France fines Google 220 mn euros over online ad dominance

The fine comes as part of a wave of antitrust investigations by the French regulator into tech giants like Google, Apple and Facebook. (File/AFP)
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Updated 07 June 2021

France fines Google 220 mn euros over online ad dominance

  • France fines Google 220 million euros for abusing its dominant position in the market to advance online ads.
  • Google agrees to pay fine and change the way its business works across the world after settling a France probe.

PARIS: France’s competition regulator on Monday fined Google 220 million euros ($267 million) after finding it had abused its dominant market position for placing online ads, as US tech giants face growing pressure in Europe.

The penalty is part of a settlement reached after three media groups — News Corp, French daily Le Figaro and Belgium’s Groupe Rossel — accused Google of effectively having a monopoly over ad sales for their websites and apps.

The competition authority determined that Google gave preferential treatment to its own ad inventory auction service AdX and to Doubleclick Ad Exchange, its real-time platform for letting clients choose and buy ads.

“It is the first ruling in the world to scrutinize the complex algorithmic processes for the auctions that determine online ‘display’ advertising,” the authority’s president Isabelle de Silva said.

Media groups looking to sell ad space on their Internet sites or mobile apps using rival platforms often found that Google’s services were unfairly competing against rivals, using a variety of methods.

For example, regulators found that Doubleclick would vary the commission it took when making a sale based on prices offered by other so-called ad servers.
At the same time, Google arranged for AdX, its own supply-side platform (SSP), to give preferential treatment to offers emanating from Doubleclick — effectively squeezing out competitors such as Xandr or Index Exchange.

“The practices are particularly serious because they are penalizing Google’s competitors in the SSP market as well as the editors of websites and mobile apps,” the regulator said in a statement.

Media groups saw their online ad revenues crimped “even as their business model has been strongly undermined by the decline in paper subscriptions and the associated drop in advertising revenue,” it said.

Le Figaro eventually dropped its complaint.

Google did not contest the findings, and the regulator said the company has committed to operational changes including improved interoperability with third-party ad placement providers.

“We are going to test and develop these changes in the coming months before deploying them more broadly, including some on a global scale,” Maria Gomri, legal director at Google France, said in a statement.

The fine represents just a tiny fraction of the $55.3 billion in revenue booked by Google in the first quarter of this year alone, mainly from online ad sales.
The ruling comes as American technology firms are drawing closer scrutiny from European authorities, which are giving themselves new resources to better understand the complex workings of fast-evolving markets.

Last week, Germany’s competition regulator said it was expanding an antitrust investigation into Google and its parent company Alphabet to include Google News Showcase, a service aimed at increasing revenue for media publishers.

Facebook also found itself targeted last week by parallel competition inquiries from the European Union and Britain, into whether the social media giant uses data from advertisers to unfairly dominate the online classifieds market.

Google had already been fined 150 million euros by the French regulator in December 2019 over “opaque” operating rules for its advertising platform, which were deemed to be applied in “an unfair and random manner.”

And in December last year, Google as well as Amazon were fined a total of 135 million euros by France’s privacy watchdog for placing advertising cookies on users’ computers without consent.


Burundian journalist briefly detained while investigating blast

Bujumbura was investigating a series of explosions this week that killed at least five people. (REUTERS)
Updated 24 September 2021

Burundian journalist briefly detained while investigating blast

  • Police on Friday briefly detained a journalist investigating a grenade attack in the commercial capital Bujumbura in Burundi

NAIROBI: Police on Friday briefly detained a journalist investigating a grenade attack in the commercial capital Bujumbura, his radio station said, after a series of explosions this week that killed at least five people.
Radio Bonesha FM had earlier said their reporter, Aimé-Richard Niyonkuru, had been mishandled and arrested by police in Bujumbura’s Kamenge neighborhood while he investigated a grenade incident that was said to have killed two people on Thursday.
“Radio Bonesha FM journalist arrested on Friday morning by the police has just been released. Aimé Richard Niyonkuru is still waiting for his recorder. He spent many hours at the Special Research Office under the hot sun,” the station said on Twitter.
Police spokespeople were not immediately available to comment on the arrest.
Burundi, a nation of about 11.5 million people, has suffered decades of war and ethnic and political violence. The United Nations says the youth wing of the ruling party and the security services are involved in the torture, gang-rape and murder of political opponents, charges the government denies.
On Monday, two grenade explosions hit a bus park in Bujumbura, while on Sunday a grenade attack in the administrative capital Gitega killed two, according to local media.
The Interior Ministry said “unidentified terrorists” were responsible for attacks in Bujumbura. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks.
An airport worker said on Monday there had also been an attack on the Bujumbura airport on Saturday, for which Congo-based rebel group Red Tabara claimed responsibility, saying it fired mortars as the president prepared to travel to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Sylvestre Nyandwi accused leaders of a suspended opposition party, MSD, of being behind the recent attacks, adding that authorities had issued international arrest warrants for them.


Economist magazine calls for Georgieva to quit IMF over World Bank data scandal

Updated 23 September 2021

Economist magazine calls for Georgieva to quit IMF over World Bank data scandal

  • "The head of the IMF must hold the ring while two of its biggest shareholders, America and China, confront each other in a new era of geopolitical rivalry," the Economist said
  • Critics of multilateralism are already citing the findings as evidence that international bodies cannot stand up to China

WASHINGTON: The Economist magazine on Thursday called for International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva to resign over her role in a China-related data-rigging scandal while at the World Bank, saying it has undermined the IMF’s credibility.
The influential London-based publication said in a scathing editorial that an external investigation’s findings that Georgieva pressured staff for changes to the World Bank’s “Doing Business” rankings in 2017 to favor China compromises the IMF’s ability to act as the custodian of data for the world’s macroeconomic statistics.
“The head of the IMF must hold the ring while two of its biggest shareholders, America and China, confront each other in a new era of geopolitical rivalry,” the Economist said, adding that critics of multilateralism are already citing the findings as evidence that international bodies cannot stand up to China.
“The next time the IMF tries to referee a currency dispute, or helps reschedule the debt of a country that has borrowed from China, the fund’s critics are sure to cite this investigation to undermine the institution’s credibility. That is why Ms Georgieva, an esteemed servant of several international institutions, should resign,” the editorial said.
It cited the allegation in the WilmerHale law firm’s report that Georgieva, who at the time was the World Bank’s CEO, thanked a senior bank researcher for “doing his bit for multilateralism” in altering the China data.
“Now she too should do her bit for multilateralism by falling on her sword,” the Economist said.
The World Bank’s “Doing Business” reports, now canceled, ranked countries based on their regulatory and legal environments, ease of business startups, financing, infrastructure and other business climate measures.
Georgieva, a Bulgarian who is a longtime former World Bank economist and European Commission official, has denied the accusations in the WilmerHale report, saying last week they are “not true” and she has never pressured staff to manipulate data.
The IMF’s executive board is conducting its own review of the allegations and has emphasized “the importance it attached to conducting a thorough, objective and timely review.”
An IMF spokesman declined comment on the Economist’s editorial. A US Treasury spokeswoman also declined comment beyond the Treasury’s earlier statement that is analyzing “serious findings” in the WilmerHale report.


Facebook wraps up deals with Australian media firms, TV broadcaster SBS excluded

The agreement between tech companies and news outlets entails that tech giants must pay for news content. (File/AFP)
Updated 23 September 2021

Facebook wraps up deals with Australian media firms, TV broadcaster SBS excluded

  • Facebook announces deals with most of the Australia's s largest news outlets, excluding TV broadcaster SBS and smaller publishers

SYDNEY: Facebook Inc. has told Australian publishers it has stopped negotiating licensing deals, an email to the industry seen by Reuters showed, a move which came just six months after the passing of a law designed to make tech giants pay for news content.
While Facebook has announced deals with most of the country’s largest news outlets, some companies including TV broadcaster SBS and smaller publishers have been left out in the cold, raising questions about the scope and effectiveness of the ground-breaking law.
Australia is the only country with a law where the government may set the fees if negotiations between tech giants and news providers fail, but the rejected companies are left with little recourse for the time being and are waiting for the government to review the law in 2022 as planned.
Facebook’s regional head of news partnerships, Andrew Hunter, said in an August email to publishers it had “now concluded” deals where it would pay Australian companies for content on its just-launched “Facebook News” channel.
Nick Shelton, founder of Broadsheet Media, a website which publishes entertainment news, reviews and listings and was rebuffed by Facebook, said the decision to close off on new deals was “clearly an attempt from Facebook to cap their exposure to independent publishers.”
The Special Broadcasting Service, or SBS, one of Australia’s five national free-to-air broadcasters and the country’s main source of foreign language news, said Facebook declined to enter negotiations despite months of attempts and that it was surprised and disappointed. It noted it had successfully concluded a deal with Google.
“This outcome is at odds with the Government’s intention of supporting public interest journalism, and in particular including the public service broadcasters in the Code framework with respect to remuneration,” an SBS spokesperson said in a statement on Wednesday.
Hunter said in the email to publishers, which has not been made public, that rejected publishers would continue to benefit from clicks directed from Facebook and recommended they tap a new series of industry grants.
In a separate statement to Reuters, Hunter said content deals were “just one of the ways that Facebook provides support to publishers, and we’ve been having ongoing discussions with publishers about the types of news content that can best deliver value for publishers and for Facebook.”
Facebook did not respond directly to questions about the statements from Broadsheet Media and SBS.
The US social media giant has inked deals with a range of large Australian big media companies including News Corp. and the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and has a collective bargaining arrangement with rural publishers. But only a handful of independent and smaller publishers have reached deals.
Other rejected publishers include the Conversation, which publishes public affairs commentary by academics, Reuters has previously reported. That prompted a rebuke from the regulator which drafted the law. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission declined to comment on Wednesday.
Under the law, which drove Facebook to block third-party content on newsfeeds briefly in the country in February, Facebook and Google must negotiate with news outlets for content that drives traffic to their websites or face possible government intervention.
But before there can be any government intervention, the federal treasurer must determine that either Facebook or Google failed to negotiate in good faith, a step known as “designation.” A representative for Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was not immediately available for comment.
Facebook’s rejection of SBS and the Conversation flies in the face of law’s core proposition that it “should be required to compensate public interest journalism,” said Peter Lewis, director of the Center for Responsible Technology, a think tank.
“The treasurer has no alternative but to revisit designating Facebook to ensure that it meets its commitments to public interest journalism in Australia.”


Big Tech targeted by US and EU in draft memo ahead of tech and trade meeting

The move will be among announcements on tech, climate, trade and supply chains likely to be made at a US-EU Trade & Technology Council. (File/AFP)
Updated 23 September 2021

Big Tech targeted by US and EU in draft memo ahead of tech and trade meeting

  • The US and the EU plan to take a more unified approach to limit the growing market power of Big Tech companies

WASHINGTON: The United States and European Union plan to take a more unified approach to limit the growing market power of Big Tech companies, according to a draft memo seen by Reuters.
The move will be among announcements on tech, climate, trade and supply chains likely to be made at a US-EU Trade & Technology Council meeting on Sept. 29 in Pittsburgh.
With the US and Europe trying to restrain the growing power of American tech giants such as Alphabet’s Google , Facebook, Apple and Amazonom Inc. , such cooperation has become critically important for regulators on both sides of the Atlantic — and would make it harder for the US tech industry to fight new rules.
This month, the White House announced that the council would meet for the first time on Sept. 29 in Pittsburgh. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and the European Union’s trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis are scheduled to attend along with European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager.
The White House, which is coordinating with different agencies on the meeting, declined to comment on the memo. Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The council has 10 working groups for areas such as strengthening trade, economic relations and shared democratic values, according to the draft memo.
The group focused on tech company regulation will “exchange information on our respective approaches to technology platform governance, seeking convergence where feasible,” the memo says.
There are many examples where the two continents could cooperate more. Google, which faces several antitrust lawsuits in the US related to its advertising business, also faces a wide-ranging investigation related to ad technology in the EU.
“We have identified common issues of concern around gatekeeper power by major platforms and the responsibility of online intermediaries,” the memo says, adding that more can be done to combat misinformation.
“This includes in particular the responsibility of online intermediaries to safeguard democratic processes from the impact of their business activities. Areas of common ground... include content moderation and fair competition,” the memo said.
The group will tackle areas such as hate speech, algorithmic amplification and data access for researchers, the memo says.
The council’s climate and clean tech group will work to identify trade and investment opportunities in low- and zero-carbon technologies and products, according to the memo. The supply chain working group will focus on securing supplies of pharmaceuticals, critical minerals and clean energy.
The council will also work to address the shortage of semiconductor chips in a way that is “balanced and of equal interest for both parties” and will avoid a “subsidy race.”
On Wednesday, Reuters reported that European Union ambassadors have postponed discussions to prepare for the meeting in protest of Washington’s submarine agreement with Australia at France’s expense.
A spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council said preparations for the meeting were continuing.
Several tech trade groups in Washington said the industry does not want the European approach to digital regulation to be adopted in the United States.
“The risk is that the European side will press the United States to harmonize its regulations with the EU by taking a precautionary approach... which would skewer America’s leading tech companies,” said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a tech think tank based in Washington.
“We shouldn’t do that, nor do we need to. Our interests are broadly aligned and compatible, particularly when it comes to China,” Atkinson said.


US court orders Facebook to release records of anti-Rohingya content for genocide case

Updated 23 September 2021

US court orders Facebook to release records of anti-Rohingya content for genocide case

  • Social media giant had refused to release the data, saying it would violate a US law
  • ‘Facebook taking up the mantle of privacy rights is rich with irony’

A US federal judge has ordered Facebook to release records of accounts connected to anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar that the social media giant had shut down, rejecting its argument about protecting privacy as “rich with irony.”
The judge in Washington, D.C, on Wednesday criticized Facebook for failing to hand over information to investigators seeking to prosecute the country for international crimes against the Muslim minority Rohingya, according to a copy of the ruling.
Facebook had refused to release the data, saying it would violate a US law barring electronic communication services from disclosing users’ communications.
But the judge said the posts, which were deleted, would not be covered under the law and not sharing the content would “compound the tragedy that has befallen the Rohingya.”
“Facebook taking up the mantle of privacy rights is rich with irony. News sites have entire sections dedicated to Facebook’s sordid history of privacy scandals,” he wrote.
A spokesperson for Facebook said the company was reviewing the decision and that it had already made “voluntary, lawful disclosures” to another UN body, the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar.
More than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August 2017 after a military crackdown that refugees said including mass killings and rape. Rights groups documented killings of civilians and burning of villages.
Myanmar authorities say they were battling an insurgency and deny carrying out systematic atrocities.
The crackdown by the army, during the rule of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government, did not generate much outcry in the Buddhist-majority nation, where the Rohingya are widely derided as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Gambia wants the data for a case against Myanmar it is pursuing at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague, accusing Myanmar of violating the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide.
In 2018, UN human rights investigators said Facebook had played a key role in spreading hate speech that fueled the violence.
A Reuters investigation that year found more than 1,000 examples of hate speech on Facebook, including calling Rohingya and other Muslims dogs, maggots and rapists, suggesting they be fed to pigs, and urging they be shot or exterminated.
Facebook said at the time it had been “too slow to prevent misinformation and hate” in Myanmar.
In Wednesday’s ruling, US magistrate judge Zia M. Faruqui said Facebook had taken a first step by deleting “the content that fueled a genocide” but had “stumbled” by not sharing it.
“A surgeon that excises a tumor does not merely throw it in the trash. She seeks a pathology report to identify the disease,” he said.
“Locking away the requested content would be throwing away the opportunity to understand how disinformation begat genocide of the Rohingya and would foreclose a reckoning at the ICJ.”
Shannon Raj Singh, human rights counsel at Twitter, called the decision “momentous” and “one of the foremost examples of the relevance of social media to modern atrocity prevention & response.”