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The Markup, a tech-focused investigative news site, raises $20 million from Craigslist founder

06:04 | 24 September

Celebrated former ProPublica investigative journalists Julia Angwin and Jeff Larson are launching their newest venture, the investigative nonprofit news organization called The Markup, with help from some big donors including Craigslist founder, Craig Newmark.

The Markup co-founders Angwin, Larson and executive director Sue Gardner (the former head of the Wikimedia Foundation), are backed by a $20 million donation from Newmark, founder of craigslist and Craig Newmark Philanthropies; $2 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; and additional support from the Ford Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, according to a statement.

The project was incubated with an investment from the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Initiative and news of the new media venture was first reported in The New York Times.

“In a healthy society, there’s an ongoing conversation about what’s in the public interest—a debate that includes legislators, regulators, the institutions of civil society, the private sector, and the general public,” said Gardner, in a statement. “We aren’t having that debate right now about new technologies because the level of understanding of their effects is too low. That’s the problem that The Markup aims to fix, and I am delighted to have Craig Newmark, and some of the United States’ most prominent private foundations, join us to do this.”

Newmark has been engaged in many philanthropic projects. He’s put $500,000 of his money toward reducing harassment on Wikipedia and has pledged $1 million to Angwin and Larson’s old bosses at ProPublica.

“I’m proud to back The Markup and support people whose work I’ve followed and admired for a long time,” Newmark said. “As a news consumer, I look for journalism that I can trust, and by producing data-driven, rigorously fact-checked reporting on the effects of technology on society, The Markup is helping to fill a largely unmet need.”

Gardner previously ran the CBC.CA, the website of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; Angwin is a Pulitzer Prize winner who p worked at The Wall Street Journal and ProPublica; and Larson, a data journalist, has won the prestigious Peabody Award and the Livingston Award for Young Journalists. He used to work at The Nation.

At ProPublica the duo’s scoops included the revelation of discriminatory advertising practices at Facebook; algorithmic bias in criminal risk scores used in bail, sentencing and parole decisions; price discrimination toward minorities in car insurance rates; and cybersecurity holes in the President’s home-away-from-home, the Mar-A-Lago country club.

“I’m excited to build a team with deep expertise that can really scale up and advance the work Jeff and I began at ProPublica,” Angwin said, in a statement. “We see The Markup as a new kind of news organization, staffed with journalists who know how to investigate the uses of new technologies and make their effects understandable to non-experts.”

The Markup is looking to staff up with 24 journalists for its New York office and is hoping to launch in the early part of 2019.

 


0

Our Precious

00:00 | 24 September

I’ve long theorized that one’s moral character is inversely proportional to the number of syllables in one’s Starbucks order. (Yes, this is a tech column. We’ll get to that. Have faith.) To which a friend pointed out that what Starbucks offers is control — your drink, exactly how you want it — and the smaller and pettier your life outside the coffee shop, the more control you want.

Meanwhile, yesterday on Twitter I encountered what was, for a bred-in-the-bone Tolkien fan like me,

:

Rereading Lord of the Rings 10 years later, only to realize that the Ring is my smartphone. pic.twitter.com/w2hkX6M6cR

— the artistic side of Somesanity (@flysanityfly)

Yeah. “It has been so growing on my mind lately. Sometimes I have felt it was like an eye looking at me. And I am always wanting to put it on and disappear, don’t you know; or wondering if it is safe, and pulling it out to make sure. I tried locking it up, but I found I couldn’t rest without it in my pocket.” The One Ring of Sauron … or your smartphone?

Let’s not start handwringing about technology changing culture. That is both welcome and inevitable. There is nothing intrinsically creepy about carrying a supercomputer in your pocket with immediate access to sizable fractions of both the rest of humanity and all human knowledge. That part is intrinsically wonderful.

It’s the way we use them; more specifically, the way we’re enticed to use them. Dopamine hits. Dark patterns, Nudges. Badging. Notifications. Amplifying outrage, heightening drama, maximizing uncertainty, and feelings of incompletion, until nerves shriek. Weaponizing and monetizing the animal instincts lurking inside our cortexes, our automatic responses to social stress, hints of danger, suggestions of collapse, spectacular faraway warnings. The neurological equivalent of constant smoke from distant but raging wildfires.

(As an aside: please please please stop marking yourself safe on Facebook if/when something bad happens in your town. When you do so you are making this all even worse.)

I think people are beginning to realize that our phones have been compromised. And I don’t mean in that the-NSA-is-spying-on-you way, although “sometimes I have felt it was like an eye looking at me” sure keeps on resonating, doesn’t it? I mean that our perfectly healthy and natural desire to keep up with our friends, acquaintances, localities, communities, and world have been hijacked by attention oligarchs seeking to keep us glued to their offerings, for as long as possible, by any means necessary.

Oh, sure, lip service is paid to doing otherwise. “You’re all caught up!” Instagram cheerfully informs you. (And indeed Instagram still seems the most pleasant, least harmful head of the Facebook hydra.) Mark Zuckerberg knows there’s a problem, and says he wants to help “build supportive communities.” This is admirable. But it is also a mission diametrically opposed to Facebook’s mission to show as many ads as possible to as many closely targeted people as possible. Those two objectives are not orthogonal; they are opposites.

This is anecdotal, but I see more and more people stepping away from Facebook, or Twitter, or social media entirely. I have certainly seen far more “this is my final Facebook post” posts this year than in all previous years combined. Others take breaks. Others delete the apps, but still use the web sites. Let’s not confuse this with some kind of useful periodic digital detox. Every time someone does anything like that, they are tacitly saying: shit is fucked up. Facebook and its ilk are exploiting and weaponizing our anxieties.

It wasn’t always like this. I was a big Facebook fan as recently as a few years ago. Most people were. (But no longer: studies show Facebook’s net favorability has plummeted in the last year.) Certainly the polarized, hate-filled politics of the last few years are a major contributing factor … but then, you can make a pretty excellent case that Facebook and Twitter were major contributing factors to the polarizing, hate-filled politics of the last few years.

It’s more than just the politics, though. It’s the way that every negativity is amplified to eleven, because that’s how you get reach, and attention, and resharing. It’s Orwell’s Two-Minute Hates, whether provoked by politics, culture, or anything else, except hourly instead of daily.

Again, I don’t think this is intrinsic to increased human connectivity. I don’t even think this is intrinsic to social media. But I do think it is intrinsic to social media which is strongly incentivized to amplify outrage in order to maximize attention and emotional intensity.

Starbucks attracts a lot of hate too, for reasons I’ve never understood; all it does is sell overpriced coffee in pleasant surroundings … along with that aforementioned moment of absolute control. My testable hypothesis is that the average complexity of Starbucks orders has increased over time, and will keep increasing, as people try to use the crutch of control over their coffees to counteract the sense of chaos induced by the phones in their pockets; the feeling that our world is careening out of control, which in turn provokes the need to stay always connected, always informed, lest we miss the hour the barbarians actually arrive at the gate.

Perhaps, though, we actually missed that warning bell some time ago. Perhaps, as Walt Kelly once said, we have already met the enemy, and they are us.

 


0

Happy anniversary, Android

22:30 | 23 September

It’s been 10 years since Google took the wraps off the G1, the first Android phone. Since that time the OS has grown from buggy, nerdy iPhone alternative to arguably the most popular (or at least populous) computing platform in the world. But it sure as heck didn’t get there without hitting a few bumps along the road.

Join us for a brief retrospective on the last decade of Android devices: the good, the bad, and the Nexus Q.

HTC G1 (2008)

This is the one that started it all, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the old thing. Also known as the HTC Dream — this was back when we had an HTC, you see — the G1 was about as inauspicious a debut as you can imagine. Its full keyboard, trackball, slightly janky slide-up screen (crooked even in official photos), and considerable girth marked it from the outset as a phone only a real geek could love. Compared to the iPhone, it was like a poorly dressed whale.

But in time its half-baked software matured and its idiosyncrasies became apparent for the smart touches they were. To this day I occasionally long for a trackball or full keyboard, and while the G1 wasn’t pretty, it was tough as hell.

Moto Droid (2009)

Of course, most people didn’t give Android a second look until Moto came out with the Droid, a slicker, thinner device from the maker of the famed RAZR. In retrospect, the Droid wasn’t that much better or different than the G1, but it was thinner, had a better screen, and had the benefit of an enormous marketing push from Motorola and Verizon. (Disclosure: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch, but this doesn’t affect our coverage in any way.)

For many, the Droid and its immediate descendants were the first Android phones they had — something new and interesting that blew the likes of Palm out of the water, but also happened to be a lot cheaper than an iPhone.

HTC/Google Nexus One (2010)

This was the fruit of the continued collaboration between Google and HTC, and the first phone Google branded and sold itself. The Nexus One was meant to be the slick, high-quality device that would finally compete toe-to-toe with the iPhone. It ditched the keyboard, got a cool new OLED screen, and had a lovely smooth design. Unfortunately it ran into two problems.

First, the Android ecosystem was beginning to get crowded. People had lots of choices and could pick up phones for cheap that would do the basics. Why lay the cash out for a fancy new one? And second, Apple would shortly release the iPhone 4, which — and I was an Android fanboy at the time — objectively blew the Nexus One and everything else out of the water. Apple had brought a gun to a knife fight.

HTC Evo 4G (2010)

Another HTC? Well, this was prime time for the now-defunct company. They were taking risks no one else would, and the Evo 4G was no exception. It was, for the time, huge: the iPhone had a 3.5-inch screen, and most Android devices weren’t much bigger, if they weren’t smaller.

The Evo 4G somehow survived our criticism (our alarm now seems extremely quaint, given the size of the average phone now) and was a reasonably popular phone, but ultimately is notable not for breaking sales records but breaking the seal on the idea that a phone could be big and still make sense. (Honorable mention goes to the Droid X.)

Samsung Galaxy S (2010)

Samsung’s big debut made a hell of a splash, with custom versions of the phone appearing in the stores of practically every carrier, each with their own name and design: the AT&T Captivate, T-Mobile Vibrant, Verizon Fascinate, and Sprint Epic 4G. As if the Android lineup wasn’t confusing enough already at the time!

Though the S was a solid phone, it wasn’t without its flaws, and the iPhone 4 made for very tough competition. But strong sales reinforced Samsung’s commitment to the platform, and the Galaxy series is still going strong today.

Motorola Xoom (2011)

This was an era in which Android devices were responding to Apple, and not vice versa as we find today. So it’s no surprise that hot on the heels of the original iPad we found Google pushing a tablet-focused version of Android with its partner Motorola, which volunteered to be the guinea pig with its short-lived Xoom tablet.

Although there are still Android tablets on sale today, the Xoom represented a dead end in development — an attempt to carve a piece out of a market Apple had essentially invented and soon dominated. Android tablets from Motorola, HTC, Samsung and others were rarely anything more than adequate, though they sold well enough for a while. This illustrated the impossibility of “leading from behind” and prompted device makers to specialize rather than participate in a commodity hardware melee.

Amazon Kindle Fire (2011)

And who better to illustrate than Amazon? Its contribution to the Android world was the Fire series of tablets, which differentiated themselves from the rest by being extremely cheap and directly focused on consuming digital media. Just $200 at launch and far less later, the Fire devices catered to the regular Amazon customer whose kids were pestering them about getting a tablet on which to play Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds, but who didn’t want to shell out for an iPad.

Turns out this was a wise strategy, and of course one Amazon was uniquely positioned to do with its huge presence in online retail and the ability to subsidize the price out of the reach of competition. Fire tablets were never particularly good, but they were good enough, and for the price you paid, that was kind of a miracle.

Xperia Play (2011)

Sony has always had a hard time with Android. Its Xperia line of phones for years were considered competent — I owned a few myself — and arguably industry-leading in the camera department. But no one bought them. And the one they bought the least of, or at least proportional to the hype it got, has to be the Xperia Play. This thing was supposed to be a mobile gaming platform, and the idea of a slide-out keyboard is great — but the whole thing basically cratered.

What Sony had illustrated was that you couldn’t just piggyback on the popularity and diversity of Android and launch whatever the hell you wanted. Phones didn’t sell themselves, and although the idea of playing Playstation games on your phone might have sounded cool to a few nerds, it was never going to be enough to make it a million-seller. And increasingly that’s what phones needed to be.

Samsung Galaxy Note (2012)

As a sort of natural climax to the swelling phone trend, Samsung went all out with the first true “phablet,” and despite groans of protest the phone not only sold well but became a staple of the Galaxy series. In fact, it wouldn’t be long before Apple would follow on and produce a Plus-sized phone of its own.

The Note also represented a step towards using a phone for serious productivity, not just everyday smartphone stuff. It wasn’t entirely successful — Android just wasn’t ready to be highly productive — but in retrospect it was forward thinking of Samsung to make a go at it and begin to establish productivity as a core competence of the Galaxy series.

Google Nexus Q (2012)

This abortive effort by Google to spread Android out into a platform was part of a number of ill-considered choices at the time. No one really knew, apparently at Google or anywhere elsewhere in the world, what this thing was supposed to do. I still don’t. As we wrote at the time:

Here’s the problem with the Nexus Q:  it’s a stunningly beautiful piece of hardware that’s being let down by the software that’s supposed to control it.

It was made, or rather nearly made in the USA, though, so it had that going for it.

HTC First — “The Facebook Phone” (2013)

The First got dealt a bad hand. The phone itself was a lovely piece of hardware with an understated design and bold colors that stuck out. But its default launcher, the doomed Facebook Home, was hopelessly bad.

How bad? Announced in April, discontinued in May. I remember visiting an AT&T store during that brief period and even then the staff had been instructed in how to disable Facebook’s launcher and reveal the perfectly good phone beneath. The good news was that there were so few of these phones sold new that the entire stock started selling for peanuts on Ebay and the like. I bought two and used them for my early experiments in ROMs. No regrets.

HTC One/M8 (2014)

This was the beginning of the end for HTC, but their last few years saw them update their design language to something that actually rivaled Apple. The One and its successors were good phones, though HTC oversold the “Ultrapixel” camera, which turned out to not be that good, let alone iPhone-beating.

As Samsung increasingly dominated, Sony plugged away, and LG and Chinese companies increasingly entered the fray, HTC was under assault and even a solid phone series like the One couldn’t compete. 2014 was a transition period with old manufacturers dying out and the dominant ones taking over, eventually leading to the market we have today.

Google/LG Nexus 5S and 6P (2015)

This was the line that brought Google into the hardware race in earnest. After the bungled Nexus Q launch, Google needed to come out swinging, and they did that by marrying their more pedestrian hardware with some software that truly zinged. Android 5 was a dream to use, Marshmallow had features that we loved … and the phones became objects that we adored.

We called the 6P “the crown jewel of Android devices”. This was when Google took its phones to the next level and never looked back.

Pixel

If the Nexus was, in earnest, the starting gun for Google’s entry into the hardware race, the Pixel line could be its victory lap. It’s an honest-to-god competitor to the Apple phone.

Gone are the days when Google is playing catch-up on features to Apple, instead, Google’s a contender in its own right. The phone’s camera is amazing. The software works relatively seamlessly (bring back guest mode!), and phone’s size and power are everything anyone could ask for. The sticker price, like Apple’s newest iPhones, is still a bit of a shock, but this phone is the teleological endpoint in the Android quest to rival its famous, fruitful, contender.

Let’s see what the next ten years bring.

 


0

The New York Times sues the FCC to investigate Russian interference in Net Neutrality decision

22:22 | 23 September

The ongoing saga over the FCC’s handling of public comments to its net neutrality proposal continues after The New York Times sued the organization for withholding of information that it believes could prove there was Russian interference.

The Times has filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests for data on the comments since July 2017, and now, after reducing the scope of its requests significantly was rejected, it is taking the FCC to court in a bid to get the information.

The FCC’s comment system keeled over in May 2017 over during the public feedback period as more than 22 million comments were posted. Plenty of those were suspected of using repeated phrases, fake email addresses and even the names of deceased New Yorkers. The FCC initially falsely claimed the outage was because it was hacked — it wasn’t and it has only just made that clear — it seems instead that its system was unable to handle the volume of comments, with a John Oliver sketch thought to have accounted for a surge in interest.

The New York Times, meanwhile, has been looking into whether Russia was involved. An op-ed in the Washington Post from FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel published earlier this year suggested that as many as 500,000 comments came from Russian email addresses, with an estimated eight million comments sent by throw-away email accounts created via FakeMailGenerator.com. In addition, a report found links between emails mentioned in the Mueller Report and those used to provide comment on net neutrality.

Since the actual events are unclear — for more than a year the FCC allowed people to incorrectly believe it was hacked — an FOIA request could provide a clearer insight into whether there was overseas interference.

Problem: the FCC itself won’t budge, as the suit (which you can find here) explains:

The request at issue in this litigation involves records that will shed light on the extent to which Russian nationals and agents of the Russian government have interfered with the agency notice-and-comment process about a topic of extensive public interest: the government’s decision to abandon “net neutrality.” Release of these records will help broaden the public’s understanding of the scope of Russian interference in the American democratic system.

Despite the clear public importance of the requested records, the FCC has thrown up a series of roadblocks, preventing The Times from obtaining the documents.

Repeatedly, The Times has narrowed its request in the hopes of expediting release of the records so it could explore whether the FCC and the American public had been the victim of orchestrated campaign by the Russians to corrupt the notice-and-comment process and undermine an important step in the democratic process of rule-making.

The original FOIA request lodged in June 2017 from the Times requested “IP addresses, timestamps, and comments, among other data” which included web server data. The FCC initially bulked and declined on the basis that doing so would compromise its IT systems and security (that sounds familiar!), while it also cited privacy concerns for the commenters.

Over the proceeding months, which included dialogue between both parties, the Times pared back the scope of its request considerably. By 31 August 2018, it was only seeking a list of originating IP addresses and timestamps for comments, and a list of user-agent headers (which show a user’s browser type and other diagnostic details) and timestamps. The requested lists were separated to address security concerns.

However, the FCC declined again, and now the Times believes it has “exhausted all administrative remedies.”

“The FCC has no lawful basis for declining to release the records requested,” it added.

Not so, according to the FCC, which released a statement to Ars Technica.

“We are disappointed that The New York Times has filed suit to collect the Commission’s internal Web server logs, logs whose disclosure would put at jeopardy the Commission’s IT security practices for its Electronic Comment Filing System,” a spokesperson said.

The organization cited a District of Columbia case earlier this month which it claimed found that “the FCC need not turn over these same web server logs under the Freedom of Information Act.”

But that is a simplistic read on the case. While the judge did rule against turning over server logs, he ordered the FCC to provide email addresses for those that had provided comment via its .CSV file template, and the files themselves. That’s a decent precedent for the New York Times, which has a far narrow scope with its request.

 


0

Beau Willimon shows us the path to Mars in ‘The First’

21:16 | 23 September

Beau Willimon, the screenwriter and playwright who created Netflix’s “House of Cards”, has turned his attention from Washington, D.C. to outer space in his latest series “The First”.

The shows have more in common than I expected. Sure, “The First” is about a future expedition to Mars, not present day political machinations. And instead of the fourth wall-breaking monologues that “House of Cards” was known for, the new series relies on long, nearly silent sequences where characters ponder their decisions and brood over the past.

But “The First” (which launched all eight episodes of its first season on September 14) isn’t an outer space adventure filled with special effects. In fact, most of the story takes place in New Orleans, focusing on the political, financial and technical challenges that the team (Tom Hagerty, the astronaut played by Sean Penn) faces it can even take off.

When I interviewed Willimon and executive producer Jordan Tappis, I suggested that the show seemed to be more about Earth than Mars — but Willimon didn’t quite agree.

“I actually think it’s completely about Mars,” he said. For one thing, he has a multi-season plan, which will presumably take us to the Red Planet eventually. And while Willimon acknowledged that it would have been “a lot safer of a narrative choice to leap straight into the mission,” he wanted to explore other angles, like the fact that “the reality of getting to a place like Mars is that it would incredibly difficult to even get to the starting line.”

The First

Part of that difficulty involves confronting space skeptics who wonder whether the mission is worth the cost and risk. In a traditional science fiction story, those opponents would probably be depicted as wrongheaded or even downright villainous, but in “The First”, they seem to have a real point.

“My own personal attitude is, I absolutely think we should go to Mars,” Willimon said. “The value of exploration in any form, in space or here on Earth, speaks to a long and deep desire in humanity to understand and confront the unknown” — and that’s on top of the material and scientific benefits.

Still, he said he wanted “The First” to “reflect the world in which we live and the world in which we’re likely to live 13 years from now,” which meant telling “the story of people who don’t share that same belief, who challenge it from a philosophical or emotional point of view. … Any astronaut going to Mars has to confront the fact that he or she may die. The question for any of them, or for any loved one, is: Is it worth it?”

Ultimately, Willimon said, “We didn’t want to create a fantasy here. We’re not interested in science fiction. We’re interested in science fact.”

That meant creating a plausible roadmap for how we might actually get to Mars. In “The First,” the mission is organized by a private company called Vista, but the funding comes the U.S. government, and Willimon suggested that this kind of public-private partnership will probably be necessary.

LOS ANGELES, CA – SEPTEMBER 12: (L-R) Creator/Writer/Executive Producer Beau Willimon speaks onstage at Hulu’s “The First” Los Angeles Premiere on September 12, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for Hulu)

With the current excitement around companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, he said “the private sector has a lot to offer in accelerating a mission like this and making it cost efficient.” But he doesn’t think the private sector is going to get us to Mars on its own.

“In reality, the cost of getting to Mars, no matter what version you speculate, is enormous,” Willimon said. “I don’t think it’s likely that a purely private sector venture is going raise that amount of capital … In our conception, the money is coming form NASA, which means it’s really coming from taxpayer and the U.S. government, while the actual execution, building the hardware and seeing the mission through, is contracted out to Vista.”

“The First” also depicts everyday life in 2031. Tappis explained that the production team “worked really closely with a handful of consultants and experts in the field” to develop its version of future technology — which looks a lot like the technology of 2018, but with a few key advancements in areas like self-driving cars, augmented reality and voice communication.

“When you think about 13 years ago, the world looked pretty similar to the way it looks today, but with a few grace notes that you would find that showcase the evolution between then and now,” Tappis said.

One thing that has changed dramatically in the past decade is the television landscape, and I suggested that by creating and showrunning “House of Cards,” Willimon essentially kicked off the shift to streaming content.

“To be honest, I think that would have happened regardless of ‘House of Cards’,” Willimon replied. “We were the first show to go do that, because we were in the right place at the right time and were smart enough to say yes. But I think the trend was underway and was going to happen one way or another.”

As for the future of television, he said, “If this much change happened in less than a decade, who knows what might happen 15 years form now. Maybe … the audience isn’t going to be watching shows on handheld devices, but instead watching it floating before them on AR glasses.”

Near-future speculation is fun, and it’s a task that Willimon and Tappis seem to have taken very seriously. Still, if “The First” ends up running for several years, there seems to be a real risk that it could be overtaken or contradicted by how space travel plays out in the real world, or how consumer technologies evolve.

“While we think our speculation is an informed one and certainly plausible in terms of what it could look like, the time will come when we do make our first mission to Mars and it will either be very accurate or it won’t be,” Willimon said. And yet, just as we still watch the ostensibly outdated “2001: A Space Odyssey”, he argued, “There’s a deeper story there, which is the human story of people with messy lives trying to accomplish something great. There’s an essential truth to that, which we hope is timeless.”

 


0

Airbnb wants to give its hosts equity in its business

16:19 | 23 September

Airbnb wants to give the homeowners who power its service the opportunity to own a piece of its business. That’s why, as Axios reports, the $31-billion-valued company has written to the SEC to ask if its rules around security ownership can be revised.

Specifically, Airbnb is seeking a change to the SEC’s Rule 701 — which governs ownership of equity in companies — to allow a new kind of shareholder class for workers who participate in gig economy companies and their services. Uber, for one, has met with the SEC to propose a similar allowance but Airbnb’s argument is laid out in a letter that you can read here (thanks to Axios.)

“As a sharing economy marketplace, Airbnb succeeds when these hosts succeed,” the company wrote in one passage. “We believe that enabling private companies to grant hosts and other sharing economy participants equity in the company from an earlier stage would further align incentives between such companies and their sharing economy participants to the benefit of both.”

Airbnb is said to be planning to go public potentially as soon as next year.

While it isn’t clear how earning equity might work for an Airbnb host — or an Uber or Lyft driver, for that matter — further amendment of rules would be required. Currently, SEC regulations require that any private company with over 2,000 shareholders or 500 or more who are not U.S. accredited investors, must be registered.

That’s clearly a problem for Airbnb which has grown to more than five million listings since its foundation in 2008. It remains to be seen how many of those homeowners could own equity even were the rules amended to allow it. More generally, though, gig economy startups won’t pursue the equity options for contractors if doing so then triggers mandatory SEC reporting whilst they are private entities.

Then there are additional complications for businesses that have expanded outside of the U.S. market. Most of Airbnb’s are located overseas — the service claims to offer lodgings across some 81,000 cities in over 190 countries — which makes handing out U.S-based equity tricky.

Still, Airbnb’s public acknowledgment of its hosts and the crucial role they play is a positive part of that relationship. That’s something rare, for sure.

Most of the discussion around the role between marketplace provider and gig economy worker has been negative, with Uber in particular keen to distinguish between contractor and company staff.

While this modern take on working gives those who choose it a degree of flexibility like never before, they are left without the standard perks of being a conventional employee, such as paid vacation, benefits, overtime, health insurance and more. A slew of startups have sprouted to help cover some of those gaps, but their solutions all come at a cost to the worker, many of whom are already financially stretched.

 


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Toyota’s autonomous mobility lead to speak at Startup Battlefield MENA

11:00 | 23 September

Hard to believe, but Startup Battlefield MENA is just over a week away. We’ve got some of the top founders and investors in the region speaking, including Magnus Olsson of Careem, Imad Kreidieh of Ogero, Mai Medhat of Eventtus, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis of Facebook and Henri Asseily of Leap Ventures, and many more!

As we told you last week, we’re bringing our premier Startup Battlefield competition for the first time to the Middle East and North Africa. Showcasing the hottest new startups in MENA and the top investors, if you want to be in the same room, you’d better grab your tickets now.

In addition to all of that, we’ll also host a really incredible workshop with Toyota. Mandali Khalesi, Global Head of Automated Driving Mobility and Innovation will be on hand to share Toyota’s latest automated driving research findings and its plans for the future.

And bring your questions and thoughts on how Toyota can best engage with the startup ecosystem in MENA! This is an interactive workshop and there will be plenty of time set aside for you to advise Toyota on what automated mapping, safety and driving mobility services should they be building in the MENA region.

Click here to see the full agenda, workshop schedule and to check out more speakers.

Buy your ticket today.

 


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Swiping right on virtual relationships

03:36 | 23 September

There’s an episode in the latest season of the Hulu original series Casual, where the main character, Alex, tries his hand at dating in virtual reality. He quickly meets a woman and develops a big, adrenaline-inducing crush only to realize she’s a scammer out for his credit card information.

The season takes place around 2021 or 2022, when technological advances have made dating in VR both possible and socially acceptable. We’re not there yet, and we probably won’t be there as soon as the writers of the show think, but it’s time to imagine and plan for a future when entire relationships exist in and as a result of virtual reality.

Sextech entrepreneur and advocate Bryony Cole has built a career around the assumption that a full pivot to VR will happen in our lifetimes.

She’s the chief executive officer of Future of Sex, a podcast-turned-media company and sextech accelerator. Future of Sex has just released its inaugural report on virtual intimacy and plans to produce content on other topics at the intersection of technology and sex. 

Today, most people are more interested in Magic Leap’s new Angry Birds VR game than the ways in which VR can aid struggling relationships, but the report is full of interesting nuggets on how tech, like teledildonics (Internet-connected sex toys), is transforming intimacy.

There’s a whole class of startups named in the report embracing the notion that human experiences can be improved when powered by apps and devices. No, they aren’t advocating for you to bring your smartphone to the bedroom, but rather claiming that customizable tech can heighten the senses or create new avenues for exploration.

Kissenger, for example, has a mobile app that lets you exchange a kiss over the Internet. Fleshlight and Lovense sell Bluetooth-connected vibrators. And CamasutraVR streams virtual versions of real-life porn stars.

VR is the future of couples therapy

VR, Cole says, is a the forefront of the sextech industry’s transformation and if used correctly, can bolster relationships.

“It’s a new way for couples or thruples, or whatever relationship you’re in, to bond,” Cole told TechCrunch. “The ability to empathize with another person is enriched in this context, which is great, especially for understanding a lover.”

VR can facilitate more meaningful interactions for couples in long-distance relationships. If used right, it can fill the “intimacy gap,” or the space between a couple’s shared happiness and an individual’s personal happiness that, when too big, leads to many couple’s demise. 

As a safe space for experimentation, two people can explore fantasies, engage with educational content and even visit a couple’s therapist in VR. 

The release of the report is hot off the heels of Future of Sex’s fourth sextech hackathon. In New York, the company asked participants to create tech-enabled solutions to reinvent sex education for teenage boys, among other prompts. 

Women in sextech

Future of Sex partnered with porn site YouPorn to co-host the event and asked hackers to come up with ways to leverage YouPorn’s content, which includes VR porn, to improve the sex lives of viewers. VR porn is not a new phenomenon and while it can allow for more personal sexual experiences, researchers have warned that blurring the line between the real and the virtual could lead to ethical issues. How, for example, do you give consent in VR?

Women, who are often exploited for the purposes of sexual entertainment, need to be at the table while this content and other sextech are in development. Fortunately, Cole says, women are entering the sextech community in droves.

“[It’s] exploding at the moment and more and more women entrepreneurs are having a go at building a company,” she said. “It’s Important to highlight why women are getting involved in sextech especially in the current climate of #MeToo.”

On stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF this year, Unbound, which makes fashion-forward vibrators and other sex toys for women, took home the second-place prize.

“Our dream at Unbound is for female sexual health to be viewed through the same lens as male sexuality — as a part of our overall health that deserves a conversation, platform, and shopping experience that doesn’t feel like a flaming pile of garbage,” Unbound founder Polly Rodriguez told TechCrunch’s John Biggs.

Rodriguez is a close friend of Cole’s — the community is still small — and she’s appeared on the Future of Sex podcast.

The podcast, hackathons and the 12-week accelerator program for sextech startups are part of Cole’s effort to expand the dialogue around VR & sextech, invite new voices into the movement and remove the stigma around having open and honest conversations about sex and intimacy.

“There has to be a way to invite more people into this conversation,” she said. “If we can normalize the conversation, we can raise the standards around talking about sex.”

 


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White House says a draft executive order reviewing social media companies is not “official”

00:18 | 23 September

A draft executive order circulating around the White House “is not the result of an official White House policymaking process,” according to deputy White House press secretary, Lindsay Walters.

According to a report in The Washington Post, Walters denied that White House staff had worked on a draft executive order that would require every federal agency to study how social media platforms moderate user behavior and refer any instances of perceived bias to the Justice Department for further study and potential legal action.

Bloomberg first reported the draft executive order and a copy of the document was acquired and published by Business Insider.

Here’s the relevant text of the draft (from Business Insider):

Section 2. Agency Responsibilities. (a) Executive departments and agencies with authorities that could be used to enhance competition among online platforms (agencies) shall, where consistent with other laws, use those authorities to promote competition and ensure that no online platform exercises market power in a way that harms consumers, including through the exercise of bias.

(b) Agencies with authority to investigate anticompetitive conduct shall thoroughly investigate whether any online platform has acted in violation of the antitrust laws, as defined in subsection (a) of the first section of the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. § 12, or any other law intended to protect competition.

(c) Should an agency learn of possible or actual anticompetitive conduct by a platform that the agency lacks the authority to investigate and/or prosecute, the matter should be referred to the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Competition of the Federal Trade Commission.

While there are several reasonable arguments to be made for and against the regulation of social media platforms, “bias” is probably the least among them.

That hasn’t stopped the steady drumbeat of accusations of bias under the guise of “anticompetitive regulation” against platforms like Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter from increasing in volume and tempo in recent months.

Bias was the key concern Republican lawmakers brought up when Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify before Congress earlier this year. And bias was front and center in Republican lawmakers’ questioning of Jack Dorsey, Sheryl Sandberg, and Google’s empty chair when they were called before Congress earlier this month to testify in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The Justice Department has even called in the attorneys general of several states to review the legality of the moderation policies of social media platforms later this month (spoiler alert: they’re totally legal).

With all of this activity focused on tech companies, it’s no surprise that the administration would turn to the Executive Order — a preferred weapon of choice for Presidents who find their agenda stalled in the face of an uncooperative legislature (or prevailing rule of law).

However, as the Post reported, aides in the White House said there’s little chance of this becoming actual policy.

… three White House aides soon insisted they didn’t write the draft order, didn’t know where it came from, and generally found it to be unworkable policy anyway. One senior White House official confirmed the document had been floating around the White House but had not gone through the formal process, which is controlled by the staff secretary.

 


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Cinematic train wreck, “The Room”, is now on YouTube in its entirety

21:48 | 22 September

The Room has been ranked with Plan 9 From Outer Space as a strong contender for the “best” worst movie ever made — and it’s now available in its entirety on YouTube.

Written, directed, and starring Tommy Wiseau, The Room belongs in the same category as Plan 9, and Coven (which was immortalized in the 1999 documentary American Movie) as a paean to moviemaking by people who have no idea how to make a movie.

The combination of passion and ineptitude is what made The Room a cult classic after its release, and what made The Disaster Artist — the James Franco film it inspired so compelling (Ed Wood, the biopic from Tim Burton about the director behind Plan 9 is also amazing).

Writer, actor, and director Tommy Wiseau in a still from “The Room”

In “The Room” Wiseau plays Johnny, an investment banker caught in a bizarre love triangle with his best friend, Mark, played by Greg Sestero, and his fiancee, Lisa, played by Juliette Danielle.

It was Sestero’s book on the making of the film, “The Disaster Artist”, that inspired the eponymous movie directed by Franco and starring his brother Dave and Seth Rogen.

According to The Daily DotSestero and Wiseau are now promoting a straight-to-digital follow-up to their feature debut — a two-part black comedy called “Best F(r)iends”.

Viewers might just be better off watching the original contender for best worst movies, Plan 9, which is also available on YouTube (and below).

 

 


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