Sunday, November 23, 2014

Google: sour Lollipops, sour grapes & other reports

Google has had a bad rap this last week with criticism coming from a hardcore of its otherwise loyal fans angry at bugs in the company's latest Android software. The technology giant has also been criticised by some European politicians who claim the company has become too big and needs to be broken up.

Sour Lollipops

There was an outpouring of anger from many tablet users over the last few days after an OTA [Over The Air] update severely affected the operation of their devices.

Early adopters of Google's latest Android operating system warned others of problems with the software on social networks and in a Google discussion thread which ran into more than 20 pages in a little over a week.

Many users of the Nexus 7 tablet, made my Asus and once a flagship product of the Chocolate Factory, said their device began to run slowly and repeatedly crash after the software update. Some complained their tablets had become "unusable".

While there were hundreds of comments related to the issue on the thread, Twitter, Google+ and other social networks, Google has been almost completely silent. Their silence has only compounded the anger felt by some Nexus 7 owners.

Some forum users were a little more pragmatic, believing that Google would likely come up with a fix, but nonetheless criticised their silence.

"I would be a lot happier - and a great deal more patient - if an official Google representative made an announcement," one forum user said.

Perhaps something to the effect of "We are aware that this update is causing serious problems for some, if not all, Nexus 7 users. We are working hard to find a fix to this, and we aim to send out a further update soon which will rectify these issues.  We apologise if these users have felt that we were ignoring their complaints, but we have been working very hard to find a solution, and appreciate your patience and forebearance [sic]."

The lack of any coherent message from the tech giant and frustration felt by users prompted some to suggest conspiracy theories. Some claimed that Google may have foisted the update on Nexus 7 tablets, rendering them useless such that people might upgrade to the new flagship Nexus 9 tablet.

However, such a move would likely be counter-productive given the vitriol coming from some forum members, some of whom said they were tempted to move to the Apple ecosphere and were unlikely to trust Google again.

Google had not been entirely quiet, and reportedly told The Register that it was looking into the matter.

"We're aware some Android users are facing issues and are looking into what might be the cause," a spokesperson for the advertising giant told the technology website.

Nonetheless, the message was not getting through to owners of Android devices and particularly Nexus owners who were beginning to feel the name may have been chosen for a reason.

Google's choosing the Nexus name was deemed by some as somewhat ironic given the demise of its branded products. "Why oh why did Google name its own special brand of devices after the replicants in Blade Runner which had artificially limited life spans?" ITWire's Alex Zaharov-Reutt wrote. "Was this a secret sign from Google all along, hidden in plain sight?"

He has a point given the rather quick cycle of Nexus products. The Nexus One was only released in 2010 yet its low memory and its inability to be upgraded beyond Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread has made the device redundant.

There are still those who still use the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus, released in 2010 and 2011 respectively, but many owners experience performance issues after only three years of use and support has ended for both these phones which for most people remain on Android Ice Cream Sandwich 4.2.1.

Indeed, the latest Android slogan "be together, not the same" seems only to count for those with the latest Android devices [BBC / Independent / Daily Mail / PhonesReview / 9to5Google / The Register].

EU call for Google break-up

It wasn't just Nexus and other Android users that were berating Google this last week. Some MEPs have called on Google to be broken up to curb its dominance of the Internet. The European Parliament is reported to be calling for the firm to be split into separate components in the most audacious attempt yet to loosen its grip on the sector.

A draft motion backed by several MEPs and leaked to the Financial Times said investigators should look at "unbundling search engines from other commercial services".

This would mean separating Google's search functions from other features such as its YouTube video-sharing website, or its Internet maps service [Daily Mail].

But many users of the search giant have criticised such plans suggesting that it amounted to sour grapes. Google is successful because it is good at what it does, people posting in comments sections said. "What about the the big boys in their own back yard? such as Nestle," one person responded angrily.

"The fact is that everyone who uses Google does so by choice, most of the time because it is simply better. Only in the EU is success viewed as a crime," another person posted. "I've got an idea for the next Olympics, let's not give medals to the winners of events, it's obviously unfair that they're better than the others."

The proposed plans come after several months of criticism coming from certain parts of Europe, particularly Germany and France.

Much of the anti-Google stance emanating from Germany soon after the Snowden revelations which claimed Google were in collusion with the NSA and were spying on German politicians and ordinary citizens.

In the months that have followed Google has been accused of privacy violations [Techcrunch] and of exploiting the copyright of others by publishing news snippets fron German newspapers in its Google News portal.

The search giant eventually decided to stop publishing such snippets in October [WSJ]. But while Google certainly benefits from its news portal, so too do publisher since traffic is often directed to their site from the Google News page.

Indeed Germany's biggest news publisher Axel Springer has since scrapped a move to block Google from running snippets of articles from its newspapers, after finding that traffic to its sites had plunged.

A Google spokesman in Germany praised the turnaround and said, "The decision shows that Google is making a significant contribution to the economic success of news publishers." [Reuters]

Google is the target of a European antitrust investigation into the operations of its online search business. The US firm accounts for more than 80% of the European Internet search market and more than 90% of that in Germany.

The European Union's new digital commissioner Guenther Oettinger said in October that he was mulling a regional Internet copyright levy, taking aim at Google. However such plans are likely to fail in the long term.

Whilst Google last year agreed to pay 60 million euros [$75 million] into a special fund to help French media develop their presence on the Internet, search engines will not be required to pay publishers in France for displaying content.

Google, as a search engine, is merely trawling and displaying what is available on the Internet. Should publishers not wish results to be displayed they have of course two options. The first is not to publish publicly on the Internet. The second is to request that Google not index their site. Of course by doing so will drive down web traffic, as Germany's publisher Axel Springer has found.

Others have also had to backtrack on such decisions. Rupert Murdoch also found that traffic to The Times and other News International publications dropped significantly when he ordered the search giant to stop indexing its sites. Thus Murdoch eventually made a U-turn and allowed Google to once again show snippets of its publications.

Misunderstanding of modern web

There is not just a fear of Google that exists in Germany and elsewhere [NYT]. There is also a misunderstanding of the way the web works and how well a company performs. Google is only successful simply because it is good at what it does.

There are many other search engines but they often fall flat when compared to Google.

Google for example has indexed more than 40 billion webpages while Microsoft's Bing search engine has only indexed 13.5 billion pages. Russia's Yandex and China's Baidu do well on their own turf, however they are clearly not as powerful as either Google or Bing. Yandex is largest search engine in Russia with about 60% market share within the country, but beyond its borders Yandex has barely been heard of. It also falls flat on the number of pages indexed, reportedly numbered at less than 2 billion. China's Baidu also does well in its own territory and amongst Chinese nationals living abroad. However it has only indexed a reported 740 million web pages, the lowest of all the major search engines, and many are even according to its founder Robin Li mostly Chinese pages.

However Baidu has an advantage in China, not so much to do with how good it is as a search engine, but more to do with the political and business environment existing in China.

Li has been criticised for tolerating censorship, piracy, and lax advertising standards, but he argues that search is a different game in China. He may be right. Li cited Google, one of his major global competitors, as an example of a firm that stumbled after expanding to China.

The US company met significant resistance from the Chinese government, especially on the issue of censorship. After repeatedly running afoul of regulators, Google chose to exit mainland China in 2010 and redirect its web traffic through Hong Kong. And Baidu was the direct beneficiary of Google's woes with traffic soaring after Google left and censorship to Google domains increased.

Return to China

But four years on there are reports Google may be thinking of returning to China. According to the Wall Street Journal, Google is considering bringing a version of its Play mobile-app store to China, a tentative but important step back into the Middle Kingdom.

In Google's absence, there are multiple Android app stores in China, spawning piracy and prompting many developers to hire large teams just to manage relations with the stores. In the US and across much of Europe just two app stores dominate; Apple's App Store for iPhones and iPads and Google's Play Store for Android mobile devices.

To bring order to the app chaos in China, and of course boost revenue, Google wants to open a version of its Play Store there. It may prove an uphill struggle. At present most Android phones sold in China are stripped of Google apps and its flagship Play Store which often cannot even be installed on the device.

The company will also face a battle with authorities and legislators if it wishes to play in China once again. Google has declined to comment on these reports, just as it has been rather silent on Lollipop issues.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

GCHQ boss calls for increased surveillance powers

A little over 400 years ago a man named Guy Fawkes conspired with others to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England's Parliament [Wikipedia - Gunpowder_Plot]. He failed in his attempt after the plot was revealed to the authorities in an anonymous letter sent to William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, on 26th  October 1605. During a search of the House of Lords at about midnight on 4th November 1605, Fawkes was discovered guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder and he was arrested.

In more modern times security services are not always so lucky as to receive anonymous warnings related to potential terror attacks. Instead they have to be proactive and carry out surveillance on suspects they believe may be involved in the planning of atrocities.

In recent decades the security services and police have still relied on informants, but they have also infiltrated organisations and terror groups and conducted surveillance operations.

But in the advent of the Internet traditional surveillance is outdated.

Hiding on the Web

No longer is it possible to send in an undercover officer to hide amongst terror groups, animal rights activists and environmental groups.

In the past those involved in such groups would often meet in person, at pubs, in parks or other venues to discuss plans. Extremist Muslim groups might gather and meet up at mosques while animal rights activist would use the cover of demonstrations to organise and plan direct action.

But nowadays people hide themselves in the anonymity of the Web and more particularly the Dark Web.

The increased use of the Internet to organise and plot illegal activities has raised alarm in security circles. Whilst there is no absolute anonymity on the Net, it is more difficult for authorities to track individuals and identify potential attacks.

Calls for more surveillance

This week the UK's spy chief Robert Hannigan called for ISPs and tech companies to open up their networks to allow security services to conduct in depth data mining.

In an article published in the Financial Times Hannigan said Web giants such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp had become "command-and-control networks... for terrorists and criminals" and that they were "in denial" about how their services were being used [BBC / Sky News / Daily Mail].

Data mining

While it is true that terror groups such as ISIL and other extremists have used Facebook, YouTube and other platforms to disseminate their message, wholescale data mining would likely have little impact especially in the long term.

In the short term many individuals might well be identified. But in light of recent self-censorship by Twitter and Facebook concerning the posting of graphic beheading videos has shown, extremists have merely shifted to new platforms [Independent].

In the weeks that followed the deletion of material from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Islamic extremists siding with ISIL began to use Diaspora, a social network that by its very nature is harder to regulate and censor [tvnewswatch: Social media provides battle ground for terrorists].

Bitcoins, Tors, VPNs and the Dark Web

Surveillance is proving ever more difficult as those wishing to hide their Internet activities increasingly use specialist encryption software, web proxies and digital currencies.

The Tor network was originally developed with the US Navy in mind, for the primary purpose of protecting government communications.

However it has increasingly been used by ordinary members of the public wanting to hide their identity.

There are examples where many might see such use as legitimate. In China and Iran many people use Tor or VPNs [Virtual Private Network] to circumvent Internet censorship and communicate with people outside the country. Dissidents in such countries use such tools to avoid being arrested.

However, the Tor network and VPNs have increasingly been used by those wanting to share copyrighted material such as music and feature films without fear of prosecution. But while illegal, the sharing of ripped CDs and DVDs only hurts the profits of musicians, filmmakers and production companies.

But there are others using circumvention software to plan terrorist activities without being watched [BBC Click - online anonymity 17/05/2011 audio].

Moreover, the so called Dark Web is also being used to buy and sell illegal merchandise from child pornography to drugs and weapons. And by using virtual currencies such as Bitcoin, even financial transactions are virtually untraceable.

Bitcoin and Dark Wallets

There has already been suggestions that Jihadist groups may be funding operations with Bitcoin. According to a post entitled "Bitcoin and the Charity of Violent Physical Struggle" on a pro-ISIL blog, the author argues donations using the virtual currency would be "untrackable" by Western governments [Sky News]. 

In February this year, the Canadian government warned that Bitcoin could be used for money laundering and financing terrorism. There are those that say that money laundering is not so easy, but that its use as a way of buying and selling with anonymity is certainly an advantage for criminals and terrorists.

Author of the book BitCon Jeffrey Robinson has dismissed the currency, calling it a "pretend currency". He says "Bitcoin is a lousy way of laundering money" but "a very good way for criminal finance, tax evasion and for capital flight; for moving money." [YouTube]

Indeed it is because of the anonymity associated with Bitcoin use that is fast making it the currency of choice for criminals and and terrorists [Could Dark Wallet hide Bitcoin user identity? BBC Click].

Growing encryption

Hannigan has an uphill battle on his hands if he wants to win over legislators. While the risks to Britain and the West from terrorism and others is real, his proposed measures will likely bring only minimal results.

Encryption is growing and becoming more sophisticated. Indeed it is something we are reliant upon since without it online banking would be impossible. But online encryption has now entered everyday platforms with most Google services being encrypted and with social networks such as Facebook even creating the ability for users to connect directly to the social network via anonymising "dark web" service Tor [BBC].

There is an ideological issue too. Civil rights groups such as Big Brother watch argue that while discussions are certainly needed, blanket surveillance is not the answer.

Discussion in the media point to strong opposition to the GCHQ boss's proposal [Sky News].

It is understandable that GCHQ and the US counterpart, the NSA, want to carry out surveillance. The revelations earlier this year that the British spy agency had snooped on YouTube and Twitter users was hardly surprising [BBC / NBC]. 

Indeed similar assertions had been made two years ago following the Snowden leaks concerning the NSA surveillance program PRISM [Guardian].

Double edged sword

Data mining is perhaps necessary to some extent. But such procedures need to be carefully guided. Too much data mining not only treads on the toes of those concerned about privacy, it also creates a headache for security services.

Sifting through massive amounts of data necessitates the use of computerised algorithms to identify potential threats and links between suspects. Thus surveillance should be targeted [Guardian].

There are no clear winners. Increased surveillance may uncover plots, but may also send the plotters elsewhere. On the other hand, while the public may be safer from terror attacks, some may feel increasingly paranoid that their online activity is being monitored.

How long for instance before journalists or bloggers researching terrorist activity become targeted and charged for possessing illegal material. What of those who illegally download a film or album? Will they too find themselves in court as a result of increased surveillance powers.

The danger is that such powers that Hannigan proposes risks Britain becoming a totalitarian state envisaged by George Orwell in which Thought Crime is punishable.

Protection of the state and the public must ultimately be balanced as to how far we are prepared to give up our freedom in order to stay safe

tvnewswatch, London, UK