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Renault, Google Expand Partnership in Software Services for Future Vehicles

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By Reuters | Updated: 8 November 2022

Renault and Google said on Tuesday that they are expanding their partnership in software services for future Renault vehicles, adding that Google will become the preferred cloud supplier to the French automaker. The partnership with Google will also help Renault accelerate its “end-to-end digital transformation, from the design of the car to its market launch through its production,” Renault Chief Executive Luca de Meo said in a statement.

Automakers and technology companies including Sony, Apple and Google, have been working to develop ways to build future cars into platforms more like smartphones, with billable services where key updates are wireless.

On Tuesday, AFP reported that the automaker will pitch investors on its planned green revamp, with two spin-offs. Renault will announce a new EV unit and a subsidiary for thermal and hybrid assets. The EV market is expected to grow rapidly in response to consumers’ worries about climate change, putting pressure on manufacturers to develop fewer polluting products.

The European Union last month agreed to phase out new CO2-emitting vehicles by 2035, a move set to turbo-charge the production of electric prototypes on the continent, according to the report. The flagship division of the carmaker’s reorganisation is Ampere, a split-off expected to employ around 10,000 staff in France and produce electric vehicles in the north. It plans to invite investment in Ampere but would remain the majority shareholder.

Renault also intends to combine its technological, manufacturing, and research and development activities for its hybrid and internal-combustion vehicles in a subsidiary called “Horse”. The subsidiary is expected to employ an estimated 19,000 people across Europe, China and South America, according to the report.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Microsoft Activision Deal: US FTC Sues to Block $69 Billion Takeover Deal Over Competition Concerns

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Microsoft President Brad Smith said the company would fight the FTC to complete the Activision Blizzard takeover deal.
By Reuters | Updated: 9 December 2022

The Biden administration on Thursday moved to block Microsoft’s $69 billion (roughly Rs. 5,66,800 crore) bid to buy Call of Duty maker Activision Blizzard, throwing a stumbling block in front of the tech giant’s plans to rapidly expand its portfolio of popular games and catch up to bigger rivals.

Microsoft, which owns the Xbox console and game network platform, said in January 2022 that it would buy Activision for $68.7 billion (roughly Rs. 5,64,474 crore) in the biggest gaming industry deal in history.

Without Activision and its variety of games across mobile, consoles and PCs, Microsoft could struggle to attract users to its budding subscription service for accessing games. Drawing subscribers has become a priority for big tech companies as traditional growth sources such as ad sales become less reliable.

The US software company had said it wanted the deal to help it compete with gaming leaders Tencent and PlayStation owner Sony, which has criticised the deal.

But, in its complaint, the US Federal Trade Commission, which enforces antitrust law, said that Microsoft had a record of hoarding valuable gaming content.

“Microsoft has already shown that it can and will withhold content from its gaming rivals,” said Holly Vedova, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition

. “Today, we seek to stop Microsoft from gaining control over a leading independent game studio and using it to harm competition in multiple dynamic and fast-growing gaming markets.”

The agency set a hearing before an administrative law judge for August 2023.

Microsoft President Brad Smith said the company would fight the FTC. “While we believed in giving peace a chance, we have complete confidence in our case and welcome the opportunity to present our case in court,” he said.

–tw–

The Biden administration has taken a more aggressive approach to antitrust enforcement. The US Department of Justice recently stopped a $2.2 billion (roughly Rs. 18,074 crore) merger of Penguin Random House, the world’s largest book publisher, and smaller US rival Simon & Schuster.

“This is more evidence of the administration’s and the antitrust agencies’ war against big tech,” said Andre Barlow of the law firm Doyle, Barlow and Mazard. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have prioritised big tech in antitrust enforcement.

Shares in Activision closed down 1.5 percent at $74.76 (roughly Rs. 6,100), while Microsoft slipped from earlier highs but closed about 1 percent higher at $247.40 (roughly Rs. 20,330).

Activision, which has long dreamt of being a Disney-like entertainment conglomerate, also realized it needed more tech know-how and it could be forced to trim back its roster of games to shift resources into emerging areas such as AI.

Competition concerns

The FTC said that its concern was that Activision’s popular games, including World of Warcraft and Diablo, would not continue to be offered on a range of consoles, PCs and mobile devices.

While Microsoft has suggested concessions to address competition concerns, the rapid pace of change in the tech and gaming industries could make those conditions useless over time.

To woo regulators, shortly after the deal was announced Microsoft unveiled a new set of principles for its app store, including open access to developers who meet privacy and security standards.

This month, in another move to blunt criticism, Microsoft entered into a 10-year commitment to offer Call of Duty, the popular first-person shooter series, to Nintendo platforms. Microsoft made the same offer to Sony.

Antitrust challenges have stumbled when companies put forward a “fix” for antitrust harms being done by a deal, said William Kovacic, a former FTC chair who now teaches law.

“I think we can predict with a high degree of certainty that he (the judge) will listen to those arguments (from Microsoft) and may be sympathetic to it,” said Kovacic.

Chair Lina Khan and the two Democrats on the commission voted to approve the complaint, while Commissioner Christine Wilson, a Republican, voted no.

Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick told employees on Thursday that he was confident that the deal would go forward.

“The allegation that this deal is anti-competitive doesn’t align with the facts, and we believe we’ll win this challenge,” he told employees, saying that he believed the companies’ arguments would win “despite a regulatory environment focused on ideology and misconceptions about the tech industry.”

The deal also faces regulatory headwinds in Europe.

As of late November, Microsoft was expected to offer remedies to EU antitrust regulators in the coming weeks to stave off formal objections to the deal, people familiar with the matter said. The deadline for the European Commission to set out a formal list of competition concerns, known as a statement of objection, is in January.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Twitter Set to Introduce New Controls for Ad Placements to Lure Advertisers Back After Elon Musk Takeover

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Twitter is also considering bringing its content moderators in-house, to allow the platform to invest in moderation of non-English languages.
By Reuters |  Updated: 9 December 2022 09:58 IST

Twitter will roll out new controls as soon as next week to let companies prevent their ads from appearing above or below tweets containing certain keywords, the social media platform told advertisers in an email on Thursday.

The new controls are part of Twitter’s effort to reassure and lure back advertisers that have pulled ads off the platform since it was purchased in October by billionaire Elon Musk, amid reports from civil rights groups that hate speech has risen since the acquisition and after several banned or suspended accounts were reinstated.

Twitter earns nearly 90 percent of its revenue from selling digital ads. Musk recently attributed a “massive drop in revenue” to civil rights organisations that have pressured brands to pause their Twitter ads.

In a recent call with an advertising industry group, a Twitter representative said the platform was considering bringing its content moderators, many of whom are contracted through third-party vendors, in-house, according to a source familiar with the remarks.

The Twitter representative said bringing content moderators in-house at Twitter would allow the platform to invest more in moderation for non-English languages, according to the source.

The email to advertisers on Thursday, which was reviewed by Reuters, said a revamped version of Twitter’s subscription service called Twitter Blue would begin rolling out on Friday.

The subscription will allow accounts to receive a verified check mark. Accounts for individuals will get a blue check, while gold and gray check marks will denote business and government accounts, according to the email.

The subscription price will be $7 (roughly Rs. 500) per month on the web and $11 (roughly Rs. 800) per month on Apple devices, the email said.

Twitter, which has lost many members of its communications team, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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China-Based APT41 Hacker Group Stole $20 Million Worth of US COVID-19 Relief Funds: Report

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Other federal investigations of pandemic fraud reportedly seem to point back to foreign state-affiliated hackers.
By ANI | Updated: 8 December 2022

China-based hackers stole at least $20 million (roughly Rs. 165 crore) in US Covid relief benefits, including unemployment insurance funds and Small Business Administration loans, NBC news reported citing the country’s Secret Service. Hackers linked to the Chinese government are from a Chengdu-based group known as APT41. The report said other federal investigations of pandemic fraud also seem to point back to foreign state-affiliated hackers. “It would be crazy to think this group didn’t target all 50 states,” Roy Dotson, national pandemic fraud recovery coordinator for the Secret Service, told NBC. The US Secret Service declined to confirm the scope of other investigations.

They said there are over 1,000 ongoing investigations involving transnational and domestic criminal actors defrauding public benefits programs, and APT41 is “a notable player,” according to NBC news.

In recent months, the US has witnessed a rise in espionage cases emanating from China.

Last month, in three separate cases, the US government charged 13 individuals, including members of China’s security and intelligence apparatus and their agents, for alleged efforts to unlawfully exert influence in the United States for the benefit of their government.

“As these cases demonstrate, the government of China sought to interfere with the rights and freedoms of individuals in the United States and to undermine our judicial system that protects those rights. They did not succeed,” said US Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, as quoted in the Justice Department press statement.

“The Justice Department will not tolerate attempts by any foreign power to undermine the Rule of Law upon which our democracy is based. We will continue to fiercely protect the rights guaranteed to everyone in our country. And we will defend the integrity of our institutions,” Garland added.

Seven Chinese nationals were charged – two of whom were arrested on October 20 in New York – with participating in a scheme to cause the forced repatriation of a PRC national residing in the United States.

The defendants are accused of conducting surveillance of and engaging in a campaign to harass and coerce a US resident to return to Beijing as part of an international extralegal repatriation effort known as “Operation Fox Hunt.”

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Biden Administration Tells US Supreme Court Section 230 of Communications Decency Act Has Limits

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Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act holds that social media firms can't be treated as the publisher of information posted by users.
By Reuters | Updated: 8 December 2022

The Biden administration argued to the US Supreme Court on Wednesday that social media giants like Google could in some instances have responsibility for user content, adopting a stance that could potentially undermine a federal law shielding companies from liability.

Lawyers for the US Department of Justice made their argument in the high-profile lawsuit filed by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old American citizen killed in 2015 when Islamist militants opened fire on the Paris bistro where she was eating.

The family argued that Google was in part liable for Gonzalez’ death because YouTube, which is owned by the tech giant, essentially recommended videos by the Islamic State group to some users through its algorithms. Google and YouTube are part of Alphabet (GOOGL.O).

The case reached the Supreme Court after the San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Google, saying they were protected from such claims because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Section 230 holds that social media companies cannot be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by other users.

The law has been sharply criticised across the political spectrum. Democrats claim it gives social media companies a pass for spreading hate speech and misinformation.

The case reached the Supreme Court after the San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Google, saying they were protected from such claims because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Section 230 holds that social media companies cannot be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by other users.

The law has been sharply criticised across the political spectrum. Democrats claim it gives social media companies a pass for spreading hate speech and misinformation.

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Data of 6 Lakh Indians Stolen, Sold on Bot Markets So Far; Around 50 Lakh Users Affected Globally, Study Shows

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A study of three major bot markets found stolen logins including those from Google, Microsoft and Facebook accounts.
By Reuters | Updated: 8 December 2022

Around five million people globally have had their data stolen and sold on the bot market to date, of which 6 lakh are from India, making it the worst affected country, according to one of the world’s largest VPN service providers NordVPN.

Bot markets are used by hackers to sell stolen data from victims’ devices with bot malware.

The study by NordVPN, of Lithuania’s Nord Security, said the stolen data included user logins, cookies, digital fingerprints, screenshots and other information, with the average price for the digital identity of a person pegged at Rs. 490.

NordVPN tracked data for the past four years, ever since bot markets were launched in 2018.

India has been dealing with cyber security concerns for a while. As recently as last month, multiple servers of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), a federal government hospital that caters to ministers, politicians and the general public, were infected on November 23, a senior police official told Reuters.

A week after the ransomware attack on AIIMS, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) faced around 6,000 hacking attempts within 24 hours on November 30, Times of India reported.

Indian cybersecurity rules have tightened only earlier this year, with the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) requiring tech companies to report data breaches within six hours of noticing such incidents and to maintain IT and communications logs for six months.

NordVPN’s study looked into three major bot markets — the Genesis market, the Russian Market, and 2Easy — and found stolen logins including those from Google, Microsoft and Facebook accounts.

“What makes bot markets different from other dark web markets is that they are able to get large amounts of data about one person in one place,” said Marijus Briedis, chief technology officer at NordVPN.

“And after the bot is sold, they guarantee the buyer that the victim’s information will be updated as long as their device is infected by the bot.”

Researchers of NordVPN found 667 million cookies, 81,000 digital fingerprints, 5,38,000 auto-fill forms, numerous device screenshots, and webcam snaps in their study.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Meta in Big Tech Club but Dwarfed by ‘Giant Tech’ Company Apple, Nick Clegg Says

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Apple's tracking protection for iPhone introduced last year has contributed to a halving of Meta's third-quarter profits this year.
By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 8 December 2022

Facebook parent Meta may be in the Big Tech club but it sees itself as being dwarfed by “Giant Tech” company — and corporate foe — Apple, a top executive, Nick Clegg, said Wednesday.

“There’s Big Tech and there’s Giant Tech,” Clegg told an audience in Brussels, where Meta was courting policymakers with its latest virtual reality (VR) gear.

“I mean Apple is now, what, eight times the size of Meta” in terms of stock market capitalisation, he said.

“I mean, it’s just there is very, very, very, very big” in the Big Tech sector and Apple is it, added Clegg.

The comparison underlines Meta’s steep market slide over the past 16 months — and the bad blood with Apple, which has eviscerated Meta’s data collection strategy.

Apple last year introduced a data privacy option on its hugely popular iPhones that prevents Meta and other online data collectors from getting user tracking information they previously relied upon to target advertising.

That has contributed to a halving of Meta’s third-quarter profits this year.

The US company’s costly focus on the metaverse, a virtual world where users appearing as digital avatars can interact, has also played a role.

Meta — re-branded to reflect its focus — has spent a staggering $100 billion (roughly Rs. 8.2 lakh crore) to date on building that technology, whose widespread adoption is forecast to be many years away.

Meta last month announced it was axing 11,000 employees — 13 percent of its workforce — in a general tech belt-tightening that has also seen jobs shed at Twitter, Amazon, and Hewlett-Packard (HP).

Challenge from China

Meta’s stock market capitalisation has slid from an all-time high of $1.07 trillion (roughly Rs. 88 lakh crore) in August 2021 to just over $300 billion (roughly Rs. 25 lakh crore) today — a 72 percent drop.

Apple’s over the same period has stayed steadily above $2 trillion (roughly Rs. 165 lakh crore) since late 2020, and is currently around $2.3 trillion (roughly Rs. 190 lakh crore).

Meta has long complained that Apple is building a “walled garden”, with its users locked into its devices, operating system and app store, at the expense of Meta and other online players.

Both Meta and Apple, as well as other Big Tech ones, have repeatedly come under the regulatory microscope in the European Union and the United States as commercial strategies butt up against anti-trust and data privacy concerns.

But Clegg said China was increasingly challenging the US domination of the online world.

“You’ve got US and Chinese big tech now really kind of looming over the whole scene,” he said.

“And don’t, by the way, underestimate how aggressively Chinese big tech is investing in the metaverse,” he added, pointing to the Pico VR headsets being marketed by ByteDance, the Chinese owner of the popular social app TikTok.

Meta’s own investment into VR and Augmented Reality — collectively known as XR, or extended reality — showed its belief that “the biggest bets are the bets which are furthest away… and they’re also the ones where the technology is most expensive,” Clegg said.

Investor criticism of that focus, and a “narrative of pessimism” about Meta’s focus on it, “profoundly underestimates the very, very strong health of the underlying business” of the company, he said.

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