SF city attorney subpoenas Uber and Lyft for driver pay, benefits and classification info

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera has sent subpoenas to Uber and Lyft that asks them to provide information pertaining to how each company classifies its drivers (W2 employees versus 1099 contractors), as well as pay and benefits.

The subpoenas also request a list of drivers who have either started or ended at least one ride in SF between 2015 to the present day and proof that any driver classified as an independent contractor meets the three criteria set forward by a recent California Supreme Court ruling. According to the April 30 ruling, companies must classify workers as employees unless they can prove the person is not under the control of the company, works outside the company’s general scope of business and has an independent business or job of the same nature of the work they do for the company.

It’s worth noting that both Uber and Lyft generally describe their drivers as people who do this type of work as a side hustle, rather than as people who operate their own transportation companies.

“The argument that these companies have tried to use in the past — that they’re just a technology platform — doesn’t pass the smell test,” Herrera said in a press release “People go to Microsoft or Salesforce for software. People go to Uber or Lyft for a ride.”

With the subpoenas, Herrera wants to ensure Uber and Lyft are legally classifying their drivers as independent contractors. If not, then Uber and Lyft must offer drives minimum wage, sick leave, health care and paid parental leave.

“San Francisco’s laws help ensure that employers provide a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” Herrera said. “Our laws also guarantee employees basic humane benefits like sick leave, health care, and paid parental leave. We are not going to turn a blind eye if companies in San Francisco deny workers their pay and benefits. We are not going to tolerate any company shirking its responsibility to pay for benefits and shifting that burden onto taxpayers when drivers without health insurance turn to the emergency room. If your company is valued at $62 billion, you can afford to give your workers health care.”

I’ve reached out to Uber and Lyft and will update this story if I hear back.

Source: Tech Crunch

FCC asks Amazon and eBay to stop selling fake pay TV boxes

On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and eBay CEO Devin Wenig asking their companies to help remove the listings for fake pay TV boxes from their respective websites. These boxes often falsely bear the FCC logo, the letter informed, and are used to perpetuate “intellectual property theft and consumer fraud.”

With the rise in cord cutting, a number of consumers have found it’s just as easy to use a software app like Kodi on a cheap streaming media device to gain access to content – like TV shows and movies – that they would otherwise miss out on by dropping their pay TV subscription. As an added perk, various software add-ons enable consumers to stream movies still in the theaters, too. It’s an easier way to access pirated content than visiting The Pirate Bay and downloading torrent files.

While Kodi’s open source software itself doesn’t facilitate piracy, through a number of downloadable add-ons, it’s relatively easy for consumers to figure out how stream pirated content thanks to online tutorials and YouTube videos.

It’s not clear if people know that they’re doing something illegal, or just don’t care because there are seemingly no repercussions related to their behavior.

Amazon, Netflix and major Hollywood studios have gone after these box makers through the court system already. In January, for example, a U.S. District Court judge handed down a preliminary injunction against TickBox TV, a Georgia-based set-top box maker that was profiting from the sale of its so-called “Kodi boxes.”

Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Disney, 20th Century Fox Film, Universal Pictures and Warner Bros. were also plaintiffs in that case, along with Netflix and Amazon.

Amazon and eBay also proactively remove devices facilitating piracy from their websites, the FCC acknowledged in its letter.

Amazon, for example, prevented the sale of “tens of thousands of unlawful devices” through its “automated proactive detection, preventative investigations, and notices of infringement from rights holders,” the letter stated. Ebay, meanwhile, also removes devices reported as infringing and removes those that say things like “never pay another cable bill” or “fully loaded” in their descriptions.

But the FCC wants the companies to do more, and faster,  it seems.

“Unfortunately, despite your good work in this area, devices continue to make it to consumers through your website,” writes FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly. “Many of these devices contain harmful malware that will most certainly be passed on to the consumer. Moreover, the consumer may unwittingly believe that the device is lawful since they were able to purchase it from a legitimate company.”

The FCC is additionally concerned because many devices use the FCC logo to aid in their attempt to defraud consumers.

It notes that nine set-top box distributors were referred to the FCC in October for streaming pirated content, and seven of those displayed the FCC logo even though there was no record of their compliance with the commission’s requirements.

The letter specifically asks both Amazon and eBay to step up their enforcement, by “swiftly removing” devices the FCC alerts them to; it also asks the companies to provide the FCC with information about the manufacturers, distributors, and suppliers, when requested.

The move not only pushes Amazon and eBay to more quickly and thoroughly cooperate with the FCC, it also serves as a warning about the U.S. Government’s plan to further its crackdown on these fake pay TV boxes.

Of course, there’s a bit of irony here regarding Amazon’s participation in this fight – its Amazon Fire TV Stick, or “firestick” as consumers tend to refer to it, is one of the most popular devices out there today for enabling piracy.

People either buy the “firestick” themselves and install Kodi and various add-ons or they buy a slightly more expensive, hacked firestick from a local reseller who’s hawking them on under-the-radar backchannels, like Facebook Groups or online message boards. The hacked firestick is set up with Kodi pre-installed and the various add-ons for free streaming already configured. (A search for “kodi box” on Amazon.com also returns the Fire TV Stick and Fire TV as the top two results thanks to ‘sponsored’ placements by Amazon. Hmmm.)

The U.S. is not alone in its Kodi box crackdown. Recently, business owners in Wales who sold fully-loaded Kodi boxes were sentenced to prison, for example, and its courts have ruled Kodi boxes illegal before. Canada has gone after websites that enable piracy through Kodi, as well.

In response to the letter, eBay says it plans to cooperate with the FCC:

“We’re committed to working in collaboration with the FCC to prevent the sale of these illegal products. As outlined in the letter, eBay utilizes a variety of measures to prevent these products from being sold on our platform. These include proactive filtering and manual site reviews to identify illegal products, as well as taking action on direct referrals received from the FCC. We look forward to continuing to work in partnership with the FCC to keep these illegal products off our site.”

Amazon has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Amazon has shared its statement, which was written in its own letter to the FCC.

(h/t: FireceCable

Source: Tech Crunch

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo hits Mach 1.9 in second successful test flight

Virgin Galactic is celebrating a successful second test flight of SpaceShipTwo, the rocket-powered passenger spacecraft that may someday take tourists to the edge of space. Today’s test took the VSS Unity, the second craft built in this class, up to 114,500 feet and Mach 1.9, or nearly 1,300 miles per hour.

Unity’s first powered flight was less than two months ago, which was itself the first powered flight Virgin Galactic had attempted since the fatal breakup of the company’s previous SpaceShipTwo-class spacecraft, Enterprise, in 2014.

Much has been redone since then but the basics of the Virgin Galactic flight style are the same. A relatively traditional jet-powered plane, a WhiteKnightTwo class plane (in this case the VMS Eve), carries the SpaceShipTwo craft (Unity) up to somewhere around 45,000 feet. There the latter detaches and fires up its rocket engine, accelerating to high speed and high altitude, after which it glides to the surface and lands more or less like any other plane.

Today’s test flight followed these parameters to the letter, though the numbers were considerably higher than April’s flight. The rockets burned for 31 seconds total, and the craft’s unique “feather” system for slowing its descent was deployed successfully.

The Unity is designed to handle nearly twice the speeds achieved today, but these tolerances must of course be approached gradually and the various systems tested under friendly conditions before moving on to hostile ones.

“It was great to see our beautiful spaceship back in the air and to share the moment with the talented team who are taking us, step by step, to space,” said Virgin founder Richard Branson in a press release. “Seeing Unity soar upwards at supersonic speeds is inspiring and absolutely breathtaking. We are getting ever closer to realizing our goals. Congratulations to the whole team!”

I’ve asked the company for a few more details on the flight, as well as when we can expect a third test.

Source: Tech Crunch

GIF lord Imgur caves to video to hasten profitability

Imgur is the internet’s best time sink, where 250 million monthly users silently consume an endless community-curated collection of absurd GIFs, inspiring tales, pop science explainers, and giant meme dumps. But what it’s never had is video. That was a differentiator that made it ideal for quiet browsing in class, on public transit, or in bed. Since none of the content required audio, you never had to worry about grabbing your headphones or disturbing those around you.

But the lack of video was also holding Imgur back. Sometimes you need to hear a crazy cat meow, or a baby giggling, or a crappy robot explode. So users would have to hunt down the “sauce” aka the GIF’s source video on another site. Oh, and advertisers love video and will pay a boatload more for it than a silent GIF or static image.

And so, Imgur is evolving with today’s launch of video. You can check them out, including this ream of popular GIFs reunited with their soundtracks, on the Imgur Unmuted channel.

The shift comes at a pivotal moment for the company. Launched in 2009, founder Alan Schaaf bootstrapped the startup to 130 million monthly visitors over the course of five years before finally taking a $40 million Series A from Andreessen Horowitz in 2014. Two years later it augmented its flimsy banner ads with full-screen promoted posts while trying not to damage the irreverent nature of the app.

Imgur’s Chief Operating Officer Roy Sehgal, its Sheryl Sandberg, tells me that as of recently “we were cash flow positive” before revealing “We expect to be profitable this year.”

Video could push Imgur to that milestone. The more organic video posts from users, the easier it will be for Imgur to slide in lucrative video ads. Facebook printed money with the same strategy, rolling out auto-play video in 2014 to pave the way for video ads that command high prices from businesses. Imgur recently began allowing video ads, but they stuck out, seeming to violate the app’s code of silence. Now Imgur is training its users to tolerate or even embrace audio and video.

Next Comes Video Editing

Starting today, everyone can watch videos on Imgur, while iOS users can post video, with that opening to more people soon. Wisely, sound is off by default so you won’t get accidentally blasted, and technically you could just pretend they’re GIFs if you don’t click the audio button in the bottom right. They’re also limited to 30 seconds, so you won’t have lengthy YouTube reposts or as many copyright concerns, and they can be trimmed in the uploader.

“We’ve been making the transformation from an image community to a community-powered entertainment platform” says Sehgal. Video could keep Imgur’s legion of users growing, and make sure they can experience today’s hottest content in whatever format it’s made for.

“We realized there was a vector of content we were not supporting that we thought our users would want” Sehgal notes. The launch comes following the addition of much-requested Favorites folders and chat, and the Snapchat Stories-esque Snacks GIFs that no one asked for.

But video will bring a new sense of FOMO to those watching discretely. They’ll either have to swipe past the videos or miss the aural dimension. That could splinter Imgurians, who are otherwise united by a homescreen that shows identical top-rated content to everyone, unlike the fractured and personalized landing pages of most social networks. Some of Imgur’s funniest content relies on inside jokes powered by everyone having the right prerequisite knowledge from seeing the same things.

“They are definitely surprised” says Sehgal, but he claims “the reaction has been very positive.” That’s not exactly clear from reading the Imgur Most Viral homepage, which just got a desktop redesign with bigger previews and easy access to popular tags you can explore. GIFs and still images still dominate and I’ve hardly seen any videos.

That could change as Imgur plans on equipping users with new editing tools to help them turn generic clips into weird and wacky stuff people love to upvote. Imgur’s existing Video-To-GIF creation tool has been a hit. Hopefully future editing tools will let people add custom subtitles, stickers, interjected titling screens, and more. Those will be crucial to keep video from making Imgur generic.

Alan Schaaf, founder of Imgur, and his sister/community director Sarah Schaaf, speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt

The pivot to video may be inevitable for all online content. Combined with every app from Instagram to Netflix to Airbnb adopting Snapchat’s Stories, there’s an unsettling convergence going on. Video may be the most vivid and emotive medium. Yet we’ll lose something if there’s a social network singularity where they all have the same features.

Imgur is looking to become a business that’s palatable to a mass audience with video. But it must take care not to forfeit esoteric absurdity that’s made it a vacation from the overwhelming news and envy spiraling of other feeds.

Source: Tech Crunch

Facebook mistakes Kentucky woman for a Westworld bot

PSA: Don’t use a popular brand name for your online accounts.

Facebook’s social media team accidentally directed users to the Messenger account of a random Facebook user this morning, instead of the new HBO Westworld Messenger account it was trying to promote. On Twitter, the Messenger account instructed followers to chat with “Tes, the host of the new @WestworldHBO experience on Messenger” and linked to the Messenger account, messenger.com/t/westworld.

One small problem: “Westworld” was a Kentucky woman named Lisa, not an account run by HBO.

The mistake was first spotted by Matt Navarra, who wondered if Lisa was about to get an inbox slammed with messages.

The tweet was up for a couple of hours before the mistake was realized.

As a result, Lisa received a small handful of messages – around 20, she says. Facebook’s messaging system filtered these as “message requests,” which is how it handles unsolicited chat requests. Fortunately, the headache was minimal for the unintended recipient as she was able to just decline the incoming requests without having to respond.

Lisa says Facebook also reached out to her to apologize, and it corrected the link.

She has a sense of humor about the whole thing, as well.

“Guess that’s what I get for calling my home Westworld lol” she texted back to us when we asked her about the situation.

Facebook confirmed the mistake, in a statement.

“For a short time this morning, a tweet from the Messenger Twitter account incorrectly linked people to message an individual person, instead of the intended bot for Messenger. As soon as we became aware of the error, we immediately corrected it. We’re very sorry for any trouble or confusion this caused,” a Facebook spokesperson responded.

Source: Tech Crunch

To truly protect citizens, lawmakers need to restructure their regulatory oversight of big tech

If members of the European Parliament thought they could bring Mark Zuckerberg to heel with his recent appearance, they underestimated the enormous gulf between 21st century companies and their last-century regulators.

Zuckerberg himself reiterated that regulation is necessary, provided it is the “right regulation.”

But anyone who thinks that our existing regulatory tools can reign in our digital behemoths is engaging in magical thinking. Getting to “right regulation” will require us to think very differently.

The challenge goes far beyond Facebook and other social media: the use and abuse of data is going to be the defining feature of just about every company on the planet as we enter the age of machine learning and autonomous systems.

So far, Europe has taken a much more aggressive regulatory approach than anything the US was contemplating before or since Zuckerberg’s testimony.

The European Parliament’s Global Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is now in force, which extends data privacy rights to all European citizens regardless of whether their data is processed by companies within the EU or beyond.

But I’m not holding my breath that the GDPR will get us very far on the massive regulatory challenge we face. It is just more of the same when it comes to regulation in the modern economy: a lot of ambiguous costly-to-interpret words and procedures on paper that are outmatched by rapidly evolving digital global technologies.

Crucially, the GDPR still relies heavily on the outmoded technology of user choice and consent, the main result of which has seen almost everyone in Europe (and beyond) inundated with emails asking them to reconfirm permission to keep their data. But this is an illusion of choice, just as it is when we are ostensibly given the option to decide whether to agree to terms set by large corporations in standardized take-it-or-leave-it click-to-agree documents.  

There’s also the problem of actually tracking whether companies are complying. It is likely that the regulation of online activity requires yet more technology, such as blockchain and AI-powered monitoring systems, to track data usage and implement smart contract terms.

As the EU has already discovered with the right to be forgotten, however, governments lack the technological resources needed to enforce these rights. Search engines are required to serve as their own judge and jury in the first instance; Google at last count was doing 500 a day.  

The fundamental challenge we face, here and throughout the modern economy, is not: “what should the rules for Facebook be?” but rather, “how can we can innovate new ways to regulate effectively in the global digital age?”

The answer is that we need to find ways to harness the same ingenuity and drive that built Facebook to build the regulatory systems of the digital age. One way to do this is with what I call “super-regulation” which involves developing a market for licensed private regulators that serve two masters: achieving regulatory targets set by governments but also facing the market incentive to compete for business by innovating more cost-effective ways to do that.  

Imagine, for example, if instead of drafting a detailed 261-page law like the EU did, a government instead settled on the principles of data protection, based on core values, such as privacy and user control.

Private entities, profit and non-profit, could apply to a government oversight agency for a license to provide data regulatory services to companies like Facebook, showing that their regulatory approach is effective in achieving these legislative principles.  

These private regulators might use technology, big-data analysis, and machine learning to do that. They might also figure out how to communicate simple options to people, in the same way that the developers of our smartphone figured that out. They might develop effective schemes to audit and test whether their systems are working—on pain of losing their license to regulate.

There could be many such regulators among which both consumers and Facebook could choose: some could even specialize in offering packages of data management attributes that would appeal to certain demographics – from the people who want to be invisible online, to those who want their every move documented on social media.

The key here is competition: for-profit and non-profit private regulators compete to attract money and brains the problem of how to regulate complex systems like data creation and processing.

Zuckerberg thinks there’s some kind of “right” regulation possible for the digital world. I believe him; I just don’t think governments alone can invent it. Ideally, some next generation college kid would be staying up late trying to invent it in his or her dorm room.

The challenge we face is not how to get governments to write better laws; it’s how to get them to create the right conditions for the continued innovation necessary for new and effective regulatory systems.

Source: Tech Crunch

SPACE Administration would streamline federal oversight of commercial launches

As part of an ongoing effort to improve the regulatory conditions weathered by companies doing business in space, the Commerce Department has proposed to unify several offices under a new banner: the Space Policy Advancing Commercial Enterprise Administration.

The Trump administration offered hints, but few hard details, on how it aims to streamline federal oversight of space in a statement issued this week. Space Policy Directive 1 had to do with pursuing missions to the moon and Mars, and Directive 2 is more about housekeeping.

Part of that housekeeping directs Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross Jr to “transmit a plan to create a ‘one-stop shop’ within the Department of Commerce for administering and regulating commercial space flight activities,” and he seems to have been eager to comply.

“At my department alone, there are six bureaus involved in the space industry. A unified departmental office for business needs will enable better coordination of space-related activities,” Ross wrote. “When companies seek guidance on launching satellites, the Space Administration will be able to address an array of space activities, including remote sensing, economic development, data-purchase policies, GPS, spectrum policy, trade promotion, standards and technology and space-traffic management.”

Some of these changes have been talked about for a while, so this shouldn’t come as a shock to the offices affected. In fact, they may be pleased to hear it. Space regulation is a mire of interdepartmental memos and red tape, and U.S. leadership in the launch and satellite industry has arguably been in spite of it, not because of it.

Unifying a few offices is a start, but it will take more than administrative shuffling to clear out the regulatory cobwebs. This new administration alone will need to be permanently established by Congress, funded, and oversight assigned. And the work of synchronizing, deduplicating, and otherwise improving our space policy across all the various branches of government will be the work of many years, not a season.

Source: Tech Crunch

Gillmor Gang: Auto Immunity

The Gillmor Gang — Frank Radice, Keith Teare, Denis Pombriant, Michael Markman, and Steve Gillmor . Recorded live Sunday, May 27, 2018. Digital cars, food, Hollywood, and other disruptions.

G3: Firedrills and Fascinators — Mary Hodder, Elisa Camahort Page, Francine Hardaway, Maria Ogneva, and Tina Chase Gillmor. Recorded live Friday, May 18, 2018.

@stevegillmor, @denispombriant, @fradice, @mickeleh, @kteare

Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor

Liner Notes

Live chat stream

The Gillmor Gang on Facebook

G3: Firedrills and Fascinators

G3 chat stream

G3 on Facebook

Source: Tech Crunch

This sensor stops your quadcopter before it can cut you

The folks at Spectrum have found a truly cool project for quadcopter pilots. It’s a spinning sensor that will stop the rotors if your finger gets too close to the blades, thereby preventing you – or your kids – from getting cut.

Researchers at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia created so-called Safety Rotor to help prevent accidents with more powerful quadrotor drones. The system constantly senses for a “finger” – in this case a hot dog – and then slams the rotor to a stop within 0.077 seconds. A cage around the propellers spins more slowly than the propellers and is constantly on the lookout for biological material approaching the blades.

The measured latency [of the Safety Rotor’s braking response] was 0.0118 seconds from the triggering event to start of rotor deceleration. The rotor required a further 0.0474 s to come to a complete stop. Ninety percent of the rotational kinetic energy of the rotor (as computed from angular velocity) was dissipated within 0.0216 s of triggering, and 99 percent of the rotational kinetic energy of the rotor was dissipated within 0.032 s.

The safety functionality of the safety system was tested on the bench using a processed meat “finger” proxy to trigger the hoop, and also applied to an open rotor (without hoop) for comparison. The rotor was spun at hover speed (1100 rads−1) and the finger proxy was introduced into the hoop at 0.36 ms−1 … The rotor and finger motion were captured using a shutter speed of 480 Hz. The rotor came to a stop within 0.077 s, with only light marks on the finger proxy from the impact of the hoop. The rotor was completely stopped by the time the finger reached the rotor plane. In contrast, the tip of the finger proxy introduced to an open rotor was completely destroyed.

The kit adds $20 and about 22 grams to the drone so it’s not particularly expensive or difficult to implement. It could be, as they note, a real lifesaver if you tend to put your juicy, blood-filled digits into copter blades.

Source: Tech Crunch

Pandora now offers a Premium Family plan for $14.99 a month

Pandora just launched a family version of its Premium service. For $14.99 a month, up to six users can access Premium features (the individual version costs $9.99 a month). The new subscription option was added with little fanfare and spotted earlier today by Android Police.

This better positions Pandora to compete with Spotify Premium and Apple Music, at least from a pricing perspective. Both of those services also offer family plans covering up to six people for $14.99 a month. An annual subscription to Pandora’s Premium Family is also available for $164.98 a year.

In addition to other Premium features, Premium Family includes a personalized playlist called Our Soundtrack that selects a mix of songs based on every family member’s listening habits. Pandora just finished rolling out personalized playlists last week, which it announced earlier this year in a bid to take on one of Spotify’s most popular features.

Other Premium features include on-demand listening, playlist creation, downloads for offline listening, unlimited skips and replays, better audio and no ads.

Source: Tech Crunch