Tech giants must open up about the coronavirus ‘infodemic’, say EU lawmakers

Platforms still aren’t doing enough to tackle disinformation related to the coronavirus crisis, the European Commission said today.

In a Communication it is pressing tech platforms to produce monthly reports about their efforts in this area, asking for more detailed data on actions being taken to promote authoritative content; improve users’ awareness; and limit coronavirus disinformation and advertising related to it.

It also wants to see increased cooperation from platforms towards researchers, and fact-checkers in all EU Members States (for all languages), along with increased transparency around the implementation of policies to inform users in instances where they interact with disinformation

In recent years the Commission has pressed platforms for action to tackle misinformation — signing up tech giants and adtech players to a voluntary Code of Practice on disinformation focused on disrupting ad revenues and empowering reporting of fakes.

Since then, its assessment of platforms’ efforts to tackle malicious fakes has been lukewarm to say the least, with repeat calls for them to do more. It has also repeatedly called out a problematic ongoing lack of transparency related to these self regulatory efforts.

The coronavirus crisis has further amped up political pressure on platforms over their handling of online disinformation — and tech giants such as Google have responded with some measures aimed at pro-actively surfacing authoritative health information alongside coronavirus content (initially focused on the US, in its case).

Back in April, Facebook also said it would alert users who have interacted with certain types of coronavirus misinformation — displaying a debunking pop-up with messaging from the World Health Organization.

However the Commission said today that it wants to see more evidence that such measures are working.

EU lawmakers are also in the process of drafting new rules for digital services and platforms that could redrawn the line of liability and heap new responsibilities on tech businesses related to the content they host. A draft of this incoming Digital Services Act (DSA) is slated by the end of the year, after a public consultation kicked off last week.

“The coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’,” commissioner Josep Borrell said at a press briefing today. “We have witnessed a wave of false and misleading information, hoaxes and conspiracy theories, as well as targeted influence operations by foreign actors.”

Borrell gave examples of disinformation that risks public health which the Commission has seen spreading online in Europe such as bogus claims that drinking bleach can cure the coronavirus or that washing hands does not help.

He also pointed to vandalism of 5G infrastructure being fuelled by COVID-19 conspiracy theories.

“Some of this is aimed at harming the European Union and its Member States, trying to undermine our democracies, the credibility of the European Union and of national authorities,” he added. “What is more, disinformation in times of the coronavirus can kill. Misleading health information, consumer fraud, cyber crime or targeted disinformation campaigns by foreign actors pose several potential risks to our citizens, their health, to their trust in public institutions.”

Commenting in a statement, the Commission’s VP for values and transparency, Věra Jourová, added: “Disinformation waves have hit Europe during the Coronavirus pandemic. They originated from within as well as outside the EU. To fight disinformation, we need to mobilise all relevant players from online platforms to public authorities, and support independent fact checkers and media. While online platforms have taken positive steps during the pandemic, they need to step up their efforts. Our actions are strongly embedded in fundamental rights, in particular freedom of expression and information.”

“I believe that the fact that worked with the platforms and we designed with them the Code of Practice on disinformation helped to roll out new policies quicker,” she said, discussing coronavirus disinformation and what more platforms need to do, during a press briefing.

“Again platforms need to do more and our Code was just the first step. There is room for improvement. For instance we know only as much as platforms tell us — this is not good enough. They have to open up and offer more evidence that the measures they have taken are working well. They also have to enable the public to identify new threats independently. We invite them now to provide monthly reports with more granular information than ever before.”

Removing financial incentives for those who seek to benefit from disinformation is “crucial”, per Jourová, who said the Commission is taking steps to “gain a better understanding of the flow of advertising revenues linked to disinformation”. 

“We need to ensure transparency and accountability,” she added. “Citizens need to know how information is reaching them and where it comes from.”

Jourová announced that TikTok has agreed to join its EU Code of Practice on disinformation — saying she expected it to conclude the formalities “very soon”.

She added that the Commission is also “negotiating” with Facebook -owned WhatsApp about signing up.

She emphasized that EU lawmakers are not asking platforms to take down general disinformation (with some exceptions related to COVID-19; such as where bogus products or advice might cause public harm) — but rather to surface quality, fact-checked information so users are able to get the facts for themselves.

Jourová lauded Twitter’s recent decision to add labels to some of US president Donald Trump’s tweets — citing it as the sort of action it’s looking for from platforms. 

“Twitter is a very good example of what we support,” she said. “Twitter did not remove any declaration of president Trump they just added the facts. And this is what I call plurality and possibility of the competition of free speech. Because we should not rely on just one authoritative declaration when it’s possible to add some facts which might look at it from a different angle. So this is the competition of speeches. 

“We never wanted the platforms to remove the content — unless, and here comes the COVID-related situation — unless it is manifestly and clearly harmful to the health of the people. Which is the case of many strange advices and dangerous advices were published through social media.”

During the press briefing the commissioners were pressed on how little resource the Commission has is putting in to disinformation task forces — with an annual strategic communication budget of only around €5M last year.

Jourová responded by saying that the system of collaboration it’s established to tackle the problem is fed by pooled resources from EU Member States, civic society and the platforms themselves.

“The platforms are investing a lot in creating the task forces, their special units to fulfil the commitments — what we expect from them to do also in this communication — we are engaging civil society and fact checkers, we are engaging the research sector. So you have to speak about much wider field and many other capacities which we are deploying to do that,” she said, adding also that in the COVID disinformation context the health sector is also being engaged to combat junk content. 

“I have always said that the fight against disinformation is not about censorship — it’s not about removing the false claims and removing disinformation and misinformation. Those who are responsible for the subject has to proactively defend their facts, has to proactively bring trustworthy information,” she continued.

While disinformation is not generally considered illegal across the EU (with some exceptions in certain Member States), Jourová argued that fakes “can cause significant harm” — though she also suggestion the Commission will avoid laying down any hard legal lines here, as it works to update digital regulation.

“For the disinformation, our logic will be to look into how big the potential public harm might be,” she said, giving a hint of how it’s looking at the issue in relation to the forthcoming DSA. “I do not foresee that we will come with hard regulation on that. Because it is too sensitive to assess this information and have some rules — it is playing with the freedom of speech and I really want to come with a balanced proposal. So in DSA you will see the regulatory action very probably against illegal content — because what’s illegal offline must be clearly illegal online and the platforms have to proactively work in this direction. But for disinformation we will have to consider the efficient way how to decrease the harmful impact of disinformation.

“We will focus on its impact before elections, because we see that disinformation — well targeted and designed — can do harm to the free and fair elections. So these are very serious issues we will have to cover.”

Jourová warned that the next health-related disinformation battleground in Europe will be vaccination.

She also named China and Russia as foreign entities that the Commission has confirmed as being behind state-backed disinformation campaigns targeting the region.

Alibaba taps international influencers to sell more globally

For years, Chinese e-commerce exporters have been learning the ins and outs of ad placement on Facebook, Instagram and other mainstream social media platforms to reach customers around the world. But they recently spotted a new way to grab people’s attention, one that has never felt more familiar.

Video influencers.

Shopping via videos is currently all the rage in China. There are efforts from short video apps like Douyin — TikTok’s Chinese sister — that match merchants with content creators for promotion. During the coronavirus lockdown, millions of consumers relied on live videos to check out products and posed questions to merchants remotely, a practice that has won endorsement from local governments as a way to drum up domestic consumption. In just Q1 this year, more than 4 million live shopping sessions took place in China.

In other parts of the world, brands and video creators — especially influencers with sizable followings — are also getting pally. A few American venture capitalists have recognized the early potential of the collaboration. Amazon, a few years behind its Chinese counterparts in live streaming, launched Amazon Live last year.

Now Alibaba, one of the pioneers of shoppable videos in China, has big plans to attract and train up international influencers — so it can sell more around the world through AliExpress . The platform is one of Alibaba’s marketplaces for international consumers, which altogether claim 180 million annual active consumers.

“Chinese manufacturers are always looking for ways to sell and influencers are the quickest way to drive traffic these days,” reckoned Miranda Tan, chief executive of Robin8, a data-driven influencer marketing platform.

Indeed, a few Shenzhen-based e-commerce exporters told TechCrunch that they are actively looking to work with international content creators, particularly TikTok influencers, to market their products. For now, they depend on their Chinese staff to make low-budget promo videos that often miss important cultural nuances.

Everyone is a seller

AliExpress plans to recruit as many as 100,000 “promoters,” who will help merchants and brands on AliExpress promote through YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and other popular internet platforms. Besides popular influencers, the platform is also after talented content creators behind the camera and seasoned marketers with access to customer acquisition channels.

Screenshot: a live broadcasted promotion on AliExpress

“Live shopping is still in its relative infancy in the overseas consumer market,” Martin Wang, who heads overseas seller operation and social commerce cooperation at AliExpress, told TechCrunch. “Our initiative will help propel the overseas ecosystem forward.”

To that end, the team created the “Connect” matchmaking system for influencers to find promotional tasks and is providing training and analytics tools to support their creative process. While live selling has been available to Alibaba sellers in China since 2016, AliExpress only added the feature last year and announced the recruitment program in April.

The call for talent came at a time when millions around the world have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak. It’s no surprise that AliExpress is billing the recruitment as one that could “help individuals rebuild after COVID-19.”

“A lot of people don’t have money now and are looking for ways to make money during the coronavirus outbreak,” contended Tan, who has observed many individuals are learning to be product promoters on social media to make extra bucks. “Everyone becomes their own independent company.”

Cultural differences

An obvious target for AliExpress is the emerging crop of bilingual foreign influencers living in China. “Many are foreign students in China with a positive image and a knack for expression. They have a flexible schedule in the evening, so agencies will approach them, train them as live streaming hosts and eventually sign with them,” said Wang.

The influencers fluent in Chinese and their native language may seem like ideal ambassadors in sellers’ target markets, but there is a potential drawback. “They might look to Li Jiaqi and Weiya as role models,” said Wang, referring to China’s top beauty influencers known for their record-smashing sales. “But what works in China may not work in their home countries.”

On the demand side, Wang worried that Chinese merchants are too accustomed to seeing meteoric sales numbers that influencers in China generate. “The overseas [live streaming] market has not reached the stage of maturity, so it’s our priority to manage expectations from both sides [of sellers and content creators.]”

Most of AliExpress’s sellers naturally come from China, the world’s factory, while Russia is its biggest market for revenue. The platform has been working to boost its inventory by opening up to sellers in Turkey, Russia, Spain and Italy last year. For instance, Russia is a big market for AliExpress’s Turkish merchants. The expansion means an even greater challenge for the Chinese company to cope with differences in business dynamics and consumer behavior across regions.

SpaceX’s first astronaut launch is scrubbed due to weather – next attempt set for Saturday

UPDATE: SpaceX and NASA made the call to scrub the launch today since there were a couple of weather issues that prevented the attempt from taking place. The next window for the launch is Saturday, May 30 at 3:22 PM EDT (12:22 PM PDT).

SpaceX is set to mark a huge milestone in its own company history, with a first-ever crewed spaceflight set to take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida later today. The mission is Commercial Crew Demo-2, the culmination of its Crew Dragon human spacecraft development program, which will carry NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station.

The launch is currently set to take off from Kennedy Space Center at 4:33 p.m. EDT (1:33 p.m. PDT), though that’ll depend on weather conditions. Those haven’t been looking too favorable over the past few days, but SpaceX and NASA have said they could make the call as late as around 45 minutes prior to the planned launch time about whether to delay. If today’s attempt is scrubbed, there are backup opportunities on the schedule for May 30 and May 31.

This will be the first-ever crewed spaceflight for SpaceX, and it will also make history as the first U.S.-based human rocket launch since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. NASA undertook the Commercial Crew program in 2010 to seek public-private partnerships to return its launch capabilities, eventually selecting both SpaceX and Boeing to design and develop spacecraft rated for human flight. SpaceX is the first from this program to make a crewed launch attempt.

The Demo-2 mission is essentially the final test phase of Crew Dragon, after which it and Falcon 9, the rocket that carries it to orbit, will be certified for regular operational use by NASA. That means it will begin offering regular transportation services for astronaut crew to and from the International Space Station, joining Russia’s Soyuz as a means to travel to the orbital science platform.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has already begun plans to also offer berths on Crew Dragon to private citizens and potentially commercial scientists and other passengers. That’s part of the reason behind the Commercial Crew program to begin with – NASA was seeking to lower the cost of transportation for its astronauts to space by making seats available to other paying customers to offset launch and flight expenses.

B2B challenger bank Finom raises $7M Seed from Target Global and General Catalyst

Just as challenger banks have appeared in the B2C space, so to have B2B startup banks aimed small businesses, among them startups like Qonto (Fr), Tide (UK), Penta (GER) and CountingUp (UK).

Today another such firm, Finom, has closed a €6.5m ($7M) seed funding round led by Target Global, with participation from General Catalyst. Further investors include FJ Labs, Raisin founders Tamaz Georgadze, Frank Freund and Michael Stephan, and Ilya Kondrashov, the founder of MarketFinance. The company will primarily use the fresh capital to develop its product, and to expand further into Italy and France in the summer of 2020.

Finom puts accounting, financial management and banking functions for early-stage businesses and SMEs into one ‘mobile-first’ product. Businesses can set up an online account, with accounts payable and account receivable from both the app and the site in fairly short order. The company was started by the team that also launched Modulbank, ‘neobank’ for SMEs in Russia.

Konstantin Stiskin, co-founder of Finom, told Techcrunch: “The EU SME banking market size is more than €100bn. But according to McKinsey research, European entrepreneurs spend 74% of their time on non-core activities and pay for expensive and inconvenient products. Our goal is to enable small businesses in Europe to become more efficient and to thrive.”

He added: “We are not just a card with an account. We aim to be a foundation for SME’s and their everyday business, covering banking, accounting and financial management within one product.

Finom is now live in France, Italy and Germany and started with e-invoicing in Italy, which allowed it to gain market knowledge and collect the data for accounting/payments and lending.

Mike Lobanov, General Partner and COO at Target Global said: “At Target Global we are great believers in the SME segment… The team of exceptional entrepreneurs standing behind Finom shares our view, and has already built a new standard for offering financial services to SMEs.”

Although Target Global is headquartered in Berlin, it has more than €700m in assets under management, with offices in London, Tel Aviv and Barcelona. Poortfolio includes companies such as Auto1, Delivery Hero, Omio (formerly GoEuro), TravelPerk, Rapyd and WeFox.

NASA and SpaceX targeting mid-to-late May for first astronaut launch, despite coronavirus pandemic

NASA and SpaceX issued a media accreditation invitation on Wednesday for their Demonstration Mission 2 (aka Demo-2) commercial crew launch – the first in the commercial crew program that will carry actual astronauts to space. The invite includes the current proposed timeframe for the mission, listed as no “no earlier than mid-to-late May.”

Reports from earlier in the year had pegged the launch window for May, with the possibility that SpaceX and NASA could move that to as early as April, or as late as June, depending on the preparedness of the spacecraft and crew. SpaceX was reportedly early on readying the Crew Dragon spacecraft that would be flying the mission, but NASA also changed the mission parameters to include a longer stay at the International Space Station for the crew going up on the demo mission, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.

This will be the first time ever that astronauts fly aboard a SpaceX spacecraft, and the first crewed mission for the commercial crew program, through which NASA is working with private company launch operators to return human spaceflight capabilities to American soil. All current astronaut transportation to and from the International Space Station is accomplished through a partnership with Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, which flies crews using its Soyuz spacecraft.

So far, NASA and SpaceX haven’t seemed to be anticipating much of a change to the timing of their first crewed Dragon mission in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This invitation from NASA is the most detailed confirmation yet that the mission is still on as of right now, and tracking towards a launch window that seems unchanged from plans prior to the implementation of strict social distancing and isolation measures as the COVID-19 epidemic flared across the U.S.

NASA recently moved all of its facilities to a ‘Stage 3’ state of contingency operation, which means all employees are on mandatory telework unless they’re required to be physically present in office for mission-related activity. NASA’s Ames facility has been escalated to Stage 4, because of the ‘shelter-in-place’ order in effect in the California county in which it resides, which means that the facility is closed and only telework is permitted.

In the invitation issued to media today, NASA says that it’s “proactively monitoring the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation as it evolves” and will “communicate any updates that may impact mission planing or media access, as they become available.” The agency is also taking extra precautions to protect the health of Hurley and Behnken, in addition to standard isolation procedures already in place to prevent them from getting sick ahead of a spaceflight mission.

Facebook pushes EU for dilute and fuzzy Internet content rules

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is in Europe this week — attending a security conference in Germany over the weekend where he spoke about the kind of regulation he’d like applied to his platform ahead of a slate of planned meetings with digital heavyweights at the European Commission.

“I do think that there should be regulation on harmful content,” said Zuckerberg during a Q&A session at the Munich Security Conference, per Reuters, making a pitch for bespoke regulation.

He went on to suggest “there’s a question about which framework you use”, telling delegates: “Right now there are two frameworks that I think people have for existing industries — there’s like newspapers and existing media, and then there’s the telco-type model, which is ‘the data just flows through you’, but you’re not going to hold a telco responsible if someone says something harmful on a phone line.”

“I actually think where we should be is somewhere in between,” he added, making his plea for Internet platforms to be a special case.

At the conference he also said Facebook now employs 35,000 people to review content on its platform and implement security measures — including suspending around 1 million fake accounts per day, a stat he professed himself “proud” of.

The Facebook chief is due to meet with key commissioners covering the digital sphere this week, including competition chief and digital EVP Margrethe Vestager, internal market commissioner Thierry Breton and Věra Jourová, who is leading policymaking around online disinformation.

The timing of his trip is clearly linked to digital policymaking in Brussels — with the Commission due to set out its thinking around the regulation of artificial intelligence this week. (A leaked draft last month suggested policymaker are eyeing risk-based rules to wrap around AI.)

More widely, the Commission is wrestling with how to respond to a range of problematic online content — from terrorism to disinformation and election interference — which also puts Facebook’s 2BN+ social media empire squarely in regulators’ sights.

Another policymaking plan — a forthcoming Digital Service Act (DSA) — is slated to upgrade liability rules around Internet platforms.

The detail of the DSA has yet to be publicly laid out but any move to rethink platform liabilities could present a disruptive risk for a content distributing giant such as Facebook.

Going into meetings with key commissioners Zuckerberg made his preference for being considered a ‘special’ case clear — saying he wants his platform to be regulated not like the media businesses which his empire has financially disrupted; nor like a dumbpipe telco.

On the latter it’s clear — even to Facebook — that the days of Zuckerberg being able to trot out his erstwhile mantra that ‘we’re just a technology platform’, and wash his hands of tricky content stuff, are long gone.

Russia’s 2016 foray into digital campaigning in the US elections and sundry content horrors/scandals before and since have put paid to that — from nation-state backed fake news campaigns to livestreamed suicides and mass murder.

Facebook has been forced to increase its investment in content moderation. Meanwhile it announced a News section launch last year — saying it would hand pick publishers content to show in a dedicated tab.

The ‘we’re just a platform’ line hasn’t been working for years. And EU policymakers are preparing to do something about that.

With regulation looming Facebook is now directing its lobbying energies onto trying to shape a policymaking debate — calling for what it dubs “the ‘right’ regulation”.

Here the Facebook chief looks to be applying a similar playbook as the Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai — who recently tripped to Brussels to push for AI rules so dilute they’d act as a tech enabler.

In a blog post published today Facebook pulls its latest policy lever: Putting out a white paper which poses a series of questions intended to frame the debate at a key moment of public discussion around digital policymaking.

Top of this list is a push to foreground focus on free speech, with Facebook questioning “how can content regulation best achieve the goal of reducing harmful speech while preserving free expression?” — before suggesting more of the same: (Free, to its business) user-generated policing of its platform.

Another suggestion it sets out which aligns with existing Facebook moves to steer regulation in a direction it’s comfortable with is for an appeals channel to be created for users to appeal content removal or non-removal. Which of course entirely aligns with a content decision review body Facebook is in the process of setting up — but which is not in fact independent of Facebook.

Facebook is also lobbying in the white paper to be able to throw platform levers to meet a threshold of ‘acceptable vileness’ — i.e. it wants a proportion of law-violating content to be sanctioned by regulators — with the tech giant suggesting: “Companies could be incentivized to meet specific targets such as keeping the prevalence of violating content below some agreed threshold.”

It’s also pushing for the fuzziest and most dilute definition of “harmful content” possible. On this Facebook argues that existing (national) speech laws — such as, presumably, Germany’s Network Enforcement Act (aka the NetzDG law) which already covers online hate speech in that market — should not apply to Internet content platforms, as it claims moderating this type of content is “fundamentally different”.

“Governments should create rules to address this complexity — that recognize user preferences and the variation among internet services, can be enforced at scale, and allow for flexibility across language, trends and context,” it writes — lobbying for maximum possible leeway to be baked into the coming rules.

“The development of regulatory solutions should involve not just lawmakers, private companies and civil society, but also those who use online platforms,” Facebook’s VP of content policy, Monika Bickert, also writes in the blog.

“If designed well, new frameworks for regulating harmful content can contribute to the internet’s continued success by articulating clear ways for government, companies, and civil society to share responsibilities and work together. Designed poorly, these efforts risk unintended consequences that might make people less safe online, stifle expression and slow innovation,” she adds, ticking off more of the tech giant’s usual talking points at the point policymakers start discussing putting hard limits on its ad business.

Russia’s push back against big tech has major consequences for Apple

Last month, Donald Trump took to Twitter to criticize Apple for not unlocking two iPhones belonging to the Pensacola shooter, another volley in the struggle between big tech and the world’s governing bodies. But even the White House’s censure pales in comparison to the Kremlin’s ongoing plans. Apple, as the timing would have it, also happens to be in Vladimir Putin’s sights.

The company’s long-running policy of not preloading third-party software onto its devices is coming up against a new piece of Russian legislation requiring every smart device to be sold with certain applications already installed, many of which are produced by the government. Inside the country, the policy has even been called the zakon protiv Apple, or the “law against Apple,” for how it disproportionately affects the tech giant. While the law was passed last November, the Russian Federal Antimonopoly Service released the full list of apps only last week.

These regulations form the latest move in what’s turning out to be one of the largest national campaigns for digital control outside of Asia. These laws have been steadily accumulating since 2014 and are described as a way of consolidating sovereignty over the digital space — threatening to push companies out of the country if they fail to comply. Apple, for instance, will have to choose by July 1 whether maintaining access to the Russian market is worth making a revolutionary change in their policy. The same choice is given to any company wishing to do business in the country.

Google has little choice to be evil or not in today’s fractured internet

Well, we got to January 2nd before the latest angry resignation published by a tech executive on Medium.

Today’s installment comes from Ross LaJeunesse, who was head of international relations at Google and served for more than a decade in various roles at the company. He denounces what he sees as Google’s increasingly failed ambitions to be a company principled on human rights, and poses a series of questions about the future of tech and capitalism:

I think the important question is what does it mean when one of America’s marque’ companies changes so dramatically. Is it the inevitable outcome of a corporate culture that rewards growth and profits over social impact and responsibility? Is it in some way related to the corruption that has gripped our federal government? Is this part of the global trend toward “strong man” leaders who are coming to power around the globe, where questions of “right” and “wrong” are ignored in favor of self-interest and self-dealing? Finally, what are the implications for all of us when that once-great American company controls so much data about billions of users across the globe?

The whole read is interesting, and covers Google’s China operations, its Project Dragonfly censored search crisis, Saudi Arabia’s apps in Google Cloud, and his own personal experience with Google HR.

It’s a manifesto of sorts, and perhaps that isn’t surprising given that LaJeunesse is also running for the Democratic primary in Maine’s senatorial election to compete against Republican incumbent Susan Collins. His critiques of Big Tech seem to be channeling Missouri Republican senator Josh Hawley, and that makes it a fascinating political strategy.

But let’s focus in on the key question at the heart of this debate: does Google have the ability to be “good” or “evil” when it comes to tech’s influence on society? Does it have agency to make a difference on human rights in countries around the world?

My answer is: Google used to have a lot of agency, which is unfortunately declining very, very rapidly.

I’ve talked about the fracturing of the internet into different spheres of influence for quite literally years. Countries like China in particular, but also Russia, Iran and others are seizing more and more exacting control of the internet’s plumbing and applications, subsuming the original internet’s spirit of openness and freedom and placing this communications medium under their iron fists.

As this fracturing has occurred, companies like Google, or Shutterstock, or even the NBA have increasingly faced what I’ve called an “authoritarian straddle” — they can either work with these countries and follow the local rules, or they can just get out, with serious ramifications for their home markets.

Those are the extent of the choices these companies have. Shutterstock is not going to change China’s policy toward photos of the Tiananmen Square protests, any more than Google can try to launch a search engine on the mainland or change Saudi Arabia’s deplorable women’s rights.

To have any agency here at all, you need a monopoly on a product or service so important that the dictatorship has to accept the terms you offer. In other words, these companies need extreme leverage, essentially the ability to go to the regimes and say, “No, fuck you, here’s how it is going to work, we’re going to follow human rights, and you have no choice in the matter.”

What tech companies are discovering — even massive giants like Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft — is that they really, truly don’t have that kind of leverage in these countries anymore. Not even Apple, which employs hundreds of thousands of manufacturing workers through its subcontractors in China, can move the needle in that country anymore. Iran shut off the internet for a period of time to dampen the intensity of political protests in that country. Russia last week tested shutting off the internet to make sure it can just pull the plug when it wants.

If whole countries can just flip the switch and turn off “tech,” exactly what leverage do any of these companies have in the first place?

And that diminution of power is a trend that tech companies, and particularly American tech companies, haven’t fully grappled with. They don’t really get a choice anymore in the decisions here. China has its own search engine, and increasingly, its own mobile phone ecosystem unencumbered by U.S. patents and therefore U.S. policy. If Azure leaves Saudi Arabia, Alibaba Cloud is more than willing to step into the gap and make the money instead.

So when you get to LaJeunesse’s comments that he pushed Google internally to formalize some of its values:

My solution was to advocate for the adoption of a company-wide, formal Human Rights Program that would publicly commit Google to adhere to human rights principles found in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, provide a mechanism for product and engineering teams to seek internal review of product design elements, and formalize the use of Human Rights Impact Assessments for all major product launches and market entries.

… one can’t help but feel solace for an optimistic world where a better product design review process might have once improved global human rights.

The issue is far simpler though than it was in the past. You don’t need a human rights protocol, or some sort of review process for market entry. You are either in, or you are out. You either launch in these countries and deal with the inevitable human rights abuses and concomitant consumer protests in the home market, or you maintain your values and you walk away, ignoring the profit mirage from these regimes in the process.

That’s why I recently argued that Google and the NBA should just walk away. I still hold that belief. It’s also why I called on Shutterstock to leave China and return to its more open and free values. No U.S. tech company today has the leverage to make a dent on human rights the way that they did a decade ago. The internet has fractured, data sovereignty is on the rise, and there’s a binary choice to be made whether to engage or to flee. Ultimately, I take LaJeunesse’s side — these companies should walk, because there really isn’t much choice otherwise.

Russia starts testing its own internal internet

Russia has begun testing a national internet system that would function as an alternative to the broader web, according to local news reports. Exactly what stage the country has reached is unclear, but certainly the goal of a resilient — and perhaps more easily controlled — internet is being pursued.

The internet, of course, is made up of a global web of infrastructure that must interface physically, virtually and, increasingly, politically with the countries to which it connects. Some countries, like China, have opted to very carefully regulate that interface, controlling which websites, apps and services can be accessed from the local side of that interface.

Russia has increasingly leaned toward that approach, with President Putin signing a law earlier this year there, Runet, which would build the necessary infrastructure to maintain, essentially, a separate internal internet should such a thing become necessary (or convenient).

Speaking earlier this week to the state-owned news outlet Tass, Putin explained that this was purely a defensive play.

Runet, he said, “is aimed only at preventing adverse consequences of global disconnection from the global network, which is largely controlled from abroad. This is the point, this is what sovereignty is — to have our resources that can be turned on so that we would not be cut from the Internet.”

More recent reports, in Tass and Pravda as relayed by the BBC, indicated that this effort has gone beyond the theoretical to the practical. Tests were done on the vulnerability of the so-called Internet of Things, which must have been disheartening if Russian IoT devices have security practices as poor as U.S. ones. Whether the local net could stand up against “external negative influences,” whatever those are, was also looked into.

It’s no small task, what Russia is attempting here, and while the talk is ostensibly of sovereignty and robust infrastructure, the tensions between the U.S., Russia, China, North Korea and other countries with advanced cyberwarfare capabilities are unmistakably also part of it.

A Russian internet disconnected from the world would probably right now be almost non-functional. Russia, like everyone else, relies on resources located elsewhere in the world constantly, and duplication of many of those resources would be necessary to make it possible for the internet to work anything like normally, should the country decide to retreat into its shell for whatever reason.

A separate DNS system would be necessary, as would physical infrastructure connecting parts of the country directly to the rest, which at present must do so through international connections. And that’s just to create the basic possibility of a working Russian intranet.

It’s hard to object to the idea of a robust “sovereign internet” should such a thing become necessary, but it’s hard not to think of it as preparation for conflict to come rather than simple investment in national infrastructure.

That said, what exactly Runet will grow to be and how it will be used are still a matter of speculation until we receive more specific reports of its capabilities and intended purposes.

Instreamatic signs deals to allow people to talk to adverts on streaming services like an Alexa

Most in tech would agree that following the launch of Alexa and Google Home devices the ‘Voice Era’ is here. Voice assistant usage is at 3.3 billion right now; by 2020 half of all searches are expected to be done via voice. And with younger generations growing up on voice (55% of teens use voice search daily now), there’s no turning back.

As we’ve reported, the voice-based ad market will grow to $19 billion in the U.S. by 2022, growing the market share from the $17 billion audio ad market and the $57 billion programmatic ad market.

That means that voice shopping is also set to explode, with the volume of voice-based spending growing twenty-fold over the next few years due to voice-based virtual assistant penetration, as well as the rapid consumer adoption of home-based smart speakers, the expansion of smart homes and the growing integration of virtual assistants into cars.

That, combined with the popularity of digital media – streaming music, podcasts, etc – has created greenfield opportunities for better brand engagement through audio. But brands have struggled to catch up, and there has not been many ways to capitalise on this.

So a team of people who co-founded and worked at Zvuk, a leading music streaming service in Eastern Europe, quickly understood why there is not a single profitable music streaming company in the world: subscription rates are low and advertisers are not excited about audio ads, due to the measurement challenges and intrusive ad experience.

So, they decided to create SF-based company Instreamatic, a startup which allows people to talk at adverts they see and get an AI-driven voice response, just as you might talk to an Alexa device. 

Thus, the AI powering Instreamatic’s voice-driven ads can interpret and anticipate the intent of a user’s words (and do so in the user’s natural language, so robotic “yes” and “no” responses aren’t needed). That means Instreamatic enables brands which advertise through digital audio channels (streaming music apps, podcasts, etc) to now have interactive (and continuous) voice dialogues with consumers.

Yes, it means you can talk to an advert like it was an Alexa.
 
Instead of an audio ad playing to a listener as a one-way communication (like every T.V. and radio ad before it), brands can now reach and engage with consumers by having voice-interactive conversations. Brands using Instreamatic can also continue conversations with consumers across channels and audio publishers – so fresh ad content is tailored to the full history of each listener’s past engagements and responses.

An advantage of the platform is that people can use their voice to set their advertising preferences. So, when a person says ‘I don’t want to hear about it ever again,’ brands can optimize their marketing strategy either by stopping all remarketing campaigns across all digital media channels targeted to that person, or by optimizing the communication strategy to offer something else instead of the product that was rejected. If the listener expressed interest or no interest, Instreamatic would know that and tailor future ads to match past engagement – providing a continuous dialogue with the user.

Its competitor is AdsWizz which allows users to shake their phones when they are interested in an ad. This effectively allows users to “click” when the audio ad is playing in the background. One of their recent case studies reported that shaking provided 3.95% interaction rates.
 
By contrast, Instreamatic’s voice dialogue marketing platform allows people to talk to audio advertising, skipping irrelevant ads and engaging in interesting ones. Their recent case study claimed a much higher 13.2% voice engagement rate this way.
 
The business model is thus: when advertisers buy voice dialogue ads on its ad exchange, it takes a commission from that ad spend. Publishers, brands and adtech companies can license the technology and Instreamatic charges them a licensing fee based on usage.

Instreamatic has now partnered with Gaana, India’s largest music and content streaming service, to integrate Instreamatic into Gaana’s platform. It’s also partnered with Triton Digital, a service provider to the audio streaming and podcast industry.

This follows similar deals with Pandora, Jacapps, Airkast,
and SurferNETWORK.

All these partnerships means the company can now reach 120 million monthly active users in the United States, 30M in Europe and 150 million in Asia.

Thet company is headquartered in San Francisco and London with a development team in Moscow and features Stas Tushinskiy as CEO and co-founder. Tushinskiy reated the digital audio advertising market in Russia prior to relocating to the U.S. with Instreamatic. International Business Development head and co-founder Simon Dunlop previously founded Bookmate, a subscription-based reading and audiobook platform, and DITelegraph Moscow Tech Hub, and Zvuk.