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10 investors predict MaaS, on-demand delivery and EVs will dominate mobility’s post-pandemic future

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The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t just upend the transportation industry. It laid bare its weaknesses, and conversely, uncovered potential opportunities.

Electric bikes sales spiked as public transit ridership evaporated. The public, and investors, began to recognize the utility of autonomous sidewalk delivery bots, which had once been viewed as mere novelties; the rising popularity of on-demand delivery prompted major retailers like Walmart to put more resources towards meeting consumers needs and was one of the driving forces behind Uber’s decision to dump nearly every business unit and acquire Postmates.

The upshot? The transformation isn’t over. Following up on our May of 2020 survey of the sector and about the impact of COVID-19 in particular, TechCrunch spoke with 10 investors about the state of mobility, which trends they’re most excited about and what they’re looking for in their next investments. They see opportunities within software, particularly around mobility-as-a-service ventures and fleet management, continued demand for delivery and the push for electrification and batteries as well as the financial instrument — SPACs — that so many startups turned to in 2020. But there’s a lot more; they even see tailwinds for eVTOLs.

Here’s who we interviewed:


Clara Brenner, co-founder and managing partner, Urban Innovation Fund

COVID-19 disrupted virtually every sector of the transportation industry. E-bike demand spiked, shared scooters initially struggled with some rebounding, ridership dwindled in ride-hailing and plummeted in public transit as consumers turned to cars and other alternatives. Meanwhile, demand for delivery skyrocketed and the autonomous vehicle industry went through a consolidation. What sectors will recover in 2021 and where are the new and unlikely opportunities to invest?

COVID has exposed how rickety, insolvent and inequitable transit is in the U.S. Tools that empower cities to get compensated for private enterprise monetizing public infrastructure, and that ensure more equitable mobility access are exciting to me. Companies like Ride Report that help cities wrap their arms around all of the various public and private transit happening on their streets are exciting to me.

What are the remaining opportunities for new startups, now that the autonomous vehicle industry is maturing with unprecedented consolidation, billion-dollar funding rounds and even a few low-volume commercial operations kicking off?

Autonomous vehicles still have a long way to go, and there is still lots of room for new startups to make their mark on this space. In particular, we’ve been interested to see new entrants working on software tools to facilitate regulation and parking.

What are the overlooked areas that you want to invest in, now that legacy automakers are shifting their portfolios to electric and new EV manufacturers are preparing to start production?

We are very interested in the emerging fleet management space — and this is reflected in a number of our recent investments, including Electriphi (software to help fleets transition to electric) and Kyte (activating underutilized fleets to deliver a magical car rental experience). There are so many efficiencies that come from the fleet model for transportation — we think this will be an increasingly important area in the coming years.

What is the fundraising model of success for transportation startups of the future? Do you expect early-stage funding in this sector to stay hot indefinitely? Do you see SPACs as the path to liquidity long term for a large number of startups in this sector?

Transportation is important to basically all people and is a real mess, so it will likely continue to be a hot topic and a source of investor interest for years to come. However, for capital intensive transportation companies, the rounds have gotten so huge and expensive that they often make little sense for early-stage funders to participate in (they get diluted down hugely). Not that this seems to be dissuading many investors at the moment.

At the Urban Innovation Fund, we are spending a lot of time looking at software tools that enable larger hardware systems to work more efficiently. In terms of longer-term liquidity, SPACs represent a good option for many companies. That said, consolidation/mergers seems the most logical outcome for most companies in the transportation space — where strategic partnerships and integrations represent critical competitive advantages.

What do you want to see from the Biden administration to accelerate innovation in the transportation sector?

I’d like to see the Biden administration invest in our urban public transit systems — we know those systems can work beautifully. This may not accelerate “innovation,” but it will accelerate progress. This is a fundamental confusion in the VC space — innovation does not always equal progress.

Shawn Carolan, partner, Menlo Ventures

COVID-19 disrupted virtually every sector of the transportation industry. E-bike demand spiked, shared scooters initially struggled with some rebounding, ridership dwindled in ride-hailing and plummeted in public transit as consumers turned to cars and other alternatives. Meanwhile, demand for delivery skyrocketed, and the autonomous vehicle industry went through consolidation. What sectors will recover in 2021, and where are the new and unlikely opportunities to invest?

Pretty much all aspects of transportation will show recovery in 2021 with the population’s strong desire to get closer to normal, daily infections dropping, better mask compliance and increased vaccinations. The slowest will be commute-to-work use cases where the “new normal” for many will be 50%-100% fewer trips to the office on a monthly basis.

Personal above shared movement: The psychological aftermath of the pandemic will persist for some time; people do and will continue to prefer more distance from others. This will lead to an acceleration of personal e-mobility solutions, both outright purchase and subscription models, including scooters and e-bikes (Unagi, where we are investors), asset-sharing models where riders aren’t in close proximity to strangers (GetAround, Turo, Lime, Bird), and single-ridership Ubers and Lyfts over UberPools and the like.

E-commerce supply chain: E-commerce has experienced a step-function in demand that will persist. Many shippers, trucking companies, manufacturers, distributors, etc., are still poorly connected, inefficient, and managed with paper and manual labor. The entire supply chain is ripe for Amazon-like efficiency and clarity; this will be driven by factory/warehouse level automation, robotics, best-of-breed fulfillment, and logistics software like our investments in Alloy, Fox Robotics and ShipBob.

Local delivery: Instacart, DoorDash, UberEats, etc. have brought local delivery mainstream. This trend will continue, and the larger incumbents will be working hard to get their act together for streamlining fulfillment rather than let the delivery fleets capture all of the upsides. Here companies like AnyCart that streamline ordering for grocery and recipes can partner versus compete with large grocery chains to deliver a compelling user experience and more reasonable prices.

What are the remaining opportunities for new startups, now that the autonomous vehicle industry is maturing with unprecedented consolidation, billion-dollar funding rounds and even a few low-volume commercial operations kicking off?

Until there is a teleporter, opportunities will always exist to make transportation better, faster and cheaper for a given distance. The big levers coming are:

Electric propulsion (on ground and air) yields a much lower cost per mile with lower opex motors and lower cost of recharge versus burning fuel. Opportunities exist here mostly for component companies making better batteries, motors and quiet propellers.

Better asset utilization: More efficient routing of vehicles (via routing software), higher capacity utilization (via more efficient marketplaces), and less downtime (through better scheduling and optimization algorithms) bring prices down.

Autonomy: Drivers are a big part of both the cost structure of transportation and also accidents. Human-level autonomy is still several years off, but we see lots of opportunity for autonomy in constrained environments (vehicles moving in repetitive patterns with few obstacles) and through the air.

What are the overlooked areas that you want to invest in? Now that legacy automakers are shifting their portfolios to electric, and new EV manufacturers are preparing to start production, what are the overlooked areas that you want to invest in?

We believe there are many transportation options beyond the car. Electric scooters, bikes, eVTOLs and others will keep growing in popularity for both utility and fun.

What is the fundraising model of success for transportation startups of the future? Do you expect early-stage funding in this sector to stay hot indefinitely? Do you see SPACs as the path to liquidity long term for a large number of startups in this sector?

Transportation will be a perennial sector of opportunity given how large a piece of consumer spend it occupies. Till the late 2000s, Silicon Valley barely touched transportation; this has, of course, changed dramatically since that period, particularly with the rise of Tesla.

It’s often quite capital intensive, though. Proving solid unit economics at a small scale before scaling will become more of a mandate given the machinations in the shared scooter market and how it showed that rapid growth doesn’t solve all woes.

We’d love to see better debt financing for electric vehicle companies. With their much lower operating costs and the low-interest macro environments, we find ourselves in, if there were large pools of clean transportation debt capital that could get more vehicles in consumers’ lives via modest monthly fees that would go a long way in accelerating adoption. For example, Unagi all-access subscription offers a beautiful personal scooter for $30-$40 per month with great ROI given the usage patterns and reliability. If the debt markets line up to finance these at scale, it could be a nice win-win.

SPACs prove to be a good option for companies with high R&D costs and a long horizon to reach traditional IPO milestones (i.e., >$100 million ARR). Some of these projects aren’t going to work out, though and retail investors will be left holding the bag when the stocks crater. This will be the kickstarter “failed launch” phenomenon at a much larger scale, and there will be some nasty fallout.

Corporate venture capital, mainly industrial and automative focused companies, are getting more aggressive as the industry recognizes their need to adapt.

What do you want to see from the Biden administration to accelerate innovation in the transportation sector?

We’d love to see aggressive policies to further the acceleration of clean technology. Aside from the obvious environmental imperative to reduce carbon emissions, it makes good economic sense. Some examples would be personal and corporate tax credits for investing in anything that offers lower environmental impact. Electric vehicles of all sorts (scooters, bikes, cars, boats, etc.), installing solar for home and utility plants, using EVs for materials handling, etc.

Make the U.S. the testing ground for AVs by making regulation more favorable relative to competitors like Europe and China both on the ground and in the air.

Own the future of lithium-ion extraction and manufacturing. This is the “white oil” of our generation.

Aggressive funding of R&D initiatives at universities and commercial research labs that have a shot at changing the cost equations for batteries, motors, propellers, the power grid, etc. that can improve the fundamental building blocks.

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

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Nigerian founders-turn-investors are now running syndicate funds

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The Future Africa Fund kicked off in 2015 when Iyinoluwa Aboyeji and Nadayar Enegesi, co-founders of US-based and African-focused talent company Andela, wrote checks to African startups as angel investors. This continued even as Aboyeji joined and left Flutterwave, the fintech company he co-founded.

In January 2020, the pair made the fund official, with Aboyeji as general partner and Enegesi as limited partner. Simultaneously, they announced that the fund had invested $1.5 million across 19 African companies.

The idea for a syndicate fund would come in the following months as the pandemic disrupted investment activities worldwide.

In the past year, syndicates have been emerging as a key force for investing — and for startups seeking capital to get going — on the continent. This is because most of the capital in Africa for promising startups is typically distributed among many investors. Syndicates are now emerging as one way of bringing the long tail together for more equity firepower.

During the onset of the pandemic, Aboyeji, via his blog post, said Future Africa Fund was looking to raise institutional investment. However, the whole process proved difficult and the fund wasn’t able to because he was stuck in Nigeria and could not visit London, New York and Washington DC, “where institutional and development finance capital sits.”

But in April, the fund decided to improvise by launching a syndicate arm called the Future Africa Collective.

“There’s a massive early-stage funding gap for African startups. All the data we were looking at pointed to the fact that work needed to be done to bridge that gap,” Aboyeji told TechCrunch. “We simply couldn’t go on the journey alone to fix the gap and decided to build Future Africa Collective to democratize access to African startups. We think of ourselves as pioneers in this field.”

Here, Future Africa acts as the syndicate lead sourcing investments, conducting due diligence, and securing allocations for investors called backers.

It’s a similar model employed by AngelList, the company founded by Indian-American entrepreneur Naval Ravikant and Babak Nivi as a fundraising platform for startups to raise money from angel investors. Over the years, the angel network has based its infrastructure on syndicates — investment vehicles that allow investors, referred to as backers, to co-invest with prominent investors — known as leaders.

Syndicate leads are often experienced angel investors or successful startup founders. They have a wealth of knowledge from playing different roles in the building of a startup ecosystem. On the other hand, backers don’t have much experience investing in startups most times, and for some that do, they will rather allow syndicate leads choose startups to invest in and manage their investments.

On AngelList, there are over 200 active syndicate leads listed with a typical check size ranging from $200,000 to $350,000. Collectively, they have invested more than $2 billion in startups globally.

Adopting syndicate funds for African startups

Like Aboyeji, two other Nigerian tech entrepreneurs — Bosun Tijani and Jason Njoku — have also launched syndicate funds within the past year.

Tijani is the co-founder and CEO of Co-Creation Hub (CcHub), a pan-African innovation hub with offices in Lagos and Nairobi. He is also an angel investor, and via CcHub’s accelerator programme and a partner fund called Growth Capital Fund, Tijani has invested in more than 40 startups.

So why launch a syndicate given the success of the other funds? According to Tijani, the syndicate hopes to solve the challenges that exist with traditionally structured investment vehicles. Here’s what he means.

In 2019, Nigeria accounted for more than 53% of the diaspora remittances to the African continent. Primarily, these remittances are channelled for domestic consumption. Tijani wants the CcHub Syndicate to be an avenue where a percentage of these remittances can come in to deepen the quality of capital available to local entrepreneurs. He believes the syndicate will help Africans in the diaspora who are passionate about nation-building but do not have the capacity to be limited partners in a typical fund structure, to co-invest alongside CcHUB in high growth tech companies across Africa.

“We see the syndicate as a complementary vehicle to our VC fund as it deploys bridge financing to companies with proven traction seeking to raise funds to meet critical milestones ahead of their next funding cycles,” he said.

But before CcHub launched its $500,000 accelerator programme and Aboyeji founded Andela in 2014, Jason Njoku of iROKO had already begun to invest in startups.

Two years after launching the African entertainment company in 2011, Njoku and his co-founder Bastian Gotter launched Spark, a self-described company builder and a $2 million fund. The fund whose LPs were HNIs investing between $100,000 to $500,000 has gone through several iterations to stay alive.

The fund is currently in harvest mode but that hasn’t stopped Njoku from investing personally. His personal portfolio and Spark’s successful exit in Paystack has earned him a reputation that allows him to run some online communities where he charges people for his insights as an angel investor. 

He tells me that Investzilla came into play when a couple of investors wanted to access his deal flow after Paystack’s acquisition.

“I have been advising and referring investors into companies informally for the last few years, so this just formalizes it,” he said. “Investzilla investors wouldn’t consider themselves HNIs but have the ambition to invest $3-10k in several early-stage companies annually. Investzilla is focused on unlocking that opportunity for them.”

In a nutshell, the Future Africa Collective, CcHub Syndicate, and Investzilla want to improve access to financing for African founders. The plan is to reduce venture flight which has become prevalent in the ecosystem in recent times. But how do they work, and what progress have they made so far?

The nitty-gritty details

Typically, leads allow backers to join the syndicate via an application. After vetting and then approving these backers, they gain access to the syndicate’s deal flow and can pick investments on a deal-by-deal basis. Also, they are mandated to pay a one-time fee to join.

For Investzilla, backers pay a membership fee of $500. Thereafter, investors can put between $5,000 to $15,000 checks in more than 10 early-stage companies annually. While there has been no public announcement yet on its launch, Njoku says the syndicate soft-launched with 20 investors in January, and deals are waiting to be completed in the pipeline.

CcHub Syndicate, on the other hand, launched in December 2020. Tijani doesn’t state how much the syndicate’s administration fee costs but says the minimum backers can invest is $5,000.

So far, the syndicate has signed up more than 400 individuals, investing groups and institutional investors. Out of that number, a little above 30 investors have undertaken the syndicate’s KYC (Know Your Customer) process. Last month, it announced that a total of $267,500 had been raised to support three Nigerian startups’ bridge financing rounds.

Meanwhile, the Future Africa Collective charges a membership due of $1000 a year and four times a year; it selects some backers to the syndicate. Each quarter, backers are presented with five startups they can invest in with a minimum of $5,000. In less than a year, Future Africa Collective has grown to over 160 members. Collectively, they have invested over $1 million in 14 startups across Africa.

L-R: Jason Njoku (Investzilla), Iyinoluwa Aboyeji (Future Africa Collective), and Bosun Tijani (CcHub Syndicate)

One important thing to note is that a transaction fee prorated by their check size is charged for every deal a backer makes across all three syndicates.

The three syndicates also charge carry, which is a cut of positive returns generated by the investment. For instance, Future Africa has a 20% carry. If a backer invests $5,000 in the syndicate and the investment returns $20,000, the syndicate would earn $3,000 in carry, leaving the backer with $12,000 profit. Like Future Africa, Investzilla charges a 20% carry, but CcHub Syndicate does 15%.

As to when the return on investments is scheduled to be made, Aboyeji says the Future Africa Collective is designed to return upon secondaries.

“We hold the right to decide when to exit, but if there are any opportunities, we discuss them with the syndicate. Returns are disbursed to the syndicate members who invested in specific startups should there be an exit,” he said.

And the timeline for this across the syndicates is designated around 5 to 10 years.

That said, with Africa’s seed-stage funding gap not closed enough yet, the founders believe that there will be increased participation from more players with varied syndication models

Njoku, who is enthused about more capital being pumped into Africa’s tech ecosystem, says if these syndicates can get more than 200 angels to commit between $3,000 to $10,000 in at least five startups in a year, the continent might start to see more high net worth individuals participate in tech investments

“If we can unlock that, then it would be $2 million to $10 million in early-stage funding annually, which may or may have been attracted in the first place. Like Iyin and Bosun, founders who have created a lot of wealth with African tech feel comfortable and breed confidence. That’s an attractive asset class for executives or HNIs.”

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Recovering from the SolarWinds hack could take 18 months

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Fully recovering from the SolarWinds hack will take the US government from a year to as long as 18 months, according to the head of the agency that is leading Washington’s recovery.

Brandon Wales, the acting director of CISA, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, says that it will be well into 2022 before officials have fully secured the government networks compromised by Russian hackers. The list includes at least nine federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. Even fully understanding the extent of the damage will take months.

“I wouldn’t call this simple,” Wales says. “There are two phases for response to this incident. There is the short-term remediation effort, where we look to remove the adversary from the network, shutting down accounts they control, and shutting down entry points the adversary used to access networks. But given the amount of time they were inside these networks—months—strategic recovery will take time.”

“Given the amount of time they were inside these networks… strategic recovery will take time.”

Brandon Wales, CISA

When the hackers have succeeded so thoroughly and for so long, the answer sometimes can be a complete rebuild from scratch. The hackers made a point of undermining trust in targeted networks, stealing identities, and gaining the ability to impersonate or create seemingly legitimate users in order to freely access victims’ Microsoft 365 and Azure accounts. By taking control of trust and identity, the hackers become that much harder to track.

“Most of the agencies going through that level of rebuilding will take in the neighborhood of 12 to 18 months to make sure they’re putting in the appropriate protections,” Wales says. 

The hack on SolarWinds, a US software firm with customers around the world, was first discovered in November 2020. But American intelligence agencies say Russian hackers first infiltrated in 2019. Subsequent investigation has shown that the hackers started using the company’s products to distribute malware by March 2020, and their first successful breach of the US federal government came early in the summer. That’s a long time to go unnoticed—longer than many organizations keep the kind of expensive forensic logs you need to do the level of investigation required to sniff the hackers out.

SolarWinds Orion, the network management product that was targeted, is used in tens of thousands of corporations and government agencies. Over 17,000 organizations downloaded the infected back door. The hackers were extraordinarily stealthy and specific in targeting, which is why it took so long to catch them—and why it’s taking so long to understand their full impact.

The difficulty of uncovering the extent of the damage was summarized by Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, in a congressional hearing last week. 

“Who knows the entirety of what happened here?” he said. “Right now, the attacker is the only one who knows the entirety of what they did.”

Kevin Mandia, CEO of the security company FireEye, which raised the first alerts about the attack, told Congress that the hackers prioritized stealth above all else.

“Disruption would have been easier than what they did,” he said. “They had focused, disciplined data theft. It’s easier to just delete everything in blunt-force trauma and see what happens. They actually did more work than what it would have taken to go destructive.”

“This has a silver lining”

CISA first heard about a problem when FireEye discovered that it had been hacked and notified the agency. The company regularly works closely with the US government, and although it wasn’t legally obligated to tell anyone about the hack, it quickly shared news of the compromise with sensitive corporate networks.

It was Microsoft that told the US government federal networks had been compromised. The company shared that information with Wales on December 11, he said in an interview. Microsoft observed the hackers breaking into the Microsoft 365 cloud that is used by many government agencies. A day later, FireEye informed CISA of the back door in SolarWinds, a little-known but extremely widespread and powerful tool. 

This signaled that the scale of the hack could be enormous. CISA’s investigators ended up working straight through the holidays to help agencies hunt for the hackers in their networks.

These efforts were made even more complicated because Wales had only just taken over at the agency: days earlier, former director Chris Krebs had been fired by Donald Trump for repeatedly debunking White House disinformation about a stolen election. 

While headlines about the firing of Krebs focused on the immediate impact on election security, Wales had a lot more on his hands. 

The new man in charge at CISA is now faced with what he describes as “the most complex and challenging” hacking incident the agency has come up against.

The hack will almost certainly accelerate the already apparent rise of CISA by increasing its funding, authority, and support. 

CISA was recently given the legal authority to persistently hunt for cyber threats across the federal government, but Wales says the agency lacks the resources and personnel to carry out that mission. He argues that CISA also needs to be able to deploy and manage endpoint detection systems on computers throughout the federal government in order to detect malicious behavior. Finally, pointing to the fact that the hackers moved freely throughout the Microsoft 365 cloud, Wales says CISA needs to push for more visibility into the cloud environment in order to detect cyber espionage in the future.

In the last year, supporters of CISA have been pushing for it to become the nation’s lead cybersecurity agency. An unprecedented cybersecurity disaster could prove to be the catalyst it needs.

“This has a silver lining,” said Mark Montgomery, who served as executive director of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, in a phone call. “This is among the most significant malicious cyber acts ever conducted against the US government. The story will continue to get worse for several months as more understanding of what happened is revealed. That will help focus the incoming administration on this issue. They have a lot of priorities, so it would be easy for cyber to get lost in the clutter. That’s not going to happen now.”

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TikTok calls in outside help with content moderation in Europe

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TikTok is bringing in external experts in Europe in fields such as child safety, young people’s mental health and extremism to form a Safety Advisory Council to help it with content moderation in the region.

The move, announced today, follows an emergency intervention by Italy’s data protection authority in January — which ordered TikTok to block users it cannot age verify after the death of a girl who was reported by local media to have died of asphyxiation as a result of participating in a black out challenge on the video sharing platform.

The social media platform has also been targeted by a series of coordinated complaints by EU consumer protection agencies, which put out two reports last month detailing a number of alleged breaches of the bloc’s consumer protection and privacy rules — including child safety-specific concerns.

“We are always reviewing our existing features and policies, and innovating to take bold new measures to prioritise safety,” TikTok writes today, putting a positive spin on needing to improve safety on its platform in the region.

“The Council will bring together leaders from academia and civil society from all around Europe. Each member brings a different, fresh perspective on the challenges we face and members will provide subject matter expertise as they advise on our content moderation policies and practices. Not only will they support us in developing forward-looking policies that address the challenges we face today, they will also help us to identify emerging issues that affect TikTok and our community in the future.”

It’s not the first such advisory body TikTok has launched. A year ago it announced a US Safety Advisory Council, after coming under scrutiny from US lawmakers concerned about the spread of election disinformation and wider data security issues, including accusations the Chinese-owned app was engaging in censorship at the behest of the Chinese government.

But the initial appointees to TikTok’s European content moderation advisory body suggest its regional focus is more firmly on child safety/young people’s mental health and extremism and hate speech, reflecting some of the main areas where it’s come under the most scrutiny from European lawmakers, regulators and civil society so far.

TikTok has appointed nine individuals to its European Council (listed here) — initially bringing in external expertise in anti-bullying, youth mental health and digital parenting; online child sexual exploitation/abuse; extremism and deradicalization; anti-bias/discrimination and hate crimes — a cohort it says it will expand as it adds more members to the body (“from more countries and different areas of expertise to support us in the future”).

TikTok is also likely to have an eye on new pan-EU regulation that’s coming down the pipe for platforms operating in the region.

EU lawmakers recently put forward a legislative proposal that aims to dial up accountability for digital service providers over the content they push and monetize. The Digital Services Act, which is currently in draft, going through the bloc’s co-legislative process, will regulate how a wide range of platforms must act to remove explicitly illegal content (such as hate speech and child sexual exploitation).

The Commission’s DSA proposal avoided setting specific rules for platforms to tackle a broader array of harms — such as issues like youth mental health — which, by contrast, the UK is proposing to address in its plan to regulate social media (aka the Online Safety bill). However the planned legislation is intended to drive accountability around digital services in a variety of ways.

For example, it contains provisions that would require larger platforms — a category TikTok would most likely fall into — to provide data to external researchers so they can study the societal impacts of services. It’s not hard to imagine that provision leading to some head-turning (independent) research into the mental health impacts of attention-grabbing services. So the prospect is platforms’ own data could end up translating into negative PR for their services — i.e. if they’re shown to be failing to create a safe environment for users.

Ahead of that oversight regime coming in, platforms have increased incentive to up their outreach to civil society in Europe so they’re in a better position to skate to where the puck is headed.

 

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