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Zoom will enable waiting rooms by default to stop Zoombombing

By Josh Constine

Zoom is making some drastic changes to prevent rampant abuse as trolls attack publicly-shared video calls. Starting April 5th, it will require passwords to enter calls via Meeting ID, since these may be guessed or reused. Meanwhile, it will change virtual waiting rooms to be on by default so hosts have to manually admit attendees.

The changes could prevent “Zoombombing”, a term I coined two weeks ago to describe malicious actors entering Zoom calls and disrupting them by screensharing offensive imagery. New Zoombombing tactics have since emerged, like spamming the chat thread with terrible GIFs, using virtual backgrounds to spread hateful messages, or just screaming profanities and slurs.

Just imagine the most frightened look on all these people’s faces. That’s what happened when Zoombombers attacked the call.

The FBI has issued a warning about the Zoombombing problem after children’s online classes, alcoholics anonymous meetings, and private business calls were invaded by trolls. Security researchers have revealed many ways that attackers can infiltrate a call.

The problems stem from Zoom being designed for trusted enterprise use cases rather than cocktail hours, yoga classes, roundtable discussions, and classes. But with Zoom struggling to scale its infrastructure as its daily user count has shot up from 10 million to 200 million over the past month due to coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, it’s found itself caught off guard.

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan apologized for the security failures this week and vowed changes. But at the time, the company merely said it would default to making screensharing host-only and keeping waiting rooms on for its K-12 education users. Clearly it determined that wasn’t sufficient, so now waiting rooms are on by default for everyone.

Zoom communicated the changes to users via an email sent this afternoon that explains “we’ve chosen to enable passwords on your meetings and turn on Waiting Rooms by default as additional security enhancements to protect your privacy.”

The company also explained that “For meetings scheduled moving forward, the meeting password can be found in the invitation. For instant meetings, the password will be displayed in the Zoom client. The password can also be found in the meeting join URL.” Some other precautions users can take include disabling file transfer, screensharing, or rejoining by removed attendees.

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 18: Zoom founder Eric Yuan reacts at the Nasdaq opening bell ceremony on April 18, 2019 in New York City. The video-conferencing software company announced it’s IPO priced at $36 per share, at an estimated value of $9.2 billion. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

The shift could cause some hassle for users. Hosts will be distracted by having to approve attendees out of the waiting room while they’re trying to lead calls. Zoom recommends users resend invites with passwords attached for Meeting ID-based calls scheduled for after April 5th. Scrambling to find passwords could make people late to calls.

But that’s a reasonable price to pay to keep people from being scarred by Zoombombing attacks. The rash of trolling threatened to sour many people’s early experiences with the video chat platform just as it’s been having its breakout moment. A single call marred by disturbing pornography can leave a stronger impression than 100 peaceful ones with friends and colleagues.

Technologists will need to grow better at anticipating worst-case scenarios as their products go mainstream and are adapted to new use cases. Assuming everyone will have the best intentions ignores the reality of human nature. There’s always someone looking to generate a profit, score power, or cause chaos from even the smallest opportunity. Building development teams that include skeptics and realists, rather than just visionary idealists, could keep ensure products get safeguarded from abuse before rather than after a scandal occurs.

The pandemic is already reshaping tech’s misinformation crisis

By Taylor Hatmaker

Since 2016, social media companies have faced an endless barrage of bad press and public criticism for failing to anticipate how their platforms could be used for dark purposes at the scale of populations—undermining democracies around the world, say, or sowing social division and even fueling genocide.

As COVID-19 plunges the world into chaos and social isolation, those same companies may face a respite from focused criticism, particularly with the industry leveraging its extraordinary resources to pitch in with COVID-19 relief efforts as the world looks to tech upstarts, adept at cutting through red tape and fast-forwarding scientific progress in normal times, while government bureaucracies lag. But the same old problems are rearing their ugly heads just the same, even if less of us are paying attention.

On YouTube, new report from The Guardian and watchdog group Tech Transparency Project found that a batch of videos promoting fake coronavirus cures are making the company ad dollars. The videos, which promoted unscientific methods including “home remedies, meditative music, and potentially unsafe levels of over-the-counter supplements like vitamin C” as potential treatments for the virus, ran ads from unwitting advertisers including Liberty Mutual, Quibi, Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign and Facebook. In Facebook’s case, a banner ad for the company ran on a video suggesting music that promotes “cognitive positivity by using subtle yet powerful theta waves” could ward off the virus.

In the early days of the pandemic, YouTube prohibited ads on any videos related to the coronavirus. In mid-March, as the real scope of the event became clear, the company walked that policy back, allowing some channels to run ads. On Thursday, the company expanded that policy to allow ads for any videos that adhere to the company’s guidelines. One the major tenets in those guidelines forbids the promotion of medical misinformation including “promotion of dangerous remedies or cures.” Most of the videos in the new report were removed after being flagged by a journalist.

This example, and the many others like it, calls into question how to judge major tech platforms during these exceedingly strange times. Social media companies have been uncharacteristically transparent about the shifts the pandemic is creating within their own workflows. On a call in March, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg admitted that users can expect more “false positives” as the company shifts to rely more heavily on artificial intelligence to filter what belongs on the platform and what does not with its army of 15,000 contract moderators sent home on paid leave. The work of sorting through a platform’s most unsavory content—child pornography, extreme violence, hate speech and the like—is not particularly portable, given its potential psychological and legal ramifications.

YouTube similarly warned that it will “temporarily start relying more on technology” to fill in for human reviewers, warning that the automated processes will likely mean more video removals “including some videos that may not violate policies.” Twitter noted the same new reliance on machine learning “to take a wide range of actions on potentially abusive and manipulative content,” though the company will offer an appeals process that loops in a human reviewer. Companies offered fewer warnings about what might fall through the cracks in the interim.

What will become of moderation once things return to normal, or, more likely, settle on a new normal? Will artificial intelligence have mastered the task, obviating the need for human reviewers once and for all? (Unlikely.) Will social media companies have a fresh appreciate for the value of human efforts and bring more of those jobs in-house, where they can perform their bleak work with more of the sunny perks afforded to their full-time counterparts? Like most things examined through the nightmarish haze of the pandemic, the outcomes are hazy at best.

If the approach to holding platforms to account was already piecemeal, an uneven mix of investigative reporting, anecdotal tweets and official corporate post-mortems, the truth will be even more difficult to get at now, even as the coronavirus pandemic provides countless new deadly opportunities for price-gougers and myriad bad actors to create chaos within chaos.

We’ve seen deadly consequences already in Iran, where hundreds died after drinking industrial alcohol—an idea they got “in messages forwarded and forwarded again” amplifying a tabloid story that suggested the act could protect them from the virus. Most consequences will likely go unnoticed beyond the lives they impact and unreported due to tighetened newsroom resources and perhaps even more constricted attention spans.

Much has been written about the coronavirus and the fog of war, most of it rightly focused on scientific research pressing on as the virus threatens the globe and the devastating on-the-ground reality in hospitals and health facilities overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients while life-saving supplies dwindle. But the crisis of viral misinformation—and deliberately-sown disinformation—is its own fog, now intermixing with an unprecedented global crisis that has entirely upended business and relentlessly dominated the news cycle. This as the world’s foremost power heads into a completely upended presidential election cycle—its first since four years ago, when an unexpected election outcome coupled with deep U.S.-centrism in tech circles revealed nefarious forces at play just under the surface of the social networks we hadn’t thought all that much about.

In the present, it will be difficult for outsiders to determine where new systems implemented during the pandemic have failed and what bad outcomes would have happened anyway. To sort those causes out, we’ll have to take a company’s word for it, a risky kind of credulity that already offered mixed results in normal times. Even as we rely on them now more than ever to forge and nurture connections, the virtual portals we immerse ourselves in daily remain black boxes, inscrutable as ever. And as with so many aspects of life in these norm-shattering times, the only thing to expect is change.

In the wake of COVID-19, UK puts up £20M in grants to develop resilience tech for critical industries

By Ingrid Lunden

Most of the world — despite the canaries in the coal mine — was unprepared to cope with the coronavirus outbreak that’s now besieging us. Now, work is starting to get underway both to help manage what is going on now and better prepare us in the future. In the latest development, the UK government today announced that it will issue £20 million ($24.5 million) in grants of up to £50,000 each to startups and other businesses that are developing tools to improve resilience for critical industries — in other words, those that need to keep moving when something cataclysmic like a pandemic hits.

You can start your application here. Unlike a lot of other government efforts, this one is aimed at a quick start: you need to be ready to kick of your project using the grant no later than June 2020, but earlier is okay, too.

Awarded through Innovate UK, which part of UK Research and Innovation (itself a division of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), the grants will be available to businesses of any size as long as they are UK-registered, and aim to cover a wide swathe of industries that form the core fabric of how society and the economy can continue to operate.

“The Covid-19 situation is not just a health emergency, but also one that effects the economy and society. With that in mind, Innovate UK has launched this rapid response competition today seeking smart ideas from innovators,” said Dr Ian Campbell Executive Chair, Innovate UK, in a statement. “These could be proposals to help the distribution of goods, educate children remotely, keep families digitally connected and even new ideas to stream music and entertainment. The UK needs a great national effort and Innovate UK is helping by unleashing the power of innovation for people and businesses in need.”

These include not just what are typically considered “critical” industries like healthcare and food production and distribution, but also those that are less tangible but equally important in keeping society running smoothly, like entertainment and wellbeing services:

  • community support services
  • couriers and delivery (rural and/or city based)
  • education and culture
  • entertainment (live entertainment, music, etc.)
  • financial services
  • food manufacture and processing
  • healthcare
  • hospitality
  • personal protection equipment
  • remote working
  • retail
  • social care
  • sport and recreation
  • transport
  • wellbeing

The idea is to introduce new technologies and processes that will support existing businesses and organizations, not use the funding to build new startups from scratch. Those getting the funding could already be businesses in these categories, or building tools to help companies that fall under these themes.

The grants were announced at a time where we are seeing a huge surge of companies step up to the challenge of helping communities and countries cope with COVID-19. That’s included not only those that already made medical supplies increase production, but a number of other businesses step in and try to help where they can, or recalibrate what they normally do to make their factories or other assets more useful. (For example, in the UK, Rolls Royce, Airbus and the Formula 1 team are all working on ventilators and other hospital equipment, a model of industry retooling that has been seen in many other countries, too.)

That trend is what helped to inspire this newest wave of non-equity grants.

“The response of researchers and businesses to the coronavirus outbreak have been remarkable,” said Science Minister Amanda Solloway in a statement. “This new investment will support the development of technologies that can help industries, communities and individuals adapt to new ways of working when situations like this, and other incidents, arise.”

The remit here is intentionally open-ended but will likely be shaped by some of the shortcomings and cracks that have been appearing in recent weeks while systems get severely stress-tested.

So, unsurprisingly, the sample innovations that UK Innovate cites appear to directly relate to that. They include things like technology to help respond to spikes in online consumer demand — every grocery service in the online and physical world has been overwhelmed by customer traffic, leading to sites crashing, people leaving stores disappointed at what they cannot find, and general panic. Or services for families to connect with and remotely monitor vulnerable relatives: while Zoom and the rest have seen huge surges in traffic, there are still too many people on the other side of the digital divide who cannot access or use these. And better education tools: again, there are thousands of edtech companies in the world, but in the UK at least, I wouldn’t say that the educational authorities had done even a small degree of disaster planning, leaving individual schools to scramble and figure out ways to keep teaching remotely that works for everyone (again not always easy with digital divides, safeguarding and other issues).

None of this can cure coronavirus or stop another pandemic from happening — there are plenty of others that are working very squarely on that now, too — but these are equally critical to get right to make sure that a health disaster doesn’t extend into a more permanent economic or societal one.

More information and applications are here.

Using AI responsibly to fight the coronavirus pandemic

By Walter Thompson
Mark Minevich Contributor
Mark Minevich is president of Going Global Ventures, an advisor at Boston Consulting Group, a digital fellow at IPsoft and a leading global AI expert and digital cognitive strategist and venture capitalist.
Irakli Beridze Contributor
Irakli Beridze is head of the Centre for AI and Robotics at the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI).

The emergence of the novel coronavirus has left the world in turmoil. COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has reached virtually every corner of the world, with the number of cases exceeding half a million and the number of deaths nearing 25,000 worldwide. It is a situation that will affect us all in one way or another.

With the imposition of lockdowns, limitations of movement, the closure of borders and other measures to contain the virus, the operating environment of law enforcement agencies and those security services tasked with protecting the public from harm has suddenly become ever more complex. They find themselves thrust into the middle of an unparalleled situation, playing a critical role in halting the spread of the virus and preserving public safety and social order in the process. In response to this growing crisis, many of these agencies and entities are turning to AI and related technologies for support in unique and innovative ways. Enhancing surveillance, monitoring and detection capabilities is high on the priority list.

For instance, early in the outbreak, Reuters reported a case in China wherein the authorities relied on facial recognition cameras to track a man from Hangzhou who had traveled in an affected area. Upon his return home, the local police were there to instruct him to self-quarantine or face repercussions. Police in China and Spain have also started to use technology to enforce quarantine, with drones being used to patrol and broadcast audio messages to the public, encouraging them to stay at home. People flying to Hong Kong airport receive monitoring bracelets that alert the authorities if they breach the quarantine by leaving their home.

In the United States, a surveillance company announced that its AI-enhanced thermal cameras can detect fevers, while in Thailand, border officers at airports are already piloting a biometric screening system using fever-detecting cameras.

Isolated cases or the new norm?

With the number of cases, deaths and countries on lockdown increasing at an alarming rate, we can assume that these will not be isolated examples of technological innovation in response to this global crisis. In the coming days, weeks and months of this outbreak, we will most likely see more and more AI use cases come to the fore.

While the application of AI can play an important role in seizing the reins in this crisis, and even safeguard officers and officials from infection, we must not forget that its use can raise very real and serious human rights concerns that can be damaging and undermine the trust placed in government by communities. Human rights, civil liberties and the fundamental principles of law may be exposed or damaged if we do not tread this path with great caution. There may be no turning back if Pandora’s box is opened.

In a public statement on March 19, the monitors for freedom of expression and freedom of the media for the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe issued a joint statement on promoting and protecting access to and free flow of information during the pandemic, and specifically took note of the growing use of surveillance technology to track the spread of the coronavirus. They acknowledged that there is a need for active efforts to confront the pandemic, but stressed that “it is also crucial that such tools be limited in use, both in terms of purpose and time, and that individual rights to privacy, non-discrimination, the protection of journalistic sources and other freedoms be rigorously protected.”

This is not an easy task, but a necessary one. So what can we do?

Ways to responsibly use AI to fight the coronavirus pandemic

  1. Data anonymization: While some countries are tracking individual suspected patients and their contacts, Austria, Belgium, Italy and the U.K. are collecting anonymized data to study the movement of people in a more general manner. This option still provides governments with the ability to track the movement of large groups, but minimizes the risk of infringing data privacy rights.
  2. Purpose limitation: Personal data that is collected and processed to track the spread of the coronavirus should not be reused for another purpose. National authorities should seek to ensure that the large amounts of personal and medical data are exclusively used for public health reasons. The is a concept already in force in Europe, within the context of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but it’s time for this to become a global principle for AI.
  3. Knowledge-sharing and open access data: António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, has insisted that “global action and solidarity are crucial,” and that we will not win this fight alone. This is applicable on many levels, even for the use of AI by law enforcement and security services in the fight against COVID-19. These agencies and entities must collaborate with one another and with other key stakeholders in the community, including the public and civil society organizations. AI use case and data should be shared and transparency promoted.
  4. Time limitation:  Although the end of this pandemic seems rather far away at this point in time, it will come to an end. When it does, national authorities will need to scale back their newly acquired monitoring capabilities after this pandemic. As Yuval Noah Harari observed in his recent article, “temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies, especially as there is always a new emergency lurking on the horizon.” We must ensure that these exceptional capabilities are indeed scaled back and do not become the new norm.

Within the United Nations system, the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) is working to advance approaches to AI such as these. It has established a specialized Centre for AI and Robotics in The Hague and is one of the few international actors dedicated to specifically looking at AI vis-à-vis crime prevention and control, criminal justice, rule of law and security. It assists national authorities, in particular law enforcement agencies, to understand the opportunities presented by these technologies and, at the same time, to navigate the potential pitfalls associated with these technologies.

Working closely with International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), UNICRI has set up a global platform for law enforcement, fostering discussion on AI, identifying practical use cases and defining principles for responsible use. Much work has been done through this forum, but it is still early days, and the path ahead is long.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated several innovative use cases, as well as the urgency for the governments to do their utmost to stop the spread of the virus, it is important to not let consideration of fundamental principles, rights and respect for the rule of law be set aside. The positive power and potential of AI is real. It can help those embroiled in fighting this battle to slow the spread of this debilitating disease. It can help save lives. But we must stay vigilant and commit to the safe, ethical and responsible use of AI.

It is essential that, even in times of great crisis, we remain conscience of the duality of AI and strive to advance AI for good.

Daily Crunch: Amazon announces new warehouse safety steps

By Anthony Ha

Amazon says it will start taking additional steps to ensure the safety of its warehouse workers, SoftBank backs out of its latest WeWork investment and Zoom tries to fix its security issues. Here’s your Daily Crunch for April 2, 2020.

1. Amazon begins running temperature checks and will provide surgical masks at warehouses

Amazon has already taken some precautions, including mandatory paid 14-day quarantines for employees who test positive, as well as increased cleaning and sanitization efforts of families and infrastructure. The new measures to be introduced next week include taking temperatures of employees at the entrances to warehouses, with any individuals wth a fever of more than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit to be sent home, where they’ll have to have three consecutive days without fever to return to work.

There have been a number of employee actions in response to Amazon’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, including a walkout at the company’s Staten Island warehouse.

2. SoftBank terminates $3B tender offer for WeWork shares

SoftBank was already rumored to be getting cold feet when the Wall Street Journal reported last month that it was using regulatory investigations as a way to back out of its commitment to buy $3 billion in shares from existing WeWork shareholders.

3. Zoom freezes feature development to fix security and privacy issues

Zoom has been widely criticized over the past couple of weeks for terrible security, a poorly designed screensharing feature, misleading dark patterns, fake end-to-end-encryption claims and an incomplete privacy policy. So the company says that for the next 90 days it’s enacting a feature freeze, which means it won’t ship any new feature until it is done fixing the current feature set. Zoom will also work with third-party experts and prepare a transparency report.

4. Luckin Coffee’s board initiates investigation into $300M potential fraud

In a filing with the SEC, the company’s board announced that it has initiated an internal investigation into the activities of its former COO Jian Liu, who may have inflated revenues by the company by an early estimate of more than $300 million (RMB2.2 billion).

5. How 6 top VCs are adapting to the new uncertainty

If you read VC Twitter, you might think that nothing has changed at all. It’s not hard to find investors who say they are still cutting checks and doing deals. But as Q1 venture data trickles in, it appears that VC activity is gradually slowing down. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. In a significant change, Apple customers can now buy or rent titles directly in the Prime Video app

For years, Amazon has prevented users from directly purchasing movies and TV shows from the Prime Video app on Apple devices as a way to avoid platform fees. A recent update changes that.

7. Air Doctor scores $7.8M to connect travellers with local doctors

Founded in 2016, Air Doctor aims to empower travellers who get sick when abroad and need non-emergency advice or treatment. It has created a network of local private physicians that travellers can access, typically via travel insurance or perks.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Dear Sophie: How do we craft a strong H-1B petition? If I’m not selected, what are my options?

By Walter Thompson
Sophie Alcorn Contributor
Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

Most “Dear Sophie” columns are only accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

If I’m selected in this year’s lottery, how do we craft a strong H-1B petition? If I’m not selected, what are my other options?

— Hoping in Hayward

Dear Hoping:

Thank you for asking the questions that are on the minds of many H-1B first-timers. Don’t worry! Several options exist if you’re not selected.

It’s really important, especially for early-stage companies, to work with experienced attorneys to guide them through this process. Now that USCIS has changed it’s system, if you’re already selected, then having a great attorney is really important to mitigate any remaining risk in the rest of the process. There are lots of wonderful, experienced immigration lawyers out there to choose from.

This year’s new H-1B online lottery registration process ended on March 20. By March 31, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will notify companies whose H-1B candidates have been selected.

If USCIS selects you, your sponsoring employer will have 90 days to submit a complete H-1B petition. Employers can file an H-1B petition up to six months before a candidate’s intended start date.

Sophie Alcorn Alcorn Immigration Law Silicon Valley San Francisco 03

Immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn

It’s great that you’re already here in the U.S. H-1B candidates living outside of the U.S. seeking consular processing may face delays coming here for their employment start date depending on when coronavirus-related consulate closures and travel restrictions are lifted. These situations need to be addressed individually.

If meeting a deadline during any step of the process becomes difficult or impossible due to COVID-19, it’s possible to request special handling from the government. The federal government grants extensions under special circumstances, such as floods and hurricanes. The COVID-19 pandemic is a special circumstance.

Because COVID-19 is prompting policy and procedural changes with little or no warning, I recommend consulting an immigration attorney for assistance.

If you haven’t already, assemble the necessary documents as soon as possible. Obtaining documents may take longer now that most universities and companies are closed due to the pandemic.

Sophie’s podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups, is available on all major podcast platforms.

Your sponsoring employer will need to assemble documents that demonstrate the appropriate policies and cash flow to hire you. Startups need to be extra careful to meet all the requirements. You should have easily accessible:

  • Current resume
  • Transcripts
  • Diplomas and certificates
  • Passports used to enter U.S.
  • Past immigration documents (I-20, DS-2019, I-797, etc.)

A Labor Condition Application (LCA) approved by the U.S. Department of Labor is required with all H-1B petitions. For the LCA, your startup must promise to pay at least the prevailing wage to you and ensure that your employment conditions won’t negatively affect other workers.

If this is a startup and it’s the company’s first H-1B, it must get its Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN) verified by the Labor Department’s Office of Foreign Labor Certification before starting. That process typically takes a week or so. Timing is key to filing an LCA. Keep in mind that the Labor Department typically makes a decision on whether to certify an LCA within seven business days.

Employers do not need to submit evidence to the Labor Department for an LCA, but they must post a copy of the H-1B notification, which can be done electronically, as well as keep all supporting documents in a file and make it available for public viewing.

The employer will also need to fill out Form I-129 (Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker), and assemble compelling evidence and supporting documents. Check and double check the form and your documents to avoid mistakes and omissions, which can prompt USCIS to deny a petition. Make sure the info contained in the LCA matches Form I-129. Remember to include all required signatures.

USCIS recently announced that scanned or photocopied signatures will be allowed on all documents and petitions during the COVID-19 emergency. Make sure you pay the proper fees and send your package to the correct address with a way to track that package.

USCIS recently announced the temporary suspension of premium processing for H-1B petitions. The agency expects to resume premium processing for individuals changing status from an F-1 student visa by May 27, and all others by June 29. For an extra fee, premium processing enables employers to receive a decision on a petition within 15 days. Without premium processing, the USCIS California Service Center is currently taking two to four months.

If you don’t get selected in the H-1B lottery, relax! Your startup can sponsor you for an H-1B again next year because there’s no limit on the number of years you can be entered in the lottery, whether you’re inside or outside the U.S. and whether you’re currently employed by them or not. In the meantime, several other visa options exist for individuals like you who qualify for an H-1B:

  • O-1A Visa: If have “extraordinary ability” in the sciences, education or business, you could be eligible for an O-1A. However, the bar for qualifying for an O-1A is higher than for an H-1B.
  • J-1 Visa: Most employers cannot directly sponsor an individual for a J-1 visa, which is a work-and-study visitor exchange program. The U.S. State Department designates public and private sponsor organizations to supervise the exchange programs and application process that can be used to support a J-1 at a specific company.
  • L-1 Visas: If your employer has an office outside of the U.S. — or you can set up one for them — and you can work in that overseas office for 12 months or more, your employer can then transfer you back to the U.S. under an L-1A visa for executives and managers or an L-1B visa for employees with specialized knowledge. No annual quotas exist for L-1 visas, and these visas are “dual intent” and can lead to a green card.
  • F-1 Visa: You could become a full-time student at an accredited college or university under an F-1 visa. Some graduate programs require Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or allow Optional Practical Training (OPT). Both training programs enable students to gain work experience in their field of study.

The following options are available to you if you’re a citizen of Chile, Singapore, Australia, Canada or Mexico:

  • H-1B1 Visa: If you’re a citizen of Chile or Singapore, you’re eligible for an H-1B1. Each year, 1,400 H-1B1 visas are reserved for Chileans and 5,400 are reserved for Singaporeans. Rarely are those visas exhausted.
  • E-3 Visa: If you’re an Australian national, you’re eligible for an E-3 for “specialty occupation” professionals who have specialized theoretical or practical knowledge. An LCA is required. A maximum of 10,500 E-3 visas is available annually, but they rarely are exhausted.
  • TN Visa: If you’re from Canada or Mexico, you could work temporarily under a TN (Treaty National) visa for certain occupations. TN visas have no annual quota and allow for unlimited extensions as long as the employer and conditions of employment remain the same.

Fingers crossed that you get selected in the lottery!

All my best,

Sophie


Have a question? Ask it here; we reserve the right to edit your submission for clarity and or space. The information provided in “Dear Sophie” is general information and not legal advice. For more information on the limitations of “Dear Sophie,” please view our full disclaimer here. You can contact Sophie directly at Alcorn Immigration Law.

Sophie’s podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups, is available on all major podcast platforms; if you’d like to be a guest, she’s accepting applications!

EPA relaxes enforcement of environmental laws during the COVID-19 outbreak

By Catherine Shu

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Thursday that it is temporarily relaxing enforcement of environmental regulations and fines during the COVID-19 outbreak. The “enforcement discretion policy” applies retroactively to March 13, with no end date set yet.

“EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes the challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” said EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler in the agency’s announcement.

The policy “addresses different categories of noncompliance differently.” For example, the EPA said it will not seek penalties for noncompliance with monitoring and reporting “that are the result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” but that it still expects public water systems to provide safe drinking water.

The new policy follows lobbying from industries including oil and gas, which told the Trump administration that relaxed regulations will allow them to more efficiently distribute fuel during the outbreak.

But critics say that the policy will not only result in more pollution, but also make it impossible to fully assess the environmental damage.

In a statement to the Hill, Cynthia Giles, who headed the EPA’s Office of Enforcement during the Obama administration, said the new policy “tells companies across the country that they will not face enforcement even if they emit unlawful air and water pollution in violation of environmental laws, so long as they claim that those failures are in some way ‘caused’ by the virus pandemic. And it allows them an out on monitoring too, so we may never know how bad the violating pollution was.”

SF survey addresses gig workers’ concerns amid COVID-19 pandemic

By Megan Rose Dickey

With the novel coronavirus pandemic posing an ongoing threat to people’s health, especially the health of essential workers, San Francisco is conducting a survey to learn more about the issues gig workers are facing during this time. The results of this survey, which should be available within four to six weeks, will help shape local policy decisions.

The survey seeks to understand how COVID-19 has impacted the number of gig jobs available, pay and companies’ stances on health insurance and paid sick leave. It also asks what workers feel they most urgently need, whether it’s access to protective equipment or emergency funds, as well as if workers are likely to work while sick due to their financial situation.

Conducted by the city’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) and led by UC Santa Cruz professor Chris Benner, the study is targeting at least 500 gig workers who perform services for 12 of the most popular platforms: Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Caviar, Uber Eats, Postmates, Grubhub, Instacart, Shipt, Saucey, Amazon Flex and Drizly.

“This is a very critical workforce for a number a reasons,” Benner told TechCrunch. “They are particularly vulnerable and susceptible, especially early on with drivers taking people to and from the airport. But now as we’re potentially seeing a spike in the online ordering of groceries and food delivery, these people doing the deliveries are providing essential services during this time of having to shelter in home and are potentially vulnerable. And if they’re not being careful in handling food and groceries, they could potentially be spreading [COVID-19].”

This survey comes after Benner was tasked with leading a broader survey about gig workers in San Francisco. That survey kicked off last September but is currently on hold as Benner and his team focus more on the COVID-19 survey. Still, they are analyzing the 700 responses from that initial survey.

“What we know from other sources and what our survey will likely confirm is it’s a large immigrant workforce,” Benner said. “It’s a lot of people working on low wages and many hours and many people do this work full-time.”

Outside of this survey, the city has begun taking steps to advocate for this essential workforce. Yesterday, SF’s Board of Supervisors pushed for more gig worker protections, asking the SF Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, for example, to establish enforcement procedures in compliance with Assembly Bill 5. AB 5 is the new California law that outlines what types of workers can be legally classified as independent contractors.

This board of supervisor’s resolution, which Gig Workers Rising and We Drive Progress advocated for the board of supervisors to adopt, came after Gig Workers Rising urged California lawmakers to enforce AB 5. Earlier this month, Gig Workers Rising sent a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials asking them to step in and protect workers during this pandemic.

In the meantime, workers interested in filling out the survey can do so here.

France launches marketplace to manage essential products against COVID-19

By Romain Dillet

French startup Mirakl usually works with e-commerce websites in order to help them build out a marketplace with third-party sellers. This time, the company has developed a marketplace called StopCOVID19.fr to centralize the supply and demand of essential products during the fight against COVID-19. The French government is backing the project.

While many French companies have promised to manufacture hand sanitizer, masks, gloves and other essential products to protect healthcare professionals and people in general, it also creates many supply chain challenges. How do you make sure that hospitals that suffer the most from shortages get essential goods in time?

StopCOVID19.fr is starting with hand sanitizer with plans to expand to other protective goods. It helps companies and public institutions talk to each other. For instance, a chemical company has to connect with packaging manufacturers in order to store a large volume of hand sanitizer. Similarly, public and private hospitals don’t want to waste time contacting each manufacturer directly.

This isn’t an open marketplace. You have to be working for a health facility or an industrial company focused on COVID-19 protection goods. The French government screened all sellers that are currently listed on the marketplace. You have to contact Mirakl on the website to create an account.

A comprehensive marketplace could also become an essential service to analyze the country’s inventory over time. It could be particularly useful to distribute masks around the country and prepare for the end of the coronavirus lockdown.

Daily Crunch: Senate and White House reach stimulus deal

By Anthony Ha

A $2 trillion stimulus package is moving forward in the United States, Google Podcasts comes to iOS and ClassPass offers livestreamed fitness classes. Here’s your Daily Crunch for March 25, 2020.

1. Senate, White House reach deal on $2 trillion stimulus package to lessen COVID-19’s economic impact

After five days of negotiations, Senate leaders and the Trump administration said early this morning they have reached a deal on a $2 trillion stimulus package to help relieve the economic impact of COVID-19.

The deal (which includes sending $1,200 checks to many Americans) still needs to be approved by the Senate and House of Representatives, but the stock market was already rising Tuesday as reports came out that an agreement was imminent.

2. Google Podcasts is finally available on iOS

Users’ listening habits on the app will be synced across platforms by way of Google Podcasts for Web. The iOS version is available for download starting today. The Android update, meanwhile, will be rolling out to users this week.

3. ClassPass now offers live streamed workouts for those house-bound by coronavirus

ClassPass, the fitness platform that connects gym-goers with the right studio/fitness class, announced that it’s dusting off its shuttered video product in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, with tweaks. The company is allowing studio partners to set their own prices, date and time, and share a link to the streaming platform of their choice for their class.

4. Second Life-maker calls it quits on their VR follow-up

SF-based Linden Lab announced today that it has sold off assets related to its virtual reality project to a small, little-known company called Wookey Search Technologies, which will take over development of the title. Linden Lab will continue developing and maintaining Second Life and some of its employees may be joining Wookey.

5. Survey shows growth in podcasts and voice assistants, little change in streaming

A new annual survey — taken before the current COVID-19 crisis led to restrictions of movement in much of the U.S. — suggests good news for Amazon, continued dominance for Facebook and continued growth in podcasting. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Amazon warehouse workers organized to demand PTO, and coronavirus clinched it

This particular group of Chicago workers was fed up with the company failing to provide paid time off or vacation it promised to part-time workers. They organized; Amazon resisted — and the coronavirus acted as tiebreaker.

7. Facebook in talks to acquire stake in top Indian telco Reliance Jio, report says

The social media giant is in talks to acquire a 10% stake in the Indian telecom operator, according to a report in the Financial Times. The size of the deal, the paper said, was in “multi-billion dollars.”

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Oxford Uni academics launch a tracker for COVID-19 policy interventions

By Natasha Lomas

Oxford University academics have launched a project to track government responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

The tool, called the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT), tracks 11 indicators to generate an index that compares the stringency of policy responses around the world.

Nation state responses to the COVID-19 pandemic continue to vary widely, both in timing and stringency. The UK, for example, only began imposing more stringent restrictions on Saturday, ordering bars and restaurants to close. Yet Denmark — a European country with fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19 — took similar steps around a week earlier.

The index, which is being made freely available, contains data from 73 countries at launch — including China, South Korea, Italy, UK and USA. The academics say it will continue to be updated throughout the crisis.

The idea is to help policymakers and researchers understand the impacts of different state interventions and identify triggers for implementing more or less strict measures during the public health crisis.

The range of government interventions being tracked for the index are: 1. school closure; 2. workplace closures; 3. public event cancellation; 4. public transport closure; 5. public information campaigns; 6. restriction on internal movement; 7. international travel controls; 8. fiscal measures; 9. monetary measures; 10. emergency investment in healthcare; 11. investment in vaccines.

The academics behind the project, from Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, are relying on tracking publicly available information.

They caveat the effort by saying it obviously does not represent the fill picture, nor should it be interpreted as measuring “the appropriateness or effectiveness of a country’s response”.

Commenting in a statement, Thomas Hale, associate professor of global public policy at the School and lead for the project, said: “Our index cannot, of course, tell the full story, but we believe the data we have collected can help decision makers and public health professionals examine the robustness of government responses and provide a first step into understanding exactly what measures have been effective in certain contexts, and why.”

The OxCGRT can be found here — where project data and notes are also available for download.

France announces $4.3B plan to support startups

By Romain Dillet

France’s Ministry of State for Digital Affairs Cédric O and public investment bank Bpifrance announced a comprehensive support plan for startups this morning. Some French startups are going to face revenue issues as well as funding issues in the coming months.

The French government wants to temporarily bridge that gap with refinancing and liquidity measures — overall it represents $4.3 billion (€4 billion).

“Startups represent a growing part the economy — especially when it comes to jobs,” Cédric O said in a statement. “They are also working on innovative products and services that have been particularly useful during the lockdown, such as telemedicine appointments, remote work solutions or deliveries.”

France has already announced a widespread economic support plan. French companies that are facing revenue issues can skip tax payments as well as rent and utility bills. The French government is mobilizing $320 billion (€300 billion) in liquidity support, which should make it much easier to get a loan as the government is backing loans.

More importantly, if your company has to stop its operations, France has a short-time working scheme to avoid layoffs. Employees receive 84% to 100% of their salary — the government will reimburse companies.

And yet, startups are always on the verge of bankruptcy. That’s why the French government is going one step further with a startup-focused support plan with additional measures.

First, startups that were in the process of raising a new funding round will be able to raise a bridge round through Bpifrance’s PIA (Programme d’Investissements d’Avenir). Some VC firms might retract term sheets, others might slow down their investment pace. Bpifrance is putting $86.7 million (€80 million) on the table. Private investors will co-invest as much as $86.7 million (€80 million) as well.

Second, the government is detailing liquidity support measures for startups. Just like other companies, they can borrow money as part of the $320 billion (€300 billion) liquidity scheme. For startups, they can borrow as much as two years of payroll for employees based in France or 25% of annual revenue — whichever is higher. This should represent $2.2 billion (€2 billion).

Third, startups can get tax returns more quickly, and in particular VAT returns and tax returns on research and development investments (crédit d’impôt recherche). This represents a liquidity injection of $1.6 billion (€1.5 billion).

Fourth, Bpifrance is speeding up public support payments. It is going to transfer $270 million (€250 million) ahead of schedule.

Dear Sophie: How is COVID-19 affecting immigration?

By Walter Thompson
Sophie Alcorn Contributor
Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

“Dear Sophie” is an advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

“Dear Sophie” columns are accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

There’s a lot of misinformation going around the internet on immigration right now. Can you provide a clear explanation of how immigration policies are shifting in response to COVID-19?

— Overwhelmed in Palo Alto

Join our conference call with immigration attorney Sophie Alcorn Tuesday at 1pm PDT

By Danny Crichton

The world has been turned upside-down the past few weeks, with flight cancellations, global travel bans and a massive slowdown of worldwide commerce.

For immigrants to the United States here on work visas, these are particularly ambiguous and challenging times.

We’ve had prominent Silicon Valley immigration attorney Sophie Alcorn of Alcorn Immigration Law talk about all the nuances of immigration the past few months across our stages and through her Dear Sophie column on Extra Crunch, where she has answered questions like “how do I get visas for employees who work from home” and answering questions around the changes to the H-1B process.

Now, she’ll join us for a conference call we are hosting for Extra Crunch members tomorrow, Tuesday, March 24 at 1 p.m PDT (dial-in details below the jump) to discuss all the news that has happened the last few weeks and its impact on immigrants to the U.S. going forward.

I’ll join Sophie and Silicon Valley reporter Natasha Mascarenhas to talk about all the changes underway in the immigration system, with a focus on the visas typical for founders and workers in Silicon Valley. And then we will take questions from the audience to discuss the trends on what Sophie is seeing across her clients and across the Valley today.

If you aren’t able to join us, we’ll post a transcript of the discussion on Extra Crunch. Here’s how to dial in to Tuesday’s call:

Facebook bans face mask ads to fight coronavirus price gouging

By Taylor Hatmaker

On Friday, Facebook announced that it would further attempt to limit coronavirus-related chaos on its platform by banning commerce listings and advertisements for medical face masks.

“We’re monitoring COVID19 closely and will make necessary updates to our policies if we see people trying to exploit this public health emergency,” Facebook Director of Product Management Rob Leathern said in an update on Twitter. “We’ll start rolling out this change in the days ahead.”

Update: We’re banning ads and commerce listings selling medical face masks. We’re monitoring COVID19 closely and will make necessary updates to our policies if we see people trying to exploit this public health emergency. We’ll start rolling out this change in the days ahead.

— Rob Leathern (@robleathern) March 7, 2020

As fears of a novel coronavirus epidemic swell worldwide, online platforms have scrambled to stop price gouging and health misinformation. Amazon is working to eradicate “high priced offers” on products like hand sanitizer and face masks from its marketplace, while Ebay has banned all listings for N95 and N100 face masks, hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes. The online auction site will also reject any listings exploiting terms like “COVID-19” and “coronavirus.”

On Wednesday, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) wrote an open letter to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos expressing concern over “continued reports of price gouging and a lack of transparency” on the site.

“No one should be allowed to reap a windfall from fear and human suffering,” Markey wrote, adding that online retailers have a “particular responsibility” to protect consumers in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.

Earlier this week, Facebook announced that coronavirus-related searches on its platform would be greeted with an automatic pop-up featuring information from the World Health Organization and local health authorities.

“Given the developing situation, we’re working with national ministries of health and organizations like the WHO, CDC and UNICEF to help them get out timely, accurate information on the coronavirus,” Mark Zuckerberg wrote in an update on his company’s efforts. “We’re giving the WHO as many free ads as they need for their coronavirus response along with other in-kind support.”

The company is also focused on curtailing potentially life-threatening coronavirus misinformation, removing ads, conspiracy theories and treatment claims with no scientific basis. Facebook’s decision to disable ads for face masks comes at a time when health authorities are urging well people to forgo buying the masks, both because they are not necessary for healthy individuals to wear and because demand for the masks is constricting their supply for the medical workers who need them most.

Twitter expands hateful conduct rules to ban dehumanizing speech around age, disability and now, disease

By Sarah Perez

Last year, Twitter expanded its rules around hate speech to include dehumanizing speech against religious groups. Today, Twitter says it’s expanding its rule to also include language that dehumanizes people on the basis of their age, disability, or disease. The latter, of course, is a timely addition given that the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 has led to people making hateful and sometimes racist remarks on Twitter related to this topic.

Twitter says that tweets that broke this rule before today will need to be deleted, but those won’t result in any account suspensions because the rules were not in place at that time. However, any tweets published from now on will now have to abide by Twitter’s updated hateful conduct policy. This overarching policy includes rules about hateful conduct — meaning promoting violence or making threats — as well as the use of hateful imagery and display names.

We continuously examine our rules to help make Twitter safer. Last year we updated our Hateful Conduct policy to address dehumanizing speech, starting with one protected category: religious groups. Now, we’re expanding to three more: age, disease and disability.

For more info:

— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) March 5, 2020

The policy already includes a ban on dehumanizing speech across a range of categories, including also race, ethnicity, national origin, caste, sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity. The policy has expanded over time as Twitter has tried to better encompass the many areas where it wants to ban hateful speech and conduct on its platform.

One issue with Twitter’s hateful conduct policy is that it’s not able to keep up with enforcement due to the volume of tweets that are posted. In addition, its reliance on having users flag tweets for review means hate speech removal is handled reactively, rather than proactively. Twitter has also been heavily criticized for not properly enforcing its policies and allowing the online abuse to continue.

In today’s announcement, Twitter freely admits to these and other problems. It also notes it has since done more in-depth training and extended its testing period to ensure reviewers better understand how and when to take action, as well as how to protect conversations within marginalized groups. And it created a Trust and Safety Council to help it better understand the nuances and context around complex categories, like race, ethnicity and national origin.

Unfortunately, Twitter’s larger problem is that it has operated for years as a public town square where users have felt relatively free to express themselves without using a real identity where they’re held accountable for their words and actions. There are valid cases for online anonymity — including how it allows people to more freely communicate under oppressive regimes, for example. But the flip side is that it emboldens some people to make statements that they otherwise wouldn’t — and without any social repercussions. That’s not how it works in the real world.

Plus, any time Twitter tries to clamp down on hateful speech and conduct, it’s accused of clamping down on free speech — as if its social media platform is a place that’s protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. According to the U.S. courts, that’s not how it works. In fact, a U.S. court recently ruled that YouTube wasn’t a public forum, meaning it didn’t have to guarantee users’ rights to free speech. That sets a precedent for other social platforms as well, Twitter included.

Twitter for years has struggled to get more people to sign up and participate. But it has simultaneously worked against its own goal by not getting a handle on the abuse on its network. Instead, it’s testing new products — disappearing Stories, for example — that it hopes will encourage more engagement. In reality, better-enforced policies would do the trick. The addition of educational prompts in the Compose screen — similar those on Instagram that alerts users to content that will likely get reported or removed — are also well overdue.

It’s good that Twitter is expanding the language in its policy to be more encompassing. But its words need to be backed up with actions.

Twitter says its new rules are in place as of today.

Twitter CEO’s weak argument why investors shouldn’t fire him

By Josh Constine

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey might not spend six months a year in Africa, claims the real product development is under the hood, and gives an excuse for deleting Vine before it could become TikTok. Today he tweeted, via Twitter’s investor relations account, a multi-pronged defense of his leadership and the company’s progress.

The proclamations come as notorious activist investor Elliott Management prepares to pressure Twitter into a slew of reforms, potentially including replacing Dorsey with a new CEO, Bloomberg reported last week. Sources confirmed to TechCrunch that Elliott has taken a 4% to 5% stake in Twitter. Elliott has previously bullied eBay, AT&T, and othe major corporations into making changes and triggered CEO departures.

…Focusing on one job and increasing accountability has made a huge difference for us. One of our core jobs is to keep people informed. We want to be a service that people turn to… to see what’s happening, to be a credible source that people learn from.

— Twitter Investor Relations (@TwitterIR) March 5, 2020

Specifically, Elliott is seeking change because of Twitter’s weak market performance, which as of last month had fallen 6.2% since July 2015 while Facebook had grown 121%. The corporate raider reportedly takes issue with Dorsey also running fintech giant Square, and having planned to spend up to six months a year in Africa. Dorsey tweeted that “Africa will define the future (especially the bitcoin one!)”, despite cryptocurrency having little to do with Twitter.

Rapid executive turnover is another sore spot. Finally, Twitter is seen as moving glacially slow on product development, with little about its core service changing in the past five years beyond a move from 140 to 280 characters per tweet. Competing social apps like Facebook and Snapchat have made landmark acquisitions and launched significant new products like Marketplace, Stories, and Discover.

Dorsey spoke today at the Morgan Stanley investor conference, though apparently didn’t field questions about Elliott’s incursion. The CEO did take to his platform to lay out an argument for why Twitter is doing better than it looks, though without mentioning the activist investor directly. That type of response without mentioning to whom it’s directed, is popularly known as a subtweet. Here’s what he outlined:

On democracy: Twitter has prioritized healthy conversation and now “the #1 initiative is the integrity of the conversation around the elections” around the world, which it’s learning from. It’s now using humans and machine learning to weed out misinformation, yet Twitter still hasn’t rolled out labels on false news despite Facebook launching them in late 2016.

On revenue: Twitter expects to complete a rebuild of its core ad server in the first half of 2020, and it’s improving the experience of mobile app install ads so it can court more performance ad dollars. This comes seven years late to Facebook’s big push around app install ads.

On shutting down products: Dorsey claims that “5 years ago we had to do a really hard reset and that takes time to build from… we had been a company that was trying to do too many things…” But was it? Other than Moments, which largely flopped, and the move to the algorithmic feed ranking, Twitter sure didn’t seem to be doing too much and was already being criticized for slow product evolution as it tried to avoid disturbing its most hardcore users.

On stagnanation: “Some people talk about the slow pace of development at Twitter. The expectation is to see surface level changes, but the most impactful changes are happening below the surface” Dorsey claims, citing using machine learning to improve feed  and notification relevance

Yet it seems telling that Twitter suddenly announced yesterday that it was testing Instagram Stories-esque feature Fleets in Brazil. No launch event. No US beta. No indication of when it might roll out elsewhere. It seems like hasty and suspiciously convenient timing for a reveal that might convince investors it is actually building new things.

On talent: Twitter is apparently hiring top engineers “that maybe we couldn’t get 3 years ago”. 2017 was also Twitter’s share price low point of $14 compared to $34 today, so it’s not much of an accomplishment that hiring is easier now. Dorsey claims that “Engineering is my main focus. Everything else follows from that.” Yet it’s been years since fail whales were prevalent, and the core concern now is that there’s not enough to do on Twitter, rather than what it does offer doesn’t function well.

On Jack himself: Dorsey says he should have added more context “about my intention to spend a few months in Africa this year”, including its growing population that’s still getting online. Yet the “Huge opportunity especially for young people to join Twitter” seemed far from his mind as he focused on how crypto trading was driving adoption of Square’s Cash App

“I need to reevaluate” the plan to work from Africa “in light of COVID-19 and everything else going on”. That makes coronavirus a nice scapegoat for the decision while the phrase “everything else” is doing some very heavy lifting in the face of Elliott’s activist investing.

Photographer: Cole Burston/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On fighting harassment: Nothing. The fact that Twitter’s most severe ongoing problem doesn’t even get a mention should clue you in to how many troubles have stacked up in front of Dorsey

Running Twitter is a big job. So big it’s seen a slew of leaders ranging from founders like Ev Williams to hired guns like Dick Costolo peel off after mediocre performance. If Dorsey wants to stay CEO, that should be his full-time, work-from-headquarters gig.

This isn’t just another business. Twitter is a crucial communications utility for the world. Its absence of innovation, failure to defend vulnerable users, and an inability to deliver financially has massive repercussions for society. It means Twitter hasn’t had the products or kept the users to earn the profits to be able to invest in solving its problems. Making Twitter live up to its potential is no sidehustle.

Elizabeth Warren, big tech’s sworn foe, drops out of 2020 race

By Taylor Hatmaker

After a campaign characterized by early stratospheric highs and devastating recent lows, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren will drop out of the 2020 Democratic race.

Warren vaulted to the top of the contest in mid-2019, building early excitement by rolling out thoughtful plans for myriad campaign issues, including an aggressive proposal to regulate big technology companies. The idea of reining in big tech was so central to her platform that Warren released an entire Medium post laying our her position and supporting arguments all the way back in May 2019.

“Today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy,” Warren wrote at the time. “They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.”

Warren favored unwinding tech’s biggest acquisitions, including separating Amazon from Whole Foods, Facebook from WhatsApp and Instagram and Google from Waze and Nest. Unlike her close ally turned 2020 rival Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, Warren didn’t denounce capitalism altogether, instead pushing for a vision of a more regulated industry in which “healthy competition” among tech companies could flourish.

Warren’s campaign raised early red flags for tech’s giants, which are now recalibrating for the threat from Sanders.

Through the 2020 race, the elite upper echelons of tech — executives, venture capitalists and the like — sought a moderate alternative to the economic upheaval they feared would be bad for business, even as their own workers aligned with the contest’s most progressive candidates.

With only two candidates left in the race, Sanders will carry the torch holding big tech’s feet to the fire. And while Silicon Valley took an early interest in Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden has emerged as the post-Super Tuesday candidate for tech’s status quo.

Still, Sanders doesn’t target tech with the same laser-focused specificity as Warren did, instead lumping tech in with his distaste for centralized wealth accrued elsewhere. In a January interview, Sanders even noted that “it is not just the big tech companies” that have profited from lax antitrust regulation, steering the conversation to Wall Street, his favorite foil.

Amazon is an exception. Sanders has a historic dislike of Amazon, which he occasionally extends to the Bezos-owned Washington Post, speculating about “why The Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, doesn’t write particularly good articles about me” — an ongoing, unfounded criticism he shares with President Trump. Last month, the Vermont senator joined Warren and 13 other Democratic senators in a letter decrying Amazon’s “dismal safety record” and calling for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to “overhaul this profit-at-all-costs culture at your company.” The letter followed a report from The Atlantic about Amazon’s track record on worker injuries. Sanders has also proposed higher progressive corporate tax rates on companies “with large gaps between their CEO and median worker pay.” Those tax hikes would apply to companies with a yearly revenue greater than $100 million.

Tech may not fall directly in his crosshairs as often, but the democratic socialist’s signature message is a natural enemy of power brokers in the tech industry, which has consolidated an unprecedented amount of power and capital in American society. Sanders has openly denounced tech’s “monopolistic tendencies” and has long criticized Amazon’s treatment of its rank-and-file workers while pushing for strong unions — increasingly a hot button issue for tech, as the organized labor movement and rise in worker activism make headlines in the tech community.

Whatever happens in the race, the Democratic party’s leftmost flank will have to soldier on without Warren. Her days in the contest are over, but the candidate who Mark Zuckerberg feared would pose an “existential” threat to Facebook left an indelible mark on the 2020 race that neither her supporters nor detractors are likely to forget any time soon.

Judge rejects Tulsi Gabbard’s ‘free speech’ lawsuit against Google

By Taylor Hatmaker

Last July, Hawaii representative and longshot Democratic presidential hopeful Tulsi Gabbard filed a lawsuit against Google, accusing the company of violating her First Amendment rights to free speech when it briefly suspended her campaign’s ad account. On Wednesday, California’s Central District Court rejected the suit outright.

Gabbard’s campaign, Tulsi Now, Inc., asked for $50 million in damages from Google for “serious and continuing violations of Tulsi’s right to free speech.” In the suit, her campaign claimed that Google “helps to run elections” through political advertising and search results — an argument District Judge Stephen Wilson firmly rejected.

In dismissing the case, Wilson writes that what Gabbard “fails to establish is how Google’s regulation of its own platform is in any way equivalent to a governmental regulation of an election.” When it comes to Google, “an undisputedly private company,” the First Amendment’s free speech protections do not apply. A week ago, another California court reached the same conclusion in a case that right-wing group PragerU brought against YouTube.

In a case of poor timing, Gabbard’s account was suspended for an interval of time following the first presidential debate as viewers sought information about the unfamiliar candidate. In the lawsuit, Gabbard noted that Google took her advertising account offline “in the thick of the critical post-debate period.”

TULSI2020: In the hours following the 1st debate, while millions of Americans searched for info about Tulsi, Google suspended her search ad account w/o explanation. It is vital to our democracy that big tech companies can’t affect the outcome of elections https://t.co/n7Y7y2dQZ9

— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) July 25, 2019

“Since at least June 2019, Google has used its control over online political speech to silence Tulsi Gabbard, a candidate millions of Americans want to hear from,” the suit stated.

Echoing unfounded conservative complaints of tech censorship, Gabbard characterized paid political advertising as free speech, language that Facebook itself would later adopt in defending its lax position on policing political ads.

“This is a threat to free speech, fair elections, and to our democracy, and I intend to fight back on behalf of all Americans,” Gabbard said in a statement at the time.

Gabbard also decried Google’s dominance of the search business, echoing the anti-monopolist tech sentiments expressed by other Democratic candidates. Political figures in both parties have seized on anti-tech sentiment in recent years, and the Hawaii representative’s lawsuit is just one example of politically expedient posturing against major tech platforms.

After the incident, a Google representative explained that the platform automatically flagged Gabbard’s account for unusual activity, a mistake it corrected a short time later.

Uber driver reclassified as employee in France

By Romain Dillet

France’s Court of Cassation, a court of last resort, has ruled that a former Uber driver should have been considered an employee instead of a self-employed partner. As the Court of Cassation is the supreme court of appeal in that case, Uber can no longer appeal the decision.

Back in June 2017, an Uber driver filed a lawsuit against Uber because their account had been deactivated. A labor court first refused to look at the case, saying that the court couldn’t rule on that case as it didn’t involve an employee and an employer.

Another court in Paris then took care of the case and ruled that there was an employment relationship between that Uber driver and Uber itself. According to the court, there was a relationship of subordination between the company and the driver — in other words, the driver was following orders from Uber.

In particular, the Paris court said that the driver couldn’t build their own customer base and couldn’t set prices. The driver also argued that Uber was overseeing their work, as they would receive a message that said “Are you still there?” after declining three rides.

The case ended up with the Court of Cassation. “When the driver goes online on Uber’s digital platform, there’s a relationship of subordination between the driver and the company. Based on that, the driver isn’t providing a service as a self-employed worker but as an employee,” the court wrote.

The court says that self-employed persons should be able to do three things — manage their clients themselves, set prices and choose how to execute a task. Uber failed to comply with those three criteria.

The driver can’t decide to accept or decline a ride based on the destination as Uber only reveals the destination of the ride after accepting a ride. If the driver declines too many rides or gets bad ratings, the driver can lose access to their account.

“The driver participates in a managed transportation service and Uber unilaterally defines the operating terms,” the court wrote. Even if the driver can stop using Uber for days without any consequence, the court says that this feature is irrelevant in that particular case.

An Uber spokesperson sent the following statement:

This decision relates to the case of one specific driver, who hasn’t used the Uber app since 2017. The ruling does not reflect the reasons why drivers choose to use Uber: the independence and freedom to work if, when and where they want. Over the last two years we’ve made many changes to give drivers even more control over how they use Uber, alongside stronger social protections. We’ll keep listening to drivers and introduce further improvements.

We’re now going back to square one. A labor court is now in charge of the case. It will decide whether the former driver should receive financial compensation based on today’s new ruling.

Other drivers could leverage the ruling from the top court for their specific cases. Despite what Uber says, this could set a precedent for Uber and many other companies operating marketplaces with self-employed partners in France.

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