By Reuters | Updated: 27 August 2021
Apple on Thursday agreed to loosen App Store restrictions on small developers, striking a deal in a class-action lawsuit as the iPhone maker awaits a ruling by the same judge in a separate App Store dispute brought by the developer behind Fortnite.
The deal includes changes in how all developers can communicate with customers, an issue highlighted by the judge herself in the Fortnite case.
But Apple kept intact the vast majority of the App Store business practices that have been challenged in courts and legislatures. Instead it gave up only $100 million (roughly Rs. 740 crores), a small sum for a company worth more than $2.4 trillion (roughly Rs. 1,78,00,210 crores), and a set of email marketing restrictions that legal experts had said could be difficult to defend even under a prior US Supreme Court case that allows companies to bar their business partners from steering customers toward alternative payment methods.
A group of smaller software developers brought the lawsuit in 2019, alleging that Apple broke antitrust laws with practices such as charging commissions of up to 30 percent. The Cupertino, California-based company said it has reached a proposed settlement that covers US developers that made $1 million (roughly Rs. 7.4 crores) a year or less under which the developers release all claims that Apple’s commissions were too high.
Apple is waiting for a decision in the much higher-profile antitrust case filed by Fortnite creator Epic Games. The proposed settlement on Thursday will need approval from Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers of the US District Court for the Northern District of California, who is expected to hand down a decision in the Epic case.
As part of the Thursday deal, Apple said it will make changes to the App Store, including extending for three years a change made last year that lowers commissions for smaller developers to 15 percent.
Developers have long been able to take other forms of payment outside of their apps to avoid commissions to Apple, and some, like Netflix eschew Apple’s in-app payment system.
But Apple maintains strict rules against developers using contact information gleaned from customers who sign up via the App Store to later tell those customers about alternative payment methods, which are often priced lower because they do not require fees to Apple.
Smaller developers without Netflix’s name recognition have long objected that Apple’s restrictions prevented them from establishing direct billing relationships with customers.
During the Epic-Apple trial in May, Gonzalez Rogers had criticised Apple’s rules, even though Epic had not made them a centerpiece of its case.
“Apple’s hiding of that information in a way that is not directly reflected to the consumer seems to be anticompetitive,” she said.
Apple said the changes will apply to all developers globally, not just the class of smaller developers in the United States covered directly by the settlement. The company will also create a $100 million (roughly Rs. 740 crores) assistance fund for small developers.
Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman, which represented the developers in the case, said the settlement would bring “meaningful improvements.”
© Thomson Reuters 2021
Facebook-Parent Meta Removes Iran-Based Fake Accounts Targeting Instagram Users in Scotland
By Reuters | Updated: 21 January 2022
Facebook parent Meta Platforms removed a network of fake accounts that originated in Iran and targeted Instagram users in Scotland with content supporting Scottish independence, the company’s investigators said on Thursday.
The network used fake accounts to pose as locals in England and Scotland, posting photos and memes about current events and criticism of the United Kingdom’s government, Meta said.
The accounts organised their content around common hashtags promoting the cause, though they at times misspelled them, the company said. The accounts also posted about football and UK cities, likely to make the fictitious personas seem more authentic.
Some of the fake accounts used profile pictures likely created through AI techniques, while others used photos of media personalities and celebrities from the UK and Iraq as profile pictures, Meta said.
In a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, Scots voted 55 percent-45 percent to remain in the United Kingdom, but both Brexit and the British government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis have bolstered support for independence among Scots and demands for a second vote.
Meta said its investigation found links to individuals in Iran, including people with a background in teaching English as a foreign language.
It said the operation had some connections with a small Iran-based network it previously removed in December 2020, which mostly targeted Arabic, French, and English-speaking audiences using fake accounts, but did not provide further details on who might be behind the activity.
“We’ve seen a range of operations coming from Iran over the last few years,” said Ben Nimmo, Meta’s global threat intelligence lead for influence operations, in a press briefing. “It’s not a monolithic environment.”
The social media company said it had removed eight Facebook accounts and 126 Instagram accounts as part of this latest network in December for violating its rules against coordinated inauthentic behavior.
Meta also said in December it removed a network that originated primarily in Mexico and targeted audiences in countries including Honduras, Ecuador and El Salvador, and a network that originated in Turkey and targeted people in Libya.
© Thomson Reuters 2022
Apple Complies With Dutch Watchdog Ruling on Dating App Payment Options
By Reuters | Updated: 17 January 2022
Apple said on Saturday it would allow developers of dating apps in the Netherlands to offer non-Apple payment options to their users, complying with an order from the country’s market regulator to do so by January 15 or face fines.
The country’s Authority for Consumers and Markets found in a decision published on December 24 that Apple had abused its market position by requiring dating app developers, including Tinder owner Match Group, to exclusively use Apple’s in-app payment system.
Apple’s practice of requiring developers to use its system and pay commissions of 15-30 percent on digital goods purchases has come under scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers around the world, but the Dutch ruling applies only in the Netherlands and only for dating apps.
In a post on its developers’ blog on Saturday, Apple said it would comply with the decision and introduce “two optional new entitlements exclusively applicable to dating apps on the Netherlands App Store that provide additional payment processing options for users”.
However it noted that developers were not required to use the non-Apple tools, and warned that Apple would not be able to help with safety or refunds of payments that take place outside its systems because it will “not be directly aware of them”.
Apple is appealing the Dutch decision.
© Thomson Reuters 2022
Netflix Raises Monthly Subscription Prices in US, Canada
By Reuters | Updated: 15 January 2022
Netflix has raised its monthly subscription price by $1 to $2 (roughly Rs. 75 to Rs. 150) per month in the United States depending on the plan, the company said on Friday, to help pay for new programming to compete in the crowded streaming TV market.
The standard plan, which allows for two simultaneous streams, now costs $15.49 (roughly Rs. 1,100) per month, up from $13.99(roughly Rs. 1,000), in the United States.
Prices also went up in Canada, where the standard plan climbed to CAD 16.49 (roughly Rs. 970) from CAD 14.99 (roughly Rs. 880).
The price increases, the first in those markets since October 2020, took effect immediately for new customers. Existing members will see the new prices in the coming weeks when they receive their monthly bills. The price increases have not been previously reported.
“We understand people have more entertainment choices than ever and we’re committed to delivering an even better experience for our members,” a Netflix spokesperson said.
“We’re updating our prices so that we can continue to offer a wide variety of quality entertainment options. As always we offer a range of plans so members can pick a price that works for their budget,” the spokesperson added.
The world’s largest streaming service is facing the most competition ever from companies looking to attract viewers to online entertainment. Walt Disney, AT&T’s WarnerMedia, Amazon and Apple are among the rivals pouring billions into new programming.
Netflix had said it would spend $17 billion (126457.05 crore) on programming in 2021. The company has not disclosed spending for 2022.
The US price of Netflix’s premium plan, which enables four streams at a time and streaming in ultra HD, was increased by $2 to $19.99 (roughly Rs. 140 to Rs. 1400) per month. For Netflix’s basic plan, with one stream, the cost rose by $1 to $9.99 (roughly Rs. 74 to Rs. 740) per month.
In Canada, the premium plan rose by CAD 2 to CAD 20.99 (roughly Rs. 118 to Rs. 1,200), and the basic plan was unchanged at CAD 9.99 (roughly Rs. 600).
The United States and Canada are Netflix’s largest region with 74 million customers as of September 2021. Most of the company’s recent growth has come from overseas.
Netflix’s subscriber growth slowed from a boom early in the COVID-19 pandemic but rebounded with help from global phenomenon Squid Game, a dystopian thriller from South Korea released in September. Total global subscriptions reached 213.6 million.
The company’s next subscriber report is due Thursday when Netflix posts quarterly earnings. Analysts project the company will report 8.5 million new sign-ups from October through December, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S data, bringing its global subscriber base to 222 million.
Google, Facebook CEOs Colluded in Online Advertisement Sales, Lawsuit Alleges
By Associated Press | Updated: 15 January 2022
Newly unredacted documents from a state-led antitrust lawsuit against Google accuse the search giant of colluding with rival Facebook to manipulate online advertising sales. The CEOs of both companies were aware of the deal and signed off on it, the lawsuit alleges.
The original, redacted lawsuit, filed in December 2021, accused Google of “anti-competitive conduct” and of teaming up with the social networking giant. But the unredacted version offers details on the involvement of Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in approving the deal. Facebook has since renamed itself Meta.
According to the lawsuit, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, was “explicit that ‘this is a big deal strategically'” in a 2018 email thread about the deal that included Facebook’s CEO. While the names of the Facebook executives are still redacted in the suit, their titles are visible.
When the two sides hammered out the terms of the agreement, “the team sent an email addressed directly to CEO” Zuckerberg, the lawsuit states.
“We’re nearly ready to sign and need your approval to move forward,” the email read, according to the complaint. Zuckerberg wanted to meet with Sandberg and his other executives before making a decision, the complaint states.
In a statement, Google spokesperson Peter Schottenfels said the lawsuit is “full of inaccuracies and lacks legal merit.”
In September 2018, the complaint says, the two companies signed the agreement. Sandberg, who was once the head of Google’s ad business, and Pichai personally signed off on the deal, per the states’ complaint.
Meta spokesperson Chris Sgro said Friday that the company’s ad bidding agreement with Google and similar agreements it has with other bidding platforms “have helped to increase competition for ad placements.”
“These business relationships enable Meta to deliver more value to advertisers while fairly compensating publishers, resulting in better outcomes for all,” Sgro said.
Internally, Google used the code phrase “Jedi Blue” to refer to the 2018 agreement, according to the lawsuit. Google kept this code phrase secret.
Google’s Schottenfels said the lawsuit’s allegation that Pichai approved the deal with Facebook “isn’t accurate.”
“We sign hundreds of agreements every year that don’t require CEO approval, and this was no different,” he said, adding that the agreement “was never a secret.”
The lawsuit is led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and was joined by the attorneys general of Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah.
Amazon Warehouse Workers in Alabama to Hold Union Vote, Counting to Begin on March 28
By Reuters | Updated: 12 January 2022
The US National Labor Relations Board said on Tuesday that it will send unionisation ballots to workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, on February 4, setting the stage for the next labour contest facing the online retailer.
Votes in the mail-ballot election, which is a re-run after the NLRB found Amazon interfered last year, will be counted starting on March 28, according to a notice published by the NLRB. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) has been seeking to represent the workers.
Scrutiny of working conditions at Amazon has intensified in recent months, with some employees seeking to organise at facilities in New York and Canada. A victory at even one warehouse would be a milestone that labour experts say could invigorate the US labour movement.
In a statement, Amazon spokeswoman Barbara Agrait said, “Our employees have always had the choice of whether or not to join a union, and they overwhelmingly chose not to join the RWDSU last year. We look forward to our team in (the warehouse) having their voices heard again.”
In last year’s count, workers at the Bessemer warehouse rejected forming a union by a more than 2-to-1 margin. The organising drive had garnered support from US lawmakers and President Joe Biden.
Then in August, an NLRB hearing officer determined the company had interfered with the vote. As example, the officer said workers may have felt they were being surveilled when dropping ballots in a mailbox on Amazon’s property that the company encouraged them to use. Amazon also put a campaign slogan around the mailbox. An NLRB regional director, Lisa Henderson, officially called for a re-run in November.
In an order accompanying Tuesday’s election notice from the NLRB, Henderson said that the same mailbox would be in a “neutral location” on Amazon’s property for the forthcoming vote and that no party could put a banner around it or issue a directive on its use.
The RWDSU said it was still worried about Amazon “continuing its objectionable behaviour in a new election”. It said it was especially concerned that same mailbox will remain on Amazon’s property for voting, which it believes will create an impression of surveillance that undermines a free and fair election.
Facebook-Parent Meta’s Antitrust Dismissal Request Shut Down, US Judge Says Case Can Proceed
By Associate Press | Updated: 12 January 2022
A federal judge has ruled that the Federal Trade Commission’s revised antitrust suit against Meta, formerly known as Facebook, can proceed, shutting down the social media company’s request for a dismissal. In a revised complaint filed last August, the FTC argues that the company pursued a “buy or bury” strategy against rivals to suppress competition.
This is the FTC’s second antitrust run at the company. A federal judge in June dismissed antitrust lawsuits brought against Facebook by the agency and a broad coalition of state attorneys general that were among multiplying efforts by federal and state regulators to rein in tech titans’ market power.
The FTC is seeking remedies that could include a forced spinoff of Facebook’s popular Instagram and WhatsApp messaging services, or a restructuring of the company.
US District Judge James Boasberg, who in June ruled that the FTC’s original lawsuit was “legally insufficient” and didn’t provide enough evidence to prove that Facebook was a monopoly, said in Tuesday’s ruling that the first complaint “stumbled out of the starting blocks.”
But he added that, though the “core theory” of the lawsuit — that Facebook is a monopoly engaging in anticompetitive behaviour — remains unchanged, the facts alleged this time around are “far more robust and detailed than before.”
Meta said in an emailed statement it is “confident the evidence will reveal the fundamental weakness of the claims.”
“Our investments in Instagram and WhatsApp transformed them into what they are today,” the company said. “They have been good for competition, and good for the people and businesses that choose to use our products.”
Holly Vedova, director of the FTC’s bureau of competition, said the agency presented a “strong amended complaint a strong amended complaint, and we look forward to trial.”
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