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Germany opens anti-cartel probe into Google Maps

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Big tech companies have been facing increasing scrutiny around the globe over their dominant positions as well as their tax practices
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Germany’s anti-cartel watchdog said Tuesday it has opened a probe into Google Maps over restrictions that may be giving it an unfair advantage over competitors.

“The proceeding is to examine possible anti-competitive restrictions imposed by Google Maps Platform to the detriment of alternative map services providers,” the Federal Cartel Office said in a statement.

Andreas Mundt, president of the watchdog, said it had reason to believe that Google “may be restricting the combination of its own map services with third-party map services, for example when it comes to embedding Google Maps location data, the search function or Google Street View into maps not provided by Google”.

The move comes after the Federal Cartel Office in January classified Google as a company of “paramount significance across markets”, paving the way for the authorities to clamp down on any potentially anti-competitive activities.

Parallel proceedings are already ongoing to examine Google’s terms and conditions for data processing and its news offer Google News Showcase.

An amendment of the German Competition Act came into force last year, allowing the authority to intervene earlier, particularly against huge digital companies.

The watchdog has also classified Meta, the company that owns Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, as a company of “paramount significance across markets”.

Big tech companies have been facing increasing scrutiny around the globe over their dominant positions as well as their tax practices.

The EU and Britain in March opened antitrust probes into a 2018 deal between Google and Meta allegedly aimed at cementing their dominance over the online advertising market.

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Eighth day of Indigenous fuel price protests in Ecuador

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Indigenous people and other disgruntled groups gathered anew for an eighth day of anti-government protests in Ecuador
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Thousands of Indigenous people and members of other disgruntled groups marched into Ecuador’s capital on the eighth day of fuel price protests Monday, accused by the president of seeking only “chaos” and his removal.

President Guillermo Lasso extended a state of emergency to cover six provinces, with a nighttime curfew in Quito, as he seeks to curtail demonstrations that have seen roads barricaded countrywide, cost the economy tens of millions of dollars and left dozens of people injured.

“With this decision, the welfare of citizens is safeguarded in the face of violence. At the same time, the rights of those who demonstrate peacefully are protected,” the government said.

On foot, on motorcycles and in crowded trucks, the Indigenous protesters began a peaceful march towards the city center from Cutuglagua, an area in southern Quito where they have been steadily growing in number since Sunday.

A hundred Indigenous people also entered the city from the north.

The powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie) — credited with helping topple three presidents between 1997 and 2005 — called the protest as Ecuadorans increasingly struggle to make ends meet.

Indigenous people comprise more than a million of Ecuador’s 17.7 million inhabitants, and their protest has since been joined by students, workers and others feeling the economic pinch.

“We have reached out, we have called for dialogue, but they do not want peace,” Lasso, a former banker in power since May 2021, said in a video on Twitter Monday.

“They seek chaos. They want to eject the president.”

At least some in Monday’s crowd — a number of whom waved Ecuadorian flags, wielded sticks or carried their children in their arms — said the president’s ouster was precisely what they sought.

“We are the people and we will stay here until the end,” Víctor Taday, a 50-year-old Indigenous resident of Quito originally from Chimborazo province, told AFP. 

It was time for Lasso, he said, to “go away”.

Police say 63 personnel have been wounded in clashes and 21 others briefly held hostage since the protests began, while human rights observers reported 79 arrests and 55 civilians wounded.

– ‘Zone of peace’ –

A state of emergency declared last Friday has allowed Lasso to mobilize the armed forces to maintain order, suspend certain civil rights and declare curfews.

On Sunday, Ecuadoran police requisitioned an Indigenous cultural center in Quito to use as a base for protest monitoring.

The center had sheltered thousands of Indigenous people during 2019 anti-government demonstrations that left 11 dead and more than 1,000 injured but forced then-president Lenin Moreno to abandon plans to eliminate fuel subsidies.

The Salesian University, in the north of the capital, decided on Monday to “open the doors” of its facilities as a “zone of peace and humanitarian shelter” for the indigenous people and called “to stop actions and attitudes that interfere or alter the processes of dialogue and the search for solutions.”

Oil producer Ecuador has been hit by rising inflation, unemployment and poverty exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Fuel prices have risen sharply since 2020, almost doubling for diesel from $1 to $1.90 per gallon and rising from $1.75 to $2.55 for gasoline.

Conaie demands a price cut to $1.50 a gallon for diesel and $2.10 for gasoline.

It also wants food price controls and a commitment to renegotiating the personal bank loans of about four million families.

Ecuador’s parliament Monday evening voted 81 to 56 in favour of a resolution demanding the government conduct a “serious, clear and honest” dialogue and calling for a round table seeking solutions that would include the UN, Red Cross, local universities and the Catholic Church.

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Dead rivers: The cost of Bangladesh’s garment-driven economic boom

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Industrial waste enters the Buriganga River as boatmen wait for passengers in Karanigonj
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Bangladeshi ferryman Kalu Molla began working on the Buriganga river before the patchwork of slums on its banks gave way to garment factories — and before its waters turned pitch black.

The 52-year-old has constant cough, allergies and skin rashes, and doctors have told him the vile-smelling sludge that has also wiped out marine life in one of Dhaka’s main waterways is to blame.

“Doctors told me to leave this job and leave the river. But how is that possible?” Molla told AFP near his home on the industrial outskirts of the capital Dhaka. “Ferrying people is my bread and butter.”

In the half-century since a devastating independence war left its people facing starvation, Bangladesh has emerged as an often unheralded economic success story.

The South Asian country of 169 million has overtaken its neighbour India in per capita income and will soon graduate from the United Nations’ list of the world’s least developed countries.

Underpinning years of runaway growth is the booming garment trade, servicing global fast-fashion powerhouses, employing millions of women and accounting for around 80 percent of the country’s $50 billion annual exports.

But environmentalists say the growth has come at an incalculable cost, with a toxic melange of dyes, tanning acids and other dangerous chemicals making their way into the water.

Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka was founded on the banks of the Buriganga more than 400 years ago by the Mughal empire.

“It is now the largest sewer of the country,” said Sheikh Rokon, the head of the Riverine People environmental rights group.

“For centuries people built their homes on its banks to bask in the river breeze,” he added. “Now the smell of toxic sludge during winter is so horrible that people have to hold their noses as they come near it.”

Water samples from the river found chromium and cadmium levels over six times the World Health Organization’s recommended maximums, according to a 2020 paper by the Bangladeshi government’s River Research Institute. 

Both elements are used in leather tanning and excessive exposure to either is extremely hazardous to human health: chromium is carcinogenic, and chronic cadmium exposure causes lung damage, kidney disease and premature births. 

Ammonia, phenol and other byproducts of fabric dyeing have also helped to starve the river of the oxygen needed to sustain marine life. 

– ‘They are powerful people’ –

In Shyampur, one of several sprawling industrial districts around Dhaka, locals told AFP that at least 300 local factories were discharging untreated wastewater into the Buriganga river.

Residents say they have given up complaining about the putrid smell of the water, knowing that offending businesses are easily able to shirk responsibility.

“The factories bribe (authorities) to buy the silence of the regulators,” said Chan Mia, who lives in the area. 

“If someone wants (to) raise the issue to the factories, they’d beat them up. They are powerful people with connections.” 

The crucial position of the textile trade in the economy has created a nexus between business owners and the country’s political establishment. In some cases, politicians themselves have become powerful industry players. 

Further south, in Narayanganj district, residents showed AFP a stream of crimson-coloured water draining into stagnant canals from a nearby factory. 

“But you cannot say a word about it loudly,” an area resident told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We only suffer in silence.”

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), which represents the interests of around 3,500 top factories, defends its record by pointing out the environmental certifications given out to its members.

“We are going green — that’s why we are witnessing big jumps in export orders,” BGMEA president Faruque Hassan told a recent press conference.

But smaller factories and sub-contractors operating on the industry’s razor thin margins say they are unable to afford the cost of wastewater treatment.

A top garment official in the Savar industrial district, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said even most high-end factories serving major US and European brands often do not turn on their treatment machinery. 

“Not everyone regularly uses it. They want to save costs,” he said.

– ‘Facing the same fate’ –

Bangladesh is a delta country criss-crossed by more than 200 waterways, each of them connected to the mighty Ganges and Brahmatura rivers that course from the Himalayas and through the South Asian subcontinent.

More than a quarter of them are now heavily contaminated with industrial pollutants and need to be “urgently” saved, said an April legal notice sent to the government by the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA). 

Authorities have established a commission tasked with saving key water bodies, upon which close to half the country’s population depend for farming, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. 

The National River Commission has launched several high profile drives to fine factories found to have polluted rivers.

Its newly appointed chief, Manjur Chowdhury, said “greedy” industrialists were to blame for the state of the country’s waterways.

But he also admitted that the enforcement of existing penalties was inadequate to address the scale of the problem.

“We have to frame new laws to face this emergency situation. But it will take time,” he told AFP.

Any action will be too late for the five rivers that circle Dhaka and its industrial outskirts.

All are already technically dead, meaning they are completely devoid of marine life, said prominent environmental activist Sharif Jamil. 

“With factories now moving deep into the rural heartland, rivers across the country are facing the same fate,” he told AFP.

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Asian markets climb as calm returns after sharp sell-off

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Investors will be keeping a close eye on Federal Reserve boss Jerome Powell's testimony to lawmakers in Washington this week
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Equities rose Tuesday in Asia as some stability returned to markets after last week’s upheaval, but analysts warned of further pain for traders after central bank officials hinted at further interest rate hikes to reel in inflation.

While there was no catalyst from Wall Street owing to a public holiday, a healthy performance across Europe provided a little boost, while bargain-buying was also lending support.

However, there remains an overarching sense of gloom as traders speculate that the sharp lift in borrowing costs around the world will tip economies into recession.

Focus this week is on Federal Reserve boss Jerome Powell’s two days of testimony to lawmakers in Washington, which will be closely watched for some insight into the bank’s thinking and possible clues about its plans for fighting surging prices.

The Fed announced a three-quarter point lift last week, after inflation data days earlier had smashed forecasts and hit a four-decade high.

“While (investors do) not expect Powell to reinvent the policy wheel, we could expect him to reinforce the idea that the Fed is in data-dependent mode,” said Stephen Innes of SPI Asset Management. 

“Hence, any shift in Fed rhetoric will be a function of incoming data, virtually all of which now presents event risk. From that perspective, further evidence of persistent inflation will trigger policy panic, while any signs of sluggish growth momentum will confirm the recession narrative.

“Neither suggests that now is the time to board the rally wagon.”

In early trade, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sydney, Seoul, Singapore, Wellington, Taipei, Manila and Jakarta all rose.

“There might be a narrative that we’ve hit a bottom, we are oversold, the Fed is taking inflation seriously and that might be slightly bullish in the interim,” Frances Stacy, of Optimal Capital, told Bloomberg TV.

However, while the volatility of last week has gone, banks’ intention to continue hiking rates could cause fresh ructions.

Several officials — including at the Fed, Bank of England, Reserve Bank of Australia and European Central Bank — have come out in recent days to flag a further tightening of borrowing costs.

In commodities markets, oil extended gains as traders moved back in after Friday’s plunge fuelled by concerns over a possible recession.

The gains have been helped by optimism for a boost to demand as China gradually eases out of its period of Covid containment, while the US summer driving period picks up.

– Key figures at around 0230 GMT –

Tokyo – Nikkei 225: UP 1.8 percent at 26,225.15 (break)

Hong Kong – Hang Seng Index: UP 1.1 percent at 21,392.60

Shanghai – Composite: UP 0.1 percent at 3,319.07

Euro/dollar: UP at $1.0534 from $1.0528 Monday

Pound/dollar: UP at $1.2269 from $1.2243

Euro/pound: DOWN at 85.86 pence from 86.02 pence

Dollar/yen: UP at 135.10 yen from 135.06 yen

West Texas Intermediate: UP 2.2 percent at $112.012

Brent North Sea crude: UP 1.6 percent at $115.91 per barrel

London – FTSE 100: UP 1.5 percent at 7,121.81 points (close)

New York – Dow: DOWN 0.1 percent at 29,888.78 (close)

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