posted less than an hour ago on re/code
Health workers arrive at the airport to check passengers for Wuhan coronavirus. | Guillermo Arias/Getty Images AI helped spot an early warning about the outbreak, and researchers have used flight traveler data to figure out where the novel coronavirus could pop up next. When a mysterious illness first pops up, it can be difficult for governments and public health officials to gather information quickly and coordinate a response. But new artificial intelligence technology can automatically mine through news reports and online content from around the world, helping experts recognize anomalies that could lead to a potential epidemic or, worse, a pandemic. In other words, our new AI overlords might actually help us survive the next plague. These new AI capabilities are on full display with the recent coronavirus outbreak, which was identified early by a Canadian firm called BlueDot, which is one of a number of companies that use data to evaluate public health risks. The company, which says it conducts “automated infectious disease surveillance,” notified its customers about the new form of coronavirus at the end of December, days before both the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) sent out official notices, as reported by Wired. Now nearing the end of January, the respiratory virus that’s been linked to the city of Wuhan in China has already claimed the lives of more than 100 people. Cases have also popped up in several other countries, including the United States, and the CDC is warning Americans to avoid non-essential travel to China. Kamran Khan, an infectious disease physician and BlueDot’s founder and CEO, explained in an interview how the company’s early-warning system uses artificial intelligence, including natural-language processing and machine learning, to track over 100 infectious diseases by analyzing about 100,000 articles in 65 languages every day. That data helps the company know when to notify its clients about the potential presence and spread of an infectious disease. Other data, like traveler itinerary information and flight paths, can help give the company additional hints about how a disease will likely spread. For instance, earlier this month, BlueDot researchers predicted other cities in Asia where the coronavirus would show up after it appeared in mainland China. The idea behind BlueDot’s model (whose final results are subsequently analyzed by human researchers) is to get information to health care workers as quickly as possible, with the hope that they can diagnose — and, if needed, isolate — infected and potentially contagious people early on. “The official information isn’t always timely,” Khan told Recode. “The difference between one case in a traveler and an outbreak depends upon your frontline health care worker recognizing that there is a particular disease. It could be the difference in preventing an outbreak from actually occurring.” Khan added that his system can also use an array of other data — such as information about an area’s climate, temperature, or even local livestock — to predict whether someone infected with a disease is likely to cause an outbreak in that area. He points out that, back in 2016, BlueDot was able to predict the appearance of the Zika virus in Florida six months before it actually showed up there. Similarly, the epidemic-monitoring company Metabiota determined that Thailand, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan had the highest risk of seeing the virus show up more than a week before cases in those countries were actually reported, partially by looking to flight data. Metabiota, like BlueDot, uses natural-language processing to evaluate online reports about a potential disease, and it’s also working on developing the same technology for social media data. Mark Gallivan, Metabiota’s data science director, explains that online platforms and forums can also give an indication that there’s a risk of an epidemic. Metabiota also claims it can estimate the risk of a disease’s spread causing social and political disruption, based on information like an illness’s symptoms, mortality rate, and the availability of treatment. For instance, at the time of this article’s publication, Metabiota rated the risk of the novel coronavirus causing public anxiety as “high” in the US and China, but it rated this risk for the monkeypox virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (where there have been reported cases of that virus) as “medium.” It’s hard to know just how accurate this rating system or the platform itself can be, but Gallivan says the company is working with the US intelligence community and the Defense Department on issues related to the coronavirus. This is part of Metabiota’s work with In-Q-Tel, the nonprofit venture firm associated with the Central Intelligence Agency. But government agencies aren’t the only potential clients of these systems. Metabiota also advertises its platform to reinsurance companies — reinsurance is essentially insurance for insurance companies — that might want to manage the financial risks associated with a disease’s potential spread. But artificial intelligence can be far more useful than just keeping epidemiologists and officials informed as a disease pops up. Researchers have built AI-based models that can predict outbreaks of the Zika virus in real time, which can inform how doctors respond to potential crises. Artificial intelligence could also be used to guide how public health officials distribute resources during a crisis. In effect, AI stands to be a new first line of defense against disease. More broadly, AI is already assisting with researching new drugs, tackling rare diseases, and detecting breast cancer. AI was even used to identify insects that spread Chagas, an incurable and potentially deadly disease that has infected an estimated 8 million people in Mexico and Central and South America. There’s also increasing interest in using non-health data — like social media posts — to help health policymakers and drug companies understand the breadth of a health crisis. For instance, AI that can mine social media posts to track illegal opioid sales, and keep public health officials informed about these controlled substances’ spread. These systems, including Metabiota’s and BlueDot’s, are only as good as the data they’re evaluating. And AI — generally — has a problem with bias, which can reflect both the engineers of a system and the data it’s trained on. And AI that’s used within health care is by no means immune to that problem. Still, all of these advancements represent a more optimistic outlook for what AI can do. Typically, news of AI robots sifting through large swathes of data doesn’t sit so well. Think of law enforcement using facial recognition databases built on images mined from across the web. Or hiring managers who can now use AI to predict how you’ll behave at work, based on your social media posts. The idea of AI battling deadly disease offers a case where we might feel slightly less uneasy, if not altogether hopeful. Perhaps this technology — if developed and used properly — could actually help save some lives. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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posted less than an hour ago on re/code
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images Scroll will let you pay money to not see ads — and then gives most of the money to publishers (like this one). Here’s the basic economic agreement that powers most of the stuff you see on the internet: You look at it for free, and in return, someone shows you some ads. Since you’re reading this story on this ad-supported site, you’re part of that agreement, right now. Tony Haile wants to make a different deal: He wants you to give him money, and he’ll give most of that money to internet publishers, and they’ll take the ads off of their sites. That’s the theory behind Scroll, Haile’s startup that is launching today after several years of prep. A shorter and slightly less accurate way of describing Scroll: It’s a subscription ad-blocking service. And here’s the shortest way to describe what it does: Scroll Ad blockers aren’t new, and there are plenty you can buy or use for free. But the big difference between previous ad blockers and Scroll is that traditional ad blockers remove publishers’ ads — which most publishers still depend on for the majority of their revenue — without giving them anything in return (which is why some sites block users who use ad blockers). Haile’s company, though, pays publishers who remove (almost) all of their ads. Scroll is an interesting idea, and Haile says he has convinced publishers who run more than 300 sites to give it a try (that group includes Vox Media, which owns this site). And while Haile is careful to argue that he’s not telling publishers to give up on web advertising, that’s really the underlying premise of his company: He says publishers can make more money from Scroll than they can selling ads. Haile’s standard line: “We wanted to think about what would the internet look like if ads never existed.” Haile is quite familiar with the internet as it looks like today: Prior to Scroll, he was CEO of Chartbeat, the software many internet publishers use to see who’s visiting their sites and what they’re consuming, second by second. He’s also well aware that sites that depend on digital ads (like this one) find that business increasingly challenging, since Facebook and Google hoover up the vast majority of internet ad dollars. We can get into the mechanics of Haile’s business in a bit. But here’s my big thought: If Scroll works, it doesn’t mean internet advertising is going away. It would, however, be another move toward creating a tiered internet, where people who don’t want to see ads — and can afford to pay not to see them — won’t see ads. And people who can’t pay, or don’t know there’s an option, will keep seeing banners, pop-ups, and pre-rolls. This is already happening, particularly for video services: Hulu charges $6 a month for its collection of TV shows and movies, but if you pay $6 more a month you can watch them without ads. CBS All Access offers a similar deal. Comcast’s upcoming Peacock service is very much supposed to be a free, ad-supported service, but Comcast* will let you watch it without ads if you pay $10 a month. And Netflix, which has 167 million subscribers and costs between $8.99 and $15.99 a month in the US, doesn’t have any ads at all. But while lots of internet publishers have started putting up some version of a paywall on their sites and are asking customers to pay them directly to consume their stuff, most of those sites still show subscribers advertising. Scroll means you don’t see an ad, whether or not you’re a subscriber. Scroll will eventually cost $5 a month. Haile’s company plans to keep up to 30 percent of that fee. The rest it will distribute to participating publishers, using a formula that distributes the money based on the amount of time you spend on publishers’ sites. It’s a twist on similar payout schemes that services like Spotify and Apple News+ formulated to compensate their content partners. The difference is that Scroll creates individual “buckets” of usage for each user. That means if you spend a lot of time reading the Philadelphia Inquirer but not as much on BuzzFeed, your fees will be distributed accordingly; and if you don’t spend any time on Fatherly, that site won’t get any of your Scroll subscription. Another way of putting it: When you subscribe to Spotify, you end up sending artists like Drake and Taylor Swift (or, at least, the people who own their music) a lot of your monthly fee, even if you never listen to them because other Spotify users listen to them a lot. The Scroll scheme is meant to align publishers and users more closely so your money doesn’t automatically flow to the internet’s biggest publishers. Scroll also tells individual users where their money is going. Here’s its estimate for where my $5 would go after a few days of use (I’ve been on a free trial, so this is theoretical): Scroll doesn’t actually block ads itself. Instead, when you visit a participating site, Scroll tells the site you’re a subscriber, and the publisher presents you with an ad-free version. Or, a mostly ad-free version: Scroll will still let publishers present affiliate links, subscription offers, and custom-built native advertising. But publishers are supposed to strip out banner ads, pre-roll ads, and most of the tracking software that publishers use to figure out who is visiting their site, and which they present to advertisers that want to reach you. Scroll itself will use tracking technology but says it is doing it solely to figure out how much to pay publishers, and it promises not to sell your information to advertisers or anyone else. I’ve used Scroll for a few days, and after an initial bit of fiddling — if you use multiple devices you’ll need to log in on multiple devices; you’ll also need to install a dedicated app for your phone, and you may also have to click a few buttons to get it working on web browsers within services like Twitter and Facebook — I mostly stopped thinking about it, which is what Haile wants. The main thing I noticed is that when I visited non-Scroll sites that are particularly ad-heavy, like the New York Daily News, the experience seemed even worse than before because I had started to get used to ad-free sites. Haile spent several years trying to convince publishers to give him a shot, but there are at least three big holdouts he will want to bring into the fold: The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal have not signed on, even though the Times and the Journal (via its parent company News Corp) are two of the investors that have given Scroll $10 million in funding so far. “I look forward to them joining in due time,” Haile says. * Comcast is an investor in Vox Media.

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posted about 3 hours ago on re/code
Elizabeth Warren has, more than any other candidate, strived for purity when it comes to campaign fundraising. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images Fundraising bans are easy to announce, but they’re open to interpretation. Elizabeth Warren made a profound statement this fall when she equated Big Tech with Big Oil and promised to reject money from both. The policy reflected a paradigm shift in Democratic politics. “I’m not going to take any contributions over $200 from executives at big tech companies,” she said in October, a policy that also applied retroactively. Silicon Valley leaders who had donated to Warren’s campaign naturally began to wonder whether a refund check was en route. But it turns out the policy may be more symbolic than it initially appeared. A Warren aide told Recode last week that the campaign had “refunded contributions that violate the pledges our campaign has taken.” The aide declined to answer questions about whether it had returned contributions from any big tech executives specifically. Warren’s team has previously specified that big tech executives include publicly listed leadership teams at Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet and/or Google, Uber, and Lyft. Recode spoke with sources at these companies, however, and has been unable to find any Warren donors in Big Tech who say they have received a returned contribution. The issue is how senior an employee needs to be for the Warren campaign to consider them an executive. If that bar is high, it raises the likelihood that Warren is actually turning away fairly little money, even as the policy allows her to claim some moral high ground. It’s unlikely that Warren would announce a closely watched donor policy and then intentionally flout it; a fundraising report due by this Friday will spell out all the campaign’s refunded donations. The early faring of Warren’s fundraising pledge nevertheless shows just how hard these total bans can be to enforce and how they can have far more muddled impact than their anti-Silicon Valley rhetoric suggest. For instance, two Warren donors from big tech companies say they clearly consider themselves “executives” — they’re both at least at the vice-president level on their org charts — and told Recode that Warren has not returned their donations. Each gave more than $200. “I would be disappointed if any candidate wouldn’t take my personal donations just because of where I work,” one of these donors said. “The two things are in no way related.” While these two Silicon Valley veterans may consider themselves executives — in Recode’s estimation, they would meet the standard definition of what people consider an executive — the employees do not meet Warren’s threshold. That’s one big way in which the policy is more complicated than the press release. When Warren announced in October that she would no longer accept money from big tech, banking, hedge fund, and private equity executives, her campaign sent word that they planned to cross-check the leadership team for each company with what the companies post on their own websites. It didn’t supply other information about exactly which websites. And so a gray area developed. Surely Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg could not give to Warren’s campaign (nor would he want to), but what about the dozens of people who aren’t listed on Facebook’s “leadership” website but clearly have wide power at a big tech company? Again, the Warren campaign said the policy applied retroactively. We don’t know which big tech executives have tried to make contributions but have been rebuffed. We can, however, learn more about the policy by seeing which existing donors have been refunded. And it’s not clear that any big tech executives ended up qualifying for a refund. Recode spoke to several senior employees who donated to the Warren campaign and also work at the seven companies that Warren’s team identified as Big Tech. (Once again, those are Facebook, Alphabet/Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Uber, and Lyft.) None of those employees said they had received a refund from the Warren campaign. Those employees include people at the “senior director,” “senior counsel,” and “partner” levels, along with the two “vice presidents.” “I actually don’t want it back,” said one vice president. “It’d be weird to get it back.” Candidates’ ties to big donors have been a flashpoint throughout the Democratic primary. They have sought to one-up one another with fundraising stats and displays of transparency, each striving to show that the wealthy have minimal — or at least disclosed — influence in their campaign. Perhaps no candidate has gone as far as Warren in striving for purity, whose signs boldly read, “The Best President Money Can’t Buy.” Fundraising bans have been a key way for candidates to distinguish themselves. Most candidates have sworn off super PACs and pledged not to take money from corporate PACs, registered lobbyists, or fossil fuel executives. Bernie Sanders even returned money from a contributor who was later discovered to be a billionaire, the sole Sanders donor with that distinction. Of all the Democratic candidates, only Warren has explicitly made rejecting Big Tech money part of the progressive litmus test. That’s probably because the Democratic Party is divided over just how toxic these donors truly are. For instance, candidates like Pete Buttigieg have aggressively courted billionaire tech executives — and have also offered a less intimidating message about regulating Silicon Valley. Other candidates’ bans have already proven to be up to interpretation. Former Vice President Joe Biden promised not to raise money from fossil fuel executives, but then he attended a private finance event hosted by the founder of a natural gas company. His team said it did not violate the fossil fuel pledge because the host did not currently work at the company. Warren’s ban on Big Tech donations inevitably raises more questions than it answers. For instance, why not ban executives from tech companies that are bigger than Uber and Lyft, like Oracle or Salesforce? Should wealthy venture capitalists who back tech companies and sit on their boards be verboten, too? These shouldn’t be hypothetical questions. These donors exist. That’s because the irony of all of this is that, despite her bans, Silicon Valley’s elite actually quite likes Warren.

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posted about 21 hours ago on re/code
The Post suspended a reporter after she tweeted about Kobe Bryant. | ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images If media companies can’t handle complaints about their reporters’ tweets, they should take Twitter away from their reporters. It’s 2020. How come the Washington Post is screwing up at Twitter? That’s the rough paraphrase coming at me today from my colleagues and from Twitter. Everyone wants to know why the Post has punished one of its reporters for tweeting about Kobe Bryant after his death yesterday. My answer: It’s 2020, and Twitter — really, all of social media — remains something that media companies of all stripes can and will screw up. Because humans are messy, and social media, among other things, is built to exploit that mess. The situation won’t get better unless media companies ban their employees from using social media. Which they’re not going to do. You can get a full tick-tock on the Post/Bryant/Twitter story from my colleague Emily Stewart, but the tl;dr is that the Post put reporter Felicia Sonmez on “administrative leave” after she tweeted in the wake of Bryant’s death on Sunday. A slightly longer account includes the detail that Sonmez’s output included a link to a 2016 Daily Beast article about sexual assault charges Bryant faced in 2003. (The criminal charges were dropped in 2004, and Bryant and his accuser reached an out-of-court settlement in 2005.) One of Sonmez’s tweets also included a screenshot of her email inbox, which was taken after sending out the tweet with the link about Bryant’s assault charges. The tweets garnered thousands of replies, many of which were negative, before Sonmez deleted them. As Stewart points out on Vox, one of the missives read, “Piece of fucking shit. Go fuck yourself. Cunt.” The Post has since said that Sonmez’s output may have violated the Post’s social media policies, so it’s investigating that possibility. You can find those policies here, but you won’t find instructions forbidding Post reporters from linking to other publications’ stories or from posting evidence of people on the internet behaving badly. The Post’s Erik Wemple reports today that Sonmez, who checked into a hotel Sunday night after receiving death threats, says she was told that the initial problem with her tweets was that they didn’t concern her “coverage area.” Like other media organizations that have posted social media policies, the Washington Post does tell its employees that when they tweet or Insta or whatever, those messages will be treated as Official Washington Post tweets or Instas or whatever, no matter their original intent. As with many other outlets, there is also this instruction: Don’t post anything that could “objectively be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism.” This is one of those instructions that seems both obvious and impossible to enforce. I hope I can avoid posting racist commentary. But I most certainly have bias, and I definitely have favorites. So do you. More to the point — and my view of the world may be the same as yours — it’s ridiculous that the Post penalized its reporter for acknowledging that Bryant, in addition to being beloved by many people, was credibly accused of rape. (In a 2004 statement, Bryant ultimately apologized to his accuser “for my behavior that night,” adding that while “I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did.”) You may also see the world the way many other people do: You think the hours after someone’s death are not the time to speak critically of that person. But the fact that the Post says that Sonmez may have violated the company’s social media policy — but can’t say for sure if she has, a day after the tweets — is telling. The Post’s guidelines, like those published by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other outlets, including Vox Media — amount to “don’t screw up.” Screwing up is the whole point of social media. It’s a feature, not a bug. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and every other service offering the opportunity to transmit your unmoderated, instantaneous thoughts to the world want you to screw up at least some of the time. Social media invites you to say something you might not have said to someone’s face, or at least not without some foresight. And while piling on the Post may feel good — again, I think a newspaper that can stand up to Donald Trump can also protect a reporter who hasn’t published something defamatory — the Post certainly isn’t the only publication that has found itself disciplining one of its employees for a tweet or apologizing for one of their tweets. We can start close to home: Vox, for instance, suspended an editor in 2016 for tweeting that people should “start a riot” if Donald Trump arrives in their town. Last summer, the New York Times demoted an editor for displaying “serious lapses in judgment” when he tweeted about politics and race. And in 2017, the Wall Street Journal said it was sorry for a tweet about Venus Williams — which began with “Something’s not white!” — because it “was seen by some as insensitive.” Let’s not forget about publications that have had to apologize for what their employees did on social media before they came to work there. The Times, in particular, stumbles on this one a lot. In 2018, it unhired an opinion writer once her old tweets surfaced and attracted negative attention. Last year, a Times editor had to apologize for tweets he made in college. The way for the Times and other outlets to avoid worrying about journalists screwing up on Twitter is to ban them from Twitter and every other public forum. These companies would also have to force all of their journalists to retroactively delete everything they’ve ever posted — maybe someone tweeted something unkind about Bryant back when he was scoring 81 points in a single game, or whatever. Or they could require the same kind of attorney-assisted vetting that the SEC has now forced Tesla’s Elon Musk to go through whenever he wants to tweet. That won’t happen, of course, because every company that hires journalists wants its journalists to use those platforms, at a minimum as a way to promote their work. Perhaps they also think it’s crucial to “maintain a vibrant presence on social media,” as the Times policy suggests. And it’s true: NYT’s reporters do great work on Twitter. But as soon as people pick up the phone and start tapping, they are a couple of taps away from a screwup. Media companies should be able to live with that prospect — and, crucially, with the idea that not all screwups are equal, and that just because someone is angry about a tweet doesn’t make it a Bad Tweet, and you can let people complain about Bad Tweets without having to Do Something About The Bad Tweet. Or they can bail out and leave Twitter to the rest of us.

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posted about 22 hours ago on re/code
People walking by a billboard for Netflix’s The Witcher in Spain. | Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images Netflix has about 50 percent fewer titles than it used to but more awards nominations than ever. There’s a lot less stuff on Netflix these days — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. New data shows that Netflix’s library is way smaller than it used to be, but the streaming service’s latest successes with original content suggest that its years-old strategy to move away from licensing content could finally be paying off. Netflix is facing a new level of competition with the recent launches of streaming services like Disney+ and Apple TV+, as well as HBO Max and Peacock coming this spring. However, Netflix has been anticipating this sort of thing for years and beefed up its spending on original content as a result. Now, hugely popular original shows like The Witcher and award-winning movies like The Irishman and Marriage Story serve as evidence that Netflix no longer needs a huge library to stand out from the crowd. (Indeed, huge libraries aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be, as Amazon Prime Video, which is nearly 10 times bigger than Netflix, shows.) Ten years ago, Netflix had a total of 7,285 TV and movie titles in the US, according to streaming service search engine Reelgood. Now it has 5,838. That’s down nearly 50 percent from a peak of about 11,000 titles in 2012, according to Reelgood’s database, but up from 2018, when it had a low of 5,158. Netflix told Recode it doesn’t comment on third-party numbers. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-7Qiqi");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-7Qiqi");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() The decline is part of a long-anticipated move by Netflix away from relying on other studios’ content and toward making its own. Netflix is making that transition as other content makers — namely Apple, Disney, NBC, and WarnerMedia — launch and grow their own streaming services. This influx of new services also coincides with Netflix paying higher and higher prices to license content, especially if it belongs to one of its new streaming competitors. Netflix could also be intentionally winnowing its selection as its vast troves of viewer data show it what people actually watch and what it can afford not to license. For years, content companies were happy to make extra money by licensing their old TV shows and movies to Netflix. What they hadn’t anticipated was how popular those old titles could make Netflix and the titles themselves. There’s even a term, the Netflix Effect, for when making shows available on Netflix would breathe new life into the show or generate more interest in the first place (like how AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad became much more popular after people found and binged them on the streaming site). We’ve also seen how crazy-expensive popular series like this can be. Netflix spent $100 million to hold on to Friends for just one year. Now that Friends is exclusive to WarnerMedia, Netflix is free to spend that money on its own original content that viewers won’t be able to watch on another platform. Netflix isn’t completely moving away from licensing content: It recently spent more than $500 million for the 180-episode catalog of Seinfeld. Still, Netflix now spends more than half its cash on originals, the company’s Chief Financial Officer Spencer Adam Neumann said on the latest earnings call. That’s up from nothing less than a decade ago. “The future of our business is mostly originals,” Neumann said. Producing original series and movies is usually much more expensive than licensing old content. That might explain why Netflix has generally dropped licensed titles faster than it gained new originals. But Netflix is betting it will be worth it in the long run as the company will own its content library and won’t have to negotiate increasingly expensive licensing deals. Meanwhile, if it can continue to produce shows with burgeoning fanbases with must-watch attitudes, Netflix stands to win and retain more subscribers. Executives on the call touted the success of recent originals like The Witcher, a fantasy series watched by a record 76 million people in its first week, as well as the company’s recent award nominations. “It’s exciting that we end up with being the most nominated studio at the Oscars this year with our films, but the most exciting thing is those films are all incredibly popular with our members as well,” Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings sees vying for awards as a virtuous cycle. “So you’ll see that if we further our reputation for doing well for content — sorry, for talent — by being one of the best in the world at winning awards for our talent, then the business benefit is that we will win deals that we wouldn’t have otherwise won for incredibly entertaining content,” Hastings said. Netflix’s subscriber base is growing in the US — although not as fast as expected, thanks to the spurt of competition. The subscriber base is growing more swiftly in international markets, where Netflix is also spending heavily on originals. Original TV series seem to be leading the charge. Since Netflix’s first original commission, House of Cards, debuted in 2013, the company has expanded the effort tremendously and now creates series in numerous genres and languages. Netflix has also cultivated massive franchises like Orange Is the New Black and Stranger Things. The streaming service has even picked up some transplants. Recently You, a show that premiered on Lifetime, released its latest season as a Netflix original, and Black Mirror, which used to be a British network show, had its fifth season on Netflix. The total number of TV titles on Netflix has quadrupled from 2010 to 2,108 currently, according to Reelgood. Meanwhile, the number of movie titles has plummeted. In fact, the slight resurgence in the number of overall titles on Netflix in the past two years is due exclusively to a growing number of TV shows on the streaming service. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-OX8Ic");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-OX8Ic");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() Netflix’s original TV shows have arguably been more successful than its movies, though that could be changing. In 2017, Netflix hired producer Scott Stuber to lead its original film division and is spending hundreds of millions on big-budget films. The company is also seeing great success in creating material that draws awards consideration. Netflix received 24 Oscar nominations this year — more than any other media company. This also marks the first time a streaming company led Academy Award nominations. On top of that, two Netflix films, The Irishman and Marriage Story, have been nominated for Best Picture. Netflix also recently signed a long-term lease on Manhattan’s famed Paris Theater as a way to demonstrate its commitment to prestige filmmaking and qualify for even more awards. However, as Netflix grows its library of originals, its library of non-Netflix content will continue to shrink. That might be bad news for fans of ’90s TV comedies. What really matters, though, is whether what’s left is worth watching.

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posted 1 day ago on re/code
Away co-founders Steph Korey (second from right) and Jen Rubio (far right) at the 2019 Code Commerce event. | Keith MacDonald for Vox Media Co-founder Steph Korey’s decision also led to the resignation of the luggage startup’s HR head. On the morning of January 13, Steph Korey, the embattled CEO of luggage startup Away, surprised the business world with a revelation in the New York Times: She made a mistake when she promised to give up her CEO title a month earlier and wouldn’t be stepping down after all. Korey’s original decision to resign came in the wake of a report by The Verge in which some former Away employees claimed Korey oversaw a toxic work environment at the company. But inside of Away last Monday, sources say several senior executives were blindsided by Korey’s decision to not completely relinquish the CEO title to new company exec Stuart Haselden as previously announced. Instead, the duo would share the co-CEO title. The surprise about-face had at least one substantial and immediate impact: Multiple sources told Recode that the reversal was the reason behind the resignation of Away’s human resources chief, Erin Grau, who, as Recode previously reported, quit the same day as Korey’s announcement. (In addition to running human resources and recruiting, Grau’s role was also supposed to include oversight of the company’s internal communications.) Grau and some other top executives, plus Away’s hundreds of rank-and-file employees, only found out about Korey’s flip-flop either through the Times article or in a company-wide announcement made after the article was published, according to sources. While debates raged in the startup world and on social media about whether Korey should have stepped down in the first place, Grau had been a strong proponent of the original plan for Korey to give up the CEO role and become executive chairman, multiple sources told Recode. The plan would presumably have helped Away turn the page on the scandal while still allowing Korey to continue shaping the company’s future under a new title. Some of Away’s investors had also been in favor of Korey stepping down, Recode previously reported, in part because the original plan was for Haselden to someday transition from Away’s No. 2 exec to its CEO role anyway, even before The Verge investigation was published. (The Verge is owned by Recode’s parent company, Vox Media.) But Away’s board of directors, which includes only four members — Korey, Haselden, Away co-founder and president Jen Rubio, and investor Ludwig Ensthaler of Global Founders Capital — ultimately has the final say. Ensthaler told the New York Times he shouldn’t have accepted Korey’s original resignation. Korey had told the paper that she would eventually hand over the CEO title to Haselden but did not say when. When Recode first reported on Grau’s departure, an Away spokesperson sent Recode a statement attributed to Grau, which read in part: “In the past two years I’ve been at Away … we’ve implemented countless systems and processes to improve our culture and working lives. I’m proud of the impact we’ve had, the strides we’ve made, and I have the utmost trust in our leadership. I know my work will have a lasting impact on Away.” The spokesperson declined to comment for this story. On the Thursday following Korey’s surprise announcement, Korey, Haselden, and Rubio held an all-staff meeting at the company’s New York City headquarters to talk about the decision and respond to some of the unanswered questions employees had been passing along in whispers in the days following the news, according to multiple sources. At one point, Haselden told employees the leadership team would be running the company in a way that would position it to go public as early as mid-2021. During the meeting, Korey also expressed remorse over some of her past actions, despite her decision to remain CEO. While she did, she began crying in front of the group. Some in attendance clapped supportively. Still, sources tell Recode her decision to reclaim the CEO title left some employees with more questions: Will Korey ever fully hand over the reins to Haselden? And, perhaps more importantly: Has she really changed?

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posted 2 days ago on re/code
An Amazon employee protesting the company’s sustainability practices at the Global Climate Strike in Seattle in September 2019. | Karen Ducey/Getty Images Workers say Amazon threatened to fire employees who criticized its environmental policies; now, they’re planning to speak out en masse. Hundreds of Amazon employees are going to risk losing their jobs in an unprecedented, coordinated effort this week: They plan to openly criticize the e-commerce giant’s business practices, Recode has learned. The move is a direct challenge to Amazon’s recent reported threat to fire climate change activists within the company who allegedly violated a corporate rule that prohibits employees from speaking publicly about the company without prior approval. “Is it fair to silence Amazon employees who speak up?” says the subject line of an email employee organizers sent to thousands of colleagues on several major company listservs and messaging platforms last week. The note, obtained by Recode, asks employees to either write their own comments or to sign prewritten statements about the company that either condemn or approve of Amazon’s practices, including those related to sustainability, immigration, and warehouse working conditions. Once organizers gather at least 100 such comments, they plan to post them publicly on Medium, according to the email. Under Amazon’s external communications policy, employees could be punished for publicly speaking about the company without prior authorization. And that’s part of the plan: The organizers believe that if hundreds of employees band together, there will be “strength in numbers,” and the company won’t punish dissenters as easily. According to reporting by the Washington Post, over 330 employees plan to participate. Organizers did not respond to a request for comment from Recode. “Let’s all speak up publicly and violate this policy together, making it unenforceable. Quotes about Amazon’s business can be critical or complimentary, because either way violates the policy,” the email says. “Of course, do NOT share confidential information.” The employees plan to brazenly disobey what they view as a muzzling corporate rule that forces employees to give up “their basic humanity and integrity in order to be employees,” according to the email. It’s the latest sign of rank-and-file employees at tech companies, including Google and Microsoft, organizing collectively for greater influence on major company decisions. And it demonstrates how even Amazon — historically considered hierarchical and heads-down — has become politicized over the increasingly high-stakes social impact of global tech companies’ day-to-day business affairs. An Amazon spokesperson sent the following comment in response to Recode’s question about if it’s aware of employees’ organizing and how the company plans to respond if employees speak out: “While all employees are welcome to engage constructively with any of the many teams inside Amazon that work on sustainability and other topics, we do enforce our external communications policy, and will not allow employees to publicly disparage or misrepresent the company or the hard work of their colleagues who are developing solutions to these hard problems.” In the past few years, some Amazon employees have grown increasingly critical of the company’s expansion of its business with major oil and gas companies, its marketing of controversial facial recognition software to police departments, and its bidding on a major US defense contract that would use Amazon’s technology for warfare. For certain employees, business practices like these aren’t what they signed up for when they came to work at the tech company. Their ethical concerns have prompted debates — at first internal but increasingly external — about the projects. So far, the company hasn’t said much publicly about the growing rank-and-file worker dissent on these issues, which have become an increasing concern for some of Amazon's employees and those at other major tech companies, such as Google and Microsoft. Back in 2018, Bezos defended tech companies’ work with the Pentagon, despite waves of backlash from employees. On the topic of sustainability, he’s announced that the company plans to drastically reduce its carbon footprint, and said the company would take a “hard look” at whether its political donations would go to “active climate deniers.” But he said Amazon will continue to work with oil and gas companies — something that many employees take issue with. A spokesperson for Amazon sent the following statement, in part, in response to a question about workers’ organizing: “We know our employees are passionate about climate change, we are too – we founded the Climate Pledge, committing to net zero carbon by 2040, which is ten years ahead of the Paris Agreement, and we plan to be using 100% renewable energy by 2030.” Last month, the Washington Post reported that Amazon management privately threatened to fire at least two employees for criticizing the company’s environmental policies in the press. The workers are members of an internal group of Amazon employees, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, which helped organize participation in a historic global climate strike in September. Amazon said the employees were violating its recently updated company external communications policy, which requires employees to get company approval before they can speak to the media about the company. In September, soon after Amazon employees announced their participation in a climate protest, the company told employees that it had updated its company policy on external communications. Previously, employees had to receive approval through email from a company senior vice president if they wanted to speak to the press. Since the change, employees now have to receive approval by making a request through a form on a company intranet page, which requires employees to give a “business justification” for their request. While Amazon says the policy makes it easier for employees to talk to the press, some say the company is using the policy as a way to silence internal debates — and that in the past, Amazon only selectively enforced this policy. The company has denied these claims; in a statement to Recode last month, Amazon said its warnings to the employees in question were “part of the normal business practice of alerting employees when they may have (knowingly or unknowingly) violated a policy.” Employees’ new organizing effort this week takes direct aim this policy: “Don’t get us wrong: some comms policies make a ton of sense (i.e.: for confidential projects),” organizers said in an email to employees encouraging them to speak out. “But allowing a corporation to silence us on its contribution to the climate crisis is a clear overreach of comms policy, and effectively demands we give up our basic humanity and integrity in order to be employees.” The email links to an online form that asks employees to sign their name to prefilled quotes such as: “Amazon should end contracts with oil and gas companies. Our AI and machine learning are being used for ‘finding oil’, ‘producing oil’, and ‘optimizing production’” (source: AWS Oil & Gas public website).” Another says: “Amazon’s supply chain should not be built at the expense of warehouse workers who work at a pace that causes higher-than-industry-average injury rates. It’s not humane to have people scared to go to the bathroom.” Not all the statements employees are signing are negative — one lauds Amazon’s decision to order 100,000 electric vans to reduce fossil fuel emissions, as part of its bigger plans to drastically improve its carbon footprint. The announcement, in September, was conspicuously timed a day before hundreds of employees participated in a walkout against climate change, during which they urged the company to be more sustainable. While Amazon said its efforts weren’t connected to the protest, organizers saw it as a win. It’s unclear if Amazon will choose to punish workers for engaging in this collective action. In November, Google fired four employees who were involved in workplace organizing around some of the same issues being debated at Amazon, saying that they breached the company’s data privacy policies. (The terminated employees say the company retaliated against them for their activism, and their case is being investigated by the US National Labor Relations Board.) In Amazon’s case, though, it’s much harder to fire a hundred — or more — employees than a handful. Jason Del Rey contributed reporting to this article.

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posted 3 days ago on re/code
Students are evacuated following the school shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California, November 2019. | Mario Tama/Getty Images Not all AI being used by schools is facial recognition. That doesn’t mean the tech doesn’t come with privacy risks. As mass shootings at US schools increase in frequency while our country’s gun control laws remain weaker than those in any other developed nation, more school administrators across the US are turning to artificially intelligent surveillance tools in an attempt to beef up school safety. But systems that allow schools to easily track people on campus have left some worried about the impact on student privacy. Recode has identified at least nine US public school districts — including the district home to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD) in Parkland, Florida, which in 2018 experienced one of the deadliest school shootings in US history — that have acquired analytic surveillance cameras that come with new, AI-based software, including one tool called Appearance Search. Appearance Search can find people based on their age, gender, clothing, and facial characteristics, and it scans through videos like facial recognition tech — though the company that makes it, Avigilon, says it doesn’t technically count as a full-fledged facial recognition tool. Even so, privacy experts told Recode that, for students, the distinction doesn’t necessarily matter. Appearance Search allows school administrators to review where a person has traveled throughout campus — anywhere there’s a camera — using data the system collects about that person’s clothing, shape, size, and potentially their facial characteristics, among other factors. It also allows security officials to search through camera feeds using certain physical descriptions, like a person’s age, gender, and hair color. So while the tool can’t say who the person is, it can find where else they’ve likely been. For some, this raises big concerns. “People don’t behave the same when they’re being watched,” warns Brenda Leong, the director of AI and ethics at the Future of Privacy Forum. “Do we really want both young students and high schoolers, and anybody else, feeling like they’re operating in that environment all the time?” Adding to privacy concerns surrounding a tool like Appearance Search is the fact that it’s not exclusively being used to address violence in schools. School administrators are already using the system to try to intercept bullying, to deter code of conduct violations, and to assist in investigations of school employees. As Kai Koerber, a recent graduate of MSD, told Recode about the technology: “I don’t think [students] should have to — by going to school — volunteer to accept this kind of new social contract where you’re going to be recorded and traced through your every move. I do think people have the right to be able to walk to the next class without being identified.” Here’s how Appearance Search works Imagine you’re a school safety officer monitoring live video-camera feeds on campus. You see a young person you don’t recognize doing something suspicious in a hallway. From your computer, you click on that person’s body. Based on details about that student, like their gender, age, clothing, hair, and potentially what Avigilon calls facial characteristics, you can use Avigilon’s artificial intelligence to mine through video footage collected from cameras all over the school, looking for all instances where someone who resembles that person appears. (Avigilon also sells an AI-based system that detects unusual motion, which, for instance, could notice a student moving through a normally deserted hallway). Avigilon says Appearance Search isn’t facial recognition. The images aren’t being tied to a particular person’s name or identity, and while the tool can use facial characteristics, it also relies on other aspects of a person’s body to do its job. In an email, a spokesperson says its Appearance Search software “only help[s] measure and rank how similar a pair of images are and [does] not associate the signature with the identity or name of a specific person.” Avigilon’s surveillance tool exists in a gray area: Even privacy experts are conflicted over whether or not it would be accurate to call the system facial recognition. After looking at publicly available content about Avigilon, Leong said it would be fairer to call the system an advanced form of characterization, meaning that the system is making judgments about the attributes of that person, like what they’re wearing or their hair, but it’s not actually claiming to know their identity. Varoon Mather, a technology fellow who studies machine learning at the AI Now Institute, told Recode he considers Appearance Search to offer “object detection.” And Logan Koepke, of the digital rights nonprofit Upturn, called it “person recognition” because the system seems a bit more abstract, focusing on other aspects of someone’s body and not exclusively their face. But John Davisson, an attorney at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told Recode Avigilon’s Appearance Search tool is “unequivocally facial recognition,” pointing to how the Federal Trade Commission has defined the technology. And Brian Hofer, who has pushed for several California cities’ facial recognition bans, says Appearance Search appears to meet the Berkeley law’s definition of the controversial technology. The point is, it’s not actually clear what, exactly, we should call the tool. Despite not identifying people by name like a standard facial recognition tool does, Leong says, “it does do a very similar thing in being able to access a very particular person across time, location, and the environment, and make conclusions about them in equally concerning ways.” An advertising pamphlet from Avigilon even describes the tool working in this way: One school used Appearance Search to track when a girl entered and exited the bathroom during lunch hours. That allowed a principal to find out she was eating in the bathroom because she was being bullied and then intervene. Mather adds that Appearance Search could easily be used in conjunction with standard facial recognition tech. In fact, Avigilon is also rolling out a tool it does call facial recognition — Appearance Alerts — that it’s also selling to schools, though the company won’t reveal how many schools are using this product. Avigilon Appearance Search raises concerns of surveillance Avigilon would not share how many schools are using Appearance Search. While Recode identified at least nine public school districts that have acquired or have access to the software, it’s likely many more schools are using the tool. For instance, the New York Civil Liberties Union says that more than a dozen school districts in New York State have purchased Avigilon equipment. While the NYCLU doesn’t know for certain how many have access to or have used the Appearance Search tool, technology strategist Daniel Schwarz said in an email that “given its inclusion into the main [Avigilon Control Center] software it is likely that a high percentage of schools will have the feature at their fingertips.” At the schools that have gotten the tool, we already have a sense of how it can be used. In Fulton County, a school district in Georgia, more than 1,400 cameras work with the Avigilon Appearance Search software, and there are plans to install even more. (School officials there appeared in a promotional video for the company.) In an interview with Recode, Shannon Flounnory, the district’s executive director of safety and security, said Appearance Search has been used to locate children lost in schools, to investigate complaints against staff, and to deter violations of codes of conduct. He says the software has also made the school security staff aware of disciplinary infractions they otherwise would not have known about. The tool has also been acquired by the Billings Public School District in Montana, Wilson County Schools in Tennessee, and, more recently, Broward County Public Schools, which includes Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Students have mixed feelings about the tech being rolled out in their schools. One current student at MSD told Recode that Avigilon’s tool could be useful. “I feel like this generation consciously knows we’re always being watched. We have our social media, and everything is caught on video nowadays. So I think it just adds an extra layer,” the student said of privacy concerns. Both Safe Havens International, the nonprofit firm that consulted with Broward County following the shooting at MSD, and officials for the school district declined Recode’s request for comment. But former MSD student Koerber, who is now a student of the University of California Berkeley, told Recode that Appearance Search seems invasive. “Yes, it may work in terms of, ‘we can identify people who don’t belong on the campus.’ At the same time, we are invading the privacy of each and every student,” he said. Koerber’s concerns are echoed by student privacy advocates, who say the tool could be used to track and surveil students. “It is surveillance technology, and it is tracking technology, and any school implementing any variation of those is potentially creating more harms and risks than they’re solving,” said Leong. The “opaque nature of how these tools track people’s movement and behavior is alarming,” Schwarz told Recode. He pointed to how the NYCLU has already convinced one New York school district not to use the tool. Avigilon did not respond to a request for comment about potential privacy concerns posed by Appearance Search. The company would also not comment on its comparative accuracy rates across demographic groups for either its appearance search or facial recognition-based appearance alert feature, nor would it say what, if any, image databases its tools might be trained on. Still, school administrators in districts that have used Appearance Search told Recode they hadn’t heard any privacy complaints about the tool. “Right now, we haven’t seen any concerns about how these analytics are utilized. We haven’t gotten concerns from our community about invasions of privacy based upon these analytics,” said Flounnory, arguing that parents are more concerned about keeping their kids safe. Koerber doesn’t agree: “You really have to ask, ‘What are you willing to sacrifice to play a game of what-if,’” he said. “A school shooting could happen at any time and any place. We know that. But do we need to invade the privacy of every person who enrolls in a particular school to prevent that? I don’t think that’s the case.” Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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posted 4 days ago on re/code
Marc Atkins/Getty Images Nearly two-thirds of the videos on Amazon’s streaming service are user-generated content. Lots of it is ... odd. Amazon Prime Video has won lots of attention in recent years for its highly produced, critically acclaimed originals, including Fleabag, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Transparent. What’s less known is how the streaming service relies heavily on often-bizarre user-uploaded content. As the Wall Street Journal points out in a new feature, some two-thirds of the titles on Amazon Prime Video are uploaded by users, and although you might expect Amazon to be selective in what ends up on its subscription-based service, that is not the case. We did some more sleuthing and found even more weird and potentially offensive content. It’s almost as though Amazon welcomes the bad videos, which count toward the total number of titles available on Prime Video. According to Ampere Analytics, Amazon Prime Video boasts 65,504 distinct titles — almost 10 times the 7,177 on Netflix. Users who upload videos, WSJ reports, also get a small cut of revenue based on how many people watch their videos, so there’s an incentive to upload even more. A quick glance at what turned up in a handful of search results shows that quantity can outweigh quality. For example, feast your eyes on “Surprise Eggs Learn Colors Candy Baby Doll Bath Time,” which ostensibly could be used to teach kids colors but feels like a bad acid trip. Then there are the conspiracy theories. Amazon has quite a few amateur-produced documentaries about what really happened on 9/11, including Dylan Avery’s Loose Change, a pseudoscientific look into how the terrorist attack was an “inside job.” There’s also a strange two-part series called Hitler in His Own Words as well as the markedly more intriguing 3rd Reich: Hitler’s UFOs. It answers such pressing questions about Nazi aircraft like, “Was this really Nazi technology or alien technology being back-engineered by the Nazis?” (Spoiler: It was the Nazis). And just for fun, there’s “Foot Fetish,” a video about two shoes having sex and eventually making a baby shoe. It’s described as being the Best Short Film Winner in the New York Erotic Film Festival in 1973. A short film about shoes having sex is not the worst thing on the internet. However, the trend of odd or offensive content on Amazon Prime Video stands to confuse Prime members, who pay $120 a year for access to the streaming service and other perks of Prime membership like free shipping. We’ve come to expect off-putting content from social behemoths like Facebook and Google’s YouTube, where many regular people — and the occasional coordinated efforts from foreign governments — post their memes and videos. Amazon Prime Video, on the other hand, presents itself as a Netflix competitor, and that might lead its users to believe that the content on the platform has been vetted. To the average user, it’s not even clear that any of the content on Amazon Prime Video is user-generated, much less the majority of it. Unlike YouTube, Amazon doesn’t label user-generated content as such. Moderation is a problem for any platform dealing with user-generated content, however. YouTube is the prime example of these ills. In recent years, the platform has attracted criticism for being rife with questionable kids’ content, some of which showed children's favorite cartoon characters in sexual or violent situations. Some of that children’s content also seems to be generated using AI to feature the keywords and topics most likely for kids to click — and for ad sellers to make money. YouTube has cracked down on creepy videos but a few still make it through the cracks. Roku represents another unexpected source of unusual user-generated content. The company’s open platform allows any developer to create channels or screensavers for the Roku streaming platform. A couple of years ago, Vice pointed out that these easily accessed channels can also feature inappropriate content for kids, not to mention weird porn, gun violence, conspiracy theories, and doomsday cults. But when you’re paying for a premium streaming service like Amazon Prime Video, the existence of such content is jarring. Netflix has its own conspiracy theory problem, but its users aren’t uploading their own content so it’s potentially more manageable. Meanwhile, it’s easy to see why it might be tempting for a service like Amazon to include user-generated content. For one, it’s free, while producing or licensing content from known filmmakers is expensive. And again, inviting user-generated content onto its service also allows Amazon to boast a bigger library than its competitors and, by extension, a potentially larger draw for its paying subscribers. Amazon does have policies forbidding offensive and illegal content. According to WSJ, the company uses both an AI tool and human reviewers to monitor content, although it’s unclear how well this process is working since we were able to find borderline content so easily. Amazon did take down several videos from conspiracy theorist Alex Jones after they were flagged in WSJ’s coverage; Jones has previously been kicked off Facebook, Apple, YouTube, and Spotify. Last spring, Amazon also pulled a bunch of videos that incorrectly linked vaccines to autism, a particularly insidious and lasting conspiracy. In a way, Amazon Prime Video works a lot like Amazon’s marketplace, where the company has struggled with guidelines and enforcement of what is acceptable for it to carry or not. The video streaming service also suffers from a similar set of struggles that crop up when users are given free rein over what will appear on the platform. When users stand to make money by selling random stuff or simply uploading random videos, some bad stuff is bound to appear. Amazon’s strange user-uploaded content ultimately points to an even larger challenge of content moderation. Platforms have to strike a balance between getting the benefits of free user-uploaded content with the fact that a lot of that content might not fit their standards — and those platforms might not be willing or able to invest in the tools to vet that content. As we know, nothing on the internet is ever free. Apparently, it’s also seldom normal.

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posted 4 days ago on re/code
Zac Freeland/Vox How your employer (and others) can get your Slack messages. Is Slack good for actually getting your work done? That’s debatable. But the popular messaging platform — which now boasts more than 12 million daily active users — is definitely a promising medium for employers, regulatory agencies, the government, and even hackers seeking a trove of data about a company and its workers. Even your coworkers could find out more about you than you might expect. Yes, your employer can get to your private messages. They’re not the only one. First off, employers aren’t necessarily going through your messages to snoop on gossip. “The company may have a duty to preserve and produce that information if you’re part of a lawsuit,” explains Brad Harris, the vice president of product at Hanzo, a company that provides a third-party, data-preservation app that works in conjunction with Slack. “The company may also want to do internal investigations, and through their privacy policies and acceptable use policies, have the right to look at your information.” Harris added, “Companies have traditionally had that [right] with email.” Whether and how your boss can export your private messages and private channels depends on a few factors. If your employer is using Slack’s free or standard plan — you can check this by going through the drop-down menu under your name on the app — they need Slack’s go-ahead, meaning the company will review your employer’s request and, if approved, allow the employer to conduct a one-time export. The messaging platform says it will provide that content if a company has gained employees’ consent, if the company is following a “valid legal process,” or if there’s a “right or requirement [to do so] under applicable laws.” For instance, employees in the European Union have the right to certain data collected about them by their employers under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Companies using a Plus plan also need to apply for approval from Slack to export private communications, but the company can continue using the feature until they decide to turn it off. Keep in mind that the data downloaded by an employer isn’t a mirror image of the actual Slack platform. Instead, workplace data is delivered in ZIP files, which contain a type of data-storing file called JSON. That means content comes up in long lines that resemble code, and includes message text, information about reactions, and even edit history (that’s right, your company could retain your deleted messages). You can see what that data actually looks like on Slack’s website, and if you want a quick profile of what data your company might be keeping, go to [yourorganization].slack.com/account/workspace-settings#retention. It’s also possible that your employer has invested in a higher-level plan, like Enterprise Grid. Those plans work with third-party apps like Hanzo that allow employers to store messages and other information. Companies may need to consistently preserve electronic communications for review by regulatory agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Financial Industry Regulation Authority. Still, Slack expects employers to follow employment agreements, corporate policies, and any relevant laws. “For employees, an employer’s rights to access your data are controlled by your employment agreement and by the laws that govern that — not by Slack,” said a Slack spokesperson in an email. “Employers ultimately own their company’s Slack data and are responsible for complying with the laws that govern how they access that data.” It’s worth keeping in mind that there’s always the manual approach to surveilling employees’ electronic communications: booting them from their computers while their Slack accounts are still logged in. One boss described this technique in a Y Combinator thread about the investigation of an intern harassment problem. Law enforcement and legal processes can get your Slacks, too One route to your private Slack messages being revealed? A lawsuit. Let’s say you’re suing your former employer for sexual harassment. If you think there’s evidence that could help prove your case on Slack — inappropriate messages from your boss, for example — you can fight for those records to be legally “discoverable,” meaning your old company will have to produce them. Discussion of Slack data can come up in all sorts of complaints, as it did as part of one class action lawsuit against the game developer Activision Blizzard. Discussion of Slack data also came up in a lawsuit against the California-based lighting fixture company Lamps Plus. The government might also want Slack data as part of other legal processes. In its most recent transparency report (which was published this week and covers all of 2019), Slack says it received 66 requests from US government entities for both content and metadata, including through search warrants, subpoenas, and civil subpoenas. Only nine of the requests for content data were fulfilled by Slack, but in 24 cases, the company provided government entities with other, non-content data, such as information about the date, time, and identities of senders and recipients of messages and files. Keep in mind, those numbers are pretty small; the company said in its last earnings report that it had more than 105,000 organizations paying for its service, and customers can also use the platform for free. Slack also says it will consider “national security requests,” though the company says it has yet to receive any. Slack has, however, granted one request for non-content, user data stored in the US from an unnamed foreign government as part of following a mutual legal assistance treaty. Meanwhile, if you actually work for the government, it’s possible that your Slack communications are records subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. FOIA is a law that allows nosey members of the public and journalists to request records about government activities, and the government must respond to those requests within 20 business days. FOIA requesters appear to have successfully asked for other Slack-related data, such as a list of team domains used by the government’s General Services Administration. We couldn’t immediately find an example of when a US FOIA request has led to the release of Slack messages from within a government agency (though some have tried), if only because it’s unclear how many local, state, and federal government workers are using Slack. But a search of a federal contracts database reveals that the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the Department of Health and Human Services, and apparently the “Ebola team” at the US Agency for International Development have all bought technology from the company; the platform has also reportedly been used by NASA. Slack is also being used by a unit of technologists — called the US Digital Service — based in the president’s office. Your coworkers can also get info on you, though it may not be that interesting Do you just have a regular employee Slack account? You can still get some (relatively benign) info on your coworkers via Slack. The first thing you should know is that you can still read all the messages and files that have been posted in public channels before you arrived (unless they’ve been deleted). Some companies might have content on their Slack systems set to auto-delete regularly, and those deletion periods can be as short as one day. But there’s a bit you can do through Slack’s Analytics tab (go to [yourworkspace].slack.com/stats). There, you can see how the percentage of messages — and views — are distributed in direct messages, private channels, and public channels on any given day. In a large office, it’s not clear if this information would tell you much, but in a smaller company, these statistics might be a way for a boss to check whether there’s been a spike in people talking privately. Another interesting thing you can find out through Slack Analytics is which of your coworkers has sent the most messages of all time or in any given month, though it’s unclear how useful these stats are. It’s important to remember that even if your coworkers or even your boss might not have easy access to your private Slack messages, there’s still a lot they can learn about you based on your profile, like your time zone, your contact information, phone number, location, and social media (you might volunteer this information on the platform). You could also find their member ID number, which might not be too revealing, and files that they’ve sent by clicking through on their individual profile, which would potentially be more revealing. Your employer and coworkers alike can also figure out whether you’re online, depending on your settings. That little green light? You can manually turn it off. If you don’t, Slack tells you if and when you’ll appear as “active,” depending on what device you’re on and how you’re using it. Whether you’re actually working hard is entirely up to you. Whether or not your company Slack offers any privacy is, maybe unfortunately, up to your employer. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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posted 4 days ago on re/code
Zac Freeland/Vox Progressive influencers, activists, and presidential campaigns are organizing behind digital closed doors. In October, television actress Debra Messing had a concern a lot of Democrats share: that the party won’t rally around the eventual 2020 presidential nominee. She came across a New York magazine story that highlighted Bernie Sanders saying the 2016 primary was “rigged” and declining to affirm he’d support the Democratic White House candidate if it isn’t him. “This is UNACCEPTABLE,” the Will & Grace star remarked. Actor Don Cheadle was quick to chime in: “What’s up with the date of that article?” “WTH?” Messing replied, apparently then realizing that the piece had been published last June. The discussion took place on Twitter, but not in a public space. It happened in a private room made for progressive celebrities and activists to communicate and work in tandem to spread messages online. It’s a growing tactic on the left, designed to piggyback on a social media coordination strategy employed successfully on the right and intended to harness the power of Hollywood stars and high-profile activists who already lean Democratic. A sort of cabal of #Resistance influencers, if you will. The Messing-Cheadle exchange (after which Messing apparently chose not to tweet the article) took place in an under-the-radar, invite-only network called the Decency Collective, an effort to harness the potential of progressive celebrities and activists online. Under its umbrella are dozens of private Twitter direct message rooms organized around specific issues, geographies, and events where left-leaning influencers gather. Zac Freeland/Vox Recreation of a Decency Collective direct message thread shown to Vox by an anonymous source. Among the names I noticed of those involved are many that people might recognize: Gabrielle Union, Alyssa Milano, Jon Cryer, Sarah Silverman, Ben Stiller, Tom Colicchio, Jason Long, Mark Ruffalo, Adrian Grenier, Akilah Hughes, Piper Perabo, W. Kamau Bell, Ady Barkan, Jason Kander. Representatives from the presidential campaigns of Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, among others, are in the mix as well. Though the conversation is often serious, it’s also occasionally lighthearted, like any online community can be. In November, someone dropped in a tweet about Piper Perabo, the actress of Coyote Ugly fame, getting arrested at a protest. “Piper’s in the clink again folks,” he wrote. Cheadle responded: “she’s such a jailbird.” John Lamparski/Getty Images Piper Perabo and Diane Lane are arrested near the Capitol during a “Fire Drill Friday” climate change protest in Washington, DC, on November 22, 2019. The initiative is being spearheaded by Rob Bennett, a journalist and photographer who most recently worked at the New York City mayor’s office under Bill de Blasio. His LinkedIn profile lists him as working on “something new.” In an email to Vox, Bennett said the Decency Collective project is one that currently only lives as the DM rooms “where folks I happen to know gathered and tried to figure out how to use Twitter for good.” He said he has a nascent nonprofit, and he also appears to be running a consultancy, both of which are dedicated to harnessing the power of progressive influencers online. Many of the Decency Collective groups are hubs for ongoing conversations, but the influencers are also sometimes rallied around specific causes and events, such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings and President Trump’s impeachment. And Democrats in both Wisconsin and Minnesota enlisted Bennett’s stable of #Resistance celebrities to boost specific fundraising initiatives in 2019 — and, according to public filings with the Federal Election Commission, paid a company he runs thousands of dollars for that service. Zac Freeland/Vox Recreation of a Decency Collective direct message thread shown to Vox by an anonymous source. In recent weeks, I spoke with multiple people familiar with the Decency Collective, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly about the matter, and viewed conversations in two of the DM rooms. Members of the rooms and those familiar with Bennett’s undertakings emphasize that the initiative is not a nefarious one. It’s a genuine effort to organize influential voices on the left and promote progressive causes with them, akin to political organizing tactics that long predate the internet. “Politics is a subset of how people interact with each other,” said Alan Rosenblatt, principal at the progressive digital strategy group Unfiltered Media who has trained political groups to use Twitter DM groups as part of their social media strategies. “So it makes sense that with a technology that helps people interact, politics gets into it.” Republicans do it. So do K-pop fans. Democrats are doing it, too — groups like Bennett’s, political campaigns, and ad hoc organizers alike. Inside the space, the #Resistance influencers gather The point of the Decency Collective groups and ones like it, to put it loftily, is to amplify progressive messages, counter conservative messages, and recruit and organize others around the cause. In practice, this translates to a lot of retweet requests and discussions about what’s going on in the news and how to approach certain topics and stories. “It’s very, like, ‘Hey, I wanted to make sure you saw this so if you’re excited about it, you can share it,’” one member of the group said. “It’s nothing new in terms of talking points or information in terms of people who want to be supportive.” For example, in August, Ilyse Hogue, the president of the abortion rights group NARAL, dropped into a group called DC-PeoplesResponse one of her tweets of news that the House Judiciary Committee had requested documents on Kavanaugh and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Perabo, who has 167,000 Twitter followers and is one of the most active members of the group, thanked Hogue “for fighting for this,” and Messing responded that it was “THRILLING.” Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images NARAL president Ilyse Hogue delivers remarks during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 27, 2016. In October, Messing dropped in one of her own tweets with a video of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham from 1998 during Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial. “That was great Debra, RTed!” Hogue responded. Messing thanked her and congratulated her on a recent profile. “What wonderful company,” she remarked. Impeachment has also been a major organizing touchpoint in the Decency Collective network. The day House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump in September, Perabo advised the PeoplesResponse members to have “disciplined messaging,” including a reminder to “stay solemn” and “let the moment land.” The next day, Messing advised the group to follow Pelosi’s lead and use the hashtag #ExposeTheTruth. It’s not clear whether anyone followed her lead. Zac Freeland/Vox Recreation of a Decency Collective direct message thread shown to Vox by an anonymous source. Ahead of protests across the country on the eve of the House impeachment vote, the Decency Collective account (likely run by Bennett) sent a message to the group: “We have a team organized to support influencers to maximize their promotion impact for these rallies. If you want to learn how we might be able to help you, please DM me directly.” Before launching his presidential bid, billionaire Tom Steyer joined a Decency Collective group focused on impeachment, one person who was part of the group told me. Initially he was welcomed, but once he decided to run for the White House, the sentiment quickly turned. “Everyone was like, ‘What the fuck, this isn’t about you,’” the person said. Steyer left the group, which has since been shut down. Across the groups I saw, some members were more active than others, if they appeared to participate at all, and it was unclear how effective the coordination is. Those I spoke with say activity has slowed over the past year, but the conversation hasn’t ended altogether. In one New York-specific Decency Collective group, Perabo put out a call for emcees for a “Resistance Got Talent” fundraiser, Milano invited members to come to events featuring her in the city, and Survivor alum Eliza Orlins shared a notice on New York City ballot initiatives. Two sources told me the New York group sometimes organizes meetups, including one held in the home of one of the members. This is a way to bring traditional political organizing online — and possibly cash in According to one former city hall employee, Bennett talked about the idea of forming progressive influencer groups while he was still at the mayor’s office. A political operative said the organization’s structure was unclear to him at the time. “It’s definitely an interesting idea; Twitter DM groups are really effective for celebrities, too, who probably have insane inboxes. It’s a way to directly engage with a celebrity,” the operative said. “People are organizing in all different corners of the internet.” In an email to Vox, Bennett said that the Decency Collective project only lives on in DM rooms, but his project called Collective Impact is “exploring ways to help people make the impact that they want to achieve online.” He said he has no full-time staff beyond himself and is “working to find ways to support everyone who wants to use their power to make the world a better place.” “The last three years have seen an outpouring of enthusiasm from people who want to make a positive difference, including celebrities, influencers, and others with large followings online. Everyone with a social media platform has an opportunity to speak to their followers, and it seems like a real opportunity for change,” Bennett said. “I’ve partnered with a few organizations since 2017 to explore case studies in influencer engagement, but am still in the process of systematizing the data to figure out how it all works.” Bennett also appears to be operating an LLC registered in New Jersey tied to influencer activism called the Influencer Lab. FEC filings show both the Wisconsin Democratic Party and the Minnesota DFL paid the LLC thousands of dollars for fundraising consulting — as in, tweets from Bennett’s stable of influencers. The Wisconsin Democrats enlisted the organization for its #CheddarBomb fundraiser in July, and the Minnesota DFL for its #MoneyBlizzard around a Trump rally in October. It’s not clear whether many, or any, of the influencers involved are aware of the specifics of Bennett’s operation. #CHEDDARBOMB Let’s be ready, and then let’s WIN. What we do in Wisconsin the next 365 days could determine the outcome in 2020. Want change? Let’s get to work: https://t.co/R8vardBprg https://t.co/jUDEZjdUuo— Piper Perabo (@PiperPerabo) July 14, 2019 If we want to defeat Trump we MUST stop him from winning Minnesota! He was only 1.5% away in 2016, and it’s his top flip priority for 2020.Please support @MinnesotaDFL’s #MoneyBlizzard so they invest in organizing to defend MN! https://t.co/NCUPNqGLn0 https://t.co/R9JeBt3znl— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 7, 2019 Ken Martin, chair of the Minnesota DFL, said he started out very skeptical of the idea, but once he saw its effectiveness, he got on board. “You can just imagine how you are using the power of technology to instantly organize, communicate, and fundraise. And Trump did that with such sophistication in 2016 that we were really caught flat-footed, and now Democrats are playing catch-up at this point,” Martin said. Republicans have been organizing in private Twitter groups for some time It is worth noting that the idea of using direct message groups to coordinate influencers, promote hashtags, and push for or against certain viewpoints is widely used across Twitter, including in politics. In 2017, Shawn Musgrave reported on the right’s effective use of Twitter rooms to spread the MAGA word and other pro-Trump messages — so effective that many “dismissed their staggering output as inflated by automated ‘bot’ accounts run by expert computer programmers, whether foreign agents or domestic trolls.” And many on the left echo Martin’s point that they’re just catching up. “If you think about it in the sense of a grassroots movement, it’s very similar to what it’s like in the field in terms of politics,” said a Democratic social media strategist who has experience creating DM groups on the left. “The Republicans on the Trump side, they kind of cultivated this thing.” Twitter introduced group direct messaging in 2015, and groups are limited to 50 users. Though the user experience has some room for improvement, their big upside for political organizing is they allow users to see the tweets others have dropped in and decide then and there whether to retweet them and engage instead of needing to click through to even preview them. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images Supporter Nneka Uwudia waits for Bernie Sanders to speak at a rally in Denver on September 9, 2019. Rosenblatt told me he’s seen multiple examples of direct messaging groups between both high-level activists and influencers and rank-and-file activists online. He helped Our Revolution, the progressive group spun out of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, with its online organizing, including use of this tactic, and wound up in a Southern California group with actor John Cusack. “I don’t know how many there are, but I know there’s enough that a lot of the influencers find themselves in a lot of DM groups here and there, and it’s getting overwhelming, so there’s some management challenges involved in this,” he said, noting that the groups are just one way people are organizing themselves online. And while some are deliberately organized, most are put together ad hoc, and there are no influencers in them. It’s political organizing, but for the online world. “It’s extremely authentic and credible and coming from real people,” Rosenblatt said.

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posted 5 days ago on re/code
Tulsi Gabbard at a fundraiser in San Francisco this past June. | Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images Tulsi Gabbard also might want to break up Jack Dorsey’s company. Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard approached Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about hosting a fundraiser on her behalf, Recode has learned. Dorsey, who has given money to Gabbard’s campaign, ended up turning her down. What makes her request unexpected is that she has run a campaign that is deeply critical of Big Tech and, at times, of Twitter. In fact, unlike other candidates who have simply talked, she’s taken things a step further by suing Google for temporarily suspending her advertising account following a Democratic debate, part of a generally unsupported argument that tech platforms are politically biased. And Gabbard, a member of Congress from Hawaii, has said that, as president, she would “absolutely” consider breaking up Twitter, too, along with other tech companies that she deems “monopolies” that are “censoring” critical voices. That Gabbard still asked Dorsey to fundraise for her shows how Democrats in 2020 are both talking tough about Silicon Valley’s power while also asking some of its billionaires and biggest celebrities to raise money and vouch for them. It’s another sign of the tightrope that almost all Democratic politicians have to walk these days. Gabbard’s team made the request late last year. Dorsey initially expressed interest in hosting an event alongside Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, said a person familiar with the situation, but interest died as they struggled to find a date. Then came Gabbard’s controversial vote on impeachment in December. Dorsey ultimately declined to host Gabbard’s fundraiser, saying he was trying to stay focused on policy areas and therefore was not eager to wade so fully into backing specific candidates, according to a person close to Dorsey. Gabbard’s aides didn’t return multiple requests for comment. The presidential candidate has said in the past that she spoke with Dorsey, who is also the CEO of the payments giant Square, only after a donation he made to her campaign became public last July. “I had not met or spoken to him. I saw that the contribution was made and reached out and said ‘thank you so much,’ and he expressed his support for my candidacy,” Gabbard told reporters in Iowa, adding that she wouldn’t return Dorsey’s check despite her thoughts on his company. “Nothing changes my position.” In that same conversation, though, Gabbard acknowledged that Twitter would “absolutely” be among the companies that she would consider breaking up. Gabbard has struggled to raise the big money needed to run a competitive presidential campaign. And so having the financial firepower of Dorsey — the only known billionaire backing her campaign — could seriously help, especially if he were willing to go beyond writing one $5,600 check and instead would invite other rich friends of his to do the same at a high-dollar fundraiser. But while cutting a personal check is one thing, hosting a fundraiser for Gabbard would be another level of public support from a CEO whose company is facing ongoing battles over disinformation, regulation, and hate speech on its platform. Plus, Dorsey is still an undecided voter. Dorsey has explained that he admired Gabbard’s distaste for foreign intervention. But like many Democratic primary voters, he has also shown support for and donated to a second candidate: Andrew Yang. “I’ve made personal contributions because I appreciate Andrew’s focus on the coming displacement of work due to AI and automation, and Tulsi’s strong anti-war stance,” he tweeted last summer. “Along with systematically addressing climate change and economic injustice, these are the key issues of global consequence I want to see considered and discussed more.”

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posted 5 days ago on re/code
Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images Privacy concerns likely factored into decreased demand. 23andMe, the popular DNA testing company, is laying off about 100 employees or 14 percent of its workforce as consumer demand for its kits has weakened. The company said that a variety of factors, including privacy concerns, could have contributed to the slowing market. “This has been slow and painful for us,” CEO Anne Wojcicki told CNBC, adding that she was “surprised” by the decreased demand for the company’s DNA tests, which tell consumers about their ancestry as well as potential health issues. Wojcicki said that “privacy is top of mind” for both consumers and the company. Concerns about DNA test privacy have increased in recent years along with their popularity, as consumers look for ways to protect their personal information even as it becomes more readily available online. Last month, the Pentagon warned armed forces members not to take consumer DNA tests, saying, “Exposing sensitive genetic information to outside parties poses personal and operational risks to Service members.” Earlier in December, Recode published a story about the variety of privacy issues that consumer DNA tests raise, including how law enforcement, life insurance companies, advertisers, and even international terrorists might wield the data. The layoffs are concentrated in the consumer DNA test part of the company; employees in the company’s therapeutic drug discovery arm are not affected. 23andMe has sold over 10 million DNA kits, mostly within the US. The company was an early entrant in the consumer DNA testing space but it now has lots of competition, including from companies like Ancestry and FamilyTreeDNA. Additionally, a whole cottage industry has cropped up around DNA test results, offering specious services like pairing people with the best diet or best wine for their genes. The privacy policies surrounding these companies is also untested.

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posted 6 days ago on re/code
Jeff Bezos attended a commemoration ceremony in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2, 2019, the one-year anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. | Anadolu Agency via Getty Images The story of the Saudi crown prince allegedly using WhatsApp to break into a billionaire’s phone is a quick lesson in cybersecurity. A new investigation suggests that the hacking of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s phone stems from a WhatsApp account linked to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and one seemingly innocuous video file. The alleged hack shows that security online is never guaranteed, even on this very popular Facebook-owned encrypted messaging app. And that’s something to keep in mind even if you aren’t a billionaire. How Jeff Bezos allegedly got hacked, explained First reported by the Guardian and the Financial Times, the investigation found that an iPhone X belonging to Bezos was hacked after it received a video file in a WhatsApp message in May 2018. The business advisory firm FTI Consulting, which conducted the investigation, claims with “medium to high confidence” that the video file came from a WhatsApp account belonging to Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS. According to a copy of the full report, compiled by FTI and obtained by Vice, the video itself could not be studied due to WhatsApp’s encryption feature, so it remains unclear if it contained malware. Nevertheless, investigators observed that, shortly after the video was sent, abnormally large amounts of data were exfiltrated from the phone. (Data exfiltration occurs when a malicious actor transfers data off of a device, usually without the owner’s knowledge.) This exfiltration continued at a high rate for several months. The video was sent to Bezos, who owns the Washington Post, at the same time as the Saudi government was, according to the report, “very concerned” about Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi was murdered in October 2018. CIA officials later concluded that the killing took place with MBS’s approval, an allegation the Saudi prince has denied. Meanwhile, suspicions that the Saudi government had hacked Bezos’s phone began in February 2019, after the National Enquirer reported that Bezos was having an extramarital affair. That report appeared to rely on information that could only have been obtained through Bezos’s phone. Bezos’s security team hired FTI Consulting to investigate his phone shortly after. (The National Enquirer claims its information came from Bezos’s girlfriend’s brother and that the Saudi government was not involved.) Further adding to the evidence that MBS hacked Bezos’s phone: A few days after Bezos was told on the phone that he may have been hacked by the Saudi government, MBS sent him a message over WhatsApp saying (all sic): “Jeff all what you hear or told to it’s not true and it’s matter of time tell you know the truth, there is nothing against you or amazon from me or Saudi Arabia.” The release of the FTI report also caught the attention of two United Nations Human rights experts, who called for further investigation into allegations that MBS hacked into Bezos’s phone. Meanwhile, the potential link between the phone hacking and Khashoggi’s murder does not appear to be lost on Bezos, who tweeted this the day after the FTI report emerged: #Jamal pic.twitter.com/8ej1rUBXVb— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) January 22, 2020 MBS allegedly uses WhatsApp to communicate with many high-profile figures, including Boris Johnson, Richard Branson, and President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. One Silicon Valley executive told Recode that other leaders and executives in the tech industry are worried about undiscovered attacks. After all, MBS met with several of them — including Sergey Brin, Tim Cook, and Peter Thiel — when he visited the region in April 2018. If it happened to Bezos, it could happen to you — so here’s what you should keep in mind It’s easy to dismiss this maze of revelations involving Bezos and MBS as just another high-profile hack. What’s notable here, however, is that the hacking happened within WhatsApp, a service that promotes itself as the safe option for people who are concerned that their messages will be intercepted by hackers. WhatsApp even says in its FAQ, “Privacy and security is in our DNA.” (WhatsApp did not respond to a request for comment.) Thanks in part to this promise of privacy and security, WhatsApp is one of the most popular apps in the world, with about 1.5 billion active users worldwide as of February 2018. Its primary security feature is end-to-end encryption, which means messages can only be seen by the sender and receiver while they’re in transit — anyone who intercepts them will receive an unreadable encrypted file. Not even WhatsApp can read users’ messages. However, this added layer of protection should not be confused with absolute security, as the Bezos hack shows. Assuming the report’s conclusions are correct, the end-to-end encryption worked just fine: FTI was unable to decrypt the file apparently sent by the account linked to MBS. But good encryption didn’t prevent Bezos’s phone from sending gigabytes worth of data to a malicious actor for weeks after the video file was sent. It’s worth pointing out that a default setting in WhatsApp allowed Bezos’s phone to download the video file — and any malware therein — automatically. You can opt out of this feature to help protect against something like this happening to you. As alarming as the Bezos hacking story seems, WhatsApp users concerned about security might not want to delete the app just yet. Even with WhatsApp’s checkered history, several security experts told Recode they don’t think the app is particularly problematic. “This is not indicative of a vulnerability in WhatsApp,” Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said. “There is nothing they can do when a trusted contact sends you a carefully crafted malicious link.” Maya Levine, a security engineer at cybersecurity company Check Point, said it’s not so much that WhatsApp is especially flawed. The Facebook-owned app is simply an attractive target, which makes its vulnerabilities much more likely to be exposed. “It’s encrypted messages, so you can get a lot of information if you are able to hack WhatsApp successfully,” Levine said. “WhatsApp is probably the most popular encrypted messaging app worldwide and because of that, it’s maybe targeted a little bit more by hackers. But I wouldn’t say it’s less secure.” The best takeaway for the average person is not to be lulled into a false sense of security and assume they’ll be left alone because they aren’t a typical hacker target, said Paul Ducklin, principal research scientist at cybersecurity firm Sophos. Even apps packed with privacy features, he added, aren’t completely safe. “Unfortunately, when it comes to cybercriminality these days, nobody’s immune and no software that you use is likely to be 100 percent free of bugs,” Ducklin said. “Sometimes people get a program like WhatsApp or any of its many competitors, and once they find out it’s got all this encryption, they assume that encryption means that the message is secure forever hereafter, when the encryption is about securing the content while it’s going between you and the other person. It’s important not to hear about a technology and assume that it protects you more than it does.” And while nothing is foolproof, there are some things you can do to minimize your risk. “Keep up to date on your updates,” Levine said, “both on your phone’s operating system itself and your apps.” Updates will contain security patches that fix flaws and vulnerabilities, and often roll out soon after they are discovered. Despite WhatsApp’s security issues — and WhatsApp is hardly the only encrypted messaging app to have this problem — Galperin doesn’t think users should abandon it. Last May, she wrote about a different WhatsApp vulnerability and recommended that people continue to use end-to-end encrypted messaging apps, which she said are one of “the most effective ways to protect the contents of your messages,” at least for “most people most of the time.” Ducklin, meanwhile, said the best way to prevent sensitive information from being taken from your phone is the time-honored method of not putting it there in the first place. That, and thinking twice about what you’re sharing and who you’re sharing it with. “Sometimes, the best way to avoid that problem is simply to go, ‘Okay, I’m going to share less information,’ or, ‘I’m not going to share this particular photograph,’ or, ‘I’m not going to talk about secret personal stuff on this channel. Maybe I’ll wait until I meet up with this person face to face,’” Ducklin said. “Modulating your own behavior a little bit is often a lot better than fretting about which of many potentially equal apps you’re using to communicate.” Bezos may be a unique and desirable hacking target, but the dangers of putting all your trust in an app — even a reasonably secure one — apply to everyone. “The app can’t save you from yourself,” Ducklin said. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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posted 6 days ago on re/code
Increasingly, the four Big Tech companies have come under antitrust scrutiny in the US. | DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images As antitrust investigations into Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook ramp up, execs from Sonos, PopSockets, and Tile testified before Congress. Big Tech has a target on its back. Right now in the US, there are multiple, simultaneous government investigations focused on the business practices of each of the four Big Tech giants — Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook — that could someday lead to the breakup of these companies or major changes in how they operate. It’s easy to get lost in all the antitrust talk because of the complexity of antitrust laws in this country and the fact that most specific complaints about Big Tech companies happen behind closed doors. But last week, top executives from four smaller, competing companies — the wireless speaker company Sonos, the cellphone grip maker PopSockets, the gadget startup Tile, and the business software company Basecamp — laid out their complaints at a public hearing before the House of Representatives Antitrust Subcommittee. These testimonies could provide guideposts for the ongoing investigations into the Big Four as regulators and lawmakers consider whether the tech giants have broken current laws or if the US’s antitrust laws need a modern makeover. 1) Tech giants use their power in one market to crush competitors in another Sonos CEO Patrick Spence accused companies like Google and Amazon of using their success in one industry (for Google, internet search; for Amazon, online commerce) to dominate another: namely voice-controlled speakers. The CEO’s accusation is that Google and Amazon are able to sell their Home and Echo speakers at artificially low prices — he used the term “predatory pricing” — because they make money in other ways, and so their goal isn’t to profit from the speakers. Instead, it’s to use their speakers to collect consumer data that they make money off of through their other business lines. And once these tech giants drive competitors who can’t match their prices out of business, “prices are sure to go up,” he claimed. Sonos recently filed a lawsuit against Google for allegedly infringing on five of its patents, but its complaints obviously go beyond stealing technology. A Google spokesperson said in a statement, “Sonos has made misleading statements about our history of working together. Our technology and devices were designed independently. We deny their claims vigorously, and will be defending against them.” An Amazon spokesperson did not immediately reply to Sonos’s claim about Amazon’s pricing strategy for its smart speakers. 2) Tech giants have so much power that fair business negotiations are impossible Spence described negotiations with tech giants as increasingly “take it or leave it” interactions. In one case, he referenced Google’s unwillingness to allow Sonos speakers to let customers toggle between voice assistants — whether Google Assistant or Alexa — on a given Sonos speaker even though Sonos had built technology that supported the capability. More than half of all online product searches in the US now happen on Amazon, so Google could be incentivized not to allow the same thing to happen when it comes to out-loud searches. Spence claims that Google said it would cut off Google Assistant integrations with Sonos if Sonos allowed customers to toggle between different assistants. And speaker makers increasingly need to support the voice assistant technologies from Amazon and Google to keep up with consumer expectations. “We can’t offer that, which is, in my opinion, really reducing freedom of choice,” he said. A Google spokesperson referred Recode to its previous statement above about Sonos. Likewise, PopSockets CEO David Barnett cited the “power asymmetry” that allows Amazon to still be successful while allegedly taking part in what he calls corporate “bullying.” He accused the giant of levying threats against his phone accessory company when making business demands that went above and beyond written contracts between the two companies. Recode covered the standoff between the two companies a year ago. An Amazon spokesperson said in a statement, “PopSockets has been a valued retail vendor at Amazon and also supplies its products directly to other major retailers. We sought to continue working with PopSockets as a vendor to ensure that we could provide competitive prices, availability, broad selection and fast delivery for those products to our customers. Like any brand, however, PopSockets is free to choose which retailers it supplies and chose to stop selling directly through Amazon.” 3) Big Tech companies infringe on small competitors’ patents today because they’ll control the market by the time they have to pay up tomorrow Sonos recently sued Google for allegedly violating five Sonos patents, and said it would have sued Amazon over similar issues but could not afford the risk of taking on both companies at once. Spence accused the companies of knowingly violating patents — they do a “cost benefit analysis,” he claimed — because they expect to capture such a large part of the market before they might have to pay up in a lawsuit, that whatever costs they’ll have to pay will be worth it. Google denied the accusations and referred Recode to its statement above. In a statement, Amazon said, “The Echo family of devices and our multi-room music technology were developed independently by Amazon.” 4) Big Tech companies prioritize “monopoly rent” over the best interest of business partners and consumers Monopoly rent, in this instance, is the idea that a company without competition can charge higher-than-market-rate prices or can charge extra fees simply because of its unmatched position. For David Heinemeier Hansson, the co-founder and chief technology officer at the small business software company Basecamp, one complaint is the fact that Google allows Basecamp competitors to pay Google to appear as the first listing in search results when someone searches for “Basecamp.” Google has “replaced that search engine with an ad engine instead,” he said, and consumers “are not being presented with what they’re actually looking for.” “It’s a complete shakedown,” he added. A Google spokesperson provided Recode a statement that read: “For trademarked terms like the name of a business, our policy balances the interest of both users and advertisers. Like other platforms, we allow competitors to bid on trademarked terms because it offers users more choice when they are searching. However, if a trademark owner files a complaint, we will block competitors from using their business name in the actual ad text.” In an episode of Vox Media’s Land of the Giants podcast titled “Is Amazon Too Big? We Ask Its Sellers,” a top executive from the luggage maker Samsonite articulated a similar complaint about Amazon, which allows advertisers to buy top placement in query results on its site when a shopper searches for a competitor’s product. That means if you search “Samsonite luggage” on Amazon, the first results you see could be for another brand’s luggage for sale on the site. Hansson also criticized Apple for the 30 percent cut it levies on app makers who want to charge their customers through the app. “They have a 30 percent market advantage right from the get-go,” he said, insinuating that Apple should charge app makers closer to the 2 percent to 3 percent fees that payment processors do. “It’s completely outrageous.” An Apple spokesperson sent Recode a statement, which read in part, “[W]e created the App Store with two goals in mind: that it be a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps, and a great business opportunity for all developers. We continually work with developers and take their feedback on how to help protect user privacy while also providing the tools developers need to make the best app experiences.” 5) Tech giants are both participants in and owners of their platforms, and so they tilt the playing field in their direction Tile is a startup that makes small Bluetooth trackers that can help users find things like a lost wallet, keys, or phone. To work, the trackers need to be paired with an app on a smartphone or tablet. But Tile’s general counsel, Kirsten Daru, argued at the hearing that Tile’s business has been hurt by Apple giving special treatment to its own “Find My” tracking app. Apple’s app comes preloaded on its gadgets, can’t be deleted, and asks for location-tracking permission during operating system setup, Daru said. On the other hand, Tile customers who use Apple’s latest iOS version have to go into the settings on their phone to grant “always on” location tracking permission to the app. “Apple is acting as a gatekeeper ... in ways that favor its own interests,” Daru alleged. Daru compared Apple to a sports team that owns the ball, field, stadium, and league, and can change the rules at any point. A statement from an Apple spokesperson read, in part: “When setting up a new device users can choose to turn on Location Services to help find a lost or misplaced device with Find My iPhone, an app that users have come to rely on since 2010. Customers have control over their location data, including the location of their device. If a user doesn’t want to enable these features, there’s a clear, easy to understand setting where they can choose exactly which location services they want enabled or disabled. ... We’re currently working with developers interested in enabling the ‘Always Allow’ functionality to enable that feature at the time of set up in a future software update.” Amazon has also come under fire for both being a gatekeeper that makes the rules and that also operates the Amazon Marketplace, where it competes with other merchants selling their products on Amazon.com. Amazon competes in two ways: as a traditional retailer, by buying name-brand products wholesale and reselling them alongside those items from these third-party merchants; and, in some cases, Amazon makes and sells its own products under its own brand names, and competes with other brands and sellers. Barnett, of PopSockets, claimed to Congress members at the hearing that Amazon itself has been the seller of counterfeit PopSocket products. He alleged that the problem went away only after PopSockets began spending more money on marketing on Amazon. An Amazon spokesperson said that Amazon “strictly prohibits” the sale of counterfeit goods and denied that Amazon bases IP enforcement on payments of any kind, including spending on marketing. 6) The online dossiers that Facebook and Google have amassed on their users give them too much power According to a 2019 eMarketer report, Facebook and Google account for a combined 60 percent of the US online advertising market, thanks in large part to all the data they collect about how their users browse and search online. Heinemeier Hansson, of Basecamp, argued that “you cannot opt out of this data collection” if you want to use large swaths of the internet today. His big proposal for balancing the playing field and restoring more consumer privacy online: He wants to ban advertising that is targeted to online users based on the dossiers that Facebook and Google build for marketers, which could simultaneously lower the tech giants’ appetite for data collection while potentially improving competition in the advertising industry. A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment. An extraordinary turn of events On one hand, it’s worth keeping in mind that all of the above accusations are still just that — accusations — and ones made from business leaders whose businesses might prosper more easily in a world where these giants were less powerful. On the other hand, these allegations, made under oath and in front of members of Congress, mark an extraordinary turn of events for the tech giants who just a few years ago seemed invincible and unstoppable. And perhaps most importantly, it appears that Congress will continue to take the claims seriously as they decide what recommendations to make to antitrust regulators and whether to attempt to remake antitrust law.

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Members of the nonprofit San Francisco Pride, which organizes the annual pride parade pictured here, voted to ban Google from participating in future festivities. | Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images Supporters of the ban say the company isn’t doing enough to stop hate speech on its platforms. Google and YouTube may no longer be welcome at one of the world’s largest LGBTQ Pride Parades. Last week, members of the organization San Francisco Pride (SF Pride) voted to ban Google from participating in future celebrations, saying that the company doesn’t do enough to protect LGBTQ persons on its platforms, particularly those who are the target of harassment and hate speech on YouTube. The move is a significant shift in attitude towards a company that historically has been regarded as a corporate leader in its support of the LGBTQ community, and is now under scrutiny for its perceived lack of commitment to those efforts. For many years, tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple have spent significant amounts of money sponsoring parades such as SF Pride, inviting their employees to march alongside company-branded floats in support of LGBTQ rights. But in recent months, some people, including those within Google’s own workforce, have criticized the search giant’s participation in the event, saying that the company allows harmful speech hurting LGBTQ and other vulnerable groups to run rampant on the platform, and that new policy changes the company has taken to crack down on harassment don’t go far enough. “Companies are no longer scared to be seen as pro-LGBTQ; in fact, their participation is a great opportunity for them. We believe companies should earn that opportunity by proving that they really do stand with our community,” reads a statement shared with Recode and other outlets by the members seeking to ban Google from the parade. Seven members at a meeting last Wednesday voted in favor of the recommendation to ban Google, according to the organization’s interim executive director, Fred Lopez. SF Pride has over 300 members in total, but only around a dozen were present at the time of the vote, according to Lopez. At the meeting, some members of the board disputed whether the vote was legally binding without the board’s approval. In a statement to Recode, Lopez wrote: “One small group raised concerns about Google as a corporate sponsor. Our legal team is reviewing the implications of last week’s vote by seven of Pride’s 326 members. Our Board of Directors will meet February 5th to determine our next step. As we get ready to celebrate our 50th parade, our goal remains the same as it was for our first — to be inclusive and reflect the diversity of our communities.” The efforts to ban Google from pride are being led in part by a former Google employee, Laurence Berland. Berland is one of several former Google employees who has alleged that the company recently fired them for engaging in workplace organizing — a claim that Google has denied, saying Berland and others violated corporate policies around data security. Berland has been pushing to ban Google from SF Pride since June when he was still working for the company. A spokesperson for Google issued a statement to Recode in response to the vote, saying, “Google has been a proud supporter of San Francisco Pride for over a decade. We’re saddened that seven members, including a recently fired employee, decided to recommend banning Google, YouTube, and our employees from supporting this important community organization. SF Pride has over 300 members and a separate Board that makes the ultimate decision on participation; we’ll continue to work with the San Francisco Pride Board and its broader membership on next steps.” The spokesperson also pointed to Google’s opposition to laws that target the LGBTQ community, as well as its support for employees who are LGBTQ by providing same-sex health benefits, including coverage of gender reassignment surgery. Some Google employees and others have been pushing for SF Pride to drop Google for over six months. The issue first came up after Vox Media journalist Carlos Maza called public attention to the repeated harassment he was receiving from conservative YouTube commentator Steven Crowder on the platform. Over the course of two years, Crowder routinely used homophobic and racial slurs to refer to Maza, including calling Maza a “lispy queer” and “anchor baby.” After YouTube initially said that Crowder’s videos didn’t violate the company’s community guidelines, it ended up penalizing Crowder by suspending his ability to earn ad revenue. Still, YouTube stopped short of removing any of his videos from the platform. YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki apologized for the the situation and acknowledged that the it was “hurtful” to people in the LGBTQ community, but ultimately defended the decision to keep Crowder’s videos up. Soon after, over 140 Google employees signed an open letter asking the organization to drop Google from the Pride Parade, and dozens marched in protest against their company’s policies — despite warnings that doing so would violate Google’s code of conduct (generally, punishment for violating the company’s code of conduct can include termination). Protesters said Maza’s case was just one many examples of members of the LGBTQ community who have been targeted by incendiary speech, and left to fend for themselves without support from YouTube. Six months after the Crowder-Maza controversy in June, YouTube announced changes to its anti-harassment policies and said that it would no longer allow content that maliciously insults someone based on intrinsic attributes such as race, gender expression, or sexual orientation. But organizers say that hateful content creators such as Crowder continue to remain popular on the platform. At the same time, YouTube continues to face pressure from Republican leaders such as President Donald Trump over claims that the video platform censors conservatives. Despite the spotlight on Google, organizers say that they hope their efforts will spark a broader conversation about which companies and institutions should be considered worthy allies to the LGBTQ community. “Rather than single out Google, we wanted — and still want — to have a deeper conversation about what we expect from companies who participate in Pride,” reads the organizers’ statement. “We believe SF Pride, as an activist organization born of a protest march, should use that power to, as its mission says, ‘liberate our people’”

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Marc Benioff is a regular at Davos. | ERIC PIERMONT/AFP via Getty Images One of tech’s most divisive CEOs thinks his peers need to help plant 1 trillion trees. Marc Benioff is betting on the power of trees. Benioff, the garrulous billionaire founder of Salesforce, loves to needle other tech leaders for being insufficiently civic-minded. On Tuesday, he took his routine to Davos, Switzerland, and the World Economic Forum. That’s where he announced that he and his wife would provide the financial backing for a new platform, 1t.org, that will support an ongoing global initiative to plant, restore, or conserve 1 trillion trees over the next decade. The Trillion Trees Initiative is a novel strategy to limit the impact of greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s one that some activists are already criticizing as insufficient for the scale of the problem that is climate change, a threat that Davos is meant to address this year. In fact, some worry that the Benioffs’ support of reforestation — which, somewhat surprisingly, Donald Trump also endorsed in a speech at Davos — offers an easy out for a business community that is eager to reap the PR value of climate action without actually modifying their own emissions. “Planting trees is good, of course, but it is nowhere near enough of what is needed, and it cannot replace real mitigation and rewilding nature,” said environmental activist Greta Thunberg from Davos following the announcement. A Benioff representative declined to answer how much exactly the Benioffs would be spending on the new measure. But Benioff — with a net worth of about $7 billion — is reprising his chief role as an instigator in Silicon Valley, where his antics, like rebuking Facebook as akin to “cigarettes” and saying that tech billionaires “hoard” their money, have made him a divisive figure in both C-suites and in billionaire philanthropy. “If you are attending this conference, you need to commit to planting 1 trillion trees,” Benioff said, which was just one of a half-dozen exhortations at the end of a mini-speech he gave on a panel on Tuesday. “This is a time of action, not words. We are at that point of urgency with our planet.” Benioff’s funding for 1t.org comes from his own pockets, but his company, Salesforce, will be responsible for about 100 million of those trillion trees. Benioff has recently been displaying his zeal for planting the world out of the climate crisis, quizzing interviewers, for instance, about whether they know how many trees exist today versus in the past (Answer: 3 million and 6 million, respectively.) A tree-planting initiative of this scale is unprecedented and hard to accomplish, but some experts think it could be one of the most intriguing ways to help save the planet. As my colleague Umair Irfan explained last year, referencing an article in the journal Science: Letting saplings regrow on land where forests have been cleared would increase global forested area by one-third and remove 205 billion metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere. That’s two-thirds of the roughly 300 billion metric tons of carbon humans have put up there since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. “The point is that [reforestation is] so much more vastly powerful than anyone ever expected,” said Thomas Crowther, a professor of environmental systems science at ETH Zurich and a co-author of the paper. “By far, it’s the top climate change solution in terms of carbon storage potential.” Some climate scientists who were not involved with the study disagree with its calculations and are warning against its “silver bullet” message. Still, supporting natural systems that can soak up carbon is widely accepted as a major component of any climate change mitigation strategy — in addition to deploying clean energy, switching to electric vehicles, and curbing consumption overall. Some like Thunberg still see this as a distraction from the more important work of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by moving away from reliance on fossil fuels. In fact, even as Trump was telling the elite at Davos that the US would sign onto the trillion-trees program, he was also encouraging Davos not to listen to the “prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse” when it comes to climate change. The initiative does put Benioff into some rare agreement with the Trump administration, which have a good relationship despite being one of the Democratic Party’s biggest fundraisers in recent years. The business titan and the “jovial” president were reportedly seen engaged in “animated conversations” at the ski chalet town in Switzerland.

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posted 7 days ago on re/code
The Irishman. | Netflix In the US, that is. In the rest of the world, Netflix is still booming. For years, Netflix executives have been asked about competition — from long-standing competitors like HBO and from new entrants into the subscription video market, like Amazon. And for years, Netflix executives answered with a variation on a theme: There’s plenty of room for everybody. We’ll keep growing. And they did. Today, now that the streaming wars have really started, it’s a different story: Netflix just posted meager numbers for its US subscriber growth — lower than the modest numbers Netflix had told Wall Street it expected to hit — and said that some of the miss might come from ... pressure from new competitors. For the record: Those new competitors would be Disney, which launched its Disney+ streaming service in November and promptly announced it had signed up 10 million subscribers in a day; and Apple, which also launched its Apple TV+ service in November — but hasn’t provided any information about how that launch went. Those launches, Netflix says, may have cut into its growth: Netflix had told investors it expected to sign up 600,000 new subscribers in the last three months of 2019, but in reality it only landed 420,000. Then again, who knows? It may also have been price hikes the company rolled out last year, says CEO Reed Hastings, in the written equivalent of a shrug: “Our low membership growth in [the US and Canada] is probably due to our recent price changes and to US competitive launches.” The flip side: Netflix posted gangbuster numbers for its growth in the rest of the world — where Disney isn’t really competing yet and where Netflix is now primarily focused. Netflix added 8.3 million subscribers outside of the US, way above the 7 million it had projected. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-SSEI5");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-SSEI5");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() And that mixed result seems to have calmed Netflix investors, who love to crash in and out of the stock for just about any reason at all. Netflix stock has barely moved since the company put out its results this afternoon. Still, it’s significant that Netflix not only acknowledged the elephants in the room — the big-budget marketing blitzes from two very big new competitors, and the competition they’re about to see as HBO Max and NBC’s Peacock launch later this spring — but that it also acknowledged that having elephants in the room might not be ideal. You can also expect to hear a lot more about that in the years to come. Which is why Netflix also took pains to tell investors that it thinks it’s going to be just fine, even as Disney sends Baby Yoda their way, and Apple sends Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston. Here’s a Google Trends chart Netflix included in their quarterly shareholders letter, which is supposed to illustrate how much more interested global audiences are in The Witcher — a swords and sorcery show that launched late last year that Netflix says will be its biggest season one series ever, with 76 million people watching in the first week — than in Disney’s The Mandalorian, Apple’s The Morning Show, and Amazon Prime Video’s Jack Ryan: Message from Netflix: We made a show that got very, very little hype — except on our own home screen — and it’s a giant hit around the world. We’ll be fine. Then again, that’s a global look, which Netflix says is fair because it competes around the world with Amazon and Apple. But if you run the same comparison in the US, things look much closer. We did that here, so you don’t have to: trends.embed.renderExploreWidget("TIMESERIES", {"comparisonItem":[{"keyword":"Witcher","geo":"US","time":"2019-10-21 2020-01-21"},{"keyword":"Mandalorian","geo":"US","time":"2019-10-21 2020-01-21"},{"keyword":"Morning Show","geo":"US","time":"2019-10-21 2020-01-21"},{"keyword":"Jack Ryan","geo":"US","time":"2019-10-21 2020-01-21"}],"category":0,"property":""}, {"exploreQuery":"date=today%203-m&geo=US&q=Witcher,Mandalorian,Morning%20Show,Jack%20Ryan","guestPath":"https://trends.google.com:443/trends/embed/"}); To sum up: Netflix has new competition, especially in the US, and that may have cut into its business. But Netflix’s big growth plans are all outside the US, where it doesn’t compete with Disney — yet. So this one is way, way too early to call. Here’s what that growth looks like in each region: !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-mUomd");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-mUomd");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-KdNFa");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-KdNFa");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}()

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It’s going to take more than a few high-profile video hacking incidents to slow connected security camera sales. The security company Ring’s online sales in the US grew 180 percent in December compared with a year earlier, according to new data from Jumpshot, a data analytics firm that tracks URL data from a sample of tens of millions of people. These sales have continued unabated despite growing concerns about privacy risk implications and high-profile reports of disturbing hacks. Jumpshot estimates the Amazon-owned company sold nearly 400,000 Ring security devices, including its video cameras and doorbells, in December, making it the single biggest month for sales to date. Ring hasn’t released any sales numbers of its own and declined to comment for this article, but has said it has “millions” of customers. Jumpshot’s data suggests that reports of Ring hacks in early December, which led consumer groups to issue a product warning and which prompted two class action lawsuits, have not hurt sales. Ring has also been criticized and boycotted for its partnerships with police departments. The company also continues to dabble in controversial facial recognition tech but so far it remains a “contemplated but unreleased feature.” !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-lOJRL");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-lOJRL");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() The data includes sales of Ring products on Amazon.com and through websites of other retailers like Costco, BestBuy, and Home Depot. While the data would count a single transaction of a Ring doorbell and Ring camera as two separate sales, it doesn’t differentiate when people bought multiple of the same kind of device at once, so the real number of devices sold may be higher. December’s sales were even higher than July’s, when the devices were highly discounted and prominently featured during Prime Day, Amazon’s annual sales event. The 280,000 sales Jumpshot saw in July represented 275 percent growth compared with a year earlier. At the time, Amazon noted that Amazon’s Ring doorbell was a best-seller among Amazon devices and electronics overall, on what has historically been the company’s biggest sales day. In general, smart security devices are some of the fastest-growing smart home products, according to market research firm IDC. They estimate about 200 million such devices will ship worldwide this year, 27 percent growth compared with a year earlier. So far, privacy and safety qualms over such devices have yet to dent their growing popularity with American consumers.

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Tablets suspected by the Drug Enforcement Administration to be fentanyl. | Don Emmert/Getty Images The government is investing in an AI-based tool that could help catch illegal opioid sales on the internet. But the same approach could find lots of other illicit transactions. An estimated 130 people die from opioid-related drug overdoses each day in the United States, and 2 million people had an opioid use disorder in 2018. This public health crisis has left officials scrambling for ways to cut down on illegal sales of these controlled substances, including online sales. Now the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, is investing in an artificial intelligence-based tool to track how “digital drug dealers” and illegal internet pharmacies market and sell opioids (though online transactions are likely not a large share of overall illegal sales). New AI-based approaches to clamping down on illegal opioid sales demonstrate how publicly available social media and internet data — even the stuff you post — can be used to find illegal transactions initiated online. It could also be used to track just about anything else, too: The researcher commissioned by NIDA to build this tool, UC San Diego professor Timothy Mackey, told Recode the same approach could be used to find online transactions associated with illegal wildlife traffickers, vaping products, counterfeit luxury products, and gun sales. As with most technical innovations, these tools pose concerns, too. For instance, drug policy experts caution that in the case of online opioid sales, such AI tools — depending on how they’re ultimately used by law enforcement — risk enabling the over-criminalization of low-level drug sellers. They also emphasize that these tools won’t ultimately help reduce the demand for these substances. It’s more complicated than a keyword search Coming up with a way to find illegal drug sales online is no easy task. You can’t just search “opioid” and expect to only find accounts illegally selling these medications. Think about it: Tons of people have written about opioids online. Maybe you’ve shared your thoughts about a Vox article on this topic, or posted about a loved one who passed away from an overdose. Neither of those is an illegal transaction. In fact, only a small percentage of online posts that mention opioids are related to illegal selling or marketing, says Mackey. In one study of more than 600,000 tweets containing the names of several prescription opioids, he found that fewer than 2,000 tweets were identified as actually marketing those substances. Timothy Mackey/S-3 Research. Example of content related to illegal opioid selling found on Instagram using machine learning. Another challenge: People selling these substances online don’t always use obvious keywords, and they change their strategies and quickly remove their posts. For instance, Mackey has noticed that some accounts that appeared to be online drug sellers have included pictures of exercise equipment in their posts. He says another common behavior is misspelling the names of drugs. That’s because Instagram, for instance, has blocked searching by some drugs’ exact names. A search for the tag “percocet” on Instagram shows no result. Similar to findings by BuzzFeed News, when Recode searched for “#percocet” on Instagram, there were no results, but our search of slightly misspelled “#percocert,” a search term suggested by Mackey, revealed thousands of posts, some of which had comments that appeared to be related to drug-selling. (Facebook and Instagram community standards ban this type of content. The company says that it encourages users to report this content and uses automated systems to preemptively catch it). Comments that appear to be selling opioids, as well as other drugs, that Recode found by searching “#percocert” on Instagram. “For a platform like Instagram where we see a lot of drug dealers, it’s a number of hashtags associated with different opioid communities, and then it’s usually information about how to contact the drug dealer and buy from them,” Mackey says. He explains that there are also sellers who illegally represent themselves as internet pharmacies, which can advertise on social media or internet sites and then direct potential customers to some form of e-commerce platform. The FDA has repeatedly tried to clamp down on these sites. That’s where data — lots of it — and artificial intelligence come in. Last year, Mackey and his team used a type of artificial intelligence called deep learning to track down illegal drug sellers on Instagram. This type of AI focuses on recognizing patterns in data, and in this case, in Instagram posts. The idea is to get an AI-based system to recognize what drug-selling content looks like so that it can automatically find new sale-related posts within a much larger set of internet content. Mackey and his team have also used an AI-based approach called topic-modeling. Here’s how that works: You expose an AI system to a bunch of words and phrases from a larger set of information, like a database full of tweets that include the word “fentanyl” (a type of opioid). Then you let the AI system loose to figure out what words and phrases appear to be related to keywords like fentanyl. It’s a complicated form of sorting and matching that ultimately finds conversations, or “topics,” within the broader discussions of fentanyl. The hope is that one of the “topics” the AI finds is related to suspected sales, potentially revealing relevant keywords or information you otherwise would not have known about. Such a method helped Mackey whittle down a set of nearly 30,000 tweets about fentanyl to fewer than 10 unique tweets that appeared to be marketing fentanyl and included links to external sites. Mackey has also used this method to sort through online conversations about other types of opioids, like oxycodone and oxycontin. To fight online opioid sales, there’s growing interest in AI It’s important to keep in mind that most illegal opioid sales probably don’t occur online. But it’s still a problem that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), members of Congress, and the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) are worried about. In 2018, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb called out social media companies, among other internet companies, for not being “proactive enough in rooting out these illegal offers to distribute opioids.” Soon afterward, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was hammered about illegal online pharmacies promoting opioids on his platform while testifying before Congress. He, too, pointed to AI as part of the solution. That represents a broader trend. A Food and Drug Administration spokesperson told Recode that the agency’s criminal investigations office often gathers intelligence from public tips, the internet, the dark web, and social media, “oftentimes using a number various AI-enabled applications to correlate and understand information from multiple sources.” Last year, the government budgeted the FDA $20 million to create a “data warehouse” meant to be mined, in part, by machine learning algorithms, which would be used to identify and address emerging trends in the opioid crisis. (The Drug Enforcement Administration told Recode it would not comment on investigative techniques.) Meanwhile, Reddit, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook all told Recode they’re now using automated or AI-based technology to flag or investigate content that violates their policies, including illegal opioid sales. Mackey said he’s only been in limited talks with Facebook and Twitter, which were spurred by an FDA summit in 2018 focused on cracking down on illegal sales online. But Mackey says a pilot study he ran for Google led to the removal of some opioid sale-related content on YouTube (mostly in the comments section of videos about opioids). Now, as part of his work for NIDA, Mackey is developing a prototype based on his research, which he soon plans to commercialize (essentially, NIDA’s funding helped him launch a small company). He says that, for now, only the government is funding his work on tracking illegal opioid sales. Mackey’s hope is that the tool could ultimately be used by regulators, social media platforms, pharmaceutical companies, and even law enforcement agencies, like the DEA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. AI tools could help analyze broader trends in the opioid supply chain, but they come with risks Mackey says his tool is needed because, even if proposed drug policy reforms succeed, we’ll still need to prevent the opioid crisis from extending itself online. While research shows that’s already happened to some extent, two drug policy researchers told Recode that online sales are probably a small share of overall illegal opioid purchases. The DEA told Recode that its investigations into retail-level sales are still dominated by traditional, and not online, sales. “We still don’t know to what extent this is a problem or what’s the size of it, relative to other kinds of traditional drug supply avenues,” said Bryce Pardo, a drug policy researcher at Rand Corporation, a nonpartisan think tank. He said it’s possible a tool like Mackey’s could help find specific populations that tend to sell these substances online. But he cautioned that such a tool would be most applicable to finding sellers at the bottom of the supply chain, not large-scale importers that illegally bring massive amounts of these controlled substances into the US. “When we try to target sellers, it becomes a game of whack-a-mole,” cautions Sheila Vakharia of the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance. “Even when a seller is taken off the streets, taken off the web, or taken off a username or an account, there’s very little in place that’s going to prevent the next one from popping up.” Mackey says it’s true some of the accounts his system will flag will be relatively low-level, but he emphasizes that their volume varies, and could also be used to find where drugs are being sold on other parts of the web. Ultimately, he says, the AI can help law enforcement link investigations they’re conducting online to those they’re pursuing offline, and to gain a better sense of the entire supply chain. He says the information they gain from this system could ultimately help them prosecute an existing case, target larger actors, issue a subpoena, or even conduct a “test-buy.” Vakharia agreed that some applications of data-mining and AI might be useful. For instance, these tools could help those seeking opioids — or those who are already at risk of an overdose — access rehabilitative resources. More broadly, AI is also being used to study how people talk about their drug abuse and recovery online. And researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology are working on a somewhat similar tool to Mackey’s — called DrugTracker — that uses social media and geospatial data to mine through slang related to, and detect risks of, drug activity. The idea, professor Hai Phan explains, is to keep local institutions informed of the risk of drug abuse in their areas. “Drug abuse uptick is really, really fast, especially when we have a new drug,” he told Recode. Still, Vakharia said there’s a risk it could be used to crack down on low-level sellers in an ineffective way that would ultimately exacerbate a failing war on drugs. “This is that fine law that we’re going to continue to walk for some time,” Vakharia said. “If we know that the internet is a big place where people are engaging in these transactions but also looking for information, it would be really great to be able to target messaging for them. But I think that assuming the best of intentions for all players who are going to get access to this information is naive.” Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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posted 11 days ago on re/code
Ringer CEO and founder Bill Simmons at a Vanity Fair conference in 2015 | Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Vanity Fair Spotify thinks podcasting could be really big. Bill Simmons built a podcast empire, and now he could cash in. Last year, Spotify made a splash when it bought a series of podcasting companies. Now it may be at it again: The company is in conversations to buy The Ringer, the podcast-centric startup founded by sports media entrepreneur Bill Simmons. Spotify, which spent about $400 million in 2019 by acquiring three podcasting companies — Gimlet Media, Anchor FM, and Parcast — has had talks with Simmons that date back at least as far as October 2019, according to people familiar with discussions. It’s not clear how advanced the talks are now; Spotify may also be interested in buying other podcast companies. If a Spotify-Ringer deal happens, it would signal that Spotify thinks the podcast deals it did last year were money well-spent, and that podcasting will be an important part of the music company’s future. What it wouldn’t indicate is what would happen to The Ringers’ popular sports and culture podcasts, which are currently available for free on every platform, including Apple’s dominant Podcast app. It’s a decent bet, though, that Spotify would at least be interested in getting Simmons’ group to create more Spotify-exclusive podcasts, like the “Hottest Take” series it started making for Spotify last September. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the talks. Reps for Spotify and The Ringer declined to comment; Simmons hasn’t responded to a request for comment. (Vox Media, which owns Recode, has a commercial relationship with The Ringer.) There’s some basic logic to a would-be deal: Last year Spotify announced that podcasting would become an important part of its business, and it has been making moves to both push its own, exclusive podcasts, as well as to promote podcasts in general. And while The Ringer has a web publishing operation, and has made forays into videos and TV shows, the bulk of its revenue comes from podcasting. Last year, the Journal reported that the company was generating more than $15 million a year from podcasts. Simmons has been immersed in podcasting since 2007, when he was a rising star at Disney’s ESPN unit. After ESPN let him go in 2015, Simmons started his own site. HBO initially backed the site, and it also hired him to create a short-lived TV show he hosted, along with other programming. Simmons has never disclosed if he has other investors. Simmons has talked about selling his company before. Last year he discussed a sale with AT&T’s WarnerMedia, proposing a price around $100 million, according to a source familiar with discussions. WarnerMedia was already working with Simmons via its HBO unit; it also owns Turner, the TV network that owns Bleacher Report, a digital sports publisher it acquired in 2012. Talks between WarnerMedia and Simmons stopped before news that Spotify was buying Gimlet broke. Since Spotify embarked on its podcast buying spree, lots of podcast-related businesses have imagined that their value has increased, so it’s quite possible that Simmons feel the same. Spotify has said it wants to invest in podcasts for several reasons. It thinks Spotify users who listen to podcasts are more likely to pay for a premium version of Spotify, and less likely to stop using the service. Spotify also wants to use podcasting to build up its advertising business; earlier this month, it announced plans to provide ad targeting for podcast advertisers using Spotify listeners’ demographics and behavior. That’s the data marketers already use for standard Web ads — using the same tech that tells advertisers whether you looked at slippers on Zappos, or which website you visited before you got to Vox.com — but hasn’t been widely available for podcast advertisers. If it delivers, the conventional ad business believes, a lot more ad dollars would come into the industry. Podcasting is growing fast, but it is still a niche business compared to the rest of the ad world. Last year, Edison Research estimated that 32 percent of the people in the US over age 12 — that’s 90 million people — listened to a podcast each month. That’s up from 11 percent a decade ago. But advertisers usually take a while to follow users. Podcasting advertising is supposed to generate more than $860 million this year and $1 billion in 2021. But the rest of digital advertising brings in well more than $107 billion in the US. And Spotify believes it can get better economics from podcasting than it does from the music labels who are responsible for the overwhelming majority of its business. Eventually - and theoretically — if podcasting becomes big enough — Spotify’s overall margins could improve, and that could convince Wall Street that Spotify is more valuable. Up until now, Apple has dominated podcasting, primarily because of the popularity of its iOS operating system, which features a built-in podcasting app. But while Apple’s media chief Eddy Cue, who likes Simmons, would likely be unhappy to see Spotify lock up his company and podcasts in an exclusive deal — if that’s what it ended up doing — I would be surprised if he made a counter-offer. That’s because Apple executives say they don’t view podcasting as a business and aren’t likely to change their perspective soon: Right now, podcasting is overwhelmingly an ad-based business that’s free to users. And Apple does very little in the ad business, and has staked out a pro-privacy, anti-ad targeting position. Unless Apple’s theology changes — which is very unlikely — or consumers show a willingness to pay for podcasts, instead of listening to free, ad-supported ones, Apple is unlikely to think podcasting will be a business it wants to participate in. That said, Apple has been expanding its modest podcasting team (Apple recently hired a Vox Media employee who specialized in podcast promotion), and wants to promote podcast consumption on its platform. Apple has also talked to podcast companies about making a handful of exclusive podcasts, but so far those seem limited to companion podcasts for other Apple projects, like its Apple TV shows. Worth noting: The Spotify-Ringer talks are happening at the same time that sports media startup Barstool Sports may be sold to Penn National, a regional gambling company. Probably coincidental: Both The Ringer and Barstool are led by men who started blogging about Boston sports.

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posted 11 days ago on re/code
Mike Bloomberg and Joe Biden, during simpler times. | Al Drago/Getty Images Bloomberg behind closed doors. Mike Bloomberg seemingly suggested behind closed doors at an event with Silicon Valley elite on Thursday that former Vice President Joe Biden could be a “lame duck” president if elected, implying that the former New York mayor is the better moderate 77-year-old to support. Toward the end of his 10-minute pitch to about 200 tech executives, investors, and socialites, Bloomberg, looking at notes, offered the contrast without naming Biden explicitly, according to video posted to social media and seen by Recode. “My message to you is if you want somebody who’s experienced, and strong enough to serve two terms and not give the gift of being a lame-duck president to the Republicans,” Bloomberg said, before listing off a series of policy commitments, “then welcome to Bloomberg 2020 and I’d love to have your support.” Biden is the only candidate who has been the subject of credible reporting that he could pledge to serve a single term, an accusation the Biden campaign has forcefully denied. Nevertheless, the speculation could prove fruitful fodder for Bloomberg, who is competing with Biden for some of the same elite support and moderate voters. A campaign spokesperson noted that Bloomberg has pledged to support the Democratic nominee no matter what. It is a sensitive point of attack for Biden. Politico first reported in December that Biden’s campaign had considered publicly stating — or at least privately signaling — that he would only serve one term if elected, seen as a strategy to stave off nagging concerns about his age and whether he is as sharp as he used to be. Biden’s team has strongly disputed that a one-term pledge was ever under consideration But it has nevertheless continued to dog him, including being asked about it in an interview published Friday with the New York Times editorial board. “I never hinted that. That is simply not true,” he told the paper. “I don’t know where it came from, but it did not — it came from somebody who in fact, I guess, thinks that they know me and thinks that maybe, I don’t know.” Biden’s campaign declined to comment. Bloomberg and Biden are the same age: 77. Another candidate who has drawn concern about his health, age, and ability to do the job, Bernie Sanders, recently suffered a heart attack. Elizabeth Warren is 70, but there has not been serious reporting or speculation about Sanders or Warren making a similar one-term commitment. Bloomberg’s line was interpreted as a comment about Biden, according to a person in the room. While Biden has not shown strength with Silicon Valley leaders, he does represent a clear threat to Bloomberg’s path to victory. Bloomberg only entered the race at a time when Biden seemed to have a declining grip on moderate voters and Democratic elites. But Biden has proved durable. Bloomberg’s team has indicated to Democrats that he might reorient his campaign to a more general anti-Trump organization if Biden proves to be on the path to victory following Super Tuesday, when California votes, according to the New York Times. And so it makes sense for Bloomberg to look for the opportunities to draw a contrast with Biden. The former New York City mayor made the comment at the conclusion of a “private briefing” for many leaders from the tech industry. Attendees included people like San Francisco powerbroker Ron Conway, so-called “Queen of the Internet” Mary Meeker, and a host of other Bloomberg-curious Silicon Valley titans. Bloomberg allies think his data-driven, subdued brand of politics will resonate among leaders in the tech community. “I think we need less talk and less partisanship. In fact, I think we need less tweeting,” he told the crowd at one point. “I make you this commitment right now: When I’m in the Oval Office, there will not be any tweeting.” What Bloomberg is not seeking is campaign contributions from them — something that Biden, who has made multiple trips to Silicon Valley, very much is. Bloomberg is self-financing his race and asked the donors there to consider giving to the Democratic National Committee and outside groups — while still pledging to support him in the primary. “I can imagine I’m the only politician in history who’s been in a room with all of you and not asked for donations,” he told the crowd.

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posted 11 days ago on re/code
Anna Wiener is the author of a new memoir about startup culture, Uncanny Valley. | Russell Perkins Anna Wiener paints a biting portrait of startup culture in her new memoir, Uncanny Valley. A few years after Anna Wiener graduated from college in 2009, she decided to get out of a dead-end job in the publishing industry to work in tech — because, she says, she wanted to feel like she was “going somewhere.” Instead, she found herself sucked into a culture that left her increasingly disconnected from her sense of self, and working for young startup managers who seemed not to have much more emotional intelligence than an AI-programmed chatbot. “You see people who are 24 or 25 running a company. They’ve never really had any professional experience. You’ve never had any professional experience. Things can get really bad, really quickly,” said Wiener in an interview for Recode Media about her new memoir, Uncanny Valley. “I think that from there, I started to question the way the industry was designed.” Wiener’s book is an outgrowth of a 2016 essay by the same name in the literary magazine n+1, where Wiener says she presented a “lightly fictionalized” tale of her time in tech. In her new book, which describes her time working for startups in New York and San Francisco, Wiener doesn’t identify by name which companies or people she worked for. But we know she first worked for an e-reading subscription app in New York before moving to San Francisco to work in customer support — first for a data analytics startup and then for a company that hosted open source software projects (widely thought to be Github). Using vivid and nuanced prose, Wiener recounts cringeworthy meetings with managers who question her capabilities, colleagues who worry more about their company’s reputation than the growing homeless encampments on San Francisco’s streets, and casual workplace sexism — like a male colleague keeping a list of women in the office ranked by their looks — that she’s afraid to confront for fear of being designated a feminist killjoy. But Wiener is reluctant to dismiss the appeal of tech culture altogether. She’s honest about her attraction to an industry that promised a sense of opportunity she lacked in her previous gig, as an assistant at a New York literary agency. Wiener says she still has “a lot of sympathy” for people like one of her former bosses, who she thinks was in over his head. “In my mind, he was a kid, which I realize is probably being a little forgiving of someone who has been given an incredible amount of money and power and free rein,” said Wiener. “I tend to try to shift my blame toward the larger picture, toward the structure that’s in place that empowers certain types of people or has this mythology around a certain type of hardheaded college dropout with a technical background.” Read an excerpt of the interview below (edited for clarity), and listen to the entire conversation here: Shirin Ghaffary Not to give away the book, but can you tell us a little bit more about the critical perspective that you also came to have on some aspects of tech culture? Anna Wiener I don’t think it’s a spoiler that I grew disillusioned with this industry or my work in it. I think for me it was a slow burn. I was working at a data analytics company when the Snowden revelations came out, and that was something that I didn’t quite process in the moment but gradually started to understand that this was part of a much bigger ecosystem and economy around data collection and the different ways that could be abused ... On an interpersonal level, I started to feel like it didn’t make sense to me that we should all be down for the cause when actually the incentives weren’t really there, that it was more of an emotional incentive in this particular company to let the startup consume your life. I think also you see people who are 24 or 25 running a company. They’ve never really had any professional experience. You’ve never had any professional experience. Things can get really bad, really quickly. I think that from there, I started to question the way the industry was designed. Shirin Ghaffary Can you describe a little bit more about what that was like? I know there were a couple of very uncomfortable meetings or situations that you were in. Anna Wiener It’s a very strange culture in which to learn how to be a professional, which for a lot of people, this was where they were learning to become a professional. I think on the one hand, it can be really exciting. You’re sitting at a table or standing at a table next to the CEO of a company [Ed. note: As in the book, Wiener did not disclose the identity of this person] and people who you assume are powerful. People who are powerful, who you assume know what they’re doing, have given this person $12 million to make his idea come to life. That’s thrilling, and that level of casual interaction can be very exciting as well, where you’re hanging out with your CEO, you’re drinking beer with your CEO, you’re going to Tahoe with the whole [company] ... I just think that the youthfulness is a really big part of this culture, but with youthfulness tends to come a certain level of inexperience. I think that the irreverence of the industry, which is really appealing to a lot of young people, is also its downfall. So at a certain point, it started to feel like the things that had once made working at this one company in particular so exciting and so enchanting in a way were actually the same things that would contribute to what would make it a miserable place to be. I think that working for people who are figuring it out as they go along is a big part of that. At the same time, I have a lot of sympathy for someone like that. It was very hard for me to be on the receiving end of certain — what I would call highly unprofessional and inappropriate managerial strategies — but I also feel for this kid. He, in my mind, he was a kid, which I realize is probably being a little forgiving of someone who has been given an incredible amount of money and power and free rein. I tend to try to shift my blame toward the larger picture, toward the structure that’s in place that empowers certain types of people or has this mythology around a certain type of hardheaded college dropout with a technical background. But I don’t come at this from a place of contempt at all, especially not toward someone who I think really got wrapped up in a system that he was not entirely prepared to be a part of. I think looking at the systems view is a little bit a way of forgiveness in a way.

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posted 11 days ago on re/code
Roger Kisby / Getty Images for Pinterest “We couldn’t ensure that we were giving people great information.” Pinterest is much smaller than its tech giant competitors Instagram, Amazon, and Google. But the visual discovery platform has established a quietly radical approach to search: deliberately engineering results to avoid harm, and holding itself accountable for unintended consequences. Founded in 2010, Pinterest grew up against the backdrop of its rapidly scaled competitors struggling to adequately police the spread of disinformation on their platforms. “I think back then it was just sort of a foregone conclusion that if you build technology platforms, good things will automatically happen,” CEO Ben Silbermann told Kara Swisher at the National Retail Federation in a live episode of Recode Decode. “The lesson that everyone’s learned over the last few years is that if you want positive things to come out of internet technology, they have to be deliberately engineered that way.” Silbermann’s approach to search is a quietly radical departure from Pinterest’s fellow social media platforms. Without calling them out directly, Silbermann says, “If you don’t take some responsibility for what people see, you’re at some level responsible for the downstream consequences of that.” The platform faced its first test when it noticed people had begun searching Pinterest for medical information, specifically about vaccines. The reemergence of previously eradicated diseases like measles has been linked, at least in part, to disinformation on social platforms shared by people who believe unfounded claims that vaccines can be harmful. “And we made the decision then, that as a starting point, we would just not serve up content because we couldn’t ensure that we were giving people great information,” Silbermann said. Over the past six months, Pinterest has permitted verified sources like the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to post results exclusively. They took a similar approach to users searching for terms associated with clinical depression and anxiety. Under the guidance of clinical psychologists, Pinterest designed a product called “Compassionate Search.” The goal is to serve results that will aid rather than harm users, all based on expert advice from medical professionals. Silbermann said this means results should normalize emotions but not the behavior of self-harm. Silbermann is driven by his early vision for what the internet could be. “Like a lot of people, I thought the internet would be this positive place that could connect people in a positive way, that could lead people to feel really good. And it didn’t turn out that way,” he says. “A lot of the internet wasn’t built with the needs of especially women in mind.” Pinterest is still dwarfed by the likes of Instagram, Google, and Amazon, whose businesses focus on the intersection of search and commerce. But at 320 million US users, Pinterest is growing quickly. We’ll see how Silbermann’s accountability for unintended consequences evolves with scale now that it’s a public company answerable to the stock market — and whether any of its competitors follow suit.

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posted 11 days ago on re/code
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Plaintiffs suing the company say they created unique passwords but were hacked anyway. After a series of high-profile incidents in which hackers gained access to live footage of Ring security cameras inside people’s homes, the company blamed consumers for reusing old passwords. Two plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit accusing the company of negligence and invasion of privacy say that’s not the issue — instead, they say their passwords were unique and that the company didn’t implement basic security measures to protect users. A security expert enlisted by Recode found that Ring’s devices lack widely adopted safety precautions. Tania Amador and her boyfriend, Todd Craig, said they used unique 14- and 16-character passwords for their Ring security cameras. That didn’t stop a hacker from breaking into their camera feed in December, blaring sirens and threatening them: “Pay this 50 bitcoin ransom or you will get terminated yourself!,” the hacker said, according to the complaint. The stranger also accessed their Ring doorbell and terrified them by saying, “I’m outside your front door.” The lawsuit claims the hack happened December 9, a few days after another much-publicized hack in which a strange man used a Ring device to terrorize an 8-year-old girl in Mississippi. The parents of the little girl are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit. About a week later, Ring sent an email to customers that attempted to reassure them by saying the issue was related to the use of old credentials for other accounts that had been previously compromised: Screenshot of an email sent to Ring users on December 16, 2019. “Ring is basically blaming this on the consumer, saying the way they got hacked was their login and password was leaked,” Hassan Zavareei, a lead attorney on the lawsuit, which may be combined with a similar class action suit, told Recode. “We know that is absolutely false,” he added. “While we do not comment on ongoing litigation, it is important to note that there is no evidence that Ring’s systems or network were compromised,” Ring said in a statement to Recode. “But we have taken the issues seriously and plan to launch new user privacy controls.” The existing precautions haven’t been enough to stop hacks. Unique passwords of 14 to 16 characters are difficult, though not impossible, to crack, according to security experts. They’re susceptible to a number of different hacks, including brute-force attacks in which a hacker uses a program to run through an automated list of email address and password combos until they gain access. “If we believe the users in this lawsuit, then there’s something we don’t know,” Brian Vecci, field CTO at data protection and analytics company Varonis, told Recode. “If hackers have the ability to do this — which would probably require a man-in-the-middle attack, compromised laptops, or a very powerful computer — then I would wager there’s way more than two users compromised.” Michael Schenck, director of security services at cybersecurity firm Kaytuso, told Recode, “Long, complex passwords are great at protecting your information; however, the hackers of the world are getting a lot better at finding ways to break those things with their automated scripts.” Ring devices don’t stop that from happening, nor do they warn customers if someone is trying to execute that kind of attack, according to Schenck, who tested it out for Recode. He created a new account for his Ring device and tried to log in with incorrect information 25 times in a row. He also used a program that made it look like someone was trying to access the device from different countries. Schenck was not locked out of his Ring account, nor did he receive any alerts that these attempts were happening. The result was similar to that of a Vice security test published in December. “It is not best practice to allow repeated attempts without some kind of stop or, ‘Hey, wait five minutes before you try again,’ or something,” Schenck said, adding that companies much smaller than Ring challenge users after failed login attempts with security tests like CAPTCHA, to prove that they’re humans and not robots. In response to the hacks, Ring is launching a privacy dashboard later this month that will allow users to see who is logged in to their account and log them out, as well as confirm any new logins before they gain access to Ring footage. Ring has had a history of security issues, including a vulnerability that let people in close range of the device get access to users’ wifi credentials. However, experts told Recode that probably wouldn’t have given hackers access to the Ring accounts and devices. Earlier this month, Ring announced that new devices would enable two-factor authentication by default, a process in which users have to supply a second piece of information, like a unique code from their phone, to get access to their accounts and video feeds. Recode and other publications had previously suggested mandatory two-factor authentication as an easy security fix. This is a very effective method, but it only works if people choose to use it. Ring is not mandating that existing Ring customers activate two-factor authentication, claiming it would cause mass logouts, and users still have the option of disabling the process. “There’s a balance in security and privacy: The more secure and private you try to keep data, the more impact you have on convenience and functionality,” Vecci said. “Ring is clearly erring on the side of convenience.” As for the lawsuit, the next step is for Ring to respond, either by asking for the case to be dismissed or filing an answer, in which case the plaintiff’s lawyers would begin collecting more information from Amazon, like statistics on how many people actually own Ring devices and could therefore benefit from joining the class action. Ring’s terms of service include a class action waiver and instead require arbitration, but Zavareei said that isn’t an issue. “There’s terms and conditions, but you don’t have to click on them and agree,” Zavareei said. “They’re nonbinding and unlawful.” Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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