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Google sued by US states over alleged Google Play Store monopoly

Even while the row between Apple and Epic Games remains unresolved, the other big app store will soon get its time under the legal spotlight. It’s really no surprise that Google would eventually be the target of an antitrust lawsuit but the bigger question is if it will be able to stick. As many as 36 states in the US have finally filed a complaint alleging that Google used its position to impose a 30% tax from developers on Google Play Store.

The 30% cut that app store owners get has been the subject of much controversy and even legal actions for the past years, but things didn’t come to a head until Epic Games made its bold move to try and bypass those fees for Fortnite in-app purchases. That set off a chain of events that ended up with Apple and the gaming giant in court. It may have also nudged other digital content store owners to adjust their fees or offer other incentives to pacify developers and regulators.

Google hasn’t exactly changed its tune, although it did start a new tier for developers earning less than $1 million per year. Google Play Store still retains a 30% cut for app and in-app purchases, and a new lawsuit puts that business practice in a slightly different light.

According to the complaint, Google used its position and resources to pay off manufacturers like Samsung from developing a competing app store. It allegedly also paid developers to discourage them from distributing their Android app anywhere else other than Google Play Store. This situation led to conflated prices for consumers buying apps, according to the state attorneys general.

One critical difference between Apple’s situation and Google’s is that Google Play Store isn’t the only app store available. The presence of Amazon’s Appstore and Samsung’s own Galaxy Store, and the ability to sideload apps on Android could weaken the states’ case a bit. That said, it doesn’t clear Google of anti-competitive practices that could still leave competing app stores at a disadvantage.

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Map reveals which states spend the most money on July 4th fireworks

Zippia, a career website, has a fun bit of research for the Independence Day holiday: which states spend the most money on fireworks, at least based on population and firework imports. The list is a bit surprising — Texas, for example, doesn’t make the Top Ten list despite its popular association with independence and firepower.

The research is a basic, yet fun look into the fireworks habit of each state in the US. Though many states, counties, and cities have their own regulations involving the use of fireworks at home, including which products are allowed and whether they can be set off in residential areas, people tend to blow them up regardless and enforcement is typically reserved to cases of reckless behavior.

Based on US trade Census data on firework imports for each state, as well as US Census data on state populations, it turns out that Missouri collectively spends the most on fireworks for the 4th of July, followed by neighboring states Nebraska and Kansas. Alabama ranks #4 on the list, followed by South Carolina, Wyoming, Nevada, North Dakota, Indiana, and Ohio at 10th place.

The states that seem to enjoy the least amounts of fireworks, at least based on import data, include Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, California, Oregon, Louisiana, and New York. This is likely due to local laws that reduce how many fireworks are imported, but keep in mind that many people near borders will cross state lines to purchase their goods in another state, then drive the products back to their home state.

While fireworks are a lot of fun, they’re also dangerous, and not just because you may accidentally lose a finger if the fuse is too short. A recent study found that the amount of risky fine particulate matter in the air increases sharply the week before Independence Day and remains that way the week after the holiday, at least in Calfornia, putting public health at risk.

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Google’s AI reservation service Duplex is now available in 49 states

More than two years after it initially began trials, Google’s AI-powered reservation service Duplex is now available in 49 US states. This looks like it’ll be the limit of Duplex’s coverage in the US for the time being, as Google tells The Verge it has no timeline to launch the service in the last hold-out state — Louisiana — due to unspecified local laws.

Adapting to local legislation is one of the reasons Duplex has taken so long to roll out across the US. Google tells The Verge it’s had to add certain features to the service (like offering a call-back number for businesses contacted by Duplex) to make it legal in some states. In others, it’s simply waited for legislation to change.

The new milestone of 49 states was spotted by AndroidPolice, based on a Google support page that lists Duplex’s availability. In each of these states Duplex will be able to book appointments (like reservations at restaurants) and call businesses to check information like opening hours.

Google wowed audiences when it first unveiled Duplex at its 2018 I/O conference. As a feature of Google Assistant, Duplex uses AI to call local businesses, making reservations at restaurants and hairdressers on your behalf using a realistic-sounding artificial voice.

Initially, it seemed Google promised more than it could deliver. In 2019 it was revealed that 25 percent of Duplex calls are made by humans, and that 19 percent of calls started by the automated system have to be completed by people. And in our own reporting, we found that restaurants often confused Duplex with automated spam robocalls. As of October last year, though, Google says 99 percent of Duplex calls are fully automated.

As businesses begin to open up again this year, it’ll be interesting to see if Duplex can keep up.

Update April 1, 12:45PM ET: Story has been updated with most recent data on the percentage of Duplex calls that are fully automated.

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Big Tech is pushing states to pass privacy laws, and yes, you should be suspicious

Concerned about growing momentum behind efforts to regulate the commercial use of personal data, Big Tech has begun seeding watered-down “privacy” legislation in states with the goal of preempting greater protections, experts say.

The swift passage in March of a consumer data privacy law in Virginia, which Protocol reported was originally authored by Amazon with input from Microsoft, is emblematic of an industry-driven, lobbying-fueled approach taking hold across the country. The Markup reviewed existing and proposed legislation, committee testimony, and lobbying records in more than 20 states and identified 14 states with privacy bills built upon the same industry-backed framework as Virginia’s, or with weaker models. The bills are backed by a who’s who of Big Tech–funded interest groups and are being shepherded through statehouses by waves of company lobbyists.

Credit: IAPP
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Comcast delays Internet data cap expansion in NE states until 2022

Late last year, Comcast revealed that it would be expanding its 1.2TB Internet data cap to the remaining states that hadn’t yet received them — a change that was originally scheduled to start next month. Not too long ago, the company said it would delay the data caps until July, but now it is back with yet another update.

The data cap expansion will cover the Northeast region of the US, including a dozen states, Washington DC, and parts of North Carolina and Ohio. The states that already have Comcast’s 1.2TB data cap won’t see any changes, but for those in the Northeastern US, there’s now a reprieve until some time next year.

Earlier this month, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office announced that it and Comcast had reached a deal that would, among other things, delay the data cap until July. In a new update, Comcast announced that it has decided to delay the rollout until 2022, stating the reason for its decision:

We recognize that our data plan was new for our customers in the Northeast, and while only a very small percentage of customers need additional data, we are providing them with more time to become familiar with the new plan.

Critics have pointed out that a pandemic in which many people are now working and studying from home is a bad time to introduce data caps with overage fees. Comcast doesn’t mention whether the pandemic influenced its decision to delay the data caps, but regardless, Northeast customers will be able to avoid the overage fees — for now.

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This Indian state’s police force will block passport applications over ‘anti-national’ social media posts

In the last couple of years, governments all over the world have been keeping an eye on their citizens’ social media accounts to monitor critical posts about the ruling governments. Now, the Indian state of Uttarakhand wants to scan social media posts of people before issuing a passport.

Hindustan Times reports that the director general of police for the Northern state that is home to over 10 million people,Ashok Kumar, said that cops will look for anti-national posts before approving documents such as passports and gun licenses:

We will scrutinize social media accounts to determine if such posts are coming up frequently. The police would mention this in that person’s police verification and may not clear the application for passport or arms license.

He added that previously, cops used to monitor social media and register a case against some for serious offenses. While cops arrest people for inciting violence or distribution of child porn over social media, in India, it has made arrests based on critical posts about governments as well.

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Appointing police as arbiters of free speech is a dangerous proposition. Last month, comedian Munawar Faruqui was arrested for allegedly intending to make religiously offensive jokes. That’s not a typo.

However, later the cops said that there was no evidence against him. Despite this, a state high court denied him bail,and he has been in jail for more than 30 days now.

Monitoring social media before clearing official documents is not a novel concept. In 2019, former US President Donald Trump’s administration asked for social media details for visa applicants. In 2019, a US student was arrested while visiting China for his critical tweets against the country’s president Xi Jinping. Last year, China passed a bizarre law that allowed it to arrest anyone in Hong Kong — even if they’re not permanent residents — for making derogatory remarks about the country’s government. 

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