All posts in “Amazon”

Amazon Alexa is coming to hotel rooms

“Alexa, can I get a toothbrush?”

At the mention of Amazon’s digital assistant, the light ring on the white Echo Plus sitting on the end table lights up, then blinks for a second after the question is asked. Ordinarily, if you made that query to the Echo in your home, Alexa would respond by simply adding a toothbrush to your shopping list.

But I’m not in my home, and this isn’t your ordinary Alexa. I’m sitting in a suite on the 17th floor of the Brooklyn Marriott, and the person bugging Alexa about his dental-hygiene needs is Daniel Rausch, vice president of smart home for Amazon.

“OK, how many toothbrushes do you need?” Alexa responds

“10,” Rausch says. Whoa, you opening up your own drugstore, buddy?

Alexa clearly has the same thought: “Sorry, but I can only bring up to five of any item. How many toothbrushes would you like?”


“OK, to confirm, you would like one toothbrush sent to your room. Is that correct?”


And boom — or rather, knock-knock — a hotel staffer arrives at the door with the toothbrush, in a rather classy gray plastic box, about 20 minutes later.

The privacy question

This is Alexa for Hospitality in action, Amazon’s new push to bring its digital assistant into even more aspects of your life besides just your home. Following a move into business and a slow-but-steady encroachment into car dashboards, Alexa for Hospitality officially puts the voice assistant in your hotel room. Marriott will be the first major hotel chain to offer the service.

The idea has two motivations. One is to give Echo customers what Amazon says they want — putting Alexa into more “contexts,” giving them the convenience of voice control in places it didn’t previously exist. And Marriott says that synced up nicely with its goal of reducing the friction that travelers experience by virtue of being in a new place.

The Amazon Echo Plus is one of the devices available to hotels as part of Alexa for Hospitality.

The Amazon Echo Plus is one of the devices available to hotels as part of Alexa for Hospitality.

Image: Pete Pachal/Mashable

“We saw an opportunity to bring over the experience that consumers are having today in their homes — to simply use your voice to get information, to make requests, to take notes — and bring that over into a hotel environment,” says Jennifer Hsieh, vice president of customer experience innovation for Marriott International.

Isn’t there a third goal here, though, that being the opening of another avenue for technology companies to harvest your data? That may be true, but at least Amazon appears to have thought through the privacy concerns.

For starters, the hotel doesn’t have access to any voice recordings or interactions that don’t involve the hotel itself. In the case of the toothbrush example above, Alexa will hand off the request to the hotel’s back end, but that’s it. There is no “god mode” for the hotel to see what you’re doing with Alexa; all it gets is a dashboard that shows whether or not specific devices are offline (ostensibly an anti-theft measure) and some aggregated, anonymized data from Amazon. Voice recordings are also deleted daily, Amazon says.

At launch, Alexa for Hospitality will provide a generic experience customized by the hotel, but Amazon plans to offer customers the option of connecting a personal Amazon account to the in-room experience, so guests will be able to access their own playlists, audio books, contacts, and more. d34f c438%2fthumb%2f00001

Perhaps too convenient? Amazon says the hotel gets zero access to your personal data.

“If you connect to your personal account, it’s exactly like home,” says Rausch. “We consider that data, at that point, yours. All of your voice utterances work just like at home. You’d see them on the Alexa app or online — you can delete them one at a time, you can delete them all at once.”

What Alexa for Hospitality can do

OK, so Amazon did its privacy homework. But what can you do with this traveler-oriented version of Alexa?

For starters, you don’t need to have an Amazon or Prime account to use it, and hotels will hand-hold guests with in-room brochures. Of course, Alexa for Hospitality will field everyday queries (“what’s the weather?” “who is president?”), but its special abilities fall in three main areas, each customizable by the hotel:

  1. Hotel stuff: Ordering toothbrushes and the like, calling the front desk, room service checking out — now you can do all of that via voice. Depending on how the room is set up, you may even be able to control various smart home gear like lights and blinds. (Notably, Drop In, the service that lets you make quick calls to other Echoes, isn’t enabled.)

  2. Get recommendations: The hotel can preprogram Alexa to give tips on restaurants and activities in the area. However, if you hear something you’re interested in, it’ll connect you with the concierge — Alexa for Hospitality can’t make reservations on its own.

  3. Play media: With access to default audio services TuneIn and IHeartRadio, Alexa for Hospitality can play a decent amount of music, and hotels can create their own custom playlists that suit the mood of the hotel.

There’s nothing special about the hardware. The Echoes in hotel rooms — limited to screenless models like the Echo 2, Echo Plus, and Echo Dot — are no different from the consumer versions, with two exceptions: they can’t be factory reset, and they’ll only connect to the hotel Wi-Fi (so don’t bother trying to stuff one in your bag on the way out).

Amazon’s partnership with Marriott extends to several of the hotel chain’s brands: Westin, St. Regis, Aloft, and Autograph. The company says it’s been quietly piloting the service, and that 90 percent of customers who used it rank the in-room Alexa experience as “good to excellent.”

It’s not surprising. Amazon consistently ranks highly in consumer-trust surveys, and users who’ve already bought into the Alexa experience at home likely won’t hesitate to bring it into their hotel room, too.

In the future, in-room voice control could be as essential as in-room Wi-Fi, with one difference: This game has a winner. By extending Alexa’s tendrils into into yet another part of our lives with one of the biggest hotel chains in the world, Amazon is still making Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant look like also-rans, eye-popping tech conference demos notwithstanding.

Alexa may speak softly, but she carries a big stick of influence. It’s very early days for Alexa with Hospitality, but as more people associate the service with posh hotels, the more in the digital-assistant space looks like Amazon’s world. Everybody else is just renting a room.

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Amazon Prime launches in another country, at half the price of the U.S.

Australians finally can sign up to Amazon Prime.
Australians finally can sign up to Amazon Prime.

Image: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

It took a long time for Australians to get Amazon, and even longer to get Prime.

The membership program is finally available in the country, offering free delivery on products as well as access to Prime Video and other services like Twitch Prime and Prime Reading.

Interestingly, A$6.99 (US$5.27) or A$59 (US$44.51) for the year, it’s half the price of what U.S. customers are paying for the service.

However, Prime in Australia only offers free two-day business delivery, whereas you can get free same-day or next day delivery in the U.S. for some items on Amazon. Australian Prime does offer free delivery for international orders over $49, however.

Two-day shipping is available in all major cities except Darwin, as well as and regional cities such as Albury-Wodonga, Bendigo, Gold Coast, Newcastle and more. In more remote locations, Prime members will get free shipping that will be as fast as four or five days.

“We are really proud to bring Australians the most extensive set of Prime benefits at launch for any country — ever,” Jamil Ghani, VP of Prime International at Amazon, said in a statement. 

“This is just the beginning for Prime in Australia, as we will keep making Prime better, adding even more selection and benefits.” 

If you’re keen, Prime is offering a 30-day free trial, and the price has been lowered to A$4.99 per month until Jan. 31 next year. b9a3 7d4f%2fthumb%2f00001

ACLU petitions Amazon to stop selling surveillance technology to the government

The American Civil Liberties Union is delivering a petition to Amazon’s Seattle headquarters today with more than 150,000 signatures. They are requesting for Amazon to stop providing the government with facial recognition technology.

“Amazon has entered the surveillance business, and they’re selling to the government,” reads the online ACLU petition, which has nearly 60,000 signatures of the 75,000 they want. Other organizations like Demand Progress and Fight for the Future acted in conjunction with the ACLU and collected more than 90,000 signatures elsewhere.

“Amazon’s product, Rekognition, has the power to identify people in real time, in photos of large groups of people, and in crowded events and public places. At a time when we’re joining public protests at unprecedented levels, and discriminatory policing continues to terrorize communities of color, handing this surveillance technology over to the government threatens our civil rights and liberties,” says the petition letter.

This is just the latest step in a series of recent actions that the ACLU has taken against artificial intelligence, especially regarding facial recognition due to privacy concerns and its troubling effects.

The ACLU in 2013 helped draft a document of facial recognition best practices with the government and consistently releases guidances on surveillance and tech privacy.

It has also specifically warned against Amazon’s push into artificial intelligence, which was how the ACLU discovered that Amazon was contacting different government agencies to see whether they wanted to use Rekognition

Rekognition is branded by Amazon as affordable deep-learning technology that can constantly learn and recognize different objects — it does not require previous machine learning knowledge to operate.

The technology is so powerful that it has the ability to recognize and identify every face in a crowd, and Nicole Ozer, ACLU of California technology and civil liberties director, said amid a time when communities are under attack and public protest is at an “all-time high,” it is problematic that Amazon is selling technology that is “primed” for surveillance.

“The demand is to stop selling it to the government,” Ozer said. “This demand is not about banning any technology or stopping any technology. But this face surveillance should not be in the hands of the government, particularly in the current political climate.”

Multiple ACLU chapters filed public records requests about Rekognition, and once they discovered Amazon’s government partnerships using Rekognition, the ACLU has fought alongside other advocacy groups like Electronic Frontier Foundation against the corporation’s government partnerships.

They sent a letter to Amazon boss Jeff Bezos last month with 35 other non-ACLU affiliated groups including Human Rights Watch that expressed concern over the e-commerce giant’s role in powering a “government surveillance system.” 

They’re sending another letter today (which says the same thing word-for-word), though this time, more than 70 advocacy organizations signed onto it.

Ozer said that Amazon’s undisclosed business deals undermined customer and community trust, since the people being surveilled almost certainly use Amazon.

Florida and Oregon government agencies already use the face recognition technology, and government agencies in Arizona as well as California are seeking more information.

“Those systems should be dismantled,” Ozer said. “In both those communities [Florida and Oregon] there was not public debate or discussion — this was done in secret.”

She said if the ACLU had not filed for the information, there might still not have been community discussions about the governments’ new surveillance methods.

Ozer said that delivering the petition with so many signatures represents the mass outrage over fueling a surveillance state from Amazon’s diverse customer base. Their petition delivery follows letters from 19 Amazon shareholders and the Congressional Black Caucus expressing their concerns over how the company was letting the government weaponize their technology.

But it’s not all bad news. Rekognition is structured as an online service, so Amazon has complete control over who can access the information. That means, she said, the company has the ability to restrict who can access its wide-reaching database.

The goal of the petition is for Amazon to stop sharing the information with the government agencies using Rekognition so that those who are already vulnerable are not put into a more precarious position.

“We only have to read the president’s tweets every hour to know how many communities are under fire,” Ozer said. “Amazon’s face recognition technology is really further powering really dangerous surveillance.”

Amazon did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publishing. We will update this story if and when we get a response.

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Amazon Prime is filled with Alex Jones conspiracy theory videos it calls ‘documentaries’

Now Amazon Prime has a conspiracy theory video problem.
Now Amazon Prime has a conspiracy theory video problem.

Image: Guillaume Payen/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Amazon Prime’s documentary genre features many Academy Award-winning feats of investigative journalism. But it has a problem: Amazon categorizes legitimate documentaries from HBO and PBS in the same way that it does conspiracy theory films from the likes of Alex Jones.

The Telegraph first reported the troubling appearance of conspiracy theory “documentaries” on the streaming platform, in particular films from Jones and noted crazy-person David Icke. Jones is the talking head of InfoWars, who is currently being sued by families of Sandy Hook shooting victims for claiming that the deaths of their children was a hoax. Icke is a conspiracy theorist who calls himself a “conspiracy realist.”

Conspiracy theories aren’t just kooky — they can have dangerous real world consequences. In general, they erode faith in our institutions and the pure veracity of facts (something that is already declining). They also spread misinformation that can lead to violence, which Americans witnessed in 2016 after a bizarre claim about Hillary Clinton, a pizzeria, and child sex-trafficking led to a shooting. That was called “Pizzagate,” a conspiracy theory that Alex Jones helped disseminate.

Alex Jones films on Amazon.

Alex Jones films on Amazon.

Image: screenshot: Amazon

For Amazon, the question of whether a platform should even make these films available is up for debate — a debate that has also rocked platforms like YouTube and Facebook. But what seems most concerning is the categorization of conspiracy theory films as “documentaries,” alongside legitimate works of nonfiction filmmaking, without any context about their creators or factuality.

In particular, Amazon categorizes an Alex Jones film claiming that Obama’s presidency is a high-level scheme to initiate worldwide slavery as a documentary. Icke’s films, including ‘The Reptilian Agenda,’ which details the story of how lizard-people rule the planet, also receive the documentary tag. 

The lizard people are coming.

The lizard people are coming.

Image: screenshot: Amazon

Alex Jones' "documentary" about Obama.

Alex Jones’ “documentary” about Obama.

Image: screenshot: Amazon

Furthermore, once you watch one Icke or Jones documentary, Amazon is happy to serve you more content about the Illuminati or the enslavement of the US via FEMA camps (thanks to Alex Jones again for that one).

The problem here is that through the mere appearance on Amazon, and the further “documentary” tagging of this content, Amazon lends these conspiracy theory films legitimacy, without any context.

How did these films show up on Prime? Generally, large content distribution deals govern what appears on platforms like Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu. In its Prime FAQ, Amazon explains the Availability of Prime Titles: “The selection of movies and TV shows available with Prime Video is always changing—new titles are added to the Prime Video catalog, and occasionally titles are removed.” 

Mashable has reached out to Amazon to learn how these films in particular made it to Amazon, and whether there are any plans to remove or recategorize them. We will update this story if and when we hear back.

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The long Cocky-gate nightmare is over

I’ve been wanting to write about Cocky-gate for some time now but the story – a row between self-published authors that degenerated into ridiculousness – seems finally over and perhaps we can all get some perspective. The whole thing started in May when a self-published romance author, Faleena Hopkins, began attempting to enforce her copyright on books that contained “cocky” in the title. This included, but was not limited to, Cocky Cowboy, Cocky Biker, and Cocky Roomie, all titles in Hopkins oeuvre.

Hopkins filed a trademark for the use of the word Cocky in romance titles and began attacking other others who used the word cocky, including Jamila Jasper who wrote a book called Cocky Cowboy and received an email from Hopkins.

After taking up the cause on Twitter and creating a solid example of Streisand Effect, Jasper changed the title of her book to The Cockiest Cowboy To Have Ever Cocked. But other authors were hit by cease and desist letters and even Amazon stepped in briefly as well and took down multiple titles for a short time.

From the Guardian:

Pajiba reported on Monday that the author Nana Malone had been asked to change the title of her novel Mr Cocky, while TL Smith and Melissa Jane’s Cocky Fiancé has been renamed Arrogant Fiancé. Other writers claimed that Hopkins had reported them to Amazon, resulting in their books being taken down from the site.

This went on for a number of weeks with the back and forth verging on the comical…

to the serious.

Hopkins went to court to defend her trademark and then bumped up against the powerful Author’s Guild who supported three defendants including a publicist who was incorrectly named as the publisher of one of the offending titles, The Cocktales Anthology.

“Beyond the obvious issues with the merits, it is evident from the face of the complaint that Plaintiffs failed to conduct a reasonable pre-filing investigation before racing to the courthouse. Indeed, the number and extent of defects alone call into question whether the filing was made in good faith. Plaintiffs’ lack of due diligence failed to uncover the stark difference between a publisher and a publicist, i.e., non-party best-selling author Penny Reid is the former, while Defendant Jennifer Watson is the latter (Ms. Watson’s website even states that she provides “publicist and marketing services” and nowhere indicates that she writes or publishes books),” wrote Judge Alvin Hellerstein of the Southern District of New York. “In sum, there is nothing meritorious about Plaintiffs’ situation, let alone urgent or irreparable. Defendant Watson cannot offer Plaintiffs the relief they seek as she bears no responsibility for The Cocktales Anthology they wish to enjoin from further publication. Defendant Crescent’s first allegedly infringing book was published over nine months ago. Plaintiffs have admitted that her use of “cocky” in titles would not likely cause confusion as to source or affiliation; moreover, she has publicly stated that she has not suffered lost sales.”

Online communities are wonderful but precarious things. One or two attacks by bad – or even well-meaning – actors can tip them over the edge and ruin them for everyone. In fact, Cocky-gate has encouraged other authors to try this tactics. One writer, Michael-Scott Earle, has attempted to register the words “Dragon Slayer” in a book title and there is now a Twitter bot that hunts for USPTO applications for words in titles.

Now that the cocky has been freed, however, it looks like the romance writers of the world are taking advantage of the opportunity to share their own cocky stories.