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  1. The move is odd in that the president has been critical of video games, and then there's the matter of who owns Twitch. Donald Trump is spreading his social media wings with the launch of a channel on Twitch. Trump is at least the third candidate for president to create a presence on the video game streaming service. Trump's account, which has a verification check mark, counts about 7,000 followers but hasn't posted any content as of this writing, but the move suggests the president will use the platform to livestream videos to his supporters as part of his 2020 re-election bid. Other candidates to launch Twitch accounts include Democrats Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang. Although not a fan of social media, Trump is one of the industry's most prolific users, using his Twitter account to announce policy changes and criticize his opponents. His 65.5 million followers on Twitter put him just out of the top 10 most-followed Twitter accounts. He also has nearly 15 million followers on Instagram, although he posts on that account far less frequently than he does on Twitter. His choice to expand his social media presence by going to Twitch, which 15 million users visit daily to watch others play video games, is a bit of double irony for the president. Trump is well known for accusing social media of harboring liberal bias and suppression of conservative voices, but he's also blamed video games for contributing to the "glorification of violence in our society." And then there's Amazon, which paid about $970 million for Twitch in 2014. Trump has made the internet retail giant one of his favorite targets, with repeated accusations that the company is taking advantage of its delivery partnership with the US Postal Service. Its CEO, Jeff Bezos, has also been a frequent target of Trump's attacks, with the president widely seen as targeting the company because Bezos owns The Washington Post, which has reported critically on the president. The White House didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Source
  2. Amazon is one of the wealthiest and most powerful corporations on the planet. But just how powerful is it, and how exactly did it get there in just under two and a half decades? To fully understand the company’s trajectory, and what it’ll mean for future antitrust regulation, I recommend reading former New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg’s new profile of the company, published in The New Yorker this morning. It’s aptly titled “Is Amazon Unstoppable?” It features an exhaustive collection of intricate details about the company’s operations and history, combined with smart analysis and some telling on-the-record and anonymous quotes from current and former executives. But primarily, Duhigg explores the scary notion that Amazon may be impossible to rein in, whether through regulation or standard capitalist competition. (Interestingly, it pairs nicely with this feature in The Atlantic published today titled, “Jeff Bezos’s Master Plan,” which takes a more personal look at the upbringing and beliefs of the enigmatic CEO; Bezos declined to be interviewed for both articles. It ends on a particularly chilling kicker that everyone should read.) “Is Amazon Unstoppable?” smartly starts from a position of praise. It follows Ian Freed, an early Amazon employee who helped oversee the company’s Kindle, Fire Phone, Fire TV, and Alexa and Echo projects. One particularly interesting anecdote is how Freed’s failure with the Fire Phone gave birth to Amazon’s far grander ambitions in the artificial intelligence and smart home markets. One of Freed’s standout ideas was a feature that would let you, using your voice, ask your phone to play a song. The feature became the foundation for Alexa and the Echo speaker, and Freed was given a substantial budget from Bezos himself to build the technology in house, instead of licensing it from a third-party company, as was the case with the Fire Phone. The results have been staggering: Alexa is now in tens of millions of homes around the world, and it underpins Amazon’s continued expansion into the smart home and appliance markets. Alexa has also made Amazon a major player in artificial intelligence. Freed’s other successes have similarly helped Amazon dominate the market for e-readers and ebooks and digital set-top boxes and streaming devices. “No other tech company does as many unrelated things, on such a scale, as Amazon,” Duhigg writes. But Duhigg’s examination of Freed — how passionate he was about Amazon’s internal company culture and how his dedication to Bezos’ infamous “Leadership Principles” gave birth to world-changing ideas and products — transitions to a more sinister look at the cost of Amazon’s growth. It’s here that the article’s main theme shines through. What, if anything, can stop a company that’s expanded this far and in such a short time, and how do we begin to calculate the damage left in its wake? The article clocks in at more than 14,000 words, and it includes a thorough examination of all of the company’s most high-profile controversies that lays out with clinical precision the case against Amazon from the perspective of its fiercest critics. But it’s well worth every sentence to understand the breadth of Amazon’s business and what it could spell not just for the future of American commerce, but the dozens of other industries and product categories Amazon now engages in. Here, again, is the link to “Is Amazon Unstoppable?” Go read it. Source
  3. The US Supreme Court today officially declined an appeal from Amazon that would’ve protected the company from facing a Nevada state court over a labor suit SCOTUS itself ruled on more than five years ago. A group of warehouse workers filed suit in 2010 alleging the company forced them to endure unfair labor practices by refusing to pay them for the time they spent waiting in line to be searched by security at the end of their shifts. The Supreme Court, at the time, chose to dismiss the lawsuit and ruled in favor of Amazon. According to the SCOTUS ruling, Amazon wasn’t required to pay employees for time spent doing things that weren’t integral to their job. The workers’ beef lay in their assertion that these checkout procedures took as long as 25 minutes and were required at the beginning and end of workers’ shifts. Amazon denied these allegations and said the plaintiffs were exaggerating. After SCOTUS ruled in 2014 that Amazon didn’t have to pay, it appeared that the lawsuit would go away. But the team behind the initial suit decided to challenge the SCOTUS ruling by trying to get the case heard in a state court. While the Supreme Court doesn’t have direct control over the machinations of state governments, Amazon filed an appeal against the resurrection of the case with SCOTUS in hopes that it would intercede. It won’t. This means the original case will likely move forward in Nevada and, potentially, could become a class-action lawsuit involving Amazon workers in other states as well. While the Supreme Court’s original decision was unanimous, a lower court ruled the case could continue in state courts because the state of Nevada interprets the word “work” differently than the federal government. A 1974 Supreme Court ruling protects employers from being “forced” to pay for activities not intrinsic to an employee’s ability to complete the work they were hired for. As the New York Times reported after the 2014 ruling: Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the court, said the screenings were not “integral and indispensable” to the workers’ jobs, which involved retrieving products from warehouse shelves and packaging them for delivery to Amazon’s customers. That meant, he said, that no extra pay was required. Apparently Nevada sees things differently. According to a report from Business Insider, Amazon fears the decision could “create a “road-map” for courts interpreting wage-and-hour statutes in other states.” In other words: the company worth a trillion dollars is worried that workers may figure out a way to get paid for the time they’re required to be at work. That seems like a slippery slope towards a world where Amazon‘s required to provide fair pay for fair work – a scenario that would likely be unsustainable given the company’s current practices. Source
  4. Amazon’s new Fire HD 10 tablet costs $149 and charges via USB-C Plus a new Kindle for kids that helps them find their next favorite book. First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all images. Amazon added to its lineup of products again today, just a few weeks after introducing a slew of Echo products. This time, the focus is on tablets—the new Fire HD 10 tablet upgrades the previous version with a faster processor, longer battery life, and for the first time, USB-C charging. The new tablet will come in a regular edition and a kids edition, but the core technology remains the same on both. Let's get the specs out of the way: it has a 10.1-inch FHD touchscreen, an updated octa-core processor, 2GB of RAM, and either 32GB or 64GB of storage that you can expand with its microSD card. Amazon increased the battery life to 12 hours, up from the 10 hours of life the previous Fire HD10 could get. The tablet can charge fully in four hours thanks to its new USB-C port. This replaces the microUSB port that the previous model had and is arguably the most exciting thing about the Fire HD 10. It's the first Amazon device with a USB-C port for charging, giving us hope that we could see the company ditch microUSB altogether in the future. On the software side, the Fire HD 10 runs FireOS, based on Android P, and has all of the features the previous model did, including hands-free Alexa (should you choose to enable that feature). Amazon also added a new picture-in-picture feature that minimizes certain video apps, so you can still watch video content while using other programs like your calendar, a notes app, and others. The feature will be limited by the supporting video apps, though, and Amazon Prime Video and Netflix currently work with it. The Fire HD 10 Kids Edition has the same UI as Amazon's existing tablets for kids, making it more accessible and easier to use for children. The tablet also comes with a kid-friendly case, an extended warranty, and a one-year complimentary FreeTime Unlimited. Amazon has added a lot to FreeTime Unlimited over the years and continues to do so. The kid-focused, $4.99-per-month ($2.99-per-month for Prime members) content subscription includes thousands of shows, movies, books, audiobooks, and other media that kids can consume without parents needing to filter out inappropriate materials. In addition to being available on the kids' versions of Fire tablets, Amazon is also bringing FreeTime Unlimited to Fire TV Sticks starting today. That means kids can watch shows and movies through FreeTime Unlimited, as well as Prime Video content and content that parents deem suitable from their personal libraries. All of this will be in one place on TVs with connected Fire TV Sticks. The kids’ Kindle Amazon also announced a new Kindle for kids. The company is banking on the idea that parents may want a dedicated device that both encourages children to read without distractions and has a ton of kid-friendly books on it. This new Kindle isn't new at all—it's the same $89 Kindle that the company updated a few months ago (which unfortunately needs to charge via microUSB, just like every other Kindle). Like the Fire HD 10 Kids Edition, the Kindle Kids Edition has a UI that filters only children's literature. If you have FreeTime Unlimited, your child will see the thousands of books available through that service. As they read more, the software will bring books that your children may like to the forefront, making it easier for them to find their next read. Amazon also included new software features for kids that can help them read better. Kids can earn reading badges depending on how often they read, the types of books they read, and more. A new feature will put a quick definition of challenging words between the lines of the book, which means kids don't have to touch the screen to look them up. Kids can, however, long-press a word to bring up its full dictionary card with definition, pronunciation, and more information. Doing so will also add that word to their vocabulary list and automatically create a digital flash card for it, so kids can easily review the words they want to learn more about. A Kindle specifically designed for kids may seem redundant, but the specific software changes could make it easier for kids to find books they love and read more. A kid-specific Kindle also removes the distractions that a Fire HD tablet has—kids can't watch videos or play games on a device that only allows for reading. But such a device also gives Amazon yet another device to push its FreeTime Unlimited service. Each Kindle Kids Edition comes with one year of the service free, so parents may continue to pay for it after that year is up if their child loves the vast library of books they have at their fingertips. All of Amazon's new devices are available for preorder today and will ship starting October 30. The new Fire HD 10 costs $149, while the Kids Edition—with the special case, extended warranty, and one year of FreeTime Unlimited—costs $199. The new Kindle Kids Edition bundle costs $109. Listing image by Valentina Palladino Source: Amazon’s new Fire HD 10 tablet costs $149 and charges via USB-C (Ars Technica) (To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)
  5. Amazon's new mesh network could enable the company to track your phone's location, even if you don't use its WiFi or products. Privacy watchdogs are sounding alarm bells about what that means for the company's ability to surveil individuals. Amazon regularly partners with law enforcement, turning over insights from its network of Ring cameras to police. The company has not clarified many details surrounding how the mesh network will be used. Among the avalanche of new products unveiled at Amazon's hardware event on Wednesday were two features that are a bit less tangible: "Sidewalk," a new wireless protocol that links smart objects, and "eero," a brand of WiFi router the company acquired and is selling for people to use in their homes. With the new offerings, the number of Amazon-made routers and devices in homes and stores is set to increase nationwide. Sidewalk will use this proliferation of devices to build a "mesh network" — a wireless network where each device communicates with one another, working together to transmit data across the network — that spans broad geographical areas. According to Amazon's announcement, the company found that placing 700 devices across Los Angeles was enough to cover the entire metropolitan area of the city. Now, privacy watchdogs are sounding alarm bells about what that means for the company's ability to surveil individuals. Tech activist Liz O'Sullivan flagged the mesh network's potential for surveillance during the Amazon hardware event and tweeted about it Thursday. —Liz O'Sullivan � (@lizjosullivan) September 26, 2019 Here's what you need to know about the new Amazon update and what it could mean for your privacy. Amazon's mesh network could help the tech giant monitor your phone's location Even if you don't use Amazon's wireless networks in your own home — or join its WiFi networks when you go out — the mesh network could enable Amazon to get data about the location of your devices. Owners of WiFi networks can track what devices are nearby even if those devices don't sign onto the network, just like a smartphone can detect nearby networks without signing on. If you're in range of a wireless network owned by Amazon, the company could receive information like your device's MAC address, a unique identifier assigned to each device. If you've used that device to download an Amazon app or log into your Amazon account, the company could pair that MAC address with your user profile. Why does this matter? The technology that allows owners of WiFi routers to track nearby devices is nothing new. But it's unusual for companies to build such sprawling mesh networks using devices that users set up in their own homes. On top of that, Amazon is a company with a demonstrated interest in tracking users' data and location. Geographic data is an important tool for building user profiles and targeting advertisements accordingly, a growing business for almost all big tech companies. Additionally, Amazon has multiple contracts with police, turning over insights from its network of Ring cameras to as many as 200 police departments nationwide, according to a Motherboard report. For the time being, many of the details surrounding how Sidewalk and eero networks will work remains unclear. Amazon has not specified what sort of data it will track with its new mesh networks, or whether that data will be up for grabs by the law enforcement agencies it partners with. An Amazon spokesperson did not respond to Business Insider's questions regarding how it will use geolocation data gleaned from its mesh network. Source
  6. The tech giant’s hope is that federal lawmakers will adopt much of its draft legislation. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says his company is developing a set of laws to regulate facial recognition technology that it plans to share with federal lawmakers. In February, the company, which has faced escalating scrutiny over its controversial facial recognition tech, called Amazon Rekognition, published guidelines it said it hoped lawmakers would consider enacting. Now Amazon is taking another step, Bezos told reporters in a surprise appearance following Amazon’s annual Alexa gadget event in Seattle on Wednesday. “Our public policy team is actually working on facial recognition regulations; it makes a lot of sense to regulate that,” Bezos said in response to a reporter’s question. The idea is that Amazon will write its own draft of what it thinks federal legislation should look like, and it will then pitch lawmakers to adopt as much of it as possible. “It’s a perfect example of something that has really positive uses, so you don’t want to put the brakes on it,” Bezos added. “But, at the same time, there’s also potential for abuses of that kind of technology, so you do want regulations. It’s a classic dual-use kind of technology.” He did not provide details on what’s in the proposed legislation. Bezos’s revelation comes a few months after Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services, which sells the Rekognition software, told Recode’s Code Conference audience that he hoped federal regulation happened soon. Amazon’s Rekognition software lets its customers match photos and videos of people’s faces with databases of other face photos, such as those of criminals, in real time. (Amazon has marketed the tech to both corporations and law enforcement agencies.) That has led to outrage both inside and outside of Amazon. Hundreds of Amazon employees, along with civil liberties groups and lawmakers, have called out AWS for marketing Rekognition to police, ICE, and other law enforcement agencies, over concerns that the powerful technology could be misused. Case in point: Last summer, the ACLU tested the Rekognition software and found that it incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress with mugshots of people who have committed a crime. The false matches disproportionately involved members of Congress who are people of color. Amazon said the ACLU had used the wrong setting for the software. The Amazon policy team’s bold new step to start drafting regulation for the tech underscores the importance of Rekognition for Amazon Web Services. And it’s a sign that Amazon recognizes that in this era of powerful grassroots activist and political movements, it needs to do a better job reassuring people about innovative technologies whose downsides also terrify the public. “ In a statement, ACLU Northern CA Attorney Jacob Snow said: “It’s a welcome sign that Amazon is finally acknowledging the dangers of face surveillance. But we’ve seen this playbook before. Once companies realize that people are demanding strong privacy protections, they sweep in, pushing weak rules that won’t protect consumer privacy and rights. Cities across the country are voting to ban face surveillance, while Amazon is pushing its surveillance tech deeper into communities.” San Francisco and Oakland in California, as well as Somerville, MA, have banned the use of facial recognition by government agencies, including law enforcement. Source
  7. During a press conference this morning at the Amazon Spheres in downtown Seattle, Amazon formally announced a widely anticipated new product: first-party earbuds called Echo Buds. They’re wireless and cost less than $129, putting them within striking distance of Apple’s AirPods, Samsung’s Galaxy Buds, and other rivals. These aren’t just any IPX4 splash-resistant Bluetooth earbuds, mind you. Noteworthy features include up to five hours of battery life and up to 20 with the included battery case. (For comparson’s sake, the Galaxy Buds last six hours on a charge.) Bose’s active noise reduction technology is built in, as are dual drivers and gesture-recognizing capacitive sensors. Tapping and holding grants access to a paired phone’s assistant, either Apple’s Siri or Google Assistant, while double-tapping toggles noise reduction. Predictably, the Echo Buds work best with Alexa, which can be summoned with the wake word “Alexa.” It understands any question Alexa on Echo devices understand, and later this year, it’ll helpfully tell you whether the Whole Foods location your nearest has the item you want or direct to which aisle might have it. (Amazon owns Whole Foods.) The earbuds give Amazon an opportunity to deliver a more portable Alexa experience to customers — extending beyond the confines of home speakers, smart displays, soundbars, and car infotainment systems. Amazon has been laying the groundwork for years. Last October, Qualcomm announced it would release chips that any headphone OEM could use to embed Alexa directly into their devices. And in June, Amazon introduced a refreshed Alexa Mobile Accessory (AMA) Kit — the software stack that routes voice commands to a paired smartphone running the Alexa companion app — with support for location-aware responses and access to more music services. Amazon first introduced the AMA Kit in January 2018, when it revealed ahead of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas that more than 150 products have Alexa built in. The dev tools were initially made available to select manufacturers like Jabra, Bose, and Sony, but they became generally available last November. There’s also no denying that the airbuds make sense from a dollars and cents standpoint. Research firm IDC recently reported that global wearable shipments in Q2 2019 were up 85% year over year, climbing to 67.7 million devices. Meanwhile, the “hearables” category of intelligent assistant-connected earbuds and headphones grew to 250%, a roughly 47% slice of the entire wearables segment. Apple’s AirPods have become the de facto earbuds for folks living wire-free lifestyles, with an estimated 60% share of the global wireless earbuds market as of April 2019. The valiant efforts of Jabra, Samsung, Jlab, Bose, and others have so far failed to unseat the Cupertino company’s flagship from its pole position. Perhaps Amazon will fare better. Source
  8. Amazon orders 100,000 electric delivery trucks from startup Rivian Amazon aims to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2040. First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all images. Amazon has ordered 100,000 electric trucks from startup Rivian, the e-commerce giant announced Thursday. The order is part of Amazon's larger pledge—also announced today—to reach zero net carbon emissions by 2040. Amazon aims to use 80% renewable energy by 2024 and 100% by 2030. Rivian is an electric-vehicle startup that is initially focusing on trucks and SUVs. Amazon led a $700 million funding round for the company earlier this year. "The first electric delivery vans will go on the road in 2021," said Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at an event in Washington DC. "The 100,000 will be completely deployed by 2024, let's say." Amazon's press release on the initiative offers a different timeline, saying the company is aiming to have 10,000 vehicles on the road by 2022 and all 100,000 vehicles on the road by 2030—six years later than the date Bezos gave. We've asked Amazon to explain this discrepancy and will update if we hear back. Rivian unveiled its first two products late last year: a pickup truck called the R1T and an SUV called the R1S, both of which are slated to have a range as far as 400 miles. The pickup is expected to start at $69,000 (for a shorter-range model) while the SUV will cost $72,500 and up. Ars Technica declared the R1T the best truck at this year's New York International Auto Show and named Rivian the star of the show. Amazon's 100,000-vehicle order is apparently for a custom design more suited for carrying packages. Press photos show a bulky delivery van with a big "Prime" logo on the side. Partnerships are an important part of Rivian's business strategy. On top of the Amazon-led $700 million investment round in February, Rivian raised another $500 million from Ford in April. That deal envisions Ford using Rivian's platform to build a future electric truck. Last week, Rivian raised a further $350 million from Cox Automotive, a conglomerate that owns "nearly 30 automotive brands, including Autotrader, Kelley Blue Book, Pivet, RideKleen, and Manheim," according to Rivian's press release. The two companies vowed to "explore partnership opportunities in service operations, logistics, and digital retailing." Rivian is likely to need all of this cash and more to become a major automaker. Manufacturing cars costs billions of dollars, as electric-car leader Tesla has learned over the last 15 years. Tesla already has an SUV—the Model X—and is hard at work on a second SUV, a pickup truck, and a semi truck. Listing image by Amazon Source: Amazon orders 100,000 electric delivery trucks from startup Rivian (Ars Technica) (To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)
  9. Amazon on Thursday announced a sweeping new pledge to take on climate change amid intensifying pressure from thousands of its employees worldwide. At a press conference in Washington, D.C., Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — the richest man in the world — announced his company is committing to carbon neutrality by 2040 and 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, hitting the goals of the Paris climate agreement 10 years ahead of schedule. Bezos said he intends to recruit the CEOs of other large corporations to get on board with the plan. "We can make the argument — and we plan to do so passionately — that if we an do this, anyone can do this," Bezos said. As part of the so-called climate pledge, Amazon is ordering 100,000 electric vehicles to hit the roads by 2024 and investing $100 million in global reforestation projects. The company also said it would launch a new website to report progress on its commitments. On Friday, more than 1,000 Amazon employees are set to strike against their employer as part of the Global Climate Strike, a worldwide campaign to rally around the issue of climate change. Amazon employees have led extensive efforts to push their larger-than-life company to commit extensive resources to becoming greener and more sustainable. Activists heading Friday's efforts have been urging Amazon to commit to cutting ties with the fossil fuel industry, a demand that Bezos on Thursday said he does not agree with. "No, I don’t agree with the idea that we should not give sophisticated tools to energy companies," Bezos said, responding to a question about whether Amazon's cloud-computing arm will continue offering its services to oil and gas companies. "I think we should and we need to help them instead of vilify them." Earlier this year, thousands of Amazon employees signed an open letter calling on the tech giant to do more, specifically asking the company to commit to a particular timeline on carbon neutrality and drop its Amazon Web Services business with oil and gas companies. The activists also urged Amazon to stop contributing to the campaigns of lawmakers known for denying climate science. On Thursday, Bezos said Amazon will be taking a "hard look" at who it contributes to. "As far as climate deniers go, I can assure you we’re going to be taking a hard look at our own campaign contributions and things like that, if there are active climate deniers out there we’re going to have to look very carefully at that," he said. Source
  10. Amazon’s desire to power your television-viewing experience through its array of Fire TV devices took another step forward on Wednesday with the announcement of a new smart soundbar, a second-generation Fire TV Cube and more. The Nebula Soundbar — Fire TV edition. In Berlin at IFA 2019, Europe’s tech trade show, Amazon unveiled its first expansion of Fire TV Edition beyond smart televisions, teaming with Anker to launch the Nebula Soundbar – Fire TV Edition. The device will turn any TV into a smart TV experience — and news of it happened to fall on the same day that competitor Roku announced its own soundbar doubling as a streaming box. Amazon’s Nebula Soundbar features support for 4K Ultra HD, a unified smart TV user interface, near-field Alexa voice control, Dolby Vision pass through and more. The included Voice Remote with Alexa allows for navigation of the Fire TV experience as well as turning the compatible TV on and off, and control of soundbar functions like power, volume and mute. It’s priced for pre-order at $229.99 in the U.S., with shipping beginning Nov. 21. The Roku device will reportedly sell for $180. Amazon’s new Fire TV Cube. Amazon also unveiled the latest edition of its Alexa-enabled Cube, calling it the fastest and most powerful Fire TV device yet. Still priced at $119.99, the Cube update comes more than a year after the initial release of the product. Behind a hexa-core processor, Amazon has boosted the hands-free voice control capabilities of the new Cube, with far-field voice recognition as well as Local Voice Control, an on-device processing feature that lets users more quickly execute frequent voice commands, such as “Alexa, scroll right,” “Alexa, go home,” “Alexa, select number one,” and more. In a streaming media device market that includes players such as Google, Apple, and Roku, Fire TV leads the way with more than 37 million users around the world, according to Amazon. “Fire TV Cube was the first hands-free streaming media player powered by Alexa, and since launching last year we have gathered a wealth of feedback from customers about how they use voice in the living room,” Marc Whitten, VP of Amazon Fire TV, said in a news release. “Over the past year, we have continued to expand and advance the Fire TV Cube experience based on this feedback with dozens of new features including Multi-Room Music, Follow-Up Mode, and Alexa Communications.” Fire TV Cube is available today for pre-order on Amazon in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Germany and Japan. It begins shipping Oct. 10 in the U.S. The Toshiba 65-inch Fire TV Edition smart TV. Amazon’s lineup of new devices with Fire TV Edition integration included much more than the soundbar as it announced new partnerships and new generations of smart TVs. Along with Best Buy, Amazon has already sold millions of Insignia and Toshiba Fire TV Edition smart TVs in the U.S. and Canada. A new 65-inch Toshiba with Dolby Vision will be available in the U.S. next month. New collaborations in Europe with Dixons Carphone, MediaMarktSaturn and Grundig will bring Fire TV Edition smart TVs to customers in the U.K., Germany and Austria. Source
  11. After establishing a strong base with its ecommerce and streaming content business in India, Amazon is reportedly set to unveil its food delivery service in the country next month. According to a report by Mint, the company will start the service under its Prime Now banner first in Bengaluru, and then in Mumbai and New Delhi. The report notes that Amazon will charge only fourth of the commission from the restaurant as compared to other food delivery competitors such as Zomato and Swiggy. The ecommerce giant is already signing up restaurants at a rate of five to six percent commission, as compared to 20 percent from the rivals. People familiar with the matter also told Mint Amazon is looking to acquire Foodpanda from Indian can service Ola. The ecommerce company reportedly supply restaurants predictions of incoming orders to restaurant partners and help them by providing a delivery fleet as well. We’ve asked the company for a comment, and we’ll update the story if we hear back. This is an opportune time for Amazon to launch a delivery service with a low commission as many restaurants are agitated by Zomato and Swiggy’s practice of encouraging establishments to offer heavy discounts.. A report from Mint published last month suggested that food delivery platforms charge restaurants anywhere between 10 to 30 percent per order, which can seriously hurt their bottom line. Source
  12. Tech investor John Borthwick doesn’t mince words when it comes to how he perceives smart speakers from the likes of Google and Amazon . The founder of venture capital firm Betaworks and former Time Warner and AOL executive believes the information-gathering performed by such devices is tantamount to surveillance. Image: John Borthwick “I would say that there's two or three layers sort of problematic layers with these new smart speakers, smart earphones that are in market now,” Borthwick told Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer during an interview for his series “Influencers.” “And so the first is, from a consumer standpoint, user standpoint, is that these, these devices are being used for what's — it's hard to call it anything but surveillance,” Borthwick said. The way forward? Some form of regulation that gives users more control over their own data. “I personally believe that you, as a user and as somebody who likes technology, who wants to use technology, that you should have far more rights about your data usage than we have today,” Borthwick said. Smart assistants face a reckoning The venture capitalist’s comments follow a string of controversies surrounding smart assistants including Google’s Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, and Apple’s (AAPL) Siri, in which each company admitted that human workers listen to users’ queries as a means of improving their digital assistants’ voice recognition capabilities. “They've gone to those devices and they've said, ‘Give us data when people passively act upon the device.’ So in other words, I walk over to that light switch,” Borthwick said. “I turn it off, turn it on, it's now giving data back to the smart speaker.” It’s important to note that smart speakers from every major company are only activated when you use their appropriate wake word. To activate your Echo speaker, for instance, you need to say “Alexa” followed by your command. The same thing goes for Google’s Assistant and Apple’s Siri. The uproar surrounding smart speakers and their assistants began when Bloomberg reported in April that Amazon used a global team of employees and contractors to listen to users’ voice commands to Alexa to improve its speech recognition. Image: Amazon Echo That was followed by a similar report by Belgian-based VRT News about Google employees listening to users’ voice commands for Google Assistant. The Guardian then published a third piece about Apple employees listening to users’ Siri commands. Facebook was also pulled into the controversy when Bloomberg reported it had employees listen to users’ voice commands made through its Messenger app. Google and Apple have since apologized, with Google halting the practice, and Apple announcing that it will automatically opt users out of voice sample collection. Users instead will have to opt in if they want to provide voice samples to improve Siri’s voice recognition. Amazon, for its part, has allowed users to opt out of having their voice samples shared with employees, while Facebook said it has paused the practice. Image: Google Home Mini smart speaker The use of voice samples has helped improved the voice recognition features of digital assistants, ensuring they are better able to understand what users say and the context in which they say it. At issue is whether users were aware that employees of these companies were listening. There’s also the matter of accidental activations, which can result in employees hearing conversations or snippets of conversations they might otherwise not have been meant to hear. As for how such issues can be dealt with in the future, Borthwick points to some form of tech regulation. Though he doesn’t offer specifics, the VC says that users need to be able to understand how their data is being used, and be able to take control of it. “I think generally, it's about giving the users a lot more power over the decisions that are being made. I think that's one piece of it,” he said. Source
  13. The total value of the sake was $3.47 billion. Disney sold its stake in the YES Network to an investor group that includes the Yankees, Amazon and Sinclair Broadcasting. The group announced today that it was acquiring the 80 percent stake in the YES Network previously held by Disney in a $3.47 billion deal. In the press release, the group said the sale would mark the beginning of a new "strategic partnership" between the three companies. "The new strategic partnership leverages the expertise and market reach of three highly successful companies - Yankee Global Enterprises, one of the world's leading sports brands; Sinclair Broadcast Group, a diversified media company and leading provider of local sports and news; and Amazon, the innovative, multinational technology company," stated the press release. The three companies will work together to enhance the position of the YES Network. Sinclair earlier this month purchased 21 regional sports networks from Disney, which it originally acquired when it bought the bulk of 21rst Century Fox's entertainment assets back in March. The corporation was ordered by the Department of Justice's antitrust division to sell the regional sports networks. The government's argument was that if Disney didn't divest its regional sports networks, it would lead to higher prices for cable sports due to lack of competition between Disney and Fox. Disney's sale of YES Network, which focused on regular-season Yankees games, means the company no longer has a stake in any regional sports networks. The sale also means that the NY Yankees will once again be the majority owner of the network that airs its games after Rupert Murdoch purchased it from the team back in 2014. For Amazon, it opens the door for it to show Yankees games in its own local territories. Disney, which currently holds an 80 percent stake in ESPN, will include the sports network in its upcoming streaming service bundle. Source
  14. Three Democratic senators sent a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos demanding answers. A group of three US senators today sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asking for a "sweeping internal investigation" into the company's consumer safety policies. The letter was written in response to a recent Wall Street Journal investigation that found more than 4,000 items for sale on the retail website that federal agencies had declared unsafe. The products ranged from unregistered pesticides to banned toys that the FDA listed as choking hazards. Authored by Senate commerce committee members Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), the letter also called for the ecommerce giant to immediately remove the illicit items. "Unquestionably, Amazon is falling short of its commitment to keeping safe those consumers who use its massive platform. We call on you to immediately remove from the platform all the problematic products examined in the recent WSJ report, explain how you are going about the process, conduct a sweeping internal investigation of your enforcement and consumer safety policy; and institute changes that will continue to keep unsafe products off your platform," wrote the lawmakers. Earlier this month, Menendez and Blumenthal sent a letter to the retail giant inquiring about its "Amazon Choice" program and why faulty or inferior products sometimes receive the touted classification. The WSJ investigation found at least 2,000 listings on Amazon for toys and medications that lacked warnings about health risks to children. Reporters also unearthed toxic paint strippers, infant sleeping mats linked to suffocation, dietary supplements containing illegal prescription drugs, toys containing lead and products that falsely stated they were cleared by a federal agency. The report recounted an incident in which a 23-year old wearing a helmet purchased on Amazon died in a 2014 motorcycle crash. The helmet, which came off of the man during the crash, had been fraudulently listed as certified by the Department of Transportation. The senators also asked Amazon for an explanation of why its current safety protocols failed, and what it will do to prevent selling unsafe products in the future. In response to the WSJ article, Amazon published a blog post about its existing safety and compliance program but made no promises that it would change its protocols. According to CNET, Amazon said it plans on answering the questions posed by senators in the letter. The WSJ reported today that Amazon appeared to remove or modify some of the dangerous items, but some of them have since resurfaced under new listings. Source
  15. One option bundles together additional subscriptions to Encrypt.me, Malwarebytes and 1Password. Amazon-owned Eero is introducing two new subscription plans in the US to complement its popular mesh WiFi routers. The first, Eero Secure, replaces the company's previous Eero Plus add-on. It features added parental controls and promises to protect you while browsing with a warning when you're about to navigate to a website that is known for phishing or installing malware. Eero Secure costs $2.99 per month or $29.99 annually. The second, Eero Secure+, features all of the perks included with Eero Secure, as well as added subscriptions to VPN service Encrypt.me, antivirus software Malwarebytes and password manager 1Password. We've reached out to Amazon to confirm whether the included subscriptions are personal or family plans. If the former is the case, separate subscriptions to those services cost $99.99, $39.99 and $35.88 annually. As such, you're saving approximately $76 per year if you decide to use Secure+ as a way to bundle. Eero Secure+ costs $9.99 per month or $99.99 per year. When Amazon announced it was acquiring Eero earlier this year, some of the startup's customers were worried Amazon would compromise their privacy in its quest to monetize the company's products better. However, shortly after Amazon completed the deal, Eero published a blog post in which it said it would not change its policy of not tracking customers' internet activity. For the time being at least, it looks like Amazon has found a way to make Eero profitable while keeping current customers happy. Update 8/27 7:08PM ET: Amazon has informed Engadget that all three of the subscriptions included in Eero Secure+ are the respective family plans from each service. Separately, family subscriptions to Encrypt.me, Malwarebytes and 1Password cost $149.99, $59.99 and 59.88 respectively per year. Source
  16. Walmart Inc. isn’t the only corporation that has seen its Tesla Inc. solar panels catch fire. On Friday, Amazon.com Inc. said a June 2018 blaze on the roof of one of its warehouses in Redlands involved a solar panel system that Tesla’s SolarCity division had installed. The Seattle-based retail giant said by email that it has since taken steps to protect its facilities and has no plans to install more Tesla systems. News of the Amazon fire comes just three days after Walmart filed a bombshell lawsuit against Tesla, accusing it of shoddy panel installations that led to fires at more than half a dozen stores. The claims threaten to further erode Tesla’s solar business at a time when the company is fighting to gain back market share. More widely known for its electric cars, Tesla bought panel installer SolarCity three years ago in a $2-billion deal that proved highly controversial. SolarCity’s chief executive at the time is the cousin of Tesla CEO Elon Musk. In the complaint filed Tuesday, Walmart said it had leased or licensed roof space at more than 240 stores to Tesla’s energy unit. Two of the Walmart fires occurred in May 2018. In a joint statement Friday, Walmart and Telsa said they are working on a resolution. Amazon said it has a very small number of solar systems installed by Tesla. Tesla didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment but said earlier Friday that it had discovered flaws in a part that the company had used in some of its systems. The part known as a “connector,” manufactured by Amphenol Corp., led to “failures and disconnections at a higher rate than our standards allow,” Tesla said in an emailed statement. The company has worked to replace it. Amphenol did not respond to a request for comment. Source
  17. A new investigation finds thousands of unsafe products for sale Amazon is reportedly selling thousands of products that are mislabeled, banned, or declared unsafe by federal agencies, according to an investigation from The Wall Street Journal. It found that no fewer than 4,152 items fitting those criteria were freely available to buy on Amazon’s storefront. The list of mislabeled, banned, and unsafe products found by the Journal is shocking, including “FDA-approved” products that the agency never vetted, medication that lacked child safety warnings, banned sleeping wedges for babies, illegally imported prescription drugs, electronics that falsely claim UL-certified safety ratings, toys with unsafe amounts of lead or potential choking hazards, and more. Many of the products found had the company’s Amazon Choice label, which isn’t something you should automatically put any trust in. Perhaps worst of all, the investigation found at least 157 items that Amazon said it explicitly banned. The issue here is Amazon’s massive network of third-party sellers that sell freely on Amazon and even ship from the company’s warehouses if they participate in the “Fulfilled by Amazon” program. Product pages for third-party sellers can be hard to tell apart from “Sold by Amazon.com” items. A small line of text is the only thing that indicates who the actual seller is. But there’s a big difference between buying from Amazon and buying from someplace else through Amazon. Namely, Amazon doesn’t take legal responsibility for unsafe products because it’s technically not the one selling it. Any disputes have to be taken up with the third-party seller. It didn’t use to be this way, but as marketplace sellers have exploded onto the scene through Amazon, the company’s moderation of those listings (done by a combination of human workers and machine learning flags) simply hasn’t been able to keep up with the sheer volume of products. Barring a major shift in policy on Amazon’s end, it seems that customers will continue to be on their own when it comes to making smart purchases from the online retail giant, especially where third-party sellers are concerned. The Journal’s Joanna Stern has some suggestions on how you can avoid unsafe or other iffy purchases. Amazon has since responded to the WSJ’s investigation with a blog post, where the company shared more information about how it approves third-party sellers and the tools it uses to try and weed out problematic listings. Per the post, “We invest significant resources to protect our customers and have built robust programs designed to ensure products offered for sale in our store are safe and compliant.” Source
  18. Tech moguls like Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt have gotten unprecedented access to the Pentagon. And one whistleblower who raised flags has paid the price. From left: Eric Schmidt, the former chairman of Google’s parent company, James Mattis, the former secretary of defense, and Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. On Aug. 8, 2017, Roma Laster, a Pentagon employee responsible for policing conflicts of interest, emailed an urgent warning to the chief of staff of then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Several department employees had arranged for Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, to be sworn into an influential Pentagon advisory board despite the fact that, in the year since he’d been nominated, Bezos had never completed a required background check to obtain a security clearance. Mattis was about to fly to the West Coast, where he would personally swear Bezos in at Amazon’s headquarters before moving on to meetings with executives from Google and Apple. Soon phone calls and emails began bouncing around the Pentagon. Security clearances are no trivial matter to defense officials; they exist to ensure that people with access to sensitive information aren’t, say, vulnerable to blackmail and don’t have conflicts of interest. Laster also contended that it was a “noteworthy exception” for Mattis to perform the ceremony. Secretaries of defense, she wrote, don’t hold swearing-in events. Laster’s alarms triggered fear among Pentagon brass that Mattis would be seen as doing a special favor for Bezos, which could put him in hot water with President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly proclaimed his antipathy to Bezos, mainly because of his ownership of The Washington Post. The swearing-in was canceled only hours before it was scheduled to occur. (This episode, never previously reported, is based on interviews with six people familiar with the matter. An Amazon spokesperson said the company was told that Bezos did not need a security clearance and that the company provided all requested information.) Despite the cancellation, Bezos met with Mattis that day. They talked about leadership and military history, then moved on to Amazon’s sales pitch on why the Defense Department should make a radical shift in its computing. Amazon wanted the department to abandon its hodgepodge of 2,215 data centers, located in various Pentagon facilities and run using different systems by an array of different companies, and let Amazon replace that with cloud service: computing power provided over the internet, all of it running on Amazon’s servers. That vision is now well on its way to becoming a reality. The Pentagon is preparing to award a $10 billion, 10-year contract to move its information technology systems to the cloud. Amazon’s cloud unit, Amazon Web Services, or AWS, is the biggest provider of cloud services in the country and also the company’s profit engine: It accounted for 58.7% of Amazon’s operating income last year. AWS has been the favorite to emerge with the Pentagon contract. Known as JEDI, for Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, the project has been the subject of accusations of favoritism. Two spurned bidders have launched unsuccessful bid protests and one of them, Oracle, filed and lost a lawsuit. Meanwhile, there’s an ongoing investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general. The DOD defends JEDI. The agency’s decision-makers have “always placed the interests of the warfighter first and have acted without bias, prejudice, or self-interest,” DOD spokesperson Elissa Smith said in a statement. “The same cannot be said of all parties to the debate over JEDI.” What’s happened at the Pentagon extends past the JEDI contract. It’s a story of how some of America’s biggest tech companies used a little-known advisory board, some aggressive advocacy by a few billionaires and some unofficial lobbying to open a backdoor into the Pentagon. And so, no matter who wins the JEDI contract, one winner is already clear: Silicon Valley. The question is no longer whether a technology giant will emerge with the $10 billion prize, but rather which technology giant (or giants) will. There are certainly benefits. The Pentagon’s technological infrastructure does indeed need to be modernized. But there may also be costs. Silicon Valley has pushed for the Pentagon to adopt its technology and its move-fast-and-break-things ethos. The result, according to interviews with more than three dozen current and former DOD officials and tech executives, has been internal clashes and a tortured process that has combined the hype of tech with the ethical morass of the Washington industry-government revolving door. Laster did her best to enforce the rules. She would challenge the Pentagon’s cozy relationship not only with Bezos, but with Google’s Eric Schmidt, the chairman of the defense board that Bezos sought to join. The ultimate resolution? Laster was shunted aside. She was removed from the innovation board in November 2017 (but remains at the Defense Department). “Roma was removed because she insisted on them following the rules,” said a former DOD official knowledgeable about her situation. Laster filed a grievance, which was denied. “I’ve been betrayed by an organization I joined when I was 17 years old,” said Laster, who is 54. “This is an organization built on loyalty, dedication and patriotism. Unfortunately, it is kind of one-way.” Other criticism, from Amazon’s rivals and the press, has centered on the actions of several DOD workers who had previously worked directly or indirectly for Amazon and have since returned to the private sector. The most important of those employees, Sally Donnelly — a former outside strategist for Amazon who had become one of Mattis’ top aides — helped give Amazon officials access to Mattis in intimate settings, an opportunity that most defense contractors don’t enjoy. Donnelly organized a private dinner, never reported before, for Mattis, Bezos, herself and Amazon’s top government-sales executive at a Washington restaurant, DBGB, on Jan. 17, 2018. The dinner occurred just as the DOD was finalizing draft bid specifications for JEDI. (Asked about the dinner and several others like it, the DOD’s Smith said: “One of the department’s priorities is to reform the way DOD does business. As part of this reform, leaders are expected to engage with industry — in a full and open manner within legal boundaries — to find ways to reform our business practices and build a more lethal force.” A spokesperson for AWS said the dinner “had nothing to do with the JEDI procurement, and those implying otherwise either are misinformed or disappointed competitors trying to distract with innuendo vs competing fairly with their technical capabilities.”) Such meetings aren’t illegal, but they undermine public trust in defense contracting, said Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and one of the nation’s leading experts on government-contracting law. “This is a particularly serious example of the revolving door among Pentagon officials and defense contractors, which has been problematic in recent years and is getting worse under the Trump administration,” he said. In July, Trump expressed concerns about the process and whether it was skewed in Amazon’s favor. Early this month, his new defense secretary, Mark Esper, announced a fresh review, which will delay the selection of a winner. The judge in the JEDI-related case ruled in favor of the government but nonetheless summed up the process as containing conflict-of-interest allegations that were “certainly sufficient to raise eyebrows” and a “constant gravitational pull on agency employees by technology behemoths.” The board that Bezos almost joined — called the Defense Innovation Board — was launched in 2016 by Ashton Carter, the last defense secretary in the Obama administration. Carter worried that the Pentagon’s information technology was falling behind. He recruited a collection of tech luminaries, including Schmidt, then the executive chairman of Google’s parent company, and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, by appealing to their patriotism and enticing them with the proposition that the DOD needed the insight and culture of Silicon Valley. Of course, the Pentagon also has an annual infotech budget of $38 billion, and what tech CEO could resist offering products and services to solve the department’s problems? Schmidt, the chairman of the innovation board, embraced the mission. In the spring and summer of 2016, he embarked, with fellow board members, on a series of visits to Pentagon operations around the world. Schmidt visited a submarine base in San Diego, an aircraft carrier off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and Creech Air Force Base, located deep in the Nevada desert near Area 51. Inside the drone operations center at Creech, according to three people familiar with the trip, Schmidt observed video as a truck in a contested zone somewhere was surveilled by a Predator drone and annihilated. It was a mesmerizing display of the U.S. military’s lethal reach. Yet as Schmidt and his colleagues studied the control panels and displays, they felt like they were witnessing technology frozen in the 1970s. He began asking questions about the challenges of controlling drones thousands of miles away. One operator complained that he had to use his joystick to toggle quickly between systems and screens, turning off one feed to use another. He had to do all of this while simultaneously flying the drone and trying to keep his attention on a target that was frequently in motion. A little later, on the operations floor, Schmidt watched as dozens of people monitored video feeds from drones around the globe. One of the visitors noted that computers using recognition software and machine learning could much more efficiently and accurately perform the majority of these tasks. A little more than a year after Schmidt’s visit, Google won a $17 million subcontract in a project called Maven to help the military use image recognition software to identify drone targets — exactly the kind of function that Schmidt witnessed at Creech. (Schmidt declined to be interviewed. A person close to the innovation board said he was unaware of his company’s involvement in Maven. Google, which has funded ProPublica projects on voting and video journalism in recent years, declined to comment on the record.) Schmidt’s influence, already strong under Carter, only grew when Mattis arrived as defense secretary. Schmidt’s travel privileges at the DOD, which required painstaking approval from the agency’s chief of staff for each stop of every trip, were suddenly unfettered after Schmidt requested carte blanche, according to three sources knowledgeable about the matter. Mattis granted him and the board permission to travel anywhere they wanted and to talk to anyone at the DOD on all but the most secret programs. Such access is unheard-of for executives or directors of companies that sell to the government, say three current and former DOD officials, both to prevent opportunities for bribery or improper influence and to ensure that one company does not get advantages over others. “Mattis changed the rules of engagement and the muscularity of the innovation board went from zero to 60,” said a person who has served on Pentagon advisory boards. “There’s a lot of opportunity for mischief.” In a written statement, the DOD denied that Mattis extended Schmidt’s privileges, characterizing them as “no more and no less” than when Carter was defense secretary. As for Mattis, his former press secretary, Dana White, speaking on his behalf, said: “In order to do their job, all members of the Defense Innovation Board had full access to the department and its entities. Secretary Mattis insisted on it. He fully leveraged their unique experience to ensure DOD adapted and gained maximum advantage over the rising threats of near-peer competitors.” Over the next months, Schmidt and two other board members with Google ties would continue flying all over the country, visiting Pentagon installations and meeting with DOD officials, sessions that no other company could attend. It’s hard to reconstruct what occurred in many of those meetings, since they were private. On one occasion, Schmidt quizzed a briefer about which cloud service provider was being used for a data project, according to a memo that Laster prepared after the briefing. When the briefer told him that Amazon handled the business, Schmidt asked if they’d considered other cloud providers. Laster’s memo flagged Schmidt’s inquiry as a “point of concern,” given that he was the chairman of a major cloud provider. The DOD became unusually deferential to Schmidt. He preferred to travel on his personal jet, and he would ferry fellow board members with him. But that created a problem for his handlers: DOD employees are not permitted to ride on private planes. Still, the staff at the board didn’t want to inconvenience Schmidt by making him wait for his department support team to arrive on commercial flights. So, according to a source knowledgeable about the board’s spending, on at least one occasion the department requisitioned military aircraft at a cost of $25,000 an hour to transport its employees to meet Schmidt on his tour. (The DOD’s spokesperson said employees did this because “there were no commercial flights available.”) The fact that such unusual access was granted to a board member who was a DOD vendor raised alarm, according to current and former Pentagon employees. As she had in the Bezos episode, Laster took action. She was a former Marine who’d been a military police officer in the U.S. force in Somalia in the 1990s. Her official title was designated federal officer for the Defense Innovation Board. Laster’s job was to make sure that members’ conduct was ethical and in accordance with laws, regulations and rules. Blunt and direct, she was hardly a pushover. But Laster had never encountered tech billionaires before, much less ones empowered by the head of her agency. The trouble started after Laster sought a clarification of how to carry out Mattis’ sweeping travel directive. She was concerned that it could expose the department to accusations of giving vendors an unfair edge. Three members of the board worked directly or indirectly for Google and two for United Technologies, a major defense contractor. Schmidt responded by threatening to go over her head to Mattis, according to her grievance. She was told to stand down and never again speak to Schmidt. According to the grievance, her boss told her, “Mr. Schmidt was a billionaire and would never accept pushback, warnings or limits.” The Schmidt episode captured the tension that had emerged inside the department. To one Silicon Valley supporter, it was a “textbook example of the bureaucracy trying to slow down progress and change using rules, rules, rules.” To Michael Bayer, the former chairman of another Pentagon advisory board, where he had worked with Laster, she was a person of “extraordinary character” who was working hard to make sure the board “did the right thing.” It would be hard to find a purer embodiment of the proverbial revolving door — or a stealth influencer — than Sally Donnelly. For the past dozen years she has shuttled between the DOD and consulting firms, including at least once with Amazon as a client, that seek to influence the department. During her most recent government stint, Donnelly, 59, came to be viewed as the “fairy godmother” of the Big Tech advocates in the department, as one Pentagon official put it to ProPublica. Donnelly is known as a superb crafter of narratives, a person who can present ideas in persuasive ways. She honed those skills in her first career, as a reporter at Time magazine, where, among other things, she covered the Pentagon and wrote glowingly of Mattis. Donnelly spent 20 years at the newsweekly before moving to the DOD for the first time in 2007. She worked for the then-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, then later for Mattis, including while he oversaw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the head of Central Command. In 2012, Donnelly departed and opened her own consulting firm, SBD Advisors. “Our team offers guidance and stealth strategies,” its website boasted, according to a 2014 article in Politico, “ensuring that clients benefit from the results of our campaigns while outwardly they are under-the-radar.” SBD’s clients included Amazon, Uber, Bloomberg, Palantir and others. Donnelly was a master at quietly cultivating a network, one that straddled the permeable line between government and industry. Carter rented an office at the firm before he became Obama’s defense secretary, and a Politico story listed him as a SBD adviser. (During Carter’s tenure as secretary, Donnelly worked as a DOD consultant.) SBD’s other high-profile generals and defense-connected figures included Mullen, former director of national intelligence Dennis Blair and Michael Flynn, the former Defense Intelligence Agency chief and national security adviser who has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. By 2015, Donnelly’s business had announced a new focus. SBD now specialized in “bridging the gap between Silicon Valley and Washington, DC,” its website declared, by “facilitating engagements between the technology and defense sectors.” The next year her firm started advising Amazon Web Services on how to land DOD contracts. In January 2017, Donnelly rejoined the department after successfully shepherding Mattis through the Senate confirmation process. Her title, senior adviser, understated her influence. She emerged as one of the most powerful people in the leadership of the Pentagon, according to numerous DOD staffers. She guided Mattis on politics (which was relatively new terrain for him), relations with the White House and dealing with the press. Donnelly also helped the defense secretary connect with outside companies. She helped arrange not only the January 2018 dinner between Bezos and Mattis, but also a previously reported private dinner with Mattis and Teresa Carlson, the head of the AWS division that sells services to governments, in March 2017 in London. (A host of that gathering told The Wall Street Journal that cloud computing was not discussed and that the purpose of the dinner was to talk about a charity involving wounded veterans.) The same year, at Donnelly’s behest, AWS’ Carlson met with several of Mattis’ top aides. People familiar with the matter say they discussed a possible job for Carlson at the Pentagon. No offer was made. (A source close to Carlson said such a job “would not have been of interest.”) A lawyer for Donnelly, Michael Levy, said she “always adhered to all ethical and legal obligations and acted in the best interest of the national security of the United States.” He added that she played no role in the JEDI contract. “To suggest otherwise … reflects an absence of even the most rudimentary understanding of the government contracting process.” A veteran Marine general, Mattis was initially perceived as skeptical of what Silicon Valley was selling. He knew the flesh-and-blood realities of war and believed in giving autonomy to commanders on the ground. In his mind, anything that reinforced Pentagon leaders’ desire to micromanage events halfway across the globe was problematic. Technology, he believed, could make matters worse. But Schmidt was an effective advocate for the power of big data, which he argued had become as important a strategic resource as oil. And he emphasized that the need for technological improvement was urgent: China was rapidly improving. In June 2017, at a private lunch in a Pentagon conference room, Schmidt told him Google’s lead over China in artificial intelligence technology had shrunk from five years to six months. “Mr. Secretary, they’re at your heels,” Schmidt said, according to three people familiar with the lunch. “You need to take decisive action now.” Schmidt wanted the department to adopt a Silicon Valley philosophy that emphasized innovation, taking risks and moving fast. Among his recommendations: embrace cloud computing. In the summer of 2017, Mattis decided to investigate firsthand. He departed on a tour that would include visits to Amazon and Google headquarters and a one-on-one with Apple CEO Tim Cook. At Amazon, despite the tempest about Bezos joining the innovation board, Mattis and the CEO hit it off. The two talked together for about an hour. Mattis gave a pithy sweep of lessons from military history and expressed his view on the perils of overreliance on technology. He noted how the British Navy, once famous for its derring-do, nearly lost the World War I battle of Jutland when ship captains hesitated, waiting for flag signals from their fleet commander. After the meeting, Bezos and Mattis walked to another conference room, where AWS executives made their case that the company’s cloud products offer better security than traditional data centers, according to three people who attended. As evidence, they noted that the Central Intelligence Agency had embarked on a $600 million, 10-year cloud contract with Amazon in 2013 and, they said, it was working. To ensure that Mattis could visualize the impact Amazon’s technology could have on an actual battlefield, staffers placed on the conference room table a “Snowball Edge,” a suitcase-sized device with lots of storage that allowed soldiers in remote environments to quickly process information. One of Mattis’ last meetings on the trip seemed to tip him into the camp of the cloud advocates. He met with venture capitalists, including Marc Andreessen, an influential Silicon Valley figure who first made his name as the creator of the Netscape browser a quarter-century ago. Andreessen was a booster of Amazon. “You need to get to the cloud,” he told Mattis. “You’d be stupid not to.” Something seemed to click inside Mattis. He told his staff to begin preparing a memo laying out how the DOD would shift its computing to the cloud. The Pentagon’s cloud initiative ultimately ended up being led by Chris Lynch, the head of Defense Digital Service. DDS was no ordinary unit; it was a corps of software engineers hired from Google, Amazon and other tech companies to “challenge the status quo, burdensome policies and established bureaucracies in an effort to streamline DOD’s ability to introduce modern software development, tools and practices,” according to a department spokesperson. And Lynch himself was no ordinary government employee. As a teenager, he had been arrested and expelled from his Ohio high school after he and some friends called in a bomb threat as a joke. But he grew up, earned his high school degree, worked at Microsoft and then ran a series of startups. At 43, he wore hoodies to an office dominated by starched white shirts and still considered himself an insurgent, a point he conveyed by posting a sign reading “The Rebel Alliance” outside the entrance to his group’s office; the name also reflected his obsession with Star Wars. (His team came up with the acronym JEDI for the cloud project.) Lynch had a vision of how the Pentagon’s cloud initiative should work: a single DOD-wide cloud run by one provider that would allow the agency to shutter all but the most secret of its data centers. Having one cloud would be ultra-efficient, he said. It would allow programmers to deliver instant software fixes to the entire department, rather than multiple divisions needing to wait weeks for an outside contractor to come by in person. Lynch also believed the department lacked the expertise to manage multiple vendors, each with its own idiosyncrasies. Better to give the entire agency one provider. And as he saw it, only three cloud companies in the U.S. were capable of that mission: Amazon, Microsoft and Google. Some in the Pentagon believed that Lynch’s plan presented its own risk. They thought that putting all of the agency’s data in one company’s system made it more vulnerable, not less, than having it stored with multiple vendors. They also worried such an approach would stifle competition and create a huge monopoly. But Lynch had an advantage in the fight: Donnelly. She obtained full access to the Pentagon front office for Lynch and secured a “letter of marque” for him, a written statement of support from Mattis that put the weight of the agency’s chief behind him. Amazon often seemed to have allies close at hand. For example, the deputy defense secretary sometimes used his chief of staff, Tony DeMartino, as a point man to the key committee on JEDI. DeMartino had been managing director of Donnelly’s consulting firm, where he’d had Amazon as a client. He was warned to be “vigilant and consult” with ethics lawyers before involving himself in matters related to Amazon. But even after the warning, DeMartino repeatedly participated in the cloud-related matters, according to emails submitted by Oracle in its lawsuit against the government, as well as emails obtained by ProPublica and interviews with current and former Pentagon officials. For example, one November 2017 email reviewed by ProPublica, which was copied to Donnelly, shows DeMartino suggested a “huddle” with the new head of the Pentagon’s cloud executive steering group to discuss the man’s responsibilities. Later, after DeMartino was no longer serving the deputy secretary, he asked to remain “linked into” the cloud initiative. A contracting officer who examined DeMartino’s role concluded that his actions hadn’t affected the JEDI process since DeMartino’s role was “ministerial and perfunctory.” (A person in DeMartino’s camp insists that his only activity on JEDI was blocking a “stupid acronym” — C3PO — from being inserted in a larger memo.) A second former Amazon employee would spark more controversy. Deap Ubhi, a former AWS employee who worked for Lynch, was tasked with gathering marketing information to make the case for a single cloud inside the DOD. Around the same time that he started working on JEDI, Ubhi began talking with AWS about rejoining the company. As his work on JEDI deepened, so did his job negotiations. Six days after he received a formal offer from Amazon, Ubhi recused himself from JEDI, fabricating a story that Amazon had expressed an interest in buying a startup company he owned. A contracting officer who investigated found enough evidence that Ubhi’s conduct violated conflict of interest rules to refer the matter to the inspector general, but concluded that his conduct did not corrupt the process. (Ubhi, who now works in AWS’ commercial division, declined comment through a company spokesperson.) Ubhi worsened the impression by making ill-advised public statements while still employed by the DOD. In a tweet, he described himself as “once an Amazonian, always an Amazonian.” By the time the draft JEDI bid was formally unveiled in March 2018, rumors had begun surfacing in trade publications that the specifications had been written with Amazon in mind. For example, the bid required that the JEDI contract could not account for more than half of the provider’s cloud data load. And it required that the provider have at least three physical data centers, each separated by more than 150 miles. Only a tiny handful of companies could fulfill those mandates. Many tech companies were furious. Indeed, the only major cloud computing company that defended JEDI was Amazon. The harshest reaction came from IBM, Microsoft and Oracle, which would form the nucleus of a coalition that would work to stop JEDI. “This one-size-fits-all idea is, I think, limited to JEDI and promoted by Amazon, because it fits Amazon’s needs,” said Ken Glueck, Oracle’s top Washington executive. The DOD’s spokesperson said, “The requirements were not designed around any one provider.” An Amazon spokesperson said that “from day one, we’ve competed for JEDI on the breadth and depth of our services, and their corresponding security and operational performance.” Oracle responded by using its own access. As first reported by Bloomberg, Oracle arranged for its co-CEO, Safra Catz, to attend a private dinner in April 2018 with Trump and Peter Thiel, a founder of defense firm Palantir and a Trump ally. Catz told Trump she thought the JEDI specifications had been written so that only Amazon could win, according to a person familiar with the conversation and Bloomberg. Only four companies submitted bids for JEDI. Google had already withdrawn from the bidding, citing its belief that the project should be split among multiple providers. The decision came after its own employees protested the company’s participation in Maven, expressing opposition to the idea that their technology would be used to help kill people. Two bidders — IBM and Oracle — were eliminated after they failed to meet the bid requirements. That has left only Amazon and Microsoft still standing in the JEDI competition. Both IBM and Oracle filed protests. IBM’s protest was dismissed and Oracle’s was denied by the Government Accountability Office. Oracle sued the government in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, asserting JEDI had been tainted by conflicts of interest. The judge in the case ruled against Oracle. He agreed with the contracting officer that Oracle lost the bid on the merits and that any “errors and omissions” were “not significant and did not give AWS a competitive advantage.” Oracle did not give up. The company hired former members of the Trump administration and made its case to allies on key congressional committees. Largely as a result, the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee blocked the DOD from spending money on JEDI until it demonstrated it was using multiple cloud vendors. Then, in July, Trump himself got involved, saying he was considering intervening in JEDI. Soon after, the new secretary of defense, Mark Esper (a former chief lobbyist for Raytheon), requested another review. Much of the information that has surfaced in the press about JEDI is the product of investigations performed by Oracle and its lawyers. Meanwhile, PowerPoint presentations and investigative reports containing allegations of all sorts of byzantine chicanery by Amazon began circulating last year. By the spring of 2019, multiple corporate interests had deployed private teams to investigate their rivals and DOD officials. The Pentagon’s inspector general continues to investigate, according to a spokesperson, including “whether current or former DOD officials committed misconduct relating to the JEDI acquisition, such as whether any had any conflicts of interest related to their involvement in the acquisition process.” The claims and investigations have left JEDI shrouded in uncertainty. The project might not survive in its current form, according to people knowledgeable about the DOD, but there’s little doubt that the agency will move its computing to the cloud in one form or another. As for Donnelly, she left government again last year. A going-away party was thrown for her at the Pentagon. Jared Kushner and former White House economic adviser Gary Cohn attended. Today, Cohn is the chairman of the advisory board of a new firm that Donnelly has opened, Pallas Advisors, which she founded along with Tony DeMartino, the former DOD political appointee and ex-strategy consultant for SBD. Pallas describes itself as a “strategic advisory firm” that provides “insight into how governments think and operate.” According to a person familiar with the matter, one of Pallas’ staffers, Robert Daigle — who had previously worked on the JEDI project at the DOD — turned up in early August in the offices of at least one U.S. senator. Daigle was accompanied by Chris Lynch, who has left the DOD and founded a company, Rebellion Defense, that is seeking defense contracts relating to artificial intelligence. (Rebellion’s board members include Eric Schmidt.) Lynch and Daigle were pushing a familiar agenda from a new vantage point: They wanted to explain why a single-cloud makes sense for the Defense Department. And if their own companies got some new opportunities as a result, it went without saying, that would be just fine with them. Source
  19. Amazon unveils first batch of casting for The Wheel of Time adaptation It's been a very long slog, but production is finally slated to begin this fall. Enlarge / Amazon is adapting the late Robert Jordan's bestselling 14-book series of fantasy novels, The Wheel of Time. Tor Books Amazon has announced its first round of casting for The Wheel of Time, the long-awaited TV adaptation of the late Robert Jordan's bestselling 14-book series of epic fantasy novels. Within that genre, Jordan's series is as popular as George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire.The last book in the series was published after Jordan died and written from Jordan's notes by bestselling author Brandon Sanderson. The TV series will center on Moiraine (played by Oscar-nominee Rosamund Pike), a member of a powerful, all-woman organization called the Aes Sedai. (In this world, magic exists, but only certain women can use it—i.e., the members of the Aes Sedai.) She identifies five young people, one of whom could be the reincarnation of a person who prophecies say will save or destroy humanity. Together, the youngsters embark on a journey across the world. Josha Stradowski will play Rand al'Thor, aka The Dragon Reborn, He Who Comes With the Dawn, the Coramoor, Shadowkiller, and who knows how many other monikers. He's apparently the person featured in the prophecy. Marcus Rutherford has been cast as apprentice blacksmith and dream walker Perrin Aybara. Zoe Robins will play healer Nynaeve al'Meara, and Madeleine Madden will play the powerful channeler Egwene al'Vere. Finally, Barney Harris has been cast as series comic relief, Matrim Cauthon. Enlarge / Madeleine Madden, Josha Stradowski, Marcus Rutherford, Zoe Robins, and Barney Harris. Amazon.com There was one feeble prior attempt to jump-start a TV adaptation a few years ago. Entitled The Winter Dragon, the 30-minute short series pilot covered just the prologue of the first book in the series, The Eye of the World. The less said about it, the better. As Ars' Lee Hutchinson wrote in 2015: What makes for a relatively quick few pages in the book is stretched out over 30 interminable, plodding minutes onscreen, including three long commercial breaks. Max Ryan's delivery of his lines as Lews Therin can best be characterized as "ghastly" ("Light forgive me. Light forgive me. Light... forgive me," he says in an emotion-free monotone), and Billy Zane (yes, that Billy Zane) as Ishamael acts less like the godhood-obsessed Betrayer of Hope in the books and more like Cal from Titanic. In other words: it wasn't good. And apparently it wasn't authorized. There's a reason it aired in the middle of the night on FXX as "client-supplied programming," more akin to an infomercial. Jordan's widow and editor, Harriet McDougal, wrote in a statement that she was "dumbfounded" and had no idea a pilot was being made. The producers then countered with a lawsuit against her, claiming "breach of contract, slander, and interference with contractual relations and prospective economic relations." But all that drama has since been resolved, and hopes are much higher for Amazon's adaptation. Production is slated to begin this fall. Source: Amazon unveils first batch of casting for The Wheel of Time adaptation (Ars Technica)
  20. Amazon workers in Minnesota walk off the job over parking issues Amazon has faced a series of walkouts and protests at Minnesota warehouses. Enlarge / A protestor outside an Amazon warehouse in Shakopee, Minnesota on July 15, 2019. Annabelle Marcovici/Bloomberg via Getty Images Around 80 Amazon warehouse workers in the Twin Cities suburb of Eagan, Minnesota staged a two-hour walkout on Thursday morning. It's the latest in a series of strikes and protests spearheaded by Amazon workers in the state. Last month, a few dozen workers at another Amazon facility in Shakopee, Minnesota walked off the job on Prime Day—a massive sale that is one of Amazon's busiest days of the year. A December protest in Shakopee attracted 250 people. Workers in Shakopee were demanding better pay and working conditions. The Eagan protests were more specific: workers were upset that Amazon wasn't providing enough parking for its workers. One worker told Gizmodo that some workers showed up more than an hour early in order to get a spot. Workers were forced to double park in order to squeeze their cars in. This sometimes blocked Amazon delivery vehicles in the process. Amazon began towing worker vehicles, fining their owners as much as $350—which could be several days of pay for a part-time warehouse worker. Outrage over the parking situation finally sparked yesterday's walkout. And the protests worked. According to CNET, Amazon has promised to "repay employees for towing their cars, provide more parking, and recognize the upcoming Eid holiday for Muslim employees." "We have been working to support the site, including providing onsite parking, offsite parking and shuttles," an Amazon spokesperson told Ars. "We’re committed to listening to our teams." Amazon has long resisted organizing efforts at its warehouses The larger question looming over Amazon is whether its workers in Minnesota or elsewhere could form a union and collectively bargain with the company. Unsurprisingly, Amazon is not a fan of that idea. "We are not anti-union, but we are not neutral either," Amazon says in a training video for managers that was leaked last year. "We will boldly defend our direct relationship with associates as best for the associates, the business, and our shareholders." Earlier this year, Amazon fired a worker involved in efforts to organize an Amazon facility on New York's Staten Island—though Amazon says his firing was unrelated to his organizing efforts. Amazon's efforts to discourage worker organizing have been effective. Strikes and other organized worker activities have been rare at most of Amazon's US facilities. But the Twin Cities is emerging as a hotbed of worker activism. The Twin Cities are home to tens of thousands of Somali immigrants who provide a significant portion of the workforce in Amazon's Minnesota warehouses. A group called the Awood Center has been organizing Somali workers and encouraging them to challenge Amazon on its labor practices. Beyond general pay and benefit concerns, Muslim workers have accused Amazon of doing too little to accommodate religious practices. A 2017 protest at a Seattle facility faulted Amazon for failing to provide Muslim workers with prayer space to use during work breaks. The big question for Amazon is whether the Minnesota protests will inspire similar actions at other facilities around the country. Last year, Amazon set a new company-wide minimum wage of $15 an hour in a bid to improve worker morale. Source: Amazon workers in Minnesota walk off the job over parking issues (Ars Technica)
  21. BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Luxembourg’s privacy regulator has asked Amazon (AMZN.O) for information regarding its Alexa voice assistant, an indication of rising regulatory unease over companies’ use of personal data. The increasing popularity of Alexa, Apple’s (AAPL.O) Siri and Google (GOOGL.O) Assistant has triggered concerns from politicians and privacy enforcers over how some companies handle recordings from users interacting with their voice assistants. Apple and Google last week halted reviews of recordings. The Guardian said Apple’s contractors tasked with the job regularly heard confidential information and private conversations. Luxembourg, which is the lead privacy watchdog for Amazon where it has its European headquarters, said on Thursday that it is in touch with the U.S. online retailer regarding Alexa. “At this stage, we cannot comment further about this case as we are bound by the obligation of professional secrecy,” a spokesman said. Amazon said it has taken steps to resolve any concerns. “For Alexa, we already offer customers the ability to opt out of having their voice recordings used to help develop new Alexa features,” a spokeswoman said. “The voice recordings from customers who use this opt-out are also excluded from our supervised learning workflows that involve manual review of an extremely small sample of Alexa requests.” Source
  22. FedEx says it will not renew its ground-delivery contract with Amazon at the end of the month. FedEx ended its express contract, which covered air shipping, in June. Amazon recently announced its Delivery Service Program to help third-party businesses create their own ground delivery networks. FedEx said Wednesday it will end its ground-delivery contract with Amazon and won't renew it at the end of the month. "This change is consistent with our strategy to focus on the broader e-commerce market, which the recent announcements related to our FedEx Ground network have us positioned extraordinarily well to do," a FedEx spokesperson said. Shares of FedEx and Amazon were down at least 1% in premarket trading. Bloomberg first reported FedEx's decision. "We are constantly innovating to improve the carrier experience and sometimes that means reevaluating our carrier relationships," an Amazon spokesperson said. "FedEx has been a great partner over the years and we appreciate all their work delivering packages to our customers." FedEx announced in June that it is ending its express U.S. shipping contract, which only affected air services. At the time, FedEx said it was a "strategic decision" that would not affect its other contracts with Amazon. At the time, FedEx said less than 1.3% of total revenue was attributable to Amazon during the 12-month period ended Dec. 31. Amazon has continued to increase its own delivery network. In late June, Amazon announced a Delivery Service Partners program in an effort to attract entrepreneurs who can create their own local delivery networks with up to 40 vans each. earlier that month, it debuted a delivery drone it hopes will eventually speed up delivery for Prime members in North America. Amazon also has a $1.5 billion hub opening in northern Kentucky in 2021 where it's expanding its Amazon Air fleet to include 50 planes. Amazon said its air network can make "two-day shipping possible almost anywhere in the U.S." Still, FedEx has helped to provide the "last mile" of delivery services, bringing packages to customer doors. FedEx said in May it would expand its ground-delivery service to run seven days a week starting in January. Source
  23. But how will we buy stuff — Amazon to kill Dash button functions on August 31—you have a month to hack yours Amazon stopped selling the $5 plastic buttons in February. Don't let yours die. Enlarge / RIP, Amazon Dash. Amazon / Sam Machkovech Amazon's four-year dalliance with plastic "BUY! BUY! BUY!" buttons appears to finally be coming to a close. The Amazon Dash line of physical, Internet-connected buttons, which allowed customers to purchase (usually for around $5 a pop) one-tap restocking of home staples like snacks, toiletries, and laundry supplies, will stop functioning altogether on August 31. This follows Amazon's decision to stop selling the buttons in February of this year, despite being so bullish about the concept that it was selling over 100 brands' worth of Dash buttons by 2016. In a statement to Cnet, Amazon justified its plans by saying that consumer use of the devices "has significantly slowed" since the retailer stopped offering them as a buyable option. In addition, Amazon points to ways that consumers can exert even less energy to buy stuff, particularly via Internet-connected appliances that leverage Amazon's Dash Replenishment API to reup on supplies when a device suspects something is running low. (We're kind of sad that Amazon didn't just sell consumers a robot that would automatically trot up to your existing Dash buttons and tap them on your behalf, but, alas.) Meanwhile, if you really crave tapping a single, colourful button to get more boxes of macaroni and cheese, Amazon still offers a digital facsimile in the form of a virtual Dash Buttons interface from either Amazon's home page or shopping app. What, then, should consumers do with any physical buttons they have stuck next to their appliances or kitchen counters, or collecting dust in drawers? Why, hack them! Existing Dash buttons come packed with everything you need to send a basic command via a Wi-Fi protocol (though little else). As enterprising users discovered shortly after the line's 2015 launch, that command can be customized. The catch is that the whole process begins with Amazon's general shopping app, available for iOS and Android devices, to set the Dash button up for its intended use as a shopping device—and there's no guarantee that Amazon's app will continue supporting this first step beyond the end of August 2019. As this 2015 Medium guide explains, once you've finished that first step of the setup process, and thus fed your local router information to the button, you can stop and delete the Amazon app and get to work. From that point, the rest of the guide walks you through the steps necessary to turn your ancient Dash button into a general-use IFTTT (If This Then That) device, which revolves in part around discovering the button's MAC address. (The guide at one point points users to a dead URL for IFTTT's Maker Webhooks service, which you can now find here, but it's otherwise current enough.) What will you use leftover Dash buttons for? Beats us. But anything has to be better than pressing the thing and not getting a massive carton of Doritos as expected. Source: Amazon to kill Dash button functions on August 31—you have a month to hack yours (Ars Technica)
  24. Amazon has tweaked the settings for its Alexa voice AI to allow users to opt out of their voice recordings being manually reviewed by the company’s human workers. The policy shift took effect Friday, according to Bloomberg, which reports that Alexa users will now find an option in the settings menu of the Alexa smartphone app to disable human review of their clips. The Alexa T&C did not previously inform users of the possibility that audio recordings captured by the service might be manually reviewed by actual humans. (Amazon still doesn’t appear to provide this disclosure on its main website either.) But the Alexa app now includes a disclaimer in the settings menu that flags the fact human ears may in fact be listening, per the report. This disclosure appears only to surface if users go digging into the settings menu. Bloomberg says users must tap ‘Settings’ > ‘Alexa Privacy’ > ‘Manage How Your Data Improves Alexa’ before they see the following text: “With this setting on, your voice recordings may be used to develop new features and manually reviewed to help improve our services. Only an extremely small fraction of voice recordings are manually reviewed.” The policy tweak comes as regulators are dialling up attention on the privacy risks posed by voice AI technologies. This week it emerged that Google was ordered by a German data protection watchdog to halt manual reviews of audio snippets generated by its voice AI, after thousands of recordings were leaked to the Belgian media last month which was able to identify some of the people in the clips. Google has suspended reviews across the whole of Europe while it liaises with EU privacy regulators. In a statement on its website the Hamburg privacy watchdog raised concerns about other operators of voice AIs, urging EU regulators to make checks on providers such as Amazon and Apple — and “implement appropriate measures”. Coincidentally (or not) Apple also suspended human reviews of Siri snippets this week — globally, in its case — following privacy concerns raised by a recent UK media report. The Guardian newspaper quoted a whistleblower claiming contractors regularly hearing confidential personal data captured by Siri. While Google and Apple have entirely suspended human reviews of audio snippets (at least temporarily), Amazon has not gone so far. Nor does it automatically opt users out. The policy change just lets users disable reviews — which requires consumers to both understand the risk and act to safeguard their privacy. Amazon’s disclosure of the existence of human reviews is also currently buried deep in the settings, rather than being actively conveyed to users. It’s not clear whether any of this will wash with regulators in Europe. Bloomberg reports that Amazon declined to comment on whether it had been contacted by regulators about the Alexa recordings review program, saying only: “We take customer privacy seriously and continuously review our practices and procedures We’ll also be updating information we provide to customers to make our practices more clear.” We reached out to Amazon with questions but at the time of writing a spokesperson was not available. Source
  25. Experts say the deal raises serious antitrust concerns Last year, Amazon cut a deal with Apple to bring direct iPhone sales to its platform for the first time. Now, that deal is coming under scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission, The Verge has learned. The deal was first announced last fall, ostensibly as a way for Apple to sell on Amazon in an official capacity and cut down on counterfeit or misleadingly marketed products. However, it had the effect of kicking off hundreds of legitimate sellers that were offering low-cost and refurbished Apple products that were no longer for sale by the company itself. One seller, a Minnesota man named John Bumstead who specializes in refurbished MacBooks, was contacted earlier this month by a group of FTC officials. Bumstead told The Verge that he was interviewed by FTC lawyers and an economist about the impact of the Amazon-Apple deal on his business. The group did not disclose the broader purpose of the interview, but at least one member of the group is listed as belonging to the FTC’s newly formed Tech Task Force, a division launched in February to police anti-competitive behavior on tech platforms. The FTC officials were curious about the role Amazon’s Marketplace played in Bumstead’s business and how much his business suffered from being kicked off. When Apple secured the deal in November, Bumstead was given a couple months’ notice before he was forced off the Marketplace platform, which is the leading US e-commerce website for third-party sellers. “They wanted to know how Amazon works, how eBay works. I went into describing how a listing works on Amazon. Amazon is interesting in that you don’t necessarily create a listing. You just sort of tag on to an existing listing,” Bumstead tells The Verge. “If that listing gets deleted, chances are you’re not allowed to sell that product. That’s how Amazon did this. They created a bunch of renewed listings from the people who were certified, and they let those people sell on those listings, and they abandoned everyone else.” Earlier this week, regulatory news organization MLex reported that the FTC had subpoenaed Amazon Marketplace seller data on products not sold by the company itself, although it’s unclear whether the two efforts are related. The FTC did not respond to a request for comment. Still, experts say the Apple-Amazon deal could easily be grounds for an antitrust complaint. According to Sally Hubbard, an antitrust expert and the director of enforcement strategy at the OpenMarkets Institute, the practice of cutting a deal with a brand to shut out third-party sellers who may be peddling counterfeit products or simply just lower-cost versions is called “brand gating.” It’s rampant on Amazon, and it may be illegal, she argues. “You put a gate around the brand and say all the third-party sellers of whatever that brand is get a notice saying you can no longer sell this product on our platform unless you get authorization from the brand,” Hubbard tells The Verge. “But of course the brand is not going to let you sell if you’re under the [minimum advertised price]. Problem is that it’s illegal under antitrust law.” Specifically, Hubbard believes the Amazon-Apple deal could be a violation of antitrust laws that deal with anti-competitive conduct like price-fixing and illegal market allocation. “You’re not allowed to agree with another firm to set a floor on your pricing,” she says. “When you have these brands and a dominant retailer like Amazon, and Amazon says, ‘We’re going to make sure anyone who sells below your prices can’t be authorized to sell on your platform anymore,’ it’s basically a price-fixing agreement between a dominant retailer and a brand. And that’s illegal under Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act.” Amazon’s deal didn’t push third-party sellers off of Marketplace entirely, but it set conditions that made it impossible for smaller refurbishers to remain on the platform. Amazon still offers refurbished Apple products sold through the company’s “Amazon Renewed” program, but according to Bumstead, the program is limited to purchasers of roughly $10 million in inventory a year. He was never able to qualify for the program, and like many other refurbishers, he has left Amazon Marketplace as a result. Now, Bumstead says a significant amount of low-cost Apple products have disappeared from Amazon. “When they deleted those listings, they deleted consumer access to the majority of old MacBooks,” Bumstead says. “[Amazon] only created those renewed listings for newer machines.” In other words, the lowest price of a used or refurbished Apple computer on Amazon suddenly jumped by hundreds of dollars. The investigation comes amid unprecedented antitrust scrutiny of Amazon for prioritizing its own products and by using proprietary sales data to target competitors. European regulators opened an investigation into those issues earlier this month. In Germany, the company has already changed its terms of service for sellers like Bumstead, possibly as a concession to local regulators. The FTC is also stepping up its regulatory investigations of tech giants, as led by the Tech Task Force. Earlier this month, Facebook settled with the FTC over privacy violations for a $5 billion fine, and the commission is also officially investigating the social network for antitrust violations. According to The Washington Post, the FTC has been granted informal jurisdiction into any investigation into Amazon in addition to Facebook. Amazon declined to comment. Apple did not respond to a request for comment. Source
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