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Friday, March 30, 2012

Apple Manufacturer Provides Poor Working Conditions

Story first appeared in The Detroit Free Press.

A long-awaited report on conditions at Chinese factories that make Apple products confirmed the worst: long hours, low wages and poor working conditions for employees.
Apple, in response, says it will ensure that overseas employees have better working conditions.
Investigators from the Washington-based Fair Labor Association, at Apple's request, went to China to look at Foxconn Technology Group factories in Guanlan, Longhua, and Chengdu, where Apple iPads and iPhones are assembled for sale across the world. Products for other companies, including Dell, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, are made there, too.
At the Foxconn factories, the average workweek for an employee is 60 hours, which exceeds both the FLA code standard and Chinese legal limit, the month-long investigation found. Some employees worked as many as 70 hours a week in November and December 2011. However, FLA said Foxconn has agreed to remedy this by July 2013, and bring it down to the legal 49 hours, while protecting workers' pay.
Apple has come under fire recently for producing hit products overseas with low-paid workers in less-than-optimum conditions. Monthly salaries range from $360 to $455. CEO Tim Cook was in China on Wednesday visiting a new Foxconn factory, not the ones mentioned in the report.
Consumer watchdog groups say that the report is a start but that Apple must really change.  Supposedly workers put in many more hours per week than is legal -- will take more than a year to change direction. Foxconn has more than 1.2 million employees.
SumofUs, along with, has received more than 250,000 signatures from consumers asking Apple to require its suppliers to treat overseas workers better.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Yahoo No Longer Trying to Keep Merger Bid Secret

Story first appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Yahoo Inc. has ended an effort to keep documents related to a 2008 merger bid from Microsoft Corp. sealed, more than a week after activist shareholder sought to have the material exposed to public view.

Yahoo has opted to withdraw its application to continue restrictions on public access to the documents, which it had filed with a Delaware court earlier this month, according to court records. The documents had been filed as part of a roughly four-year-old shareholder lawsuit -- since settled -- against the Sunnyvale, Calif., company.

The activist's hedge fund Third Point LLC has recently mounted a proxy challenge to Yahoo, in which it has obtained a stake of more than 5%. Third Point is seeking to have four of its nominees elected to the embattled Internet firm's board of directors.

Yahoo countered over the weekend with three of its own board appointees.

As part of its proxy challenge, Third Point filed a motion in a Delaware court on March 15 opposing Yahoo's efforts to keep under seal the shareholder litigation documents related to its decision to rebuff a $31-a-share takeover bid from Microsoft.

Third Point has said in public filings that the Yahoo board's rejection of Microsoft's bid was among its "misjudgments and failures."

Yahoo's shares closed Monday at $15.54. The company is seeking a turnaround under their Chief Executive, who was hired in January.

It wasn't immediately clear when the Microsoft-related documents stemming from the shareholder litigation would become publicly available.

Yahoo and Microsoft have formed a partnership in the years following their scuttled merger talks that has Microsoft powering Yahoo's Internet search results in a revenue-sharing arrangement.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Yahoo! Files Advertising Lawsuit Against Facebook

First appeared in Bloomberg News
Yahoo! Inc. accused Facebook Inc. in a federal court lawsuit of infringing patents related to Internet advertising and information sharing.

Lawyers for Yahoo, in a complaint filed today in federal court in San Jose, California, seek a court order barring Facebook from infringing 10 patents and awarding it triple damages. The patents cover website functions such as advertising, privacy protection, information customization, social networking and messaging, according to the complaint.

Yahoo, owner of the most popular U.S. Internet portal, said in February that Facebook must license its technology, pointing out that other Web companies have licensed its intellectual property. Yahoo is looking for ways to revive growth after losing ground to Facebook in the display advertising market and trailing Google Inc. in Web searches.

“For much of the technology upon which Facebook is based, Yahoo! got there first,” according to the complaint. “Facebook’s entire social network model, which allows users to create profiles for and connect with, among other things, persons and businesses, is based on Yahoo!’s patented social networking technology,” Yahoo said in the complaint.

Yahoo lost its No. 1 spot to Menlo Park, California-based Facebook last year in the U.S. market for display advertising, which includes video and graphically based marketing messages, according to EMarketer Inc. In January, Yahoo, based in Sunnyvale, California, reported fourth-quarter revenue of $1.17 billion, excluding sales passed on to partner sites. That fell short of analysts’ estimates of $1.19 billion.

‘Longtime’ Partner

“We’re disappointed that Yahoo, a longtime business partner of Facebook and a company that has substantially benefited from its association with Facebook, has decided to resort to litigation,” Facebook said in a statement.

“Once again, we learned of Yahoo’s decision simultaneously with the media,” Facebook said. “We will defend ourselves vigorously against these puzzling actions.”

Yahoo said in an e-mailed statement that its patented technologies attract more than 700 million unique visitors each month.

“Unfortunately, the matter with Facebook remains unresolved and we are compelled to seek redress in federal court,” Yahoo said in the statement. “We are confident that we will prevail.”

The case is Yahoo! Inc. v. Facebook, 12-cv-01212, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Jose).

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

LulzSec Hackers Busted

Last appeared in Mercury News
A group of expert hackers who attacked governments and corporations around the globe has been busted after its ringleader -- one of the world's most-wanted and most-feared computer vandals -- turned against his comrades and secretly became an informant for the FBI months ago, authorities announced Tuesday.

Five people, including a Chicago man, were charged in court papers unsealed in federal court in New York, and authorities revealed that a sixth person, Hector Xavier Monsegur, a legendary figure known in the hacking underworld as "Sabu," has pleaded guilty in New York, where he lives.

Authorities said it marked the first significant prosecution of major Internet hackers.

According to court papers, members of the group got their start as part of a large worldwide hacking organization known as Anonymous, which authorities said has been operating at least since 2008. Court papers accused Anonymous of a "deliberate campaign of online destruction, intimidation and criminality."

In chat rooms and on Twitter, Anonymous supporters erupted into a chorus of disappointment, confusion and anger. Some wondered whether the news was an elaborate fraud.

As members of Anonymous surveyed the damage Tuesday, one of its most popular Twitter feeds assured its followers that it was still OK.

"We're sailing close to the wind," the feed read. "Our crew is complete and doing fine."

Monsegur was portrayed in court papers as the ringleader of some of the group's more infamous deeds. Authorities said he formed an elite hacking organization last May -- a spinoff of Anonymous -- and named it "Lulz Security" or "LulzSec." "Lulz" is Internet slang that can mean "laughs" or "amusement."

Despite the organization's lighthearted name, authorities said Monsegur and his followers embarked on a dastardly stream of deeds against business and government entities in the U.S. and around the world, resulting in the theft of confidential information, the defacing of websites and attacks that temporarily put victims out of business.

Google Play Has Launched

First appeared in Mercury News
The Android Market, where Google (GOOG) distributes mobile apps and other digital content, is getting a revamp -- to be replaced starting Tuesday with a newly named "Google Play" store as the company moves to compete more directly with Apple (AAPL) and Amazon as a seller of digital music, video, games, apps and books.

First launched in October 2008 after the first Android smartphone went on sale, the Android Market was primarily a place to download smartphone apps. But with Google adding movie rentals and a streaming music service in 2011, the company now is trying to create a unified, easier to navigate online store that it says will make things better for consumers and content creators alike.

Google Play launches worldwide Tuesday on the Web and over the course of the week for people connecting with Android smartphones and tablets. Analysts said Google is making a crucial, necessary step to match its competitors by putting all its digital offerings in one store, and posting the equivalent of virtual signs in the aisles so consumers can more easily find the things they are looking for.

"For the users, it's really about delivering this simpler, more integrated experience," Chris Yerga, Google's engineering director for digital content, said in an interview. "It's sort of like the chocolate and peanut butter thing -- the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It's going to attract more purchasers to the store. It's good for us -- it's good for Google -- but it's also good for our content partners."

As Google tries to compete with Apple's integrated system of iPhones and iPads connected to the music, video and books in its iTunes store, a better, easier-to-use content store is critical for the Mountain View Internet giant, said Mike McGuire, an analyst with Gartner who follows the digital content market.

"The biggest challenge they have is they don't have near the level of control that Apple does," McGuire said. "They don't control all the hardware like Apple does, but they can make the navigation and the discovery of either content or apps easier. They have to do this. It's a crucial step for them."

Google's content model differs from Apple in that it is more oriented around the Internet cloud, meaning digital music or books are generally stored on Google's servers, and streamed to Android phones and tablets through an Internet connection, rather than being stored locally on the device as it typically is with Apple's system.

The upside of the Google model is that there is no need to plug one device into another to sync content, and your books, games or music follow you seamlessly from device to device. The downside is that in remote areas where no broadband connection is available, there's sometimes no way to access what you want.

For content providers like Glu Mobile, a mobile gaming company that makes games for smartphones and tablets that run Google's Android, Apple's iOS and Microsoft's Windows Phone software, a new Google Play store that allows people to easily find games is critical to the success of Android.

"You can have the best game in the world, but if people can't find it you're dead in the water," said Adam Flanders, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Glu Mobile. "If people can find the great content, then it benefits the game companies like us."

Flanders said Glu Mobile is "absolutely excited" about the Google Play store, because it can help the San Francisco company take better advantage of the Android smartphones and tablets in use, a huge number that despite its size, analysts say, is not as lucrative as Apple's. Android chief Andy Rubin said last week that 850,000 new Android devices are being activated every day.

Yerga said the consolidation of separate stores for e-books and music into Google Play is just one step in how Google intends to improve its digital content offerings.

"I think of this as a commitment or a confirmation that Google is really serious about digital content," he said. "One of the great things about Google Play is it kind of solidifies things, and it gives us a great foundation for building new features and expanding our offerings going forward."

Monday, March 05, 2012

Microsoft Isn’t Convinced by Google

First appeared in Information Week
Microsoft wasted little time launching an effort to cash in on concerns about Google's controversial new privacy policies, under which the search giant said it would monitor user activity across all of its major Web services--including YouTube, Gmail, and its namesake search engine.

"The changes Google announced make it harder, not easier, for people to stay in control of their own information," said Microsoft chief spokesman Frank Shaw, in a blog entry Wednesday. "We take a different approach--we work to keep you safe and secure online, to give you control over your data, and to offer you the choice of saving your information on your hard drive, in the cloud, or on both."

Shaw said that, in contrast to some versions of Google's products, Microsoft services like Hotmail and Office 365 don't serve up user information to advertisers. He also touted Internet Explorer's built-in tracking protection feature. To further emphasize the point, Microsoft is running an ad in major newspapers this week that says the company is "Putting People First."

The ad says Google's changes are "cloaked in language like 'transparency,' 'simplicity,' and 'consistency'" but in fact are "really about one thing: making it easier for Google to connect the dots between everything you search, send, say, or stream while using one of their services."

The hubbub arose last week, after a Google exec announced the changes in a blog post. "Our new privacy policy makes clear that, if you're signed in, we may combine information you've provided from one service with information from other services," said Alma Whitten, Google's director of privacy, product, and engineering.

"In short, we'll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience," said Whitten. Google said the changes would go into effect "in just over a month."

Google insists the revamp will benefit users by making its services more efficient. For instance, a search on "German restaurants" would yield results not just from the Web, but from Google+ posts or Gmail messages.

But critics, including key lawmakers, fear the changes could put users' privacy at risk. "It is imperative that users will be able to decide whether they want their information shared across the spectrum of Google's offerings," said Edward Markey (D-Mass.), in a statement.

Microsoft is hoping the controversy will lure users to its online services, including Bing search, most of which lag well behind Google in user numbers and market share. "If [Google's] changes rub you the wrong way, please consider using our portfolio of award-winning products and services," the company said in its newspaper ad.

Google Insists New Policy is Legal

First appeared in Information Week
Google has consolidated its privacy policies, as it said it would, despite the concerns of regulators in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

Alma Whitten, Google director of privacy, product and engineering, said in a blog post that the consolidation effort makes it easier to understand the company's privacy policy, enables a better experience for signed-in Google users, and leaves existing privacy controls intact.

Although EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding told the BBC that Google's privacy policy consolidation violates data protection laws, Google maintains that its changes are legally compliant.

"We are confident that our new simple, clear and transparent privacy policy respects all European data protection laws and principles," a company spokesperson said in an email. "It provides all the information required in Articles 10 & 11 of the directive, plus much additional information, and it follows the guidelines published by the Article 29 Working Party in 2004."

NYU Stern School of Business professor Arun Sundararajan says Google is moving in the right direction, but hasn't yet done enough to protect consumers.

"On the one hand, I do give Google credit for providing a greater level of transparency about what information they have about their consumers," Sundararajan said in a phone interview. "What Google isn't doing enough of is telling us what they're going to do with this information. That's a little troubling to me. The policy doesn't say enough about what limits Google will place on this information for advertising purposes. And beyond one small assurance they've given us [about not sharing personal information], we don't know how much they're going to share with marketing partners."

Sundararajan says he doesn't see Google's privacy policy consolidation as altering the privacy risks consumers face. "I see it as a move where Google is reducing its own risk. But I'd like to see them be more forthright in spelling out what they will and won't do with customer data."

Sundararajan suggests that Google's distinction between "personally identifiable information" and "non-personally identifiable information" is outdated, given the extent to which non-personally identifiable data can be correlated to identify someone.

"Re-identifying people based on their [anonymized] activity data is not hard and it's getting increasingly easier," he said.

Sundararajan proposes that companies and regulators adopt an "intent-based" approach to privacy as an alternative to burdensome rules that attempt to define permissible privacy practices.

As he sees it, companies should consider the intention of the customer who provided the data as a guideline for how the customer's data can be used. If a customer signs up for an online service with an email address, for example, the company should be able to use that address to contact the customer about the service but not to identify the customer for an activity profile or some other purpose.

"If companies start to align the way they use their data with the intent the customer had when providing the information, this will go a long way toward mitigating the privacy risk," he said. "There are good-intentioned firms out there that just don't have good guidelines about how to responsibly manage consumer data."

Friday, March 02, 2012

Google Goes Ahead New Privacy Policy

First appeared in Financial Times
Google angered European regulators on Thursday by rolling out a new privacy policy despite repeated requests to delay the project and warnings that it might not be lawful.

Viviane Reding, the EU Justice Commissioner, told the Financial Times Google’s decision to go ahead with the new privacy policies was unfortunate when it was not clear that these complied with European law. She said she backed a call by French regulators to delay implementation.

Battle lines between European governments and the US internet search company have been hardening over its business practices. The European Commission is expected to rule later this month on whether Google has breached antitrust laws in the way it operates its search service. French judges have ruled this year in separate cases that Google abused its dominance in the online mapping market and in its AdWords advertising service.

The new privacy rules make it possible for Google to take what it has learnt about a user from one of its services – such as search or Gmail – and use it to tailor what that user sees on other services. The content of emails sent using Gmail might, for example, influence what advertising is shown to that person on YouTube.

France’s data protection agency, the CNIL, warned this week that European regulators had “strong doubts about the lawfulness and fairness” of this use of personal data.

Ms Redding said on Thursday: “I support the French data protection authority’s request to Google to delay the introduction of its new privacy policy until questions about the policy’s compliance with EU data protection rules have been resolved.”

Google said it complies with local laws. The changes would result in a better experience for users, for example, by using the information to provide more relevant search results, it said.

“Our approach to privacy isn’t changing,” Alma Whitten, Google’s director of privacy, wrote in an article that appeared on several European news sites. “We’re not collecting any new information as a result of this change. We’re not altering any of your privacy settings. And we still won’t sell your personal information to advertisers. We just want to use the information you already trust us with to make your experience better.”

The Japanese government has also written to Google to express its concern about its handling of personal data.

Last month, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a campaigner for internet freedoms in the US, suggested supporters should delete some of the information that Google keeps about historical search queries, before the changes came into effect.

Google has run an extensive campaign ahead of the changes, including prominent warnings across its sites and services.

However, regulators remain concerned about the privacy of hundreds of millions of users and the growing targeting of advertising across Google’s full online reach.

“Google should be congratulated on doing some things well. They do allow people to use the services when they are not logged in,” said Gus Hosein of Privacy International, a campaign group. “However, we need more detail on what they are doing with the data. How long are they keeping it? Who are they sharing it with?”

Mr Hosein said that users were “being left in the dirt” amid an online power struggle between Google and its younger rival, Facebook, as both seek to increase their share of customers’ time and data, and advertising spending.

Internet companies are preparing to fight back against new privacy laws which the European Union put forward in January. The UK’s Direct Marketing Association, a trade body, is preparing a study stressing the wider economic contribution of the data-based advertising industry.