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Europe’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, set for expanded role in next Commission

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As the antitrust investigations stack up on US tech giants’ home turf there’s no sign of pressure letting up across the pond.

European Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen today unveiled her picks for the next team of commissioners who will take up their mandates on November 1 — giving an expanded role to competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager. The pick suggests the next Commission is preparing to dial up its scrutiny of big tech’s data monopolies.

Under the draft list of commissioners-designate, which still needs to be approved in full by the European Parliament, Vestager has been named executive VP overseeing a new portfolio called ‘Europe fit for the digital age’.

But, crucially, she will also retain the competition portfolio — which implies attention on growing Europe’s digital economy will go hand in glove with scrutiny of fairness in ecommerce and ensuring a level playing field vs US platform giants.

“Executive vice-president Margrethe Vestager will lead our work on a Europe fit for the digital age,” said von der Leyen at a press conference to announce her picks. “Digitalization has a huge impact on the way we live, we work, we communicate. In some fields Europe has to catch up — for example in the field of business to consumer but in other fields we’re excellent. Europe is the frontrunner, for example in business to business, when we talk about digital twins of products and procedures.

“We have to make more out of the field of artificial intelligence. We have to make our single market a digital single market. We have to use way more the big data that is out there but we don’t make enough out of it. What innovation and startups are concerned. It’s not only need to know but it’s need to share big data. We have to improve on cyber security. We have to work hard on our technological sovereignty just to name a few issues in these broad topics.

“Margrethe Vestager will co-ordinate the whole agenda. And be the commissioner for competition. She will work together with the commissioner for internal market, innovation and youth, transport, energy, jobs, health and justice.”

If tech giants were hoping for Europe’s next Commission to pay a little less attention to question marks hanging over the fairness of their practices they’re likely to be disappointed as Vestager is set to gain expanded powers and a broader canvas to paint on. The new role clearly positions her to act on the review of competition policy she instigated towards the end of her current mandate — which focused on the challenges posed by digital markets.

Since taking over as Europe’s competition chief back in 2014, Vestager has made a name for herself by blowing the dust off the brief and driving forward on a series of regulatory interventions targeting tech giants including Amazon, Apple and Google . In the latter case this has included opening a series of fresh probes as well as nailing the very long running Google Shopping saga inherited from her predecessor.

The activity of the department under her mandate has clearly catalyzed complainants — creating a pipeline of cases for her to tackle. And just last month Reuters reported she had been preparing an “intensive” handover of work looking into complaints against Google’s job search product to her successor — a handover that won’t now be necessary, assuming the EU parliament gives its backing to von der Leyen’s team.

While the competition commissioner has thus far generated the biggest headlines for the size of antitrust fines she’s handed down — including a record-breaking $5BN fine for Google last year for illegal restrictions attached to Android — her attention on big data holdings as a competition risk is most likely to worry tech giants going forward.

See, for example, the formal investigation of Amazon’s use of merchant data announced this summer for a sign of the direction of travel.

Vestager has also talked publicly about regulating data flows as being a more savvy route to control big tech versus swinging a break up hammer. And while — on the surface — regulating data might sound less radical a remedy than breaking giants like Google and Facebook up, placing hard limits on how data can be used has the potential to effect structural separation via a sort of regulatory keyhole surgery that’s likely to be quicker and implies a precision that may also make it more politically palatable.

That’s important given the ongoing EU-US trade friction kicked up by the Trump administration which is never shy of lashing out, especially at European interventions that seek to address some of the inequalities generated by tech giants — most recently Trump gave France’s digital tax plans a tongue-lashing.

von der Leyen was asked during the press conference whether Vestager might not been seen as a controversial choice given Trump’s views of her activity to date (Europe’s “tax lady” is one of the nicer things he’s said about Vestager). The EU president-elect dismissed the point saying the only thing that matters in assigning Commission portfolios is “quality and excellence”, adding that competition and digital is the perfect combination to make the most of Vestager’s talents.

“Vestager has done an outstanding job as a commissioner for competition,” she went on. “At competition and the issues she’s tackling there are closely linked to the digital sector too. So having her as an executive vice-president for the digital in Europe is absolutely a perfect combination.

“She’ll have this topic as a cross-cutting topic. She’ll have to work on the Digital Single Market. She will work on the fact that we want to use in a better way big data that is out there, that we collect every day — non-personalized data. That we should use way better, in the need for example to share with others for innovation, for startups, for new ideas.

“She will work on the whole topic of cyber security. Which is the more we’re digitalized, the more we’re vulnerable. So there’s a huge field in front of her. And as she’s shown excellence in the Commission portfolio she’ll keep that — the executive vice-presidents have with the DGs muscles to deal with their vast portfolios’ subject they have to deal with.”

In other choices announced today, the current commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel, will be taking up a new portfolio called ‘Innovation and Youth’. And Sylvie Goulard was named as ‘Internal Market’ commissioner, leading on industrial policy and promoting the Digital Single Market, as well as getting responsibility for Defence Industry and Space.

Another executive VP choice, Valdis Dombrovskis, looks likely to be tackling thorny digital taxation issues — with responsibility for co-ordinating the Commission’s work on what’s been dubbed an “Economy that Works for People”, as well as also being commissioner for financial services. 

In prepared remarks on that role, von der Leyen said: We have a unique social market economy. It is the source of our prosperity and social fairness. This is all the more important when we face a twin transition: climate and digital. Valdis Dombrovskis will lead our work to bring together the social and the market in our economy.”

Frans Timmermans, who was previously in the running as a possible candidate for Commission president but lost out to von der Leyen, is another exec VP pick. He’s set to be focused on delivering a European Green Deal and managing climate action policy.

Another familiar face — current justice, consumer and gender affairs commissioner, Věra Jourová — has also been named as an exec VP, gaining responsibility for “Values and Transparency”, a portfolio title which suggests she’ll continue to be involved in EU efforts to combat online disinformation on platforms.

The rest of the Commission portfolio appointments can be found here.

There are 26 picks in all — 27 counting von der Leyen who has already been confirmed as president; one per EU country. The UK has no representation in the next Commission given it is due to leave the bloc on October 31, the day before the new Commission takes up its mandate.

von der Leyen touted the team she presented today as balanced and diverse, including on gender lines as well as geographically to take account of the full span of European Union members.

“It draws on all the strength and talents, men and women, experienced and young, east and west, south and north, a team that is well balanced, a team that brings together diversity of experience and competence,” she said. “I want a Commission that is led with determination, that is clearly focused on the issues at hand — and that provides answers.”

“There’s one fundamental that connects this team: We want to bring new impetus to Europe’s democracy,” she added. “This is our joint responsibility. And democracy is more than voting in elections in every five years; it is about having your voice heard. It’s about having been able to participate in the way our society’s built. We gave to address some of the deeper issues in our society that have led to a loss of faith in democracy.”

In a signal of her intention that the new Commission should “walk the talk” on making Europe fit for the digital age she announced that college meetings will be paperless and digital.

On lawmaking, she added that there will be a one-in, one-out policy — with any new laws and regulation supplanting an existing rule in a bid to cut red tape.

The shape of the next Commission remains in draft pending approval by the European Parliament to all the picks. The parliament must vote to accept the entire college of commissioners — a process that’s preceded by hearings of the commissioners-designate in relevant parliamentary committees.

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AT&T announces deal to spin off DirecTV into new company owned by… AT&T

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Enlarge / AT&T’s logo at its corporate headquarters on March 13, 2020 in Dallas, Texas.

Nearly six years after buying DirecTV for $48.5 billion, AT&T today announced a deal to sell a minority stake in the business unit and spin it out into a new subsidiary.

AT&T said its deal with private equity firm TPG Capital values the TV business at $16.25 billion. A press release said that AT&T and TPG “will establish a new company named DirecTV that will own and operate AT&T’s US video business unit consisting of the DirecTV, AT&T TV, and U-verse video services.”

AT&T will own 70 percent of the spun-off DirecTV company’s common equity while TPG will own 30 percent. DirecTV in its new form “will be jointly governed by a board with two representatives from each of AT&T and TPG, as well as a fifth seat for the CEO, which at closing will be Bill Morrow, CEO of AT&T’s US video unit,” the announcement said.

AT&T acknowledged that its DirecTV purchase didn’t work out as planned.

“With our acquisition of DirecTV, we invested approximately $60 billion in the US video business,” AT&T said in materials distributed to reporters. “It’s fair to say that some aspects of the transaction have not played out as we had planned, such as pay TV households in the US declining at a faster pace across the industry than anticipated when we announced the deal back in 2014. In fact, we took a $15.5 billion impairment on the business in 4Q20.”

Focus on 5G, fiber, and HBO Max

Separating DirecTV into a new unit will help AT&T focus on its key “strategic” areas of 5G mobile service, fiber Internet, and HBO Max, AT&T said.

“As the pay-TV industry continues to evolve, forming a new entity with TPG to operate the US video business separately provides the flexibility and dedicated management focus needed to continue meeting the needs of a high-quality customer base and managing the business for profitability,” AT&T CEO John Stankey said. “TPG is the right partner for this transaction and creating a new entity is the right way to structure and manage the video business for optimum value creation.”

The companies said they expect to close their transaction in the second half of 2021 and that it “is subject to customary closing conditions and to regulatory reviews.” AT&T said it expects to receive $7.6 billion in cash from the partial sale and that it will use the money to reduce its debt.

8 million TV customers fled AT&T

AT&T has lost over 8 million customers since early 2017 from its Premium TV services, which include DirecTV satellite, U-verse wireline video, and the newer AT&T TV online service. Total customers in that category decreased from over 25 million in early 2017 to 16.5 million at the end of 2020.

“Since AT&T closed the DirecTV acquisition in 2015, the business has generated cash flows of more than $4 billion per year, and the company expects this to continue in 2021,” today’s announcement said.

DirecTV’s deal with NFL Sunday Ticket apparently will not be disrupted, as AT&T said it will continue to “fund NFL Sunday Ticket for 2021 and 2022 (up to a $2.5B cumulative cap).”

Current video customers should not expect major changes, AT&T said.

“Existing AT&T video customers will become DirecTV customers at close and will be able to keep their video service and any bundled wireless or broadband services as well as associated discounts,” AT&T said. “AT&T and TPG are committed to a smooth transition and seamless customer experience and will work to further improve customer service and bring new features to DirecTV’s video services.”

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Armed with exploits, hackers on the prowl for a critical VMware vulnerability

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Hackers are mass scanning the Internet in search of VMware servers with a newly disclosed code-execution vulnerability that has a severity rating of 9.8 out of a possible 10.

CVE-2021-21974, as the security flaw is tracked, is a remote code-execution vulnerability in VMware vCenter server, an application for Windows or Linux that administrators use to enable and manage virtualization of large networks. Within a day of VMware issuing a patch, proof-of-concept exploits appeared from at least six different sources. The severity of the vulnerability, combined with the availability of working exploits for both Windows and Linux machines, sent hackers scrambling to actively find vulnerable servers.

“We’ve detected mass scanning activity targeting vulnerable VMware vCenter servers (https://vmware.com/security/advisories/VMSA-2021-0002.html),” researcher Troy Mursch of Bad Packets wrote.

Mursch said that the BinaryEdge search engine found almost 15,000 vCenter servers exposed to the Internet, while Shodan searches revealed about 6,700. The mass scanning is aiming to identify servers that have not yet installed the patch, which VMware released on Tuesday.

Unfettered code execution, no authorization required

CVE-2021-21972 allows hacker with no authorization to upload files to vulnerable vCenter servers that are publicly accessible over port 443, researchers from security firm Tenable said. Successful exploits will result in hackers gaining unfettered remote code-execution privileges in the underlying operating system. The vulnerability stems from a lack of authentication in the vRealize Operations plugin, which is installed by default.

The flaw has received a severity score of 9.8 out of 10.0 on the Common Vulnerability Scoring System Version 3.0. Mikhail Klyuchnikov, the Positive Technologies researcher who discovered the vulnerability and privately reported it to VMware, compared the risk posed by CVE-2021-21972 to that of CVE-2019-19781, a critical vulnerability in the Citrix Application Delivery Controller.

The Citrix flaw came under active attack last year in ransomware attacks on hospitals and, according to a criminal indictment filed by the US Justice Department, in intrusions into game and software makers by hackers backed by the Chinese government.

In a blog post earlier this week, Klyuchnikov wrote:

In our opinion, the RCE vulnerability in the vCenter Server can pose no less a threat than the infamous vulnerability in Citrix (CVE-2019-19781). The error allows an unauthorized user to send a specially crafted request, which will later give them the opportunity to execute arbitrary commands on the server. After receiving such an opportunity, the attacker can develop this attack, successfully move through the corporate network, and gain access to the data stored in the attacked system (such as information about virtual machines and system users). If the vulnerable software can be accessed from the Internet, this will allow an external attacker to penetrate the company’s external perimeter and also gain access to sensitive data. Once again, I would like to note that this vulnerability is dangerous, as it can be used by any unauthorized user.

The researcher provided technical details here.

Positive Technologies

CVE-2021-21972 affects vCenter Server versions 6.5, 6.7, and 7.01. People running one of these versions should update to 6.5 U3n, 6.7 U3l, or 7.0 U1c as soon as possible. Those who can’t immediately install a patch should implement these workarounds, which involve changing a compatibility matrix file and setting the vRealize plugin to incompatible.

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Verizon and AT&T dominate spectrum auction, spending combined $69 billion

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Verizon and AT&T dominated the US government’s latest spectrum auction, spending a combined $68.9 billion on licenses in the upper 3GHz band.

Verizon’s winning bids totaled $45.45 billion, while AT&T’s came in at $23.41 billion. T-Mobile was third with $9.34 billion as the three biggest wireless carriers accounted for the vast majority of the $81.17 billion in winning bids, the Federal Communications Commission said in results released yesterday. US Cellular, a regional carrier, was a distant fourth in spending, at $1.28 billion, but came in third, ahead of T-Mobile, in the number of licenses won.

The auction distributed 280MHz worth of spectrum in the “C-Band” between 3.7GHz and 3.98GHz. This spectrum will help carriers boost network capacity with mid-band frequencies that cover large geographic areas and penetrate walls more effectively than the higher millimeter-wave frequencies that provide the fastest 5G speeds to very limited geographic areas.

Mid-band spectrum doesn’t match the geographic coverage and obstacle penetration properties of the low-band spectrum below 1GHz, which was used extensively to deploy 4G networks. But there’s more spectrum available in the mid-band than in the low-band. Carriers are using a mix of low-, mid-, and high-band spectrum for 5G.

“It is essential to America’s economic recovery that we deliver on the promise of next-generation wireless services for everyone, everywhere,” FCC acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in the results announcement. “This auction reflects a shift in our nation’s approach to 5G toward mid-band spectrum that can support fast, reliable, and ubiquitous service that is competitive with our global peers. Now we have to work fast to put this spectrum to use in service of the American people.”

T-Mobile and US Cellular

Licenses are being distributed in 14 blocks of 20MHz each in 406 “partial economic areas” across the US, for a total of 5,684 licenses. Verizon Wireless (referred to as “Cellco Partnership” in the FCC auction) won 3,511 licenses in 406 areas, AT&T won 1,621 licenses in 406 areas, and T-Mobile won 142 licenses in 72 areas.

US Cellular’s $1.28 billion in winning bids accounts for 254 licenses in 99 areas, suggesting that it purchased licenses in parts of the US with lower demand from the big carriers. Overall, 21 bidders won spectrum licenses, which last 15 years.

Winning bidders must make down payments by March 10 and final payments by March 24, with the money going into the US Treasury.

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