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Thursday, March 5, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


Spindrift, maker of fizzy drinks, has raised $29.8 million

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 04:46 PM PST

Spindrift, maker of fizzy soda and sparkling water, has raised $29.8 million in a funding round, per an SEC filing. The Charlestown, Mass. company was founded by Bill Creelman and has raised $70 million in known venture capital funding to date, per Crunchbase data.

The company did not immediately respond to request for comment. 

Previous investors in the fizzy drink company include Almanac Insights, KarpReilly, Prolong Ventures, VMG Partners and more. Spindrift, founded in 2010, is up against big players, like the beloved and decades-old LaCroix, another sparkling water brand. Spindrift differentiates itself by emphasizing “real fruit” in its drinks. Think cucumbers from Michigan, strawberries from California and Alfonso mangoes from India. A day prior to the filing, Spindrift launched its pineapple flavor. 

(In a quick aside looped up with a word we haven't heard in a while: The company also offered a Golden Pineapple sweepstakes, where 13 winners will get a year’s-supply of free Spindrift and a custom mini-fridge). 

Now, it's worth mentioning that in San Francisco's Marina district is another fruit-infused direct to consumer brand, sans the bubbles. Hint, founded in 2005 by Kara Goldin, has raised $26.5 million to date from The Perkins Fund and Verlinvest to produce naturally flavored fruit-essence water. 

Today, Spindrift raised more than Hint's total funding in one fell swoop, and both brands, alongside the age-old LaCroix, are synonymous with startup culture and recycling bins. And that tells us that at least according to investors, the future of water is far from, ahem, drying up. 

Axiom Space pitches its first 10-day, all-inclusive trip to the ISS for just $55 million

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 04:39 PM PST

Axiom Space is looking to make history by sending three passengers on a round-trip journey to the International Space Station for the low, low price of $55 million.

The Houston -based, venture-backed company has signed a contract with SpaceX for a Crew Dragon flight which will transport a commander trained by Axiom along with three private astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

The mission is set to launch in the second half of 2021 and will allow the three-person crew to live on board the ISS for and “experience at least eight days of microgravity and views of the Earth that can only be appreciated in the large, venerable station,” according to a statement from the company.

For company chief executive, Michael Suffredini, the trip is an extension of his previous work as a previous manager of the ISS for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

"This history-making flight will represent a watershed moment in the march toward universal and routine access to space," Suffredini said in a statement. "This will be just the first of many missions to ISS to be completely crewed and managed by Axiom Space – a first for a commercial entity. Procuring the transportation marks significant progress toward that goal, and we're glad to be working with SpaceX in this effort."

The trip marks the first of several “precursor missions” to the Space Station under the Space Act Agreement Axiom signed with NASA . Discussions are underway between the agency and the company to establish agreements for other private astronaut missions to the ISS.

Axiom wants to offer passengers two flights per year — aligning with the schedule of opportunities that NASA is making available, while building it works to build its own privately funded space station.

The company has already tapped institutional investors to achieve its goal, with $16 million collected from various individual and institutional investors including Balfour Capital and Starbridge Venture Capital, according to information in Crunchbase.

"Since 2012, SpaceX has been delivering cargo to the International Space Station in partnership with NASA and later this year, we will fly NASA astronauts for the first time," said SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell, in a statement. "Now, thanks to Axiom and their support from NASA, privately crewed missions will have unprecedented access to the space station, furthering the commercialization of space and helping usher in a new era of human exploration."

Axiom said it will provide all the training, planning, hardware, life support, medical support, crew provisions, safety certifications and on-orbit operations for travelers willing to take the jump into spaceflight.

And the company was selected by NASA to attach its space station modules to the ISS beginning in the second half of 2024. The goal there is to create a private segment of the space station and extend its usable and habitable volume. When the space station is decommissioned, Axiom wants to detach its segment and operate as a free-flying commercial space station.

For SpaceX, the Axiom deal extends the commercial operations of its Crew Dragon craft beyond just NASA astronauts and offers a nice additional revenue stream.

This is actually the second deal between SpaceX and a commercial manned space tourism company. Last month the company inked an agreement with space Advnetures for a trip that would fly four passengers on a five day trip using a Crew Dragon vehicle.

Mobile banking app Empower Finance just closed a $20 million Series A round

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 04:03 PM PST

Another afternoon, another round of funding for a mobile banking app. This time, it’s Empower Finance, a San Francisco-based company that’s headed up by former Sequoia Capital partner Warren Hogarth and which just closed on $20 million in Series A funding from Icon Ventures and Defy Ventures.

David Velez, who is the founder and CEO of Nubank, the largest fintech in Latin America, also joined the round.

We’d first written about the company in 2017, when Hogarth was just getting the business off the ground. Fast-forward a bit and Empower now employs 35 people and has attracted more than 600,000 active users to its platform, says Hogarth. What has drawn them in: the company’s promise of combining AI and actual human financial planners to help millennials in particular accrue some wealth, including, more newly, through its own checking account product and through a savings account that’s currently promising 1.60% in annual percentage yield with no minimums, no overdraft fees and unlimited withdrawals.

It’s all part of an overall offering that crunches through account holders’ bank and credit card accounts, and recommends how much they save into which account, how much they should spend given their overall picture, various ways they can cut costs and where and when they’ve surpassed their pre-configured budgets.

Of course, the company has so much competition it’s dizzying, but like the various upstarts against which it’s battling for mindshare, the opportunity that Empower is chasing is enormous, too. Though companies like Chime can seem overpriced given how fast investors have marked up their rounds — Chime’s newest financing, announced in December, was done at a $5.8 billion post-money valuation, which was four times more than the company was worth at the outset of 2019 — digital banks are still tiny fish in an ocean of institutional financial services, representing something like 3% of the market.

They’re gaining more market share by the day, too, including by charging far lower fees for much more.

In Empower’s case, users pay $6 a month, but Hogarth says they also save $300 a year in additional fees they would pay a brick-and-mortar bank. He insists that on average, it also helps them save $1,300 more annually, too.

As for all those other companies — Mint, Acorns, the list goes on — Hogarth sounds surprisingly sanguine. “If you look at it from the outside, it looks crowded. But the consumer financial services in the U.S. is a $2 trillion business, and we haven’t had a fundamental shift since maybe Schwab came along 30 years ago.”

Indeed, says Hogarth, because Empower and its rivals are mobile and branchless and don’t have legacy software to contend with, they’re able to take 60 to 70% of the cost structure out of the business.

What that means on an individual company level is that even if each upstart can attract 2 to 3 million customers, they can get to a multibillion-dollar market cap. At least, that kind of math is “why there’s so much interest in this space,” says Hogarth.

It’s also why people like Nubank’s Velez, who have seen this story play out in Europe and Latin America and who are seeing the early phases of it in the U.S., are apparently keeping the money spigot open for now.

Empower had earlier raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding from Sequoia, followed by a $4.5 million round led by Initialized Capital.

Pex buys Dubset to build YouTube ContentID for TikTok & more

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 03:41 PM PST

Social networks are in for a rude copyright awakening. A new European Union law called Article 17 essentially eradicates safe harbor and requires that they’ve made their “best effort” to get licenses from rights holders for all content on their platform. If a user uploads a video with a popular song in the background, tech platforms can’t just take it down if requested. They’ll be liable if they didn’t already try to get permission.

That’s good news for musicians and film producers who are more likely to get paid. But it could hurt influencers and creators whose clips and remixes might be blocked or have their revenue diverted. It will certainly be a huge headache for content sharing sites.

That’s where Pex comes in. The profitable royalty attribution startup founded in 2014 scans social networks and other user generated content sites for rightsholders’ content. Pex then lets them negotiate licensing with the platforms, request a take down, demand attribution, and/or track the consumption statistics. It’s collected a database of over 20 billion audio and video tracks found on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitch, Twitter and more. It’s like an independent YouTube ContentID.

Today that business gets a big boost as Pex is acquiring Dubset, which has spent 10 years tackling the problem of getting remixes and multi-song DJ sets legalized for streaming on services like Spotify to some success. The $11.3 million-funded Dubset does fingerprinting of 45 million tracks from over 50,000 rights holders down to the second so the artists behind the source material get paid.

Pex has come a long way from when CEO Rasty Turek tried build a Shazam for video. “It took me years to figure out how to do it technically, but there was no market for it” he tells me. Turns out that the technology was perfect for spotting illegal usage of copyrighted songs.

Now Pex will gain Dubset’s connections to tons record labels and other rightsholders in what two sources close to the deal says is an acquisition priced between $25 million and $50 million. “There are very few companies in the music business that have successfully licensed as much catalog as Dubset, and the music rights database they've built is massive and rare” Pex CEO Rasty Turek tells TechCrunch exclusively before the deal’s formal announcement tomorrow.

Together, they’ll be pushing Pex’s new Attribution Engine that establishes a three-sided marketplace for content. Instead of just working with rightsholders, the fresh tech can plug directly into big platforms and instantly identify copyrighted audio and visual files as short as one second. It can even suss out cover versions of songs via melody matching, as well as compressed, cropped, and modified variations. Creators can also use it to ensure the source material they’re remixing or turning into memes is given proper attribution or a cut of revenue.

The Attribution Engine earns money by facilitating the licenses and payments between platforms, rightsholders, and creators. It’s free to register content with the service as well as for platforms to perform

The Attribution Engine is free for rightsholders to register their content and free for platforms to run identification scans on what’s uploaded to them. using our asset lookup service. The hope is that by creating a simpler path to cooperation and revenue sharing, more rightsholders will make their content accessible for use on social networks or in remixes. It could also grant platforms protection from Article 17 liability since they’ll be able to say that Pex made it best effort to get content usage approval from rights holders.

“Basically every platform in the world that operates in the EU will have to identify all copyrighted content on their platform as it comes in or go back and identify all of it” says Dubset chief strategy office Bob Barbiere. “Dubset was really built to serve at the DJ or content creator level . . . doing it purely for the purposes of mix and remix content. Pex does it in a much bigger way for the platforms.”

For up-and-coming platforms like TikTok competitors Dubsmash or Triller, Pex’s business model is a gift. They don’t have to pay for the ID service until they’re ready to cut licensing deals with rightsholders when Pex adds a fee on top. Trying to build this stuff from scratch could be slow and hugely expensive, given YouTube’s still perfecting its ContentID system eight years in.

Pex will have to manage the careful balance of staying ahead of regulation but not so far that it’s building technology people won’t need for a long time. European Union states have until June 21st 2021 to implement Article 17 with local laws. “We don't want others to out-innovate us, but we also don't want to out-innovate ourselves out of existence by being too early and then waiting for the market to catch up to us” Rasty explains.

Image via HelpCloud

The internet needs this kind of infrastructure because we’re still at the beginning of the age of the remix. TikTok has proven how recontextualizing a song or vocal track with new visuals can create chains of jokes and content that go massively viral. The app productizes the Harlem Shake phenomenon, whereby people promote their own takes on a piece of content, drawing attention to the original and all the other versions. But these webs of remixes could be severed if platforms and rightsholders can’t forge licensing agreements.

“I hope that thanks to Pex, 20 years from now people will not have to think about copyright” Turek concludes. “Any content they produce and distribute on the open internet will be automatically attributed to them and generate revenue if they so choose.” That could allow more people to turn their passion for creation into their profession, whether they’re building an app, writing a song, or remixing a song into a meme for an app.

Nvidia acquires data storage and management platform SwiftStack

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 02:44 PM PST

Nvidia today announced that it has acquired SwiftStack, a software-centric data storage and management platform that supports public cloud, on-premises and edge deployments.

The company’s recent launches focused on improving its support for AI, high-performance computing and accelerated computing workloads, which is surely what Nvidia is most interested in here.

“Building AI supercomputers is exciting to the entire SwiftStack team,” says the company’s co-founder and CPO Joe Arnold in today’s announcement. “We couldn't be more thrilled to work with the talented folks at NVIDIA and look forward to contributing to its world-leading accelerated computing solutions.”

The two companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition, but SwiftStack had previously raised about $23.6 million in Series A and B rounds led by Mayfield Fund and OpenView Venture Partners. Other investors include Storm Ventures and UMC Capital.

SwiftStack, which was founded in 2011, placed an early bet on OpenStack, the massive open-source project that aimed to give enterprises an AWS-like management experience in their own data centers. The company was one of the largest contributors to OpenStack’s Swift object storage platform and offered a number of services around this, though it seems like in recent years it has downplayed the OpenStack relationship as that platform’s popularity has fizzled in many verticals.

SwiftStack lists the likes of PayPal, Rogers, data center provider DC Blox, Snapfish and Verizon (TechCrunch’s parent company) on its customer page. Nvidia, too, is a customer.

SwiftStack notes that it team will continue to maintain an existing set of open source tools like Swift, ProxyFS, 1space and Controller.

“SwiftStack's technology is already a key part of NVIDIA's GPU-powered AI infrastructure, and this acquisition will strengthen what we do for you,” says Arnold.

Stocks fell sharply today, bringing yet more unwelcome volatility to tech shares

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 02:36 PM PST

Are you tired of TechCrunch reporting on the daily stock market gyrations? Well, we’re tired of writing about them. And yet here we are, because stonks yet again did wild things that we have to talk about.

Markets are still skittish about the effect the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus, COVID-19, will have on the economy. And the U.S. is still figuring out exactly how many people in the country have been infected by the virus, and how aggressively it may need to respond. So far, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified 99 cases across 13 U.S. states. Ten people have died from the virus.

In case you’ve missed our last half-dozen posts discussing the stock market’s wild jumps and drops, we’re writing about this stuff because the startup companies we know and love don’t exist in a vacuum. What happens on public markets impacts the private markets, helping set valuations through comps and molding sentiment. And the world of startup finance isn’t divorced from the rest of the economy (as much as it would sometimes like to be).

So when something Very Good, or, like today, Very Bad happens, we take note. What follows is the TechCrunch Public Market Guide For Private Market Folks, March 5, 2020 Edition.

What happened?

The sound you heard emanating from lower Manhattan today that felt akin to a thousand dishes shattering at once was all the major indices dropping in unison. Here’s the damage (CNBC data):

  • Dow Jones Industrial Average: -969.58, or 3.58%
  • S&P 500: -106.18, or 3.39%
  • Nasdaq Composite: -279.49, or -3.10%

The Nasdaq closed at 8,738 and change, making it still richly valued compared to say, a few years ago. But what hasn’t happened is a return to recent, record highs. Tech shares have fallen, and despite the recent trading back-and-forth, they’ve not recovered all their lost ground.

SaaS companies look about the same, having lost some altitude to a recent trading range (a large one, but one that has also become regular in its huge point and percentage swings) that is a material gap lower than before. Tech shares have broadly repriced.

The reduced valuations might be a new normal, although some analysts feel like the bottom has yet to fully fall out of the market. Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and Netflix were all down between 2.5% and nearly 5%, with Alphabet giving up the most ground, losing 4.84% of its value (falling $66.84) to close at $1,314.76.

It’s impossible to predict how the markets will move next. The U.S. Congress has authorized an $8.3 billion aid package to support government’s response to the illness, but as companies wrestle with their responses to the illness, it’s worth noting that productivity is bound to be effected. The questions are how much and for how long.

Etsy’s 2-year migration to the cloud brought flexibility to the online marketplace

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 02:07 PM PST

Founded in 2005, Etsy was born before cloud infrastructure was even a thing.

As the company expanded, it managed all of its operations in the same way startups did in those days — using private data centers. But a couple of years ago, the online marketplace for crafts and vintage items decided to modernize and began its journey to the cloud.

That decision coincided with the arrival of CTO Mike Fisher in July 2017. He was originally brought in as a consultant to look at the impact of running data centers on Etsy’s ability to innovate. As you might expect, he concluded that it was having an adverse impact and began a process that would lead to him being hired to lead a long-term migration to the cloud.

That process concluded last month. This is the story of how a company born in data centers made the switch to the cloud, and the lessons it offers.

Stuck in a hardware refresh loop

When Fisher walked through the door, Etsy operated out of private data centers. It was not even taking advantage of a virtualization layer to maximize the capacity of each machine. The approach meant IT spent an inordinate amount of time on resource planning.

Rigetti Computing took a $71 million down round, because quantum computing is hard

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 02:04 PM PST

The $71 million in financing that quantum computing technology developer Rigetti Computing recently raised came at a significant cut to the company’s valuation, according to several sources with knowledge of the company.

The company declined to comment on its valuation or the recent round of funding it secured.

Rigetti is one of a handful of startups attempting to make quantum computing commercially viable. It’s a vitally important emerging technology with implications for national security and a broad swath of industries that depend on better data analysis and more powerful computing to continue innovating around materials science, genetics and … well… pretty much anything else.

In July, Rigetti acquired QxBranch, a quantum computing and data analytics software startup, to build on Rigetti’s full-stack strategy and expand the company’s ability to deliver quantum algorithms, solutions and services, according to a statement

“Our mission is to deliver the power of quantum computing to our customers and help them solve difficult and valuable problems,” said Chad Rigetti, founder and CEO of Rigetti Computing, in a statement at the time. “We believe we have the leading hardware platform, and QxBranch is the leader at the application layer. Together we can shorten the timeline to quantum advantage and open up new opportunities for our customers.”

Huge corporations, including Google and IBM, have invested hundreds of millions to develop quantum computers, and there’s a growing push among politicians in the U.S. government to devote more money to the technology — out of fear that China’s scientists and national efforts have outpaced American advances in the field.

Quantum computing is an area that's set for a windfall of government dollars under the budget proposed earlier this year by the Trump administration. The National Science Foundation will receive $210 million for quantum research, while the Department of Energy will receive a $237 million boost and an additional carve out of $25 million for the Department of Energy to begin development of a nationwide Quantum Internet.

Fundamentally, quantum computing is hard, and there are few commercially viable applications for a technology that’s still in its infancy. The “computers” are notoriously difficult to operate, so not many companies are pursuing the creation of the hardware itself. Instead, companies in the market are pitching the ability to adapt into a form amenable to solving by quantum computing the hard questions that corporations and research institutions would like to pose, as well as flexible access to shared quantum hardware.

That’s a variation on the wildly successful cloud computing and software as a service business models now all the rage among technology companies developing services for other industries.

If commercial traction is one issue for quantum computing startups — which lack access to the billions available to companies like Alphabet (Google’s parent company) or even the struggling tech giant IBM — then recent trends in venture capital investment have proven to be another.

It’s very likely that the company fell victim to the irrational exuberance of the stupid money unicorn era, where firms raised billions of dollars in capital in an effort to compete with massive sovereign wealth-backed corporate investment firms led by people who had previously burned dumpsters full of cash in the dot-com era made billions off well-timed investments in Chinese e-commerce companies.

That said, financing a company that can achieve a quantum breakthrough is one of those moonshot investments where the return on a successful investment is basically unlimited. There’s so much potential in the technology, and so little viable commercial business, that the first to break through the noise could be a real win.

Recently, investors are gambling more on the middleware layer of a quantum computing stack. These are companies like Zapata, Q-CTRL, Quantum Machines and Aliro, which improve the performance of quantum computers and create an easier user experience.

In 2017, Rigetti announced that it had raised $64 million over a period of several years while it developed its quantum computing technology. That was followed with another $50 million investment later that year, as Bloomberg reported. This latest investment was led by Battery Ventures, according to data available on Crunchbase.

The lack of available, non-dilutive capital for companies like Rigetti may be a problem going forward, if the U.S. wants to provide a broad base of support for the pursuit of quantum technology innovations, according to some industry observers.

This is a national security issue. We should be trying to be doing everything we can,” said one industry observer. “If we don't fight this war and somebody else wins this war it's going to have significant ramifications for the U.S. For some of these things… private companies and government have to collaborate. For our own national security.”

DuckDuckGo now crawls the web regularly to create a free list of trackers to block

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 12:23 PM PST

It has become a part-time job to navigate and if necessary block the ads and other nuisances that plague practically every website today. DuckDuckGo is hoping to make this easier and more lightweight with its own list of prime offenders that’s kept constantly fresh by its own crawlers. Naturally, it’s free.

In a blog post announcing the new service, called Tracker Radar, DuckDuckGo observes that although ad and tracker blockers are essential software, they’re not designed efficiently or sustainably.

For instance, one of the most popular lists used by blocking software, EasyList, comprises nearly 100,000 rules — URLs or strings it instructs the blocker to watch out for. This is a great resource, but also, owing to the fact that it has been manually curated over several years, a bloated one: Thousands of those rules may no longer be accurate or relevant, and most won’t come into play during the average user’s browsing session hitting a few of the top 100 sites out there.

DuckDuckGo’s approach is to start with a clean slate and use web crawlers — virtual online agents that visit and catalog selected aspects of sites — to build a rolling database of rules that adapts to the latest jukes by trackers and site admins.

Part of the profile of a tracker as recorded by DuckDuckGo’s Tracker Radar

This database can be both comprehensive and flexible, as it compares the patterns of some 50,000 sites to find rules and associations. Tracking has become highly sophisticated, and methods exist to use multiple sites and services to identify a user who has opted out of cookies and other traditional signals. By comparing behaviors of many sites regularly and profiling the techniques employed across them, the resulting data is rich and up to date.

At least, that’s the pitch. DuckDuckGo has its own suite of privacy-oriented plug-ins and apps it would like people to use, and the data from the Tracker Radar will of course be integrated with those. But it’s also being provided free of charge — not just the data, but the code for collecting and compiling it — for anyone who wants to use it themselves or improve it.

What that means is if you’re currently using a popular blocker like uBlock Origin or the like, you will likely gain the benefit of this new database without having to do anything at all. On the other hand, if you like the idea of a thinned-down tracking solution and want to give DuckDuckGo’s a shot, search for the plugins/extensions/add-ons to your favorite browser (assuming it’s either Chrome, Firefox or Safari) or on mobile just snag DuckDuckGo’s standalone browser.

Google recommends Washington State employees work from home, citing coronavirus risk

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 12:12 PM PST

Google this week issued a recommendation for all Washington State employees to work remotely, citing growing fears around the spread of COVID-19. A spokesperson confirmed the recommendation in an email with TechCrunch. The move comes after a consultation with local health officials.

The software giant has not closed the offices outright, nor is it planning to make an official statement regarding the recommendation, but the news certainly points to broader trend of serious precautions around the novel coronavirus outbreak. The move follows a similar decision by Lyft, which sent home employees in its San Francisco office.

Google maintains a number of different offices throughout the state. Washington has become a major concentration for the spread of the virus in the U.S. Seventy cases have been reported, resulting in 10 deaths. The majority have been in King County, which includes both Seattle and Kirkland — both homes to Google offices.

The decision seems likely to be the first of many, as COVID-19 continues to spread to other major cities that serve as technology hubs. Earlier this week, the company announced that it was closing down the in-person element of its developer conference, I/O, over similar concerns. I/O is only one of several tech conferences that have been sidetracked by the disease, beginning with Mobile World Congress last month.

Twitter expands hateful conduct rules to ban dehumanizing speech around age, disability and now, disease

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 12:10 PM PST

Last year, Twitter expanded its rules around hate speech to include dehumanizing speech against religious groups. Today, Twitter says it’s expanding its rule to also include language that dehumanizes people on the basis of their age, disability or disease. The latter, of course, is a timely addition given that the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 has led to people making hateful and sometimes racist remarks on Twitter related to this topic.

Twitter says that tweets that broke this rule before today will need to be deleted, but those won’t result in any account suspensions because the rules were not in place at that time. However, any tweets published from now on will now have to abide by Twitter’s updated hateful conduct policy. This overarching policy includes rules about hateful conduct — meaning promoting violence or making threats — as well as the use of hateful imagery and display names.

The policy already includes a ban on dehumanizing speech across a range of categories, including also race, ethnicity, national origin, caste, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity. The policy has expanded over time as Twitter has tried to better encompass the many areas where it wants to ban hateful speech and conduct on its platform.

One issue with Twitter’s hateful conduct policy is that it’s not able to keep up with enforcement due to the volume of tweets that are posted. In addition, its reliance on having users flag tweets for review means hate speech removal is handled reactively, rather than proactively. Twitter has also been heavily criticized for not properly enforcing its policies and allowing the online abuse to continue.

In today’s announcement, Twitter freely admits to these and other problems. It also notes it has since done more in-depth training and extended its testing period to ensure reviewers better understand how and when to take action, as well as how to protect conversations within marginalized groups. And it created a Trust and Safety Council to help it better understand the nuances and context around complex categories, like race, ethnicity and national origin.

Unfortunately, Twitter’s larger problem is that it has operated for years as a public town square where users have felt relatively free to express themselves without using a real identity where they’re held accountable for their words and actions. There are valid cases for online anonymity — including how it allows people to more freely communicate under oppressive regimes, for example. But the flip side is that it emboldens some people to make statements that they otherwise wouldn’t — and without any social repercussions. That’s not how it works in the real world.

Plus, any time Twitter tries to clamp down on hateful speech and conduct, it’s accused of clamping down on free speech — as if its social media platform is a place that’s protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. According to the U.S. courts, that’s not how it works. In fact, a U.S. court recently ruled that YouTube wasn’t a public forum, meaning it didn’t have to guarantee users’ rights to free speech. That sets a precedent for other social platforms as well, Twitter included.

Twitter for years has struggled to get more people to sign up and participate. But it has simultaneously worked against its own goal by not getting a handle on the abuse on its network. Instead, it’s testing new products — disappearing Stories, for example — that it hopes will encourage more engagement. In reality, better-enforced policies would do the trick. The addition of educational prompts in the Compose screen — similar to those on Instagram that alert users to content that will likely get reported or removed — are also well overdue.

It’s good that Twitter is expanding the language in its policy to be more encompassing. But its words need to be backed up with actions.

Twitter says its new rules are in place as of today.

Walmart Grocery is merging with Walmart’s main app and website

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 12:00 PM PST

Walmart is looking to hook more consumers on its online grocery shopping experience by adding Walmart Grocery to its main Walmart mobile application. For years, the retailer has operated two separate apps: its flagship Walmart app (the blue one) and its separate Walmart Grocery app (the orange one). This meant shoppers had to download and switch between two separate apps depending on what they were buying. This setup may have also limited Walmart Grocery’s reach, as some users of the larger and more popular Walmart app may not have even realized online grocery was available.

According to data from Sensor Tower, Walmart’s main app has been downloaded 103+ million times since January 2014 across both iOS and Android. Today, it’s the No. 2 app in the iOS App Store’s Shopping section. Walmart Grocery, meanwhile, has seen more than 16 million downloads across iOS and Android during that same time period. It’s also ranked further down (No. 30) in the Shopping section on the App Store.

For Walmart customers, the change means a more seamless shopping experience, where they won’t have to think so much about which app to use, but can instead just shop from a single place for anything Walmart offers, including its 120,000+ grocery items, local store inventory for pickup and its online assortment of both first-party and third-party marketplace goods.

Over the course of the year, Walmart will transition its Grocery app user base to the main app and then sunset the standalone app when that’s been accomplished.

The company says these changes make sense because they better represent the way people shop, which isn’t a binary experience.

“It really depends on what you’ve got going on in your life at any point in time and what you’ve got going on during the day,” explained Walmart Chief Customer Officer Janey Whiteside. “Do you want to go into a store and browse? Or do you want to order from the palm of your hand and pick it up on the way home? Do you want to order and have it delivered to your door? Do you want it delivered to the fridge? Do you want to have it next-day or have it today?,” she continued. “Bringing all of our assets and all of our capabilities together in one place is really the natural next step,” Whiteside said.

In addition, she says running two separate apps meant it was under-leveraging the relationship Walmart had with its regular Grocery app shoppers by limiting them to a standalone app where they couldn’t explore more of Walmart’s assortment.

The changes will also in time help simplify Walmart’s marketing budget, which currently has to send customers to two different places.

“As a marketer, that enables me to be more efficient with the dollars I spend and allows me to create much more compelling stories,” Whiteside noted.

The change may also give Walmart a competitive advantage versus Amazon, which today still offers grocery shopping (via two services, Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods) from both its main app and its separate Prime Now app, for faster delivery. This approach leads to customer confusion, as there’s not just one simple way to order groceries from Amazon.

Walmart wouldn’t be the first to merge its separate apps. Target also recently integrated its Shipt grocery app with both its main Target app and website. However, Target is not sunsetting Shipt’s app, as the business still serves other retailers.

Walmart says it will add Walmart Grocery to its desktop and mobile web experiences on Walmart.com, as well, instead of sending users to a separate domain. The Grocery section will also get a new look across platforms to better blend in with the Walmart.com design.

The updated Walmart app including Grocery is rolling out in phases, so you may not see it immediately.

The Mars 2020 rover has a new name: Perseverance

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 11:57 AM PST

The next NASA rover to go to Mars has shed its code name and assumed a new one, sourced from the ingenuous youth of our nation. Keeping with the tradition of using virtues as names, the Mars 2020 rover will henceforth be known as “Perseverance.”

This particular virtue was suggested by Alexander Mather, a middle-schooler in Virginia. He and some 28,000 other kids proposed names in an essay contest last year. The final nine contenders were: Endurance, Tenacity, Promise, Vision, Clarity, Ingenuity, Fortitude, Courage and, of course the winner, Perseverance.

The name is perhaps the most apropos, with the possible exception of Endurance, given the track record of Mars rovers vastly outliving their official mission length. Like some kind of scientific Gilligan’s Island, Opportunity famously set out for a 90-day tour of the Martian surface and ended up trundling around for over 14 years before finally losing power for good during a planet-scale sandstorm.

These rovers don’t just keep going effortlessly, of course; the teams must constantly exert their ingenuity to rescue, redirect and reprogram the distant robotic platforms. It was this aspect that seems to have caught the space agency’s eye.

“Like every exploration mission before, our rover is going to face challenges, and it's going to make amazing discoveries. It's already surmounted many obstacles to get us to the point where we are today,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, in a news release. “Alex and his classmates are the Artemis Generation, and they're going to be taking the next steps into space that lead to Mars. That inspiring work will always require perseverance.”

The kid, Mather, didn’t just do this as some in-class activity mass-emailed by the teacher. He went to space camp in 2018 and had his mind blown by the Saturn V rocket he saw there. Now, having won the naming contest, he’ll get to go with his family to Cape Canaveral to watch the rover launch this summer.

“This was a chance to help the agency that put humans on the Moon and will soon do it again,” Mather said. “This Mars rover will help pave the way for human presence there and I wanted to try and help in any way I could. Refusal of the challenge was not an option.”

In acknowledgement of the other kids who entered the contest, Perseverance will be equipped with a chip inscribed with the 8 semifinalists’ names, as well as 155 more semi-finalists’ proposals — in letters a thousandth the width of a human hair, but still.

We’ll have more coverage of the mission as launch time approaches, but in the meantime you can keep up with the latest at the obligatory and always delightful first-person-rover Twitter account.

Lyft is the latest tech company to send employees home over coronavirus

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 11:47 AM PST

Ridesharing company Lyft has advised its San Francisco employees to go home after learning one staff member was in contact with someone exposed to coronavirus, or COVID-19. The team member has not exhibited any symptoms and is in touch with medical professionals, Lyft spokesperson Alexandra LaManna told TechCrunch.

"We are basing every step of our response process on CDC guidance, and out of an abundance of caution are encouraging our San Francisco headquarters employees to work from home for the remainder of this week," Lyft shared in a statement. 

LaManna also said that Lyft HQ will be having an "enhanced cleaning process overnight." 

The response is another in a slew of tech companies sending employees home to limit the chance of coronavirus spreading among staff. Earlier this week, Twitter encouraged all staff members to work from home. Amazon, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Google also advised some staff to work remotely based on fears of exposure. 

The ripple effect of COVID-19 on tech doesn’t stop at employees. A number of high-profile conferences have been canceled, including Facebook’s F8 conference and Google’s physical part of Cloud Next. SXSW and Y Combinator Demo Day have not yet disclosed whether or not their independent conferences, which garner thousands of people, will stay on.

Coronavirus has also started to impact the market, with Microsoft citing the outbreak as the reason for having supply-chain issues and impacting earnings.

Twitter CEO’s weak argument why investors shouldn’t fire him

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 11:27 AM PST

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey might not spend six months a year in Africa, claims the real product development is under the hood and gives an excuse for deleting Vine before it could become TikTok. Today he tweeted, via Twitter’s investor relations account, a multi-pronged defense of his leadership and the company’s progress.

The proclamations come as notorious activist investor Elliott Management prepares to pressure Twitter into a slew of reforms, potentially including replacing Dorsey with a new CEO, Bloomberg reported last week. Sources confirmed to TechCrunch that Elliott has taken a 4% to 5% stake in Twitter. Elliott has previously bullied eBay, AT&T and other major corporations into making changes and triggered CEO departures.

Specifically, Elliott is seeking change because of Twitter’s weak market performance, which as of last month had fallen 6.2% since July 2015, while Facebook had grown 121%. The corporate raider reportedly takes issue with Dorsey also running fintech giant Square, and having planned to spend up to six months a year in Africa. Dorsey tweeted that “Africa will define the future (especially the bitcoin one!),” despite cryptocurrency having little to do with Twitter.

Rapid executive turnover is another sore spot. Finally, Twitter is seen as moving glacially slow on product development, with little about its core service changing in the past five years beyond a move from 140 to 280 characters per tweet. Competing social apps like Facebook and Snapchat have made landmark acquisitions and launched significant new products like Marketplace, Stories and Discover.

Dorsey spoke today at the Morgan Stanley investor conference, though apparently didn’t field questions about Elliott’s incursion. The CEO did take to his platform to lay out an argument for why Twitter is doing better than it looks, though without mentioning the activist investor directly. That type of response, without mentioning to whom it’s directed, is popularly known as a subtweet. Here’s what he outlined:

On democracy: Twitter has prioritized healthy conversation and now “the #1 initiative is the integrity of the conversation around the elections” around the world, which it’s learning from. It’s now using humans and machine learning to weed out misinformation, yet Twitter still hasn’t rolled out labels on false news despite Facebook launching them in late 2016.

On revenue: Twitter expects to complete a rebuild of its core ad server in the first half of 2020, and it’s improving the experience of mobile app install ads so it can court more performance ad dollars. This comes seven years late to Facebook’s big push around app install ads.

On shutting down products: Dorsey claims that “5 years ago we had to do a really hard reset and that takes time to build from… we had been a company that was trying to do too many things…” But was it? Other than Moments, which largely flopped, and the move to the algorithmic feed ranking, Twitter sure didn’t seem to be doing too much and was already being criticized for slow product evolution as it tried to avoid disturbing its most hardcore users.

On stagnation: “Some people talk about the slow pace of development at Twitter. The expectation is to see surface level changes, but the most impactful changes are happening below the surface,” Dorsey claims, citing using machine learning to improve feed and notification relevance.

Yet it seems telling that Twitter suddenly announced yesterday that it was testing Instagram Stories-esque feature Fleets in Brazil. No launch event. No U.S. beta. No indication of when it might roll out elsewhere. It seems like hasty and suspiciously convenient timing for a reveal that might convince investors it is actually building new things.

On talent: Twitter is apparently hiring top engineers “that maybe we couldn't get 3 years ago.” 2017 was also Twitter’s share price low point of $14 compared to $34 today, so it’s not much of an accomplishment that hiring is easier now. Dorsey claims that “Engineering is my main focus. Everything else follows from that.” Yet it’s been years since fail whales were prevalent, and the core concern now is that there’s not enough to do on Twitter, rather than what it does offer doesn’t function well.

On Jack himself: Dorsey says he should have added more context “about my intention to spend a few months in Africa this year,” including its growing population that’s still getting online. Yet the “Huge opportunity especially for young people to join Twitter” seemed far from his mind as he focused on how crypto trading was driving adoption of Square’s Cash App.

“I need to reevaluate” the plan to work from Africa “in light of COVID-19 and everything else going on.” That makes coronavirus a nice scapegoat for the decision while the phrase “everything else” is doing some very heavy lifting in the face of Elliott’s activist investing.

Photographer: Cole Burston/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On fighting harassment: Nothing. The fact that Twitter’s most severe ongoing problem doesn’t even get a mention should clue you in to how many troubles have stacked up in front of Dorsey.

Running Twitter is a big job. So big it’s seen a slew of leaders ranging from founders like Ev Williams to hired guns like Dick Costolo peel off after mediocre performance. If Dorsey wants to stay CEO, that should be his full-time, work-from-headquarters gig.

This isn’t just another business. Twitter is a crucial communications utility for the world. Its absence of innovation, failure to defend vulnerable users and an inability to deliver financially has massive repercussions for society. It means Twitter hasn’t had the products or kept the users to earn the profits to be able to invest in solving its problems. Making Twitter live up to its potential is no side hustle.

Kinnos, which makes colorized disinfectant to ensure surfaces are covered, just landed $6 million in funding

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 11:17 AM PST

Kinnos, a New York-based startup, was founded six years ago, but what the five-person company produces is suddenly top of mind — and a new round of funding reflects as much.

To wit, Kinnos, which makes additives that cause disinfectants to turn blue long enough to ensure a surface has actually been covered, just closed on $6 million in funding, a major chunk of which came from Prolog Ventures, though it was joined by Allston Venture Fund, Partnership Fund for New York City, Golden Seeds, MEDA Angels and numerous individual investors.

We talked this morning with co-founder and CEO Jason Kang, who started the company while still a biomedical engineering student at Columbia University. We wanted to understand the impact of the coronavirus on his business, possible competition from the likes of Clorox and whether Kinnos, which currently works mostly with hospital systems, is thinking about a consumer offering, too. Our chat has been edited lightly for length.

TC: Why start this company?

JK: My co-founders, Katherine and Kevin, and myself, were all undergrads at Columbia University in our junior year, and this was October 2014 during the height of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Columbia had this design challenge to help the healthcare workers there and they actually brought nurses and doctors in from the field. And one of the biggest problems they mentioned, over and over again, was that ineffective decontamination and human errors were literally killing them. If only there was some way they could see what they were doing. And that’s really how we came up with idea of colorized disinfection.

The disinfectants that people are using — bleach, alcohol — is transparent. So when you apply it to the surface, it’s actually quite difficult to make sure you’ve covered everything. A lot of the disinfectants also have a contact time, which is the time it needs to sit on the surface to inactivate the pathogens. If you touch a wet spot too early or you wipe it off too early, the pathogen can still be active, and that’s how infections can also spread.

TC: How many products are you selling?

JK: Two. The first one is called Highlight powder; it’s a patented color additive platform that’s meant to be combined with existing disinfectants that hospitals and healthcare settings are already using, so we’re not competing or replacing these disinfectants but rather combining our products with them so that they can be used more effectively. Highlight is a powder that you dissolve into bulk liquid solutions of bleach and colorized blue, so when you apply it to a surface you [be sure you] don’t miss a spot and the color will actually then fade from blue to colorless after a few minutes. It was really designed to target epidemic outbreaks, so we’ve sold to humanitarian organizations that have deployed the product in Liberia and Guinea, Haiti, DR Congo and Uganda, and we recently had a couple shipments go to China for the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

Our second product, Highlight wipes, is really designed more for hospitals here in the U.S., the reason being that a lot of hospitals tend to use wipes and not sprays. You don’t see a lot of people hosing down patient rooms. And so the way that technology works it’s actually a physical lid device that attaches on top of existing wipe canisters like a bucket of bleach wipes. We have our lids go on top of that, and as the wipes get fed through our lid, they’ll get impregnated with our Highlight color chemistry, then you have this colorized wipe that you can use to wipe down the bedside tables, bedrails, bathrooms, countertops and so on.

TC: Did you have have to go through myriad tests to ensure the product was safe in a healthcare setting?

JK: With any product being used in a medical or healthcare setting, you do a very rigorous battery of tests to make sure that you know it’s safe and effective, especially when lives are on the line. So we did have to do a lot of third-party testing to make sure that adding our highlight additive to the disinfectants wouldn’t reduce the potency of the disinfectant itself.

TC: How does the thoroughness of cleaning translate into savings for your customers?

JK: It’s not a direct correlation [to dollars], but studies have shown that about 50% of surfaces and healthcare settings are missed or not cleaned properly, and that if you are able to improve thoroughness of cleaning and cleaning techniques, you can reduce infections by up to 80%. At hospitals right now, it’s a $45 billion annual problem in terms of medical costs, reimbursement penalties and so on. So if you are able to effectively reduce 80% of infections, that’s on the scale of billions of dollars saved.

TC: It’s a huge market. Are you thinking about creating a consumer-facing product, as well?

JK: Definitely. We’re starting with hospitals right now because this is a big problem that happens every day. Around one out of every 25 people who stay in a hospital will actually get an infection from the hospital — which is pretty ironic considering that, you know, you go to hospital to get care and treatment, not to become more sick. Once we have established a foothold in the hospital market, the next most obvious use case would be consumer. Especially with the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, prevention and effective hygiene is kind of top of mind for everyone.

TC: This seems like a no-brainer, your product. Why aren’t companies like Clorox selling the same thing?

JK: I think that it’s definitely been on their radar. The challenge is that it’s very difficult to get a color to last in a container of disinfectant at the point of manufacture and to get it to fade on the surface at point of use, especially within a certain amount of time.

The way that we got around that is by creating a point-of-use additive, so, for example for our wipes device, only as the wipe goes through our lid, right before you use it, does it get impregnated with the chemistry. That way we have much more control over how the color is dispensed, the intensity of the color and the color fading time.

TC: What about with the other product, into which the additive is added directly?

JK: We’re very proud to say that when you add our powder to a bucket of bleach, for example, it’ll last in the bucket for five hours. And then when used on a surface, it’ll fade in about three minutes. Getting that separation of time was actually really, really hard.

Female-founded startups landed more deals globally in 2019 than ever before

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 11:11 AM PST

We all know the disruptive stories of female-founded startups like Glossier and ezCater. And we also know how those success stories belie the much harder time thousands of other women entrepreneurs have when it comes to raising capital.

That's why it's so important to have historical data and a window into how these things may be changing, so that the industry can consistently benchmark its successes and failures in an attempt to correct historical inequities in the ways venture firms distributed capital. 

Looking at the latest numbers from All Raise and PitchBook, it's clear that for every step forward, the industry still has a long way to go. 

In 2019, female-founded startups across the world landed a record 4,399 investments, according to data from All Raise, a nonprofit organization that wants to increase the diversity in the venture capital industry, and PitchBook.

While deal count has increased, dollars raised declined in 2019, sliding to $37.7 billion from $49.9 billion in 2018. It's worth noting that 2018 included an outsized round from Ant Financial, which may have skewed dollar totals. It’s also worth pointing out that over the same period, venture capital firms in the U.S. alone invested more than $130 billion into startup companies

For what it's worth, 2019 broke all kinds of records. All Raise and PitchBook's data shows that 2019, compared to a decade ago, had a 1,408% increase in deal value. Additionally, according to Crunchbase data, female-founded unicorns, companies valued at more than $1 billion, were being born at an unprecedented rate in 2019. While a female-founded unicorn is still rare, the proliferation is notable, and goes well with one of All Raise's goals: to increase investment in female-founded companies.

However, All Raise's latest data doesn't touch on one of its goals, which is to double the percentage of female investment partners at tech VC firms over the next 10 years. Last month, Pam Kostka, the CEO of All Raise, wrote a Medium blog on how more women in 2019 became VC partners than ever before. All Raise claimed major U.S. firms added 52 women partners in 2019. Last month, Recode said those numbers might be "overstating the progress" due to the different definitions of partner. For example, some female partners may have the title of partner, but not the decision-making capabilities. 

Bottom line: The numbers are important, but the nuance within them is more telling, especially when it comes to diversity. For proof, look as far as Kostka's headline: "More Women Became VC Partners Than Ever Before In 2019 But 65% of Venture Firms Still Have Zero Female Partners." 

Bird launches Scoot Mopeds in Austin ahead of SXSW

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 11:04 AM PST

The Scoot Moped — an electric moped born out of Bird’s acquisition of Scoot — will launch in Austin five months after unveiling the shared micromobility vehicle.

The new moped is the latest effort by Bird to diversify its product offerings to capture more customers. The Scoot Mopeds, which are now available on the Bird app, feature large-volume tires, hydraulic disc brakes, two side mirrors, an LCD display for vehicle speed information, as well as two sizes of helmets, which are stored in a box on the vehicle. Users of the Scoot Moped must be 18 years or older and have a valid driver’s license. 

Bird first unveiled the Scoot Moped in October following its acquisition of Scoot. Initially the mopeds were piloted in Los Angeles, according to Bird. The Austin launch, which kicks off the week before the city’s SXSW music, tech, film and comedy festival begins, marks the official rollout of the Scoot Mopeds. The SXSW festival has not been cancelled yet, although numerous companies are pulling out over concerns of the coronavirus. SXSW organizers said March 2 that the “2020 event is proceeding with safety as a top priority.”

The Scoot Mopeds will join a bevy of shared mobility vehicles that are already on Austin’s city streets. The Austin City Council approved in February 2018 the creation of a "dockless" bike-share pilot program. Some companies were already operating these services; this action created a regulatory framework. But then scooters came en masse.

The scooters upended bike share, and prompted companies to take some of their bikes off the streets due to lack of demand, according to several city officials who spoke to TechCrunch during SXSW 2019.

Bird is “working closely with the city to help achieve the goal of 50-50 mode shift by 2039 and looks forward to collaborating on more solutions in support of the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan,” Blanca Laborde, a government partnerships team member for Bird, said in a statement. “We think Austinites are going to love this new way to get around.”

US threatens to pull big tech’s immunities if child abuse isn’t curbed

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 10:48 AM PST

The Department of Justice is proposing a set of voluntary principles that take aim at tech giants in an effort to combat online sexual abuse.

The principles are part of a fresh effort by the government to hold the tech companies accountable for the harm and abuse that happens on their platforms, amid the past two years of brewing hostilities between the government and Silicon Valley. But critics also see it as a renewed push to compel tech companies to weaken or undo their “warrant-proof” encryption efforts under the guise of preventing crime and terrorism.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced the proposals at the Justice Department on Thursday with international partners from the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The principles, built by the five countries and tech leaders — including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter — aim to incentivize internet companies and social media giants to do more to prevent child sexual abuse on their platforms.

Barr said he hopes that the principles “set new norms” across the tech industry to "make sure there’s no safe space on the internet for offenders to operate.”

The principles come ahead of anticipated bipartisan legislation to Congress — the so-called EARN IT Act, which reports say could effectively force the tech companies’ hands by threatening to pull their legal immunities for what their users post if the companies fail to aggressively clamp down on online child sexual abuse.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) announced the legislation shortly after the Justice Department presser ended.

The bill got quick rebuke from Senate colleague, Ron Wyden (D-OR), calling the bill “deeply flawed and counterproductive bill.”

“This bill is a transparent and deeply cynical effort by a few well-connected corporations and the Trump administration to use child sexual abuse to their political advantage, the impact to free speech and the security and privacy of every single American be damned,” said Wyden.

Justice takes aim at big tech’s immunities

Barr warned that the government is “analyzing the impact” of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects tech platforms from legal liability for content created by their users.

Under Barr, the Justice Department has taken a particular interest in dismantling Section 230. Last month, the Justice Department hosted a "workshop" on Section 230, arguing that the immunity it provides interferes with law enforcement and needs to be reexamined.

"We must also recognize the benefits that Section 230 and technology have brought to our society, and ensure that the proposed cure is not worse than the disease," Barr said last month.

Any change to Section 230, widely regarded as the legal underpinning of all online platforms, could radically alter the landscape of the modern internet and give the government more power to control online speech. Privacy advocates view the government's interest in wielding Section 230 as a cudgel and existential threat to the internet as we know it.

Last month, Wyden, one of Section 230's co-authors, condemned the Trump administration's scrutiny of the law and argued that repealing the law would not be a successful punishment for large tech companies. "… The biggest tech companies have enough lawyers and lobbyists to survive virtually any regulation Congress can concoct," Wyden wrote. "It's the start-ups seeking to displace Big Tech that would be hammered by the constant threat of lawsuits."

Encryption enters the limelight

U.K. Security Minister James Brokenshire lauded the initiative’s existing six tech partners, encouraging the rest of the industry to fall in line. “It’s critical that others follow them by endorsing and acting on these principles." The minister claimed that plans to encrypt tech platforms are "sending predators back into the darkness" and away from "artificial intelligence advances that can expose them."

Barr also questioned if “disappearing messages or certain encryption tools appropriately balance the value of privacy against the risk of safe havens for exploitation?”

But privacy groups remain wary of legislative action, fearing that any law could ultimately force the companies to weaken or break encryption, which government officials have for years claimed helps criminals and sexual predators evade prosecution.

End-to-end encryption has become largely the norm in the past few years since the Edward Snowden revelations into the vast surveillance efforts by the U.S. and its Five Eyes partners.

Apple, Google and Facebook have made encryption standard in its products and services, a frequent frustration for investigators and prosecutors.

But last year, the Five Eyes said it would contemplate forcing the matter of encryption if tech giants wouldn’t acquiesce to the pact’s demands.

The government has called for “responsible encryption,” a backdoor-like system that allows governments to access encrypted communications and devices with a key that only it possesses. But security experts have universally panned the idea, arguing that there is no way to create a “secure backdoor” without it somehow being vulnerable to hackers.

The bill has already received heavy opposition. Facebook said that child safety is a “top priority,” but warned that the EARN IT Act would “roll back encryption, which protects everyone's safety from hackers and criminals.”

It’s a similar anti-encryption bill to one that Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Richard Burr (R-NC) introduced in 2016, which would have forced tech companies to build backdoors in its systems. The bill failed.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation said the bill would “undermine the law that undergirds free speech on the internet.” Firefox browser maker Mozilla said the bill “creates problems rather than offering a solution.”

“The law enforcement community has made it clear this law is another attempt to weaken the encryption that is the bedrock of digital security,” said Heather West, Mozilla’s head of Americas policy. “Encryption ensures our information — from our sensitive financial and medical details to emails and text messages — is protected.”

“Without it, the world is a far more dangerous place,” said West.

Google Search will make mobile-first indexing the default by September

Posted: 05 Mar 2020 10:05 AM PST

For a while now, Google has been working on making mobile-first indexing the default behavior of its search engine. With mobile-first indexing, Google Search primarily uses a page’s mobile content for creating its search index and ranking. Google announced this initiative in 2016 and as it announced today, by September 2020, it’ll become the default behavior for all sites.

After a few small tests, the company started going all-in last year, and by December, it used mobile-first indexing for more than half of the web pages it showed in its search results. Today, that number is 70% already.

Google says most sites are now ready for its new system, but it will still occasionally crawl the desktop site with its traditional Googlebot. That means site owners may see increased crawling by Google in the coming months, too, as the company will now use two different crawlers: one that identifies itself with the mobile smartphone user-agent and one that will look like the Chromium version it uses to render the desktop site. For the most part, though, website owners will see the mobile agent.

For most sites, this switch should be seamless, but if you only expose structured data on your desktop site and not on mobile, it’s now time to switch it on for both. Google also notes that it recommends that sites don’t use separate mobile URLs “because of issues and confusion we’ve seen over the years, both from search engines and users.”

Webmasters who want to make sure their sites are ready can head to Google’s Search Console and check the status of their pages.

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