Uber settles with FTC, agrees to 20-years of audits

Uber capitulated to a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) early this week, agreeing to submit to two decades worth of audits.

The San Francisco-based company will need to implement a privacy program and submit to audits every 2 years for the next 20 years, reports ET Tech. The settlement follows an intense probe from US regulators concerned that Uber has “failed to protect the personal information of drivers and passengers and deceived the public about efforts to prevent snooping by its employees.”

The agreed terms are to ensure the company meets certain FTC requirements.

ET Tech reports the FTC Acting Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen had the following to say in regards to the settlement with Uber: “Our order requires a culture of privacy sensitivity for Uber. It’s going to make them take privacy into account every day.”

Uber’s privacy woes with the government began in 2014. The FTC first began its probe into Uber three years ago after media reports unveiled “God View.” Uber employees used “God View” to monitor their customers’ real-time locations after using the app to hail a ride.

Uber was quick to defend itself after the media firestorm that “God View” unleashed. In 2015, the company claimed it had a “strict policy prohibiting employees from accessing rider and driver data,” ET Tech continues. However, Ben Rossen, an FTC staff attorney, has revealed that in fact, Uber only enforced their claimed “strict policy” for around eight months.

The FTC conducted a separate probe during the same year that “God View” was discovered by the media, investigating a data breach in May of 2014. During the breach, more than 100,000 names and license numbers of Uber’s drivers were stolen.

In response to their investigation of the data breach, the FTC said that Uber “did not take reasonable, low-cost measures that could have helped the company prevent the breach.” One example the agency put forward was that Uber “allowed its engineers and programmers to use a single key that gave them full administrative access to all the data.”

Uber’s current settlement with the FTC is just the company’s latest attempt to move forward after continuing setbacks. For much of 2017, the company has been consumed with sexual harassment allegations, a lawsuit over its autonomous-car designs, and a wave of top executives leaving the company, including the CEO Travis Kalanick. Oh, and an investor lawsuit filed against that same departed CEO as in-fighting between a divided board of directors and angered shareholders increases.

Ohlhausen, who presided over the settlement with Uber, said, “Uber failed consumers in two key ways: first by misrepresenting the extent to which it monitored its employees’ access to personal information about users and drivers, and second by misrepresenting that it took reasonable steps to secure that data,” BBC News reports.

Pharma behemoth Mylan settles with Sanofi for $465 million

Pharmaceutical giant Mylan will pay $465 million to settle charges that the company had been overcharging Medicaid for EpiPens for a decade, The LA Times reports.

Rival Sanofi filed the suit against Mylan under the False Claims Act, which allows companies as well as individuals to sue on behalf of the government when a case involves overcharges for government programs, and to pocket a portion of any resulting settlement. Sanofi will receive $38.7 million. The federal government will split the rest with governments in all 50 states.

Following Sanofi’s suit, the Department of Justice launched an investigation, which ultimately revealed that Mylan had neglected to pay Medicaid the proper rebates for the EpiPen. Mylan misclassified EpiPen as a generic rather than a name-brand medication so that it could pay a smaller rebate. Regulations require pharmaceutical manufacturers to pay Medicaid a 26.1% rebate on name-brand drugs, while the rebate for generics is 13%.

EpiPen was originally classified as a generic when it came out in 1997. When Mylan bought rights to the EpiPen name in 2007, the company failed to classify the medicine as a name-brand product. As a result, Mylan paid less than half of the proper rebate amount.

Mylan’s most recent settlement is not the first it has paid to settle allegations of withholding money from the government. In 2009, Mylan and four other companies paid a combined $124 million to settle allegations that they failed to pay adequate rebates to state Medicaid programs.

This time, Mylan will pay a steeper price, but analysts say the amount of the most recent settlement is but a fraction of the amount Mylan owes. Sources told The LA Times that amount, as estimated by an investigation by the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Inspector General, is somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.27 billion.

The LA Times cites Robert Weissman, president of the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen, as saying the Department of Justice “is letting Mylan get off on the cheap for ripping off the government, and with no admission of wrongdoing.”

“It looks like the settlement amount shortchanges the taxpayers,” adds Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, per the Times. “The Justice Department doesn’t say how it arrived at $465 million. Did the Justice Department consider the inspector general estimate?”

The suit also accused Mylan of failing to pay rebates required when price increases exceed inflation. The company sold two-packs of its EpiPen for $94 in 2007; last year, the price was $608. That’s an increase of almost 550% over less than a decade. Inflation would have accounted for an increase of about 20% in that span.

Experts estimate that a single EpiPen costs $10 to produce.

The so-called price hiking has sparked controversy of its own. Last September, a House Panel questioned Mylan’s Chief Executive, Heather Bersch, about the soaring prices of the EpiPen. According to The LA Times, those soaring prices have fostered a public perception of Mylan a “poster child of pharmaceutical greed.”

Mylan has cornered the auto-injection market, in part due to EpiPen’s brand recognition, but also by virtue of a number of agreements the company has forged with insurers and pharmacy benefit managers. Moreover, competition is sparse.

Sanofi released an EpiPen competitor dubbed the Auvi-Q. The company recalled half a million Auvi-Q’s in 2015 because some did not administer sufficient doses of epinephrine to “reverse a severe allergic attack,” per The LA Times. Sanofi discontinued production in the wake of the recall, but the Auvi-Q re-emerged in February and is on the market today.

Though technically based in England, Mylan operates out of Pittsburgh and trades on the NASDAQ. The market values the company at just under $20 billion, but its stock has fallen almost 20% since the first of the month. As of 3:09 PM Eastern Friday, shares cost $30.93 apiece.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Wisconsin State Assembly approves bill to incentivize proposed in-state Foxconn factory

Thursday, by a vote of 59-30, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled State Assembly approved legislation that would provide $3 billion worth of incentives—mostly cash—to technology manufacturer Foxconn over 15 years, Reuters reports.

Foxconn, based in Taiwan, has proposed to build a 20 million square-foot liquid-crystal display (LCD) plant on a 1,000-acre plot in the southeastern sector of the state. The company’s initial investment in the plant, which would be operational by 2020 will be $10 billion.

The bill still awaits approval by the state senate and a joint finance committee, both of which Republicans control. Republicans generally support the bill, while Democrats oppose it, but the Assembly’s vote Thursday did not strictly follow party lines; two Republicans voted against, and three Democrats in favor, according to Reuters.

Proponents point out that the plant would bring tens of thousands of jobs to the area, and “transform Wisconsin’s economy,” as Foxconn said in a statement. The facility would create 10,000 construction jobs and 22,000 ancillary jobs, according to Reuters. Initially, it would employ 3,000, but could ultimately employ 13,000.

“We are ready to take advantage of this historic opportunity … and build a long-lasting relationship with Foxconn,” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican who was instrumental in the orchestration of the deal, said in a statement, per Reuters.

“We look forward to continuing to work with them [i.e. legislators] to transform Wisconsin’s economy and make it a center of worldwide high-tech manufacturing,” Foxconn said in a statement.

President Donald Trump, who made the domestication of jobs a primary platform of his campaign, has played a large part in negotiating with the company for the plant. Trump met with Foxconn’s founder and chairman, Terry Gou, three times to discuss the plan, according to Fortune.

“I would see Terry, and I would say, ‘Terry, you have to give us one of these massive places you do great work with,’” Trump said, per The Washington Post. The president says he also told Gou, “The American worker will not let you down.”

In a testament to the importance of the deal for the Trump Administration’s economic agenda, Gou, Trump, Walker and others announced the completion of the negotiations in the East Room of the White House, the Post reports,

“The construction of this facility,” said Trump late last month, “represents the return of LCD electronics—and electronic manufacturing—to the United States.”

The bill’s detractors point out that the incentives would put Wisconsin’s government in considerable debt. The government would not break even on the deal for almost 25 years, according to a legislative analysis released last week, Reuters says.

Critics have called the incentives a “corporate welfare” project (Reuters’ words), and believe policymakers are rushing the bill.

“I think we need more time,” Democratic Representative Jill Billings said. “I want a better deal and more guarantees for my taxpayers.”

Early in the debate, Reuters says, the legislative body nixed a motion by Democrats to allow the finance committee to review the bill prior to the vote. The Assembly also shot down three amendments proposed by Democrats.

Many worry about the impact the making of LCDs has on the environment. According to a 2008 CNET article, the “chemical vapor deposition” process that produces LCDs, semi-conductors and synthetic diamond relies on a “missing greenhouse gas” known as nitrogen trifluoride, the globe-warming effect of which could be as much as 17,000 times stronger than that of CO2, according to an independent report cited by CNET.

Foxconn builds electronics for Apple, Google, Amazon, and a host of other tech giants.

The Washington Post points out that the move to build a factory on American soil is unprecedented for Foxconn, which stations most of its production operations in underdeveloped countries, where the cost of labor is cheaper.

The Post further notes that the company has a reputation for overworking employees and for dangerous work environments. In 2011, an explosion at a Foxconn factory in China killed three workers and injured 16. Some Foxconn workers report working seven days a week, living in cramped dorms, and standing so long that their legs would swell.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

The FDA is making food companies stop using trans fats this month

As reported by Bloomberg, the FDA is forcing food companies to stop including trans fats, or partially-hydrogenated oils, in food products this month.

Three years ago, a deadline was set for companies to stop using trans fats in their products. Now we’re reaching that deadline.

What are trans fats?

Small amounts of trans fat may naturally occur in animal products such as meat and dairy. But most of the trans fats Americans eat are not naturally occurring. You may also know artificial trans fats as partially-hydrogenated oils.

According to the American Heart Association, artificial trans fats should be avoided, full stop. Ideally, trans fats make up exactly zero percent of a healthy diet. The FDA no longer lists partially-hydrogenated oils as “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, for human consumption.

Trans fats are linked to increased chances of heart disease, stroke, and many other diseases.

The scientific consensus that trans fats are unhealthy hasn’t stopped many food companies from continuing to use partially-hydrogenated oils in their products for as long as is legally allowed, since such oils, though unhealthy, are cheap and shelf-stable.

Fortunately, food companies will not legally be allowed to add trans fats to food products for much longer.

What will replace trans fats?

Partially-hydrogenated oils have remained in favor for so long because they are shelf-stable and solid at room temperature.

Companies are scrambling to produce oils with all the positive qualities of partially-hydrogenated oils, and none of the bad qualities.

Dow Chemical Co. has developed a product called “Omega-9 canola oil,” which it claims has all the omega-9s in olive oil and less saturated fat.

DuPont Co. has come up with “Plenish,” an oil product made from soybeans which have been genetically modified so that the resulting oil contains no trans fats. It has less saturated fat and more omega-9s than traditional soybean oil. It is also more shelf-stable.

Monsanto Co. is also launching a soybean oil product, and it’s called “Vistive Gold.” Like Plenish, it has been genetically modified to have less saturated fats and more omegas.

Currently, canola oil products are more popular than soybean oil products. But the soybean industry is working to develop oils which it claims will ultimately prove healthier and better-tasting than their canola-derived competitors.

The new, healthier high-oleic canola oils have high levels of omega-9, but their levels of omega-3 and omega-6 have to be reduced to compensate. High-oleic soybean oils, on the other hand, can retain high levels of all the omegas, which gives them more nutritional value.

Featured Image via Pixabay

Right-wing protestors postpone anti-Google demonstration

Right wing protesters have a march on Google due to what the group’s website calls “credible Alt Left terrorist threats,” CNET reports.

The demonstration, which conservative activist Jack Posobiec organized to protest the firing of engineer James Damore, who distributed this in-house memo about gender and business, was set for Saturday, August 19. The group, known by the monicker March on Google, planned to organize at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, CA, as well as at Google facilities in eight other cities around the country.

“We hope to hold our peaceful march in a few weeks’ time,” the group said.

The postponement comes in the wake of violence at an alt-right protest in Charlottesville, VA this past Saturday. During the march, a number of skirmishes allegedly broke out. After the rally had dissipated, an alleged neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, injuring several and killing one.

One prospective “terrorist” allegedly threatened “to use an automobile to drive into the March on Google protest,” according to the group’s site, which also says “relevant authorities have been notified.”

The Mountain View police department told CNET that despite the postponement, law enforcement plan to “maintain a heightened presence” in the area “in an abundance of caution.”

Following the Charlottesville incident, March on Google posted a message condemning the events and asserting that March on Google was “in no way associated with any group who organized [in Charlottesville].”

“The March on Google condemns and disavows violence, hatred, and bigotry and all groups that espouse it such as White Nationalists, KKK, Antifa, and NeoNazis,” the group wrote in another post, which goes on to say that the protest event is “open to [those] from all backgrounds, ethnicity, and walks of life.”

The group claims its tenants were misrepresented by the media. “CNN and other mainstream media made malicious and false statements that our peaceful march was being organized by Nazi sympathizers,” the group’s website says.

Damore, whose memo, according to CNET, attributed the gender gap at Google to “biological differences between men and women” (CNET’s words) rather than institutional sexism, gave an interview to Stefan Molyneux, whom The Washington Post has described as “one of the alt-right’s biggest Youtube stars.”

fundraiser for Damore has raised almost $50,000. The text describing the fundraiser indicates that it is sponsored by a far-right group. The fundraiser’s description says Damore was attacked by “the radical Left,” which “has been whipping up hate mobs to get independents, libertarians, conservatives, and simple contrarians publicly shamed, bullied, and fired from their jobs for years.”

However, CNET points out that Damore described himself as a centrist in a Reddit AMAand told CNN after Charlottesville that he “does not support the far right,”

Google, meanwhile, is taking flak from both sides of the political aisle. While groups on the right say the company’s termination of Damore violated his freedom of speech, others on the left blame Google for firing the engineer only after the issue went public.

Last Thursday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai canceled an “all-hands” meeting meant to address the memo controversy, after numerous employees reportedly voiced concerns about their privacy and personal safety. Several members of Google’s staff have been subject to online harassment of late, according to Wired.

“In recognition of Googlers’ [i.e. Google employees’] concerns, we need to step back and create a better set of conditions for us to have the discussion,” Pichai wrote to employees, per Recode, adding that “in the coming days” the company would “find several forums to gather and engage with Googlers, where people can feel comfortable to speak freely.”

Pichai has said the memo violated his company’s Code of Conduct and crossed “the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

Recode further quotes the CEO as saying: “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”

 Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Markets lurch as Trump talks and NEC director Gary Cohn considers leaving

The euro has been weakened against the dollar since the release of the minutes of the European Central Bank’s last meeting. But the dollar is having its own problems. The dollar has fallen since the Federal Reserve released the minutes of its last meeting in July, during which policymakers expressed concern about weak U.S. dollar inflation.

The recent attack in Barcelona compounded matters for the dollar, as did certain remarks made by President Trump regarding the recent violent white-supremacist rallies in Virginia. In the fallout from this drama, Trump disbanded two advisory councils of prominent businessmen, a move which some people think violates his promise to work alongside industry leaders.

To make matters worse for the dollar, recent speculation rumors that Gary Cohn, current director of the National Economic Counsel, is considering leaving his post. Cohn was one of many business leaders to denounce Trump’s remarks on the violence in Virginia.

Aside from his duties as director of the NEC, Cohn also acts as a particular advisor of President Trump’s on tax reform and spending, as does Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. Cohn previously served as an executive at Goldman Sachs.

Cohn seems to play a key role in keeping the U.S. economy and currency stable. That’s why the rumors circulating about his possible imminent departure caused the markets to lurch. Traders rushed to abandon the dollar for more secure currencies.

An anonymous White House adviser maintains that Cohn will remain and the status quo will not be broken. This news has calmed the markets somewhat.

On Wednesday, the dollar fell O.55 percent to the yen and 0.4 percent to the Swiss franc. The dollar has since gone up incrementally.

On the whole, most analysts don’t seem to see much immediate cause for worry about the U.S. dollar.

Featured Image via Pixabay

Regional Planning Association proposes changes to public transit in New York

As New York commuters suffer through the complications, repairs and shutdowns at Penn Station this summer, the Regional Planning Association (RPA), a think tank dedicated to improving various aspects of life in the tri-state area, has proposed two projects to revitalize the region’s public transportation system, TheRealDeal reports. The plans would cost a combined $10 billion.

The RPA’s first plan suggests a new bus station in the basement of the Jacob K. Javits center. The blueprint includes pedestrian walkways from the new station to the No. 7 subway station in Hudson Yards. The organization estimates the cost at $3 billion.

According to the RPA, per TheRealDeal, the new station would increase capacity and alleviate the strain on the Port Authority bus terminal on West 42nd Street, so that it could be refurbished rather than replaced or rebuilt.

New York-based architecture firm Perkins Eastman first raised the notion of a basement terminal at the Javits Center last year. Port Authority nixed the plan but has since installed a new executive director, Rick Cotton.

“With the change of regime at the Port and the pushback over a bigger [42nd Street] bus terminal, there is also a sense that there has been a reset on the bus terminal that could welcome new ideas like this,” Scott Rechler, chairman of the RPA and the former vice-chairman of the Port Authority, told Crain’s. 

The second proposal calls for the construction of two new tunnels that would run under the East River from Penn Station to Sunnyside Yards in Queens. Two tunnels are already in the works under the Hudson River as part of the $25 billion Gateway project.The RPA has dubbed its proposed tunnels “Gateway East.”

Were Gateway East implemented, Penn Station would become a “through station rather than a terminus for trains,” per Crain’s, thereby increasing train traffic by 138%, the RPA predicts. The organization estimates a cost in the neighborhood of $7 billion. The plan would require the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and New Jersey Transit to expand their areas of service, even as the transport organizations struggle to fulfill their current obligations, Crain’s points out.

The public transportation proposals come as part of the RPA’s Fourth Regional Plan, a broad effort to improve economic productivity, environmental sustainability, and overall quality of life across the tri-state area. Part of the effort involves increasing low-income residents’ access to opportunities for education and employment. The improvements to the public transit system would catalyze that endeavor.

The organization holds that partisan politics stunt large-scale progress. “With more than 3,000 governmental entities in our region,” the RPA says in an overview of the plan, “policy making is fragmented.”

“…while other cities around the world are embracing innovation,” the report adds, “the New York metropolitan region has struggled to deliver major infrastructure projects in a timely and efficient manner. Public authorities have been hobbled by political disputes, eroding the public’s trust.”

So, the Fourth Plan strives to streamline long-term policy making by advocating cooperation. Advancement in areas like public transport, the RPA contends, would be more efficient if entities collaborated across political, geographic, and commercial divides.

The larger aim of the report on public transportation, then, is to “get public agencies to start planning together, rather than in fragmented efforts—buses here, trains over there,” RPA president Tom Wright says, per Crain’s.

Over the course of its almost century-long history, the RPA has issued three reports similar to the Fourth Regional Plan: one in 1929, one in 1960, and one in 1997. The plans have laid the groundwork for such things as the creation of the MTA, the creation of the Governor’s Island Park, and the preservation of wilderness areas.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Amazon Instant Pickup will give customers their orders in two minutes

In this age of instant gratification, eCommerce retailers like Amazon face a dilemma. A consumer can make a purchase in seconds with a few clicks of a mouse or taps on a screen—it doesn’t get much more instant than that. Then, though, customers must wait for days or weeks before they get their hands on the purchased item.

It is arguably the last advantage brick-and-mortar stores have over the eCommerce industry: when customers make a purchase at a physical store, they can walk out with the item(s) in hand.

So, Amazon is making a continuous effort to shorten delivery times—to close the gap between the “buy now” click and the unboxing of the goods. In October 2014, the company launched a same-day pickup service which allowed customers to pickup items ordered before 11:45 am by 4:00 pm the same day, at one of a number of locations throughout the nation and around the globe.

A few months later, the company rolled out PrimeNow, through which Amazon Prime customers in select locations can get household essentials like paper towels and shampoo, small items like books and toys, and even big-screen televisions delivered to their doors in two hours at no added cost, and in one hour for an additional $7.99. Amazon even partnered with restaurants and grocery stores in certain markets to offer delivery from those locations.

Tuesday, the giant announced another leap forward, Reuters reportsAmazon Instant Pickup. The service lets customers pick up their orders within two minutes. It is currently operational only in Berkeley, CA and Los Angeles, CA, per Amazon’s website. According to Reuters, the program will expand to college campuses in Columbus, OH; College Park, MD; and Atlanta, GA in the near future, and to additional locations by the end of the year.

When a buyer places an Instant Pickup order, an Amazon employee culls the purchased item from the shelves and puts it in a locker, which is sealed using a unique bar code. When the customer arrives at the pickup location, they can scan the barcode, open the locker, and retrieve the item.

Amazon considered automating the fulfillment process, Reuters says, decided against doing so at this time. Automation could occur down the road, though.

The service will cater toward impulse buyers: the majority of the several hundred different products available at Instant Pickup locations will be high-volume, quick-purchase items like phone chargers, snacks, and drinks. The last two offerings will make Instant Pickup an alternative to vending machines.

“I want to buy a can of coke because I’m thirsty,” said Ripley MacDonald, Amazon’s director of student programs, per Reuters. “There’s no chance I’m going to order that on Amazon.com and wait however long it’s going to take for that to ship to me.”

That is, MacDonald says, until Instant Pickup came along.

However, Forrester analyst Amanda Chakravarty told Reuters that while the new service will be convenient for some items, vending machines will not disappear anytime soon. “[Instant Pickup] might work for some electronic gadgets that are not commonly available at vending machines,” she said. “Two minutes is too long to wait for a soda can.”

But, many analysts expect Amazon to build Instant Pickup into something beyond a high-tech vending machine: a full grocery store.

“This is a natural extension of [Amazon’s] larger push into the grocery space,” Morningstar analyst R.J. Hottovy told Reuters.

Amazon acquired Whole Foods in a $13.7 billion deal in June. TechCrunch notes that Amazon could make Instant Pickup available at some or all of Whole Foods’ 467 physical locations. Customers could build a grocery cart on their way to the store and pick up their food when they got there. Moreover, the Whole Foods stores have plenty of space for inventory, so Amazon could make them Instant Pickup locations for a host of products beyond food.

In eliminating shipping costs, Instant Pickup may allow Amazon to reduce prices, Reuters points out.

Featured image via Flickr/Robert Scoble

Chrysler to join BMW, Intel in autonomous driving consortium

Italian-American automaker Fiat Chrysler announced plans Wednesday to join an autonomous car development consortium with Germany’s BMW and American tech giant Intel, MarketWatch reports. UK-based Delphi Automotive PLC and German component manufacturer Continental AG each joined the group earlier this summer.

Israeli collision-avoidance software developer Mobileye was originally an independent member of the alliance, but in March, Intel acquired Mobileye.

The group has released a statement indicating intentions to build a self-driving framework “that can be used by multiple automakers around the world, while at the same time maintaining each automaker’s unique brand identities.”

The coalition aims to have a fleet of 40 test vehicles on the road by the end of the year. BMW said in March that it plans to field a Level 5 autonomous vehicle by 2021.

“In order to advance autonomous driving technology, it is vital to form partnerships among automakers, technology providers and suppliers,” Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said in a statement. “Joining this cooperation will enable FCA to directly benefit from the synergies and economies of scale that are possible when companies come together with a common vision and objective.”

In May, Fiat Chrysler partnered with Google’s parent company, Alphabet, whose self-driving subsidiary is branded Waymo. In total, the automaker has given Waymo 600 Chrysler Pacifica minivans.

Marchionne has indicated that the Alphabet-Chrysler alliance is by no means exclusive.

“We need to be ready to collaborate with as many people as we can find,” he said in the company’s quarter two earnings report.

USA Today points out that cooperation is key to defraying the prohibitive costs of an autonomous vehicle, particularly for a company like Chrysler, which may be unable to allocate a huge budget toward autonomous vehicle development.

At this stage, investments in autonomous vehicle development are not yielding fruits on the bottom line because the gap between the capabilities of the technology and the trust levels of consumers is too wide to justify selling self-driving cars on the open market.

Marchionne has voiced concerns about the liability associated with the safety questions around self-driving cars. He also worries about the lack of regulation in place to assign responsibility for that liability.

For instance, if a Fiat Chrysler vehicle featuring, say, technology developed by Waymo and cameras built by Nvidia malfunctions, there are no regulations governing which of those companies would be held legally responsible.

“That’s a big issue going forward, because when you’ve got tier-one suppliers that will start providing autonomous driving equipment — both software and hardware — into these vehicles, the question about who owns liability associated with the running of those operations is a big issue yet untouched,” Marchionne said in January, per Aaron Marsh of FleetOwner.

Still, cooperation seems to be the strategy across the industry with respect to the push toward autonomous vehicles, although Ford and General Motors each has its own in-house self-driving development operation.

Auto manufacturers are increasingly partnering with tech companies and component-producers. Such automotive giants as Audi, Tesla, and Toyota have partnered with Nvidia Corp., whose Drive PX platform is among the most advanced systems of autonomous driving technology in the industry.

In April, Damlier AG, of which Mercedes-Benz is a subsidiary, formed an alliance with components producer Robert Bosch GmbH. Together, the companies are working toward developing a fleet of autonomous taxis that customers can hail. If the plan takes shape, the automotive alliance will compete with ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft.

Google’s Waymo has unveiled a similar system in Phoenix. Using an app proprietary to Waymo, customers can hail one of the 600 Chrysler vans mentioned above

Damlier and Bosch have also developed an autonomous valet system that can navigate a multi-story parking garage, find a spot, and park with no human input.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Google to face lawsuit over gender pay gap

Google is once again making headlines this week due to a familiar issue in Silicon Valley—the gender pay gap. At least 70 current and former female employees are expected to file a class-action lawsuit against the tech giant with the help of a San Francisco employment law firm, Altshuler Berzon LLP.

James Finberg, the civil rights lawyer and Altshuler Berzon LLP partner spearheading the class action suit, told Forbes that several dozen women came forward in just “a matter of weeks” after the firm posted both Facebook and LinkedIn notices “seeking women currently or formerly employed at Google for possible inclusion in a planned class-action lawsuit alleging gender pay discrimination.”

Since this week’s firing of Google employee James Damore, the suit has gained more fire and Finberg expects to go public “a lot earlier than [they’d] hoped or expected.”

This class-action lawsuit follows closely on the heels of a similar suit filed against Google earlier this year by the United States Department of Labor (DOL) citing evidence of an “extreme” gender pay gap within the tech company. Finberg told Forbes the current suit will draw evidence from the DOL analysis, whose evidence was taken from a collection of 21,000 employee salaries at Google’s headquarters.

Some of the concerns women are sharing, according to Finberg, are that women are being channeled into ‘softer’ jobs that are compensated less than, say, coding is and that women’s prior wages were used to create their Google salary.

If the latter were to be true, Finberg comments, “That’s institutionalizing gender discrimination, and it’s against California law.”

Although the year may be 2017, and you can’t seem to walk down a street without bumping into a feminist, women continue to earn less than their male counterparts in the workplace. Despite a certain Google employee’s claim that the gender pay gap is a myth, the data proves otherwise.

According to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2015, women earn an average of $0.80 for every $1 men do. The report broke this down by age as well, indicating that younger women have a narrower pay gap than older women do. This gap tends to be wider for older women, as they faced bigger gaps when starting their careers than younger women do, hurting their long-term earnings.

That $0.20 wage gap adds up at the end of the day, costing women a loss of around $10,470 each year, according to a report published by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) in March this year. For a white, 20 year-old-woman just starting her career today, that loss over a 40-year period adds up to a grand total of $418,800. If that same woman’s male counterpart were to retire at age 60, it would take her another 10 years (retiring at 70), to close that gap. The same NWLC report notes that this situation is compounded even more for women of color. Depending on the state she lives in, a woman of color might have to work past the age of 100 in order to bridge the gap to her white male counterpart.

Finberg and Altshuler Berzon LLP intend to move forward with the class-action suit “within the next few weeks.” It looks like stories about Google and the gender pay gap will be gracing headlines throughout all of 2017.

Amazon looks into military food tech

Could I interest you in a package of fully-cooked beef stew that sat unrefrigerated on a shelf for a year before being dropped on your doorstep? Or perhaps a vegetable frittata?

That’s what Amazon might have in store for us — lots of non-refrigerated pre-cooked food.

Amazon is reportedly looking into a process called microwave-assisted thermal sterilization, or MATS. This technology, developed at Washington State University, originated to meet the needs of the U.S. military. The process kills bacteria and seals meals using microwaves, allowing pre-cooked meals to remain safe for up to a year without refrigeration. The meals are easy to transport, and they only need to be heated up a bit before being eaten. As a result, they’re also quite cheap compared to fresh meals.

A Dever-based startup called 915 Labs is shopping the technology to Amazon. According to the startup, MATS has many advantages over other methods of sterilization currently being used in food processing. Traditional processing methods get rid of nutrients and flavor along with the bacteria. MATS allows dishes to be treated in a shorter amount of time, meaning that the dishes retain more of their original texture and flavor.

Amazon could get going on this new venture as soon as 2018. It would give Amazon a stronger foothold in the grocery market, which has long been a goal for the company. Prepared meals are much harder to transport than the millions of other shelf-safe items Amazon sells.

This isn’t the only move Amazon is making to chew up more of the food market. Amazon is also in the process of acquiring the grocery chain Whole Foods, and it already has a grocery delivery program in place called AmazonFresh.

Amazon has not yet confirmed that it will actually end up using microwave-assisted thermal sterilization.

Reuters has also suggested Wal-Mart may be looking into MATS as well. A company called Solve for Food is planning on setting up a MATS facility near Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Arkansas. Wal-Mart has not yet commented.

Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons

What is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer digital currency system that uses mathematical formulas (“cryptography”) in lieu of traditional, centralized financial institutions to protect users’ currency and verify and process transactions.

The currency was created in 2009 by an unidentified developer or group of developers operating under the alias Satoshi Naskomoto, who wrote this white paper describing the technology behind the system and the advantages Bitcoin offers in the marketplace.

The writer of the paper argues that a monetary system that depends upon a third party to verify transactions cannot make transactions irreversible, as said third-party must always mediate disputes. Moreover, the mediator charges for its services, and the cost of commerce rises.

Bitcoin employs two layers of verification: a user’s “wallet” and the Blockchain, a collective, public ledger that records every bitcoin transaction.

A wallet ties a specific amount of bitcoins to a specific user via two unique, encrypted “keys,” one public and one private. The private key contains a confidential “signature” which proves a user’s right to spend certain bitcoins. The public key derives from the private key by way of a mathematical process so complex it is impossible to reverse engineer. In other words, although a wallet’s public and private keys are linked, no user can deduce another user’s private from his/her public key.

The public key is hashed (read: condensed) to form an address. Like a physical address or an e-mail address, a bitcoin address is how users find and send things to one another. In order to maintain anonymity, it is recommended that users only use a given address once. In other words, users should generate a new address for each transaction. One wallet can contain multiple addresses, but the Bitcoin website advises that users spread their bitcoin stakes across multiple wallets so as to preserve anonymity.

A host of bitcoin wallet services, such as Electrum and Armory, offer an array of different types of wallets. Wallets can be stored on a desktop, a mobile device, a piece of hardware, or the internet. Some wallets store the entire blockchain, which currently consists of more than 100 GB of data, and is growing all the time, locally. Others store only the most recent blocks in the chain.

As mentioned, the blockchain a public ledger. Every ten minutes, a new “block” containing multiple transactions is published on the blockchain. Each block is marked with a timestamp, verifying that a user gave a certain amount of bitcoins to another user at a certain time.

The timestamp acts to prevent double spending, to which other decentralized exchange systems are inherently vulnerable. “Double spending” is the practice of spending the same currency in multiple transactions. If transaction records are private, and no authority has access to them, those dealing in an abstract form of currency like electronic payment cannot verify that a buyer has not already spent the funds he is appropriating for a given purchase. The blockchain, on the other hand, checks time stamps and rejects any transaction User A makes with User C using bitcoins he/she has already transferred to user B.

When a transaction is submitted to the blockchain, bitcoin “miners” use computing power to work to solve a “proof-of-work” problem that allows for the block to be added to the chain. The miner whose computers first solve the “proof-of-work” problem is rewarded in bitcoins. Thus, new bitcoins enter circulation.

By ensuring that a certain amount of work must be done to create a new block and new bitcoins, the system guards against an overload of requests and prevents inflation. As bitcoin’s popularity increases, more and more people will become miners. As more and more people become miners, it will be harder and harder to solve the “proof-of-work” problem. This method ensures that bitcoins are created at a decelerating pace.

Bitcoin’s founders only allowed for 21 million bitcoins to be mined. So, like any commodity, bitcoins are finite, cannot be obtained without work.

In an effort to preserve decentralization, bitcoin mining is open to anyone with an internet connection and the appropriate hardware.

Rather than mining, one can buy bitcoins using traditional currencies via an exchange service such as Coinbase.

Netflix increasing focus on original content, analysts say

Streaming video service Netflix has $15.7 billion worth of “streaming content obligations,” CNN reports. It plans to pay $6 billion toward those obligations this year.

The “streaming content obligations” figure is up more than $3 billion since quarter two 2016, according to CNBC.

Several analysts attribute the increase to an intensified focus by Netflix on the creation of original, proprietary content.

“The company is actually trying to manage down the amount of content that it’s licensing from other people,” Canaccord Genuity analyst Michael Graham told CNBC. “The plan there really is to draw subscribers to the service with content that Netflix builds and produces on its own, and that Netflix owns and doesn’t have to pay royalties on. So what that does is it enables margins to expand over time.”

In a report cited by CNN, John Janedis, an analyst with Jefferies, agreed that the company is “aggressively shifting to owned original content.”

The increased emphasis on original content comes as traditional media operations increasingly become competitors rather than allies.

As cable revenues continue to fall, companies like Disney are making their own inroads into the streaming market and cutting ties with Netflix.

When Disney announced plans to start its own streaming service by 2019, it also said it would pull Disney and Pixar films from Netflix by the end of 2019. The company was noncommittal as to whether it would continue to license Marvel and LucasFilm properties to Netflix.

Netflix said in a statement that, despite the termination of its partnership with Disney, “U.S. Netflix members will have access to Disney films on the service through the end of 2019, including all new films that are shown theatrically through the end of 2018.”

A previous agreement obligates Disney to allow Netflix to host Disney, Pixar, and Marvel films through the end of 2019.

The end of the Netflix-Disney partnership will not affect original Netflix shows based on Marvel characters, such as Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, nor will Netflix halt its production efforts for the upcoming Marvel-based offerings The Defenders and The Punisher.

Following Disney’s announcement, Netflix struck back, poaching 15-year ABC veteran Shonda Rhimes, creator of such hits as Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. Those shows will stay with Disney/ABC, but Rhimes will begin creating original content for Netflix.

Many suspect that much of Netflix’s near-$16 billion original content budget will contribute toward the streaming giant’s continued pursuit of talent employed by major traditional studios like Disney.

“We’re witnessing an all-out war,” Eric Schiffer, chief executive of Patriarch Organization, told The LA Times. “The studios are seeing Netflix and Amazon go out for their talent, and out for [their] scalps.”

“Studios haven’t felt this kind of hellfire in decades and it’s not going away,” he added.

Netflix is, however, fighting an expensive war. The terms of the deal with Rhimes were not disclosed, but it stands to reason that one of television’s top writers comes at a price. Last quarter, Netflix reported $3.4 billion in “non-current content liabilities” (read: long-term debt); that figure is up more than 15% from $2.9 billion at the end of 2016.

Despite its debt, though, Netflix continues to add subscribers and generate revenue. In quarter two, the company reported $2.8 billion in revenue—that’s a 35% jump year-over-year. Moreover, the service reported 4.3 million (over 9%) more domestic subscribers in quarter two 2017 than it did a year ago. In quarter three, CNN says, the company’s sales are expected to grow 25%, and earnings are expected to double.

In some markets, Netflix is raising its monthly subscription rates to fund its redoubled emphasis on original content. In late June, the streaming behemoth raised prices in Australia; just last week, it raised prices for Canadian users. Some anticipate that US users will see similar price increases in the coming months. According to CNN, Netflix said in its quarter two report that it “expect[s] that from time to time the prices of our membership plans in each country may change.”

Netflix stock has soared more than 40% this year, according to CNN. But, shares have dipped more than 6.5% since Disney announced intentions to pull Disney and Pixar movies last week.

Still, with a market cap in excess of $77 billion, Netflix is, according to CNN, worth more than Fox, CBS, and Viacom, and just slightly less valuable than Time Warner, which owns CNN, HBO, etc.

The streaming pioneer has proven its ability to compete with the giants of traditional media. As an increasing number of those giants make their own inroads into the streaming sector and deprive Netflix of licensing rights, the competition is bound to intensify.

Featured Image via Flickr/Shardayyy

BitCoin’s value surges despite looming scalability challenges

As of 2:18 Eastern Monday, a single bitcoin is worth $4,282—an all time high for the cryptocurrency, invented in 2008. The bitcoin-USD exchange has soared more than 200% this year, as investors in Korea and Japan increasingly seek to buy the cryptocurrency—some such investors are willing to pay premiums of up to 30%—and May’s New York Agreement helps it to accommodate expansion.

A wide array of investors have jumped on the bandwagon, some more enthusiastically than others. “Whether or not you believe in the merit of investing in cryptocurrencies…real dollars are at work here and warrant watching,” Goldman Sachs analysts wrote in a note to clients, per Bloomberg.

Joshua M. Brown, a financial advisor at Ritholtz Wealth Management, is among those who, despite their skepticism, cannot resist BitCoin’s upside. When the cryptocurrency first became part of investors’ vernacular seven years ago, Brown observed in a blog post in mid-July describing his first-ever BitCoin purchase, it was subject to all the volatility that accompanies a “new and unproven” investment opportunity.

Now, though, the cryptocurrency has been hanging around in the public eye for quite a while, and recent developments such as the New York Agreement may lead to stabilization.

As a limited resource as well as a medium of exchange, Bitcoin has properties of a commodity as well as a currency, Goldman Sachs’ note to clients points out. The United States IRS does not recognize Bitcoin as legal tender but, rather, treats it as property for tax purposes.

BitCoin’s value is not supported by some inherently valuable asset like gold or silver, but the lack of such a standard is par for today’s currencies, according to Tim Courtney, CIO at Exencial Wealth Advisors.

“The first thing to understand is that, just like every other currency, there is no asset backing digital and cryptocurrencies,” Courtney told TheStreet. “In the past, some currencies were backed by gold or silver, but that’s no longer the case.”

Without any sort of backing, Bitcoin derives all of its value from supply and demand. BitCoins, in other words, are only worth what someone is willing to pay for them.

“When you see returns on digital currencies moving up, that means demand for them has outnumbered the sellers out there,” Courtney explained to TheStreet.

BitCoin will face a minefield of obstacles as it scales up to satisfy increasing demand. One such challenge could be unprecedented volatility. In late June, Ethereum, a cryptocurrency similar to Bitcoin, dropped from $300 dollars to $0.10 on a single, multi-million-dollar exchange, CNBC reports.

Courtney observes, per TheStreet, that there was no way to reverse the trades, as there would have been had the crash involved “established assets.”

“…there is no security to your [cryptocurrency] trades if something unexpected happens,” Courtney told TheStreet.

‘”What we’ve been doing in the stock market to prevent flash crashes, they’re nowhere near that in the cryptocurrency market,” adds Joe Saluzzi, co-founder of Themis Trading, per CNBC.

Bitcoin also runs the risk of devaluing itself as it expands, Courtney says. He cites the “constrained supply” of Bitcoin as an integral part of its value—basic microeconomics principles hold that if a commodity is in high demand but short supply, its price will rise.

Yet, as Bitcoin expands to serve increasing demand, it will become less and less scarce, and may, therefore, lose much of its value. In other words, like any other currency that loses its scarcity, Bitcoin will be subject to inflation.

BitCoin has long been vulnerable to cyberattacks. As its popularity grows, it will increasingly become a target for hackers. Exchange services BTC-e and Bitfinex both reported being hacked last week, according to CNBC.

The security and anonymity of BitCoin make it a suitable platform through which to launder money, demand ransoms, and carry out other nefarious transactions. All transactions carried out on contraband distribution websites like the AlphaBay and Hamsa, both of which authorities shut down in July, are conducted via BitCoin. Late last month, alleged BTC-e operator Alex Vinnik was arrested on suspicion of having laundered more than $4 billion his clients generated through a variety of criminal enterprises.

“It’s hard to imagine the IRS, Treasury etc allowing anonymous transactions without any reporting becoming a global standard for US persons,” Brown wrote in his blog post.

Still, Brown says, he is not willing to miss out on the potential upside of an investment in BitCoin. “I’m old enough to realize that just because I don’t see a use for something, that doesn’t mean I won’t be proven wrong by others who do,” he writes.

Judging by the spikes in the cryptocurrency’s value—it seems to hit a new high every day, of late—plenty of other investors are indeed anxious to prove Brown wrong.

Featured Image via Flickr/Zach Copley

Customer sues Cheesecake Factory over “suggested gratuity” figures

Marcel Goldman is suing The Cheesecake Factory over its billing practices, Buzzfeed reports.

When diners request a split bill at the restaurant chain, the “suggested gratuity” figures printed on each customer’s bill are calculated based on the total amount of the collective bill, rather than on an individual diner’s share.

Goldman says she paid a “suggested 20% tip” of $15.40, though her individual bill was $38.50. In other words, she paid 40% gratuity on her share of the check.

Goldman sent a letter to The Cheesecake Factory’s headquarters in Calabasas, CA, but the company did not reimburse her.

The restaurant chain told Buzzfeed: “All gratuity amounts listed on our guest checks are suggestions only. Guests are free to tip as they please.”

The lawsuit argues that the restaurant should not require customers, many of whom are in various stages of food and/or alcohol-induced intoxication by the time their checks arrive, to employ their mental math skills (or lack thereof).

“Why are we left to our own devices to do arithmetic acrobatics when the suggested gratuity represented is not true? The mathematic calculation is misleading. It must end. It needs to change,” said Goldman’s lawyer, Julian Hammond, per Buzzfeed.

The suit is seeking class-action status; Hammond claims the restaurant chain has employed the practice at more than 200 locations over the past four years.

This is not the first time The Cheesecake Factory has taken flack over its “suggested gratuity” figures. Some patrons have taken issue with the chain’s practice of calculating “suggested gratuity” on the post-tax rather than the pre-tax total (customarily, people tip on the pre-tax amount).

One Yelp! reviewer posted a response he received in defense of the practice from a customer service representative, Buzzfeed points out.

The representative allegedly said the decision to suggest gratuity based on the post-tax total was “a decision by our company executives,” and that the practice is employed across all the chain’s locations nationwide. The spokesman added that the company “did review different restaurants in the high casual dining segment and found that…some were calculating pre-tax and some, post-tax.”

If customers are frustrated by the chain’s gratuity suggestions, they are not angry enough to put down their forks or even close their wallets. The company’s revenue has increased every year since 2012, according to 2016’s annual report. From 2012-2016, revenue jumped a combined $467 million (25.8%). From 2015 to 2016, the figure was up $175 million (8.3%) to just under $2.3 billion.

Net income per share rose $0.95 (just over 50%) from 2012-2016, and $0.46 (19.4%) from 2015-2016.

The company has continuously opened more and more locations as well. 208 Cheesecake Factory locations were open nationwide at the end of fiscal 2016—31 more than were operational at the close of fiscal 2012. The chain added 8 locations from fiscal 2015 to fiscal 2016.

The Cheesecake Factory’s stock, however, currently sits at a yearlong low of $44.91/share. It has fallen more than 33% since May 3. Shares dipped by almost 1% after news of the lawsuit broke Friday morning, but has since modulated toward its Thursday closing price of $44.94.

Maybe The Cheesecake Factory would be wise to include a statement on the bill explaining how they calculate suggested gratuity. Then again, the same patrons who fail to notice that they have paid an inadvertently large tip would likely fail to notice the explanation.

Customers should be expected to understand how much they are tipping. At the same time, a diner should be able to assume that a restaurant’s “suggested gratuity” is reasonable.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

China is using quantum cryptography to produce unhackable transmissions

China has proven itself able to use quantum cryptography to produce what are essentially unhackable transmissions.

A Chinese group of researchers called the Quantum Experiments at Space Scale project, or QUESS, launched a quantum cryptography satellite into orbit in August last year.

This satellite has enabled the QUESS project to send quantum-encrypted messages from earth to the satellite — a record-setting distance of 1200 kilometers.

What is quantum cryptography?

But what makes this particular kind of encryption preferable to regular encryption?

Right now, regular encryption is generally considered safe since our computer technology hasn’t reached that level of sophistication. But some scientists predict that when quantum computing does become fully developed, traditional methods of encryption will no longer suffice to keep information secret.

According to the theory, quantum computers will move beyond our current computers, which rely on mathematics. Quantum computers will rely on the physical properties of sub-atomic particles. That’s why they are looking into methods of quantum encryption, which will be able to stand up to attempts to decode transmissions using quantum computers.

The specific technology the QUESS project used is called quantum key distribution, or QKD. Quantum encrypted messages are encrypted using a key generated by sending a random stream of photons between two communicating users. This method of encryption is essentially unbreakable because the behavior of photons is largely random, and because photons cannot be observed without interfering with their behavior and alerting the communicating parties.

You can learn more about quantum cryptography here.

What does this mean for the future of computing?

Not only is quantum cryptography a safe method of communication, it is also a tremendously effective one which is able to handle massive amounts of information. In the future, China envisages a whole network of people using quantum satellites to communicate at unprecedented levels of safety and speed.

QKD will allow people to send secret messages as never before. But many people worry that quantum cryptography will prove a mixed blessing. It will make it harder to hack into encrypted messages, yes. But what if a government needs to decrypt information for purposes of national security? Friends and enemies alike will be protected in this coming age of computers.

Investors bail-out SoundCloud in emergency investment round

Struggling music service SoundCloud just completed a $169.5 million emergency Series F funding round, TechCrunch reports. New York investment bank Raine Group and Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund Temasek led the round, which Tech Crunch called a “do-or-die moment” for SoundCloud. Soundcloud’s investors approved the financing round on Friday morning, just ahead of the deadline.

Last month, the company laid off 40% of its workforce (137 employees), according to TechCrunch. Prior to this most recent investment round, which SoundCloud shareholders approved today, the company was valued at $150 million. In the past, it has been worth as much as $700 million. According to TechCrunch, SoundCloud, privately owned, says it is on pace to generate $100 million a year in revenue.

However, after TechCrunch broke the news concerning the severity of SoundCloud’s woes, musicians and avid music listeners alike offered support, CEO Alex Ljung says. TechCrunch reports that Chance the Rapper, who made his name via Soundcloud, made an effort to save the platform.

“I’ve been moved by the outpouring of commentary around SoundCloud’s unique & crucial role in driving what global culture is today (and what it will become tomorrow),” Ljung wrote. “You’ve told me how, without SoundCloud, there would be a giant gaping void in today’s world of music.”

SoundCloud does occupy a unique niche in the music streaming space. Unlike services like Spotify and Apple Music, which pay artists for the right to use their music, SoundCloud allows artists to upload their own music. The open platform model has helped to make SoundCloud “the world’s largest music and audio platform,” per the company’s website. The service features exclusive content like “breakthrough tracks, raw demos, podcasts and more.” Moreover, it facilitates direct communication between listeners and artists.

Rather than touting its uniqueness as a strength, SoundCloud is trying to compete with the likes of Spotify and Apple Music. According to TechCrunch, the service could recover by “doubl[ing] down on the user-uploaded indie music scene, including garage demos, DJ sets, unofficial remixes and miscellaneous audio you can’t find elsewhere.”

The company could also increase revenue by scaling-up its advertising efforts and redesigning its paid subscription offerings.

SoundCloud employees told TechCrunch that morale at the company under Ljung’s regime was low, particularly following the layoffs. Though the company had planned the layoffs months in advance, it continued to hire new employees right up until the end. As a result, SoundCloud let some people go mere weeks after it had hired them.

Employees, according to TechCrunch, have accused Ljung of a lack of focus and a propensity for excessive revelry, and have noted “inconsistency” in the company’s product direction.

As part of the effort toward recovery, SoundCloud is overhauling its leadership. Kerry Trainor, who headed video-streaming service Vimeo from 2012-2016, will replace Alex Ljung as CEO; Ljung will become chairman of the board. Trainor will make former Vimeo COO Mike Weissman his new CEO at SoundCloud. Eric Wahlfross, who vacated his CTO position in January to become chief product officer, will remain in that role. Artem Fishman, who migrated to SoundCloud from Yahoo! to take Wahlfross’ place, will remain CTO.

In return for its investment, Raine will receive two seats on SoundCloud’s board. Fred Davis, who has worked with services like Spotify and Shazam as a music industry attorney; and Raine’s vice president, Joe Puthenveetil, who manages Raine’s music investments, will take those seats.

TechCrunch says the management shakeup—particularly the addition of the Vimeo veterans— could launch SoundCloud in a promising new direction. Years ago, YouTube was threatening to push Vimeo out of the market, and Trainor revitalized his service by underscoring and developing the aspects that differentiated it from YouTube: chiefly, according to TechCrunch, its emphasis on amateur art film rather than viral videos. SoundCloud might be wise to similarly sharpen its niche in a market of giants, TechCrunch says.

It may, alternatively, be of the service’s best interest to pursue a merger agreement. TechCrunch reported in January that Google had expressed interest in taking over SoundCloud.

Whatever its future, today “SoundCloud remains strong and independent,” Ljung writes.

Featured image via Flickr/Freenerd

Malicious code can now jump from DNA to computers

We now live in a time in which you can use DNA to hack computer systems.

The discovery was made by a group of researchers at the University of Washington made up of both computer science and molecular biology specialists. They focus on how information is encoded not only in computer systems, but also in biological systems, and particularly in the overlap between the two.

The team of researchers originally launched the project because they noticed possible security vulnerabilities in the computer systems used at their university for DNA sequencing and analysis. The lab treated DNA samples were treated as non-threatening input, but the researchers could imagine a way to sneak code into the computer system via DNA. So they decided to hack the DNA sequencing computer system to prove it.

In this particular case, the group of researchers encoded a malicious program onto a synthetic strand of DNA only 176 bases long — a very small amount. Then a computer read and transcribed the DNA into binary code, which could then be read and executed by a computer. The researchers had already purposefully inserted certain vulnerabilities into the computer’s security system so that the computer wasn’t protected against the malicious code. In this case, the malicious code gave the researchers remote control over the infected computer.

The researchers could have simply chosen to infect the system using malware or remote access tools. Instead, they wanted to infiltrate the system using a virus to prove that it is a real vulnerability which warrants consideration.

The group stresses that they don’t believe there is any cause for alarm, as there is little immediate danger. However, they urge us to begin thinking about such possible threats now, before they become immediate threats.

Security concerns aside, the discovery is interesting in scientific terms. This experiment shows us how fully biological and computer code can overlap, and it invites us to imagine a world of fluid boundaries between life and computer.

You can read the whole paper here.

Featured Image via Pixabay

Major Uber shareholder sues former CEO Travis Kalanick

Venture capital firm Benchmark, a prominent Uber investor, is suing the ride-hailing company’s founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick—who, under pressure from Benchmark and other shareholders, resigned as CEO in June amidst a number of scandals—to force him off of the board, Reuters reports via NBC News. The suit claims Kalanick “fraudulently obtained” power of appointment over three of the company’s board seats.

In 2016, the board voted to expand its size from eight to 11 members and gave Kalanick unilateral power to appoint the additional members. He used that power to install himself on the board following his resignation. In the suit, Benchmark, which controls 20% of the board’s voting power, says it would never have voted to allow Kalanick to fill the empty board positions had it been aware of his “gross mismanagement and other misconduct at Uber.”

The suit cites the mishandling of a rape case in which an Uber driver in India was the defendant; Kalanick’s alleged knowledge that an Uber engineer had stolen trade secrets from Google; and Kalanick’s purported creation of a “pervasive culture of gender discrimination and sexual harassment”  as specific examples of that “misconduct.”  The document also alludes to “a host of other inappropriate and unethical directives issued by Kalanick.”

The suit says Kalanick “intentionally concealed” that misconduct from the board so that he could secure the power of appointment for the three open board seats. The document claims Kalanick intends to use that power of appointment to “pack Uber’s Board with loyal allies in an effort to insulate his prior conduct from scrutiny.”

Benchmark invested in a fledgling Uber in 2011 and still owns 13% of the company. Based on privately-held Uber’s $69 billion market capitalization as of 2016, that stake is worth almost $9 billion.

Bill Gurley, Benchmark’s most senior active partner, led the firm’s original investment in Uber, served on the startup’s board for years, and was a mentor and confidant to Kalanick. However, amidst the federal investigation sparked by the sexual harassment allegations, Gurley led the effort to oust Kalanick from the CEO position. On June 21, one day after Kalanick’s resignation became public, Gurley resigned from Uber’s board.

Per CNBC, the suit surprised many investors around Silicon Valley; one called Benchmark’s move toward litigation “the nuclear option.”

Kalanick has released a statement saying the lawsuit “completely without merit and riddled with lies and false allegations,” and accusing Benchmark of  “acting in its own best interests contrary to the interests of Uber.” The statement calls the suit a “transparent attempt to deprive Travis Kalanick of his rights as a founder and shareholder.”

Erik Gordon, an entrepreneurship expert at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, says the maligned former executive has a point with regard to Benchmark’s so-called selfishness.  “Even if you assume that Kalanick acted outrageously improperly, where was Benchmark when he was acting out?” Gordon said, per Reuters. ”Did Benchmark fight tooth and nail against Kalanick’s conduct, or were they willing to put up with it as long as the company’s valuation, and the value of their investment in it, skyrocketed?”

The Benchmark suit is just one of several challenges Uber is facing. Following former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s investigation into the aforementioned sexism allegations, Uber lost several of its top executives. Moreover, many important figures in the company’s hierarchy are making their own decisions to step down. On Thursday, Ryan Graves, Uber’s first employee, announced intentions to step down from his role as head of operations and concentrate on his position as a board member. (According to Reuters, Graves was a steadfast supporter of Kalanick.)

Now, Reuters says, Uber’s leadership consists of a mere 14 people. The effort to fill the vacuum at the top of the company continues, but co-founder and chairman Garrett Camp wrote in a letter to shareholders that Kalanick is “not returning as CEO.”

Uber is also juggling a lawsuit from Alphabet’s Waymo over the aforementioned engineer who allegedly stole trade secrets from Waymo.

Featured image via Flickr/Tech Crunch

Facebook is making moves in the realm of video

In an effort to break into the video entertainment market, Facebook is introducing a new video platform called Watch. The platform will be made available to a select group of Facebook users today. Everyone else will have to wait to try it.

In making this move, Facebook is most likely looking to open up new sources of revenue. If Facebook Watch catches on, users will spend more time on Facebook watching TV-length videos. That means that users will be exposed to more ads, thus generating more revenue for Facebook. And users won’t be required to pay for a subscription.

According to Facebook, Watch will be special among streaming video platforms because it can make TV-watching more social. Users will be able to comment on videos and to see what videos their friends are watching and commenting on. Each user will be watching alongside all two billion other Facebook users.

Watch will have two main components: a watchlist and a discovery section. The discovery section will be a feed of videos curated for you based on your Facebook profile. It will also suggest videos to you based on your friends’ activity on Facebook. It will include subdivisions such as “Most talked about” and “What’s making people laugh,” which is made up of videos that many people responded to with “Haha.”

Although Facebook has a huge user base, it still has ways to go in the realm of online video. Netflix, Youtube, Amazon, and Hulu have already come to dominate the market. Users may be reluctant to migrate their TV-watching time from those services over to Facebook Watch.

Facebook will offer a wide variety of programming on Watch. Some shows will focus on direct communication with their audiences through social media. Other shows might have long narrative arcs, like conventional TV shows.

So far, the list of programs available on the platform includes Gabby BernsteinNas Daily, Returning the Favor, and Kitchen Little, among others. Additionally, Facebook has permission from Major League Baseball to broadcast one game live per week.

Facebook funded these early programs in order to “seed the system,” but it does not intend to continue to fund new shows for very long. Eventually, anyone will be able to post videos to Watch, but they won’t get any money from Facebook to get going. By then, Facebook plans to take 45% of ad revenue from shows on Watch.

You can read Facebook’s statement on the launch of Watch here.

Featured Image via Pixabay