Congress fails to pin down oil company execs on their bad-faith arguments

Image of an oil refinery.

Enlarge / At some point, this must stop. A recent congressional hearing left us no closer to figuring out when that point will be reached. (credit: Getty Images)

Thursday, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform held hearings on the role of oil companies in fostering our present climate crisis. The companies led by these executives have a long history of playing down the risks of climate change, leading a number of House Democrats to suggest that this hearing could be the equivalent of the 1994 hearings with tobacco executives, in which the executives denied well-established scientific data on the addictiveness of nicotine.

But that expectation was doomed to disappointment. Oil companies, after all, had already demonstrated that they are happy to accept the science of climate change when under oath; they just tend to spin the details of their own role in influencing public perceptions of that science. Congress was treated to a repeat performance of that sort that neatly avoided the kind of catastrophic failure in public perception that the tobacco company executives produced.

However, the hearing did manage to highlight the gap between what many companies are saying now and the reality of what society has determined it needs to accomplish. What follows is less a recap of the testimony and more of an analysis of how the companies’ spin brought them to their current circumstances—and where they’ll go from here.

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#climate-change, #congress, #fossil-fuels, #oil-companies, #paris-agreement, #policy, #science

Biden’s new FTC nominee is a digital privacy advocate critical of Big Tech

President Biden made his latest nomination to the Federal Trade Commission this week, tapping digital privacy expert Alvaro Bedoya to join the agency as it takes a hard look at the tech industry.

Bedoya is the founding director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown’s law school and previously served as chief counsel for former Senator Al Franken and the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law. Bedoya has worked on legislation addressing some of the most pressing privacy issues in tech, including stalkerware and facial recognition systems.

In 2016, Bedoya co-authored a report titled “The Perpetual Line-Up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition in America,” a year-long investigation that dove deeply into the police use of facial recognition systems in the U.S. The 2016 report examined law enforcement’s reliance on facial recognition systems and biometric databases on a state level. It argued that regulations are desperately needed to curtail potential abuses and algorithmic failures before the technology inevitably becomes even more commonplace.

Bedoya also isn’t shy about calling out Big Tech. In a New York Times op-ed a few years ago, he took aim at Silicon Valley companies giving user privacy lip service in public while quietly funneling millions toward lobbyists to undermine consumer privacy. The new FTC nominee singled out Facebook specifically, pointing to the company’s efforts to undermine the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, a state law that serves as one of the only meaningful checks on invasive privacy practices in the U.S.

Bedoya argued that the tech industry would have an easier time shaping a single, sweeping piece of privacy regulations with its lobbying efforts rather than a flurry of targeted, smaller bills. Antitrust advocates in Congress taking aim at tech today seem to have learned that same lesson as well.

“We cannot underestimate the tech sector’s power in Congress and in state legislatures,” Bedoya wrote. “If the United States tries to pass broad rules for personal data, that effort may well be co-opted by Silicon Valley, and we’ll miss our best shot at meaningful privacy protections.”

If confirmed, Bedoya would join big tech critic Lina Khan, a recent Biden FTC nominee who now chairs the agency. Khan’s focus on antitrust and Amazon in particular would dovetail with Bedoya’s focus on adjacent privacy concerns, making the pair a formidable regulatory presence as the Biden administration seeks to rein in some of the tech industry’s most damaging excesses.

#biden, #biden-administration, #big-tech, #biometrics, #congress, #consumer-privacy, #facial-recognition, #federal-trade-commission, #government, #lina-khan, #privacy, #surveillance, #tc, #united-states

Gig workers with smartphones can help set infrastructure priorities

With all the focus on whether Congress will enact a major infrastructure law to rebuild the United States’ roads, bridges, railways, etc., nobody seems to be paying attention to the elephant in the room: Even if the legislation is passed, where do we begin? You might be surprised to learn that the gig economy has an app for that.

We can and should hire professional consultants and other experts to review our infrastructure systems to see what needs the most immediate attention, but the sheer number of roads, bridges, dams and other critical infrastructure in the U.S. makes the job of prioritizing daunting.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, there are over 4 million miles of public roads, 617,000 bridges, 91,000 dams and 140,000 rail miles in the U.S. These are massive statistics.

So as soon as an infrastructure bill passes, the big questions will be: Where do we begin, and how do we set priorities — expeditiously and at minimum cost, at least for the first step? The next step would be to bring in professional engineers and experts to begin the rebuilding process.

There are some obvious examples of infrastructure systems needing immediate, prioritized attention (see the Sidney Sherman Bridge in Houston, which had to be shut down a few years ago for a corroded bridge bearing and was recently classified as “structurally deficient”).

Fortunately, there is another massive statistic out there that can help: 216 million. That is the approximate number of U.S. adults that own a smartphone. Pew Research Center recently found that 85% of all U.S. adults own a smartphone, which, needless to say, is the highest it’s ever been. Even enlisting just a small percentage of the 216 million smartphone users out there can help immensely with this task.

Federal, state and local governments can and should consider the awesome (and relatively inexpensive) power of our smartphones and the gig economy. Gig workers can be enlisted to use the smartphones that they already own to provide inspection data and photographs of the key identified roads, bridges, dams and rails in the 50 states. The data and photos they collect can then be instantly transmitted to a national database for review and evaluation by professional engineers and consultants.

I know this can be done because my colleagues and I have done this before. We tap into a worldwide network of gig workers (data collectors or data contributors) operating from an open source app and with full transparency.

Our projects have involved contributors photographing and documenting sewer access points, bridges, water access points and other infrastructure systems. We even partnered with a major nonprofit on behalf of USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance to bolster its Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Program by providing rapid WASH needs assessments wherein our contributors can be mobilized on an emergency basis to provide photographs and other data on water access, sanitation and hygiene in Colombia.

Why can’t we do the same for bridges, roads, tunnels and other infrastructure here in the U.S.? This technology needs to be scaled, and we know it can be done.

It’s simple — and the solution is in plain sight. Our smartphones and gig workers allow us to set priorities using their photos and input from what their eyes are seeing, and then professional experts can follow up to begin implementation. There are already provisions in the Senate bill that could provide funding for this type of advanced technology research. And there is an ongoing need, even after repairs are done, to monitor the condition of our highways, bridges and tunnels.

Using this gig-worker-enabled smartphone technology will not only help our federal, state and local governments set priorities quickly; it will also allow thousands of everyday Americans to be part of the rebuilding process. This has the added benefit of democratizing the job of fixing our infrastructure and creating a grassroots movement of people using their own smartphones to help rebuild and repair U.S. infrastructure for the current and future generations.

#column, #congress, #gig-economy, #infrastructure, #labor, #opinion, #smartphone, #tc, #united-states

A majority of tech workers support antitrust legislation enforcement

With the arrival of U.S. Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan, breaking up Big Tech has reemerged as a major policy discussion in Washington. The issue seems to be bipartisan, with Republicans and Democrats alike in favor of stemming monopolistic behavior in the tech industry. Of course, the situation on the ground is more nuanced.

One month after the House Judiciary Committee voted to advance five bipartisan bills that would force Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google to split up or walk away from core businesses, Republican committee members introduced new legislation to give Americans legal recourse against online censorship by Big Tech companies. The more conservative-driven policy measures also propose greater transparency into content moderation practices by Big Tech.

This sparring between lawmakers on how to regulate Big Tech is not expected to end anytime soon. But as the U.S. ushers in a new era of digital transformation accelerated by the pandemic, Congress stands firmly united in the belief that Big Tech’s power must be checked to preserve the free market.

As it stands now, small competitors and consumers alike have little choice but to be tethered to Big Tech to participate in today’s modern economic engine. And coming out of the pandemic, the five biggest tech giants are growing at breathtaking speed unseen before in the history of capitalism.

Big Tech companies have come out strongly against regulation that would break up their business operations, suggesting reform would result in the loss of research and development, impractical market fragmentation and higher service costs to consumers.

A survey commissioned by a tech industry trade group funded by Big Tech companies such as Apple, Facebook and Amazon suggests that Americans view tech regulation as a low priority for Congress. Among those listed as top priority for Americans were the economy, public health, climate change and infrastructure. The survey also revealed that Americans are more likely to oppose regulation if it were to affect offerings like free shipping on Amazon Prime products.

Perhaps this poll and the bipartisan sentiment among elected leaders signals that after COVID-19, society has become aware of its dependency on tech giants, for better or worse. For the last 18 months, American workers have adapted to remote work. They utilize programs run by Big Tech companies to communicate with other employees, to run companies, and to buy groceries and essentials. It is unlikely this dynamic will change, as many companies have announced their transition to a fully remote or hybrid work model.

This topic has raised interest among professionals, more specifically those who work in the tech industry, startups and small businesses. We at Fishbowl thought we’d ask professionals — many of whom work in the tech industry — about breaking up tech giants. Fishbowl is a social network for professionals, so conducting surveys on this and other workplace topics is a natural fit.

The survey ran from July 26-30, 2021, to determine how employees in the field feel about antitrust laws. The survey asked professionals: Do you believe antitrust legislation should be used to break up Big Tech companies like Amazon and Google?

There were 11,579 verified professionals on the Fishbowl app who participated in the survey, and they were given the option to answer either yes or no. The survey was broken down into state and professional industries such as law, consulting, finance, tech, marketing, accounting, human resources, teachers and others.

Here’s what the survey revealed:

Image Credits: Fishbowl

Out of 11,579 professionals, the majority — 6,920 (59.76%) — responded yes to the survey question.

Based on responses, we found that law professionals were the highest group responding in the affirmative to the survey, with 66.67%. Consulting professionals followed with 61.97%, while finance (60.64%) marginally beat out tech (60.03%). Conversely, teachers had the lowest percentage with 53.49%. Human resources (55.65%), accounting (58.51%) and other professional industries (58.83%) trailed behind.

The survey’s data was collected from professionals in 25 U.S. states. The highest percentage responding “yes” was Colorado with 76.83%. In second place was Washington with 73.17%, and Michigan rounded out the top three with 69.70%. Missouri (51.35%) had the lowest percentage of employees responding “yes” to splitting up Big Tech. Following closely behind were Indiana (52.59%) and Massachusetts (52.83%). Overall, the majority of the states involved in the survey agreed that they believed antitrust legislation should indeed break up Big Tech companies.

Tech had the fourth-highest percentage of professionals agreeing that Big Tech companies should be broken up. Some benefits from breaking up Big Tech companies are more opportunities for small businesses — for a tech professional or entrepreneur, this could open up opportunities to launch new products, programs and services. It could also add more jobs for highly skilled professionals. Second, it can reduce data privacy and national security concerns. But some cons of breaking up Big Tech companies include the loss of research and development — large companies provide major funding for artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, wearables, robots and more. Ultimately, breaking up Big Tech companies can also increase service costs for professionals and the overall public.

As policymakers continue to negotiate on how to break up Big Tech, the White House is also making moves. President Joe Biden recently named Khan, a professor at Columbia Law School, as chair of the FTC. A staunch critic of Big Tech, Khan’s main priority is to protect the public from corporate abuse and ensure merger guidelines reflect economic realities and empirical learning and enforcement. Simply put, she reviews mergers with skepticism.

And in July, Biden announced his intention to nominate Jonathan Kanter for chief of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. Kanter is an antitrust lawyer with over 20 years of experience who has been a leading advocate and expert in the effort to promote strong and meaningful antitrust enforcement and competition policy.

With these additional members, it is expected that there will be an aggressive approach to enforcing antitrust laws across industries, leaving it to Congress to ensure that moving forward things are different.

#amazon, #antitrust, #apple, #big-tech, #column, #congress, #facebook, #google, #government, #joe-biden, #lina-khan, #microsoft, #policy, #tc, #white-house

Move fast and break Facebook: A bull case for antitrust enforcement

This is the second post in a series on the Facebook monopoly. The first post explored how the U.S. Federal Trade Commission should define the Facebook monopoly. I am inspired by Cloudflare’s recent post explaining the impact of Amazon’s monopoly in its industry.

Perhaps it was a competitive tactic, but I genuinely believe it more a patriotic duty: guideposts for legislators and regulators on a complex issue. My generation has watched with a combination of sadness and trepidation as legislators who barely use email question the leading technologists of our time about products that have long pervaded our lives in ways we don’t yet understand.

I, personally, and my company both stand to gain little from this — but as a participant in the latest generation of social media upstarts, and as an American concerned for the future of our democracy, I feel a duty to try.


Mark Zuckerberg has reached his Key Largo moment.

In May 1972, executives of the era’s preeminent technology company — AT&T — met at a secret retreat in Key Largo, Florida. Their company was in crisis.

At the time, Ma Bell’s breathtaking monopoly consisted of a holy trinity: Western Electric (the vast majority of phones and cables used for American telephony), the lucrative long distance service (for both personal and business use) and local telephone service, which the company subsidized in exchange for its monopoly.

Over the next decade, all three government branches — legislators, regulators and the courts — parried with AT&T’s lawyers as the press piled on, battering the company’s reputation in the process. By 1982, a consent decree forced AT&T’s dismantling. The biggest company on earth withered to 30% of its book value and seven independent “Baby Bell” regional operating companies. AT&T’s brand would live on, but the business as the world knew it was dead.

Mark Zuckerberg is, undoubtedly, the greatest technologist of our time. For over 17 years, he has outgunned, outsmarted and outperformed like no software entrepreneur before him. Earlier this month, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission refiled its sweeping antitrust case against Facebook.

Its own holy trinity of Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp is under attack. All three government branches — legislators, regulators and the courts — are gaining steam in their fight, and the press is piling on, battering the company’s reputation in the process. Facebook, the AT&T of our time, is at the brink. For so long, Zuckerberg has told us all to move fast and break things. It’s time for him to break Facebook.

If Facebook does exist to “make the world more open and connected, and not just to build a company,” as Zuckerberg wrote in the 2012 IPO prospectus, he will spin off Instagram and WhatsApp now so that they have a fighting chance. It would be the ultimate Zuckerbergian chess move. Zuckerberg would lose voting control and thus power over all three entities, but in his action he would successfully scatter the opposition. The rationale is simple:

  1. The United States government will break up Facebook. It is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when.
  2. Facebook is already losing. Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp all face existential threats. Pressure from the government will stifle Facebook’s efforts to right the ship.
  3. Facebook will generate more value for shareholders as three separate companies.

I write this as an admirer; I genuinely believe much of the criticism Zuckerberg has received is unfair. Facebook faces Sisyphean tasks. The FTC will not let Zuckerberg sneeze without an investigation, and the company has failed to innovate.

Given no chance to acquire new technology and talent, how can Facebook survive over the long term? In 2006, Terry Semel of Yahoo offered $1 billion to buy Facebook. Zuckerberg reportedly remarked, “I just don’t know if I want to work for Terry Semel.” Even if the FTC were to allow it, this generation of founders will not sell to Facebook. Unfair or not, Mark Zuckerberg has become Terry Semel.

The government will break up Facebook

It is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when.

In a speech on the floor of Congress in 1890, Senator John Sherman, the founding father of the modern American antitrust movement, famously said, “If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessities of life. If we would not submit to an emperor, we should not submit to an autocrat of trade with power to prevent competition and to fix the price of any commodity.”

This is the sentiment driving the building resistance to Facebook’s monopoly, and it shows no sign of abating. Zuckerberg has proudly called Facebook the fifth estate. In the U.S., we only have four estates.

All three branches of the federal government are heating up their pursuit. In the Senate, an unusual bipartisan coalition is emerging, with Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mark Warner (D-VA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) each waging a war from multiple fronts.

In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has called Facebook “part of the problem.” Lina Khan’s FTC is likewise only getting started, with unequivocal support from the White House that feels burned by Facebook’s disingenuous lobbying. The Department of Justice will join, too, aided by state attorneys general. And the courts will continue to turn the wheels of justice, slowly but surely.

In the wake of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’ scathing 2019 New York Times op-ed, Zuckerberg said that Facebook’s immense size allows it to spend more on trust and safety than Twitter makes in revenue.

“If what you care about is democracy and elections, then you want a company like us to be able to invest billions of dollars per year like we are in building up really advanced tools to fight election interference,” Zuckerberg said.

This could be true, but it does not prove that the concentration of such power in one man’s hands is consistent with U.S. public policy. And the centralized operations could be rebuilt easily in standalone entities.

Time and time again, whether on Holocaust denial, election propaganda or vaccine misinformation, Zuckerberg has struggled to make quick judgments when presented with the information his trust and safety team uncovers. And even before a decision is made, the structure of the team disincentivizes it from even measuring anything that could harm Facebook’s brand. This is inherently inconsistent with U.S. democracy. The New York Times’ army of reporters will not stop uncovering scandal after scandal, contradicting Zuckerberg’s narrative. The writing is on the wall.

Facebook is losing

Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp all face existential threats. Pressure from the government will stifle Facebook’s efforts to right the ship.

For so long, Facebook has dominated the social media industry. But if you ask Chinese technology executives about Facebook today, they quote Tencent founder Pony Ma: “When a giant falls, his corpse will still be warm for a while.”

Facebook’s recent demise begins with its brand. The endless, cascading scandals of the last decade have irreparably harmed its image. Younger users refuse to adopt the flagship Facebook Blue. The company’s internal polling on two key metrics — good for the world (GFW) and cares about users (CAU) — shows Facebook’s reputation is in tatters. Talent is fleeing, too; Instacart alone recently poached 55 Facebook executives.

In 2012 and 2014, Instagram and WhatsApp were real dangers. Facebook extinguished both through acquisition. Yet today they represent the company’s two most promising, underutilized assets. They are the underinvested telephone networks of our time.

Weeks ago, Instagram head Adam Mosseri announced that the company no longer considers itself a photo-sharing app. Instead, its focus is entertainment. In other words, as the media widely reported, Instagram is changing to compete with TikTok.

TikTok’s strength represents an existential threat. U.S. children 4 to 15 already spend over 80 minutes a day on ByteDance’s TikTok, and it’s just getting started. The demographics are quickly expanding way beyond teenagers, as social products always have. For Instagram, it could be too little too late — as a part of Facebook, Instagram cannot acquire the technology and retain the talent it needs to compete with TikTok.

Imagine Instagram acquisitions of Squarespace to bolster its e-commerce offerings, or Etsy to create a meaningful marketplace. As a part of Facebook, Instagram is strategically adrift.

Likewise, a standalone WhatsApp could easily be a $100 billion market cap company. WhatsApp has a proud legacy of robust security offerings, but its brand has been tarnished by associations with Facebook. Discord’s rise represents a substantial threat, and WhatsApp has failed to innovate to account for this generation’s desire for community-driven messaging. Snapchat, too, is in many ways a potential WhatsApp killer; its young users use photography and video as a messaging medium. Facebook’s top augmented reality talents are leaving for Snapchat.

With 2 billion monthly active users, WhatApp could be a privacy-focused alternative to Facebook Blue, and it would logically introduce expanded profiles, photo-sharing capabilities and other features that would strengthen its offerings. Inside Facebook, WhatsApp has suffered from underinvestment as a potential threat to Facebook Blue and Messenger. Shareholders have suffered for it.

Beyond Instagram and WhatsApp, Facebook Blue itself is struggling. Q2’s earnings may have skyrocketed, but the increase in revenue hid a troubling sign: Ads increased by 47%, but inventory increased by just 6%. This means Facebook is struggling to find new places to run its ads. Why? The core social graph of Facebook is too old.

I fondly remember the day Facebook came to my high school; I have thousands of friends on the platform. I do not use Facebook anymore — not for political reasons, but because my friends have left. A decade ago, hundreds of people wished me happy birthday every year. This year it was 24, half of whom are over the age of 50. And I’m 32 years old. Teen girls run the social world, and many of them don’t even have Facebook on their phones.

Zuckerberg’s newfound push into the metaverse has been well covered, but the question remains: Why wouldn’t a Facebook serious about the metaverse acquire Roblox? Of course, the FTC would currently never allow it.

Facebook’s current clunky attempt at a hardware solution, with an emphasis on the workplace, shows little sign of promise. The launch was hardly propitious, as CNN reported, “While Bosworth, the Facebook executive, was in the middle of describing how he sees Workrooms as a more interactive way to gather virtually with coworkers than video chat, his avatar froze midsentence, the pixels of its digital skin turning from flesh-toned to gray. He had been disconnected.”

This is not the indomitable Facebook of yore. This is graying Facebook, freezing midsentence.

Facebook will generate more value for shareholders as three separate companies

Zuckerberg’s control of 58% of Facebook’s voting shares has forestalled a typical Wall Street reckoning: Investors are tiring of Zuckerberg’s unilateral power. Many justifiably believe the company is more valuable as the sum of its parts. The success of AT&T’s breakup is a case in point.

Five years after AT&T’s 1984 breakup, AT&T and the Baby Bells’ value had doubled compared to AT&T’s pre-breakup market capitalization. Pressure from Japanese entrants battered Western Electric’s market share, but greater competition in telephony spurred investment and innovation among the Baby Bells.

AT&T turned its focus to competing with IBM and preparing for the coming information age. A smaller AT&T became more nimble, ready to focus on the future rather than dwell on the past.

Standalone Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp could drastically change their futures by attracting talent and acquiring new technologies.

The U.K.’s recent opposition to Facebook’s $400 million GIPHY acquisition proves Facebook will struggle mightily to acquire even small bolt-ons.

Zuckerberg has always been one step ahead. And when he wasn’t, he was famously unprecious: “Copying is faster than innovating.” If he really believes in Facebook’s mission and recognizes that the situation cannot possibly get any better from here, he will copy AT&T’s solution before it is forced upon him.

Regulators are tying Zuckerberg’s hands behind his back as the company weathers body blows and uppercuts from Beijing to Silicon Valley. As Zuckerberg’s idol Augustus Caesar might have once said, carpe diem. It’s time to break Facebook.

#antitrust, #column, #congress, #facebook, #government, #instagram, #lina-khan, #mark-zuckerberg, #messenger, #opinion, #policy, #social, #social-media, #tc, #united-states, #whatsapp

A California judge just struck down Prop 22: Now what?

Every time you turn around, someone new is winning the war in California around organizing workers in the sharing economy.

Labor struck first when California legislators passed Assembly Bill 5, requiring all independent contractors working for gig economy companies to be reclassified as employees. That was expected to set off a chain reaction in state legislatures nationwide, until two things happened.

First, COVID-19 hit and quickly became all-encompassing, making it virtually impossible for lawmakers and regulators to focus on anything but surviving the pandemic. Second, Uber, Lyft, Instacart and others funded and voters approved Prop 22 in California, striking down AB-5 and returning sharing economy workers to independent contractor status.

On the same day that Prop 22 passed, Democrats captured both chambers of Congress in Washington, but their margins were so slim (50-50 in the Senate and a nine-vote majority in the House), that federal legislative action on the issue was near impossible. Across the country, politicians read the tea leaves of Prop 22 and decided to mainly stay away. That kept the issue at bay during the 2021 state legislative sessions.

But the tide started to turn again this summer. First, U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) introduced the PRO Act in February 2021, stating that workers would be reclassified using an ABC test, in addition to rolling back right-to-work laws in states and establishing monetary penalties for companies and executives who violate workers’ rights.

The bill handily passed the House in March, but has since stalled in the Senate, despite receiving a hearing and energetic support by high-profile senators including Bernie Sanders and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

The Biden administration’s appointees to the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board are decidedly in favor of full-time-worker status. And now, a California Superior Court judge has ruled Prop 22 unconstitutional, saying it violates the right of the state legislature to pass future laws around worker safety and status.

The sharing economy companies are expected to appeal, and the case could ultimately wind up before the California Supreme Court.

So now what? The courts will ultimately determine the status of sharing economy workers in California, but since the decision will be about the specific legal parameters of California’s referendum process, it won’t determine the issue elsewhere. And despite noise from Washington, Congress isn’t passing the PRO Act any time soon (Democrats may try to include it in the reconciliation for the $3.5 trillion American Families Plan, but the odds of its survival are low). That means the action returns to the states.

New York is the biggest battleground outside of California. Democrats have amassed a supermajority in both chambers of the legislature, and New York lacks a referendum vehicle to overturn state law.

Sharing economy workers are the biggest organizing opportunity for private sector unions in decades, and labor will use all of its influence to pass worker classification reform in 2022.

However, Kathy Hochul, New York’s new governor, is a moderate, and state legislators recently abandoned a half-baked plan brokered by gig companies to safeguard independent contractor status, indicating a resolution on the issue will likely take time.

Illinois is fertile ground for worker reclassification, too, but the state remains a question mark.

There’s also a chance of movement in Massachusetts, where gig companies are making a play to establish a ballot initiative very similar to Prop 22. Legislators in Seattle and Pennsylvania have also signaled an interest in exploring the issue.

And just a few months after most state legislative sessions conclude next summer, we’ll hit the midterm elections, which could produce a Republican wave (especially in the House) that would yet again quash the chances of worker classification legislation passing anywhere.

In other words, this is going to ping back and forth for at least the next few years in the courts, in state legislatures, and in the halls of Congress and federal agencies. If you’re a sharing economy investor and you want this issue resolved once and for all, that peace of mind isn’t coming. And the market, rather than accepting that this will be an unresolved issue for the next few years, will probably overreact to each individual action, whether it’s a lower court ruling or a piece of legislation making its way through a state.

In reality, the answer is the same as it’s always been: trying to shoehorn sharing economy workers into one of two existing categories — 1099 or W-2 — doesn’t work. We still need to recognize that the inherent nature of work has changed over the last decade, and we need to recognize that both parties — the sharing economy companies and the unions — are only looking out for their own interests and coffers at the expense of what’s best for actual workers.

California is not going to resolve this issue. It’s just swung back and forth from one extreme to another. Congress is not going to resolve this issue because it almost never resolves anything.

So the game comes down to states like Illinois, New York and Massachusetts. It comes down to legislators and leaders trying to craft good public policy at the expense of their donors and supporters and Twitter followers — and then it comes down to their colleagues doing the same.

It means sacrificing politics for policy. That almost never happens. And it probably won’t happen here, either. So if you’re trying to game out where this issue is going, accept the uncertainty and expect that a thoughtful, smart resolution — locally or nationally — is unlikely. It’s a dissatisfying conclusion but, sadly, it epitomizes exactly where our politics stand today.

#bernie-sanders, #biden-administration, #california, #column, #congress, #government, #illinois, #labor, #lyft, #national-labor-relations-board, #new-york, #opinion, #policy, #sharing-economy, #tc, #uber, #washington

Suing your way to the stars

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!

I’m back from a very fun and rehabilitative couple weeks away from my phone, my Twitter account and the news cycle. That said, I actually really missed writing this newsletter, and while Greg did a fantastic job while I was out, I won’t be handing over the reins again anytime soon. Plenty happened this week and I struggled to zero in on a single topic to address, but I finally chose to focus on Bezos’s Blue Origin suing NASA.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.


The big thing

I was going to write about OnlyFans for the newsletter this week and their fairly shocking move to ban sexually explicit content from their site in a bid to stay friendly with payment processors, but alas I couldn’t help myself and wrote an article for ole TechCrunch dot com instead. Here’s a link if you’re curious.

Now, I should also note that while I was on vacation I missed all of the conversation surrounding Apple’s incredibly controversial child sexual abuse material detection software that really seems to compromise the perceived integrity of personal devices. I’m not alone in finding this to be a pretty worrisome development despite Apple’s intention of staving off a worse alternative. Hopefully, one of these weeks I’ll have the time to talk with some of the folks in the decentralized computing space about how our monolithic reliance on a couple tech companies operating with precious little consumer input is very bad. In the meantime, I will point you to some reporting from TechCrunch’s own Zack Whittaker on the topic which you should peruse because I’m sure it will be a topic I revisit here in the future.

Now then! Onto the topic at hand.

Federal government agencies don’t generally inspire much adoration. While great things have been accomplished at the behest of ample federal funding and the tireless work of civil servants, most agencies are treated as bureaucratic bloat and aren’t generally seen as anything worth passionately defending. Among the public and technologists in particular, NASA occupies a bit more of a sacred space. The American space agency has generally been a source of bipartisan enthusiasm, as has its goal to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024.

Which brings us to some news this week. While so much digital ink was spilled on Jeff Bezos’s little jaunt to the edge of space, cowboy hat, champagne and all, there’s been less fanfare around his space startup’s lawsuit against NASA, which we’ve now learned will delay the development of a new lunar lander by months, potentially throwing NASA’s goal to return astronauts to the moon’s surface on schedule into doubt.

Bezos’s upstart Blue Origin is protesting the fact that they were not awarded a government contract while Elon Musk’s SpaceX earned a $2.89 billion contract to build a lunar lander. This contract wasn’t just recently awarded either, SpaceX won it back in April and Blue Origin had already filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office. This happened before Bezos penned an open letter promising a $2 billion discount for NASA which had seen budget cuts at the hands of Congress dash its hoped to award multiple contracts. None of these maneuverings proved convincing enough for the folks at NASA, pushing Bezos’s space startup to sue the agency.

This little feud has caused long-minded Twitter users to dig up this little gem from a Bezos 2019 speech — as transcribed by Gizmodo — highlighting Bezos’s own distaste for how bureaucracy and greed have hampered NASA’s ability to reach for the stars:

“To the degree that big NASA programs become seen as jobs programs and that they have to be distributed to the right states where the right Senators live, and so on. That is going to change the objective. Now your objective is not to, you know, whatever it is, to get a man to the moon or a woman to the moon, but instead to get a woman to the moon while preserving X number of jobs in my district. That is a complexifier, and not a healthy one…[…]

Today, there would be, you know, three protests, and the losers would sue the federal government because they didn’t win. It’s interesting, but the thing that slows things down is procurement. It’s become the bigger bottleneck than the technology, which I know for a fact for all the well meaning people at NASA is frustrating.

A Blue Origin spokesperson called the suit, an “attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System.” But the lawsuit really seems to highlight how dire this deal is to the ability of Blue Origin to lock down top talent. Whether the startup can handle the reputational risk of suing NASA and delaying America’s return to the moon seems to be a question very much worth asking.


Elon Musk, co-founder and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., speaks during an unveiling event for the Boring Company Hawthorne test tunnel in Hawthorne, south of Los Angeles, California on December 18, 2018.

Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

OnlyFans bans “sexually explicit content”
A lot of people had pretty visceral reactions to OnlyFans killing off what seems to be a pretty big chunk of its business, outlawing “sexually explicit content” on the platform. It seems the decision was reached as a result of banking and payment partners leaning on the company.

Musk “unveils” the “Tesla Bot”
I truly struggle to even call this news, but I’d be remiss not to highlight how Elon Musk had a guy dress up in a spandex outfit and walk around doing the robot and spawned hundreds of news stories about his new “Tesla Bot.” While there certainly could be a product opportunity here for Tesla at some point, I would bet all of the dogecoin in the world that his prototype “coming next year” either never arrives or falls hilariously short of expectations.

Facebook drops a VR meeting simulator
This week, Facebook released one of its better virtual reality apps, a workplace app designed to help people host meetings inside virtual reality. To be clear, no one really asked for this, but the company made a full court PR press for the app which will help headset owners simulate the pristine experience of sitting in a conference room.

Social platforms wrestle with Taliban presence on platforms
Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, social media platforms are being pushed to clarify their policies around accounts operated by identified Taliban members. It’s put some of the platforms in a hairy situation.

Facebook releases content transparency report
This week, Facebook released its first ever content transparency report, highlighting what data on the site had the most reach over a given time period, in this case a three-month period. Compared to lists highlighting which posts get the most engagement on the platform, lists generally populated mostly by right wing influencers and news sources, the list of posts with the most reach seems to be pretty benign.

Safety regulators open inquiry into Tesla Autopilot
While Musk talks about building a branded humanoid robot, U.S. safety regulators are concerned with why Tesla vehicles on Autopilot are crashing into so many parked emergency response vehicles.


 

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

The Nuro EC-1
“..Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu aren’t the only Google self-driving project employees to launch an AV startup, but they might be the most underrated. Their company, Nuro, is valued at $5 billion and has high-profile partnerships with leaders in retail, logistics and food including FedEx, Domino’s and Walmart. And, they seem to have navigated the regulatory obstacle course with success — at least so far…”

A VC shares 5 keys to pitching VCs
“The success of a fundraising process is entirely dependent on how well an entrepreneur can manage it. At this stage, it is important for founders to be honest, straightforward and recognize the value meetings with venture capitalists and investors can bring beyond just the monetary aspect..

A crash course on corporate development
“…If you’re going to get acquired, chances are you’re going to spend a lot of time with corporate development teams. With a hot stock market, mountains of cash and cheap debt floating around, the environment for acquisitions is extremely rich.”


Thanks for reading! Until next week…

Lucas M.

#afghanistan, #america, #astronaut, #banking, #blue-origin, #computing, #congress, #dave-ferguson, #elon-musk, #entrepreneur, #extra-crunch, #facebook, #federal-government, #fedex, #food, #google, #government-accountability-office, #greg, #jeff-bezos, #lunar-lander, #nasa, #nuro, #robyn, #social-media-platforms, #spaceflight, #spacex, #taliban, #tc, #tesla, #united-states, #walmart, #week-in-review, #zack-whittaker

Fortnite adds a new mode that’s basically Among Us

Fortnite now boasts its own version of one of the pandemic’s hottest games.

Fortnite-maker Epic just introduced into the game a new limited-time mode called Impostors; it follows the hit format that sent Among Us to Twitch’s front page — and Congress — during the pandemic’s earlier days.

Up to 10 people can play the new Impostors game mode simultaneously, divided into two competing factions: agents and… impostors. Eight agents work to complete tasks around the new map before the two impostors can sabotage their efforts by eliminating agents and undoing their work. And because it’s Fortnite, you can also teleport players randomly around the map and turn everyone into a banana.

The game takes place in a new interior map location that properly conjures the claustrophobic paranoia that makes the social deception-style game intense to play and fun to watch. During each round, the players come together to vote on who they think is secretly working against the agents, which generally leads to a lot of spicy conversation. Players can stick with a smaller group (by picking the private game mode) if they’d like to keep things intimate.

Happily, you can still try it out if you don’t have a group of friends to play with, though this kind of game works best with people you know. While public voice chat is off in the new mode, players in open matches can communicate through a quick chat box and the game’s emotes to vote on who they think has infiltrated the group.

It’s too early to say if Fortnite’s Among Us clone will take off in the same way as the game that inspired it, or how long it’ll stick around. But considering that Fortnite is still one of the most popular games in the world, a new hit whodunnit game mode that’s eminently streamable is just icing on the cake.

#among-us, #congress, #epic, #fortnite, #fortnite-battle-royale, #gaming, #social, #tc, #twitch, #video-games, #video-gaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

#amazon-underground, #amy-klobuchar, #android, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #coalition-for-app-fairness, #companies, #computing, #congress, #google, #google-play-store, #iphone, #itunes, #marsha-blackburn, #match-group, #mobile, #mobile-app, #mobile-software, #operating-systems, #play-store, #richard-blumenthal, #senate, #smartphones, #spotify, #tc, #technology, #tile, #united-states, #washington

Google to introduce increased protections for minors on its platform, including Search, YouTube and more

Weeks after Instagram rolled out increased protections for minors using its app, Google is now doing the same for its suite of services, including Google search, YouTube, YouTube Kids, Google Assistant, and others. The company this morning announced a series of product and policy changes that will allow younger people to stay more private and protected online and others that will limit ad targeting.

The changes in Google’s case are even more expansive than those Instagram announced, as they span across an array of Google’s products, instead of being limited to a single app.

Though Congress has been pressing Google and other tech companies on the negative impacts their services may have on children, not all changes being made are being required by law, Google says.

“While some of these updates directly address upcoming regulations, we’ve gone beyond what’s required by law to protect teens on Google and YouTube,” a Google spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Many of these changes also extend beyond any single current or upcoming regulation. We’re looking at ways to develop consistent product experiences and user controls for kids and teens globally,” they added.

In other words, Google is building in some changes based on where it believes the industry is going, rather than where it is right now.

On YouTube, Google says it will “gradually” start adjusting the default upload setting to the most private option for users ages 13 to 17 in the weeks ahead, which will limit the visibility of videos only to the the users and those they directly share with, not the wider public. These younger teen users won’t be prevented from changing the setting back to “public,” necessarily, but they will now have to make an explicit and intentional choice when doing so. YouTube will then provide reminders indicating who can see their video, the company notes.

YouTube will also turn on its “take a break” and bedtime reminders by default for all users ages 13 to 17 and will turn off autoplay. Again, these changes are related to the default settings  — users can disable the digital well-being features if they choose.

On YouTube’s platform for younger children, YouTube Kids, the company will also add an autoplay option, which is turned off autoplay by default so parents will have to decide whether or not they want to use autoplay with their children. The change puts the choice directly in parents’ hands, after complaints from child safety advocates and some members of Congress suggested such an algorithmic feature was problematic. Later, parents will also be able to “lock” their default selection.

YouTube will also remove “overly commercial content” from YouTube Kid, in a move that also follows increased pressure from consumer advocacy groups and childhood experts, who have long since argued that YouTube encourages kids to spend money (or rather, beg their parents to do so.) How YouTube will draw the line between acceptable and “overly commercial” content is less clear, but the company says it will, for example, remove videos that focus on product packaging — like the popular “unboxing” videos. This could impact some of YouTube’s larger creators of videos for kids, like multi-millionaire Ryan’s Toy Review.

youtube kids laptop red1

Image Credits: YouTube

Elsewhere on Google, other changes impacting minors will also begin rolling out.

In the weeks ahead, Google will introduce a new policy that will allow anyone under the age of 18, or a parent or guardian, to request the removal of their images from Google Image search results. This expands upon the existing “right to be forgotten” privacy policies already live in the E.U., but will introduce new products and controls for both kids and teenagers globally.

The company will make a number of adjustments to user accounts for people under the age of 18, as well.

In addition to the changes to YouTube, Google will restrict access to adult content by enabling its SafeSearch filtering technology by default to all users under 13 managed by its Google Family Link service. It will also enable SafeSearch for all users under 18 and make this the new default for teens who set up new accounts. Google Assistant will enable SafeSearch protections by default on shared devices, like smart screens and their web browsers. In school settings where Google Workspace for Education is used, SafeSearch will be the default and switching to Guest Mode and Incognito Mode web browsing will be turned off by default, too, as was recently announced.

Meanwhile, location history is already off by default on all Google accounts, but children with supervised accounts now won’t be able to enable it. This change will be extended to all users under 18 globally, meaning location can’t be enabled at all under the children are legal adults.

On Google Play, the company will launch a new section that will inform parents about which apps follow its Families policies, and app developers will have to disclose how their apps collect and use data. These features — which were partially inspired by Apple’s App Store Privacy Labels — had already been detailed for Android developers before today.

Google’s parental control tools are also being expanded. Parents and guardians who are Family Link users will gain new abilities to filter and block news, podcasts, and access to webpages on Assistant-enabled smart devices.

For advertisers, there are significant changes in store, too.

Google says it will expand safeguards to prevent age-sensitive ad categories from being shown to teens and it will block ad targeting based on factors like age, gender, or interests for users under 18. While somewhat similar to the advertising changes Instagram introduced, as ads will no longer leverage “interests” data for targeting young teens and kids, Instagram was still allowing targeting by age and gender. Google will not. The advertising changes will roll out globally in the “coming months,” the company says.

All the changes across Google and YouTube will roll out globally in the coming weeks and months.

 

#android, #app-developers, #assistant, #computing, #congress, #google, #google-play, #google-search, #instagram, #operating-systems, #search-results, #software, #spokesperson, #tc, #web-browsers, #youtube, #youtube-kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equity Monday: Apple’s privacy flap continues as crypto regulation looms

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This is Equity Monday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest private market news, talks about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here and me here.

It’s going to be a busy week, with a Samsung event and a host of earnings reports that we’ll have to pay attention to. But more important there are a few stories still dominating the news cycle:

All that and we also riffed on the Siemens-Sqills deal, Cornerstone OnDemand going private, and Delivery Hero buying a piece of Deliveroo.

And, for added flavor and fun, Canopy Servicing just raised a $15 million Series A, while Siga OT Solutions raised a $8.1 million Series B.

All that, and we got to talk stocks! Hugs and love from the Equity crew — chat Wednesday!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 a.m. PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

#apple, #bitcoin, #canopy-servicing, #china, #congress, #cornerstone-ondemand, #crypto, #cryptocurrency, #deliveroo, #delivery-hero, #equity, #equity-monday, #fundings-exits, #iphone, #siemens-sqill, #siga-ot-solutions, #startups, #tencent

Facebook cuts off NYU researcher access, prompting rebuke from lawmakers

Facebook shut down accounts belonging to two academic researchers late Tuesday, cutting off their ability to study political ads and misinformation on the world’s biggest social network.

The company accused the academics of engaging in “unauthorized scraping” and compromising user privacy on the platform, claims that Facebook’s many critics are slamming as a thin pretense for killing the transparency work.

The company took action against Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy, two well-known researchers affiliated with NYU’s Cybersecurity for Democracy project who have long sparred with the company. The move cuts off their access to Facebook’s Ad Library — one of the company’s only meaningful transparency efforts to date — and data on popular posts from the social media monitoring service CrowdTangle.

Facebook has a history with Edelson and McCoy. The company served the pair cease and desist letters just weeks before the 2020 election, calling on the team to disable an opt-in browser tool called Ad Observer and unpublish their findings. Ad Observer is a browser tool anyone can install that’s designed to give researchers a rare glimpse into how Facebook targets the ads that have transformed it into a trillion-dollar company.

“Over the last several years, we’ve used this access to uncover systemic flaws in the Facebook Ad Library, identify misinformation in political ads including many sowing distrust in our election system, and to study Facebook’s apparent amplification of partisan misinformation,” Edelson said on Twitter.

“By suspending our accounts, Facebook has effectively ended all this work. Facebook has also effectively cut off access to more than two dozen other researchers and journalists who get access to Facebook data through our project, including our work measuring vaccine misinformation with the Virality Project and many other partners who rely on our data.”

The incident set off a fresh round of criticism about the company’s preference for opacity over transparency when it comes to some of the more dangerous behavior that the platform incubates.

By Wednesday, Facebook’s actions had attracted the attention of some members of Congress. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) criticized Facebook’s decision to punish the researchers under the pretense of protecting users in light of the company’s long history of invasive privacy practices. Wyden also called Facebook’s bluff over its claim that revoking researcher access is an effort to comply with a privacy order from the FTC that the company was issued for its previous user privacy violations.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) also weighed in on Facebook’s latest controversy, calling the decision “deeply concerning.” Warner praised independent researchers for “consistently [improving] the integrity and safety of social media platforms by exposing harmful and exploitative activity.”

“It’s past time for Congress to act to bring greater transparency to the shadowy world of online advertising, which continues to be a major vector for fraud and misconduct,” Warner said.

A number of free press organizations, researchers and misinformation experts also condemned Facebook’s decision Wednesday. “Facebook’s cavalier approach to privacy enabled it to become so dominant,” The Markup’s Julia Angwin and Nabiha Syed wrote in a joint statement.

“But now, when independent researchers want to interrogate that platform and the influence it commands, Facebook is propping up user privacy as a shield to hide behind.”

#congress, #facebook, #facebook-ad-library, #federal-trade-commission, #instagram, #julia-angwin, #mark-warner, #nyu, #online-advertising, #operating-systems, #privacy, #ron-wyden, #social, #social-media, #social-media-platforms, #social-network, #tc, #world-wide-web

Facebook warns of ‘headwinds’ to its ad business from regulators and Apple

Facebook posted its second quarter earnings Wednesday, beating expectations with $29 billion in revenue.

The world’s biggest social media company was expected to report $27.8 billion in revenue for the quarter, a 50 percent increase from the same period in 2020. Facebook reported earnings per share of $3.61, which also bested expectations.

In the first financial period to really reflect a return to quasi-economic normalcy after a very online pandemic year, Facebook met user growth expectations. At the end of March, Facebook boasted 2.85 billion monthly active users across its network of apps. At the end of its second quarter, Facebook reported 2.9 billion monthly active users, roughly what was expected.

The company’s shares opened at $375 on Wednesday morning and were down to $360 in a dip following the earnings report.

In spite of a strong quarter, Facebook is warning of change ahead — namely impacts to its massive ad business, which generated $28.5 billion out of the company’s $29 billion this quarter. The company specifically named privacy-focused updates to Apple’s mobile operating system as a threat to its business.

“We continue to expect increased ad targeting headwinds in 2021 from regulatory and platform changes, notably the recent iOS updates, which we expect to have a greater impact in the third quarter compared to the second quarter,” the company stated its investor report outlook.

 

No matter what Facebook planned to report Wednesday, the company is a financial beast. Bad press and user mistrust in the West haven’t done much to hurt its bottom line and the company’s ad business is looking as dominant as ever. Short of meaningful antitrust reform in the U.S. or a surging competitor, there’s little to stand in Facebook’s way. The former might still be a long shot given partisan gridlock in Congress, even with the White House involved, but Facebook is finally facing a threat from the latter.

For years, it’s been difficult to imagine a social media platform emerging as a proper rival to the company, given Facebook’s market dominance and nasty habit of acquiring competitors or brazenly copying their innovations, but it’s clear that TikTok is turning into just that. YouTube is huge, but the platforms matured in parallel and co-exist, offering complementary experiences.

TikTok hit 700 million monthly active users in July 2020 and surpassed three billions global downloads earlier this month, becoming the only non-Facebook owned app to do so, according to data from Sensor Tower. If the famously addictive short form video app can successfully siphon off some of the long hours that young users spend on Instagram and Facebook’s other platforms and make itself a cozy home for brands in the process, the big blue giant out of Menlo Park might finally have something to lose sleep over.

#computing, #congress, #earnings, #facebook, #facebook-stories, #instagram, #messenger, #mobile-applications, #operating-systems, #sensor-tower, #social, #social-media, #software, #tc, #united-states, #whatsapp, #white-house

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biden nominates another Big Tech enemy, this time to lead the DOJ’s antitrust division

The Biden administration tripled down on its commitment to reining in powerful tech companies Tuesday, proposing committed Big Tech critic Jonathan Kanter to lead the Justice Department’s antitrust division.

Kanter is a lawyer with a long track record of representing smaller companies like Yelp in antitrust cases against Google. He currently practices law at his own firm, which specializes in advocacy for state and federal antitrust enforcement.

“Throughout his career, Kanter has also been a leading advocate and expert in the effort to promote strong and meaningful antitrust enforcement and competition policy,” the White House press release stated. Progressives celebrated the nomination as a win, though some of Biden’s new antitrust hawks have enjoyed support from both political parties.

The Justice Department already has a major antitrust suit against Google in the works. The lawsuit, filed by Trump’s own Justice Department, accuses the company of “unlawfully maintaining monopolies” through anti-competitive practices in its search and search advertising businesses. If successfully confirmed, Kanter would be positioned to steer the DOJ’s big case against Google.

In a 2016 NYT op-ed, Kanter argued that Google is notorious for relying on an anti-competitive “playbook” to maintain its market dominance. Kanter pointed to Google’s long history of releasing free ad-supported products and eventually restricting competition through “discriminatory and exclusionary practices” in a given corner of the market.

Kanter is just the latest high profile Big Tech critic that’s been elevated to a major regulatory role under Biden. Last month, Biden named fierce Amazon critic Lina Khan as FTC chair upon her confirmation to the agency. In March, Biden named another noted Big Tech critic, Columbia law professor Tim Wu, to the National Economic Council as a special assistant for tech and competition policy.

All signs point to the Biden White House gearing up for a major federal fight with Big Tech. Congress is working on a set of Big Tech bills, but in lieu of — or in tandem with — legislative reform, the White House can flex its own regulatory muscle through the FTC and DOJ.

In new comments to MSNBC, the White House confirmed that it is also “reviewing” Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a potent snippet of law that protects platforms from liability for user-generated content.

#amazon, #biden, #biden-administration, #big-tech, #chair, #columbia, #competition-law, #congress, #department-of-justice, #doj, #federal-trade-commission, #google, #government, #joe-biden, #lawyer, #lina-khan, #msnbc, #section-230, #tc, #tim-wu, #white-house, #yelp

GSA blocks senator from reviewing documents used to approve Zoom for government use

The General Services Administration has denied a senator’s request to review documents Zoom submitted to have its software approved for use in the federal government.

The denial was in response to a letter sent by Democratic senator Ron Wyden to the GSA in May, expressing concern that the agency cleared Zoom for use by federal agencies just weeks before a major security vulnerability was discovered in the app.

Wyden said the discovery of the bug raises “serious questions about the quality of FedRAMP’s audits.”

Zoom was approved to operate in government in April 2019 after receiving its FedRAMP authorization, a program operated by the GSA that ensures cloud services comply with a standardized set of security requirements designed to toughen the service from some of the most common threats. Without this authorization, federal agencies cannot use cloud products or technologies that are not cleared.

Months later, Zoom was forced to patch its Mac app after a security researcher found a flaw that could be abused to remotely switch on a user’s webcam without their permission. Apple was forced to intervene since users were still affected by the vulnerabilities even after uninstalling Zoom. As the pandemic spread and lockdowns were enforced, Zoom’s popularity skyrocketed — as did the scrutiny — including a technical analysis by reporters that found Zoom was not truly end-to-end encrypted as the company long claimed.

Wyden wrote to the GSA to say he found it “extremely concerning” that the security bugs were discovered after Zoom’s clearance. In the letter, the senator requested the documents known as the “security package,” which Zoom submitted as part of the FedRAMP authorization process, to understand how and why the app was cleared by GSA.

The GSA declined Wyden’s first request in July 2020 on the grounds that he was not a committee chair. In the new Biden administration, Wyden was named chair of the Senate Finance Committee and requested Zoom’s security package again.

But in a new letter sent to Wyden’s office late last month, GSA declined the request for the second time, citing security concerns.

“GSA’s refusal to share the Zoom audit with Congress calls into question the security of the other software products that GSA has approved for federal use.” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR)

“The security package you have requested contains highly sensitive proprietary and other confidential information relating to the security associated with the Zoom for Government product. Safeguarding this information is critical to maintaining the integrity of the offering and any government data it hosts,” said the GSA letter. “Based on our review, GSA believes that disclosure of the Zoom security package would create significant security risks.”

In response to the GSA’s letter, Wyden told TechCrunch that he was concerned that other flawed software may have been approved for use across the government.

“The intent of GSA’s FedRAMP program is good — to eliminate red tape so that multiple federal agencies don’t have to review the security of the same software. But it’s vitally important that whichever agency conducts the review do so thoroughly,” said Wyden. “I’m concerned that the government’s audit of Zoom missed serious cybersecurity flaws that were subsequently uncovered and exposed by security researchers. GSA’s refusal to share the Zoom audit with Congress calls into question the security of the other software products that GSA has approved for federal use.”

Of the people we spoke with who have first-hand knowledge of the FedRAMP process, either as a government employee or as a company going through the certification, FedRAMP was described as a comprehensive but by no means an exhaustive list of checks that companies have to meet in order to meet the security requirements of the federal government.

Others said that the process had its limits and would benefit from reform. One person with knowledge of how FedRAMP works said the process was not a complete audit of a product’s source code but akin to a checklist of best practices and meeting compliance requirements. Much of it relies on trusting the vendor, said the person, describing it like ” an honor system.” Another person said the FedRAMP process cannot catch every bug, as evidenced by executive action taken by President Biden this week aimed at modernizing and improving the FedRAMP process.

Most of the people we spoke to weren’t surprised that Wyden’s office was denied the request, citing the sensitivity of a company’s FedRAMP security package.

The people said that companies going through the certification process have to provide highly technical details about the security of their product, which if exposed would almost certainly be damaging to the company. Knowing where security weaknesses might be could tip off cyber-criminals, one of the people said. Companies often spend millions on improving their security ahead of a FedRAMP audit but companies wouldn’t risk going through the certification if they thought their trade secrets would get leaked, they added.

When asked by GSA why it objected to Wyden’s request, Zoom’s head of U.S. government relations Lauren Belive argued that handing over the security package “would set a dangerous precedent that would undermine the special trust and confidence” that companies place in the FedRAMP process.

GSA puts strict controls on who can access a FedRAMP security package. You need a federal government or military email address, which the senator’s office has. But the reason for GSA denying Wyden’s request still isn’t clear, and when reached a GSA spokesperson would not explain how a member of Congress would obtain a company’s FedRAMP security package

“GSA values its relationship with Congress and will continue to work with Senator Wyden and our committees of jurisdiction to provide appropriate information regarding our programs and operations,” said GSA spokesperson Christina Wilkes, adding:

“GSA works closely with private sector partners to provide a standardized approach to security authorizations for cloud services through the [FedRAMP]. Zoom’s FedRAMP security package and related documents provide detailed information regarding the security measures associated with the Zoom for Government product. GSA’s consistent practice with regard to sensitive security and trade secret information is to withhold the material absent an official written request of a congressional committee with jurisdiction, and pursuant to controls on further dissemination or publication of the information.”

GSA wouldn’t say which congressional committee had jurisdiction or whether Wyden’s role as chair of the Senate Finance Committee suffices, nor would the agency answer questions about the efficacy of the FedRAMP process raised by Wyden.

Zoom spokesperson Kelsey Knight said that cloud companies like Zoom “provide proprietary and confidential information to GSA as part of the FedRAMP authorization process with the understanding that it will be used only for their use in making authorization decisions. While we do not believe Zoom’s FedRAMP security package should be disclosed outside of this narrow purpose, we welcome conversations with lawmakers and other stakeholders about the security of Zoom for Government.”

Zoom said it has “engaged in security enhancements to continually improve its products,” and received FedRAMP reauthorization in 2020 and 2021 as part of its annual renewal. The company declined to say to what extent the Zoom app was audited as part of the FedRAMP process.

Over two dozen federal agencies use Zoom, including the Defense Department, Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the Executive Office of the President.

#apps, #biden, #biden-administration, #chair, #cloud-computing, #cloud-services, #computing, #congress, #department-of-defense, #executive, #federal-government, #fedramp, #government, #head, #internet, #internet-security, #official, #president, #ron-wyden, #security, #senator, #software, #spokesperson, #technology, #u-s-government, #united-states, #web-conferencing, #zoom

What the growing federal focus on ESG means for private markets

The increasing regulation of ESG (environmental, social, governance) disclosure reporting may have started in the public markets, but will almost certainly have downstream effects for private market actors — for founders, companies and investors.

Since his confirmation as the chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in April, Gary Gensler has made reforming ESG disclosures concerning climate change risk and human capital a top priority. The SEC’s regulatory agenda confirms as much. And Gensler is not alone in his focus on ESG at the federal level.

President Joe Biden issued an executive order encouraging regulators to assess climate-related financial risk. At the end of March, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen wrote on Twitter that “our future livelihoods … depend on the financial sector to build a more sustainable and resilient economy.” Congress is considering measures that would require increased ESG disclosures, including the Improving Corporate Governance Through Diversity Act, the Diversity and Inclusion Data Accountability and Transparency Act and the Climate Risk Disclosure Act.

This renewed federal focus on ESG issues will bolster the SEC’s effort to create disclosure practices for public companies and mutual funds. Regardless of whether these federal policies around ESG come to pass, they reflect a momentum that will almost certainly impact private markets:

  • Firms that want to go public — whether via SPAC, direct listing or traditional IPO — may have to seriously consider board diversity or environmental reporting in conjunction with — or well in advance of — their debuts.
  • Private companies seeking to align with public companies as vendors or partners may be expected to meet specific ESG requirements before the engagement.
  • Startup founders and venture funds raising capital may work to maintain the largest target market by proactively scoping ESG engagements to ensure they meet criteria for investors who may have their own ESG-focused investment requirements.

In his confirmation hearing before the Senate in early March, Gensler said, “Markets — and technology — are always changing. Our rules have to change along with them.”

The federal government is moving to increase regulation around ESG disclosure requirements with the goals of establishing greater transparency and metrics for public companies.

The federal government is moving to increase regulation around ESG disclosure requirements with the goals of establishing greater transparency and metrics for public companies. These requirements are a response to the changing markets — demands from consumers, scrutiny from investors and a general insistence for higher corporate standards from society at large.

Private markets aren’t immune to these forces. Already, three-quarters of investors in a 2020 survey said it was very important to measure the success of sustainability initiatives, but they also said there’s been a lack of clarity on how to define and measure outcomes.

To be sure, private markets are not headed toward full-scale adoption of ESG regulations. They will not be subject to the same reporting or disclosures framework as their public counterparts. Not today, and possibly not for some time.

But we may begin to see private investors, funds and companies adapting to get ahead of ESG regulation and position themselves to effectively operate in a new — albeit adjacent — regulatory environment. In their case, the rules may not change — but the game could.

#column, #congress, #environmentalism, #esg, #federal-government, #government, #greentech, #joe-biden, #opinion, #policy, #private-equity, #senate, #tc, #u-s-securities-and-exchange-commission, #venture-capital

Biden’s sweeping executive order takes on big tech’s ‘bad mergers,’ ISPs and more

The Biden administration just introduced a sweeping, ambitious plan to forcibly inject competition into some consolidated sectors of the American economy — the tech sector prominent among them — through executive action.

“Today President Biden is taking decisive action to reduce the trend of corporate consolidation, increase competition, and deliver concrete benefits to America’s consumers, workers, farmers, and small businesses,” a new White House fact sheet on the forthcoming order states.

The order, which Biden will sign Friday, initiates a comprehensive “whole-of-government” approach that loops in more then twelve different agencies at the federal level to regulate monopolies, protect consumers and curtail bad behavior from some of the world’s biggest corporations.

In the fact sheet, the White House lays out its plans to take matters to regulate big business into its own hands at the federal level. As far as tech is concerned, that comes largely through emboldening the FTC and the Justice Department — two federal agencies with antitrust enforcement powers.

Most notably for big tech, which is already bracing for regulatory existential threats, the White House explicitly asserts here that those agencies have legal cover to “challenge prior bad mergers that past Administrations did not previously challenge” — i.e. unwinding acquisitions that built a handful of tech companies into the behemoths they are today. The order calls on antitrust agencies to enforce antitrust laws “vigorously.”

Federal scrutiny will prioritize “dominant internet platforms, with particular attention to the acquisition of nascent competitors, serial mergers, the accumulation of data, competition by ‘free’ products, and the effect on user privacy.” Facebook, Google and Amazon are particularly on notice here, though Apple isn’t likely to escape federal attention either.

“Over the past ten years, the largest tech platforms have acquired hundreds of companies—including alleged ‘killer acquisitions’ meant to shut down a potential competitive threat,” the White House wrote in the fact sheet. “Too often, federal agencies have not blocked, conditioned, or, in some cases, meaningfully examined these acquisitions.”

The biggest tech companies have regularly defended their longstanding strategy of buying up the competition by arguing that because those acquisitions went through without friction at the time, they shouldn’t be viewed as illegal in hindsight. In no uncertain terms, the new executive order makes it clear that the Biden administration isn’t having any of it.

The White House also specifically singles out internet service providers for scrutiny, ordering the FCC to prioritize consumer choice and institute broadband “nutrition labels” that clearly state speed caps and hidden feeds. The FCC began working on the labels in the Obama administration but the work was scrapped after Trump took office.

The order also directly calls on the FCC to restore net neutrality rules, which were stripped in 2017 to the widespread horror of open internet advocates and most of the tech industry outside of the service providers that stood to benefit.

The White House will also tell the FTC to create new privacy rules meant to guard consumers against surveillance and the “accumulation of extraordinarily amounts of sensitive personal information,” which free services like Facebook, YouTube and others have leveraged to build their vast empires. The White House also taps the FTC to create rules that protect smaller businesses from being pre-empted by large platforms, which in many cases abuse their market dominance with a different sort of data-based surveillance to out-compete up-and-coming competitors.

Finally, the executive order encourages the FTC to put right to repair rules in place that would free consumers from constraints that discourage DIY and third-party repairs. A new White House Competition Council under the Director of the National Economic Council will coordinate the federal execution of the proposals laid out in the new order.

The antitrust effort from the executive branch mirrors parallel actions in the FTC and Congress. In the FTC, Biden has installed a fearsome antitrust crusader in Lina Khan, a young legal scholar and fierce Amazon critic who proposes a philosophical overhaul to the way the federal government defines monopolies. Khan now leads the FTC as its chair.

In Congress, a bipartisan flurry of bills intended to rein in the tech industry are slowly wending their way toward becoming law, though plenty of hurdles remain. Last month, the House Judiciary Committee debated the six bills, which were crafted separately to help them survive opposing lobbying pushes from the tech industry. These legislative efforts could modernize antitrust laws, which have failed to keep pace with the modern realities of giant, internet-based businesses.

“Competition policy needs new energy and approaches so that we can address America’s monopoly problem,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a prominent tech antitrust hawk in Congress, said of the executive order. “That means legislation to update our antitrust laws, but it also means reimagining what the federal government can do to promote competition under our current laws.”

Citing the acceleration of corporate consolidation in recent decades, the White House argues that a handful of large corporations dominates across industries, including healthcare, agriculture and tech and consumers, workers and smaller competitors pay the price for their outsized success. The administration will focus antitrust enforcement on those corners of the market as well as evaluating the labor market and worker protections on the whole.

“Inadequate competition holds back economic growth and innovation… Economists find that as competition declines, productivity growth slows, business investment and innovation decline, and income, wealth, and racial inequality widen,” the White House wrote.

 

#amazon, #america, #biden, #biden-administration, #big-tech, #broadband, #competition-law, #congress, #department-of-justice, #executive, #facebook, #federal-communications-commission, #federal-government, #federal-trade-commission, #google, #government, #healthcare, #internet-service-providers, #lina-khan, #president, #tc, #white-house, #youtube

Evernote quietly disappeared from an anti-surveillance lobbying group’s website

In 2013, eight tech companies were accused of funneling their users’ data to the U.S. National Security Agency under the so-called PRISM program, according to highly classified government documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Six months later, the tech companies formed a coalition under the name Reform Government Surveillance, which as the name would suggest was to lobby lawmakers for reforms to government surveillance laws.

The idea was simple enough: to call on lawmakers to limit surveillance to targeted threats rather than conduct a dragnet collection of Americans’ private data, provide greater oversight and allow companies to be more transparent about the kinds of secret orders for user data that they receive.

Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo and AOL (to later become Verizon Media, which owns TechCrunch — for now) were the founding members of Reform Government Surveillance, or RGS, and over the years added Amazon, Dropbox, Evernote, Snap and Zoom as members.

But then sometime in June 2019, Evernote quietly disappeared from the RGS website without warning. What’s even more strange is that nobody noticed for two years, not even Evernote.

“We hadn’t realized our logo had been removed from the Reform Government Surveillance website,” said an Evernote spokesperson, when reached for comment by TechCrunch. “We are still members.”

Evernote joined the coalition in October 2014, a year and a half after PRISM first came to public light, even though the company was never named in the leaked Snowden documents. Still, Evernote was a powerful ally to have onboard, and showed RGS that its support for reforming government surveillance laws was gaining traction outside of the companies named in the leaked NSA files. Evernote cites its membership of RGS in its most recent transparency report and that it supports efforts to “reform practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information” — which makes its disappearance from the RGS website all the more bizarre.

TechCrunch also asked the other companies in the RGS coalition if they knew why Evernote was removed and all either didn’t respond, wouldn’t comment or had no idea. A spokesperson for one of the RGS companies said they weren’t all that surprised since companies “drop in and out of trade associations.”

The website of the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, which features Amazon, Apple, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Snap, Twitter, Verizon Media and Zoom, but not Evernote, which is also a member. Image Credits: TechCrunch

While that may be true — companies often sign on to lobbying efforts that ultimately help their businesses; government surveillance is one of those rare thorny issues that got some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley rallying behind the cause. After all, few tech companies have openly and actively advocated for an increase in government surveillance of their users, since it’s the users themselves who are asking for more privacy baked into the services they use.

In the end, the reason for Evernote’s removal seems remarkably benign.

“Evernote has been a longtime member — but they were less active over the last couple of years, so we removed them from the website,” said an email from Monument Advocacy, a Washington, D.C. lobbying firm that represents RGS. “Your inquiry has helped to prompt new conversations between our organizations and we’re looking forward to working together more in the future.”

Monument has been involved with RGS since near the beginning after it was hired by the RGS coalition of companies to lobby for changes to surveillance laws in Congress. Monument has spent $2.2 million in lobbying to date since it began work with RGS in 2014, according to OpenSecrets, specifically on lobbying lawmakers to push for changes to bills under congressional consideration, such as changes to the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, albeit with mixed success. RGS supported the USA Freedom Act, a bill designed to curtail some of the NSA’s collection under the Patriot Act, but was unsuccessful in its opposition to the reauthorization of Section 702 of FISA, the powers that allow the NSA to collect intelligence on foreigners living outside the United States, which was reauthorized for six years in 2018.

RGS has been largely quiet for the past year — issuing just one statement on the importance of transatlantic data flows, the most recent hot-button issue to concern tech companies, fearing that anything other than the legal status quo could see vast swaths of their users in Europe cut off from their services.

“RGS companies are committed to protecting the privacy of those who use our services, and to safeguard personal data,” said the statement, which included the logos of Amazon, Apple, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Snap, Twitter, Verizon Media and Zoom, but not Evernote.

In a coalition that’s only as strong as its members, the decision to remove Evernote from the website while it’s still a member hardly sends a resounding message of collective corporate unity — which these days isn’t something Big Tech can find much of.

#amazon, #apple, #articles, #cloud-storage, #computing, #congress, #edward-snowden, #europe, #evernote, #facebook, #government, #linkedin, #mass-surveillance, #microsoft, #national-security-agency, #prism, #security, #software, #spokesperson, #techcrunch, #transparency-report, #twitter, #united-states, #usa-freedom-act, #verizon, #washington-d-c, #yahoo

Trump’s new lawsuits against social media companies are going nowhere fast

Trump’s spicy trio of lawsuits against the social media platforms that he believes wrongfully banned him have succeeded in showering the former president with a flurry of media attention, but that’s likely where the story ends.

Like Trump’s quixotic and ultimately empty quest to gut Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act during his presidency, the new lawsuits are all sound and fury with little legal substance to back them up.

The suits allege that Twitter, Facebook and YouTube violated Trump’s First Amendment rights by booting him from their platforms, but the First Amendment is intended to protect citizens from censorship by the government — not private industry. The irony that Trump himself was the uppermost figure in the federal government at the time probably won’t be lost on whoever’s lap this case lands in.

In the lawsuits, which also name Twitter and Facebook chief executives Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg as well as Google CEO Sundar Pichai (Susan Wojcicki escapes notice once again!), Trump accuses the three companies of engaging in “impermissible censorship resulting from threatened legislative action, a misguided reliance upon Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and willful participation in joint activity with federal actors.”

The suit claims that the tech companies colluded with “Democrat lawmakers,” the CDC and Dr. Anthony Fauci, who served in Trump’s own government at the time.

The crux of the argument is that communication between the tech companies, members of Congress and the federal government somehow transforms Facebook, Twitter and YouTube into “state actors” — a leap of epic proportion:

“Defendant Twitter’s status thus rises beyond that of a private company to that of a state actor, and as such, Defendant is constrained by the First Amendment right to free speech in the censorship decisions it makes.”

Trump’s own Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh issued the court’s opinion on a relevant case two years ago. It examined whether a nonprofit running public access television channels in New York qualified as a “state actor” that would be subject to First Amendment constraints. The court ruled that running the public access channels didn’t transform the nonprofit into a government entity and that it retained a private entity’s rights to make editorial decisions.

“… A private entity… who opens its property for speech by others is not transformed by that fact alone into a state actor,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote in the decision.

It’s not likely that a court would decide that talking to the government or being threatened by the government somehow transform Twitter, YouTube and Facebook into state actors either.

Trump vs. Section 230 (again)

First Amendment aside — and there’s really not much of an argument there — social media platforms are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a concise snippet of law that shields them from liability not just for the user-generated content they host but for the moderation decisions they make about what content to remove.

In line with Trump’s obsessive disdain for tech’s legal shield, the lawsuits repeatedly rail against Section 230. The suits try to argue that because Congress threatened to revoke tech’s 230 protections, that forced them to ban Trump, which somehow makes social media companies part of the government and subject to First Amendment constraints.

Of course, Republican lawmakers and Trump’s own administration made frequent threats about repealing Section 230, not that it changes anything because this line of argument doesn’t make much sense anyway.

The suit also argues that Congress crafted Section 230 to intentionally censor speech that is otherwise protected by the First Amendment, ignoring that the law was born in 1996, well before ubiquitous social media, and for other purposes altogether.

For the four years of his presidency, Trump’s social media activity — his tweets in particular — informed the events of the day, both nationally and globally. While other world leaders and political figures used social media to communicate or promote their actions, Trump’s Twitter account was usually the action itself.

In the shadow of his social media bans, the former president has failed to re-establish lines of communication to the internet at large. In May, he launched a new blog, “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump,” but the site was taken down just a month later after it failed to attract much interest.

The handful of pro-Trump alternative social platforms are still struggling with app store content moderation requirements at odds with their extreme views on free speech, but that didn’t stop Gettr, the latest, from going ahead with its own rocky launch last week.

Viewed in one light, Trump’s lawsuits are a platform too, his latest method for broadcasting himself to the online world that his transgressions eventually cut him off from. In that sense, they seem to have succeeded, but in all other senses, they won’t.

#articles, #brett-kavanaugh, #ceo, #communications-decency-act, #congress, #donald-j-trump, #donald-trump, #federal-government, #google, #government, #jack-dorsey, #mark-zuckerberg, #new-york, #president, #qanon, #section-230, #social, #social-media, #social-media-platforms, #sundar-pichai, #supreme-court, #susan-wojcicki, #tc, #the-battle-over-big-tech, #twitter