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Google’s new T&Cs include a Brexit ‘easter egg’ for UK users

19:12 | 20 February

Google has buried a major change in legal jurisdiction for its UK users as part of a wider update to its terms and conditions that’s been announced today and which it says is intended to make its conditions of use clearer for all users.

It says the update to its T&Cs is the first major revision since 2012 — with Google saying it wanted to ensure the policy reflects its current products and applicable laws.

Google says it undertook a major review of the terms, similar to the revision of its privacy policy in 2018, when the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation started being applied. But while it claims the new T&Cs are easier for users to understand — rewritten using simpler language and a clearer structure — there are no other changes involved, such as to how it handles people’s data.

“We’ve updated our Terms of Service to make them easier for people around the world to read and understand — with clearer language, improved organization, and greater transparency about changes we make to our services and products. We’re not changing the way our products work, or how we collect or process data,” Google spokesperson Shannon Newberry said in a statement.

Users of Google products are being asked to review and accept the new terms before March 31 when they are due to take effect.

Reuters reported on the move late yesterday — citing sources familiar with the update who suggested the change of jurisdiction for UK users will weaken legal protections around their data.

However Google disputes there will be any change in privacy standards for UK users as a result of the shift. it told us there will be no change to how it process UK users’ data; no change to their privacy settings; and no change to the way it treats their information as a result of the move.

We asked the company for further comment on this — including why it chose not to make a UK subsidiary the legal base for UK users — and a spokesperson told us it is making the change as part of its preparations for the UK to leave the European Union (aka Brexit).

Like many companies, we have to prepare for Brexit,” Google said. “Nothing about our services or our approach to privacy will change, including how we collect or process data, and how we respond to law enforcement demands for users’ information. The protections of the UK GDPR will still apply to these users.”

Heather Burns, a tech policy specialist based in Glasgow, Scotland — who runs a website dedicated to tracking UK policy shifts around the Brexit process — also believes Google has essentially been forced to make the move because the UK government has recently signalled its intent to diverge from European Union standards in future, including on data protection.

“What has changed since January 31 has been [UK prime minister] Boris Johnson making a unilateral statement that the UK will go its own way on data protection, in direct contrast to everything the UK’s data protection regulator and government has said since the referendum,” she told us. “These bombastic, off-the-cuff statements play to his anti-EU base but businesses act on them. They have to.”

“Google’s transfer of UK accounts from the EU to the US is an indication that they do not believe the UK will either seek or receive a data protection adequacy agreement at the end of the transition period. They are choosing to deal with that headache now rather than later. We shouldn’t underestimate how strong a statement this is from the tech sector regarding its confidence in the Johnson premiership,” she added.

Asked whether she believes there will be a reduction in protections for UK users in future as a result of the shift Burns suggested that will largely depend on Google.

So — in other words — Brexit means, er, trust Google to look after your data.

“The European data protection framework is based around a set of fundamental user rights and controls over the uses of personal data — the everyday data flows to and from all of our accounts. Those fundamental rights have been transposed into UK domestic law through the Data Protection Act 2018, and they will stay, for now. But with the Johnson premiership clearly ready to jettison the European-derived system of user rights for the US-style anything goes model,” Burns suggested.

“Google saying there is no change to the way we process users’ data, no change to their privacy settings and no change to the way we treat their information can be taken as an indication that they stand willing to continue providing UK users with European-style rights over their data — albeit from a different jurisdiction — regardless of any government intention to erode the domestic legal basis for those rights.”

Reuters’ report also raises concerns about the impact of the Cloud Act agreement between the UK and the US — which is due to come into effect this summer — suggesting it will pose a threat to the safety of UK Google users’ data once it’s moved out of an EU jurisdiction (in this case Ireland) to the US where the Act will apply.

The Cloud Act is intended to make it quicker and easier for law enforcement to obtain data stored in the cloud by companies based in the other legal jurisdiction.

So in future, it might be easier for UK authorities to obtain UK Google users’ data using this legal instrument applied to Google US.

It certainly seems clear that as the UK moves away from EU standards as a result of Brexit it is opening up the possibility of the country replacing long-standing data protection rights for citizens with a regime of supercharged mass surveillance. (The UK government has already legislated to give its intelligence agencies unprecedented powers to snoop on ordinary citizens’ digital comms — so it has a proven appetite for bulk data.)

Again, Google told us the shift of legal base for its UK users will make no difference to how it handles law enforcement requests — a process it talks about here — and further claimed this will be true even when the Cloud Act applies. Which is a weasely way of saying it will do exactly what the law requires.

Google confirmed that GDPR will continue to apply for UK users during the transition period between the old and new terms. After that it said UK data protection law will continue to apply — emphasizing that this is modelled after the GDPR. But of course in the post-Brexit future the UK government might choose to model it after something very different.

Asked to confirm whether it’s committing to maintain current data standards for UK users in perpetuity, the company told us it cannot speculate as to what privacy laws the UK will adopt in the future…

We also asked why it hasn’t chosen to elect a UK subsidiary as the legal base for UK users. To which it gave a nonsensical response — saying this is because the UK is no longer in the EU. Which begs the question when did the UK suddenly become the 51st American State?

Returning to the wider T&Cs revision, Google said it’s making the changes in a response to litigation in the European Union targeted at its terms.

This includes a case in Germany where consumer rights groups successfully sued the tech giant over its use of overly broad terms which the court agreed last year were largely illegal.

In another case a year ago in France a court ordered Google to pay €30,000 for unfair terms — and ordered it to obtain valid consent from users for tracking their location and online activity.

Since at least 2016 the European Commission has also been pressuring tech giants, including Google, to fix consumer rights issues buried in their T&Cs — including unfair terms. A variety of EU laws apply in this area.

In another change being bundled with the new T&Cs Google has added a description about how its business works to the About Google page — where it explains its business model and how it makes money.

Here, among the usual ‘dead cat’ claims about not ‘selling your information’ (tl;dr adtech giants rent attention; they don’t need to sell actual surveillance dossiers), Google writes that it doesn’t use “your emails, documents, photos or confidential information (such as race, religion or sexual orientation) to personalize the ads we show you”.

Though it could be using all that personal stuff to help it build new products it can serve ads alongside.

Even further towards the end of its business model screed it includes the claim that “if you don’t want to see personalized ads of any kind, you can deactivate them at any time”. So, yes, buried somewhere in Google’s labyrinthine setting exists an opt out.

The change in how Google articulates its business model comes in response to growing political and regulatory scrutiny of adtech business models such as Google’s — including on data protection and antitrust grounds.

 


0

Reset Button is approaching student debt from a new angle

18:05 | 12 February

Student loan debt in the U.S. totals $1.5 trillion, and more than 44 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt.

According to research by Jason Iuliano, Villanova law professor, a million student loan debtors have filed for bankruptcy in the past five years. However, 99.9 percent of them did not include their student loan debt in their bankruptcy filing.

This research was the seed of what would become Reset Button, a new startup founded by Iuliano and Rob Hunter looking to help student loan debtors who have gone through bankruptcy find a new way to include those debts in their filing.

The only way you can include student loan debt in a bankruptcy filing is through litigation. Those cases have been historically less likely to settle out of court than other types of civil cases.

This means that the cost of including student loan debt in bankruptcy filings is, at the very least, around $10K. Now, if there was some guarantee that you could trade hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt for $10K-$15K, you’d obviously do it. But most folks who are already in the process of filing for bankruptcy don’t have a spare $10K minimum to spend on a litigator. And even if they did, there is no guarantee they’d win in court, resulting in even more debt and no relief.

This is what Reset Button is trying to change.

To be clear, Reset Button is targeted directly at folks who have already filed for bankruptcy but were told they couldn’t include their student loan debt in those filings, and so they didn’t.

Here’s how it works:

Reset Button has built a network of litigation lawyers who have experience in seeking student loan discharges. When a new user fires up Reset Button, the startup sends them through an evaluation process that collects financial information, etc. to assess whether or not one of those lawyers could litigate the discharge of that user’s student loan debt. That evaluation factors in a number of signals, including past legal cases that are comparable to the user’s situation.

That process also does a lot of the heavy lifting that makes hiring a litigator so expensive. These lawyers often have to do tons of research, tracking down statements and bills and other paperwork, before they can truly get started with the litigation.

Reset Button, as the connective tissue between debtor and lawyer, is able to automate a lot of that process for the lawyers, delivering a package of information on the case and connecting the user with the right lawyer for them.

Reset is also looking to bring the cost down for debtors. The company charges either 12 percent of the total debt discharged, or $10,000 (whichever is lowest). Reset also allows users to pay that sum over time, in $300 monthly installments. This is in stark contrast to people who hire their own lawyer, who would be responsible for the costs up front.

Reset Button is able to do this through a payment process called factoring. In short, Reset buys the receivables from the attorney’s fees, and charges the debtor with their own payment plan. Reset makes money from lawyers who pay for the lead generation, the technology services, and the marketing apparatus.

Factoring has come under fire from some who say that service providers sometimes raise prices to account for their fee, but Reset Button cofounders Rob Hunter and Iuliano say that their lawyers are actually charging less because of the workflow optimization provided by Reset Button.

The company also provides a Knowledge Base for debtors seeking financial guidance and resources, but the only revenue stream comes from the actual litigation of student loan debt in bankruptcy filings. Other services like refinancing, debt consolidation, or income-based payments are not provided by Reset Button, and the company has no official partnerships with those types of service providers.

However, Hunter said that it may be an avenue the company explores as it grows.

Perhaps most importantly, Reset Button offers a Fresh Start guarantee. In short, if the lawyer doesn’t manage to get your debt wiped, Reset will pay your legal bills.

There has been movement in the landscape of student loan discharges with bankruptcy.

Essentially, debtors must prove in court that they pass the test of “undue hardship,” which is a notably vague framework. Though there is a bit of variability among the various court circuits, the general idea is that a debtor must prove that they can’t currently pay back the loan, that there will not be a change down the line that will allow them to pay the loan in the future, and that they have made every effort to pay the loans in the past.

Historically, that’s been a difficult threshold to cross for the fraction of people who take steps to litigate their student loan debt. However, in small ways, courts seem to be opening up the interpretation of undue hardship.

“There’s a phrase that gets used in these cases that I think perpetuates this myth, and that is to call it a ‘certainty of hopelessness’,” said John Rao, attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. “And it’s almost like, as long as you’re still alive and breathing, something could improve for you. That’s just an impossible burden. It’s basically saying you could win the lottery or something. That’s just not the standard I think Congress had in mind.”

In 2015, in a case between Robert E. Murphy and the DOE/ECMC, Rao wrote to the courts arguing that they should reassess the test for undue hardship.

Rather than adopt one existing test over another, we urge this Court to provide a formulation of the undue hardship standard in simple terms, that restricts consideration of extraneous and inappropriate factors not consistent with the statutory language. A finding about whether a debtor’s hardship is likely to persist should be based on hard facts, not conjecture and unsubstantiated optimism.

More recently, a judge in the Southern District of New York ruled in favor of a debtor, wiping more than $200,000 in Kevin Rosenberg’s student debt. Of course, the lenders will be appealing the case.

However, Judge Morris, who presided over the case, wrote in her decision that “most people (bankruptcy professionals as well as lay individuals) believe it impossible to discharge student loans,” and that her “Court will not participate in perpetuating these myths.”

Reset Button has raised money from investors Craft Ventures, Slow Ventures, and Jeff Morris Jr. of Lambda School, among others. The company declined to share its total amount of investment.

“Society has been led to believe something for decades that is not true, which is probably the biggest initial challenge,” said founder and CEO Rob Hunter. “One of the unfortunate things is the reason that many consumers believe incorrect information is because a lawyer told them that. So, that is a bit of an uphill battle to swim against.”

 


0

CurieMD is using telehealth to plug the menopause support gap

00:22 | 11 February

U.S. femtech startup CurieMD is offering menopause diagnosis and treatment prescription via a telehealth platform — beginning in California, where it launched late last year.

Founder Dr Leslie Meserve says the goal is to widen access to treatment and support services for mid-life women, spying a business opportunity in offering an auxiliary digital service targeting an area of women’s health which she says is often overlooked within standard health service provision and suffers from a lack of trained physicians.

She also suggests there is a “unique fear” in the U.S. around the use of hormone therapy for treating the menopause that’s left an access gap in support services — blaming concerns sparked by misleading publicity attached to the 2003 Women’s Health Initiative study which implied a link with breast cancer.

“The authors of the study released a press release prematurely that then became an overnight sensationalized story about hormone therapy causing breast cancer,” she explains. “What they didn’t say was that in the estrogen-only arm of the trial there was actually a lower incidence of breast cancer. So that was never stated anywhere. The other thing they failed to state was that the slight increased risk was not statistically significant… They did women a huge disservice by releasing this press release prematurely.”

More than fifteen years on, Meserve believes the time is right for telehealth services to help plug the information and support gap that still orbits the menopause, in part as a consequence of “deeply rooted” but misplaced fear of hormone therapy.

Investment in products targeted women’s health and wellness has also been jumping up in recent years as VCs cotton on to an underinvested opportunity which more founders are also focusing on — led by female entrepreneurs driving attention toward women’s issues.

There are now a number of femtech startups specifically focused on the menopause. Asked about competitors Meserve points to several other U.S. startups — including Gennev and Elektra Health.

“There is a lot more interest in telehealth and I believe the time is absolutely right for more information to be given to the world… to make sure that women know that going through menopause is not the end of anything — it’s the beginning of a wonderful second half of life,” she suggests, arguing that the regular healthcare services women are accessing often don’t have the time to dedicate to discussing menopausal symptoms and potential treatments with their patients.

“Telehealth is not going to be appropriate for every single medical issue that’s for sure of but the diagnosis and treatment of menopausal symptoms is really based on a discussion,” she says. “We do let patients know that we are an adjunct to the regular care that they need to be receiving from their gynecologist and primary care physicians. But menopausal treatment requires a lot of discussion, a lot of talk therapy — it’s a very cognitive diagnosis and treatment. And many OB-GYNs and primary care doctors really don’t have the time needed to explain the pros and cons of hormone therapy to their patients.

“They do the physical. They address immediate, urgent needs but they may not have the time to address something that doesn’t feel as urgent. Menopausal symptoms — from insomnia to hot flushes — they don’t feel as urgent to practitioners so I don’t think that they’re always given the time needed. And we know that physicians and other practitioners are very rushed. The way our insurance models go they have to see patients every nine to 15 minutes and sometimes a 15 minute office visit just isn’t enough to perform both a pap smear, a physical and answer all of these questions. So we’re an adjunct. We’re not in place of their regular physical exams — we’re an addition to those.”

Meserve practiced in primary care for close to two decades before moving into specializing in menopause services herself — a shift that led to the idea of setting up a company to address mid-life women’s health issues via a web-based telehealth platform.

“I’ve kind of grown up with my patients and a few years ago I was noticing that my patients were having lots of menopausal symptoms so I self-trained in the treatment of menopause and then became a certified menopause practitioner,” she tells TechCrunch, explaining her own transition from practicing in primary care to focusing on menopause care. 

“I realized obviously I was only going to be able to see a very small number of patients and patients in my community. And I know that women across the country are suffering with these symptoms and they’re not able to find physicians that are comfortable talking about menopause and treating menopause. And so, through friends of friends, I was connected to another physician in our community, along with his friend who has expertise in startups and we had the idea [for the company].”

“We know that there’s a lack of trained physicians in this area, we know that women want this relief — they want symptom relief, they want to live wonderful lives,” she adds, saying the key idea is to use telehealth consultations and algorithmic triage to reach “as many women as are wanting the treatment”.

CurieMD patients fill in an online quiz about themselves and their symptoms to get treatment suggestions — which can include a prescription for an oral contraceptive or, in cases where there may be a risk associated with taking estrogen, an antidepressant for perimenopausal symptom relief; and a plant-based hormone therapy for menopausal women — with the startup using an algorithm to help the telehealth practitioners offer the right treatment suggestions.

“Based on the way that patients answer questions in our questionnaire they’re driven down a certain path to help our practitioners choose the right therapy,” she explains, noting that they’re not using AI to drive recommendations. Rather patients’ responses are used to determine which additional questions they get asked to get pull out other relevant information — in a classic decision tree algorithm.

“The first thing we have to determine is whether they’re in perimenopause or menopause,” she says, discussing the decision flow. “So in perimenopause their cycles are fluctuating, their ovaries are coming in and out of retirement. That happens in their 40s. And women start to have perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms at that time — many of them do. So they”ll be having hot flushes, night sweats, irritability, mood symptoms. But the treatment for perimenopause is different from menopause. Perimenopausal patients can be treated very effectively with low dose oral contraceptive pills — so one of the algorithm’s branches is, first of all, are you in menopause or perimenopause?

“And then for menopausal patients they have the option of choosing bioidentical hormone therapy. And if they have had a hysterectomy they only need estrogen — and so they would go down the pathway asking about their estrogen needs. And then if they still have a uterus they will need both estrogen and progesterone. So then they have the choice of what type of estrogen they want to choose — whether they want oral estrogen or estrogen delivered through the skin, which is a patch.”

In cases where a woman is having vasomotor symptoms such as insomnia and hot flushes but has had breast cancer or where there’s another contra-indication to estrogen (such as having previously had a blood clot) CurieMD’s platform may prescribe an antidepressant to treat her symptoms.

“They are candidates for an antidepressant called Venlafaxine [that’s] very effective for treating vasomotor symptoms in all patients — but we use it mostly for women who are unable to take estrogen,” says Meserve.

For now the platform has just three doctors performing remote consultations for the “dozens” of early sign ups it’s seen so far — with a third party company supplying the trained physicians that are conducting the remote consultations.

“We’re working with a large, national company that hires physicians who have chosen to provide telehealth,” she says. “They’re board certified and we provide additional training in women’s health for them — especially in the medications… that we offer.”

Per Meserve CurieMD applies “narrower” prescribing guidelines than an in-person physician might use — exactly “because it is a telehealth company”.

She gives the example of a patient who has had a blood clot in the past — where an in-person physician might be able to discuss with a patient’s haematologist and come up with a plan for them to be on a very low dose estrogen patch. In this case CurieMD’s remote service would not be able to offer such a joined-up approach to prescribing a treatment.

“In telehealth we don’t know all the physicians in each patient’s community so we’re not going to be able to do co-ordinated care as well with specialist, outside of the box patients,” she says. “So if they have any risk factors, such as a history of clotting, or of course if they have a history of breast cancer we’re not going to be able to treat those patients with hormone therapy. So if they really want hormone therapy that’s going to be an in-person visit with a physician.”

Another exception would be patients who have migraines and who may want to be on an oral birth control pill. “It depends on the type of migraines they have,” she says. “So that’s beyond the scope of what we’re going to prescribe.”

As part of the questionnaire process patients are also asked to rate the severity of their symptoms. Meserve says she’s confident this will enable it to not only demonstrate to individual patients the efficacy of the prescribed treatment but also enable it to present findings to the wider medical community — with the aim of demonstrating “the safety and efficacy of telehealth” for this particular use-case.

“One of the things that I’d like to make sure that we’re doing is really convincing the medical community at large about the safety of telehealth in certain medical conditions,” she says. “It’s not appropriate for every medical condition… There are certain things that need to have an in person visit. But the medical community is starting to understand and adapt and trust telehealth — but I think the more data that we have the more we’re going to be able to convince them that this is a nice adjunct to in person visits.”

“Patients are more accepting of [telehealth] than physicians are. Physicians are very conservative and very slow to change and so I feel that one of our missions is to present the data to physicians and help them understand that this is not a substitute for good in-person care, it’s just an addition,” she adds.

The business model for the service is direct to patient — which means CurieMD is not plugging into the US insurance healthcare market. Rather there’s a sign up fee (currently waived), a per consultation fee and recurring subscription (taken via credit card) for any ongoing prescriptions which are shipped to patients by a mail-order pharmacy contracted for that piece of the service. (In an FAQ on its website startup claims its consultation fees “are lower than that of most copays and our medication pricing is competitive with that of most pharmacies”.)

The team has raised around $1M in angel and VC investment to fund development of the business so far.

Meserve says the plan is to scale nationwide, taking a state by state approach to building out coverage in order to get the necessary contracts and physician licences in place.

“I would like to be in another 20 states by the end of this year,” she adds.

In terms of differentiation vs the growing number of femtech startups that have also supported an opportunity to offer menopause-related treatment support she says: “We believe we’re the only one that contracts with a pharmacy and has the prescription delivered through a mail order service.”

She also flags that the hormone therapy CurieMD’s service prescribes — and delivers “right to the door in discreet packaging” — is a bioidentical plant-based “FDA-approved” treatment, suggesting that’s another point of differentiation for its approach.

 


0

California’s new privacy law is off to a rocky start

20:00 | 8 February

California’s new privacy law was years in the making.

The law, California’s Consumer Privacy Act — or CCPA — became law on January 1, allowing state residents to reclaim their right to access and control their personal data. Inspired by Europe’s GDPR, the CCPA is the largest statewide privacy law change in a generation. The new law lets users request a copy of the data that tech companies have on them, delete the data when they no longer want a company to have it, and demand that their data isn’t sold to third parties. All of this is much to the chagrin of the tech giants, some of which had spent millions to comply with the law and have many more millions set aside to deal with the anticipated influx of consumer data access requests.

But to say things are going well is a stretch.

Many of the tech giants that kicked and screamed in resistance to the new law have acquiesced and accepted their fate — at least until something different comes along. The California tech scene had more than a year to prepare, but some have made it downright difficult and — ironically — more invasive in some cases for users to exercise their rights, largely because every company has a different interpretation of what compliance should look like.

Alex Davis is just one California resident who tried to use his new rights under the law to make a request to delete his data. He vented his annoyance on Twitter, saying companies have responded to CCPA by making requests “as confusing and difficult as possible in new and worse ways.”

“I’ve never seen such deliberate attempts to confuse with design,” he told TechCrunch. He referred to what he described as “dark patterns,” a type of user interface design that tries to trick users into making certain choices, often against their best interests.

“I tried to make a deletion request but it bogged me down with menus that kept redirecting… things to be turned on and off,” he said.

Despite his frustration, Davis got further than others. Just as some companies have made it easy for users to opt-out of having their data sold by adding the legally required “Do not sell my info” links on their websites, many have not. Some have made it near-impossible to find these “data portals,” which companies set up so users can request a copy of their data or delete it altogether. For now, California companies are still in a grace period — but have until July when the CCPA’s enforcement provisions kick in. Until then, users are finding ways around it — by collating and sharing links to data portals to help others access their data.

“We really see a mixed story on the level of CCPA response right now,” said Jay Cline, who heads up consulting giant PwC’s data privacy practice, describing it as a patchwork of compliance.

PwC’s own data found that only 40% of the largest 600 U.S. companies had a data portal. Only a fraction, Cline said, extended their portals to users outside of California, even though other states are gearing up to push similar laws to the CCPA.

But not all data portals are created equally. Given how much data companies store on us — personal or otherwise — the risks of getting things wrong are greater than ever. Tech companies are still struggling to figure out the best way to verify each data request to access or delete a user’s data without inadvertently giving it away to the wrong person.

Last year, security researcher James Pavur impersonated his fiancee and tricked tech companies into turning over vast amounts of data about her, including credit card information, account logins and passwords and, in one case, a criminal background check. Only a few of the companies asked for verification. Two years ago, Akita founder Jean Yang described

into her Spotify account and requesting her account data as an “unfortunate consequence” of GDPR, which mandated companies operating on the continent allow users access to their data.

(Image: Twitter/

)

The CCPA says companies should verify a person’s identity to a “reasonable degree of certainty.” For some that’s just an email address to send the data.

Others require sending in even more sensitive information just to prove it’s them.

Indeed, i360, a little-known advertising and data company, until recently asked California residents for a person’s full Social Security number. This recently changed to just the last four-digits. Verizon (which owns TechCrunch) wants its customers and users to upload their driver’s license or state ID to verify their identity. Comcast asks for the same, but goes the extra step by asking for a selfie before it will turn over any of a customer’s data.

Comcast asks for the same amount of information to verify a data request as the controversial facial recognition startup, Clearview AI, which recently made headlines for creating a surveillance system made up of billions of images scraped from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to help law enforcement trace a person’s movements.

As much as CCPA has caused difficulties, it has helped forge an entirely new class of compliance startups ready to help large and small companies alike handle the regulatory burdens to which they are subject. Several startups in the space are taking advantage of the $55 billion expected to be spent on CCPA compliance in the next year — like Segment, which gives customers a consolidated view of the data they store; Osano which helps companies comply with CCPA; and Securiti, which just raised $50 million to help expand its CCPA offering. With CCPA and GDPR under their belts, their services are designed to scale to accommodate new state or federal laws as they come in.

Another startup, Mine, which lets users “take ownership” of their data by acting as a broker to allow users to easily make requests under CCPA and GDPR, had a somewhat bumpy debut.

The service asks users to grant them access to a user’s inbox, scanning for email subject lines that contain company names and using that data to determine which companies a user can request their data from or have their data deleted. (The service requests access to a user’s Gmail but the company claims it will “never read” users’ emails.) Last month during a publicity push, Mine inadvertently copied a couple of emailed data requests to TechCrunch, allowing us to see the names and email addresses of two requesters who wanted Crunch, a popular gym chain with a similar name, to delete their data.

(Screenshot: Zack Whittaker/TechCrunch)

TechCrunch alerted Mine — and the two requesters — to the security lapse.

“This was a mix-up on our part where the engine that finds companies’ data protection offices’ addresses identified the wrong email address,” said Gal Ringel, co-founder and chief executive at Mine. “This issue was not reported during our testing phase and we’ve immediately fixed it.”

For now, many startups have caught a break.

The smaller, early-stage startups that don’t yet make $25 million in annual revenue or store the personal data on more than 50,000 users or devices will largely escape having to immediately comply with CCPA. But it doesn’t mean startups can be complacent. As early-stage companies grow, so will their legal responsibilities.

“For those who did launch these portals and offer rights to all Americans, they are in the best position to be ready for these additional states,” said Cline. “Smaller companies in some ways have an advantage for compliance if their products or services are commodities, because they can build in these controls right from the beginning,” he said.

CCPA may have gotten off to a bumpy start, but time will tell if things get easier. Just this week, California’s attorney general Xavier Becerra released newly updated guidance aimed at trying to “fine tune” the rules, per his spokesperson. It goes to show that even California’s lawmakers are still trying to get the balance right.

But with the looming threat of hefty fines just months away, time is running out for the non-compliant.

 


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NASA astronaut Christina Koch returns to Earth after record-setting stay in space

16:32 | 6 February

Astronaut Christina Koch made the return trip from the International Space Station (ISS) early on Thursday, along with ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov. The three boarded a Soyuz capsule docked at the ISS at around 12:50 AM EST, and had a safe landing as planned at around 4:12 AM EST (3:12 PM local time) in Kazakhstan.

Koch’s trip was significant because it set a record, officially making her the U.S. astronaut with the second-longest stay in space with 328 consecutive days at the Station. She’s second only to Scott Kelley, who spent 340 days in space, and she’s officially the woman with the longest stay in space worldwide, passing fellow U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson’s record of 289 days.

As NASA notes, Koch’s tour included 5,248 orbits of the Earth, with a total distance traversed of 139 million miles in terms of how far the Space Station traveled during its orbit while she was on board. Koch also spent quite a bit of time outside the station, completing six spacewalks, including the record-setting first ever spacewalk involving all women with fellow astronaut Jessica Meir – and two more all-women spacewalks after that.

Koch and her fellow returning space travellers all appeared to be in good shape upon landing, but will get the standard medical checks common for all returning astronauts before returning home. And Koch’s science mission isn’t done now that she’s back – she’s participating in NASA research about long-duration spaceflight that will pave the way for trips further out into the solar system, including the Moon and Mars under the agency’s Artemis program.

 


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SpaceX will now let you book a rocket launch online starting at $1 million

21:58 | 5 February

SpaceX has launched a new web-based booking tool for its rideshare Falcon 9 launches, a service it announced last year to expand its addressable market to include small satellite customers who don’t have the budget or need to book a full rocket, which can cost upwards of $60 million. Prices for the rideshare services that SpaceX is offering through the website start at $1 million for payloads ranging up to 200 kg (440 lbs), with additional weight adding $5 per kg to the cost.

The selection tool asks you to specific the desired orbit (sun synchronous, low-Earth or polar) and your minimum readiness date (the earliest your payload can possibly fly) with dates starting this June as of this writing. You then input the total mass of what you want to fly and get an estimated cost. Proceeding brings you to a series of screens where you select whether you’ll need either a 15-inch or 24-inch port on the launch vehicle (which is largely a function of volume and mass) as well as the specific rocket you’re looking to book a ride on from upcoming scheduled missions.

Other options include add-ons like port adapters to meet the standard seizes that SpaceX uses, as well as a SpaceX-provided separation system in case yo udon’t have your own, along with options for on-site fuelling if your spacecraft has its own propulsion system and insurance for up to $2 million in value. It’s a little bit like configuring a car through Tesla’s configurator – but for launching something into space.

This isn’t just a lead generation form, either; once you’ve selected all your options, and confirmed that you’re not subject to any actions or International Traffic in Arms (ITAR) restrictions imposed by the U.S. government, you can put in a credit card number to instantly pay $5,000 as a deposit with three instalments due thereafter to make up whatever your total is, including the largest one due within 5 days of SpaceX confirming acceptance of your request.

SpaceX has also published an accompanying ‘Rideshare User’s Guide‘ that goes into a lot more detail about the program, including technical requirements, details about things like environmental testing, legal considerations and much more. But it’s still amazing that I could, in theory, have just put up a down payment to send something to space as easily as I could reserve a Tesla Model Y.

Of course, I would forfeit that deposit because I don’t have the slightest clue about getting anything to space from a regulatory perspective, or the minimum $995,000 required to pay the balance for even the smallest payload without any additional frills. But if you do know what you’re doing, there’s now no easier way to book an orbital flight.

 


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TLcom Capital closes $71M Africa fund with plans to back 12 startups

12:00 | 5 February

VC firm TLcom Capital has closed its Tide Africa Fund at $71 million with plans to make up to 12 startup investments over the next 18 months.

The group —  with offices in London, Lagos, and Nairobi — is looking for tech enabled, revenue driven ventures in Africa from seed-stage to Series B, according to TLcom Managing Partner Maurizio Caio.

“We’re rather sector agnostic, but right now we are looking at companies that are more infrastructure type tech rather than super commoditized things like consumer lending,” he told TechCrunch on a call.

On geographic scope, TLcom Capital will focus primarily on startups in Africa’s big-three tech hubs — Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa — but is also eyeing rising markets, such as Ethiopia.

Part of the fund’s investment approach, according to Caio, is backing viable companies with strong founders and then staying out of the way.

“We are venture capitalists that believe in looking at Africa as an investment opportunity that empowers local entrepreneurs without…coming in and explaining what to do,” said Caio.

TLcom’s team includes Caio (who’s Italian), partners Ido Sum and Andreata Muforo (from Zimbabwe) and senior partner Omobola Johnson, the former Minister of Communication Technology in Nigeria.

Speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin in 2018, Johnson offered perspective on next startups in Africa that could reach billion-dollar valuations. “When I look at the African market I suspect it’s going to be a company that’s very much focused on business to business and business to very small business — a company that can that can solve their challenges,” she said.

Omobola Johonson

Omobola Johnson

TLcom’s current Africa portfolio reflects startups similar to what Johnson described. The fund has invested in Nigerian trucking logistics venture Kobo360, which is working to reduce business delivery costs in Africa.

TLcom has also backed Kenya’s Twiga Foods, a B2B food distribution company aimed a improving supply-chain operations around agricultural products and fast-moving-consumer-goods for farmers and SMEs.

Both of these companies have gone on to expand in Africa and receive subsequent investment by U.S. investment bank, Goldman Sachs .

Other investments for TLcom include talent accelerator Andela  — which trains and places African software engineers — and Ulesson, the latest venture of serial founder Sim Shagaya.

The firm’s close of the $71 million Tide Africa Fund comes on the high-end of a several-year mobilization of capital for the continent’s startup scene. Investment shops specifically focused on Africa have been on the rise. A TechCrunch and Crunchbase study in 2018 tracked 51 viable Africa specific VC funds globally, TLcom included.

This trend has moved in tandem with a quadrupling of venture funding for the continent over the past six years. Accurately measuring VC for Africa is a work in progress, but one of the earlier reliable estimates placed it at just over $400 million in 2014. Recent stats released by Partech peg Africa focused VC funding at over $2 billion for 2019.

TLcom’s listed in a number of the larger rounds that made up Partech’s tally.

The fund’s latest $71 million raise, which included support from Sango Capital and IFC, reversed the roles a bit for TLcom founder Maurizio Caio.

The VC principal — who usually gets pitches from African startups — needed to sell the value of African tech to other investors.

“It’s been tough to raise the fund, there’s no doubt about it,” Caio said. TLcom highlighted its past exit record and the viability of the African market and founders to bring investors on board.

“We had the advantage of showing some good exits…The emphasis was also on the gigantic size of these markets that are underserved, the role that technology can play, and the fact that the entrepreneurs in Africa are just as good as anywhere else,” said Caio.

He also referenced African startups being constrained by the social impact factors often placed on them from outside investors.

“The equation is not just about ensuring employment and inclusion, but also about the fact that African entrepreneurs have to be in charge of their own destiny without instructions from the West,” he said.

For those startups who wish to pitch to TLcom Capital, Caio encouraged founders to contact one of the fund’s partners and share a value proposition. “If it’s something we find vaguely interesting, we’ll make a decision,” he said.

 


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72 hours left to save $150 on tickets to TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020

19:45 | 28 January

We’re counting the days (35 to be precise) until TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020 takes place on March 3 in Berkeley, Calif. But we’re also counting the days that you can save on the price of admission. The early-bird pricing ends in just three days on January 31. Buy your ticket right here before that bird flies south, and you’ll save $150.

This single-day conference features interviews, panel discussions, Q&As and demos with the leaders, founders and investors focused on the future of robotics and AI. TechCrunch editors will interview the people making it happen, explore the promise, expose the hype and address the challenges of these revolutionary industries.

The lineup, as impressive as ever, also includes workshops and demos because who doesn’t want to see robots in action? From autonomous cars and assistive robotics to advances in agriculture and outer space, our conference agenda covers the leading edges of the complex and exciting world of robots and AI.

Here’s a taste of what we’re serving.

Engineering for the Red Planet: Maxar Technologies has been involved with U.S. space efforts for decades and is about to send its sixth robotic arm to Mars aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Lucy Condakchian, general manager of robotics at Maxar, will speak to the difficulty and exhilaration of designing robotics for use in the harsh environments of space and other planets.

Investing in Robotics and AI — Lessons from the Industry’s VCs: Leading investors will discuss the rising tide of venture capital funding in robotics and AI. Dror Berman, founding partner at Innovation Endeavors; Kelly Chen, partner at Data Collective DCVC; and Eric Migicovsky, general partner at Y Combinator, bring a combination of early stage investing and corporate venture capital expertise, sharing a fondness for the wild world of robotics and AI investing.

We’ve added a new, exciting element this year. It’s Pitch Night, a sort of mini Startup Battlefield. The night before the conference, 10 teams will pitch to an audience of VCs and other influencers at a private event. Judges will choose five finalists, and those teams will pitch again from the Main Stage at the conference. We’re taking applications until February 1, so apply right here. It’s free, and a great way to showcase your startup to the people who can supercharge your startup dreams.

Don’t miss your chance to learn from, share with and pitch to the brightest minds, makers, investors and researchers in robotics and AI. And don’t miss out on serious savings. Buy an early-bird ticket to TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020 — before prices go up on January 31 — and you’ll keep $150 in your wallet.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Robotics & AI 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

 


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UK will allow Huawei to supply 5G — with ‘tight restrictions’

16:21 | 28 January

The UK government will allow Chinese tech giant Huawei to play a limited role in supplying the country’s 5G networks, it has been announced today.

The government said the package of restrictions being announced on “high risk” 5G vendors will allow it to “mitigate the potential risk posed by the supply chain and to combat the range of threats, whether cyber criminals, or state sponsored attacks”.

The plan for managing risks related to the next generation of cellular technology ends months of uncertainty over the issue — which has seen warnings that the delay is harming the UK’s competitiveness and relations abroad.

Commenting on the decision in a statement, digital secretary Baroness Morgan said: “The government has reviewed the supply chain for telecoms networks and concluded today it is necessary to have tight restrictions on the presence of high risk vendors.

“This is a UK-specific solution for UK-specific reasons and the decision deals with the challenges we face right now. It not only paves the way for secure and resilient networks, with our sovereignty over data protected, but it also builds on our strategy to develop a diversity of suppliers.”

The decision not to bar Huawei from upgrades to domestic networks signals a failure of U.S. diplomacy at the highest level.

In recent days American has been applying top-level pressure to its European ally — with secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, tweeting Sunday night that the country faced a “momentus” decision. “The truth is that only nations able to protect their data will be sovereign,” he wrote.

President Trump has also made his preference for US allies to ban Huawei amply clear in public.

While the decision by UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, not to bow to US pressure is likely to cause shockwaves of displeasure in Washington, the move had nonetheless looked likely for months.

Last summer a UK parliamentary committee concluded there was no technical reason for excluding Huawei — though it suggested “there may well be geopolitical or ethical grounds… to enact a ban on Huawei’s equipment”.

And while a report last March by a UK oversight body set up to evaluation the Chinese networking giant’s approach to security was withering in its assessment of its approach to security it did not call for an outright ban.

Then in April a leak from the National Security Council indicated that the prior Conservative administration was preparing to provide a level of access to Huawei.

Since then the government had said it was waiting for a Telecoms Supply Chain review to be completed. (A UK General Election also intervened, as well as the ongoing national preoccupation of Brexit.) Today marks the conclusion of the review, and with it the announcement of new restrictions to manage 5G risks.

The government says vendors such as Huawei will be allowed a limited role in UK 5G networks — with exclusion from “sensitive ‘core'” parts of networks.

There will also be a 35 per cent cap on high risk vendor access to non-sensitive parts of the network (aka the access network, or periphery, where devices connect to mobile phone masts).

This cap will be kept under review — and could shrink further “as the market diversifies”.

More generally, the government says it intends to work to support market diversification — saying it’s developing “an ambitious strategy to help diversify the supply chain”.

“This will seek to attract established vendors who are not present in the UK, supporting the emergence of new, disruptive entrants to the supply chain, and promoting the adoption of open, interoperable standards that will reduce barriers to entry,” it adds.

A key issue related to the decision is that Huawei is the leading global vendor in 5G, with relatively few alternative providers — none of whom are considered to offer a like-for-like option at this stage.

So a full ban on Huawei at this stage risks delays to rolling out national 5G networks which could hamper national competitiveness on an international stage.

“We want world-class connectivity as soon as possible but this must not be at the expense of our national security. High risk vendors never have been and never will be in our most sensitive networks,” Morgan also said in her statement, adding: “We can now move forward and seize the huge opportunities of 21st century technology.”

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) will issue guidance to UK telecoms operators regarding the limits on high risk vendors — which also include that such providers should be:

  • Excluded from all safety related and safety critical networks in Critical National Infrastructure
  • Excluded from sensitive geographic locations, such as nuclear sites and military bases

Questions remain over how the ‘core’ of a 5G network is being defined; and even whether “sensitive” parts of the network can be isolated in 5G network topology, given the extensive role software plays across such next-gen networks.

But the government has ignored critical voices claiming there’s no way to securely isolate a 5G core — such as former Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull — and is spinning the restrictions as “the most stringent set of controls ever”.

It further claims they will “substantially improve the security and resilience of our critical telecoms networks” — and it’s doing so with the public blessing of the security services (which have previously signalled confidence that any risk associated with Huawei can be managed).

In a supporting statement today, Ciaran Martin, CEO of the NCSC — the public facing arm of GCHQ — said: “This package will ensure that the UK has a very strong, practical and technically sound framework for digital security in the years ahead.”

“High risk vendors have never been – and never will be – in our most sensitive networks,” he added. “Taken together these measures add up to a very strong framework for digital security.”

Martin said the agency has already issued advice to telcos “to help with the industry rollout of 5G and full fibre networks in line with the government’s objectives” — suggesting telcos are being encouraged to get on with rollouts and avoid any further delays by waiting for formal legislation.

The government says it will seek to legislate “at the earliest opportunity” to put in place the necessary powers for implementing the new telecoms security framework. But the signal to get on with 5G in the meanwhile looks clear.

Unsurprisingly Huawei has welcomed the decision.

In a statement, Huawei VP Victor Zhang said:

Huawei is reassured by the UK government’s confirmation that we can continue working with our customers to keep the 5G roll-out on track. This evidence-based decision will result in a more advanced, more secure and more cost-effective telecoms infrastructure that is fit for the future. It gives the UK access to world-leading technology and ensures a competitive market.

We have supplied cutting-edge technology to telecoms operators in the UK for more than 15 years. We will build on this strong track record, supporting our customers as they invest in their 5G networks, boosting economic growth and helping the UK continue to compete globally.

We agree a diverse vendor market and fair competition are essential for network reliability and innovation, as well as ensuring consumers have access to the best possible technology.

 


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Early bird savings end next Friday on tickets to Robotics+AI 2020

19:30 | 24 January

TechCrunch Sessions: Robotics+AI 2020 is gearing up to be one amazing show. This annual day-long event draws the brightest minds and makers from these two industries — 1,500 attendees last year alone. And if you really want to make 2020 a game-changing year, grab yourself an early-bird ticket and save $150 on tickets before prices go up after January 31.

Not convinced yet? Check out some agenda highlights featuring some of today’s leading robotics and AI leaders.

Saving Humanity from AI with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)
The UC Berkeley professor and AI authority argues in his acclaimed new book, “Human Compatible,” that AI will doom humanity unless technologists fundamentally reform how they build AI algorithms.

Automating Amazon with Tye Brady (Amazon Robotics)
Amazon Robotics’ chief technology officer will discuss how the company is using the latest in robotics and AI to optimize its massive logistics. He’ll also discuss the future of warehouse automation and how humans and robots share a work space. 

Engineering for the Red Planet with Lucy Condakchian (Maxar Technologies)
Maxar Technologies has been involved with U.S. space efforts for decades, and is about to send its sixth (!) robotic arm to Mars aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Lucy Condakchian is general manager of robotics at Maxar and will speak to the difficulty and exhilaration of designing robotics for use in the harsh environments of space and other planets.

Toward a Driverless Future with Anca Dragan (Waymo/UC Berkeley) and Jur van den Berg (Ike)
Autonomous driving is set to be one of the biggest categories for robotics and AI. But there are plenty of roadblocks standing in its way. Experts will discuss how we get there from here. 

See the full agenda here

If you’re a startup, nab one of the 5 demo tables left and showcase your company to new customers, press, and potential investors. Demo tables run $2200 and come with 4 attendee tickets so you can divide and conquer the networking scene at the conference.

Students, get your super-reduced $50 ticket here and learn from some of the biggest names in the biz and meet your future employer or internship opportunity.

Don’t forget, the early bird ticket sale ends on Jan 31. After that, prices go up by $150. Purchase your tickets here and save an additional 18% when you book a group of 4 or more.

 


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