News roundup: more Senate heat for Facebook/Twitter, Huawei sells Honor, and VMware breaks into blockchain

A roundup of this week’s tech news, including more US Senate grilling for big tech, a blockchain venture for VMware, and the verdict on Apple’s M1 chips.

U.S. Capitol Building Washington, DC USA
Two Bridges Photography/Shutterstock

Zuckerberg and Dorsey face further heat from US senate

The ever influential CEOs of Facebook and Twitter Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey faced more bipartisan heat from the US senate this week, as part of a series of hearings in relation to the power and legal liability of social media giants. It marks the second time the pair have appeared before the senate over the last three weeks, with both Republicans and Democrats airing vastly differing grievances.

Overall, Republicans dominated the discussions, asking the pair 72 of the 127 questions, with 53 of these regarding how they moderate content on their platforms and particularly how the two companies could do less to moderate. 37 GOP questions revolved around censoring conservative voices and the ideological/political positions of their work forces. Meanwhile, Democrats only asked 14 questions about content moderation, with much of this being around the curbing of hate speech and violence.

Amongst many specific topics, the tech leaders were quizzed about their treatment of Steve Bannon, with Democratic senators asking why Facebook had not banned Bannon, as Twitter did, for his controversial comments calling for the beheadings of disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci and the FBI director Christopher Wray. Zuckerberg responded saying while Bannon "did violate our policies", he ultimately had not done enough to get himself banned.  

Republican senator Ted Cruz also swiped at Twitter, asking Dorsey why the platform was "putting purported warnings on virtually any statement about voter fraud". Dorsey’s response that they were merely linking people to conversations wasn’t enough for Cruz, which argued that they were “taking a disputed policy position” and that they were thus a publisher, as opposed to a distributor of information. Cruz said this meant they need to give up their section 230 protections, which enables them freedom from litigation over the content posted on their platforms.

Huawei sells off Honor

Huawei has offloaded its midrange smartphone firm Honor, a move it says is necessary for the brand’s survival moving forward. In its statement, Huawei says its consumer business has suffered under “tremendous pressure” as a result of the “unavailability of technical elements needed for our mobile phone business.” Of course, this pressure that has been mounted by the US government and the Trump administration through its bans and global lobbying against the company over 5G and ‘national security concerns’.

As a result of this, Huawei says the sale decision was made by “Honor’s industry chain to ensure its own survival.” The move will undoubtedly also serve as a significant ease on Huawei itself, which is currently working from a stockpile of inventory (such as chip components) and can now focus its supply on its higher-end Huawei-branded units. 

However, Honor’s departure will mark a big loss for the Chinese smartphone giant, likely bumping it off the throne of the world’s top smartphone seller. Huawei achieved this goal earlier this year, although without Honor (which makes up 25% to 29% of the company’s smartphone shipments), that “honour” (sorry) will likely go back to Samsung.

Apple’s M1 chips delivering solid results

Last week, Apple unveiled its long-awaited line of in-house powered Macs, with the MacBook Pro, Air, and Mac mini all being updated to include its own M1 processing unit. To accompany the announcement, Apple was making some pretty hefty claims, including faster CPU and GPU capabilities with big improvements on battery-life.

Although, it wasn’t until this week that reviewers were able to actually get their hands on the M1 chip and put it through its paces, which is always going to be the real test of character for newly announced silicon. So how did Apple’s Arm-based SoC fair? Well, pretty well so far actually.

Looking at the reviews released this week, the majority of journalists and experts seem fairly impressed with what Apple has done with the M1. Indeed, the are definite speed improvements across most applications when compared to Macs using Intel silicon and the battery life claims Apple made seem to stack up.

In reviewing the Mac mini for Computerworld, Jonny Evans put the M1 through Geek bench and was able to snag a single-core score of 1,745 and a multi-core score of 7,704. This, he says, makes it the second-fastest Apple computer money can buy in single-core performance, while sitting close to the entry-level iMac Pro when it comes to multi-core.

In their review, The Verge were similarly impressed, calling the MacBook Air with M1 a “triumph”, finding it had “exceeded expectations on nearly every level”, noting a significant bump in graphical performance in their benchmarks . The concerns over apps made for Intel chips hitting compatibility walls on M1 have also largely dissipated, as Apple’s “Rosetta 2” translation software seems to be doing a very good job of getting these apps running smoothly.

Overall, it seems – at least at this stage – to have been a fairly successful launch for the Cupertino company.


Mergers and acquisitions

DOJ approves Mastercard’s acquisition of Finicity, Huawei announces sale of its Honor midrange smartphone business citing “survival” concerns, Baidu picks up Joyy’s Chinese livestreaming business YY Live for (USD) $3.6 billion, Buzzfeed buys HuffPost from Verizon Media, NASDAQ acquires anti-financial fraud software firm Verafin for $2.75 billion in cash, IBM acquires application performance management (APM)  startup Instana and SAP consulting firm TruQua, FireEye acquires Respond Software after receiving a $400 million investment courtesy of a group led by Blackstone and ClearSky, Autodesk buys AI-fueled urban planning platform Spacemaker for $240 million, EU refers planned Liberty Global/Telefonica merger to UK competition watchdog, and Brazilian software firm Linx set to be acquired by Stoneco.


Security roundup

  • Cisco has issued a patch for its Webex conferencing application after a critical flaw was discovered that allowed potential attackers to spy on meetings in a “ghost”-like capacity. The flaw involved three bugs and - when combined - could be used to join meetings anonymously (without showing on the participant list), remain on the meeting even after being booted, and obtain info on meeting participants such as full names, emails, and IPs. Importantly, though, the exploit could only be used if attackers were to have access to meeting URLs and in some cases passwords.
  • Microsoft has revealed that state-backed hackers – including one from Russia and two from North Korea – have attacked several pharmaceutical companies involved in the development of COVID-19 vaccines. While the tech giant declined to name the seven pharma companies targeted in a blog post detailing the attacks, it highlighted Russian group Strontium (aka Fancy Bear) and North Korean-backed Lazarus as two of the perpetrators, with the other North Korean group being a lesser-known entity. Unfortunately, the company also admits that while most of the attacks were mitigated, some were successful.
  • A ransomware attack has taken out the servers of one of the internet’s biggest web hosting providers, com. The company was forced to shut down all of its servers following the attack, effectively shutting down its entire web hosting infrastructure, impacting services such as WordPress and DotNetNuke hosting solutions as well as email servers, DNS servers and more. The attackers are reportedly of the REvil ransomware operation and are demanding US$500,000 in Monero to bring services back online.
  • The UK’s Information Commissioners Office (ICO) has handed down a $1.65 million fine to Ticketmaster UK over its 2018 data breach that affected 9.4 million customers. According to the ICO, Ticketmaster UK, “failed to put appropriate security measures in place to prevent a cyber-attack on a chat-bot installed on its online payment page,” ultimately violating GDPR.
  • The personal info of 27.7 million drivers from the US state of Texas has been exposed after insurance software company Vertafore disclosed a data breach late last week. The company revealed that a third-party had accessed personal details through data files accidentally stored on an unsecured external storage device. The company says the files contained info on drivers' licenses - including license numbers, names, DoBs, addresses, and Vehicle registration histories – which it had been storing for use with its insurance rating software solution.
  • Decentralised finance (DeFi) platform io has offered a “bug bounty” reward to a group of hackers who stole $2 million worth of cryptocurrency from them. In a bizarre plea to the kindness of hackers, the organisation offered $200,000 if the money was returned to them, in exchange effectively ‘finding an exploit’. Some experts have criticised the move, fearing it may set a bad precedent.

VMware officially launches blockchain platform

After years of development and speculation, VMware has officially announced the commercial availability of its blockchain platform, which has been designed to allow enterprises to build networks and deploy decentralised applications. The company says the solution will offer an extensible and scalable enterprise-grade platform which can be used to unlock data silos and free up data to flow in a secure, private, and instantaneous way.

According to VMware, its blockchain solution offers “Scalable Byzantine Fault Tolerance,” which it describes as an “enterprise-grade consensus engine… designed to solve the problems of scale and performance in blockchain solutions while preserving fault-tolerance and defense against malicious attacks.” While Byzantine Fault Tolerance is far from new, and was originally designed in the 90s, the company assures its implementation brings something new to the table in offering superior decentralised trust with support for ongoing governance in multiparty networks.

The Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) was the first entity to score an implantation of VMware Blockchain, working to develop a blockchain-based alternative to its legacy CHESS electronics payment system.

Python founder joins Microsoft

The influential founder of everyone’s new favourite programming language, Python, has come out of retirement to join Microsoft’s development team. After announcing his retirement over a year ago, programmer Guido van Rossum has taken a role with Microsoft’s ‘Development Division’ and will work to make Python generally better to use.

It’s not clear what Rossum will be doing at the tech giant specifically, although it is expected he will be assisting with Microsoft’s deepening integration with Python. In a tweet announcing the move, Rossum said, “I decided that retirement was boring and have joined the Developer Division at Microsoft. To do what? Too many options to say! But it’ll make using Python better for sure (and not just on Windows :-). There’s lots of open source here. Watch this space.”

Apple to pay $113 million over ‘batterygate’

Apple will hand over $113 million as part of a settlement over an investigation into the purposeful slowing down of older iPhones, a revelation which ruffled many feathers when it was first reported in 2017. Dubbed ‘batterygate’, many viewed the practice as a ploy to get people to buy new iPhones and evidence of a planned obsolescence kind of mentality, despite Apple’s claims that it was to preserve the life of iPhone batteries.

While Apple already paid $500 million as part of a class action lawsuit in March, the latest charge is in relation to a separate investigation launched by more than 30 US states. It alleged that Apple was aware that iPhone updates were slowing down the devices, but failed to inform customers of this. As part of the settlement, Apple legally committed to greater transparency although it did not have to admit to any wrongdoing or breaking any law.

The news came the same week that Apple dramatically cut the fees to app developers from 30% to 15%, if devs made less than $1 million a year. The fee slashing comes amid increasing anti-trust pressure on the Cupertino company over its dominance over iOS and the accompanying developer/application ecosystem.

Amazon pushes into pharma

Amazon may already have an overwhelming impact on the things we buy, the technology we use, and the websites we visit (amongst other things), but enough never really seems to be enough for the tech/e-commence giant. As part of the company’s push to have as many fingers in as many pies as possible, the company this week launched Amazon Pharmacy, marking its biggest push into the healthcare industry to date.

According to CNBC, the new store will sell a range of “generic and brand-name drugs” including “commonly prescribed drugs like insulin, triamcinolone steroid creams, metformin for controlling blood sugar, and sumatriptan for migraines,” although it won’t go as far to sell ‘Scheudle II’ meds like Oxycontin. The offering will be available in 45 US states this week, with more planned at a later date. Amazon says it accepts most insurance plans and will even give customers the option of speaking to a pharmacist for advice.

While it undoubtedly sounds like a great offering from a consumer standpoint, the news sent healthcare markets into flux, with many drug store stocks getting hammered. As reported by Investopedia, the launch marks a potential paradigm shift for the industry, potentially placing a number of franchises at risk, while also impacting supermarkets, super-stores and other businesses. It turns out Amazon is really good at disrupting industries whenever it enters them, who would have thought?