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Europe seizes on social media’s purging of Trump to bang the drum for regulation

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Big tech’s decision to pull the plug on president Donald Trump’s presence on their platforms, following his supporters’ attack on the US capital last week, has been seized on in Europe as proof — if proof were needed — that laws have not kept pace with tech market power and platform giants must face consequences over the content they amplify and monetize.

Writing in Politico, the European Commission’s internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, dubs the 6/1 strike at the heart of the US political establishment as social media’s ‘9/11’ moment — aka, the day the whole world woke up to the real-world impact of unchecked online hate and lies.

Since then Trump has been booted from a number of digital services, and the conservative social media app Parler has also been ejected from the App Store and Google Play over a failure to moderate violent threats, after Trump supporters flocked to the app in the wake of Facebook’s and Twitter’s crackdown.

At the time of writing, Parler is also poised to be booted by its hosting provider AWS, while Stripe has reportedly pulled the plug on Trump’s ability to use its payment tools to fleece supporters. (Although when this reporter asked in November whether Trump was breaching its TOC by using its payment tools for his ‘election defense fund’ Stripe ignored TechCrunch’s emails…)

“If there was anyone out there who still doubted that online platforms have become systemic actors in our societies and democracies, last week’s events on Capitol Hill is their answer. What happens online doesn’t just stay online: It has — and even exacerbates — consequences ‘in real life’ too,” Breton writes.

“Last week’s insurrection marked the culminating point of years of hate speech, incitement to violence, disinformation and destabilization strategies that were allowed to spread without restraint over well-known social networks. The unrest in Washington is proof that a powerful yet unregulated digital space — reminiscent of the Wild West — has a profound impact on the very foundations of our modern democracies.”

The Europe Commission proposed a major update to the rules for digital services and platform giants in December, when it laid out the Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act — saying it’s time to level the regulatory playing field by ensuing content and activity that’s illegal offline is similarly sanctioned online.

The Commission’s proposal also seeks to address the market power of tech giants with proposals for additional oversight and extra rules for the largest platforms that have the potential to cause the greatest societal harm.

Unsurprisingly, then, Breton has seized on the chaotic scenes in Washington to push this already-formed tech policy plan — with his eye on a domestic audience of European governments and elected members of the European Parliament whose support is needed to pass the legislation and reboot the region’s digital rules.

“The fact that a CEO can pull the plug on POTUS’s loudspeaker without any checks and balances is perplexing. It is not only confirmation of the power of these platforms, but it also displays deep weaknesses in the way our society is organized in the digital space,” he warns.

“These last few days have made it more obvious than ever that we cannot just stand by idly and rely on these platforms’ good will or artful interpretation of the law. We need to set the rules of the game and organize the digital space with clear rights, obligations and safeguards. We need to restore trust in the digital space. It is a matter of survival for our democracies in the 21st century.”

The DSA will force social media to clean up its act on content and avoid the risk of arbitrary decision-making by giving platforms “clear obligations and responsibilities to comply with these laws, granting public authorities more enforcement powers and ensuring that all users’ fundamental rights are safeguarded”, Breton goes on to argue.

The commissioner also addresses US lawmakers directly — calling for Europe and the US to join forces on Internet regulation and engage in talks aimed at establishing what he describes as “globally coherent principles”, suggesting the DSA as a starting point for discussions. So he’s not wasting the opportunity of #MAGA-induced chaos to push a geopolitical agenda for EU tech policy too.

Last month the Commission signalled a desire to work with the incoming Biden administration on a common approach to tech governance, saying it hoped US counterparts would work with to shape global standards for technologies like AI and to force big tech to be more responsible, among other areas. And recent events in Washington do seem to be playing into that hand — although it remains to be seen how the incoming Biden administration will approach regulating big tech.

“The DSA, which has been carefully designed to answer all of the above considerations at the level of our Continent, can help pave the way for a new global approach to online platforms — one that serves the general interest of our societies. By setting a standard and clarifying the rules, it has the potential to become a paramount democratic reform serving generations to come,” Breton concludes.

Twitter’s decision to (finally) pull the plug on Trump also caught the eye of UK minister Matt Hancock, the former  secretary of state for the digital brief (now the health secretary). Speaking to the BBC this weekend, he suggested the unilateral decision “raises questions” about how big tech is regulated that would result in “consequences”.

“The scenes, clearly encouraged by President Trump — the scenes at the Capitol — were terrible — and I was very sad to see that because American democracy is such a proud thing. But there’s something else that has changed, which is that social media platforms are making editorial decisions now. That’s clear because they’re choosing who should and shouldn’t have a voice on their platform,” he told the Andrew Marr program.

The BBC reports that Hancock also told Sky News Twitter’s ban on Trump means social media platforms are taking editorial decisions — which he said “raises questions about their editorial judgements and the way that they’re regulated”.

Hancock’s remarks are noteworthy because back in 2018, during his time as digital minister, he said the government would legislate to introduce a statutory code of conduct on social media platforms forcing them to act against online abuse.

More than two years’ later, the UK’s safety-focused plan to regulate the Internet is still yet to be put before parliament — but late last year ministers committed to introducing an Online Safety Bill this year. 

Under the plan, the UK’s media regulator, Ofcom, will gain new powers to oversee tech platforms — including the ability to levy fines for non-compliance with a safety-focused duty of care of up to 10% of a company’s annual turnover.

The proposal covers a wide range of digital services, not just social media. Larger platforms are also slated to have the greatest responsibility for moderating content and activity. And — at least in its current form — the proposed law is intended to apply not just to content that’s illegal under UK law but also the fuzzier category of ‘harmful’ content.

That’s something the European Commission proposal has steered clear of — with more subjective issues like disinformation set to be tackled via a beefed-up (but still voluntary) code of practice, instead of being baked into digital services legislation. So online speech looks set to be one area of looming regulatory divergence in Europe, with the UK now outside the bloc.

Last year, the government said larger social media platforms — such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and Twitter — are likely to “need to assess the risk of legal content or activity on their services with ‘a reasonably foreseeable risk of causing significant physical or psychological harm to adults’” under the forthcoming Online Safety Bill.

“They will then need to make clear what type of ‘legal but harmful’ content is acceptable on their platforms in their terms and conditions and enforce this transparently and consistently,” it added, suggesting the UK will in fact legislate to force platforms to make ‘editorial’ decisions.

The consequences Hancock thus suggests are coming for tech platforms look rather akin to the ‘editorial’ decisions they have been making in recent days.

Albeit, the uncomfortable difference he seems to have been articulating is between tech platforms that have massive unilateral power to silence the US president at a stroke and at a point of their own choosing vs tech platforms being made to comply with a pre-defined rules-based order set by legislators and regulators.

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

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MIT develops method for lab-grown plants that eventually lead to alternatives to forestry and farming

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Researchers at MIT have developed a new method for growing plant tissues in a lab – sort of like how companies and researchers are approaching lab-grown meat. The process would be able to produce wood and fibre in a lab environment, and researchers have already demonstrated how it works in concept by growing simple structures using cells harvested from zinnia leaves.

This work is still in its very early stages, but the potential applications of lab-grown plant material are significant, and include possibilities in both agriculture and in ruction materials. While traditional agricultural is much less ecologically damaging when compared to animal farming, it can still have a significant impact and cost, and it takes a lot of resources to maintain. Not to mention that even small environmental changes can have a significant effect on crop yield.

Forestry, meanwhile, has much more obvious negative environmental impacts. If the work of these researchers can eventually be used to create a way to produce lab-grown wood for use in construction and fabrication, in a way that’s scalable and efficient, then there’s tremendous potential in terms of reducing the impact of forestry globally. Eventually, the team even theorizes you could coax the growth of plant-based materials into specific target shapes, so you could also do some of the manufacturing in the lab, by growing a wood table directly for instance.

There’s still a long way to go from what the researchers have achieved. They’ve only grown materials on a very small scale, and will look to figure out ways to grow plant-based materials with different final properties as one challenge. They’ll also need to overcome significant barriers when it comes to scaling efficiencies, but they are working on solutions that could address some of these difficulties.

Lab-grown meat is still in its infancy, and lab-grown plant material is even more nascent. But it has tremendous potential, even if it takes a long time to get there.

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Cannabis marketing startup Fyllo acquires DataOwl

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Fyllo has acquired DataOwl, a company offering marketing and loyalty tools for cannabis retailers.

Fyllo said it already works with 320 cannabis retailers across 25 states (plus Puerto Rico and Jamaica). According to Chief Marketing Officer Conrad Lisco, this acquisition allows the company to offer the industry’s “first end-to-end marketing solution,” combining consumer data, digital advertising, regulatory compliance (thanks to Fyllo’s acquisition of CannaRegs last year) and, through DataOwl, CRM and loyalty tied into a business’ point-of-sale system.

As an example, founder and CEO Chad Bronstein (previously the chief revenue officer at digital marketing company Amobee) said that retailers will be able to use the Fyllo platform to send promotional texts to regular customers while, crucially, ensuring that those campaigns are fully in compliance with state and local regulations. He added that eventually, the platform could be used beyond cannabis, in other regulated industries.

“Beauty, gambling, etc. — the same things need to happen in every regulated industry, they would all benefit from loyalty and compliance automation,” Bronstein said.

In addition, he argued that mainstream brands are increasingly interested in using data around cannabis and CBD consumers, as borne out in a Forrester study commissioned by Fyllo.

Lisco said this acquisition comes at a crucial time for the cannabis industry, with dispensaries classified as essential businesses in many states, as well as continuing momentum behind marijuana legalization.

“In 2020, cannabis came of age,” he said. “We would say it went form illicit to essential in 10 months … 2021 is really about watching endemic [marijuana] brands try to scale, so that they can capitalize on the explosive growth. They’ve historically been excluded from the kinds of integrated marketing capabilities that other non-endemic [mainstream] brands get to use when go to market.”

Bronstein said Fyllo aims to bring those capabilities to marijuana brands, first by bringing the its compliance capabilities into the DataOwl product. The company also aims to create a national cannabis loyalty platform, allowing a marijuana retailer in one state to easily expand its marketing capabilities into other states in a compliant fashion.

The financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed. DataOwl co-founders Dan Hirsch and Vartan Arabyan are joining Fyllo, as is the rest of their team, bringing the company’s total headcount to 110.

“By integrating with Fyllo, DataOwl’s solutions will reach the widest possible audience via the industry’s most innovative marketing platform,” Hirsch said in a statement.

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SpaceX delivers 60 more Starlink satellites in first launch of 2021, and sets new Falcon 9 rocket reusability record

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SpaceX has launched its 17th batch of Starlink satellites during its first mission of 2021, using a Falcon 9 rocket that was flying for the eighth time, and that landed again, recording a record for its reusability program. This puts the total Starlink constellation size at almost 1,000, as the company has expanded its beta access program for the service to the UK and Canada, with a first deployment in the latter company serving a rural First Nations community in a remote part of the province of Ontario.

The launch took off from Florida at 8:02 AM EST (5:02 AM PST), with delivery of the satellites following as planned at around an hour after lift-off. The booster on this launch flew seven times previously, as mentioned – including just in December when it was used to delivery a SiriusXM satellite to orbit to support that company’s satellite radio network.

Today’s launch was also notable because it included a landing attempt in so-called “envelope expansion” conditions, which means that the winds in the landing zone where SpaceX’s drone recovery ship was stationed at sea actually exceeded the company’s previously-defined safety window for making a landing attempt.

As a result of today’s success, SpaceX will likely now have higher tolerances for wind speeds in order to attempt recovery, which should translate to fewer cancellations of launches based on weather conditions in the landing zone.

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