By Reuters | Updated: 22 November 2021
Five members of Congress called for federal consumer-privacy legislation after a Reuters report published Friday revealed how Amazon.com Inc has led an under-the-radar campaign to gut privacy protections in 25 states while amassing a valuable trove of personal data on American consumers.
“Amazon shamefully launched a campaign to squash privacy legislation while its devices listen to and watch our lives,” US Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who has been involved in bipartisan negotiations on privacy legislation, wrote Friday on Twitter. “This is now the classic Big Tech move: deploy money and armies of lobbyists to fight meaningful reforms in the shadows but claim to support them publicly.”
The revelations underscored the need for bipartisan action on stronger privacy protections, he wrote. No major federal privacy legislation has passed Congress in years because members have been deadlocked on the issue..
US Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has introduced several privacy bills in recent years, said in a statement that the Reuters story showed how companies including Amazon are “spending millions to weaken state laws,” and hoping Congress will also water down federal legislation “until it’s worthless.”
“Congress needs to prove Amazon wrong, and pass legislation that finally stops massive corporations from abusing and exploiting our personal data,” Wyden said.
Asked for comment, Amazon did not directly address the lawmaker criticisms of its lobbying campaign against privacy protections. The company reiterated its statement for the previous Reuters report, saying it prefers federal privacy legislation to a “patchwork” of state regulations. The company said it wants one federal privacy law that “requires transparency about data practices, prohibits the sale of personal data without consent, and ensures that consumers have the right to request access to and deletion of their personal information.”
US Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who chairs a key House consumer protection subcommittee that deals with privacy issues, said the Reuters revelations show how Amazon is working to block consumer privacy legislation while “claiming to support” such regulations.
“What they mean is that they support privacy legislation that protects their profits and their right to mine consumers’ data, including voice recordings and facial scans,” she said in a statement. “Congress is not convinced nor are we intimidated.”
Two other lawmakers who represent areas with a significant Amazon presence – US Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, and US Representative Suzan DelBene, a Washington state Democrat – also said Reuters’ findings showed the need for federal action to protect consumers.
“Congress will protect consumers’ privacy to stop big tech companies from stealing Americans’ personal information, whether these companies like it or not,” Blackburn said in a statement.
© Thomson Reuters 2021
Microsoft’s $16-Billion Nuance Deal Faces Deeper Probe by EU Antitrust Regulator
By Reuters | Updated: 7 December 2021
EU’s antitrust regulator is taking a deeper look into Microsoft’s $16-billion (roughly Rs. 1,20,525 crore) deal for transcription technology company Nuance Communications, asking customers and competitors to draw up a list of concerns, according to a questionnaire from last month.
The previously unreported outreach is the most extensive by an antitrust authority since the companies announced the acquisition in April, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Microsoft declined to comment, and Nuance did not respond to a request for comment.
After minimal review, the US Department of Justice in June and the Australian Competition Commission in October said they would not contest the deal. The companies filed for approval from the European Commission’s competition bureau last month, and the regulator has until December 21 to clear the deal or open a bigger investigation.
The companies had expected to close the deal by the end of this year, but said last month the timeline could slip to early next year.
The questionnaire asks whether Microsoft and Nuance are competitors and whether a tie-up could affect clients and rivals, including whether Microsoft could favour Nuance over competing services.
Nuance primarily sells transcription technology that is popular among doctors and call centres that want to automate note-talking. Analysts view the deal as bolstering Microsoft’s presence in the healthcare market, and bringing it new voice and medical data to train artificial intelligence offerings in health, speech and biometric security.
Like other big tech companies, Microsoft for years has grown its business through acquisitions, such as in advertising and video gaming. But in the last decade, Microsoft has avoided the target that recently has dogged its competitors Alphabet’s Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon, all of which are facing antitrust lawsuits and investigations on numerous issues.
Steven Weber, a University of California Berkeley professor studying the intersection of technology and health care, said possible concerns about the pending deal could include Microsoft forcing its Office suite on Nuance customers by bundling them together.
Nuance has said it serves 77 percent of US hospitals.
A key to its success has been has ensuring in deals with customers that it could use their data to advance its voice recognition systems, according to former chief executive Paul Ricci and another former employee.
For instance, a Nuance contract with Augusta University Medical Center, obtained by Reuters this year through a public records request, reads, “Customer shall provide Nuance access to voice and text data…and grants Nuance a perpetual, royalty-free license to copy, use and analyse such data for speech recognition research.”
Big cloud vendors such as Amazon and Microsoft typically do not have unfettered access to customers’ data for research and development. But the opportunity to acquire those relationships and data explains Microsoft’s interest in Nuance, the former employees said.
Other providers of health transcription technologies include 3M and Philips.
© Thomson Reuters 2021
Pegasus Scandal: Israel Issues Stricter Guidelines for Use of Its Cyber Tech Exports
By Reuters | Updated: 7 December 2021
Israel said on Monday that countries interested in buying its cyber technologies would have to commit to using them to prevent only a limited list of terrorist acts and serious crimes.
The move announced by Israel’s Defence Ministry was the latest step in enhancing its oversight following concern over possible abuses abroad of a hacking tool sold by Israeli firms like NSO Group.
An updated certificate to be signed by purchasing countries lists in detail what qualifies as “terrorist acts” – like attacks on people, public facilities, seizures of aircraft, the release of dangerous substances – as well as “serious crimes” referring to those that warrant imprisonment of six years or more.
“The definitions for serious crimes and terrorist acts have been sharpened in order to prevent the blurring of boundaries in this context,” the Defence Ministry said.
It also spells out uses that are prohibited – like targeting people for political affiliation or applications that break that country’s privacy laws – for which Israel could revoke licences and the systems be shut down.
Israel has been under pressure to rein in exports of spyware since July, when a group of international news organisations reported that NSO’s Pegasus tool had been used to hack into phones of journalists, government officials and rights activists in several countries.
Those reports prompted Israel to review the cyber export policy administered by the Defence Ministry.
Last month, Israel was reported to have slashed the list of countries eligible to buy its cyber technologies.
NSO has denied any wrongdoing, saying it sells its tools only to governments and law enforcement agencies and has safeguards in place to prevent misuse.
© Thomson Reuters 2021
Elon Musk’s Starlink to Apply for India Licence by End of January
By Reuters | Updated: 4 December 2021
Starlink, the satellite internet division of billionaire Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX, will apply early next year for a commercial licence in India to provide broadband and other services, its country head said on Friday.
“We hope to have applied for a commercial license on or before 31st January, 2022 (unless we hit some major roadblock),” Sanjay Bhargava, Starlink Country Director, India at SpaceX said in a LinkedIn post.
If the company can roll out its services by April, it aims to have 200,000 Starlink devices in India by December 2022, it said in a presentation posted by Bhargava. The company has previously said it expects 80 percent of these devices to be in rural areas.
Starlink is one of a growing number of companies launching small satellites as part of a low-Earth orbit network to provide low-latency broadband internet services around the world, with a particular focus on remote areas that terrestrial internet infrastructure struggles to reach.
Its competitors include Amazon.com’s Kuiper and OneWeb which is co-owned by the British government and India’s Bharti Enterprises.
While Starlink has already received over 5,000 pre-orders for its devices in India, it has not begun any services.
Even so, the Indian government, last week, advised people against subscribing to Starlink as it does not have a license to operate in the country. It also warned the company, ordering it to refrain from taking bookings and rendering services.
Starlink has stopped taking pre-orders for its devices, according to its website, citing “pending regulatory approval”.
Last month the company registered a local unit, Starlink Satellite Communications Private Ltd, paving the way for it to begin doing business in the country.
© Thomson Reuters 2021
Google Delays Mandatory Return to Office Beyond January 10
By Reuters | Updated: 3 December 2021
Alphabet’s Google said on Thursday it is indefinitely pushing back its January return-to-office plan globally amid growing concerns over the Omicron variant of the coronavirus and some resistance to company-mandated vaccinations.
Google in August had said it would expect workers to come in about three days a week from January 10 at the earliest, ending its voluntary work-from-home policy.
On Thursday, Google executives told employees that the company would put off the deadline beyond that date. Insider first reported the news.
Google said the update was in line with its earlier guidance that a return to workplaces would begin no earlier than January 10 and depend on local conditions.
Nearly 40 percent of US employees have come into an office in recent weeks, Google said, with higher percentages in other parts of the world.
But CNBC reported last week that hundreds of employees have protested the company’s vaccination mandate for those working on US government contracts.
Google was one of the first companies to ask its employees to work from home during the pandemic. It has about 85 offices across nearly 60 countries.
Europe has so far recorded 79 cases of the Omicron variant, first detected in southern Africa last month, the European Union’s public health agency said earlier on Thursday.
Facebook Owner Meta Asked by UK Competition Watchdog to Sell Giphy
By Reuters | Updated: 1 December 2021
Facebook owner Meta has been told by the UK competition watchdog to sell popular animated images platform Giphy in Britain’s first such move against so-called Big Tech in its efforts to bolster regulation of the sector.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said it had found that last year’s acquisition of Giphy would reduce competition between social media platforms and in display advertising.
Facebook, which was recently rebranded as Meta Platforms, said it could appeal against the CMA’s decision. It has four weeks to appeal.
“The tie-up between Facebook and Giphy has already removed a potential challenger in the display advertising market,” said Stuart McIntosh, chair of the independent investigation on Facebook-Giphy for the CMA.
“By requiring Facebook to sell Giphy, we are protecting millions of social media users and promoting competition and innovation in digital advertising.”
Facebook said it disagreed with the decision.
“We are reviewing the decision and considering all options, including appeal,” a Meta spokesperson said in a statement.
The CMA in October fined the company a record $70 million (roughly Rs. 525 crore) for breaching an order imposed during its investigation into the acquisition, having said in August that it may need Facebook to sell Giphy.
Facebook bought Giphy, a website for making and sharing animated images, or GIFs, for a reported $400 million (roughly Rs. 2,990 crore) in May 2020 to integrate the operation with its Instagram photo-sharing app. It has defended the deal to the CMA.
Another major provider of GIFs is Google’s Tenor.
The regulator, however, was concerned that Meta could deny competitors access to Giphy GIFs, or force the likes of TikTok, Twitter, and Snapchat to provide more user data to use them.
It also said that innovative advertising services launched by Giphy in the United States before the deal could have been expanded to other markets such as Britain, where Meta controls nearly half of the GBP 7 billion (roughly Rs. 69,780 crore) display advertising market.
The CMA has been stepping up regulation of the Big Tech sector.
Last week Alphabet’s Google pledged more restrictions on its use of data from its Chrome browser to address CMA concerns about plans to ban third-party cookies that advertisers use to track consumers.
Google Fined in Russia for Not Deleting Banned Content from Search, YouTube
By Reuters | Updated: 30 November 2021
Google has been asked to pay a fine of RUB 3 million (roughly Rs. 30 lakh) on Monday for not deleting content a Moscow court deemed illegal, part of a wider dispute between Russia and the Alphabet-owned US tech giant.
Russia in October threatened to fine Google a percentage of its annual Russian turnover for repeatedly failing to delete banned content on its search engine and YouTube, in Moscow’s strongest move yet to rein in foreign tech firms.
Google, which last month said it had paid more than RUB 32 million (roughly Rs. 3.2 crore) in fines, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Russia has issued several small fines to US tech companies this year. State communications regulator Roskomnadzor has slowed down the speed of Twitter since March and has told Reuters it will not lift the restrictions on mobile devices until all illegal content is removed.
Last week, Italy’s antitrust watchdog imposed EUR 20 million (roughly Rs. 170 crore) in fines on Apple and Google, the second time the regulator has sanctioned US tech giants this week.
European countries have cracked down on the business practices of Big Tech in recent years, while the EU is moving forward with legislation to tighten regulation.
The Italian competition authority said it fined Apple and Google EUR 10 million (roughly Rs. 85 crore) each for violations of the consumer code, including failing to provide enough information to custome and resorting to “aggressive methods” in the use of their data for commercial ends.
© Thomson Reuters 2021
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