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  1. Review: Amazon’s Good Omens is every bit as entertaining as the original novel The late Terry Pratchett is likely smiling in some version of an afterlife. Enlarge / Michael Sheen and David Tennant star in Amazon Prime's TV adaptation of the 1990 novel Good Omens. Amazon Prime Heaven and Hell prepare to face off in the long-planned battle of Armageddon, but an angel, a demon, and a rebellious Antichrist aren't enthusiastic about the prospect in Good Omens. The six-part limited series is based on the original 1990 novel by Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett, and it's every bit as entertaining as the source material. (Some spoilers for the book and series below.) Confession: I am an uber-fan, having read the book multiple times over the last 19 years. I'll likely read it several more times before I kick off this mortal coil, so I'm very much in the target audience for the series. Good Omens is the story of an angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and a demon Crowley (David Tennant) who gradually become friends over the millennia and team up to avert Armageddon. They've come to be rather fond of the Earth and all its humans with their many foibles, you see—not to mention the perks that come with our big blue orb, like sleek electronics and quaint little restaurants where they know you. The supernatural pair doesn't really want the Antichrist—an 11-year-old boy named Adam (Sam Taylor Buck) who has grown up unaware of his pivotal role in the coming apocalypse—to bring an end to all of that. I suspect Gaiman loves the book as much, if not more, than its most ardent fans, and that love shines through every scene of the adaptation. There's a moment in Good Omens when Anathema Device (descended from a famous witch) tells Newton Pulsifer (descended from a famous witchfinder) about the town of lower Tadfield, where the Antichrist is prophesied to rise: "There isn't any evil here. There's just love. Something or someone loves this place. Loves every inch of it so powerfully that it shields and protects it. A deep-down huge, fierce love. How can anything bad start here?" The same goes for Gaiman's adaptation: it's his deep-down huge, fierce love driving everything, and that is ultimately what makes the series a sheer joy to watch (even though season two of American Gods may have suffered a bit from Gaiman's absence). The series almost slavishly follows the novel in many respects—right down to the soundtrack packed with the music of Queen, because a running gag is that any cassette tape (it was 1990, folks) left in the car for longer than a fortnight automatically turns into the band's Greatest Hits compilation. And that's just fine with me. Apart from a few minor quibbles, this is pretty much everything fans could hope for in a TV adaptation of Good Omens. Among other strengths, the miniseries boasts terrific performances from a truly stellar cast. Tennant and Sheen were inspired choices for the two lead roles; they have incredible onscreen chemistry and bring those characters to vivid life. Gaiman admitted during a recent panel at SXSW that he was thinking of Tennant as Crowley while writing the script: "I thought, there's no other human who could play Crowley." Similarly, it's hard to imagine a more perfect foil to Tennant's brashly irreverent demon than Sheen's sweetly anxious angel fretting over his divided loyalties. As for the supporting cast, Jon Hamm is deliciously smarmy as the Archangel Gabriel, the ultimate not-too-bright bureaucrat, who scoffs when Aziraphale tells him there doesn't necessarily have to be a war: "Of course there does. How else would we win it?" Michael McKean plays Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell to perfection opposite an equally well-matched Miranda Richardson, who become mentors of sorts to unlikely lovers Newton (Jack Whitehall) and Anathema (Adria Arjona), keeper of the only accurate book of prophecies ever written. Gaiman successfully fought to keep Agnes Nutter—author of The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch—in the series, despite the high cost of recreating a medieval English village in which to burn her at the stake. But true book fans will lament the absence of the four British bikers who run into the Four Horsemen (er, Bikers) of the Apocalypse—the original Hell's Angels—in a pub and decide to ride with them. In the book, War, Famine, Pollution (who took over when Pestilence retired, "muttering something about penicillin"), and Death are joined by Pigbog (aka Really Cool People), Greaser (aka Cruelty to Animals), Big Ted (aka Grievous Bodily Harm), and Skuzz (aka Embarrassing Personal Problems, before changing to Things Not Working Properly Even After You've Given Them a Good Thumping But Secretly No Alcohol Lager). It's already a sprawling cast of characters, so I get why Gaiman et al. chose to leave them out of the TV adaptation. But they are missed. There are also a couple of notable additions. For instance, Gaiman's script fleshes out Aziraphale and Crowley's long history, as they meet up at various points through brief flashbacks: the Garden of Eden, of course, but also Noah's ark, ancient Rome, the 1970s, and Elizabethan England, where they watch a rehearsal of Hamlet at the Globe by a struggling William Shakespeare. (Tennant's various period-appropriate hairstyles are practically a special effect.) Most notably, there's an extra plot twist in the later episodes that's not in the book. It makes the pacing lag a bit toward the end. Ultimately, I think the twist works, but it might annoy hardcore purists. The friendship between Aziraphale and Crowley is very much the heart of the tale, and it mirrors that of Gaiman and Pratchett in many respects: marrying the dark vision of the former and light comic sensibility of the latter produced the best of both worlds in the novel. The two writers had long planned to adapt Good Omens into a film, yet the project never came together. By 2011, there were rumors of a TV series in the works, but then the author of the Discworld novels was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and tragically died. Gaiman didn't want to even consider moving forward without his friend of 30 years, but Pratchett himself urged him to reconsider in a letter shortly before his death. "Terry, who never asked anything of me in all our years of friendship, wrote to me and said, 'You have to do this. You're the only person out there who has the passion and understanding for Good Omens that I have. You have to make it into television because I want to see it before the lights go out,'" Gaiman said during a Q&A at the May 28 World Premiere event in London. "I thought I had six or seven years of Terry left, but then he died, which suddenly turned [Good Omens] into his last request." There is even a small tribute to Pratchett in a scene set in Aziraphale’s bookshop, per Gaiman's Instagram: "There's a little area of Books by one of his favorite authors and a hat that one of the customers left behind and will be back for one day." I'd like to think Pratchett is smiling in some version of an afterlife at what his great friend and writing partner has wrought. Good Omens is now streaming on Amazon Prime. Source: Review: Amazon’s Good Omens is every bit as entertaining as the original novel (Ars Technica) (To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)
  2. Another effort to reduce shipping times, especially for Prime subscribers. Enlarge / Completed customer orders are seen in their boxes, awaiting delivery, at the Amazon Fulfillment Centre on November 14, 2018, in Hemel Hempstead, England. Leon Neal/Getty Images In efforts to fulfill orders faster, Amazon will help some employees transition to entrepreneurial life. An expansion of its Delivery Service Partner program, the new initiative will give Amazon employees funding to start their own businesses delivering packages for the online retail giant. Amazon employees who take the plunge will receive funding for "startup costs, up to $10,000, as well as the equivalent of three months of the former employee’s last gross salary." According to the announcement, Amazon developed the new arm of the program to help employees who are interested in the Delivery Service Partner program but need assistance during the transition process. The program is reportedly open to a variety of Amazon employees including warehouse workers. However, Whole Foods employees are not eligible to participate in the program. If a worker decides to participate, they will leave their current role at Amazon and receive help from the company to start their small business. Participants will get "consistent delivery volume" from Amazon, ensuring that there will be packages for them to sustain their business. Participants are also allowed access to Amazon's deliver technology, hands-on training, and discounts on helpful products and services including Amazon-branded delivery trucks. Amazon created the Delivery Service Partner program last year, and it has reportedly resulted in the creation of more than 200 small businesses since its inception. Some employees will likely gravitate to the program if they were already interested in starting their own business or if they feel stuck in the daily grind of working in Amazon warehouses. However, if the program proves popular, it's unclear just how many employees Amazon will let leave their positions and participate in this program. While Amazon must front some startup costs, the program works toward one of Amazon's new goals: reduce default Prime shipping times from two days to one day nationwide. The company wants to fulfill orders as quickly as possible so customers are encouraged to buy more from Amazon, knowing the items will arrive in a timely fashion. Two-day shipping as been the default for Prime members for quite some time, but it's clear that Amazon wants to change that in the coming months and years—if it can find the workforce to sustain the operation. Source: Amazon to employees: Quit your job, we’ll help you start a delivery business (Ars Technica)
  3. Retailers are starting to realize that employing humans to trawl the aisles filling online orders isn’t efficient and are investing in software that essentially turns stores into warehouses. Amazon.com Inc.’s pledge last month to pump $800 million into making next-day delivery the new standard upped the pressure on its brick-and-mortar rivals to spend more trying to catch up all over again. That’s good news for logistics startups helping Walmart Inc., Best Buy Co., Macy’s Inc. and other retailers compete online. These upstarts, often led by Amazon alumni, say their phones are ringing with new inquiries and that venture capitalists are keen to pony up. Seattle startup Flexe, which operates a marketplace for warehouse space and online order fulfillment, on Tuesday announced a $43 million investment led by New York firm Tiger Global. Dolly, another Seattle startup, recently announced $7.5 million in fresh funding to expand to new cities and start delivering televisions, sofas, appliances and other big items for the likes of Lowe’s Cos. and Costco Wholesale Corp. Dolly was originally a marketplace for movers. Retailers that struggled to match Amazon on two-day deliveries have to spend big yet again to further cut delivery times. Amazon will capture almost half of the $600 billion U.S. shoppers will spend online this year, according to EMarketer Inc., and retailers have to match its delivery speed to keep that dominance from growing. “Interest in logistics investments has picked up, and we’ll see even more of that this year,” says Julian Counihan, a partner at Schematic Ventures in New York. “Retailers traditionally invested in physical stores to increase sales. Amazon flipped that on its head and made logistics the driver of customer experience.” Flexe, which counts Walmart among its customers, aims to double in size to more than 160 people this year to keep up with demand. It hired former Amazon transportation vice president David Glick as chief technology officer to expand its e-commerce fulfillment business, which now accounts for three-fourths of all sales. Flexe rents out space and services in more than 1,000 warehouses, providing an alternative to Amazon’s logistics services. Flexe helps warehouse owners and operators utilize empty space and idle workers by connecting them with retailers requiring flexibility to manage seasonal demand. Ace Hardware, for instance, used an organic tomato farm’s warehouse in the winter to stockpile imports since weather delayed the usual start of the spring home improvement season. “Having big customers like Walmart known for high standards brings legitimacy to our business,” Flexe CEO Karl Siebrecht says. Dolly’s focus on delivering big, bulky items is something Amazon is still trying to figure out. Amazon retail CEO Jeff Wilke, whose job includes challenging Wayfair Inc. in online furniture sales, boosted his own personal investment in Dolly in the latest round, which was led by Unlock Venture Partners. Dolly offers furniture moving and delivery services in 11 U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. The company connects retailers and customers with 10,000 independent contractors who move and deliver the items. Dolly plans to use the funding round to expand to some 30 markets within the next 12 months to meet demand. Deliveries of sofas, televisions and appliances can be done is as little as 90 minutes, the company says. “We give retailers the ability to tell their customers that they offer way better terms than Amazon for big and bulky items,” says CEO Mike Howell. “Amazon wants to sell more furniture, but it’s having a very difficult time meeting its customers’ expectations because delivering furniture is so much different than delivering small parcels.” Logistics software firm Milezero, which has Staples Inc. as a customer, has also experienced an uptick in business since Amazon’s next-day delivery pledge, says co-founder Charles Griffith. Retailers are starting to realize that employing humans to trawl the aisles filling online orders isn’t efficient and are investing in software that essentially turns stores into warehouses. “Retailers realize these personal shopper solutions are just a band-aid,” says Griffith, a former Amazon vice president. The interest will only keep heating up as the busy holiday season approaches and retailers look for ways to keep Amazon from gobbling up more sales. Last-minute shoppers are one of the last places retailers have an edge over Amazon, and next-day delivery blunts that advantage. “Jeff Bezos is absolutely our best salesman,” says Daphne Carmeli, CEO of Deliv, which provides delivery services for retailers like Macy’s in 35 metro markets and announced a $40 million investment last summer. “He comes out with something and our phones light up.” Source
  4. Amazon mistakenly told some sellers that it's now blocking ads with 'religious content' Key Points Amazon told some sellers that it is now blocking ads containing language about religion, after updating its ad policy. An Amazon spokesperson said its policies haven't changed and the blocking was in error, and its employees are now receiving "corrective training." Sellers of religious products, however, say the change is resultin in a direct sales loss. Amazon employees have been mistakenly taking down ads with religious content, causing some small sellers to take a direct hit on their sales. Multiple sellers have seen their product ads get suspended in recent months for having language about religion, CNBC has learned. These sellers were told by email that their ads were getting blocked due to a "new policy update" at Amazon which bans any ad that contains "religious content." "Products related to a specific religion are not allowed to be advertised," an Amazon representative told one of the sellers in an email viewed by CNBC. Now, Amazon says it was just a snafu. Amazon's spokesperson told CNBC in an email that there haven't been any policy updates and that its employees are being re-trained. "The email that CNBC viewed contains inaccurate information and our long standing policies have not changed. Corrective training is being provided to the relevant teams," Amazon's spokesperson said. The incident is the latest example of Amazon marketplace sellers getting caught in the crossfire as the company has struggled to manage the sprawling growth of the third-party marketplace, which now accounts for more than half of the company's e-commerce volume. For example, as Amazon cracked down on a growing problem with counterfeit products, bad actors have used fake counterfeit complaints to get legitimate sellers taken offline. In this case, marketplace sellers were using Amazon ads to try and stand out from their competitors. Although Amazon makes the bulk of its money from e-commerce and selling computing infrastructure to businesses (Amazon Web Services), the company is also generating billions in ad revenue from companies who pay to have their products appear prominently in search results and other areas on the site. The company's "Other" business segment, which consists mostly of advertising revenue, booked $2.72 billion in the first quarter, showing growth of 36% from the previous year (although that's slower growth than it saw in most of 2018), and Amazon is now the number-three digital ad player in the U.S. after Google and Facebook, according to eMarketer. Sales loss One Amazon seller told CNBC that the sudden ad suspension has caused a serious loss in revenue. This seller requested anonymity because they feared Amazon would retaliate. This person has been selling apparel with Christian and bible messages on them for the last two years. The ads for these products described them as "Christian Fashion Gifts," and included photos of the items with biblical quotes and religious language on them. When the seller asked Amazon about the ad suspension, the company said the content of the ads violated its new policy. It also said that ads by other sellers that include similar language about religion would soon get taken down as well. "The other sellers who are currently advertising religious related Products are doing incorrect practice, which may lead to their account suspension," Amazon's rep told the seller in an email last week. This seller is concerned about losing sales because of the change. Ads are key to driving sales on Amazon because they give increased visibility on the site, but the new policy effectively bans all sellers of religious products from promoting their brands. This person's ads remain suspended as of Friday afternoon. "Our revenue on Amazon is directly connected with advertising we do, so this would be very detrimental to our business," this seller said in an email. Although this seller's ads were banned, there are still visible ads for some other religious products, such as bibles. Amazon told this seller, "Please know that our team is reviewing ads on a phase basis as there are millions of ads and removing all the ineligible ads would not be possible." This seller's incident was not unique. A number of different posts on Amazon's seller forum describe nearly identical interactions. One post from February, for example, said the seller was told that Amazon was "working to stop all advertising of religious items." Another post from last month said rosaries were prohibited from advertising because they are "religious in nature." When CNBC reached out to Amazon about these incidents this week, the company said its policies had not changed and implied that the ads should not have been taken down. In its ad policy page, Amazon states that it "prohibits content that advocates or demeans a religion. Ads may contain references to a specific religion or faith in a historical or fictional context if the primary purpose is to entertain." Also prohibited, among others, are political ads that campaign for or against certain politicians or political issues, and products related to cryptocurrencies or initial coin offerings, according to Amazon's ad policy page. The mistaken crackdown comes as tech giants are facing increased scrutiny over how they run their advertising platforms. Avoiding ads on controversial subjects could help Amazon avoid the criticism Facebook and Google have faced in recent years for their lax ad oversight policies. Facebook, for example, has updated its ad policy in 2017 following reports about the company allowing advertisers to target anti-Semitic keywords. Google also had to respond to a BuzzFeed report showing how it allowed the sale of ads targeting racist search terms. Both companies, have been criticized for their data collection policy and how user data is shared with other advertisers. "At Amazon Advertising, we believe maintaining a high customer experience bar for the ads we serve helps us drive better results for you, our advertisers," Amazon wrote in its ad policy page. Source
  5. SEATTLE – Things you bought for your kids on Amazon - like school supplies or jewelry - may have had toxic levels of lead. The retail giant is now making some changes, following an investigation by State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Amazon has notified customers across the country, who made a little over 15,000 purchases with illegal levels of lead -- at least 600 of them came from Washington state. Ferguson's office tested dozens of products, including backpacks, pencil pouches, lunchboxes, box covers, necklaces and bracelets. The investigation found school supplies with more than 80 times the legal limit of lead. “As a parent, when I buy products for my kids, I expect them to be safe,” Ferguson said. “All retailers must ensure that their products do not pose a threat to Washington children. If they don’t, they will hear from my office.” Amazon has agreed to remove the items, refund customers more than $200,000, and pay the state a $700,000 fine. From now on, Amazon must also require all their marketplace sellers, which offer nearly one million kids' products, to prove that their items have been tested and are safe. “While so many of us benefit from the convenience of online retailers, the products they sell shouldn’t harm our families or the environment where we live,” Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon said. “This is especially true with products marketed for kids.” Source
  6. Scammers deceive PayPal, Amazon and eBay clients through fake customer support numbers The scammers are leveraging Google search results to push fake ads that pretend to be customer support numbers of popular sites. The scam ads pretending to be tech support hotlines work only on the mobile version of the Google search result page. Scammers have found a new way to trick PayPal, Amazon and eBay customer. They are leveraging Google Search results to push fake ads that pretend to be customer support numbers of popular sites. How does the scam operate? BleepingComputer reports that if victims attempted to call one of these fake numbers, they will be greeted with a scammer who claims to be from one of these three companies. In the case of PayPal, the call is answered by someone stating ‘Thank you for calling PayPal support’. The scammer then tells the victims that their PayPal account has a problem and can only be fixed if a code of a Google Play card is sent. The scammer assures that the money paid for the Google Play card will be reimbursed by PayPal. What is the limitation? The scam ad pretending to be tech support hotlines works only on mobile devices. The mobile version of the Google search result page looks convincing and can easily confuse a person. However, the desktop version of the search result page looks fake. Most of the desktop ads utilize symbols such as parenthesis, pipes and Unicode symbols to separate different parts of the numbers. The symbols have been used to bypass Google’s automated ad quality screening tools. How did Google respond? BleepingComputer contacted Google about these ads. In response, Google told, “We have strict policies that govern the kinds of ads we allow on our platform, and ads that conceal or misstate information about their business are prohibited on our platform. When we find ads that violate our policies, we remove them.” Meanwhile, the fake ads have been removed from the search result page and are no longer visible. Source
  7. I had been using CamelCamelCamel for years until their server crashed a month or two past which compelled me to seek an alternative. I came across this new Amazon price tracker https://keepa.com that's really impressed me. CamelCamelCamel never tracked or alerted based on "lightning deal" data which is a killer feature of Keepa. I think it's awesome because their graphs show the lightning deal pricing and frequency and they've also been emailing me "lightning deal alerts" up to 24 hours ahead of time. The lightning deal alerts have saved me money on a half dozen computer items already . They even have Chrome and FF extensions that show the data inline on the Amazon product page. Hopefully this lightning deal feature remains free as long as possible (they charge a subscription fee for other Amazon sales data). Cheers all!
  8. Internal documents obtained by Motherboard detail the planning of an anti-package theft operation that used fake Amazon boxes rigged with GPS location trackers. In response to Amazon packages being stolen from people's doorsteps, police departments around the country have set up sting operations that use fake packages bugged with GPS trackers to find and arrest people who steal packages. Internal emails and documents obtained by Motherboard via a public records request show how Amazon and one police department partnered to set up one of these operations. The documents obtained by Motherboard—which include an operations plan and internal emails between Amazon and the Hayward, California Police Department—show that Amazon’s “national package theft team” made several calls to the Hayward Police Department and sent the department packages, tape, and stickers that allowed the department to set up a “porch pirate” operation in November and December of 2018. The documents also reveal that the bait Amazon packages included real-time location-tracking devices in order to surveil and track anyone who stole a package. According to an “Operation Plan” obtained by Motherboard, the Hayward Police Department referred to the porch pirate operation as “Operation ‘Safe Porch,’” and it lasted from November 12 to December 17, 2018. The document describes package theft in Hayward as a “significant problem” during the holiday season, and it characterizes Operation Safe Porch as a way to “arrest/prosecute those individuals committing this criminal activity.” “The operation will emphasize a pro-active approach in the suppression of this criminal activity and with the use of ‘bait’ packages affixed with GPS tracking devices, Surveillance and Covert Operations, Probation/Parole Searches and potentially Search Warrants,” the document reads. The document claims that the Hayward Police Department Criminal Investigations Bureau, units form the Hayward Special Investigations Bureau, and Hayward Crime Analysis all assisted with Operation Safe Porch. It also notes that the program was run four days a week, for 10 hours per day, and outlined the GPS, radio, and vehicles that were used in the program (including “an assigned undercover vehicle for surveillance and covert operations.”) We don’t know if Operation Safe Porch resulted in the prosecution or arrest of any individuals. An email obtained by Motherboard from Hayward Police Department Sergeant Brian Maloney dated November 25, 2018 says, “So far, there have been no bites on our decoy package.” “We have been targeting high traffic areas, good visibility of porches, and prior theft neighborhoods,” he continued. “I’ll let you know how it goes.” However, Special Investigations Bureau logs obtained by Motherboard indicate that the operation continued for almost a month after that email was sent. The Hayward Police Department declined to comment for this story. The documents indicate the role that Amazon played in helping to organize the sting operation in Hayward, and the amount of planning that went into patrolling and potentially prosecuting package theft—a petty crime. “We appreciate the effort by local law enforcement to tackle package theft in their communities, and we remain committed to assisting them in their efforts however we can,” an Amazon spokesperson told Motherboard. The documents obtained by Motherboard also detail conversations between Amazon Logistics Loss representative Rob Gibson and Hayward Police Department Sergeant Maloney. The emails arrange the delivery of Amazon-branded boxes, Amazon tape, and lithium ion stickers. One email from Maloney requests 5 boxes, as well as tape and stickers. A later email from Gibson says that he will provide 10 Amazon-branded boxes, a roll of Amazon-branded tape, and more lithium ion stickers. The emails reference several conversations between Amazon and the Hayward Police Department that occurred offline. In his first email to the Hayward Police Department, Gibson provides his cellphone number. “I manage our national package theft team and heard that you might be looking for some assistance,” Gibson wrote in his first email to Maloney on November 7. The Amazon representative who communicated with the Hayward Police Department was a “Logistics Loss Prevention” associate. According to the Amazon jobs website, Loss Prevention employees are tasked with protecting the “people, products, and information at each site and in the supply chain.” “Specialists build data-driven investigations, conduct interviews, and monitor security risks,” the website reads. “Our managers implement programmes to prevent loss, manage Amazon assets, and lead teams of strong people.” Several other cities around the country—including Aurora, CO; Albuquerque, NM; Jersey City, NJ; and Hayward, CA—have also conducted porch pirate sting operations aided by Amazon. Jersey City, NJ—like Hayward, CA—put GPS-tracking devices inside the dummy packages. Aurora and Albuquerque, meanwhile, used doorbell cameras from Ring—which is owned by Amazon—to capture video footage and surveil for theft. A Motherboard investigation found that package theft is a focus for most posts on Neighbors, the “neighborhood watch” app owned by Ring. Users consistently claim that they hope for disproportionately severe punishment for people who steal packages from their doorstep. Source
  9. Alexa, play free music." Amazon has entered into discussions to launch a free, ad-supported music service, sources familiar with the plan tell Billboard -- intensifying its competitive threat to global streaming leader Spotify. The world’s biggest e-retailer would market the free music service through its voice-activated Echo speakers, sources say, and would offer a limited catalog. It could become available as early as next week. To obtain licenses for the free music, Amazon has offered to initially pay some record labels per stream, regardless of how much advertising Amazon sells. Amazon declined to comment. The move underscores Amazon’s growing power in the music market, as a distributor that can afford to discount music as a loss-leader to support its core retail business. That’s a luxury Spotify doesn’t have, as its shareholders pressure the music-focused public company to turn a profit. Until now, Amazon has offered its limited Prime Music service as a way to drive Prime subscriptions, which cost $119 a year for perks like free delivery. It also sells Amazon Music Unlimited subscriptions separately for $9.99 a month, reducing the fee to $7.99 for Prime members and $3.99 a month for people who only listen on an Echo device. Currently, Spotify is the only major subscription-dependent music streaming service with a free tier -- a generous offering that’s been key to it hooking and funneling in new paying subscribers. (While YouTube has also long been free around the world, the ad-driven Alphabet video platform is less interested in converting its free users into paid customers.) The free service offered by Spotify, which currently counts 96 million paying subscribers and 116 million free users, is attractive because it lets listeners hear particular albums or artists on demand, though free users can’t control the order of the songs. Apple Music, by comparison, has 56 million paying subscribers without a similar free funnel. (Apple’s Beats 1 radio is free, but doesn’t include on-demand listening). Amazon hasn’t disclosed how many paying music subscribers it has, but some reports last year estimated it counts over 20 million subscribers across its offerings and expect it to gain steadily thanks to integration with its market-leading smart speakers. Source
  10. Microsoft, Amazon are the last bidders standing for the $10 billion DoD JEDI cloud contract The Pentagon is expected to award its $10 billion JEDI cloud contract to either Amazon or Microsoft sometime later this summer, at the earliest. U.S. Department of Defense officials have decided this week that the only two cloud vendors able to meet their requirements for a huge, winner-take-all project are Amazon and Microsoft. That decision takes Oracle and IBM out of the running for the $10 billion JEDI contract. The DoD's JEDI (Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure) contract is designed to upgrade legacy systems with newer cloud services. According to the original proposal, "JEDI Cloud will provide enterprise-level, commercial IaaS (infrastructure as a service) and PaaS (platform as a service) to the Department and any mission partners for all Department business and mission operations." Google dropped out of the JEDI bidding last year, acknowledging it couldn't meet the requirements (and citing its AI principles, as well). Oracle officials had protested the bidding process, claiming bias against a former military employee who also worked at Amazon AWS. Oracle filed a lawsuit over this late last year. In February his year, it looked like the DoD was going to have to postpone the award of the contract as a result of a required review. The DoD was expected to name a winner in April, but now the soonest the JEDI winner will get the nod is mid-July, according to Bloomberg. Over the past year-plus Microsoft has been working to get all its required certifications lined up so that it can meet the JEDI requirements. Source
  11. Amazon employees listen in to your conversations with Alexa A report suggests you may have eavesdroppers in your living room. Amazon is using a team of human staff to eavesdrop on queries made to Amazon Alexa-enabled smart speakers in a bid to improve the voice assistant's accuracy, a new report suggests. If you check out your Amazon Echo smart speaker's history via the Alexa app (Alexa account - > History), depending on where and when you use the device, you may see little more than general, genuine queries. My history is full of cooking timer requests, light control commands, and news briefings. There are also a few nonsense recordings generated by the nearby television on record -- including a man talking about his dog and politics mentioned once or twice -- and while they may be seen as acceptable recording errors, the idea of an unknown human listening in may be enough to make you uneasy. According to Bloomberg, this may be the case, as Amazon staff in areas including Boston, Costa Rica, India, and Romania are listening in to as many as 1,000 audio clips per day during nine-hour shifts. While much of the work is described as "mundane," such as listening in for phrases including "Taylor Swift" to give the voice assistant context to commands, other clips captured are more private -- including the example of a woman singing in the shower and a child "screaming for help." Recordings sent to the human teams do not provide full names, but they do connect to an account name, device serial number, and the user's first name to clips. Some members of the team are tasked with transcribing commands and analyzing whether or not Alexa responded properly. Others are asked to jot down background noises and conversations picked up improperly by the device. "The teams use internal chat rooms to share files when they need help parsing a muddled word -- or come across an amusing recording," Bloomberg says. In some cases, however, the soundbites were not so amusing. Two unnamed sources told the publication that in several cases they picked up potentially criminal and upsetting activities, accidentally recorded by Alexa. An Amazon spokesperson said in an email that only "an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings" is annotated in order to improve the customer experience. "We take the security and privacy of our customers' personal information seriously," the spokesperson added. "We have strict technical and operational safeguards, and have a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system.” It is possible to withdraw from these kinds of programs for the benefit of your personal privacy. In order to do so, jump into the Alexa app and go to Alexa Account - > Alexa Privacy - > "Manage how your data improves Alexa." In this tab, you can toggle various options including whether or not you permit your Alexa usage to be used to "develop new features," and whether messages you send with Alexa can be used by Amazon to "improve transcription accuracy." In related news, the Intercept reported in January that the Amazon-owned company provided its Ukraine-based research and development team close to "unfettered" access to an unencrypted folder full of all the video footage recorded by every Ring camera worldwide. Some employees had access to a form of 'god' mode which permitted 24/7 access to customer camera feeds. Source
  12. US regulators dash Amazon hopes to stop investor vote on gov't facial recognition tech sales Amazon wanted to stop shareholders from having a say on the sale of tech to the US government. SEC said no. The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has blocked Amazon's attempt to prevent shareholders from voting on the sale of Rekognition facial recognition technologies to the US government. Earlier this year, shareholders issued a public statement via Open MIC which said "shareholders request that the Board of Directors prohibit sales of facial recognition technology to government agencies unless the Board concludes, after an evaluation using independent evidence, that the technology does not cause or contribute to actual or potential violations of civil and human rights." The statement noted that Rekognition is already being trialed in Florida and Oregon by law enforcement. Rekognition is Amazon's image, face, and object recognition system. Based on deep learning and computer vision algorithms, the software is able to automatically process millions of photos per day and is touted as a solution for a range of applications in social and security contexts. "You can compare a face on a webcam to a badge photo before allowing an employee to enter a secure zone," Amazon says. "You can perform visual surveillance, inspecting photos for objects or people of interest or concern. You can build "smart" marketing billboards that collect demographic data about viewers." Now, US regulators have entered the mix. The request of Amazon shareholders for an independent review into the applications of Rekognition and the prohibition of sales until concerns have been allayed were put forward by Amazon with a request to exempt them from an annual meeting, a hope that SEC has now dashed. "We are unable to concur in your view that the company may exclude the proposals [...] because we are unable to conclude that the proposals are not otherwise significantly related to the company's business," SEC says. Amazon attempted to dismiss the requests under SEC rules which can exclude proposals (.PDF) if they "relate to operations which account for less than five percent of the company's total assets at the end of its most recent fiscal year, and for less than five percent of its net earnings and gross sales for its most recent fiscal year" and "are not otherwise significantly related to the company's business." The first request's subsequent refusal is dated 28 March (.PDF). An appeal, dated April 3 (.PDF), reinforced the decision and was rejected. "Shareholders -- especially large institutional shareholders -- need to press Amazon on this critical issue by raising their concerns with management and voting their shares," says Michael Connor, Executive Director of Open MIC. "There's a lot at stake." It is not only shareholders, however, which have raised concerns over the applications of the facial recognition technology. An anonymous, public post reportedly published by an Amazon employee says that a letter was delivered to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to the same effect and was signed by 450 employees. The letter also requested that Amazon's board remove Palantir from Amazon Web Services, the software used by ICE's tracking and deportation activities. Over 40 civil rights organizations have also sent a letter to Bezos asking for Rekognition to be "taken off the table for governments." Another open letter describes the concerns that over 70 academics hold relating to Amazon's technology. Research has suggested that the technology is biased towards women and people of color. In February, in the face of such heat, Amazon proposed a set of guidelines to regulate the use of facial recognition technology at government and law enforcement levels. The guidelines suggest that facial recognition technology should be used in accordance with the law, including those which protect civil rights; its use should be subject to human review; law enforcement should be transparent about its facial recognition tech usage and practices; notices should be posted for the public when it is in use; and 99 percent confidence thresholds should be maintained if used in legal cases. ZDNet has reached out to Amazon and will update if we hear back. Source
  13. Amazon says it'll launch 3,236 low Earth satellites for fast, low-latency service. Enlarge Getty Images | Olena_T Amazon has confirmed it plans to launch thousands of low Earth orbit satellites in order to provide high-speed, low-latency broadband service around the globe. Details on Amazon's Project Kuiper emerged in filings with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and in an article published today by GeekWire. Amazon confirmed Project Kuiper in a statement to GeekWire. When contacted by Ars, Amazon provided us the same statement but said it would be "premature" to answer any of our specific questions about speeds, prices, and when service will be available. "Project Kuiper is a new initiative to launch a constellation of Low Earth Orbit satellites that will provide low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world," Amazon said in its statement. "This is a long-term project that envisions serving tens of millions of people who lack basic access to broadband Internet. We look forward to partnering on this initiative with companies that share this common vision." As GeekWire wrote, the filings with the ITU "lay out a plan to put 3,236 satellites in low-Earth orbit—including 784 satellites at an altitude of 367 miles (590 kilometers), 1,296 satellites at a height of 379 miles (610 kilometers), and 1,156 satellites in 391-mile (630-kilometer) orbits." The filings were made last month by the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of Amazon's Kuiper Systems LLC. This is one of the initial steps for Amazon, as it still needs to seek approval from the FCC and regulators in other countries. According to GeekWire, Amazon confirmed that the satellites "would provide data coverage for spots on Earth ranging from 56 degrees north to 56 degrees south," an area that covers about 95 percent of the world's population. Unlike current satellite broadband services that suffer from extremely high latency, low Earth orbit satellites are expected to deliver service with latencies as low as 25ms, similar to cable or fibre systems. Years-long process ahead It would be hard to predict an availability date for Amazon's broadband service, given how early it is in the regulatory process. SpaceX filed for FCC approval of its satellite broadband constellation in November 2016. SpaceX has made significant progress with regulators, getting FCC approval to deploy up to 11,943 broadband satellites. Two months ago, SpaceX asked the FCC for approval of up to 1 million Earth stations that would be used by end users to access the network. SpaceX is hoping to offer Internet service starting sometime in 2020 but hasn't confirmed a more specific availability date. OneWeb, another company planning a big satellite network, launched its first six low Earth orbit satellites in February as test units and says it will provide worldwide broadband access by 2021. SpaceX last year launched two test satellites. The FCC has also approved applications from Space Norway and Telesat to offer broadband in the US from low Earth orbit satellites. Facebook is another company planning to launch broadband satellites. Like other satellite operators, Amazon will have to file detailed plans to convince regulators that its satellites won't interfere with other satellite services and that it can prevent space debris and injuries to humans when they eventually return to Earth. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is also the founder of private spaceflight company Blue Origin. Bezos's space company could theoretically launch Kuiper satellites into space, but Amazon said it will "look at all options" when the time comes, according to GeekWire. Source: Amazon plans satellite broadband for “tens of millions” of people (Ars Technica)
  14. Amazon's big internet plan: 3,236 satellites to beam faster, cheaper web to millions Soon you could be buying your goods online from Amazon using the company's own satellite broadband system. Amazon has plans to establish a constellation of 3,236 satellites in low Earth orbit to patch up areas with poor or no internet connectivity. Amazon's planned push into satellite-delivered broadband is taking shape under Project Kuiper, details of which appear in three documents filed with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) last month. The documents were filed by Kuiper Systems LLC. First spotted by Geekwire, the documents reveal Amazon plans to put 3,236 satellites at three different altitudes. There would be 784 satellites orbiting at an altitude of 367 miles (590km); 1,296 satellites at 379 miles (610km); and 1,156 satellites at 391-mile (630km). An Amazon spokesperson confirmed the existence of Amazon's satellite broadband ambitions, noting that it was a "long-term project that envisions serving tens of millions of people who lack basic access to broadband internet". The company is also planning to partner with other companies to bring the project to reality. That could make companies in the space-broadband race, like SpaceX and OneWeb, potential rivals or partners. The FCC in November authorized SpaceX to deploy and operate 7,000 satellites in very low Earth orbit to deliver broadband. OneWeb, which has $2bn in backing from the likes of Airbus, Coca Cola, Softbank, and Virgin, in February launched six satellites with the same ambition. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin space venture already has a contract to launch satellites for OneWeb and TeleSat. Meanwhile, Facebook, Boeing and LeoSat have revealed plans to beam internet from space. Alongside SpaceX's FCC authorization, the regulator also authorized spectrum in the US for both TeleSat's and LeoSat's space broadband systems. Should Amazon's plans come to fruition, its satellites would provide about 95 percent of the world's population with coverage between latitudes 56 degrees north to 56 degrees south. The two parallels circle the Earth at about the latitude of Sweden and below Australia. Amazon will still need to get approval from the FCC and other regulators around the world to move forward with Project Kuiper. Satellite internet today is typically very expensive. However, there is hope that satellites in low Earth orbit will be cheaper and offer lower latency. Amazon said it would "of course look at all options" when asked whether Bezos' Blue Origin would have an edge over others for launching the Kuiper constellation. Source
  15. Amazon pilots seed, angel investment program for high-risk startups The program could result in more early-stage firms and investors joining the AWS ecosystem. Amazon is piloting a new program designed to bring private venture capitalists and early-stage companies seeking seed and angel investments together. The Amazon Web Services (AWS) Pro-Rata Program is in its early stages and focuses on connecting investors and venture capitalists with startups and those who need early-stage funding and, therefore, may represent a higher degree of risk. As reported by CNBC, parties connected to the program are already making use of AWS cloud technology in some form. According to an email sent to investors in January and viewed by the publication, the AWS Pro-Rata Program "is a new pilot intended to connect family offices and venture capitalists for specific investment opportunities from the AWS ecosystem." Amazon is a prominent investor in early-stage programs and has made a number of acquisitions in the past, but this program will not involve the tech giant investing any funds directly into projects. Instead, Amazon will act as an introductory service, and investors are expected to perform their own due diligence checks. Investments and allocation are not guaranteed. The Amazon Web Services Pro-Rata Program is reportedly being operated by Brad Holden, who has acted as a partner and as investment counsel at TomorrowVentures, a Palo Alto, California-based early stage venture capital firm founded by Google executive chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt. In the email, AWS listed a number of specific companies seeking capital, including a supersonic jet manufacturer called Boom; Roman, a men's health product manufacturer, and a data analytics firm called FreightWaves. Investors were asked to commit a minimum amount ranging from $20,000 to $500,000. While the email describing the project does not mention any revenue generation by Amazon directly, indirectly, the company could certainly benefit. If more investors become interested in startups that rely on AWS, and these projects prove fruitful, Amazon stands to make a long-term gain with the introduction of more clients to the AWS ecosystem. Amazon also operates AWS Activate, a program designed for startups which need a low-cost means of running their infrastructure. AWS Activate offers credits, training, and support for startups. Airbnb, Slack, and Lyft have all made use of the program in the past. In related news, in-flight Wi-Fi provider Gogo transitioned to AWS earlier this month. The company said the majority of its internal and business-critical infrastructure has now moved from Oracle databases to Amazon Aurora. ZDNet has reached out to Amazon and will update if we hear back. Source
  16. Amazon silently ends controversial pricing agreements with sellers As lawmakers begin to question Big Tech’s power Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge Amazon will no longer require third-party sellers to price their products on Amazon lower than they price them anywhere else. It quietly eliminated a clause in its contracts today that critics have called anti-competitive. Price parity agreements, or most-favored nations clauses (MFNs), were formerly used by Amazon in contracts with third-party sellers to ensure that people selling products on the platform did not sell the same products for cheaper on any other platform like eBay or Alibaba. Amazon declined to comment. A few years ago, regulators in Germany and Great Britain investigated this practice and it was dropped in Europe. The threat of regulation or impending investigations might be at fault for causing Amazon to drop MFNs in the United States as well. Last December, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) penned letters to the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission demanding an investigation into these anti-competitive provisions in Amazon’s contracts. “Amazon’s wise and welcome decision comes only after aggressive advocacy and attention that compelled Amazon to abandon its abusive contract clause,” Blumenthal said Monday. “I remain deeply troubled that federal regulators responsible for cracking down on anti-competitive practices seem asleep at the wheel, at great cost to American innovation and consumers.” Last week, presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) announced a sweeping antitrust proposal and said that if she’s elected in 2020, she will work to break up big tech companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Warren’s proposal is only part and parcel of a larger movement among lawmakers questioning the market power of these large tech firms. “The DOJ and FTC must begin aggressively investigating Big Tech’s potential antitrust violations and take necessary enforcement actions to deter more harmful behavior,” Blumenthal said. Source
  17. Security researchers have found that data streams from Amazon-Owned Ring doorbell’s app can be easily compromised. In a blog post on hardware security company Dojo’s website, cybersecurity expert Or Cyngiser outlined the issue: using a specialized security assessment tool called VideoSnarf, he and a team of researchers were able to extract and inject video and audio information as it transferred from the Ring doorbell to its app. That’s a big problem: criminals could target Ring doorbells to gather sensitive information about potential targets. “The attack scenarios possible are far too numerous to list, but for example imagine capturing an Amazon delivery and then streaming this feed,” Cyngiser wrote. “It would make for a particularly easy burglary. Spying on the doorbell allows for gathering of sensitive information — household habits, names and details about family members including children, all of which make the target an easy prey for future exploitation.” Injecting Footage The researchers even demonstrated that they could inject their own video and audio feed, Oceans 11 style, on stage at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. “We developed a [proof of concept], whereby we first captured real footage in a so-called ‘recon mode,'” reads the blog post. “Then, in ‘active mode’ we can drop genuine traffic and inject the acquired footage.” The hack was completely untraceable, the team said. Patch Adams It’s not the first time Amazon’s Ring doorbell has landed in hot water over security issues. In May 2018, The Conversation reported that Ring customers remained logged in even after changing the password to access the device. Ring scrambled and released an over-the-air update yesterday. But users who haven’t downloaded the update, according to Cyngiser, are still vulnerable. “Letting the babysitter in while kids are at home could be a potentially life threatening mistake,” Cyngiser wrote. source
  18. Amazon wants to make delivering your packages carbon neutral Deliveries are going green, but what about that cloud computing data center? Amazon wants half of its deliveries to customers to be carbon-neutral in just over 10 years. The retail-to-cloud-computing giant said that advances in technology mean it can now see a way to cut the carbon emissions related to delivering products to consumers. "With improvements in electric vehicles, aviation bio fuels, reusable packaging, and renewable energy, for the first time we can now see a path to net zero carbon delivery of shipments to customers," the company said. Amazon said it is aiming to make half of all its shipments "with net zero carbon" by 2030. The company has already set a long-term goal to power its global infrastructure using 100 percent renewable energy and said it is making "solid progress" towards this target, without giving more detail. It said it will start sharing its company-wide carbon footprint, goals and related programs later this year. "This follows an extensive project over the past two years to develop an advanced scientific model to carefully map our carbon footprint to provide our business teams with detailed information helping them identify ways to reduce carbon use in their businesses," the company said. As Amazon's impact on retail continues to expand, concerns have been raised by many about the environmental impact of packaging and the vehicles used for delivery. It's a modest step in the right direction but other big tech companies have also been trying to show off their green credentials, particularly in terms of their infrastructure, and seem to be moving faster. The vast demand for electricity to power the infrastructure that runs the tech giants is under increasing scrutiny. "With the tremendous amount of energy needed to power data centers and their rapid growth, how we power this digital infrastructure is rapidly becoming critical in determining whether we will be able to stave off climate change in time to avoid planetary catastrophe," warned Greenpeace in a recent report. In April last year, Apple said retail stores, offices, data centres and co-located facilities in 43 countries -- including the US, the UK, China and India -- were powered by renewable energy, and all of Apple's data centres have been powered by 100 percent renewable energy since 2014. The company said 23 suppliers had also committed to powering their work for Apple using renewable energy. Also, in April last year, Google said it was now purchasing enough renewable energy to match all the electricity it consumed over the year. The company said that because it was not possible to completely power a company of its scale by 100 percent renewable energy, for every kilowatt-hour of energy it consumes, it adds a matching kilowatt-hour of renewable energy to a power grid somewhere. In 2016, Microsoft set a goal of using renewable energy to power half of its datacenters and cloud operations by the end of 2018, with that figure rising to 60 percent by early 2020 and to continue increasing from there. A recent report by Greenpeace noted that the choices of big tech companies can make a big difference to the production of renewable energy. "Because of the desirability as a customer to electric utilities, these commitments have also caused many local utilities to significantly shift their investment to renewable electricity generation in order to meet the needs of existing data center customers or remain competitive for attracting new investment." But it also points to the concentration of data centers in Northern Virginia - where Amazon Web Services has a major presence as an example of how tech infrastructure can also drive demand for fossil fuels. Greenpeace said the potential electricity demand of both existing data centers and those under development in Virginia was approaching 4.5 gigawatts. It said that because Virginia is mostly a regulated electricity market, customers have limited choice in what type of energy they purchase and from whom they purchase. "This means that the majority of rising electricity demand needed to power data centers in Virginia is driving even more demand for fossil fuels, and more CO2 emissions that are fueling global warming," Greenpeace claimed. Source
  19. New York mayor says Amazon headquarters debacle was 'an abuse of corporate power' New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is still upset that Amazon isn't coming to New York. De Blasio attacked the company Sunday for canceling plans to build a second headquarters in Queens last week. "This is an example of an abuse of corporate power," de Blasio told NBC's Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press." "Amazon just took their ball and went home. And what they did was confirm people's worst fears about corporate America." He made similar comments in a New York Times op-ed Saturday. Amazon (AMZN) canceled the deal just months after announcing plans to split its new, second headquarters between New York and Virginia. The Seattle-based company, which is trying to grow its footprint at home and abroad, spent a year reviewing hundreds of "HQ2" proposals from all over North America before settling on the two regions. Last November, de Blasio cheered the newsand promised that it would benefit locals, including residents of a large public-housing development located nearby. But critics — including many Democrats — lambasted the massive subsidies that New York offered to lure Amazon, including $1.525 billion in incentives that were contingent on the company creating 25,000 new jobs with an average salary of $150,000. On Sunday, de Blasio, a Democrat, said New York offered Amazon a "fair deal," and blamed the company for making what he called an "arbitrary" decision to leave after some people objected. "They said they wanted a partnership, but the minute there were criticisms, they walked away," he added. "What does that say to working people that a company would leave them high and dry simply because some people raised criticisms?" Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment about de Blasio's latest remarks. But the company last week criticized "a number of state and local politicians" who it said "have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required" to complete the project. The fight over Amazon is the fight for the future of the Democratic Party The fallout over the Amazon headquarters exposed a rift among Democrats. While de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo welcomed the company late last year, others in the party chafed at the plans — including freshman Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, whose district is near the site in Queens where Amazon would have been located. That divide continued last week when Amazon reneged on the deal. Cuomo attacked politicians who he felt "put their own narrow political interests above their community." Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile,declared victory. Asked Sunday about the disconnect among progressives, de Blasio said they are capable of governing and giving back to working people. "I am representing 8.6 million people, and a clear majority of those people believe we need more fairness in our economy. But of course, we need jobs, we need growth, we need revenue," said the mayor, who called himself a progressive. "Progressives can do both." Amazon said last week that it will not look to replace New York with another city, but will still move forward with existing plans in Virginia. It also is working on a hub in Nashville. Source
  20. Despite record profits, Amazon didn't pay any federal income tax in 2017 or 2018. Here's why Amazon hasn't paid any taxes to the US government in the past two years. Actually, Amazon received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal tax credits in 2017 and 2018. That might seem nuts, considering Amazon is the third-most valuable company in the world and earned a record $10 billion last year. But critics of Amazon's tax bill aren't accusing Amazon of doing anything improper. "This is tax avoidance, not tax evasion. There's no indication of any wrongdoing, except on the part of Congress," said Matthew Gardner, senior fellow at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a liberal think tank. US tax code allows money-losing companies to reduce their future taxable income. Amazon (AMZN) piled up billions of dollars in losses over its two-decade history. It posted $3 billion worth of losses during its first eight years as a public company. It swung between profit and loss since 2003. Its most recent annual loss was $241 million in 2014. Amazon's total earnings have easily topped its losses — many times over. But some of Amazon's earnings came from sales outside the United States, on which Amazon paid either lower or no US taxes. Other earnings were offset by Amazon's investments in equipment, such computers and robots at its fulfillment centers. Last year, Amazon benefited from an accelerated tax credit for equipment purchases, which was part of the corporate tax bill passed at the end of 2017. And the company has received research and development tax credits. So Amazon's federal tax bill came to a net credit of $129 million in 2018 after getting a $137 million tax credit in 2017. The company said in its most recent annual financial statement that it still has $1.4 billion in federal tax credits available to offset future tax bills. Many companies that lose money pay little or no federal income taxes. For example, General Motors (GM) has paid little federal tax money since emerging from bankruptcy in 2009, despite posting record profits for several years. GM doesn't anticipate having to pay any significant federal tax for years to come. Amazon has money, power and influence. But it flamed out in NYC. Here's why that matters Amazon, by contrast, paid $1.1 billion in federal taxes in 2016. The company has also paid non-federal taxes. Amazon paid $533 million in state taxes and $1.3 billion in international taxes over the past two years. Proponents of the federal tax law argue the tax credits for past losses, equipment purchases and research and development allow companies to invest for the future and grow. "Amazon is a powerhouse company and it got there because it invested extensively," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. "Most of our policies are much too short cited. This is one policy that rewards a longer-term perspective and taking some risk. Because of that, Amazon will ultimately be a big payoff for taxpayers." But Gardner said Amazon's success makes such tax breaks unnecessary. "It's hard to see a compelling argument that they would have been hamstrung in their ability to create jobs if they had been forced to pay taxes like everyone else does," said Gardner. Amazon declined to comment on its federal tax payments. The company announced it would drop plans to create 25,000 jobs in New York because of political backlash to the $1.5 billion in tax incentives being offered by the city and the state. The tax breaks it receives from the federal government are more valuable, but have gotten a lot less attention. Source
  21. Amazon invests in startup building electric pickup trucks and SUVs Rivian lands a $700 million funding round led by the tech conglomerate Amazon continued its push into the transportation space on Friday with some big news: the company is leading a $700 million investment round in Rivian, a United States-based EV startup that’s working to launch an all-electric pickup truck and SUV in 2020. The announcement follows last week’s news that Amazon was part of a group that raised $530 million for Aurora Innovation, an autonomous vehicle startup led by the former head of Google’s self-driving car project. Rivian will “remain an independent company,” the startup announced in a press release. While Amazon is leading the funding round, the EV startup says its existing shareholders are also involved in raising the $700 million. Rivian did not disclose exactly how much money Amazon is contributing. General Motors, which Reuters reported this week is also interested in investing in Rivian, was not named in the press release. “We have nothing additional to add beyond our previously shared statement from earlier this week,” a spokesperson for GM said in an email to The Verge. “We admire Rivian’s contribution to a future of zero emissions and an all-electric future.” RELATED This startup is building self-driving trucks and SUVs for futuristic off-road adventures Rivian is a relatively new name on the startup scene, having only debuted its pickup truck and SUV at the end of November last year. But the company has been operating in stealth since 2009. Originally founded to make something that competed with Tesla’s first car, the Lotus-based Roadster, Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe eventually pivoted the company toward a more action-adventure customer segment. The result was two high-power, off-road-ready electric vehicles: the R1T (the pickup) and the R1S (the SUV). Built on the same technological platform, Rivian claims its vehicles — which will start around $70,000 — will be able to travel up to around 400 miles on a single charge, hit 60 miles per hour in under three seconds, and eventually be able to drive themselves in some capacity. The company boasts a number of top ex-engineers and designers from McLaren, and it’s spent years developing a unique approach to building high-capacity battery packs. “[E]very single one of [our vehicles] has to have this Patagonia-like feel of enabling adventure,” Scaringe told The Verge in November last year. “We want to keep that very sharp. We want to focus only on the adventure space, so customers understand what we stand for.” Unlike fellow US-based EV startups like Faraday Future or Lucid Motors, which struggled financially following the announcements of their own electric vehicles, Scaringe took a far more slow and secretive approach with Rivian. The company operated in almost total radio silence for nearly a decade before showing off its vehicle designs late last year. By the time it did, Rivian had a number of pieces in place that those other startups didn’t when they debuted their own electric vehicles — like a manufacturing facility in Illinois. For Amazon, the investment in Rivian is the latest evidence of the conglomerate’s push in the transportation space. Beyond last week’s investment in Aurora, Amazon is also developing its own autonomous delivery robot, has been linked to self-driving trucking startup Embark, and is working on drone delivery, to name a few. “We’re inspired by Rivian’s vision for the future of electric transportation,” Jeff Wilke, CEO of Amazon’s worldwide consumer division, said in a statement. “RJ has built an impressive organization, with a product portfolio and technology to match. We’re thrilled to invest in such an innovative company.” Source
  22. Amazon and Walmart have been dealt a big blow in India, one of their most important markets, as the local government tightens rules regarding how foreign ecommerce platforms sell goods and conduct business in the country. Above: Employees of Amazon India Under the current laws, foreign-owned ecommerce companies are not allowed to sell directly to customers (in other words, to operate under an inventory-based model of ecommerce). Instead, they can only provide a marketplace that acts as “an information technology platform” and serves as a facilitator between “buyer and seller.” To bypass this restriction, both Amazon and Flipkart, which sold a majority stake to Walmart last year, have acquired stakes in some of the biggest third-party sellers in the country. For instance, Amazon owns stake in parent companies of Cloudtail India and Appario Retail, while Flipkart until recently controlled WS Retail, the largest seller on its platform. In late December, the Indian government revised the policies to close the loophole. The policies, which go into effect tomorrow, prohibit Amazon and Flipkart from selling goods from companies in which they have a stake. The two companies were hoping the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, the government agency that issued the revised policies, would extend the February 1 deadline. But efforts to gain more time were unsuccessful. (At around 6:50 p.m. local time – 8.20 a.m. Pacific, the government said it won’t be extending the deadline.) “The Department had received some representations to extend the deadline of February 1, 2019 to comply with the conditions contained in the Press Note 2 of 2018 series on FDI Policy in e-Commerce issued by the Department. After due consideration, it has been decided, with the approval of the competent authority, not to extend the above deadline,” the government said in a statement today. As a result of this, both Amazon and Flipkart are preparing to comply with the new policies, which, among other changes, means that hundreds of thousands of goods, including Amazon’s own Kindle and Echo speaker lineup, will suddenly disappear from the online sites, multiple people familiar with the companies’ thinking have said. Amazon and Flipkart have explored various options in recent weeks, including holding talks with government officials, and have alerted their merchant partners to ensure they are ready to comply with the new policies, sources said. Commenting on DIPP’s notification today, an Amazon India spokesperson told VentureBeat, “While we remain committed to complying with all laws and regulations, we will continue to look to engage with the government to seek clarifications that help us decide our future course of action, as well as minimize the impact on our customers and sellers.” Flipkart did not respond to a request for comment. But in recent weeks, the company has warned the government that these new policies would cause “significant customer disruption.” Above: A look at how Amazon sells the Echo Dot on its US website and its India website. The revised policies say that Amazon, Flipkart, and any other foreign-owned player (or FDI, foreign direct investment) cannot have a single vendor purchase more than 25 percent of the inventory from the ecommerce’s business-to-business (wholesale) arm and then sell it on the same store. “Earlier, ecommerce players had a marketplace entity and a business-to-business playing entity, which would either sell on the marketplace or sell to other vendors participating in the marketplace,” Arjun Sinha, a New Delhi-based analyst and lawyer who studies policies, explained to VentureBeat. “They [the ecommerce companies] will have to look at these arrangements. Walmart will also need to check how much it can sell on Flipkart’s platform, and how much it can sell to merchants who sell on Flipkart. These structures would need to be relooked at to prevent indirect multi-brand retail,” Sinha said. An industry insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that many clauses in the policies are too ambiguous, so it would be especially challenging for Amazon and Flipkart to fully comply with them. For instance, Amazon has more than 400,000 partners in India. It would be a major pain point for the company to audit these partners’ books and ensure that they are playing fairly, the person said. The new policies also prevent Flipkart and Amazon from striking agreements that give third-party merchants exclusive rights to sell their products in the country. A look at the smartphone industry sheds more light on this issue. India is the fastest growing smartphone market, buoyed by Chinese vendors, many of which — including Xiaomi and OnePlus — entered the nation through partnerships with online platforms to cut overhead costs. Smartphones sales are crucial to Amazon and Flipkart, both of which count smartphones among the top three categories for their respective businesses. OnePlus, for instance, exclusively sells its handsets online through Amazon India. The Chinese company, which dominates the premium tier of the smartphone market in India, said this week that it willingly signed that partnership with Amazon. What is at stake? At stake is nothing short of India’s ecommerce market, which is estimated to grow to $200 billion by 2026. Amazon has invested more than $5.5 billion in its India operations, and Walmart paid $16 billion to snag Flipkart. The amendment to the policies could significantly derail the opportunities these companies see in India. Indeed, a draft analysis from global consultant PwC, first reported by Reuters this week, slated that the new ecommerce policy could reduce online sales by $46 billion by 2022. A representative of All India Online Vendors Association (AIOVA), a lobby group of over 30,000 online sellers, said the new policies are not the right solution to help small merchants — supposedly the rationale behind the government’s move — and accused the government of undertaking this task to appease shopkeepers and small business voters ahead of general elections. Some of the clauses mentioned in the new policy — including an ecommerce platforms’ inability to source more than 25 percent of goods from a single vendor — have been in place for more than two years. Ecommerce players worked around these laws for years while the government turned a blind eye, the AIOVA representative said. “Why is the government, months ahead of the elections, turning attention to this now?” the spokesperson asked. Indian government officials did not respond to a request for comment. “Government should realise their work doesn’t stop at policy making, but also requires enforcement. In [the] past, rules have not been enforced, circumvention and self certifications have led to a duopolised market. Government needs to disclose who is stopping these investigations from happening, which is leading to policy intervention,” an AIOVA spokesperson said. But some businesses have expressed approval of the new policy. Kunal Bahl, cofounder and CEO of Snapdeal, an ecommerce company that pivoted to cater to businesses two years ago after negotiations for a merger with Flipkart fell apart, said, “Snapdeal welcomes updates to FDI policy on ecommerce. Marketplaces are meant for genuine, independent sellers, many of whom are MSMEs (micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises). These changes will enable a level playing field for all sellers, helping them leverage the reach of ecommerce.” Retailers with a major presence in the offline market have decried the discounts Amazon and Flipkart have been offering to win customers in recent years. These are among the businesses in support of the new policy. Kishore Biyani is founder and CEO of Future Group, one of the largest brick-and-mortar retailers in India. Biyani said the new policy will force ecommerce players to rethink their entire game plan for India. “There was ambiguity in the previous policy, which some players were taking advantage of,” Biyani said in a televised interview with Indian channel ET Now. “India should always be first with these kinds of policies. Why can’t we build our own Alibaba, and Amazon?” This sense of nationalism was also on display earlier this month when Mukesh Ambani, who is the country’s richest man and runs Reliance Retail, the largest retailer in the country, announced the company’s intention to launch an ecommerce platform to challenge Amazon and Walmart. “We have to collectively launch a new movement against data colonization. For India to succeed in this data-driven revolution, we will have to migrate the control and ownership of Indian data back to India — in other words, Indian wealth back to every Indian,” he said at an event that was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and CEO of One97 Communications, which operates India’s largest mobile wallet app — Paytm — and also runs ecommerce arm Paytm Mall, declined to comment on the policy at a recent event in New Delhi. A spokesperson for Paytm said the company had no comment at this time. The government, which is expected to deliver an annual budget as soon as tomorrow, reportedly risks upsetting the U.S. administration with this new hardline approach. According to Reuters, the U.S. government has expressed concerns about the new ecommerce policies. Greg Hitt, speaking on behalf of Walmart, told the outlet that the Indian government should “certainly, as you would expect, have engaged the (United States) administration on this issue.” Update at 3:15 p.m. Pacific: Several Amazon-owned products, including select Echo smart speakers, as well as some travel bags, batteries, office supply items, and chargers under Basics brand, and some kitchen items under Presto and apparels under Shoppers Stop brands, have become unavailable on Amazon’s website. Source
  23. A group of activist shareholders are proposing that Amazon.com Inc. stop selling facial recognition software to government agencies until its board determines the technology doesn’t threaten people’s civil rights. The investors, including the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, a member of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment, filed a resolution on the subject to be voted on at Amazon’s annual meeting later this year. Civil rights groups blasted Amazon in 2018 for marketing its Rekognition service to police departments and government agencies. Thursday’s resolution, organized by nonprofit Open MIC, adds a financial twist and brings the debate into Amazon’s board room. “It’s a familiar pattern: A leading tech company marketing what is hailed as breakthrough technology without understanding or assessing the many real and potential harms of that product," said Michael Connor, executive director of Open MIC. "Sales of Rekognition to government represent considerable risk for the company and investors. That’s why it’s imperative those sales be halted immediately.” The Amazon Web Services product has been used to identify celebrities at Hollywood events. It can also be used by law enforcement agencies to quickly identify suspects from jail booking photos or other sources. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Project on Government Oversight say the facial recognition technology is unreliable and can produce more false positives for people with darker skin, making them more likely to be suspects in criminal investigations. Amazon Web Services Chief Executive Officer Andy Jassy in November said Amazon is working to educate government officials about how to use the software, and said it is only used as a tool in investigations, not the sole factor considered in identifying suspects. Source
  24. Amazon’s Dash buttons have been found to breach consumer e-commerce rules in Germany. The push-to-order gizmos were debuted by Amazon in 2015 in an attempt by the e-commerce giant to shave friction off of the online shopping process by encouraging consumers to fill their homes with stick-on, account-linked buttons that trigger product-specific staple purchases when pressed — from washing powder to toilet roll to cat food. Germany was among the first international markets where Amazon launched Dash, in 2016, along with the U.K. and Austria. But yesterday a higher state court in Munich ruled the system does not provide consumers with sufficient information about a purchase. The judgement follows a legal challenge by a regional consumer watchdog, Verbraucherzentrale NRW, which objects to the terms Amazon operates with Dash. It complains that Amazon’s terms allow the company to substitute a product of a higher price or even a different product in place of what the consumer originally selected for a Dash push purchase. It argues consumers are also not provided with enough information on the purchase triggered when the button is pressed — which might be months after an original selection was made. Dash buttons should carry a label stating that a paid purchase is triggered by a press, it believes. The Munich court has now sided with the group’s view that Amazon does not provide sufficient information to Dash consumers, per Reuters. In a press release following the ruling, Verbraucherzentrale NRW said the judges agreed Amazon should inform consumers about price and product before taking the order, rather than after the purchase as is currently the case. It also expressed confidence the judgement leaves no room for Amazon to appeal — though the company has said it intends to do so. Commenting on the ruling in a statement, Verbraucherzentrale NRW consumer bureau chief, Wolfgang Schuldzinski, said: “We are always open to innovation. But if innovation is to put consumers at a disadvantage and to make price comparisons more difficult, then we use all means against them, as in this case.” Amazon did not reply to questions about how it intends to respond to the court ruling in the short term, such as whether it will withdraw the devices or change how Dash works in Germany. Instead it emailed us the following statement, attributed to a spokesperson: “The decision is not only against innovation, it also prevents customers from making an informed choice for themselves about whether a service like Dash Button is a convenient way for them to shop. We are convinced the Dash Button and the corresponding app are in line with German legislation. Therefore, we’re going to appeal.” Source
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