October Tech News Round-up

2015-10-31

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October: the last of autumn’s digital storm before winter ushers in a month or two of relative calm. The past 30 days have been hugely eventful for science, business, and technology in Europe. A decision at the highest court in Europe will have a long and lasting impact on the relationship between the US and the EU, while at the same time the European Parliament voted on a law that could damage net neutrality.

Then, of course, there were the Vacuum Cleaner Wars between Dyson and Bosch, and Boris Johnson was up on his soap box a little more than usual. And, in breaking news yesterday, it seems Volkswagen’s emissions cheating will result in a large number of premature deaths due to the extra smog created.

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Let’s dive into Europe’s top tech news for October 2015.

Europe’s top court, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), has struck down the 15-year-old agreement between the US and EU known as Safe Harbour. The agreement allowed the free flow of data across the Atlantic, and, in particular, made it possible for major online players like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to send user data from Europe to their US-based servers. The decision means that now the national courts in European countries can rule the Safe Harbour agreement is illegal there, which they probably will: Germany and Ireland have already started their investigations. The decision of the CJEU will have dramatic and far-reaching consequences for the Internet as a whole unless an alternative agreement is reached in the near future.

In early October, the mayor of London Boris Johnson said that “Uber is systematically breaking the law in London.” Later on, however, the UK High Court ruled that the app is legal in the British capital, as its cars do not have a “taximeter” installed, which only black cab drivers are allowed to use. However, Uber’s reputation in the UK is not spotless: The Guardian reported that Uber has only paid £22,134 in UK corporation tax last year despite making a profit of £866,000. In related news, the court in Brussels wasn’t as supportive as its English counterpart and ordered Uber to suspend its UberPOP service in the city.

Another company that has paid a laughable amount of corporation tax in the UK is Facebook. While its staff took home an average of more than £210,000 last year in pay and bonuses, Facebook’s UK arm paid just £4,327 in corporation tax. Tax Justice Network’s John Christensen commented on the matter, saying that “it’s very likely they’re using all the usual techniques to shift profits around.”

The Volkswagen scandal keeps developing, with its aftermath reaching far beyond the German company itself. The car manufacturer will begin to recall diesel vehicles in January and plans to complete this process by the end of 2016. In addition to cars in Europe and the US, from where it had to pull its 2016 diesel lineup, the company has also identified 1,950 faulty vehicles in China. VW Group has started to respond to the scandal and said that “the future is electric.” Whatever the future is, it definitely doesn’t look good for diesel cars of any manufacturer: a series of tests has shown that 95 percent of European diesel-powered vehicles flunk emissions standards.

A peer-reviewed report found that around 60 premature deaths will be caused by the extra smog produced by the VW vehicles—and that’s just in the US alone. The numbers will likely be much higher, once Europe and Asia are taken into account.

London’s Metropolitan Police has reminded everyone that self-balancing “hoverboard” scooters are illegal on UK roads and pavements. That means that you still can ride them at home and in your own garden, but what fun is that? Mayor of London Boris Johnson, however, called for their legalisation, praising them as “a new and potentially liberating form of personal mobility”—quite a different line of reasoning compared to the Uber story.

Possibly inspired by the Volkswagen emission manipulation scandal, Dyson has accused Bosch of cheating on vacuum cleaner efficiency tests. It claims that its competitor’s 750W vacuum cleaners only draw the advertised power when being tested in the lab, while “in the wild” their consumption increases more than twofold to 1600W. An interesting detail here is that Bosch played a significant role in the VW scandal: it wrote the actual “defeat device” code that was used to cheat on emissions tests. It didn’t take long for Bosch to retaliate, though: the company has said it’s taking legal action against Dyson for its “false allegations in the press.”

Dutch startup Fairphone has raised €9 million (£6.5 million) during a crowdfunding campaign for its second-gen “ethical smartphone,” dubbed simply Fairphone 2. The phone is built using as little “conflict minerals” as possible and has a modular structure, which allows for better repairability and longer life span. Earlier in the month we reviewed the smartphone; it is indeed quite easy to take apart and put back together. Ahead of the start of the mass production and shipments, Fairphone also announced that the phone will be able to run not only Android but also a special version of Jolla’s Sailfish OS.

The European Parliament has passed the flawed compromise text on net neutrality without including any of the amendments that would have closed serious loopholes. As a result, Europe is now hindered by Internet regulation that is seen by many net neutrality advocates as being worse than that in the US, even though at first glance the two look quite similar.

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