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Deepfake App Pulled After Many Expressed Concerns

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  • Many were outraged this week over a desktop app called DeepNude, that allows users to remove clothing from pictures of women to make them look naked.
  • Vice’s Motherboard published an article where they tested the app’s capabilities on pictures of celebrities and found that it only works on women.
  • Motherboard described the app as “easier to use, and more easily accessible than deepfakes have ever been.”
  • The app’s developers later pulled it from sale after much criticism, but the new technology has reignited debate about the need for social media companies and lawmakers to regulate and moderate deepfakes.

The New Deepfake App

Developers pulled a new desktop app called DeepNude that let users utilize deepfake technology to remove clothing from pictures of women to make them look naked.

The app was removed after an article published by Vice New’s tech publication Motherboard expressed concerns over the technology.

Motherboard downloaded and tested the app on more than a dozen pictures of both men and women. They found that while the app does work on women who are fully clothed, it works best on images where people are already showing more skin. 

“The results vary dramatically,” the article said. “But when fed a well lit, high resolution image of a woman in a bikini facing the camera directly, the fake nude images are passably realistic.”

The article also contained several of the images Motherboard tested, including photos of celebrities like Taylor Swift, Tyra Banks, Natalie Portman, Gal Gadot, and Kim Kardashian. The pictures were later removed from the article. 

Motherboard reported that the app explicitly only works on women. “When Motherboard tried using an image of a man,” they wrote, “It replaced his pants with a vulva.”

Motherboard emphasized how frighteningly accessible the app is. “DeepNude is easier to use, and more easily accessible than deepfakes have ever been,” they reported. 

Anyone can get the app for free, or they can purchase a premium version. Motherboard reported that the premium version costs $50, but a screenshot published in the Verge indicated that it was $99.

Source: The Verge

In the free version, the output image is partly covered by a watermark. In the paid version, the watermark is removed but there is a stamp that says “FAKE” in the upper-left corner.

However, as Motherboard notes, it would be extremely easy to crop out the “FAKE” stamp or remove it with photoshop. 

On Thursday, the day after Motherboard published the article, DeepNude announced on their Twitter account that they had pulled the app.

“Despite the safety measures adopted (watermarks) if 500,000 people use it, the probability that people will misuse it is too high,” the statement said. “We don’t want to make money this way. Surely some copies of DeepNude will be shared on the web, but we don’t want to be the ones who sell it.”

“The world is not yet ready for DeepNude,” the statement concluded. The DeepNude website has now been taken down.

Where Did it Come From?

According to the Twitter account for DeepNude, the developers launched downloadable software for the app for Windows and Linux on June 23.

After a few days, the apps developers had to move the website offline because it was receiving too much traffic, according to DeepNude’s Twitter.

Currently, it is unclear who these developers are or where they are from. Their Twitter account lists their location as Estonia, but does not provide more information.

Motherboard was able to reach the anonymous creator by email, who requested to go by the name Alberto. Alberto told them that the app’s software is based on an open source algorithm called pix2pix that was developed by researchers at UC Berkeley back in 2017.

That algorithm is similar to the ones used for deepfake videos, and weirdly enough it’s also similar to the technology that self-driving cars use to formulate driving scenarios.

Alberto told Motherboard that the algorithm only works on women because “images of nude women are easier to find online,” but he said he wants to make a male version too.

Alberto also told Motherboard that during his development process, he asked himself if it was morally questionable to make the app, but ultimately decided it was not because he believed that the invention of the app was inevitable.

“I also said to myself: the technology is ready (within everyone’s reach),” Alberto told Motherboard. “So if someone has bad intentions, having DeepNude doesn’t change much… If I don’t do it, someone else will do it in a year.”

The Need for Regulation

This inevitability argument is one that has been discussed often in the debates surrounding deepfakes.

It also goes along with the idea that even if these deepfakes are banned by Pornhub and Reddit, they are just going to pop up in other places. These kind of arguments are also an important part of the discussion of how to detect and regulate deepfakes.

Motherboard showed the DeepNude app to Hany Farid, a computer science professor at UC Berkeley who is an expert on deepfakes. Faird said that he was shocked by how easily the app created the fakes.

Usually, deepfake videos take hours to make. By contrast, DeepNude only takes about 30 seconds to render these images.

“We are going to have to get better at detecting deepfakes,” Farid told Motherboard. “In addition, social media platforms are going to have to think more carefully about how to define and enforce rules surrounding this content.”

“And, our legislators are going to have to think about how to thoughtfully regulate in this space.”

The Role of Social Media

The need for social media platforms and politicians to regulate this kind of content has become increasingly prevalent in the discussion about deepfakes.

Over the last few years, deepfakes have become widespread internationally, but any kind of laws or regulations have been unable to keep up with the technology.

On Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that his company is looking into ways to deal with deepfakes during a conversation at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

He did not say exactly how Facebook is doing this, but he did say that the problem from his perspective was how deepfakes are defined.

“Is it AI-manipulated media or manipulated media using AI that makes someone say something they didn’t say?” Zuckerberg said. “I think that’s probably a pretty reasonable definition.”

However, that definition is also exceptionally narrow. Facebook recently received significant backlash after it decided not to take down a controversial video of Nancy Pelosi that had been slowed down, making her drunk or impaired.

Zuckerberg said he argued that the video should be left up because it is better to show people fake content than hide it. However, experts worry that that kind of thinking could set a dangerous precedent for deepfakes.

The Role of Lawmakers

On Monday, lawmakers in California proposed a bill that would ban deepfakes in the state. The assemblymember that introduced the bill said he did it because of the Pelosi video.

On the federal level, similar efforts to regulate deepfake technology have been stalled.

Separate bills have been introduced in both the House and the Senate to criminalize deepfakes, but both of the bills have only been referred to committees, and it is unclear whether or not they have even been discussed by lawmakers.

However, even if these bills do move forward, there are a lot of legal hurdles they have to go through. An attorney named Carrie Goldberg, whose law firm specializes in revenge porn, spoke to Motherboard about these issues.

“It’s a real bind,” said Goldberg. “Deepfakes defy most state revenge porn laws because it’s not the victim’s own nudity depicted, but also our federal laws protect the companies and social media platforms where it proliferates.”

However, the article’s author, Samantha Cole, also argued that the political narratives around deepfakes leave out the women victimized by them.

“Though deepfakes have been weaponized most often against unconsenting women, most headlines and political fear of them have focused on their fake news potential,” she wrote.

That idea of deepfakes being “fake news” or disinformation seems to be exactly how Zuckerberg and Facebook are orienting their policies.

Moving forward, many feel that policy discussions about deepfakes should also consider how the technology disproportionately affects women and can be tied to revenge porn.

See what others are saying: (Vice) (The Verge) (The Atlantic)

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SpaceX’s Starlink to Provide Dozens of Families in Rural Texas With Internet in 2021

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  • SpaceX has just agreed to use its Starlink satellite internet service to provide internet to 45 families who do not have broadband access and who live in the Pleasant Farms area of south Ector County, Texas.
  • The internet will be free for families, but the Ector County Independent School District is paying SpaceX $300,000 per year, with $150,000 of that coming from a nonprofit.
  • Services will later expand to 90 more families in the same area as the network evolves and as the district works to deal with the digital divide that has become more apparent during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • The news follows reports that SpaceX is beginning public beta testing of Starlink at $99 a month, with a $499 upfront cost for the Starlink Kit, which includes a user terminal to connect to the satellites, a mounting tripod, and a wifi router.

What is SpaceX’s Starlink?

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has agreed to a deal with a Texas school district that will bring internet service to dozens of families in need next year.

The internet will be provided though Starlink, which is SpaceX’s plan to build an interconnected internet network with thousands of satellites, designed to deliver high-speed internet anywhere on the planet.

According to the Ector County Independent School District, SpaceX will supply internet to 45 families who do not have broadband access and who live in the Pleasant Farms area of south Ector County.

The internet will be free for families, but the district is paying SpaceX $300,000 per year, with $150,000 of that coming from a nonprofit known as Chiefs for Change.

The district said services will later expand to 90 more families in the same area as the network evolves.

The plan is part of the district’s effort to deal with the digital divide that has become more apparent during the coronavirus pandemic. As more students shift to online learning, a large number of them have been forced to work without stable internet and other essentials. 

“The partners with us share our vision for equity and access for all students,” the district said in it’s announcement. “Today, we take a giant leap forward in closing the digital divide that exists within our community.”

According to the district’s own surveys, 39% of families have limited or no internet access in the area. 

The announcement marks the first agreement for SpaceX to offer Starlink internet in the southern U.S. It will also make Ector County the first school district to utilize SpaceX satellites to provide internet for students.

SpaceX Expands Starlink Beta Testing

The news followed reports Monday that said SpaceX was expanding the beta test of its Starlink satellite internet service.

As of now, SpaceX has launched about 900 Starlink satellites, which is only a fraction of the total needed for global coverage but enough to start providing service in some areas. 

For the last few months, the company has conducted a limited private beta test with employees. However, in emails sent to an unspecified number of people Monday, SpaceX offered its first-ever public beta testing of the service.

It’s reportedly called the “Better Than Nothing Beta,” and it’s priced at $99 a month. Customers must also pay the $499 upfront cost for the Starlink Kit, which includes a user terminal to connect to the satellites, a mounting tripod, and a wifi router.

There’s also now a Starlink app listed by SpaceX on the Google Play and Apple iOS app stores.

At this time, it’s unclear where exactly service will be available, but Musk has recently suggested the public beta would be offered in the northern U.S. and southern Canada.

“Expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mbps to 150Mbps and latency from 20ms to 40ms over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all,” SpaceX warned in its email, according to CNBC.

As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations, and improve our networking software, data speed, latency, and uptime will improve dramatically. For latency, we expect to achieve 16ms to 19ms by summer 2021.”

See what others are saying (CNBC) (Fox Business) (Business Insider)

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Department of Justice Files Antitrust Suit Against Google Alleging Unlawful Monopoly

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  • The Department of Justice is filing an antitrust lawsuit against Google, accusing it of illegally maintaining its monopoly by using its hefty ad revenue to engage in exclusionary contracts that block competition. 
  • An example of this would be Google’s arrangement with Apple to be the default browser on Safari. The Department thinks this agreement makes it impossible for competition to break through. 
  • Google has defended itself and says that it does make room for competition, but that consumers choose Google of their own volition. 
  • This is one of the largest antitrust suits against a major tech company in years and could be a long legal battle. Depending on the outcome, there could be major implications for other tech companies outside of Google. 

DOJ Files Suit Against Google

The Department of Justice announced Tuesday that it is filing an antitrust suit against Google, launching one of the largest cases of its kind against a tech company in decades. 

The suit will hurl multiple allegations against the tech giant, including claims that it maintains its monopoly via unlawful exclusionary and interlocking agreements and contracts that block the growth of competition. The Justice Department is claiming that the company spends billions of dollars in ad revenue to pay major phone and tech companies like Apple to make Google the default search engine on web browsers. 

The lawsuit also alleges that Google has arrangements to make sure its search application is preloaded and cannot be deleted on mobile Android devices, which the department says hurts and prevents competition. 

An action like this from the Justice Department has been highly anticipated for some time now. In the summer of 2019, Department officials announced a broad review of the practices of big companies, including Google. Their investigation into the company has lasted since and has included probes into several aspects of the Silicon Valley behemoth. 

“An antitrust response is necessary to benefit consumers,” Jeffrey A. Rosen, deputy Attorney General said in a briefing. “If the government does not enforce the antitrust laws to enable competition, we could lose the next wave of innovation. If that happens, Americans may never get to see the next Google.”

Google’s Dominance on the Internet 

The Attorneys General from eleven states will be joining the suit, and many more may decide to hop on as the legal battle continues. It could take years for this to play out and be resolved. Pending the results, it could also have major implications for other big tech companies. 

Google’s dominance across the internet is prominent. According to data from Vox, when it comes to searching, the company takes up 92% of the market, with its biggest competitor, Bing, owning just a small sliver of that space. When it comes to smartphone operating systems, it takes up 85% of the market. For web browsers, it takes up 66%. 

The Justice Department is not the only part of the government to recently take aim at Google. In the first week of October, a House subcommittee released a report accusing Google, as well as Facebook, Amazon and Apple, of holding and abusing monopoly power in their respective industries. That report mentioned anti-competitive contracts at Google. The House suggested that there was a “pressing need for legislative action and reform” when it comes to monopolies at major tech companies. 

Google’s Response

Google has repeatedly denied that it holds an unlawful monopoly. In a Tuesday statement, the company maintained that it allows for healthy competition and condemned the Justice Department’s choice to bring an antitrust suit forward.

“Today’s lawsuit by the Department of Justice is deeply flawed,” the statement said. “People use Google because they choose to, not because they’re forced to, or because they can’t find alternatives.”

This lawsuit would do nothing to help consumers. To the contrary, it would artificially prop up lower-quality search alternatives, raise phone prices, and make it harder for people to get the search services they want to use.”

When it came to specifics in the suit, Google claimed the Justice Department was relying on “dubious antitrust arguments.” The company compared the agreements it has with companies like Apple to a cereal brand paying a grocery store to stock its boxes at eye level.

When it comes to Apple specifically, Google claims that it is the default in Safari because Apple believes Google to be the best search engine. Google also said their agreement is not exclusive and that Bing and Yahoo are also featured in Safari.

“This isn’t the dial-up 1990s, when changing services was slow and difficult, and often required you to buy and install software with a CD-ROM,” Google argued. “Today, you can easily download your choice of apps or change your default settings in a matter of seconds—faster than you can walk to another aisle in the grocery store.”

“This lawsuit claims that Americans aren’t sophisticated enough to do this. But we know that’s not true.”

While it will take several years for this case to be resolved, many are analyzing what the potential outcomes may be. The Wall Street Journal said that if Google loses, there could be court-ordered changes to its practices, potentially to create openings for new rivals. However, the lawsuit will not immediately specify specific solutions. That step will come further down the road. 

If Google wins this, it could throw a wrench in the government’s growing plans to go after big tech companies. Other investigations could get complicated or foiled, and it could mean that this issue might have to move into Congress’ hands.  

See what others are saying: (Vox) (Wall Street Journal) (CNN)

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Thousands of Amazon Workers Demand Paid Time Off To Vote

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  • Around 4,000 Amazon tech workers signed a petition Tuesday that calls for eight hours of paid time off to be made available for employees to use up until Election Day for voting-related activities, including voting, registering, and volunteering.
  • Amazon, which is the second-largest employer in the U.S., does not currently have a companywide policy that offers its over 1.3 million workers paid time off to vote.
  • By contrast, companies like Walmart, Facebook, Apple, Uber, Starbucks, and dozens of others offer some sort of paid allotted time for voting.
  • Amazon says employees can request time off to vote, but the number of hours and pay it will provide depends on local laws.
  • Critics note that while some states require employees to be excused and paid for a few hours if voting conflicts with work schedules, several battleground states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, do not.

Employees Back Petition

Thousands of Amazon tech workers backed a petition Tuesday urging the company to offer employees paid time off to vote on or before Election Day.

Amazon is the second-largest employer in the country, with over 1.3 million U.S. workers, including Whole Foods employees. However, it does not have a companywide policy in place that offers paid time off to participate in federal elections.

For comparison, Walmart, which is the nation’s largest employer, offers up to three paid hours for its employees to vote. Other companies like Facebook, Apple, Uber, Twitter, and Starbucks also provide allotted time for voting. Some companies, like Patagonia, are even closing their doors completely on Election Day, while stores like Best Buy are reducing hours.

Supporters of such policies point out that for many Americans, voting, especially during a pandemic, can mean hours-long lines and other unexpected delays.

Because of this, on Tuesday, more than 4,000 Amazon tech workers added their support to a petition that was created internally that morning by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.

That group formed in 2018 to put pressure on the company to commit to reducing fossil fuel emissions, but has expanded its focus to speak out against poor working conditions and other issues.

The petition calls for eight hours of paid time off to be made available for employees to use up until Election Day for voting-related activities, including registering to vote and volunteering.

Amazon Responds

However, on the other side of the issue, Amazon spokeswoman Jaci Anderson said that the company has given employees information on how to register to vote and request time off.

“In all 47 states with in-person voting, employees that lack adequate time before or after their scheduled workday to vote, can request and be provided excused time off,” she explained. “The number of hours and pay provided to employees varies by state in line with local laws.”

It appears that for now, Amazon doesn’t want to make paid time off for voting a company-wide policy and instead will only comply with local laws.

That’s a big deal because, although many states require employees to be excused and paid for a few hours if voting conflicts with work schedules, several battleground states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, do not.

See what others are saying: (NBC News) (CNN) (The New York Times)

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