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No Google-Fitbit merger without human rights remedies, says Amnesty to EU

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Human rights NGO, Amnesty International, has written to the EU’s competition regulator calling for Google’s acquisition of wearable maker Fitbit to be blocked — unless meaningful safeguards can be baked in.

The tech giant announced its intent to splash $2.1BN to acquire Fitbit a year ago but has yet to gain regulatory approval for the deal in the European Union.

In a letter addressed to the blocs competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, Amnesty writes: “The Commission must ensure that the merger does not proceed unless the two business enterprises can demonstrate that they have taken adequate account of the human rights risks and implemented strong and meaningful safeguards that prevent and mitigate these risks in the future.”

The letter urges the Commission to take heed of an earlier call by a coalition of civil society groups also raising concerns about the merger for “minimum remedies” which regulators must guarantee before any approval.

In a report last year the NGO attacked the business model of Google and Facebook — arguing that the “surveillance giants” enable human rights harm “at a population scale”.

Amnesty warns now that Google is “incentivized to merge and aggregate data across its different platforms” as a consequence of that surveillance-based business model.

“Google’s business model incentivizes the company to continuously seek more data on more people across the online world and into the physical world. The merger with Fitbit is a clear example of this expansionist approach to data extraction, enabling the company to extend its data collection into the health and wearables sector,” it writes. “The sheer scale of the intrusion of Google’s business model into our private lives is an unprecedented interference with our privacy, and in fact has undermined the very essence of privacy.”

We’ve reached out to the Commission and Google for a response to Amnesty’s letter.

Google’s plan to gobble Fitbit and its health tracking data has been stalled as EU regulators dig into competition concerns. Vestager elected to open an in-depth probe in August, saying she wanted to make sure the deal wouldn’t distort competition by further entrenching Google’s dominance of the online ad market.

The Commission has also voiced concerns about the risk of Google locking other wearable device makers out of its Android mobile ecosystem.

However concerns over Google’s plan to gobble up Fitbit range wider than the risk of it getting more market muscle if the deal gets waved through.

Put simply, letting sensitive health data fall into the hands of an advertising giant is a privacy trashfire.

Amnesty International is just the latest rights watcher to call for the merger to be blocked. Privacy campaign groups and the EU’s own data protection advisor have been warning for months against letting the tech giant gobble up sensitive health data.

The Commission’s decision to scrutinize the acquisition rather than waiving it through with a cursory look has led Google to make a number of concessions in an attempt to get it cleared — including a pledge not to use Fitbit data for ad targeting and to guarantee support for other wearables makers to operate on Android.

In its letter, Amnesty argues that the ‘safeguards’ Google has offered are not enough.

“The company’s past practice around privacy further heighten the need for strict safeguards,” it warns, pointing to examples such as Google combining data from advertising network DoubleClick after it had acquired that business with personal data collected from its other platforms.

“The European Data Protection Board has recognized the risks of the merger, stating that the “combination and accumulation of sensitive personal data” by Google could entail a “high level of risk” to the rights to privacy and data protection,” it adds.

As well as undermining people’s privacy, Google’s use of algorithms fed with personal data to generate profiles of Internet users in order to predict their behavior erodes what Amnesty describes as “the critical principle that all people should enjoy equal access to their human rights”.

“This risk is heightened when profiling is deployed in contexts that touch directly on people’s economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to health where people may suffer unequal treatment based on predictions about their health, and as such must be taken into account in the context of health and fitness data,” it suggests.

“This power of the platforms has not only exacerbated and magnified their rights impacts but has also created a situation in which it is very difficult to hold the companies to account, or for those affected to access an effective remedy,” Amnesty adds, noting that while big tech companies have faced a number of regulatory actions around the world none has so far been able to derail what it calls “the fundamental drivers of the surveillance-based business model”.

So far the Commission has stood firm in taking its time to consider the issue in detail.

A series of extensions mean a decision on whether to allow the Google-Fitbit merger may not come until early 2021. Though we understand the bloc’s national competition authorities are meeting to discuss the merger at the start of December so it’s possible a decision could be issued before the end of the year.

Per EU merger law, the Commission college takes the final decision — with a requirement to take “utmost account” of the opinion of the Member States’ advisory committee (though it’s not legally binding).

So it’s ultimately up to Brussels to determine whether Google-Fitbit gets green lit.

In recent years, competition chief Vestager, who is also EVP for the Commission’s digital strategy, has said she favors tighter regulation as a tool for ensuring businesses comply with the EU’s rules, rather than blocking market access or outright bans on certain practices.

She has also voiced opposition to breaking up tech giants, again preferring to advocate for imposing controls on how they can use data as a way to rebalance digital markets.

To date, the Commission has never blocked a tech merger. Though it has had its fingers burnt by big tech’s misleading filings — so has its own reputation to consider above reaching for the usual rubberstamp.

Simultaneously, EU lawmakers are working on a proposal for an ex ante regulation to address competition concerns in digital markets that would put specific rules and obligations on dominant players like Google — again in areas such as data use and data access.

That plan is due to be presented early next month — so it’s another factor which may be adding to the delay to the Commission’s Google-Fitbit decision.

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Facebook’s ‘oversight’ body overturns four takedowns and issues a slew of policy suggestions

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Facebook’s self-regulatory ‘Oversight Board’ (FOB) has delivered its first batch of decisions on contested content moderation decisions almost two months after picking its first cases.

A long time in the making, the FOB is part of Facebook’s crisis PR push to distance its business from the impact of controversial content moderation decisions — by creating a review body to handle a tiny fraction of the complaints its content takedowns attract. It started accepting submissions for review in October 2020 — and has faced criticism for being slow to get off the ground.

Announcing the first decisions today, the FOB reveals it has chosen to uphold just one of the content moderation decisions made earlier by Facebook, overturning four of the tech giant’s decisions.

Decisions on the cases were made by five-member panels that contained at least one member from the region in question and a mix of genders, per the FOB. A majority of the full Board then had to review each panel’s findings to approve the decision before it could be issued.

The sole case where the Board has upheld Facebook’s decision to remove content is case 2020-003-FB-UA — where Facebook had removed a post under its Community Standard on Hate Speech which had used the Russian word “тазики” (“taziks”) to describe Azerbaijanis, who the user claimed have no history compared to Armenians.

In the four other cases the Board has overturned Facebook takedowns, rejecting earlier assessments made by the tech giant in relation to policies on hate speech, adult nudity, dangerous individuals/organizations, and violence and incitement. (You can read the outline of these cases on its website.)

Each decision relates to a specific piece of content but the board has also issued nine policy recommendations.

These include suggestions that Facebook [emphasis ours]:

  • Create a new Community Standard on health misinformation, consolidating and clarifying the existing rules in one place. This should define key terms such as “misinformation.”
  • Adopt less intrusive means of enforcing its health misinformation policies where the content does not reach Facebook’s threshold of imminent physical harm.
  • Increase transparency around how it moderates health misinformation, including publishing a transparency report on how the Community Standards have been enforced during the COVID-19 pandemic. This recommendation draws upon the public comments the Board received.
  • Ensure that users are always notified of the reasons for any enforcement of the Community Standards against them, including the specific rule Facebook is enforcing. (The Board made two identical policy recommendations on this front related to the cases it considered, also noting in relation to the second hate speech case that “Facebook’s lack of transparency left its decision open to the mistaken belief that the company removed the content because the user expressed a view it disagreed with”.)
  • Explain and provide examples of the application of key terms from the Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy, including the meanings of “praise,” “support” and “representation.” The Community Standard should also better advise users on how to make their intent clear when discussing dangerous individuals or organizations.
  • Provide a public list of the organizations and individuals designated as ‘dangerous’ under the Dangerous Individuals and Organizations Community Standard or, at the very least, a list of examples.
  • Inform users when automated enforcement is used to moderate their content, ensure that users can appeal automated decisions to a human being in certain cases, and improve automated detection of images with text-overlay so that posts raising awareness of breast cancer symptoms are not wrongly flagged for review. Facebook should also improve its transparency reporting on its use of automated enforcement.
  • Revise Instagram’s Community Guidelines to specify that female nipples can be shown to raise breast cancer awareness and clarify that where there are inconsistencies between Instagram’s Community Guidelines and Facebook’s Community Standards, the latter take precedence.

Where it has overturned Facebook takedowns the board says it expects Facebook to restore the specific pieces of removed content within seven days.

In addition, the Board writes that Facebook will also “examine whether identical content with parallel context associated with the Board’s decisions should remain on its platform”. And says Facebook has 30 days to publicly respond to its policy recommendations.

So it will certainly be interesting to see how the tech giant responds to the laundry list of proposed policy tweaks — perhaps especially the recommendations for increased transparency (including the suggestion it inform users when content has been removed solely by its AIs) — and whether Facebook is happy to align entirely with the policy guidance issued by the self-regulatory vehicle (or not).

Facebook created the board’s structure and charter and appointed its members — but has encouraged the notion it’s ‘independent’ from Facebook, even though it also funds FOB (indirectly, via a foundation it set up to administer the body).

And while the Board claims its review decisions are binding on Facebook there is no such requirement for Facebook to follow its policy recommendations.

It’s also notable that the FOB’s review efforts are entirely focused on takedowns — rather than on things Facebook chooses to host on its platform.

Given all that it’s impossible to quantify how much influence Facebook exerts on the Facebook Oversight Board’s decisions. And even if Facebook swallows all the aforementioned policy recommendations — or more likely puts out a PR line welcoming the FOB’s ‘thoughtful’ contributions to a ‘complex area’ and says it will ‘take them into account as it moves forward’ — it’s doing so from a place where it has retained maximum control of content review by defining, shaping and funding the ‘oversight’ involved.

tl;dr: An actual supreme court this is not.

In the coming weeks, the FOB will likely be most closely watched over a case it accepted recently — related to the Facebook’s indefinite suspension of former US president Donald Trump, after he incited a violent assault on the US capital earlier this month.

The board notes that it will be opening public comment on that case “shortly”.

“Recent events in the United States and around the world have highlighted the enormous impact that content decisions taken by internet services have on human rights and free expression,” it writes, going on to add that: “The challenges and limitations of the existing approaches to moderating content draw attention to the value of independent oversight of the most consequential decisions by companies such as Facebook.”

But of course this ‘Oversight Board’ is unable to be entirely independent of its founder, Facebook.

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Workday nabs employee feedback platform Peakon for $700M

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Workday started the work day with some big news today. It’s acquiring employee feedback platform Peakon for $700 million in cash.

One thing we have learned during the pandemic is that organizations need to find new ways to build stronger connections with their employees, and that’s precisely what Peakon provides. “Bringing Peakon into the Workday family will be very compelling to our customers — especially following an extraordinary past year that has magnified the importance of having a constant pulse on employee sentiment in order to keep people engaged and productive,” Workday co-founder and co-CEO Aneel Bhusri, said in a statement.

Without the ability to have face-to-face meetings with employees, managers have struggled throughout 2020 to understand how COVID, working from home and all the trials and tribulations of the last year have affected the workforce.

But this ability to check the pulse of employees goes beyond this crisis period. Managers of large organizations know that the bigger and more spread out your firm becomes, the more challenging it is to understand what’s happening across the company. The company uses weekly surveys to ask specific questions about the organization. For them it’s all about getting good data, and so far customers have used the platform to ask over 153 million questions since inception six years ago.

Peakon CEO and co-founder Phil Chambers sees Workday as a logical partner. “Workday excels at helping enable customers to leverage their data. Together, we’ll be able to help drive greater productivity, talent development and employee retention for our customers — and unify how employees interact with their organizations,” he said in a Workday blog post announcing the deal.

Peakon was founded in Copenhagen in 2014 and has raised $68 million along the way, according to Crunchbase data. Its most recent round was a $35 million Series B in March 2019. The deal is expected to close by the end of this quarter subject to typical regulatory review.

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Shopalyst aims to make e-commerce advertising more effective

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Indian startup Shopalyst has officially launched a new platform that it calls the Discovery Commerce Cloud, which it says can help brands take full advantage of digital advertising.

Co-founder and CEO Girish Ramachandra told me that Shopalyst was created to allow for “one seamless journey for the shopper” across advertising and e-commerce — something he said current systems are not currently designed to support.

The startup’s first product was a “universal buy button,” and Ramachandra said that has “naturally progressed” into a broader set of tools for cross-platform advertising, which Shopalyst has been beta testing for the past year.

The Discovery Commerce Cloud consists of five modules, which Ramachandra said work best together but can also be purchased separately. That includes:

  • a market intelligence product with information about what consumers are searching for and what’s popular on media and e-commerce platforms
  • an audience intelligence product to target ads based on audience interest, behavior and purchase intent
  • a Universal Ads Manager to deliver ads across Google Ads, DV360, Facebook, Instagram, Amazon Ads, Twitter and TikTok
  • a landing page builder that can support instant checkout on a brand’s own direct-to-consumer site, comparison shopping across e-commerce marketplaces, instant delivery or a physical store locator
  • real-time metrics that measure the full customer funnel
Shopalyst header

Image Credits: Shopalyst

Ramachandra also noted that the ads created in the Universal Ads Builder optimized to each platform, with dynamically generated creative based on audience data. And by using the landing page builder, brands are also able to gather new data about the audience’s “shopping actions.”

“In the past, [brands] didn’t have shopping actions, because retailers don’t share that data back with them,” he said. “That is all changed. Now they’re able to acquire first-party data [from Shopalyst], which will help them use the right advertising in future campaigns.”

Shopalyst customers include Unilever, Nestle, Diageo, Nivea, L’Oreal and Estee Lauder. And while the startup was initially focused on its home market of India, the platform is now available across 30 countries.

Shopalyst also says that in beta testing, campaigns run through the Discovery Commerce Cloud have seen up to a 3X improvement in targeting relevance, a 5X increase in audience attention and an 8X increase in ad-activated shopping trips.

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