Google’s Go search app can now read the web out loud

Google has launched a new feature for its lightweight Go search app: text-to-speech reading for websites. The tool is designed to make the web feel more accessible for users in developing countries, says Google, reading any site aloud at the touch of a button. Impressively, it’s powered by the company’s AI but lightweight enough to use over a 2G connection — an important feature for markets where bandwidth comes at a premium.

Go launched last year in India and Indonesia as part of a growing suite of Google products meant to capture the “next billion” internet users. As the tech giant noted in an accompanying blog post, India already has the second largest population of internet users in the world, with 40 million new users coming online each year. That’s a lot of potential growth.

Text-to-speech will make the web more accessible for new users, says Google. It might also help those individuals who don’t use text at all. As a report last year in The Wall Street Journal noted, users in developing countries often avoid typing and reading in favor of sharing voice messages and images. Speech recognition helps users navigate the web without typing, but text-to-speech could help them consume what they find there.

The feature highlights text as it reads it and lets users adjust playback speed.
Credit: Google via TechCrunch

The new feature will be available in 28 languages, including some of the most commonly spoken in India: Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam, Marathi, and Tamil. (India recognizes 22 official languages in total.) The features also highlights words on the page as it speaks them, helping users follow along; and has options for altering playback speed.

“Using this technology, consuming long-form text becomes as easy as watching TV or listening to the radio,” claims Google. “It’s also helpful for multitasking, like following a recipe while cooking a meal, listening to articles while exercising, or catching up on news on your commute.” Unfortunately, the feature does not seem to be available in the main Google search app.

Court halts FCC plan to revoke low-income internet subsidies on tribal lands

A $25 monthly subsidy that’s meant to help low-income households on tribal lands get phone or internet service will remain in place for the time being, after a court found that the Federal Communication Commission’s plan to largely remove the subsidies seems to have been made without properly considering the harms to customers and businesses.

A federal court said on Friday that petitioners — including tribes, nonprofits, and wireless carriers — were likely to prove that the commission’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious,” meaning that it failed to fully consider the changes it was making. In particular, the court said, the FCC appears to have failed to look at whether residents of tribal lands will have alternative options to get online once these changes are in place or to prove that the changes would not lead to “mass disconnection.” The ruling was spotted by Ars Technica.

Changes to the subsidy came as a result of FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s continued work to scale back the commission’s Lifeline program, which offers subsidies to help people near or below the poverty line get phone or internet service. Pai has claimed the program is rife with fraud and wasted spending and that it doesn’t do enough to encourage internet providers to reach homes that still lack access to broadband.

The major change at issue came in November 2017. Residents of tribal lands are eligible for a $25 per month subsidy from Lifeline (on top of the $9.25 received elsewhere), and the FCC largely voted to strip it from them. The commission’s vote immediately did two things: it limited the $25 discount to people in rural areas, and it limited the discounts to internet providers that own and operate their own network.

That meant that even if you still qualified for the subsidy, you couldn’t buy service from an internet provider that branded and resold another company’s network — something that’s extremely common among wireless plans marketed to lower-income consumers. The FCC also hopes to apply this rule nationwide, which would mean that “over 70 percent of wireless Lifeline consumers will be told they cannot use their preferred carrier and preferred plan,” then-FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn said at the time.

Friday’s ruling is a victory for tribal members who “rely on Lifeline service for their telephone and broadband needs,” Gene DeJordy, an attorney for the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, who are among the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

The FCC’s plan would have gone into place later this year. But with this ruling, it will be halted at least until this lawsuit can be seen through. With a judge willing to freeze the policy, however, it appears that the FCC is likely to lose — at least in this round of litigation. That means the commission will either have to keep fighting or go back and rework the proposal so that it passes review.