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Robotaxis: have Google and Amazon backed the wrong technology?

Robotaxis: have Google and Amazon backed the wrong technology?

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Since Google launched its self-driving car project in 2009, the biggest challenge has been one of technology: can it be safe enough to deploy at scale?

That dispute is over. Google’s project, now branded Waymo, has experienced only minor incidents — about once every 210,000 miles — since 2019 when it began operating a driverless service in Phoenix, Arizona. Cruise, its GM-backed rival, received a permit last month to begin commercial operations in its home city, San Francisco. Both groups are valued at more than $30bn by the most reputable names in venture capital and tech.

What these rivals are not doing, however, is conquering one metropolis after another the way Uber deployed in 100 cities within four years of launch. The costs are just too exorbitant, the testing hours too prolonged and it remains unclear whether there is really a business case for shared “robotaxis”.

Meanwhile, a new threat has emerged: suppliers of advanced driver-assistance systems, or ADAS — a bottom-up approach to building autonomous technology — are making massive strides. They already have a great business case, generating profits as they sell their tech to carmakers, constantly upgrade their systems and save lives along the way.

Diagram showing the expected set-up of cars with advanced driver-assistance systems by 2030

Several experts say this is a better pathway to scaling driverless tech. If they are right, then the central risk for the robotaxi hopefuls is not whether full autonomy can succeed, but whether an entirely different approach to the problem will get there first.

“There’s no more dispute around whether robotaxis are real: they are real today,” says Karl Iagnemma, chief executive of Motional, the autonomous driving unit of Hyundai and Aptiv. “The question is whether the other guy can come along and do the same service, the same product, but at half the price. If you’ve got a competitor who’s in that position, you’re in big trouble.”

Driverless groups such as Waymo, Microsoft-backed Cruise, Amazon-owned Zoox and Aurora, which announced plans for a public listing last week, are betting on a “moonshot” solution with no plan B. They plan to offer full autonomy — albeit ringfenced to certain locations — or nothing at all. In regulatory jargon, this is called Level 4, in which a robot driver requires no input from passengers. Level 5, the highest step, would allow the vehicle to go anywhere.

This “go big or go home” approach stands in direct opposition to the step-by-step path of the ADAS players led by suppliers Mobileye, Aptiv, Magna, and Bosch, which work with all the major carmakers. Their advances mean most new vehicles already have partial automation — Levels 1 and 2, including cruise control and automated braking. Tesla’s AutoPilot System is the best-known Level 2 system.

Cruise, valued at more than £30bn, received a permit last month to begin commercial operations in its home city, San Francisco
Cruise, valued at more than $30bn, received a permit last month to begin commercial operations in its home city, San Francisco © Cruise

The notion that this low-cost, evolutionary track could experience a butterfly-like transformation to offer a fully driverless experience has long been dismissed by the Level 4 groups.

Chris Urmson, Aurora chief executive, put it eloquently in 2015 when he was Google’s leading driverless engineer: “Conventional wisdom would say that we’ll just take these driver assistance systems and we’ll kind of push them and . . . over time, they’ll turn into self-driving cars,” he said. “Well, that’s like me saying that if I work really hard at jumping, one day I’ll be able to fly.”

Big Tech’s failed takeover

Urmson’s logic felt sound at the time: ADAS was rudimentary, whereas robotaxis seemed just a couple of years away from mass deployment. Waymo prepared to order 82,000 such vehicles in 2018, Uber projected it would have 100,000 on the road by 2020 and Lyft divined that a “majority” of its rides would be autonomous by 2021.

But none of that happened. Instead, the closer they got to a consumer-facing product, the more complex the problem was understood to be.

Grouped symbol chart showing expected sensor content and costs for each automation level of autonomous cars between 2012 and 2032

At the same time, the traditional automotive industry has been galvanised by these efforts and has evolved ADAS into a multi-faceted feature set capable of hands-free highway driving, automated lane changes and robotic valet parking.

Iagnemma says the dramatic improvements in ADAS were unforeseen, and he now sees the two technology curves converging: Level 4 groups are desperately trying to bring costs down to boost their business case, while ADAS suppliers are accelerating their performance to achieve maximum safety.

“In 2015 I would have agreed with Chris [Urmson],” Iagnemma says. “Every intelligent observer in the industry believed that was the right path forward. But what that failed to anticipate was the increase in performance, in part enabled by deep learning and other advances, that would allow us to do things with radars and cameras that I would not have thought possible in 2015.”

Nevertheless, the Level 4 groups continue to dismiss ADAS as a threat. Shortly before stepping down as Waymo chief executive earlier this year, John Krafcik said: “There is really no path from L2 to L4 — there’s a huge chasm. It’s a completely different development mindset.”

An autonomous Waymo minivan arrives to pick up passengers. Google’s project has experienced only minor incidents — about once every 210,000 miles — since 2019
An autonomous Waymo minivan arrives to pick up passengers. Google’s project has experienced only minor incidents — about once every 210,000 miles — since 2019 © Ross D. Franklin/AP

So if the evolutionary approach to building driverless technology proves successful, the upshot would be startling: the world’s biggest, most sophisticated companies — Alphabet, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft — all backed the wrong horse for a future technology widely expected to earn revenues in the trillions of dollars.

This would entirely flip the script from half a decade ago, when carmakers felt under siege from tech companies that were going to displace them at the top of the value-chain.

“There was this general fear that the entire auto industry was going to get taken over by tech — and that totally didn’t happen,” says Austin Russell, chief executive of Luminar, which began as a supplier of visual sensors but now offers a highway autonomy solution for partners such as Volvo.

“That whole ‘shoot for the moon’ approach really didn’t play out. That’s why they are in the testing stage and we’re in series production,” he adds. “The traditional automakers still absolutely control all the volume, all the production, everything that goes out there. They are the only ones that can provide a real business case for any of this stuff.”

ADAS advantages

A quick snapshot of both industries demonstrates clear advantages for the dark horse ADAS approach.

Today’s driverless car groups are burning through untold amounts of cash. Cruise alone has raised $10bn and just opened a $5bn credit line to build more vehicles. Waymo was funded by Alphabet for a decade before raising $3.2bn in 2020, but it still needed to raise another $2.5bn last month. Zoox was so close to running out of money that it sold itself to Amazon early in the pandemic, while Apple has been working on autonomy since 2014 without so much as a prototype to show for its efforts.

Column chart showing global market revenue of autonomous driving and ADAS components for 2020, 2025 and 2030 in billions of dollars

Several big companies have already thrown in the towel: Uber in effect paid rival Aurora to absorb its 1,200-person team last year, while Lyft sold its ambitiously-named Level 5 unit to a division of Toyota in April.

Meanwhile, the global ADAS market has become a gold mine. Revenues last year were $25bn, according to BlueWeave Consulting, and are expected to nearly triple by 2027. Roland Berger, a consultancy, expects advanced automation features to be common for “nearly every new vehicle sold in the developed world” within four years.

Regulators are hesitant to give a green light to robotaxis, but they are cheerleaders for driver-assist tech. America’s highway regulator estimates that thousands of lives a year could be saved if all cars had partial automation features. The EU has mandated that all new cars must have lane-keeping assistance and advanced emergency braking by 2022.

Aside from Elon Musk, who in 2019 promised Tesla would have “operating robotaxis next year” no one is really suggesting the ADAS players are about to “unlock” fully driverless capabilities in the next few years. Nor does their current focus on highway driving necessarily translate well into urban autonomy. But they are under little pressure to make that leap anytime soon.

The business model of selling highway-only autonomy is solid, growing rapidly, and drivers have demonstrated they are willing to pay. Super Cruise, GM’s semi-autonomous feature set, must be purchased in a bundle costing $6,150, and when GM surveyed Cadillac owners last year it found that 85 per cent want it in their next vehicle. Tesla sells its “full self-driving” package, which requires no additional hardware, for $10,000 — an incredibly lucrative sum for the auto business where the average vehicle profit is less than $2,000.

An Advanced Driver Assistance Systems camera in operation. The traditional automotive industry has evolved ADAS into a multi-faceted feature set capable of hands-free highway driving, automated lane changes and robotic valet parking
An Advanced Driver Assistance Systems camera in operation. The traditional automotive industry has evolved ADAS into a multi-faceted feature set capable of hands-free highway driving, automated lane changes and robotic valet parking © David L Ryan/Boston Globe/Getty

So if ADAS players get stuck at highway-only autonomy, they are not in crisis. But if Waymo, Cruise, Zoox and Aurora delay their rollout, they don’t have a product.

Yet the likelihood that driver-assistance systems do keep moving forward, tortoise-like, is high, because as more cars are equipped with the tech, the faster the systems learn. This is where Tesla currently leads: more than a million of its vehicles are equipped with its AutoPilot system that is always on, in “shadow mode”, ready to upload snapshots to Tesla servers whenever the human driver makes decisions different from its own.

Tesla is, in effect, outsourcing its real world testing to owners who pay for the privilege. It is a stunningly more efficient model than most Level 4 groups, which bankroll hundreds of engineers to sit behind the wheel of robotic test fleets.

Willard Tu, senior director of automotive at US chipmaker Xilinx, says it’s only a matter of time before all the bigger automotive groups are performing similar feats. “Every company that’s doing ADAS is now trying to leverage, and create, machine-learning databases,” he says. “Just like Tesla . . . they are learning to manage troves and troves of data.”

Some already are. Navigation specialist TomTom has equipped more than 3m vehicles with high-definition maps accurate to a few centimetres that get near real-time updates from crowdsourcing. “It’s a continuous stream of data that’s coming in, and that data is exploding — it’s exponential growth,” says Willem Strijbosch, TomTom’s head of autonomous driving.

Austin Russell, chief executive of Luminar, says ‘there was this general fear that the entire auto industry was going to get taken over by tech — and that totally didn’t happen’
Austin Russell, chief executive of Luminar, says ‘there was this general fear that the entire auto industry was going to get taken over by tech — and that totally didn’t happen’ © AP/Luminar Technologies, Inc.

The robotaxi groups’ counterargument that their data is superior is undoubtedly true. Waymo’s fifth-generation sensor suite, for instance, comprises 29 cameras and a suite of radar and lidar — light detection and ranging lasers that create 3D renderings of the environment. By contrast, a Tesla vehicle has eight cameras, most ADAS-equipped cars have even fewer, and virtually none today are equipped with lidar.

But as costs fall dramatically, carmakers will be able to add new layers of sensors to help cross the chasm into a Level 4 feature set. As head of visual sensor company AEye, Blair LaCorte may be biased, but he’s not alone in projecting that lidar will be in “almost all” new cars in half a decade.

“Lidar will be in almost everything that moves,” he says. “The question will be what business model gets it there.”

TomTom’s Strijbosch argues that the Level 4 cars are “overfitted” with technology because they let costs run amok and need to make up for their small sample sizes. But even if ADAS data is less robust, it can be multiplied by a far greater number of real-world hours and eventually close the gap with Level 4 tech. “By the time we’ve driven so many billions of kilometres, in millions of vehicles that have this whole sensor set-up, all corner cases will have been captured,” he says.

Mercedes expects to have regulatory approval in Germany later this year to allow its Drive Pilot system to take full control in certain dense-traffic highway situations at up to 60km/h. For this Level 3 system, the driver will be able to take her eyes off the road entirely and it is the German carmaker that would be liable for any accidents.

Zoox autonomous vehicles. The company was so close to running out of money that it sold itself to Amazon early in the pandemic
Zoox autonomous vehicles. The company was so close to running out of money that it sold itself to Amazon early in the pandemic © Zoox

Georges Massing, a Mercedes executive, says “the next logical step” is to press ahead “with the development of Level 4/Level 5 technologies towards series production”.

Distant horizon

The Level 4 groups could end this debate by rolling out robotaxi services in multiple cities at scale. But most experts believe that remains a distant prospect.

“It will take another 10 to 20 years until [they] go from the suburbs of Phoenix to something that runs across the country,” says Jan Becker, chief executive of Apex.AI, an automotive software group.

Tech isn’t really the problem; societal acceptance is. Amnon Shashua, chief executive of Intel-owned Mobileye, points out that if a Level 4 system can get to a point of crashing only once every 1m miles — two times better than a human driver — that would risk massive reputational blowback.

“If I drive 10 miles per hour, that means I crash once every 100,000 hours of driving,” he explains. “So if I deploy 100,000 cars, I’ll have a crash every hour. From a business perspective that is very, very challenging.”

Costs would also be prohibitive. “If you were to try and deploy 100,000 driverless vehicles that would cost you tens of billions of dollars,” Luminar’s Russell says. “The key distinction here is that we’re actually getting paid to put our stuff on cars, to deploy around the world and collect data.”

If robotaxis fail to scale up in the coming years, analysts say the ADAS advantage is likely to become clearer. Today, the biggest difference between the two approaches is the tech itself: ADAS is low cost and limited; Level 4 is high cost and sophisticated. But in a few years, the biggest difference is likely to be cash flow: ADAS players will be raking it in; Level 4 groups will be burning it at even greater levels.

For Iagnemma, the teams that are best positioned to win are those that have a foot in both camps. He works directly on Level 4 technology at Motional, but the group is owned by Hyundai and ADAS supplier Aptiv. “When you put these things together: there’s a potential to disrupt what’s already a very disruptive industry,” he says.

Urmson, the Aurora chief executive, acknowledges there is “immense value being delivered” by ADAS and agrees the robotaxi groups have no plan B. But he adds: “The converse is, if the Level 4 guys do make it, then the ADAS stuff suddenly becomes totally irrelevant.”

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S Korea parliament committee votes to curb Google, Apple commission dominance

S Korea parliament committee votes to curb Google, Apple commission dominance
PHOTO by REUTERS

A South Korean parliamentary committee voted early on Wednesday to recommend amending a law, a key step toward banning Google and Apple from forcibly charging software developers commissions on in-app purchases, the first such curb by a major economy.

After the vote from the legislation and judiciary committee to amend the Telecommunications Business Act, dubbed the “Anti-Google law,” the amendment will come to a final vote in parliament.

That vote could come on Wednesday https://www.reuters.com/technology/skorea-set-curb-google-apple-commission-dominance-2021-08-24, although South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that parliament would act at a later date.

A parliament official told Reuters the office had not yet received an official request not to hold the meeting on Wednesday.

Apple Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google have both faced global criticism because they require software developers using their app stores to use proprietary payment systems that charge commissions of up to 30per cent.

In a statement on Tuesday, Apple said the bill “will put users who purchase digital goods from other sources at risk of fraud, undermine their privacy protections”, hurt user trust in App Store purchases and lead to fewer opportunities for South Korean developers.

Wilson White, senior director of public policy at Google, said “the rushed process hasn’t allowed for enough analysis of the negative impact of this legislation on Korean consumers and app developers”.

Legal experts said app store operators could work with developers and other companies to create secure payment methods other than the ones they provide.

“Google and Apple aren’t the only ones that can create a secure payment system,” said Lee Hwang, a Korea University School of Law professor specialising in competition law. “I think it’s a problem to try to inspire excessive fear by talking about safety or security about using different payment methods.”

Based on South Korean parliament records, the amendment bans app store operators with dominant market positions from forcing payment systems on content providers and “inappropriately” delaying the review of, or deleting, mobile contents from app markets.

It also allows the South Korean government to require an app market operator to “prevent damage to users and protect the rights and interests of users”, probe app market operators, and mediate disputes regarding payment, cancellations or refunds in the app market.

This month in the United States, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would rein in app stores of companies that they said exert too much market control, including Apple and Google. REUTERS

 

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US and Chinese tech juggernauts battle over ASEAN clouds

US and Chinese tech juggernauts battle over ASEAN clouds
Alibaba Cloud’s rapid growth slowed in the last quarter. (Photo by Tada Images/Shutterstock)

Amid the great U.S.-China tech divide, Southeast Asia and its fast-growing digital markets have become a main battleground for the digital behemoths of both superpowers.

There, Amazon.com, Microsoft, Google, Alibaba Group Holding and other players are investing heavily in cloud computing — services that provide processing power and data storage to all sizes of corporations and government institutions.

A massive 170,000-sq.-meter structure is going up in Tanjong Kling, about a 20-minute drive from Singapore’s city center. The 11-story building is taking on the appearance of a vast logistics center or warehouse. However, strict security teams and surveillance cameras around the site betray a much more critical piece of infrastructure. As a reporter pulled out his smartphone to take a photograph of the construction site, a security guard rushed up and warned, “This is private property. No photos allowed.”

Once completed, the “private property” facility will be filled by rows and rows of servers hosting hundreds of millions of internet users’ sensitive personal information. It will be Facebook’s first custom-built data center in Asia. The company has announced it will invest 1.4 billion Singapore dollars (US$1 billion) in the project.

It is one of many data centers that global tech giants are building in Southeast Asia. With a stable political system, an abundance of skilled tech workers and its connection to an undersea communications cable that links to the rest of the world, Singapore has become a prime spot for the big players of tech vying for slices of Southeast Asia’s swelling need for cloud services.

US and Chinese tech juggernauts battle over ASEAN clouds

According to real estate service company Cushman & Wakefield, Singapore data centers have 410 megawatts of capacity, with another 170 megawatts on the way, making the city-state a global hub for data, matching the likes of Frankfurt and Chicago.

But Singapore stands out in that it is also a strategic foothold for Chinese tech companies such as Alibaba and Tencent, who are competing for the same clients.

Amazon is the global leader among cloud service providers. Its Amazon Web Services (AWS) controlled more than 30% of the worldwide market in the second quarter of 2021, according to research company Canalys. It is currently adding infrastructure in Jakarta, Indonesia, which is expected to be operational by the end of 2021 or early 2022.

The data centers will be AWS’ second location in Southeast Asia. AWS centers have been operating in Singapore since 2010.

“AWS sees tremendous potential in Southeast Asia,” Conor McNamara, AWS’ managing director for ASEAN operations, said via email. “Across the board, we see all segments, including startups, enterprises, and small and medium-sized businesses, continuing to drive cloud adoption.”

Microsoft, the world’s second-largest cloud service provider, early this year announced it would establish data centers in Indonesia and Malaysia. It is bullish on the region’s growth potential.

“If you look at Southeast Asia, [there are] 650 million people, that makes it [almost] 50% bigger than in the European Union [446 million],” Microsoft Asia President Ahmed Mazhari said. And the region’s “mobile penetration and mobile-first approach that is unparalleled in the world.”

Mazhari also sees ambition. “We continue to see growth traction from somebody that wants to go from idea to building a unicorn, to micro SMEs, to the biggest enterprise of the world,” he said.

Alibaba, No. 4 in the global cloud service market, behind Amazon, Microsoft and Google, in June announced it would invest up to $1 billion over the next three years to nurture developers and support Asia-Pacific startups. “We are seeing a strong demand for cloud-native technologies in emerging verticals across the region, from e-commerce and logistics platforms to fintech and online entertainment,” Jeff Zhang, president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence, said in a news release.

The company’s cloud division launched its third data center in Indonesia and plans to launch one in the Philippines this year.

Cloud services are becoming a revenue pillar. In the second quarter of this year, the global market was worth $47 billion, up 36% from the year-earlier period, according to Canalys.

AWS’ net sales grew to $14.8 billion in the same quarter, up 37% from the year-earlier period, with AWS accounting for more than half of Amazon’s consolidated operating income.

Microsoft’s Azure revenue grew 51% during the quarter ended June.

Until recently, the global market has been bifurcated.

US and Chinese tech juggernauts battle over ASEAN clouds

In China, Alibaba and Tencent have been able to dominate mainly due to restrictions imposed upon foreign tech companies. In the West, Amazon, Microsoft, Google and other players rigorously compete.

In recent years, however, Alibaba has been pushing into the West, including the United States. However, this ambition is dimming as Washington is increasingly concerned over possible security risks for companies that avail themselves to Chinese cloud services.

Amid this global dichotomy, Southeast Asia has emerged as a battleground where Chinese and Western companies “can compete with each other,” said Kevin Imboden, senior research manager of Data Center Insights, Global Research, at Cushman & Wakefield.

The cloud service providers’ intertwined customer lists in the region reflect intense competition.

Amazon and Microsoft provide cloud services to Singapore-based supper app Grab, according to both companies. Alibaba on its website boasts of having Indonesian e-commerce leader Tokopedia as a key cloud customer, and Amazon says AWS also provides services to Tokopedia.

Among the region’s unicorns, startups with valuations of $1 billion or more, Carsome, a Malaysia-based used car marketplace, and Carro, a Singapore online car sales platform, use AWS. Bukalapak, one of Indonesia’s largest e-commerce platforms and Tokopedia competitor, uses Microsoft’s Azure. Alibaba is one of Tokopedia’s largest shareholders, and Microsoft has stakes in Grab and Bukalapak.

U.S. and Chinese cloud companies “are very focused on acquiring market share,” Imboden said, even “at the expense of profit.”

According to Google, Temasek Holdings, and Bain & Co., the gross merchandise value of the region’s internet economy is expected to grow threefold, to $300 billion, by 2025 from 2020. Cloud services, which serve as the infrastructure of this burgeoning ecosystem, will surely expand, too.

However, geopolitical risks are also emerging.

According to a report by China’s Caixin news service, Chinese internet technology company ByteDance, which owns TikTok, has stopped using Alibaba’s cloud for its businesses outside China.

Last year, the Trump administration attempted to ban the popular social media app in the U.S., citing security risks. In June, U.S. President Joe Biden withdrew a series of executive orders related to the banning of TikTok but ordered a broad security review of apps connected to “foreign adversaries,” including China.

Alibaba on Aug. 3 announced cloud computing revenue of 16.05 billion yuan ($2.48 billion) for the quarter through June, up 29% from a year earlier. However, the company’s earnings release states that the cloud computing division’s “year-on-year revenue growth began to moderate since the last quarter primarily because of revenue decline from a top cloud customer in the Internet industry that has stopped using our overseas cloud services with respect to their international business due to non-product related requirements.”

Eric Schmidt, a former Google CEO and the chair of the U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, wonders if Alibaba can attract clients in the West. “Alibaba Cloud and so forth are good enough that you could build on the Chinese side, but you are not going to use them in the West. Similarly, American clouds are very, very good, but you can’t use them in China,” he recently told Nikkei Asia.

“As an entrepreneur, you would prefer to have one [cloud provider] but you live with two [one in China and one everywhere else].”

While well-funded unicorns and large corporations can minimize risks by dividing their cloud needs between Western and Chinese companies, many small and mid-size companies, as well as startups, lack the wherewithal to follow suit.

With American and Chinese players competing for slices of Southeast Asia, businesses in the region “need a geopolitical strategy” and might even have to “pick sides,” said Abishur Prakash, a geopolitical futurist at Toronto-based consultancy Center for Innovating the Future.

“What is your long-term strategy? What geographies do you plan to operate in? Which consumers do you want to access the most?” he asks. “Those should be the vectors that you [use to] decide whose cloud computing infrastructures to use.” NIKKEI

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Authorities warn of scammers impersonating officers from government agencies, police

Authorities warn of scammers impersonating officers from government agencies, police
An unsolicited call is the first red flag for a scam, experts say. GETTY IMAGES

Scammers have been targeting members of the public by calling them and claiming to be officers from government agencies, said the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) on Friday (Aug 13).

In an advisory, ICA said members of the public have received calls from +65 6812 5555, similar to its SafeTravel Enquiries Helpline (6812 5555).
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“They accused the recipients of either spreading fake news related to COVID-19 or breaking COVID-19 rules, further saying that a report would be made against them or they had to pay a penalty,” said the authority. “This is a scam.”

ICA added that the calls were not made by ICA officers or officers from any other government agencies, and that it “does not call members of the public to request money in any form over the phone”.

The public is advised to ignore the calls and the caller’s instructions should they receive them.

No government agency will request for personal details or transfer of money over the phone or through automated voice machines, said ICA.

“Scammers may use caller ID spoofing technology to mask the actual phone number and display a different number. Calls that appear to be from a local number may not actually be made from Singapore,” said ICA.

“Do not provide your personal information such as name, identification number, passport details, contact details, bank account or credit card details to suspicious or unknown parties.”

The authority said it takes “a serious view of such scam calls as it undermines public trust in ICA”, adding that a police report has been made.

SCAMMERS IMPERSONATING POLICE OFFICERS

Separately on Friday, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) said there have been at least 200 reports of banking-related phishing scams where police officers were impersonated.

In a news release, SPF said scammers have been posing as police officers on messaging apps by using publicly available pictures of officers to validate their identity so that the victims would provide their banking details.

The victims received WhatsApp calls from an account with a profile picture showing police officers. During the conversation, the scammer would also provide an SPF name card as proof of identity.

“The victims would be informed that their bank accounts had been found to be involved in criminal activity and were frozen,” said SPF.

The scammer would instruct victims to provide their banking details under the pretext of facilitating the release of their bank accounts.

“Victims only realised that they had fallen prey to a scam when they received notifications informing them that money had been transferred from their bank accounts to bank accounts unfamiliar to them or when they discovered unknown transactions made using their credit or debit card,” said the police. CNA

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Three Australian publishers accuse Facebook of unfairly taking their content

Three Australian publishers accuse Facebook of unfairly taking their content
The Facebook app is seen on a phone screen August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas White/File Photo

Three Australian publishers of lifestyle content say Facebook Inc used their articles on its just-launched news service after refusing to negotiate licensing deals, and that the country’s tough new internet law has failed to protect them.

Australia this year passed a law that pressured Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google to sign deals with some of the country’s biggest news companies by threatening government intervention.

The dispute highlights possible shortcomings in the controversial law. While most of Australia’s main media firms have signed deals, some smaller outlets say the law has not stopped their content generating clicks and advertising revenue for Facebook without compensation.

Broadsheet Media, Urban List and Concrete Playground, websites which publish entertainment news, reviews and listings, say that after the law was passed in February they approached the social media giant about payment for their content.

Facebook knocked them back, calling their content unsuitable for its Facebook News platform and recommending they apply for grants it was offering from a A$15 million (US$11 million) fund for Australian regional and digital newsrooms, the three companies told Reuters in a joint call.

“They told me that, ‘oh well, you’re not going to be included in News tab and that’s what we’re paying for’,” said Nick Shelton, founder of Broadsheet Media.

“To our surprise, we woke one morning last week and all of our content was there.”

Facebook News went live in Australia on Aug 4.

Facebook declined to comment directly on the three companies but said it created value for publishers by sending viewers to their sites.

Under the law, Facebook and Google must negotiate payment deals with outlets or a government-appointed arbitrator will do it for them, but a publisher must first prove its primary purpose is producing news and that it has been unfairly disqualified.

The three publishers said they want Facebook to come to the table to talk but if it declined they may seek government intervention.

“If at the end of the day we don’t get included in a commercial agreement, then absolutely they need a stick,” said Shelton. “We are three prime examples of publishers and media businesses which should be included as part of this framework.”

To be covered by the law, publishers must register as a news provider with the Australian Communications and Media Authority “based on criteria including the levels of ‘core news’ (essentially public interest journalism) that they produce”, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which drafted the law, said in an email.

Urban List has registered on the list. Broadsheet and Concrete Playground have yet to register, saying they want to hold out for a private deal.

Tama Leaver, a professor of internet studies at Australia’s Curtin University, said that while Facebook had not broken the law as the matter was not yet before arbitration, its apparent treatment of the three publishers was “extremely poor practice, disingenuous and further disadvantages the smaller players in the news business arena”.

In a separate dispute, the ACCC has said it would look into a claim by The Conversation, which publishes current affairs commentary by academics, that Facebook has refused to negotiate a licensing deal. The Conversation has secured a deal with Google. REUTERS

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Twitter Suspends pro Trump US Lawmaker for Covid Misinformation

Twitter Suspends pro Trump US Lawmaker for Covid Misinformation
U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) wears a mask reading "Censored" as she walks to the House floor during debate on the second impeachment of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. January 13, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Twitter said Tuesday it had suspended the account of controversial US lawmaker Marjorie Taylor Greene, a staunch supporter of former Republican president Donald Trump, for a week over a “misleading” tweet on coronavirus vaccines.

The tweet in question, sent on Monday, said the US Food and Drug Administration should not give final approval to anti-coronavirus vaccines, with Greene saying they were “failing” and did not curb the spread of the virus.

Twitter labeled the message “misleading” and suggested that users consult information provided by US health authorities about vaccines and mask-wearing.

“The tweet you referenced was labeled in line with our Covid-19 misleading information policy,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement to AFP.

“The account will be in read-only mode for a week due to repeated violations of the Twitter rules.”

The platform’s rules on Covid misinformation state that a seven-day suspension comes with a fourth violation of the site’s terms of use.

If the first-term Georgia congresswoman were to break the rules again, she could face a permanent ban.

Greene accused Twitter of suspending her for “speaking the truth, and tweeting what so many people are saying.”

The lawmaker has been a staunch defender of Trump and his unsubstantiated claims that Democrats stole the 2020 presidential election.

In February, she apologized for her past support for QAnon conspiracy theories but was stripped of her two committee assignments.

Then in May, she courted controversy by repeatedly equating mask mandates with Nazis forcing Jews to wear yellow stars in wartime Germany. AFP

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New Child Safety Features for Google, YouTube

New Child Safety Features for Google, YouTube
Google is unveiling new measures aiming at protecting children and teens from being tracked or exposed to mature content. AFP

Google on Tuesday unveiled a series of online safety measures for children including a private setting for videos uploaded by teens and safeguard for ads shown to users under 18.

The new features, which come amid heightened concerns about online child exploitation and safety at a time of growing internet usage during the global pandemic, affect Google’s YouTube video platform as well its online services such as search and Google Assistant.

“As kids and teens spend more time online, parents, educators, child safety and privacy experts, and policy makers are rightly concerned about how to keep them safe,” said Google product and user experience director Mindy Brooks.

“We engage with these groups regularly, and share these concerns.”

Google’s “safe search” — which excludes sensitive or mature content — will be the default setting for users under 18, which up to now had been the case only for under-13 users.

On the massively popular YouTube platform, content from 13- to 17-year-olds will be private by default, the tech giant said.

“With private uploads, content can only be seen by the user and whomever they choose,” said a blog post by James Beser, head of product management for YouTube Kids and Family.

“We want to help younger users make informed decisions about their online footprint and digital privacy… If the user would like to make their content public, they can change the default upload visibility setting and we’ll provide reminders indicating who can see their video.”

Google will also make it easier for families to request removal of a child’s photos from image search requests.

“Of course, removing an image from search doesn’t remove it from the web, but we believe this change will help give young people more control of their images online,” Brooks said.

In another safety move, Google will turn off location history for all users under 18 globally, without an option to turn it back on. This is already in place for those under 13.

Google will also make changes in how it shows ads to minors, blocking any “age-sensitive” categories and banning targeting based on the age, gender or interests of people under 18. AFP

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