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Gadgets

Tesla debuts ‘FSD’ subscription for $199 per month


The interior of a Tesla Model S is shown in autopilot mode in San Francisco, California, U.S., April 7, 2016.

Alexandria Sage | Reuters

Tesla just introduced a way for customers to subscribe to its premium driver assistance package for $199 a month, rather than paying $10,000 up front.

Marketed as Full Self-Driving capability (or FSD), the driver assistance system does not make Tesla’s electric vehicles safe for use without an attentive driver behind the wheel.

One eligible owner shared a notice they received from Tesla on Friday with CNBC, which said:

“Full Self-Driving capability is now available as a monthly subscription. Upgrade your Model Y … for $199 (excluding taxes) to experience features like Navigate on Autopilot, Auto Lane Change, Auto Park, Summon and Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control. The currently enabled features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous.”

While this person’s Tesla Model Y possessed all components needed to start a FSD subscription, other owners lamented that they would have to pay $1,500 to upgrade their Tesla’s computer to the Hardware 3, or HW3, version the company first showed off at its Autonomy Day event in April 2019 in order to subscribe.

Customers who previously bought Tesla’s Enhanced Autopilot package, which it is not selling any longer, can subscribe to FSD for a lower price of $99 a month but may require the HW3 upgrade.

In a subscription agreement on Tesla’s website, Elon Musk’s electric vehicle maker cautions that, among other things:

  • FSD features are “subject to change, limited by region,” and can only be used on Tesla vehicles that have newer hardware and Autopilot technology installed.
  • Drivers are responsible for tolls, parking or other traffic violations that happen in a Tesla that’s operating with FSD features engaged.
  • Tesla can increase the price for a subscription any time, but will give drivers a one-month advance notice before billing them at a new rate.
  • Owners can cancel FSD any time but the company won’t prorate their monthly payment if they do.
  • Tesla can suspend or cancel a driver’s FSD subscription if they use the technology, “for anything unauthorized or inappropriate” or for non-payment.

All newer Teslas include a standard set of driver assistance features dubbed Autopilot. The Autopilot or standard features enable a Tesla to “steer, accelerate and brake automatically within its lane,” according to Tesla’s website.

The premium FSD package enables more elaborate features like Smart Summon, which lets a driver call their Tesla to come pick them up from across a parking lot or down a long driveway using the Tesla mobile app like a remote control.

Tesla has also been promising that a feature called “Autosteer on city streets” is coming soon to drivers with FSD. But the company is far behind its original and even revised goals for delivering a sophisticated “robotaxi.”

Musk promised a hands-free, cross country Tesla driverless demo in 2017. His company has yet to complete that mission. In 2019, Musk predicted that Tesla would be making autonomous robotaxis in 2020, and cars without steering wheels or pedals in 2021.

On a first-quarter earnings call, Tesla CFO Zachary Kirkhorn said, “If you look at the size of our fleet and you look at the number of customers who did not purchase FSD up front or on a lease and maybe want to experiment with FSD, this is a great option for them.” He added, “As the portfolio of subscription customers builds up, then that becomes a pretty strong business for us over time.”

To refine unfinished driver assistance features, Tesla gives some owners early access to a beta version of FSD — effectively turning thousands of everyday drivers into software testers on public roads in the U.S.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for further information, including whether FSD subscribers will be eligible to participate in the FSD Beta program.

In recent months, as CNBC previously reported, Tesla has also been telling regulators at the California DMV and NHTSA that its FSD, and FSD Beta technology amounts to a “level 2” system — a reference to vehicle automation categories written by a professional association for engineers, SAE International.

According to the SAE’s standards, last updated in May 2021, drivers of a level 2 vehicle are expected to “constantly supervise” it, including by steering, braking or accelerating “as needed to maintain safety.” Level 2 vehicles have features like automated lane centering that works in conjunction with adaptive cruise control. By contrast, a level 4 vehicle may not need a steering wheel or pedals and can operate as a local, driverless taxi in limited conditions like fair weather.



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Facebook scientists say they can tell where deepfakes come from


An example of a deepfake created by CNBC

Kyle Walsh

Artificial intelligence researchers at Facebook and Michigan State University say they have developed a new piece of software that can reveal where so-called deepfakes have come from.

Deepfakes are videos that have been digitally altered in some way with AI. They’ve become increasingly realistic in recent years, making it harder for humans to determine what’s real on the internet, and indeed Facebook, and what’s not.

The Facebook researchers claim that their AI software — announced on Wednesday — can be trained to establish if a piece of media is a deepfake or not from a still image or a single video frame. Not only that, they say the software can also identify the AI that was used to create the deepfake in the first place, no matter how novel the technique.

Tal Hassner, an applied research lead at Facebook, told CNBC that it’s possible to train AI software “to look at the photo and tell you with a reasonable degree of accuracy what is the design of the AI model that generated that photo.”

The research comes after MSU realized last year that it’s possible to determine what model of camera was used to take a specific photo — Hassner said that Facebook’s work with MSU builds on this.

‘Cat and mouse game’

Deepfakes are bad news for Facebook, which is constantly battling to keep fake content off of its main platform, as well as Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp. The company banned deepfakes in Jan. 2020 but it struggles to swiftly remove all of them from its platform.

Hassner said that detecting deepfakes is a “cat and mouse game,” adding that they’re becoming easier to produce and harder to detect.

One of the main applications of deepfakes so far has been in pornography where a person’s face is swapped onto someone else’s body, but they’ve also been used to make celebrities appear as though they’re doing or saying something they’re not.

Indeed, a set of hyper realistic and bizarre Tom Cruise deepfakes on TikTok have now been watched over 50 million times, with many struggling to see how they’re not real.

Today, it’s possible for anyone to make their own deepfakes using free apps like FakeApp or Faceswap.

Deepfake expert Nina Schick, who has advised U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, said at the CogX AI conference on Monday that detecting deepfakes isn’t easy.

In a follow up email she told CNBC that Facebook and MSU’s work “looks like a pretty big deal in terms of detection” but stressed that it’s important to find out how well deepfake detection models actually work in the wild.

“It’s all well and good testing it on a set of training data in a controlled environment,” she said, adding that “one of the big challenges seems that there are easy ways to fool detection models — i.e. by compressing an image or a video.”

Tassner admitted that it might be possible for a bad actor to get around the detector. “Would it be able to defeat our system? I assume that it would,” he said.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of deepfakes. Those that are wholly generated by AI, such as the fake human faces on www.thispersondoesnotexist.com, and others that use elements of AI to manipulate authentic media.

Schick questioned whether Facebook’s tool would work on the latter, adding that “there can never be a one size fits all detector.” But Xiaoming Liu, Facebook’s collaborator at Michigan State, said the work has “been evaluated and validated on both cases of deepfakes.” Liu added that the “performance might be lower” in cases where the manipulation only happens in a very small area.

Chris Ume, the synthetic media artist behind the Tom Cruise deepfakes, said at CogX on Monday that deepfake technology is moving rapidly.

“There are a lot of different AI tools and for the Tom Cruise, for example, I’m combining a lot of different tools to get the quality that you see on my channel,” he said.

It’s unclear how or indeed if Facebook will look to apply Tassner’s software to its platforms. “We’re not at the point of even having a discussion on products,” said Tassner, adding that there’s several potential use cases including spotting coordinated deepfake attacks.

“If someone wanted to abuse them (generative models) and conduct a coordinated attack by uploading things from different sources, we can actually spot that just by saying all of these came from the same mold we’ve never seen before but it has these specific properties, specific attributes,” he said.

As part of the work, Facebook said it has collected and catalogued 100 different deepfake models that are in existence.



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Microsoft executive says workers slept in data centers during lockdown


System administrator Alexander Landmann carries a server in the computer centre of Deutsche Bahn in Berlin on Oct. 22, 2020.

Britta Pedersen | picture alliance | Getty Images

Microsoft employees slept in the software company’s data centers during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, an executive said on Wednesday.

While many top technology companies directed their employees to work from home after Covid showed up in the U.S. in 2020, some employees were so important that they had to work on site. That was the case for a select few who worked at the locations containing the servers for online services like Microsoft Teams, as well as public-cloud infrastructure powering third-party customers’ applications.

“I heard amazing stories about people actually sleeping in data centers,” Kristen Roby Dimlow, corporate vice president for total rewards, performance and human resources business insights, said during a conversation with Morgan Stanley analysts Josh Baer and Mark Carlucci. “In certain countries there was huge lockdown, and so we would have our own employees choose to sleep in the data center because they were worried they’d get stuck at a roadblock, trying to go home.”

Generally data centers are not places where people sleep. Aisles can be hot from air coming off of servers, and cold because of air conditioning to prevent machines from overheating. A Microsoft spokesperson would not say where employees slept in data centers or how many did it.

The company changed several aspects of work at its data centers because of the pandemic, Noelle Walsh, corporate vice president for the company’s Cloud Operations and Innovation group, said in an interview with CNBC in April.

Employees were allowed to work from home if they felt anxious about coming to data centers, Walsh said. If people didn’t want to take the bus, the company provided transportation to and from data centers and even allowed people to stay in hotels, she said.

“We had to in some cases go to shift work, day and night, to get the work done within the same schedule,” Walsh said.

WATCH: Why data centers were the top real estate sector of 2020



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Gadgets

Ride-hailing giant Didi wants to be more than just the Uber of China


A user opens the Didi Chuxing ride-hailing smartphone app in Shanghai, China, on Sept. 18, 2020.

Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

BEIJING — China’s version of Uber, Didi Chuxing, is trying to use car travel as a way into multiple aspects of daily life from grocery shopping to finance.

Didi filed Thursday to list in New York in what many expect could be the largest initial public offering in the world this year. Founded in 2012, the company ranks among the five largest privately held start-ups in the world and counts SoftBank, Uber and Tencent as major investors.

Smartphone-based ride hailing in China remains Didi’s primary business, generating $20.4 billion in revenue last year amid overall net losses of $1.62 billion, according to the prospectus. But as Didi swung to a profit in the first quarter of this year, the revenue share of “other initiatives” rose to 5%, from 4% for all of 2020. That’s up from 1.2% in 2018.

A quick look at Didi’s smartphone app reveals a slew of other products tied to bike sharing, movers, personal finance and gas stations. The array of icons resembles that of Alibaba-affiliated Alipay, whose app is not only a mobile pay platform but one that allows users to book airplane tickets and pay for utilities. Similarly, Southeast Asia’s prevailing ride-hailing app Grab delivers food and wants to become a regional leader in mobile payments.

Eight kinds of car services

Didi is the primary app for ride hailing in China, even with the entry of several other players, including ones that focus on the high-end (Shouqi) or new energy vehicles (Cao Cao).

Users can choose from eight options on Didi, ranging from carpooling to luxury car service. Didi also lets users hail taxis through its app, and runs a chauffer business that assigns drivers to car owners who may have had too much alcohol or cannot drive their own vehicle for other reasons. These temporary drivers can travel between assignments on fold-up bicycles.

The company said it had 377 million annual active users and 13 million annual active drivers in China for the 12 months ended March 31. Didi said it made 133.64 billion yuan ($20.88 billion) in the “China mobility” category last year.

Including Didi’s other services like e-bikes and freight, customer costs for different kinds of products can run from 15 cents to more than $100, the prospectus said.

Building up a finance arm

Didi has also partnered with China Merchants Bank for supporting credit card applications through the ride-hailing app and offering installment purchase plans for cars. A Didi subsidiary works with Ping An Insurance to sell financing and lease-related products, as well as insurance.

The start-up leases vehicles to drivers at prices it claims are about 20% lower than outside Didi’s platform. While more than 600,000 vehicles are available for lease, about half of these are owned by roughly 3,000 vehicle leasing partners, reducing the amount of assets Didi is responsible for, the prospectus said.

Anecdotally, Didi was recently promoting its own mobile payment system to some users in Beijing by setting it as the default payment option — with a discount. Users had to manually select other options such as WeChat pay, after which the discount was removed.

Didi’s ride-hailing app also works with international credit cards. The company operates in 15 countries, including Brazil, Mexico and Japan.

Bets on electric

Many analysts expect that self-driving, shared vehicles will become a major mode of transportation in the future, rather than individual car ownership.

Didi has invested in its own autonomous driving unit, which launched “robotaxis” in part of Shanghai in June 2020. The ride-hailing company announced in November it co-developed an electric car with BYD called the D1, which would roll out to major Chinese cities in subsequent months.

In May, the autonomous driving unit and state-backed GAC Aion New Energy Automobile agreed to work toward mass production of fully self-driving new energy cars.

Didi claims it has the largest electric vehicle charging network in China, based on self-commissioned research.

Data privacy and other risks



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New ‘Private Relay’ feature will not be available in China


Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers the keynote address during the 2020 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) at Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, California.

Brooks Kraft/Apple Inc/Handout via Reuters

GUANGZHOU, China — Apple’s new feature designed to give users more privacy when browsing the web will not be available in China, one of the iPhone maker’s most important markets.

Apple revealed a new service called iCloud+ at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) on Monday. One of the features included in that is “Private Relay.”

When users browse the internet using Safari, their data will be sent through two separate servers in order to mask the user’s identity and what sites they are visiting. As a result, even Apple or the user’s network provider cannot see that data.

It’s a little like a virtual private network (VPN) where users can route their internet traffic through a server located somewhere else in the world to mask their browsing activity.

China so-called Great Firewall effectively allows authorities to block websites from being accessed within China including Google and Facebook. VPNs are often used to get around China’s strict internet controls.

An Apple spokesperson told CNBC that Private Relay will not work in China and some other countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Belarus and Uganda.

Apple said it could not offer the feature in these countries due to local laws.

Using unauthorized VPNs to access blocked websites is illegal in China. While Apple’s Private Relay is not technically a VPN, it acts in a similar way.

In 2017, the U.S. technology giant removed a number of VPN services from its China App Store to comply with local regulations.



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Future

Stock futures are flat to kick off week with S&P 500 inches from record high


Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

NYSE

Stock futures are flat as the S&P 500 attempts to make a run at a record high this week amid optimism about the economy’s ongoing reopening this summer.

S&P 500 futures added less than 0.1%. Dow Jones Industrial average futures gained 15 points, or less than 0.1%. Nasdaq Composite futures rose less than 0.1%.

The S&P 500 sits just 0.2% from its intraday record high earlier in May. The benchmark advanced 0.6% last week to bring its 2021 gains to more than 12%. The Dow and Nasdaq also posted gains last week.

Friday’s jobs report showed the unemployment rate dropping to 5.8% from 6.1% and that 559,000 jobs were added in May. The report was seen as strong enough to keep investors’ confidence in the economy, but light enough to keep the Federal Reserve from rushing to change its easy money policies.

Investors are focused on inflation data in the week ahead, with May’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) scheduled to be released Thursday. In April the CPI rose 4.2% from the previous year, the fastest increase since 2008. If prices continue to rise it could cause the Federal Reserve to step back from its easy policies.

Over the weekend the G-7 nations reached an agreement on global tax reform, calling for the world’s largest corporations to pay at least a 15% tax on their earnings. That’s lower than the Biden administration’s initial suggestion of a minimum 21% tax rate, which didn’t garner much enthusiasm in other countries. Major companies including Facebook and Google have responded favorably to the agreement.

Meme stocks will be back in the spotlight again this week. Most of these speculative stocks, including GameStop, AMC and BlackBerry, ended the week in the red despite massive gains after a volatile trading week.



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Reviews

Corps: Appeal Review for Alaska Mine Could Take Over a Year | Alaska News


By BECKY BOHRER, Associated Press

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Thursday it could take more than a year to weigh an appeal by a developer seeking to build a copper and gold mine in a region that supports the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.

The corps’ Pacific Ocean Division in Hawaii is handling the appeal by the Pebble Limited Partnership, which was denied approval of a key permit for the project in Alaska‘s Bristol Bay region by the corps’ Alaska District.

A November decision signed by the district commander determined the proposed Pebble mine was “contrary to the public interest.”

The Pebble partnership in January filed an appeal request.

Photos You Should See – May 2021

But the corps’ Pacific Ocean Division indicated Thursday that the administrative record in the case had just been received from the Alaska District. The record contains documents surrounding the permit decision that will be considered in deciding on the appeal, the statement from the Pacific division said.

The statement said the “volume and complexity of the information to consider for this particular appeal far surpasses that of an average appeal.” The national average over the past decade for completing a regulatory review is about a year, but in this case, the process is expected to take longer, the statement said.

“The Pacific Ocean Division remains committed to maintaining an administrative appeal process that is independent, objective, fair and efficient,” according to the statement.

Luciano Vera, a spokesperson for the corps’ Pacific Ocean Division, said the appeal in this case was made to a level above the Alaska District, which is why the division is handling the matter.

If the appeal is deemed to have merit, the matter would be sent back to the Alaska District for reconsideration, which could result in the same decision or a different decision on the permit application, Vera said by email. If the appeal is deemed to be without merit, the original permit decision would stand, the email says.

Mike Heatwole, a Pebble spokesperson, said the schedule is up to the corps, “and we will work with them as they advance the appeal.”

The proposed mine has been the subject of heated debate for years.

During the Obama administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed, but never finalized, restrictions on development in the Bristol Bay region. The agency in 2019, during the Trump administration, withdrew the proposal, calling it outdated and preemptively issued.

Leaders of the Pebble partnership had seen as favorable to the project an environmental review from the corps that was released several months before the November rejection.

The corps, in that review, stated that under normal operations, the alternatives it looked at “would not be expected to have a measurable effect on fish numbers and result in long-term changes to the health of the commercial fisheries in Bristol Bay.”

John Shively, CEO of the Pebble partnership, said the conclusions reached in the November decision were not supported by the environmental review.

Joe Biden, as a candidate for president last year, said if elected, he would work to stop the project. Former President Donald Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., was among those who also spoke in opposition last year to the project.

Pebble opponents have said they want permanent measures implemented that would make the Bristol Bay region off limits to large-scale mining.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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people use social media to find hospitals, medicine


Family members of Vijay Raju, who died due to Covid, mourn before his cremation in Giddenahalli village on the outskirts of Bengaluru, India, May 13, 2021.

Samuel Rajkumar | Reuters

As India’s devastating second wave of coronavirus outbreak overwhelmed the health-care system, desperate users turned to social media to seek help from the public as hospital beds and oxygen supplies ran out.

People in need of assistance, either for themselves or their relatives, posted requests on sites such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. Others collated information on the availability of beds in hospitals as well as contact details of vendors with oxygen cylinders and other resources in short supply. In many instances, the efforts helped save lives.

“We quite often hear only a very dystopian narrative for social media in which, it is increasing political polarization and causing a deep degree of social damage,” Apar Gupta, executive director at the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital liberties organization in India, told CNBC.

“But, social media also has the potential of bringing people together,” he said and explained that is why it’s important to fight for the right kind of incentives-based system design and algorithmic accountability around social media.

“I think this Covid disaster that is continuing in India is showing the promise of social media to be used as a tool for organizing relief and also demanding greater amounts of political accountability at all levels — from our health-care officials to decision-makers who set budgets,” Gupta said.

Social media can’t replace the core responsibility of the state to help the citizens in the time of crisis.

Ankur Bisen

Technopak Advisors

#CovidSOS

Twitter hashtags like #CovidSOS and #CovidEmergency became popular among users searching for hospital beds, ventilators and oxygen cylinders. The retweet function helped amplify their requests.

Strangers banded together to help one another weather the unprecedented crisis.

Volunteers collated up-to-date information on Google spreadsheets that have been shared widely on social platforms.

Some set up websites to track vaccine availability while others created apps that generated links to Twitter search that help users find Covid-19 resources in their cities. Many people also volunteered to make home-cooked meals for patients quarantining at home while others offered assistance with tasks like grocery shopping.

For its part, Twitter added a Covid-19 resources page to broaden the visibility of information.

Social media influencers, celebrities and politicians also got involved in the crowdsourcing effort, with some of them helping to arrange for beds and oxygen cylinders as India’s daily case count spiked in April and early May.

Though Twitter became the most visible social media platform in India’s crowdsourcing efforts because of its ability to amplify requests and tag influencers and politicians, Gupta said other platforms were also used to a large extent.

He said volunteers also came together in WhatsApp groups to focus on more granular communities such as housing societies and alumni groups. Gen-Z — or those born between 1996 and the early 2010s — and younger millennials turned to Instagram, he said.

Daily cases in India have come off a peak of more than 414,000 new daily infections that was reached on May 7. Still, experts say the virus is spreading in rural India, where the health infrastructure is not equipped to handle unexpected surges.

On Twitter, which has greater influence in India’s urban centers compared to rural areas, users have already started collating resources and initiatives to respond to the outbreak in India’s countryside.

Shortcomings of India’s health-care system

Users turning to social media for help was also a reflection of how ill-prepared India’s health-care system was in responding to a sudden surge in cases. Mounting case counts and an increasing death toll laid bare the deep-rooted problems that exist in India’s public health system after decades of neglect and underinvestment.

“Social media can’t replace the core responsibility of the state to help the citizens in the time of crisis,” Ankur Bisen, a senior vice president at Indian management consulting firm Technopak Advisors, told CNBC. It can only act as a complementary channel and cannot replace the core functions of the state such as disaster management and health-care delivery, he said.

Bisen added that in this case, social media is becoming the only option for many because the other mediums are lacking — it is a poor reflection of how the central and state governments have struggled to address the Covid-19 crisis, he said.

“The state often has to address disaster and make sure it communicates and gives comfort to the citizens that the state is watching their back, which has not been the case here,” Bisen said. He added that social media is “always a complementary medium, it can never become the principal driver to address disasters.”

Gupta from Internet Freedom Foundation said some of the volunteers have been threatened by authorities for their efforts, both informally and through legal means.

Local media reported last month that some Covid-19 relief groups providing information on hospital beds and oxygen via messaging apps like WhatsApp, Discord and Telegram disbanded, while some online trackers for resources were deleted.

Volunteers complained of threats from police that demanded they shut down — but the police have denied making such demands. In Uttar Pradesh, the BBC reported police charged a man who used Twitter to try and find oxygen for his dying grandfather.

India’s supreme court reportedly said there should be no clampdown if people aired their grievances around issues like oxygen shortage and others on social platforms. It came after the federal government, under new regulations, ordered social platforms to take down posts that were critical of how it was handling the pandemic, according to the New York Times.

Social media scams

Another unfortunate outcome has been the prevalence of a black market for resources, where bad faith actors on social media have swindled vulnerable people, according to Gupta.

“While on the whole, social media — especially Twitter — has come and mitigated the harmful impact of the present wave, I would say even led to saving lives, it has also demonstrated that there is a very low tolerance for freedom of speech and expression,” he said.

In addition to that, “there are law and order issues, which always emerge due to social interaction … and certain participants may use it in bad faith,” he added.

Gupta added that while efforts are still continuing today among volunteer groups, state services have also caught up to an extent.





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Twitter verification process open for first time since 2017


Twitter CEO and Co Founder, Jack Dorsey addresses students at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), on November 12, 2018 in New Delhi, India.

Amal KS | Hindustan Times | Getty Images

Twitter on Thursday reopened its verification application process to the public for the first time since putting it on pause in November 2017.

The company is rolling out a new process to apply for verification, which adds a checkmark to an account’s Twitter profile that signals the authenticity of an account to other users.

To apply for verification, an account must have a profile that includes a picture and a confirmed email address or phone number. The user must have been active on the service within the last six months with a record of adhering to the company’s rules.

Additionally, accounts must fall into one of six categories Twitter will consider for verification. Those categories are:

  • Government
  • Companies, brands and organizations
  • News organizations and journalists
  • Entertainment
  • Sports and gaming
  • Activists, organizers and other influential individuals

The company said it will add more categories, like scientists, academics and religious leaders, later this year.

The verification application will roll out gradually to users over the next few weeks. It will exist within the account settings tab of the service.

Users who are approved will see the verification icon automatically. Those who are rejected can reapply 30 days after receiving Twitter’s decision.

The new application process comes after the company paused verifications in November 2017 after receiving criticism for its decision to verify Jason Kessler. He was one of the organizers behind the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in the death of one woman.



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Google and Apple scare us, app makers tell Congress


Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple, speaks at the 2019 Dreamforce conference in San Francisco on November 19, 2019.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Some app makers who rely on mobile distribution from Apple and Google are scared of how much power the tech giants have over their businesses, according to congressional testimony delivered Wednesday.

“We’re all afraid,” Match Group Chief Legal Officer Jared Sine told Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., the chair of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, at a hearing.

The hearing brought together representatives from Apple and Google and several of their most outspoken critics, including Match Group, which owns dating site Tinder; Tile, which makes devices that help users find lost objects and faces new competition from Apple’s AirTag technology, and streaming music service Spotify.

The hearing comes as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are working on updates to the antitrust laws that could better account for the power a few tech giants hold over many digital markets. That includes the ability of platforms such as Apple and Google to manage the main distribution platform for apps while increasingly hawking their own competing products.

Throughout the hearing, the app makers expressed fear over how easily either company could undercut their businesses by making small changes to their app store rules. They also complained of high fees for in-app purchases and unclear enforcement of standards.

Allegations of threats

Multiple executives accused Apple and Google of threatening their businesses.

Sine said Google called Match Group on Tuesday night after his testimony became public to ask why his testimony differed from the company’s comments in their latest earnings call.

On the earnings call, Match executives had said they believed they were having productive conversations about Google’s 30% in-app payment fee through its Google Play store. But in testimony, Match complained that Google had made “false pretenses of an open platform” and complained about its “monopoly power.”

Wilson White, Google’s senior director of public policy and government relations, said it sounded like employees working in Google’s business development team reached out to ask an “honest question.” White said he didn’t view it as a threat “and we would never threaten our partners” because Google needs app developers to use its app store in order for it to be successful.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the call was “potentially actionable.”

Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the January 6th insurrection, in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 2, 2021.

Graeme Jennings | Pool via Reuters

Klobuchar said she planned to look into the matter further.

Spotify Chief Legal Officer Horacio Gutierrez said he could think of “at least four clear examples of threats and retaliation” from Apple after Spotify decided to speak out about alleged anticompetitive behavior and Apple’s fees for developers on digital products purchased through its platform. That included threats of removing Spotify’s app, refusing to promote it, or waiting for months for minor app updates to be approved, he said.

“They’ve basically thrown the book at us in order to make it hard for us to continue to sustain our decision to speak up,” he said.

Fees and rival products

Many app makers have complained about the fees gatekeepers charge for in-app purchases for digital services.

Gutierrez complained of what he called Apple’s “gag order” over how Spotify can communicate with its own users about how to upgrade to its paid version.

For instance, Spotify allows customers to upgrade only outside of its iOS app in order to avoid Apple’s 15% to 30% commission fee on digital services purchased through its platform. But because Spotify doesn’t sell the paid service through its iOS app, Apple also doesn’t let the app maker talk about upgrades with customers through the app — instead, users have to upgrade through a web browser on a PC or another method.

At the same time, Apple operates a competing service, Apple Music, which has no such restrictions. Gutierrez said this gives Apple’s version an unfair advantage.

Representatives from Apple and Google both told lawmakers that their fees for developers are meant to cover the costs that go into distributing apps through their platforms and securing them appropriately. Apple Chief Compliance Officer Kyle Andeer compared the services offered on the App Store today to the cumbersome and expensive process app makers had to pursue to distribute their apps before the App Store existed.

White cast the group as a set of “small but vocal” representatives of “primarily large companies.” He said he worried that in trying to satisfy their complaints, “we damage the very foundation that has allowed the Android open source ecosystem to work so well for a much larger set of small and medium-sized businesses.”

In addition to complaints about fees, developers worried that Apple’s own rival products incentivized it to make unfavorable decisions toward them.

For example, Tile General Counsel Kirsten Daru said the company had asked Apple for permission to use ultra-wideband technology on iPhones to make its item-tracking technology more precise than it can be using only Bluetooth. She said Apple had refused the request, then reserved the technology for its own competitive AirTags, which it announced Tuesday.

While Apple is rolling out a way for third-party developers to build on the more precise location data, Daru said that in order to access that, “we have to give Apple unprecedented control over our business and direct customers to the Find My app to find their lost items.”

Apple’s Andeer argued AirTags is a separate product from Tile, which currently has the majority of the market share for the space, and that opening tools to more third-party developers will encourage competition.

Unclear standards

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the FBI investigation into links between Donald Trump associates and Russian officials during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 10, 2020.

Susan Walsh | Reuters

Lee asked Andeer to differentiate between why a paid service through Tinder might incur a commission while one for Uber would not. Andeer explained an Uber customer is paying for a non-digital service — a car to show up to their house — while they don’t expect the same return from Tinder, saying that would be a different service, in what appeared to be an insinuation of sex work.

The app makers emphasized their reliance on the app stores because of their unprecedented access to consumers. But, they argued, it’s not the symbiotic relationship that Apple and Google like to paint.

“We are not successful because of what Apple has done, we have been successful despite Apple’s interference,” Gutierrez said. “And we would have been much more successful but for their anticompetitive behavior.”

WATCH: Here’s why some experts are calling for a breakup of Big Tech after the House antitrust report



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