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How Twitter is handling the 2021 US presidential transition

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Twitter has set out its plans for US Inauguration Day 2021, next Wednesday, January 20, when president-elect Joe Biden will be sworn into office as the 46th US president and vice president-elect Kamala Harris will become VP.

“This year, multiple challenging circumstances will require that most people experience this historic ceremony virtually,” the social media firm writes in a blog post detailing how it will handle the transition of power on its platform as the Trump administration departs office.

“As Twitter will serve as both a venue for people to watch and talk about this political event, and play a key role in facilitating the transfer of official government communication channels, we want to be transparent and clear about what people should expect to see on the platform.”

The inauguration will of course be livestreamed via Twitter by multiple accounts (such as news outlets), as well as the official inauguration accounts, @JCCIC and @BidenInaugural.

Twitter will also be streaming the ceremony via its US Elections Hub, where it says it will share curated Moments, Lists and accounts to follow as well.

Once sworn into office, Biden and Harris will gain control of the @POTUS and @VP Twitter accounts. Other accounts that will transition to the new administration on the day include @WhiteHouse, @FLOTUS and @PressSec.

Twitter has also confirmed that Harris’ husband, Douglas Emhoff, will use a new official account — called @SecondGentleman. (It’s not clear why not ‘SGOTUS’; aside from, well, the unloveliness of the acronym.) 

As it did when president Obama left office, Twitter will transfer the current institutional accounts of the Trump administration to the National Archives and Records Administration (Nara) — meaning the outgoing administration’s tweets and account history will remain publicly available (with account usernames updated to reflect their archived status, e.g. @POTUS will be archived as @POTUS45).

However Trump’s personal account, which he frequently used as a political cudgel, yelling in ALL CAPS and/or spewing his customary self-pitying tweets, has already been wiped from public view after Twitter took the decision to permanently ban him last week for repeat violations of its rules of conduct. So there’s likely to be a major gap in Nara’s Trump archive.

Since late last year we’ve known the transitioning @POTUS and institutional accounts will not automatically retain followers from the prior administration. But Twitter still hasn’t confirmed why.

Today it just reiterated that the current (33.3M) followers of @POTUS and the other official accounts will receive a notification about the archival process which will include the “option” to follow the new holders of the accounts.

That’s another notable change from 2017 when Trump inherited the ~14M followers of president Obama’s @POTUS. Biden will instead have to start his presidential tweeting from scratch.

Given the chaotic events in the US capital last week, when supporters of the outgoing president broke through police lines to cause mayhem on the hill and in the House, there’s every reason for tech platforms to approach the 2021 transition with trepidation, lest their tools get used to livestream another historic insurrection (or worse).

Since then Trump has also continued to maintain his false claim that the election was stolen through voter fraud.

Although he avoided any new direct reference to this big lie when he circumvented Twitter’s ban on his personal account earlier this week, by posting a new video of himself speaking on the official @WhiteHouse account.

In the video he decried the “incursion at the US capital”, as he put it; claimed that he “unequivocally condemns the violence that we saw last week”; and called for unity. But Twitter has put tight limits on what Trump can say on its platform without having his posts removed (as well limiting him to the official @POTUS channel). So he remains on a very tight speech leash.

In the video Trump limits his verbal attacks to a few remarks — about what he describes as “the unprecedented assault on free speech we have seen in recent days” — dubbing tech platforms’ censorship “wrong” and “dangerous”, and adding that “what is needed now is for us to listen to one another, not to silence one another”.

There’s a lot going on here but it should not escape notice that Trump’s seeming contrition and quasi-concession and his very-last-minute calls for unity have only come when he actively feels power draining away from him.

Most notably, his call for unity has only come after powerful tech platforms acted to shut off his hate-megaphone — ending the years of special dispensation they granted Trump to ride roughshod over democratic convention and tear up the civic rulebook.

It’s very interesting to speculate how different the 2021 US inauguration might look and feel if platforms like Twitter had consistently enforced their rules against Trump from the get-go.

Instead we’re stuck in all sorts of lockdown, counting the days til Biden takes office — and above all hoping for a smooth transition of power.

So Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is quite right when he said this week that Twitter has failed in its mission to “promote healthy conversation”. His company ignored warnings about online toxicity for years. Trump is, in no small part, the divisive product of that. 

In a brief section of Twitter’s transition handling blog post, entitled “protecting the public conversation”, the company refers back to a post from earlier this week where it set out steps it’s taking to try to prevent its platform from being used to “incite violence, organize attacks, and share deliberately misleading information about the election outcome” in the coming days.

These measures include permanently suspending ~70,000 accounts it said were primarily dedicated to sharing content related to the QAnon conspiracy theory; aggressively beefing up its civic integrity policy; and applying interaction limits on labeled tweets plus blocking violative keywords from appearing in Trends and search.

“These efforts, including our open lines of communication with law enforcement, will continue through the inauguration and will adapt as needed if circumstances change in real-time,” it adds, preparing for the possibility of more unrest.

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Qualcomm veteran to replace Alain Crozier as Microsoft Greater China boss

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Microsoft gets a new leader for its Greater China business. Yang Hou, a former executive at Qualcomm, will take over Alain Crozier as the chairman and chief executive officer for Microsoft Greater China Region, according to a company announcement released Monday.

More to come…

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Autonomous drone maker Skydio raises $170M led by Andreessen Horowitz

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Skydio has raised $170 million in a Series D funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz’s Growth Fund. That pushes it into unicorn territory, with $340 million in total funding and a post-money valuation north of $1 billion. Skydio’s fresh capital comes on the heels of its expansion last year into the enterprise market, and it intends to use the considerable pile of cash to help it expand globally and accelerate product development.

In July of last year, Skydio announced its $100 million Series C financing, and also debuted the X2, its first dedicated enterprise drone. The company also launched a suite of software for commercial and enterprise customers, its first departure from the consumer drone market where it had been focused prior to that raise since its founding in 2014.

Skydio’s debut drone, the R1, received a lot of accolades and praise for its autonomous capabilities. Unlike other consumer drones at the time, including from recreational drone maker DJI, the R1 could track a target and film them while avoiding obstacles without any human intervention required. Skydio then released the Skydio 2 in 2019, its second drone, cutting off more than half the price while improving on it its autonomous tracking and video capabilities.

Late last year, Skydio brought on additional senior talent to help it address enterprise and government customers, including a software development lead who had experience at Tesla and 3D printing company Carbon. Skydio also hired two Samsara executives at the same time to work on product and engineering. Samsara provides a platform for managing cloud-based fleet operations for large enterprises.

The applications of Skydio’s technology for commercial, public sector and enterprise organizations are many and varied. Already, the company works with public utilities, fire departments, construction firms and more to do work including remote inspection, emergency response, urban planning and more. Skydio’s U.S. pedigree also puts it in prime position to capitalize on the growing interest in applications from the defense sector.

a16z previously led Skydio’s Series A round. Other investors who participated in this Series D include Lines Capital, Next47, IVP and UP.Partners.

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Space startup Gitai raises $17.1M to help build the robotic workforce of commercial space

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Japanese space startup Gitai has raised a $17.1 million funding round, a Series B financing for the robotics startup. This new funding will be used for hiring, as well as funding the development and execution of an on-orbit demonstration mission for the company’s robotic technology, which will show its efficacy in performing in-space satellite servicing work. That mission is currently set to take place in 2023.

Gitai will also be staffing up in the U.S., specifically, as it seeks to expand its stateside presence in a bid to attract more business from that market.

“We are proceeding well in the Japanese market, and we’ve already contracted missions from Japanese companies, but we haven’t expanded to the U.S. market yet,” explained Gitai founder and CEO Sho Nakanose in an interview. So we would like to get missions from U.S. commercial space companies, as a subcontractor first. We’re especially interested in on-orbit servicing, and we would like to provide general-purpose robotic solutions for an orbital service provider in the U.S.”

Nakanose told me that Gitai has plenty of experience under its belt developing robots which are specifically able to install hardware on satellites on-orbit, which could potentially be useful for upgrading existing satellites and constellations with new capabilities, for changing out batteries to keep satellites operational beyond their service life, or for repairing satellites if they should malfunction.

Gitai’s focus isn’t exclusively on extra-vehicular activity in the vacuum of space, however. It’s also performing a demonstration mission of its technical capabilities in partnership with Nanoracks using the Bishop Airlock, which is the first permanent commercial addition to the International Space Station. Gitai’s robot, codenamed S1, is an arm–style robot not unlike industrial robots here on Earth, and it’ll be showing off a number of its capabilities, including operating a control panel and changing out cables.

Long-term, Gitai’s goal is to create a robotic workforce that can assist with establishing bases and colonies on the Moon and Mars, as well as in orbit. With NASA’s plans to build a more permanent research presence on orbit at the Moon, as well as on the surface, with the eventual goal of reaching Mars, and private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin looking ahead to more permanent colonies on Mars, as well as large in-space habitats hosting humans as well as commercial activity, Nakanose suggests that there’s going to be ample need for low-cost, efficient robotic labor – particularly in environments that are inhospitable to human life.

Nakanose told me that he actually got started with Gitai after the loss of his mother – an unfortunate passing he said he firmly believes could have been avoided with the aid of robotic intervention. He began developing robots that could expand and augment human capability, and then researched what was likely the most useful and needed application of this technology from a commercial perspective. That research led Nakanose to conclude that space was the best long-term opportunity for a new robotics startup, and Gitai was born.

This funding was led by SPARX Innovation for the Future Co. Ltd, and includes funding form DcI Venture Growth Fund, the Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, and EP-GB (Epson’s venture investment arm).

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