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Today — August 6th 2020Your RSS feeds

More Chinese phone makers could lose US apps under Trump’s Clean Network

By Rita Liao

Over a third of the world’s smartphone sales come from Chinese vendors Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo. These manufacturers have thrived not only because they offer value-for-money handsets thanks to China’s supply chains, but they also enjoy a relatively open mobile ecosystem, in which consumers in most countries can freely access the likes of Google, Instagram and WhatsApp.

That openness is under attack as the great U.S.-China tech divide inches closer to reality, which can cause harm on both sides.

The Trump Administration’s five-pronged Clean Network initiative aims to strip away Chinese phone makers’ ability to pre-install and download U.S. apps. Under U.S. sanctions, Huawei already lost access to key Google services, which has dealt a blow to its overseas phone sales. Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi, and other Chinese phone makers could suffer the same setback as Huawei, should the Clean Network applies to them.

For years, China has maintained a closed-up internet with the Great Firewall restricting a bevy of Western services, often without explicitly presenting the reasons for censorship. Now the U.S. has a plan that could potentially keep Chinese apps off the American internet.

The Clean Network program was first announced in April as part of the Trump Administration’s efforts in “guarding our citizens’ privacy and our companies’ most sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party.”

Beijing said Thursday it’s firmly opposed to U.S. restrictions on Chinese tech firms and blasted that the U.S. uses such actions to preserve its technology hegemony.

Many on Chinese social media compare Trump’s Clean Network proposal to routine cyberspace crackdowns in China, which regulators say are to purge pornography, violence, gambling, and other ‘illegal’ activities. Others that espouse a free internet lament its looming demise.

(1/2) A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that internet used to make me smile

But August makes me shiver
With every app I’d have delivered
Bad news on state dot government
I couldn’t reach Pompeo’s statement

— 一天世界 (@yitianshijieipn) August 6, 2020

It’s unclear when the rules would be implemented and how they would be enforced. The program also aims to remove ‘untrusted’ Chinese apps from US app stores. A TikTok ban is looking less likely as Microsoft nears a buyout, but other Chinese apps also have a big presence in the U.S. Many, like WeChat and Weibo, target the diaspora community, while players like Likee and Zynn, owned by Chinese firms, are making waves among local users.

Chinese firms are already hedging. Some like TikTok have set up overseas data centers. Others register their entities abroad and maintain U.S. offices, while still resorting to China for cheaper engineering talents. It’s simply impractical to investigate — and hard to determine — every app’s Chinese origin.

Under the program, carriers like China Mobile are not allowed to connect with U.S. telecoms networks, which could prevent these services from offering U.S. roaming to Chinese travelers.

The initiative also tells U.S. companies not to store information on Chinese cloud services like Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu. Chinese cloud providers don’t find many clients in the U.S., perhaps except when they are hosting data for their own services, such as Tencent games serving American users.

Lastly, the framework wants to ensure U.S. undersea cables connecting to the world “are not subverted for intelligence gathering by the PRC at hyper-scale.”

Such sweeping restrictions, if carried out, will almost certainly trigger retaliation from China. But what bargaining chips are left for Beijing? Apple and Tesla are the few American tech behemoths with significant business interest in China.

Twitter locked the Trump campaign out of its account for sharing COVID-19 misinformation

By Taylor Hatmaker

Twitter took action against the official Trump campaign Twitter account Wednesday, freezing @TeamTrump’s ability to tweet until it removed a video in which the president made misleading claims about the coronavirus. In the video clip, taken from a Wednesday morning Fox News interview, President Trump makes the unfounded assertion that children are “almost immune” from COVID-19.

“If you look at children, children are almost — and I would almost say definitely — but almost immune from this disease,” Trump said. “They don’t have a problem. They just don’t have a problem.”

While Trump’s main account @realDonaldTrump linked out to the @TeamTrump tweet in violation, it did not directly share it. In spite of some mistaken reports that Trump’s own account is locked, at this time his account had not been subject to the same enforcement action as the Trump campaign account, which appears to have regained its ability to tweet around 6PM PT.

“The @TeamTrump Tweet you referenced is in violation of the Twitter Rules on COVID-19 misinformation,” Twitter spokesperson Aly Pavela said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “The account owner will be required to remove the Tweet before they can Tweet again.”

Facebook also took its own unprecedented action against President Trump’s account late Wednesday, removing the post for violating its rules against harmful false claims that any group is immune to the virus.

The president’s false claims were made in service of his belief that schools should reopen their classrooms in the fall. In June, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made similar unscientific claims, arguing that children are “stoppers of the disease.”

In reality, the relationship between children and the virus is not yet well understood. While young children seem less prone to severe cases of COVID-19, the extent to which they contract and spread the virus isn’t yet known. In a new report examining transmission rates at a Georgia youth camp, the CDC observed that “children of all ages are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection and, contrary to early reports, might play an important role in transmission.”

Yesterday — August 5th 2020Your RSS feeds

YouTube bans thousands of Chinese accounts to combat ‘coordinated influence operations’

By Devin Coldewey

YouTube has banned a large number of Chinese accounts it said were engaging in “coordinated influence operations” on political issues, the company announced today; 2,596 accounts from China alone were taken down from April to June, compared with 277 in the first three months of 2020.

“These channels mostly uploaded spammy, non-political content, but a small subset posted political content primarily in Chinese similar to the findings in a recent Graphika report, including content related to the U.S. response to COVID-19,” Google posted in its Threat Analysis Group bulletin for Q2.

The Graphika report, entitled “Return of the (Spamouflage) Dragon: Pro Chinese Spam Network Tries Again,” can be read here. It details a large set of accounts on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social media that began to be activated early this year that appeared to be part of a global propaganda push:

The network made heavy use of video footage taken from pro-Chinese government channels, together with memes and lengthy texts in both Chinese and English. It interspersed its political content with spam posts, typically of scenery, basketball, models, and TikTok videos. These appeared designed to camouflage the operation’s political content, hence the name.

It’s the “return” of this particular spam dragon because it showed up last fall in a similar form, and whoever is pulling the strings appears undeterred by detection. New, sleeper and stolen accounts were amassed again and deployed for similar purposes, though now — as Google notes — with a COVID-19 twist.

When June rolled around, content was also being pushed related to the ongoing protests regarding the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and other racial justice matters.

The Google post notes that the Chinese campaign, as well as others from Russia and Iran, were multi-platform, as similar findings were reported by Facebook, Twitter and cybersecurity outfits like FireEye.

Having taken down 186 channels in April, 1,098 in May and 1,312 in June, we may be in for a bumper crop in the summer as well. Watch with care.

Technologists: Consider Canada

By Walter Thompson
Tim Bray Contributor
Tim Bray is a software technologist based in Vancouver, B.C. and a former vice president and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon Web Services.
Iain Klugman Contributor
Iain Klugman is CEO of Communitech, an innovation hub in Waterloo, Ontario, and a signatory to the Tech for Good Declaration.

America’s technology industry, radiating brilliance and profitability from its Silicon Valley home base, was until recently a shining beacon of what made America great: Science, progress, entrepreneurship. But public opinion has swung against big tech amazingly fast and far; negative views doubled between 2015 and 2019 from 17% to 34%. The list of concerns is long and includes privacy, treatment of workers, marketplace fairness, the carnage among ad-supported publications and the poisoning of public discourse.

But there’s one big issue behind all of these: An industry ravenous for growth, profit and power, that has failed at treating its employees, its customers and the inhabitants of society at large as human beings. Bear in mind that products, companies and ecosystems are built by people, for people. They reflect the values of the society around them, and right now, America’s values are in a troubled state.

We both have a lot of respect and affection for the United States, birthplace of the microprocessor and the electric guitar. We could have pursued our tech careers there, but we’ve declined repeated invitations and chosen to stay at home here in Canada . If you want to build technology to be harnessed for equity, diversity and social advancement of the many, rather than freedom and inclusion for the few, we think Canada is a good place to do it.

U.S. big tech is correctly seen as having too much money, too much power and too little accountability. Those at the top clearly see the best effects of their innovations, but rarely the social costs. They make great things — but they also disrupt lives, invade privacy and abuse their platforms.

We both came of age at a time when tech aspired to something better, and so did some of today’s tech giants. Four big tech CEOs recently testified in front of Congress. They were grilled about alleged antitrust abuses, although many of us watching were thinking about other ills associated with some of these companies: tax avoidance, privacy breaches, data mining, surveillance, censorship, the spread of false news, toxic byproducts, disregard for employee welfare.

But the industry’s problem isn’t really the products themselves — or the people who build them. Tech workers tend to be dramatically more progressive than the companies they work for, as Facebook staff showed in their recent walkout over President Donald Trump’s posts.

Big tech’s problem is that it amplifies the issues Americans are struggling with more broadly. That includes economic polarization, which is echoed in big-tech financial statements, and the race politics that prevent tech (among other industries) from being more inclusive to minorities and talented immigrants.

We’re particularly struck by the Trump administration’s recent moves to deny opportunities to H-1B visa holders. Coming after several years of family separations, visa bans and anti-immigrant rhetoric, it seems almost calculated to send IT experts, engineers, programmers, researchers, doctors, entrepreneurs and future leaders from around the world — the kind of talented newcomers who built America’s current prosperity — fleeing to more receptive shores.

One of those shores is Canada’s; that’s where we live and work. Our country has long courted immigration, but it’s turned around its longstanding brain-drain problem in recent years with policies designed to scoop up talented people who feel uncomfortable or unwanted in America. We have an immigration program, the Global Talent Stream, that helps innovative companies fast-track foreign workers with specialized skills. Cities like Toronto, Montreal, Waterloo and Vancouver have been leading North America in tech job creation during the Trump years, fuelled by outposts of the big international tech companies but also by scaled-up domestic firms that do things the Canadian way, such as enterprise software developer OpenText (one of us is a co-founder) and e-commerce giant Shopify.

“Canada is awesome. Give it a try,” Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke told disaffected U.S. tech workers on Twitter recently.

But it’s not just about policy; it’s about underlying values. Canada is exceptionally comfortable with diversity, in theory (as expressed in immigration policy) and practice (just walk down a street in Vancouver or Toronto). We’re not perfect, but we have been competently led and reasonably successful in recognizing the issues we need to deal with. And our social contract is more cooperative and inclusive.

Yes, that means public health care with no copays, but it also means more emphasis on sustainability, corporate responsibility and a more collaborative strain of capitalism. Our federal and provincial governments have mostly been applauded for their gusher of stimulative wage subsidies and grants meant to sustain small businesses and tech talent during the pandemic, whereas Washington’s response now appears to have been formulated in part to funnel public money to elites.

American big tech today feels morally adrift, which leads to losing out on talented people who want to live the values Silicon Valley used to stand for — not just wealth, freedom and the few, but inclusivity, diversity and the many. Canada is just one alternative to the U.S. model, but it’s the alternative we know best and the one just across the border, with loads of technology job openings.

It wouldn’t surprise us if more tech refugees find themselves voting with their feet.

Dear Sophie: Can I bypass H-1B and sponsor a grad for a green card?

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.”

“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:

A very bright and promising foreign national who graduated from a U.S. university has been working for our firm and just received a STEM OPT extension. We would like to keep her on after her STEM OPT ends. We registered her in this year’s H-1B lottery, but unfortunately, she wasn’t selected.

Given the challenges of getting an H-1B through the lottery and the #h1bvisaban, how can we bypass the H-1B and potentially sponsor her for a green card?

— Eager in Emeryville

Dear Eager,

Happy to hear you’re willing to sponsor a promising graduate from an American university for a green card. Sounds like you’re interested in exploring the EB-2 or EB-3 green card with the PERM process. For additional resources, feel free to check out my recent podcast on PERM.

Just because U.S. immigration policy often runs counter to retaining the best and the brightest college graduates in the U.S. doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. Some options exist for these talented folks and the companies that want to hire them, even though many employment-based green cards require candidates who are outstanding in their field. Recent graduates often haven’t yet built up their work experience and credentials, but there can be paths forward.

Although it may present some immigration risks to the candidate that should be weighed carefully in collaboration with an experienced business immigration attorney, many employers have been doing as you suggested: sidestepping the H-1B visa and directly pursuing a green card. This is often due to the extremely competitive H-1B lottery and high denial rates for initial H-1B petitions and extensions. Also, a moratorium on all green cards, H-1B, H-2B, J and L visas for individuals currently outside the U.S. is in effect until the end of this year. This now makes it nearly impossible for most employers to sponsor individuals to come to the U.S. unless their work is in the national interest or essential to the U.S. food supply chain.

So, many people are seeking solutions. First, the basics: Because your STEM OPT employee is already in the U.S., and the H-1B lottery now only costs $10 to register a candidate, I suggest that your company continue to enter her in the lottery as a backup option in case her F-1 STEM OPT status ends before you can secure her a green card.

The green cards for which most recent graduates would be eligible require the sponsoring employer to go through the PERM labor certification process before filing a green card petition. Separately there are other green cards for extraordinary ability which I’ve also written about.

PERM, which stands for Program Electronic Review Management, is the system used for applying for labor certification from the U.S. Department of Labor . Please speak with an attorney about the timing of this process and consider any risks to your employee’s personal immigration situation given her current F-1 nonimmigrant status.

Labor certification must be submitted to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) with EB-2 and EB-3 green card petitions. Labor certification confirms that no U.S. workers are qualified and available to accept the job offered to the green card candidate and employing the green card candidate won’t adversely affect the wages and working conditions of American workers.

Without knowing more about your STEM OPT employee’s background and qualifications, I would surmise that she might be able to qualify for one of these employment-based green cards:

Both of these green card categories require the employer sponsor to go through the PERM labor certification process. Because PERM is a complex process and will determine if you can proceed with sponsoring your employee for a green card, I recommend that you work with an experienced immigration attorney.

In general, PERM requires employers to take these steps:

  • Determine in detail the duties and minimum requirements of the position
  • File a prevailing wage request
  • Go through an extensive recruitment process
  • Get a certification

The duties and requirements of the position should be detailed and typical for your company — not tailored to the green card candidate. These duties and requirements will be used for job posting during the recruitment process.

In more detail, employers must file a prevailing wage request to the National Prevailing Wage Center of the Labor Department. The prevailing wage is determined based on the position, the geographical location of the position and economic conditions. The employer must pay the prevailing wage or higher for the position to ensure that hiring a foreign national would not adversely affect the wages of U.S. workers in similar positions. This process can take a few months.

The most time-consuming of these steps is the recruitment process to determine whether qualified U.S. workers are available for the position. To do that, an employer must advertise the job in two Sunday editions of a local newspaper, submit a job order with the state workforce agency (CalJOBS in California) and file an internal company notice of the filing. Plan ahead with your legal team to consider running some things in parallel to decrease the overall time.

For professional positions, employers need to use three additional recruitment methods, such as using a job recruiting website, an employment firm, a job fair, a posting at a career placement center at a local university or college, or incentives for employee referrals.

The job order with the state workforce agency must run for at least 30 consecutive days. The internal job posting must be up for 10 consecutive business days. Employers must allow 30 days for candidates to apply and interview U.S. workers who apply.

Generally, if there are no qualified applicants, employers then file ETA Form 9089 to the Labor Department. No supporting documents need to be submitted with the form, but the documents must be maintained for five years, especially as there could be an audit. The Labor Department will send a verification email to the employer along with a sponsorship questionnaire, which the employer should fill out within a week of receiving it. It’s important to not miss this email!

The PERM process can take anywhere from three to eight months as long as the Labor Department does not audit your case. The Labor Department conducts two types of audit: random audits and targeted audits. Random audits are done to make sure employers are following the PERM procedure.

Some common reasons for targeted audits could include:

  • The employer recently laid-off employees
  • The candidate appears unqualified for the position
  • The job does not require a bachelor’s degree
  • A company executive is related to the candidate

The Labor Department usually issues an audit notice within six months of receiving the labor certification application, and the employer must respond within 30 days. An audit does not mean an employer’s PERM will not be approved. However, it can add nine to 18 months to the process. If an employer does not respond to the audit notice, the Labor Department will deem the case abandoned, and for any future PERM applications, the employer may be required to conduct supervised recruitment.

Once the Labor Department approves the PERM Labor Certification for that position, you must file the green card petition to USCIS within 180 days. If your employee was born in any country other than China or India and you are sponsoring her for an EB-2 green card, you can file the I-140 green card petition and the I-485 adjustment of status from F-1 STEM OPT to EB-2 at the same time, assuming the “priority date” is still current.

If eligible, your STEM OPT employee could also enter the diversity green card lottery in the fall to increase her chances of getting a green card. Each year, 50,000 green cards are reserved for individuals born in countries that have low rates of immigration to the U.S.

Let me know if you have any other questions. Good luck!

— 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!

US tech needs a pivot to survive

By Walter Thompson
James Stranko Contributor
James Stranko is a writer and independent advisor to American tech companies expanding abroad. He was on the founding team of Fuel, McKinsey’s practice serving VC firms and pre-IPO tech leaders.
Daire Hickey Contributor
Daire Hickey is managing partner of 150Bond, a strategic advisory firm based between New York and Dublin, and co-founder of Web Summit.

Last month, American tech companies were dealt two of the most consequential legal decisions they have ever faced. Both of these decisions came from thousands of miles away, in Europe. While companies are spending time and money scrambling to understand how to comply with a single decision, they shouldn’t miss the broader ramification: Europe has different operating principles from the U.S., and is no longer passively accepting American rules of engagement on tech.

In the first decision, Apple objected to and was spared a $15 billion tax bill the EU said was due to Ireland, while the European Commission’s most vocal anti-tech crusader Margrethe Vestager was dealt a stinging defeat. In the second, and much more far-reaching decision, Europe’s courts struck a blow at a central tenet of American tech’s business model: data storage and flows.

American companies have spent decades bundling stores of user data and convincing investors of its worth as an asset. In Schrems, Europe’s highest court ruled that masses of free-flowing user data is, instead, an enormous liability, and sows doubt about the future of the main method that companies use to transfer data across the Atlantic.

On the surface, this decision appears to be about data protection. But there is a choppier undertow of sentiment swirling in legislative and regulatory circles across Europe. Namely that American companies have amassed significant fortunes from Europeans and their data, and governments want their share of the revenue.

What’s more, the fact that European courts handed victory to an individual citizen while also handing defeat to one of the commission’s senior leaders shows European institutions are even more interested in protecting individual rights than they are in propping up commission positions. This particular dynamic bodes poorly for the lobbying and influence strategies that many American companies have pursued in their European expansion.

After the Schrems ruling, companies will scramble to build legal teams and data centers that can comply with the court’s decision. They will spend large sums of money on pre-built solutions or cloud providers that can deliver a quick and seamless transition to the new legal reality. What companies should be doing, however, is building a comprehensive understanding of the political, judicial and social realities of the European countries where they do business — because this is just the tip of the iceberg.

American companies need to show Europeans — regularly and seriously — that they do not take their business for granted.

Europe is an afterthought no more

For many years, American tech companies have treated Europe as a market that required minimal, if any, meaningful adaptations for success. If an early-stage company wanted to gain market share in Germany, it would translate its website, add a notice about cookies and find a convenient way to transact in euros. Larger companies wouldn’t add many more layers of complexity to this strategy; perhaps it would establish a local sales office with a European from HQ, hire a German with experience in U.S. companies or sign a local partnership that could help it distribute or deliver its product. Europe, for many small and medium-sized tech firms, was little more than a bigger Canada in a tougher time zone.

Only the largest companies would go to the effort of setting up public policy offices in Brussels, or meaningfully try to understand the noncommercial issues that could affect their license to operate in Europe. The Schrems ruling shows how this strategy isn’t feasible anymore.

American tech must invest in understanding European political realities the same way they do in emerging markets like India, Russia or China, where U.S. tech companies go to great lengths to adapt products to local laws or pull out where they cannot comply. Europe is not just the European Commission, but rather 27 different countries that vote and act on different interests at home and in Brussels.

Governments in Beijing or Moscow refused to accept a reality of U.S. companies setting conditions for them from the outset. After underestimating Europe for years, American companies now need to dedicate headspace to considering how business is materially affected by Europe’s different views on data protection, commerce, taxation and other issues.

This is not to say that American and European values on the internet differ as dramatically as they do with China’s values, for instance. But Europe, from national governments to the EU and to courts, is making it clear that it will not accept a reality where U.S. companies assume that they have license to operate the same way they do at home. Where U.S. companies expect light taxation, European governments expect revenue for economic activity. Where U.S. companies expect a clear line between state and federal legislation, Europe offers a messy patchwork of national and international regulation. Where U.S. companies expect that their popularity alone is proof that consumers consent to looser privacy or data protection, Europe reminds them that (across the pond) the state has the last word on the matter.

Many American tech companies understand their commercial risks inside and out but are not prepared for managing the risks that are out of their control. From reputation risk to regulatory risk, they can no longer treat Europe as a like-for-like market with the U.S., and the winners will be those companies that can navigate the legal and political changes afoot. Having a Brussels strategy isn’t enough. Instead American companies will need to build deeper influence in the member states where they operate. Specifically, they will need to communicate their side of the argument early and often to a wider range of potential allies, from local and national governments in markets where they operate, to civil society activists like Max Schrems .

The world’s offline differences are obvious, and the time when we could pretend that the internet erased them rather than magnified them is quickly ending.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Autonomous vehicle reporting data is driving AV innovation right off the road

By Walter Thompson
Grace Strickland Contributor
Grace Strickland is an attorney with more than six years of experience representing technology clients in cutting-edge industries, including autonomous transportation.
John McNelis Contributor
John McNelis is an intellectual property partner and leader of the autonomous transportation and shared mobility practice at Fenwick & West; he also chairs the California Technology Council’s Autonomous Transportation Initiative.

At the end of every calendar year, the complaints from autonomous vehicle companies start piling up. This annual tradition is the result of a requirement by the California Department of Motor Vehicles that AV companies deliver “disengagement reports” by January 1 of each year showing the number of times an AV operator had to disengage the vehicle’s autonomous driving function while testing the vehicle.

However, all disengagement reports have one thing in common: their usefulness is ubiquitously criticized by those who have to submit them. The CEO and founder of a San Francisco-based self-driving car company publicly stated that disengagement reporting is “woefully inadequate … to give a meaningful signal about whether an AV is ready for commercial deployment.” The CEO of a self-driving technology startup called the metrics “misguided.” Waymo stated in a tweet that the metric “does not provide relevant insights” into its self-driving technology or “distinguish its performance from others in the self-driving space.”

1/7 We appreciate what the California DMV was trying to do when creating this requirement, but the disengagement metric does not provide relevant insights into the capabilities of the Waymo Driver or distinguish its performance from others in the self-driving space.

— Waymo (@Waymo) February 26, 2020

Why do AV companies object so strongly to California’s disengagement reports? They argue the metric is misleading based on lack of context due to the AV companies’ varied testing strategies. I would argue that a lack of guidance regarding the language used to describe the disengagements also makes the data misleading. Furthermore, the metric incentivizes testing in less difficult circumstances and favors real-world testing over more insightful virtual testing.

Understanding California reporting metrics

To test an autonomous vehicle on public roads in California, an AV company must obtain an AV Testing Permit. As of June 22, 2020, there were 66 Autonomous Vehicle Testing Permit holders in California and 36 of those companies reported autonomous vehicle testing in California in 2019. Only five of those companies have permits to transport passengers.

To operate on California public roads, each permitted company must report any collision that results in property damage, bodily injury, or death within 10 days of the incident.

There have been 24 autonomous vehicle collision reports in 2020 thus far. However, though the majority of those incidents occurred in autonomous mode, accidents were almost exclusively the result of the autonomous vehicle being rear-ended. In California, rear-end collisions are almost always deemed the fault of the rear-ending driver.

The usefulness of collision data is evident — consumers and regulators are most concerned with the safety of autonomous vehicles for pedestrians and passengers. If an AV company reports even one accident resulting in substantial damage to the vehicle or harm to a pedestrian or passenger while the vehicle operates in autonomous mode, the implications and repercussions for the company (and potentially the entire AV industry) are substantial.

However, the usefulness of disengagement reporting data is much more questionable. The California DMV requires AV operators to report the number and details of disengagements while testing on California public roads by January 1 of each year. The DMV defines this as “how often their vehicles disengaged from autonomous mode during tests (whether because of technical failure or situations requiring the test driver/operator to take manual control of the vehicle to operate safely).”

Operators must also track how often their vehicles disengaged from autonomous mode, and whether that disengagement was the result of software malfunction, human error, or at the option of the vehicle operator.

AV companies have kept a tight lid on measurable metrics, often only sharing limited footage of demonstrations performed under controlled settings and very little data, if any. Some companies have shared the occasional “annual safety report,” which reads more like a promotional deck than a source of data on AV performance. Furthermore, there are almost no reporting requirements for companies doing public testing in any other state. California’s disengagement reports are the exception.

This AV information desert means that disengagement reporting in California has often been treated as our only source of information on AVs. The public is forced to judge AV readiness and relative performance based on this disengagement data, which is incomplete at best and misleading at worst.

Disengagement reporting data offers no context

Most AV companies claim that disengagement reporting data is a poor metric for judging advancement in the AV industry due to a lack of context for the numbers: knowing where those miles were driven and the purpose of those trips is essential to understanding the data in disengagement reports.

Some in the AV industry have complained that miles driven in sparsely populated areas with arid climates and few intersections are miles dissimilar from miles driven in a city like San Francisco, Pittsburgh, or Atlanta. As a result, the number of disengagements reported by companies that test in the former versus the latter geography are incomparable.

It’s also important to understand that disengagement reporting requirements influence AV companies’ decisions on where and how to test. A test that requires substantial disengagements, even while safe, would be discouraged, as it would make the company look less ready for commercial deployment than its competitors. In reality, such testing may result in the most commercially ready vehicle. Indeed, some in the AV industry have accused competitors of manipulating disengagement reporting metrics by easing the difficulty of miles driven over time to look like real progress.

Furthermore, while data can look particularly good when manipulated by easy drives and clear roads, data can look particularly bad when it’s being used strategically to improve AV software.

Let’s consider an example provided by Jack Stewart, a reporter for NPR’s Marketplace covering transportation:

“Say a company rolls out a brand-new build of their software, and they’re testing that in California because it’s near their headquarters. That software could be extra buggy at the beginning, and you could see a bunch of disengagements, but that same company could be running a commercial service somewhere like Arizona, where they don’t have to collect these reports.

That service could be running super smoothly. You don’t really get a picture of a company’s overall performance just by looking at this one really tight little metric. It was a nice idea of California some years ago to start collecting some information, but it’s not really doing what it was originally intended to do nowadays.”

Disengagement reports lack prescriptive language

The disengagement reports are also misleading due to a lack of guidance and uniformity in the language used to describe the disengagements. For example, while AV companies used a variety of language, “perception discrepancies” was the most common term used to describe the reason for a disengagement — however, it’s not clear that the term “perception discrepancies” has a set meaning.

Several operators used the phrase “perception discrepancy” to describe a failure to detect an object correctly. Valeo North America described a similar error as “false detection of object.” Toyota Research Institute almost exclusively described their disengagements vaguely as “Safety Driver proactive disengagement,” the meaning of which is “any kind of disengagement.” Whereas, Pony.ai described each instance of disengagement with particularity.

Many other operators reported disengagements that were “planned testing disengagements” or that were described with such insufficient particularity as to be virtually meaningless.

For example, “planned disengagements” could mean the testing of intentionally created malfunctions, or it could simply mean the software is so nascent and unsophisticated that the company expected the disengagement. Similarly, “perception discrepancy” could mean anything from precautionary disengagements to disengagements due to extremely hazardous software malfunctions. “Perception discrepancy,” “planned disengagement” or any number of other vague descriptions of disengagements make comparisons across AV operators virtually impossible.

So, for example, while it appears that a San Francisco-based AV company’s disengagements were exclusively precautionary, the lack of guidance on how to describe disengagements and the many vague descriptions provided by AV companies have cast a shadow over disengagement descriptions, calling them all into question.

Regulations discourage virtual testing

Today, the software of AV companies is the real product. The hardware and physical components — lidar, sensors, etc. — of AV vehicles have become so uniform, they’re practically off-the-shelf. The real component that is being tested is software. It’s well known that software bugs are best found by running the software as often as possible; road testing simply can’t reach the sheer numbers necessary to find all the bugs. What can reach those numbers is virtual testing.

However, the regulations discourage virtual testing as the lower reported road miles would seem to imply that a company is not road-ready.

Jack Stewart of NPR’s Marketplace expressed a similar point of view:

“There are things that can be relatively bought off the shelf and, more so these days, there are just a few companies that you can go to and pick up the hardware that you need. It’s the software, and it’s how many miles that software has driven both in simulation and on the real roads without any incident.”

So, where can we find the real data we need to compare AV companies? One company runs over 30,000 instances daily through its end-to-end, three-dimensional simulation environment. Another company runs millions of off-road tests a day through its internal simulation tool, running driving models that include scenarios that it can’t test on roads involving pedestrians, lane merging, and parked cars. Waymo drives 20 million miles a day in its Carcraft simulation platform — the equivalent of over 100 years of real-world driving on public roads.

One CEO estimated that a single virtual mile can be just as insightful as 1,000 miles collected on the open road.

Jonathan Karmel, Waymo’s product lead for simulation and automation, similarly explained that Carcraft provides “the most interesting miles and useful information.”

Where we go from here

Clearly there are issues with disengagement reports — both in relying on the data therein and in the negative incentives they create for AV companies. However, there are voluntary steps that the AV industry can take to combat some of these issues:

  1. Prioritize and invest in virtual testing. Developing and operating a robust system of virtual testing may present a high expense to AV companies, but it also presents the opportunity to dramatically shorten the pathway to commercial deployment through the ability to test more complex, higher risk, and higher number scenarios.
  2. Share data from virtual testing. Voluntary disclosure of virtual testing data will reduce reliance on disengagement reports by the public. Commercial readiness will be pointless unless AV companies have provided the public with reliable data on AV readiness for a sustained period.
  3. Seek the greatest value from on-road miles. AV companies should continue using on-road testing in California, but they should use those miles to fill in the gaps from virtual testing. They should seek the greatest value possible out of those slower miles, accept the higher percentage of disengagements they will be required to report, and when reporting on those miles, describe their context in particularity.

With these steps, AV companies can lessen the pain of California’s disengagement reporting data and advance more quickly to an AV-ready future.

UK commits to redesign visa streaming algorithm after challenge to ‘racist’ tool

By Natasha Lomas

The U.K. government is suspending the use of an algorithm used to stream visa applications after concerns were raised the technology bakes in unconscious bias and racism.

The tool had been the target of a legal challenge. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) and campaigning law firm Foxglove had asked a court to declare the visa application streaming algorithm unlawful and order a halt to its use, pending a judicial review.

The legal action had not run its full course but appears to have forced the Home Office’s hand as it has committed to a redesign of the system.

A Home Office spokesperson confirmed to us that from August 7 the algorithm’s use will be suspended, sending us this statement via email: “We have been reviewing how the visa application streaming tool operates and will be redesigning our processes to make them even more streamlined and secure.”

Although the government has not accepted the allegations of bias, writing in a letter to the law firm: “The fact of the redesign does not mean that the [Secretary of State] accepts the allegations in your claim form [i.e. around unconscious bias and the use of nationality as a criteria in the streaming process].”

The Home Office letter also claims the department had already moved away from use of the streaming tool “in many application types.” But it adds that it will approach the redesign “with an open mind in considering the concerns you have raised.”

The redesign is slated to be completed by the autumn, and the Home Office says an interim process will be put in place in the meanwhile, excluding the use of nationality as a sorting criteria.

HUGE news. From this Friday, the Home Office's racist visa algorithm is no more! 💃🎉 Thanks to our lawsuit (with @JCWI_UK) against this shadowy, computer-driven system for sifting visa applications, the Home Office have agreed to “discontinue the use of the Streaming Tool”.

— Foxglove (@Foxglovelegal) August 4, 2020

The JCWI has claimed a win against what it describes as a “shadowy, computer-driven” people-sifting system — writing on its website: “Today’s win represents the UK’s first successful court challenge to an algorithmic decision system. We had asked the Court to declare the streaming algorithm unlawful, and to order a halt to its use to assess visa applications, pending a review. The Home Office’s decision effectively concedes the claim.”

The department did not respond to a number of questions we put to it regarding the algorithm and its design processes — including whether or not it sought legal advice ahead of implementing the technology in order to determine whether it complied with the U.K.’s Equality Act.

“We do not accept the allegations Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants made in their Judicial Review claim and whilst litigation is still on-going it would not be appropriate for the Department to comment any further,” the Home Office statement added.

The JCWI’s complaint centered on the use, since 2015, of an algorithm with a “traffic-light system” to grade every entry visa application to the U.K.

“The tool, which the Home Office described as a digital ‘streaming tool’, assigns a Red, Amber or Green risk rating to applicants. Once assigned by the algorithm, this rating plays a major role in determining the outcome of the visa application,” it writes, dubbing the technology “racist” and discriminatory by design, given its treatment of certain nationalities.

“The visa algorithm discriminated on the basis of nationality — by design. Applications made by people holding ‘suspect’ nationalities received a higher risk score. Their applications received intensive scrutiny by Home Office officials, were approached with more scepticism, took longer to determine, and were much more likely to be refused.

“We argued this was racial discrimination and breached the Equality Act 2010,” it adds. “The streaming tool was opaque. Aside from admitting the existence of a secret list of suspect nationalities, the Home Office refused to provide meaningful information about the algorithm. It remains unclear what other factors were used to grade applications.”

Since 2012 the Home Office has openly operated an immigration policy known as the “hostile environment” — applying administrative and legislative processes that are intended to make it as hard as possible for people to stay in the U.K.

The policy has led to a number of human rights scandals. (We also covered the impact on the local tech sector by telling the story of one U.K. startup’s visa nightmare last year.) So applying automation atop an already highly problematic policy does look like a formula for being taken to court.

The JCWI’s concern around the streaming tool was exactly that it was being used to automate the racism and discrimination many argue underpin the Home Office’s “hostile environment” policy. In other words, if the policy itself is racist, any algorithm is going to pick up and reflect that.

“The Home Office’s own independent review of the Windrush scandal, found that it was oblivious to the racist assumptions and systems it operates,” said Chai Patel, legal policy director of the JCWI, in a statement. “This streaming tool took decades of institutionally racist practices, such as targeting particular nationalities for immigration raids, and turned them into software. The immigration system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to monitor for such bias and to root it out.”

“We’re delighted the Home Office has seen sense and scrapped the streaming tool. Racist feedback loops meant that what should have been a fair migration process was, in practice, just ‘speedy boarding for white people.’ What we need is democracy, not government by algorithm,” added Cori Crider, founder and director of Foxglove. “Before any further systems get rolled out, let’s ask experts and the public whether automation is appropriate at all, and how historic biases can be spotted and dug out at the roots.”

In its letter to Foxglove, the government has committed to undertaking Equality Impact Assessments and Data Protection Impact Assessments for the interim process it will switch to from August 7 — when it writes that it will use “person-centric attributes (such as evidence of previous travel,” to help sift some visa applications, further committing that “nationality will not be used.”

Some types of applications will be removed from the sifting process altogether during this period.

“The intent is that the redesign will be completed as quickly as possible and at the latest by October 30, 2020,” it adds.

Asked for thoughts on what a legally acceptable visa streaming algorithm might look like, internet law expert Lilian Edwards told TechCrunch: “It’s a tough one… I am not enough of an immigration lawyer to know if the original criteria applied re suspect nationalities would have been illegal by judicial review standard anyway even if not implemented in a sorting algorithm. If yes then clearly a next generation algorithm should aspire only to discriminate on legally acceptable grounds.

“The problem as we all know is that machine learning can reconstruct illegal criteria — though there are now well known techniques for evading that.”

The ethical principles need to apply to the immigration policy, not just the visa algorithm. The problem is the racist immigration system dressed up in false computerised objectivity

— Javier Ruiz (@javierruiz) August 4, 2020

“You could say the algorithmic system did us a favour by confronting illegal criteria being used which could have remained buried at individual immigration officer informal level. And indeed one argument for such systems used to be ‘consistency and non-arbitrary’ nature. It’s a tough one,” she added.

Earlier this year the Dutch government was ordered to halt use of an algorithmic risk scoring system for predicting the likelihood social security claimants would commit benefits or tax fraud — after a local court found it breached human rights law.

In another interesting case, a group of U.K. Uber drives are challenging the legality of the gig platform’s algorithmic management of them under Europe’s data protection framework — which bakes in data access rights, including provisions attached to legally significant automated decisions.

FCC invites public comment on Trump’s attempt to nerf Section 230

By Devin Coldewey

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has decided to ask the public for its thoughts on an attempt initiated in Trump in May to water down certain protections that arguably led to the creation of the modern internet economy. The nakedly retaliatory order seems to be, legally speaking, laughable, and could be resolved without public input — but the FCC wants your opinion, so you may as well give it to them.

You can submit your comment here at the FCC’s long-suffering electronic comment filing system, but before you do so, perhaps acquaint yourself with a few facts.

Section 230 essentially prevents companies like Facebook and Google from being liable for content they merely host, as long as they work to take down illegal content quickly. Some feel these protections has given the companies the opportunity to manipulate speech on their platforms — Trump felt targeted by a fact-check warning placed by Twitter on his unsupported claims of fraud in mail-in warning.

To understand the order itself and see commentary from the companies that would be affected, as well as Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who co-authored the law in the first place, read our story from the day Trump signed the order. (Wyden called it “plainly illegal.”)

For a bipartisan legislative approach that actually addresses shortcomings in Section 230, check out the PACT Act announced in June. (Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) says they’re approaching the law “with a scalpel rather than a jackhammer.”)

More relevant to the FCC’s proceedings, however, are the comments of sitting commissioner Brendan Starks, who questioned the order’s legality and ethics, likening it to a personal vendetta intended to intimidate certain companies. As he explained:

The broader debate about Section 230 long predates President Trump’s conflict with Twitter in particular, and there are so many smart people who believe the law here should be updated. But ultimately that debate belongs to Congress. That the president may find it more expedient to influence a five-member commission than a 538-member Congress is not a sufficient reason, much less a good one, to circumvent the constitutional function of our democratically elected representatives.

Incidentally, Starks may be who Pai is referring to in a memo announcing the commentary period. “I strongly disagree with those who demand that we ignore the law and deny the public and all stakeholders the opportunity to weigh in on this important issue. We should welcome vigorous debate—not foreclose it,” Pai wrote.

This may be a reference to Commissioner Starks’s suggestion that the FCC address the order quickly and authoritatively: “If, as I suspect it ultimately will, the petition fails at a legal question of authority, I think we should say it loud and clear, and close the book on this unfortunate detour,” he said. After all, public opinion doesn’t count for much if the order has no legal effect to begin with and the FCC doesn’t even have to consider how it might revisit Section 230.

Whatever the case, the proposal is ready for you to comment on it. To do so, visit this page and click, in the box on the left, “+New Filing” or “+Express” — the first is if you would like to submit a document or evidence in support of your opinion, and the second is if you just want to explain your position in plain text. Remember, this information will be filed publicly, so anything you put in those fields — name, address and everything — will be visible online.

To be clear, you’re commenting on the  NTIA proposal that the FCC draw up new rules regarding Section 230, which the executive order compelled that organization to send, not the executive order itself.

As with the net neutrality debacle, the FCC does not have to take your opinion into account, or reality for that matter. The comment period lasts 45 days, after which the item will likely go to internal deliberations at the Commission.

What Microsoft should demand in exchange for its ‘payment’ to the US government for TikTok

By Danny Crichton

In one of the crazier news stories (and in 2020, that is saying something), President Donald Trump said today during a media availability event that in order for the U.S. government to sign off on a potential Microsoft/TikTok deal, “a very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the Treasury of the United States,” based on my colleague Alex Wilhelm’s rough transcript.

That seems nearly impossible to actually execute in reality (corporations don’t just quote-unquote bribe the U.S. government to get their docs signed), but let’s actually take it at face value: Should Microsoft pay, and if so, what should they demand in any bargain with the U.S. government?

First and foremost, some context. ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, has been valued at more than $100 billion. ByteDance owns a suite of apps, including TikTok’s China-focused and extraordinarily popular sister app Douyin, as well as Toutiao, an extremely successful news reader, so teasing out TikTok’s valuation by itself is difficult. Adding to the ambiguity is the regulatory chaos of the deal, and the fact that many big-pocketed buyers like Facebook are out of the running on straight antitrust grounds.

So let’s say for illustration that the price is at least $10 billion, if not tens of billions of dollars. How should Microsoft be thinking about a negotiation with the government here?

The overriding objective should be reducing Microsoft’s post-acquisition regulatory headaches. TikTok has well-documented privacy problems, which also involve teens — an area where regulations are acutely sensitive. When Facebook faced privacy problems on its own platform, it finally agreed to a settlement of $5 billion last year with the Federal Trade Commission to unify all the different cases and bring them to a conclusion. It also agreed to a set of restrictions as well as a monitoring mechanism to ensure compliance. TikTok (formerly Musical.ly) actually agreed to an FTC privacy settlement of $5.7 million last year.

On top of privacy, you have the export licensing issues from Treasury, data protection concerns on Capitol Hill due to the app’s China provenance and potential antitrust issues from Justice.

So, it’s time to cut a deal. Offer the U.S. government a beefy sum — perhaps even a few billion depending on the final purchase price — as a “settlement fine” in exchange for immunity to all claims regarding privacy, trade and antitrust regulations prior to TikTok’s acquisition. Perhaps have a setup where Microsoft has 180 days post-acquisition to clear up privacy issues, move data to presumably its own Azure cloud in the United States, and put in even better parental controls than TikTok has already introduced in the past few months.

Far from being an atrocious setup, this could massively limit Microsoft’s long-term liabilities, and also allow the company to avoid a lot of the escrow and holdbacks typical of large M&A deals, where an acquirer will not pay out the full acquisition price upfront lest future lawsuits bear significant costs.

It’s terrible for the president himself to get involved in such a matter in such a direct and indelicate way. But now that President Trump has opened the door — it’s actually perhaps not as bad of a path forward as it looks like at first glance. He has the power to push for an inter-agency process, line up all the government stakeholders and accept a level of immunity in exchange for a “fine.”

A settlement can’t solve every problem. TikTok, like all internet apps in the United States, is not just governed by federal law but also by state laws around privacy, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act. A settlement with the federal government may still conflict with relevant state laws. In addition, agreeing to a large payment in the heart of election season would be deeply controversial, possibly on both sides of the aisle.

Nonetheless, this deal is by no means typical, and no one should think it will have a typical M&A process. While few lawyers would recommend engaging with the federal government over what is effectively a strange form of highway robbery — there are decent fiduciary reasons to just pay the toll, acquire some liability protection and move on.

Trump calls TikTok a hot brand, demands a chunk of its sale price

By Alex Wilhelm

Today the president appeared to bless the budding Microsoft-TikTok deal, continuing his evolution on a possible transaction. After stating last Friday that he’d rather see TikTok banned than sold to a U.S.-based company, Trump changed his tune over the weekend. TikTok is owned by China-based company ByteDance, which owns a portfolio of apps and services.

A weekend phone call between Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, and the American premier appeared to change his mind, leading to the software company sharing publicly on Sunday that it was pursuing a deal.

Then today the president, endorsing a deal between an American company and ByteDance over TikTok, also said that he expects a chunk of the sale price to wind up in the accounts of the American government.

The American president has long struggled with basic economic concepts. For example, who pays tariffs. But to see Trump state that he expects to receive a chunk of a deal between two private companies that he is effectively forcing to the altar is surreal.

To fully grok his take, we’ve roughly transcribed the pertinent few minutes of his explanation from this morning, when asked about the weekend call with Microsoft’s Nadella. It’s worth a read (bold highlights are TechCrunch’s):

We had a great conversation, uh, he called me, to see whether or not, uh, how I felt about it. And I said look, it can’t be controlled, for security reasons, by China. Too big, too invasive. And it can’t be. And here’s the deal. I don’t mind if, whether it’s Microsoft or somebody else — a big company, a secure company, a very American company — buy it.

It’s probably easier to buy the whole thing than to buy 30% of it. ‘Cause I say how do you do 30%? Who’s going to get the name? The name is hot, the brand is hot. And who’s going to get the name? How do you do that if it’s owned by two different companies? So, my personal opinion was, you are probably better off buying the whole thing rather than buying 30% of it. I think buying 30% is complicated.

And, uh, I suggested that he can go ahead, he can try. We set a date, I set a date, of around September 15th, at which point it’s going to be out of business in the United States. But if somebody, whether it’s Microsoft or somebody else, buys it, that’ll be interesting.

I did say that if you buy it, whatever the price is, that goes to whoever owns it, because I guess it’s China, essentially, but more than anything else, I said a very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the Treasury of the United States. Because we’re making it possible for this deal to happen. Right now they don’t have any rights, unless we give it to ’em. So if we’re going to give them the rights, then it has to come into, it has to come into this country.

It’s a little bit like the landlord-tenant [relationship]. Uh, without a lease, the tenant has nothing. So they pay what is called “key money” or they pay something. But the United States should be reimbursed, or should be paid a substantial amount of money because without the United States they don’t have anything, at least having to do with the 30%.

So, uh, I told him that. I think we are going to have, uh, maybe a deal is going to be made, it’s a great asset, it’s a great asset. But it’s not a great asset in the United States unless they have the approval of the United States.

So it’ll close down on September 15th, unless Microsoft or somebody else is able to buy it, and work out a deal, an appropriate deal, so the Treasury of the — really the Treasury, I suppose you would say, of the United States, gets a lot of money. A lot of money.

‘Made in America’ is on (government) life support, and the prognosis isn’t good

By Danny Crichton

Intel and Boeing, two of the pillars of American industry.

Intel makes some of the most impressive chips in the world and has for decades, driving high-performance computing to its limits while supporting a company with a market cap today of $200 billion and supporting more than 110,000 employees. Meanwhile, Boeing remains a global leader in aviation despite retiring the 747, with $66 billion in revenue backing a market cap of $90 billion and hosting more than 153,000 workers.

Like pillars of classic Rome though, they exist merely as a shell of their former function. They are weathered, tired and crumbling, and it doesn’t seem likely that they can hold up the American economy the way they have over the past generation, nor keep the country on the frontier of innovation any longer in their critical industries.

Deindustrialization has swept through the United States for decades of course. It started with the easy stuff — textiles, consumer widgets, appliances — but the sophistication of export-driven economies like Korea, Germany, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Turkey and others has pushed more and more of the manufacturing stack overseas.

Now, even the absolute finest pillars of American exceptionalism in industry are under deep threat. Intel is in the worst position between the two. The company’s bombshell announcement that it is delaying its next-generation 7nm node and would also begin outsourcing some of its manufacturing caused waves on Wall Street, with the stock down nearly 20% in just two weeks. Analysts increasingly believe that Taiwan contract fab TSMC is taking a multi-year lead over Intel’s technology.

Meanwhile, Boeing had and continues to have that whole 737 MAX debacle since the plane model’s first crash in October 2018. That was debilitating enough, but then you add coronavirus and the global collapse of travel on top of it, and the company’s very prospects are looking quite a bit more endangered than anyone could have anticipated two years ago.

For the United States, the first step in ameliorating these slow-motion train wrecks has been the classic policy crisis tool of the bailout. Intel is maybe the most prominent example of America’s death in semiconductors, but it is hardly alone. So Congress is targeting the industry for heavy incentives to try to bridge the gap. Two weeks ago, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) got widespread bipartisan support for his amendment to this year’s defense budget bill that would appropriate billions of dollars of funding and incentives to propel American chipmaking.

Meanwhile, Boeing sought a $60 billion government bailout, before finding a debt consortium of private investors to fund operations. Yet, Boeing gets a different kind of support from the U.S. government, given that a third of its revenues are from defense sales, which is obviously heavily driven by the Pentagon. A government bailout for the manufacturer this year is still not out of the question.

Smothering dollars on these companies isn’t going to change the rot that is spreading within. Both companies have transformed engineering-focused cultures to profit-driven maximization, while facing keen global competition that has chipped away at their advantages. Boeing is again safer than Intel — Airbus hasn’t been much better when it comes to innovation and bad strategic decisions like the A380, and China’s airframe manufacturer Commercial Aircraft Corporation isn’t really ready for prime time, although it is certainly progressing.

It’s not that industrial policy fails, it’s that American industrial policy seems flagrantly incompetent.

Taiwan has made semiconductor excellence a critical aspect of its national economy. Korea has made cultural productions like K-pop and K-drama a top government priority, now a massive growing global industry. China has perhaps most notoriously made supporting flagship industries a key bedrock of its economic development, to much success over the past three decades. And the list continues.

What’s the difference? In one word: strategy. In each of these successful cases, governments spurred the creation of new industries through incentives and policy changes, while ensuring that these industries built up differentiated intellectual property that would pay back those incentives in spades.

The United States on the other hand always jumps in with the handouts at precisely the wrong time. Rather than incentivizing the creation of new industries, it runs to the industries in decline and sprays that cash fertilizer across the weeds and deadwood.

While Congress spends billions to try to salvage the chip industry, the Trump administration announced a $75 million quantum computing initiative aimed at spurring America to the frontiers of advanced computing. While China is investing billions in 5G wireless technologies, America is offering hundreds of thousands of dollars to start rural test beds.

As an economic superpower, the United States has lived in a world where it was simply, by default, the best at whatever it and its citizens wanted to be. Industries could be fragmented, government policy could be out-of-whack, schools and universities could be horrifically inefficient in training, but none of that mattered since few other countries could compete across such a breadth of industry.

Today, plenty of countries can compete in manufacturing and cultural production. And not only can they compete, but they are willing to go all-in to ensure that they succeed in these endeavors. Taiwan is not great at semiconductors because of a random constellation of factors, it’s great because it pushed its entire economy, education system and government to prioritize its excellence on top of changes like the opening of the global economy and the rise of China.

Intel and Boeing still have a chance of course, they are still massive companies with cash and talent. Yet, one can’t help look at the history of every other collapsed manufacturing company in the U.S. and not feel a startling sense of déjà vu. We didn’t get it right those times — do we have it in us to do it right this time?

A few words for DHS agents who have no intention of becoming immigration whistleblowers

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.

In the wake of last week’s report that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security compiled “-intelligence reports” on journalists who published leaked documents, I’m concerned about all the DHS agents who might now be afraid of retaliation for being a whistleblower — perhaps one who legally leaks information such as, let’s say, unclassified information about government activities related to immigration. Not that you’re thinking of doing that, of course.

Assuming the disclosure of the information to a journalist is legal (for which I would suggest it would be prudent to consult an attorney who is well-versed in national security law, freedom of speech constitutional claims and government accountability), there are several steps that someone — not you, of course, but someone — might want to take to avoid retaliation for this completely legal act.

Assuming disclosure is legal and there are no criminal consequences that could be faced, one might also want to address whether the leak could result in employment-based discipline or retaliation. For this reason, seeking proper legal counsel and ensuring anonymity would probably be in the best interest of a would-be whistleblower, who is totally, definitely, not you or any of your colleagues.

For the sake of argument, however, let’s say someone actually were to be interested in bringing to light an egregious misdeed ordered by the federal government that goes against the freedoms the United States was founded on. In that situation, someone — not me, of course, but someone — might point them toward organizations that exist for those considering taking whistleblowing action. Organizations like Whistleblower Aid, which offers free aid and alternatives to illicit leaks, and Whistleblower.org, which has been engaging in whistleblower advocacy, education and litigation since 1977. Not to say that YOU would use these resources, per se, but it might be fun to take a look at them in a hypothetical, “Haha what if I were to expose gross injustices being perpetuated by my department?” kind of way. Probably not on a work computer, though — not that it matters, of course! (I’m sure it’s of no interest to you, but one interested in understanding how the disclosure of information can come to light might be interested in checking out the information that can be found here: How to Organize Your Workplace Without Getting Caught.)

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Sophie, if there is such a need to protect whistleblowers with this sensitive information, doesn’t that suggest there are systemic issues at play? Would someone (who isn’t you) even recommend that a DHS employee (who isn’t me) partake in this historically necessary and honorable action?

Such a person, if they were to read this article, might feel proud of the fact that since the leak, DHS has ceased compiling these “intelligence reports” and ordered an inquiry:

UPDATE: After we published our story on DHS compiling intelligence reports about journalists’ articles, the acting secretary, Chad Wolf, has halted the practice and ordered an inquiry. Statement from DHS spokesman: pic.twitter.com/RDMB90feVn

— Shane Harris (@shaneharris) July 31, 2020

In times such as these, times in which children in custody at the border are again at risk of being separated from parents during the COVID-19 pandemic; when the freedoms this country was built on seem to be under attack from within; when an employee of the DHS might find themselves handling the fragile responsibility of truth at the crossroads of powerlessness and obligation — in times like these, sometimes drastic actions must be undertaken to ensure that America is a country we can believe in.

This is the onus on someone — not you, of course, but some someone — who has a whistle to blow, and perhaps an identity to protect.

Secret documents from US antitrust probe reveal big tech’s plot to control or crush the competition

By Taylor Hatmaker

Nearly 500 pages of evidence were made public during the House Judiciary’s marathon hearing this week on potential anti-competitive actions by Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple. We’ve collected them here with added context and an omnibus, searchable version for anyone who’d rather not juggle four dozen documents.

The emails, chat logs, and other communications listed here trickled out online as the hearings went on. Many are internal documents that were never meant to be exposed publicly — for instance, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg telling a colleague that “we can likely always just buy any competitive startups” shortly before acquiring Instagram in 2012.

Congressional investigators wield considerable power in compelling the release of such documents, even against the will of the companies, which would almost certainly never provide such self-incriminating information to journalists. As such these documents contain all manner of useful information, most of it providing insight into the the otherwise opaque thinking of executives as their companies made key decisions about growing their businesses — and hint at strategies traditionally employed by monopolies.

While there isn’t anything that could be called a smoking gun, these are not the only evidence the investigation collected, only those it needed to make public for this hearing. Legislators spoke of other documents and also of interviews and testimony that corroborated their allegations, or contradicted companies’ accounts of events.

While there are too many documents to discuss individually, we’ve noted some interesting exchanges we’ve come across in the files for each company. A combined, searchable mega-file of the internal documents can be found at the bottom of this post. It’s not in any particular order, so it’s best to sift through by looking for key terms, key figures and company names.

Amazon

Image Credits: Screenshot via House Judiciary Committee

The documents contain internal communications about Amazon’s pursuit and eventual purchase of Diapers.com, which also came up in the hearing itself. Aggressive price cutting by the former forced the latter out of business, allowing it to be snapped up and integrated. In one document, we see that Amazon discusses setting up special automatic pricing rules that more aggressively undercut Diapers.com prices compared to other sellers of diapers and toys.

Another document shows that Amazon lost in the neighborhood of $200M in a single quarter during this period, showing that it was willing to take on losses at a scale that the smaller business couldn’t possibly withstand — a classic monopolistic tactic only possible if you command a giant chunk of a market. Rep. Scanlon (D-PA) pushed Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on this at about the 2 hour 15 minute mark.

Jeff Bezos, spurred by a TechCrunch post, asks what the plan is for Diapers.com’s next play, Soap.com, and receives a summary of the existing plan, which “undercuts the core diapers business for diapers.com,” and “will slow the adoption of soap.com.” This email shows how Amazon acknowledged that it has positioned itself as “the place to sell globally,” particularly with manufacturers from China who wanted direct access to American consumers. A deck of Diapers.com metrics mentions “predatory pricing” and Amazon as very specific threats to their short- and long-term plans.

Regarding Amazon’s purchase of Ring, which might have emerged as a smart home competitor, this document shows senior management discussing being “willing to pay for market position as it’s hard to catch the leader.” Another email offers more context on Amazon’s thoughts on the acquisition of Ring (at the time referred to as Project Darwin) before it went through. Bezos himself says in this exchange that “we’re buying market position — not technology. And that market position and momentum is very valuable.”

Facebook

Image Credits: Screenshot via House Judiciary Committee

In an email exchange from March 2012, the month before Facebook announced it would buy Instagram, Zuckerberg shares a conversation about China’s “strong culture of cloning things quickly.”

In the original conversation, sent to Facebook Product lead Chris Cox and CTO Mike Schroepfer, a high level Facebook employee describes how they met with the founders of Chinese company RenRen who described how their own company copied apps like Voxer and Pinterest. The author comments that it’s easier for those companies to get products out quickly “since they’re copying other people” and goes on to suggest how a similar strategy could work for Facebook. Forwarding the email to Sheryl Sandberg, Zuckerberg comments “You’ll probably find this interesting and agree.”

Another set of documents captures Mark Zuckerberg’s private courtship of Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom. Tellingly, a side conversation between Systrom and a former Facebook product VP shows that the Instagram creator was concerned about Zuckerberg going into “destroy mode” if Systrom didn’t agree to sell. There’s also more insight about how Facebook saw the Instagram deal and how the company decided to keep it as separate product.

The Facebook documents also include some conversation about the WhatsApp acquisition, which it nicknames “Project Cobalt” including the minutes from a board meeting four days before Facebook went public with its acquisition plans. “Ms. Sandberg emphasized that the high concentration of the mobile operating system market — with two providers serving the vast majority of smartphone users around the world — poses a significant strategic threat to [Facebook’s] business…” the minutes state.

 

Apple

Image Credits: Screenshot via House Judiciary Committee

Apple’s isn’t as well-known for crushing competitors as the other three companies, but it certainly likes to wring revenues out of its software partners while handling maintaining a tight grip on both its hardware and software. Many of the documents focus on Apple’s internal strategies responding to criticism on issues like the right-to-repair controversy and developers unhappy with the obsessive level of control Apple exercises over its products.

The Apple documents also detail how the App Store creator gives preferential treatment to some companies on the commissions it takes. In 2016 emails between Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Apple SVP Eddy Cue, Apple looks to have struck a special deal over the Amazon Prime Video app for iOS and Apple TV.

An email exchange back in 2011 also details how Apple mulled raising commissions to 40% for the first year for subscription apps. “I think we may be leaving money on the table if we just asked for about 30% of the first year of sub,” Cue wrote. This didn’t come to pass, but the correspondence does provide insight into some questions about setting its own rules that the company didn’t really have an answer to in the hearing.

Google

Image Credits: Screenshot via House Judiciary Committee

In a confidential internal presentation from 2006, Google raises alarm about the “orthogonal threat” posed by social networks and other websites with “high entertainment value,” like YouTube.

“… The team developed an opinion that these social networking sites will ultimately represent a threat to our search business as people will spend more time on those sites and ultimately may do most searches from the search boxes available there. They aren’t direct competitors, but they may displace us in end-user time tradeoff.”

The presentation goes on to argue that Google should “own the search box on the entertainment sites” and develop its own social networking solution so those sites don’t win out. That same year, Google announced its landmark acquisition of YouTube.

Other email chains from around the same time capture Google’s internal thinking in the run-up to buying YouTube.

“YouTube’s value to us would be a smart team and a platform we could build from (maybe enough to justify an acquisition on its own), but would we really be able to preserve their community once we start reviewing and pulling copyright or inappropriate content? If anything, that’s likely to cast a poor light on Google,” then-Google Director of Product Hunter Walk wrote, in an interesting moment foreshadowing Google’s current content moderation woes.

After floating a $200 million deal for the company and having YouTube turn up its nose, Google eventually went on to buy the now-ubiquitous video sharing platform for $1.65 billion.

You can read and search through the documents here:

House Antitrust Subcommitte… by TechCrunch on Scribd

Amazon says police demands for customer data have gone up

By Zack Whittaker

Amazon has said the number of demands for user data made by U.S. federal and local law enforcement have increased during the first half of 2020 than during the same period a year earlier.

The disclosure came in the company’s latest transparency report, published Thursday.

The figures show that Amazon received 23% more subpoenas and search warrants, and a 29% increase in court orders compared to the first half of 2019. That includes data collected from its Amazon Echo devices and its Kindle and Fire tablets.

Breaking those figures down, Amazon said it received:

  • 2,416 subpoenas, turning over all of partial user data in 70% of cases;
  • 543 search warrants, turning over all of partial user data in 79% of cases;
  • 146 court orders, turning over all of partial user data in 74% of cases.

The number of requests to the company’s cloud services, Amazon Web Services, also went up compared to a year earlier.

But it’s not clear what caused the rise in U.S. government demands for user data. A spokesperson for Amazon did respond to a request for comment.

But the company saw the number of overseas requests drop by about one-third compared to the same period a year earlier. Amazon rejected 92% of the 177 overseas requests it received, turning over partial user data in 10 cases and all requested data in four cases.

Amazon also said it received between 0 and 249 national security requests, flat from previous reports. Justice Department rules on disclosing classified requests only allow companies to respond in numerical ranges.

Amazon was one of the last major tech companies to issue a transparency report, despite mounting pressure from privacy advocates. But its report remains far lighter on details compared to its Silicon Valley rivals.

The company’s Ring smart camera division, despite facing criticism for its poor security practices its close relationships with law enforcement, has yet to release any data related to police requests for user data.

In antitrust hearing, Zuckerberg admits Facebook has copied its competition

By Sarah Perez

At the House Antitrust Subcommittee hearings this afternoon, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was directly questioned about his company’s strategy of copying competitors’ app and features, and even threatening to do so as a negotiation tactic amid M&A discussions. In his response, Zuckerberg was forced to admit the obvious: that Facebook, he said, has “certainly adapted features that others have led in.”

However, he denied any characterization claiming Facebook used such tactics in an anti-competitive way — for example, to pressure a company to sell to Facebook instead of trying to compete with it.

In one particular line of questioning between Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Facebook’s CEO, she asked specifically about the company’s billion-dollar acquisition of Instagram in 2012. The M&A deal had been already been brought up repeatedly throughout the hearing as an example of Facebook buying its way into expanded market power.

Jayapal led into the questions around Instagram by first painting a picture of a company where execs agreed that copying from other apps was a viable business strategy.

She specifically referenced emails from 2012 between Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg where the CEO had written that by moving faster, Facebook could “prevent our competitors from getting footholds.” Sandberg had responded that “it is hard not to agree it that is better to do more and move faster, especially if that means you don’t have competitors build products that takes some of our users.” A PM had also chimed in that they would love to see Facebook being “even more aggressive and nimble” in copying competitors, Jayapal noted.

Mark Zuckerberg

Image Credits: TechCrunch/screenshot

The emails had hinted at the birth of Facebook’s strategy around copying its competition, as they detailed meetings between a high-level Facebook employee and the Renren founders as well as Robin Li from China’s Baidu.

The employee had learned of the overall culture of cloning products quickly in the Chinese app market.  Renren had built its own version of Pinterest and Tumblr, the emails said, as well as games, a music product and more. And Tencent QQ had then just released a messaging app similar to the walkie-talkie app Voxer in the U.S. It was pointed out that maybe it was easier to move quickly because these companies were “just copying other people,” the email suggested.

Zuckerberg had forwarded the email to Sandberg, noting “you’ll probably find this interesting and agree.” And she did.

Under questioning, Zuckerberg declined to say how many companies Facebook had copied since the 2012 email exchange, bristling that he didn’t agree with the premise of the question.

“Our job is to make sure that we build the best services for people to connect with all the people they care about. And a lot of that is done by innovating and by building new things…,” he began, before being cut off.

Jayapal then asked if Facebook had ever threatened to clone a product from another company while attempting to acquire it.

“Not that I recall,” Zuckerberg said.

However, it seems Facebook had threatened to use its “Facebook Camera” app against Instagram ahead of the latter’s acquisition, Jayapal noted. In a chat with Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom, Zuckerberg said Facebook was developing its own photo strategy, and how we engage now will also determine how much we’re partners versus competitors down the line, she explained. In an email chain, Zuckerberg had told Systrom that “at some point, you’ll need to figure out how you actually want to work with us.”

The Instagram founder had also confided in an investor that he felt Zuckerberg’s comments were a threat, Jayapal said, and was concerned that Facebook would go into “destroy mode” if he didn’t sell Instagram.

Zuckerberg didn’t deny the conversation, but disagreed again with the characterization, saying it was clear that this was a space the two companies would compete in.

Jayapal asked also if a similar tactic was used against Snapchat in its attempts to acquire the company.

“I don’t remember those specific conversations,” Zuckerberg responded. “But that was also an area where was very clear that we were going to be building something,” he said.

Jayapal concluded her time by stating that she did believe Facebook was a monopoly because of this and other behavior.

“I think the question again here is when the dominant platform threatens as potential rivals, that should not be a normal business practice. Facebook is a case study, in my opinion, in monopoly power because your company harvests and monetizes our data, and then your company uses that data to spy on competitors, and to copy acquire and kill rivals,” she said.

Build products that improve the lives of inmates

By Richard Dal Porto
Nik Milanovic Contributor
Nik Milanovic is a fintech and financial inclusion enthusiast, with a decade of work across mobile payments, online lending, credit and microfinance. The opinions expressed in his articles do not reflect those of his employer(s).

Those of us who work in technology should always be asking ourselves, “Who we are really building for?” Do we design products to make ourselves more comfortable, or do we innovate to be the change in the world we want to see? One group perennially left out of tech conversations — moved out of sight and out of mind — is the 2.3 million people in the U.S. prison system. As tech becomes such a critical driver of progress in the world, we should be building products that improve inmates’ lives and help them reintegrate into society without the risk of relapse.

I recently stumbled across an essay I wrote following my work at the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, analyzing Norway’s humane prison systems and asking, “Could they work here?” These prisons are designed to replicate life outside their walls. They incorporate features like yoga classes and recording studios. They give inmates a chance to pursue higher education so that they can be meaningfully employed when they reenter the outside world. Anyone who has seen the documentary 13th knows that American prisons are very different. Why?

(Quick disclaimer: This is a fraught and emotional topic. It is hard to appreciate the complexity of incarceration and recidivism in a 1,000-word op-ed. I appreciate the input and forbearance of those with different perspectives.)

Writ-large, the corrections system has five goals:

  1. Punish offenders.
  2. Incapacitate them (keep them off the streets).
  3. Deter crime.
  4. Repay society.
  5. Rehabilitate people so that they don’t commit more crimes.

But sadly, per criminologist Bob Cameron, “Americans want their prisoners punished first and rehabilitated second.”

This is why Norway has a recidivism rate of 20% while the U.S. rate hovers at around 75%. That is staggering. Three out of every four former inmates is at-risk of committing a crime after leaving prison. This is a huge deadweight loss for society. How much lower could that rate be if we invested in prisoners’ potential? If we gave them the tools to seamlessly reenter the world? Is there a role for private, for-profit enterprises here, and if so, how could technology be used to help people exit the corrections system permanently?

What’s being done today

Most tech coverage just focuses on tools used to predict recidivism and keep past offenders, many of whom are trying to reform their lives, behind bars. But there are many startups building products to help them successfully move on.

New York-based APDS recently raised a $5 million Series B to provide tablets that inmates can use for learning purposes. The tablets are now in-use in 88 correctional facilities in 17 states. Inmates can use the software to learn English, get their GEDs or learn entrepreneurship. North Carolina startup Pokket helps inmates plan for life outside of prison in the six months leading up to their release date.

Mission: Launch is an organization that hosts demo days and hackathons for inmates. They teach financial literacy, entrepreneurship and community engagement. Hackathon participants so far have built an app to convert online messages from friends and family into written postcards for inmates (who are shut off from social media) and an app to help people leaving the corrections system to seal their records so that they can get hired again.

Maintaining connections with friends and loved ones outside of prison makes a significant difference when it comes to reentering society. Technology company Securus recently announced free messaging on its 290,000 tablets so that inmates can communicate with relatives without having to pay exorbitant fees. Prison Voicemail in the U.K. provides a cheap phone service that families can pay. In all cases when it comes to implementing technology to reduce recidivism, the financial burden should not fall on inmates, a captive population with limited agency and earning potential.

Prison Scholars, a nonprofit founded by a former inmate, teaches entrepreneurship to inmates and helps them create post-incarceration business plans. They estimate that inmates who receive education are 43% less likely to return to prison, an implied ROI of $18.36 to society for every dollar invested. Defy Ventures boasts of 82% employment for program graduates and a 7.2% recidivism rate. Other programs to teach digital literacy and coding, which make resources like textbooks and Wikipedia available offline, have found similar success.

There are many similar examples of tech and education directly lowering recidivism. But why stop here? What else could tech do to make an impact?

What we could still do

The U.S. spends $80 billion to keep inmates behind bars. This creates an enormous financial incentive for taxpayers to reduce recidivism. Two related questions need to be addressed: Can tech companies actually make money on products to improve the lives of those in the prison system? And should they?

To answer the first question — and at the risk of sounding crass — a very simplified business model could look like this: State governments pay companies somewhere between $0 and the cost of keeping an inmate in jail for one year (~$81,000) for each inmate who successfully uses an educational product to prep for leaving prison.

The payment could be split across multiple years, so that the longer someone is able to go without reoffending, the more the provider makes. If taxpayers paid tech providers just 50% of the cost to house an inmate for one year, the tech company would make a per-user LTV of over $40,000 (!). This kind of financial incentive could easily attract more talented entrepreneurs to the goal of improving the lives of people in the corrections system. (The opposite of the for-profit prison business model, which creates a perverse incentive to maintain a constant prison population.)

The question of whether it is morally permissible for for-profit tech companies to sell products built for this demographic is a more difficult one. While there is no right answer, there are guidelines that companies could follow:

  1. Don’t charge inmates or their families. Taxpayers have the largest financial incentive to reduce recidivism — and all the associated costs of the prison — so it is to state corrections budgets that tech companies should look for revenue opportunities.
  2. No Goodhart’s law or perverse incentives. Products have to be designed and sold based on principles, e.g., “help former inmates reintegrate into society and live full lives,” and not numeric targets, e.g., “keep former inmates from committing a felony within three years of leaving prison.” Numbers-based targets can always be gamed. Force companies to keep the end-goal in mind of giving people the tools to improve their lives.
  3. Collect user feedback. Award contracts only to the companies with high user affinity. Unlike standard consumers, inmates experience a principal/agent problem: The purchaser of the services (taxpayers) is not the user (the inmate). States should require tech providers to collect anonymous feedback from the users of their products, and only award contracts to those that get the highest ratings.
  4. Your product’s job-to-do does not end when the sentence does. If products built to reduce recidivism are truly successful, it means that the providers of those products will be slowly eliminating their own markets as prison populations go down. These products should be built not just to get people out of prison, but to help them build meaningful lives for the years after they leave.

There are so, so many great products yet to be built for this demographic. A LinkedIn or Craigslist Jobs equivalent populated by the employers who hire former inmates. Live-streamed religious services so that inmates can continue to participate in their community faith organizations. Nonvocational hobby education platforms. Limited versions of MasterClass or Udemy or Coursera . Closed-loop online games.

Lastly — and needless to say — tech doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to righting the wrongs of our corrections system. The reinstatement of voting rights, employment on-ramps and limits to background checks, the elimination of for-profit private prisons, adjustments to prison wages that tacitly amount to indentured servitude … the list of things we could improve is long. But tech can still play a critical role in improving the lives of fellow citizens in the corrections system.

Mohandas Gandhi quipped that “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Almost one-third of Americans have some criminal history. The U.S. accounts for 25% of the world’s prison population. Let’s stop ignoring this demographic and build tools that really make the world better for those who need it most.

Dear Sophie: How can I speed up getting a green card?

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.”

“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:

I’m in the U.S. on an H-1B visa. My employer won’t sponsor me for a green card, so I’m looking to apply for one on my own. My husband and I are both citizens of Germany, but I was born in India. I’ve heard that people born in India face waiting decades for a green card. Is there any way to minimize the wait?

— Dedicated in Daly City

Dear Dedicated:

Thanks for your question. It’s great to hear you want to pursue a green card on your own. As always, I recommend that you contact an experienced immigration attorney to help guide you through the green card application and interview process.

I’ll discuss the green card options that don’t require you to have an employer or family sponsor and lay out a few tricks that might support you to minimize your wait time for a green card. For more details on these strategies, listen to my podcast on priority dates.

As you may know, your country of birth — rather than your country of citizenship — is what counts when assessing your eligibility for a green card and how long it will take to get one.

All green card categories — except for those for the spouse, parents and dependent children of U.S. citizens — have a cap on the number that can be issued each year. In addition, these categories have a per-country limit of 7% of the total number available. Because the demand in most green card categories from individuals born in India far exceeds the supply for that country, the wait times are excessively long for individuals who were born there.

For individuals who must wait for a green card, their priority date determines their place in the green card line. If you self-petition for a green card, your priority date is when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) receives your initial green card petition.

How to watch big tech’s CEOs tangle with Congress on antitrust issues and more

By Taylor Hatmaker

Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerberg will defend their companies before the House Antitrust Subcommittee Wednesday in a hearing that will make tech industry history, no matter what happens.

Given that the tech giants are accustomed to answering to no one in particular, collecting four of them on a substantive topic is notable in its own right. Remarkably, Wednesday will mark the first time Amazon’s CEO has faced lawmakers in a public hearing — and they’re bound to have plenty of questions for the take-no-prisoners online retail behemoth.

For Apple and Cook, who prefer to stay above the public-facing political fray, it’s the first time before Congress in years. Facebook and Google have both been called to Congress more recently, but lawmakers have still barely scratched the surface of two companies that have completely reshaped modern life.

If you’re just catching up, read our explainer about why this whole thing is happening at all and what to expect. You can also read the opening statements from Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google and skip them tomorrow so you can spend more time with your Nespresso or whatever it is we’re all doing to get by these days. The statements provide a good idea of how the companies will play defense against regulators keen to install some safety features before we barrel into a fresh decade of unchecked growth.

There are a lot of unknowns heading into the hearing. Will lawmakers extract any useful revelations or will it be five hours of “let us get back to you on that?” Could tech executives manage to be even more evasive now that they’re appearing remotely via video chat? Will some subcommittee members lead the hearing so far into off-topic territory that we learn nothing about the business practices that scaled an industry of market-owning giants? And most importantly: On a scale of one to supervillain, what kind of vibes will Bezos give off?

We hope to know the answers to all of these questions and more — possibly even a question from a lawmaker or two — as we cover Wednesday’s events closely. If you’re interested in watching it go down yourself, you can tune into the livestream right here (well, up there) on Wednesday July 29 at 12PM ET.

Read how Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google plan to defend themselves to Congress

By Taylor Hatmaker

With their big day before lawmakers just around the corner, previews of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple’s opening statements are now available on the House Judiciary Committee’s site. On Wednesday, the CEOs of each company will appear in an unusually executive-packed Congressional hearing focused on antitrust concerns over the business practices.

While the opening statements are just a glimpse of the hearing’s potential topics, they do provide a useful outline for the strategy each company will use to fend off accusations that their businesses have grown on such an enormous scale due to anticompetitive behavior. In recent hearings, tech executives have mostly managed to stick to safe, well-rehearsed lines, so if any moments deviate from these scripts those will likely be the most interesting or useful bits of testimony.

In their opening statements, the chief executives of each company make some similar arguments — for example, all four claim that their companies, despite their size and power, still face intense competition, especially in global markets. Amazon and Apple also argue that their ecosystems have created millions of job for third-party businesses that use their platforms.

But the CEOs also take slightly different approaches to how they present their opening statements. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive officer, and Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Alphabet and Google, go into their personal backgrounds. Meanwhile, both Apple CEO Tim Cook and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg make an appeal to U.S. patriotism. In their respective statements, Cook calls Apple an “uniquely American company” and Zuckerberg declares Facebook a “proudly American company.”

Amazon plays up job creation

Though Amazon is the largest online retailer in America, Bezos will argue that it is a small player in the global retail market, with Amazon accounting for “less than 1% of the $25 trillion global retail market and less than 4% of retail in the U.S.” Among domestic competitors, Bezos focuses on Walmart, stating that it is “a company more than twice Amazon’s size,” and also names newer competitors like Shopify and Instacart.

Bezos also dwells on the small and medium-sized retailers that sell products on Amazon’s platform, estimating that third-party businesses on Amazon have created over 2.2 million new jobs around the world.

Facebook goes all-in on America vs. China

Zuckerberg also argues that Facebook still faces intense competition, especially in other countries. Though Zuckerberg doesn’t reference any specific company or app, he calls out competition from the Chinese tech industry, telling lawmakers that “China is building its own version of the internet focused on on very different ideas, and they are exporting their vision to other countries.”

While Facebook has been criticized for acquiring companies like Instagram and WhatsApp, Zuckerberg says that those services improved under his company’s ownership.

Google names its competitors

Even though Google Search is the dominant search engine in the U.S., Pichai will claim that his company is facing down a large roster of rivals, including services that aren’t specifically search engines. For example, he cites Amazon’s Alexa, Twitter, WhatsApp, SnapChat, and Pinterest as alternative sources of information and says consumers turn to e-commerce sites like Amazon, eBay and Walmart for information about products.

Google’s ad business is also expected to be in the spotlight during the hearings. Pichai argues that advertisers have “an enormous amount of choice” for platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Comcast and others, that means advertising costs have lowered by 40% over the last decade.

Apple points to smartphone competition

Cook says that the “smartphone market is fiercely competitive,” with rivals like Samsung, LG, Huawei and Google, and that all of Apple’s product categories, including the iPhone, do not have a dominant market share in any of the markets where it does business.

Like Bezos, Cook’s statement also argues that Apple’s ecosystem has helped create jobs. He says that the App Store now hosting more than 1.7 million apps, only 60 of which were developed by Apple, and “more than 1.9 million American jobs in all 50 states are attributable to Apple.”

The big tech hearing with the House Judiciary’s Antitrust Subcommittee will begin Wednesday at 12PM ET and we’ll be following along over the course of the day so check back for coverage of the most noteworthy moments. For reference, the full opening statements can be found below.

– Apple
– Amazon
– Google
– Facebook

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