Category Archives: Business

economy and business news

Sex Tech From Female-Led Startups at CES Gadget Show

Sex tech will grace the CES gadget show in Las Vegas this week after organizers endured scorn for revoking an innovation award to a sex device company led by a female founder.
                   
CES will allow space for sex tech companies as a one-year trial. The companies will be grouped in the health and wellness section of the Sands Expo, an official, but secondary CES location, one geared toward startups.
                   
Lora DiCarlo, a startup that pushed for changes after organizers revoked its award, will showcase its Ose robotic “personal massager.” It’s one of a dozen companies at the show focused on vibrators, lube dispensers and other sex tech products. Founders of these startups say their products are about empowerment and wellness for women, something they say has often been overlooked in tech.
                   
The historically male-dominated tech trade show has received criticism in past years for having an all-male lineup of speakers and for previously allowing scantily clad “booth babes,” fostering a “boys’ club” reputation.
                   
Besides allowing sex tech, CES organizers brought in an official “equality partner,” The Female Quotient, to help ensure gender diversity. The Female Quotient, which trains companies in equality practices, will hold a conference for women during the show, which formally opens Tuesday and runs through Friday.
                   
“It’s been a process,” said Gary Shapiro, the head of the Consumer Technology Association, which puts on CES.
                   
It’s been a longer process for many sex tech companies to convince investors that they are part of a growing trend that has enough customers. Much of the push has come from the startups’ female founders and from younger consumers who talk more openly about sexuality.
                   
Sex tech has existed in some form for decades. But the gates really began to open in 2016, said Andrea Barrica, founder of sex education site O.school. That year, several other “fem tech” companies made progress in areas such as menstruation and menopause. Those paved the way for sex tech to grow and get investors interested.
                   
“Larger institutions are starting to take note, all the way from VC firms to large Fortune 100 companies,” said Barrica, who recently published the book “Sextech Revolution: The Future of Sexual Wellness” Large institutions like CES had no choice but to look at sex tech, she said.
                   
The journey hasn’t been easy. Sex tech founders, many of them women, recount being turned down by dozens of investors. They faced decency arguments and entrenched corporate standards that equated them with porn.
                   
But investors are becoming more receptive, said Cindy Gallop, a former advertising executive turned sex tech entrepreneur and founder of the website MakeLoveNotPorn.
                   
“It’s entirely because of our refusal to allow the business world to put us down,” she said.
                   
Founders insist that their devices _ ranging from vibrators to lube dispensers to accessories _ have effects outside the bedroom.
                   
“Sexual health and wellness is health and wellness,” said Lora DiCarlo, CEO and founder of the company of the same name. “It does way more than just pleasure. It’s immediately connected to stress relief, to better sleep to empowerment and confidence.”
                   
DiCarlo’s Ose $290 device has gotten $3 million worth of advance sales, bolstered in part by the attention it received after CES organizers overturned a decision by an independent panel of judges to give the vibrator a prestigious Innovation Honoree Award in the robotics and drone category. The organizers, CTA, told the company it reserved the right to rescind awards for devices deemed “immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with CTA’s image.”
                   
DiCarlo and other female founders pushed back for banning them but allowing humanoid sex robots meant to serve men the previous year.
                   
Following criticism, CES organizers ultimately  reinstated the award and apologized. A few months later, the show announced policy changes such as a dress code to prevent skimpy outfits and new “Innovation for All” sessions with senior diversity officials.
                   
Ose began shipping to customers this month. DiCarlo said the company is planning to new devices, including less expensive options.
                   
Sex tech companies still face major barriers to growth.
                   
Polly Rodriguez, CEO of sexual wellness company Unbound, said the company is profitable and customers are more open about buying products than they once were. But she said she still faces roadblocks advertising on social media, and many traditional investors snub the company.
                   
“Things are better, but there’s just still this genuine fear of female sexuality more broadly within the institutional side of technology,” she said.
                   
And while Gallop offered to speak at CES, conference organizers declined, saying sex tech was not a part of its conference programming.

Co-creator Defends Suspected UAE Spying App Called ToTok

The co-creator of a video and voice calling app suspected of being a spying tool of the United Arab Emirates defended his work in an  interview with The Associated Press  and denied knowing that people and companies linked to the project had ties to the country’s intelligence apparatus.Millions downloaded the ToTok app during the several months it was offered in the Apple and Google stores. Co-founder Giacomo Ziani described the popularity as a sign of users’ trust despite a longtime ban in the UAE on such apps.He denied that the company collected conversation data, saying the software demanded the same access to devices as other common communication apps. Emirati authorities insisted that they “prohibit any kind of data breach and unlawful interception.”But this federation of seven sheikhdoms ruled by hereditary leaders already conducts mass surveillance and has been  internationally criticized for targeting activists, journalists and others. Ziani repeatedly said he knew nothing about that, nor had any knowledge that a firm invested in ToTok included staff with ties to an Emirati security firm scrutinized abroad for hiring former CIA and National Security Agency staffers. He also said he did not know about ties a computer researcher says link companies involved with ToTok to Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Emirates’ national security adviser.“I was not aware, and I’m even not aware now of who was who, who was doing what in the past,” Ziani said. “These are not questions you should be (asking) me. You should be eventually asking” them.IIn this Dec. 31, 2019 photo, the Abu Dhabi Global Market, an economic free zone, is seen in Abu Dhabi, UAE.ToTok surged to popularity by allowing users to make internet calls long banned in the UAE, a U.S.-allied nation on the Arabian Peninsula that is home to Dubai. The ban means Apple iPhones and computers sold in the UAE do not carry Apple’s FaceTime calling app. Calls on Skype, WhatsApp and other similar programs do not work.Ziani said ToTok won rapid approval from the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, something long sought by the established competitors that remain banned. The 32-year-old native of Venice, Italy, attributed that to the monopoly on the telecommunications market held by two companies, Du and Etisalat, that are majority-owned by the government. ToTok’s small market share would not cut as deeply into their business as major firms if allowed access, he said.“They will see their business like totally crashed from a day to another,” Ziani said. With ToTok, “they felt like they were not risking to fall into this situation.”By installing the app, users agreed to allow access to their mobile device’s microphone, pictures, location information and other data invaluable to intelligence agencies. Most internet firms are based in the U.S., but privacy is viewed far differently in the Emirates, where ToTok’s headquarters are in the capital, Abu Dhabi.“By using this app, you’re allowing your life to be opened up to the whims of national security as seen by the UAE government,” said Bill Marczak, a computer science researcher at the University of California, Berkley, who has studied ToTok and other suspected Emirati spying operations. “In this case, you’re essentially having people install the spyware themselves as opposed to hacking into the phone.”In this nation of 9.4 million people where all but a sliver of the population comes from another country, the app represented what appeared to be the first government-blessed app that would allow them to connect freely to loved ones back home. That drew everyone from laborers to diplomatic staffers to download it amid a publicity campaign by state-linked and government-supporting media in the Emirates.An American diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss security matters, said local embassy and consular staff received orders to remove the app from all U.S. government devices. That was only after The New York Times, citing anonymous U.S. officials, described the app as a “spying tool” of the Emirati government.Ziani alleged, without providing evidence, that criticism of ToTok came more from professional jealousy and trade tensions between the U.S. and China than security concerns. ToTok partly used code from a previously developed Chinese app called Yeecall, where his co-founder, Long Ruan, once worked in a senior position, he said. Ziani said he met Long through G42, which he described as a business “incubator.”But ToTok described itself on Apple as coming from developer Breej Holding Ltd. and on Google as being from ToTok Pte., a Singapore-based firm.Both ToTok and Breej Holding Ltd. had been registered in a publicly accessible online database of companies operating out of the Abu Dhabi Global Market, an economic free zone set up in the Emirati capital. After suspicions emerged about ToTok, records of the two firms no longer appeared online.Following an inquiry about the firms from an AP journalist, their information reappeared Tuesday night in the database. Market spokeswoman Joan Lew blamed a “data migration” problem for their disappearance.In this Feb. 6, 2019 photo, released by Emirates News Agency, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, left, walks to a meeting in Abu Dhabi, UAE.Information from that database shows ToTok’s sole registered shareholder as Group 42, a new Abu Dhabi firm that describes itself as an artificial intelligence and cloud-computing company. The company, also known as G42, in an email to the AP also described itself as “the registered shareholder in ToTok Technology Ltd.,” though Ziani said ToTok has another substantial investor he declined to identify.G42’s CEO is Peng Xiao, who for years ran Pegasus, a subsidiary of DarkMatter, the Emirati security firm under scrutiny for hiring former CIA and NSA staffers, as well as others from Israel. G42’s website also lists PAX AI as a subsidiary, the new name Pegasus operates under, according to job postings for PAX AI that mention Pegasus. Ziani similarly interchangeably referred to Pegasus as PAX AI while speaking to the AP.“G42 has no connection to DarkMatter, whatsoever,” the company told AP in a statement. It did not respond to further queries, though other former DarkMatter and Pegasus employees now work at G42, according to publicly accessible profiles on the social media website LinkedIn.G42’s sole director listed in Abu Dhabi Global Market filings is Hamad Khalfan al-Shamsi, whom Marczak identified as the public relations manager of the office of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Sheikh Tahnoun is a brother to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the powerful crown prince of Abu Dhabi who has run the country from day-to-day since its president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, suffered a stroke in January 2014.Sheikh Tahnoun, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner always photographed in sunglasses, has served as the UAE’s national security adviser since 2016. The sheikh’s adopted son, the mixed martial artist Hassan al-Rumaithi, is the sole director of Breej Holding Ltd., Marczak said, citing market filings. Similarly, an executive at Sheikh Tahnoun’s company Royal Group, Osama al-Ahdali, is the sole director of ToTok Technology Ltd., Marczak said.Royal Group did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Emirati officials, Apple and Google.ToTok on its website meanwhile still lists itself as Totok Pte. Ltd., the Singapore-based company initially listed on the Google app store. Singaporean business records obtained by the AP show a single shareholder, Manoj Paul, with a listed address at one of Abu Dhabi’s upscale Etihad Towers. Paul, who describes himself on LinkedIn as G42’s general counsel and head of group operations, declined to speak with an AP journalist.For now, Ziani said his focus remains on getting ToTok listed again in the Apple and Google app stores. He mentioned plans to have ToTok become like China’s all-encompassing app WeChat, handling payments, social media posts and other high-frequency activities. G42 appears to already have filed paperwork for a possible payment company in Abu Dhabi.That could create an Emirati version of WeChat, a service used by more than 1 billion people use in which Chinese government officials routinely censor posts. Dissidents suspect it of allowing surveillance.Ziani insisted a former NSA hacker named Patrick Wardle, who analyzed ToTok, said the app “simply does what it claims to do.”However, Ziani ignored the next sentence in Wardle’s analysis, which described “the genius of the whole mass surveillance operation” the app could represent by offering “in-depth insight in a large percentage of the country’s population.”

App Tackles Illiteracy in Mali, Boosts Local Business

The surge in Africa innovation is expected in 2020 with all sorts of solutions to the continent’s problems. One example is an innovation created by a Malian in 2019. It’s a voice-controlled app that entrepreneurs are using to market their goods and services to customers who can’t read. VOA correspondent Mariama Diallo reports 

Smart Robots Are Being Built to Mine the Moon

A California startup called OFFWORLD has ambitious plans that are out of this world. They are working on developing autonomous robots that would be able to mine the Moon and Mars. Alexey Gorbachev has the story narrated by Anna Rice.

India Targets New Moon Mission in 2020

India plans to make a fresh attempt to land an unmanned mission on the moon in 2020 after a failed bid last year, the head of the country’s space program said Wednesday.Work is going “smoothly” on the Chandrayaan-3 mission to put a rover probe on the moon’s surface, Indian Space Research Organization chairman K. Sivan told a press conference.”We are targeting the launch for this year but it may spillover to next year,” Sivan said. Indian sources said authorities had set November as a provisional target for launch.India seeking to become only the fourth nation after Russia, the United States and China to put a mission on the moon’s surface and boost its credentials as a low-cost space power.The country’s Chandrayaan-2 module crash-landed on the moon’s surface in September.Sivan said the new propulsion module, lander and surface rover would cost about $35 million, with a significantly higher outlay for the launch itself.He added that India had chosen four candidate astronauts to take part in the country’s first manned mission into orbit, pledged to take place by mid-2022.The four are to start training in Russia later this month. Up to three astronauts are to take part in the mission, which will be one of the landmark projects scheduled for the 75th anniversary of India’s independence from British rule.

The Future of Protest? Catalans Outwit Spanish Authorities With Phone App

A pro-independence group in Spain’s Catalonia region is using a smartphone app to outwit authorities, as it steps up demonstrations following the jailing of several of the movement’s leaders.
 
The group Democratic Tsunami released the app to coordinate demonstrations across the region.The latest target was the world-famous El Clasico soccer match between Barcelona and Real Madrid on Dec. 18. There were violent clashes outside the stadium, and protesters disrupted the game by throwing balls bearing pro-independence slogans onto the field.Democratic Tsunami has no apparent leader and those behind it are anonymous. In recent weeks, the group has mobilized thousands of demonstrators in minutes, catching authorities by surprise.WATCH: Henry Ridgwell’s video report
The Future of Protest? Catalans Outwit Spanish Authorities With Phone App video player.
Embed” />Copy Link“It is decentralized in the sense that you can’t identify who is sending the notifications for the protests,” said professor Enric Lujan, a political scientist at the University of Barcelona.“They developed it that way. The app has that architecture in order to avoid the authorities from knowing who is behind Tsunami Democratic, which is the main obsession, for example, of the Spanish Interior Ministry.”
 
Lujan said the Democratic Tsunami app takes special steps to remain anonymous.
 
“You cannot download it from the usual channels such as the Google Play Store or the iPhone App store. You have to look for a link and then download the app directly,” he said.
 
Even after the app has been downloaded, it still needs to be activated by another approved user, explained software engineer Silvia Puglisi of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia.
 
“You just go to a protest, and you exchange a QR code. The QR code is a cryptographic key, and once the keys are exchanged, you are part of the system.”
 
Democratic Tsunami has grown rapidly in the space of a few months, staging protests that have paralyzed Barcelona’s airport and the main highway to the French border. Spain’s National Court has ordered the Democratic Tsunami website to be shut down, citing possible terrorism offenses. Madrid jailed nine Catalan independence leaders in October on charges of sedition.
 
The political party Pirates of Catalonia has taken the fight to the European Union’s Court of Justice, claiming the terrorism investigation is an abuse of basic human rights.
 
Experts say that if the coding is made available, the app could be used by other protest movements, like pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.
 
“The idea is to just exchange a key. You don’t exchange any other information, and it’s totally decentralized. There is no central service, and you just communicate with your friends on a peer-to-peer basis,” Puglisi said.
 
There are concerns that with no oversight from a regulated app store, the Democratic Tsunami app could break strict European rules on storing and sharing data, such as the tracking of its users’ movements.
 
Supporters say it’s a vital tool in the face of what they claim is an attempt to stifle basic freedoms.
 

Uber, Postmates Sue to Challenge California’s New Labor Law

Ride-share company Uber and on-demand meal delivery service Postmates sued Monday to block a broad new California law aimed at giving wage and benefit protections to people who work as independent contractors.The lawsuit filed in U.S. court in Los Angeles argues that the law set to take effect Wednesday violates federal and state constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process.Uber said it will try to link the lawsuit to another legal challenge filed in mid-December by associations representing freelance writers and photographers.The California Trucking Association filed the first challenge to the law in November on behalf of independent truckers.The law creates the nation’s strictest test by which workers must be considered employees and it could set a precedent for other states.The latest challenge includes two independent workers who wrote about their concerns with the new law.”This has thrown my life and the lives of more than a hundred(equals)thousand drivers into uncertainty,” ride-share driver Lydia Olson’s wrote in a Facebook post cited by Uber.Postmates driver Miguel Perez called on-demand work “a blessing” in a letter distributed by Uber. He said he used to drive a truck for 14 hours at a time, often overnight.”Sometimes, when I was behind the wheel, with an endless shift stretching out ahead of me like the open road, I daydreamed about a different kind of job — a job where I could choose when, where and how much I worked and still make enough money to feed my family,” he wrote.The lawsuit contends that the law exempts some industries but includes ride-share and delivery companies without a rational basis for distinguishing between them. It alleges that the law also infringes on workers’ rights to choose how they make a living and could void their existing contracts.Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego countered that she wrote the law to extend employee rights to more than a million California workers who lack benefits, including a minimum wage, mileage reimbursements, paid sick leave, medical coverage and disability pay for on-the-job injuries.She noted that Uber had previously sought an exemption when lawmakers were crafting the law, then said it would defend its existing labor model from legal challenges. It joined Lyft and DoorDash in a vow to each spend $30 million to overturn the law at the ballot box in 2020 if they don’t win concessions from lawmakers next year.”The one clear thing we know about Uber is they will do anything to try to exempt themselves from state regulations that make us all safer and their driver employees self-sufficient,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “In the meantime, Uber chief executives will continue to become billionaires while too many of their drivers are forced to sleep in their cars.’’The new law was a response to a legal ruling last year by the California Supreme Court regarding workers at the delivery company Dynamex.

Huawei Sales Up 18% but US Pressure Means Tough Times Ahead

China’s Huawei Technologies said Tuesday that its sales rose a lower-than-projected 18% in 2019 and predicted tough times ahead as the U.S. moves to restrict its business.The flash sales estimate came in an annual New Year’s message to employees. Chairman Eric Xu warned that mediocre managers would face demotion as the telecom giant and leader in 5G mobile technology focuses on survival.”It’s going to be a difficult year for us,” he wrote, calling on the company’s more than 190,000 employees “to work hard and go the extra mile to bring their capabilities to a new level.”No one is predicting Huawei’s demise. The unlisted company, a major maker of both mobile transmission equipment and handsets, estimated 2019 sales would rise to more than 850 billion yuan ($120 billion).”These figures are lower than our initial projections, yet business remains solid and we stand strong in the face of adversity,” Xu said in the letter, which was released to the AP and other media.Huawei, based in the tech hub of Shenzhen in southern China, typically releases its official and audited annual financial results in March.The U.S. government says Huawei technology poses a security risk and has urged other countries not to buy its 5G mobile network equipment. It has also put Huawei on its entity list, blocking U.S. technology sales to the company. Huawei denies the allegation.Calling difficulty the prelude to greater success, Xu said America’s “strategic and long-term” campaign against Huawei is an opportunity to build up some muscle and build capabilities to navigate future challenges.”Despite concerted efforts by the U.S. government to keep us down, we’ve made it out the other side and continue to create value for our customers,” he wrote.The five-page letter exhorts employees to hone their skills and rid themselves of complacency. Saying that survival is the company’s top priority, Xu warns that mediocre managers “who have lost their enterprising spirit” will be removed faster than before.