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Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


September 22, 2018 - September 28, 2018

As Google turns 20, questions over whether it’s too powerful


In this Sept. 2, 2008 file photo, Google co-founders Sergey Brin, left, and Larry Page talk during a news conference at Google Inc. headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

In this April 17, 2007, file photo exhibitors of the Google company work in front of an illuminated sign at the industrial fair Hannover Messe in Hanover, Germany. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer, File)

Michael Liedtke

San Francisco (AP) - Twenty years after Larry Page and Sergey Brin set out to organize all of the internet’s information, the search engine they named Google has morphed into a dominating force in smartphones, online video, email, maps and much more.

That resounding success now has regulators and lawmakers around the world questioning whether the company has become too powerful as its ubiquitous services vacuum up sensitive information about billions of people hooked on its products.

Google’s search engine remains entrenched as the internet’s main gateway, and its digital advertising business is on pace to generate about $110 billion in revenue this year. Much of that revenue now flows through Google’s Android operating system, which powers 80 percent of the world’s smartphones. Google also runs the biggest video site in YouTube, the most popular web browser in Chrome, the top email service in Gmail and the maps that most people use to get around.

Not bad for a company that started 20 years ago Friday with an initial investment of $100,000. Google and its sibling companies operating under the umbrella of Alphabet Inc. are now worth $800 billion.

Although Google wouldn’t comment for this story, the company has repeatedly pointed out that its mostly free products are so widely used because people like them.

Google’s success often draws comparisons with Microsoft.

By 1998, the year Google started, U.S. regulators had become so concerned about Microsoft’s power through its Windows operating system that they had begun to explore a forced breakup. Although Microsoft remained intact, the multiyear battle with the U.S. government and other disputes with European regulators hobbled and distracted Microsoft, helping to propel the rise of Google and Apple.

Google is now confronting the same potential fate.

“Google is in the government’s crosshairs,” said Ken Auletta, who was given inside access to the company while writing his 2009 book, “Googled: The End of the World As We Know It.” ‘’This company once had a certain glow to it, but it is losing its halo.”

Just this past week, Google raised hackles in Congress by refusing to send Page or its current CEO, Sundar Pichai, to a hearing on Russian manipulation of internet services to sway U.S. elections. Congressional officials left an empty chair while top executives from Facebook and Twitter appeared. Offended lawmakers derided Google as “arrogant.”

The European Commission already has imposed fines totaling $7.8 billion after concluding the company had unfairly used its search engine to highlight its own services and illegally bundled together its products in Android.

Google has denied any wrongdoing, but that hasn’t discouraged European regulators from looking into other possible abuses. U.S. President Donald Trump and some U.S. regulators are now raising the possibility of opening new investigations into Google’s business and privacy practices five years after the Federal Trade Commission decided the company was mostly complying with the laws.

It all paints a picture of a company that may spend the next decade fighting to protect the empire it built during its first two decades.

September 15, 2018 - September 21, 2018

Facebook pulls security app from Apple store over privacy

In this file photo dated Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, a Facebook start page is shown on a smartphone in Surfside, Fla. USA. The social media giant Facebook said late Wednesday Aug. 22, 2018, it has banned a quiz app for refusing to be audited and concerns that data on as many as 4 million users was misused, after it found user information was shared with researchers and companies. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, FILE)

Kelvin Chan & Michael Liedtke

Facebook has pulled one of its own products from Apple’s app store because it didn’t want to stop tracking what people were doing on their iPhones. Facebook also banned a quiz app from its social network for possible privacy intrusions on about 4 million users.

The twin developments come as Facebook is under intense scrutiny over privacy following the Cambridge Analytica scandal earlier this year. Allegations that the political consultancy used personal information harvested from 87 million Facebook accounts have dented Facebook’s reputation.

Since the scandal broke, Facebook has investigated thousands of apps and suspended more than 400 of them over data-sharing concerns.

The social media company said late Wednesday that it took action against the myPersonality quiz app, saying that its creators refused an inspection. But even as Facebook did that, it found its own Onavo Protect security app at odds with Apple’s tighter rules for applications.

Onavo Protect is a virtual-private network service aimed at helping users secure their personal information over public Wi-Fi networks. The app also alerts users when other apps use too much data.

Since acquiring Onavo in 2013, Facebook has used it to track what apps people were using on phones. This surveillance helped Facebook detect trendy services, tipping off the company to startups it might want to buy and areas it might want to work on for upcoming features.

Facebook said in a statement that it has “always been clear when people download Onavo about the information that is collected and how it is used.”

But Onavo fell out of compliance with Apple’s app-store guidelines after they were tightened two months ago to protect the reservoir of personal information that people keep on their iPhones and iPads.

Apple’s revised guidelines require apps to get users’ express consent before recording and logging their activity on a device. According to Apple, the new rules also “made it explicitly clear that apps should not collect information about which other apps are installed on a user’s device for the purposes of analytics or advertising/marketing.”

Facebook will still be able to deploy Onavo on devices powered by Google’s Android software.

Onavo’s ouster from Apple’s app store widens the rift between two of the world’s most popular companies.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has been outspoken in his belief that Facebook does a shoddy job of protecting its 2.2 billion users’ privacy - something that he has framed as “a fundamental human right.”

Cook sharpened his criticism following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. He emphasized that Apple would never be caught in the same situation as Facebook because it doesn’t collect information about its customers to sell advertising. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg fired back in a separate interview and called Cook’s remarks “extremely glib.” Zuckerberg implied that Apple caters primarily to rich people with a line of products that includes the $1,000 iPhone X.

Late Wednesday, Facebook said it moved to ban the myPersonality app after it found user information was shared with researchers and companies “with only limited protections in place.” The company said it would notify the app’s users that their data may have been misused.

It said myPersonality was “mainly active” prior to 2012. Though Facebook has tightened its rules since then, it is only now reviewing those older apps following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The app was created in 2007 by researcher David Stillwell and allowed users to take a personality questionnaire and get feedback on the results.

“There was no misuse of personal data,” Stillwell said in a statement, adding that “this ban appears to be purely cosmetic.” Stillwell said users gave their consent and the app’s data was fully anonymized before it was used for academic research. He also rejected Facebook’s assertion that he refused to submit to an audit. (AP)

September 8, 2018 - September 14, 2018

Samsung’s $1,000 Note 9 is great - but so is the cheaper S9

The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is shown in New York. For $1,000, the Galaxy Note 9 is a superb phone that’s the best Samsung has to offer. But for a few hundred dollars less, the Galaxy S9 offers many of the features the Note 9 is now getting, including zippy speeds and camera improvements. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Anick Jesdanun

New York (AP) - For $1,000, the premium Galaxy Note 9 is a superb phone that showcases the best Samsung has to offer.

It’s also the phone most of you won’t need. That’s because you can get many of the same features in Samsung’s Galaxy S9 for a few hundred dollars less.

The Note 9, available Friday, is the Android smartphone for those who want the latest and the greatest. There’s a larger battery, with a 21 percent boost over last year’s Note 8 model. The Note 9 gets 128 gigabytes of storage, double what’s in the S9 and Apple’s iPhones. And of course, a large screen.

But there’s not much “wow” beyond that. Smartphone innovation has slowed down in recent years. It’s more noticeable with Samsung because the company spreads out those innovations between two major smartphones each year. One phone inevitably plays catch up with the other every six months.

So now we find that the Note 9 is getting the zippy processor and cellular speeds the S9 phones first offered earlier this year. It’s also getting the S9’s dual-aperture camera for better low-light shots as well as its gimmicky, but super-fun, ability to take video with super-slow motion.

And the S9 starts at just $720 through T-Mobile, and about $800 through Verizon, AT&T and Sprint. A Plus version that’s closer in size to the Note 9 costs $840 to $930.

True, the Note 9 offers a little more wowness. Its camera uses artificial intelligence to optimize colors and lighting for what you’re trying to shoot, be it food, a sunset or flowers. Many low-light shots were even better than what the S9 produced, even though both share the second aperture designed to let in more light when needed.

Of course, you’re likely to see this feature in the S10 in about six months.

That brings us to one of the Note’s remaining distinctive features, its stylus. It’s useful for handwriting notes and signing documents on the screen. Now, it can control digital slideshows and music playback, too. The new stylus gets Bluetooth to double as a remote control. Selfies won’t look as awkward when you don’t have to reach for the on-screen button; just press the pen to snap the shutter.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot the remote feature can do yet. It’s a promising feature - but could remain mostly a promise if app developers don’t take advantage of it.

Many past Samsung features failed to gain traction because app developers couldn’t be bothered to make the tweaks needed. For instance, Air View was supposed to offer pop-up previews just by pointing to an email and calendar entry, but it mostly worked only with Samsung’s home-grown apps.

More recently, there’s Bixby, Samsung’s own digital assistant. While Samsung has worked directly with some services, including Uber and Spotify, on integrations, developers have largely prioritized Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant. It comes down to a chicken-or-egg problem: People need to see compelling capabilities to use a feature; developers need to see a strong base of users to spend the time developing compelling capabilities.

The stylus remains the Note’s signature feature, with or without extensive remote capabilities. No doubt the new edition will appeal to die-hard Samsung fans, hard-core gamers and on-the-go executives who are on their phones constantly and need the battery and storage boost. Though the Note 9 uses the same processor as the S9, it has a new cooling system designed to let you use those faster speeds longer.

But if you’re not someone who needs all that power, you ought to take a second look at the cheaper, six-month-old S9.

September 1, 2018 - September 7, 2018

US regulators target Facebook on discriminatory housing ads

Federal regulators are alleging that Facebook’s advertising tools allow landlords and real estate brokers to engage in housing discrimination. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

New York (AP) - Federal regulators are alleging that Facebook’s advertising tools allow landlords and real estate brokers to engage in housing discrimination.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said in an administrative complaint this week that Facebook violated the Fair Housing Act because its targeting systems allow advertisers to exclude certain audiences, such as families with young children or disabled people, from seeing housing ads.

“When Facebook uses the vast amount of personal data it collects to help advertisers to discriminate, it’s the same as slamming the door in someone’s face,” HUD Assistant Secretary Anna Marķa Farias said in a statement Friday.

Service providers such as Facebook typically aren’t liable for the actions of their users. In a separate, civil lawsuit filed by housing advocates, the Justice Department says Facebook doesn’t fall under that category because it mines user data, some of which users have to provide, and customizes ads for specific audiences. The government says that counts as being a content creator, rather than merely a transmitter of user content.

Facebook said the company doesn’t allow discrimination and has strengthened its systems over the past year to prevent misuse. The company added that it is working directly with HUD to address its concerns. Facebook has an opportunity to respond to the HUD complaint before the agency determines whether to file formal charges.

The HUD action is separate from the federal lawsuit, filed in March in New York by the National Fair Housing Alliance and other organizations. The lawsuit says investigations by fair housing supporters in New York, Washington, D.C., Miami and San Antonio, Texas, show that Facebook continues to let advertisers discriminate even though civil rights and housing groups have notified the company since 2016 that it is violating the federal Fair Housing Act. It seeks unspecified damages and a court order to end discrimination.

The Justice Department’s position came in a filing in that case. Facebook said it plans to respond in court.

Privacy group tells FTC Google tracking violated 2011 order

A mobile phone displays a user’s travels in New York. The Electronic Privacy Information Center says in the letter to the FTC that Google’s recording of time-stamped location data - even after users have turned off a setting called Location History - “clearly violates” a 2011 settlement. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Washington D.C. (AP) - A privacy group said in a letter sent to the Federal Trade Commission on Friday that Google has violated the terms of a 2011 settlement because of practices exposed in an Associated Press report this week.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center said in the letter to the FTC that Google’s recording of time-stamped location data - even after users have turned off a setting called Location History - “clearly violates” the 2011 settlement.

The center lobbied the FTC to take action on Google nearly a decade ago. That helped lead to the settlement in which Google agreed to a 20-year monitoring regime and vowed to not misrepresent the degree to which users have control over private data.

Three days after the AP story was published Monday, Google altered a help page explanation but didn’t change its tracking.

The AP investigation found that even with Location History turned off, Google stores user location when, for instance, the Google Maps app is opened, or when users conduct Google searches that aren’t related to location. Automated searches of the local weather on some Android phones also store the phone’s whereabouts.

Critics say Google’s insistence on tracking its users’ locations stems from its drive to boost advertising revenue. It can charge advertisers more if they want to narrow ad delivery to people who’ve visited certain locations.

Weekly Update

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

As Google turns 20, questions over whether it’s too powerful

Facebook pulls security app from Apple store over privacy

Samsung’s $1,000 Note 9 is great - but so is the cheaper S9

US regulators target Facebook on discriminatory housing ads

Privacy group tells FTC Google tracking violated 2011 order