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    GOP making another attempt to overturn Obamacare

    After legislative failures, Republican lawmakers are turning to the courts again

    After trying and failing twice last year to overturn the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, Republican leaders are turning once again to the courts.

    GOP representatives from twenty states have joined together to sue the U.S. government, claiming the health care law is unconstitutional.

    Republicans made this argument once before, stating that the individual mandate for consumers to buy health insurance is unconstitutional. But the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law, finding that the fine consumers faced for not buying insurance was actually a tax.

    Last year, the Trump Administration removed the fine for not buying health insurance, so Republicans argue that the removal of the threat of that "tax" now makes the law unconstitutional.

    Removing the fine a key issue

    According to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the high court pinned its Obamacare ruling on the "tax." Now that the provision has been removed, Paxton says the law doesn't meet the constitutional standard.

    “Obamacare’s irrational design wreaks havoc on health insurance markets,” said Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel. “Obamacare causes premiums to rise and coverage to fall, forcing Wisconsin and other states to take extreme, costly measures to protect their citizens’ health and pocketbooks."

    The National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) brought the original court challenge to Obamacare in 2012. While the Constitution does not allow Congress to force individuals to purchase a product, the court narrowly interpreted the penalty for not purchasing health insurance as a tax, which Congress is authorized to levy.

    Senate refused to repeal

    The GOP-led House had no difficulty passing legislation last year that repealed Obamacare, but the measure faced obstacles in the Senate, where Republicans held only a two seat advantage. A handful of Republican lawmakers balked at repealing a law that resulted in more consumers being covered by health insurance.

    The final attempt failed in late July when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was battling cancer, dramatically returned to the capital to cast a deciding vote to allow a vote on the Senate's latest effort -- a straight repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

    But on Twitter, McCain made clear he was only voting to allow debate on the GOP bill. He wasn't going to support the measure itself.

    After trying and failing twice last year to overturn the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, Republican leaders are turning once again to the cou...
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      Flu season shows signs of winding down

      The number of flu cases has dipped slightly in recent weeks, the CDC says

      Health officials say this year’s worse-than-average flu season is finally showing signs of loosening its grip across the U.S. 

      Over the last two weeks, there has been a decline in the number of people going to the doctor with flu-like symptoms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As of Feb. 17, the agency said that 6.4 percent of visits to doctors were for the flu -- down from 7.5 percent the week before.

      However, the CDC says consumers should still take steps to protect themselves against the flu and get the flu shot. 

      Not over yet

      Experts expect the flu season to continue through March. 

      The CDC’s national map of influenza activity showed that flu-linked hospitalization rates rose from 67.9 per 100,000 people for the week ending Feb. 10 to 74.5 per 100,000 people for the week ending Feb. 17. The number of children who have died from the flu is now at 97.

      Many of this year’s flu cases can be attributed to the ineffectiveness of the vaccine currently being used; the CDC points out that it is only 25 percent effective against the H3N2 virus, this year’s most widespread form of the flu.

      Against all types of influenza, its effectiveness is 36 percent; among children aged 6 months through 8 years, its effectiveness is 59 percent.

      Consumers urged to vaccinate

      But even though the vaccine isn’t as effective against the most common flu strain, the CDC still recommends that those who haven’t been vaccinated do so. That’s because the vaccine is more effective against other types of the flu that are also currently circulating.

      Those who get the vaccine and still get the flu are less likely to experience flu complications (such as pneumonia) since the virus tends to be milder in people who were vaccinated. 

      To protect against the flu, the CDC says everyone should: 

      • Get a flu shot (for those aged 6 months and older)
      • Avoid infected people if possible
      • Wash hands frequently
      • Cover mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze
      Health officials say this year’s worse-than-average flu season is finally showing signs of loosening its grip across the U.S. Over the last two weeks,...
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      Consumer groups want tougher rules to block robocalls

      Advocates urge the FCC to require meaningful authentication for all calls

      The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed new rules aimed at curbing unwanted robocalls, but a coalition of consumer groups argues the rules don't go far enough.

      The FCC proposal would allow voice service providers to block some "spoofed" robocalls -- calls that appear to originate from a local number when they could be made from overseas.

      But in comments filed with the agency by the National Consumer Law Center, Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Action, National Association of Consumer Advocates, and Public Citizen argue the proposed rule is already behind the curve.

      “The FCC rules do something: they allow telephone companies to block spoofed calls from numbers that do not actually exist. But spoofers have simply moved to make fraudulent calls from real numbers—meaning that the rules do not cut down on the spoofed calls at all,” said National Consumer Law Center Senior Counsel Margot Saunders.

      Saunders likens it to closing one door of a double door to keep the mice out, but if the second door is open, the mice will simply use it.

      "Moreover, the rules are not even mandatory so telephone companies are free to ignore them,” she said.

      Recommendations

      The groups call for some type of meaningful authentication for all calls, along with a robust robocall-blocking tool. That, they say, would take care of most of the problem.

      Scammers have made extensive use of robocalls in recent years, since the technology allows one operator to make a large number of calls at once. When a recipient answers, a recorded voice is designed to keep them on the line. Since a large percentage of scam calls end in hang ups, it allows a fraudster to focus on the few potential victims who are still listening when the message ends.

      The consumer groups say the FCC rule should require telephone companies to provide free, effective caller ID authentication for every call, along with free call-blocking services. Some mobile providers already have that capability.

      “Bad actors are continuing to find ways around the rules to prevent fraudulent robocalls and take advantage of consumers, but there is more that can be done to protect consumers,” said Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst at Consumers Union.

      “The FCC should ensure that consumers can control the calls they receive by requiring that phone companies provide blocking technology free of charge to consumers.”

      Staggering number of robocalls

      In 2016, the YouMail National Robocall Index (YNRI) estimated that somewhere around 2.3 billion robocalls were made in the U.S. in the month of January alone, a staggering 51,523 calls per minute.

      The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says some types of robocalls are permitted under the law. For example, your doctor's office may use a robocall to remind you of an appointment. Political messages may be delivered with a robocall, as can messages from debt collectors.

      However, using a robocall to sell any type of product or service is illegal. When you get one of these calls, you should hang up immediately, the FTC advises.

      The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed new rules aimed at curbing unwanted robocalls, but a coalition of consumer groups argues the rules...
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      Airbnb adding hotels, luxury properties to its site

      The company wants to become more of a full-service travel booking site

      Airbnb has announced that it will expand its selection of travel accommodation options available to customers to include hotels, new housing categories, and a loyalty program.

      The new plans for the 10-year-old company were announced Thursday by co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky at an official Airbnb event.

      The plans include the incorporation of a tiered program, which starts with Airbnb Plus -- a category for higher-end homes that are vetted by the company to ensure they meet certain requirements.

      “Every Airbnb Plus home is one-of-a-kind, thoughtfully designed, and equipped with a standard set of amenities -- whether you’re in a private room or have the entire place to yourself,” reads the website for Airbnb Plus.

      All Airbnb Plus homes are visited by a human inspector “to ensure comfort, consistency, and design,” the site says. “They are checked for 100-plus things that guests told us they love, from must-have amenities to the art on the walls.”

      Chesky also unveiled a new brand called Beyond by Airbnb -- a separate platform comprised exclusively of mansions and penthouses that will open this spring. This luxury tier of properties will include “custom-designed trips of a lifetime” at the “world’s finest homes, custom experiences, and world-class hospitality.”

      Recognizing hotels

      In a marked shift from its former stance as a rival of hotels, Airbnb announced that it’s officially recognizing hotels on its platform.

      Hotels and bed and breakfasts were previously allowed to be listed on the site, but now the company will be giving these properties official classification. Airbnb hopes this will make it easier for customers to find those listings through online travel agencies like Expedia and Priceline.

      Additionally, the company will roll out a rewards plan called “Superguest” that will offer benefits to frequent customers. Superguests will get benefits such as flight upgrades, discounts, and benefits. Airbnb will launch the new rewards program this summer following a pilot with 10,000 guests.

      Airbnb has announced that it will expand its selection of travel accommodation options available to customers to include hotels, new housing categories, an...
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      Nissan wades into ride-sharing with program designed around self-driving cars

      Unless you're rich, sharing a ride may be the only exposure you have to the new technology

      Recent surveys show U.S. consumers don't have that much confidence in self-driving cars.

      Nearly 60 percent of drivers who currently own a connected car -- defined as a vehicle with certain “smart” technology features -- said they wouldn’t buy a self-driving car even if money wasn’t an issue, according to a survey conducted by Solace.

      But money almost certainly will be an issue. Automotive experts who tend to be autonomous vehicle advocates are reluctant to talk about what one of these self-driving cars will cost.

      A 2014 article in Fast Company put a price tag on an autonomous Toyota Prius, used to demonstrate how a self-driving car can give new mobility to a vision-impaired consumer. After adding up the cost of all that technology, the publication determined that the Prius cost more than a Ferrari 599, with a price tag of $320,000.

      That's why many automotive experts believe that self-driving cars will not be individually owned, but part of the “shared” economy. Nissan has apparently adopted that point of view.

      Nissan getting into ride-sharing

      Nissan plans to not only make autonomous cars, but operate them in a ride-sharing business model. According to Reuters, the Japanese automaker is “preparing for a future in which self-driving cars are anticipated to curb vehicle ownership.”

      The report says Nissan is developing and testing a service it calls Easy Ride, which uses ride-hailing software to control its fleet of self-driving cars by putting it in the same business as Uber and Lyft.

      Nissan is the first automaker to take this step, but it is unlikely to be the last. Ford and GM are both heavily involved in autonomous vehicle research and testing, and it's not a stretch to assume they might also consider a business model in which they operate some of the cars they produce.

      So where does that leave consumers who are open and trusting of the emerging autonomous vehicle technology? As with any technology, the price is likely to come down over time.

      Still, there is a lot of room between $320,000 and $30,000 – the average amount consumers now spend on a new vehicle. In the future, consumers may ride in a self-driving car, but it may not be parked in their garage.

      Recent surveys show U.S. consumers don't have that much confidence in self-driving cars.Nearly 60 percent of drivers who currently own a connected car...
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      Amazon gives the green light for more Amazon Go stores

      Seattle, Los Angeles are the next moves in the company’s cashier-less experiment

      The plans for Amazon Go, Amazon’s revolutionary convenience store, just ramped up further with up to six more storefronts expected in 2018, according to a Recode report.

      The company will keep its brick-and-mortar experiment close to home, adding more in Seattle where the first location opened, last month, with the next stop likely being Los Angeles.

      Amazon Go is another peg in the company’s effort to flip the way people shop. With its sights set on a piece of the $550 billion U.S. convenience store niche, the move builds on Amazon’s jump into the grocery world’s fray with its purchase of Whole Foods, as well as the rollout of 13 physical bookstores.

      True get-it-and-go

      In what may sound like The Jetsons-meet-shoplifting, Amazon’s Just Walk Out Technology allows shoppers to scan their phone when they enter the store, grab what they want, and walk out without having to stop at a cash register to pay.

      Artificial intelligence charges the customer’s credit card every time an item is picked up. If you change your mind and put it back on the shelf, the software removes it from your account.

      Amazon doesn’t see this ingenuity of Amazon Go as another competitor to full-service stores like Wal-Mart but rather an automated convenience store stocked with snacks, ready-prep meals, day-to-day basics, and beer & wine.

      Still, it won’t be putting its toe in this water alone. Kroger announced that it has plans for its initiative called Scan, Bag, Go at 400+ locations by the end of 2018.

      While Kroger’s move seems like Amazon is entering a dogfight, the plans for Amazon Go are a little more deliberate with the goal of finding out if a cashier-less experience is even viable. The company’s announcement to expand implies initial trials are going as planned, but those have all been in Amazon’s backyard in Seattle. Greenlighting metros outside its comfort zone appears to be a move toward finding out how the rest of the world will react.

      Are jobs at risk?

      As of 2016, there were more than 3.5 million cashiers in the United States making an average of $20,180 per year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics had already projected that about 30,000 of those would go away by 2026, but digital shopping forays like Amazon’s and Kroger’s may grow those numbers higher if the technology behind Amazon Go catches on.

      However, Amazon’s thrown a towel over that crystal ball, saying Go’s technology won’t eliminate jobs, but rather change jobs its employees do. “We’ve just put associates on different kinds of tasks where we think it adds to the customer experience,” Gianna Puerini, the executive in charge of Amazon Go, told the New York Times.

      Those job tasks will likely shift toward restocking Go’s shelves and assisting customers with any technical issues or pointing them in the right direction. Although the store’s concept is “cashierless,” someone will be needed to check I.D.s before taking beer or wine home.

      The plans for Amazon Go, Amazon’s revolutionary convenience store, just ramped up further with up to six more storefronts expected in 2018, according to a...
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      Belgian judges demand Facebook destroy data it collected on non-users

      Facebook, which faces 100 million euros in fines, defended the practice

      In Europe, where consumers are protected by tougher privacy and data regulations than they are in the United States, judges have once again ruled that Facebook is breaking the law.

      A court in Belgium on Friday ordered Facebook to stop tracking and recording the browsing habits of non-users, “as it does not bring its practices in line with Belgian privacy legislation.”

      The Belgium verdict follows a ruling against Facebook in Germany last Monday.  In the latter case, a Berlin judge ruled that eights clauses in Facebook’s terms of service are illegal and that Facebook’s default privacy settings do not give users adequate consent or allow them to easily opt-out.

      “Facebook hides default settings that are not privacy-friendly in its privacy center and does not provide sufficient information about it when users register,” an attorney with The Federation of German Consumer Organisations,  the organization that brought the lawsuit against Facebook,  said in a statement.

      Facebook says they plan to appeal the Berlin court’s decision.

      Facebook ordered to publicize judgment

      In the Belgian verdict, judges ordered Facebook to destroy data that they determined was “illegally obtained” and publicize the court’s unflattering findings about itself.

      The judges not only demanded that Facebook publish “the entire 84-page judgment on its website,” but also stipulated that Facebook publish a portion of the judgement in Dutch-language and French-language Belgian newspapers.  

      Facebook, which has so far given no indication that it plans to follow the order, faces fines of 250,000 euros a day or a max-out of 100 million euros for not complying.

      “The cookies and pixels we use are industry standard technologies and enable hundreds of thousands of businesses to grow their businesses and reach customers across the EU,” Facebook’s public policy spokesman Richard Allan told TechCrunch in a statement.

      “We require any business that uses our technologies to provide clear notice to end-users, and we give people the right to opt-out of having data collected on sites and apps off Facebook being used for ads.”

      Tracks non-users

      Facebook’s use of tracking codes through social plug-ins, commonly known as “cookies,” allows the social media giant to sell targeted advertising. The cookies work by collecting the browsing habits of consumers, even those who do not use the social media site or who have cancelled their accounts.

      “This does not only concern Facebook users, but almost all internet users in Belgium and Europe,” Belgium's Privacy Commission, the agency that filed suit against Facebook, explains on its website.

      Belgian watchdogs have been fighting the practice since 2015 with a civil suit and subsequent judgement which orders Facebook to stop invisibly tracking consumers or face hefty fines. But Facebook fought the ruling  with the argument that the Belgian courts did not have jurisdiction over its business because Facebook’s Europe office is headquartered in Ireland.

      Facebook’s appeals have been repeatedly shot down by the Belgian courts trying to crack down on the company. Much like the recent ruling in Germany, a report commissioned by the Belgian Privacy Commission in 2015 determined that Facebook’s privacy settings do not give users informed consent and that its terms of service violate European consumer privacy laws.

      Higher European standards irk companies

      While Facebook does allow users to opt-out of the tracking cookies, that this option is only available for people with a Facebook account,  not non--users. “The current practice does not meet the requirements for legally valid consent,” the Belgian Privacy Commission report said.

      The European Union considers data protection to be a fundamental right and places broad regulations on the tech, financial, and advertising industries over how they handle data.

      But tech giants have bristled at European attempts to regulate data collection and other aspects of their businesses. Last summer, European regulators fined Google a record 2.4 billion euros after finding it was manipulating search results in a manner that promotes its own shopping services over competitors. It was the largest antitrust fine implemented to date by the European Union.

      Google responded by offering concessions, such as opening its “shopping” search results to competitors, but it also appealed the ruling in September.

      In Europe, where consumers are protected by tougher privacy and data regulations than they are in the United States, judges have once again ruled that Face...
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      Amazon to offer perks to Prime members who shop at Whole Foods

      The Amazon Prime credit card will give members 5 percent back on Whole Foods purchases

      Since purchasing Whole Foods in 2017, Amazon has made several changes to the way the high-end grocery retailer does business, including slashing the prices of some Whole Foods bestsellers and offering free two-hour delivery to Prime members in select cities.

      Now, Amazon has announced that Prime members will get 5 percent back at Whole Foods when using their Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature credit cards. Customers with the non-Prime version of the card will earn 3 percent back.

      The cashback incentives are already available at Amazon.com. The perks were launched in the hope of encouraging spending on Amazon and fueling purchases of Amazon’s $99 per year Prime membership, as well as encouraging Prime members to shop at the Whole Foods.

      Extending the perks to Whole Foods shoppers will be the first time Amazon has offered 5 percent back on purchases made outside its website.

      Amazon’s latest move since acquiring Whole Foods falls in line with CEO Jeff Bezos’ ultimate vision for Prime, which he has previously said is to make its selection of rewards and offerings so plentiful that it simply becomes “irresponsible” for consumers not to sign up.  

      Amazon cardholders who earn rewards at Whole Foods stores can choose to convert them into a statement credit or redeem them online to make purchases on Amazon or other eligible sites.

      Since purchasing Whole Foods in 2017, Amazon has made several changes to the way the high-end grocery retailer does business, including slashing the prices...
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      Specialized Bicycle Components recalls bicycles

      The fork on the bicycle can break and cause the rider to lose control

      Specialized Bicycle Components of Morgan Hill, Calif., is recalling about 6,100 bicycles sold in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

      The fork on the bicycle can break and cause the rider to lose control, posing a crash hazard.

      The firm has received one report of cracking in the fork. No crashes or injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves all model year 2018 Specialized Allez (Base), Allez Sport, and Allez Elite road racing bicycles. The recalled bicycles have an alloy frame and composite fork.

      “Specialized” is printed on the downtube, “Allez” is printed on the bottom of each fork leg and “FACT” is printed on the inside of the left fork leg.

      Model

      Colors

      2018 Specialized Allez

      Gloss Rocket Red/Tarmac Black combination, Satin Black/Charcoal Clean combination

      2018 Specialized Allez Sport

      Gloss Cosmic White/Satin Black combination, Satin Navy/Gloss Nordic Red combination

      2018 Specialized Allez Elite

      Gloss Light Blue/Rocket Red, Satin Black/White Clean

      The bicycles, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at authorized Specialized retailers nationwide from July 2017, through December 2017, for between $750 and $1,200.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bicycles and contact an Authorized Specialized Retailer for instructions on how to receive a free installation of a new fork.

      Consumers may contact an Authorized Specialized Retailer directly or Specialized Bicycle Components, Inc. toll-free at 877-808-8154 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (PT) Monday through Friday, by email at ridercare@specialized.com or online at www.specialized.com and click on “Safety Notifications” for more information.

      Specialized Bicycle Components of Morgan Hill, Calif., is recalling about 6,100 bicycles sold in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.The fork on the bicycle ca...
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      FDA approves blood test to help detect concussions

      The test could help patients avoid unnecessary radiation from CT scans

      The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it has approved the first blood test to help quickly and accurately detect concussion in adults.

      The test, known as the Banyan Brain Trauma Indicator, could help reduce the need for CT scans, which would decrease radiation exposure to patients, the FDA said.  

      "Helping to deliver innovative testing technologies that minimize health impacts to patients while still providing accurate and reliable results to inform appropriate evaluation and treatment is an FDA priority," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement.

      "Today's action supports the FDA's Initiative to Reduce Unnecessary Radiation Exposure from Medical Imaging -- an effort to ensure that each patient is getting the right imaging exam, at the right time, with the right radiation dose."

      Measures two proteins

      The blood test detects the presence of two proteins released by the brain into the bloodstream after a patient sustains a head injury. With that information, the FDA said the test was able to predict the presence of a brain lesion 97.5 percent of the time and correctly determined which patients didn’t have a lesion 99.6 percent of the time.

      The test will help physicians determine whether patients who are suspected of having a mild concussion might need an additional examination, like a CT scan. The FDA says the tool could save up to one-third of patients suspected of having a concussion from extra testing.

      That, in turn, could also help cut unneeded costs. Gottlieb pointed out that reducing the number of CT scans performed annually on patients with concussions could potentially save our health care system the “cost of often unnecessary neuroimaging tests.”

      An important tool for athletes and the military

      Hospitals and clinics aren’t the only settings where the test could be useful. The Brain Trauma Indicator could could also be used at sports games and in the military, the agency said.

      Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, director of the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said the FDA worked with the Department of Defense to “expedite a blood test for the evaluation of mTBI that can be used both in the continental U.S. as well as foreign U.S. laboratories that service the American military."

      "A blood test to aid in concussion evaluation is an important tool for the American public and for our Service Members abroad who need access to quick and accurate tests," said Shuren.

      For now, the Brain Trauma Indicator is only approved for adults, but Banyan Biomarkers plans to conduct clinical trials that will evaluate if it’s effective in children who have sustained a head injury.

      The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it has approved the first blood test to help quickly and accurately detect concussion in adults....
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      Unilever puts pressure on tech giants to clean up their content

      The company says it doesn’t want to advertise on online platforms filled with ‘toxic’ content

      Unilever has threatened to pull ads from Facebook, Google, and other online platforms if the tech giants don’t do a better job of controlling the spread of what the company calls “toxic” online content.

      In a speech delivered Monday at the annual Interactive Advertising Bureau conference in California, Keith Weed, chief marketing officer at Unilever, called on technology companies to step up their efforts to improve transparency and consumer trust.

      "We need to redefine what is responsible business in the digital age because for all of the good the tech companies are doing, there's some unintended consequences that now need addressing," Weed said.

      Some of those unintended consequences include facilitating the spread of fake news and illegal content, he noted.

      Rebuilding trust

      Unilever -- which makes Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Dove soap, and more than 1,000 other brands worldwide -- is one of the biggest online advertisers, and digital advertising on platforms like Facebook and Google accounts for a significant portion of its ad spend.

      But the company says it does not want to advertise on platforms that are rife with abusive, divisive, and unethical material. Unilever says consumer trust in social media platforms is waning due to the perceived lack of effort on the part of tech giants to keep out this “toxic” content.

      In his speech, Weed argues that some online platforms are “sometimes little better than a swamp,” though he stopped short of mentioning any specific companies.

      “2018 is either the year of tech-lash, where the world turns on the tech giants — and we have seen some of this already— or the year of trust. The year where we collectively rebuild trust back in our systems and our society,” he said.

      Improving the industry

      The company says it has already offered solutions to tech companies and wants to work with them to improve the industry.

      “Unilever will not invest in platforms or environments that do not protect our children or which create division in society, and promote anger or hate,” Weed said. “We will prioritize investing only in responsible platforms that are committed to creating a positive impact in society.”

      In a statement on Monday, one Facebook spokeswoman said that the platform “fully supports Unilever’s commitments and [we] are working closely with them.”

      "Keith has always pushed us and the industry to be better," Google said in its own statement. "There is nothing we take more seriously than the trust and safety of our users, customers and partners, and we will continue to work to earn that trust every day."

      Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook is flawed and vowed to make “fixing Facebook” his personal goal for 2018. Several changes -- including showing users more local news and less commercial content on their News Feeds -- have already been rolled out to users.

      Google has announced that a new task force will be dedicated to policing extremist content on YouTube in 2018.

      Unilever has threatened to pull ads from Facebook, Google, and other online platforms if the tech giants don’t do a better job of controlling the spread of...
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      Mortgage rates moving closer to five percent

      One survey suggests buyers won’t be deterred by rising rates

      The sudden rise in bond yields that sent Wall Street into a tailspin is also pushing mortgage rates higher and making it more expensive to purchase a home.

      Mortgage rates are closely tied to the yield on the 30-year Treasury note, and housing economists say mortgage rates could be headed toward five percent, a rate not seen since the collapse of the housing bubble a decade ago.

      Bankrate reports the average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage this week is 4.31 percent, a tiny increase from the week before. For every $100,000 borrowed, it adds just 59 cents to the monthly payment.

      However, the average rate is up sharply from the 3.96 percent of a month ago. Housing economists worry that if rates continue to rise, it will make current affordability issues even worse.

      Who's afraid of five percent?

      A new survey by real estate marketplace Redfin suggests rising rates won't chase away that many prospective buyers, even if mortgage rates breach the five percent level.

      Only six percent of prospective buyers said they would abandon their plans if the interest rate on their loan exceeded five percent. However, 27 percent said a five percent rate might cause them to delay their plans.

      In fact, there are already plenty of home shoppers in the marketplace for the declining number of homes for sale. Low inventories have caused a slowing in home sales in some markets while helping to push up prices.

      "Tight credit, lack of inventory and high demand are the major factors that tell us there's no housing bubble, despite rapid price increases," said Redfin Chief Economist Nela Richardson. "There are still many more buyers than the current housing supply can support, with no major relief in sight."

      Richardson points out that strict lending regulations make it much harder to buy a house you can't afford and that even at five percent, mortgage rates would be considered low by historical standards.

      Inventory a bigger problem

      Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors (NAR), says a shortage of available homes on the market is a bigger issue than rising rates, at least at this point. Put simply, competition for a dwindling number of available homes is pushing up prices.

      “A tug-of-war continues to take place in many markets throughout the country, where consistently solid job creation is fueling demand, but the lack of supply is creating affordability constraints that are ultimately pulling aspiring buyers further away from owning,” he said.

      Yun says the problem is most severe in the entry-level home market, which is why the overall share of first-time buyers remains well below where it normally would be.

      The sudden rise in bond yields that sent Wall Street into a tailspin is also pushing mortgage rates higher and making it more expensive to purchase a home....
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      Model year 2017 Clarity Fuel Cell vehicles recalled

      The vehicle can suffer reduced or a complete loss of, power

      American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 471 model year 2017 Clarity Fuel Cell vehicles.

      The fuel cell control unit (FC-ECU) may misinterpret a small cell voltage drop, causing the vehicle to have reduced or a complete loss of power, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Honda will notify owners, and dealers will install a software update, free of charge.

      The recall is expected to begin February 26, 2018.

      Owners may contact Honda customer service at 1-888-234-2138. Honda's number for this recall is R0L.

      American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 471 model year 2017 Clarity Fuel Cell vehicles.The fuel cell control unit (FC-ECU) may misinterpret a small cell...
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      Congress reportedly close to two-year budget deal

      The proposed agreement would avert another government shutdown

      In a surprise development, Congressional negotiators are said to be close to an agreement on a two-year budget deal.

      After an impasse over a three-week spending measure forced a brief government shutdown last month, there was widespread concern that another shutdown loomed on February 8 -- tomorrow -- when the temporary authorization expires.

      The Congressional blog Roll Call cites staff members from both parties as saying the two sides are closing in on a deal that would raise discretionary spending levels by nearly $300 billion over two years, while providing more money for the government's non-military programs.

      An agreement would prevent another government shutdown that would close national parks and furlough hundreds of thousands of government workers. A shutdown would also interrupt the Internal Revenue Services' (IRS) processing of tax returns, just as the tax season gets underway.

      If negotiators are successful in resolving all outstanding issues, Capitol Hill sources tell Roll Call that a vote could come this afternoon.

      'Significant progress'

      Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) took to the Senate floor to fan the optimism, saying negotiators are making "significant progress."

      “The Republican leader and I have been working together quite productively,” he said.

      Any success would likely add a bit of calm to the financial markets, which have been marked by extreme turbulence over the last several trading days. If Republicans and Democrats can agree on spending caps, the two sides say the Senate would likely throw in a suspension of the debt ceiling -- another showdown Congress faces each year.

      Instead of shutting down the government, a failure to raise the debt ceiling could mean the U.S. government might default on its debt, sending interest rates skyrocketing.

      More domestic spending

      The crux of the deal taking shape in Washington appears to be increases in domestic programs championed by Democrats, including new funding for programs to counter opioid addiction and overdose deaths.

      However, the rising optimism is being countered by an unexpected complication. Any spending agreement must be signed by the President to become effective, and President Trump has said he would prefer to shut down the government if the legislation fails to address illegal immigration.

      Trump has said he supports granting legal status and a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants, but he also wants changes to the legal immigration system and a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico in return.

      In a meeting with law enforcement officials and lawmakers, Trump said he would "love to see a shutdown" if Congress doesn't advance immigration reform.

      In a surprise development, Congressional negotiators are said to be close to an agreement on a two-year budget deal.After an impasse over a three-week...
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      iPhones headed for a chip change in 2018

      Apple to drop Qualcomm baseband chips and go exclusively with Intel

      While Qualcomm’s chip relationship with the iPhone goes back to 2011, Apple started splitting its baseband chip orders with Intel and Qualcomm when the iPhone 7 was released in 2016.

      However, reports are now circulating that Apple may switch from Qualcomm-based chips to Intel ones altogether. Some Apple watchers consider this a big gamble because of differences in performance. In tests performed by Cellular Insights, the iPhone 7 Plus using the Qualcomm modem “had a significant performance edge over the iPhone 7 Plus with the Intel modem.”

      While Apple never disclosed its reasons for limiting the Qualcomm modem on the iPhone 7, those familiar with the situation feel it was an effort to level the performance playing field between the Verizon/Sprint and the AT&T/T-Mobile versions of the phone. Now, with only one supplier, the iPhone’s performance might be slower with the Intel chip, but at least it should be consistent and without any speed comparisons like it faced when Qualcomm was a co-supplier.

      What’s the real backstory on why Apple is changing chip makers?

      Apple and Qualcomm have been embroiled in a legal spitting match for more than a year, according to several reports. The squabbles started when Qualcomm accused Apple of sharing its proprietary code with Intel. At the same time, Apple alleged that Qualcomm overcharged for chips and refused to pay the tech giant promised rebates.

      Qualcomm sits on a treasure trove of patents -- more than 130,000 of them -- and they’re the kinds of things that make phones run. If you want to manufacture a phone that has the ability to send and receive data or one capable of a high-speed internet connection, you more than likely have to get a license from Qualcomm.

      However, to get that license, the company charged Apple as much as a 5 percent royalty on the average selling price of its phones. That means Apple handed over as much as $40 to Qualcomm on an $800 iPhone.

      Apple got tired of paying a royalty it considered unfair and asked Qualcomm to give them a break on standard-essential patents. When things didn’t go Apple’s way, the company decided to wage war and Qualcomm retaliated in kind. Patent validity, anti-trust, vindictive marketing campaigns -- no threat was left off the table.

      Apple sued Qualcomm for a billion dollars in the U.S., plus another $145 million in China. The company even raised the bar another couple of notches with 20 filings in federal court alleging that there was “mounting evidence of Qualcomm’s perpetuation of an illegal business model that burdens innovation.”

      It may not be a great time for Qualcomm to be bullish

      To make matters worse, four global regulators have fined Qualcomm in the last three years. In the latest instance in January, the European Commission slapped the company with a $1.23 billion fine and said its practices prevented competitors, such as Intel, from supplying 4G LTE radios to Apple for five years.

      The immediate impact of Apple’s supposed shift from Qualcomm to Intel was felt by all three players at the close of business on Monday. Intel shares were down 3.53 percent; Apple shares were down 2.5 percent; and Qualcomm shares fell by 6.57 percent.

      Reuters also reports that rival Broadcom Ltd made a $121 billion “best and final offer” to acquire Qualcomm Inc, raising further questions about the company’s ability to see its way clear from all its entanglements.

      While Qualcomm’s chip relationship with the iPhone goes back to 2011, Apple started splitting its baseband chip orders with Intel and Qualcomm when the iPh...
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      Public Health Alert issued for CAJUN MAC

      The item was produced without undergoing federal inspection

      The U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has issued a public health alert for about 140 pounds of The U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has issued a public health alert for about 140 pounds of CAJUN MAC produced by Pigeon Caterers, doing business as Carnival Brands of New Orleans, La.

      The chicken and pork product product was produced and distributed without undergoing federal inspection.

      There have been no confirmed reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of this product.

      A recall was not requested because it is believed that the product is no longer in commerce and is past its “Enjoy by” dates.

      The alert affects following ready-to-eat (RTE) item, produced and packaged from May 12, 2017, through Jan. 15, 2018:

      • 6 oz. plastic containers containing “CAJUN MAC” with “ENJOY BY” dates of May 17, 2017 through Jan. 20, 2018.

      The product, which does not bear the USDA mark of inspection, was shipped to the Moxy Hotel in New Orleans, La..

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled product should not consume it, but discard it or return it to the place of purchase.

      Consumers with questions may contact Jean-Pierre Pigeon at (504) 915-7038.

      The U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has issued a public health alert for about 140 pounds of The U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FS...
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      Flu season could result in $15 billion in lost productivity

      Here’s what employers can do to minimize flu-related productivity losses

      The 2017-2018 flu season is underway, and this year’s particularly aggressive strain is causing a higher-than-average number of workers to call in sick.

      Consequently, U.S. businesses could end up losing $15 billion in lost productivity, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. -- a global outplacement and executive coaching firm that crunched the numbers.

      Cases of the flu have soared across the nation and remain widespread in 49 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Health officials have called this year’s flu season the worst in over a decade.

      Officials say the severe flu season is on track to equal the 2014-15 outbreak that caused 56,000 deaths and millions of sicknesses in individuals over the age of 18.

      "If this strain sickens as many people as during the 2014-2015 outbreak, over 18 million workers could miss work due to illness," said Andrew Challenger, vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

      Stay home

      The firm estimates that this year’s flu virus could cause more than 18 million U.S. employees to miss at least four eight-hour shifts. At an average hourly wage of $26.63, it says flu-related time off could end up costing $15.4 billion in lost productivity nationwide.

      To help keep the flu virus from spreading to co-workers and interrupting business, health experts say it’s best to stay home if you’re sick.

      “The current strain is particularly aggressive and those who are sick can be contagious for up to seven days. Workers who have the flu or need to care for someone with the flu should absolutely not come into work,” said Challenger. “This is exactly why employers have sick leave benefits.”

      What employers can do

      Employers should aim to be accomodating to sick workers by allowing them to stay home without fear of losing their jobs. In addition, employers can do the following to minimize productivity losses due to illness:

      • Encourage telecommuting. This will keep people off of public transportation and out of the office.

      • Limit meetings. If there is no need to gather large groups of workers in a confined space, then do not do it. Meetings can be conducted via conference calls or video conferencing, Challenger says.

      • Institute flexible leave policies. This will allow parents to care for an ill child or one who is home due to school closures.

      • Provide no-touch trash cans and hand sanitizer. This will ensure that workers are not spreading germs in the office space.

      • Encourage employees to wash their hands frequently. Additionally, employers can tell workers to avoid handshakes and take other hygienic precautions, such as wearing a mask in heavily populated work areas.

      • Increase the number of shifts. This will reduce the amount of people working in the office at one time.

      The 2017-2018 flu season is underway, and this year’s particularly aggressive strain is causing a higher-than-average number of workers to call in sick....
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      Amazon reports strong fourth quarter, with sales up 38 percent

      A profitable holiday season and Alexa led the way

      In a press release issued yesterday, Amazon reported details of an exceedingly strong fourth quarter. The company announced that its 12-month cash flow increased seven points to $18.4 billion, up more than a billion from the same period a year ago.

      While that -- and the fact that Amazon shares have surged more than 20 percent this year -- seems like a home run, there are financial strategists who are looking at the company with a different point of view.

      "It's very similar to what you'd seen back in early 2013, also in early 2016. When you got this far extended usually there was some sort of setback and a healthy correction that took place," Craig Johnson, Piper Jaffray’s senior technical strategist, told CNBC on Thursday.

      Amazon is no stranger to value resets. At the beginning of 2013, its stock was trading at 160 times forward earning. But the company took a 5 percent hit in April 2013, followed by an additional 7 percent one in August. Similar dips and peaks happened again in 2014 and 2016, but there was always recovery.

      Only time will tell what 2018 holds for Amazon, but its investment in outside-its-box initiatives like healthcare will no doubt be watched with a careful eye by the financial world.

      Has Prime hit its ceiling?

      There’s also some concern that, despite a strong holiday sales season, Amazon’s Prime membership program is showing signs of a slowdown in growth, according to a survey by Morgan Stanley.

      While Prime membership has captured 40% of U.S. households, there’s been no forward movement in that metric for a year, partly because its higher income customers are maxed out and penetrating lower-income households and the seniors market may be a difficult task.

      One hurdle Amazon will have to overcome with its untapped Prime market is the price of membership. In January 2018, the company increased the monthly price of Prime from $10.99 to $12.99, but kept the annual fee at $99 if a customer pays it up front.

      The emergence of Alexa

      Also on Thursday came the news that Amazon plans on hiring 10,000 new employees in 2018 on top of the 566,000 it already has on its payroll.

      Some of that surge in Amazon’s workforce will no doubt ride on the back of their Echo devices with Alexa, its speech recognition system.

      Tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices sold worldwide between Black Friday and the end of the 2018 holiday season, giving that product category its best holiday segment ever.

      Echo Dot and Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote hit the top of Amazon’s charts, both in the the company’s own device category and the list of top-selling items from any manufacturer in any category across all of Amazon.

      Alexa’s skill set has elevated the virtual assistant game, with the Alexa Skills store now offering more than 30,000 skills. In what has the makings of a personal broadcaster, Alexa users can create playlists of news stories, ConsumerAffairs alerts, podcasts, and music, not to mention interactive games like The Match Game and the History Channel’s Ultimate History Quiz.

      “We’ve reached an important point where other companies and developers are accelerating adoption of Alexa,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO. “There are now over 30,000 skills from outside developers, customers can control more than 4,000 smart home devices from 1,200 unique brands with Alexa, and we’re seeing strong response to our new far-field voice kit for manufacturers.”

      In a press release issued yesterday, Amazon reported details of an exceedingly strong fourth quarter. The company announced that its 12-month cash flow inc...
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      Facebook’s new ad policy takes a hard line on financial products

      The social platform has completely banned ads promoting cryptocurrencies

      In the middle of content changes and its crackdown on clickbait, Facebook is focusing its ire on cryptocurrency.

      The social media giant’s new advertising policy takes a direct shot at binary options, initial coin offerings, cryptocurrency, and the scammers who are trying to profit from the crypto money rage. Effective immediately, come-ons like “Start binary options trading now and receive a 10-risk free trades bonus!” will be gone from Facebook’s ad delivery.

      “We want people to continue to discover and learn about new products and services through Facebook ads without fear of scams or deception. That said, there are many companies who are advertising binary options, ICOs and cryptocurrencies that are not currently operating in good faith,” said Rob Leathern, product management director for Facebook Business.

      Is Facebook just pressing the pause button?

      Earlier this year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg showed cautious interest in cryptocurrency and its potential role in decentralization.

      In a post focused on Facebook’s challenges for 2018, he commented that counter-trends like encryption and cryptocurrency may give power back to the people, but “they come with the risk of being harder to control. I'm interested to go deeper and study the positive and negative aspects of these technologies, and how best to use them in our services.”

      Leathern echoed that view and left the door open for the cryptocurrency promoters. “This policy is intentionally broad while we work to better detect deceptive and misleading advertising practices, and enforcement will begin to ramp up across our platforms including Facebook, Audience Network, and Instagram. We will revisit this policy and how we enforce it as our signals improve,” he said.

      Not everyone will be pleased by these changes

      Recode's Kurt Wagner raises a concern that some of the power players in the Facebook camp might not be too happy with this change. Both Marc Andreessen and Peter Thiel, high-profile crypto backers, sit on Facebook’s board, and Facebook Messenger’s chief David Marcus is on the board of directors at Coinbase, a popular crypto exchange platform.

      Andreesen has been on Bitcoin’s bandwagon since 2014, and according to CBS News, Thiel’s Founders Fund invested as much as $20 million in Bitcoin in mid-2017, and turned that into a tenfold investment.

      Bitcoin’s rollercoaster ride

      Cryptocurrency pioneer Bitcoin has gone from oblivion to curiosity to investment darling and was on a tear at the end of 2017. From its birth in 2009 and through the first two years of its infancy, Bitcoin’s value bounced around from worthless to 14 cents to $1.06 before settling in at 87 cents in February 2011.

      After Gawker.com did a story on the currency’s embrace by online drug dealers, Bitcoin’s price soared to $27 and the fascination continued. Its value zoomed past $19,000 in December 2017 before taking a tumble back to under $10,000 by the end of January 2018.

      But, naturally, in the midst of the euphoria, other cryptocurrencies jumped on the gravy train. And, in their zeal, some pulled out all the stops in trying to tap new customers. Facebook felt that it needed to throttle any potential “misleading and deceptive promotional practices” as decisively and quickly as possible.

      In the middle of content changes and its crackdown on clickbait, Facebook is focusing its ire on cryptocurrency.The social media giant’s new advertisin...
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      AT&T: first 5G device won't be a smartphone

      The company plans to produce a device that will work like a 5G modem

      Telecom giant AT&T is moving ahead with plans to develop its 5G wireless network, but company CEO Randall Stephenson says the first device to connect to the super high-speed network won't be a smartphone.

      In a conference call following Wednesday's AT&T earnings report, Stephenson said smartphone manufacturers are still on the drawing board when it comes to making a 5G phone. So Stephenson says AT&T will produce a device, called a "puck," that will act like a mobile hotspot, allowing consumers to connect their existing devices to the 5G network.

      AT&T has not said when the puck would be available or how much it would cost. However, Stephenson says the device will be a way for customers to sample the 5G service before purchasing a 5G smartphone.

      "We're getting the equipment manufacturing moving, we're getting the supply chains moving, we're doing the sell-side acquisition, we're doing all the build type work, but getting the handsets at scale penetrated into the market will slow things down," Stephenson told investors and analysts.

      "So, that's why we're going to be offering pucks in the first part of our deployment in these 12 markets, so it is a mobile solution."

      Will work like a modem

      Stephenson says consumers will be able to use the pucks like a modem. Once connected, they will be able to access the internet using AT&T's 5G network with a full gigabit throughput.

      But Stephenson said he thinks one of the biggest advantages 5G will offer is a huge reduction in latency, the time between an online command is entered and when it is executed. Reducing latency will make 5G more efficient for certain uses, such as virtual reality and self-driving vehicles.

      "People say 5G and you're thinking about speed," Stephenson said. "And speed and throughput are important. But the most important element is latency and having low latency 5G is the first technological innovation that truly gets us to low latency."

      Twelve markets this year

      A month ago AT&T announced that it would deploy 5G wireless service in at least a dozen markets by late 2018, as the first step in a nationwide build out. In December, Verizon also announced it planned to offer 5G wireless service in up to five U.S. markets in 2018.

      Telecom experts say the transition from 4G to 5G will be a fundamental, not incremental, change. Instead of being limited to connecting hundreds of millions of cell phones and tablets used by people, 5G networks will support billions of connected things.

      Stephenson told analysts that once a nationwide wireless 5G network is up and running, it could replace most fiber optic networks.

      Telecom giant AT&T; is moving ahead with plans to develop its 5G wireless network, but company CEO Randall Stephenson says the first device to connect to t...
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      Vornado Air recalls cribside space heaters

      The electric heating element may come in contact with the interior plastic materials

      Vornado Air of Andover, Kan., is recalling about 5,100 Vornado Sunny CS nursery heaters sold in the U.S. and Canada.

      A broken motor mount can allow the electric heating element to come in contact with the interior plastic materials and ignite, posing fire and burn hazards.

      The company has received five reports of the electric heaters catching on fire. No injuries or property damage have been reported.

      This recall involves Vornado Sunny CS (cribside) model EH1-0090 electric space heaters sold in white with an accent of melon and gray colors.

      The heaters measure approximately 12 inches high, 8 inches deep and 11 inches at the base. The controls are mounted in a soft touch panel on the top of the unit with a multi-color display in the center of the control panel. “Vornadobaby” is printed on the side of the heater.

      The Vornado logo is printed on the front center of the unit. The model/type “SUNNY CS EH1-0090” and serial number are printed on a silver decal on the bottom of the unit under the elastic cord wrap.

      The recalled heaters have the numbers 1 and 7 as the fourth and fifth digits of the serial number (XXX17-XXXXXX).

      The heaters, manufactured in China, were sold at Bed Bath & Beyond, buybuy Baby and other stores nationwide and online at Amazon.com, Target.com, Vornado.com and other websites from October 2017, through December 2017, for about $100.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled space heaters, unplug them and contact Vornado for instructions on how to receive a free replacement unit, including free shipping.

      Consumers may contact Vornado toll-free at 844-202-7978 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at www.vornado.com and click on Recalls in the lower right corner of the homepage for more information.

      Vornado Air of Andover, Kan., is recalling about 5,100 Vornado Sunny CS nursery heaters sold in the U.S. and Canada. A broken motor mount can allow the ...
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