Lawmakers tell Facebook to stop deleting abortion posts for no reason

Lawmakers tell Facebook to stop deleting abortion posts for no reason

Enlarge (credit: SOPA Images / Contributor | LightRocket)

When Facebook and Instagram began removing posts about abortion that didn’t violate any community standards, at least two US lawmakers decided that Meta’s apparent practice of censoring pro-choice advocates needed more scrutiny.

Last week, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) sent a letter to Meta asking what the company plans to do to end abortion-post censorship on its platforms. They gave Meta until this Friday, July 15, to respond, placing urgency on their request and seeking evidence that the company is taking immediate action.

Examples of censorship cited in the letter include instances where Facebook and Instagram removed “posts providing accurate information about how to legally access abortion services” within minutes and placed sensitivity screens over a post promoting an abortion documentary. The senators also took issue with censorship of health care workers, including a temporary account suspension of an “organization dedicated to informing people in the United States about their abortion rights.”

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#amy-klobuchar, #censorship, #elizabeth-warren, #facebook, #facebook-oversight-board, #instagram, #policy

This Week in Apps: OnlyFans bans sexual content, SharePlay delayed, TikTok questioned over biometric data collection

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

OnlyFans to ban sexually explicit content

OnlyFans logo displayed on a phone screen and a website

(Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Creator platform OnlyFans is getting out of the porn business. The company announced this week it will begin to prohibit any “sexually explicit” content starting on October 1, 2021 — a decision it claimed would ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform. The news angered a number of impacted creators who weren’t notified ahead of time and who’ve come to rely on OnlyFans as their main source of income.

However, word is that OnlyFans was struggling to find outside investors, despite its sizable user base, due to the adult content it hosts. Some VC firms are prohibited from investing in adult content businesses, while others may be concerned over other matters — like how NSFW content could have limited interest from advertisers and brand partners. They may have also worried about OnlyFans’ ability to successfully restrict minors from using the app, in light of what appears to be soon-to-come increased regulations for online businesses. Plus, porn companies face a number of other issues, too. They have to continually ensure they’re not hosting illegal content like child sex abuse material, revenge porn or content from sex trafficking victims — the latter which has led to lawsuits at other large porn companies.

The news followed a big marketing push for OnlyFans’ porn-free (SFW) app, OFTV, which circulated alongside reports that the company was looking to raise funds at a $1 billion+ valuation. OnlyFans may not have technically needed the funding to operate its current business — it handled more than $2 billion in sales in 2020 and keeps 20%. Rather, the company may have seen there’s more opportunity to cater to the “SFW” creator community, now that it has big names like Bella Thorne, Cardi B, Tyga, Tyler Posey, Blac Chyna, Bhad Bhabie and others on board.

U.S. lawmakers demand info on TikTok’s plans for biometric data collection

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max. Image Credits: Nur Photo/Getty Images

U.S. lawmakers are challenging TikTok on its plans to collect biometric data from its users. TechCrunch first reported on TikTok’s updated privacy policy in June, where the company gave itself permission to collect biometric data in the U.S., including users’ “faceprints and voiceprints.” When reached for comment, TikTok could not confirm what product developments necessitated the addition of biometric data to its list of disclosures about the information it automatically collects from users, but said it would ask for consent in the case such data collection practices began.

Earlier this month, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Thune (R-SD) sent a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, which said they were “alarmed” by the change, and demanded to know what information TikTok will be collecting and what it plans to do with the data. This wouldn’t be the first time TikTok got in trouble for excessive data collection. Earlier this year, the company paid out $92 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that claimed TikTok had unlawfully collected users’ biometric data and shared it with third parties.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Image Credits: Apple

  • ⭐ Apple told developers that some of the features it announced as coming in iOS 15 won’t be available at launch. This includes one of the highlights of the new OS, SharePlay, a feature that lets people share music, videos and their screen over FaceTime calls. Other features that will come in later releases include Wallet’s support for ID cards, the App Privacy report and others that have yet to make it to beta releases.
  • Apple walked back its controversial Safari changes with the iOS 15 beta 6 update. Apple’s original redesign had shown the address bar at the bottom of the screen, floating atop the page’s content. Now the tab bar will appear below the page’s content, offering access to its usual set of buttons as when it was at the top. Users can also turn off the bottom tab bar now and revert to the old, Single Tab option that puts the address bar back at the top as before.
  • In response to criticism over its new CSAM detection technology, Apple said the version of NeuralHash that was reverse-engineered by a developer, Asuhariet Ygvar, was a generic version, and not the complete version that will roll out later this year.
  • The Verge dug through over 800 documents from the Apple-Epic trial to find the best emails, which included dirt on a number of other companies like Netflix, Hulu, Sony, Google, Nintendo, Valve, Microsoft, Amazon and more. These offered details on things like Netflix’s secret arrangement to pay only 15% of revenue, how Microsoft also quietly offers a way for some companies to bypass its full cut, how Apple initially saw the Amazon Appstore as a threat and more.

Platforms: Google

  • A beta version of the Android Accessibility Suite app (12.0.0) which rolled out with the fourth Android beta release added something called “Camera Switches” to Switch Access, a toolset that lets you interact with your device without using the touchscreen. Camera Switches allows users to navigate their phone and use its features by making face gestures, like a smile, open mouth, raised eyebrows and more.
  • Google announced its Pixel 5a with 5G, the latest A-series Pixel phone, will arrive on August 27, offering IP67 water resistance, long-lasting Adaptive Battery, Pixel’s dual-camera system and more, for $449. The phone makes Google’s default Android experience available at a lower price point than the soon to arrive Pixel 6.
  • An unredacted complaint from the Apple-Epic trial revealed that Google had quietly paid developers hundreds of millions of dollars via a program known as “Project Hug,” (later “Apps and Games Velocity Program”) to keep their games on the Play Store. Epic alleges Google launched the program to keep developers from following its lead by moving their games outside the store.

Augmented Reality

  • Snap on Thursday announced it hired its first VP of Platform Partnerships to lead AR, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis (“KP”). The new exec will lead Snap’s efforts to onboard partners, including individual AR creators building via Lens Studio as well as large companies that incorporate Snapchat’s camera and AR technology (Camera Kit) into their apps. KP will join in September, and report to Ben Schwerin, SVP of Content and Partnerships.

Fintech

  • Crypto exchange Coinbase will enter the Japanese market through a new partnership with Japanese financial giant Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG). The company said it plans to launch other localized versions of its existing global services in the future.

Social

Image Credits: Facebook

  • Facebook launched a “test” of Facebook Reels in the U.S. on iOS and Android. The new feature brings the Reels experience to Facebook, allowing users to create and share short-form video content directly within the News Feed or within Facebook Groups. Instagram Reels creators can also now opt in to have their Reels featured on users’ News Feed. The company is heavily investing its its battle with TikTok, even pledging that some portion of its $1 billion creator fund will go toward Facebook Reels.
  • Twitter’s redesign of its website and app was met with a lot of backlash from users and accessibility experts alike. The company choices add more visual contrast between various elements and may have helped those with low vision. But for others, the contrast is causing strain and headaches. Experts believe accessibility isn’t a one-size fits all situation, and Twitter should have introduced tools that allowed people to adjust their settings to their own needs.
  • The pro-Trump Twitter alternative Gettr’s lack of moderation has allowed users to share child exploitation images, according to research from the Stanford Internet Observatory’s Cyber Policy Center.
  • Pinterest rolled out a new set of more inclusive search filters that allow people to find styles for different types of hair textures — like coily, curly, wavy, straight, as well as shaved or bald and protective styles. 

Photos

  • Photoshop for iPad gained new image correction tools, including the Healing Brush and Magic Wand, and added support for connecting an iPad to external monitors via HDMI or USB-C. The company also launched a Photoshop Beta program on the desktop.

Messaging

  • WhatsApp is being adopted by the Taliban to spread its message across Afghanistan, despite being on Facebook’s list of banned organizations. The company says it’s proactively removing Taliban content — but that may be difficult to do since WhatsApp’s E2E encryption means it can’t read people’s texts. This week, Facebook shut down a Taliban helpline in Kabul, which allowed civilians to report violence and looting, but some critics said this wasn’t actually helping local Afghans, as the group was now in effect governing the region.
  • WhatsApp is also testing a new feature that will show a large preview when sharing links, which some suspect may launch around the time when the app adds the ability to have the same account running on multiple devices.

Streaming & Entertainment

  • Netflix announced it’s adding spatial audio support on iPhone and iPad on iOS 14, joining other streamers like HBO Max, Disney+ and Peacock that have already pledged to support the new technology. The feature will be available to toggle on and off in the Control Center, when it arrives.
  • Blockchain-powered streaming music service Audius partnered with TikTok to allow artists to upload their songs using TikTok’s new SoundKit in just one click.
  • YouTube’s mobile app added new functionality that allows users to browse a video’s chapters, and jump into the chapter they want directly from the search page.
  • Spotify’s Anchor app now allows users in global markets to record “Music + Talk” podcasts, where users can combine spoken word recordings with any track from Spotify’s library of 70 million songs for a radio DJ-like experience.
  • Podcasters are complaining that Apple’s revamped Podcasts platform is not working well, reports The Verge. Podcasts Connect has been buggy, and sports a confusing interface that has led to serious user errors (like entire shows being archived). And listeners have complained about syncing problems and podcasts they already heard flooding their libraries.

Dating

  • Tinder announced a new feature that will allow users to voluntarily verify their identity on the platform, which will allow the company to cross-reference sex offender registry data. Previously, Tinder would only check this database when a user signed up for a paid subscription with a credit card.

Gaming

Image Source: The Pokémon Company

  • Pokémon Unite will come to iOS and Android on September 22, The Pokémon Company announced during a livestream this week. The strategic battle game first launched on Nintendo Switch in late July.
  • Developer Konami announced a new game, Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls, which will come exclusively to Apple Arcade. The game is described as a “full-fledged side-scrolling action game,” featuring a roster of iconic characters from the classic game series. The company last year released another version of Castelvania on the App Store and Google Play.
  • Dragon Ball Z: Dokkan Battle has now surpassed $3 billion in player spending since its 2015 debut, reported Sensor Tower. The game from Bandai Namco took 20 months to reach the figure after hitting the $2 billion milestone in 2019. The new landmark sees the game joining other top-grossers, including Clash Royale, Lineage M and others.
  • Sensor Tower’s mobile gaming advertising report revealed data on top ad networks in the mobile gaming market, and their market share. It also found puzzle games were among the top advertisers on gaming-focused networks like Chartboost, Unity, IronSource and Vungle. On less game-focused networks, mid-core games were top titles, like Call of Duty: Mobile and Top War. 

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Health & Fitness

  • Apple is reportedly scaling back HealthHabit, an internal app for Apple employees that allowed them to track fitness goals, talk to clinicians and coaches at AC Wellness (a doctors’ group Apple works with) and manage hypertension. According to Insider, 50 employees had been tasked to work on the project.
  • Samsung launched a new product for Galaxy smartphones in partnership with healthcare nonprofit The Commons Project, that allows U.S. users to save a verifiable copy of their vaccination card in the Samsung Pay digital wallet.

Image Credits: Samsung

Adtech

Government & Policy

  • China cited 43 apps, including Tencent’s WeChat and an e-reader from Alibaba, for illegally transferring user data. The regulator said the apps had transferred users location data and contact list and harassed them with pop-up windows. The apps have until August 25 to make changes before being punished.

Security & Privacy

  • A VICE report reveals a fascinating story about a jailbreaking community member who had served as a double agent by spying for Apple’s security team. Andrey Shumeyko, whose online handles included JVHResearch and YRH04E, would advertise leaked apps, manuals and stolen devices on Twitter and Discord. He would then tell Apple things like which Apple employees were leaking confidential info, which reporters would talk to leakers, who sold stolen iPhone prototypes and more. Shumeyko decided to share his story because he felt Apple took advantage of him and didn’t compensate him for the work.

Funding and M&A

? South Korea’s GS Retail Co. Ltd will buy Delivery Hero’s food delivery app Yogiyo in a deal valued at 800 billion won ($685 million USD). Yogiyo is the second-largest food delivery app in South Korea, with a 25% market share.

? Gaming platform Roblox acquired a Discord rival, Guilded, which allows users to have text and voice conversations, organize communities around events and calendars and more. Deal terms were not disclosed. Guilded raised $10.2 million in venture funding. Roblox’s stock fell by 7% after the company reported earnings this week, after failing to meet Wall Street expectations.

? Travel app Hopper raised $175 million in a Series G round of funding led by GPI Capital, valuing the business at over $3.5 billion. The company raised a similar amount just last year, but is now benefiting from renewed growth in travel following COVID-19 vaccinations and lifting restrictions.

? Indian quiz app maker Zupee raised $30 million in a Series B round of funding led by Silicon Valley-based WestCap Group and Tomales Bay Capital. The round values the company at $500 million, up 5x from last year.

? Danggeun Market, the publisher of South Korea’s hyperlocal community app Karrot, raised $162 million in a Series D round of funding led by DST Global. The round values the business at $2.7 billion and will be used to help the company launch its own payments platform, Karrot Pay.

? Bangalore-based fintech app Smallcase raised $40 million in Series C funding round led by Faering Capital and Premji Invest, with participation from existing investors, as well as Amazon. The Robinhood-like app has over 3 million users who are transacting about $2.5 billion per year.

? Social listening app Earbuds raised $3 million in Series A funding led by Ecliptic Capital. Founded by NFL star Jason Fox, the app lets anyone share their favorite playlists, livestream music like a DJ or comment on others’ music picks.

? U.S. neobank app One raised $40 million in Series B funding led by Progressive Investment Company (the insurance giant’s investment arm), bringing its total raise to date to $66 million. The app offers all-in-one banking services and budgeting tools aimed at middle-income households who manage their finances on a weekly basis.

Public Markets

?Indian travel booking app ixigo is looking to raise Rs 1,600 crore in its initial public offering, The Economic Times reported this week.

?Trading app Robinhood disappointed in its first quarterly earnings as a publicly traded company, when it posted a net loss of $502 million, or $2.16 per share, larger than Wall Street forecasts. This overshadowed its beat on revenue ($565 million versus $521.8 million expected) and its more than doubling of MAUs to 21.3 million in Q2.  Also of note, the company said dogecoin made up 62% of its crypto revenue in Q2.

Downloads

Polycam (update)

Image Credits: Polycam

3D scanning software maker Polycam launched a new 3D capture tool, Photo Mode, that allows iPhone and iPad users to capture professional-quality 3D models with just an iPhone. While the app’s scanner before had required the use of the lidar sensor built into newer devices like the iPhone 12 Pro and iPad Pro models, the new Photo Mode feature uses just an iPhone’s camera. The resulting 3D assets are ready to use in a variety of applications, including 3D art, gaming, AR/VR and e-commerce. Data export is available in over a dozen file formats, including .obj, .gtlf, .usdz and others. The app is a free download on the App Store, with in-app purchases available.

Jiobit (update)

Jiobit, the tracking dongle acquired by family safety and communication app Life360, this week partnered with emergency response service Noonlight to offer Jiobit Protect, a premium add-on that offers Jiobit users access to an SOS Mode and Alert Button that work with the Jiobit mobile app. SOS Mode can be triggered by a child’s caregiver when they detect — through notifications from the Jiobit app — that a loved one may be in danger. They can then reach Noonlight’s dispatcher who can facilitate a call to 911 and provide the exact location of the person wearing the Jiobit device, as well as share other details, like allergies or special needs, for example.

Tweets

When your app redesign goes wrong…

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Prominent App Store critic Kosta Eleftheriou shut down his FlickType iOS app this week after too many frustrations with App Review. He cited rejections that incorrectly argued that his app required more access than it did — something he had successfully appealed and overturned years ago. Attempted follow-ups with Apple were ignored, he said. 

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Anyone have app ideas?

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Senators challenge TikTok’s ‘alarming’ plan to collect users’ voice and face biometrics

TikTok’s plans to collect biometric identifiers from its users has prompted concern among U.S. lawmakers, who are demanding the company reveal exactly what information it collects and what it plans to do with that data.

In a letter sent earlier this month addressed to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Thune, (R-SD) say they are “alarmed” by the recent change to TikTok’s privacy policy, which allows the company to “automatically collect biometric data, including certain physical and behavioral characteristics from video content posted by its users.”

TechCrunch first reported details of the new privacy policy back in June, when TikTok said it will seek “required permissions” to collect “faceprints and voiceprints” where required by law, but failed to elaborate on whether it’s considering federal law, states laws, or both (only a handful of U.S. states have biometric privacy laws, including Illinois, Washington, California, Texas and New York).

Klobuchar and Thune’s letter asks TikTok to explicitly explain what constitutes a “faceprint” and “voiceprint”, as well as to explain how this data will be used and how long it will be retained. The senators also quizzed TikTok on whether any data is gathered for users under the age of 18; whether it makes any inferences about its users based on the biometric data it collects; and to provide a list of all third parties that have access to the data.

“The coronavirus pandemic led to an increase in online activity, which has magnified the need to protect consumers’ privacy,” the letter reads. “This is especially true for children and teenagers, who comprise more than 32% of TikTok’s active users and have relied on online applications such as TikTok for entertainment and for interaction with their friends and loved ones.”

TikTok has been given until August 25 to respond to the lawmakers’ questions. A TikTok spokesperson did not immediately comment.

This isn’t the first time TikTok’s excessive data collection plans have come under scrutiny. Earlier this year, the company paid out $92 million to settle a class-action lawsuit claiming it unlawfully collected users’ biometric data and shared it with third parties. This came after the FTC in 2019 slapped TikTok with a $5.7 million fine for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires apps to receive parental permission before collecting a minor’s data.

#amy-klobuchar, #digital-rights, #human-rights, #privacy, #privacy-policy, #security, #tiktok

Lawmakers ask Amazon what it plans to do with palm print biometric data

A group of senators sent new Amazon CEO Andy Jassy a letter Friday pressing the company for more information about how it scans and stores customer palm prints for use in some of its retail stores.

The company rolled out the palm print scanners through a program it calls Amazon One, encouraging people to make contactless payments in its brick and mortar stores without the use of a card. Amazon introduced its Amazon One scanners late last year, and they can now be found in Amazon Go convenience and grocery stores, Amazon Books and Amazon 4-star stores across the U.S. The scanners are also installed in eight Washington state-based Whole Foods locations.

In the new letter, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Jon Ossoff (D-GA) press Jassy for details about how Amazon plans to expand its biometric payment system and if the data collected will help the company target ads.

“Amazon’s expansion of biometric data collection through Amazon One raises serious questions about Amazon’s plans for this data and its respect for user privacy, including about how Amazon may use the data for advertising and tracking purposes,” the senators wrote in the letter, embedded below.

The lawmakers also requested information on how many people have enrolled in Amazon One to date, how Amazon will secure the sensitive data and if the company has ever paired the palm prints with facial recognition data it collects elsewhere.

“In contrast with biometric systems like Apple’s Face ID and Touch ID or Samsung Pass, which store biometric information on a user’s device, Amazon One reportedly uploads biometric information to the cloud, raising unique security risks,” the senators wrote. “… Data security is particularly important when it comes to immutable customer data, like palm prints.”

The company controversially introduced a $10 credit for new users who enroll their palm prints in the program, prompting an outcry from privacy advocates who see it as a cheap tactic to coerce people to hand over sensitive personal data.

There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical. Amazon has faced fierce criticism for its other big biometric data project, the AI facial recognition software known as Rekognition, which the company provided to U.S. law enforcement agencies before eventually backtracking with a moratorium on policing applications for the software last year.

#amazon, #amy-klobuchar, #andy-jassy, #artificial-intelligence, #biometric-scanning, #biometrics, #ceo, #facial-recognition, #facial-recognition-software, #privacy, #tc, #united-states, #whole-foods

A new Senate bill would totally upend Apple and Google’s app store dominance

With two giants calling the shots and collecting whatever tolls they see fit, mobile software makers have long complained that app stores take an unfair cut of the cash that should be flowing directly to developers. Hearing those concerns, a group of senators introduced a new bill this week that, if passed, would greatly diminish Apple and Google’s ability to control app purchases in their operating systems and completely shake up the way that mobile software gets distributed.

The new bill, called the Open App Markets Act, would enshrine quite a few rights that could benefit app developers tired of handing 30 percent of their earnings to Apple and Google. The bill, embedded in full below, would require companies that control operating systems to allow third party apps and app stores.

It would also prevent those companies from blocking developers from telling users about lower prices for their software that they might find outside of official app stores. Apple and Google would also be barred from leveraging “non-public” information collecting through their platforms to create competing apps.

“This legislation will tear down coercive anticompetitive walls in the app economy, giving consumers more choices and smaller startup tech companies a fighting chance,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who introduced the bipartisan bill with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). Klobuchar chairs the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee and Blackburn and Blumenthal are both subcommittee members.

Senator Blackburn called Apple and Google’s app store practices a “direct affront to a free and fair marketplace” and Sen. Klobuchar noted that their behavior raises “serious competition concerns.”

The bill draws on information collected earlier this year from that subcommittee’s hearing on app stores and competition. In the hearing, lawmakers heard from Apple and Google as well as Spotify, Tile and Match Group, three companies that argued their businesses have been negatively impacted by anti-competitive app store policies.

“… We urge Congress to swiftly pass the Open App Markets Act,” Spotify Chief Legal Officer Horacio Gutierrez said of the new bill. “Absent action, we can expect Apple and others to continue changing the rules in favor of their own services, and causing further harm to consumers, developers, and the digital economy.”

The Coalition for App Fairness, a developer advocacy group, praised the bill for its potential to spur innovation in digital markets. “The bipartisan Open App Markets Act is a step towards holding big tech companies accountable for practices that stifle competition for developers in the U.S. and around the world,” CAF executive director Meghan DiMuzio said.

Hoping to head off future regulatory headaches, Apple dropped its own fees for companies that generate less than $1 million in App Store revenue from 30 to 15 percent last year. Google followed suit with its own gesture, dropping fees to 15 percent for the first $1 million in revenue a developer earns through the Play Store in a year. Some developers critical of the companies’ practices saw those changes as little more than a publicity stunt.

Developers have long complained about the high tolls they pay to distribute their software through the world’s two major mobile operating systems. That fight escalated over the last year when Epic Games circumvented Apple’s payments rules by allowing Fortnite players to pay Epic directly, setting off a legal fight that has huge implications for the mobile software world. Following a May trial, the verdict is expected later this year.

Unlike Apple, Google does allow apps to be “sideloaded,” installed onto devices outside of the Google Play Store. But documents unsealed in Epic’s parallel case against Google revealed that the Play Store’s creator knows the sideloading process is a terrible experience for users — something the company brings up when pressuring developers to stick with its official app marketplace.

The counterargument here is that official app stores make apps safer and smoother for consumers. While Apple and Google extract heavy fees for selling mobile software through the App Store and the Google Play Store, the companies both argue that streamlining apps through those official channels protects people from malware and allows for prompt software updates to patch security concerns that could jeopardize user privacy.

Adam Kovacevich, a former Google policy executive who leads the new tech-backed industry group Chamber of Progress, called the new bill “a finger in the eye” for Android and iPhone owners.

“I don’t see any consumers marching in Washington demanding that Congress make their smartphones dumber,” Kovacevich said. “And Congress has better things to do than intervene in a multi-million dollar dispute between businesses.”

At least in Google’s case, the counterargument has its own counterargument. Android has long been notorious for malware, but apparently most of that malicious software isn’t making its way onto devices through sideloading — it’s walking through the Google Play Store’s front door.

 

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Senators press Facebook for answers about why it cut off misinformation researchers

Facebook’s decision to close accounts connected to a misinformation research project last week prompted a broad outcry from the company’s critics — and now Congress is getting involved.

A handful of lawmakers criticized the decision at the time, slamming Facebook for being hostile toward efforts to make the platform’s opaque algorithms and ad targeting methods more transparent. Researchers believe that studying those hidden systems is crucial work for gaining insight on the flow of political misinformation.

The company specifically punished two researchers with NYU’s Cybersecurity for Democracy project who work on Ad Observer, an opt-in browser tool that allows researchers to study how Facebook targets ads to different people based on their interests and demographics.

In a new letter, embedded below, a trio of Democratic senators are pressing Facebook for more answers. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chris Coons (D-DE) and Mark Warner (D-VA) wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking for a full explanation on why the company terminated the researcher accounts and how they violated the platform’s terms of service and compromised user privacy. The lawmakers sent the letter on Friday.

“While we agree that Facebook must safeguard user privacy, it is similarly imperative that Facebook allow credible academic researchers and journalists like those involved in the Ad Observatory project to conduct independent research that will help illuminate how the company can better tackle misinformation, disinformation, and other harmful activity that is proliferating on its platforms,” the senators wrote.

Lawmakers have long urged the company to be more transparent about political advertising and misinformation, particularly after Facebook was found to have distributed election disinformation in 2016. Those concerns were only heightened by the platform’s substantial role in spreading election misinformation leading up to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, where Trump supporters attempted to overturn the vote.

In a blog post defending its decision, Facebook cited compliance with FTC as one of the reason the company severed the accounts. But the FTC called Facebook’s bluff last week in a letter to Zuckerberg, noting that nothing about the agency’s guidance for the company would preclude it from encouraging research in the public interest.

“Indeed, the FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising,” Samuel Levine, the FTC’s acting director for the Bureau of Consumer Protection, wrote.

#amy-klobuchar, #computing, #congress, #facebook, #federal-trade-commission, #mark-zuckerberg, #misinformation, #nyu, #political-advertising, #privacy, #social, #social-media, #software, #tc, #technology, #trump

After a decade, Congress might finally bring 911 into the internet age

When it comes to user-interface design, 911 is about as good as it gets. It’s the “most recognized number in the United States,” Steve Souder, a prominent 911 leader, points out. Simple, fast, and it works from any telephone in the United States. No matter what the emergency is, the call takers on the other side will triage and dispatch assistance.

I’ve taken that ubiquity and simplicity for granted over the past three parts of this EC-1 on RapidSOS as we’ve looked at the startup’s origin story, business and products, as well as its partnerships and business development engine. The company is deeply enmeshed with 911, which means that the prospects of 911 as a system will heavily determine the trajectory of RapidSOS in the coming years, or at least, until its international expansion hits scale and it isn’t so dependent on the U.S. market.

Right now, a $15 billion funding bill to invest in NG911 has been proposed in Congress as part of the LIFT America infrastructure bill that is currently winding its way through the appropriations process and negotiations between Democratic and Republican leaders.

Now, you might think, “911, how could they screw that up?” But this is America, and you’d be surprised.

Despite the daily heroic work of tens of thousands of 911 personnel who keep this brittle system afloat, the reality today is that America’s emergency call infrastructure is in a perilous state. After more than a decade of heavy advocacy, the transition to the “next generation” of 911 (dubbed NG911), which would replace a voice-centric model with an internet-based one designed around data streams, has been trundling along, with some early traction but little universality.

As a Congressional Research Service report described it just a few years ago, “funding has been a challenge, and progress has been relatively slow.” Three years later, the words are just as true as they were then.

Given that RapidSOS’ future ultimately relies on a competent government capable of providing core infrastructure, this fourth and final part of the EC-1 will look at the current state of 911 services and what their prospects are, and finally, how one should ultimately judge RapidSOS given all that we have seen.

The three-digit number that feels like it is three-digits old

911 was invented in the late 1960s to unify America around one emergency number. Early forays to create emergency lines had sprouted up across cities and states, but each used their own system and telephone number, creating massive complications for travelers and people living on jurisdictional boundaries. President Lyndon Johnson’s 1967 crime task force recommended creating a single number for emergency calls as a crime-prevention tool, and on February 16, 1968, the first 911 call was dialed in Haleyville, Alabama.

#911, #america, #amy-klobuchar, #anna-eshoo, #communication, #congress, #ec-consumer-applications, #ec-enterprise-applications, #ec-1, #extra-crunch-ec-1, #federal-communications-commission, #government, #gps, #home-security-systems, #michael-martin, #rapidsos, #rapidsos-ec-1, #senate, #startups, #tc, #telecommunications, #united-states

Tech antitrust crusader Lina Khan is confirmed as FTC commissioner

The Senate confirmed big tech critic and prominent antitrust scholar Lina Khan as FTC Commissioner Tuesday, signaling a new era of scrutiny for the tech industry. Khan was confirmed in a 69-28 vote, with Republicans joining Democrats in a rare show of bipartisan support for Khan’s ideas on reining in tech’s most powerful companies.

An associate law professor at Columbia, Khan’s star rose with the publication of a landmark paper examining how the government’s outdated ways of identifying monopolies have failed to keep up with modern business realities, particularly in tech. In Khan’s view, that regulatory failure has allowed the biggest tech companies to consolidate unprecedented wealth and power, in turn making it even more difficult to regulate them.

President Biden nominated Khan back in March, sending an early message that Biden would not extend the warm relationship big tech companies enjoyed with the White House under former President Obama.

Khan’s confirmation is a sign that the agency will be prioritizing tech antitrust concerns, a priority that will run parallel to Congressional efforts to bolster the FTC’s enforcement powers. The FTC famously imposed a $5 billion fine on Facebook for privacy violations in 2019, but the record-setting fine was only a glancing blow for a company already worth more than $500 billion.

Last week, Congress revealed a long-anticipated package of bipartisan bills that, if passed, would overhaul tech’s biggest businesses and redraw the industry’s rules for years to come.

A previous bill proposed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar would set aside a pool of money that the FTC could use to create a new division for market and merger research, one step toward modernizing antitrust enforcement to keep up with relentless growth from tech’s most powerful giants.

#amy-klobuchar, #biden, #big-tech, #competition-law, #congress, #federal-trade-commission, #ftc, #lina-khan, #policy, #senate, #tc, #the-battle-over-big-tech, #white-house

Why Amy Klobuchar just wrote 600 pages on antitrust

A woman gestures during a presentation.

Enlarge / Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) (credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

To promote her new book, Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota gave a series of interviews this week, one of which was with me. She told me outright that our session was not her favorite of the tour—that honor went to her comedic exchange with Stephen Colbert a few days earlier, which she recounted to me line by line.

Nonetheless, I welcomed the chance to speak with her. Klobuchar has enjoyed a heightened profile since her presidential run and quick pivot to the eventual winner, Joe Biden, so she had her choice of book subjects to focus on. Ultimately, she produced 600 pages on the relatively arcane topic of antitrust law, a telling choice. Her goal is to make the subject less arcane, in hopes that a grassroots movement will support her effort to fortify and enforce the laws more vigorously. In the book, Klobuchar attempts to inspire readers with a history of the field, which in her rendering sprang from a spirited populist movement that included her own coal-mining ancestors. That’s why her book is stuffed with vintage political cartoons, typically portraying Gilded Age barons as bloated giants, hovering over workers like top-hatted Macy’s balloons. (Obviously those were the days before billionaires had Peloton.)

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#amy-klobuchar, #antitrust, #big-tech, #facebook, #google, #policy

Republican antitrust bill would block all big tech acquisitions

There are about to be a lot of antitrust bills taking aim at big tech, and here’s one more. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) rolled out a new bill this week that would take some severe measures to rein in big tech’s power, blocking mergers and acquisitions outright.

The “Trust-Busting for the Twenty-First Century Act” would ban any acquisitions by companies with a market cap of more than $100 billion, including vertical mergers. The bill also proposes changes that would dramatically heighten the financial pain for companies caught engaging in anti-competitive behavior, forcing any company that loses an antirust suit to forfeit profits made through those business practices.

At its core, Hawley’s legislation would snip some of the red tape around antitrust enforcement by amending the Sherman Act, which made monopolies illegal, and the Clayton Act, which expanded the scope of illegal anti-competitive behavior. The idea is to make it easier for the FTC and other regulators to deem a company’s behavior anti-competitive — a key criticism of the outdated antitrust rules that haven’t kept pace with the realities of the tech industry.

The bill isn’t likely to get too far in a Democratic Senate, but it’s not insignificant. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who chairs the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee, proposed legislation earlier this year that would also create barriers for dominant companies with a habit of scooping up their competitors. Klobuchar’s own ideas for curtailing big tech’s power similarly focus on reforming the antitrust laws that have shaped U.S. business for more than a century.

Click to access The%20Trust-Busting%20for%20the%20Twenty-First%20Century%20Act.pdf

The Republican bill may have some overlap with Democratic proposals, but it still hits some familiar notes from the Trump era of hyper-partisan big tech criticism. Hawley slams “woke mega-corporations” in Silicon Valley for exercising too much power over the information and products that Americans consume. While Democrats naturally don’t share that critique, Hawley’s bill makes it clear that antitrust reform targeting big tech is one policy era where both political parties could align on the ends, even if they don’t see eye to eye on the why.

Hawley’s bill is the latest, but it won’t be the last. Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), who spearheads tech antitrust efforts in the House, previously announce his own plans to introduce a flurry of antitrust reform bills rather than one sweeping piece of legislation. Those bills, which will be more narrowly targeted to make them difficult for tech lobbyists to defeat, are due out in May.

#amy-klobuchar, #antitrust, #big-tech, #competition-law, #federal-trade-commission, #government, #josh-hawley, #senate, #tc, #the-battle-over-big-tech, #trump, #united-states

Klobuchar targets Big Tech with biggest antitrust overhaul in 45 years

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), during a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on Jan. 21, 2021.

Enlarge / Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), during a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on Jan. 21, 2021. (credit: Stefani Reynolds – pool | Getty Images)

With a new session of Congress underway and a new administration in the White House, Big Tech is once again in lawmakers’ crosshairs. Not only are major firms such as Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google under investigation for allegedly breaking existing antitrust law, but a newly proposed bill in the Senate would make it harder for these and other firms to become so troublingly large in the first place.

The bill (PDF), called the Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act (CALERA for short, which is still awkward) would become the largest overhaul to US antitrust regulation in at least 45 years if it became law.

“While the United States once had some of the most effective antitrust laws in the world, our economy today faces a massive competition problem,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) when she introduced the bill on Thursday. “We can no longer sweep this issue under the rug and hope our existing laws are adequate,” Klobuchar added, calling the bill “the first step to overhauling and modernizing our laws” to protect competition in the current era.

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#amy-klobuchar, #anticompetitive-conduct, #antitrust, #bills, #competition, #policy, #politics, #senate

New antitrust reform bill charts one possible path for regulating big tech

As Democrats settle into control of both chambers of Congress, signs of the party’s legislative priorities are starting to manifest. So far, lawmakers’ interest in reimagining tech’s regulatory landscape appears to be alive and well.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) is out with a new proposal for antitrust reform that would create more barriers for big mergers and beef up federal resources for antitrust enforcement. Klobuchar’s bill, the Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act, seeks to address consolidation across industries, calling out “dominant digital platforms” specifically.

“While the United States once had some of the most effective antitrust laws in the world, our economy today faces a massive competition problem,” Klobuchar said. “We can no longer sweep this issue under the rug and hope our existing laws are adequate.”

Klobuchar now leads the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, a corner of Congress already signaling its interest on reform that would impact big tech.

The new bill would bolster the Clayton Antitrust Act, a 1914 bill that created a framework for the rules around competition that are still applied today. Specifically, it would amend that bill to reinterpret its standard for evaluating anti-competitive mergers, changing the language to prevent any deal that “create[s] an appreciable risk of materially lessening competition” rather than the current wording.

The aim is to catch potentially anti-competitive behavior earlier in the game — an outcome that would address the government’s current conundrum, in which federal regulators are now awkwardly reevaluating mergers that evolved into monopolistic behavior years after the fact.

The bill would also put the onus on merging companies to prove that they don’t pose a risk of reducing competition, taking that burden off of the government in specific cases. Those rules would apply to “mega-mergers” worth $5 billion or more and in which a company with 50 percent market share seeks to buy a current or potential competitor.

Klobuchar’s proposal also seeks to add a provision to the Clayton Act against conduct that puts competitors at a disadvantage — a rule that would address some of the murkier areas of anti-competitive behavior that stretch beyond outright mergers and acquisitions.

Citing lacking enforcement budgets, the bill also sets out a $300 million infusion for the Justice Department’s antitrust division and the FTC. At the FTC, that money would help create a new division within the agency for research on markets and mergers.

The bill will be co-sponsored by Senators Cory Booker, Richard Blumenthal, Brian Schatz and Ed Markey, all Democrats on the antitrust subcommittee. And while it’s a single party endeavor for now, the antitrust reform could attract support from Republicans in Congress like Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who signaled his interest in antitrust changes that target large tech companies as recently as this week. Hawley also sits on the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee.

Klobuchar stops short of calling for large tech companies like Facebook and Google to be broken into their component parts, a move that has attracted some support from lawmakers like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in recent years. In the midst of emerging multi-state lawsuits targeting big tech companies, the FTC announced its own antitrust case against Facebook late last year, pushing for the company to be broken up.

 

#amy-klobuchar, #antitrust, #policy, #tc, #the-battle-over-big-tech

Daily Crunch: Amy Klobuchar discusses Amazon Halo concerns

We interview the senior senator from Minnesota about fitness trackers, Sony pulls “Cyberpunk 2077” from the PlayStation Store and Indian delivery startup Zomato raises a massive round. This is your Daily Crunch for December 18, 2020.

The big story: Amy Klobuchar discusses Amazon Halo concerns

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar recently wrote an open letter to Alex Azar of the Department of Health and Human Services, in which she discussed Amazon’s Halo fitness tracker and expressed concern that “the Halo appears to collect an unprecedented level of personal information.”

Klobuchar elaborated on these issues in an interview with TechCrunch. HHS, she said, “should play a larger role in ensuring data privacy when it comes to health” and work with the FTC “to come up with some rules to safeguard private health information.”

Klobuchar added, “I think the Amazon Halo is just the ultimate example of it, but there’s a number of other devices that have the same issues.”

The tech giants

CD Projekt Red, Sony, Microsoft offer refund to Cyberpunk 2077 customers after bug complaints — Sony has pulled “Cyberpunk 2077” from its PlayStation Store after a flood of complaints.

The big Google DOJ antitrust case probably won’t go to trial until 2023 — In a status hearing Friday, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta set a tentative date for the case.

Twitter bots and memorialized users will become ‘new account types’ in 2021 — Twitter plans to add a way of distinguishing bots and other automated accounts.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Indian food delivery giant Zomato secures $660M — The 12-year-old startup is also in the process of closing a $140 million secondary transaction.

Bumble reportedly filed confidentially for an IPO — The news that Bumble is pursuing an IPO is not a surprise.

Unfold launches lightweight, link-centric profiles called Bio Sites — Squarespace acquired social media startup Unfold last year.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

From India’s richest man to Amazon and 100s of startups: The great rush to win neighborhood stores — After spending more than a decade disrupting neighborhood stores in the U.S. and other markets, Amazon and Walmart are employing a different strategy in India.

Watch Space Force commander Gen. John Raymond explain public-private partnerships for space defense — The Space Force commander explained how the new military service operates like a startup and how startups can learn from the Space Force.

Unpacking Poshmark’s IPO filing — From posting regular losses in 2019 to generating net income in 2020.

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

Everything else

TechCrunch Early Stage is coming back in a big way in 2021 — TC Early Stage is all about providing founders access to the top experts across the core competencies involved in entrepreneurship.

Tips for applying an intersectional framework to AI development — What can we do to move away from using AI/ML models that demonstrate unfair bias?

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

#amazon, #amy-klobuchar, #daily-crunch, #hardware, #health, #policy

Amazon’s Halo fitness tracker raises privacy concerns for Amy Klobuchar

After reading a review of Amazon’s new fitness tracker, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar penned an open letter.

“Recent reports have raised concerns about the Halo’s access to this extensive personal and private health information,” the lawmaker wrote to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. “Among publicly available consumer health devices, the Halo appears to collect an unprecedented level of personal information.”

The senator is far from the first critic to express concern about the fitness tracker — the Halo raised eyebrows the moment it was unveiled in August. She is, however, one of the few critics in a position to actually do something about the device, which features both an always-on microphone and asks wearers to perform a full body scan.

“I’m wearing my Fitbit,” Klobuchar says in an interview with TechCrunch. She takes a moment before correcting herself. “Oh, I didn’t put it on this morning. That’s very bad. I wear a Fitbit nearly every day. I sometimes have gone years without doing it, but since, I’d say, about February I’ve been wearing it.”

The senator’s not alone, certainly. According to a January 2020 report from Pew, roughly one-in-five U.S. adults regularly wear a smartwatch or fitness tracker. I’m wearing one as I type this, and chances are pretty good you’re wearing one as well. The Halo may cross a line for some, but the device is far from the first tracker to raise concern among privacy advocates. Klobuchar says that while the Halo’s specific level of data collection, “just cries out for some kind of rules and regulations in place,” stronger scrutiny and regulation is needed for the category across the board.

“I really do think there’s got to be rules in place,” she says. “The reason I’m writing HHS is because they should play a larger role in ensuring data privacy when it comes to health, but between the HHS and the Federal Trade Commission, they’ve got to come up with some rules to safeguard private health information. And I think the Amazon Halo is just the ultimate example of it, but there’s a number of other devices that have the same issues. I’m thinking there’s some state regulations going on and things like that, and we just need federal standards.”

The letter lays out four questions for Azar and the HHS, pertaining to the department’s role in safeguarding health data. Amazon’s defense of the product is two-fold: body scanning and speech collection are optional, and the company does not have direct access to this locally stored data.

Asked for response to the letter, the company tells TechCrunch:

We have been in touch with Senator Klobuchar’s office to address their questions about Amazon Halo. Privacy is foundational to how we designed and built Amazon Halo. Body and Tone are both optional features that are not required to use the product. Amazon does not have access to Body scan images or Tone speech samples. We are transparent about the privacy practices for this service and you can read more in the Amazon Halo privacy whitepaper.

“[The letter is] specifically about that they’re safeguarding the private health information, they’re ensuring security and privacy,” Klobuchar tells TechCrunch. “And even if Amazon Halo is saying they’re doing all of this, we need to have rules of the road in place for any company that does it.”

Health privacy concerns have been top of mind since Google announced plans to acquire Fitbit for $2.1 billion in November 2019. At the time, the deal was expected to close at some point in 2020. That timeline has since proven overly optimistic. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in August, Fitbit said the closing date could be pushed as late as May 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic may well have played an issue in that delay, but Google’s biggest hurdle thus far has been government approval. A number of groups and individuals have raised concern over the deal, including Amnesty International. In August, the EU posited that the deal could “further entrench Google’s market position in the online advertising markets by increasing the already vast amount of data that Google could use for personalization of the ads it serves and displays.”

After launching an investigation into the deal, the Commission greenlit the deal earlier this week — with major caveats. At the top of the list is Google’s 10-year commitment to not use Fitbit health data for ad targeting. The E.U. has also reserved the right to extend the safeguard by another 10 years beyond that.

Klobuchar says she believes the privacy caveats were necessary. “I think the decision about if they’re sufficient or not should be made in the U.S. by our own regulators based on the facts. I am glad they created the data silo. […] And I think we need to greatly up our examination of mergers. We should use those mergers to either say ‘no, because they’re so anti-competitive,’ or to put conditions on them.”

Increased antitrust scrutiny has been a key project for the senator. In August 2019, she introduced the Monopolization Deterrence Act with Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal. Klobuchar says she hopes to get the bill passed after the new president takes office.

“This new session will be the moment,” she tells TechCrunch. “The Trump administration actually brought these major cases. They were late in the game, but they actually did their job here at the end. But the president wasn’t organized enough in terms of his focus to be able to actually get legislation done on monopolies. And so I think this is going to be incumbent on the Biden administration and the next AG to do that.”

Any meaningful effort to reduce the size and influence of tech corporations will have to go further than simply increasing regulatory scrutiny at the point of acquisition, however. In many cases, that bridge was crossed long ago.

“It’s not just future monopoly mergers being considered,” Klobuchar says. “It’s looking back at what’s happened. That’s what the Facebook suit is. That’s what the Google suit is in a different way. There’s still stuff about DoubleClick and everything, but mostly it’s about how they’re using their monopoly power. So you can be sued for looking back at mergers (that’s what they’re doing at Facebook), but you also can be sued for what we call ‘exclusionary conduct,’ for things that you’ve done that are anti-competitive.”

The Fitbit-wearing senator is quick to close by adding that she’s not anti-technology, per se. “I think the innovations are great. I use them all the time, even though I’ve had some hilarious online ordering experiences, including when I now have six two-pound things of maple yogurt. I mistook it and I thought they were small yogurts in my refrigerator. I think that they’re great, but I think that they can still be great with allowing from our competition, they’ll be better.”

 

#amazon, #amazon-halo, #amy-klobuchar, #fitbit, #google, #hardware, #health, #privacy

With pandemic-era acquisitions, big tech is back in the antitrust crosshairs

With many major sectors totally frozen and reeling from losses, tech’s biggest players are proving themselves to be the exception to the rule yet again. On Friday, Facebook confirmed its plans to buy Giphy, a popular gif search engine, in a deal believed to be worth $400 million.

Facebook has indicated it wants to forge new developer and content relationships for Giphy, but what the world’s largest social network really wants with the popular gif platform might be more than meets the eye. As Bloomberg and other outlets have suggested, it’s possible that Facebook really wants the company as a lens into how users engage with its competitors’ social platforms. Giphy’s gif search tools are currently integrated into a number of messaging platforms, including TikTok, Twitter and Apple’s iMessage.

In 2018, Facebook famously got into hot water over its use of a mobile app called Onavo, which gave the company a peek into mobile usage beyond Facebook’s own suite of apps—and violated Apple’s policies around data collection in the process. After that loophole closed, Facebook was so desperate for this kind of insight on the competition that it paid people—including teens—to sideload an app granting the company root access and allowing Facebook to view all of their mobile activity, as TechCrunch revealed last year.

For lawmakers and other regulatory powers, the Giphy buy could ring two separate sets of alarm bells: one for the further evidence of anti-competitive behavior stacking the deck in the tech industry and another for the deal’s potential consumer privacy implications.

“The Department of Justice or the Federal Trade Commission must investigate this proposed deal,” Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “Many companies, including some of Facebook’s rivals, rely on Giphy’s library of sharable content and other services, so I am very concerned about this proposed acquisition.”

In proposed legislation late last month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) called for a freeze on big mergers, warning that huge companies might view the pandemic as a chance to consolidate power by buying smaller businesses at fire sale rates.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Sen. Warren called the Facebook news “yet another example of a giant company using the pandemic to further consolidate power,” noting the company’s “history of privacy violations.”

“We need Senator Warren’s plan for a moratorium on large mergers during this crisis, and we need enforcers who will break up Big Tech,” the spokesperson said.

News of Facebook’s latest moves come just days after a Wall Street Journal report revealed that Uber is looking at buying Grubhub, the food delivery service it competes with directly through Uber Eats.

That news also raised eyebrows among pro-regulation lawmakers who’ve been looking to break up big tech. Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), who chairs the House’s antitrust subcommittee, called that deal “a new low in pandemic profiteering.”

“This deal underscores the urgency for a merger moratorium, which I and several of my colleagues have been urging our caucus to support,” Cicilline said in a statement on the Grubhub acquisition.

The early days of the pandemic may have taken some of the antitrust attention off of tech’s biggest companies, but as the government and the American people fall into a rhythm during the coronavirus crisis, that’s unlikely to last. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Justice and a collection of state attorneys general are in the process of filing antitrust lawsuits against Google, with the case expected to hit in the summer months.

#amy-klobuchar, #congress, #elizabeth-warren, #facebook, #government, #mergers-and-acquisitions, #regulation, #tc, #uber

Vote-by-mail should be having its moment. Will it?

It’s a mark of 2020 that the image of throngs of Americans flocking to polling places to exercise their right to vote, once a heartening symbol of democracy in action, is now a nightmare scenario that could visit widespread death on unsuspecting communities nationwide.

In the midst of a viral outbreak that’s infected more than half a million people and swiftly claimed more than 20,000 lives in the U.S. alone, the country is grappling with the question of how Americans will safely cast their votes in November’s election—and time is running out.

A number of state officials have pushed back their primaries to protect residents, but last week’s Wisconsin primary, with its long lines, uneven protective measures and shuttered polling places demonstrated a worst case scenario for what November’s general presidential election could look like if states don’t quickly implement a Plan B.

But a handful of lawmakers pushing for a more equitable voting system don’t believe we need a full-on Plan B to rescue the election, just a scaled-up version of systems in place that millions already use to cast their ballots each election cycle. Early voting, absentee voting and mail-in voting have all ticked upward in the last 20 years. Five states now use vote-by-mail as their primary way of voting: Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii. The military also relies on mail-in absentee voting for those deployed overseas. By 2018, one in four Americans who voted did so through the mail.

Residents wait in long lines to vote in a presidential primary election outside the Riverside High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 7, 2020. (Photo by KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI / AFP) (Photo by KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

With the economy still frozen in place, Congress is working on another big coronavirus relief package, though efforts are at a political standstill for the moment. Proposing their own bill, Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden are striving to get vote-by-mail provisions into the next relief package. “… It is wrong to shortchange our election officials as we provide relief to address the effects of this global pandemic,” Klobuchar said in a statement.

The bill, called the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act (NDEBA), seeks to provide 20 days of early voting for all states, a guarantee that all voters can request to vote with a no-excuse absentee ballot, accommodations for voters who don’t receive an absentee ballot in time and additional funding for the Election Assistance Commission to make the changes.

“We are gonna fight like hell to get our bill in the next COVID-19 package,” Wyden told TechCrunch in an interview.

States take the lead

Republicans in Congress have yet to show any support for expanded mail-in voting, but a swath of Republican state officials close to the election process have turned to mail voting systems to keep residents safe, including the secretaries of state in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Georgia.

On a bipartisan call led by Sen. Klobuchar with secretaries of state last week, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner was skittish about the idea of a permanent, expanded vote-by-mail system but agreed voters should be allowed to cast their votes safely through the mail during the COVID-19 crisis. He previously announced that all West Virginia voters would be sent application postcards for voting through the mail.

“The Governor, Attorney General, county clerks and I have zealously worked together within state law to balance health concerns with the ease of voting,” Warner said. “We have determined that the absentee voting process is the safest method… Your ballot box is as close as your mailbox.”

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, also a Republican, touted her state’s own system in the bipartisan call.

“Washington state’s vote-by-mail system is accessible, secure, fair, and instills confidence in our voters,” Wyman said, encouraging officials “across the political spectrum” to unify around keeping voters safe and stressing that expanded absentee voting and vote-by-mail “must be options on the table” for 2020.

On the call, secretaries of state around the U.S. emphasized the need to act quickly to scale up absentee voting systems, stressing that funding, organizing and putting new systems into practice will be a scramble over the next seven months.

President Trump has attacked vote-by-mail systems in recent White House coronavirus briefings and tweets, but there is no evidence that voting through the mail is “fraudulent in many cases” as he has claimed. Trump himself uses mail-in voting to cast his absentee ballot in Florida.

The president’s attacks on expanded vote-by-mail also contradict the CDC’s own guidance for safe elections during the pandemic, which encourage expanded mail-in voting to “minimize direct contact with other people and reduce crowd size at polling stations.”

Out of the billions of absentee votes cast through the mail in the U.S. over a 12 year period, an examination of all known instances of voter fraud found only 491 cases involving absentee voting. With those numbers, Americans are less likely to commit voter fraud than they are to be struck by lightning. In states with vote-by-mail, safeguards built into the system can catch or deter anyone who might tamper with a ballot. In Oregon, which uses forensic signature matching to secure its vote, a poll was sentenced to 90 days in jail and ordered to pay a $13,000 fine for tampering with two ballots.

Politics aside

Republicans today mostly believe that Democrats would benefit from any effort that might broadly boost voter turnout, a perspective that the president echoed in a recent Fox News interview discussing the early coronavirus relief bill. “The things they had in there were crazy,” Trump said. “They had things — levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

That package included $400 million to safeguard November’s election—an amount Democrats argue is insufficient—and no requirements that states implement vote-by-mail. But the conversation around vote-by-mail hasn’t always broken down along today’s political lines and the political reality of a broad mail-in voting system is likely nuanced, though untested on a national scale.

An early and vocal proponent of vote-by-mail, Wyden explains that those lines have been redrawn over the years as attitudes toward implementing vote-by-mail have shifted.

“You have to put this in context of where we are,” Wyden said, noting that the debate around vote-by-mail was an “academic thing” two decades ago, with political scientists hashing out which party stood to benefit. In Oregon, other Democrats initially opposed vote-by-mail efforts, believing that because their voters skewed older, Republicans would benefit.

“After all this bickering back and forth on who would benefit, Oregonians put it on the ballot.” In 1998, 69% of voters supported the ballot measure, which passed easily.

In the U.S., implementing any voting changes across the country is politically challenging due to the fact that states oversee and administer their own elections. Even the oversight process varies widely from state to state. Differences aside, many states have expanded absentee voting in recent years.

“Back then when I was introducing those first bills, you didn’t have the number of people voting absentee that you have today,” Wyden said. While voting absentee once required a justification, a “big chunk” of those excuse requirements have given way since then, allowing more people to vote by mail.

“Absentee voting is enormously popular,” Wyden said. “Basically what I tell people… is what we’re really doing with our legislature is kind of upscaling what is already going on—not reinventing the wheel.”

Wyden warns that we’ve already seen the worst case scenario play out in Wisconsin. “You have older voters waiting in line to talk to older poll workers… some had masks, some didn’t.

“[In] Wisconsin, literally in the middle of a pandemic, the legislature said ‘we’re going to put the lives of our people at risk.’ I thought that was very troubling,” Wyden said.

“All I can think of was at this point in the middle of a pandemic, I don’t think this is a partisan issue.”

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