Facebook’s got 99 problems but Trump’s latest “bias” tweet ain’t one

By any measure Facebook hasn’t had the best of years in 2018.

But while toxic problems keep piling up and, well, raining acidly down on the social networking giant — from election interference, to fake accounts, faulty metrics, security flaws, ethics failuresprivacy outrages and much more besides — the silver lining of having a core business now widely perceived as hostile to democratic processes and civilized sentiment, and the tool of choice for shitposters agitating for hate and societal division, well, everywhere in the world, is that Facebook has frankly far more important things to worry about than the latest anti-tech-industry salvo from President Trump.

In an early morning tweet today, Trump (again) attacked what he dubbed anti-conservative “bias” in the digital social sphere — hitting out at not just Facebook but tech’s holy trinity of social giants, with a claim that “Facebook, Twitter and Google are so biased towards the Dems it is ridiculous!”

Time was when Facebook was so sensitive to accusations of internal anti-conservative bias that it fired a bunch of journalists it had contracted and replaced them with algorithms — which almost immediately pumped up a bunch of fake news. RIP irony.

Not today, though.

When asked if it had a response to Trump’s accusation of bias a Facebook spokesperson told us: “We don’t have anything to add here.”

The brevity and alacrity of the response suggested the spokesperson had a really cheerful expression on their face when they typed it.

The relief of Facebook not having to give a shit this time was kinda palpable, even in pixel form.

It was also a far cry from the screeds the company routinely dispenses these days to try to muffle journalistic — and indeed political — enquiry.

Trump evidently doesn’t factor ‘bigly’ on Facebook’s oversubscribed risk-list.

Even though Facebook was the first name on the president’s (non-alphabetical) tech giant hit-list.

Still, Twitter appeared to have irked Trump more, as his tweet singled out the short-form platform — with an accusation that Twitter has made it “much more difficult for people to join [sic] @realDonaldTrump”. (We think by “join” he means follow. But we’re speculating wildly.)

This is perhaps why Twitter felt moved to provide a response to the claim of bias, albeit also without wasting a lot of words.

Here’s its statement:

Our focus is on the health of the service, and that includes work to remove fake accounts to prevent malicious behavior. Many prominent accounts have seen follower counts drop, but the result is higher confidence that the followers they have are real, engaged people.

Presumably the president failed to read our report, from July, when we trailed Twitter’s forthcoming spam purge, warning it would result in users with lots of followers taking a noticeable hit in the coming days. In a word: Sad.

Of course we also asked Google for a response to Trump’s bias claim. But just got radio silence.

In similar “bias” tweets from August the company got a bigger Trump-lashing. And in a response statement then it told us: “We never rank search results to manipulate political sentiment.”

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has also just had to sit through some three hours of questions from Republicans in Congress on this very theme.

So the company probably feels it’s exhausted the political bias canard.

Even while, as the claims drone on and on, it might truly come to understand what it feels like to be stuck inside a filter bubble.

In any case there are far more pressing things to accuse Google’s algorithms of than being ‘anti-Trump’.

So it’s just as well it didn’t waste time on another presidential sideshow intended to distract from problems of Trump’s own making.

Ada nets $19 million Series A to grow its customer service chatbot

Ada is on a mission to build chatbots powered by artificial intelligence. The company today is announcing a $19 million Series A that will go far in helping it reach that goal. The company sees the capital fueling international expansion and launching products into new verticals as well as doubling down on employees.

Chatbots were a buzzword several years back. After the initial buildup and bust, the remaining players in the space are building upon the expectations set early on. Users of chatbots expect services to take actions on their behalf and perform routine functions quickly and efficiently. Likewise, companies are seeking solutions that exceed customer expectations, while offering features that allow the company to scale and expand.

“While many enterprises are choosing to invest in AI and automation,” the company tells TechCrunch, “the recurring investment of time and resources to implement, manage and improve highly technical solutions is diminishing the ROI. In turn, businesses are seeking inclusive and accessible platforms that empower non-technical support teams to build, manage and track the automated customer experience. Even among our own clients, we’ve seen the formation of some of the world’s first automated automation customer experience service (ACX) departments–made up of customer service professionals, not programmers–dedicated to building an automated, AI-powered customer experience. Ada’s automation is changing how people are working and the role of customer service by creating completely new departments, titles, and roles.”

Ada sees the Series A capital to expand the features built-into its products, allowing for a deeper level of personalization and customization — items that will go far with its clients. Launched in 2016 the Toronto-based startup expects to double its staff in the coming months. Right now the company has 70 employees and hopes to be at 140 sometime in 2019.

“2018 was an exciting time for the customer service industry,” Ada said. “Reservations about chatbots and virtual assistants are dissipating, as consumers continue to realize the tremendous benefits of instant, automated, self-service support. Their rising expectations have resulted in an industry-wide shift, with businesses changing from an ‘agent-first’ to an ‘automation-first’ customer strategy.”

The Series A was round was led by FirstMark Capital with participation from Leaders Fund and Burst Capital, as well as returning investors Bessemer, Version One, and computer scientist, Barney Pell.

“Ada’s accessible and scalable platform lets non-technical customer service teams build and manage AI-powered chatbots to automate interactions. Ada has delivered transformational, measurable results to some of the world’s most innovative brands, helping them shift from a reactive, expensive support strategy to a proactive model that reduces customer effort,” said Matt Turck, Managing Director of FirstMark Capital, in a released statement “Ada has played an important role in driving automated customer experience, and we’re confident in the team and the platform to surpass their rapid projected growth.”

The company is based in Toronto. When asked why Toronto, the company points to several data points such as the city’s designation of the fastest growing tech market in North America and the recent announcements of significant new office complexes from Microsoft and Google .

Google will make it easier for people without accounts to collaborate on G Suite documents

Soon it will be easier for people without Google accounts to collaborate on G Suite documents. Currently in beta, a new feature will enable G Suite users to invite people without G Suite subscriptions or Google accounts to work on files by sending them a pin code.

Using the pin code to gain access allows invitees to view, comment on, suggest edits to, or directly edit Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides. The owners and admins of the G Suite files monitor usage through activity logs and can revoke access at any time. According to the feature’s support article, admins are able to set permissions by department or domain. They can also restrict sharing outside of white-listed G Suite domains or their own organization.

In order to sign up for the beta program, companies need to fill in this form and select a non-G Suite domain they plan to collaborate with frequently.

According to a Reuters article published in February, since intensifying their focus on enterprise customers, Google has doubled the number of organizations with a G Suite subscription to more than 4 million. But despite Google’s efforts to build its enterprise user base, G Suite hasn’t come close to supplanting Office 365 as the cloud-based productivity software of choice for companies.

Office 365 made $13.8 billion in sales in 2016, versus just $1.3 billion for G Suite, according to Gartner. Google has added features to G Suite, however, to make the two competing software suites more interoperable, including an update that enables Google Drive users to comment on Office files, PDFs, and images in the Drive preview panel without needing to convert them to Google Docs, Sheets or Slide files first, even if they don’t have Microsoft Office or Acrobat Reader. Before that, Google also released a Drive plugin for Outlook.

This may not convince Microsoft customers to switch, especially if they have been using its software for decades, but at least it will get more workers comfortable with Google’s alternatives, and may convince some companies to subscribe to G Suite for at least some employees or departments.

How Russia’s online influence campaign engaged with millions for years

Russian efforts to influence U.S. politics and sway public opinion were consistent and, as far as engaging with target audiences, largely successful, according to a report from Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project published today. Based on data provided to Congress by Facebook, Instagram, Google, and Twitter, the study paints a portrait of the years-long campaign that’s less than flattering to the companies.

The report, which you can read here, was published today but given to some outlets over the weekend, summarizes the work of the Internet Research Agency, Moscow’s online influence factory and troll farm. The data cover various periods for different companies, but 2016 and 2017 showed by far the most activity.

A clearer picture

If you’ve only checked into this narrative occasionally during the last couple years, the Comprop report is a great way to get a bird’s-eye view of the whole thing, with no “we take this very seriously” palaver interrupting the facts.

If you’ve been following the story closely, the value of the report is mostly in deriving specifics and some new statistics from the data, which Oxford researchers were provided some seven months ago for analysis. The numbers, predictably, all seem to be a bit higher or more damning than those provided by the companies themselves in their voluntary reports and carefully practiced testimony.

Previous estimates have focused on the rather nebulous metric of “encountering” or “seeing” IRA content put on these social metrics. This had the dual effect of increasing the affected number — to over a hundred million on Facebook alone — but “seeing” could easily be downplayed in importance; after all, how many things do you “see” on the internet every day?

The Oxford researchers better quantify the engagement, on Facebook first, with more specific and consequential numbers. For instance, in 2016 and 2017, nearly 30 million people on Facebook actually shared Russian propaganda content, with similar numbers of likes garnered, and millions of comments generated.

Note that these aren’t ads that Russian shell companies were paying to shove into your timeline — these were pages and groups with thousands of users on board who actively engaged with and spread posts, memes, and disinformation on captive news sites linked to by the propaganda accounts.

The content itself was, of course, carefully curated to touch on a number of divisive issues: immigration, gun control, race relations, and so on. Many different groups (i.e. black Americans, conservatives, Muslims, LGBT communities) were targeted all generated significant engagement, as this breakdown of the above stats shows:

Although the targeted communities were surprisingly diverse, the intent was highly focused: stoke partisan divisions, suppress left-leaning voters, and activate right-leaning ones.

Black voters in particular were a popular target across all platforms, and a great deal of content was posted both to keep racial tensions high and to interfere with their actual voting. Memes were posted suggesting followers withhold their votes, or deliberately incorrect instructions on how to vote. These efforts were among the most numerous and popular of the IRA’s campaign; it’s difficult to judge their effectiveness, but certainly they had reach.

Examples of posts targeting black Americans.

In a statement, Facebook said that it was cooperating with officials and that “Congress and the intelligence community are best placed to use the information we and others provide to determine the political motivations of actors like the Internet Research Agency.” It also noted that it has “made progress in helping prevent interference on our platforms during elections, strengthened our policies against voter suppression ahead of the 2018 midterms, and funded independent research on the impact of social media on democracy.”

Instagram on the rise

Based on the narrative thus far, one might expect that Facebook — being the focus for much of it — was the biggest platform for this propaganda, and that it would have peaked around the 2016 election, when the evident goal of helping Donald Trump get elected had been accomplished.

In fact Instagram was receiving as much or more content than Facebook, and it was being engaged with on a similar scale. Previous reports disclosed that around 120,000 IRA-related posts on Instagram had reached several million people in the run-up to the election. The Oxford researchers conclude, however, that 40 accounts received in total some 185 million likes and 4 million comments during the period covered by the data (2015-2017).

A partial explanation for these rather high numbers may be that, also counter to the most obvious narrative, IRA posting in fact increased following the election — for all platforms, but particularly on Instagram.

IRA-related Instagram posts jumped from an average of 2,611 per month in 2016 to 5,956 in 2017; note that the numbers don’t match the above table exactly because the time periods differ slightly.

Twitter posts, while extremely numerous, are quite steady at just under 60,000 per month, totaling around 73 million engagements over the period studied. To be perfectly frank this kind of voluminous bot and sock puppet activity is so commonplace on Twitter, and the company seems to have done so little to thwart it, that it hardly bears mentioning. But it was certainly there, and often reused existing bot nets that previously had chimed in on politics elsewhere and in other languages.

In a statement, Twitter said that it has “made significant strides since 2016 to counter manipulation of our service, including our release of additional data in October related to previously disclosed activities to enable further independent academic research and investigation.”

Google too is somewhat hard to find in the report, though not necessarily because it has a handle on Russian influence on its platforms. Oxford’s researchers complain that Google and YouTube have been not just stingy, but appear to have actively attempted to stymie analysis.

Google chose to supply the Senate committee with data in a non-machine-readable format. The evidence that the IRA had bought ads on Google was provided as images of ad text and in PDF format whose pages displayed copies of information previously organized in spreadsheets. This means that Google could have provided the useable ad text and spreadsheets—in a standard machine- readable file format, such as CSV or JSON, that would be useful to data scientists—but chose to turn them into images and PDFs as if the material would all be printed out on paper.

This forced the researchers to collect their own data via citations and mentions of YouTube content. As a consequence their conclusions are limited. Generally speaking when a tech company does this, it means that the data they could provide would tell a story they don’t want heard.

For instance, one interesting point brought up by a second report published today, by New Knowledge, concerns the 1,108 videos uploaded by IRA-linked accounts on YouTube. These videos, a Google statement explained, “were not targeted to the U.S. or to any particular sector of the U.S. population.”

In fact, all but a few dozen of these videos concerned police brutality and Black Lives Matter, which as you’ll recall were among the most popular topics on the other platforms. Seems reasonable to expect that this extremely narrow targeting would have been mentioned by YouTube in some way. Unfortunately it was left to be discovered by a third party and gives one an idea of just how far a statement from the company can be trusted.

Desperately seeking transparency

In its conclusion, the Oxford researchers — Philip N. Howard, Bharath Ganesh, and Dimitra Liotsiou — point out that although the Russian propaganda efforts were (and remain) disturbingly effective and well organized, the country is not alone in this.

“During 2016 and 2017 we saw significant efforts made by Russia to disrupt elections around the world, but also political parties in these countries spreading disinformation domestically,” they write. “In many democracies it is not even clear that spreading computational propaganda contravenes election laws.”

“It is, however, quite clear that the strategies and techniques used by government cyber troops have an impact,” the report continues, “and that their activities violate the norms of democratic practice… Social media have gone from being the natural infrastructure for sharing collective grievances and coordinating civic engagement, to being a computational tool for social control, manipulated by canny political consultants, and available to politicians in democracies and dictatorships alike.”

Predictably, even social networks’ moderation policies became targets for propagandizing.

Waiting on politicians is, as usual, something of a long shot, and the onus is squarely on the providers of social media and internet services to create an environment in which malicious actors are less likely to thrive.

Specifically, this means that these companies need to embrace researchers and watchdogs in good faith instead of freezing them out in order to protect some internal process or embarrassing misstep.

“Twitter used to provide researchers at major universities with access to several APIs, but has withdrawn this and provides so little information on the sampling of existing APIs that researchers increasingly question its utility for even basic social science,” the researchers point out. “Facebook provides an extremely limited API for the analysis of public pages, but no API for Instagram.” (And we’ve already heard what they think of Google’s submissions.)

If the companies exposed in this report truly take these issues seriously, as they tell us time and again, perhaps they should implement some of these suggestions.

Lightspeed is raising its largest China fund yet

Lightspeed China Partners, the China-focused affiliate of Silicon Valley-based Lightspeed Venture Partners, has set a $360 million target for its fourth flagship venture fund, according to a document filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission today.

If the target is reached, the fund will be Lightspeed China’s largest yet, per PitchBook. Lightspeed China’s previous two funds each closed on $260 million. The VC raised $168 million for its debut China-focused fund in 2013.

Lightspeed China is led by David Mi (pictured). Mi, an investor in multiple billion-dollar Chinese companies, was previously the director of corporate development at Google, where he helped lead the search giant’s investment in Baidu. He joined Lightspeed in 2008 and established the firm’s China presence in 2011. Yan Han, a long-time Lightspeed investor and co-founder of the Chinese branch, is also listed on the filing.

Lightspeed China has backed e-commerce platform Pingduoduo and loan provider Rong360, a pair of Chinese “unicorns” that both completed U.S. initial public offerings since 2017. Typically, the firm makes early-stage investments in the internet, mobile and enterprise spaces. 

Earlier this year, Lightspeed Venture Partners filed to raise a record $1.8 billion in new capital commitments. This month, it tacked five new partners onto its consumer and enterprise investment teams, including Slack’s former head of growth and Twitter’s former vice president of global business development.

Lightspeed didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Google agrees not to sell facial recognition tech, citing abuse potential

In recent months, pressure has been mounting for major tech firms to develop strong policies regarding facial recognition. Microsoft has helped lead the way on that front, promising to put in place stricter policies, calling for greater regulation and asking fellow companies to follow suit.

Hidden toward the end of a blog post about using artificial intelligence to benefit health clinics in Asia, Google SVP Kent Walker affirmed the company’s commitment not to sell facial recognition APIs. The executive cites concerns over how the technology could be abused.

“[F]acial recognition technology has benefits in areas like new assistive technologies and tools to help find missing persons, with more promising applications on the horizon,” Walker writes. “However, like many technologies with multiple uses, facial recognition merits careful consideration to ensure its use is aligned with our principles and values, and avoids abuse and harmful outcomes. We continue to work with many organizations to identify and address these challenges, and unlike some other companies, Google Cloud has chosen not to offer general-purpose facial recognition APIs before working through important technology and policy questions.”

In an interview this week, CEO Sundar Pichai addressed similar growing concerns around AI ethics. “I think tech has to realize it just can’t build it and then fix it,” he told The Washington Post. “I think that doesn’t work,” adding that artificial intelligence could ultimately prove “far more dangerous than nukes.”

The ACLU, which has offered sharp criticism over privacy and racial profiling concerns, lauded the statement. In the next paragraph, however, the company promised to continue to apply pressure on these large orgs.

“We will continue to put Google’s feet to the fire to make sure it doesn’t build or sell a face surveillance product that violates civil and human rights,” ACLU tech director Nicole Ozer said in a statement. “We also renew our call on Amazon and Microsoft to not provide dangerous face surveillance to the government. Companies have a responsibility to make sure their products can’t be used to attack communities and harm civil rights and liberties — it’s past time all companies own up to that responsibility.”

The organization has offered particularly sharp criticism against Amazon for its Rekognition software. This week, it also called out the company’s patent application for a smart doorbell that uses facial recognition to identify “suspicious” visitors.

What China searched for in 2018: World Cup, trade war, Apple

Soon after Google unveiled the top trends in what people searched for in 2018, Baidu published what captivated the Chinese in a parallel online universe, where most of the West’s mainstream tech services including Google and Facebook are inaccessible.

China’s top search engine put together the report “based on trillions of trending queries” to present a “social collective memory” of internet users, said Baidu. 802 million people have come online in China as of August, and many of them use Baidu to look things up daily.

Overall, Chinese internet users were transfixed on a mix of sports events, natural disasters, politics, and entertainment, a pattern that also prevails in Google year-in-search. On Baidu, the most popular queries of the year are:

  1. World Cup: China shares its top search with the rest of the world. Despite China’s lackluster performance in the tournament, World Cup managed to capture a massive Chinese fan base who supported an array of foreign teams. People filled bars in big cities at night to watch the heart-thumping matches and many even trekked north to Russia to show their support.
  2. US-China trade war: The runner-up comes as a no surprise given the escalating conflict between the world’s two largest economies. A series of events have stoked more fears of the standoff, including the arrest of Huawei’s financial chief.

  3. Typhoon Mangkhut: The massive tropical cyclone swept across the Pacific Ocean in September, leaving the Philippines and South China in shambles. Shenzhen, the Chinese city dubbed the Silicon Valley for hardware, reportedly submitted more than $20.4 million in damage claims after the storm.

  4. Apple launch: The American smartphone giant is still getting a lot of attention in China even as local Android competitors like Huawei and Oppo chip away at its market share. Apple is also fighting a legal battle with chipmaker Qualcomm which wanted the former to stop selling certain smartphone models in China.

  5. The story of Yanxi Palace: The historical drama of backstabbing concubines drew record-breaking views for its streamer and producer iQiyi, China’s answer to Netflix that floated in the U.S. in February. The 70-episode show was watched not only in China but also across more than 70 countries around the world.

  6. Produce 101: The talent show in which 101 young women race to be the best performer is one of Tencent Video’s biggest hits of the year, but its reach has gone beyond its targeted young audience as it popularized a meme, which made it to No. 9 on this list.

  7. Skr: A buzzword courtesy to pop idol Kris Wu who extensively used it on a whim during iQiyi’s rap competition “Rap of China,” prompting his fans and internet users to bestow it with a myriad of interpretations.

  8. Li Yong passed away: The sudden death of the much-loved television host after he fought a 17-month battle with cancer stirred an outpouring of grief on social media.

  9. Koi: A colored variety of carps, the fish is associated with good luck in Chinese culture. Yang Chaoyue, a Produce 101 contestant who the audience believed to be below average surprisingly rose to fame and has since been compared to a koi.

  10. Esports: Professional gaming has emerged from the underground to become a source of national pride recently after a Chinese team championed the League of Legend finals, an event regarded as the Olympics for esports.

In addition to the overall ranking, Baidu also listed popular terms by category, with staple areas like domestic affairs alongside those with a local flavor such as events that inspire national pride or are tear-jerking.

This was also the first year that Baidu has added a category dedicated to AI-related keywords. The search giant, which itself has pivoted to go all in AI and has invested heavily in autonomous driving, said the technology “has not only become a nationwide buzzword but also a key engine in transforming lives across the globe.” In 2018, Chinese people were keen to learn about these AI terms:

Robots, chips, internet of things, smart speakers, autonomous driving, face recognition, quantum computing, unmanned vehicles, World Artificial Intelligence Conference, and quantum mechanics.

TNB Aura closes $22.7M fund to bring PE-style investing to Southeast Asia’s startups

TNB Aura, a recent arrival to Southeast Asia’s VC scene, announced today that it has closed a maiden fund at SG$31.1million, or around US$22.65 million, to bring a more private equity-like approach to investing in startups in the region.

The fund was launched in 2016 and it is a joint effort between Australia-based venture fund Aura and Singapore’s TNB Ventures, which has a history of corporate innovation work. It reached a final close today, having hit an early close in January. It is a part of the Enterprise Singapore ‘Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering’ scheme which, as you’d expect, means there is a focus on hardware, IO, AI and other future-looking tech like ‘industry 4.0.’

The fund is targeting Series A and B deals and it has the firepower to do 15-20 deals over likely the next two to three years, co-founder and managing partner Vicknesh R Pillay told TechCrunch in an interview. There’s around $500,000-$4 million per company, with the ideal scenario being an initial $1 million check with more saved for follow-on rounds. Already it has backed four companies including TradeGecko, which raised $10 million in a round that saw TNB Aura invest alongside Aura, and AI marketing platform Ematic.

The fund has a team of 10, including six partners and an operating staff of four. It pitches itself a little differently to most other VCs in the region given that manufacturing and engineering bent. That, Pillay said, means it is focused on “hardware plus software” startups.

“We are very strong fundamentals guys,” Pillay added. We ask what is the valuation and decide what we can get from a deal. It’s almost like PE-style investing in the VC world.”

A selection of the TNB Aura team [left to right]: Samuel Chong (investment manager), Calvin Ng, Vicknesh R Pillay, Charles Wong (partners), Liu Zhihao (investment manager)

Another differentiator, Pillay believes, is the firm’s history in the corporate innovation space. That leads it to be pretty well suited to working in the B2B and enterprise spaces thanks to its existing networks, he said.

“We particularly like B2B saas companies and we believe we can assist them through of our innovation platforms,” Pillay explained.

Outside of Singapore — which is a heavy focus thanks to the relationship with Enterprise Singapore — TNB Aura is focused on Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, four of the largest markets that form a large chunk of Southeast Asia’s cumulative 650 million population. With an internet population of over 330 million — higher than the entire U.S. population — the region is set to grow strongly as internet access increases. A recent report from Google and Temasek tipped the region’s digital economy will triple to reach $240 billion by 20205.

The report also found that VC funding in Southeast Asia is developing at a fast clip. Excluding unicorns, which distort the data somewhat, startups raised $2.6 billion in the first half of this year, beating the $2.4 billion tally for the whole of 2017.

There are plenty of other Series A-B funds in the region, including Jungle Ventures, Golden Gate Ventures, Openspace Ventures, Monks Hill Ventures, Qualgro and more.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai thinks Android users know how much their phones are tracking them

Google CEO Sundar Pichai thinks Android users have a good understanding of the volume of data Google collects on them, when they agree to use the Android mobile operating system. The exec, who is testifying today in front of the House Judiciary committee for a hearing entitled: Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices, claimed that users are in control of the information Google has on them.

“For Google services, you have a choice of what information is collected, and we make it transparent,” Pichai said, in response to Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA)’s questioning.

The reality is that most people don’t read user agreements in full, and aren’t fully aware of what data their phones and apps are able to access. Even on Apple’s platform, known to be fairly privacy-forward, apps have been collecting user data – including location – and selling it to third parties, as noted by a recent The New York Times investigation.

Google’s defense on the data collection front is similar to Facebook’s – that is, Pichai responded that Google provides tools that put users in control.

But do they actually use them?

“It’s really important for us that average users are able to understand it,” said Pichai, stating that users do understand the user agreement for Android OS.

“We actually…remind users to do a privacy checkup, and we make it very obvious every month. In fact, in the last 28 days, 160 million users went to their My Account settings, where they can clearly see what information we have – we actually show it back to them. We give clear toggles, by category, where they can decide whether that information is collected, stored, or – more importantly – if they decide to stop using it, we work hard to make it possible for users to take their data with them,” he said.

The 160 million users sounds like a large number, but at Google’s scale, where numerous products have over a billion users apiece, it’s not as big as it seems.

In addition, it has become clear that simply “opting out” of Google’s data collection methods is not always enough. For example, earlier this year, it was discovered that Google was continuing to track users’ location even when users had explicitly turned the Location History setting off – a clear indication they did not want their data collected or shared.

Further in the hearing, Pichai was asked if Google could improve its user dashboard and tools to better teach people how to protect their privacy, including turning off data collection and location tracking.

“There’s complexity,” Pichai said, but admitted this is “something I do think we can do better.”

“We want to simplify it, and make it easier for average users to navigate these settings,” he continued. “It’s something we are working on.”

 

 

Google CEO Sundar Pichai thinks Android users know how much their phones are tracking them

Google CEO Sundar Pichai thinks Android users have a good understanding of the volume of data Google collects on them, when they agree to use the Android mobile operating system. The exec, who is testifying today in front of the House Judiciary committee for a hearing entitled: Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices, claimed that users are in control of the information Google has on them.

“For Google services, you have a choice of what information is collected, and we make it transparent,” Pichai said, in response to Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA)’s questioning.

The reality is that most people don’t read user agreements in full, and aren’t fully aware of what data their phones and apps are able to access. Even on Apple’s platform, known to be fairly privacy-forward, apps have been collecting user data – including location – and selling it to third parties, as noted by a recent The New York Times investigation.

Google’s defense on the data collection front is similar to Facebook’s – that is, Pichai responded that Google provides tools that put users in control.

But do they actually use them?

“It’s really important for us that average users are able to understand it,” said Pichai, stating that users do understand the user agreement for Android OS.

“We actually…remind users to do a privacy checkup, and we make it very obvious every month. In fact, in the last 28 days, 160 million users went to their My Account settings, where they can clearly see what information we have – we actually show it back to them. We give clear toggles, by category, where they can decide whether that information is collected, stored, or – more importantly – if they decide to stop using it, we work hard to make it possible for users to take their data with them,” he said.

The 160 million users sounds like a large number, but at Google’s scale, where numerous products have over a billion users apiece, it’s not as big as it seems.

In addition, it has become clear that simply “opting out” of Google’s data collection methods is not always enough. For example, earlier this year, it was discovered that Google was continuing to track users’ location even when users had explicitly turned the Location History setting off – a clear indication they did not want their data collected or shared.

Further in the hearing, Pichai was asked if Google could improve its user dashboard and tools to better teach people how to protect their privacy, including turning off data collection and location tracking.

“There’s complexity,” Pichai said, but admitted this is “something I do think we can do better.”

“We want to simplify it, and make it easier for average users to navigate these settings,” he continued. “It’s something we are working on.”