WELCOME to Connected Rights, your swizzle stick in the cocktail of digital rights news and analysis.
GOOGLE’S €2.42 BILLION ANTITRUST FINE is not great for the company, obviously. It’s a sizeable chunk of cash, even if Google parent Alphabet made a profit of €17.14 billion last year. What’s worse for Alphabet, the firm faces further fines of up to 5 percent of its daily global turnover, if it doesn’t set right the problems that led to Wednesday’s record-breaking penalty. However, what went down this week is good for you, and here’s why.
First, a quick recap of what this is all about. Since 2008, when you search for a product using Google, the results are headed up by click-friendly pictures of the product that will lead you to various retailers’ offers. This is Google’s own comparison-shopping service, and it treats it completely differently to rival services. Google’s service automatically appears at the top of its results, while the others are subject to the standard search algorithm, which shunts them off to page four (on average): http://bit.ly/2shvEeB
As Google’s search market share in Europe is north of 90 percent, this means it’s basically impossible for anyone to set up an online comparison shopping service and expect it to get sizeable traffic via web search. That, in effect, means retailers have to use Google’s service, on Google’s terms, for you to find them.
According to Google, the European Commission’s competition department has “underestimated the value of those kinds of fast and easy connections”. People just want to click directly through to the retailer, it says: http://bit.ly/2rX5nTA. But Google’s argument misses the point of the Commission’s decision, which states: “Google has to apply the same processes and methods to position and display rival comparison shopping services in Google’s search results pages as it gives to its own comparison shopping service.”
In other words, Google’s search engine doesn’t have to cut out its handy images. Instead, it could give you the option of choosing which underlying comparison service powers the click-friendly images you see at the top: maybe Google’s own service, maybe someone else’s. This must be technically possible, much as it might hurt Google’s bottom line by whisking away the commission it earns for referring users to retailers’ offers.
So, why is this a big deal for you? It’s about online diversity and the ability to have a choice about the services you use and support. It’s far from ideal that Google has such a massive search monopoly, but it’s not illegal either. What is illegal is using that gatekeeper role to take over other online industries and wipe competitors off the map (which is effectively what Google achieves by putting them on page four).
Importantly, the Commission was clear that this decision sets a precedent for other, ongoing antitrust cases involving Google’s search tactics. This isn’t just about comparison shopping: it’s about ensuring that companies – and we as consumers – are not all beholden to a giant corporation that abuses its power. That makes it a call worth cheering.
NOW LET’S GIVE GOOGLE A PAT ON THE BACK for making a fairly privacy-friendly move. As you should be aware if you use Gmail, the service automatically scans through your emails. It does this for several reasons, including spam detection, spotting restaurant reservations and flight bookings that it could add to your calendar, suggesting short replies – and, most controversially, looking for keywords that it can use to build up its profile of you for advertising purposes.
This last bit only applies to regular users; Google promised its business customers that it wouldn’t mine their emails for ad keywords. However, as the company is looking to sign up more business customers, it’s decided that it wants to remove any ambiguity, and will later this year stop keyword-mining across its consumer Gmail service too: http://bit.ly/2sZbOql
Yes, this may reflect the fact that Google knows tons about you already, and yes, the decision removes a feature that previously earned Google lawsuits from irate Gmail users and criticism from rivals such as Microsoft. And of course, it’s about business, not merely respecting people’s privacy and control over their own information. But in effect, it’s a pro-privacy move that benefits Gmail’s many, many users by not making their communications fodder for the marketing machine. Small steps, but well done Google.
ARE YOU SELLING OUT YOUR FRIENDS BY USING WHATSAPP? A district court judge in the Hessian town of Bad Hersfeld has ruled that WhatsApp users should ask permission of every single person in their phone’s contacts list before uploading the list to the messaging service, otherwise they’re breaking German privacy law: http://bit.ly/2se1Ynz. A lawyer contact of mine says this story is “pure hype” and won’t have any wider effect. However, it does throw up interesting questions.
This was a family law case involving an 11-year-old kid who only had 20 contacts in his phone, and who was technically too young to be using WhatsApp anyway (the minimum age is 13). I, probably like you, have hundreds of contacts in my phone’s address book. When I installed WhatsApp, I confess I didn’t get in touch with all of them to ask for written permission to disseminate their contact details – though it’s amusing to think of the responses if I’d done so.
It’s important to remember that, in the EU, a service’s terms and conditions don’t cancel out people’s fundamental rights – and in any case, the WhatsApp user is the one signing those T&Cs, not the people in their address book. So the practice may very well be illegal under data protection law, and unethical to boot. But at the same time, giving apps access to contacts lists is so common that a crackdown would nail anyone that has a smartphone and has downloaded a communications app.
What’s the solution to this conundrum? I genuinely don’t know. Please send your thoughts to the usual email address, i.e. firstname.lastname@example.org, or let’s have a chat on Twitter. I’d love to know if anyone can see a way through this that doesn’t involve just giving up on the privacy of our contact details.
HAVE TECH COMPANIES GOT YOUR BACK IN RUSSIA? Companies such as Cisco, IBM and SAP have been letting Russian authorities look at the source code of their security products, according to a Reuters investigation: http://reut.rs/2sgTJSz
This isn’t actually that unusual, as companies sometimes also let authorities in the US and China inspect their code to check that it doesn’t contain backdoors for foreign intelligence agencies. The problem is, the inspections might also reveal flaws that the companies themselves don’t know about, and Russian hackers have been very active in exploiting such vulnerabilities to conduct surveillance and launch cyber-attacks.
It’s a tricky situation – the companies can’t say no if they want to conduct business with government-connected customers, but they might be making things worse for themselves and their other customers.
ARE YOU AMERICAN AND WORRIED ABOUT AMERICAN SURVEILLANCE? Section 702 of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is the piece of law that lets US spooks spy on the rest of the world. Edward Snowden revealed that, while spying on foreigners, the NSA et al often also “accidentally” spy on Americans – after all, if you’re trying to target some guy in Yemen, for example, he might communicate with relatives in Atlanta, and all those communications would get scooped up in the surveillance.
The US Congress would like to know how many Americans are being caught up in this net and, according to The Outline, the intelligence agencies refuse to tell them: http://bit.ly/2uhlufh. At the same time, they’re asking Congress to re-authorise Section 702. Go (undisclosed) figure!