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Big tech’s ‘blackbox’ algorithms face regulatory oversight under EU plan

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Major Internet platforms will be required to open up their algorithms to regulatory oversight under proposals European lawmakers are set to introduce next month.

In a speech today Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager suggested algorithmic accountability will be a key plank of the forthcoming legislative digital package — with draft rules incoming that will require platforms to explain how their recommendation systems work as well as offering users more control over them.

“The rules we’re preparing would give all digital services a duty to cooperate with regulators. And the biggest platforms would have to provide more information on the way their algorithms work, when regulators ask for it,” she said, adding that platforms will also “have to give regulators and researchers access to the data they hold — including ad archives”.

While social media platforms like Facebook have set up ad archives ahead of any regulatory requirement to do so there are ongoing complaints from third party researchers about how the information is structured and how (in)accessible it is to independent study.

More information for users around ad targeting is another planned requirement, along with greater reporting requirements for platforms to explain content moderation decisions, per Vestager — who also gave a preview of what’s coming down the pipe in the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act in another speech earlier this week.

Regional lawmakers are responding to concerns that ‘blackbox’ algorithms can have damaging effects on individuals and societies — flowing from how they process data and order and rank information, with risks such as discrimination, amplification of bias and abusive targeting of vulnerable individuals and groups.

The Commission has said it’s working on binding transparency rules with the aim of forcing tech giants to take more responsibility for the content their platforms amplify and monetize. Although the devil will be in both the detail of the requirements and how effectively they will be enforced — but a draft of the plan is due in a month or so.

“One of the main goals of the Digital Services Act that we’ll put forward in December will be to protect our democracy, by making sure that platforms are transparent about the way these algorithms work – and make those platforms more accountable for the decisions they make,” said Vestager in a speech today at an event organized by not-for-profit research advocacy group AlgorithmWatch.

“The proposals that we’re working on would mean platforms have to tell users how their recommender systems decide which content to show – so it’s easier for us to judge whether to trust the picture of the world that they give us or not.”

Under the planned rules the most powerful Internet platforms — so-called ‘gatekeepers’ in EU parlance — will have to provide regular reports on “the content moderation tools they use, and the accuracy and results of those tools”, as Vestager put it.

There will also be specific disclosure requirements for ad targeting that go beyond the current fuzzy disclosures that platforms like Facebook may already offer (in its case via the ‘why am I seeing this ad?’ menu).

“Better information” will have to be provided, she said, such as platforms telling users “who placed a certain ad, and why it’s been targeted at us”. The overarching aim will be to ensure users of such platforms have “a better idea of who’s trying to influence us — and a better chance of spotting when algorithms are discriminating against us,” she added. 

Today a coalition of 46 civic society organizations led by AlgorithmWatch urged the Commission to make sure transparency requirements in the forthcoming legislation are “meaningful” — calling for it to introduce “comprehensive data access frameworks” that provide watchdogs with the tools they need to hold platforms accountable, as well as to enable journalists, academics, and civil society to “challenge and scrutinize power”.

The group’s set of recommendations call for binding disclosure obligations based on the technical functionalities of dominant platforms; a single EU institution “with a clear legal mandate to enable access to data and to enforce transparency obligations”; and provisions to ensure data collection complies with EU data protection rules.

Another way to rebalance the power asymmetry between data-mining platform giants and the individuals who they track, profile and target could involve requirements to let users switch off algorithmic feeds entirely if they wish — opting out of the possibility of data-driven discrimination or manipulation. But it remains to be seen whether EU lawmakers will go that far in the forthcoming legislative proposals.

The only hints Vestager offered on this front was to say that the planned rules “will also give more power to users — so algorithms don’t have the last word about what we get to see, and what we don’t get to see”.

Platforms will also have to give users “the ability to influence the choices that recommender systems make on our behalf”, she also said.

In further remarks she confirmed there will be more detailed reporting requirements for digital services around content moderation and takedowns — saying they will have to tell users when they take content down, and give them “effective rights to challenge that removal”. While there is widespread public support across the bloc for rebooting the rules of play for digital giants there are also strongly held views that regulation should not impinge on online freedom of expression — such as by encouraging platforms to shrink their regulatory risk by applying upload filters or removing controversial content without a valid reason.

The proposals will need the support of EU Member States, via the European Council, and elected representatives in the European parliament.

The latter has already voted in support of tighter rules on ad targeting. MEPs also urged the Commission to reject the use of upload filters or any form of ex-ante content control for harmful or illegal content, saying the final decision on whether content is legal or not should be taken by an independent judiciary.

Simultaneously the Commission is working on shaping rules specifically for applications that use artificial intelligence — but that legislative package is not due until next year.

Vestager confirmed that will be introduced early in 2021 with the aim of creating “an AI ecosystem of trust”.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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GoSite snags $40M to help SMBs bring their businesses online

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There are 12 million small and medium businesses in the US, yet they have continued to be one of most underserved segments of the B2B universe: that volume underscores a lot of fragmentation, and alongside other issues like budget constraints, there are a number of barriers to building for them at scale. Today, however, a startup helping SMBs get online is announcing some significant funding — a sign of how things are changing at a moment when many businesses have realised that being online is no longer an option, but a necessity.

GoSite, a San Diego-based startup that helps small and medium enterprises build websites, and, with a minimum amount of technical know-how, run other functions of their businesses online — like payments, online marketing, appointment booking and accounting — has picked up $40 million in funding.

GoSite offers a one-stop shop for users to build and manage everything online, with the ability to feed in up to 80 different third-party services within that. “We want to help our customers be found everywhere,” said Alex Goode, the founder and CEO of GoSite. “We integrate with Facebook and other consumer platforms like Siri, Apple Maps, and search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing and more.” It also builds certain features like payments from the ground up.

The Series B comes on the back of a strong year for the company. Driven by Covid-19 circumstances, businesses have increasingly turned to the internet to interact with customers, and GoSite — which has “thousands” of SMB customers — said it doubled its customer base in 2020.

This latest round is being led by Left Lane Capital out of New York, with Longley Capital, Cove Fund, Stage 2, Ankona Capital and Serra Ventures also participating. GoSite is clearly striking while the iron is hot: Longley, also based out of San Diego, led the company’s previous round, which was only in August of this year. It has now raised $60 million to date.

GoSite is, in a sense, a play for more inclusivity in tech: its customers are not companies that it’s “winning” off other providers that provide website building and hosting and other services typically used by SMBs, such as Squarespace and Wix, or GoDaddy, or Shopify.

Rather, they are companies that may have never used any of these: local garages, local landscapers, local hair salons, local accountancy firms, local dentists and so on. Barring the accounting firm, these are not businesses that will ever go fully online, as a retailer might, not least because of the physical aspect of each of those professions. But they will need an online presence and the levers it gives them to communicate, in order to survive, especially in times when their old models are being put under strain.

Goode started GoSite after graduating from college in Michigan with a degree in computer science, having previously grown up around and working in small businesses — his parents, grandparents and others in his Michigan town all ran their own stores. (He moved to San Diego “for the weather” he joked.)

His belief is that while there are and always will be alternatives like Facebook or Yelp to plant a flag, there is nothing that can replace the value and longer term security and control of building something of your own — a sentiment small business owners would surely grasp.

That is perhaps the most interesting aspect of GoSite as it exists today: it precisely doesn’t see any of what already exists out there as “the competition.” Instead, Goode sees his purpose as building a dashboard that will help business owners manage all that — with up to 80 different services currently available — and more, from a single place, and with minimum need for technical skills and time spent learning the ropes.

“There is definitely huge demand from small businesses for help and something like GoSite can do that,” Goode said. “The space is very fragmented and noisy and they don’t even know where to start.”

This, combined with GoSite’s growth and relevance to the current market, is partly what attracted investors.

“The opportunity we are betting on here is the all-in-one solution,” said Vinny Pujji, partner at Left Lane. “If you are a carpet cleaner or house painter, you don’t have the capacity to understand or work with five or six different pieces of software. We spoke with thousands of SMBs when looking at this, and this was the answer we heard.” He said the other important thing is that GoSite has a customer service team and for SMBs that use it, they like that when they call, “GoSite picks up the phone.”

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Vivenu, a ticketing API for events, closes a $15M Series A round led by Balderton Capital

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vivenu, a ticketing platform that offers an API for venues and promoters to customize to their needs, has closed a $15 million (€12.6 million) in Series A funding led by Balderton Capital. Previous investor Redalpine also participated.

Historically-speaking, most ticketing platform startups took a direct to consumer approach, or have provided turnkey solutions to big event promoters. But in this day and age, most events require a great deal more flexibility, not least because of the pandemic. So, by offering an API and allowing promoters that flexibility, Vivenu managed to gain traction.

Venues and event owners get a full-featured ticketing, out-of-the-box platform with full real-time dynamic control over all aspects of selling tickets including configuring prices and seating plans, leveraging customer data and insights and mastering a branded look and feel across their sales channels. It has exposed APIs enabling many different custom use cases for large international ticket sellers. Since its Seed funding in March, the company says it has sold over 2 million tickets.

Simon Hennes, CEO and co-founder of vivenu said in a statement: “We created vivenu to address the need of ticket sellers for a user-centric ticketing platform. Event organizers were stuck with solutions that heavily depend on manual processes, causing high costs, dependencies, and frustration on various levels.”

Daniel Waterhouse, Partner at Balderton said: “Vivenu has built a sophisticated product and set of APIs that gives event organisers full control of their ticketing operations.”

vivenu is also the first European investment of Aurum Fund LLC, the fund associated with the San Francisco 49ers. Also investing in the round are Angels including Sascha Konietzke (Founder at Contentful), Chris Schagen (former CMO at Contentful), Sujay Tyle (Founder at Frontier Car Group) and Tiny VC.

In March 2020, vivenu secured €1.4 million in seed funding, bringing its total funding to €14 million. Previous investors include early-stage venture capital investor Redalpine, GE32 Capital and Hansel LLC (associated with the founders of Loft).

Speaking to TechCrunch Hennes said: “You have to send your seat map to Ticketmaster, and then the account manager comes back to you with a sitemap. This goes back and forth and takes ages. With us you have a seating chart designer basically integrated into the software which you can simply change yourself.”

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Nordigen introduces free European open banking API

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Latvian fintech startup Nordigen is switching to a freemium model thanks to a free open banking API. Open banking was supposed to democratize access to banking information, but the company believes banking aggregation APIs from Tink or Plaid are too expensive. Instead, Nordigen thinks it can provide a free API to access account information and paid services for analytics and insights services.

Open banking is a broad term and means different things, from account aggregation to verifying account ownership and payment initiation. The most basic layer of open banking is the ability to view data from third-party financial institutions. For instance, some banks let you connect to other bank accounts so that you can view all your bank accounts from a single interface.

There are two ways to connect to a bank. Some banks provide an application programming interface (API), which means that you can send requests to the bank’s servers and receive data in return.

While all financial institutions should have an open API due to the European PSD2 directive, many banks are still dragging their feet. That’s why open banking API companies usually rely on screen scraping. They mimic web browser interactions, which means that it’s slow, it requires a ton of server resources and it can break.

“If you’re wondering how we’d be able to afford it, our free banking data API was designed purely with PSD2 in mind, meaning it’s lightweight in strong contrast to that of incumbents. So it wouldn’t significantly increase our costs to scale free users,” Nordigen co-founder and CEO Rolands Mesters told me.

So you don’t get total coverage with Nordigen’s API. The startup currently supports 300 European banks, which covers 60 to 90% of the population in each country. But it’s hard to complain when it’s a free product anyway.

Some Nordigen customers will probably want more information. Nordigen provides financial data analytics. It can be particularly useful if you’re a lending company trying to calculate a credit score, if you’re a financial company with minimum income requirements and more.

For those additional services, you’ll have to pay. Nordigen currently has 50 clients and expects to attract more customers with its new freemium strategy.

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