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His iPad Pro was bent. An Apple Genius found a sneaky way to get it replaced

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They can be of kindly spirit.


Apple

Of late, Apple’s been flexing its disciplinary muscles.

Publicly berating Facebook for flagrantly ignoring Cupertino’s app store rules, for example.

Also: An Apple saleswoman says this is the only reason to buy an iPad Pro

It’s always been known for its harsh internal disciplinary methods.

You can’t imagine, then, that Apple store staff would ever circumvent company rules just to have a little fun. Or, imagine, to help customers.

Yet a customer who experienced the profound pain of a bent iPad Pro 2018 offers a different tale.

Revealing his story to the refined audience on Reddit, he said he was told by the Apple Genius that there were two possible outcomes: “Bend is within tolerance, no action taken.” Or “Bend is outside of tolerance, paid replacement needed.”

After the iPad Pro Bendgate — oh, it must be Apple Bendgate 7 by now — the company insisted it was all perfectly normal, merely a “subtle deviation in flatness.”

I suppose that’s a little like iPhone sales suffering a subtle deviation in magnitude.

The Redditor — handle u/hexcrucher — said that his Genius offered a subtle deviation in the rules.

“The genius kindly said, ‘Well, if you had connectivity issues with your WiFi for example, I would have to order a replacement. So what is wrong with your iPad?”. I replied, ‘The WiFi I guess.’”

It’s a beautiful tale of one human simply trying to help another, rather than be bound by corporate strictures.

What was even more moving, however, is that in the comments to this post, more tales of Apple Geniuses’ sleight of mind emerged.

One commenter revealed: “I had a 2016 MacBook Pro with a bad battery. Way out of warranty. I was going to get a repair quote. I had to wait 15 minutes past my scheduled time. The genius gave me a brand new MBP for my wait and took the old one off my hands.”

This seems like elevated humanity. How could the Genius do this?

A former Genius, who says he left in 2015, said: “I would use a couple ‘customer service codes’ throughout the year. There’s too much bullshit that consumers, myself included, have to put up with when it comes to device support.”

BS from Apple? Is that possible?


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Naturally, I asked Apple whether it views such acts of customer service generosity with admiration, or whether it’s trying to track the miscreants down in order to flog them at the stake. I’ll update, should I hear.

Another Redditor claimed that such goodwill doesn’t extend beyond corporate-owned stores. It seems that some non-corporately owned stores are even penalized for not finding a problem with a device.

“Partners and Apple Authorized Service Providers are graded and compensated according to metrics, including No Trouble Found. If the reported symptoms are not present and reproducible it will negatively impact the partner,” said one with apparent insider knowledge.

Ultimately, it’s not wise to waft into your Apple Store and ask for a Genius’s sneaky indulgence. These tales may be exceptions, rather than norms.

The Genius may be having a good or bad day. They might like the look of you or, well, dislike it rather a lot, especially your color matching. Please don’t imagine they’re all just looking to be loved.

Why, not so long ago an Apple Genius told me, in withering terms, that I was charging my iPhone wrong.

The shame hasn’t left me yet.

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TikTok is being used by vape sellers marketing to teens – TechCrunch

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TikTok has a vaping problem. Although a 2019 U.S. law made it illegal to sell or market e-cigarettes to anyone under the age of 21, TikTok videos featuring top brands of disposable e-cigarettes and vapes for sale have been relatively easy to find on the app. These videos, set to popular and upbeat music, clearly target a teenage customer base with offers of now-unauthorized cartridge flavors like fruit and mint in the form of a disposable vape. Some sellers even promote their “discreet” packaging services, where the vapes they ship to customers can be hidden from parents’ prying eyes by being placed under the package’s stuffing or tucked inside other products, like makeup bags or fuzzy slippers.

Interest in flavored, disposable vapes that appeal to teens and young adults, in particular, has been growing in the wake of the FDA’s Juul crackdown.

In February 2020, the FDA first began to take enforcement action against illegally marketed e-cigarette devices, including those offering flavors besides tobacco or menthol, as well as those targeted towards minors — an action that was designed to target Juul.

As a result, disposable vapes like Puff Bar were adopted by some young people who were still in search of flavors like bubblegum, peach, strawberry and others. These cheaper disposables were easy to find, and continued to be available at convenience stores and gas stations.

But they’re also all over TikTok, ready to be shipped with anyone with a way to pay.

What’s more, when this content is reported to TikTok, it’s not always taken down.

TechCrunch found vape sellers marketing on TikTok who have been using the app to communicate with customers through both videos and comments. They also direct viewers to what appear to be illegally operating websites. Their TikTok videos often show off the seller’s current inventory of vapes, including disposables like Puff Bar in teen-friendly flavors.

Essentially, the sellers are using TikTok as a way to create vape advertisements they don’t have to pay for that are capable of reaching young consumers — an audience whose interest in vaping hasn’t necessarily declined because of the FDA’s action.

According to nonprofit tobacco control organization Truth Initiative’s latest study, use of Juul decreased between 2019 and 2020, but it remains the most popular e-cigarette brand among 10th and 12th graders who were current vapers at 41%. The report also found that disposable products such as Puff Bar (8%) and Smok (13.1%) have gained during this time.

“Taken together, the 2020 National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS) and the new e-cigarette sales data report illustrate how the current federal policy enabled youth to quickly migrate to menthol e-cigarettes (especially Juul menthol pods) when mint-flavored products were removed from the marketplace, and for inexpensive, flavored disposable e-cigarettes such as Puff Bar to soar in popularity,” Truth stated in September 2020.

“With kid magnet names like cotton candy and banana ice, the market share of disposable products nearly doubled in just 10 months from August 2019 to May 2020,” it said.

The scale of the problem on TikTok is also significant.

Today, U.S. teens account for an estimated 32.5% of TikTok’s U.S. active users, according to third-party estimates published by Statista. The company has around 100 million monthly active users in the U.S., it said last year.

Meanwhile, videos tagged with popular vape and e-cigarette brands and keywords have racked up hundreds of millions of views.

For example, the hashtag for leading vape brand Juul (#juul) has 623.9 million views on TikTok, as of the time of writing.

Puff Bar, the maker of a single-use vaping product with Chinese origins, has 449.8 million views for the hashtag #puffbar. Other brands have some traction, as well. #NJOY has 55.3 million views, #smok has 40.1 million views, and British Tobacco’s #Vuse has 5 million views.

These are just the views associated with the hashtag itself. For every search, there are multiple variations. For instance, #puffbars, #puffbarplus and #puffbardealer have 66.8 million views, 9.6 million views and 8.9 million views, respectively. Tags like #juulgang (590.4 million views) have become popular enough that anti-vaping content creators have adopted them as a means of counter-programming against vaping content.

These trends are particularly concerning given the large, young demographic that uses TikTok. A third of its U.S. users may be 14 or under, in fact.

In the U.S. App Store, TikTok is rated for ages 12 and up and on Google Play, its content rating is “Teen.” But while TikTok has modified the default privacy settings for young people’s accounts and has been quick to block other controversial hashtags in the past (like those around U.S. election conspiracies), it has allowed vaping-related content to remain easy to find.

In addition to the popular vaping hashtags prevalent on TikTok, we uncovered numerous vape sellers operating under obvious account names such as “@puffsonthelow,” “@PuffUniverse” and “@Puffbarcafe,” for example. Their pages were filled with vape videos boldly marketing their current selections, hashtagged with vape-related terms like #puffbarchallenge, #puffplus, #vapetricks and others.

In some cases, we found vape sellers had even tagged their videos with #kids and other trending tags.

Knowing that their target market is often teenage vapers, many videos depicted how the seller could package the vape inside another product or hide it in the stuffing so parents wouldn’t find out. We saw videos of vapes packaged underneath candy, inside makeup bags, inside socks, underneath other lager products, and more.

Through links published to the account’s profile or referenced in the videos, TikTok users are redirected to the sellers’ websites or even Discord channels where they would only sometimes be presented with an age verification pop-up.

Often, they could just add items to a basket and check out. Many sellers also directed their customers to pay using PayPal, Venmo and/or Cash App, instead of accepting standard credit card payments.

None of this is legal, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, a leading American nonprofit focused on reducing tobacco consumption, particularly among youth.

“It’s illegal to market these products or to engage in marketing that appeals directly to anybody under the age of 21,” Matt Myers, the president of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, told TechCrunch. “And it’s illegal to actually conduct a sales transaction without age verification.”

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot

Plus, he adds, clicking a box on a website that says “I’m over 21,” does not qualify as a legal age verification for making these sales.

The FDA hasn’t issued specific guidance around online retail, but the law is clear that checking IDs is required to ensure retailers aren’t selling to underage users. That’s not happening with a pop-up box, and often there’s no box at all.

In addition, the FDA reminded TechCrunch that Congress recently established new limits on the mailing and delivery of e-cigarettes and other tobacco products through the United States Postal Service and through other carriers, which should limit access to these sorts of products through online retail purchases.

Myers, however, points out that the current FDA guidelines have made enforcement of this sort of “social” vape marketing more difficult than necessary.

“The images you’re seeing, the use of influencers, and the kinds of offers you’re seeing are governed by a federal standard by the FDA, which is very broad and very general,” Myers says. “The FDA’s failure to articulate clear, specific guidelines means that everyone is in a constant what I call ‘whack-a-mole.’”

Enforcement, then, often depends on the FDA stepping in, which Myers says happens “on a very sporadic basis.”

“In many respects, the behaviors, the actions and the things you’re seeing do violate the law. But the mechanisms for implementing it that were put in place under this past administration are woefully weak and inadequate,” he says.

Image Credits: screenshots of TikTok

Another complicating factor is that public health groups — like the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, for instance — don’t have a relationship with TikTok, as they do with other social networks.

Over the last couple of years, over 100 public health groups came together to ask leading social networks like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat to clamp down on tobacco-related content and the use of influencers in marketing. As a result of these efforts, Facebook and Instagram implemented new rules to prohibit social media influencers from promoting tobacco-related products and developed algorithms to pick up on that sort of content.

Overall, the health organizations have reported seeing a reduction in tobacco and vape content on top social platforms, but these efforts have not yet included TikTok.

The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids has not given TikTok a comprehensive review, Myers admits, due to the app still being relatively new.  But from what the organization has seen so far, TikTok is of growing concern.

“We’ve seen some of the most egregious marketing, use of influencers, direct offers of sale to young people [which] appear to be gravitating over to TikTok,” Myers says. “And we don’t see any evidence that TikTok has actually done anything.”

TikTok can’t claim ignorance of the problem, either.

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot

When a vape seller who unabashedly advertised “no ID check” was reported to TikTok through its built-in reporting mechanism, TikTok’s content moderation team said the content didn’t violate its guidelines. This same response was given when other vape sellers were reported, as well. (See below.)

TikTok claims this shouldn’t be happening. The company told us that it will remove accounts dedicated to posting vaping or e-cigarette content as soon as it becomes aware of them, and will reset account bios that link to off-platform tobacco or vaping sites.

It also says its Community Guidelines prohibit content that suggests, depicts, imitates, or promotes the possession or consumption of tobacco by a minor, and content that offers instruction targeting minors on how to buy, sell, or trade tobacco. And it doesn’t permit tobacco ads.

Image Credits: screenshots of TikTok reports

Reached for comment over whether it was aware of the problems on TikTok, an FDA spokesperson said it does not discuss specific compliance and enforcement activities.

However, the spokesperson said the agency will closely monitor retailer, manufacturer, importer, and distributor compliance with federal tobacco laws and regulations and take corrective action when violations occur. In addition, the FDA said it conducts routine monitoring and surveillance of tobacco labeling, advertising and other promotional activities, including activities on the internet.

What’s been making matters more confusing is that the FDA has been accepting premarket applications for flavored vape devices, but has so far refused to list which companies — Puff Bar or otherwise — may have filed for these. That means health organizations don’t know which products the FDA has under review.

But the Agency told TechCrunch that regardless of whether a premarket application has been submitted, it’s enforcing lack of marketing authorization for any product where the manufacturer “is not taking adequate measures to prevent youth access to these products.”

That statement would then include these online Puff Bar retailers and their TikTok marketing efforts.

The FDA added that it has taken action against Puff Bar, specifically, in recent days.

It sent a warning letter to Cool Clouds Distribution, Inc. d/b/a Puff Bar, last July, notifying the company that it was marketing new tobacco products that lacked marketing authorization and that such products, as a result, were adulterated and misbranded.

Earlier this month, as part of an ongoing joint operation with the FDA, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized 33,681 units of e-cigarettes, which included disposable flavored e-cigarette cartridges resembling the Puff Bar brand, including Puff XXL and Puff Flow, we’re told.

TikTok confirmed the activity we’re documenting is in violation of its guidelines and policies, but could not explain why there’s been such a disconnect between that policy and its enforcement actions.

“We are committed to the safety and well-being of our TikTok community, and we strictly prohibit content that depicts or promotes the possession or consumption of tobacco and drugs by minors,” a TikTok spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We will remove accounts that are identified as being dedicated to promoting vaping, and we do not allow ads for vaping products.”

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Facebook’s secret settlement on Cambridge Analytica gags UK data watchdog – TechCrunch

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Remember the app audit Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg promised to carry out a little under three years ago at the height of the Cambridge Analytica scandal? Actually the tech giant is very keen that you don’t.

The UK’s information commissioner just told a parliamentary subcommittee on online harms and disinformation that a secret arrangement between her office and Facebook prevents her from publicly answering whether or not Facebook contacted the ICO about completing a much-trumpeted ‘app audit’.

“I think I could answer that question with you and the committee in private,” information commissioner Elizabeth Denham told questioner, Kevin Brennan, MP.

Pressed on responding, then and there, on the question of whether Facebook ever notified the regulator about completing the app audit — with Brennan pointing out “after all it was a commitment Mark Zuckerberg gave in the public domain before a US Senate committee” — Denham referred directly to a private arrangement with Facebook which she suggested prevented her from discussing such details in public.

“It’s part of an agreement that we struck with Facebook,” she told the committee. “In terms of our litigation against Facebook. So there is an agreement that’s not in the public domain and that’s why I would prefer to discuss this in private.”

In October 2019 Facebook settled with the UK’s data protection watchdog — agreeing to pay in full a £500,000 penalty announced by the ICO in 2018 in relation to the Cambridge Analytica breach but which Facebook had been appealing.

When it settled with the ICO Facebook did not admit liability. It had earlier secured a win, from a first-tier legal tribunal that had held June that “procedural fairness and allegations of bias” against the regulator should be considered as part of its appeal, so its litigation against Facebook had got off to a bad start — likely providing the impetus for the ICO to settle with Facebook’s private army of in-house lawyers.

In a statement at the time, covering the bare bones of the settlement, the ICO said Denham considered the agreement “best serves the interests of all UK data subjects who are Facebook users”.

There was no mention of any ‘gagging clauses’ in that disclosure. But the regulator did note that the terms of the agreement gave Facebook permission to “retain documents disclosed by the ICO during the appeal for other purposes, including furthering its own investigation into issues around Cambridge Analytica”.

So — at a stroke — Facebook gained control of a whole lot of strategically important information.

The settlement looks to have been extremely convenient for Facebook. Not only was it fantastically cheap (Facebook paid $5BN to settle with the FTC in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal just a short while later); and not only did it provide Facebook with a trove of ICO-obtained data to do its own digging into Cambridge Analytica safely out of the public eye; but it also ensured the UK regulator would be restricted in what it could say publicly.

To the point where the information commissioner has refused to say anything about Facebook’s post-Cambridge Analytica app audit in public.

The ICO seized a massive trove of data from the disgraced (and since defunct) company which had become such a thorn in Facebook’s side, after raidingCambridge Analytica’s UK offices in early 2018. How much of that data ended up with Facebook via the ICO settlement is unclear.

Interestingly, the ICO also never produced a final report on its Cambridge Analytica investigation.

Instead it sent a letter to the DCMS committee last year — in which it set out a number of conclusions, confirming its view that the umbrella of companies of which CA was a part had been aggregating datasets from commercial sources to try to “make predictions on personal data for political alliance purposes”, as it put it; also confirming the improperly obtained Facebook data had been incorporated into a pre-existing database containing “voter file, demographic and consumer data for US individuals”.

The ICO also said then that its investigation did not find evidence of the Facebook data that had been sold to Cambridge Analytica had been used for political campaigning associated with the UK’s Brexit Referendum. But there was no overarching report detailing the underlying workings via which the regulator got to its conclusions.

So, again from Facebook’s perspective, a pretty convenient outcome.

Asked today by the DCMS committee why the regulator had not produced the expected final report on Cambridge Analytica, Denham pointed to a number of other reports it put out over the course of the multi-year probe, such as audits of UK political parties and an investigation into credit reporting agencies.

“The letter was extensive,” she also argued. “My office produced three reports on the investigation into the misuse of data in political campaigning. So we had a policy report and we had two enforcement reports. So we had looked at the entire ecosystem of data sharing and campaigning… and the strands of that investigation are reported out sufficiently, in my view, in all of our work.”

“Taken together the letter, which was our final line on the report, with the policy and the enforcement actions, prosecutions, fines, stop processing orders, we had done a lot of work in this space — and what’s important here is that we have really pulled back the curtain on the use of data in democracy which has been taken up by… many organizations and parliamentarians around the world,” she added.

Denham also confirmed to the committee that the ICO has retained data related to the Cambridge Analytica investigation — which could be of potential use to other investigations still ongoing around the world. But she denied that her office had been asked by the US Senate Intelligence Committee to provide it with information obtained from Cambridge Analytica — seemingly contradicting an earlier report by the US committee that suggested it had been unable to obtain sought for information. (We’ve contacted the committee to ask about this.)

Denham did say evidence obtained from Cambridge Analytica was shared with the FTC, SEC and with states attorneys general, though.

We’ve also reached out to Facebook about its private arrangement with the ICO, and to ask again about the status of its post-Cambridge Analytica ‘app audit’. (And will update this report with any response.)

The company has produced periodic updates about the audit’s progress, saying in May 2018 that around 200 apps had been suspended as a result of the internal probe, for example.

Then in August 2019 Facebook also claimed to the DCMS committee that the app audit was “ongoing”.

In its original audit pledge — in March 2018 — Zuckerberg promised a root and branch investigation into any other ‘sketchy’ apps operating on Facebook’s platform, responding in a ‘crisis’ length Facebook post to the revelations that a third party had illicitly obtained data on millions of users with the aim of building psychographic profiles for voter targeting. It later turned out that an app developer, operating freely on Facebook’s platform under existing developer policies, had sold user data to Cambridge Analytica.

“We will investigate all apps that had access to large amounts of information before we changed our platform to dramatically reduce data access in 2014, and we will conduct a full audit of any app with suspicious activity,” Zuckerberg wrote at the time. “We will ban any developer from our platform that does not agree to a thorough audit. And if we find developers that misused personally identifiable information, we will ban them and tell everyone affected by those apps. That includes people whose data [Aleksandr] Kogan misused here as well.”

It’s notable that the Facebook founder did not promise to transparently and publicly report audit findings. This is of course what ‘self regulation’ looks like. Invisible final ‘audit’ reports.

An ‘audit’ that’s entirely controlled by an entity deeply implicated in core elements of what’s being scrutinized obviously isn’t worth the paper it’s (not) written on. But, in Facebook’s case, this opened-but-never-closed ‘app audit’ appears to have served its crisis PR purpose.

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Twitter acquires newsletter platform Revue – TechCrunch

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Twitter is getting into the newsletter business.

The social media company is announcing that it has acquired Revue, a Dutch startup that allows users to publish and monetize email newsletters. While Revue hasn’t driven the same wave of “is this the future of media?” think pieces as Substack, it counts major publishers like Vox Media and The Markup as customers.

Newsletters aren’t the most obvious fit for Twitter’s platform, but in a blog post, Product Lead Kayvon Beykpour and VP of Publisher Products Mike Park suggested that that this is a new way for Twitter to serve writers and publishers who have built a following with their tweets.

“Our goal is to make it easy for them to connect with their subscribers, while also helping readers better discover writers and their content,” Beykpour and Park wrote. “We’re imagining a lot of ways to do this, from allowing people to sign up for newsletters from their favorite follows on Twitter, to new settings for writers to host conversations with their subscribers. It will all work seamlessly within Twitter.”

They also suggested that this will give writers additional ways to make money. Revue already supports paid subscriptions, and Beykpour and Park said that the company will continue developing new monetization features, “whether it’s helping broaden revenue streams or serving as a cornerstone of someone’s business.”

They added that Twitter will continue to operate Revue as a standalone product, with its team remaining “focused on improving the ways writers create their newsletters, build their audience and get paid for their work.” The company is also making the platform’s pro features free for all users and lowering the fee charged on paid newsletters to 5%.

The financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed. According to Crunchbase, Revue had raised €400,000 from various angel investors.

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