Connect with us


Ireland-led GDPR probe of Yahoo’s cookie banners moves to draft decision review



A multi-year investigation into TechCrunch’s parent entity Yahoo — looking at compliance with key transparency requirements of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), including in relation to cookie banners displayed on its media properties — has taken a step forward today after Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) announced that it has submitted a draft decision to other EU data protection agencies for review.

In a statement on the development, deputy commissioner Graham Doyle said:

“On October 27, 2022, the DPC submitted a draft decision in an inquiry into Yahoo! EMEA Limited to other Concerned Supervisory Authorities across the EU. The inquiry examined the company’s compliance with the requirements to provide transparent information to data subjects under the provisions of the GDPR. Under the Article 60 GDPR process, Concerned Supervisory Authorities have until 24 November, 2022 to send any ‘relevant and reasoned objections’ to the DPC’s draft decision.”

Following its usual procedure, the DPC has not released any details on the substance of its draft decision. In any case, the outcome is not final until other interested DPAs have weighed in — so nothing has been concluded yet.

The inquiry concerns Yahoo’s processing of European users’ data and is focused on its compliance with Articles 5(1)(a), 12, 13 and 14 of the GDPR — so the DPAs will be considering whether Yahoo’s business has been meeting GDPR requirements for personal data processing to be lawful, fair and transparent; and also whether it’s been properly communicating to users how their data is being processed.

If other DPAs agree with Ireland’s draft a final decision could be issued fairly soon — maybe even in a couple of months.

However if objections are raised the process may need to go through a dispute resolution mechanism in the GDPR — which could spin things out for many more months. (A draft decision on Instagram’s processing of kids’ data went to Article 60 in December 2021 but a final decision (and hefty fine in that case) took until September 2022 to land after other DPAs raised objections to Ireland’s draft, for example.)

The DPC’s investigation into Yahoo kicked off in August, 2019, when the entity was known as Verizon Media (neé Oath) and owed by US carrier Verizon. The latter went on to sell the division, in May 2021, to private equity giant, Apollo Global Management — which plumped for a retro rebranding (to Yahoo). So it’s the PE giant that’s been left holding the regulatory exposure here.

Speaking to the Irish Independent back in 2019, the DPC’s commissioner, Helen Dixon, said the investigation focused on transparency issues related to publications operated by the company and was opened in response to multiple complaints from individuals about Yahoo media sites — including over cookie banners she said sometimes “effectively” offer no choice to users — beyond an ‘option’ to click “okay”. 

Yahoo owns a string of Yahoo-branded media properties, including Yahoo News, Yahoo Finance, Yahoo Sports etc, tech media sites like Engadget (and this Internet website) — as well as, at the time the DPC opened its probe, the HuffPo and tumblr — which the company linked to its online advertising business via the use of tracking cookies dropped on visitors’ devices. Hence these cookie consent banners popping up with information about ad ‘partners’ and purposes for processing.

Thing is, under the GDPR, in order for consent to be a valid legal basis to process people’s data it must be informed, specific and freely given — so a cookie banner that lacks an option for users to deny ad tracking is going to attract complaints that it is not offering the required free choice.

Verizon Media does appear to have made a notable change to the design of its cookie banner (circa spring 2021) — so subsequent to the DPC opening its investigation — which tweaked the implementation of the consent flow to include a reject button.

A current version of a Yahoo cookie banner (shown below being displayed on a Yahoo website) can be seen including two ‘reject all’ options:

Yahoo cookie banner

Screengrab: Natasha Lomas/TechCrunch

On the less positive side, this cookie banner tries to claim a “legitimate interest” (i.e. non-consent based) ground for processing people’s data for ad targeting (and defaults those toggles to ‘on’) — but you can at least deny this by selecting “reject all” under the LI field.

The current Yahoo cookie banner implementation — at least on the version we saw — also relegates the reject button to the second level of the menu — rather than displaying it at the top level, alongside the “accept all” option displayed there.

This means users have to click through “manage settings” before they can even see a reject all option (while this second level menu is long and requires scrolling) — so the tweaked design may raise fresh objections from regulators since it does not offer an equally easy way to reject tracking as allow it.

Still, it remains to be seen what the EU DPAs will decide on the Yahoo complaint as a whole. Since the complaint predates this implementation of the cookie banner the inquiry may not consider the current design as closely as looking at the old one which netted Yahoo all these complaints. (Although DPAs could also take it into consideration in any order to the company to amend the design of the banner in a final decision.)

One thing is clear: Cookie consents for ad tracking are getting increasing attention from EU regulators.

Early this year, France’s CNIL hit Google and Facebook with substantial fines related to dark patterns on cookie banners (under the ePrivacy Directive, which — unlike the GDPR — does not require cross-border complaints to be funnelled to a lead DPA, as has happened here with the Yahoo complaint).

A few months later Google updated its cookie banner in Europe to include a top-level reject all button.

Last year, the UK’s data protection watchdog also published an opinion urging the ad tracking industry to prepare to reform and retool their adtech to provide users with non-profiling and other pro-privacy choices — signalling that it expects a major change of direction away from mass surveillance of web users by design and default.

Since last year, European privacy campaign group, noyb, has also been running a major GDPR enforcement campaign aimed at encouraging scores of websites to reform non-compliant cookie banners by sending complaints directly to them but also providing a free analysis of the tweaks required to bring their cookie pop-ups into line with the GDPR. Only those sites that resist the necessary changes will face a complaint about them being filed by noyb with a relevant DPA.

Earlier this year it released a batch of ‘before and after’ examples of how a number of well known retail sites have adapted their cookie banners in response to its pro-active campaign — with the addition of a top-level “reject all” button being a key compliance action taken by many of noyb’s reformed targets.

The not-for-profit has also filed a number of complaints about cookie banner reform refuseniks with regulators — 226 had been lodged with 18 data protection authorities as of August — although enforcements remain pending as procedures grind on.


Tesla more than tripled its Austin gigafactory workforce in 2022



Tesla’s 2,500-acre manufacturing hub in Austin, Texas tripled its workforce last year, according to the company’s annual compliance report filed with county officials. Bloomberg first reported on the news.

The report filed with Travis County’s Economic Development Program shows that Tesla increased its Austin workforce from just 3,523 contingent and permanent employees in 2021 to 12,277 by the end of 2022. Bloomberg reports that just over half of Tesla’s workers reside in the county, with the average full-time employee earning a salary of at least $47,147. Outside of Tesla’s factory, the average salary of an Austin worker is $68,060, according to data from ZipRecruiter.

TechCrunch was unable to acquire a copy of the report, so it’s not clear if those workers are all full-time. If they are, Tesla has hired a far cry more full-time employees than it is contracted to do. According to the agreement between Tesla and Travis County, the company is obligated to create 5,001 new full-time jobs over the next four years.

The contract also states that Tesla must invest about $1.1 billion in the county over the next five years. Tesla’s compliance report shows that the automaker last year invested $5.81 billion in Gigafactory Texas, which officially launched a year ago at a “Cyber Rodeo” event. In January, Tesla notified regulators that it plans to invest another $770 million into an expansion of the factory to include a battery cell testing site and cathode and drive unit manufacturing site. With that investment will come more jobs.

Tesla’s choice to move its headquarters to Texas and build a gigafactory there has helped the state lead the nation in job growth. The automaker builds its Model Y crossover there and plans to build its Cybertruck in Texas, as well. Giga Texas will also be a model for sustainable manufacturing, CEO Elon Musk has said. Last year, Tesla completed the first phase of what will become “the largest rooftop solar installation in the world,” according to the report, per Bloomberg. Tesla has begun on the second phase of installation, but already there are reports of being able to see the rooftop from space. The goal is to generate 27 megawatts of power.

Musk has also promised to turn the site into an “ecological paradise,” complete with a boardwalk and a hiking/biking trail that will open to the public. There haven’t been many updates on that front, and locals have been concerned that the site is actually more of an environmental nightmare that has led to noise and water pollution. The site, located at the intersection of State Highway 130 and Harold Green Road, east of Austin, is along the Colorado River and could create a climate catastrophe if the river overflows.

The site of Tesla’s gigafactory has also historically been the home of low-income households and has a large population of Spanish-speaking residents. It’s not clear if the jobs at the factory reflect the demographic population of the community in which it resides.

Continue Reading


Launch startup Stoke Space rolls out software tool for complex hardware development



Stoke Space, a company that’s developing a fully reusable rocket, has unveiled a new tool to let hardware companies track the design, testing and integration of parts. The new tool, Fusion, is targeting an unsexy but essential aspect of the hardware workflow.

It’s a solution born out of “ubiquitous pain in the industry,” Stoke CEO Andy Lapsa said in a recent interview. The current parts tracking status quo is marked by cumbersome, balkanized solutions built on piles of paperwork and spreadsheets. Many of the existing tools are not optimized “for boots on the ground,” but for finance or procurement teams, or even the C-suite, Lapsa explained.

In contrast, Fusion is designed to optimize simple inventory transactions and parts organization, and it will continue to track parts through their lifespan: as they are built into larger assemblies and go through testing. In an extreme example, such as hardware failures, Fusion will help teams connect anomalous data to the exact serial numbers of the parts involved.

Image credit: Stoke Space

“If you think about aerospace in general, there’s a need and a desire to be able to understand the part pedigree of every single part number and serial number that’s in an assembly,” Lapsa said. “So not only do you understand the configuration, you understand the history of all of those parts dating back to forever.”

While Lapsa clarified that Fusion is the result of an organic in-house need for better parts management – designing a fully reusable rocket is complicated, after all – turning it into a sell-able product was a decision that the Stoke team made early on. It’s a notable example of a rocket startup generating pathways for revenue while their vehicle is still under development.

Fusion offers particular relevance to startups. Many existing tools are designed for production runs – not the fast-moving research and development environment that many hardware startups find themselves, Lapsa added. In these environments, speed and accuracy are paramount.

Brent Bradbury, Stoke’s head of software, echoed these comments.

“The parts are changing, the people are changing, the processes are changing,” he said. “This lets us capture all that as it happens without a whole lot of extra work.”

Continue Reading


Amid a boom in AI accelerators, a UC Berkeley-focused outfit, House Fund, swings open its doors



Companies at the forefront of AI would naturally like to stay at the forefront, so it’s no surprise they want to stay close to smaller startups that are putting some of their newest advancements to work.

Last month, for example, Neo, a startup accelerator founded by Silicon Valley investor Ali Partovi, announced that OpenAI and Microsoft have offered to provide free software and advice to companies in a new track focused on artificial intelligence.

Now, another Bay Area outfit — House Fund, which invests in startups with ties to UC Berkeley — says it is launching an AI accelerator and that, similarly, OpenAI, Microsoft, Databricks, and Google’s Gradient Ventures are offering participating startups free and early access to tech from their companies, along with mentorship from top AI founders and executives at these companies.

We talked with House Fund founder Jeremy Fiance over the weekend to get a bit more color about the program, which will replace a broader-based accelerator program House Fund has run and whose alums include an additive manufacturing software company, Dyndrite, and the managed app development platform Chowbotics, whose most recent round in January brought the company’s total funding to more than $60 million.

For founders interested in learning more, the new AI accelerator program runs for two months, kicking off in early July and ending in early September. Six or so companies will be accepted, with the early application deadline coming up next week on April 13th. (The final application deadline is on June 1.) As for the time commitment involved across those two months, every startup could have a different experience, says Fiance. “We’re there when you need us, and we’re good at staying out of the way.”

There will be the requisite kickoff retreat to spark the program and founders to get to know one another. Candidates who are accepted will also have access to some of UC Berkeley’s renowned AI professors, including Michael Jordan, Ion Stoica, and Trevor Darrell. And they can opt into dinners and events in collaboration with these various constituents.

As for some of the financial dynamics, every startup that goes through the program will receive a $1 million investment on a $10 million post-money SAFE note. Importantly, too, as with the House Fund’s venture dollars, its AI accelerator is seeking startups that have at least one Berkeley-affiliated founder on the co-founding team. That includes alumni, faculty, PhDs, postdocs, staff, students, dropouts, and other affiliates.

There is no demo day. Instead, says Fiance, founders will receive “directed, personal introductions” to the VCs who best fit with their startups.

Given the buzz over AI, the new program could supercharge House Fund, the venture organization, which is already growing fast. Fiance launched it in 2016 with just $6 million and it now manages $300 million in assets, including on behalf of Berkeley Endowment Management Company and the University of California.

At the same time, the competition out there is fierce and growing more so by the day.

Though OpenAI has offered to partner with House Fund, for example, the San Francisco-based company announced its own accelerator back in November. Called Converge, the cohort was to be made up of 10 or so founders who received $1 million each and admission to five weeks of office hours, workshops and other events that ended and that received their funding from the OpenAI Startup Fund.

Y Combinator, the biggest accelerator in the world, is also oozing with AI startups right now, all of them part of a winter class that will be talking directly with investors this week via demo days that are taking place tomorrow, April 5th, and on Thursday.

Continue Reading