Despite the hefty fines levied against tech industry giants such as Intel and Microsoft, and ongoing investigations into companies such as Apple and Google, the general public has stood to gain very little from competition cases brought by regulators such as the European Commission. Until now, that is.
The EC has begun moves to make it easier for consumers and small businesses to make claims against firms found to have breached European competition laws.
"Infringements of the antitrust rules cause serious harm to European consumers and businesses" said competition commissioner Joaquín Almunia, responsible for competition. "We must ensure that all victims of these infringements can obtain redress for the harm they suffered, especially once a competition authority has found and sanctioned such a breach.
According to the EC's figures, only a quarter of antitrust decisions taken in the past seven years resulted in victims getting compensation.
Under the proposals, national courts will get the power to order companies to disclose evidence when victims claim compensation in a separate country. The aim is to make it easier for consumers and businesses to claim compensation without having to launch separate, individual cases against rule-breaking firms.
It remains to be seen whether the proposals will pass as intended – they have to go through the usual ratification by the European Parliament and Council, but it represents an interesting way to tackle breaches of competition law.
The EC has never lacked powers when it comes to dealing with antitrust cases, and can levy fines of up to 10 percent of a firm's global turnover. Competition regulators can also seek for firms to be broken up, if breaches warrant such drastic actions.
But despite such powers, the EC has proven fairly inept at deploying them. Take, for example, the long running investigation into Microsoft. It had numerous run ins with Europe over the bundling of software with its Windows operating system. And while it eventually fined Microsoft and forced it to offer users a choice of browsers, by the time the EC acted, the industry had moved on. By giving consumers more powers to take action, it may be able to address competition concerns more quickly.
14 May 2013
New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently called on mobile phone companies including Samsung, Apple, and Microsoft to create technology that could curb mobile phone theft. Schneiderman sent three separate letters to the firms in a bid to spread awareness about the growing problem of stolen mobiles.
According to a recent report, 160 iPhones were stolen every day in London last year. While it was recently reported that robberies involving a mobile phone were up 36 percent in San Francisco in 2012.
The New York Times has reported that the increase in mobile phone thefts has led some law enforcement officials to call on companies to install a kill switch into their phones. However, the real problem that needs to be addressed is that network operators have little incentive to implement technology like a kill switch.
Whether from warranty plans or new phone purchases, companies in the industry make money when mobiles are stolen. Mobile network carriers especially have the opportunity to make money from theft victims. When a user buys a phone from a carrier they have the opportunity to buy a warranty that covers them in case their phone is stolen.
The warranty gives the firms another avenue for income. If phones had a kill switch, or some other type of technology, the need for a theft protection warranty would go down immensely.
The other side of the coin is a person who doesn't have a warranty at all; these customers who opt to not buy a warranty plan may have to pay for a new phone.
Sometimes, that replaced phone can cost a customer the full retail price of the mobile. The price tag is even more egregious when you consider that most users don't even pay the full retail price of a device when they sign a contract with a mobile network to begin with.
Unfortunately, phone thefts are not something that will be fixed by companies on their own volition. As long as a company can a swing a dime off of a theft, they have no reason to do anything to stop it.
22 Apr 2013
Japanese police are reportedly mulling over proposals that could see internet service providers in the country block access to the Tor network, an anonymous communication system.
According to the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, Japan's National Police Agency wants ISPs to block access to Tor if users are found to have abused it.
The report came following a series of online attacks, where perpetrators used the Tor network to mask their identify. It is unclear from the reports what that abuse would entail – given that users' Tor activities cannot be snooped on, it's difficult to see how police would show abuse. Perhaps using Tor would be enough to constitute abuse.
The police are already expecting a backlash to the proposals. An NPS officer told The Mainichi it would try to assuage ISPs' concerns.
Tor has proven to be an invaluable tool for pro-democracy campaigners in the Middle East while censorious regimes such as the Chinese authorities have attempted to block users from using the system.
But Tor has a darker side too, providing a safe haven for thriving drug markets such as the Silk Road, along with a host of malware and cybercrime forums. Tor - or the onion router - bounces enrypted web traffic through multipe servers, making it impossible for snoopers to see what users are up to.
12 Apr 2013
The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) is back again. Rising from the ashes of a failed Senate vote, the bill has found renewed life thanks to the House Intelligence Committee.
Committee members approved the bill by an 18 to two vote. This go-around includes amendments which supporters say resolve issues with the bill.
Of course, opponents once again disagree. Advocacy groups and the White House continue to express alarm over the bill's failure to address privacy concerns.
Opponents' issues with the bill are the same ones they had last year when the original CISPA bill died on the Senate floor. They fear that a lack of governmental oversight will cause defence agencies to use personal user data for the wrong reasons.
The issues remained unresolved because of proponents of CISPA who say the government needs to be able to handle whatever data they do receive with as little bureaucratic interference as possible.
Both sides have their points and both sides will be fighting for a compromise. CISPA, or something like it, will keep cropping up because both the government and private enterprise have too much riding on some sort of data-sharing initiative.
With reports of state-sponsored cyber-attacks on the rise and the constant threat of local hackers, CISPA is an important piece of legislation for the tech lobby.
Unlike SOPA, which didn't have the support of Silicon Valley, CISPA is technology company approved. SOPA was made for the entertainment industry and its bid to fight piracy. CISPA (and new-CISPA) isn't really about piracy. It's about cyber attacks.
The bill lays the ground work so private industry can share cyber-threat intelligence without the possibility of getting sued. With CISPA, Facebook can send data about a local cyber-attack to the DOD so it can be informed and alert other tech companies of the threat.
In its current form, the DOD can also use that data in broad strokes. For example, it can pick up personal information that was received from a Facebook security data dump and use it for non-cyber threat purposes.
New-CISPA discourages that sort of tactic. However, what exactly constitutes a cyber-threat is currently an expansive definition.
The bill is making its rounds to Congress next week. It may get passed their but will most likely fail in the Senate. From that point it will either revive itself with amendments or its ideas will be reinterpreted in another bill.
Some sort of data-sharing act will keep coming and with the right opponents may come out with stronger privacy protections. How a data-sharing bill turns out will be determined by who ends up fighting for and against it.
Over the course of the coming year it will be interesting to see how bills like CISPA evolve. It will be interesting to see how the public debate grows and changes. Theirs no telling how it's going to turn out, but its becoming obvious that it isn't going away.
11 Apr 2013
Google just announced its plans to enlist big data in the fight against human trafficking. The search giant will work with three advocacy groups to collect and analyse data from human trafficking hotlines.
The work is aimed to stifle human trafficking by bringing about a shared data platform for anti-trafficking groups. By using big data, advocacy groups can identify trafficking hotspots and create stronger strategies to put an end to traffickers.
Google's work in the field is an illuminating reminder of the types of projects big data can take on. Big data doesn't have to be used just to create the perfect targeted ad or discover the biggest IT bottleneck.
Big data can also be used to solve a variety of the world's ills. The potential big data holds for the greater good can't be underestimated. From being able to project future crime sprees to solving big city traffic jams, big data holds the key to fighting a variety of societal troubles.
That is one of the reasons why the lack of qualified big data analysts is so troubling. We can have all the data in the world but if we don't have qualified analysts it won't mean anything.
Knowledgeable and creative big data scientist will be crucial if the industry ever hopes to create some sort of major social change. The world will need scientists who not only know what they are doing technically, but also have the creativity needed to use data in unique ways.
Last year, Oracle president Mark Hurd made the comment that most big data is "worthless". According to Hurd, 99.9 percent of big data is unusable.
His assessment may hold weight in the sense that most data will not help a business improve its infrastructure. However, the idea that most big data is useless in the greater context of society is off base.
To truly use data to uncover societal truths we need imaginative analysts, who can take seemingly benign data and transform it into real-world solutions.
By now it's become a cliché to say the world needs more Steve Jobs, but it's the truth. Steve Jobs (and the many pioneers of the computing age) took the technology of their time and brought a sense of creative thinking to it.
We need a generation of Steve Jobs. The technology exists to such a point that creative thinking can change the world. Tech like big data can be used to revolutionise how we think about the world's problems.
With creativity and know-how a data analyst can do amazing things. Not just in business, but also for society as a whole.
Now, it's up to clever people to take up an interest in the field. To do that people will need equal parts ingenuity and opportunity. They'll need the opportunity to learn and discover the power of the trade. They'll also need to understand big data is more than just statistics.
Facebook doesn't make money on hardware, software, or subscriptions. Instead, they make money on the data users put out. They take the data users send out and sell it to advertisers who in turn sell users stuff through the use of targeted ads.
The idea that major corporations sell users data scares a lot of people. These people don't necessarily have anything to hide; they're just ordinary people who like to have a sense of privacy.
These people use Gmail, Facebook, and Google+. Some of them will even probably end up using Facebook Home.
These potential Facebook Home users spoke up about their fears that the app/skin/thing would invade their privacy in a way unheard of previously. So Facebook went on the offensive and dropped a Q&A for Home's privacy policies.
The Q&A basically said Facebook Home doesn't change the way the company handles user data. User's location data won't be collected in anyway that is unique and it won't collect data users create from other apps.
So if nothing changes then what is the end game? Why is Facebook making a free super-app that doesn't do anything new for advertisers? Because by putting itself on your home screen, Facebook can gleam a lot more data using the same policies.
By buying into Facebook Home users will be sort-of using a Facebook ecosystem. Facebook already has an app store which has the potential for growth. It also has a messaging service and a slew of other apps users could use to replace their current Android offerings.
The famous Microsoft "Scroogled" campaign derided Google for searching through Gmail messages to serve up sponsored ads. Google uses all of its apps to give advertisers some new kinds of data.
Now Facebook is doing the same thing as its semi-rival Google. It's building out an ecosystem in attempt to better understand how to sell its users stuff. So if you are the type to worry about Facebook Home's privacy policies, you should be less focused on Home and more focused on Facebook as a whole.
Facebook's current privacy policies are the real issue, not the future violations of an unreleased app. If anything is to be done, it should be getting Facebook to update its current policies to better adapt to mobile.
The company has already defined itself as a mobile company so perhaps it should make privacy policies that reflect that. If Facebook really wants to talk up its privacy agenda, it needs to really work to change what its current policies are and not to talk about what its doing with a new app.
02 Apr 2013
Apple has repeatedly attempted to trademark its ever increasing staple of words and symbols. From the recently failed attempt to own the term "iPad Mini" to the persistent battle over the words "App Store", Apple has continuously tried to build out a brand that is distinctly its own.
It is one of the reasons the firm has been so successful. Apple doesn't just sell products, they also sell an image. The leaders of Apple have worked hard for years to build a brand that is cool. Apple puts a focus on aesthetics and style that was previously unheard of in the tech world.
Before Apple, the focus was solely based on usability and performance. However, Apple set out to build its products with image and ease of use in mind. From the various "I" devices to the aesthetics of its logo, Apple has always been interested in the image of its electronics.
That is why the firm puts so much emphasis on protecting its brand. Apple spends a lot of money and time in guarding its image through trademark.
It recently fought a battle in Brazil to protect its iPhone name against a smaller firm attempting to capitalise on the brand. Apple even fought Amazon to force the e-commerce firm to change its App Store name to something else.
The Amazon case is specifically interesting because it points out how much Apple lingo has permeated society. The words "App Store" seem ubiquitous. Many call Google's Play Store, "the App Store". Apps are the common applications we use on mobile devices, while a store is the place we get them from.
However, without Apple we wouldn't even use that terminology. Apple may not have invented the App but it did bring the term into the common lexicon. Without the iPhone, apps would just be mobile applications.
Perhaps that is the reason Apple fights so hard for trademarks. Apple understands that it is a key figure in the tech world and if it allows free use of its brand then it will dilute its significance in the world.
Many firms are now following Apple and putting a focus on building out a brand. Samsung, Apple's biggest competitor, has created the Galaxy line of handsets with a push towards building out a brand. Theirs even been rumblings that Google is worried the Galaxy brand will become more well known for Android than Google.
The technology industry is changing. Now the tech world has to stay focused on marketing, trademarks, and patents. Because of the smartphone markets parity, businesses need to spend just as much money on brand image as R&D.
Apple may make the biggest news for trademark cases, but soon everybody will be making waves in the battle for names.
US and China's cyber-espionage back-and-forth is putting trade relations on thin ice. President Obama has been slamming the People's Republic of China for cyber attacks on both private and public US entities. While China is claiming foul over increased use of cyber attacks by the US.
Both countries have co-existed on shaky ground for years. However, recent claims and attacks could be pushing the two nations to regulatory extremes. Take for instance the recent passing of H.R. 933. The spending bill requires any purchase of government tech to be cleared by federal authorities before going through.
The bill puts US fears of cyber spying front and centre. For years, government sanctioned cyber attacks were talked about in only whispers. However, with the recent headlines and threats it's quickly becoming a well-known issue.
No longer just an idea, the attacks are quickly becoming a high priority threat. From the effects it has on private business to the issues it causes for government secrets, cyber-espionage is a scary prospect.
So the question becomes how do nations move going forward? Sanctions won't work long term. The US and China are too big to just avoid each other. Both countries' infrastructures (really the whole world's infrastructure) are too intertwined to develop some sort of pseudo-isolationist agenda.
If not sanctions then perhaps United Nations (UN) instated counter measures would work. One available option could be the creation of a UN sponsored cyber attack treaty.
World governments could begin to work out plans to stop the use of cyber attacks that indelibly harm global relations. It's becoming very clear that the UN has failed to adapt to the internet age. So at the very least discussing the issue could mark correct steps in curbing cyber threats from global governments.
Like any sort of treaty, you run the issue of some not following the rules. However, the time to do something has been long overdue. The current status quo is severely outdated and something needs to be done at a global level.
The world can not stand to let cyber attacks from any country to continue like it has. A global discussion needs to start to happen and it needs to happen quickly. Sure, the US and China have spoken about cyber-espionage tactics. But all details of the talks seemed to sounds more like chest-thumping than anything else.
To really face the issue, countries of the world need to start talking about laying down some sort of rules. Cyber warfare and its repercussions are too risky to let continue. It may well be early days for the types of cyber attacks making headlines, so perhaps the world should get ahead of the issue before it becomes a crisis.