The European Union handed down $1 billion in fines to major German car manufacturers Thursday, saying they colluded to limit the development and rollout of car emission-control systems.
Daimler, BMW and Volkswagen along with its Audi and Porsche divisions avoided competing on technology to restrict pollution from gasoline and diesel passenger cars, the EU’s executive commission said. Daimler wasn’t fined after it revealed the cartel to the European Commission.
It was the first time the European Commission imposed collusion fines on holding back the use of technical developments, not a more traditional practice like price fixing.
EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager said that even though the companies had the technology to cut harmful emissions beyond legal limits, they resisted competition and denied consumers the chance to buy less polluting cars.
“Manufacturers deliberately avoided to compete on cleaning better than what was required by EU emission standards. And they did so despite the relevant technology being available,” Vestager said. That made their practice illegal, she said.
According to Vestager, the companies agreed on the size of onboard tanks containing a urea solution known as AdBlue that is injected into the exhaust stream to limit pollution from diesel engines, and also on the driving ranges that could be expected before the tank needed refilling. A bigger tank would enable more pollution reduction.
Vestager said cooperation between companies is permissible under EU rules when it leads to efficiency gains, such as the faster introduction of new technologies. “But the dividing line is clear: Companies must not coordinate their behavior to limit the full potential of any type of technology,” she said.
Volkswagen said the investigation had ended with a finding that several other forms of cooperation under review were not improper under antitrust law.
“The (EU) Commission is breaking new legal ground with this decision, because it is the first time it has prosecuted technical cooperation as an antitrust violation,” the company said in a statement. “It is also imposing fines even though the contents of the talks were never implemented and customers were therefore never harmed.”
Volkswagen said that the tank sizes produced by all the carmakers involved were “two to three times” bigger than discussed in the talks. It said it was considering an appeal to the European Court of Justice.
BMW said that discussions on the AdBlue tanks had “no influence whatsoever on the company’s product decisions.” The company said it was significant that that the fine notice found there was no collusion involving earlier allegations of using software to restrict AdBlue dosing.
BMW said it set aside 1.4 billion euros ($1.7 billion) based on the commission’s initial accusations but reduced the set-aside in May due to more serious allegations in the case not being substantiated.
The case wasn’t directly linked to the “dieselgate” scandal of the past decade, when Volkswagen admitted that about 11 million diesel vehicles worldwide were fitted with the deceptive software, which reduced nitrogen oxide emissions when the cars were placed on a test machine but allowed higher emissions and improved engine performance during normal driving.
The scandal cost Wolfsburg, Germany-based Volkswagen 30 billion euros ($35 billion) in fines and civil settlements and led to the recall of millions of vehicles. The Volkswagen vehicles in the scandal did not use the urea tanks but relied on another pollution reduction technology.
AI bot detects and shames Belgian MPs glued to phones
Belgian digital artist called Dries Depoorter launched earlier this month an AI bot called “The Flemish Scrollers” that automatically catches, and tags members of the Federal Parliament glued to their phones during parliamentary proceedings.
Using artificial intelligence and facial recognition, the software calculates how long the politician spends on their phone, all while broadcasting the session and results on YouTube.
Those figures are automatically posted on Twitter and Instagram, Depoorter’s website explains.
Flemish Scrollers’ Twitter bio explains that the program is “automatically tagging distracted Belgian politician when they use their phone on the daily livestreams. This with the help of AI.”
This case was reported with Peter Van Rompuy, a member of the Senate of Belgium, who was caught using his smartphone; the software picked up the footage, posted it on Twitter, and tagged the politician asking him to “focus.”
Another Belgian politician, Bart Somers, was also reported to be using his phone while parliamentary proceedings were underway.
In response, politicians highlighted to the Flemish Scrollers project that they were using their phones for work purposes. However, there’s no way to determine if that was actually the case – the AI bot doesn’t ascertain what politicians are doing on their devices.
It seems that the idea caught the international eye, as foreign twitter accounts are asking the software creator to make it open source so that it could be used across other countries.
It’s worth noting that the AI bot comes almost two years after Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon caused public outrage after playing Angry Birds during a policy discussion.
Priest outed via Grindr app highlights rampant data tracking
When a religious publication used smartphone app data to deduce the sexual orientation of a high-ranking Roman Catholic official, it exposed a problem that goes far beyond a debate over church doctrine and priestly celibacy.
With few U.S. restrictions on what companies can do with the vast amount of data they collect from web page visits, apps and location tracking built into phones, there’s not much to stop similar spying on politicians, celebrities and just about anyone that’s a target of another person’s curiosity — or malice.
Citing allegations of “possible improper behavior,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Tuesday announced the resignation of its top administrative official, Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, ahead of a report by the Catholic news outlet The Pillar that probed his private romantic life.
The Pillar said it obtained “commercially available” location data from a vendor it didn’t name that it “correlated” to Burrill’s phone to determine that he had visited gay bars and private residences while using Grindr, a dating app popular with gay people.
“Cases like this are only going to multiply,” said Alvaro Bedoya, director of the Center for Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law School.
Privacy activists have long agitated for laws that would prevent such abuses, although in the U.S. they only exist in a few states, and then in varying forms. Bedoya said the firing of Burrill should drive home the danger of this situation, and should finally spur Congress and the Federal Trade Commission to act.
Privacy concerns are often construed in abstract terms, he said, “when it’s really, ‘Can you explore your sexuality without your employer firing you? Can you live in peace after an abusive relationship without fear?'” Many abuse victims take great care to ensure that their abuser can’t find them again.
As a congressional staffer in 2012, Bedoya worked on legislation that would have banned apps that let abusers secretly track their victims’ locations through smartphone data. But it was never passed.
“No one can claim this is a surprise,” Bedoya said. “No one can claim that they weren’t warned.”
Privacy advocates have been warning for years that location and personal data collected by advertisers and amassed and sold by brokers can be used to identify individuals, isn’t secured as well as it should be and is not regulated by laws that require the clear consent of the person being tracked. Both legal and technical protections are necessary so that smartphone users can push back, they say.
The Pillar alleged “serial sexual misconduct” by Burrill — homosexual activity is considered sinful under Catholic doctrine, and priests are expected to remain celibate. The online publication’s website describes it as focused on investigative journalism that “can help the Church to better serve its sacred mission, the salvation of souls.”
Its editors didn’t respond to requests for comment Thursday about how they obtained the data. The report said only that the data came from one of the data brokers that aggregate and sell app signal data, and that the publication also contracted an independent data consulting firm to authenticate it.
There are brokers that charge thousands of dollars a month for huge volumes of location data, some of which is marketed not just to advertisers but to landlords, bail bondsmen and bounty hunters, said John Davisson, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. He said someone looking to “reverse engineer” a particular person’s data from that bulk package could potentially get it from any of the many customers in the data chain.
“It is surprisingly and disturbingly cheap to obtain location data derived from mobile phones,” Davisson said. “It’s easy enough that a determined party can do it.”
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said the incident confirms yet again the dishonesty of an industry that falsely claims to safeguard the privacy of phone users.
“Experts have warned for years that data collected by advertising companies from Americans’ phones could be used to track them and reveal the most personal details of their lives. Unfortunately, they were right,” he said in a statement. “Data brokers and advertising companies have lied to the public, assuring them that the information they collected was anonymous. As this awful episode demonstrates, those claims were bogus — individuals can be tracked and identified.”
Wyden and other lawmakers asked the FTC last year to investigate the industry. It needs “to step up and protect Americans from these outrageous privacy violations, and Congress needs to pass comprehensive federal privacy legislation,” he added.
Norway’s data privacy watchdog concluded earlier this year that Grindr shared personal user data with a number of third parties without legal basis and said it would impose a fine of $11.7 million (100 million Norwegian krone), equal to 10% of the California company’s global revenue.
The data leaked to advertising technology companies for targeted ads included GPS location, user profile information as well as the simple fact that particular individuals were using Grindr, which could indicate their sexual orientation.
The advertising partners that Grindr shared data with included Twitter, AT&T’s Xandr service, and other ad-tech companies OpenX, AdColony and Smaato, the Norwegian watchdog said. Its investigation followed a complaint by a Norwegian consumer group that found similar data leakage problems at other popular dating apps such as OkCupid and Tinder.
In a statement, Grindr called The Pillar’s report an “unethical, homophobic witch hunt” and said it does “not believe” it was the source of the data used. The company said it has policies and systems in place to protect personal data, although it didn’t say when those were implemented. The Pillar said the app data it obtained about Burrill covered parts of 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Activision Blizzard sued over gender-based discrimination
U.S. based- video game company Activision Blizzard was sued on Tuesday over a culture of constant sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination.
The lawsuit filed by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) against the company was a result of a two-year investigation that revealed top executives were aware and/or involved of unequal pay, promoting men over women, and widespread sexual harassment.
The complaint highlights those male employees of the gaming company discuss sexual encounters and joke about rape.
“In the office, women are subjected to ‘cube crawls’, in which male employees drink copious amounts of alcohol as they ‘crawl’ their way through various cubicles in the office and often engage in inappropriate behavior toward female employees,” the DFEH legal filing claims.
In another scenario outlined in the complaint, the company refused to deal with a former senior creative director, Alex Afrasiabi, who the department said was “permitted to engage in blatant sexual harassment with little to no repercussion.”
That included inappropriately flirting with fellow female colleagues, telling them he wanted to marry them, and putting his arms around them, to the point that other male employees had to “pull him off female employees.”
Additionally, the complaint proved that women were allegedly paid less than men. According to the lawsuit, women were also assigned to lower-level positions and passed over for promotions, despite doing more work than their male peers in some cases.
One woman said her manager informed her that her promotion would be withheld since “she might get pregnant and like being a mom too much.”
“All employers should ensure that their employees are being paid equally and take all steps to prevent discrimination, harassment, and retaliation,” said DFEH Director Kevin Kish.
“This is especially important for employers in male-dominated industries, such as technology and gaming,” Kish added.
In response, the company behind World of Warcraft and Candy Crush said it was cooperative with the agency in its investigation, and that the DFEH refused to inform them of certain accusations it had discovered. In fact, it considered the accusations “distorted, and in many cases, false,” and said it valued diversity in the workplace and inclusivity for everyone.
Blizzard also cited new anti-harassment trainings, a confidential tip line for employees to report violations and performance-based compensation as its efforts to improve.
As the suit surfaced, numerous women stepped forward to corroborate allegations.
“I’m going to come out and say it. I was one of these women. My incident happened in 2013 at BlizzCon. I didn’t say anything officially until I decided to leave the company last year, because of the name recognition and fear of retaliation,” wrote Stephanie Krutsick, a former producer for the company, on Twitter.
It’s worth noting that experts had highlighted that the allegations in the lawsuit echoed prior accusations made within other companies in the gaming industry.
“We cannot allow harassment and toxicity to go unchecked. We must support inclusion and diversity within our industry so that we may all thrive together and support the development of our future talents as well,” said Renee Gittins, executive director of the International Game Developers Association.
Gittins said that the association had developed guidebooks to help game studios implement human resources policies, improve their culture and prevent toxicity from thriving.
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