Businesses

US Treasury Secretary Calls For Google Monopoly Probe (theregister.co.uk) 67

After a 60 Minutes episode that focused on Google and its effective search monopoly, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin called for large tech companies to be investigated for potential antitrust violations. Asked whether Google was abusing its market dominance as a monopoly, Mnuchin told CNBC on Monday "these are issues that the Justice Department needs to look at seriously," and argued that it was important to "look at the power they have" noting that companies like Google "have a greater and greater impact on the economy." The Register reports: Mnuchin's willingness to directly criticize Google and other tech companies and argue that they should be under investigation is just the latest sign that Washington DC is serious about digging in the market power of Big Internet. It is notable that it was 20 years ago, almost to the day, that America finally dealt with another tech antitrust problem when the Justice Department and 20 state attorneys general filed suit -- on May 18, 1998 -- against what was then the most powerful tech company in the country: Microsoft.
Communications

FCC is Hurting Consumers To Help Corporations, Mignon Clyburn Says On Exit (arstechnica.com) 59

Former Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who left the agency this month, has taken aim at it in an interview, saying the agency has abandoned its mission to safeguard consumers and protect their privacy and speech. From her interview with ArsTechnica: "I'm an old Trekkie," Clyburn told Ars in a phone interview, while comparing the FCC's responsibility to the Star Trek fictional universe's Prime Directive. "I go back to my core, my prime directive of putting consumers first." If the FCC doesn't do all it can to bring affordable communications services to everyone in the US, "our mission will not be realized," she said. The FCC's top priority, as set out by the Communications Act, is to make sure all Americans have "affordable, efficient, and effective" access to communications services, Clyburn said. But too often, the FCC's Republican majority led by Chairman Ajit Pai is prioritizing the desires of corporations over consumers, Clyburn said. "I don't believe it's accidental that we are called regulators," she said. "Some people at the federal level try to shy away from that title. I embrace it."

Clyburn said that deregulation isn't bad in markets with robust competition, because competition itself can protect consumers. But "that is just not the case" in broadband, she said. "Let's just face it, [Internet service providers] are last-mile monopolies," she told Ars. "In an ideal world, we wouldn't need regulation. We don't live in an ideal world, all markets are not competitive, and when that is the case, that is why agencies like the FCC were constructed. We are here as a substitute for competition." Broadband regulators should strike a balance that protects consumers and promotes investment from large and small companies, she said. "If you don't regulate appropriately, things go too far one way or the other, and we either have prices that are too high or an insufficient amount of resources or applications or services to meet the needs of Americans," Clyburn said.

Businesses

Amazon's New Marketplace Appstore Connects Sellers To Software (cnet.com) 5

Amazon is creating another app store, but it's not for consumers. From a report: Instead, the online retail giant will for the first time put its seal of approval on a bunch of third-party apps intended for professional sellers with its new Marketplace Appstore. It launches to sellers starting Monday, the company said. CNET reported on plans for the app store earlier this month. The new app store, which will be available in North America through Amazon's main hub for sellers called Seller Central, will include tools to handle pricing, inventory, advertising and other needs for pro sellers. The app store will be introduced to sellers slowly to ensure a smooth rollout. "Many developers have innovated and created applications that complement our tools and integrate with our service," Amazon said in a statement Monday. "We created the Marketplace Appstore to help businesses more easily discover these applications, streamline their business operations, and ultimately create a better experience for our customers."
United States

Supreme Court Upholds Workplace Arbitration Contracts Barring Class Actions (nytimes.com) 301

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that companies can use arbitration clauses in employment contracts to prohibit workers from banding together to take legal action over workplace issues. From a report: The vote was 5 to 4, with the court's more conservative justices in the majority. The court's decision could affect some 25 million employment contracts. Writing for the majority, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said the court's conclusion was dictated by a federal law favoring arbitration and the court's precedents. If workers were allowed to band together to press their claims, he wrote, "the virtues Congress originally saw in arbitration, its speed and simplicity and inexpensiveness, would be shorn away and arbitration would wind up looking like the litigation it was meant to displace." Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench, a sign of profound disagreement. In her written dissent, she called the majority opinion "egregiously wrong." In her oral statement, she said the upshot of the decision "will be huge under-enforcement of federal and state statutes designed to advance the well being of vulnerable workers."
Businesses

Netflix's DVD Rental Business Is Still Profitable (fortune.com) 112

Netflix might be focusing on its streaming business, but the produce that made its name is still alive -- and apparently well. From a report: The company's DVD.com DVD rental business has 3 million subscribers and generated a whopping $56 million in profit on just $99 million in revenue during the first quarter, CNBC is reporting. That staggering profit margin aside, Netflix's business has a wide selection of 100,000 DVDs, which easily overshadows the 5,600 streaming titles available on Netflix, according to the report. DVD.com's profitability might surprise some who moved on long ago from disc-based entertainment in the living room to streaming. Indeed, Netflix itself seemed to have moved on in 2011 when it split the DVD division from its now-core streaming operation. And whenever Netflix discusses its business, the company focuses on streaming and its place in the original content market rather than DVDs.
Google

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin Wants Justice Department To Scrutinize Big Tech (cnbc.com) 110

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on Monday joined the growing chorus of government officials concerned about tech monopolies. From a report: When asked if Google is a monopoly, Mnuchin said, "These are issues that the Justice Department needs to look at seriously -- not for any one company -- but obviously as these technology companies have a greater and greater impact on the economy, I think that you have to look at the power they have," Mnuchin told CNBC's "Squawk Box." Mnuchin acknowledged that antitrust matters don't fall under his jurisdiction, but said someone ought to be looking. His comments come on the heels of a "60 Minutes" segment on Google's unparalleled market share in online search. The Sunday night spot included an interview with Jeremy Stoppelman, co-founder of Yelp, which he said "would have no shot" if it were being built today.
Sony

Sony Is Done Working For Peanuts in the Hardware Business, New CEO To Detail Shift Away From Gadgets (bloomberg.com) 109

Kenichiro Yoshida, who took over as chief executive officer in April, is set to unveil a three-year plan on Tuesday that embraces Sony's growing reliance on income from gaming subscriptions and entertainment. From a report: The transition is already happening: even though the company sold fewer hardware products such as televisions, digital cameras, smartphones and PlayStation consoles in the year through March, it was able to post record operating profit. It's a tectonic shift for a company built on manufacturing prowess. Sony popularized transistor radios, gave the world portable music with the Walkman and its TVs were considered top-of-the-line for decades. With the rise of Chinese manufacturing, making and selling gadgets has become a business with razor-thin profit margins. Investors have applauded the transformation that's been under way since Kazuo Hirai took over as CEO in 2012, with the shares climbing more than five-fold amid a turnaround.
Facebook

Advocacy Groups Call for the FTC To Break Up Facebook (bleepingcomputer.com) 125

An anonymous reader shares a report: Several advocacy groups have banded together for a campaign that calls upon the US Federal Trade Commission to intervene and break up Facebook into smaller companies -- and more specifically to split off the Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp services from the mother company. The campaign, named Freedom from Facebook, was set into motion today by eight groups -- Demand Progress, Citizens Against Monopoly, Content Creators Coalition, Jewish Voice for Peace, MoveOn, Mpower Change, Open Markets Institute, and SumOfUs, respectively. Through a dedicated website, the eight advocacy groups are urging users to file a petition with the FTC on the grounds that Facebook has become a monopoly. The campaign's motto is "It's time to make Facebook safe for democracy." "Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg have amassed a scary amount of power," the campaign's website reads. "Facebook unilaterally decides the news that billions of people around the world see every day."
Businesses

MoviePass' Days Look Limited (bloomberg.com) 149

Kyle Stock writes via Bloomberg: Eight months after slashing its price and expanding membership past 2 million users, MoviePass is now at risk of going bust. The parent company, Helios & Matheson Analytics, which now owns 92 percent of MoviePass, said last week that it had just $15.5 million in cash at the end of April and $27.9 million on deposit with merchant processors. MoviePass has been burning through $21.7 million per month. A U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing last month revealed that the company's auditor has "substantial doubt" about its ability to stay solvent. Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities Inc., warns that MoviePass may not survive the summertime run of blockbusters. On Tuesday, Helios reported the performance of MoviePass for the three months ending on March 31. The company lost $107 million, earning just over $1 million from marketing deals and $47 million from subscriptions. Helios shares have fallen to decade lows of less than $1 after peaking at $32.90 in October, alongside the MoviePass hype.
Businesses

Amazon Offers Whole Foods Discounts To Prime Members (reuters.com) 144

Amazon-owned Whole Foods debuted a loyalty program on Wednesday that offers special discounts to Prime members, including 10 percent off hundreds of sale items and rotating weekly specials. "The new loyalty strategy will test whether Amazon's $13.7 billion deal for Whole Foods brings much-feared disruption and an intensified price war to the $800 billion U.S. grocery industry dominated by Walmart and Kroger," reports Reuters. From the report: Those perks are available now in Florida and will roll out to all other stores starting this summer. Amazon previously announced free two-hour delivery from Whole Foods stores for members of Prime, its subscription club with fast shipping and video streaming. The new perks could make Whole Foods cheaper than conventional grocers for about 8 million of its customers who already subscribe to Amazon Prime, according to Morgan Stanley analysts. Prime members scan an app or input their phone numbers at checkout to receive the discounts.
Transportation

Tesla Unveils Dual Motor and Performance Specs For Model 3 267

Rei writes: Yesterday evening, Elon Musk announced the pricing and specs for two of the Model 3's most in-demand options -- dual motor and performance versions. The base dual motor configuration adds an AC induction front motor to the current partial-PM reluctance rear motor for $5,000; in addition to AWD and allowing the car to drive with either motor out, this cuts the 0 to 60 mph acceleration time from 5.1 seconds to 4.5 seconds. The performance package is available as a bundle, including the long-range pack, premium interior, 20" wheels, carbon fiber spoiler, and a new black-and-white interior. The vehicle will cost $78,000; 0 to 60 mph times are further cut to 3.5 seconds and the top speed increases from 140 mph to 155 mph.

While these options have consistently polled as the most in-demand options not yet available, several still remain and are variously due late this year/early next year: cream interior, non-PUP, tow hitch, SR battery, and air suspension. EU-spec and China-spec are also due early next year. Production is currently over 3,500 per week, rumored to be 4,300 per week, and will be undergoing a shutdown from May 26-31 to raise production to the Q2 target of 5000-6000.
Businesses

Chinese 'Accelerators' In Silicon Valley Aim To Bring Startups Home (reuters.com) 73

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Reuters: Beijing's unslakeable thirst for the latest technology has spurred a proliferation of "accelerators" in Silicon Valley that aim to identify promising startups and bring them to China. The surge in the number of China-focused accelerators -- which support, mentor and invest in early-stage startups -- is part of a larger wave of Chinese investment in Silicon Valley. At least 11 such programs have been created in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2013, according to the tech-sector data firm Crunchbase. Some work directly with Chinese governments, which provide funding. Reuters interviews with the incubators showed that many were focused on bringing U.S. startups to China. For U.S. government officials wary of China's growing high-tech clout, the accelerator boom reaffirms fears that U.S. technological know-how is being transferred to China through investments, joint ventures or licensing agreements. "Our intellectual property is the future of our economy and our security," Senator Mark Warner, the Democratic vice-chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement to Reuters about Chinese accelerators. "China's government has clearly prioritized acquiring as much of that intellectual property as possible. Their ongoing efforts, legal or illegal, pose a risk that we have to look at very seriously."
Privacy

Repo Men Scan Billions of License Plates -- For the Government (washingtonpost.com) 234

The Washington Post notes the billions of license plate scans coming from modern repo men "able to use big data to find targets" -- including one who drives "a beat-up Ford Crown Victoria sedan." It had four small cameras mounted on the trunk and a laptop bolted to the dash. The high-speed cameras captured every passing license plate. The computer contained a growing list of hundreds of thousands of vehicles with seriously late loans. The system could spot a repossession in an instant. Even better, it could keep tabs on a car long before the loan went bad... Repo agents are the unpopular foot soldiers in the nation's $1.2 trillion auto loan market... they are the closest most people come to a faceless, sophisticated financial system that can upend their lives...

Derek Lewis works for Relentless Recovery, the largest repo company in Ohio and its busiest collector of license plate scans. Last year, the company repossessed more than 25,500 vehicles -- including tractor trailers and riding lawn mowers. Business has more than doubled since 2014, the company said. Even with the rising deployment of remote engine cutoffs and GPS locators in cars, repo agencies remain dominant. Relentless scanned 28 million license plates last year, a demonstration of its recent, heavy push into technology. It now has more than 40 camera-equipped vehicles, mostly spotter cars. Agents are finding repos they never would have a few years ago. The company's goal is to capture every plate in Ohio and use that information to reveal patterns... "It's kind of scary, but it's amazing," said Alana Ferrante, chief executive of Relentless.

Repo agents are responsible for the majority of the billions of license plate scans produced nationwide. But they don't control the information. Most of that data is owned by Digital Recognition Network (DRN), a Fort Worth company that is the largest provider of license-plate-recognition systems. And DRN sells the information to insurance companies, private investigators -- even other repo agents. DRN is a sister company to Vigilant Solutions, which provides the plate scans to law enforcement, including police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Both companies declined to respond to questions about their operations... For repo companies, one worry is whether they are producing information that others are monetizing.

Earth

Floating Pacific Island Is In the Works With Its Own Government, Cryptocurrency (cnbc.com) 168

An anonymous reader quotes a report from CNBC: Nathalie Mezza-Garcia is a political scientist turned "seavangelesse" -- her term for an evangelist in favor of living off the grid -- and on the ocean. Mezza-Garcia spoke with CNBC's Matthew Taylor about what she sees as the trouble with governments, and why she believes tech startups should head to Tahiti. This seavangelesse is a researcher for the Blue Frontiers and Seasteading Institute's highly-anticipated Floating Island Project. The project is a pilot program in partnership with the government of French Polynesia, which will see 300 homes built on an island that runs under its own governance, using a cryptocurrency called Varyon.

"Once we can see how this first island works, we will have a proof of concept to plan for islands to house climate refugees," she said. The project is funded through philanthropic donations via the Seasteading Institute and Blue Frontiers, which sells tokens of the cryptocurrency Varyon. The pilot island is expected to be completed by 2022 and cost up to $50 million. As well as offering a home for the displaced, the self-contained islands are designed to function as business centers that are beyond the influence of government regulation.

United Kingdom

FM Radio Faces UK Government Switch-Off As Digital Listening Passes 50 Percent Milestone (inews.co.uk) 99

The Amazon Echo and other smart speakers have helped push the audience for digital radio past that of FM and AM in the UK for the first time. According to Radio Joint Audience Research (RAJAR), digital listening has reached a new record share of 50.9%, up from 47.2% a year ago. This milestone will trigger a government review into whether the analog FM radio signal should be switched off altogether. iNews reports: The BBC said it would be "premature" to switch off the FM signal. It could cut off drivers with analogue car radios and disenfranchise older wireless listeners. Margot James, Digital minister, welcomed "an important milestone for radio." She confirmed that the Government will "work closely with all partners -- the BBC, commercial radio, (transmitter business) Arqiva, car manufacturers and listeners" before committing to a timetable for analogue switch-off.

James Purnell, BBC Director of Radio and Education, said: "We're fully committed to digital, and growing its audiences, but, along with other broadcasters, we've already said that it would be premature to switch off FM." Mr Purnell said that BBC podcast listening was up a third across all audiences since the same time last year, accounting now for 40,000 hours a week. But younger audiences have not inherited the habit of listening to "live" radio, even on digital.

Privacy

FCC Investigating LocationSmart Over Phone-Tracking Flaw (cnet.com) 19

The FCC has opened an investigation into LocationSmart, a company that is buying your real-time location data from four of the largest U.S. carriers in the United States. The investigation comes a day after a security researcher from Carnegie Mellon University exposed a vulnerability on LocationSmart's website. CNET reports: The bug has prompted an investigation from the FCC, the agency said on Friday. An FCC spokesman said LocationSmart's case was being handled by its Enforcement Bureau. Since The New York Times revealed that Securus, an inmate call tracking service, had offered the same tracking service last week, Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, called for the FCC and major wireless carriers to investigate these companies. On Friday, Wyden praised the investigation, but requested the FCC to expand its look beyond LocationSmart.

"The negligent attitude toward Americans' security and privacy by wireless carriers and intermediaries puts every American at risk," Wyden said. "I urge the FCC expand the scope of this investigation, and to more broadly probe the practice of third parties buying real-time location data on Americans." He is also calling for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to recuse himself from the investigation, because Pai was a former attorney for Securus.

Google

Google Removes 'Don't Be Evil' Clause From Its Code of Conduct (gizmodo.com) 160

Kate Conger, reporting for Gizmodo: Google's unofficial motto has long been the simple phrase "don't be evil." But that's over, according to the code of conduct that Google distributes to its employees. The phrase was removed sometime in late April or early May, archives hosted by the Wayback Machine show.

"Don't be evil" has been part of the company's corporate code of conduct since 2000. When Google was reorganized under a new parent company, Alphabet, in 2015, Alphabet assumed a slightly adjusted version of the motto, "do the right thing." However, Google retained its original "don't be evil" language until the past several weeks. The phrase has been deeply incorporated into Google's company culture -- so much so that a version of the phrase has served as the wifi password on the shuttles that Google uses to ferry its employees to its Mountain View headquarters, sources told Gizmodo.

AI

AI Can't Reason Why (wsj.com) 185

The current data-crunching approach to machine learning misses an essential element of human intelligence. From a report: Amid rapid developments and nagging setbacks, one essential building block of human intelligence has eluded machines for decades: Understanding cause and effect. Put simply, today's machine-learning programs can't tell whether a crowing rooster makes the sun rise, or the other way around. Whatever volumes of data a machine analyzes, it cannot understand what a human gets intuitively. From the time we are infants, we organize our experiences into causes and effects. The questions "Why did this happen?" and "What if I had acted differently?" are at the core of the cognitive advances that made us human, and so far are missing from machines.

Suppose, for example, that a drugstore decides to entrust its pricing to a machine learning program that we'll call Charlie. The program reviews the store's records and sees that past variations of the price of toothpaste haven't correlated with changes in sales volume. So Charlie recommends raising the price to generate more revenue. A month later, the sales of toothpaste have dropped -- along with dental floss, cookies and other items. Where did Charlie go wrong? Charlie didn't understand that the previous (human) manager varied prices only when the competition did. When Charlie unilaterally raised the price, dentally price-conscious customers took their business elsewhere. The example shows that historical data alone tells us nothing about causes -- and that the direction of causation is crucial.

Transportation

Elon Musk Pitches 150 MPH Rides In Boring Company Tunnels For $1 (engadget.com) 71

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Engadget: At The Boring Company Information Session not all of the talk centered on flamethrowers. Elon Musk and project leader Steve Davis described many details of their visions for an underground network that could alleviate traffic problems in big cities. Musk said "we're not suggesting this to the exclusion of other approaches," but did take a moment to call out flying taxi solutions (like Uber Elevate) right off the bat due to danger and noise.

Earlier in the evening Musk retweeted an LA Metro tweet that said it's coordinating with The Boring Company on its test and said the two will be "partners" going forward. Much of what Musk discussed about how his concept in-city Loop would work has been answered in concept videos and the company's FAQ, but he specifically said that the plan is for rides that cost a $1, and carry up to 16 passengers through hundreds of tunnels to those small, parking space-size tunnels located throughout a city. Test runs in the loop have already hit a couple of hundred miles an hour, and Musk's plan is for vacuum Hyperloop tubes between cities that enable travel in pressurized carts at up to 300 MPH. That's compared to 150 MPH in the in-city Loop carts, all without slowing down due to traffic or anything else. The main concern is hitting speeds that are still comfortable for people inside.
The timeframe for when the "weird little Disney ride in the middle of LA" will be available to the public is unclear.
Businesses

Trump Personally Pushed Postmaster General To Double Rates on Amazon, Other Firms: Report (washingtonpost.com) 347

President Trump personally urged the leader of the U.S. Postal Service to double the rates the agency charges Amazon and other firms for delivery packages in several private conversations in 2017 and 2018, The Washington Post reported Friday (alternative source). From the report: Postmaster General Megan Brennan has so far resisted Trump's demand, explaining in multiple conversations occurring this year and last that these arrangements are bound by contracts and must be reviewed by a regulatory commission, the three people said. She has told the president that the Amazon relationship is beneficial for the Postal Service and gave him a set of slides that showed the variety of companies, in addition to Amazon, that also partner for deliveries.

Despite these presentations, Trump has continued to level criticism at Amazon. And last month, his critiques culminated in the signing of an executive order mandating a government review of the financially strapped Postal Service that could lead to major changes in the way it charges Amazon and others for package delivery. Few U.S. companies have drawn Trump's ire as much as Amazon, which has rapidly grown to be the second-largest U.S. company in terms of market capitalization. For more than three years, Trump has fumed publicly and privately about the giant commerce and services company and its founder Jeffrey P. Bezos, who is also the owner of The Washington Post.

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