The Viking who is taking on Silicon Valley

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Terrific Financial Times profile of Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s Competition Commissioner, who is really getting up the noses of Silicon Valley’s overlords. Because of public hostility to the craven deal that HMRC negotiated with Google over back-taxes, many people here will be rooting for her. (She’s said that she is prepared to examine the deal.) But if her probe into Apple’s weird tax arrangements with the Irish government results in a colossal back-tax bill for the company, then we will really have moved into new territory.

For one thing, it’ll unravel a crazy system of international tax laws that dates back to 1928. And it’ll open all kinds of worm-cans — Amazon pretending that it’s based in Luxembourg; Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Google pretending they’re based in Dublin; and so on. And of course the US will be mightily pissed off. Not bad for the daughter of two Lutheran pastors. Just as well that she’s a tough cookie. The FT profile has a nice story about her time as Deputy Prime Minister of Denmark. An opposition spokesman complained in Parliament that her proposed spending plans were “small”.

“Some think it is a rather small plan,” she retorted, with a mischievous grin. “But I am a bit cautious about trusting any judgments on size from men, and perhaps — but this might be a woman’s perspective — I am more interested in the effect.”

The new sun in the tech universe

This morning’s Observer column:

The Christmas holidays are the time of year when different generations of the family gather around the dinner table. So it’s a perfect opportunity for a spot of tech anthropology. Here’s how to do it.

At some point, insert into the conversation a contemporary topic about which most people have strong opinions but know relatively little. Jeremy Clarkson, say. There will come a moment when someone decides that the only thing to be done to resolve the ensuing factual disputes is to “Google it”. Watch what happens next…

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The European Court of Justice’s bombshell

This morning’s Observer column:

On Tuesday, the European court of justice, Europe’s supreme court, lobbed a grenade into the cosy, quasi-monopolistic world of the giant American internet companies.

It did so by declaring invalid a decision made by the European commission in 2000 that US companies complying with its “safe harbour privacy principles” would be allowed to transfer personal data from the EU to the US.

This judgment may not strike you as a big deal. You may also think that it has nothing to do with you.

Wrong on both counts, but to see why, some background might be useful….

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LATER This is a truly extraordinary moment. Lots of interesting and informative stuff about it on the Web, including this piece by Julia Powles and this NYT piece by Robert Levine.

And this from Edward Snowden:

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So what happens next? My colleague Nóra ní Loideain has passed me this reassuring note:

Christopher Graham, UK Information Commissioner, said on 8 October at a meeting at Dentons [a law firm]: “Don’t panic. Safe Harbor is not the only route for international transfers. We are coordinating our thinking with other DPAs across the European Union.” The 28 DPAs which form the EU Art. 29 Data Protection Working Party met in their International Transfers sub-group on 8 October, and this group’s plenary will discuss the issue on Thursday this week, on 15 October.

Which means … what, exactly??

Two cheers for Google?

This morning’s Observer column:

You know the problem: you’re on a train and suddenly realise you need some information that is available on the net. So you pull out your smartphone and type a web address into the search box. The server responds, the page you want begins to load and then suddenly there’s a big box obscuring the content. The box tells you that you’d be much better off downloading the company’s app. Inducements include the possibility that you might get a better rate by booking via the app than via the boring old website. Sometimes the “close” button that will enable you to get rid of this intrusion is obvious, but sometimes it’s hard to find on a small screen. In the meantime, the train has just gone into a tunnel and you’ve lost your internet connection.

Welcome to the world of “app-install interstitials”. They are, IMHO, a pain in the butt. On the scale of web annoyances, they rate just below pop-up ads and those display ads placed by companies that covertly monitor your browsing. But now it transpires that Google doesn’t like these interstitials either and has announced that henceforth it will be downgrading in its search results any mobile-oriented web pages that produce interstitials…

Read on.

Potholes on the road to the self-driving future

This morning’s Observer column:

Somehow I think it’s going to take quite a while to get to self-driving nirvana. For one thing, autonomous vehicles require digital mapping that is an order of magnitude more detailed than anything in Google Streetview. Secondly, those maps need to be continually updated, because even an unexpected new mini-roundabout might confuse the vehicle and cause an accident.

But the biggest obstacle might come from what supposedly kept Harold Macmillan awake at nights – “events, dear boy, events”. Driving in Devon last weekend, I came on a number of temporary traffic lights at roadworks, and wondered how an autonomous vehicle would cope with them. After all, they would not appear on its digital map; and although it would be programmed to look for a red light in a standard position at a junction, it might not “see” a temporary one.

Devon is a ravishing county, but it has one quirk from the motorist’s point of view: it has lots of extremely narrow lanes, most of which have high hedges growing on either side. There are occasional passing places which allow two vehicles to edge past one another. This is fine until a procession of three or four vehicles meets another procession of several cars stuck behind a truck, at which point the only way to reach a solution involves a good deal of human-to-human negotiation. This is something that even the dumbest human is good at, but which will lie beyond the capability of even the smartest machine for some time to come…

Read on.

The new Microsoft: Google

“Google held its annual developer event, IO, which is a platform for lots of announcements. For me, the overall theme was that Google is a cloud and machine learning company, not a hardware or OS company, and the further we got from devices and the more into the cloud and into big data analysis the happier the presenters were. Beyond that, Google’s self-confident ambition to be the platform for everything is apparent – this is very obviously the new Microsoft.”

Benedict Evans 31 May 2015.

Missing the Beats

This morning’s Observer column:

This time last year Apple paid $3bn to acquire a company called Beats that made overpriced headphones and ran an unsuccessful music-streaming business. This acquisition made Beats co-founder Dr Dre the first hip-hop billionaire at the same time as it baffled many observers of the industry. For example, Benedict Evans, a seasoned analyst, tweeted: “If you think Apple’s lost it, Beats deal is confirmation. If you don’t, it’s… perplexing. Few really convincing rationales.” This columnist was likewise puzzled. Apple normally designs and makes its own kit, and if it wanted to do headphones it would certainly do better than the Beats products. So the conclusion had to be that if Apple didn’t want Beats for the headphones, it had to be the music-streaming service that it craved.

And so it has proved. We have just discovered – in a roundabout way – just how much Apple wants to get into the streaming business…

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