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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

European Commission launches antitrust probe into alleged Google abuses

The European Commission has launched an investigation into Google after other search engines complained that the firm had abused its dominant position.

The EC will examine whether the world's largest search engine penalised competing services in its results.

The probe follows complaints by firms including price comparison site Foundem and legal search engine

Google denies the allegations but said it would work with the Commission to "address any concerns".

Earlier this year the attorney general of Texas launched a similar investigation following complaints from firms including Foundem.

The objections in both cases are from competitors which allege that Google manipulates its search results.

"The European Commission has decided to open an antitrust investigation into allegations that Google has abused a dominant position in online search," the body said in a statement.

It said the action followed "complaints by search service providers about unfavourable treatment of their services in Google's unpaid and sponsored search results coupled with an alleged preferential placement of Google's own services."
The Commission's investigation does not imply any wrongdoing by Google.

"Since we started, Google we have worked hard to do the right thing by our users and our industry," said the firm in a statement.

"But there's always going to be room for improvement, and so we'll be working with the Commission to address any concerns."
Google offers two types of search result - unpaid results produced by the firm's algorithms that are displayed in the main body of the page and "ads", previously called sponsored links.

The investigation will try to determine whether the firm's method of generating unpaid results adversely affects the ranking of other firms, specifically those providing so-called vertical search services.

These are specialist search providers, and can include sites that offer price comparison, for example.

Foundem alleges that Google's algorithms "remove legitimate sites from [its] natural search results, irrespective of relevance". It also says that the firm promotes its own services over those offered by competitors.

"Google is exploiting its dominance of search in ways that stifle innovation, suppress competition, and erode consumer choice," Foundem said in its complaint filed in February 2010.

But Google argues that there are "compelling reasons" why these sites are "ranked poorly".

For example, it said, Foundem "duplicates 79% of its website content from other sites."

"We have consistently informed webmasters that our algorithms disadvantage duplicate sites," the firm said.

The Commission will also look into allegations that Google manipulated elements of its system that determine the price paid for ads from these sites.

Finally, the investigation will also probe how the company deals with advertising partners.

Advertising is the core of Google's business.

Google is alleged to impose "exclusivity obligations on advertising partners, preventing them from placing certain types of competing ads on their web sites, as well as on computer and software vendors," according to an EC statement.

In addition, the EC said it would also look into "suspected restrictions on the portability of online advertising campaign data to competing online advertising platforms."

Google says it already allows customers "to take their data with them when they switch services" and that its contracts "have never been exclusive".

Friday, November 26, 2010

Second Hand Knickers

Market traders in Ghana will be banned from selling second-hand underwear from next February, trade regulators say.

According to the Ghana Standards Board, used pants - and other second-hand goods like handkerchiefs and mattresses - are unhygienic and could pose a health hazard.

The importation of these items was banned in 1994 but never implemented.

Some traders in a market in the capital, Accra, told the BBC they were unhappy the move might affect business.

The BBC's David Amanor in the city says there is a lot of consumer demand for second-hand clothing, often imported from Europe, as it is cheaper than locally produced items.

It is the same in many African countries.

Monday, November 15, 2010

US households short of food

Almost 15% of US households experienced a food shortage at some point in 2009, a government report has found.

US authorities say that figure is the highest they have seen since they began collecting data in the 1990s, and a slight increase over 2008 levels.

Single mothers are among the hardest hit: About 3.5 million said they were at times unable to put sufficient food on the table.

Hispanics and African Americans also suffer disproportionately.

The food security report is the result of an annual survey conducted by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Households deemed "food insecure" experienced a period of inadequate food supply as a result of their economic situation, but did not necessarily remain without sufficient food for the entire year.

Although the number of food insecure households has risen sharply since the recession, the USDA says the growth rate has slowed, particularly toward the end of 2009.

The BBC's Katie Connolly, in Washington, says the results will be seen as somewhat surprising in a developed country that is also facing the problem of rising obesity rates.
Almost 60% of those experiencing food shortages were eligible for assistance to purchase food through a government food stamps program.
food security graph

Since the recession, the Obama administration has expanded food stamp funding. In 2009, around 34 million Americans participated in food stamp programs each month.
Among those categorized as having "very low food security" - that is, those who experience the most severe food shortages - 28% of adults said that there were times in 2009 when they did not eat for an entire day because they could not afford to buy food.

Ninety-seven percent reported either skipping a meal or cutting the size of their meal for the same reason.

The report says that children in low food security households are often shielded from such behaviour by adults.
The prevalence of food insecurity has placed increased pressure on soup kitchens and community organizations to provide for the poor.

But Jeannine Sanford, the Deputy Director for Washington DC food pantry Bread For The City, warned against assuming that the problem of hunger would be alleviated when the recession ends because there are some groups whose conditions are virtually unaffected by the bad economy.
With its plethora of government jobs, Washington DC has not been as badly hit by the recession as other cities. Still, its soup kitchens and community organizations are struggling to keep up with demand - as they have been for some time.

Washington has long had a relatively large population of underprivileged people in need of assistance.

Ms Sanford says that the number of hungry people seeking help obtaining food has not changed much during the recession. Most of the people who come to her organization are the elderly, the disabled or those in minimum wage jobs who live well below the poverty line.

These people tend to live on fixed incomes, and have little hope of their income improving when the economy rebounds.
There were poor people in DC before the recession, and they will still be poor and need help when it is over, she says.

"The nature of receiving disability (welfare) is that the person is permanently disabled," Ms Sanford told the BBC. "It's not like the economy changes and that changes for them. They're still going to be trying to struggle on a really limited amount of income."

Facebook ready to launch Gmail rival

Facebook is expected to launch a new messaging system seen as a challenge to Google's Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail.

The giant social network - which boasts more than 500 million users worldwide - will host a special event in San Francisco on Monday.

Unconfirmed reports suggest Facebook could announce its own e-mail address - - or even a fully-fledged web-based e-mail system.

Google-Facebook rivalry has increased recently amid a series of disputes.

Google has banned Facebook from importing its users' e-mail contacts, a move it says it made because Facebook refused to allow the export of contact and friend data from within user profiles.

In reply, Facebook enabled a workaround that let users save their Google contacts to their computers before importing them into Facebook.

According to a report on popular technology blog Techcrunch, Facebook's new venture - codenamed Project Titan - is being dubbed a "Gmail killer".

It suggests that Facebook is preparing to unveil a fully-fledged e-mail service.

Facebook's 500 million-strong user base means that any e-mail system it runs could quickly dwarf other major players in the market, including AOL, Hotmail and Yahoo as well as Google.
Techcrunch also suggests that Facebook's wealth of information on users - from event planning, to their likes and even the frequency with which they interact with other users - could be used to make the e-mail service an irresistible proposition.

But little is known for sure, and it is also possible that the new system could be a revamped messaging service only available for Facebook users.

Facebook has made no comment on the report, and will brief the press in San Francisco on Monday at 1000 (1800 GMT).

Facebook's huge user base is seen as a potential treasure trove of information, especially for advertisers.magg
Analysts say the social networking firm, founded by Mark Zuckerberg, is becoming an increasingly powerful rival to Google because of the loyalty of its user base.

Facebook users willingly provide reams of private and personal information, as well as interacting constantly with friends, applications and organisations through the Facebook platform.

Jesus Diaz of technology blog Gizmodo said that while Google had the most to be concerned about, other e-mail providers would also be worried.

"If I were Google, Yahoo or Hotmail, I'd be very nervous," he told the BBC.

"Facebook Mail could be a killer, not only because of its potential instant size but because of its natural advantage at making mail more useful."

While it has struck a deal with Microsoft to allow user data to power its Bing search engine, it has made no such arrangement with rival Google.

Google insists it believes in open-sharing of information, and stopped Facebook mining Gmail for contact information because Facebook itself was keeping contact information private.

The companies have also become bitter rivals offline as well as online, with Facebook's reportedly offering Google engineers lucrative deals to defect across Silicon Valley.
Last week, Google awarded staff a 10% pay rise and will pay employees more of their total package through salaries instead of bonuses.

Analysts said this move was partly influenced by a desire to hold onto staff being wooed by Facebook.


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