Category Archives: Technology

silicon valley & technology news

Microsoft to Contractors: Give New Parents Paid Leave

Microsoft will begin requiring its contractors to offer their U.S. employees paid leave to care for a new child.

It’s common for tech firms to offer generous family leave benefits for their own software engineers and other full-time staff, but paid leave advocates say it’s still rare to require similar benefits for contracted workers such as janitors, landscapers, cafeteria crews and software consultants.

“Given its size and its reach, this is a unique and hopefully trailblazing offering,” said Vicki Shabo, vice president at the National Partnership for Women and Families.

The details

The new policy affects businesses with at least 50 U.S.-based employees that do substantial work with Microsoft that involves access to its buildings or its computing network. It doesn’t affect suppliers of goods. Contractors would have to offer at least 12 weeks of leave to those working with the Redmond, Washington-based software giant; the policy wouldn’t affect the contractors’ arrangements with other companies. Leave-takers would get 66 percent of regular pay, up to $1,000 weekly.

The policy announced Thursday rolls out over the next year as the company amends its contracts with those vendors. That may mean some of Microsoft’s costs will rise to cover the new benefits, said Dev Stahlkopf, the company’s corporate vice president and general counsel.

“That’s just fine and we think it’s well worth the price,” she said.

Microsoft doesn’t disclose how many contracted workers it uses, but it’s in the thousands.

The new policy expands on Microsoft’s 2015 policy requiring contractors to offer paid sick days and vacation.

Facebook

Other companies such as Facebook have also committed to improve contractor benefits amid unionization efforts by shuttle drivers, security guards and other contract workers trying to get by in expensive, tech-fueled regions such as the San Francisco Bay Area and around Washington’s Puget Sound.

Facebook doesn’t guarantee that contract workers receive paid parental leave, but provides a $4,000 new child benefit for new parents who don’t get leave. A much smaller California tech company, SurveyMonkey, announced a paid family leave plan for its contract workers earlier this year.

Washington state law

Microsoft said its new policy is partially inspired by a Washington state law taking effect in 2020 guaranteeing eligible workers 12 weeks paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child. The state policy, signed into law last year, follows California and a handful of other states in allowing new parents to tap into a fund that all workers pay into. Washington will also require employers to help foot the bill, and will start collecting payroll deductions next January.

A federal paid parental leave plan proposed by President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, could rely on a similar model but has gained little traction.

“Compared to what employers are doing, the government is way behind the private sector,” said Isabel Sawhill, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has urged the White House and Congress to adopt a national policy.

Sawhill said it is “very unusual and very notable” that Microsoft is extending family leave benefits to its contract workers. Microsoft already offers more generous family leave benefits to its own employees, including up to 20 weeks fully paid leave for a birth mother.

Pushing the feds

Microsoft’s push to spread its employee benefits to a broader workforce “sends a message that something has to happen more systematically at the federal level,” said Ariane Hegewisch, a program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Until then, she said, it’s helpful that Microsoft seems willing to pay contracting firms more to guarantee their workers’ better benefits.

“Paid family leave is expensive and they acknowledge that,” Hegewisch said. Otherwise, she said, contractors with many employees of child-bearing age could find themselves at a competitive disadvantage to those with older workforces.

Republican state Sen. Joe Fain, the prime sponsor of the measure that passed last year, said Microsoft’s decision was “a really powerful step forward.”

By applying the plan to contractors and vendors around the country, “it really creates a pressure for those state legislatures to make a similar decision that Washington made.”

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Microsoft to Contractors: Give New Parents Paid Leave

Microsoft will begin requiring its contractors to offer their U.S. employees paid leave to care for a new child.

It’s common for tech firms to offer generous family leave benefits for their own software engineers and other full-time staff, but paid leave advocates say it’s still rare to require similar benefits for contracted workers such as janitors, landscapers, cafeteria crews and software consultants.

“Given its size and its reach, this is a unique and hopefully trailblazing offering,” said Vicki Shabo, vice president at the National Partnership for Women and Families.

The details

The new policy affects businesses with at least 50 U.S.-based employees that do substantial work with Microsoft that involves access to its buildings or its computing network. It doesn’t affect suppliers of goods. Contractors would have to offer at least 12 weeks of leave to those working with the Redmond, Washington-based software giant; the policy wouldn’t affect the contractors’ arrangements with other companies. Leave-takers would get 66 percent of regular pay, up to $1,000 weekly.

The policy announced Thursday rolls out over the next year as the company amends its contracts with those vendors. That may mean some of Microsoft’s costs will rise to cover the new benefits, said Dev Stahlkopf, the company’s corporate vice president and general counsel.

“That’s just fine and we think it’s well worth the price,” she said.

Microsoft doesn’t disclose how many contracted workers it uses, but it’s in the thousands.

The new policy expands on Microsoft’s 2015 policy requiring contractors to offer paid sick days and vacation.

Facebook

Other companies such as Facebook have also committed to improve contractor benefits amid unionization efforts by shuttle drivers, security guards and other contract workers trying to get by in expensive, tech-fueled regions such as the San Francisco Bay Area and around Washington’s Puget Sound.

Facebook doesn’t guarantee that contract workers receive paid parental leave, but provides a $4,000 new child benefit for new parents who don’t get leave. A much smaller California tech company, SurveyMonkey, announced a paid family leave plan for its contract workers earlier this year.

Washington state law

Microsoft said its new policy is partially inspired by a Washington state law taking effect in 2020 guaranteeing eligible workers 12 weeks paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child. The state policy, signed into law last year, follows California and a handful of other states in allowing new parents to tap into a fund that all workers pay into. Washington will also require employers to help foot the bill, and will start collecting payroll deductions next January.

A federal paid parental leave plan proposed by President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, could rely on a similar model but has gained little traction.

“Compared to what employers are doing, the government is way behind the private sector,” said Isabel Sawhill, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has urged the White House and Congress to adopt a national policy.

Sawhill said it is “very unusual and very notable” that Microsoft is extending family leave benefits to its contract workers. Microsoft already offers more generous family leave benefits to its own employees, including up to 20 weeks fully paid leave for a birth mother.

Pushing the feds

Microsoft’s push to spread its employee benefits to a broader workforce “sends a message that something has to happen more systematically at the federal level,” said Ariane Hegewisch, a program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Until then, she said, it’s helpful that Microsoft seems willing to pay contracting firms more to guarantee their workers’ better benefits.

“Paid family leave is expensive and they acknowledge that,” Hegewisch said. Otherwise, she said, contractors with many employees of child-bearing age could find themselves at a competitive disadvantage to those with older workforces.

Republican state Sen. Joe Fain, the prime sponsor of the measure that passed last year, said Microsoft’s decision was “a really powerful step forward.”

By applying the plan to contractors and vendors around the country, “it really creates a pressure for those state legislatures to make a similar decision that Washington made.”

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Republican US Senator Asks FTC to Examine Google Ads

U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch on Thursday added to the growing push in Washington to have the Federal Trade Commission rekindle an antitrust investigation of Alphabet Inc’s Google.

Hatch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, sent a letter to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons recounting several news reports that identified complaints about Google’s anti-competitive conduct and privacy practices.

Alphabet shares were little changed after the release of the letter. The company declined to comment.

Lawmakers from both major parties and Google’s rivals have said this year they see an opening for increased regulation of large technology companies under the FTC’s new slate of commissioners.

Google’s critics say that ongoing European antitrust action against the web search leader and this year’s data privacy scandal involving Facebook Inc and political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica demonstrate their concerns about the unchecked power of the tech heavyweights. About 90 percent of search engine queries in the United States flow through Google.

Facebook and Twitter executives are expected to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on September 5 about their  efforts to deter foreign campaigns from spreading misinformation online ahead November’s midterm elections. Lawmakers have criticized Alphabet for not scheduling a top executive, such as Chief Executive Larry Page, for the hearings.

In 2013, the FTC closed a lengthy investigation of Google after finding insufficient evidence that consumers were harmed by how the company displayed search results from rivals. President Donald Trump accused Google’s search engine on Tuesday of promoting negative news articles and hiding “fair media” coverage of him.

Trump’s economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, later said the White House was “taking a look” at Google, and that the administration would do “some investigation and some analysis,” without providing further details.

Earlier this year, Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat, and Representative Todd Rokita, a Republican, sent separate letters asking the FTC to probe Google.

Simon, the new Republican chairman of the FTC, said in July the agency would keep a close eye on big tech companies that dominate the internet.

An FTC representative was not immediately available for comment.

Hatch, at event hosted by reviews website and Google rival Yelp Inc in May, said moves made by “an entrenched monopolist” deserve extra skepticism.

“They may well be used, not to further consumer welfare, but to foreclose competitors,” he said, according to prepared remarks.

Yelp, a local-search service, said in a statement that Hatch’s letter was “heartening to see” as it underscored the bipartisan plea for FTC scrutiny of Google.

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Republican US Senator Asks FTC to Examine Google Ads

U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch on Thursday added to the growing push in Washington to have the Federal Trade Commission rekindle an antitrust investigation of Alphabet Inc’s Google.

Hatch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, sent a letter to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons recounting several news reports that identified complaints about Google’s anti-competitive conduct and privacy practices.

Alphabet shares were little changed after the release of the letter. The company declined to comment.

Lawmakers from both major parties and Google’s rivals have said this year they see an opening for increased regulation of large technology companies under the FTC’s new slate of commissioners.

Google’s critics say that ongoing European antitrust action against the web search leader and this year’s data privacy scandal involving Facebook Inc and political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica demonstrate their concerns about the unchecked power of the tech heavyweights. About 90 percent of search engine queries in the United States flow through Google.

Facebook and Twitter executives are expected to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on September 5 about their  efforts to deter foreign campaigns from spreading misinformation online ahead November’s midterm elections. Lawmakers have criticized Alphabet for not scheduling a top executive, such as Chief Executive Larry Page, for the hearings.

In 2013, the FTC closed a lengthy investigation of Google after finding insufficient evidence that consumers were harmed by how the company displayed search results from rivals. President Donald Trump accused Google’s search engine on Tuesday of promoting negative news articles and hiding “fair media” coverage of him.

Trump’s economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, later said the White House was “taking a look” at Google, and that the administration would do “some investigation and some analysis,” without providing further details.

Earlier this year, Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat, and Representative Todd Rokita, a Republican, sent separate letters asking the FTC to probe Google.

Simon, the new Republican chairman of the FTC, said in July the agency would keep a close eye on big tech companies that dominate the internet.

An FTC representative was not immediately available for comment.

Hatch, at event hosted by reviews website and Google rival Yelp Inc in May, said moves made by “an entrenched monopolist” deserve extra skepticism.

“They may well be used, not to further consumer welfare, but to foreclose competitors,” he said, according to prepared remarks.

Yelp, a local-search service, said in a statement that Hatch’s letter was “heartening to see” as it underscored the bipartisan plea for FTC scrutiny of Google.

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Germany, Seeking Independence From US, Pushes Cybersecurity Research

Germany announced a new agency on Wednesday to fund research on cybersecurity and to end its reliance on digital technologies from the United States, China and other countries.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told reporters that Germany needed new tools to become a top player in cybersecurity and shore up European security and independence.

“It is our joint goal for Germany to take a leading role in cybersecurity on an international level,” Seehofer told a news conference with Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen. “We have to acknowledge we’re lagging behind, and when one is lagging, one needs completely new approaches.”

The agency is a joint interior and defense ministry project.

Germany, like many other countries, faces a daily barrage of cyberattacks on its government and industry computer networks.

However, the opposition Greens criticized the project. “This agency wouldn’t increase our information technology security, but further endanger it,” said Greens lawmaker Konstantin von Notz.

The agency’s work on offensive capabilities would undermine Germany’s diplomatic efforts to limit the use of cyberweapons internationally, he said. “As a state based on the rule of law, we can only lose a cyberpolitics arms race with states like China, North Korea or Russia,” he added, calling for “scarce resources” to be focused on hardening vulnerable systems.

Germany and other European countries also worry about their dependence on U.S. technologies. This follows revelations in 2012 by U.S. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden of a massive spying network, as well as the U.S. Patriot Act which gave the U.S. government broad powers to compel companies to provide data.

“As a federal government we cannot stand idly by when the use of sensitive technology with high security relevance are controlled by other governments. We must secure and expand such key technologies of our digital infrastructure,” Seehofer said.

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Germany, Seeking Independence From US, Pushes Cybersecurity Research

Germany announced a new agency on Wednesday to fund research on cybersecurity and to end its reliance on digital technologies from the United States, China and other countries.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told reporters that Germany needed new tools to become a top player in cybersecurity and shore up European security and independence.

“It is our joint goal for Germany to take a leading role in cybersecurity on an international level,” Seehofer told a news conference with Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen. “We have to acknowledge we’re lagging behind, and when one is lagging, one needs completely new approaches.”

The agency is a joint interior and defense ministry project.

Germany, like many other countries, faces a daily barrage of cyberattacks on its government and industry computer networks.

However, the opposition Greens criticized the project. “This agency wouldn’t increase our information technology security, but further endanger it,” said Greens lawmaker Konstantin von Notz.

The agency’s work on offensive capabilities would undermine Germany’s diplomatic efforts to limit the use of cyberweapons internationally, he said. “As a state based on the rule of law, we can only lose a cyberpolitics arms race with states like China, North Korea or Russia,” he added, calling for “scarce resources” to be focused on hardening vulnerable systems.

Germany and other European countries also worry about their dependence on U.S. technologies. This follows revelations in 2012 by U.S. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden of a massive spying network, as well as the U.S. Patriot Act which gave the U.S. government broad powers to compel companies to provide data.

“As a federal government we cannot stand idly by when the use of sensitive technology with high security relevance are controlled by other governments. We must secure and expand such key technologies of our digital infrastructure,” Seehofer said.

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Virtual Reality: Digital Medicine to Combat Pain

Amanda Greene lives with pain.

“If I don’t have nerve pain, I might have joint pain. If I’m not having joint pain, I might have headaches,” Greene said.

The unrelenting pain is a symptom of lupus, an autoimmune disease in which a patient’s immune system attacks the body. Greene has tried acupuncture, massage and opioids, but realized she was allergic to the addictive pain medicine.

The newest therapy that excites her: virtual reality. Greene participated in a test through the company “appliedVR” to see if and how virtual reality could help patients. Greene’s virtual experience helped her to relax and trained her to breathe in a specific way. She saw a tree, crystals, water and her breath as she was guided to inhale and exhale.

“It worked. It works for me,” Greene said. “It’s the quality of life, it is the range of motion, it is like, forget about quality of life, it is the life.” 

VR in hospitals and clinics

Brennan Spiegel is a gastroenterologist who has used VR for his patients. He said abdominal pain and gastrointestinal discomfort, in some cases, are related to a patient’s mental state.

“Something like virtual reality actually can intercede in the brain-gut axis and sort of rewire the neurocircuitry in a way that helps to reduce abdominal pain,” said Spiegel, who is also director of Health Services Research at Cedars-Sinai and heads its virtual reality program.

More than 2,500 patients have been treated with virtual reality at Cedars-Sinai, a hospital with the largest documented therapeutic VR program in the world, according to Spiegel.

“Virtual reality can reduce pain, can reduce blood pressure, can improve quality of life, reduce anxiety and now, we’re looking to see can it do really important things like reduce the need for opioids.”

Spiegel said more than 100 hospitals across the United States are using VR as a form of therapy for patients to help manage symptoms such as pain and anxiety. He said an increasing number of countries worldwide are taking an interest, and doctors are starting to develop international guidelines on how to apply and validate the technology in health care.

Spiegel is now taking virtual reality outside the hospital to partner clinics such as Attune Health in Los Angeles, where many of the patients suffer from autoimmune or inflammatory diseases that cause symptoms such as joint pain.

A rheumatologist and founder of Attune Health, Swamy Venuturupalli is conducting a study on how VR can reduce the pain levels of patients in his clinic. Virtual experiences include swimming with dolphins and meditation exercises before a campfire. Venuturupalli said VR is not just a distraction for patients experiencing pain; it can also train them in deep breathing exercises and biofeedback.

“It allows you to connect with that part of your brain that you’re normally not in contact with — the part of the brain that controls respiration, the part of the brain that controls your heart rate and the emotional part of your brain,” Venuturupalli said.

Doctors are also looking into the potential side effects of VR, such as whether it could be addictive.

“It’s probably unlikely and, in fact, we have not seen abuse amongst our patients who are using it for therapeutic purposes rather than for gaming or entertainment,” Spiegel said.

The most common side effect for some patients, according to Spiegel, is “simulator sickness,” the feeling of dizziness and nausea when the patient is wearing a VR headset. He said less than 10 percent of patients experience this, but the symptoms quickly disappear when the headset comes off.

VR pharmacy and clinics

The company appliedVR uses immersive technology to help people manage pain and anxiety. It also is developing content and working with people in entertainment and academia to find VR experiences appropriate for patients. The vision is to have a VR pharmacy. 

“You need a wide variety of content because you have a wide variety of people in health care. From infancy to geriatrics and with every personality type,” said Josh Sackman, president and co-founder of appliedVR.

Swimming with dolphins may relax one patient, yet terrify another. Greene said watching a fashion show in virtual reality helps her escape her pain.

The medical world’s reaction to using VR in the clinical setting has changed in the past three years, said Sackman. In 2015, he experienced skepticism among doctors who wondered why television or a tablet couldn’t be used to distract patients. Sackman said that unlike a screen, VR blocks out the sights and sounds of a hospital or clinic as soon as the patient puts on the VR headset.

“In a matter of moments, you see a patient who is in agony, in terrible pain, stressed, having panic and all of a sudden, their body relaxes, a smile comes on their face and you see a physical transformation,” Sackman said.

Spiegel would like to create outpatient VR clinics. He said the aim is not to have patients stay in VR forever.

“The idea is to learn while you’re in virtual reality, that you do have governance over your body, that the mind matters and that you can learn these skills that are then reproduceable and could be called upon when you need them in the real world,” Spiegel said.

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Virtual Reality: Digital Medicine to Combat Pain

Amanda Greene lives with pain.

“If I don’t have nerve pain, I might have joint pain. If I’m not having joint pain, I might have headaches,” Greene said.

The unrelenting pain is a symptom of lupus, an autoimmune disease in which a patient’s immune system attacks the body. Greene has tried acupuncture, massage and opioids, but realized she was allergic to the addictive pain medicine.

The newest therapy that excites her: virtual reality. Greene participated in a test through the company “appliedVR” to see if and how virtual reality could help patients. Greene’s virtual experience helped her to relax and trained her to breathe in a specific way. She saw a tree, crystals, water and her breath as she was guided to inhale and exhale.

“It worked. It works for me,” Greene said. “It’s the quality of life, it is the range of motion, it is like, forget about quality of life, it is the life.” 

VR in hospitals and clinics

Brennan Spiegel is a gastroenterologist who has used VR for his patients. He said abdominal pain and gastrointestinal discomfort, in some cases, are related to a patient’s mental state.

“Something like virtual reality actually can intercede in the brain-gut axis and sort of rewire the neurocircuitry in a way that helps to reduce abdominal pain,” said Spiegel, who is also director of Health Services Research at Cedars-Sinai and heads its virtual reality program.

More than 2,500 patients have been treated with virtual reality at Cedars-Sinai, a hospital with the largest documented therapeutic VR program in the world, according to Spiegel.

“Virtual reality can reduce pain, can reduce blood pressure, can improve quality of life, reduce anxiety and now, we’re looking to see can it do really important things like reduce the need for opioids.”

Spiegel said more than 100 hospitals across the United States are using VR as a form of therapy for patients to help manage symptoms such as pain and anxiety. He said an increasing number of countries worldwide are taking an interest, and doctors are starting to develop international guidelines on how to apply and validate the technology in health care.

Spiegel is now taking virtual reality outside the hospital to partner clinics such as Attune Health in Los Angeles, where many of the patients suffer from autoimmune or inflammatory diseases that cause symptoms such as joint pain.

A rheumatologist and founder of Attune Health, Swamy Venuturupalli is conducting a study on how VR can reduce the pain levels of patients in his clinic. Virtual experiences include swimming with dolphins and meditation exercises before a campfire. Venuturupalli said VR is not just a distraction for patients experiencing pain; it can also train them in deep breathing exercises and biofeedback.

“It allows you to connect with that part of your brain that you’re normally not in contact with — the part of the brain that controls respiration, the part of the brain that controls your heart rate and the emotional part of your brain,” Venuturupalli said.

Doctors are also looking into the potential side effects of VR, such as whether it could be addictive.

“It’s probably unlikely and, in fact, we have not seen abuse amongst our patients who are using it for therapeutic purposes rather than for gaming or entertainment,” Spiegel said.

The most common side effect for some patients, according to Spiegel, is “simulator sickness,” the feeling of dizziness and nausea when the patient is wearing a VR headset. He said less than 10 percent of patients experience this, but the symptoms quickly disappear when the headset comes off.

VR pharmacy and clinics

The company appliedVR uses immersive technology to help people manage pain and anxiety. It also is developing content and working with people in entertainment and academia to find VR experiences appropriate for patients. The vision is to have a VR pharmacy. 

“You need a wide variety of content because you have a wide variety of people in health care. From infancy to geriatrics and with every personality type,” said Josh Sackman, president and co-founder of appliedVR.

Swimming with dolphins may relax one patient, yet terrify another. Greene said watching a fashion show in virtual reality helps her escape her pain.

The medical world’s reaction to using VR in the clinical setting has changed in the past three years, said Sackman. In 2015, he experienced skepticism among doctors who wondered why television or a tablet couldn’t be used to distract patients. Sackman said that unlike a screen, VR blocks out the sights and sounds of a hospital or clinic as soon as the patient puts on the VR headset.

“In a matter of moments, you see a patient who is in agony, in terrible pain, stressed, having panic and all of a sudden, their body relaxes, a smile comes on their face and you see a physical transformation,” Sackman said.

Spiegel would like to create outpatient VR clinics. He said the aim is not to have patients stay in VR forever.

“The idea is to learn while you’re in virtual reality, that you do have governance over your body, that the mind matters and that you can learn these skills that are then reproduceable and could be called upon when you need them in the real world,” Spiegel said.

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Virtual Reality: Digital Medicine to Combat Pain

More than 100 hospitals across the United States are using virtual reality or VR, as a form of therapy for patients to help manage symptoms such as pain and anxiety. An increasing number of countries worldwide are taking an interest in VR and doctors are starting to develop international guidelines on how to apply and validate VR in healthcare. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles, where one hospital is leading the effort in using VR as digital medicine.

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Virtual Reality: Digital Medicine to Combat Pain

More than 100 hospitals across the United States are using virtual reality or VR, as a form of therapy for patients to help manage symptoms such as pain and anxiety. An increasing number of countries worldwide are taking an interest in VR and doctors are starting to develop international guidelines on how to apply and validate VR in healthcare. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles, where one hospital is leading the effort in using VR as digital medicine.

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