Twitter is (finally) cracking down on bots

Twitter is cracking down on bots after it announced changes to its API that will massively reduce the impact of services that allow links and content to be shared across multiple accounts, i.e. the software that powers Twitter bots.

So that means an end to services that let those controlling large numbers of accounts to batch tweet, follow users, retweet or like tweets. Twitter will continue to allow content to be posted to accounts using software, for example, weather alerts, RSS feed updates and more, but they will now be limited to a single account going forward.

“These changes are an important step in ensuring we stay ahead of malicious activity targeting the crucial conversations taking place on Twitter — including elections in the United States and around the world,” Yoel Roth, who heads up API policy and product trust, for Twitter explained in a blog post.

There is a small caveat for public service-related information.

“As a sole exception to this rule, applications that broadcast or share weather, emergency, or other public service announcements of broad community interest (for example, earthquake or tsunami alerts) are permitted to post this content across multiple accounts who have authorized an app,” Roth wrote.

The new measures are a clarification of a crackdown that Twitter first announced in January in response to concerns around how the platform was used in relation to the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.

Overall, it’s a shame. Bots can be great when put to work properly — researchers have come to that very conclusion — but some internet people are inherently bad and bot networks can be used to give them oversized influence and power. For example, Twitter itself has confirmed that there were over 50,000 Russia-linked bots that attempted to interfere with the election.

It isn’t exactly clear what size audience those bots reached overall, but it is likely to be some way lower than the Russia-backed election meddling efforts on Facebook, which are said to have reached nearly 150 million of the social network’s users.

“Since June 2017, we’ve removed more than 220,000 applications in violation of our rules, collectively responsible for more than 2.2 billion low-quality Tweets,” Twitter said last month.

For anyone who has been at the receiving end of bots — whether it be spam or more serious incidents such as harassment — Twitter’s move to restrict what is possible is long overdue. App developers have until March 23 of this year to make the necessary changes to comply with this new policy so we’ll get a chance to see what a difference this makes right after that date.

Already there has been some controversy after the social network removed large numbers of suspected bot accounts from its service this week. In doing so, some users’ follower counts were reduced. The numbers seemed to particularly hurt conservative and right-wing opinionated users who cried foul play, as Gizmodo reports.

Twitter told Gizmodo that it acted without political bias in response to accounts that it suspected were bots or had violated its policy.

Twitter’s tools are apolitical, and we enforce our rules without political bias. As part of our ongoing work in safety, we identify suspicious account behaviors that indicate automated activity or violations of our policies around having multiple accounts, or abuse. We also take action on any accounts we find that violate our terms of service, including asking account owners to confirm a phone number so we can confirm a human is behind it. That’s why some people may be experiencing suspensions or locks. This is part of our ongoing, comprehensive efforts to make Twitter safer and healthier for everyone.

Hold on to that popcorn, more drama to come soon.

Related: Twitter has a big bot problem

Featured Image: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Visa confirms Coinbase wasn’t at fault for overcharging users

Yesterday, we wrote that Coinbase customers were being charged multiple times for past transactions.

While some speculated that the erroneous withdraws were down to a Coinbase engineering issue, Coinbase issued a statement saying it wasn’t liable for the duplicate charges. The blame, instead, rested with Visa for the way it handled a migration of merchant categories for cryptocurrencies, Coinbase said.

While you can read my post yesterday for an in-depth description of what happened, the basic gist is that Visa refunded and recharged (under a different merchant category) a month of old transactions. Many users saw the recharge come through before the refund processed, making it look like they were double charged. Honestly, the issue was likely exacerbated by existing payment rails — it’s normal for refunds to take multiple days to show up on credit and debit statements.

But here’s where it gets weird — this morning Visa issued a statement to some publications shifting the blame back to Coinbase, telling TNW that “Visa has not made any systems changes that would result in the duplicate transactions cardholders are reporting.” We are also not aware of any other merchants who are experiencing this issue.”

But now it seems that the payment giant has revised its stance, and clarified that it wasn’t Coinbase’s fault.

The following is a joint statement from Visa and Worldpay, which is Coinbase’s payment processor partner. While Coinbase initially distributed the statement on its own blog, we’ve also received the statement directly from Visa.

Over the last two days, some customers who used a credit or debit card at Coinbase may have seen duplicate transactions posted to their cardholder accounts.

This issue was not caused by Coinbase.

Worldpay and Coinbase have been working with Visa and Visa issuing banks to ensure that the duplicate transactions have been reversed and appropriate credits have been posted to cardholder accounts. All reversal transactions have now been issued, and should appear on customers’ credit card and debit card accounts within the next few days. We believe the majority of these reversals have already posted to accounts. If you continue to have problems with your credit or debit card account after this reversal period, including issues relating to card fees or charges, we encourage you to contact your card issuing bank.

We deeply regret any inconvenience this may have caused customers.

While the statement doesn’t give a ton of clarity on the issue, it seems to absolve Coinbase of any blame, which is a win for the startup considering it’s been trying to prove to the world that its engineering and customer service teams can stand up to the challenge of maintaining a reliable financial platform.

The startup — is valued at $1.6 billion after raising $100 million last year — has endured some challenging periods as it continues to scale its service to accommodate its 10 million-plus registered customers.

Issues over the past year have included muddling prices on, a flash crash, and a general struggle to keep up as cryptocurrencies boomed in 2017. In December, Coinbase launched an internal investigation into suggestions that company insiders profited from knowledge of impending support for Bitcoin Cash.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency.

Jon Russell contributed to this story. He also owns a small amount of cryptocurrency.

Featured Image: Håkan Dahlström Photography/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE

Amazon is cutting hundreds of corporate jobs, according to a new report

In a rare move for the online retail giant, Amazon is laying off hundreds of corporate workers in its Seattle headquarters and elsewhere, according to a Seattle Times report.

The corporate cuts come after an eight-year hiring spree, taking the company from 5,000 in 2010 to 40,000 in its Seattle headquarters and gobbling up several retail businesses throughout the country.

However, according to the report, Amazon’s rising employee numbers over the last two years left some departments over budget and with too many staff on hand. In the last few months, the company implemented hiring freezes to stem the flow of new workers, cutting the number of open positions in half from the 3,500 listed last Summer.

The layoffs will mainly focus on Amazon’s Seattle office but there have already been cuts in some of its retail subsidiaries in other parts of the country such as the Las Vegas-based online footwear retailer Zappos, which had to lay off 30 people recently. And the company behind, Quidsi, had to cut more than 250 jobs a year ago.

The moves suggest Amazon may be trying to reign in spending and consolidate some of its retail businesses.

It’s important to note that cutting out a few hundred workers at a company with tens of thousands of employees is not unusual — and is pretty small in comparison to other established tech giants who’ve had to lay off far more recently. For instance, Microsoft had to lay off thousands of employees starting late last year — though most of those employees affected were outside of the United States.

The cuts also don’t indicate Amazon, which employs more than half a million people globally, has any intentions of cutting more or of slowing down its hiring practices elsewhere. According to its most recent quarterly earnings report, the company’s has upped its global workforce by 66 percent over the last year. Amazon currently has more than 4,000 job listings on its site for Seattle.

We have yet to hear back from Amazon about the latest report, but a spokesperson for the company told the Seattle Times the move was part of the company’s annual planning process and that, “We are making head count adjustments across the company — small reductions in a couple of places and aggressive hiring in many others.”

According to the report, several employees have already been told they’ve been laid off and those layoffs are expected to be completed in the next few weeks.

“For affected employees, we work to find roles in the areas where we are hiring,” the spokesperson said.

Featured Image: JASON REDMOND/Getty Images

Contraception app still being probed by medical agency over unwanted pregnancies

Is there such a thing as bad publicity? It’s an interesting and contested question.

To wit: Self styled ‘digital contraception’ app, Natural Cycles — which relies on a set of proprietary algorithms and women inputting their morning body temperature to predict fertility levels each day — has claimed that negative headlines generated after a clinic reported a number of unwanted pregnancies among users of its app has actually led it to gain users.

Which might suggest that negative publicity (reported product failure) can actually be net positive for a business (claimed user gain). Or else it’s 100% pure surfactant spin.

“What’s positive is that our users don’t seem scared by these sorts of articles,” co-founder Elina Berglund told Business Insider last week, discussing the news that 37 unwanted pregnancies had been reported by a concerned Swedish clinic to the country’s Medial Products Agency this month.

“We’ve actually gained many new users. Instead, many are annoyed by the fact that their ability to use our app is underestimated, and they often respond to articles in the comment sections,” she added.

Trolls and other agents of misinformation also often contribute to articles in the comment sections. But I digress.

Sadly Berglund did not quantify exactly how many new users Natural Cycles has onboarded as a consequence of “these sorts of articles”.

So we can’t attempt to measure how helpful this particular exposure episode might have been for Natural Cycles’ business, even if some of the headlines didn’t sound, well, great for a business in the contraception business.

But here’s the thing: If reportage of 37 unwanted pregnancies is actually net positive for Natural Cycles, the company, why was its UK PR agency so quick and alacritous to push claims the probe had already run its course (and the app been given the “all clear”)?

It really makes you pause and wonder. Maybe bad publicity is a thing after all?

Or — at least — where failure of the product in question can have such grave and unwelcome consequences as an unwanted pregnancy.

Gerald Ratner trinketry this really is not.

Natural Cycles ‘all clear’ following investigation” read the subject of an email sent to my inbox today, by Hot Cherry — the aforementioned UK PR company for Natural Cycles.

A press release attached to the email, and headlined with the same phrase, contained the following opening para:

Earlier this month, Natural Cycles, the first app to be certified as a contraception in Europe, was reported to the Swedish Medical Product Agency (MPA) after a hospital found 37 cases of unintended pregnancies among women relying on the app for contraception. Now the MPA has closed all individual reports related to unplanned pregnancies concluding that there are no implications on behalf of Natural Cycles or the way the product is being marketed.

If you read carefully you’ll see the body text wording actually specifies that the MPA has “closed all individual reports related to unplanned pregnancies” (emphasis mine). Not that it’s closed its entire investigation.

Although the PR does go on to make the grand and linked claim that the MPA has concluded “there are no implications on behalf of Natural Cycles or the way the product is being marketed”.

“Following your recent piece about Natural Cycles we thought you’d be interested in running this as follow-up. Let me know,” added Harry Cymbler, who lists himself as “founder” of Hot Cherry, dashing off a pithy email to which he’d attached the full PR.

“Details and imagery attached. Pls let me know if you can run this,” he added.

I certainly ran the claim past the Swedish MPA.

I also contacted the referring clinic in Stockholm which had originally raised the concerns about the app’s efficacy — to ask whether they were aware of there being such a swift resolution to the investigation?

Reader, they were not.

In fact they immediately pointed me to this notice (in Swedish) posted by the Lakemedelsverket (aka: the MPA) which seeks to quash media rumors that their investigation has been closed. Spoiler: It really is ongoing.

A spokeswoman for the MPA also confirmed to me, via email, in English, that there is no ‘all clear’ for Natural Cycles as yet.

“That is not correct,” she told TechCrunch. “The investigation is still ongoing.”

“We are now asking the company behind the product for more information,” she added.

She also pointed to the notice the MPA had felt moved to post on its website as a result of incorrect media rumors the company was in the all clear.

The agency does not speculate on what could have triggered these false media rumors.

In the notice, the MPA specifies that while they have completed the “first phase” of their probe, they have now moved on to next steps — such as asking Natural Cycles to see clinical data, risk analysis and aftermarket control — i.e. before they will be in a position to be able to decide whether or not any further action is needed.

Here’s a Google Translate version of the anti-rumor notice in English:

There are reports in the media that the Swedish Medicines Agency would have closed the investigation on the Natural Cycles contraceptives app. That’s not right. The investigation proceeds in the form of a supervisory case, where the Swedish Medicines Agency now requests additional information to find out if there are shortcomings in the product, product information or how the manufacturer follows up the product’s performance and use.

“The investigation of the Natural Cycles contraceptive is most ongoing. We have completed the first phase where we have requested the manufacturer’s response to the accident reports. Now the investigation goes on to the next step, which means that we collect information to be able to decide if any action is needed. Among other things, we want to see clinical data, risk analysis and aftermarket control,” says Ewa-Lena Hartman, Group Chief, the Medical Products Agency.

The background to the supervision is an increased number of healthcare reports of unwanted pregnancy when using Natural Cycles. The preventive drug certification has been performed by a third party and has not previously been reviewed by the Swedish Medicines Agency.

If you as an individual are worried about or have questions about which contraceptives you should use, turn to your care for help and advice.

Curious to sort out these crossed wires, I went back to Harry at Hot Cherry — to ask why his PR appeared to imply the MPA’s investigation was over, when in fact the process remains “most ongoing”.

In an era replete with hair-trigger claims of ‘fake news’, any professional messaging that seeks, even inadvertently, to blur the lines of truth and fiction by encouraging time-strapped journalists to “run” unchecked claims seems, well, ill advised to say the least.

And maybe especially so for Natural Cycles — whose product relies so acutely on users trusting the efficacy claims its business makes because it hasn’t yet conducted a randomized control trial to be able to robustly prove out those claims via the standard science.

Harry’s first response came quickly: “We’ll discuss this with Natural Cycles and get back to you.”

A couple of hours later, thanking me for my patience, he emailed the following statement (emphasis theirs):

Läkemedelsverket (the MPA) are commenting on what the media is writing. We agree with what MPA states. The individual reports have been dealt with and are now closed, but we continue to work with the MPA in what is called trend reporting to make sure our data is in line with what is being reported from the public. We appreciate the fact that we now going forward will get data from both the public and our own sources, which will only strengthen our clinical claims further.

So, after all that, I’m very happy to confirm there is in fact no new news here: Natural Cycles remains under investigation over a number of unwanted pregnancies among users of its app.

And on the other matter of interest — the question of whether all publicity is good news in business growth terms, i.e. even when it’s attached to ongoing concerns about your product’s efficacy — well, I’ll leave you to be the judge of that.

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.

Strava says it will simplify privacy settings and review app features after exposing military bases

Fitness app Strava has said it will review its privacy settings and features after it was found to have exposed the location of military bases across the world by releasing user activity data.

The Strava activity heatmap was supposed to be a fun and informative look at how the world works out. It ended up, however, putting Washington on alert after a student noticed flashes of activity in certain countries made it possible to identify military bases and other facilities operated by countries, including the U.S., in locations such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Syria.

The U.S. military has said that it plans to review its own rules around how armed forces personnel can use wireless devices and apps, and now Strava itself confirmed it will rethink its privacy data options, which were actually fairly confusing, and other features.

In an open letter, CEO James Quarles said the company would review “features that were originally designed for athlete motivation and inspiration to ensure they cannot be compromised by people with bad intent.”

Quarles said Strava will place more emphasis on privacy and user data safety. He said the app would simplify those features inside the Strava to ensure that users were fully aware and able to control their data.

Finally, he said his company is “committed to working with military and government officials to address potentially sensitive data.”

Despite all of that, Strava’s global heatmap remains accessible as before.

This isn’t the first time that the company has fielded complaints for its handling of user data, particularly for female athletes. The sheer amount of personal information sucked up has made opting in and out of certain features advisable, while users themselves have previously requested more granular control of public/private information in the app.

Snap Inc. lays off at least two dozen amid slowed user growth and engagement

Snap Inc. has laid off at least two dozen people across several divisions within the company, according to the Information, which first reported the news.

Snap has since confirmed these layoffs, which largely affect those on the content teams in the New York and London offices. Over a dozen of the 24 or so employees laid off today were part of the content team.

Snap tells TechCrunch that what’s left of the content division will now move to the company’s Valencia, California location and that it will continue to hire on the content team. According  to Snap, this is just part of finding the right people for the job.

These layoffs may also not have been unexpected as they are part of a reorganization effort to cut costs due to the lackluster growth at the six-year old company.

Investors have been pressuring Snap to grow its user base but so far the company has fumbled in key areas such as hardware and a much anticipated app redesign which has had a delayed rollout to the United States and has worried some publishers as it may affect their traffic.

Thought Snap didn’t want to comment on when that redesign may arrive in the U.S., other reports pin it at the end of Q1 this year.

Snap has gone through several layoffs in the last year, letting go several dozen employees over a couple of rounds in the hardware division and in recruiting in lat 2017. At the time, founder Evan Spiegel announced in a letter the company would be slowing hiring efforts in 2018 and that managers would be asked to make “hard decisions” about teams that weren’t performing well in order to get the company back on track.

It remains to be seen how the new redesign will affect growth and revenue but Snap seems committed to its content goals.

The nanny of former Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski has filed an excruciatingly detailed lawsuit

Anthony Levandowski might have thought things couldn’t get much worse. But a new lawsuit filed Levandowski’s former nanny suggests that the exact opposite is true.

In fact, much of the nanny’s lawsuit — filed by a personal injury attorney in Fair Oaks, Ca., and rife with complaints, including of a retaliatory and hostile work environment, age discrimination, failure to pay wages, and other labor and health code violations —  reads rather like a failed blackmail attempt.

For example, it cites with little certainty the names and jobs of people who were discussed during family dinner conversations; it also attempts to document who visited Levandowski’s home throughout the nanny’s employment with Levandowski’s family, which began in late 2016.

Other observations of the former nanny, Erika Wong, include her unhappiness with Levandowski’s requests that she let his sons cry themselves to sleep on occasion, and recollections certain to embarrass him, including the  “various sized flesh colored dildos” along with “nipple clamps, black with torture adjustable settings,” found by one of his children after the child opened a dresser drawer in Levandowski’s bedroom.

There’s also no shortage of scene setting, including the evening of February 23, 2017. Says the lawsuit:

Wong arrived in the early evening and Levandowski was on the phone. Wong was speaking to an attorney, she alleges was Ehrlich for several hours. She noticed Levandowski was profusely sweating and walking around in circles in the living room. Wong sat at the dining table, close to Levandowski.

Levandowski screamed “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” all evening. He stated, “How could they do this to me?” “Miles, what about the clause, you and Abby said this would work!! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! “What do I do with the discs? What do the contracts say?? Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” What about Ognen, John, Izzy, and Rich Bender? All of you said all said this would work!!! Shit! Shit! Shit!” It’s all mine, the money, the deals, it’s all mine. What about ‘the shit?’ These are all my fucking deals!!! All of you fucking attorneys and Randy said this would work!”

Wired was first to flag the filing and several outlets covering the lawsuit suggest that Wong’s claims raise new questions about Levandowski’s business conduct. We don’t have a horse in this race, but we think that’s probably giving it too much credit.

Either way, the salacious details are seemingly the last thing that Levandowski needs right now. The former Uber engineer is already at the center of a now yearlong battle between Uber and Levandowski’s former employer, Waymo.

In fact, the two sides will meet at long last in a courtroom next month to duke it out.

As those following the drama well know already, a year ago, Waymo, the autonomous car company once known as Google’s self-driving car outfit, announced it was suing Uber for trade-secret theft.

According to Waymo, Levandowski specifically had downloaded 14,000 secret documents as he was leaving the company in order to launch his own self-driving truck startup, Otto, in early 2016. Nine months later, Uber acquired Otto for a reported $680 million, and Waymo believes that Uber was complicit from the outset in what it claims is trade theft.

Levandowski has denied any wrongdoing. Uber has also denied any wrongdoing, despite that former manager on the company’s corporate surveillance team told federal prosecutors late last year of a secret messaging system designed to “destroy communications that might be considered sensitive.”

You can check out Wong’s lawsuit here. You might want to make a sandwich first. (It’s 81 pages.)

The Nanny versus former Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski by TechCrunch on Scribd