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Amazon offers assist with US COVID-19 vaccine distribution

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Amazon is offering its colossal operations network and advanced technologies to assist President Joe Biden in his vow to get 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations to Americans in his first 100 days in office.

“We are prepared to leverage our operations, information technology, and communications capabilities and expertise to assist your administration’s vaccination efforts,” wrote the CEO of Amazon’s Worldwide Consumer division, Dave Clark, in a letter to Biden. “Our scale allows us to make a meaningful impact immediately in the fight against COVID-19, and we stand ready to assist you in this effort.”

Amazon said that it has already arranged a licensed third-party occupational health care provider to give vaccines on-site at its facilities for its employees when they become available.

Amazon has more than 800,000 employees in the United States, Clark wrote, most of whom essential workers who cannot work from home and should be vaccinated as soon as possible.

Biden will sign 10 pandemic-related executive orders on Thursday, his second day in office, but the administration says efforts to supercharge the rollout of vaccines have been hampered by lack of cooperation from the Trump administration during the transition. They say they don’t have a complete understanding of the previous administration’s actions on vaccine distribution.

Biden is also depending on Congress to provide $1.9 trillion for economic relief and COVID-19 response. There are a litany of complaints from states that say they are not getting enough vaccine even as they are being asked to vaccinate a broader swath of Americans.

According to data through January 20 from Johns Hopkins University, the seven-day rolling average for daily new deaths in the U.S. rose over the past two weeks from 2,677.3 on January 6 to 3,054.1 on Wednesday. More than 400,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19.

SEATTLE (AP) — By The Associated Press

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Apple, Google raise new concerns by yanking Russian app

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BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — Big Tech companies that operate around the globe have long promised to obey local laws and to protect civil rights while doing business. But when Apple and Google capitulated to Russian demands and removed a political-opposition app from their local app stores, it raised worries that two of the world’s most successful companies are more comfortable bowing to undemocratic edicts — and maintaining a steady flow of profits — than upholding the rights of their users.

The app in question, called Smart Voting, was a tool for organizing opposition to Russia President Vladimir Putin ahead of elections held over the weekend. The ban levied last week by a pair of the world’s richest and most powerful companies galled supporters of free elections and free expression.

“This is bad news for democracy and dissent all over the world,” said Natalia Krapiva, tech legal counsel for Access Now, an internet freedom group. “We expect to see other dictators copying Russia’s tactics.”

Technology companies offering consumer services from search to social media to apps have long walked a tightrope in many of the less democratic nations of the world. As Apple, Google, and other major companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook have grown more powerful over the past decade, so have government ambitions to harness that power for their own ends.

“Now this is the poster child for political oppression,” said Sascha Meinrath, a Penn State University professor who studies online censorship issues. Google and Apple “have bolstered the probability of this happening again.”

Neither Apple nor Google responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press when the news of the app’s removal broke last week; both remained silent this week as well.

Google also denied access to two documents on its online service Google Docs that listed candidates endorsed by Smart Voting, and YouTube blocked similar videos.

According to a person with direct knowledge of the matter, Google faced legal demands by Russian regulators and threats of criminal prosecution of individual employees if it failed to comply. The same person said Russian police visited Google’s Moscow offices last week to enforce a court order to block the app. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Google’s own employees have reportedly blasted the company’s cave-in to Putin’s power play by posting internal messages and images deriding the app’s removal.

That sort of backlash within Google has become more commonplace in recent years as the company’s ambitions appeared to conflict with its one-time corporate motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” adopted by cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin 23 years ago. Neither Page nor Brin — whose family fled the former Soviet Union for the U.S. when he was a boy — are currently involved in Google’s day-to-day management, and that motto has long since been set aside.

Apple, meanwhile, lays out a lofty “Commitment to Human Rights” on its website, although a close read of that statement suggests that when legal government orders and human rights are at odds, the company will obey the government. “Where national law and international human rights standards differ, we follow the higher standard,” it reads. “Where they are in conflict, we respect national law while seeking to respect the principles of internationally recognized human rights.”

A recent report from the Washington nonprofit Freedom House found that global internet freedom declined for the 11th consecutive year and is under “unprecedented strain” as more nations arrested internet users for “nonviolent political, social, or religious speech” than ever before. Officials suspended internet access in at least 20 countries, and 21 states blocked access to social media platforms, according to the report.

For the seventh year in a row, China held the top spot as the worst environment for internet freedom. But such threats take several forms. Turkey’s new social media regulations, for instance, require platforms with over a million daily users to remove content deemed “offensive” within 48 hours of being notified, or risk escalating penalties including fines, advertising bans and limits on bandwidth.

Russia, meanwhile, added to the existing “labyrinth of regulations that international tech companies must navigate in the country,” according to Freedom House. Overall online freedom in the U.S. also declined for the fifth consecutive year; the group said, citing conspiracy theories and misinformation about the 2020 elections as well as surveillance, harassment, and arrests in response to racial-injustice protests.

Big Tech companies have generally agreed to abide by country-specific rules for content takedowns and other issues in order to operate in these countries. That can range from blocking posts about Holocaust denial in Germany and elsewhere in Europe where they’re illegal to outright censorship of opposition parties, as in Russia.

The app’s expulsion was widely denounced by opposition politicians. Leonid Volkov, a top strategist to jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, wrote on Facebook that the companies “bent to the Kremlin’s blackmail.”

Navalny’s ally Ivan Zhdanov said on Twitter that the politician’s team is considering suing the two companies. He also mocked the move: “Expectations: the government turns off the internet. Reality: the internet, in fear, turns itself off.”

It’s possible that the blowback could prompt either or both companies to reconsider their commitment to operating in Russia. Google made a similar decision in 2010 when it pulled its search engine out of mainland China after the Communist government there began censoring search results and videos on YouTube.

Russia isn’t a major market for either Apple, whose annual revenue this year is expected to approach $370 billion, or Google’s corporate parent, Alphabet, whose revenue is projected to hit $250 billion this year. But profits are profits.

“If you want to take a principled stand on human rights and freedom of expression, then there are some hard choices you have to make on when you should leave the market,” said Kurt Opsahl, general counsel for the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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Ortutay reported from Oakland, California. Associated Press writers Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Kelvin Chan in London contributed to this story.

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Epic CEO: Apple won’t let Fortnite back until case ends

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Epic CEO Apple won't let Fortnite back until case ends

Tim Sweeney, CEO of Fortnite maker Epic Games Inc., said Wednesday it’s been told by Apple that the game will be “blacklisted from the Apple ecosystem” until the companies’ legal case is resolved and all appeals are exhausted, which could take as long as five years.

Sweeney posted on Twitter that Epic has asked Apple to reinstate Fortnite and promised “that it will adhere to Apple’s guidelines whenever and wherever we release products on Apple’s platforms.”

“Apple spent a year telling the world, the court, and the press they’d ‘welcome Epic’s return to the App Store if they agree to play by the same rules as everyone else.’ Epic agreed, and now Apple has reneged in another abuse of its monopoly power over a billion users,” Sweeney tweeted.

Apple declined to comment.

Earlier this month, the federal judge overseeing the companies’ legal scuffle ordered Apple to dismantle a lucrative part of the competitive barricade guarding its closely run iPhone app store, but rejected allegations that the company has been running an illegal monopoly that stifles competition and innovation. But U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers didn’t brand Apple as a monopolist or require it to allow competing stores to offer apps for iPhones, iPads and iPods.

Epic is appealing the decision.

Epic had claimed that Apple has been gouging app makers by charging commissions ranging from 15% to 30% for in-app transactions because it forbids other options on its iPhone, iPad and iPod.

When Epic tried to evade the commissions with an alternative payment system in Fortnite last August, Apple ousted it from the app store to set up a legal showdown that could force it to lower its fees. But Apple has insisted that the commissions are a reasonable toll paid by a minority of the 1.8 million apps in its store to help cover the more than $100 billion it has invested in mobile software.

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California’s new law will force Amazon to change its labor practices

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Amazon

Amazon’s labor practices might witness a complete alteration, as California has become the first state to sign a bill that targets working conditions for warehouse employees, similar to those for Amazon and other major retail firms.

As a response to the number of reported injuries at Amazon’s warehouses where productivity expectations are unrealistically enforced, California’s democratic governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 701.

The new law, AB 701, allows warehouse employees to challenge quotas that many say prohibit them from taking bathroom breaks or other breaks that are necessary for a worker’s physical and mental health.

While Amazon isn’t explicitly mentioned in the new law, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are fully aware that the retail giant is one of many companies that would be largely affected by the implementation of the new bill. Over recent months, Amazon has received intense backlash for its performance quotas with several reporters shedding light on how workers resort to peeing in bottles to maintain their livelihood and stay in line with warehouse goals.

One of the main issues Amazon faces is transparency. However, with the new legislation, the e-commerce gorilla will be forced to be as clear as possible with its performance quotas.

“The bill is the first attempt to create transparency and protections against unsafe algorithmic-enforced quota systems used by corporations like to push warehouse workers’ bodies to the breaking point,” California’s Democratic assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez said in a tweet earlier this month.

However, business owners aren’t as fond with the new bill, explaining that it will “harm the industry by empowering employees to file lawsuits that could be costly and time-consuming for companies,” according to The Verge.

The bill will go into effect on January 1st of the new year, and employers will be given a 30-day notice to provide workers with their productivity quotas.

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