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Users, not tech executives, should decide what constitutes free speech online

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On January 7, following the violent white supremacist riots that breached the US Capitol, Twitter and Facebook both suspended President Donald Trump from their platforms. The next day, Twitter made its suspension permanent. Many praised the decision for preventing the president from doing more harm at a time when his adherents are taking cues from his false claims that the election was rigged. Republicans criticized it as a violation of Trump’s free speech.

It wasn’t. Just as Trump has the First Amendment right to spew deranged nonsense, so too do tech companies have the First Amendment right to remove that content. While some pundits have called the decision unprecedented—or “a turning point for the battle for control over digital speech,” as Edward Snowden tweeted—it’s not: not at all. Not only do Twitter and Facebook regularly remove all types of protected expression, but Trump’s case isn’t even the first time the platforms have removed a major political figure. 

Following reports of genocide in Myanmar, Facebook banned the country’s top general and other military leaders who were using the platform to foment hate. The company also bans Hezbollah from its platform because of its status as a US-designated foreign terror organization, despite the fact that the party holds seats in Lebanon’s parliament. And it bans leaders in countries under US sanctions.

At the same time, both Facebook and Twitter have stuck to the tenet that content posted by elected officials deserves more protection than material from ordinary individuals, thus giving politicians’ speech more power than that of the people. This position is at odds with plenty of evidence that hateful speech from public figures has a greater impact than similar speech from ordinary users. 

Clearly, though, these policies aren’t applied evenly around the world. After all, Trump is far from the only world leader using these platforms to foment unrest. One need only look to the BJP, the party of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for more examples.

Though there are certainly short-term benefits—and plenty of satisfaction—to be had from banning Trump, the decision (and those that came before it) raise more foundational questions about speech. Who should have the right to decide what we can and can’t say? What does it mean when a corporation can censor a government official? 

Facebook’s policy staff, and Mark Zuckerberg in particular, have for years shown themselves to be poor judges of what is or isn’t appropriate expression. From the platform’s ban on breasts to its tendency to suspend users for speaking back against hate speech, or its total failure to remove calls for violence in Myanmar, India, and elsewhere, there’s simply no reason to trust Zuckerberg and other tech leaders to get these big decisions right.

Repealing 230 isn’t the answer 

To remedy these concerns, some are calling for more regulation. In recent months, demands have abounded from both sides of the aisle to repeal or amend Section 230—the law that protects companies from liability for the decisions they make about the content they host—despite some serious misrepresentations from politicians who should know better about how the law actually works. 

The thing is, repealing Section 230 would probably not have forced Facebook or Twitter to remove Trump’s tweets, nor would it prevent companies from removing content they find disagreeable, whether that content is pornography or the unhinged rantings of Trump. It is companies’ First Amendment rights that enable them to curate their platforms as they see fit.

Instead, repealing Section 230 would hinder competitors to Facebook and the other tech giants, and place a greater risk of liability on platforms for what they choose to host. For instance, without Section 230, Facebook’s lawyers could decide that hosting anti-fascist content is too risky in light of the Trump administration’s attacks on antifa.

What does it mean when a corporation can censor a government official? 

This is not a far-fetched scenario: Platforms already restrict most content that could be even loosely connected to foreign terrorist organizations, for fear that material-support statutes could make them liable. Evidence of war crimes in Syria and vital counter-speech against terrorist organizations abroad have been removed as a result. Similarly, platforms have come under fire for blocking any content seemingly connected to countries under US sanctions. In one particularly absurd example, Etsy banned a handmade doll, made in America, because the listing contained the word “Persian.”

It’s not difficult to see how ratcheting up platform liability could cause even more vital speech to be removed by corporations whose sole interest is not in “connecting the world” but in profiting from it.

Platforms needn’t be neutral, but they must play fair

Despite what Senator Ted Cruz keeps repeating, there is nothing requiring these platforms to be neutral, nor should there be. If Facebook wants to boot Trump—or photos of breastfeeding mothers—that’s the company’s prerogative. The problem is not that Facebook has the right to do so, but that—owing to its acquisitions and unhindered growth—its users have virtually nowhere else to go and are stuck dealing with increasingly problematic rules and automated content moderation.

The answer is not repealing Section 230 (which again, would hinder competition) but in creating the conditions for more competition. This is where the Biden administration should focus its attention in the coming months. And those efforts must include reaching out to content moderation experts from advocacy and academia to understand the range of problems faced by users worldwide, rather than simply focusing on the debate inside the US.

As for platforms, they know what they need to do, because civil society has told them for years. They must be more transparent and ensure that users have the right to remedy when wrong decisions are made. The Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Accountability in Content Moderation—endorsed in 2019 by most major platforms but adhered to by only one (Reddit)—offer minimum standards for companies on these measures. Platforms should also stick to their existing commitments to responsible decision-making. Most important, they should ensure that the decisions they make about speech are in line with global human rights standards, rather than making the rules up as they go.

Reasonable people can disagree on whether the act of banning Trump from these platforms was the right one, but if we want to ensure that platforms make better decisions in the future, we mustn’t look to quick fixes.

Jillian C. York is the author of the forthcoming book Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism and the director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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

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Extra Crunch roundup: antitrust jitters, SPAC odyssey, white-hot IPOs, more

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Some time ago, I gave up on the idea of finding a thread that connects each story in the weekly Extra Crunch roundup; there are no unified theories of technology news.

The stories that left the deepest impression were related to two news pegs that dominated the week — Visa and Plaid calling off their $5.3 billion acquisition agreement, and sizzling-hot IPOs for Affirm and Poshmark.

Watching Plaid and Visa sing “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” in harmony after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to block their deal wasn’t shocking. But I was surprised to find myself editing an interview Alex Wilhelm conducted with with Plaid CEO Zach Perret the next day in which the executive said growing the company on its own is “once again” the correct strategy.


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In an analysis for Extra Crunch, Managing Editor Danny Crichton suggested that federal regulators’ new interest in antitrust enforcement will affect valuations going forward. For example, Procter & Gamble and women’s beauty D2C brand Billie also called off their planned merger last week after the Federal Trade Commission raised objections in December.

Given the FTC’s moves last year to prevent Billie and Harry’s from being acquired, “it seems clear that U.S. antitrust authorities want broad competition for consumers in household goods,” Danny concluded, and I suspect that applies to Plaid as well.

In December, C3.ai, Doordash and Airbnb burst into the public markets to much acclaim. This week, used clothing marketplace Poshmark saw a 140% pop in its first day of trading and consumer-financing company Affirm “priced its IPO above its raised range at $49 per share,” reported Alex.

In a post titled A theory about the current IPO market, he identified eight key ingredients for brewing a debut with a big first-day pop, which includes “exist in a climate of near-zero interest rates” and “keep companies private longer.” Truly, words to live by!

Come back next week for more coverage of the public markets in The Exchange, an interview with Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg where he shares his plans for taking the company public, a comprehensive post that will unpack the regulatory hurdles facing D2C consumer brands, and much more.

If you live in the U.S., enjoy your MLK Day holiday weekend, and wherever you are: thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

 

Rapid growth in 2020 reveals OKR software market’s untapped potential

After spending much of the week covering 2021’s frothy IPO market, Alex Wilhelm devoted this morning’s column to studying the OKR-focused software sector.

Measuring objectives and key results are core to every enterprise, perhaps more so these days since knowledge workers began working remotely in greater numbers last year.

A sign of the times: this week, enterprise orchestration SaaS platform Gtmhub announced that it raised a $30 million Series B.

To get a sense of how large the TAM is for OKR, Alex reached out to several companies and asked them to share new and historical growth metrics:

  • Gthmhub
  • Perdoo
  • WorkBoard
  • Ally.io
  • Koan
  • WeekDone

“Some OKR-focused startups didn’t get back to us, and some leaders wanted to share the best stuff off the record, which we grant at times for candor amongst startup executives,” he wrote.

5 consumer hardware VCs share their 2021 investment strategies

For our latest investor survey, Matt Burns interviewed five VCs who actively fund consumer electronics startups:

  • Hans Tung, managing partner, GGV Capital
  • Dayna Grayson, co-founder and general partner, Construct Capital
  • Cyril Ebersweiler, general partner, SOSV
  • Bilal Zuberi, partner, Lux Capital
  • Rob Coneybeer, managing director, Shasta Ventures

“Consumer hardware has always been a tough market to crack, but the COVID-19 crisis made it even harder,” says Matt, noting that the pandemic fueled wide interest in fitness startups like Mirror, Peloton and Tonal.

Bonus: many VCs listed the founders, investors and companies that are taking the lead in consumer hardware innovation.

A theory about the current IPO market

Digital generated image of abstract multi colored curve chart on white background.

Digital generated image of abstract multi colored curve chart on white background.

If you’re looking for insight into “why everything feels so damn silly this year” in the public markets, a post Alex wrote Thursday afternoon might offer some perspective.

As someone who pays close attention to late-stage venture markets, he’s identified eight factors that are pushing debuts for unicorns like Affirm and Poshmark into the stratosphere.

TL;DR? “Lots of demand, little supply, boom goes the price.”

Poshmark prices IPO above range as public markets continue to YOLO startups

Clothing resale marketplace Poshmark closed up more than 140% on its first trading day yesterday.

In Thursday’s edition of The Exchange, Alex noted that Poshmark boosted its valuation by selling 6.6 million shares at its IPO price, scooping up $277.2 million in the process.

Poshmark’s surge in trading is good news for its employees and stockholders, but it reflects poorly on “the venture-focused money people who we suppose know what they are talking about when it comes to equity in private companies,” he says.

Will startup valuations change given rising antitrust concerns?

GettyImages 926051128

financial stock market graph on technology abstract background represent risk of investment

This week, Visa announced it would drop its planned acquisition of Plaid after the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit to block it last fall.

Last week, Procter & Gamble called off its purchase of Billie, a women’s beauty products startup — in December, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission sued to block that deal, too.

Once upon a time, the U.S. government took an arm’s-length approach to enforcing antitrust laws, but the tide has turned, says Managing Editor Danny Crichton.

Going forward, “antitrust won’t kill acquisitions in general, but it could prevent the buyers with the highest reserve prices from entering the fray.”

Dear Sophie: What’s the new minimum salary required for H-1B visa applicants?

Image Credits: Sophie Alcorn

Dear Sophie:

I’m a grad student currently working on F-1 STEM OPT. The company I work for has indicated it will sponsor me for an H-1B visa this year.

I hear the random H-1B lottery will be replaced with a new system that selects H-1B candidates based on their salaries.

How will this new process work?

— Positive in Palo Alto

Venture capitalists react to Visa-Plaid deal meltdown

A homemade chocolate cookie with a bite and crumbs on a white background

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After news broke that Visa’s $5.3 billion purchase of API startup Plaid fell apart, Alex Wilhelm and Ron Miller interviewed several investors to get their reactions:

  • Anshu Sharma, co-founder and CEO, SkyflowAPI
  • Amy Cheetham, principal, Costanoa Ventures
  • Sheel Mohnot, co-founder, Better Tomorrow Ventures
  • Lucas Timberlake, partner, Fintech Ventures
  • Nico Berardi, founder and general partner, ANIMO Ventures
  • Allen Miller, VC, Oak HC/FT
  • Sri Muppidi, VC, Sierra Ventures
  • Christian Lassonde, VC, Impression Ventures

Plaid CEO touts new ‘clarity’ after failed Visa acquisition

Zach Perret, chief executive officer and co-founder of Plaid Technologies Inc., speaks during the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. The summit brings together the leading minds in the tech industry for two-days of keynote speakers, breakout sessions, and networking opportunities. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Zach Perret, chief executive officer and co-founder of Plaid Technologies Inc., speaks during the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. The summit brings together the leading minds in the tech industry for two-days of keynote speakers, breakout sessions, and networking opportunities. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Alex Wilhelm interviewed Plaid CEO Zach Perret after the Visa acquisition was called off to learn more about his mindset and the company’s short-term plans.

Perret, who noted that the last few years have been a “roller coaster,” said the Visa deal was the right decision at the time, but going it alone is “once again” Plaid’s best way forward.

2021: A SPAC odyssey

In Tuesday’s edition of The Exchange, Alex Wilhelm took a closer look at blank-check offerings for digital asset marketplace Bakkt and personal finance platform SoFi.

To create a detailed analysis of the investor presentations for both offerings, he tried to answer two questions:

  1. Are special purpose acquisition companies a path to public markets for “potentially-promising companies that lacked obvious, near-term growth stories?”
  2. Given the number of unicorns and the limited number of companies that can IPO at any given time, “maybe SPACS would help close the liquidity gap?”

Flexible VC: A new model for startups targeting profitability

12 ‘flexible VCs’ who operate where equity meets revenue share

Spotlit Multi Colored Coil Toy in the Dark.

Spotlit Multi Colored Coil Toy in the Dark.

Growth-stage startups in search of funding have a new option: “flexible VC” investors.

An amalgam of revenue-based investment and traditional VC, investors who fall into this category let entrepreneurs “access immediate risk capital while preserving exit, growth trajectory and ownership optionality.”

In a comprehensive explainer, fund managers David Teten and Jamie Finney present different investment structures so founders can get a clear sense of how flexible VC compares to other venture capital models. In a follow-up post, they share a list of a dozen active investors who offer funding via these non-traditional routes.

These 5 VCs have high hopes for cannabis in 2021

Marijuana leaf on a yellow background.

Image Credits: Anton Petrus (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

For some consumers, “cannabis has always been essential,” writes Matt Burns, but once local governments allowed dispensaries to remain open during the pandemic, it signaled a shift in the regulatory environment, and investors took notice.

Matt asked five VCs about where they think the industry is heading in 2021 and what advice they’re offering their portfolio companies:

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GitLab oversaw a $195 million secondary sale that values the company at $6 billion

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GitLab has confirmed with TechCrunch that it oversaw a $195 million secondary sale that values the company at $6 billion. CNBC broke the story earlier today.

The company’s impressive valuation comes after its most recent 2019 Series E in which it raised $268 million on a 2.75 billion valuation, an increase of $3.25 billion in under 18 months. Company co-founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij believes the increase is due to his company’s progress adding functionality to the platform.

“We believe the increase in valuation over the past year reflects the progress of our complete DevOps platform towards realizing a greater share of the growing, multi-billion dollar software development market,” he told TechCrunch.

While the startup has raised over $434 million, this round involved buying employee stock options, a move that allows the company’s workers to cash in some of their equity prior to going public. CNBC reported that the firms buying the stock included Alta Park, HMI Capital, OMERS Growth Equity, TCV and Verition.

The next logical step would appear to be IPO, something the company has never shied away from. In fact, it actually at one point included the proposed date of November 18, 2020 as a target IPO date on the company wiki. While they didn’t quite make that goal, Sijbrandij still sees the company going public at some point. He’s just not being so specific as in the past, suggesting that the company has plenty of runway left from the last funding round and can go public when the timing is right.

“We continue to believe that being a public company is an integral part of realizing our mission. As a public company, GitLab would benefit from enhanced brand awareness, access to capital, shareholder liquidity, autonomy and transparency,” he said.

He added, “That said, we want to maximize the outcome by selecting an opportune time. Our most recent capital raise was in 2019 and contributed to an already healthy balance sheet. A strong balance sheet and business model enables us to select a period that works best for realizing our long-term goals.”

GitLab has not only published IPO goals on its Wiki, but its entire company philosophy, goals and OKRs for everyone to see. Sijbrandij told TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm at a TechCrunch Disrupt panel in September that he believes that transparency helps attract and keep employees. It doesn’t hurt that the company was and remains a fully remote organization, even pre-COVID.

“We started [this level of] transparency to connect with the wider community around GitLab, but it turned out to be super beneficial for attracting great talent as well,” Sijbrandij told Wilhelm in September.

The company, which launched in 2014, offers a DevOps platform to help move applications through the programming lifecycle.

Update: The original headline of this story has been changed from ‘GitLab raises $195M in secondary funding on $6 billion valuation.’

 

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Facebook blocks new events around DC and state capitols

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As a precaution against coordinated violence as the U.S. approaches President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, Facebook announced a few new measures it’s putting in place.

In a blog post and tweets from Facebook Policy Communications Director Andy Stone, the company explained that it would block any events slated to happen near the White House, the U.S. Capitol or any state capitol building through Wednesday.

The company says it will also do “secondary” sweeps through any inauguration-related events to look for violations of its policies. At this point, that includes any content connected to the “Stop the Steal” movement perpetuating the rampant lie that Biden’s victory is illegitimate. Those groups continued to thrive on Facebook until measures the company took at the beginning of this week.

Facebook will apparently also be putting new restrictions in place for U.S. users who repeatedly break the company’s rules, including barring those accounts from livestreaming videos, events and group pages.

Those precautions fall short of what some of Facebook’s critics have called for, but they’re still notable measures for a company that only began taking dangerous conspiracies and armed groups seriously in the last year.

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