Saturday, February 24, 2018 - March 2, 2018
Senators grill social media companies over terrorist posts
New York (AP) - Lawmakers
grilled executives from Facebook, Google’s YouTube and Twitter on
Wednesday about what the companies are doing to prevent terrorists from
using their platforms to spread propaganda and recruit new followers.
The Senate’s commerce, science and
transportation committee hearing comes amid growing government scrutiny
over misuse of social media platforms and questions about what the
companies are doing to prevent it.
And it comes after November’s
exhaustive congressional hearings on what the companies knew - and did -
about Russia’s efforts to meddle with the 2016 U.S. elections using
Lawmakers acknowledged that the
companies, especially Google and Facebook, have come a long way when it
comes to weeding out extremist material. But they said more needs to be
“What have we learned about how the
Russians attacked us?” Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, asked
the witnesses. “What have social media companies done to assess this
threat, both individually and collectively? What have they done to
address this threat? And what more do they need to do to be ready for
All three companies stressed their
increasing reliance on automated systems and artificial intelligence to
combat terrorism on their platforms. Facebook, for example, said 99
percent of extremist material related to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State
is detected and removed before anyone manually reports it.
But lawmakers and others noted that
artificial intelligence is only good at detecting and preventing things
it already knows. So AI won’t help much when it comes to anticipating
future social-media tactics that extremists might adopt.
Clint Watts, a terrorism expert at
the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said at the hearing that Google
and Facebook are ahead of Twitter when it comes to weeding out extremist
content. He said that’s because Twitter relies too much on technology
and not enough on things like threat intelligence, like working with
outside experts and officials.
He also said that “lesser educated”
populations, including people around the world just getting online via
mobile devices, are especially vulnerable to the social media
manipulations of terrorists and authoritarians.
February 17, 2018 - February 23, 2018
Facebook's 'fixes'- meaningful or just skin deep?
users will soon see more local news and more posts from friends and
family as the company tries to give users more “meaningful social
interactions,” as CEO Mark Zuckerberg said recently. (AP Photo/Eraldo
New York (AP) - To Mark
Zuckerberg, fixing Facebook means many things - protecting users from
abuse, preventing elections meddling from malicious actors, weeding out
fake news and "making sure time spent on Facebook is well spent."
To critics, it's all that and then
some. But many of the steps Facebook has taken so far strike them as
insufficient, and in some cases aimed as much at keeping people glued to
the service down the line as at really addressing Facebook's underlying
Zuckerberg, who publicly sets
himself a "personal challenge" every year, is this year focused on
But fixing Facebook, critics say,
should also involve making it less addictive and its business model less
dependent on as many people logging in as often and for as long as
possible. And it's definitely not about creating new products for
younger kids who can't use its flagship platform, particularly amid all
the worries about Facebook's effects on the health of adults and teens.
The company has already announced a
slew of new "fixes." It's just far from clear if these tweaks will
produce lasting change, or if they're merely cosmetic adjustments
designed to generate goodwill while also keeping Facebook's business
Earlier this month, for instance,
Facebook said that it would show users more posts from friends and
family that it deems "meaningful," while deemphasizing posts from
publishers and businesses. The move did not affect paid advertising on
the site, and it follows Zuckerberg's declaration last year that
Facebook would focus on helping users find "meaningful" online groups.
Much of that, said eMarketer
analyst Debra Aho Williamson, is about "making Facebook a happier place
for users." Even though Facebook warned that its changes might result in
people spending less time with it, she suspects the company really hopes
users will stick around longer.
While Facebook enjoyed strong
revenue, profit and all-time stock highs in 2017, there are signs that
users - for whatever reason - may be pulling back from the service.
According to comScore, Facebook visitor spent an average of 910 minutes
on the platform in December 2017. That's down from 974 minutes in
December 2016 and from 1050 minutes in the same month in 2015.
At least some of this pullback
might be by design, and it might be temporary. On Wednesday, Zuckerberg
said the company's work to encourage "meaningful connections" has
already reduced total time spent on Facebook by "roughly 50 million
hours every day." Divided across Facebook's 1.4 billion daily active
users, that's about two minutes a day.
He added that the changes will make
Facebook's community - and business - "stronger over the long term."
Zuckerberg has previously said that it may take "months" for Facebook's
changes to make their way to users. Facebook had no immediate response
to broader criticism of its strategy.
In the fourth quarter, the company
said net income rose 20 percent on revenue that jumped 47 percent to $13
billion. Facebook saw a 14 percent increase in monthly users, to 2.13
billion; daily users also grew by 14 percent.
Facebook's other recent fixes
amount to somewhat murky efforts to boost the visibility of "trusted"
news sources - as determined by two-question user surveys and Facebook's
vast trove of data on user behavior - and of local news.
Such changes are "not meaningful,"
Marc Rotenberg, president of the nonprofit Electronic Privacy
Information Center and longtime Facebook critic, said in an email. "Mark
Zuckerberg will not solve the problems of Facebook by changing a few
Rotenberg would prefer Facebook to
give users more control how their data is collected and to back efforts
in Congress aimed at preventing foreign governments from influencing
Like other social media companies,
Facebook has said it will try to prevent election meddling and will
require disclosure on political ads - but it's been silent about
proposed legislation that would require it to do so.
Some of its other steps are also
half-measures. For instance, while it set up a page to let people see if
they followed or "liked" Russia propaganda accounts, it is not notifying
anyone proactively via email, the way Twitter is.
"Facebook's recent changes do not
address the threats to elections or public health," said Roger McNamee,
a venture capitalist and early Facebook investor who is now among the
company's most vocal critics, in an email.
"If the news feed changes had been
made in 2015, they might have had the perverse effect of magnifying
election interference," McNamee said. "And you cannot cure addiction by
doing more of the thing that got you addicted in the first place, which
is what Zuck recommends," he wrote.
Update February 10, 2018 - February 16, 2018
Buyers’ Guide: Choosing
a smart speaker for your home
Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, file photo, a new Amazon Echo is displayed
during a program announcing several new Amazon products by the company,
in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
New York (AP) - Move over, Alexa.
While Amazon pioneered the
internet-connected speaker that responds to voice commands, it now has
plenty of competition from other tech heavyweights. Even the original
Amazon Echo has six Alexa-powered alternatives vying for your attention
Digital assistants on these
speakers - Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana and
soon Apple’s Siri - can play music, set timers and read off your
calendar events. These speakers can also serve as a gateway to
controlling other internet-connected appliances, such as smart lights,
thermostats and even streaming video on TVs.
Here’s a guide to choosing one for
you or a loved one.
Amazon’s $100 Echo is smaller and
costs half what the original did at its 2014 debut. Variations range
from the $50 Echo Dot, which has a lower-quality speaker, to the $230
Echo Show, which has a touch screen.
Google’s speaker, the $129 Google
Home, no longer challenges the main Echo on price. Bargain hunters can
get the Google Home Mini for $49. Or splurge for high-quality speakers
in the $399 Google Home Max.
Early next year, Apple will compete
at the high end with the $349 HomePod. Beyond that, Microsoft’s
assistant appears on Invoke, a $200 speaker made by Samsung’s Harman
Kardon business. Samsung is also planning a speaker based on its own
Bixby assistant, but there’s no word yet on when.
Other manufacturers are also making
speakers with Alexa or Google Assistant built-in.
You can talk to Alexa, Google
Assistant and Cortana as you would a friend. Ask any of them, “Do I need
an umbrella today?” to get the forecast for rain. (Siri’s capabilities
on HomePod won’t be fully known until it comes out.)
Nonetheless, no single assistant
does everything well. Alexa, for instance, won’t let you set an alarm
more than 24 hours out; its rivals do.
All three are learning. At first,
Alexa was able to make calls only to other Alexa users. Now, it can dial
regular phone numbers, too, for hands-free conversations. Google
Assistant was the first to distinguish different voices, so it knows to
play music on your playlist, not your teenager’s. Alexa got that
capability a few months ago.
Cortana is still behind in many
ways, but all three are racing to get better. Don’t choose a device
solely on what it can do today, as any small lead could be ephemeral.
Of course, each device will work
best with its manufacturer’s own services.
Alexa, for instance, can read
Kindle e-books in her computer-generated voice. If you just finished
Chapter 23 on the Kindle e-reader or app, Alexa will continue with
Chapter 24. You can also buy toilet paper and other items - on Amazon,
of course - with a voice command.
Cortana, meanwhile, can make calls
using Microsoft’s Skype service. When you set up Invoke, Microsoft’s
Outlook.com calendar is automatically linked; you have to add Google’s
yourself. Google Assistant can read only your Google calendar, not
Apple’s or Microsoft’s. (Alexa is the only one to work with all three.)
The assistants will work with many
other services, though. Amazon is at the forefront in enabling
third-party capabilities, so Alexa can call you an Uber ride or track
progress on your Fitbit fitness tracker. Google and Microsoft are
catching up. Meanwhile, Amazon and Microsoft have agreed to let their
assistants summon each other; when that’s enabled soon, Alexa can
fulfill something Cortana can’t do on its own.
These speakers can, of course, play
music. If that’s important, pay more for a quality device. Invoke is
made by Harmon Kardon - experts in audio. Home Max and HomePod are also
designed with sound quality in mind.
As tempting as the $50 Echo Dot
might be, Alexa sounds as though she’s coming over a speaker phone. But
if you already have good wireless speakers, you can pair them to the Dot
with Bluetooth. You need Google’s $35 Chromecast Audio device to pair
other speakers with Home.
The three major assistants all work
with Spotify. Alexa and Google Assistant work with Pandora as well,
while Alexa and Cortana support TuneIn and iHeartRadio. Of course,
Amazon and Google work with their own music services, too. Alexa also
has Sirius XM.
Expect your kids to mess around
with the speaker - by asking an assistant to make fart noises, for
Parental controls are limited.
Microsoft says it’s still working on them. Google’s controls are limited
to its YouTube service. Amazon lets you set a PIN for ordering products
by voice. But a lot remains unfiltered - including news that’s not
Even among adults, there are
security and privacy considerations.
These speakers are always
listening, unless you hit a mute button. Companies insist that nothing
is sent over the internet unless the device hears a key word, such as
“Alexa” or “OK, Google.” You can view your history of voice requests.
Amazon and Google let you delete individual ones; with Microsoft, you
can only delete your entire history.
Another consideration: If you’re
living in close quarters, a nosy neighbor could hear the assistant
recite your doctor’s appointment or upcoming travel plans.
Update Saturday, February 3, 2018 - February 9, 2018
Smart homes: Not just for tech geeks anymore
Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, file photo, Google’s Rishi Chandra speaks about the
Google Home Max speaker at a Google event in San Francisco. Once people get
their first smart product, they are likely to buy more. They also tell
friends and neighbors about them, or perhaps buy some as gifts. (AP
Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
New York (AP) -
Internet-connected lights, locks and laundry machines are close to becoming
everyday household items, thanks in part to voice-activated speakers such as
Amazon’s Echo and Google Home.
Market research groups
are seeing increased sales of lights that turn off when you say “good
night,” smart locks that let in your friends before you get home and similar
smart-home gadgets. While the devices are still relatively expensive - you
can get six regular light bulbs for the price of a single smart one - demand
is likely to pick up further as prices fall.
“This holiday, it’s
starting to turn the corner into the mass market,” said Steve Koenig, senior
director of market research at the Consumer Technology Association, which
puts on the CES gadget show in Las Vegas each January.
Until recently, many
people viewed these products as unnecessary luxuries, if they knew about
them at all - not least because setting them up and using them sounded like
a lot of work.
What’s changed? The
growing popularity of smart speakers and their digital assistants, mainly.
From your couch, you can now ask the Echo’s Alexa assistant to play your
favorite music or check the weather. You can order pizza, track flights or
The more people use
such speakers, it turns out, the more things they want them to do. In some
cases, that leads directly to other smart gadgets for the home.
People who own an Echo
are definitely more likely to install other smart gadgets, said David Limp,
Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services. “They don’t start by
rewiring the whole home. They start with a switch.”
That switch, known as a
smart plug, can make any appliance or lamp remote-controllable by cutting or
restoring its power - just ask an assistant to turn it off or on. From
there, it’s only a small step toward products with smarts already built in,
ones that can dim the lights or even change colors based on mood - all
through the speaker’s assistant.
Now that people can
simply talk to their gadgets, they “no longer have to learn so much about
how to use a device and its intricacies,” said Kara Alexander, senior
product manager for Belkin’s WeMo smart products. “It’s much closer to how
we work with people in our home.”
Behind the growth
U.S. sales of smart
speakers have more than tripled to nearly 25 million in 2017, about 11
million coming during the holiday quarter, according to a CTA estimate.
They’re expected to grow further in 2018, to about 36 million, as Apple’s
HomePod joins the fray.
It helps that such
products are no longer limited to electronics stores such as Best Buy, but
are now available at Home Depot, Target and other general retailers. And
prices have dropped, with lower-end models costing just $50.
such as lights and security cameras are behind, but catching up.
“We’re still in the
early stages,” said Jeff Patton, a smart-home executive at General Electric.
While the gadgets aren’t yet “mainstream,” he said, average people are much
more aware of them.
Alex Hawkinson, CEO of
Samsung’s SmartThings smart-home business, said that about half of his new
customers are coming because of smart speakers “igniting a lot of
Once people get their
first smart product, such as a smart plug, they are likely to buy more,
market researchers say. They also tell friends and neighbors about them, and
might buy some as gifts.
Questions remain over
whether inviting internet-connected products to the home also opens the door
to hackers, notwithstanding manufacturers’ promises of security and privacy
protections. For that reason, Hawkinson said, smart lights tend to be more
popular than cameras and door locks.
Sharonda Dozier, a
28-year-old in Detroit, said her boyfriend wants a smart speaker, but she
worries: “What if it starts glitching and we’re having an argument or
something else is going on that’s personal?”
Analysts say the
privacy hurdle is surmountable, as people have shown a willingness to set
such concerns aside for convenience. The larger roadblocks, they say, are
cost and awareness.
A pack of two smart
plugs costs about $30. Smart bulbs start at $10; ones that let you control
brightness and color can cost three times that. Equipping a few rooms with
security cameras will set you back a few hundred dollars - or much more for
a premium model such as Nest’s Cam IQ.
Beyond the upfront
costs, some products carry ongoing service fees. That’s especially true of
security cameras that offer online video storage. Nest, which shares a
parent company with Google, charges $10 or $30 a month, depending on how
long video is kept.
Still, smart products
aren’t going to be right for everyone.
“I walk over and lock
the doors. I go over to the thermostat and just turn the thing down,” said
Rick Daigneault, 38, a former insurance research technician in Warwick,
Rhode Island. “People are getting lazier and lazier. You need a device to
think for you.”