UK to put up £1BN for full fiber broadband and 5G, £400M extra for VC

The UK government has confirmed it will be borrowing to try to encourage investment in high speed fiber broadband networks and 5G technology — with a plan to spend over £1BN by 2020-2021 to bolster the country’s digital infrastructure.

Giving his Autumn Statement today, Chancellor Philip Hammond said: “Our future transport, business and lifestyle needs will require world class digital infrastructure to underpin them. My ambition is for the UK to be a world leader in 5G — that means a full fiber network, a step change in speed, security and reliability. So we will invest over £1BN in our digital infrastructure to catalyze private investment in fiber networks and to support 5G trials.”

The UK continues to rank well outside the top 10 countries for average broadband speeds, according to Akamai’s 2016 report. While the gap between urban and rural broadband speeds remains problematic.

Incumbent telco BT, whose Openreach subsidiary owns and manages access to the UK’s primary broadband infrastructure, has focused its efforts on squeezing higher speeds out of existing copper based infrastructure — with only very limited full fiber to the home rollouts. While rival broadband network providers, such as Virgin Media, typically focus on urban areas where the volume of paying customers makes the infrastructure expenditure worth their while. The result: Just two per cent of UK premises have access to full-fibre connections.

The government’s plan to improve that figure is to encourage smaller, alternative players to push in with full fiber offerings. There will be £400M for what it dubs “gold standard” fiber broadband, with funds needing to be matched by broadband providers — so a potential £800M to fund rollouts.

Today Hammond also said that from next April there will be 100 per cent business rates relief for a five year period on new fiber infrastructure — “supporting further rollout of fiber to homes and businesses”.

A further £750M will be made available to fund 5G trials.

The chancellor added that the government will be asking the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) for recommendations on the UK’s future economic infrastructure needs — and signaled an intention to increase the proportion of GDP spent here, to between 1% and 1.2% of GDP every year from 2020, up from around 0.8% this year.

£400M to try to help UK startups scale before being bought out

The Autumn Statement also contained a measure specifically aimed at supporting UK startups to scale up, with the Chancellor announcing plans to put £400M into venture capital firms via the British Business Bank — “unlocking £1BN of new finance for growing firms” as, in his words, “a first step to tackle the long-standing problem of our fastest growing startup tech firms being snapped up by bigger companies, rather than growing to scale”.

Eileen Burbidge a parter at VC firm Passion Capital, which has received investment money via the British Business Bank, welcomed the move.

“I think it’s an excellent decision,” she told TechCrunch. “Passion isn’t more likely to be a future beneficiary than anyone else (our existing/prior BBB commitments have been done/in the past, 2011 and 2015) but as a previous beneficiary we can attest to how valuable the BBB support was to attracting other investors in support of our fund and activities.

“The BBB was absolutely crucial for us in launching our first fund since we were first time fund managers. Their commitment helped to secure funding from across European and South East Asian family offices and high net worths. So I think it’s brilliant the BBB will be given more funding to support even more fund managers or to greater degrees.”

Asked about the government’s overarching aim of prevent promising homegrown startups from being bought by overseas acquirers before they have a chance to get really big she described it as a “noble aim”, but added: “I see it all as good activity (acquisitions, mergers) and that it’s a good thing the world recognises Britain as a place to scout for great talent, innovation and technology.

“I’ve no doubt as our digital/tech ecosystem continues to mature that we’ll have more and more British ‘tech giants’ as well.”

Also announced: £500,000 per year for fintech startups, coming from the Department of International Trade — although the specter of what Brexit will mean for UK financial services firms looms rather larger. An annual ‘State of UK fintech’ report is also planned, along with a network of regional fintech envoys. Government will also modernise its guidance on electronic ID verification with the aim of supporting tech for accessing financial services.

Another measure mentioned in the Statement is a commitment to spent £390M to build on what Hammond dubbed the UK’s “competitive advantage in low emission vehicles and the development of connected autonomous vehicles”. He also said there will be 100% first year capital allowance for the installation of electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

Also mentioned: support for plans to boost transport links between Oxford and Cambridge, with a view to capitalizing on knowledge sharing between the two universities.

“This project can be more than just a transport link — it can become a transformational tech corridor drawing on the world class research strengths of our two best known universities,” he said, backing the NIC’s interim recommendations on creating an Oxford, Cambridge “growth corridor” — including £110M in funding for East-West rail, and a commitment to deliver an Oxford to Cambridge.

In the speech the chancellor also reiterated the Prime Minister’s announcement earlier this week of a £2BN per year funding boost for R&D by 2020. And confirmed the corporate tax rate will drop to 17 per cent next April — although Theresa May has also said the government will be reviewing the rate to see if a further cut is possible.

He flagged up, in passing, what he described as “the raft of investments in the UK” since the Brexit referendum — name-checking Softbank, Nissan, Google and Apple, “among others”.

Featured Image: Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Google’s AI translation tool seems to have invented its own secret internal language

All right, don’t panic, but computers have created their own secret language and are probably talking about us right now. Well, that’s kind of an oversimplification, and the last part is just plain untrue. But there is a fascinating and existentially challenging development that Google’s AI researchers recently happened across.

You may remember that back in September, Google announced that its Neural Machine Translation system had gone live. It uses deep learning to produce better, more natural translations between languages. Cool!

Following on this success, GNMT’s creators were curious about something. If you teach the translation system to translate English to Korean and vice versa, and also English to Japanese and vice versa… could it translate Korean to Japanese, without resorting to English as a bridge between them? They made this helpful gif to illustrate the idea of what they call “zero-shot translation” (it’s the orange one):

image01As it turns out — yes! It produces “reasonable” translations between two languages that it has not explicitly linked in any way. Remember, no English allowed.

But this raised a second question. If the computer is able to make connections between concepts and words that have not been formally linked… does that mean that the computer has formed a concept of shared meaning for those words, meaning at a deeper level than simply that one word or phrase is the equivalent of another?

In other words, has the computer developed its own internal language to represent the concepts it uses to translate between other languages? Based on how various sentences are related to one another in the memory space of the neural network, Google’s language and AI boffins think that it has.

A visualization of the translation system's memory when translating a single sentence in multiple directions.

A visualization of the translation system’s memory when translating a single sentence in multiple directions.

This “interlingua” seems to exist as a deeper level of representation that sees similarities between a sentence or word in all three languages. Beyond that, it’s hard to say, since the inner processes of complex neural networks are infamously difficult to describe.

It could be something sophisticated, or it could be something simple. But the fact that it exists at all — an original creation of the system’s own to aid in its understanding of concepts it has not been trained to understand — is, philosophically speaking, pretty powerful stuff.

The paper describing the researchers’ work (primarily on efficient multi-language translation but touching on the mysterious interlingua) can be read at Arxiv. No doubt the question of deeper concepts being created and employed by the system will warrant further investigation. Until then, let’s assume the worst.

Google’s redesigned Google Sites goes live

For the longest time, Google Sites felt like the forgotten app in Google’s productivity suite. Earlier this year, though, the company announced that it would finally give Sites a full overhaul. Today, after a short beta, this new version of Sites is going live for all users.

Google Sites is essentially a drag-and-drop website builder for creating both public facing web pages and intranet sites that’s deeply integrated with the rest of Google’s tools. You can easily insert documents from Google Docs, Slides, Sheets and the rest of the (unfortunately named) G Suite tools into any site, for example. It also directly integrates with Google Analytics. The new sites now also allows multiple users to collaboratively edit a site (using the same tech the company also uses in Google Docs).

Admins can choose whether users are able to publish to the web or only able to make their pages available to users on their own domain.

With this update, any pages you create in Sites will also automatically scale according to the screen size you are using — and its preview mode makes it easy to see what a site will look like on a phone, tablet and desktop. In order to make those sites look halfway professional, Google added six new themes to get you started. All of these themes come with customizable font and color settings, but I hope Google will add a few more options over time.

Sadly, it doesn’t look like you’ll be able to easily move existing sites over to the new experience (which made our Editorial Director here at TechCrunch rather unhappy), but at least for the time being, you’ll be able to jump back and forth between the old and new editors. Update: A Google spokesperson told us that Google will provide and recommend options for migrating from the classic Sites to the new Sites in 2017.

Most importantly, though, Sites is now a product people will want to use. It finally feels like a modern applications and not like the last vestige of Google’s old and forgotten design principles.

sitesmapgif

Most students can’t tell fake news from real news, study shows

If you thought you heard the last on fake news, you were sadly mistaken.

A Stanford study found that the majority of middle school students can’t tell the difference between real news and fake news. In fact, 82 percent couldn’t distinguish between a real news story on a website and a “sponsored content” post.

Of the 8,704 students studied (ranging in age from middle school to college level), four in ten high-school students believed that the region near Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant was toxic after seeing an unsourced photo of deformed daisies coupled with a headline about the Japanese area. The photo, keep in mind, had no source or location attribution. Meanwhile, two out of every three middle-schoolers were fooled by an article on financial preparedness penned by a bank executive.

It seems that those surveyed in the study were judging validity of news on Twitter based on the amount of detail in the tweet and whether or not a large photo was attached, rather than focusing on the source of the tweet.

The WSJ, which first reported on the study, says that a big part of solving this problem among young people comes down to education, both at school and at home.

But with 62 percent of U.S. adults getting the majority of their news from social media, the responsibility for this issue also lies with the social media organizations themselves, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Both Google and Facebook have made steps toward thwarting the fake news onslaught, including banning fake news organizations from their ad network. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg also posted a number of responses to the issue on Facebook, and gave actual steps toward stopping the spread of fake news on the platform.

That said, the fallout from fake news is not as minor as Zuck originally stated in his first response on Facebook, where he mentioned that less than 1 percent of news on Facebook is fake.

Even in minuscule amounts, fake news has a much greater ability to spread quickly and be consumed by many given the nature of the salacious headlines themselves. Paired with the fact that most adults get their news from social media, and most young people can’t tell the difference, you can see just how problematic this issue is.

Hopefully, steps toward stopping fake news come swiftly and effectively. But until then, it’s important for parents to be diligent in teaching their kids how to determine the difference between a sourced news report and a salacious headline with no evidence behind it.

Featured Image: Nationaal Archief/J.D. Noske/Flickr

DeepMind Health inks new deal with UK’s NHS to deploy Streams app in early 2017

DeepMind Health, the division of the Google-owned AI company that’s focused on building links to healthcare providers to drive the application of machine learning algorithms for preventative medicine, has inked a fresh data-sharing agreement with the NHS Royal Free Hospital Trust in London. The new data-sharing arrangement extends until at least 2021.

It’s the second agreement signed between the pair — and it supersedes their original agreement inked last year, which ran into controversy after a freedom of information request by New Scientist revealed the volume of patient identifiable medical data (PID) flowing from the Royal Free to DeepMind, and raised questions about whether NHS information governance principles were being correctly followed. The data in question was being used to power an app called Streams, built by DeepMind but using an NHS algorithm to generate alerts on patients at risk of Acute Kidney Injury (AKI).

At the time the collaboration was made public, last February, no details were provided about how much PID was being shared between DeepMind and the NHS — leading to huge consternation when the scope of the arrangement emerged.

The U.K.’s data watchdog, the ICO, began investigating complaints about the data-sharing agreement. The Streams app also ran into trouble when it was revealed DeepMind and the Royal Free had not registered it as a medical device with the oversight body, the MHRA, despite piloting the app in the Royal Free’s hospitals. The MHRA had not been approached prior to starting tests of the app.

The pair subsequently suspended use of Streams in the hospitals. But they’re now announcing plans to restart the project — and, evidently, to try to reset it onto a firmer information governance footing. Above all this is an attempt to improve the tarnished public image of DeepMind’s inaugural push into preventative healthcare by trying to secure patient trust — to, ultimately, grease the future funnel for more data flows from the NHS to DeepMind.

The point is, healthcare-related AI needs very high-quality data sets to nurture the kind of smarts DeepMind is hoping to be able to build. And the publicly funded NHS has both a wealth of such data and a pressing need to reduce costs — incentivizing it to accept the offer of “free” development work and wide-ranging partnerships with DeepMind (which has several other projects on the go with other NHS Trusts).

DeepMind and the Royal Free confirmed today that the Streams app has now been registered as a medical device with the MHRA, and said it is ready to be deployed in the Royal Free’s hospitals from early next year.

“Following prototype testing, as well as registration with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), this first version of Streams is ready to be deployed to clinicians across the Royal Free hospital sites early in 2017. It is expected to result in an immediate improvement in AKI-related patient safety and outcomes,” they write in a press release about what they describe as the “next phase” of their collaboration.

There also looks to be a broadening of the scope, with the PR talking about expanding the app’s remit to cover early detection of sepsis and organ failure, as well as AKI.

“The ultimate version of the Streams app will alert doctors and nurses to patients who need their attention in seconds rather than hours, reducing the number of patients who deteriorate in hospital without a clinician being aware,” they write, adding: “Streams will be extended beyond AKI to help care for patients with other serious conditions including sepsis and organ failure. At least ten thousand people a year die in UK hospitals through entirely preventable causes, and some 40% of patients could avoid being admitted to intensive care, if the right clinician was able to take the right action sooner.”

On the information governance front, among the noteworthy developments are:

  • A commitment from DeepMind/Royal Free to publish “the key agreements underpinning this partnership,” including the master services agreement (covering the partnership as a whole) and information processing agreement (covering how patient data is processed) — although they do not state when these documents will be published. Update: both documents can now be downloaded from DeepMind’s Streams webpage.
  • A statement that DeepMind’s software and data centers will undergo what they describe as “deep technical audits by experts commissioned by [DeepMind’s] Independent Reviewers” (a list of the reviewers can be found here).
  • The introduction of what they describe as “an unprecedented level of data security and audit” pertaining to the data being shared under the arrangement, with data access “logged, and subject to review by the Royal Free as well as DeepMind Health’s nine Independent Reviewers”
  • An intention to develop what they describe as “an unprecedented new infrastructure that will enable ongoing audit by the Royal Free, allowing administrators to easily and continually verify exactly when, where, by whom and for what purpose patient information is accessed.” This is being built by Ben Laurie, co-founder of the OpenSSL project.
  • A commitment that the infrastructure that powers Streams is being built on “state-of-the-art open and interoperable standards,” which they specify will enable the Royal Free to have other developers build new services that integrate more easily with their systems. “This will dramatically reduce the barrier to entry for developers who want to build for the NHS, opening up a wave of innovation — including the potential for the first artificial intelligence-enabled tools, whether developed by DeepMind or others,” they add.
  • They also describe the types of data being shared under the new agreement as “similar” to those being shared in the original agreement — suggesting there has been some rethinking of which types of data are appropriate to share for the AKI use-case (a key criticism of the original arrangement); although it’s not yet clear what those differences are. We’ve asked DeepMind for clarification and will update this story with any response.

Commenting in a statement, DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman said: “Privacy and trust are paramount, and we’re holding ourselves to an unprecedented level of oversight by publishing our agreements publicly and engaging nine respected public figures to scrutinise our work in the public interest.”

Despite what is clearly a lot of re-engineering of the presentation and some changes in the structure of DeepMind’s collaboration with a publicly funded and much-beloved National Health Service, many questions remain unanswered — not least the core criticism that the volume of PID being shared without patient consent is questionable, given the pair have always relied on claiming they do not need to obtain patient consent for sharing the data because they say it is being used for what’s termed “direct patient care.”

However, direct patient care refers to a direct care relationship between an individual patient and their clinician(s) — whereas some of the patients’ whose data is being shared under the Streams arrangement, so at least initially for the purposes of detecting AKI, will never be in the relevant direct care relationship because they will never develop AKI.

Safe to say, the push toward “preventative” healthcare looks to be putting a lot of pressure on the NHS’ traditional information government processes — which are not set up for an era of big-data mining and machine learning-driven “future potential” promises. It remains to be seen whether the U.K.’s National Data Guardian will seek to provide some guidance here (following controversy generated by the original DeepMind/Royal Free data-sharing data, Caldicott has been looking into how data was shared between the pair).

But as private sector giants like DeepMind make early bids for valuable public health data sets — for the stated aim of building future healthcare services to sell back in to the NHS etc. — governments and regulators have an equally pressing need to get their heads around the new reality of health data — as both a highly sensitive and personal resource and a commercial-accelerant-in-waiting that could enable the creation of a new generation of digital healthcare products. One thing is certain: Gaining and sustaining patient trust in any such systems will be essential.

At the time of writing DeepMind had not responded to requests for an interview. 

Google acquires Qwiklabs to teach developers cloud skills

Google today announced that it has acquired Qwiklabs, a hands-on learning platform for those who want to become more familiar with operating cloud environments and writing applications that run on them.

Qwiklabs, which launched in 2012, has only focused on teaching skills for Amazon’s AWS platform so far. Given AWS’ dominance in the marketplace, that made perfect sense. Amazon even uses Qwiklabs as its go-to service for offering self-paced labs for developers on its platform.

Google says it will use Qwiklabs’s platform to focus “on offering the most comprehensive, efficient, and fun way to train and onboard people across all our products on Google Cloud, including Google Cloud Platform and G Suite.”

Qwiklabs says it will continue to offer lab learning credits and subscriptions on its site and it looks like the existing AWS labs will continue to function. I’m not sure we’ll see all that many new AWS courses in the future, though, but that remains unclear. A Google spokesperson told us that the company doesn’t have any further specifics to announce about this. As far as Qwiklabs’s Google Cloud courses go, the same spokesperson also told us that the company doesn’t have any specifics to announce as to when those will go live, either.

Qwiklabs says that over half a million users have used its platform to spend over five million hours of learning about AWS so far. According to CrunchBase, the company never raised any outside funding and neither Google nor Qwiklabs disclosed the price of today’s acquisition.

Google can now tell you how busy a place is before you arrive

With Popular Times, Google introduced a nifty little feature for its search engine last year that lets you know how busy a restaurant, coffee shop or bar typically is at any given time of the week. Today, it’s taking this concept a step further by making this tool real-time. So now, you will know exactly how long the line is going to be before you even head out to your favorite brunch place on Sunday morning.

Like before, the Popular Times widget will appear when you look for a restaurant or bar in Google Search and Google Maps. It uses anonymized location data and searches to determine how busy a place currently is.

In my experience, the non-real time version was always pretty accurate, but it obviously doesn’t account for any special events that may change how many people crave Bloody Marys on any given Sunday. In case Google gets it wrong, though, you won’t get your time back but you can send it a correction.

Google already lets you know how long people lingered at a given place, so if you’re trying to figure out if you can still squeeze in a quick coffee before your next meeting, the combination of the new real-time data and this existing feature will hopefully get you there on time.

As far as I can see, the new real-time Popular Times feature isn’t live yet, but I would expect it to be available in the next few hours.

live-ptindevice-sf

Google opens up its new product for business file sharing “Team Drives” to early adopters

Google is opening up applications to businesses interested in testing its new file-sharing product called Team Drives. Announced earlier this fall, the focus of Team Drives is to offer companies an easier way to share files across their organization, along with more granular access controls over the content those shared folders contain.

Prior to Team Drives, the company’s Dropbox competitor, Google Drive, has focused more on personal productivity than the needs of larger organizations, where content needs to be accessible to a wide group of people through these shared spaces.

Some people may need to have rights to actually edit the documents, while others may only need to view them, of course, but there also needs to be controls in place that would prevent users from removing or deleting files, either intentionally or by accident.

When Google first announced Team Drives, it said that a rewrite of the technology stack that powers Google Drive was needed to enable this new functionality. Because it’s still not ready for public use while the kinks are being worked out, businesses can initially only request access to test Team Drives through Google’s Early Adopter Program.

This program will launch shortly, says Google. However, acceptance into the program has a few restrictions. For starters, testers have to already be G Suite Business and Education customers. (G Suite, as you’ll recall, is Google’s rebranding of its Google Apps for Work suite of business tools.)

In addition, only G Suite administrators can sign up for Team Drives, and they’ll need to enroll their entire primary domain. (They can’t enroll secondary domains at this time, either.)

While admins will be able to restrict access to Team Drives content once on board, all users in the company will be able to see and access the Team Drives, explains Google. In other words, joining the Early Adopters program will have to be a decision businesses made at an executive level as I.T. won’t be able to test the service quietly with only select internal users.

The largest benefit to using Team Drives is the ability to better centralize a business’s most critical files, eliminating the issues that come along with content silos, where certain individuals have key pieces of information in their personal folders. Instead, Team Drives users will be able to continue to access those files even in the event that an employee changes teams or leaves the company.

Google has already been testing Team Drives with a small set of customers, but today is making testing available to a wider audience through the launch of its Early Adopter Program.

Facebook plans to boost UK headcount by 50% as gov’t signals corporate tax rate cut

Facebook has followed Google’s lead by trumpeting plans to expand its presence in the UK — despite ongoing uncertainty over the impact of this summer’s Brexit vote for the country to leave the European Union.

Speaking at the annual CBI conference in London today, Facebook’s Nicola Mendelsohn, VP EMEA, announced plans for the social network to increase its UK headcount by 50 per cent by the end of 2017, and open a new HQ in the country.

Mendelsohn said the aim is to grow headcount from 1,000 to 1,500 by then — with “many” of the new jobs touted as “high skilled engineering jobs”.

“We came to London in 2007 with just a handful of people, by the end of next year we will have opened a new HQ and plan to employ 1,500 people. Many of those new roles will be high skilled engineering jobs as the UK is home to our largest engineering base outside of the US and is where we have developed new products like Workplace,” she said, also noting the company’s presence in Somerset — where its Aquila facility is working on designing and building solar power unmanned planes to bring connectivity to remote regions.

It’s not clear exactly what proportion of the additional jobs would be engineering roles vs other jobs such as sales. We asked but the company declined to provide any further details.

Facebook’s announcement of an intention to increase UK headcount follows Google’s UK-focused publicity last week when the company re-announced a long planned expansion of its London campus — couching the move as a continued commitment to the UK in spite of Brexit.

Reporters were told that the capacity of Google’s new London HQ is 7,000 vs the 4,000 of its current building — with the implication being the company could employee 3,000 more staff in the UK by 2020. Assuming, that is, business conditions in the UK prove favorable — with CEO Sundar Pichai talking about the ‘absolute’ importance of open borders and free movement for skilled migrants. Two things that, absolutely, cannot be guaranteed, given the UK’s impending Brexit. So quite how many of those potential 3,000 additional Google UK jobs end up existing remains to be seen — like so many things affected by Brexit.

Facebook’s UK expansion plans don’t mention any specific caveats or conditions for the company to grow headcount in the country. But in related PR it also makes a point of referencing its mission to “make the world more open and connected”. Which reads like a not-so-subtle argument for the UK government to push for a ‘soft Brexit’, rather than the tough on immigration rhetoric of the hard Brexiteers.

Especially as a “plan” to add an additional 500 jobs is in no way an irreversible guarantee. So again, it remains to be seen how many of the extra Facebook jobs survive the looming Brexit negotiations.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May has said she intends to trigger the start of the two-year negotiation process to leave the EU by the end of March 2017.

Also speaking at the CBI conference today, the Prime Minister announced a series of business-friendly measures aimed at pouring some emollient oil on the troubled waters of Brexit — including a government funding boost for R&D worth £2BN per year by 2020; and a review of the UK’s corporate tax rate, suggesting it could move to substantially cut the rate below the current 20 per cent. (Albeit, such a move could in fact complicate the UK’s Brexit negotiations — given it would likely be viewed as a hostile move by EU governments.)

Also on the table: a possible boost for R&D tax credits to further support businesses conducting research in the UK.

May also announced a new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, overseen by UK Research and Innovation and funded by some of the £2BN R&D boost — aimed at supporting the commercialization of what the government is dubbing “priority technologies”, such as robotics, biotechnology and AI.

Other emerging fields that could benefit from the new fund’s support include medical technology, satellites, advanced materials manufacturing and “other areas where the UK has a proven scientific strength and there is a significant economic opportunity for commercialisation”.

Featured Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Google reverses its ‘digital death sentence’ for Pixel phone resellers

Google has now lifted a controversial ban which wiped out the digital identities — meaning Gmail accounts, access to photos, voicemails and files — of those consumers who used a tax loophole to profit from reselling their Pixel smartphones. The affected people were, in fact, in violation of Google’s Terms of Service, which prohibits you from commercially reselling any device.

However, Google’s disproportionate response to the violation has been described as the “21st century version of losing priceless mementos in a house fire,” according to Daniel Eleff, the owner of the website Dan’s Deals, which initially spotted the bans following the complaints from forum members.

The violation, in a nutshell, involved consumers who bought their phones from Google’s Project Fi mobile operator, then shipped them to a reseller in New Hampshire, a state with no sales tax. The reseller agreed to split the profit from the resale of the devices, which were marked up, with those who shipped in their phones.

Obviously, this is a pretty shady arrangement on all the participants’ parts, and it does warrant a response of some kind from Google. But wiping out a user’s Google identity was a bit too much.

At the very least, it was argued, Google could have allowed those whose accounts were terminated to export their data.

your-google-account-has-been-suspended-anshelkgmail-com-gmail-google-chrome-2016-11-16-20-21-45-1

The news of the bans was picked up by a number of media outlets this week, including The Guardian, Consumerist, PCMag, Engadget, the AP and others. The AP also characterized Google’s actions as “a digital death sentence” — repeating Eleff’s sentiments — after interviewing those who lost access to their data following the Google ban.

Eleff, who has been tracking the issue on his Dan’s Deals site, posted a statement Google sent to him which explained that many of the Google accounts that were suspended were created “for the sole purpose of this scheme” — referring to the customers’ plans to resell their devices.

But that wasn’t universally true, which is why Google is now switching back on access to those with “genuine accounts.”

It was estimated that more than 200 people were blocked from their accounts by Google.

google-accountsa

The Guardian this morning spotted the update to Dan’s Deals website, which details Google’s change of heart.

“After investigating the situation, we are restoring access to genuine accounts for customers who are locked out of many Google services they rely on,” the Google statement reads.

While it’s good to hear that the punishment no longer exceeds the crime for those involved, the larger takeaway from this situation is a stark reminder of how much of our digital lives are out of our control. With one false move, people lost access to a significant part of their digital identity and trove of personal data.

As the AP report found by speaking with those affected, these people’s lives were immediately impacted in non-trivial ways — they missed emails with confirmation numbers for their flights, couldn’t access work files or medical records, didn’t spot messages about upcoming credit card payments and so on.

Google may be within its right to take an action — perhaps ban violators from buying more phones or ask them to export their data and move to another provider — but it shouldn’t have the right to completely shut off someone’s digital life instantly, with no warning.

(image credits, email and screenshot: Dan’s Deals)