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Tech for Campaigns, created to get Democrats elected, on the parties’ biggest differences

Yesterday, a 450-page “investigation on competition in digital markets” was published by the House based on 16 months of evidence gathering, including interviews with employees and past employees and others with first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple.

The picture it paints is of companies that have abused their power to enrich themselves in ways previously known and unknown based on evidence collected directly from their current and former employees, as well as others with first-hand knowledge of the company’s internal workings. But House Democrats and Republicans disagree on some of the proposed remedies.

It probably doesn’t surprise Jessica Alter, the cofounder of Tech for Campaigns, an organization that was once described as a Democratic Geek Squad owing to its mission to match volunteers from the tech world — engineers, data scientists, product managers, marketing pros — with Democratic campaigns in need of a winning digital strategy.

Alter, who says Tech for Campaigns’s volunteer network now numbers more than 14,000, talked with us late last week about just how different the political parties are fundamentally, likening the Republican National Committee to a “conglomerate,” and the Democrats’s approach as far more decentralized — often to the latter’s disadvantage. Our conversation (which you can hear here) has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: You were previously a tech founder. For those who don’t know you, why start this organization?

JA: I was pretty uninvolved in politics. I was just a typical techie working at early-stage companies, and I’d started one as well. But in 2017, my cofounders and I got very frustrated. I think the crucible moment for me was the first Muslim ban. And given what our skill sets are and who we know, we decided, ‘Let’s just try to look at helping on the tech and digital front.’

We had a hunch that in the 2016 election, Trump sort of wiped the floor with [the Democrats] on tech and digital, and we were more right [about that hunch] than we wanted it to be. We realized pretty quickly that the Democrats are probably 8 to 10 years behind the Republicans. That’s hard for people to believe, and usually people say, ‘But what about Obama? [His campaign] was good at tech and digital.” But all of that was thrown out. I mean that in the most literal sense.

TC: What percentage of donor dollars go to digital advertising?

JA: TV and [snail] mail still really rules the roost. In 2018, as just one example, for all of the media attention that digital advertising gets, only three to five cents went to digital for every donor dollar that was given. Most of the rest went to TV and mail.

On the tech tools and data side, we’re also far behind. Part of the problem is that there really isn’t an organization whose main thrust is to focus on tech and digital. It’s a part of every organization but it’s siloed, and no one really focuses on it, and no one organization is permanently focused on it. That’s the hole that [we’re] filling, and the way that we do that is through our full time team of. about two dozen people and our now more than 14,000 tech and digital volunteers.

TC: Are all of these volunteers finding you? And when they do offer to help, do they have a campaign in mind or do you assign them to whomever needs the help most?

JA: It’s sort of a double-opt-in system that we’ve built, so you sign up, you tell us your hometown, in addition to where you live now and we will try to match on affinity. But we first match on skill set. So we talked to all the campaign and we develop projects with them, and we know if it’s an email project, it needs these skill sets. Then an  email goes out to people with those skill sets.

TC: You’ve suggested that part of why Democrats have fallen so far behind is because of the way their campaigns are structured. Is it different on the Republican side? Do they have a more unified digital operation?

JA: It’s different on the Republican side — and not exclusively about tech and digital — for a couple of reasons. The Republicans in general are a much more centralized organization. When the RNC or [other] leaders say to do things, it trickles down, and people do it. I’m sure a lot of people have heard the saying that Republicans fall in line and Democrats fall in love. There’s nothing that I’ve heard and understood to be more true than that. The Democrats are just much more decentralized, so it’s hard for things to trickle down as much.

The Republicans also started focusing on digital maybe 10 years ago and they operate much more on their donor side like a conglomerate [whereas] the Democrats operate much more like a portfolio [and] there’s not as much cooperation; it’s just that’s it’s just not happening. So [major donors like the] Koch [brothers] and the Mercer [family] not only believed In digital, but there’s a shared infrastructure there. They have, for example, a data exchange that they’ve had for eight years. The Democrats are still building a first version of theirs, and there are two or three versions of a centralized data exchange, which is the opposite of the point of centralization.

TC: Where are you focusing most of your time and energy?

JA: At the state legislative level, which is where Republican fight, too. The elbows are a lot less sharp, so we’ve been able to make inroads there, helping almost 500 campaigns on almost 700 projects over the last three years. But also, the state level campaigns are these concentric circles that overlap between incredibly strategic, incredibly cheap, and incredibly ignored.

State legislatures control basically every major issue that anyone cares about. That includes health care, voting rights, the environment, education, [and] a woman’s right to choose. If Roe v. Wade gets overturned. It’s not that abortion [becomes] illegal; it’s that the states will decide. The state legislatures in most states also control federal redistricting. So if you own the state legislatures, you actually own all those issues.

State legislators are about one 100th of the cost of a federal race, too. It’s just a good ROI decision. People need to understand that Republicans run things like a business, and they make very good ROI-based decisions. I don’t find that to be true with Democrats nearly enough. You have very analytical people who, in their normal lives, are extremely focused on ROI, yet when it comes to politics, they’re just purely emotional. I understand it, but it doesn’t serve the end goal.

TC: This is because they’re decentralized?

JA: We were showing one of our tools to one of the state Democratic parties, and their comment was, ‘Oh, we try to build this every two years.’ When they build [something], they don’t if that’s happening in Maine. They don’t show it to Michigan. It’s not because they don’t like each other. They just don’t talk. And so every two years, your donors are paying to rebuild the same thing. And there isn’t any standard tech or digital training for candidates or their staffers.

When we go into states, we provide that, [and] not in the sense that we’re going to make them gurus of how to run digital ads or data, but so they understand why it’s different and what the power of digital to make them more demanding of whoever they’re working [including paid consultants] on the digital side.

TC: You’re saying it’s chaos out there. You’re giving these campaigns tools and information they didn’t have, but of course, campaigns disband. Is anyone holding on to the tools and information that you’re providing them?

JA: The whole mission of tech for campaigns is to be the permanent tech and digital arm for the Democrats. As you rightly said, campaigns disband every two years and break down completely. Within a week and a half, everyone scatters. So you can’t expect that to change completely. [But we hope to be] this lasting presence in tech and digital that subsists cycle over cycle and in between cycles — to be this permanent presence that can build a real competitive advantage. Because if you break everything down every two years, you’ll never win at tech and digital.

TC: How do you fund your work? Through donations? Grants? Is there a money-making component of this business?

JA: We’re a 527 nonprofit, so we are mostly sustained by donations from individuals and organization. Because of campaign finance, we do sell software that we build, but it’s not going to be a it’s not a big business.

TC: In ‘Silicon Valley,’ politics have become so charged. Are the people who volunteer fearful of revealing their political affiliations in a way that they perhaps weren’t before? Or is the opposite happening?

JA:  I feel like there’s a lot more desire for people to be outspoken in the last few years, even more so than  between 2016 and 2018. Because things have gotten so out of control, people really want a way to channel their frustration and anger and sadness. So we don’t we don’t find that people want to hide it, no.

TC: Some readers are Donald Trump supporters. Some are Biden supporters who might want to help. Is there anything specific you’d want them to know, heading into the election?

JA: First, I’d say, don’t despair. We are we are solving this. [But] it’s not a one-month or even a one-cycle solve, so  get in touch with us about what you can do.

The TikTok deal solves quite literally nothing

Well… that was pointless.

After debasing the idea of free commerce in the U.S in the name of a misplaced security concern, stringing along several multi-billion dollar companies that embarrassed themselves in the interest of naked greed, and demanding that the U.S. government get a cut of the profits, the TikTok saga we’ve been watching the past few weeks finally appears to be over.

A flurry of announcement late Saturday night indicate that the TikTok deal was actually a politically-oriented shakedown to boost the cloud infrastructure business of key supporters of the President of the United States.

Oracle, whose cloud infrastructure services run a laughable fourth to AWS, Alphabet*, and Microsoft, will be taking a 20 percent stake in TikTok alongside partner Walmart in what will be an investment round before TikTok Global (as the new entity will be called) goes public on an American stock exchange.

According to a statement from TikTok, Oracle will become TikTok’s “trusted technology partner” and will be responsible for hosting all U.S. user data and securing associated computer systems to ensure U.S. national security requirements are fully satisfied. “We are currently working with Walmart on a commercial partnership as well,” according to the statement from TikTok.

pic.twitter.com/jWxjnAIwZQ

— TikTok_Comms (@tiktok_comms) September 19, 2020

Meanwhile, Oracle indicated that all the concerns from the White House, U.S. Treasury, and Congress over TikTok had nothing to do with the service’s selection of Oracle as its cloud provider. In its statement, Oracle said that “This technical decision by TikTok was heavily influenced by Zoom’s recent success in moving a large portion of its video conferencing capacity to the Oracle Public Cloud.”

Here’s how CNBC reporter Alex Sherman has the ownership structure breaking down, per “a person familiar with the matter. Oracle gets 12.5%, Walmart gets 7.5% and ByteDance gets the remaining 80%. The Trump administration is claiming that US investors will own 53% of TikTok because ByteDance (TikTok’s parent) is backed by venture capital investors that hold a 40% stake in the parent company.

So the ownership of TikTok Global will be, according to a person familiar with the matter:
Oracle – 12.5%
Walmart – 7.5%
ByteDance – 80% …

But 40% of ByteDance’s ownership is US venture capital funding. That’s how the Trump admin is calculating this deal as “majority US $”

— Alex Sherman (@sherman4949) September 20, 2020

 

The deal benefits everyone except U.S. consumers and people who have actual security concerns about TikTok’s algorithms and the ways they can be used to influence opinion in the U.S.

TikTok’s parent company ByteDance gets to maintain ownership of the U.S. entity, Oracle gets a huge new cloud customer to boost its ailing business, Walmart gets access to teens to sell stuff, and U.S. customer data is no safer (it’s just now in the hands of U.S. predators instead of foreign ones).

To be clear, data privacy and security is a major concern, but it’s not one that’s a concern when it comes to TikTok necessarily (and besides, the Chinese government has likely already acquired whatever data they want to on U.S. customers).

For many observers, the real concern with TikTok was that the company’s Chinese owners may be pressured by Beijing to manipulate its algorithm to promote or suppress content. Companies in China — including its internet giants — are required to follow the country’s intelligence and cloud security law mandating complete adherence with all government orders for data.

The Commerce Department in its statement said that “In light of recent positive developments, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, at the direction of President Trump, will delay the prohibition of identified transactions pursuant to Executive Order 13942, related to the TikTok mobile application that would have been effective on Sunday, September 20, 2020, until September 27, 2020 at 11:59 p.m.” So that’s a week reprieve.

So all this sound and fury … for what? The best investment return in all of these shenanigans is almost certainly Oracle co-CEO Safra Catz’ investment into Trump, who in addition to being a heavy donor to the Trump administration, also joined the presidential transition committee back in 2016. Thank god the U.S. saved TikTok from the crony capitalism of China. Let’s just hope they enjoy the crony capitalism of Washington DC.

*An earlier version of this article referred to AWS, Amazon and Microsoft. AWS and Amazon are the same company. I was typing fast. I’ve corrected the error.

Extra Crunch Friday roundup: Edtech funding surges, Poland VC survey, inside Shift’s SPAC plan, more

I live in San Francisco, but I work an East Coast schedule to get a jump on the news day. So I’d already been at my desk for a couple of hours on Wednesday morning when I looked up and saw this:

What color is the sky this morning pic.twitter.com/nt5dZp5wWc

— Walter Thompson (@YourProtagonist) September 9, 2020

As unsettling as it was to see the natural environment so transformed, I still got my work done. This is not to boast: I have a desk job and a working air filter. (People who make deliveries in the toxic air or are homeschooling their children while working from home during a global pandemic, however, impress the hell out of me.)

Not coincidentally, two of the Extra Crunch stories that ran since our Tuesday newsletter tie directly into what’s going on outside my window:

As this guest post predicted, a suboptimal attempt I made to track a delayed package using interactive voice response (IVR) indeed poisoned my customer experience, and;

Sheltering in place to avoid the novel coronavirus — and wildfire smoke — is fueling growth in the video-game industry, perhaps one factor in Unity Software Inc.’s plan to go public ahead of competitor Epic Games. In a two-part series, we looked at how the company has expanded beyond games and shared a detailed financial breakdown.

We covered a lot of ground this week, so scroll down or visit the recently redesigned Extra Crunch home page. If you’d like to receive this roundup via email each Tuesday and Friday, please click here.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch; I hope you have a relaxing and safe weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor
@yourprotagonist


Bear and bull cases for Unity’s IPO

In a two-part series that ran on TechCrunch and Extra Crunch, former media columnist Eric Peckham returned to share his analysis of Unity Software Inc.’s S-1 filing.

Part one is a deep dive that explains how the company has grown beyond gaming to develop multiple revenue streams and where it’s headed.

For part two on Extra Crunch, he studied the company’s numbers to offer some context for its approximately $11 billion valuation.


10 Poland-based investors discuss trends, opportunities and the road ahead

The Palace of Culture and Science is standing reminder of communism in Warsaw, Masovian Voivodeship, Poland.

Image Credits: Edwin Remsberg (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

As we’ve covered previously, the COVID-19 pandemic is making the world a lot smaller.

Investors who focus on their own backyards still have an advantage, but the ability to set up a quick coffee meeting with a promising investor is no longer one of them.

Even though some VCs are cutting first checks after Zoom calls, regional investors’ personal networks are still a trump card. Tourists will always rely on guide books, however, which is why we continue to survey investors around the world.

A Dealroom report issued this summer determined that 97 VC funds backed more than 1,600 funding rounds in Poland last year. With over 2,400 early- and late-stage startups and 400,000 engineers in the country, it’s easy to see why foreign investors are taking notice.

Editor-at-large Mike Butcher reached out to several investors who focus on Warsaw and Poland in general to learn more about the startups fueling their interest across fintech, gaming, security and other sectors:

  • Bryony Cooper, managing partner, Arkley Brinc VC
  • Anna Wnuk-Błażejczyk, investor relations manager, Experior.vc
  • Rafał Roszak, investment director, YouNick Mint
  • Michal Mroczkowski, partner, Market One Capital
  • Marcus Erken, partner, Sunfish Partners
  • Borys Musielak, partner, SMOK Ventures
  • Mathias Åsberg, partner, Nextgrid
  • Kuba Dudek, SpeedUp Venture Capital Group
  • Marcin Laczynski, partner, Next Road Ventures
  • Michał Rokosz, partner, Inovo Venture Partners

We’ll run the conclusion of his survey next Tuesday.


Brands that hyper-personalize will win the next decade

Customer Relationship Management and Leader Concepts on Whiteboard

Image Credits: cnythzl (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Even for fledgling startups, creating a robust customer service channel — or at least one that doesn’t annoy people — is a reliable way to keep users in the sales funnel.

Using AI and automation is fine, but now that consumers have grown used to asking phones and smart speakers to predict the weather and read recipe instructions, their expectations are higher than ever.

If you’re trying to figure out what people want from hyper-personalized customer experiences and how you can operationalize AI to give them what they’re after, start here.


VCs pour funding into edtech startups as COVID-19 shakes up the market

For today’s edition of The Exchange, Natasha Mascarenhas joined Alex Wilhelm to examine how the pandemic-fueled surge of interest in edtech is manifesting on the funding front.

The numbers suggest that funding will far surpass the sector’s high-water mark set in 2018, so the duo studied the numbers through August 31, which included a number of mega-rounds that exceeded $100 million.

“Now the challenge for the sector will be keeping its growth alive in 2021, showing investors that their 2020 bets were not merely wagers made during a single, overheated year,” they conclude.


How to respond to a data breach

Digital Binary Code on Red Background. Cybercrime Concept

Image Credits: WhataWin (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The odds are low that someone’s going to enter my home and steal my belongings. I still lock my door when I leave the house, however, and my valuables are insured. I’m an optimist, not a fool.

Similarly: Is your startup’s cybersecurity strategy based on optimism, or do you have an actual response plan in case of a data breach?

Security reporter Zack Whittaker has seen some shambolic reactions to security lapses, which is why he turned in a post-mortem about a corporation that got it right.

“Once in a while, a company’s response almost makes up for the daily deluge of hypocrisy, obfuscation and downright lies,” says Zack.


Shift’s George Arison shares 6 tips for taking your company public via a SPAC

Number 6 By Railroad Tracks During Sunset

Image Credits: Eric Burger/EyeEm (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

There’s a lot of buzz about special purpose acquisition companies these days.

Used-car marketplace Shift announced its SPAC in June 2020, and is on track to complete the process in the next few months, so co-founder/co-CEO George Arison wrote an Extra Crunch guest post to share what he has learned.

Step one: “If you go the SPAC route, you’ll need to become an expert at financial engineering.”


Dear Sophie: What is a J-1 visa and how can we use it?

Image Credits: Sophie Alcorn

Dear Sophie:

I am a software engineer and have been looking at job postings in the U.S. I’ve heard from my friends about J-1 Visa Training or J-1 Research.

What is a J-1 status? What are the requirements to qualify? Do I need to find a U.S. employer willing to sponsor me before I apply for one? Can I get a visa? How long could I stay?

— Determined in Delhi


As direct listing looms, Palantir insiders are accelerating stock sales

While we count down to the September 23 premiere of NYSE: PLTR, Danny Crichton looked at the “robust secondary market” that has allowed some investors to acquire shares early.

“Given the number of people involved and the number of shares bought and sold over the past 18 months, we can get some insight regarding how insiders perceive Palantir’s value,” he writes.


Use ‘productive paranoia’ to build cybersecurity culture at your startup

Vector illustration of padlocks and keys in a repeating pattern against a blue background.

Image Credits: JakeOlimb / Getty Images

Zack Whittaker interviewed Bugcrowd CTO, founder and chairman Casey Ellis about the best practices he recommends for creating a startup culture that takes security seriously.

“It’s an everyone problem,” said Ellis, who encouraged founders to promote the notion of “productive paranoia.”

Now that the threat envelope includes everyone from marketing to engineering, employees need to “internalize the fact that bad stuff can and does happen if you do it wrong,” Ellis said.

Twitter hides Trump tweet behind notice for potentially dissuading people from voting

Twitter flagged one of President Donald Trump’s tweets on Monday, placing it behind a notice that warns users it violates the platform’s rules against dissuading people from voting.

In the tweet, posted on Monday, Trump claimed mail drop boxes are a “voter security disaster” and also said they are “not COVID sanitized.” Twitter’s notice says that the tweet violates its rules about civic and election integrity, but it “determined it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible.” Users can still retweet it with comment, but are nor prevented from liking, replying, or retweeting it alone.

Through its Twitter Safety account, the company gave more details, saying that the tweet had been flagged for “making misleading health claims that could potentially dissuade people from participation in voting.” It also cited a section from its Civic Integrity Policy, highlighting a line that forbids users from making “misleading claims about process procedures or techniques which could dissuade people from participating” in elections.

Per our policies, this Tweet will remain on the service given its relevance to ongoing public conversation. Engagements with the Tweet will be limited. People will be able to Retweet with Comment, but not Like, Reply, or Retweet it. pic.twitter.com/USuaRr5ING

— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) August 23, 2020

Mail-in ballots, which are expected to be used more widely by states in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, have become a partisan issue leading up to the November presidential election. Despite what Trump said in his tweet, expert consensus is that mail-in ballots and absentee ballots are both secure. Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states COVID-19 is spread mostly through close contact from person to person. Though it is possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose, or possibly eyes, the CDC says this is “not thought to be main way the virus spreads.”

After years of controversy over how the platform handled the president’s tweets that contained misleading, false, or incendiary statements, Twitter has recently begun taking a harder stance on Trump’s account. In May, Twitter applied fact-check labels about mail-in ballots to two of Trump’s tweets.

Days later, Trump signed an executive order targeting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives internet companies legal protections that shield them from liability for user-created content while also giving them power to make moderation decisions. The executive order argued that platforms forfeit their rights to legal protection when they moderate content, as Twitter did when it applied fact-check labels to Trump’s tweets.

Though it is not clear if Trump’s executive order is legally enforceable, it may serve to intimidate some platforms. Twitter called the order a “reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law,” and its actions on Trump’s tweets today may indicate that the company does not see it as a threat.

TechCrunch has contacted the White House and Twitter for comment.

Taiwan set to bar Chinese streaming services like iQiyi and Tencent’s WeTV

iQiyi and Tencent’s WeTV, two of China’s most popular streaming services, may be banned in Taiwan next month as the government prepares to close regulatory loopholes that enabled them to operate through local partnerships.

In an announcement posted this week, Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs said Taiwanese companies and individuals will be prohibited from providing services for OTT firms based in mainland China. The proposed regulation will be open to public comment for two weeks before it takes effect on Sept. 3.

Though Taiwan, which has a population of about 24 million people, is self-governed, the Chinese government claims it as a territory. The proposed regulations means Taiwan is joining other countries, including India and the United States, in taking a harsher stance against Chinese tech companies.

iQiyi and Tencent’s WeTV set up operations in Taiwan through “illegal” partnerships, the Ministry of Economic Affairs said in its announcement, working through their Hong Kong subsidiaries to strike agreements with Taiwanese companies.

In April, the NCC declared that mainland Chinese OTT firms are not allowed to operate in Taiwan under the Act Governing Relations between People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area. Cabinet spokesperson Kolas Yotaka said at the time that Chinese firms and their Taiwanese partners were operating at “the edges of the law.”

But NCC spokesperson Wong Po-Tsung said the proposed regulation isn’t targeted solely at Chinese OTT operators. According to the Taipei Times, he stated “the act was necessary because the cable television service operators have asked that the commission apply across-the-board standards to regulate all audiovisual service platforms, which should include OTT services. It was not stipulated just to address the problems caused by iQiyi and other Chinese OTT operators.”

Wong added that Taiwan is a democratic country and its government would not block people from watching content from iQiyi and other Chinese streaming services.

Once the act is passed, Taiwanese companies that break it will face fines of NTD $50,000 to NTD $5 million [about USD $1,700 to USD $170,000].

TechCrunch has contacted iQiyi and Tencent for comment.

Daily Crunch: Trump bans transactions with ByteDance and Tencent

Trump escalates his campaign against Chinese tech companies, Facebook extends work from home until the middle of 2021 and Netflix adds support for Hindi. Here’s your Daily Crunch for August 7, 2020.

The big story: Trump signs orders banning US business with TikTok owner ByteDance and Tencent’s WeChat

Both orders will take effect in 45 days, but its specific impact is unclear since Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross will apparently not identify what transactions are covered until then.

This comes after Trump had already said that he was banning TikTok unless the app is sold to an American owner. (Specifically Microsoft, which has acknowledged that it’s in acquisition talks.)

TikTok hit back against the order by saying that it was “issued without any due process” and would risk “undermining global businesses’ trust in the United States’ commitment to the rule of law.”

The tech giants

Facebook extends coronavirus work from home policy until July 2021 — Facebook has joined Google in saying it will allow employees to work from home until the middle of next year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Netflix’s latest effort to make inroads in India: Support for Hindi — Netflix has rolled out support for Hindi, a language spoken by nearly half a billion people in India.

Judge says Uber, Lyft preliminary injunction ruling to come in ‘a matter of days’ — Lyft argued that reclassifying drivers as employees would cause irreparable harm.

Startups, funding and venture capital

The rules of VC are being broken — The latest episode of Equity discusses “rolling funds” and how they could change the VC landscape.

Mashroom raises £4M for its ‘end-to-end’ lettings and property management service — The startup pitches itself as going “beyond the tenant-finding service” to include the entire rental journey.

Wendell Brooks has resigned as president of Intel Capital — Anthony Lin, who has been leading mergers and acquisitions and international investing, will take over on an interim basis.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

How to pick the right Series A investors — It’s important for founders to get to know the people coming onto their board, and Jake Saper of Emergence Capital has some thoughts on how to do that.

IoT and data science will boost foodtech in the post-pandemic era — Three “must-dos” for post-pandemic retail grocers: rely on the data, rely on the biology and rely on the hardware.

Survey: Tell us what you think of Extra Crunch — Like Extra Crunch? Don’t like Extra Crunch? Tell us why!

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Civic tech platform Mobilize launches a census hub for the 2020 count’s critical final stretch —The new site, GetOutTheCount.com, will amplify nonprofits’ census efforts and collect them in one place.

Federal judge approves ending consent decrees that prevented movie studios from owning theaters — U.S. District Court Judge Analisa Torres cited the rise of streaming services like Netflix as one of the reasons for her decision.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

U.S. government may finalize ban on federal contractors using equipment from Huawei this week

The Trump administration is set to finalize regulations this week that ban the United States government from working with contractors who use technology from five Chinese companies: Huawei, ZTE, Hikvision, Dahua and Hytera Communications, according to a Reuters report.

The ban was first introduced as a provision in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that prevents government agencies from signing contracts with companies that use equipment, services and systems from Huawei, ZTE, Hytera, Hikvision and Dahua, or any of their subsidiaries and affiliates, citing national security concerns.

Contractors were given until August 13, 2020 to comply, but immediately began voicing concerns over the ambiguity of the law.

More recently, the National Defense Industrial Association, a trade group, asked the government to extend the deadline because it said many contractors are currently dealing with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, reported Defense News.

Another challenge for federal contractors is that the companies on the blacklist are global market leaders in their respective categories, making it harder to find alternatives. For example, Huawei and ZTE are two of the largest telecom equipment providers in the world; Dahua and Hikvision are two of the biggest providers of surveillance equipment and cameras; and Hytera is a market leader for two-way radios.

The ban is one of many entanglements Huawei has had with the U.S. government since it was first identified as a national security threat, along with ZTE, in a 2012 Congressional report.

In May 2019, Huawei filed a legal motion against the provision in the National Defense Authorization Act, with the company’s chief legal officer stating that “politicians in the U.S. are using the strength of an entire nation to come after a private company.”

The United States, however, is not the only country with national security concerns about Huawei. On Thursday, for example, Reuters reported that Telecom Italia (TIM) decided to exclude Huawei from its tender for 5G equipment in Italy and Brazil, as the Italian government deliberates whether to bar Huawei’s tech from the country’s 5G network. Huawei told Reuters that “the security and development of digital Italy should be based on an approach grounded in facts and not baseless allegations.”

The United Kingdom is also reportedly considering a similar ban on Huawei in its 5G network.

Twitter applies its new “manipulated media” label to video retweeted by Trump

A video retweeted by Donald Trump is the first to be marked with Twitter’s new “manipulated media” tag. The company formally unveiled a new policy last month that said media that has been “significantly and deceptively altered or fabricated” is likely to be labeled if it is determined to be deliberately misleading.

The video, originally tweeted by White House director of social media Dan Scavino and shared by Trump, used footage taken during a speech by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and was edited to make it appear as if Biden, speaking in Kansas City on Saturday, misspoke and accidentally endorsed Trump for re-election.

In the edited version of the video, Biden appears to say “Excuse me. We can only re-elect Donald Trump.” What Biden actually said was “Excuse me. We can only re-elect Donald Trump if in fact we get engaged in this circular firing squad here. It’s gotta be a positive campaign.”

Just in: Twitter applied its new manipulated media label for the first time to a deceptively edited video of Joe Biden. It was shared by White House social media director Dan Scavino, and retweeted by the president. pic.twitter.com/PggcCwMNkx

— Cat Zakrzewski (@Cat_Zakrzewski) March 8, 2020

The manipulated media label began appearing on the video to some users on Sunday evening. Twitter first announced a draft of its new policy in November, which it said was created after gathering user feedback and consulting with academic experts like Witness, the Reuters Institute and New York University researchers.

In order to determine if a piece of media violates the policy, Twitter says it looks at its metadata, the tweet’s context and the Twitter user’s public information.

Twitter’s new policy was enacted after years of criticism that the company has not done enough to prevent harassment on the platform. It has also faced calls from Democrats and other critics of Trump to remove the president from this platform, including last October after they said he posted tweets meant to intimidate individuals involved in the impeachment investigation against him, and in 2018 when he made a tweet that antagonized North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over a potential nuclear war.

In each case, Twitter said it would reveal questionable tweets by public leaders, but believes keeping them on the platform is a part of public discourse.

Introducing ‘Dear Sophie,’ an advice column for U.S.-bound immigrant employees

Sophie Alcorn
Contributor

Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

Extra Crunch is excited to announce the launch of “Dear Sophie,” an advice column with answers for all your questions on attracting, hiring and retaining immigrant employees — and more.

Dear Sophie is a collaborative forum hosted by ExtraCrunch and curated by Sophie Alcorn, certified as a Specialist Attorney in Immigration and Nationality Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. Sophie is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law, the fastest-growing immigration law firm in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.”


Dear Reader,

As I pack my bags to speak at TechCrunch Disrupt in Berlin this week, I’m happy to announce the first edition of my new column, Dear Sophie. I’m excited to answer your questions about U.S. immigration!

And, If you’re in the area, I invite you to join me at Disrupt Berlin 2019. You can use promo code ALCORN for discounted admission and meet me in person for a free consultation with CrunchMatch, or attend one of my two sessions: 

Hope to see you there,

Sophie


Dear Sophie: I’m scared: I feel like I should really be in Silicon Valley to grow my company, but everything I read about immigration makes it sound so hard. Is my dream possible?

— Dreaming in Dresden

Dear Dreaming: Yes, coming to the U.S. to build a startup is absolutely possible. In fact, I see founders like you do it all the time. Your dream is valid and definitely worth pursuing.

The first piece of advice I’d give you is to be careful about which news sources you trust! You might not be getting the whole story. While dramatic changes are taking place in the United States, we still have a functioning immigration system that allows people to come live and work here — people just like you. 

The second piece of advice I have is to research the many visa and green card options that can allow you to come to the United States and grow your company (you can read about them on my blog). You’ll find that some visas grant you the ability to work for the short-term or the long-term (potentially), and some allow you to visit and see what things are like here. 

With these visas, you can find a co-founder and build the early stage of your company, establish a U.S. branch of your existing business, seek venture capital and so much more. 

The third piece of advice I have is to really clarify why you want to come to America — that way, you can be strategic about achieving your goals. You might require a little guidance here, which is one example of where immigration lawyers like myself can be helpful. 

When I meet people in your situation, I reassure them that, not only are they safe to dream with me, but I’ve also helped hundreds of people just like them realize their dreams, even when they didn’t believe it was possible. Almost everybody who comes here once asked the same questions you’re asking.

My last piece of advice is simply to follow your heart. The world needs your ideas and contributions. There are lots of resources and ways to get informed and educated, which is the first step on this journey. Once you have a clear vision, you can work to make your dream a reality — It’s not always easy, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.

You’ve already asked for help, which is a great way to get started. I wish you the best!

Dear Sophie: I have a startup that has been quite successful in Germany. What’s the best way for me to spend some time in the United States exploring product-market fit, gauging business development, and talking to venture capitalists?

— Founder in Frankfurt

Dear Founder: Congratulations on your startup! And bravo for considering taking steps toward strengthening the U.S. marketplace. 

The first thing I suggest you decide is how long it will likely take for you to accomplish your goals. 

If you think you can get the answers you need in less than 90 days, the answer is pretty simple: apply for ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization), which is available to citizens of about 40 countries (including Germany). You’re allowed to visit for business or pleasure with ESTA, but you’re not allowed to work — and you must definitely depart the United States before the end of the authorized period. 

ESTA could be great for a short business trip or a brief accelerator program in Silicon Valley. Be careful with programs that run longer than 90 days. I’ve seen founders in these longer programs leave on day 88 to go back home for a week and then return to the U.S. to complete the program, hoping that this is a safe workaround of the time limit. Remember that ESTA is a non-immigrant status, and if Customs and Border Protection suspects that you are trying to live here or work here, they have the authority to deny your entry to the United States. 

On the other hand, if you know you’ll need to spend 4-6 months in the U.S. without interruption, I suggest you talk to an attorney about the possibility of applying for a B-1/B-2 visitor visa (even if you have ESTA). A visitor visa allows you to stay in the U.S. for up to six months on a single visit. 

People often ask me how long they can stay in the U.S. during a calendar year or how long they need to be outside of the United States after a six-month visit. While there is no fixed answer to these questions, I remind them that ESTA, B-1, and B-2 are non-immigrant statuses, Customs and Border Protection has the authority to deny you entry if you appear to be living or working in the U.S. In my experience, reentry seems OK when people are spending less than 50% of the time in the country as visitors. Still, it’s always best to talk with an attorney about your particular situation. For example, sometimes our clients request that we provide them with letters of support explaining why their trip is temporary, which they can show to the officers at the airport if they get questioned.

I encourage people in your situation to at least come for 90 days. It’s a great opportunity to network, have some great conversations, and clarify your long-term goals in the U.S. Take some time to think about it, reach out online, so you have things set up before you arrive, and plan out your finances so you can make the most of your trip. I’m wishing you every success!

Dear Sophie: I am a venture capitalist, and my fund recently had great success. We’re now raising a second round and building out the infrastructure of our organization. I have a brilliant contractor working for me who scouts new startups. She was born in India, just got her Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from an Ivy League university, and was also recently accepted back into a Master’s program there. I want to help her plan for her future. Can she keep working for me after OPT, or should she go back to school? How do these choices affect her prospects for short-term and long-term chances for immigration?

— Venture in Venice Beach

Can America ever rebuild its neighborhoods and communities?

We talk a lot about startup ecosystems around these parts, and for good reason. Strong ecosystems have great reservoirs of talent congregated close together, a culture built around helping one another on ambitious projects, and sufficient risk capital to ensure that interesting projects have the resources to get underway.

Strip off the ecosystem layer though, and you are left with the actual, physical manifestation of a city or region — its housing, its transportation and mobility options, and its infrastructure. And if Charles Marohn’s Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity is any indication, a whole heck of a swath of America has little hope of ever tapping into the modern knowledge economy or creating the kind of sustainable growth that builds “Strong Towns.”

Across the country, Marohn sees evidence of what he dubs a “Municipal Ponzi scheme.” Cities — armed with economic development dollars and consultants galore — focus their energies and budgets on new housing subdivisions as well as far-flung, auto-dependent office parks and strip malls, all the while ignoring the long-term debt, maintenance costs, and municipal burdens they are transferring to future generations of residents. “The growth creates an illusion of wealth, a broad, cultural misperception that the growing community is become [sic] stronger and more prosperous. Instead, with each new development, they become increasingly more insolvent,” the author writes.

He provides a multitude of examples, but few are as striking as that of Lafayette, Louisiana:

As one example, the city of Lafayette, Louisiana, had 5 feet of pipe per person in 1949. By 2015, that had grown to 50 feet, an increase of 1,000%. They had 2.4 fire hydrants per 1,000 people in 1949, but by 2015, they had 51.3. This is a 2,140% increase. Over the same period, median household income in Lafayette grew just 160% from an inflation-adjusted $27,700 to $45,000. And if national trends hold locally in Lafayette, which they almost certainly do, household savings decreased while personal debt skyrocketed. Lafayette grew its liabilities thousands of times over in service of a theory of national growth, yet its families are poorer.

The author contextualizes just how weird the modern American suburb and community is in the grand sweep of human history, where co-location, walkability, and human-scale density weren’t just norms, but necessities. The lack of thoughtful, dynamic planning that allows cities to adapt and evolve over time eventually comes to tear at the vitality of the town itself. “Only the richest country in the world could build so much and make such poor use of it.”

Marohn has spent decades in urban planning and also runs Strong Towns, a non-profit advocacy organization that tries to create more sustainable cities by attempting to guide the urban planning conversation toward better models of adaptable growth. He brings an authority to the topic that is heartening, and the book is absolutely on the right vector on how to start to think about urban planning going forward.

In addition to his discussions around municipal finance, he makes the critical connections between urban planning and some of the most pressing challenges facing America today. He notes how the disintegration of tight-knit communities has exacerbated issues like drug abuse and mental health, and how the focus on big-box retail development has undermined smaller-scale entrepreneurship.

Even more heartening in some ways is that the solutions are seemingly so easy. For example, one is to simply account for the true, long-term costs of infrastructure and economic development dollars, properly accounting for “value per acre.”

Yet, the flaws in the book are manifold, and I couldn’t help but shake my head on numerous occasions at the extent to which movements to improve urban planning always seem to shudder on the weight of reality.

Nowhere are those flaws more glaring than over the actual preferences of the residents of these cities themselves. As anyone who lives in San Francisco or Palo Alto understands, there is a serious contingent of NIMBYs who consistently vote against housing and density regardless of its effects on inequality or urban quality. Kim-Mai Cutler wrote one of the definitive pieces on this topic five years ago right here at TechCrunch, and yet, all these years later, the same dynamics still animates local politics in California and across the world.

The prescriptions offered in Strong Towns are not only correct, they are almost incontestable. “Instead of prioritizing maintenance based on condition or age, cities must prioritize based on financial productivity,” Marohn writes. Public dollars should be spent on the highest-impact maintenance projects. Who is really against that?

But, people are, as evidenced by city council meetings all across the United States and the simple ground truth that cities don’t spend their dollars wisely. Whether your issue is housing, or climate change, or economic development, or inequality, the reality is that residents vote, and their voices are heard. That leads to Marohn writing:

As a voter, as a property owner within a municipal corporation, as a person living cooperatively with my neighbors in a community, I can respect that some people prefer development styles that are financially ruinous to my city. My local government should not feel any obligation to provide those options, particularly at the price points people expect.

Yet, what should one do if 70-80% of a city’s voters literally want to jump off the proverbial cliff?

Ultimately, should cities be responsive to their own voters? If San Francisco refuses to build more transit-oriented development and in the process exacerbates the climate change literally setting the Bay Area on fire, shouldn’t the damn voters burn straight to the ground?

Peak California liberalism is painting a mural honoring a 16 year-old climate activist within a year of her rise to prominence while spending the last 20 years refusing to build the dense multifamily housing we need to actually reduce our impact on the environment. https://t.co/9w56sbtNRy

— Strang Gang (@ryxcommar) November 9, 2019

Marohn, who talks over several pages of his political evolution from Republican to complex libertarian communalist, never faithfully addresses this core problem with the Strong Towns thesis, or indeed, the entire activism around urban politics today. “American culture spends a lot of time debating what should be done, but hardly any time discussing who should make the decision,” he writes. But we do — we did — discuss who makes the decisions, and our political systems actively respond to those decision-makers: local voters.

American towns are in a perilous state – and that is precisely what people demanded and received. Marohn criticizes the planning profession for its lack of municipal sustainability, but seemingly is willing to substitute one group of far-flung experts with another to override the locals, presumably just with a different (better?) set of values.

In the final analysis, Strong Towns the book gets the fundamentals right. But will it change minds? I’m doubtful. It certainly doesn’t offer a clear guidebook on how local leaders can start to educate their neighbors and build the kinds of voter blocs required to get local, democratic change on these issues. Ultimately, the book feels like a smaller footnote to the worthy work of Strong Towns the organization, which ultimately will drive the activity needed to build change on these issues.

Facebook should ban campaign ads. End the lies.

Permitting falsehood in political advertising would work if we had a model democracy, but we don’t. Not only are candidates dishonest, but voters aren’t educated, and the media isn’t objective. And now, hyperlinks turn lies into donations and donations into louder lies. The checks don’t balance. What we face is a self-reinforcing disinformation dystopia.

That’s why if Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube don’t want to be the arbiters of truth in campaign ads, they should stop selling them. If they can’t be distributed safely, they shouldn’t be distributed at all.

No one wants historically untrustworthy social networks becoming the honesty police, deciding what’s factual enough to fly. But the alternative of allowing deception to run rampant is unacceptable. Until voter-elected officials can implement reasonable policies to preserve truth in campaign ads, the tech giants should go a step further and refuse to run them.

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This problem came to a head recently when Facebook formalized its policy of allowing politicians to lie in ads and refusing to send their claims to third-party fact-checkers. “We don’t believe, however, that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny” Facebook’s VP of policy Nick Clegg wrote.

The Trump campaign was already running ads with false claims about Democrats trying to repeal the Second Amendment and weeks-long scams about a “midnight deadline” for a contest to win the one-millionth MAGA hat.

Trump Ad

After the announcement, Trump’s campaign began running ads smearing potential opponent Joe Biden with widely debunked claims about his relationship with Ukraine. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter refused to remove the ad when asked by Biden.

In response to the policy, Elizabeth Warren is running ads claiming Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg endorses Trump because it’s allowing his campaign lies. She’s continued to press Facebook on the issue, asking “you can be in the disinformation-for-profit business, or you can hold yourself to some standards.”

We intentionally made a Facebook ad with false claims and submitted it to Facebook’s ad platform to see if it’d be approved. It got approved quickly and the ad is now running on Facebook. Take a look: pic.twitter.com/7NQyThWHgO

— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) October 12, 2019

It’s easy to imagine campaign ads escalating into an arms race of dishonesty.

Campaigns could advertise increasingly untrue and defamatory claims about each other tied to urgent calls for donations. Once all sides are complicit in the misinformation, lying loses its stigma, becomes the status quo, and ceases to have consequences. Otherwise, whichever campaign misleads more aggressively will have an edge.

“In open democracies, voters rightly believe that, as a general rule, they should be able to judge what politicians say themselves.” Facebook’s Clegg writes.

But as is emblematic of Facebook’s past mistakes, it’s putting too much idealistic faith in society. If all voters were well educated and we weren’t surrounded by hyperpartisan media from Fox News to far-left Facebook Pages, maybe this hands-off approach might work. But in reality, juicy lies spread further than boring truths, and plenty of “news” outlets are financially incentivized to share sensationalism and whatever keeps their team in power.

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Protecting the electorate should fall to legislators. But incumbents have few reasons to change the rules that got them their jobs. The FCC already has truth in advertising policies, but exempts campaign ads and a judge struck down a law mandating accuracy.

Granted, there have always been dishonest candidates, uninformed voters, and one-sided news outlets. But it’s all gotten worse. We’re in a post-truth era now where the spoils won through deceptive demagoguery are clear. Cable news and digitally native publications have turned distortion of facts into a huge business.

Most critically, targeted social network advertising combined with donation links create a perpetual misinformation machine. Politicians can target vulnerable demographics with frightening lies, then say only their financial contribution will let the candidate save them. A few clicks later and the candidate has the cash to buy more ads, amplifying more untruths and raising even more money. Without the friction of having to pick up the phone, mail a letter, or even type in a URL like TV ads request, the feedback loop is shorter and things spiral out of control.

Many countries including the UK, Ireland, and the EU ban or heavily restrict TV campaign ads. There’s plenty of precedent for policies keeping candidates’ money out of the most powerful communication mediums.

Campaign commercials on US television might need additional regulation as well. However, the lack of direct connections to donate buttons, microtargeting, and rapid variable testing weaken their potential for abuse. Individual networks can refuse ads for containing falsehoods as CNN recently did without the same backlash over bias that an entity as powerful as Facebook receives.

This is why the social networks should halt sales of political campaign ads now. They’re the one set of stakeholders with flexibility and that could make a united decision. You’ll never get all the politicians and media to be honest, or the public to understand, but just a few companies could set a policy that would protect democracy from the world’s . And they could do it without having to pick sides or make questionable decisions on a case-by-case basis. Just block them all from all candidates.

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Facebook wrote in response to Biden’s request to block the Trump ads that “Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is.”

But banning campaign ads would still leave room for open political expression that’s subject to public scrutiny. Social networks should continue to let politicians say what they want to their own followers, barring calls for violence. Tech giants can offer a degree of freedom of speech, just not freedom of reach. Whoever wants to listen can, but they shouldn’t be able to jam misinformation into the feeds of the unsuspecting.

If the tech giants want to stop short of completely banning campaign ads, they could introduce a format designed to minimize misinformation. Politicians could be allowed to simply promote themselves with a set of stock messages, but without the option to make claims about themselves or their opponents.

Campaign ads aren’t a huge revenue driver for social apps, nor are they a high-margin business nowadays. The Trump and Clinton campaigns spent only a combined $81 million on 2016 election ads, a fraction of Facebook’s $27 billion in revenue that year. $284 million was spent in total on 2018 midterm election ads versus Facebook’s $55 billion in revenue last year, says Tech For Campaigns. Zuckerberg even said that Facebook will lose money selling political ads because of all the moderators it hires to weed out election interference by foreign parties.

Surely, there would be some unfortunate repercussions from blocking campaign ads. New candidates in local to national elections would lose a tool for reducing the lead of incumbents, some of which have already benefited from years of advertising. Some campaign ads might be pushed “underground” where they’re not properly labeled, though the major spenders could be kept under watch.

If the social apps can still offer free expression through candidates’ own accounts, aren’t reliant on politicians’ cash to survive, won’t police specific lies in their promos, and would rather let the government regulate the situation, then they should respectfully decline to sell campaign advertising. Following the law isn’t enough until the laws adapt. This will be an ongoing issue through the 2020 election, and leaving the floodgates open is irresponsible.

If a game is dangerous, you don’t eliminate the referee. You stop playing until you can play safe.

Ethics in the age of autonomous vehicles

Earlier this month, TechCrunch held its inaugural Mobility Sessions event, where leading mobility-focused auto companies, startups, executives and thought leaders joined us to discuss all things autonomous vehicle technology, micromobility and electric vehicles.

Extra Crunch is offering members access to full transcripts of key panels and conversations from the event, such as Megan Rose Dickey‘s chat with Voyage CEO and co-founder Oliver Cameron and Uber’s prediction team lead Clark Haynes on the ethical considerations for autonomous vehicles.

Megan, Oliver and Clark talk through how companies should be thinking about ethics when building out the self-driving ecosystem, while also diving into the technical aspects of actually building an ethical transportation product. The panelists also discuss how their respective organizations handle ethics, representation and access internally, and how their approaches have benefited their offerings.

Clark Haynes: So we as human drivers, we’re naturally what’s called foveate. Our eyes go forward and we have some mirrors that help us get some situational awareness. Self-driving cars don’t have that problem. Self-driving cars are designed with 360-degree sensors. They can see everything around them.

But the interesting problem is not everything around you is important. And so you need to be thinking through what are the things, the people, the actors in the world that you might be interacting with, and then really, really think through possible outcomes there.

I work on the prediction problem of what’s everyone doing? Certainly, you need to know that someone behind you is moving in a certain way in a certain direction. But maybe that thing that you’re not really certain what it is that’s up in front of you, that’s the thing where you need to be rolling out 10, 20 different scenarios of what might happen and make certain that you can kind of hedge your bets against all of those.

For access to the full transcription below and for the opportunity to read through additional event transcripts and recaps, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

Megan Rose Dickey: Ready to talk some ethics?

Oliver Cameron: Born ready.

Clark Haynes: Absolutely.

Rose Dickey: I’m here with Oliver Cameron of Voyage, a self-driving car company that operates in communities, like retirement communities, for example. And with Clark Haynes of Uber, he’s on the prediction team for autonomous vehicles.

So some of you in the audience may remember, it was last October, MIT came out with something called the moral machine. And it essentially laid out 13 different scenarios involving self-driving cars where essentially someone had to die. It was either the old person or the young person, the black person, or the white person, three people versus one person. I’m sure you guys saw that, too.

So why is that not exactly the right way to be thinking about self-driving cars and ethics?

Haynes: This is the often-overused trolley problem of, “You can only do A or B choose one.” The big thing there is that if you’re actually faced with that as the hardest problem that you’re doing right now, you’ve already failed.

You should have been working harder to make certain you never ended up in a situation where you’re just choosing A or B. You should actually have been, a long time ago, looking at A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and like thinking through all possible outcomes as far as what your self-driving car could do, in low probability outcomes that might be happening.

Rose Dickey: Oliver, I remember actually, it was maybe a few months ago, you tweeted something about the trolley problem and how much you hate it.

Cameron: I think it’s one of those questions that doesn’t have an ideal answer today, because no one’s got self-driving cars deployed to tens of thousands of people experiencing these sorts of issues on the road. If we did an experiment, how many people here have ever faced that conundrum? Where they have to choose between a mother pushing a stroller with a child and a regular, normal person that’s just crossing the road?

Rose Dickey: We could have a quick show of hands. Has anyone been in that situation?

Hate speech, collusion, and the constitution

Half an hour into their two-hour testimony on Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey were asked about collaboration between social media companies. “Our collaboration has greatly increased,” Sandberg stated before turning to Dorsey and adding that Facebook has “always shared information with other companies.” Dorsey nodded in response, and noted for his part that he’s very open to establishing “a regular cadence with our industry peers.”

Social media companies have established extensive policies on what constitutes “hate speech” on their platforms. But discrepancies between these policies open the possibility for propagators of hate to game the platforms and still get their vitriol out to a large audience. Collaboration of the kind Sandberg and Dorsey discussed can lead to a more consistent approach to hate speech that will prevent the gaming of platforms’ policies.

But collaboration between competitors as dominant as Facebook and Twitter are in social media poses an important question: would antitrust or other laws make their coordination illegal?

The short answer is no. Facebook and Twitter are private companies that get to decide what user content stays and what gets deleted off of their platforms. When users sign up for these free services, they agree to abide by their terms. Neither company is under a First Amendment obligation to keep speech up. Nor can it be said that collaboration on platform safety policies amounts to collusion.

This could change based on an investigation into speech policing on social media platforms being considered by the Justice Department. But it’s extremely unlikely that Congress would end up regulating what platforms delete or keep online – not least because it may violate the First Amendment rights of the platforms themselves.

What is hate speech anyway?

Trying to find a universal definition for hate speech would be a fool’s errand, but in the context of private companies hosting user generated content, hate speech for social platforms is what they say is hate speech.

Facebook’s 26-page Community Standards include a whole section on how Facebook defines hate speech. For Facebook, hate speech is “anything that directly attacks people based on . . . their ‘protected characteristics’ — race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender, gender identity, or serious disability or disease.” While that might be vague, Facebook then goes on to give specific examples of what would and wouldn’t amount to hate speech, all while making clear that there are cases – depending on the context – where speech will still be tolerated if, for example, it’s intended to raise awareness.

Twitter uses a “hateful conduct” prohibition which they define as promoting “violence against or directly attacking or threatening other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease.” They also prohibit hateful imagery and display names, meaning it’s not just what you tweet but what you also display on your profile page that can count against you.

Both companies constantly reiterate and supplement their definitions, as new test cases arise and as words take on new meaning. For example, the two common slang words to describe Ukrainians by Russians and Russians by Ukrainians was determined to be hate speech after war erupted in Eastern Ukraine in 2014. An internal review by Facebook found that what used to be common slang had turned into derogatory, hateful language.

Would collaboration on hate speech amount to anticompetitive collusion?

Under U.S. antitrust laws, companies cannot collude to make anticompetitive agreements or try to monopolize a market. A company which becomes a monopoly by having a superior product in the marketplace doesn’t violate antitrust laws. What does violate the law is dominant companies making an agreement – usually in secret – to deceive or mislead competitors or consumers. Examples include price fixing, restricting new market entrants, or misrepresenting the independence of the relationship between competitors.

A Pew survey found that 68% of Americans use Facebook. According to Facebook’s own records, the platform had a whopping 1.47 billion daily active users on average for the month of June and 2.23 billion monthly active users as of the end of June – with over 200 million in the US alone. While Twitter doesn’t disclose its number of daily users, it does publish the number of monthly active users which stood at 330 million at last count, 69 million of which are in the U.S.

There can be no question that Facebook and Twitter are overwhelmingly dominant in the social media market. That kind of dominance has led to calls for breaking up these giants under antitrust laws.

Would those calls hold more credence if the two social giants began coordinating their policies on hate speech?

The answer is probably not, but it does depend on exactly how they coordinated. Social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat have grown large internal product policy teams that decide the rules for using their platforms, including on hate speech. If these teams were to get together behind closed doors and coordinate policies and enforcement in a way that would preclude smaller competitors from being able to enter the market, then antitrust regulators may get involved.

Antitrust would also come into play if, for example, Facebook and Twitter got together and decided to charge twice as much for advertising that includes hate speech (an obviously absurd scenario) – in other words, using their market power to affect pricing of certain types of speech that advertisers use.

In fact, coordination around hate speech may reduce anti-competitive concerns. Given the high user engagement around hate speech, banning it could lead to reduced profits for the two companies and provide an opening to upstart competitors.

Sandberg and Dorsey’s testimony Wednesday didn’t point to executives hell-bent on keeping competition out through collaboration. Rather, their potential collaboration is probably better seen as an industry deciding on “best practices,” a common occurrence in other industries including those with dominant market players.

What about the First Amendment?

Private companies are not subject to the First Amendment. The Constitution applies to the government, not to corporations. A private company, no matter its size, can ignore your right to free speech.

That’s why Facebook and Twitter already can and do delete posts that contravene their policies. Calling for the extermination of all immigrants, referring to Africans as coming from shithole countries, and even anti-gay protests at military funerals may be protected in public spaces, but social media companies get to decide whether they’ll allow any of that on their platforms. As Harvard Law School’s Noah Feldman has stated, “There’s no right to free speech on Twitter. The only rule is that Twitter Inc. gets to decide who speaks and listens–which is its right under the First Amendment.”

Instead, when it comes to social media and the First Amendment, courts have been more focused on not allowing the government to keep citizens off of social media. Just last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a North Carolina law that made it a crime for a registered sex offender to access social media if children use that platform. During the hearing, judges asked the government probing questions about the rights of citizens to free speech on social media from Facebook, to Snapchat, to Twitter and even LinkedIn.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made clear during the hearing that restricting access to social media would mean “being cut off from a very large part of the marketplace of ideas [a]nd [that] the First Amendment includes not only the right to speak, but the right to receive information.”

The Court ended up deciding that the law violated the fundamental First Amendment principle that “all persons have access to places where they can speak and listen,” noting that social media has become one of the most important forums for expression of our day.

Lower courts have also ruled that public officials who block users off their profiles are violating the First Amendment rights of those users. Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, of the Southern District of New York, decided in May that Trump’s Twitter feed is a public forum. As a result, she ruled that when Trump blocks citizens from viewing and replying to his posts, he violates their First Amendment rights.

The First Amendment doesn’t mean Facebook and Twitter are under any obligation to keep up whatever you post, but it does mean that the government can’t just ban you from accessing your Facebook or Twitter accounts – and probably can’t block you off of their own public accounts either.

Collaboration is Coming?

Sandberg made clear in her testimony on Wednesday that collaboration is already happening when it comes to keeping bad actors off of platforms. “We [already] get tips from each other. The faster we collaborate, the faster we share these tips with each other, the stronger our collective defenses will be.”

Dorsey for his part stressed that keeping bad actors off of social media “is not something we want to compete on.” Twitter is here “to contribute to a healthy public square, not compete to have the only one, we know that’s the only way our business thrives and helps us all defend against these new threats.”

He even went further. When it comes to the drafting of their policies, beyond collaborating with Facebook, he said he would be open to a public consultation. “We have real openness to this. . . . We have an opportunity to create more transparency with an eye to more accountability but also a more open way of working – a way of working for instance that allows for a review period by the public about how we think about our policies.”

I’ve already argued why tech firms should collaborate on hate speech policies, the question that remains is if that would be legal. The First Amendment does not apply to social media companies. Antitrust laws don’t seem to stand in their way either. And based on how Senator Burr, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chose to close the hearing, government seems supportive of social media companies collaborating. Addressing Sandberg and Dorsey, he said, “I would ask both of you. If there are any rules, such as any antitrust, FTC, regulations or guidelines that are obstacles to collaboration between you, I hope you’ll submit for the record where those obstacles are so we can look at the appropriate steps we can take as a committee to open those avenues up.”

Bernie Sanders’ problem with Amazon

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is seeking additional information about the working conditions in Amazon warehouses in advance of legislation he’s preparing to introduce on September 5. 

Income inequality was, after all, the centerpiece of Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. It was a populist message that resonated strongly with voters, giving the dark horse candidate a boost among concerned progressives and independents during a tooth and nail primary battle.

But while the message, perhaps, wasn’t enough to put him over the top, it’s a mission that’s remained central to Sanders’ work on Capitol Hill, finding him taking aim at some of the world’s largest corporations. In recent months, Amazon has been in the senator’s sights.

Earlier today, Sanders tweeted out a link asking employees of the online retail giant to share their experiences working for the company. The form allows current and former Amazon employees to share their stories either on the record or anonymously. It asks whether workers “struggle[d] with the demanding working conditions,” and whether they required public assistance.

Are you a current or former Amazon employee? Please share your experiences with Sen. Bernie Sanders . https://t.co/fQzm3SuyXA

— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) August 28, 2018

In a phone call today, Sanders told TechCrunch that his office already knows enough about the working conditions in Amazon warehouses, but is seeking additional information as it prepares to introduce legislation on September 5.

“We know that the median salary for Amazon employees is about $28,000,” the Senator told TechCrunch. “And about half the workers who work for Amazon make less than $28,000 a year.”

It’s easy to see why the company has become a prime target for Sanders. A recent SEC filing put the median salary at $28,446 — less than owner Jeff Bezos makes every 10 seconds.

“We have every reason to believe that many, many thousands of Amazon workers in their warehouses throughout the country are earning very low wages,” Sanders explained. “It’s hard to get this information. Amazon has not been very forthcoming. From what information we’ve gathered, one out of three Amazon workers in Arizona, as we understand it, are on public assistance. They are receiving either Medicaid, food stamps or public housing.”

The Senator acknowledges that nothing about what Amazon is doing, on the face of it, is breaking any laws. But the discrepancy between its highest and lowest wage earners is enough for him to call into question why government subsidies are required to buoy those on the bottom rung. This is precisely what the proposed legislation aims to address.

Put simply, Sanders says we have every reason to believe that the richest man in the world can afford to pay employees more.

“The taxpayers in this country should not be subsidizing a guy who’s worth $150 billion, whose wealth is increasing by $260 million every single day,” said Sanders. “That is insane. He has enough money to pay his workers a living wage. He does not need corporate welfare. And our goal is to see that Bezos pays his workers a living wage.”

While Amazon is notoriously tight-lipped about matters these matters, the company has been on the defensive since the senator made it a kind of pet project. Amazon won’t comment directly on the forthcoming legislation until it’s made official, but the company did provide TechCrunch with comment regarding the blowback.

“We encourage anyone to compare our pay and benefits to other retailers,” an Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Amazon is proud to have created over 130,000 new jobs last year alone. These are good jobs with highly competitive pay and full benefits. In the U.S., the average hourly wage for a full-time associate in our fulfillment centers, including cash, stock, and incentive bonuses, is over $15/hour before overtime. That’s in addition to our full benefits package that includes health, vision and dental insurance, retirement, generous parental leave, and skills training for in-demand jobs through our Career Choice program, which has over 16,000 participants.”

Amazon further suggests that those interested in learning more about warehouse conditions book a tour of one of its fulfillment centers to “see for themselves.” 

A representative from Sanders’ office tells TechCrunch that Amazon invited the senator on a tour of a fulfillment center, and he plans to take the company up on the offer.

SAN FERNANDO DE HENARES, SPAIN – 2018/07/16: General view of the Amazon warehouse in San Fernando de Henares.

Of course, the concerns over Amazon’s treatment of workers aren’t new. Mother Jones ran an exposé of what it was like working as an Amazon warehouse slave in 2012. In 2013, Gawker published a series of emails from employees discussing life in fulfillment centers citing things like “unrealistic goals,” “very short breaks” and “below zero temps” in warehouses. A protestor cited by The Guardian in 2014 said it was better to be homeless than work for the retailer. And, most recently, Business Insider documented the “horror stories” faced by the Amazon warehouse workers, including nonstop surveillance and so little ability to take breaks, they couldn’t even use the facilities, when needed.  

Amazon has since been on something of a charm offensive in response to those PR headaches.

Last week, there was the odd phenomenon of an army of Twitter accounts claiming to be warehouse workers who were serving up similar talking points.

“Hello!” one wrote, cheerfully. “I work in an Amazon FC in WA and our wages and benefits are very good. Amazon pays FC employess [sic] ~30% more than traditional retail stores and offers full medical benefits from day 1. Working conditions are very good- clean/well lit- Safety is a top priority at my facility!”

That Amazon positions its own offerings as “highly competitive” can, perhaps, be seen as something of an indictment of larger issues with warehouse fulfillment. While the company is an easy target, it’s certainly not alone. And Sanders notes that his office is casting the net wider than just Amazon. Disney and Walmart have also been targeted by the senator.

In June, Sanders told a crowd at an Anaheim church, “I want to hear the moral defense of a company that makes $9 billion in profits, $400 million for their CEOs and have a 30-year worker going hungry. Tell me how that is right.” 

A month later, he took to Twitter to call out CEO Bob Iger directly, writing, “Does Disney CEO Bob Iger have a good explanation for why he is being compensated more than $400 million while workers at Disneyland are homeless and relying on food stamps to feed their families?”

Does Disney CEO Bob Iger have a good explanation for why he is being compensated more than $400 million while workers at Disneyland are homeless and relying on food stamps to feed their families?

— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) July 13, 2018

Earlier this week, however, Disney reached an agreement with the Walt Disney World union to pay workers a $15 minimum wage.

“We’ve seen real progress at the Disney corporation,” Sanders told TechCrunch, “and I believe that Jeff Bezos can play a profound role in American society today if he were to say, ‘yes, I’m the richest guy in the world. I will pay my workers a living wage at least $15 and make sure all of my workers have the security and dignity they need. I will improve conditions.’”

Amazon and Walmart, meanwhile, remain the two key targets for the impending legislation. With Democrats in the minority in the U.S. Senate, it seems unlikely that a hearing will be called where Bezos would be asked to testify à la Mark Zuckerberg, but the senator plans to go ahead with the legislation next week, regardless.  

“That legislation is pretty simple,” explained Sanders. “It says: if you are a large company of 500 or more employees and you’re paying your workers wages that are so low that they have to go on food stamps, Medicaid, public housing, etc., then you have to pay taxes commensurate to how much the government is now spending for that assistance. It’s going to be the employer – the Jeff Bezos, the Walton family – who will pick up the tab for these public assistance programs, rather than the middle class of the country.”

Facebook is the recruiting tool of choice for far-right group the Proud Boys

Twitter may have suspended the Proud Boys and their controversial leader Gavin McInnes, but it was never their platform of choice.

The Proud Boys, a self described “Western chauvinist” organization that often flirts with more hard-line groups of the far right, runs an elaborate network of recruiting pages on Facebook to attract and initiate members. While McInnes maintained a presence on many platforms, Facebook is the heart of the group’s operations. It’s there that the Proud Boys boast more than 35 regional and city-specific groups that act as landing pages for vetting thousands of new members and feeding them into local chapters.

When it comes to skirting the outer boundaries of social acceptability, McInnes could teach a master class. The Vice founder and Canadian citizen launched his newest project in 2016, capturing a groundswell of public political activity on the far right and launching the Proud Boys, a men’s club allied around the mantra “West is best,” its dedication to Trump and a prohibition against flip-flops and porn.

Facebook recruiting

The group makes national headlines for its involvement in violent dust-ups between the far right and far left and has a robust recruitment network centered on initiating members through Facebook groups. As for where it fits into the far right’s many sub-factions, McInnes objects to the term alt-light, sometimes used to describe far right group that oppose some mainstream conservative ideals but don’t openly endorse white nationalism. “Alt Light is a gay term that sounds like a diet soda in bed w Alt Right,” he said on Twitter last year. “We’re “The New Right.”

To that end, most regional affiliate pages run a message outlining some ground rules, including a declaration that its members not be racist or homophobic — a useful disclaimer for making the group more palatable than many of its less clever peers.

The Proud Boys’ agenda is less explicitly race-based than many groups it has affiliations with, espousing instead a broad sort of antagonism to perceived enemies on the political left and a credo of “western chauvinism.” The language is cleaned up, but it’s one degree removed from less palatable figures, including Unite the Right leader Jason Kessler. McInnes hosted Kessler on his own talk show just days after Kessler led the Charlottesville rally that left counter-protester Heather Heyer dead. In the segment, McInnes tried to create space between Kessler and the Proud Boys, though it wasn’t Kessler’s first time on the show or his only affiliation with the Proud Boys.

The Proud Boys also coordinates with the Vancouver, Washington-based group known as Patriot Prayer, another fairly social media-savvy far right organization that doesn’t openly endorse explicitly white nationalist groups, but still welcomes them into the fold during demonstrations that often turn violent.

Who are the Proud Boys?

Like much of the young, internet-fluent alt-right, the Proud Boys intentionally don’t take themselves too seriously, a strategy that conveniently opens the door for them to denounce any kind of controversy that might arise. They show up to protests wearing black and gold Fred Perry polo shirts, have a whole charter’s worth of inside jokes and in general seem a bit more media and internet savvy than hardline white nationalist groups, some of which Facebook has managed to clear out in the last year.

Unlike some less strategic and internet-savvy portions of the far right, McInnes and his Proud Boys are careful not to openly encourage preemptive violence. Still, the Proud Boys do encourage retaliatory violence, going so far as to enshrine physical altercations in its organizational hierarchy.

To earn their “first degree,” Proud Boys must openly declare their allegiance to the group’s ideals, usually in a Facebook vetting group.

To earn the second, they have to get beaten up by other members while naming five breakfast cereals (maybe a loose tie-in to the group’s mantra against masturbation). To earn the third degree they have to get a Proud Boys tattoo. The fourth degree is reserved for members who get in a brawl sufficient for the honor:

“You can’t plan getting a fourth degree. Its a consolation prize for engaging in a major conflict for the cause. Being arrested is not encouraged, although those who are immediately become fourth degree because the court has registered a major conflict. Serious physical fights also count and it’s up to each chapter to decide how serious the conflict must be to determine a fourth degree.”

That’s where the Proud Boys Facebook network comes in. To get accepted into a local chapter, prospective members join specific vetting groups and are asked to upload a video of them meeting their “first degree” requirements:

“Once you are added here, to be properly vetted you must upload and post a video of yourself reciting our First Degree. This is just a quick video of you saying EXACTLY THIS:

“My name is [full name], I’m from [city, state], and I am a western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world.” You can add anything else you’d like to your video, as long as you say those words exactly.

YouTube is full of first and second degree videos depicting the usually short half-ironic hazing ceremonies.

Facebook also hosts pages dedicated to the Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights, a new-ish subdivision of the Proud Boys and its paramilitary wing. The Alt-Knights, also known as FOAK, are led by Kyle Chapman, a.k.a. “Based Stickman,” a far right figure who grew to fame after beating political enemies with a stick at a 2017 Berkeley protest. The Alt-Knights aren’t always quite as careful to denounce violence.

Whether the Proud Boys are in violation of Facebook’s unevenly enforced and sometimes secretive policies or not, the organization is making the most of its time on the platform. Facebook has rules against organizing harm or credible violence that the Proud Boys’ brawling ethos and alt-knights would seem to run afoul of, but the group stands by the useful mantra “We don’t start fights, we finish them.”

TechCrunch reached out to the Proud Boys to get an idea of their membership numbers and will update this story if we receive a reply. An analysis of affiliated pages shows that Proud Boys groups have added hundreds of members in the last 30 days across many chapters.

With a second Unite the Right rally around the corner and the ugly reality of more real-life violence organized on social media looming large, platforms are on their toes for once. Facebook has cleaned up some of the rampant racism that stemmed from the extreme right presence on its platform, but savvier, self-censoring groups like the Proud Boys are likely to be the real headache as Facebook, Twitter and Google trudge through an endless minefield of case-by-case terms of service violations, drawing sharp criticism from both sides of the political spectrum no matter where they choose to place their feet.

Geoffrey Starks nominated as FCC Commissioner to fill Democratic gap left by Clyburn

The President has officially named Geoffrey Starks as his pick to fill the FCC Commissioner role left open by Mignon Clyburn’s departure. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai confirmed the news, rumored over the past few weeks, in a statement.

“I congratulate Geoffrey Starks on his forthcoming nomination to serve as a Commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission,” said Pai. “He has a distinguished record of public service, including in the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, and I wish him all the best during the confirmation process.”

Starks isn’t exactly a well known figure, but in public service that’s actually something of a compliment. He has worked in the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau for three years and is currently one of several assistant bureau chiefs. Previously he was at the Justice Department, which makes sense, as the Enforcement Bureau’s responsibility is “to investigate and respond quickly to potential unlawful conduct.”

It’s unclear as yet what his position is on the various measures currently being addressed by the FCC, from net neutrality to the revamping of media regulations.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer reportedly settled on Starks as long as a couple months ago, the interim no doubt being spent on due diligence, cultivating endorsements, and so on. The Senate will have to confirm Starks, but there’s no timeline on that yet. Commissioners generally serve five-year terms.

The FCC is kept at an uneven split between the two parties, ideally 3:2 in favor of the current administration. At the moment it has three Republican Commissioners and one Democrat, Commissioner Clyburn having left just a few weeks ago.

I’ve asked the FCC for more information on Starks and no doubt his nomination will trigger considerable scrutiny by press and politicians alike.

Twitter will give political candidates a special badge during US midterm elections

Ahead of 2018 U.S. midterm elections, Twitter is taking a visible step to combat the spread of misinformation on its famously chaotic platform. In a blog post this week, the company explained how it would be adding “election labels” to the profiles of candidates running for political office.

“Twitter has become the first place voters go to seek accurate information, resources, and breaking news from journalists, political candidates, and elected officials,” the company wrote in its announcement. “We understand the significance of this responsibility and our teams are building new ways for people who use Twitter to identify original sources and authentic information.”

These labels feature a small government building icon and text identifying the position a candidate is running for and the state or district where the race is taking place. The label information included in the profile will also appear elsewhere on Twitter, even when tweets are embedded off-site.

The labels will start popping up after May 30 and will apply to candidates in state governor races as well as those campaigning for a seat in the Senate or the House of Representatives.

Twitter will partner with nonpartisan political nonprofit Ballotpedia to create the candidate labels. In a statement announcing its partnership, Ballotpedia explains how that process will work:

Ballotpedia covers all candidates in every upcoming election occurring within the 100 most-populated cities in the U.S., plus all federal and statewide elections, including ballot measures. After each state primary, Ballotpedia will provide Twitter with information on gubernatorial and Congressional candidates who will appear on the November ballot. After receiving consent from each candidate, Twitter will apply the labels to each candidate profile.

The decision to create a dedicated process to verify political profiles is a step in the right direction for Twitter. With major social platforms still in upheaval over revelations around foreign misinformation campaigns during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Twitter and Facebook need to take decisive action now if they intend to inoculate their users against a repeat threat in 2018.

Backpage pleads guilty to sex trafficking, CEO faces up to 5 years for money laundering

Backpage .com, for years the primary online platform for the sex trade, has pleaded guilty as a company to charges of sex trafficking in Texas, the state’s attorney general announced today. Its CEO, Carl Ferrer, pleaded guilty to money laundering, for which he may be sentenced to up to 5 years in prison.

The site was seized last week and a 93-count indictment issued days later.

Ferrer was arrested back in 2016, and will be sentenced “once he’s fulfilled the terms of his plea agreement.”

The Texas AG’s office does not elaborate beyond the charges mentioned in the press release, except to say that Ferrer’s cooperation could lead to new ones. Considering the site was an international and popular platform for all kinds of sex-related commerce — allegedly including child trafficking — it seems likely there’s far more yet to come, including pleas for similar crimes in different jurisdictions.

The execution of this strike against Backpage, the culmination of an 18-month investigation (beginning around the arrest of Ferrer), is coincident but not directly related to the passage and signing of FOSTA. The bill, just this week signed into law, effectively removes the “safe harbor” enjoyed by internet companies protecting them from having liability for the actions of their users. Under FOSTA, a company like Craigslist would be responsible if, for example, a prostitute listed their services on the site.

Unsurprisingly Craigslist and other sites have removed listings or services that may put them at risk under FOSTA, prompting criticism from the more legitimate sides of the sex industry that relied on them.

US authorities ban electronics larger than a phone from flights from 13 countries

 According to numerous reports, US authorities today alerted a number of Middle Eastern and African airlines that starting soon, their passengers will have to check any electronic items larger than a cell phone. That means passengers on these flights will have to put their laptops, tablets, Kindles and portable game consoles into their checked baggage for the foreseeable future. There is still… Read More

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If Trump wants an easy policy win, he should focus on funding smart cities

cityscape and technology and network connection concept As America’s cities continue to grow, they face mind-boggling challenges: worsening traffic, increasing pollution, expensive housing, aging infrastructure and strained services. These challenges can only be solved by harnessing the power of big data, machine learning and other technology. Read More

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Elon Musk says he put travel ban on the agenda as he defends continued Trump council participation

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 03:  SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk (L) talks with White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon at the beginning of a policy forum with U.S. President Donald Trump in the State Dining Room at the White House February 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. Leaders from the automotive and manufacturing industries, the financial and retail services and other powerful global businesses were invited to the meeting with Trump, his advisors and family.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) Elon Musk only noted very briefly that there had been “progress” on the matter of the immigration order made during his meeting with Donald Trump’s economics advisory council on Friday, but on Saturday the Tesla CEO shared a bit more about what happened at the event. Musk said that he specifically requested inclusion of discussion of the travel ban at the closed meeting, as… Read More

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Federal judge puts nationwide block on President Trump’s travel ban

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks before signing an executive order surrounded by small business leaders in the Oval Office of the White House January 30, 2017 in Washington, DC. Trump said he will "dramatically" reduce regulations overall with this executive action as it requires that for every new federal regulation implemented, two must be rescinded. (Photo by Andrew Harrer - Pool/Getty Images) President Trump’s executive order banning travelers from seven countries could be over just one chaotic week after its hasty introduction. That’s because a federal judge from Seattle has obtained a restraining order which looks set to overrule the order with nationwide effect. The ruling came after U.S. states Washington and Minnesota filed legal action against the order on… Read More

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Elon Musk says he’ll present objections to Trump’s immigration order at Friday advisory council meeting

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 23:  White House Senior Advisor Stephen Miller (L) and Klaus Kleinfeld of Arconic visit with Elon Musk (C) of SpaceX before a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Roosevelt Room at the White House January 23, 2017 in Washington, DC. Business leaders who also attend the meeting included Elon Musk of SpaceX, Mark Sutton of International Paper, Michael Dell of Dell Technologies, Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin, Andrew Liveris of Dow Chemical and others.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) Tesla CEO Elon Musk issued a statement about his participation in Donald Trump’s economic advisory council, and a scheduled meeting of the group tomorrow. Musk said that he and others on the council will take the opportunity to voice their opposition to the president’s executive order on immigration and suggest how it might be changed. Musk took the opportunity to specifically… Read More

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Using tech to fix the criminal justice system

police-use-of-force-data Criminal justice reform at the federal level is kind of up in the air, but local jurisdictions around the country are continuing to step up to ensure that we move in the right direction. And local and state levels are where criminal justice policies and procedures matter the most, with local and state officials in charge of more than 90% of the prison and jail populations. Through the… Read More

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We need startups to build democracy tech

i-want-you-to-build-democracy-tech It’s time to actually make the world a better place.
Silicon Valley was birthed from an existential threat to the world. Nazi radar defense technology was decimating the Allied air forces. But American engineers heeded the call, and in a Harvard lab led by Stanford professor Frederick Terman, invented radar jammers that helped win the war.
Terman brought the engineering talent back to… Read More

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DraftKings has received a Malta gaming license, paving the way for European expansion

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 16:  The fantasy sports website DraftKings is shown on October 16, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. DraftKings and its rival FanDuel have been under scrutiny after accusations surfaced of employees participating in the contests with insider information. An employee recently finished second in a contest on FanDuel, winning $350,000. Nevada recently banned the sites.  (Photo illustration by Scott Olson/Getty Images) DraftKings was just approved for a Controlled Skill Games License from the Malta Gaming Authority, which is the entity that runs gaming in Malta – a small island nation south of Italy. While this may not sound like a big deal, (especially considering Malta has a population of under 500,000 people) the nation is part of the European Union, meaning DraftKings can now expand into some other… Read More

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Uber CEO offers compensation for drivers impacted by immigration ban, will talk to Trump

Travis Kalanick Onstage at Disrupt Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick added his voice today to a growing chorus of tech executives troubled by President Donald Trump’s recent immigration order banning the entry of US residents from seven countries.
Echoing the sentiments of Google’s Sundar Pichai and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Kalanick wrote a letter to Uber staff, also posting to his Facebook wall. Read More

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Top Microsoft execs weigh in on Trump’s immigration ban

satya-nadella Slowly but surely, the tech world is reacting to a sweeping executive order signed by Trump on Friday that closes the United States’ borders to refugees and citizens from a number of countries. Some have shared personal stories or reflected on the ways in which such policy will negatively impact the Silicon Valley, where so much of the work force has immigrated from around the… Read More

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai fears impact of Trump immigration order, recalls staff

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 04: Pichai Sundararajan, known as Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google Inc. speaks during an event to introduce Google Pixel phone and other Google products on October 4, 2016 in San Francisco, California. The Google Pixel is intended to challenge the Apple iPhone in the premium smartphone category. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty Images) Google CEO Sundar Pichai has outlined his disapproval of the impact arising from Trump’s dangerous, inhumane and short-sighted sweeping immigration order, which imposes for at least 90 days a block on entry to the U.S. for citizens (including valid visa holders) from seven countries, blocks indefinitely refugee admittance from Syria and also caps the total number of refugees allowed… Read More

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Twitter releases national security letters

twitter-ban-speech-gray Over the last eight months, tech companies have slowly been revealing that they’ve received national security letters from the Federal Bureau of Investigation that force the firms to secretly disclose user data to the government. Today, Twitter joined the ranks of Yahoo, Cloudflare and Google by announcing it had received two national security letters, one in 2015 and one in 2016. The… Read More

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Zuckerberg defends immigrants threatened by Trump

zuckerberg-immigration While other tech leaders glad-hand with The Donald, Mark Zuckerberg is facing him head on. Today the Facebook CEO called out the president for his unAmerican views that demonize immigrants, while also tactfully encouraging the few positive policies and comments Trump has offered on the subject. You should read Zuckerberg’s full Facebook post on the topic embedded at the bottom of this… Read More

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Trump’s FCC Chairman pick Ajit Pai heralds a weaker, meeker Commission

Ajit pai FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai was elevated today to Chairman by the Trump administration, setting the stage for a more restrained and permissive FCC than under Tom Wheeler, who resigned last month. Pai has consistently opposed Wheeler and the other Democratic Commissioners on controversial issues like Net Neutrality, often dissenting on the grounds that the FCC is overstepping its authority. Read More

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The White House is adding four ‘Skype Seats’ to its press briefings

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Among the revelations at Sean Spicer’s first official White House briefing as press secretary was the newly minted administration’s plans to add a quartet of so-called “Skype Seats” to the room beginning this week. The addition is an attempt to open the traditionally closed-off briefing up to reporters outside of the White House walls. According to Spicer, the… Read More

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The inauguration is happening tomorrow; here’s where you can stream it

American flags hang at the United States Capitol, in preparation for President Obama's second term inauguration ceremony in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images) If, say, the presidential inauguration is a thing you’d like to watch on Friday morning, then great news, friend, there are plenty of options. The bad news is that you’ve missed the musical stylings of Toby Keith, Lee Greenwood and 3 Doors Down.
The good news is that the real, good-old-fashioned inauguratin’ doesn’t really get started until 11:30AM ET tomorrow. Read More

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Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt heads to Trump Tower (again)

lobby After their much-publicized meeting with President-elect Trump last month, many prominent figures in tech appear to be circling back to Trump tower. Eric Schmidt is the latest to be spotted at Trump’s Manhattan outpost, stopping by a few hours after AT&T’s Randall Stephenson met with Trump. Around the time of his visit, Schmidt, a former close Hillary Clinton supporter,… Read More

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U.S. Department of Transportation announces a new committee focused on automation

DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 15: Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO of General Motors, speaks during a General Motors press conference at the Renaissance Center on December 15, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. General Motors announced it will soon begin autonomous vehicle testing on Michigan's public roads and start manufacturing the next generation of autonomous vehicles at the Orion assembly plant, Michigan in 2017.   (Photo by Rachel Woolf/Getty Images) The U.S. regulatory agency overseeing transportation of all kinds at the federal level has announced a new official federal committee on automation, be it autonomous driving, drones or other self-guided modes of getting around. The new federal committee is designed to help the Department of Transportation (DOT) learn from industry experts regarding how it should be shaping policy and research… Read More

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