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Decrypted: With more SolarWinds fallout, Biden picks his cybersecurity team

By Zack Whittaker

All change in the capital as the Biden administration takes charge, and thankfully without a hitch (or violence) after the attempted insurrection two weeks earlier.

In this week’s Decrypted, we look at the ongoing fallout from the SolarWinds breach and who the incoming president wants to lead the path to recovery. Plus, the news in brief.


THE BIG PICTURE

Google says SolarWinds exposure “limited,” more breaches confirmed

The cyberattack against SolarWinds, an ongoing espionage campaign already blamed on Russia, claimed the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as another federal victim this week. The attack also hit cybersecurity company Malwarebytes, the company’s chief executive confirmed. Marcin Kleczynski said in a blog post that attackers gained access to a “limited” number of internal company emails. It was the same attackers as SolarWinds but using a different intrusion route. It’s now the third security company known to have been targeted by the same Russian hackers after a successful intrusion at FireEye and an unsuccessful attempt at CrowdStrike.

Today, I disclosed publicly that @Malwarebytes had been targeted by the same nation state actor that attacked SolarWinds. This attack is much broader than SolarWinds and I expect more companies will come forward soon.

— Marcin Kleczynski (@mkleczynski) January 19, 2021

Facebook’s Oversight Board will review the decision to suspend Trump

By Taylor Hatmaker

Facebook announced Thursday that its newly-established external policy review group will take on one of the company’s most consequential acts: the decision to suspend former President Trump.

On January 7, Facebook suspended Trump’s account indefinitely. That decision followed the president’s actions the day prior, when he incited a violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol, leaving American democracy on a razor’s edge and a nation already deep in crisis even more shaken.

Facebook VP of Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg called the circumstances around Trump’s suspension an “unprecedented set of events which called for unprecedented action” and explained why the Oversight Board would review the case.

“Our decision to suspend then-President Trump’s access was taken in extraordinary circumstances: a US president actively fomenting a violent insurrection designed to thwart the peaceful transition of power; five people killed; legislators fleeing the seat of democracy,” Clegg said in a blog post.

“This has never happened before — and we hope it will never happen again.”

In its own statement on taking the case, the Oversight Board explained that a five member panel will evaluate the case soon with a decision planned within 90 days. Once that smaller group reaches its conclusions on how to handle Trump’s Facebook status — and, potentially, future cases involving world leaders — the decision will require approval from the majority of the board’s members. After that, the pace picks up a bit and Facebook will have one week to implement the board’s final decision.

Facebook likes to say that the board is independent, but in spite of having the autonomy to make “binding” case-by-case decisions, the board grew out of Facebook itself. The company appointed the board’s four original co-chairs and those members went on to expand the group into a twenty-member body.

As we’ve previously reported, the mechanics of the board bias its activity toward Facebook content taken down — not the stuff that stays up, which generally creates larger headaches for the company and society at large. Facebook has responded to this critique, noting that while the board may initially focus on reviewing takedowns, content still up on the platforms will be part of the project’s scope “as quickly as possible.”

Given some of the criticism around the group, the Trump case is a big moment for how impactful the board’s decisions will really wind up being. If it were to overturn Facebook’s decision, that decision would likely kick up a new firestorm of interest around Trump’s Facebook account, even as the former president recedes from the public eye.

The most interesting bit about the process is that it will allow the former president’s account admins to appeal his own case. If they do so, the board will review a “user statement” arguing why Trump’s account should be reinstated.

Facebook’s external decision making body is meant as a kind of “supreme court” for the company’s own policy making. It doesn’t really move quickly or respond in the moment, but instead seeks to establish precedents that can lend insight to future policy cases. While the per-case decisions are binding, whether the broader precedents it creates will impact Facebook’s future policy decisions remains to be seen.

The biggest step the Biden administration took on climate yesterday wasn’t rejoining the Paris Agreement

By Jonathan Shieber

While the Biden Administration is being celebrated for its decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement in one of its first executive orders after President Joe Biden was sworn in, it wasn’t the biggest step the administration took to advance its climate agenda.

Instead it was a move to get to the basics of monitoring and accounting, of metrics and dashboards. While companies track their revenues and expenses and monitor for all sorts of risks, impacts from climate change and emissions aren’t tracked in the same way. Now, in the same way there are general principals for accounting for finance, there will be principals for accounting for the impact of climate through what’s called the social cost of carbon.

Among the flurry of paperwork coming from Biden’s desk were Executive Orders calling for a review of Trump era rule-making around the environment and the reinstitution of strict standards for fuel economy, methane emissions, appliance and building efficiency, and overall emissions. But even these steps are likely to pale in significance to the fifth section of the ninth executive order to be announced by the new White House.

That’s the section addressing the accounting for the benefits of reducing climate pollution. Until now, the U.S. government hasn’t had a framework for accounting for what it calls the “full costs of greenhouse gas emissions” by taking “global damages into account”.

All of this is part of a broad commitment to let data and science inform policymaking across government, according to the Biden Administration.

Biden writes:

“It is, therefore, the policy of my Administration to listen to the science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water; to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides; to hold polluters accountable, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities; to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to bolster resilience to the impacts of climate change; to restore and expand our national treasures and monuments; and to prioritize both environmental justice and the creation of the well-paying union jobs necessary to deliver on these goals.”

The specific section of the order addressing accounting and accountability calls for a working group to come up with three metrics: the social cost of carbon (SCC), the social cost of nitrous oxide (SCN) and the social cost of methane (SCM) that will be used to estimate the monetized damages associated with increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

As the executive order notes, “[an] accurate social cost is essential for agencies to accurately determine the social benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions when conducting cost-benefit analyses of regulatory and other actions.” What the Administration is doing is attempting to provide a financial figure for the damages wrought by greenhouse gas emissions in terms of rising interest rates, and the destroyed farmland and infrastructure caused by natural disasters linked to global climate change.

These kinds of benchmarks aren’t flashy, but they are concrete ways to determine accountability. That accountability will become critical as the country takes steps to meet the targets set in the Paris Agreement. It also gives companies looking to address their emissions footprints an economic framework to point to as they talk to their investors and the public.

The initiative will include top leadership like the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (a position that Biden elevated to a cabinet level post).

Representatives from each of the major federal agencies overseeing the economy, national health, and the environment will be members of the working group along with the representatives or the National Climate Advisor and the Director of the National Economic Council.

While the rule-making is proceeding at the federal level, some startups are already developing services to help businesses monitor their emissions output.

These are companies like CarbonChainPersefoni, and SINAI Technologies. And their work compliments non-profits like CDP, which works with companies to assess carbon emissions.

Biden’s plan will have the various agencies and departments working quickly. The administration expects an interim SCC, SCN, and SCM within the next 30 days, which agencies will use when monetizing the value of changes in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from regulations and agency actions. The President wants final metrics will be published by January of next year.

The executive order also restored protections to national parks and lands that had been opened to oil and gas exploration and commercial activity under the Trump Administration and blocked the development of the Keystone Pipeline, which would have brought oil from Canadian tar sands into and through the U.S.

“The Keystone XL pipeline disserves the U.S. national interest. The United States and the world face a climate crisis. That crisis must be met with action on a scale and at a speed commensurate with the need to avoid setting the world on a dangerous, potentially catastrophic, climate trajectory. At home, we will combat the crisis with an ambitious plan to build back better, designed to both reduce harmful emissions and create good clean-energy jobs,” according to the text of the Executive Order. “The United States must be in a position to exercise vigorous climate leadership in order to achieve a significant increase in global climate action and put the world on a sustainable climate pathway. Leaving the Key`12stone XL pipeline permit in place would not be consistent with my Administration’s economic and climate imperatives.”

White House, dark mode: Biden admin refreshes presidency’s website, vows accessibility

By Devin Coldewey

WhiteHouse.gov, the official website for all presidential actions and efforts, is among the first things to be changed up under the freshly inaugurated President Biden. A fashionable dark mode appeared, as well as a large text toggle for straining eyes, and the webmaster has committed to making the whole site conform to the latest accessibility guidelines.

The look isn’t so very different from the previous administration’s site — they’re both fairly modern and minimal experiences, with big photos up front and tidy lists of priorities and announcements once you drill down into a category.

Animation showing dark and light modes on whitehouse.gov

Image Credits: White House

But one big design change implemented by the new administration that many will appreciate is the inclusion of a dark mode, or high contrast mode, and a large type toggle.

Dark modes have been around forever, but became de rigeur when Apple implemented its own system-wide versions on iOS and macOS a while back. It’s just easier on the eyes in many ways, and at any rate it’s nice to give users options.

The WhiteHouse.gov dark mode changes the headline type from a patriotic blue to an eye-friendly off-white, with links a calming Dijon. Even the White House logo itself goes from a dark blue background to full black with a white border. It’s all very tasteful, and if anything seems like a low-contrast mode, not high.

The large type mode does what it says, making everything considerably bigger and easier to tap or click. The toggles, it must be said, are a bit over-prominent, but they’ll probably tweak that soon.

More important is the pledge in the accessibility section:

This commitment to accessibility for all begins with this site and our efforts to ensure all functionality and all content is accessible to all Americans.

Our ongoing accessibility effort works towards conforming to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.1, level AA criteria.

The WCAG guidelines are a set of best practices for designing a website so that its content can be easily accessed by people who use screen readers, need captions for audio or can’t use a mouse or touchscreen easily. The guidelines aren’t particularly hard to meet, but as many have pointed out, it’s harder to retrofit a website to be accessible than to design it for accessibility from the start.

One thing I noticed was that many of the photos on the White House website have alt text or visible captions attached — these help visually impaired visitors understand what’s in an image. Here’s an example:

Screenshot showing the alt text of a photo of VP Kamala Harris and her family

Image Credits: White House

 

 

 

 

Normally that alt text would be read out by a screen reader when it got to the image, but it’s generally not made visible.

Unless the metadata was stripped from the previous administration’s site (it’s archived here), none of the photos I checked had text descriptions there, so this is a big improvement. Unfortunately some photos (like the big header photo on the front page) don’t have descriptions, something that should probably be remedied.

Accessibility in other places will mean prompt inclusion of plaintext versions of governance items and announcements (versus PDFs or other documents), captions on official videos and other media, and as the team notes, lots of little improvements that make the site better for everyone who visits.

It’s a small thing in a way, compared with the changes expected to accompany the new administration, but small things tend to pile up and become big things.

As Microsoft’s Isaac Hepworth noted, there’s still lots of work to do, and that’s why U.S. Digital Services hid a little message in the source code:

Section of source code asking for help from the US Digital Services administration

Image Credits: White House

If you’re interested in helping out, sign up here.

EU chief warns over ‘unfiltered’ hate speech and calls for Biden to back rules for big tech

By Natasha Lomas

In a speech to the European Parliament today marking the inauguration of U.S. president Joe Biden, the president of the European Commission has called for Europe and the U.S. to join forces on regulating tech giants, warning of the risks of “unfiltered” hate speech and disinformation being weaponized to attack and undermine democracies.

Ursula von der Leyen pointed to the shock storming of the U.S. capital earlier this month by supporters of outgoing president Donald Trump as an example of how wild claims being spread and amplified online can have tangible real-world consequences, including for democratic institutions.

“Just a few days ago, several hundred [Trump supporters] stormed the Capitol in Washington, the heart of American democracy. The television images of that event shocked us all. That is what happens when words incite action,” she said. “That is what happens when hate speech and fake news spread like wildfire through digital media. They become a danger to democracy.”

European institutions are also being targeted with “hate and contempt for our democracy spreading unfiltered through social media to millions of people”, she warned, pointing to similarly disturbing attacks that have taken place in the region in recent years. Such as an attempt by right-wing extremists in Germany to storm the Reichstag building last summer and the 2016 murder of U.K. politician Jo Cox by a fascist extremist.

“Of course, the storming of the [U.S.] Capitol was different. But in Europe, too, there are people who feel disadvantaged and are very angry,” she said, suggesting feelings of exclusion and injustice can make people vulnerable to believing the “rampant” conspiracy theories that platforms have allowed to circulate freely online, and which she characterized as “often a confused mixture of completely absurd fantasies”.

“We must make sure that messages of hate and fake news can no longer be spread unchecked,” she added, reiterating the case for regulating social media by pressing the case for imposing “democratic limits on the untrammelled and uncontrolled political power of the internet giants”.

The European Commission has already set out its blueprint for overhauling the region’s digital rulebook when it unveiled the draft Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act last month. Although it won’t be including hard legal limits on disinformation in the package — preferring to continue with a voluntary, but beefed up code of conduct for content that falls into a grey area where it may be harmful but isn’t actually illegal.

Von der Leyen said the aim for the regulations is to ensure “if something is illegal offline it must also be illegal online”. The Commission has also said the tech policy package is about forcing platforms to take more responsibility for the content they spread and monetize.

But it’s not yet clear how the proposed laws will ultimately tackle the tricky issue of how assessments are made to remove (or reinstate) speech; and whether platforms will continue to make those judgements (under a regulator’s guidance and watchful eye), or whether they end up entirely independent of platform control.

What the Commission has suggested is closer to the former but the proposal has to go through the EU’s co-legislative process — so such details are likely to be debated and could be amended prior to adoption into law.

“We want the platforms to be transparent about how their algorithms work. We cannot accept a situation where decisions that have a wide-ranging impact on our democracy are being made by computer programs without any human supervision,” von der Leyen went on. “And we want it laid down clearly that internet companies take responsibility for the content they disseminate.”

She also reiterated the concern expressed in recent days about the unilateral actions taken by tech giants to close down Trump’s megaphone — echoing comments by political leaders across Europe earlier this month who dubbed the display of raw platform power, from companies like Twitter, as “problematic”; and said it must result in regulatory consequences for tech giants.  

“No matter how right it may have been for Twitter to switch off Donald Trump’s account five minutes after midnight, such serious interference with freedom of expression should be based on laws and not on company rules,” she said, adding: “It should be based on decisions of politicians and parliaments and not of Silicon Valley managers.”

In the speech, the EU president also expressed hope that the Biden administration will be inclined to arc toward Europe’s agenda on digital regulation — as part of the anticipated post-Trump reboot of EU-U.S. relations.

The Commission recently adopted a new transatlantic agenda in which it laid out a number of policy areas it hopes for joint-working with the U.S. — with tech governance key among the areas of hoped for policy cooperation.

Von der Leyen reiterated the idea that a joint Trade and Technology Council could be “a first step” toward the EU and US fashioning a “digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide”.

“It is in this digital field that Europe has so much to offer the new government in Washington”, she suggested. “The path we have taken in Europe can be an example for approaches at international level. As has long been the case with the General Data Protection Regulation.

“Together we could create a digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide: From data protection and privacy to the security of technical infrastructure. A body of rules based on our values: human rights and pluralism, inclusion and protection of privacy.”

While there’s evidently a keen appetite in the EU to reset U.S. relations post-Trump, it remains to be seen how much of a policy reboot the Biden administration will usher in, vis-à-vis big tech.

He has not been as vocal a critic of platform giants as other Democratic challengers for the presidency. And the Obama administration, which he of course served in, had very cosy ties to Silicon Valley.

Concerns have also been raised in recent days about Biden’s potential picks for a key appointment at the justice office — in light of antitrust probes of big tech versus the prospective appointees’ deep links to tech giants and/or promotion of historical mergers. So it hardly looks like a model for a full and clean reset.

While the tricky issue of pro-privacy reform of U.S. surveillance laws — which EU commissioners have warned will be needed to resolve the legal uncertainty clouding data transfers from the region to the U.S. (and which tech giants themselves have largely avoided in their own lobbying) — seems likely to need legislation from Congress, rather than being a change that could be driven solely by the Biden administration.

The chances of the incoming president being inclined to champion such a relatively wonky tech-policy issue when he has so much else in his “needs urgent attention” in-tray also seem relatively slim. But even slender odds can look promising after the Trump era.  

2020 was one of the warmest years in history and indicates mounting risks of climate change

By Jonathan Shieber

It’s official. 2020 was one of the warmest years on record either edging out or coming in just behind 2016 for the warmest year in recorded history according to data from US government agencies.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had the year just tied with 2016, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put the figure just behind 2016’s totals.

No matter the ranking, the big picture for the climate isn’t pretty according to scientists from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York and the Washington, DC-based NOAA.

“The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record, typifying the ongoing and dramatic warming trend,” said GISS Director Gavin Schmidt, in a statement. “Whether one year is a record or not is not really that important – the important things are long-term trends. With these trends, and as the human impact on the climate increases, we have to expect that records will continue to be broken.”

That’s a dire message for the nation considering the cost of last year’s record-breaking 22 weather and climate disasters. At least 262 people died and scores more were injured by climate-related disasters, according to the NOAA.

And the combination of wildfires, droughts, heatwaves, tornados, tropical cyclones, and severe weather events like hail storms in Texas and the derecho that wrecked the Midwest cost the nation $95 billion.

Homes are engulfed in flames in Vacaville, California during the LNU Lightning Complex fire on August 19, 2020.

Homes are engulfed in flames in Vacaville, California during the LNU Lightning Complex fire on August 19, 2020. – As of the late hours of August 18,2020 the Hennessey fire has merged with at least 7 fires and is now called the LNU Lightning Complex fires. Dozens of fires are burning out of control throughout Northern California as fire resources are spread thin. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Both organizations track temperature trends to get some sort of picture of the impact that human activities — specifically greenhouse gas emissions — have on the planet. The image that comes into focus is that human activity has already contributed to increasing Earth’s average temperature by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the industrial age took hold in the late 19th century.

Most troubling to scientists is that this year’s near record-setting temperatures happened without a boost from the climatic weather phenomenon known as El Niño, which is a large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate interaction linked to a periodic warming.

“The previous record warm year, 2016, received a significant boost from a strong El Niño. The lack of a similar assist from El Niño this year is evidence that the background climate continues to warm due to greenhouse gases,” Schmidt said, in a statement.

The warming trends the word is experiencing are most pronounced in the Arctic, according to NASA. There, temperatures have warmed three times as a fast as the rest of the globe over the past 30 years, Schmidt said. The loss of Arctic sea ice — whose annual minimum area is declining by about 13 percent per decade — makes the region less reflective, which means more sunlight is being absorbed by oceans, causing temperatures to climb even more.

These accelerating effects of climate change could be perilous for the world at large, Katharine Hayhoe, a professor at Texas Tech University wrote in an email to The Washington Post.

“What keeps us climate scientists up in the dead of night is wondering what we don’t know about the self-reinforcing or vicious cycles in the Earth’s climate system,” Hayhoe wrote. “The further and faster we push it beyond anything experienced in the history of human civilization on this planet, the greater the risk of serious and even dangerous consequences. And this year, we’ve seen that in spades… It’s no longer a question of when the impacts of climate change will manifest themselves: They are already here and now. The only question remaining is how much worse it will get.”

Grafana Labs adds a free tier to its managed observability platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Grafana Labs, the company behind the increasingly popular open-source monitoring and observability platform, today announced both an updated version of its cloud service and the launch of a free tier for it.

The free plan for Grafana Cloud has some limitations, but it includes access to virtually all of Grafana Labs’ tools for monitoring modern applications. In addition, Grafana’s paid Pro plan for its hosted service is also getting an update and will now include access to five times more metrics per month.

With the free plan, users get a 14-day retention period for metrics and logs, access for up to three team members, 50 GB of log storage and up to 10,000 series for Prometheus and Graphite metrics. For Pro plans, those numbers increase to 15,000 series, 13 months of retention for metrics (up from 3,000 previously) and 100 GB of logs with a one-month retention period.

Image Credits: Grafana

Offering a hosted service is par for the course for open-source companies. For most of them, after all, this is the most obvious way to monetize their tools.

“The origin story of Grafana Cloud is one of open source,” the company writes in today’s announcement. “Just like the development of our features, Grafana Cloud was first born from the pains and needs of our open source community. We were looking to give users a quick way to get Grafana up and running. It was a product created out of necessity, and it made sense at the time because it’s what our customers wanted back then.”

Given its open-source origins, the team decided that it made sense to also offer a free plan. In addition, though, adding a free plan will also make it easier for new users to get started — and maybe become paying users over time.

Image Credits: Grafana

Twitter permanently bans President Trump

By Taylor Hatmaker

Twitter permanently removed the president of the United States from its platform Friday, citing concerns over the “risk of further incitement of violence” and Trump’s previous transgressions.

“In the context of horrific events this week, we made it clear on Wednesday that additional violations of the Twitter Rules would potentially result in this very course of action,” Twitter wrote. “… We made it clear going back years that these accounts are not above our rules and cannot use Twitter to incite violence.”

Trump will not be able to get around Twitter’s ban by making a new account or using an alias, a Twitter spokesperson clarified to TechCrunch. If the president attempts to evade his suspension, any account he uses will also be subject to a ban for breaking Twitter’s rules.

Update: Trump appeared to do just that Friday night, popping up on @POTUS. “We will not be SILENCED! Twitter is not about FREE SPEECH,” Trump tweeted through that account, indicating that his team might build his own platform in the “near future.”

Twitter emphasized that it made the threat of an impending ban clear and called this week’s events “horrific.” While Trump has previously broken the platform’s rules, the company’s maintained his account under its special guidance for world leaders and information in the public interest.

In an in-depth breakdown, Twitter published the assessments of Trump’s tweets that led to his suspension. Two of his tweets on Thursday appear to have pushed the account over the edge, and Twitter interpreted them as potentially inciting violence in the context of the week’s events.

On Wednesday, Twitter suspended President Trump’s account until he deleted three tweets that the company flagged as violating its rules. Trump’s account was set to reactivate 12 hours after those deletions, and he returned to the platform on Thursday night with a video in which he appeared to concede his election loss for the first time.

Trump crossed a line with Twitter when he failed to condemn a group of his supporters who staged a violent riot at the Capitol building while Congress met to certify the election results. In one tweet, Trump shared a video in which he gently encouraged the group to return home, while reassuring his agitated followers that he loved them and that they were “special.”

At that time, Twitter said that Trump’s tweets contained “repeated and severe violations” of its policy on civic integrity and threatened that any future violations would result in “permanent suspension” of the president’s account.

After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.https://t.co/CBpE1I6j8Y

— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) January 8, 2021

Wednesday, January 6:

  • 1 PM ET: Trump wraps up a rally near the White House protesting the legitimate election results. During the event he urges attendees to march toward Congress.
  • 2:15 PM: Trump supporters breach the interior of the Capitol building.
  • 4:15 PM: Trump tweets a video gently telling rioters that they need to go home and “we love you.”
  • 5 PM: Twitter places a large warning label on the video.
  • 6 PM: Trump tweets again, failing to denounce the violence and urging his supporters to “Remember this day forever!”
  • 7 PM: Twitter locks Trump out his account until he deletes three tweets and waits for a 12-hour period.

As a result of the unprecedented and ongoing violent situation in Washington, D.C., we have required the removal of three @realDonaldTrump Tweets that were posted earlier today for repeated and severe violations of our Civic Integrity policy. https://t.co/k6OkjNG3bM

— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) January 7, 2021

Thursday, January 7:

Friday, January 8:

  • 9:45 AM: Trump tweets again with a less conciliatory tone, declaring that anyone who voted for him will “not be treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”
  • 10:45 AM: Trump tweets that he will not attend President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
  • 6:20 PM: Twitter announces that @realDonaldTrump is suspended permanently.

While Facebook initially took more drastic action against Trump’s account in the aftermath of Wednesday’s chaotic siege on Capitol Hill, Twitter has a longer history of friction with the outgoing president. In early 2020, Twitter’s decision to add a contextual label to a Trump tweet calling mail-in voting “fraudulent” prompted the president to craft a retaliatory though largely toothless executive order targeting social media companies.

Trump held the same grudge through the end of the year, trying to push a doomed repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — the law that protects online companies from liability for user-generated content — through Congress in increasingly unusual ways.

Twitter’s move Friday to suspend the sitting U.S. president from its platform is a historic decision — and one the company avoided making for the last four years. In the wake of Wednesday’s insurrectionist violence, and Trump’s role in inciting it, tech’s biggest social networks appear to have at last had enough.

But as with election conspiracies, dangerous COVID-19 misinformation and the camo-clad extremists who attacked the Capitol this week, it’s too late to undo the chaos that real-time Trump unleashed over the last four years, 280 characters at a time.

SilviaTerra wants to bring the benefits of carbon offsets to every landowner everywhere

By Jonathan Shieber

Zack Parisa and Max Nova, the co-founders of the carbon offset company SilivaTerra, have spent the last decade working on a way to democratize access to revenue generating carbon offsets.

As forestry credits become a big, booming business on the back of multi-billion dollar commitments from some of the world’s biggest companies to decarbonize their businesses, the kinds of technologies that the two founders have dedicated ten years of their lives to building are only going to become more valuable.

That’s why their company, already a profitable business, has raised $4.4 million in outside funding led by Union Square Ventures and Version One Ventures, along with Salesforce founder and the driving force between the 1 trillion trees initiative, Marc Benioff .

“Key to addressing the climate crisis is changing the balance in the so-called carbon cycle. At present, every year we are adding roughly 5 gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere*. Since atmospheric carbon acts as a greenhouse gas this increases the energy that’s retained rather than radiated back into space which causes the earth to heat up,” writes Union Square Ventures managing partner Albert Wenger in a blog post. “There will be many ways such drawdown occurs and we will write about different approaches in the coming weeks (such as direct air capture and growing kelp in the oceans). One way that we understand well today and can act upon immediately are forests. The world’s forests today absorb a bit more than one gigatons of CO2 per year out of the atmosphere and turn it into biomass. We need to stop cutting and burning down existing forests (including preventing large scale forest fires) and we have to start planting more new trees. If we do that, the total potential for forests is around 4 to 5 gigatons per year (with some estimates as high as 9 gigatons).”

For the two founders, the new funding is the latest step in a long journey that began in the woods of Northern Alabama, where Parisa grew up.

After attending Mississippi State for forestry, Parisa went to graduate school at Yale, where he met Louisville, Kentucky native Max Nova, a computer science student who joined with Parisa to set up the company that would become SiliviaTerra.

SilviaTerra co-founders Max Nova and Zack Parisa. Image Credit: SilivaTerra

The two men developed a way to combine satellite imagery with field measurements to determine the size and species of trees in every acre of forest.

While the first step was to create a map of every forest in the U.S. the ultimate goal for both men was to find a way to put a carbon market on equal footing with the timber industry. Instead of cutting trees for cash, potentially landowners could find out how much it would be worth to maintain their forestland. As the company notes, forest management had previously been driven by the economics of timber harvesting, with over $10 billion spent in the US each year.

The founders at SilviaTerra thought that the carbon market could be equally as large, but it’s hard for moset landowners to access. Carbon offset projects can cost as much as $200,000 to put together, which is more than the value of the smaller offset projects for landowners like Parisa’s own family and the 40 acres they own in the Alabama forests.

There had to be a better way for smaller landowners to benefit from carbon markets too, Parisa and Nova thought.

To create this carbon economy, there needed to be a single source of record for every tree in the U.S. and while SiliviaTerra had the technology to make that map, they lacked the compute power, machine learning capabilities and resources to build the map.

That’s where Microsoft’s AI for Earth program came in.

Working with AI for Earth, TierraSilva created their first product, Basemap, to process terabytes ofsatellite imagery to determine the sizes and species of trees on every acre of America’s forestland. The company also worked with the US Forestry Service to access their data, which was used in creating this holistic view of the forest assets in the U.S.

With the data from Basemap in hand, the company has created what it calls the Natural Capital Exchange. This program uses SilviaTerra’s unparalleled access to information about local forests, and the knowledge of how those forests are currently used to supply projects that actually represent land that would have been forested were it not for the offset money coming in.

Currently, many forestry projects are being passed off to offset buyers as legitimate offsets on land that would never have been forested in the first place — rendering the project meaningless and useless in any real way as an offset for carbon dioxide emissions. 

“It’s a bloodbath out there,” said Nova of the scale of the problem with fraudulent offsets in the industry. “We’re not repackaging existing forest carbon projects and try to connect the demand side with projects that already exist. Use technology to unlock a new supply of forest carbon offset.”

The first Natural Capital Exchange project was actually launched and funded by Microsoft back in 2019. In it, 20 Western Pennsylvania land owners originated forest carbon credits through the program, showing that the offsets could work for landowners with 40 acres, or, as the company said, 40,000.

Landowners involved in SilivaTerra’s pilot carbon offset program paid for by Microsoft. Image Credit: SilviaTerra

“We’re just trying to get inside every landowners annual economic planning cycle,” said Nova. “There’s a whole field of timber economics… and we’re helping answer the question of given the price of timber, given the price of carbon does it make sense to reduce your planned timber harvests?”

Ultimately, the two founders believe that they’ve found a way to pay for the total land value through the creation of data around the potential carbon offset value of these forests.

It’s more than just carbon markets, as well. The tools that SilviaTerra have created can be used for wildfire mitigation as well. “We’re at the right place at the right time with the right data and the right tools,” said Nova. “It’s about connecting that data to the decision and the economics of all this.”

The launch of the SilviaTerra exchange gives large buyers a vetted source to offset carbon. In some ways its an enterprise corollary to the work being done by startups like Wren, another Union Square Ventures investment, that focuses on offsetting the carbon footprint of everyday consumers. It’s also a competitor to companies like Pachama, which are trying to provide similar forest offsets at scale, or 3Degrees Inc. or South Pole.

Under a Biden administration there’s even more of an opportunity for these offset companies, the founders said, given discussions underway to establish a Carbon Bank. Established through the existing Commodity Credit Corp. run by the Department of Agriculture, the Carbon Bank would pay farmers and landowners across the U.S. for forestry and agricultural carbon offset projects.

“Everybody knows that there’s more value in these systems than just the product that we harvest off of it,” said Parisa. “Until we put those benefits in the same footing as the things we cut off and send to market…. As the value of these things goes up… absolutely it is going to influence these decisions and it is a cash crop… It’s a money pump from coastal America into middle America to create these things that they need.” 

Trump returns to Twitter with what sounds like a concession speech

By Taylor Hatmaker

It’s been a long couple of days for the country, but President Trump only had to wait 12 hours before returning to his social network of choice.

In an uncharacteristically scripted three-ish minute speech, the president denounced the “heinous attack” on the Capitol. “The demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol have defiled the seat of American democracy,” Trump said, warning the individuals involved that they will “pay.”

The previous day, Trumped directed a crowd of his supporters to march to the Capitol. After that event turned into a violent riot that disrupted Congress as it worked to certify election results, Trump encouraged the rioters, telling them they were “special” and “we love you” in a video posted to Twitter .

pic.twitter.com/csX07ZVWGe

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 8, 2021

After yesterday’s video, Twitter locked Trump’s account and required him to delete a handful of tweets before having his access restored. On Thursday, Facebook froze his account for the remainder of his time in office.

Noting that he had explored “every legal avenue” to stay in power, Trump appeared to throw in the towel Thursday in his undemocratic crusade to overturn the legitimate results of the American election.

In the video Trump concedes for the first time, claiming that he will willingly leave office on January 20. “My focus now turns to ensuring a smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power,” Trump said.

 

Twitch disables Trump’s channel until the end of his term to ‘minimize harm’ during transition

By Brian Heater

Following a slate of temporary and permanent bans from a number of the top online platforms, popular video streaming service Twitch today confirmed that it has disabled the President of the United States’ account. A spokesperson for the site told TechCrunch,

In light of yesterday’s shocking attack on the Capitol, we have disabled President Trump’s Twitch channel. Given the current extraordinary circumstances and the President’s incendiary rhetoric, we believe this is a necessary step to protect our community and prevent Twitch from being used to incite further violence.

Trump’s suspension is indefinite at this time. “We are focused on minimizing harm leading up to the transition of government and will reassess his account after he leaves office,” a Twitch spokesperson told TechCrunch.
Twitch also temporarily suspended the President’s channel in June. At the time, it told TechCrunch, “Hateful conduct is not allowed on Twitch. In line with our policies, President Trump’s channel has been issued a temporary suspension from Twitch for comments made on stream, and the offending content has been removed.”
On Wednesday, the company removed the “PogChamp” emote featuring the face of gaming figure Ryan Gutierrez after he expressed support for pro-Trump rioters.

Twitch’s actions follow similar measures taken by Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, which over the course of the last day all placed new restrictions on the president’s account. Facebook also took the unprecedented step of suspending the president’s account for the remainder of his term, which ends on January 20.

The social platforms took action against the president’s accounts after he incited a group of his supporters in a riot at the Capitol. Trump encouraged a crowd to march toward Congress after a rally Wednesday in which the president again pushed false claims about a “stolen” election.

At the Capitol, the crowd swelled and easily overcame barriers in place by police, flooding into the building and looting lawmakers’ offices, resulting in a number of injuries and four deaths. Lawmakers were inside the building at the time and were forced to evacuate, later reconvening to certify the election results.

Developing…

 

Facebook and Instagram block #StormTheCapitol, lock Trump out of posting for 24 hours

By Taylor Hatmaker

After removing a video in which President Trump praised a violent group of his supporters who broke into the U.S. Capitol building, Facebook is rolling out a new set of rules in response to the day’s shocking events.

Both Facebook and Instagram also announced that the president would be locked out of posting to his accounts for 24 hours, escalating the consequences for his role in sowing Wednesday’s violent chaos considerably.

We've assessed two policy violations against President Trump's Page which will result in a 24-hour feature block, meaning he will lose the ability to post on the platform during that time.

— Facebook Newsroom (@fbnewsroom) January 7, 2021

We are locking President Trump’s Instagram account for 24 hours as well. https://t.co/HpA79eSbMe

— Adam Mosseri 😷 (@mosseri) January 7, 2021

Facebook says that the group of people who rushed into the Capitol Wednesday now fall under the company’s policies on “dangerous individuals and organizations” — a designation it uses to enforce rules against terrorists, mass murderers and violent hate groups. Last June, the company added the anti-government “boogaloo” movement, which encourages its adherents to take up arms and prepare for or incite a civil war, to the same list.

“The violent protests in the Capitol today are a disgrace,” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Facebook and Instagram have both begun blocking content posted to the #StormTheCapitol hashtag. Facebook says that it is in the process of removing any content praising the Trump supporters who infiltrated the U.S. Capitol as well as any other “incitement or encouragement” of Wednesday’s events, including photos and videos from the individuals’ perspectives.

“At this point they represent promotion of criminal activity which violates our policies,” Facebook VP of Integrity Guy Rosen and VP of Global Policy Management Monika Bickert wrote in a blog post. Rosen and Bickert called Wednesday’s events an “emergency” for the platform:

“Let us speak for the leadership team in saying what so many of us are feeling. We are appalled by the violence at the Capitol today. We are treating these events as an emergency. Our Elections Operations Center has already been active in anticipation of the Georgia elections and the vote by Congress to certify the election, and we are monitoring activity on our platform in real time.”

The company will also crack down on anyone organizing any kind of protest that violates Washington D.C.’s newly implemented curfew, even peaceful gatherings. Any “attempts to restage violence” will also be removed.

Facebook says that it is also scouring the platform for any posts calling for people to bring weapons to a location “not just in Washington but anywhere in the US — including protests.”

Facebook also made a few tweaks to “emergency measures” it put in place for the U.S. election, including requiring additional admin review for group posts and auto-disabling comments on group posts that attract a “high rate” of hate speech or encouragement of violence.

Facebook’s blog post also mentions previous crackdowns on militias, the Proud Boys and the “violence-inducing” QAnon conspiracy. Each group connected and grew on Facebook before eventually eventually being booted from the platform and all three had a presence at Wednesday’s violent attempt to overthrow the U.S. election results.

Facebook and YouTube remove Trump video calling extremists ‘special’

By Devin Coldewey

Facebook and YouTube have removed a video posted by President Trump telling rioters who stormed Congress “we love you.” The same video was left online but blocked from being shared by Twitter just minutes ago.

A great deal of video and content from the chaotic scene in Washington, D.C. can be found on social media, but Trump’s commentary was spare. His posts suggested the rioters “remain peaceful,” well after they had broken into the Capitol buildings and Congress had been evacuated.

At about 5 PM Eastern time, Trump posted a video in which he reiterated that the election was “stolen” but that “you have to go home now. Go home, we love you. You’re very special.”

On Twitter this was soon restricted, with a large warning that “this Tweet can’t be replied to, Retweeted, or liked due to a risk of violence.”

Guy Rosen, VP of Integrity at Facebook, wrote on Twitter that “this is an emergency situation and we are taking appropriate emergency measures, including removing President Trump’s video. We removed it because on balance we believe it contributes to rather than diminishes the risk of ongoing violence.”

At Facebook there is some precedent for one of Trump’s posts being removed. In August, the company took down a video in which Trump stated that children were “almost immune” to COVID-19, a dangerous and false claim not supported by science.

As Twitter and Facebook crafted bespoke policies to address threats to the election leading into November, YouTube mostly remained quiet. In early December, a month after the election, the company announced that it would begin removing content that made false claims that the U.S. election was affected by “widespread fraud or errors.” YouTube’s decision to remove the president’s video on Wednesday aligned with that policy.

“We removed a video posted this afternoon to Donald Trump’s channel that violated our policies regarding content that alleges widespread fraud or errors changed the outcome of the 2020 U.S. Election,” a YouTube spokesperson told TechCrunch, noting that the video is allowed if accompanied by proper context for “educational” value.

This story is developing.

Twitter adds huge pop-up warning to Trump video telling Capitol Hill rioters ‘we love you’

By Taylor Hatmaker

Twitter took a new action against President Trump’s account Wednesday, adding a large, pop-up warning message to his latest tweet addressing the ongoing chaos on Capitol Hill. The company has restricted engagement on the tweet, citing a “risk of violence.”

Trump’s new message to his mob of angry supporters came in video form, following an earlier tweet encouraging the crowd to be “peaceful.” In the video, Trump both affirmed his supporters’ conspiracy-rooted grievances and gently encouraged them to leave.

“I know your pain. I know you’re hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election and everyone knows it. Especially the other side. But you have to go home now,” Trump said. “Go home, we love you. You’re very special.”

pic.twitter.com/Pm2PKV0Fp3

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 6, 2021

A crowd of agitated Trump supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. Wednesday, storming into Congressional chambers and even invading the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The effort, connected to the “Stop the Steal” movement which Trump has regularly encouraged, happened as Congress was meeting to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral win.

Twitter has previously hidden the president’s rule-breaking tweets, affixed them with small warning labels and limited their engagement, but the large pop-up is a tool we hadn’t yet seen the company use. Twitter said today that it would “[explore] other escalated enforcement actions” in light of the situation unfolding at the Capitol. It’s not clear if the pop-up is appearing for all users and we’ve asked the company if this was one of the escalated measures it referred to.

“In regard to the ongoing situation in Washington, DC, Twitter’s Trust & Safety teams are working to protect the public conversation occurring on the service and will take action on any content that violates the Twitter Rules,” a Twitter spokesperson said. “Let us be clear: Threats of and calls to violence have no place on Twitter, and we will enforce our policies accordingly.”

FAA issues rules for supersonic jet flight testing in the US

By Darrell Etherington

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued new final rules to help pave the way for the re-introduction of supersonic commercial flight. The U.S. airspace regulator’s rules provide guidance for companies looking to gain approval for flight testing of supersonic aircraft under development, which includes startups like Boom Supersonic, which has just completed its sub-scale supersonic demonstrator aircraft and hopes to begin flight testing it this year.

Boom, which is in the process of finalizing a $50 million funding round and has raised around $150 million across prior fundraising efforts, rolled out its XB-1 supersonic demonstrator jet in October. This test aircraft is smaller than the final design of its Overture passenger supersonic commercial airliner, but will be used to prove out the fundamental technologies in flight that will then be used to construct Overture, which the company is targeting for a 2025 rollout with airline partners.

Other startups, including Hermeus, are also pursuing supersonic flight for commercial use. Meanwhile, SpaceX and others focused on spaceflight like Virgin Galactic are exploring not only supersonic flight, but how point-to-point flight that includes part of the trip at the outer edge of Earth’s atmosphere might reduce flight times dramatically and turn long-haul flights into much shorter, almost regional trips.

The FAA’s rules finalization comes in under the wire as the agency prepares for a transition when current U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao moves aside for incoming Biden pick Pete Buttigieg. You can read the full FAA final rule in the embed belt.

The NYSE will delist three Chinese telecoms after all

By Anthony Ha

The New York Stock Exchange announced this morning that it will be delisting three major Chinese telecom companies, a move that it first announced last week before seeming to reverse course on Monday.

This is all happening in response to the Trump administration’s broader order barring U.S. investment in companies that support the Chinese military. (Trump has been trying to ban TikTok through a separate order.)

Why the double reversal? To be fair to the NYSE, in its first reversal, the exchange had only said it would allow the telecoms to continue trading while it evaluates whether the executive order applies to them.

Now it seems that the further evaluation is complete. In today’s announcement, the NYSE said it’s making the decision after receiving “new specific guidance” confirming that yes, the executive order does apply to China Telecom, China Mobile and China Unicom.

As a result, trading of all three stocks will be suspended on the exchange as of 4 a.m. Eastern time on Monday, January 11. The move is seen as largely symbolic, as the telecoms’ trading volume via the NYSE only represents a small percentage of their total tradable shares.

Snoop Dogg’s Casa Verde Capital closes on $100 million as the cannabis industry bounces back

By Jonathan Shieber

Casa Verde Capital, the investment fund co-founded by cannabis connoisseur Snoop Dogg (also known as Calvin Broadus), has closed on $100 million for its second investment fund, according to documents filed with the SEC.

The fund, whose managing director, Karan Wadhera declined to comment for this article, has managed to raise more cash just as the market for cannabis-related products seems poised for another period of expansion.

“What happened to the public perception of the cannabis industry is not too dissimilar to the dotcom bubble of the late ’90s, where there was a lot of hype — a lot of it driven by public companies — and a lot of speculative trading and valuations that weren’t really founded in reality. [We’re talking about] projections multiple years out into the future, and then crazy revenue multiples on top of that,” Wadhera said of the last bust when he spoke to TechCrunch in July. “Things just got really frothy, and that eventually burst, and last April or May was sort of the apex of that moment. It’s when things started to trade off. And it’s been those names, the public names in particular, that have been hit particularly hard.”

Since then, the industry has come roaring back.

“Sitting here today, four-plus months into COVID, cannabis has really proved itself to be a non-cyclical industry. Cannabis has been deemed an essential business everywhere across the U.S. We had record sales in March, April and May, and the trend has continued,” Wadhera said in July. “And now that we are getting into an environment where governments are going to be looking for additional sources of tax revenue, the potential urgency around cannabis legalization is going to be there, which is going to be massively positive for the industry.”

There’s no indication of the target for the new venture capital fund, but with the new fundraising, Casa Verde more than doubles the size of its initial investment vehicle.

Since Broadus, Wadhera and a third partner and the founder of Cashmere Agency and Stampede Management Ted Chung launched their debut fund in 2018, weed businesses have endured a roller-coaster business cycle of boom and bust.

In spite of those market vagaries, Casa Verde has managed to build a portfolio that is now worth at least $200 million, according to people with knowledge of the firm. That money has come through several special purpose vehicles and other fundraising mechanisms raised alongside the flagship fund.

The overall market for cannabis and cannabinoid derivatives is expected to hit $34 billion by 2025 according to an analyst report seen by TechCrunch from the investment bank Cowen.

With Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota all passing adult-use cannabis legalization measures in their states, the investment bank predicted roughly 30% growth to their total addressable market estimates.

For its part, Casa Verde has always taken a broad view on the potential addressable market that cannabis and its chemical compounds could capture.

Nowhere is that more on view than in the firm’s latest investment in the sleep company, Proper.

“[Cannabis] is an input as well and its use case will go beyond how people think of cannabis stigmatically,” Wadhera said. “At its core, [Proper] is a company that’s helping us target this sleep epidemic. We think CBD and cannabis at large can play a big role in addressing that in a way that traditional products haven’t been able to.”

And what’s true for sleep is true for a number of other different applications as well, Wadhera has said in the past.

Casa Verde has already invested heavily across the pure-play opportunities in cannabis, with investments spanning delivery, supply chain logistics, brands and retail.

But the health benefits that cannabinoids could have for all kinds of ailments open up a much larger market — as do the broad consumer opportunities should Congress accede to the wishes of more than 60% of the American electorate and legalize recreational cannabis use nationally.

And, as Wadhera told us in July, a Biden administration presents a potentially much more positive regulatory environment for the industry than the previous Trump administration did.

“I think Biden will be very helpful. He has laid out many of the things that he wants, and [while] he isn’t taking it as far as full-scale legalization, he’s certainly in favor of full-scale decriminalization, [meaning] letting states have full authority over what happens with their businesses, and also the rescheduling of cannabis down from the current Schedule 1 level,” Wadhera had said. “So all of that will be incredibly helpful and will bring a lot more players who will feel comfortable investing in the space and, potentially, acquiring some of these businesses, too.”

 

Angling to be the Carfax for EV batteries, Recurrent raises $3.5 million

By Jonathan Shieber

The Seattle-based startup Recurrent said today it has closed on $3.5 million in financing as it looks to become the Carfax for electric vehicle batteries. 

The battery system is arguably the most important part of any electric vehicle and as the market for used electric vehicles expands, independent verification on battery life and range can help car buyers with their purchasing decision, the company said.

Investors including Wireframe Ventures, PSL Ventures, Vulcan Capital, Prelude Ventures, Powerhouse Ventures, Ascend.VC and the American Automobile Association’s (AAA) Washington chapter.

“Used car sales are at least double new car sales every year. With the third anniversary of Tesla’s Model 3 and the rapid introduction of new electric models across all vehicle makers, used EV sales are about to grow substantially,” said Paul Straub, Managing Director of Wireframe Ventures, said in a statement. “The timing is right for a first mover with a strong data and technology advantage to bring confidence and transparency to these transactions.”

The company said it will use the money to invest in continued product development as it refines its third-party condition reports for used electric vehicle shoppers and battery analytics stats for current electric vehicle owners.

Recurrent collects its data from 2,500 volunteer electric vehicle drivers who currently use the Recurrent service for monthly battery reports on their own vehicles

“While there’s clearly a market-driven opportunity here, we’re particularly excited about the potential impact of Biden administration’s policies on EV adoption,” said Emily Kirsch, Founder and Managing Partner of Powerhouse Ventures, said in a statement. “We’ve seen the huge impact that favorable policies are having in the EU and think there’s a lot of upside potential in a similar acceleration in the U.S.”

.

Trump’s odd new attack on Section 230 is probably doomed

By Taylor Hatmaker

Trump’s crusade against a key internet law known as Section 230 tends to pop up in unlikely places. His Twitter feed on Thanksgiving, for one. Or at times you’d think the nation would be hearing from its leader on the matter at hand: a worsening pandemic that’s killed nearly 270,000 people in the United States.

His latest threat to the law, which is widely regarded as the foundation for the modern internet, is unlikelier still. Now, Trump wants to veto the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a bill that allocates military funds each year, if it doesn’t somehow “terminate” Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

…..Therefore, if the very dangerous & unfair Section 230 is not completely terminated as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), I will be forced to unequivocally VETO the Bill when sent to the very beautiful Resolute desk. Take back America NOW. Thank you!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 2, 2020

In a tweet, Trump mysteriously called the law a “serious threat to our National Security & Election Integrity” and claimed that only big tech companies benefit from it, which is not true. Big tech’s lobbying group made the opposite argument in response to the president’s new threat.

“Repealing Section 230 is itself a threat to national security,” Internet Association Interim President and CEO Jon Berroya said in a statement. “The law empowers online platforms to remove harmful and dangerous content, including terrorist content and misinformation.”

Section 230, which protects internet companies from liability for the content they host, is currently at the center of a complex bipartisan reform effort — one that’s nowhere near a consensus, much less an agreement that Section 230 should be scrapped outright.

President Trump’s threat to block the NDAA stakes out a deeply unpopular position. The sweeping defense budget bill includes all kinds of funding for popular programs that benefit U.S. troops and veterans, making a veto of the bill if the terms of a totally unrelated demand aren’t met a strange gamble indeed. The fact that Trump’s latest anti-230 tactic comes during a lame duck session gives his threat even less bite.

In light of that, most of Congress has gone about business as usual so far. But close Trump ally Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) did signal his support for Trump’s position on Wednesday. “The NDAA does NOT contain any reform to Section 230 but DOES contain Elizabeth Warren’s social engineering amendment to unilaterally rename bases & war memorials w/ no public input or process,” Hawley tweeted. “I cannot support it.”

If history is any lesson, Trump isn’t afraid to make an empty threat, eventually pivoting to something else that catches his attention. But Section 230 — previously a fairly arcane piece of legislation that attracted little mainstream attention — has rankled Trump for the better part of the year, even inspiring an executive order back in May.

That executive order gets at the real reason behind Trump’s ire: He believes that social media companies, Twitter in particular, have unfairly censored him. While Twitter has continued to allow Trump to remain on its platform even as he flaunts the rules, the company now limits the reach of his most dangerous or misleading tweets — false claims about the election results, for example — and pairs them with warning labels.

Paradoxically, if Trump got his way, an outright repeal of Section 230 would open online platforms up to an insurmountable level of legal liability, either sinking social media companies outright or forcing them to severely restrict their users’ speech.

It’s possible that the president could dig his heels in, pushing the defense spending bill into President-elect Biden’s term. But it’s more likely that Trump will back off of his unusual demand, which so far has yet to attract much support or even acknowledgement from his own party. At the moment, Congress is also preoccupied with work on a second pandemic stimulus bill that would offer more financial support to the country.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who co-authored Section 230, remains unworried that a repeal could get stuffed into the multi-hundred billion dollar defense bill in the eleventh hour.

“I’d like to start for the Blazers, but it’s not going to happen either,” Wyden told TechCrunch. “It is pathetic that Trump refuses to help unemployed workers, while he spends his time tweeting unhinged election conspiracies and demanding Congress repeal the foundation of free speech online.”

Europe will push to work with the US on tech governance, post-Trump

By Natasha Lomas

The European Union said today that it wants to work with US counterparts on a common approach to tech governance — including pushing to standardize rules for applications of technologies like AI and pushing big tech to be more responsible for what their platforms amplify.

EU lawmakers are anticipating rebooted transatlantic relations under the incoming administration of president-elect Joe Biden .

The Commission has published a new EU-US agenda with the aim of encouraging what it bills as “global cooperation — based on our common values, interests and global influence” in a number of areas, from tackling the coronavirus pandemic to addressing climate change and furthering a Western geopolitical agenda.

Trade and tech policy is another major priority for the hoped for reboot of transatlantic relations, starting with an EU-US Summit in the first half of 2021.

Relations have of course been strained during the Trump era as the sitting US president has threatened the bloc with trade tariffs, berated European nations for not spending enough on defence to fulfil their Nato commitments and heavily implied he’d be a lot happier if the EU didn’t exist at all (including loudly supporting brexit).

The Commission agenda conveys a clear message that the bloc’s lawmakers are hopeful of a lot more joint working — toward common goals and interests — once the Biden administration takes office early next year.

Global AI standards?

On the tech front the Commission’s push is for alignment on governance.

“The EU and the US need to join forces as tech-allies to shape technologies, their use and their regulatory environment,” the Commission writes in the agenda. “Using our combined influence, a transatlantic technology space should form the backbone of a wider coalition of like-minded democracies with a shared vision on tech governance and a shared commitment to defend it.”

Among the proposals it’s floating is a “Transatlantic AI Agreement” — which it envisages as setting “a blueprint for regional and global standards aligned with our values”.

While the EU is working on a pan-EU framework to set rules for the use of “high risk” AIs, some US cities and states have already moved to ban the use of specific applications of artificial intelligence — such as facial recognition. So there’s potential to align on some high level principles or standards.

(Or, as the EU puts it: “We need to start acting together on AI — based on our shared belief in a human-centric approach and dealing with issues such as facial recognition.”)

 

“Our shared values of human dignity, individual rights and democratic principles make us natural partners to harness rapid technological change and face the challenges of rival systems of digital governance. This gives us an unprecedented window of opportunity to set a joint EU-US tech agenda,” the Commission also writes, suggesting there’s a growing convergence of views on tech governance.

Talks on tackling big tech

Here it also sees opportunity for the EU and the US to align on tackling big tech — saying it wants to open discussions on setting rules to tackle the societal and market impacts of platform giants.

“There is a growing consensus on both sides of the Atlantic that online platforms and Big Tech raise issues which threaten our societies and democracies, notably through harmful market behaviours, illegal content or algorithm-fuelled propagation of hate speech and disinformation,” it writes.

“The need for global cooperation on technology goes beyond the hardware or software. It is also about our values, our societies and our democracies,” the Commission adds. “In this spirit, the EU will propose a new transatlantic dialogue on the responsibility of online platforms, which would set the blueprint for other democracies facing the same challenges. We should also work closer together to further strengthen cooperation between competent authorities for antitrust enforcement in digital markets.”

The Commission is on the cusp of unveiling its own blueprint for regulating big tech — with a Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act due to be presented later this month.

Commissioners have said the legislative packages will set clear conditions on digital players, such as for the handling and reporting of illegal content, as well as setting binding transparency and fairness requirements.

They will also introduce a new regime of ex ante rules for so-called gatekeeper platforms that wield significant market power (aka big tech) — with such players set to be subject to a list of dos and don’ts, which could include bans on certain types of self-preferencing and limits on their use of third party data, with the aim of ensuring a level playing field in the future.

The bloc has also been considering beefing up antitrust powers for intervening in digital markets.

Given how advanced EU lawmakers are on proposals to regulate big tech vs US counterparts there’s arguably only a small window of opportunity for the latter to influence the shape of EU rules on (mostly US) big tech.

But the Commission evidently takes the view that rebooted relations, post-Trump, present an opportunity for it to influence US policy — by encouraging European-style platform rules to cross the pond.

It’s fond of claiming the EU’s data protection framework (GDPR) has set a global example that’s influenced lawmakers around the world. So its intent now looks to be to double down — and push to export a European approach to regulating big tech back where most of these giants are based (even as the bloc’s other institutions are still debating and amending the EU proposals).

Next-gen mobile security

Another common challenge the document points to is next-gen mobile connectivity. This has been a particular soapbox of Trump’s in recent years, with the ALL-CAPS loving president frequently taking to Twitter to threaten and bully allies into taking a tough line on allowing Chinese vendors as suppliers for next-gen mobile infrastructure, arguing they pose too great a national security risk.

“We are facing common challenges in managing the digital transition of our economies and societies. These include critical infrastructure, such as 5G, 6G or cybersecurity assets, which are essential for our security, sovereignty and prosperity — but also data, technologies and the role of online platforms,” the Commission writes, easing into the issue.

EU lawmakers go on to say they will put forward proposals “for secure 5G infrastructure across the globe and open a dialogue on 6G” — as part of what they hope will be “wider cooperation on digital supply chain security done through objective risk-based assessments”.

Instead of a blanket ban on Huawei as a 5G supplier the Commission opted to endorse a package of “mitigating measures” — via a 5G toolbox — at the start of this year, which includes requirements for carriers to beef up network security and risk profile assessments of suppliers.

So it looks to be hoping the US can be convinced in the value of a joint approach to standardizing these sorts of security assessments — aka, ‘no more nasty surprises’ — as a strategy to reduce the shocks and uncertainty that have hit digital supply chains during Trump’s presidency.

Increased cooperation around cybersecurity is another area where the EU says it will be pressing US counterparts — floating the idea of joint EU-US restrictions against attributed attackers from third countries in the future. (A proposal which, should it be taken up, could see coordinated sanctions against Russia, which has previously been identified by US and European intelligence agencies running malware attacks targeted at COVID-19 vaccine R&D, for example.)

Easing EU-US data flows

A trickier area for the tech side of the Commission’s plan to reboot transatlantic relations is EU-US data flows.

That’s because Europe’s top court torpedoed the Commission’s US adequacy finding this summer — stripping the country of a privileged status of ‘essential equivalence’ in data protection standards.

Without that there’s huge legal uncertainty and risk for US businesses that want to take EU citizens’ data out of the region for processing. And recent guidance from EU regulators on how to lawfully secure data transfers makes it clear that in some instances there simply won’t be any extra measures or contractual caveats which will fix the risk entirely.

The solution may in fact be data localization in the EU. (Something the Commission’s Data Governance Act proposal, unveiled last week, appeared to confirm by allowing for Member States to set conditions for reuse of the most sensitive types of data — such as prohibiting transfers to third countries.)

“We must also openly discuss diverging views on data governance and see how these can be overcome constructively,” the Commission writes on this thorny issue, adding: “The EU and the US should intensify their cooperation at bilateral and multilateral level to promote regulatory convergence and facilitate free data flow with trust on the basis of high standards and safeguards.”

Commissioners have warned before that there’s no quick fix for the EU-US data transfer issue — but a longer term solution would be a convergence of standards in the areas of privacy and data protection.

And, again, that’s an area where US states have been taking action. But the Commission’s agenda pushing for “regulatory convergence” to ease data flows sums to trying to convince US counterparts of the economic case for reforming Section 702 of FISA…

Digital tax and tech-trade cooperation

Digital tax reform is also inexorably on the EU agenda since no agreement has been possibly under Trump on this stickiest of tech policy issues.

It writes that both the EU and the US should “strongly commit to the timely conclusion of discussions on a global solution within the context of OECD and G20” — saying this is vital to create “a fair and modern economy, which provides market-based rewards for the best innovative ideas”.

“Fair taxation in the digital economy requires innovative solutions on both sides of the Atlantic,” it adds. 

Another proposal the EU is floating is to establish a EU-US Trade and Technology Council — to “jointly maximise opportunities for market-driven transatlantic collaboration, strengthen our technological and industrial leadership and expand bilateral trade and investment”.

It envisages the body focusing on reducing trade barriers; developing compatible standards and regulatory approaches for new technologies; ensuring critical supply chain security; deepening research collaboration and promoting innovation and fair competition — saying there should also be “a new common focus on protecting critical technologies”.

“We need closer cooperation on issues such as investment screening, Intellectual Property rights, forced transfers of technology, and export controls,” it adds.

The Commission announced its own Intellectual Property Action Plan last week, alongside the Data Governance Act proposal — which included support for SMEs to file patents. It also said it will consider whether reform the framework for filing standards essential patents, encouraging industry to engage in forums aimed at reducing litigation in the meanwhile.

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