The Week in Business: Spies at Twitter

 nytimes.com  11/10/2019 12:01:11   Charlotte Cowles

Whos spying on you online? If youre a Saudi dissident, it could be anyone  even a Twitter employee. But if youre a child in China, its the government, which just passed new rules to stop minors from spending so much time on video games. Heres everything you need to know about the weeks top stories in business and tech.

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Credit...Giacomo Bagnara

Two former Twitter employees have been charged with spying on the platforms users for Saudi Arabia. They are accused of using their insider access to get personal information about people who tweeted criticism of the kingdom. For many Saudi dissidents, the anonymity of Twitter is a matter of life and death. (You may recall the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi writer who was murdered by Saudi agents last year.) This case also raises larger questions about how Twitter and other social media platforms are going to guard users privacy, let alone prevent foreign interference in United States politics, if their own staff members are working for the other side.

In lieu of a more comprehensive trade deal, the United States and China have spent the past two weeks squabbling over a Phase 1 agreement that would supposedly resolve a few of their disputes and prevent more tariffs. But it seems that Beijing and Washington cant even agree on their progress. China said they had accepted a joint rollback of some tariffs, which would require both countries to drop an equal number of levies at the same time. But President Trump said he had not yet decided which (if any) levies he might be willing to concede. Ideally, they can get on the same page by December, when Mr. Trumps next round of tariff increases is supposed to take effect.

Airbnb announced a daunting initiative to verify all of its more than six million listings, including the accuracy of photographs and safety standards posted with each property. The statement is part of an effort to give customers peace of mind after five people were killed at a party in a California Airbnb rental home on Halloween night. (Another new rule: no party houses, although how this will be enforced is anyones guess.) Its almost certainly intended to woo investors, too, as the company heads toward an initial public offering next year. The logistics of this colossal verification process are still to be determined, but Airbnbs chief executive, Brian Chesky, said the company planned to use a combination of remote technology inspections and verifications from our community.

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Credit...Giacomo Bagnara

The Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is expected to break records (again) during its famous Singles Day sale on Monday, despite Chinas trade war and slowing economic growth. Created as a shopping holiday for young, unmarried Chinese people to celebrate their singledom by buying things for themselves, Singles Day has become the worlds biggest shopping event. It is particularly significant this year, as Alibaba resumes plans to list its shares on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, which would open it up to billions of foreign investor dollars. Alibaba postponed its stock offering a few months ago when protests disrupted Hong Kong and heightened its tensions with mainland China.

The government has demanded that the embattled e-cigarette company Juul turn over all documents concerning potential contaminated vaping pods that it may have sold. Juul has denied previous accusations that it did any such thing, but a former executive says the opposite. And as mysterious vaping-related illnesses continue to spread, lawmakers (and doctors, and customers) want answers. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump says hes toying with the idea of raising the minimum vaping age from 18 to 21. On that note, say goodbye to mint-flavored nicotine pods, which Juul is pulling from the market after a study showed that teenagers were using them.

The Trump administration has accused Gilead Sciences, which sells H.I.V.-prevention drugs, of profiting from research funded by taxpayers without paying taxpayers back. In a lawsuit filed on Wednesday, the government said the company infringed on patents owned by the Department of Health and Human Services and refused to pay royalties. Gilead Sciences makes billions off two drugs that are widely used to prevent H.I.V. infection and can cost patients up to $20,000 a year. If this lawsuit is successful, it could be a first step in pushing down prices for the medication, which would then become more accessible to those at risk.

The Chinese government imposed new rules to limit video game addiction in minors, which officials have blamed for a rise in nearsightedness and a decline in academic performance. According to the new regulations, users younger than 18 cant play video games after 10 p.m. or for more than 90 minutes on weekdays. Back in the United States, Mr. Trump was ordered by a New York judge to pay $2 million in restitution for misusing money from his charitable foundation for political purposes. And in Japan, Microsoft experimented with letting its employees work only four days a week  and saw productivity jump by 40 percent.

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