Google AI scientist Bengio resigns: Colleagues’ firings

(Reuters) – Google research manager Samy Bengio is resigning in the wake of the firings of two colleagues who had questioned paper review and diversity practices at the Alphabet Inc unit, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday, citing an internal memo.

Though at least two Google engineers had earlier resigned in protest of Gebru’s firing, Bengio is the highest-profile departure yet.

Google and Bengio did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A distinguished scientist at Google, Bengio spent about 14 years at the company and was among its first employees involved in a decade-old project known as Google Brain that advanced algorithms crucial to the functioning of various modern artificial intelligence systems.

Google fired staff scientist Margaret Mitchell in February after alleging she transferred electronic files out of the company, and also fired fellow researcher Timnit Gebru in December after she threatened to quit rather than retract a paper.

Mitchell has said she tried “to raise concerns about race and gender inequity, and speak up about Google’s problematic firing of Dr. Gebru.” Gebru has said the company wanted to suppress her criticism of its products and its efforts to increase workforce diversity.

Bengio had defended the pair, who co-led a team of about a dozen researching ethical issues related to AI software. In December, Bengio said on Facebook that he was stunned that Gebru, whom he was managing, was removed from the company without his being consulted prior.

Remote working: Is Big Tech going off work from home?

On Wednesday last week, Google’s Fiona Cicconi wrote to company employees.

She announced that Google was bringing forward its timetable of moving people back into the office.

As of 1 September, she said, employees wishing to work from home for more than 14 days would have to apply to do so

Employees were also expected to “live within commuting distance” of offices. No cocktails by the beach with a laptop, then.

The intention was very clear. Sure, you can do more flexible working than you did before – but most people will still have to come into the office. 

That thinking seemed to fly in the face of much of what we heard from Silicon Valley executives last year, when they championed the virtues of remote working. 

For example, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey made headlines across the world last May, when he said “Twitter employees can now work from home forever”. 

It was speculated that after Covid, the “new normal” for Silicon Valley might be a workforce heavily geared around remote working, with tech companies needing only minimal staff on-site. 

It’s increasingly looking like that’s not going to happen. 

And if you really look at the statements made by tech bosses, some of the nuances were skirted over by the press.

For example, when Mr Dorsey said employees could work at home “forever”, he added: “If our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home.” 

That was a pretty important “if”. 

And in fact, Twitter has clarified that it expects a majority of its staff to spend some time working from home and some time working in the office. 

Pretty much every Silicon Valley tech firm has said that it is now committed to “flexible” or “hybrid” working. 

The problem is those terms can mean almost anything. 

Is that Fridays off? Or a completely different working relationship with a brick-and-mortar office? 

A man carries a laptop bag and a medical mask to work

Microsoft envisages “‘working from home part of the time (less than 50%) as standard for most roles” in the future. 

There is a lot of room for manoeuvre in the words “less than 50%”. 

Amazon also issued a statement to employees last week saying: “Our plan is to return to an office-centric culture as our baseline. We believe it enables us to invent, collaborate, and learn together most effectively.” 

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the new work-from-home age, then. 

Part of the hesitancy is that although many employees want more flexibility, it’s still not at all clear what kind of model works for the companies. 

“None of us have this all figured out,” said Carolyn Everson, vice-president of Facebook’s global business group, when talking about current work-from-home arrangements.

“We are making this up on the fly.”

Remotely attractive

Harvard Business School professor and remote working advocate Prithwiraj Choudhury says that tech companies have long been at the vanguard of remote working.

“The early adopters and the companies that are embracing this model and building the organisation around that remote work model will have a huge advantage in attracting talent”, he says. 

That is certainly the hope. 

No tech business wants to lose able employees to rivals who will allow them to work more flexibly. 

Companies like Spotify now appear to have some of the most “flexible” working practices for its staff. 

In a recent statement it said: “Our employees will be able to work full time from home, from the office, or a combination of the two. 

“The exact mix of home and office work mode is a decision each employee and their manager make together.”

But it did add: “There are likely to be some adjustments to make along the way.” 

So Spotify’s definition of flexible working is very different to Google’s, which in turn is very different to Amazon’s. 

Young office workers masked up look at their laptops in an office setting

Working from home while there is no office open is one thing. But remote working’s biggest test is going to be when the office starts opening up – let’s say at 50% capacity. 

When meetings are being held partially in person and partially on Zoom, is the dynamic going to work quite so well? 

And when some team members develop face-to-face, in-person relationships with managers, will remote workers feel disadvantaged? 

Last week, IBM announced its proposed system of remote working, with 80% of the workforce working at least three days a week in the office. 

“When people are remote I worry about what their career trajectory is going to be,” said IBM chief executive Arvind Krishna.

“If they want to become a people manager, if they want to get increasing responsibilities, or if they want to build a culture within their teams, how are we going to do that remotely?” he asked.

Tantalisingly, we are about to find out what works and what doesn’t, because there are so many differing approaches being taken by tech companies. 

And like so much of modern day life, other businesses are looking over at the west coast of America to see what’s working here – and what isn’t.

Source: BBC

Google to reopen offices

Google has said staff can start returning to its US offices over the next month, as its prepares for post-pandemic life.

The company said the initial return period will be voluntary as offices slowly reopen with limited capacity.

Google has an official 1 September deadline for staff to return to its offices.

The tech giant was one of the first companies to offer working from home when the pandemic struck last year.

“It’s now been a year since many of us have been working from home, and the thought of returning to the office might inspire different emotions,” Fiona Cicconi, Google’s head of people operations, wrote in a company email on Wednesday. 

When staff are required to officially return to Google’s offices in September, they “won’t look exactly the way you remember them” but “will include meals, snacks and amenities where possible,” she added.

“We will even be welcoming our Dooglers back,” Ms Cicconi said, referring to Google’s bring-your-dog-to-work group. There is now a dog park at its Mountain View campus called The Doogleplex.

The company is advising workers to get vaccinated against Covid-19, but is not making it mandatory for returning to the workplace.

Google dog
image captionOso the Doogler

Different approach

Google is taking a different approach from its tech rivals who have said most staff can continue remote work indefinitely. Twitter has said it will allow most employees to work from home permanently.

A number of big companies have said they will test so-called hybrid work arrangements, where employees split their time between home and office.

“None of us have this all figured out,” said Carolyn Everson, vice president of Facebook’s global business group when talking about current work-from-home arrangements.

“We are making this up on the fly. The reality is we are all trying to figure it out together,” the senior executive told a panel hosted by Bloomberg.

Facebook will start to reopen its Silicon Valley offices at the beginning in May, after more than a year of working from home during the global pandemic.

Its largest offices won’t reach 50% capacity until early September, it said.

Google says ‘not up to us’ to dictate how news companies spend its $1 billion

(Reuters) – Alphabet Inc’s Google has reached licensing deals with over 600 news outlets around the world and is seeing a “huge increase” in users requesting more content from specific publications as part of a new program, it said on Wednesday.

The update comes as big internet service providers including Facebook Inc have been locked in bitter disputes over fair compensation to publishers.

Google is continuing to negotiate with additional publishers, including in the Unites States, to spend $1 billion for what it calls News Showcase.

The program through 2023 is Google’s biggest effort to invest in an industry that blames tech giants for siphoning its advertising revenue. Combined, Facebook and Google control over half of the digital advertising market.

Google is exercising little oversight over publishers’ use of the money.

“The intention of our payment is to help make it easier for publishers to be able to participate in the program,” Brad Bender, a vice president at Google overseeing News Showcase, told Reuters. “But ultimately it’s in service of creating this more sustainable future for news.”

But Google’s hesitance to hold publishers accountable for generating business results with the funds leaves questions about whether the media industry will at last turn a corner after several attempts by tech companies to provide support and improve its outlook.

“It’s not up to us to tell a news publisher how to run their business,” Google said.

Bender expressed optimism, though, about News Showcase steering publishers toward a brighter future and said the company would support the program beyond the initial $1 billion.

“We’re committed to being part of the solution,” he said.

Publishers from a dozen countries have agreed to license content, Google plans to say in a blog post on Wednesday. Users can see the content in Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Britain, with Italy joining Wednesday.

In February, Google said “well over” 500 publishers had signed deals.

Google’s lone requirement for funding recipients is that they provide a specified amount of content per day, Bender said. The funding helps publishers staff journalists to arrange the content, known as panels, which are then featured in Google’s News and Discover apps, Bender said.

Users can “follow” publishers to get more panels from them. Publishers including The Financial Times and The Canberra Times collectively are generating 7,000 panels per day and users have registered 200,000 follows, Google plans to announce.

The option to select more content from some publishers had existed in Google’s News tool earlier, but follows from News Showcase panels in the countries where they are available now represent a double-digit percentage of all follows, Google said.

Over time, Google hopes publishers can turn followers into paying subscribers or get a sales boost from increased viewership of ad-supported content.

Reuters has reported fees for individual publishers in France range from as large as $1.3 million for newspaper Le Monde to $13,741 for local publisher La Voix de la Haute Marne.

Google declined to comment on commercial terms in France or elsewhere.

Bender acknowledged Google in designing the new program had not consulted with unions and other organizations representing journalists, many of which in the United States have criticized private equity funds for buying media companies, slashing costs and weakening content.

Ensuring that Google’s funding grows newsrooms and not owners’ pocketbooks is a conversation journalists’ groups should have with publishers, Google said.

Google, like with other news-related features, said it has no plans to generate revenue from News Showcase.

Google to contribute $29 million to new EU fund to fight fake news

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -Alphabet unit Google will contribute 25 million euros ($29.3 million) to the newly set up European Media and Information Fund to combat fake news, the company said on Wednesday, amid criticism tech giants are not doing enough to debunk online disinformation.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. election last year spurred a massive spike in misinformation, with some blaming social media for not being more proactive in tackling the issue while regulators have indicated they may take action via heavy-handed restrictions.

The European Media and Information Fund, launched by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the European University Institute last week, aims to enlist researchers, fact-checkers, not-for-profits and other public interest-oriented bodies to help in the fight against fake news.

“While navigating the uncertainty and challenges of the last year, it has proven more important than ever for people to access accurate information, and sort facts from fiction,” Matt Brittin, head of Google’s EMEA Business & Operations, said in a blog post.

The fund has a duration of five years. The European Digital Media Observatory, which is a European Commission project set up last year and whose members include fact checkers and academic researchers, will evaluate and select the projects.

($1 = 0.8531 euros)

Facebook, Google plan new undersea cables to connect Southeast Asia and America

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Facebook said on Monday it planned two new undersea cables to connect Singapore, Indonesia and North America in a project with Google and regional telecommunication companies to boost internet connection capacity between the regions.Slideshow ( 2 images )

“Named Echo and Bifrost, those will be the first two cables to go through a new diverse route crossing the Java Sea and they will increase overall subsea capacity in the trans-pacific by about 70%,” Facebook Vice President of Network Investments, Kevin Salvadori, told Reuters.

He declined to specify the size of the investment, but said it was “a very material investment for us in Southeast Asia.”

The cables, according to the executive, will be the first to directly connect North America to some of the main parts of Indonesia, and will increase connectivity for the central and eastern provinces of the world’s fourth most populous country.

Salvadori said “Echo” is being built in partnership with Alphabet’s Google and Indonesian telecommunications’ company XL Axiata and should be completed by 2023.

Bifrost, which is being done in partnership with Telin, a subsidiary of Indonesia’s Telkomsel, and Singaporean conglomerate Keppel is due to be completed by 2024.

The two cables, which will need regulatory approval, follow previous investments by Facebook to build up connectivity in Indonesia, one of its top five markets globally.

While 73% of Indonesia’s population of 270 million are online, the majority access the web through mobile data, with less than 10 percent using a broadband connection, according to a 2020 survey by the Indonesian Internet Providers Association.

Swathes of the country, remain without any internet access.

Facebook said last year it would deploy 3,000 km (1,8641 miles) of fibre in Indonesia across twenty cities in addition to a previous deal to develop public Wi-Fi hot spots.

Aside from the Southeast Asian cables, Facebook was continuing with its broader subsea plans in Asia and globally, including with the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN), Salvadori said.

“We are working with partners and regulators to meet all of the concerns that people have, and we look forward to that cable being a valuable, productive transpacific cable going forward in the near future,” he said.

The 12,800 km PLCN, which is being funded by Facebook and Alphabet, had met U.S government resistance over plans for a Hong Kong conduit. It was originally intended to link the United States, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Facebook said earlier this month it would drop efforts to connect the cable between California and Hong Kong due to “ongoing concerns from the U.S. government about direct communication links between the United States and Hong Kong”.

Google signs news content deals with Italian publishers

Alphabet Inc’s Google has sealed its first licence agreements in Italy with several publishers to offer access to some of their content on the U.S. tech group’s Showcase news platform.

Google News Showcase is a global product to pay news publishers for their content online and a new service that allows partnering publishers to curate content and provide limited access to paywalled stories for users.

Showcase is expected to launch in Italy in the coming weeks, a media representative for Google in Italy told Reuters.

News publishers have long fought the world’s most popular internet search engine for compensation for using their content, with European media groups leading the charge.

Google said in October it planned to pay $1 billion to publishers globally for their news over the next three years via Showcase, which will launch first in Germany, then in Belgium, India, the Netherlands and other countries.

Google’s agreements were signed with a number of Italian publishers, including RCS Mediagroup, which publishes daily Corriere della Sera as well as popular sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport, the publisher of financial daily Il Sole 24 ore and Caltagirone editore, which owns Rome-based paper Il Messaggero.

No financial details were disclosed.

The accords involve 13 Italian editorial companies, giving Google Showcase users access to content from 76 national and local papers.

The U.S. tech group has sealed similar deals with other news outlets around the world, including in Germany, Brazil and in Britain.

“We are pleased to have reached this agreement which, by also regulating the issue of related rights, recognises the importance of quality information and the authority of our publications,” RCS Chief Executive Urbano Cairo said in a statement.

RCS said the deal with Google also included the Spanish-language papers owned by the group – El Mundo, Marca and Expansion.

The accord could potentially pave the way for a resumption of the U.S. company’s news service in Spain, which was shut down in 2014 in response to legislation which meant it had to pay a mandatory collective licensing fee to re-publish headlines or snippets of news.

Authorities around the world have been introducing rules to require Google, Facebook and others to share revenue with publishers, including a 2019 directive from Brussels which European Union countries are meant to enact into law by June.

Both Italy and Spain still have to implement the new EU rules.

“We hope parliament will address the issue soon”, Fabrizio Carotti, general director at Italy’s news publisher business lobby FIEG told Reuters.

“In our view, the law should give the national competition regulator the power to determine the criteria to establish how much online platforms have to pay for content in case of no agreement with publishers, helping editorial companies in their negotiations”, Carotti said.

YouTube will recommend products shown in videos

YouTube will detect items shown in videos and generate a list of related products to buy.

Automated suggestions will appear as viewers scroll on the platform.

The technology will allow users to identify products that appear in the video and search for related content on the video site.

The feature is currently being tested on some users in the US only – but experts say it could bring “huge” change to the advertising industry.

“We are experimenting with a new feature that displays a list of products detected in some videos, as well as related products,” YouTube said

“The goal is to help people explore more videos and information about those products on YouTube.”

An image of what the feature could look like from a YouTube blog post this year
image captionAn image of what the feature could look like, from a YouTube blog post this year

With a “top-10 smartphones in 2020” video, for example, “some viewers will see an icon on the video, along with more information below, listing the phone models included in the video”.

“From there, viewers can explore each product’s page to see more information, related videos, and purchase options for that product,” YouTube added.

It began testing the Products in this Video feature in April last year. 

The auto-detection will also recommend videos by other creators on the platform that feature the products.

“The YouTube algorithm already does a fairly solid job of auto-detecting just what content you’ve been watching and serving up related videos – but this feels more aimed toward the kind of content that people watch as pre-research before making a purchase,” technology news website 9to5google said. 

‘End of advertising’

Brand designer Studio LWD founder Laura Weldon said: “This could be huge, giving [YouTube owner] Google a large piece of the affiliate-link market that works so well on Instagram and could potentially put them in the same shopping space.

“It will also mean that videos can be easily commercialised, which gives huge potential for small businesses as they can easily upload various videos of their products and then the viewer can buy.

“If this takes off, it could possibly signal the end of traditional advertising as we know it.”

Beauty communications agency Seen Group strategy director Natasha Hulme said: “Beauty consumers looking for product reviews and advice use YouTube like a search engine as well as for entertainment.

“This new feature could make it easier for beauty buyers to find products being recommended by beauty creators and make it less likely that products will get missed in content.”

And the technology could extend beyond reviews to more creative applications, for example finding out the make-up used in a music video, she suggested.

By Cristina Criddle
Technology reporter

Google payments chief quits after 15 years at company

(Reuters) – Senior Google executive Caesar Sengupta, head of the tech giant’s payment initiatives, said on Monday he was leaving the company next month, after 15 years.

“I remain very positive about Google’s future but it’s time for me to see if I can ride without training wheels,” Sengupta, vice president and general manager of payments and the ‘Next Billion Users’ initiative, said in a LinkedIn post here.

He was also one of the key people behind the launch and success of Google Pay in India and helped the payment app’s relaunch in the U.S. and Singapore. The payment facility is now used by over 150 million users in 30 countries.

“My last day at Google will be April 30th. I haven’t decided what I will start next,” said Sengupta, who is based in Singapore.

“…Through his time at Google, Caesar has played a key role in starting, building and leading initiatives such as ChromeOS, Next Billion Users and Google Pay. We are excited to see what he builds next and wish him the best in his new journey,” a Google Spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

BoE governor wants UK bill to make Google tackle online scams: Sunday Times

LONDON (Reuters) – Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey has been lobbying the British government to introduce a legal requirement for internet giants such as Google to take down financial fraud websites, according to a report in the Sunday Times.

The report said Bailey had been lobbying Home Secretary Priti Patel, the interior minister, about the issue, asking for the measure to be added to an Online Harms Bill expected to be put before parliament this year.

A Bank of England spokeswoman said the central bank did not comment on private meetings and therefore would not say whether Bailey had spoken to Patel about the issue or not.

She said the governor had been on the record several times saying the Online Harms Bill should be extended to cover financial services.

However, the spokeswoman said the topic fell under the remit of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) rather than the Bank of England, and it was for the FCA to make policy in this area. Bailey was head of the FCA before he took the helm at the bank.

As things stand, the Online Harms Bill would force Internet giants to tackle problems such as online child grooming and terrorism, but not financial fraud which has boomed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Critics accuse Google of benefiting from fraud because companies or individuals seeking to advertise dubious get-rich-quick schemes or other scams can pay the web giant for prominent slots in search results, the Sunday Times reported.

Google says it takes down scam websites when notified, and has in the past blamed poor guidance from regulators for difficulties in implementing rules about fraud.

According to a media report from January 2020, flagged up by the Bank of England spokeswoman, Bailey, then still at the FCA, had said in private emails that companies using Google were able to get around rules supposed to prevent mis-selling.