Judge brings dismissed Steam antitrust lawsuit back from the dead

Judge brings dismissed Steam antitrust lawsuit back from the dead

Enlarge (credit: Getty / Aurich Lawson)

Last November, Western District of Washington Judge John Coughenour sided with Valve in dismissing a Steam antitrust lawsuit that had been filed by indie developer (and Humble Bundle creator) Wolfire Games. Now, that same judge is showing new respect for Wolfire’s arguments, allowing parts of an amended version of the complaint to move forward.

In a May 6 ruling (noted by Bloomberg Law), Judge Coughenour said that the allegations in Wolfire’s initial lawsuit were “anecdotal and threadbare” but that an amended lawsuit “provides additional context” and lays out a case that is “sufficient to plausibly allege unlawful conduct.” As such, the judge has refused to dismiss large parts of that amended case, letting it move forward through the long judicial process.

Now I see it

In his original ruling, Judge Coughenour dismissed Wolfire’s claims that Steam’s 30 percent fee to publishers was higher than what the company would take in a more competitive market. At the time, the judge noted that Steam’s fees had remained the same from its launch in 2003 through its alleged “market dominance” in 2013 and beyond.

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#gaming-culture, #lawsuit, #steam, #valve, #wolfire

Ubiquiti sues journalist, alleging defamation in coverage of data breach

Ubiquiti sues journalist, alleging defamation in coverage of data breach

(credit: Lee Hutchinson / Ars Technica)

Journalist Brian Krebs is being sued by network-equipment maker Ubiquiti for defamation over his coverage of a data breach which was eventually revealed to be the work of a company insider.

Ubiquiti initially disclosed a data breach on January 11, 2021, telling customers that the breach was minor and had occurred at a “third-party cloud provider.” But on March 30, 2021, Krebs reported that an unidentified whistleblower told him the data breach was worse than Ubiquiti had said. Krebs’ story and others like it published the next day caused Ubiquiti’s market cap to drop by $4 billion, the lawsuit alleges.

Then, in December 2021, the Department of Justice said that it had charged Nickolas Sharp “for secretly stealing gigabytes of confidential files from a New York-based technology company where he was employed.” The DOJ also said, “while purportedly working to remediate the security breach, [Sharp] extort[ed] the company for nearly $2 million for the return of the files and the identification of a remaining purported vulnerability.” Sharp reportedly worked for Ubiquiti at the time of the attack.

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#data-breach, #defamation, #lawsuit, #policy, #ubiquiti

Google “hijacked millions of customers and orders” from restaurants, lawsuit says

Google “hijacked millions of customers and orders” from restaurants, lawsuit says

Enlarge

Google is being sued by a Florida restaurant group alleging that the tech company has been setting up unauthorized pages to capture food orders rather than directing them to the restaurant’s own site.

Google uses “bait-and-switch” tactics to get customers to place takeout or pickup orders through “new, unauthorized, and deceptively branded webpages,” according to the lawsuit, filed on behalf of Left Field Holdings, a restaurant company that runs Lime Fresh Mexican Grill franchises. On those pages, customers are prompted with large buttons to order with food delivery companies like GrubHub, DoorDash, or Seamless.

“Google never bothered to obtain permission from the restaurants to sell their products online,” the lawsuit says. “Google purposefully designed its websites to appear to the user to be offered, sponsored, and approved by the restaurant, when they are not—a tactic, no doubt, employed by Google to increase orders and clicks.”

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#food-delivery, #google, #lawsuit, #policy, #restaurants

DOJ, FTC, FDA sue man who claims $60 herbal tea cures COVID

DOJ, FTC, FDA sue man who claims $60 herbal tea cures COVID

Enlarge (credit: B4B earth tea llc)

The Department of Justice, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Trade Commission together filed a civil lawsuit against a New York man for falsely and repeatedly claiming that a $60 16-ounce bottle of herbal tea can prevent and cure COVID-19.

The agencies accused Andrew Martin Sinclair, who solely owns and operates B4B Earth Tea LLC, of selling snake oil and preying on vulnerable patients during a pandemic that has, to date, claimed the lives of more than 6 million people worldwide.

According to the lawsuit filed Thursday in the Eastern District Court of New York, Sinclair was warned multiple times by the federal agencies that his health claims for “Earth Tea” were illegal. Yet the Brooklyn resident, who goes by “Busta Sinclair,” continued to claim online and on social media that his herbal tea—said to be made of unnamed vegetables, aloe vera, honey, and bottled spring water—”works within minutes” to cure COVID-19 and can get someone “out of quarantine within 24 hours.”

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#covid-19, #doj, #fda, #ftc, #lawsuit, #science, #snake-oil, #tea

Brian Flores Talks About His Lawsuit Against the N.F.L.

The former coach accuses the league of discrimination.

#daboll-brian, #discrimination, #flores-brian-1981, #houston-texans, #internal-sub-only-nl, #lawsuit, #national-football-league, #new-orleans-saints, #new-york-giants

PayPal stole users’ money after freezing, seizing funds, lawsuit alleges

PayPal stole users’ money after freezing, seizing funds, lawsuit alleges

Enlarge (credit: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek)

PayPal is facing a class-action lawsuit alleging that the digital payments company violated racketeering laws by freezing customer funds without offering an explanation.

When users contacted PayPal about the frozen funds, they were told they had violated the company’s “acceptable use policy” but weren’t told how that violation had occurred, the lawsuit says. What’s more, it alleges that in at least one instance, PayPal said that a user would “have to get a subpoena” to find out why.

“PayPal violates its own Agreement by failing to provide adequate notice to users whose accounts have had holds placed on them,” the lawsuit says. When PayPal does let users know it placed a hold on their funds, “it does not inform such users why such funds are being held, how they can obtain a release of the hold, and/or how they can avoid future holds being placed on their accounts.”

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#class-action-lawsuit, #lawsuit, #paypal, #policy, #racketeering, #user-policy

Riot Games to pay $100 million to settle gender discrimination lawsuit

Riot Games to pay $100 million to settle gender discrimination lawsuit

Enlarge (credit: Chris Delmas | Getty Images)

Riot Games has settled a class-action lawsuit for $100 million. Filed in 2018 by two female employees and later certified as a class-action, the lawsuit accused the studio of discrimination, sexual harassment, and unequal pay.

Under the terms of the settlement, Riot Games will pay $80 million directly to women who have worked at the company from November 2014 through to the present, including full-time, part-time, and temporary employees. The remaining $20 million will go to attorneys’ fees.

In addition to the $100 million payout, Riot Games will enact workplace policy reforms. These include the creation of an application pipeline for current or former contractors to apply for permanent positions and more transparency regarding salaries for job applicants.

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#gaming-culture, #gender-discrimination, #lawsuit, #policy, #riot-games

Landmark $150B lawsuit seeks to hold Facebook accountable for Rohingya genocide

A woman clings to the back of a younger man.

Enlarge / A young Rohingya man carries an older Rohingya woman in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Some 750,000 Rohingya people have fled Myanmar as a result of the genocide. (credit: Michał Fiałkowski/iStock Editorial)

Rohingya refugees have filed a lawsuit against Meta, formerly known as Facebook, for its alleged role in the ethnic cleansing currently underway in Myanmar, sometimes known as Burma. The lawsuit says the social media giant is on the hook for “at least $150 billion” for “wrongful death, personal injury, pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of property.”

This lawsuit claims that Meta’s Facebook product is defective and that the company acted negligently. The complaint was filed this week in San Mateo County Superior Court, the jurisdiction in which Meta is headquartered, on behalf of a Rohingya refugee living in Illinois. It’s seeking class-action status to encompass all of the more than 10,000 Rohingya refugees who have resettled in the US since 2012. 

The lawsuit is among the first to leverage allegations made by former Facebook employees and whistleblowers, including Frances Haugen, who shared over 10,000 documents with Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

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#ethnic-cleansing, #facebook, #lawsuit, #meta, #myanmar, #policy, #rohingya-people

Activision Blizzard faces new pressure from group of state treasurers

Activision's publishing HQ in Santa Monica, California.

Enlarge / Activision’s publishing HQ in Santa Monica, California. (credit: Activision)

The continuing lawsuits and investigations surrounding widespread reports of employee harassment and gender inequity issues at Activision Blizzard have now attracted the attention of six state treasurers who are seeking substantial changes at the company.

Axios reports on a letter sent last month by the state treasurers of California, Massachusetts, Illinois, Oregon, Delaware, and Nevada to Activision Blizzard, asking to meet with the company’s board of directors regarding their “response to the challenges and investment risk exposures that face Activision.” The group also writes that it is considering a “call to vote against the re-election of incumbent directors,” echoing similar calls from activist investors in recent weeks.

“We think there needs to be sweeping changes made in the company,” Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs told Axios. “We’re concerned that the current CEO and board directors don’t have the skill set nor the conviction to institute these sweeping changes needed to transform their culture, to restore trust with employees and shareholders and their partners.”

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#activision-blizzard, #board, #bobby-kotick, #gaming-culture, #lawsuit, #pressure

Judge dismisses Steam antitrust case for lack of factual support

The Steam corporate logo repeats over a red background.

(credit: Aurich Lawson)

A federal judge has accepted Valve’s motion to dismiss an anti-trust lawsuit against company Steam’s store and platform, saying that plaintiff Wolfire Games failed to establish the basic facts necessary to sustain the case going forward.

Wolfire’s lawsuit in part rested on the argument that Valve was illegally tying its Steam game store (which sells the games) to the separate Steam platform (which provides game library management, social networking, achievement tracking, Steam Workshop mods, etc.). Wolfire argued that Valve was using its dominant market position in digital PC game sales (accepted in the lawsuit as 75 percent of the market for full PC game sales) to illegally prop up the platform in a way that was not conducive to competition.

In a ruling issued late last week, though, Western District of Washington Judge John Coughenour said that no illegal tying could take place because the Steam store and platform “are a single product within the integrated game platform and transaction market.” That’s because the revenues from sales of games on the Steam store go directly toward supporting the “free” services available on the platform. And in the rare cases that games sold elsewhere make use of the Steam platform, Valve lets developers create free keys to enable that integration, obviating any potential harm.

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#antitrust, #gaming-culture, #lawsuit, #monopoly, #steam, #valve, #wolfire

After bombshell report, Activision employees walk out, demand CEO resign

A casually dressed man sits on a sofa.

Enlarge / Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick. (credit: Flickr / Bobby Kotick)

A group of Activision Blizzard employees staged a walkout and demanded the resignation of CEO Bobby Kotick Tuesday, in response to a bombshell Wall Street Journal report alleging Kotick failed to act decisively or inform his board of directors of widespread abuse allegations within the company.

The WSJ story is the result of months of reporting and says that Activision has received more than 500 claims of “harassment, sexual assault, bullying, pay disparities, and other issues” just in the few months since the state of California brought a lawsuit against the company over such problems. Many of those reports stem from heavy drinking at company-sponsored events, according to the Journal, including the alleged rape of one employee at the hands of Sledgehammer Games supervisor Javier Panameno (who was later fired after an internal investigation, and who has now resigned from his subsequent employer Zynga). This follows on broadly similar reports of drunken misconduct stemming from a booze-filled “Cosby suite” at BlizzCon 2013.

The Journal report also adds new context to the sudden departure of former Blizzard co-chief Jennifer Oneal, who announced she was leaving the company earlier this month, just three months after being promoted to help fill the role of former President J. Allen Brack. Oneal reportedly complained to a company lawyer of previous sexual harassment she suffered at the company, pay disparities with her Blizzard co-chief Mike Ybarra, and a lack of faith that the company’s executive leadership could change its culture. “I have been tokenized, marginalized, and discriminated against,” Oneal reportedly wrote.

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#activision, #bobby-kotick, #gaming-culture, #harassment, #kotick, #lawsuit, #sexual

Amazon liable for crash because software “micromanages” delivery drivers, victim says

An Amazon delivery truck drives down a street in Anaheim, California.

Enlarge / An Amazon delivery truck drives down a street in Anaheim, California. (credit: iStock)

Amazon is currently defending itself against a lawsuit that could determine whether it is liable for the actions of its contract delivery drivers.

In March, Ans Rana was going to see his sister’s new house with his father and brother, who was driving a Tesla Model S, when they came upon a disabled vehicle on Interstate 75 outside Atlanta. Rana’s brother slowed to a near stop, but the Amazon delivery van behind them apparently didn’t notice. The driver of the van was going nearly 14 miles per hour over the speed limit, Rana’s lawyers allege in a lawsuit. The van slammed into the rear of the Tesla with such force that it pushed the car into the left lanes of the interstate where it was struck by a Toyota Corolla before hitting the median barrier.

Rana suffered life-threatening injuries, including a traumatic brain injury, and had to be placed on a ventilator. His spinal cord was also damaged, and he hasn’t been able to regain the use of his legs or arms despite months of therapy and rehabilitation.

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#amazon, #amazon-flex, #amazon-logistics, #lawsuit, #policy

Attorney conflict could benefit Activision Blizzard in harassment suit

Activision's Los Angeles offices.

Enlarge / Activision’s Los Angeles offices. (credit: Getty Images)

In a new legal filing, Activision Blizzard is pointing to alleged conflicts of interest within California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) in an effort to delay or stymie the state agency’s continuing lawsuit over alleged discrimination and sexual harassment at the company.

Conflict claims

Those who’ve been following California’s slowly unfolding case against Activision since it first became public in July may remember that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought a similar but separate lawsuit against the company last month. Activision Blizzard quickly agreed to a consent decree to settle that federal case, setting up an $18 million restitution fund for affected employees in the process.

Earlier this month, though, California’s DFEH filed an objection to that federal settlement, saying in part that it had a “potential prejudicial impact on the state of California’s pending enforcement of [the Fair Employment and Housing Act].” The settlement, California argued, might cause “irreparable harm” to the DFEH’s case and “may result in the waiver of state claims relevant to DFEH’s pending case and the destruction or tampering of evidence necessary to DFEH’s case.”

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#activision-blizzard, #gaming-culture, #harassment, #lawsuit, #legal

Tesla ordered to pay $137M to Black former worker subjected to racist workplace

Tesla ordered to pay $137M to Black former worker subjected to racist workplace

Enlarge (credit: David Butow | Getty Images)

Tesla owes Owen Diaz $137 million after a jury found that the Black former worker was subjected to racial abuse that the electric vehicle company insufficiently addressed during his tenure.

Diaz, an elevator operator at the company’s Fremont factory for nine months from 2015 to 2016, had been called racial epithets by coworkers, was told to “go back to Africa,” and saw racist graffiti in the bathrooms. The trial lasted a little over a week, and the jury found that Tesla had not taken reasonable steps to prevent racial harassment.

“It shines a light on what’s going on inside of Tesla’s factory,” Diaz told The Wall Street Journal. “Elon Musk, you’ve been put on notice. Clean that factory up.”

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#arbitration, #cars, #lawsuit, #mandatory-arbitration, #policy, #racial-harassment, #tesla

Ex-Fox host claims Facebook defamed him by fact-checking climate change videos

John Stossel speaking with attendees at the 2018 Young Americans for Liberty New York City Spring Summit at the Teaneck Marriott at Glenpointe in Teaneck, New Jersey.

Enlarge / John Stossel speaking with attendees at the 2018 Young Americans for Liberty New York City Spring Summit at the Teaneck Marriott at Glenpointe in Teaneck, New Jersey. (credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0))

Former Fox Business host John Stossel is suing Facebook, alleging that the social media company and one of its contracted fact-checking organizations defamed him when flagged two of his videos, alerting viewers to “missing context” and “partly false” claims.

The lawsuit also claims that Stossel’s professional reputation has been “significantly and irreparably damaged by the false labels and statements.”

Since Stossel left Fox Business, he’s been releasing videos on various social platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. The endeavor has apparently been somewhat lucrative—he has made around $10,000 a month from Facebook alone. “My news model is based on social media companies showing you videos,” he said on YouTube.

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#climate-change, #defamation, #facebook, #fact-checking, #lawsuit, #policy

Film studios sue “no logs” VPN provider for $10 million

Your at-home entertainment studio.

Enlarge / Your at-home entertainment studio. (credit: Ella Don)

Dozens of movie production companies sued LiquidVPN this year over the VPN provider’s marketing efforts that could be perceived as promoting piracy. These companies, which are now seeking $10 million in damages, claim that the “no log” policy of LiquidVPN is not a valid excuse, as the VPN provider actively chose to not keep logs.

And because LiquidVPN’s lawyers failed to show up in court, the plaintiffs are pushing a motion for a default judgment to be granted.

Fiery marketing that backfired

At what point does a netizen’s right to privacy and anonymity cease is the crux of the lawsuit brought forth against LiquidVPN. LiquidVPN is a no-log VPN provider that, over the course of its business activities, has been observed to… almost encourage online piracy.

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#biz-it, #copyright, #dmca, #film-industry, #lawsuit, #piracy, #streaming, #tech, #vpn

Facebook paid FTC $4.9B more than required to shield Zuckerberg, lawsuit alleges

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg, 33, was called to testify after it was reported that millions of Facebook users had their personal information harvested by Cambridge Analytica.

Enlarge / Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg, 33, was called to testify after it was reported that millions of Facebook users had their personal information harvested by Cambridge Analytica. (credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In a newly unsealed lawsuit, Facebook shareholders allege that the company intentionally overpaid a $5 billion Federal Trade Commission fine to protect CEO Mark Zuckerberg from further government scrutiny.

“Zuckerberg, Sandberg, and other Facebook directors agreed to authorize a multi-billion settlement with the FTC as an express quid pro quo to protect Zuckerberg from being named in the FTC’s complaint, made subject to personal liability, or even required to sit for a deposition,” the lawsuit says (emphasis in the original). An early draft of the order obtained by The Washington Post through the Freedom of Information Act shows that the commission was considering holding Zuckerberg responsible.

The FTC levied the fine in July 2019 in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw political operatives harvesting the personal data of 50 million Facebook users without their consent. (The lawsuit says only 0.31 percent of the affected users consented.) The fine (which was a record for privacy-related penalties) was 50 times larger than the maximum prescribed by a previous FTC consent decree, the lawsuit alleges. It was also well in excess of the previous record fine of $168 million.

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#cambridge-analytica, #facebook, #ftc, #lawsuit, #mark-zuckerberg, #policy

SEC probing Activision Blizzard in wake of harassment, discrimination lawsuits

Photoshopped image from a video game shows a person in an Activision Blizzsard hoodie confronted barrels filled, presumably, with gasoline.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson | Getty Images)

In video game parlance, longtime gaming publisher Activision Blizzard has jumped to “extreme” difficulty as of late, thanks to a wave of highly publicized lawsuits. On Monday, the company behind World of Warcraft, Diablo, and Call of Duty faced arguably its biggest test yet, this time from the federal government.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating Activision Blizzard over how the video game publisher dealt with allegations of sexual misconduct and workplace discrimination—and whether related information was properly disclosed to shareholders by executives.

The federal regulator has subpoenaed the company as well several senior executives, including CEO Bobby Kotick, according to The Wall Street Journal. It has also requested a variety of documents, including Kotick’s communications with other executives regarding the matter, minutes from board meetings held since 2019, the personnel files of six former employees, and separation agreements written this year. Former employees also reportedly have been subpoenaed.

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#activision-blizzard, #gaming-culture, #lawsuit, #policy, #sec, #sexual-harassment, #shareholders, #workplace-discrimination

Skype alumni head to court in a battle over Starship Technologies and Wire

A new lawsuit threatens a decades-long collaboration that brought Skype, robot delivery startup Starship Technologies and encrypted enterprise messaging service Wire into the world.

TechCrunch has learned that Mark Dyne, one of Skype’s founding investors, is suing billionaire Skype co-founder Janus Friis in California’s Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles for unlawful conspiracy in his business dealings.

The lawsuit is complex, with plenty of twists, turns and allegations. The heart of the dispute is whether Dyne and his partners, who had managed some of Friis’s investments, were working for — or simply with — the Skype co-founder when they organized a rescue package for Wire in 2019.

At stake is who gets to control Wire and the financial return each side gets from Starship.

Dyne and his investor partners accuse Friis of illegally replacing one of them as a director of a general partnership that manages Wire, and conspiring to reduce their interest in Starship Technologies. Dyne and his partners also allege (and dismiss) accusations by Friis that they had fiduciary duties to him when they found funding for and restructured Wire.

“[Friis] unfortunately believes he is always entitled to have what he wants, can force others to do what he wants, and can re-write history (and agreements) whenever it suits his present purpose,” reads the complaint, filed in July, but not previously reported.

Founding stories

Dyne was a key player in the history of Skype, as one of its original investors and its first board member. He remained on the board through its sale to eBay for more than $2.6 billion in 2005, and was part of the group that bought Skype from eBay in 2009. He was still on the board when it was eventually sold to Microsoft in 2011.

Dyne and Friis worked together extensively in the years after Skype. Dyne was an investor and board member of Friis’s ill-fated music streaming service Rdio, which filed for bankruptcy in 2015. Like Friis, he also served as a director of the general partners of the Iconical investment funds that funded Wire to the tune of more than $64.5 million between 2013 and 2018, according to the lawsuit.

Wire, launched by ex-Skype and Microsoft engineers, offers secure end-to-end encrypted messaging, file sharing, voice and video calls. Friis hoped Wire would become “the new Skype,” according to the lawsuit, but became disenchanted after it failed to scale quickly, and then pivoted to enterprise. Five years after its launch, Wire had acquired only about 150,000 users, all of whom were non-revenue generating, the lawsuit notes, and was burning through $8 to $10 million a year.

“Friis has a history of abandoning companies when they did not achieve their early objectives in his sole opinion,” the lawsuit reads. In addition, it states, Friis himself was highly involved with the design of the robots, the logo and the software app at Starship Technologies.

A turning point

At this point, the men were apparently still friends. They were working on a new venture referred to in the lawsuit only as “Project X,” and in 2017, Friis even donated $500,000 to Dyne’s charitable foundation.

In late 2018, the lawsuit says that Friis cut off the flow of cash from Wire’s loan facility and sent a text message to Dyne, reading: “Want to make sure we are ready to put everything into a Foundation if all else fails.” Wire would become free open source software, with the foundation responsible for setting terms for open source licenses. Friis envisioned himself, Wire’s CTO Alan Duric and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales sitting on its board.

But Dyne and his partners had a different idea. In early 2019, when Wire was only days away from shutting down, according to the lawsuit, Dyne and his partners quickly pulled together an $8 million Series A including them, Marbruck Investments and Wire’s own executive management team.

Friis told others that Dyne had “pulled off a miracle” in finding this financing, states the lawsuit. Although the Iconical funds would remain Wire’s single-largest shareholder, the transaction would, apparently, remove the company from Friis’s direct control.

The lawsuit says that following the round, Friis called Duric “a completely f**king disaster” and hastened to sever all ties with the company. It alleges he missed board meetings and did not speak to Morten Brøgger, Wire’s CEO, for nearly a year and a half.

That seems to have changed this year, following Wire’s $21 million Series B round. In May, Friis insisted that Wire be redomiciled in Germany, the lawsuit states: “In hindsight, this was clearly part of Friis’s undisclosed plan to reacquire control of Wire.”

In a Zoom (not Skype or Wire) call in October, says the lawsuit, Friis alleged that if the terms of the Wire transaction had been made clear to him and he had been properly advised, he would have never agreed to it, blaming Dyne and his partners. He also replaced one of them as a director and stalled meetings, it says.

The fight over Starship

Nor are Friis’s actions limited to Wire, according to the lawsuit. It says that Friis was always vexed that he did not have a controlling interest in the sidewalk robot delivery startup Starship, which was structured as a 50/50 deal with another Skype alumnus, Ahti Heinla. The lawsuit includes a screengrab of a text from Friis to Dyne suggesting if that structure could be remedied “in a way that was set in stone, one would easily pay [$]10-15 million for it.”

The lawsuit alleges that Friis conspired with one of his companies to inaccurately claim Starship as a “controlled portfolio company” of one of the Iconical funds. This would inflate his own interest in it at the expense of Dyne and his partners “to the point where [our] interest is no longer a financeable asset in the secondary markets,” it says. “Friis will say or do anything in order to suit his present fiction, no matter the cost to others.”

Dyne did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Friis’ legal team filed a motion to quash the lawsuit on Friday, on the grounds that Friis — a Danish citizen living in London — is not subject to the court’s jurisdiction.

The motion stated: “More than a decade ago, Dyne [and partner] recognized they could profit handsomely if they hitched their wagon to Friis. And over the ensuing years, while extracting millions of dollars’ worth of fees and profit interests, they pretended they were acting as Friis’s and his entities’ trusted fiduciaries overseeing and managing Friis’s various venture capital pursuits. But in reality… Plaintiffs had a single-minded focus of advancing their own commercial interests at the expense of Friis.”

Friis’s lawyers also provided TechCrunch with the following statement: “Dyne’s defective lawsuit is a defensive reaction to questions raised regarding his and his team’s conduct… Although we believe that the allegations in the complaint are irresponsible, incomplete, and without merit, they also effectively concede that Dyne and his team breached fiduciary duties over their decade-plus relationship as trusted advisers. We look forward to fully addressing these matters in litigation.”

The outcome of this lawsuit, which is still in its early days, is likely to have little immediate impact on the operations of either Starship, which has made over 1.5 million autonomous deliveries and recently snagged ex-Google Loon chief Alastair Westgarth as its CEO, or Wire, which completed its pivot to enterprise customers and enjoyed some success during the pandemic.

However, it does spell the end of a dream team that has created some of the most interesting and influential startups of the 21st century so far.

#finance, #janus-friis, #lawsuit, #mark-dyne, #microsoft, #robotics, #skype, #starship-technologies, #transportation, #venture-capital, #wire

Uber Eats, Grubhub, DoorDash sue NYC for limiting fees the apps can charge restaurants

Food ordering and delivery platforms DoorDash, Caviar, Grubhub, Seamless, Postmates and Uber Eats have banded together to sue the City of New York over a law that would permanently limit the amount of commissions the apps can charge restaurants to use their services.

The Wall Street Journal first reported the news that the companies filed suit in federal court on Thursday evening and are seeking an injunction that would prevent the city from enforcing the legislation, unspecified monetary damages and a jury trial.

Last year, the city council introduced temporary legislation that would prohibit third-party food delivery services from charging restaurants more than 15% per delivery order and more than 5% for marketing and other nondelivery fees in an effort to help ease the strain on an industry struggling from pandemic lockdowns. The companies filing suit against the city claim the limit on fees, which was made  permanent last month under a bill sponsored in June by Queens Councilman Francisco Moya, has already cost them hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, third-party platforms like Plaintiffs have been instrumental in keeping restaurants afloat and food industry workers employed, including by investing millions of dollars in COVID-relief efforts specifically for local restaurants,” the lawsuit reads. “Yet, the City of New York has taken the extraordinary measure of imposing permanent price controls on a private and highly competitive industry—the facilitation of food ordering and delivery through third-party platforms. Those permanent price controls will harm not only Plaintiffs, but also the revitalization of the very local restaurants that the City claims to serve.”

Other cities also instituted similar caps during the pandemic, but most have fizzled out as the pandemic has eased and restaurants have been able to open their dining rooms. San Francisco is among of handful of cities that has also decided to enact a permanent 15% cap, and the app-based companies are suing there, as well. They argue that extending the limits on fees, which can be as high as 30% per order, “bears no relationship to any public-health emergency,” and are unconstitutional because they interfere with negotiated contracts and dictate “the economic terms on which a dynamic industry operates.”

As with the temporary law, any violators of the permanent cap would face up to $1,000 per day in fines per restaurant. The companies said the new law would not only cause them to have to rewrite their contracts with restaurants, but also raise fees for consumers and hurt delivery workers’ ability to make money.

The companies also argue that if the city wants to improve profitability of local restaurants, it could provide tax breaks or grants out of its own pocket instead of hurting the commissions of the delivery services.

“But rather than exercise one of those lawful options, the City chose instead to adopt an irrational law, driven by naked animosity towards third-party platforms,” the companies said, citing a tweet from Moya after he introduced a 10% commission cap bill that said, “NYC local restaurants needed a 10% cap on delivery fees from third party services like GrubHub long before #COVID19 hit us. They damn sure need it now.”

This legislation also comes amid increasing scrutiny over app-based delivery companies that have a reputation for harming both restaurants and gig workers in an effort to keep costs low for consumers. Recently, a California superior court ruled Proposition 22, which would allow these companies to continue classifying its workers as independent contractors, rather than employees, as unconstitutional. This ruling prompted DoorDash workers to protest last week outside the home of CEO Tony Xu demanding better pay and more tip  transparency. Meanwhile in Massachusetts, a similar law to Prop 22 has just gotten the green light to go ahead on the November 2022 ballot.

“Restaurants pay app-based delivery companies for a variety of services through commissions, one of these being delivery services,” said an unnamed courier in the lawsuit against the city. “Capping these commissions means less earnings for people like me. A commission cap could also mean delivery services get more expensive for the customers I deliver to, which ultimately means less orders for me.”

#caviar, #doordash, #drama, #food-delivery-apps, #grubhub, #lawsuit, #nyc, #seamless, #transportation, #uber-eats

Massachussetts AG greenlights Uber, Lyft-backed gig worker ballot initiative

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey gave a coalition of app-based service providers like Uber and Lyft the go-ahead to start collecting signatures needed to put a proposed ballot measure before voters that would define drivers as independent contractors rather than employees.

Backers of the initiative, which is essentially a MA version of Proposition 22, would need to gather tens of thousands of signatures for the measure to make it to the November 2022 ballot. Despite the fact that last year Healey filed a lawsuit that challenged Uber and Lyft’s classifications of drivers as contractors who are therefore not entitled to benefits like sick leave, overtime or minimum wage, on Wednesday, the AG certified the current measure met constitutional requirements.

The news comes nearly two weeks after a superior court judged ruled California’s Prop 22, which was passed in 2020, unconstitutional. The union-backed Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights urged Healey to reject the measure under the same grounds, and told Reuters that it is considering suing to challenge the measure.

The Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work, the coalition of members including Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart, filed the petition for this ballot initiative last month, a move that Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said he thinks is “the right move.” The proposed initiative would also allow drivers to earn a minimum of $18 per hour in 2023 before tips and provide those who work for at least 15 hours per week with healthcare stipends. Drivers would also be guaranteed at least 26 cents per mile to cover vehicle upkeep and gas.

The coalition has until December 1 to collect and file 80,239 signatures from voters. If they miss that deadline, they can gather an additional 13,374 signatures by July 6, 2022 to get the initiative on the ballot.

#doordash, #gig-workers, #independent-contractors, #instacart, #lawsuit, #lyft, #massachusetts-attorney-general-maura-healey, #massachussetts, #prop-22, #transportation, #uber

Judge’s order requiring hospital to give COVID patient ivermectin called “unethical”

Judge’s order requiring hospital to give COVID patient ivermectin called “unethical”

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson | Getty Images)

A county judge in Ohio has ordered a hospital in Cincinnati to administer ivermectin to an intensive care patient, a move raises questions about the role of the courts in the medical system.

“It is absurd that this order was issued,” Arthur Caplan, professor of bioethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, told Ars. “If I were these doctors, I simply wouldn’t do it.”

The order was spurred by a lawsuit filed by Julie Smith, whose 51-year-old husband, Jeffrey, is being treated in West Chester Hospital for COVID-19. The lawsuit was first reported by the Ohio Capital Journal. Jeffrey has been in the hospital since July 15, and as his condition declined, his wife Julie began investigating alternative treatments.

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#covid-19, #doctors, #hospital, #ivermectin, #lawsuit, #medical-ethics, #policy, #science

This Week in Apps: Developers sound off on App Store settlement, OnlyFans’ flip-flop, Snap’s new camera

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters.

Changes to the App Store ecosystem dominated the headlines this week. In South Korea, legislators are set to vote on a landmark bill that could end Apple and Google’s payment exclusivity on their app stores. Meanwhile, Apple dropped commissions to 15% for news publishers’ apps, if they agree to participate in the Apple News ecosystem. Apple also agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit from U.S. app developers that, pending court approval, will introduce a few changes to App Store rules — the most notable being that it allows developers to communicate with their users outside of their iOS apps to tell them about other purchase options.

Top Story: The App Store settlement underwhelms

Image Credits: TechCrunch

As it turns out, this App Store settlement agreement isn’t really as earth-shattering as some headlines may have made it seem. For starters, Apple had already slightly adjusted its App Store policies in June when it clarified developers were allowed to communicate through email and text with their customers about other purchasing methods besides Apple’s own in-app purchases. But this was only permitted if developers weren’t using contact information obtained from within the app. With the new settlement, that changes a bit.

Developers can now take the smallest of steps forward as they are allowed to inform users  — well, users who have consented to receive offers via email or other communications — about alternative methods of payment besides in-app purchases. That means developers will also have to collect users’ contact information from their app where users may already be logging in using third-party credentials like Facebook’s, Google’s or even Apple’s own sign-on systems. (Apple’s system, of course, has an option to hide your email address from developers. Wow, someone was thinking ahead there!)

But this change wasn’t what developers want. They actually want to point users from inside their app to their website where they could market their own payment and subscription options — possibly even at a reduced rate since they wouldn’t have to share a commission with Apple. Even if Apple allowed this more permissive action, it’s likely many consumers would continue to use in-app purchases for the sake of convenience. The real concern on Apple’s part is that such a change could redirect significant income from the App Store’s biggest moneymakers, like games, to payment systems outside the App Store.

The settlement agreement proposes other changes as well, such as the expansion of price points from fewer than 100 to more than 500. Apple also agreed to publish a transparency report on the App Review process. (This could potentially be an even bigger deal than the App Store rule changes, as it could push Apple to address some of the outstanding issues with erroneous rejections, app scams and delays.) And Apple said it would establish a $100 million fund for U.S. developers less than $1 million per calendar year, which will pay out in a range of $250 to $30,000, depending on the size of the developers’ app business.

Developer responses to the settlement

Image Credits: Apple

Apple put out the news of the settlement in its usual style of a polished press release, albeit one buried late on a Thursday night with reporter briefings scheduled for hours where they could easily get missed. Apple, in its release, touted the “even better business opportunity” this represented for developers whose feedback it “appreciates” and whose “ideas… helped inform the agreement.”

We wanted to hear what developers thought about this change. Here’s a sampling of feedback from the community: 

Ryan Jones, founder and CEO of iOS flight tracker Flighty (whose Twitter thread offers a good summary of the news): 

“I just keep praying Apple will wake up and change the rules themselves but today wasn’t that day. Its not a great idea to let 70-year-old bureaucrats who get tech support from their grandkids write technology ecosystem law. I just have to believe Apple is realizing this is a ticking time bomb – they have to change it themselves, or we’ll all pay the consequences for years to come. There’s real resentment building the way Apple PR keeps basically gaslighting us. Anyone who can read critically can immediately tell there’s zero substance to this announcement. They need to step up and make changes before courts do it for them.” 

James Thomson, indie developer and creator of PCalc app:

“On the face of it, it doesn’t seem like the announcements are particularly significant for us. It’s mainly clarification on existing rules that were already in place. It’s still not permitted to link within your app to an alternative payment mechanism, but you can at least email the customer to tell them about it, if they have opted-in. It’s not 100% clear to me that wasn’t allowed in the first place. The developer fund is also U.S. only, so that doesn’t help us. Overall, I don’t see this doing very much to change the opinion of those calling for antitrust legislation.”

Becky Hansmeyer, indie developer behind YarnBuddy and Snapthread apps: 

“Apple has made zero concessions in this settlement. App Store search and discovery are still terrible, developers still can’t reference outside payment methods within their apps, and App Review is still a needlessly draconian process that discourages innovation and punishes good actors while letting scams run rampant. The ‘Small Developer Assistance Fund’ is nothing more than payouts to class members as a form of self-punishment. Nothing about this is good for developers, or consumers.”

David Heinemeier Hansson, Basecamp co-founder, developer of HEY email app and noted Apple critic:

“…The trophy of this settlement, as presented in the press, is supposedly that developers can now tell their customers where to buy services outside the app. Except no, that’s not actually what’s happening! Apple is simply ‘clarifying’ that companies can send an email to their customers, if they’ve gotten permission to do so, on an opt-in basis. That email may include information about how to buy outside the app. So the steering provisions of the App Store, that developers are not allowed to tell users inside their app or on the signup screen about other purchasing choices than IAP – the only places that actually matter! – is being cemented with this ‘clarification.’ It draws a thicker line, asserts Apple’s right to steer in the first place, and offers the meaningless concession of opt-in email, which was something developers had already been doing.”

Kosta Eleftheriou, FlickType developer who’s also suing Apple over lost revenues due to App Store scams: 

“Apple’s draconian anti-steering provisions remain in place just as before. This settlement is a meaningless concession for developers who all see what PR game Apple is playing. And Apple labelling the restitution they’ve agreed to pay as an ‘assistance’ fund is deceitful and shameful: Developers aren’t asking for help, they are asking for fairness.”

Jacob Eiting, CEO of RevenueCat, which offers app developers a suite of tools for their subscription-based apps:

“The changes proposed in the settlement are largely a repackaging of existing work Apple has done, a much smaller change than it seemed from Apple’s press release. They are rolling back one recently enacted anti-steering rule, but leaving all other anti-steering rules in place. The settlement also puts into place commitments to programs that most likely weren’t going anywhere anyway. They’ve also agreed to pay out $100M to small developers as a settlement, acting as if it’s some magnanimous gesture. However, it’s in exchange for developers waiving any claims of unfairness in Apple’s fees for the last 6 years. Seeing how good Apple has gotten at patting themselves on the back, this will likely be dragged out any time Apple needs evidence of developer friendliness for years to come.”

Aaron Pearce, indie iOS developer behind a suite of HomeKit-connected apps including HomeRun, HomeCam, HomePass and others: 

“To me, there weren’t any real changes that matter. These are mostly clarifications of existing rules or statements. The pledge to keep the Small Business program is nice, but no one expected that to go away. Keeping App Store search the same was a near guarantee previously. The only real change is introducing more pricing points that I cannot see helping developers in a huge way in the immediate future. The $100 million fund is a lawsuit settlement, not Apple being generous to help developers. I find the PR spin on these ‘changes’ to be disingenuous. They aren’t fixing the core problems with the App Store that small or large developers face when they are simply trying to ship products to their customers.”

CAF, a nonprofit representing developers including Epic Games, Spotify, Tile and dozens of others pushing for regulation of app stores:

“Apple’s sham settlement offer is nothing more than a desperate attempt to avoid the judgment of courts, regulators, and legislators worldwide. This offer does nothing to address the structural, foundational problems facing all developers, large and small, undermining innovation and competition in the app ecosystem. Allowing developers to communicate with their customers about lower prices outside of their apps is not a concession and further highlights Apple’s total control over the app marketplace. If this settlement is approved, app makers will still be barred from communicating about lower prices or offering competing payment options within their apps. We will not be appeased by empty gestures and will continue our fight for fair and open digital platforms.”

Samantha John, CEO and co-founder of coding app Hopscotch

“Nothing changed. You were always able to write whatever you wanted in your emails or website. They still are not letting you link to or mention an alternate payment processor inside your app. It’s a weird news story because it made me hopeful when I saw the headlines but nothing had actually happened.”

Overall, it’s seems developers aren’t impressed with this minor concession and it doesn’t seem this settlement will do anything to stop the push for increased App Store legislations.

Weekly News

Apple Platform Updates

  • Apple released the seventh developer betas for iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 as well as watchOS 8 and tvOS 15. Among the notable changes, Apple announced its new service iCloud Private Relay would now be introduced as a public beta to gather more feedback instead of being enabled by default as part of the iCloud+ subscription service. The release notes indicate some websites still have issues with the feature, including showing content for the wrong region or requiring extra steps to sign in.
  • Apple released a beta version of its TestFlight app testing platform to Mac developers for the first time. The beta only worked on macOS Monterey beta 5, which came out on August 10.
  • Apple also released an update to the App Store Connect app, which now allows developers to create multiple TestFlight internal tester groups and configure build access for each one.
  • Apple notified developers that local regulatory changes will require them to add the bank account holder’s address in App Store Connect, which must be done by October 22, 2021 in order to avoid an interruption in payments.
  • Apple launched a new iOS app called “Siri Speech Study” to gather feedback for Siri improvements. The unlisted app was only open to invited participants who choose to share to Apple when Siri gets one of their requests wrong.

Image Credits: App Store screenshot

Google Platform Updates

  • Google announced a change in how ratings and reviews on Google Play will appear to end users. Developers had complained how negative feedback that only affected users in one region could have brought down the rating for all. To address this, starting in November 2021, users on phones will only see ratings specific to their registered country. Then, in early 2022, users on other devices like tablets, Chromebooks and wearables, will see ratings that are only specific to the devices they’re on. Google says changes are rolling out to the Google Play Console which will help developers prepare for the changes, including dimensions like “Device Type” dimensions.

E-commerce

Shopify and TikTok for business with TikTok image of Kylie Jenner

Shopify and TikTok for business with TikTok image of Kylie Jenner. Image Credits: Shopify

  • TikTok and Shopify announced an expansion of their existing partnership to launch a pilot test of “TikTok Shopping” in the U.S., U.K. and Canada. The new service allows Shopify merchants with a TikTok For Business account to add a new “Shopping” tab to their TikTok profiles and sync their product catalogs to create mini-storefronts on their profile. They’ll also be able to tag products with links in videos. When viewers click to purchase, they’re redirected to the Shopify merchant’s website to complete the transaction.
  • Instagram introduced ads on the Instagram Shop tab globally, rolling them out to all countries where the tab is available. Previously, the ads were tested only in the U.S.

Augmented Reality

  • TikTok is building its own AR development platform, which was spotted on a website called TikTok Effect House. The company confirmed the creative toolset is in private beta testing, but characterized it as an early experiment.

Fintech

  • WhatsApp Pay will get more prominent placement in the messaging app. Changes spotted in testing show the WhatsApp Pay shortcut button in between the sticker and camera buttons, making it easier to access.

Social/Creators

  • OnlyFans flip-flopped on its porn ban. Initially, the company said it would ban sexually explicit content on its platform as of October 1 — a decision that was met with much criticism from the sex worker community who relied on the platform for their income. Creators also said they had received no heads-up from the company, which gave them less time to prepare. OnlyFans, meanwhile, blamed its original decision on pressure from banking partners and payout providers. Now, it’s saying it has received “assurances” from these partners that will allow its business to continue as usual. But the situation may have burned up creator goodwill, and some may now choose to move their businesses elsewhere.

Image Credits: Snap Camera Shortcuts

  • Snapchat on Thursday upgraded its two-year-old “Scan” feature which lets people use Snap’s Camera to explore the world around them. The new generation of Scan, which was relocated to be front-and-center in the Snapchat app, will now offer suggestions of different ways to use the Camera, including Camera Shortcuts and shopping features. Camera Shortcuts help people capture a moment by suggesting things like camera modes, Lenses and soundtracks relevant to what is seen through the Camera. Over time, Snap will introduce more Shortcuts, including those for its short-form TikTok competitor, Spotlight. With the update, users can now also tap into their screenshots of items they wanted to buy, then use Scan to find and purchase those outfits through Memories. For instance, you can scan a friend’s outfit then use Screenshop to find similar looks across brands. You can also use Scan with food and ingredients at home to get recipe suggestions. Snap says it sees potential for Scan not only on mobile, but also in its next generation of Spectacles glasses.

Image Credits: Snap Screenshot

  • Instagram head Adam Mosseri announced changes to the app’s search feature on Wednesday. The changes will more prominently feature photos and videos in search results, alongside accounts and hashtags. The move makes Instagram search work more like TikTok’s.
  • Instagram is also ditching the “swipe up” links in Instagram Stories in favor of Link Stickers, starting on August 30. The feature will be available to businesses and creators who are either verified or who have met the threshold for follower count, commonly said to be at least 10,000.
  • TikTok is testing an extended video upload limit of five minutes or more. Some users have gained the ability to upload videos as long as 10 minutes, which indicates TikTok is experimenting with different lengths to gain feedback. The app in December introduced longer videos for the first time with the support for the three-minute video.

Messaging

Image Credits: Messenger

  • Facebook celebrated Messenger’s 10th anniversary with new features that included games, effects, contact sharing and more. The company also confirmed it’s testing an integration that brings Messenger back into the Facebook mobile app, saying that it would give users an easy way to connect with people from where they already are. The company now sees Messenger more as the underlying “connective tissue” between its services, including one day, the metaverse.
  • WhatsApp is working on message reactions, according to a leak from WABetaInfo, which keeps tabs on the app’s newest features. Users who aren’t on the supported version would receive a message telling them to update their app in order to gain the ability to see the message reactions (emoji) that others had sent. It’s not yet known which emoji will be offered as a part of the new feature.

Streaming & Entertainment

Image Credits: Movies Anywhere

  • Digital locker app Movies Anywhere added a new feature that organizes users’ movie libraries into algorithmically generated lists, giving you an easier way to browse your collection by factors like genre, theme, actors, franchise and more.
  • YouTube is rolling out picture-and-picture viewing for all U.S. iPhone users, starting with its Premium subscribers. The feature will allow users to watch videos in a mini player while browsing other apps on their iPhone.
  • YouTube Music finally gets a WearOS version, but only for Samsung’s newest watches — the Galaxy Watch 4 or Galaxy Watch 4 Classic. The watches become available on August 27. Google didn’t say when the app will come to other WearOS devices.
  • Spotify’s Podcasts Subscriptions service opened to all U.S. creators. Using the Anchor app, creators can mark select episodes as subscriber-only content, then publish them to Spotify and other platforms. Since its launch, more than 100 podcasts have adopted subscriptions. The company also expanded the array of price points from three to 20 options to meet creators’ needs.
  • Clubhouse hid the account bios and images of its Afghan users in wake of the Taliban takeover of the country. The change impacted tens of thousands of users, but can be reversed if the user chooses.

Gaming

Netflix tests mobile gaming, netflix app, Android Netflix app

Image Credits: Netflix

  • Netflix began testing mobile games in its Android app in Poland. The streamer, which said recently it would be expanding further into the mobile gaming market, said Poland was a good fit for the initial test because of its active mobile gamer community. The test will see listings for two “Stranger Things”-themed games inside the Netflix app, which direct members to the Google Play store to download. The games then require users’ Netflix credentials to start playing.
  • After backlash from its community, Niantic reinstated the COVID safety and accessibility features it had launched in Pokémon GO during the pandemic, then later removed when it looked like things were getting back to normal (before the Delta surge). It’s unclear why Niantic believed it was the right time to pull the features, which allowed users to social distance while gaming, as they hadn’t impacted game revenues — 2020 was the game’s best ever year to date, earning the AR title over $1 billion. 
  • China’s largest indie game distributor, XD Inc., is planning to introduce its commission-free app store, TapTap, to global markets, Bloomberg reported. The company, which is backed by TikTok owner ByteDance and Alibaba, publishes its own titles to draw users to its app store. But shares of XD have fallen 60% since February over investor concerns about a model that relies on ads instead of commissions.

Health & Fitness

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

  • Amid the Delta surge, downloads for the two top COVID-19 home testing apps in the U.S., BinaxNOW and Ellume, have spiked 134% month-over-month so far in August, after seeing 107% growth in July, according to Sensor Tower.
  • Very few people used the COVID-19 apps powered by Apple and Google’s API in the U.S., an Insider investigation found. Only 2.14% of possible COVID cases were recorded in exposure notification apps across 26 U.S. states. The problem was likely hampered by the fact that launching apps was left up to individual states, instead of being a national effort as with the contact tracing apps built using the API in other markets. Less than half of U.S. states chose not to even build an app in the first place, limiting the tools’ reach further.
  • Google pulled the plug on Streams, a U.K.-based clinician support app which was developed back in 2015 by DeepMind, an AI division of Google. The app had been used by the U.K.’s National Health Service, with a number of NHS Trusts inking deals with DeepMind Health, including London’s Royal Free and Taunton & Somerset. Google says the patient data the app processed will be deleted. 
  • Israel-based air quality measurement service BreezoMeter, which helps power Apple’s Weather app, introduced a new product, Wildfire Tracker. The feature can identify the edges of wildfires in real time using a combination of sensor data, satellite imagery and local eyewitness reports.
  • A reference to Peloton’s unannounced rowing machine was discovered in its app’s code. The code also suggested the app would track things like average and max stroke rates.

Transportation

  • Google is shutting down its Android Auto mobile app, aka “Android Auto for Phone Screens,” starting with Android 12. The company said Google Assistant driving mode will be the built-in mobile driving experience going forward.
  • Telsa released a redesigned iPhone app in its biggest update in many months. The app features new controls, improvement management, new visuals and the choice between two differently sized widgets for your home screen. Among the new features is the ability to now send commands to your car immediately instead of waiting for the vehicle to wake up.
  • Electrify America launched CarPlay and Android Auto apps for finding the nearest EV charging stations across the U.S. Electrify America operates over 650 stations with 2,700 chargers total.

Productivity

Image Credits: Edison

  • Edison’s new email service OnMail has launched a new feature that gives you a break from receiving emails for a temporary period of time or schedule you designate. The “Inbox Break” option lets you pick which accounts to pause and optionally set away messages that automatically reply to emails while you’re on a break.
  • Microsoft confirmed it would next month begin to transition its Android-based Office apps running on Chromebooks to web apps instead. “In an effort to provide the most optimized experience for Chrome OS/Chromebook customers, Microsoft apps (Office and Outlook) will be transitioned to web experiences (Office.com and Outlook.com) on September 18, 2021. This transition brings Chrome OS/Chromebook customers access to additional and premium features,” a spokesperson said.

Utilities

  • Apple Maps expanded its native ratings and photos feature in the U.S. The feature, first introduced in iOS 14, allows users to review places like restaurants, shops and other businesses. In iOS 15, users can also thumb up and down specific factors like food, customer service, atmosphere and more, and can upload photos of their own to the listing.
  • Google Maps is working to add toll prices to help users price their rides. A similar feature is already available in Google’s Waze app.

Government & Policy

Apple app store iOS

Image Credits: TechCrunch

  • South Korea delayed the vote on a landmark bill that would prevent Apple and Google from forcibly charging commissions on in-app purchases within apps. If approved, developers would be able to offer alternative payment systems inside their apps. The bill, the first of its kind globally, was supposed to see a final vote on Wed., August 25, but was tentatively delayed until August 30, according to media reports. Apple has pushed back on the bill saying it will put users at risk of fraud and privacy violations.
  • Chinese regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), on Friday proposed new guidelines that aim to forbid companies from deploying algorithms that “encourage addiction or high consumption” and endanger national security or disrupt the public order. Services also can’t create fake accounts or create other false impressions. And users will be able to turn off algorithmic recommendations. The rules appear to target companies like ByteDance, Alibaba Group, Tencent, Didi and others whose services have been built on top of proprietary algorithms. CAC will take public feedback about the guidelines through September 26.

Security & Privacy

  • A report from MDM company Jamf uncovered the most commonly requested iOS permissions by analyzing a sample of nearly 100,000 apps from 2.5 million Wandera customers. The most common were Photos, Camera, Location and Microphone access, it found.
  • An investigation by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP) found holes in the App Store’s child safety measures, noting it was too easy for kids and teens to access adult apps, due to lack of protections built into the apps themselves. However, the study didn’t enable parental controls which is the tools parents would presumably use to keep kids from accessing adult apps.

Funding and M&A

? Design and editing app Picsart raised $130 million Series C led by Softbank with participation from Sequoia, GSquared, Tribe Capital, Graph Ventures and Siguler Guff & Company. The round values Picsart at a near $1.5 billion valuation. The app has over 1 billion installs across 180 countries and more than 150 million MAUs.

? Mexican fintech Flink raised a $57 million Series B round of funding led by Lightspeed Venture Partners. The app allows consumers to participate in the stock market, and has grown to 1.6 million users, 85% of whom are first-time investors.

? African mobile payments platform OPay raised $400 million in funding led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2, with participation from existing investors Sequoia Capital China, Redpoint China, Source Code Capital and Softbank Ventures Asia. The round values the business at $2 billion.

?  Meditation app Headspace announced plans to merge with on-demand mental health service Ginger, valuing the combined business of $3 billion with a headcount of more than 800.

? London-based EV charging platform Bonnet raised $1.3 million (£920,000 total in new funding, including £850,000 in an equity financing round led by Ascension Ventures, with investors from Imperial College London and APX. It also won an additional £70,000 grant from Innovate UK and OZEV. The app gives drivers real-time data on charger availability and functionality and seller bundles of cheaper charging, which can be used across the network.

? European stock trading app Shares raised $10 million in a pre-product seed round led by Singular for its app that would allow users to trade 1,500 stocks without paying fees, as well as start conversations with friends and learn from experts.

? Tencent has entered advanced stages of talks to lead a new $20-35 million investment round in Gurgaon-headquartered podcasts and audiobooks app Pocket FM. The terms being discussed would value the three-year-old company around $75-$100 million.

?Estonia-based grocery delivery app Membo, which serves a European audience, snagged Y Combinator backing and will present during the incubator’s Summer 2021 Demo Day next week.

Reading Recs

  • A decade and a half of instability: The history of Google messaging apps. Sixteen years after the launch of Google Talk, Ars Technica analyzes everything that went wrong — and continues to go wrong — across Google’s messaging app strategy. “…no single company has ever failed at something this badly, for this long, with this many different products,” the article snipes, before introducing the long table of contents to its many sections, each detailing the fate of an individual app. The article concludes that no one seems to be in charge of the company’s overarching messaging app strategy, as messaging isn’t treated as one of the key pillars alongside others like Search, Gmail, Chrome, Android, Docs, Maps and YouTube.

Downloads

Popcorn

A new startup called Popcorn wants to make work communication more fun and personal by offering a way for users to record short video messages, or “pops,” that can be used for any number of purposes in place of longer emails, texts, Slack messages or Zoom calls. While there are plenty of other places to record short-form video these days, most of these exist in the social media space, which isn’t appropriate for a work environment. With Popcorn, you can instead create a short video and then send a URL to that video anywhere you would want to add a personal touch to your message — like for outreach on LinkedIn or a quick check-in with a colleague, for example. The app is currently a free download on iPhone, iPad and Mac. (Read the full review here on TechCrunch.)

Luma

A new iPad drawing app called Luma connects the screen with real-world play by allowing kids (or anyone) to attach paper to their iPad then trace the lit-up drawing using a pen or pencil. Each drawing will connect to the previous one and can be colored in however the user sees fit. As kids draw, they’ll bring an audio story to life for a more immersive and creative experience. The app was built by Jonathan Wegener (Timehop co-founder, Snapchat designer), Bernardo Nunez (YouTube), Jeffrey Neafsey (Microsoft, Apple), Britt Hatzius and Ant Hampton. It’s backed by the founders of YouTube, Oculus, Eventbrite, Tumblr, HQ Trivia, Google Photos, Venmo, Tinder and more.

LOVE

Image Credits: LOVE

A London-headquartered startup called LOVE, valued at $17 million following its pre-seed funding, aims to redefine how people stay in touch with close family and friends. The company is launching a messaging app that offers a combination of video calling as well as asynchronous video and audio messaging, in an ad-free, privacy-focused experience with a number of bells and whistles, including artistic filters and real-time transcription and translation features. But LOVE’s bigger differentiator may not be its product alone, but rather the company’s mission. LOVE aims for its product direction to be guided by its user base in a democratic fashion as opposed to having the decisions made about its future determined by an elite few at the top of some corporate hierarchy. In addition, the company’s longer-term goal is ultimately to hand over ownership of the app and its governance to its users. (Read the full review here on TechCrunch.)

#android, #app-stores, #apple, #apps, #developers, #google, #iap, #ios, #lawsuit, #mobile, #mobile-apps, #payments, #settlement, #tc, #this-week-in-apps

Apple will now let App Store developers talk to their customers about buying direct

Apple announced today it has reached a proposed settlement (embedded below) in a lawsuit filed against it by developers in the United States. The agreement, which is still pending court approval, includes a few changes, the biggest one being that developers will be able to share information on how to pay for purchases outside of their iOS app or the App Store—which means they can tell customers about payment options that aren’t subject to Apple commissions. The settlement also includes more pricing tiers and a new transparency report about the app review process.

The class-action lawsuit was filed against Apple in 2019 by app developers Donald Cameron and Illinois Pure Sweat Basketball, who said the company engaged in anticompetitive practices by only allowing the downloading of iPhone apps through its App Store.

In today’s announcement, Apple said it is “clarifying that developers can use communications, such as emails, to share information about payment methods outside of their iOS app. As always, developers will not pay Apple a commission on any purchases taking place outside of their app or the App Stores.”

This would allow developers to communicate with customers by email and “other communication services,” which was difficult to do under the App Store’s rules, which forbid developers from using contact information obtained within an app to contact users outside of the app. The settlement would lift this rule for all app categories, enabling developers to tell consenting users about payment methods that avoid Apple’s commissions.

In terms of pricing tiers, Apple said it will expand the number of price points available to developers from fewer than 100 to more than 500. It also agreed to publish a new annual transparency report that will share information about the app review process, including how many apps are rejected, the number of customer and developer accounts deactivated, “objective data regarding search queries and results,” and the number of apps removed from the App Store.

The company also said it will create a new fund for qualifying developers in America who earned $1 million or less through the U.S. App Store, which includes 99% of developers in America. Hagens Berman, one of the law firms representing plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the fund will be $100 million, with payments ranging from $250 to $30,000.

Cameron et al v. Apple Inc. proposed settlement by TechCrunch on Scribd

#anti-competition, #app-store, #apple, #apple-app-store, #developers, #lawsuit, #tc

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin goes toe to toe with NASA in federal court over award to SpaceX

Blue Origin, the space company helmed by billionaire Jeff Bezos, is taking NASA to court. The company filed a complaint with a federal claims court on Monday over the agency’s decision to award a lunar lander contract solely to rival company SpaceX.

The complaint, which Blue Origin successfully petitioned to have sealed, says NASA’s evaluation of proposals for the the Human Landing System was “unlawful and improper.”

“Blue Origin filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in an attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System,” a company spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We firmly believe that the issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition, and ensure a safe return to the Moon for America.”

The Human Landing System, a key part of NASA’s forthcoming Artemis program, is the lander that will return humans to the moon’s surface for the first time since the days of Apollo. NASA aims to have the human lander touching down at the lunar south pole in 2024.

In April, NASA awarded the HLS contract to a single company – SpaceX, which submitted a $2.9 billion bid. That NASA selected only one company, rather than two, was a surprise (the agency likes to hedge its bets). Only a few weeks later, Blue Origin and defense contractor Dynetics, which also submitted a bid for the lander program, filed separate protests with the Government Accountability Office over the decision. GAO later upheld NASA’s decision, maintaining that “the [contract] announcement reserved the right to make multiple awards, a single award, or no award at all.”

(Read a blow-by-blow of GAO’s rationale by TechCrunch’s Devin Coldewey here).

When GAO released its decision, it seemed like that might have been case closed: SpaceX won, Blue Origin lost. This new lawsuit, filed to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, is a clear signal that Jeff Bezos’ company has no intention of backing down.

If a federal court filing represents Blue Origin’s buttoned-up protests, the company has also been waging a separate attack on social media, releasing a series of infographics aimed at discrediting SpaceX’s Starship and NASA’s decision to use it for moon missions.

On one infographic, referring to Starship, the words “IMMENSELY COMPLEX & HIGH RISK” blaze across the image in red; another described it as “a launch vehicle that has never flown to orbit and is still being designed.”

The case number is 1:21-cv-01695-RAH. TechCrunch has reached out to NASA for comment and will update the story if they respond.

#aerospace, #artemis-program, #blue-origin, #elon-musk, #jeff-bezos, #lawsuit, #nasa, #space, #spacex, #starship

Archer Aviation is seeking $1B in damages from Wisk Aero as legal dispute escalates

Archer Aviation is seeking $1 billion in damages from Wisk Aero, according to court filings Tuesday, significantly escalating the ongoing legal battle between the two air taxi rivals.

Wisk “deployed a knowingly false extra-judicial smear campaign that projected stand-alone defamatory statements about Archer to the world,” the filing says. On this basis, Archer claims that this “smear campaign” has negatively impacted its ability to access capital and has impaired business relationships, resulting in damages “likely to exceed $1 billion.”

The two companies have been locked in a heated legal battle for much of this year. The dispute started in April, when Wisk filed a suit with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California claiming that Archer had misappropriated its trade secrets related to Wisk’s debut eVTOL aircraft, Cora. Wisk further alleged that a former employee, Jing Xue, downloaded thousands of proprietary files from his work computer prior to joining Archer.

This is not the first time that Archer has hit back against the accusations in court. First it filed a motion to dismiss the suit in early June, and later that month alleged in a separate court document that Archer’s design was well-established prior to Wisk’s having filed any patents with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Archer unveiled a prototype of its Maker aircraft in February, the same month that it announced (to much fanfare) it was going public via a merger with blank-check firm Atlas Crest Investment Corp. for a pro-forma enterprise value of $2.7 billion. Late last month Archer slashed its valuation by $1 billion in a “strategic reset” of the transaction terms with the SPAC. While this is the same amount Archer is seeking in damages, a company spokesperson told TechCrunch that is just coincidental.

In addition, the spokesperson added that the planned merger remains on track. Speaking to the suit, they said, “We have no plans to drop our counter-claim regardless of any moves Wisk may make.”

A Wisk spokesperson said “Archer’s counterclaim is ludicrous and its troubles are purely self-inflicted,” and characterized the filing as “full of distortions and distractions from the serious patent and trade secret misappropriation claims it faces.” The spokesperson added that Wisk intends to continue its case against Archer.

#aerospace, #air-taxis, #archer-aviation, #evtol, #lawsuit, #transportation, #urban-air-mobility, #wisk-aero

Dominion Voting files scorching $1.7B defamation lawsuits against Newsmax, OAN

OAN-branded microphone in the hand of a longhaired reporter.

Enlarge (credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Dominion Voting Systems filed another round of lawsuits today, alleging that the company was defamed by conservative news channels Newsmax and One America News Network when they aired segments that claimed the 202 US election was rigged. Dominion also filed a defamation suit against Patrick Byrne, the founder and former CEO of Overstock.com, who has peddled election-fraud conspiracy theories.

In each lawsuit, Dominion is seeking more than $1.7 billion in damages for lost profits and expenses incurred by the election-rigging claims. The new lawsuits come on top of several more filed earlier this year against other parties, including Fox News, Rudy Giuliani, and Sidney Powell, who are all defending themselves.

Dominion’s lawyers didn’t pull any punches in today’s filing.

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#2020-election, #defamation, #dominion-voting-systems, #lawsuit, #newsmax, #oan, #oann, #policy

Blizzard president ends 16-year tenure amid lawsuit fallout

Brack promoting <em>World of Warcraft</em> onstage at Blizzcon 2017.

Enlarge / Brack promoting World of Warcraft onstage at Blizzcon 2017. (credit: Blizzard)

Blizzard President J. Allen Brack, who was recently named in a California state discrimination and harassment lawsuit against the company, is leaving “to pursue new opportunities,” the company announced this morning.

In his place, Blizzard Executive VPs Mike Ybarra (a former long-time Xbox executive) and Jen Oneal (formerly head of Vicarious Visions) will serve as studio co-leads starting today. Both have long histories in the game industry but joined Blizzard’s executive team relatively recently—Ybarra in 2019 and Oneal earlier this year, when Vicarious Vision merged into Blizzard. Brack had been at Blizzard for nearly 16 years, including eight as an executive and three as president of the company. Before that, he worked on games like Wing Commander and Star Wars Galaxies.

“I am confident that Jen Oneal and Mike Ybarra will provide the leadership Blizzard needs to realize its full potential and will accelerate the pace of change,” Brack said in a statement. “I anticipate they will do so with passion and enthusiasm and that they can be trusted to lead with the highest levels of integrity and commitment to the components of our culture that make Blizzard so special.”

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#activision, #blizzard, #gaming-culture, #lawsuit

Valve issues scathing reply over the facts behind a Steam antitrust case

Valve issues scathing reply over the facts behind a Steam antitrust case

Enlarge (credit: Getty / Aurich Lawson)

Valve has issued a scathing response to Wolfire’s April lawsuit alleging anticompetitive monopoly practices on the Steam storefront. In that response, Valve argues that the suit should be dismissed because it “fails to allege the most basic elements of an antitrust case.”

There’s no right to free Steam keys

Wolfire’s case centers in part on the fact that Valve requires free Steam Keys generated by developers using Valve’s platform to be sold on other platforms at prices no lower than those offered on Steam. But Valve argues multiple times in its filing that it has “no obligation to distribute Steam Keys, let alone to allow developers to use Steam Keys to undercut their Steam prices in other stores.”

The free key system, Valve says, is intended as a way to “[give] developers a free way to sell (or give away) a reasonable number of copies of their Steam-enabled games.” With that in mind, restrictions on off-Steam pricing for those keys “prevents developers from free-riding on Valve’s investment in Steam.” The pricing and quantity guidelines “prevent developers from eroding large quantities of sales on Steam, which Valve bears 100% of the expense of creating and maintaining, yet provides to users for free.”

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#gaming-culture, #lawsuit, #steam, #valve, #wolfire

Scarlett Johansson files suit over Disney+ ‘Black Widow’ release

With Scarlett Johansson’s time as an Avenger seemingly in the rearview, the “Black Widow” star has filed a breach of contract suit against Marvel-owner Disney. The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court this week, alleges that the studio breached its agreement with the star when it released the film on Disney+ alongside its theatrical debut.

“As Ms. Johansson, Disney, Marvel, and most everyone else in Hollywood knows, a ‘theatrical release’ is a release that is exclusive to movie theatres,” the filing writes, matter of factly. “Disney was well aware of this promise, but nonetheless directed Marvel to violate its pledge and instead release the Picture on the Disney+ streaming service the very same day it was released in movie theatres.”

The pandemic has fundamentally transformed the way first-run movies are delivered and consumed — at least in the short term. In 2020, Disney and other studios opted to release films straight to streaming, rather than suffer perpetual delays and poor box office numbers as restrictions closed the non-essential business of movie theaters. More recently they’ve split the difference as movie theaters have reopened, offering same day streaming.

According to a copy of the suit obtained by TechCrunch, Johansson’s concerns about streaming services pre-date the pandemic. When Disney launched the streaming service Disney+, the suit claims, Johansson’s representatives sought assurances from Disney/Marvel that the Black Widow solo film would still get a theatrical release, in spite of the company’s bids to boost subscription numbers.

It cites an email with Marvel’s chief counsel from May of that year:

We totally understand that Scarlett’s willingness to do the film and her whole deal is based on the premise that the film would be widely theatrically released like our other pictures. We understand that should the plan change, we would need to discuss this with you and come to an understanding as the deal is based on a series of (very large) box office bonuses.

“It’s no secret that Disney is releasing films like “Black Widow” directly onto Disney+ to increase subscribers and thereby boost the company’s stock price — and that it’s hiding behind COVID-19 as a pretext to do so,” the actress’s attorney John Berlinski said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “But ignoring the contracts of the artists responsible for the success of its films in furtherance of this short-sighted strategy violates their rights and we look forward to proving as much in court. This will surely not be the last case where Hollywood talent stands up to Disney and makes it clear that, whatever the company may pretend, it has a legal obligation to honor its contracts.”

The statement accuses Disney of “hiding behind COVID-19,” though certainly the studio wasn’t alone in rethinking its release strategy over the past year. The question remains whether the pandemic will serve as sufficient extenuating circumstances for its release decisions. The outcome of the trial, meanwhile, could well have a profound effect on how studios release blockbusters post-pandemic.

We’ve reached out to Disney for comment and will update accordingly.

#apps, #black-widow, #disney, #entertainment, #lawsuit, #marvel, #scarlett-johansson

Judge denies Wisk Aero’s request for preliminary injunction against Archer Aviation

Electric aviation startup Wisk Aero’s request for a preliminary injunction against rival Archer Aviation was denied by a federal judge Thursday, the latest in an ongoing legal battle over whether Archer stole trade secrets in developing its flagship Maker aircraft.

A full written opinion has not yet been published. In a tentative ruling filed earlier this week, Judge William Orrick said Wisk’s “evidence of misappropriation is too equivocal to warrant a preliminary injunction.” Wisk filed for the injunction in May; if it had been approved, it would have effectively put an immediate halt to Archer’s operations.

Wisk submitted to the court 52 trade secrets it alleges were stolen and used by Archer, and the injunction would have prevented Archer from using any of them until a final decision was issued in the suit. It’s an extraordinary request and it makes sense that Orrick would need to see more certain evidence of misappropriation.

“There are some arguable indications of misappropriation, but given how equivocal the evidence is, Wisk is not entitled to the extraordinary remedy of an injunction,” Orrick said in the tentative ruling. “Because the merits are so uncertain, Wisk has also not adequately shown irreparable injury based on misappropriation. And the balance of hardships favors Archer because, without solid evidence of misappropriation, an injunction would gravely threaten its business.”

Wisk says the judge’s decision on the injunction has no bearing on the outcome of the case “and does not exonerate Archer in the least.”

“We brought this lawsuit based on strong indications of theft and use of Wisk’s IP, and the initial limited evidence gathered through the court process to date only confirms our belief that Archer’s misappropriation of Wisk’s trade secrets is widespread and pervades Archer’s aircraft development,” Wisk continued. “Following today’s ruling, Wisk will be allowed to begin collecting evidence in earnest.”

Wisk was established in 2019 as a joint venture between Kitty Hawk and Boeing, but its history with electric aviation stretches back much further. The company was originally founded in 2010 as Levt, which eventually merged with sister company Kitty Hawk. Wisk says it (as Kitty Hawk) zeroed in on a fixed-wing, 12-rotor design in 2016. It’s this design that’s the centerpiece of its debut aircraft, Cora.

Archer, by contrast, is newer to the field. Much of Wisk’s original complaint, filed in April, is predicated on the speed with which Archer is bringing its air taxi service to market. Archer also recruited many former Wisk engineers — including former employee Jing Xue, whom Wisk says downloaded nearly 5,000 files before his departure from the company, which it alleges he handed over to Archer.

When he was cross-examined, Xue pled the Fifth Amendment, invoking his right to not self-incriminate, citing an ongoing federal investigation.

Archer says Wisk has not brought forward any substantive evidence of the central claim of the lawsuit: that Archer received and used Wisk trade secrets. Wisk’s allegations are based on “conspiracy theories and outright misrepresentations,” Archer’s Deputy General Counsel Eric Lentell said.

“It is clear to us from Wisk’s actions in this case that after recognizing Archer’s momentum and pace of innovation, Wisk began abusing the judicial and criminal justice system in an attempt to slow us down to compensate for its own lack of success,” Archer co-founders Brett Adcock and Adam Goldstein said.

The court will hold a scheduling conference on August 11, where the judge will outline next steps for the case. A date for the trial has not been set.

The case is filed in the California Northern District Court under case no. 3:2021cv02450.

#aerospace, #archer-aviation, #aviation, #evtol, #lawsuit, #tc, #transportation, #urban-air-mobility, #wisk-aero

Activision Blizzard sued by state agency over alleged widespread discrimination

Sign on facade of Activision's Los Angeles offices.

Enlarge / Sign on facade of Activision’s Los Angeles offices. (credit: Getty Images)

On Wednesday, a California State agency filed a lawsuit against the game publisher Activision Blizzard over allegations of rampant sexual discrimination and sexual harassment. The nature of this harassment is so widespread, the lawsuit claims, that women who have worked for the game maker “almost universally confirmed that working for Defendants was akin to working in a frat house”—which, according to this lawsuit, means a workplace full of inebriated men who sexually harassed their female colleagues sans punishment.

The 29-page lawsuit claims that across the entire corporation, pay disparity led to women receiving “less total compensation than their male counterparts while performing substantially similar work.” It includes multiple alleged examples of Activision Blizzard slowing promotions for women in favor of male counterparts, even when those women had longer tenures and a superior review record at the company, and added that women of color were “particularly targets of Defendants’ discriminatory practices.” And it described an office environment where inebriated men sexually harassed their female colleagues without being punished.

A direct report to Blizzard’s president

The full lawsuit includes a lengthy list of violations of both sexual discrimination and sexual harassment, including many that single out unnamed Activision Blizzard staffers, and they range from explicit to repugnant. The lawsuit describes one particularly extreme example of alleged harassment—and says the sufferer eventually took her own life.

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#activision-blizzard, #blizzard-entertainment, #gaming-culture, #lawsuit, #policy, #sexual-discrimination, #sexual-harassment

Delta stole its pilot’s messaging app, should pay $1 billion, lawsuit alleges

Delta stole its pilot’s messaging app, should pay $1 billion, lawsuit alleges

Enlarge (credit: Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket )

A pilot for Delta Airlines is suing his own company for $1 billion, alleging that it stole an app he created.

Captain Craig Alexander, an 11-year veteran who flies 757s, developed a messaging app called QrewLive that facilitated flight crew communications. He says he pitched the app to Delta management, who, after allegedly expressing interest, ultimately turned him down before releasing a similar app of its own.

Alexander says he worked on the project on his own time and spent $100,000 of his own money to create the app. He says he had several meetings with Delta about the app in 2015 and 2016 in which executives allegedly showed interest in acquiring the software. After 2016, though, Delta stopped communicating with Alexander about the app, and in April 2018, the airline released its own app, called Flight Family Communications.

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#airlines, #delta, #employment-law, #lawsuit, #messaging-app, #policy, #theft-of-trade-secrets

Elon Musk defends Tesla’s $2.6B acquisition of SolarCity in Delaware court

Elon Musk is testifying Monday morning in a lawsuit over Tesla’s 2016 acquisition of SolarCity, a $2.6 billion transaction that a group of shareholders allege was a “bailout” of the failing solar company. The shareholders are seeking repayment to Tesla of the cost to purchase SolarCity.

The suit, filed in the Delaware District Court in 2017, alleges that SolarCity was near bankruptcy at the time of the acquisition. Musk, who was the ailing company’s chairman of the board of directors and its largest stockholder, directly benefited from the transaction, as did some of his friends and family, the lawsuit alleges. SolarCity’s founders, Lyndon and Peter Rive, are Musk’s cousins.

SolarCity “had consistently failed to turn a profit, had mounting debt, and was burning through cash at an unsustainable rate,” the plaintiffs say. The suit goes on to note that the company had accumulated over $3 billion in debt in its ten-year history, nearly half of which was due for repayment before the end of 2017. The purchase by Tesla was approved by vote by 85% of shareholders.

Attorneys for Musk say that the acquisition was part of the CEO’s longer-term vision to transform Tesla into a transportation and energy company. In a blog post titled “Master Plan, Part Deux,” published to Tesla’s website around the time of the deal’s closing, Musk says that combining SolarCity and the electric vehicle startup was key to realizing his vision of combining Powerwall (Tesla’s home and industry battery storage product) and solar roof panels.

A Model X stood ready for inspection by attendees at the Kauai solar storage facility launch. Tesla acquired SolarCity in November 2016. 

In his testimony Monday, Musk said Tesla was forced to shift focus away from its solar business to meet production deadlines for the Model 3 sedan, the Washington Post’s Will Oremus tweeted from outside the courtroom. USA Today reporter Isabel Hughes, also at the courtroom, tweeted that Musk blamed the pandemic for poor performance of the company’s solar division. He was being questioned by attorney for the plaintiffs Randall Baron, whom Musk called “a shameful person” at a 2019 deposition.

Musk’s lawyers say that he recused himself from board discussions and negotiations relating to the acquisition – but the plaintiffs maintain that the recusal was “superficial.” A primary question for the court will be whether Musk exerted undue influence over the transaction, and whether he and other board members concealed information relating to the transaction from shareholders.

The other board members named in the suit – Robyn Denholm, Ira Ehrenpreis, Antonio Gracias, Kimbal Musk and Stephen Jurvetson – settled for $60 million last year, plus $16.8 million in legal fees and expenses, paid for by insurance. The trial, with Musk as the sole defendant, was postponed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The trial is expected to last ten business days. The Delaware Court of Chancery, where the suit is being heard, does not have a jury; instead, the case will be heard by judge Vice-Chancellor Joseph Slights III. Even if Slights finds that the deal was improper, he could order Musk to pay far less than the $2.6 billion that Tesla paid for SolarCity at the time.

#automotive, #elon-musk, #lawsuit, #powerwall, #solarcity, #tesla, #transportation

Google “bought off Samsung” to limit app store competition, 36 states allege

Google “bought off Samsung” to limit app store competition, 36 states allege

Enlarge (credit: Andri Koolme / Flickr)

Yesterday, dozens of state attorneys general sued Google on antitrust grounds, alleging that the company worked to “preemptively quash” competing app stores (most notably the Samsung Galaxy Store) and maintain its monopoly on Android app distribution.

The lawsuit alleges that Google engaged in a range of anticompetitive practices, including offering large app developers profit-sharing agreements in exchange for exclusivity, creating unnecessary hurdles for sideloading, and attempting “to buy off Samsung to limit competition from the Samsung Galaxy app store.”

Google says the lawsuit is “meritless.” “It’s strange that a group of state attorneys general chose to file a lawsuit attacking a system that provides more openness and choice than others,” Wilson White, Google’s senior director of public policy, wrote in a blog post. 

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#android, #antitrust, #google, #google-play-store, #lawsuit, #policy, #samsung

Dutch court will hear another Facebook privacy lawsuit

Privacy litigation that’s being brought against Facebook by two not-for-profits in the Netherlands can go ahead, an Amsterdam court has ruled. The case will be heard in October.

Since 2019, the Amsterdam-based Data Privacy Foundation (DPS) has been seeking to bring a case against Facebook over its rampant collection of Internet users’ data — arguing the company does not have a proper legal basis for the processing.

It has been joined in the action by the Dutch consumer protection not-for-profit, Consumentenbond.

The pair are seeking redress for Facebook users in the Netherlands for alleged violations of their privacy rights — both by suing for compensation for individuals; and calling for Facebook to end the privacy-hostile practices.

European Union law allows for collective redress across a number of areas, including data protection rights, enabling qualified entities to bring representative actions on behalf of rights holders. And the provision looks like an increasingly important tool for furthering privacy enforcement in the bloc, given how European data protection regulators’ have continued to lack uniform vigor in upholding rights set out in legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation (which, despite coming into application in 2018, has yet to be seriously applied against platform giants like Facebook).

Returning to the Dutch litigation, Facebook denies any abuse and claims it respects user privacy and provides people with “meaningful control” over how their data gets exploited.

But it has fought the litigation by seeking to block it on procedural grounds — arguing for the suit to be tossed by claiming the DPS does not fit the criteria for bringing a privacy claim on behalf of others and that the Amsterdam court has no jurisdiction as its European business is subject to Irish, rather than Dutch, law.

However the Amsterdam District Court rejected its arguments, clearing the way for the litigation to proceed.

Contacted for comment on the ruling, a Facebook spokesperson told us:

“We are currently reviewing the Court’s decision. The ruling was about the procedural part of the case, not a finding on the merits of the action, and we will continue to defend our position in court. We care about our users in the Netherlands and protecting their privacy is important to us. We build products to help people connect with people and content they care about while honoring their privacy choices. Users have meaningful control over the data that they share on Facebook and we provide transparency around how their data is used. We also offer people tools to access, download, and delete their information and we are committed to the principles of GDPR.”

In a statement today, the Consumentenbond‘s director, Sandra Molenaar, described the ruling as “a big boost for the more than 10 million victims” of Facebook’s practices in the country.

“Facebook has tried to throw up all kinds of legal hurdles and to delay this case as much as possible but fortunately the company has not succeeded. Now we can really get to work and ensure that consumers get what they are entitled to,” she added in the written remarks (translated from Dutch with Google Translate).

In another supporting statement, Dick Bouma, chairman of DPS, added: “This is a nice and important first step for the court. The ruling shows that it pays to take a collective stand against tech giants that violate privacy rights.”

The two not-for-profits are urging Facebook users in the Netherlands to sign up to be part of the representative action (and potentially receive compensation) — saying more than 185,000 people have registered so far.

The suit argues that Facebook users are ‘paying’ for the ‘free’ service with their data — contending the tech giant does not have a valid legal basis to process people’s information because it has not provided users with comprehensive information about the data it is gathering from and on them, nor what it does with it.

So — in essence — the argument is that Facebook’s tracking and targeting is in breach of EU privacy law.

The legal challenge follows an earlier investigation (back in 2014) of Facebook’s business by the Dutch data protection authority which identified problems with its privacy policy and — in a 2017 report — found the company to be processing users’ data without their knowledge or consent.

However, since 2018, Europe’s GDPR has been in application and a ‘one-stop-shop’ mechanism baked into the regulation — to streamline the handling of cross-border cases — has meant complaints against Facebook have been funnelled through Ireland’s Data Protection Commission. The Irish DPC has yet to issue a single decision against Facebook despite receiving scores of complaints. (And it’s notable that  ‘forced consent‘ complaints were filed against Facebook the day GDPR begun being applied — yet still remain undecided by Ireland.)

The GDPR’s enforcement bottleneck makes collective redress actions, such as this one in the Netherlands a potentially important route for Europeans to get rights relief against powerful platforms which seek to shrink the risk of regulatory enforcement via forum shopping.

Although national rules — and courts’ interpretations of them — can vary. So the chance of litigation succeeding is not uniform.

In this case, the Amsterdam court allowed the suit to proceed on the grounds that the Facebook data subjects in question reside in the Netherlands.

It also took the view that a local Facebook corporate entity in the Netherlands is an establishment of Facebook Ireland, among other reasons for rejecting Facebook’s arguments.

How Facebook will seek to press a case against the substance of the Dutch privacy litigation remains to be seen. It may well have other procedural strategies up its sleeve.

The tech giant has used similar stalling tactics against far longer-running privacy litigation in Austria, for example.

In that case, brought by privacy campaigner Max Schrems and his not-for-profit noyb, Facebook has sought to claim that the GDPR’s consent requirements do not apply to its advertising business because it now includes “personalized advertising” in its T&Cs — and therefore has a ‘duty’ to provide privacy-hostile ads to users — seeking to bypass the GDPR by claiming it must process users’ data because it’s “necessary for the performance of a contract”, as noyb explains here.

A court in Vienna accepted this “GDPR consent bypass” sleight-of-hand, dealing a blow to European privacy campaigners.

But an appeal reached the Austrian Supreme Court in March — and a referral could be made to Europe’s top court.

If that happens it would then be up to the CJEU to weigh in whether such a massive loophole in the EU’s flagship data protection framework should really be allowed to stand. But that process could still take over a year or longer.

In the short term, the result is yet more delay for Europeans trying to exercise their rights against platform giants and their in-house armies of lawyers.

In a more positive development for privacy rights, a recent ruling by the CJEU bolstered the case for data protection agencies across the EU to bring actions against tech giants if they see an urgent threat to users — and believe a lead supervisor is failing to act.

That ruling could help unblock some GDPR enforcement against the most powerful tech companies at the regulatory level, potentially reducing the blockages created by bottlenecks such as Ireland.

Facebook’s EU-to-US data flows are also now facing the possibility of a suspension order in a matter of months — related to another piece of litigation brought by Schrems which hinges on the conflict between EU fundamental rights and US surveillance law.

The CJEU weighed in on that last summer with a judgement that requires regulators like Ireland to act when user data is at risk. (And Germany’s federal data protection commissioner, for instance, has warned government bodies to shut their official Facebook pages ahead of planned enforcement action at the start of next year.)

So while Facebook has been spectacularly successful at kicking Europe’s privacy rights claims down the road, for well over a decade, its strategy of legal delay tactics to shield a privacy-hostile business model could finally hit a geopolitical brick wall.

The tech giant has sought to lobby against this threat to its business by suggesting it might switch off its service in Europe if the regulator follows through on a preliminary suspension order last year.

But it has also publicly denied it would actually follow through and close service in Europe.

How might Facebook actually comply if ordered to cut off EU data flows? Schrems has argued it may need to federate its service and store European users’ data inside the EU in order to comply with the eponymous Schrems II CJEU ruling.

Albeit, Facebook has certainly shown itself adept at exploiting the gaps between Europeans’ on-paper rights, national case law and the various EU and Member State institutions involved in oversight and enforcement as a tactic to defend its commercial priorities — playing different players and pushing agendas to further its business interests. So whether any single piece of EU privacy litigation will prove to be the silver bullet that forces a reboot of its privacy-hostile business model very much remains to be seen.

A perhaps more likely scenario is that each of these cases further erodes user trust in Facebook’s services — reducing people’s appetite to use its apps and expanding opportunities for rights-respecting competitors to poach custom by offering something better. 

 

#amsterdam, #austria, #data-protection, #data-protection-commission, #digital-rights, #europe, #european-union, #facebook, #general-data-protection-regulation, #germany, #human-rights, #ireland, #lawsuit, #max-schrems, #netherlands, #noyb, #privacy, #surveillance-law, #vienna