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law professor at Columbia, Khan’s star rose with the publication of a landmark paper examining how the government’s outdated ways of identifying monopolies have failed to keep up with modern business realities, particularly in tech.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

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Supreme Court revives LinkedIn case to protect user data from web scrapers

The Supreme Court has given LinkedIn another chance to stop a rival company from scraping personal information from users’ public profiles, a practice LinkedIn says should be illegal but one that could have broad ramifications for internet researchers and archivists.

LinkedIn lost its case against Hiq Labs in 2019 after the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the CFAA does not prohibit a company from scraping data that is publicly accessible on the internet.

The Microsoft-owned social network argued that the mass scraping of its users’ profiles was in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, or CFAA, which prohibits accessing a computer without authorization.

Hiq Labs, which uses public data to analyze employee attrition, argued at the time that a ruling in LinkedIn’s favor “could profoundly impact open access to the Internet, a result that Congress could not have intended when it enacted the CFAA over three decades ago.” (Hiq Labs has also been sued by Facebook, which it claims scraped public data across Facebook and Instagram, but also Amazon Twitter, and YouTube.)

The Supreme Court said it would not take on the case, but instead ordered the appeal’s court to hear the case again in light of its recent ruling, which found that a person cannot violate the CFAA if they improperly access data on a computer they have permission to use.

The CFAA was once dubbed the “worst law” in the technology law books by critics who have long argued that its outdated and vague language failed to keep up with the pace of the modern internet.

Journalists and archivists have long scraped public data as a way to save and archive copies of old or defunct websites before they shut down. But other cases of web scraping have sparked anger and concerns over privacy and civil liberties. In 2019, a security researcher scraped millions of Venmo transactions, which the company does not make private by default. Clearview AI, a controversial facial recognition startup, claimed it scraped over 3 billion profile photos from social networks without their permission.

 

#amazon, #clearview-ai, #computer-fraud-and-abuse-act, #congress, #facebook, #facial-recognition, #hacking, #linkedin, #microsoft, #privacy, #security, #social-network, #social-networks, #supreme-court, #twitter, #venmo, #web-scraping

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Restrictions on acquisitions would stifle the US startup ecosystem, not rein in big tech

Bipartisanship has long been out of fashion, but one common pursuit among Democrats and Republicans in Washington has been placing Big Tech companies under a microscope.

Congressional committees have held scores of hearings, lawsuits have been filed and legislation has been introduced to regulate privacy and data collection. The knock-on effect of these reforms for young companies and their venture investors is unclear. But one aspect of increased antitrust scrutiny — restrictions on acquisitions — would have a significant negative effect on our entrepreneurial ecosystem, and policymakers should approach these changes with caution.

Acquisitions are an important element of the startup ecosystem

For VC-backed companies, there are effectively three outcomes: standalone company (often via an IPO), merger or acquisition, or bankruptcy. Despite best efforts, company failure is the most common outcome — more than 90% of startups fail. Fortunately, the success stories are often companies with a big impact, like Moderna and Zoom, which helped the world in the pandemic.

Acquisitions contribute to the health of the startup ecosystem, as entrepreneurs who realize liquidity through the sale of their company regularly go on to found innovative new companies and often invest in other startups as angel investors or venture capitalists.

Entrepreneurs are optimists by nature, and so when the company journey begins, there is great hope of one day creating a standalone public company. However, in most cases, an IPO is not possible. The reality is that entrepreneurship is incredibly hard, and the journey from infancy to public company is one that relatively few companies achieve.

Silicon Valley Bank’s 2020 Global Startup Outlook puts it this way: “[T]he fact is most entrepreneurs never expect to reach a public market exit.” Accordingly, 58% of startups expect to be acquired. NVCA-Pitchbook data on acquisitions and IPOs back up the sentiment of founders when it comes to likely exit opportunities. In 2020, there was an approximately 10:1 ratio of acquisitions of VC-backed companies to IPOs, with 1,042 venture-backed companies acquired and 103 entering the public markets.

Some might argue that acquisitions are more dominant today because of the anti-competitive motivations of current tech incumbents. But as Patricia Nakache of Trinity Ventures said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee: “[Acquisitions have] been commonplace in the U.S. since before the dawn of the modern venture capital industry.” In fact, today we are witnessing fewer acquisitions relative to IPOs than in years past, as the average acquisition-to-IPO ratio since 2004 is approximately 15:1. This is happening against a backdrop of challenges in taking small-cap companies public that has reduced the number of companies in the public markets today.

Acquisitions contribute to the health of the startup ecosystem, as entrepreneurs who realize liquidity through the sale of their company regularly go on to found innovative new companies and often invest in other startups as angel investors or venture capitalists.

Furthermore, acquisitions help power the returns of VC funds, thereby allowing VCs to raise new funds and invest in the next generation of entrepreneurs. This “recycling effect” is one of the key drivers of dynamism in our economy and should not be slowed down.

Acquisition changes could impact entrepreneurship

Despite the importance of acquisitions, antitrust reform has included significant changes to how acquisitions are assessed by the federal government. The two most prominent examples in this space are Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act (CALERA) and Sen. Josh Hawley’s Trust-Busting for the Twenty-First Century Act.

These bills are likely a reaction to findings that incumbents have acted like Pac-Man, gobbling up would-be competitors before they become a competitive problem. But both proposals would ultimately harm startup activity and competition rather than propel it.

A common thread between these proposals is to restrict acquisitions by companies valued at more than $100 billion. Hawley’s bill would impose an outright ban on acquisitions by companies of that market cap that “lessen competition in any way.”

Klobuchar’s bill would shift the burden of proof to parties to an acquisition, a major change because the U.S. government bears the burden currently. This means if the government challenges an acquisition in federal court, the parties to the acquisition must demonstrate it does not “create an appreciable risk of materially lessening competition.” If that standard is not met, the acquisition could be blocked.

Both proposals have negative ramifications for venture-backed companies.

First, consider the scope of the proposals: A $100 billion company is indeed a large one, but setting the threshold there captures far more than the large tech companies that have been hauled before Congress for antitrust hearings. Globally, about 150 companies are valued at $100 billion or more, and the U.S. is home to more than 80 of those companies. That exposes acquirers as wide-ranging as Estee Lauder, John Deere, Starbucks and Thermo Fisher Scientific. If you are struggling to recall those companies being under the antitrust spotlight, then you are not alone.

Second, the legal standards imposed by these new bills are daunting. Klobuchar’s proposal leaves startups scratching their heads on where the line is on which acquisitions are tolerated, while Hawley’s bill throws up a misguided red light for vast amounts of acquisitions. These two standards are particularly vexing since acquirers are generally looking for acquirees that complement their existing business. In addition, many of the most acquisitive companies are multifaceted ones that presumably compete with an array of other companies in some way.

Ultimately, the bills from Klobuchar and Hawley would disrupt an important part of our nation’s startup ecosystem. Acquisitions act like grease to help keep the wheels moving by injecting liquidity into the system so participants can move on to create new and hopefully better companies for our country. Those wheels should not be slowed down when the country needs all the entrepreneurship it can muster.

#column, #congress, #entrepreneurship, #federal-government, #opinion, #policy, #private-equity, #startups, #venture-capital

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Biden’s labor secretary thinks many gig workers should be reclassified as employees

Biden Labor Secretary Marty Walsh charged into the white hot issue of the gig economy Thursday, asserting that many people working without benefits in the gig economy should be classified as employees instead.

In an interview with Reuters, Walsh said that the Department of Labor is “looking at” the gig economy, hinting that worker reclassification could be a priority in the Biden administration.

“… In a lot of cases gig workers should be classified as employees,” Walsh said. “In some cases they are treated respectfully and in some cases they are not and I think it has to be consistent across the board.”

Walsh also said that the labor department would be talking to companies that benefit from gig workers to ensure that non-employees at those companies have the same benefits that an “average employee” in the U.S. would have.

“These companies are making profits and revenue and I’m not [going to] begrudge anyone for that because that’s what we are about in America… but we also want to make sure that success trickles down to the worker,” Walsh said.

Walsh’s comments aren’t backed by federal action, yet anyway, but they still made major waves among tech companies that leverage non-employee labor. Uber and Lyft stock dipped on the news Thursday, along with Doordash.

In the interview, Walsh also touched on pandemic-related concerns about gig workers who lack unemployment insurance and health care through their employers. The federal government has picked up the slack during the pandemic with two major bills granting gig workers some benefits, but otherwise they’re largely without a safety net.

Reforming labor laws has been a tenet of Biden’s platform for some time and the president has been very vocal about bolstering worker protections and supporting organized labor. One section of then President-elect Biden’s transition site was devoted to expanding worker protections, calling the misclassification of employees as contract workers an “epidemic.”

Biden echoed his previous support for labor unions during a joint address to Congress Wednesday night, touting the Protecting the Right to Organize Act — legislation that would protect workers looking to form or join unions. That bill would also expand federal whistleblower protections.

“The middle class built this country,” Biden said. “And unions build the middle class.”

#america, #biden, #biden-administration, #congress, #department-of-labor, #economy, #employment, #federal-government, #gig-economy, #gig-workers, #government, #labor, #president, #secretary, #tc, #temporary-work, #united-states

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Biden proposes ARPA-H, a health research agency to ‘end cancer’ modeled after DARPA

In a joint address to Congress last night, President Biden updated the nation on vaccination efforts and outlined his administration’s ambitious goals.

Biden’s first 100 days have been characterized by sweeping legislative packages that could lift millions of Americans out of poverty and slow the clock on the climate crisis, but during his first joint address to Congress, the president highlighted another smaller plan that’s no less ambitious: to “end cancer as we know it.”

“I can think of no more worthy investment,” Biden said Wednesday night. “I know of nothing that is more bipartisan…. It’s within our power to do it.”

The comments weren’t out of the blue. Earlier this month, the White House released a budget request for $6.5 billion to launch a new government agency for breakthrough health research. The proposed health agency would be called ARPA-H and would live within the NIH. The initial focus would be on cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s but the agency would also pursue other “transformational innovation” that could remake health research.

The $6.5 billion investment is a piece of the full $51 billion NIH budget. But some critics believe that ARPA-H should sit under the Department of Health and Human Services rather than being nested under NIH. 

ARPA-H would be modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which develops moonshot-like tech for defense applications. DARPA’s goals often sound more like science fiction than science, but the agency contributed to or created a number of now ubiquitous technologies, including a predecessor to GPS and most famously ARPANET, the computer network that grew into the modern internet.

Unlike more conservative, incremental research teams, DARPA aggressively pursues major scientific advances in a way that shares more in common with Silicon Valley than it does with other governmental agencies. Biden believes that using the DARPA model on cutting edge health research would keep the U.S. from lagging behind in biotech.

“China and other countries are closing in fast,” Biden said during the address. “We have to develop and dominate the products and technologies of the future: advanced batteries, biotechnology, computer chips, and clean energy.”

#arpanet, #biden, #biotechnology, #cancer, #congress, #darpa, #diabetes, #government, #health, #joe-biden, #life-sciences, #national-institute-of-health, #national-institutes-of-health, #president, #tc, #united-states, #white-house

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The gig is up on 21st-century exploitation

Today’s app-based or “gig” economy is frequently dressed up in talk about “modern innovation” and the “21st century of work.” This facade is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Precarious, contingent work is nothing new — we’ve always had jobs that are low-paying, insecure and dismissed as “unskilled.” Due to systemic racism and a historically exploitative economy, workers of color have always been, and continue to be, heavily concentrated in the most exploitative industries.

The only difference is that today, companies like Uber, DoorDash and Instacart claim they don’t have to play by the rules because they use digital apps to manage their workforce. Even as many of these tech giants remain unprofitable, they have been allowed for far too long to shirk responsibility for providing safe and just working conditions where workers can thrive on and off the job.

Even as many of these tech giants remain unprofitable, they have been allowed for far too long to shirk responsibility for providing safe and just working conditions where workers can thrive on and off the job.

Workers’ rights in the so-called gig economy are often positioned as a modern problem. But when we think about the problems faced by gig and app-based workers, who are predominantly people of color, we must learn from the past in order to move forward to a just economy.

The federal government has long failed to address widespread worker exploitation. Since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, jobs like agricultural and domestic work, which were largely performed by workers of color, were carved out of labor rights and protections. The “independent contractors” of today, who are largely workers of color, fall into this same category of workers who have been excluded from labor laws. Combined, Black and Latinx workers make up less than 29% of the nation’s total workforce, but they comprise almost 42% of workers for app-based companies.

Gig companies argue that the drivers, delivery people, independent contractors and other workers who build their businesses, take direction from them and whose pay they set are millions of tiny businesses that do not need baseline benefits and protections. They do this in order to shield themselves from taking responsibility for their frontline workforce. Corporations then avoid paying basic costs like a minimum wage, healthcare, paid sick leave, compensation coverage and a litany of other essential benefits for their employees. For many workers, these conditions only serve to proliferate inequality nationwide and ultimately uphold a deeply flawed economy built upon worker exploitation and suffering.

App-based companies are the face of a larger, sinister trend. Over the last four decades, federal policies have greatly eroded the bargaining power of workers and concentrated more power in the hands of corporations and those who already have substantial wealth and power. This has perpetuated and worsened the racial wage and wealth gaps and contributed to the ever-increasing degradation of working conditions for too many.

It’s clear that, in order to build an economy that works for all people, “gig” and app-based companies cannot be allowed to exploit their workers under the guise of “innovation.” These companies claim their workers want to remain independent contractors, but what workers want is good pay, job security, flexibility and full rights under federal laws. This is a reasonable and just demand — and necessary to close generational gender and racial wealth gaps.

App-based companies are pouring significant resources into promoting government policies that prop up their worker exploitation model. Uber, Lyft, DoorDash Instacart and other app-based companies are loudly peddling misinformation in state legislatures, city councils and federal offices. Elected leaders at all levels need to recognize these policies for what they are — corporate efforts to rewrite the laws to benefit them — and reject the corporate interests behind the policies that carve out workers from universal protections.

Congress must also reject exclusions that lock people of color out of basic employment protections and pass legislation to extend protections to all workers, including app-based workers. The PRO Act is a great first step, which extends bargaining protections to workers who have been wrongly classified as “independent contractors” by their employers.

Across the country, app-based workers have organized to protect their health and safety and demand that their rights as workers be recognized and protected. Elected leaders cannot keep falling for corporate propaganda claiming a “21st-century” model. Work in the 21st century is still work; work that is organized on an app is still work.

We call on Congress to recognize the labor rights and protections of all workers and act boldly to ensure that app-based companies cannot block workers from equal rights in the name of “flexibility” and “innovation.”

#column, #congress, #doordash, #economy, #employment, #future-of-work, #gig-workers, #instacart, #labor, #lyft, #uber

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At social media hearing, lawmakers circle algorithm-focused Section 230 reform

Rather than a CEO-slamming sound bite free-for-all, Tuesday’s big tech hearing on algorithms aimed for more of a listening session vibe — and in that sense it mostly succeeded.

The hearing centered on testimony from the policy leads at Facebook, YouTube and Twitter rather than the chief executives of those companies for a change. The resulting few hours didn’t offer any massive revelations but was still probably more productive than squeezing some of the world’s most powerful men for their commitments to “get back to you on that.”

In the hearing, lawmakers bemoaned social media echo chambers and the ways that the algorithms pumping content through platforms are capable of completely reshaping human behavior. .

“… This advanced technology is harnessed into algorithms designed to attract our time and attention on social media, and the results can be harmful to our kids’ attention spans, to the quality of our public discourse, to our public health, and even to our democracy itself,” said Chris Coons (D-DE), chair of the Senate Judiciary’s subcommittee on privacy and tech, which held the hearing.

Coons struck a cooperative note, observing that algorithms drive innovation but that their dark side comes with considerable costs

None of this is new, of course. But Congress is crawling closer to solutions, one repetitive tech hearing at a time. The Tuesday hearing highlighted some zones of bipartisan agreement that could determine the chances of a tech reform bill passing the Senate, which is narrowly controlled by Democrats. Coons expressed optimism that a “broadly bipartisan solution” could be reached.

What would that look like? Probably changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which we’ve written about extensively over the years. That law protects social media companies from liability for user-created content and it’s been a major nexus of tech regulation talk, both in the newly Democratic Senate under Biden and the previous Republican-led Senate that took its cues from Trump.

Lauren Culbertson, head of U.S. public policy at Twitter

Lauren Culbertson, head of U.S. public policy at Twitter Inc., speaks remotely during a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A broken business model

In the hearing, lawmakers pointed to flaws inherent to how major social media companies make money as the heart of the problem. Rather than criticizing companies for specific failings, they mostly focused on the core business model from which social media’s many ills spring forth.

“I think it’s very important for us to push back on the idea that really complicated, qualitative problems have easy quantitative solutions,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) said. He argued that because social media companies make money by keeping users hooked to their products, any real solution would have to upend that business model altogether.

“The business model of these companies is addiction,” Josh Hawley (R-MO) echoed, calling social media an “attention treadmill” by design.

Ex-Googler and frequent tech critic Tristan Harris didn’t mince words about how tech companies talk around that central design tenet in his own testimony. “It’s almost like listening to a hostage in a hostage video,” Harris said, likening the engagement-seeking business model to a gun just offstage.

Spotlight on Section 230

One big way lawmakers propose to disrupt those deeply entrenched incentives? Adding algorithm-focused exceptions to the Section 230 protections that social media companies enjoy. A few bills floating around take that approach.

One bill from Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) and Reps. Paul Gosar (R-A) and Tulsi Gabbard (R-HI) would require platforms with 10 million or more users to obtain consent before serving users content based on their behavior or demographic data if they want to keep Section 230 protections. The idea is to revoke 230 immunity from platforms that boost engagement by “funneling information to users that polarizes their views” unless a user specifically opts in.

In another bill, the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act, Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) propose suspending Section 230 protections and making companies liable “if their algorithms amplify misinformation that leads to offline violence.” That bill would amend Section 230 to reference existing civil rights laws.

Section 230’s defenders argue that any insufficiently targeted changes to the law could disrupt the modern internet as we know it, resulting in cascading negative impacts well beyond the intended scope of reform efforts. An outright repeal of the law is almost certainly off the table, but even small tweaks could completely realign internet businesses, for better or worse.

During the hearing, Hawley made a broader suggestion for companies that use algorithms to chase profits. “Why shouldn’t we just remove section 230 protection from any platform that engages in behavioral advertising or algorithmic amplification?” he asked, adding that he wasn’t opposed to an outright repeal of the law.

Sen. Klobuchar, who leads the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee, connected the algorithmic concerns to anti-competitive behavior in the tech industry. “If you have a company that buys out everyone from under them… we’re never going to know if they could have developed the bells and whistles to help us with misinformation because there is no competition,” Klobuchar said.

Subcommittee members Klobuchar and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) have their own major Section 230 reform bill, the Safe Tech Act, but that legislation is less concerned with algorithms than ads and paid content.

At least one more major bill looking at Section 230 through the lens of algorithms is still on the way. Prominent big tech critic House Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) is due out soon with a Section 230 bill that could suspend liability protections for companies that rely on algorithms to boost engagement and line their pockets.

“That’s a very complicated algorithm that is designed to maximize engagement to drive up advertising prices to produce greater profits for the company,” Cicilline told Axios last month. “…That’s a set of business decisions for which, it might be quite easy to argue, that a company should be liable for.”

#anna-eshoo, #behavioral-advertising, #biden, #communications-decency-act, #congress, #josh-hawley, #misinformation, #operating-systems, #section-230, #section-230-of-the-communications-decency-act, #senate, #senator, #social-media, #tc, #tristan-harris, #tulsi-gabbard, #twitter

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The next tech hearing targets social media algorithms — and YouTube, for once

Another week another big tech hearing in Congress. With a flurry of antitrust reform bills on the way, Democratic lawmakers are again bringing in the some of the world’s most powerful tech companies for questioning.

In the next hearing, scheduled for Tuesday, April 27 at 10 AM ET, the Senate Judiciary’s subcommittee on privacy and technology will zero on concerns about algorithmic amplification. Specifically, the hearing will explore how algorithms amplify dangerous content and shape user behavior on social platforms.

The subcommittee’s chair Sen. Chris Coons previously indicated that he would bring in tech CEOs, but Tuesday’s hearing will instead feature testimony from policy leads at Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The hearing might prove a unique opportunity to hold YouTube’s feet to the fire. In spite of being one of the biggest social networks in the world — one without much transparency about its regular failures to control extremism and misinformation — YouTube seldom winds up under the microscope with Congress. The company will be represented by Alexandra Veitch, YouTube’s regional director of public policy.

In past big tech hearings that manage, Google CEO Sundar Pichai has generally appeared on behalf of YouTube’s parent company. But Google is a massive entity and concerns specific to YouTube and its policies generally get lost in the mix as lawmakers go after Pichai for concerns around Google’s search and ads businesses.

In a stylistic repeat of last week’s adversarial app store hearing, which featured Apple as well as some of its critics, misinformation researcher Dr. Joan Donovan and ex-Googler and frequent big tech critic Tristan Harris will also testify Tuesday. That tension can create deeper questioning, providing outside expertise that can fill in some lapses in lawmakers’ technical knowledge.

Policy leads at these companies might not make the same flashy headlines, but given their intimate knowledge of the content choices these companies make every day, they do provide an opportunity for more substance. Tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey have been dragged in to so many hearings at this point that they begin to run together, and the top executives generally reveal very little while sometimes playing dumb about the day-to-day decision making on their platforms. The subcommittee’s ranking member Ben Sasse (R-NE) emphasized that point, stating that the hearing would be a learning opportunity and not a “show hearing.”

Democrats have been sounding the alarm on algorithms for some time. While Republicans spent the latter half of the Trump administration hounding tech companies about posts they remove, Democrats instead focused on the violent content, extremism and sometimes deadly misinformation that gets left up and even boosted by the secretive algorithms tech companies rarely shed light on.

We haven’t seen much in the way of algorithmic transparency, but that could change. One narrowly-targeted Section 230 reform bill in the House would strip that law’s protections from large companies when their algorithms amplify extremism or violate civil rights.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has also hinted that a different approach might be on the horizon, suggesting that users could hand-pick their preferred algorithms in the future, possibly even selecting them from a kind of third-party marketplace. Needless to say, Facebook didn’t indicate any plans to give its own users more algorithmic control.

With any major changes to the way platforms decide who sees what likely a long ways off, expect to see lawmakers try to pry open some black boxes on Tuesday.

#algorithms, #congress, #government, #online-extremism, #tc, #the-battle-over-big-tech

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Why lawmakers are so interested in Apple’s and Google’s “rents”

Maybe this textbook is from the Ma Bell era? #ThanksStockGettyImages

Enlarge / Maybe this textbook is from the Ma Bell era? #ThanksStockGettyImages (credit: designer491 / Getty Images)

Josh Hawley had some questions about how Apple came up with the money to buy back $58 billion in stock over the past year.

“I just want to focus on one major source of that income,” the Republican senator said to Apple’s lawyer. “It’s not innovation, it’s not research and development. It’s the monopoly rents that you collect out of your app store.”

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#antitrust, #app-store, #apple, #congress, #google, #policy, #tech

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First findings with Apple’s new AirTag location devices

I’ve been playing around with Apple’s new AirTag location devices for a few hours now and they seem to work pretty much as advertised. The setup flow is simple and clean, taking clear inspiration from the one Apple developed for AirPods. The precision finding feature enabled by the U1 chip works as a solid example of utility-driven augmented reality, popping up a virtual arrow and other visual identifiers on the screen to make finding a tag quicker.

The basic way that AirTags work, if you’re not familiar, is that they use Bluetooth beaconing technology to announce their presence to any nearby devices running iOS 14.5 and above. These quiet pings are encrypted and invisible (usually) to any passer by, especially if they are with their owners. This means that no one ever knows what device actually ‘located’ your AirTag, not even Apple.

With you, by the way, means in relative proximity to a device signed in to the iCloud account that the AirTags are registered to. Bluetooth range is typically in the ~40 foot range depending on local conditions and signal bounce. 

In my very limited testing so far, AirTag location range fits in with that basic Bluetooth expectation. Which means that it can be foiled by a lot of obstructions or walls or an unflattering signal bounce. It often took 30 seconds or more to get an initial location from an AirTag in another room, for instance. Once the location was received, however, the instructions to locate the device seemed to update quickly and were extremely accurate down to a few inches.

The AirTags run for a year on a standard CR2032 battery that’s user replaceable. They offer some water resistance including submersion for some time. There are a host of accessories that seem nicely designed like leather straps for bags, luggage tags and key rings.

So far so good. More testing to come. 

Some protections

As with anything to do with location, security and privacy are a top of mind situation for AirTags, and Apple has some protections in place.

You cannot share AirTags — they are meant to be owned by one person. The only special privileges offered by people in your iCloud Family Sharing Group is that they can silence the ‘unknown AirTag nearby’ alerts indefinitely. This makes AirTags useful for things like shared sets of keys or maybe even a family pet. This means that AirTags will not show up on your family Find My section like other iOS devices might. There is now a discrete section within the app just for ‘Items’ including those with Find My functionality built in. 

The other privacy features include a ‘warning’ that will trigger after some time that a tag is in your proximity and NOT in the proximity of its owner (aka, traveling with you perhaps in a bag or car). Your choices are then to make the tag play a sound to locate it — look at its information including serial number and to disable it by removing its battery. 

Any AirTag that has been away from its owner for a while — this time is variable and Apple will tweak it over time as it observes how AirTags work — will start playing a sound whenever it is moved. This will alert people to its presence. 

You can, of course, also place an AirTag into Lost Mode, offering a choice to share personal information with anyone who locates it as it plays an alert sound. Anyone with any smart device with NFC, Android included, can tap the device to see a webpage with information that you choose to share. Or just a serial number if you do not choose to do so. 

This scenario addresses what happens if you don’t have an iOS device to alert you to a foreign AirTag in your presence, as it will eventually play a sound even if it is not in lost mode and the owner has no control over that.

It’s clear that Apple has thought through many of the edge cases, but some could still crop up as it rolls out, we’ll have to see.

Apple has some distinct market advantages here:

  • Nearly a billion devices out in the world that can help to locate an AirTag.
  • A built-in U1 wideband chip that communicates with a similar U1 chip in iPhones to enable super precise (down to inches) location.
  • A bunch of privacy features that don’t appear on competing tags.

Important to note that Apple has announced the development of a specification for chipset makers that lets third-party devices with Ultra Wideband radios access the U1 chip onboard iPhones ‘later this Spring’. This should approximate the Precision Finding feature’s utility in accessories that don’t have the advantage of having a U1 built in like the AirTags do. And, of course, Apple has opened up the entire Find My mesh network to third party devices from Belkin, Chipolo and VanMoof that want to offer a similar basic finding function as offered by AirTags. Tile has announced plans to offer a UWB version of its tracker as well, even as it testified in Congress yesterday that Apple’s advantages made its entry into this market unfair. 

It will be interesting to see these play out once AirTags are out getting lost in the wild. I have had them for under 12 hours so I’ve not been able to test edge cases, general utility in public spaces or anything like that. 

The devices go on sale on April 23rd.

#airpods, #airtag, #airtags, #android, #apple, #apple-inc, #belkin, #bluetooth, #congress, #find-my, #icloud, #ios, #ios-14, #iphone, #mesh-network, #smart-device, #tc, #technology, #telecommunications, #u1, #u1-chip, #ultra-wideband

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Sen. Wyden proposes limits on exportation of American’s personal data

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has proposed a draft bill that would limit the types of information that could be bought and sold by tech companies abroad, and the countries it could be legally sold in. The legislation is imaginative and not highly specific, but it indicates growing concern at the federal level over the international data trade.

“Shady data brokers shouldn’t get rich selling Americans’ private data to foreign countries that could use it to threaten our national security,” said Sen. Wyden in a statement accompanying the bill. They probably shouldn’t get rich selling Americans’ private data at all, but national security is a good way to grease the wheels.

The Protecting Americans’ Data From Foreign Surveillance Act would be a first step toward categorizing and protecting consumer data as a commodity that’s traded on the global market. Right now there are few if any controls over what data specific to a person — buying habits, movements, political party — can be sold abroad.

This means that, for instance, an American data broker could sell the preferred brands and home addresses of millions of Americans to, say, a Chinese bank doing investment research. Some of this trade is perfectly innocuous, even desirable in order to promote global commerce, but at what point does it become dangerous or exploitative?

There isn’t any official definition of what should and shouldn’t be sold to whom, the way we limit sales of certain intellectual property or weapons. The proposed law would first direct the secretary of Commerce to identify the data we should be protecting and to whom it should be protected against.

The general shape of protected data would be that which “if exported by third parties, could harm U.S. national security.” The countries that would be barred from receiving it would be those with inadequate data protection and export controls, recent intelligence operations against the U.S. or laws that allow the government to compel such information to be handed over to them. Obviously this is aimed at the likes of China and Russia, though ironically the U.S. fits the bill pretty well itself.

There would be exceptions for journalism and First Amendment-protected speech, and for encrypted data — for example storing encrypted messages on servers in one of the targeted countries. The law would also create penalties for executives “who knew or should have known” that their company was illegally exporting data, and creates pathways for people harmed or detained in a foreign country owing to illegally exported data. That might be if, say, another country used an American facial recognition service to spot, stop and arrest someone before they left.

If this all sounds a little woolly, it is — but that’s more or less on purpose. It is not for Congress to invent such definitions as are necessary for a law like this one; that duty falls to expert agencies, which must conduct studies and produce reports that Congress can refer to. This law represents the first handful of steps along those lines: getting the general shape of things straight and giving fair warning that certain classes of undesirable data commerce will soon be illegal — with an emphasis on executive responsibility, something that should make tech companies take notice.

The legislation would need to be sensitive to existing arrangements by which companies spread out data storage and processing for various economic and legal reasons. Free movement of data is to a certain extent necessary for globe-spanning businesses that must interact with one another constantly, and to hobble those established processes with red tape or fees might be disastrous to certain locales or businesses. Presumably this would all come up during the studies, but it serves to demonstrate that this is a very complex, not to say delicate, digital ecosystem the law would attempt to modify.

We’re in the early stages of this type of regulation, and this bill is just getting started in the legislative process, so expect a few months at the very least before we hear anything more on this one.

#congress, #data-privacy, #government, #personal-data, #policy, #privacy, #ron-wyden, #senate, #tc

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Tech talent can thrive in the public sector but government must invest in it

Building, scaling and launching new tools and products is the lifeblood of the technology sector. When we consider these concepts today, many think of Big Tech and flashy startups, known for their industry dominance or new technologies that impact our everyday lives. But long before garages and dorm rooms became decentralized hubs for these innovations, local and state governments, along with many agencies within the federal government, pioneered tech products with the goal of improving the lives of millions.

Long before garages and dorm rooms became decentralized hubs for innovation, local and state governments, along with many agencies within the federal government, pioneered tech products with the goal of improving the lives of millions.

As an industry, we’ve developed a notion that working in government, the place where the groundwork was laid for the digital assistants we use every day, is now far less appealing than working in the private sector. The immense salary differential is often cited as the overwhelming reason workers prefer to work in the private sphere.

But the hard truth is the private sector brings far more value than just higher compensation to employees. Look no further than the boom in the tech sector during the pandemic to understand why it’s so attractive. A company like Zoom, already established and successful in its own right for years, found itself in a situation where it had to serve an exponentially growing and diverse user base in a short period of time. It quickly confronted a slew of infrastructure and user experience pivots on its way to becoming a staple of work-from-home culture — and succeeded.

That innate ability to work fast to deliver for consumers and innovate at what feels like a moment’s notice is what really draws talent. Compare that to the government’s tech environment, where decreased funding and partisan oversight slow the pace of work, or, worse, can get in the way of exploring or implementing new ideas entirely.

One look (literally, see our graph below) at the trends around R&D spending in the private and government sectors also paints a clear picture of where future innovations will come from if we don’t change the equation.

Chart of Facebook R&D spending vs. DARPA annual budget

Image Credits: Josh Mendelsohn/Hangar

Look no further than the U.S. government’s own (now defunct) Office of Technology Assessment. The agency aimed to provide a thorough analysis of burgeoning issues in science and technology, exposing many public services to a new age of innovation and implementation. Amid a period of downsizing by a newly Republican-led Congress, the OTA was defunded in 1995 with a peak annual budget of just $35.1 million (adjusted for 2019 dollars). The authoritative body on the importance of technology to the government was deemed duplicative and unnecessary. Despite numerous calls for its reinstatement, it has since remained shuttered.

Despite dwindling public sector investment and lackluster political action, the problems that technology is poised to help solve haven’t gone away or even eased up.

From the COVID pandemic to worsening natural disasters and growing societal inequities, public leaders have a responsibility to solve the pressing issues we face today. That responsibility should breed a desire to continuously iterate for the sake of constituents and quality of life, much in the same way private tech caters to the product, user and bottom line.

My own experiences in government have shaped my career and approach to building new technologies more than my time in Silicon Valley. There are plenty of tangible parallels to the private sector that can attract driven and passionate tech workers, but the responsibility of giving government work realistic consideration doesn’t just fall at the feet of talent. The governments that we depend on must invest more capital and pay closer attention to the tech community.

Tech workers want an environment where they can thrive and get to see their work in action, whoever the end user may be. They don’t want to feel hamstrung by the threat of decreased funding or the red tape that comes as a result of government partisanship. Replicating the unimpeded focus of Silicon Valley’s brightest examples is a must if we’re serious about drawing talented individuals into government or public-sector-focused work.

A great example of these ideas in action is one of the most beloved government agencies, NASA. Its continued funding has produced technologies developed for space exploration that are now commonplace in our lives, such as scratch-resistant lenses, memory foam and water filters. These use cases came much later on, only after millions of dollars were invested without knowing what would result.

NASA has continued to bolster its ability to stay nimble and evolve at a rapid pace by partnering with private companies. For talent in the tech sphere, the ability to leverage outside resources in this way, without compromising the product or work, is a boon for ideation and iteration.

One can also point to the agency when considering the importance of keeping technology research and innovation as apolitical as possible. It’s one of the few widely known public entities to prosper on the back of bipartisan support. Unfortunately, politicians typically do all of us a disservice, particularly tech workers in government, when they too closely connect themselves or their parties to a particular program or platform. It hinders innovation — and the ensuing mudslinging can detract from talented individuals jumping into government service.

There is no shortage of extremely capable tech workers who want to help solve the biggest issues facing society. Will we give them the legitimate space and opportunity to conquer those problems? There’s been some indication that we can. These ambitious and forward-looking efforts matter today more than ever and show all of us in the tech ecosystem that there’s a place in government for tech talent to grow and flourish.

#column, #congress, #covid-19, #federal-government, #innovation, #opinion, #silicon-valley, #tc, #united-states

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Lawmakers press Instagram for details on its plans for kids

A group of Democratic lawmakers wrote to Mark Zuckerberg this week to press the CEO on his plans to curate a version of Instagram for children. In a hearing last month, Zuckerberg confirmed reporting by BuzzFeed that the company was exploring an age-gated version of its app designed for young users.

Senators Ed Markey (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Representatives Lori Trahan (D-MA) and Kathy Castor (D-FL) signed the letter, expressing “serious concerns” about the company’s ability to protect the privacy and well being of young users.

“Facebook has an obligation to ensure that any new platforms or projects targeting children put those users’ welfare first, and we are skeptical that Facebook is prepared to fulfill this obligation,” the lawmakers wrote.

They cited previous failures with products like Messenger Kids, which had a flaw that allowed kids to chat with people beyond their privacy parameters.

“Although software bugs are common, this episode illustrated the privacy threats to children online and evidenced Facebook’s inability to protect the kids the company actively invited onto this platform,” the lawmakers wrote.

“In light of these and other previous privacy and security issues on Facebook’s platforms, we are not confident that Facebook will be able to adequately protect children’s privacy on a version of Instagram for young users.”

The letter set a deadline of April 26 for the company to provide answers to a comprehensive and helpfully specific set of questions about a future kid-targeted product.

In the letter, lawmakers posed a number of questions about how Facebook will handle the private data for young users and if that data would be deleted when an account is terminated. They also asked the company to commit to not targeting kids with ads and not employing push alerts and behavior-shaping features designed to make apps more addictive.

During last month’s big tech hearing in the House, committee members from both political parties grilled Zuckerberg about how Facebook and Instagram adversely affect mental health in young users. Rep. Castor also pressed the chief executive about underage users who circumvent Instagram’s existing age guidelines to use a platform full of posts, videos and ads designed for adults.

“Of course, every parent knows there are kids under the age of 13 on Instagram, and the problem is that you know it,” Zuckerberg said.

#congress, #facebook, #government, #instagram, #kids, #messenger-kids, #social, #tc, #the-battle-over-big-tech

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Biden infrastructure plan proposes spending $174B to boost America’s EV market

President Joe Biden has earmarked $174 billion from his ambitious infrastructure plan to build out domestic supply chains for electric vehicles, noting the imperative for United States automakers to “compete globally” to win a larger share of the EV market.

The funds are just one part of Biden’s plan, which calls for an ambitious $2 trillion infrastructure investment across multiple sectors. The Fact Sheet for the plan includes six references to China – one of these in reference to the size of the Chinese EV market, which is two-thirds larger than the domestic U.S. market. Chinese manufacturer Foxconn, Apple’s main supplier, said in February it was considering producing EVs at its Wisconsin plants – just weeks after tentatively agreeing to manufacture an EV for startup-turned-SPAC Fisker.

To ensure Americans actually purchase these domestically manufactured EVs, Biden also plans to establish sales rebates and tax incentives for the purchase of American-made EVs, though the size of the credit has not been released. Customers can already cash in a $7,500 federal tax credit for EVs, but it is not available to automakers that have sold more than 200,000 electric cars – people looking to purchase a Tesla, for instance, would not qualify for the credit. It’s unclear whether the new tax credit would raise or abolish the sales limit for automakers.

The plan also proposes using some of the funds to build a national EV charging network of 500,000 stations by 2030. A recent survey from Consumer Reports found that the availability of public charging stations was a major concern deterring people from looking into an EV for their next vehicle purchase.

On the transit side, Biden’s administration said the funds will also go towards replacing 50,000 diesel transit vehicles and electrifying at least 20 percent of school busses, through a new program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The plan places a huge emphasis on providing good-paying jobs to American workers, but it still has a long way to go. It must be approved by Congress before becoming law.

#automotive, #battery-electric-vehicles, #charging-station, #china, #congress, #consumer-reports, #electric-car, #electric-vehicle, #electric-vehicles, #environmental-protection-agency, #foxconn, #green-vehicles, #joe-biden, #president, #transport, #transportation, #united-states, #wisconsin

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Startups have about $1 trillion worth of reasons to love the Biden infrastructure plan

The sweeping infrastructure package put forward today by President Joe Biden comes with a price tag of roughly $2 trillion (and hefty tax hikes) but gives startups and the broader tech industry about $1 trillion worth of reasons to support it.

Tech companies have spent the past decade or more developing innovations that can be applied to old-world industries like agriculture, construction, energy, education, manufacturing and transportation and logistics. These are industries where structural impediments to technology adoption have only recently been broken down by the advent of incredibly powerful mobile devices.

Now, these industries are at the heart of the President’s plan to build back better, and the hundreds of billions of dollars that are earmarked to make America great again will, either directly or indirectly, be a huge boost to a number of startups and large tech companies whose hardware and software services will enable much of the work the Biden administration wants done.

“The climate-oriented investment in Biden’s new plan would be roughly ten times what came through ARRA,” wrote Shayle Kann, a partner with the investment firm, Energy Impact Partners. “It would present a huge opportunity for a variety of climate tech sectors, ranging from clean electricity to carbon management to vehicle electrification.”

Much of this will look and feel like a Green New Deal, but sold under a package of infrastructure modernization and service upgrades that the country desperately needs.  Indeed, it’s hard to invest in infrastructure without supporting the kind of energy efficiency and renewable development plans that are at the core of the Green New Deal, since efficiency upgrades are just a part of the new way of building and making things.

Over $700 billion of the proposed budget will go to improving resiliency against natural disasters; upgrading critical water, power, and internet infrastructure; and rehabilitating and improving public housing, federal buildings, and aging commercial and residential real estate.

Additionally there’s another roughly $400 billion in spending earmarked for boosting domestic manufacturing of critical components like semiconductors; protecting against future pandemics; and creating regional innovation hubs to promote venture capital investment and startup development intended to “support the growth of entrepreneurship in communities of color and underserved communities.”

Climate resiliency 

Given the steady drumbeat of climate disasters that hit the U.S. over the course of 2020 (and their combined estimated price tag of nearly $100 billion), it’s not surprising that the Biden plan begins with a focus on resiliency.

The first big outlay of cash outlined in the Biden plan would call for $50 billion in financing to improve, protect and invest in underserved communities most at risk from climate disasters through programs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and new initiatives from the Department of Transportation. Most relevant to startups is the push to fund initiatives and technologies that can help prevent or protect against extreme wildfires; rising sea levels and hurricanes; new agriculture resource management; and “climate-smart” technologies.

As with most of Biden’s big infrastructure initiatives, there are startups tackling these issues. Companies like Cornea, Emergency Reporting, Zonehaven are trying to solve different facets of the fire problem; while flood prediction and weather monitoring startups are floating up their services too. Big data analytics, monitoring and sensing tools, and robotics are also becoming fixtures on the farm. For the President’s water efficiency and recycling programs, companies like Epic CleanTec, which has developed wastewater recycling technologies for residential and commercial buildings.

Fables of the reconstruction

Energy efficiency and building upgrades represent by far the biggest chunk of the Biden infrastructure package — totaling a whopping $400 billion of the spending package and all devoted to upgrading homes, offices, schools, veteran’s hospitals and federal buildings.

It gives extra credence to the thesis behind new climate-focused funds from Greensoil Proptech Ventures and Fifth Wall Ventures, which is raising a $200 million investment vehicle to focus on energy efficiency and climate tech solutions.

As Fifth Wall’s newest partner Greg Smithies noted last year, there’s a massive opportunity in building retrofits and startup technologies to improve efficiency.

“What excites me about this space is that there’s so much low-hanging fruit. And there’s $260 trillion worth of buildings,” Smithies said last year. “The vast majority of those are nowhere up to modern codes. We’re going to have a much bigger opportunity by focusing on some not-so-sexy stuff.”

Decarbonizing real estate can also make a huge difference in the fight against global climate change in addition to the its ability to improve quality of life and happiness for residents. “Real estate consumes 40% of all energy. The global economy happens indoors,” said Fifth Wall co-founder Brendan Wallace, in a statement. “Real estate will be the biggest spender on climate tech for no other reason than its contribution to the carbon problem.”

The Biden plan calls on Congress to enact new grant programs that award flexible funding to jurisdictions that take concrete steps to eliminate barriers to produce affordable housing. Part of that will include $40 billion to improve the infrastructure of the public housing in America.

It’s a project that startups like BlocPower are already deeply involved in supporting.

“Get the superhero masks and capes out. The Biden Harris Climate announcement is literally a plan to save the American economy and save the planet. This is Avengers Endgame in real life. We can’t undo the last five years… but we can make smart, massive investments in the climate infrastructure of the future,” wrote Donnel Baird, the chief executive and founder of BlocPower. “Committing to electrify 2 million American buildings, moving them entirely off of fossil fuels is exactly that — an investment in America leading theway towards creating a new industry creating American jobs that cannot be outsourced, and beginning to reduce the 30% of greenhouse gas emissiosn that come from buildings.”

As part of the package that directly impacts startups, there’s a proposal for a $27 billion Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator to mobilize private investment, according to the White House. The focus will be on distributed energy resources, retrofits of residential, commercial and municipal buildings; and clean transportation. A focus there will be on disadvantaged communities that haven’t had access to clean energy investments.

Financing the future startup nation

“From the invention of the semiconductor to the creation of the Internet, new engines of economic growth have emerged due to public investments that support research, commercialization, and strong supply chains,” the White House wrote. “President Biden is calling on Congress to make smart investments in research and development, manufacturing and regional economic development, and in workforce development to give our workers and companies the tools and training they need to compete on the global stage.”

To enable that, Biden is proposing another $480 billion in spending to boost research and development — including $50 billion for the National Science Foundation to focus on semiconductors and advanced communications technologies, energ technologies and biotechnology. Another $30 billion is designed to be targeted toward rural development; and finally the $40 billion in upgrading research infrastructure.

There’s also an initiative to create ARPA-C, a climate focused Advanced Research Projects Agency modeled on the DARPA program that gave birth to the Internet. There’s $20 billion heading toward funding climate-focused research and demonstration projects for energy storage, carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, advanced nuclear and rare earth  element separations, floating off shore wind, biofuel/bioproducts, quantum computing and electric vehicles.

The bulk of Biden’s efforts to pour money into manufacturing represents another $300 billion in potential government funding. That’s $30 billion tickets for biopreparedness and pandemic preparedness; another $50 billion in semiconductor manufacturing and research; $46 billion for federal buying power for new advanced nuclear reactors and fuel, cars, ports, pumps and clean materials.

Included in all of this is an emphasis on developing economies fairly and equally across the country — that means $20 billion in regional innovation hubs and a Community Revitalization Fund, which is designed to support innovative, community-led redevelopment efforts and $52 billion in investing in domestic manufacturers — promoting rural manufacturing and clean energy.

Finally for startups there’s a $31 billion available for programs that give small businesses access to credit, venture capital, and R&D dollars. Specifically, the proposal calls for funding for community-based small business incubators and innovation hubs to support growth in communities of color and underserved communites.

Water and power infrastructure 

America’s C- grade infrastructure has problems extending across the length and breadth of the country. It encompasses everything from crumbling roads and bridges to a lack of clean drinking water, failing sewage systems, inadequate recycling facilities, and increasing demands on power generation, transmission and distribution assets that the nation’s electricity grid is unable to meet.

“Across the country, pipes and treatment plants are aging and polluted drinking water is endangering public health. An estimated six to ten million homes still receive drinking water through lead pipes and service lines,” the White House wrote in a statement.

To address this issue, Biden’s calling for an infusion of $45 billion into the Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act grants. While that kind of rip and replace project may not directly impact startups, another $66 billion earmarked for upgrades to drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems and monitoring and managing the presence of contaminants in water will be a huge boon for the vast array of water sensing and filtration startups that have flooded the market in the past decade or more (there’s even an entire incubator dedicated to just water technologies).

The sad fact is that water infrastructure in America has largely failed to keep up in large swaths of the country, necessitating this kind of massive capital infusion.

And what’s true for water is also true increasingly true for power. Outages cost the U.S. economy upwards of $70 billion per year, according to the White House. So when analysts compare those economic losses to a potential $100 billion outlay, the math should be clear. For startups that math equals dollar signs.

Calls to build a more resilient transmission system should be music to the ears of companies like Veir, which is developing a novel technology for improving capacity on transmission lines (a project that the Biden administration explicitly calls out in its plan).

The Biden plan also includes more than money, calling for the creation of a new Grid Deployment Authority within the Department of Energy to better leverage rights-of-way along roads and railways and will support financing tools to develop new high-voltage transmission lines, the White House said.

The administration doesn’t stop there. Energy storage and renewable technologies are going to get a boost through a clutch of tax credits designed to accelerate their deployment. That includes a ten-year extension and phase down of direct-pay investment tax credits and production tax credits. The plan aslo calls for clean energy block grants and calls for the government to purchase nothing but renewable energy all day for federal buildings.

Complimenting this push for clean power and storage will be a surge in funding for waste remediation and cleanup, which is getting a $21 billion boost under Biden.

Companies like Renewell Energy, or various non-profits that are trying to plug abandoned oil wells, can play a role here. There’s also the potential to recover other mineral deposits or reuse the wastewater that comes from these wells. And here, too, investors can find early stage businesses looking for an angle. Part of the money frm the Biden plan will aim to redevelop brownfields and turn them into more sustainable businesses.

That’s where some of the indoor agriculture companies, like Plenty, Bowery Farms, AppHarvest could find additional pots of money to turn unused factory and warehouse space into working farms. Idled factories could also be transformed into hubs for energy storage and community based power generation and distribution facilities, given their position on the grid.

“President Biden’s plan also will spur targeted sustainable, economic development efforts through the Appalachian Regional Commission’s POWER grant program, Department of Energy retooling grants for idled factories (through the Section 132 program), and dedicated funding to support community-driven environmental justice efforts – such as capacity and project grants to address legacy pollution and the cumulative impacts experienced by frontline and fenceline communities,” the White House wrote.

Key to these redevelopment efforts will be the establishment of pioneer facilities that demonstrate carbon capture retrofits for large steel, cement, and chemical production facilities. But if the Biden Administration wanted to, its departments could go a step further to support lower emission manufacturing technologies like the kind companies including Heliogen, which is using solar power to generate energy for a massive mining operation, or Boston Metal, which is partnering with BMW on developing a lower emission manufacturing process for steel production.

Critical to ensuring that this money gets spent is a $25 billion commitment to finance pre-development activities, that could help smaller project developers, as Rob Day writes in Forbes.

“As I’ve written about elsewhere, local project developers are key to getting sustainability projects built where they will actually do the most good — in the communities hit hardest by both local pollution and climate change impacts. These smaller project developers have lots of expenses they must pay just to get to the point where private-sector infrastructure construction investments can come in,” Day wrote. “Everyone in sustainability policy talks about supporting entrepreneurs, but in reality much of the support is aimed at technology innovators and not these smaller project developers who would be the ones to actually roll out those technology innovations. Infrastructure investors are typically much more reticent to provide capital before projects are construction-ready.”

Building a better Internet

“Broadband internet is the new electricity. It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, health care, and to stay connected,” the White House wrote. “Yet, by one definition, more than 30 million Americans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds. Americans in rural areas and on tribal lands particularly lack adequate access. And, in part because the United States has some of the highest broadband prices among OECD countries, millions of Americans can’t use broadband internet even if the infrastructure exists where they live.”

The $100 billion that the Biden Administration is earmarking for broadband infrastructure includes goals to meet 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage and prioritizes support for networks owned, operated, or faffiliated with local governments, non-profits and cooperatives.

Attendant with the new cash is a shift in regulatory policy that would open up opportunities for municipally-owned or affiliated providers and rural electric co-ops from competing with prive providers and requiring internet providers to be more transparent about their pricing. This increased competition is good for hardware vendors and ultimately could create new businesses for entrepreneurs who want to become ISPs of their own.

Wander is one-such service providing high speed wireless internet in Los Angeles.

“Americans pay too much for the internet – much more than people in many other countries – and the President is committed to working with Congress to find a solution to reduce internet prices for all Americans, increase adoption in both rural and urban areas, hold providers accountable, and save taxpayer money,” the White House wrote.

 

#agriculture, #america, #articles, #biden-administration, #biotechnology, #blocpower, #brendan-wallace, #broadband, #co-founder, #congress, #construction, #cornea, #department-of-transportation, #education, #electricity, #energy, #energy-impact-partners, #fifth-wall-ventures, #forbes, #greg-smithies, #infrastructure, #joe-biden, #kamala-harris, #los-angeles, #manufacturing, #mobile-devices, #national-science-foundation, #oecd, #plenty, #president, #quantum-computing, #real-estate, #semiconductor, #semiconductors, #steel, #supply-chains, #tc, #united-states, #venture-capital, #venture-capital-investment, #white-house

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Breaking up big tech would be a mistake

It seems safe to say that our honeymoon with big tech is officially over.

After years of questionable data-handling procedures, arbitrary content management policies and outright anti-competitive practices, it is only fair that we take a moment to rethink our relationship with the industry.

Sadly, most of the ideas that have gathered mainstream attention — such as the calls to break up big tech — have been knee-jerk responses that smack more of retributionist fantasies than sound economic thinking.

Instead of chasing sensationalist non-starters and zero-sum solutions, we should be focused on ensuring that big tech grows better as it grows bigger by establishing a level playing field for startups’ and competitors’ proprietary digital markets.

We can find inspiration on how to do just that by taking a look at how 20th-century lawmakers reined in the railroad monopolies, which similarly turned from darlings of industry to destructive forces of stagnation.

We’ve been here before

More than a century ago, a familiar story of a nation coming to terms with the unanticipated effects of technological disruption was unfolding across a rapidly industrializing United States.

While the first full-scale steam locomotive debuted in 1804, it took until 1868 for more powerful and cargo-friendly American-style locomotives to be introduced.

The more efficient and cargo-friendly locomotives caught on like wildfire, and soon steel and iron pierced through mountains and leaped over gushing rivers to connect Americans from coast to coast.

Soon, railroad mileage tripled and a whopping 77% of all intercity traffic and 98% of passenger business would be running on rails, ushering in an era of cost-efficient transcontinental travel that would recast the economic fortunes of the entire country.

As is often the case with disruptive technologies, early success would come with a heavy human cost.

From the very beginning, abuse and exploitation ran rampant in the railroad industry, with up to 3% of the labor force suffering injuries or dying during the course of an average year.

Railroad trust owners soon became key constituents of the widely maligned group of businessmen colloquially known as robber barons, whose corporations devoured everything in their path and made life difficult for competitors and new entrants in particular.

The railroad proprietors achieved this by maintaining carefully constructed walled gardens, allowing them to run competitors into the ground by means of extortion, exclusion and everything in between.

While these methods proved wildly successful for railroad owners, the rest of society languished under stifled competition and an utter lack of concern for consumers’ interests.

Everything old is new again

Learning from past experiences certainly doesn’t seem to be humankind’s strong suit.

In fact, most of our concerns with the tech industry are mirror images of the objections 20th-century Americans had against the railroad trusts.

Similar to the robber barons, Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, et al., have come to dominate the major thoroughfares of trade in a fashion that leaves little space for competitors and startups.

By instating double-digit platform fees, establishing strict limitations on payment processing protocols, and jealously hoarding proprietary data and APIs, big tech has erected artificial barriers to entry that make replicating their success all but impossible.

Over the past years, tech giants have also taken to cannibalizing third-party solutions by providing private-label versions — à la AmazonBasics — to the point where big tech’s clients are finding themselves undercut and outplayed by the platform-holders themselves.

Given the above, it is not surprising that the pace at which tech startups are created in the US has been declining for years.

In fact, VC veterans such as Albert Wenger have called attention to the “kill zone” around big tech for years, and if we are to reinvigorate the competitive fringe around our large tech conglomerates, something has to be done fast.

Why we need to stop talking about breaking up big tech

The 20th-century playbook for taming monopolistic railroad trusts offers several helpful lessons for dealing with big tech.

For first steps, Congress created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in 1887 and tasked it with administering reasonable and just rates for access to proprietary railroad networks.

Due to partisan politicking, the ICC proved relatively toothless, however. It wasn’t until Congress passed the 1906 Hepburn Act, which separated the function of transportation from the ownership of the goods being shipped, that we started seeing true progress.

By disallowing self-dealing and double-dipping in proprietary platforms, Congress succeeded in opening up access on equal terms both to existing competitors and startups alike, making a once-unnavigable thicket of exploitative practices into the metallic backbone of American prosperity that we know today.

This could never have been achieved by simply breaking the railroad trusts into smaller pieces.

In fact, when it comes to platforms and networks, bigger often is better for everyone involved thanks to network effects and several other factors that conspire against smaller platforms.

Most importantly, when access and interoperability rules are done right, bigger platforms can sustain wider and wider constellations of startups and third parties, helping us grow our economic pie instead of shrinking it.

Making digital markets work for startups

In our post-pandemic economy, our attention should be in helping tech platforms grow better as they grow bigger instead of cutting them down to size.

Ensuring that startups and competitors can access these platforms on equitable terms and at fair prices is a necessary first step.

There are numerous other tangible actions policymakers can take today. For example, rewriting the rules on data portability, pushing for wider standardization and interoperability across platforms, and reintroducing net neutrality would go a long way in addressing what ails the industry today.

With President Joe Biden’s recent nod toward “Amazon’s Antitrust Antagonist” Lina Khan as the next commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission, these changes suddenly seem more likely than ever.

In the end, all of us would stand to benefit from a robust fringe of startups and competitors that thrive on the shoulders of giants and the platforms they have made.

#antitrust, #column, #congress, #federal-trade-commission, #opinion, #policy, #private-equity, #startup-company, #technology

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Bias, subtweets, and kids: Key takeaways from Big Tech’s latest outing on the Hill

There was no fancy Hill hearing room for this all-virtual event, so Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey dialed in from... a kitchen.

Enlarge / There was no fancy Hill hearing room for this all-virtual event, so Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey dialed in from… a kitchen. (credit: Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images)

A trio of major tech CEOs—Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey—once again went before Congress this week to explain their roles in the social media ecosystem. The hearing nominally focused on disinformation and extremism, particularly in the wake of the January 6 events at the US Capitol. But as always, the members asking the questions frequently ventured far afield.

The hearing focused less on specific posts than previous Congressional grillings, but it was mainly an exercise in people talking to plant their stakes. Considered in totality, fairly little of substance was accomplished during the hearing’s lengthy six-hour runtime.

Nonetheless, a few important policy nuggets did manage to come up.

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#alphabet, #congress, #facebook, #google, #hearings, #jack-dorsey, #mark-zuckerberg, #policy, #sundar-pichai, #twitter, #youtube

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These House hearings on tech are a waste of time and everyone knows it

If Congress wants to write laws that effectively regulate companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, it needs to change the ways it interacts with those companies, because these hearings ain’t it. They’re a waste of everyone’s time, and no one is even pretending otherwise. To truly put Big Tech on the spot, future hearings need to do — at the very least — these three things.

Change the format

Five minutes of free-form questioning by 60 or 70 Representatives sequentially is the current format for House hearings, and it’s a disaster — especially on Zoom or Bluejeans or whatever Congress uses.

Over and over again we get Representatives who spend 3/4 of their time on de facto opening statements that are as likely as not to be pandering bloviations redundant with what’s already been said. Once that’s finished, the short remaining time forces them to require yes or no answers to poorly posed questions about complex topics.

Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, and Jack Dorsey in video calls with Congress.Because there’s nothing compelling these CEOs to actually respond with yes or no, they always, always respond with a longer answer. Have done for years, yet Representatives still complain about it, even when their questions can’t conceivably be answered with a yes or no without over-committing or self-incrimination.

When you ask, and this was an actual question, “Do you think the law should allow you to be the arbiters of truth, as they have under section 230?” — you cannot seriously expect a yes or no answer. It’s the tech equivalent of “Have you stopped beating your dog?”

Faced with pointless or impossible questions, Zuckerberg maintained a sort of perpetually aggrieved countenance, looking more like the dog than the beater. Pichai tuned out, missing questions or offering obvious platitudes when called on. Dorsey, plainly bored, tweeted his way through the hearing and answered in monosyllables even when it was not required of him.

As irritating as this political theater is to watch, it must surely be more so to take part in. Seeing that nothing worthwhile can be said or done in these five-minute abuse sessions, the highly visible chief goal of the CEOs is to run out the clock — safe and incredibly easy to do. Sometimes they appeared to be barely paying attention, secure in the knowledge that they can respond “these are nuanced issues… we take this very seriously, Congresswo—” before being cut off. Begging off based on being “unsure about the exact details” and saying you’ll follow up is another zero-commitment option.

The format needs to be changed to allow for substantive discussion, firstly by extending each Member’s questioning time limit to 8 or 10 minutes at least; Secondly by providing some kind of guideline for answering, for instance guaranteeing 10 seconds but silencing them after 30. So much is lost to crosstalk in these video hearings that ultimately it’s better to allow a bad answer to go for 20 seconds than to object to it for 25.

It may also pay to limit the participants, allowing the leaders of the Committee to allocate time as they see fit to a smaller number of Representatives who have more than boilerplate outrage to put on the record. How exactly this could be accomplished is probably subject to a raft of rules and procedural things, but seriously, there’s no point in having most of these people involved. Keep it fair, keep it bipartisan, and let each party either exclude its cranks or own them.

Real consequences or legally extracted promises need to exist as well. One questioner brought up an independent audit Jack Dorsey promised — on the record, to Congress — in 2018. It never took place, with Dorsey saying they decided to do something else instead. So it wasn’t a promise, it wasn’t a requirement, and there was no legal compulsion to do anything at all. Why even bother asking if all you’re doing is asking for a favor? Lawmakers need bite to back up their bark, and if that doesn’t exist, they should refrain from barking so much.

Have a real agenda

If the format changes, the agenda needs to as well. Because if we simply allow these clueless lawmakers more time to read their scripts, the scripts will, like legislative goldfish, expand to fill the time allotted to them.

We’ve seen hearings that have made a difference, usually because the people involved have evidence to present and arguments to accompany it. Vice President Kamala Harris was great at this, having a background as a prosecutor — she made it pretty hot for Zuckerberg back in 2018. Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and David Cicilline (D-RI) made Jeff Bezos look like he was either ignorant or had something to hide last year by confronting him with incriminating testimony and requiring a real answer.

 

Unfortunately, we can’t trust our legislators to be informed (or truthful) on these issues or really to even care. Most of the time their questions come off like something anyone could throw together an hour before the hearing with some quick background searches. Some of it (like hammering on the long-settled NY Post/Hunter Biden debacle) is so out of date that it proves beyond a doubt that the questioner had no intention of addressing the issues ostensibly at hand. Why let them waste everyone’s time on irrelevant topics?

Subpoena power comes with its own problems — no one wants to fight a court battle every time they want to ask a few questions — but if Congress is not going to use the tools available to it in the pursuit of legislating these issues, what exactly do they bring to the table?

If hearings don’t have a driving force behind them, such as an event, investigation, or document release, they are almost by definition just a way for Representatives to generate sound bites and appear concerned to their constituency. Today’s event is very much an example of this.

Bring in principals, not figureheads

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg listens during a joint hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg took personal responsibility Tuesday for the leak of data on tens of millions of its users, while warning of an “arms race” against Russian disinformation during a high stakes face-to-face with US lawmakers. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, and Jack Dorsey are very smart. Very well-informed. Very important. But their roles as figureheads as well as decisionmakers in their companies and industries makes it nearly impossible for them to say anything that hasn’t been drafted and cleared ahead of time, and they are also free to not remember or defer to an absent colleague.

There’s no blood to squeeze from these stones, so invite someone else. This was a hearing about disinformation — these companies have people making everyday decisions and directly overseeing projects on that topic. They should be the ones being asked to answer Congress’s questions.

It’s conceivable, if almost certainly untrue, that Zuckerberg “doesn’t recall” conversations about hiding abuse of Facebook data from users. Getting him to take that position is a victory of a sort, but it would be better to have the person whose responsibility this actually was, someone who can’t take refuge in hysterical ignorance.

Certainly these VPs and heads of what have you would also be media trained and prepped with canned statements, but it’s better than the alternative. These CEOs are Teflon-coated and this isn’t their first time in front of the shouting squad. They no longer care about anything but keeping the hearings as boring as possible and avoiding a news cycle. (Dorsey’s weird clock was a great blow-off valve for this. Pichai’s aggressively ordinary background gave you nothing to focus on but his answers — wrong play. And Zuckerberg’s high-quality camera setup only made him look more damp and robotic.)


Every time one of these hearings takes place, the overwhelming impression one gets from them is of a lost opportunity. Here are elected lawmakers given a chance to speak directly to some of the most powerful people in the tech industry, and perhaps 9 out of 10 use that time to retread old topics, thrust dubious information into the record, or simply relish their chance to push around someone like Mark Zuckerberg. The temptation is understandable but legislators must put the country first.

Though some Representatives raised important issues today, the format prevented them from extracting substantive answers; the lack of a cohesive agenda or central documents meant they had no compelling evidence to put forth; the subjects of their questioning were bored and had no reason to say anything beyond what they put in their carefully prepared opening statements. If future hearings — concerning this or other industries — don’t change things up, no one should be surprised if they, like this one, yield nothing but hot air.

#congress, #government, #tc, #the-battle-over-big-tech

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Watch Zuckerberg, Pichai and Dorsey testify at the House hearing on disinformation and extremism

Big tech is back on the virtual hill.

Three of tech’s most prominent CEOs will appear before the House Energy and Commerce committee today at 9AM PT as lawmakers grill the companies on their failure to contain disinformation and extremism.

In opening statements made available before the hearing, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Sundar Pichai each laid out the conversation they’d prefer to have.

Zuckerberg pushed for reforms to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that wouldn’t resolve the issues at hand, but would probably give Facebook another leg up on smaller competitors. Google defended Section 230 and pointed to its own often mild or delayed efforts to contain election misinformation that ultimately snowballed into the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Twitter mostly looked forward rather than back, pointing to initiatives to make its own algorithms transparent and to invite more community-level moderation efforts.

The topic at hand Thursday is a big one, and there are plenty of directions lawmakers might take the hearing. In recent months, the two subcommittees leading the joint hearing have questioned Facebook about its algorithmic group recommendations — a frequent concern among extremism experts — and reports that the company served combat gear ads next to posts promoting the Capitol riot. More broadly, the committee will delve into social media’s role in disseminating dangerous misinformation, but it’s possible we’ll take detours through some regulatory solutions like antitrust legislation and Section 230 reform along the way.

If you’d like to follow along, we’ve embedded the hearing above or you can check back for other coverage as we go.

#capitol-riot, #congress, #facebook, #government, #tc, #the-battle-over-big-tech

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US lawmakers propose Australia-style bill for media, tech negotiations

Rep. Ken Buck (R-Co.) and Microsoft president Brad Smith at a House hearing on regulation and competition in the news media industry on March 12, 2021.

Enlarge / Rep. Ken Buck (R-Co.) and Microsoft president Brad Smith at a House hearing on regulation and competition in the news media industry on March 12, 2021. (credit: Drew Angerer | Getty Images)

A group of US lawmakers is proposing new legislation that would allow media organizations to set terms with social media platforms for sharing their content, reminiscent of a controversial measure recently adopted in Australia.

The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2021 basically creates a temporary 48-month carve-out to existing antitrust and competition law that would allow small news outlets to join forces to negotiate as a collective bloc with “online content distributors” such as Facebook and Google for favorable terms.

“A strong, diverse, free press is critical for any successful democracy. Access to trustworthy local journalism helps inform the public, hold powerful people accountable, and root out corruption,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), when introducing the proposal. “This bill will give hardworking local reporters and publishers the helping hand they need right now, so they can continue to do their important work.”

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#broadcast-media, #congress, #facebook, #google, #legacy-media, #media, #microsoft, #online-media, #policy, #print-media, #social-media

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Big Tech companies cannot be trusted to self-regulate: We need Congress to act

It’s been two months since Donald Trump was kicked off of social media following the violent insurrection on Capitol Hill in January. While the constant barrage of hate-fueled commentary and disinformation from the former president has come to a halt, we must stay vigilant.

Now is the time to think about how to prevent Trump, his allies and other bad actors from fomenting extremism in the future. It’s time to figure out how we as a society address the misinformation, conspiracy theories and lies that threaten our democracy by destroying our information infrastructure.

As vice president at Color Of Change, my team and I have had countless meetings with leaders of multi-billion-dollar tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google, where we had to consistently flag hateful, racist content and disinformation on their platforms. We’ve also raised demands supported by millions of our members to adequately address these systemic issues — calls that are too often met with a lack of urgency and sense of responsibility to keep users and Black communities safe.

The violent insurrection by white nationalists and far-right extremists in our nation’s capital was absolutely fueled and enabled by tech companies who had years to address hate speech and disinformation that proliferated on their social media platforms. Many social media companies relinquished their platforms to far-right extremists, white supremacists and domestic terrorists long ago, and it will take more than an attempted coup to hold them fully accountable for their complicity in the erosion of our democracy — and to ensure it can’t happen again.

To restore our systems of knowledge-sharing and eliminate white nationalist organizing online, Big Tech must move beyond its typical reactive and shallow approach to addressing the harm they cause to our communities and our democracy. But it’s more clear than ever that the federal government must step in to ensure tech giants act.

After six years leading corporate accountability campaigns and engaging with Big Tech leaders, I can definitively say it’s evident that social media companies do have the power, resources and tools to enforce policies that protect our democracy and our communities. However, leaders at these tech giants have demonstrated time and time again that they will choose not to implement and enforce adequate measures to stem the dangerous misinformation, targeted hate and white nationalist organizing on their platforms if it means sacrificing maximum profit and growth.

And they use their massive PR teams to create an illusion that they’re sufficiently addressing these issues. For example, social media companies like Facebook continue to follow a reactive formula of announcing disparate policy changes in response to whatever public relations disaster they’re fending off at the moment. Before the insurrection, the company’s leaders failed to heed the warnings of advocates like Color Of Change about the dangers of white supremacists, far-right conspiracists and racist militias using their platforms to organize, recruit and incite violence. They did not ban Trump, implement stronger content moderation policies or change algorithms to stop the spread of misinformation-superspreader Facebook groups — as we had been recommending for years.

These threats were apparent long before the attack on Capitol Hill. They were obvious as Color Of Change and our allies propelled the #StopHateForProfit campaign last summer, when over 1,000 advertisers pulled millions in ad revenues from the platform. They were obvious when Facebook finally agreed to conduct a civil rights audit in 2018 after pressure from our organization and our members. They were obvious even before the deadly white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville in 2017.

Only after significant damage had already been done did social media companies take action and concede to some of our most pressing demands, including the call to ban Trump’s accounts, implement disclaimers on voter fraud claims, and move aggressively remove COVID misinformation as well as posts inciting violence at the polls amid the 2020 election. But even now, these companies continue to shirk full responsibility by, for example, using self-created entities like the Facebook Oversight Board — an illegitimate substitute for adequate policy enforcement — as PR cover while the fate of recent decisions, such as the suspension of Trump’s account, hang in the balance.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and many other Big Tech companies kick into action when their profits, self-interests and reputation are threatened, but always after the damage has been done because their business models are built solely around maximizing engagement. The more polarized content is, the more engagement it gets; the more comments it elicits or times it’s shared, the more of our attention they command and can sell to advertisers. Big Tech leaders have demonstrated they neither have the willpower nor the ability to proactively and successfully self-regulate, and that’s why Congress must immediately intervene.

Congress should enact and enforce federal regulations to reign in the outsized power of Big Tech behemoths, and our lawmakers must create policies that translate to real-life changes in our everyday lives — policies that protect Black and other marginalized communities both online and offline.

We need stronger antitrust enforcement laws to break up big tech monopolies that evade corporate accountability and impact Black businesses and workers; comprehensive privacy and algorithmic discrimination legislation to ensure that profits from our data aren’t being used to fuel our exploitation; expanded broadband access to close the digital divide for Black and low-income communities; restored net neutrality so that internet services providers can’t charge differently based on content or equipment; and disinformation and content moderation by making it clear that Section 230 does not exempt platforms from complying with civil rights laws.

We’ve already seen some progress following pressure from activists and advocacy groups including Color Of Change. Last year alone, Big Tech companies like Zoom hired chief diversity experts; Google took action to block the Proud Boys website and online store; and major social media platforms like TikTok adopted better, stronger policies on banning hateful content.

But we’re not going to applaud billion-dollar tech companies for doing what they should and could have already done to address the years of misinformation, hate and violence fueled by social media platforms. We’re not going to wait for the next PR stunt or blanket statement to come out or until Facebook decides whether or not to reinstate Trump’s accounts — and we’re not going to stand idly by until more lives are lost.

The federal government and regulatory powers need to hold Big Tech accountable to their commitments by immediately enacting policy change. Our nation’s leaders have a responsibility to protect us from the harms Big Tech is enabling on our democracy and our communities — to regulate social media platforms and change the dangerous incentives in the digital economy. Without federal intervention, tech companies are on pace to repeat history.

#column, #congress, #disinformation, #misinformation, #opinion, #policy, #section-230, #social, #social-media, #social-media-platforms, #tc

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Democratic-led Congress gets serious about universal broadband funding

Illustration of the United States, with fiber-optic cables circling around the Earth.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Henrik5000)

Congress this week approved a $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund that schools and libraries will use to help people get Internet access at home. The fund is part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan stimulus sent to President Joe Biden yesterday after being approved by the House and Senate. Biden signed the bill into law today.

The emergency fund should help students who live in areas where broadband is available but cannot afford it. This emergency measure may just be a prelude to a $94 billion broadband package that includes $80 billion to deploy high-speed broadband to parts of the US that do not have it.

Democrats introduced the $94 billion broadband initiative yesterday—it isn’t yet clear whether or when it will pass, but such initiatives have a much better chance now that Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress. More details on the larger broadband bill are included later in this article.

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#broadband, #congress, #policy

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Lawmakers want to empower publishers to collectively negotiate with Facebook

On the heels of a heated standoff between platforms and publishers in Australia, U.S. lawmakers reintroduced a piece of legislation that would allow the news industry to collectively negotiate content deals with tech companies.

The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act is sponsored in the Senate by Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Kennedy (R-LA) and in the House by David Cicilline (D-RI), Ken Buck (R-NY) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA.). The legislation was first introduced in 2019, but the bipartisan cluster of lawmakers hope to breathe new life into it during the Biden era.

The bill would create an exemption from existing antitrust laws that would allow news organizations to collectively negotiate favorable terms with tech companies like Facebook and Google. That special treatment would open a 48-month window for publishers, in theory boosting their leverage to better the industry as a whole.

The U.S. isn’t the only country grappling with tech platforms’ publishing dominance. Last month, Facebook dramatically pulled links to news content in Australia as it pushed back against new regulations that could force tech platforms to pay for more content. Specifically, Facebook objected to a final arbitration clause that would set the price for news automatically if tech platforms and news publishers couldn’t agree on terms.

“We must enable news organizations to negotiate on a level playing field with the big tech companies if we want to preserve a strong and independent press,” Sen. Klobuchar said of the bill, which she argues would give publishers a “fighting chance” in dealing with tech platforms.

“A strong, diverse, free press is critical for any successful democracy,” Rep. Cicilline said. “Access to trustworthy local journalism helps inform the public, hold powerful people accountable, and root out corruption.”

Both Cicilline and Klobuchar sit in powerful positions, chairing the House and Senate’s respective antitrust subcommittees. In the coming months, those committees will play a major role in shaping legislative proposals that could rein in big tech’s many excesses. Balancing the power of colossal tech platforms against the priorities of a shrinking news industry is just one piece of that puzzle.

#antitrust, #congress, #facebook, #government, #media, #news-media, #publishers, #tc

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SESO Labor is providing a way for migrant farmworkers to get legally protected work status in the U.S.

As the Biden Administration works to bring legislation to Congress to address the endemic problem of immigration reform in America, on the other side of the nation a small California startup called SESO Labor has raised $4.5 million to ensure that farms can have access to legal migrant labor.

SESO’s founder Mike Guirguis raised the round over the summer from investors including Founders Fund and NFX. Pete Flint, a founder of Trulia joined the company’s board. The company has 12 farms it’s working with and negotiating contracts with another 46.

Working within the existing regulatory framework that has existed since 1986, SESO has created a service that streamlines and manages the process of getting H-2A visas, which allow migrant agricultural workers to reside temporarily in the U.S. with legal protections.

At this point, SESO is automating the visa process, getting the paperwork in place for workers and smoothing the application process. The company charges about $1,000 per application, but eventually as it begins offering more services to workers themselves, Guirguis envisions several robust lines of revenue. Eventually, the company would like to offer integrated services for both farm owners and farm workers, Guirguis said.

SESO is currently expecting to bring in 1,000 workers over the course of 2021 and the company is, as of now, pre-revenue. The largest industry player handling worker visas today currently brings in 6,000 workers per year, so the competition, for SESO, is market share, Guirguis said.

America’s complicated history of immigration and agricultural labor

The H-2A program was set up to allow agricultural employers who anticipate shortages of domestic workers to bring in non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to work on farms temporarily or seasonally. The workers are covered by U.S. wage laws, workers’ compensation and other standards, including access to healthcare under the Affordable Care Act.

Employers who use the the visa program to hire workers are required to pay inbound and outbound transportation, provide free or rental housing, and provide meals for workers (they’re allowed to deduct the costs from salaries).

H-2 visas were first created in 1952 as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which reinforced the national origins quota system that restricted immigration primarily to Northern Europe, but opened America’s borders to Asian immigrants for the first time since immigration laws were first codified in 1924. While immigration regulations were further opened in the sixties, the last major immigration reform package in 1986 served to restrict immigration and made it illegal for businesses to hire undocumented workers. It also created the H-2A visas as a way for farms to hire migrant workers without incurring the penalties associated with using illegal labor.

For some migrant workers, the H-2A visa represents a golden ticket, according to Guirguis, an honors graduate of Stanford who wrote his graduate thesis on labor policy.

“We are providing a staffing solution for farms and agribusiness and we want to be Gusto for agriculture and upsell farms on a comprehensive human resources solution,” says Guirguis of the company’s ultimate mission, referencing payroll provider Gusto.

As Guirguis notes, most workers in agriculture are undocumented. “These are people who have been taken advantage of [and] the H-2A is a visa to bring workers in legally. We’re able to help employers maintain workforce [and] we’re building software to help farmers maintain the farms.”

Opening borders even as they remain closed

Farms need the help, if the latest numbers on labor shortages are believable, but it’s not necessarily a lack of H-2A visas that’s to blame, according to an article in Reuters.

In fact, the number of H-2A visas granted for agriculture equipment operators rose to 10,798 from October through March, according to the Reuters report. That’s up 49% from a year ago, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor cited by Reuters.

Instead of an inability to acquire the H-2A visa, it was an inability to travel to the U.S. that’s been causing problems. Tighter border controls, the persistent global pandemic and travel restrictions that were imposed to combat it have all played a role in keeping migrant workers in their home countries.

Still, Guirguis believes that with the right tools, more farms would be willing to use the H-2A visa, cutting down on illegal immigration and boosting the available labor pool for the tough farm jobs that American workers don’t seem to want.

Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images.

David Misener, the owner of an Oklahoma-based harvesting company called Green Acres Enterprises, is one employer who has struggled to find suitable replacements for the migrant workers he typically hires.

“They could not fathom doing it and making it work,” Misener told Retuers, speaking about the American workers he’d tried to hire.

“With H-2A, migrant workers make 10 times more than they would get paid at home,” said Guirguis. “They’re taking home the equivalent of $40 an hour. The H-2A is coveted.”

Guirguis thinks that with the right incentives and an easier onramp for farmers to manage the application and approval process, the number of employers that use H-2A visas could grow to be 30% to 50% of the farm workforce in the country. That means growing the number of potential jobs from 300,000 to 1.5 million for migrants who would be under many of the same legal protections that citizens enjoy, while they’re working on the visa.

Protecting agricultural workers through better paperwork

Interest in the farm labor nexus and issues surrounding it came to the first-time founder through Guirguis’ experience helping his cousin start her own farm. Spending several weekends a month helping her grow the farm with her husband, Guirguis heard his stories about coming to the U.S. as an undocumented worker.

Employers using the program avoid the liability associated with being caught employing illegal labor, something that crackdowns under the Trump Administration made more common.

Still, it’s hard to deny the program’s roots in the darker past of America’s immigration policy. And some immigration advocates argue that the H-2A system suffers from the same kinds of structural problems that plague the corollary H-1B visas for tech workers.

“The H-2A visa is a short-term temporary visa program that employers use to import workers into the agricultural fields … It’s part of a very antiquated immigration system that needs to change. The 11.5 million people who are here need to be given citizenship,” said Saket Soni, the founder of an organization called Resilience Force, which advocates for immigrant labor. “And then workers who come from other countries, if we need them, they have to be able to stay … H-2A workers don’t have a pathway to citizenship. Workers come to us afraid of blowing the whistle on labor issues. As much as the H-2A is a welcome gift for a worker it can also be abused.” 

Soni said the precarity of a worker’s situation — and their dependence on a single employer for their ability to remain in the country legally — means they are less likely to speak up about problems at work, since there’s nowhere for them to go if they are fired.

“We are big proponents that if you need people’s labor you have to welcome them as human beings,” Soni said. “Where there’s a labor shortage as people come, they should be allowed to stay … H-2A is an example of an outdated immigration tool.”

Guirguis clearly disagrees and said a platform like SESO’s will ultimately create more conveniences and better services for the workers who come in on these visas.

“We’re trying to put more money in the hands of these workers at the end of the day,” he said. “We’re going to be setting up remittance and banking services. Everything we do should be mutually beneficial for the employer and the worker who is trying to get into this program and know that they’re not getting taken advantage of.”

#america, #banking, #biden-administration, #california, #congress, #founder, #founders-fund, #funding, #fundings-exits, #healthcare, #immigration, #labor, #nfx, #oklahoma, #pete-flint, #stanford, #startups, #tc, #trulia, #trump-administration, #u-s-department-of-labor, #united-states

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Robinhood goes to Congress

Update: There’s an entire second session of this? My lord.

Today the House Financial Services Committee dragged the CEO of Reddit, a Cato wonk, social media icon DeepFuckingValue, the CEO of Citadel Kenneth Griffin, a hedgefund bro who got whomped by DeepFuckingValue, and the CEO of Robinhood Vlad Tenev, who got womped when individual investors joined DeepFuckingValue in his womping of the hedge fund and thus womped his capital requirements leading to general market chaos, before them virtually for questioning.

It was not very useful. Between a cascade of Zoom failures — mutings, incorrect unmutings, a green screen that was not actually in use, and an actual gavel — members of Congress largely took five minute slots to embarass themselves, and not make material points.

The format was not conducive to real questioning, and most questions were both too long and either too precise, and misguided in their direction, or too imprecise, even if they landed in the strike zone. Sitting here I am trying to recall a single thing that I learned. I suppose that Robinhood’s CEO was not sure on the details of his company’s arbitration agreement with users. And perhaps a little bit about how many of its users trade options. And that Reddit’s CEO has a nice suit.

Some members of Congress mocked the proceedings, calling them political theater. That earned a rebuke by Maxine Waters, Chair of the House Financial Services Committee.

Some members of Congress nearly got around to asking something useful. But largely the method of asking questions was bilge, the responses canned, and nothing much uncovered.

What would have worked? I suppose Congress could have brought in a few actual experts and a more limited number of guests, and then hammered them with questions about the ethical reality of payment for order flow, Robinhood’s app mechanics and how easily it offers access to exotic trading tools, and the like. That would have helped.

Instead, we got great stuff like this:

Which was not very helpful. That said, there were some good memes and jokes, so, let’s have some fun instead of being annoyed with our elected representatives:

The rest of it was a waste of time. As I write this sentence to you, a member of Congress just asked how Robinhood go its name. Which is dumb, as the name is so obvious it nearly makes your head hurt with how earnest it is.

So there’s that. This was a waste. Real questions remain. They largely didn’t get asked, and certainly didn’t get answered.

#congress, #fundings-exits, #robinhood, #startups, #tc

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Proposed Sec. 230 rewrite could have wide-ranging consequences

Cartoon hands hold out a band-aid over the words Section 230.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

A trio of Democratic Senators has taken this administration’s first stab at Section 230 reform with a new bill that would make platforms, including giants such as Facebook and Twitter, liable for certain limited categories of dangerous content. Unfortunately, although the bill’s authors try to thread a tricky needle carefully, critics warn that bad-faith actors could nonetheless easily weaponize the bill as written against both platforms and other users.

The bill (PDF), dubbed the SAFE TECH Act, seeks not to repeal Section 230 (as some Republicans have proposed) but instead to amend it with new definitions of speakers and new exceptions from the law’s infamous liability shield.

“A law meant to encourage service providers to develop tools and policies to support effective moderation has instead conferred sweeping immunity on online providers even when they do nothing to address foreseeable, obvious and repeated misuse of their products and services to cause harm,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), who introduced the bill. “This bill doesn’t interfere with free speech—it’s about allowing these platforms to finally be held accountable for harmful, often criminal behavior enabled by their platforms to which they have turned a blind eye for too long.”

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#bills, #congress, #mark-warner, #policy, #politics, #section-230

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Parler’s ownership offer to Trump and possible Russian ties probed by Congress

The Parler logo on a phone screen.

Enlarge / Parler’s logo. (credit: Getty Images | Smith Collection/Gado)

A congressional oversight committee is investigating whether Parler has financial ties to Russian entities, citing reports that the right-wing social network “allowed Russian disinformation to flourish” before the election and hosted calls for violence before a Trump-incited mob stormed the Capitol on January 6. The committee’s chairwoman sent a letter to Parler COO Jeffrey Wernick today, demanding documents on Parler’s ownership, potential ties to Russian individuals or entities, and reported negotiations between Parler and the Trump Organization.

“Parler reportedly allowed Russian disinformation to flourish on its platform prior to the November 2020 election, facilitating Russia’s campaign to sow chaos in the American electorate,” US Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, wrote in the letter to Wernick. “Although similar disinformation was removed by other social media platforms, it was allowed to remain on Parler. When US hosting services cut ties with Parler for repeatedly failing to moderate content advocating violence, Parler re-emerged on a Russian hosting service, DDos-Guard, which has ties to the Russian government and counts the Russian Ministry of Defense as one of its clients.”

Maloney also cited a BuzzFeed report that said, “The Trump Organization negotiated on behalf of then-president Donald Trump to make Parler his primary social network, but it had a condition: an ownership stake in return for joining.” Parler offered Trump’s company a 40 percent ownership stake but negotiations “were ultimately derailed by the events of January 6,” the report said.

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#congress, #parler, #policy, #trump

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House punishes Republican lawmaker who promoted violent conspiracy theories

Democrats in the House voted to strip freshman Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of some of her responsibilities Thursday, citing her penchant for violent, anti-democratic and at times anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Greene has expressed support for a range of alarming conspiracies, including the belief that the 2018 Parkland school shooting that killed 17 people was a “false flag.” That belief prompted two teachers unions to call for her removal from the House Education Committee — one of her new committee assignments.

The vote on a resolution to remove Greene from her committee assignments broke along party lines, with nearly all Republicans opposing the resolution. Some of her colleagues even voted in Greene’s defense in spite of condemning her behavior in the past.

As the House moved to vote on the highly unusual resolution, the new Georgia lawmaker claimed that her embrace of QAnon was in the past.

“I never once said during my entire campaign “QAnon,’” Greene said Thursday. “I never once said any of the things that I am being accused of today during my campaign. I never said any of these things since I have been elected for Congress. These were words of the past.”

But as the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer reported, a deleted tweet from December shows Greene explicitly defending QAnon and directing blame toward the media and “big tech.”

In another recently-uncovered post from January 2019, Greene showed support for online comments calling for “a bullet to the head” for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and executing FBI agents.

Greene has also shared openly racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic views in Facebook videos, a track record that prompted Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to condemn her statements as “appalling” last June. More recently, McCarthy defended Greene against efforts to remove her from committees.

Greene was elected in November to represent a conservative district in northwest Georgia after her opponent Kevin Van Ausdal dropped out, citing personal reasons. Greene beat her opponent in the Republican primary in August, winning 57% of the vote.

QAnon, a dangerous once-fringe collection of conspiracy theories, was well-represented in January’s deadly Capitol riot and many photos from the day show the prevalence of QAnon symbols and sayings. In 2019, an FBI bulletin warned of QAnon’s connection to “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists.” A year later, at least one person who had espoused the same views would win a seat in Congress.

The overlap between Greene’s beliefs and those of the violent pro-Trump mob at the Capitol escalated tensions among lawmakers, many of whom feared for their lives as the assault unfolded.

A freshman representative with little apparent appetite for policy or coalition-building, Greene wasn’t likely to wield much legislative power in the House. But as QAnon and adjacent conspiracies move from the fringe to the mainstream and possibly back again — a trajectory largely dictated by the at times arbitrary decisions of social media companies — Greene’s treatment in Congress may signal what’s to come for a dangerous online movement that’s more than demonstrated its ability to spill over into real-world violence.

#congress, #conspiracy-theories, #government, #online-extremism, #qanon, #tc

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