A new Life of Tech


Google reverses decision to ban Pixel phone resellers

Users had been shut down after they were accused of taking advantage of tax loopholes to earn a profit reselling the phone.
Users had been shut down after they were accused of taking advantage of tax loopholes to earn a profit reselling the phone. Photograph: Kim Jin-a/AP

Google has reversed its decision to disable the accounts of customers who resold the company’s new Pixel phone, after a chorus of complaints over the company’s imposition of a “digital death penalty” for a minor infraction.

The company emailed users who had been banned, noting that it had reviewed their appeals and re-enabled their accounts. Users had been shut down after they were accused of taking advantage of tax loopholes to earn a profit reselling the phone.

In the email, Google said it “takes violations of our terms very seriously, and we ask that you review relevant terms and product policies to ensure that you understand them”. It added: “Repeated violations of our terms may lead to account termination.”

The bans were first reported on Wednesday by Daniel Eleff, the owner of money-saving site Dan’s Deals. Multiple members of his forum had found their Google accounts deactivated, after they’d taken advantage of a deal involving shipping the phone to a reseller in New Hampshire, a US state with no sales tax, who would then split the profit with them after the phone was sold on.

The scheme broke Google’s terms and conditions, and the company banned accounts which had ordered a Pixel phone to be shipped to the reseller (despite the fact that the rule hadn’t previously been enforced in similar situations involving the company’s Nexus phones). It even banned the account of one user which hadn’t ordered a phone, but was listed as the recovery account of an account which had.

Given the scale of Google’s business, however, many of the banned users felt that the punishment didn’t fit the crime. Eleff wrote: “I’m not defending those who violated the terms of the sale, but I do think it is heavy handed for Google to block access to all of their services for doing so. Was violating Google’s phone resale policy really worthy of an effective digital death penalty?”

Banned users couldn’t access their emails, voicemails, or uploaded files; they lost access to the photos they’d stored in Google Photos, and any accounts linked to their email address as a password reset or login service.

After the initial reports of the bans, Google emailed Eleff a defence of its actions, saying: “We identified a scheme in which consumers were asked to purchase Pixel devices on behalf of a reseller, who then marked up the cost of those devices in order to resell them to other customers. We prohibit the commercial resale of devices purchased through Project Fi or the Google Store so everyone has an equal opportunity to purchase devices at a fair price. Many of the accounts suspended were created for the sole purpose of this scheme.”

The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Guardian, but its letter to Eleff concluded: “After investigating the situation, we are restoring access to genuine accounts for customers who are locked out of many Google services they rely on.”

Google is not the only company which is unrestrained in its use of the bans. Amazon has come under fire for similarly disproportionate responses, in one case banning a user from its site and all its digital services simply for returning too many items.

Eleff recommends that Google users, even those who think they may not be banned, get in the habit of using Google Takeout, the company’s data-exporting service, to perform weekly back-ups of their Google data. “Many others have moved their email to private servers and other hosts in order to diversify their online presence in case they ever run afoul of Google’s terms,” he adds.


Amazon v Donald Trump? Jeff Bezos may soon face his biggest challenge yet

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos laughing
No laughing matter. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has seemingly made an enemy of the new US president. Photograph: Victoria Bonn-Meuser/EPA

Amazon will almost certainly enjoy its biggest ever day on Black Friday next week.

The discount shopping event will help the American online retailer to continue its run of 22 years of unbroken and dramatic sales growth since it was founded in 1994 by Jeff Bezos. It is now valued at more than $375bn (£304bn), making it one of the biggest companies in the world.

However, despite the predicted spending spree on Black Friday, the rise of Amazon and Bezos now face arguably their biggest challenge yet – Donald Trump.

Throughout the US presidential election campaign, Trump made disparaging comments about Amazon and Bezos, prompting a war of words that looks altogether more serious in the wake of the billionaire tycoon’s victory over Hillary Clinton.

The battle started last December with a series of seemingly unprompted tweets from Trump. “The Washington Post, which loses a fortune, is owned by Jeff Bezos for purposes of keeping taxes down at his no-profit company, Amazon,” Trump wrote. “If Amazon ever had to pay fair taxes, its stock would crash and it would crumble like a paper bag. The Washington Post scam is saving it!”

The Washington Post is owned through Bezos’s personal investment firm, rather than Amazon, and Trump did not provide any explanation for his allegation. Amazon’s tax policy is controversial and is already well-known around the world, including in Europe, where it agreed favourable tax arrangements with Luxembourg. Its profit margins are also notoriously thin. In 2015, Amazon recorded sales of $107bn but net profits of just $596m, a margin of barely 0.5%.

Washington Post front page
Jezz Bezos indirectly owns the Washington Post, a common target for Donald Trump. Photograph: Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

Bezos responded to Trump’s tweets in a light-hearted manner, threatening to send him to space with his Blue Origin rocket business. “Finally trashed by Donald Trump,” he said. “Will still reserve him a seat on the Blue Origin rocket #sendDonaldtospace.”

However, the battle took a more sinister turn for Amazon when Trump addressed a campaign rally in Texas two months later. “Believe me, if I become president, oh do they have problems, they are going to have such problems,” Trump said of Amazon and Bezos.


Internet of things set to change the face of dementia care

Patient Gerald Hicks trying out some of the technology involved in Surrey and Borders NHS Trust’s trial.
Patient Gerald Hicks trying out some of the technology involved in Surrey and Borders NHS Trust’s trial. Photograph: Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust

Smart bottles that dispense the correct dose of medication at the correct time, digital assistants, and chairs that know how long you’ve sat in them are among the devices set to change the face of care for those living with dementia.

Dementia is now the leading cause of death in England and Wales, and is thought to affect more than 850,000 people in the UK. But a new wave of connected devices, dubbed “the internet of things”, could offer new ways to help people live independently for longer.

“We have got an elderly population, and children in their 40s and 50s are looking after their elderly parents – and they may not have the capabilities to coordinate that care effectively,” said Idris Jahn, head of health and data at IoTUK, a programme within the government-backed Digital Catapult.

While phone calls and text messages help to keep people in touch, says Jahn, problems can still arise, from missed appointments to difficulties in taking medication correctly. But he adds, connected sensors and devices that collect and process data in real time could help solve the problem.

“For [people living with dementia] the sensors would be more in the environment itself, so embedded into the plug sockets, into the lights – so it is effectively invisible. You carry on living your life but in the background things will monitor you and provide feedback to people who need to know,” he said. “That might be your carer, it might be your family, it might be your clinician.” The approach, he added, has the potential to change the way care is given. “It is having that cohesive mechanism to put everyone into the loop, which I think hasn’t existed in the past and it is something that people need.”

Among the projects IoTUK is involved with is a £5.2m venture, funded by NHS England and run by the Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Trust.

One of two NHS test sites embracing the internet of things, the trust has created two living labs at the University of Surrey to explore a variety of connected devices aimed at helping those living with dementia. Eventually such systems could be offered by the NHS to those diagnosed with the condition.


“The vision is to provide and early intervention and prevention approach – we don’t have a cure for dementia, so it is really about being able to keep people as well as possible,” said Helen Rostill, director of innovation and development at the Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Trust.

Within the next two weeks, says Rostill, the devices will be trialled in the homes of six to 10 volunteers, allowing the team to iron out any issues ahead of a six month randomised control trial, involving 700 pairs of people with dementia and their carers, that will begin in January. “I think this really is personalised medicine,” said Rostill. “This really is about understanding individuals’ patterns of behaviour and deviations from those patterns.”

Amongst the technological developments are scales that monitor an individual’s hydration levels, smart wallets that track how many pills have been removed from a blister pack, bottles that dispense the correct dose of medication at the correct time and can send reminders to smartphones, avatars to guide people through care routines and even sensors that can be attached to chairs to monitor how long someone has been sitting. The data collected will then be processed using machine-learning algorithms, and the resulting information shared with the monitoring team and carers, allowing phone calls, visits or other arrangements to be made.

While individual sensors are currently on the market, says Rostill, creating a system based on a suite of connected devices could prove a boon. “What we are doing here is combining the data from different types of devices which I think will provide a unique window of insight into these very complex conditions that are multi-dimensional,” she said.