GM finally agrees California can set vehicle emissions rules as it preps to scale EVs

In what appears to be a politically and economically savvy move by General Motors, the automaker said Sunday it recognized California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to set its own vehicle emissions standards. GM previously backed the Trump administration’s efforts to bar the state from enforcing its own rules for new vehicles, a position it reversed soon after President Joe Biden was elected.

GM’s recognition of California’s much stricter carbon emissions standards, which other states can adopt, means the state will consider the company for fleet vehicle purchases. Other companies on the list include BMW, Ford, Honda, Tesla, Volkswagen and Volvo.

California is the most populous state in the nation, contributing 14.8% of the country’s gross domestic product; to be blacklisted from the state because of a cantankerous desire to continue producing cars with higher emissions would be economic suicide. TechCrunch reached out to GM to learn why the company decided to send the letter now and how it fit in with its broader strategy, but GM did not immediately respond.

Omar Vargas, VP and head of global public policy for GM, swore fealty to California’s emissions sovereignty in a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom shared with The Detroit News on Sunday, just days after the company’s commercial electric vehicle unit, BrightDrop, shared considerable growth plans over the next few years. At CES, the company announced Walmart as its newest customer with a reservation of 5,000 e-delivery vans. In addition, existing customer FedEx upped its order from 500 EVs to 2,000, many of which will hit the streets of Los Angeles first.

The OEM also committed on Sunday to speeding out its rollout of zero-emission vehicles in a letter to Liane Randolph, chair of the California Air Resources Board. Last week, GM added two more electric SUV models under its Chevrolet brand to be produced by 2023, which would join the two upcoming versions of the Silverado EV pickup. The company has started to deliver the GMC Hummer EV pickup truck and is also introducing the Hummer EV SUV in 2023. An electric GMC Sierra is coming to market, likely in 2023 as well.

The letter to Randolph, signed by GM’s vice president of global regulatory affairs and transportation technology policy, David Strickland, also committed to ensuring affordability of its EVs for low-income communities. This would involve improving access to charging infrastructure by providing pre-paid charging cards and creating partnerships to build infrastructure, particularly in disadvantaged areas.

“GM is joining California in our fight for clean air & emission reduction as part of … their pursuit of a zero-emissions future,” tweeted Governor Newsom’s office on Sunday. “This agreement will help accelerate California’s nation-leading work to tackling the climate crisis. Welcome GM to our clean vehicle revolution!”

GM has promised to be carbon-neutral by 2040 in its global products and operations, with zero tailpipe emissions from new vehicles by 2035.

India hits Google with antitrust investigation over alleged abuse in news aggregation

India’s antitrust watchdog has ordered an investigation into Google following complaints from news publishers who allege that the search giant is “abusing” its dominance in news aggregation to impose unfair conditions on the outlets.

The Competition Commission of India said Friday that Google dominates certain online services and its initial view is that Google has broken the local antitrust laws and pointed to new rules in France and Australia, where the firm has been asked to enter into “fair/ good faith negotiation” with news publishers for paid licensing of content to address the “bargaining power imbalance between the two and the resultant imposition of unfair conditions by Google.”

“The allegations of the informant, when seen in this vertically integrated ecosystem operated by Google, makes it prima facie appear that news publishers have no choice but to accept the terms and conditions imposed by Google. Google appears to operate as a gateway between various news publishers on the one hand and news readers on the other. Another alternative for the news publisher is to forgo the traffic generated by Google for them, which would be unfavourable to their revenue generation,” the CCI said in its 21-page order.

The probe follows a complaint from Digital News Publishers Association, which consists of the digital arms of some of India’s biggest media firms. The association said their members get more than half of their traffic from online search engines, a category Google clearly commands, and the market leading position has allowed Google to force the publishers into several unfavorable terms.

In a wide-ranging complaint, the association said Google displaying snippets of news items limits the number of visitors to news outlets and impacts the ad revenue “while Google continue[s] to earn ad revenue on its result page” as well as enriches “its search algorithm resulting from the volume of search queries.”

“It has also been averred that the terms of the agreements entered between the members of the Informant [news publishers] and the OPs [Google and its subsidiaries] for sharing the advertisement revenues are unilaterally and arbitrarily dictated by the OPs, and the members of the Informant have no other option but to accept the terms, as they are, with no bargaining power whatsoever,” the watchdog said.

“The only alternate to the AMP system is for publishers to subscribe with Google, which benefits Google, to the detriment of the publishers,” the watchdog said. The association accused that Google forcing them to use its AMP format, which has implications on their revenue.

A Google spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

“In a well-functioning democracy, the critical role played by news media cannot be undermined, and it needs to be ensured that digital gatekeeper firms do not abuse their dominant position to harm the competitive process of determining a fair distribution of revenue amongst all stakeholders,” the watchdog added.

Friday’s investigation is the latest of a series of probes the Indian competition watchdog has ordered in recent weeks. Late last year, the CCI ordered an investigation into how Apple runs its App Store, becoming the most recent country to take aim at the American technology giant.

Steering innovation toward the public good

Millennia ago, some unnamed innovator created humanity’s most famous early invention: the wheel. And ever since, the story of transportation has been one of human creativity, innovation, and technology. From e-scooters to spacecraft, technology shapes most human journeys, whether it’s a historic spaceflight or a daily cross-town commute.

At the U.S. Department of Transportation, my colleagues and I think every day about how transportation technologies are evolving, and we use our policy tools to support these innovations and make sure they deliver convenience, safety, and economic opportunity for the American people.

At any time in history, and certainly in ours, innovation shapes and reshapes how people and goods move to where they need to be. But in recent years, “innovation” has become such a buzzword that it risks losing its meaning—and policymakers risk losing our focus as we contend with the constantly shifting and rapidly developing world of transportation technology.

As policymakers, we must prioritize. We need to assess which important innovations will develop on their own, and which require federal support for basic research. We must consider when a technology should be given as much room as possible to develop experimentally, and when it raises concerns that require regulation to keep people safe.

The current decade is especially full of challenges and opportunities from developments in transportation technology. We are witnessing the rise of electric and autonomous vehicles, the widespread adoption of recreational and commercial drones, renewed attention to cybersecurity vulnerabilities in our infrastructure, increasingly routine commercial space travel, and, perhaps most urgently, the high-stakes race to dramatically reduce transportation’s impact on our climate before it’s too late.

Amid these changes, the role of public policy is not always obvious, but it’s always important. To inform our work, today our department is establishing a set of six guiding principles for our work on innovation in transportation.

Innovation is not an end in itself, but a chance to improve. Our innovation efforts should serve our most important public policy goals, like creating economic opportunity, advancing equitable access to transportation, and helping to confront the climate crisis.

Innovation should be shaped in ways that help America win the 21st century, with transportation systems and infrastructure that make communities more competitive, adaptable, and resilient.

Our innovation strategy must support workers, knowing that our choices will help to define whether any given technological development meets its potential to create economic benefits for all.

A good innovation strategy allows for experimentation and learns from setbacks, because these are indispensable parts of the scientific method that underpin all invention and discovery.

Our approach to innovation should center on opportunities to collaborate, recognizing the distinct but related roles of the public, private, and academic sectors.

And finally, our policies should be flexible and adapt as technology changes, because we can’t prepare for an evolving future with policy that only makes sense under present or past conditions.

These principles will help us to ensure that the enormous potential of U.S. transportation innovation benefits our nation and its people. To some, “government” and “innovation” are not words that go together naturally. But in reality, the public sector has always played a vital role in unlocking the innovative capacity of the American people.

Consider the smartphone, an invention that transformed the way we live in a matter of just a few years. Smartphones could only be the result of private-sector inventions and marketing—the natural role of private companies, not government departments. But the technologies on which smartphones depend—like microprocessors, lithium batteries, touchscreens, GPS, and indeed the internet itself—were all supported or invented by government researchers.

Some of our largest tech companies—including Google, Apple, and Tesla—benefited from government subsidies, loan guarantees, or other public support early in their growth.

And while government is far from the source of all invention, it does have a responsibility to help ensure that all inventions are safe and practical for the public.

Government didn’t invent planes, trains, or automobiles, but it did build airports, lay tracks, and construct highways. It enacted laws requiring seat belts and air bags, and created an air traffic control system so that people could travel safely.

As secretary of Transportation, I’ve had the privilege of seeing firsthand the latest frontiers of transportation innovation in our country.

In Georgia last year, I saw the nation’s first-ever solar roadway, which provides clean power for nearby electric vehicle (EV) chargers. In Oregon, I test-drove one of the electric buses that cities around the country are embracing as cleaner and quieter alternatives to outdated diesel vehicles. And in North Carolina, I visited an advanced research lab working on an extremely important, if unglamorous, subject: the future of pavement, including more durable asphalt and even materials that can recycle carbon dioxide.

American companies and scientists are at work every day pushing the boundaries of what is possible in transportation. And our department is at work every day supporting basic research and maintaining the guardrails that ensure those technologies unfold in ways that are safe, equitable, and clean. In the years ahead, these core principles will guide that work—and thanks to President Biden’s historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we have new resources to support those efforts.

These investments will help more Americans adopt electric vehicles and save money on fuel. They will help more children take the bus to school without being exposed to toxic fumes. And they will put more people to work creating the infrastructure of the future.

When it comes to transportation innovation, perhaps the hardest thing to predict is the timing of how and when these developments will impact our everyday lives. Less than 60 years passed between the first flight at Kitty Hawk and the first crewed American spaceflight. Less than 10 years after the first smartphones hit the market, ride-sharing was overtaking taxi use in many American cities. Electric vehicles were in commercial production in 1902 at Studebaker factories in my hometown of South Bend, Indiana—only to all but disappear for most of the 20th century, then re-emerge as a dominant force in the 21st.

It’s not the job of policymakers to guess or dictate how and when these advancements will unfold. But our role in supporting, fostering, and safeguarding the work of transportation innovation is vital, and it comes at an exceptionally important time in the story of American transportation. The decade ahead will bring countless transformative changes in how people and goods move around the country and the world. And the Department of Transportation will be here to help support those innovations and ensure they benefit us all.

Starlink India head steps down after government order

Sanjay Bhargava, the head of Starlink India, has stepped down from his role weeks after the Indian government ordered the SpaceX division to stop taking orders for the devices as it doesn’t have the license to operate in the South Asian market.

In a LinkedIn post, Bhargava said he was leaving the firm for “personal reasons.” His departure comes just three months after he took the job as Country Director and Chairman of the Board of Starlink India. Earlier today, Starlink India told customers that it will be issuing refunds to those who had pre-ordered the device. [H/T: Anmol Maini of Keeping up with India newsletter]

Elon Musk, SpaceX chief executive, welcomed Bhargava, a former PayPal executive, last year to Starlink India and tweeted that he “deserved a lot of credit for making X/PayPal succeed.”

A SpaceX spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Starlink, which has shipped over 100,000 terminals to customers, shared big ambitions for India last year. The company has plans to deploy over 200,000 active terminals in over 160,000 districts in India by the end of December 2022, Bhargava said earlier.

The firm began taking pre-orders for Starlink terminals in the country last year and over 7,000 people signed up. Starlink was working with local influential think tank Niti Aayog to identify districts in India to conduct trials for the device. During his short tenure, he engaged with several industry stakeholders to explore ways to collaborate.

In late November, the Indian government put brakes on those efforts after it ordered Starlink to stop “booking/rendering the satellite internet service” in the country without first obtaining the license. Indian telecom regulator TRAI also asked Starlink to “desist from soliciting telecom business and collecting related fees” without securing the relevant authorizations.

In its email to customers on Tuesday, Starlink said it had no clarity on the “timeline for receiving licenses to operate” in the country.

Opportunity not fear: Reframing cybersecurity to build a safer net for all

The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.

Throughout 2021, global news seemed to ricochet between the rapid spread of new iterations of COVID-19 and cyber criminality — both becoming increasingly creative and disruptive as they mutate in a battle for survival; both interlinked as cybercriminals profit from rapid digitalization forced by COVID-19 lockdowns. In a recent interview, a prominent cybersecurity executive pointed out that alongside birth, death and taxes, the only other guarantee in our current lives is the exponential growth of digital threats.

Yet misperceptions over cybersecurity — particularly that it is complex, costly, onerous and even futile — has led many emerging economies to leave cybersecurity behind as they seek to join the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But without mature cybersecurity policies, states might find themselves unable to fully realize the potential of their digital economies.

Reframing cybersecurity as a path to opportunity and competitive advantage in the development of innovation ecosystems could be the key to increasing individual states’ cyber resilience, as well as strengthening the global digital ecosystem for all.

Innovation or security?

As 10 billion devices are set to join the Internet of Things (IoT) by 2025, emerging digital economies are vying to be at the center of this revolution. In 2020, about $2.4 billion worth of investment was deployed in African startups and Africa’s e-commerce sales are projected to reach $75 billion by 2025. It is home to half of the 40 fastest-growing emerging and developing countries and is currently the most entrepreneurial continent. This trend will only accelerate as initiatives to close the digital divide by 2030 connect the remaining 78% of the population to the internet.
Read more from the TechCrunch Global Affairs Project

But as internet access expands, so too, will global cybercrime. Experts estimate that cybercrime will cost the world economy $10.5 trillion annually by 2025. While digitally advanced nations have responded by bolstering their cyber defenses, Africa’s innovation ecosystem remains one of the most under-protected globally.

Only 10 out of 55 African countries have ratified the African Union Convention on Data Protection and Cybersecurity (the Malabo Convention) and Africa continues to be the lowest-scoring continent on the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Global Cybersecurity Index. Despite ITU and World Bank initiatives, only 29 countries in Africa have any type of cybersecurity legislation and only 19 have cyber incident and emergency response teams. This leaves African economies exposed and African leaders outside of the bodies shaping global cybersecurity policy.

When viewed globally, this rapid investment in innovation systems without concurrent investment in security creates a digital maturity-security paradox, in which attackers can exploit the gap between these two levels of maturity. In turn, those entities within the states and the states themselves are left doubly exposed and vulnerable as they become low-hanging fruit susceptible to opportunistic and malicious cyber criminals.

Image Credits: Garson

In a dynamic reminiscent of vaccine geopolitics, this runs the risk of leaving states with fledgling and fragile innovation systems exposed.

Cybersecurity fight or flight?

It would be logical to assume that the increase of cyber incidents — and the sticker shock costs associated with them — should lead to increased cybersecurity. Yet, counterintuitively, the narratives of cybersecurity that spur action in the West either lead to policy paralysis or restrictive knee jerk reactions.

As game theorist and Nobel laureate Thomas C. Schelling noted “there is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable … what is improbable need not be considered seriously.” Many digitally developing states consider themselves outside of the great power politics that underpin malicious cyber activity. It seems improbable to them that they would be victims to the magnitude of action witnessed in Russian-U.S. cyberspace confrontations, the China-U.S. race for digital supremacy, or the Iran-Israel digital war of attrition. Protecting from such cyberattacks is low on the list of policy imperatives.

Digitally advanced nations have responded to the rapid proliferation of cyber threats with cybersecurity mechanisms such as new legislation with draconian punishments for failure to report cyber incidents and ransomware payments and coordinated international initiatives to paralyze ransomware gangs such as REvil. At the other end of the spectrum, digitally developing states are often ill-incentivized and ill-equipped to unravel the perceived complexity of cybersecurity measures required to address these threats.

This is compounded by a wariness of Western cybersecurity paradigms, which many see as a form of potential technological neo-colonialism. Demands for regulatory compliance, adoption of norms and purchase of Western cybersecurity technologies are often perceived as stifling these nations’ opportunities for growth. And, attempts at trying to shame states into cybersecurity compliance can be perceived as an attack on their sovereignty, which could backfire and drive states to seek alternative paradigms such as internet shutdowns that may ultimately threaten their access to the benefits of the free, open and interoperable internet.

More frequently, though, leaders often react to overwhelming threats with paralysis — and fail to act at all.

It is the CISO’s mantra that cybersecurity is a team sport. In the global context, this means ensuring that developing digital economies want to be part of the team. To achieve this cybersecurity needs a radical makeover.

Radically reframing cybersecurity

Cybersecurity advocates can start by reframing cybersecurity as an opportunity to build a vibrant and resilient innovation ecosystem rather than a burden or a restraint. New narratives that emphasize the attractiveness and value of cybersecurity are needed to counteract perceptions of unreasonable standards that stifle innovation.

For instance surveys show that cybersecurity and data privacy is a major source of competitiveness for retailers, outranking even price sensitivity. Meanwhile, recent U.S. and British initiatives, like the new State Department Cyber Bureau and the U.K.’s National Cyber Strategy 2022 have highlighted strong cyber ecosystems as strategic advantages.

Governments of mature digital economies, multilateral institutions and cybertech providers should emphasize that those states able to protect themselves will be the most sought-after partners in the digital revolution. They will also be those able to shape global conversations on cybersecurity.

The value of safer net for all

A vibrant and competitive digital economy that leads to prosperity for all requires open and interoperable networks that are trusted, safe and secure. States that are able to leverage best practices to secure their innovation ecosystems will lead the way in disruptive development. But to induce states, SMEs and individuals to take cybersecurity seriously requires a shift from advocating policy built from fear toward policy built on an optimistic rationale for cybersecurity. 

Changing the narrative also requires digitally mature states to provide sustained support to those more vulnerable. This is more than digitally developing states being just a market for cybertech exports and cybersecurity strategy blueprints, but a commitment to helping develop the infrastructure that unleashes the benefits of cybersecurity locally and globally. Through a radical reframing of cybersecurity as an opportunity, states and societies can work together to ensure that innovation systems built on safe digital inclusion can create a safer net for all and the potential of the internet as a force for good will be realized.

Read more from the TechCrunch Global Affairs Project

SpaceX’s Starlink to refund pre-orders in India following government order

Starlink, part of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, informed a number of individuals in India on Tuesday that it will be refunding their pre-orders, more than a month after New Delhi told the firm to stop “booking/rendering the satellite internet service” in the South Asian market without obtaining a license.

In an email to those who had pre-ordered Starlink in India, the company said it was “looking forward to making Starlink available in India as soon as possible,” but it currently doesn’t have clarity on the “timeline for receiving licenses to operate.”

“As has always been the case, you can receive a refund at any time,” the company wrote, outlining the steps to avail the refund.

Starlink had received over 5,000 pre-orders for its devices in India and was looking to conduct pilots in the country. Last year, the company appointed an India head, who reached out to several stakeholders in the country to explore ways to collaborate.

In late November, the Indian government told the company, which competes with Bharti Group-backed OneWeb and Amazon’s Kuiper, in a public statement that it needs to comply with the regulations and refrain from taking pre-orders “with immediate effect.”

Starlink, which had shipped over 100,000 terminals to customers, sees India as a big potential market. Sanjay Bhargava, the India head of Starlink, said last year the company had plans to deploy over 200,000 active terminals in over 160,000 districts in India by the end of December 2022.

“At Starlink, we want to serve the underserved. We hope to work with fellow broadband providers, solution providers in the aspirational districts to improve and save lives,” he wrote.

Even as more than half a billion people are online in India, just as many are still offline. According to industry estimates, hundreds of millions of Indians living in rural areas don’t have access to any broadband network.

“The government approval process is complex. So far there is no application pending with the government, so the ball is in our court to apply for consideration, which we are working on,” Bhargava said at the time.

“Our approach will be to get pilot approval quickly if Pan India approval will take long. We are optimistic that we will get approval for a pilot program or Pan India approval in the next few months,” said Bhargava in October, cautioning that if it fails to get the government approval, the actual number of terminals it may end up deploying by the end of next year will be “much lower than that or even zero.”

Cheugiest tech moments of 2021

Technology has come a long way in 2021. There’s widespread mRNA vaccines! An asteroid-deflecting space mission! A very powerful laptop with a very controversial notch! But it’s unfortunately easier to think about the cringiest moments of the year than it is to remember times when we marveled at indoor farming robots

So hop aboard the choo-choo-cheugy train. We promise, this isn’t just a list of things Elon Musk tweeted in 2021.


Facebook is so Meta

The biggest and most eye-wateringly silly rebrand of the year is uncontested: Facebook, one of the most recognizable names in the world, changed its name to Meta in order to distract from unflaggingly awful decisions and the irreparable harm it has caused countless people focus on the “metaverse,” something no one asked for and certainly no one wanted Facebook of all companies to take the lead on.

Block this out

Meta’s not the only rebrand that went teeth-grindingly meta this year. Readers, we present… Block, FKA Square, originally a small business champion known for square-shaped card swiping dongles (quant!). Now, it’s taking a bite out of blockchain for its new name and identity, although apparently Block is not just about that. The company says it’s also a reference to block parties, building code, obstacles to overcome, “and of course, tungsten cubes.” (click for more cringe) Well, not so fast, Jack! H&R Block is already suing Block for trademark infringement, with the name, a block in its logo, and a green color scheme that all come a little too close to home, since H&R Block, best known for tax filing prep, also happens to sell accounting services to SMBs, mobile banking to consumers and other fintech services just like Square’s… I mean, Block’s. Hard to guess which blockhead will back down first/move to settle here.

Saturday Night Musk

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., arrives at the Axel Springer Award ceremony in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Tesla Inc. will be added to the S&P 500 Index in one shot on Dec. 21, a move that will ripple through the entire market as money managers adjust their portfolios to make room for shares of the $538 billion company. Photographer: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Image Credits: Bloomberg (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Mr. Musk perhaps said it best when he played a doctor in the Gen Z Hospital skit: “You all might want to sit down, what I have to say might be a little cringe.” Elon may have hoodwinked a substantial part of the population of global fanboys hoping to get rich on his coattails, but at the end of the day this couldn’t hold any water on Saturday Night Live. He’s not an actor, and he’s not that funny, so even with the wattage of being one of the world’s richest men and a major celeb on social media, his SNL hosting was… a smug, wooden, boring, awkward dud. You’re left wondering how/why he was anointed to be in the limelight in the first place (but then again, I wonder that about him most of the time).

How do you do, fellow NFT owners

The gold rush over NFTs caused some otherwise smart people to attempt to implement them in regrettable ways. Numerous companies announced NFT-adjacent projects, like using them to tokenize fanfic, in-game items, Discord things(?), and so on. After failing to read the internet in general’s skepticism of this interesting but at present highly dubious tech, the companies backpedaled madly, sometimes within hours of announcements or rumors. Literally anyone would have said it was a bad idea, try asking next time!

Bezos thanks everyone for their money, which he shot into space

Image Credits: Joe Raedle / Getty Images

The relentless self-congratulatory fanfare around Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic’s first “real” trips to space was extremely tiring. While there was some relief in Branson’s company getting grounded for shady maneuvers, and in Bezos eliciting scorn for his tamales and his giant hat, the chef’s-kiss moment was the latter’s tone-deaf thanks offered to the world that financed his ego trip by shopping at his ethically bankrupt mega-corporation. “I want to thank every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all this.” I’m sure he meant every word, which is why it’s so bad. (Also pity the poor cowboy hat, which Bezos has definitely also ruined for me.)

Blue Origin whining postpones the next Moon landing

After losing big time on the Human Landing System contract to arch-rival SpaceX, Blue Origin sued NASA, alleging impropriety. Its claims were dismissed in a highly embarrassing manner (NASA basically pantsed the company in front of the entire industry) but the necessary rigmarole resulted in the planned 2024 crewed lunar landing being pushed out to 2025. To be fair, we all suspected this would be the case anyway, but Blue presented itself as a perfect scapegoat. The blunder may have permanently tainted relations with NASA, which isn’t great when they’re pretty much Blue Origin’s only source of real money… other than “every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer,” of course.

OnlyFans bans itself

We all know what OnlyFans is for, and it’s been great seeing a platform where sex workers, among others, can monetize themselves. Until that platform abruptly announced that the people who’d made it rich in the first place were henceforth banned. Bye, good luck! The backlash was so severe that the decision, unconvincingly blamed on prudish bankers, was reversed within a week. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, people. (Unless the hand consents as part of a healthy fantasy.)

From the desk of Donald J. Trump

Trump’s tempestuous relationship with social media is perhaps too serious a matter to treat of here, but one aspect of it deserves a palm to the face, and that’s his short-lived “social” platform, From The Desk of Donald J. Trump. This barebones microblog appeared after his ouster from every major social media network, but it was so minimally functional and got so little traffic that it only lasted a month or so before being mothballed. No doubt so his media team could focus on borrowing Mastodon’s code for the follow-up, Truth Social. But even that was all just preliminary to the desperate-looking pitch deck and SPAC we would receive later in the year. As they say, if at first you fail badly, fail, fail again.

Senator Blumenthal asks Facebook rep to “commit to ending finsta”

Now known as the Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen leaked thousands of internal documents from her former employer, including some showing that Instagram is aware of its adverse effect on teenage girls. Soon after, Facebook Global Head of Security Antigone Davis was summoned to testify before the Senate about children’s internet safety.

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a 75-year-old, was worried about young people using secret accounts that they hid from their parents.

“Will you commit to ending finsta?” he asked.

“Senator, let me explain. We don’t actually do finsta. What finsta refers to is young people setting up accounts where they may want to have more privacy,” Davis patiently replied.

Facebook’s leaked benefits enrollment video

It must be hard to work at Facebook – or, as it’s called now, Meta – on days when the company is getting loads of bad press for, you know, not doing enough to stop the January 6 insurrection. But it’s also probably hard to work at Facebook when you have to enroll in your benefits.

There’s some pretty awful stuff detailed in the files that Haugen leaked, but if you want to experience some lower-stakes incredulity at our Metaverse overlords, check out this video. I’m sure Facebook has good benefits – they’re a huge, trillion-dollar tech company, after all – but is the subsidized care even worth it when there’s choreographed dancing involved?

NFTs aren’t even good at gatekeeping

Bored Apes Yacht Club is like a fraternity for people who love Coinbase. Instead of paying dues to join an exclusive Greek society of bros, you can buy a 52 ETH (~$210,000 at time of publication) NFT of an ape to be part of a cool club. Yes, Jimmy Fallon, Steph Curry and Post Malone are Yacht Club members – just like how some B-list actor was in your college’s fraternity twenty years before you were born. But it’s not just about the ape – the value of the NFT is that you get access to fancy events and stuff. So, nightlife journalist Adlan Jackson concocted a clever plan to sneak into a Bored Apes party.

As it turned out, a friend’s boss owned an Ape and sent Jackson a screenshot of a QR code that could get them into the party. The bouncers were checking for some wristband from a previous event, though, not the literal NFT, so he was turned away despite his Ape possession. Later in the night, Jackson tried to get in again, and… they simply let him in. No wristband, no NFT, no nothing. So much for exclusivity! Luckily, Jackson was just in time to see The Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas ask on stage, “This is kind of about art, right? NFTs? I don’t know, what the hell. All I know is… a lot of dudes here tonight.”

Please make it stop

If NFTs are now blowing up in the speculation bubble that is financial social media (how does that not have a short name? FiSo?) they owe a lot to Gamestop, the memestock that could. The company could have headed into oblivion like so many other mediocre retailers crowded out by innovations in technology, consumer habits and changing tastes in entertainment. But instead, it was picked up and carried on the wings of a wave of hype that drove its price into the stratosphere, leading to so, so many questions about who gets to be the gatekeeper in the world of trading, who makes money, and who are the biggest losers. You hate to see people getting manipulated, but also understand why those who bought in hated to be treated like unempowered peons. No one gets covered in glory in this one. But amazing, there has yet to be a final chapter in this saga: the stock is lower compared to January’s stratospheric peak, but it’s not that far off.

Spotify Wrapped is cheugy

Yeah, yeah, we know that sharing your Spotify Wrapped round-up is basically just doing free PR for Spotify. But the copywriting on Wrapped read like it was penned by a forty-year-old communications staffer who asked his niece for some phrases that gen-Zers like.Spotify even hired an aura reader named Mystic Michaela to collaborate with them on generating audio auras. The result? Cheugy.

“There was one podcast that lived in your head, rent-free, all year long,” it said.

“You always understood the assignment.”

“While everyone else was trying to figure out what NFTs were, you had one song on repeat.”

“You deserve a playlist as long as your skincare routine.”

Elizabeth Holmes has stans

Former Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was on trial for criminal fraud for over four months this year. But on the first day of the trial, some fans – yes, fans – showed up dressed as Elizabeth Holmes. If you’re blonde, it’s a pretty easy costume – just wear a black turtleneck and some red lipstick, put your hair in a low ponytail, and there you go! You’re ready for the Halloween party!

But these cosplayers were legit, as far as the reporters who talked to them could tell. They really admired Elizabeth Holmes, despite the fact that she may or may not be guilty of serious criminal fraud charges running a company that actively jeopardized people’s health by giving them false blood test results. But to each their own.

Even LinkedIn wants to be like TikTok

Basically every social or entertainment platform is finding a way to wedge in a vertically-oriented short form video feed. It makes sense for direct TikTok competitors like Instagram or Snapchat to do this, even though it feels very inorganic and derivative. But toward the end of the year, even companies like Netflix, Spotify, Reddit, Twitter and Pinterest were trying it out. In 2022, Linkedin plans to join them.

The professional networking platform tried doing stories this year, but it wasn’t as successful as Instagram at integrating that Snapchat copy-cat feature.

Fleets fly away

Then again, Twitter didn’t do so hot with Fleets either. I guess you could have seen the writing on the wall with this one: Twitter basically sealed Fleets’ fate with its very name. Its own attempt to throw a hat into the short, ephemeral videos never quite struck a note with Twitter users, who mainly love the format precisely for what it does differently from the rest of social media: fast-paced, short punctuations of words and pictures that flutter down from each other with biting humor, searing criticism, perfectly-timed factoids and occasional glimpses of greatness, regardless of your follow numbers. Who really needs another Story format? Especially one launching so late in the day, with no great twist or even easy way to be used?

Instagram forgot to turn on teen safety features on the web

In July, Instagram tried to cover its metaphorical ass when it comes to user safety by rolling out some new features. One feature made it so that any new account from a user under 16 would default to private. But Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) put tech journalists to shame by unearthing a scoop that was right in front of our eyes for months. If a teen made an Instagram account on the web, it defaulted to public.

To be fair, who even uses Instagram for the web? Still, this felt like a pretty big oversight. Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri had to admit under oath that his team messed up. It was pretty cringe, but at the same time, it’s an alarming, lackadaisical error for a company that’s been repeatedly defending its commitment to teen safety in the Senate this fall.

The headline of this article

It was Devin’s idea. Amanda enthusiastically approved. Still cheugy.

India antitrust watchdog orders investigation into Apple’s business practices

Indian antitrust watchdog on Friday ordered an investigation into Apple’s business practices — in particular, the company mandating iPhone app developers to use the company’s payments system — in India, where the American firm commands less than 2% of the smartphone market.

The Competition Commission of India, which ordered the Director General to conduct the probe within 60 days, said it is of the prima facie view that the mandatory use of Apple’s in-app payments system for paid apps and in-app purchases “restrict[s] the choice available to the app developers to select a payment processing system of their choice especially considering when it charges a commission of up to 30% for app purchases and in-app purchases.”

The watchdog began reviewing the case after a complaint filed by Together We Fight Society, a non-profit based in India’s western state of Rajasthan. Apple had urged the CCI to dismiss the case, saying it was too small a player in India.

India is the latest nation to express concerns over Apple and Google requiring their developers to use the firm’s payments system for in-app purchases. (The Indian watchdog opened the investigation into Google’s business practices last year.) Earlier this year, South Korea approved a measure that makes it illegal for Apple and Google to make a commission by forcing developers to use their proprietary payments systems.

In the U.S., Fortnite-maker gaming firm Epic publicly challenged Google and Apple by introducing its own payments system in the sleeper hit title’s Android and iOS apps. Now it’s locked in legal battles with Google and Apple.

The European Union last year proposed the Digital Markets Act, which is meant to prevent technology platforms from abusing their gatekeeper position. This year, attorneys general from 36 U.S. states filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google alleging its Google Play app store is an illegal monopoly. A bipartisan bill, also introduced this year in the U.S. Senate, seeks to restrict how the Apple and Google app stores operate and what rules can be imposed on app developers.

“At this stage, it appears that the lack of competitive constraint in the distribution of mobile apps is likely to affect the terms on which Apple provide access to its App Store to the app developers, including the commission rates and terms that thwart certain app developers from using other in-app payment systems,” the Indian watchdog wrote Friday in a 20-page order.

The CCI said it is also worth investigating whether Apple uses data it collects from the users of its competitors to “improve its own services.”

We have reached out to Apple for comment.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Securing the global digital economy beyond the China challenge

The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.

The push by countries at all levels of development to modernize their information and communications networks has created unprecedented demand for technological infrastructure. Governments and industry are investing billions of dollars to expand digital connectivity worldwide. New deployments of 4G, 5G, satellites and fiber-optic cables could create huge opportunities for host nations but pose significant risks if networks are built without adequate safeguards. The U.S. has a role to play in securing the future of the internet and the global digital economy but will need to move beyond confrontation with China to succeed.

China’s network effects

Digital access is the foundation for digital services, like fintech and e-commerce, that connect communities to trade and financial resources. As startups in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa draw billions in investment, their services require a strong and wide-reaching information communications technology (ICT) backbone to flourish.

​​China, through its Digital Silk Road, Belt and Road Space Information Corridor and other state-led initiatives, has become a leading purveyor of ICT infrastructure virtually everywhere, especially by financing projects in less affluent nations. But these investments come with a price: cybersecurity and manipulation risks due to the influence of China’s government on its vendors.
Read more from the TechCrunch Global Affairs Project

Due to legal obligations to the Chinese state — including sharing customer data at its request — China’s tech firms cannot guarantee that they will put their clients first. Many firms also host internal Party organizations that influence decision-making. The Communist Party of China (CPC) is not omnipotent — some companies have slow-rolled compliance with information requests — but the CPC’s ongoing crackdown on tech companies is diminishing their ability to circumvent directives.

But because network modernization is an economic imperative and Chinese firms often offer lower prices than their global competitors, many countries choose to source their technology despite these political and security hazards.

While the risks posed by companies such as Huawei are not evidence of collaboration with China’s government, these legal and institutional pressures, combined with engineers’ track record of spying for other national governments, such as in Uganda and Zambia, suggest that even China’s most powerful ICT companies can be susceptible to co-option. As the digital economy grows and diversifies, more kinds of data, from personal communications to financial, business, health and other sensitive information will become vulnerable to a “data trap.”

While state intervention is not guaranteed, the CPC’s approach to foreign affairs heightens that likelihood. Beijing wants international audiences to accommodate its priorities and activities and pursues “information dominance” with that purpose in mind. Data is important for understanding the information environment and shaping perceptions of the CPC, so access to and influence over ICT infrastructure — the vehicle for modern communications — makes the companies that provide it pivotal to Chinese foreign policy.

Information dominance also means preference for CPC-friendly content and platforms, which hinders opportunities for local populations. For example, StarTimes, a Beijing-based media company that upgraded and operates television networks in 30 African countries, received hundreds of millions of dollars from China’s EXIM Bank to enter African markets. It offers state-run media channels in its cheapest subscriptions or even for free which “tell the China story well” to local audiences, at the cost of excluding bandwidth dedicated to local perspectives or media free from CPC propaganda.

America’s response: Still loading

In response to the spread of China’s network projects, U.S. policymakers have begun to tackle vendor security assessments and expand government mechanisms to finance ICT. Buried under the Trump administration’s “us or China” rhetoric, the State Department’s Clean Network initiative included country-agnostic criteria for assessing vendor-based cyber risks and support for the multilateral Prague Proposals, which underscored non-technical aspects of 5G security. The administration also retooled the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) to better support digital modernization and network construction. In an early victory for DFC, Ethiopia selected a Vodafone-led group in lieu of a bid linked to China’s Silk Road Fund, despite long-standing relationships with Huawei and ZTE to supply telecommunications.

These developments highlight the U.S. commitment to generating alternatives, in collaboration with other countries. But these measures alone may be insufficient to address the scale of China’s approach. In addition to vast government investments into overseas projects, China has subsidized its tech giants to such an extent that Huawei once proposed a 5G project at “a price that wouldn’t even cover the cost of parts.”

The United States, while motivated to offset China’s influence, should not look to outspend it or mimic its approach. Instead, U.S. leadership should mobilize a variety of sustainable investments, find technology solutions to make tech adoption cheaper and pitch neutral infrastructure that will offer equitable opportunities for local economies.

The White House should spearhead creation of a multilateral digital development bank to make more resources available to states looking to modernize their networks. Doing so would also add heft to commitments the Biden administration has made under the G7’s Build Back Better World initiative.

In coordination with Congress, the Biden administration should also back efforts to lower the cost of equipment itself to sustainably compete with China’s low-priced kit. One solution is interoperability in technology standards; Open RAN for 5G networks is one example of how this approach has already proven less expensive than traditional network architecture.

Another avenue to lower costs is to invest in research and development for network technologies that can replace the most expensive legacy components. For example, fiber-optic cables are expensive to deploy on land; workarounds may include wireless optic solutions or integration of satellite mesh networks with terrestrial systems.

Finally, the White House should explore ways to integrate net neutrality principles into network financing projects run by agencies such as DFC. Net neutrality could offer economic benefits to host nations by keeping the digital playing field open for local media and innovation. Neutral networks would set the foundation for a third way forward from what has been criticized as digital colonization by China’s government and similar criticisms of the U.S. private sector.

A digital network is ultimately a means to an end: infrastructure for interpersonal communications, content, services, industry and innovation. While few countries, at least for now, supply ICT infrastructure to the majority of the world, that majority should have full access to the opportunities it can offer. A revised route to digital modernization, premised on open participation, can not only offset the local costs of China’s cyber and influence power, but pave the way for an equitable internet for all.

Read more from the TechCrunch Global Affairs Project

How Meituan is redefining food delivery in China with drones

On a congested sidewalk next to a busy mall in Shenzhen, a 20-something woman uses a smartphone app to order a milk tea on Meituan, a major food delivery company. In under ten minutes, the pearl-white drink arrives, not on the back of one of the city’s ubiquitous delivery bikes, but descending from the cloudy heavens, in a cardboard box on the back of a drone, into a small roadside kiosk. The only thing the scene is missing is a choir of angels.

Over the past two years, Meituan, one of China’s largest internet companies, has flown 19,000 meals to 8,000 customers across Shenzhen, a city with close to 20 million people. The pilot program is available to just seven neighborhoods, each with a three-kilometer stretch, and only from a select number of merchants. The drones deliver to designated streetside kiosks rather than hover outside people’s windows as envisioned by sci-fi writers. But the trials are proof of concept for Meituan’s ambitions, and the company is now ready to ramp up its aerial delivery ambitions.

Tencent-backed Meituan isn’t the only Chinese tech giant that hopes to fill urban skies with tiny fliers. Alibaba, which runs Meituan’s rival Ele.me, and e-commerce powerhouse JD.com, have also invested in similar drone delivery services in recent years.

On the back of the pilot program, Meituan has applied to operate a commercial drone delivery service across all of Shenzhen, Mao Yinian, head of the company’s drone delivery unit, said at a press event this month. The application, submitted in September, is currently under review by Shenzhen’s aviation authority and is expected to receive approval in 2022, though the actual timeline is subject to government decisions.

“We went from experimenting in the suburbs to a central area. That means our operational capability has reached a new level,” said Chen Tianjian, technical expert at Meituan’s drone business, at the same event.

Flying meals

At the moment, Meituan’s delivery drones still involve a good amount of manpower. Take the milk tea order, for example. Once the drink is ready, Meituan’s backend dispatch system assigns a human courier to fetch it from the merchant in the mall to the roof of the complex, where the company has set up drone takeoff pads.

Meituan

Meituan’s drone launching pads on the roof of a mall in Shenzhen / Photo: TechCrunch

Before takeoff, an inspector checks to see if the box holding the drink is secure. Meituan’s navigation system then calculates the quickest and safest route for the flyer to reach the pickup kiosk and off it goes, the milk tea into the sky.

The economic viability for using drones to deliver food of course is still unproven. Each of Meituan’s small aircraft, which are built with carbon fiber and weigh around 4 kilograms, can carry about 2.5 kilograms of food — roughly the weight of an average two-person meal, according to Chen. If someone orders just one cup of milk tea, the remaining space is wasted. Each kiosk can hold about 28 orders, so at peak hours, Meituan is betting on customers to gather their food promptly.

There’s also the matter of creating waste with the new delivery boxes. Meituan said it has set up recyclable bins next to the kiosks, but customers are also free to keep the containers. It won’t be surprised if some simply chuck them in the trash.

Lessons from the U.S.

From 2017 to 2018, China’s civil aviation authority started “following” the U.S. in light of research done by the Federal Aviation Administration on low-altitude aerial mobility, according to Chen. Not long after, the Chinese regulator began formulating guides and rules for this budding field. Meituan has similarly studied the paths of its American drone counterparts, but it realizes there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, as the two countries vary markedly in population density and consumer behavior.

A customer picks up her order from Meituan’s drone landing kiosk in Shenzhen. / Photo: TechCrunch

Most Americans live in suburban sprawl, while in China and many other Asian countries, people are concentrated in urban clusters. As a result, drones in the U.S. are “focused more on endurance,” Chen said. Drones developed by Google and Amazon, for example, tend to be “fixed-winged with vertical landing and takeoff abilities,” while Meituan’s solution falls into the category of a small helicopter, which is more suited for complex urban environments.

Technologies emerging in the U.S. often offer useful clues to similar developments in China. The picture doesn’t look particularly rosy at Amazon Prime Air. The behemoth’s drone delivery business reportedly has been missing deadlines and laying off staff, though the firm said the unit continued to “make great strides.”

Prime Air, Chen argued, “doesn’t seem to have a clear strategy” and “has been vacillating between” neighborhood delivery, which is the focus of Alphabet’s Wing, and long-distance transport, which is UPS’s strong suit. He continued:

If you look at the competition between China and the U.S. in low-altitude aerial logistics, the important thing is to figure out one’s strategic position. Everyone can design a UVA. The question is what kind of UVA and for what customers.

Regulations

When asked about the safety of drone delivery, Chen said Meituan’s solution “strictly follows” the rules laid out by the “civil aviation authority.” The Beijing-headquartered company picked Shenzhen as its testing field not only because it’s home to drone giant DJI and a mature UAV supply chain. The southern metropolis, known for its economic experiments, also has some of the most friendly drone policies in China, the expert said.

Each of Meituan’s drones is registered with Shenzhen’s Unmanned Aircraft Traffic Management Information Service System (UATMISS). During flights, they are required to pin UATMISS with their precise locations every five seconds. More important, Meituan’s navigation system works to ensure the flyers avoid crowds and built-up areas on the ground, even at the cost of making detours.

Milk tea arriving from Meituan’s drone delivery box / Photo: TechCrunch

The drones being piloted are Meituan’s third iteration on the model. They boast a noise level of about 50 decibels heard from a 15-meter distance, which is equivalent to “daytime street level,” according to Chen. The next generation will be even quieter with noise reduced to “nighttime street level.” But the small aircraft can’t be too quiet, as regulators have advised that having an acceptable level of noise “is safer.”

Human help

Meituan doesn’t plan to replace its millions of couriers in China with unmanned flyers outright, though automation would take some load off its overworked delivery platform. Its dispatch algorithms have come under criticism from both the public and the government for allegedly putting business performance business above rider safety. The challenge to recruit workers has already prompted labor-intensive industries to seek out robotic help.

Meituan’s goal is to find a sweet spot for human-robot collaboration. Shenzhen’s road infrastructure is notoriously unfriendly to scooter drivers and cyclists, but aerial travel isn’t restricted by such ground obstructions. Drones can fly over large interchanges and put meals at spots convenient for couriers to fetch and carry to customers’ final destination.

Meituan is already envisaging more automation. For instance, rather than having its staff manually swap depleted drone batteries, it has done R&D on automated battery swap stations. It’s also exploring a conveyor belt-like system that can move items from restaurants to drone takeoff pads nearby. These solutions are still years from large-scale deployment, but the food delivery titan is clearly gliding into an automated future.