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EU Digital Chief Invites Tech Giants to Discuss Draft Rules That Could Curb Their Powers

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By Reuters | Updated: 20 November 2020

The European Union’s digital chief has invited companies including Alphabet, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook to video talks next week to discuss draft rules to curb their powers, an EU official said on Thursday.

Tech companies and online platforms have lobbied intensively to try to blunt the proposed regulatory rules, which the Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, responsible for digital regulation, will formally present with Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager on December 9.

Ahead of that, the video conference on November 24 will discuss the proposed rules, which are known as the Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act (DMA).

Some companies do not think the discussion will lead to changes at this late stage, people close to the companies said on condition of anonymity.

The DSA will require tech companies to explain how their algorithms work and also open up their ad archives to regulators and researchers.

The DMA targets online gatekeepers with a list of dos, such as sharing data with rivals and regulators, and don’ts, such as not favouring their own services.

Breton has invited chief executives from about 20 companies, which also include Microsoft, Booking.com, Expedia, Trivago, DuckDuckGo, a person familiar with the matter said. It was unclear whether CEOs would take part or send senior executives.

Breton will need feedback from EU countries and the European Parliament before a final draft can be adopted, a process which can take a year or more.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Make Amazon Pay Campaign: Over 400 Lawmakers From 34 Countries Back Movement Over ‘Dodged’ Debts

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By Reuters | Updated: 4 December 2020

More than 400 lawmakers from 34 countries have signed a letter to Amazon boss Jeff Bezos backing a campaign that claims the tech giant has “dodged and dismissed … debts to workers, societies, and the planet,” organisers said.

The Make Amazon Pay campaign was launched on November 27, the annual Black Friday shopping bonanza, by a coalition of over 50 organisations, with demands including improvements to working conditions and full tax transparency.

The letter’s signatories include US Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, former UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Vice President of the European Parliament Heidi Hautala, co-convenors Progressive International and UNI Global Union said.

“We urge you to act decisively to change your policies and priorities to do right by your workers, their communities, and our planet,” the letter said.

“We stand ready to act in our respective legislatures to support the movement that is growing around the world to Make Amazon Pay.”

Amazon, the world’s biggest retailer, has faced criticism for its tax practices before, including in the UK and the EU. It says its profits remain low given retail is a highly competitive, low margin business and it invests heavily.

It said on Thursday that while it accepted scrutiny from policymakers, many of the matters raised in the letter stemmed from misleading assertions.

“Amazon has a strong track record of supporting our employees, our customers, and our communities, including providing safe working conditions, competitive wages and great benefits,” it said, adding it was “paying billions of dollars in taxes globally.”

Amazon grew rapidly during the pandemic, with sales soaring as restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus closed bricks-and-mortar shops and sent consumers online.

Governments worldwide are considering tougher rules for big tech to assuage worries about competition.

The European Union, for example, last month charged Amazon with damaging retail competition, alleging it used its size, power and data to gain an unfair advantage over smaller merchants that sell on its online platform.

Amazon disagreed with the EU assertions, saying it represented less than 1 percent of the global retail market and there were larger retailers in every country in which it operated.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Microsoft Azure Purview Cloud-Based Tool Launched to Help Businesses Get Handle on Data

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By Reuters | Updated: 4 December 2020

Microsoft on Thursday announced a new cloud-based tool designed to help corporate customers understand where data is scattered throughout their operations and whether they are in compliance with data privacy regulations.

Once known for its Windows operating system and applications such as Office, Microsoft has built a large business in cloud computing, helping store and process huge amounts of data for corporate customers.

Last year, it introduced a tool called Azure Synapse that is being used by companies such as FedEx to analyse the flow of its 16 million daily packages.

But for large companies, stores of data have become so large, and distributed across so many countries, that Microsoft is rolling out a tool called Azure Purview to help companies better understand precisely what information they have and where it resides.

In particular, the tool is designed to help data privacy and risk management officials ensure their companies are in compliance with rules such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, John “JG” Chirapurath, vice president of Azure data, artificial intelligence, and edge, told Reuters in an interview.

The new tool uses artificial intelligence to detect sensitive or regulated data and can automatically mask it out, for example by redacting data on European customers from a sales report to US employees who are not authorized to access it.

“It’s one thing to generate insights from data, but it’s another thing to ask questions about the data itself. Can we use this data? Are we being responsible with the fair use of this data?” Chirapurath said. “These might seem like esoteric terms, but they are vital to how we run modern businesses. You have to be able to trust your data.”

Microsoft said on Thursday the service was being used by a handful of customers, and Chirapurath said it was expected to become generally available “shortly.”

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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IBM Warns Hackers Targeting COVID-19 Vaccine ‘Cold Chain’ Supply Process

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By Reuters | Updated: 3 December 2020

IBM is sounding the alarm over hackers targeting companies critical to the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, a sign that digital spies are turning their attention to the complex logistical work involved in inoculating the world’s population against the novel coronavirus.

The information technology company said in a blog post published on Thursday that it had uncovered “a global phishing campaign” focused on organisations associated with the COVID-19 vaccine “cold chain,” the process needed to keep vaccine doses at extremely cold temperatures as they travel from manufacturers to people’s arms.

The US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency reposted the report, warning members of Operation Warp Speed, the US government’s national vaccine mission, to be on the lookout.

Understanding how to build a secure cold chain is fundamental to distributing vaccines developed by the likes of Pfizer and BioNTech because the shots need to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius (-94 F) or below to avoid spoiling.

IBM’s cybersecurity unit said it had detected an advanced group of hackers working to gather information about different aspects of the cold chain, using meticulously crafted booby-trapped emails sent in the name of an executive with Haier Biomedical, a Chinese cold chain provider that specialises in vaccine transport and biological sample storage.

The hackers went through “an exceptional amount of effort,” said IBM analyst Claire Zaboeva, who helped draft the report. Hackers researched the correct make, model, and pricing of various Haier refrigeration units, Zaboeva said.

“Whoever put together this campaign was intimately aware of whatever products were involved in the supply chain to deliver a vaccine for a global pandemic,” she said.

Haier Medical did not return messages seeking comment.

Messages sent to the email addresses used by the hackers were not returned.

IBM said the bogus Haier emails were sent to around 10 different organisations but only identified one target by name: the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Taxation and Customs Union, which handles tax and customs issues across the EU and has helped set rules on the import of vaccines.

Representatives for the directorate-general could not immediately be reached for comment.

IBM said other targets included companies involved in the manufacture of solar panels, which are used to power vaccine refrigerators in warm countries, and petrochemical products that could be used to derive dry ice.

Who is behind the vaccine supply chain espionage campaign isn’t clear.

Reuters has previously documented how hackers linked to Iran, Vietnam, North Korea, South Korea, China, and Russia have on separate occasions been accused by cybersecurity experts or government officials of trying to steal information about the virus and its potential treatments.

IBM’s Zaboeva said there was no shortage of potential suspects. Figuring out how to swiftly distribute an economy-saving vaccine “should be topping the lists of nation states across the world,” she said.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Intel’s Habana Starts to Chip Away at Nvidia in Cloud With AWS Deal

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By Reuters | Updated: 3 December 2020

Intel Corp’s Habana Labs business said on Wednesday it would take time to gain market share from Nvida in cloud and data centre computing but its deal this week with Amazon Web Services (AWS) was a solid first step.

Intel in December bought Israel-based artificial intelligence firm Habana for about $2 billion (roughly Rs. 14,700 crores), seeking to expand its AI portfolio to bolster its data-centre business.

Habana’s Gaudi AI training processor, launched in June 2019, has faster processing speeds to compete with similar products from Intel rival Nvidia.

“We have to realise that we’re starting from zero and Nvidia is 100 percent,” said Eitan Medina, Habana’s chief business officer, who said that having AWS as its first customer was very important.

“The uphill battle or the process of taking market share has to go through convincing end developers to try it out,” he told reporters. “We are making the dent at the most important place. We’re starting with a very big guy that has the longest experience … It will take time but I believe we’re on the right path.”

Medina declined to comment on whether Habana was negotiating other deals.

Habana on Tuesday said its Gaudi processors will power AWS’s Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud “instances” for machine learning workloads, in Habana’s first deal for its Gaudi chips.

Amazon is seeing growing demand for its cloud tools during the coronavirus pandemic. These chips, Intel said, would give 40 percent better price performance than current graphics processing.

Medina said that the advantages of Gaudi AI chips were efficiency and allowing for lower capital and operating expenses that in turn could give AWS and others the ability to lower prices for customers for server time.

“We are now starting so it will depend on the combination of how we will execute and how important is it for users to lower their cost and to have alternatives to GPUs (graphics processing units),” Medina said. “Our total available market is 100 percent of AI.”

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Google Violated US Labour Laws in Clampdown on Worker Organising, Regulator Says

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By Reuters | Updated: 3 December 2020

The National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint on Wednesday accusing Alphabet’s Google of unlawfully monitoring and questioning several workers who were then fired for protesting against company policies and trying to organise a union.

The US labour regulator found Google unlawfully placed employees on administrative leave and terminated them for accessing documents related to how the company polices internal forums, according to the complaint. The agency also found unlawful Google policies for accessing documents and meetings rooms as well as its tactics for investigating employees because all of the efforts were aimed at deterring workplace organising, the complaint said.

Google said it was confident it acted legally.

“Google has always worked to support a culture of internal discussion, and we place immense trust in our employees,” it said. “Actions undertaken by the employees at issue were a serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility.”

Google said the workers breached information security rules.

Their firings capped two years of battling between Google and its workforce, particularly in the United States. At issue is how much input the rank and file has on which projects the company takes on and how it handles sexual misconduct and other workplace matters.

At least five people fired after leading efforts to rally colleagues partnered with the Communications Workers of America union to petition the NLRB to challenge Google.

One of the fired workers, Laurence Berland, described Wednesday’s complaint as significant “at a time when we’re seeing the power of a handful of tech billionaires consolidate control over our lives and our society.”

The NLRB did not include in its complaint several other allegations sought by the workers, who said they would appeal.

Google has until December 16 to formally respond to the NLRB. The case, which could lead to reinstatement of fired workers and changes in company policies, is scheduled to be tried in front of an administrative law judge on April 12.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Amazon, Blackberry Team Up to Create Cloud-Based Vehicle Software Platform IVY

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 2 December 2020

BlackBerry and Amazon on Tuesday announced an alliance to create a cloud computing platform that cars could link to for services and insights based on data from vehicles and users..

Word of plans for an Intelligent Vehicle Data Platform called IVY synching cars wirelessly to computing power at Amazon Web Services caused shares in Canada-based company to rev more than 50 percent to nearly nine dollars.

“BlackBerry and AWS share a common vision to provide automakers and developers with better insights so that they can deliver new services to consumers,” BlackBerry chief executive John Chen said in a joint release.

IVY is intended to be a cloud-connected software platform that could be used by any car maker to analyze sensor data in real-time and give drivers useful information.

Modern cars and trucks are built with thousands of parts from an array of suppliers, typically with proprietary hardware and software involved, the companies noted.

The vision is for the platform to quickly make sense of all that data for drivers, while also serving as a platform for additional apps or services from developers.

Car makers have “almost zero software skills,” and IVY promises to be a secure, cost-effective platform for them to tap into cloud computing power, Global Equities Research analyst Trip Chowdhry said in a note to investors.

The jointly operated software will run on car or truck systems, but will be managed remotely from the cloud, according to Amazon.

Examples of potential capabilities included IVY spotting dangerous road conditions such as ice or heavy traffic and prompt drivers to take safety measures.

Drivers of electric vehicles could share battery information with charging networks to reserve charging slots along routes, and parents could get sensor data regarding their teen-agers’ driving, the companies said,

“AWS and BlackBerry are making it possible for any automaker to continuously reinvent the customer experience and transform vehicles from fixed pieces of technology into systems that can grow and adapt with a user’s needs and preferences,” said AWS chief executive Andy Jassy.

BlackBerry has shifted gears to concentrate on software and services since being dethroned in the mobile phone market more than a decade ago by touchscreen phones powered by Apple or Android software.

The BlackBerry keyboard is to live on in a new 5G smartphone planned for release next year from Texas-based OnwardMobility.

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