Google will not bid for the Pentagon’s $10B cloud computing contract, citing its “AI Principles”

Google has dropped out of the running for JEDI, the massive Defense Department cloud computing contract potentially worth $10 billion. In a statement to Bloomberg, Google said that it decided not to participate in the bidding process, which ends this week, because the contract may not align with the company’s principles for how artificial intelligence […]

Google has dropped out of the running for JEDI, the massive Defense Department cloud computing contract potentially worth $10 billion. In a statement to Bloomberg, Google said that it decided not to participate in the bidding process, which ends this week, because the contract may not align with the company’s principles for how artificial intelligence should be used.

In statement to Bloomberg, Google spokesperson said “We are not bidding on the JEDI contract because first, we couldn’t be assured that it would align with our AI Principles. And second, we determined that there were portions of the contract that were out of scope with our current government certifications,” adding that Google is still “working to support the U.S. government with our cloud in many ways.”

Officially called Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, bidding for the initiative’s contract began two months ago and closes this week. JEDI’s lead contender is widely considered to be Amazon, because it set up the CIA’s private cloud, but Oracle, Microsoft, and IBM are also expected to be in the running.

The winner of the contract, which could last for up to 10 years, is expected to be announced by the end of the year. The project is meant to accelerate the Defense Department’s adoption of cloud computing and services. Only one provider will be chosen, a controversial decision that the Pentagon defended by telling Congress that the pace of handling task orders in a multiple-award contract “could prevent DOD from rapidly delivering new capabilities and improved effectiveness to the warfighter that enterprise-level cloud computing can enable.”

Google also addressed the controversy over a single provider, telling Bloomberg that “had the JEDI contract been open to multiple vendors, we would have submitted a compelling solution for portions of it. Google Cloud believes that a multi-cloud approach is in the best interest of government agencies, because it allows them to choose the right cloud for the right workload.”

Google’s decision no to bid for JEDI comes four months after it reportedly decided not to renew its contract with the Pentagon for Project Maven, which involved working with the military to analyze drone footage, including images taken in conflict zones. Thousands of Google employees signed a petition against its work on Project Maven because they said it meant the company was directly involved in warfare. Afterward, Google came up with its “AI Principles,” a set of guidelines for how it will use its AI technology.

It is worth noting, however, that Google is still under employee fire because it is reportedly building a search engine for China that will comply with the government’s censorship laws, eight years after exiting the country for reasons including its limits on free speech.

The next big restaurant chain may not own any kitchens

If investors at some of the biggest technology companies are right, the next big restaurant chain could have no kitchens of its own. These venture capitalists think the same forces that have transformed transportation, media, retail and logistics will also work their way through prepared food businesses. The Battle Is For The Customer Interface Investors […]

If investors at some of the biggest technology companies are right, the next big restaurant chain could have no kitchens of its own.

These venture capitalists think the same forces that have transformed transportation, media, retail and logistics will also work their way through prepared food businesses.

Investors are pouring millions into the creation of a network of shared kitchens, storage facilities, and pickup counters that established chains and new food entrepreneurs can access to cut down on overhead and quickly spin up new concepts in fast food and casual dining.

Powering all of this is a food delivery market that could grow from $35 billion to a $365 billion industry by 2030, according to a report from UBS’s research group, the “Evidence Lab”.

“We’ve had conversations with the biggest and fastest growing restaurant brands in the country and even some of the casual brands,” said Jim Collins, a serial entrepreneur, restauranteur, and the chief executive of the food-service startup, Kitchen United. “In every board room for every major restaurant brand in the country… the number one conversation surrounds the topic of how are we going to address [off-premise diners].”

Collins’ company just raised $10 million in a funding round led by GV, the investment arm of Google parent company, Alphabet. But Alphabet’s investment team is far from the only group investing in the restaurant infrastructure as a service business.

Perhaps the best capitalized company focusing on distributed kitchens is CloudKitchens, one of two subsidiaries owned by the holding company City Storage Solutions.

Cloud Kitchens and its sister company Cloud Retail are the two arms of the new venture from Uber co-founder and former chief executive, Travis Kalanick, which was formed with a $150 million investment.

As we reported at the time, Travis announced that he would be starting a new fund with the riches he made from Uber shares sold in its most recent major secondary round. Kalanick said his 10100, or “ten one hundred”, fund would be geared toward “large-scale job creation,” with investments in real estate, e-commerce, and “emerging innovation in India and China.”

If anyone is aware of the massive market potential for leveraging on-demand services, it’s Kalanick. Especially since he was one of the architects of the infrastructure that has made it possible.

Other deep pocketed companies have also stepped into the fray. Late last year Acre Venture Partners, the investment arm formed by The Campbell Soup Co., participated in a $13 million investment for Pilotworks, another distributed kitchen operator based in Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, Kitchen United has been busy putting together a deep bench of executive talent culled from some of the largest and most successful American fast food restaurant chains.

Former Taco Bell Chief Development Officer, Meredith Sandland, joined the company earlier this year as its chief operating officer, while former McDonald’s executive Atul Sood, who oversaw the burger giant’s relationship with online delivery services, has come aboard as Kitchen United’s Chief Business Officer.

The millions of dollars spicing up this new business model investors are serving up could be considered the second iteration of a food startup wave.

An earlier generation of prepared food startups crashed and burned while trying to spin up just this type of vision with investments in their own infrastructure. New York celebrity chef David Chang, the owner and creator of the city’s famous Momofuku restaurants (and Milk Bar, and Ma Peche), was an investor in Maple, a new delivery-only food startup that raised $25 million before it was shut down and its technology was absorbed into the European, delivery service, Deliveroo.

Ando, which Chang founded, was another attempt at creating a business with a single storefront for takeout and a massive reliance on delivery services to do the heavy lifting of entering new neighborhoods and markets. That company wound up getting acquired by UberEats after raising $7 million in venture funding.

Those losses are slight compared to the woes of investors in companies like Munchery, ($125.4 million) Sprig, ($56.7 million) and SpoonRocket ($13 million). Sprig and Spoonrocket are now defunct, and Munchery had to pull back from markets in Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle as it fights for survival. The company also reportedly was looking at recapitalizing earlier in the year at a greatly reduced valuation.

What gives companies like Kitchen United, Pilotworks and Cloud Kitchens hope is that they’re not required to actually create the next big successful concept in fast food or casual dining. They just have to enable it.

Kitchen United just opened a 12,000 square foot facility in Pasadena for just that purpose — and has plans to open more locations in West Los Angeles; Jersey City, N.J.; Atlanta; Columbus, Ohio; Phoenix; Seattle and Denver. Its competitor, Pilotworks, already has operations in Brooklyn, Chicago, Dallas, and Providence, R.I.

While the two companies have similar visions, they’re currently pursuing different initial customers. Pilotworks has pitched itself as a recipe for success for new food entrepreneurs. Kitchen United, by comparison is giving successful local, regional, and national brands a way to expand their footprint without investing in real estate.

“One of the directions that the company was thinking of going was toward the restaurant industry and the second was in the food service entrepreneurial sector,” said Collins. “Would it be a company that served restaurants with their expansions? Now, we’re in deep discussions with all kinds of restaurants.”

Smaller national fast food chains like Chick-Fil-A or Shake Shack, or fast casual chains like Dennys and Shoney’s could be customers, said Collins. So could local companies that are trying to expand their regional footprint. Los Angeles’ famous Canter’s Deli is a Kitchen United customer (and an early adopter of a number of new restaurant innovations) and so is The Lost Cuban Kitchen, an Iowa-based Cuban restaurant that’s expanding to Los Angeles.

Kitchen United is looking to create kitchen centers that can house between 10-20 restaurants in converted warehouses, big box retail and light industrial locations.

Using demographic data and “demand mapping” for specific cuisines, Kitchen United said that it can provide optimal locations and site the right restaurant to meet consumer demand. The company is also pitching labor management, menu management and delivery tools to help streamline the process of getting a new location up and running.

“In all of the facilities, all of the restaurants have their own four-walled space,” says Collins. “There’s shared infrastructure outside of that.”

Some of that infrastructure is taking food deliveries and an ability to serve as a central hub for local supplier, according to Collins. “One of the things that we’re going to be launching relatively soon here in Pasadena, is actually in-service days where local supplier and purveyors can come in and meet with seven restaurants at once.”

It’s also possible that restaurants in the Kitchen United spaces could take advantage of restaurant technologies being developed by one of the startup’s sister companies through Cali Group, a holding company for a number of different e-sports, retail, and food technology startups.

The Pasadena-based kitchen company was founded by Harry Tsao, an investor in food technology (and a part owner of the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Football Club) through his fund Avista Investments; and John Miller, a serial entrepreneur who founded the Cali Group.

In fact, Kitchen United operates as a Cali Group portfolio company alongside Miso Robotics, the developer of the burger flipping robot, Flippy; Caliburger, an In-n-Out clone first developed by Miller in Shanghai and brought back to the U.S.; and FunWall, a display technology for online gaming in retail settings.

“Kitchen United’s data-driven approach to flexible kitchen spaces unlocks critical value for national, regional, and local restaurant chains looking to expand into new markets,” said Adam Ghobarah, general partner at GV, and a new director on the Kitchen United board. “The founding team’s experience in scaling — in addition to diverse exposure to national chains, regional brands, regional franchises, and small upstart eateries — puts Kitchen United in a strong position to accelerate food innovation.”

GV’s Ghobarah actually sees the investment of a piece with other bets that Alphabet’s venture capital arm has made around the food industry.

The firm is a backer of the fully automated hamburger preparation company, Creator, which has raised roughly $28 million to develop its hamburger making robot (if Securities and Exchange Commission filings can be believed). And it has backed the containerized farming startup, Bowery Farming, with a $20 million investment.

Ghobarah sees an entirely new food distribution ecosystem built up around facilities where Bowery’s farms are colocated with Kitchen United’s restaurants to reduce logistical hurdles and create new hubs.

“As urban farming like Bowery scales up… that becomes more and more realistic,” Ghobarah said. “The other thing that really stands out when you have flexible locations … all of the thousands of people who want to own a restaurant now have access. It’s not really all regional chains and national chains… With a satellite location like this… [a restaurant]… can break even at one third of the order volume.”

 

Google’s cyber unit Jigsaw introduces Intra, a new security app dedicated to busting censorship

Jigsaw, the division owned by Google parent Alphabet, has revealed Intra, a new app aimed at protecting users from state-sponsored censorship. Intra is a new app that aims to prevent DNS manipulation attacks. Whenever you visit a website, the easy-to-remember web address is converted to a less-than-memorable IP address — often over an unsecured connection. […]

Jigsaw, the division owned by Google parent Alphabet, has revealed Intra, a new app aimed at protecting users from state-sponsored censorship.

Intra is a new app that aims to prevent DNS manipulation attacks. Whenever you visit a website, the easy-to-remember web address is converted to a less-than-memorable IP address — often over an unsecured connection. That makes it easy for oppressive governments — like Turkey, which has used this technique before — to intercept web addresses requests and either kill them in their tracks to stop sites from loading, or redirect to a fake site.

By passing all your browsing queries and app traffic through an encrypted connection to a trusted Domain Name Server, Intra says it ensures you can use your app without meddling or get to the right site without interference.

“Intra is dead simple to use. Just download the app and turn it on,” Jigsaw said. “That’s it.”

Jigsaw has already seen some successes in parts of the world where internet access is restricted or monitored. The government in Venezuela reportedly used DNS manipulation to prevent citizens from accessing news sites and social networks.

The app uses Google’s own trusted DNS server by default, but users can also funnel their browsing requests through Cloudflare, which also hosts its own publicly accessible secure DNS server, or any other secure DNS server.

Admittedly, that requires a bit of trust for Google and Cloudflare — or any third party. A Jigsaw spokesperson told TechCrunch that Intra’s use of Google’s DNS is covered by its privacy policy, and Cloudflare also has its own.

Jigsaw said it will bake the app into Android Pie, which already allows already allows encrypted DNS connections. But Jigsaw is also making the app available for users in parts of the world with weaker economies that make upgrading from older devices near-impossible so they can benefit from the security features.

It’s the latest piece in the security and privacy puzzle that Jigsaw is trying to solve.

The little-known Alphabet division is focused on preventing censorship, threats of online harassment and countering violent extremism. The incubator focuses on empowering free speech and expression by providing tools and services that make online safer for higher-risk targets.

Jigsaw has also invested its time on several other anti-censorship apps, including Project Shield, which protects sites against distributed denial-of-service attacks, as well as Outline, which gives reporters and activists a virtual private network that funnels data through a secure channel.

Bots replacing office workers drive big valuations

A lot of people still get paid to sit in offices and do repetitive tasks. In recent years, however, employers have been pushing harder to find ways to outsource that work to machines.

A lot of people still get paid to sit in offices and do repetitive tasks. In recent years, however, employers have been pushing harder to find ways to outsource that work to machines.

Venture and growth investors are doing a lot to speed up the rise of these worker-bots. So far this year, they’ve poured hundreds of millions into developers of robotic process automation technology, the term to describe software used for performing a series of tasks previously carried out by humans.

Process automation funding activity spiked last week with a $225 million Series C round for one of the category leaders, New York-based UiPath. Sequoia Capital and Alphabet’s CapitalG led the financing, which brings total capital raised by the 13-year-old company to more than $400 million, with a most recent valuation of $3 billion.

A Crunchbase News analysis of funding for startups and growth companies involved in robotic process automation indicates this has been a busy year overall for the space, with more than $600 million in aggregate investment across at least seven sizable deals.

Below, we spotlight some of the largest 2018 rounds in the space:1

UiPath, for its part, has a grand vision and an impressive growth rate. Its broad goal, laid out to incoming employees, involves “liberating the human workforce from tedious, repetitive tasks.”

And employers are willing to pay handsomely to liberate their employees. UiPath said that in one 21-month period, it went from $1 million to $100 million in annual recurring revenue, an absolutely astounding growth rate for an enterprise software company.

The other big unicorn in the process automation space, Automation Anywhere, is also in rapid expansion mode. The company said customers have been using its tools across a broad range of industries for tasks including integrating data in electronic medical records, streamlining mortgage applications and completing complex purchase orders.

One might ask: What are employees to do all day now that the bots have freed them of their tiresome tasks? The general refrain from UiPath and others in the process automation space is that their software doesn’t eliminate jobs so much as it gives workers time to focus on higher-value projects.

That may be broadly true, but there is a significant body of employment trend forecasting that predicts widespread job losses stemming from this kind of automation. It could take the form of layoffs, or it might not. Companies may indeed transition bot-displaced existing employees to other, higher-value roles. Even if they do that, however, process automation could enable reduced hiring for future jobs.

That said, there’s plenty of funding and hiring happening at the handful of high-growth companies that could determine whether the rest of us have a job in our futures.

  1. Providing comprehensive funding numbers for robotic process automation proved challenging because many startups list automation as part of a broader suite of offerings, rather than a core focus area. 

Alphabet’s Chronicle launches an enterprise version of VirusTotal

VirusTotal, the virus and malware scanning service own by Alphabet’s Chronicle, launched an enterprise-grade version of its service today. VirusTotal Enterprise offers significantly faster and more customizable malware search, as well as a new feature called Private Graph, which allows enterprises to create their own private visualizations of their infrastructure and malware that affects their machines. […]

VirusTotal, the virus and malware scanning service own by Alphabet’s Chronicle, launched an enterprise-grade version of its service today. VirusTotal Enterprise offers significantly faster and more customizable malware search, as well as a new feature called Private Graph, which allows enterprises to create their own private visualizations of their infrastructure and malware that affects their machines.

The Private Graph makes it easier for enterprises to create an inventory of their internal infrastructure and users to help security teams investigate incidents (and where they started). In the process of building this graph, VirtusTotal also looks are commonalities between different nodes to be able to detect changes that could signal potential issues.

The company stresses that these graphs are obviously kept private. That’s worth noting because VirusTotal already offered a similar tool for its premium users — the VirusTotal Graph. All of the information there, however, was public.

As for the faster and more advanced search tools, VirusTotal notes that its service benefits from Alphabet’s massive infrastructure and search expertise. This allows VirusTotal Enterprise to offers a 100x speed increase, as well as better search accuracy. Using the advanced search, the company notes, a security team could now extract the icon from a fake application, for example, and then return all malware samples that share the same file.

VirusTotal says that it plans to “continue to leverage the power of Google infrastructure” and expand this enterprise service over time.

Google acquired VirusTotal back in 2012. For the longest time, the service didn’t see too many changes, but earlier this year, Google’s parent company Alphabet moved VirusTotal under the Chronicle brand and the development pace seems to have picked up since.

Google to give Chrome users an opt-out to ‘forced login’ after privacy backlash

Google has responded to blowback about a privacy hostile change it made this week, which removes user agency by automating Chrome browser sign-ins, by rowing back slightly — saying it will give users the ability to disable this linking of web-based sign-in with browser-based sign-in in a forthcoming update (Chrome 70), due mid next month. The […]

Google has responded to blowback about a privacy hostile change it made this week, which removes user agency by automating Chrome browser sign-ins, by rowing back slightly — saying it will give users the ability to disable this linking of web-based sign-in with browser-based sign-in in a forthcoming update (Chrome 70), due mid next month.

The update to Chrome 69 means users are automatically logged into the browser when they are signed into another Google service, giving them no option to keep these digital identities separate.

Now Google is saying there will be an option to prevent it pinning your Chrome browsing to your Google account — but you’ll have to wait about a month to get it.

And of course for the millions of web users who never touch default settings being automatically signed into Google’s browser when they are using another Google service like Gmail or YouTube will be the new normal.

Matthew Green, a cryptography professor at Johns Hopkins, flagged the change in a critical blog post at the weekend — entitled Why I’m done with Chrome — arguing that the new “forced login” feature blurs the previously strong barrier between “never logged in” and “signed in”, and thus erodes user trust.

Prior to the Chrome 69 update, users had to actively opt in to linking their web-based and browser-based IDs. But Google’s change flips that switch — making the default setting hostile to privacy by folding a Chrome user’s browsing activity into their Google identity.

In its blog post Google claims that being signed in to Chrome does not mean Chrome sync gets turned on.

So it’s basically saying that despite it auto-linking your Chrome browsing and (Google) web-based activity it’s not automatically copying your browsing data to its own servers, where it would then be able to derive all sorts of fresh linked intel about you for its ad-targeting purposes.

“Users who want data like their browsing history, passwords, and bookmarks available on other devices must take additional action, such as turning on sync,” writes Chrome product manager Zach Koch.

But in his blog post, Green is also highly critical of Google’s UI around Chrome sync — dubbing it a dark pattern, and pointing out that it’s now all too easy for a user to accidentally send Google a massive personal data dump — because, in a fell swoop, the company “has transformed the question of consenting to data upload from something affirmative that I actually had to put effort into — entering my Google credentials and signing into Chrome — into something I can now do with a single accidental click”.

“The fact of the matter is that I’d never even heard of Chrome’s “sync” option — for the simple reason that up until September 2018, I had never logged into Chrome. Now I’m forced to learn these new terms, and hope that the Chrome team keeps promises to keep all of my data local as the barriers between “signed in” and “not signed in” are gradually eroded away,” Green also wrote.

Hence his decision to dump Chrome. (Other browsers are certainly available, though Chrome accounts for by far the biggest chunk of global browser usage.)

Responding to what Koch colorlessly terms “feedback” about the controversial changes, he says Google is going to “better communicate our changes”.

“We’re updating our UIs to better communicate a user’s sync state,” he writes. “We want to be clearer about your sign-in state and whether or not you’re syncing data to your Google Account.”

His explanation for Google flipping the default to be privacy hostile (rather than user affirmative) is to claim that “we think sign-in consistency will help many of our users”, saying Google has “received feedback from users on shared devices that they were confused about Chrome’s sign-in state”.

“We think these UI changes help prevent users from inadvertently performing searches or navigating to websites that could be saved to a different user’s synced account,” he also writes.

Though, as Green points out, making more people sign in to Chrome (rather than fewer) is a fuzzy sort of fix for an account ‘pollution’ issue.

Chrome’s flipped switch also now means users have to take Google’s word for it that it won’t suddenly auto sync their data to its own servers — say by making another opaque change, in the future, to further automate the harvesting of users’ personal data.

Privacy policies that can just be unilaterally rewritten at any point, without obtaining fresh consent from the user, aren’t worth the pixels they’re claiming to be inked in.

Let’s also not forget this is the same company that, back in 2012, combined around 60 separate privacy policies into a single overarching policy and Google account covering multiple, distinct web products — thereby, also in a fell swoop, collapsing multiple user identities which, prior to then, people had been able to maintain (to try to control what Google knew about them).

Google’s push where privacy is concerned is pretty clearly one way — away from individual agency and control, and towards it being able to join up ever more personal data dots which its ad-targeting business can use.

With the Chrome update the company has rubbed out yet another privacy firewall for users wanting to fight its amassing of conglomerate profiles of their online activity.

And even with the after-the-fact switch that’s being announced now (and only after a critical backlash), which from next month will let settings pros disable the default Chrome auto-link, the company’s general direction of travel does not respect user agency at all. Quite the opposite.

Google seems to be trying to make consent itself an after thought — i.e. for the few who know to poke around in the settings. Instead of what it should be: An affirmative, baked in by design to ensure privacy is available for everyone.

Google’s push to erode privacy looks likely to bring it problems in Europe, where a tough new regional data protection framework makes privacy by design and default mandatory.

Failure to comply with this element of the GDPR can attract fines as large as 2% of a company’s global annual turnover — which would not be a trivial sum for a company as revenue-heavy as Alphabet.

And, as others have pointed out, Google making a major change to how Chrome handles sign-ins does not look like business as usual for the product. So the company would have been well advised to have carried out a privacy impact assessment — to ensure the changes it’s making were compliant with GDPR.

We’ve asked Google whether it carried out a data protection impact assessment (DPIA) ahead of pushing out the change to sign-ins on Chrome 69 and will update this report with any response. Or whether it’s handling sign-ins differently in the EU (which does not seem to be the case).

We’ve also asked if it will commit to making any DPIA for Chrome public.

A spokesman acknowledged receipt of our questions but at the time of writing the company had not sent any answers.

There’s another potentially problematic issue for Google here too, vis-a-vis GDPR, because according to Koch’s blog post it is not currently clearing Google auth cookies when cookies are cleared by the user.

He writes that it will “change this behavior that so all cookies are deleted and you will be signed out”. But that’s going to take about a month.

In the meanwhile a user action (clearing cookies) is not resulting in Google clearing all cookies — which looks like a pretty clear violation of EU privacy rules, albeit temporarily (if it’s going to fix it next month).

We also asked Google about its failure to clear all cookies.

Safe to say, Google’s privacy hostile actions look sure to attract close scrutiny in the EU where privacy is a fundamental right.

But the company is also set to face questions on the topic in a Senate committee hearing today — and is expected to acknowledge that it has made “mistakes” on privacy issues, according to documents seen by Reuters

Though it will also apparently claim it has “learned, and improved our robust privacy program”.

Certain Chrome users would probably take a very different view.

On-demand trucking app Convoy raises $185M at $1B valuation

CapitalG, the growth equity arm of Alphabet, has led the $185 million round in Convoy, its first investment in the Seattle-based tech-enabled trucking network. The round brings Convoy’s total raised to $265 million and values the company at $1 billion. New investors T. Rowe Price and Lone Pine Capital participated in the financing alongside existing […]

CapitalG, the growth equity arm of Alphabet, has led the $185 million round in Convoy, its first investment in the Seattle-based tech-enabled trucking network.

The round brings Convoy’s total raised to $265 million and values the company at $1 billion. New investors T. Rowe Price and Lone Pine Capital participated in the financing alongside existing investors.

Convoy has long been backed by Greylock Partners, which led the startup’s Series A in 2015. Y Combinator is also a backer. In an unusual move last year, Y Combinator led a $62 million round in Convoy in what was the first time the accelerator deployed capital from its continuity fund into a late-stage company that was not a YC graduate.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, Bezos Expeditions and former Starbucks president Howard Behar are also Convoy investors.

Founded by a pair of former Amazonians, Dan Lewis and Grant Goodale, Convoy is trying to transform the $800 billion trucking industry — no easy feat. Dubbed the ‘Uber for trucks,’ Convoy’s app connects truckers with people who need freight moved. With the new funding, it’ll expand nationwide and move beyond just freight matching.

“Trucks run empty 40% of the time, and they often sit idle due to inefficient scheduling,” Convoy CEO Dan Lewis said in a statement. “This is a drag on the economy, the environment, and the bottom lines of shippers and carriers alike. Convoy’s ability to serve our shippers and carriers with ground-breaking, innovative technology is already having an impact on these critical problems, and our partnership with CapitalG and other leading investors will accelerate this.”

According to GeekWire, Convoy is working on a new suite of tools to help truckers combine tasks so they waste less time. And it’s working to provide shippers access to tracking and pricing data through its platform.

As part of the deal, CapitalG partner David Lawee will join Convoy’s board of directors.

On-demand trucking app Convoy raises $185M at $1B valuation

CapitalG, the growth equity arm of Alphabet, has led the $185 million round in Convoy, its first investment in the Seattle-based tech-enabled trucking network. The round brings Convoy’s total raised to $265 million and values the company at $1 billion. New investors T. Rowe Price and Lone Pine Capital participated in the financing alongside existing […]

CapitalG, the growth equity arm of Alphabet, has led the $185 million round in Convoy, its first investment in the Seattle-based tech-enabled trucking network.

The round brings Convoy’s total raised to $265 million and values the company at $1 billion. New investors T. Rowe Price and Lone Pine Capital participated in the financing alongside existing investors.

Convoy has long been backed by Greylock Partners, which led the startup’s Series A in 2015. Y Combinator is also a backer. In an unusual move last year, Y Combinator led a $62 million round in Convoy in what was the first time the accelerator deployed capital from its continuity fund into a late-stage company that was not a YC graduate.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, Bezos Expeditions and former Starbucks president Howard Behar are also Convoy investors.

Founded by a pair of former Amazonians, Dan Lewis and Grant Goodale, Convoy is trying to transform the $800 billion trucking industry — no easy feat. Dubbed the ‘Uber for trucks,’ Convoy’s app connects truckers with people who need freight moved. With the new funding, it’ll expand nationwide and move beyond just freight matching.

“Trucks run empty 40% of the time, and they often sit idle due to inefficient scheduling,” Convoy CEO Dan Lewis said in a statement. “This is a drag on the economy, the environment, and the bottom lines of shippers and carriers alike. Convoy’s ability to serve our shippers and carriers with ground-breaking, innovative technology is already having an impact on these critical problems, and our partnership with CapitalG and other leading investors will accelerate this.”

According to GeekWire, Convoy is working on a new suite of tools to help truckers combine tasks so they waste less time. And it’s working to provide shippers access to tracking and pricing data through its platform.

As part of the deal, CapitalG partner David Lawee will join Convoy’s board of directors.

What you need to know ahead of the EU copyright vote

European Union lawmakers are facing a major vote on digital copyright reform proposals on Wednesday — a process that has set the Internet’s hair fully on fire. Here’s a run down of the issues and what’s at stake… Article 13 The most controversial component of the proposals concerns user-generated content platforms such as YouTube, and […]

European Union lawmakers are facing a major vote on digital copyright reform proposals on Wednesday — a process that has set the Internet’s hair fully on fire.

Here’s a run down of the issues and what’s at stake…

Article 13

The most controversial component of the proposals concerns user-generated content platforms such as YouTube, and the idea they should be made liable for copyright infringements committed by their users — instead of the current regime of takedowns after the fact (which locks rights holders into having to constantly monitor and report violations — y’know, at the same time as Alphabet’s ad business continues to roll around in dollars and eyeballs).

Critics of the proposal argue that shifting the burden of rights liability onto platforms will flip them from champions to chillers of free speech, making them reconfigure their systems to accommodate the new level of business risk.

More specifically they suggest it will encourage platforms into algorithmically pre-filtering all user uploads — aka #censorshipmachines — and then blinkered AIs will end up blocking fair use content, cool satire, funny memes etc etc, and the free Internet as we know it will cease to exist.

Backers of the proposal see it differently, of course. These people tend to be creatives whose professional existence depends upon being paid for the sharable content they create, such as musicians, authors, filmmakers and so on.

Their counter argument is that, as it stands, their hard work is being ripped off because they are not being fairly recompensed for it.

Consumers may be the ones technically freeloading by uploading and consuming others’ works without paying to do so but creative industries point out it’s the tech giants that are gaining the most money from this exploitation of the current rights rules — because they’re the only ones making really fat profits off of other people’s acts of expression. (Alphabet, Google’s ad giant parent, made $31.16BN in revenue in Q1 this year alone, for example.)

YouTube has been a prime target for musicians’ ire — who contend that the royalties the company pays them for streaming their content are simply not fair recompense.

Article 11

The second controversy attached to the copyright reform concerns the use of snippets of news content.

European lawmakers want to extend digital copyright to also cover the ledes of news stories which aggregators such as Google News typically ingest and display — because, again, the likes of Alphabet is profiting off of bits of others’ professional work without paying them to do so. And, on the flip side, media firms have seen their profits hammered by the Internet serving up free content.

The reforms would seek to compensate publishers for their investment in journalism by letting them charge for use of these text snippets — instead of only being ‘paid’ in traffic (i.e. by becoming yet more eyeball fodder in Alphabet’s aggregators).

Critics don’t see it that way of course. They see it as an imposition on digital sharing — branding the proposal a “link tax” and arguing it will have a wider chilling effect of interfering with the sharing of hyperlinks.

They argue that because links can also contain words of the content being linked to. And much debate has raged over on how the law would (or could) define what is and isn’t a protected text snippet.

They also claim the auxiliary copyright idea hasn’t worked where it’s already been tried (in Germany and Spain). Google just closed its News aggregator in the latter market, for example. Though at the pan-EU level it would have to at least pause before taking a unilateral decision to shutter an entire product.

Germany’s influential media industry is a major force behind Article 11. But in Germany a local version of a snippet law that was passed in 2013 ended up being watered down — so news aggregators were not forced to pay for using snippets, as had originally been floated.

Without mandatory payment (as is the case in Spain) the law has essentially pitted publishers against each other. This is because Google said it would not pay and also changed how it indexes content for Google News in Germany to make it opt-in only.

That means any local publishers that don’t agree to zero-license their snippets to Google risk losing visibility to rivals that do. So major German publishers have continued to hand their snippets over to Google.

But they appear to believe a pan-EU law might manage to tip the balance of power. Hence Article 11.

Awful amounts of screaming

For critics of the reforms, who often sit on the nerdier side of the spectrum, their reaction can be summed up by a screamed refrain that IT’S THE END OF THE FREE WEB AS WE KNOW IT.

WikiMedia has warned that the reform threatens the “vibrant free web”.

A coalition of original Internet architects, computer scientists, academics and others — including the likes of world wide web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee, security veteran Bruce Schneier, Google chief evangelist Vint Cerf, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and entrepreneur Mitch Kapor — also penned an open letter to the European Parliament’s president to oppose Article 13.

In it they wrote that while “well-intended” the push towards automatic pre-filtering of users uploads “takes an unprecedented step towards the transformation of the Internet from an open platform for sharing and innovation, into a tool for the automated surveillance and control of its users”.

There is more than a little irony there, though, given that (for example) Google’s ad business conducts automated surveillance of the users of its various platforms for ad targeting purposes — and through that process it’s hoping to control the buying behavior of the individuals it tracks.

At the same time as so much sound and fury has been directed at attacking the copyright reform plans, another very irate, very motivated group of people have been lustily bellowing that content creators need paying for all the free lunches that tech giants (and others) have been helping themselves to.

But the death of memes! The end of fair digital use! The demise of online satire! The smothering of Internet expression! Hideously crushed and disfigured under the jackboot of the EU’s evil Filternet!

And so on and on it has gone.

(For just one e.g., see the below video — which was actually made by an Australian satirical film and media company that usually spends its time spoofing its own government’s initiatives but evidently saw richly viral pickings here… )

For a counter example, to set against the less than nuanced yet highly sharable satire-as-hyperbole on show in that video, is the Society of Authors — which has written a 12-point breakdown defending the actual substance of the reform (at least as it sees it).

A topline point to make right off the bat is it’s hardly a fair fight to set words against a virally sharable satirical video fronted by a young lady sporting very pink lipstick. But, nonetheless, debunk the denouncers these authors valiantly attempt to.

To wit: They reject claims the reforms will kill hyperlinking or knife sharing in the back; or do for online encyclopedias like Wikimedia; or make snuff out of memes; or strangle free expression — pointing out that explicit exceptions that have been written in to qualify what it would (and would not) target and how it’s intended to operate in practice.

Wikipedia, for example, has been explicitly stated as being excluded from the proposals.

But they are still pushing water uphill — against the tsunami of DEATH OF THE MEMES memes pouring the other way.

Russian state propaganda mouthpiece RT has even joined in the fun, because of course Putin is no fan of EU…

Terrible amounts of lobbying

The Society of Authors makes the very pertinent point that tech giants have spent millions lobbying against the reforms. They also argue this campaign has been characterised by “a loop of misinformation and scaremongering”.

So, basically, Google et al stand accused of spreading (even more) fake news with a self-interested flavor. Who’d have thunk it?!

Dollar bills standing on a table in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images)

The EU’s (voluntary) Transparency Register records Google directly spending between $6M and $6.4M on regional lobbying activities in 2016 alone. (Although that covers not just copyright related lobbying but a full laundry list of “fields of interest” its team of 14 smooth-talking staffers apply their Little Fingers to.)

But the company also seeks to exert influence on EU political opinion via membership of additional lobbying organizations.

And the register lists a full TWENTY-FOUR organizations that Google is therefore also speaking through (by contrast, Facebook is merely a member of eleven bodies) — from the American chamber of Commerce to the EU to dry-sounding thinktanks, such as the Center for European Policy Studies and the European Policy Center. It is also embedded in startup associations, like Allied for Startups. And various startup angles have been argued by critics of the copyright reforms — claiming Europe is going to saddle local entrepreneurs with extra bureaucracy.

Google’s dense web of presence across tech policy influencers and associations amplifies the company’s regional lobbying spend to as much as $36M, music industry bosses contend.

Though again that dollar value would be spread across multiple GOOG interests — so it’s hard to sum the specific copyright lobbying bill. (We asked Google — it didn’t answer). Multiple millions looks undeniable though.

Of course the music industry and publishers have been lobbying too.

But probably not at such a high dollar value. Though Europe’s creative industries have the local contacts and cultural connections to bend EU politicians’ ears. (As, well, they probably should.)

Seasoned European commissioners have professed themselves astonished at the level of lobbying — and that really is saying something.

Yes there are actually two sides to consider…

Returning to the Society of Authors, here’s the bottom third of their points — which focus on countering the copyright reform critics’ counterarguments:

The proposals aren’t censorship: that’s the very opposite of what most journalists, authors, photographers, film-makers and many other creators devote their lives to.

Not allowing creators to make a living from their work is the real threat to freedom of expression.

Not allowing creators to make a living from their work is the real threat to the free flow of information online.

Not allowing creators to make a living from their work is the real threat to everyone’s digital creativity.

Stopping the directive would be a victory for multinational internet giants at the expense of all those who make, enjoy and enjoy using creative works.

Certainly some food for thought there.

But as entrenched, opposing positions go, it’s hard to find two more perfect examples.

And with such violently opposed and motivated interest groups attached to the copyright reform issue there hasn’t really been much in the way of considered debate or nuanced consideration on show publicly.

But being exposed to endless DEATH OF THE INTERNET memes does tend to have that effect.

What’s that about Article 3 and AI?

There is also debate about Article 3 of the copyright reform plan — which concerns text and data-mining. (Or TDM as the Commission sexily conflates it.)

The original TDM proposal, which was rejected by MEPs, would have limited data mining to research organisations for the purposes of scientific research (though Member States would have been able to choose to allow other groups if they wished).

This portion of the reforms has attracted less attention (butm again, it’s difficult to be heard above screams about dead memes). Though there have been concerns raised from certain quarters that it could impact startup innovation — by throwing up barriers to training and developing AIs by putting rights blocks around (otherwise public) data-sets that could (otherwise) be ingested and used to foster algorithms.

Or that “without an effective data mining policy, startups and innovators in Europe will run dry”, as a recent piece of sponsored content inserted into Politico put it.

That paid for content was written by — you guessed it! — Allied for Startups.

Aka the organization that counts Google as a member…

The most fervent critics of the copyright reform proposals — i.e. those who would prefer to see a pro-Internet-freedoms overhaul of digital copyright rules — support a ‘right to read is the right to mine’ style approach on this front.

So basically a free for all — to turn almost any data into algorithmic insights. (Presumably these folks would agree with this kind of thing.)

Middle ground positions which are among the potential amendments now being considered by MEPs would support some free text and data mining — but, where legal restrictions exist, then there would be licenses allowing for extractions and reproductions.

 

And now the amendments, all 252 of them…

The whole charged copyright saga has delivered one bit of political drama already —  when the European Parliament voted in July to block proposals agreed only by the legal affairs committee, thereby reopening the text for amendments and fresh votes.

So MEPs now have the chance to refine the parliament’s position via supporting select amendments — with that vote taking place next week.

And boy have the amendments flooded in.

There are 252 in all! Which just goes to show how gloriously messy the democratic process is.

It also suggests the copyright reform could get entirely stuck — if parliamentarians can’t agree on a compromise position which can then be put to the European Council and go on to secure final pan-EU agreement.

MEP Julia Reda, a member of The Greens–European Free Alliance, who as (also) a Pirate Party member is very firmly opposed to the copyright reform text as was voted in July (she wants a pro-web-freedoms overhauling of digital copyright rules), has created this breakdown of alternative options tabled by MEPs — seen through her lens of promoting Internet freedoms over rights extensions.

So, for example, she argues that amendments to add limited exceptions for platform liability would still constitute “upload filters” (and therefore “censorship machines”).

Her preference would be deleting the article entirely and making no change to the current law. (Albeit that’s not likely to be a majority position, given how many MEPs backed the original Juri text of the copyright reform proposals 278 voted in favor, losing out to 318 against.)

But she concedes that limiting the scope of liability to only music and video hosting platforms would be “a step in the right direction, saving a lot of other platforms (forums, public chats, source code repositories, etc.) from negative consequences”.

She also flags an interesting suggestion — via another tabled amendment — of “outsourcing” the inspection of published content to rightholders via an API”.

“With a fair process in place [it] is an interesting idea, and certainly much better than general liability. However, it would still be challenging for startups to implement,” she adds.

Reda has also tabled a series of additional amendments to try to roll back what she characterizes as “some bad decisions narrowly made by the Legal Affairs Committee” — including adding a copyright exception for user generated content (which would essentially get platforms off the hook insofar as rights infringements by web users are concerned); adding an exception for freedom of panorama (aka the taking and sharing of photos in public places, which is currently not allowed in all EU Member States); and another removing a proposed extra copyright added by the Juri committee to cover sports events — which she contends would “filter fan culture away“.

So is the free Internet about to end??

MEP Catherine Stihler, a member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, who also voted in July to reopen debate over the reforms reckons nearly every parliamentary group is split — ergo the vote is hard to call.

“It is going to be an interesting vote,” she tells TechCrunch. “We will see if any possible compromise at the last minute can be reached but in the end parliament will decide which direction the future of not just copyright but how EU citizens will use the internet and their rights on-line.

“Make no mistake, this vote affects each one of us. I do hope that balance will be struck and EU citizens fundamental rights protected.”

So that sort of sounds like a ‘maybe the Internet as you know it will change’ then.

Other views are available, though, depending on the MEP you ask.

We reached out to Axel Voss, who led the copyright reform process for the Juri committee, and is a big proponent of Article 13, Article 11 (and the rest), to ask if he sees value in the debate having been reopened rather than fast-tracked into EU law — to have a chance for parliamentarians to achieve a more balanced compromise. At the time of writing Voss hadn’t responded.

Voting to reopen the debate in July, Stihler argued there are “real concerns” about the impact of Article 13 on freedom of expression, as well as flagging the degree of consumer concern parliamentarians had been seeing over the issue (doubtless helped by all those memes + petitions), adding: “We owe it to the experts, stakeholders and citizens to give this directive the full debate necessary to achieve broad support.”

MEP Marietje Schaake, a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, was willing to hazard a politician’s prediction that the proposals will be improved via the democratic process — albeit, what would constitute an improvement here of course depends on which side of the argument you stand.

But she’s routing for exceptions for user generated content and additional refinements to the three debated articles to narrow their scope.

Her spokesman told us: “I think we’ll end up with new exceptions on user generated content and freedom of panorama, as well as better wording for article 3 on text and data mining. We’ll end up probably with better versions of articles 11 and 13, the extent of the improvement will depend on the final vote.”

The vote will be held during an afternoon plenary session on September 12.

So yes there’s still time to call your MEP.

Highlights from the Senate Intelligence hearing with Facebook and Twitter

Another day, another political grilling for social media platform giants. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s fourth hearing took place this morning, with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey present to take questions as U.S. lawmakers continue to probe how foreign influence operations are playing out on Internet platforms — and eye up potential future […]

Another day, another political grilling for social media platform giants.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s fourth hearing took place this morning, with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey present to take questions as U.S. lawmakers continue to probe how foreign influence operations are playing out on Internet platforms — and eye up potential future policy interventions. 

During the session US lawmakers voiced concerns about “who owns” data they couched as “rapidly becoming me”. An uncomfortable conflation for platforms whose business is human surveillance.

They also flagged the risk of more episodes of data manipulation intended to incite violence, such as has been seen in Myanmar — and Facebook especially was pressed to commit to having both a legal and moral obligation towards its users.

The value of consumer data was also raised, with committee vice chair, Sen. Mark Warner, suggesting platforms should actively convey that value to their users, rather than trying to obfuscate the extent and utility of their data holdings. A level of transparency that will clearly require regulatory intervention.

Here’s our round-up of some of the other highlights from this morning’s session.

Google not showing up

Today’s hearing was a high profile event largely on account of two senior bums sitting on the seats before lawmakers — and one empty chair.

Facebook sent its COO Sheryl Sandberg. Twitter sent its bearded wiseman CEO Jack Dorsey (whose experimental word of the month appears to be “cadence” — as in he frequently said he would like a greater “cadence” of meetings with intelligence tips from law enforcement).

But Google sent the offer of its legal chief in place of Larry Page or Sundar Pichai, who the committee had actually asked for.

Which meant the company instantly became the politicians’ favored punchbag, with senator after senator laying into Alphabet for empty chairing them at the top exec level.

Whatever Page and Pichai were too busy doing to answer awkward questions about its business activity and ambitions in China the move looks like a major open goal for Alphabet as it was open season for senators to slam it.

Page staying away also made Facebook and Twitter look the very model of besuited civic responsibility and patriotism just for bothering to show up.

We got “Jack” and “Sheryl” first name terms from some of the senators, and plenty of “thanks for turning up” heaped on them from all corners — with some very particular barbs reserved for Google.

“I want to commend both of you for your appearance here today for what was no doubt going to be some uncomfortable questions. And I want to commend your companies for making you available. I wish I could say the same about Google,” said Senator Tom Cotton, addressing those in the room. “Both of you should wear it as a badge of honor that the Chinese Communist Party has blocked you from operating in their country.”

“Perhaps Google didn’t send a senior executive today because they’ve recently taken actions such as terminating a co-operation they had with the American military on programs like artificial intelligence that are designed not just to protect our troops and help them fight in our country’s wars but to protect civilians as well,” he continued, warming to his theme. “This is at the very same time that they continue to co-operate with the Chinese Communist Party on matters like artificial intelligence or partner with Huawei and other Chinese telecom companies who are effectively arms of the Chinese Communist Party.

“And credible reports suggest that they are working to develop a new search engine that would satisfy the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship standards after having disclaimed any intent to do so eight years ago. Perhaps they did not send a witness to answer these questions because there is no answer to these questions. And the silence we would hear right now from the Google chair would be reminiscent of the silence that that witness would provide.”

Even Sandberg seemed to cringe when offered the home-run opportunity to stick the knife in to Google — when Cotton asked both witnesses whether their companies would consider taking these kinds of actions?

But after a split second’s hesitation her media training kicked in — and she found her way of diplomatically giving Google the asked for kicking. “I’m not familiar with the specifics of this at all but based on how you’re asking the question I don’t believe so,” was her reply.

After his own small pause, Dorsey, the man of fewer words, added: “Also no.”

 

Dorsey repeat apologizing 

‘We haven’t done a good job of that’ was the most common refrain falling from Dorsey’s bearded lips this morning as senators asked why the company hasn’t managed to suck less from all sorts of angles — whether that’s by failing to provide external researchers with better access to data to help them help it with malicious interference; or failing to informing individual users who’ve been the targeted victims of Twitter fakery that that abuse has been happening to them; or just failing to offer any kind of contextual signal to its users that some piece of content they’re seeing is (or might be) maliciously fake.

But then this is the man who has defended providing a platform to people who make a living selling lies, so…

“We haven’t done a good job of that in the past,” was certainly phrase of the morning for a contrite Dorsey.  And while admitting failure is at least better than denying you’re failing, it’s still just that: Failure.

And continued failure has been a Twitter theme for so long now, when it comes to things like harassment and abuse, it’s starting to feel intentional. (As if, were you able to cut Twitter you’d find the words ‘feed the trolls’ running all the way through its business.)

Sadly the committee seemed to be placated by Dorsey’s repeat confessions of inadequacy. And he really wasn’t pressed enough. We’d have liked to see a lot more grilling of him over short term business incentives that tie his hands on fighting abuse.

Amusingly, one senator rechristened Dorsey “Mr Darcey”, after somehow tripping over the two syllables of his name. But actually, thinking about it, ‘pride and prejudice’ might be a good theme for the Twitter CEO to explore during one of his regular meditation sessions.

Y’know, as he ploughs through a second turgid decade of journeying towards self-awareness — while continuing to be paralyzed, on the business, civic and, well, human being, front, by rank indecision about which people and points of view to listen to (Pro-Tip: If someone makes money selling lies and/or spreading hate you really shouldn’t be letting them yank your operational chain) — leaving his platform (the would be “digital public square”, as he kept referring to it today), incapable of upholding the healthy standards it claims to want to have. (Or daubed with all manner of filthy graffiti, if you want a visual metaphor.)

The problem is Twitter’s stated position/mission, in Dorsey’s prepared statements to the committee, of keeping “all voices on the platform” is hubris. It’s a flawed ideology that results in massive damage to the free speech and healthy conversation he professes to want to champion because nazis are great at silencing people they hate and harass.

Unfortunately Dorsey still hasn’t had that eureka moment yet. And there was no sign of any imminent awakening judging by this morning’s performance.

 

Sandberg’s oh-so-smooth operation — but also an exchange that rattled her

The Facebook COO isn’t chief operating officer for nothing. She’s the queen of the polished, non-committal soundbite. And today she almost always had one to hand — smoothly projecting the impression that the company is always doing something. Whether that’s on combating hate speech, hoaxes and “inauthentic” content, or IDing and blocking state-level disinformation campaigns — thereby shifting attention off the deeper question of whether Facebook is doing enough. (Or even whether its platform might not be the problem itself.)

Albeit the bar looks very low indeed when your efforts are being set against Twitter and an empty chair.  (Aka the “invisible witness” as one senator sniped at Google.)

Very many of her answers courteously informed senators that Facebook would ‘follow up’ with answers and/or by providing some hazily non-specific ‘collaborative work’ at some undated future time — which is the most professional way to kick awkward questions into the long grass.

Though do it long enough and the grass can turn on you and start to bite back because it’s got so long and unkempt it now contains some very angry snakes.

Senator, Kamala Harrisvery clearly seething at this point — having had her questions to Facebook knocked about since November 2017, when its general council had first testified to the committee on the disinformation topic — was determined to get under Sandberg’s skin. And she did.

The exchange that rattled the Facebook COO started off around how much money it makes off of ads run by fake accounts — such as the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency.

Sandberg slickly reframed “inauthentic content” to an even more boring sound “inorganic content” — now several psychologic steps removed from the shockingly outrageous Kremlin propaganda that the company eventually disclosed.

She added it was equivalent to .004% of content in News Feed (hence Facebook’s earlier contention to Harris that it’s “immaterial to earnings”).

It’s not so much the specific substance of the question that’s the problem here for Facebook — with Sandberg also smoothly reiterating that the IRA had spent about $100k (which is petty cash in ad terms) — it’s the implication that Facebook’s business model profits off of fakes and hates, and is therefore amorously entwined in bed with fakes and hates.

“From our point of view, Senator Harris, any amount is too much,” continued Sandberg after she rolled out the $100k figure, and now beginning to thickly layer on the emulsion.

Harris cut her off, interjecting: “So are you saying that the revenue generated was .004% of your annual revenue”, before adding the pointed observation: “Because of course that would not be immaterial” — which drew a rare stuttered double “so” from Sandberg.

“So what metric are you using to calculate the revenue that was generated associated with those ads, and what is the dollar amount that is associated then with that metric?” pressed Harris.

Sandberg couldn’t provide the straight answer being sought, she said, because “ads don’t run with inorganic content on our service” — claiming: “There is actually no way to firmly ascertain how much ads are attached to how much organic content; it’s not how it works.”

“But what percentage of the content on Facebook is organic,” rejoined Harris.

That elicited a micro-pause from Sandberg, before she fell back on the usual: “I don’t have that specific answer but we can come back to you with that.”

Harris pushed her again, wondering if it’s “the majority of content”?

“No, no,” said Sandberg, sounding almost flustered.

“Your company’s business model is complex but it benefits from increased user engagement… so, simply put, the more people that use your platform the more they are exposed to third party ads, the more revenue you generate — would you agree with that,” continued Harris, starting to sound boring but only to try to reel her in.

After another pause Sandberg asked her to repeat this hardly complex question — before affirming “yes, yes” and then hastily qualifying it with: “But only I think when they see really authentic content because I think in the short run and over the long run it doesn’t benefit us to have anything inauthentic on our platform.”

Harris continued to hammer on how Facebook’s business model benefits from greater user engagement as more ads are viewed via its platform —  linking it to “a concern that many have is how you can reconcile an incentive to create and increase your user engagement with the content that generates a lot of engagement is often inflammatory and hateful”.

She then skewered Sandberg with a specific example of Facebook’s hate speech moderation failure — and by suggestive implication a financially incentivized policy and moral failure — referencing a ProPublica report from June 2017 which revealed the company had told moderators to delete hate speech targeting white men but not black children — because the latter were not considered a “protected class”.

Sandberg, sounding uncomfortable now, said this was “a bad policy that has been changed”. “We fixed it,” she added.

“But isn’t that a concern with hate period, that not everyone is looked at the same way,” wondered Harris?

Facebook “cares tremendously about civil rights” said Sandberg, trying to regain the PR initiative. But she was again interrupted by Harris — wondering when exactly Facebook had “addressed” that specific policy failure.

Sandberg was unable to put a date on when the policy change had been made. Which obviously now looked bad.

“Was the policy changed after that report? Or before that report from ProPublica?” pressed Harris.

“I can get back to you on the specifics of when that would have happened,” said Sandberg.

“You’re not aware of when it happened?”

“I don’t remember the exact date.”

“Do you remember the year?”

“Well you just said it was 2017.”

“So do you believe it was 2017 when the policy changed?”

“Sounds like it was.”

The awkward exchange ended with Sandberg being asked whether or not Facebook had changed its hate speech policies to protect not just those people who have been designated legally protected classes of people.

“I know that our hate speech policies go beyond the legal classifications, and they are all public, and we can get back to that on that,” she said, falling back on yet another pledge to follow up.

Twitter agreeing to bot labelling in principle  

We flagged this earlier but Senator Warner managed to extract from Dorsey a quasi-agreement to labelling automation on the platform in future — or at least providing more context to help users navigate what they’re being exposed to in tweet form.

He said Twitter has been “definitely” considering doing this — “especially this past year”.

Although, as we noted earlier, he had plenty of caveats about the limits of its powers of bot detection.

“It’s really up to the implementation at this point,” he added.

How exactly ‘bot or not’ labelling will come to Twitter isn’t clear. Nor was there any timeframe.

But it’s at least possible to imagine the company could add some sort of suggestive percentage of automated content to accounts in future — assuming Dorsey can find his first, second and third gears.

Lawmakers worried about the impact of deepfakes

Deepfakes, aka AI-powered manipulation of video to create fake footage of people doing things they never did is, perhaps unsurprisingly, already on the radar of reputation-sensitive U.S. lawmakers — even though the technology itself is hardly in widespread, volume usage.

Several senators asked whether (and how comprehensively) the social media companies archive suspended or deleted accounts.

Clearly politicians are concerned. No senator wants to be ‘filmed in bed with an intern’ — especially one they never actually went to bed with.

The response they got back was a qualified yes — with both Sandberg and Dorsey saying they keep such content if they have any suspicions.

Which is perhaps rather cold comfort when you consider that Facebook had — apparently — zero suspicious about all the Kremlin propaganda violently coursing across its platform in 2016 and generating hundreds of millions of views.

Since that massive fuck-up the company has certainly seemed more proactive on the state-sponsored fakes front  — recently removing a swathe of accounts linked to Iran which were pushing fake content, for example.

Although unless lawmakers regulate for transparency and audits of platforms there’s no real way for anyone outside these commercially walled gardens to be 110% sure.

Sandberg’s clumsy affirmation of WhatsApp encryption 

Since the WhatsApp founders left Facebook, earlier this year and in fall last, there have been rumors that the company might be considering dropping the flagship end-to-end encryption that the messaging platform boasts — specifically to help with its monetization plans around linking businesses with users.

And Sandberg was today asked directly if WhatsApp still uses e2e encryption. She replied by affirming Facebook’s commitment to encryption generally — saying it’s good for user security.

“We are strong believers in encryption,” she told lawmakers. “Encryption helps keep people safe, it’s what secures our banking system, it’s what secures the security of private messages, and consumers rely on it and depend on it.”

Yet on the specific substance of the question, which had asked whether WhatsApp is still using end-to-end encryption, she pulled out another of her professionally caveated responses — telling the senator who had asked: “We’ll get back to you on any technical details but to my knowledge it is.”

Most probably this was just her habit of professional caveating kicking in. But it was an odd way to reaffirm something as fundamental as the e2e encrypted architecture of a product used by billions of people on a daily basis. And whose e2e encryption has caused plenty of political headaches for Facebook — which in turn is something Sandberg has been personally involved in trying to fix.

Should we be worried that the Facebook COO couldn’t swear under oath that WhatsApp is still e2e encrypted? Let’s hope not. Presumably the day job has just become so fettered with fixes she just momentarily forgot what she could swear she knows to be true and what she couldn’t.