Weekend news roundup

3 May 2011

In our trawl of the weekend papers, we look at the FTC’s plan to investigate Google’s alleged dominance of the search business and how location information is a major prize for technology giants

FTC investigates Google’s dominance of search business

The Financial Times reported that the US Federal Trade Commission has approached other internet companies to ask about Google’s dominance of the internet search business, according to two people familiar with the situation.

The signal that the regulators may be weighing a fuller antitrust investigation of the search group came late this week, these people said.

Though short of a formal approach, the FTC’s decision to show its hand appeared to offer the clearest sign yet that US regulators are considering following their European counterparts in launching a broader investigation into the internet company. The Texas attorney-general has also begun an inquiry.

Apple’s Chinese workforce problem won’t go away

The Guardian carried a story on how Apple factories are accused of exploiting Chinese workers. Poorly paid workers are said to work excessive hours and suffer humiliations in the drive to produce iPads and iPhones.

The spate of suicides made headlines around the world. Last May, seven young Chinese workers producing Apple iPads for consumers across the globe took their own lives, prompting an investigation into working conditions at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, southern China.

Nine Chinese sociologists wrote an open letter to the media calling for an end to regimented and restrictive work practices which they condemned as “a model where fundamental human dignity is sacrificed for development”.

One year on, swaths of anti-suicide netting surround the huge worker dormitories in Shenzhen. But an investigation by two NGOs reveals that many workers making iPhones and iPads for eager world markets are exploited and living a dismal life.

Google wants to manage the world’s location data

The San Jose Mercury News reported at the weekend on emails that illustrated how valuable location data is to the future of internet giants. It said Google CEO Larry Page’s email was terse – “Can I get a response on this?” – but the scramble it set off among top Google executives on a Saturday afternoon in 2010 illustrates the critical importance of the data smartphones use to track their location.

With obvious concern, Page had pasted an article in the email saying Motorola planned to use a competitor’s location services – not Google’s – in its Android phones. A detailed memo quickly came back to Page. In it, Android chief Andy Rubin and other Google executives emphasised that collecting location data from consumers’ smartphones was “extremely valuable to Google,” and detailed the trouble the company was having with data collection in the wake of a privacy blowup involving Google’s Street View cars.

The double agent in your pocket

The Telegraph had an interesting piece on how the Apple location row exposes smartphones as double agents. Smartphone makers are presenting users with a dilemma over privacy and location services.

According to Steve Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, the controversy of the last two weeks over the way the iPhone has been logging users’ movements was the result of a software “bug” and public misunderstanding.

But the attention garnered by the issue means that despite the deployment of Jobs’ famed “reality distortion field” – the facetious term given in technology circles to his uncanny ability to deflect criticism – many more smartphone owners understand that the device in their pocket can act as a double agent. As well as delivering information to them, it can collect information about them.

Jobs was responding to the work of two British researchers, Alisdair Allen and Pete Warden. Tinkering with their iPhones’ mapping capabilities, they found a log file that contained co-ordinates based on which mobile phone masts are nearest, along with time stamps, allowing them to plot their own movements going back a year.

Such a record, stored on both the iPhone and its associated computer, would be invaluable to a jealous spouse or a snooping employer. It was quickly found the data was also being sent back to Apple.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years