom from regulation outweighs any narrower competitive interests they might have or once thought they had. They can’t insist to the public that they must remain unregulated, while trying to impose regulations on one another.”
What does all this mean for the cases pending against Google? For Maurice Stucke and Allen Grunes, American antitrust experts and co-authors of a comprehensive new book examining the deep and reaching implications of platform and data monopolies, Zuboff’s warning of a lawless alliance among tech giants such as Microsoft and Google only accentuates the demand for rigorous, intellectually led regulatory action. And when it comes to Google, the case for action is in their view clear.
“The one thing that any antitrust regime absolutely has to do, if it is to be effective, is to stand up to the most powerful companies of the time,” explains Grunes. “Take that away and antitrust ceases to be meaningful.
“The antitrust authorities in the US and EU did that in the case of Microsoft. It required brains, resources and relentless pursuit and commitment.”
Yet only the Europeans, he argues, seem to have the intellectual leadership to be doing it in the case of Google. “The failure of the FTC to take meaningful action against Google is without question one of the great failures of all time.”
Microsoft and Google’s new deal to stop fighting each other is an interesting, strategic corporate move. But it is a move accompanied by a much stronger, deeper play: to collect and capitalize data – including data about us, our behaviors, and our interactions. The challenge for regulators and citizens is complex but essential – and has only just begun.

By Julia Powels

www.theguardian.com

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