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Google pushes back against Australian Government regulations

[BUSINESS NEWS] Google claps back at the Australian government with an open-letter to Australian consumers, opposing the proposed News Media Bargaining Code law.

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Google Australia home page pop-up

Google made a power move by communicating directly to Australian consumers with a pop-up on the Google search home page. The open letter to Aussies is the latest in response to Australia’s push to pass a law that would require Google and Facebook to pay media publications for their news content.

News media companies have suffered in many markets with the fall of print media and rise of online news, affecting the companies’ ability to collect ad revenue. The Australian government says that Australian news outlets have been impacted even more acutely by the coronavirus pandemic, with over one hundred local papers in the country laying off reporters and either stopping printing or closing entirely.

Google’s open letter to Aussies, penned by the Australia Managing Director, Mel Silva, warns that the rule would unfairly advantage big media industries by requiring Google to share data to help them artificially boost their rankings. This would jeopardize the quality of search results and possibly even user data, claiming “There’s no way of knowing if any data handed over would be protected, or how it might be used by news media businesses.”

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), the watchdog that authored the proposed law, says the open letter contains inaccuracies. They claim that Google would not be required to share any additional use data with the media unless it chooses too, and would also not require Google to start charging for its free services like Search and Youtube.

Of course, it is any company’s prerogative to communicate directly with its customers, even its non-paying customers. But if this communication is effective in wielding the power of Google’s millions of Australian civilians to counter the government’s regulations, it behooves Aussies to leverage Google to understand the facts and verify Google’s claims against the text of the regulation.

The decision to highlight bellicose language like “at risk” and “hurting” to describe the effects of the law, without explaining the proposed law itself, is a clear attempt to manipulate an emotional reaction from users by painting the law as a threat to free services, rather than an attempt to protect a healthy democracy.

The spread of misinformation online is threatening democracies around the world, and Google should take a hard look at its role in that.

Google published a more detailed blog post on the matter on May 31, entitled “A fact-based discussion about news online.” The post essentially claims that Google Australia doesn’t gain that much revenue from news searches (only 10 percent!) so how could it possibly be ‘taking’ that money from the media? Furthermore, 2018 Google searches accounted for 3.44 billion visits to Australian news publishers – at no charge to the publishers! That’s a lot of clicks! Can’t you feed your kids with them clicks, Aussie news monsters?

This is not the first time Google has made political noise. In 2018, Google displayed Youtube notices about an EU copyright proposal and in 2014, closed Google News in Spain entirely over a similar dispute as Australia.

In the end, the question remains – in Australia, the US, and elsewhere – whether tech giants like Google and Facebook should hold outsized market control of paid advertising online.

But the lengths Google is currently taking to undermine this governmental action is a testament to just how far this company has come in 22 years. In 1998, Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page published an academic paper from the Stanford computer science department entitled “The anatomy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine.” Yes, that search engine was named Google.

The paper describes a novel approach to enhance the effectiveness of a large-scale search engine in the early days of the internet. In addition to an apropos search result example for the term “Bill Clinton,” the paper comments on paid advertising.

In Appendix A: Advertising and Mixed Motives, the authors assert that a conflict of interest could arise when a high-quality search result is counter to the goals of a paid advertiser. They conclude that “advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.” In 2019, paid advertising accounted for 70.9 percent of Google’s revenue.

Sure, the internet of 2020 is not the beloved wormhole of yesteryear, when the online world was mostly made of blogs, games, and community forums. Google has grown with the times (or even ahead of them), as any smart tech company should. So perhaps holding 2020 Google to a 1998 standard is unfair.

Nonetheless, I leave you with the authors’ conclusion to the advertising discussion from their original concept: “…we believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.”

Transparency isn’t outdated, is it Google?

Heather Buffo is a Cleveland native, a recovering Bostonian, and an Austin newbie. Heather has her Bachelor of Arts in Neurobiology from Harvard University, and is a City Year Boston AmeriCorps alum. When she's not writing for AG, you can find her pouring beers at the Brewtorium, but only one at a time.

Business News

Big retailers are opting for refunds instead of returns

(BUSINESS NEWS) Due to increased shipping costs, big companies like Amazon and Walmart are opting to give out a refund rather than accepting small items returned.

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Package delivery people holding deliveries. Refund instead of returns are common now.

The holidays are over, and now some people are ready to return an item that didn’t quite work out or wasn’t on their Christmas list. Whatever the reason, some retailers are giving customers a refund and letting them keep the product, too.

When Vancouver, Washington resident, Lorie Anderson, tried returning makeup from Target and batteries from Walmart she had purchased online, the retailers told her she could keep or donate the products. “They were inexpensive, and it wouldn’t make much financial sense to return them by mail,” said Ms. Anderson, 38. “It’s a hassle to pack up the box and drop it at the post office or UPS. This was one less thing I had to worry about.”

Amazon.com Inc., Walmart Inc., and other companies are changing the way they handle returns this year, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). The companies are using artificial intelligence (AI) to weigh the costs of processing physical returns versus just issuing a refund and having customers keep the item.

For instance, if it costs more to ship an inexpensive or larger item than it is to refund the purchase price, companies are giving customers a refund and telling them to keep the products also. Due to an increase in online shopping, it makes sense for companies to change how they manage returns.

Locus Robotics chief executive Rick Faulk told the Journal that the biggest expense when it comes to processing returns is shipping costs. “Returning to a store is significantly cheaper because the retailer can save the freight, which can run 15% to 20% of the cost,” Faulk said.

But, returning products to physical stores isn’t something a lot of people are wanting to do. According to the return processing firm Narvar, online returns increased by 70% in 2020. With people still hunkered down because of the pandemic, changing how to handle returns is a good thing for companies to consider to reduce shipping expenses.

While it might be nice to keep the makeup or batteries for free, don’t expect to return that new PS5 and get to keep it for free, too. According to WSJ, a Walmart spokesperson said the company lets someone keep a refunded item only if the company doesn’t plan on reselling it. And, besides taking the economic costs into consideration, the companies look at the customer’s purchase history as well.

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Business News

Google workers have formed company’s first labor union

(BUSINESS NEWS) A number of Google employees have agreed to commit 1% of their salary to labor union dues to support employee activism and fight workplace discrimination.

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Google complex with human sized chessboard, where a labor union has been formed.

On Monday morning, Google workers announced that they have formed a union with the support of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the largest communications and media labor union in the U.S.

The new union, Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) was organized in secret for about a year and formed to support employee activism, and fight discrimination and unfairness in the workplace.

“From fighting the ‘real names’ policy, to opposing Project Maven, to protesting the egregious, multi-million dollar payouts that have been given to executives who’ve committed sexual harassment, we’ve seen first-hand that Alphabet responds when we act collectively. Our new union provides a sustainable structure to ensure that our shared values as Alphabet employees are respected even after the headlines fade,” stated Program Manager Nicki Anselmo in a press release.

AWU is the first union in the company’s history, and it is open to all employees and contractors at any Alphabet company in the United States and Canada. The cost of membership is 1% of an employee’s total compensation, and the money collected will be used to fund the union organization.

In a response to the announcement, Google’s Director of People Operations, Kara Silverstein, said, “We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce. Of course, our employees have protected labor rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”

Unlike other labor unions, the AWU is considered a “Minority Union”. This means it doesn’t need formal recognition from the National Labor Relations Board. However, it also means Alphabet can’t be forced to meet the union’s demands until a majority of employees support it.

So far, the number of members in the union represents a very small portion of Google’s workforce, but it’s growing every day. When the news of the union was first announced on Monday, roughly 230 employees made up the union. Less than 24 hours later, there were 400 employees in the union, and now that number jumped to over 500 employees.

Unions among Silicon Valley’s tech giants are rare, but labor activism is slowly picking up speed, especially with more workers speaking out and organizing.

“The Alphabet Workers Union will be the structure that ensures Google workers can actively push for real changes at the company, from the kinds of contracts Google accepts to employee classification to wage and compensation issues. All issues relevant to Google as a workplace will be the purview of the union and its members,” stated the AWU in a press release.

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Business News

Ticketmaster caught red-handed hacking, hit with major fines

(BUSINESS NEWS) Ticketmaster has agreed to pay $10 million to resolve criminal charges after hacking into a competitor’s network specifically to sabotage.

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Person open on hacking computer screen, typing on keyboard.

Live Nation’s Ticketmaster agreed to pay $10 million to resolve criminal charges after admitting to hacking into a competitor’s network and scheming to “choke off” the ticket seller company and “cut [victim company] off at the knees”.

Ticketmaster admitted hiring former employee, Stephen Mead, from startup rival CrowdSurge (which merged with Songkick) in 2013. In 2012, Mead signed a separation agreement to keep his previous company’s information confidential. When he joined Live Nation, Mead provided that confidential information to the former head of the Artist Services division, Zeeshan Zaidi, and other Ticketmaster employees. The hacking information shared with the company included usernames, passwords, data analytics, and other insider secrets.

“When employees walk out of one company and into another, it’s illegal for them to take proprietary information with them. Ticketmaster used stolen information to gain an advantage over its competition, and then promoted the employees who broke the law. This investigation is a perfect example of why these laws exist – to protect consumers from being cheated in what should be a fair market place,” said FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Sweeney.

In January 2014, Mead gave a Ticketmaster executive multiple sets of login information to Toolboxes, the competitor’s password-protected app that provides real-time data about tickets sold through the company. Later, at an Artists Services Summit, Mead logged into a Toolbox and demonstrated the product to Live Nation and Ticketmaster employees. Information collected from the Toolboxes were used to “benchmark” Ticketmaster’s offerings against the competitor.

“Ticketmaster employees repeatedly – and illegally – accessed a competitor’s computers without authorization using stolen passwords to unlawfully collect business intelligence,” said Acting U.S. Attorney DuCharme in a statement. “Further, Ticketmaster’s employees brazenly held a division-wide ‘summit’ at which the stolen passwords were used to access the victim company’s computers, as if that were an appropriate business tactic.”

The hacking violations were first reported in 2017 when CrowdSurge sued Live Nation for antitrust violations. A spokesperson told The Verge, “Ticketmaster terminated both Zaidi and Mead in 2017, after their conduct came to light. Their actions violated our corporate policies and were inconsistent with our values. We are pleased that this matter is now resolved.”

To resolve the case, Ticketmaster will pay a $10 million criminal penalty, create a compliance and ethics program, and report to the United States Attorney’s Office annually during a three-year term. If the agreement is breached, Ticketmaster will be charged with: “One count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusions, one count of computer intrusion for commercial advantage, one count of computer intrusion in furtherance of fraud, one count of wire fraud conspiracy and one count of wire fraud.”

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