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Google Strikes Copyright Payment Deal With Some French Media Groups

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 20 November 2020

Google said Thursday that it had signed “some individual agreements” on copyright payments with French newspapers and magazines after months of wrangling over the sharing of revenues from the display of news in search results.

Signatories to the deal included top French dailies Le Monde, Le Figaro and Liberation, as well as magazines like L’Express, L’Obs and Courrier International.

In a statement, Google France chief Sebastien Missoffe said talks with other media groups were continuing, with a goal of reaching “a framework agreement by the end of the year.”

The announcement came after a Paris appeals court ruled last month that the US giant must continue to negotiate with French news publishers over a new European law on so-called “neighbouring rights,” which calls for payment for showing news content with Internet searches.

News outlets struggling with dwindling print subscriptions have long been seething at Google’s failure to give them a cut of the millions it makes from ads displayed alongside news search results.

With the COVID-19 crisis crimping sales even further, several top French publications are expected to report huge losses this year.

But Google had refused to comply with the digital copyright law, which France was the first in the EU to enact, saying media groups already benefit by receiving millions of visits to their websites.

Financial specifics were not disclosed, but Missoffe said payments would be based on criteria including daily publication volumes, monthly Internet traffic, and “the publisher’s contribution to political and general information”.

Agence France-Presse, which along with other media groups has lodged complaints against Google with France’s competition regulator, did not sign the accord.

But AFP chief executive Fabrice Fries said he was “optimistic” about improved relations with Google and other Internet giants such as Facebook and Apple.

“We get a sense that attitudes have shifted over the past few months,” Fries told a media conference in Paris on Thursday, saying he aimed to double the agency’s revenues from Internet platforms from around EUR 10 million (roughly Rs. 88 crores) a year currently.

‘Extremely vigilant’
Google has clashed repeatedly with publishers over its reluctance to pay for displaying articles, videos and other content in its search results, which have become a vital path for reaching viewers as print subscriptions fade.

After the EU’s neighbouring rights law came into effect, it warned that associated content would be shown in search results only if media groups consented to let Google use them at no cost.

News publishers cried foul over an ultimatum that would almost certainly result in their losing visibility and potential advertisement revenues.

But Google argued that besides encouraging millions of people to click through to media sites, it has also spent millions to support media groups in other ways, including emergency funding during the COVID-19 crisis.

Missoffe said Thursday that since 2013, Google had invested some EUR 85 million (roughly Rs. 750 crores) in France’s media landscape, to promote shifts to digital platforms as well as training programmes.

Last month, Google announced plans to invest $1 billion (roughly Rs. 7,315 crores) in partnerships with news publishers worldwide to develop a Showcase app to highlight their reporting packages.

But among the nearly 200 publications Google said had signed up from several countries, its list lacked any from France or the United States.

Isabelle da Silva, head of France’s competition authority, told the Paris media conference that her agency “will be extremely vigilant that the contracts explicitly recognise neighbouring rights, and pay for them.”

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India’s New E-Commerce Rules Considered ‘Cause for Concern’ by US Lobby Group, Email Shows

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By Reuters | Updated: 24 June 2021

A top lobby group that is part of the US Chamber of Commerce believes India’s proposed new e-commerce rules are a cause for concern and will lead to a stringent operating environment for companies, according to an email reviewed by Reuters.

India this week spooked online retailers like Amazon and Walmart’s Flipkart by outlining plans to limit “flash sales”, reining in a private label push and mandating them to have a system to address grievances.

The Washington-headquartered US-India Business Council (USIBC), of which Amazon and Walmart are members, described the rules as concerning in an internal email, saying some provisions were in line with New Delhi’s stance on other big digital companies.

India’s draft plan “includes several concerning policies, including significant limits on platforms’ ability to organise sales and handle grievances,” USIBC said in an email to its members.

USIBC has in the past urged India not to tighten a separate set of rules governing foreign investment in companies like Amazon and Flipkart, an issue that has often soured trade relations between India and United States.

USIBC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The new rules – open for consultation until July 6 – are expected to have an impact across the board in an online retail market forecast to be worth $200 billion (roughly Rs. 14,84,650 crores) by 2026.

They will also apply to Indian firms like Tata’s BigBasket and Reliance Industries’ JioMart, but the proposal comes after Indian retailers for years complained that market leaders Amazon and Flipkart used complex business structures to bypass India’s foreign investment law, hurting small businesses.

The companies deny any wrongdoing.

India’s new proposed rules have raised concerns they will force Amazon and Flipkart to review their business structures, industry sources and lawyers have told Reuters.

The USIBC email noted that India’s proposals “preclude (e-commerce) platforms from owning vendors”.

Amazon specifically holds an indirect stake in two of its top sellers and a Reuters investigation in February cited Amazon documents that showed it gave preferential treatment to a small number of its sellers.

India’s rules also will force e-commerce companies to reveal the country of origin of a product and suggest alternatives to ensure a “fair opportunity for domestic goods”.

Some of the new provisions align with India’s similar federal policies “for social and digital media companies … and will result in a more stringent e-commerce regime,” USIBC said in its email.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Hackers Shouldn’t Be Paid Ransoms, FBI Director Christopher Wray Pleads With Public Companies

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By Reuters | Updated: 24 June 2021

FBI Director Christopher Wray on Wednesday pleaded with public companies and other hacking victims to avoid paying ransom, saying he fears it will only embolden cyber criminals to ramp up future attacks.

“In general, we would discourage paying the ransom because it encourages more of these attacks, and frankly, there is no guarantee whatsoever that you are going to get your data back,” Wray testified before a US Senate appropriations panel.

The Justice Department has disclosed it managed to help the Colonial Pipeline recover some $2.3 million (roughly Rs. 17.07 crores) in cryptocurrency ransom it paid to hackers – an attack that led to widespread shortages at gas stations on the East Coast.

The FBI was able to recover those funds because it had a private key that it was able to use to unlock a Bitcoin wallet holding most of the money. It was unclear how the FBI managed to access the key. Bitcoin price in India stood at Rs. 24.3 lakhs IST on June 24.

Bitcoin seizures by the federal government are relatively uncommon, but authorities have been stepping up their expertise in tracking the flow of digital money.

Wray said on Wednesday that the FBI is seeing increasingly sophisticated types of ransomware attacks and that cyber thieves have been demanding larger sums of money.

“We’ve seen the total volume of the money paid I think triple over the last year or so,” Wray said.

He said companies and municipal governments who become victims of ransomware attacks should consider going to the FBI as soon as possible, and not wait.

“When they do, there’s all kinds of things that we can do,” Wray said.

“Sometimes through other work we’ve done, we might have the decryption key and be able to help the company unlock their data without having to pay the ransom,” he added.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Elon Musk Says Starlink to Go Public Once Cash Flow Is More Predictable

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By Reuters | Updated: 24 June 2021

Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk will list SpaceX’s space Internet venture, Starlink, when its cash flow is reasonably predictable, the billionaire entrepreneur said late on Wednesday.

“Going public sooner than that would be very painful,” Musk said in a tweet. “Will do my best to give long-term Tesla shareholders preference.”

He was responding to a question on Twitter, where a user asked: “Any thoughts on Starlink IPO we would love to invest in the future. Any thoughts on first dibs for Tesla retail investors?”

Last year, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell floated the idea of spinning off Starlink for an initial public offering.

Starlink, a planned network of tens of thousands of satellites in low-earth orbit, aims to offer fast Internet speeds globally.

Musk had said earlier that Starlink, currently based in Redmond, Washington, will be a crucial source of funding for his broader plans like developing the Starship rocket to fly paying customers to the moon and eventually trying to colonise Mars.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Amazon Restores Services After Multiple Users Face Outage

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By Reuters | Updated: 24 June 2021

Multiple users experienced a brief outage at Amazon’s platforms including Alexa and Prime Video late Wednesday before services were restored, according to outage monitoring website Downdetector.

More than 6,200 user reports had indicated issues with Amazon’s online store site, as of 1:48am GMT (7:18am IST), while about 1,700 users reported problems with Prime Video and more than 400 with Alexa, according to Downdetector.

Outage reports dropped significantly to double digits on the platforms in a little over an hour, Downdetector showed.

The issue affecting the sites was not immediately clear. Amazon did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Downdetector tracks outages by collating status reports from a series of sources, including user-submitted errors on its platform.

On June 23, Amazon and Google were pressed by US Senator Amy Klobuchar about how their smart home devices and virtual assistants will support competition and user privacy.

In a letter, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee said testimony last week by attorneys from the companies left her with concerns about their dominance of the fast-growing field.

She asked the companies which of their products will support – and which will not – a recently revamped industry alliance known as Matter. The group, which includes Apple, Ikea, and others, aims to allow home-automation gadgets such as Internet-connected lights and speakers from various companies to sync with one another.

“For what period of time do you commit to support the Matter interoperability project, and who at your companies is responsible for determining whether to extend the length of your commitment to Matter?” Klobuchar wrote to Amazon and Google.

She called on the companies by July 2 also to answer questions about data collection by voice assistants and how the information is used.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Ant Group Highlights Distinction Between NFTs and Cryptocurrencies

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By Reuters | Updated: 24 June 2021

China’s Ant Group sought to draw a distinction on Wednesday between non-fungible tokens (NFTs) available on its platforms and cryptocurrencies currently subject to a crackdown by Beijing, after users expressed confusion.

Ant, the Jack Ma-controlled fintech group, put on sale two NFT-backed app images via its payment platform Alipay and the items quickly sold out on Wednesday.

Ant’s adoption of non-fungible tokens caused confusion on social media where they were linked to virtual currencies such as Bitcoin, which have the same underlying technology. Bitcoin price in India stood at Rs. 24.2 lakhs as of 11am IST on June 24.

“Alipay selling NFT products. Isn’t that illegal transaction?” one comment posted on Twitter-like Weibo said.

Ant, which is undergoing a government-ordered revamp restructuring after the collapse of its mega-IPO last year, said on Wednesday that non-fungible tokens and cryptocurrencies were two different things.

NFTs have exploded in popularity this year, with NFT artworks selling for millions of dollars.

“NFT is not interchangeable, nor divisible, making it different by nature from cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin,” said a spokesperson at AntChain, the Ant unit that develops blockchain-based technology solutions.

He said that NFTs can be used to create a unique signature for digital assets.

Winston Ma, NYU Law School adjunct professor, also highlighted the confusion over the nature of NFTs.

“Are NFTs virtual currencies? Or, are NFTs certificates for virtual currencies? And more importantly, are NFTs securities? These are the questions that no major digital economy’s legislature has ever answered,” Ma said.

In addition to app images, NFT digital artworks are also auctioned on Alibaba’s platform that can be accessed by Ant’s Alipay app. AntChain said in product agreements that it provides blockchain technologies to NFT products.

The artworks are copied in storage space designated by AntChain, and are marked with distinct, blockchain-based certificates that define ownership of the digital assets.

China has over the past month intensified a campaign against cryptocurrency trading and mining, part of efforts to fend off financial risks.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Big Tech Regulation: US Lawmakers in Marathon Debate Over Bills, Reform of Antitrust Laws

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 24 June 2021

US lawmakers debated into the night Wednesday over details of legislation aimed at curbing the power of Big Tech firms with a sweeping reform of antitrust laws.

House Judiciary Committee clashed over a series of bills with potentially massive implications for large online platforms and consumers who use them.

The legislation could force an overhaul of the business practices of Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook, or potentially lead to a breakup of the dominant tech giants. But critics argue the measures could have unintended consequences that would hurt consumers and some of the most popular online services.

Representative David Cicilline, who headed a 16-month investigation that led to the legislation, said the bills are aimed at restoring competition in markets stymied by monopolies.

“The digital marketplace suffers from a lack of competition. Many digital markets are defined by monopolies or duopoly control,” Cicilline said as the hearing opened.

“Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google are gatekeepers to the online economy. They bury or by rivals and abuse their monopoly power conduct that is harmful to consumers, competition, innovation and our democracy.”

The bills would restrict how online platforms operate, notably whether tech giants operating them could favor their own products or services.

The measures would also limit mergers or acquisitions by Big Tech firms aimed at limiting competition, and make it easier for users to try new services by requiring data “portability” and “interoperability.”

The fate of the bills remained unclear, with some Republicans and moderate Democrats expressing concerns despite bipartisan support.

Clash points included whether it is right to target laws at four big tech companies and whether government agencies will hobble them instead of letting them adapt to competition.

“The interoperability measure is a huge step backwards,” said Oregon Republican Cliff Bentz.

“Big Tech is certainly not perfect. This bill is not the way to fix the problem.”

Rep Zoe Lofgren said she hoped the bill would include more measures for data privacy and security but endorses the concept.

“The big platforms have all your information. And if you can’t move it, then you’re really a prisoner of that platform,” she said. “Who wants to leave a platform if they’ve got all your baby pictures and all of your videos of your grandchildren, locked up?”

As the session stretched into the night, some members of the body lobbied to adjourn and resume the work another day.

Republican Representative Ken Buck, a supporter of the overhaul, said the legislation “represents a scalpel, not a chainsaw, to deal with the most important aspects of antitrust reform,” in dealing with “these monopolists (who) routinely use their gatekeeper power to crush competitors, harm innovation and destroy the free market.”

But Republican Jim Jordan criticized the effort, renewing his argument that Big Tech firms suppress conservative voices.

“These bills don’t fix that problem – they make it worse,” Jordan said. “They don’t break up Big Tech. They don’t stop censorship.”

Steve Chabot, another Republican, called the initiative “an effort for big government to take over Big Tech.”

The panel approved on a 29-12 vote a bill that was the least controversial, increasing merger filing fees to give more funding for antitrust enforcement.

Pushback from industry
Tech firms and others warned of negative consequences for popular services people rely on, potentially forcing Apple to remove its messaging apps from the iPhone or Google to stop displaying results from YouTube or Maps.

Apple released a report arguing that one likely impact – opening up the iPhone to apps from outside platforms – could create security and privacy risks for users.

Forcing Apple to allow “sideloading” of apps would mean “malicious actors would take advantage of the opportunity by devoting more resources to develop sophisticated attacks targeting iOS users,” the report said.

Amazon vice president Brian Huseman warned of “significant negative effects” both for sellers and consumers using the e-commerce platform, and reduced price competition.

“It will be much harder for these third-party sellers to create awareness for their business,” Huseman said.

“Removing the selection of these sellers from Amazon’s store would also create less price competition for products, and likely end up increasing prices for consumers. The committee is moving unnecessarily fast in pushing these bills forward.”

The measures may also impact other firms including Microsoft, which has not been the focus of the House antitrust investigation but which links services such as Teams messaging and Bing search to its Windows platform, and possibly other firms.

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