Big Tech’s danger to kids finally has Democrats, Republicans aligned – CNET

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House Republicans and Democrats slammed Big Tech over child safety issues.

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More than once over the course of a five-hour hearing before Congress on Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's parenting style became a point of focus for angry lawmakers. One House Republican asked if he had issues with his young daughters watching YouTube. Another asked if he lets them use Facebook's own services. 

"My daughters are five and three, and they don't use our products," Zuckerberg said, before adding that he lets his older child use Facebook's chat app for kids. 

The exchange typified a common refrain as the leaders of Facebook, Google and Twitter weathered a grilling from Congress -- the fourth such event in the last year where a Big Tech CEO took the hot seat -- over the misinformation that flows through their platforms. While lawmakers tried to advance their disparate agendas, one bipartisan theme emerged among Democrats and Republicans who are usually bitterly divided: the danger of Silicon Valley's services on children. 

"Big tech is essentially handing our children a lit cigarette and hoping they stay addicted for life," said Rep. Bill Johnson, an Ohio Republican. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Florida, peppered the CEOs with statistics that show a rising level of depression and suicidal thoughts among adolescents that coincides with the rise of social media. 

Historically, Big Tech products have been reserved for people 13 and older. But in the past few years, companies like Google and Facebook have tried to push the bounds of those limits, creating services for younger and younger kids. (Twitter, primarily used by older users, evaded scrutiny on the issue.)

YouTube Kids, launched in 2015, is billed as a child-safe version of the massive Google-owned site. Last month, Google said it's testing new parental controls for kids 9 and up to use the full scale version of YouTube. Facebook four years ago unveiled a version of its Messenger chat app for kids to talk to their parents and friends. Now, the social network is working on a version of Instagram for kids under 13.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he doesn't let his young daughters use the company's products, except Messenger for Kids.

Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET

Technical issues like content moderation or the opaque advertising model of social networks are hard concepts to grasp, so lawmakers have glommed on to an issue that's more visceral and universal in nature: the safety of our children. It isn't a topic that the tech executives can easily swat away. 

Even tech luminaries have sounded the alarm. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates talked about raising their kids with limited tech. Apple CEO Tim Cook, who has recently feuded with Facebook, has said he doesn't want his nephew on a social network.

"These hearings reflect an emboldened Congress and a tech industry that's on the defensive because the companies know that serious regulation and legislation is coming," said Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, a child advocacy nonprofit. "No one is going to take Mark Zuckerberg seriously as a voice for parents, but the truth is our kids lives are being dramatically shaped by social media and internet platforms."

'You exploit and profit'

Silicon Valley companies have received blowback in the past when they've waded into kids products. YouTube Kids faced controversy in 2017 when the service's filters failed to recognize some videos that feature disturbing imagery but are aimed at children -- like Mickey Mouse lying in a pool of blood, or PAW Patrol characters bursting into flames after a car crash. Facebook's Messenger for Kids, meanwhile, suffered a bug in 2019 that let children join group chats with strangers. 

Critics accuse Google and Facebook of skirting the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, a federal law that regulates user data collection from sites with users who are under 13 years old. In 2019, the US Federal Trade Commission slapped the company with a record $170 million fine, as well as new requirements, for YouTube's violation of COPPA. In response, the video site made major changes to how it treats kids videos, including limiting the data it collects from those views. 

The pushback from Congress on Thursday comes as lawmakers have drafted other legislation that deals with Silicon Valley's treatment of kids. 

In September, Castor introduced the Kids Internet Design and Safety (KIDS) Act, in the House. This bill banned "auto-play" sessions on websites and apps geared for children and young teens. The legislation also banned push alerts targeting children and prohibited platforms from recommending or amplifying certain content involving sexual, violent, or other adult material, including gambling or "other dangerous, abusive, exploitative, or wholly commercial content." 

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, who asked Zuckerberg if his kids use Facebook products, has introduced the Big Tech Accountability Platform, which is a road map for how Republicans are approaching regulating the tech industry. While Republicans are still concerned about the censoring of conservative voices online, they also are concerned with how the big platforms use their algorithms "to drive addiction," as well as the role the companies play "in child grooming and trafficking."

"Remember, our kids -- the users -- are the product," McMorris said Thursday. "You -- Big Tech -- are not advocates for children. You exploit and profit off them."

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NFTs are turning digital art, tweets and memes into multimillion-dollar assets – CNET

Artist Ryan Maloney had planned a conventional launch for his latest project, a series of collector cards called Beastly Ballers that feature cartoon creatures decked out in football gear. The New Canaan, Connecticut-based illustrator was going to use a Chinese printer to package the cards; then he'd market them online and sell them at $4.99 for a pack of 10.

Instead, Maloney skipped the physical product all together. He listed the card images on the online marketplace OpenSea as NFTs, or nonfungible tokens, the digital assets that are upending the art world. Maloney had followed the rise of the technology and decided to give it a try.  

He began to rack up bids after a day or two. One card, with a drawing of a yeti named Yeta wearing a helmet and pads, sold for $85. In all, he's tallied more than $700 in sales on 14 cards. For a working artist, it's a meaningful haul, and more than he would've made going the traditional route.

"Artists are always looking for ways to make money off of their work," Maloney says. "Once the word got out on crypto art, the gold rush really began."

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A piece by the artist Beeple was auctioned off as an NFT at Christie's for $69.3 million.

Christie's

The gold rush for NFTs -- essentially cryptological certificates of authenticity -- is well underway. On Thursday, Christie's, the 255-year-old British auction house, closed the sale of its first-ever digital-only art piece, a composite of 5,000 pieces created over as many days by the artist Beeple. The final price tag is an eye-popping $69.3 million. As Maloney's story highlights, however, the implications of NFTs ripple far beyond the multimillion-dollar hammer prices set at fancy auction houses. 

NFTs bring to digital art a one-of-a-kind or limited-edition quality that's been lost in the copy-paste, post-repost world of the internet. Each work of art is associated with a proof of ownership that's recorded on a blockchain, the distributed ledgers most commonly associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. The authentications, which can be applied to images, videos, music and other digital files, designate the original. Copies and copies of copies might abound on the web. But only one person can lay claim to the NFT behind it.

The technology is beginning to touch every corner of art, entertainment and media. In sports, a clip of Lebron James ruining a fast break sold for $100,000 on Top Shot, the NBA's marketplace for highlight reels. In music, Kings of Leon last week became the first band to announce the release of an NFT album, with three types of tokens that include special artwork and perks. The pop star Shawn Mendez last month announced a line of digital goods in the form of NFTs. In the media world, the Associated Press is auctioning off an NFT electoral map of the 2020 US presidential contest, which uses data that was published on the blockchain. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is even selling the first tweet on the platform as an NFT.

Proponents say NFTs have the potential to revolutionize the way artists at every level can sell and distribute their work. In turn, NFTs could change the way people interact with and consume art in the digital era. 

The potential is huge, says Joe Saavedra, CEO of Infinite Objects, a company that makes frames for looping videos and other digital art so that the works can be displayed in homes and museums. His company collaborated with Beeple on an earlier NFT release, offering what he calls a "physical twin" frame to display the NFT, with a QR code on the frame that links to the token. 

"Across the board, everyone is going to have to reckon with how to navigate this space," he says. "Art is the tip of the iceberg."

'A connection'

NFTs are powerful because they tackle deeply rooted issues in the digital realm: ownership and compensation. 

The internet grew into the place we know now because data could be easily replicated and user-generated content proliferated on the web. YouTubers and TikTok users have amassed huge followings by giving away content, which is sometimes professionally produced and expensive to make. Napster brought the music industry to its knees because it obliterated the business model when artists and labels never expected it. Facebook rants come free of charge, whether you like them or not. 

Sure, you can support online creators by donating to their Patreon accounts. But NFTs provide another avenue of connection between creator and fan. "NFTs give digital artists the agency to sell their work with the assurance of authenticity and rarity," says Meghan Doyle, a specialist in the postwar and contemporary department at Christie's. "They are creating a new way forward." 

In a way, NFTs restore a dynamic that's sustained the art world for centuries. An art collector might covet an original Basquiat -- instead of a print of a Basquiat -- so they could have the version the artist stood over while creating it. An NFT buyer might feel closer to what the artist has deemed the "authentic" version, even though it can be identically reproduced. NFTs can also work like rare reprints, with only a finite amount of certified copies. You can listen to the Beatles' White Album on Spotify, but owning an original pressing might transport you back to the recording session. 

"Humans put real meaning on the original," says Coye Cheshire, a social psychologist at the UC Berkeley School of Information. "There's a connection. It connects them to a time and place."

NFTs are getting a lot of attention right now, but they aren't new. The technology really took off in 2017, after the blockchain Ethereum introduced a new standard that supported the unique tokens. That year, a Canadian studio called Dapper Labs created a game called CryptoKitties that allowed people to buy, sell and collect virtual cats. The game was a hit and popularized NFTs. In 2020, the value of the NFT market was estimated at $315 million, according to a report by Cointelegraph.

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Out of gas

There are downsides to NFTs. Artists complain of the sometimes steep fees that come with using the technology. 

The most popular blockchain for NFTs right now is Ethereum, and a "gas" fee is charged anytime a transaction is made on the network. The name comes from the cost of the computation needed to process transactions -- akin to gas that fuels a car to make it run. Some artists worry about the environmental impact that comes with the energy consumption needed to make those transactions. Since the blockchain is decentralized, the price of gas fees is determined by several factors, including supply, demand and the value of Ethereum. 

Gas fees come at various points in the process. When artists join a marketplace, sometimes they're charged a onetime gas fee on their first listing. Buyers, too, have to pay a fee when they purchase a work.  

"It suddenly becomes very difficult for new artists to come in and list a piece," says Mateen Soudagar, an Australian investor who writes a blog about NFTs. It can hurt the market, too. He says fees have skyrocketed in the past to $200 or $300. "I'm not going to pay $200 for a piece of art selling for $50." To ease the burden for artists, some marketplaces have introduced gas-free NFT creation. 

Soudagar has been involved with NFTs for years, first investing in virtual land in games. He believes video games will be the next frontier for NFTs. The technology will give people the ability to buy unique items, he says, like rare early skins, or armor or weapons for avatars. 

Maloney, the illustrator from Connecticut, says he's willing to put up with high gas fees if it means getting more of his work out there and helping NFTs become more mainstream. He works with toy companies through the creative agency he founded, MediaLuv. He said he's had conversations with clients interested in experimenting with NFTs.

"I feel like this is the way trading all goods and services will be in the future," Maloney says. "It's almost too good to be true."

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YouTube will lift Trump suspension when ‘risk of violence has decreased,’ CEO says – CNET

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YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said Thursday that former President Donald Trump will eventually be allowed to post videos on the platform again, after being suspended for almost two months.

Trump was suspended from YouTube on January 12, days after the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol, for breaking the company's rules on inciting violence. The punishment prohibits Trump from uploading videos and live streams and disables comments on his videos. Since then, YouTube has extended the suspension twice.

On Thursday, Wojcicki said the suspension won't be permanent. "I do want to confirm that we will lift the suspension of the channel," she said during an event hosted by the Atlantic Council, a Washington, DC-based think tank. "We will lift the suspension of the Donald Trump channel, when we determine that the risk of violence has decreased."

She said that moment hasn't come, citing warnings on Wednesday from the Capitol police of another potential attack on Thursday. Some followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which baselessly contends Satan-worshipping cannibals and pedophiles aimed to take down Trump, believe the former president would return to the White House on March 4. "It's pretty clear that that elevated violence risk still remains," Wojcicki said.

Silicon Valley giants had sought to rein in Trump as the platforms reckoned with their role in the Capitol riots. Aside from YouTube's suspension, Twitter has permanently banned Trump, while Facebook indefinitely blocked the president's account while its oversight board weighs the decision. Apple, Google and Amazon have also taken action against Parler, a social network popular with far-right and extremist users, which rioters used to help plan the attack. 

YouTube has a three-strikes policy when it comes to policing its platform. Three infractions within a 90-day period results in permanently being kicked off the platform. The first strike comes with at least a one-week ban from posting content. The second strike typically comes with a two-week ban.

When Trump's account is reinstated, he will have one strike and be treated like any other user on the platform, Wojcicki said.

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Lawmakers argue to update antitrust laws to rein in tech giants – CNET

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House lawmakers held another tech antitrust hearing.

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The dominance of Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon was again in the congressional spotlight on Thursday, as lawmakers discussed ways to reform antitrust laws to rein in Big Tech.

At a hearing before a House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, the lawmakers examined the "gatekeeper power" of giant Silicon Valley companies -- the first in a series of three hearings aimed at modernizing antitrust laws in the digital era. 

"Mark my words," Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said to kick off the hearing. "Change is coming. Laws are coming."

Thursday's event was the subcommittee's first Big Tech antitrust hearing of the year, following a marquee hearing in July when the CEOs of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple appeared virtually before the group. That gathering was the culmination of a more-than-yearlong investigation by the subcommittee, led by Cicilline, into the market dominance of the tech giants.

In that time, the subcommittee gathered more than 1.3 million documents from the tech giants, competitors and antitrust enforcement agencies for the investigation. Following the hearing, the subcommittee released a 449-page report accusing the four companies of "abuses of monopoly power."

Thursday's hearing had less star power than the July event, gathering industry experts, academics and leaders from smaller tech companies, instead of the Big Tech CEOs. Though more low-key, the hearing underscored the ongoing interest that lawmakers have in reining in big tech, suggesting the effort hasn't ceased since the Biden administration took power last month. 

All four of the Big Tech companies are in the antitrust crosshairs from lawmakers. With Facebook, regulators are looking into the company's acquisitions of competitors like Instagram and WhatsApp. For Amazon, Congress has largely focused on the company's private-label business, which sells Amazon brands of clothing, food and consumer goods like batteries and diapers. Apple has seen scrutiny over the cut it takes from software developers on its app store. For Google, regulators are focused mainly on the search giant's dominance in digital advertising. 

Some of the witnesses on Thursday argued for stronger "interoperability" practices from the tech giants, so consumers could more easily choose services from smaller platforms as Big Tech faces scandals related to data privacy. One example would be Facebook opening up users' friend lists to rivals, so people could use alternative social networks without losing touch with existing contacts, said Charlotte Slaiman, competition policy director at the nonprofit Public Knowledge.

"Users are already frustrated by not having their privacy protected on these platforms," Slaiman said. "They might like to leave, but they feel locked in."

Another witness, Hal Singer of the firm Econ One, suggested setting up a tribunal so entrepreneurs could argue their cases when they feel major tech platforms have discriminated against rival products in favor of their own. The entrepreneur could argue for damages and other relief. 

The second in the trio of hearings, which will take place in "a couple of weeks," will focus on the "crisis of local journalism" and the impact of the tech platforms on the news business, Cicilline said. Facebook and Google have been embroiled in a tense situation in Australia, a country that's proposed a bill that would require platforms to pay publishers for posting their content. In response to the proposal, Google threatened to pull its search engine from Australia, and Facebook disabled news sharing in the country for several days.

The CEOs of Facebook and Google face other pressure from Congress. Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, as well as Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, have been called to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 25. The topic of the hearing will be misinformation on online platforms. 

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Google fires Ethical AI co-lead, months after controversial ousting of its other leader – CNET

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"I'm fired," researcher Margaret Mitchell wrote on Twitter.

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Google on Friday fired Margaret Mitchell, who co-led the company's Ethical AI team, more than two months after the controversial ousting of Timnit Gebru, the team's other leader. The move escalates a tense situation at a Google division already in turmoil.

Mitchell had been the subject of an investigation by Google for her treatment of company data. The Google manager had reportedly been using automated software to go through her old messages to find examples of discriminatory treatment toward Gebru. Mitchell said she had been locked out of her corporate account for five weeks while Google conducted the probe.

"I'm fired," Mitchell wrote Friday on Twitter. Mitchell didn't respond to a request for comment.

Google confirmed the dismissal. "After conducting a review of this manager's conduct, we confirmed that there were multiple violations of our code of conduct, as well as of our security policies, which included the exfiltration of confidential business-sensitive documents and private data of other employees," a spokeswoman said in a statement.

Mitchell's firing comes as Google faces blowback over the ouster of Gebru, one of the few prominent Black women in the field. Gebru in December announced she was fired over a research paper that calls out risks for bias in AI, including in systems used by Google's search engine. Gebru also emailed a group of Google employees, criticizing the company's diversity and equity programs. 

Gebru's exit has caused widespread outrage among Google's rank-and-file workforce and around the broader tech industry. Nearly 2,700 Googlers have signed an open letter in support of Gebru, and members of Gebru's former team at Google sent a letter to CEO Sundar Pichai demanding she be reinstated.

Google on Friday also said it wrapped up another internal investigation into its treatment of Gebru. The company said it worked with outside counsel for the investigation, but declined to share the findings of the probe. The Google spokeswoman didn't answer specific questions about how the investigation was conducted. 

Following the review, Google said it'll make changes to its human resource and diversity policies. The company said it'll tie diversity goals to performance reviews of vice presidents and up. Google also said it's doubling its team involved in employee retention. The company will consult HR specialists to deal with employee exits that could be controversial. 

The policy changes on Friday drew criticism from Gebru and her supporters. 

"I write an email asking for things, I get fired, and then after a 3-month investigation, they say they should probably do some of the things I presumably got fired asking for, without holding anyone accountable for their actions," Gebru wrote on Twitter. In another tweet, she added, "There is ZERO accountability. ZERO."

Gebru didn't respond to a request for additional comment. 

The changes were announced a day after Google said it's restructuring its teams that focus on the responsible development of AI. The new team will be led by Marian Croak, a vice president of engineering at the tech giant. 

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Google settles with US labor department over alleged hiring and pay discrimination – CNET

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Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. 

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google will pay almost $2.6 million to settle claims of "systemic compensation and hiring discrimination" at offices in California and Washington, the US Department of Labor said Monday. 

The department said it found pay disparities that affected Google female engineering employees, as well as female and Asian job applicants. As part of the settlement, Google will provide $1.3 million in back pay and interest to almost 2,600 female engineers, and $1.2 million to almost 3,000 applicants who weren't hired. 

"Pay discrimination remains a systemic problem," Jenny R. Yang, program director of the department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance, said in a statement. "Employers must conduct regular pay equity audits to ensure that their compensation systems promote equal opportunity."

Google also agreed to allocate $1.25 million in pay-equity adjustments over the next five years in several of its offices in the US, including in New York and Seattle. The audits by the labor department took place between 2014 and 2017.

"We believe everyone should be paid based upon the work they do, not who they are, and invest heavily to make our hiring and compensation processes fair and unbiased," a Google spokeswoman said in a statement. "For the past eight years, we have run annual internal pay equity analysis to identify and address any discrepancies." 

Google's global full-time work force is 68% men and 32%, according to a company diversity report released in May. In the US, the company reported an increase in Black employees to 3.7% from 3.3% a year earlier, and Latino employees to 5.9% from 5.7%. The company doesn't give absolute figures for demographic groups. 

The settlement comes as Google has faced other labor issues over the past few months. In December, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Google for allegedly retaliating against activists workers. The complaint claims Google broke US labor laws by surveilling, interrogating and firing activist employees. 

The company has also been roiled by the dismissal of Timnit Gebru, a prominent artificial intelligence researcher and one of the only Black women in the field, who said she was fired over a research paper that calls out risks for bias in AI -- including in systems used by Google's search engine. Her exit caused widespread outrage among Google's rank-and-file workforce and around the broader tech industry.

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Even before GameStop stock frenzy, Robinhood raised a lot of red flags – CNET

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Robinhood has long been criticized for allegedly turning investing into a game. 

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Robinhood, the stock trading app at the center of the bizarre GameStop saga, has long been controversial. Even before the run-up of GameStop and other stocks like AMC and BlackBerry elevated the fee-free service to a household name, Robinhood had been accused of downplaying the risks of stock trading, essentially presenting complex financial instruments like a game in its effort to draw in young people and new investors. 

That strategy has had tragic outcomes. In June 2020, a college student named Alexander Kearns killed himself after seeing a negative balance of more than $700,000 in his Robinhood account, though some of his trades were incomplete. In a suicide note, Kearns named Robinhood, asking how it allowed him to take on so much risk.

"How was a 20 year old with no income able to get assigned almost a million dollars worth of leverage?" the note read. "There was no intention to take this much risk."

It's easy to see how novice traders like Kearns get sucked into Robinhood, which uses Silicon Valley growth-hack tactics to command user attention. The service encourages transactions by showering digital confetti when trades are made. New members are given a free stock when they sign up. Pair the dopamine rush of a game with the herd mentality of social media -- a Reddit forum called r/WallStreetBets has served as the virtual water cooler for whipping up recent activity -- and it becomes apparent how a swarm of traders could push shares of an ailing video game retailer more than 800% higher than they were two weeks earlier.

Coye Cheshire, a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information, says no one knows how the situation on the stock market -- which has now swept up shares of AMC, Koss and others -- will play out. But if major hedge funds, which were the target of the r/WallStreetBets mob, can get wiped out, so can a lot of regular people.

"The app makes [trading] seem fun and easy, but the market is really complicated," Cheshire said. "That can be dangerous."

Now playing: Watch this: AOC looks into Robinhood's business practices

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Robinhood, which didn't respond to a request for comment for this story, was founded in 2013 by former Stanford University roommates Baiju Bhatt and Vladmir Tenev. The app was a pioneer in commission-free online trading with a stated mission to "democratize finance." The product was tailored to serve that ethos and appeal to people with little experience in the stock market. 

Using the app, traders can swipe to confirm share purchases, get notifications and read market news. In one tutorial on YouTube, a vlogger describes the app as "like Tinder, but for things that make you money." In May, the company said it has more than 13 million accounts.

Amid the recent stock market chaos, Robinhood on Thursday disabled trading for GameStop, AMC and other companies targeted by the Reddit crowd. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, slammed the decision as unfair to little investors. The company later said it was a "risk-management decision."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a fierce critic of Wall Street, alluded to the danger of Robinhood's gamification during an interview on CNBC the same day. She slammed "outfits like Robinhood that say, 'We're going to give you prizes to come join with us.'" Warren also criticized the app for requiring users to sign arbitration agreements that prevent problems from being publicly disclosed. "That doesn't create a healthy market," she said.

Robinhood has already taken heat from lawmakers and regulators over the last few months. Rep. Sean Casten, who represents Kearns' district, told the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission that the app's documentation didn't do enough to explain the risks involved in trading. Robinhood later paid $65 million to settle with the SEC for failing to adequately disclose its revenue sources.

Last month, securities regulators in Massachusetts sued Robinhood Robinhood, saying its gamelike features "encourage and entice continuous and repetitive use of its trading application." 

"Treating this like a game and luring young and inexperienced customers to make more and more trades is not only unethical," Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin said at the time, "but also falls far short of the standards we require in Massachusetts." 

The pandemic has only helped Robinhood's popularity. People have sheltered at home with little to do. Many have lost their jobs. Having fun on an app with the promise of making money is a potent lure. 

Downloads of the app have soared alongside GameStop's stock. It was the No. 1 free app on both Apple's and Google's app stores last week. If Robinhood is a game, more people are coming to play.

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Google to open up its office facilities for COVID-19 vaccine clinics – CNET

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Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. 

Richard Nieva/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Monday said the company will make its office facilities available for COVID-19 vaccination clinics, as tech giants aim to speed up distribution efforts in the US.

The company said it's partnering with the health care provider One Medical for the clinics, which will be opened "as needed" at Google buildings, parking lots and open spaces. For now, Google is targeting its campuses in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the company is headquartered; Los Angeles; New York City; and Kirkland, Washington, outside of Seattle. 

Google is working with local officials and public health authorities in those cities to set up the clinics once enough doses become available, and the company said it plans to expand the sites nationally in time. 

"While there is much uncertainty still ahead, the development of multiple safe vaccines in such a short time gives us reason for hope," Pichai wrote in a blog post. "We recognize that getting vaccines to people is a complex problem to solve, and we're committed to doing our part."

Google joins a growing list of tech giants offering up their largely unused real estate for help with vaccine distribution, as the majority of their employees continue to work from home. Amazon last week offered up its facilities, while asking for vaccines for workers at the company's fulfillment centers, data centers and Whole Foods grocery stores, which Amazon owns. Microsoft also said it will open up its campus in Redmond, Washington, for vaccinations. 

The Biden administration has vowed to administer 100 million vaccine doses during the president's first 100 days in office. The coronavirus has killed more than 418,000 Americans over the course of the pandemic.

Google on Monday also said it's offering other services to help with the vaccination effort. The company said it will list regional information on its search and maps services, like whether a referral is required for a vaccination. Google will first display that information in Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas in "coming weeks" before adding other states to the list.

The company also said it will use artificial intelligence from its Google Cloud division to help health care providers and pharmacies with the logistics of vaccine distribution. That includes detecting changes in the temperature of vaccine doses, which must be stored in cool conditions. Google also said it's committing more than $150 million in free ads and other investments to public health agencies and nonprofits promoting vaccine education.

Google has struggled at times with anti-vax content on its platforms. YouTube, which is owned by Google, in October banned misinformation about COVID-19 vaccinations, removing content that baselessly claims the vaccine will cause infertility or implant microchips in people's bodies. 

Lawmakers have already put pressure on tech giants to stop the spread of misinformation concerning vaccinations more generally. In 2019, Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, wrote an open letter to Pichai urging him to fix the problem of anti-vax content on the search giant's platforms.

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Google parent Alphabet to shut down Loon, its internet-beaming balloon project – CNET

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Alphabet is shutting down its Loon project.

Alphabet

Google parent company Alphabet said Thursday that it's shutting down Loon, a project aimed at beaming down internet connectivity from balloons floating in the stratosphere.

The project was born out of X, Alphabet's self-described moonshot factory for experimental projects, which has also developed the company's driverless car and delivery drone services. Alphabet, however, deemed Loon's business model unsustainable and said it couldn't get costs low enough to continue operation. 

"The road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped," Astro Teller, who leads X, said in a blog post. "So we've made the difficult decision to close down Loon."

Loon, which debuted in 2013, was spun out of the X division three years ago. The project was meant to serve rural parts of the world that don't have robust broadband infrastructure, serving as flying cellular towers. 

For Google, the effort wasn't just about altruism. If successful, it would've been a way to bolster the tech giant's massive software business. The more people the company can get online, the more people it can persuade to use its services, like search, maps and YouTube. 

Before shuttering, Loon had already begun commercial deployment. In July, the company launched a pilot service in Kenya. Before that, the technology had been tested in emergency situations, including in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria swept across the island in 2017.

Teller said employees who worked on the project would be reassigned within Google and Alphabet, but a small group of workers would stay on the Loon team to wind down the Kenya program. 

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Google cuts corporate access of AI researcher following Timnit Gebru dustup – CNET

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Angela Lang/CNET

Google has locked the corporate account of artificial intelligence researcher Margaret Mitchell, the leader of its Ethical AI unit. Mitchell had criticized the search giant after the controversial departure of another prominent AI researcher at the company, Timnit Gebru.

Mitchell had been using automated software to go through her old messages to find examples of discriminatory treatment toward Gebru, according to Axios, which first reported the news late Tuesday. 

Google said it's investigating the situation.

"Our security systems automatically lock an employee's corporate account when they detect that the account is at risk of compromise due to credential problems or when an automated rule involving the handling of sensitive data has been triggered," a spokesman said in a statement. "In this instance, yesterday our systems detected that an account had exfiltrated thousands of files and shared them with multiple external accounts."

Mitchell didn't respond to a request for comment.

Last month, Gebru, who co-led Google's Ethical AI group and is one of the only Black women in the field, said she was fired over a research paper that calls out risks for bias in AI -- including in systems used by Google's search engine. Gebru also emailed a group of Google employees, criticizing the company's diversity and equity programs. 

Gebru's exit has caused widespread outrage among Google's rank-and-file workforce and around the broader tech industry. Nearly 2,700 Googlers have signed an open letter in support of Gebru. Members of Gebru's former team at Google also sent a letter to CEO Sundar Pichai demanding she be reinstated.

"I have not seen a company that has this little shame in a while," Gebru wrote on Twitter after Mitchell's corporate account was locked.

The Alphabet Workers Union, which launched earlier this month, on Wednesday condemned Google's actions. "Regardless of the outcome of the company's investigation, the ongoing targeting of leaders in this organization calls into question Google's commitment to ethics -- in AI and in their business practices," the union said in a blog post. Unlike a conventional union, it doesn't have collective bargaining rights, and one of its main goals is to push Alphabet to act ethically, its founders say. 

Google has dealt with other labor issues in the last few weeks. In December, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Google for allegedly retaliating against activists workers. The complaint claims Google broke US labor laws by surveilling, interrogating and firing activist employees. 

The filing stemmed from terminations Google had made a year before, when the company dismissed employees who worked on responses to its hiring of a consultancy with a history of anti-union efforts. Google said the employees were fired because of violations to Google's data policies. The NLRB alleges some of those policies are unlawful. 

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