Delays, More Masks and Mandatory Shots: Virus Surge Disrupts Office-Return Plans

He did not respond, but days later Apple posted an internal video in which company executives doubled down on bringing workers back to the office. In the video, Dr. Sumbul Desai, who helps run Apple’s digital health division, encouraged workers to get vaccinated but stopped short of saying they would be required to, according to a transcript viewed by The Times.

The video didn’t sit well with some employees.

“OK, you want me to put my life on the line to come back to the office, which will also decrease my productivity, and you’re not giving me any logic on why I actually need to do that?” said Ashley Gjovik, a senior engineering program manager.

When the company delayed its return-to-office date on Monday, a group of employees drafted a new letter, proposing a one-year pilot program in which people could work from home full time if they chose to. The letter said an informal survey of more than 1,000 Apple employees found that roughly two-thirds would question their future at the company if they were required to return to the office.

In Los Angeles, Endeavor, the parent company of the William Morris Endeavor talent agency, reopened its Beverly Hills headquarters this month. But it decided to shut down again last week when the county reimposed its indoor mask mandate in the face of surging case counts. An Endeavor spokesman said the company had decided that enforcement would be too difficult and would hinder group meetings.

The employment website Indeed had been targeting Sept. 7 as the date when it would start bringing workers back on a hybrid basis. Now it has begun to reconsider those plans, the company’s senior vice president of human resources, Paul Wolfe, said, “because of the Delta variant.”

Some companies said the recent spike in cases had not yet affected their return-to-office planning. Facebook still intends to reopen at 50 percent capacity by early September. IBM plans to open its U.S. offices in early September, with fully vaccinated employees free to go without a mask, and Royal Dutch Shell, the gas company, has been gradually lifting restrictions in its Houston offices, prompting more of its workers to return.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise began allowing employees to return to its offices Monday, bolstered by a survey of its California employees that found 94 percent were fully vaccinated.

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‘Crucial Time’ for Cloud Gaming, Which Wants to Change How You Play

Mr. Buser declined to comment on February’s changes.

Amazon also unveiled a cloud service, Luna, in September. It is so far available only to invitees, who pay $6 a month to play the 85 games on the platform. The games can be streamed from the cloud to phones, computers and Amazon’s Fire TV.

Like Google, Amazon has struggled to assemble a vast library of appealing games, though it does offer games from the French publisher Ubisoft for an added fee. Amazon has also had trouble developing its own games, which Mr. van Dreunen said showed that the creative artistry necessary to make enticing games was at odds with the more corporate style of the tech giants.

“They may have an interesting technological solution, but it totally lacks personality,” he said.

Amazon said it remained dedicated to game development: It opened a game studio in Montreal in March and, after a long delay, is releasing a game called New World this summer.

Even console makers have jumped into cloud gaming. Microsoft, which makes the Xbox console, released a cloud offering, xCloud or Xbox Cloud Gaming, last fall. For a $15 monthly subscription, users can play more than 200 games on various devices.

Sony also has a cloud gaming service, PlayStation Now, where games can be streamed to PlayStation consoles and computers.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, said in an interview last month that he did not think it was possible to be a gaming company “with any level of big ambition” without cloud gaming. Sony declined to comment.

Other companies have waded in, too. Nvidia, the chip maker that produces gaming hardware, has a $10-a-month cloud program, GeForce Now.

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Congress Faces Renewed Pressure to ‘Modernize Our Antitrust Laws’

WASHINGTON — When the nation’s antitrust laws were created more than a century ago, they were aimed at taking on industries such as Big Oil.

But technology giants like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple, which dominate e-commerce, social networks, online advertising and search, have risen in ways unforeseen by the laws. In recent decades, the courts have also interpreted the rules more narrowly.

On Monday, a pair of rulings dismissing federal and state antitrust lawsuits against Facebook renewed questions about whether the laws were suited to taking on tech power. A federal judge threw out the federal suit because, he said, the Federal Trade Commission had not supported its claims that Facebook holds a dominant market share, and he said the states had waited too long to make their case.

The decisions underlined how cautious and conservative courts could slow an increasingly aggressive push by lawmakers, regulators and the White House to restrain the tech companies, fueling calls for Congress to revamp the rules and provide regulators with more legal tools to take on the tech firms.

David Cicilline, a Democrat of Rhode Island, said the country needed a “massive overhaul of our antitrust laws and significant updates to our competition system” to police the biggest technology companies.

Moments later, Representative Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican, agreed. He called for lawmakers to adapt antitrust laws to fit the business models of Silicon Valley companies.

This week’s rulings have now put the pressure on lawmakers to push through a recently proposed package of legislation that would rewrite key aspects of monopoly laws to make some of the tech giants’ business practices illegal.

“This is going to strengthen the case for legislation,” said Herbert Hovenkamp, an antitrust expert at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “It seems to be proof that the antitrust laws are not up to the challenge.”

introduced this month and passed the House Judiciary Committee last week. The bills would make it harder for the major tech companies to buy nascent competitors and to give preference to their own services on their platforms, and ban them from using their dominance in one business to gain the upper hand in another.

including Lina Khan, a scholar whom President Biden named this month to run the F.T.C. — have argued that a broader definition of consumer welfare, beyond prices, should be applied. Consumer harm, they have said, can also be evident in reduced product quality, like Facebook users suffering a loss of privacy when their personal data is harvested and used for targeted ads.

In one of his rulings on Monday, Judge James E. Boasberg of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said Facebook’s business model had made it especially difficult for the government to meet the standard for going forward with the case.

The government, Judge Boasberg said, had not presented enough evidence that Facebook held monopoly power. Among the difficulties he highlighted was that Facebook did not charge its users for access to its site, meaning its market share could not be assessed through revenue. The government had not found a good alternative measure to make its case, he said.

He also ruled against another part of the F.T.C.’s lawsuit, concerning how Facebook polices the use of data generated by its product, while citing the kind of conservative antitrust doctrine that critics say is out of step with the technology industry’s business practices.

The F.T.C., which brought the federal antitrust suit against Facebook in December, can file a new complaint that addresses the judge’s concerns within 30 days. State attorneys general can appeal Judge Boasberg’s second ruling dismissing a similar case.

fined Facebook $5 billion in 2019 for privacy violations, there were few significant changes to how the company’s products operate. And Facebook continues to grow: More than 3.45 billion people use one or more of its apps — including WhatsApp, Instagram or Messenger — every month.

The decisions were particularly deflating after actions to rein in tech power in Washington had gathered steam. Ms. Khan’s appointment to the F.T.C. this month followed that of Tim Wu, another lawyer who has been critical of the industry, to the National Economic Council. Bruce Reed, the president’s deputy chief of staff, has called for new privacy regulation.

Mr. Biden has yet to name anyone to permanently lead the Justice Department’s antitrust division, which last year filed a lawsuit arguing Google had illegally protected its monopoly over online search.

The White House is also expected to issue an executive order this week targeting corporate consolidation in tech and other areas of the economy. A spokesman for the White House did not respond to requests for comment about the executive order or Judge Boasberg’s rulings.

Activists and lawmakers said this week that Congress should not wait to give regulators more tools, money and legal red lines to use against the tech giants. Mr. Cicilline, along with Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that the judge’s decisions on Facebook show “the dire need to modernize our antitrust laws to address anticompetitive mergers and abusive conduct in the digital economy.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat of Minnesota who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on antitrust, echoed their call.

“After decades of binding Supreme Court decisions that have weakened our antitrust policies, we cannot rely on our courts to keep our markets competitive, open and fair,” she said in a statement. “We urgently need to rejuvenate our antitrust laws to meet the challenges of the modern digital economy.”

But the six bills to update monopoly laws have a long way to go. They still need to pass the full House, where they will likely face criticism from moderate Democrats and libertarian Republicans. In the Senate, Republican support is necessary for them to overcome the legislative filibuster.

The bills may also not go as far in altering antitrust laws as some hope. The House Judiciary Committee amended one last week to reinforce the standard around consumer welfare.

Even so, Monday’s rulings have given the proposals a boost. Bill Baer, who led the Justice Department antitrust division during the Obama administration, said it “gives tremendous impetus to those in Congress who believe that the courts are too conservative in addressing monopoly power.”

Facebook and the tech platforms might like the judge’s decisions, he said, “but they might not like what happens in the Congress.”

Mike Isaac contributed reporting.

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Lina Khan Named F.T.C. Chair by Biden

President Biden named Lina Khan, a prominent critic of Big Tech, as the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, according to two people with knowledge of the decision, a move that signals that the agency is likely to crack down further on the industry’s giants.

A public announcement of the decision is expected Tuesday, one of the people said.

Earlier in the day, the Senate voted 69 to 28 to confirm Ms. Khan, 32, to a seat at the agency. The commission investigates antitrust violations, deceptive trade practices and data privacy lapses in Silicon Valley.

Ms. Khan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In her new role, Ms. Khan will help regulate the kind of behavior highlighted for years by critics of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple. She told a Senate committee in April that she was worried about the way tech companies could use their power to dominate new markets. She first attracted notice as a critic of Amazon. The agency is investigating the retail giant and filed an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook last year.

Her appointment was a victory for progressive activists who want Mr. Biden to take a hard line against big companies. He also gave a White House job to Tim Wu, a law professor who has criticized the power of the tech giants.

But Mr. Biden has yet to fill another key positions tasked with regulating the industry: someone to lead the Department of Justice’s antitrust division.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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Why Apple and Google’s Virus Alert Apps Had Limited Success

Sarah Cavey, a real estate agent in Denver, was thrilled last fall when Colorado introduced an app to warn people of possible coronavirus exposures.

Based on software from Apple and Google, the state’s smartphone app uses Bluetooth signals to detect users who come into close contact. If a user later tests positive, the person can anonymously notify other app users whom the person may have crossed paths with in restaurants, on trains or elsewhere.

Ms. Cavey immediately downloaded the app. But after testing positive for the virus in February, she was unable to get the special verification code she needed from the state to warn others, she said, even after calling Colorado’s health department three times.

“They advertise this app to make people feel good,” Ms. Cavey said, adding that she had since deleted the app, called CO Exposure Notifications, in frustration. “But it’s not really doing anything.”

announced last year that they were working together to create a smartphone-based system to help stem the virus, their collaboration seemed like a game changer. Human contact tracers were struggling to keep up with spiking virus caseloads, and the trillion-dollar rival companies — whose systems run 99 percent of the world’s smartphones — had the potential to quickly and automatically alert far more people.

Soon Austria, Switzerland and other nations introduced virus apps based on the Apple-Google software, as did some two dozen American states, including Alabama and Virginia. To date, the apps have been downloaded more than 90 million times, according to an analysis by Sensor Tower, an app research firm.

But some researchers say the companies’ product and policy choices limited the system’s usefulness, raising questions about the power of Big Tech to set global standards for public health tools.

Stephen Farrell and Doug Leith, computer science researchers at Trinity College in Dublin, wrote in a report in April on Ireland’s virus alert app.

CA Notify in December, about 65,000 people have used the system to alert other app users, the state said.

“Exposure notification technology has shown success,” said Dr. Christopher Longhurst, the chief information officer of UC San Diego Health, which manages California’s app. “Whether it’s hundreds of lives saved or dozens or a handful, if we save lives, that’s a big deal.”

In a joint statement, Apple and Google said: “We’re proud to collaborate with public health authorities and provide a resource — which many millions of people around the world have enabled — that has helped protect public health.”

Based in part on ideas developed by Singapore and by academics, Apple and Google’s system incorporated privacy protections that gave health agencies an alternative to more invasive apps. Unlike virus-tracing apps that continuously track users’ whereabouts, the Apple and Google software relies on Bluetooth signals, which can estimate the distance between smartphones without needing to know people’s locations. And it uses rotating ID codes — not real names — to log app users who come into close contact for 15 minutes or more.

said last year in a video promoting the country’s alert system, called Corona-Warn-App.

But the apps never received the large-scale efficacy testing typically done before governments introduce public health interventions like vaccines. And the software’s privacy features — which prevent government agencies from identifying app users — have made it difficult for researchers to determine whether the notifications helped hinder virus transmission, said Michael T. Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

“The apps played virtually no role at all in our being able to investigate outbreaks that occurred here,” Dr. Osterholm said.

Some limitations emerged even before the apps were released. For one thing, some researchers note, exposure notification software inherently excludes certain vulnerable populations, such as elderly people who cannot afford smartphones. For another thing, they say, the apps may send out false alarms because the system is not set up to incorporate mitigation factors like whether users are vaccinated, wearing masks or sitting outside.

Proximity detection in virus alert apps can also be inconsistent. Last year, a study on Google’s system for Android phones conducted on a light-rail tram in Dublin reported that the metal walls, flooring and ceilings distorted Bluetooth signal strength to such a degree that the chance of accurate proximity detection would be “similar to that of triggering notifications by randomly selecting” passengers.

Kimbley Craig, the mayor of Salinas, Calif. Last December, when virus rates there were spiking, she said, she downloaded the state’s exposure notification app on her Android phone and soon after tested positive for Covid-19. But after she entered the verification code, she said, the system failed to send an alert to her partner, whom she lives with and who had also downloaded the app.

“If it doesn’t pick up a person in the same household, I don’t know what to tell you,” Mayor Craig said.

In a statement, Steph Hannon, Google’s senior director of product management for exposure notifications, said that there were “known challenges with using Bluetooth technology to approximate the precise distance between devices” and that the company was continuously working to improve accuracy.

The companies’ policies have also influenced usage trends. In certain U.S. states, for instance, iPhone users can activate the exposure notifications with one click — by simply turning on a feature on their settings — but Android users must download a separate app. As a result, about 9.6 million iPhone users in California had turned on the notifications as of May 10, the state said, far outstripping the 900,000 app downloads on Android phones.

Google said it had built its system for states to work on the widest range of devices and be deployed as quickly as possible.

Some public health experts acknowledged that the exposure alert system was an experiment in which they, and the tech giants, were learning and incorporating improvements as they went along.

One issue they discovered early on: To hinder false alarms, states verify positive test results before a person can send out exposure notifications. But local labs can sometimes take days to send test results to health agencies, limiting the ability of app users to quickly alert others.

In Alabama, for instance, the state’s GuideSafe virus alert app has been downloaded about 250,000 times, according to Sensor Tower. But state health officials said they had been able to confirm the positive test results of only 1,300 app users. That is a much lower number than health officials would have expected, they said, given that more than 10 percent of Alabamians have tested positive for the coronavirus.

“The app would be a lot more efficient if those processes were less manual and more automated,” said Dr. Scott Harris, who oversees the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Colorado, which automatically issues the verification codes to people who test positive, has reported higher usage rates. And in California, UC San Diego Health has set up a dedicated help line that app users can call if they did not receive their verification codes.

Dr. Longhurst, the medical center’s chief information officer, said the California app had proved useful as part of a larger statewide public health push that also involved mask-wearing and virus testing.

“It’s not a panacea,” he said. But “it can be an effective part of a pandemic response.”

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Apple’s Fortnite Trial Ends With Pointed Questions and a Toast to Popeyes

Tim Cook took the stand for the first time as Apple’s chief executive. The billionaire creator of one of the world’s most popular video games walked a federal judge through a tour of the so-called metaverse. And lawyers in masks debated whether an anthropomorphic banana without pants was appropriate to show in federal court.

For the past three weeks, Apple has defended itself in a federal courtroom in Oakland, Calif., against claims that it abused its power over the iPhone App Store, in one of the biggest antitrust trials in Silicon Valley’s history. Epic Games, the maker of the popular game Fortnite, sued Apple last year seeking to allow apps to avoid the 30 percent commission that the iPhone maker takes on many app sales.

On Monday, the trial — which covered esoteric definitions of markets as well as oddball video game characters — concluded with Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California pressing the companies on what should change in Apple’s business, if anything. The decision over the case, as well as the future of the $100 billion market for iPhone apps, now rests in her hands. Judge Gonzalez Rogers has said she hopes to issue a verdict by mid-August.

Yet even in an era of antitrust scrutiny of the world’s biggest tech companies, the trial showed how difficult it was to take on a $2.1 trillion corporate titan like Apple.

more than $1 billion in sales — from the App Store. Epic also spent millions of dollars on lawyers, economists and expert witnesses. Yet it still began the trial at a disadvantage because antitrust laws tend to favor defendants, according to legal experts who tracked the case.

While Judge Gonzalez Rogers signaled openness to Epic’s arguments during the trial, a ruling in favor of the video game maker might not lead to momentous changes in the market for mobile apps. Any verdict is also likely to be tied up in appeals for years, at which point rapid change in the technology industry could leave its effects obsolete.

“To mount a credible antitrust campaign, you need to have a significant war chest,” said David Kesselman, an antitrust lawyer in Los Angeles who has followed the case. “And the problem for many smaller companies and smaller businesses is that they don’t have the wherewithal to mount that type of a fight.”

The case focused on how Apple wields control over the iPhone App Store to charge its commission on app sales. Companies big and small have argued that the fee shows Apple is abusing its dominance, while Apple has responded that its cut of sales helps fund efforts to keep iPhones safe. Regulators and lawmakers have homed in on the issue, making it the center of antitrust complaints against the company.

Tim Sweeney, Epic’s chief executive and a longtime antagonist to big tech companies, has said he is “fighting for open platforms and policy changes equally benefiting all developers.”

30 percent number has been there since the inception. And if there was real competition, that number would move. And it hasn’t,” she said of Apple’s commission on app sales. She also said that it was anticompetitive for Apple to ban companies from telling customers that they could buy items outside of iPhone apps.

At other times on Monday, she appeared reluctant to force Apple to change its business. “Courts do not run businesses,” she said.

Judge Gonzalez Rogers also suggested that Epic’s requested outcome in the case would require a significant change in Apple’s business and questioned whether there was legal precedent for that. “Give me some example that survived appellate review where the court has engaged in such a way to limit or fundamentally change the economic model of a monopolistic company?” she asked Epic’s lawyers.

ripe for a legislative fix. Apple also faces two other federal lawsuits over its app fees — one from consumers and one from developers — which are both seeking class-action status. Judge Gonzalez Rogers is also set to hear those cases.

Similarly, a victory for Apple could deflate those challenges. Regulators might be wary to pursue a case against Apple that has already been rejected by a federal judge.

Judge Gonzalez Rogers may also deliver a ruling that makes neither company happy. While Epic wants to be able to host its own app store on iPhones, and Apple wants to continue to operate as it has for years, she might order smaller changes.

Former President Barack Obama nominated Judge Gonzalez Rogers, 56, to the federal court in 2011. Given her base in Oakland, her cases have often related to the technology industry, and she has overseen at least two past cases involving Apple. In both cases, Apple won.

She concluded Monday’s trial by thanking the lawyers and court staff, who mostly used masks and face shields during the proceedings. Months ago in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, it was unclear if the trial could be held in person, but Judge Gonzalez Rogers decided that it was an important enough case and ordered special rules to minimize the health risks, including limits on the number of people in court.

Epic opted to include its chief executive over an extra lawyer, and Mr. Sweeney spent the trial inside the courtroom, watching from his lawyers’ table. Mr. Sweeney, who is typically prolific on Twitter, didn’t comment publicly over the last three weeks. On Monday, he broke his silence by thanking the Popeyes fried-chicken restaurant next to the courthouse.

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