All posts by Stephen Fry

Google has launched an ad-blocker for its Chrome web browser that is designed to prevent “annoying” and “intrusive” ads being shown to users.

Google announced the move to curtail full-page and auto-playing video ads, among others, last year.  The choice of which ads to block will be determined by the Coalition for Better Ads (CBA) – made up of companies including Google and Facebook.  Sites will have 30 days to remove disruptive ads before blocking begins.  A survey of 40,000 US and European web users found that the most intrusive ads were full-page ads that hide the content of a web page and flashing animated ads, according to a blog by Chris Bentzel at Google.

Bentzel wrote:

Chrome will automatically block ads on sites that fail the Better Ads Standards,”.  “When at least one network request has been blocked, Chrome will show the user a message indicating that ad blocking has occurred as well as an option to disable this setting…..

The ad industry was generally accepting of the move, said Emily Tan, an editor at Campaign magazine.  “At first, people were worried that it would be implementing ad-blocking across the board,” she told the BBC.

Block Party

Sites that have already altered the ads they show after being warned by Google include the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune.  However, users who simply want to block as many ads as possible may seek other solutions.  Rival firm Adblock Plus has analysed how effective a CBA ad-detection tool can be, in terms of its ability to block ads described in a CBA white paper published last year.  The analysis found that the CBA blocker failed to prevent ads that re-positioned article text on a web page while users were reading it, for example to make way for auto-playing video ads.  “In total, the new CBA-endorsed ad skimmer will only block 16.4 percent of the ad types listed in its white paper ” said a spokeswoman for Adblock Plus.  She added that Adblock Plus blocks 92.7% of ads by comparison.  The Chrome browser is in use on approximately 60% of computers and mobile devices, according to statistics from Stat Counter, W3Counter and Net Applications.

 

Faulty household appliances – primarily washing machines and tumble dryers – account for 60 house fires a week in the UK, consumer group Which? has said.

It said the number of fires has stayed roughly the same each year for five years.  It wants the government to draw up a plan to tackle the issue within three months, having set up an Office for Product Safety.  However, manufacturers have questioned some of the data that Which? used.  The consumer group wants a reform of the UK’s product safety system, following a series of fires, including the including Grenfell Tower tragedy, which was started by a faulty fridge freezer.  A separate defect affecting 5.3 million tumble dryers under the Hotpoint, Creda and Indesit brands was discovered in 2015 and has reportedly led to hundreds of fires since 2004.  The Commons Business Committee recently described the response by Whirlpool, which owns the brands, as “woeful”, and said it was unacceptable that more than one million potentially dangerous dryers were still being used in people’s homes.

First step:

Which? made a series of freedom of information requests to fire authorities and the Home Office to gain an impression of the scale of faulty appliance fires in the UK.  It concluded that malfunctioning kitchen appliances have accounted for nearly 16,000 fires across the UK since 2012.  It said faulty washing machines and tumble dryers accounted for 35% of fires, followed by cookers and ovens (11%), dishwashers (10%), and fridges, freezers and fridge freezers (8%).  Which? called on the government, which has set up a new Office for Product Safety, to set out the scale of product safety risks and explain what it planned to do to avert further fires in an action plan within 90 days. Simon Blackburn, from the Local Government Association said, “This is just the first step. It is essential that consumers have access to as much information as possible, and we would urge the Office to create an easily accessible, comprehensive database of recalled products.”

Real teeth:

A Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy spokesman said, “The government’s top priority is to keep people safe, which is why last month we set out our approach to further strengthen the UK’s already tough product safety system.” Manufacturer Whirlpool questioned some of the data that Which? used.  “The government has advised that the accuracy of Fire and Rescue Service incident data cannot be guaranteed and should not be relied upon to make judgements about particular appliance makes or models,” it said.

 

Supermarket chain Lidl has hit a milestone of 700 stores in the UK, after it opened five new stores in one day. 

The new stores, which started trading on Thursday, are in Edinburgh, Stockton, Hull, Polegate in East Sussex and Rosehill, in south London.  The discounter said it would open 19 new shops in the first two months of 2018, creating more than 700 new jobs.  The German-owned company plans to open more than 50 new outlets this year. Lidl’s first supermarket in the UK opened in 1994.  It now has a 5% share of the market and employs more than 22,000 people.

Supermarkets, ranked according to number of stores:

  • Tesco: 2,653
  • Sainsbury’s: 1,412
  • Morrisons: 491
  • Asda: 646
  • Waitrose: 353
  • Aldi: 750
  • Lidl: 700

Discounters such as Aldi and Lidl have shaken up the supermarket sector, putting huge competitive pressure on mainstream chains, including market leader Tesco and Sainsbury’s.  As a result, grocers have had to cut costs – and labour is one of their biggest costs.  Earlier this year, both Tesco and Sainsbury’s announced jobs cuts in stores as a result of cost-saving measures.

French giant Unibail-Rodamco has agreed to buy Westfield for $24.7bn, marking the biggest takeover of an Australian company on record.

Westfield, which owns 35 shopping centres in the US and the UK and is valued at $32bn, said the transaction was “highly compelling” for its and Unibail-Rodamco’s shareholders, Reuters reported.

In a statement, Westfield chairman and co-founder Frank Lowy said: “Unibail-Rodamco’s track record makes it the natural home for the legacy of Westfield’s brand and business.”

Unibail-Rodamco – a European shopping centre specialist – said putting the two companies together would create a global property leader with $72bn of gross market value, strategically positioned in 27 of the world’s most attractive retail markets.

It comes just days after shopping centre owner Hammerson agreed to acquire rival Intu in a deal valuing the latter at £3.4bn.

Westfield’s flagship malls include Westfield London, where it is working on a £600m expansion, and Century City in Los Angeles, where it is completing a $1bn overhaul.

Unibail-Rodamco said Westfield shareholders would receive a combination of cash and shares, valuing Westfield at $7.55 a share.

Jeremy Corbyn has promised to listen to Labour members’ calls to keep the UK in the EU single market – but warned it could hamper the government’s ability to protect jobs and invest in industry.  The Labour leader said EU restrictions on state aid and pressure to privatise sectors like rail could cause problems.  He also predicted “a lot” of people would continue to come from the EU to work in the UK after Brexit.

Labour’s policy on Brexit is coming under scrutiny in Brighton, with more than 40 senior party figures signing an open letter to the Observer urging Mr Corbyn to commit to remaining in the European single market and customs union after Brexit.  Labour has already said it would keep the UK in both agreements during a transitional period.
Theresa May has suggested a two-year timeframe for a transition period, but Mr Corbyn said Labour’s version would last “as long as necessary”.

It is “impossible” to say at this stage how long it would be, he argued.
Asked about his plans beyond this period, Mr Corbyn said the “important priority” was seeking tariff-free trade access to the EU’s markets, and that it was necessary to “look very carefully” at the terms of any trade deal to avoid restrictions on state aid, citing the UK’s steel industry as an example.

We need to be quite careful about the powers that we need as national governments

he said.

Mr Corbyn wants to return a number of key industries, including the railways, to public ownership, but EU competition laws present significant obstacles to that.  The customs union is the EU’s tariff-free trading area, which imposes the same taxes on imports from certain countries outside the union.  The single market also includes the free movement of goods, services, capital and people.

The letter urging commitment to the single market was signed by both Blairite and left-wing MPs, along with some prominent trade union leaders.

The supposed benefits of a clean break with the EU are a fantasy.  The economic impact of leaving the single market would hit the most vulnerable in our society hardest.

On the issue of free movement – which the government and Labour both say will end with the UK’s EU membership – Mr Corbyn said he understood

The importance of workers moving from one place to the other.

We have to recognise that in the future we’re going to need people to work in Europe, and people from Europe are going to need to work here. There’s going to be a lot of movement.

UK business groups have called for progress in the Brexit talks after Prime Minister Theresa May made offers on EU funding and citizens rights.  Mrs May also suggested a transition period of about two years during which trade should continue on current terms.

The CBI and other business bodies said negotiators now needed to quickly move on to talks about trade and transition. But several Leave campaigners were disappointed about further delays, calling such a transition “stalling”.

The prime minister hopes her offers, made in a speech in Florence, will unblock Brexit talks.

Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the CBI, said:

The prime minister’s speech has set a positive tone and we now need leadership from both sides to turn the proposals and principles into decisions and action.

Tangible progress must be made next week when the two sides continue talks.

The CBI, along with trade bodies for aerospace and financial services, welcomed Mrs May’s aim of retaining trade terms until 2021. But the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) said many businesses wanted a longer transition of at least three years.

The priorities for businesses are to “get trade talks moving”, said Adam Marshall, the head of the BCC.

In the world of business, the PM’s Florence speech will be judged not on its rhetoric or delivery, but on whether it begins to break the stalemate that has left companies across the UK, Europe and around the world counting the cost of uncertainty,

he said.

But Brexit-backing businessmen and economists said the UK should be prepared to leave the EU without interim arrangements, known as a “no deal” scenario.
Professor Patrick Minford, chairman of Economists for Free Trade, said:

We are extremely disappointed that the Prime Minister seems to have committed to a vague transitional period of ‘around two years’ at this early stage in the negotiations.

The UK economy could benefit from global free trade and full competition after Brexit

 

UK technology firm Imagination, which designs graphics chips for smartphones, is being bought for £550m by a Chinese-backed investment firm.  Imagination put itself up for sale in June after Apple, its largest customer, said it would stop using its products.

The boss of Imagination, Andrew Heath, said the takeover by China-backed Canyon Bridge was a “very good outcome” and would ensure it remained in the UK.  It becomes the latest UK chip designer to be bought by a foreign investor.  Last year, ARM, which designs microchip technology used in Apple and Samsung smartphones, was bought by Japan’s Softbank for £24bn.  Canyon Bridge recently raised $1.5bn (£1.1bn) from Chinese investors and has offices in Beijing and San Francisco.

The firm said it currently has no plans to cut jobs at Hertfordshire-based Imagination after the takeover.  Ray Bingham, a partner at Canyon Bridge, said:

We are investing in UK talent and expertise in order to accelerate the expansion of Imagination, particularly into Asia, where its technology platform will lead the continued globalisation of British-developed innovation.

Imagination saw its shares halve in value when Apple said in April that it would end a deal to use its products.

The two firms are still engaged in a dispute over the move – with Imagination questioning Apple’s “assertions” that it would be able to develop its own computer chip designs without breaching Imagination’s intellectual property rights.  Apple’s royalty payments for the chip technology, used in its iPhones, iPads and iPods, accounted for about half of Imagination’s revenues.

The UK’s credit rating has been cut over concerns about the UK’s public finances and fears Brexit could damage the country’s economic growth.  Moody’s, one of the major ratings agencies, downgraded the UK to an Aa2 rating from Aa1.  It said leaving the European Union was creating economic uncertainty at a time when the UK’s debt reduction plans were already off course.

Downing Street said the firm’s Brexit assessments were “outdated”.

The other major agencies, Fitch and S&P, changed their ratings in 2016, with S&P cutting it two notches from AAA to AA, and Fitch lowering it from AA+ to AA.  Moody’s said the government had “yielded to pressure and raised spending in several areas” including health and social care.  It says revenues were unlikely to compensate for the higher spending.

The agency said because the government had not secured a majority in the snap election it “further obscures the future direction of economic policy”.  It also said Brexit would dominate legislative priorities, so there could be limited capacity to address “substantial” challenges.  It added “any free trade agreement will likely take years to negotiate, prolonging the current uncertainty for business”.

Moody’s has also changed the UK’s long-term issuer and debt ratings to “stable” from “negative”.

The government said the latest downgrade followed a meeting on 19 September, and did not consider the prime minister’s speech on Friday, in which she outlined her vision for Brexit.

The prime minister has just set out an ambitious vision for the UK’s future relationship with the EU, making clear that both sides will benefit from a new and unique partnership,

The foundations on which we build this partnership are strong.

It said it had a robust economic record and had made substantial progress in reducing the deficit.
“We are not complacent about the challenges ahead, but we are optimistic about our bright future.”

Germany’s carmakers are expected to agree a plan to cut harmful diesel emissions, at a summit with top politicians in Berlin.

The industry is under huge pressure to help curb air pollution, after the diesel emissions scandal, which exposed cheating to manipulate test readings.

The reputation of a key strategic industry is at stake. Car firms provide more than 800,000 jobs in Germany.

Firms including VW and Opel are likely to offer software updates for engines.

But agreement on a much more expensive fix – retrofitting diesel engines with new components – is unlikely, correspondents say.

The software updates, for about two million cars, will cost about €300m (£268m; $355m). The aim is to make older cars compliant with EU air quality standards, to cut the amount of toxic nitrogen oxide (NOx) they emit.

The pressure increased last week, when a court in Stuttgart upheld a proposal to ban older diesel cars from the city.

It is the home city of Mercedes and Porsche, and one of Germany’s pollution hotspots.

Air pollution now regularly exceeds legal limits in many German cities. It is a headache for the mighty automotive industry and for German politicians, ahead of a 24 September general election.

But Germany is unlikely to commit to ending production of combustion engine vehicles any time soon, our correspondent says.

Concern about air pollution in cities and the impact of CO2 emissions on the climate has put governments and manufacturers under pressure to clean up the industry.

France and the UK plan to ban sales of fossil-fuel vehicles from 2040.

But switching to a future of electric vehicles will be hugely expensive – not least because of the need for charging points everywhere.

British Airways has apologised for a “temporary” problem with its check-in systems at some UK airports.  Passengers at Heathrow, Gatwick and London City airports had to be checked in manually and faced long queues and delays.  BA said the fault was resolved at about 09:00 BST and its computerised system was now operating normally.  It comes after a power cut led to hundreds of flights being cancelled over the May bank holiday weekend.

A spokesman for BA said:

We are sorry for the temporary check-in problems which caused some delays for our customers first thing this morning.

This issue is now resolved and our staff are working flat out to help customers get away on their holidays.

The problems in May resulted in an IT failure and the cancellation of more than 670 flights from Heathrow and Gatwick. BA later said it was caused by an engineer who disconnected a power supply.  Meanwhile, passengers flying from EU airports have been warned they may face long queues over new security checks brought in after recent terror attacks.