Connect with us

Android

Europe’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, set for expanded role in next Commission

Judhajeet Das

Published

on

As the antitrust investigations stack up on US tech giants’ home turf there’s no sign of pressure letting up across the pond.

European Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen today unveiled her picks for the next team of commissioners who will take up their mandates on November 1 — giving an expanded role to competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager. The pick suggests the next Commission is preparing to dial up its scrutiny of big tech’s data monopolies.

Under the draft list of commissioners-designate, which still needs to be approved in full by the European Parliament, Vestager has been named executive VP overseeing a new portfolio called ‘Europe fit for the digital age’.

But, crucially, she will also retain the competition portfolio — which implies attention on growing Europe’s digital economy will go hand in glove with scrutiny of fairness in ecommerce and ensuring a level playing field vs US platform giants.

“Executive vice-president Margrethe Vestager will lead our work on a Europe fit for the digital age,” said von der Leyen at a press conference to announce her picks. “Digitalization has a huge impact on the way we live, we work, we communicate. In some fields Europe has to catch up — for example in the field of business to consumer but in other fields we’re excellent. Europe is the frontrunner, for example in business to business, when we talk about digital twins of products and procedures.

“We have to make more out of the field of artificial intelligence. We have to make our single market a digital single market. We have to use way more the big data that is out there but we don’t make enough out of it. What innovation and startups are concerned. It’s not only need to know but it’s need to share big data. We have to improve on cyber security. We have to work hard on our technological sovereignty just to name a few issues in these broad topics.

“Margrethe Vestager will co-ordinate the whole agenda. And be the commissioner for competition. She will work together with the commissioner for internal market, innovation and youth, transport, energy, jobs, health and justice.”

If tech giants were hoping for Europe’s next Commission to pay a little less attention to question marks hanging over the fairness of their practices they’re likely to be disappointed as Vestager is set to gain expanded powers and a broader canvas to paint on. The new role clearly positions her to act on the review of competition policy she instigated towards the end of her current mandate — which focused on the challenges posed by digital markets.

Since taking over as Europe’s competition chief back in 2014, Vestager has made a name for herself by blowing the dust off the brief and driving forward on a series of regulatory interventions targeting tech giants including Amazon, Apple and Google . In the latter case this has included opening a series of fresh probes as well as nailing the very long running Google Shopping saga inherited from her predecessor.

The activity of the department under her mandate has clearly catalyzed complainants — creating a pipeline of cases for her to tackle. And just last month Reuters reported she had been preparing an “intensive” handover of work looking into complaints against Google’s job search product to her successor — a handover that won’t now be necessary, assuming the EU parliament gives its backing to von der Leyen’s team.

While the competition commissioner has thus far generated the biggest headlines for the size of antitrust fines she’s handed down — including a record-breaking $5BN fine for Google last year for illegal restrictions attached to Android — her attention on big data holdings as a competition risk is most likely to worry tech giants going forward.

See, for example, the formal investigation of Amazon’s use of merchant data announced this summer for a sign of the direction of travel.

Vestager has also talked publicly about regulating data flows as being a more savvy route to control big tech versus swinging a break up hammer. And while — on the surface — regulating data might sound less radical a remedy than breaking giants like Google and Facebook up, placing hard limits on how data can be used has the potential to effect structural separation via a sort of regulatory keyhole surgery that’s likely to be quicker and implies a precision that may also make it more politically palatable.

That’s important given the ongoing EU-US trade friction kicked up by the Trump administration which is never shy of lashing out, especially at European interventions that seek to address some of the inequalities generated by tech giants — most recently Trump gave France’s digital tax plans a tongue-lashing.

von der Leyen was asked during the press conference whether Vestager might not been seen as a controversial choice given Trump’s views of her activity to date (Europe’s “tax lady” is one of the nicer things he’s said about Vestager). The EU president-elect dismissed the point saying the only thing that matters in assigning Commission portfolios is “quality and excellence”, adding that competition and digital is the perfect combination to make the most of Vestager’s talents.

“Vestager has done an outstanding job as a commissioner for competition,” she went on. “At competition and the issues she’s tackling there are closely linked to the digital sector too. So having her as an executive vice-president for the digital in Europe is absolutely a perfect combination.

“She’ll have this topic as a cross-cutting topic. She’ll have to work on the Digital Single Market. She will work on the fact that we want to use in a better way big data that is out there, that we collect every day — non-personalized data. That we should use way better, in the need for example to share with others for innovation, for startups, for new ideas.

“She will work on the whole topic of cyber security. Which is the more we’re digitalized, the more we’re vulnerable. So there’s a huge field in front of her. And as she’s shown excellence in the Commission portfolio she’ll keep that — the executive vice-presidents have with the DGs muscles to deal with their vast portfolios’ subject they have to deal with.”

In other choices announced today, the current commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel, will be taking up a new portfolio called ‘Innovation and Youth’. And Sylvie Goulard was named as ‘Internal Market’ commissioner, leading on industrial policy and promoting the Digital Single Market, as well as getting responsibility for Defence Industry and Space.

Another executive VP choice, Valdis Dombrovskis, looks likely to be tackling thorny digital taxation issues — with responsibility for co-ordinating the Commission’s work on what’s been dubbed an “Economy that Works for People”, as well as also being commissioner for financial services. 

In prepared remarks on that role, von der Leyen said: We have a unique social market economy. It is the source of our prosperity and social fairness. This is all the more important when we face a twin transition: climate and digital. Valdis Dombrovskis will lead our work to bring together the social and the market in our economy.”

Frans Timmermans, who was previously in the running as a possible candidate for Commission president but lost out to von der Leyen, is another exec VP pick. He’s set to be focused on delivering a European Green Deal and managing climate action policy.

Another familiar face — current justice, consumer and gender affairs commissioner, Věra Jourová — has also been named as an exec VP, gaining responsibility for “Values and Transparency”, a portfolio title which suggests she’ll continue to be involved in EU efforts to combat online disinformation on platforms.

The rest of the Commission portfolio appointments can be found here.

There are 26 picks in all — 27 counting von der Leyen who has already been confirmed as president; one per EU country. The UK has no representation in the next Commission given it is due to leave the bloc on October 31, the day before the new Commission takes up its mandate.

von der Leyen touted the team she presented today as balanced and diverse, including on gender lines as well as geographically to take account of the full span of European Union members.

“It draws on all the strength and talents, men and women, experienced and young, east and west, south and north, a team that is well balanced, a team that brings together diversity of experience and competence,” she said. “I want a Commission that is led with determination, that is clearly focused on the issues at hand — and that provides answers.”

Commissioners elect

“There’s one fundamental that connects this team: We want to bring new impetus to Europe’s democracy,” she added. “This is our joint responsibility. And democracy is more than voting in elections in every five years; it is about having your voice heard. It’s about having been able to participate in the way our society’s built. We gave to address some of the deeper issues in our society that have led to a loss of faith in democracy.”

In a signal of her intention that the new Commission should “walk the talk” on making Europe fit for the digital age she announced that college meetings will be paperless and digital.

On lawmaking, she added that there will be a one-in, one-out policy — with any new laws and regulation supplanting an existing rule in a bid to cut red tape.

The shape of the next Commission remains in draft pending approval by the European Parliament to all the picks. The parliament must vote to accept the entire college of commissioners — a process that’s preceded by hearings of the commissioners-designate in relevant parliamentary committees.

Tech Passionate and Heavy Geek! Into Blogging world since 2014 and never looked back since then :) I am also a YouTube Video Producer and a Aspiring Entrepreneur. Founder, MyDroidDoes

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Android

Afore Capital raises second pre-seed venture capital fund

Judhajeet Das

Published

on

As expectations from seed investors intensify, a new stage of investment has established itself earlier in the venture-backed company life cycle.

Known as “pre-seed” investing, one of the first legitimate outfits to double down on the stage has refueled, closing its second fund on $77 million.

Afore Capital’s sophomore fund is likely the largest pool of venture capital yet to focus exclusively on pre-seed companies, or pre-product businesses seeking their first bout of institutional capital. In many cases, a pre-seed startup may even be “pre-idea,” yet to fully incorporate. While some funds are happy to invest that early, Afore seeks slightly more mature companies.

Afore invests between $500,000 and $1 million in nascent startups. As it kicks off its second fund, founding partners Anamitra Banerji and Gaurav Jain tell TechCrunch they plan to lead all of their investments.

We have the opportunity to build a firm that defines a category. – Afore founding partner Anamitra Banerji

Standouts in Afore’s existing portfolio include the no-fee credit card company Petal — which has raised roughly $50 million to date — mobile executive coaching business BetterUp, childcare information platform Winnie and Modern Health, a B2B mental wellness platform.

Afore portfolio companies have raised more than $360 million in follow-on funding, with an aggregate market cap of $1.5 billion, Jain, the founding product manager at Android Nexus and former principal at Founder Collective, tells TechCrunch. “These are high-quality teams with high-quality projects and ideas.”

Jain and Banerji — a founding product manager at Twitter and former partner at Foundation Capital — began raising capital for Afore’s $47 million debut fund in 2016. Since then, the landscape for seed investing has shifted. Early-stage investors have begun funneling larger sums of capital to standout teams at the seed, while billion-dollar venture capital funds set aside capital for serial entrepreneurs working on their next big idea. As a result, deal sizes have swelled and deal count has shrunk simultaneously.

“Pre-seed has replaced seed in the venture ecosystem,” Banerji tells TechCrunch. “We saw this early as a result of both of us having been at funds. We knew that this was going to be a massive category just like seed was before it. Now we think it’s clearly here to stay and we have the opportunity to build a firm that defines a category.”

Since launching the firm, the pair explain they’ve noticed more and more founders explicitly stating that they are in the market for a pre-seed round, a statement you wouldn’t have heard as recently as two years ago.

This is a result of Afore’s efforts to legitimize the stage through investments and programming, including its annual Pre-Seed Summit. Though Afore is certainly not the only VC fund focused on the earliest stage of startup investing — other firms deploying capital at the stage include Hustle Fund, which closed an $11.8 million debut fund last year, plus the $20 million immigrant-focused pre-seed fund Unshackled Ventures and the predominant seed and pre-seed stage firm Precursor Ventures, which announced a $31 million second fund earlier this year.

In the past year alone, more than $200 million has been dedicated to the pre-seed stage, with at least nine new funds launching to nurture early-stage startups.

More and more firms are setting up shop at the pre-seed stage as competition at the seed stage reaches new heights. As we’ve previously reported, monster funds are becoming increasingly active at the seed stage, muscling seed funds out of top deals with less dilutive offers. While the pre-seed stage, for the most part, remains protected from competition at the later stage, these firms still have to compete.

“Nobody wants to lose sight of a deal, so they are willing to toss small amounts of capital very early behind interesting founders,” Jain said. “But frankly, we aren’t sure if it’s good for a company to raise that much capital that early in their life cycle.”

Working with a fund that isn’t passionate about what you are building or familiar with the plights of the stage of your business is terrible for founders, adds Jain. Pairing with a focused fund like Afore, on the other hand, allows for “incentive alignment.”

Afore invests across all industries, preferring to back startups in categories “before they are categories.”

“What we are looking for is deep authenticity and passion around the product they are building,” says Banerji. “Ideas on their own aren’t enough. Founder resumes on their own aren’t enough. While we do care about all of those aspects, we get crazy about their clarity of thought in the short term.”

“We don’t take the point of view of ‘here is some money, it’s OK to lose it,’ ” he adds. “For us to invest, the founder must be all in. And we generally don’t invest in celebrity founders; we are going after the underdog founder.”

Continue Reading

Android

Get popcorn for iOS 13’s privacy pop-ups of creepy Facebook data grabs

Judhajeet Das

Published

on

Privacy-minded changes to smartphone operating systems which foreground the background activity of third party apps are helping to spotlight more of the surveillance infrastructure deployed by adtech giants to track and profile human eyeballs for profit.

To wit: iOS 13, which will be generally released later this week, has already been spotted catching Facebook’s app trying to use Bluetooth to track nearby users.

facebook BT

Why might Facebook want to do this? Matching Bluetooth (and wif-fi) IDs that share physical location could allow it to supplement the social graph it gleans by data-mining user-to-user activity on its platform.

Such location tracking provides a physical confirm that individuals were (at very least) in close proximity.

Combined with personal data Facebook also holds on people, and contextual data on the nature of the location itself — a bar, say, or a house — there’s a clear path for the company to make inferences about the nature of the relationship between the people who it’s repurposed short range wireless tech to determine are in close contact.

For a company that makes money by serving targeted ads at humans there are clear commercial reasons for Facebook to seek to intimately understand people’s friend networks.

Facebook piggybacking on people’s use of Bluetooth for benign purposes like pairing devices so that its ad business can ‘pair’ people is the sneaky modus operandi that iOS 13 has caught in the act here.

Ads are Facebook’s business, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously told the senate last year. But it’s worth noting the social network giant recently sought to push into the dating space — giving it a fresh, product-based incentive to pry into where and with whom humans are spending their time.

Algorithmic matchmaking based on cold signals like shared interests (in basic Facebook currency this might mean stuff like liking the same pages and events) is of course nothing new.

Yet mix in hot-blooded signals gathered by watching who actually mingles with whom, where and when — by repurposing Bluetooth to harvest interpersonal interactions via tracking people’s physical movements — and Facebook can take its curtain-twitching surveillance of human behavior to the next level.

The path of least resistance to tracking people’s movements is if Facebook app users are opting in to location tracking on their devices. Which means users enabling Location Services — a location tracking feature on smartphones that covers GPS, Bluetooth and crowd-sources wi-fi hotspots and mobile cell towers.

Unsurprisingly, then Facebook Dating requires Location Services to be enabled to function. The company confirmed to us that the Facebook app prompts dating users to enable Location Services if they haven’t already. Facebook also told us it doesn’t use wi-fi or Bluetooth to determine a person’s precise location if a user has Location Services turned off.

It also made a point of emphasizing that users can switch Location Services off at any time. Just not if they wish to use, er, Facebook Dating…

As per usual the company is tangling separate purposes for data processing in a way that denies people a meaningful choice over protecting their privacy. Hence Facebook dating users get to ‘choose’ between being able to use the service; or being able to blanket-deny Facebook the ability to track their physical movements. Like it or lump it.

iOS 13’s new privacy pop-ups to call out background app activity are a clear response to such disingenuous methods by an industry Apple CEO Tim Cook has dubbed the data industrial complex — putting a degree of control back in the hands of the user, who gets a third choice of manually disallowing Bluetooth proximity tracking (in the above example).

Android 10 has also recently expanded the location tracking controls it offers users — with the ability to only share location data with apps while you use them. Though Google’s OS lags far behind what Apple is now offering with these granular pop-ups.

Facebook has responded to awkward (for it) privacy changes incoming at the smartphone OS level by putting out an update on location services last week — where it seeks to get ahead of the deluge of data-grab warnings that iOS users of the Facebook app are likely to experience as they update to iOS 13.

Here it tries to spin Apple’s pro-active foregrounding of apps’ background tracking tactics via push notifications as “reminders” — in just one amusing rebrand.

But in a truly shameless contradiction Facebook also goes on to claim that: “You’re in control of who sees your location on Facebook” (because it says users can make use of the Location Services setting on a phone or tablet to deny tracking) — before admitting that switching off Location Services doesn’t actually mean Facebook will not track your location.

Just because you’re signalling very clearly to Facebook that you don’t want your location to be collected by Facebook doesn’t mean Facebook is going to respect that. Hell no!

“We may still understand your location using things like check-ins, events and information about your internet connection,” it writes. (For a clearer understanding of Facebook’s use of the word “understand” in that sentence we suggest you try substituting the word “steal”.)

In a final shameless kicker — in which Facebook almost appears to be trying to claim credit for smartphone OSes building more privacy features in response to its data grabs — the company seeks to finish on a forward-gazing note, per its preferred crisis PR custom, writing: “We’ll continue to make it easier for you to control how and when you share your location.”

Facebook dishing out misleading qualifications (e.g. “easier”) that whitewash the extent of its rampant data grabs is nothing new. But how much longer it can hope to rely on such flimsy figleaves to cover its privacy sins as the winds of change come rattling through remains to be seen…

Continue Reading

Android

Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S6 combines creative flexibility with great design

Judhajeet Das

Published

on

The Android tablet market isn’t exactly a hotbed of excitement and activity, which makes it all the more impressive that Samsung continues to iterate its own tablet lineup in smart, meaningful ways that push the technology forward and deliver a stellar experience. Samsung’s new Galaxy Tab S6 (starting at $649.99) is no exception, and this latest offering expands the definition of what a tablet can be while retaining or refining everything that’s been its predecessors.

Thin, light and luxe design

Samsung has been delivering outstanding body design on its tablet lineup since the introduction of the all-metal and glass Tab S4, and the Tab S6 continues this tradition with a full metal back and glass front that’s lighter and thinner than its predecessor. The look and feel is more reminiscent of the Tab S5e, which was released after the S4 earlier this year and which acts as a more economical alternative to Samsung’s flagship lineup. The S6 manages to feel just a touch more premium than the S5e, though both are class-leading in terms of their industrial design.

The brushed finish of the back looks great, and feels nice in the hand, and if you have larger hands you can even one-hand this device when reading for limited periods of time. Samsung has also shrunk the bezels, giving you a more front face-filling screen than on any previous tablet, which does a very good job of putting the gorgeous sAMOLED display in focus. More than ever, this feels like one big sleek, metallic hand-held display — the future, in your hand, reduced to the essentials in an awesome way.

Display and cameras

The display on the Tab S6 isn’t much changed from the one used on the Tab S5e and the Tab S4 — but that’s actually great news, because Samsung has the best tablet display in the business when it comes to watching media. The 10.5-inch 2560 x 1600 pixel Super AMOLED display gives you true blacks that are outstanding, and impossible to replicate on any LED-based display, and Samsung offers a range of color options from which to choose, including “natural” settings for photo-accurate editing, and enhanced saturation modes for getting the most out of eye-popping movies and videos.

That display now comes with a neat new trick on the Tab S6: an integrated fingerprint reader. This authentication and unlock method is new for this generation, and replaces iris/face scanning as the only biometric unlock option on the Tab S4. It performs very well in my testing, and has the added cool factor of being just an amazing bit of whiz-bang tech magic, especially if this is your first time encountering an in-display fingerprint reader.

tab s6 screen fingerprint unlock

The great display makes a fantastic editing surface for photos and videos, and that’s why it’s super interesting that Samsung went out of their way to upgrade the cameras on the Tab S6 — adding dual camera options, in fact. There’s now a super-wide-angle lens in addition to the standard one, which gives you a lot of creative options when it comes to both still photography and videos.

While the Tab S6 is great for editing, I still wouldn’t lean too heavily on the built-in cameras for actually capturing content. They’re fine cameras, augmented by Samsung’s built-in software, but the super-wide has a fair amount of distortion and not the best resolution, and in general I still think you should avoid shooting too much with tablet cameras. Still, it’s nice to have the option in case you’re in a pinch.

Your pen pal

I mentioned editing above, but the Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 has an added advantage over other tablets in this area: The S Pen. Samsung’s stylus is updated in this version, with Bluetooth connectivity that gives it additional superpowers like the ability to act as a remote for the camera, presentations and other software.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 1The S Pen still performs best as an actual stylus, however, and it excels in this capacity. For pressure-sensitive applications, including sketching and painting, it’s fantastic, but where it really shines in my usage is in editing photos using software like Lightroom from Adobe. Stylus input means you can get super specific and accurate with your edits. This applies to editing video, too, where the stylus works well for making concise trims to video timelines.

You also can easily create handwritten notes with the S Pen, and if you do so using Samsung’s built-in Notes application, you get automatic OCR and search indexing. In my testing, I found that this worked really, really well — surprisingly so, considering how bad my handwriting is. For printed characters, the Samsung Notes app had no trouble at all identifying words accurately in my scrawl and retrieving the right results when searching by keyword.

Because this S Pen uses Bluetooth, it now has a built-in rechargeable battery. Like Apple’s Pencil, it charges wirelessly, attaching magnetically to the tablet to power up. Samsung has designed a groove in the back of the tablet to receive the S Pen for charging, and while this isn’t sturdy enough for you to trust it to hold the stylus when you throw them in your bag unprotected, the Tab S6 cover accessory nicely wraps the S Pen with a fold-down flap for easy storage.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 6

A true workhorse

Samsung’s official case options include a back panel protector/detachable keyboard combo that are probably the best accessory of this style available on the market for any tablet. The back cover includes a reusable sticky surface to ensure a solid fit, which will be more reliably fixed than a magnetic attachment, and it has a multi-angle kickstand that works wonderfully to support the tablet on any table or even on your lap.

As mentioned, there’s a top flap that provides protection and easy access to the S Pen, which is a very clever way to keep that stored without complicating matters. The cover has a finely textured surface that increases grippiness, and it has proven resilient in terms of not picking up dirt or grime so far.

The keyboard attaches via magnets to one side of the tablet, folding up to protect the display when not in use. It’s slim, but it still had defined keys with actual travel that feel really good to type with, and there’s something you probably weren’t expecting to see on an Android tablet keyboard — a built-in trackpad.

All of this is designed primarily for use with DeX, Samsung’s desktop-like software experience that’s aimed at boosting productivity (though you can use the trackpad in the standard Android interface, too). When it works well, the DeX experience truly makes the Tab S6 feel like a mini desktop, giving you the power to tackle tasks in multiple windows — including in multiple windows for the same apps. It’s great for things like seeing Slack open and working in multiple browser windows, along with your email client, for instance.

That said, there are definite limitations to DeX, including the need to re-open all your windows when switching back from standard Android mode, for instance. Not every app behaves well in this novel mode, either, as third-party ones especially aren’t designed for it, and there are quirks to the windowing (like overflowing and weird-sized windows) that make it occasionally a little strange to work with. Still, all in all, it’s great to have the option, and can really increase your ability to do work on the road in the right circumstances.

Bottom line

Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 5

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 is, without a doubt, the best Android tablet available. It combines top-notch hardware with Samsung’s evolving DeX approach to mobile productivity, and while DeX isn’t perfect in all settings, it’s at the very least not doing any harm, and you’re better off having it available versus not. Meanwhile, the Tab S6 working in standard Android mode is an excellent, super-fast media consumption and photo-editing powerhouse. If you’re in the market for a tablet, the Tab S6 is an easy choice.

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Trending Now!