Microsoft’s bid to buy Activision Blizzard clears key hurdle, but $69bn deal is still at risk

Microsoft President Brad Smith addresses a media conference regarding Microsoft's acquisition of Activision Blizzard and the future of gaming in Brussels, on Feb. 21, 2023. (AP)
Microsoft President Brad Smith addresses a media conference regarding Microsoft's acquisition of Activision Blizzard and the future of gaming in Brussels, on Feb. 21, 2023. (AP)
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Updated 16 May 2023
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Microsoft’s bid to buy Activision Blizzard clears key hurdle, but $69bn deal is still at risk

Microsoft’s bid to buy Activision Blizzard clears key hurdle, but $69bn deal is still at risk
  • The all-cash deal announced more than a year ago has been scrutinized by regulators around the world over fears that it would give Microsoft and its Xbox console control of Activision’s hit franchises like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft

LONDON: The European Union on Monday approved Microsoft’s $69 billion purchase of video game maker Activision Blizzard, deciding the deal won’t stifle competition for popular console titles like Call of Duty and accepting the US tech company’s remedies to boost competition in cloud gaming.
But the blockbuster deal is still in jeopardy because British regulators have rejected it and US authorities are trying to thwart it.
The acquisition, sweetened by Microsoft’s promises to automatically license Activision games to cloud gaming platforms, “would no longer raise competition concerns and would ultimately unlock significant benefits for competition and consumers,” said the European Commission, the 27-nation bloc’s executive arm and top antitrust watchdog.
The commission’s approval “has removed one potential major roadblock for this deal” but “it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in a stronger position” to overturn the UK’s rejection, said Liam Deane, a game industry analyst for tech research and advisory firm Omdia.
The all-cash deal announced more than a year ago has been scrutinized by regulators around the world over fears that it would give Microsoft and its Xbox console control of Activision’s hit franchises like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft.
Fierce opposition has been driven by rival Sony, which makes the PlayStation gaming system.
Microsoft sought to counter the resistance by striking a deal with Nintendo to license Activision titles like Call of Duty for 10 years and offering the same to Sony if the deal went ahead.
Following its review, the European Commission dismissed the possibility that Microsoft would cut off its games from PlayStation, saying that excluding the most popular gaming console would put a big dent in its profits.
The emerging cloud gaming market received closer scrutiny from Brussels. Cloud gaming frees players from buying expensive consoles and gaming computers by allowing them to stream games they own to tablets, phones and other devices, typically through a cloud platform that may charge a fee.
The commission approved the deal after accepting Microsoft’s offer to modify its licensing agreements to allow users and cloud gaming platforms to stream its titles without paying royalties for 10 years.
The licenses “will apply globally and will empower millions of consumers worldwide to play these games on any device they choose,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said in a statement.
Microsoft has already announced deals to bring Xbox PC games to cloud gaming platforms operated by chipmaker Nvidia and independent player Boosteroid.
Activision games aren’t available on cloud services, but the commission noted that the licensing commitments could expand the cloud gaming market “by bringing Activision’s games to new platforms, including smaller EU players, and to more devices than before.”
The EU decision might help Microsoft’s chances as it faces down regulators in the US, where the Federal Trade Commission is taking the company to court to block the deal. A trial before the FTC’s in-house judge set to begin Aug. 2.
But Brussels’ approval is at odds with the stance taken by British antitrust regulators, who last month upended the biggest tech deal in history over concerns it would hurt competition in the small but rapidly growing cloud gaming market.
Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority said in a statement Monday that it “stands by its decision,” an unusual move that highlights the more muscular approach London has taken.
“Microsoft’s proposals, accepted by the European Commission today, would allow Microsoft to set the terms and conditions for this market for the next ten years,” authority chief executive Sarah Cardell said. “They would replace a free, open and competitive market with one subject to ongoing regulation of the games Microsoft sells, the platforms to which it sells them, and the conditions of sale.”
The companies are appealing the UK decision to a tribunal, but history doesn’t bode well.
The watchdog previously denied Facebook parent Meta’s purchase of Giphy over concerns it would limit innovation and competition. The social media giant was ultimately forced to sell off the GIF-sharing platform after it lost an appeal.
If Microsoft’s appeal fails, the company would be forced to either scrap the deal or carve out the UK as a separate market, which appeared to be an unfeasible option, said Deane, the game analyst.

 


Israel’s former justice minister walks out during RT interview

Israel’s former justice minister walks out during RT interview
Updated 09 December 2023
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Israel’s former justice minister walks out during RT interview

Israel’s former justice minister walks out during RT interview
  • The host later asked Beilin about dubious evidence surrounding the events of Oct. 7 and evidence of Israeli friendly fire on the same day
  • Beilin became furious with the direction of the interview before deciding to walk away

DUBAI: Former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin walked out of a televised interview after being challenged by the presenter to respond to reports on the Israel-Hamas war.

During an interview with Russia Today presenter Afshin Rattansi, Beilin was asked about the mass slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza and the parallels between the Palestinian resistance and Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress resistance.

A heated exchange took place when the presenter challenged the ex-Israeli minister to respond to unverified accounts regarding the rape of Israeli women hostages captured by Hamas.

Beilin said: “I don’t want even to argue about it. If people don’t believe these poor women were hit and raped and whatever, I’m not in the situation to prove them that they are wrong.”

Rattansi said the claims had never been proven. 

The host later asked Beilin about dubious evidence surrounding the events of Oct. 7, as well as evidence of Israeli friendly fire on the same day, published in a report by Israeli newspaper Haaretz. 

He sarcastically responded, saying: “Maybe it is true, and all the 1,200 people who were killed on Oct. 7 were killed by Israelis … Are you crazy? … We killed ourselves and raped ourselves.”

The presenter replied that it was not a matter of believing whether this truly happened, but rather a matter of presenting evidence to verify or dispute such claims.   

As Beilin became furious with the direction of the interview, the presenter moved on to the topic of Israel’s support for Daesh fighters in Syria.

Beilin, however, refused to comment on the matter before abruptly ending the interview.


EU reaches a deal on the world’s first comprehensive AI rules

EU reaches a deal on the world’s first comprehensive AI rules
Updated 09 December 2023
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EU reaches a deal on the world’s first comprehensive AI rules

EU reaches a deal on the world’s first comprehensive AI rules
  • Under the deal, the most advanced foundation models that pose the biggest “systemic risks” will get extra scrutiny
  • Researchers have warned that these powerful foundation models could be used to supercharge online disinformation and manipulation, cyberattacks or creation of bioweapons

LONDON: European Union negotiators clinched a deal Friday on the world’s first comprehensive artificial intelligence rules, paving the way for legal oversight of technology used in popular generative AI services like ChatGPT that has promised to transform everyday life and spurred warnings of existential dangers to humanity.
Negotiators from the European Parliament and the bloc’s 27 member countries overcame big differences on controversial points including generative AI and police use of facial recognition surveillance to sign a tentative political agreement for the Artificial Intelligence Act.
“Deal!” tweeted European Commissioner Thierry Breton, just before midnight. “The EU becomes the very first continent to set clear rules for the use of AI.”
The result came after marathon closed-door talks this week, with the initial session lasting 22 hours before a second round kicked off Friday morning.
Officials were under the gun to secure a political victory for the flagship legislation but were expected to leave the door open to further talks to work out the fine print, likely to bring more backroom lobbying.
The EU took an early lead in the global race to draw up AI guardrails when it unveiled the first draft of its rulebook in 2021. The recent boom in generative AI, however, sent European officials scrambling to update a proposal poised to serve as a blueprint for the world.
The European Parliament will still need to vote on it early next year, but with the deal done that’s a formality, Brando Benifei, an Italian lawmaker co-leading the body’s negotiating efforts, told The Associated Press late Friday.
“It’s very very good,” he said by text message after being asked if it included everything he wanted. “Obviously we had to accept some compromises but overall very good.” The eventual law wouldn’t fully take effect until 2025 at the earliest, and threatens stiff financial penalties for violations of up to 35 million euros ($38 million) or 7 percent of a company’s global turnover.
Generative AI systems like OpenAI’s ChatGPT have exploded into the world’s consciousness, dazzling users with the ability to produce human-like text, photos and songs but raising fears about the risks the rapidly developing technology poses to jobs, privacy and copyright protection and even human life itself.
Now, the US, UK, China and global coalitions like the Group of 7 major democracies have jumped in with their own proposals to regulate AI, though they’re still catching up to Europe.
Strong and comprehensive regulation from the EU “can set a powerful example for many governments considering regulation,” said Anu Bradford, a Columbia Law School professor who’s an expert on EU and digital regulation. Other countries “may not copy every provision but will likely emulate many aspects of it.”
AI companies who will have to obey the EU’s rules will also likely extend some of those obligations to markets outside the continent, she said. “After all, it is not efficient to re-train separate models for different markets,” she said.
Others are worried that the agreement was rushed through.
“Today’s political deal marks the beginning of important and necessary technical work on crucial details of the AI Act, which are still missing,” said Daniel Friedlaender, head of the European office of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a tech industry lobby group.
The AI Act was originally designed to mitigate the dangers from specific AI functions based on their level of risk, from low to unacceptable. But lawmakers pushed to expand it to foundation models, the advanced systems that underpin general purpose AI services like ChatGPT and Google’s Bard chatbot.
Foundation models looked set to be one of the biggest sticking points for Europe. However, negotiators managed to reach a tentative compromise early in the talks, despite opposition led by France, which called instead for self-regulation to help homegrown European generative AI companies competing with big USrivals including OpenAI’s backer Microsoft.
Also known as large language models, these systems are trained on vast troves of written works and images scraped off the Internet. They give generative AI systems the ability to create something new, unlike traditional AI, which processes data and completes tasks using predetermined rules.
Under the deal, the most advanced foundation models that pose the biggest “systemic risks” will get extra scrutiny, including requirements to disclose more information such as how much computing power was used to train the systems.
Researchers have warned that these powerful foundation models, built by a handful of big tech companies, could be used to supercharge online disinformation and manipulation, cyberattacks or creation of bioweapons.
Rights groups also caution that the lack of transparency about data used to train the models poses risks to daily life because they act as basic structures for software developers building AI-powered services.
What became the thorniest topic was AI-powered facial recognition surveillance systems, and negotiators found a compromise after intensive bargaining.
European lawmakers wanted a full ban on public use of facial scanning and other “remote biometric identification” systems because of privacy concerns while governments of member countries wanted exemptions so law enforcement could use them to tackle serious crimes like child sexual exploitation or terrorist attacks.
Civil society groups were more skeptical.
“Whatever the victories may have been in these final negotiations, the fact remains that huge flaws will remain in this final text,” said Daniel Leufer, a senior policy analyst at the digital rights group Access Now. Along with the law enforcement exemptions, he also cited a lack of protection for AI systems used in migration and border control, and “big gaps in the bans on the most dangerous AI systems”
 


‘Four Daughters’ wins inaugural Asharq Documentary Award

‘Four Daughters’ wins inaugural Asharq Documentary Award
Updated 08 December 2023
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‘Four Daughters’ wins inaugural Asharq Documentary Award

‘Four Daughters’ wins inaugural Asharq Documentary Award
  • Prize marks company’s commitment to film industry, nurturing talent
  • Winner announced at Red Sea International Film Festival 2023

DUBAI: Kawthar Ben Haniyeh’s portrait of a Tunisian mother and her four daughters living in a society wracked by extremism has won the inaugural Asharq Documentary Award.

The awards are named after Saudi Research and Media Group’s Arabic free-to-air channel Asharq Documentary. The winning entry was announced during this year’s Red Sea International Film Festival at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Jeddah.

“Four Daughters” uses interviews and reenactments to tell the story of Olfa Hamrouni and her daughters, the two eldest of whom were radicalized and went missing.

“This award marks the beginning of several initiatives we have planned to recognize and reward filmmaking talent, while supporting the regional film industry,” Mohammed Al-Yousei, general manager of Asharq Documentary, said.

“A defining aspect of Asharq Documentary is its dedicated, in-house production capabilities, offering exclusive access to regional documentary films for our audiences.”

The new channel aims to provide a platform for creators to showcase their stories and productions, the company said in a statement.

Seven other films were in the running for the award. They were: Iraq’s “Hiding Saddam Hussein,” “Iraq’s Invisible Beauty” and “The Dalkurd Story,” Morocco’s “The Mother of All Lies,” Libya’s “Donga,” the UK’s “Copa 71” and Ireland’s “In the Shadow of Beirut.”

Shivani Pandya Malhotra, managing director of the Red Sea International Film Festival, said the Asharq Documentary Award was an important addition to the festival as the two organizations were committed to supporting storytelling and filmmaking.

Asharq Documentary is available through its dedicated TV channel and social media accounts, as well as live streaming and on-demand services via Asharq NOW.


Media watchdog calls for release of Gaza correspondent amid growing press safety concerns

Media watchdog calls for release of Gaza correspondent amid growing press safety concerns
Updated 08 December 2023
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Media watchdog calls for release of Gaza correspondent amid growing press safety concerns

Media watchdog calls for release of Gaza correspondent amid growing press safety concerns
  • Diaa Al-Kahlout detained at gunpoint on Thursday along with family members
  • News follows claim that Israeli killing of Reuters journalist was part of a ‘deliberate assault on civilians’

LONDON: The Committee to Protect Journalists has urged Israeli authorities to release Palestinian journalist Diaa Al-Kahlout, who was detained in northern Gaza on Dec. 7.

Al-Kahlout, the chief bureau correspondent for the Qatari-funded, London-based Arab newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, was detained along with family members.

CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator, Sherif Mansour, expressed “deep concern” about the incident and called for Al-Kahlout’s immediate release.

“The Israeli army should disclose his location, release him immediately, and take steps to ensure the safety of all journalists covering this war, especially those in Gaza who face imminent harm,” he said.

Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, one of the few pan-Arab news outlets that still has a physical presence in northern Gaza, said it had lost contact with Al-Kahlout at around noon on Thursday, and later discovered that he and his family were detained at gunpoint.

Reports suggest that Israeli soldiers detained Al-Kahlout, leaving his disabled daughter behind, and subjected him and others to alleged mistreatment, including physical assault.

Hussam Kanafani, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed’s editor-in-chief, said the outlet was working to determine Al-Kahlout’s whereabouts and secure his release.

Kanafani claimed that Israel deliberately “arrests, targets, and kills journalists” to prevent documentation of crimes.

Since the conflict between Israel and Hamas broke out last Oct. 7, CPJ has reported the arrest of 19 journalists, most based in the West Bank.

According to the media watchdog, at least 63 journalists and media workers have been killed since the beginning of the conflict, the highest casualty count in over 30 years of record-keeping.

Israel has faced persistent allegations of harassing, detaining and obstructing journalists, along with accusations of deliberate targeting.

On Thursday, Reuters published an investigation into the death of reporter Issam Abdallah in an Israeli attack near the Lebanese border on Oct. 13.

Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, previously said that the organization’s inquiry into the incident suggested it was a “direct attack on civilians.”

He added that such attacks are “absolutely prohibited by international humanitarian law and can amount to war crimes.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that it was important that an Israeli inquiry into the incident reached a conclusion and that its findings were transparent.


Axel Springer to close Upday in shift towards AI-based news

Axel Springer to close Upday in shift towards AI-based news
Updated 08 December 2023
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Axel Springer to close Upday in shift towards AI-based news

Axel Springer to close Upday in shift towards AI-based news
  • Upday to close at end of the year, relaunch expected for summer 2024
  • More than half of jobs to be eliminated, company said

BERLIN: Axel Springer is shutting down the news outlet Upday, the German publishing giant said on Friday, in plans to revive the brand as a “trend news generator” driven by artificial intelligence.

Upday will close by the end of the year in its current form, with the new service scheduled to launch in the summer of 2024.

A spokesperson said jobs at Upday are being eliminated during the transformation process, adding that the company would examine whether staff can continue to work elsewhere in the group.

Of a one-time workforce of 150, 70 staff members remain, the spokesperson said.

The aim of the transformation is to explore “the opportunities that (artificial intelligence) presents for journalism and the news industry”, the company said.

Upday has been pre-installed on Samsung cell phones and other devices under a deal between Axel Springer and the South Korean company in 2015. It expanded into 34 European countries.

Axel Springer owns top-selling German tabloids Bild and Welt, as well as US political news website Politico. The company plans to transition from print media to digital news.