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Main article: Policy

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GitHub faces more resignations in light of ICE contract

19:40 | 13 November

Microsoft-owned GitHub has been under intense scrutiny as of late for its $200,000 contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Now, another employee, engineer Alice Goldfuss, has resigned.

In a tweet,

GitHub has a number of problems to address and that “ICE is only the latest.”

Meanwhile, Vice reports at least five staffers quit today. These resignations come the same day as GitHub Universe, the company’s big product conference. Ahead of the conference, Tech Workers Coalition protested the event, setting up a cage to represent where ICE detains children.

Last month, GitHub staff engineer Sophie Haskins resigned, stating she was leaving because the company did not cancel its contract with ICE, The Los Angeles Times reported.

Last month, GitHub employees penned an open letter urging the company to stop working with ICE. That came following GitHub’s announcement of a $500,000 donation to non-profit organizations in support of “immigrant communities targeted by the current administration. In that announcement, GitHub CEO Nat Friedman said ICE’s purchase was made through one of GitHub’s reseller partners and said the deal is not “financially material” for the company. Friedman also pointed out that ICE is responsible for more than immigration and detention facilities.

“[…] We recognize that ICE is responsible for both enforcing the US immigration policies with which we passionately disagree, as well as policies that are critical to our society, such as fighting human trafficking,” Friedman wrote. “We do not know the specific projects that the on-premises GitHub Enterprise Server license is being used with, but recognize it could be used in projects that support policies we both agree and disagree with.”

But some employees were not persuaded by Friedman’s words.

“We are not satisfied with GitHub’s now-public stance on this issue,” GItHub employees wrote in an open letter. “GitHub has held a ‘seat at the table’ for over 2 years, as these illegal and dehumanizing policies have escalated, with little to show for it. Continuing to hold this contract does not improve our bargaining power with ICE. All it does is make us complicit in their widespread human rights abuses.”

In response to that open letter, GitHub COO Erica Brescia said preventing ICE from using GitHub could “hurt the very people we all want to help,” The Los Angeles Times reported last month. Still, employees are not letting up, as illustrated by the action this morning.

When reached for comment about GitHub’s stance on its contract with ICE, GitHub directed me to its blog post from last month. TechCrunch has sent a follow-up note to see if the company will comment on the resignation.

 


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Can America ever rebuild its neighborhoods and communities?

01:16 | 10 November

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?

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.

 


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Daily Crunch: Twitter is banning political ads

19:55 | 31 October

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 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Jack Dorsey says Twitter will ban all political ads

Arguing that “internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse,” CEO Jack Dorsey announced that Twitter will be banning all political advertising — albeit with “a few exceptions” like voter registration.

Not only is this a decisive move by Twitter, but it also could increase pressure on Facebook to follow suit, or at least take steps in this direction.

2. Apple beats on Q4 earnings after strong quarter for wearables, services

Apple’s iPhone sales still make up over half of its quarterly revenues, but they are slowly shrinking in importance as other divisions in the company pick up speed.

3. Facebook shares rise on strong Q3, users up 2% to 2.45B

More earnings news: Despite ongoing public relations crises, Facebook kept growing in Q3 2019, demonstrating that media backlash does not necessarily equate to poor business performance.

4. Driving license tests just got smarter in India with Microsoft’s AI project

Hundreds of people who have taken the driver’s license test in Dehradun (the capital of the Indian state of Uttarakhand) in recent weeks haven’t had to sit next to an instructor. Instead, their cars were affixed with a smartphone that was running HAMS, an AI project developed by a Microsoft Research team.

5. Crunchbase raises $30M more to double down on its ambition to be a ‘LinkedIn for company data’

Good news for our friends at Crunchbase, which got its start as a part of TechCrunch before being spun off into a separate business several years ago. CEO Jager McConnell also says the site currently has tens of thousands of paying subscribers.

6. Deadspin writers quit after being ordered to stick to sports

The relationship between new management at G/O Media (formerly Gizmodo Media Group/Gawker Media) and editorial staff seems to have been deteriorating for months. This week, it turned into a full-on revolt over auto-play ads and especially a directive that Deadspin writers must stick to sports.

7. What Berlin’s top VCs want to invest in right now

As we gear up for our Disrupt Berlin conference in December, we check in with top VCs on the types of startups that they’re looking to back right now. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

 


0

Github removes Tsunami Democràtic’s APK after a takedown order from Spain

13:30 | 30 October

Microsoft-owned Github has removed the APK of an app for organizing political protests in the autonomous community of Catalonia — acting on a takedown request from Spain’s military police (aka the Guardia Civil).

As we reported earlier this month supporters of independence for Catalonia have regrouped under a new banner — calling itself Tsunami Democràtic — with the aim of rebooting the political movement and campaigning for self-determination by mobilizing street protests and peaceful civil disobedience.

The group has also been developing bespoke technology tools to coordinate protest action. It’s one of these tools, the Tsunami Democràtic app, which was being hosted as an APK on Github and has now been taken down.

The app registers supporters of independence by asking them to communicate their availability and resources for taking part in local protest actions across Catalonia. Users are also asked to register for protest actions and check-in when they get there — at which point the app asks them to abide by a promise of non-violence (see point 3 in this sample screengrab):

image1 2 1

Users of the app see only upcoming protests relevant to their location and availability — making it different to the one-to-many broadcasts that Tsunami Democràtic also puts out via its channel on the Telegram messaging app.

Essentially, it’s a decentalized tool for mobilizing smaller, localized protest actions vs the largest demos which continue to be organized via Telegram broadcasts (such as a mass blockade of Barcelona airport, earlier this month).

A source with knowledge of Tsunami Democràtic previously told us the sorts of protests intended to be coordinated via the app could include actions such as go-slows to disrupt traffic on local roads and fake shopping sprees in supermarkets, with protestors abandoning carts filled with products in the store.

In a section of Github’s site detailing government takedowns the request from the Spanish state to remove the Tsunami Democràtic app sits alongside folders containing historical takedown requests from China and Russia.

“There is an ongoing investigation being carried out by the National High Court where the movement Tsunami Democràtic has been confirmed as a criminal organization driving people to commit terrorist attacks. Tsunami Democràtic’s main goal is coordinating these riots and terrorist actions by using any possible mean,” Spain’s military police write in the letter sent to Github.

We’ve reached out to Microsoft for comment on Github’s decision to remove the app APK.

In a note about government takedowns on Github’s website it writes:

From time to time, GitHub receives requests from governments to remove content that has been declared unlawful in their local jurisdiction. Although we may not always agree with those laws, we may need to block content if we receive a valid request from a government official so that our users in that jurisdiction may continue to have access to GitHub to collaborate and build software.

“GitHub does not endorse or adopt any assertion contained in the following notices,” it adds in a further caveat on the page.

The trigger for the latest wave of street demonstrations in Catalonia were lengthy jail sentences handed down to a number of Catalan political and cultural leaders by Spain’s Supreme Court earlier this month.

These were people involved in organizing an illegal independence referendum two years ago. The majority of these Catalan leaders were convicted for sedition. None were found guilty of the more serious charge of rebellion — but sentences ran as long as 13 years nonetheless.

This month Spanish judges also reissued a European arrest warrant seeking to extradite the former leader of the Catalan government, Carles Puigdemont, from Brussels to Spain to face trial.  Last year a court in Germany refused his extradition to Spain on charges of rebellion or sedition — only allowing it on lesser grounds of misuse of public funds. A charge which Spain did not pursue.

Puigdemont fled Catalonia in the wake of the failed 2017 independence bid and has remained living in exile in Brussels. He has also since been elected as an MEP but has been unable to take up his seat in the EU parliament after the Spanish state moved to block him from being recognized as a parliamentarian.

Shortly after the latest wave of pro-independence demonstrations took off in Catalonia the Tsunami Democràtic movement’s website was taken offline — also as a result of a takedown request by the Spanish state.

The website remains offline at the time of writing.

While the Tsunami Democràtic app could be accused of encouraging disruption, the charge of “terrorism” is clearly overblown. Unless your definition of terrorism extends to harnessing the power of peaceful civil resistance to generate momentum for political change. 

And while there has been unrest on the streets of Barcelona and other Catalan towns and cities this month, with fires being lit and projectiles thrown at police, there are conflicting reports about what has triggered these clashes between police and protestors — including criticism of the police response as overly aggressive vs what has been, in the main, large but peaceful crowds of pro-democracy demonstrators.

The police response on the day of the 2017 referendum was also widely condemned as violently disproportionate, with scenes of riot gear clad police officers beating up people as they tried to cast a vote.

Local press in Catalonia has reported the European Commission response to Spain’s takedown of the Tsunami Democràtic website — saying the pan-EU body said Spain has a responsibility to find “the right balance between guaranteeing freedom of expression and upholding public order and ensuring security, as well as protecting [citizens] from illegal content”.

Asked what impact the Github takedown of the Tsunami Democràtic app’s APK will have on the app, a source with knowledge of the movement suggested very little — pointing out that the APK is now being hosted on Telegram.

Similarly, the content that was available on the movement’s website is being posted to its 380,000+ subscribers on Telegram — a messaging platform that’s itself been targeted for blocks by authoritarian states in various locations around the world. (Though not, so far, in Spain.)

Another protest support tool that’s been in the works in Catalonia — a live-map for crowdsourcing information about street protests which looks similar to the HKlive.maps app used by pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong — is still in testing but expected to launch soon, per the source.

 


0

Tech giants still not doing enough to fight fakes, says European Commission

21:48 | 29 October

It’s a year since the European Commission got a bunch of adtech giants together to spill ink on a voluntary Code of Practice to do something — albeit, nothing very quantifiable — as a first step to stop the spread of disinformation online.

Its latest report card on this voluntary effort sums to the platforms could do better.

The Commission said the same in January. And will doubtless say it again. Unless or until regulators grasp the nettle of online business models that profit by maximizing engagement. As the saying goes, lies fly while the truth comes stumbling after. So attempts to shrink disinformation without fixing the economic incentives to spread BS in the first place are mostly dealing in cosmetic tweaks and optics.

Signatories to the Commission’s EU Code of Practice on Disinformation are: Facebook, Google, Twitter, Mozilla, Microsoft and several trade associations representing online platforms, the advertising industry, and advertisers — including the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) and World Federation of Advertisers (WFA).

In a press release assessing today’s annual reports, compiled by signatories, the Commission expresses disappointment that no other Internet platforms or advertising companies have signed up since Microsoft joined as a late addition to the Code this year.

“We commend the commitment of the online platforms to become more transparent about their policies and to establish closer cooperation with researchers, fact-checkers and Member States. However, progress varies a lot between signatories and the reports provide little insight on the actual impact of the self-regulatory measures taken over the past year as well as mechanisms for independent scrutiny,” write commissioners Věra Jourová, Julian King, and Mariya Gabriel said in a joint statement. [emphasis ours]

“While the 2019 European Parliament elections in May were clearly not free from disinformation, the actions and the monthly reporting ahead of the elections contributed to limiting the space for interference and improving the integrity of services, to disrupting economic incentives for disinformation, and to ensuring greater transparency of political and issue-based advertising. Still, large-scale automated propaganda and disinformation persist and there is more work to be done under all areas of the Code. We cannot accept this as a new normal,” they add.

The risk, of course, is that the Commission’s limp-wristed code risks rapidly cementing a milky jelly of self-regulation in the fuzzy zone of disinformation as the new normal, as we warned when the Code launched last year.

The Commission continues to leave the door open (a crack) to doing something platforms can’t (mostly) ignore — i.e. actual regulation — saying it’s assessment of the effectiveness of the Code remains ongoing.

But that’s just a dangled stick. At this transitionary point between outgoing and incoming Commissions, it seems content to stay in a ‘must do better’ holding pattern. (Or: “It’s what the Commission says when it has other priorities,” as one source inside the institution put it.)

A comprehensive assessment of how the Code is working is slated as coming in early 2020 — i.e. after the new Commission has taken up its mandate. So, yes, that’s the sound of the can being kicked a few more months on.

Summing up its main findings from signatories’ self-marked ‘progress’ reports, the outgoing Commission says they have reported improved transparency between themselves vs a year ago on discussing their respective policies against disinformation. 

But it flags poor progress on implementing commitments to empower consumers and the research community.

“The provision of data and search tools is still episodic and arbitrary and does not respond to the needs of researchers for independent scrutiny,” it warns. 

This is ironically an issue that one of the signatories, Mozilla, has been an active critic of others over — including Facebook, whose political ad API it reviewed damningly this year, finding it not fit for purpose and “designed in ways that hinders the important work of researchers, who inform the public and policymakers about the nature and consequences of misinformation”. So, er, ouch.

The Commission is also critical of what it says are “significant” variations in the scope of actions undertaken by platforms to implement “commitments” under the Code, noting also differences in implementation of platform policy; cooperation with stakeholders; and sensitivity to electoral contexts persist across Member States; as well as differences in EU-specific metrics provided.

But given the Code only ever asked for fairly vague action in some pretty broad areas, without prescribing exactly what platforms were committing themselves to doing, nor setting benchmarks for action to be measured against, inconsistency and variety is really what you’d expect. That and the can being kicked down the road. 

The Code did extract one quasi-firm commitment from signatories — on the issue of bot detection and identification — by getting platforms to promise to “establish clear marking systems and rules for bots to ensure their activities cannot be confused with human interactions”.

A year later it’s hard to see clear sign of progress on that goal. Although platforms might argue that what they claim is increased effort toward catching and killing malicious bot accounts before they have a chance to spread any fakes is where most of their sweat is going on that front.

Twitter’s annual report, for instance, talks about what it’s doing to fight “spam and malicious automation strategically and at scale” on its platform — saying its focus is “increasingly on proactively identifying problematic accounts and behaviour rather than waiting until we receive a report”; after which it says it aims to “challenge… accounts engaging in spammy or manipulative behavior before users are ​exposed to ​misleading, inauthentic, or distracting content”.

So, in other words, if Twitter does this perfectly — and catches every malicious bot before it has a chance to tweet — it might plausibly argue that bot labels are redundant. Though it’s clearly not in a position to claim it’s won the spam/malicious bot war yet. Ergo, its users remain at risk of consuming inauthentic tweets that aren’t clearly labeled as such (or even as ‘potentially suspect’ by Twitter). Presumably because these are the accounts that continue slipping under its bot-detection radar.

There’s also nothing in Twitter’s report about it labelling even (non-malicious) bot accounts as bots — for the purpose of preventing accidental confusion (after all satire misinterpreted as truth can also result in disinformation). And this despite the company suggesting a year ago that it was toying with adding contextual labels to bot accounts, at least where it could detect them.

In the event it’s resisted adding any more badges to accounts. While an internal reform of its verification policy for verified account badges was put on pause last year.

Facebook’s report also only makes a passing mention of bots, under a section sub-headed “spam” — where it writes circularly: “Content actioned for spam has increased considerably, since we found and took action on more content that goes against our standards.”

It includes some data-points to back up this claim of more spam squashed — citing a May 2019 Community Standards Enforcement report — where it states that in Q4 2018 and Q1 2019 it acted on 1.8 billion pieces of spam in each of the quarters vs 737 million in Q4 2017; 836 million in Q1 2018; 957 million in Q2 2018; and 1.2 billion in Q3 2018. 

Though it’s lagging on publishing more up-to-date spam data now, noting in the report submitted to the EC that: “Updated spam metrics are expected to be available in November 2019 for Q2 and Q3 2019″ — i.e. conveniently late for inclusion in this report.

Facebook’s report notes ongoing efforts to put contextual labels on certain types of suspect/partisan content, such as labelling photos and videos which have been independently fact-checked as misleading; labelling state-controlled media; and labelling political ads.

Labelling bots is not discussed in the report — presumably because Facebook prefers to focus attention on self-defined spam-removal metrics vs muddying the water with discussion of how much suspect activity it continues to host on its platform, either through incompetence, lack of resources or because it’s politically expedient for its business to do so.

Labelling all these bots would mean Facebook signposting inconsistencies in how it applies its own policies –in a way that might foreground its own political bias. And there’s no self-regulatory mechanism under the sun that will make Facebook fess up to such double-standards.

For now, the Code’s requirement for signatories to publish an annual report on what they’re doing to tackle disinformation looks to be the biggest win so far. Albeit, it’s very loosely bound self-reporting. While some of these ‘reports’ don’t even run to a full page of A4-text — so set your expectations accordingly.

The Commission has published all the reports here. It has also produced its own summary and assessment of them (here).

“Overall, the reporting would benefit from more detailed and qualitative insights in some areas and from further big-picture context, such as trends,” it writes. “In addition, the metrics provided so far are mainly output indicators rather than impact indicators.”

Of the Code generally — as a “self-regulatory standard” — the Commission argues it has “provided an opportunity for greater transparency into the platforms’ policies on disinformation as well as a framework for structured dialogue to monitor, improve and effectively implement those policies”, adding: “This represents progress over the situation prevailing before the Code’s entry into force, while further serious steps by individual signatories and the community as a whole are still necessary.”

 


0

This is the gig worker ballot initiative Uber, Lyft and DoorDash are backing

18:36 | 29 October

A group of Lyft, Uber and DoorDash drivers are announcing a statewide ballot measure for the November 2020 ballot this morning in Sacramento. Called the Protect App-Based Drivers & Services Act — funded by Uber, Lyft and DoorDash — the measure aims to ensure drivers and couriers can continue to be independent contractors with flexible work hours.

The ballot measure looks to implement an earnings guarantee of at least 120% of minimum wage while on the job, 30 cents per mile for expenses, a healthcare stipend, occupational accident insurance for on-the-job injuries, protection against discrimination and sexual harassment, and automobile accident and liability insurance.

This initiative is a direct response to the legalization of AB-5, the gig worker bill that will make it harder for the likes of Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other gig economy companies to classify their workers as 1099 independent contractors.

“The new law could take this flexibility away – potentially eliminating hundreds of thousands of work opportunities and forcing app-based drivers into rigid employment schedules whether they prefer it or not,” the group wrote in a Q&A. “Furthermore, if rideshare and delivery drivers are forced to be classified as employees with set shifts, it could significantly limit the availability and affordability of these on-demand services that benefit consumers, small businesses and our economy.”

However, as driver and protest organizer Annette Rivero previously told TechCrunch’s Greg Epstein, “AB5 doesn’t take away anybody’s flexibility, it’s the companies that take away the flexibility. Because I know that that’s something that everyone’s stuck on right now, and it’s a lie. There’s no truth to it.”

In August, Uber, Lyft and DoorDash each put $30 million toward this ballot initiative. Following the passage of AB-5, Uber Chief Legal Officer Tony West said Uber would be willing to put additional money toward the initiative, and plans to keep defending its worker model.

On the other side of this battle is Gig Workers Rising, an organization with hundreds of gig workers who have consistently demanded better pay, workplace protections and driver-led unions.

“This is yet another example of corporations and billionaires trying to exempt themselves from the democratic process by using wealth and fear tactics,” Gig Workers Rising organizer and driver Edan Alva said in a statement. “For years, these companies have refused to pay drivers fairly or treat us with respect. After working 80 hour weeks, sleeping in our cars and surviving on poverty wages, drivers organized and won support for AB5 from both the public and lawmakers. Now, instead of obeying the law, Uber, Lyft and Doordash want to spend $90 million to avoid accountability – all while claiming it will “protect” drivers. Uber and Lyft were nowhere to be found for the past many years when drivers like me needed healthcare or basic labor protections. We call on the people of California to resist the corporate lies, to stand with drivers and against the billionaires.”

Coming up next week, Gig Workers Rising along with other organizations are protesting outside the homes of those who will cash out from Uber’s IPO.

I’ve reached out to Uber, Lyft and DoorDash and will update this story if I hear back.

 


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From the NBA to Sequoia to TikTok and more, a week of national security concerns with China

18:11 | 25 October

It has been a tough week for China-U.S. relations. Vice President Mike Pence ratcheted up the administration’s rhetoric yesterday, calling the NBA “a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime” in China while the league’s commissioner Adam Silver continued to try to tamp down the intensity of criticism over the league’s business, saying in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that “We have no choice but to engage and to attempt to have better understanding of other cultures and try to work through issues.”

The NBA was hardly the only challenge between the U.S. and China. This week saw the intensification of two threads of national security concerns continue to get airtime on Capitol Hill that could have massive ramifications for startups.

The first and potentially most potent thread is swirling around TikTok, the epically popular social video app that also happens to be owned and operated by China-based ByteDance. This week, senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas circulated a bipartisan letter requesting an assessment of TikTok’s national security risks.

ByteDance remains the world’s highest-valued unicorn (which, perhaps in the wake of WeWork’s collapse the past two weeks, is not an epithet that any startup wants to actually hold these days). It has received major funding from the likes of Sequoia Capital China, and is currently valued at $75 billion.

Sequoia is clearly preparing for the worst around these national security reviews. Last week, the firm confirmed to The American Lawyer that Donald Vieira, a partner at top law firm Skadden, would be joining the venture firm as chief legal officer. Vieira has spent the last few years working on cases surrounding CFIUS, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (WTF is CFIUS?), and earlier, was chief of staff of none other than the Department of Justice’s national security division.

That expertise will be critical as Sequoia potentially faces a tough reception for ByteDance in the national security circuit on Capitol Hill. Earlier this year, CFIUS required video game publisher Beijing Kunlun to retroactively divest itself of its purchase of gay-dating app Grindr over concerns that the app’s user data could provide Chinese intelligence and law enforcement officials with compromising material that would allow for individual blackmail.

While Grindr’s text messages may be far more compromising than the average TikTok viral video, the app’s small user base is dwarfed by TikTok, which has seen more than 100 million downloads in the U.S. alone. That potentially wide surveillance net is of acute concern for U.S. intelligence officials.

On top of that, of course, is the media’s heightened discussion the past few weeks that ByteDance could carefully calibrate the virality of videos on TikTok to hew toward Beijing’s censorship dictates. That has led to some teens posting various memes about the Hong Kong protests to see how far they can push the platform’s red lines (as teens are wont to do).

Strategically, the China angle has become very useful for Facebook, who faces a viable threat in TikTok’s popularity according to my colleague Josh Constine. Mark Zuckerberg has made China’s potential censorship within TikTok a major speaking point, which he emphasized in a major policy speech at Georgetown:

While our services, like WhatsApp, are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these protests are censored, even in the US.

Is that the internet we want?

Facebook’s strategic messaging starts to lead us to the other national security thread happing these days in DC. There have been wide concerns over the past few months on Capitol Hill over bids for subway, rail, bus, and other transit contracts from Chinese companies like state-owned CRRC and electric bus and battery manufacturer BYD . There have been motions to ban federal transit funding for projects that use vehicles from Chinese-subsidized sources.

A new report published this morning by Radarlock, a data-driven research organization, argues that Beijing is using access to these contracts to enhance its ‘civil-military fusion,’ by which China means learning how to manufacture and build leading global supply chains that help it in both private sector competitiveness and in military superiority. As the research leads Emily de La Bruyère and Nathan Picarsic write:

Through both data collection and technology, CRRC contributes to Beijing’s military and military-civil fusion [“MCF”] projects: Explicitly declaring, in its company documents, a role in the military-civil fusion strategy, CRRC has set up an investment fund dedicated to MCF; operates in MCF industry zones; shares technology, resources, and data with military-and MCF-affiliates; and assigns the MCF label to high-profile projects and centers.

Like Facebook though, these results are being highlighted by industry sources, with Politico Pro noting that Securing America’s Future Energy and the Alliance for American Manufacturing have been pushing the report around DC.

And that gets back to the challenges of future economic ties between the two superpowers, notwithstanding the latest developments in the trade war negotiation (which seem as likely to conclude as Brexit is to happen).

National security policy is increasingly being used by incumbent players as a cudgel to stifle competition. Many of those national security concerns are valid — and sometimes acutely so — but we also need to be extraordinarily clear that like any market restriction, there is ultimately a consumer cost to these initiatives as well. The Chinese may go without star-studded basketball as much as Americans will go without working subway cars, and that’s the cost of a relationship that has never been built on a foundation of trust.

 


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Daily Crunch: Facebook fights (some) election lies

19:13 | 22 October

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 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. New Facebook features fight election lies everywhere but ads

Facebook made a slew of announcements designed to stop 2020 election interference — including the takedown of some foreign influence campaigns, the labeling of some state-owned or state-controlled media organizations and a new feature called Facebook Protect, which adds extra security.

However, during a press call about these changes, CEO Mark Zuckerberg was hammered with questions about Facebook’s continued unwillingness to fact check political ads.

2. Elon Musk tweets using SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk used an internet connection provided by his company’s Starlink constellation of broadband satellites early on Tuesday to send a simple tweet.

3. Roku buys adtech platform dataxu for $150M

Roku is beefing up its advertising business with the acquisition of Boston-based dataxu, a demand-side platform that will allow marketers to plan, buy and optimize their video ad campaigns that run on Roku’s devices and services.

4. FTC settles with Devumi, a company that sold fake followers, for $2.5M

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has put an end to the deceptive marketing tactics of Devumi, a company that sold fake indicators of social media influence.

5. Sandbox VR raises millions more in celebrity party round

Location-based virtual reality startup Sandbox VR announced a huge $68 million Series A led by Andreessen Horowitz at the beginning of the year. Now it’s bringing on some new investors — including Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Orlando Bloom and Will Smith — in an $11 million “strategic” round.

6. Medium says it will compensate writers based on reading time, not claps

According to Medium’s Emma Smith, reading time is “a closer measure of quality and resonance with readers.” She also said Medium has now paid out more than $6 million total to 30,000 writers.

7. 6 tips founders need to know about securing their startup

We sat down with three experts on the Extra Crunch stage at Disrupt SF to help startups and founders understand security — what they need to do, when and why. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

 


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Foursquare CEO calls on Congress to regulate the location data industry

18:27 | 16 October

The chief executive of Foursquare, one of the largest location data platforms on the internet, is calling on lawmakers to pass legislation to better regulate the wider location data industry amid abuses and misuses of consumers’ personal data.

It comes in the aftermath of the recent location sharing scandal, which revealed how bounty hunters were able to get a hold of any cell subscriber’s real-time location data by obtaining the records from the cell networks. Vice was first to report the story. Since then there have been numerous cases of abuse — including the mass collection of vehicle locations in a single database, and popular iPhone apps that were caught collecting user locations without explicit permission.

The cell giants have since promised to stop selling location data but have been slow to act on their pledges.

“It’s time for Congress to regulate the industry,” said Foursquare’s chief executive Jeff Glueck (shown on the left in the photo above) in an op-ed in The New York Times on Wednesday.

In his opinion piece, Glueck called on Congress to push for a federal regulation that enforces three points.

Firstly, phone apps should not be allowed to access location data without explicitly stating how it will be used. Apple has already introduced a new location tracking privacy feature that tells users where their apps track them, and is giving them options to restrict that access — but all too often apps are not clear about how they use data beyond their intended use case.

“Why, for example, should a flashlight app have your location data?,” he said, referring to scammy apps that push for device permissions they should not need.

Second, the Foursquare chief said any new law should provide greater transparency around what app makers do with location data, and give consumers the ability to opt-out. “Consumers, not companies, should control the process,” he added. Europe’s GDPR already allows this to some extent, as will California’s incoming privacy law. But the rest of the U.S. is out of luck unless the measures are pushed out federally.

And, lastly, Glueck said anyone collecting location data should promise to “do no harm.” By that, he said companies should apply privacy-protecting measures to all data uses by not discriminating against individuals based on their religion, sexual orientation or political beliefs. That would make it illegal for family tracking apps, for example, to secretly pass on location data to healthcare or insurance providers who might use that data to hike up a person’s premiums above normal rates by monitoring their driving speeds, he said.

For a business that relies on location data, it’s a gutsy move.

But Glueck hinted that businesses like Foursquare would be less directly affected as they already take a more measured and mindful approach to privacy, whereas the fast and loose players in the location data industry would face greater scrutiny and more enforcement action.

“These steps are necessary, but they’re not sufficient,” said Glueck. But he warned that Congress could do “great damage” if lawmakers fail to sufficiently push overly burdensome regulations on smaller companies, which could increase overheads, put companies out of business and have a negative effect on competition.

“There’s no good reason that companies won’t be able to comply with reasonable regulation,” said Glueck.

“Comprehensive regulation will support future innovation, weed out the bad companies and earn the public trust,” he said.

 


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UK quietly ditches porn age checks in favor of wider online harms rules

17:34 | 16 October

A controversial UK government scheme to introduce mandatary age checks for accessing online pornography has been dropped — for now.

Introduction of the measure, which was intended to protect children from accessing inappropriate content online, had already been delayed by several months this year, most recently after a bureaucratic oversight.

The reason given for ditching the plan now is the government says it has decided it no longer makes sense to introduce the age check provision at this stage — given wider plans to introduce comprehensive legislation to regulate a range of online harms, as set out in the Online Harms white paper earlier this year.

The news that age checks for accessing porn were being ditched dropped quietly, via a written statement from secretary of state for digital, Nicky Morgan, today.

“Since the White Paper’s publication, the government’s proposals have continued to develop at pace. The government announced as part of the Queen’s Speech that we will publish draft legislation for pre-legislative scrutiny. It is important that our policy aims and our overall policy on protecting children from online harms are developed coherently in view of these developments with the aim of bringing forward the most comprehensive approach possible to protecting children,” she writes.

“The government has concluded that this objective of coherence will be best achieved through our wider online harms proposals and, as a consequence, will not be commencing Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 concerning age verification for online pornography. The Digital Economy Act [DEA] objectives will therefore be delivered through our proposed online harms regulatory regime. This course of action will give the regulator discretion on the most effective means for companies to meet their duty of care. As currently drafted, the Digital Economy Act does not cover social media platforms.”

A spokesman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport confirmed the intention is to incorporate the objectives of Part 3 of the DEA into comprehensive online harms regulation that will place a duty of care on platforms to protect users from a range of harmful content. Including in the case of inappropriate material being accessed by children.

The spokesman could not give a timeframe for such a provision making it into law now in light of the change of plans. But given how much government and parliamentary time continues being consumed by the brexit process there is no realistic chance of online porn age checks making it onto the UK’s statute books this year.

Getting agreement on comprehensive regulation of online harms is also unlikely to prove any less controversial. So the timeframe for passing a broader law could be a long one — ergo, it looks safe to assume regulations for accessing online porn are being booted into 2020 at least.

In terms of where it’s at with the wider online harms plan, a consultation on the White Paper was concluded in July, per the DCMS spokesman, who said the government will be publishing its response in the coming months. The intent is to introduce a draft bill this session and pass legislation as soon as possible, he added.

 


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