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Facebook’s use of ad data triggers antitrust probes in UK and EU

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Facebook is facing a fresh pair of antitrust probes in Europe.

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the EU’s Competition Commission both announced formal investigations into the social media giant’s operations today — with what’s likely to have been co-ordinated timing.

The competition regulators will scrutinize how Facebook uses data from advertising customers and users of its single sign-on tool — specifically looking at whether it uses this data as an unfair lever against competitors in markets such as classified ads.

The pair also said they will seek to work closely together as their independent investigations progress.

With the UK outside the European trading bloc (post-Brexit), the national competition watchdog has a freer rein to pursue investigations that may be similar to or overlap with antitrust probes the EU is also undertaking.

And the two Facebook investigations do appear similar on the surface — with both broadly focused on how Facebook uses advertising data. (Though outcomes could of course differ.)

The danger for Facebook, here, is that a higher dimension of scrutiny will be applied to its business as a result of dual regulatory action — with the opportunity for joint working and cross-referencing of its responses (not to mention a little investigative competition between the UK and the EU’s agencies).

The CMA said it’s looking at whether Facebook has gained an unfair advantage over competitors in providing services for online classified ads and online dating through how it gathers and uses certain data.

Specifically, the UK’s regulator said it’s concerned that Facebook might have gained an unfair advantage over competitors providing services for online classified ads and online dating.

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Facebook plays in both spaces of course, via Facebook Marketplace and Facebook Dating respectively.

In a statement on its action, CMA CEO, Andrea Coscelli, said: “We intend to thoroughly investigate Facebook’s use of data to assess whether its business practices are giving it an unfair advantage in the online dating and classified ad sectors. Any such advantage can make it harder for competing firms to succeed, including new and smaller businesses, and may reduce customer choice.”

The European Commission’s investigation will — similarly — focus on whether Facebook violated the EU’s competition rules by using advertising data gathered from advertisers in order to compete with them in markets where it is active.

Although it only cites classified ads as its example of the neighbouring market of particular concern for its probe.

The EU’s probe has another element, though, as it said it’s also looking at whether Facebook ties its online classified ads service to its social network in breach of the bloc’s competition rules.

In a separate (national) action, Germany’s competition authority opened a similar probe into Facebook tying Oculus to use of a Facebook account at the end of last year. So Facebook now has multiple antitrust probes on its plate in Europe, adding to its woes from the massive states antitrust lawsuit filed against it on home turf also back in December 2020.

“When advertising their services on Facebook, companies, which also compete directly with Facebook, may provide it commercially valuable data. Facebook might then use this data in order to compete against the companies which provided it,” the Commission noted in a press release.

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“This applies in particular to online classified ads providers, the platforms on which many European consumers buy and sell products. Online classified ads providers advertise their services on Facebook’s social network. At the same time, they compete with Facebook’s own online classified ads service, ‘Facebook Marketplace’.”

The Commission added that a preliminary investigation it already undertook has raised concerns Facebook is distorting the market for online classified ads services. It will now take an in-depth look in order to make a full judgement on whether the social media behemoth is breaking EU competition rules.

Commenting in a statement, EVP Margrethe Vestager, who also heads up competition policy for the bloc, added: “Facebook is used by almost 3 billion people on a monthly basis and almost 7 million firms advertise on Facebook in total. Facebook collects vast troves of data on the activities of users of its social network and beyond, enabling it to target specific customer groups. We will look in detail at whether this data gives Facebook an undue competitive advantage in particular on the online classified ads sector, where people buy and sell goods every day, and where Facebook also competes with companies from which it collects data. In today’s digital economy, data should not be used in ways that distort competition.”

Reached for comment on the latest European antitrust probes, Facebook sent us this statement:

“We are always developing new and better services to meet evolving demand from people who use Facebook. Marketplace and Dating offer people more choices and both products operate in a highly competitive environment with many large incumbents. We will continue to cooperate fully with the investigations to demonstrate that they are without merit.”

Up til now, Facebook has been a bit of a blind spot for the Commission’s competition authority — with multiple investigations and enforcements chalked up by the bloc against other tech giants, such as (most notably) Google and Amazon.

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But Vestager’s Facebook ‘dry patch’ has now formally come to an end. (The EU’s informal investigation into Facebook Marketplace had been ongoing since March 2019.)

The CMA, meanwhile, is working on wider pro-competition regulatory reforms aimed squarely at tech giants like Facebook and Google under a UK plan to clip the wings of the adtech duopoly.

TechCrunch

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Amazon’s AWS logs third outage this month, affecting Slack, Epic Games Store, Asana and more

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Amazon’s crucial web services business AWS is experiencing problems today, with issues affecting services like Slack, Imgur, and the Epic Games store for some users. It’s not looking good if you’re working from home, with some Slack users unable to view or upload images, and work management tool Asana also hit by the outages. As of 6:13 AM PST, Amazon said it had restored power to affected servers, but users may still experience issues going forward.

In an incident update, Slack said its services were “experiencing issues with file uploads, message editing, and other services.” Asana said the problems constituted a “major outage,” with “many of our users unable to access Asana.” Epic Games Store said “Internet services outages” were “affecting logins, library, purchases, etc.”

It’s the third time in as many weeks that problems with AWS have had a significant effect on online services. Two incidents earlier this month involving AWS ended up knocking out a huge array of platforms and products, taking out streaming sites like Netflix and Disney Plus as well as smart home devices like security cameras from Ring and Wyze.

Today’s outages seem less widespread but still notable, with some users unable to access services entirely and others merely experiencing intermittent faults. DownDetector.com shows reports of issues with the platforms mentioned above, as well as news aggregator Flipboard, online learning site Udemy, dating app Grindr, streaming service Hulu, and IoT services from Honeywell, Life360, and Samsung’s SmartThings.

The official AWS service health dashboard blamed the issues on power outages in a single data center, affecting one Availability Zone (USE1-AZ4) within the US-EAST-1 Region. At 6:13 AM PST, the company said it had restored power to the data center and was making progress recovering the affected instances. However, users will likely continue to notice the effects of these outages for a while longer while systems are updated and restored.

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Update Wednesday, December 22nd, 8:36AM ET: Updated story to add responses from affected services.

Update Wednesday, December 22nd, 9: 34AM ET: Updated story to note that AWS has restored to power to the affected data center.

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The NLRB decision against Amazon was correct and shows the need for stronger labor laws

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The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB ruled last month that Amazon had cheated to defeat a high profile union organizing campaign.

It found that Amazon violated federal labor laws during its anti-union campaign at a Bessemer warehouse, Ala. earlier this year. This will result in a do-over election.

The NLRB criticized Amazon’s “flagrant disregard” for federal union election rules and stated that the management had “essentially highjacked” the process and given the impression that it was in control of the outcome.

Last week, Kirsten Swingingen, the head of the virulently antiunion Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, published a misleading op ed in The Hill about the NLRB ruling.

Let’s first be clear about the reasons why Amazon was ordered to rerun its election by the NLRB.
According to the op-ed, Amazon installed a mailbox in order to make voting easier. However, the NLRB repeatedly told Amazon that it couldn’t have onsite voting. After the company pushed for it, and then unsuccessfully appealed against the NLRB decision. In a stunning act of arrogance, Amazon’s top managers ignored these clear instructions and forced the United States Postal Service to install an onsite mailbox just before the election period. A senior USPS manager stated that this was the first instance in his many decades of service when it had set up a “cluster mailbox” for a single customer due to the upcoming NLRB elections.

After being told by the USPS to not place stickers on the mailbox, Amazon covered the mailbox with a marquee with large slogans. The USPS replied, ” Surprise” when asked how he felt about Amazon’s disregard for clear instructions. Moreover, the NLRB discovered that Amazon’s management engaged in illegal monitoring of workers’ voting intentions.

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These charges are serious, considering the overwhelming evidence of illegal activity. It would be surprising if NLRB did not reverse the tainted election. This would be a message to employees that the law doesn’t apply to them if they have the wealth, resources and ability to bully them if it was in the way of Amazon’s illegal conduct.

The NLRB Hearing officer and its Atlanta-based Regional director made the decision to reverse the tainted vote. Neither of these people are political appointees – instead, they are career lawyers or “former employees” as the op ed misleads. Swearingen instead resorts to misleading tropes regarding “Big Labor” in order to describe a small, but determined union, the Retail Wholesale & Department Store Union. This union is up against Amazon, one of the most powerful and wealthy corporations on the planet. Bessemer was not the first to find Amazon guilty of illegal anti-union behavior. The NLRB found Amazon in violation of its laws.

It is important to correct a blatant lie about the Protecting the Right to Organize legislation (PRO Act), currently pending before the U.S. Senate. Incorrectly, the op-ed states that the PRO Act “potentially eradicates secret ballot elections” but allows for “card certification” of unions. This is essentially recognizing unions only after authorization cards are signed by the majority of workers, as practiced in many rich democracies.

To be clear, the Pro Act does not mention card check certification. The author created this provision to support her extreme anti-union views. The PRO Act would ban mandatory anti-union “captive audience” meetings- forcible listening sessions. According to Amazon’s own testimony, these were conducted thousands of times at Bessemer. It also imposes harsher penalties on corporations like Amazon who violate workers’ right to choose a union.

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The op-ed also states that “Big Labor… succeeded in pushing Democrats to include PRO Act policies into the budget reconciliation bill.” However, the bill only contains the PRO Act provision. This includes the much-needed financial sanctions for corporations such as Amazon that repeatedly violate workers rights.

The NLRB was right to reverse the Bessemer election that was fundamentally tainted due to Amazon’s conduct. The Bessemer campaign demonstrates that the NLRB needs to have more options. As it stands, the law is too toothless for a massively powerful, incredibly wealthy, and frequently illegal corporate bully. The Senate should immediately pass the PRO Act.

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Amazon Alexa SEO Tools Is Closing

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Alexa.com announced that it will be retiring its marketing services after 25 years. Founded in 1996, Alexa was subsequently acquired by Amazon in 1999. It was initially known for providing rankings based on traffic measured through a toolbar but Alexa eventually expanded to provide a full suite of marketing products including site auditing and backlink checking.

Screenshot From Alexa Content Marketing

Alexa Rank

Alexa.com provides a full suite of search marketing tools. However what it’s mainly known for is their Alexa Rank.

Alexa Rank is a metric that offers a measurement of site popularity.

In the early 2000s the data was collected via an Alexa toolbar that users downloaded and surfed with. The toolbars collected web traffic information from the users which fed into the Alexa Rank site popularity metric.

Web publishers could also install a script on their site that reported traffic which could then be used to raise their Alexa Rank scores.

The Alexa Rank scores were generally viewed with suspicion because some people claimed that installing the toolbar and visiting ones own sites could result in dramatically raising the Alexa Rank score.

Another criticism of Alexa Rank was that the data was more relevant for Asian countries than in English speaking countries. This was based on the rumor that the Alexa toolbar use base was heavily weighted towards users in Korea and not users in English speaking countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

The negative reputation of Alexa Rank and anything offered by Alexa was sealed by 2005.

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One search marketer in a 2005 forum discussion remarked:

“Isn’t it time for Amazon to throw in the towel on Alexa? For a company that does so many things well, Alexa is really a blight on their reputation. Why would they want to be associated with such garbage.”

Nevertheless, use of the Alexa Rank metric continued to be used by a dwindling amount of search marketers.

For example, to this day there are some companies that offer affiliate programs and use Alexa Rank to determine the popularity of potential affiliate partners and will not accept affiliates whose websites do not reach a minimum Alexa Rank popularity threshold.

Alexa Was More Than A Site Popularity Ranking Metric

It might come as a surprise to many that Alexa offered a complete suite of search marketing and analytics programs.

For some reason the Alexa suite of online marketing tools, which included a backlink checker, was almost kept as a secret, with apparently no outreach to the search marketing community or seemingly no promotional activity to speak of.

Alexa crawled the entire Internet and for many years provided snapshots of the Internet to Archive.org. It’s backlink information was extensive.

Because of that it was able to offer services like showing which backlinks competitors have in common, including as many as ten competitors at a time.

Screenshot Of An Alexa Backlink Information Page

The Alexa $149/month plan offered:

  • Content Exploration
  • Competitive Content Analysis
  • Topic Research
  • Top Publishers by Topic
  • Competitive Analysis
  • Competitor Keyword Matrix
  • Keyword Difficulty Tool
  • Keyword Share of Voice
  • Organic Keywords
  • Paid Keywords
  • Site Audits
  • On-Page SEO Checker
  • Competitor Backlink Checker
  • Backlink Checks
  • Audience Analysis
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Alexa.com Retired

Alexa announced that it will all be going away on May 1, 2022.

The announcement was short and with no explanation as to what led to the decision.

“Twenty-five years ago, we founded Alexa Internet. After two decades of helping you find, reach, and convert your digital audience, we’ve made the difficult decision to retire Alexa.com on May 1, 2022.

Thank you for making us your go-to resource for content research, competitive analysis, keyword research, and so much more.”

Alexa offered a powerful suite of SEO and marketing tools and it’s sad to see them go away.

Many people didn’t know about the tools and perhaps it might still be around if it had been promoted better.

Citations

Official Alexa.com Announcement

We will be retiring Alexa.com on May 1, 2022

Archive.org Snapshot of Alexa.com Search Marketing Offerings

Archive.org Snapshot of Alexa Backlink Checker Tool

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