The UpStream

Senator Recommends FTC Look At Google's Fundamentals Again

posted Saturday Sep 1, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Senator Recommends FTC Look At Google's Fundamentals Again

Another day, another example of a government official questioning Google. The week started with President Trump making accusations that Google's search results were prioritizing certain content over others. This is an accusation that has been made many times by people all over the world. It has varied from claiming the company prioritizes its own content over more relevant results to filtering content that Google's corporate leadership disagrees with.

The important topic, however, came up on Thursday when Senator Orrin Hatch sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission encouraging them to reopen their investigation into Google's policies. Senator Hatch said in the letter,

I write to express my concern about recent reports on Google's search and digital advertising practices. In the past, Google has placed restrictions on publishers' displaying search advertisements from its competitors. Google loosened some of those restrictions when faced with antitrust complaints, and the European Commission has said it is monitoring to see if those new restrictions have anticompetitive effects. Then in May, 60 Minutes aired a segment that highlighted several allegations regarding purportedly anticompetitive conduct by the company involving its search practices.

Other reports have highlighted the fact that Google has, on occasion, decided to remove from its platforms legal businesses that the company apparently does not agree with. Moreover, in the past several months, several of my Senate colleagues wrote to Alphabet, Google's parent company, regarding its data collection by the Android mobile operating system and privacy practices for Gmail users' data, including Google's practice of giving third-party app developers access to the actual content of emails.

Needless to say, I found these reports disquieting.

All of the issues raised in the letter are issues that should be of concern to consumers. Removing companies without violation, anticompetitive advertising practices, and privacy violations are all topics of interest to the public, especially considering Google's position in the market. Bing has made big gains in search, especially since introducing Microsoft Rewards, but Google still owns the majority of the market. When the FTC last looked into these policies, which was in 2010, the reason they concluded that the policies were not an issue had to do with the idea that Apple would become a big player in mobile advertising, which it has not.

Adding to Hatch's concerns has been a collection of new information, such as Google ignoring their own settings for location privacy. When combined with a report this week detailing a frightening deal with MasterCard to allow Google to track a person's in-person purchases using the card, it is almost certainly time for the FTC to at least take a look again.

"PlayStation is the Best," Says Sony on Fortnite Account Locking

posted Saturday Sep 1, 2018 by Scott Ertz

It was only 2 months ago when it looked like Sony was changing their cross-platform strategy. President and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment America Shawn Layden said,

We're hearing it. We're looking at a lot of the possibilities. You can imagine that the circumstances around that affect a lot more than just one game. I'm confident we'll get to a solution which will be understood and accepted by our gaming community, while at the same time supporting our business.

The biggest issue in PlayStation cross-platform gaming has been with the popular Fortnite. As anyone who has ever played the game on PlayStation knows, once you've done that, you can no longer use your account on a Microsoft Xbox or Nintendo Switch, though you can still use it on PC and mobile devices. Sony has never really given a good reason, or any reason, why this is the case, but Layden's comment and discussions with Microsoft last year suggested that perhaps Sony was finally getting the message that gamers and developers were annoyed by the policy.

Unfortunately, while the US division might have a better idea of what gamers want, corporate seems to have other ideas. Sony CEO Kenichiro Yoshida reportedly said that the company does not believe in cross-platform gameplay and is not interested in pursuing it on a grand scale.

On cross-platform, our way of thinking is always that PlayStation is the best place to play. Fortnite, I believe, partnered with PlayStation 4 is the best experience for users, that's our belief.

But actually, we already opened some games as cross-platform with PC and some others, so we decide based on what is the best user experience. That is our way of thinking for cross-platform.

While it is encouraging to see that Sony is at least willing to consider cross-platform gaming on a case-by-case basis, it is not a great sign that they don't see anything wrong with preventing a player from experiencing a game on multiple platforms. If their platform truly were "the best place to play," they would not be afraid to let players see what the experience was like elsewhere without punishment. This still feels like the desperate moves of a company with a low self-image. Maybe they will grow out of this phase and join the rest of the gaming industry.

T-Mobile-Sprint Merger Receives Surprising Apathy to FCC

posted Saturday Sep 1, 2018 by Scott Ertz

T-Mobile-Sprint Merger Receives Surprising Apathy to FCC

Whenever a merger is proposed, there will always be opposition, no matter how innocuous the transaction seems. Whether it be the federal government questioning the validity of the merger, local government unhappy with the results, competitors afraid of the competition or interest groups who fear change, you can be certain that someone will object. The important question is always, how many of these oppositions will have an effect on the proposal.

For the most part, the organizations that will always object will usually be ignored. It's the modern version of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, where regulators can never tell if the threat being posed is credible because the organization is always claiming false threats. In addition, organizations, like competitors, who have a vested interest in the failure of the merger, will likewise usually be ignored. Impartiality is nearly impossible when it's in your best interest to sabotage.

The most recent merger announcement of Sprint and T-Mobile, which was rumored for over a year and announced in August, was bound to draw attention. After all, the failed AT&T/T-Mobile merger was one of the most watched merger processes of the decade. Following the announcement, the FCC received over 500 filings in regards to the proposition, and the results have been surprising. As expected, the normal groups opposed it, but we know the FCC doesn't take that too seriously.

What is surprising is the lack of objections from some of the sources you would expect. Most surprisingly, consumers seem to be excited about this merger. This merger would take the #3 and #4 US wireless carriers and turn them into the #2 wireless carrier, behind Verizon. With Sprint and T-Mobile's history of creating low-priced subscriptions that consumers like, the combined company seems to excite consumers, who overwhelmingly support the merger.

In addition to consumers, competitors seem to have no vocal opposition to the merger. Verizon and AT&T, who would be displaced from their #2 position if the merger is finalized, seem to have taken no position on the merger at all. That speaks volumes, considering competitors, especially ones who will lose their market position, usually find something to object about in these cases. This merger, however, seems to have either left them speechless or with nothing to take issue about.

This is not to say there is no opposition. Dish Network filed a complaint, claiming that if the merger is approved, they will have trouble purchasing components to build their own wireless network.

While DISH plans to aggressively upgrade and expand that network to full 5G in the future, the timing of the transition will crucially depend on, among other things, scarce inputs (e.g., radios, devices and chipsets) that the merger could make scarcer still.

This complaint is unlikely to make a difference, however, as the manufacturers of those components are unlikely to let a sale get away and will simply make more of the needed components. This will not be an easy merger, but with so little opposition from outside of the government, it will be far easier than T-Mobile's last try.

If You're a Media Company, Amazon Has Its Sights on You

posted Sunday Aug 19, 2018 by Scott Ertz

If You're a Media Company, Amazon Has Its Sights on You

Amazon has a fairly large presence in the media market even if they do lag behind in all of their markets. Prime Video doesn't quite compete with Netflix or Hulu. Amazon Music doesn't quite compete with Spotify or Apple Music. Even Fire TV doesn't quite compete with Chromecast. If Amazon has their way, that might be about to change.

Amazon Music

The company has decided to put a big focus on this brand. They want to turn it from a second tier option into a direct competitor to the larger Spotify and Apple Music services. Being as the company has both a music streaming service and a smart speaker, they are hoping to encourage people to think of them as one and not, as most people think, a way to consume Spotify. They are planning TV, radio, online and billboard ads to promote the music service and its natural pairing with Alexa. In addition to offering Prime Music for free, the company will also begin a campaign offering Music Unlimited for $3.99 rather than $7.99 per month if used with an Echo speaker.

Fire TV DVR

While the company currently offers the Fire TV Stick and Fire TV Edition smart TVs, there is another market that is being skipped: live TV. To fill this need, Amazon is reportedly working on a new set-top box, dubbed Fire TV DVR (codenamed Frank). This product would compete directly with TiVo and Slingbox, giving you the ability to record live TV and stream it to a phone, computer or tablet. It would likely also offer its recording capabilities for Amazon Channels service. It will likely premiere along with a refresh of the Fire TV Stick product, bringing new features to the whole lineup.

Amazon Prime Video

One of the lesser-known, but better benefits of Amazon Prime, is Prime Video. Through the service, you can watch original content, like documentaries, movies, and series. Your ability to watch this content might be about to expand, though, as Amazon is reportedly in talks to purchase Landmark Theaters from Mark Cuban. While the deal is a bit of a longshot, such a relationship would give Amazon an easy way to show their original content in physical theaters, without the need to work on distribution licensing.

It is believed that there are 2 other companies bidding against Amazon for the company, which would give its new owners access to 27 major markets in the US. The purchase would not be out of order for Amazon, who purchased Whole Foods for $14 billion, and his toyed with physical retail stores. There is no telling if Prime subscribers will get any special treatment at the new theaters, but based on our Whole Foods experience, it's a safe bet to say yes.

Australia is Not Interested in Privacy, Wants to Restrict Encryption

posted Sunday Aug 19, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Australia is Not Interested in Privacy, Wants to Restrict Encryption

Over the past few years, cryptography has been a big topic of conversation. First, cryptocurrencies have brought the topic into the mainstream, with the blockchains that most cryptocurrencies run on top of using various encryption methods to protect the blockchain data. Second, most major messaging systems have implemented encrypted messaging, with some (like Signal) using it always, and others (Facebook Messenger) enabling it as a setting. Third, most of the operating systems encrpt data with built-in technology, including Windows 10 and Android.

As more data is encrypted across the web, governments, especially those who value police presence over privacy, have gotten scared about their lack of ability to spy on people in the name of "investigation." In 2016, the US Federal Beaurau of Investigation tried to force Apple to unlock a phone, which was a capability the company simply does not have. If the government of Australia has their way, that scenario will be a thing of the past.

Angus Taylor, the minister for Law Enforcement and Cyber Security, has proposed a bill, entitled Assistance and Access Bill 2018, which would force tech companies who do business within Australia or provides their service to users within the country, to give access to data, encrypted or not. The concept has previously bee discussed in the US but has never survived a vote.

To be able to decrypt data, the tech companies would be required to have a universal encryption key. Just like any master key, once it exists, its possibility for abuse is almost 100%. If that key were to slip outside of the company, by a disgruntled employee or an underrated hacker, all of the encrypted data on the platform would be available to the world - making the encryption worthless.

This is the kind of law that causes companies to leave a country entirely, like Google News in Spain. For everyone who uses encryption, I hope this law does not go any farther.

Valve Continues to Clone Competing Products and Services

posted Sunday Aug 19, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Valve Continues to Clone Competing Products and Services

It was just a couple of weeks ago that Valve introduced their Discord clone into the Steam ecosystem. Discord shot back by introducing their own game store last week. This week, it would appear that Valve is not finished challenging their competitors with new services, either to directly compete or drive customers away from those companies.

Twitch and Mixer

When it comes to videogame streaming, there is no doubt that Amazon's Twitch service owns the market. Microsoft's Mixer is in the mix too, with YouTube and Facebook trying to capture some of the love, as well. This week, it was accidentally revealed that Valve might be interested in getting into the streaming space when they purchased a new domain and accidentally published Steam.TV to the world.

The service looked nearly identical to Twitch or Mixer, even using a purple accent color, mimicking Twitch's branding. While the site is no longer available to the public, while it was it featured a broadcast of The International 2018. There was the ability to log in with a Steam account and create group chats. What there was no was an ability to stream your own game feed. Valve released a statement saying,

We are working on updating Steam Broadcasting for the Main Event of The International, Dota 2's annual tournament. What people saw was a test feed that was inadvertently made public.

Obviously, this was not just a "test feed" but a nearly fully functional Twitch clone. When the service will be debuted fully is anyone's guess, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see it premiere tomorrow to coincide with the finals of The International 2018.

Windows

If there's one thing Valve dislikes more than competitors, it's Windows. There's no telling exactly what went wrong in CEO Gabe Newell's brain, but about the time that Windows 8 was released, Gabe started a campaign against gaming on Windows. Following the campaign, Valve announced SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system to power their new Steam Machines. The biggest failure of SteamOS? The lack of games available on Steam for Linux.

Continuing their campaign to get people to stop using Windows, it looks like Valve is working on bringing Windows games to Linux. Uncovered by a Reddit user, the company has code for a feature called Steam Play, which is a wrapper to bring more games to Linux without having to be ported or rewritten from scratch. A competing project, called WINE, describes the process on their websites,

Instead of simulating internal Windows logic like a virtual machine or emulator, Wine translates Windows API calls into POSIX calls on-the-fly, eliminating the performance and memory penalties of other methods.

That concept is okay when it comes to simple programs, but even more complicated software is questionable. Games, being some of the most complicated software available, is even less likely to work correctly. There are whole websites dedicated to curating games that work on WINE (hint, it's not a lot). The idea that Valve thinks they've got a plan to run more games through a similar system is ambitious at best, and insane at worst.

Valve seems to know this, as the SteamOS software shows hidden settings and warnings, including a warning that games "may not work as expected, and can cause issues with your games, including crashes and breaking save games." We don't know when, or if, this feature will release, either. Based on the fact that settings are beginning to appear within the OS, though, it might become available soon.

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