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The Federal Trade Commission on Monday opened a wide-ranging study into how social media and streaming companies collect and use data about their users, an undertaking meant to give the consumer protection watchdog agency a better understanding of a crucial part of the internet sector.
The agency ordered nine big tech platforms — Amazon, ByteDance (which operates of TikTok), Discord, Facebook, Reddit, Snap, Twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube — to provide information on how they collect data, how user data is used to determine which ads to show to whom, and how the companies measure and promote user engagement. The agency also asked the companies for data on how their services affect children and teenagers.
The study is not an official investigation into the internet companies and the inquiry is not related to any enforcement action, the agency said. The companies have 45 days to answer the agency’s request. In February., the F.T.C. opened an antitrust study into past small mergers by Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft to see if those mergers later surfaced competition concerns.
Last week, the agency, as well as more than 40 states, accused Facebook of buying up its rivals to squash competition. The suits focused on Facebook’s purchases of Instagram for $1 billion and WhatsApp for $19 billion.
The agency’s new study “will lift the hood on the social media and video streaming firms to carefully study their engines,” three of the four commissioners who voted in favor of the study wrote in a statement. “As concerns mount regarding the impact of the tech companies on Americans’ privacy and behavior, this study is timely and important.”
Joseph Simons, the chairman of the agency, voted in approval of the study but did not make a statement. Noah Phillips, a Republican like Mr. Simons, was the lone vote against the study, calling it “sprawling and scattershot.”
The Justice Department and the United Automobile Workers union said on Monday that they had reached a tentative agreement on changes meant to root out corruption at the union without putting it under full government control.
The United States attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Matthew J. Schneider, and the president of the union, Rory Gamble, said the U.A.W. had agreed to have a monitor oversee the union’s finances. The union will also ask members if it should change how its president and senior officers are chosen.
Over the last five years, Mr. Schneider has been investigating corruption at the U.A.W. and has secured guilty pleas by more than a dozen people, including two former union presidents. His office revealed several unrelated schemes in which senior union officials embezzled more than $1.5 million from membership dues, $3.5 million from training centers that were jointly run by the union and automakers, and millions of dollars in kickbacks from companies that supplied T-shirts, wristwatches and other promotional items to the union.
“The U.A.W., one of the largest and most prestigious unions in the world, is on a pathway to be free of corruption,” Mr. Schneider said at a news conference in Detroit.
The settlement brings an end to the criminal investigation of the union, but Mr. Schneider’s office is still looking at union officials. He added that Mr. Gamble is not under investigation and praised him for his cooperation.
Mr. Gamble said that the investigation “was very necessary to clean up our” union.
Under the agreement, U.A.W. members will decide whether they want to directly elect the union’s president. The president and other top officials are currently chosen by delegates.
The monitor will have the power to investigate new cases of fraud or corruption. If members choose to directly elect their leader, the monitor will stay on for up to six years to oversee the next two elections of U.A.W. leaders.
Mr. Gamble’s two immediate predecessors — Gary Jones and Dennis Williams — pleaded guilty to charges related to their use of union funds for luxury travel and personal purchases. Both are awaiting sentencing.
Three former executives of Fiat Chrysler and a senior union official, Joe Ashton, who once held a seat on the board of General Motors, also pleaded guilty to corruption charges. In November, Mr. Ashton was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
Exxon Mobil announced on Monday that it would reduce methane and other greenhouse gas emissions from its exploration and production operations over the next four years.
The company said it would reduce emissions by 15 to 20 percent by 2025 compared with 2016 levels.
More significantly, the company said it would eliminate “routine” flaring by 2030 in an effort to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions generated when companies burn unwanted natural gas that is released during oil production.
The company stopped well short of the kind of targets set by BP and other European oil companies that have pledged to reduce emissions by much more and have said they would gradually move away from oil and gas as they invest more in renewable energy.
“We respect and support society’s ambition to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, and continue to advocate for policies that promote cost-effective, market-based solutions to address the risks of climate change,” Exxon’s chief executive, Darren Woods, said in a statement.
Exxon said that “meaningful decreases” in emissions of greenhouse gasses “will require changes in society’s energy choices coupled with the development and deployment of affordable lower-emission technologies.”
Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
Savage x Fenty, the lingerie company that the pop singer Rihanna helped found, has hired Goldman Sachs to raise $100 million in financing, sources with direct knowledge of the deal told the DealBook newsletter.
The company wants the money for new initiatives that may include new lines like athletic wear and expanding in Europe.
The high-flying lingerie brand generates about $150 million in revenue, but is not yet profitable, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the information was confidential.
The valuation it is seeking in the funding round could not be determined, A representative for Goldman Sachs declined to comment, while Savage x Fenty did not respond to requests for comment.
Rihanna’s business ventures have challenged the traditional playbook of fashion and beauty brands, taking an inclusive approach in an industry for which exclusivity is the norm. Her Fenty Beauty line, which she produces with a subsidiary of LVMH, introduced with 40 shades of foundation for a wide range of skin tones. The makeup brand packed the shelves of LVMH-backed Sephora, and paved the way for a Rihanna fashion line with the French luxury empire.
Rihanna started Savage x Fenty in 2018, aiming it at a broad range of body types. It is partly owned by Techstyle Fashion Group, the venture-backed company behind the actress Kate Hudson’s athleisure line Fabletics. Rihanna frequently promotes the brand on Instagram, where she has 87.5 million followers. Earlier this year, Savage x Fenty was accused of deceptive marketing, which it denies.
Savage x Fenty’s launch came as Victoria’s Secret stumbled. The brand that once dominated the lingerie industry had begun to turn off its customers with garments that emphasized sex appeal over comfort. Last year, Victoria’s Secret canceled its fashion show amid dwindling viewership. In what seemed a direct shot at its rival, Savage x Fenty held a body-positive extravaganza at the Barclays Center last year, returning again this year with “a forceful display of inclusivity” that streamed on Amazon.
The British government said on Monday that it would enter formal negotiations with EDF, the French utility, to build a new nuclear power station on the east coast of England.
The plant, known as Sizewell C, would have an estimated price tag is 20 billion pounds, or about $27 billion. Negotiations with EDF, which owns most of the British nuclear power system, would cover financing and other arrangements.
In moving ahead with talks, the government is acknowledging that although Britain is investing heavily in clean energy sources like offshore wind, there may also be a need to construct new nuclear power plants to provide stable sources of power to achieve its ambitious climate goals of achieving net zero emissions by 2050, which is likely to require electrifying large parts of the economy.
Nuclear attracts criticism as expensive compared to renewables and for the risk of accidents and long-term toxic waste problems, but it has the advantage of providing very large and steady amounts of low carbon power that would be available when the wind stops. The Sizewell C plant could supply power for six million homes.
Finding a workable financing solution will be crucial. The government said it would “explore a range of financing options” for the plant, including a proposal that might have consumers pay costs of the plant in advance of its operation through charges on their bills, as well as the use of public money to finance construction. A plan by Hitachi, the Japanese company, to build a nuclear installation in Wales collapsed in 2019, in part over financing issues.
The plant would be near Britain’s most modern operating power plant, known as Sizewell B, in the vicinity of Sizewell, a fishing village about 100 miles northeast of London. It is likely to draw protests from local environmentalists who worry that the plant will threaten important wildlife habitat.
The plant would be similar to another installation that EDF and a Chinese partner are building at Hinkley Point in southwest England. The hope is that experience gained at Hinkley Point will translate into lower costs for Sizewell.
Credit…Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times
What if Netflix and the other major streaming services were available free during the holiday season? Wouldn’t that keep people home in the coming weeks, reducing the further spread of the coronavirus?
Senator Angus King, independent of Maine, made that proposal in a letter on Monday to the heads of Netflix, Amazon, Disney, WarnerMedia and Apple.
“Americans are faced with even further social isolation — and increased free time — during the holidays,” Mr. King wrote in the letter. “This is a risk; it could also be an opportunity for creative, socially responsible thinking.”
The streaming services did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In the past week, there has been an average of more than 200,000 new coronavirus cases a day in the United States, up nearly 30 percent from the average two weeks ago. And while the first health workers may start receiving shots of a new vaccine on Monday, the country faces a devastating winter if people become less vigilant, health officials say.
In an interview, Mr. King said that many people had “pandemic fatigue,” and his proposal was intended to encourage a safe activity, especially for those who don’t have the means to subscribe to streaming services.
“It’s a way to basically lift people’s spirits a bit and mitigate the heartbreak of not being able to be with family and friends at an important holiday,” he said.
Credit…The Commons Project Foundation
In the coming weeks, major airlines including United, JetBlue and Lufthansa plan to introduce a health passport app, called CommonPass, that aims to verify passengers’ coronavirus test results — and perhaps soon, vaccinations.
CommonPass notifies users of local travel rules — like having to provide proof of a negative virus test — and then aims to check that they have met them. The app will then issue confirmation codes, enabling passengers to board certain international flights, Natasha Singer reports in The New York Times.
“This is likely to be a new normal need that we’re going to have to deal with to control and contain this pandemic,” said Dr. Brad Perkins, the chief medical officer at the Commons Project Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Geneva that developed CommonPass.
Electronic vaccination credentials could have a profound effect on efforts to control the virus and restore the economy. They could prompt more employers and college campuses to reopen. And developers say they may also give some consumers peace of mind by creating an easy way for movie theaters, cruise ships and sports arenas to admit only those with documented virus vaccinations.
But the digital passes also raise the specter of a society split into health pass haves and have-nots, particularly if venues begin requiring the apps as entry tickets. The apps could make it difficult for people with limited access to vaccines or online verification tools to enter workplaces or visit popular destinations. Civil liberties experts also warn that the technology could create an invasive system of social control, akin to the heightened surveillance that China adopted during the pandemic — only instead of federal or state governments, private actors like employers and restaurants would determine who can and cannot access services.
In October, United tested CommonPass on a flight to Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey from Heathrow Airport in London. United and four other airlines plan to start using it soon on some international flights.
Internet users worldwide received a jarring reminder on Monday about just how reliant they were on Google, when the Silicon Valley giant suffered a major outage for about an hour, sending many of its most popular services offline.
At a time when more people than ever are working from home because of the pandemic, Google services including Calendar, Gmail, Hangouts, Maps, Meet and YouTube all crashed, halting productivity and sending angry users to Twitter to vent about the loss of services. Students struggled to sign into virtual classrooms.
As users scrambled to figure out what was going on, Google disclosed the outages on a status dashboard that shares information about its various services. Downdetector, a website for tracking internet outages, also showed that Google was offline. Google’s search engine continued to work for some people.
But about an hour after the outages began, the services started working again.
Google initially provided limited information about what occurred, and it was not immediately clear how many users were affected by the outage. Several of Google’s products have more than a billion global users, including Android, Chrome, Gmail, Google Drive, Google Maps, Google Play, Search and YouTube.
Later, the company attributed the problem to an “authentication system outage” that lasted for approximately 45 minutes ending at 7:32 a.m. Eastern time.
“All services are now restored,” Google said in a statement. “We apologize to everyone affected, and we will conduct a thorough follow up review to ensure this problem cannot recur in the future.”
Today, at 3.47AM PT Google experienced an authentication system outage for approximately 45 minutes due to an internal storage quota issue. This was resolved at 4:32AM PT, and all services are now restored.
— Google Cloud (@googlecloud) December 14, 2020
Product outages were once fairly common for growing internet companies. But as Google, Facebook and others have become larger, building complex networks of interconnected data centers around the world, the incidents have become less common. Google has privately financed undersea cables to move data between continents and improve performance in the event problems occur in a certain location.
The reliability of the systems have become increasingly important as people and businesses depend on the services, whether to search for information online, find directions, send email or get access to private documents stored on Google’s servers. Some users reported their appliances not working because they were linked to Google’s line of home products.
During lockdowns, schools have leaned on Google services to teach students forced to stay home. “At least we have an excuse for not doing our homework,” one person wrote on Twitter.
The incident is likely to provide fodder for those who say the biggest technology companies have grown too powerful and deserve more oversight. In the United States, Google and Facebook are facing antitrust lawsuits. In the European Union, new regulations will be introduced on Tuesday to limit the industry’s power.
William Dixon, a cybersecurity expert at the World Economic Forum, said the outage highlighted the fragility of the world’s digital networks.
“What you have is an increasingly smaller number of technology providers that are systemically important,” said Mr. Dixon, who used to work on cybersecurity issues for the British government. “If there is one issue, then the cascades of that are quite significant.”
By: Ella Koeze·Source: Refinitiv
Stocks drifted lower on Monday, as negotiators continued to try and secure a Brexit trade deal and a U.S. fiscal stimulus package.
The S&P 500 index ended about 0.4 percent lower, while the FTSE 100 in Britain dropped about 0.2 percent. The Stoxx Europe 600 Index rose about 0.4 percent. In Asia, the Nikkei 225 closed 0.3 percent higher and the Shanghai composite index rose 0.7 percent.
The British pound strengthened against other major currencies after Britain and the European Union decided on Sunday to extend talks on a trade deal. Britain voted to leave the European Union in a referendum over four years ago and formally did so on Jan. 31, entering a transition period that will end in 17 days’ time.
Last week, the pound suffered its steepest drop in three months after signs that Britain would not reach an agreement with its largest trading partner before the end of the year, which would lead to higher tariffs as well as trade and economic disruption.
In the United States, Congress has given itself another week to come to an agreement on package of measures to provide some relief to unemployed Americans and hard-hit businesses. A bipartisan group of lawmakers who have been working for a month on a $908 billion proposal met through the weekend. They plan to introduce a final product on Monday.
As the European Union has become the global leader in tech regulation, Google and other American tech giants have increasingly focused on Brussels in hopes of choking off even stiffer rules before they spread.
In Europe, the tech companies are spending more than ever, hiring former government officials, well-connected law firms and consulting firms, Adam Satariano and Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported in The New York Times. They funded dozens of think tanks and trade associations, endowed academic positions at top universities across the continent and helped publish industry-friendly research by other firms.
American lawmakers and regulators, too, have become much more aggressive in curbing the power of the technology industry’s biggest companies. Last week, federal and state officials accused Facebook of illegally crushing competition. In October, the Justice Department accused Google of illegally protecting its monopoly over search.
In the first half of 2020, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft declared spending a combined 19 million euros, or about $23 million, equal to what they had declared for all of 2019 and up from €6.8 million in 2014, according to Transparency International, a group that monitors E.U. lobbying.
“The budgets are really unrivaled — we’ve never seen this kind of money being spent by companies directly,” said Margarida Silva, a researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory, a group that tracks lobbying in Brussels. The totals are probably much higher, she noted, because disclosure rules do not capture all the spending on law firms, academic partnerships and activities in individual countries.
The spending is less than in the United States, but the growing influence industry is alarming European Union officials who believe that Big Tech is contributing to a Washingtonization of Brussels, giving money and connections an upper hand over the public interest.
Credit…Kriston Jae Bethel for The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Even as President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. confronts the immediate task of accelerating the pandemic recovery, he has placed the longer-running climate challenge at the center of his administration’s economic priorities.
The pandemic recovery, too, will have climate-minded undertones, The New York Times’s Jim Tankersley and Lisa Friedman report.
Three of Mr. Biden’s picks for top roles — Janet L. Yellen as Treasury secretary, Brian Deese for National Economic Council director, and Neera Tanden, the nominee to head the White House Office of Management and Budget — are preparing to weave efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate clean energy production into the economic stimulus legislation that his team is planning. Climate change is also expected to play a heavy role in a broader infrastructure initiative that could be one of Mr. Biden’s best hopes for a major bipartisan bill in his first year in office.
The climate battle is also likely to influence his economic approach more broadly, with his team preparing to use the government’s vast regulatory powers to reduce emissions via wind and solar energy, electric cars and other initiatives — an approach that Mr. Biden’s team insists will create jobs.
Those close to Mr. Biden said he was purposefully putting what scientists believe is the world’s largest looming crisis at the heart of the agencies most responsible for promoting the country’s economic security.
“Historically we have looked at climate change as an environmental issue,” said Christy Goldfuss, a former head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality under President Barack Obama. What Mr. Biden has done, she said, “is center climate policy in his economic team.”
The federal program that covers gig workers, part-time hires, seasonal workers and others who do not qualify for traditional unemployment benefits has kept millions of Americans afloat.
Established by Congress in March as part of the CARES Act, the program, known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, has provided over $70 billion in relief.
But in carrying out the hastily conceived program, states have overpaid hundreds of thousands of workers — often because of administrative errors. Now states are asking for that money back, Gillian Friedman reports in The New York Times.
The notices come out of the blue, with instructions to repay thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. Those being billed, already living on the edge, are told that their benefits will be reduced to compensate for the errors — or that the state may even put a lien on their home, come after future wages or withhold tax refunds.
Many who collected payments are still out of a job, and may have little prospect of getting one. Most had no idea that they were being overpaid.
“When somebody gets a bill like this, it completely terrifies them,” said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit workers’ rights group. Sometimes the letters themselves are in error — citing overpayments when benefits were correctly paid — but either way, she said, the stress “is going to cost people’s lives.”