Tag Archives: Margrethe Vestager

Int’l committee calls for pause on false political ads online

An international “grand committee” of lawmakers called on Thursday for a pause on online micro-targeted political ads with false or misleading information until the area is regulated.

The committee, formed to investigate disinformation, gathered in Dublin to hear evidence from Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google and other experts about online harms, hate speech and electoral interference. The meeting was attended by lawmakers from Australia, Finland, Estonia, Georgia, Singapore, the UK and United States.

The committee’s inaugural session in London last November featured an empty chair for Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg after he declined to be questioned.

Facebook has been under scrutiny in recent weeks over its decision to not fact-check ads run by politicians, which intensified when rival Twitter announced last month that it would ban all political ads.

Zuckerberg has defended this policy, saying that the company does not want to stifle political speech.

Politicians can micro-target groups of voters on social media based on user data such as location, age and interests, a practice critics fear could intensify the effects of false or misleading information on certain groups and suppress voter turnout.

At a conference in Lisbon on Thursday, Europe’s antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager said, “If it’s only in your feed, between you and Facebook, and their micro-targeting of who you are, that’s not democracy anymore.”

Facebook said on Thursday a doctored video shared by Britain’s governing Conservatives would not have broken its rules on political advertising if it had run as a paid-for ad.

“Ads from political parties and political candidates are not subject to our fact-checking rules,” Rebecca Stimson, Facebook’s head of UK Public Policy, told reporters on a call to explain the company’s policies ahead of Britain’s Dec. 12 election.

“What that has meant is what the Conservative party put in that advert has been the subject of ferocious public debate and discussion, precisely because people could see that it was there,” Stimson said.

Facebook partners with global third-party fact-checking organizations to curb misinformation on the site.

Ahead of an election that could shape the fate of Brexit, some politicians have expressed concerns that misleading information could spread swiftly across social media.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s party chairman was forced to defend the distribution of a doctored video clip of a rival Labour Party politician on Wednesday, overshadowing the launch of the party’s election campaign.

Johnson’s Conservatives posted the heavily edited video clip of Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer on Facebook and Twitter, editing out a key response in an interview to give the impression that the party had no answer for Brexit.

The video was shared as a normal post on the Conservatives’ Facebook page, but has not been used as a paid-for ad on the platform, according to a search of Facebook’s Ad Library, a database launched to increase political ad transparency.

REUTERS

Apple says $14 billion EU tax order ‘defies reality, common sense’

The European Union’s order for Apple to pay 13 billion euros ($14 billion) in back taxes to Ireland “defies reality and common sense,” the U.S. company said on Tuesday, as it launched a legal challenge against the 2016 ruling.

The iPhone maker also accused the executive European Commission of using its powers to combat state aid “to retrofit changes to national law,” in effect trying to change the international tax system and in the process creating legal uncertainty for businesses.

Apple’s arguments at the General Court, Europe’s second-highest, came after the EU executive in 2016 said the tech giant benefited from illegal state aid due to two Irish tax rulings which artificially reduced its tax burden for over two decades.

The case is key to European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager’s crackdown on sweetheart deals for multinationals, a campaign which has also led to action against Starbucks, Fiat, Engie, Amazon and others.

Apple’s Chief Financial Officer Luca Maestri led a six-strong delegation to the court where a panel of five judges will hear arguments from both sides, as well as Ireland, Luxembourg, Poland and the EFTA Surveillance Authority, over two days.

“The Commission contends that essentially all of Apple’s profits from all of its sales outside the Americas must be attributed to two branches in Ireland,” Apple’s lawyer Daniel Beard told the court.

He said the fact the iPhone, the iPad, the App Store, other Apple products and services and key intellectual property rights were developed in the United States, and not in Ireland, showed the flaws in the Commission’s case.

“The branches’ activities did not involve creating, developing or managing those rights. Based on the facts of this case, the primary line defies reality and common sense,” Beard said.

“The activities of these two branches in Ireland simply could not be responsible for generating almost all of Apple’s profits outside the Americas.”

Beard dismissed criticism of the 0.005% tax rate paid by Apple’s main Irish unit in 2014, which was cited by the Commission in its decision, saying the regulator was just seeking “headlines by quoting tiny numbers”.

Paying an average global tax rate of 26%, Apple has said it is the largest taxpayer worldwide and is now paying around 20 billion euros in U.S. taxes on the same profits that the Commission said should have been taxed in Ireland.

In its current financial quarter, Apple expects revenue of $61-64 billion and a gross margin of 37.5-38.5%.

Ireland, whose economy has benefited from investment by multinational companies attracted by low tax rates, is also challenging the Commission’s decision.

“As Ireland has already emphasized, it undermines legal certainty if state aid measures are used to retrofit changes to national law … and legal certainty is a key principle of EU law; one upon which businesses depend,” Beard said.

“Some may want to change the international tax system; but that is a tax law issue – not state aid,” he said.

Ireland said it had been the subject of entirely unjustified criticism and that the Apple tax case was due to a mismatch between the Irish and U.S. tax systems.

“The Commission’s decision is fundamentally flawed,” Paul Gallagher, lawyer for Ireland, told the court.

Lawyers for the Commission will also make their case on Tuesday. The court is expected to rule in the coming months, with the losing party likely to appeal to the EU Court of Justice and a final judgment could take several years.

The joint Apple cases are T-778/16 Ireland v Commission and T-892/16 Apple Sales International and Apple Operations Europe v Commission.

Search for European Commission president: Negotiations after all-night talks end in deadlock

 

European Union leaders went into an 18th consecutive hour of negotiations on Monday in a tortured search for a candidate to fill the post of European Commission president after all-night talks led to an impasse.

With German Chancellor Angela Merkel unable to corral her allies into supporting a deal with France and Spain, European Council President Donald Tusk tested names with small groups of leaders throughout the night.

But even after dawn broke and the 28 leaders went for breakfast, the early front runner Dutch socialist Frans Timmermans was unable to command a majority as eastern Europeans and Merkel’s center-right European People’s Party rebelled.

“At the moment there is no agreement,” Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told reporters just before the breakfast session got underway in the glass and steel Europa building in Brussels.

The summit is a third attempt to fill five top posts running the European Union for at least the next five years, forging policy for the world’s biggest free-trade area and more than 500 million people.

Leaders had hoped to first agree on a name to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as EU chief executive that would then allow a deal on who should replace Mario Draghi as European Central Bank president.

But that decision will almost certainly be postponed as leaders try and break the deadlock of the Commission chief.

Photographs taken by diplomats during the night showed French President Emmanuel Macron seated with his centrist political allies from Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium as they sought ways to convince others to back Timmermans, a former Dutch foreign minister.

Under a deal between France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain hatched on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Japan last week, Timmermans would run the Commission and the EPP would take the European Parliament presidency for their candidate, German EU lawmaker Manfred Weber.

The impasse underlines broader decision-making problems facing the EU, which has struggled to respond to a series of crises in recent years, from migration to climate change and the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

The EPP rebellion also underlined how weakened German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose Christian Democrat party belongs to the group, has become as she prepares to handover to her successor.

A second European official described her as being in a “very weak moment”, struggling to control her party and with much scrutiny of her health after suffering two episodes of shaking in public.

The EPP is the largest group in the EU parliament though it does not have a majority.

“The vast majority of EPP prime ministers don’t believe that we should give up the presidency quite so easily,” Ireland’s center-right Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told reporters. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said: “Merkel is the chairman of the CDU, not the EPP.”

‘BIZARRE’ SELECTION PROCESS

But Merkel, Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said they too were not giving up without a fight.

“Merkel and Macron are not going home without a decision,” said one European diplomat, saying the nature of the talks had echoes of Britain’s as yet unsuccessful attempts to leave the European Union because few leaders knew what they want.

“They only say who they don’t want in the Commission post.”

To be appointed, the next Commission president needs the support of at least 72% of the 28 member states, who must represent at least 65% of the EU population.

Diplomats said getting names agreed was crucial for the EU’s standing, as more delays would only provide fodder to anti-establishment nationalists who say the bloc is out of touch with its citizens, divided and dysfunctional.

But seeking a fair gender balance and a range of candidates from both eastern and western Europe is proving a challenge, while leaders had hoped to avoid a series of back-room deals by being more transparent.

“Still no white smoke,” Dutch liberal EU lawmaker Sophie in’t Veld said on Twitter. “No other major democracy in the world has such a bizarre and arcane method for choosing its political leadership.”

Female candidates for the Commission include Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager; Kristalina Georgieva, the Bulgarian head of the World Bank for EU foreign affairs chief; and Christine Lagarde as ECB president, diplomats said.

EU slaps Google with record $5bn fine

EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager holds a press conference on a Competition Case involving Google Android at the European Commission building, in Brussels on Wednesday, July 18, 2018. he European Union’s antitrust chief has fined Google a record $5 billion for abusing the market dominance of its Android mobile phone operating system. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

The European Union fined Google a record $5 billion Wednesday for forcing cellphone makers that use the company’s hugely popular Android operating system to install Google apps.

The EU said the practice restricts competition and reduces choices for consumers.

The fine, which caps a three-year investigation, is the biggest ever imposed on a company by the EU for anticompetitive behaviour.

It is likely to stoke tensions between Europe and the U.S., which regulates the tech industry with a lighter hand and has complained that the EU is singling out American companies for punishment.

Google immediately said it will appeal. Android has “created more choice for everyone, not less,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai tweeted.

In its ruling, the EU said Google broke the rules when it required mobile phone makers to pre-install the Google Search and browser apps if they wanted to use Google’s app store. Google also paid big producers to exclusively pre-install the Google Search app.

EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said “companies must compete on their merits,” playing by rules that favor consumers and open markets, and not restrict competition.

Vestager said that given the size of the company, the 4.34 billion euro fine is not disproportionate. The penalty is on top of 2.42 billion euro fine ($2.8 billion) that regulators imposed on Google a year ago for favoring its shopping listings in search results.

The latest fine is well within Google’s means. Its parent company, Alphabet, made $9.4 billion in profit in the first three months of the year and reportedly had over $100 billion in cash reserves.

But the EU’s insistence that Google change its practices could have a bigger impact than the fine itself.

“The important thing is not to be distracted by the size of the fine. What is important is that Google has to change its abusive behavior,” Rich Stables, CEO of the rival search engine Kelkoo, told The Associated Press.

Android is an open-source operating system that Google lets cellphone makers use for free. As a result, it is the most widely used system, beating even Apple’s iOS. The EU says Google has market share exceeding 90 percent in most European countries.

The EU wants to ensure that phone makers are free to pre-install apps of their choosing and allow for competition in services such as internet searches. It also wants cellphone makers to be able to more easily use altered versions of Android.

Google argues that could hurt its ability to provide Android for free, as its main way of making money from the operating system is through advertising and the sale of content and apps. Its main rival in mobile systems, Apple, makes most of its money from the sale of devices.

Giving phone makers more freedom to use altered versions of Android could also hurt Google. Samsung, a hugely popular maker of Android devices through its Galaxy line, could break off and take much of the Android system with it.

If Google’s business activities are too harshly constrained, the argument follows, it might no longer be able to provide Android for free to cellphone manufacturers.

Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank in Washington, said the ruling “is a blow to innovative, open-source business models.”

The EU’s clash with Google is reminiscent of the bloc’s battle with Microsoft. In that case, the EU said Microsoft used the market dominance of its Windows operating system to lead consumers to use Microsoft’s browser, Internet Explorer. Microsoft was fined and in the end was forced to give users a more explicit choice of browsers.

As technology’s impact in modern life spreads, European regulators have set the pace in shaping rules for the industry. European governments tend to want to exert more control than the U.S.

The difference in approach was highlighted after a scandal over the misuse of millions of Facebook users’ personal data in political campaigns, including the 2016 White House contest. European regulators had already been working on tougher privacy regulation and in May enforced new rules that are influencing the way some companies operate outside of the region as well.

The Google crackdown comes at a sensitive time for trans-Atlantic relations, with President Donald Trump lambasting the EU as a “foe” only last week. The U.S. imposed tariffs on EU steel and aluminum this year, and the EU responded with import duties on American goods. The U.S. is now also considering taxes on imports of European cars.

The U.S. has also complained that the EU has mainly targeted American companies — including also Apple and Amazon — for breaking competition or tax rules.

“We have to protect consumers and competition to make sure consumers get the best of fair competition,” Vestager said. “We will continue to do it, no matter the political context.”APnews