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Act now before Google kills us, 135-strong coalition of startups warns EU antitrust chief

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A coalition of 135 startups and tech companies with services in verticals including travel, accommodation and jobs have written to the European Commission to urge antitrust action against Google — warning that swift enforcement is needed or some of their businesses may not survive.

They also argue the Commission needs to act now or it risks undermining its in-train reform of digital regulations — which is due to be lay out in draft form early next month.

The letter has been inked by veteran Internet players such as Booking.com, Expedia, Kayak, Opentable, Tripadvisor and Yelp, co-signing along with a raft of (mostly) smaller European startups across all three verticals.

A further 30 co-signatories are business associations and organizations in related and other areas such as media/publishing — making for a total of 165 entities calling for Google to face swift antitrust banhammers.

A European Commission spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch it’s received the Google critics’ letter — saying it will reply “in due course”.

‘Not competing on the merits’

While there have been complaints on this front before — the Commission has said it’s been hearing rumblings of discontent in the travel segment since for years at this point — a growing coalition of businesses (including some based in the US) are bandying together to pressure the EU antitrust chief to clip Google’s wings — with, for example, jobs-related businesses joining the travel startups whose complaints we reported on recently.

Reuters, which obtained the letter earlier, reports that the coalition is the largest ever to complain in concert to the EU’s competition division.

In the letter, which TechCrunch has reviewed, the group argues that Google is violating a 2017 EU competition enforcement decision over Google Shopping that barred the tech giant from self-preferencing and unfairly demoting rivals.

The group argues Google is unfairly leveraging its dominant position in Internet search to grab marketshare in the verticals where they operate — pointing to a feature Google displays at the top of search results (called ‘OneBoxes’) where it points Internet users to its own services, simultaneously steering them away from rival services.

The Commission is considering limiting such self-preferencing in forthcoming legislative proposals that it wants to apply to dominant ‘gatekeeper’ Internet platforms — which Google would presumably be classified as.

For, now, though no such ex ante regulation exists — and the coalition argues the Commission needs to pull its finger out and flex its existing antitrust powers to stop Google’s market abuse before its too late for their businesses.

“Google’s technical integration of its own specialised search services into its near monopoly general search service continues to constitute a clear abuse of dominance,” they argue in the letter to Vestager.

“Like no service before, Google has amassed data and content relevant for competition on such markets at the expense of others – us,” they go on. “Google did not achieve its position on any such market by competing on the merits. Rather, there is now global consensus that Google gained unjustified advantages through preferentially treating its own services within its general search results pages by displaying various forms of grouped specialised search results.”

A similar complaint about Google unfairly pushing its own services at the expense of rivals’ can be found in the US Department of Justice’s antitrust lawsuit against it, filed just last month — which is doubtless giving succour to Google complainants to redouble their efforts in Europe.

Back in 2017, the Commission found Google to be a dominant company in Internet search. Under EU law this means it has a responsibility not to apply the same types of infringing behavior identified in the Google Shopping case in any other business vertical, regardless of its marketshare.

Antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager has gained a reputation for taking on big tech during her first (and now second term) stint as the Commission’s competition chief — now combined with an EVP role shaping digital strategy for the bloc.

But while, on her watch, Google has faced enforcement over its Shopping search (2017), Android mobile OS (2018) and AdSense search ad brokering business (2019), antitrust complainants say the regulatory action has done nothing to dislodge the tech giant’s dominance and restore competition to those specific markets or elsewhere.

“The Commission’s Google Search (Shopping) decision of 27 June 2017 (was supposed to) set a precedent that Google is not permitted to promote its own services within the search results pages of its dominant general search service. However, as of today, the decision did not lead to Google changing anything meaningful,” the coalition argues in the letter dated November 12, 2020.

The Commission contends its Shopping decision has let to a significant increase in the rate of display of offers from competitors to Google in its Shopping units (up 73.5%), also pointing to a rate of near parity between Google offers on Shopping units getting clicks and rivals’ offers being clicked on. However, if Google is compensating for losing out on (some) marketshare in Shopping searches by dialling up its marketshare in other verticals (such as travel and jobs) that’s hardly going to sum to a balanced and effective antitrust remedy.

It’s also interesting to note that the signatures on the latest letter include the Foundem CEO: aka the original shopping comparison engine complainant in the Google Shopping case.

In further remarks today, the Commission spokesperson told us: “We continue to carefully monitor the market with a view to assessing the effectiveness of the remedies,” adding: “Shopping is just one of the specialised search services that Google offers. The decision we took in June 2017 gives us a framework to look also at other specialised search services, such as Google jobs and local search. Our preliminary investigation on this is ongoing.”

On the Commission’s forthcoming Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act package, the coalition suggests a lack of action to rein in abusive behavior by Google now risks making it impossible for those future regulations to correct such practices.

“If, in the pending competition investigations, the Commission accepts Google’s current conduct as ‘equal treatment’, this creates the risk of pre-defining and hence devaluing the meaning of any future legislative ban on self-preferencing,” they warn, adding that: “Competition and innovation will continue to be stifled, simply because the necessary measures to counter the further anti-competitive expansion are not taken right now.”

Additionally, they argue that a legislative process is simply too slow to be used as an antitrust corrective measure — leaving their businesses at risk of not surviving Google in the meanwhile.

“While a targeted regulation of digital gatekeepers may help in the long run, the Commission should first use its existing tools to enforce the Shopping precedent and ensure equal treatment within Google’s general search results pages,” they urge, adding that they generally welcome the Commission plan to regulate “dominant general search engines” but emphasize speed is of the essence.

“We face the imminent risk of being disintermediated by Google. Many of us may not have the strength and resources to wait until such regulation really takes effect,” they add. “Action is required now. If Google were allowed to continue the anti-competitive favouring of its own specialised search services until any meaningful regulation takes effect, our services will continue to lack traffic, data and the opportunity to innovate on the merits. Until then, our businesses continue to be trapped in a vicious cycle – providing benefits to Google’s competing services while rendering our own services obsolete in the long run.”

Asked for its response to the group’s criticism of its business practices, a Google spokesperson send this statement: “People expect Google to give them the most relevant, high quality search results that they can trust. They do not expect us to preference specific companies or commercial rivals over others, or to stop launching helpful services which create more choice and competition for Europeans.”

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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A leading AI ethics researcher says she’s been fired from Google

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On December 2, the AI research community was shocked to learn that Timnit Gebru had been fired from her post at Google. Gebru, one of the leading voices in responsible AI research, is known among other things for her groundbreaking work in revealing the discriminatory nature of facial recognition, cofounding the Black in AI affinity group, and relentlessly advocating for diversity in the tech industry.

But on Wednesday evening, she announced on Twitter that she had been terminated from her position as Google’s ethical AI co-lead. “Apparently my manager’s manager sent an email [to] my direct reports saying she accepted my resignation. I hadn’t resigned,” she said.

In an interview with Bloomberg on Thursday, Gebru said that the firing happened after a protracted fight with her superiors over the publication of an AI ethics research paper. One of Gebru’s tweets and a later internal email from Jeff Dean, head of Google AI, suggest that the paper was critical of the environmental costs and embedded biases of large language models.

Gebru, who had written the paper with four Google colleagues and two external collaborators, had submitted it to a research conference being held next year. After an internal review, she was asked to retract the paper or remove the names of the Google employees. She responded that she would do so if her superiors met a series of conditions. If they could not, she would “work on a last date,” she said.

She also sent a frustrated email to an internal listserv, Google Brain Women and Allies, detailing the repeated hardships she’d experienced as a Black female researcher. “We just had a Black research all hands with such an emotional show of exasperation,” she wrote. “Do you know what happened since? Silencing in the most fundamental way possible.”

Gebru then went on a vacation and received a termination email from Megan Kacholia, the VP of engineering at Google Research, before her return. “Thanks for making your conditions clear,” the email stated, as tweeted by Gebru. “We cannot agree to #1 and #2 as you are requesting. We respect your decision to leave Google as a result, and we are accepting your resignation.” Her email to the listserv was “inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager,” it continued. “As a result, we are accepting your resignation immediately, effective today.”

On Thursday morning, after an outpouring of support for Gebru on social media, Dean sent an internal email to Google’s AI group with his account of the situation. He said that Gebru’s paper “didn’t meet our bar for publication” because “it ignored too much relevant research.” He also said that Gebru’s conditions included “revealing the identities of every person who Megan and I had spoken to and consulted as part of the review of the paper and the exact feedback.”

“Given Timnit’s role as a respected researcher and a manager in our Ethical AI team, I feel badly that Timnit has gotten to a place where she feels this way about the work we’re doing,” he wrote. “I know we all genuinely share Timnit’s passion to make AI more equitable and inclusive.”

Neither Gebru, Dean, nor Google communications responded to requests for comment, and many details surrounding the exact progression of events, or cause of termination, remain unclear. As they continue to emerge, many have brought renewed attention to a November 30 tweet that Gebru pinned to the top of her profile. “Is there anyone working on regulation protecting Ethical AI researchers, similar to whistleblower protection?” it reads. “Because with the amount of censorship & intimidation that goes on towards people in specific groups, how does anyone trust any real research in this area can take place?”

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Gift Guide: Games on every platform to get you through the long, COVID winter

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Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2020 Holiday Gift Guide! Need help with gift ideas? We’re here to help! We’ll be rolling out gift guides from now through the end of December. You can find our other guides right here.

It’s a great time to be a gamer — I mean, what else is there to do? And with the prospect of a long winter and lonely holiday season ahead of us, here’s a list of games on all the major platforms that you can really sink your teeth — and a few dozen hours — into.

Buying for a gamer and have no idea what’s worthwhile? Once you’ve figured out which gaming system is their platform of choice, any of these should be guaranteed wins.

This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

All major platforms:

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla

Screenshot of Assassin's creed valhalla showing a viking on a british landscape

Image Credits: Ubisoft

I genuinely enjoyed AC: Odyssey’s gorgeous landscapes and main characters, but the game systems felt disconnected and arbitrary. That’s much less the case with AC: Valhalla, which tells a similarly sprawling tale of vikings in England but works a little harder to put it together into a cohesive whole. It’s still very much “Ubisoft Game, but with Vikings” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Price: $50 from Amazon

Minecraft Dungeons

I thought this game was a bit limited when it first came out, but since then it has gotten several new areas and cross-platform multiplayer. Between that and its simplified systems and PG-level violence, Minecraft: Dungeons is a great option for families that want to fight monsters together.

Price: $20-30 (depending on platform) from Mojang

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War

Reviewers agree: the new CODBLOPS is definitely more CODBLOPS. The latest in the gritty military series is the one everyone will be playing for the next year, so it’s definitely a must-have for quite a few people.

Price: $50-60 (depending on platform) from Amazon

Cyberpunk 2077

Image Credits: CD Projekt Red

Cyberpunk 2077, the futuristic RPG from the creators of the Witcher, isn’t out yet, but it’s one of the most anticipated titles in recent years and your special someone might like the idea that they’re getting it day one. Of course if it’s anything like The Witcher 3, they’re probably going to want to wait a few months for the bugs to get ironed out. But hey, it’s an option.

Price: $50 from Amazon

PS4 and PS5

Spider-Man: Miles Morales

Image Credits: Sony

This semi-sequel to the much-lauded 2018 Spider-Man is smaller in scale but plays even better. Plus it has a wonderfully inclusive cast and tone and feels authentic where the original, for all its strengths, had a pretty flat take on New York. Bonus: If you buy the PS5 version of Miles Morales, you get the remastered 2018 game for free. I’d argue you’re simply not going to find a better bang for your buck right now with any other new game.

Price: $50 on Amazon

Demon’s Souls

Image Credits: Sony

The only “true” next-generation game out there right now is a remake of a PlayStation 3 game, and in many ways it feels like it. But in other ways, it’s the most amazing game on the market right now. If your loved one has enjoyed Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Sekiro, and other incredibly hard games, this is the one to get.

Price: $70 on Amazon

Ghost of Tsushima

Between Nioh 2, Sekiro, and Ghost of Tsushima, there’s a real bumper crop of samurai and ninja action to be had. But Ghost is the broadest and most beautiful of them all — if not necessarily the deepest.

What it lacks in challenge… first of all, is more than made up by the difficulty of those other two games I mentioned, give me a break. But Ghost’s draw is in the unity and beauty of its game world and systems. For example, instead of a quest marker or arrow pointing towards your objective, the wind is just always blowing in that direction. Amazing, right? The single player campaign is remarkably well acted, and a free update has brought a surprisingly extensive multiplayer co-op mode as well. This is truly a game you can lose yourself in. Just don’t start trying to collect everything or you’ll never leave the first area.

Price: $40 on Amazon

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

Image Credits: Vanillaware

This totally unique game came out of left field and obsessed me for two solid weeks. A combination of adventure game, visual novel, and tactical action game, 13 Sentinels puts you in charge of a bunch of high school kids piloting giant robots to save the world from alien invaders. (In case you can’t tell, it’s a Japanese production.)

Sound familiar? That’s the idea — and then it starts pulling rugs out from under you and doesn’t stop until the last few minutes. The labyrinthine story, which progresses simultaneously through 13 interwoven narratives, is the very best kind of sci-fi mind-boggler and a pleasure to unravel from start to finish. The combat is also compelling and satisfying, if not particularly deep or challenging. There’s simply nothing else like this out there.

Price: Currently $30 from GameStop

Xbox One and Series X

Halo: The Master Chief Collection

Image of Master Chief from halo

Image Credits: Microsoft

If your loved one is a Halo fan, they’re likely very sad since Halo: Infinite, once a launch title for the new console, won’t be coming out until next year. But it can’t hurt to have the original games all updated and beautified to play through as an appetizer. Plus there’s the famous Halo multiplayer to get everyone through the winter.

Price: $30 from Amazon

Yakuza: Like a Dragon

Image Credits: Sega

The latest in the long-running and beloved Yakuza series of character-driven adventures of Japanese gangsters set in a fictional Tokyo neighborhood, this one changes up the style with a turn-based combat system and new protagonist — but some are calling it the best yet.

Price: $35 from Amazon

Gears Tactics

Image Credits: Microsoft

No one really expected that the Gears of War series would lend itself to a tactics game in the style of XCOM — let alone that it would leapfrog others in the genre and become one of the best you can get, period. Naturally it isn’t quite the urgent, visceral experience that Gears normally is, but this is a surprisingly deep and engrossing game.

Price: $38 from Amazon

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

The sequel to the lauded “metroidvania” Ori and the Blind Forest is technically on several platforms, but the Series X seems to be the absolute best one on which to play it. With beautifully updated art and a silky-smooth framerate, this will look better on that new 4K HDR TV than many “real” next-generation games. But don’t let the beautiful yet cute art style make you think this is will be a cakewalk. Like the first in the series, you’ll need some serious dexterity to complete this platformer.

Price: $30 from Moon Studios

Risky move: Preorder Halo: Infinite

No one is quite sure whether the first Halo of the next generation is going to be as good as everyone hopes, and a delay to early next year didn’t allay anyone’s fears. That said, many a gamer will cherish the idea of playing the latest in this venerable series day one, so pre-ordering a copy is a possibility if none of the other games really ring their bell.

Price: $60 from Amazon

Switch

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit

Technically this is also a “toy,” because it’s real-life RC carts zooming around your home on an augmented-reality racetrack. We thought it was tons of fun, and it’s a great way to take video games off the TV and into real life… kind of. Just be aware that every player needs their own cart and their own Switch.

Price: $99 from Best Buy

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity

Don’t go into this game expecting a full-on new Zelda title, and you’ll do just fine. This is definitely an action game, and a big, rather mindless one at that. But it’s hard to resist the concept of playing as Link, Zelda, or any of the champions from Breath of the Wild and dispatching enemies by the hundreds.

Price: $50 on Amazon

Super Mario 3D All-Stars

Image Credits: Ninendo

Okay, I gave Nintendo some guff over the perfunctory nature of this collection of amazing games. I’ve wanted to replay Mario 64 for years and was waiting for Nintendo to touch it up just a bit — but it, and Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy, are virtually unchanged in this retro package. Really, you couldn’t make it widescreen? But for most, the chance to play these games again (or for the first time) on the Switch is worth the price of admission, period.

Price: $60 from Amazon

PC

Spelunky 2 and/or Hades

The “roguelite” genre, with its randomly generated levels and complex interlocking systems, has grown in popularity and sophistication for years — and here we have two fine examples that take the genre in different directions.

Spelunky 2 is the most traditional, in a way. Sequel to one of the best games out there, this one adds more variety, more weirdness, and more challenge to the unforgiving platforming of the original. Like before, every death (and there will be a lot) is avoidable and while some runs may last only seconds, it’s hard to be deterred when you know that if you just paid a little more attention, or saved your bombs, or went over that other way… just one more game. (Pro tip: Buy a couple copies for friends and indulge in jolly cooperation.)

Hades combines the procedurally generated levels with an incredibly beautiful art style and an ingenious story and progression system. Escaping from the ever-shifting landscape of Hades, you’re going to die over and over, but as a young god that’s more inconvenience than obstacle. Meanwhile every death and every inch of progress moves you closer to the mystery of your birth in a clever modern take on Greek mythology. It’s honestly hard to imagine how Hades could be improved in almost any way.

Price: $20 for Spelunky 2 on Steam | $25 for Hades on Steam

Crusader Kings III

Image Credits: Paradox

This long-awaited strategy title puts you in the throne room of a European medieval dynasty, where you can do… pretty much anything to get ahead. Assassinations, proxy wars, brutal taxes, religious cannibalism, strategic marriages… it’s all on the table. This is a story-telling engine that’s remarkably robust and, once you get past the initial learning curve, very fun. It’s also very, very nerdy, and proud of it.

Price: $50 on Steam

Other options

Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros

Nintendo's Super Mario Bros handheld system

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

This little gadget has the original Super Mario Bros, its sequel (not the weird one — what we knew as “The Lost Levels”), and a remade LCD game all built in. It’s a charming device and the games play well, plus you can turn it off and resume progress later, making it that much easier to get through the whole game.

Price: $50 (but finding one in stock can be challenging.)

Backbone One for iPhone

Image Credits: Backbone

Got a friend who prefers to game on their phone? The Backbone is built for them. This snap-on controller brings buttons and analog triggers (and good ones, at that!) into the iOS gaming world, along with a surprisingly solid companion app that can do things like record your gameplay and help you edit and post your highlight reels. It only works with select iOS titles, but the library is growing. TechCrunch Editor-In-Chief Matthew Panzarino reviewed it in October and gave it his stamp of approval with very little reservation.

Price: $99 from Backbone

 

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What about $30 billion under 30

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Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast (now on Twitter!), where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

We’re back with not an Equity Shot or Dive of Monday, this is just the regular show! So, we got back to our roots by looking at a huge number of early stage rounds. And a few other things that we were just too excited about to not mention.

So from Chris and Danny and Natasha and I, here’s the rundown:

That was a lot, but how could we leave any of it out? We’re back Monday with more!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

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