Report: US Senators urge FTC to scrutinize Microsoft/Activision merger

Report: US Senators urge FTC to scrutinize Microsoft/Activision merger

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson)

Four U.S. Senators have sent a letter to Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Lina Khan expressing concern about Microsoft’s proposed $68.7 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

In the letter, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) express worry that the merger could hurt efforts to hold Activision management accountable for widespread allegations of abuse, sexual harassment, and discrimination at Activision Blizzard. The letter also takes specific issue with reports that Activision CEO Bobby Kotick will be allowed to stay until the merger is finalized, and that the embattled executive might have negotiated a “graceful exit” as part of the merger talks.

“This lack of accountability, despite shareholders, employees, and the public calling for Kotick to be held responsible for the culture he created, would be an unacceptable result of the proposed Microsoft acquisition,” the letter reads in part, according to the report. The Senators also expressed general concern about “consolidation in the tech industry and its impact on workers.”

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#activision, #antitrust, #ftc, #gaming-culture, #government, #merger, #microsoft, #regulatory, #senators

SEC will require companies to list greenhouse emissions, climate risks

Image of a flooded warehouse.

Enlarge / It can be tough to run a business when your loading dock is under water. (credit: Getty Images)

On Monday, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced new rules about disclosing climate risks for companies listed on US-based stock exchanges. The rules are meant to give investors a clearer sense of how companies manage present and future challenges posed by climate change and by attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The rules will be published in the Federal Register for public comment shortly. A final version is expected later this year, and the lawsuits are likely to begin afterward.

In the announcement, SEC Chair Gary Gensler said the new rules adhere to the organization’s mission. “Our core bargain from the 1930s is that investors get to decide which risks to take,” he said, “as long as public companies provide full and fair disclosure and are truthful in those disclosures.” Typically, risk disclosure occurs in required formal filings that companies make with the SEC, like quarterly financial statements.

Some companies disclose their risks voluntarily, but the absence of standards allows them significant leeway over what to reveal. And many other companies choose not to disclose anything related to climate.

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#climate-change, #finance, #government, #policy, #regulation, #sec

Biden’s vaccine mandates come before the Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court building in Washington DC.

Enlarge / The US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty Images | Mike Kline)

On Friday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases that could severely limit the federal government’s ability to set public health policy during the pandemic. At issue is whether existing health and safety authority given to federal agencies by Congress is broad enough to cover the pandemic or whether Congress needs to step in and explicitly authorize the agencies’ actions.

The arguments occur as the US sees an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases. Indeed, two of the state lawyers arguing against these new public health measures were caught up in that surge and had to participate in the hearings remotely.

For and against

Two separate cases are being heard today, both regarding executive actions taken by the Biden administration. The first case involves a rule, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), covering all health care workers at facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid. The rule requires these workers to be vaccinated unless they are exempted on medical or religious grounds. The second case involves a vaccine-or-test mandate issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); the mandate would apply to any businesses with 100 or more employees.

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#government, #mandate, #policy, #science, #supreme-court, #vaccines

Details released on the Trump administration’s pandemic chaos

Image of a man speaking from behind a podium.

Enlarge / Scott Atlas, a White House adviser, used his position to advocate for allowing the SARS-CoV-2 virus to spread and tried to block testing for it, which would further that goal. (credit: MANDEL NGAN / Getty Images)

Over the past few months, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis has been investigating the previous administration’s haphazard and sometimes counterproductive response to the pandemic. As testimony was taken and documents were examined, some of the details of the conflicts between politicians and public health would sporadically come out via press releases from subcommittee members. But on Friday the group issued a major report that puts these details all in one place.

The report confirms suspicions about the Trump administration’s attempt to manipulate the public narrative about its response, even as its members tried to undercut public health officials. So, while reading may trigger a sense of “I thought we knew this,” having it all in one place with the evidence to back it up still provides a valuable function.

Sidelining the CDC

In late February of 2020, just as the pandemic was beginning to pick up in the US, the CDC held a press conference in which Nancy Messonnier issued stark warnings about the potential for COVID-19 to interfere with life in the US. The subcommittee heard testimony that her somber warning angered then-President Trump and, as a result, the CDC was blocked from holding any further press conferences for over three months, during which time the US experienced its first deadly surge of infections.

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#cdc, #covid-19, #fda, #government, #pandemic, #science, #trump-administration

US gov’t will slap contractors with civil lawsuits for hiding breaches

US gov’t will slap contractors with civil lawsuits for hiding breaches

(credit: Stephen Melkisethian)

In a groundbreaking initiative announced by the Department of Justice this week, federal contractors will be sued if they fail to report a cyber attack or data breaches. The newly introduced “Civil Cyber-Fraud Initiative” will leverage the existing False Claims Act to pursue contractors and grant recipients involved in what the DoJ calls “cybersecurity fraud.” Usually, the False Claims Act is used by the government to tackle civil lawsuits over false claims made in relation to federal funds and property connected with government programs.

Cyber contractors chose silence “for too long”

“For too long, companies have chosen silence under the mistaken belief that it is less risky to hide a breach than to bring it forward and to report it,” states Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco, who is pioneering the initiative. “Well, that changes today. We are announcing today that we will use our civil enforcement tools to pursue companies, those who are government contractors who receive federal funds, when they fail to follow required cybersecurity standards—because we know that puts all of us at risk. This is a tool that we have to ensure that taxpayer dollars are used appropriately and guard the public fisc and public trust.”

The introduction of the Civil Cyber-Fraud Initiative is the “direct result” of the department’s ongoing thorough review of the cybersecurity landscape ordered by the deputy attorney general in May. The goal behind these review activities is to develop actionable recommendations that enhance and expand the DoJ’s efforts for combating cyber threats.

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#biz-it, #civil-cyber-fraud-initiative, #cyber-attack, #cybersecurity, #data-breach, #doj, #false-claims-act, #government, #law, #legislation, #tech, #usdoj

America’s innovators will solve climate change, not regulators

President Joe Biden has pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. He intends to meet this ambitious target through a wave of new federal spending and government programs.

But our best hope for reducing carbon emissions isn’t new government spending. It’s a technological sea change — one that can only come from the private sector.

In fact, the government is slowing progress against climate change by imposing regulations that prevent emissions-lowering technologies from reaching the market. If our leaders really want to save the planet, they need to get out of the way of entrepreneurs who can actually do so.

One would expect the government to embrace technology with the potential to cut carbon pollution. After all, Biden himself has promised to “spur American technological innovations” as part of his climate agenda.

Unfortunately, some of the most promising green tech breakthroughs face severe headwinds as a result of misguided or antiquated federal policies.

One such technology — profiled in “They Say It Can’t Be Done,” a new documentary on the relationship between innovators and regulations — is an artificial tree developed by Arizona State University physicist and engineer Klaus Lackner. These man-made trees contain a special plastic resin that can absorb carbon dioxide and release it when submerged in water. They’re 1,000 times more effective at taking in carbon dioxide from the air than natural trees. Once captured, this carbon dioxide can then be reclaimed and converted into fuel.

Lackner’s design could be scaled to produce units that each remove a metric ton of carbon dioxide daily. The main stumbling block is the lack of clear regulations surrounding carbon capture technologies — specifically the transport and storage of captured carbon.

Until a uniform federal framework exists, the process of bringing this technology to market will remain impossibly complicated and fraught with risk.

Or consider technologies that could reduce the need for large-scale livestock farming. Raising billions of chickens, pigs and cattle requires vast amounts of water, feed and land. The resulting carbon footprint is massive — about 7.1 gigatons of greenhouse gases a year.

Here too, new technologies could help reduce emissions. Researchers are designing cell-cultured meat — chicken, pork and beef produced in the lab rather than the feedlot. This lab-grown protein is safe, healthy and far less carbon-intensive than traditionally farmed meat.

One startup that makes lab-grown meat, Eat Just, recently obtained approval to sell its cell-cultured chicken in Singapore. But it’s still waiting on the green light from U.S. regulators. According to the firm’s founder, it could be another year — or more — before U.S. approval comes through.

For an industry as capital-intensive as cultured meat production, this sluggish approval process can make it impossible for a startup to launch and get its products to market.

High-tech solutions like these are precisely what’s required to protect our planet from the threat of climate change. While it is impossible to say whether lab-grown meat is the future of sustainable food or if artificial trees are the best solution for sequestering atmospheric carbon, an accessible and level regulatory playing field allows the best innovations to thrive.

Too many Americans believe that when it comes to climate change, only the government is up to the task. The fact is, the main barrier to large-scale adoption of sustainable technologies isn’t a lack of government involvement, but too much — or at least the wrong kind.

In order to make good on his promise to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint, the president and his team will need to recognize how government obstructs the development and deployment of technology that can fulfill that promise.

#carbon-capture-technologies, #carbon-sequestration, #column, #cultured-meat, #government, #greenhouse-gas-emissions, #greentech, #joe-biden, #opinion, #policy, #sustainable-food, #united-states

Amazon starts probe over bribe to gov’t officials by its lawyers in India, report says

Amazon has launched an investigation into the conduct of its legal representatives in India following a complaint from a whistleblower who alleged that one or more of the company’s reps had bribed government officials, Indian news and analysis outlet the Morning Context reported on Monday.

The company is investigating whether legal fees financed by it was used for bribing government officials, the report said, which cited unnamed sources and didn’t identify government officials. Amazon has placed Rahul Sundaram, a senior corporate counsel, on leave, the report added.

In a statement to TechCrunch, an Amazon spokesperson said the company has “zero tolerance” for corruption.

“We take allegations of improper actions seriously, investigate them fully, and take appropriate action. We are not commenting on specific allegations or the status of any investigation at this time,” the spokesperson added.

India is one of the key overseas markets for Amazon. The American e-commerce firm has invested over $6.5 billion in its South Asian nation’s operations and aggressively expanded to multiple categories in recent years.

The new development comes months after Reuters reported that Amazon had secretly favored big sellers, misrepresented its ties with those firms, and used such arrangements to circumvent the South Asian nation’s foreign investment rules.

Amazon is also subject of an ongoing antitrust investigation in India. The company made an unsuccessful attempt to appeal against the investigation.

#amazon, #amazon-india, #asia, #government, #india

Google abused dominant position of Android in India, antitrust probe finds

Google has abused the dominant position of Android in India to illegally hurt competitors in the world’s second largest internet market, a two-year antitrust probe by the nation’s watchdog has found.

The Android-maker reduced device manufacturing firms’ ability and incentive to develop — and sell — devices running alternative versions of Android (more popularly known as forks), the probe found, according to two people have have been briefed on the findings.

Additionally, the report found Google’s requirement to make it mandatory for device manufacturers to pre-install its apps to be in violation of India’s competition law.

More than five dozen firms including Amazon and Apple responded to queries from the Indian watchdog — the Competition Commission of India — during the course of the investigation, the report said.

The Indian watchdog also found issues with the way Google has enforced policies on Play Store, saying those are “one-sided, ambiguous, vague, biased and arbitrary.”

Google said it looks forward to engage with the CCI to demonstrate how “Android has led to more competition and innovation, not less.”

The report’s findings — which are yet to be formally published by the CCI — is the latest setback for Google in India, where it has faced strong criticism from local entrepreneurs in recent quarters and several other antitrust probes.

The Alliance of Digital India Foundation, a group of 350 startups, founders and investors, lauded the CCI report’s findings and said the watchdog’s step “is in line with the Indian digital ecosystem’s needs.”

#android, #asia, #google, #google-india, #government, #india

FTC says health apps must notify consumers about data breaches — or face fines

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned apps and devices that collect personal health information must notify consumers if their data is breached or shared with third parties without their permission.

In a 3-2 vote on Wednesday, the FTC agreed on a new policy statement to clarify a decade-old 2009 Health Breach Notification Rule, which requires companies handling health records to notify consumers if their data is accessed without permission, such as the result of a breach. This has now been extended to apply to health apps and devices — specifically calling out apps that track fertility data, fitness, and blood glucose — which “too often fail to invest in adequate privacy and data security,” according to FTC chair Lina Khan.

“Digital apps are routinely caught playing fast and loose with user data, leaving users’ sensitive health information susceptible to hacks and breaches,” said Khan in a statement, pointing to a study published this year in the British Medical Journal that found health apps suffer from “serious problems” ranging from the insecure transmission of user data to the unauthorized sharing of data with advertisers.

There have also been a number of recent high-profile breaches involving health apps in recent years. Babylon Health, a U.K. AI chatbot and telehealth startup, last year suffered a data breach after a “software error” allowed users to access other patients’ video consultations, while period tracking app Flo was recently found to be sharing users’ health data with third-party analytics and marketing services.

Under the new rule, any company offering health apps or connected fitness devices that collect personal health data must notify consumers if their data has been compromised. However, the rule doesn’t define a “data breach” as just a cybersecurity intrusion; unauthorized access to personal data, including the sharing of information without an individual’s permission, can also trigger notification obligations.

“While this rule imposes some measure of accountability on tech firms that abuse our personal information, a more fundamental problem is the commodification of sensitive health information, where companies can use this data to feed behavioral ads or power user analytics,” Khan said.

If companies don’t comply with the rule, the FTC said it will “vigorously” enforce fines of $43,792 per violation per day.

The FTC has been cracking down on privacy violations in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the agency unanimously voted to ban spyware maker SpyFone and its chief executive Scott Zuckerman from the surveillance industry for harvesting mobile data on thousands of people and leaving it on the open internet.

#articles, #artificial-intelligence, #babylon-health, #chair, #data-breach, #digital-rights, #flo, #government, #identity-management, #lina-khan, #open-internet, #security, #security-breaches, #social-issues, #spyfone, #terms-of-service

The FDA should regulate Instagram’s algorithm as a drug

The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday reported Silicon Valley’s worst-kept secret: Instagram harms teens’ mental health; in fact, its impact is so negative that it introduces suicidal thoughts.

Thirty-two percent of teen girls who feel bad about their bodies report that Instagram makes them feel worse. Of teens with suicidal thoughts, 13% of British and 6% of American users trace those thoughts to Instagram, the WSJ report said. This is Facebook’s internal data. The truth is surely worse.

President Theodore Roosevelt and Congress formed the Food and Drug Administration in 1906 precisely because Big Food and Big Pharma failed to protect the general welfare. As its executives parade at the Met Gala in celebration of the unattainable 0.01% of lifestyles and bodies that we mere mortals will never achieve, Instagram’s unwillingness to do what is right is a clarion call for regulation: The FDA must assert its codified right to regulate the algorithm powering the drug of Instagram.

The FDA should consider algorithms a drug impacting our nation’s mental health: The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act gives the FDA the right to regulate drugs, defining drugs in part as “articles (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals.” Instagram’s internal data shows its technology is an article that alters our brains. If this effort fails, Congress and President Joe Biden should create a mental health FDA.

Researchers can study what Facebook prioritizes and the impact those decisions have on our minds. How do we know this? Because Facebook is already doing it — they’re just burying the results.

The public needs to understand what Facebook and Instagram’s algorithms prioritize. Our government is equipped to study clinical trials of products that can physically harm the public. Researchers can study what Facebook privileges and the impact those decisions have on our minds. How do we know this? Because Facebook is already doing it — they’re just burying the results.

In November 2020, as Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel report in “An Ugly Truth,” Facebook made an emergency change to its News Feed, putting more emphasis on “News Ecosystem Quality” scores (NEQs). High NEQ sources were trustworthy sources; low were untrustworthy. Facebook altered the algorithm to privilege high NEQ scores. As a result, for five days around the election, users saw a “nicer News Feed” with less fake news and fewer conspiracy theories. But Mark Zuckerberg reversed this change because it led to less engagement and could cause a conservative backlash. The public suffered for it.

Facebook likewise has studied what happens when the algorithm privileges content that is “good for the world” over content that is “bad for the world.” Lo and behold, engagement decreases. Facebook knows that its algorithm has a remarkable impact on the minds of the American public. How can the government let one man decide the standard based on his business imperatives, not the general welfare?

Upton Sinclair memorably uncovered dangerous abuses in “The Jungle,” which led to a public outcry. The free market failed. Consumers needed protection. The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act for the first time promulgated safety standards, regulating consumable goods impacting our physical health. Today, we need to regulate the algorithms that impact our mental health. Teen depression has risen alarmingly since 2007. Likewise, suicide among those 10 to 24 is up nearly 60% between 2007 and 2018.

It is of course impossible to prove that social media is solely responsible for this increase, but it is absurd to argue it has not contributed. Filter bubbles distort our views and make them more extreme. Bullying online is easier and constant. Regulators must audit the algorithm and question Facebook’s choices.

When it comes to the biggest issue Facebook poses — what the product does to us — regulators have struggled to articulate the problem. Section 230 is correct in its intent and application; the internet cannot function if platforms are liable for every user utterance. And a private company like Facebook loses the trust of its community if it applies arbitrary rules that target users based on their background or political beliefs. Facebook as a company has no explicit duty to uphold the First Amendment, but public perception of its fairness is essential to the brand.

Thus, Zuckerberg has equivocated over the years before belatedly banning Holocaust deniers, Donald Trump, anti-vaccine activists and other bad actors. Deciding what speech is privileged or allowed on its platform, Facebook will always be too slow to react, overcautious and ineffective. Zuckerberg cares only for engagement and growth. Our hearts and minds are caught in the balance.

The most frightening part of “The Ugly Truth,” the passage that got everyone in Silicon Valley talking, was the eponymous memo: Andrew “Boz” Bosworth’s 2016 “The Ugly.”

In the memo, Bosworth, Zuckerberg’s longtime deputy, writes:

So we connect more people. That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good.

Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg made Bosworth walk back his statements when employees objected, but to outsiders, the memo represents the unvarnished id of Facebook, the ugly truth. Facebook’s monopoly, its stranglehold on our social and political fabric, its growth at all costs mantra of “connection,” is not de facto good. As Bosworth acknowledges, Facebook causes suicides and allows terrorists to organize. This much power concentrated in the hands of one corporation, run by one man, is a threat to our democracy and way of life.

Critics of FDA regulation of social media will claim this is a Big Brother invasion of our personal liberties. But what is the alternative? Why would it be bad for our government to demand that Facebook accounts to the public its internal calculations? Is it safe for the number of sessions, time spent and revenue growth to be the only results that matters? What about the collective mental health of the country and world?

Refusing to study the problem does not mean it does not exist. In the absence of action, we are left with a single man deciding what is right. What is the price we pay for “connection”? This is not up to Zuckerberg. The FDA should decide.

#column, #facebook, #food-and-drug-administration, #government, #health, #instagram, #joe-biden, #mark-zuckerberg, #opinion, #policy, #section-230, #sheryl-sandberg, #social, #social-media, #the-wall-street-journal

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

South Korean antitrust regulator fines Google $177M for abusing market dominance

The Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC) said on Tuesday it fined Google $177 million for abusing its market dominance in the Android operating system (OS) market.

The U.S. tech company has restricted market competition by prohibiting local smartphone makers like Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics from customizing their Android OS, through Google’s anti-fragmentation agreements (AFA), according to the antitrust regulator statement.

Under the AFA, smartphone developers are not allowed to install or develop “Android forks”, modified versions of Android.

The KFTC banned Google LLC, Google Asia Pacific and Google Korea from imposing local smartphone developers to sign the AFA and make changes on details about the existing version. The new measure in South Korea will be applied to not only mobiles devices but also other Android-powered smart devices including watches and TVs.

Android has spurred innovation among Korean mobile operator owners and software developers and that has led to a better user experience for Korean consumers, Google said in its statement. “The KFTC’s decision released today ignores these benefits, and will undermine the advantages enjoyed by consumers. Google intends to appeal the KFTC’s decision,” a spokesperson at Google said.

The commission has been investigating Google over the anti-competition practice in OS market since July 2016, a spokesperson at KFTC said.

Google’s global mobile OS market share excluding China has been increased to 97.7% in 2019 from 38% in 2010, as per KFTC’s announcement.

Google’s AFA has also limited to launch tech companies’ new devices like smart watches and TVs using the operating system (OS) including Samsung’s smart watch in 2013, LG Electronics’ LTE smart speaker in 2018 as well as Amazon’s smart TV in 2018.

South Korea’s watchdog is probing into three other cases including the Play Store app market, billing system and the advertisement market.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s “anti-Google law”, takes effect on 14 September, based on Korea Communications Commission’s press release.

In late August, South Korea passed a bill to curb global tech companies including Google and Apple from imposing their own proprietary in-app payment service and commissions on app developers.

#antitrust, #apps, #asia, #gadgets, #google, #government, #hardware, #mobile, #south-korea, #tc

India and Singapore to link their payments systems to enable ‘instant and low-cost’ cross-border transactions

India and Singapore are working to link their digital payments systems to enable “instant, low-cost fund transfers,” in a major push to disrupt cross-border transactions, the central banks of the two nations said on Tuesday.

The project to link India’s Unified Payments Interface (UPI) and Singapore’s PayNow is targeted for operationalization by July 2022, Reserve Bank of India said. Users on either of the systems will be able to make transactions to one another without having to sign up to the second platform, the banks said.

“When implemented, fund transfers can be made from India to Singapore using mobile phone numbers, and from Singapore to India using UPI virtual payment addresses (VPA). The experience of making a PayNow transfer to a UPI VPA will be similar to that of a domestic transfer to a PayNow VPA,” said Monetary Authority of Singapore in a press statement.

UPI, a payments infrastructure developed by a coalition of retail banks, has become the most popular digital payments method in India. The railroads, adopted by scores of local and global firms including Google and Facebook, is now processing over 3 billion transactions each month. Like UPI, Singapore’s PayNow also brings interoperability between banks and payments apps, allowing user from one payment app to make transaction to those on other apps.

“The UPI-PayNow linkage is a significant milestone in the development of infrastructure for cross-border payments between India and Singapore, and closely aligns with the G20’s financial inclusion priorities of driving faster, cheaper and more transparent cross-border payments,” India’s central bank said in a statement.

“The linkage builds upon the earlier efforts of NPCI International Private Limited (NIPL) and Network for Electronic Transfers (NETS) to foster cross-border interoperability of payments using cards and QR codes, between India and Singapore and will further anchor trade, travel and remittance flows between the two countries. This initiative is also in line with RBI’s vision of reviewing corridors and charges for inbound cross-border remittances outlined in the Payment Systems Vision Document 2019-21.”

This is a developing story. More to follow…

#asia, #government, #india, #payments, #singapore, #tc

What’s happening in venture law in 2021?

The venture world is growing faster than ever, with more funding rounds, bigger funding rounds, and higher valuations than pretty much any point in history. That’s led to an exponential growth in the number of unicorns walking around, and has also forced regulators and venture law researchers to confront a slew of challenging problems.

The obvious one, of course, is that with so many companies staying private, retail investors are mostly blocked from participating in one of the most dynamic sectors of the global economy. That’s not all though — concerns about disclosures and board transparency, diversity among leaders as well as employees, whistleblower protections for fraud, and more have increasingly percolated in legal circles as unicorns multiply and push the boundaries of what our current regulations were designed to accomplish.

To explore where the cutting edge of venture law is today, TechCrunch invited four law professors who specialize in the field and securities more generally to talk about what they are seeing in their work this year, and argue for how they would change regulations going forward.

Our participants and their arguments:

  • Yifat Aran, an assistant law professor at Haifa University, argues in “A new coalition for ‘Open Cap Table’ presents an opportunity for equity transparency” that we need better formats for cap table data to allow for portability. That will increase transparency for shareholders including employees, who are often left in the dark about the true nature of a startup’s capital structure.
  • Matthew Wansley, an assistant law professor at Cardozo School of Law, argues in “The next Theranos should be shortable” that private company shares of unicorns should be able to be scrutinized and traded by short sellers. Since venture investors have little incentive to sniff out frauds post-investment, short sellers could bring a valuable perspective into the market and increase capital efficiency.
  • Jennifer Fan, an assistant law professor at the University of Washington, argues in “Diversifying startups and VC power corridors” that in addition to board mandates related to diversity (which have passed in a number of states), startups need to create more incentives around diversity in all their relationships, including with their employees, with VCs, and with the LPs of their VCs. A more comprehensive and systematic approach will better open the tech world to the many folks it overlooks.
  • Finally, Alexander I. Platt, an associate law professor at the University of Kansas, argues in “The legal world needs to shed its ‘unicorniphobia’” that we should scrutinize the rush to change our securities regulations when we’ve created so much value with startups. For every Theranos, there is a Moderna, and adding more rules and disclosures may not prevent the problems of the former, and may actually stop the progress of the latter.

The once quiet research literature of venture law has been energized with the arrival of a reform-minded camp in the halls of power in DC. TechCrunch will continue to report and bring diverse perspectives on some of the most challenging legal and regulatory issues facing the tech and startup world.

#government, #policy, #securities-regulation, #startup-law, #venture-capital, #venture-law

The legal world needs to shed its ‘unicorniphobia’

Once upon a time, a successful startup that reached a certain maturity would “go public” — selling securities to ordinary investors, perhaps listing on a national stock exchange and taking on the privileges and obligations of a “public company” under federal securities regulations.

Times have changed. Successful startups today are now able to grow quite large without public capital markets. Not so long ago, a private company valued at more than $1 billion was rare enough to warrant the nickname “unicorn.” Now, over 800 companies qualify.

Legal scholars are worried. A recent wave of academic papers makes the case that because unicorns are not constrained by the institutional and regulatory forces that keep public companies in line, they are especially prone to risky and illegal activities that harm investors, employees, consumers and society at large.

The proposed solution, naturally, is to bring these forces to bear on unicorns. Specifically, scholars are proposing mandatory IPOs, significantly expanded disclosure obligations, regulatory changes designed to dramatically increase secondary-market trading of unicorn shares, expanded whistleblower protections for unicorn employees and stepped-up Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement against large private companies.

This position has also been gaining traction outside the ivory tower. One leader of this intellectual movement was recently appointed director of the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance. Big changes may be coming soon.

In a new paper titled “Unicorniphobia” (forthcoming in the Harvard Business Law Review), I challenge this suddenly dominant view that unicorns are especially dangerous and should be “tamed” with bold new securities regulations. I raise three main objections.

First, pushing unicorns toward public company status may not help and may actually make problems worse. According to the vast academic literature on “market myopia” or “stock-market short-termism,” it is public company managers who have especially dangerous incentives to take on excessive leverage and risk; to underinvest in compliance; to sacrifice product quality and safety; to slash R&D and other forms of corporate investment; to degrade the environment; and to engage in accounting fraud and other corporate misconduct, among many other things.

The dangerous incentives that produce this parade of horrible outcomes allegedly flow from a constellation of market, institutional, cultural and regulatory features that operate distinctly on public companies, not unicorns, including executive compensation linked to short-term stock performance, pressure to meet quarterly earnings projections (aka “quarterly capitalism”) and the persistent threat (and occasional reality) of a hedge fund activist attack. To the extent this literature is correct, the proposed unicorn reforms would merely amount to forcing companies to shed one set of purportedly dangerous incentives for another.

Second, proponents of new unicorn regulations rely on rhetorical sleight of hand. To show that unicorns pose unique dangers, these advocates rely heavily on anecdotes and case studies of well-known “bad” unicorns, especially the cases of Uber and Theranos, in their papers. Yet the authors make few or no attempts to show how their proposed reforms would have mitigated any significant harm caused by either of these companies — a highly questionable proposition, as I show in great detail in my paper.

Take Theranos, whose founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes is currently facing trial on charges of criminal fraud and, if convicted, faces a possible sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison. Would any of the proposed securities regulation reforms have plausibly made a positive difference in this case? Allegations that Holmes and others lied extensively to the media, doctors, patients, regulators, investors, business partners and even their own board of directors make it hard to believe they would have been any more truthful had they been forced to make some additional securities disclosures.

As to the proposal to enhance trading of unicorn shares in order to incentivize short sellers and market analysts to sniff out potential frauds, the fact is that these market players already had the ability and incentive to make these plays against Theranos indirectly by taking a short position in its public company partners like Walgreens, or a long position in its public company competitors, like LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics. They failed to do so. Proposals to expand whistleblower protections and SEC enforcement in this domain seem equally unlikely to have made any difference.

Finally, the proposed reforms risk doing more harm than good. Successful unicorns today benefit not only their investors and managers, but also their employees, consumers and society at large. And they do so precisely because of the features of current regulations that are now up on the regulatory chopping block. Altering this regime as these papers propose would put these benefits in jeopardy and thus may do more harm than good.

Consider one company that recently generated an enormous social benefit: Moderna. Before going public in December 2018, Moderna was a secretive, controversial, overhyped biotech unicorn without a single product on the market (or even in Phase 3 clinical trials), barely any scientific peer-reviewed publications, a history of turnover among high-level scientific personnel, a CEO with a penchant for over-the-top claims about the company’s potential and a toxic work culture.

Had these proposed new securities regulations been in place during Moderna’s “corporate adolescence,” it’s quite plausible that they would have significantly disrupted the company’s development. In fact, Moderna might not have been in a position to develop its highly effective COVID-19 vaccine as rapidly as it did. Our response to the coronavirus pandemic has benefited, in part, from our current approach to securities regulation of unicorns.

The lessons from Moderna also bear on efforts to use securities regulation to combat climate change. According to a recent report, 43 unicorns are operating in “climate tech,” developing products and services designed to mitigate or adapt to global climate change. These companies are risky. Their technologies may fail; most probably will. Some are challenging entrenched incumbents that have powerful incentives to do whatever is necessary to resist the competitive threat. Some may be trying to change well-established consumer preferences and behaviors. And they all face an uncertain regulatory environment, varying widely across and within jurisdictions.

Like other unicorns, they may have highly empowered founder CEOs who are demanding, irresponsible or messianic. They may also have core investors who do not fully understand the science underlying their products, are denied access to basic information and who press the firm to take risks to achieve astronomical results.

And yet, one or more of these companies may represent an important resource for our society in dealing with disruptions from climate change. As policymakers and scholars work out how securities regulation can be used to address climate change, they should not overlook the potentially important role unicorn regulation can play.

#climate-change, #column, #government, #opinion, #policy, #secondary-markets, #theranos, #uber, #unicorns, #venture-capital, #venture-law

What China’s new data privacy law means for US tech firms

China enacted a sweeping new data privacy law on August 20 that will dramatically impact how tech companies can operate in the country. Officially called the Personal Information Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China (PIPL), the law is the first national data privacy statute passed in China.

Modeled after the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, the PIPL imposes protections and restrictions on data collection and transfer that companies both inside and outside of China will need to address. It is particularly focused on apps using personal information to target consumers or offer them different prices on products and services, and preventing the transfer of personal information to other countries with fewer protections for security.

The PIPL, slated to take effect on November 1, 2021, does not give companies a lot of time to prepare. Those that already follow GDPR practices, particularly if they’ve implemented it globally, will have an easier time complying with China’s new requirements. But firms that have not implemented GDPR practices will need to consider adopting a similar approach. In addition, U.S. companies will need to consider the new restrictions on the transfer of personal information from China to the U.S.

Implementation and compliance with the PIPL is a much more significant task for companies that have not implemented GDPR principles.

Here’s a deep dive into the PIPL and what it means for tech firms:

New data handling requirements

The PIPL introduces perhaps the most stringent set of requirements and protections for data privacy in the world (this includes special requirements relating to processing personal information by governmental agencies that will not be addressed here). The law broadly relates to all kinds of information, recorded by electronic or other means, related to identified or identifiable natural persons, but excludes anonymized information.

The following are some of the key new requirements for handling people’s personal information in China that will affect tech businesses:

Extra-territorial application of the China law

Historically, China regulations have only been applied to activities inside the country. The PIPL is similar in applying the law to personal information handling activities within Chinese borders. However, similar to GDPR, it also expands its application to the handling of personal information outside China if the following conditions are met:

  • Where the purpose is to provide products or services to people inside China.
  • Where analyzing or assessing activities of people inside China.
  • Other circumstances provided in laws or administrative regulations.

For example, if you are a U.S.-based company selling products to consumers in China, you may be subject to the China data privacy law even if you do not have a facility or operations there.

Data handling principles

The PIPL introduces principles of transparency, purpose and data minimization: Companies can only collect personal information for a clear, reasonable and disclosed purpose, and to the smallest scope for realizing the purpose, and retain the data only for the period necessary to fulfill that purpose. Any information handler is also required to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the data it handles to avoid any negative impact on personal rights and interests.

#asia, #china, #column, #computer-security, #data-protection, #data-security, #ec-china, #ec-column, #ec-east-asia, #encryption, #european-union, #general-data-protection-regulation, #government, #internet, #iphone, #privacy, #tc

The 4 things needed to reach Biden’s ambitious 2050 solar goal

A report on the future of solar energy from the Department of Energy paints a sunny picture, if you will, of the next three decades, at the end of which nearly half the country’s energy will be provided by the sun. But for that to happen, big pushes need to happen along four major lines: better photovoltaics, more energy storage, lower soft costs, and putting about a million people to work.

Here’s what the report says needs to happen in each of these sectors in order to meet the ambitious goals it sets out.

Better photovoltaics

The solar cells themselves will need to continue to improve in both cost and efficiency in order to achieve the kind of installation volumes hoped for by the DOE. For reference, 2020 saw 15 gigawatts worth of solar installed, the most ever — but we’re going to need to double that installation rate by 2025, then double it again by 2030.

If photovoltaics don’t improve in efficiency, that means these already ambitious numbers need to go even higher to account for that. And if they stay at today’s prices, the costs will be too high to achieve those volumes as well.

Photovoltaics have come a long way, but they also have a long way to go.

Fortunately efficiency is going up and cost is going down already. But it’s not like that just happens naturally. Companies and researchers across the globe have spent millions on new manufacturing processes, new materials, and other improvements, incremental individually but which add up over time. This basic research and advancement of the science and methods around solar must continue at or beyond the pace that they have over the last two decades.

The DOE suggests that research along the lines of making more exotic PVs cheaper, or stacking cells to minimize bandgap-related losses could be crucial. Flexible and tile- or shingle-like substrates or semi-transparent installations that pass light through to crops or building interiors may also figure. Altogether the plan calls for a reduction of the overall cost to drop by almost half from $1.30/watt today on average to $0.70 by 2030 and more after that.

Solar concentrators get their own heading in the report, and many companies are looking into these to replace industrial processes. These will not likely be used to support the grid at large but will nevertheless replace many fossil fuel based processes.

More energy storage

An unavoidable consequence of getting your energy from the sun is that at night you must rely on stored energy in some form or another, originally nuclear or coal but increasingly a form of storage that collects excess power collected during the daytime. With more of peak usage being covered by renewables, cities can safely transition away from carbon-based energy sources.

While we often think of energy storage in terms of batteries, and certainly they will be present, but the amount of energy that must be stored rules out something like lithium-ion batteries as the primary storage mechanism. Instead, the excess energy can be put towards powering energy-hungry renewable fuel production, like hydrogen fuel cells. This fuel can then be used to generate power when solar can’t meet demand.

The diagram shows how demand would normally go (purple) then how it would go with solar (orange) and how energy storage could mitigate that load (solid colors).

That’s just the “off the top of the head” answer. As the report states: “Thermal, chemical, and mechanical storage technologies are under various stages of development, including pumped thermal storage, liquid air energy storage, novel gravity-based technologies, and geological hydrogen storage.”

No doubt there will be a variety of new and old technologies working to provide the various levels of energy redundancy and storage duration needs of the country. These will go a long way towards making solar and other renewable energy sources capable of being relied on for a greater proportion of demand.

Lower soft costs

If we’re going to double and redouble the rate of solar cell deployment, the costs have to come down not just for the cells themselves, but the whole end-to-end process: assessment, accounting, labor, and of course the profit due to the companies that will be doing the actual work.

Lowering non-hardware costs is already the goal of many startups, like Aurora Solar, which clearly saw the writing on the wall and started making it as easy as possible to plan, visualize, and sell solar installations entirely online.

Right now the all-in cost of a solar roof might be twice the cost of the hardware or more. There are several contributors to this, from financing to regulations to markets, and each has its own intricacies beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that if you can shave one percent off the cost of a solar installation by streamlining the time or cost involved in any of these areas, there will be more than enough volume to turn that one point into a major sum. It will take the combined efforts of many organizational and commercial minds to make this happen, just as it takes the efforts of many scientific ones to improve PVs.

A million jobs

Last but certainly not least, someone has to actually do all this work. That means a whole lot of labor — several times the quarter million people currently estimated to be attached to the solar industry in the country today.

Jobs in this sector will run the gamut, from skilled workers with construction experience to energy professionals who’ve managed grids to public-private partnership wizards who connect commerce to the government’s inevitable top-down incentives. The additional half a million to a million jobs will almost certainly comprise many brand new companies and sub-industries, but the general breakdown so far has been about 65 percent installation and project development, 25 percent sales and manufacturing, and the rest in miscellaneous roles.

It is worth noting, however, that energy concerns currently clinging with white knuckles to aging oil and coal infrastructure will need to do right by the tens of thousands they still employ, and the renewable energy sector is a perfect transition space. “Throughout the transition, certain fossil fuel companies may come under increasing financial distress,” the report reads, which is something of an understatement. The authors strongly suggest funding transition programs that cover training, relocation, and guarantees of existing financial benefits like pensions.

The report points out that the solar industry is overwhelmingly white and male, like a few others we could name, so it is probably worth putting in work on that front if the million hires are to be at all equitable.

You can browse the full study here.

#department-of-energy, #doe, #government, #greentech, #hardware, #renewables, #science, #solar, #solar-energy

SEC wants to regulate Coinbase’s crypto yield product, Coinbase disagrees

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong has reacted strongly to the company’s current relationship with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. According to him, the SEC is threatening to sue the cryptocurrency exchange if it launches its yield-generating product called Coinbase Lend.

With this new product, Coinbase wants to compete with popular decentralized finance (DeFi) products, such as Compound and Aave. The company wants to operate a lending pool focused on USD Coin (USDC), a stablecoin that is pegged to USD.

If the company manages to launch Coinbase Lend, users will be able to contribute to the lending pool by sending crypto assets to Coinbase Lend. Eventually, the company plans to lend out those crypto assets. What Coinbase users get in exchange to contributing to the lending pool is high interests. Coinbase promises 4% APY on its preview page.

According to Brian Armstrong, the company reached out to the SEC before releasing it. “They responded by telling us this lend feature is a security,” he said on Twitter.

“They refuse to tell us why they think it’s a security, and instead subpoena a bunch of records from us (we comply), demand testimony from our employees (we comply), and then tell us they will be suing us if we proceed to launch, with zero explanation as to why,” he added.

Coinbase’s Chief Legal Officer Paul Grewal also wrote about the events on the company’s blog. It appears that the company decided to move forward and pre-announce the new feature despite the SEC saying that Coinbase’s Lend program is a security.

“The SEC told us they consider Lend to involve a security, but wouldn’t say why or how they’d reached that conclusion. Rather than get discouraged, we chose to continue taking things slowly. In June, we announced our Lend program publicly and opened a waitlist but did not set a public launch date,” Paul Grewal wrote.

Here’s a pro tip for entrepreneurs reading this post. If the SEC tells you that you can’t launch something, don’t put up a waitlist with the words ‘coming soon’.

To no one’s surprise, Coinbase says that the SEC decided to open a formal investigation after that. One employee also had to spend a day with the SEC to answer questions.

“They asked for documents and written responses, and we willingly provided them. They also asked for us to provide a corporate witness to give sworn testimony about the program. As a result, one of our employees spent a full day in August providing complete and transparent testimony about Lend,” Grewal wrote.

As a result, Coinbase is now mad and has chosen to launch a PR campaign against the SEC. Brian Armstrong’s main argument is that other companies have been offering lending pools already, so there’s no reason why some companies can offer such a product and not Coinbase.

“Meanwhile, plenty of other crypto companies continue to offer a lend feature, but Coinbase is somehow not allowed to,” he tweeted.

This is a risky strategy as Coinbase could end up alienating the crypto ecosystem at large. There could be increased scrutiny on DeFi and industry-wide enforcement of stricter rules, as Sar Haribhakti pointed out.

“Ostensibly the SEC’s goal is to protect investors and create fair markets. So who are they protecting here and where is the harm? People seem pretty happy to be earning yield on these various products, across lots of other crypto companies,” Brian Armstrong said.

If you read the fine print, Coinbase doesn’t protect investors with its Lend program. Here’s what it says at the bottom of the Coinbase Lend page: “Lend is not a high-yield USD savings account, and Coinbase is not a bank. Your loaned crypto is not protected by FDIC or SIPC insurance.”

That’s not very reassuring for investors. At some point, Coinbase and the SEC will have to sit at the same table to discuss crypto lending products because a tweetstorm won’t solve the issue.

#blockchain, #coinbase, #cryptocurrency, #defi, #government, #lending-pool, #sec

We must subsidize and regulate space exploration

In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web (popularizing the modern internet). He didn’t protect the technology because he wanted it to benefit us all. Three decades later, most of the power — and a lot of the profits — of the internet are in the hands of a few tech billionaires, and much of the early promise of the internet remains unfulfilled.

To avoid the same fate for space, we need to subsidize new players to create competition and lower costs, as well as regulate space travel to ensure safety.

Space matters. It could create countless jobs and fuel economies, and may even hold the solution to climate change. Investors can already see this, having poured billions into space companies in an industry with a potential market value of $1.4 trillion by 2030.

Space may seem too vast to be dominated by a few tech billionaires, but in 1989, so did the internet. We need to get this right, because from the mechanics and aerospace engineers to the marketing, information and logistics workers, the space industry could fuel global job creation and economic growth.

For that to happen, we need competition. What we have now is a few players operating perhaps for their founders’ benefits, not the world’s.

We should not repeat the mistakes we made with the internet and wait for the technology to be abused before we step in. For example, in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a private technology company used weapons-grade social media manipulation to pursue their own profit (which is their obligation to their shareholders) but to society’s harm (which it is regulators’ job to protect).

In space, the stakes are even higher. They also affect all of humanity, not a few countries. There are environmental dangers (we are probing the carbon cost of “Earth” flights, but not space flights), and an accident, as well as leading to loss of life in space, could send fatal debris to Earth.

These dangers are not unforeseen. Virgin Galactic had its first fatality in 2014. A Space X launch puts out as much carbon dioxide as flying around 300 people across the Atlantic. Earlier this year, some unguided space debris from a Chinese rocket landed in the Maldives.

We should not wait until these accidents happen again — perhaps at a bigger scale — before we act.

Space tourism can and should be about much more than giving the 1% another Instagrammable moment and increasing the wealth of the billionaires who provide the service.

The space industry should be managed in a way that delivers the most good to the largest number of people. That starts with subsidies.

In short, we should treat space travel like any other form of transit. Making that sustainable economically will almost inevitably require some government intervention.

We have been here before: When the combination of air travel, highways and rising labor costs led the two largest railways in the United States to bankruptcy, the Nixon administration intervened and created Amtrak.

This wasn’t ideologically fueled (quite the opposite). This was a decision to make sure the U.S. reaped the economic benefits of interstate travel. Even though Amtrak remains unprofitable 50 years after its creation, it is a crucial piece of economic infrastructure upon which many other industries — as well as millions of individuals and families — rely.

We need to do the same with space travel. Very few individuals will benefit from what will be an uber-luxury segment of the travel market, with Virgin Galactic tickets predicted to cost $250,000 (and that is the entry-level space travel product; Virgin’s competitors are priced at multiples of that cost).

If we subsidize the industry now, while ensuring there are new competitors in space, we can ensure it hits a critical mass where all the broader benefits of space travel become a reality.

This will be much easier than waiting for monopolies to emerge and then trying to fight them (which is what the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is trying to do, decades too late, to Big Tech).

Space travel is not just hype or the plaything of billionaires. It is the final frontier, both physically and economically.

If we want it to be a success, we should learn from our successes and failures back on Earth and apply them to space now.

That means subsidies, support, regulation and safety. These things are important on Earth, but in space they are absolutely essential.

#aerospace, #column, #government, #opinion, #policy, #space, #space-debris, #space-tourism, #space-travel, #spaceflight, #tc, #virgin-galactic

Forerunner is software for NFIMBYs, or no flooding in my backyard

Mayors have the toughest job in the world, and leading a city is only getting harder. Even as populations swell in urban cores across the world, climate change is constraining the geographies where that growth can happen. Coastal communities which are popular with residents are also taking a gamble when it comes to rising sea levels. How do you tradeoff a need for growth with the requirement for protecting residents from disaster?

In most cases, the pendulum is fully tilted toward growth. Coastal towns continue to allow widespread sprawl and development, chasing ever more property taxes and residents even as sea levels get ever more uncomfortably high. It’s a recipe for disaster — and one that many cities have chosen to bake anyway.

Forerunner wants that pendulum to swing the other way. Its platform allows city planners and building managers to survey, investigate and enforce stricter building codes and land use standards with a focus on mitigating future flood damage. It’s particularly focused on American cities with heavy usage of the federal flood insurance program, and Forerunner helps cities maximize their adherence to that program’s byzantine rules.

The company pulls in data from FEMA and other sources to determine a property’s mandatory lowest floor height requirement, and whether the property conforms to that rule. It also tracks flood zone boundaries and helps with the administrative overhead of processing federal flood insurance documentation, such as creating and managing elevation certificates.

Co-founders JT White and Susanna Pho have been friends for years and worked at the MIT Media Lab before eventually coming together in early 2019 to build out this floodplain management product. “It cannot be underscored enough that a lot of communities just don’t follow [federal flood] regulations,” Pho said. “They will revert their ordinances from something more strict … since they can’t do a lot of day-to-day compliance.”

Coastal cities devastated by floods are protected by federal flood insurance, but that often creates a moral hazard: since damage is paid for, there isn’t much incentive to avoid it in the first place. The federal government is attempting to tighten those standards, and there is also a sense among a new generation of city planners and municipal leaders that the build-devastation-rebuild model of many cities needs to stop given climate change. After flooding, “we want to see communities rebuild to higher standards,” White said. “The sort of cycle of rebuilding and doing the same thing over and over again is infuriating to us.”

Transitioning to a new model isn’t easy of course. “There are a lot of hard decisions that these communities must make,” he said, but “our software makes it a bit easier to do these things.” So far, the company has gotten early traction with 33 communities currently using Forerunner according to the founders.

Although it has customer clusters in Louisiana and northern New Jersey, the company’s largest customer is Harris County, which includes much of the Houston, Texas metro area. The county could potentially save $5 million on their flood insurance premiums with better adherence to federal standards, according to White. “One of the benefits of our product is that we can help you protect and increase this immediate discount to every flood insurance policyholder in your community starting next year,” he said. Ultimately though, FEMA focuses on disincentives rather than incentives. “The biggest stick that FEMA has is that it can suspend communities from the flood insurance program,” he noted.

The company raised an early seed round in 2019, and has been focused on building up the platform’s capabilities and getting the sales flywheel spinning — which can be a tough order in the govtech space.

Even as demand intensifies for more housing and growth, climate change is simultaneously placing its own demands on cities. Mayors and city leaders are increasingly going to have to transition from the growth models of the past to the resilient models of the future.

#climate-change, #emergency-management, #forerunner, #government, #greentech, #startups, #technology-and-disaster-response

The next Theranos should be shortable

A jury will soon decide whether former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes is guilty of a federal crime. But the deeper public policy questions that Theranos raised remain unanswered. How did a startup built on a technology that never worked grow to a valuation of $9 billion? How was the company able to conceal its fraud for so long? And what, if anything, can be done to prevent the next Theranos before it grows large enough to cause real harm—and burns capital that could have been invested in genuine innovations? I explore these questions in a forthcoming paper in the Indiana Law Journal titled Taming Unicorns.

While Theranos was publicly exposed in October 2015 by Wall Street Journal investigative reporter John Carreyrou, insiders knew that it was committing fraud many years earlier. For example, in 2006, Holmes gave a demo of an early prototype blood test to Novartis executives and faked the results when the device malfunctioned. When Theranos’ CFO confronted Holmes about the incident, she fired him. In 2008—roughly seven years before Carreyrou’s exposé—Theranos board members learned that Holmes had misled them about the company’s finances and the state of its technology.

Over time, a remarkable number of people, both inside and outside the company, began to suspect that Theranos was a fraud. An employee at Walgreens tasked with vetting Theranos for a potential partnership wrote in a report that the company was overselling its technology. Physicians in Arizona grew skeptical of the results their patients were receiving, and a pathologist in Missouri wrote a blog post questioning Theranos’ claims about how accurate its devices were. Stanford Professor John Ioannidis published an article in JAMA raising more doubts.

Meanwhile, rumors had spread in the VC community. Bill Maris of Google Ventures (since rebranded as GV) claimed that his fund passed on investing in Theranos in 2013. According to Maris, the firm had sent an employee to take a Theranos blood test at Walgreens. The employee was asked to give more than the single drop of blood that Theranos claimed its devices needed. After he refused a conventional venous blood draw, he was told to come back to give more blood.

So why did none of these doubts slow Theranos’ fundraising? Part of the answer is that it was a private company, and it’s nearly impossible to bet against private companies.

Until the last decade, most startups that grew to become valuable businesses chose to become public companies. Late-stage startups with reported valuations over $1 billion used to be so rare that VC Aileen Lee dubbed them “unicorns” in a 2013 article in TechCrunch. Back then, there were only 39 startups claiming billion-dollar valuations. By 2021, despite the surge in companies going public through SPACs, the number of unicorns had passed 800.

The rise of unicorns has been accompanied by corporate misconduct scandals. Of course, public companies commit misconduct too. Research hasn’t yet established whether unicorns are systematically more prone to commit misconduct than comparable public companies. However, we do know that the opportunity to profit from information about a company by trading its securities creates incentives to uncover misconduct. Since the securities of private companies aren’t widely traded, it’s easier for private company executives to conceal misconduct.

Consider the electric truck company Nikola, formerly a unicorn. In 2020, Nikola went public through a SPAC. Once it was public, short seller Nathan Anderson decided to investigate and ultimately issued a report alleging a pattern of corporate misconduct. He showed that a video Nikola had produced with its prototype truck traveling at high speed was staged—Nikola had towed the truck to the top of a hill and filmed it rolling downhill in neutral. After Anderson released his report, the SEC and federal prosecutors launched investigations into whether the Nikola misled investors. Its stock price lost more than half of its value. In 2021, Nikola’s CEO Trevor Milton was charged by the SEC and indicted by a federal grand jury. Nikola wouldn’t have been exposed so soon if it had stayed private.

Securities regulation restricts both the sale and resale of private company stock in the name of investor protection. Startups usually attach a contractual right of first refusal to their shares, which effectively requires employees to get the company’s permission to sell. Many late-stage startups practice “selective liquidity”: allowing key employees to cash out in private placements, while preventing a robust market from emerging. Consequently, those who have information about private company misconduct have little incentive to publicize it—even though the Supreme Court has held that an investor who trades on information shared for the purpose of exposing fraud can’t be convicted of insider trading.

VCs might seem well-positioned to police unicorn misconduct. But their asymmetric risk preferences undermine their incentive to expose wrongdoing. VCs invest their funds in a portfolio of startups and expect that most bets will generate modest or negative returns, and only a small number will grow exponentially. The outsize growth of the few successful startups will offset the losses of the balance of the portfolio. For VCs, the difference between a startup that implodes in scandal and the many startups that fail to develop a product or find a market is insignificant.

Venture investing is an auction with a winner’s curse problem. Startups pitch to many VC firms in each fundraising round, but they only need to accept funding from one bidder. In public capital markets, if most investors decide that a company is fraudulent or excessively risky, its stock price will decline. In VC markets however, if most investors decide that a startup is fraudulent, the startup can still raise funds from a credulous contrarian. VCs who pass won’t share their negative assessment with the public because they want to maintain a founder-friendly reputation. Maris only told the press that GV had passed on Theranos after Carreyrou’s article.

Congress and the SEC could strengthen deterrence of unicorn misconduct by creating a market for trading private company securities, in three steps.

First, the regulations constraining the secondary trading of private company securities should be liberalized. The SEC should eliminate Rule 144’s holding period for resales as to accredited investors—the individual and institutional investors that the SEC deems sophisticated and most able to bear risk. Congress should eliminate section 12(g)’s requirement that effectively forces companies to go public if they acquire 2,000 record shareholders who are accredited investors—a rule that leads private companies to limit trading.

Second, the SEC should attach a regulatory most favored nation (MFN) clause to all securities sold through the safe harbors commonly used for private placements. An MFN clause would require that, if a company allows any of its securities to be resold, it must allow all its securities to be resold, as long as the resale is otherwise legal. A regulatory MFN clause would ban the practice of selective liquidity and nudge companies to allow their shares to be traded.

Third, the SEC should require that all private companies that let their securities be widely traded make limited public disclosures about their operations and finances. A limited disclosure mandate would protect investors by ensuring they had basic information about the companies in which they could invest, without saddling unicorns with the costly disclosure obligations placed on public companies.

The net effect of these reforms would be to create a robust market for trading unicorn stock among accredited investors. Most large, private companies would likely decide to allow their shares to be traded. Short sellers, analysts, and financial journalists would be attracted to the markets. Their investigations would strengthen deterrence of unicorn misconduct. The limited disclosure mandate, combined with the requirement that investors be accredited, would protect investors.

When large, private companies commit misconduct, the natural response is to increase the penalty for the underlying misconduct, not to interfere with the tradability of the company’s securities. But the problem isn’t lax penalties. Holmes is facing 20 years in prison—a punishment more brutal than anyone deserves. The problem is that penalties only work when wrongdoers expect to be caught. Trading creates incentives to expose misconduct faster.

#column, #elizabeth-holmes, #government, #nikola, #policy, #sec, #short-selling, #theranos, #venture-capital

Texas Right to Life website exposed job applicants’ resumes

Anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life exposed the personal information of hundreds of job applicants after a website bug allowed anyone to access their resumes, which were stored in an unprotected directory on its website.

A security researcher told TechCrunch that the group’s main website, built largely in WordPress, was not properly protecting the file storage on its website, which it used to store resumes of more than 300 job applicants, as well as other files uploaded to the website. The resumes contained names, phone numbers, addresses, and details of a person’s employment history.

The website bug was fixed over the weekend, a short time after details of the leak were posted on Twitter. The group’s website no longer lists any of the exposed files.

“We are taking action to protect the concerned individuals,” said Kimberlyn Schwartz, a spokesperson for Texas Right to Life told TechCrunch, referring to those who “sought and circulated the information.”

When asked, Schwartz would not say if the organization planned on informing those whose personal information was exposed by its security lapse.

Texas Right to Life sparked anger when last week it publicized a “whistleblower” website that encouraged Texas residents to report when someone might be seeking an abortion in violation of the state’s restrictive new abortion law. The law allows anyone to sue someone seeking an abortion, or anyone “aiding and abetting” an abortion after six weeks. That provision has been widely interpreted as targeting doctors who perform these procedures, but also potentially anyone who gets involved, such as contributing money or driving a friend to a clinic.

It didn’t take long for the “whistleblower” website to be flooded with fake tips, memes, and Shrek porn in protest. The site briefly fell offline Thursday, which coincided with an activist releasing an iOS shortcut to help anyone pre-fill the website’s form with fake information.

But by the weekend, GoDaddy, the company hosting the website, told Texas Right to Life that the site violated its terms of service and gave the group 24 hours to find another host. It did — briefly — by way of Epik, a web host that helped other controversial sites like far-right social networks Gab get back online. But that didn’t last long either.

As of Monday, the “whistleblower” website pointed to Texas Right to Life’s main website.

 

#abortion, #godaddy, #government, #health, #human-rights, #humans, #privacy, #security, #spokesperson, #texas, #womens-rights

China roundup: Beijing wants tech giants to shoulder more social responsibilities

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

This week, the gaming industry again became a target of Beijing, which imposed arguably the world’s strictest limits on underage players. On the other hand, China’s tech titans are hastily answering Beijing’s call for them to take on more social responsibilities and take a break from unfettered expansion.

Gaming curfew

China dropped a bombshell on the country’s young gamers. As of September 1, users under the age of 18 are limited to only one hour of online gaming time: on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between 8-9 p.m.

The stringent rule adds to already tightening gaming policies for minors, as the government blames video games for causing myopia, as well as deteriorating mental and physical health. Remember China recently announced a suite of restrictions on after-school tutoring? The joke going around is that working parents will have an even harder time keeping their kids occupied.

A few aspects of the new regulation are worth unpacking. For one, the new rule was instituted by the National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA), the regulatory body that approves gaming titles in China and that in 2019 froze the approval process for nine months, which led to plunges in gaming stocks like Tencent.

It’s curious that the directive on playtime came from the NPPA, which reviews gaming content and issues publishing licenses. Like other industries in China, video games are subject to regulations by multiple authorities: NPPA; the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s top internet watchdog; and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which oversees the country’s industrial standards and telecommunications infrastructure.

As analysts long observe, the mighty CAC, which sits under the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission chaired by President Xi Jinping, has run into “bureaucratic struggles” with other ministries unwilling to relinquish power. This may well be the case for regulating the lucrative gaming industry.

For Tencent and other major gaming companies, the impact of the new rule on their balance sheet may be trifling. Following the news, several listed Chinese gaming firms, including NetEase and 37 Games, hurried to announce that underage players made up less than 1% of their gaming revenues.

Tencent saw the change coming and disclosed in its Q2 earnings that “under-16-year-olds accounted for only 2.6% of its China-based grossing receipts for games and under-12-year-olds accounted for just 0.3%.”

These numbers may not reflect the reality, as minors have long found ways around gaming restrictions, such as using an adult’s ID for user registration (just as the previous generation borrowed IDs from adult friends to sneak into internet cafes). Tencent and other gaming firms have vowed to clamp down on these workarounds, forcing kids to seek even more sophisticated tricks, including using VPNs to access foreign versions of gaming titles. The cat and mouse game continues. 

Prosper together

While China curtails the power of its tech behemoths, it has also pressured them to take on more social responsibilities, which include respecting the worker’s rights in the gig economy.

Last week, the Supreme People’s Court of China declared the “996” schedule, working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, illegal. The declaration followed years of worker resistance against the tech industry’s burnout culture, which has manifested in actions like a GitHub project listing companies practicing “996.”

Meanwhile, hardworking and compliant employees have often been cited as a competitive advantage of China’s tech industry. It’s in part why some Silicon Valley companies, especially those run by people familiar with China, often set up branches in the country to tap its pool of tech talent.

The days when overworking is glorified and tolerated seem to be drawing to an end. Both ByteDance and its short video rival Kuaishou recently scrapped their weekend overtime policies.

Similarly, Meituan announced that it will introduce compulsory break time for its food delivery riders. The on-demand services giant has been slammed for “inhumane” algorithms that force riders into brutal hours or dangerous driving.

In groundbreaking moves, ride-hailing giant Didi and Alibaba’s e-commerce rival JD.com have set up unions for their staff, though it’s still unclear what tangible impact the organizations will have on safeguarding employee rights.

Tencent and Alibaba have also acted. On August 17, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech calling for “common prosperity,” which caught widespread attention from the country’s ultra-rich.

“As China marches towards its second centenary goal, the focus of promoting people’s well-being should be put on boosting common prosperity to strengthen the foundation for the Party’s long-term governance.”

This week, both Tencent and Alibaba pledged to invest 100 billion yuan ($15.5 billion) in support of “common prosperity.” The purposes of their funds are similar and align neatly with Beijing’s national development goals, from growing the rural economy to improving the healthcare system.

#alibaba, #asia, #beijing, #bytedance, #china, #china-roundup, #didi, #gaming, #github, #government, #jd-com, #kuaishou, #ministry-of-industry-and-information-technology, #netease, #tc, #tencent, #xi-jinping

Report: India may be next in line to mandate changes to Apple’s in-app payment rules

Summer is still technically in session, but a snowball is slowly developing in the world of apps, and specifically the world of in-app payments. A report in Reuters today says that the Competition Commission of India, the country’s monopoly regulator, will soon be looking at an antitrust suit filed against Apple over how it mandates that app developers use Apple’s own in-app payment system — thereby giving Apple a cut of those payments — when publishers charge users for subscriptions and other items in their apps.

The suit, filed by an Indian non-profit called “Together We Fight Society”, said in a statement to Reuters that it was representing consumer and startup interests in its complaint.

The move would be the latest in what has become a string of challenges from national regulators against app store operators — specifically Apple but also others like Google and WeChat — over how they wield their positions to enforce market practices that critics have argued are anti-competitive. Other countries that have in recent weeks reached settlements, passed laws, or are about to introduce laws include Japan, South Korea, Australia, the U.S. and the European Union.

And in India specifically, the regulator is currently working through a similar investigation as it relates to in-app payments in Android apps, which Google mandates use its proprietary payment system. Google and Android dominate the Indian smartphone market, with the operating system active on 98% of the 520 million devices in use in the country as of the end of 2020.

It will be interesting to watch whether more countries wade in as a result of these developments. Ultimately, it could force app store operators, to avoid further and deeper regulatory scrutiny, to adopt new and more flexible universal policies.

In the meantime, we are seeing changes happen on a country-by-country basis.

Just yesterday, Apple reached a settlement in Japan that will let publishers of “reader” apps (those for using or consuming media like books and news, music, files in the cloud and more) to redirect users to external sites to provide alternatives to Apple’s proprietary in-app payment provision. Although it’s not as seamless as paying within the app, redirecting previously was typically not allowed, and in doing so the publishers can avoid Apple’s cut.

South Korean legislators earlier this week approved a measure that will make it illegal for Apple and Google to make a commission by forcing developers to use their proprietary payment systems.

And last week, Apple also made some movements in the U.S. around allowing alternative forms of payments, but relatively speaking the concessions were somewhat indirect: app publishers can refer to alternative, direct payment options in apps now, but not actually offer them. (Not yet at least.)

Some developers and consumers have been arguing for years that Apple’s strict policies should open up more. Apple however has long said in its defense that it mandates certain developer policies to build better overall user experiences, and for reasons of security. But, as app technology has evolved, and consumer habits have changed, critics believe that this position needs to be reconsidered.

One factor in Apple’s defense in India specifically might be the company’s position in the market. Android absolutely dominates India when it comes to smartphones and mobile services, with Apple actually a very small part of the ecosystem.

As of the end of 2020, it accounted for just 2% of the 520 million smartphones in use in the country, according to figures from Counterpoint Research quoted by Reuters. That figure had doubled in the last five years, but it’s a long way from a majority, or even significant minority.

The antitrust filing in India has yet to be filed formally, but Reuters notes that the wording leans on the fact that anti-competitive practices in payments systems make it less viable for many publishers to exist at all, since the economics simply do not add up:

“The existence of the 30% commission means that some app developers will never make it to the market,” Reuters noted from the filing. “This could also result in consumer harm.”

Reuters notes that the CCI will be reviewing the case in the coming weeks before deciding whether it should run a deeper investigation or dismiss it. It typically does not publish filings during this period.

#android, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #asia, #australia, #competition-commission-of-india, #computing, #european-union, #google, #government, #india, #itunes, #japan, #mobile, #operating-system, #policy, #smartphone, #smartphones, #software, #south-korea, #technology, #united-states, #wechat

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

The Station: Rivian makes its IPO move, Nuro pushes into Nevada and Waymo scales up in SF

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every weekend in your inbox.

Hello readers: Welcome to The Station, your central hub for all past, present and future means of moving people and packages from Point A to Point B. I’m back after a one-week hiatus. Did ya miss me? Yes, of course you did.

A lot happened while I was away and I’ll try my best to highlight the important stuff. Before I get to the hard news, I want to direct your attention to the latest founders Q&A — an ongoing series to highlight people who have started and are running transportation companies. Our twist? We will check on these founders a year from when their interview has been published.

This week, Zūm co-founder and CEO Ritu Narayan was in the hot seat. Check it out.

Also, it’s been awhile since I have directed y’all to The Autonocast, the podcast I co-host with Alex Roy and Ed Niedermeyer. We’ve had some great episodes in recent weeks, notably our interview with mobility-focused venture capitalist Olaf Sakkers. He joined the show to discuss “The Mobility Disruption Framework,” a funny, insightful book about the trends and technologies transforming the ways we get around. You can read the book here.

As always, you can email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, opinions or tips. You also can send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Nuro’s Nevada play

Nuro-Vegas

Image Credits: Nuro

Earlier this month, we published a series of articles that took a deep dive into autonomous vehicle technology company Nuro. We mentioned that the company was aiming to move into Nevada. Now, there are more details.

Nuro, which is applying its AV tech to delivery, is investing $40 million to develop a factory and closed course test track in southern Nevada. Nuro co-founder and CEO Jiajun Zhu said this will allow Nuro to “build tens of thousands of robots.”

And Nuro isn’t wasting any time getting started. Construction on the factory will begin in fall 2021 and is expected to be completed in 2022. Both the factory and closed-course testing facility are expected to be fully operational in 2022, the company said.

The factory, which will be more than 125,000 square feet, will be used to build Nuro’s third-generation autonomous vehicles with current and future partners. BYD North America will be Nuro’s manufacturing partner.

Nuro is also taking over 74 acres of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway to build a closed-course testing facility that will allow the development and validation of its autonomous on-road vehicles. The testing track will measure bot performance in a broad range of scenarios, from avoiding pedestrians and pets to giving bicycles space on shared roadways, as well as environmental tests and vehicle systems validation. the company said.

Deal of the week

money the station

Rivian has raised more than $10.5 billion in its lifetime, funds that have been directed towards the design, development and production of its first two electric vehicles as well as commercial vans for Amazon.

It’s a hefty sum that should be enough to fulfill that mission — and more. And yet, even Rivian is no match for the public market’s siren song.

The company, just weeks before its first electric pickup trucks are expected to be delivered to customers, confidentially filed paperwork with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to go public. A Rivian IPO announcement has been expected for months now. The valuation the company is shooting for is the big surprise. If Bloomberg’s sources are right, Rivian is shooting for a valuation roughly around $80 billion.

That’s nearly three times larger than the last valuation I was able to nail down in January. At that time, the company had just raised another $2.65 billion from existing investors T. Rowe Price Associates Inc., Fidelity Management and Research Company, Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, Coatue and D1 Capital Partners. New investors also participated in that round, which pushed Rivian’s valuation to $27.6 billion, a source familiar with the investment round told TechCrunch at the time.

Rivian has raised more money since then. In July, the company announced it had closed a $2.5 billion private funding round led by Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, D1 Capital Partners, Ford Motor and funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates Inc. Third Point, Fidelity Management and Research Company, Dragoneer Investment Group and Coatue also participated in that round. The company did not share a post-money valuation at the time of the July 2021 announcement.

Officially, Rivian says the size and price range for the proposed offering have yet to be determined.

Other deals that got my attention this week …

Coco, the Los Angeles delivery robot startup, raised $36 million in a Series A round led by Sam Altman, Silicon Valley Bank and Founders Fund, with participation from Sam Nazarian, Ellen Chen and Mario Del Pero. It brings the company’s total funding up to around $43 million.

DealerPolicy, an insurance marketplace for automotive retail, raised $110 million in a Series C rouond led by the Growth Equity business within Goldman Sachs Asset Management. Additional investors include 3L Capital and Hudson Structured Capital Management Ltd. Goldman Sachs’ Paul Pate will also join the company’s board of directors.

Getaround, the peer-to-peer car-sharing startup, is in talks to go public through a merger with special purpose acquisition company Altitude Acquisition Corp , Reuters reported. The company has confidentially sought investors to participate in the deal through a private placement in public equity, or PIPE, at a valuation of around $1.7 billion.

HyPoint, the two-year-old fuel cell developer, has secured a $6.5 million development agreement with Piasecki Aircraft Corporation for the design and certification of hydrogen fuel cell systems. Through the partnership, HyPoint aims to deliver five full-scale, 650 kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for ground testing, demo flights and the certification process.

KKR, the global investment firm, has plans to acquire New Zealand bus and coach company Ritchies Transport, which currently has a fleet of more than 1,600 vehicles and 42 depots that operate across the country. The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but sources familiar with the circumstances say the deal values Ritchies at over $347 million ($500 million NZD). This is KKR’s first infrastructure investment in New Zealand.

Malta Inc., an energy storage company, said that Chevron Technology Ventures and Piva Capital have joined a group of investors including Proman, Alfa Laval, Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Dustin Moskovitz in its oversubscribed Series B financing, increasing the round to more than $60 million.

MaxAB, the Egyptian B2B e-commerce platform that serves food and grocery retailers, raised a $15 million extension from existing investors RMBV, IFC, Flourish Ventures, Crystal Stream Capital, Rise Capital, Endeavour Catalyst, Beco Capital and 4DX Ventures. The extension brings its total Series A fundraise to $55 million.

Point Pickup Technologies, a last-mile delivery service, acquired white-label e-commerce platform GrocerKey for $42 million. The acquisition means Point Pickup will be able to offer retailers services such as same-day delivery under their own brand name, rather than under third parties like Instacart.

Upstream, the Israeli automotive security firm, raised $62 million in a Series C funding round led by Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance and was joined by new investors I.D.I. Insurance, 57 Stars’ NextGen Mobility Fund and La Maison Partners. Existing investors Glilot Capital, Salesforce venture, Volvo Group Venture Capital, Nationwide, Delek US and others also participated in the round. With this latest round, the company has raised a total of $105 million since its founding in 2017.

Volvo Group has agreed to buy heavy duty truck subsidiary of Jiangling Motors Corp for about 1.1 billion Swedish crowns ($125.7 million) to make trucks in China, Reuters reported.

Policy corner

the-station-delivery

Welcome back to policy corner! The stalemate over the budget reconciliation that I warned might take months to break — just kidding! The House managed to pass the $3.5 trillion budget resolution and made progress on the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill on Tuesday, in a 220-212 bipartisan vote. The vote includes a non-binding agreement to vote on the infrastructure bill by Sept. 27.

The path is now clear for Democrats to pass one of the most socially progressive budgets in decades, with a slew of social safety net provisions for childcare, healthcare, climate and education. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had previously sworn she would stall the infrastructure bill until the budget passed, so the infrastructure bill passing sometime in our lifetime is suddenly looking like a much more realistic proposal!

Progressive Democrats in particular are committed to keeping the fate of the two bills intertwined. “We will only vote for the infrastructure bill after passing the reconciliation bill,” Progressive Caucus chairwoman, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D., Wash.), said in a statement.

Speaking of the two bills… while consumer incentives for electric vehicles were slashed from the infrastructure bill, they did survive the budget reconciliation. Right now, there currently exists a 30D tax credit, but the $7,500 incentive doesn’t include automakers that have sold more than 200,000 EVs (so General Motors and Tesla don’t qualify).

Leilani Gonzalez with the Zero Emission Transportation Association urged reform to the EV tax credit. She suggested that Congress slash means-testing for the credit, like one that only allows people under a certain annual income to access it.

“Congress should ensure that this tax credit is not impeded by restrictive means-tested requirements, like low manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) or adjusted gross income (AGI) caps,” she wrote. “These limitations ignore the public benefits of EVs that leave everyone better off, and they would only serve to hinder EV adoption.”

Even beyond reform, some Democrats are pushing for a direct cash rebate — meaning that the dollar amount would just be taken off the cost of the car at the point of sale, rather than the consumer having to wait to get that money back at tax time. But we’re still a long way from seeing a new kind of consumer incentive put into law, with some Democrats urging a $12,500 tax credit, and others arguing for a rebate, with still others arguing for either but with means-testing like what Gonzalez writes about.

In any case, we’ll be keeping an eye on it. It’s very hard to imagine how the country will achieve any kind of meaningful transition to electric vehicles by 2030 without some mechanism to make them easier (and cheaper) to buy.

In other news, the Federal Aviation Administration is spending $20.4 million in grants to airports who want to electrify equipment and transition to ZEVs. This isn’t about the planes themselves, though they tend to get the most media attention. These grants would be for less sexy things like airport shuttle buses and mobile ground power units, but which collectively still generate a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. The FAA has earmarked $300 million out of its $3.5 billion budget for electrification initiatives.

— Aria Alamalhodaei

Notable news and other tidbits

It’s one of those weeks folks. Lotta news so let’s get down to it.

ADAS

Tesla CEO Elon Musk admitted that the latest version of its so-called FSD tech — which is an upgraded version of its Autopilot advanced driver assistance system — is “not great.” He went on to write that the “Autopilot/AI team is rallying to improve as fast as possible. We’re trying to have a single tech stack for both highway & city streets, but it requires massive [neural network] retraining.”

Autonomous vehicles

Cruise, GM’s self-driving car subsidiary, launched a new initiative called Farm to Fleet that will allow the company to source solar power from farms in California’s Central Valley. Cruise is directly purchasing renewable energy credits from Sundale Vineyards and Moonlight Companies to help power its fleet of all-electric autonomous vehicles in San Francisco.

Jalopnik’s Jason Torchinsky has a great explainer on the various levels of SAE autonomy.

Toyota suspended the operation of its e-Palette autonomous shuttles — which do have two human safety operators on board — at the Paralympic Games Athletes’ Village after one of the shuttles struck an athlete. The schedule for resuming operations at the Paralympic Games has not yet been determined, the company said. A spokesperson also noted to me that only the shuttles at the Olympics were halted. The e-Palette program is still operational.

Update: Since the newsletter went out to subscribers over the weekend, Toyota has restarted the e-Palette shuttles in the Olympic village. It’s important to note that these shuttles use a combination of manual and autonomous driving modes while underway. Toyota President Akio Toyoda apologized for the incident during a recent interview. The translation provided in closed captioning isn’t great, but he does make some interesting comments about the readiness of autonomous vehicle technology. In short: it’s not ready and humans are still better drivers.

Waymo has launched a robotaxi service that will be open to certain vetted riders in San Francisco. The company officially kicked off its Waymo One Trusted Tester program in the city with a fleet of all-electric Jaguar I-PACEs equipped with the company’s fifth generation of its autonomous vehicle system. This is a big step for Waymo and we’ll be watching closely to see how the ramp mirrors, or differs, from its service in the Phoenix area.

Greg Bensinger took a look at the terms of service on the Waymo One ride-hailing app and in a tweet thread provides a breakdown of what riders are agreeing to, including that the company will record video of riders while being driven around San Francisco.

Waymo also has decided to get out of the lidar sales business as it shifts its focus to deploying its autonomous vehicle technology across its ride-hailing and trucking divisions. In 2019, Waymo announced it would sell its short-range lidar, called Laser Bear Honeycomb, to companies outside of self-driving cars. It initially targeted robotics, security and agricultural technology.

Electric vehicles

GM expanded (again) its recall of Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles due to fire risks from battery manufacturing defects. The automaker said it would seek reimbursement from LG Chem, its battery cell manufacturing partner, for what it expects to be $1 billion worth of losses. this is the third recall GM has issued for this vehicle related to batteries.

Lordstown Motors hired Daniel A. Ninivaggi, a longtime automotive executive and former head of Carl C. Icahn’s holding company, as CEO and a board member. The appointment follows months of tumult at Lordstown, which became publicly traded via a merger with a special purpose acquisition company.

Other bits

Aria Alamalhodaei wrote up a feature on Buoyant, a recent Y Combinator grad and one of several airship startups that have popped up recently.

Mercedes-Benz’s chief technology officer Sajjad Khan is leaving the automaker to start a venture capital fund, the company said in a statement. Khan’s replacement, Magnus Östberg, will take over the CTO role effective Sept. 1.

Porsche Cars North America added its entire U.S. inventory of new cars to an online marketplace that it launched in May 2020. The platform called Porsche Finder is one of the ways the automaker is trying to keep up with customer demands and the industry’s shift to digital commerce. The product lets customers search by vehicle model and generation as well as price, equipment, packages and colors, on all new and used vehicle inventory from its 193 U.S. dealerships.

Tesla wants to supply electricity directly to customers, according to an application filed with Texas electricity regulators earlier this month. Energy Choice Matters first reported on the application.

The application, filed with the Public Utilities Commission of Texas on August 16, is a request to become what’s called a “retail electric provider” under its subsidiary Tesla Energy Ventures. On the deregulated, idiosyncratic Texas power market, REPs generally purchase wholesale electricity from power generators and sell it to customers. More than 100 REPs currently compete on the open market.

#automotive, #autonomous-vehicles, #cruise, #electric-vehicles, #elon-musk, #gm, #government, #nuro, #rivian, #robotics, #tesla, #the-station, #toyota, #transportation, #venture-capital, #waymo

China Roundup: Beijing takes aim at algorithm, Xiaomi automates electric cars

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

The biggest news of the week again comes from Beijing’s ongoing effort to dampen the influence of the country’s tech giants. Regulators are now going after the exploitative use of algorithm-powered user recommendations. We also saw a few major acquisitions this week. Xiaomi is acquiring an autonomous vehicle startup called Deepmotion, and ByteDance is said to be buying virtual reality hardware startup Pico.

Algorithmic regulation

Beijing has unveiled the draft of a sweeping regulation to rein in how tech companies operating in China utilize algorithms, the engine of virtually all lucrative tech businesses today from short videos and news aggregation to ride-hailing, food delivery and e-commerce. My colleague Manish Singh wrote an overview of the policy, and here’s a closer look at the 30-point document proposed by China’s top cyberspace watchdog.

Beijing is clearly wary of how purely machine-recommended content can stray away from values propagated by the Communist Party and even lead to the detriment of national interests. In its mind, algorithms should strictly align with the interest of the nation:

Algorithmic recommendations should uphold mainstream values… and should not be used for endangering national security (Point 6).

Regulators want more transparency on companies’ algorithmic black boxes and are making them accountable for the consequences of their programming codes. For example:

Service providers should be responsible for the security of algorithms, create a system for… the review of published information, algorithmic mechanisms, security oversight… enact and publish relevant rules for algorithmic recommendations (Point 7). 

Service providers… should not create algorithmic models that entice users into addiction, high-value consumption, or other behavior that disrupts public orders (Point 8).

The government is also clamping down on discriminative algorithms and putting some autonomy back in the hands of consumers:

Service providers… should not use illegal or harmful information as user interests to recommend content or create sexist or biased user tags (Point 10).

Service providers should inform users of the logic, purpose, and mechanisms of the algorithms in use (Point 14).

Service providers… should allow users to turn off algorithmic features (Point 15).

The regulators don’t want internet giants to influence public thinking or opinions. Though not laid out in the document, censorship control will no doubt remain in the hands of the authorities.

Service providers should not… use algorithms to censor information, make excessive recommendations, manipulate rankings or search results that lead to preferential treatment and unfair competition, influence online opinions, or shun regulatory oversight (Point 13).

Like many other aspects of the tech business, certain algorithms are to obtain approval from the government. Tech firms must also hand over their algorithms to the police in case of investigations.

Service providers should file with the government if their recommendation algorithms can affect public opinions or mobilize civilians (Point 20).  

Service providers… should keep a record of their recommendation algorithms for at least six months and provide them to law enforcement departments for investigation purposes (Point 23). 

If passed, the law will shake up the fundamental business logic of Chinese tech companies that rely on algorithms to make money. Programmers need to pore over these rules and be able to parse their codes for regulators. The proposed law seems to have even gone beyond the scope of the European Union’s data rules, but how the Chinese one will be enforced remains to be seen.

Lei Jun bets on autonomous cars

In Xiaomi’s latest earnings call, the smartphone maker said it will acquire DeepMotion, a Beijing-based autonomous driving startup, to aid its autonomous driving endeavor. The deal will cost Xiaomi about $77.3 million, and “a lot of that will be in terms of stock” and “a lot of these payments will be deferred until certain milestones are hit,” said Wang Xiang, Xiaomi president on the call.

Xiaomi’s founder Lei Jun earlier hinted at the firm’s plan to enter the crowded space. On July 28, Lei announced on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, that the company is recruiting 500 autonomous driving experts across China.

Automation has become a selling point for China’s new generation of electric vehicle makers, often with companies conflating advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) with Level 4 autonomous driving. Such overstatements in marketing material mislead consumers and make one question the real technical capability of these nascent EV players.

Xiaomi has similarly unveiled plans to manufacture electric cars through a separate car-making subsidiary. The ADAS capabilities brought by DeepMotion are naturally a nice complement to Xiaomi’s future cars. As Wang explained:

We believe that there’s a lot of synergies with [DeepMotion’s ADAS] technology with our EV initiatives. So I think it tells you a couple of points. Number one is, we will roll out EV business. And I said in our prepared remarks, we’ve been very focused on hiring the right team for the EV business at this point in time, formulating our strategy, formulating our product strategy, et cetera, et cetera. But at the same time, we are not afraid to apply it and integrate other teams if we find that those will help us accelerate our plan right.

It’s noteworthy that DeepMotion, founded by Microsoft veterans, specializes in perception technologies and high-precision mapping, which puts it in the vision-driven autonomous driving camp. A number of major Chinese EV makers rely on consumer-grade lidar to automate their cars.

ByteDance goes virtual

ByteDance is said to be buying Beijing-based VR hardware maker Pico for 5 billion yuan ($770 million), according to Chinese VR news site Vrtuoluo. ByteDance could not be immediately reached for comment.

Advanced VR headsets are often expensive due to the cost of high-end processors. Experts observe that most VR hardware makers are yet to enter the mass consumer market. They are hemorrhaging cash and living off generous venture money and corporate deals.

ByteDance might be buying a money-losing business, but Pico, one of the major VR makers in China, provides a fast track for the TikTok parent to enter VR manufacturing. As the world’s largest short video distributor and an aggressive newcomer to video games, ByteDance has no shortage of creative talent. We will see how it works on producing virtual content if the Pico deal goes through.

#asia, #bytedance, #china-roundup, #government, #tc, #transportation, #xiaomi

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