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'We don't know if Google is operating outside EU law'

Plus: 'It's within our lifetime. It's going to happen'

Quotw This was the week in which Mobile World Congress landed in Barcelona, producing reams of smartphone and fondleslab news, views and shiny gadgets - including waterproof mobes, which are of particular use to Brits since apparently nearly one in ten punters take their phone into the shower.

These featured alongside new Sony phones, emerging after the firm's divorce from Ericsson, and a glimpse into the mind of top Googler Eric Schmidt, which included a near future of robot cars and Star Trek-esque holodecks.

Speaking of the Chocolate Factory, this was also the week when Google's notorious privacy policy changes came into being, despite the opposition thrown up by advocacy groups, legislators and regulators.

US politicos and advocacy groups continued to worry away about the changes while French data protection authority CNIL urged Google to reconsider implementing the changes at the eleventh hour.

In a strongly worded letter to Larry Page, CNIL said:

The CNIL and the EU data protection authorities are deeply concerned about the combination of personal data across services: they have strong doubts about the lawfulness and fairness of such processing, and about its compliance with the European Data Protection legislation.

At the same time, 37 US attorney generals asked for an urgent meeting with Google's CEO in the hours before the privacy changes took place. They said:

Google boasts that it puts a premium on offering users 'meaningful and fine-grained choices over the use of their personal information,' developing its products and services in ways that prevent personal information from being 'held hostage'.

It has made these and other privacy-respecting representations repeatedly over the years, and many consumers have chosen to use Google products over other products because of these representations. Now these same consumers are having their personal information "held hostage" within the Google ecosystem.

But Google was unmoved by their pleas, with its European privacy counsel Peter Fleischer saying:

To pause now would cause a great deal of confusion for users. We have given well over a month for our users to read and understand the privacy policy changes, and have provided extensive information on these changes for our users.

And the privacy policy changes went ahead, despite the EU questioning whether the new rules would be legal.

The UK's Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said at a seminar:

We don't know if Google is operating outside of EU law... I'm not going to say it isn't lawful as it's being investigated.

While Google continued to insist it wasn't doing anything major at all, as director of privacy, product and engineering Alma Whitten said in a blog post:

The new policy doesn’t change any existing privacy settings or how any personal information is shared outside of Google. We aren’t collecting any new or additional information about users. We won’t be selling your personal data. And we will continue to employ industry-leading security to keep your information safe.

Facebook was also feeling some privacy-related wrath as it hit back at claims from The Sunday Times that its mobile app was happily hoovering up users' text messages for some nefarious purpose.

The social network said:

The Sunday Times has done some creative conspiracy theorising.

The suggestion that we're secretly reading people's texts is ridiculous. Instead, the permission is clearly disclosed on the app page in the Android marketplace and is in anticipation of new features that enable users to integrate Facebook features with their reading and sending of texts.

The soon-to-be-public network also had to put up with some sabre-rattling from Yahoo!, which was threatening to sue Facebook over patent issues if it didn't cough up some licensing cash.

Yahoo! claims that Facebook is using a number of its patents, including ones related to advertising, personalisation of web pages, social networking and messaging. And, since it's running a bit low on cash and Facebook is about to have its IPO, Yahoo! reckoned this was a good time to bring up these allegations.

The ailing web firm, whose revenues have been suffering as its popularity wanes, said:

Yahoo! has a responsibility to its shareholders, employees and other stakeholders to protect its intellectual property. We must insist that Facebook either enter into a licensing agreement or we will be compelled to move forward unilaterally to protect our rights.

Yahoo! was reported saying this by The New York Times, which broke the story as coming from people familiar with the matter. According to Facebook, those familiar people were very confident of their topic because they were actually Yahoo! representatives.

The social network said:

Yahoo! contacted us at the same time they called The New York Times and so we haven't had the opportunity to fully evaluate their claims.

Mee-ow!

Meanwhile, in good news, IBM boffins were busily getting science to improve technology first by peering at a molecule to see the movement of a charge for the first time, which should be very handy for building teeny-tiny devices at the atomic and molecular scale.

Michael Crommie, a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said:

Understanding this kind of charge distribution is critical for understanding how molecules work in different environments. I expect this technique to have an especially important future impact on the many areas where physics, chemistry, and biology intersect.

And then bringing the long-awaited, continuously-just-round-the-corner-but-nver-quite-here wonder of quantum computing one step closer. The clever scientists, working with 3D qubits, found a way to make them stably quantum for a few microseconds longer, just enough to allow error fixes on their computations.

Mark Ketchen, manager of the physics of information group at IBM’s Watson Research Centre, said (presumably excitedly):

In the past, people have said, maybe it’s 50 years away, it’s a dream, maybe it’ll happen sometime.

I used to think it was 50. Now I’m thinking like it’s 15 or a little more. It’s within reach. It’s within our lifetime. It’s going to happen.

So now, all that researchers have to worry about is how to scale up from individual qubits, how anyone could ever afford to build a quantum computer, how you would program it and how to get the answers out of it once it's done with its mind-boggling computations. Hmmm. ®

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