Head of WhatsApp to Leave Company

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The head of popular messaging service WhatsApp is planning to leave the company because of a reported disagreement over how parent company Facebook is using customers’ personal data. 

WhatsApp billionaire chief executive Jan Koum wrote in a Facebook post Monday, “It’s been almost a decade since (co-founder) Brian (Acton) and I started WhatsApp, and it’s been an amazing journey with some of the best people. But it is time for me to move on,” he said.

Koum did not give a date for his departure.

The Washington Post reported Monday that Koum is stepping down because of disagreements over Facebook’s attempts to use the personal data of WhatsApp customers, as well as efforts to weaken the app’s encryption. 

Action left the company last fall and since then has become a vocal critic of Facebook, recently endorsing a #DeleteFacebook social media campaign.

The Post, citing people familiar with internal WhatsApp discussions, said Koum was worn down by the differences in approach to privacy and security between WhatsApp and Facebook.

When WhatsApp agreed to the company’s sale to Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion, it said WhatsApp would remain an independent service and would not share its data with Facebook. 

However, 18 months later, Facebook pushed WhatsApp to change its terms of service to give the social network access to the personal data of WhatsApp users. 

WhatsApp is the largest messaging service in the world with 1.5 billion monthly users. However, Facebook has been struggling to find ways to make enough money from the app to prove its investment was worth the cost. 

Facebook has faced intense criticism since March when news broke that the personal data of millions of Facebook users had been harvested without their knowledge by Cambridge Analytica, a British voter profiling company that U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign hired to target likely supporters in 2016.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress earlier this month and apologized for inadequately protecting the data of millions of social media platform users. 

Facebook also recently announced it would allow all its users to shut off third-party access to their apps and said it would set up “firewalls” to ensure users’ data was not unwittingly transmitted by others in their social network.

Some members of Congress said Facebook’s actions to rectify the situation did not go far enough and have called for greater regulation of the internet and social media.

Paper Plane Protesters Urge Russia to Unblock Telegram App

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Thousands of people marched through Moscow, throwing paper planes and calling for authorities to unblock the popular Telegram instant messaging app on Monday.

Protesters chanted slogans against President Vladimir Putin as they launched the planes – a reference to the app’s logo.

“Putin’s regime has declared war on the internet, has declared war on free society… so we have to be here in support of Telegram,” one protester told Reuters.

Russia began blocking Telegram on April 16 after the app refused to comply with a court order to grant state security services access to its users’ encrypted messages.

Russia’s FSB Federal Security service has said it needs access to some of those messages for its work, that includes guarding against militant attacks.

In the process of blocking the app, state watchdog Roskomnadzor also cut off access to a slew of other websites.

Telegram’s founder, Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, called for “digital resistance” in response to the decision and promised to fund anyone developing proxies and VPNs to dodge the block.

More than 12,000 people joined the march on Monday, said White Counter, a volunteer group that counts people at protests.

“Thousands of young and progressive people are currently protesting in Moscow in defense of internet freedom,” Telegram’s Durov wrote on his social media page.

“This is unprecedented. I am proud to have been born in the same country as you. Your energy changes the world,” Durov wrote.

Telegram has more than 200 million global users and is ranked as the world’s ninth most popular mobile messaging service.

Iran’s judiciary has also banned the app to protect national security, Iranian state TV reported on Monday.

US Wireless Carriers T-Mobile, Sprint Announce Merger

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The third and fourth biggest U.S. wireless carriers, T-Mobile and Sprint, said Sunday they plan to merge, the third attempt they’ve made to join forces against the country’s two biggest mobile device firms, Verizon and AT&T.

The deal, if it happens this time, calls for T-Mobile to buy Sprint for $26 billion in an all-stock deal.

The combined carrier would have 126 million customers, still third in the pecking order of U.S. wireless carriers, but closer to the top two. Verizon has more than 150 million customers, and AT&T more than 142 million.

The latest agreement caps four years of on-and-off talks between T-Mobile and Sprint. Sprint dropped its bid for T-Mobile more than three years ago after U.S. regulators objected and another proposed merger fell through last November.

The new deal could help the combined companies slash costs to make the new business more competitive with industry leaders. But customers could also pay more for wireless coverage because the combined company may not have to offer as many deals to attract new customers.

U.S. regulators at the Federal Communications Commission are expected to take a close look at the merger’s effects on customers and whether the deal violates antitrust laws.

Parenting of the Future? Pick an Embryo

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The future of parenting may see a big change as scientists and ethicists have a startling prediction about how children will be conceived in the future. Thanks to biomedical advances, parents may be able to choose a child from hundreds of embryos based on their DNA profile. Faith Lapidus reports.

China Rapidly Expanding its Technology Sector

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If you want your technology sector to expand rapidly, it pays to have strong support from the government, easy access to bank loans and a large market, hungry for your products. All this is available in China, where technology companies are expanding at a rapid pace — making other countries, including the U.S. — a bit uneasy. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Can a River Model Save Eroding Mississippi Delta?

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Thousands of years of sediment carried by the Mississippi River created 25,000 square kilometers of land, marsh and wetlands along Louisiana’s coast. But engineering projects stopped the flow of sediment and rising seas thanks to climate change have made the Mississippi Delta the fastest-disappearing land on earth. Louisiana State University researchers created the river system in miniature to try to stop the erosion and rebuild the delta. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from Deborah Block.

Genetics Help Spot Food Contamination

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A new approach for detecting food poisoning is being used to investigate the recent outbreak of E.coli bacteria in romaine lettuce grown in the U.S. state of Arizona. The tainted produce has sickened at least 84 people in 19 states. The new method, used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, relies on genetic sequencing. And as Faiza Elmasry tells us, it has the potential to revolutionize the detection of food poisoning outbreaks. VOA’s Faith Lapidus narrates.

Consumers Close Wallets, Trim US 1st Quarter Growth

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The U.S. economy likely slowed in the first quarter as growth in consumer spending braked sharply, but the setback is expected to be temporary against the backdrop of a tightening labor market and large fiscal stimulus.

Gross domestic product probably increased at a 2.0 percent annual rate, according to a Reuters survey of economists, also held back by a moderation in business spending on equipment as well as a widening of the trade deficit and decline in investment in homebuilding.

Those factors likely offset an increase in inventories. The economy grew at a 2.9 percent pace in the fourth quarter. The government will publish its snapshot of first-quarter GDP Friday at 8:30 a.m. 

Don’t lose sleep

The anticipated tepid first-quarter growth will, however, probably not be a true reflection of the economy, despite the expected weakness in consumer spending. First-quarter GDP tends to be soft because of a seasonal quirk. The labor market is near full employment and both business and consumer confidence are strong.

“I would not lose sleep over first-quarter GDP, there is the residual seasonality issue,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “Overall the economy is doing very well and will continue to do well this year and into 2019.”

Economists expect growth will accelerate in the second quarter as households start to feel the impact of the Trump administration’s $1.5 trillion income tax package on their paychecks. Lower corporate and individual tax rates as well as increased government spending will likely lift annual economic growth to the administration’s 3 percent target, despite the weak start to the year.

Federal Reserve officials are likely to shrug off weak first-quarter growth. The U.S. central bank raised interest rates last month in a nod to the strong labor market and economy, and forecast at least two rate hikes this year.

Minutes of the March 20-21 meeting published earlier this month showed policymakers “expected that the first-quarter softness would be transitory,” citing “residual seasonality in the data, and more generally to strong economic fundamentals.”

Consumer spending lackluster

Economists estimate that growth in consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, braked to below a 1.5 percent rate in the first quarter. That would be the slowest pace in nearly five years and follows the fourth quarter’s robust 4.0 percent growth rate.

Consumer spending in the last quarter was likely held back by delayed tax refunds and impact of tax cuts. Rebuilding and clean-up efforts following hurricanes late last year probably pulled forward spending into the fourth quarter.

“Our new consumer survey found that 37 percent of consumers thought they didn’t get any extra income from the tax cut or did not know what to do with it,” said Michelle Meyer, head of U.S. economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York. “It is possible this means that there is a lag in the consumer response to tax cuts.”

Business spending

Business spending on equipment is forecast to have slowed after double-digit growth in the second half of 2017. The expected cooling in equipment investment partly reflects a fading boost from a recovery in commodity prices. Economists expect a marginal impact on business spending on equipment from rising interest rates and more expensive raw materials.

“While we do not expect rising rates to crush equipment spending, a slowdown nevertheless appears in store,” said Sarah House, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Higher interest rates will hurt at the margin.”

Investment in homebuilding is forecast to have declined in the first quarter after rebounding in the October-December period. Government spending probably contracted after two straight quarterly increases. Spending is, however, expected to rebound in the second quarter after the U.S. Congress recently approved more government spending.

Trade was likely a drag on GDP growth for a second straight quarter after royalties and broadcast license fees related to the Winter Olympics boosted imports.

With consumer spending slowing, inventories probably accumulated in the first quarter. Inventory investment is expected to have contributed to GDP growth after subtracting 0.53 percentage point in the fourth quarter.

Amazon Delivers Profits, a $20 Prime Hike, NFL Games

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Amazon.com Inc. more than doubled its profit Thursday and predicted strong spring results as the world’s biggest online retailer raised the price for U.S. Prime subscribers, added U.S. football games and touted its cloud services for business.

The results showed the broad strength of the company, which has been expanding far beyond shipping packages, the business that has drawn the ire of U.S. President Donald Trump.

The forecast beat expectations on Wall Street, sending shares up 7 percent to a new record in afterhours trade and adding $8 billion to the net worth of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive and largest shareholder.

Seattle-based Amazon is winning business from older, big box rivals by delivering virtually any product to customers at a low cost, and at times faster than it takes to buy goods from a physical store. It is expanding across industries, too, striking a $130 million deal to stream Thursday night games for the U.S. National Football League online and working to ship groceries to doorsteps from Whole Foods stores nationwide.

Sales jumped 43 percent to $51.0 billion in the quarter, topping estimates of $49.8 billion, according to Thomson Reuters.

Prime now $119

Prime, Amazon’s loyalty club that includes fast shipping, video streaming and other benefits, has been key to Amazon’s strategy. Its more than 100 million members globally spend above average on Amazon.

The company announced Thursday it will increase the yearly price of Prime to $119 from $99 for U.S. members this spring.

The fee hike is expected to add a windfall to Amazon’s subscription revenue, already up 60 percent in the first quarter at $3.1 billion.

“We do feel it’s still the best deal in retail,” Brian Olsavsky, Amazon’s chief financial officer, said on a call with analysts. He said the number of items Prime members can get within two days had grown fivefold since the last price increase four years ago.

Advertising and the cloud

Despite the surge in shopping, Olsavsky gave credit for Amazon’s $1.6 billion profit last quarter to two younger businesses: advertising and Amazon Web Services.

Revenue from third-party sellers paying to promote their products on Amazon.com was an unusually large bright spot during the quarter, with sales in the category, which includes some other items, growing 139 percent to $2.03 billion. This included $560 million from an accounting change.

Amazon Web Services (AWS), which handles data and computing for large enterprises in the cloud, won new business and saw its profit margin expand. It posted a 49 percent rise in sales from a year earlier to $5.44 billion, beating estimates.

Amazon remains the biggest in the space by revenue, and its stock trades at a significant premium to cloud-computing rival Microsoft Corp.

Amazon’s shares have also outperformed the S&P 500, rising 30 percent this year as of Thursday’s market close, compared with the S&P’s less than 1 percent decline.

More workers, spending

Notorious for running on a low profit margin, Amazon has still reaped rewards for shareholders as it has bet on new services like voice-controlled computing and has expanded across continents and industries.

Global headcount was up 60 percent from a year earlier at 563,100 full-time and part-time employees, thanks to a hiring spree and an influx of workers from Whole Foods Market.

The company plans to increase its video content spending this year, Amazon’s Olsavsky said, with a prequel to “The Lord of the Rings” in the works. The third quarter will also see extra spending to prepare for the busy holiday season.

Amazon is working with JPMorgan Chase & Co and Berkshire Hathaway Inc to determine how to cut health costs for hundreds of thousands of their employees.

And it is expanding its retail footprint outside the United States, particularly in India. Amazon’s international operating loss grew 29 percent to $622 million in the first quarter.