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Google’s plan to replace tracking cookies goes under UK antitrust probe

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Google’s plan to end support for third party cookies in the Chrome browser and its Chromium engine is under investigation by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

The antitrust regulator said today that it’s launched a probe under Chapter II of the UK’s Competition Act 1998 into “suspected breaches of competition law by Google”.

The move follows a complaint lodged in November by a coalition of digital marketing companies which urged the CMA to block Google’s implementation of the self-styled ‘Privacy Sandbox’.

The CMA also received complaints from newspapers and technology companies alleging the tech giant is abusing a dominance position, it added.

A Google spokesperson sent this statement in response to a request for comment on the CMA investigation:

Creating a more private web, while also enabling the publishers and advertisers who support the free and open internet, requires the industry to make major changes to the way digital advertising works. The Privacy Sandbox has been an open initiative since the beginning and we welcome the CMA’s involvement as we work to develop new proposals to underpin a healthy, ad-supported web without third-party cookies.

Google had previously said it would implement the Sandbox in 2021 — accelerating an earlier timeline for the phasing out of third party cookies and sending ripples of fear (and loathing) through an adtech industry that bet the farm on mass surveillance of Internet users.

No changes have been made so far, according to Google.

It also said today that any changes will not be made before 2022 — as it continues a process of public collaboration (now coupled with close regulatory engagement, via the CMA) on how to replace tracking cookies.

With the looming demise of third party cookies, digital marketers are concerned about their ability to target ads at web users as browsers decommission support for key tracking technologies.

But it’s worth noting that Google’s Chrome is actually the laggard in proposing to pull the plug on tracking cookies; WebKit, which underpins Safari, announced a tracking prevention policy back in 2019 — taking inspiration from Mozilla’s earlier anti-tracking stance. (The latter made third party cookie blocking in Firefox the default in September of the same year.)

These anti-tracking plays by browser-makers are, on one level, a response to consumer distaste over creepy ads and concern for their online privacy.

And in the European Union at least, many core elements of adtech infrastructure are subject to complaints and remain under regulatory scrutiny. (Albeit, the UK’s data protection regulator, the ICO, is currently being sued for failing to act on complaints about the lawfulness of real-time bidding which date back to September 2018.)

But the contention by the marketing, publishing and adtech businesses which are crying foul over the end of cookies is that tech giants — Google in this case — are using privacy as a convenient excuse to increase their market power (and control over user data) at smaller entities’ expense.

“The investigation will assess whether the proposals could cause advertising spend to become even more concentrated on Google’s ecosystem at the expense of its competitors,” the CMA writes in a press release announcing its investigation. “It follows complaints of anticompetitive behaviour and requests for the CMA to ensure that Google develops its proposals in a way that does not distort competition.”

The announcement also makes clear that the regulator is alive to the genuine issue of privacy concern — with the CMA writing that it’s been “considering how best to address legitimate privacy concerns without distorting competition”. This has included holding discussions with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), and talking to Google to “better understand its proposals”, it says.

“The current investigation will provide a framework for the continuation of this work, and, potentially, a legal basis for any solution that emerges,” the CMA adds.

Exactly what will replace tracking cookies is still very much up in the air.

Google has made a number of proposals, via the W3C standards forum, including one called ‘Dovekey’ which suggests using a key value server and which Google says builds on the feedback and proposal from adtech firm Criteo’s Sparrow proposal.

It’s also shared the algorithms for its Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) proposal — referring to a suggestion to use a specific machine learning technique to allow behavioral ad targeting to continue (but without needing to collect individuals’ data).

The wider adtech industry, meanwhile, has also been coming up with various ideas and offers for replacing tracking cookies. Such as the UnifiedOpen ID 2.0 proposal (that’s being built by The Trade Desk) and proposes a centralized system for tracking Internet users based on personal data such as an email address or phone number; or the Unified ID service launched by TechCrunch’s parent Verizon Media (leveraging its access to first party data), to name just two.

So whatever replaces tracking cookies looks unlikely to be simple or singular. Not least given the formal regulatory dimension that’s now been added to Google’s mix.

With its Sandbox project underway but no replacement for tracking cookies yet selected the CMA’s intervention certainly looks very strategic — giving the UK regulator a (potentially major) role in influencing the future shape of adtech.

Although it could also lead to regulatory divergence for adtech in the UK vs the European Union, where the Commission’s antitrust regulators have also been eyeing Google’s adtech practices but have not yet launched a formal investigation — depending on the outcome of any probe/intervention there.

Back in the UK, a recent CMA market study of the digital advertising sector led it to report substantial concerns over the power of the Google-Facebook adtech duopoly — and it sought views on breaking up the tech giants — although in its final report it deferred any competitive intervention in favor of waiting for the government to legislate.

Since then UK ministers have unveiled a plan to establish a pro-competition regulatory regime that will include a new statutory code of conduct, overseen by a Digital Market Unit (to be set up this year), with the aim of putting some hard limits on big (ad)tech — including potentially requiring them to offer users an opt out from behavioral advertising (something Facebook, for example, currently does not).

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Elon Musk says Tesla Semi is ready for production, but limited by battery cell output

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on the company’s 2020 Q4 earnings call that all engineering work is now complete on the Tesla Semi, the freight-hauling semi truck that the company is building with an all-electric powertrain. The company expects to begin deliveries of Tesla Semi this year, the company said in its Q4 earnings release, and Musk said the only thing limiting their ability to produce them now is the availability of battery cells.

“The main reason we have not accelerated new products – like for example Tesla Semi – is that we simply don’t have enough cells for it,” Musk said. “If we were to make the Semi right now, and we could easily go into production with the Semi right now, but we would not have enough cells for it.”

Musk added that the company does expect to have sufficient cell volume to meet its needs once it goes into production on its 4680 battery pack, which is a new custom cell design it created with a so-called ‘tables’ design that allows for greater energy density and therefore range.

“A Semi would use typically five times the number of cells that a car would use, but it would not sell for five times what a car would sell for, so it kind of would not make sense for us to do the Semi right now,” Musk said. “But it will absolutely make sense for us to do it as soon as we can address the cell production constraint.”

That constraint points to the same conclusion for the possibility of Tesla developing a van, Musk added, and the lifting of the constraint will likewise make it possible for Tesla to pursue the development of that category of vehicle, he said.

Tesla has big plans for “exponentially” ramping cell production, with a goal of having production capacity infrastructure in place for a Toal of 200 gigawatt hours per year by 2022, and a target of being able to actually produce around 40% of that by that year (with future process improvements generating additional gigawatt hours of cell capacity  in gradual improvements thereafter).

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Pro-Trump Twitter figure arrested for spreading vote-by-text disinformation in 2016

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The man behind a once-influential pro-Trump account is facing charges of election interference for allegedly disseminating voting disinformation on Twitter in 2016.

Federal prosecutors allege that Douglass Mackey, who used the name “Ricky Vaughn” on Twitter, encouraged people to cast their ballot via text or on social media, effectively tricking others into throwing away those votes.

According to the Justice Department, 4,900 unique phone numbers texted a phone number Mackey promoted in order to “vote by text.” BuzzFeed reported the vote-by-text scam at the time, noting that many of the images were photoshopped to look like official graphics from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Some of those images appeared to specifically target Black and Spanish-speaking Clinton supporters, a motive that tracks with the account’s track record of white supremacist and anti-Semitic content. The account was suspended in November 2016.

At the time, the mysterious account quickly gained traction in the political disinformation ecosystem. HuffPost revealed that the account was run by Mackey, the son of a lobbyist, two years later.

“… His talent for blending far-right propaganda with conservative messages on Twitter made him a key disseminator of extremist views to Republican voters and a central figure in the alt-right’ white supremacist movement that attached itself to Trump’s coattails,” HuffPost’s Luke O’Brien reported.

Mackey, a West Palm Beach resident, was taken into custody Wednesday in Florida.

“There is no place in public discourse for lies and misinformation to defraud citizens of their right to vote,” Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Seth D. DuCharme said.

“With Mackey’s arrest, we serve notice that those who would subvert the democratic process in this manner cannot rely on the cloak of Internet anonymity to evade responsibility for their crimes.”

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Tesla is willing to license Autopilot and has already had “preliminary discussions” about it with other automakers

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Tesla is open to licensing its software, including its Autopilot highly-automated driving technology, and the neural network training it has built to improve its autonomous driving technology. Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed those considerations on the company’s Q4 earnings call on Wednesday, adding that the company has in fact already “had some preliminary discussions about licensing Autopilot to other OEMs.”

The company began rolling out its beta version of the so-called ‘full self-driving’ or FSD version of Autopilot late last year. The standard Autopilot features available in general release provide advanced driver assistance (ADAS) which provide essentially advanced cruise control capabilities designed primarily for use in highway commutes. Musk said on the call that he expects the company will seek to prove out its FSD capabilities before entering into any licensing agreements, if it does end up pursuing that path.

Musk noted that Tesla’s “philosophy is definitely not to create walled gardens” overall, and pointed out that the company is planning to allow other automakers to use its Supercharger networks, as well as its autonomy software. He characterized Tesla as “more than happy to license” those autonomous technologies to “other car companies,” in fact.

One key technical hurdle required to get to a point where Tesla’s technology is able to demonstrate true reliability far surpassing that of a standard human driver is transition the neural networks operating in the cars and providing them with the analysis that powers their perception engines is to transition those to video. That’s a full-stack transition across the system away from basing it around neural nets trained on single cameras and single frames.

To this end, the company has developed video labelling software that has had “a huge effect on the efficiency of labeling,” with the ultimate aim being enabling automatic labeling. Musk (who isn’t known for modesty around his company’s achievements, it should be said) noted that Tesla believes “it may be the best neural net training computer in the world by possibly an order of magnitude,” adding that it’s also “something we can offer potentially as a service.”

Training huge quantities of video data will help Tesla push the reliability of its software from 100% that of a human driver, to 200% and eventually to “2,000% better than the average human,” Musk said, while again suggesting that it won’t be a technological achievement the company is interested into keeping to themselves.

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