News roundup: big tech leaders get a grilling from the US senate

A roundup of this week’s tech news, including an important big tech senate hearing, a historic IPO for Ant Group, and a new quantum computer from Honeywell.

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Dorsey, Pichai and Zuckerberg face US senate hearing

The head honchos at three of the world’s biggest technology companies appeared before the US senate this week to discuss section 230, a law that grants social media companies freedom from litigation when it comes to user-generated content and its management. Appearing via video-link, the tech leaders faced an absolute grilling from both Republican and Democratic representatives, who (astonishingly) have managed to come together in their critique of the Silicon Valley juggernauts, albeit for totally different reasons.

Republicans in particular took the opportunity to cast aspersions on the impartiality of the tech juggernauts, with section 230 taking a bit of a back seat at times. Twitter’s kingpin Jack Dorsey copped a particularly tough line of questioning from Republican senators over its recent handling of a New York Post article involving allegations against Joe Biden’s son Hunter. While Dorsey admitted his company made an error in judgement, that did little to ail the fury of GOP Senator Ted Cruz, who repeatedly grilled the Twitter boss over the incident.

On the other hand, the Democrats dismissed the GOP’s claims of bias and instead raised concerns over the way the platforms handle things like hate speech and misinformation. Zuckerberg said his platform had made moves to fight such things, although he agreed that his company needs to assess its content recommendations. He also copped questioning over Facebook’s election approach this time around, with the CEO assuring that it would pull down posts inciting violence and those that prematurely call an election victory.

Ultimately, the three companies championed section 230, arguing the law has facilitated a more free-flowing exchange of ideas while making it possible for them to step in and moderate content. Of course, the law has – up until this point – allowed them to thrive and grow exponentially, so it makes sense that they would back it.

Speaking of growth, the week of those same tech giants (and many others) was sweetened greatly by their respective sales figures, which were also revealed this week. As you may have guessed, 2020 has been a very good year for the likes of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon, and Apple (go figure) and this was reflected in their results. Amazon especially raked it in, with sales up to US$96.1 billion in the 3 months to September 30 (a 37% increase YoY).

Ant Group set for historic IPO

Jack Ma-backed Alibaba affiliate Ant Group is all set for a record breaking Initial Public Offering (IPO) next week. The company announced that it is aiming to raise a massive US$34 billion, which would mark the world’s largest stock market debut and value the company at an insane $313 billion. The dual IPO (across Shanghai and Hong Kong) of course prompted a flood of investors, pushing the fundraising total to almost $37 billion, according to the Financial Times. Overall, the IPO has drawn demand equal to the GDP of the United Kingdom… which is just insane to think about.

The principle subsidiary of the company is China-based payments group Alipay, which is one of China’s two main payments platforms. Alipay has over 700 million monthly active users, handling payment volumes of $17.6 trillion for the year ending June. Ant Group’s historic IPO will bypass US markets, which serves as a coup for Asia’s financial centres and comes amid rising tensions between the US and China.

Chip industry consolidates further

The semiconductor industry was rocked by two major acquisitions this week, with the first being AMD’s $35 billion acquisition of rival Xilinx and the second involving Marvell’s purchase of Inphi for over $10 billion. The former acquisition was the one that had more people talking, as AMD’s buy is its biggest ever and marks a further push for the company into the data centre market. It’s also likely to raise the neck hairs of Intel, which has been fighting heavily against the likes of AMD and Xilinx in the DC space over the last few years in particular, and has suffered from internal manufacturing issues.

The later tie up of Marvell and Inphi will see the former dole out 10.63 billion in a cash-and-stock deal, with the combined company undergoing reorganisation and basing itself in the US (with Marvell currently based in Bermuda). The two acquisitions follow Nvidia’s $40 million purchase of ARM earlier in year, serving to demonstrate the eye-watering value offered by chip-making firms, especially in the midst of a pandemic, which has only driven demand higher.

Mergers and acquisitions

AMD acquires chip-making rival Xilinx for $35 billion, Marvell picks up Inphi in $10.63 billion deal, TIBCO buys business analytics pioneer Information Builders, Intel acquires AI software optimisation firm SigOpt, PayPal reportedly eyes crypto acquisitions including BitGo, Phil Libin-led video presentation startup mmhmm buys video filter maker Memix, SAP chairman and co-founder buys almost $300 million worth of his own company’s shares, Jack Ma-led Chinese fintech giant set to raise a record-breaking $29 billion in IPO,  DoJ flags antitrust investigation over Visa’s $5.3 billion bid for fintech company Plaid, Edtech startup Course Hero acquires fellow industry player Symbolab, Frech telecoms operator Iliad wins EU antitrust case over $4 billion Poland deal, and Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith picks up majority stake in the Utah Jazz basketball team for $1.66 billion.

Security roundup

  • Hackers have swiped 2.3 million from Donald Trump’s re-election fund in Wisconsin, according to officials from the state’s Republican party. Wisconsin GOP chairman Andrew Hitt said his party noticed suspicious activity on October 22 and that the FBI is now investigating the alleged incident. According to the Associated Press, Hitt said hackers manipulated invoices from four vendors who were contracted to send out direct mail for the Trump campaign.
  • Cryptocurrency decentralized finance (DeFi) service Harvest Finance was targeted in a cyberattack this week, with a lone hacker making off with roughly $24 million in stablecoin crypto assets. The company operates a web portal that allows users to invest crypto and leverage a range of semi-automated strategies to deliver (in some cases big) returns. Harvest Finance says the hacker invested large quantities of crypto assets, before using a cryptographic exploit to swipe funds from the platform’s stash, reportedly choosing to stop at $24 million instead of taking more.
  • Microsoft says Iranian state-backed hackers have targeted over 100 “high-profile” conference attendees, posing as organisers of two security conferences in Germany and Saudi Arabia. Microsoft says the Phosphorus group (also known as APT35) is behind the attacks, with the group sending spoofed emails to former government officials, academics and policy makers in an attempt to steal passwords and other sensitive data.
  • The US government has warned of a new ransomware campaign targeting hospitals and healthcare providers. The alert – which was jointly issued by the FBI, CISA, and department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – said attackers were using Ryuk strain of ransomware and the trickbot botnet, with the campaign holding the potential to hinder the treatment of COVID-19 patients. The Eastern European cybercrime gang known as Wizard Spider is thought to be behind the attacks, which have already hit six hospitals in the US.

Huawei gets a US lifeline but things continue to look dire outside China

The US may be offering somewhat of a lifeline to Huawei, as reports surfaced this week that it may allow some chip companies to supply the embattled Chinese tech giant, just so long as those parts aren’t used for 5G. The Financial Times broke the story, citing “sources briefed by Washington,” with two Asian semiconductor companies reportedly saying they were optimistic their applications for licences to resume Huawei shipments would be approved. 

Analysts say that, if true, the crippling US sanctions from earlier this year could be less damaging to the company overall, particularly its smartphone business. Indeed, Sony also announced this week that the US had approved its application to provide camera imaging sensor tech to Huawei, which it uses in its mobile device camera systems.

However it certainly wasn’t all good news for Huawei this week, as the 5G front continued to suffer losses internationally. It’s biggest losses here were throughout Europe, as the Italian government vetoed a 5G deal between Huawei and major Italy-based Telco Fastweb. Meanwhile four other countries – Bulgaria, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Slovakia – signed onto the US’s ‘clean network’ initiative aimed at rolling back Chinese influence (à la Huawei and ZTE) on their telco infrastructure.

These developments have been great for Huawei’s 5G rivals, particularly Ericsson, which this week struck a fresh deal with the UK to use its 5G radio antennas in its national rollout. The move further pushes the knife into the previously prosperous UK/Huawei relationship, with the country instating a 5G-related ban on the company earlier in the year.

Samsung chairman Lee Kun-Hee dies

Lee Kun-hee, the influential chairman of South Korean technology giant Samsung passed away this week at the age of 78. Known to have led a reclusive lifestyle, Lee was rendered bed-ridden by a heart attack in 2014, with little in the way of updates on his condition since that time, and up until his passing on Sunday.

Lee leaves behind a powerful legacy, with his time at the company marked potently by Samsung’s huge surge in the smartphone and memory chip markets. He has forged such a degree of success within the company that it now has an overall turnover equivalent to a fifth of South Koreas total GDP.

With Lee’s funeral taking place on Wednesday, his passing has caused somewhat of a rift in terms of who takes control of the country’s largest family-owned conglomerate. Samsung’s heir apparent is Lee’s son Jay Y. Lee, although serious concerns remain over his ongoing legal trials, which includes alleged succession plots.

Honeywell unveils its H1 quantum computer

Honeywell, that company that you know for being a thermostat pioneer, has taken the wraps off its newest quantum computer this week, continuing its developments in a line of business no one ever expected it to consider.

The company, who is on a mission to develop the world’s most powerful quantum computer, announced its latest system, the “Model H1” , which uses trapped-ion technology and features 10 fully connected qubits to reach a quantum volume of 128.

In terms of commercial availability, the H1 will be made available to enterprises through the Azure Quantum platform, with Honeywell saying it would be partnering with Zapata Computing and Cambridge Quantum Computing on this project. Interestingly, the company also says H1 will be offered ‘as a service’ in a subscription-based capacity, in a first for the enterprise tech realm.