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Existence of Bing ‘essential’ to non-Google search engines • The Register

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Interview Four search providers – DuckDuckGo, Ecosia, Qwant, and Lilo – have penned an open letter to the European Commission claiming that Google is suppressing search engine competition.

The EU has made a number of efforts to counter Google’s search monopoly, including a July 2018 fine and ruling that the company engaged in “illegal tying of Google’s search and browser apps” and “illegal payments conditional on exclusive pre-installation of Google Search.”

Google responded with some licensing changes. In August 2019, it agreed with the EU to provide an Android Choice screen, which included selling spots on the new menu via auction – leading to participants like privacy-centric DuckDuckGo complaining that they were priced out.

Google's new Android Choice screen

Google’s new Android Choice screen

The Android Choice screen has since been revised by further agreement with the European Commission, and now features more options and free participation. The new choice screen includes up to 12 search services, with the five most popular search engines in the local country listed first, as recorded by StatCounter, and is free for search providers.

Third-party search providers are not happy. Today’s open letter [PDF] states that “despite recent changes, we do not believe it will move market share significantly.” The providers say that the new Android Choice menu is “only shown once, in a Google-designed, Google-owned onboarding process. If [users] later decide to switch defaults, they must labour through 15+ clicks or factory-reset their phone.” They also complain that Chrome desktop and other operating systems are not included, and worry that “it doesn’t apply to all search aspects points in Android.”

The providers ask that Google should be banned from having default search access points in operating systems and browsers, and ask that “consumers are able to one-click switch at any time via prompts from competing search engine apps or websites.”

Is that not a recipe for chaos, like the bad old days when users would inadvertently install new toolbars into Internet Explorer and end up with dozens of them and web browsing slowed to a crawl; or the file association wars in Windows when users would find PDF files opening in some strange new applications, because changing defaults was too easy?

“There are very few actual search companies,” said Christian Kroll, founder and CEO of German tree-planting search engine Ecosia, speaking to The Register. “It’s basically the companies that have signed the letter, plus Bing… I see there could be abuse but if you whitelist a few providers and set clear rules I think the problem can be solved.”

Kroll is also concerned that Google exploits the slow pace of the EU’s legislative process. Ecosia complained about the original Android Choice process “from the very first day when we saw the auction model, and that was more than two years go.

“In the meantime, at least one search company went bankrupt. A German company called Cliqz invested €100m into building their own search algorithm and they went bankrupt. Google playing on time is a big problem.”

Cliqz said in its farewell post last year: “We failed to convince the political stakeholders, that Europe desperately needs an own independent digital infrastructure. Here we can only hope that someone else picks up the ball… the world needs a private search engine that is not just using Bing or Google in the backend.”

In Russia, Kroll said: “Yandex went down to a 20 per cent market share. Then they had a real choice screen on a fixed date and it went back to 60 per cent. I’m not saying we should do everything like Russia does, but it shows that it can have an effect.”

Kroll’s figures do not quite match what Statcounter reports, but there was a substantial bump in Yandex share on mobile when this choice screen, placing Yandex first, was introduced.

Barriers to rivals

According to Kroll, Google puts many barriers in the way of competing search engines. On Chrome, he said, if users want Ecosia as the default search engine, “the only real way is to install an extension. You have to click many times, and if you get there, Google keeps showing warning prompts like ‘do you really want to keep this search engine?’ and they highlight the No button.

“The other thing Google is doing is whenever they don’t own an ecosystem they just pay whatever money it takes to become the default search provider. Especially Safari. $15bn. They’re paying to ensure that no other competitor can enter into the market… we’ve seen very slow momentum on the regulatory side.”

Kroll believes there should be more transparency. “Many users don’t understand how this works, that the search preinstall is an advertisement. There is no information that you are generating money for Apple.”

Is Ecosia concerned about Microsoft’s efforts to push users towards Bing by building search into the Start menu used for application launching, which is even more apparent in the new Windows 11?

“Yes, we’re concerned about all those platform things. Google would lose more users than we do, of course,” said Kroll.

Without Bing, all the non-Google engines would be screwed

There is nuance around the situation with Bing. Microsoft may be playing its own tricks to promote Bing, but without Bing there would be even less competition for Google in Europe and the USA.

“We use Bing, I think DuckDuckGo also uses Bing, but we add certain layers of information on top of it,” said Kroll.

Building a rival ecosystem to make an alternative search engine succeed “would cost billions,” he said, and “even that doesn’t guarantee that you’re successful because you still don’t have access to the market. That’s why Cliqz went bankrupt.”

Ecosia therefore has a revenue-sharing business model with Microsoft for Bing. “I’m not allowed to say how much that is,” said the Ecosia CEO.

The existence of Bing, then, is important to all these other search providers? “It’s absolutely essential, yes,” said Kroll. “There’s no independent search engine really, other than Google and Bing.”

Given the potential influence of search engines over decisions that matter, such as political questions, or the effectiveness of a COVID vaccine, are they too important to leave with commercial companies? “I absolutely agree,” said Kroll. “It’s critical infrastructure and should be treated that way. And at the moment, it isn’t.” ®

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Amazon Web Services outage hits sites and apps such as IMDb and Tinder | Amazon

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Several Amazon services – including its website, Prime Video and applications that use Amazon Web Services (AWS) – went down for thousands of users on Tuesday.

Amazon said the outage was probably due to problems related to application programming interface (API), which is a set of protocols for building and integrating application software, Reuters reported.

“We are experiencing API and console issues in the US-East-1 Region,” Amazon said in a report on its service health dashboard, adding that it had identified the cause. By late late afternoon the outage appeared to be partially resolved, with the company saying that it was “working towards full recovery”.

“With the network device issues resolved, we are now working towards recovery of any impaired services,” the company said on the dashboard.

Downdetector showed more than 24,000 incidents of people reporting problems with Amazon. It tracks outages by collating status reports from a number of sources, including user-submitted errors on its platform.

The outage was also affecting delivery operations. Amazon’s warehouse operation use AWS and experienced disruptions, spokesperson Richard Rocha told the Washington Post. A Washington state Amazon driver said his facility had been “at a standstill” since Tuesday morning, CNBC reported.

Other services, including Amazon’s Ring security cameras, mobile banking app Chime and robot vacuum cleaner maker iRobot were also facing difficulties, according to their social media pages.

Ring said it was aware of the issue and working to resolve it. “A major Amazon Web Services (AWS) outage is currently impacting our iRobot Home App,” iRobot said on its website.

Other websites and apps affected include the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), language learning provider Duolingo and dating site Tinder, according to Downdetector.

The outage also affected presale tickets for Adele’s upcoming performances in Las Vegas. “Due to an Amazon Web Services (AWS) outage impacting companies globally, all Adele Verified Fan Presales scheduled for today have been moved to tomorrow to ensure a better experience,” Ticketmaster said on Twitter.

In June, websites including the Guardian, Reddit, Amazon, CNN, PayPal, Spotify, Al Jazeera Media Network and the New York Times were hit by a widespread hour-long outage linked to US-based content delivery network provider Fastly Inc, a smaller rival of AWS.

In July, Amazon experienced a disruption in its online stores service, which lasted for nearly two hours and affected more than 38,000 users.

Users have experienced 27 outages over the past 12 months on Amazon, according to the web tool reviewing website ToolTester.



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South Korea sets reliability standards for Big Tech • The Register

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South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT has offered Big Tech some advice on how to make their services suitably resilient, and added an obligation to notify users – in Korean – when they fail.

The guidelines apply to Google, Meta (parent company of Facebook), Netflix, Naver, Kakao and Wavve. All have been told to improve their response to faults by beefing up preemptive error detection and verification systems, and create back up storage systems that enable quick content recovery.

The guidelines offer methods Big Tech can use to measure user loads, then plan accordingly to ensure their services remain available. Uptime requirements are not spelled out.

Big techs is already rather good at resilience. Google literally wrote the book on site reliability engineering.

The guidelines refer to legislation colloquially known as the “Netflix law” which requires major service outages be reported to the Ministry.

That law builds on another enacted in 2020 that made online content service providers responsible for the quality of their streaming services. It was put in place after a number of outages, including one where notifications of the problem were made on the offending company’s social media site – but only in English.

The new regulations follow South Korean telcos’ recent attempts to have platforms that guzzle their bandwidth pay for the privilege. Mobile carrier SK Broadband took legal action in October of this year, demanding Netflix pitch in some cash for the amount of bandwidth that streaming shows – such as Squid Game – consume.

In response, Netflix pointed at its own free content delivery network, Open Connect, which helps carriers to reduce traffic. Netflix then accused SK Broadband of trying to double up on profits by collecting fees from consumers and content providers at the same time.

For the record, Naver and Kakao pay carriers, while Apple TV+ and Disney+ have at the very least given lip service to the idea.

Korea isn’t the only place where telcos have noticed Big Tech taking up more than its fair share of bandwidth. The European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) published a letter from ten telco CEOs asking that larger platforms “contribute fairly to network costs”. ®

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Twitter acquires Slack competitor Quill to improve its messaging services

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As part of the acquisition, Quill will be shutting down at the end of the week as its team joins the social media company.

Twitter has acquired the messaging platform Quill, seen as a potential competitor to Slack, in order to improve its messaging tools and services.

Quill announced that it will be shutting down at the end of the week as its team joins the social media company to continue its original goal “to make online communication more thoughtful, and more effective, for everyone”.

The purchase of Quill could be linked to Twitter’s new strategy to reduce its reliance on ad revenue and attract paying subscribers.

Twitter’s general manager for core tech, Nick Caldwell, described Quill as a “fresher, more deliberate way to communicate. We’re bringing their experience and creativity to Twitter as we work to make messaging tools like DMs a more useful and expressive way people can have conversations on the service”.

Users of Quill have until 11 December to export their team message history before the servers are fully shut down at 1pm PST (9pm Irish time). The announcement has instructions for users who wish to import their chat history into Slack and states that all active teams will be issued full refunds.

The team thanked its users and said: “We can’t wait to show you what we’ll be working on next.”

Quill was launched in February with the goal to remove the overwhelming aspects of other messaging services and give users a more deliberate and focused form of online chat.

In an online post, Quill creator Ludwig Pettersson said: “We started Quill to increase the quality of human communication. Excited to keep doing just that, at Twitter.”

The company became a potential competitor for Slack, which was bought by Salesforce at the end of 2020 for $27.7bn. The goal of that acquisition was to combine Salesforce’s CRM platform with Slack’s communications tools to create a unified service tailored to digital-led teams around the world.

Last week, Salesforce announced the promotion of Bret Taylor to vice-chair and co-CEO, just days after he was appointed independent chair of Twitter after CEO Jack Dorsey stepped down.

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