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Apple, Google Release Early Version of Their Contact Tracing Tech, Say 23 Countries Show Interest

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Authorities in 23 countries across five continents have sought access to contact tracing technology from Apple and Alphabet’s Google, the companies announced on Wednesday as they released the initial version of their system.

But authorities would have to stop requiring phone numbers from users under the companies’ rules, one of several restrictions that have left governments fighting the novel coronavirus frustrated that the world’s top two smartphone software makers undercut the technology’s usefulness by prioritizing user privacy.

Apple and Google said) several US states and 22 countries have sought access to their technology, but it is unclear how many will end up publishing mobile apps that use it.

Using apps to accelerate contact tracing, in which authorities identify and test people who were recently near a virus carrier, has emerged as a tool to stem new outbreaks. It could help authorities test more potentially infected individuals than they would normally be able to based on patients recalling recent interactions from memory.

But some governments contend their app-based efforts would be more effective if they could track users’ locations to identify hot spots for virus transmission and notify them about possible exposure through calls or texts, rather than a generic push notification.

Apple and Google have barred authorities using their technology from collecting GPS location data or requiring users to enter personal data.

“We have a collision of tech, privacy and health professionals and the Venn diagram doesn’t really have a spot where they all overlap,” said Chester Wisniewski, a principal research scientist at cybersecurity company Sophos.

Australia, the United Kingdom, and other countries that have sought to develop their own technology are experiencing glitches, draining device batteries and seeing limited adoption.

Apple and Google have said their system will more reliably use Bluetooth connections between devices to log users who are in physical proximity for at least five minutes.

Developers of contact tracing apps for Austria, Germany, and Switzerland told Reuters this week they were moving forward with the Apple-Google technology and were fine not knowing users’ phone numbers.

Other governments are hedging their bets. Norway plans to compare the effectiveness of its Smittestopp app with an Apple-Google-based app, Gun Peggy Knudsen, acting deputy director of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health said in an interview.

Smittestopp, which has a development budget of about $5 million (roughly Rs. 37.8 crores), accesses GPS location and requires phone numbers. But it has seen limited use because of a low number of new infections.

“If the tracing is so much better with the Apple-Google tool, then perhaps we should switch and we would consider what we need to do to do the switch,” Knudsen said.

North Dakota, which offered the first US contact tracing app, told Reuters on Wednesday it will leave its initial Care19 app as a location-tracking “diary” tool to help patients jog their memories. But it also will release a new Care19 Exposure app based on the Apple-Google technology.

The Australian government said it was in talks with Apple and Google about enhancing its COVIDSafe app, which currently requires phone numbers, postcodes, and age ranges.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Apple Tax Case: EU Appeals Bloc Court’s Rejection of Case

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 25 September 2020

The EU on Friday appealed a major setback at a European court that annulled a Brussels order that Apple repay Ireland EUR 13 billion (roughly Rs. 1,11,435 crores) in back taxes.

The commission “respectfully considers that in its judgment the General Court has made a number of errors of law,” Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition commissioner, said in a statement.

The decision by the EU’s lower court now goes to the top European Court of Justice, with a decision expected no earlier than 2021.

The commission’s historic order that Ireland recoup taxes from Apple was delivered in August 2016 by Vestager in a shock decision that put Europe on the map as a scourge of Silicon Valley.

The iPhone-maker and Ireland challenged the order, which Apple CEO Tim Cook slammed at the time.

In a statement, Apple said it will “review the Commission’s appeal when we receive it.”

“However, it will not alter the factual conclusions of the General Court, which prove that we have always abided by the law in Ireland, as we do everywhere we operate,” it said.

The EU in 2016 accused Ireland of allowing Apple to park revenue earned in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and India and sparing it almost any taxation.

Brussels said this gave Apple an advantage over other companies, allowing it to avoid Irish taxes between 2003 and 2014 of around EUR 13 billion.

EU officials argued that constituted illegal “state aid” by Ireland.

“If member states give certain multinational companies tax advantages not available to their rivals, this harms fair competition in the European Union in breach of State aid rules,” Vestager said.

“There’s more work ahead, including to make sure that all businesses, including digital ones, pay their fair share of tax where it is rightfully due.”

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Facebook, Microsoft Voice Concerns Over Their Games Appearing on Apple’s App Store Amidst Antitrust Probes

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By Reuters | Updated: 11 August 2020

Facebook and Microsoft’s grievances over how their gaming apps appear on Apple’s App Store may feed into an EU investigation into the iPhone maker’s business as EU antitrust regulators said such concerns are on their radar.

The European Commission in June opened four probes into Apple, three of which are into its App Store and its restrictive rules, including requirements that app developers use its own in-app purchasing system.

US social media giant Facebook and Microsoft are the latest companies to voice concerns about the rules, which have drawn criticism from app developers who say they create an uneven playing field to compete with the iPhone maker.

Asked about Facebook and Microsoft’s issues with Apple, Commission spokeswoman Arianna Podesta said in a statement: “The Commission is aware of these concerns regarding Apple’s App Store rules.”

She did not provide details.

Apple dismissed criticism of its App Store rules, saying that all apps are reviewed against the same set of guidelines whose aim is to protect customers and provide a fair and level playing field for developers.

Facebook last week said its gaming app was only available on Apple’s App Store as a streaming service and that users will not be able to play games.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said the company had to remove gameplay functionality entirely to secure Apple’s approval of its Facebook Gaming app.

Microsoft, which has a game-streaming service called Project xCloud said: “Apple stands alone as the only general purpose platform to deny consumers from cloud gaming and game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass.”

“It consistently treats gaming apps differently, applying more lenient rules to non-gaming apps even when they include interactive content,” it added in an emailed statement.


© Thomson Reuters 2020

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China Will Not Accept US ‘Theft’ of TikTok, Says State Media

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By Reuters | Updated: 4 August 2020

China will not accept the “theft” of a Chinese technology company and is able to respond to Washington’s move to push ByteDance to sell short-video app TikTok’s US operations to Microsoft, the China Daily newspaper said on Tuesday.

The United States’ “bullying” of Chinese tech companies was a consequence of Washington’s zero-sum vision of “American first” and left China no choice but “submission or mortal combat in the tech realm”, the state-backed paper said in an editorial.

China had “plenty of ways to respond if the administration carries out its planned smash and grab”, it added.

Microsoft said on Monday it was in talks with ByteDance to buy parts of TikTok after US President Donald Trump reversed course on a plan to ban the app on national security grounds and gave the firms 45 days to strike a deal.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said over the weekend that Trump would take action shortly against Chinese software companies that shared user data with the Chinese government.

The Global Times newspaper, which is also government-backed, said US treatment of ByteDance and Huawei Technologies, now on a US trade blacklist, was indicative of US efforts to separate its economy from China’s.

China had “limited ability” to provide protection to these Chinese companies by retaliating against US companies because the United States had technological superiority and influence with its allies, it added.

“China’s opening-up to the outside world and disintegrating the US decoupling strategy should be priorities,” it said in an editorial.

The Global Times is published by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party.


© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Apple Expands News Offerings With Audio, Local Newspaper Stories

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By Reuters | Updated: 16 July 2020

Apple on Wednesday expanded its news offerings with audio versions of stories narrated by voice actors for subscribers, a morning newscast hosted by two journalists and more access to local newspaper stories.

Apple says it has 125 million monthly active users of its Apple News product, but it does not disclose revenues or the number of subscribers to the paid version, Apple News+, which costs $9.99 a month (roughly Rs. 750) for US users. The iPhone maker maintains a staff of editors that curate the stories in both the paid and free versions of its app.

Apple said Wednesday that paying subscribers will gain access to audio versions of longer stories from magazines such as such as Esquire and Vanity Fair, along with newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.

The audio effort intensifies competition with Amazon and Alphabet’s Google, both of whom offer audio news options on their smart home speakers, as well as Spotify, which has been expanding its podcast business with news content.

Apple is also launching a weekday morning audio news program called Apple News Today, which will be hosted by New York-based journalists Shumita Basu and Duarte Geraldino and highlight stories from the publishers that work with Apple. The show will be available to both free and paying users, and both it and the audio stories will also be adapted for Apple’s CarPlay, the system that connects iPhones to many newer vehicles.

Apple also said it would offer expanded access to local news in its app, starting with five metro areas in the United States: San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area, Houston, Los Angeles, and New York. Apple will maintain editors in each area to curate local stories, and paying News+ subscribers will get access to premium content from the local newspapers that take part in the program.

Last month, the New York Times left Apple News, saying publishers should be fairly compensated for their content and that the program is not align with its strategy of building direct relationships with paying readers.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Apple-EU Tax Case Appeal Ruling Due on July 15, Irish Government Says

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By Reuters | Updated: 8 July 2020

The European Union’s second highest court will next week rule in an appeal by Apple and Ireland against an EU ruling for the US company to pay EUR 13 billion (roughly Rs. 1.10 lakh crores) in back taxes, the Irish government said on Wednesday.

The European Commission ordered Apple in 2016 to pay the taxes it said were owed to Ireland. But Apple and Ireland, whose economy benefits from hosting a number of multinational firms, began an appeal against the decision in September.

“The State has been formally notified that the General Court of the European Union (GCEU) will deliver its judgment in the Apple State Aid case on July 15,” the Department of Finance said in a statement.

Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said the judgment was likely to be appealed by one of the parties.

“I think that no matter what the judgment is, this case will almost certainly be appealed by one party or another to the European Court of Justice,” Varadkar told journalists.

With the legal challenge expected to run for years, Ireland’s debt agency has invested the disputed taxes in low-risk, highly rated euro-dominated bonds, mainly short- to medium-term sovereign securities.

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook said Apple’s commitment to Ireland, which became its first European operation in 1980 and where it employs 6,000 workers, was “unshakable”.


© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Apple Not Dominant in Any Market, Plenty of Rivals, Senior Executive Says

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iPhone maker Apple, the target of EU antitrust investigations into key segments of its business, on Tuesday rejected accusations of market dominance, saying it competes with Google, Samsung, and other rivals.

Earlier this month, the European Commission opened investigations into Apple’s App Store and mobile payment system Apple Pay, concerned about its role as a gatekeeper to its lucrative platform.

“We compete with a wide variety of companies, Google, Samsung, Huawei, Vivo, LG, Lenovo, and many more,” Daniel Matray, head of Apple’s App Store and Apple Media Services, told a Forum Europe online event.

“In fact, Apple does not have a dominant position in any market, and we face strong competition in every category, in tablets, wearables, desktop and notebook computers, maps, music, payments, messaging, and more,” he said.

Matray defended Apple’s App Store, saying the same rules apply to all developers, large and small, with 85 percent of apps not required to pay a 30 percent fee to the company which is only valid for those which use its in-app payment service.

The EU is investigating whether this requirement and rules preventing developers from informing users of cheaper products elsewhere are anti-competitive.

It is also probing Apple’s terms and conditions on how its mobile payment service Apple Pay should be used in merchants’ apps and websites, and also the company’s refusal to allow rivals access to the payment system.

The EU investigations were prompted by a complaint by Swedish music streaming service Spotify and an e-book rival.

Matray said the App Store has boosted competition, rather than harmed rivals.

“In the nearly 12 years since the App Store debuted, the best measure of its success is the dynamism it has unleashed and the state of the app economy today,” he said.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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