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Amazon India reportedly copied products and rigged search results

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Photographer: Thorsten Wagner/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Amazon‘s India division engaged in a systematic campaign of copying items sold by third-party sellers and then manipulated search results to favor its own products, according to a Reuters report Wednesday that cites internal documents.

In a 2016 document, titled “India Private Brands Program,” Amazon’s private label team in India detailed how it would review sales and customer review data to identify “reference brands” to replicate, according to the article.

In one case, Amazon employees noticed an uptick in returns of a shirt made by one of its private-label clothing brands due to sizing issues, Reuters said. The team reportedly found an outselling brand and revised the fit of its shirt to match that brand’s measurements.

Amazon teams in India also worked to boost the company’s private label products in search results, using a technique called “search seeding” and “sparkles,” according to Reuters. “Search seeding” allowed Amazon to ensure that new products were the second or third result in search queries, while “sparkles” are banners that are located above search results, Reuters reported.

High-ranking Amazon executives, including Diego Piacentini, who previously led the company’s international business, and Russell Grandinetti, senior VP of international consumer, were aware of the business practices in India, Reuters said. Piacentini reported to founder and Executive Chairman Jeff Bezos, and Grandinetti is part of an influential team of key executives overseen by CEO Andy Jassy.

Reuters’ findings directly contradict Amazon’s previous messaging around how it develops its private label products. For many years, Amazon has launched its own private-label goods under the AmazonBasics branding, which offers everything from furniture to clothing. It also offers private label products under other brand names.

Businesses that hawk their wares on Amazon have previously questioned how the retail giant comes up with its own products, with some alleging Amazon directly knocked off their goods.

Amazon executives including Bezos have maintained it’s against company policy to use data from third-party merchants to build future products. Bezos told a congressional committee in July 2020 that Amazon has a policy that safeguards seller data from employee access.

“If we found someone violated it, we would take action,” Bezos said at the time.

Representatives from Amazon didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Read the full Reuters report here.

WATCH: Amazon CEO: We experienced 2-3 years of growth in 18 months

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Fed to ban policymakers from owning individual stocks, restrict trading following controversy

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The Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve building in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021.

Stefani Reynolds | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Responding to a growing controversy over investing practices, the Federal Reserve on Thursday announced a wide-ranging ban on officials owning individual stocks and limits on other activities as well.

The ban includes top policymakers such as those who sit on the Federal Open Market Committee, along with senior staff. Future investments will have to be confined to diversified assets such as mutual funds.

Fed officials can no longer have holdings in shares of particular companies, nor can they invest in individual bonds, hold agency securities or derivative contracts. The new rules replace existing regulations that, while somewhat restrictive, still allowed members to buy and sell stocks.

“These tough new rules raise the bar high in order to assure the public we serve that all of our senior officials maintain a single-minded focus on the public mission of the Federal Reserve,” Fed Chair Jerome Powell said in a statement.

Under the new rules, the officials will have to provide 45 days’ notice in advance of buying or selling any securities that are still allowed. They also will be required to hold the securities for at least a year, and cannot buy or sell funds during “heightened financial market stress,” a news release announcing the moves said.

The rules come on the heels of disclosures that multiple Fed officials had been buying and selling stocks at a time when the central bank’s policies were designed to improve market functioning, particularly during the Covid crisis.

Regional presidents Robert Kaplan of Dallas and Eric Rosengren of Boston both resigned shortly after disclosures that they had engaged in trading of individual securities in 2020. In Kaplan’s case, the moves occurred in large-dollar allotments.

Vice Chairman Richard Clarida also had been featured in the reports. Powell also sold securities last year, though they were exchange-traded funds that tracked market indexes.

“It’s probably a wise move, because the fact is that distinguishing between genuine insider trading and just ordinary trades that look like they might be taking advantage of insider information is fraught with problems,” said George Selgin, director emeritus of the of the Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives at the Cato Institute.

The announcement stated that reserve bank presidents will have to disclose transactions within 30 days, a requirement already in place for FOMC members and senior staff. The new rules will be incorporated formally “over the month months,” the release said. Current holdings will have to be divested, though no timetable has been announced.

“The optics are bad,” Selgin said of the previous Fed rules. “They needed a rule like this. I don’t think we need to feel sorry for them. They’ll do well enough with this restraint in place.”

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A huge improvement from last year

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Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

Microsoft‘s $1,500 Surface Duo 2, the company’s second folding phone, launches Thursday. I’ve been using it for about a week and it’s a huge improvement over the first model Microsoft launched last year, which was too buggy and underpowered.

Microsoft doesn’t make a lot of money off of hardware, and it has a poor track record with phones. While the Windows Mobile operating system was popular before the iPhone launched in 2007, the company’s hardware has never caught on with consumers the way iPhones or Samsung phones have. The Surface Duo 2 probably won’t change that narrative, since its design and price will only attract a niche audience. Microsoft likely won’t sell a ton of these.

But the Surface Duo 2 offers something unique that you don’t get with any other phone on the market. It has two screens that can run different apps side by side. The company thinks people can be more productive with the Surface Duo 2. I’m not sure I’m more productive with the Surface Duo 2. I still take out my laptop when I need to get work done. But it’s novel, fun to use and actually works this time.

Here’s what you need to know about the Surface Duo 2.

What’s good

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Surface Duo 2 is like a shiny glass Moleskine notebook with chrome accents. Like the first iteration, it looks high end, with two thin halves that fold together into a tiny notebook. It opens up to reveal two large 5.8-inch screens that, used together, offer 8.3 inches of space to run two apps side by side or to span a single app, like Outlook, across both. 

The displays are slightly bigger than last year, so you have more space for apps. I have the black model, which looks great, but it gets covered in fingerprints. So you may want to consider the white version instead.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

Microsoft addressed nearly all of the hardware complaints last year. The 2020 Surface Duo lacked a lot of features of competing high-end devices. The Duo 2 has the same Qualcomm chip as other top Android phones, instead of a slightly older one. It has support for faster 5G cellular networks — great for streaming games or downloading a movie before you hop on a flight once the Covid pandemic ends — and also adds NFC support, which I use all the time for mobile payments.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

Last year’s Surface Duo launched with terribly buggy software. It was slow to open apps, the screens wouldn’t respond if you tried to flip it back into the single-screen mode, and the camera didn’t always work the way it was supposed to. Microsoft addressed a lot of those bugs. The Surface Duo 2 feels fast and apps open the way I expect them to. I still ran into occasional bugs where a video would temporarily run upside down, but it often fixed itself in seconds.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Surface Duo 2 can be a joy to use. It’s not always as convenient as an iPhone or a regular Android phone, which has just one screen and is quicker to access. But, I love that I can prop up the Surface Duo 2 and watch CNBC on my desk while I’m working on my computer, or read a book in the Amazon Kindle app with a page on each display.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

I enjoyed chatting with friends on one side of the screen while reading a news article on the other. And I liked playing games with Xbox Game Pass with a connected Xbox controller, or with the added touch-screen buttons that appear on one screen while the game appears on the other. It’s just a really unique experience you won’t get anywhere else. The closest comparison is Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 3, though the inside of that phone is a single full screen so the Fold is better for watching movies.

Microsoft also added stereo speakers, which were missing last year. That means it sounds like the audio is coming from both sides of the phone, instead of just one side, and it made a difference while watching videos.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

And, like Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 3, it supports pen input. I used the Surface Slim Pen 2 ($129.99), which is convenient for taking notes or just sketching. That same pen works with the Surface Pro computers, so you may already own one (or an earlier model).

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

I don’t need a pen often, but it’s useful to have for when I need to sign something for my child’s day care. It’s useful for scrolling around apps and moving through emails, too. I recommend also considering the Surface Duo 2 Pen Cover, which protects only the front glass of the Duo 2 but holds and charges the pen with a magnet.

What’s bad

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

While the Surface 2 Duo is a breath of fresh air in a sea of phones that mostly look the same, it’s also just not terribly convenient if you need to just quickly send a text message or make a phone call. You have to open it to answer a call, for example. You could always just leave it folded back, but it seems like it’s better to keep those big displays protected by keeping it closed. The Surface Duo 2 makes sense as a secondary device, maybe one that you mostly use for work and watching TV, but while still also owning an iPhone or a separate Android phone. Sort of like a portable tablet that fits in your pocket. It’s how I spent a lot of time with it.

I appreciate that Microsoft bends the screens ever so slightly over the hinge so that you can see icons representing notifications on the side, or an incoming call, or how charged the battery is, but it only lights up when a new notification comes in. So, you have to crack open the phone to see your alerts. And the battery charging indicator doesn’t stay on the whole time it’s plugged in, so you need to unplug and plug it back in again to see how charged it is (or open it). Microsoft could fix this by allowing the hinge to respond to a tap, lighting up the slim screen to give a status update.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

Last year’s Surface Duo had a camera that wasn’t very great for much outside of video chat. Microsoft addressed those complaints by adding three additional cameras to the back, including a wide-angle, an ultra-wide angle for fitting more into a picture and a zoom lens. The cameras are fine, but they’re still not as good as what you’d get on phones that cost hundreds of dollars less, like the regular iPhone 13 or the Samsung Galaxy S21. There’s a split-second delay when you take a photo, so I often missed my son smiling before he moved on to do something else. Or the picture would turn out blurry. Those are issues that are normally fixed in software updates, so it’s not a huge concern. But you should be getting a much better camera on a $1,500 phone.

Surface Duo 2 sample photo

Todd Haselton | CNBC

My bigger concern is that it’s just weird taking pictures with the Surface Duo 2. You have to hold it with both screens open, so it’s sort of like taking pictures with a book. It’d be useful to have a tiny screen on the front that could be used as a viewfinder and to show small notifications. The good news is the colors in pictures are far better than last year’s single lens, which often produced really washed-out images.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

There’s a gap when you fold one screen back onto the other, since the camera lenses pop out. It makes the Surface Duo 2 a little fatter to hold in single-screen mode, but it’s not as bad as it might seem. Microsoft did a nice job angling the camera lenses so they rest against the back panel, and it still feels sturdy despite the extra gap.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

I like that I can expand apps like Outlook to span across both displays, to see messages on one side and the contents of an email on the other. But even other apps that are designed for spanning across both screens don’t always look great. Some content is cut off by the hinge in the middle, for example. Other apps do a better job, like a new TikTok app, which shows you what’s trending on one side and a video on the other. I’d like to see more apps add support for both screens, but I don’t think developers are going to be incentivized to do it if millions of people aren’t using this phone.

Lastly, the Surface Duo 2 doesn’t support wireless charging and isn’t as water-resistant as most expensive phones are. I hope to see Microsoft add those features next year.

Should you buy it?

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Surface Duo 2 is way better than Microsoft’s first attempt. It isn’t a mass-market phone for most people, but it’s worth a look if you’re looking for something more unique than a regular phone or think it might be useful to run two apps side by side. I prefer the flexibility of Samsung’s more expensive $1,800 Galaxy Z Fold 3, and appreciate that phone’s water resistance, so you should also give that a look.

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Sam Altman’s Worldcoin wants to scan your eyes in exchange for crypto

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Worldcoin’s orb-shaped devices scan people’s eyes in exchange for cryptocurrency.

Worldcoin

It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie — metallic orbs that scan people’s eyes to pay them in digital currency.

That’s what tech investor Sam Altman has been working on for his new start-up, a company called Worldcoin. Launched out of “stealth” on Thursday, Worldcoin promises to hand out free cryptocurrency to people who verify their accounts by taking an iris scan.

Worldcoin says it’s already attracted $25 million in funding from Silicon Valley investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Coinbase and billionaire LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, giving the firm a $1 billion valuation.

Altman, CEO of artificial intelligence group OpenAI and former president of start-up accelerator Y Combinator, co-founded the company with theoretical physics student Alex Blania and Max Novendstern, a former investment associate at Bridgewater Associates.

The idea seems outlandish at first. Free money? And all I need to do is have my eyes scanned? It sounds too good to be true.

However, Worldcoin’s founders say it’s about expanding the reach of cryptocurrencies — and financial services more broadly — to the masses. Less than 3% of the global population are crypto users, according to virtual currency exchange Crypto.com.

“Cryptocurrency is a very powerful thing,” Blania, Worldcoin’s CEO, told CNBC. “It will widen the boundaries of the economy in general and give many people access.”

How it works

Worldcoin has already shipped its orb-shaped devices to people in 12 countries. Testers get users to sign up by having their iris scanned. The image is then encrypted and becomes a unique code, while the original data is deleted to protect users’ privacy. Following that, users are given a free share of Worldcoin’s cryptocurrency.

A tester operating one of Worldcoin’s orbs in Chile.

Worldcoin

“We designed the whole system to be fundamentally privacy-preserving,” Blania said. “The iris code itself is the only thing leaving the orb. There’s no big database of biometric data.”

The company has so far amassed over 100,000 users globally already, and is onboarding 700 more each week. Worldcoin aims to hit 1 billion users by 2023.

Which raises a big question — how exactly is Worldcoin meant to be used?

Well, one early feature of the project will be a digital wallet that lets users store their crypto and make payments. But more broadly, Blania hopes to attract developers who can build apps on top of its system; apps “that we don’t see today and that are really hard to build today because very few people hold crypto.”

“Network effects are these very coveted things that are incredibly big,” Blania said.

“You see this in Facebook. As soon as you suddenly have a billion people and everyday people holding something like that and using something like that, you as an entrepreneur can build completely new things.”

One issue Worldcoin encountered early on, Blania says, is ensuring that people aren’t able to cheat the system. He calls this problem “proof of person.”

“The only solution for that problem, we found, was to build an orb,” Worldcoin’s boss said. “It’s the most secure and privacy-preserving way we found to prove everyone in the world is unique.”

‘Infrastructure’ for basic income

It’s a concept that has parallels to a universal basic income, or UBI, which has been promoted by Altman and several other high-profile figures in tech.

The idea is that, by handing out cash regularly to citizens for free, governments can mitigate the impacts of artificial intelligence and automation on workers.

Blania hinted that Worldcoin could be used as the “infrastructure” to carry out UBI at some point in the future.”

Worldcoin co-founders Sam Altman and Alex Blania.

Worldcoin

“I’m personally very excited about UBI over the long term,” Blania said. “I think it’s a very hard thing to implement right now.”

“We see ourselves as building this huge network of people where entrepreneurs can jump in and build applications like this. UBI is one of those, but building big financial, global companies is another big one.”

Worldcoin isn’t the only far-out project Altman has thrown his weight behind. In 2018, the millionaire tech entrepreneur paid $10,000 to a start-up called Nectome to have his brain preserved, scanned and uploaded into a computer simulation.

Crypto boom

Worldcoin has built its system on Ethereum, the blockchain network behind the world’s second-largest cryptocurrency. Blania hopes to tap into a fast-growing trend in crypto known as decentralized finance, or DeFi, which seeks to cut the middlemen out of traditional financial processes like lending and investing.

Worldcoin’s launch comes at a time of renewed interest in cryptocurrencies as the prices of bitcoin and other digital coins have surged lately. Bitcoin, the world’s largest virtual currency, notched a fresh record high above $66,000 on Wednesday, while ether, XRP and other tokens also climbed sharply.

Cryptocurrencies have gained a reputation for their involvement in fraudulent activity, with various pump-and-dump schemes duping amateur investors into buying tokens, only for the creators and insiders to make off with millions. But Blania insists Worldcoin isn’t a scam.

“We are extremely transparent about everything we do,” he said. “We will open source everything that is possible to open source.”

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