US House panel pushes legislation targeting Big Tech’s power

A US House panel pushed ahead on Wednesday with ambitious legislation that could curb the market power of tech giants Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple. (Shutterstock/File Photo)
A US House panel pushed ahead on Wednesday with ambitious legislation that could curb the market power of tech giants Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple. (Shutterstock/File Photo)
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Updated 24 June 2021

US House panel pushes legislation targeting Big Tech’s power

A US House panel pushed ahead on Wednesday with ambitious legislation that could curb the market power of tech giants Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple. (Shutterstock/File Photo)
  • Legislation could curb market power of tech giants

WASHINGTON: A US House panel pushed ahead on Wednesday with ambitious legislation that could curb the market power of tech giants Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple, and force them to sever their dominant platforms from their other lines of business.

Conservative Republican lawmakers haggled over legislative language and pushed concerns of perceived anti-conservative bias in online platforms, but could not halt the bipartisan momentum behind the package.

The drafting session and votes by the House Judiciary Committee are initial steps in what promises to be a strenuous slog through Congress.

Many Republican lawmakers denounce the market dominance of Big Tech but do not support a wholesale revamp of the antitrust laws.

Work on the massive bipartisan legislation stretched into the night. The session pushed beyond the 12-hour mark as lengthy debate ensued over a complex bill that would require online platforms to allow users to communicate directly with users on rival services.

Proponents said the measure would also give consumers more power to determine how and with whom their personal data is shared.

Earlier, the Democratic-majority committee made quick work of arguably the least controversial bills in the package, which were approved over Republican objections.

A measure that would increase the budget of the Federal Trade Commission drew Republican conservatives’ ire as an avenue toward amplified power for the agency.

The legislation, passed 29-12 and sent to the full US House, would increase filing fees for proposed tech mergers worth more than $500 million, and cut the fees for those under that level.

A second bill would give states greater powers over companies in determining the courts in which to prosecute tech antitrust cases.

Many state attorneys general have pursued antitrust cases against big tech companies, and many states joined with the US Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in their antitrust lawsuits against Google and Facebook, respectively, last year. The measure drew many Republican votes and was approved 34-7.

The advance of the legislation comes as the tech giants are already smarting under federal investigations, epic antitrust lawsuits, near-constant condemnation from politicians of both parties, and a newly installed head of the powerful FTC who is a fierce critic of the industry.

The legislative package, led by industry critic Rep. David Cicilline, targets the companies’ structure and could point toward breaking them up, a dramatic step for Congress to take against a powerful industry whose products are woven into everyday life.

If such steps were mandated, they could bring the biggest changes to the industry since the federal government’s landmark case against Microsoft some 20 years ago.

The Democratic lawmakers championing the proposals reaffirmed the case for curbing Big Tech as the committee began digging into the legislation.

It “will pave the way for a stronger economy and a stronger democracy for the American people by reining in anti-competitive abuses of the most dominant firms online,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the Judiciary Committee chair.

“Each bill is an essential part of a bipartisan plan to level the playing field for innovators, entrepreneurs and startups — and to bring the benefits of increased innovation and choice to American consumers.”

Conservative Republicans laid down their markers. They insisted that the proposed legislation does not truly attack anti-competitive abuses by the tech industry because it fails to address anti-conservative bias on its social media platforms.

And they previewed a fight over legislative definitions. The legislation as drafted would apply to online platforms with 50 million or more monthly active users, annual sales or market value of over $600 billion, and a role as “a critical trading partner.”

The new proposals “make it worse,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, the panel’s senior Republican. “They don’t break up Big Tech. They don’t stop censorship.”

The legislation’s definition of which online platforms would fall under stricter antitrust standards could mean that companies such as Microsoft, Walmart and Visa would soon be included, Jordan suggested. “Who knows where it will end?” he said.

President Joe Biden’s surprise move last week elevating antitrust legal scholar Lina Khan to head the FTC was a clear signal of a tough stance toward the tech giants. It was top of mind for the conservative Republicans objecting to the new legislation.

Khan played a key role in the Judiciary Committee’s sweeping 2019-20 investigation of the tech giants’ market power.

The four companies deny abusing their dominant market position, and assert that improper intervention in the market through legislation would hurt small businesses and consumers.

Lauded as engines of innovation, the Silicon Valley giants for decades enjoyed minimal regulation and star status in Washington, with a notable coziness during the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president.

The industry’s fortunes abruptly reversed about two years ago when the companies came under intense federal scrutiny, a searing congressional investigation, and growing public criticism over issues of competition, consumer privacy and hate speech.

Biden said as a presidential candidate that dismantling the big tech companies should be considered.

He also has said he wants to see changes to the social media companies’ long-held legal protections for speech on their platforms.

The legislative proposals would also prohibit the tech giants from favoring their own products and services over competitors on their platforms.

The legislation was informed by the 15-month Judiciary antitrust investigation, led by Cicilline, which concluded that the four tech giants have abused their market power by charging excessive fees, imposing tough contract terms, and extracting valuable data from individuals and businesses that rely on them.

The legislation also would make it tougher for the giant tech companies to snap up competitors in mergers, which they have completed by scores in recent years.

Democrats control the House, but they would need to garner significant Republican support in the Senate for legislation to pass.

The chamber is split 50-50, with the Democrats’ one-vote margin depending on Vice President Kamala Harris being the tiebreaker.


Economist magazine calls for Georgieva to quit IMF over World Bank data scandal

Economist magazine calls for Georgieva to quit IMF over World Bank data scandal
Updated 23 September 2021

Economist magazine calls for Georgieva to quit IMF over World Bank data scandal

Economist magazine calls for Georgieva to quit IMF over World Bank data scandal
  • "The head of the IMF must hold the ring while two of its biggest shareholders, America and China, confront each other in a new era of geopolitical rivalry," the Economist said
  • Critics of multilateralism are already citing the findings as evidence that international bodies cannot stand up to China

WASHINGTON: The Economist magazine on Thursday called for International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva to resign over her role in a China-related data-rigging scandal while at the World Bank, saying it has undermined the IMF’s credibility.
The influential London-based publication said in a scathing editorial that an external investigation’s findings that Georgieva pressured staff for changes to the World Bank’s “Doing Business” rankings in 2017 to favor China compromises the IMF’s ability to act as the custodian of data for the world’s macroeconomic statistics.
“The head of the IMF must hold the ring while two of its biggest shareholders, America and China, confront each other in a new era of geopolitical rivalry,” the Economist said, adding that critics of multilateralism are already citing the findings as evidence that international bodies cannot stand up to China.
“The next time the IMF tries to referee a currency dispute, or helps reschedule the debt of a country that has borrowed from China, the fund’s critics are sure to cite this investigation to undermine the institution’s credibility. That is why Ms Georgieva, an esteemed servant of several international institutions, should resign,” the editorial said.
It cited the allegation in the WilmerHale law firm’s report that Georgieva, who at the time was the World Bank’s CEO, thanked a senior bank researcher for “doing his bit for multilateralism” in altering the China data.
“Now she too should do her bit for multilateralism by falling on her sword,” the Economist said.
The World Bank’s “Doing Business” reports, now canceled, ranked countries based on their regulatory and legal environments, ease of business startups, financing, infrastructure and other business climate measures.
Georgieva, a Bulgarian who is a longtime former World Bank economist and European Commission official, has denied the accusations in the WilmerHale report, saying last week they are “not true” and she has never pressured staff to manipulate data.
The IMF’s executive board is conducting its own review of the allegations and has emphasized “the importance it attached to conducting a thorough, objective and timely review.”
An IMF spokesman declined comment on the Economist’s editorial. A US Treasury spokeswoman also declined comment beyond the Treasury’s earlier statement that is analyzing “serious findings” in the WilmerHale report.


Advocacy group slams shooting of Afghan journalist in Kabul

Afghan journalist Mohammad Ali Ahmadi was shot by an unidentified man while he was traveling in a taxi in Kabul last week. (Salam Watandar)
Afghan journalist Mohammad Ali Ahmadi was shot by an unidentified man while he was traveling in a taxi in Kabul last week. (Salam Watandar)
Updated 23 September 2021

Advocacy group slams shooting of Afghan journalist in Kabul

Afghan journalist Mohammad Ali Ahmadi was shot by an unidentified man while he was traveling in a taxi in Kabul last week. (Salam Watandar)
  • Ahmadi, a reporter and editor with the privately-owned national radio broadcaster Salam Watandar, was shot by an unidentified man

LONDON: The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the shooting and injuring of an Afghan journalist, Mohammad Ali Ahmadi, in the capital Kabul. 

Ahmadi, a reporter and editor with the privately-owned national radio broadcaster Salam Watandar, was shot by an unidentified man while he was traveling in a taxi van on Sept. 18. 

He was asked by a man sat next to him where he worked, and when Ahmadi said he worked for Salam Watandar, the unidentified man said that outlet was an “American radio station,” pulled out a gun, and fired several shots at Ahmadi, two of which struck him in the leg. 

Steven Butler, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ program coordinator for Asia, said on Wednesday:  “The shooting of journalist Mohammad Ali Ahmadi is a test of the Taliban’s commitment to justice: Will they stand by their pledge to allow journalists to do their jobs?

“The Taliban must conduct an immediate and impartial investigation into this attack, hold the perpetrator to account, and ensure that members of the press can work safely. The continued detention of journalist Morteza Samadi by the Taliban is also unconscionable, and must end immediately,” he added. 

Ahmadi was hospitalized, and no suspects have been identified as of yet. 

It remains unclear whether the Taliban was behind the attack. Since the group’s takeover of the country, many journalists have been living in fear for their futures. 

In early September, Taliban fighters raided the homes of two journalists and seized cars, desktop computers and a licensed weapon from one of the houses. 

According to Deutsche Welle, the Taliban also raided the homes of three of its journalists in Afghanistan last week and shot dead a relative of a DW reporter and severely injured another while attempting to track him down. 


Facebook wraps up deals with Australian media firms, TV broadcaster SBS excluded

The agreement between tech companies and news outlets entails that tech giants must pay for news content. (File/AFP)
The agreement between tech companies and news outlets entails that tech giants must pay for news content. (File/AFP)
Updated 23 September 2021

Facebook wraps up deals with Australian media firms, TV broadcaster SBS excluded

The agreement between tech companies and news outlets entails that tech giants must pay for news content. (File/AFP)
  • Facebook announces deals with most of the Australia's s largest news outlets, excluding TV broadcaster SBS and smaller publishers

SYDNEY: Facebook Inc. has told Australian publishers it has stopped negotiating licensing deals, an email to the industry seen by Reuters showed, a move which came just six months after the passing of a law designed to make tech giants pay for news content.
While Facebook has announced deals with most of the country’s largest news outlets, some companies including TV broadcaster SBS and smaller publishers have been left out in the cold, raising questions about the scope and effectiveness of the ground-breaking law.
Australia is the only country with a law where the government may set the fees if negotiations between tech giants and news providers fail, but the rejected companies are left with little recourse for the time being and are waiting for the government to review the law in 2022 as planned.
Facebook’s regional head of news partnerships, Andrew Hunter, said in an August email to publishers it had “now concluded” deals where it would pay Australian companies for content on its just-launched “Facebook News” channel.
Nick Shelton, founder of Broadsheet Media, a website which publishes entertainment news, reviews and listings and was rebuffed by Facebook, said the decision to close off on new deals was “clearly an attempt from Facebook to cap their exposure to independent publishers.”
The Special Broadcasting Service, or SBS, one of Australia’s five national free-to-air broadcasters and the country’s main source of foreign language news, said Facebook declined to enter negotiations despite months of attempts and that it was surprised and disappointed. It noted it had successfully concluded a deal with Google.
“This outcome is at odds with the Government’s intention of supporting public interest journalism, and in particular including the public service broadcasters in the Code framework with respect to remuneration,” an SBS spokesperson said in a statement on Wednesday.
Hunter said in the email to publishers, which has not been made public, that rejected publishers would continue to benefit from clicks directed from Facebook and recommended they tap a new series of industry grants.
In a separate statement to Reuters, Hunter said content deals were “just one of the ways that Facebook provides support to publishers, and we’ve been having ongoing discussions with publishers about the types of news content that can best deliver value for publishers and for Facebook.”
Facebook did not respond directly to questions about the statements from Broadsheet Media and SBS.
The US social media giant has inked deals with a range of large Australian big media companies including News Corp. and the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and has a collective bargaining arrangement with rural publishers. But only a handful of independent and smaller publishers have reached deals.
Other rejected publishers include the Conversation, which publishes public affairs commentary by academics, Reuters has previously reported. That prompted a rebuke from the regulator which drafted the law. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission declined to comment on Wednesday.
Under the law, which drove Facebook to block third-party content on newsfeeds briefly in the country in February, Facebook and Google must negotiate with news outlets for content that drives traffic to their websites or face possible government intervention.
But before there can be any government intervention, the federal treasurer must determine that either Facebook or Google failed to negotiate in good faith, a step known as “designation.” A representative for Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was not immediately available for comment.
Facebook’s rejection of SBS and the Conversation flies in the face of law’s core proposition that it “should be required to compensate public interest journalism,” said Peter Lewis, director of the Center for Responsible Technology, a think tank.
“The treasurer has no alternative but to revisit designating Facebook to ensure that it meets its commitments to public interest journalism in Australia.”


Big Tech targeted by US and EU in draft memo ahead of tech and trade meeting

The move will be among announcements on tech, climate, trade and supply chains likely to be made at a US-EU Trade & Technology Council. (File/AFP)
The move will be among announcements on tech, climate, trade and supply chains likely to be made at a US-EU Trade & Technology Council. (File/AFP)
Updated 23 September 2021

Big Tech targeted by US and EU in draft memo ahead of tech and trade meeting

The move will be among announcements on tech, climate, trade and supply chains likely to be made at a US-EU Trade & Technology Council. (File/AFP)
  • The US and the EU plan to take a more unified approach to limit the growing market power of Big Tech companies

WASHINGTON: The United States and European Union plan to take a more unified approach to limit the growing market power of Big Tech companies, according to a draft memo seen by Reuters.
The move will be among announcements on tech, climate, trade and supply chains likely to be made at a US-EU Trade & Technology Council meeting on Sept. 29 in Pittsburgh.
With the US and Europe trying to restrain the growing power of American tech giants such as Alphabet’s Google , Facebook, Apple and Amazonom Inc. , such cooperation has become critically important for regulators on both sides of the Atlantic — and would make it harder for the US tech industry to fight new rules.
This month, the White House announced that the council would meet for the first time on Sept. 29 in Pittsburgh. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and the European Union’s trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis are scheduled to attend along with European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager.
The White House, which is coordinating with different agencies on the meeting, declined to comment on the memo. Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The council has 10 working groups for areas such as strengthening trade, economic relations and shared democratic values, according to the draft memo.
The group focused on tech company regulation will “exchange information on our respective approaches to technology platform governance, seeking convergence where feasible,” the memo says.
There are many examples where the two continents could cooperate more. Google, which faces several antitrust lawsuits in the US related to its advertising business, also faces a wide-ranging investigation related to ad technology in the EU.
“We have identified common issues of concern around gatekeeper power by major platforms and the responsibility of online intermediaries,” the memo says, adding that more can be done to combat misinformation.
“This includes in particular the responsibility of online intermediaries to safeguard democratic processes from the impact of their business activities. Areas of common ground... include content moderation and fair competition,” the memo said.
The group will tackle areas such as hate speech, algorithmic amplification and data access for researchers, the memo says.
The council’s climate and clean tech group will work to identify trade and investment opportunities in low- and zero-carbon technologies and products, according to the memo. The supply chain working group will focus on securing supplies of pharmaceuticals, critical minerals and clean energy.
The council will also work to address the shortage of semiconductor chips in a way that is “balanced and of equal interest for both parties” and will avoid a “subsidy race.”
On Wednesday, Reuters reported that European Union ambassadors have postponed discussions to prepare for the meeting in protest of Washington’s submarine agreement with Australia at France’s expense.
A spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council said preparations for the meeting were continuing.
Several tech trade groups in Washington said the industry does not want the European approach to digital regulation to be adopted in the United States.
“The risk is that the European side will press the United States to harmonize its regulations with the EU by taking a precautionary approach... which would skewer America’s leading tech companies,” said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a tech think tank based in Washington.
“We shouldn’t do that, nor do we need to. Our interests are broadly aligned and compatible, particularly when it comes to China,” Atkinson said.


Snapchat launches first-of-kind activation for Saudi National Day

Snapchat launches first-of-kind activation for Saudi National Day
Updated 23 September 2021

Snapchat launches first-of-kind activation for Saudi National Day

Snapchat launches first-of-kind activation for Saudi National Day
  • Messaging app celebrates Saudi heritage with world-first national Snap Map, other augmented reality activations

DUBAI: To mark this year’s Saudi National Day, Snap is launching a first-of-its-kind activation in the region using augmented reality.

In Saudi Arabia, nearly 90 percent of Snapchat daily users already interact with AR Lenses experiences, on average at least 30 times each day.

Now, the messaging app’s 19.5 million monthly active users in the Kingdom, as well as its global audiences, will have the opportunity to celebrate National Day on the platform through AR.

Launched on Sept. 22, the activation sees the Snap Map of Saudi Arabia appearing in a bright green to represent the national flag and the Kingdom highlighted from other countries, the first time Snap has ever recolored a Middle East territory on the map.

Along with the distinctive color change, Snap will also mark cultural and heritage sites — such as AlUla, Tabuk Castle, Alkhobar Water Tower, Rijal Almaa, Masmak Fort, and Nassif House — on the map allowing users to explore the Kingdom.

The markers for the sites include a Face Lens experience, whereby Snapchatters in Saudi Arabia will find themselves on a virtual balcony with all of the national landmarks behind them.

A celebratory atmosphere filled with fireworks and accompanied by the national anthem of Saudi Arabia will be recreated in AR, with users able to put themselves in the thick of the action and flip the camera to see the monuments in front of them.

Additionally, a series of customized Actionmojis, exclusive to Snapchatters in the Kingdom, are also being unveiled for a limited time on National Day only.

Abdulla Alhammadi, regional business lead at Snap Inc., said: “Snapchatters in Saudi Arabia are one of the most active communities on the platform anywhere in the world.

“We wanted to bring even larger, more engaging experiences to this community on Saudi National Day as a sign of gratitude for their contribution to Snap’s creative ecosystem, while together celebrating the rich legacy of visual storytelling that exists in the Kingdom.”

Diriyah, past, present and future
On Saudi Arabia’s 91st National Day, the birthplace of the Kingdom continues to make history
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