Google’s plan to replace tracking cookies goes under UK antitrust probe

Google’s plan to end support for third party cookies in the Chrome browser and its Chromium engine is under investigation by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

The antitrust regulator said today that it’s launched a probe under Chapter II of the UK’s Competition Act 1998 into “suspected breaches of competition law by Google”.

The move follows a complaint lodged in November by a coalition of digital marketing companies which urged the CMA to block Google’s implementation of the self-styled ‘Privacy Sandbox’.

The CMA also received complaints from newspapers and technology companies alleging the tech giant is abusing a dominance position, it added.

A Google spokesperson sent this statement in response to a request for comment on the CMA investigation:

Creating a more private web, while also enabling the publishers and advertisers who support the free and open internet, requires the industry to make major changes to the way digital advertising works. The Privacy Sandbox has been an open initiative since the beginning and we welcome the CMA’s involvement as we work to develop new proposals to underpin a healthy, ad-supported web without third-party cookies.

Google had previously said it would implement the Sandbox in 2021 — accelerating an earlier timeline for the phasing out of third party cookies and sending ripples of fear (and loathing) through an adtech industry that bet the farm on mass surveillance of Internet users.

No changes have been made so far, according to Google.

It also said today that any changes will not be made before 2022 — as it continues a process of public collaboration (now coupled with close regulatory engagement, via the CMA) on how to replace tracking cookies.

With the looming demise of third party cookies, digital marketers are concerned about their ability to target ads at web users as browsers decommission support for key tracking technologies.

But it’s worth noting that Google’s Chrome is actually the laggard in proposing to pull the plug on tracking cookies; WebKit, which underpins Safari, announced a tracking prevention policy back in 2019 — taking inspiration from Mozilla’s earlier anti-tracking stance. (The latter made third party cookie blocking in Firefox the default in September of the same year.)

These anti-tracking plays by browser-makers are, on one level, a response to consumer distaste over creepy ads and concern for their online privacy.

And in the European Union at least, many core elements of adtech infrastructure are subject to complaints and remain under regulatory scrutiny. (Albeit, the UK’s data protection regulator, the ICO, is currently being sued for failing to act on complaints about the lawfulness of real-time bidding which date back to September 2018.)

But the contention by the marketing, publishing and adtech businesses which are crying foul over the end of cookies is that tech giants — Google in this case — are using privacy as a convenient excuse to increase their market power (and control over user data) at smaller entities’ expense.

“The investigation will assess whether the proposals could cause advertising spend to become even more concentrated on Google’s ecosystem at the expense of its competitors,” the CMA writes in a press release announcing its investigation. “It follows complaints of anticompetitive behaviour and requests for the CMA to ensure that Google develops its proposals in a way that does not distort competition.”

The announcement also makes clear that the regulator is alive to the genuine issue of privacy concern — with the CMA writing that it’s been “considering how best to address legitimate privacy concerns without distorting competition”. This has included holding discussions with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), and talking to Google to “better understand its proposals”, it says.

“The current investigation will provide a framework for the continuation of this work, and, potentially, a legal basis for any solution that emerges,” the CMA adds.

Exactly what will replace tracking cookies is still very much up in the air.

Google has made a number of proposals, via the W3C standards forum, including one called ‘Dovekey’ which suggests using a key value server and which Google says builds on the feedback and proposal from adtech firm Criteo’s Sparrow proposal.

It’s also shared the algorithms for its Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) proposal — referring to a suggestion to use a specific machine learning technique to allow behavioral ad targeting to continue (but without needing to collect individuals’ data).

The wider adtech industry, meanwhile, has also been coming up with various ideas and offers for replacing tracking cookies. Such as the UnifiedOpen ID 2.0 proposal (that’s being built by The Trade Desk) and proposes a centralized system for tracking Internet users based on personal data such as an email address or phone number; or the Unified ID service launched by TechCrunch’s parent Verizon Media (leveraging its access to first party data), to name just two.

So whatever replaces tracking cookies looks unlikely to be simple or singular. Not least given the formal regulatory dimension that’s now been added to Google’s mix.

With its Sandbox project underway but no replacement for tracking cookies yet selected the CMA’s intervention certainly looks very strategic — giving the UK regulator a (potentially major) role in influencing the future shape of adtech.

Although it could also lead to regulatory divergence for adtech in the UK vs the European Union, where the Commission’s antitrust regulators have also been eyeing Google’s adtech practices but have not yet launched a formal investigation — depending on the outcome of any probe/intervention there.

Back in the UK, a recent CMA market study of the digital advertising sector led it to report substantial concerns over the power of the Google-Facebook adtech duopoly — and it sought views on breaking up the tech giants — although in its final report it deferred any competitive intervention in favor of waiting for the government to legislate.

Since then UK ministers have unveiled a plan to establish a pro-competition regulatory regime that will include a new statutory code of conduct, overseen by a Digital Market Unit (to be set up this year), with the aim of putting some hard limits on big (ad)tech — including potentially requiring them to offer users an opt out from behavioral advertising (something Facebook, for example, currently does not).

Chris Krebs and Alex Stamos have started a cyber consulting firm

Former U.S. cybersecurity official Chris Krebs and former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos have founded a new cybersecurity consultancy firm, which already has its first client: SolarWinds.

The two have been hired as consultants to help the Texas-based software maker recover from a devastating breach by suspected Russian hackers, which used the company’s software to set backdoors in thousands of organizations and to infiltrate at least 10 U.S. federal agencies and several Fortune 500 businesses.

At least the Treasury, State and the Department of Energy have been confirmed breached, in what has been described as likely the most significant espionage campaign against the U.S. government in years. And while the U.S. government has already pinned the blame on Russia, the scale of the intrusions are not likely to be known for some time.

Krebs was one of the most senior cybersecurity officials in the U.S. government, most recently serving as the director of Homeland Security’s CISA cybersecurity advisory agency from 2018, until he was fired by President Trump for his efforts to debunk false election claims — many of which came from the president himself. Stamos, meanwhile, joined the Stanford Internet Observatory after holding senior cybersecurity positions at Facebook and Yahoo. He also consulted for Zoom amid a spate of security problems.

In an interview with the Financial Times, which broke the story, Krebs said it could take years before the hackers are ejected from infiltrated systems.

SolarWinds chief executive Sudhakar Ramakrishna acknowledged in a blog post that it had brought on the consultants to help the embattled company to be “transparent with our customers, our government partners, and the general public in both the near-term and long-term about our security enhancements.”

Final Cut Pro on Apple Silicon, monitors on the Mac, iPad rumors on the AppleInsider podcast

On this week’s AppleInsider podcast we describe Final Cut Pro performance on Apple Silicon M1 MacBooks, using a Mac laptop with external monitors, using an Apple Watch for vlogging, and how Apple could use AR for customer support.

Apple made a big deal about video editing on the new Apple Silicon M1 Macs, and the company wasn’t kidding. We take a deep dive what it’s really like editing 4K video on an M1 MacBook Pro, including the use of Final Cut Pro and Compressor. The incredible performance on these first M1 Macs have us excited for the future of high-end Apple Silicon MacBook Pro models and iMacs.

There is a downside to producing video on a 13-inch MacBook, though, and that is the screen size. It turns out that finding a high-quality monitor with Thunderbolt connectivity that works well with the M1 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro is a little tricky. Options are limited and the LG UltraFine monitors available directly from Apple are still some of the best options.

While we’re at it, we also browse through available Thunderbolt 3 docks and which are best for iPad and MacBook use.

Also in this episode of the AppleInsider podcast, we go further and compare that WaterField case to other inexpensive options from Amazon. While not all cases feature WaterField’s key ability to put the AirPods Max to sleep, many fully protect your headphones and you can even buy silicon covers for the ear cups as well.

Looking ahead, there are conflicting iPad Pro rumors that make it difficult to predict its launch date, but point to the inclusion of mini LED technology in the display. Our hosts discuss the advantages of the larger 12.9-inch iPad when it comes to battery life, and what combination of laptop and tablet they prefer to carry.

Next, TikTok makes use of LiDAR in the new iPhone 12 Pro to create compelling filters. Their “New Year” filter shows confetti landing on objects throughout a room, giving viewers an impressive augmented reality experience.

We round out the show with Facebook’s continued attack on Apple’s privacy policies, if Google has delayed updating their iOS apps to avoid the privacy label requirement, and the upcoming court case between Epic Games and Apple.

We’d love to interact with you on Twitter. If you have questions or comments on the show, tweet at @stephenrobles and @Hillitech, or email us here. Find us in your favorite podcast player by searching for “AppleInsider” and support the show by leaving a 5-Star rating and comment in Apple Podcasts .

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JBuds Frames can turn any pair of glasses into audio eyewear

JLab Audio has announced a new take on audio-integrated eyewear with its new JBuds Frames, on-glasses audio that can be used with nearly any pair of sunglasses or eyeglasses.

The big reason to pick up a pair of audio glasses — they don’t block your ears, so you can safely and responsibly listen to your favorite tunes and podcasts. However, they’re often pricy and come in a limited number of styles, some of which may not work for every person’s face. JLab Audio seeks to change that with their new JBuds Frames.

Unlike other audio glasses, JBuds Frames allows you to clip two discrete Bluetooth devices to either arm of nearly any pair of glasses. You can use them with your favorite pair of sunglasses, prescription eyeglasses, or favorite blue-light blocking glasses.

This is especially useful for those who haven’t found their perfect fit or those who would like to swap their glasses for sunglasses when possible.

Additionally, unlike many pairs of audio glasses, the JBuds Frames get up to eight hours of audio playback, allowing you to take them to the office, the dog park, or on your next hike. They feature a 30-foot range and connect to a wide range of devices via Bluetooth.

Jbuds Frames feature 16mm drivers that produce personal audio without closing off the ear, making them ideal for wearing in situations where traditional headphones and earbuds would not work, such as biking or urban jogs. They also have an IPX4 rating, which protects them from splashes, sweat, and light rain.

JBuds Frames will be previewed at CES 2021 and are expected to release in early spring 2021 for $50, which is $150 cheaper than most competitors’ brands. Prospective customers can take a look at JBuds Frames on JLab Audio’s site.

Apple TV+ review: 'Dickinson' returns for a triumphant season 2

Emily Dickinson and friends are back, for more anachronistic adventures in the 19th century, as the Apple TV+ hit returns for its second season.

When Dickinson debuted in late 2019, as one of the first original Apple TV+ shows, it was clear that it had a conceit that viewers would either buy into immediately or not. The show follows the life of the famed 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld), and while the characters wear period-accurate costumes, the series offers anachronistic dialogue and pop music.

The series seems to have struck something of a chord with Apple TV+ viewers, though, and along with The Morning Show, emerged as one of the most successful of the original crop of Apple TV+ shows. It also took home a Peabody Award in 2020.

Now, Dickinson is returning with its second batch of episodes on January 8, becoming the first Apple show to debut a sophomore season. The show had been renewed even before the first season aired, and appears to have finished filming prior to the start of the pandemic.

More of the same

Hailee Steinfeld and Finn Jones in season two of

Hailee Steinfeld and Finn Jones in season two of “Dickinson,” premiering January 8 on Apple TV+.

The new season isn’t especially different, stylistically or thematically, from the first one. This may because, unlike some of the other Apple shows, it’s kept its showrunner and creator, Alena Smith, in place.

Like the first season, the second season of Dickinson is ten episodes, of which we have seen four. The first three episodes debut on January 8, with the remaining seven to follow, once a week through February 26.

The episodes follow the continuing adventures of real-life poet Emily Dickinson, living with her family in 1850s Massachusetts, and practicing creative writing at a time when such pursuits were not part of the expectations for a woman of her station.

In this new season, Emily continues to attempt to get her poetry published, while still pining for her best friend Sue (Ella Hunt), who is now married to Emily’s brother Austin, portrayed by Adrian Enscoe. Meanwhile, Emily has begun hosting literary salons.

Her efforts are tainted with melancholy, as we know that in reality Emily Dickinson’s incredible writing would not become known until after her death.

However, the show has its title character’s energy and wit, and star Hailee Steinfeld continues to be the best thing about it. She is a wildly charismatic performer who commands the camera in every scene she’s in. There’s also a fine dynamic between veteran TV performers Toby Huss and Jane Krakowski as Dickinson’s parents.

New faces

Pico Alexander and Anna Baryshnikov in season two of

Pico Alexander and Anna Baryshnikov in season two of “Dickinson,” premiering January 8 on Apple TV+

The season’s most prominent new characters are publisher Samuel Bowles (Finn Jones), who speaks with the cadences of a TED Talk host, along with another character calling himself Nobody (Will Pullen), who appears to be a ghost. Wiz Khalifa’s grim reaper character, meanwhile, is listed as showing up later in the season, along with a ghostly version of Edgar Allan Poe (Nick Kroll.)

The characters also continue to speak in modern aphorisms, which is generally charming. Although, the use of the phrase “Emerson is canceled” comes across as more than a little awkward.

The show’s premise also makes room for guest appearances by actors playing historical figures. This season, Timothy Simons (from Veep) has an amusing guest turn as Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the men who first proposed New York’s Central Park. His strong performance recalls John Mulaney’s turn as Henry David Thoreau in the first season.

More ‘Wild Nights’ to come

Adrian Blake Enscoe and Ella Hunt in season two of

Adrian Blake Enscoe and Ella Hunt in season two of “Dickinson,” premiering January 8 on Apple TV+.

In addition to its status as the first Apple show to get a second season, Dickinson is now also the first show on the service to be renewed for a third. This indicates that the series will have a relatively long life.

We wrote in our review upon the series’ debut that Dickinson had a chance to emerge as the signature show on Apple TV+. It isn’t quite that, but based on the start of its second season, Dickinson remains in the upper echelon of the service’s shows.

UK investigating Google Chrome privacy plan

The UK’s competition authority is investigating Google’s plan to have Chrome block third-party cookies, and replace them with a system whose benefits to the company may be anticompetitive.

Full blocking of third-party cookies came to Apple’s Safari browser in early 2019, but Google’s similar plan for Chrome has now prompted an investigation by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

“Google’s Privacy Sandbox proposals will potentially have a very significant impact on publishers like newspapers, and the digital advertising market,” said Andrea Coscelli, CEO of the CMA, in a statement. “But there are also privacy concerns to consider, which is why we will continue to work with the [Information Commissioner’s Office] as we progress this investigation, while also engaging directly with Google and other market participants about our concerns.”

The CMA reports that it has had an unspecified number of complaints about Google’s plans. It cites only one example, however, which was from the Marketers for an Open Web (MOW), a coalition of newspaper firms and technology companies.

MOW wrote to the CMA in November 2020, claiming that Google’s move is not concerned with privacy, only with commerce. “If Google releases this technology, they will effectively own the means by which media companies, advertisers and technology businesses reach their consumers and that change will be irreversible,” James Rosewell, Director of MOW, wrote.

Google expects to implement its plan by 2022, and as part of it, advertisers will receive less data than at present.

“Google’s announced changes — known collectively as the Privacy Sandbox’ project — would disable third party cookies on the Chrome browser and Chromium browser engine,” continues the CMA statement, “and replace them with a new set of tools for targeting advertising and other functionality that they say will protect consumers’ privacy to a greater extent.”

The investigation has begun with what the CMA describes as “information gathering, including issue of formal or informal information requests.” The investigation is currently expected to take until July 2021 to complete.

Separately, the US Department of Justice has been investigating whether Chrome should be split off from Google. One reason is to do with how allegedly the company is able to use the popularity of its search engine to benefit advertising in Chrome.

Apple denied new VirnetX FaceTime patent trial

After a battery of appeals, the Apple versus VirnetX legal battle over FaceTime patents appears to be finally over, with the judge at the heart of the case denying Apple’s motion for a new trial.

Robert W. Schroeder III denied Apple’s motion for a new trial in the ongoing FaceTime patent misuse trial saga on Wednesday. In a parallel ruling, the judge also granted, but modified VirnetX’s motion for interest payments and other fees assessed to Apple.

The order on Wednesday is sealed. At present, it isn’t clear what modifications Judge Schroeder made to VirnetX’s $116 million request for interest on top of the $504 million that it must pay.

Apple was seeking a new trial on the grounds that the jury had not been informed that two of VirnetX’s patents had been rendered invalid by the US Patent Office. The company also argued that the award for royalties was erroneous, and if there was going to be any royalty award, it should be $0.19 per device versus the $0.84 per unit sale that VirnetX was demanding.

In February 2020, Apple’s appeal regarding the invalid patents was denied.

In March 2020, VirnetX confirmed that Apple sent a $454 million payment for infringing several of its patents through the FaceTime and VPN on Demand features.