online video calling: Airtel, Vodafone and Reliance Jio have this warning over Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other video-conferencing apps


Telecom companies have warned subscribers that the dial-in numbers for online video-calling or meeting applications like Zoom and Microsoft Teams may attract international calling rates if toll-free numbers are not used.

Alerts were sent via SMS to customers after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) ordered that operators warn their subscribers that ISD rates will be charged for the international numbers in the dial-in features of these apps. Both Trai and telcos have received complaints of bill shock during the last few months as India Inc moved to the work-from-home mode amid the pandemic.

“If one logs in from the laptop/desktop and uses the built-in audio, it is fine but many are unaware of the international or premium numbers and are calling from their mobiles while they are latched on to the cellular network. They are therefore getting ISD charges for those calls,” said a telecom executive.

Over the last six months, India Inc has transitioned to video calling and meeting apps for its daily work. This has led to a surge in these app downloads and data usage.

To tap into the opportunity, Bharti Airtel along with US-based telecom operator Verizon recently launched videoconferencing service Blue Jeans. Just before that, rival Reliance Jio launched a videoconference app called Jio Meet, taking on popular competitors like Zoom and Microsoft Teams.





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U.S. State Dept.: Russia pushes COVID-19 misinformation in online network


CHICAGO —
The U.S. State Department says Russia is using a well-developed online operation that includes a loose collection of proxy websites to stir up confusion around the coronavirus by amplifying conspiracy theories and misinformation.

The disclosure on Wednesday was rare for the Trump administration, which has been cautious about blaming the Kremlin for disinformation campaigns, especially around the U.S. election. Despite evidence that Russia launched a divisive disinformation operation on social media during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the State Department’s report did not examine how — if at all — Russia is waging another online influence campaign in this year’s election.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did, however, announce Wednesday that the U.S. would offer a reward of up to $10 million for information that identifies people working with foreign governments to interfere in the U.S. election through illegal cyber activity.

The department detailed a Russian-backed misinformation cycle that spreads false information online through state officials and state-funded media reports, by infiltrating U.S. social media conversation, and leveraging a deceptive internet framework of websites. The Kremlin’s efforts have most recently focused on conspiracy theories around the pandemic, the report found.

“Russia is playing a significant role in creating and spreading misinformation and propaganda around many topics,” said Lea Gabrielle, head of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center.

The department named more than a half-dozen websites that, serving as “proxies” for Russia, have peddled a series of conspiracy theories about the pandemic that have been widely spreading and hotly debated across social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The online news outlets appear independent from the Russian government, but in reality serve as a “connective tissue” between the Kremlin and state-funded media that often promote the same misinformation from their own channels, Gabrielle said.

“That’s what makes them effective,” Gabrielle said. “It’s difficult for the average person online to look at these sites and know the Russian affiliation.”

Russia has regularly denied claims from the U.S. that it is behind online disinformation campaigns, last week calling similar assertions “persistent phobia.”

The websites the State Department identified Wednesday have promoted unsupported conspiracy theories that allege COVID-19 was created in a lab as a bioweapon, billionaire Bill Gates is plotting to use the pandemic as an excuse to microchip people, and that plans for a coronavirus vaccine are simply a ploy for pharmaceutical companies to make money. There is no evidence behind those claims.

The origin of the novel coronavirus remains unknown, but the emerging scientific consensus is that humans were first infected in China, at a Wuhan animal market. Around the globe, leaders are investing in a vaccine as the best bet to beat the virus. And Gates has repeatedly rejected that he wants to start tracking people.

“Russia has a long history of spreading disinformation around health and science issues,” Gabrielle said. “The Russian disinformation ecosystem exploits fear and confusion.”

While building up a following on Facebook and Twitter, some of the websites have downplayed their ties to Russian intelligence or concealed funding from the Kremlin, the State Department’s report found.

One of the sites, Canadian-based Global Research, has amassed an audience of nearly 300,000 followers on Facebook. The website regularly publishes articles from fictitious personas created by Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU. The headline of a recent Global Research article suggested the coronavirus originated in the U.S., and it was shared by a Chinese spokesman on Twitter before the website took the unsubstantiated claim down.

Chinese, Iran and Russian government leaders have regularly echoed one another on social media and in state media reports.

Another website, NewsFront, pitches itself as an “alternative” news source to Western audiences, despite its reported Kremlin funding and being registered with the Russian government, according to the State Department’s report. Facebook removed dozens of accounts and pages associated with NewsFront for inauthentic, co-ordinatedbehaviour in April.

Most of the other websites are far more fringe, with only small social media followings and articles pushing coronavirus conspiracy theories that have only been shared by the dozens.

Last week, U.S. officials told The Associated Press that Russian intelligence are using another trio of English-language websites to push disinformation about the pandemic.



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Amazon Q2 2020 Earnings: Why the online retail giant is soaring during COVID-19


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Temple & Webster’s profits soar nearly 500% in online shopping splurge


Homewares and furniture retailer Temple & Webster has seen its earnings shoot up by nearly 500 per cent as consumers stuck at home during the coronavirus crisis went on an online shopping spree to improve their living rooms.

At its full-year results announcement on Tuesday, the online-only retailer said its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) came in at $8.5 million for the year to June 30, a 483 per cent increase on the $1.5 million reported in the previous financial year.

Temple and Webster CEO Mark Coulter says this year’s results are pleasing in the face of tough retail conditions.Credit:Eamon Gallagher

Sales also boomed, jumping 74 per cent to $176.3 million. Volumes doubled across the second half of the year as online shopping became the new normal in the pandemic.

Widely considered one of the worst IPOs of 2016, Temple & Webster has since become somewhat of a market darling for investors, with shares up nearly 200 per cent since the start of the year and the company now worth nearly $1 billion.



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Coronavirus: Online sales tax considered by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in bid to save the high street | Politics News


A new tax on goods sold online is being considered by the chancellor in a bid to save the high street post-coronavirus, Downing Street has revealed.

It could be a 2% levy on online sales, which would raise £2bn a year, or a charge on deliveries, as part of a campaign to cut congestion and emissions.

The move comes after Rishi Sunak highlighted concerns that business rates are effectively penalising high street stores and giving internet retailers an unfair advantage.

The mask followed him not wearing a mask after serving food to promote his jobs speech
Image:
Rishi Sunak wearing a mask – after not wearing one while serving food to promote his jobs speech

“Last week, as we set out in the budget and manifesto, we published a call for evidence to look into all aspects of the business rates system,” the prime minister’s spokesman said.

“And as part of this we will consider the case for introducing alternative taxes as part of the review, including an online sales tax.

“The pandemic has had a significant impact on how business is done and the effect of this will become clearer over time.

“We’ll continue to support businesses as far as possible, but we must also ensure that the tax system raises sufficient revenue to fund our vital public services.”

In its consultation document, the Treasury said: “Some commentators argue that the business rates system creates a distortion within the retail sector, favouring online retailers that can operate without the high-value properties that are a feature of more traditional retail.

“This has led to proposals that the government should levy a tax on companies based on their online sales, and that this could be used to fund business rates reductions for retail properties.”



Rishi Sunak



Chancellor: ‘We can’t protect every job’

The online sales tax idea coincides with recommendations for restarting the economy after COVID-19 from a group of Tory backbenchers, mostly Remainers, calling themselves “moderate Conservative MPs”.

In a report from the “One Nation Caucus”, the MPs call for “a relentless focus on the government’s levelling-up agenda, in order to get the economy moving across the whole country”.

Proposals include creating new Economic Development Zones to drive growth, expanding the number of planned Freeports, and creating technology adoption funds to support the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The report also suggests a number of policies to protect people on low incomes, including a new consumer right to prevent loyalty penalties, and proposals for managing repayments of COVID business loans, recommending an approach similar to the Student Loan scheme.

“The chancellor is doing a tremendous job of steering our economy through these difficult times,” said the author, ex-minister Stephen Hammond, who was one of 21 pro-Remain MPs who lost the Tory whip last year.

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“But if we are to safeguard our recovery, more action will be needed to drive growth across the whole country.

“Our new report sets out a number of ‘oven-ready’ One Nation proposals to double down on levelling up and driving growth, which we hope they will consider at the forthcoming autumn budget.”

Other MPs contributing to the report are ex-ministers Philip Dunne and John Penrose and backbenchers John Stevenson, Alan Mak and Julie Marson.

Damian Green, former first secretary of state and chair of the One Nation Caucus, added: “Levelling up in this country and re-setting our international relations in the post-Brexit era are two huge tasks and moderate Conservatives want to help the prime minister succeed in both.”



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E-commerce pioneers reap the rewards as online retail becomes big business


Online retail, once deemed “a complete con” by retail veteran Gerry Harvey, now accounts for 10 per cent of all retail expenditure in the country.

Bricks and mortar retailers, having felt the brunt of a sector-wide recession for much of 2019, have been forced to bring their digital offerings up to speed as the coronavirus crisis forces shoppers online. Many traditional retailers are playing catch-up as the pandemic condenses five years of change into just a few months.

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For operators such as Ruslan Kogan, it’s a mix of excitement, some vindication, and a sprinkling of schadenfreude, as other operators scramble to prepare for a seismic shift he had been prophesying for years.

While he would have preferred it not to occur at the hands of a global pandemic, the chief executive says millions of Australians are now shopping online, many for the first time in their lives.

“What we’ve been seeing for a number of months now is an incremental step change in the way people shop,” Kogan told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. “And once [customers] start shopping online, I don’t think they’re ever going back to a store.”

The success has been reflected in Kogan’s share price, which has risen more than 120 per cent over the past three months and is one of the best-performing stocks on the ASX’s All Ordinaries index since the market lows in March.

It is joined by a clutch of other online retail up-and-comers, such as digital homewares and furniture seller Temple & Webster, custom apparel seller Redbubble, and plus-size fashion chain City Chic, which receives two-thirds of its revenue from online channels.

These four represent some of the highest-profile ASX-listed retailers exposed to the online retail channel. All bar one have doubled their market capitalisation compared with this time last year.

Investment fund Wilson Asset Management has a focus on undervalued stocks and is a sizeable investor in both Kogan and Temple & Webster. Portfolio manager Tobias Yao says the fund invested a few years ago, drawn by the online sector’s potential for growth.

“We’re strong believers that pure online retailers can continue to take market share away from traditional, bricks and mortar retailers,” Yao says.

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“When we first invested in the e-commerce space we recognised that Australia really lagged behind the US and UK for total online retail penetration, and we thought we would see the same seismic shift here in Australia over time.”

Yao points to a few fundamental reasons why online retailers are a boon for investors. Though they often run at lower margins than their bricks and mortar peers, overheads such as store rent are non-existent, product ranges are broader, and there are greater opportunities to acquire new customers.

These drawcards have led to major incumbent retailers looking to get a leg-up in the online space. For instance, large-format specialist Wesfarmers acquired online retailer Catch last year for $230 million.

Wesfarmers has since brought on former US Amazon executive Pete Sauerborn to lead the Catch division, who has plans for it to become a formidable player in Wesfarmers’ portfolio, with the business also seeing “extraordinary” growth in recent months. For the first five months of the year, Catch’s revenue rose a whopping 68.7 per cent.

But Sauerborn, who spent a decade working with Amazon in the US, admits Australia’s e-commerce sector is still far behind the US, stymied by higher labour costs, the ever-present challenge of geographical distance and a dearth of delivery options.

Peter Sauerborn, managing director at Catch Group.Credit:Eamon Gallagher

“The US has more players doing the sort of mid-mile to last-mile transportation,” Sauerborn says. “That adds a different set of dynamics … and makes shipping and transportation logistics a bit more expensive here as well.”

But that won’t prevent Australia from following the US and Europe’s well-trodden path to online expansion, he says.

Analysts and industry participants predict a doubling of online to 20 per cent or more of all Australian retail sales in the next five to 10 years, cementing the sector as a roughly $50 billion industry.

But Ruslan Kogan isn’t ready to admit he’s proven the naysayers wrong just yet, despite his business being worth more than both Myer and David Jones combined. E-commerce still has much further to grow before the chief executive will rest on his laurels.

“What we’ve said will happen, is starting to happen, but Australia still has a long way to go,” he says. “What we’re seeing is just the beginning.”

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Lower courts heard 7.3 lakh cases online: Ravi Shankar Prasad | India News


NEW DELHI: Law, communications and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Saturday said the digital infrastructure in the country has helped provide a variety of e-governance and direct transfer services during the Covid-19 pandemic, with subordinate courts too handling over 7.3 lakh cases virtually.
In addition, more that 1.7 lakh cases have been heard virtually by high courts and another 7,800 cases have been handled by the Supreme Court in this fashion, Prasad said in his keynote address at the Late Thakur Prasad Centenary Memorial Lecture. “Digital India goes beyond what Indian IT companies, such as Wipro and Infosys, have done to empower ordinary Indians and bridge the digital divide,” he said through a video link. Thakur Prasad, a noted lawyer and one of the prominent figures in BJP who served as a minister in Bihar was Prasad’s father. Over the last five-and-a-half years, nearly Rs 11 lakh crore have gone into bank accounts of the poor, which are linked to Aadhaar, and helped prevent leakages of around Rs 1.7 lakh crore, which were earlier pocketed by middlemen, he added. “Digital governance leads to good governance,” he said.
While these transactions have resulted in the generation of billions of data on individuals, Prasad made it clear that the government was going to ensure that this data was protected. “Data is an asset, a critical and strategic asset. Who owns this data? Data of Indians, belongs to India… We shall not compromise on data sovereignty. We will not tolerate data imperialism. I am very happy that this is finding global support,” Prasad, who is piloting the Data Protection Bill, said.
He also said there was a need to strike a balance between privacy and disclosure of data of those who were trying to destabilise the country.



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Once staid annual meetings become online mega-events in pandemic


Going virtual started gaining traction after 2009 when Intel held the first online annual meeting, according to a Harvard Law School paper.

With social distancing measures in place this year, companies such as Goldman Sachs held virtual-only assemblies for the first time.

In the US, about 65 per cent of S&P 500 index companies had hosted virtual meetings or said they would as of May 1, according to Intelligize, a research platform for compliance professionals. Only 11 per cent of them had held their meetings online before and almost all of the companies that went virtual cited COVID-19 as the reason.

Online meetings may allow companies to cherry pick audience questions and executives to give more scripted answers.

Financial technology firm Broadridge Financial Solutions said it has hosted more than 1300 online shareholder meetings this year through mid-June. That’s more than six times the number held in the year-earlier period.

Yermack and Lily Li, an assistant professor at Temple University, estimate that this year 70 per cent of the annual meetings in the US will be virtual, compared to 7 per cent in 2019.

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Shareholder advocates say technical snafus and the lack of in-person engagement with executives pose challenges. Online meetings may allow companies to cherry pick audience questions and executives to give more scripted answers.

“If you’re in a room with people, you can sort of see what’s going on, and if there’s a shareholder who wants to ask a question and is not being called on, it’s sort of obvious,” said Ken Bertsch, a special adviser at the Council of Institutional Investors. “But you can’t tell that in a virtual meeting.”

In some cases, investors who sought to attend virtually encountered difficulty proving they were shareholders, according to CII.

Going virtual may be short lived. Home Depot and ConocoPhillips, which held their annual meetings online this year, have said they expect to revert in 2021.

Yet hold-outs remain. Among them: Tesla, which plans to have its annual meeting in September at its factory in Fremont, California, provided health guidelines allow. In a nod to tech, Tesla will webcast the event.

Bloomberg

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International Students Try To Cope With Trump’s Online Class Rule


BuzzFeed News has reporters around the world bringing you trustworthy stories about the impact of the coronavirus. To help keep this news free, become a member.

MEXICO CITY — At first, S.G. thought it was fake news.

An undergraduate student from Venezuela, S.G. has been living in Florida for four years. The news she received earlier this week seemed as bizarre and implausible as some of the rumors that regularly float around in her home country. But this was happening in the US, and it was happening to her.

On Monday, the Trump administration announced that foreign students whose course loads are carried out exclusively online amid the coronavirus pandemic would have to leave the country. Shortly after, S.G.’s cellphone began lighting up with a frenzy of messages and links.

“This has to be a lie. It’s surely a rumor,” thought S.G., who requested that only her initials be used for fear of how her immigration status might change in the coming days. “Why would we have to leave if we are here legally and we have a visa?”

Her parents, S.G. said, decided to spend much of their life savings on her college education, even as Venezuela’s economy was nose-diving. Her parents still live in Venezuela, unlike many of their friends and neighbors who fled widespread insecurity, hyperinflation, a crumbling healthcare system, and frequent blackouts.

If she is forced to go back home, how will S.G. be able to take online classes when the power goes out?

The new policy, issued by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which runs the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, is the latest in a series of directives aimed at curbing legal immigration into the US. It puts more than 1 million international students in the US at risk of deportation amid a global pandemic that has severely restricted air travel.

If they are forced to return home, many of these students will be in different time zones and in locations where access to the internet might be spotty, at best, making it harder for them to follow the course than if they were in the US.

This modification “will encourage schools to reopen,” acting Deputy DHS Secretary Ken Cuccinelli told CNN. Holders of F-1 and M-1 visas, which are for academic and vocational students, must transfer to a school that offers partial in-person courses or leave the country. The State Department issued more than 398,000 of these types of visas in fiscal year 2019.

On Wednesday, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration in an effort to halt the new policy.

In a letter to students and faculty, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said the policy aimed to pressure universities to open their campuses in the fall despite record numbers of coronavirus infections, and said its cruelty was “surpassed only by its recklessness.” Harvard had announced last month that classes next year would be held remotely with rare exceptions.

Professors across the country scrambled to understand the effects of the vaguely worded policy, and many offered to provide in-person classes, reimagined to protect students from COVID-19 transmission.

“If outdoors is the safest place to be and we need to meet in person, I will find a palm tree,” Joshua Scacco, a professor of political communication at the University of South Florida, told BuzzFeed News. There are more than 4,700 international students from 141 different countries at USF.

Professors at the University of California, Columbia University, DePaul University, and Syracuse University, among others, made similar offers on Twitter. S.G. said several professors reached out to her on the social media platform to offer support, even if it was only emotional.

More than half of the 1.1 million international students in the US come from China and India, according to the Institute of International Education. Many others come from Latin American countries, where they are often fleeing drug-related violence and political oppression.

When S.G. left Venezuela in 2016, food, water, and electricity shortages were already widespread. But things have worsened and now — they only get running water 30 minutes a day.

“I can’t imagine returning to that now,” said S.G., who reckons there are at least 300 other Venezuelan students at her university.

For now, S.G. is waiting to see what happens with the policy, given the massive pushback from universities. She fears for herself, and for the many Venezuelan students in the US who will have nothing to return to at home because their families are no longer there — millions have fled to neighboring countries, or even Europe, in recent years.

The policy, if enacted, would also pose a serious financial challenge to colleges and universities, which depend heavily on revenue from foreign students. International students contribute $45 billion to the US economy and support 455,000 US jobs, according to the Department of Commerce.

Like most international students, Garry Fanata, a fourth-year software engineering student at the University of California, in Irvine, is paying full tuition. His biggest concern right now is not being able to stay in the US after graduating to work for a few years in a top tech company.

“This was my plan to be able to repay my parents for the investment they have put into my education,” he said.

Fanata, who is the first generation from his Indonesian family to study in the US, said he is not looking at flights home yet because he is confident that his university will find a solution. “However, this might not be the case for smaller colleges and universities,” he added.

Others are less optimistic, including a computer engineering student who said he was planning on visiting his family in India in September. The 20-year-old student, who did want his name used for fear of being targeted by ICE, said that for months, he worried his plans would be derailed by the coronavirus. Now, he fears the US government won’t allow him back into the country.

“This week has been one of the most stressful weeks ever,” he said. On top of the stress, “I have to keep performing at my best. America is ready to kick me out.”

While much of the discussion is currently centered on the economic impact of international students, Scacco says it is important to remember that those affected by this policy are young, law-abiding people who are intent on learning at the best universities.

“These students are human beings deserving of respect, deserving of certainty over their educational processes,” he said. “We have entered into agreements with these students.”





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