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Update February 2018

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Update by Natrakorn Paewsoongnern

Saturday, February 24, 2018 - March 2, 2018

Senators grill social media companies over terrorist posts

Barbara Ortutay

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 their platforms.

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 done.

“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 the future?”

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?

Facebook 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 Peres, File)

Barbara Ortutay

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 problems.

Zuckerberg, who publicly sets himself a "personal challenge" every year, is this year focused on "fixing Facebook."

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 strong.

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 settings."

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 U.S. elections.

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

In this 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)

Anick Jesdanun

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 and dollars.

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.

The Choices

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.

The Smarts

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 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.

Sound Quality

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.

Security and privacy

Expect your kids to mess around with the speaker - by asking an assistant to make fart noises, for instance.

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 always pleasant.

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

In this 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)

Anick Jesdanun

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.

A powerful voice

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 play Jeopardy.

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.

Smart-home products 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 excitement.”

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.

Remaining hurdles

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.”



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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Senators grill social media companies over terrorist posts

Facebook's 'fixes'- meaningful or just skin deep?

Buyers’ Guide: Choosing a smart speaker for your home

Smart homes: Not just for tech geeks anymore


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