California Governor Gavin Newsom has signed into law gig worker protections bill AB-5. This comes shortly after AB-5 passed in the California State Assembly and Senate.
“Today, we are disrupting the status quo and taking a bold step forward to rebuild our middle class and reshape the future of workers as we know it,” bill author and Assemblyperson Lorena Gonzalez said in a statement. “As one of the strongest economies in the world, California is now setting the global standard for worker protections for other states and countries to follow.”
AB-5 will help to ensure gig economy workers are entitled to minimum wage, workers’ compensation and other benefits by requiring employers to apply the ABC test. The bill, first introduced in December 2018, aims to codify the ruling established in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v Superior Court of Los Angeles. In that case, the court applied the ABC test and decided Dynamex wrongfully classified its workers as independent contractors.
According to the ABC test, in order for a hiring entity to legally classify a worker as an independent contractor, it must prove the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity, performs work outside the scope of the entity’s business and is regularly engaged in work of some independently established trade or other similar business.
“We agree with Gov. Newsom that California still has an opportunity to support the overwhelming majority of rideshare drivers who want a thoughtful solution that balances flexibility with earnings guarantees and protections,” Lyft spokesperson Adrian Durbin said in a statement to TechCrunch. “We are confident that with his leadership we can reach a historic agreement, but if necessary we are prepared to take this issue to the voters to preserve the freedom and access drivers and passengers want.”
Last week, Uber made it clear it plans to do whatever it takes to keep its drivers independent contractors.
“We will continue to advocate for a compromise agreement,” Uber Chief Legal Officer Tony West said on a press call last week.
As Uber outlined last month, the company is pushing for a framework that would establish a guaranteed earnings minimum while on a trip, offer portable benefits and enable drivers to “have a collective voice.”
He went on to say that Uber is continuing to explore several legal and political options to lay the groundwork for a statewide ballot initiative in 2020. Uber and Lyft announced a $60 million joint initiative last month, and now West is saying Uber is open to investing even more money in that committee account.
“This is not our first choice,” West said. “At the same time, we need to make sure we are exploring all options and all alternatives to put forward a framework that works for the 21st-century economy, and we believe we have a framework that does that.”
Despite opposition from Uber and other gig economy companies, the law will go into effect January 1, 2020.
In November 2020, America will go to the polls to vote in perhaps the most consequential election in a generation. The winner will lead the country amid great social, economic and ecological unrest. The 2020 election will be a referendum on both the current White House and the direction of the country at large.
Nearly 20 years into the young century, technology has become a pervasive element in all of our lives, and will continue to only grow more important. Whoever takes the oath of office in January 2021 will have to answer some difficult questions, raging from an impending climate disaster to concerns about job loss at the hands of robotics and automation.
Many of these questions are overlooked in day to day coverage of candidates and during debates. In order to better address the issues, TechCrunch staff has compiled a 10-part questionnaire across a wide range of tech-centric topics. The questions have been sent to national candidates, regardless of party. We will be publishing the answers as we receive them. Candidates are not required to answer all 10 in order for us to publish, but we will be noting which answers have been left blank.
First up is former Congressman John Delaney. Prior to being elected to Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, Delaney co-founded and led healthcare loan service Health Care Financial Partners (HCFP) and commercial lender CapitalSource. He was elected to Congress in 2013, beating out a 10-term Republican incumbent. Rumored to be running against Maryland governor Larry Hogan for a 2018 bid, Delaney instead announced plans to run for president in 2020.
1. Which initiatives will you prioritize to limit humankind’s impact on climate and avoid potential climate catastrophe?
My $4 trillion Climate Plan will enable us to reach the goal of net zero emissions by 2050, which the IPCC says is the necessary target to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The centerpiece of my plan is a carbon-fee-and-dividend that will put a price on carbon emissions and return the money to the American people through a dividend. My plan also includes increased federal funding for renewable energy research, advanced nuclear technologies, direct air capture, a new Climate Corps program, and the construction of the Carbon Throughway, which would transport captured carbon from all over the country to the Permian Basin for reuse and permanent sequestration.
2. What is your plan to increase black and Latinx startup founders’ access to funding?
As a former entrepreneur who started two companies that went on to be publicly traded, I am a firm believer in the importance of entrepreneurship. To ensure people from all backgrounds have the support they need to start a new business, I will create nonprofit banks to serve economically distressed communities, launch a new SBIC program to help provide access to capital to minority entrepreneurs, and create a grant program to fund business incubators and accelerators at HBCUs. Additionally, I pledge to appoint an Entrepreneurship Czar who will be responsible for promoting entrepreneurship-friendly policies at all levels of government and encouraging entrepreneurship in rural and urban communities that have been left behind by venture capital investment.
3. Why do you think low-income students are underrepresented in STEM fields and how do you think the government can help fix that problem?
I think a major part of the problem is that schools serving low-income communities don’t have the resources they need to provide a quality STEM education to every student. To fix that, I have an education plan that will increase investment in STEM education and use Title I funding to eliminate the $23 billion annual funding gap between predominantly white and predominantly black school districts. To encourage students to continue their education after they graduate from high school and ensure every student learns the skills they need, my plan also provides two years of free in-state tuition and fees at a public university, community college, or technical school to everyone who completes one year of my mandatory national service program.
4. Do you plan on backing and rolling out paper-only ballots or paper-verified election machines? With many stakeholders in the private sector and the government, how do you aim to coordinate and achieve that?
Making sure that our elections are secure is vital, and I think using voting machines that create a voter-verified paper record could improve security and increase voters’ confidence in the integrity of our elections. To address other facets of the election security issue, I have proposed creating a Department of Cybersecurity to help protect our election systems, and while in Congress I introduced election security legislation to ensure that election vendors are solely owned and controlled by American citizens.
5. What, if any, federal regulation should be enacted for autonomous vehicles?
I was proud to be the founder of the Congressional Artificial Intelligence Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers dedicated to understanding the impacts of advances in AI technology and educating other legislators so they have the knowledge they need to enact policies that ensure these innovations benefit Americans. We need to use the legislative process to have a real conversation involving experts and other stakeholders in order to develop a comprehensive set of regulations regarding autonomous vehicles, which should include standards that address data collection practices and other privacy issues as well as more fundamental questions about public safety.
6. How do you plan to achieve and maintain U.S. superiority in space, both in government programs and private industry?
Space exploration is tremendously important to me as a former Congressman from Maryland, the home of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, major space research centers at the University of Maryland, and many companies that develop crucial aerospace technologies. As president, I will support the NASA budget and will continue to encourage innovation in the private sector.
7. Increased capital in startups founded by American entrepreneurs is a net positive, but should the U.S. allow its businesses to be part-owned by foreign governments, particularly the government of Saudi Arabia?
I am concerned that joint ventures between U.S. businesses and foreign governments, including state-owned enterprises, could facilitate the theft of intellectual property, potentially allowing foreign governments to benefit from taxpayer-funded research. We need to put in place greater protections that defend American innovation from theft.
8. Will U.S.-China technology decoupling harm or benefit U.S. innovation and why?
In general, I am in favor of international technology cooperation but in the case of China, it engages in predatory economic behavior and disregards international rules. Intellectual property theft has become a big problem for American businesses as China allows its companies to steal IP through joint ventures. In theory, U.S.-China collaboration could advance technology and innovation but without proper IP and economic protections, U.S.-China joint ventures and partnerships can be detrimental to the U.S.
9. How large a threat does automation represent to American jobs? Do you have a plan to help train low-skilled workers and otherwise offset job loss?
Automation could lead to the disruption of up to 54 million American jobs if we aren’t prepared and we don’t have the right policies. To help American workers transition to the high-tech, high-skill future economy, I am calling for a national AI strategy that will support public/private AI partnerships, develop a social contract with the communities that are negatively impacted by technology and globalization, and create updated education and job training programs that will help students and those currently in the workforce learn the skills they need.
To help provide jobs to displaced workers and drive economic growth in communities that suffer negative effects from automation, I have proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that would create an infrastructure bank to facilitate state and local government investment, increase the Highway Trust Fund, create a Climate Infrastructure Fund, and create five new matching funds to support water infrastructure, school infrastructure, deferred maintenance projects, rural broadband, and infrastructure projects in disadvantaged communities in urban and rural areas. In addition, my proposed national service program will create new opportunities that allow young adults to learn new skills and gain valuable work experience. For example, my proposal includes a new national infrastructure apprenticeship program that will award a professional certificate proving mastery of particular skill sets for those who complete the program.
10. What steps will you take to restore net neutrality and assure internet users that their traffic and data are safe from manipulation by broadband providers?
I support the Save Net Neutrality Act to restore net neutrality, and I will appoint FCC commissioners who are committed to maintaining a fair and open internet. Additionally, I would work with Congress to update our digital privacy laws and regulations to protect consumers, especially children, from their data being collected without consent.
People win prestigious prizes in tech all the time, but there is something different about The Bold Prize. Unless you’ve been living under a literal or proverbial rock, you’ve probably heard something about the late Jeffrey Epstein, a notorious child molester and human trafficker who also happened to be a billionaire philanthropist and managed to become a ubiquitous figure in certain elite science and tech circles.
And if you’re involved in tech, the rock you’ve been living under would have had to be fully insulated from the internet to avoid reading about Epstein’s connections with MIT’s Media Lab, a leading destination for the world’s most brilliant technological minds, also known as “the future factory.”
This past week, conversations around the Media Lab were hotter than the fuel rods at Fukushima, as The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, perhaps the most feared and famous investigative journalist in America today, blasted out what for some were new revelations that Bill Gates, among others, had given millions of dollars to the Media Lab at Jeffrey (no fucking relation, thank you very much!) Epstein’s behest. Hours after Farrow’s piece was published, Joi Ito, the legendary but now embattled Media Lab director, resigned.
But well before before Farrow weighed in or Ito stepped away, students, faculty, and other leaders at MIT and far beyond were already on full alert about this story, thanks in large part to Arwa Michelle Mboya, a graduate student at the Media Lab, from Kenya by way of college at Yale, where she studied economics and filmmaking and learned to create virtual reality. Mboya, in her early 20’s, was among the first public voices (arguably the very first) to forcefully and thoughtfully call on Ito to step down from his position.
Imagine: you’re heading into the second year of your first graduate degree, and you find yourself taking on a man who, when Barack Obama took over Wired magazine for an issue as guest editor, was one of just a couple of people the then sitting President of the United States asked to personally interview. And imagine that man was the director of your graduate program, and the reason you decided to study in it in the first place.
Imagine the pressure involved, the courage required. And imagine, soon thereafter, being completely vindicated and celebrated for your actions.
That is precisely the journey that Arwa Mboya has been on these past few weeks, including when tech leader Sabrina Hersi Issa, founder of Being Bold Media, decided to crowd-fund the Bold Prize to honor Mboya’s courage, and has now brought in over $10,000 to support her ongoing work (full disclosure: I am among the over 120 contributors to the prize).
Mboya’s advocacy was never about Joi Ito personally. If you get to know her through the interview below, in fact, you’ll see she doesn’t wish him ill.
As she wrote in MIT’s The Tech nine days before Farrow’s essay and ten before Ito’s resignation, “This is not an MIT issue, and this is not a Joi Ito issue. This is an international issue where a global network of powerful individuals have used their influence to secure their privilege at the expense of women’s bodies and lives. The MIT Media Lab was nicknamed “The Future Factory” on CBS’s 60 Minutes. We are supposed to reflect the future, not just of technology but of society. When I call for Ito’s resignation, I’m fighting for the future of women.”
From the moment I read it, I thought this was a beautiful and truly bold statement by a student leader who is an inspiring example of the extraordinary caliber of student that the Media Lab draws.
But in getting to know her a bit since reading it, I’ve learned that her message is also about even more. It’s about the fact that the women and men who called for a new direction in light of Jeffrey Epstein’s abuses and other leaders’ complicity did so in pursuit of their own inspiring dreams for a better world.
Arwa, as you’ll see below, spoke out at MIT because of her passion to use tech to inspire radical imagination among potentially millions of African youth. As she discusses both the Media Lab and her broader vision, I believe she’s already beginning to provide that inspiration.
Greg Epstein: You have had a few of the most dramatic weeks of any student I’ve met in 15 years as a chaplain at two universities. How are you doing right now?
Arwa Mboya: I’m actually pretty good. I’m not saying that for the sake of saying. I have a great support network. I’m in a lab where everyone is amazing. I’m very tired, I’ll say that. I’ve been traveling a lot and dealing with this while still trying to focus on writing a thesis. If anything, it’s more like overwhelmed and exhausted as opposed to not doing well in and of itself.
Epstein: Looking at your writing — you’ve got a great Medium blog that you started long before MIT and maintained while you’ve been here — it struck me that in speaking your mind and heart about this Media Lab issue, you’ve done exactly what you set out to do when you came here. You set out to be brave, to live life, as the Helen Keller quote on your website says, as either a great adventure or nothing.
Also, when you came to the Media Lab, you were the best-case scenario for anyone who works on publicizing this place. You spoke and wrote about the Lab as your absolute dream. When you were in Africa, or Australia, or at Yale, how did you come to see this as the best place in the world for you to express the creative and civic dreams that you had?
Mboya: That’s a good question — what drew me here? The Media Lab is amazing. I read Whiplash, which is Joi Ito’s book about the nine principles of the Media Lab, and it really resonated with me. It was a place for misfits. It was a place for people who are curious and who just want to explore and experiment and mix different fields, which is exactly what I’ve been doing before.
From high school, I was very narrow in my focus; at Yale I did Econ and film, so that had a little more edge. After I graduated I insisted on not taking a more conventional path many students from Yale take, so [I] moved back to Kenya and worked on many different projects, got into adventure sports, got into travel more.
Epstein: Your website is full of pictures of you flipping over, skydiving, gymnastics — things that require both strength and courage.
Mboya: I’d always been an athlete, loved the outdoors.
I remember being in Vietnam; I’d never done a backflip. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to learn how to do this.” But it’s really scary jumping backwards; the fear. Is, you can’t see where you’re going. I remember telling myself, ” Okay, just jump over the fear. Just shut it off and do it. Your body will follow.” I did and I was like, “Oh, that was easy.” It’s not complicated. Most people could do it if they just said, “Okay, I’ll jump.”
It really stuck with me. A lot of decisions I’ve [since] made, that I’m scared of, I think, “Okay, just jump, and your body will follow.” The Media Lab was like that as well.
I really wanted to go there, I just didn’t think there was a place for me. It was like, I’m not techie enough, I’m not anything enough. Applying was, ’just jump,’ you never know what will happen.
Epstein: Back when you were applying, you wrote about experiencing what applicants to elite schools often call “imposter syndrome.” This is where I want to be, but will they want me?
Paul Brest didn’t set out to transform philanthropy. A constitutional law scholar who clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Harlan and is credited with coining the term “originalism,” Brest spent twelve years as dean of Stanford Law School.
But when he was named president of the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, one of the country’s largest large non-profit funders, Brest applied the rigor of a legal scholar not just to his own institution’s practices but to those of the philanthropy field at large. He hired experts to study the practice of philanthropy and helped to launch Stanford’s Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society, where he still teaches.
Now, Brest has turned his attention to advising Silicon Valley’s next generation of donors.
Scott Bade: Your background is in constitutional law. How did you make the shift from being dean at Stanford to running the Hewlett Foundation as president?
Paul Brest: I came into the Hewlett Foundation largely by accident. I really didn’t know anything about philanthropy, but I had been teaching courses on problem-solving and decision making. I think I got the job because a number of people on the board knew me, both from Stanford Law School, but also from playing chamber music with Walter and Esther Hewlett.
Bade: When was this?
Brest: I started there in 2000. Bill Hewlett died the year after I came. Walter Hewlett, Bill’s son, was chair of the board during the entire time I was president. But it’s not a family foundation.
Bade: What were your initial impressions of the foundation and the broader philanthropic space?
Brest: Not having come from the non-profit sector, it took me a year or so to really understand what it [meant] to use our assets in each area in a strategic way. The [Hewlett] Foundation had very good values in terms of the areas it was supporting — the environment, education, population, women’s reproductive rights. It had good philanthropic practices, but it was not very strategically focused. It turned out that not very many foundations were strategic.
Bade: What do you mean by ‘strategic’?
Brest: What I mean [by] strategic is having clear goals and having an evidence-based, evidence-informed strategy for achieving them. Big foundations tend to be conglomerates with different programs trying to achieve different goals.
[Being strategic means] monitoring progress as you work towards those goals. Then evaluating in advance whether the strategy is going to be plausible and then whether you’re actually achieving the outcomes you’re trying to achieve so that you can make course corrections if you’re not achieving.
[For example,] the likelihood that the roughly billionaire dollars or more that have been spent or committed to climate advocacy are going to have any effect is quite low. The place where metrics comes in is just having kind of an expected return mindset where yes, the chances of success are low, but we know that the importance of success — or putting it differently, the effects of failure — are going to be catastrophic.
What a strategic mindset does here is say: it’s worth taking huge bets even where the margins of error of the likelihood of success are very hard to measure when the results are huge.
I don’t want to say the [Hewlett] Foundation was anti-strategic, or totally unstrategic, but it really had not developed a [this kind of] systematic framework for doing those things.
Bade: You’re known in the philanthropic community for putting an emphasis on defining, achieving, measuring impact. Have those sort of technocratic practices made philanthropy better?
Brest: I think you have to start by asking, what would it mean for philanthropy to be good? From my point of view, philanthropy is good when I like the goals it chooses. Then, given a good goal, when it is effective in achieving that goal. Strategy really has nothing to say about what the goals are, but only how effective it is.
My guess is that 90 plus percent of philanthropy is intended to achieve goals that most of us think are good goals. There are occasions when you have direct conflicts of goals as you do with say the anti-abortion and the choice movements, or gun control and the NRA. Those are important arguments.
But most philanthropy is trying to improve education or improve the lives of the poor. My view is that philanthropy is good when it is effective in achieving those goals, and trying to do no harm in the process.
UK MPs have called for the government to regulate the games industry’s use of loot boxes under current gambling legislation — urging a blanket ban on the sale of loot boxes to players who are children.
Kids should instead be able to earn in-game credits to unlock look boxes, MPs have suggested in a recommendation that won’t be music to the games industry’s ears.
Loot boxes refer to virtual items in games that can be bought with real-world money and do not reveal their contents in advance. The MPs argue the mechanic should be considered games of chance played for money’s worth and regulated by the UK Gambling Act.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) parliamentary committee makes the recommendations in a report published today following an enquiry into immersive and addictive technologies that saw it take evidence from a number of tech companies including Fortnite maker Epic Games; Facebook-owned Instagram; and Snapchap.
The committee said it found representatives from the games industry to be “wilfully obtuse” in answering questions about typical patterns of play — data the report emphasizes is necessary for proper understanding of how players are engaging with games — as well as calling out some games and social media company representatives for demonstrating “a lack of honesty and transparency”, leading it to question what the companies have to hide.
“The potential harms outlined in this report can be considered the direct result of the way in which the ‘attention economy’ is driven by the objective of maximising user engagement,” the committee writes in a summary of the report which it says explores “how data-rich immersive technologies are driven by business models that combine people’s data with design practices to have powerful psychological effects”.
As well as trying to pry information about of games companies, MPs also took evidence from gamers during the course of the enquiry.
In one instance the committee heard that a gamer spent up to £1,000 per year on loot box mechanics in Electronic Arts’s Fifa series.
A member of the public also reported that their adult son had built up debts of more than £50,000 through spending on microtransactions in online game RuneScape. The maker of that game, Jagex, told the committee that players “can potentially spend up to £1,000 a week or £5,000 a month”.
In addition to calling for gambling law to be applied to the industry’s lucrative loot box mechanic, the report calls on games makers to face up to responsibilities to protect players from potential harms, saying research into possible negative psychosocial harms has been hampered by the industry’s unwillingness to share play data.
“Data on how long people play games for is essential to understand what normal and healthy — and, conversely, abnormal and potentially unhealthy — engagement with gaming looks like. Games companies collect this information for their own marketing and design purposes; however, in evidence to us, representatives from the games industry were wilfully obtuse in answering our questions about typical patterns of play,” it writes.
“Although the vast majority of people who play games find it a positive experience, the minority who struggle to maintain control over how much they are playing experience serious consequences for them and their loved ones. At present, the games industry has not sufficiently accepted responsibility for either understanding or preventing this harm. Moreover, both policy-making and potential industry interventions are being hindered by a lack of robust evidence, which in part stems from companies’ unwillingness to share data about patterns of play.”
The report recommends the government require games makers share aggregated player data with researchers, with the committee calling for a new regulator to oversee a levy on the industry to fund independent academic research — including into ‘Gaming disorder‘, an addictive condition formally designated by the World Health Organization — and to ensure that “the relevant data is made available from the industry to enable it to be effective”.
“Social media platforms and online games makers are locked in a relentless battle to capture ever more of people’s attention, time and money. Their business models are built on this, but it’s time for them to be more responsible in dealing with the harms these technologies can cause for some users,” said DCMS committee chair, Damian Collins, in a statement.
“Loot boxes are particularly lucrative for games companies but come at a high cost, particularly for problem gamblers, while exposing children to potential harm. Buying a loot box is playing a game of chance and it is high time the gambling laws caught up. We challenge the Government to explain why loot boxes should be exempt from the Gambling Act.
“Gaming contributes to a global industry that generates billions in revenue. It is unacceptable that some companies with millions of users and children among them should be so ill-equipped to talk to us about the potential harm of their products. Gaming disorder based on excessive and addictive game play has been recognised by the World Health Organisation. It’s time for games companies to use the huge quantities of data they gather about their players, to do more to proactively identify vulnerable gamers.”
The committee wants independent research to inform the development of a behavioural design code of practice for online services. “This should be developed within an adequate timeframe to inform the future online harms regulator’s work around ‘designed addiction’ and ‘excessive screen time’,” it writes, citing the government’s plan for a new Internet regulator for online harms.
MPs are also concerned about the lack of robust age verification to keep children off age-restricted platforms and games.
The report identifies inconsistencies in the games industry’s ‘age-ratings’ stemming from self-regulation around the distribution of games (such as online games not being subject to a legally enforceable age-rating system, meaning voluntary ratings are used instead).
“Games companies should not assume that the responsibility to enforce age-ratings applies exclusively to the main delivery platforms: All companies and platforms that are making games available online should uphold the highest standards of enforcing age-ratings,” the committee writes on that.
“Both games companies and the social media platforms need to establish effective age verification tools. They currently do not exist on any of the major platforms which rely on self-certification from children and adults,” Collins adds.
During the enquiry it emerged that the UK government is working with tech companies including Snap to try to devise a centralized system for age verification for online platforms.
A section of the report on Effective Age Verification cites testimony from deputy information commissioner Steve Wood raising concerns about any move towards “wide-spread age verification [by] collecting hard identifiers from people, like scans of passports”.
Wood instead pointed the committee towards technological alternatives, such as age estimation, which he said uses “algorithms running behind the scenes using different types of data linked to the self-declaration of the age to work out whether this person is the age they say they are when they are on the platform”.
Snapchat’s Will Scougal also told the committee that its platform is able to monitor user signals to ensure users are the appropriate age — by tracking behavior and activity; location; and connections between users to flag a user as potentially underage.
The report also makes a recommendation on deepfake content, with the committee saying that malicious creation and distribution of deepfake videos should be regarded as harmful content.
“The release of content like this could try to influence the outcome of elections and undermine people’s public reputation,” it warns. “Social media platforms should have clear policies in place for the removal of deepfakes. In the UK, the Government should include action against deepfakes as part of the duty of care social media companies should exercise in the interests of their users, as set out in the Online Harms White Paper.”
“Social media firms need to take action against known deepfake films, particularly when they have been designed to distort the appearance of people in an attempt to maliciously damage their public reputation, as was seen with the recent film of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi,” adds Collins.
Water is not uncommon to find in our galaxy in ice or gaseous form, but liquid water is quite rare — and liquid and gaseous water on an Earth-like exoplanet? That’s never been observed… until now. Astronomers spotted this celestial unicorn, called K2-18 b, using the venerable Hubble space telescope.
K2-18 b is a “super-Earth,” a planet with a mass and size approximately like our own, and not only that, it exists in its solar system’s “habitable zone,” meaning a range of temperatures where liquid water can continuously exist. It’s about 110 light-years away in the constellation Leo.
Of course there are many super-Earths, and many planets in habitable zones, and many planets with water — but they’re never one and the same. This is the first time we’ve found the trifecta.
Researchers used past Hubble data to examine the spectral signature of light shining from K2-18 b’s sun through its atmosphere. They found evidence of both liquid and gaseous water, suggesting a water cycle like our own: evaporation, condensation, and all that.
To be clear, this is not an indication of little green men or anything like that; K2-18 b’s red dwarf sun is absolutely bombarding it with radiation. “It is highly unlikely that this world is habitable in any way that we understand based on life as we know it,” the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Hannah Wakeford told Nature.
Too bad — but that wasn’t what scientists were hoping to find. The discovery of an Earth-like planet with an Earth-like water cycle in the habitable zone is amazing, especially considering the relatively small number of exoplanets that have been examined this way. The galaxy is full of them, after all, so finding one with these qualities suggests there are plenty more where K2-18 b came from.
This discovery is an interesting one in another fashion: It was done, like lots of others are these days, by performing after-the-fact analysis on publicly available data (from 2016 and 2017), and the analysis used open-source algorithms. Essentially both the data and the methods were out there in the open — though naturally it takes serious scientific effort to actually put them together.
Two papers were published on K2-18 b, one from the University of Montreal and one from University College London. The former appeared on preprint site Arxiv yesterday, and the other was published in the journal Nature Astronomy today.
Brexit looks set to further sink the already battered reputation of tracking cookies after a Buzzfeed report yesterday revealed what appears to be a plan by the UK’s minority government to use official government websites to harvest personal data on UK citizens for targeting purposes.
According to leaked government documents obtained by the news site, the prime minister has instructed government departments to share website usage data that’s collected via gov.uk websites with ministers on a cabinet committee tasked with preparing for a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
It’s not clear how linking up citizens use of essential government portals could further ‘no deal’ prep.
Rather the suspicion is it’s a massive, consent-less voter data grab by party political forces preparing for an inevitable general election in which the current Tory PM plans to campaign on a pro-Brexit message.
The instruction to pool gov.uk usage data as a “top priority” is also being justified internally in instructions to civil servants as necessary to accelerate plans for a digital revolution in public services — an odd ASAP to be claiming at a time of national, Brexit-induced crisis when there are plenty more pressing priorities (given the October 31 EU exit date looming).
A government spokesperson nonetheless told Buzzfeed the data is being collected to improve service delivery. They also claimed it’s “anonymized” data.
“Individual government departments currently collect anonymised user data when people use gov.uk. The Government Digital Service is working on a project to bring this anonymous data together to make sure people can access all the services they need as easily as possible,” the spokesperson said, further claiming: “No personal data is collected at any point during the process, and all activity is fully compliant with our legal and ethical obligations.”
However privacy experts quickly pointed out the nonsense of trying to pretend that joined up user data given a shared identifier is in any way anonymous.
So the "it's anonymised" is a lie. You cannot combine individual visits into a single journey without having a shared user identifier. Even a shared pseudonymisation method is a million miles away from "anonymised". https://t.co/TSv7TGLrK6
— Eerke Boiten (@EerkeBoiten) September 10, 2019
For those struggling to keep up with the blistering pace of UK political developments engendered by Brexit, this is a government led by a new (and unelected) prime minister, Boris ‘Brexit: Do or Die’ Johnson, and his special advisor, digital guru Dominic Cummings, of election law-breaking Vote Leave campaign fame.
Back in 2015 and 2016, Cummings, then the director of the official Vote Leave campaign, masterminded a plan to win the EU referendum by using social media data to profile voters — blitzing them with millions of targeted ads in final days of the Brexit campaign.
Vote Leave was later found to have channelled money to Cambridge Analytica-linked Canadian data firm Aggregate IQ to target pro-Brexit ads via Facebook’s platform. Many of which were subsequently revealed to have used blatantly xenophobic messaging to push racist anti-EU messaging when Facebook finally handed over the ad data.
Setting aside the use of xenophobic dark ads to whip up racist sentiment to sell Brexit to voters, and ongoing questions about exactly how Vote Leave acquired data on UK voters for targeting them with political ads (including ethical questions about the use of a football quiz touting a £50M prize run on social media as a mass voter data-harvesting exercise), last year the UK’s Electoral Commission found Vote Leave had breached campaign spending limits through undeclared joint working with another pro-Brexit campaign — via which almost half a million pounds was illegally channeled into Facebook ads.
The Vote Leave campaign was fined £61k by the Electoral Commission, and referred to the police. (An investigation is possibly ongoing.)
Cummings, the ‘huge brain’ behind Vote Leave’s digital strategy, did not suffer a dent in his career as a consequence of all this — on the contrary, he was appointed by Johnson as senior advisor this summer, after Johnson won the Conservative leader contest and so became the third UK PM since the 2016 vote for Brexit.
With Cummings at his side, it’s been full steam ahead for Johnson on social media ads and data grabs, as we reported last month — paving the way for a hoped for general election campaign, fuelled by ‘no holds barred’ data science. Democratic ethics? Not in this digitally disruptive administration!
The Johnson-Cummings pact ignores entirely the loud misgivings sounded by the UK’s information commissioner — which a year ago warned that political microtargeting risks undermining trust in democracy. The ICO called then for an ethical pause. Instead Johnson stuck up a proverbial finger by installing Cummings in No.10.
The UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport parliamentary committee, which tried and failed to get Cummings to testify before it last year as part of a wide-ranging enquiry into online disinformation (a snub for which Cummings was later found in contempt of parliament), also urged the government to update election law as a priority last summer — saying it was essential to act to defend democracy against data-fuelled misinformation and disinformation. A call that was met with cold water.
This means the same old laws that failed to prevent ethically dubious voter data-harvesting during the EU referendum campaign, and failed to prevent social media ad platforms and online payment platforms (hi, Paypal!) from being the conduit for illegal foreign donations into UK campaigns, are now apparently incapable of responding to another voter data heist trick, this time cooked up at the heart of government on the umbrella pretext of ‘preparing for Brexit’.
The repurposing of government departments under Johnson-Cummings for pro-Brexit propaganda messaging also looks decidedly whiffy…
Duty-free shopping with the EU is coming back, if we leave without a deal.
People travelling to EU countries will be able to buy beer, spirits, wine and tobacco without duty being applied in the UK.
— HM Treasury (@hmtreasury) September 10, 2019
Given Cummings' focus on data science in the Vote Leave campaign the sudden urgent need for big data collection is extremely concerning. We need immediate clarity about how citizens' data will be protected and won’t be misused for party political purposes.https://t.co/1qtyI6fUJ4
— Tom Watson (@tom_watson) September 10, 2019
Asked about the legality of the data pooling gov.uk plan as reported by Buzzfeed, an ICO spokesperson told us: “People should be able to make informed choices about the way their data is used. That’s why organisations have to ensure that they process personal information fairly, legally and transparently. When that doesn’t happen, the ICO can take action.”
Can — but hasn’t yet.
It’s also not clear what action the ICO could end up taking to purge UK voter data that’s already been (or is in the process of being) sucked out of the Internet to be repurposed for party political purposes — including, judging by the Vote Leave playbook, for microtargeted ads that promote a no holds barred ‘no deal’ Brexit agenda.
One thing is clear: Any action would need to be swiftly enacted and robustly enforced if it were to have a meaningful chance of defending democracy from ethics-free data-targeting.
Sadly, the ICO has yet to show an appetite for swift and robust action where political parties are concerned.
Likely because a report it put out last fall essentially called out all UK political parties for misusing people’s data. It followed up saying it would audit the political parties starting early this year — but has yet to publish its findings.
Concerned opposition MPs are left tweeting into the regulatory abyss — decrying the ‘coup’ and forlornly pressing for action… Though if the political boot were on the other foot it might well be a different story.
Among the cookies used on gov.uk sites are Google Analytics cookies which store information on how visitors got to the site; the pages visited and length of time spent on them; and items clicked on. Which could certainly enable rich profiles to be attached to single visitors IDs.
Visitors to gov.uk properties can switch off Google Analytics measurement cookies, as well as denying gov.uk communications and marketing cookies, and cookies that store preferences — with only “strictly necessary” cookies (which remember form progress and serve notifications) lacking a user toggle.
What should concerned UK citizens to do to defend democracy against the data science folks we’re told are being thrown at the Johnson-Cummings GSD data pooling project? Practice good privacy hygiene.
Clear your cookies. Indeed, switch off gov.uk cookies. Deny access wherever and whenever possible.
It’s probably also a good idea to use a fresh browser session each time you need to visit a government website and close the session (with cookies set to clear) immediately you’re done.
When the laws have so spectacularly failed to keep up with the data processors, limiting how your information is gathered online is the only way to be sure. Though as we’ve written before it’s not easy.
Privacy is personal and unfortunately, with the laws lagging, the personal is now trivially cheap and easy to weaponize for political dark arts that treat democracy as a game of PR, debasing the entire system in the process.
If you want to make it more difficult for Dominic Cummings and The Charlatan to scrape data from Government sources to help them turn our democracy into a Turkey-on-the-Thames can I suggest you turn off cookies here? https://t.co/czXnmNtTaj
— Jo Maugham QC (@JolyonMaugham) September 11, 2019
The Department of Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration are readying tough new requirements on e-cigarettes — including a potential ban on flavorings for vaping products.
The FDA compliance policy would mean that all non-tobacco flavored e-cigarettes would have to be cleared by the FDA before they could be sold. The regulations could effectively remove flavored e-cigarette products from the market until they go through the testing required for FDA approval.
In August 2016, e-cigarette companies were required to file premarket tobacco product applications with the FDA over a two-year period. Those companies whose products have not received FDA approval are now considered to be marketed illegally, according to the HHS statement.
“The Trump Administration is making it clear that we intend to clear the market of flavored e-cigarettes to reverse the deeply concerning epidemic of youth e-cigarette use that is impacting children, families, schools and communities,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, in a statement. “We will not stand idly by as these products become an on-ramp to combustible cigarettes or nicotine addiction for a generation of youth.”
Over the past year, the e-cigarette industry has faced a steady stream of criticism related to the health effects of vaping and the ways in which companies marketed their products to minors.
A new version of the National Youth Tobacco Survey shows the continued rise in rates of youth e-cigarette use, especially through non-tobacco flavors, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. More than 25% of high school students were e-cigarette users in 2019, and the bulk of those kids cited fruit and mint flavors as their pods of choice.
Earlier in September, the Centers for Disease Control issued a warning against vaping as several deadly instances of lung-related illnesses cropped up among vape users (although no solid link between the lung condition and vaping has been identified). As we reported at the time:
The first death was reported in late August in Indiana, but other suspected cases have turned fatal in Illinois, Minnesota, California and Oregon — as reported by The Washington Post, though the CDC said three are confirmed and one is under investigation. The number of reported cases has skyrocketed, though this is likely a consequence of better information coming from state health authorities and hospitals, rather than a sudden epidemic.
The government’s mobilization efforts come just one day after former New York City mayor and billionaire philanthropist Mike Bloomberg announced a $160 million effort to combat youth vaping.
Blomberg actually called out the federal government in the announcement, saying:
The federal government has the responsibility to protect children from harm, but it has failed – so the rest of us are taking action. I look forward to partnering with advocates in cities and states across the country on legislative actions that protect our kids’ health. The decline in youth smoking is one of the great health victories of this century, and we can’t allow tobacco companies to reverse that progress.
Brexit has taken over discourse in the UK and beyond. In the UK alone, it is mentioned over 500 million times a day, in 92 million conversations — and for good reason. While the UK has yet to leave the EU, the impact of Brexit has already rippled through industries all over the world. The UK’s technology sector is no exception. While innovation endures in the midst of Brexit, data reveals that innovative companies are losing the ability to attract people from all over the world and are suffering from a substantial talent leak.
It is no secret that the UK was already experiencing a talent shortage, even without the added pressure created by today’s political landscape. Technology is developing rapidly and demand for tech workers continues to outpace supply, creating a fiercely competitive hiring landscape.
The shortage of available tech talent has already created a deficit that could cost the UK £141 billion in GDP growth by 2028, stifling innovation. Now, with Brexit threatening the UK’s cosmopolitan tech landscape — and the economy at large — we may soon see international tech talent moving elsewhere; in fact, 60% of London businesses think they’ll lose access to tech talent once the UK leaves the EU.
So, how can UK-based companies proactively attract and retain top tech talent to prevent a Brexit brain drain? UK businesses must ensure that their hiring funnels are a top priority and focus on understanding what matters most to tech talent beyond salary, so that they don’t lose out to US tech hubs.
California legislators have passed a bill that would treat workers at so-called gig economy companies such as Uber and Lyft as employees, giving them access to improved wage and benefit protections.
The 29-11 vote passed on late Tuesday sends the bill back to the State Assembly for final approval. Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, who has maintained his support for the bill, is expected to approve it.
The proposal, expected to go into effect January 1, had drawn sharp opposition from ridesharing companies and on-demand delivery firms. When Uber, which posted a record $5.2 billion in loss last quarter and laid off hundreds this week, filed to become a public company, it told the SEC that its business would be “adversely affected if drivers were classified as employees instead of independent contractors.”
The bill says that if a contractor’s work is part of a company’s regular business, then they must be designated as employees. And thus, these workers will get access to more protections such as minimum wage, the right to unionize, and overtime.
Huawei has dropped a lawsuit against the Commerce Department and other agencies after the U.S. government released telecommunications equipment seized in September 2017. The suit was filed by the Chinese company’s U.S. subsidiary, Huawei Technologies USA, in June. In a statement, Huawei said it considers the return of the equipment, including servers and Ethernet switches, “as a tacit admission that the seizure itself was unlawful and arbitrary.”
The equipment was confiscated by U.S. officials in Alaska as it was on its way back to China after testing in California. Huawei said the U.S. government determined after an investigation that no export license was needed for the shipment, but did not give the company an explanation for why it had been withheld for two years.
The dropped lawsuit is separate from the one Huawei filed against the U.S. government in March, claiming that a ban on the use of its products by federal agencies and contractors violated due process and is unconstitutional.
Huawei has been on the U.S. government’s entity list since May over concerns that it poses a threat to national security and its equipment may be used for espionage, allegations the company has denied. The trade blacklist prevents it from purchasing from U.S. suppliers without getting clearance from the government first.
Along with ZTE, Huawei has been on the U.S. government’s radar since the House Intelligence Committee identified the companies as potential security threats. Scrutiny has intensified since the U.S.-China trade war began last year, however, and the U.S. government has put more legal pressure on Huawei, which the company described earlier this month as a “malign, concerted effort by the U.S. government to discredit Huawei and curb its leadership position in the industry.”
The Food and Drug Administration has put vaping giant Juul on notice with a pair of letters calling out the company for misleading statements about its products and ongoing targeting of teens. It is demanding written answers to a boatload of pertinent questions and expects Juul to respond within two weeks or risk “even more aggressive action” by regulators.
The specific claims being disputed by the FDA have to do with Juul positioning itself as a smoking cessation product. Now, it may be obvious anecdotally that vaping is a good way to wean yourself off smoking. But unlike nicotine patches and other products, there isn’t a lot of documentation on the complete risk associated with vaping — and with several people dead of vape lung, there would seem to be some worth considering.
“Companies must demonstrate with scientific evidence that their specific product does in fact pose less risk or is less harmful,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless in a news release. “Juul has ignored the law, and very concerningly, has made some of these statements in school to our nation’s youth.”
Juul was reportedly directly targeting social media channels frequented by young people and, “despite commitments JUUL has made to address this epidemic, JUUL products continue to represent a significant proportion of the overall use of ENDS products by children. Some of this youth use appears to have been a direct result of JUUL’s product design and promotional activities and outreach efforts.”
In a recent congressional hearing about the risk of “electronic nicotine delivery systems,” or ENDS, evidence was presented that a Juul representative told students that the company’s products were “much safer than cigarettes,” “totally safe,” and that the “FDA was about to come out and say it was 99% safer than cigarettes… very soon.”
Representations like these were apparently made far and wide, among students certainly and also among Native American communities. They aren’t the kind of statements you can just say — tobacco cessation products are regulated, essentially medical products, and the FDA looks at them closely. Claims have to be documented and evaluated.
Juul seems to have been walking very close to the line in its public statements, and it’s likely that the company very carefully crafted these messages to convince people that its devices are good alternatives to smoking while not making any claims that would expose it to FDA attention. But they appear to have stepped over that line now and again and provoked exactly the kind of scrutiny they’d rather avoid.
“We request that you provide any and all scientific evidence and data, including consumer perception studies, if any, related to whether or not each statement and representation explicitly or implicitly conveys that JUUL products pose less risk, are less harmful, present reduced exposure, or are safer than other tobacco products,” the FDA told Juul.
Furthermore it asked Juul to explain why it uses a 5% nicotine concentration in its products, which could increase the likelihood of addiction, and why the company uses nicotine salts, a substance that reduces harshness and allows greater nicotine concentrations.
Likely independent of the ongoing investigation into lung problems seemingly caused by vaping, the FDA also requested “Aerosol particle size analysis of aerosol formed from your device,” “experimental design and data on pK studies from your device, your e-liquid, and combusted cigarettes,” comparisons between free nicotine and nicotine salt delivery, and “How the design and performance of your device and/or e-liquid, including the level, formulation, and delivery specifications of nicotine, affect lung deposition as related to the use and addictive potential of the product.”
In other words, tell us why you designed your product to be extra addictive and attractive to non-smokers, and whether this was in spite of knowing the substances created caused lung damage.
In a statement, Juul said that it was “reviewing the letters and will fully cooperate.”
This fall, nearly half a million international students will begin or return to STEM degree programs at U.S. colleges and universities. If you’re among them, congratulations — look forward to being wooed by talent-hungry U.S. tech firms when you graduate. But there’s bad news, too: Under current immigration rules, switching from a student visa to an employment visa can be tricky, so it’s important to understand what’s required and how the latest policy upheavals could impact your journey.
In theory, it’s a great time to be a STEM graduate. U.S. STEM jobs are expected to grow by nearly 11% — or about 10.3 million positions — between 2016 and 2026, faster than all U.S. occupations. In practice, however, it can be tough for international students to secure permanent residence in the United States. The H-1B skilled-worker visa system is badly clogged; a federal lawsuit could slam the door on many STEM graduates, and the White House is shaking up both the skilled-worker and student visa systems.
But don’t despair: There’s still a pathway to a future in the United States — you just might face a bumpy ride. Whether you’re starting your studies or preparing to graduate, it’s crucial to understand your options.
An employment-based green card requires an executive-level job, a truly extraordinary résumé, or an employer willing to pony up thousands of dollars in fees and labor-certification costs. Because it’s hard to get a green card, most international STEM students aim for an H-1B visa, which lets you work for a specified U.S. employer for up to six years. It’s not a permanent solution, but it can be a useful launchpad for your career.
Even getting an H-1B isn’t easy, though. There’s a hard cap on H-1Bs: This year, there were more than 200,000 applicants vying for just 85,000 visas. Recipients are selected via lottery, and while you could land an H-1B on your first attempt, many tech workers have to try again — and again, and again — before they finally get lucky.
In the meantime, international students typically start out using the temporary work authorization through their student visa until they transfer to an H-1B.
Let’s dig into the details of what’s allowed under your student visa:
The F-1 student visa is one of the main on-ramps to the U.S. tech sector for foreign-born workers. That’s largely thanks to Bush- and Obama-era changes that expanded the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which allows F-1 holders to work at American companies after graduating, from 12 to 36 months.
Graduates with multiple STEM degrees (such as a bachelor’s and master’s degrees) can also chain together their OPT periods, working for up to six years in total before switching to another visa. That’s great news because each year of OPT is another chance to play the H-1B lottery, increasing your odds of winning a visa.
To use OPT, you’ll need to get a work permit (“Employment Authorization Document,” or EAD) as you near graduation. You’ll also need to file for visa extensions in order to make the most of your OPT entitlement.
Similar to the F-1, the J-1 visa is designed for students involved in cultural exchange programs or who receive substantial funding from governments or institutions.
As a J-1 student, you won’t get OPT but 18 months of Academic Training (AT). Any internships or jobs you take during your studies will count toward your AT allotment, so it’s possible to finish your degree with less than 18 months of work authorization remaining. And while a second 18-month AT period is available for postdoctoral research, there’s no automatic extension for STEM degree holders: Once your 18 months are up, you’ll need to leave the United States.
There’s another catch: Many J-1 visas come with a home residency requirement (HRR), requiring holders to return to their home country for two years before seeking a work-based or family-sponsored U.S. visa — that or apply for an HRR waiver.
The M-1 visa is used by students at technical and vocational schools, not academic programs. As student visas go, it’s very restrictive: You won’t be able to work off-campus and can’t work for more than six months. You also won’t be able to switch to an F-1 visa and won’t find it easy to transition to an H-1B. If you hope to stay in the United States long-term, think carefully about whether an M-1 is right for you.
If you don’t have a job offer, there are other ways to stay in the United States after finishing your studies. One popular option is to enter a graduate program: Getting a master’s degree could extend your student visa by a year or two, while upgrading to a PhD program could get you several additional years. In fact, an advanced U.S. degree under your belt effectively doubles your chances of getting an H-1B in the same lottery.
If you can’t find work and don’t want to keep studying, you’ll need existing family ties to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (green card holder). If you’re the direct relative of one (for example, a spouse or child), then things are relatively easier: You have a clear path toward a family-based green card, allowing you to live and work permanently in the United States. That’s true even if you’ve become a family member through marriage: You’ll be able to obtain a marriage-based green card more quickly and easily than an H-1B or other employment-based green cards.
If you’re the spouse or child of someone on a temporary visa, such as an H-1B or O-1 visa holder, you can usually obtain a dependent’s visa. Such visas often allow you to study, but you won’t qualify for OPT after graduating. It’s also getting harder for H4 visa holders to obtain work permits, so don’t count on using a dependent’s visa to launch your career in Silicon Valley. In many cases, OPT is still a better springboard to an H-1B or green card.
If the person who claims you as a dependent applies for permanent residence, you may be able to get a green card through “derivative” benefits, meaning their green card eligibility trickles down to you.
Whatever immigration status you currently have or want to get, you’ll need to plan ahead. In some cases, you might need to start planning your next step almost as soon as you begin your studies, in order to make sure you aren’t left without a valid visa.
Whatever your plans, remember that immigration rules are constantly changing — and seldom in ways that benefit new immigrants. If you can, file your visa or green card application right away to avoid nasty surprises.
It’s important not only to understand your current visa but also to recognize that the U.S. immigration system is in flux — and many of the planned changes spell bad news even for immigrants with advanced degrees and vitally needed skills.
The new public charge rule, for instance, will make it harder to get a green card if you’ve used public benefits and allows the U.S. government to deny your application if they suspect you’ll fall on hard times in the future. For STEM grads with solid job offers, that might not seem like a major concern, but the new rule will apply even to those on temporary visas, including H-1Bs, who wish to extend or change their immigration status. At the least, it’s a sign of how much harder the immigration process is getting.
The Trump administration is also targeting students with a new “unlawful presence” rule that imposes tough punishments for minor violations of student visa terms. Fortunately, the rule is tied up in court, but if it goes through, it could lead to lengthy bans on future work visas if you overstay on your student visa, work in ways that aren’t authorized, or otherwise fail to play by the rules.
Such changes underscore the importance of doing your own due diligence and not simply relying on your college or employer to steer you right. Figuring out your immigration options can feel overwhelming — but as the many thousands of foreign-born STEM graduates who’ve successfully built careers in the United States can tell you, it’s well worth the effort.
Have a question about the complex and shifting immigration process? Boundless can help. Please send your immigration-related questions to our resident immigration expert, Anjana Prasad, at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will consider your question for a future column on the Boundless blog.
Fifty attorneys general are pushing forward with an antitrust investigation against Google, led by the Texas state attorney general, Ken Paxton.
In an announcement on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building, Paxton and a gathering of attorneys general said that the focus of the investigation would be on Google’s advertising practices, but that other points of inquiry could be included in the investigation.
The investigation into Google comes as big technology companies find themselves increasingly under the regulatory microscope for everything from anticompetitive business practices to violations of users’ privacy and security to accusations of political bias.
Last week, the New York state attorney general launched an investigation into Facebook.
“Google’s control over nearly every aspect of our lives has placed the company at the center of our digital economy. But it doesn’t take a search engine to understand that unchecked corporate power shouldn’t eclipse consumers’ rights,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James, in a statement. “That is why New York has joined this bipartisan investigation of Google to determine whether the company has achieved or maintained its dominance through anticompetitive conduct. As with the Facebook investigation we are leading, we will use every investigative tool at our disposal in the Google investigation to ensure the truth is exposed.”
For those trying to keep score on antitrust:
The FTC is investigating Facebook.
The Department of Justice is investigating Apple, Google and Amazon.
The DoJ is also investigating ALL of Big Tech.
State attorneys general set to announce inquiry expected to focus on Google
— Jeremy C. Owens (@jowens510) September 9, 2019
A European satellite that measures the Earth’s winds using lasers had a close encounter with one of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation yesterday in a situation that illustrates the growing inadequacy of existing systems for global coordination of orbital issues. It’s getting crowded up there, and email and phone calls between HQs soon won’t cut it.
The near miss was announced yesterday on Twitter by the European Space Administration’s Operations team on Twitter. It explained, perhaps a mite sensationally, that “for the first time ever, ESA has performed a ‘collision avoidance manoeuvre’ to protect one of its satellites from colliding with a ‘mega constellation’ .”
To be clear, and as ESA explained, these maneuvers are actually very common — but they’re almost always to avoid debris and dead satellites, not currently active ones. These days when you launch a satellite, you’re generally very careful to put it in an orbit that has been carefully calculated to not intersect with that of any other satellite. Pretty straightforward, right?
But things happen, for instance a thruster misfires or another maneuver goes wrong, and suddenly a satellite that was going to pass within a safe distance of another one is actually going to get much, much closer. That’s what seems to have happened here: the Starlink satellite, one of 60 launched earlier this year, somehow found itself on a potential collision course.
SpaceX and ESA exchanged emails on August 28, when the chance of the two craft colliding was around 1 in 50,000; they determined no action was necessary. But a subsequent update from the U.S. Air Force’s tracking infrastructure changed that estimate to about 1 in 600. That’s well below the 1 in 10,000 chance standard for taking measures. (This isn’t just guesswork but allowing for jitter in measurements and other noise that enter tracking of fast-moving orbital objects.)
Here’s where the hiccup happened. With the new and scary probability of a collision, either ESA or SpaceX had to change orbit — again, something that happens a lot, but in this case needs to be coordinated clearly with the other. What if they both adjusted their orbit the same way and increased the chance of disaster?
Unfortunately, SpaceX was not aware of the new probability estimate from the Air Force, and as such persevered in its decision not to adjust its satellite’s trajectory. As a result, the ESA had to make its own maneuver — not fun when the craft in question is performing extremely sensitive measurements using a high-powered lidar system.
Why would SpaceX not want to do anything? Apparently they weren’t in possession of the new, higher estimate.
“A bug in our on-call paging system prevented the Starlink operator from seeing the follow on correspondence on this probability increase,” SpaceX said in a statement. “Had the Starlink operator seen the correspondence, we would have coordinated with ESA to determine best approach with their continuing with their maneuver or our performing a maneuver.”
Ultimately there was no collision and both satellites are happily orbiting the Earth, though Aeolus does have a touch less fuel than before. The problem is not that a satellite had to swerve a bit, because that happens all the time. The problem is that it was an encounter with an active satellite and communications between the two operators was inadequate.
“Nobody did anything wrong. Space is there for everybody to use,” ESA’s Holger Krag told Forbes. “Basically on every orbit you can encounter other objects. Space is not organized. And so we believe we need technology to manage this traffic.”
Visualization of space debris around Earth.
With plans by SpaceX, Amazon, OneWeb and others to launch constellations of hundreds or thousands of satellites over the years, the possibility of another such encounter is very likely. And a system that worked when there were vanishingly few encounters between active satellites likely won’t work when those encounters are a daily or hourly occurrence.
“This example shows that in the absence of traffic rules and communication protocols, collision avoidance depends entirely on the pragmatism of the operators involved. Today, this negotiation is done through exchanging emails – an archaic process that is no longer viable as increasing numbers of satellites in space mean more space traffic,” said Krag in an ESA news post.
“No one was at fault here, but this example does show the urgent need for proper space traffic management, with clear communication protocols and more automation. This is how air traffic control has worked for many decades, and now space operators need to get together to define automated maneuver coordination,” he continued.
Naturally AI is being brought into the discussion, but also other common-sense rules and improvements to an aging system that is no longer able to be ignored. It plans to make these proposals more solid later this year and hopefully put them into action.
It has been one week since U.S. border officials denied entry to a 17-year-old Harvard freshman just days before classes were set to begin.
Ismail Ajjawi, a Palestinian student living in Lebanon, had his student visa canceled and was put on a flight home shortly after arriving at Boston Logan International Airport. Customs & Border Protection officers searched his phone and decided he was ineligible for entry because of his friends’ social media posts. Ajjawi told the officers he “should not be held responsible” for others’ posts, but it was not enough for him to clear the border.
The news prompted outcry and fury. But TechCrunch has learned it was not an isolated case.
Since our story broke, we came across another case of a U.S. visa holder who was denied entry to the country on grounds that he was sent a graphic WhatsApp message. Dakhil — whose name we have changed to protect his identity — was detained for hours, but subsequently had his visa canceled. He was sent back to Pakistan and banned from entering the U.S. for five years.
Since 2015, the number of device searches has increased four-fold to over 30,200 each year. Lawmakers have accused the CBP of conducting itself unlawfully by searching devices without a warrant, but CBP says it does not need to obtain a warrant for device searches at the border. Several courts have tried to tackle the question of whether or not device searches are constitutional.
Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told TechCrunch that device searches and subsequent denials of entry had become the “new normal.”
This is Dakhil’s story.
* * *
As a a Pakistani national, Dakhil needed a visa to enter the U.S. He obtained a B1/B2 visa, which allowed him to temporarily enter the U.S. for work and to visit family. Months later, he arrived at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, tired but excited to see his cousin for the first time in years.
It didn’t take long before Dakhil realized something wasn’t right.
Dakhil, who had never traveled to the U.S. before, was waiting in the immigration line at the border when a CBP officer approached him to ask why he had traveled to the U.S. He said it was for a vacation to visit his family. The officer took his passport and, after a brief examination of its stamps, asked why Dakhil had visited Saudi Arabia. It was for Hajj and Umrah, he said. As a Muslim, he is obliged to make the pilgrimages to Mecca at least once in his lifetime. The officer handed back his passport and Dakhil continued to wait in line.
At his turn, Dakhil approached the CBP officer in his booth, who repeated much of the same questions. But, unsatisfied with his responses, the officer took Dakhil to a small room close but separate from the main immigration hall.
“He asked me everything,” Dakhil told TechCrunch. The officer asked about his work, his travel history and how long he planned to stay in the U.S. He told the officer he planned to stay for three months with a plan to travel to Disney World in Florida and later New York City with his wife and newborn daughter, who were still waiting for visas.
The officer then rummaged through Dakhil’s carry-on luggage, pulling out his computer and other items. Then the officer took Dakhil’s phone, which he was told to unlock, and took it to another room.
For more than six hours, Dakhil was forced to sit in a bright, cold and windowless airport waiting room. There was nowhere to lie down. Others had pushed chairs together to try to sleep.
A U.S. immigration form detailing Dakhil deportation.
Dakhil said when the officer returned, the questioning continued. The officer demanded to know more about what he was planning to do in the U.S. One line of questioning focused on an officer’s accusation that Dakhil was planning to work at a gas station owned by his cousin — which Dakhil denied.
“I told him I had no intention to work,” he told TechCrunch. The officer continued with his line of questioning, he said, but he continued to deny that he wanted to stay or work in the U.S. “I’m quite happy back in Karachi and doing good financially,” he said.
Two more officers had entered the room and began to interrogate him as the first officer continued to search bags. At one point he pulled out a gift for his cousin — a painting with Arabic inscriptions.
But Dakhil was convinced he would be allowed entry — the officers had found nothing derogatory, he said.
“Then the officer who took my phone showed me an image,” he told TechCrunch. It was an image from 2009 of a child, who had been murdered and mutilated. Despite the graphic nature of the image, TechCrunch confirmed the photo was widely distributed on the internet and easily searchable using the name of the child’s murderer.
“I was shocked. What should I say?” he told TechCrunch, describing the panic he felt. “This image is disturbing, but you can’t control the forwarded messages,” he explained.
Dakhil told the officer that the image was sent to him in a WhatsApp group. It’s difficult to distinguish where a saved image came from on WhatsApp, because it automatically downloads received images and videos to a user’s phone. Questionable content — even from unsolicited messages — found during a border search could be enough to deny the traveler entry.
The image was used to warn parents about kidnappings and abductions of children in his native Karachi. He described it as one of those viral messages that you forward to your friends and family to warn parents about the dangers to their children. The officer pressed for details about who sent the message. Dakhil told the officer that the sender was someone he met on his Hajj pilgrimage in 2011.
“We hardly knew each other,” he said, saying they stayed in touch through WhatsApp but barely spoke.
Dakhil told the officer that the image could be easily found on the internet, but the officer was more interested in the names of the WhatsApp group members.
“You can search the image over the internet,” Dakhil told the officer. But the officer declined and said the images were his responsibility. “We found this on your cellphone,” the officer said. At one point the officer demanded to know if Dakhil was organ smuggling.
After 15 hours answering questions and waiting, the officers decided that Dakhil would be denied entry and would have his five-year visa cancelled. He was also told his family would also have their visas cancelled. The officers asked Dakhil if he wanted to claim for asylum, which he declined.
“I was treated like a criminal,” Dakhil said. “They made my life miserable.”
It’s been almost nine months since Dakhil was turned away at the U.S. border.
He went back to the U.S. Embassy in Karachi twice to try to seek answers, but embassy officials said they could not reverse a CBP decision to deny a traveler entry to the United States. Frustrated but determined to know more, Dakhil asked for his records through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request — which anyone can do — but had to pay hundreds of dollars for its processing.
He provided TechCrunch with the documents he obtained. One record said that Dakhil was singled out because his name matched a “rule hit,” such as a name on a watchlist or a visit to a country under sanctions or embargoes, which typically requires additional vetting before the traveler can be allowed into the U.S.
The record did not say what flagged Dakhil for additional screening, and his travel history did not include an embargoed country.
CBP’s reason for denying entry to Dakhil obtained through a FOIA request.
One document said CBP denied Dakhil entry to the U.S. “due to the derogatory images found on his cellphone,” and his alleged “intent to engage in unauthorized employment during his entry.” But Dakhil told TechCrunch that he vehemently denies the CBP’s allegations that he was traveling to the U.S. to work.
He said the document portrays a different version of events than what he experienced.
“They totally changed this scenario,” he said, rebutting several remarks and descriptions reported by the officers. “They only disclosed what they wanted to disclose,” he said. “They want to justify their decision, so they mentioned working in a gas station by themselves,” he claimed.
The document also said Dakhil “was permitted to view the WhatsApp group message thread on his phone and he stated that it was sent to him in September 2018,” but this was not enough to satisfy the CBP officers who ruled he should be denied entry. The document said Dakhil stated that he “never took this photo and doesn’t believe [the sender is] involved either,” but he was “advised that he was responsible for all the contents on his phone to include all media and he stated that he understood.”
The same document confirmed the contents of his phone was uploaded to the CBP’s central database and provided to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Dakhil was “found inadmissible” and was put on the next flight back to Karachi, more than a day after he was first approached by the CBP officer in the immigration line.
A spokesperson for Customs & Border Protection declined to comment on individual cases, but provided a boilerplate statement.
“CBP is responsible for ensuring the safety and admissibility of the goods and people entering the United States. Applicants must demonstrate they are admissible into the U.S. by overcoming all grounds of inadmissibility including health-related grounds, criminality, security reasons, public charge, labor certification, illegal entrants and immigration violations, documentation requirements, and miscellaneous grounds,” the spokesperson said. “This individual was deemed inadmissible to the United States based on information discovered during the CBP inspection.”
CBP said it also has the right to cancel visas if a traveler is deemed inadmissible to the United States.
It’s unlikely Dakhil will return to the U.S., but he said he had hope for the Harvard student who suffered a similar fate.
“Let’s hope he can fight and make it,” he said.
In a rare feat, French police have hijacked and neutralized a massive cryptocurrency mining botnet controlling close to a million infected computers.
The notorious Retadup malware infects computers and starts mining cryptocurrency by sapping power from a computer’s processor. Although the malware was used to generate money, the malware operators easily could have run other malicious code, like spyware or ransomware. The malware also has wormable properties, allowing it to spread from computer to computer.
Since its first appearance, the cryptocurrency mining malware has spread across the world, including the U.S., Russia, and Central and South America.
According to a blog post announcing the bust, security firm Avast confirmed the operation was successful.
The security firm got involved after it discovered a design flaw in the malware’s command and control server. That flaw, if properly exploited, would have “allowed us to remove the malware from its victims’ computers” without pushing any code to victims’ computers, the researchers said.
The exploit would have dismantled the operation, but the researchers lacked the legal authority to push ahead. Because most of the malware’s infrastructure was located in France, Avast contacted French police. After receiving the go-ahead from prosecutors in July, the police went ahead with the operation to take control of the server and disinfect affected computers.
The French police called the botnet “one of the largest networks” of hijacked computers in the world.
The operation worked by secretly obtaining a snapshot of the malware’s command and control server with cooperation from its web host. The researchers said they had to work carefully as to not be noticed by the malware operators, fearing the malware operators could retaliate.
“The malware authors were mostly distributing cryptocurrency miners, making for a very good passive income,” the security company said. “But if they realized that we were about to take down Retadup in its entirety, they might’ve pushed ransomware to hundreds of thousands of computers while trying to milk their malware for some last profits.”
With a copy of the malicious command and control server in hand, the researchers built their own replica, which disinfected victim computers instead of causing infections.
“[The police] replaced the malicious [command and control] server with a prepared disinfection server that made connected instances of Retadup self-destruct,” said Avast in a blog post. “In the very first second of its activity, several thousand bots connected to it in order to fetch commands from the server. The disinfection server responded to them and disinfected them, abusing the protocol design flaw.”
In doing so, the company was able to stop the malware from operating and remove the malicious code to over 850,000 infected computers.
Jean-Dominique Nollet, head of the French police’s cyber unit, said the malware operators generated several million euros worth of cryptocurrency.
Remotely shutting down a malware botnet is a rare achievement — but difficult to carry out.
Several years ago the U.S. government revoked Rule 41, which now allows judges to issue search and seizure warrants outside of their jurisdiction. Many saw the move as an effort by the FBI to conduct remote hacking operations without being hindered by the locality of a judge’s jurisdiction. Critics argued it would set a dangerous precedent to hack into countless number of computers on a single warrant from a friendly judge.
Since then the amended rule has been used to dismantle at least one major malware operation, the so-called Joanap botnet, linked to hackers working for the North Korean regime.
During a news briefing at the Group of Seven summit, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that U.S. President Donald Trump and Macron have agreed on a compromise regarding the controversial tax on tech giants.
France is still going to tax big tech companies. But the French government promises that it’ll scrap the French tax as soon as the OECD finds a way to properly tax tech companies in countries where they operate.
The OECD has for a few years been working on a way to properly tax tech companies with a standardized set of rules. According to recent announcements, this new framework could be released in 2020.
In addition to ending the French tax, as Le Monde outlined, France promises that it’ll pay back companies that overpaid before the OECD framework. For instance, if Facebook pays a lot of taxes in 2019 due to the French tax on tech giants and if they would have paid less under the OECD framework, France will pay back the difference.
“There’s been a lot of anxiety because of misunderstandings on this French digital tax. We talked about it, and I think we have found a very good deal thanks to the work of ministers,” Macron said.
“On a bilateral basis, we have reached an agreement to fix our disagreements between us. We are going to work together to find a solution. When there’s an international taxation model, we will remove the tax — and everything that has been paid will be deducted from this international tax. We have found an agreement that is good for all parties involved. It can solve a lot of really negative issues and improve the international system.”
In a July 26 tweet, Trump criticized France’s plans. “France just put a digital tax on our great American technology companies. If anybody taxes them, it should be their home Country, the USA,” he wrote. “We will announce a substantial reciprocal action on Macron’s foolishness shortly. I’ve always said American wine is better than French wine!”
Right before leaving for the Group of Seven summit, Trump reiterated criticism of the French tax and said the U.S. would be placing tariffs on French wines.
At the Group of Seven summit, Trump didn’t want to confirm that the U.S. and France had reached an agreement. As CNN reported, when a reporter asked a question about France’s tax on tech companies, Trump said: “I can confirm that the first lady loved your French wine. She loved your French wine. So thank you very much. That’s fine.”
A couple of months ago, the French parliament voted in favor of a new tax on tech giants. In order to avoid tax optimization schemes, big tech companies that generate significant revenue in France are taxed on their revenue generated in France.
France’s Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire first lobbied other European countries to create that new tax at the European level. It made a ton of sense, as the main issue is that big tech companies create complicated European corporate structures in order to lower their effective tax rate.
But Le Maire couldn’t get a unanimous vote and created a tax for France in particular. If you’re running a company that generates more than €750 million in global revenue and €25 million in France, you have to pay 3% of your French revenue in taxes.
This tax is specifically designed for tech companies in two categories — marketplace (Amazon’s marketplace, Uber, Airbnb…) and advertising (Facebook, Google, Criteo…). While it isn’t designed to target American companies, the vast majority of big tech companies that operate in France are American.
A person has died from what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention speculate is a vaping-related condition. Nearly 200 other cases of varying severeness have been reported nationwide, described by the CDC as “severe unexplained respiratory systems after reported vaping or e-cigarette use.”
No information was provided about the deceased other than that they were an adult living in Illinois, and that they had died of some sort of pulmonary illness exacerbated or caused by vaping or e-cigarette use. Others affected in that state have been between 17-38 and mostly men, the CDC doctor added on a press call earlier today.
As little is known for sure about this growing problem, the team was hesitant to go beyond saying there was good reason to believe that these cases were all vaping-related, although they differ in some particulars. They have ruled out infectious disease.
The CDC’s acting deputy for non-infectious diseases, Dr Ileana Arias, explained on the call after expressing their condolences:
CDC is currently providing consultations to state health departments about a cluster of pulmonary illnesses having to do with vaping or e-cigarette use… While some cases appear to be similar and linked to e-cigarette product use, more information is needed to determine what is causing the illnesses.
In many cases patients report a gradual start of symptoms, including breathing difficulty, shortness of breath and/or hospitalization before the cases. Some have reported gastrointestinal illnesses as well… no specific product has been identified in all cases nor has any product been conclusively linked to the illnesses
Even though cases appear similar, it isn’t clear if these cases have a common cause or if they are different diseases with similar presentations.
An FDA representative on the call said that his agency is also looking into this, specifically whether these are products that fall under its authority. It’s possible they were imported, for example, or sold under the table.
Everyone involved is still in the information-gathering phase, as you can tell, but it’s apparently serious enough that they felt the need to make this announcement. Meanwhile they are asking doctors to report cases they suspect might be related.
“Right now states are leading their own specific epidemiologic investigations and we’re providing assistance as needed,” explained the CDC’s Dr. Josh Schier. “CDC is working on a system to collect, aggregate, and analyze data at the national level to better characterize this illness.”
As the mechanism is unknown, it’s unclear what the actual danger is. Is it some byproduct of the nicotine cartidges, or THC ones? Is it the vapor itself? Is it only at certain temperatures or concentrations? Is it directly affecting the lungs or entering the bloodstream? No one knows yet — all they’ve seen is an sudden uptick in respiratory or pulmonary issues where the sufferer also uses vaping products.
The CDC’s Dr Brian King went into a bit more detail on the possibilities, explaining that while no specific chemical can be said to be the problem, that’s more for a want of study, not a want of potentially harmful chemicals.
“We do know that e-cigarettes do not emit a harmless aerosol,” he explained. “There’s a variety of harmful ingredients identified, including things like ultrafine particulates, heavy metals like lead and cancer causing chemicals. And flavoring used in e-cigarettes to give it a buttery flavor, diacetyl, it’s been related to severe respiratory illness.”
“We haven’t specifically linked any of those specific ingredients to the current cases but we know that e-cigarette aerosol is not harmless,” King concluded.
He also suggested, in response to a question why we were suddenly seeing lots of these cases, that the problems have been occurring all this time but only recently have hospitals and other organizations done the due diligence as far as linking them to e-cigarette use.
Few studies have been done on vaping’s potential health effects, and none on long-term effects, since the devices only recently gained popularity — well ahead of the possibility of regulation and years-long studies.
Research published just last month from Yale found that Juul vape pens produced chemicals not listed on the package, some of which are known to be irritants.
“People often assume that these e-liquids are a final product once they are mixed. But the reactions create new molecules in the e-liquids, and it doesn’t just happen in e-liquids from small vape shops, but also in those from the biggest manufacturers in the U.S.,” said Yale’s Hanno Erythropel in a news release.
That vaping works as a way to quit smoking — which we know is absolutely disastrous to your health — seems clear. But it remains to be seen exactly how much less of a risk vaping offers.
If you use vaping products and have been experiencing coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, or chest pain, tell your doctor.
After a week of modest gains, major stock indexes plummeted on Friday as China retaliated against U.S. tariffs by imposing $75 billion worth of tariffs on U.S. goods coming into the country.
China’s foreign ministry said that it would resume tariffs on U.S. imports of automobiles and auto parts and place an additional 5% or 10% tariff on agricultural and food products like soybeans, coffee, whiskey and seafood.
The trouble was exacerbated by statements on President Donald Trump’s Twitter account, which called for the U.S. to “immediately start looking for an alternative to China.” The president also accused China of stealing “our Intellectual Property at a rate of Hundreds of Billions of Dollars a year.”
Our Country has lost, stupidly, Trillions of Dollars with China over many years. They have stolen our Intellectual Property at a rate of Hundreds of Billions of Dollars a year, & they want to continue. I won’t let that happen! We don’t need China and, frankly, would be far….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2019
The attacks sent markets into a tailspin. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by as much as 700 points before closing the day slightly down only 623 points at 25,628.60. Meanwhile the S&P 500 Index fell 75.84 points to end the day at 2,847.11 and the Nasdaq dropped 239.62 points to close at 7,751.77.
The declines come on top of a dismal week of economic reports for the U.S. Earlier, the number of jobs the country had added over the past year was revised downward by 500,000. Meanwhile, the national debt is ballooning at a faster rate than expected, with the U.S. deficit expected to hit $1.2 trillion by 2020.