Google’s $2.1 billion Fitbit deal hits roadblock as EU opens probe

By Foo Yun Chee

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Alphabet unit Google’s bid to take on Apple and Samsung in the wearable technology market by buying Fitbit hit a hurdle on Tuesday as EU antitrust regulators launched an investigation into the $2.1 billion deal.

The move by the European Commission on Tuesday came despite Google’s pledge last month not to use the fitness tracker’s data for advertising purposes in a bid to address competition concerns.

The EU antitrust enforcer said the data pledge was insufficient to allay its worries.

“The proposed transaction would further entrench Google’s market position in the online advertising markets by increasing the already vast amount of data that Google could use for personalization of the ads it serves and displays,” the Commission said.

It singled out online search and display advertising services and ad tech services, where analytics and digital tools are used in digital advertising, as two areas that would be affected by the deal.

It said data collected via wrist-worn wearable devices appeared to be an important advantage in online advertising, and the deal would give Google an edge in personalizing search engine ads and making it difficult for rivals to compete.

Ultimately this would result in higher prices for advertisers and publishers.

The investigation will also focus on digital healthcare and whether Google would make it difficult for rival wearables to function with its Android smartphone operating system.

The Commission will decide by Dec. 9 whether to clear or block the deal.

Google said the combination of its and Fitbit’s hardware would increase competition in the sector where players include Apple, Samsung, Xiaomi, Huawei and others.

“This deal is about devices, not data. We’ve been clear from the beginning that we will not use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads,” Rick Osterloh, senior vice president for devices and services, said in a statement.

“As we do with all our products, we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move or delete their data.”

The deal has drawn criticism from healthcare providers, wearables rivals and privacy advocates.

Fitbit has a 3% share of the global wearables market as of the first quarter of 2020, far behind Apple’s 29.3% share, and also trailing Xiaomi, Samsung and Huawei, data from market research firm International Data Corp showed.

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Jan Harvey)

U.S. tech giants face hard choices under Hong Kong’s new security law

By Brenda Goh and Pei Li

SHANGHAI/HONG KONG (Reuters) – U.S. tech giants face a reckoning over how Hong Kong’s security law will reshape their businesses, with their suspension of processing government requests for user data a stop-gap measure as they weigh options, people close to the industry say.

While Hong Kong is not a significant market for firms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, they have used it as a perch to reach deep-pocketed advertisers in mainland China, where many of their services are blocked. But the companies are now in the cross hairs of a national security law that gives China authority to demand that they turn over user data or censor content seen to violate the law – even when posted from abroad.

“These companies have to totally reassess the liability of having a presence in Hong Kong,” Charles Mok, a legislator who represents the technology industry in Hong Kong, told Reuters.

If they refuse to cooperate with government requests, he said, authorities “could go after them and take them to court and fine them, or imprison their principals in Hong Kong”.

Facebook, Google and Twitter have suspended processing government requests for user data in Hong Kong, they said on Monday, following China’s imposition of the new national security law on the semi-autonomous city.

Facebook, which started operating in Hong Kong in 2010, last year opened a big new office in the city.

It sells more than $5 billion a year worth of ad space to Chinese businesses and government agencies looking to promote messages abroad, Reuters reported in January. That makes China Facebook’s biggest country for revenue after the United States.

The U.S. internet firms are no strangers to governments demands regarding content and user information, and generally say they are bound by local laws.

The companies have often used a technique known as “geo-blocking” to restrict content in a particular country without removing it altogether.

But the sweeping language of Hong Kong’s new law could mean such measures won’t be enough. Authorities will no longer need to get court orders before requesting assistance or information, analysts said.

Requests for data about overseas users would put the companies in an especially tough spot.

“It’s a global law … if they comply with national security law in Hong Kong then there is the problem that they may violate laws in other countries,” said Francis Fong Po-kiu, honorary president of Hong Kong’s Information Technology Federation.

CONTENT QUESTION

While the U.S. social media services are blocked in mainland China, they have operated freely in Hong Kong.

Other U.S. internet platforms are also rich with content that is banned in mainland China and may now be judged illegal in Hong Kong.

U.S. video streaming site Netflix, for example, carries “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower”, a 2017 documentary on activist Joshua Wong whose books were removed from Hong Kong public libraries last week.

“Ten Years”, a 2015 film that has been criticized by Chinese state media for portraying a dystopian future Hong Kong under Chinese Communist Party control, is also available on its platform.

Netflix declined to comment.

Google’s YouTube is a popular platform for critics of Beijing. New York-based fugitive tycoon Guo Wengui has regularly voiced support for Hong Kong protesters in his videos. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

None of these companies has yet said how they will handle requests from Hong Kong to block or remove content, and the risk of being caught in political crossfire looms large.

“The foreign content players have to rethink what they display in Hong Kong,” said Duncan Clark, chairman at consultancy BDA China.

“The downside is very big if they get U.S. senators on their backs for accommodating. Any move they make will be heavily scrutinized.”

(Reporting by Brenda Goh and Pei Li; Additional reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Robert Birsel)

Countries threaten jail for April Fools’ Day jokes about coronavirus

By Emma Batha

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From Thailand to India, countries have told people not to make April Fools’ Day pranks related to coronavirus, with some threatening jail time as they seek to prevent the spread of rumours which could put lives at risk.

Tech giant Google, which is famous for its annual spoofs, has cancelled the tradition because of the pandemic which has killed about 40,000 people worldwide.

Thailand said on Tuesday that April Fool’s Day jokes about the virus could be punished under a law carrying a sentence of up to five years in prison.

“It’s against the law to fake having COVID-19 this April Fools’ Day,” the government said on Twitter.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen took to Facebook to tell people not to prank about the virus, adding that anyone spreading rumours or false information could face up to three years in jail and/or a fine of up to NT$3 million ($99,200).

In India, Maharashtra state’s cyber security unit said it would take legal action against anyone spreading fake news on April Fools’ Day.

“The state govt won’t allow anyone to spread rumours/panic on #Corona,” Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh tweeted, adding that he had instructed the authorities to “act swiftly & strongly (against) such miscreants”.

Under the heading “Corona is no joke”, Germany’s health ministry also urged the public not to make up stories related to the virus.

With people relying on the internet and media for vital information about coronavirus, there are fears that jokes could fan the spread of misinformation.

From drinking cow urine to sleeping by chopped onions, myths about how people can catch and cure COVID-19 are already widely circulating.

The World Health Organization has described it as an “infodemic”, which could increase the spread of the virus among vulnerable people.

Google said it had suspended its annual April Fools’ tradition “out of respect for all those fighting the COVID-19 pandemic”.

“Our highest goal right now is to be helpful to people, so let’s save the jokes for next April, which will undoubtedly be a whole lot brighter than this one,” it said in an internal email to staff.

In previous years Google has advertised fictitious jobs at a new research center on the moon, turned Google Maps into a game of Where’s Waldo – also known as Where’s Wally – and claimed its search technology uses trained pigeons to rank pages.

Taylor Herring, a British PR agency whose clients include TV channels and international brands, advised all companies to ditch the jokes this year.

“Tip for any brands planning an April Fool’s Day stunt. Just. Don’t,” it said on social media.

Others commented on twitter that April Fools’ Day had been cancelled because no one could make up anything more unbelievable than what is currently happening in the world.

(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Google launches coronavirus website in the United States

Google launches coronavirus website in the United States
(Reuters) – Alphabet Inc’s Google said on Saturday it launched a United States-focused website with information about coronavirus guidance and testing, as the country works on slowing the spread of the highly contagious virus.

The site (google.com/covid19), which consists of resources and links focused on the potentially deadly respiratory illness COVID-19, will be available in more languages and countries in coming days, Google said in a blog post. https://bit.ly/2wq4f27

Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said in a blog post last Sunday that the search giant was partnering with the U.S. government to create a website by March 16.

However, the launch was delayed as local and national guidance changed significantly from Sunday to Monday and the company had said it would roll out the website later in the week.

(Reporting by Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Britain to United States: We want a trade deal and a digital tax

Britain to United States: We want a trade deal and a digital tax
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain wants a trade deal with the United States but will impose a digital service tax on the revenue of companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, business minister Andrea Leadsom said on Thursday.

“The United States and the United Kingdom are committed to entering into a trade deal with each other and we have a very strong relationship that goes back centuries so some of the disagreements that we might have over particular issues don’t in any way damage the excellent and strong and deep relationship between the U.S. and the UK,” Leadsom told Talk Radio.

“There are always tough negotiations and tough talk but I think where the tech tax is concerned it’s absolutely vital that these huge multinationals who are making incredible amounts of income and profit should be taxed and what we want to do is to work internationally with the rest of the world to cover with a proper regime that ensures that they’re paying their fair share.”

Under the British plan, tech companies that generate at least 500 million pounds ($657 million) a year in global revenue will pay a levy of 2% of the money they make from UK users from April 2020.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Howcroft; writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Kate Holton)

Study finds Google system could improve breast cancer detection

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – A Google artificial intelligence system proved as good as expert radiologists at predicting which women would develop breast cancer based on screening mammograms and showed promise at reducing errors, researchers in the United States and Britain reported.

The study, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, is the latest to show that artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to improve the accuracy of screening for breast cancer, which affects one in eight women globally.

Radiologists miss about 20% of breast cancers in mammograms, the American Cancer Society says, and half of all women who get the screenings over a 10-year period have a false positive result.

The findings of the study, developed with Alphabet’s DeepMind AI unit which merged with Google Health in September, represent a major advance in the potential for the early detection of breast cancer, Mozziyar Etemadi, one of its co-authors from Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, said.

The team, which included researchers at Imperial College London and Britain’s National Health Service, trained the system to identify breast cancers on tens of thousands of mammograms.

They then compared its predictions to the actual results from a set of 25,856 mammograms in the United Kingdom and 3,097 from the United States.

The study showed the AI system could identify cancers with a similar degree of accuracy to expert radiologists, while reducing the number of false positive results by 5.7% in the U.S.-based group and by 1.2% in the British-based group.

It also cut the number of false negatives, where tests are wrongly classified as normal, by 9.4% in the U.S. group, and by 2.7% in the British group.

These differences reflect the ways in which mammograms are read. In the United States, only one radiologist reads the results and the tests are done every one to two years. In Britain, the tests are done every three years, and each is read by two radiologists. When they disagree, a third is consulted.

‘SUBTLE CUES’

In a separate test, the group pitted the AI system against six radiologists and found it outperformed them at accurately predicting breast cancers.

Connie Lehman, chief of the breast imaging department at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital, said the results are in line with findings from several groups using AI to improve cancer detection in mammograms, including her own work.

The notion of using computers to improve cancer diagnostics is decades old, and computer-aided detection (CAD) systems are commonplace in mammography clinics, yet CAD programs have not improved performance in clinical practice.

The issue, Lehman said, is that current CAD programs were trained to identify things human radiologists can see, whereas with AI, computers learn to spot cancers based on the actual results of thousands of mammograms.

This has the potential to “exceed human capacity to identify subtle cues that the human eye and brain aren’t able to perceive,” Lehman added.

Although computers have not been “super helpful” so far, “what we’ve shown at least in tens of thousands of mammograms is the tool can actually make a very well-informed decision,” Etemadi said.

The study has some limitations. Most of the tests were done using the same type of imaging equipment, and the U.S. group contained a lot of patients with confirmed breast cancers.

More studies will be needed to show that when used by radiologists, the tool improves patient care, and it will require regulatory approval, which could take several years.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Alexander Smith)

Google’s YouTube to pay $170 million penalty for collecting data on kids

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of mobile device users are seen next to a screen projection of Youtube logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

By Diane Bartz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Google, which is owned by Alphabet Inc and its YouTube video service will pay $170 million to settle allegations that it broke federal law by collecting personal information about children, the Federal Trade Commission said on Wednesday.

YouTube had been accused of tracking viewers of children’s channels using cookies without parental consent and using those cookies to deliver million of dollars in targeted advertisements to those viewers.

The settlement with the FTC and the New York attorney general’s office, which will receive $34 million, is the largest since a law banning collecting information about children under age 13 came into effect in 1998. The law was revised in 2013 to include “cookies,” used to track a person’s internet viewing habits.

It is also small compared with the company’s revenues. Alphabet, which generates about 85% of its revenue from sales of ad space and ad technology, in July reported total second-quarter revenue of $38.9 billion.

YouTube said in a statement on Wednesday that in four months it would begin treating all data collected from people watching children’s content as if it came from a child. “This means that we will limit data collection and use on videos made for kids only to what is needed to support the operation of the service,” YouTube said on its blog.

FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection director Andrew Smith said at a news conference Wednesday the settlement “is changing YouTube’s business model, that YouTube cannot bury its head in the sand, YouTube cannot pretend that it is not aware of the content on its platform and hope to escape liability.”

Once the settlement takes effect, the FTC plans to “conduct a sweep of the YouTube platform to determine whether there remains child-directed content” in which personal information is being collected, Smith said. The FTC could take actions against individual content creators or channel owners as a result.

In late August, YouTube announced it would launch YouTube Kids with separate niches for children depending on their ages and designed to exclude disturbing videos. It has no behavioral advertising.

YouTube allows companies to create channels, which include advertisements that create revenue for both the company and YouTube.

In its complaint, the government said that YouTube touted its popularity with children in marketing itself to companies like Mattel and Hasbro. It told Mattel that “YouTube is today’s leader in reaching children age 6-11 against top TV channels,” according to the complaint.

“YouTube touted its popularity with children to prospective corporate clients,” FTC Chairman Joe Simons said in a statement. “Yet when it came to complying with (federal law banning collecting data on children), the company refused to acknowledge that portions of its platform were clearly directed to kids.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James said the companies “abused their power.”

“Google and YouTube knowingly and illegally monitored, tracked, and served targeted ads to young children just to keep advertising dollars rolling in,” said James.

In addition to the monetary fine, the proposed settlement requires the company to refrain from violating the law in the future and to notify channel owners about their obligations to get consent from parents before collecting information on children.

The two Democrats on the FTC, Rebecca Slaughter and Rohit Chopra, dissented from the settlement. Slaughter, who called the violations “widespread and brazen,” said the settlement fails to require YouTube to police channels that provide children’s content but do not designate it as such, thus allowing more lucrative behavioral advertising, which relies on tracking viewers through cookies.

Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal, both Democrats active in online privacy matters, criticized the settlement in separate statements.

“A financial settlement is no substitute for strict reforms that will stop Google and other tech companies from invading our privacy,” Blumenthal said. “I continue to be alarmed by Big Tech’s policies and practices that invade children’s lives.”

(Reporting by Diane Bartz Additional reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Marguerita Choy)

Study shows cute kids are YouTube clickbait; child advocates concerned

FILE PHOTO: 2019 Kids Choice Awards – Arrivals – Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 23, 2019 – YouTube star Ryan ToysReview. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok/File Photo

By Arriana McLymore

NEW YORK (Reuters) – YouTube videos featuring young children drew nearly triple the average viewership of other content, according to research released on Thursday that provided ammunition for child advocates who want Alphabet Inc. (Google) to take more aggressive steps to make it’s streaming service safer for kids.

Pew Research Center said its findings show videos aimed at or featuring children are among YouTube’s most popular materials, attracting an outsized audience relative to the number uploaded.

Lawmakers and parent groups have criticized YouTube in recent years, saying it has done less than it should to protect minors’ privacy.

Last year, the Center for Digital Democracy and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), saying YouTube’s parent company violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

The groups complained that the company “has not only made a vast amount of money by using children’s personal information” and has “profited from advertising revenues from ads on its YouTube channels that are watched by children.”

YouTube, which announced 2 billion monthly users in May, shares limited data about its service. But music, gaming and kids’ content generally have been known to rank highly in viewership.

Other groups have called on YouTube to take more steps to block access to age-inappropriate content and prevent predators from getting to clips that could allow them to sexualize minors. Complaints also prompted YouTube to introduce punishments for parents uploading videos in which kids are placed in dangerous situations.

The video unit has become a major driver of revenue growth at Alphabet Inc, and it has said that it is weighing additional changes to how it handles content related to kids.

Pew researchers said in a report that they used automated tools and human review to analyze activity during the first week of 2019 on nearly 44,000 YouTube channels with more than 250,000 subscribers.

Just 2% of the 243,000 videos those channels uploaded that week featured at least one individual that looked under 13 years old to human reviewers. But the small subset received an average of 298,000 views, compared with 97,000 for videos without children, according to the report. The median viewership figures were about 57,000 and 14,000.

Channels that uploaded at least one video featuring a child averaged 1.8 million subscribers, compared to 1.2 million for those that did not, Pew said.

YouTube said it could not comment on Pew’s survey methods or results. It maintained that the most popular categories are comedy, music, sports and “how to” videos.

“We have always been clear YouTube has never been for people under 13,” the company added.

Popular videos with children included those with parenting tips or children singing or dressing up.

YouTube’s policies ban children under 13 from using its main service and instead direct them to its curated YouTube Kids app. But many parents use the main YouTube service to entertain or educate children, other research has found.

(Reporting by Arriana McLymore in New York; Additional reporting by Paresh Dave in San Francisco; Editing by David Gregorio)

YouTube to remove hateful, supremacist content

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of mobile device users are seen next to a screen projection of Youtube logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

By Paresh Dave

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – YouTube said on Wednesday it would remove videos that deny the Holocaust and other “well-documented violent events,” a major reversal in policy as it fights criticism that it provides a platform to hate speech and harassment.

The streaming service, owned by Alphabet Inc’s Google, also said it would remove videos that glorify Nazi ideology or that promote groups that claim superiority to others to justify several forms of discrimination.

In addition, video creators that repeatedly brush up against YouTube’s hate speech policies, even without violating them, will now have their accounts shut down, a spokesman said.

In a blog post, YouTube acknowledged the new policies could hurt researchers who seek out these videos “to understand hate in order to combat it.” The policies also could frustrate free speech advocates who say hate speech should not be censored.

Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, which researches anti-Semitism, said it had provided input to YouTube on the policy change.

“While this is an important step forward, this move alone is insufficient and must be followed by many more changes from YouTube and other tech companies to adequately counter the scourge of online hate and extremism,” Greenblatt said in a statement.

(Reporting by Paresh Dave; Additional reporting by Sayanti Chakraborty in Bengaluru; Editing by James Emmanuel and Bernadette Baum)

U.S., China bicker over ‘extravagant expectations’ on trade deal

A surveillance camera is seen next to containers at a logistics center near Tianjin Port, in northern China, May 16, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee

By Ben Blanchard and David Lawder

BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – China accused the United States on Monday of harboring “extravagant expectations” for a trade deal, underlining the gulf between the two sides as U.S. action against China’s technology giant Huawei began hitting the global tech sector.

Adding to bilateral tension, the U.S. military said one of its warships sailed near the disputed Scarborough Shoal claimed by China in the South China Sea on Sunday, the latest in a series of “freedom of navigation operations” to anger Beijing.

Alphabet Inc’s Google has also suspended business with China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd that requires the transfer of hardware, software and technical services, except those publicly available via open source licensing, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters on Sunday, in a blow to the company that the U.S. government has sought to blacklist around the world.

Shares in European chipmakers Infineon Technologies, AMS and STMicroelectronics fell sharply on Monday amid worries the Huawei suppliers may suspend shipments to the Chinese firm due to the U.S. blacklisting of it last week.

The Trump administration’s addition of Huawei to a trade blacklist on Thursday immediately enacted restrictions that will make it extremely difficult for it to do business with U.S. counterparts.

In an interview with Fox News Channel recorded last week and aired on Sunday night, Trump said the United States and China “had a very strong deal, we had a good deal, and they changed it. And I said ‘that’s OK, we’re going to tariff their products’.”

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said he didn’t know what Trump was talking about.

“We don’t know what this agreement is the United States is talking about. Perhaps the United States has an agreement they all along had extravagant expectations for, but it’s certainly not a so-called agreement that China agreed to,” he told a daily news briefing.

The reason the last round of China-U.S. talks did not reach an agreement is because the United States tried “to achieve unreasonable interests through extreme pressure”, Lu said.”From the start, this wouldn’t work.”

China went into the last round of talks with a sincere and constructive attitude, he said.

“I would like to reiterate once again that China-U.S. economic and trade consultation can only follow the correct track of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit for there to be hope of success.”

No further trade talks between top Chinese and U.S. trade negotiators have been scheduled since the last round ended on May 10 – the same day Trump raised the tariff rate on $200 billion worth of Chinese products from 10 percent.

Trump took the step after the United States said China backtracked on commitments in a draft deal that had been largely agreed to.

STERNER TONE

Since then, China has struck a sterner tone, suggesting that a resumption of talks aimed at ending the 10-month trade war between the world’s two largest economies was unlikely to happen soon.

Beijing has said it will take “necessary measures” to defend the rights of Chinese companies but has not said whether or how it will retaliate over the U.S. actions against Huawei.

The editor of the Global Times, an influential tabloid run by the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily, tweeted on Monday that he had switched to a Huawei phone, although he said his decision did not mean that he thinks it is right to boycott Apple and said he was not throwing away his iPhone.

“While the U.S. spares no efforts to subdue Huawei, out of personal belief, I chose to support the well-respected company by using its product,” Hu Xijin tweeted.

Trump, who said the interview with Fox News host Steve Hilton had taken place two days after he raised the tariffs, said he would be happy to simply keep tariffs on Chinese products, but said that he believed that China would eventually make a deal with the United States “because they’re getting killed with the tariffs”.

But he said that he had told Chinese President Xi Jinping before the most recent rounds of talks that any deal could not be “50-50” between the two countries and had to be more in favor of the United States because of past trade practices by China.

(Reporting by David Lawder and Ben Blanchard; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Richard Borsuk, Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)