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Joe Biden’s tech policy is becoming clearer



TO UNDERSTAND how much technology behemoths’ standing in Washington, DC, has changed in the past four years, ask Barry Lynn, founder of the Open Markets Institute, an anti-monopoly group. In 2017 he was allegedly kicked out of the New America Foundation, a think-tank that hosted his team, for being too critical of big tech. At the time, Mr Lynn’s work decrying “platform monopolists” and advocating for breaking up tech giants was provocative but niche. He was like a protester with a megaphone, loud but mostly tuned out.

Today, when Joe Biden talks about corporate “concentration”, he sounds a lot like Mr Lynn, and he has named Mr Lynn’s friends to top posts. Lina Khan, who worked at the Open Markets Institute for seven years, now chairs the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an agency charged with protecting consumer privacy and enforcing antitrust law. Tim Wu, formerly on Mr Lynn’s advisory board, has a post advising the White House on competition and technology policy. Operating out of a WeWork space a short walk from the White House, Mr Lynn is part of the in-crowd. “For an itty-bitty think-tank, we have a lot of our people in the administration,” he says.

Beyond Mr Lynn’s colleagues, more tech-bashers hold passports to power. Jonathan Kanter, confirmed to lead antitrust efforts at the Department of Justice, is a staunch opponent of Google and is expected to bring enforcement actions against tech firms. Rohit Chopra, head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has asked tech titans to turn over records about their payments systems.

How did Mr Biden decide to go big on big tech? Unlike opponents in the Democratic primary, such as Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator who has urged breaking up tech monopolies, Mr Biden did not spend much time bashing tech. However, once Mr Biden was in office, Ms Warren had the most advanced tech plan and pushed for key positions for people such as Ms Khan, Mr Wu and Bharat Ramamurti, who headed economic policy for her campaign and now serves on the White House’s National Economic Council. “Biden’s tech policy is his nominees,” Ms Warren says. “He has put people in positions of power who understand tech at a whole new level and are deeply sceptical about many of the current practices,” she adds.

Many believe that Barack Obama’s administration, of which Mr Biden was a part, became too enamoured with large tech firms and failed to scrutinise mergers, like Facebook’s purchase of Instagram. This is Mr Biden’s chance at a do-over. The mood in Washington is “180” degrees different, according to Luther Lowe, who runs public policy for Yelp, an internet firm that has long been complaining about Google’s bullying of smaller rivals. “It’s a really exciting time if you are a complainant who’s hoping for government enforcement,” he says. Congressional staffers from both parties are now loth to take meetings with large tech companies, especially Meta (née Facebook), perceived to be the most toxic.

In July Mr Biden bared his trustbusting teeth when he issued a strongly worded executive order, written by Mr Wu, bemoaning corporate concentration. No previous president has issued such a detailed order on competition, says Paul Gallant of Cowen Washington Research, which tracks tech policy. Big tech was not an exclusive focus but a prominent one. Alphabet (Google’s parent), Amazon, Apple and Meta are among the country’s most valuable firms.

With Mr Biden’s troops now assembled, the focus will turn to which battles against large tech firms his administration can win. Break-ups and antitrust enforcement might get headlines, but those are longer-term plays with uncertain outcomes, given the pro-business bent of the courts. New laws targeting tech firms could have a faster impact. If that fails, the administration could rewrite the rules of business through newly empowered government agencies.

Take congressional action first. Just about the only issue on which Republicans and Democrats in Washington agree, besides China, is that tech firms have become too powerful. At least 14 tech-focused bills have been introduced in Congress this session. Many are bipartisan. One co-sponsored by Amy Klobuchar, a Democratic senator, and Tom Cotton, a Republican, targets tech companies with market values of $600bn or more, and proposes establishing a presumption against new acquisitions of smaller firms. “We’re not talking about destroying these companies; we’re talking about putting some reasonable rules in place, when they have said ‘trust us’, and no one does,” says Ms Klobuchar.

Mr Biden has not made passing tech legislation a priority, but he is expected to after the Senate decides the fate of his Build Back Better social-spending package. (Built into it is $500m in funding for the FTC to establish a new bureau to investigate privacy violations.) “Be on the lookout” for stronger involvement from the White House, predicts Ms Warren.

The most obvious place for bipartisan agreement is on a bill that further constrains online-data collection about children. But Mr Biden is likely to be more ambitious. He could press for a ban on the giants’ ability to ensure preferential treatment for their own services. While campaigning, he expressed support for doing away with “Section 230”, which offers legal immunity to platforms for hosting objectionable content. He could also push for a national privacy bill that would establish more consumer control over data.

Congressional action is far from guaranteed: partisan politics may still get in the way. Among Republicans, there is “disagreement” about how strongly to intervene in markets, says Ken Buck, a Republican congressman from Colorado. The president’s critics could also oppose legislation they might otherwise support, just to kneecap him. “I don’t see eye-to-eye on anything with Joe Biden,” says Mr Buck, who has co-sponsored six bipartisan tech-focused bills with which Mr Biden would ostensibly agree. Democrats, too, could stymie legislation. Tech executives are big Democratic funders. Already some Californian Democrats in Congress have opposed several tech bills.

Even if Congress fails to act soon, Mr Biden’s tech agenda will not be halted. Under the 107-year-old FTC Act, Ms Khan has wide latitude when it comes to rule-making to address “conduct that is unfair or deceptive”. Mr Biden’s executive order on competition encouraged the FTC to set rules on “surveillance and the accumulation of data”, rules “barring unfair methods of competition on internet marketplaces” and rules against “anticompetitive restrictions on using independent repair shops” to fix cell phones and other devices.

For example, the FTC could try to outlaw certain conduct, such as platforms giving preferential treatment to their own services over others’. The commission could also move to minimise data-collection and sharing between apps, which would limit tech firms’ firepower to track users across the web and combine sources of consumer information, as Meta does through Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

“Rule-making presents a bigger risk to the tech companies than traditional antitrust lawsuits, which get all the attention,” says Mr Gallant. Tech firms would surely fire back, suing both over whether the FTC has the right to set such sweeping rules and over the legality of specific measures.

Gulliver’s travails

Antitrust enforcement is the final front of Mr Biden’s campaign. This will involve scuttling proposed mergers and attacking firms for anticompetitive behaviour. Those running competition policy for Mr Biden believe that the scope of antitrust law has been artificially narrowed over the past 40 years. They argue that a focus on consumer welfare, popularised by Robert Bork, a conservative judge, from the late 1970s, fails to take into account other harms from increased concentration.

Mr Biden “grew up under antimonopoly enforcement regimes that were extremely aggressive” and is old enough to remember the world before Bork, says Mr Lynn. In 1987, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he oversaw the rejection of Mr Bork’s elevation to the Supreme Court.

Antitrust lawsuits have two downsides: they are always long and unpredictable. Mr Biden’s administration inherited lawsuits from Donald Trump’s: one filed by the Justice Department against Google, another by the FTC against Facebook. Such cases take longer than a single presidential term. A trial in the Google case is set for 2023, and a decision and appeal will add another year at least. Most expect Ms Khan and Mr Kanter to try to build an additional case against a tech giant, perhaps Amazon or Apple.

The first big test of Ms Khan’s agenda will come from whether the FTC will approve Amazon’s proposed $8.5bn acquisition of MGM, a Hollywood studio with the rights to James Bond. Some of Ms Khan’s supporters hope she blocks the deal, but doing so could be risky in court, given how diverse the media market is in America. So far the most high-profile deal to be blocked during the Biden administration is an old-media one: the Justice Department sued to stop two book companies, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, from merging, arguing this would hurt authors’ abilities to gain advances.

Whether or not Mr Biden breaks up a large tech firm, the threat of trustbusting “is already changing the world”, says Ms Warren. Mr Biden’s impact can be seen “partly in deals that don’t get announced, and it’s also in the tech giants’ reviewing their own internal practices,” she says. Recently Apple announced it was going to make it easier to repair devices, which appears to be a direct response to Mr Biden’s executive order on competition.

In Silicon Valley, there is more optimism than a few years ago about startups being able to reach a larger scale without being stamped out by giants. Some believe that without the Biden administration’s reinvigoration of antitrust, sectors that are starting to see more competition, such as social media, would already be further consolidated. Knowing they could be scrutinised or sued, firms go on their best behaviour, as Mr Wu describes in his book, “The Curse of Bigness”, in which he argues for a revival of the big-case tradition of antitrust.

Several states are also taking aim at big tech with new laws and lawsuits. Mr Lynn relishes this swarm attack. “We may be Lilliputians,” he says, “but there are enough of us that we can drag these folks down.”

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “In tech we don’t trust”

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Germany ‘at crossroads’ as Covid cases surge across Europe | Coronavirus



Germany’s top health officials have raised the prospect of a national lockdown, warning that a rapidly rising number of coronavirus cases and a dramatic increase in the number of patients in intensive care meant contact reduction was the only way of tackling the crisis and avoiding “the road to chaos”.

“We need a massive contact reduction immediately,” said Prof Lothar Wieler, the head of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s federal disease control agency.

He called on political leaders to utilise all available measures to prevent gatherings in large numbers and to urge the public to avoid any unnecessary contacts with people outside their own households, as the incidence rate in Germany rose by 75,400, a week-on-week increase of 44%.

“I expect right now for the decision-makers to trigger all measures in order that we can bring down the incidence rate together,” Wieler said. “We are at a crossroads. We have one choice. Either we choose the road that leads to chaos and to a bad end … or the one which unburdens the health system and maybe enables a peaceful Christmas.”

Germany’s outgoing health minister, Jens Spahn, called the situation “dramatically serious, to the extent that it has never been at any point in this pandemic”. He added: “It is half an hour after midnight, but some people have still failed to hear the alarm.”

Of 22,000 available intensive care beds in Germany, 4,000 are occupied with coronavirus patients, 85% of whom need breathing assistance. Their average age is between 50 and 79 years. Wieler said while the figure might not seem that high to some, it marked an increase of 100% in a week, and even if there were no new infections, 1,000 more patients could be expected to end up in intensive care within the next 10 to 14 days. Elective surgery around Germany has been cancelled to free up beds and staff.

Germany: number of new coronavirus cases per day

Germany’s air force is on call to transport patients from full hospitals to those with capacity.

Spahn called for decision-makers on the federal and state level to recognise the urgency of the situation and bring forward a meeting planned for 9 December. He said it would be foolhardy to wait for 10 days, as the participants had said they planned to do, in order to see whether the current measures in place were working.

“The medical staff don’t have 10 days to wait and see,” Spahn said. He criticised the fact the Christmas markets were in full swing in Berlin while the city’s university hospital, the Charité, was full. “It is just not appropriate at this time,” he said.

Wieler also expressed his concern over the newly detected variant in southern Africa.

Both men urged Germans to get vaccinated or, if they had already done so, to get booster shots. Spahn said that between 20 and 30m vaccines would be administered before Christmas. Just over 68% of Germans have been fully vaccinated.

Incidence rates across Europe are rising fast. Portugal, which has vaccinated 86% of its population, is reintroducing a series of restrictions as cases continue to rise. On Thursday the prime minister, António Costa, announced that from 1 December, face masks would once again be obligatory in enclosed spaces and that a digital certificate showing vaccination or recovery would be needed to enter restaurants, hotels and cinemas. All those entering hospitals, care homes, bars, clubs and sports events will need to show a negative test. From 1 December, anyone flying into Portugal will need to show a negative test result – even if they have a digital vaccination certificate.

Catalonia – which had become the latest Spanish region to decree that Covid passports are needed to get into bars, restaurants, gyms and care homes – was forced to suspend the requirement until at least Monday after “very intense” demand crashed the system for downloading the passes. The passports are also in use in Aragón, the Balearic islands, Galicia, Murcia and Navarre, but their specific use varies between regions.

Meanwhile, the Spanish government has said plans to restrict flights from South Africa and Botswana will be proposed at the next cabinet meeting, which is scheduled for next Tuesday. To date, 89.2% of Spaniards aged over 12 have received two doses of the vaccine.

In the Netherlands the government is due to announce new measures on Friday to tackle a rise in infections. Despite about 85% of the adult population being fully vaccinated, cases hit a record high of nearly 24,000 on Wednesday, about 40% more than the previous week, with hospitals close to capacity. This month the government reintroduced mask-wearing and ordered bars and restaurants to close at 8pm.

Switzerland is planning a referendum on Sunday in which voters can decide on how far the national government’s powers to respond to the pandemic can go. The question will focus on whether the government has the continued authority to insist on certificates to enter bars, restaurants, cultural and sporting events. Cases there are rising and just over 65% of the population is fully vaccinated, one of the lowest in Europe.

Austria became the first country in western Europe to re-enter lockdown on Monday and also announced a vaccine mandate from February.

It was followed by neighbouring Slovakia, which on Wednesday entered a two-week lockdown after the health ministry said that hospital admissions had reached a “critical point”. Less than 50% of the population is fully vaccinated.

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‘Draconian’ Covid travel bans are ‘misdirected’, South African health minister says



File photo of South Africa Health Minister Joe Phaahla | Flickr

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Johannesburg: The travel bans imposed on South Africa by a growing number of nations due to the new potentially highly-transmissible variant of COVID-19 in this country is draconian and misdirected , Health Minister Joe Phaahla has said.

The new COVID-19 variant B.1.1.529, first detected in South Africa this week, was on Friday designated as a Variant of Concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which named it Omicron .

“We feel that it’s a wrong approach. It is misdirected and it goes against the norms as advised by the WHO. We just feel that some of the leaderships of (these) countries are finding scapegoats to deal with what is a worldwide problem,” Phaahla said at a news briefing late Friday evening.

A variant of concern is the WHO’s top category of worrying COVID-19 variants. It was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on November 24, and has also been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.

“It is ironic that we are currently talking about a situation in South Africa today about small samples, (even though) we are concerned about rising numbers from the low levels of about 300 per day just over 14 days ago; to where we are now approaching 3,000 (cases),” Phaahla said.

“It is a significant rise, but in comparison to some of the countries which are now reacting in this very draconian manner, we are talking about countries that have an infection rate of upwards of 40,000 new infections per day,” he said, contrasting the COVID-19 situation in Europe and his country.

“We don’t want to apportion blame, but just in terms of the way the virus moves as people move, it is not inconceivable that it might be possible that this may have even arisen in those countries which have been even more liberal in terms of crowds with no masks at stadiums and so on, the minister said, adding that the travel ban on South Africa are “unjustified”.

Many parts of Europe and the US have opened up stadiums for crowds at sports matches and concerts.

Phaahla said he was aware that the announcement on Thursday by South African scientists about the discovery of the new variant had caused some consternation and uncertainty.

This is expected in a situation of this nature, where we are dealing with a moving target, but we want to assure South Africans and people elsewhere in the world that we believe that some of the action has actually been unjustified, Phahhla said.

I’m referring here specifically to the countries in Europe.”

All that we did together with our scientists who made the discovery of this variant was basically to be in line with the norms and standards as prescribed by the WHO – that as a world community as we deal with this pandemic and any other matter which challenges the world health as a whole, rather than just individual countries we should act with transparency, he said.

The UK announced on Thursday that all flights to and from South Africa and five neighbouring countries would be banned from Friday following an announcement that the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 had been detected in South Africa.

Many other European countries followed suit, most of them indicating that only their own citizens would be allowed back, subject to a quarantine period.

Foreign minister Naledi Pandor also slammed the UK’s for its decision, which was emulated by others, of imposing travel ban on South Africa.

Whilst we respect the right of all countries to take necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, we need to remember that this pandemic requires collaboration and sharing of expertise, she said.

Our immediate concern is the damage that these restrictions are causing to families, the travel and tourism industries and businesses, Pandor added.

Along with South Africa, its neighbouring states — Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi, Zambia and Angola — have also been slapped with travel bans, crippling their economies which are largely reliant on tourism.

The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) in a statement urged world leaders not to implement knee-jerk policy decisions in response to the detection of the Omicron variant.

DIRCO said it noted that new variants have been detected in other countries as well and each of those cases had no recent links with Southern Africa.

It’s worth noting that the reaction to those countries is starkly different to cases in Southern Africa…This latest round of travel bans is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker. Excellent science should be applauded and not punished, it said.

DIRCO officials are in discussion with the countries that have banned travel to and from South Africa to dissuade them from continuing the restrictions.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Saturday convened a meeting with the country’s leading virologists and the Coronavirus Command Council. He is expected to address the nation on the current Covid situation on Sunday evening.

While some analysts expect him to announce a firming up of the current lowest Level One of a five-level lockdown strategy, others, including the business sector, have urged him not to move to a harsher level as it would cause even greater harm to the economy, which was just beginning to recover after a one-and-a-half year of lockdown.

Phaahla said the scientists who are constantly monitoring the mutation of the virus informed the authorities so that the WHO and the health sector all over the world could also stay informed.

At no stage did (our scientists) say that they have evidence that this virus is more transmissible. They simply said that as has been the case with other mutations, some of them have had the effect of being more transmissible without also necessarily meaning that in terms of its seriousness (it would have) more impact on the severity of illness,” he said.

The scientists did emphasise that these are very early stages in terms of the specifics of how this new variant is going to unfold, the minister said. Phaahla reiterated that there was no evidence that the current vaccines would be ineffective against the new mutation.

We want to dispel any notion, as has been bandied about by various commentators. At no stage did the scientists who discovered this variant say that (it) would be resistant to the vaccines which are being utilised, he emphasised.

Earlier, South African Medical Research Council CEO Professor Glenda Gray came out in defence of the scientists who had flagged the new variant. Gray said releasing such information could assist in changing behaviour and result in reducing the spread of the virus.

“When you discover a new variant of concern or discover something that can have an impact on transmissions, it behoves you to alert the country. The scientists were doing their job. We don’t know how this new variant will impact us or on vaccine efficacy. If this alert makes people vaccinate, that’s a good thing, she told website.

Gray opined that banning international travel was not an effective way of stopping the spread of new variants.

“I think that it’s hard to contain variants – we saw with the Delta variant. By the time people recognised that a variant is present in the country it has probably already moved. I’m not convinced that restrictions on travel help. It didn’t help us with Delta, and I’m not sure it will help with this, she said.

Dr Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases expert who is part of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform (KRISP) team, who along with Professor Tulio de Oliveira announced the detection of the new variant, said there was sufficient reason to be concerned, but work had already begun on answering important questions posed by the variant.

Lessells said Omicron was different from the Delta variant, first detected in India. Much of the science done to understand the Delta variant was done collaboratively around the world, he said. — PTI

Also read: What’s the new Covid variant in South Africa, and why it’s of ‘serious’ concern even in India


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