US Senate passes bill modernizing music licensing and payouts

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The US Senate has unanimously passed the Music Modernization Act, which aims to bring the way the music business works in line with the digital age. Providing the bill is met with approval from the House, and is subsequently signed by President Donald Trump, the legislation — renamed the Orrin G Hatch Music Modernization Act in honour of the Republican senior senator responsible for introducing the bill — will finally be enshrined into law. It’s not expected to meet any opposition.

The bill, in three parts, ensures all music rights holders are compensated more fairly for their work. It will create a publicly-accessible database, detailing who owns a song, making it easier for publishers and artists to be paid royalties. Song reproduction charges have also been updated, to reflect market rates, and sound recording royalty rates will also be taken into account when considering performance royalty rates for songwriters and composers.

The bill has been a long time coming, with companies such as online radio SiriusXM and licensing organization SESAC creating issues along the way, but as SoundExchange CEO Michael Huppe said: “The future of the music industry got brighter today. Creators of music moved one step closer to getting paid more fairly. And industry forces that fought to maintain an unfair and harmful status quo were rebuffed.”

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Senator Hirono wants men to 'just shut up' and 'do the right thing for a change'

Senator Mazie Hirono has had enough
Senator Mazie Hirono has had enough
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It’s been a particularly brutal week for women on Capitol Hill, and Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii is sick of it.

Asked about the allegations against Kavanaugh on Tuesday, Hirono expressed deep frustrations with the entire Senate Judiciary process, accusing the White House of victimizing Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s accuser.

“I think we all know when something is unfair. When something smells. We all know this. Let’s face it: This is so patently unfair to her. What really bothers me and gets me so angry is that the White House is victimizing this person […] Why should we participate in a victimization who has the courage to come forward? And she is under absolutely no obligation to participate in a smearing of her and her family.” 

She then answered another question:

“Of course it helps that there are women on that committee. But, you know what, I expect the men in this country and the men in this committee  […] Really, guess who’s perpetuating all of these kind of actions? It’s the men in this country. I just want to say to the men in this country: just shut up and step up. Do the right thing for a change.”

Hirono cautiously added: “Okay, you can see I’m a little upset by this, the unfairness of it.”

Hirono’s response is getting a lot of traction — and it’s bound to bring out strong reactions on both sides.

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Google, Microsoft, and Amazon drool over Chinese AI market while Apple woos Trump

The US and Chinese governments have spent the last year setting the table for a trade war, but don’t tell big tech.

Apple’s looking pretty smug now that President Trump’s agreed to relax some of the impending tariffs on Chinese goods – specifically those that would have made it more expensive to manufacture items like the Apple Watch.

This is certainly a feather in the cap of CEO Tim Cook after he dined with the President and First Lady last month. It appears that Cook is employing the “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” strategy to best protect the interests of Apple’s board. Trump uses a similar strategy with polarizing political leaders such as Vladmir Putin, Kim Jong Un, and Rodrigo Duterte.

Meanwhile, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon showed off their AI products this week at the Chinese state-sponsored World Artificial Intelligence Conference, in Shanghai, hoping to woo the Chinese government into opening up its glorious data coffers.

China’s state-sponsored AI program is well on track to gathering the largest shared datasets on the planet. Having access to these amazing pools of data would instantly buff any AI company’s ability to train neural networks. But, it’s probably not just the Chinese data pool that beckons some of the richest companies on the planet.

Data may be the lifeblood of artificial intelligence, but capitalism is powered by cold hard cash. China represents one of the largest market segments on the planet. That’s why, on Monday, Microsoft and Amazon both announced plans to build AI offices in Shanghai.

Google, for its part, is still stinging from internal conflict and media scrutiny over its bungled attempt to keep the development of a censorship engine for the Chinese government secret.

In our analysis, it looks like Apple’s strategy is to ride out Trump’s mercurial approach to international trade while the rest of big tech pretends the Chinese government doesn’t use AI to engage in what some experts consider to be egregious civil rights violations.

If you’re not concerned about the Chinese government making sweetheart deals with US AI companies, or how Apple became the first company worth a trillion dollars by exploiting US tax law and politics, then now’s probably a good time to pad your portfolio with big tech stocks.

Disclaimer: You probably shouldn’t take financial advice from a technology journalist.

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Instagram uses Stories to encourage voter registration


The US midterm election is right around the corner, and Instagram is doing its part to encourage as many people as possible to register to vote. It launched a registration push Tuesday, helping ‘Grammers get the information they need to sign up to vote using ads in feeds and stories.

The platform and partner TurboVote are hoping to make the registration process as simple as they can. The ads will give you current information on topics including how to access your state’s voting rules, how to update your registration and, of course, how to register in the first place.

On Election Day, you’ll be able to slap an I Voted sticker on your stories; it links to Get to the Polls, a site that can tell others where their polling location is. Instagram says that it will reveal more details of its get out the vote efforts over the next few weeks, in the lead up to November 6th.

Instagram is one of several services that have helped voters sign up or even assist them in figuring out their preferred candidate based on their platforms. For the upcoming election, for instance, Lyft is offering free and discounted rides to polling stations.

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State Department email breach leaks employees' personal data

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The latest government data breach affected State Department employee emails. On September 7th, workers were notified that their personally identifiable information was obtained by an unnamed actor, according to a recent report from Politico. It apparently impacted “less than one percent” of employees and direct victims of the breach were alerted at the time. Apparently, this didn’t affect classified information, so at least there’s that.

In a statement to Politico the State Department confirmed the breach and said that it was working with other government agencies to determine the source of the attack, in addition to tapping a firm from the private sector to aid the investigation.

Tuesday morning, news came out that Government Payment Service — more or less an online clearing house local governments use for accepting funds — compromised 14 million customer records dating back some six years. From the sounds of it, the State department breach is much narrower in scope, at least. That doesn’t change Uncle Sam’s reputation for digital security though, nor does it reverse the breach regardless of how small it may have been.

TechCrunch reports that two-factor authentication is only in place on around 11 percent of required devices at the State Department, citing a study from earlier this year. The wheels of bureaucracy move slow, sure, but that doesn’t mean we should simply accept our government’s willingness to wallow in ineptitude and let hackers make away with sensitive data.

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It's Reddit's turn: The 'front page of the internet' should be next to face Congress

It's time to stop ignoring Reddit.
It’s time to stop ignoring Reddit.

Earlier this month, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s fourth hearing on social media as it pertains to foreign influence in our elections took place on Capitol Hill. Representatives from Facebook, Google, Twitter, and YouTube have sat before Congress to answer questions regarding online interference from countries like Russia, and the spread of misinformation and fake news on their social media platforms. 

Missing from these hearings, however, is the fifth most popular site in the United States: Reddit

It’s time Congress invites Reddit to its next hearing.

Founded in 2006, Reddit has grown into a behemoth. With 330 million users, more than 138,000 active communities, and 14 billion monthly page views, there’s no denying Reddit’s position on the web. The site, which bills itself as the “front page of the internet,” is so popular with its U.S. audience that it even surpassed Facebook to become the third most popular site in the country for a short time earlier this year, according to Alexa, the Amazon-owned web analytics company. In April, it was reported that Reddit’s active user base was now larger than Twitter’s.

The case for a Congressional hearing

Aside from its ever growing numbers of users, Reddit has admitted to being targeted by foreign actors attempting to exert influence. Five months ago, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman posted the company’s 2017 transparency report on the site. It detailed how the company has banned hundreds of accounts they believe to be connected with Russia’s Internet Research Agency. That’s the same Russian “troll farm” linked to many of the kinds of accounts that attempted to sow discord in the lead-up to the 2016 election. The organization has ties to Russia’s intelligence agency.

Of the 944 banned Reddit accounts, a few were fairly successful at gaining “karma,” Reddit’s metric for when a user “upvotes” a link, picture, or video submission to the site. More upvotes means more visibility on the site, and more karma for the account that submits the content. Karma signifies a prolific user of the site.

The most successful Russia-tied Reddit account presented in the company’s transparency report is u/rubinjer. That user received nearly 100,000 karma in about a year and a half before getting banned. Subreddits where u/rubinjer was most active include /r/The_Donald, Reddit’s controversial Donald Trump community, which boasts nearly 650,000 members. This active subreddit is well-known for its violent rhetoric, hate speech, and white supremacist content.

While we now know the details surrounding these banned accounts, the company wasn’t so open at first. It wasn’t until The Daily Beast published a report uncovering foreign influence on the platform that Reddit admitted to the Russian influence operation on its site, and shared what they knew with the public.

Most recently, Reddit announced that an Iranian influence operation recently uncovered to be targeting platforms like Facebook was also targeting them. In all, 143 accounts were identified as part of this operation, which Reddit said “focused on steering the narrative around subjects important to Iran, including criticism of U.S. policies in the Middle East and negative sentiment toward Saudi Arabia and Israel. They were also involved in discussions regarding Syria and ISIS.”

The way Reddit works — users congregate in issue-specific communities — makes it a perfect distribution platform for misinformation campaigns and beyond. Conspiracy theories thrive. Users bounce stories around within this walled garden of other like-minded individuals. And if you’re part of a specific community, those posts show up in your front page Reddit feed as if they’re some sort of top story. 

The way Reddit works makes it a perfect distribution platform for misinformation campaigns and beyond.

The subreddit for Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory which culminated in a man firing an AR-15 in a DC pizza joint he falsely believed was harboring child sex slaves, was banned days before the incident. At the time, the community of over 20,000 people was sharing personal information about actual people they believed to be involved in something that did not exist.

But, Reddit as a right-wing conspiracy outlet didn’t end there. Followers of the latest right-wing conspiracy theory, Qanon, considered a descendant of Pizzagate, made Reddit their de facto home up until just last week. 

Earlier this year, Reddit banned its first popular Qanon community, /r/CBTS_stream, for inciting violence months after the group was created. Immediately after, a new subreddit, /r/GreatAwakening, grew to take its place.  

Regardless of how hard /r/GreatAwakening’s moderators tried to police its new community (unlike the Pizzagate and Qanon communities that were previously banned), the new subreddit of over 70,000 users was banned just last week for “inciting violence, harassment, and the dissemination of personal information.” The problems on /r/GreatAwakening just didn’t arise last week though. One particularly stunning example of the issues on the subreddit stem back in April when /r/GreatAwakening mods issued a plea to the community to stop posting illicit images of children in an attempt to tie Hillary Clinton to a nonexistent child sex ring. Once again, Reddit finally decided to take action months and months after the problems persisted, long after the platform already acted as the central means to funnel the dangerous QAnon conspiracy into the mainstream.

Even before the latest right wing conspiracies, Reddit has long been plagued by toxic users fostering virulent communities. Many early users of the site were fans of /r/jailbait, a former community where redditors would share sexualized images of underage girls. The /r/jailbait subreddit even received “best of” accolades from the sites users before a CNN segment with Anderson Cooper forced the company to ban the community.

Like /r/jailbait, many of the worst subreddits, like /r/creepshots and /r/TheFappening — which both existed for the purpose of sharing nonconsensual sexual images of women — were large enough that it was inconceivable that the people running Reddit were unaware of them. The subreddit /r/incels, where self-proclaimed involuntary celibates stoked hatred against women with violent, pro-rape screeds, was an active community for over four years before being removed from the site. All of these subreddits were banned only after mounting public outrage.

In 2014, as the seeds were being planted for the harassment campaign known as GamerGate, the subreddit /r/KotakuInAction was born in an effort to promote the movement. The subreddit would regularly target feminists and “social justice warriors” and propped up racist and sexist personalities on the far right like Milo Yiannopoulos and Mike Cernovich. As one of the main online hubs for the movement, KotakuInAction quickly became popular. 

Realizing that the community was becoming a haven for some of the internet’s worst intentions, its creator, Reddit user David-me, attempted to shut it down. Reddit wouldn’t let him. The company’s guidelines allow them to do this “when it believes it in the best interest of the community or the website… Our goal is to keep the platform alive and vibrant, as well as to ensure your community can reach people interested in that community.” Basically, Reddit determined that the community was way too popular for the company to lose. It  now has close to 100,000 members.

And, when someone within Reddit tries to tame the monster, the site’s own users eat them alive. When Ellen Pao became CEO of the company, she attempted to make sweeping changes, like banning revenge porn outright and closing communities like /r/shitniggerssay and the nearly 150,000 member /r/fatpeoplehate for harassment. Redditors revolted, with moderators of some of the largest subreddits taking the communities private — effectively holding the website’s most popular content hostage in protest. Pao stuck around for a few more months, until the the firing of an employee popular with redditors fanned the flames to the point where there was no putting the fire out. Faced with a myriad of death threats and harassment, in July 2015, Pao resigned as Reddit CEO.

In the Senate Intelligence Committee’s most recent hearing with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, a few Senators brought up deepfakes, the AI technology that can convincingly manipulate video and images. It’s such a concern, the U.S. Department of Defense is already looking into ways to combat malicious uses of it.

From fake news to revenge porn, deepfakes are going to be an even bigger issue in the near future. The term and the problematic uses of the technology actually all began on Reddit, where a user created realistic-looking yet fake videos inserting mainstream female celebrities into porn clips. Once again, months afterward, due to increasing outcry from the public, the deepfakes community was banned from Reddit.

It’s one of the most popular sites in America, and it should be obvious that Reddit and its users would be targeted by malicious actors. Yet regardless of this and the fact that some of the very problems like deepfakes were birthed from the site, Reddit hasn’t even garnered a mention at Congress’ hearings on social media influence operations.

The issue here is likely demographic. Reddit’s majority male user base skews fairly young compared to everyone and your grandma using Facebook, for example. Twitter, which by many metrics is actually a smaller platform than Reddit, has found its niche among politicos and the media, which leads to an overestimation of its influence. It’s no surprise that the Senate, average age 62, would overlook such an influential site for mostly young men.

Days after the 2016 election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg downplayed the company’s possible role in influencing the way Americans voted. “To think it influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said. Less than a year later, Zuckerberg’s tune has drastically changed. As the U.S. government released evidence that sometimes completely contradicted Facebook’s statements on the role they played in the election, the company started to accept that its platform was used as a tool by malicious actors to sow discord and possibly even sway voters. Facebook executives would attend its first of many Senate hearings on the issue in October of 2017.

“After the election, I made a comment that I thought the idea misinformation on Facebook changed the outcome of the election was a crazy idea. Calling that crazy was dismissive and I regret it,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post nearly 10 months after the election of Donald Trump. “This is too important an issue to be dismissive.”

It’s time for Reddit and its current CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman to take these issues more seriously as well. Congress pushed Zuckerberg to act. Perhaps they can invite Reddit to the next set of hearings and be the push that Reddit needs, too.

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Facebook expands security measures for political campaign staff

Reuters/Brendan McDermid

The US midterm elections are just weeks away, and Facebook is still scrambling to prevent election meddling with every means at its disposal. It’s launching a pilot program that will expand its protections for American political campaigns. Candidates at the federal or state levels, as well as their staff and party committees, can apply to receive extra protection for their Pages and individual accounts. Facebook will help activate two-factor authentication, proactively monitor accounts (through both automation and human staff), and prioritize reports of suspicious activity from campaign members. If there’s an attack against one person, Facebook will check other related accounts.

The company might spread the pilot to other elections and other high-profile users, including existing government staff.

There’s no mystery as to why Facebook is making this available, even as late as it is in the campaign season: it’s trying to prevent John Podesta-style account breaches from Russia and other actors that might try to meddle in the election. Facebook has admitted that it was too slow to act on election threats in the 2016 presidential election, and it doesn’t want to be accused of a similar shortcoming this year. While these and other measures won’t guarantee a hack-free election (especially not when they’re optional), Facebook could at least say that it offered help.

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Trump will reportedly spare Apple products from latest China tariffs


If you were scrambling to buy the latest Apple Watch out of concern that Trump’s next round of tariffs could lead to price hikes, you can likely relax. Bloomberg sources have claimed that the new tariffs don’t affect a technology category that covers many of Apple’s products, including the Watch, AirPods, the HomePod and Beats headphones. This is also likely to exempt comparable products from other companies, such as Fitbit’s activity trackers and Sonos’ speakers, but the scoop only mentioned Apple’s by name.

It’s uncertain what would prompt the exception, although Apple had staunchly opposed the earlier proposal. It sent a letter to Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer warning that the tariffs could increase costs, raise prices and put it at a “disadvantage” to some foreign competitors. Apple chief Tim Cook dined with Trump in August, but it’s not certain if anything resulted from that meeting.

The Trump administration is expected to list its new tariffs within the next few days, possibly as early as September 17th. If they do include an exception for companies like Apple, though, Trump’s dismissal of Apple’s objections won’t amount to much. The company might just get what it wanted all along, even if other American firms aren’t so lucky.

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Another tech billionaire turns media mogul

Where Jeff Bezos goes, other tech billionaires follow. The latest titan to invest in print media is Salesforce founder Marc Benioff who, along with wife Lynne, is buying Time magazine. The pair are using $190 million from their personal fortune to buy the esteemed title from current owners, Meredith.

Meredith has said that the Benioffs will not be directly involved with the title, and will have no say in its editorial decisions. It’s likely that the pair will use their money and expertise to help Time improve its operations and, by extension, its bottom line. The WSJ believes that the title reaches over 30 million people a month, while its current owners put that figure closer to 100 million.

Benioff has said that Time is a company that has a “tremendous impact on the world,” and is also an “incredibly strong business.” He added that Time’s power was in its “unique storytelling of the people and issues that affect us all.”

The trend of tech billionaires investing small amounts of cash into print media is hotting up. In 2013, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million. In the following years, the publication has become profitable, and made Bezos a political player. Last year, Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow, purchased a stake in The Atlantic through her Emerson Collective Organization.

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Trump expected to announce more China tech tariffs within days

Reuters/Damir Sagolj

The White House isn’t just dismissing technology companies’ concerns about tariffs on China, it’s picking up the pace. Both Reuters and the Wall Street Journal have learned that the Trump administration is likely to formally announce its latest tariffs on Chinese goods within the next few days (possibly as soon as September 17th). Imports for “internet technology products,” circuit boards and other electronics are still likely to become more expensive, although the tariff level is reportedly set at 10 percent, not the originally proposed 25 percent also used for earlier tariffs. The administration may have lowered the tariffs to reduce the chances that companies would instantly raise prices to make up for the higher costs.

As before, the tariffs are meant to pressure China into curbing trade policies deemed unfair, including attempts to acquire US technologies and subsidize tech categories like AI and robotics. There are hints of the two sides resuming talks that could mitigate or end the trade war, but Trump hasn’t been willing to wait for these talks before imposing new tariffs.

Trump has called on companies to produce more of their goods inside the US as a response to criticisms. In many cases, though, it’s not as simple as opening a new factory. Technology companies don’t just source products from China due to lower labor costs — they also use it for access to flexible, appropriately-skilled workers as well as the region’s many natural resources and component makers. A shift to US production might not come in time to avoid the long-term effects of tariffs.

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