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Yesterday — July 8th 2020Your RSS feeds

Amazon US sellers will have to display their name and address starting Sept. 1, 2020

By Sarah Perez

Amazon on Wednesday informed its U.S. sellers they will soon have to display their business name and address on their Amazon.com seller profile page. For individual sellers, this will include the individual’s name and address. A similar system is already in place across Amazon’s stores in Europe, Japan, and Mexico, due to local laws. Amazon says it’s making the change to ensure there’s a more consistent baseline of seller information across its platform, so online shoppers can make informed buying decisions.

The change, of course, is not just about transparency.

Amazon’s U.S. marketplace is its oldest and largest, with 461,000 active U.S. sellers out of its 2.2 million worldwide actives. In total, there are 8.6 million registered sellers worldwide and Amazon adds around a million more per year, according to Marketplace Pulse data.

Amazon’s marketplace also accounts for around half the retailer’s sales. But as it’s grown, it’s been afflicted by a variety of issues and fraud, including problems with counterfeit goods.

Though Amazon has long been accused of avoiding these issues, it’s more recently pledged to spend billions to address the problem. Amazon even inserted itself into legal battles with fraudulent sellers and counterfeiters over the past couple of years, including those with designers and accessory makers, as well as others participating in the fake reviews economy.

Last year, Amazon also launched a set of tools for brands and manufacturers under its “Project Zero” initiative, which work to proactively combat counterfeiting.

And just this April, Amazon announced it was piloting a new system aimed at verifying the identity of third-party sellers over video-conferencing — a shift from its in-person verifications that had to stop due to the coronavirus outbreak. Through this system, Amazon checks that the individual seller’s ID matches the person and the documents they shared with their application, among other things.

Now Amazon is telling its U.S. sellers their business name and address will need to be on their profile by September 1, 2020.

The change will help businesses fighting fraud or taking legal action against sellers over counterfeit goods. Consumers will also have an address in case the product has caused harm and they need to contact the seller or even initiative legal action of their own.

Once the new system goes live in the U.S., the seller’s storefront on Amazon.com will display an expanded set of information about their business.

A photo from Marketplace Pulse shows how this may look, with a comparison of a U.K. seller page with its current U.S. counterpart:

 

Image Credits: Marketplace Pulse

In a statement, Amazon says the change is about consistently, avoiding the topic of online fraud.

“Over the years, we have developed many ways for sellers to share more about their business, including through features like the seller profile pages, ‘Store’ pages for brand owners, and Handmade ‘Maker Profile’ pages,” an Amazon spokesperson said. “These features help customers learn more about sellers’ businesses and their products. Beginning September 1, we will also display sellers’ business name and address on their Amazon.com seller profile page to ensure there is a consistent baseline of seller information to help customers make informed shopping decisions,” they said.

Amazon Fire TV now pulls in live TV content from Sling TV, YouTube TV and Hulu + Live TV

By Sarah Perez

Amazon is upgrading its Fire TV’s live TV experience through new integrations with several live TV streaming services, including Sling TV, YouTube TV, and Hulu + Live TV. Live content from these services will now appear within key areas with the Fire TV user interface, including the Fire TV’s Live tab and Channel Guide, making Fire TV feel even more like a cable TV replacement than before.

Already, Amazon Fire TV had offered integrations with nearly 20 other apps in a similar fashion, including live TV apps like Philo and Pluto TV, as well as its own Prime Video Channels.

But the addition of Sling TV, YouTube TV and Hulu + Live TV brings in the three largest and most popular apps among cord cutters who are paying for a live TV experience. Sling TV has 2.31 million subscribers; YouTube TV has over 2 million; and Hulu + Live TV has 3.3 million.

Live content from these apps will be found within three main sections: the Live tab, the “On Now” rows and the multi-app Channel Guide.

Streaming live TV over the internet has become a more popular option for cord cutters over the years, as it offers a less expensive way to have a cable TV-like experience. Unfortunately, that gap has been closing in more recent months, as live TV users have been subjected to continual price increases as the services expanded their channel lineups.

However, many live TV customers remain because even with the increases, it can still be slightly less than cable and offers more flexibility — like working across platforms and not tied to a cable box.

This trend toward live content has also been seen on Fire TV, Amazon says.

The Live tab has become the second-most-visited destination on the Fire TV interface after the Home screen, due to its integrations of live content, the company noted. In addition, live TV streaming apps on Fire TV have seen the total time spent in app and active customers more than double, on average, since Fire TV added its live TV discovery integrations.

Image Credits: Amazon

“Fire TV is hugely popular among Philo fans. Since integrating with Amazon’s live streaming discovery features, the number of active Philo users is up nearly 2.5x on Fire TV,” said Philo CEO Andrew McCollum, whose TV streaming app was one of the earlier additions to Fire TV.

To use new integrations, you’ll first need to log into the streaming app you subscribe to with your current account information. You can then access the app’s live content across the Live Tab, which organizes live content in the familiar Netflix-like style of scrollable rows. Here, there are rows for things like “Live Sports” and “Live News,” plus content from your subscriptions’ channels.

From here, you can hop into the Channel Guide, which offers the more traditional grid guide, similar to cable TV.

This format is proving popular among live TV service subscribers.

On Monday, for example, Roku introduced its own Live TV Channel Guide, accessible via a new tile, which allows Roku users to browse the free live and linear content Roku offers in a similar way.

Amazon’s Fire TV platform, however, has the perk of Alexa integration.

That means users can ask Alexa to open the Channel Guide or even change the channel, by saying “Alexa, tune to [name of channel],” for example. This works via built-in Alexa on the Fire TV Cube, via a paired Echo device, or by using the Fire TV’s Alexa Voice Remote, depending on your setup.

“We’re excited to welcome Sling TV, Hulu + Live TV, and YouTube TV into our integrated suite of Live TV discovery features,” said Sandeep Gupta, VP of Fire TV, in a statement. “We believe the future of Connected TV is one that brings live content forward, simplifies the streaming and OTT landscape, and enables customers to discover the programs they want to watch with ease,” he added.

Sling TV’s integration began rolling out earlier this year, Amazon clarifies, but is being officially announced today.

YouTube TV will be available starting today, and Hulu + Live TV will become available in the coming weeks.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Amazon adds ‘hands-free’ Alexa to its Alexa mobile app

By Sarah Perez

Amazon is making it easier for mobile users to access its Alexa virtual assistant while on the go. The company announced today it’s making it possible to use Alexa “hands free” from within its Alexa mobile app for iOS and Android, meaning customers will be able to use Alexa to make lists, play music, control their smart home devices and more, without having to touch their phone.

Customers can first command their phone’s digital assistant, like Siri or Google Assistant, to launch the Alexa app to get started with the hands-free experience. They can then speak to Alexa as they would normally, saying something like “Alexa, set the thermostat to 72,” “Alexa, remind me to call Jen at 12 pm tomorrow,” “Alexa, what’s the weather?” and so on. Customers can even request to stream music directly within the Alexa app itself, if they choose.

Before, users would have to tap the blue Alexa button at the bottom of the screen before Alexa would listen.

Once the wake word is detected, an animated blue line will appear at the bottom of the app’s screen to indicate Alexa is streaming the request to the cloud.

Amazon had previously integrated the Alexa experience into its other apps, including its flagship shopping app and Amazon Music. In the latter, it rolled out a hands-free Alexa option back in 2018, allowing users to control playback or ask for music without having to tap. But the Alexa app has remained a tap-to-talk experience until now, which doesn’t quite mesh with how Alexa works on most other devices, like Amazon Echo speakers and screens, for example.

After updating the app, customers will be presented with the option to enable the hands-free detection and can then begin to use the feature. A setting is also being made available that will allow users to turn the feature off at any time.

Amazon notes the feature will only work when the phone is unlocked and the Alexa app is open on the screen. It won’t be able able to launch Alexa from a locked phone or when the app is closed and off the screen, running in the background. (As we don’t have the app update yet ourselves, we are unable to directly confirm this detail.)

To use the new feature, customers will have to first update their Alexa app to the latest version on the Apple App Store or Google Play store.

Amazon says the feature is rolling out over the next several days to users worldwide, so you may not see the option immediately.

Amazon Prime Video finally launches user profiles to all customers worldwide

By Sarah Perez

Amazon’s Prime Video is finally adding a feature that’s long since become a standard for streaming video services: user profiles. With profiles, Prime Video users will have access to their own Watchlist, personalized recommendations, and they’ll be able to track their own viewing progress, similar to rival services, like Netflix.

Customers can create up to 6 profiles for their household members, including 1 primary profile associated with the Amazon account, plus 5 additional profiles, which can be a mix of adult and kids’ profiles.

The new profiles will be first available in the Prime Video app on iOS, Android, Fire tablet (Gen 10 and higher), and the Fire TV Prime Video app, in addition to the Prime Video apps built for other living room devices.

Prime Video profiles were spotted earlier this year by NDTV, which led to some erroneous reporting that the feature had officially launched to all. In actuality, Amazon first rolled out profiles to its customers in India and Africa. It’s now making it accessible to all worldwide, including the U.S.

Image Credits: Amazon

For any profile set as a “Kids” profile, the service will only include age-appropriate content aimed at those 12 years old or younger. The search results and search suggestions will also be filtered to only show Kids titles. Children with a Kids profile won’t be able to make purchases, either.

Meanwhile, any adult profile will be able to play all the entitled Prime Video content form the primary account, including content that has been purchased or rented, Prime Video titles, Prime Video Channels, and Live content.

However, if the adult wants to set up parental controls on their account so this content is not accessible on a shared device, like the living room TV, they can do so. In this case, viewing restrictions will be enabled but parents can enter a PIN code to access the content, as they can now.

Parents can also continue to block children from making purchases from an adult profile by enabling Purchase Restrictions under Prime Video Settings, which will also require a PIN to complete the transaction.

The one exception to how child profiles work is on mobile devices. The Prime Video app will allow a child profile to access the adult profile’s downloads on mobile — a decision Amazon made because it didn’t want to restrict access to downloads if the device was taken offline, making it impossible to profile switch.

In addition, for customers that have set up wallet-sharing in their Amazon Household settings, Prime Video will automatically create profiles for those users. This can be disabled from the Manage your profiles page, but once profile sharing is off, it can’t be re-enabled.

The lack of user profiles have been, to date, one of the bigger oversights with Amazon’s Prime Video streaming service, first launched in 2011, and a much-requested feature for years. Today, streaming services don’t just compete on their content library but on how well they can surface the titles from that library by way of personalized recommendations and other tools that keep a user’s favorites and interests easily accessible. But Prime Video ignored this need, forcing all members of a household to share a single account. That choice told customers that even Amazon itself didn’t consider Prime Video a true competitor to other top services, like Netflix, Hulu and Disney+.

It’s finally correcting this matter, but only as the streaming market crowds with new offerings, like recently launched HBO Max and NBCU’s forthcoming Peacock, for example.

Amazon cautions that user profiles are being launched today, but not everyone will see them immediately. The feature is rolling out in phases, so you may see them arrive in a few days’ time, if not today.

R&D Roundup: Tech giants unveil breakthroughs at computer vision summit

By Devin Coldewey

Computer vision summit CVPR has just (virtually) taken place, and like other CV-focused conferences, there are quite a few interesting papers. More than I could possibly write up individually, in fact, so I’ve collected the most promising ones from major companies here.

Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft all shared papers at the conference — and others too, I’m sure — but I’m sticking to the big hitters for this column. (If you’re interested in the papers deemed most meritorious by attendees and judges, the nominees and awards are listed here.)

Microsoft

Redmond has the most interesting papers this year, in my opinion, because they cover several nonobvious real-life needs.

One is documenting that shoebox we or perhaps our parents filled with old 3x5s and other film photos. Of course there are services that help with this already, but if photos are creased, torn, or otherwise damaged, you generally just get a high-resolution scan of that damage. Microsoft has created a system to automatically repair such photos, and the results look mighty good.

Image Credits: Google

The problem is as much identifying the types of degradation a photo suffers from as it is fixing them. The solution is simple, write the authors: “We propose a novel triplet domain translation network by leveraging real photos along with massive synthetic image pairs.” Amazing no one tried it before!

‘Westworld’ creators are developing a ‘Fallout’ TV series for Amazon

By Anthony Ha

“Fallout,” the post-apocalyptic video game franchise published by Bethesda Softworks, is being turned into a TV series by Kilter Films, the production company of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy.

The series, which began in 1997, takes place in an alternate future with a retro tone, after a nuclear war has turned most of the world into a wasteland. The games have continued in the two decades since, most recently with the release of “Fallout 76.”

The series — currently in development, with a series commitment from Amazon Studios — is part of Nolan and Joy’s overall deal with streaming service, which they signed last year for a reported $150 million.

The husband-and-wife team is best known for creating HBO’s new version of “Westworld” (based on a Michael Crichton film from the 1970s). They’re also working on an adaptation of William Gibson’s novel “The Peripheral.”

“Fallout is one of the greatest game series of all time,” Nolan and Joy said in a statement. “Each chapter of this insanely imaginative story has cost us countless hours we could have spent with family and friends. So we’re incredibly excited to partner with Todd Howard and the rest of the brilliant lunatics at Bethesda to bring this massive, subversive, and darkly funny universe to life with Amazon Studios.”

 

The Station: Amazoox, TuSimple seeks $250M and the next e-scooter battleground

By Kirsten Korosec

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every Saturday in your inbox.

Hi friends and first-time readers. Welcome back to The Station, a newsletter dedicated to all the present and future ways people and packages move from Point A to Point B. I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch.

Remember please reach out and email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, offer up opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Typically this space is where I philosophize about a specific event and emerging transportation trend. This week, let’s all take a pause to remember Jessi Combs, who was officially and posthumously declared to hold the fastest land speed record by a woman.

The Guinness Book of World Records certified this week the 522.783 mph land speed record that Combs achieved August 27, 2019 in the Alvord Desert in Oregon. Combs died after her vehicle crashed during that run. It’s the first time a new record has been set in this category in more than 40 years. Kitty O’Neil held the record with her 512.7 mph run set back in 1976.

Here’s to you Jessi, the fastest woman on earth.

Did anyone have trouble keeping up with all the deals, virtual automotive reveals and policy decisions this week? Yeah. Me too. Let’s get to it. Vamos.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

A couple of cities are emerging as new battlegrounds for the shared e-scooter market. New York City is a biggie.

This week, the New York City Council approved a bill that will require the New York Department of Transportation to create a pilot program for the operation of shared electric scooters in the city. The DOT now has until October 15, 2020 to issue a request for proposals to participate in a shared e-scooter pilot program.

The pilot program must launch by March 1, 2021. The NY council will continue to work with DOT on determining where to set up the pilot (this is the important part). If the pilot program limits the service area it could prove a failure, several e-scooter companies and advocates told me. We know it won’t include Manhattan. That leaves four other boroughs.

Just about every e-scooter company — and a number of other less known players — are planning to apply for the permit.  The next nine months promises a lot of lobbying activity. These firms are already busy, according to our sources. Stay tuned!

The NY city council also approved two laws about the use of privately owned electric bikes and scooters.

Meanwhile, Apple has finally added a new biking feature to Maps. The newest version of iOS is bringing a host of new features to Maps, including a dedicated cycling option that will optimize paths for bicyclists and even let users know if the route includes challenging hills. Apple Maps has included public transit and walking in previous iterations. But the biking option has been the most requested, according to Apple senior director Stacey Lysik.

Deal of the week

money the station

Amazoooooxxxxx. Zamazon? It’s a thing now. In case you missed it, Amazon acquired Zoox.

There have been rumors, speculation and reports about the fate of self-driving vehicle startup for months now. The WSJ had the first report in May that Amazon was in talks to acquire the self-driving company.

The official announcement, which was issued Friday morning, didn’t reveal much about the terms of the deal except that Zoox CEO Aicha Evans and co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson will continue to lead Zoox as a standalone business.

As you might expect, there was nary a financial figure in sight. The Financial Times put the deal at $1.2 billion and The Information pegged it at “more than $1 billion.” Either way, the acquisition price was well below the $3.2 billion valuation Zoox had achieved two years before.

It wasn’t a secret that Zoox was struggling to raise a large enough round. As I’ve stated numerous times before, Zoox has the kind of ambitions that require a mountain of capital. And by mountain, I mean far north of $1 billion. The company isn’t just building the full self-driving stack — essentially the suite of hardware and software that replaces a human driver. It took on the design and development of a new bidirectional electric vehicle with no steering wheel  and it plans to operate a ride-hailing service as well.

The upshot: Zoox didn’t have a lot of options. Many automakers, Tier 1 suppliers and tech companies had already formed their various alliances and partnerships, leaving Zoox on its own. Amazon certainly has the resources to help it hit its lofty goals. That is, IF Amazon doesn’t change those goals for Zoox. For now, Amazon is publicly sticking to Zoox’ mission to build and operate a fleet of robotaxis.

And we can expect more Amazon flexing in the transportation industry. The e-commerce announced this week a $2 billion Climate Pledge Fund to invest in sustainable technologies and services that will help the company reach its commitment to be net-zero carbon in its operations by 2040. Some of that coin will go towards automation and transportation.

amazon zoox

Other deals that got our attention ….

Self-driving truck startup TuSimple has hired investment bank Morgan Stanley to help it raise $250 million, multiple sources told me. Morgan Stanley recently sent potential investors an informational packet, which I also viewed, that provides a snapshot of the company and an overview of its business model, as well as a pitch on why the company is poised to succeed. TuSimple has raised about $298 million with a valuation of more than $1 billion. Its backers include Sina, operator of China’s biggest microblogging site Weibo, Hong Kong-based investment firm Composite Capital, Nvidia, UPS, CDH Investments, Lavender Capital and Tier 1 supplier Mando Corporation.

ADAM CogTech, an Israeli automotive software startup, raised $2 million from Mobilion Ventures, the company said. Mobilion is an early-stage fund that invests in smart mobility, focusing on Israeli and global after-market innovation.

Amazon’s $575 million investment into UK food delivery startup Deliveroo has been cleared by the country’s competition regulator. The investment, which was announced more than a year ago, gave Amazon a 16% stake in Deliveroo. Now that CMA has provisionally cleared the deal, it is open for public comments until July 10. A final decision is expected August 6.

Cazoo, the British online used car marketplace, raised £25 million at a valuation in excess of $1 billion. Draper Esprit joined existing investors in the round, a group that includes DMG Ventures and General Catalyst. Cazoo has raised more than £200 million to date.

DriveU.auto, an Israeli startup that spun out of video transmission technology company LiveU, came out of stealth with $4 million in new funding. The startup has developed a connectivity platform for teleoperations. The funding round was led by RAD group co-founder Zohar Zisapel and included participation from Two Lanterns Venture Partners, Yigal Jacoby, Kaedan Capital and other private investors. Francisco Partners is an existing shareholder.

Lucid Motors gave up majority ownership to Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund in exchange for the $1.3 billion investment it closed last year, according to information disclosed in a new lawsuit, the Verge reported. Wired Middle East previously reported the PIF had taken a 67% stake. However, this is the first time an acknowledgment from the company has been made public.

Shift Technologies, an online used car marketplace, is in talks to merge with blank-check company Insurance Acquisition Corp., Bloomberg reported. Shift is aiming to be valued at more than $500 million in the deal.

Third Wave Automation, a startup developing autonomous forklift technology, emerged from stealth with $15 million in equity financing, VentureBeat reported.

Volkswagen is in talks to buy Europcar Mobility Group, the French car rental company that has a market capitalization of 390 million euros ($441 million) and net debt as of more than 1 billion euros, Reuters reported.

Truckin’

the station semi truck

Trucks have popped up a lot this week, so I figured, heck let’s dig in a bit. The big trendy discussion is about how robotaxis are OUT and autonomous Class 8 trucks are IN. This move towards trucking has actually been happening for awhile now.

The niche subcategory in the autonomous vehicle industry was rather empty in 2015 when TuSimple was founded. Then self-driving truck startup Otto came along. Uber’s 2016 acquisition of Otto certainly brought some attention to the sector. But a number of other startups had also thrown their respective hats into the trucking ring, including Embark and the now defunct Starsky Robotics. Today, this sub-industry includes Ike, Kodiak Robotics and Waymo .

This week, Amazon-backed Aurora received some press for its “shift” to trucking based off of an interview with co-founder Sterling Anderson during The Information’s Autonomous Vehicle Summit.

Let’s be clear, the company has been publicly talking about trucks since at least October 2019. The notable bit is that Anderson shared more about its work with trucks and was clearly bullish on the potential in the marketplace. Together, his comments suggest that the company is prioritizing the development of autonomous trucks over cars.

But the company designed a full self-driving stack meant to have a variety of applications, not just passenger cars. In a tweet after the interview, Anderson summarized its whole approach.

We’re compelled by a product path that goes from middle mile to last mile to mobility services.

If you can swing this technically, it allows for an elegant transition from the largest market (today) with the best unit economics and lowest level of service requirements to smaller, but rapidly growing markets with more challenging unit economics and level of service needs”

In other truckin’ news …

The California Air Resources Board adopted a new rule to phase out the most polluting vehicles on the road today. The rule will require truck manufacturers to transition from diesel trucks and vans to electric zero-emission trucks beginning in 2024. By 2045, every new truck sold in California will be zero-emission.

Russian-Finnish company Zyfra is using 5G technology to replace Wi-Fi/mesh networks used for autonomous mining dump trucks, CNET’s Roadshow reports.

Notable reads and other tidbits

AVs, ride-hailing, electric vehicles and more!

Autonomous vehicles …

Didi Chuxing said Saturday (today) that its on-demand robotaxi service will start picking up riders in Shanghai, China. Passengers may start requesting on-demand rides for free on autonomous vehicles within a designated open-traffic area that covers Shanghai’s Automobile Exhibition Center, the local business districts, subway stations and hotels in downtown Shanghai, the company said in a press release.

Lyft is using data collected from drivers on its ride-hailing app to accelerate the development of self-driving cars. Lyft’s Level 5 self-driving car program is using the data to build 3D maps, understand human driving patterns and improve simulation tests. The program is taking data from select vehicles in its Express Drive program, which provides rental cars and SUVs to drivers on its platform as an alternative to options like long-term leasing

Waymo and Volvo Car Group announced Thursday an “exclusive” partnership to integrate Waymo’s self-driving software into a new electric vehicle designed for ride-hailing. Not a ton of detail about the deal or what “exclusive” means. We know that Volvo and Uber still have a partnership. The deal with Waymo involves integrating its self-driving stack into an “all-new mobility-focused electric vehicle platform for ride hailing services.”  The partnership also includes other subsidiaries under Volvo Car Group, including electric performance brand Polestar and Lynk & Co. International, a point that Volvo Car Group CTO Henrik Green specifically noted in his prepared statement.

Mercedes-Benz and Nvidia announced a partnership to bring “software-defined” vehicles to market. The automaker’s next-generation vehicles will have a software-centric computing architecture based on Nvidia’s Drive AGX Orin computer system-on-a-chip. The underlying architecture will be standard in Mercedes vehicles, starting sometime toward the end of 2024.

It’s electric …

Apple has added a routing feature to Maps that’s designed for electric vehicle owners. The EV routing feature, which will be available in the newest version of iOS, will show charging stations compatible to a user’s electric vehicle along their route. TechCrunch’s Romain Dillet got a bit more information on this feature. He tells me that users will be able to enter their car model in the app, which will provide stops. The user can tap on the stops to see if the charging station is free or not. On sidenote, Apple is also releasing a feature that will prompt you to raise your phone and scan buildings across the street to refine your location. This feature is based on Look Around, a Google Street View-inspired feature that lets you look around as if you were walking down the street.

Arrival revealed a zero-emission bus, the next step in the company to become a major electric transportation company, the Verge reported.

Ars Technica digs into one Ohio city’s plan to get more people to buy electric cars. Hint: it worked.

Lordstown Motors unveiled an electric pickup truck prototype with four in-wheel hub motors and a few other features all aimed squarely at attracting contractors and other buyers in the commercial market. The Ohio startup didn’t get too deep into the details about the electric pickup truck known as Endurance. But we know a few more bits such as a $52,500 base price and some partnerships.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter that September 15 is the “tentative date” for the “Tesla Shareholder Meeting & Battery Day,” which will include the usual shareholder meeting as well as a tour of the automaker’s cell production system for the batteries that provide the power for its vehicles.

Speaking of Tesla … the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened a preliminary investigation into allegations of failing touchscreens on Tesla’s older Model S vehicles.

Ride-hailing …

Lyft has agreed to settle a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice that alleges the ridesharing company discriminated against disabled people — specifically those who use foldable wheelchairs or walkers.

Miscellaneous …

Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs plans to spin out some of its smart city ideas into separate companies focused on mass timber construction, affordable electrification and planning tools optimized with machine learning and computation design, CEO Daniel Doctoroff said at Collision from Home conference, VentureBeat reported.

Ford’s Michigan Central is collaborating with Brooklyn-based Newlab to launch two “Innovation Studios” focused on solving complex transportation industry problems related to connectivity, autonomy and electrification. A corporate studio sponsored by Ford will kick off this summer to address macro mobility issues. A second civic studio will follow focusing on more immediate mobility issues in the neighborhoods around Michigan Central Station. In 2018, Ford acquired 1.2 million square feet in Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, including the historic Michigan Central Station, with plans to establish a new mobility innovation district called Michigan Central. The first work spaces are expected to open within Michigan Central in 2022.

GM turned to 3D printing for a C8 Corvette prototype. In the end, 75% of the vehicle was 3D printed, Car and Driver reported.

See ya’ll next week!

Daily Crunch: Amazon buys self-driving startup Zoox

By Anthony Ha

Amazon makes an autonomous driving acquisition, Microsoft closes its retail stores and health insurance startup Oscar raises $225 million.

Here’s your Daily Crunch for June 26, 2020.

1. Amazon to acquire autonomous driving startup Zoox

According to Amazon’s announcement, Zoox will continue to exist as a standalone business, with current CEO Aicha Evans continuing in her role, along with CTO and co-founder Jesse Levinson. The Financial Time reports that the deal is worth $1.2 billion.

Amazon has been working on its own autonomous vehicle technology projects, including its last-mile delivery robots. The company has also invested in autonomous driving startup Aurora, and it has tested self-driving trucks powered by self-driving freight startup Embark.

2. Microsoft is closing all of its retail stores for good

As other retailers begin the slow process of reopening, Microsoft has announced that it will be permanently shutting down the vast majority of its retail stores. The remaining locations — in cities like London, New York City and Sydney, as well as on Microsoft’s Redmond campus — will become “Microsoft Experience Centers,” rather than standard retail stores.

3. Oscar’s health insurance platform nabs another $225 million

Oscar’s insurance customers have the distinction of being among the most active users of telemedicine in the United States, according to the company. Around 30% of patients with insurance plans from Oscar have used telemedical services, versus only 10% of the country as a whole.

4. Luckin Coffee will unluckin’ly delist from Nasdaq following fraud allegations

An investigation by the company’s board found that Luckin had inflated sales by essentially having affiliated companies buy large orders of coffees that never got delivered. And of course, that’s fraud when you put it on a 10-K form and submit it to the SEC.

(Also, it’s very important to me that you know: I did not write this headline.)

5. Four perspectives: Will Apple trim App Store fees?

Given its massive reach, is it time for Apple to change its terms? Will the company allow its revenue share to go gently into that good night, or does it have enough resources to keep new legislation at bay and mollify an increasingly vocal community of software developers? (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Google finally brings group calling to the Nest Hub Max

Video chat has long been one of the chief selling points of smart screens like the Amazon Echo Show and Google’s Nest Hub Max (the regular Hub doesn’t have a camera). But until yesterday, the latter only offered users the option to have one-on-one calls.

7. Amazon really just renamed a Seattle stadium ‘Climate Pledge Arena’

One more Amazon story to close out the week: The company is buying the rights to Seattle’s KeyArena, an aging stadium currently under redevelopment. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said, “Instead of calling it Amazon Arena, we’re naming it Climate Pledge Arena as a regular reminder of the urgent need for climate action.”

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Amazon to acquire autonomous driving startup Zoox

By Darrell Etherington

Amazon has announced that it will acquire Zoox, a self-driving startup founded in 2014, which has raised nearly $1 billion in funding and which aims to develop autonomous driving technology, including vehicles, for the purposes of providing a full-stack solution for ride-hailing.

Zoox will continue to exist as a standalone business, according to Amazon’s announcement, with current CEO Aicha Evans continuing in her role, as well as CTO and co-founder Jesse Levinson. Their overall company mission will also remain the same, the release notes. The Financial Time reports that the deal is worth $1.2 billion.

The Wall Street Journal had reported at the end of May that Amazon was looking at Zoox as a potential acquisition target, and that the deal had reached the advanced stages.

Zoox has chosen one of the most expensive possible paths in the autonomous driving industry, seeking to build a fit-for-purpose self-driving passenger vehicle from the ground up, along with the software and AI end to provide its autonomous driving capabilities. Zoox has done some notable cost-cutting in the past year, and it brought in CEO Evans in early 2019 from Intel, likely with an eye toward leveraging her experience to help the company move toward commercialization.

With a deep-pocketed parent like Amazon, Zoox should gain the runway it needs to keep up with its primary rival — Waymo, which originated as Google’s self-driving car project, and which counts Google owner Alphabet as its corporate owner.

Amazon has been working on its own autonomous vehicle technology projects, including its last-mile delivery robots, which are six-wheeled sidewalk-treading bots designed to carry small packages to customer homes. The company has also invested in autonomous driving startup Aurora, and it has tested self-driving trucks powered by self-driving freight startup Embark.

The Zoox acquisition is specifically aimed at helping the startup “bring their vision of autonomous ride-hailing to reality,” according to Amazon, so this doesn’t look to be immediately focused on Amazon’s logistics operations for package delivery. But Zoox’s ground-up technology, which includes developing zero-emission vehicles built specifically for autonomous use, could easily translate to that side of Amazon’s operations.

Meanwhile, if Zoox really does remain on course for passenger ride-hailing, that could open up a whole new market for Amazon — one which would put it head-to-head with Uber and Lyft once the autonomous driving technology matures.

Amazon launches ‘Smart Stores’ in India to win mom and pop

By Manish Singh

For Amazon, it’s never too late to try something in India. The e-commerce giant is exploring ways to further spread its tentacles in the largely offline, technology-free neighborhood stores in one of its key overseas markets.

The American firm’s latest attempt is called “Smart Stores.” For this India-specific program, Amazon is providing physical stores with software to maintain a digital log of the inventory they have in the shop, and supplying them with a QR code.

When consumers walk to the store and scan this QR code with the Amazon app, they see everything the shop has to offer, as well as any discounts and past reviews from customers. They can select the items and pay for it using Amazon Pay. Amazon Pay in India supports a range of payments services including the popular UPI, and debit and credit cards.

Amazon told TechCrunch that it piloted this project two months ago and is formally launching it now after seeing the early feedback. More than 10,000 shops, ranging from mom and pop stores to big retail chains including Big Bazaar, MedPlus and More Supermarkets have deployed the company’s system, it said.

The company said these “digital storefronts” are a win-win for both consumers and shop owners. Consumers do not need to stay inside the store and worry about handling plastic cards or cash — that is, to maintain social distance  — and they will also get rewards for using Amazon Pay.

Customers also get the ability to use Amazon’s Pay Later feature that enables them to pay for their purchases in installments. All of this means that merchants are seeing increased footfalls and improving their sales. Amazon said it is not taking any cut from merchants or customers.

The company has been aggressively engaging with physical stores in India in recent quarters, using their vast presence in the nation to expand its delivery network and warehouses and even just relying on their inventory to drive sales.

The company’s push in the physical retails, which accounts for the vast majority of sales in India, comes as Facebook, Flipkart, Google, and Reliance Jio Platforms, which recently raised $15.2 billion, also race to capture this market. On Thursday, Google said it plans to offer loans to merchants in India by the end of this year.

These mom-and-pop stores offer all kinds of items, are family-run and pay low wages and little to no rent. Since they are ubiquitous — there are more than 30 million neighborhood stores in India, according to industry estimates — no retail giant can offer a faster delivery. And on top of that, their economics are often better than most of their digital counterparts.

Local is new global business plan. #O2O will be mainstream faster than "online retail" in India. https://t.co/NHIeFr2nJ6

— Vijay Shekhar Sharma (@vijayshekhar) April 23, 2020

“Amazon Pay is already accepted at millions of local shops, we are trying to make customers’ buying experience at local shops even more convenient and safe through Smart Stores. Further, through EMIs, bank offers and rewards, we seek to make these purchases more affordable and rewarding for customers, and help increase sales for merchants.” said Mahendra Nerurkar, chief executive of Amazon Pay, in a statement.

Amazon’s tardy but increasingly growing interest in the Indian physical retails market is not surprising. The company has often taken longer than most firms in India to study the market and then adds its own spin to tackle those challenges. Another recent case in point: Its foray into food delivery market in India.

Despite ubiquitous interest in the physical retails market, one thing that that no company is talking about yet is just how they plan to commercially incentivize these merchants.

The technology solutions built by these companies is unarguably driving sales for them, but a significant number of these small businesses take cash and under report their revenues to pay less tax. That incentive is multifold of any other incentive for many of them. 

Amazon really just renamed a Seattle stadium ‘Climate Pledge Arena’

By Taylor Hatmaker

As perennial front-runner for the title of probably-the-most-evil tech company, Amazon has a long way to go to rehabilitate its image as a take-no-prisoners, industry-consolidating wealth machine.

In a bold effort to do so, the company announced today that it would buy the rights to Seattle’s KeyArena, an aging stadium currently under redevelopment in the city. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos boasts that the stadium will “be the first net zero carbon certified arena in the world.”

“Instead of calling it Amazon Arena, we’re naming it Climate Pledge Arena as a regular reminder of the urgent need for climate action,” Jeff Bezos wrote on Instagram.

Other regular reminders for urgent climate action include the company’s own employees walking out to protest its lack of accountability on climate issues, its ongoing courtship with oil and gas companies and the sheer amount of times in a single day we see Amazon delivery vans dropping packages off on the same block.

Addressing its record of climate indifference, Amazon announced a $2 billion investment in sustainable efforts to reduce the company’s massive carbon footprint earlier this week as part of the same climate-friendly PR blitz.

Bezos himself announced in February that he would invest $10 billion of his personal wealth in a fund to address climate change, which is probably the least you can do when you’ve amassed an amount of wealth that’s incomprehensible to any normal person at the expense of workers, the environment and whatever else got in the way.

Why AWS built a no-code tool

By Frederic Lardinois

AWS today launched Amazon Honeycode, a no-code environment built around a spreadsheet-like interface that is a bit of a detour for Amazon’s cloud service. Typically, after all, AWS is all about giving developers all of the tools to build their applications — but they then have to put all of the pieces together. Honeycode, on the other hand, is meant to appeal to non-coders who want to build basic line-of-business applications. If you know how to work a spreadsheet and want to turn that into an app, Honeycode is all you need.

To understand AWS’s motivation behind the service, I talked to AWS VP Larry Augustin and Meera Vaidyanathan, a general manager at AWS.

“For us, it was about extending the power of AWS to more and more users across our customers,” explained Augustin. “We consistently hear from customers that there are problems they want to solve, they would love to have their IT teams or other teams — even outsourced help — build applications to solve some of those problems. But there’s just more demand for some kind of custom application than there are available developers to solve it.”

Image Credits: Amazon

In that respect then, the motivation behind Honeycode isn’t all that different from what Microsoft is doing with its PowerApps low-code tool. That, too, after all, opens up the Azure platform to users who aren’t necessarily full-time developers. AWS is taking a slightly different approach here, though, but emphasizing the no-code part of Honeycode.

“Our goal with honey code was to enable the people in the line of business, the business analysts, project managers, program managers who are right there in the midst, to easily create a custom application that can solve some of the problems for them without the need to write any code,” said Augustin. “And that was a key piece. There’s no coding required. And we chose to do that by giving them a spreadsheet-like interface that we felt many people would be familiar with as a good starting point.”

A lot of low-code/no-code tools also allow developers to then “escape the code,” as Augstin called it, but that’s not the intent here and there’s no real mechanism for exporting code from Honeycode and take it elsewhere, for example. “One of the tenets we thought about as we were building Honeycode was, gee, if there are things that people want to do and we would want to answer that by letting them escape the code — we kept coming back and trying to answer the question, ‘Well, okay, how can we enable that without forcing them to escape the code?’ So we really tried to force ourselves into the mindset of wanting to give people a great deal of power without escaping to code,” he noted.

Image Credits: Amazon

There are, however, APIs that would allow experienced developers to pull in data from elsewhere. Augustin and Vaidyanathan expect that companies may do this for their users on tthe platform or that AWS partners may create these integrations, too.

Even with these limitations, though, the team argues that you can build some pretty complex applications.

“We’ve been talking to lots of people internally at Amazon who have been building different apps and even within our team and I can honestly say that we haven’t yet come across something that is impossible,” Vaidyanathan said. “I think the level of complexity really depends on how expert of a builder you are. You can get very complicated with the expressions [in the spreadsheet] that you write to display data in a specific way in the app. And I’ve seen people write — and I’m not making this up — 30-line expressions that are just nested and nested and nested. So I really think that it depends on the skills of the builder and I’ve also noticed that once people start building on Honeycode — myself included — I start with something simple and then I get ambitious and I want to add this layer to it — and I want to do this. That’s really how I’ve seen the journey of builders progress. You start with something that’s maybe just one table and a couple of screens, and very quickly, before you know, it’s a far more robust app that continues to evolve with your needs.”

Another feature that sets Honeycode apart is that a spreadsheet sits at the center of its user interface. In that respect, the service may seem a bit like Airtable, but I don’t think that comparison holds up, given that both then take these spreadsheets into very different directions. I’ve also seen it compared to Retool, which may be a better comparison, but Retool is going after a more advanced developer and doesn’t hide the code. There is a reason, though, why these services were built around them and that is simply that everybody is familiar with how to use them.

“People have been using spreadsheets for decades,” noted Augustin. “They’re very familiar. And you can write some very complicated, deep, very powerful expressions and build some very powerful spreadsheets. You can do the same with Honeycode. We felt people were familiar enough with that metaphor that we could give them that full power along with the ability to turn that into an app.”

The team itself used the service to manage the launch of Honeycode, Vaidyanathan stressed — and to vote on the name for the product (though Vaidyanathan and Augustin wouldn’t say which other names they considered.

“I think we have really, in some ways, a revolutionary product in terms of bringing the power of AWS and putting it in the hands of people who are not coders,” said Augustin.

Walmart’s Flipkart makes local languages push to win small Indian cities and towns

By Manish Singh

Flipkart on Wednesday added support for three more local languages as the Indian e-commerce giant looks to widen its foothold in smaller cities and towns across the country where fewer people speak English and Hindi.

The Walmart -owned firm said its online marketplace now has interfaces in Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada, three languages that are spoken by roughly 200 million people in India.

Today’s announcement follows Flipkart adapting its interface in Hindi language on its website and app last year. Flipkart’s rival, Amazon, added support for Hindi in 2018. It does not support any additional Indian languages.

A Flipkart spokeswoman told TechCrunch that support for Hindi language has been well received by customers. “About 95% of consumers who opted for the Hindi interface continued using the interface as a testament of its efficacy,” the spokeswoman said.

Flipkart said the new localization effort, for which it conducted on-ground surveys in many cities, includes a “judicious” mix of translation and transliteration of words from the aforementioned three languages. Overall, it has incorporated more than 5.4 million translated words into its product pages, banners, and payments pages in the three local languages.

“We truly believe that language, if solved well, can be an opportunity rather than a barrier to reach millions of consumers who have been underserved. As a homegrown e-commerce marketplace, we understand India and its diversity in a more nuanced way and are building products that have the potential to bring a long-term change,” said Kalyan Krishnamurthy, chief executive officer of Flipkart Group, in a statement.

The push to local languages comes as both Flipkart and Amazon India are exploring ways to expand their reach beyond urban cities in India. Online shopping accounts for about 3% of total retail sales in India, according to industry estimates.

In recent quarters, Flipkart has added support for voice assistant, short-form videos, and bundled a free on-demand video streaming service to please new customers. The company has previously stated that most of its new users are coming from smaller cities and towns in India.

India, the world’s second largest internet market, has emerged as a global battleground for American and Chinese technology groups. Both Amazon, which completed seven years in the country this month, and 13-year-old Flipkart claim the top spot in the e-commerce market.

Amazon India’s apps had about 140 million monthly active users last month, ahead of Flipkart marquee app’s 108 million, according to one of the top mobile insight firms, data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch. (Though it should be noted that monthly active users, that alone of mobile apps, is not the best metric to gauge a shopping platform’s performance.) Flipkart claims it has amassed over 150 million registered users.

Oracle’s BlueKai tracks you across the web. That data spilled online

By Zack Whittaker

Have you ever wondered why online ads appear for things that you were just thinking about?

There’s no big conspiracy. Ad tech can be creepily accurate.

Tech giant Oracle is one of a few companies in Silicon Valley that has near-perfected the art of tracking people across the internet. The company has spent a decade and billions of dollars buying startups to build its very own panopticon of users’ web browsing data.

One of those startups, BlueKai, which Oracle bought for a little over $400 million in 2014, is barely known outside marketing circles, but it amassed one of the largest banks of web tracking data outside of the federal government.

BlueKai uses website cookies and other tracking tech to follow you around the web. By knowing which websites you visit and which emails you open, marketers can use this vast amount of tracking data to infer as much about you as possible — your income, education, political views, and interests to name a few — in order to target you with ads that should match your apparent tastes. If you click, the advertisers make money.

But for a time, that web tracking data was spilling out onto the open internet because a server was left unsecured and without a password, exposing billions of records for anyone to find.

Security researcher Anurag Sen found the database and reported his finding to Oracle through an intermediary — Roi Carthy, chief executive at cybersecurity firm Hudson Rock and former TechCrunch reporter.

TechCrunch reviewed the data shared by Sen and found names, home addresses, email addresses and other identifiable data in the database. The data also revealed sensitive users’ web browsing activity — from purchases to newsletter unsubscribes.

“There’s really no telling how revealing some of this data can be,” said Bennett Cyphers, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told TechCrunch.

“Oracle is aware of the report made by Roi Carthy of Hudson Rock related to certain BlueKai records potentially exposed on the Internet,” said Oracle spokesperson Deborah Hellinger. “While the initial information provided by the researcher did not contain enough information to identify an affected system, Oracle’s investigation has subsequently determined that two companies did not properly configure their services. Oracle has taken additional measures to avoid a reoccurrence of this issue.”

Oracle did not name the companies or say what those additional measures were, and declined to answer our questions or comment further.

But the sheer size of the exposed database makes this one of the largest security lapses this year.

The more it knows

BlueKai relies on vacuuming up a never-ending supply of data from a variety of sources to understand trends to deliver the most precise ads to a person’s interests.

Marketers can either tap into Oracle’s enormous bank of data, which it pulls in from credit agencies, analytics firms, and other sources of consumer data including billions of daily location data points, in order to target their ads. Or marketers can upload their own data obtained directly from consumers, such as the information you hand over when you register an account on a website or when you sign up for a company’s newsletter.

But BlueKai also uses more covert tactics like allowing websites to embed invisible pixel-sized images to collect information about you as soon as you open the page — hardware, operating system, browser and any information about the network connection.

This data — known as a web browser’s “user agent” — may not seem sensitive, but when fused together it can create a unique “fingerprint” of a person’s device, which can be used to track that person as they browse the internet.

BlueKai can also tie your mobile web browsing habits to your desktop activity, allowing it to follow you across the internet no matter which device you use.

Say a marketer wants to run a campaign trying to sell a new car model. In BlueKai’s case, it already has a category of “car enthusiasts” — and many other, more specific categories — that the marketer can use to target with ads. Anyone who’s visited a car maker’s website or a blog that includes a BlueKai tracking pixel might be categorized as a “car enthusiast.” Over time that person will be siloed into different categories under a profile that learns as much about you to target you with those ads.

(Sources: DaVooda, Filborg/Getty Images; Oracle BlueKai)

The technology is far from perfect. Harvard Business Review found earlier this year that the information collected by data brokers, such as Oracle, can vary wildly in quality.

But some of these platforms have proven alarmingly accurate.

In 2012, Target mailed maternity coupons to a high school student after an in-house analytics system figured out she was pregnant — before she had even told her parents — because of the data it collected from her web browsing.

Some might argue that’s precisely what these systems are designed to do.

Jonathan Mayer, a science professor at Princeton University, told TechCrunch that BlueKai is one of the leading systems for linking data.

“If you have the browser send an email address and a tracking cookie at the same time, that’s what you need to build that link,” he said.

The end goal: the more BlueKai collects, the more it can infer about you, making it easier to target you with ads that might entice you to that magic money-making click.

But marketers can’t just log in to BlueKai and download reams of personal information from its servers, one marketing professional told TechCrunch. The data is sanitized and masked so that marketers never see names, addresses or any other personal data.

As Mayer explained: BlueKai collects personal data; it doesn’t share it with marketers.

‘No telling how revealing’

Behind the scenes, BlueKai continuously ingests and matches as much raw personal data as it can against each person’s profile, constantly enriching that profile data to make sure it’s up to date and relevant.

But it was that raw data spilling out of the exposed database.

TechCrunch found records containing details of private purchases. One record detailed how a German man, whose name we’re withholding, used a prepaid debit card to place a €10 bet on an esports betting site on April 19. The record also contained the man’s address, phone number and email address.

Another record revealed how one of the largest investment holding companies in Turkey used BlueKai to track users on its website. The record detailed how one person, who lives in Istanbul, ordered $899 worth of furniture online from a homeware store. We know because the record contained all of these details, including the buyer’s name, email address and the direct web address for the buyer’s order, no login needed.

We also reviewed a record detailing how one person unsubscribed from an email newsletter run by an electronics consumer, sent to his iCloud address. The record showed that the person may have been interested in a specific model of car dash-cam. We can even tell based on his user agent that his iPhone was out of date and needed a software update.

The more BlueKai collects, the more it can infer about you, making it easier to target you with ads that might entice you to that magic money-making click.

The data went back for months, according to Sen, who discovered the database. Some logs dated back to August 2019, he said.

“Fine-grained records of people’s web-browsing habits can reveal hobbies, political affiliation, income bracket, health conditions, sexual preferences, and — as evident here — gambling habits,” said the EFF’s Cyphers. “As we live more of our lives online, this kind of data accounts for a larger and larger portion of how we spend our time.”

Oracle declined to say if it informed those whose data was exposed about the security lapse. The company also declined to say if it had warned U.S. or international regulators of the incident.

Under California state law, companies like Oracle are required to publicly disclose data security incidents, but Oracle has not to date declared the lapse. When reached, a spokesperson for California’s attorney general’s office declined to say if Oracle had informed the office of the incident.

Under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, companies can face fines of up to 4% of their global annual turnover for flouting data protection and disclosure rules.

Trackers, trackers everywhere

BlueKai is everywhere — even when you can’t see it.

One estimate says BlueKai tracks over 1% of all web traffic — an unfathomable amount of daily data collection — and tracks some of the world’s biggest websites: Amazon, ESPN, Forbes, Glassdoor, Healthline, Levi’s, MSN.com, Rotten Tomatoes, and The New York Times. Even this very article has a BlueKai tracker because our parent company, Verizon Media, is a BlueKai partner.

But BlueKai is not alone. Nearly every website you visit contains some form of invisible tracking code that watches you as you traverse the internet.

As invasive as it is that invisible trackers are feeding your web browsing data to a gigantic database in the cloud, it’s that very same data that has kept the internet largely free for so long.

To stay free, websites use advertising to generate revenue. The more targeted the advertising, the better the revenue is supposed to be.

While the majority of web users are not naive enough to think that internet tracking does not exist, few outside marketing circles understand how much data is collected and what is done with it.

Take the Equifax data breach in 2017, which brought scathing criticism from lawmakers after it collected millions of consumers’ data without their explicit consent. Equifax, like BlueKai, relies on consumers skipping over the lengthy privacy policies that govern how websites track them.

In any case, consumers have little choice but to accept the terms. Be tracked or leave the site. That’s the trade-off with a free internet.

But there are dangers with collecting web-tracking data on millions of people.

“Whenever databases like this exist, there’s always a risk the data will end up in the wrong hands and in a position to hurt someone,” said Cyphers.

Cyphers said the data, if in the hands of someone malicious, could contribute to identity theft, phishing or stalking.

“It also makes a valuable target for law enforcement and government agencies who want to piggyback on the data gathering that Oracle already does,” he said.

Even when the data stays where it’s intended, Cyphers said these vast databases enable “manipulative advertising for things like political issues or exploitative services, and it allows marketers to tailor their messages to specific vulnerable populations,” he said.

“Everyone has different things they want to keep private, and different people they want to keep them private from,” said Cyphers. “When companies collect raw web browsing or purchase data, thousands of little details about real people’s lives get scooped up along the way.”

“Each one of those little details has the potential to put somebody at risk,” he said.


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Amazon and Valentino team up in joint lawsuit against New York counterfeiter over Rockstud knock-offs

By Ingrid Lunden

Amazon is ramping up its efforts to tackle counterfeiting on its platform by aiming for the higher end of the fashion market. Today the e-commerce giant announced that it has jointly filed a lawsuit with Italian luxury brand Valentino against Buffalo, New York-based Kaitlyn Pan Group, LLC and New York resident Hao Pan for copying a famous Valentino shoe style — the Garavani Rockstud, pictured above — and subsequently selling those products on Amazon and Kaitlyn Pan’s own site, “in violation of Amazon’s policies and Valentino’s intellectual property rights.”

Amazon said that any proceeds that result from the suit will go straight to Valentino itself. We’ve asked how much the companies are seeking in damages and will update this post with more information as we get it. We are embedding the suit below the article.

Notably, this is the first time that Amazon has teamed up with a luxury brand to go after counterfeiters in the courts, although it has partnered with other brands in the past. As with those previous cases, it’s important for Amazon to work with the brands to show it’s a friend to legitimate commerce by working actively to stop illicit sales.

Alongside that, however, Amazon has been making huge efforts to raise its game in fashion, and so it’s extremely important that it fights against the image that it’s a fertile ground for selling and buying illegal knock-off items of famous brands.

Getting off on the right foot — so to speak — with Valentino is part of that. The Garavani Rockstud (“Garavani” comes from Valentino’s full name, Valentino Clemente Ludovico Garavaniis one of Valentino’s most iconic styles, with its metallic lines of studs making an appearance on a range of Valentino footwear, including sandals, heels and flats. They were first introduced in 2010 and Valentino has design patents on the style.

Kaitlyn Pan currently sells a number of models that riff on that basic concept. Typically, authentic Valentino Rockstud shoes retail for between $425 and $1,100, while the Pan versions sell for significantly less, around $100.

You can see where the problem lies.

While the shoes are not being sold as Valentino and do not use the Rockstud branding, they could easily be mistaken for them (and may have even been promoted using that keyword when they were still being sold on Amazon):

One thing that isn’t really covered in the Amazon/Valentino suit, but you have to wonder about, is the role that others play in enabling the illicit sales of the items. In the case of Kaitlyn Pan, the site is powered by none other than Shopify, for example.

“The vast majority of sellers in our store are honest entrepreneurs but we do not hesitate to take aggressive action to protect customers, brands and our store from counterfeiters,” said Dharmesh Mehta, vice president, Customer Trust and Partner Support, in a statement. “Amazon and Valentino are holding this company accountable in a court of law and we appreciate Valentino’s collaboration throughout this investigation.”

Amazon said that it shut down Kaitlyn Pan’s seller account in September 2019, and it did not specify how many pairs of Pan’s shoes were sold via Amazon before then. As of today, the Pan models are still being sold directly on Kaitlyn Pan Shoes.

And rather audaciously, despite getting forced out of Amazon’s marketplace and being slapped with cease and desist orders from Valentino, Kaitlyn Pan has applied to the United States Patent and Trademark Office to trademark the style.

Valentino, like other expensive luxury brands, regularly gets copied and counterfeited, and that has been the case for decades. But arguably, the rise of e-commerce, where it can be harder to trace sellers and products have a higher chance of being disseminated more widely, has compounded that problem.

So the company has made a more concerted effort to fight back. In the past three years, it’s worked with United States Customs and Border Protection to seize more than 2,000 counterfeit products and work on a surveillance system to detect counterfeit products on sale in the U.S. market, leading to the removal of more than 7,000 listings across multiple marketplaces, 360 websites and more than 1,000 social media accounts.

“The Maison Valentino is one of the main protagonists of International fashion and plays a major role in the luxury division by sustaining Made in Italy,” Valentino said in a statement. “The brand represents in the global market, one of the Italian excellences in the execution of the industrial process in Italy and of the artisanal and handmade workmanship that are entirely produced in the historic Atelier of Piazza Mignanelli in Rome. We consider Made in Italy to be a fundamental value to be fully endorsed, respected and at the forefront of our business and creations. Valentino is an Italian brand operating globally and is a mirror of society. One of our core missions is to safeguard our brand and protect the Valentino Community by celebrating inclusivity and with creativity at the heart of everything we do. We feel this connection with Amazon will highlight the importance also in fashion for greater awareness, knowledge and understanding by shielding the brand online and its resources.”

Amazon’s role in creating an avenue for counterfeit items to be sold has been a problematic one for the company for years. It has invested in building technology to tackle the problem: In 2019, it said that it had invested over $500 million and dedicated 8,000 employees to work on fraud and abuse (which includes IP infringement and counterfeit goods), and it works with law enforcement and collaborates with authorities to build cases against infringing companies and people. But its critics continue to call out the company and its track record, saying it still has not done enough to address the issue — which of course still results in sales, and thus revenues — on its platform.

We’ll update this post as we learn more.

Affirming the position of tech advocates, Supreme Court overturns Trump’s termination of DACA

By Jonathan Shieber

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that President Donald Trump’s administration unlawfully ended the federal policy providing temporary legal status for immigrants who came to the country as children.

The decision, issued Thursday, called the termination of the Obama-era policy known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program “arbitrary and capricious.” As a result of its ruling, nearly 640,000 people living in the United States are now temporarily protected from deportation.

While a blow to the Trump Administration, the ruling is sure to be hailed nearly unanimously by the tech industry and its leaders, who had come out strongly in favor of the policy in the days leading up to its termination by the current president and his advisors.

At the beginning of 2018, many of tech’s most prominent executives, including the CEOs of Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google, joined more than 100 American business leaders in signing an open letter asking Congress to take action on the DACA program before it expired in March.

Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Sundar Pichai made a full-throated defense of the policy and pleaded with Congress to pass legislation ensuring that “Dreamers,” or undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children and were granted approval by the program, can continue to live and work in the country without risk of deportation.

At the time, those executives said the decision to end the program could potentially cost the U.S. economy as much as $215 billion.

In a 2017 tweet, Tim Cook noted that Apple employed roughly 250 “Dreamers.”

250 of my Apple coworkers are #Dreamers. I stand with them. They deserve our respect as equals and a solution rooted in American values.

— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) September 3, 2017

The list of tech executives who came out in support of the DACA initiative is long. It included: IBM CEO Ginni Rometty; Brad Smith, the president and chief legal officer of Microsoft; Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman; and CEOs or other leading executives of AT&T, Dropbox, Upwork, Cisco Systems, Salesforce, LinkedIn, Intel, Warby Parker, Uber, Airbnb, Slack, Box, Twitter, PayPal, Code.org, Lyft, Etsy, AdRoll, eBay, StitchCrew, SurveyMonkey, DoorDash and Verizon (the parent company of Verizon Media Group, which owns TechCrunch).

At the heart of the court’s ruling is the majority view that Department of Homeland Security officials didn’t provide a strong enough reason to terminate the program in September 2017. Now, the issue of immigration status gets punted back to the White House and Congress to address.

As the Boston Globe noted in a recent article, the majority decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts did not determine whether the Obama-era policy or its revocation were correct, just that the DHS didn’t make a strong enough case to end the policy.

“We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action,” Roberts wrote. 

While the ruling from the Supreme Court is some good news for the population of “Dreamers,” the question of their citizenship status in the country is far from settled. The U.S. government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has basically consisted of freezing as much of the nation’s immigration apparatus as possible.

An executive order in late April froze the green card process for would-be immigrants, and the administration was rumored to be considering a ban on temporary workers under H1-B visas as well.

The president has, indeed, ramped up the crackdown with strict border control policies and other measures to curb both legal and illegal immigration. 

More than 800,000 people joined the workforce as a result of the 2012 program crafted by the Obama administration. DACA allows anyone under 30 to apply for protection from deportation or legal action on their immigration cases if they were younger than 16 when they were brought to the U.S., had not committed a crime and were either working or in school.

In response to the Supreme Court decision, the President tweeted “Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?”

Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 18, 2020

 

 

EU digs in on digital tax plan, after US quits talks

By Natasha Lomas

The European Commission has reiterated its commitment to pushing ahead with a regional plan for taxing digital services after the US quit talks aimed at finding agreement on reforming tax rules — ramping up the prospects of a trade war.

Yesterday talks between the EU and the US on a digital services tax broke down after U.S. treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, walked out — saying they’d failed to make any progress, per Reuters.

The EU has been eyeing levying a tax of between 2% and 6% on the local revenues of platform giants.

Today the European Commission dug in in response to the US move, with commissioner Paolo Gentiloni reiterating the need for “one digital tax” to adapt to what he dubbed “the reality of the new century” — and calling for “understanding” in the global negotiation.

However he also repeated the Commission’s warning that it will push ahead alone if necessary, saying that if the US’ decision to quit talks means achieving global consensus impossible it will put “a new European proposal on the table”.

C’è bisogno di una #DigitalTax adeguata alla realtà del nuovo secolo. Serve un’intesa nel negoziato globale. Se lo stop americano la rendesse impossibile, la @EU_Commission metterà sul tavolo una nuova proposta europea.

— Paolo Gentiloni (@PaoloGentiloni) June 18, 2020

Following the break down of talks, France also warned it will go ahead with a digital tax on tech giants this year — reversing an earlier suspension that had been intended to grease the negotiations.

The New York Times reports French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, describing the US walk-out as “a provocation”, and complaining about the country “systematically threatening” allies with sanctions.

The issue of ‘fair taxes’ for platforms has been slow burning in Europe for years, with politicians grilling tech execs in public over how little they contribute to national coffers and even urging the public to boycott services like Amazon (with little success).

Updating the tax system to account for digital giants is front and center for Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission — which is responding to the widespread regional public anger over how little tech giants pay in relation to the local revenue they generate.

European Commission president von der Leyen, who took up her mandate at the back end of last year, has said “urgent” reform of the tax system is needed — warning at the start of 2020 that the European Union would be prepared to go it alone on “a fair digital tax” if no global accord was reached by the end of this year.

At the same time, a number of European countries have been pushing ahead with their own proposals to tax big tech — including the UK, which started levying a 2% digital services tax on local revenue in April; and France, which has set out a plan to tax tech giants 3% of their local revenues.

This gives the Commission another clear reason to act, given its raison d’être is to reduce fragmentation of the EU’s Single Market.

Although it faces internal challenges on achieving agreement across Member States, given some smaller economies have used low national corporate tax rates to attract inward investment, including from tech giants.

The US, meanwhile, has not been sitting on its hands as European governments move ahead to set their own platform taxes. The Trump administration has been throwing its weight around — arguing US companies are being unfairly targeted by the taxes and warning that it could retaliate with up to 100% tariffs on countries that go ahead. Though it has yet to do so.

On the digital tax reform issue the US has said it wants a multilateral agreement via the OECD on a global minimum. And a petite entente cordiale was reached between France and the US last summer when president Emmanuel Macron agreed the French tech tax would be scraped once the OECD came up with a global fix.

However with Trump’s negotiators pulling out of international tax talks with the EU the prospect of a global understanding on a very divisive issue looks further away than ever.

Though the UK said today it remains committed to a global solution, per Reuters which quotes a treasury spokesman.

Earlier this month the US also launched a formal investigation into new or proposed digital taxes in the EU, including the UK’s levy and the EU’s proposals, and plans set out by a number of other EU countries, claiming they “unfairly target” U.S. tech companies — lining up a pipeline of fresh attacks on national plans.

Amazon expands Flex delivery program to more than 35 cities in India

By Manish Singh

Amazon said on Thursday it has expanded its Flex delivery program to more than 35 cities in India, one of its key overseas markets, as the e-commerce giant looks to scale its delivery capability to service the growing number of orders.

The e-commerce giant, which completed seven years in the country this month, launched the Amazon Flex delivery program in India last June. At the time, the program was available in three cities.

Amazon Flex allows individuals to help the company deliver packages to customers. The company said “tens of thousands” of students, homemakers and others have joined the program in India in the past one year and supplemented their income.

These individuals earn between Rs 120 ($1.58) to Rs 140 ($1.84) per hour. The company said the expansion of Amazon Flex to more cities will enable it to scale its delivery workforce and service customers more efficiently.

“Amazon Flex partners enjoy the part time opportunity to earn more, especially at this time when the country is economically recovering from the impact of the nationwide lockdown,” said Prakash Rochlani, Director of Last Mile Transportation at Amazon India, in a statement.

Amazon and its chief rival in India, Walmart’s Flipkart were severely hit when New Delhi announced a nationwide lockdown and prevented the e-commerce firms from servicing non-essential orders. India has since eased restrictions and both the firms have restored much of their services.

But in recent months, Amazon delivery people and warehouse workers have expressed severe safety concerns as Covid-19 spread more widely. In April, Reuters documented such fears shared by an Amazon Flex delivery driver.

The safety of these Amazon Flex partners “remains our top priority, and we are taking the right precautions, and have implemented a series of preventative health measures,” said Rochlani.

Amazon has been looking to aggressively expand its delivery workforce in India in recent weeks. The company said last month that it was looking to hire 50,000 seasonal workers. The company last year created 90,000 additional seasonal jobs, an Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch, but it did so ahead of the festival Diwali, which sees Indians spend lavishly.

Geek+, the Amazon Kiva of China, lands $200 million Series C

By Rita Liao

Geek+, a Beijing-based startup that makes warehouse fulfillment robots similar to those of Amazon’s Kiva, said Thursday that it has closed over $200 million in a Series C funding round.

That bumps total capital raised by the 5-year-old company to date to nearly $390 million. The new round, completed in two parts, was separately led by GGV Capital and D1 Capital Partners in the summer of 2019, and V Fund earlier this year. Other participants included Warburg Pincus, Redview Capital and Vertex Ventures.

The company said it will continue to develop robotics solutions tailored to logistics, ramp up its robot-as-a-service monetization model, and expand partnerships.

Geek+ represents a rank of Chinese robotics solution providers that are increasingly appealing to clients around the world. The startup itself boasts over 10,000 robots deployed worldwide, serving 300 customers and projects in over 20 countries.

Just last month, Geek+ announced a partnership with Conveyco, an order fulfillment and distribution center system integrator operating in North America, to distribute its autonomous mobile robots (ARMs) across the continent. Leading this part of its business is Mark Messina, the startup’s chief operating officer for the Americas who previously worked at Amazon, where he oversaw mechanical engineering for the Kiva robotics system.

Geek+’s ambitious move overseas came amid continuous pressure from the Trump administration to boycott Chinese tech players. Back home, Geek+ has worked closely with retail giants such as Alibaba and Suning to replace human pickers in warehouses.

Amazon and Zynga partner on Word Pop, a Words with Friends spinoff created for Alexa

By Sarah Perez

Zynga’s popular game, Words with Friends, is coming to Alexa. The new voice-powered game will be known as Word Pop, and —  sorry — you can’t actually play it with friends right now, even though the game lives within Zynga’s broader Words with Friends franchise. Instead, the new Alexa voice game is viewed as a complement to Zynga’s multiplayer version. It’s a place where players can sharpen their word-building skills, no friends required.

To launch Word Pop, you’ll say “Alexa, open Word Pop” on any Alexa device to get started.

In the game, Alexa will challenge the players to create as many words as possible from a 6-letter bank, through a series of one-minute sessions. During this time, players must say or spell as many words as they can, while earning points for both the number and length of the words they find.

On Alexa devices with a screen, like the Echo Show, there will also be a visual component where players will see their letter banks and completed words. Arguably, the game is better this way as it allows you to view the letters and combinations much like you can on a mobile device or computer. Without the screen, the game will prove much more challenging — though that may appeal to some Words with Friends experts.

The companies characterize their teaming up on the new title as a “partnership,” where both Amazon and Zynga’s teams worked together to build the game. However, there isn’t currently a revenue-sharing situation, we understand, as the game is free and doesn’t offer in-app purchases. (Of course, if the title proves popular enough, the companies could likely revisit that decision.)

In the meantime, however, the companies see the opportunity to build their respective brands. Zynga can generate interest in its aging, cross-platform Words with Friends franchise by way of the new Alexa skill, while Amazon gets to introduce the idea of Alexa gaming to consumers via a well-known industry brand and popular game that users will already know how to play.

“I’m thrilled that by adding Word Pop to the Words With Friends family, players will be able to test and improve their word skills, making them even better Words With Friends players,” said Bernard Kim, President of Publishing at Zynga, in a statement. “The beauty of Words With Friends is that even after ten years, we’re still discovering new ways for the franchise to bring joy to players around the world. We’re dedicated to experimenting with services such as Alexa and game modes like Word Pop, which gives players a familiar, yet novel experience.”

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