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Understanding Europe’s big push to rewrite the digital rulebook

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European Union lawmakers have set out the biggest update of digital regulations for around two decades — likening it to the introduction of traffic lights to highways to bring order to the chaos wrought by increased mobility. Just switch cars for packets of data.

The proposals for a Digital Services Act (DSA) to standardize safety rules for online business, and a Digital Markets Act (DMA), which will put limits on tech giants aimed at boosting competition in the digital markets they dominate, are intended to shape the future of online business for the next two decades — both in Europe and beyond.

The bloc is far ahead of the U.S. on internet regulation. So while the tech giants of today are (mostly) made in the USA, rules that determine how they can and can’t operate in the future are being shaped in Brussels.

What will come faster, a U.S. breakup of a tech empire or effective enforcement of EU rules on internet gatekeepers is an interesting question to ponder.

The latter part of this year has seen Ursula von der Leyen’s European Commission, which took up its five-mandate last December, unleash a flotilla of digital proposals — and tease more coming in 2021. The Commission has proposed a Data Governance Act to encourage reuse of industrial (and other) data, with another data regulation and rules on political ads transparency proposal slated as coming next year. European-flavored guardrails for use of AI will also be presented next year.

But it’s the DSA and DMA that are core to understanding how the EU executive body hopes to reshape internet business practices to increase accountability and fairness — and in so doing promote the region’s interests for years to come.

These are themes being seen elsewhere in the world at a national level. The U.K., for example, is coming with an “Online Safety Bill” next year in response to public concern about the societal impacts of big tech. While rising interest in tech antitrust has led to Google and Facebook facing charges of abusive business practices on home turf.

What will come faster, a U.S. breakup of a tech empire or effective enforcement of EU rules on internet gatekeepers is an interesting question to ponder. Both are now live possibilities — so entrepreneurs can dare to dream of a different, freer and fairer digital playground. One that’s not ruled over by a handful of abusive giants. Though we’re certainly not there yet.

With the DSA and DMA the EU is proposing an e-commerce and digital markets framework that, once adopted, will apply for its 27 Member States — and the ~445 million people who live there — exerting both a sizable regional pull and seeking to punch up and out at global internet giants.

While there are many challenges ahead to turn the planned framework into pan-EU law, it looks a savvy move by the Commission to separate the DSA and DMA — making it harder for big tech to co-opt the wider industry to lobby against measures that will only affect them in the 160+ pages of proposed legislation now on the table.

It’s also notable that the DSA contains a sliding scale of requirements, with audits, risk assessments and the deepest algorithmic accountability provisions reserved for larger players.

Tech sovereignty — by scaling up Europe’s tech capacity and businesses — is a strategic priority for the Commission. And rule-setting is a key part of how it intends to get there — building on data protection rules that have already been updated, with the GDPR being applied from 2018.

Though what the two new major policy packages will mean for tech companies, startup-sized or market-dominating, won’t be clear for months — or even years. The DSA and DMA have to go through the EU’s typically bruising co-legislative process, looping in representatives of Member States’ governments and directly elected MEPs in the European parliament (which often are coming at the process with different policy priorities and agendas).

The draft presented this month is thus a starting point. Plenty could shift — or even change radically — through the coming debates and amendments. Which means the lobbying starts in earnest now. The coming months will be crucial to determining who will be the future winners and losers under the new regime so startups will need to work hard to make their voices heard.

While tech giants have been pouring increasing amounts of money into Brussels “whispering” for years, the EU is keen to champion homegrown tech — and most of big tech isn’t that.

A fight is almost certainly brewing to influence the world’s most ambitious digital rulebook — including in key areas like the surveillance-based adtech business models that currently dominate the web (to the detriment of individual rights and pro-privacy innovation). So for those dreaming of a better web there’s plenty to play for.

Early responses to the DSA and DMA show the two warring sides, with U.S.-based tech lobbies blasting the plan to expand internet regulation as “anti-innovation” (and anti-U.S.), while EU rights groups are making positive noises over the draft — albeit, with an ambition to go further and ensure stronger protections for web users.

On the startup side, there’s early relief that key tenets of the EU’s existing e-commerce framework look set to remain untouched, mingled with concern that plans to rein in tech giants may have knock-on impacts — such as on startup exits (and valuations). European founders, whose ability to scale is being directly throttled by big tech’s market muscle, have other reasons to be cheerful about the direction of policy travel.

In short, major shifts are coming and businesses and entrepreneurs would do well to prepare for changing requirements — and to seize new opportunities.

Read on for a breakdown of the key aims and requirements of the DSA and the DMA, and additional discussion on how the policy plan could shape the future of the startup business.

Digital Services Act

The DSA aims to standardize rules for digital services that act as intermediaries by connecting consumers to goods, services and content. It will apply to various types of digital services, including network infrastructure providers (like ISPs); hosting services (like cloud storage providers); and online platforms (like social media and marketplaces) — applying to all that offer services in the EU, regardless of where they’re based.

The existing EU e-Commerce Directive was adopted in the year 2000 so revisiting it to see if core principles are still fit for purpose is important. And the Commission has essentially decided that they are. But it also wants to improve consumer protections and dial up transparency and accountability on services businesses by setting new due diligence obligations — responding to a smorgasbord of concerns around the impact of what’s now being hawked and monetized online (whether hateful content or dangerous/illegal products).

Some EU Member States have also been drafting their own laws (in areas like hate speech) that threatens regulatory fragmentation of the bloc’s single market, giving lawmakers added impetus to come with harmonized pan-EU rules (hence the DSA being a regulation, not a directive).

The package will introduce obligations aimed at setting rules for how internet businesses respond to illegal stuff (content, services, goods and so on) — including standardized notice and response procedures for swiftly tackling illegal content (an areas that’s been managed by a voluntary EU code of conduct on illegal hate speech up til now); and a “Know Your Customer” principle for online marketplaces (already a familiar feature in more heavily regulated sectors like fintech) that’s aimed at making it harder for sellers of illegal products to simply respawn within a marketplace under a new name.

There’s also a big push around transparency obligations — with requirements in the proposal for platforms to provide “meaningful” criteria used to target ads (Article 24); and explain the “main parameters” of recommender algorithms (Article 29), as well as requirements to foreground user controls (including at least one “nonprofiling” option).

Here the overarching aim is to increase accountability by ensuring European users can get the information needed to be able to exercise their rights.

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

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Will this time be any different for Twitter?

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As Twitter seems to buy its way into competing with Clubhouse and Substack, one wonders whether the beleaguered social media company is finally ready to move past its truly awful track record of seizing opportunities.

Twitter’s pace of product ambition has certainly seemed to speed in the past several months, conveniently following shareholder action to oust CEO Jack Dorsey last year. They’ve finally rolled out their Stories product Fleets, they’ve embraced audio both in the traditional feed and with their beta Spaces feature, and they’ve taken some much-publicized steps to reign in disinformation and content moderation woes (though there’s still plenty to be done there).

In the past few weeks, Twitter has also made some particularly interesting acquisitions. Today, it was announced that they were buying Revue, a newsletter management startup. Earlier this month, they bought Breaker, a podcasting service. Last month, they bought Squad, a social screen-sharing app.

It’s an aggressive turn that follows Twitter’s announcement that it will be shutting down Periscope, a live video app that was purchased and long-neglected by Twitter despite the fact that the company’s current product chief was its founder.

TikTok’s wild 2020 success in fully realizing the broader vision for Vine, which Twitter shut down in 2017, seems to be a particularly embarrassing stain on the company’s history; it’s also the most crystallized example of Twitter shooting itself in the foot as a result of not embracing risk. And while Twitter was ahead of that curve and simply didn’t make it happen, Substack and Clubhouse are two prime examples of competitors which Twitter could have prevented from reaching their current stature if it had just been more aggressive in recognizing adjacent social market opportunities and sprung into action.

It’s particularly hard to reckon in the shadow of Facebook’s ever-swelling isolation. Once the eager enemy of any social upstart, Facebook finds itself desperately complicated by global politics and antitrust woes in a way that may never strike it down, but have seemed to slow its maneuverability. A startup like Clubhouse may once seemed like a prime acquisition target, but it’s too complicated of a purchase for Facebook to even attempt in 2021, leaving Twitter a potential competitor that could scale to full size on its own.

Twitter is a much smaller company than Facebook is, though it’s still plenty big. As the company aims to move beyond the 2020 US election that ate up so much of its attention and expand its ambitions, one of its most pertinent challenges will be reinvigorating a product culture to recognize opportunities and take on rising competitors — though another challenge might be getting its competition to take it seriously in the first place.

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Sila Nanotechnologies raises $590M to fund battery materials factory

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Sila Nanotechnologies, a Silicon Valley battery materials company, has spent years developing technology designed to pack more energy into a cell at a lower cost — an end game that has helped it lock in partnerships with Amperex Technology Limited as well as automakers BMW and Daimler.

Now, Sila Nano, flush with a fresh injection of capital that has pushed its valuation to $3.3 billion, is ready to bring its technology to the masses.

The company, which was founded nearly a decade ago, said Tuesday it has raised $590 million in a Series F funding round led by Coatue with significant participation by funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc. Existing investors 8VC, Bessemer Venture Partners, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and Sutter Hill Ventures also participated in the round.

Sila Nano plans to use the funds to hire another 100 people this year and begin to buildout a factory in North America capable of producing 100 gigawatt-hours of silicon-based anode material, which is used in batteries for the smartphone and automotive industries. While the company hasn’t revealed the location of the factory, it does have a timeline. Sila Nano said it plans to start production at the factory in 2024. Materials produced at the plant will be in electric vehicles by 2025, the company said.

“It took eight years and 35,000 iterations to create a new battery chemistry, but that was just step one,” Sila Nano CEO and co-founder Gene Berdichevsky said in a statement. “For any new technology to make an impact in the real-world, it has to scale, which will cost billions of dollars. We know from our experience building our production lines in Alameda that investing in our next plant today will keep us on track to be powering cars and hundreds of millions of consumer devices by 2025.”

The tech

A lithium-ion battery contains two electrodes. There’s an anode (negative) on one side and a cathode (positive) on the other. Typically, an electrolyte sits in the middle and acts as the courier, moving ions between the electrodes when charging and discharging. Graphite is commonly used as the anode in commercial lithium-ion batteries.

Sila Nano has developed a silicon-based anode that replaces graphite in lithium-ion batteries. The critical detail is that the material was designed to take the place of graphite in without needing to change the battery manufacturing process or equipment.

Sila Nano has been focused on silicon anode because the material can store a lot more lithium ions. Using a material that lets you pack in more lithium ions would theoretically allow you to increase the energy density — or the amount of energy that can be stored in a battery per its volume — of the cell. The upshot would be a cheaper battery that contains more energy in the same space.

The opportunity

It’s a compelling product for automakers attempting to bring more electric vehicles to market. Nearly every global automaker has announced plans or is already producing a new batch of all-electric and plug-in electric vehicles, including Ford, GM, Daimler, BMW, Hyundai and Kia. Tesla continues to ramp up production of its Model 3 and Model Y vehicles as a string of newcomers like Rivian prepare to bring their own EVs to market.

In short: the demand of batteries is climbing; and automakers are looking for the next-generation tech that will give them a competitive edge.

Battery production sat at about 20 GWh per year in 2010. Sila Nano expects it to jump to 2,000 GWh per year by 2030 and 30,000 GWh per year by 2050.

Sila Nano started building the first production lines for its battery materials in 2018. That first line is capable of producing the material to supply the equivalent of 50 megawatts of lithium-ion batteries.

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Daily Crunch: Calendly valued at $3B

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A popular scheduling startup raises a big funding round, Twitter makes a newsletter acquisition and Beyond Meat teams up with PepsiCo. This is your Daily Crunch for January 26, 2021.

The big story: Calendly valued at $3B

Calendly, which helps users schedule and confirm meeting times, has raised $350 million from OpenView Venture Partners and Iconiq.

Until now, the Atlanta-based startup had only raised $550K, but the company says it has 10 million monthly users, with $70 million in subscription revenue last year.

“Calendly has a vision increasingly to be a central part of the meeting life cycle,” said OpenView’s Blake Bartlett.

The tech giants

Twitter acquires newsletter platform Revue — Twitter is getting into the newsletter business.

TikTok is being used by vape sellers marketing to teens — Sellers are offering flavored disposable vapes, parent-proof “discreet” packaging and no ID checks.

PepsiCo and Beyond Meat launch poorly named joint venture for new plant-based food and drinks — The name? The PLANeT Partnership.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Fast raises $102M as the online checkout wars continue to attract huge investment — The new funding was led by Stripe.

SetSail nabs $26M Series A to rethink sales compensation — SetSail says salespeople should be paid them throughout the sales cycle.

Mealco raises $7M to launch new delivery-centric restaurants — By launching a restaurant with Mealco, chefs don’t sign a lease or pay any other upfront costs.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Ten VCs say interactivity, regulation and independent creators will reshape digital media in 2021 — We asked about the likelihood of further industry consolidation, whether we’ll see more digital media companies take the SPAC route and, of course, what they’re looking for in their next investment.

The five biggest mistakes I made as a first-time startup founder — Finmark CEO Rami Essaid has some regrets.

Does a $27B or $29B valuation make sense for Databricks? — A look at Databricks’ growth history, economics and scale.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

President Joe Biden commits to replacing entire federal fleet with electric vehicles — His commitment is tied to a broader campaign promise to create 1 million new jobs in the American auto industry and supply chains.

Meet the early-stage founder community at TC Early Stage 2021 — Early Stage part one focuses on operations and fundraising and takes place on April 1-2, while Early Stage part two focusing on marketing, PR and fundraising and runs July 8-9.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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