Facebook’s new policy Supreme Court could override Zuckerberg

A real check to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s control is finally coming in the form of a 11- to 40-member Oversight Board that will review appeals to its policy decisions like content takedowns and make recommendations for changes. Today Facebook released the charter establishing the theoretically independent Oversight Board, with Zuckerberg explaining that when it takes a stance, “The board’s decision will be binding, even if I or anyone at Facebook disagrees with it.”

Slated to be staffed up with members this year who will be paid by a Facebook established trust (the biggest update to its January draft charter), the Oversight Board will begin judging cases in the first half of 2020. Given Zuckerberg’s overwhelming voting control of the company, and the fact that its board of directors contains many loyalists like COO Sheryl Sandberg and investor Peter Thiel who he’s made very rich, the Oversight Board could ensure the CEO doesn’t always have the final say in how Facebook works.

But in some ways, the committee could serve to shield Zuckerberg and Facebook from scrutiny and regulation much to their advantage. The Oversight Board could remove total culpability for policy blunders around censorship or political bias from Facebook’s executives. It also might serve as a talking point towards the FTC and other regulators investigating it for potential anti-trust violations and other malpractice, as the company could claim the Oversight Board means it’s not completely free to pursue profit over what’s fair for society.

One of the most important projects I've worked on over the past couple of years is establishing an independent Oversight…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Finally, there remain serious concerns about how the Oversight Board is selected and the wiggle room the charter provides Facebook. Most glaringly, Facebook itself will choose the initial members and then work with them to select the rest of the board, and thereby could avoid adding overly incendiary figures. And it maintains that “Facebook will support the board to the extent that requests are technically and operationally feasible and consistent with a reasonable allocation of Facebook’s resources”, giving it the right to decide if it should apply the precedent of Oversight Board verdicts to similar cases or broadly implement its policy guidance.

How The Oversight Board Works

When a user disagrees with how Facebook enforces its policies, and with the result of an appeal to Facebook’s internal moderation team, they can request an appeal to the oversight board. Examples of potential cases include someone disagreeing with Facebook’s refusal to deem a piece of content as unacceptable hate speech or bullying, its choice to designate a Page as promoting terrorism and remove it, or the company’s decision to leave problematic content such as nudity up because its newsworthy. Facebook can also directly ask the Oversight Board to review policy decisions or specific cases, especially urgent ones with real-world consequences.

Facebook Oversight Board

After Zuckerberg initially laid out a blueprint for the Oversight Board a year ago, Facebook assigned a 100-person team to build out the plan for the board. It held 6 workshops and 22 round-tables plus case review simulations with 650 people from 88 countries.

The board will include a minimum of 11 members but Facebook is aiming for 40. They’ll serve three year terms and a maximum of three terms each as a part-time job, with appointments staggered so there isn’t a full change-over at any time. Facebook is looking for members with a broad range of knowledge, competencies, and expertise who lack conflicts of interest. They’re meant to be “experienced at deliberating thoughtfully and collegially”, “skilled at making and explaining decisions based on a set of policies”, “well-versed on matters relating to digital content and governance”, and “independent and impartial”. 

Facebook will appoint a set of trustees that will work with it to select initial co-chairs for the board, who will then assist with sourcing, vetting, interviewing, and orienting new members. The goal is “broad diversity of geographic, gender, political, social and religious representation”. The trust, funded by Facebook with an as yet undecided amount of capital, will set members’ compensation rate in the near future and oversee term renewals.

Facebook Oversight Board candidate review guide

What Cases Get Reviewed

The board will choose which cases to review based on their significance and difficulty. They’re looking for issues that are severe, large-scale and important for public discourse, while raising difficult questions about Facebook’s policy or enforcement that is disputed, uncertain, or represents tension or trade-offs between Facebook’s recently codified values of authenticity, safety, privacy, and dignity. The board will then create a sub-panel of five members to review a specific case.

The board will be able to question that request that Facebook provide information necessary to rule on the case with a mind to not violating user privacy. They’ll interpret Facebook’s Community Standards and policies and then decide whether Facebook should remove or restore a piece of content and whether it should change how that content was designated.

Once a panel makes a draft decision, it’s circulated to the full board who can recommend a new panel review it if a majority take issue with the verdict. Once they’ve gone through a privacy review to protect the identities of those involved with the case, the decisions will be made public. Those decisions will be archived in a database, and are meant to act as precedent for future decisions. The idea is that the decisions of the board will be binding and implemented by Facebook as long as they don’t require it to violate the law.

Facebook Oversight Board Decisions

 

Macron announces €5 billion late-stage investment pledge from institutional investors

French president Emmanuel Macron announced in a speech ahead of France Digitale Day that the French government has convinced institutional investors to invest more heavily in late-stage VC funds and asset managers in one way or another. Institutional investors have committed to investing $5.5 billion (€5 billion).

“We’ll have €2 billion that will go in so-called late-stage funds and €3 billion for funds managed by asset managers specialized in tech,” Macron said.

In addition to that financial pledge, the French government wants to break down any hurdle that prevents French startups from raising $100 million+ funding round in France, becoming a unicorn and eventually going public.

A couple of years ago, Macron gave a speech at Viva Technology in Paris. It was the first time he addressed the startup community after his election. At the time, I wrote: “Macron wanted to send a message to the startup community — he still cares about technology very much, thank you for asking.”

Since then, the French tech ecosystem has thrived, but without any radical policy change to shake things up. But today marks a departure as it’s all about startups, startups and startups.

“I’m talking about the jobs of tomorrow” Emmanuel Macron

It’s clear that Macron believes that startups represent a huge opportunity when it comes to job creation, competitiveness and reshaping the economic landscape in France. In other words, according to him, if you help startups thrive, it’s going to trickle down all the way and have positive impacts on your neighbor who has never used a computer in her life.

Some will applaud such a move, others will say that it divides society.

“When I talk about startup funding, I talk about the ability to help those startups succeed,” Macron said. “I’m talking about the jobs of tomorrow. And I’m saying that for many French citizens who think that those are only financial numbers.”

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(Photo Credit: Aliocha Boi)

Financing hypergrowth

So here’s Macron’s plan. First, French VC funds have been good when it comes to funding startups at the seed, Series A and sometimes Series B level. But many startups then look for international investors for late-stage rounds. For instance, just last week, Akeneo raised $46 million in a round led by Summit Partners, a Boston-based VC firm.

“Numbers show that we’re getting there, and I want to start from there,” Macron said. “The goal when it comes to technology is that we should be one of the countries that matter. Fundraising from French startups keep setting new records — we had $3.1 billion in fundraising in 2017, $4 billion in 2018 and $5.5 billion in 2019 probably.”

Following a report from Philippe Tibi, the French government has been working on a way to foster late-stage funds and investments in public tech companies in France. “We managed to rally big insurance companies, asset managers and long-term public investment funds,” a source close to Macron told me.

Private companies, such as Axa, Generali and Allianz, as well as public investors, such as EDF, Caisse des Dépôts, the pension reserve fund, are all going to invest in late-stage VC. Overall, two-thirds of them are private companies, one-third of them are public institutions, according to the source.

They’ll have three ways to invest and take part in the initiative:

  • If they have their own VC fund, they can create a new late-stage fund.
  • If they are limited partners in various VC funds, they can invest in late-stage funds managed by third-party teams.
  • If they don’t know anything about venture capital, they can invest in a special fund of funds managed by Bpifrance. Bpifrance will then select various late-stage funds and invest that money in those funds.

Eventually, the French government hopes that there will be at least 10 French VC firms with a late-stage fund above €1 billion. By pushing them to redirect some of their investments in VC, the French government thinks that they’ll invest more regularly in venture capital in the future.

When it comes to going public, the French government wants to make European stock exchanges more attractive. They're hoping the new influx of late-stage cash will convince banks and other financial institutions that manage huge positions in tech companies to create local teams in Paris.

Attracting foreign VCs too

French startups still want to become global players and the French government is well aware of that. And foreign VCs shouldn’t be at odds with French VC firms.

That’s why the French government also invited around 40 partners of venture capital firms and limited partners for a couple of days in Paris this week. They’ll meet key people in the ecosystem as well as promising startups.

I covered the first edition of this tour last year. The message was clear: Foreign VC firms should think about investing in French startups. Some are already doing it while others never thought about it. And the thing is nobody wants to be the first one to invest in something new, but nobody wants to be the last one, either.

This year, the French government is inviting a new batch of foreign investors from Khosla Ventures, Accel, Andreessen Horowitz, etc. There are more Asian investors in the mix this time round.

But Macron said that France should control its own destiny when it comes to startup funding. “When I talk about sovereignty, I deeply believe in that concept. It’s a politically-charged word, but I think it’s at the heart of your approach. I believe in technological and economical sovereignty,” Macron said.

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(Photo Credit: Aliocha Boi)

Transforming La French Tech

The French Tech Mission, also known as La French Tech, is a government-backed initiative that promotes French startups around the world and provides a few services to help startups.

And the government is going to overhaul the French Tech Mission drastically. This is as significant as the late-stage funding news. In addition to the small core team, every French ministry and administration will have a French Tech correspondent — Urssaf, INPI, AFNOR, Banque de France, customs, etc. Eventually, there will be 150 people spread out across the entire government working in some way or another for French startups.

“We’re not alone, we get to coordinate with everyone,” French Tech Mission director Kat Borlongan told me. “The overarching announcement is that France is going all in.”

La French Tech is going to become a one-stop shop for tech startups to overcome any administrative hurdle. La French Tech is going to pick 40 (and later 120) top-performing startups and give them the label Next40 and French Tech 120 — a play on words with the CAC40 and SBF 120 stock indexes. Those companies will automatically be able to access this fast-track administrative system — every startup will get a representative for their particular needs. This special treatment proves that startups have become a center piece of France’s economic policies.

“The coolest thing is that they can ask us for anything: ‘I’m about to do bizdev in China’, ‘I’m launching a rocket and I need to test it on a space facility’ or ‘I’m hiring 50 people and I need them and all their families here’,” Borlongan told me.

All companies that are unicorns or have raised more than €100 million are automatically in the Next40. Then, the government is looking at growth rate and annual turnover to find the most promising 40 and 120 startups.

“I’ll leave you with a goal: there should be 25 [French] unicorns by 2025,” Macron said at the end of his speech.

California bill looks to close data gaps in the criminal justice system

The California state legislature has passed AB-1331, a criminal justice data bill that aims to improve the quality of criminal justice records and creates a pathway for courts to share data with researchers. The bill is awaiting a signature of approval by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Authored by Assemblyperson Robert Bonta, the bill seeks to address the data gaps in criminal history records that “undermine their accuracy and reliability,” according to an AB 1331 fact sheet.

For example, the Department of Justice estimates that 60% of arrest records are missing disposition information, such as the judge’s ruling or sentencing. This can lead to criminalizing people who may be innocent. In addition, because pretrial risk assessment tools require timely and accurate information, any missing data could result in low-risk people being detained or high-risk individuals being released.

There are very few data collection standards In California, a state in which the criminal justice landscape is “highly decentralized” and each entity is responsible for its own data collection, Mikaela Rabinowitz, director of national engagement and field operations at non-partisan criminal justice data analysis organization Measures for Justice told TechCrunch. This makes it hard for the California Department of Justice to accurately track people across those systems, she said.

To address this, AB 1331 aims to establish clear collecting and reporting requirements for law enforcement agencies and courts. The legislation is designed to help law enforcement agencies to make better decisions about defendants and enable courts to share data with organizations like Measures for Justice, which aims to change the way we measure and understand criminal justice data.

In 2016, California passed the OpenJustice Data Act, which led to the creation of a criminal justice data platform available to the public. The interactive platform, spearheaded by the California Department of Justice, features data from California’s 1,000-plus law enforcement agencies to allow for side-by-side comparison of agencies, like the San Francisco Police Department versus the Los Angeles Police Department.

While the OpenJustice platform represented a major step in the right direction, it wasn’t enough. AB 1331 now seeks to address the gaps that still exist within the data on both people and processes.

“You can’t change what you can’t see, and good decision-making really starts with the data and facts,” Measures for Justice Executive Director and President Amy Bach told TechCrunch. “If you want good decision-making, you need to have better data processes at the local and state level, and you have to increase data for outside researchers. This is a really exciting step forward. Basically, California is being welcomed into a prestigious group of pioneering states like Florida and Connecticut that have recently passed bills to address the criminal justice system.”

Nationwide, criminal justice reform has been having a moment lately. Last March, Florida signed into law a comprehensive and standardized data collection and public reporting process. Connecticut, meanwhile, has repealed the death penalty, decriminalized small amounts of cannabis and reformed its pardon and parole processes over the last several years. And Colorado passed a bill to make jail capacity data to public. California is now the latest state to make headway in closing the data gaps in the criminal justice system.

“I think this is a huge frontier,” Rabinowitz said. “I think criminal justice has been really far behind other public systems in making use of data, both in terms of investing in the tech necessary for high-quality data but also in terms of using research to drive decision-making. It’s certainly far behind where education or public health are. As we see criminal justice becoming more and more of a critical policy issue and political issue, there is more interest in having the data necessary to make informed criminal justice decisions.”

California bill looks to close data gaps in the criminal justice system

The California state legislature has passed AB-1331, a criminal justice data bill that aims to improve the quality of criminal justice records and creates a pathway for courts to share data with researchers. The bill is awaiting a signature of approval by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Authored by Assemblyperson Robert Bonta, the bill seeks to address the data gaps in criminal history records that “undermine their accuracy and reliability,” according to an AB 1331 fact sheet.

For example, the Department of Justice estimates that 60% of arrest records are missing disposition information, such as the judge’s ruling or sentencing. This can lead to criminalizing people who may be innocent. In addition, because pretrial risk assessment tools require timely and accurate information, any missing data could result in low-risk people being detained or high-risk individuals being released.

There are very few data collection standards In California, a state in which the criminal justice landscape is “highly decentralized” and each entity is responsible for its own data collection, Mikaela Rabinowitz, director of national engagement and field operations at non-partisan criminal justice data analysis organization Measures for Justice told TechCrunch. This makes it hard for the California Department of Justice to accurately track people across those systems, she said.

To address this, AB 1331 aims to establish clear collecting and reporting requirements for law enforcement agencies and courts. The legislation is designed to help law enforcement agencies to make better decisions about defendants and enable courts to share data with organizations like Measures for Justice, which aims to change the way we measure and understand criminal justice data.

In 2016, California passed the OpenJustice Data Act, which led to the creation of a criminal justice data platform available to the public. The interactive platform, spearheaded by the California Department of Justice, features data from California’s 1,000-plus law enforcement agencies to allow for side-by-side comparison of agencies, like the San Francisco Police Department versus the Los Angeles Police Department.

While the OpenJustice platform represented a major step in the right direction, it wasn’t enough. AB 1331 now seeks to address the gaps that still exist within the data on both people and processes.

“You can’t change what you can’t see, and good decision-making really starts with the data and facts,” Measures for Justice Executive Director and President Amy Bach told TechCrunch. “If you want good decision-making, you need to have better data processes at the local and state level, and you have to increase data for outside researchers. This is a really exciting step forward. Basically, California is being welcomed into a prestigious group of pioneering states like Florida and Connecticut that have recently passed bills to address the criminal justice system.”

Nationwide, criminal justice reform has been having a moment lately. Last March, Florida signed into law a comprehensive and standardized data collection and public reporting process. Connecticut, meanwhile, has repealed the death penalty, decriminalized small amounts of cannabis and reformed its pardon and parole processes over the last several years. And Colorado passed a bill to make jail capacity data to public. California is now the latest state to make headway in closing the data gaps in the criminal justice system.

“I think this is a huge frontier,” Rabinowitz said. “I think criminal justice has been really far behind other public systems in making use of data, both in terms of investing in the tech necessary for high-quality data but also in terms of using research to drive decision-making. It’s certainly far behind where education or public health are. As we see criminal justice becoming more and more of a critical policy issue and political issue, there is more interest in having the data necessary to make informed criminal justice decisions.”

Ten questions for 2020 presidential candidate John Delaney

In November 2020, America will go to the polls to vote in perhaps the most consequential election in a generation. The winner will lead the country amid great social, economic and ecological unrest. The 2020 election will be a referendum on both the current White House and the direction of the country at large.

Nearly 20 years into the young century, technology has become a pervasive element in all of our lives, and will continue to only grow more important. Whoever takes the oath of office in January 2021 will have to answer some difficult questions, raging from an impending climate disaster to concerns about job loss at the hands of robotics and automation.

Many of these questions are overlooked in day to day coverage of candidates and during debates. In order to better address the issues, TechCrunch staff has compiled a 10-part questionnaire across a wide range of tech-centric topics. The questions have been sent to national candidates, regardless of party. We will be publishing the answers as we receive them. Candidates are not required to answer all 10 in order for us to publish, but we will be noting which answers have been left blank.

First up is former Congressman John Delaney. Prior to being elected to Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, Delaney co-founded and led healthcare loan service Health Care Financial Partners (HCFP) and  commercial lender CapitalSource. He was elected to Congress in 2013, beating out a 10-term Republican incumbent. Rumored to be running against Maryland governor Larry Hogan for a 2018 bid, Delaney instead announced plans to run for president in 2020.

1. Which initiatives will you prioritize to limit humankind’s impact on climate and avoid potential climate catastrophe?

My $4 trillion Climate Plan will enable us to reach the goal of net zero emissions by 2050, which the IPCC says is the necessary target to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The centerpiece of my plan is a carbon-fee-and-dividend that will put a price on carbon emissions and return the money to the American people through a dividend. My plan also includes increased federal funding for renewable energy research, advanced nuclear technologies, direct air capture, a new Climate Corps program, and the construction of the Carbon Throughway, which would transport captured carbon from all over the country to the Permian Basin for reuse and permanent sequestration.

2. What is your plan to increase black and Latinx startup founders’ access to funding?

As a former entrepreneur who started two companies that went on to be publicly traded, I am a firm believer in the importance of entrepreneurship. To ensure people from all backgrounds have the support they need to start a new business, I will create nonprofit banks to serve economically distressed communities, launch a new SBIC program to help provide access to capital to minority entrepreneurs, and create a grant program to fund business incubators and accelerators at HBCUs. Additionally, I pledge to appoint an Entrepreneurship Czar who will be responsible for promoting entrepreneurship-friendly policies at all levels of government and encouraging entrepreneurship in rural and urban communities that have been left behind by venture capital investment.

3. Why do you think low-income students are underrepresented in STEM fields and how do you think the government can help fix that problem?

I think a major part of the problem is that schools serving low-income communities don’t have the resources they need to provide a quality STEM education to every student. To fix that, I have an education plan that will increase investment in STEM education and use Title I funding to eliminate the $23 billion annual funding gap between predominantly white and predominantly black school districts. To encourage students to continue their education after they graduate from high school and ensure every student learns the skills they need, my plan also provides two years of free in-state tuition and fees at a public university, community college, or technical school to everyone who completes one year of my mandatory national service program.

4. Do you plan on backing and rolling out paper-only ballots or paper-verified election machines? With many stakeholders in the private sector and the government, how do you aim to coordinate and achieve that?

Making sure that our elections are secure is vital, and I think using voting machines that create a voter-verified paper record could improve security and increase voters’ confidence in the integrity of our elections. To address other facets of the election security issue, I have proposed creating a Department of Cybersecurity to help protect our election systems, and while in Congress I introduced election security legislation to ensure that election vendors are solely owned and controlled by American citizens.

5. What, if any, federal regulation should be enacted for autonomous vehicles?

I was proud to be the founder of the Congressional Artificial Intelligence Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers dedicated to understanding the impacts of advances in AI technology and educating other legislators so they have the knowledge they need to enact policies that ensure these innovations benefit Americans. We need to use the legislative process to have a real conversation involving experts and other stakeholders in order to develop a comprehensive set of regulations regarding autonomous vehicles, which should include standards that address data collection practices and other privacy issues as well as more fundamental questions about public safety.

6. How do you plan to achieve and maintain U.S. superiority in space, both in government programs and private industry?

Space exploration is tremendously important to me as a former Congressman from Maryland, the home of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, major space research centers at the University of Maryland, and many companies that develop crucial aerospace technologies. As president, I will support the NASA budget and will continue to encourage innovation in the private sector.

7. Increased capital in startups founded by American entrepreneurs is a net positive, but should the U.S. allow its businesses to be part-owned by foreign governments, particularly the government of Saudi Arabia?

I am concerned that joint ventures between U.S. businesses and foreign governments, including state-owned enterprises, could facilitate the theft of intellectual property, potentially allowing foreign governments to benefit from taxpayer-funded research. We need to put in place greater protections that defend American innovation from theft.

8. Will U.S.-China technology decoupling harm or benefit U.S. innovation and why?

In general, I am in favor of international technology cooperation but in the case of China, it engages in predatory economic behavior and disregards international rules. Intellectual property theft has become a big problem for American businesses as China allows its companies to steal IP through joint ventures. In theory, U.S.-China collaboration could advance technology and innovation but without proper IP and economic protections, U.S.-China joint ventures and partnerships can be detrimental to the U.S.

9. How large a threat does automation represent to American jobs? Do you have a plan to help train low-skilled workers and otherwise offset job loss?

Automation could lead to the disruption of up to 54 million American jobs if we aren’t prepared and we don’t have the right policies. To help American workers transition to the high-tech, high-skill future economy, I am calling for a national AI strategy that will support public/private AI partnerships, develop a social contract with the communities that are negatively impacted by technology and globalization, and create updated education and job training programs that will help students and those currently in the workforce learn the skills they need.

To help provide jobs to displaced workers and drive economic growth in communities that suffer negative effects from automation, I have proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that would create an infrastructure bank to facilitate state and local government investment, increase the Highway Trust Fund, create a Climate Infrastructure Fund, and create five new matching funds to support water infrastructure, school infrastructure, deferred maintenance projects, rural broadband, and infrastructure projects in disadvantaged communities in urban and rural areas. In addition, my proposed national service program will create new opportunities that allow young adults to learn new skills and gain valuable work experience. For example, my proposal includes a new national infrastructure apprenticeship program that will award a professional certificate proving mastery of particular skill sets for those who complete the program.

10. What steps will you take to restore net neutrality and assure internet users that their traffic and data are safe from manipulation by broadband providers?

I support the Save Net Neutrality Act to restore net neutrality, and I will appoint FCC commissioners who are committed to maintaining a fair and open internet. Additionally, I would work with Congress to update our digital privacy laws and regulations to protect consumers, especially children, from their data being collected without consent.

The MIT Media Lab controversy and getting back to ‘radical courage’, with Media Lab student Arwa Mboya

People win prestigious prizes in tech all the time, but there is something different about The Bold Prize. Unless you’ve been living under a literal or proverbial rock, you’ve probably heard something about the late Jeffrey Epstein, a notorious child molester and human trafficker who also happened to be a billionaire philanthropist and managed to become a ubiquitous figure in certain elite science and tech circles.

And if you’re involved in tech, the rock you’ve been living under would have had to be fully insulated from the internet to avoid reading about Epstein’s connections with MIT’s Media Lab, a leading destination for the world’s most brilliant technological minds, also known as “the future factory.” 

This past week, conversations around the Media Lab were hotter than the fuel rods at Fukushima, as The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, perhaps the most feared and famous investigative journalist in America today, blasted out what for some were new revelations that Bill Gates, among others, had given millions of dollars to the Media Lab at Jeffrey (no fucking relation, thank you very much!) Epstein’s behest. Hours after Farrow’s piece was published, Joi Ito, the legendary but now embattled Media Lab director, resigned.

But well before before Farrow weighed in or Ito stepped away, students, faculty, and other leaders at MIT and far beyond were already on full alert about this story, thanks in large part to Arwa Michelle Mboya, a graduate student at the Media Lab, from Kenya by way of college at Yale, where she studied economics and filmmaking and learned to create virtual reality. Mboya, in her early 20’s, was among the first public voices (arguably the very first) to forcefully and thoughtfully call on Ito to step down from his position.

Imagine: you’re heading into the second year of your first graduate degree, and you find yourself taking on a man who, when Barack Obama took over Wired magazine for an issue as guest editor, was one of just a couple of people the then sitting President of the United States asked to personally interview. And imagine that man was the director of your graduate program, and the reason you decided to study in it in the first place.

Imagine the pressure involved, the courage required. And imagine, soon thereafter, being completely vindicated and celebrated for your actions. 

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Arwa Mboya. Image via MIT Media Lab

That is precisely the journey that Arwa Mboya has been on these past few weeks, including when tech leader Sabrina Hersi Issa, founder of Being Bold Media, decided to crowd-fund the Bold Prize to honor Mboya’s courage, and has now brought in over $10,000 to support her ongoing work (full disclosure: I am among the over 120 contributors to the prize). 

Mboya’s advocacy was never about Joi Ito personally. If you get to know her through the interview below, in fact, you’ll see she doesn’t wish him ill.

As she wrote in MIT’s The Tech nine days before Farrow’s essay and ten before Ito’s resignation, “This is not an MIT issue, and this is not a Joi Ito issue. This is an international issue where a global network of powerful individuals have used their influence to secure their privilege at the expense of women’s bodies and lives. The MIT Media Lab was nicknamed “The Future Factory” on CBS’s 60 Minutes. We are supposed to reflect the future, not just of technology but of society. When I call for Ito’s resignation, I’m fighting for the future of women.”

From the moment I read it, I thought this was a beautiful and truly bold statement by a student leader who is an inspiring example of the extraordinary caliber of student that the Media Lab draws.

But in getting to know her a bit since reading it, I’ve learned that her message is also about even more. It’s about the fact that the women and men who called for a new direction in light of Jeffrey Epstein’s abuses and other leaders’ complicity did so in pursuit of their own inspiring dreams for a better world.

Arwa, as you’ll see below, spoke out at MIT because of her passion to use tech to inspire radical imagination among potentially millions of African youth. As she discusses both the Media Lab and her broader vision, I believe she’s already beginning to provide that inspiration. 

Greg Epstein: You have had a few of the most dramatic weeks of any student I’ve met in 15 years as a chaplain at two universities. How are you doing right now?

Arwa Mboya: I’m actually pretty good. I’m not saying that for the sake of saying. I have a great support network. I’m in a lab where everyone is amazing. I’m very tired, I’ll say that. I’ve been traveling a lot and dealing with this while still trying to focus on writing a thesis. If anything, it’s more like overwhelmed and exhausted as opposed to not doing well in and of itself.

Epstein: Looking at your writing — you’ve got a great Medium blog that you started long before MIT and maintained while you’ve been here — it struck me that in speaking your mind and heart about this Media Lab issue, you’ve done exactly what you set out to do when you came here. You set out to be brave, to live life, as the Helen Keller quote on your website says, as either a great adventure or nothing. 

Also, when you came to the Media Lab, you were the best-case scenario for anyone who works on publicizing this place. You spoke and wrote about the Lab as your absolute dream. When you were in Africa, or Australia, or at Yale, how did you come to see this as the best place in the world for you to express the creative and civic dreams that you had?

Mboya: That’s a good question — what drew me here? The Media Lab is amazing. I read Whiplash, which is Joi Ito’s book about the nine principles of the Media Lab, and it really resonated with me. It was a place for misfits. It was a place for people who are curious and who just want to explore and experiment and mix different fields, which is exactly what I’ve been doing before.

From high school, I was very narrow in my focus; at Yale I did Econ and film, so that had a little more edge. After I graduated I insisted on not taking a more conventional path many students from Yale take, so [I] moved back to Kenya and worked on many different projects, got into adventure sports, got into travel more.

Epstein: Your website is full of pictures of you flipping over, skydiving, gymnastics — things that require both strength and courage. 

Mboya: I’d always been an athlete, loved the outdoors.

I remember being in Vietnam; I’d never done a backflip. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to learn how to do this.” But it’s really scary jumping backwards; the fear. Is, you can’t see where you’re going. I remember telling myself, ” Okay, just jump over the fear. Just shut it off and do it. Your body will follow.” I did and I was like, “Oh, that was easy.” It’s not complicated. Most people could do it if they just said, “Okay, I’ll jump.”

It really stuck with me. A lot of decisions I’ve [since] made, that I’m scared of, I think, “Okay, just jump, and your body will follow.” The Media Lab was like that as well.

I really wanted to go there, I just didn’t think there was a place for me. It was like, I’m not techie enough, I’m not anything enough. Applying was, ’just jump,’ you never know what will happen.

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Image from Arwa Mboya

Epstein: Back when you were applying, you wrote about experiencing what applicants to elite schools often call “imposter syndrome.” This is where I want to be, but will they want me?

Mboya: Exactly.

The MIT Media Lab controversy and getting back to ‘radical courage’, with Media Lab student Arwa Mboya

People win prestigious prizes in tech all the time, but there is something different about The Bold Prize. Unless you’ve been living under a literal or proverbial rock, you’ve probably heard something about the late Jeffrey Epstein, a notorious child molester and human trafficker who also happened to be a billionaire philanthropist and managed to become a ubiquitous figure in certain elite science and tech circles.

And if you’re involved in tech, the rock you’ve been living under would have had to be fully insulated from the internet to avoid reading about Epstein’s connections with MIT’s Media Lab, a leading destination for the world’s most brilliant technological minds, also known as “the future factory.” 

This past week, conversations around the Media Lab were hotter than the fuel rods at Fukushima, as The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, perhaps the most feared and famous investigative journalist in America today, blasted out what for some were new revelations that Bill Gates, among others, had given millions of dollars to the Media Lab at Jeffrey (no fucking relation, thank you very much!) Epstein’s behest. Hours after Farrow’s piece was published, Joi Ito, the legendary but now embattled Media Lab director, resigned.

But well before before Farrow weighed in or Ito stepped away, students, faculty, and other leaders at MIT and far beyond were already on full alert about this story, thanks in large part to Arwa Michelle Mboya, a graduate student at the Media Lab, from Kenya by way of college at Yale, where she studied economics and filmmaking and learned to create virtual reality. Mboya, in her early 20’s, was among the first public voices (arguably the very first) to forcefully and thoughtfully call on Ito to step down from his position.

Imagine: you’re heading into the second year of your first graduate degree, and you find yourself taking on a man who, when Barack Obama took over Wired magazine for an issue as guest editor, was one of just a couple of people the then sitting President of the United States asked to personally interview. And imagine that man was the director of your graduate program, and the reason you decided to study in it in the first place.

Imagine the pressure involved, the courage required. And imagine, soon thereafter, being completely vindicated and celebrated for your actions. 

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Arwa Mboya. Image via MIT Media Lab

That is precisely the journey that Arwa Mboya has been on these past few weeks, including when tech leader Sabrina Hersi Issa, founder of Being Bold Media, decided to crowd-fund the Bold Prize to honor Mboya’s courage, and has now brought in over $10,000 to support her ongoing work (full disclosure: I am among the over 120 contributors to the prize). 

Mboya’s advocacy was never about Joi Ito personally. If you get to know her through the interview below, in fact, you’ll see she doesn’t wish him ill.

As she wrote in MIT’s The Tech nine days before Farrow’s essay and ten before Ito’s resignation, “This is not an MIT issue, and this is not a Joi Ito issue. This is an international issue where a global network of powerful individuals have used their influence to secure their privilege at the expense of women’s bodies and lives. The MIT Media Lab was nicknamed “The Future Factory” on CBS’s 60 Minutes. We are supposed to reflect the future, not just of technology but of society. When I call for Ito’s resignation, I’m fighting for the future of women.”

From the moment I read it, I thought this was a beautiful and truly bold statement by a student leader who is an inspiring example of the extraordinary caliber of student that the Media Lab draws.

But in getting to know her a bit since reading it, I’ve learned that her message is also about even more. It’s about the fact that the women and men who called for a new direction in light of Jeffrey Epstein’s abuses and other leaders’ complicity did so in pursuit of their own inspiring dreams for a better world.

Arwa, as you’ll see below, spoke out at MIT because of her passion to use tech to inspire radical imagination among potentially millions of African youth. As she discusses both the Media Lab and her broader vision, I believe she’s already beginning to provide that inspiration. 

Greg Epstein: You have had a few of the most dramatic weeks of any student I’ve met in 15 years as a chaplain at two universities. How are you doing right now?

Arwa Mboya: I’m actually pretty good. I’m not saying that for the sake of saying. I have a great support network. I’m in a lab where everyone is amazing. I’m very tired, I’ll say that. I’ve been traveling a lot and dealing with this while still trying to focus on writing a thesis. If anything, it’s more like overwhelmed and exhausted as opposed to not doing well in and of itself.

Epstein: Looking at your writing — you’ve got a great Medium blog that you started long before MIT and maintained while you’ve been here — it struck me that in speaking your mind and heart about this Media Lab issue, you’ve done exactly what you set out to do when you came here. You set out to be brave, to live life, as the Helen Keller quote on your website says, as either a great adventure or nothing. 

Also, when you came to the Media Lab, you were the best-case scenario for anyone who works on publicizing this place. You spoke and wrote about the Lab as your absolute dream. When you were in Africa, or Australia, or at Yale, how did you come to see this as the best place in the world for you to express the creative and civic dreams that you had?

Mboya: That’s a good question — what drew me here? The Media Lab is amazing. I read Whiplash, which is Joi Ito’s book about the nine principles of the Media Lab, and it really resonated with me. It was a place for misfits. It was a place for people who are curious and who just want to explore and experiment and mix different fields, which is exactly what I’ve been doing before.

From high school, I was very narrow in my focus; at Yale I did Econ and film, so that had a little more edge. After I graduated I insisted on not taking a more conventional path many students from Yale take, so [I] moved back to Kenya and worked on many different projects, got into adventure sports, got into travel more.

Epstein: Your website is full of pictures of you flipping over, skydiving, gymnastics — things that require both strength and courage. 

Mboya: I’d always been an athlete, loved the outdoors.

I remember being in Vietnam; I’d never done a backflip. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to learn how to do this.” But it’s really scary jumping backwards; the fear. Is, you can’t see where you’re going. I remember telling myself, ” Okay, just jump over the fear. Just shut it off and do it. Your body will follow.” I did and I was like, “Oh, that was easy.” It’s not complicated. Most people could do it if they just said, “Okay, I’ll jump.”

It really stuck with me. A lot of decisions I’ve [since] made, that I’m scared of, I think, “Okay, just jump, and your body will follow.” The Media Lab was like that as well.

I really wanted to go there, I just didn’t think there was a place for me. It was like, I’m not techie enough, I’m not anything enough. Applying was, ’just jump,’ you never know what will happen.

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Image from Arwa Mboya

Epstein: Back when you were applying, you wrote about experiencing what applicants to elite schools often call “imposter syndrome.” This is where I want to be, but will they want me?

Mboya: Exactly.

How the Valley can get philanthropy right with former Hewlett Foundation president Paul Brest

Paul Brest didn’t set out to transform philanthropy. A constitutional law scholar who clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Harlan and is credited with coining the term “originalism,” Brest spent twelve years as dean of Stanford Law School.

But when he was named president of the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, one of the country’s largest large non-profit funders, Brest applied the rigor of a legal scholar not just to his own institution’s practices but to those of the philanthropy field at large. He hired experts to study the practice of philanthropy and helped to launch Stanford’s Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society, where he still teaches.

Now, Brest has turned his attention to advising Silicon Valley’s next generation of donors.

From Stanford to the Hewlett Foundation

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Photo by David Madison / Getty Images

Scott Bade: Your background is in constitutional law. How did you make the shift from being dean at Stanford to running the Hewlett Foundation as president?

Paul Brest: I came into the Hewlett Foundation largely by accident. I really didn’t know anything about philanthropy, but I had been teaching courses on problem-solving and decision making. I think I got the job because a number of people on the board knew me, both from Stanford Law School, but also from playing chamber music with Walter and Esther Hewlett.

Bade: When was this?

Brest: I started there in 2000. Bill Hewlett died the year after I came. Walter Hewlett, Bill’s son, was chair of the board during the entire time I was president. But it’s not a family foundation.

Bade: What were your initial impressions of the foundation and the broader philanthropic space?

Brest: Not having come from the non-profit sector, it took me a year or so to really understand what it [meant] to use our assets in each area in a strategic way.  The [Hewlett] Foundation had very good values in terms of the areas it was supporting — the environment, education, population, women’s reproductive rights. It had good philanthropic practices, but it was not very strategically focused. It turned out that not very many foundations were strategic.

Paul’s framework for thinking about philanthropy

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Photo provided by Paul Brest

Bade: What do you mean by ‘strategic’?

Brest: What I mean [by] strategic is having clear goals and having an evidence-based, evidence-informed strategy for achieving them. Big foundations tend to be conglomerates with different programs trying to achieve different goals.

[Being strategic means] monitoring progress as you work towards those goals. Then evaluating in advance whether the strategy is going to be plausible and then whether you’re actually achieving the outcomes you’re trying to achieve so that you can make course corrections if you’re not achieving.

[For example,] the likelihood that the roughly billionaire dollars or more that have been spent or committed to climate advocacy are going to have any effect is quite low. The place where metrics comes in is just having kind of an expected return mindset where yes, the chances of success are low, but we know that the importance of success — or putting it differently, the effects of failure — are going to be catastrophic.

What a strategic mindset does here is say: it’s worth taking huge bets even where the margins of error of the likelihood of success are very hard to measure when the results are huge.

I don’t want to say the [Hewlett] Foundation was anti-strategic, or totally unstrategic, but it really had not developed a [this kind of] systematic framework for doing those things.

Bade: You’re known in the philanthropic community for putting an emphasis on defining, achieving, measuring impact. Have those sort of technocratic practices made philanthropy better?

Brest: I think you have to start by asking, what would it mean for philanthropy to be good? From my point of view, philanthropy is good when I like the goals it chooses. Then, given a good goal, when it is effective in achieving that goal. Strategy really has nothing to say about what the goals are, but only how effective it is.

My guess is that 90 plus percent of philanthropy is intended to achieve goals that most of us think are good goals. There are occasions when you have direct conflicts of goals as you do with say the anti-abortion and the choice movements, or gun control and the NRA. Those are important arguments.

But most philanthropy is trying to improve education or improve the lives of the poor. My view is that philanthropy is good when it is effective in achieving those goals, and trying to do no harm in the process.

Current debates on philanthropy

Daily Crunch: Uber resists California gig worker bill

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Uber plans to keep defending independent contractor model for drivers

Despite California lawmakers passing a bill designed to turn gig workers into regular employees, Uber has made it clear it plans to do whatever it takes to keep classifying its drivers as independent contractors.

“We will continue to advocate for a compromise agreement,” Uber Chief Legal Officer Tony West said. That agreement might include a guaranteed earnings minimum while on a trip, portable benefits and a “collective voice” for drivers.

2. Spotify acquires SoundBetter, a music production marketplace, for an undisclosed sum

This looks like another step for Spotify to diversify its business model.

3. Simbe raises a $26M Series A for its retail inventory robot

Simbe has been showcasing its inventory robot Tally since 2015. And earlier this year, U.S. supermarket chain Giant Eagle announced plans to begin a pilot program, deploying Tally in select stores.

4. Loot boxes in games are gambling and should be banned for kids, say UK MPs

U.K. MPs have called for the government to regulate the games industry’s use of loot boxes. They’re urging a blanket ban on the sale of loot boxes to players who are children, suggesting that kids should instead be able to earn in-game credits to unlock these boxes.

5. How Kobalt is simplifying the killer complexities of the music industry

The second part of our in-depth look at Kobalt focuses on the complex way royalties flow through the industry, and how Kobalt is restructuring that process. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Yelp adds predictive wait times and a new way for restaurants to share updates

With Yelp Connect, restaurants will be able to post updates about things like recent additions to the menu, happy hour specials and upcoming events. These updates are then shown on the Yelp homepage, in a weekly email and on the restaurant’s profile page.

7. 5 reasons to attend Disrupt SF this October 2-4

If you haven’t bought a ticket to Disrupt yet, you’re probably a bad person who’s making bad decisions.

Uber plans to keep defending independent contractor model for drivers

In light of gig worker protections bill AB5 passing in the California State Senate last night, and amendments to AB5 passing in the Assembly this morning, Uber has made it clear it plans to do whatever it takes to keep its drivers independent contractors.

“We will continue to advocate for a compromise agreement,” Uber Chief Legal Officer Tony West said on a press call today.

As Uber outlined last month, the company is pushing for a framework that would establish a guaranteed earnings minimum while on a trip, offer portable benefits and enable drivers to “have a collective voice.”

He went on to say that Uber is continuing to explore several legal and political options to lay the groundwork for a statewide ballot initiative in 2020. Uber and Lyft announced a $60 million joint initiative last month, and now, West is saying Uber is open to investing even more money in that committee account.

“This is not our first choice,” West said. “At the same time, we need to make sure we are exploring all options and all alternatives to put forward a framework that works for the 21st-century economy and we believe we have a framework that does that.”

AB5 would help to ensure gig economy workers are entitled to minimum wage, workers’ compensation and other benefits by requiring employers to apply the ABC test. The bill, first introduced in December 2018, aims to codfiy the ruling established in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v Superior Court of Los Angeles. In that case, the court applied the ABC test and decided Dynamex wrongfully classified its workers as independent contractors.

According to the ABC test, in order for a hiring entity to legally classify a worker as an independent contractor, it must prove the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity, performs work outside the scope of the entity’s business and is regularly engaged in an “independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed.”

If Uber were to fail this test, drivers would not be able to determine when, where and how often they work, nor would they be able to work for more than one platform at a time, West said.

“I do think there would be significant changes in the experience drivers would have,” West said.

But West believes Uber would not fail this test. While it will be required to pass this test in the likely event AB5 gets signed into law, West pointed out “we have been successful in arguing under this ABC test in the past that drivers are independent and independent contractors,” West said. “We believe that to be true.”

There would surely be a financial impact if Uber fails the test, but West declined to comment on just what that fiscal impact would be. Industry analysts, however, have estimated it could result in up to a 30% cost increase.

As noted earlier, the bill is expected to pass, as Gov. Gavin Newsom has previously expressed his support for the measure. Though, Newsom said earlier today, he’s still in negotiations with both Uber and Lyft.

“The governor has been pretty clear he is fully committed to a negotiated solution here,” West said. “He’s been clear to us on that message in private and has publicly stated that now.”

Following the bill’s passing in the Senate, Lyft said the state missed an opportunity to support the majority of rideshare drivers who want a solution that balances flexibility with earnings standard and benefits.

“The fact that there were more than 50 industries carved out of AB5 is very telling,” a Lyft spokesperson said. “We are fully prepared to take this issue to the voters of California to preserve the freedom and access drivers and riders want and need.”

Earlier today, Lyft sent out an email to drivers regarding AB5 and how if it’s signed into law, drivers “may soon be required to drive specific shifts, stick to specific areas, and drive for only a single platform (such as Lyft, Uber, Doordash, or others).”

Despite what Uber and Lyft are saying, there are a number of drivers who have fought long and hard to ensure the bill passes. Two of the main organizations behind the actions in support of AB5 are Gig Workers Rising and Mobile Workers Alliance. In addition to urging legislators to pass AB5, Uber and Lyft drivers organizing with Gig Workers Rising also want the right to form a union.

“AB 5 is only the beginning,” Edan Alva, a driver with Gig Workers Rising, said in a statement. “I talk daily to other drivers who want a change but they are scared. They don’t want to lose their only source of income. But just because someone really needs to work does not mean that their rights as a worker should be stepped all over. That is why a union is critical. It simply won’t work without it.”