Good Monday morning. It’s October 26th. NASA will make a scientific announcement about the moon today at noon EDT. It will be either spectacular or a bit of an oversell on their part. Here’s hoping for the former.

Spotlight focuses this week almost entirely on the Google antitrust lawsuit. It’s the most important internet technology story of our time. Our regular sections will return next week.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,824 words — about a 7 minute read.

1. News to Know Now

a. Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on November 17 regarding the decision made by their companies to limit the spread of a conspiracy theory regarding the Biden family. (National Review)

b. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) livestreamed her Among Us gameplay on Twitch last Tuesday night and at one point reached more than 430,000 simultaneous viewers. Twitch is owned by Amazon and is an often overlooked online media channel. Nearly 40 million Americans watch Twitch streams at least once per month. (MIT Technology Review)

c. Adobe announced a number of AI features for Photoshop, Illustrator, and Premier Pro last week. Included are a sky replacement tool and skin smoothing in Photoshop and speech-to-text in Premiere Pro. (The Next Web)

2. COVID-19 Online Resources and News

Great Trackers
Johns Hopkins Dashboard or Animations
COVID-19 Forecast Hub
Google County Level Mobility Reports
Long-Term Care COVID Tracker

COVID-19 Tech News
10 Google Search Terms Help Predict COVID-19 Hot Spot – Healthcare IT
15 Year Old MA Student Creates COVID School Database – Mass Live
Colorado Rolls out Exposure Notification Program – CBS Denver
Comments Cause MO Health Dept to Stop Posting COVID Updates – KY3
Facebook Provides New Spread Prediction Maps – Social Media Today
Opinion: We Must Treat Internet as a Utility – Government Tech
Stanford Launches COVID-19 Study with At-Home Tests – Palo Alto Online
The Internet Comes for Car Salesmen – Bloomberg
This Ace Engineer Powered Amazon Through COVID – Fortune

3. Google Antitrust Lawsuit — The Facts

On October 20, the U.S. government and eleven states filed suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Their complaint is that Google maintains monopolies in providing internet search services and the advertising that appears on those services. All eleven states involved in the suit are represented by Republican attorneys general. A copy of the complaint is available here.

Google is due to respond in court by December 19. The company has already issued a statement calling the antitrust lawsuit “deeply flawed” and saying that it “[will] do nothing to help consumers.” Google also said that the suit will result in lower quality search alternatives, more difficulty in searching for information, and higher phone prices. The Google statement is here.

In a March 20 article about business monopolies, John Mayo and Mark Whitener wrote in The Washington Post, ” … the antitrust laws do not outlaw the possession of a monopoly” despite other sources claiming that monopolies are illegal. They also write that the way the monopoly is obtained and preserved is the issue, not market dominance.

The complaint addresses this issue by claiming that Google’s payments for exclusive and preferred advertising slots at companies like Apple are anti competitive. The government complaint also attacks Google’s Chrome browser, Android operating system, Play Store, and revenue sharing agreements.

4. Google Antitrust Lawsuit — The Government’s Side

Google was once a “scrappy startup” that became “the darling of Silicon Valley with an innovative way to search the emerging internet.” Today that company has a market value of more than $1 trillion and annual revenue of more than $160 billion. 

Google pays billions each year to companies including Apple, LG, Motorola, Samsung, AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Mozilla for preferred and exclusive search arrangements. The government says that Google and search are now synonymous and that Google behaves as Microsoft did in the 1990s by “shutting off distribution channels” and “making software undeletable.”

The government also contends that the scale of a search engine’s data is critical to its success..Increasing scale improves performance because it allows improved automated learning for algorithms to deliver more relevant results, particularly on “fresh” queries.  Advertisers also pay more to reach more people.

Whether through its own Chrome browser, through its Android operating system, or other channels, Google has positioned itself as a de facto default search standard. Google also practices vertical integration by building hardware that uses its software and accesses its service so that smaller companies can’t compete. Google is also positioning itself for future search opportunities in smart appliances and vehicles while refusing to allow its search products to be used in those services with competitors.

The government is seeking “structural relief as needed to cure any anticompetitive harm.”

5. Google Antitrust Lawsuit — The Company’s Side

The heart of Google’s defense right now boils down to this: any person using an internet connected device can use any search engine that they choose. The company says that it pays partners like Apple to be the search default on iPhones in the same way that a cereal company pays for premium end cap space in a grocery store. Microsoft and Yahoo also pay Apple for placement on iPhones.

Google also makes the point that PCs using Microsoft Windows come preloaded with the Microsoft Edge browser and that browser’s default search engine is Microsoft Bing. If you use a Windows PC and use Google search or Google Chrome, the company argues, it’s because you chose to use a better product and installed it in place of or in addition to the default.

The company also says that there are plenty of competitors directly in search such as Microsoft’s Bing, Yahoo, and DuckDuckGo. Google also makes a compelling argument that searching for information no longer occurs only on search engines. In that way, companies like Amazon and industry-specific companies like Yelp provide the answers to billions of queries that people previously used search engines for. The company says that Twitter is used for news, Instagram and Pinterest are used for recommendations, and that Americans can access thousands of similar services.

Google’s position during the Microsoft antitrust hearings a generation ago was that the company was the dominant technology provider. Today, it argues that Amazon, Facebook. Apple, and Microsoft have important internet companies along with Google, but no one company is dominant.

6. Google Antitrust Lawsuit — What We Think

Our disclaimer is that we’ve been locked in a predator-and-prey relationship with Google for nearly 15 years. We also remember search before Google. In the early 1990s, that meant relying on directory structures, clumsy interfaces, and missing data. The first wave of non-directory search websites had names like Hotbot, Lycos, and Dogpile. 

The suit against Google may have merits in its nuance although no private company has ever had the resources Google has to fight the government’s action. The complaint filed this week was reportedly limited in scope to only search instead of the company’s entire operation in order to offer a better chance of success. This is also the first significant government action against Google and BigTech. 

The Federal Trade Commission has not yet made a decision regarding any potential action against Facebook. In addition to FTC’s actions, other states including New York may join in the Google action or initiate broader complaints.

Washington Post op-ed writer Meghan McCardle offered an interesting take on search that we agree with, “Yet those of us who hark back to the old days, when you had to first type ‘www.google.com’ to perform a search, will recall that that’s exactly what people did, even if another search engine was the default. That’s how Google came to control over half of all searches … we have to balance the costs of Google’s monopoly to … well, to whom?”

Wired’s Steven Levy takes a flip but possibly accurate tack in addressing Google’s options. “Google could stop paying Apple, Mozilla, and others to make its search the default choice. According to Google, most people would switch away from a rival to reinstall its search engine anyway. Meanwhile, Google could be less onerous in demanding prime placement of its apps in Android phones.”

The DOJ’s suit will not change anything about search engines or how people use the internet. It won’t even change anything soon for us, and we think about and strategize about search every day. But it also hearkens to a coming wave of anti-tech company feelings that Axios has been calling a techlash for a long time. In many ways, we think that this techlash is the bigger story than what might happen to Google or Facebook five years from now. 

The comparison we believe is most apt is AT&T instead of Microsoft or IBM. The DOJ filed suit against AT&T in 1974. Eight years later, the government and AT&T agreed to a settlement that allowed its operations to be broken into seven “Baby Bells” that would provide local phone service and be free to work with any equipment manufacturer.

Billions of dollars traded hands over the next two decades until the Baby Bells reassembled themselves and technology rendered wired telephone service obsolete throughout most of the country. There is no telling what will happen to consumer internet companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple, but they won’t operate in 2028 like they do today.

7. Google Antitrust Lawsuit — Smartlinks

The U.S. government’s complaint (PDF)
Google’s public response to the lawsuit

  1. A Stew of Technology, Law, and Politics — (Columbia Journalism Review)
  2. Five Myths about Antitrust Law — (The Washington Post)
  3. Google Calls DOJ’s Lawsuit Deeply Flawed — (TechCrunch)
  4. Google Charged with Multiple Violations of Antitrust Law — (WaPo)
  5. Google Sued by U.S. for Monopoly Abuse — (AdAge)
  6. How the states fit into DOJ’s antitrust case — (Axios)
  7. The Anticlimax of the Google Antitrust Suit — (Wired)
  8. The Argument Google Can Make that Microsoft Couldn’t — (Quartz)
  9. The Government’s Case Against Google is Good — (Slate)
  10. Why the US Government is Suing Google — (Recode)
  11. Yes, Google Has a Monopoly. What’s Wrong With That? — (WaPo)

8. Coffee Break: McBroken

The percentage of broken McDonald’s ice cream machines nationwide has ticked up this weekend from 8.4% on Saturday to 10.74% on Sunday evening. There are some really ugly spot outages, though, including nearly 18% in always-warm Phoenix.

Rashiq Zahid is a smart 24-year-old who has worked for McKinsey and Microsoft. Lately, he has reverse-engineered McDonald’s public network and is placing an order worth $18,752 every minute to learn which McDonald’s locations have functioning ice cream machines.

And you’re worried about Google having a monopoly on search? Who knows how big McBroken will grow?

Scroll through the map to see for yourself.

Good Monday morning. It’s October 19th. The World Series starts Tuesday night and hopefully provides a little normalcy during this topsy-turvy time. 

Today’s Spotlight is 1,621 words — about a 6 minute read.

1. News to Know Now

a. Amazon Prime Day was a $3.5 billion event for the company’s independent third-party sellers. The company didn’t release overall sales volume although Amazon has said in the past that third party sellers account for nearly 60% of sales. The top selling items in the U.S. included automated vacuums and garage door openers, water filters, and the Kids Against Maturity card game. (Amazon)

b. More self-driving cars will be on public streets soon. Separately, Alphabet’s Waymo unit announced it will begin regular driverless taxi service in Phoenix while GM subsidiary Cruise has received permission to do the same in San Francisco. There will be no human driver acting as a safety backup in these programs. (Wired)

c. Businesses on Yelp accused of racist behavior will now be flagged by the platform. The program is part of a new initiative that also flags suspicious review activity and public threats from a business to a consumer. One issue Yelp says it experiences is an influx of noncredible reviews after a business is involved in public controversies. The new flags also suspend all new review posting. (Yelp)

2. COVID-19 Online Resources and News

Great Trackers
Johns Hopkins Dashboard or Animations
COVID-19 Forecast Hub
Google County Level Mobility Reports
Long-Term Care COVID Tracker

COVID-19 Tech News
Amazon to Launch Reserve Grocery Slots — Recode 
New Algos Help Gov’t Fight COVID Misinformation — Gov Tech
Tools to Deal with COVID Information Overload — Quartz
When False Info Goes Viral, Patient Groups Fight Back — NPR
Zoom’s Revenue Skyrockets On Pandemic Boost — Statista

3. Search Engine Optimization News

Your brand names and industry jargon may not be as prevalent as you think. One change Google announced this week is a new spelling algorithm because 10% of all search queries are misspelled.

We also learned that ranking of a passage on a webpage will be more prevalent in the future. Google says that it will rank “not just the overall page, [but] we can find that needle-in-a-haystack information.” The company says that results will improve for 7% of all search queries as a result. You may have already seen versions of this type of logic that point you to a specific moment in a video rather than the entire video. Google has been testing that functionality for months and expects it to affect 10% of searches.

Google will now also post answers from verified data sets directly in search. This program is called Data Commons and extracts facts from organizations like The World Bank or the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Google’s example: asking “how many people work in Chicago” creates this result directly in the results. Note that there are comparisons and multiple sources.

That’s a good thing for searchers, but not so good for website managers.

4. Also in the Spotlight — Disinformation Campaigns 

Big Tech critics continue accusing Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other companies of censorship, which is fair, since they are censoring content. They’re allowed to do so, and as we often say, you should ask Twitter or Facebook for a refund of your membership fees if you don’t like using them.

There is no free speech issue. These private entities are allowed to make their own rules. Break a company’s rules, and they can simply remove your content or permanently ban your account. Twitter has long been under fire for treating content on President Donald Trump’s account more leniently than other accounts. Twitter said in 2018 that blocking a world leader or removing their content would hide important information.

What few predicted was the president’s behavior in 2020. He has routinely amplified disinformation campaigns and false information that could cause harm to people or suppress votes. Politicians understand that platforms can do as they like regarding content on their site, but that hasn’t stopped Republican senators this week from calling for testimony from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. 

The president and his allies are not only amplifying disinformation campaigns, but creating their own deliberate misinformation. Presidential adviser Scott Atlas tweeted yesterday a false claim that face masks don’t prevent the spread of COVID-19. Twitter removed the information as it has removed or blocked other false claims, including when the president has touted false COVID-19 cures.

In addition to rules about false claims that can cause physical harm, the platforms also now ban explicit physical threats and hate speech. Facebook, for example, recently announced that it will no longer allow content to be posted promoting the false Q-Anon conspiracy theory or claims denying that the Holocaust occurred. 

Disinformation campaigns are growing and can be run by unethical agencies. Facebook banned an Arizona marketing firm and its political candidate CEO following a Washington Post expose about Turning Point Action. The conservative political organization hired the firm that then created hundreds of accounts and dozens of Facebook pages to function as a Donald Trump-supporting troll farm in Arizona. 

Facebook and Twitter have removed doctored video posted by the president and his allies in recent weeks, creating concerns that the period leading up to and following the presidential elections will be marred by disinformation campaigns. Facebook has taken the extreme step of halting all political and issue advocacy advertising after the polls close on Election Day. The company is also locking down advertising content beginning the week before the election and will not allow new advertising to be submitted.

Please verify everything with at least two trusted nonpartisan sources during this time when even U.S. politicians are promoting disinformation campaigns, doctored video, and false conspiracy theories. One of the most recent is a Donald Trump tweet that accused his political rival of orchestrating the murders of Navy Seal Team Six, the U.S. Special Forces troops who killed Osama bin Laden.

The president told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie about that tweet, ” … that was an opinion of somebody, and that was a retweet. I put it out there, people can decide for themselves, I don’t take a position.”

Disinformation Campaign Smartlinks
Candidate for Legislature gets suspended and firm gets banned from social media — AZ Central
Facebook bans marketing firm running ‘troll farm’ for pro-Trump youth group — The Washington Post
Facebook bans QAnon across all its platforms — Axios
Facebook removes Trump post falsely saying flu is more lethal than Covid — CNN
Facebook to ban content that denies or distorts the Holocaust — The Guardian
Facebook bans ads supporting QAnon and militarized social movements — CNBC
Trump Promotes Seal Team Six Conspiracy Theory — Snopes
Twitter Explains Why It Still Hasn’t Banned President Donald Trump — The Verge
Twitter removes tweet from top Trump Covid-19 adviser saying masks don’t work — NBC News

5. Following Up: Belarus Protesters Use AI to Identify Riot Police

We wrote about the state of law enforcement technology last month and its increasing reliance on algorithms, biometrics, and other nontraditional policing methods.

There’s news about a U.S. based digital artist who is attempting to create a facial recognition system using only a person’s eyes, which are often the only visible part of of an officer’s face behind a shield.

See it here because genies don’t go back in bottles.

6. Debugging: Go Viral Game

The University of Cambridge has a new simulator that allows you to take the reins of a social media account and attempt to go viral with disinformation campaigns.

Play for free in about 5 minutes.

7. ProTip: Fantastic Keyboard Shortcuts

This is where you fall in love with Spotlight all over again. Using a PC? Control+L sends your browser’s cursor to the address bar without you touching the mouse. Have a Mac? Substitute the Command key.

You’re welcome. Read the rest here.

8. Spotlighters Ask: Facebook Posts without Comments

Don’t forget to send us your Spotlighters Ask questions. We answer them all via email and post one each week. 

If you post on your Facebook profile or a business page, there is no way for you to stop comments although you can delete them. Facebook group administrators have some different functionality, including the ability to turn off comments for a specific post. 

A neat trick you may not know: a Facebook business page administrator can hide your comment so that it is only visible to you and people who are connected to you as a friend. Let us know if you run a Facebook page and want to learn how to do that.

Screening Room: Snickers & The First Visitors

Snickers released this hilarious spot earlier this summer, but are giving it a lot more play now. Remember: shared pain can also be comedy. 

10. Coffee Break: Pandas on the Slide

You deserve a reward after reading so much about disinformation campaigns, Enjoy these four roly-poly critters on their slide. 

It will keep looping if you’re having that kind of day.

Good Monday morning. It’s October 5th. Today is the 26th anniversary of the first World Teacher Day. Here is a PDF agenda with clickable links for the free online activities occuring all week.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,185 words — about a 4 minute read.

1. News to Know Now

a. The Russian hackers responsible for a major 2016 election disinformation campaign are now targeting conservative social media users while posing as a media outlet, according to Reuters.

b. Thousands of Tribune Publishing employees are angry after the company sent an email that said they would receive a $10,000 bonus for their hard work after they clicked a link. The link was a test to see if they would fall for a phishing attempt that had misspellings and other clues. Employees at the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, and other newspapers are livid and many noted online that the company has endured recent layoffs. Read more at The Washington Post.

c. “Alexa, join our conversation,” is a new command Amazon has introduced to reduce the number of times you have to use the activation word. Apple and Google have also already introduced their 2020 holiday product lines. CNET has coverage.

2. COVID-19 Online Resources and News

Great Trackers
COVID Tracking Project
Johns Hopkins Dashboard or Animations
COVID-19 Forecast Hub
Google County Level Mobility Reports
Long-Term Care COVID Tracker

COVID-19 Tech News
DFW Airport to Install Ultraviolet Technology — NBC Dallas
Facebook pulls Trump ads tying refugees to COVID — The Hill
Govs. Cuomo and Murphy Launch Exposure Apps — New York
Rural Schools Struggle With Distanced Learning — NPR
Website offers place to grieve COVID-19 victims — Boston 25 News

3. Search Engine Optimization News

Google confirmed Thursday that two separate indexing issues affected its database beginning September 20. One dealt with mobile-indexing and the other with different versions of the same content. We saw one website of a couple dozen we monitor have issues that pretty neatly fit this timeline.

In other words, these little mishaps you read about almost never impact your sites, but with a couple of billion pages potentially affected, it’s bound to happen sooner or later, even if many of those pages are PTA Meeting Minutes from 2014.

Changing a website’s layout can also affect rankings even if the page’s content and URLs remain the same, said Google’s John Mueller in his weekly live chat. Any changes might be positive because the new layout provides better context to the content or negative because something isn’t properly configured. Don’t forget that Google now uses page speed and factors such as how a page updates as it loads to rank that page.

4. Also in the Spotlight — Ransomware Attacks

Ransomware attacks had already hit Baltimore and Atlanta when we wrote about it last year. Small cities and organizations were also falling prey to what we called an insidious problem.

Ransomware attacks occur when hackers are able to take control of a computer system. To regain control, organizations will often pay what were once minor ransoms of several tens of thousands of dollars. Those payments can now reach several million dollars. One of the most famous ransomware attacks took place against Sony Pictures in late 2014 when salacious and embarrassing details from private emails and files were leaked by hackers believed to be sponsored by the North Korean government.

The Trump administration warned financial institutions last week that paying those ransoms may violate federal regulations related to money laundering and economic sanctions. Financial institutions are required to notify authorities if they have reason to believe that a transaction exceeding five thousand dollars is related to illegal activity.

The FBI had previously urged organizations to report all ransomware attacks while acknowledging that some entities chose to pay the ransom in order to immediately secure their data.

A ransomware attack on eResearchTechnology reported this weekend by The New York Times has slowed the clinical trials for a COVID-19 virus among others because the company sells software used in those trials. 

Researchers also learned last week that personal information about Las Vegas area students including their birth dates and grades were published online after the Clark County School District refused to pay a ransomware demand in September. Nearly 600 school districts have been attacked. Data was published online in five instances just last month.

If you run an organization, you need a computer security plan and the appropriate insurance. This problem isn’t going away soon and may now be more complicated than ever if organizations can’t simply pay after a ransomware attack.

Smartlinks
Clinical Trials Hit by Ransomware Attack — The New York Times
Ransomware Victims Could Face Steep Fines — Krebs on Security
Sony Hackers Were Causing Mayhem Years Before — Wired
Students’ Personal Data Leaked, Post-Attack — Threatpost
U. S. Warns Insurers Against Paying Ransomware — Insurance Journal

5. Following Up: Apple vs. Epic

We’ve told you about Epic Games taking on Apple over its commission requirement that 30% of all revenues generated by apps are paid to Apple (or Google for Android apps). Now there’s news that Spotify, Epic, and Match Group have formed a coalition to fight those charges.

Read about the Coalition for App Fairness.

6. Debugging: Share Verified

“This is a time for science and solidarity,” says UN Secretary-General António Guterres in a video appearing on the UN’s Share Verified website. Go there now to sign up for daily or weekly briefings with nonpartisan information about the pandemic.

Most of the world won’t allow U.S. visitors. Let’s join them in beating back the pandemic.

Sign up here

7. ProTip: Amazon Prime Credits

Next week will feature the collision of Amazon Prime Days with Walmart’s new “Big Save Event” and Target’s “Deal Days” so plan on spending quality time seeing advertisements between now and then. Meanwhile the friendly folks at Tom’s Guide have a list of Amazon Prime Day credits you can qualify for before the shopping mayhem begins.

Credits, not coupons

8. Spotlighters Ask: Are Refurbished PCs Good?

Don’t forget to send us your Spotlighters Ask questions. We answer them all via email and post one each week. 

Yes, they’re sometimes a great deal. Major manufacturers and retailers refurbish devices and sell them at substantial savings. Any of those brand-name companies is a reputable source to buy from. Likewise a local shop with a good reputation may provide even better pricing or stay on the lookout for specific device types.

This Wirecutter buying guide for used PCs is excellent.

9. Screening Room: Nike Meets eSports

Nike launched a commercial in Asia celebrating e-sports. It’s a first for them and a pretty darn goofy look at this billion dollar market.

10. Coffee Break: Threes

The best online games and time wasters are easy to learn and play in a few minutes. Or you might play a bunch of rounds during the slow part of movie. It could happen. What an addictive game.

Here’s the web version. There are also mobile versions