Congressman Introduces National Right-to-Repair Bill

Illustration for article titled Congressman Introduces National Right-to-Repair Bill

Photo: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo

The right-to-repair movement has made it to Congress. On Thursday, Congressman Joseph Morelle of New York filed legislation that would make it easier for consumers to fix their broken gadgets without having to fork over even more money to the original manufacturers.

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If passed, the Fair Repair Act would require manufacturers to give device owners and third-party repair shops access to replacement parts, diagnostic information, and tools needed to repair their electronics. To date, most right-to-repair legislation has been introduced at the state level, but this bill would establish a nationwide standard.

“For too long, large corporations have hindered the progress of small business owners and everyday Americans by preventing them from the right to repair their own equipment,” Morelle said in a statement Thursday. “It’s long past time to level the playing field… and put the power back in the hands of consumers. This common-sense legislation will help make technology repairs more accessible and affordable for items from cell phones to laptops to farm equipment, finally giving individuals the autonomy they deserve.”

Under Morelle’s bill, the Federal Trade Commission would be allowed to penalize companies found in violation of the legislation. Penalties could include forcing manufacturers to pay damages or give refunds to customers.

As it stands, you typically have to go through a manufacturer’s official repair channels to get your device fixed, which can be expensive and time-consuming. Not to mention ridiculous since you already paid for the product in the first place; no one wants to shell out hundreds of dollars for a busted iPhone when a cheap fix could solve the issue.

The right-to-repair movement aims to make device repairs less of a headache for consumers while also pushing back against the trend of “planned obsolescence,” a practice in which manufacturers create products that are designed to be needlessly phased out and tossed into the planet’s growing e-waste pile. So far, 27 states have begun working on some form of right-to-repair legislation.

Companies such as Apple and John Deere—both of whom are notorious for enforcing some of the most restrictive repair policies to the detriment of their customers—argue that these restrictions are necessary to prevent intellectual property theft and maintain the device’s integrity. However, the FTC called bullshit on those arguments last month. In a lengthy report to Congress, the agency said there is “scant evidence” to justify the hoops that companies make consumers jump through when it comes to repairs.

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“Although manufacturers have offered numerous explanations for their repair restrictions, the majority are not supported by the record,” the report concludes.

The covid-19 pandemic brought the issue to a boiling point, the FTC noted. A supply chain shortage stemming from the widespread shift to remote work bottlenecked the repair process for many companies and left some customers waiting months for their devices to be fixed. The solution consumers overwhelmingly came to was simple: Just let us fix our own stuff.

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“Right to Repair just makes sense,” said Nathan Proctor, U.S. PIRG senior right to repair campaign director, in a press release about the bill on Thursday. “It saves money and it keeps electronics in use and off the scrap heap. It helps farmers keep equipment in the field and out of the dealership. No matter how many lobbyists Apple, Microsoft, John Deere and other big companies hire to put obstacles in the way of us fixing our stuff, Right to Repair keeps pushing ahead, thanks to champions such as Rep. Morelle.”

We’ll have to wait and see if Morelle’s bill earns enough support from other lawmakers to pass. While the issue has bipartisan support, tech giants and lobbying groups have a history of pressuring legislators to kill bills at the state level. Morelle experienced that firsthand when he tried to pass right-to-repair legislation in New York while acting as Assembly Majority Leader in 2018. The bill died before anyone could vote on it purportedly thanks to a big lobbying push by Apple.

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Airbnb Will Temporarily Ban Listings Where Tenants Have Been Evicted for Not Paying Rent

Illustration for article titled Airbnb Will Temporarily Ban Listings Where Tenants Have Been Evicted for Not Paying Rent

Photo: Michael Dwyer (AP)

Better late than never: Airbnb is preventing landlords from renting units where tenants have been evicted for not paying rent after the Center for Disease Control’s pandemic eviction moratorium expires on June 30th. According to an analysis by think tank the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 10.4 million Americans are currently behind on rent; an April census survey found that out of nearly seven million respondents behind on rent, over three million expect that they are “very” or “somewhat” likely to be evicted within the next two months.

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What landlord would stoop so low?

In an announcement today, Airbnb said that it will ban rentals when notified by cities that a listing is new to the market due to a tenant’s inability to pay rent. It added that it’s conducting outreach to “engage cities,” particularly in areas with high eviction rates, but didn’t yet include details on the massive undertaking. (Princeton University’s Eviction Lab data tracks weekly numbers of evictions in 29 cities.) Airbnb plans to keep the policy through the end of 2021 and will review it for a potential extension.

Airbnb told Gizmodo that it does not yet have a separate team in place aside from appointing Senior Policy Development Manager Andrew Kalloch to head the initiative. But it added that the company now collects and remits taxes on behalf of 30,000 jurisdictions in 15 countries and is confident that it can scale up the effort.

For years, renters (particularly low-income and rent-controlled tenants) have alleged that landlords illegally evicting them and later listed their units for high prices on the platform. In 2015, The American Prospect reported that two tenants sued landlords for allegedly inventing legitimate excuses and lying about renovations in order to Airbnb their spaces. San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera has pursued landlords for the same. Last year, The Cut ran a profile of Loretta Gendville and Gennaro Brooks-Church, the “Eco–Yogi Slumlords of Brooklyn,” who were accused of changing locks and squatting in a tenant’s unit after revenue sources like separate Airbnbs dried up. The city sued them for allegedly illegally evicting at least four tenants.

Unfortunately, the CDC’s eviction moratorium already hurts renters down the road, since they’re still responsible for paying rent at some point, and landlords can charge penalties and interest—likely leaving millions of people in debt. The moratorium has not stopped evictions, and states like New York have implemented their own bans.

And Airbnb might have difficulty getting some cities to participate, such as in Texas, where a federal judge declared the moratorium unconstitutional. In May, a federal judge also ruled that the CDC lacks the authority to enforce the order. Airbnb told Gizmodo that it will not be applying the bans retroactively for previous pandemic evictions.

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New York Times Tech Workers Say Publisher’s Union Busting Is Out of Control

Illustration for article titled New York Times Tech Workers Say Publisher’s Union Busting Is Out of Control

Photo: Drew Angerer (Getty Images)

Tech workers at the New York Times are officially fed up with the company’s union busting behavior.

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On Tuesday, the NewsGuild of New York announced it was filing a formal complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on the grounds that the company’s management stymied any outward support for the News Guild from the roughly 650 Times tech workers currently fighting for a union. Bloomberg was first to report on the filing, which states the Time’s top brass “interfered with, restrained, and coerced” these tech workers to discourage union involvement, and interrogated members about their union activity.

Specifically, the NewsGuild says that tech-facing employees at the Times that worked with interns were told that they couldn’t show support for the union in public. Bon Champion—one employee who helps develop the Times’s phone and tablet apps—told Bloomberg that workers were told this was meant to make interns “feel safe.” That means no pro-union avatars on Slack and no pro-union backgrounds during Zoom calls.

Champion also noted that Times management has roped him and his colleagues into mandatory meetings where managers simply outline why Unions Are Bad (they’re not).

According to the NewsGuild’s statement, the labor union already represents roughly 1,300 editorial and business-facing employees at the Times. It first announced the campaign to unionize close to 700 software developers, designers, and engineers back in April.

“While the media industry is highly unionized, the tech industry is less so,” said the Guild at the time, noting that this effort from the Times tech workers is one of the largest unionization efforts happening among tech workers at any company to date. Since then, a “strong majority” of these workers have signed union cards to show their support for the Times Tech Guild, NewsGuild wrote.

Times management has been… less supportive. About ten days after the Tech Guild went public, the company said that it wouldn’t voluntarily recognize a tech worker’s union at the Times, and members would instead need to put the matter to a formal vote. Tech workers still haven’t gotten a straight answer about why the Times refuses to recognize their union. In leaked audio of a recent all-hands meeting with staffers, Times CEO Meredith Levien was asked why the Times management was treating tech workers differently from say, Wirecutter staff, which were recognized almost immediately after their union went public in 2019. She replied that Wirecutter involved “a group of journalists instead of a group of digital product development and tech people,” and that there are “reasons why some tech workers don’t want to unionize.”

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In fact, there’s been a recent groundswell of workers in the tech sector proving just the opposite. More than 400 Alphabet employees announced that they were forming a union at the start of this year, and we’ve seen similar moves taken at companies like Glitch in the aftermath.

We’ve reached out to the New York Times for comment on this case and will update here if we hear back.

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ViacomCBS Avoided Nearly $4 Billion in Tax on Franchises Like Spongebob and Star Trek: Report

Illustration for article titled ViacomCBS Avoided Nearly $4 Billion in Tax on Franchises Like Spongebob and Star Trek: Report

Photo: Valerie Macon/AFP (Getty Images)

Paramount Pictures has found a way to avoid paying taxes on franchises including Spongebob Squarepants, Mission: Impossible, and Star Trek by routing revenue from international licensing through a complicated network of foreign subsidiaries, according to a new study. 

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Researchers with the nonprofit Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, partially funded by the Dutch government, released a report indicating the ViacomCBS-owned company has saved around $3.96 billion in U.S. corporate taxes since 2002 by shlepping it through Barbados, the Bahamas, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Britain.

This is true of all of ViacomCBS’s (and those of its predecessors, Viacom and CBS) entertainment properties, the researchers wrote. All told, most of the $30 billion in royalty revenue the companies brought in from outside the U.S. never saw the tax collector take a dime. The New York Times characterized the report as showing the Redstone family, which controlled both companies before the merger and currently has member Shari Redstone as CEO of ViacomCBS, played a “cat and mouse” game in which they shifted tax liability around to the countries offering the most favorable rates. Viacom originally split from CBS in 2006 but re-merged in 2019 once it became a convenient way to scale against rival megacorporations like Disney/Fox, AT&T/Time Warner, and streaming giants.

Report co-author Maarten Hietland told the Times that most of the shell companies involved didn’t even bother to hire a single employee (not that doing so is necessary, as the revised tax structure exists solely on paper). The Netherlands, in particular, was central to the plan because it allows some multinational companies to set up subsidiaries there and pay taxes on as little as 0.8 percent of revenue from distribution rights in foreign countries—using those subsidiaries, in turn, to set up even more in other countries. The report also shows that Viacom transferred some intellectual property rights to Britain, creating a massive tax benefit, before using the subsidiaries in the Netherlands for distribution.

As the Times noted, this appears to all be technically legal even when the content was made in the U.S., though a 2016 lawsuit by a former Viacom executive claimed she was fired in retaliation for challenging what she called “an illegal tax avoidance scheme in violation of federal law.”

“If you take money or other property like licensing rights and move them from one subsidiary to another subsidiary, have you done anything that changes the group as a whole economically,” University of Washington School of Law tax expert Jeffery Kadet asked the paper. “The answer is that you haven’t. It’s like taking a dollar bill from your front left pocket and moving it to your right rear pocket. You still have the dollar.”

ViacomCBS more or less told the Times that everything it was doing was legal and thus OK:

ViacomCBS disputed the findings, saying in a statement that the study was “deeply flawed and misleading” and that it “demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of U.S. tax law.”

“It is filled with mischaracterizations, material omissions and numerous false claims,” the company said in a statement. “ViacomCBS fulfills its tax obligations in all 180-plus countries and the territories we operate, and all of our revenues — including those identified in this report — are fully taxed in relevant jurisdictions around the world, including the United States, as required by applicable law.”

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Joe Biden’s administration has sought to impose rules that might close many of the tax loopholes used by giant corporations to hide massive overseas profits from tax collectors—though he’s lowered his proposal to 15 percent, down from the originally sought 21 percent, in a bid for nations in the economically powerful Group of Seven to endorse imposing identical rules. Such international cooperation would be necessary to minimize the potential for multinationals to cook up new and exciting ways to shuffle away their tax obligations.

According to the Washington Post, an agreement may “eventually produce the most significant global tax shift in decades” as well as help Biden raise the U.S. corporate tax rate to 28 percent. However, the opposition is fierce from corporate lobbyists and representatives from countries accused of operating as tax havens and shelters, as well as complicated by the simple fact that many countries might simply refuse to comply. The 15 percent minimum tax for multinationals is separate but related to recent laws and proposals imposing taxes on digital revenue raised across national borders, a thorny issue that the U.S. has balked at in the past but the UK has demanded to be bundled together. The sought-after G7 endorsement amounts to little more than political pressure for member countries to pass legislation reforming their tax codes, which could face long odds in places like the U.S. which have bent over backward to appease corporations in their tax codes for decades.

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Oil CEOs Laid Off Workers and Gave Themselves Raises During the Pandemic

Heat from machinery distorts the air as a worker watches over a hydraulic fracturing operation.

Photo: Brennan Linsley (AP)

CEO pay at some of the country’s top oil and gas companies last year stayed more than 100 times above the median salary of workers at that company, a new analysis has found. In some cases, that gap increased—even as those companies laid off workers and took in federal aid money.

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The analysis, published Monday by BailoutWatch, a nonprofit watchdog group, examined the financial documents of several large publicly traded oil companies to glean the initial data. Those documents, known as proxy statements, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission before a company’s shareholders meet annually contain all kinds of information on a corporation, including CEO salaries. BailoutWatch then compared these statements to past tax documents filed with the SEC that detail how many employees were laid off last year, as well as the total amount of bailout money companies received through special coronavirus-related federal tax breaks that the group calculated in a report issued last year.

The results are pretty striking. The analysis finds that at a dozen oil companies—including big names like Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Phillips 66—CEO pay in 2020 was more than 100 times that of the median worker’s pay. All of those companies laid people off last year, including the nine companies that collectively got $4.8 billion in federal bailout money.

That bailout money from last year was the result of a panic around the fate of the industry, a president in the pocket of Big Oil, and loopholes in a tax law that let companies make out like bandits. As demand for fuel (and, correspondingly, oil prices) tanked at the beginning of the pandemic, oil and gas companies began to freak out about their prospects. The industry, Republicans, and President Trump’s administration began to frantically campaign for a fossil fuel-specific bailout, arguing that keeping the industry afloat was crucial to saving American jobs. While that didn’t happen, oil companies did ultimately benefit from changes to the tax code and bailout money tied to the CARES Act, the huge economic stimulus passed last year.

But pay gaps between CEO salaries and the median worker salary actually widened last year at six of the companies named in the analysis, the new analysis found. The gap increases ranged from a slight 7% increase at ConocoPhillips to a jaw-dropping 160% increase at Continental Resources. There, incoming CEO William Berry—who took over the job from Trump booster Harold Hamm—got a truly bonkers $27 million in stock awards as a signing bonus when he joined the company in 2020, which accounts for a big chunk of that incredible 160% increase. Berry’s compensation—which also includes $47,000 for personal use of the company plane and a $176,000 relocation package (nice perk if you can get it)—was 260 times the median employee pay last year. The company also laid off 59 employees, or around 5% of its workforce, last year; the total cost of keeping them on based on median salary, BailoutWatch estimated, was $6.6 million.

BailoutWatch didn’t find records of Continental benefiting from any federal bailout money. But nine companies in the analysis did get tax breaks while keeping that wild 100-times-or-more pay gap—and laying off hundreds of workers in the process. Baker Hughes, a Houston-based oilfield services giant, got $117 million in federal tax benefits last year. Yet despite the influx of public money, the company laid off around 13,000 workers last year. It did, however, compensate its executives handsomely even as it let people go: The gap between its CEO’s compensation and the median worker salary widened by 25% in 2020. (Lorenzo Simonelli, the CEO in question, draws a $15.3 million salary, which is now around 235 times that of the median worker’s pay.)

The oil and gas industry has long used its status as a job creator to cling to relevance, plastering their websites with photos of people in hard hats. But the new report shows that image is manufactured, and that these companies have used federal money and subsidies to pay CEOs lavish salaries. They may no longer be able to escape scrutiny either. The new chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Rep. Katie Porter, has invited the CEOs of Exxon, Devon Energy, and EOG Resources to testify at her first hearing on Wednesday to, in Porter’s words, “to explain why their corporations deserve billions in taxpayer-funded subsidies.” All three declined, but Porter vowed to keep “diving into how Big Oil is spending taxpayer dollars.” I’m very curious to see what else she finds.

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FTC Report Calls Out Manufacturers on Their Anti-Competitive Repair Policies

Illustration for article titled FTC Report Calls Out Manufacturers on Their Anti-Repair Bullshit

Photo: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo

After nearly two long years of waiting, the Federal Trade Commission released its “Nixing the Fix” report on restrictions employed by manufacturers on product repairs. Folks, it does not mince words, saying there is “scant evidence” justifying the obstacles companies put in place to limit consumers’ options when it comes to repairs.

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The lengthy report initially spawned out of a 2019 FTC workshop, which then prompted Congress to call on the agency to continue its investigation into the issue. While right-to-repair advocates have been banging the drum that manufacturers have unfairly rigged the game against independent repair shops and consumers, manufacturers have retorted that the market works fine as is. The bipartisan FTC report categorically disagrees. “Although manufacturers have offered numerous explanations for their repair restrictions,” the report concludes, “the majority are not supported by the record.”

The list of major issues highlighted by the FTC warranties is extensive. It includes:

  • Warranties being routinely voided in violation of the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act
  • Product designs that either complicate or prevent repairs
  • Parts and repair information being made unavailable
  • Designs intended to make an independent repair “less safe”
  • Policies designed to herd consumers toward manufacturer repair networks
  • Disparaging third-party repair parts
  • Software locks and firmware updates
  • End-user license agreements
  • Companies enforcing patent rights and trademarks as a means of shutting down independent repair

The report also notes that repair restrictions placed heavier burdens on lower-income communities and communities of color. “Many Black-owned small businesses are in the repair and maintenance industries, and difficulties facing small businesses can disproportionately affect small businesses owned by people of color,” the report reads. On top of harming small business owners in underserved communities, the FTC report says repair restrictions can also result in greater financial burdens for lower-income families, as they may lack broadband internet at home and therefore rely heavily on smartphones.

The FTC also highlighted that the pandemic only exacerbated these problems, as repair restrictions made it much harder for consumers to get their products fixed while working from home. Supply chain shortages mean that parts can be hard to come by, leaving customers to sometimes wait months for appliance repairs. Likewise, requiring customers to go through authorized repair facilities means that many have had to wait weeks for broken computers or other work-related gadgets—a situation that’s untenable during the work-from-home and remote learning era.

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As far as tech companies go, Apple had the dubious honor of being held up as a specific example of a company guilty of restrictive repair policies. If you’ve been following the news, this won’t come as a shock. Apple has historically been hostile to independent repair shops and prefers its customers go to a pre-approved list of authorized repair vendors. The Cupertino giant is also guilty of restricting access to repair manuals and famously had that debacle with iPhone throttling in a bid to preserve battery life.

As for what to do about the current situation, the report concludes with several suggestions ranging from new legislation, strengthening the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act, self-regulation like the auto industry, transparent repairability scores for products, and taking some cues from the European Union, which last year decreed that manufacturers would have to make household appliances both longer-lasting and easier to repair. The FTC also urged consumers to report manufacturers who void warranties because of independent repairs in a release and on its Twitter.

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“This is a great step in the right direction,” iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens said in a statement. “The bipartisan report shows that [the] FTC knows that the market has not regulated itself, and is committing to real action.”

If You Use Twitter’s New Tip Jar Feature, Make Sure You Don’t Accidentally Send People Your Address

Illustration for article titled If You Use Twitter's New Tip Jar Feature, Make Sure You Don't Accidentally Send People Your Address

Photo: Alastair Pike / AFP (Getty Images)

If you decide you’re game enough to use Twitter’s new feature to send strangers on the internet money, do your best not to accidentally send them your residential address, too.

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To explain, you may have heard something about “Tip Jar,” which the company soft launched Thursday, heralding it as a way “for people to send and receive tips.” The new feature, which is available via the mobile app on Android and iOS, allows users to send money to other accounts using a variety of third-parties. It’s very easy to operate: By clicking on a dollar bill icon next to a person’s username, you will be presented with a list of options for how to donate: Venmo, Cash App, Bandcamp, Patreon, PayPal, and so on. Choosing a payment option redirects you to the selected third-party’s platform to allow a transaction to occur. You’ll want to rush to do this as a way to…uh, reward good tweets? Yes, the point of the whole enterprise isn’t entirely clear, but do people really need a reason to throw more money around on the internet? Ostensibly Twitter is trying to become a bigger playground for creators and this will help with that.

Anyway, the Twit-Tips are currently undergoing a trial run, with a number of creators, journalists, and non-profits acting as guinea pigs that Twitter users can send money to, though allegedly the feature will soon have a wider release. Currently, it’s only available for people using Twitter in English.

As is usually the case with new things, users were quick to point out some stuff that wasn’t totally hunky dory. Rachel Tobac, a security professional, was playing around with the app when she noticed what initially seemed like a glaring security risk. Tobac discovered that if you specifically used PayPal to send someone a tip, you will also be sending them a fairly intimate detail: your home address. This doesn’t appear to be an issue for any of the other pay applications set up through Tip Jar.

In a Tweet shared by Tobac, an image of a receipt for the PayPal donation clearly shows the sender’s residential address.

“This is EXACTLY what I was concerned to test when Twitter announced Tip Jar. PayPal needs to make it crystal clear which data is given to money receivers and stop sharing that data, & Twitter needs to educate users who don’t realize what info tip receivers get when using PayPal,” Tobac tweeted.

Kayvon Beykpour, product lead at Twitter, quickly replied to her comments: “this is a good catch, thank you. we can’t control the revealing of the address on Paypal’s side but we will add a warning for people giving tips via Paypal so that they are aware of this.”

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However, it turns out this is not some sort of weird bug, it’s just a feature of how PayPal payments work. Specifically, there are two different modes by which payments can be made and received on PayPal accounts—one of which requires the disclosure of your address because it is pegged to “Goods and Services,” i.e., deliveries. So, we can surmise, Tobac was using this mode to send her tip. It is certainly something that customers should be aware of, said Tom Hunter, Senior Manager of Global Communications with PayPal, in an email. Hunter said:

When using PayPal to send and receive money, there are two options a customer can select before processing the payment on how that money is sent. “Goods and Services” is used to buy or pay for an item or service from someone and will automatically share the customer’s address with the recipient for the delivery of those goods and services. Customers can toggle within the payment flow to select “Friends and Family” which does not share the address with the recipient. This is the standard functionality of the PayPal app and we will work with Twitter closely to ensure user awareness.

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While this isn’t a glaring security risk, it is certainly a good thing for users to know about. Sending your address out willy nilly on the internet is generally frowned upon, but it seems fairly easy to avoid if you have a good understanding of PayPal’s functionality. Granted, if you’re willing to send someone you don’t really know a bunch of money, maybe you’re also willing to let them know where you live? I don’t know.

When reached by email, a Twitter spokesperson reiterated that they have no control over how PayPal works or whether or not users know how to use third-party accounts, but said that they were going to try to get the word out to users:

Tipping through Tip Jar takes place on the selected payment service app or website and as a result relies on the third-party service’s functionality. When tipping with Tip Jar, people are notified that they’re going to a separate app or website to send their tip, and that tipping on that third-party platform is subject to the platform’s terms. We’re updating our in-app notification and Help Center article to make it clearer that other platforms, per their terms, may share information about people sending tips to one another.

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Duly noted. Ultimately, it’s probably good that this whole little episode happened because it highlights some potential privacy hiccups for consumers when it comes to the new feature—something Twitter was likely testing for in the first place. Slow rollouts allow companies to discover stuff like this. Twitter said in its announcement that it is “always looking for feedback and ways to improve updates like Tip Jar – let us know what you think.” Looks like it got some.

Biden’s NLRB to Google: Not So Fast on the Union Busting, Bub

Thousands of employees walk out of Google offices in San Francisco to protest the company’s handling of sexual misconduct cases against execs in November 2018.

Thousands of employees walk out of Google offices in San Francisco to protest the company’s handling of sexual misconduct cases against execs in November 2018.
Photo: Eric Risberg (AP)

Google maintains it is “very confident” it will face no consequences for firing three workers involved in unionization efforts, despite the acting top counsel of the National Labor Relations Board’s opinion that the tech giant may have violated labor law.

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In late 2019, Google fired five different staffers known for workplace activism on issues like pay disparity, contracts with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Google’s hiring of union-busting firm IRI Consultants. Google claimed that four of the workers, Laurence Berland, Paul Duke, Rebecca Rivers, and Sophie Waldman, leaked internal information about the company. A fifth terminated employee, Kathryn Spiers, says she was never told how she violated company policy but did code a small pop-up that appeared on the Chrome browser on Google work machines that informed staff of their “right to participate in protected concerted activities.”

The NLRB already filed a complaint against Google for firing Berland and Spiers late last year. In an email seen and reported on by Bloomberg on Wednesday, however NLRB Acting General Counsel Peter Sung Ohr wrote that the company “arguably violated” federal laws by “unlawfully discharging” Duke, Rivers, and Waldman. Ohr told an NLRB regional director to amend the original complaint to add their names to the list.

The original NLRB complaint, filed in December 2019 by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), accused the company of using illegal tactics to discourage labor activism. Those included time-honored union-busting moves like interrogating activist workers, targeting them for punitive enforcement of company policies, and imposing rules that illegally prohibited protected organizing. Such labor complaints can take years to resolve and are often followed by appeals.

When the NLRB took up the complaint in December 2020, Berland told Gizmodo in an emailed statement that “This complaint makes clear that workers have the right to speak to issues of ethical business and the composition of management. This is a significant finding at a time when we’re seeing the power of a handful of tech billionaires consolidate control over our lives and our society.”

“Workers have the right to speak out about and organize, as the NLRB is affirming, but we also know that we should not, and cannot, cleave off ethical concerns about the role management wants to play in that society,” Berland added.

“Our thorough investigation found the individuals were involved in systematic searches for other employees’ materials and work, including distributing confidential business and client information,” a Google spokesperson told Bloomberg via email. “As the hearing on these matters moves forward, we’re very confident in our decision and legal position.”

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During Donald Trump’s administration, the Republican-stacked NLRB issued numerous decisions ruinous to labor organizers—such as a determination that work emails can’t be used for organizing activity. Laurie Burgess, an attorney for the five workers, told Bloomberg the NLRB’s advice division originally determined that Duke, Rivers, and Waldman shouldn’t have been added to the complaint because their activism opposing Google’s business contracts with U.S. Customs and Border Protection wasn’t protected speech. The NLRB did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment and we’ll update when we recieve a reply.

The five-member NLRB board is still controlled by Republicans, but Joe Biden fired the Trump-appointed general counsel of the organization, Peter Robb, after the attorney refused to resign. Ohr, his acting replacement, promptly rolled back many Trump-era NLRB policies. According to Bloomberg, Biden’s permanent pick to replace Robb, Jennifer Abruzzo, works for CWA.

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Biden threw his weight behind a unionization drive at an Amazon facility in Alabama in March, warning the company to stop intimidating organizers. The union vote later failed, although the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union said that Amazon used illegal methods to subvert the election and is asking the NLRB overturn the results in a hearing scheduled for Friday.

While Biden’s support for the union effort was welcomed by labor activists, the real test of his presidency’s commitment to the labor union will center around the PRO Act, a massive bill that would overhaul federal labor laws to an extent not seen in decades. Biden has yet to mount an effort to push the bill through Congress, where it may face long odds. Tech firms rely on armies of contractors that would find it easier to unionize under the Pro ACT—such as gig apps like Uber, Lyft, Doordash, and Instacart—and the money men have only started to ramp up their lobbying efforts to kill or water down the bill. Companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google also employ large numbers of contractors, in Google’s case outnumbering permanent staffers. That potentially sets the stage for tech firms to be key players in a looming fight over the bill.

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DoorDash Quietly Astroturfing in New York as Gig Economy Laws Loom

Illustration for article titled DoorDash Quietly Astroturfing in New York as Gig Economy Laws Loom

Screenshot: Dash Community NY

Last year, in a feat of astonishing greed, Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash poured $200 million into buying a law that safeguards their profits and screws their struggling workers. Their sinister ballot measure Prop 22 passed, and it’s practically unrepealable; now they’re lining New York state politicians’ pockets, and yet again, gearing up for what looks like another round of belligerent propagandizing. DoorDash has released a dreary website nearly identical to a Prop 22 campaign platform. The purpose is ominously vague.

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For a sense of what New York is in for, the companies had threatened to leave California leading up to the Prop 22 vote. They predicted mass job loss and the elimination of schedule flexibility, and they plastered their messaging on delivery bags, astroturf mailers, and in their apps. They retained a big tobacco PR firm, allegedly launched a harassment campaign against a professor, and poured substantial contributions into the Republican Party.

As a result of the measure’s passage, the companies are exempt from paying workers for the large chunk of time spent waiting for rides, full reimbursement for expenses, overtime pay, or sick leave. They’re protected from unionization and from paying out hundreds of millions in unemployment insurance to the state.

High off the win, the companies almost immediately announced a crusade. “Going forward, you’ll see us more loudly advocate for new laws like Prop 22,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in an earnings call last year. “We think that Prop 22 has now created a model that can be replicated and can be scaled,” Lyft’s chief policy officer Anthony Foxx told the Washington Post.

Next stop is New York. As previously reported, Uber and Lyft’s PACs spent millions of dollars on down-ballot Democratic candidates in the 2020 election cycle. (Uber’s PAC New Yorkers for Flexible Work paid out $440,000 to Red Horse Strategies, a consulting firm often retained by Democratic campaigns, concentrated on turning red districts blue. Lyft’s PAC alone, New Yorkers for Independent Work, poured $2.5 million worth of digital ads and mailers into 13 candidates, only three of whom lost. Gizmodo has compiled a list of Lyft’s contributions here.)

Now DoorDash seems to have recycled a marketing initiative Uber set up leading up to Prop 22: a site populated with video testimonials in which workers voluntarily praise the corporation. (Just how voluntary the act would be is an open question.)

In April, DoorDash launched “The New York Dasher Community,” which at first glance looks to be a windswept social media platform specifically for New York-based Dashers, but was launched using Countable, a platform for campaign sites. Make sense of this:

DoorDash is committed to protecting the flexibility and independence of Dashers, while also ensuring you receive protections tailored to the unique nature of work on platforms like DoorDash.

Join the New York Dasher community to meet your fellow Dashers, stay informed on the latest policy news, and make your voice heard!

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“Meet” people is a very loose interpretation of what you can do with limited tools provided. You may set up a profile, but you can not DM. Users can technically follow each other, though they can’t find each other through a useful discovery mechanism. You can post content, but not on your profile or a user forum. You can comment, but only under limited DoorDash-sanctioned blog posts. (“This is a great initiative!” “Monica” screams.) All the action is on pages with DoorDash literature, though even that is minimal.

Mostly, you may also post a video responding to one of two prompts—“Tell us why you Dash!” and “How are you navigating COVID-19?”—and your video will appear with a DoorDash watermark, stacked over nearly identical videos from other DoorDashers. DoorDashers express their gratitude for DoorDash during the pandemic, they tell us that they paid off bills with DoorDash earnings, and they love that DoorDash offers flexible hours for caretakers. There are five videos at this writing. Their solitary profiles hang in limbo, searchable only by clicking through the names on their videos.

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The “resources” advertised amount to a couple of blog posts trumping up negligible one-time covid-19 “assistance” for the sick and a brief $200 cash incentive program for workers who make at least 450 deliveries per month.

Unclear why the above description would inspire any soul on Earth to join the platform. When asked, a DoorDash spokesperson clarified that this is not a social media platform per se:

DoorDash has always worked hard to educate Dashers, merchants, and consumers on issues that impact them and ensure their voices are heard, which is exactly why we built this site: for Dashers to access information, and serve as a tool to collect and share their perspective on why they Dash. As is clearly evident on the site, there is no functionality to communicate directly with lawmakers and there never has been since it launched. This website is not specific to any legislation, issue, or policymaker, and suggesting otherwise is simply untrue.

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The site does not currently promote one specific issue, but Gizmodo found a clue behind the scenes indicating the site’s intended audience. When we navigated to two different blog posts on the site, network requests included names and URLs for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York State Sen. George Borrello, both of whom have expressed interest in making the companies pay their fair share. From what we could tell, the inclusion doesn’t serve any practical purpose, more like very specific leftover junk.

Illustration for article titled DoorDash Quietly Astroturfing in New York as Gig Economy Laws Loom

Screenshot: Dhruv Mehrotra

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Illustration for article titled DoorDash Quietly Astroturfing in New York as Gig Economy Laws Loom

Screenshot: Dhruv Mehrotra

On April 22, a spokesperson confirmed that they’d just left those bits of detritus in there:

Ever have a guest find old leftovers in your fridge that never got thrown out? Today, we learned of some backend code language on our New York community website that was never functional but was leftover from when our vendor demonstrated the many bells and whistles available to us, including lawmaker messaging, that we decided wasn’t necessary for this effort, and why you don’t see it anywhere on the site.

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The explanation makes sense, technically, and also as a hypothetical function DoorDash might consider if, say, it wanted to sway political winds in DoorDash’s favor. Borrello proposed legislation that would ban app-based delivery services like DoorDash from raising fees for businesses above pre-pandemic rates. Last year, in his state of the state address, Cuomo compared the gig economy to sweatshop labor, accusing companies that mislabel workers as contractors of committing “exploitative, abusive” fraud which he pledged to end.

The site’s privacy policy also explicitly states that your personally identifiable information will be shared with lawmakers. “For instance, if you send a message to your lawmakers when sharing your voting preference or advocating on issues, and include your email address and name, that information will be made available to us, the organization, and your lawmakers,” it reads. When a registered user attempts to change their address, light gray disclaimer text informs you that “US Representatives require your mailing address to validate that you live in their district.” (Unlike the code, DoorDash did not update this after an inquiry from Gizmodo.)

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Illustration for article titled DoorDash Quietly Astroturfing in New York as Gig Economy Laws Loom

Screenshot: Whitney Kimball

The potential lawmaker targeting was far more overt on Uber’s nearly identical site incidentally included drivers praising the company while specifically plugging Prop 22, many of them addressing the legislation and governor directly.

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Near the end of the Prop 22 campaign, drivers filed a lawsuit accusing Uber of coercing them to create videos with in-app prompts, or else face a higher likelihood of losing their accounts if the company cut its workforce as a result of a Prop 22 failure. Their complaint read:

…Uber inconsistently threatens that unless Proposition 22 passes, Uber will cut its driver workforce in California by 70 percent, or fire everyone and rehire some. As a result, drivers reasonably believe that if they want to be among the 30 percent of drivers who are either retained or rehired as employees, they must have affirmatively supported Uber’s Yes on Prop 22 campaign by preparing videotaped and written messages of support and “correctly” answering Uber’s survey questions.

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Uber’s attorneys called the claims that Uber misled drivers “completely baseless” and said that drivers provided “no evidence that any driver was treated adversely based on their response to the poll.”

DoorDash confirmed to Gizmodo that it had solicited the videos but didn’t specify whether it would filter critical speech, saying that it hadn’t had to, and also Dashers are free to submit feedback through other company channels.

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Countable, also Uber’s platform, presents Uber’s site as a “success story.” The company claims on its site that “Uber and its drivers recorded hundreds of videos” which “resulted in tens of thousands of page views.” But only 19 videos appear on the site today. Gizmodo asked both Uber and Countable why hundreds of videos do not appear on the site and what drove the traffic. Neither returned request for comment. It remains unclear how or why the 19 videos would be considered a “success” in pushing Prop 22 over the goal line. Compared to Uber’s massive mailer and ad push the site felt sort of like a side dish of “digital” from an expensive marketing menu. It’s the kind of wager the group of companies might make, given that campaign finance records show that Lyft was willing to shell out $12,000 on a website for failed New York State Assembly member Joe Lentol.

The DoorDash site expands on a growing foundation for a New York statewide campaign, like a pseudo-progressive coalition site, “New York Coalition for Independent Work” whose members include Instacart, Uber, DoorDash, and Lyft. It is explicitly devoted to implementing similar legislation to Prop 22. 

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“In November, millions of Californians went to the polls to vote Yes on Proposition 22 which guaranteed app-based workers could remain flexible and independent while accessing historic new benefits and protections,” the site reads, adding that the coalition will “continue to stand with workers to ensure they are guaranteed the flexibility to work when, where, and for however long they choose, while also gaining the protections and benefits they deserve.”

As we’ve written extensively here, Uber and Lyft often use “flexibility” and “benefits” as smoke and mirrors to make it sound like the systemization of employment status would make drivers overall worse off. When New York City passed a wage floor for drivers, in 2018, Uber and Lyft complained that rides would be prohibitively expensive for riders. It made hours slightly less flexible for drivers, but a study by leading rideshare economy researcher Michael Reich showed that drivers had to work fewer hours overall because they made more.

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Like California, New York’s lawmakers seem uncomfortably close to protecting gig workers from exploitation. Like California, New York lawmakers have proposed implementing the “ABC test”—a three-pronged series of qualifications for “independent contractors” that prevents companies from shrugging off employer responsibilities so long as workers are performing labor that’s essential to the company’s everyday functions—on the city and the state levels.

New York state residents are going to hear about flexible hours and wild statistics about mass layoffs and a threat that the companies will leave New York. We might hear about that from our representatives who claim to be pro-union and pro-immigrant, and we’re curious what excuse they might have for advocating for multi-billion dollar companies who’d rather enrich private lobbying firms than pay their fair share. Gizmodo has reached out to the Lyft-sponsored elected officials listed above. None returned our requests for comment.

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Additional reporting by Dhruv Mehrotra.

New Technique Could Turn Plastic Back Into Oil, Which Is … Something

Illustration for article titled New Technique Could Turn Plastic Back Into Oil, Which Is … Something

Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)

There is way too much plastic in the world—and we’re making more every day, even as we struggle to find a way to get rid of the old stuff. A new study poses an interesting solution: Melting plastic bags and bottles back into the oil it was originally made from.

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The new research, published Wednesday in Science Advances, looks at a technique called pyrolysis, which essentially melts down polyolefin into its original form—aka oil and gas. Polyolefins are a very common type of plastic in everyday items from drinking straws to packaging to thermal underwear to plastic cling wrap. It accounts for two-thirds of the world’s plastic demand. The production of these kinds of plastics has been a huge boon for the oil and gas industry, and is giving fossil fuel producers a glimmer of hope for the future; while plastics only account for 14% of oil demand today, they’re projected to make up half the world’s demand for oil by 2050.

The study details a new type of technique for treating single-use plastics that, researchers say, can break down all sorts of tough-to-recycle plastics—including polyethylene bottles and bags—into liquid petrochemicals. One of the most notable things about the new technique is that it’s able to break down the plastics at lower temperatures than other pyrolysis methods, which helps transform the plastic into denser fuel and uses two to three times less energy.

“Most prior work focuses on pyrolysis that heats the plastic to high temperatures of 400-800 [degrees Celsius],” study author Dionisios Vlachos, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Delaware, said in an email. “The energy need is super high.”

These high-heat techniques, Vlachos said, break down most of the chemical bonds in the plastic, which makes the final product closely resemble light gases like shale. This new technique, by contrast, can create liquid fuels at the lower heat used—around 437 degrees Fahrenheit (225 degrees Celsius)—producing “nearly ready-to-use fuels for cars, trucks, or airplanes and lubricants,” Vlachos said.

Single-use plastics, like bags, straws, and can rings, which are basically meant to be discarded right after use. This easy-throwaway stuff makes up half of the 300 million tons of plastic produced worldwide each year, so there’s a lot of it to work with. It’s also the bulk of what’s gumming up the environment as bigger pieces break down into smaller microplastics that can pose a threat to humans, animals, and ecosystems alike.

Clearly, though, turning it into fuel is not a panacea for all our environmental woes. It basically doesn’t do anything to curb climate change. Fossil fuels, of course, release emissions when you burn them; using a gallon of oil melted down from a bunch of Tupperware won’t change that.

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Still, there’s an urgent need to figure out what to do with all this plastic trash that’s clogging up the planet. It’s polluting waterways and killing wildlife. Our current best method of getting ride of it—simply burning the trash—also releases toxic and planet-heating emissions. Converting plastic back to the stuff it was originally made out of may not be a perfect solution, but it sure is better than nothing (and potentially has an added bonus of creating fewer revenue streams for oil and gas companies as we find ways to reuse the stuff they sold to us in the first place). And the time is now, Vlachos said, to throw energy into researching techniques like these, before our plastic addiction runs away from us.

“We need to take action on the plastics problem and develop technologies and policies to eliminate it from the environment,” Vlachos said. “Research takes 10-plus years before it becomes useful. Investing in this field now is a priority.”

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