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Apple Updates App Store Payment Rules in Concession to Developers

Apple has updated its App Store rules to allow developers to contact users directly about payments, a concession in a legal settlement with companies challenging its tightly controlled marketplace.

According to App Store rules updated Friday, developers can now contact consumers directly about alternate payment methods, bypassing Apple’s commission of 15 or 30%.

They will be able to ask users for basic information, such as names and e-mail addresses, “as long as this request remains optional”, said the iPhone maker.

Apple proposed the changes in August in a legal settlement with small app developers.

But the concession is unlikely to satisfy firms like “Fortnite” developer Epic Games, with which the tech giant has been grappling in a drawn-out dispute over its payments policy.  

Epic launched a case aiming to break Apple’s grip on the App Store, accusing the iPhone maker of operating a monopoly in its shop for digital goods or services.

In September, a judge ordered Apple to loosen control of its App Store payment options, but said Epic had failed to prove that antitrust violations had taken place.

For Epic and others, the ability to redirect users to an out-of-app payment method is not enough: it wants players to be able to pay directly without leaving the game.

Both sides have appealed. 

Apple is also facing investigations from US and European authorities that accuse it of abusing its dominant position.

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Another Whistleblower Accuses Facebook of Wrongdoing: Report

A former Facebook worker reportedly told U.S. authorities Friday the platform has put profits before stopping problematic content, weeks after another whistleblower helped stoke the firm’s latest crisis with similar claims.

The unnamed new whistleblower filed a complaint with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the federal financial regulator, that could add to the company’s woes, said a Washington Post report.

Facebook has faced a storm of criticism over the past month after former employee Frances Haugen leaked internal studies showing the company knew of potential harm fueled by its sites, prompting U.S. lawmakers to renew a push for regulation.

In the SEC complaint, the new whistleblower recounts alleged statements from 2017, when the company was deciding how to handle the controversy related to Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  

“It will be a flash in the pan. Some legislators will get pissy. And then in a few weeks they will move onto something else. Meanwhile we are printing money in the basement, and we are fine,” Tucker Bounds, a member of Facebook’s communications team, was quoted in the complaint as saying, The Washington Post reported.  

The second whistleblower signed the complaint on October 13, a week after Haugen’s testimony before a Senate panel, according to the report.

Haugen told lawmakers that Facebook put profits over safety, which led her to leak reams of internal company studies that underpinned a damning Wall Street Journal series.

The Washington Post reported the new whistleblower’s SEC filing claims the social media giant’s managers routinely undermined efforts to combat misinformation and other problematic content for fear of angering then-U.S. President Donald Trump or for turning off the users who are key to profits.

Erin McPike, a Facebook spokesperson, said the article was “beneath the Washington Post, which during the last five years would only report stories after deep reporting with corroborating sources.”  

Facebook has faced previous firestorms of controversy, but they did not translate into substantial U.S. legislation to regulate social media.

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NATO’s New Focus Reflects China’s Rise

China wasn’t on the agenda at this week’s NATO defense ministers meeting, but by the time the gathering concluded, the secretary-general had said the military alliance needs to respond to the challenges presented by China’s rise.

“We see the whole global balance of power is shifting because of the rise of China,” Jens Stoltenberg told reporters Thursday at a press conference in Brussels. 

China is “heavily modernizing its military capabilities, including advanced nuclear systems and long-range missile systems,” and “we see China coming much closer to us, not least in cyberspace,” he said. And in response, the allies agreed “to do more together.” 

Without giving details, Stoltenberg said NATO would cooperate on a strategy involving areas such as artificial intelligence and technologically advanced weapon systems, “relevant to the challenges posed by the rise of China.”

He said that applies not only to Europe, NATO’s traditional focus, but also to challenges in the Asia Pacific, where “the rise of China just makes it even more important that Europe and North America stand together in NATO.”

At their June meeting, the allies had agreed to strengthen their relationships with partners in the Asia Pacific, which include New Zealand, Australia, South Korea and Japan. 

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA Mandarin’s request for a response to Stoltenberg’s remarks.    

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Stoltenberg said that countering the security threat from the rise of China will be an important part of NATO’s future rationale.

“NATO is an alliance of North America and Europe. But this region faces global challenges: terrorism, cyber, but also the rise of China. So when it comes to strengthening our collective defense, that’s also about how to address the rise of China,” Stoltenberg told the Financial Times. “What we can predict is that the rise of China will impact our security. It already has.”  

He pointed out that China has had an impact on European security through its cyber capabilities, new technologies and long-range missiles.

Bruce Jones, director and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said Stoltenberg’s remarks revealed an important shift of the military alliance.

“It’s an important shift of NATO inside NATO,” he told VOA Mandarin in a phone interview.  “There’s been a debate about whether NATO should concentrate on Russia, Europe, or whether it should be part of a wider American reorientation towards China.”

He added that the statement from the secretary-general is “a signal about the direction that he is going to go and that he has some support for changing the orientation.”

Stoltenberg said NATO will adopt a new strategic concept next summer, which will outline the group’s strategies for the next 10 years. The current 2010 version does not mention China.    

In an interview with Politico earlier this month, Stoltenberg also stressed that NATO needs to strengthen its engagement with China.  

“We don’t regard China as an adversary or an enemy,” he said. “We need to engage with China on important issues such as climate change — there’s no way to reduce emissions enough in the world without also including China.”  

New threat  

The 30-member coalition was established after World War II, and its previous focus was on Russia and terrorism. NATO first mentioned the threat from China in its 2019 summit communiqué. 

As China expands its influence globally in a more aggressive manner, NATO’s concern about China’s rise has grown. In a joint communiqué in June, NATO leaders accused China of rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal and being opaque in implementing its military modernization. 

“China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security,” the communiqué said. 

Dan Hamilton, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s SAIS Foreign Policy Institute and director of the postdoctoral program on “The United States, Europe, and World Order,” told VOA Mandarin that the 27 countries in the European Union are feeling China’s presence in the region. 

China is the EU’s No. 1 trading partner and the source of billions of dollars per year in direct investment, particularly in energy, according to a recent VOA Mandarin report. Beijing’s relations vary from one EU nation to the next, with east-central European nations such as Hungary and Serbia eager to engage while Western European countries are more skeptical.

“China is coming to us. It’s about China being present in Europe as sort of a power that includes investments in defense-related supply chain, investments in ports,” Hamilton said in a phone interview.  

In their June joint communique, NATO leaders expressed concern over China’s military cooperation with Russia in the Euro-Atlantic region.  

“China and Russia are collaborating more closely together, and that might affect the risk calculation each of them might take with regards to Western interests,” Hamilton said. 

“Russia might feel a bit more emboldened when it comes to issues like Ukraine or Belarus or military exercises if it feels China is supporting it,” he added. “Similarly, China might feel it has Russian support, then it might be able to be a bit more adventurous than otherwise it would ordinarily be.”   

US-EU cooperation  

The change in NATO’s view of China echoes that of Washington. The Biden administration believes that the competition between the West and China is a confrontation between democratic values and authoritarianism.  

But cooperation between the EU and the U.S. has encountered obstacles in the past few years.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump publicly questioned the value of NATO. Some European countries have proposed the concept of “strategic autonomy” and demanded a reduction in their dependence on U.S. military support. 

After Biden took office in January 2021, NATO and the White House resumed closer contact. Stoltenberg visited Washington this month, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin participated in NATO’s in-person meetings Thursday and Friday.  

Jones, of Brookings, said that between the U.S. and EU, there’s now a strong willingness to cooperate and counter the rise of China. “People are willing to put a lot of energy and effort into making that alignment work, so although Europe has a question mark about this administration, and potentially about future administrations, these shared interests are greater than the uncertainty.”

Lin Yang contributed to this report.

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John McCain Freedom Award Honors Lithuania, and Democracy Leaders in Myanmar, Belarus, Cuba

The Lithuanian people along with democracy leaders from Belarus, Cuba and Myanmar have been awarded this year’s John McCain Freedom Award. The award ceremony was held in Washington, D.C., on October 19, as Alexey Gorbachev reports in this story narrated by Anna Rice. 

Camera: Sergii Dogotar, Elena Matusovsky

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Queen Elizabeth Returns to Work After Hospital Stay

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth returned to work Friday following her first overnight stay at a hospital in years for what Buckingham Palace called “preliminary investigations.”

According to the palace, the 95-year-old monarch spent Wednesday night in the private King Edward VII’s Hospital, undergoing tests after canceling an official trip to Northern Ireland to mark the 100th anniversary of its creation.

The palace has said Queen Elizabeth accepted medical advice to rest for a few days. She returned to Windsor Castle by lunchtime Thursday. The matter was unrelated to COVID-19, and she remains in “good spirits,” stated the palace late Thursday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, sending his best wishes, spoke about the queen’s return to her duties Friday. “I am given to understand that actually Her Majesty is, characteristically, back at her desk at Windsor as we speak,” Johnson told reporters.

Prior to her hospital stay, the monarch hosted a reception for top business leaders Tuesday night after Prime Minister Johnson held a green investment conference preceding the COP26 climate summit. Guests included Bill Gates and U.S. climate envoy John Kerry. The queen’s son, Prince Charles, 72, and grandson Prince William, 39, greeted guests along with her.

Queen Elizabeth’s stay in the hospital was notable considering that the last time she is thought to have done so was in 2013, when she was experiencing symptoms of gastroenteritis. She underwent surgery in 2018 for eye cataracts and a knee operation in 2003.

Next year marks the monarch’s platinum jubilee, 70 years on the throne. The queen has taken on fewer duties in recent years but is said to maintain a full schedule. In less than two weeks, she will host world leaders at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

Some information for this story came from The Associated Press and Reuters

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Czech Republic Trapped in Surreal Game of Thrones

Presidential ill health, police raids and corruption allegations, some involving caretaker Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, have thrown the Czech Republic into a surreal political crisis. 

The jarring turn of events could not have come at a worse time — the unnerved country is already in the grip of an acute energy crunch, like its European neighbors, and it is facing an alarming uptick in coronavirus infections.

The Czech Republic has been in post-election limbo since Tuesday, when a Senate committee stripped President Miloš Zeman of his powers. The decision came after doctors at a military hospital in Prague, the Czech capital, who are treating the president for liver failure, said Zeman was “incapable of fulfilling any of his working responsibilities.”  

The 77-year-old Zeman was due to name a new prime minister to head a coalition government following elections earlier this month in which the populist billionaire Babiš’ Action for Dissatisfied Citizens party won the most votes, but lost overall control to two opposition blocs, led by Petr Fiala. Babiš’ defeat was put down to the willingness of opposition parties to put aside their ideological differences and join to drive the populist leader out of power.

On Wednesday the state prosecutor added to the swirling political mix by requesting the Chamber of Deputies, the lower chamber of Parliament, remove Babiš’ immunity as a lawmaker so he can be prosecuted for fraud and misuse of $2 million of European Union funds involving a spa resort owned by members of his own family.  

Shortly before the elections Babiš featured in the so-called Pandora Papers, a huge trove of documents detailing the secret offshore financial dealings of hundreds of politicians, public officials and celebrities. The papers published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists showed how Babiš had used shell companies to buy property, including a chateau on the French Riviera in 2009, prompting money-laundering and tax-evasion accusations from opposition politicians. He has denied the Pandora allegations, saying he has done nothing wrong and that the charges against him are just smears.

“I think that the request by the Prague prosecutor to lift Babiš’ immunity is an interesting development, simply because if the prosecutor had decided that Babiš should not be sent to court, should not be prosecuted, he would probably not ask for this,” political scientist Jiří Pehe told Prague Radio midweek. “His move seems to suggest that he is seriously thinking about sending Mr. Babiš to court,” he added.

In the meantime, if the Senate and House of Deputies confirm the committee’s vote to strip Zeman of his authority, some of his powers will be transferred to Babiš and one of his political allies, Parliament Speaker Radek Vondráček. In theory they would then decide who should be the next prime minister.

Babiš has promised to name Fiala, and he may have his eyes set more on running for the presidency to replace Zeman than in trying to hang on as prime minster, some Czech commentators say.  

Zeman was a onetime Babiš ally, but there are signs their alliance is breaking up. The Czech Republic’s second-largest newspaper Mladá fronta Dnes, which is owned by Babiš, headlined a story this week saying the prime minister is aiming to “clean Zeman’s men out” of power.  

Babiš has publicly demanded the resignation of Zeman’s chief aide, Vratislav Mynář, following allegations he and others in the presidential entourage had been trying to conceal the true state of the president’s health. Police have said they are investigating the allegations, which they have described as “criminal offenses against the republic.”

“The police of the Czech Republic will initiate an investigation into a possible illegal act, in which signs of criminal offenses against the republic can be seen,” Czech police tweeted. It is unclear what offenses may be involved but local media say the crimes could include treason and subversion. Mynář told reporters in Prague midweek that no laws had been broken and he criticized the Senate committee for its vote to strip his boss of his presidential powers.

The president’s wife, Ivana Zemanová, said Thursday that people should stop speculating about her husband’s illness as “treatment will take time.” Mynář remains defiant, telling reporters in Prague Thursday, “The President of the Republic is Miloš Zeman, who appointed me to the position and is the only one who has the right to dismiss me.”

But Babiš told iDNES.cz, a Czech news site, midweek that Mynář should resign, and that if doesn’t he would remove him after presidential powers are transferred. Parliament will vote on the issue in the first week of November.  

Czechs have been left reeling at the twists and turns of the bizarre chain of political events.

Like other Europeans they are struggling to recover from a pandemic that seems far from over. Coronavirus infections have started to surge again in the country with over 3,000 new cases recorded on both Tuesday and Wednesday, doubling the tallies seen on the corresponding days last week.

Health Minister Adam Vojtěch, announced new pandemic restrictions Wednesday, which will come into force next week. They include mandatory mask-wearing at work and checks for digital vaccination certificates to enter bars and restaurants.

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China’s Reach Into Africa’s Digital Sector Worries Experts

Chinese companies like Huawei and the Transsion group are responsible for much of the digital infrastructure and smartphones used in Africa. Chinese phones built in Africa come with already installed apps for mobile money transfer services that increase the reach of Chinese tech companies. But while many Africans may find the availability of such technology useful, the trend worries some experts on data management.

China has taken the lead in the development of Africa’s artificial intelligence and communication infrastructure. 

In July 2020, Cameroon contracted with Huawei, a Chinese telecommunication infrastructure company, to equip government data centers. In 2019, Kenya was reported to have signed the same company to deliver smart city and surveillance technology worth $174 million. 

A study by the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based think tank, found that Huawei has developed 30% of the 3G network and 70% of the 4G network in Africa. 

Eric Olander is the managing editor of the Chinese Africa Project, a media organization examining China’s engagement in Africa. He says Chinese investment is helping Africa grow.

“The networking equipment is really what is so vital and what the Chinese have been able to do with Huawei, in particular, is they bring the networking infrastructure together with state-backed loans and that’s the combination that has proven to be very effective. So, a lot of governments that would not be able to afford 4G and 5G network upgrades are able to get these concessional loans from the China Exim Bank that are used and to purchase Huawei equipment,” Olander said.

Data compiled by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a Canberra-based defense and policy research organization, show China has built 266 technology projects in Africa ranging from 4G and 5G telecommunications networks to data centers, smart city projects that modernize urban centers and education programs.  

But while the new technology has helped modernize the African continent, some say it comes at a cost that is not measured in dollars. 

China loaned the Ethiopian government more than $3 billion to be used to upgrade its digital infrastructure. Critics say the money helped Ethiopia expand its authoritarian rule and monitor telecom network users. 

According to an investigation by The Wall Street Journal, Huawei technology helped the Ugandan and Zambian governments spy on government critics.  In 2019, Uganda procured millions of dollars in closed circuit television surveillance technology from Huawei, ostensibly to help control urban crime.

Police in the East African nation admitted to using the system’s facial recognition ability supplied by Huawei to arrest more than 800 opposition supporters last year.

Bulelani Jili, a cybersecurity fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University, says African citizens must be made aware of the risks in relations with Chinese tech companies.

“There is need [for] greater public awareness and attention to this issue in part because it’s a key metric surrounding both development but also the kind of Africa-China relations going forward…. We should also be thinking about data sovereignty is going to be a key factor going forward.” 

Jili said data sharing will create more challenges for relations between Africa and China. 

“There are security questions about data, specifically how it’s managed, who owns it, and how governments depend on private actors to provide them the technical capacity to initiate certain state services.”  

London-based organization Privacy International says at least 24 African countries have laws that protect the personal data of their citizens. But experts say most of those laws are not enforced. 

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French Lawmakers Reach Out to Taiwan Despite Risk of Angering Beijing

A visit by a group of French senators to Taiwan earlier this month is just the latest sign that European countries are willing to engage with the East Asian democracy even at the risk of angering China, according to regional experts.

The lawmakers from the Taiwan Friendship Group, led by Senator Alain Richard, arrived in Taiwan on October 6 for a five-day trip. They met the following day with President Tsai Ing-wen, who awarded Richard with a national medal during a brief reception. Richard is a former French defense minister.

Richard, who previously visited in 2015 and 2018, praised the friendship between France and Taiwan. He notably referred to Taiwan as a “country,” in an unusual move for a sitting parliamentarian as France does not maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taipei. China maintains that Taiwan is a wayward province that will one day be united with the mainland. 

News of the French senators’ trip to Taiwan, originally planned for March, was met by anger from the Chinese embassy in Paris, which said the group would give support to “pro-independence forces in Taiwan,” according to Taiwan media.  

Marc Cheng, executive director of the EU Center in Taiwan, said the trip was a sign that some European countries like France may be less wary of Beijing despite its often angry rhetoric about Taiwan. “This means that even under more pressure from China, European countries are still willing to maintain contact or exchange with Taiwan,” he said. 

The trip was also notable for its visibility, as Taiwan’s engagement with non-official allies often occurs with less media fanfare. An estimated 45 French parliamentarians visited Taiwan between 2017 and 2020, according to Mathieu Duchâtel, director of the Asia Program at Institut Montaigne in France, including study groups and a delegation from the French National Assembly.

“If the Chinese embassy had not politicized the visit, it would have gone completely unnoticed,” Duchâtel said of the recent trip. “It’s symbolic but overall what really made it important and unusual this time was the harsh reaction of the Chinese embassy.” 

Duchâtel said China’s representatives may have been particularly sensitive because in May, the French Senate passed a resolution calling for Taiwan to participate in U.N. agencies like the World Health Organization, the World Health Assembly, the International Civil Aviation Organization, and Interpol.

Due to Taiwan’s disputed political status, it lacks representation at the U.N. and affiliates at the behest of China. In years past, Taiwan has participated in organizations like the World Health Assembly as an observer but it has been blocked since 2016 by China.  

Taiwan’s successful handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, and experience with SARS, brought fresh attention to its lockout and led to a first-ever statement of support from the “G-7” countries – Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.

European countries have also begun to pay more attention to Taiwan as part of a greater pivot toward Asia. Earlier this year, the European Union passed its first strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, which makes plain concerns about the rise of China in the region and the future security of the Taiwan Strait.

The EU policy follows in the footsteps of France, Germany and the Netherlands, which all have drafted individual Indo-Pacific strategies in recent years. French President Emmanuel Macron considers France an Asia-Pacific player due to its territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, according to the EU Center in Taiwan’s Cheng, and has worked to raise its visibility in Asia. 

Beyond western Europe, Lithuania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic – all former Soviet bloc countries with limited investment from China – have also warmed to Taiwan and even become outspoken advocates for the democracy. They are also three of Taiwan’s major COVID-19 vaccine donors alongside the U.S. and Japan.  

 

On Wednesday, a Taiwan trade delegation of more than 60 representatives departed for Europe to boost its trade with the three countries as well as Central and Eastern Europe.  

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