The FCC has its first Chairwoman in Jessica Rosenworcel

The Biden administration has officially appointed Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel acting FCC Chairwoman, making her the first woman to hold the position, and she will likely be nominated to fill the position formally later in the year. With her record of standing for equal access, industry accountability, and net neutrality, Rosenworcel’s FCC will be very different from her predecessor’s.

“I am honored to be designated as the Acting Chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission by President Biden.  I thank the President for the opportunity to lead an agency with such a vital mission and talented staff.  It is a privilege to serve the American people and work on their behalf to expand the reach of communications opportunity in the digital age,” she said in a statement.

While Rosenworcel’s agenda will be made clear over the coming weeks and months, it is likely we will see the return of net neutrality from the shallow grave dug for it by Ajit Pai, and probably a new effort to better understand where in the country actually needs help getting broadband to those who need it, and how to do so quickly and equitably. Her first items of business, however, will likely pertain to getting internet access to those most affected by the pandemic.

(Disclosure: The FCC regulates TechCrunch’s parent company, Verizon, but this has no effect on our coverage.)

Rosenworcel first started at the FCC in 2003, and filled other federal communications regulation roles over the years. She was nominated for Commissioner by President Obama in 2011 (confirmed in 2012), and was in the running for Chair in 2013, though Tom Wheeler ended up taking the spot. Her second term as Commissioner began in 2017.

Throughout her tenure at the FCC Rosenworcel has pushed for net neutrality and improved broadband access for schools and economically disadvantaged areas. During Ajit Pai’s tumultuous term as Chairman she offered implacable resistance to what she saw as an unjustified hands-off approach to regulating telecoms, and a fierce indictment of the FCC’s failure to act in the best interest of the people it serves. Here are a few examples.

At the 2017 vote killing net neutrality, Rosenworcel was unsparing in voicing her fury at the shadiness of the entire rulemaking process:

I dissent from this rash decision to roll back net neutrality rules. I dissent from the corrupt process that has brought us to this point. And I dissent from the contempt this agency has shown our citizens in pursuing this path today. This decision puts the Federal Communications Commission on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American public.

In 2018, with an epidemic of robocalling growing by the month, she contradicted Pai’s claim that a $120M fine (almost certainly never collected) for one offender proved there was a “cop on the beat”:

Today the FCC adopts a forfeiture order to impose a penalty on one operation that made tens of millions of robocalls two years ago.  I support it.  But let’s be honest: Going after a single bad actor is emptying the ocean with a teaspoon—and right now we’re all wet.

That the industry still has not widely adopted the framework that would nip robocalls in the bud is testament to this, though they should soon after the FCC finally got in gear. (This year she also contributed a piece to TechCrunch to call for immediate action on the rollout of 5G.)

In 2019, Rosenworcel called out the agency’s seeming lack of concern about a major loophole in telecoms regulation that allowed every mobile service vendor to essentially sell real-time location data to anyone willing to pay for it:

The FCC has been totally silent about press reports that for a few hundred dollars shady middlemen can sell your location within a few hundred meters based on your wireless phone data. That’s unacceptable.

Her office released letters to the agency from the major carriers as a stopgap measure to inform people. When the FCC finally formally moved against the practice, she noted “It’s a shame that it took so long for the FCC to reach a conclusion that was so obvious.”

In 2020, Rosenworcel raised for the nth time the FCC’s lack of good data concerning broadband deployment in the country. The problem had rankled for years but was highlighted by a spectacular failure to vet industry data provided more or less on the honor system, which ended up throwing off numbers nationally:

This should have set off alarm bells at the FCC. In fact, agency staff reached out to the company nearly a dozen times over multiple years, including after this suspect data was filed. Despite these efforts behind the scenes, on February 19, 2019, the FCC used the erroneous data filed by BarrierFree in a press release, claiming great progress in closing the nation’s digital divide. When an outside party pointed out this was based on fraudulent information, the FCC was forced to revise its claim.

An embarrassing demonstration of how poor the current system is. Of the broadband report itself she had written earlier:

This report deserves a failing grade. Putting aside the embarrassing fumble of the FCC blindly accepting incorrect data for the original version of this report, there are serious problems with its basic methodology. Time and again this agency has acknowledged the grave limitations of the data we collect to assess broadband deployment.

After all, if the FCC doesn’t know who actually is getting decent broadband and who isn’t, how can they direct funds to help bridge that gap?

Lastly, late in 2020 when Pai caved to administration pressure to reevaluate the hugely important Section 230, which limits the liability of internet platforms for the content posted on them, Rosenworcel once again summed up the situation simply and honestly:

The timing of this effort is absurd. The FCC has no business being the president’s speech police.

This abortive attempt to weaken Section 230 never had legs to begin with and will not be pursued further, according to an FCC source.

These are only a handful of the more high-profile moments of Rosenworcel’s latest term, and in fact it is something of a disservice to list just them. The work of an FCC Commissioner, their staff, and the bureaus they rely on, is largely obscure and technical, with moments like those listed above more the exception than the rule.

With the last-minute confirmation of Republican Commissioner Nathan Simington, the FCC is currently at a 2-2 in its normally 3-2 partisan makeup in favor of the presiding administration. Since Democrats won both Senate seats in Georgia, the feared deadlock will likely be avoided, with a fifth Commissioner nominated and confirmed in short order so that work can begin. We’ll know more about Rosenworcel’s priorities and agenda soon.

White House, dark mode: Biden admin refreshes Presidency’s website, vows accessibility

WhiteHouse.gov, the official website for all Presidential actions and efforts, is among the first things to be changed up under the freshly inaugurated President Biden. A fashionable dark mode appeared, a large text toggle for straining eyes, and the webmaster has committed to making the whole site conform to the latest accessibility guidelines.

The look isn’t so very different from the previous administration’s site — they’re both fairly modern and minimal experiences, with big photos up front and tidy lists of priorities and announcements once you drill down into a category.

Animation showing dark and light modes on whitehouse.gov

Image Credits: White House

But one big design change implemented by the new administration that many will appreciate is the inclusion of a dark mode, or high contrast mode, and a large type toggle.

Dark modes have been around forever, but became de rigeur when Apple implemented its own system-wide versions on iOS and macOS a while back. It’s just easier on the eyes in many ways, and at any rate it’s nice to give users options.

The WhiteHouse.gov dark mode changes the headline type from a patriotic blue to an eye-friendly off-white, with links a calming Dijon. Even the White House logo itself goes from a dark blue background to full black with a white border. It’s all very tasteful, and if anything seems like a low contrast mode, not high.

The large type mode does what it says, making everything considerably bigger and easier to tap or click. The toggles, it must be said, are a bit over-prominent, but they’ll probably tweak that soon.

More important is the pledge in the accessibility section:

This commitment to accessibility for all begins with this site and our efforts to ensure all functionality and all content is accessible to all Americans.

Our ongoing accessibility effort works towards conforming to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.1, level AA criteria.

The WCAG guidelines are a set of best practices for designing a website so that its content can be easily accessed by people who use screen readers, need captions for audio, or can’t use a mouse or touchscreen easily. The guidelines aren’t particularly hard to meet, but as many have pointed out, it’s harder to retrofit a website to be accessible than to design it for accessibility from the start.

One thing I noticed was that many of the photos on the White House website have alt text or visible captions attached — these help visually impaired visitors understand what’s in an image. Here’s an example:

Screenshot showing the alt text of a photo of VP Kamala Harris and her family

Image Credits: White House

 

 

 

 

Normally that alt text would be read out by a screen reader when it got to the image, but it’s generally not made visible.

Unless the metadata was stripped from the previous administration’s site (it’s archived here), none of the photos I checked had text descriptions there, so this is a big improvement. Unfortunately some photos (like the big header photo on the front page) don’t have descriptions, something that should probably be remedied.

Accessibility in other places will mean prompt inclusion of plaintext versions of governance items and announcements (versus PDFs or other documents), captions on official videos and other media, and as the team notes, lots of little improvements that make the site better for everyone who visits.

It’s a small thing in a way, compared with the changes expected to accompany the new administration, but small things tend to pile up and become big things.

As Microsoft’s Isaac Hepworth noted, there’s still lots of work to do, and that’s why U.S. Digital Services hid a little message in the source code:

Section of source code asking for help from the US Digital Services administration

Image Credits: White House

If you’re interested in helping out, sign up here.

Alibaba shares jump on Jack Ma’s first appearance in 3 months

Alibaba’s billionaire founder resurfaced as he spoke to 100 rural teachers through a video call, three months after his last public appearance in October, sending the e-commerce firm’s shares up more than 8% in Hong Kong.

A recording of the call was first posted on a news portal backed by the government of Zhejiang, the eastern province where Alibaba is headquartered, and the video was verified by an Alibaba spokesperson.

Speculations swirled around Ma’s whereabouts after media reported in December that he skipped the taping of a TV program he created. Ma, known for his love for the limelight, has seen his e-commerce empire Alibaba and fintech giant Ant Group increasingly in the crosshairs of the Chinese authorities in recent months.

Ma last appeared publicly at a conference where he castigated China’s financial regulatory system in front of a room of high-ranked officials. His controversial remark, according to reports, prompted the Chinese regulator to abruptly halt Ant’s initial public offering, which would have been the biggest public share sale of all time.

Ant has since been working on corporate restructuring and regulatory compliance under the directions of the government. Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce platform, also came under scrutiny as market regulators opened an investigation into its alleged monopolistic practices.

Some argue that the recent clampdown on Jack Ma’s internet empire signals Beijing’s growing unease with the country’s super-rich and private-sector power brokers.

“Today, Alibaba and its archrival, Tencent, control more personal data and are more intimately involved in everyday life in China than Google, Facebook and other American tech titans are in the United States. And just like their American counterparts, the Chinese giants sometimes bully smaller competitors and kill innovation,” wrote Li Yuan for the New York Times.

“You don’t have to be a member of the Communist Party to see reasons to rein them in.”

In the 50-second clip, Ma is seen talking directly into the camera against what appears to be decorative paintings depicting a water town typical of Zhejiang. An art history book is shown amid a stack of books, alongside a vase of fresh flowers and a ceramic figurine of a stout, reclining man who looks relaxed and content.

Ma addressed the 100 teachers receiving the Jack Ma Rural Teachers Award, which was set up by the Jack Ma Foundation to identify outstanding rural teachers every year. The video also briefly shows Ma visiting a rural boarding school in Zhejiang on January 10. The award ceremony was moved online this year due to the pandemic, Ma told the award recipients.

When Ma announced his retirement plan, he pledged to return to his teaching roots and devote more time to education philanthropy, though the founder still holds considerable sway over Alibaba by keeping a seat in the powerful Alibaba Partnership. The legendary billionaire began his career as an English teacher in Hangzhou, and on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, he nicknames himself the “ambassador for rural teachers.”

Signal and Telegram are also growing in China – for now

As fears over WhatsApp’s privacy policies send millions of users in the West to Signal and Telegram, the two encrypted apps are also seeing a slight user uptick in China, where WeChat has long dominated and the government has a tight grip on online communication.

Following WhatsApp’s pop-up notification reminding users that it shares their data with its parent Facebook, people began fleeing to alternate encrypted platforms. Telegram added 25 million just between January 10-13, the company said on its official Telegram channel, while Signal surged to the top of the App Store and Google Play Store in dozens of countries, TechCrunch learned earlier.

The migration was accelerated when, on January 7, Elon Musk urged his 40 million Twitter followers to install Signal in a tweet that likely stoked more interest in the end-to-end encryption messenger.

The growth of Telegram and Signal in China isn’t nearly as remarkable as their soaring popularity in regions where WhatsApp has been the mainstream chat app, but the uplift is a reminder that WeChat alternatives still exist in China in various capacities.

Signal amassed 9,000 new downloads from the China App Store between January 8 and 12, up 500% from the period between January 3 and 7, according to data from research firm Sensor Tower. Telegram added 17,000 downloads during January 8-12, up 6% from the January 3-7 duration. WhatsApp’s growth stalled, recording 10,000 downloads in both periods.

Sensor Tower estimates that Telegram has seen about 2.7 million total installs on China’s App Store, compared to 458,000 downloads from Signal and 9.5 million times from WhatsApp.

The fact that Telegram, Signal, and WhatsApp are accessible in China might come as a surprise to some people. But China’s censorship decisions can be arbitrary and inconsistent. As censorship monitoring site Apple Censorship shows, all major Western messengers are still available on the China App Store.

The situation for Android is trickier. Google services are largely blocked in China and Android users revert to Android app stores operated by local companies like Tencent and Baidu. Neither Telegram nor Signal is available on these third-party Android stores, but users with a tool that can bypass China’s Great Firewall, such as a virtual private network (VPN), can access Google Play and install the encrypted messengers.

The next challenge is actually using these apps. The major chat apps all get slightly different treatment from Beijing’s censorship apparatus. Some, like Signal, work perfectly without the need for a VPN. Users have reported that WhatsApp occasionally works in China without a VPN, though it loads very slowly. And Facebook doesn’t work at all without a VPN.

“Some websites and apps can remain untouched until they reach a certain threshold of users at which point the authorities will try to block or disrupt the website or app,” said Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous head of Great Fire, an organization monitoring the Chinese internet that also runs Apple Censorship.

“Perhaps before this mass migration from WhatsApp, Signal did not have that many users in China. That might have changed over the last week in which case the authorities could be pondering restrictions for Signal,” Smith added.

To legally operate in China, companies must store their data within China and submit information to the authorities for security spot-checks, according to a cybersecurity law enacted in 2017. Apple, for instance, partners with a local cloud provider to store the data of its Chinese users.

The requirement raises questions about the type of interaction that Signal, Telegram, and other foreign apps have with the Chinese authorities. Signal said it never turned over data to the Hong Kong police and had no data to turn over when concerns grew over Beijing’s heightened controls over the former British colony.

The biggest challenges for apps like Signal in China, according to Smith, will come from Apple, which is constantly under fire by investors and activists for submitting to the Chinese authorities.

In recent years, the American giant has stepped up app crackdown in China, zeroing in on services that grant Chinese users access to unfiltered information, such as VPN providers, RSS feed readers and podcast apps. Apple has also purged tens of thousands of unlicensed games in recent quarters after a years-long delay.

“Apple has a history of pre-emptively censoring apps that they believe the authorities would want censored,” Smith observed. “If Apple decides to remove Signal in China, either on its own initiative or in direct response to a request from the authorities, then Apple customers in China will be left with no secure messaging options.”

DOT evaluated 11 GPS replacements and found only one that worked across use cases

The United States’ GPS system, which is operated by the Defense Department, offers every one of us critical infrastructure around what is known as positioning, navigation and timing (PNT). Positioning and navigation is obvious every time we open up a maps app, but timing is also a critical function of GPS — offering our smartphones and devices precision timing to ensure that compute processes are accurately synced.

As more of the economy relies on these systems, they have increasingly become a target of hackers through GPS spoofing. The government wants to create additional redundancy and resiliency in the sector, and has explored using commercial alternatives to augment or backup parts of the GPS system.

The Department of Transportation, under a Congressional mandate added to the defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2018, ran a comprehensive evaluation of commercial alternatives to government-owned and operated GPS that could serve as a backup to our existing infrastructure.

Among the 11 companies considered in the study were a number of prominent positioning startups, including Satelles, which raised a $26 million round of capital in 2019; NextNav, which has raised a total of nearly $300 million including $120 million from Fortress a year ago; and Hellen Systems, which according to Crunchbase raised a small seed round last year.

You can read the full report from the DOT, which runs to 457 pages long and covers all 14 measures the researchers explored in evaluating these different PNT platforms.

The summary though is that there are a number of companies that offer decent backup capabilities for GPS, although the performance and cost vary widely. NextNav came out furthest ahead according to the researchers, who stated that “All [Technology Readiness Level]-qualified vendors demonstrated at least some PNT performance of value, but only one vendor, NextNav, demonstrated in all applicable use case scenarios.”

Beyond that, the DOT researchers said that “… none of the systems can universally backup the positioning and navigation capabilities provided by GPS and its augmentations.” Given the range of needs that GPS fulfills, they recommended that “a diverse universe of positioning and navigation technologies” be used to add resiliency in this infrastructure.

Finally, costs remain quite complicated to determine. Given the way that different positioning systems operate, the fixed and variable costs for each system are highly dependent on desired coverage area and necessary transmitter density. The researchers weren’t able to devise a clear opinion on the cost effectiveness of different systems, although they do offer some initial data that can provide early insight.

Given the importance of GPS and the desire for companies and the government to have reliable alternatives, VCs have dumped money on the PNT sector in recent years. Now, we have some hard data on which vendors are potentially picking up steam in terms of functionality and utility.

Trump circumvents Twitter ban to decry ‘unprecedented assault on free speech’

Following a comprehensive ban from Twitter and a number of other online services following last week’s assault on the Capitol by his followers, President Trump managed to put out a tweet in the form of a video address touching on the “calamity at the Capitol”… and, of course, his deplatforming.

In the video, Trump instructs his followers to shun violence, calling it un-American. “No true supporter of mine could ever endorse political violence,” he said, days after calling rioters “great patriots” and telling them “we love you, you’re very special” as they despoiled the House and Senate.

He pivoted after a few minutes to the topic that, after his historic second impeachment, is almost certainly foremost on his mind: being banned from his chief instrument of governance, Twitter.

“I also want to say a few words about the unprecedented assault on free speech we have seen in recent days,” he said, although the bans and other actions are all due to documented breaches of the platforms’ rules. “The efforts to censor, cancel and blacklist our fellow citizens are wrong, and they are dangerous. What is needed now is for us to listen to one another, not to silence one another.”

After having his @realdonaldtrump handle suspended by Twitter, Trump attempted to sockpuppet a few other prominent accounts of allies, but was swiftly shut down. What everyone assumed must be plans to join Parler were scuttled along with the social network itself, which has warned it may be permanently taken offline after Amazon and other internet infrastructure companies refused to host it.

In case you’re wondering how Trump was able to slip this one past Twitter’s pretty decisive ban to begin with, we were curious too.

Twitter tells TechCrunch:

This Tweet is not in violation of the Twitter Rules. As we previously made clear, other official administration accounts, including @WhiteHouse, are permitted to Tweet as long as they do not demonstrably engage in ban evasion or share content that otherwise violates the Twitter Rules.

In other words, while Trump the person was banned, Trump the head of the Executive branch may still have some right, in the remaining week he holds the office, to utilize Twitter as a way of communicating matters of importance to the American people.

This gives a somewhat unfortunate impression of a power move, as Twitter has put itself in the position of determining what is a worthwhile transmission and what is a rabble-rousing incitement to violence. I’ve asked the company to clarify how it is determined whether what Trump does on this account is considered ban evasion.

Meanwhile, almost simultaneous with Trump’s surprise tweet, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey unloaded 13 tweets worth of thoughts about the situation:

I believe this was the right decision for Twitter. We faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance, forcing us to focus all of our actions on public safety. Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all.

That said, having to ban an account has real and significant ramifications. While there are clear and obvious exceptions, I feel a ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation. And a time for us to reflect on our operations and the environment around us.

Jack neither reaches any real conclusions nor illuminates any new plans, but it’s clear he is thinking real hard about this. As he notes, however, it’ll take a lot of work to establish the “one humanity working together” he envisions as a sort of stretch goal for Twitter and the internet in general.

I’m a free speech champion. I don’t even know what that means anymore

The president of the United States is supposedly the most powerful man in the world. He also can’t post to Twitter. Or Facebook. Or a bunch of other social networks as we discovered over the course of the past week (He still has access to the nuclear launch codes though, so that’s an interesting dynamic to chew on).

The bans last week were exceptional — but so is Trump. There may not be another president this century who pushes the line of public discourse quite like the current occupant of the White House (at least, one can only hope). If the whole Trump crisis was truly exceptional though, it could simply be ignored. Rules, even rules around free speech, have always had exceptions to handle exceptional circumstances. The president provokes a violent protest, he gets banned. A unique moment in American executive leadership, for sure. Yet, apart from the actor, it’s hardly an unusual response from the tech industry or any publisher where violent threats have been banned for decades under Supreme Court precedent.

Why then aren’t we ignoring it? I think we can all feel that something greater is underfoot. The entire information architecture of our world has changed, and that has completely upended the structure of rules around free speech that have governed America in the modern era.

Freedom of speech is deeply entwined with human progressivism, with science and rationality and positivism. The purpose of a marketplace of ideas is for arguments to be in dialogue with each other, to have their own facts and deductions checked, and for bad ideas to be washed out by better, more proven ones. Contentious at times yes, but a positive contention, one that ultimately is meant to elucidate more than provoke.

I’m a free speech “absolutist” because I believe in that human progress, and I believe that the concept of a marketplace of ideas is the best mechanism historically we have ever built as a species for exploring our world and introspecting ourselves. Yet, I also can’t witness the events that transpired last week and just pretend that our information commons is working well.

I get it — that seems contradictory. I understand the argument that I’m supporting free speech but not really supporting it. Yet, there is a reasonable pause to be taken in this moment to ask some deeper, more foundational questions, for something is wrong with the system. I’m struggling with the same context that the ACLU in its official statement is struggling with:

It’s a milquetoast response, a “we condemn but we are also concerned” sort of lukewarm mélange. It’s also a reasonable response to a rapidly changing environment around speech. In the same vein, I’m a staunch defender of the marketplace of ideas, well, a marketplace of ideas, one that unfortunately no longer exists today. Just think about everything that isn’t working:

  • There’s too much information, and it’s impossible for any reasonable human to process it all
  • Much of that flood is garbage and outright fraud, or worse, brilliant pieces of psychological propaganda designed to distract and undermine the very information system it is distributed on
  • We’ve never allowed so many people to gain access to the public square to distribute their missives, drivel and invective with such limited constraints
  • Few ideas are in dialogue anymore. Collegiality is mostly dead, as is constructivist thought. There is no marketplace anymore since the “stores” are no longer in the same public squares but in each of our own individual feeds
  • Coercive incentives from a handful of dominant, monopoly platforms drive wildly damaging communication practices, encouraging the proverbial “clickbait” over any form of careful discussion or debate
  • The vast majority of people seem to love this, given the extremely high user engagement numbers seen on tech platforms

We’ve known this event was coming for decades. Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, about the inability of humans to process the complexity of the modern, industrialized world, came out in 1970. Cyberpunk literature and sci-fi more generally in the 1980s and 1990s has extensively grappled with this coming onslaught. As the internet expanded rapidly, books like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows interrogated how the internet prevents us from thinking deeply. It was published a decade ago. Today, in your local bookstore (assuming you still have one and can actually still read texts longer than 1,000 words), you can find a whole wing analyzing the future of media and communications and what the internet is cognitively doing to us.

My absolute belief in “free speech” was predicated on some pretty clear assumptions about how free speech was supposed to work in the United States. Those assumptions, unfortunately, no longer apply.

We can no longer assume that there is a proverbial public square where citizens debate, perhaps even angrily, the issues that confront them. We can no longer assume that information dreck gets filtered by editors, or by publishers, or by readers themselves. We can no longer assume that the people who reach us with their messages are somewhat vetted, and speaking from truth or facts.

We can no longer assume that any part of the marketplace is frankly working at all.

That’s what makes this era so challenging for those of us who rely every day on the right to free speech in our work and in our lives. Without those underlying assumptions, the right to free speech isn’t the bastion of human progressivism and rationality that we expect it to be. Our information commons won’t ensure that the best and highest-quality ideas are going to rise to the top and propel our collective discussion.

I truly believe in free speech in its extensive, American sense. So do many friends who are similarly concerned for the perilous state of our marketplace of ideas. Yet, we all need to confront the reality that is before us: the system is really, truly broken and just screaming “Free Speech!” is not going to change that.

The way forward is to pivot the conversation around free speech to a broader question about how we improve the information architecture of our world. How do we ensure that creators and the people who generate ideas and analyze them can do so with the right economics? That means empowering writers and filmmakers and novelists and researchers and everyone else to be able to do quality work, over perhaps extended periods of time, without having to upload a new photo or insight every ten minutes to stay “top of mind” lest their income tumbles.

How can we align incentives at every layer of our communications to ensure that facts and “truth” will eventually win the day in the asymptote, if not always right away? How do you ensure that the power that comes with mass distribution of information is held by those who embody at least some notion of a public duty to accuracy and reasonableness?

Most importantly, how do we improve the ability of every reader and viewer to process the information they see, and through their independent actions drive the discussion toward rationality? No marketplace can survive without smart and diligent customers, and the market for information is no exception. If people demand lies, the world is going to supply it to them, and in spades as we have already seen.

Tech can’t solve this alone, but it absolutely can and is obligated to be part of the solution. Platform alternatives with the right incentives in place can completely change the way humanity understands our world and what is happening. That’s an extremely important and intellectually interesting problem that should be enticing to any ambitious engineer and founder to tackle.

I’ll always defend free speech, but I can’t defend the system in the state that we see it today. The only defense then is to work to rebuild this system, to buttress the components that are continuing to work and to repair or replace the ones that aren’t. I don’t believe the descent into rational hell has to be paved by misinformation. We all have the tools and power to make this system what it needs to be — what it should be.

Amazon Web Services gives Parler 24-hour notice that it will suspend services to the company

Parler is at risk of disappearing, just as the social media network popular among conservatives was reaching new heights of popularity in the wake of President Donald Trump’s ban from all major tech social platforms.

Amazon Web Services, which provides backend cloud services, has informed Parler that it intends to cut ties with the company in the next 24 hours, according to a report in BuzzFeed News. Parler’s application is built on top of AWS infrastructure, services that are critical for the operation of its platform. Earlier today, Apple announced that it was following Google in blocking the app from its App Store, citing a lack of content moderation.

Parler, whose fortunes have soared as users upset at the President’s silencing on mainstream social media outlets flocked to the service, is now another site of contention in the struggle over the limits of free speech and accountability online.

Parler CEO John Matze said that the platform would be offline for at least a week, as “they rebuild from scratch” in response to AWS’ communications.

In the wake of the riots at the Capitol on Wednesday and a purge of accounts accused of inciting violence on Twitter and Facebook, Parler had become the home for a raft of radical voices calling for armed “Patriots” to commit violence at the nation’s capitol and statehouses around the country.

Most recently, conservative militants on the site had been calling for “Patriots” to amplify the events of January 6 with a march on Washington DC with weapons on January 19.

Even as pressure was came from Apple and Amazon, whose employees had called for the suspension of services with the company, Parler was taking steps to moderate posts on its platform.

The company acknowledged that it had removed some posts from Trump supporter Lin Wood, who had called for the execution of Vice President Mike Pence in a series of proclamations on the company’s site.

Over the past few months, Republican lawmakers including Sen. Ted Cruz and Congressman Devin Nunes — along with conservative firebrands like Wood have found a home on the platform, where they can share conspiracy theories with abandon.

In an email quoted by BuzzFeed News, Amazon Web Services’ Trust and Safety Team told Parler’s chief policy officer, Amy Peikoff that calls for violence that were spreading across Parler’s platform violated its terms of service. The company’s team also said that Parler’s plan to use volunteers to moderate content on the platform would prove effective, according to BuzzFeed.

“Recently, we’ve seen a steady increase in this violent content on your website, all of which violates our terms. It’s clear that Parler does not have an effective process to comply with the AWS terms of service,” BuzzFeed reported the email as saying.

Here’s Amazon’s letter to Parler in full.

Dear Amy,

Thank you for speaking with us earlier today.

As we discussed on the phone yesterday and this morning, we remain troubled by the repeated violations of our terms of service. Over the past several weeks, we’ve reported 98 examples to Parler of posts that clearly encourage and incite violence. Here are a few examples below from the ones we’ve sent previously: [See images above.]

Recently, we’ve seen a steady increase in this violent content on your website, all of which violates our terms. It’s clear that Parler does not have an effective process to comply with the AWS terms of service. It also seems that Parler is still trying to determine its position on content moderation. You remove some violent content when contacted by us or others, but not always with urgency. Your CEO recently stated publicly that he doesn’t “feel responsible for any of this, and neither should the platform.” This morning, you shared that you have a plan to more proactively moderate violent content, but plan to do so manually with volunteers. It’s our view that this nascent plan to use volunteers to promptly identify and remove dangerous content will not work in light of the rapidly growing number of violent posts. This is further demonstrated by the fact that you still have not taken down much of the content that we’ve sent you. Given the unfortunate events that transpired this past week in Washington, D.C., there is serious risk that this type of content will further incite violence.

AWS provides technology and services to customers across the political spectrum, and we continue to respect Parler’s right to determine for itself what content it will allow on its site. However, we cannot provide services to a customer that is unable to effectively identify and remove content that encourages or incites violence against others. Because Parler cannot comply with our terms of service and poses a very real risk to public safety, we plan to suspend Parler’s account effective Sunday, January 10th, at 11:59PM PST. We will ensure that all of your data is preserved for you to migrate to your own servers, and will work with you as best as we can to help your migration.

– AWS Trust & Safety Team

The deplatforming of a president

After years of placid admonishments, the tech world came out in force against President Trump this past week following the violent assault of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. on Wednesday. From Twitter to PayPal, more than a dozen companies have placed unprecedented restrictions or outright banned the current occupant of the White House from using their services, and in some cases, some of his associates and supporters as well.

The news was voluminous and continuous for the past few days, so here’s a recap of who took action when, and what might happen next.

Twitter: a permanent ban and a real-time attempt to shut down all possible account alternatives

Twitter has played a paramount role over the debate about how to moderate President Trump’s communications, given the president’s penchant for the platform and the nearly 90 million followers on his @realDonaldTrump account. In the past, Twitter has repeatedly warned the president, added labels related to electron integrity and misinformation, and outright blocked the occasional tweet.

This week, however, Twitter’s patience seemed to have been exhausted. Shortly after the riots at the Capitol on Wednesday, Twitter put in place a large banner warning its users about the president’s related tweet on the matter, blocking retweets of that specific message. A few hours later, the company instituted a 12-hour ban on the president’s personal account.

At first, it looked like the situation would return to normal, with Twitter offering Thursday morning that it would reinstate the president’s account after he removed tweets the company considered against its policies around inciting violence. The president posted a tweet later on Thursday with a video attachment that seemed to be relatively calmer than his recent fiery rhetoric, a video in which he also accepted the country’s election results for the first time.

Enormous pressure externally on its own platform as well as internal demands from employees kept the policy rapidly changing though. Late Friday night, the company announced that it decided to permanently ban the president from its platform, shutting down @realDonaldTrump. The company then played a game of whack-a-mole as it blocked the president’s access to affiliated Twitter handles like @TeamTrump (his official campaign account) as well as the official presidential account @POTUS and deleted individual tweets from the president. The company’s policies state that a blocked user may not attempt to use a different account to evade its ban.

Twitter has also taken other actions against some of the president’s affiliates and broader audience, blocking Michael Flynn, a bunch of other Trump supporters, and a variety of QAnon figures.

With a new president on the horizon, the official @POTUS account will be handed to the new Biden administration, although Twitter has reportedly been intending to reset the account’s followers to zero, unlike its transition of the account in 2016 from Obama to Trump.

As for Trump himself, a permanent ban from his most prominent platform begs the question: where will he take his braggadocio and invective next? So far, we haven’t seen the president move his activities to any social network alternatives, but after the past few years (and on Twitter, the last decade), it seems hard to believe the president will merely return to his golf course and quietly ride out to the horizon.

Snap: a quick lock after dampening the president’s audience for months

Snap locked the president’s account late Wednesday following the events on Capitol Hill, and seemed to be one of the most poised tech companies to rapidly react to the events taking place in DC. Snap’s lock prevents the president from posting new snaps to his followers on the platform, which currently number approximately two million. As far as TechCrunch knows, that lock remains in place, although the president’s official profile is still available to users.

Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the concomitant Black Lives Matter protests, the company had announced back in June that it would remove the president’s account from its curated “Discover” tab, limiting its distribution and discoverability.

The president has never really effectively used the Snap platform, and with an indefinite ban in place, it looks unlikely he will find a home there in the future.

Facebook / Instagram: A short-to-medium ban with open questions on how long “indefinite” means

Facebook, like Twitter, is one of the president’s most popular destinations for his supporters, and the platform is also a locus for many of the political right’s most popular personalities. It’s moderation actions have been heavily scrutinized by the press over the past few years, but the company has mostly avoided taking direct action against the president — until this week.

On Wednesday as rioters walked out of the halls of Congress, Facebook pulled down a video from President Trump that it considered was promoting violence. Later Wednesday evening, that policy eventually extended into a 24-hour ban of the president’s account, which currently has 33 million likes, or followers. The company argued that the president had violated its policies multiple times, automatically triggering the one-day suspension. At the same time, Facebook (and Instagram) took action to block a popular trending hashtag related to the Capitol riots.

On Thursday morning, Mark Zuckerberg, in a personal post on his own platform, announced an “indefinite” suspension for the president, with a minimum duration of two weeks. That timing would neatly extend the suspension through the inauguration of president-elect Biden, who is to assume the presidency at noon on January 20th.

What will happen after the inauguration? Right now, we don’t know. The president’s account is suspended but not deactivated, which means that the president cannot post new material to his page, but that the page remains visible to Facebook users. The company could remove the suspension once the transition of power is complete, or it may continue the ban longer-term. Given the president’s prominence on the platform and the heavy popularity of the social network among his supporters, Facebook is in a much more intense bind between banning content it deems offensive, and retaining users important to its bottom line.

Shopify / PayPal: Ecommerce platforms won’t sell Trump official merchandise for the time being

It’s not just social networks that are blocking the president’s audience — ecommerce giants are also getting into moderating their platforms against the president. On Thursday, Shopify announced that it was removing the storefronts for both the Trump campaign and Trump’s personal brand.

That’s an evolution on policy for the company, which years ago said that it would not moderate its platform, but in recent years has removed some controversial stores, such as some right-wing shops in 2018.

PayPal meanwhile has been deactivating the accounts of some groups of Trump supporters this week, who were using the money-transfer fintech to coordinate payments to underwrite the rioters’ actions on Capitol Hill. PayPal has been increasingly banning some political accounts, banning a far-right activist in 2019 and also banning a spate of far-right organizations in the wake of violent protests in Charlottesville in 2017. These bans have so far not extended directly to the president himself from what TechCrunch can glean.

Given the president’s well-known personal brand and penchant for product tie-ins before becoming president, it’s a major open question about how these two platforms and others in ecommerce will respond to Trump once he leaves office in two weeks. Will the president go back to shilling steaks, water and cologne? And will he need an ecommerce venue to sell his wares online? Much will depend on Trump’s next goals and whether he stays focused on politics, or heads back to his more commercial pursuits.

Google removes Parler from the Google Play Store, while Apple mulls a removal as well

For supporters of Trump and others concerned about the moderation actions of Facebook and other platforms, Parler has taken the lead as an alternative social network for this audience. Right now, the app is number one in the App Store in the United States, ahead of encrypted and secure messaging app Signal, which is at number four and got a massive endorsement from Elon Musk this week.

Parler’s opportunism for growth around the riots on Capitol Hill though has run into a very real barrier: the two tech companies which run the two stores for mobile applications in the United States.

Google announced Friday evening that it would be removing the Parler app from its store, citing the social network’s lack of moderation and content filtering capabilities. The app’s page remains down as this article was going to press. That ban means that new users won’t be able to install the app from the Play Store, however, existing users who already have Parler installed will be able to continue using it.

Meanwhile, Buzzfeed reports that Apple has reportedly sent a 24-hour takedown notice to Parler’s developers, saying that it would mirror Google’s actions if the app didn’t immediately filter content that endangers safety. As of now, Parler remains available in the App Store, but if the timing is to be believed, the app could be taken down later this Saturday.

Given the complexities of content moderation, including the need to hire content moderators en masse, it seems highly unlikely that Parler could respond to these requests in any short period of time. What happens to the app and the president’s supporters long-term next is, right now, anyone’s guess.

Discord / Twitch / YouTube / Reddit / TikTok: All the socials don’t want to be social anymore with President Trump

Finally, let’s head over to the rest of the social networking world, where Trump is just as unpopular as he is at Facebook and Twitter HQ these days. Companies widely blocked the president from accessing their sites, and they also took action against affiliated groups.

Google-owned YouTube announced Thursday that it would start handing out “strikes” against channels — including President Trump’s — that post election misinformation. In the past, videos with election misinformation would have a warning label attached, but the channel itself didn’t face any consequences. In December, the company changed that policy to include the outright removal of videos purveying election misinformation.

This week’s latest policy change is an escalation from the company’s previous approach, and would result in lengthier and lengthier temporary suspensions for each additional strike that a channel receives. Those strikes could eventual result in a permanent ban for a YouTube channel if they happen within a set period of time. That’s precisely what happened with Steve Bannon’s channel, which was permanently banned Friday late afternoon for repeated violations of YouTube’s policies. Meanwhile, President Trump’s official channel has less than 3 million followers, and is currently still available for viewing on the platform.

Outside YouTube, Twitch followed a similar policy to Facebook, announcing Thursday morning that it would ban the president “indefinitely” and at least through the inauguration on January 20th. The president has a limited audience of just about 151,000 followers on the popular streaming platform, making it among the least important of the president’s social media accounts.

In terms of the president’s supporters, their groups are also being removed from popular tech platforms. On Friday, Reddit announced that it would ban the subreddit r/DonaldTrump, which had become one of a number of unofficial communities on the platform where the president’s most ardent supporters hung out. The social network had previously removed the controversial subreddit r/The_Donald back in June. Discord on Friday shut down a server related to that banned subreddit, citing the server’s “overt connection to an online forum used to incite violence.”

Lastly, TikTok announced on Thursday that it was limiting the spread of some information related to the Capitol riots, including redirecting hashtags and removing violent content as well as the president’s own video message to supporters. The president does not have a TikTok account, and therefore, most of the company’s actions are focused on his supporters and broader content surrounding the situation on Capitol Hill this week.

Why Twitter banned President Trump

Twitter permanently banned the U.S. president Friday, taking a dramatic step to limit Trump’s ability to communicate with his followers. That decision, made in light of his encouragement for Wednesday’s violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol, might seem sudden for anyone not particularly familiar with his Twitter presence.

In reality, Twitter gave Trump many, many second chances over his four years as president, keeping him on the platform due to the company’s belief that speech by world leaders is in the public interest, even if it breaks the rules.

Now that Trump’s gone for good, we have a pretty interesting glimpse into the policy decision making that led Twitter to bring the hammer down on Friday. The company first announced Trump’s ban in a series of tweets from its @TwitterSafety account but also linked to a blog post detailing its thinking.

In that deep dive, the company explains that it gave Trump one last chance after suspending and then reinstating his account for violations made on Wednesday. But the following day, a pair of tweets the president made pushed him over the line. Twitter said those tweets, pictured below, were not examined on a standalone basis, but rather in the context of his recent behavior and this week’s events.

“… We have determined that these Tweets are in violation of the Glorification of Violence Policy and the user @realDonaldTrump should be immediately permanently suspended from the service,” Twitter wrote.

Screenshot via Twitter

This is how the company explained its reasoning, point by point:

  • “President Trump’s statement that he will not be attending the Inauguration is being received by a number of his supporters as further confirmation that the election was not legitimate and is seen as him disavowing his previous claim made via two Tweets (1, 2) by his Deputy Chief of Staff, Dan Scavino, that there would be an ‘orderly transition’ on January 20th.
  • “The second Tweet may also serve as encouragement to those potentially considering violent acts that the Inauguration would be a ‘safe’ target, as he will not be attending.
  • “The use of the words ‘American Patriots’ to describe some of his supporters is also being interpreted as support for those committing violent acts at the US Capitol.
  • “The mention of his supporters having a ‘GIANT VOICE long into the future’ and that ‘They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!’ is being interpreted as further indication that President Trump does not plan to facilitate an ‘orderly transition’ and instead that he plans to continue to support, empower, and shield those who believe he won the election.
  • “Plans for future armed protests have already begun proliferating on and off-Twitter, including a proposed secondary attack on the US Capitol and state capitol buildings on January 17, 2021.”

All of that is pretty intuitive, though his most fervent supporters aren’t likely to agree. Ultimately these decisions, as much as they do come down to stated policies, involve a lot of subjective analysis and interpretation. Try as social media companies might to let algorithms make the hard calls for them, the buck stops with a group of humans trying to figure out the best course of action.

Twitter’s explanation here offers a a rare totally transparent glimpse into how social networks decide what stays and what goes. It’s a big move for Twitter — one that many people reasonably believe should have been made months if not years ago — and it’s useful to have what is so often an inscrutable high-level decision making process laid out plainly and publicly for all to see.