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Meta’s VR remains under antitrust abuse watch in Germany • TechCrunch

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Germany’s Federal Cartel Office (FCO) is claiming credit for Meta untying its virtual reality headsets from its social accounts — a change of direction the company announced back in August, when it began to roll out Meta accounts and Meta Horizon Profiles, saying these accounts could be used to log into its virtual reality products in place of logins for Facebook and Instagram (while still allowing the latter options as a user choice).

However, despite winning this concession from Meta, the Bundeskartellamt is not closing its probe of its VR offerings. It said today that it wants to keep an eye on how the tech giant presents these account choice options to VR users — ergo, it’s scrutinizing the type of choice architecture (and/or dark patterns) Meta deploys — and also said it’s monitoring how Meta proposes to combine user data across different services.

That’s particularly interesting as the German regulator will be hoping to enforce formal data separation between Meta’s VR products and its other social services in the near future.

But it appears to have been able to extract a temporary partial separation already, per remarks it’s made today.

The back story here is that FCO has a separate challenge to Meta’s so-called ‘superprofiling’ of users, whereby the company pools usage data across different services and links it to a single user ID to flesh out ever more detailed profiles for ad targeting purposes — a privacy-hostile surveillance-based business model that the German competition regulator views as abusive and has sought to block since early 2019.

Meta challenged the FCO’s order which suspended enforcement during the appeals process — and it’s now pending a ruling by the European Union’s top court which could land next year, either unblocking the order or tossing it.

The Bundeskartellamt’s press release today notes that the extent to which “such data processing is permissible” is a “live discussion topic” between it and Meta, including as a result of the aforementioned legal proceeding pending before the European Court of Justice.

“Until this matter has been clarified, Meta will, subject to certain exceptions, keep the data of users with a separate Meta account which are generated during their use of the Meta Quest headsets separate from the data gathered from other Meta services,” the FCO adds.

The German competition watchdog opened the separate probe over Meta’s plan to tie Facebook accounts to Oculus (as the company and its VR business were known at the time) back in December 2020 — saying it was concerned that linking access to its virtual reality products with its social network could constitute a prohibited abuse of dominance.

It’s likely no accident that Meta’s decision to reverse course and roll out separate accounts for users of its VR came a few short months after the FCO completed another proceeding confirming the tech giant is subject to a special competition abuse control regime, enabled by a 2021 update to Germany law — meaning Meta faces tougher antitrust scrutiny by the FCO for the next five years. (Meta did not appeal the designation.)

On the VR issue, the FCO writes that Meta “expressed its interest in an amicable solution in the Facebook/Oculus matter” — before going on, in late August 2022, to introduce the Meta account — which it points out “allows users to use the Quest 2 and Quest Pro headsets without a Facebook or Instagram account”.

“The Bundeskartellamt made it clear that in the process of setting up the headsets users would have to be allowed to decide as freely and uninfluenced as possible whether to use the headsets separately or in connection with other Meta services,” the FCO goes on to note, implying that it applied pressure to Meta to tweak its proposals to remove manipulative nudges.

Following corresponding adjustments, particularly with regard to user dialogues, the Quest 2 and Quest Pro headsets are also expected to be available in Germany soon,” it adds. 

A pan-European Union ex ante competition reform, the Digital Markets Act (DMA), will come into force across the bloc next year — also putting up-front obligations on the most powerful ‘gatekeeping’ Internet giants, with Meta a likely candidate to be designated as operating a core platform service under the DMA and subject to additional restrictions on how it can operate, which are intended to promote competition and fairness. So the operational noose for Meta’s empire continues tightening in Europe.

Commenting in a statement today, the FCO’s president, Andreas Mundt, wrote:

“The digital ecosystem created by Meta with a very large user base makes the company the key player in social media. Meta is also an important player in the growing VR market. Competition in these two sectors could be severely impeded if only Facebook or Instagram members were able to use the VR headsets. Meta has responded to our concerns and has offered to give users of Quest glasses the option to create a separate Meta account as a solution to the problem. While we welcome this development, we will not terminate the proceeding today. We will now continue to monitor the actual design of users’ options as well as issues regarding the combination and processing of user data from the various Meta services. This case shows that Section 19a of the German Competition Act (GWB), the new instrument to monitor large digital companies more effectively, allows us to efficiently address competition problems in practice.”

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Crypto exchange Kraken cuts 1,100 jobs • TechCrunch

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Crypto exchange Kraken today announced it’s letting go of 1,100 staffers. The announcement came from a company blog post and follows similar news from DoorDash that it was also cutting staff.

News that Kraken is cutting staff — and therefore costs — is not a surprise, given a generally gloomy macroeconomic climate and even worse climes in crypto-land. Prior to the Kraken news, we’ve seen several high-profile implosions in and amongst web3 companies, and layoffs from other exchanges including the American crypto giant Coinbase earlier in the year.

Per Kraken, the 1,100 affected employees represent around 30% of its staff, making them stiffer most cuts that we’ve seen from tech companies this year, reductions that tended to land in the 10% to 20% range.

The exchange explained why it made the cuts, writing that “significantly lower trading volumes and fewer client sign-ups” this year led it to reduce its hiring pace and avoid “large marketing commitments.” However, continuing “negative influences on the financial markets” according to Kraken made the cuts necessary despite its attempts to cut other expenses before laying off staff.

DoorDash cited “macro” impacts that led to it make cuts, striking a related tenor concerning the market it is confronting today.

Layoffs have become commonplace in the technology market this year. From startups to tech giants, many tech companies have looked to trim their costs in response to slower than anticipated growth, or the need to reduce unprofitability as investor sentiment has evolved; last year’s growth at all costs mantra has run head-first into market expectations for cleaner P&L statements this year.

After a slight slowdown, tech layoffs have picked back up. The crypto market has see a sharper contraction this year than the technology market more generally, making the Kraken cuts not a surprise, even if they constitute a greater portion of the company’s overall workforce than we have seen amongst other companies.

Coinbase and Kraken are not alone in reducing their personnel costs. OpenSea, another company that saw its valuation soar during the 2021-era startup and crypto boom was forced to cut its headcount as well.

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Adtech antitrust class damages claim filed against Google in UK — seeking up to $16.3BN • TechCrunch

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Litigation against Google and its parent entity Alphabet being brought in the UK on behalf of thousands of digital publishers — seeking up to £13.6 billion (~$16.3BN) in damages on their behalf for alleged anti-competitive behavior related to Google’s adtech practices — has been filed with the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT).

“The claim alleges that Google abused its dominant position in the market for online advertising, earning super-profits for itself at the expense of the tens of thousands of publishers of websites and mobile apps in the UK,” runs a press release accompanying news of today’s filing at the CAT.

The competition class-action style suit, which includes a parallel European Economic Area (EEA) claim in the Netherlands, was announced earlier this fall. That EEA-wide multi-billion Euro claim is expected to be filed in early 2023, per Geradin Partners, one of the law firms involved in the legal action.

City litigation firm Humphries Kerstetter is also acting on the claim — which is being funded by litigation funder, Harbour.

While Claudio Pollack, a former director of the UK’s media and comms regulator, Ofcom, is named as heading the claim — as the representative for the class of businesses allegedly damaged by Google’s actions.

The lawsuit will argue that Google has abused its dominance of adtech infrastructure to dictate terms, control pricing and deploy self preferencing that has damaged thousands of businesses that have had little choice but to use its tools if they wish to generate revenue from advertising.

The suit is being brought on behalf of around 130,000 businesses publishing around 1.75M websites and apps in the UK which the litigation claims have been harmed by Google’s anti-competitive practices.

Economic analysis produced to support the claim suggests Google’s practices may have reduced advertising revenues by up to 40% for some companies.

£13.6BN is an estimate of the total loss to those 130k businesses since January 1, 2014 to date.

The claimants can point to enforcement last year by France’s competition watchdog — which found Google had abused a dominant position for ad servers for website publishers and mobile apps and fining it up to €220 million for a variety of self-preferencing abuses and also extracting a series of interoperability commitments.

Google’s adtech stack — and certain other ad-related practices  — remain under investigation by both EU and U.K. competition authorities.

But European web and app publishers evidently aren’t waiting around for further regulatory smackdowns — not least as they’re hoping to force Google to fork over major damages for what the class action style suits alleges are “serious” anti-competitive practices.

In a statement on the suit, Pollack said: “The marketplace for online advertising is sophisticated, technical and highly automated. Advertising is sold in a fraction of a second in a process which is designed to match the product being advertised with the profile of an individual visiting a website. Third party platforms operate on both sides of the marketplace matching supply with demand and — in an ideal world — ensuring the market operates efficiently and effectively. Unfortunately, it is now well established that this market has developed in a way that is primarily serving Google.”

In another statement, Damien Geradin, founding partner of the eponymous law firm, added: “While the value of the claim we are bringing is substantial, we believe the matter is about much more than money. For years Google has been denying companies in the UK and Europe and beyond, including the local press and the publishers of community focused websites, the chance to earn a proper income by way of advertising.

“As well as bringing Google to account the parties who have lost out need proper compensation, something a CAT claim can achieve at no cost to those parties.”

Google was contacted for a response to the development. The company previously dubbed the litigation “speculative and opportunistic”.

In a further statement emailed to TechCrunch today it said:

Google works constructively with publishers across Europe — our advertising tools, and those of our many adtech competitors, help millions of websites and apps fund their content, and enable businesses of all sizes to effectively reach new customers. These services adapt and evolve in partnership with those same publishers.

While Google is keen to dismiss the legal challenge as baseless, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has expressed major concerns about dysfunction in the digital ad market — following a deep dive investigation it kicked off in 2019.

Its final report, published in July 2020, concluded that the market power of Google and Facebook was so great a new regulatory approach (and dedicated oversight body) was needed to address what it summarized as “wide ranging and self reinforcing” concerns.

However the UK government has so far failed to bring forward the necessary legislation to enable that reboot — which may be another factor driving antitrust class action litigation.

In the meanwhile, a planned adtech stack migration by Google away from third party cookie-based tracking (aka its Privacy Sandbox proposal) remains under close regulatory supervision by the CMA — which stepped in following fresh objections by publishers concerned the move would further entrench the adtech giant’s market dominance.

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Amazon Kindle Scribe review: Better for reading than writing

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I don’t remember anything unless I write it down. Some of you might know the feeling.

That’s why gadgets like the new Kindle Scribe are so interesting: Beyond serving up books, it doubles as a digital journal. With an included stylus, you can scribble notes in that new novel, mark up documents that need work and, yes, jot down reminders throughout the day.

But Amazon is a little late to the party. In the years since it last developed a big-screen Kindle, companies like reMarkable and Onyx have dabbled in digital notebooks — and some of them have gotten so good that Amazon’s work can sometimes feel a little lacking by comparison.

I’ve spent the last few weeks testing the Kindle Scribe and trying it out against some of its most interesting competition. Here’s what you should know.

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but at the Help Desk, we reviews all products and services with the same critical eye.)

At $339 (or more, if you opt for a nicer pen and add a case), the Scribe is Amazon’s biggest, most expensive Kindle in years. In testing it alongside rival devices like the $299 reMarkable 2 and the $599 Onyx Boox Tab Ultra, it didn’t take long to discover that the Scribe isn’t equally good for reading and writing.

The Scribe has perhaps the most polished software of the three, and thanks to barely there weight and great screen lighting, it’s the one that I’d most like to power through a novel on. But if you’re interested in doing some serious writing on a device like this, you may want to consider something like the reMarkable instead.

I’m not saying taking notes or crossing items off a to-do list was at all unpleasant. Writing on the Scribe with the included stylus screen felt smooth and satisfying, and it comes with a handful of notebook templates for people who need to jump between wide-ruled, grid and even sheet music “paper.”

What really gets me is that the Scribe’s writing features feel a little basic compared with some of its rivals.

There’s no way to, for example, select a bunch of text you’ve written and move it around. If you realized you’ve put some notes in the wrong spot, oh, well — you’ll just have to erase and rewrite it. (iPads, the reMarkable and Onyx’s digital notebooks can handle this just fine.) Also missing is any kind of handwriting recognition, which means there’s no way to search for specific things you’ve written or convert your writing into text to make it more legible.

Occasional writers might not notice these features are absent. Ditto for folks who mainly want a Scribe for books — this is definitely still a reading-first device. In an email, an Amazon spokesperson said the Scribe was “inspired” by the people who have been highlighting and leaving notes in their Kindle books for years. Fine, but when you consider the last time Amazon debuted a new big-screen Kindle reader was more than a decade ago, I’m a little surprised it didn’t flesh out its writing tools a little more.

Want to borrow that e-book from the library? Sorry, Amazon won’t let you.

People who want to see more. The Scribe has a 10.2-inch display, the largest Amazon has ever squeezed into a Kindle. That means you can now view more of a book at a glance, or — if your eyes aren’t what they used to be — really crank up the font size.

People who hate charging gadgets. Gadgets with e-paper displays have a reputation for long battery life, and so far, the Scribe is no exception. Unless you’re reading 24/7, expect it to last a few weeks on a single charge.

People who write notes in book margins. As a digital notebook, the Scribe is basic at best. But scribbling observations in books you’re reading — plus exporting and reviewing them later — works well enough.

People who work with complex documents. You can import and write on top of Word documents and PDFs, but Amazon says you can’t mark up files that include large tables. And if you work with lots of long PDF papers, you may see the Scribe hesitate when you try to swipe into a new page. (It doesn’t always happen, but it can really slow you down if you’re looking for something specific.)

Folks who keep files in the cloud. The Scribe can’t connect to services like Dropbox or Google Drive, which means getting to work on the documents you have stored there takes some work. And if you want to get things you’ve written off the Scribe, you have two options: email them to yourself, or view (but not save) them in the Kindle app on your phone or tablet.

Those who like to read in the tub. Many of Amazon’s other recent Kindles can survive the occasional spill or splash. Not so for the company’s most expensive Kindle — you may want to think twice before packing it for a beach day.

What the marketing doesn’t mention

Other devices can make reading a little easier. iPads and Android tablets can run Amazon’s Kindle app, which includes one helpful feature that the Scribe lacks: a two-column view when you hold your gadget horizontally. It feels ever-so-slightly more like reading an actual book, and its absence here will be a real bummer for some.

You can just drag and drop files onto the Scribe. Using Amazon’s Send to Kindle website to send files to the Scribe is easy enough, and it hasn’t taken more than a couple of minutes to arrive. But if you’re somewhere you can’t get online — or if you don’t want Amazon as a middle man — you can transfer files with the included USB cable.

You can fill it with books you didn’t buy from Amazon. Okay, fine, the Scribe’s product page does technically mention this. But it’s worth repeating that you can move digital books in the EPUB format you didn’t buy from Amazon onto the Scribe. So far, the books I’ve tested this with look the way they’re supposed to, but your mileage may vary.

The FBI closed the book on Z-Library, and readers and authors clashed

What are the alternatives?

If the Scribe is an e-book reader first, digital notebook second, the reMarkable 2 is the exact opposite. You can’t buy books on one, though loading it up with files to read is trivial. And the lack of any built-in lighting means reading in bed may require turning on a lamp.

What really shines, though, is how it approaches writing and organization. The features I mentioned the Scribe lacking — like moving around snippets of writing and handwriting-to-text conversion — work wonderfully here. The reMarkable also includes more options to customize your pen strokes, plus support for cloud services like Google Drive and Dropbox for easier access to your files.

The catch: The reMarkable doesn’t come with a free stylus — that’ll cost you at least an extra $79. The full package costs more than the Scribe, but people eager to be productive may get more out of reMarkable’s features.

Meanwhile, the $599 Onyx Boox Tab Ultra is the most ambitious digital notebook I’ve ever seen. It has a processor fast enough to play HD video, a camera for scanning documents, and runs on a custom version of Android. That means you can install Amazon’s Kindle app — or the Kobo Store, or Libby — and read books from almost anywhere.

The catch: The software is, quite frankly, a mess. You don’t need to poke around for long before running into confusing menu options, and app crashes aren’t uncommon.

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