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Twitter’s vision of decentralization could also be the far-right’s internet endgame

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This week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey finally responded publicly to the company’s decision to ban President Trump from its platform, writing that Twitter had “faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance” and that he did not “feel pride” about the decision. In the same thread, he took time to call out a nascent Twitter-sponsored initiative called “bluesky,” which is aiming to build up an “open decentralized standard for social media” that Twitter is just one part of.

Researchers involved with bluesky reveal to TechCrunch an initiative still in its earliest stages that could fundamentally shift the power dynamics of the social web.

Bluesky is aiming to build a “durable” web standard that will ultimately ensure that platforms like Twitter have less centralized responsibility in deciding which users and communities have a voice on the internet. While this could protect speech from marginalized groups, it may also upend modern moderation techniques and efforts to prevent online radicalization.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive officer of Twitter Inc., arrives after a break during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Republicans pressed Dorsey for what they said may be the “shadow-banning” of conservatives during the hearing. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What is bluesky?

Just as Bitcoin lacks a central bank to control it, a decentralized social network protocol operates without central governance, meaning Twitter would only control its own app built on bluesky, not other applications on the protocol. The open and independent system would allow applications to see, search and interact with content across the entire standard. Twitter hopes that the project can go far beyond what the existing Twitter API offers, enabling developers to create applications with different interfaces or methods of algorithmic curation, potentially paying entities across the protocol like Twitter for plug-and-play access to different moderation tools or identity networks.

A widely adopted, decentralized protocol is an opportunity for social networks to “pass the buck” on moderation responsibilities to a broader network, one person involved with the early stages of bluesky suggests, allowing individual applications on the protocol to decide which accounts and networks its users are blocked from accessing.

Social platforms like Parler or Gab could theoretically rebuild their networks on bluesky, benefitting from its stability and the network effects of an open protocol. Researchers involved are also clear that such a system would also provide a meaningful measure against government censorship and protect the speech of marginalized groups across the globe.

Bluesky’s current scope is firmly in the research phase, people involved tell TechCrunch, with about 40-50 active members from different factions of the decentralized tech community surveying the software landscape and putting together proposals for what the protocol should ultimately look like. Twitter has told early members that it hopes to hire a project manager in the coming weeks to build out an independent team that will start crafting the protocol itself.

Bluesky’s initial members were invited by Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal early last year. It was later determined that the group should open the conversation up to folks representing some of the more recognizable decentralized network projects, including Mastodon and ActivityPub who joined the working group hosted on the secure chat platform Element.

Jay Graber, founder of decentralized social platform Happening, was paid by Twitter to write up a technical review of the decentralized social ecosystem, an effort to “help Twitter evaluate the existing options in the space,” she tells TechCrunch.

“If [Twitter] wanted to design this thing, they could have just assigned a group of guys to do it, but there’s only one thing that this little tiny group of people could do better than Twitter, and that’s not be Twitter,” said Golda Velez, another member of the group who works as a senior software engineer at Postmates and co-founded civ.works, a privacy-centric social network for civic engagement.

The group has had some back and forth with Twitter executives on the scope of the project, eventually forming a Twitter-approved list of goals for the initiative. They define the challenges that the bluesky protocol should seek to address while also laying out what responsibilities are best left to the application creators building on the standard.

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment.

Parrot.VC Twitter account

Image: TechCrunch

Who is involved

The pain points enumerated in the document, viewed by TechCrunch, encapsulate some of Twitter’s biggest shortcomings. They include “how to keep controversy and outrage from hijacking virality mechanisms,” as well as a desire to develop “customizable mechanisms” for moderation, though the document notes that the applications, not the overall protocol, are “ultimately liable for compliance, censorship, takedowns etc..”

“I think the solution to the problem of algorithms isn’t getting rid of algorithms — because sorting posts chronologically is an algorithm — the solution is to make it an open pluggable system by which you can go in and try different algorithms and see which one suits you or use the one that your friends like,” says Evan Henshaw-Plath, another member of the working group. He was one of Twitter’s earliest employees and has been building out his own decentralized social platform called Planetary.

His platform is based on the secure scuttlebutt protocol, which allows user to browse networks offline in an encrypted fashion. Early on, Planetary had been in talks with Twitter for a corporate investment as well as a personal investment from CEO Jack Dorsey, Henshaw-Plath says, but the competitive nature of the platform prompted some concern among Twitter’s lawyers and Planetary ended up receiving an investment from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s venture fund Future Positive. Stone did not respond to interview requests.

After agreeing on goals, Twitter had initially hoped for the broader team to arrive at some shared consensus but starkly different viewpoints within the group prompted Twitter to accept individual proposals from members. Some pushed Twitter to outright adopt or evolve an existing standard while others pushed for bluesky to pursue interoperability of standards early on and see what users naturally flock to.

One of the developers in the group hoping to bring bluesky onto their standard was Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko who tells TechCrunch he sees the need for a major shift in how social media platforms operate globally.

“Banning Trump was the right decision though it came a little bit too late. But at the same time, the nuance of the situation is that maybe it shouldn’t be a single American company that decides these things,” Rochko tells us.

Like several of the other members in the group, Rochko has been skeptical at times about Twitter’s motivation with the bluesky protocol. Shortly after Dorsey’s initial announcement in 2019, Mastodon’s official Twitter account tweeted out a biting critique, writing, “This is not an announcement of reinventing the wheel. This is announcing the building of a protocol that Twitter gets to control, like Google controls Android.”

Today, Mastodon is arguably one of the most mature decentralized social platforms. Rochko claims that the network of decentralized nodes has more than 2.3 million users spread across thousands of servers. In early 2017, the platform had its viral moment on Twitter, prompting an influx of “hundreds of thousands” of new users alongside some inquisitive potential investors whom Rochko has rebuffed in favor of a donation-based model.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Inherent risks

Not all of the attention Rochko has garnered has been welcome. In 2019, Gab, a social network favored by right-wing extremists, brought its entire platform onto the Mastodon network after integrating the platform’s open source code, bringing Mastodon its single biggest web of users and its most undesirable liability all at once.

Rochko quickly disavowed the network and aimed to sever its ties to other nodes on the Mastodon platform and convince application creators to do the same. But a central fear of decentralization advocates was quickly realized, as the platform type’s first “success story” was a home for right-wing extremists.

This fear has been echoed in decentralized communities this week as app store owners and networks have taken another right-wing social network, Parler, off the web after violent content surfaced on the site in the lead-up and aftermath of riots at the U.S. Capitol, leaving some developers fearful that the social network may set up home on their decentralized standard.

“Fascists are 100% going to use peer-to-peer technologies, they already are and they’re going to start using it more… If they get pushed off of mainstream infrastructure or people are surveilling them really closely, they’re going to have added motivation,” said Emmi Bevensee, a researcher studying extremist presences on decentralized networks. “Maybe the far-right gets stronger footholds on peer-to-peer before the people who think the far-right is bad do because they were effectively pushed off.”

A central concern is that commoditizing decentralized platforms through efforts like bluesky will provide a more accessible route for extremists kicked off current platforms to maintain an audience and provide casual internet users a less janky path towards radicalization.

“Peer-to-peer technology is generally not that seamless right now. Some of it is; you can buy Bitcoin in Cash App now, which, if anything, is proof that this technology is going to become much more mainstream and adoption is going to become much more seamless,” Bevensee told TechCrunch. “In the current era of this mass exodus from Parler, they’re obviously going to lose a huge amount of audience that isn’t dedicated enough to get on IPFS. Scuttlebutt is a really cool technology but it’s not as seamless as Twitter.”

Extremists adopting technologies that promote privacy and strong encryption is far from a new phenomenon, encrypted chat apps like Signal and Telegram have been at the center of such controversies in recent years. Bevensee notes the tendency of right-wing extremist networks to adopt decentralized network tech has been “extremely demoralizing” to those early developer communities — though she notes that the same technologies can and do benefit “marginalized people all around the world.”

Though people connected to bluesky’s early moves see a long road ahead for the protocol’s development and adoption, they also see an evolving landscape with Parler and President Trump’s recent deplatforming that they hope will drive other stakeholders to eventually commit to integrating with the standard.

“Right at this moment I think that there’s going to be a lot of incentive to adopt, and I don’t just mean by end users, I mean by platforms, because Twitter is not the only one having these really thorny moderation problems,” Velez says. “I think people understand that this is a critical moment.”

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

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The rise of the tech workers union and what comes next

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While not entirely non-existent, the union has been an elusive phenomenon in Silicon Valley. More recently, however, big names like Google and Kickstarter have taken key steps toward forming unions, as have smaller startups like Glitch, which made history this week by signing a collective bargaining agreement – the first team of software engineers to do so. Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama, meanwhile, are currently on the cusp of forming their own historic union. In this panel from TC Sessions: Justice, we discuss how we got here, what comes next and steps tech employees can take.


On Why Now?

As has been the case with management throughout history, tech companies have long fought tooth and nail against labor organizing. Over the course of the last couple of years, however, we may have seen something of a critical mass that could represent the beginnings of a sea change for the industry.

Redwine: It seems like tech workers are reacting to some of the maturity of tech and the expansion of the platforms that we all work on, and also more worker instability in general in the US, especially. I think it’s sort of a response that workers are becoming more formal in their organizing efforts. (Timestamp: 1:08)

Parul Koul (Google):

Koul: A variety of tactics and strategies have been tried, and we’ve been able to analyze the successes and failures of past movements and arrive at a point where we’ve developed enough institutional and organizational knowledge to try something new and – in some ways – more complex. (Timestamp: 3:25)


On Whether The Pandemic Will Spur More Organizing

Covid-19 has radically transformed where – and how – we work. It’s upended many industries and cause millions to lose jobs. Could the pandemic prove to be yet another inflection point for a growing movement.

Koul: In our case, what we saw was companies moving to work from home and then, in certain categories of employees, not really receiving the same benefits […] whether it’s a stipend to buy equipment or even having the benefit from working from home […] We also saw a mass movement and social and political protests against police brutality erupt right in the middle of the pandemic. For me, and many other organizers at Google, it really galvanized us to do something and respond to that in the streets and in our own way. (Timestamp: 6:56)


On How – or if – Unions Can Protect Against Layoffs

For many industries, layoffs have become all but an inevitability during the pandemic. In a number of the aforementioned cases, they’ve continued even in the wake of employee unionizing. Ultimately, how much protection does a union give workers against layoffs?

Reckers: Kickstarter won its union on February 18, 2020. The pandemic hit in mid-March. The company announced that they were going to have pretty massive layoffs in early-April. That was a very difficult time. We looked at the numbers and did see that a number of the people they were proposing to layoff were advocates for the union or union members. That was very hard to stomach. What happens, though – and where the union comes into play – is that the company was not able to just lay people off like that. Especially under the terms that they wanted to impose unilaterally, without any consultation with staff. The difference was that when the company proposed these layoffs, because there was already a union in place, Kickstarter had to negotiate with the group of employees about the terms of that layoff. (Timestamp: 9:10)


On How to Get Started

First steps toward unionization are often difficult in an environment where organizing is frowned upon management. Many early conversations happen after hours and off-the-clock for fear of repercussion. This can be doubly difficult in an environments like white collar workers tech company, where some employees don’t tacitly understand the benefits of organizing.

Reckers: You can best support each other by getting into conversations with your coworkers and understanding what’s been going on with them. The first question I often get from people is how to first start having conversations. I think that’s a challenge, especially since we’re not taught how to do that. But starting a conversation about what their experiences have been like at the organization or company, how long they’ve been there, how has there changed? What did they want to see when they were hired? What sort of workplace were they looking for? And how can we make sure that we have some way of achieving that? (Timestamp: 24:04)


On Whether Expressions of Support From Management Are Always Positive

Management often adopts the narrative that they support unions following hard fought battles. In the wake of support from certain tech executives and political leaders like Joe Biden, the question arises about whether such sentiments can ultimately have negative repercussions for organizing.

Redwine: First and foremost, it’s really important to remember that the things that people in power say do not matter. All of the power that you have doesn’t come from people at the top giving it to you. It comes from linking arms with the people next to you and taking that power and influence for yourself. (Timestamp: 28:27)

You can read the entire transcript here.

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PayPal to acquire cryptocurrency custody startup Curv

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PayPal has announced that it plans to acquire Curv, a cryptocurrency startup based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Israeli newspaper Calcalist originally reported the move. And PayPal has now made an official announcement.

Curv is a cryptocurrency custody company, which means that it helps you store your crypto assets securely. The company operates a cloud-based service that lets you access your crypto wallets without any hardware device.

Curv also lets you set up sophisticated policies so that the new intern cannot withdraw crypto assets without some sort of approval chain. Similarly, you can create allow lists so that regular transactions can go through more easily.

Behind the scenes, Curv uses multi-party computation to handle private keys. When you create a wallet, cryptographic secrets are generated on your device and on Curv’s servers. Whenever you’re trying to initiate a transaction, multiple secrets are used to generate a full public and private key.

Secrets are rotated regularly and you can’t do anything with just one secret. If somebody steals an unsecured laptop, a hacker cannot access crypto funds with the information stored on this device alone.

As you can see, Curv isn’t a cryptocurrency wallet for end users. The company offers its services to exchanges, brokers and over-the-counter desks. If you’re running a fund and you plan on buying a large amount of cryptocurrencies, you could also consider using Curv.

Finally, financial institutions that are looking for a solution to store digital assets and diversify their balance sheet could also work with Curv.

PayPal says that the Curv team will join the cryptocurrency group within PayPal. The payment giant has been gradually rolling out cryptocurrency products. It has partnered with Paxos so that users in the U.S. can buy, hold and sell cryptocurrencies from their PayPal account.

In the near future, PayPal also plans to let you buy and sell items using cryptocurrencies. During its most recent earnings release, the company also said that it plans to launch cryptocurrency products in other countries and in Venmo, the consumer fintech super app owned by PayPal.

Terms of the deal are undisclosed and the transaction should close at some point during the first half of 2021. Calcalist reported that PayPal was paying between $200 million and $300 million for the acquisition. A person close to the company says that the transaction was under $200 million. I guess we’ll find out what happened exactly in the next earnings release.

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Last-mile delivery robotics company Refraction AI raises $4.2M

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Ann Arbor-based Refraction AI announced today that it has raised a $4.2 million seed round. The startup, which debuted on the TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility stage back in 2019, was founded by a pair of University of Michigan professors (Matthew Johnson-Roberson — now CTO — and Ram Vasudevan) seeking to solve a number of issues posed by many delivery robots.

With an initial prototype built on a bicycle foundation, the company’s REV-1 robot is designed to operate in bike lanes and roads, rather than the standard sidewalk ‘bot. The different approach allows the robot to travel at higher speeds (topping out at 15 miles per hour) and removes some of the messy pedestrian-dodging issues that come with sidewalk use (while introducing some new ones on that narrow sliver of asphalt shared by cyclists).

Refraction is currently testing a small fleet in its native Ann Arbor. The seed round, led by Pillar VC, will be used for R&D, expanding the company’s reach and recruiting more customers, with a focus on grocery store and restaurant deliveries. Other investors include, eLab Ventures, Osage Venture Partners, Trucks Venture Capital, Alumni Ventures Group, Chad Laurans and Invest Michigan.

Another key differentiator is the use of cameras, versus LIDAR. The decision comes with some technological trade-offs, but benefits include a lower price point and the ability for the company to more quickly scale its fleet. The technology is also not easily districted by weather conditions encountered in the upper midwest, though it has limitations, too. As the company puts it, if you’re not comfortable walking out in it, the robot probably won’t be, either.

“Our platform uses technology that exists today in an innovative way, to get people the things they need, when they need them, where they live,” CEO Luke Schneider said in a release tied to the news. “And we’re doing so in a way that reduces business’ costs, makes roads less congested, and eliminates carbon emissions.”

With this new funding, the company plans to expand operations beyond its native Ann Arbor, though no additional test markets have been announced.

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