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  • Women alleging sexual assault by Uber drivers asked to be freed from forced arbitration
  • A group of women alleging sexual violence from Uber drivers have sent an open letter to the company’s board, asking to be released from the mandatory arbitration clause in the Uber app’s terms of service. The letter was posted on the website of Wigdor LLP, a New York law firm that filed a class action lawsuit against Uber last year on behalf of women who said they were assaulted or raped by Uber drivers and blame the company’s background check procedures.

    “Uber’s message to the public are: ‘we help improve access to transportation, and make streets safer’ [and] ‘We do the right thing, period,’” read part of the letter, which was signed by fourteen women. “Secret arbitration is the opposite of transparency. Forcing female riders, as a condition of using Uber’s app, to pursue claims of sexual assault and rape in secret arbitration proceedings does not ‘make streets safer.’ Silencing our stories deprives customers and potential investors from the knowledge that our horrific experiences are part of a widespread problem at Uber.”

    They added “when we created Uber accounts, we believed Uber’s promise to provide a ‘safe ride.’ We trusted a company operating in the space of transportation for hire to mean what it says, and we never thought that Uber would perpetuate physical violence against women. But this is exactly what Uber is doing and what is has been doing for years.”

    Once a relatively obscure legal issue, mandatory arbitration agreements are now under scrutiny by activists who say they force victims of harassment and discrimination into silence. Opponents of mandatory arbitration say that the closed hearings, which include non-disclosure clauses and are often performed by a third-party arbitrator paid by the company itself, prevent victims from taking further action even as social movements like #MeToo continue to gain ground.

    Many companies require employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements as a condition of employment. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the number of non-union, private sector employees covered by mandatory arbitration clauses has increased dramatically since the early 2000s.

    Wigdor LLP noted that some companies, like Microsoft, are ending forced arbitration clauses, especially for sexual harassment, while a bipartisan bill has been introduced in the United States Congress that would end forced arbitration of sexual harassment cases in workplaces, and called on Uber to follow suit.

    In an exchange last month with former Uber engineer Susan Fowler on Twitter, Dara Khosrowshahi, who succeeded Travis Kalanick as Uber’s chief executive officer last August, signaled that he is willing to consider ending forced arbitration. “I will take it seriously, but we have to take all of our constituents into consideration,” he wrote.

    Hi Dara! I know you are working hard to make Uber a better place than it was when I was there. I believe you can make a difference, and I have a suggestion for something important you can do:

    — Susan Fowler (@susanthesquark) March 30, 2018

    Hi Susan! 1. I’m trying and our company is bought in! 2. I will take a look at your suggestion – I will take it seriously but we have to take all of our constituents into consideration. 3. Would love to meet and talk in person vs twitter. 4. Thank you for what you’ve done.

    — dara khosrowshahi (@dkhos) March 30, 2018

    Fowler, whose blog post detailing sexual harassment at the company led to an internal investigation and contributed to the resignation of Kalanick, is now backing a new bill in California that would forbid companies from forcing employees to enter mandatory arbitration agreements in response to sexual harassment and other workplace discrimination complaints.

    TechCrunch has contacted Uber for comment.

  • Disney’s pneumatic ‘Force Jacket’ could be the key to awesome VR theme parks
  • As we navigate further and further into this strange Ready Player One-like future that plenty of tech companies are investing heavily, Disney wants to ensure that people can feel content in the most life-like way possible.

    Disney Research has shown off some research into the world of haptic feedback via a vest with “pneumatically-actuated airbags.”

    The “Force Jacket” is powered by a jacket filled with 26 air packets attached via tubes to a machine that inflates and deflate them with precision at the appropriate time. Teamed with a virtual reality experience, the jacket can deliver experiences that make you feel like a virtual object is pushing up against you. In the case of Disney’s early tests, that could mean feeling like you’re getting hit by a snowball.

    While a lot of people have played around with body suits and vests sporting haptic feedback, there’s no replacement to actually feeling real pressure rather than a weird little jiggle. This definitely seems like a good direction for Disney to be looking in as it explores the role that virtual reality experiences could have in their amusement parks. The company has launched a Star Wars themed experience from The VOID at its Disney resorts and it’s clear that there’s an endless amount of potential from virtual reality combined with physical interactions.

    Is it something that will eventually be in people’s homes? Only if you subscribe to a particularly dismal view of the future, but! this does seem to have some real applications for location-based VR experiences in the future, though they’ll have to shrink stuff down a bit first.

  • Apple iTunes finally arrives in the Windows Store
  • With Microsoft’s BUILD 2018 conference right around the corner, the company just made good on a promise from last year’s conference; Apple iTunes is finally coming to the Windows Store.

    The music software was originally forecast to arrive by the end of 2017, but it took a bit longer to finally find its Windows home. The iTunes of the Windows Store is just the same old regular iTunes, but now installation updates are handled through the Windows Store updater rather than through Apple . It’s arrival also ensures the software’s compatibility with Windows 10 S mode which only runs apps downloaded from the Windows Store.

    If you somehow don’t have iTunes yet you still desire iTunes on your Windows 10 PC, check it out here.

  • Native Union’s new speaker strikes directly at my weakness for tasteful brass accents
  • Bluetooth and smart speakers are a dime a dozen these days, and many of them aren’t bad — so what it often comes down to is style. Native Union has my number with its latest device, which accentuates the classic bookcase speaker look with a tech-heavy back end and brass volume knob.

    It’s a collaboration with French audio outfit La Boite Concept (roughly, “concept box”), which presumably did the sound-specific portions of the speaker — that is to say, the speaker — while Native Union brought its understated design chops to the bargain.

    My iPhone SE proudly wore a Native Union case for a year or so in handsome cherry and brass, though the plastic parts eventually broke down. This looks to be rather a more solid construction, but the design notes are the same: a focus on natural materials with slashes of metal.

    Inside is the amplifier and guts, of course, and in back a drawer hides the many inputs: two 3.5mm jacks, two USB, one USB-C. I’m not sure how many of those you’ll end up using simultaneously, but it’s always nice to have options. Plus Bluetooth, of course.

    Right now the speaker isn’t quite listed on Native Union’s site — it’s that fresh. Acquire apparently scooped the maker of the thing. I’ve asked for more details, and I’m sure it’ll be online soon. I know it’s coming because there’s a “speakers” nav on their site:

    It’s a hell of a good looking thing, but you know it comes at a price — $799. Yes, and you’ll have to buy it at MOMA stores in New York. Really, now. Maybe I’ll wait for a sale.

  • Snap’s updated Spectacles are doubling down on an unfulfilled vision
  • Snap showed off a new update to it’s fabled Snap Spectacles today. They’re new, but only sort of, and it’s not clear that they’ve learned much since the glasses first debuted in fall of 2016.

    The changes they did make with V2 (water-proofing, higher-def video, slightly updated design) have fundamentally been tweaks towards perfecting a vision that consumers don’t seem to be identifying with already, all in a package that costs more.

    Frankly, Snap was a much cooler company when Spectacles first launched a year-and-a-half ago, Instagram Stories had only launched weeks earlier, Snapchat hadn’t embraced a tumultuous redesign and the then-private company just generally had more positive buzz around it. Fast forward 2018 and the company’s updated “toy” glasses have a little bit more riding on them, not necessarily for the potential hardware revenues, but because they need to help the company steal back its cool factor lunch that Instagram has been eating.

    Water-proofing and higher-def video are evolutions meant to appease existing users who have pushed up against the limitations, but this update is likely still too minor to get those people to upgrade, so what is Snap really gaining here aside from a shot at getting those already on the fence?

    My colleague Josh Constine was optimistic with what the updated product had accomplished, “After two days of use, I think Spectacles V2 cross the threshold from clumsy novelty to creative tool accessible to the mainstream.” But as someone who hovered over the “add to cart” button on Amazon countless times after spending time with the originals, I personally just can’t see these updates being enough to truly widen the product’s reach in the coming months.

    Keeping the price the same would have been shocking enough, but raising the price from $129 to $149 is just arrogant. Pricing a product like this in reference to the high-end eyewear market is understandable but they are fundamentally a gadget, albeit one sitting alone in a product class no one asked for. Spectacles didn’t really need all these minor updates right now, with this product strategy unchanged they needed to drop the price to $70-$100 and just focus on tightening up the experience on the software side.

    The utility of these glasses is definitely suspect, but they are unquestionably unique in purpose and offer an early future for high-tech eyewear that so many tech giants are already betting on. While Google Glass of the past and Magic Leap of the present have promised the world, Spectacles were supposed to approach consumers in a place where they already were in a way that would get them comfortable with wearing a computer on their eyes. This is still the vision, but Spectacles haven’t cracked what this really means yet. Are Spectacles destined to just be a frat party action camera for your face or can they be something more meaningful down the road?

    If they’re destined to only be a face-mounted action cam, they should probably look to GoPro and rethink their existence. If they have the potential to be something more than a dead-end, they should keep the brand alive in a lower-priced existence while forgetting about incremental upgrades and focusing on a more exciting (and expensive) future for smart glasses.

    Snap’s biggest success with V1 of the Spectacles was their marketing push around them, meanwhile I’m not very confident they can drum up much love with this minor update. It may have been wiser for them to focus on hitting a lower price point with a more streamlined feature set. Snap’s V2 Spectacles double-down on the company’s original vision without acknowledging that perhaps there was a fundamental reason they didn’t sell as well as they had expected in the first place.

  • Pro-Trump social media duo accuses Facebook of anti-conservative censorship
  • Following up on a recurring thread from Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional appearance earlier this month, the House held a hearing today on perceived bias against conservatives on Facebook and other social platforms. The hearing, ostensibly about “how social media companies filter content on their platforms,” focused on the anecdotal accounts of social media stars Diamond and Silk (Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson), a pro-Trump viral web duo that rose to prominence during Trump’s presidential campaign.

    “Facebook used one mechanism at a time to diminish reach by restricting our page so that our 1.2 million followers would not see our content, thus silencing our conservative voices,” Diamond and Silk said in their testimony.

    “It’s not fair for these Giant Techs [sic] like Facebook and YouTube get to pull the rug from underneath our platform and our feet and put their foot on our neck to silence our voices; it’s not fair for them to put a strong hold on our finances.”

    During the course of their testimony, Diamond and Silk repeated their unfounded assertions that Facebook targeted their content as a deliberate act of political censorship.

    Just so you know, we will always have our Presidents back.
    "Don't Get It Twisted!"

    (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

    — Diamond and Silk® (@DiamondandSilk) March 24, 2018

    What followed was mostly a partisan back-and-forth. Republicans who supported the hearing’s mission asked the duo to elaborate on their claims and Democrats pointed out their lack of substantiating evidence and their willingness to denounce documented facts as “fake news.”

    Controversially, they also denied that they had accepted payment from the Trump campaign, in spite of public evidence to the contrary. On November 22, 2016, the pair received $1,274.94 for “field consulting,” as documented by the FEC.

    Earlier in April, Zuckerberg faced a question about the pair’s Facebook page from Republican Rep. Joe Barton:

    Why is Facebook censoring conservative bloggers such as Diamond and Silk? Facebook called them “unsafe” to the community. That is ludicrous. They hold conservative views. That isn’t unsafe.

    At the time, Zuckerberg replied that the perceived censorship was an “enforcement error” and had been in contact with Diamond and Silk to reverse its mistake. Senator Ted Cruz also asked Zuckerberg about what he deemed a “pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship” against conservative voices on the platform.

    Diamond and Silk are testifying before the House Judiciary Committee. Why? Because the #GOP seems to want to regulate content on the Internet. Very bad idea. It would also be unconstitutional.

    — Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) April 26, 2018

    Today’s hearing, which California Rep. Ted Lieu dismissed as “stupid and ridiculous,” was little more than an exercise in idle hyper-partisanship, but it’s notable for a few reasons. For one, Diamond and Silk are two high-profile creators who managed to take their monetization grievances with tech companies, however misguided, all the way to Capitol Hill. Beyond that, and the day’s strange role-reversal of regulatory stances, the hearing was the natural escalation of censorship claims made by some Republicans during the Zuckerberg hearings. Remarkably, those accusations only comprised a sliver of the two days’ worth of testimony; in a rare display of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans mostly cooperated in grilling the Facebook CEO on his company’s myriad failures.

    Congressional hearing or not, the truth of Facebook’s platform screw-ups is far more universal than political claims on the right or left might suggest. As Zuckerberg’s testimony made clear, Facebook’s moderation tools don’t exactly work as intended and the company doesn’t even really know the half of it. Facebook users have been manipulating the platform’s content reporting tools for years, and unfortunately that phenomenon coupled with Facebook’s algorithmic and moderation blind spots punishes voices on both sides of the U.S. political spectrum — and everyone in between.

  • Your annual Amazon Prime membership fees are about to increase
  • On today’s wildly successful earnings call, Amazon CFO Brian Olsavsky dropped a bit of a bombshell for Amazon Prime subscribers. The retailer’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink annual subscription plan is about to get pricier. On May 11, Prime annual memberships will jump $20, from $99 a year to $119.

    The news follows a similar announcement back in January, which found the monthly version of the program increasing from $10.99 to $12.99 — a $24 increase. Of course, annual subscribers will still come out ahead — the monthly model works out to $156 a year. This is the first increase to annual pricing in nearly four years

    Why the bump? Amazon’s wild content buying spree likely has something to do with it. Just this afternoon, it announced that it was extending its Thursday Night Football deal another two years. 

    “Since we increased the annual price of Prime four years ago both the value of Prime and the cost to offer it have increased significantly,” Amazon said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. And certainly the program has grown a lot, from a free shipping program to including everything from Alexa special features to The Washington Post

    The new prices apply starting May 11 for new subscribers. Existing subscribers will see an increase for renewals starting June 16.

  • Apple ends production of AirPort base stations
  • It’s an end of an era in Cupertino today. Apple just announced the end of production on its AirPort line of base stations, a list that includes the AirPort Express, AirPort Extreme and AirPort Time Capsule.

    In a statement provided to TechCrunch, the company noted that it will continue to sell its remaining stock, but once it’s done, it’s done. “We’re discontinuing the Apple AirPort base station products,” says the spokesperson. “They will be available through, Apple’s retail stores and Apple Authorized Resellers while supplies last.”

    The end of the line probably doesn’t come as too much of a surprise for outsiders. A lot has changed in the home networking category since Apple arrived on the scene nearly 20 years back. A number of other consumer electronics bigwigs have entered the fray, along with a number of notable startups.

    Google, Linksys and Netgear have offered some pretty compelling offerings, along with newcomers like Plume and Eero. AirPort has clearly become less and less of a focus for the company over the past decade. While the home setting continues to play a vital role in Apple’s hardware play, the company’s focus has since shifted to multimedia and smart home offerings like Apple TV and the HomePod.

    It seems likely that the company will continue exploring home networking avenues in the future, as it focuses more and more on its HomeKit strategy, but AirPort in its current form doesn’t appear to have been profitable enough to have warranted whatever remaining resources the company was continuing to expend.

    Given its relatively newfound willingness to partner with hardware makers on the HomeKit front, however, third-party hardware could potentially prove a compelling avenue in the future. Meantime, the company should be providing continued support for those who pick up any remaining stock. It’s also started offering some advice for those looking for an Apple-friendly home router. 

  • By keeping its head in the cloud, Microsoft makes it rain on shareholders
  • Thanks in part to its colossal cloud business, Microsoft earnings are drenching shareholders in dollars.

    For the quarter ending March 31, 2018, the tech ringer from Redmond saw its revenue increase to $26.8 billion (up 16 percent) from $23.2 billion, with operating income up 23 percent to $8.3 billion, up from $6.7 billion.

    Income was a whopping $7.4 billion (up from $5.5 billion) and diluted earnings per share were 95 cents versus analyst expectations of 85 cents per share, according to FactSet.

    Despite the earnings beat, shares of the company stock fell as much as 1 percent in after-hours trading on the Nasdaq stock exchange.

    Floating much of Microsoft’s success for the quarter was the continued strength of the company’s cloud business, which chief executive Satya Nadella singled out in a statement.

    “Our results this quarter reflect the trust people and organizations are placing in the Microsoft Cloud,” Nadella said. “We are innovating across key growth categories of infrastructure, AI, productivity and business applications.”

    The company also returned $6.3 billion to shareholders in dividends and share repurchases in the third quarter 2018, an increase of 37 percent.

    The company notched wins across the board. In addition to the growth of its cloud business — led by Azure (which grew 93 percent) — Microsoft also recorded strong growth from LinkedIn, which saw revenue increase 37 percent to $1.3 billion and hardware revenue from the Surface increasing 32 percent.

    Even the move of Microsoft office into a hosted business seems to have stanched the flow of bleeding from the company’s former cash cow. The company counts 135 million business users on Office 365, and 30.6 million consumer subscriptions for the service.

    The Surface numbers are notable because it’s perhaps the first indication that its hardware successes aren’t necessarily limited to the Xbox (insert Zune joke here).

  • Amazon scores another two years of ‘Thursday Night Football’ streaming
  • Amazon just announced that it’s scored the rights to stream Thursday Night Football games for another two years. The contract renewal will bring 11 NFL games simulcast on Fox to its Prime video offerings for both the 2018 and 2019 seasons, including weeks four through 15 of the season, save for Thanksgiving. 

    The NFL and Amazon partnered for a similar deal in 2017 said to be valued at around $50 million, which brought in 18 million viewers combined. No price has been disclosed this time out, but the site was said to be one of a number of big players bidding for streaming rights, including Twitter, YouTube and Verizon — all of whom have beefed up their professional sports offerings in recent years.

    Of course, Amazon’s got plenty of money to play around with these days. The company posted a $51 billion revenue earlier this afternoon, beating expectations and bumping its own stock price up 7 percent in the process. Continued streaming of the U.S.’s most popular sport will give the company a continued edge as it looks to distinguish its video offering from the likes of Netflix. 

    Earlier this week, the service also announced that it had partnered with NFL Films for a third season of its football documentary series, All or Nothing — this time focused on the Dallas Cowboys.

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