Henry Ford Health System to conduct first large US study of hydroxychloroquine’s ability to prevent COVID-19

Despite false assertions by the president to the contrary, any potential treatments to counter or prevent COVID-19 are still only at the stage of early investigations, which include one-off treatment with special individual case authorizations, and small-scale clinical examinations. Nothing so far has approached the level of scrutiny needed to actually say anything definitively about their actual ability to treat COVID-19 or the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes it, but the first large-scale U.S. clinical study for one treatment candidate is seeking volunteers and looking to get underway.

The study will be conducted by the Henry Ford Health System, which is seeking 3,000 volunteers from healthcare and first responder working environments. Depending on response, the researchers behind the study are looking to begin as early as next week. Study lead researcher Dr. William W. O’Neil said in a press release announcing the study that the goal is to seek a more definitive scientific answer to the question of whether or not hydroxychloroquine might work as a preventative medicine to help protect medical front-line workers with greater risk exposure from contracting the coronavirus.

Hydroxychloroquine (as well as chloroquine) has been in the spotlight as a potential COVID-19 treatment due mostly to repeated name-check that President Trump has given the drug during his daily White House coronavirus task force press briefings. Trump has gone too far in suggesting that the drug, which is commonly used both as an anti-malarial and in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, could be an effective treatment and should be thrust into use. At one point, he claimed that he FDA had granted an emergency approval for its use as a COVID-19 treatment, but Dr. Anthony Fauci clarified that it was not approved for that use, and that clinical studies still need to be performed to evaluate how it works in addressing COVID-19.

Studies thus far around hydroxychloroquine have been small-scale, as mentioned. One, conducted by researchers in France, produced results that indicated the drug was effective in treating those already infected, particularly when paired with a specific antibiotic. Another, more recent study from China, showed that there was no difference in terms of viral duration or symptoms when comparing treatment with hydroxychloroquine with treatment using standard anti-viral drugs, already a common practice in addressing cases of the disease.

This Henry Ford study looks like it could provide better answers to some of these questions around the drug, though the specific approach of seeking to validate prophylactic (preventative) use will mean treatment-oriented applications will still have to be studied separately. The design of the study will be a true blind study, with participants split into three groups that receive “unidentified, specific pills” (possibly anti-virals or some equivalent); hydroxychloroquine; or placebo pills, respectively. They won’t know which they’ve received, and they’ll be contacted weekly by researchers running the study, then in-person both at week four and week eight to determine if they have any symptoms of COVID-19, or any side effects from the medication. They’ll get regular blood draws, and the results will be compared to see if there’s any difference between each cohort in terms of how many contracted COVID-19.

These are front-line healthcare workers, so in theory they should unfortunately be at high risk of contracting the disease. That, plus the large sample size, should provide results that provide much clearer answers about hydroxychloroquine’s potential preventative effects. Even after the study is complete, other competing large-scale trials would ideally be run to prove out or cast doubt on these results, but we’ll be in a better position than we are now to say anything scientifically valid about the drug and its use.

Pre-school EdTech startup Lingumi raises £4m, adds some free services during Covid-19

At these difficult times, parents are concerned for their children’s education, especially given so much of it has had to go online during the Covid-19 pandemic. But what about pre-schoolers who are missing out?

Pre-school children are sponges for information but don’t get formal training on reading and writing until they enter the classroom when they are less sponge-like and surrounded by 30 other children. Things are tougher for non-English speaking children who’s parents want them to learn English.

Lingumi, a platform aimed at toddlers learning critical skills, has now raised £4 million in a funding round led by China-based technology fund North Summit Capital – a fund run by Alibaba’s former Chief Data Scientist Dr Min Wanli – alongside existing investors LocalGlobe, ADV, and Entrepreneur First.

The startup, launched in 2017, is also announcing the launch of daily free activity packs and videos to support children and families during the COVID-19 outbreak, and has pledged to donate 20% of its sales during this period to the Global Children’s Fund.

Lingumi’s interactive courses offer one-to-one tutoring with a kind ‘social learning’ and its first course helps introduce key English grammar and vocabulary from the age of 2.

Instead of tuning into live lessons with tutors, which are typically timetabled and expensive, Lingumi’s lessons are delivered through interactive speaking tasks, teacher videos, and games. At the end of each lesson, children can see videos of Lingumi friends speaking the same words and phrases as them. Because the kids are watching videos, Lingumi is cheaper than live courses, and thus more flexible for parents.

The company launched the first Lingumi course in China last year, focused on teaching spoken English to non-English speakers. The platform is now being used by more than 100,000 families globally, including in mainland China, Taiwan, UK, Germany, Italy, and France. More than 1.5 million English lessons have taken place in China over the past six months, and 40% of active users are also playing lessons daily. Lingumi says its user base grew 50% during China’s lockdown and it has had a rapid uptake in Europe.

“Lingumi’s rapid expansion in the Chinese market required a strategic local investor, and Dr Min and the team had a clear-sighted understanding of the technology and scale opportunity both in China, and globally.”

Dr Wanli Min, general partner at North Summit Capital, commented: “It is only the most privileged children who can access native English speakers for one-on-one tutoring… Lingumi has the potential to democratize English learning and offer every kid a personalized curriculum empowered by AI & Lingumi’s ‘asynchronous teaching; model.”

Competitors to include Lingumi include live teaching solutions like VIPKid, and learning platforms like Jiliguala in China, or Lingokids in the West.

Uber Eats beefs up its grocery delivery offer as COVID-19 lockdowns continue

Uber Eats has beefed up grocery delivery options in three markets hard hit by the coronavirus.

Uber’s food delivery division said today it’s inked a partnership with supermarket giant Carrefour in France to provide Parisians with 30 minute home delivery on a range of grocery products, including everyday foods, toiletries and cleaning products.

The service is starting with 15 stores in the city, with Uber Eats saying it plans to scale it out rapidly nationwide “in the coming weeks”.

In Spain it’s partnered with the Galp service station brand to offer a grocery delivery service that consists of basic foods, over the counter medicines, beverages and cleaning products in 15 cities across the following 8 provinces: Badajoz, Barcelona, Cádiz, Córdoba, Madrid, Málaga, Palma de Mallorca and Valencia.

Uber Eats said there will be an initial 25 Galp convenience stores participating. The service will not only be offered via the Uber Eats app but also by phone for those without access to a smartphone or Internet.

The third market it’s inked deals in is Brazil, where Uber said it’s partnering with a range of pharmacies, convenience stores and pet shops in Sao Paulo to offer home delivery on basic supplies.

“Over the counter medicines will be available from the Pague Menos chain of pharmacies, grocery products from Shell Select convenience stores and pet supplies from Cobasi — one of the largest pet shop chains in the country,” it said. “The new services will be available on the Uber Eats app, with plans to launch in other Brazil states and cities in the coming weeks.”

The grocery tie-ups are not Uber Eats’ first such deals. The company had already inked partnerships with a supermarket in Australia (Coles) and the Costcutter brand in the UK, where around 600 independent convenience stores are offered via its app.

Uber Eats also lets independent convenience stores in countries around the world self listed on its app. However the latest tie-ups put more branded meat on the bone of its grocery offer in Europe and LatAm — with the Carrefour tie-up in France marking its first partnership with a major supermarket in Europe.

It’s worth noting Spain’s food delivery rival, Glovo, has an existing grocery-delivery partnership with the French supermarket giant in markets including its home country — which likely explains why Uber Eats has opted for a different partner in Spain.

Asked whether it’s looking to further expand grocery deliveries in other markets hit by the public health emergency Uber Eats told us it’s exploring opportunities to partner with more supermarkets, convenience stores and other retailers around the world.

As part of its response to the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has switched all deliveries to contactless by default — with orders left at the door or as instructed by a user.

It also told us it’s providing drivers and delivery people with access to hand sanitiser, gloves and disinfectant wipes, as soon as they become available. And said it’s dispensing guidance to users of its apps on hygiene best practice and limiting the spread of the virus.

Uber Eats has previously said it will provide 14 days of financial support for drivers and delivery people who get diagnosed with COVID-19 or are personally placed in quarantine by a public health authority due to their risk of spreading the virus, with the amount based on their average earnings over the last six months or less.

The policy is due for review on April 6.

Airbnb to provide free or subsidized housing for 100,000 COVID-19 healthcare workers

The hospitality and travel industry may be reeling, but Airbnb is still doing what it can to support the global effort to fight the spread of the coronavirus causing a worldwide pandemic. The company announced today that it will provide “free or subsidized housing” for 100,000 people working as frontline healthcare, relief for first response professionals focused on stemming the COVID-19 crisis.

Airbnb’s effort will work by allowing Hosts on its platform to opt-in to making their space available, with any fees that Airbnb would normally charge for using its platform waived for those who participate. The program will include new protocols around cleanliness that are designed to keep spaces safe for those workers who use it, and Airbnb will be working with the Red Cross, the International Rescue Committee, the International Medical Corps and other non-profit groups to help allocated space where it’s needed most.

Already, Airbnb had been operating smaller scale programs in both Italy and France to address the crises there, with 6,000 hosts across both countries making their spaces available. This extended program was partly the result of many requests from hosts to the platform about how they could volunteer their spaces and help with the effort, and Airbnb will be making it possible for hosts to offer their spaces for free if they want – though even those who still want to participate but keep a stay charge in place won’t be charged any fees by Airbnb itself.

The advanced cleaning protocols that Airbnb has put in place are developed to align with guidance from leading national health authorities, including the CDC in the U.S., and Airbnb says they will evolve as updated guidance becomes available. Some of the enhanced rules to help try to ensure safety include guidance that there should be a minimum of 72 hours between stays, as well as maintaining proper social distancing between hosts and any guests.

Airbnb also has a fund established for those who want to provide monetary support, with 100 percent of all proceeds going to nonprofits working on COVID-19 relief. These funds will help further subsidize housing costs for any responders in the case of hosts making housing available at a fee.

With lower bandwidth, Disney+ opens streaming service in UK, Ireland, 5 other European countries, France to come online April 7

Disney+, the streaming service from the Walt Disney Company, has been rapidly ramping up in the last several weeks. But while some of that expansion has seen some hiccups, other regions are basically on track. Today, as expected, Disney announced that it is officially launching in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria, and Switzerland; it also reconfirmed the delayed debut in France will be coming online on April 7.

Seven is the operative number here, it seems: it’s the largest multi-country launch so far for the service.

“Launching in seven markets simultaneously marks a new milestone for Disney+,“ said Kevin Mayer, Chairman of Walt Disney Direct-to-Consumer & International, in a statement. “As the streaming home for Disney, Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, and National Geographic, Disney+ delivers high-quality, optimistic storytelling that fans expect from our brands, now available broadly, conveniently, and permanently on Disney+. We humbly hope that this service can bring some much-needed moments of respite for families during these difficult times.”

Pricing is £5.99/€6.99 per month, or £59.99/€69.99 for an annual subscription. Belgium, the Nordics, and Portugal, will follow in summer 2020.

The service being rolled out will feature 26 Disney+ Originals plus an “extensive collection” of titles (some 500 films, 26 exclusive original movies and series and thousands of TV episodes to start with) from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, National Geographic, and other content producers owned by the entertainment giant, in what has been one of the boldest moves yet from a content company to go head-to-head with OTT streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Apple.

The expansion of Disney+ has been caught a bit in the crossfire of world events. The new service is launching at what has become an unprecedented time for streaming: because of the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of of the world is being told to stay home.

That means huge demand for new services to entertain and distract people who are now sheltering in place. But it has also been putting a huge strain on broadband networks, and to be a responsible streamer (and to make sure quality is not too impacted), Disney confirmed (as it previously said it would) it would be launching the service with “lower overall bandwidth utilization by at least 25%.

Titles in the mix debuting today include “The Mandalorian” live-action Star Wars series; a live-action “Lady and the Tramp,” “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,”; “The World According to Jeff Goldblum” docuseries from National Geographic; “Marvel’s Hero Project,” which celebrates extraordinary kids making a difference in their communities; “Encore!,” executive produced by the multi-talented Kristen Bell; “The Imagineering Story” a 6-part documentary from Emmy and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Leslie Iwerks and animated short film collections “SparkShorts” and “Forky Asks A Question” from Pixar Animation Studios.

Some 600 episodes of “The Simpsons” is also included (with the latest season 31 coming later this year).

With entire households now being told to stay together and stay inside, we’re seeing a huge amount of pressure being put on to broadband networks and a true test of the multiscreen approach that streaming services have been building over the years. In this case, you can use all the usuals: mobile phones, streaming media players, smart TVs and gaming consoles to watch the Disney+ service (including Amazon devices, Apple devices, Google devices, LG Smart TVs with webOS, Microsoft’s Xbox Ones, Roku, Samsung Smart TVs and Sony / Sony Interactive Entertainment, with the ability to use four concurrent streams per subscription, or up to 10 devices with unlimited downloads. As you would expect, there is also the ability to set up parental controls and individual profiles.

Carriers with paid-TV services that are also on board so far include Deutsche Telekom, O2 in the UK, Telefonica in Spain, TIM in Italy and Canal+ in France when the country comes online. No BT in the UK, which is too bad for me (sniff). Sky and NOW TV are also on board.

Hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine and other potential COVID-19 treatments explained

During two of this week’s White House briefings, President Trump referred specifically to two potential treatments that have been identified by medical researchers and clinicians, and that have undergone various degrees of investigation and testing in the ongoing fight against the global coronavirus pandemic. It’s important to note upfront that regardless of what you may have heard, from Trump or any other sources, no drugs or treatments have been proven as effective for either the prevention of contracting COVID-19, or for its treatment.

That said, a number of different clinical studies are currently in progress all over the world, and in the U.S., the National Institutes of Health is looking to fill a 400-volunteer study that will provide clinical results related to use of remdesivir, an antiviral drug developed by Gilead originally as a treatment for Ebola, but it’s still only in clinical trials even for treatment of that disease. This study could also add in other drug candidates as additional test therapies. Meanwhile, studies in China and France have examined the effectiveness of anti-malarial drugs including chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine – including one small-scale study that suggests the positive effects of hydroxycholoroquine in reducing both the duration and symptoms of COVID-19 in combination with an antibiotic called azithromycin.

The important thing to keep in mind when considering these or any other potential treatments for the novel coronavirus, which is still relatively young, is that a lot of what we know about them so far is effectively anecdotal, and based not on the kind of scientifically rigours controlled clinical studies that are normally used in the years-long development and certification of drugs. Instead, treatments like remdesivir and chloroquine/hydroxychloroquine are being deployed in the field by healthcare practitioners based on their approved use in similar (but crucially not the same) situations, like the Ebola and SARS outbreaks.

Often, they’re being used under what’s called ‘compassionate’ grounds in the U.S. This effectively amounts to employing a drug that’s not yet certified for general use in treatment of a patient whose condition is so severe that a doctor is willing to go to desperate lengths to try to alleviate their symptoms. This has the advantage of sidestepping typical testing and approval procedures, and requiring that the results of its use are documented, which contributes to the overall body of clinical knowledge in terms of its effects and interactions with patients and with COVID-19.

It’s not a clinical study, however, and that means there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to its use that just can’t be learned or asserted based on scattered, individual instances of compassionate care treatment.

“As the Commissioner of FDA and the President mentioned yesterday, we’re trying to strike a balance between making something with the potential of an effect available to the American people, at the same time that we do it under the auspices of a protocol that would give us information to determine if it’s truly safe and truly effective,” explained National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci during a press conference on Friday. “But the information that you’re referring to specifically is anecdotal, it was not done in a controlled clinical trial. So you really can’t make any definitive statement about it.”

During Thursday’s White House coronavirus pandemic task force briefing, Trump made false claims that chloroquine was already approved by the FDA as a treatment for COVID-19 under an emergency authorization. FDA Director Dr. Stephen Hahn clarified that this and remdesivir were being considered and studied by the FDA, as was an approach that would use plasma extracted from patients who’d recovered from COVID-19 as a potential source of antibodies for others. Still, all of these are still quite far away from clinical deployment in any generally approved way.

Meanwhile, Fauci’s cautions should be taken for what they are: Warnings that are primarily meant to emphasize that the reasons the FDA requires clinical studies, even for drugs already tentatively approved for use in other cases, is because it has patient health and safety in mind. While chloroquine has been used for decades to treat malaria, and chronic rheumatoid arthritis, it can have dangerous side effects, including death, if taken incorrectly. Even when taken correctly, it can cause things like stomach distress, and even permanent damage to a person’s vision.

Fauci’s comments Friday explain the risks of putting too much stock in any potential treatment at this stage, even if they are showing promising results among small or even medium-sized deployments.

“You’ve got to be careful when you say fairly effective, it was never done in a clinical trial that compared it to anything,” he said in answer to a reporter’s question about chloroquine’s efficacy in treating SARS. “It was given to individuals and felt that maybe it worked […] Whenever you do a clinical trial, you do standard of care, versus standard of care plus the agent you’re evaluating. That’s the reason why we showed back in Ebola why particular interventions worked.”

A summary survey of various prospective treatments and their current status was published today In Medscape, and this includes the current state of remdesivir and chloroquine investigations, as well as a number of other drugs being studied by researchers. As has been reported here and elsewhere, there are promising signs that they could prove effective in either treatment, or treatment and even preventative use (in the case of remedesivir), but these are, as Dr. Fauci puts it, only the first step that should lead to more sophisticated clinical studies, which themselves will then need competing peer studies to eventually prove out.

Apple fined record $1.2B in France over anti-competitive sales practices

The wheels of the regulatory machine continue to turn, and today Apple, along with two of its wholesale partners, was dealt a major blow in France over antitrust violations, by receiving the biggest-ever fine levelled against a business over anti-competitive practices and “sterilizing the market” for Apple products, specifically as they are sold across a range of Apple Stores, large “big box” retailers and smaller, independent resellers.

Apple, along with its wholesale distribution partners Ingram Micro and Tech Data, have been accused and fined by the French competition authority (Autorité de la Concurrence), over operating a cartel — affecting pricing and who could sell products — for virtually all Apple products including computers and tablets, but not the iPhone (which is often sold via mobile phone distributors and carriers). Apple is being ordered to pay up €1.1 billion ($1.2 billion), while Tech Data was fined €76.1 million and Ingram Micro €62.9 million in the fine. 

Together, the three have achieved the dubious distinction of getting the highest-ever fine for anti-competitive sales tactics.

“During this case, the Authority deciphered the very specific practices that had been implemented by Apple for the distribution of its products in France (excluding Iphones), such as the iPad,” said Isabelle de Silva, President of the French Competition Authority, in a statement. “Given the strong impact of these practices on competition in the distribution of Apple products via Apple premium resellers, the Authority imposes the highest penalty ever pronounced in a case (€1.24 billion). It is also the heaviest sanction pronounced against an economic player, in this case Apple (1.1 billion euros), whose extraordinary dimension has been duly taken into account. Finally, the Authority considered that, in the present case, Apple had committed an abuse of economic dependence on its premium retailers, a practice which the Authority considers to be particularly serious.”

Apple said that it plans to appeal the ruling.

“Apple has been operating in France for over 40 years and we are proud of our many contributions to job creation and economic development.  Our investment and innovation supportS over 240,000 jobs across the country. The French Competition Authority’s decision is disheartening,” a spokesperson said. “It relates to practices from over a decade ago and discards thirty years of legal precedent that all companies in France rely on with an order that will cause chaos for companies across all industries. We strongly disagree with them and plan to appeal. We are extremely proud to serve our French customers and believe they should be allowed to choose the product they want, either through Apple Retail or our large network of resellers across the country. We will continue to work hard to deliver the best products and services in the market.”

Apple’s defense will likely highlight that the claim that Apple worked to diminish competition for Apple products between its distributors and resellers hasn’t been proven, and that its collective ambitions are the same: better prices and better service. (Whether that will wash is another question.)

The announcement follows reports last week that the fine was forthcoming, and caps off years of work: investigations into the case started as far back as 2012, in the wake of the collapse of Apple’s biggest seller in France, eBizcuss, in 2011, and a subsequent lawsuit filed by the company accusing Apple of starving it of inventory after its CEO publicly accused the company of unfair price competition. Litigation related to that case ended in 2017.

At issue in the case are the three kinds of resellers that typically distribute Apple-branded technology: large retailers (such as mega-supermarkets and big-box retailers), of which there are about 1,800 in France; smaller resellers that tend to be independent businesses that also provide services alongside sales (these tend not to be the norm in the US but are still common in Europe, albeit less so in countries like the UK); and Apple itself, by way of its Apple Stores online and in shopping areas. Apple issues “authorised” and “premium” badges to its resellers, giving the latter special access to products and services provided they play by more specific rules in how they sell and price items. It’s this latter category that has been at issue in this case. EBizcuss was an example of the latter.

The competition commissioner noted that Apple and its partners violated three specific areas:

— Apple and the two wholesalers agreed not to compete with each other and also to prevent other distributors to compete on price, “thereby sterilizing the wholesale market for Apple products.”

— Secondly, premium distributors were forced to keep prices high to keep them at the same level as those of integrated distributors.

— Third, Apple has “abused the economic dependence” of these premium distributors, by subjecting them to unfair and unfavorable commercial conditions compared to its network of integrated distributors. (These last two points relate specifically to the accusations eBizcuss had lodged against the company.)

The commission notes that Apple’s actions resulted in “supply difficulties, discriminatory treatment, unstable conditions of remuneration for their activity (discounts and in progress),” which in turn had an effect on squeezing their margins.

“The Authority thus noted that, during the launch of new products, the APRs were deprived of stocks so that they could not respond to orders placed with them, while the network of Apple Stores and retailers was regularly supplied. This has resulted in a loss of customers, including regular customers. They have even sometimes been forced, to respond to an order, to source themselves from other distribution channels, for example by ordering themselves directly from an Apple Store as an end customer would have done in order to to supply their customers.”

While Apple may try to appeal the fine, what will be most interesting to see is how and if the actions affect how the company’s products are priced going forward. Apple has long cultivated a premium image with higher prices than many others on comparable consumer electronics.

It has always been essential to the company to have a wide distribution network, that’s clearly had the effect of making it harder for it to control premium pricing, one reason why it has made such a big push to expand its own direct retail operation. The case in France highlights the generational shift that’s been taking place for years, and while it may be a thorn in Apple’s side, I can’t help but wonder if it will simply signal the company moving even more aggressively to continue bringing more of its sales under its own roof.

Google’s new T&Cs include a Brexit ‘easter egg’ for UK users

Google has buried a major change in legal jurisdiction for its UK users as part of a wider update to its terms and conditions that’s been announced today and which it says is intended to make its conditions of use clearer for all users.

It says the update to its T&Cs is the first major revision since 2012 — with Google saying it wanted to ensure the policy reflects its current products and applicable laws.

Google says it undertook a major review of the terms, similar to the revision of its privacy policy in 2018, when the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation started being applied. But while it claims the new T&Cs are easier for users to understand — rewritten using simpler language and a clearer structure — there are no other changes involved, such as to how it handles people’s data.

“We’ve updated our Terms of Service to make them easier for people around the world to read and understand — with clearer language, improved organization, and greater transparency about changes we make to our services and products. We’re not changing the way our products work, or how we collect or process data,” Google spokesperson Shannon Newberry said in a statement.

Users of Google products are being asked to review and accept the new terms before March 31 when they are due to take effect.

Reuters reported on the move late yesterday — citing sources familiar with the update who suggested the change of jurisdiction for UK users will weaken legal protections around their data.

However Google disputes there will be any change in privacy standards for UK users as a result of the shift. it told us there will be no change to how it process UK users’ data; no change to their privacy settings; and no change to the way it treats their information as a result of the move.

We asked the company for further comment on this — including why it chose not to make a UK subsidiary the legal base for UK users — and a spokesperson told us it is making the change as part of its preparations for the UK to leave the European Union (aka Brexit).

Like many companies, we have to prepare for Brexit,” Google said. “Nothing about our services or our approach to privacy will change, including how we collect or process data, and how we respond to law enforcement demands for users’ information. The protections of the UK GDPR will still apply to these users.”

Heather Burns, a tech policy specialist based in Glasgow, Scotland — who runs a website dedicated to tracking UK policy shifts around the Brexit process — also believes Google has essentially been forced to make the move because the UK government has recently signalled its intent to diverge from European Union standards in future, including on data protection.

“What has changed since January 31 has been [UK prime minister] Boris Johnson making a unilateral statement that the UK will go its own way on data protection, in direct contrast to everything the UK’s data protection regulator and government has said since the referendum,” she told us. “These bombastic, off-the-cuff statements play to his anti-EU base but businesses act on them. They have to.”

“Google’s transfer of UK accounts from the EU to the US is an indication that they do not believe the UK will either seek or receive a data protection adequacy agreement at the end of the transition period. They are choosing to deal with that headache now rather than later. We shouldn’t underestimate how strong a statement this is from the tech sector regarding its confidence in the Johnson premiership,” she added.

Asked whether she believes there will be a reduction in protections for UK users in future as a result of the shift Burns suggested that will largely depend on Google.

So — in other words — Brexit means, er, trust Google to look after your data.

“The European data protection framework is based around a set of fundamental user rights and controls over the uses of personal data — the everyday data flows to and from all of our accounts. Those fundamental rights have been transposed into UK domestic law through the Data Protection Act 2018, and they will stay, for now. But with the Johnson premiership clearly ready to jettison the European-derived system of user rights for the US-style anything goes model,” Burns suggested.

“Google saying there is no change to the way we process users’ data, no change to their privacy settings and no change to the way we treat their information can be taken as an indication that they stand willing to continue providing UK users with European-style rights over their data — albeit from a different jurisdiction — regardless of any government intention to erode the domestic legal basis for those rights.”

Reuters’ report also raises concerns about the impact of the Cloud Act agreement between the UK and the US — which is due to come into effect this summer — suggesting it will pose a threat to the safety of UK Google users’ data once it’s moved out of an EU jurisdiction (in this case Ireland) to the US where the Act will apply.

The Cloud Act is intended to make it quicker and easier for law enforcement to obtain data stored in the cloud by companies based in the other legal jurisdiction.

So in future, it might be easier for UK authorities to obtain UK Google users’ data using this legal instrument applied to Google US.

It certainly seems clear that as the UK moves away from EU standards as a result of Brexit it is opening up the possibility of the country replacing long-standing data protection rights for citizens with a regime of supercharged mass surveillance. (The UK government has already legislated to give its intelligence agencies unprecedented powers to snoop on ordinary citizens’ digital comms — so it has a proven appetite for bulk data.)

Again, Google told us the shift of legal base for its UK users will make no difference to how it handles law enforcement requests — a process it talks about here — and further claimed this will be true even when the Cloud Act applies. Which is a weasely way of saying it will do exactly what the law requires.

Google confirmed that GDPR will continue to apply for UK users during the transition period between the old and new terms. After that it said UK data protection law will continue to apply — emphasizing that this is modelled after the GDPR. But of course in the post-Brexit future the UK government might choose to model it after something very different.

Asked to confirm whether it’s committing to maintain current data standards for UK users in perpetuity, the company told us it cannot speculate as to what privacy laws the UK will adopt in the future… 😬

We also asked why it hasn’t chosen to elect a UK subsidiary as the legal base for UK users. To which it gave a nonsensical response — saying this is because the UK is no longer in the EU. Which begs the question when did the UK suddenly become the 51st American State?

Returning to the wider T&Cs revision, Google said it’s making the changes in a response to litigation in the European Union targeted at its terms.

This includes a case in Germany where consumer rights groups successfully sued the tech giant over its use of overly broad terms which the court agreed last year were largely illegal.

In another case a year ago in France a court ordered Google to pay €30,000 for unfair terms — and ordered it to obtain valid consent from users for tracking their location and online activity.

Since at least 2016 the European Commission has also been pressuring tech giants, including Google, to fix consumer rights issues buried in their T&Cs — including unfair terms. A variety of EU laws apply in this area.

In another change being bundled with the new T&Cs Google has added a description about how its business works to the About Google page — where it explains its business model and how it makes money.

Here, among the usual ‘dead cat’ claims about not ‘selling your information’ (tl;dr adtech giants rent attention; they don’t need to sell actual surveillance dossiers), Google writes that it doesn’t use “your emails, documents, photos or confidential information (such as race, religion or sexual orientation) to personalize the ads we show you”.

Though it could be using all that personal stuff to help it build new products it can serve ads alongside.

Even further towards the end of its business model screed it includes the claim that “if you don’t want to see personalized ads of any kind, you can deactivate them at any time”. So, yes, buried somewhere in Google’s labyrinthine setting exists an opt out.

The change in how Google articulates its business model comes in response to growing political and regulatory scrutiny of adtech business models such as Google’s — including on data protection and antitrust grounds.

Lack of big tech GDPR decisions looms large in EU watchdog’s annual report

The lead European Union privacy regulator for most of big tech has put out its annual report which shows another major bump in complaints filed under the bloc’s updated data protection framework, underlining the ongoing appetite EU citizens have for applying their rights.

But what the report doesn’t show is any firm enforcement of EU data protection rules vis-a-vis big tech.

The report leans heavily on stats to illustrate the volume of work piling up on desks in Dublin. But it’s light on decisions on highly anticipated cross-border cases involving tech giants including Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) began being applied across the EU in May 2018 — so is fast approaching its second birthday. Yet its file of enforcements where tech giants are concerned remains very light — even for companies with a global reputation for ripping away people’s privacy.

This despite Ireland having a large number of open cross-border investigations into the data practices of platform and adtech giants — some of which originated from complaints filed right at the moment GDPR came into force.

In the report the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) notes it opened a further six statutory inquiries in relation to “multinational technology companies’ compliance with the GDPR” — bringing the total number of major probes to 21. So its ‘big case’ file continues to stack up. (It’s added at least two more since then, with a probe of Tinder and another into Google’s location tracking opened just this month.)

The report is a lot less keen to trumpet the fact that decisions on cross-border cases to date remains a big fat zero.

Though, just last week, the DPC made a point of publicly raising “concerns” about Facebook’s approach to assessing the data protection impacts of a forthcoming product in light of GDPR requirements to do so — an intervention that resulted in a delay to the regional launch of Facebook’s Dating product.

This discrepancy (cross-border cases: 21 – Irish DPC decisions: 0), plus rising anger from civil rights groups, privacy experts, consumer protection organizations and ordinary EU citizens over the paucity of flagship enforcement around key privacy complaints is clearly piling pressure on the regulator. (Other examples of big tech GDPR enforcement do exist. Well, France’s CNIL is one.)

In its defence the DPC does have a horrifying case load. As illustrated by other stats its keen to spotlight — such as saying it received a total of 7,215 complaints in 2019; a 75% increase on the total number (4,113) received in 2018. A full 6,904 of which were dealt with under the GDPR (while 311 complaints were filed under the Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003).

There were also 6,069 data security breaches notified to it, per the report — representing a 71% increase on the total number (3,542) recorded last year.

While a full 457 cross-border processing complaints were received in Dublin via the GDPR’s One-Stop-Shop mechanism. (This is the device the Commission came up with for the ‘lead regulator’ approach that’s baked into GDPR and which has landed Ireland in the regulatory hot seat. tl;dr other data protection agencies are passing Dublin A LOT of paperwork.)

The DPC necessarily has to do back and forth on cross border cases, as it liaises with other interested regulators. All of which, you can imagine, creates a rich opportunity for lawyered up tech giants to inject extra friction into the oversight process — by asking to review and query everything. [Insert the sound of a can being hoofed down the road]

Meanwhile the agency that’s supposed to regulate most of big tech (and plenty else) — which writes in the annual report that it increased its full time staff from 110 to 140 last year — did not get all the funding it asked for from the Irish government.

So it also has the hard cap of its own budget to reckon with (just €15.3M in 2019) vs — for example — Google’s parent Alphabet’s $46.1BN in full year 2019 revenue. So, er, do the math.

Nonetheless the pressure is firmly now on Ireland for major GDPR enforcements to flow.

One year of major enforcement inaction could be filed under ‘bedding in’; but two years in without any major decisions would not be a good look. (It has previously said the first decisions will come early this year — so seems to be hoping to have something to show for GDPR’s 2nd birthday.)

Some of the high profile complaints crying out for regulatory action include behavioral ads serviced via real-time bidding programmatic advertising (which the UK data watchdog has admitted for half a year is rampantly unlawful); cookie consent banners (which remain a Swiss Cheese of non-compliance); and adtech platforms cynically forcing consent from users by requiring they agree to being microtargeted with ads to access the (‘free’) service. (Thing is GDPR stipulates that consent as a legal basis must be freely given and can’t be bundled with other stuff, so… )

Full disclosure: TechCrunch’s parent company, Verizon Media (née Oath), is also under ongoing investigation by the DPC — which is looking at whether it meets GDPR’s transparency requirements under Articles 12-14 of the regulation.

Seeking to put a positive spin on 2019’s total lack of a big tech privacy reckoning, commissioner Helen Dixon writes in the report: “2020 is going to be an important year. We await the judgment of the CJEU in the SCCs data transfer case; the first draft decisions on big tech investigations will be brought by the DPC through the consultation process with other EU data protection authorities, and academics and the media will continue the outstanding work they are doing in shining a spotlight on poor personal data practices.”

In further remarks to the media Dixon said: “At the Data Protection Commission, we have been busy during 2019 issuing guidance to organisations, resolving individuals’ complaints, progressing larger-scale investigations, reviewing data breaches, exercising our corrective powers, cooperating with our EU and global counterparts and engaging in litigation to ensure a definitive approach to the application of the law in certain areas.

“Much more remains to be done in terms of both guiding on proportionate and correct application of this principles-based law and enforcing the law as appropriate. But a good start is half the battle and the DPC is pleased at the foundations that have been laid in 2019. We are already expanding our team of 140 to meet the demands of 2020 and beyond.”

One notable date this year also falls when GDPR turns two — because a Commission review of how the regulation is functioning is looming in May.

That’s one deadline that may help to concentrate minds on issuing decisions.

Per the DPC report, the largest category of complaints it received last year fell under ‘access request’ issues — whereby data controllers are failing to give up (all) people’s data when asked — which amounted to 29% of the total; followed by disclosure (19%); fair processing (16%); e-marketing complaints (8%); and right to erasure (5%).

On the security front, the vast bulk of notifications received by the DPC related to unauthorised disclosure of data (aka breaches) — with a total across the private and public sector of 5,188 vs just 108 for hacking (though the second largest category was actually lost or stolen paper, with 345).

There were also 161 notification of phishing; 131 notification of unauthorized access; 24 notifications of malware; and 17 of ransomeware.

Mozilla lays off 70 as it waits for new products to generate revenue

Mozilla laid off about 70 employees today, TechCrunch has learned.

In an internal memo, Mozilla chairwoman and interim CEO Mitchell Baker specifically mentions the slow rollout of the organization’s new revenue-generating products as the reason for why it needed to take this action. The overall number may still be higher, though, as Mozilla is still looking into how this decision will affect workers in the U.K. and France. In 2018, Mozilla Corporation (as opposed to the much smaller Mozilla Foundation) said it had about 1,000 employees worldwide.

“You may recall that we expected to be earning revenue in 2019 and 2020 from new subscription products as well as higher revenue from sources outside of search. This did not happen,” Baker writes in her memo. “Our 2019 plan underestimated how long it would take to build and ship new, revenue-generating products. Given that, and all we learned in 2019 about the pace of innovation, we decided to take a more conservative approach to projecting our revenue for 2020. We also agreed to a principle of living within our means, of not spending more than we earn for the foreseeable future.”

Baker says laid-off employees will receive “generous exit packages” and outplacement support. She also notes that the leadership team looked into shutting down the Mozilla innovation fund but decided that it needed it in order to continue developing new products. In total, Mozilla is dedicating $43 million to building new products.

“As we look to the future, we know we must take bold steps to evolve and ensure the strength and longevity of our mission,” Baker writes. “Mozilla has a strong line of sight to future revenue generation, but we are taking a more conservative approach to our finances. This will enable us to pivot as needed to respond to market threats to internet health, and champion user privacy and agency.”

The organization last reported major layoffs in 2017.

Over the course of the last few months, Mozilla started testing a number of new products, most of which will be subscription-based once they launch. The marquee feature here is including its Firefox Private Network and a device-level VPN service that is yet to launch, but will cost around $4.99 per month.

All of this is part of the organization’s plans to become less reliant on income from search partnerships and to create more revenue channels. In 2018, the latest year for which Mozilla has published its financial records, about 91% of its royalty revenues came from search contracts.

We have reached out to Mozilla for comment and will update this post once we hear more.

Update (1pm PT): In a statement posted to the Mozilla blog, Mitchell Baker reiterates that Mozilla had to make these cuts in order to fund innovation. “Mozilla has a strong line of sight on future revenue generation from our core business,” she writes. “In some ways, this makes this action harder, and we are deeply distressed about the effect on our colleagues. However, to responsibly make additional investments in innovation to improve the internet, we can and must work within the limits of our core finances”


Here is the full memo:

Office of the CEO <[email protected]>
to all-moco-mofo

Hi all,

I have some difficult news to share. With the support of the entire Steering Committee and our Board, we have made an extremely tough decision: over the course of today, we plan to eliminate about 70 roles from across MoCo. This number may be slightly larger as we are still in a consultation process in the UK and France, as the law requires, on the exact roles that may be eliminated there. We are doing this with the utmost respect for each and every person who is impacted and will go to great lengths to take care of them by providing generous exit packages and outplacement support. Most will not join us in Berlin. I will send another note when we have been able to talk to the affected people wherever possible, so that you will know when the notifications/outreach are complete.

This news likely comes as a shock and I am sorry that we could not have been more transparent with you along the way. This is never my desire. Reducing our headcount was something the Steering Committee considered as part of our 2020 planning and budgeting exercise only after all other avenues were explored. The final decision was made just before the holiday break with the work to finalize the exact set of roles affected continuing into early January (there are exceptions in the UK and France where we are consulting on decisions.) I made the decision not to communicate about this until we had a near-final list of roles and individuals affected.

Even though I expect it will be difficult to digest right now, I would like to share more about what led to this decision. Perhaps you can come back to it later, if that’s easier.

You may recall that we expected to be earning revenue in 2019 and 2020 from new subscription products as well as higher revenue from sources outside of search. This did not happen. Our 2019 plan underestimated how long it would take to build and ship new, revenue-generating products. Given that, and all we learned in 2019 about the pace of innovation, we decided to take a more conservative approach to projecting our revenue for 2020. We also agreed to a principle of living within our means, of not spending more than we earn for the foreseeable future.

This approach is prudent certainly, but challenging practically. In our case, it required difficult decisions with painful results. Regular annual pay increases, bonuses and other costs which increase from year-to-year as well as a continuing need to maintain a separate, substantial innovation fund, meant that we had to look for considerable savings across Mozilla as part of our 2020 planning and budgeting process. This process ultimately led us to the decision to reduce our workforce.

At this point, you might ask if we considered foregoing the separate innovation fund, continuing as we did in 2019. The answer is yes but we ultimately decided we could not, in good faith, adopt this. Mozilla’s future depends on us excelling at our current work and developing new offerings to expand our impact. And creating the new products we need to change the future requires us to do things differently, including allocating funds, $43M to be specific, for this purpose. We will discuss our plans for making innovation robust and successful in increasing detail as we head into, and then again at, the All Hands, rather than trying to do so here.

As we look to the future, we know we must take bold steps to evolve and ensure the strength and longevity of our mission. Mozilla has a strong line of sight to future revenue generation, but we are taking a more conservative approach to our finances. This will enable us to pivot as needed to respond to market threats to internet health, and champion user privacy and agency.

I ask that we all do what we can to support each other through this difficult period.

Mitchell