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Archivo del Autor: Belen De Leon

ICE has a huge license plate database targeting immigrants, documents reveal

Newly released documents reveal Immigration and Customs Enforcement is tracking and targeting immigrants through a massive license plate reader database supplied with data from local police departments — in some cases violating sanctuary laws.

The documents, obtained by a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and released Tuesday, reveal the vehicle surveillance system collects more than a hundred million license plates a month from some of the largest cities in the U.S., including New York and Los Angeles, both of which are covered under laws limiting police cooperation with immigration agencies.

More than 9,000 ICE agents have access to the database, run by Vigilant Solutions, feeding some six billion vehicle detection records into Thomson Reuters’ investigative platform LEARN, to which police departments can buy access.

“The public has a right to know when a government agency — especially an immoral and rogue agency such as ICE — is exploiting a mass surveillance database that is a threat to the privacy and safety of drivers across the United States,” said Vasudha Talla, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, in an email to TechCrunch.

Talla, who sued ICE to release the documents, said the government “should not have unfettered access to information that reveals where we live, where we work, and our private habits.” Critics have noted several high-profile cases of police misusing and improperly accessing license plate data.

Automatic license plate readers (ALPR) scan and detect license plates, along with the time, date and location from thousands of cameras installed across the country to spot criminals and fugitives with warrants out for their arrest. The ACLU previously called it one of the new and emerging forms of mass surveillance in the United States. Companies like Vigilant feed data collected from ALPR cameras into databases accessible to law enforcement and federal agencies, which the ACLU accused ICE of using to find and deport immigrants.

ICE has a “hot list” of more than 1,100 license plates of suspects, felons or other subjects of interest, according to the documents released. Plates on the hot list trigger an alert to ICE that the vehicle has been spotted, including where and when.

“Hot lists are just one method by which ICE agents can track drivers with this system,” said Talla.

A spokesperson for ICE did not comment by our deadline on how many hot list detections led to deportations or removals from the U.S. Spokespeople for Thomson Reuters and Vigilant Solutions also did not comment.

It’s the third effort by ICE to secure access to the database in the past five years, after earlier attempts in 2014 over privacy concerns and 2015 over price negotiations failed. The agency rushed to secure the contract before a planned hike in cost by Thomson Reuters toward the end of 2017.

ICE spent $6.1 million on its latest contract in February 2018, gaining access to 80 law enforcement agencies covering almost two-thirds of the U.S. population. To allay fears of potential misuse, the agency was required to pass a revised privacy impact assessment explaining how ICE can and cannot use the license plate data. In one released email to an NPR reporter, ICE said agents “can only access data” uploaded by police departments if they elect to share it through the system.

But the ACLU found emails of ICE agents directly contacting local law enforcement officers to ask for license plate search data, circumventing the database.

Correspondence between ICE and a local police detective asking for license plate data outside of the ALPR database (Image: ACLU/supplied)

Over a years-long effort, one ICE agent — whose name was redacted by the government — sent several requests to a La Habra police detective by email asking for license plate data.

La Habra is one of 169 police departments in California, and is one of dozens of departments known to use ALPR. But the city’s police department is not on Vigilant’s list of law enforcement partners that supply license plate data to ICE, the documents show.

We asked La Habra Chief of Police Jerry Price if turning over records to ICE was in violation of California’s sanctuary status, but he would not comment.

“By going to local police informally, ICE is able to access locally collected driver location data without having to ask for formal access to the local system through the LEARN network, which could trigger local oversight or concern,” said Talla.

A list of local U.S. police departments contributing license plate data to the database, to which ICE has access (Image: ACLU/supplied)

Other police departments were named as partners that actively feed data into the ICE-accessible database, like Upland, Merced and Union City — three cities in California, which in 2018 passed state-wide laws that offer sanctuary to immigrants who might be in the country illegally or otherwise subject to deportation by ICE. The laws prohibit law enforcement in the state from sharing of license plate data with federal agencies, said Talla.

When reached, Union City Police Department chief Victor Derting did not comment. Spokespeople for Upland and Merced police departments did not respond to a request for comment.

The ACLU called on the immediate end to the license plate information sharing.

The documents also revealed how ICE initially considered trying to keep the database a secret, arguing that disclosing the capability would “almost immediately diminish its effectiveness as a law enforcement tool.”

Amid a controversial and questionable national emergency declared by the Trump administration, ICE remains a divisive agency more than ever. Last year, 19 of the top ICE investigators that investigate serious criminal cases, like drug smuggling and sex trafficking rings, called on the government to distance their work from ICE’s enforcement and removal operations unit, which investigates immigration violations and handles deportations.

In January, TechCrunch revealed dozens of ALPR cameras are still exposed on the internet — many of which are accessible without a password.


Source: TechCrunch

Automation Hero picks up $14.5 million led by Atomico

Automation Hero, formerly SalesHero, has secured $14.5 million in new funding led by Atomico, with participation by Baidu Ventures and Cherry Ventures. As part of the deal, Atomico principal Ben Blume will join the company’s board of directors.

The automation startup launched in 2017 as SalesHero, giving sales orgs a simple way to automate back-office processes like filing an expense report or updating the CRM. It does this through an AI assistant called Robin — “Batman and Robin, it worked with the superhero theme, and it’s gender neutral,” co-founder and CEO Stefan Groschupf explained — that can be configured to go through the regular workflow and take care of repetitive tasks.

“We brought computers into the workplace because we believed they could make us more productive,” said Groschupf. “But in many companies, people spend a lot of time entering data and doing painful manual processes to make these machines happy.”

The idea was to give salespeople more time to actually do their job, which is selling to clients. If all the administrative and repetitive “paperwork” is done by a computer, human employees can become more productive and efficient at skilled tasks.

By weaving together click robots, Automation Hero users can build out their own workflows through a no-code interface, tying together a wide variety of both structured and unstructured data sources. Those workflows are then presented in the inbox each morning by Robin, the AI assistant, and are executed as soon as the user gives the go-ahead.

After launch, the team realized that other types of organizations, beyond sales departments, were building out automations. Insurance firms, in particular, were using the software to automate some of the repetitive tasks involved with filing and assessing claims.

This led to today’s rebrand to Automation Hero.

Groschupf said that by automating the process of filling out a single closing form, it saved one insurance firm’s 430 sales reps 18.46 years per year.

Automation Hero has now raised a total of $19 million.

“We’re really excited with Atomico to bring on a great VC and good people,” said Groschupf. “I’ve raised capital before and I’ve worked with some of the more questionable VCs, as it turns out. We’re super-excited we’ve found an investor that really bakes important things, like a diversity policy and a family leave policy, right into the company’s investment agreement.”

Though he didn’t confirm, it’s likely that Groschupf is referring to KPCB, which has run into its fair share of controversy over the past few years and was an investor in Groschupf’s previous startup, Datameer.


Source: TechCrunch

Google has quietly added DuckDuckGo as a search engine option for Chrome users in ~60 markets

In an update to the chromium engine, which underpins Google’s popular Chrome browser, the search giant has quietly updated the lists of default search engines it offers per market — expanding the choice of search product users can pick from in markets around the world.

Most notably it has expanded search engine lists to include pro-privacy rivals in more than 60 markets globally.

The changes, which appear to have been pushed out with the Chromium 73 stable release yesterday, come at a time when Google is facing rising privacy and antitrust scrutiny and accusations of market distorting behavior at home and abroad.

Many governments are now actively questioning how competition policy needs to be updated to rein in platform power and help smaller technology innovators get out from under the tech giant shadow.

But in a note about the changes to chromium’s default search engine lists on an GitHub instance, Google software engineer Orin Jaworski merely writes that the list of search engine references per country is being “completely replaced based on new usage statistics” from “recently collected data.”

The per country search engine choices appear to loosely line up with top-four market share.

The greatest beneficiary of the update appears to be pro-privacy Google rival, DuckDuckGo, which is now being offered as an option in more than 60 markets, per the GitHub instance.

Previously DDG was not offered as an option at all.

Another pro-privacy search rivals, French search engine Qwant, has also been added as a new option — though only in its home market, France.

DDG has been added in Argentina, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Bolivia, Brazil, Belize, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Germany, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Faroe Islands, Finland, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, India, Iceland, Italy, Jamaica, Kuwait, Lebanon, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Moldova, Macedonia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Puerto Rico, Portugal, Paraguay, Romania, Serbia, Sweden, Slovenia, Slovakia, El Salvador, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Switzerland, U.K., Uruguay, U.S. and Venezuela.

“We’re glad that Google has recognized the importance of offering consumers a private search option,” DuckDuckGo founder Gabe Weinberg told us when approached for comment about the change.

DDG has been growing steadily for years, and has also recently taken outside investment to scale its efforts to capitalize on growing international appetite for pro-privacy products.

Interestingly, the chromium GitHub instance is dated December 2018 — which appears to be around the time when Google (finally) passed the Duck.com domain to DuckDuckGo, after holding onto the domain and pointing it to Google.com for years.

We asked Google for comment on the timing of its changes to search engine options in chromium. At the time of writing the search giant had not responded.

We’ve also reached out to Qwant for comment on being added as an option in its home market.


Source: TechCrunch

Periscope cracks down on inauthentic behavior, including fake hearts, follows, chats and more

Twitter’s video streaming app, Periscope, is cracking down on spam and, specifically, fake engagements. The company says it’s updating its policies around how it enforces its anti-spam rules, and is making improvements in terms of how those rules are enforced. This means users will see increased enforcement actions, Periscope notes — and these may even take place on “high-profile” accounts.

The app has struggled for some time to get a handle on spam and other bad behavior.

For example, in 2016 the live-streaming app rolled out real-time comment moderation — a much-needed change given the real-time nature of the live video and associated comments. Last year, it updated this system so broadcasters could assign their own chat moderators instead of relying on the crowd to handle the reporting and banning.

While these changes may have helped to address issues around trolling and abuse, spam is another matter — and particularly the inauthentic behavior around “fake engagements.”

This isn’t only a Periscope problem. On any platform where engagements — like hearts, favorites, follows and comments — are the currency of success, entire ecosystems pop up designed to help people cheat their way to the top.

With the updated spam policy, the company says it will now prohibit fake engagements — including any artificial hearts, chat, followers and views. It classifies these actions as “spam,” because they’re “deceptive” forms of activity.

Any selling or promoting of fake engagement will be prohibited, too.

In addition, the company says it will focus on proactive enforcement to help improve chat quality and will soon launch account-level spam-reporting options so others can report spammy users.

Fake engagement is not a new issue for the app.

For years there have been problems with fake followers and fake hearts as an attempt to manipulate the system. There are YouTube videos that detail how this works, tutorials on how to make these purchases, bots, and, of course, offers filed under “social media marketing” on sites like Fiverr — a marketplace where much of the fake internet is manufactured.

While Periscope may have turned a blind eye to the spam and fakery for some time, its decision to finally crack down on fake engagement arrives only a few months after Instagram did the same. In November, Instagram began fighting back against automated apps people used to leave spammy comments and to follow and unfollow users in hopes of growing their audience.

Social media platforms, as a whole, have actively ignored these sorts of attempts to manipulate their systems for most of their existence. After all, fake engagements like hearts and follows and comments make it look like their platforms are more active than they actually are. And if these fakery tools helped birth crowds of “influencers” who then, in turn, attracted more users to the platform, that could be even seen as a perk.

But fake accounts and activity aren’t always about people wanting a shortcut to online fame — inauthentic accounts are also the source for disinformation campaigns and attempts by foreign governments to hack our democracy. That’s shifted the scale in the other direction, and has forced social media platforms to finally stop ignoring the problem of inauthentic accounts and activity.

Periscope, however, told users it’s all about listening to their feedback.

“At Periscope, we value our community’s feedback to make our service better. Periscope is a place for instant engagement and we’ve heard your concerns about spammy accounts and chats,” the company said. “Whether you’re broadcasting or catching up with your favorite broadcaster, we are always looking for ways to make Periscope feel safer and more authentic for our community.”


Source: TechCrunch

China Is Catching Up to the US in AI Research–Fast

Chinese researchers publish more papers about artificial intelligence than their US counterparts. A new study finds the quality of Chinese research is improving too.
Source: Wired

Photos of Ordinary Objects Sliced in Half With a Water Jet

Inventor Mike Warren uses a 60,000-psi water Jet to reveal the cross-sections of ordinary objects.
Source: Wired

Jack Dorsey records podcast with fitness writer who claimed “vaccines do indeed cause autism”

Jack Dorsey, known for making tone-deaf statements on the platform he co-founded, is in the middle of another controversy. This time it is for plugging a podcast he recorded with fitness writer Ben Greenfield. Greenfield has espoused anti-vaccination views on Twitter and other platforms, continuing to do so despite measles outbreaks in the United States.

Dorsey retweeted Greenfield’s tweet about their podcast interview, commenting “Great conversation, and appreciate all you do to simplify the mountain of research focused on increasing one’s healthspan.”

Greenfield recently doubled down on the disproven claim that vaccines cause autism and has repeatedly included anti-vaccine propaganda on his podcast and social media pages.

TechCrunch has contacted Twitter for comment. A company spokesperson told Recode that neither Dorsey, who has done a string of podcast appearances recently, or the company was aware of Greenfield’s stance on vaccines and that the topic was not discussed during the interview.

Dorsey’s endorsement of Greenfield is especially striking considering that other tech companies, including YouTube and Facebook, are currently clamping down on anti-vaccination content. For example, YouTube recently announced it will demonetize anti-vaccination videos, while Facebook is down-ranking vaccine misinformation on its News Feed and hiding it on Instagram. Pinterest, which has prohibited anti-vaccination content in its terms for years, also recently said it will stop returning any search result related to vaccines.

Dorsey recently generated backlash for a tweet thread about his meditation retreat in Myanmar that neglected to mention the Rohingya genocide and declaring that Elon Musk is his favorite Twitter user, despite the fact that Musk’s tweets have landed him in legal trouble, including with the Securities and Exchange Commission.


Source: TechCrunch

Tetrate nets $12.1 million to bring microservices to the corporate masses

Tetrate, a company bringing commercial services and support to the open source projects –Istio and Envoy — providing network management functions for the microservices that make up modern mobile applications, has launched with $12.1 million in new financing.

The company, founded by top engineers at Google who started the Istio project, raised its initial financing from a slew of institutions and big names in enterprise software including Pankaj Patel, Former Chief Development Officer at Cisco; Guido Appenzeller, Former CTO Cloud & Networking at VMware; BV Jagadeesh, founder and CEO of Netscaler and Shiva Rajaraman, Chief Product Officer of WeWork.

On the institutional investment side, Dell Technologies Capital led the financing, which also included Intel Capital, Samsung NEXT, 8VC, and Rain Capital.

Tetrate was able to bring this motley band of investors together to back its foray into professionalizing services and support around a toolkit that’s helping to redefine application development.

The company is supporting open source projects Istio and Envoy, which developers use to create what’s called a “service mesh” that orchestrates how microservices on a distributed data center platform communicate with one another and work together as part of an application.

It’s corollary in the old software world that I initially wrote about would be the middleware layer for in a client-server architecture. (Much of this was foreign to me before I read this excellent primer from ZDNet, which spelled out a lot of what’s going on for me).

One of the key things that microservices address, and that Tetrate will provide support for, is to support the management of different microservices at scale.

Think of the service mesh as the toolkit that keeps microservices communicating with each other and enabling applications at the level of executable code. So tools like Istio are used to manage the network without impacting the services that are running on top of it.

Tetrate was actually founded by some of the architects behind the development of Istio. “I was at Google for the last ten years most recently working as a product manager in Google Cloud,” says Tetrate co-founder and chief executive Varun Talwar. Indeed, Google was where Talwar and his colleagues developed the Istio toolkit.

Talwar says that the Istio toolkit was born out of the needs of the developers in the Kubernetes community. “It decouples the operations from the development,” Talwar says of the Istio service. “You can apply policy management.”

Talwar and his colleagues took the covers off the Istio project in May of 2017 at Glucon and brought in big names to support its use including IBM and Red Hat (now IBHat? RedBM?). A little less than one year later, Talwar left Google to start Tetrate.

Now, with the new financing from its backers, Tetrate is going to bring enterprise-grade extensibility, scalability, and performance to the open source tools that its founders helped develop, according to a statement.

“Customers are going through a journey of modernization and public cloud adoption,” said Talwar, in a statement. “Tetrate’s mission is to create the tools and technologies that help customers with availability and manageability of their applications as they undergo this transformation.”

The company is releasing a set of certified builds of envoy proxy and other open source tools to speed the adoption of microservices development in businesses. The company is also partnering with Google and the Cloud Native Computing Foundation for operating hybrid computing environments with Istio.

“Open source should be an integral part of any company’s software and operations strategy today,” said Envoy founder and Lyft Engineer Matt Klein, in a statement. “Interoperability will be the key factor in the next phase of cloud adoption, so having deep roots within the open source community gives Tetrate instant credibility among cloud-first companies.”

 


Source: TechCrunch

Competition policy must change to help startups fight ‘winner takes all’ platforms, says UK report

A independent report commissioned by the UK government to examine how competition policy needs to adapt itself for the digital age has concluded that tech giants don’t face adequate competition and the law needs updating to address what it dubs the “novel” challenges of ‘winner takes all’ platforms.

The panel also recommends more policy interventions to actively support startups, including a code of conduct for “the most significant digital platforms”; and measures to foster data portability, open standards and interoperability to help generate competitive momentum for rival innovations.

UK chancellor Philip Hammond announced the competition market review last summer, saying the government was committed to asking “the big questions about how we ensure these new digital markets work for everyone”.

The culmination of the review — a 150-page report, published today, entitled Unlocking digital competition — is the work of the government’s digital competition expert panel which is chaired by former U.S. president Barack Obama’s chief economic advisor, professor Jason Furman.

“The digital sector has created substantial benefits but these have come at the cost of increasing dominance of a few companies which is limiting competition and consumer choice and innovation. Some say this is inevitable or even desirable. I think the UK can do better,” Furman said today in a statement.

In the report the panel writes that it believes competition policy should be “given the tools to tackle new challenges, not radically shifted away from its established basis”.

“In particular, policy should remain based on careful weighing of economic evidence and models,” they suggest, arguing also that “consumer welfare” remains the “appropriate perspective to motivate competition policy” — and rejecting the idea that a completely new approach is needed.

But, crucially, their view of consumer welfare is a broad church, not a narrow price trench — with the report asserting that a consumer welfare basis to competition law is able to also take account of other things, including (but also not limited to) “choice, quality and innovation”. 

Furman said the panel, which was established in September 2018, has outlined “a balanced proposal to give people more control over their data, give small businesses more of a chance to enter and thrive, and create more predictability for the large digital companies”.

“These recommendations will deliver an economic boost driven by UK tech start-ups and innovation that will give consumers greater choice and protection,” he argues.

Commenting on the report’s publication, Hammond said: “Competition is fundamental to ensuring the market works in the interest of consumers, but we know some tech giants are still accumulating too much power, preventing smaller businesses from entering the market,” adding that: “The work of Jason Furman and the expert panel is invaluable in ensuring we’re at the forefront of delivering a competitive digital marketplace.”

The chancellor said that the government will “carefully examine” the proposals and respond later this year — with a plan for implementing changes he said are necessary “to ensure our digital markets are competitive and consumers get the level of choice they deserve”.

Pro-startup regulation required

The panel rejects the view — mostly loudly propounded by tech giants and their lobbying vehicles — that competition is thriving online, ergo no competition policy changes are needed.

It also rejects the argument that digital platforms are “natural monopolies” and competition is impossible — dismissing the idea of imposing utility-like regulation, such as in the energy sector.

Instead, the panel writes that it sees “greater competition among digital platforms as not only necessary but also possible — provided the right policies are in place”. The biggest “missing set of policies” are ones that would “actively help foster competition”, it argues in the report’s introduction.

“Instead of just relying on traditional competition tools, the UK should take a forward-looking approach that creates and enforces a clear set of rules to limit anti-competitive actions by the most significant digital platforms while also reducing structural barriers that currently hinder effective competition,” the panel goes on to say, calling for new rules to tackle ‘winner take all’ tech platforms that are based on “generally agreed principles and developed into more specific codes of conduct with the participation of a wide range of stakeholders”. 

Coupled with active policy efforts to support startups and scale-ups — by making it easier for consumers to move their data across digital services; pushing for systems to be built around open standards; and for data held by tech giants to be made available for competitors — the suggested reforms would support a system that’s “more flexible, predictable and timely” than the current regime, they assert.

Among the panel’s specific recommendations are a call to set up a new competition unit with expertise in technology, economics and behavioural science, plus the legal powers to back it up.

The panel envisages this unit focusing on giving users more control over their data — to foster platform switching — as well as developing a code of competitive conduct that would apply to the largest platforms. “This would be applied only to particularly powerful companies, those deemed to have ‘strategic market status’, in order to avoid creating new burdens or barriers for smaller firms,” they write.

Another recommendation is to beef up regulators’ existing powers for tackling illegal anti-competitive practices — to make it quicker and simpler to prosecute breaches, with the report highlighting bullying tactics by market leaders as a current problem.

“There is nothing inherently wrong about being a large company or a monopoly and, in fact, in many cases this may reflect efficiencies and benefits for consumers or businesses. But dominant companies have a particular responsibility not to abuse their position by unfairly protecting, extending or exploiting it,” they write. “Existing antitrust enforcement, however, can often be slow, cumbersome, and unpredictable. This can be especially problematic in the fast-moving digital sector.

“That is why we are recommending changes that would enable more use of interim measures to prevent damage to competition while a case is ongoing, and adjusting appeal standards to balance protecting parties’ interests with the need for the competition authority to have usable tools and an appropriate margin of judgement. The goal is to place less reliance on large fines and drawn-out procedures, instead enabling faster action that more directly targets and remedies the problematic behavior.”

The expert panel also says changes to merger rules are required to enable the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to intervene to stop digital mergers that are likely to damage future competition, innovation and consumer choice — saying current decisions are too focused on short-term impacts.

“Over the last 10 years the 5 largest firms have made over 400 acquisitions globally. None has been blocked and very few have had conditions attached to approval, in the UK or elsewhere, or even been scrutinised by competition authorities,” they note.

More priority should be given to reviewing the potential implications of digital mergers, in their view.

Decisions on whether to approve mergers, by the CMA and other authorities, have often focused on short-term impacts. In dynamic digital markets, long-run effects are key to whether a merger will harm competition and consumers. Could the company that is being bought grow into a competitor to the platform? Is the source of its value an innovation that, under alternative ownership, could make the market less concentrated? Is it being bought for access to consumer data that will make the platform harder to challenge? In principle, all of these questions can inform merger decisions within the current, mainstream framework for competition, centred on consumer welfare. There is no need to shift away from this, or implement a blanket presumption against digital mergers, many of which may benefit consumers. Instead, these issues need to be considered more consistently and effectively in practice.

In part the CMA can achieve this through giving a higher priority to merger decisions in digital markets. These cases can be complex, but they affect markets that are critically important to consumers, providing services that shape the digital economy.

In another recommendation which targets the Google Facebook adtech duopoly, the report also calls for the CMA to launch a formal market study into the digital advertising market — which it notes suffers from a lack of transparency.

The panel also notes similar concerns raised by other recent reviews.

Digital advertising is increasingly driven by the use of consumers’ personal data for targeting. This in turn drives the competitive advantage for platforms able to learn more about more users’ identity, location and preferences. The market operates through a complex chain of advertising technology layers, where subsidiaries of the major platforms compete on opaque terms with third party businesses. This report joins the Cairncross Review and Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in calling for the CMA to use its investigatory capabilities and powers to examine whether actors in these markets are operating appropriately to deliver effective competition and consumer benefit.

The report also calls for new powers to force the largest tech companies to open up to smaller firms by providing access to key data sets, albeit without infringing on individual privacy — citing Open Banking as a “notable” data mobility model that’s up and running.

“Open Banking provides an instructive example of how policy intervention can overcome technical and co-ordination challenges and misaligned incentives by creating an adequately funded body with the teeth to drive development and implementation by the nine largest financial institutions,” it suggests.

The panel urges the UK to engage internationally on the issue of digital regulation, writing that: “Many countries are considering policy changes in this area. The United Kingdom has the opportunity to lead by example, by helping to stimulate a global discussion that is based on the shared premise that competition is beneficial, competition is possible, but that we need to update our policies to protect and expand this competition for the sake of consumers and vibrant, dynamic economies.”

And in just one current example of the considerable chatter now going on around tech + competition, a House of Lords committee this week also recommended public interest tests for proposed tech mergers, and suggested an overarching digital regulator is needed to help plug legislative gaps and work through regulatory overlap.

Discussing the pros and cons of concentration in digital markets, the expert competition panel notes the efficiency and convenience that this dynamic can offer consumers and businesses, as well as potential gains via product innovation.

However the panel also points to what it says can be “substantial downsides” from digital market concentration, including erosion of consumer privacy; barriers to entry and scale for startups; and blocks to wider innovation, which it asserts can “outweigh any static benefits” — writing:

It can raise effective prices for consumers, reduce choice, or impact quality. Even when consumers do not have to pay anything for the service, it might have been that with more competition consumers would have given up less in terms of privacy or might even have been paid for their data. It can be harder for new companies to enter or scale up. Most concerning, it could impede innovation as larger companies have less to fear from new entrants and new entrants have a harder time bringing their products to market — creating a trade-off where the potential dynamic costs of concentration outweigh any static benefits.

The panel takes a clear view that “competition for the market cannot be counted on, by itself, to solve the problems associated with market tipping and ‘winner-takes-most’” — arguing that past regulatory interventions have helped shift market conditions, i.e. by facilitating the technology changes that created new markets and companies which led to dominant tech giants of old being unseated.

So, in other words, the panel believes government action can unlock market disruption — hence the report’s title — and that it’s too simplistic a narrative to claim technological change alone will reset markets.

For example, IBM’s dominance of hardware in the 1960s and early 1970s was rendered less important by the emergence of the PC and software. Microsoft’s dominance of operating systems and browsers gave way to a shift to the internet and an expansion of choice. But these changes were facilitated, in part, by government policy — in particular antitrust cases against these companies, without which the changes may never have happened.

The panel also argues there’s an acceleration of market dominance in the modern digital economy that makes it even more necessary for governments to respond, writing that “network effects and returns to scale of data appear to be even more entrenched and the market seems to have stabilised quickly compared to the much larger degree of churn in the early days of the World Wide Web”.

They also point to the risk of AI and machine learning technology leading to further market concentration, warning that “the companies most able to take advantage of [the next technological revolution] may well be the existing large companies because of the importance of data for the successful use of these tools”.

And while they suggest AI startups might offer a route to a competitive reset, via a substantial technology shift, there’s still currently no relief to be had from entrepreneurial efforts because of “the degree that entrants are acquired by the largest companies – with little or no scrutiny”.

Discussing other difficulties related to regulating big tech, the panel warns of the risk of regulators being “captured by the companies they are regulating”; as well as point out they are generally at a disadvantage vs the high tech innovators they are seeking to rule.

In a concluding chapter considering the possible impacts of their policy recommendations, the panel argues that successful execution of their approach could help foster startup innovation across a range of sectors and services.

“Across digital markets, implementing the recommendations will enable more new companies to turn innovative ideas into great new services and profitable businesses,” they suggest. “Some will continue to be acquired by large platforms, where that is the best route to bring new technology to a large group of users. Others will grow and operate alongside the large platforms. Digital services will be more diverse, more dynamic, with more specialisation and choice available for consumers wanting it. This could drive a flourishing of investment in these UK businesses.”

Citing some “potential examples” of services that could evolve in this more supportively competitive environment they suggest social content aggregators might arise that “bring together the best material from people’s friends across different platforms and sites”; “privacy services could give consumers a single simple place to manage the information they share across different platforms”; and also envisage independent ad tech businesses and changed market dynamics that can “rebalance the share of advertising revenue back towards publishers”.

The main envisaged benefits for consumers boil down to greater service and feature choice; enhanced privacy and transparency; and genuine control over the services they use and how they want to use them.

While for startups and scale-ups the panel sees open standards and access to data — and indeed effective enforcement, by the new digital markets unit — creating “a wide range of opportunities to develop and serve new markets adjacent to or interconnected with existing digital platforms”.

The combined impact should be to strengthen and deepen the competitive digital ecosystem, they believe.

Another envisaged benefit for startups is “trust in the framework and recognition that promising, innovative digital businesses will be protected from foreclosure or exclusion” — which they argue “should catalyse investment in UK digital businesses, driving the sector’s growth”.

“The changes to competition law… mean that where a business can grow into a successful competitor, that route to further growth is protected and companies will not in the future see being subsumed into a dominant platform as the only realistic business model,” they add.


Source: TechCrunch

Somewear Global Hotspot Review: A Good Hiking Companion

We review a simple, easy-to-use safety beacon that pairs to your phone via Bluetooth, so you can text or call anywhere on the planet using the Iridium satellite network.
Source: Wired

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