Opera’s desktop browser gets built-in tracking protection

Browser maker Opera today announced the launch of version 68 of its flagship desktop browser. The marquee feature of the launch is the addition of a tracker blocker that will make it harder for advertisers and others to track you while you browse the web — and which has the additional benefit of speeding up your browsing session. Indeed, Opera argues that turning on both the tracking protection and the built-in ad blocker can speed up page loads by up to 23 percent.

The new tracking protection feature is off by default (as is the existing ad blocker). The tracking feature uses the EasyPrivacy Tracking Protection List, which has been around for quite a few years now.

“We consider the tracker blocker to be a browser feature which can be kept on at all times, “writes Opera PC product manager Joanna Czajka. “Our browser, however, also has plenty of extended privacy features which come in handy when someone feels the need to increase the privacy of their browsing even further.”

In addition to the new tracking protection, which is increasingly becoming standard among browser vendors (and which is surely putting some additional pressure on Google and its Chrome browser), Opera is also introducing a new screenshotting feature with this update. That’s not an unusual feature, but it’s a pretty full-featured implementation, with the ability to blur parts of a page and draw on the screenshots.

opera screenshot

 

OzoneAI wants companies to pay you for your data, upending the ad model

Imagine this. Instead of giving away your personal data so web giants can show you ads, you cut out the middle person and allow advertisers to pay you directly for your data.

It’s a novel idea for a new startup that bills itself as a “data privacy” company.

OzoneAI says it preserves users’ privacy by allowing them more granular controls over who gets their data. In the startup’s utopian vision, companies can skip over the major advertising giants like Google and Facebook and buy access to anonymized data from the users themselves. That could mean companies buying your Spotify playlists, your Amazon wish list, or your access to your social media. The user is paid for the access, and the company gets to use the data for better targeting their ads.

The company made its public debut at Disrupt SF on the Startup Battlefield stage.

The startup seeks to capitalize on the wave in recent years of mistrust over online ads. As websites have become more aggressive in their advertising by persistently tracking users and collecting personal data, users have fought back with ad-blockers and privacy apps.

OzoneAI thinks there can be a happy medium between selling and protecting your data. With an app, users can grant companies access to their data and get paid for it. In return, companies get anonymized data which they can use for better targeting consumers.

By taking big tech out of the equation, the startup thinks it can make advertising more efficient for everyone.

But not everyone will see it that way. The privacy-minded with their ad blockers aren’t likely to lower their own bar to allow advertisers any more access to their data than is necessary. But for those who want to make a quick buck, will their actions be motivated more by making money and less about privacy?

When asked, the company’s founders Lyndon Oh and Ben Colman, who both previously worked for Google, denied it was encouraging users.

“However much activity you want to sell, that’s completely up to you,” the founders said. “You are anonymized as an identity; however, your data is not. The fact that you watched ‘The Avengers’ five times last week is not anonymized — you are selling that directly.”

Users’ data is fed into the machine learning engine to make recommendations for other companies and services, allowing the process to match activity to another business. OzoneAI makes its money by charging a 30% cut from the businesses who subscribe to a user’s data, which they say still provides better value than the “spray and pay” model that companies who want to advertise on Facebook and Google are subjected to.

The user can use the OzoneAI app to log in to their various social networks, shopping sites, email provider and anything else. That authorizes OzoneAI to vacuum up your data and begin processing it.

Unsurprisingly, many will turn their nose up at the concept of having a startup they’ve never heard of be effectively given unfettered access to all their online accounts so they can sell your data directly to companies hungry to advertise to you. The startup says it, like any company with similar access to the firehose of a person’s online life, has access to that data but immediately writes the data to its servers in an encrypted way. The user retains the private key to their cloud-stored encrypted data, so OzoneAI says it can’t access the user’s data. Through the app, the user can also “detonate” and destroy any of their collected data.

But by giving users control of their data, the user has to trust OzoneAI more than the existing advertising system. Given how broken the existing system is, it likely wouldn’t take much trust at all. But it’s an uphill battle for an emerging startup with not much of a name. And one hiccup could send that trust tanking.

The founders said other tech companies are “doing the same thing,” and that’s reason enough why users should trust OzoneAI.

But “another company does it” doesn’t mean it’s the right thing. OzoneAI was “just putting users directly in front of the business,” the founders said.

The old saying goes, “If you’re not paying, you are the product.” And yet as much as you are paying — with your data — then you inexplicably are still the product.

To curb lobbying power, Elizabeth Warren wants to reinstate the Office of Technology Assessment

In a move to correct the imbalance of power between technologically sophisticated corporations and the lawmakers who regulate them, presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren is proposing that Congress reinstate the Office of Technology Assessment.

It’s a move that gets deep into the weeds of how policy making in Washington works, but it’s something that Warren sees as essential to leveling the playing field between well-paid corporate lobbyists who are experts in their fields and over-worked under-staffed congressional members who lack independent analysts to explain highly technical issues.

“Lobbyists are filling in the gaps in congressional resources and expertise by providing Congress information from the perspective of their paying corporate clients. So let’s fix it,” writes Warren.

It’s one of the key planks in Warren’s latest policy proposal and an attempt to tip the scales against corporations and their lobbyists. With the move Warren clearly has her eye on technology companies and their representatives, who often are the very people Congressional lawmakers rely on to explain how rule-making would impact their industries.

“[Members] of Congress aren’t just dependent on corporate lobbyist propaganda because they’re bought and paid for. It’s also because of a successful, decades-long campaign to starve Congress of the resources and expertise needed to independently evaluate complex public policy questions,” Warren writes.

“For every bad faith actor in Congress bought off by the big banks, there are others who are genuinely trying to grapple with the technical aspects of financial reform. But as the issues facing Congress have grown more complex, resources to objectively and independently analyze them have been slashed. Republicans eliminated an independent office of experts dedicated to advising Congress on technical and scientific information,” the Senator says.

The lack of independent analysis stymies Congressional oversight in areas from banking and finance reform, to the oversight of technology companies, to the potential to effectively pass laws that will respond to the threat of climate change. Committees that oversee science and technology have seen their staff levels fall by over 40 percent in the past decade, according to Warren and staff salaries have failed to keep up with inflation, meaning that policymakers in Washington can’t compete for the same level of talent that private companies and lobbyists can afford several times over.

Sen. Warren saw this firsthand when she worked at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau .

“Financial reform was complicated, and the bank lobbyists used a clever technique: They bombarded the members of Congress with complex arguments filled with obscure terms. Whenever a congressman pushed back on an idea, the lobbyists would explain that although the congressman seemed to be making a good point, he didn’t really understand the complex financial system,” she writes. “And keep in mind, the lobbyists would tell the congressman, that if you get this wrong, you will bring down the global economy.”

The inability of lawmakers to understand basic facts about the technologies they’re tasked with regulating was on full display during the Senate hearings into the role technology companies played in the Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Issues from net neutrality to end-to-end encryption, or online advertising to the reduction of carbon emissions all rely on Congress having a sound understanding of those issues and how regulation may change an industry.

Right now, it’s case of which multi-billion dollar company can buy the best lobbyists — as is the case with Alphabet and Yelp or Facebook and Snap.

Under the auspices of Warren’s anti-corruption plan, the Senator is calling for the reinstatement and modernization of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, a significant increase to salaries for congressional staffers and stronger funding for agencies that support congressional lawmaking.

The OTA was created in the seventies to help members of Congress understand science and technology issues that they’d be regulating. Over the tenure of the agency, it created over 750 reports — including two landmark studies on the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming in the 90s, which brought it to the attention of conservative lawmakers that defunded it in 1995.

At the time, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said the agency was “used by liberals to cover up political ideology.”

Under Warren’s plan the OTA would be lead by an independent director to avoid partisan manipulation. The newly re-formed agency would have the power to commission its own reports and respond to requests from lawmakers to weigh in on rule-making, help congressional legislators prepare for hearings, and write regulatory letters.

Warren also calls for funding to be increased for the other congressional support agencies — the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Government Accountability Office. Combined these agencies have lost half of their staff.

Money for the increased activities of the agencies would come from a tax on “excessive lobbying”. The . goal would be “to reverse these cuts and further strengthen support agencies that members of Congress rely on for independent information,” according to the Warren plan.

“These reforms are vital parts of my plan to free our government from the grip of lobbyists – and restore the public’s trust in its government in the process,” Warren writes.

Europe shows the way in online privacy

After passively watching for many years as tech giants developed dominant market positions that threaten consumer privacy and stifle competition, American antitrust regulators seem to have finally grasped what’s happening and decided to take action. 

This increasing scrutiny, which tacitly acknowledges that Europe’s more proactive regulators were perhaps right all along, is helping unleash a wave of tech startups at the expense of big tech. By holding industry titans accountable over the privacy and use of our data, regulators are encouraging long overdue disruption of everything from back-end infrastructure to consumer services.

Over the past decade, Facebook, Google, Amazon and others have tightened their grip on their respective domains by buying up hundreds of smaller rivals, with little U.S. government opposition. But as their dominance has grown, and as egregious privacy violations and mishaps proliferate, regulators can no longer look the other way.

In recent months, American regulators have announced a flurry of new antitrust investigations into big technology companies. The Federal Trade Commission has voted to fine Facebook $5 billion for misusing consumer data, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee is probing the tech industry for antitrust violations and 50 attorneys general announced an antitrust probe into Google. U.S. officials are even considering establishing a digital watchdog agency.

It’s hard to understand why it took so long, though perhaps U.S. officials were loath to target domestic companies that were driving huge economic growth and creating millions of new jobs. In contrast, their counterparts across the pond have been on an antitrust tear under the watch of European Union antitrust commissioner (and now also EVP of digital affairs) Margrethe Vestager.

Now that regulators from both Europe and the United States are pursuing antitrust probes, they have exposed areas where startups can innovate. 

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