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UK unions left disappointed after pay talks with govt

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Union leaders said the separate discussions with transport, health and education ministers had offered little progress
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UK trade unions branded talks Monday with the government to discuss pay rise demands across the public and private sector “disappointing”, as workers prepare to stage the latest in months of damaging strikes.

The talks were convened at the urging of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and are perceived as a shift in strategy after ministers previously minimised their involvement in the months-long disputes.

But union leaders said the separate discussions with transport, health and education ministers had offered little progress in resolving the standoffs, two days before ambulance workers in England and Wales walk out again.

Others set to stage stoppages this week include some civil servants, some transport staff in parts of London and some secondary school employees. Last week saw the latest in a series of highly disruptive strikes by railway workers.

They come as the UK suffers from decades-high inflation amid stagnant economic growth, prompting calls for big salary hikes as the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation bites.

“There is no resolution to our dispute yet in sight,” Joanne Galbraith-Marten of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said following talks with Health Secretary Steve Barclay.

The union has organised unprecedented walkouts by nurses in recent weeks — the first in its 106-year history.

“Today’s meeting was bitterly disappointing — nothing for the current year and repeating that ‘the budget is already set’ for next year,” Galbraith-Marten added on agreeing new salary rates.

– ‘No change’ –

Kevin Courtney, of the National Education Union, said the education secretary had offered further discussions during their talks, but that there had been “no offer” and “no change”.

“There’s no sense of concrete progress,” he told UK media afterwards.

Meanwhile Mick Lynch, who leads the main RMT rail workers’ union, declined to say whether any progress had been made following their meeting with rail ministers.

“We’re just going to have further talks with them,” he told reporters as he left the department some 75 minutes after arriving.

Ahead of Monday’s talks, Sunak welcomed the direct dialogues and said his government was willing to discuss pay demands that were “reasonable” and “affordable”. 

But he has remained vague on whether that would only apply to future salaries or if changes can be made to current pay deals.

“The most important thing is that the conversations are happening, that people are talking,” he told British broadcasters during a visit to a health facility in northern England.

“People need to get talking, that’s what they’re doing and hopefully we can find a way through this.”

However, his government is also planning to introduce legislation requiring minimum service levels in areas such as the railways and in hospitals during strikes, which has angered the unions.

Sunak’s spokesman told reporters Monday that the draft law would be tabled in parliament “in the coming days”.

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Zuckerberg, S. Korea’s President Yoon talk AI cooperation

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Meta chief Mark Zuckerberg met South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol in Seoul Thursday and discussed cooperation on AI and ways to prevent fake news circulation
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Meta chief Mark Zuckerberg met South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol in Seoul Thursday and discussed cooperation on AI and ways to prevent fake news circulation ahead of key elections, Yoon’s office said.

Zuckerberg is on a mini-tour of Asia that has included a stop in Japan, plus a three-day visit to Seoul where he met business leaders from electronics giants Samsung and LG. He heads to India next.

Yoon and Zuckerberg discussed cooperation between South Korean companies and Meta “as well as the vision to create an AI digital ecosystem”, Sung Tae-yoon, Yoon’s chief of staff for policy, told reporters.

“Yoon emphasised South Korean companies’ top place in the memory market for AI systems and asked Zuckerberg to forge close cooperations with them,” the official said.

Yoon stressed that South Korea “with its diverse portfolio of smart electronics, wearable devices and smart cars, can become an outstanding platform” to apply Facebook parent Meta’s artificial intelligence, Sung said.

Yoon told the Meta founder that Seoul would assist in any way “if necessary”, Sung added, pointing to close supply chain cooperation mechanisms established between South Korea and the United States.

In light of major elections globally this year — including a South Korean parliamentary vote in April and the US presidential election in November — Yoon asked the Meta chief to “pay special attention” to monitoring and preventing fake news on his platform.

On Wednesday, Zuckerberg met the CEO of consumer tech giant LG Electronics to discuss extended reality (XR) projects, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

Meta is collaborating with LG to develop a premium headset that will compete with Apple’s Vision Pro, the Korea Economic Daily reported.

The Meta boss also met Lee Jae-yong, the head of Samsung Electronics — one of the world’s biggest producers of smartphones and computer chips — to explore potential collaborations in AI memory chips and XR businesses, Yonhap reported.

Samsung is among the few companies worldwide that manufacture premium high-bandwidth memory (HBM) chips tailored for AI processors.

Yonhap said Zuckerberg also met representatives from at least five AI and XR startups at Meta’s Seoul office.

Spearheaded by OpenAI’s ChatGPT, generative artificial intelligence is a technology that can conjure up text, images and audio from simple prompts in just seconds.

Its rapid development has been heralded as potentially revolutionary for everything from video games to politics — but is not without risks.

Meta was one of 20 major tech firms, including OpenAI, to sign a pledge this month to crack down on AI content intended to deceive voters ahead of elections around the world this year.

Yonhap reported that Zuckerberg will leave Seoul on Thursday for India.

He will attend the lavish March 1-3 pre-wedding celebrations of the son of Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Indian oil-to-telecoms giant Reliance, reports said.

Meta, Google and others have invested billions of dollars in Reliance’s digital unit Jio Platforms as it seeks to take on Amazon and Walmart in India’s vast e-commerce market.

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European consumers challenge Meta paid service as privacy ‘smokescreen’

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Meta has reaped rich financial rewards by selling its users' data to advertisers, but its model has pit it against EU regulators
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Consumer groups from eight EU countries lodged complaints on Thursday against Meta, accusing the US company of illegally processing user data and using its “pay or consent” system as a “smokescreen” for privacy breaches.

Meta has reaped rich financial rewards by selling Facebook and Instagram user data to advertisers, but its business model has pit the US-based firm against EU regulators over data privacy.

In November, Meta launched a “pay or consent” system allowing users to withhold use of their data for ad targeting in exchange for a monthly fee — a model already facing two challenges from privacy and consumer advocates.

Announcing the latest action, the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) called the system “a smokescreen to obscure the real problem of massive, illegal data processing of users which goes on regardless of what users choose.”

Eight consumer groups in the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia and Spain are filing complaints with their local data protection authorities, the Brussels-based umbrella body said in a statement.

The groups argue that Meta is still violating the European Union’s mammoth general data protection regulation, which has been at the root of EU court cases against the online giant.

“It’s time for data protection authorities to stop Meta’s unfair data processing and its infringing of people’s fundamental rights,” said Ursula Pachl, BEUC deputy director general.

BEUC in a report said that Meta is violating the EU data law’s principles that demand transparency as well as limiting how much user data it processes and what it is used for.

“Meta seems to be of the opinion that in order for the company to earn money with advertising, it is justified to collect any imaginable data on consumers’ activities, location, personalities, behaviour, attitudes and emotions,” the report said.

“In reality, the massive exploitation of the private lives of hundreds of millions of European consumers for commercial gain fails to respect various fundamental principles of the GDPR.”

– Flurry of complaints –

The Silicon Valley company allows users of Instagram and Facebook in Europe to pay between 10 and 13 euros (around $11 and $14) a month to opt out of data sharing.

Under the GDPR law, consent must be freely given but BEUC argues that its model coerces consumers into accepting Meta’s processing of their personal data.

“The company also fails to show that the fee it imposes on consumers who do not consent is indeed necessary, which is a requirement stipulated by” an EU top court.

“Under these circumstances, the choice about how consumers want their data to be processed becomes meaningless and is therefore not free,” the report said.

The challenges are the latest in a cat-and-mouse game between the EU and Meta.

The EU’s data watchdog, the EDPB, in December told Meta it could not use the personal data of users for targeted ads without their explicit consent.

The EDPB is due to decide in the next few weeks whether a fee system like Meta’s violates the bloc’s data privacy laws.

Thursday’s complaint is the third against Meta’s “pay or consent” scheme.

BEUC in November said together with 19 of its members that they had launched a joint complaint with Europe’s network of consumer protection authorities against the system.

Before that, the privacy group NOYB, which has won countless victories against Meta and others, filed a complaint.

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Bitcoin tops $60,000, approaches all-time high

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Bitcoin is climbing toward its all-time high of $68,991
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Bitcoin passed the $60,000 mark on Wednesday, approaching its all-time high and continuing its unbridled rise since the approval of a new type of investment indexed to the cryptocurrency.

At 1325 GMT, bitcoin traded at about $60,301, closing in on its all-time high of $68,991 — that was struck in November 2021 and which some analysts believe is now within reach.

Since their approval on January 10 by US securities regulators, exchange-traded funds (ETFs) indexed to bitcoin have theoretically enabled a wider public to invest in the cryptocurrency without having to hold it directly. The funds themselves, however, do invest in the digital currency.

The expected approval of the new investment product had contributed in recent months to a rise in its price, which had largely fallen by the end of 2022 following the bankruptcy of several crypto giants.

The US launch of ETFs or ETPs (exchange-traded products) has “injected a fresh wave of optimism, propelling trading volumes and spotlighting crypto-linked firms”, notes Mikkel Morch of specialist fund ARK36.

The instruments are comparable to stocks or mutual funds as far as accessibility to everyday investors.

Some investors eager to recoup their bets had initially triggered a wave of mass withdrawals from the GBTC (Grayscale Bitcoin Trust) fund, once it had been converted into an ETF.

But once the selling fever subsided, flows into US bitcoin ETFs, such as that of asset management giant BlackRock, increased.

Exchange-listed cryptoasset-linked investment products have attracted around $5.7 billion since the start of the year, according to calculations by asset manager CoinShares published on Monday.

– ‘Institutional endorsement’ –

As further evidence of “the growing institutional endorsement that’s fuelling this rally” in prices, Morch said, software company MicroStrategy announced on Monday that it had purchased a further 3,000 bitcoins (then worth $155 million).

The transaction brought its total bitcoin holdings to 193,000 bitcoins (about $6.09 billion).

Bitcoin is created — or “mined” — as a reward when powerful computers solve complex problems to validate transactions made on the blockchain.

James Harte, an analyst from Tickmill, notes that prices are also buoyed as major industry players invest in bitcoin ahead of the “halving” — or the dividing in two of reward for the token’s miners.

The event, which occurs about every four years, is next due in April.

It is expected to slow the speed at which new bitcoins enter the market, reducing the cryptocurrency’s potential availability for purchase, which should boost its value.

“As the issuance of new bitcoin slows down, the existing scarcity of the digital asset becomes even more pronounced, typically leading to increased demand and, subsequently, higher prices,” noted Nigel Green, head of financial advisory firm deVere Group.

He added: “Cryptocurrencies remain highly speculative, but the enormous interest in spot ETFs and the upcoming halving event… can be expected to continue to fuel the current momentum which could lead bitcoin to surpass the $69,000 mark.”

The virtual unit has also been partly boosted by hopes that the US Federal Reserve will start to cut interest rates this year as inflation eases.

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