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EU chief warns over ‘unfiltered’ hate speech and calls for Biden to back rules for big tech

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In a speech to the European Parliament today marking the inauguration of US president Joe Biden, the president of the European Commission has called for Europe and the US to join forces on regulating tech giants, warning of the risks of “unfiltered” hate speech and disinformation being weaponized to attack and undermine democracies.

Ursula von der Leyen pointed to the shock storming of the US capital earlier this month by supporters of outgoing president Donald Trump as an example of how wild claims being spread and amplified online can have tangible real-world consequences, including for democratic institutions.

“Just a few days ago, several hundred [Trump supporters] stormed the Capitol in Washington, the heart of American democracy. The television images of that event shocked us all. That is what happens when words incite action,” she said. “That is what happens when hate speech and fake news spread like wildfire through digital media. They become a danger to democracy.”

European institutions are also being targeted with “hate and contempt for our democracy spreading unfiltered through social media to millions of people”, she warned, pointing to similarly disturbing attacks that have taken place in the region in recent years. Such as an attempt by right-wing extremists in Germany to storm the Reichstag building last summer and the 2016 murder of UK politician, Jo Cox, by a fascist extremist.

“Of course, the storming of the [US] Capitol was different. But in Europe, too, there are people who feel disadvantaged and are very angry,” she said, suggesting feelings of exclusion and injustice can make people vulnerable to believing the “rampant” conspiracy theories that platforms have allowed to circulate freely online, and which she characterized as “often a confused mixture of completely absurd fantasies”.

“We must make sure that messages of hate and fake news can no longer be spread unchecked,” she added, reiterating the case for regulating social media by pressing the case for imposing “democratic limits on the untrammelled and uncontrolled political power of the Internet giants”.

The European Commission has already set out its blueprint for overhauling the region’s digital rulebook when it unveiled the draft Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act last month. Although it won’t be including hard legal limits on disinformation in the package — preferring to continue with a voluntary, but beefed up code of conduct for content that falls into a grey area where it may be harmful but isn’t actually illegal.

von der Leyen said the aim for the regulations is to ensure “if something is illegal offline it must also be illegal online”. The Commission has also said the tech policy package is about forcing platforms to take more responsibility for the content they spread and monetize.

But it’s not yet clear how the proposed laws will ultimately tackle the tricky issue of how assessments are made to remove (or reinstate) speech; and whether platforms will continue to make those judgements (under a regulator’s guidance and watchful eye), or whether they end up entirely independent of platform control.

What the Commission has suggested is closer to the former but the proposal has to go through the EU’s co-legislative process — so such details are likely to be debated and could be amended prior to adoption into law.

“We want the platforms to be transparent about how their algorithms work. We cannot accept a situation where decisions that have a wide-ranging impact on our democracy are being made by computer programs without any human supervision,” von der Leyen went on. “And we want it laid down clearly that internet companies take responsibility for the content they disseminate.”

She also reiterated the concern expressed in recent days about the unilateral actions taken by tech giants to close down Trump’s megaphone — echoing comments by political leaders across Europe earlier this month who dubbed the display of raw platform power, from companies like Twitter, as ‘problematic’; and said it must result in regulatory consequences for tech giants.  

“No matter how right it may have been for Twitter to switch off Donald Trump’s account five minutes after midnight, such serious interference with freedom of expression should be based on laws and not on company rules,” she said, adding: “It should be based on decisions of politicians and parliaments and not of Silicon Valley managers.”

In the speech, the EU president also expressed hope that the Biden administration will be inclined to arc toward Europe’s agenda on digital regulation — as part of the anticipated post-Trump reboot of EU-US relations.

The Commission recently adopted a new transatlantic agenda in which it laid out a number of policy areas it hopes for joint-working with the US — with tech governance key among the areas of hoped for policy cooperation.

von der Leyen reiterated the idea that a joint Trade and Technology Council could be “a first step” toward the EU and US fashioning a “digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide”.

“It is in this digital field that Europe has so much to offer the new government in Washington,” she suggested. “The path we have taken in Europe can be an example for approaches at international level. As has long been the case with the General Data Protection Regulation.

“Together we could create a digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide: From data protection and privacy to the security of technical infrastructure. A body of rules based on our values: human rights and pluralism, inclusion and protection of privacy.”

While there’s evidently a keen appetite in the EU to reset US relations post-Trump, it remains to be seen how much of a policy reboot the Biden administration will usher in vis-a-vis big tech.

He has not been as vocal a critic of platform giants as other Democratic challengers for the presidency. And the Obama administration, which he of course served in, had very cosy ties to Silicon Valley.

Concerns have also been raised in recent days about Biden’s potential picks for a key appointment at the justice office — in light of antitrust probes of big tech vs the prospective appointees’ deep links to tech giants and/or promotion of historical mergers. So it hardly looks like a model for a full and clean reset.

While the tricky issue of pro-privacy reform of US surveillance laws — which EU commissioners have warned will be needed to resolve the legal uncertainty clouding data transfers from the region to the US (and which tech giants themselves have largely avoided in their own lobbying) — seems likely to need legislation from Congress, rather than being a change that could be driven solely by the Biden administration.

The chances of the incoming president being inclined to champion such a relatively wonky tech-policy issue when he has so much else in his ‘needs urgent attention’ in-tray also seem relatively slim. But even slender odds can look promising after the Trump era.  

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

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Tim Hortons marks two years in China with Tencent investment

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Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee and doughnut giant, has raised a new round of funding for its Chinese venture. The investment is led by Sequoia China with participation from Tencent, its digital partner in China, and Eastern Bell Capital. The round comes two years after Tim Hortons made its foray into China’s booming coffee industry.

Tim Hortons didn’t disclose the amount of its latest fundraise but noted in a social media post that the proceeds will be used for opening more stores, building its digital infrastructure, brand presence, and more.

Tencent, the Chinese social media and entertainment behemoth, first backed the 57-year-old Canadian coffee chain last May. At the time the tie-up was seen as Tencent’s move to counter archrival Alibaba’s alliance with Starbucks to deliver coffee and help the American coffee titan go digital in China.

Tim Horton’s collaboration with the WeChat parent is in a similar vein. It has so far accumulated three million members through its WeChat mini program, a type of lightweight app that runs within the instant messenger. To appeal to young Chinese consumers, Tim Hortons opened an esports-themed cafe with Tencent, China’s biggest gaming company.

Two years into operating in China, Tim Hortons says it has reached storefront-level profitability with a footprint of 150 locations across 10 major cities. It plans to add more than 200 locations in 2021 and reach 1,500 stores nationwide in the next few years.

The dramatic rise and fall of coffee delivery startup Luckin brought the prospects of China’s coffee market to the forefront. Despite the investment frenzy around Luckin and other coffee businesses, coffee drinking still has a relatively low penetration in China compared to countries like the United States and Germany. On the other hand, coffee consumption is growing at a much faster rate of 15% in China, well above the global average of 2%, and is projected to reach 1 trillion yuan ($150 million) in 2025, according to a 2020 report by Dongxing Securities.

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Bessemer Venture Partners closes on $3.3 billion across two funds

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Another major VC firm has closed two major rounds, underscoring the long-term confidence investors continue to have for backing privately-held companies in the tech sector.

Early-stage VC firm Bessemer Venture Partners announced Thursday the close of two new funds totaling $3.3 billion that it will be using both to back early-stage startups as well as growth rounds for more mature companies.

The Redwood City-based firm closed BVP XI with $2.475 billion and BVP Century II with $825 million in total commitments.

With BVP XI, it plans to focus on early-stage companies spanning across enterprise, consumer, healthcare, and frontier technologies. 

Its Century II fund is aimed at backing growth-stage companies that Bessemer believes “will define the next century,” and will include both follow-on rounds for existing portfolio companies or investments in new ones.

BVP XI marks Bessemer’s largest fund in its 110-year history. In October 2018, the firm brought in $1.85 billion for its tenth flagship VC fund. This latest fund is its fifth consecutive billion-dollar fund, based on PitchBook data. 

Despite being founded more than 100 years ago, Bessemer didn’t actually enter the venture business until 1965. It’s known for its investments in LinkedIn, Blue Apron and many others, with a current portfolio that includes PagerDuty, Shippo, Electric and DocuSign. Exits include Twitch and Shopify, among many others.

With more money than ever before available for backing startups, the challenge now for VCs is to see how and if they can find (and invest in) whatever will define the next generation of tech. 

“As venture capitalists, we pay too much attention to pattern recognition and matching when in reality, the biggest opportunities exist where those patterns break,” the firm wrote in a blog post today. “Our job is to make perceptive bets on the future, especially those that others will dismiss and ridicule. We are fundamental optimists and strong believers in the power of innovation; our life’s work is putting our reputation, time, and money to help entrepreneurs realize a different future. They’re the ones pioneering something entirely new and obscure – a technology, a business model, a category.

In addition to announcing the new funds, Bessemer also revealed today that it’s brought on five new partners including Jeff Blackburn, who joins after a 22-year career at Amazon, alongside the promotion of existing investors Mary D’Onofrio, Mike Droesch, Tess Hatch, and Andrew Hedin.

Most recently at Amazon, Blackburn served as senior vice president of worldwide business development where he oversaw dozens of Amazon’s minority investments and more than 100 acquisitions across all business lines – including retail, Kindle, Echo, Alexa, FireTV, advertising, music, streaming audio & video, and Amazon Web Services.  

“Having been part of Amazon for more than two decades, I’m excited to begin a new chapter helping customer-focused founders build breakthrough companies,” said Blackburn in a written statement.  “I’ve known the Bessemer team for many years and have long admired their strategic vision and success backing early-stage ventures.” 

With the latest changes, Bessemer now has 21 partners and over 45 investors, advisors, and platform “team members” located in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Boston, London, Tel Aviv, Bangalore, and Beijing. 

“At Bessemer, there’s no corner office or consensus; every partner has the choice, independently, to pen a check. This kind of accountability and autonomy means a founder is teaming up with a partner and board director who thoroughly understands your business and can respond quickly and decisively,” the firm’s blog post read.

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Daily Crunch: Twitter announces ‘Super Follow’ subscriptions

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Twitter reveals its move into paid subscriptions, Australia passes its media bargaining law and Coinbase files its S-1. This is your Daily Crunch for February 25, 2021.

The big story: Twitter announces ‘Super Follow’ subscriptions

Twitter announced its first paid product at an investor event today, showing off screenshots of a feature that will allow users to subscribe to their favorite creators in exchange for things like exclusive content, subscriber-only newsletters and a supporter badge.

The company also announced a feature called Communities, which could compete with Facebook Groups and enable Super Follow networks to interact, plus a Safety Mode for auto-blocking and muting abusive accounts. On top of all that, Twitter said it plans to double revenue by 2023.

Not announced: launch dates for any of these features.

The tech giants

After Facebook’s news flex, Australia passes bargaining code for platforms and publishers — This requires platform giants like Facebook and Google to negotiate to remunerate local news publishers for their content.

New Facebook ad campaign extols the benefits of personalized ads — The sentiments are similar to a campaign that Facebook launched last year in opposition to Apple’s upcoming App Tracking Transparency feature.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Sergey Brin’s airship aims to use world’s biggest mobile hydrogen fuel cell — The Google co-founder’s secretive airship company LTA Research and Exploration is planning to power a huge disaster relief airship with an equally record-breaking hydrogen fuel cell.

Coinbase files to go public in a key listing for the cryptocurrency category — Coinbase’s financials show a company that grew rapidly from 2019 to 2020 while also crossing the threshold into unadjusted profitability.

Boosted by the pandemic, meeting transcription service Otter.ai raises $50M — With convenient timing, Otter.ai added Zoom integration back in April 2020.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

DigitalOcean’s IPO filing shows a two-class cloud market — The company intends to list on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol “DOCN.”

Pilot CEO Waseem Daher tears down his company’s $60M Series C pitch deck — For founders aiming to entice investors, the pitch deck remains the best way to communicate their startup’s progress and potential.

Five takeaways from Coinbase’s S-1 — We dig into Coinbase’s user numbers, its asset mix, its growing subscription incomes, its competitive landscape and who owns what in the company.

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

Everything else

Paramount+ will cost $4.99 per month with ads — The new streaming service launches on March 4.

Register for TC Sessions: Justice for a conversation on diversity, equity and inclusion in the startup world — This is just one week away!

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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