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Big Tech’s outsized influence draws state-level pushback

Associated Press



Michael Gianaris

New York state Sen. Michael Gianaris was ecstatic when Amazon named Long Island City in 2018 as a front-runner for its new headquarters, a project that would bring 25,000 jobs and $2.5 billion in construction spending to his district in Queens.

But his support faded quickly when he learned that state and city leaders had promised one of the world’s richest companies tax breaks worth $3 billion in secretive negotiations. A public backlash led Amazon to cancel the investment altogether, but to Gianaris the episode still illuminated the massive power of tech companies that dominate their industries, overwhelm traditional businesses and use that leverage to expand their reach even further.

Consumer activists, small business owners and state lawmakers across the U.S. are increasingly calling for measures to rein in companies such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google that wield influence over so much of everyday life.

Normally that task would fall to the federal government. But while the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have filed major antitrust actions against Google and Facebook — both with widespread state support — Congress remains stalled when it comes to making new laws related to Big Tech.

So scores of so-called “techlash” bills are being debated in dozens of statehouses, where lawmakers of both major parties are proposing new regulations related to antitrust, consumer privacy, app store fees and taxes on digital ad sales. Republican lawmakers also are pushing back against what they claim without evidence is an attempt to stifle conservative voices on social media.

Gianaris, a Democrat, is pushing a landmark antitrust bill in the New York Legislature. It would set a new legal antitrust standard — ‘”abuse of dominance” — and allow class-action lawsuits under state laws.

“Our antitrust laws have atrophied and they’re not equipped to handle the 21st century and anti-competitive practices,” he said. “Traditional antitrust enforcement doesn’t work because Big Tech has become too big and too powerful.”

Tech companies aren’t content to play defense. Their lobbyists are pushing state lawmakers to oppose restrictions they deem onerous. In other cases, the companies are working to write their own, more favorable bills. On many issues, they also would prefer federal legislation over a patchwork of state laws.

Of particular concern to two of the biggest companies is legislation being considered in several statehouses that would limit the ability of Apple and Google to collect large shares of the consumer transactions in their app stores.

Critics say the two leading U.S. smartphone companies use their position as app gatekeepers to fatten their profits with fees and undermine rivals that compete against their own music, video and other services.

Leading the pushback are companies such as Epic, which owns the popular Fortnite video game, Spotify and Match.com. They want to force Apple and Google to let them keep the proceeds from subscriptions and in-app sales without taking a cut.

In an attempt to fend off potential government reforms, Apple last year cut in half its standard 30% commission on app purchases for most developers. Google recently followed suit with cuts set to take effect in July.

State Rep. Regina Cobb, a Republican sponsoring app-store legislation in Arizona, said app makers and their customers are being held hostage.

“That’s a Chicago-style mafia kind of thing: ‘You pay us 30 percent or you don’t get to play. We’ll take you off of our platform; your company’s done,’” Cobb said.

Similar legislation is being considered in Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Wisconsin. App store legislation in North Dakota died in February following intense lobbying by both sides. Apple Chief Privacy Engineer Erik Neuenschwander spoke out against the bill, saying it “threatens to destroy iPhone as you know it” by requiring changes that would undermine privacy and security.

Moves by three states — California, Nevada and Virginia — to enact their own comprehensive data privacy laws have emboldened others to follow suit.

In Oklahoma, a bipartisan bill would require companies to obtain prior consent before collecting and selling the data of state residents. In Florida, legislation would give consumers ownership of the digital information companies collect through their spending, social interactions, news habits and travel.

The Florida bill would require companies to divulge what data they are gathering, force them to delete it upon consumer request, and prohibit them from sharing or selling it when told not to. They could be sued if they don’t comply.

One of its sponsors, Republican state Rep. Fiona McFarland, said it’s a response to the omnipresent collection, sharing and selling of personal information.

“It’s everything from these apps on our phones, to payment exchanges, to calendars,” she said.

Facebook says it supports some online privacy laws and provides as much input as possible while bills are being written. The Internet Association, the tech industry’s major trade group representing Amazon, Facebook, Google and dozens of other tech companies, declined to comment.

In California, a bill dubbed the anti-eavesdropping law seeks to limit how smart speakers can potentially intrude into private lives. Its sponsor, Republican Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, unplugged a smart device in his bedroom six months ago after it lit up unprompted.

“The only thing stopping all of these recordings from being in the hands of government is one search warrant,” he said. “These things get hacked all the time, so you know, your data can end up in Russia.”

His bill would extend existing limitations on smart televisions and would require companies such as Amazon, which markets Echo smart speakers, to obtain permission before they can record, transcribe or sell information from any conversation.

The companies’ disruption of traditional businesses — and the tax revenue they once provided for governments — also hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Maryland lawmakers this year overrode a veto from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to create a first-in-the-nation law that taxes digital advertising. The measure, initially approved last year, has prompted a number of other states — including Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts, Montana and New York — to consider similar legislation.

Supporters say the law seeks to modernize the state’s tax system and make thriving tech companies pay their fair share. It would assess the tax on revenue tech companies make on digital advertisements within the state, raising an estimated $250 million a year for education.

“Companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google have seen their profits drastically increase during the COVID-19 pandemic while our Main Street businesses are struggling to keep up,” said Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Democrat who sponsored the measure.

Opponents have challenged the law in federal court and say it violates the Internet Tax Freedom Act, which prohibits states from imposing “multiple and discriminatory taxes on electronic commerce.”

The wave of state legislation follows growing public consciousness over the power of Big Tech and the companies’ ever-expanding influence, said Samir Jain, the director of policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy & Technology.

“With that has come rising backlash against the tech companies in terms of the power they have and ways in which they exercise it,” he said.




The latest: vaccines to be made available at Alaska airports

Associated Press



Alaska airports

JUNEAU, Alaska — Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy says COVID-19 vaccines would be made available at key airports in the state starting June 1.

He made the announcement Friday, as he unveiled plans aimed at bolstering Alaska’s pandemic-battered tourist industry.

Dunleavy, a Republican, outlined plans for a national marketing campaign aimed at luring tourists and said the vaccine offering is “probably another good reason to come to the state of Alaska in the summer.”

Dunleavy and other state leaders have been pushing to allow large cruise ships to return to Alaska after COVID-19 restrictions kept them away last year.

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2.7 million products on display at China’s digital Canton Trade Fair

Inside Telecom Staff



Digital Canton Trade Fair

The China Import and Export Fair (Canton Fair) opened its 129th session on Wednesday, and what is its third digital exhibition. 260 thousand exhibitors present a record-breaking 2.7 million products across 16 categories, 82 thousand of which will be new products.

Exhibitors will showcase their products through cutting-edge digital presentations such as pictures, videos, 3D and livestreams, including 2,600 virtual reality showrooms and 137 online new product launches.

Xu Bing, spokesperson of the Canton Fair, noted that the 129th Canton Fair, built on the previous two digital sessions successfully held in 2020, has further optimized its digital platform to facilitate accessible and convenient business communication between suppliers and buyers.

“The Canton Fair has been promoting trade exchanges and stabilizing the global industrial supply chain over the years, and we hope the 129th session can contribute to China’s new development pattern where domestic and foreign markets can boost each other,” Xu said.

Canton, now known as Guangzhou, is the capital and most populous city in the province of Guangdong, which popularly called “the factory of the world.”

Located on the Pearl River about 120 km north-northwest of Hong Kong, Canton (Guangzhou) has a trade history of over 2,200 years and was historically the major trading terminus for the ancient, globalized Silk Road which traveled from China to the Mediterranean and southern Europe.

The metropolis continues in the modern era as a major port and transportation hub and is one of China’s three largest cities. 

This year’s Canton Fair brings functional improvements to enable efficient business matching, including leveraging resources in livestreams, allowing easy access to the Help Center, offering an upgraded Exhibitor Centre management tool, and providing an intelligent customer service system with multiple language support.

Aiming to provide buyers with an optimal experience throughout the grand online international trade event, the Fair is also embracing an inclusive participation with targeted market segment incentives and activities.

Focusing on China’s global “Belt and Road Initiative” and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) countries, the Canton Fair has been working closely with international business associations.

Forty-four exhibition virtual events hosted in 32 countries with topics covering promotion, matchmaking, and cooperation agreement signing, along with over 300 trainings for overseas buyers, email direct marketing and global partnership programs, will help global buyers understand their targeted industries and the product categories of interest which are showcased at the Canton Fair.

To allow buyers to do barrier-free business across borders, the Canton Fair is introducing a wide range of supporting services, such as professional settlements, financing to insurance, logistic support for transportation, inspection to quality certification, as well as online customs support and policy interpretation.

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Google Earth adds time lapse video to depict climate change

Associated Press



Google Earth adds time lapse video to depict climate change

The Google Earth app is adding a new video feature that draws upon nearly four decades of satellite imagery to vividly illustrate how climate change has affected glaciers, beaches, forests and other places around the world.

The tool unveiled Thursday is rolling out in what is being billed as the biggest update to Google Earth in five years. Google says it undertook the complex project in partnership with several government agencies, including NASA in the U.S. and its European counterpart, in hopes that it will help a mass audience grasp the sometimes abstract concept of climate change in more tangible terms through its free Earth app.

Cornell University climate scientist Natalie Mahowald believes that mission may be accomplished.

“This is amazing,” she told The Associated Press after watching a preview of the new feature. “Trying to get people to understand the scope of the climate change and the land use problem is so difficult because of the long time and spatial scales. I would not be surprised if this one bit of software changes many people’s minds about the scale of the impact of humans on the environment.”

This isn’t the first time time-lapse satellite imagery has been used to demonstrate show how parts of the world are changing before our eyes due to a changing climate. Most scientists agree that climate change is being driven by pollution primarily produced by humans.

But earlier images have mostly focused on melting glaciers and haven’t been widely available on an already popular app like Google Earth, which can be downloaded on most of the more than 3 billion smartphones now in use around the world

Google is promising that people will be able to see a time lapse presentation of just about anywhere they want to search. The feature also includes a storytelling mode highlighting 800 different places on the planet in both 2D and 3D formats. Those videos also will be available on Google’s YouTube video site, a service more widely used than the Earth app.

The feature was created from 24 million satellite images taken every year from 1984 to 2020 and provided by NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey and the European Union, according to Google. The time lapse technology was created with the help of Carnegie Mellon University.

Google plans to update the time lapse imagery at least once a year.

SAN RAMON, Calif. (AP) — By MICHAEL LIEDTKE AP Technology Writer

AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this story from Washington.

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