Splainer
Wednesday, October 21 2020

Many people have stopped taking precautions now. This is not right. If you are careless, walking out without a mask, then you are putting yourself, your family, your family’s children, the elderly in as much trouble… We are going through a difficult time, and yet we are moving forward. A little carelessness can stop our movement and tarnish our happiness.

That’s PM Modi warning Indians to remain careful during the festival season in an address to the nation yesterday. He also pointed to the US and Europe—where Covid cases are rising again—as cautionary examples.

Big Story

US government goes to war with Google

The TLDR: In a greatly significant move, the US government filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google, claiming that its practices stifle competition and hurt the consumer. The last time it took such an action was against Microsoft in 1998—the same year Google was formed. That the suit was filed just weeks before the presidential election isn’t an accident. And the outcome of that election may well determine the future of big tech companies—that are increasingly under pressure to mend their ways.

What is Google accused of?

Being a monopoly—specifically the dominance of its search engine and advertising related to search. The brief pointed to these key issues. 

 

One: Its exclusive agreements with companies make Google.com the default search engine:

 

“Google pays billions of dollars each year to distributors—including popular-device manufacturers such as Apple, LG, Motorola, and Samsung; major U.S. wireless carriers such as AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon; and browser developers such as Mozilla, Opera, and UCWeb—to secure default status for its general search engine and, in many cases, to specifically prohibit Google's counterparties from dealing with Google's competitors.”

 

Two: It uses its ownership of the Android platform to force these companies to install a bundle of Google apps—including search apps—in “prime positions where consumers are most likely to start their internet searches.”

 

Three: As a result, Google or Google-owned products account for 80% of all search queries. That number is even higher for mobile-based search. Every minute, an estimated 3.8 million queries are typed into Google.

 

Four: This monopoly in search in turn earns billions of dollars in advertising revenue—which it then uses to pay phone manufacturers, carriers and browsers like Safari, “creating a self-reinforcing cycle of dominance.”

 

Five: This monopoly has hurt rival companies and the consumer:

 

“Google has ‘substantially’ harmed competition by increasing barriers to entry for competitors who wish to offer or scale up their own search services. Its actions also had the effect of making Google's services worse: no competition means no ‘significant competitive pressure to improve’ its own search or advertising products.”


Not included in the lawsuit: the company’s massive digital advertising arm which has gobbled up most of that market. Starting with its purchase of DoubleClick in 2007, Google has mopped up all the major ad sellers. It now dominates every part of that pipeline and everyone in it: publishers who sell ad space using its tools and companies who advertise their products through its network.

How is this bad for me?

One: It is pretty darn hard to find anything unless Google wants you to. A recent congressional report concluded that the company has engineered its search results— so it works best for Google rather than what is most relevant to you. A Wall Street Journal investigation found:

 

  • Google made algorithmic changes to its search results that favor big businesses over smaller ones.
  • The company also boosts some major websites, such as Amazon and Facebook.
  • Google keeps blacklists to remove certain sites or prevent others from surfacing in certain types of results.

 

Two: You are more likely to see ads than the results you’re looking for. As Wired notes:

 

“In its early days, using Google usually meant searching for something and then clicking a link to another website… Today, ads dominate the top of search results like never before, which puts pressure on companies to pay to be seen. Organic results meanwhile appear to favor Google’s own properties: Google reviews instead of Yelp, YouTube instead of Vimeo, and so on.”

 

Three: If you own a company, you are forced to hand over your entire ad budget to Google. Without its platform, your brand or product will literally never be found. As one advertiser told Congress, Google "effectively forces its advertising customers to pay for the ability to reach consumers who are searching specifically for the customer's brand." 

 

And since there is no competing search engine, "Google has the ability to charge potentially inflated prices for its advertising services by forcing customers to increase their bids in order to receive a more favorable position."

 

Four: Google is a privacy nightmare. It monitors everything you do—on Gmail, Maps, browser, and on every website on its ad platform. And then it bundles that data to sell ads. By squelching its competition, it limits the emergence of a rival who is not in the ad-selling business—and may not collect your data.


Data point to note: Online advertising was the source of virtually all of Alphabet’s $34 billion in profit last year.

What’s Google’s defence?

There are two lines of defence. One, our search engine is awesome; two, people search just as much on other websites:

 

“Google’s share of the search market in the United States is about 80 percent. But looking only at the market for ‘general’ search, the company says, is myopic. Nearly half of online shopping searches, it notes, begin on Amazon.

 

Next, Google says the deals the Justice Department is citing are entirely legal. Such company-to-company deals violate antitrust law only if they can be shown to exclude competition. Users can freely switch to other search engines, like Microsoft’s Bing or Yahoo Search, anytime they want, Google insists. Its search service, Google says, is the runaway market leader because people prefer it.”

 

What happens next?

It depends on who wins the election. While the lawsuit delivers on Trump’s promise to take on Big Tech, Joe Biden has been fairly quiet on the topic. It remains to be seen if he will be as gung-ho as some of his fellow Democrats about taking it forward. 


Also unclear: What the government wants. The brief asks the court to direct Google to change its behaviour—which has not worked in the past—and for “structural relief,” which suggests breaking up the company. And that brings us right back to Biden and his appetite for a maha-yudh—which is likely to drag on for years as Google fights tooth and nail.

 

Reading list

  • Wall Street Journal has a lot of great reporting on the lawsuit, Google’s search algorithm and advertising juggernaut. But they are all behind a paywall. 
  • You can instead read Ars Technica’s excellent analysis of the lawsuit or The Verge’s roundup of the reporting on it. 
  • Also worth a look: Benton Institute’s summary of WSJ’s search-related investigation. 
  • For a contrarian view read Wired’s take, which dismisses the lawsuit as an anticlimax. 
  • Quartz assembled an eye-opening list of all the companies Google has acquired in recent years. 
  • Also see: Our big explainer on why the US government is gunning for the big four tech giants: Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google.

 

Sanity Break #1

These hypnotically gorgeous creatures are ‘Strandbeests’—kinetic sculptures that move with the wind. They were created by Dutch artist Theo Jansen who calls them a new form of life. Want to know more? You can listen to Jansen’s TED talk or watch this BBC News video. (h/t founding member Neha Shetty)

Headlines that matter

Reliance unveils big 5G plans

Jio Platforms announced that it has locally developed and tested a 5G network in partnership with Qualcomm—and achieved a speed of 1 gigabyte per second (i.e. way faster than your 4G slowpoke). The test was conducted on a US carrier network. Point to note: Qualcomm has invested Rs 7.3 billion for 0.15% stake in Jio Platforms. (Economic Times)

 

In related news: Sweden is the latest country to ban two Chinese companies—Huawei and ZTE—from bidding in the auction to develop its 5G network. Likely beneficiaries: Ericsson and Nokia. (Reuters)

 

China’s vaccine passes trial

Sinovac Biotech’s vaccine has passed a late stage trial in Brazil with 9,000 participants. According to the country’s leading biomedical institute, “among all the vaccines tested in the country, CoronaVac is the safest, the one with the best and most promising rates.” Point to note: Brazil is also hosting stage 3 trials for the Oxford vaccine. (Reuters)

 

In related China news: 300 Chinese fishing vessels—designed to hold 1,000 tons of catch—are parked near Galapagos island, ready to trawl some of the richest marine life in the world. Local environmentalists say, “They are killing the species we have protected and polluting our biota with the plastic waste they drop overboard. They are raping the Galapagos.” LA Times has a richly reported story.

 

In related unhappy news: The lockdown has fuelled a rise in poaching in states like Karnataka—but of the more sophisticated kind.

 

“These new age poachers have added another layer of complexity for wildlife law enforcement agencies. These are not regular poachers who are killing wildlife to earn some money by their sale. Rather these are people who are killing protected wild animals for the thrill of it. They are generally educated, affluent and well aware about the legalities. Tackling them is a bigger challenge.”


In related Covid news: India is planning to take plasma therapy off the list of Covid therapies. The reason: there is no evidence it works. Authorities are also considering removing four other key drugs—hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir, interferon-B and lopinavir—after a WHO study showed they don’t help much either. (Mint)

 

Also this: Medical experts are challenging claims by airline companies—including Airbus, Boeing and Embraer—that flying is perfectly safe. At a recent joint presentation, the three claimed: "With only 44 identified potential cases of flight-related transmission among 1.2 billion travellers, that's one case for every 27 million.” Turns out their math is a little faulty. The reason: Most of these 1.2 billion passengers were not tested. (Business Standard)


Targeting media in Kashmir

The local government has shut down the Srinagar office of Kashmir Times—the state’s leading English-language newspaper. It is one of the few local outlets that criticised the revocation of Article 370—and challenged the internet ban in the Supreme Court. Officials, of course, deny any intent to punish. (The Telegraph)


Three US election things

One: There will indeed be a second presidential debate—but this time the candidates’ mics will be on mute when it isn’t their turn to talk. No prizes for guessing why.

 

Two: The staff of the New Yorker was conducting some sort of a bizarre role play exercise involving the election on Zoom—when their star legal writer, Jeffrey Toobin, was unexpectedly seen… masturbating?!! Toobin has been suspended and the magazine has launched an investigation. He says it’s all a big mistake. Vice has this 🤦🏽‍♀️ story. We recommend: Gizmodo’s hilarious guide that explains how to avoid accidently showing your genitals to your colleagues on Zoom.


Three: Kamala Harris’ niece, Meena, tweeted a photo of her as Ma Durga. The Hindu American Foundation was duly offended. The tweet was duly deleted. But hey, the image is preserved below for your judgement.

 

Two new app things 

One: Zomato is testing a tool that allows users to post reviews and photos and ‘stories’—and connect with their friends or follow food bloggers. Sorta like foodie Insta? 

 

Two: Coming soon, Junio, a smart credit card for kids that is controlled by parents via an app: “It allows parents to control smart cards through the app wherein they can create in-app chore lists and tie them with perks. Junio also enables instant fund transfer, notifications and flexibility to cancel the card at any moment through the app.” 

 

In entirely unrelated news: Because we don’t know where to file this: The Delhi government has suspended Delhi Gymkhana’s liquor licence. The reason: They illegally sold booze during the lockdown. Of course they did.

 

Bad news about baby bottles

New research shows that bottle-fed babies are exposed to an average of 1.6 million microplastic particles per day. But researchers say, “We don’t want to be alarmist. We don’t fully understand the risks to human health through exposure to these tiny plastic particles yet.” Also: they offer a safe way to prepare formula to minimise microplastics. 

 

Also bad for babies: Planned C-sections which slow their development in the first year. The Conversation has that research.

 

NASA’s collecting rocks

In a milestone event, the OSIRIS-REx—which has been circling an asteroid for two years—is getting ready to scrape rocks off its surface. It will then bring these back to Earth—and deliver them to scientists via a parachute. (The Verge

 

A political row over a cricket movie

Actor Vijay Sethupathi announced that he will no longer star in ‘800’—a slated biopic of Sri Lankan cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan. The reason: Tamil politicians and celebs were outraged that he agreed to play Muralitharan who allegedly supported the Sri Lankan government during the civil war with the Tamil Tigers. Despite his decision, Sethupathi’s young daughter received rape threats on Twitter—because that’s the kind of world we live in now. 

 

In happier cricket news: Shikhar Dhawan became the first person to score consecutive centuries in the history of the IPL. The Field has that story.


A mercifully fun cricket thing: Shahrukh Khan unveiled a new anthem for the Kolkata Knight Riders titled ‘Laphao’ composed by Badshah—to cheer up fans who can’t attend matches. Yes, bad Punjabi rap to ease Bengali pandemic blues.

 

Added bonus: This Rajni-themed meme dedicated to all Chennai Super Kings fans—who are far bluer after their loss to Rajasthan Royals.

 

Sanity Break #2

Sawan Dutta’s YouTube channel seamlessly combines recipes and song to deliver a truly unique and amusing experience. This one is titled ‘Kolkata Mutton Biryani’.

Smart & Curious

A list of curious facts

One: This is one of our favourites in a list of very cool maps—which teach you new things. Consider this: 50% of Canadians live below the red line in this one. We also love the Topologist's Map Of The World—which places countries solely according to their borders, irrespective of shape or size. See the rest here.

 

Two: Egyptian vintage telephone collector Hassan al-Tourky collects and restores rare telephones—and personally uses one that dates back to the 1800s.

 

Three: Grapefruit has a very strange creation story that dates back to Barbados in the mid-1600s—and is potentially dangerous for anyone taking medication. Atlas Obscura offers a fascinating long read (skip to latter bits for drug interactions which truly blew our mind).

 

Four: The best way to eat sushi is with your hands NOT chopsticks. These and other mind-blowing tips on how to sushi, courtesy Nobu’s first woman head chef, Eleni Manousou. (FYI: Nobu is a very fancy Japanese restaurant much loved by the chi-chi set).

 

Five: Even though India consumes 40% of the world’s production of hing (aka asafoetida), we don’t actually grow any of it… until now. The Print has this fascinating story.

 

Six: A new study finds that even a tiny patch of nature (i.e. little pots of plants) in your garden or balcony reduces stress and increases happiness. So what are you waiting for?

 

Seven: Finally, this is a “cosmic water spout”—created when two galaxies are slowly pulled toward each other, and one literally ‘drips’ stars into the center of the other.

 

Feel good place

Two gorgeous pics of gorgeous India

One: Marine Drive

 

Two: The Punjab border. Amritsar below, Lahore in the distance.

 

A short list of winners

One: Winner, Best Obituary.

 

Two: Winner, Best Marital Advice circa 1891: ‘Don’t Marry a Dude’.

 

Or an ‘Industrial Effluent’ circa 2020.

 

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