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Apple’s dangerous path

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review.

Last week, we dove into the truly bizarre machinations of the NFT market. This week, we’re talking about something that’s a little bit more impactful on the current state of the web — Apple’s NeuralHash kerfuffle.

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


the big thing

In the past month, Apple did something it generally has done an exceptional job avoiding — the company made what seemed to be an entirely unforced error.

In early August — seemingly out of nowhere** — the company announced that by the end of the year they would be rolling out a technology called NeuralHash that actively scanned the libraries of all iCloud Photos users, seeking out image hashes that matched known images of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). For obvious reasons, the on-device scanning could not be opted out of.

This announcement was not coordinated with other major consumer tech giants, Apple pushed forward on the announcement alone.

Researchers and advocacy groups had almost unilaterally negative feedback for the effort, raising concerns that this could create new abuse channels for actors like governments to detect on-device information that they regarded as objectionable. As my colleague Zach noted in a recent story, “The Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week it had amassed more than 25,000 signatures from consumers. On top of that, close to 100 policy and rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also called on Apple to abandon plans to roll out the technology.”

(The announcement also reportedly generated some controversy inside of Apple.)

The issue — of course — wasn’t that Apple was looking at find ways that prevented the proliferation of CSAM while making as few device security concessions as possible. The issue was that Apple was unilaterally making a massive choice that would affect billions of customers (while likely pushing competitors towards similar solutions), and was doing so without external public input about possible ramifications or necessary safeguards.

A long story short, over the past month researchers discovered Apple’s NeuralHash wasn’t as air tight as hoped and the company announced Friday that it was delaying the rollout “to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.”

Having spent several years in the tech media, I will say that the only reason to release news on a Friday morning ahead of a long weekend is to ensure that the announcement is read and seen by as few people as possible, and it’s clear why they’d want that. It’s a major embarrassment for Apple, and as with any delayed rollout like this, it’s a sign that their internal teams weren’t adequately prepared and lacked the ideological diversity to gauge the scope of the issue that they were tackling. This isn’t really a dig at Apple’s team building this so much as it’s a dig on Apple trying to solve a problem like this inside the Apple Park vacuum while adhering to its annual iOS release schedule.

illustration of key over cloud icon

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch /

Apple is increasingly looking to make privacy a key selling point for the iOS ecosystem, and as a result of this productization, has pushed development of privacy-centric features towards the same secrecy its surface-level design changes command. In June, Apple announced iCloud+ and raised some eyebrows when they shared that certain new privacy-centric features would only be available to iPhone users who paid for additional subscription services.

You obviously can’t tap public opinion for every product update, but perhaps wide-ranging and trail-blazing security and privacy features should be treated a bit differently than the average product update. Apple’s lack of engagement with research and advocacy groups on NeuralHash was pretty egregious and certainly raises some questions about whether the company fully respects how the choices they make for iOS affect the broader internet.

Delaying the feature’s rollout is a good thing, but let’s all hope they take that time to reflect more broadly as well.

** Though the announcement was a surprise to many, Apple’s development of this feature wasn’t coming completely out of nowhere. Those at the top of Apple likely felt that the winds of global tech regulation might be shifting towards outright bans of some methods of encryption in some of its biggest markets.

Back in October of 2020, then United States AG Bill Barr joined representatives from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and Japan in signing a letter raising major concerns about how implementations of encryption tech posed “significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.” The letter effectively called on tech industry companies to get creative in how they tackled this problem.


other things

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

LinkedIn kills Stories
You may be shocked to hear that LinkedIn even had a Stories-like product on their platform, but if you did already know that they were testing Stories, you likely won’t be so surprised to hear that the test didn’t pan out too well. The company announced this week that they’ll be suspending the feature at the end of the month. RIP.

FAA grounds Virgin Galactic over questions about Branson flight
While all appeared to go swimmingly for Richard Branson’s trip to space last month, the FAA has some questions regarding why the flight seemed to unexpectedly veer so far off the cleared route. The FAA is preventing the company from further launches until they find out what the deal is.

Apple buys a classical music streaming service
While Spotify makes news every month or two for spending a massive amount acquiring a popular podcast, Apple seems to have eyes on a different market for Apple Music, announcing this week that they’re bringing the classical music streaming service Primephonic onto the Apple Music team.

TikTok parent company buys a VR startup
It isn’t a huge secret that ByteDance and Facebook have been trying to copy each other’s success at times, but many probably weren’t expecting TikTok’s parent company to wander into the virtual reality game. The Chinese company bought the startup Pico which makes consumer VR headsets for China and enterprise VR products for North American customers.

Twitter tests an anti-abuse ‘Safety Mode’
The same features that make Twitter an incredibly cool product for some users can also make the experience awful for others, a realization that Twitter has seemingly been very slow to make. Their latest solution is more individual user controls, which Twitter is testing out with a new “safety mode” which pairs algorithmic intelligence with new user inputs.


extra things

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

Our favorite startups from YC’s Demo Day, Part 1 
“Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first half of its nearly 400-company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators….”

…Part 2
“…Yesterday, the TechCrunch team covered the first half of this batch, as well as the startups with one-minute pitches that stood out to us. We even podcasted about it! Today, we’re doing it all over again. Here’s our full list of all startups that presented on the record today, and below, you’ll find our votes for the best Y Combinator pitches of Day Two. The ones that, as people who sift through a few hundred pitches a day, made us go ‘oh wait, what’s this?’

All the reasons why you should launch a credit card
“… if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users….”


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

Lucas Matney

FBI says Chinese authorities are hacking US-based Uyghurs

By Carly Page

The FBI has warned that the Chinese government is using both in-person and digital techniques to intimidate, silence and harass U.S.-based Uyghur Muslims. 

The Chinese government has long been accused of human rights abuses over its treatment of the Uyghur population and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in China’s Xinjiang region. More than a million Uyghurs have been detained in internment camps, according to a United Nations human rights committee, and many other Uyghurs have been targeted and hacked by state-backed cyberattacks. China has repeatedly denied the claims.

In recent months, the Chinese government has become increasingly aggressive in its efforts to shut down foreign critics, including those based in the United States and other Western democracies. These efforts have now caught the attention of the FBI.

In an unclassified bulletin, the FBI warned that officials are using transnational repression — a term that refers to foreign government transgression of national borders through physical and digital means to intimidate or silence members of diaspora and exile communities — in an attempt to compel compliance from U.S.-based Uyghurs and other Chinese refugees and dissidents, including Tibetans, Falun Gong members, and Taiwan and Hong Kong activists.

“Threatened consequences for non-compliance routinely include detainment of a U.S.-based person’s family or friends in China, seizure of China-based assets, sustained digital and in-person harassment, Chinese government attempts to force repatriation, computer hacking and digital attacks, and false representation online,” the FBI bulletin warns. 

The bulletin was reported by video surveillance news site IPVM.

The FBI highlighted four instances of U.S.-based individuals facing harassment. In one case from June, the Chinese government imprisoned dozens of family members of six U.S.-based Uyghur journalists in retaliation for their continued reporting on China and its repression of Uyghurs for the U.S. government-funded news service Radio Free Asia. The bulletin said that between 2019 and March 2021, Chinese officials used WeChat to call and text a U.S.-based Uyghur to discourage her from publicly discussing Uyghur mistreatment. Members of this person’s family were later detained in Xinjiang detention camps. 

“The Chinese government continues to conduct this activity, even as the U.S. government has sanctioned Chinese officials and increased public and diplomatic messaging to counter China’s human rights and democratic abuses in Xinjiang over the past year,” the FBI states. “This transnational repression activity violates US laws and individual rights.

The FBI has urged U.S. law enforcement personnel, as well as members of the public, to report any suspected incidents of Chinese government harassment.

Read more:

How a Vungle-owned mobile marketer sent Fontmaker to the top of the App Store

By Sarah Perez

Does this sound familiar? An app goes viral on social media, often including TikTok, then immediately climbs to the top of the App Store where it gains even more new installs thanks to the heightened exposure. That’s what happened with the recent No. 1 on the U.S. App Store, Fontmaker, a subscription-based fonts app which appeared to benefit from word-of-mouth growth thanks to TikTok videos and other social posts. But what we’re actually seeing here is a new form of App Store marketing — and one which now involves one of the oldest players in the space: Vungle.

Fontmaker, at first glance, seems to be just another indie app that hit it big.

The app, published by an entity called Mango Labs, promises users a way to create fonts using their own handwriting which they can then access from a custom keyboard for a fairly steep price of $4.99 per week. The app first launched on July 26. Nearly a month later, it was the No. 2 app on the U.S. App Store, according to Sensor Tower data. By August 26, it climbed up one more position to reach No. 1. before slowly dropping down in the top overall free app rankings in the days that followed.

By Aug. 27, it was No. 15, before briefly surging again to No. 4 the following day, then declining once more. Today, the app is No. 54 overall and No. 4 in the competitive Photo & Video category — still, a solid position for a brand-new and somewhat niche product targeting mainly younger users. To date, it’s generated $68,000 in revenue, Sensor Tower reports.

But Fontmaker may not be a true organic success story, despite its Top Charts success driven by a boost in downloads coming from real users, not bots. Instead, it’s an example of how mobile marketers have figured out how to tap into the influencer community to drive app installs. It’s also an example of how it’s hard to differentiate between apps driven by influencer marketing and those that hit the top of the App Store because of true demand — like walkie-talkie app Zello, whose recent trip to No. 1 can be attributed to Hurricane Ida

As it turns out, Fontmaker is not your typical “indie app.” In fact, it’s unclear who’s really behind it. Its publisher, Mango Labs, LLC, is actually an iTunes developer account owned by the mobile growth company JetFuel, which was recently acquired by the mobile ad and monetization firm Vungle — a longtime and sometimes controversial player in this space, itself acquired by Blackstone in 2019.

Vungle was primarily interested in JetFuel’s main product, an app called The Plug, aimed at influencers.

Through The Plug, mobile app developers and advertisers can connect to JetFuel’s network of over 15,000 verified influencers who have a combined 4 billion Instagram followers, 1.5 billion TikTok followers, and 100 million daily Snapchat views.

While marketers could use the built-in advertising tools on each of these networks to try to reach their target audience, JetFuel’s technology allows marketers to quickly scale their campaigns to reach high-value users in the Gen Z demographic, the company claims. This system can be less labor-intensive than traditional influencer marketing, in some cases. Advertisers pay on a cost-per-action (CPA) basis for app installs. Meanwhile, all influencers have to do is scroll through The Plug to find an app to promote, then post it to their social accounts to start making money.

Image Credits: The Plug’s website, showing influencers how the platform works

So while yes, a lot of influencers may have made TikTok videos about Fontmaker, which prompted consumers to download the app, the influencers were paid to do so. (And often, from what we saw browsing the Fontmaker hashtag, without disclosing that financial relationship in any way — an increasingly common problem on TikTok, and area of concern for the FTC.)

Where things get tricky is in trying to sort out Mango Labs’ relationship with JetFuel/Vungle. As a consumer browsing the App Store, it looks like Mango Labs makes a lot of fun consumer apps of which Fontmaker is simply the latest.

JetFuel’s website helps to promote this image, too.

It had showcased its influencer marketing system using a case study from an “indie developer” called Mango Labs and one of its earlier apps, Caption Pro. Caption Pro launched in Jan. 2018. (App Annie data indicates it was removed from the App Store on Aug. 31, 2021…yes, yesterday).

Image Credits: App Annie

Vungle, however, told TechCrunch “The Caption Pro app no longer exists and has not been live on the App Store or Google Play for a long time.” (We can’t find an App Annie record of the app on Google Play).

They also told us that “Caption Pro was developed by Mango Labs before the entity became JetFuel,” and that the case study was used to highlight JetFuel’s advertising capabilities. (But without clearly disclosing their connection.)

“Prior to JetFuel becoming the influencer marketing platform that it is today, the company developed apps for the App Store. After the company pivoted to become a marketing platform, in February 2018, it stopped creating apps but continued to use the Mango Labs account on occasion to publish apps that it had third-party monetization partnerships with,” the Vungle spokesperson explained.

In other words, the claim being made here is that while Mango Labs, originally, were the same folks who have long since pivoted to become JetFuel, and the makers of Caption Pro, all the newer apps published under “Mango Labs, LLC” were not created by JetFuel’s team itself.

“Any apps that appear under the Mango Labs LLC name on the App Store or Google Play were in fact developed by other companies, and Mango Labs has only acted as a publisher,” the spokesperson said.

Image Credits: JetFuel’s website describing Mango Labs as an “indie developer”

There are reasons why this statement doesn’t quite sit right — and not only because JetFuel’s partners seem happy to hide themselves behind Mango Labs’ name, nor because Mango Labs was a project from the JetFuel team in the past. It’s also odd that Mango Labs and another entity, Takeoff Labs, claim the same set of apps. And like Mango Labs, Takeoff Labs is associated with JetFuel too.

Breaking this down, as of the time of writing, Mango Labs has published several consumer apps on both the App Store and Google Play.

On iOS, this includes the recent No. 1 app Fontmaker, as well as FontKey, Color Meme, Litstick, Vibe, Celebs, FITme Fitness, CopyPaste, and Part 2. On Google Play, it has two more: Stickered and Mango.

Image Credits: Mango Labs

Most of Mango Labs’ App Store listings point to JetFuel’s website as the app’s “developer website,” which would be in line with what Vungle says about JetFuel acting as the apps’ publisher.

What’s odd, however, is that the Mango Labs’ app Part2, links to Takeoff Labs’ website from its App Store listing.

The Vungle spokesperson initially told us that Takeoff Labs is “an independent app developer.”

And yet, the Takeoff Labs’ website shows a team which consists of JetFuel’s leadership, including JetFuel co-founder and CEO Tim Lenardo and JetFuel co-founder and CRO JJ Maxwell. Takeoff Labs’ LLC application was also signed by Lenardo.

Meanwhile, Takeoff Labs’ co-founder and CEO Rhai Goburdhun, per his LinkedIn and the Takeoff Labs website, still works there. Asked about this connection, Vungle told us they did not realize the website had not been updated, and neither JetFuel nor Vungle have an ownership stake in Takeoff Labs with this acquisition.

Image Credits: Takeoff Labs’ website showing its team, including JetFuel’s co-founders.

Takeoff Labs’ website also shows off its “portfolio” of apps, which includes Celeb, Litstick, and FontKey — three apps that are published by Mango Labs on the App Store.

On Google Play, Takeoff Labs is the developer credited with Celebs, as well as two other apps, Vibe and Teal, a neobank. But on the App Store, Vibe is published by Mango Labs.

Image Credits: Takeoff Labs’ website, showing its app portfolio.

(Not to complicate things further, but there’s also an entity called RealLabs which hosts JetFuel, The Plug and other consumer apps, including Mango — the app published by Mango Labs on Google Play. Someone sure likes naming things “Labs!”)

Vungle claims the confusion here has to do with how it now uses the Mango Labs iTunes account to publish apps for its partners, which is a “common practice” on the App Store. It says it intends to transfer the apps published under Mango Labs to the developers’ accounts, because it agrees this is confusing.

Vungle also claims that JetFuel “does not make nor own any consumer apps that are currently live on the app stores. Any of the apps made by the entity when it was known as Mango Labs have long since been taken down from the app stores.”

JetFuel’s system is messy and confusing, but so far successful in its goals. Fontmaker did make it to No. 1, essentially growth hacked to the top by influencer marketing.

Congrats to @Rhai_Gb & the @Takeoff_Labs team- it's great to be back at #1 overall 🙌

Also a huge accomplishment for @jetfuel_it as the only user acquisition source. The first time we've single-handedly moved an app to #1 Top Free! https://t.co/Cl8ahj8Owo

— Tim L (@telenardo) August 25, 2021

But as a consumer, what this all means is that you’ll never know who actually built the app you’re downloading or whether you were “influenced” to try it through what were, essentially, undisclosed ads.

Fontmaker isn’t the first to growth hack its way to the top through influencer promotions. Summertime hit Poparrazzi also hyped itself to the top of the App Store in a similar way, as have many others. But Poparazzi has since sunk to No. 89 in Photo & Video, which shows influence can only take you so far.

As for Fontmaker, paid influence got it to No. 1, but its Top Chart moment was brief.

The stars are aligning for federal IT open source software adoption

By Ram Iyer
Venky Adivi Contributor
Venky Adivi is director of strategic capture and proposal management at Canonical, publisher of Ubuntu.

In recent years, the private sector has been spurning proprietary software in favor of open source software and development approaches. For good reason: The open source avenue saves money and development time by using freely available components instead of writing new code, enables new applications to be deployed quickly and eliminates vendor lock-in.

The federal government has been slower to embrace open source, however. Efforts to change are complicated by the fact that many agencies employ large legacy IT infrastructure and systems to serve millions of people and are responsible for a plethora of sensitive data. Washington spends tens of billions every year on IT, but with each agency essentially acting as its own enterprise, decision-making is far more decentralized than it would be at, say, a large bank.

While the government has made a number of moves in a more open direction in recent years, the story of open source in federal IT has often seemed more about potential than reality.

But there are several indications that this is changing and that the government is reaching its own open source adoption tipping point. The costs of producing modern applications to serve increasingly digital-savvy citizens keep rising, and agencies are budget constrained to find ways to improve service while saving taxpayer dollars.

Sheer economics dictate an increased role for open source, as do a variety of other benefits. Because its source code is publicly available, open source software encourages continuous review by others outside the initial development team to promote increased software reliability and security, and code can be easily shared for reuse by other agencies.

Here are five signs I see that the U.S. government is increasingly rallying around open source.

More dedicated resources for open source innovation

Two initiatives have gone a long way toward helping agencies advance their open source journeys.

18F, a team within the General Services Administration that acts as consultancy to help other agencies build digital services, is an ardent open source backer. Its work has included developing a new application for accessing Federal Election Commission data, as well as software that has allowed the GSA to improve its contractor hiring process.

18F — short for GSA headquarters’ address of 1800 F St. — reflects the same grassroots ethos that helped spur open source’s emergence and momentum in the private sector. “The code we create belongs to the public as a part of the public domain,” the group says on its website.

Five years ago this August, the Obama administration introduced a new Federal Source Code Policy that called on every agency to adopt an open source approach, create a source code inventory, and publish at least 20% of written code as open source. The administration also launched Code.gov, giving agencies a place to locate open source solutions that other departments are already using.

The results have been mixed, however. Most agencies are now consistent with the federal policy’s goal, though many still have work to do in implementation, according to Code.gov’s tracker. And a report by a Code.gov staffer found that some agencies were embracing open source more than others.

Still, Code.gov says the growth of open source in the federal government has gone farther than initially estimated.

A push from the new administration

The American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill that President Biden signed in early March 2021, contained $9 billion for the GSA’s Technology Modernization Fund, which finances new federal technology projects. In January, the White House said upgrading federal IT infrastructure and addressing recent breaches such as the SolarWinds hack was “an urgent national security issue that cannot wait.”

It’s fair to assume open source software will form the foundation of many of these efforts, because White House technology director David Recordon is a long-time open source advocate and once led Facebook’s open source projects.

A changing skills environment

Federal IT employees who spent much of their careers working on legacy systems are starting to retire, and their successors are younger people who came of age in an open source world and are comfortable with it.

About 81% of private sector hiring managers surveyed by the Linux Foundation said hiring open source talent is a priority and that they’re more likely than ever to seek out professionals with certifications. You can be sure the public sector is increasingly mirroring this trend as it recognizes a need for talent to support open source’s growing foothold.

Stronger capabilities from vendors

By partnering with the right commercial open source vendor, agencies can drive down infrastructure costs and more efficiently manage their applications. For example, vendors have made great strides in addressing security requirements laid out by policies such as the Federal Security Security Modernization Act (FISMA), Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) and the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRamp), making it easy to deal with compliance.

In addition, some vendors offer powerful infrastructure automation tools and generous support packages, so federal agencies don’t have to go it alone as they accelerate their open source strategies. Linux distributions like Ubuntu provide a consistent developer experience from laptop/workstation to the cloud, and at the edge, for public clouds, containers, and physical and virtual infrastructure.

This makes application development a well-supported activity that includes 24/7 phone and web support, which provides access to world-class enterprise support teams through web portals, knowledge bases or via phone.

The pandemic effect

Whether it’s accommodating more employees working from home or meeting higher citizen demand for online services, COVID-19 has forced large swaths of the federal government to up their digital game. Open source allows legacy applications to be moved to the cloud, new applications to be developed more quickly, and IT infrastructures to adapt to rapidly changing demands.

As these signs show, the federal government continues to move rapidly from talk to action in adopting open source.

Who wins? Everyone!

Suing your way to the stars

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!

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

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


The big thing

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

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

Now then! Onto the topic at hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Other things

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

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

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

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

Yes, this looks dumb. But avatar-based work apps are coming for your Zooms, and Facebook made a pretty convincing one here. https://t.co/aGvOW6zm8U

— Lucas Matney (@lucasmtny) August 19, 2021

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

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

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


 

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Extra things

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

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

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

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


Thanks for reading! Until next week…

Lucas M.

Today’s real story: The Facebook monopoly

By Walter Thompson
Daniel Liss Contributor
Daniel Liss is the founder and CEO of Dispo, the digital disposable camera social network.

Facebook is a monopoly. Right?

Mark Zuckerberg appeared on national TV today to make a “special announcement.” The timing could not be more curious: Today is the day Lina Khan’s FTC refiled its case to dismantle Facebook’s monopoly.

To the average person, Facebook’s monopoly seems obvious. “After all,” as James E. Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia put it in his recent decision, “No one who hears the title of the 2010 film ‘The Social Network’ wonders which company it is about.” But obviousness is not an antitrust standard. Monopoly has a clear legal meaning, and thus far Lina Khan’s FTC has failed to meet it. Today’s refiling is much more substantive than the FTC’s first foray. But it’s still lacking some critical arguments. Here are some ideas from the front lines.

To the average person, Facebook’s monopoly seems obvious. But obviousness is not an antitrust standard.

First, the FTC must define the market correctly: personal social networking, which includes messaging. Second, the FTC must establish that Facebook controls over 60% of the market — the correct metric to establish this is revenue.

Though consumer harm is a well-known test of monopoly determination, our courts do not require the FTC to prove that Facebook harms consumers to win the case. As an alternative pleading, though, the government can present a compelling case that Facebook harms consumers by suppressing wages in the creator economy. If the creator economy is real, then the value of ads on Facebook’s services is generated through the fruits of creators’ labor; no one would watch the ads before videos or in between posts if the user-generated content was not there. Facebook has harmed consumers by suppressing creator wages.

A note: This is the first of a series on the Facebook monopoly. I am inspired by Cloudflare’s recent post explaining the impact of Amazon’s monopoly in their 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.

The problem

According to the court, the FTC must meet a two-part test: First, the FTC must define the market in which Facebook has monopoly power, established by the D.C. Circuit in Neumann v. Reinforced Earth Co. (1986). This is the market for personal social networking services, which includes messaging.

Second, the FTC must establish that Facebook controls a dominant share of that market, which courts have defined as 60% or above, established by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in FTC v. AbbVie (2020). The right metric for this market share analysis is unequivocally revenue — daily active users (DAU) x average revenue per user (ARPU). And Facebook controls over 90%.

The answer to the FTC’s problem is hiding in plain sight: Snapchat’s investor presentations:

Snapchat July 2021 investor presentation: Significant DAU and ARPU Opportunity

Snapchat July 2021 investor presentation: Significant DAU and ARPU Opportunity. Image CreditsSnapchat

This is a chart of Facebook’s monopoly — 91% of the personal social networking market. The gray blob looks awfully like a vast oil deposit, successfully drilled by Facebook’s Standard Oil operations. Snapchat and Twitter are the small wildcatters, nearly irrelevant compared to Facebook’s scale. It should not be lost on any market observers that Facebook once tried to acquire both companies.

The market Includes messaging

The FTC initially claimed that Facebook has a monopoly of the “personal social networking services” market. The complaint excluded “mobile messaging” from Facebook’s market “because [messaging apps] (i) lack a ‘shared social space’ for interaction and (ii) do not employ a social graph to facilitate users’ finding and ‘friending’ other users they may know.”

This is incorrect because messaging is inextricable from Facebook’s power. Facebook demonstrated this with its WhatsApp acquisition, promotion of Messenger and prior attempts to buy Snapchat and Twitter. Any personal social networking service can expand its features — and Facebook’s moat is contingent on its control of messaging.

The more time in an ecosystem the more valuable it becomes. Value in social networks is calculated, depending on whom you ask, algorithmically (Metcalfe’s law) or logarithmically (Zipf’s law). Either way, in social networks, 1+1 is much more than 2.

Social networks become valuable based on the ever-increasing number of nodes, upon which companies can build more features. Zuckerberg coined the “social graph” to describe this relationship. The monopolies of Line, Kakao and WeChat in Japan, Korea and China prove this clearly. They began with messaging and expanded outward to become dominant personal social networking behemoths.

In today’s refiling, the FTC explains that Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are all personal social networking services built on three key features:

  1. “First, personal social networking services are built on a social graph that maps the connections between users and their friends, family, and other personal connections.”
  2. “Second, personal social networking services include features that many users regularly employ to interact with personal connections and share their personal experiences in a shared social space, including in a one-to-many ‘broadcast’ format.”
  3. “Third, personal social networking services include features that allow users to find and connect with other users, to make it easier for each user to build and expand their set of personal connections.”

Unfortunately, this is only partially right. In social media’s treacherous waters, as the FTC has struggled to articulate, feature sets are routinely copied and cross-promoted. How can we forget Instagram’s copying of Snapchat’s stories? Facebook has ruthlessly copied features from the most successful apps on the market from inception. Its launch of a Clubhouse competitor called Live Audio Rooms is only the most recent example. Twitter and Snapchat are absolutely competitors to Facebook.

Messaging must be included to demonstrate Facebook’s breadth and voracious appetite to copy and destroy. WhatsApp and Messenger have over 2 billion and 1.3 billion users respectively. Given the ease of feature copying, a messaging service of WhatsApp’s scale could become a full-scale social network in a matter of months. This is precisely why Facebook acquired the company. Facebook’s breadth in social media services is remarkable. But the FTC needs to understand that messaging is a part of the market. And this acknowledgement would not hurt their case.

The metric: Revenue shows Facebook’s monopoly

Boasberg believes revenue is not an apt metric to calculate personal networking: “The overall revenues earned by PSN services cannot be the right metric for measuring market share here, as those revenues are all earned in a separate market — viz., the market for advertising.” He is confusing business model with market. Not all advertising is cut from the same cloth. In today’s refiling, the FTC correctly identifies “social advertising” as distinct from the “display advertising.”

But it goes off the deep end trying to avoid naming revenue as the distinguishing market share metric. Instead the FTC cites “time spent, daily active users (DAU), and monthly active users (MAU).” In a world where Facebook Blue and Instagram compete only with Snapchat, these metrics might bring Facebook Blue and Instagram combined over the 60% monopoly hurdle. But the FTC does not make a sufficiently convincing market definition argument to justify the choice of these metrics. Facebook should be compared to other personal social networking services such as Discord and Twitter — and their correct inclusion in the market would undermine the FTC’s choice of time spent or DAU/MAU.

Ultimately, cash is king. Revenue is what counts and what the FTC should emphasize. As Snapchat shows above, revenue in the personal social media industry is calculated by ARPU x DAU. The personal social media market is a different market from the entertainment social media market (where Facebook competes with YouTube, TikTok and Pinterest, among others). And this too is a separate market from the display search advertising market (Google). Not all advertising-based consumer technology is built the same. Again, advertising is a business model, not a market.

In the media world, for example, Netflix’s subscription revenue clearly competes in the same market as CBS’ advertising model. News Corp.’s acquisition of Facebook’s early competitor MySpace spoke volumes on the internet’s potential to disrupt and destroy traditional media advertising markets. Snapchat has chosen to pursue advertising, but incipient competitors like Discord are successfully growing using subscriptions. But their market share remains a pittance compared to Facebook.

An alternative pleading: Facebook’s market power suppresses wages in the creator economy

The FTC has correctly argued for the smallest possible market for their monopoly definition. Personal social networking, of which Facebook controls at least 80%, should not (in their strongest argument) include entertainment. This is the narrowest argument to make with the highest chance of success.

But they could choose to make a broader argument in the alternative, one that takes a bigger swing. As Lina Khan famously noted about Amazon in her 2017 note that began the New Brandeis movement, the traditional economic consumer harm test does not adequately address the harms posed by Big Tech. The harms are too abstract. As White House advisor Tim Wu argues in “The Curse of Bigness,” and Judge Boasberg acknowledges in his opinion, antitrust law does not hinge solely upon price effects. Facebook can be broken up without proving the negative impact of price effects.

However, Facebook has hurt consumers. Consumers are the workers whose labor constitutes Facebook’s value, and they’ve been underpaid. If you define personal networking to include entertainment, then YouTube is an instructive example. On both YouTube and Facebook properties, influencers can capture value by charging brands directly. That’s not what we’re talking about here; what matters is the percent of advertising revenue that is paid out to creators.

YouTube’s traditional percentage is 55%. YouTube announced it has paid $30 billion to creators and rights holders over the last three years. Let’s conservatively say that half of the money goes to rights holders; that means creators on average have earned $15 billion, which would mean $5 billion annually, a meaningful slice of YouTube’s $46 billion in revenue over that time. So in other words, YouTube paid creators a third of its revenue (this admittedly ignores YouTube’s non-advertising revenue).

Facebook, by comparison, announced just weeks ago a paltry $1 billion program over a year and change. Sure, creators may make some money from interstitial ads, but Facebook does not announce the percentage of revenue they hand to creators because it would be insulting. Over the equivalent three-year period of YouTube’s declaration, Facebook has generated $210 billion in revenue. one-third of this revenue paid to creators would represent $70 billion, or $23 billion a year.

Why hasn’t Facebook paid creators before? Because it hasn’t needed to do so. Facebook’s social graph is so large that creators must post there anyway — the scale afforded by success on Facebook Blue and Instagram allows creators to monetize through directly selling to brands. Facebooks ads have value because of creators’ labor; if the users did not generate content, the social graph would not exist. Creators deserve more than the scraps they generate on their own. Facebook suppresses creators’ wages because it can. This is what monopolies do.

Facebook’s Standard Oil ethos

Facebook has long been the Standard Oil of social media, using its core monopoly to begin its march upstream and down. Zuckerberg announced in July and renewed his focus today on the metaverse, a market Roblox has pioneered. After achieving a monopoly in personal social media and competing ably in entertainment social media and virtual reality, Facebook’s drilling continues. Yes, Facebook may be free, but its monopoly harms Americans by stifling creator wages. The antitrust laws dictate that consumer harm is not a necessary condition for proving a monopoly under the Sherman Act; monopolies in and of themselves are illegal. By refiling the correct market definition and marketshare, the FTC stands more than a chance. It should win.

A prior version of this article originally appeared on Substack.

Astra given regulatory green light for its first commercial orbital launch at the end of the month

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Rocket launch startup Astra has received a key license from the Federal Aviation Administration, giving the green light for the company’s first commercial orbital launch at the end of the month.

Astra CEO Chris Kemp tweeted the news on Thursday, adding that the launch operator license through the FAA is valid through 2026. The new license is a modification of the company’s previous launch license and applicable to the current version of the company’s rocket, a company spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Thrilled that @Astra now authorized to conduct launches out of Kodiak through 2026 with @FAA launch operator’s license! #AdAstra pic.twitter.com/QKn3mgRuwY

— Chris Kemp (@Kemp) August 19, 2021

The license, posted on the FAA’s website, authorizes Astra to conduct flights of its Rocket v3 launch vehicle from the company’s launch pad at the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska. It expires on March 9, 2026. It clears the way for Astra to conduct a demonstration mission for the U.S. Space Force on August 27, as well as a second launch planned for some time later this year.

This is proving to be a big year for Astra. In addition to conducting its first commercial orbital launch on August 27, the company also starting trading on the Nasdaq under the ticker symbol “ASTR.” The company made its debut after merging with special purpose acquisition company Holicity at a pro-forma enterprise value of $2.1 billion.

Earlier this summer, Astra also acquired space-propulsion company Apollo Fusion. The acquisition gives a possible hint into how Astra is thinking about future launches, as electric propulsion systems are useful for moving objects from lower to higher orbits.

Two senators urge the FTC to investigate Tesla over ‘Full Self-Driving’ statements

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Two Democratic senators have asked the new chair of the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Tesla’s statements about the autonomous capabilities of its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving systems. The senators, Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), expressed particular concern over Tesla misleading customers into thinking their vehicles are capable of fully autonomous driving.

“Tesla’s marketing has repeatedly overstated the capabilities of its vehicles, and these statements increasingly pose a threat to motorists and other users of the road,” they said. “Accordingly, we urge you to open an investigation into potentially deceptive and unfair practices in Tesla’s advertising and marketing of its driving automation systems and take appropriate enforcement action to ensure the safety of all drivers on the road.”

In their letter to new FTC Chair Lina Khan, they point to a 2019 YouTube video Tesla posted to its channel, which shows a Tesla driving autonomously. The roughly two-minute video is titled “Full Self-Driving” and has been viewed more than 18 million times.

“Their claims put Tesla drivers – and all of the travelling public – at risk of serious injury or death,” the senators wrote.

When it comes to Tesla and formal investigations, when it rains, it pours. The letter was published just two days after the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said it had opened a preliminary investigation into incidents involving Teslas crashing into parked emergency vehicles.

Lina Khan is the youngest person to ever chair the FTC. She’s widely considered the most progressive appointment in recent history, particularly for her scholarship on antitrust law. But should the FTC choose to investigate Tesla, the case would likely have nothing to do with antitrust law and instead fall under the purview of consumer protection. The FTC has the authority to investigate false or misleading claims from companies regarding their products.

This is not the first time prominent figures have called on the FTC to open an investigation into Tesla’s claims. The Center for Auto Safety and Consumer Watchdog, two special interest groups, also sent a letter in 2018 to the commission over the marketing of Autopilot features. The following year, the NHTSA urged the FTC to investigate whether claims made by Tesla CEO Elon Musk on the Model 3’s safety “constitute[d] unfair or deceptive acts or practices.”

Tesla charges $10,000 for access to a “Full Self-Driving” option at the point of sale, or as a subscription. The company is currently testing beta version 9 of FSD with a few thousand drivers, but the senators take aim at the beta version, too. “After the [beta 9] update, drivers have posted videos online showing their updated Tesla vehicles making unexpected maneuvers that require human intervention to prevent a crash,” they write. “Mr. Musk’s tepid precautions tucked away on social media are no excuse for misleading drivers and endangering the lives of everyone on the road.”

How the law got it wrong with Apple Card

By Ram Iyer
Liz O'Sullivan Contributor
Liz O’Sullivan is CEO of Parity, a platform that automates model risk and algorithmic governance for the enterprise. She also advises the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots on all things artificial intelligence.
More posts by this contributor

Advocates of algorithmic justice have begun to see their proverbial “days in court” with legal investigations of enterprises like UHG and Apple Card. The Apple Card case is a strong example of how current anti-discrimination laws fall short of the fast pace of scientific research in the emerging field of quantifiable fairness.

While it may be true that Apple and their underwriters were found innocent of fair lending violations, the ruling came with clear caveats that should be a warning sign to enterprises using machine learning within any regulated space. Unless executives begin to take algorithmic fairness more seriously, their days ahead will be full of legal challenges and reputational damage.

What happened with Apple Card?

In late 2019, startup leader and social media celebrity David Heinemeier Hansson raised an important issue on Twitter, to much fanfare and applause. With almost 50,000 likes and retweets, he asked Apple and their underwriting partner, Goldman Sachs, to explain why he and his wife, who share the same financial ability, would be granted different credit limits. To many in the field of algorithmic fairness, it was a watershed moment to see the issues we advocate go mainstream, culminating in an inquiry from the NY Department of Financial Services (DFS).

At first glance, it may seem heartening to credit underwriters that the DFS concluded in March that Goldman’s underwriting algorithm did not violate the strict rules of financial access created in 1974 to protect women and minorities from lending discrimination. While disappointing to activists, this result was not surprising to those of us working closely with data teams in finance.

There are some algorithmic applications for financial institutions where the risks of experimentation far outweigh any benefit, and credit underwriting is one of them. We could have predicted that Goldman would be found innocent, because the laws for fairness in lending (if outdated) are clear and strictly enforced.

And yet, there is no doubt in my mind that the Goldman/Apple algorithm discriminates, along with every other credit scoring and underwriting algorithm on the market today. Nor do I doubt that these algorithms would fall apart if researchers were ever granted access to the models and data we would need to validate this claim. I know this because the NY DFS partially released its methodology for vetting the Goldman algorithm, and as you might expect, their audit fell far short of the standards held by modern algorithm auditors today.

How did DFS (under current law) assess the fairness of Apple Card?

In order to prove the Apple algorithm was “fair,” DFS considered first whether Goldman had used “prohibited characteristics” of potential applicants like gender or marital status. This one was easy for Goldman to pass — they don’t include race, gender or marital status as an input to the model. However, we’ve known for years now that some model features can act as “proxies” for protected classes.

If you’re Black, a woman and pregnant, for instance, your likelihood of obtaining credit may be lower than the average of the outcomes among each overarching protected category.

The DFS methodology, based on 50 years of legal precedent, failed to mention whether they considered this question, but we can guess that they did not. Because if they had, they’d have quickly found that credit score is so tightly correlated to race that some states are considering banning its use for casualty insurance. Proxy features have only stepped into the research spotlight recently, giving us our first example of how science has outpaced regulation.

In the absence of protected features, DFS then looked for credit profiles that were similar in content but belonged to people of different protected classes. In a certain imprecise sense, they sought to find out what would happen to the credit decision were we to “flip” the gender on the application. Would a female version of the male applicant receive the same treatment?

Intuitively, this seems like one way to define “fair.” And it is — in the field of machine learning fairness, there is a concept called a “flip test” and it is one of many measures of a concept called “individual fairness,” which is exactly what it sounds like. I asked Patrick Hall, principal scientist at bnh.ai, a leading boutique AI law firm, about the analysis most common in investigating fair lending cases. Referring to the methods DFS used to audit Apple Card, he called it basic regression, or “a 1970s version of the flip test,” bringing us example number two of our insufficient laws.

A new vocabulary for algorithmic fairness

Ever since Solon Barocas’ seminal paper “Big Data’s Disparate Impact” in 2016, researchers have been hard at work to define core philosophical concepts into mathematical terms. Several conferences have sprung into existence, with new fairness tracks emerging at the most notable AI events. The field is in a period of hypergrowth, where the law has as of yet failed to keep pace. But just like what happened to the cybersecurity industry, this legal reprieve won’t last forever.

Perhaps we can forgive DFS for its softball audit given that the laws governing fair lending are born of the civil rights movement and have not evolved much in the 50-plus years since inception. The legal precedents were set long before machine learning fairness research really took off. If DFS had been appropriately equipped to deal with the challenge of evaluating the fairness of the Apple Card, they would have used the robust vocabulary for algorithmic assessment that’s blossomed over the last five years.

The DFS report, for instance, makes no mention of measuring “equalized odds,” a notorious line of inquiry first made famous in 2018 by Joy Buolamwini, Timnit Gebru and Deb Raji. Their “Gender Shades” paper proved that facial recognition algorithms guess wrong on dark female faces more often than they do on subjects with lighter skin, and this reasoning holds true for many applications of prediction beyond computer vision alone.

Equalized odds would ask of Apple’s algorithm: Just how often does it predict creditworthiness correctly? How often does it guess wrong? Are there disparities in these error rates among people of different genders, races or disability status? According to Hall, these measurements are important, but simply too new to have been fully codified into the legal system.

If it turns out that Goldman regularly underestimates female applicants in the real world, or assigns interest rates that are higher than Black applicants truly deserve, it’s easy to see how this would harm these underserved populations at national scale.

Financial services’ Catch-22

Modern auditors know that the methods dictated by legal precedent fail to catch nuances in fairness for intersectional combinations within minority categories — a problem that’s exacerbated by the complexity of machine learning models. If you’re Black, a woman and pregnant, for instance, your likelihood of obtaining credit may be lower than the average of the outcomes among each overarching protected category.

These underrepresented groups may never benefit from a holistic audit of the system without special attention paid to their uniqueness, given that the sample size of minorities is by definition a smaller number in the set. This is why modern auditors prefer “fairness through awareness” approaches that allow us to measure results with explicit knowledge of the demographics of the individuals in each group.

But there’s a Catch-22. In financial services and other highly regulated fields, auditors often can’t use “fairness through awareness,” because they may be prevented from collecting sensitive information from the start. The goal of this legal constraint was to prevent lenders from discrimination. In a cruel twist of fate, this gives cover to algorithmic discrimination, giving us our third example of legal insufficiency.

The fact that we can’t collect this information hamstrings our ability to find out how models treat underserved groups. Without it, we might never prove what we know to be true in practice — full-time moms, for instance, will reliably have thinner credit files, because they don’t execute every credit-based purchase under both spousal names. Minority groups may be far more likely to be gig workers, tipped employees or participate in cash-based industries, leading to commonalities among their income profiles that prove less common for the majority.

Importantly, these differences on the applicants’ credit files do not necessarily translate to true financial responsibility or creditworthiness. If it’s your goal to predict creditworthiness accurately, you’d want to know where the method (e.g., a credit score) breaks down.

What this means for businesses using AI

In Apple’s example, it’s worth mentioning a hopeful epilogue to the story where Apple made a consequential update to their credit policy to combat the discrimination that is protected by our antiquated laws. In Apple CEO Tim Cook’s announcement, he was quick to highlight a “lack of fairness in the way the industry [calculates] credit scores.”

Their new policy allows spouses or parents to combine credit files such that the weaker credit file can benefit from the stronger. It’s a great example of a company thinking ahead to steps that may actually reduce the discrimination that exists structurally in our world. In updating their policies, Apple got ahead of the regulation that may come as a result of this inquiry.

This is a strategic advantage for Apple, because NY DFS made exhaustive mention of the insufficiency of current laws governing this space, meaning updates to regulation may be nearer than many think. To quote Superintendent of Financial Services Linda A. Lacewell: “The use of credit scoring in its current form and laws and regulations barring discrimination in lending are in need of strengthening and modernization.” In my own experience working with regulators, this is something today’s authorities are very keen to explore.

I have no doubt that American regulators are working to improve the laws that govern AI, taking advantage of this robust vocabulary for equality in automation and math. The Federal Reserve, OCC, CFPB, FTC and Congress are all eager to address algorithmic discrimination, even if their pace is slow.

In the meantime, we have every reason to believe that algorithmic discrimination is rampant, largely because the industry has also been slow to adopt the language of academia that the last few years have brought. Little excuse remains for enterprises failing to take advantage of this new field of fairness, and to root out the predictive discrimination that is in some ways guaranteed. And the EU agrees, with draft laws that apply specifically to AI that are set to be adopted some time in the next two years.

The field of machine learning fairness has matured quickly, with new techniques discovered every year and myriad tools to help. The field is only now reaching a point where this can be prescribed with some degree of automation. Standards bodies have stepped in to provide guidance to lower the frequency and severity of these issues, even if American law is slow to adopt.

Because whether discrimination by algorithm is intentional, it is illegal. So, anyone using advanced analytics for applications relating to healthcare, housing, hiring, financial services, education or government are likely breaking these laws without knowing it.

Until clearer regulatory guidance becomes available for the myriad applications of AI in sensitive situations, the industry is on its own to figure out which definitions of fairness are best.

Democratic bill would suspend Section 230 protections when social networks boost anti-vax conspiracies

By Taylor Hatmaker

Two Democratic senators introduced a bill Thursday that would strip away the liability shield that social media platforms hold dear when those companies boost anti-vaccine conspiracies and other kinds of health misinformation.

The Health Misinformation Act, introduced by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), would create a new carve-out in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to hold platforms liable for algorithmically-promoted health misinformation and conspiracies. Platforms rely on Section 230 to protect them from legal liability for the vast amount of user-created content they host.

“For far too long, online platforms have not done enough to protect the health of Americans,” Klobuchar said. “These are some of the biggest, richest companies in the world and they must do more to prevent the spread of deadly vaccine misinformation.”

The bill would specifically alter Section 230’s language to revoke liability protections in the case of “health misinformation that is created or developed through the interactive computer service” if that misinformation is amplified through an algorithm. The proposed exception would only kick in during a declared national public health crisis, like the advent of Covid-19, and wouldn’t apply in normal times. The bill would task the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with defining health misinformation.

“Features that are built into technology platforms have contributed to the spread of misinformation and disinformation, with social media platforms incentivizing individuals to share content to get likes, comments, and other positive signals of engagement, which rewards engagement rather than accuracy,” the bill reads.

The bill also makes mention of the “disinformation dozen” — just twelve people, including anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and a grab bag of other conspiracy theorists, who account for a massive swath of the anti-vax misinformation ecosystem. Many of the individuals on the list still openly spread their messaging through social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms.

Section 230’s defenders generally view the idea of new carve-outs to the law as dangerous. Because Section 230 is such a foundational piece of the modern internet, enabling everything from Yelp and Reddit to the comment section below this post, they argue that the potential for unforeseen second order effects means the law should be left intact.

But some members of Congress — both Democrats and Republicans — see Section 230 as a valuable lever in their quest to regulate major social media companies. While the White House is pursuing its own path to craft consequences for overgrown tech companies through the Justice Department and the FTC, Biden’s office said earlier this week that the president is “reviewing” Section 230 as well. But as Trump also discovered, weakening Section 230 is a task that only Congress is positioned to accomplish — and even that is still a long shot.

While the new Democratic bill is narrowly targeted as far as proposed changes to Section 230 go, it’s also unlikely to attract bipartisan support.

Republicans are also interest in stripping away some of Big Tech’s liability protections, but generally hold the view that platforms remove too much content rather than too little. Republicans are also more likely to sow misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines themselves, framing vaccination as a partisan issue. Whether the bill goes anywhere or not, it’s clear that an alarming portion of Americans have no intention of getting vaccinated — even with a much more contagious variant on the rise and colder months on the horizon.

“As COVID-19 cases rise among the unvaccinated, so has the amount of misinformation surrounding vaccines on social media,” Luján said of the proposed changes to Section 230. “Lives are at stake.”

Biden taps Google critic to lead the DOJ’s antitrust division

By Taylor Hatmaker

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

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

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

Jonathan Kanter's nomination to lead @TheJusticeDept’s Antitrust Division is tremendous news for workers and consumers. He’s been a leader in the fight to check consolidated corporate power and strengthen competition in our markets. https://t.co/mLQACA0c4j

— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) July 20, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Venmo removes its global, public feed as part of a major redesign

By Sarah Perez

PayPal-owned payments app Venmo will no longer offer a public, global feed of users’ transactions, as part of a significant redesign focused on expanding the app’s privacy controls and better highlighting some of Venmo’s newer features. The company says it will instead only show users their “friends feed” — meaning, the app’s social feed where you can see just your friends’ transactions.

Venmo has struggled over the years to balance its desire to add a social element to its peer-to-peer payments-based network, with the need to offer users their privacy.

A few years ago, the company was forced to settle a complaint with the FTC over its handling of privacy disclosures in the app along with other issues related to the security and privacy of user transactions. One of the concerns at the time was a setting that made all transactions public by default — a feature the FTC said wasn’t being properly explained to customers. As part of the settlement, Venmo had to inform both new and existing users how to limit the visibility of their transactions, among other changes.

However, privacy issues have continued to follow Venmo over the years. More recently, BuzzFeed News was able to track down President Biden’s secret Venmo account because of the lack of privacy around Venmo friend lists, for example. Afterwards, the company rolled out friend-list privacy controls to address the issue.

Image Credits: Venmo

In the newly updated app, Venmo will still highlight this friend-list privacy setting so users can choose whether or not they want to have their profile appear on other people’s friends’ lists. Users will also still be able to remove or add contacts from their friend list at any time, block people and set their transaction privacy either as they post or retroactively to public, private or friends-only. It’s unclear what advantage posting publicly has though, as the global, public feed is gone. Instead, public transactions would be visible to a users’ nonfriends only when someone visited their profile directly.

In addition to the privacy changes, Venmo’s redesign aims to make it easier for people to discover the app’s new features, the company says.

Now, a new bottom navigation option will allow users to toggle between their social feed, Venmo’s products like the Venmo Card and crypto, and their personal profile. The newly elevated “Cards” section will allow Venmo Credit and Debit cardholders to manage their cards and access their rewards and offers, as before. Meanwhile, the “Crypto” tab will let users learn and explore the world of crypto, view real-time trends and buy, sell or hold different types of cryptocurrencies.

Image Credits: Venmo

Venmo first added support for crypto earlier this year, following parent company PayPal’s move to do the same, and now offers access to Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin and Bitcoin Cash. Before, the option appeared as a small button next to the “Pay or Request” button at the bottom of the screen, which contributed to Venmo’s cluttered feel.

The updated app will also include support for new payment types and expanded purchase protections, which Venmo announced last month, and said would arrive on July 20. Customers will now be able to indicate if their purchase is for “goods and services” when they transact with a seller, which will make the transactions eligible for Venmo’s purchase protection plan — even if the seller doesn’t have a proper “business” account.

Because this now charges sellers a 1.9% plus 10-cent fee, there had been some backlash from users who either misunderstood the changes or just didn’t like them. But the move could help boost Venmo revenue.

PayPal said in February that Venmo grew users 32% over 2020 to reach 70 million active accounts, and expects the app to generate nearly $900 million in revenue this year — likely in part thanks to this and other new initiatives, like its crypto transaction fees.

Image Credits: Venmo

Beyond the more functional changes and the privacy updates, Venmo’s redesign also modernizes the look-and-feel of the app itself, which had become a little dated and overly busy. As Venmo had expanded its array of services, the hamburger (three line) menu in the top right of the old version of the app had turned into a long list of options and settings. Now that’s gone. The app uses new iconography, an updated font, and lots of white space to make it feel fresh and clean.

The app’s changes also somewhat de-emphasize the importance of the social feed itself. Although it may still default to that tab, other options now have equal footing with tabs of their own, instead of being hidden away in a menu or in a smaller button.

Venmo says the redesigned Venmo app will begin to roll out today to select customers and will be available to all users across the U.S. over the next few weeks.

US blames China for Exchange server hacks and ransomware attacks

By Zack Whittaker

The Biden administration has formally accused China of the mass-hacking of Microsoft Exchange servers earlier this year, which prompted the FBI to intervene as concerns rose that the hacks could lead to widespread destruction.

The mass-hacking campaign targeted Microsoft Exchange email servers with four previously undiscovered vulnerabilities that allowed the hackers — which Microsoft already attributed to a China-backed group of hackers called Hafnium — to steal email mailboxes and address books from tens of thousands of organizations around the United States.

Microsoft released patches to fix the vulnerabilities, but the patches did not remove any backdoor code left behind by the hackers that might be used again for easy access to a hacked server. That prompted the FBI to secure a first-of-its-kind court order to effectively hack into the remaining hundreds of U.S.-based Exchange servers to remove the backdoor code. Computer incident response teams in countries around the world responded similarly by trying to notify organizations in their countries that were also affected by the attack.

In a statement out Monday, the Biden administration said the attack, launched by hackers backed by China’s Ministry of State Security, resulted in “significant remediation costs for its mostly private sector victims.”

“We have raised our concerns about both this incident and the [People’s Republic of China’s] broader malicious cyber activity with senior PRC Government officials, making clear that the PRC’s actions threaten security, confidence, and stability in cyberspace,” the statement read.

The National Security Agency also released details of the attacks to help network defenders identify potential routes of compromise. The Chinese government has repeatedly denied claims of state-backed or sponsored hacking.

The Biden administration also blamed China’s Ministry of State Security for contracting with criminal hackers to conduct unsanctioned operations, like ransomware attacks, “for their own personal profit.” The government said it was aware that China-backed hackers have demanded millions of dollars in ransom demands against hacked companies. Last year, the Justice Department charged two Chinese spies for their role in a global hacking campaign that saw prosecutors accuse the hackers of operating for personal gain.

Although the U.S. has publicly engaged the Kremlin to try to stop giving ransomware gangs safe harbor from operating from within Russia’s borders, the U.S. has not previously accused Beijing of launching or being involved with ransomware attacks.

“The PRC’s unwillingness to address criminal activity by contract hackers harms governments, businesses, and critical infrastructure operators through billions of dollars in lost intellectual property, proprietary information, ransom payments, and mitigation efforts,” said Monday’s statement.

The statement also said that the China-backed hackers engaged in extortion and cryptojacking, a way of forcing a computer to run code that uses its computing resources to mine cryptocurrency, for financial gain.

The Justice Department also announced fresh charges against four China-backed hackers working for the Ministry of State Security, which U.S. prosecutors said were engaged in efforts to steal intellectual property and infectious disease research into Ebola, HIV and AIDS, and MERS against victims based in the U.S., Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom by using a front company to hide their operations.

“The breadth and duration of China’s hacking campaigns, including these efforts targeting a dozen countries across sectors ranging from healthcare and biomedical research to aviation and defense, remind us that no country or industry is safe. Today’s international condemnation shows that the world wants fair rules, where countries invest in innovation, not theft,” said deputy attorney general Lisa Monaco.

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