Twitter locked the Trump campaign out of its account for sharing COVID-19 misinformation

Twitter took action against the official Trump campaign Twitter account Wednesday, freezing @TeamTrump’s ability to tweet until it removed a video in which the president made misleading claims about the coronavirus. In the video clip, taken from a Wednesday morning Fox News interview, President Trump makes the unfounded assertion that children are “almost immune” from COVID-19.

“If you look at children, children are almost — and I would almost say definitely — but almost immune from this disease,” Trump said. “They don’t have a problem. They just don’t have a problem.”

While Trump’s main account @realDonaldTrump linked out to the @TeamTrump tweet in violation, it did not directly share it. In spite of some mistaken reports that Trump’s own account is locked, at this time his account had not been subject to the same enforcement action as the Trump campaign account, which appears to have regained its ability to tweet around 6PM PT.

“The @TeamTrump Tweet you referenced is in violation of the Twitter Rules on COVID-19 misinformation,” Twitter spokesperson Aly Pavela said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “The account owner will be required to remove the Tweet before they can Tweet again.”

Facebook also took its own unprecedented action against President Trump’s account late Wednesday, removing the post for violating its rules against harmful false claims that any group is immune to the virus.

The president’s false claims were made in service of his belief that schools should reopen their classrooms in the fall. In June, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made similar unscientific claims, arguing that children are “stoppers of the disease.”

In reality, the relationship between children and the virus is not yet well understood. While young children seem less prone to severe cases of COVID-19, the extent to which they contract and spread the virus isn’t yet known. In a new report examining transmission rates at a Georgia youth camp, the CDC observed that “children of all ages are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection and, contrary to early reports, might play an important role in transmission.”

Facebook just took down a Trump post that claimed kids are immune to COVID-19

Facebook took down a video President Trump posted to his account Wednesday, citing its rules against false claims about the coronavirus. The decision to remove the video signals a new direction for Facebook, which has been taking incremental steps recently to distance itself from the perception that the company deliberately turns a blind eye to the president’s potentially harmful behavior.

The video in question was a clip from a Fox News segment from Wednesday morning in which the president makes the unsubstantiated claim that children are “almost immune” to COVID-19. While much remains unknown about the novel coronavirus, children can contract COVID-19 and are believed to be able to spread it to others, even without symptoms.

“This video includes false claims that a group of people is immune from COVID-19 which is a violation of our policies around harmful COVID misinformation,” Facebook’s Liz Bourgeois said in a statement provided to TechCrunch.

Twitter also removed a link to the same video clip, which the official Trump Twitter account @TeamTrump shared earlier on Wednesday. Links to the tweet now point Twitter users to a message that the tweet violated Twitter’s rules and is no longer available.

Instagram’s hashtag searches gave Trump better treatment than Biden

Instagram apparently handled searches for popular hashtags related to the two presidential candidates differently, pointing Joe Biden search queries toward often negative related hashtags while making no such suggestions in corresponding searches pertaining to President Trump.

A new report by the Tech Transparency Project details the strange platform behavior. In the report, the tech watchdog compared searches for 20 popular hashtags related to the Trump and Biden campaigns and found that related hashtag suggestions were disabled for the Trump-related searches, including #donaldtrump, #trump, #draintheswamp and #trump2020.

For searches of corresponding Biden hashtags like #Biden, #biden2020, #joementum and #teambiden, Instagram suggested a number of related hashtags in a list that was obviously algorithmically generated. While those related suggestions were a mixed bag, they included many hashtags critical of the Biden campaign like #sleepyjoe, #neverbiden and even adjacent conspiratorial hashtags like #covid19isahoax and #georgesorosisevil.

Image Credit: Tech Transparency Project

Alerted to the discrepancy by Buzzfeed, which first reported the new Tech Transparency Project finding, Instagram called the issue a “bug.”

“This isn’t about politics,” Instagram’s comms team wrote in a combative reply to Buzzfeed’s Ryan Mac on Twitter. Instagram also accused the reporter of cherry-picking examples to fit a “sensational narrative.”

Instagram’s team downplayed the uneven handling of candidate’s searches, arguing that the same issue affected a number of other far less consequential hashtags, including #menshair and #gumdisease. Instagram has now disabled the related hashtag suggestions feature across the board.

Trump’s status as the current president could begin to explain the difference in treatment, but the related hashtags were even turned off for the Trump campaign slogan #draintheswamp as well as #fucktrump. The feature was also toggled off for a handful of other political figure hashtags including #obama, #tedcruz and #jaredkushner.

While it’s not evident that the discrepancy was intentional on behalf of Instagram, this particular Trump-friendly search quirk cuts against the narrative that major social media sites are biased against Republicans — an unfounded refrain regularly undermined by the lopsided success of right-leaning content on social platforms. And as we’ve seen time and time again, a company’s intentions have little to do with the unintended consequences of the algorithmic suggestions that make their products so sticky to begin with.

Technologists: Consider Canada

America’s technology industry, radiating brilliance and profitability from its Silicon Valley home base, was until recently a shining beacon of what made America great: Science, progress, entrepreneurship. But public opinion has swung against big tech amazingly fast and far; negative views doubled between 2015 and 2019 from 17% to 34%. The list of concerns is long and includes privacy, treatment of workers, marketplace fairness, the carnage among ad-supported publications and the poisoning of public discourse.

But there’s one big issue behind all of these: An industry ravenous for growth, profit and power, that has failed at treating its employees, its customers and the inhabitants of society at large as human beings. Bear in mind that products, companies and ecosystems are built by people, for people. They reflect the values of the society around them, and right now, America’s values are in a troubled state.

We both have a lot of respect and affection for the United States, birthplace of the microprocessor and the electric guitar. We could have pursued our tech careers there, but we’ve declined repeated invitations and chosen to stay at home here in Canada . If you want to build technology to be harnessed for equity, diversity and social advancement of the many, rather than freedom and inclusion for the few, we think Canada is a good place to do it.

U.S. big tech is correctly seen as having too much money, too much power and too little accountability. Those at the top clearly see the best effects of their innovations, but rarely the social costs. They make great things — but they also disrupt lives, invade privacy and abuse their platforms.

We both came of age at a time when tech aspired to something better, and so did some of today’s tech giants. Four big tech CEOs recently testified in front of Congress. They were grilled about alleged antitrust abuses, although many of us watching were thinking about other ills associated with some of these companies: tax avoidance, privacy breaches, data mining, surveillance, censorship, the spread of false news, toxic byproducts, disregard for employee welfare.

But the industry’s problem isn’t really the products themselves — or the people who build them. Tech workers tend to be dramatically more progressive than the companies they work for, as Facebook staff showed in their recent walkout over President Donald Trump’s posts.

Big tech’s problem is that it amplifies the issues Americans are struggling with more broadly. That includes economic polarization, which is echoed in big-tech financial statements, and the race politics that prevent tech (among other industries) from being more inclusive to minorities and talented immigrants.

We’re particularly struck by the Trump administration’s recent moves to deny opportunities to H-1B visa holders. Coming after several years of family separations, visa bans and anti-immigrant rhetoric, it seems almost calculated to send IT experts, engineers, programmers, researchers, doctors, entrepreneurs and future leaders from around the world — the kind of talented newcomers who built America’s current prosperity — fleeing to more receptive shores.

One of those shores is Canada’s; that’s where we live and work. Our country has long courted immigration, but it’s turned around its longstanding brain-drain problem in recent years with policies designed to scoop up talented people who feel uncomfortable or unwanted in America. We have an immigration program, the Global Talent Stream, that helps innovative companies fast-track foreign workers with specialized skills. Cities like Toronto, Montreal, Waterloo and Vancouver have been leading North America in tech job creation during the Trump years, fuelled by outposts of the big international tech companies but also by scaled-up domestic firms that do things the Canadian way, such as enterprise software developer OpenText (one of us is a co-founder) and e-commerce giant Shopify.

“Canada is awesome. Give it a try,” Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke told disaffected U.S. tech workers on Twitter recently.

But it’s not just about policy; it’s about underlying values. Canada is exceptionally comfortable with diversity, in theory (as expressed in immigration policy) and practice (just walk down a street in Vancouver or Toronto). We’re not perfect, but we have been competently led and reasonably successful in recognizing the issues we need to deal with. And our social contract is more cooperative and inclusive.

Yes, that means public health care with no copays, but it also means more emphasis on sustainability, corporate responsibility and a more collaborative strain of capitalism. Our federal and provincial governments have mostly been applauded for their gusher of stimulative wage subsidies and grants meant to sustain small businesses and tech talent during the pandemic, whereas Washington’s response now appears to have been formulated in part to funnel public money to elites.

American big tech today feels morally adrift, which leads to losing out on talented people who want to live the values Silicon Valley used to stand for — not just wealth, freedom and the few, but inclusivity, diversity and the many. Canada is just one alternative to the U.S. model, but it’s the alternative we know best and the one just across the border, with loads of technology job openings.

It wouldn’t surprise us if more tech refugees find themselves voting with their feet.

Dear Sophie: Can I bypass H-1B and sponsor a grad for a green card?

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

“Dear Sophie” columns are accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

A very bright and promising foreign national who graduated from a U.S. university has been working for our firm and just received a STEM OPT extension. We would like to keep her on after her STEM OPT ends. We registered her in this year’s H-1B lottery, but unfortunately, she wasn’t selected.

Given the challenges of getting an H-1B through the lottery and the #h1bvisaban, how can we bypass the H-1B and potentially sponsor her for a green card?

— Eager in Emeryville

Dear Eager,

Happy to hear you’re willing to sponsor a promising graduate from an American university for a green card. Sounds like you’re interested in exploring the EB-2 or EB-3 green card with the PERM process. For additional resources, feel free to check out my recent podcast on PERM.

Just because U.S. immigration policy often runs counter to retaining the best and the brightest college graduates in the U.S. doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. Some options exist for these talented folks and the companies that want to hire them, even though many employment-based green cards require candidates who are outstanding in their field. Recent graduates often haven’t yet built up their work experience and credentials, but there can be paths forward.

Although it may present some immigration risks to the candidate that should be weighed carefully in collaboration with an experienced business immigration attorney, many employers have been doing as you suggested: sidestepping the H-1B visa and directly pursuing a green card. This is often due to the extremely competitive H-1B lottery and high denial rates for initial H-1B petitions and extensions. Also, a moratorium on all green cards, H-1B, H-2B, J and L visas for individuals currently outside the U.S. is in effect until the end of this year. This now makes it nearly impossible for most employers to sponsor individuals to come to the U.S. unless their work is in the national interest or essential to the U.S. food supply chain.

So, many people are seeking solutions. First, the basics: Because your STEM OPT employee is already in the U.S., and the H-1B lottery now only costs $10 to register a candidate, I suggest that your company continue to enter her in the lottery as a backup option in case her F-1 STEM OPT status ends before you can secure her a green card.

The green cards for which most recent graduates would be eligible require the sponsoring employer to go through the PERM labor certification process before filing a green card petition. Separately there are other green cards for extraordinary ability which I’ve also written about.

PERM, which stands for Program Electronic Review Management, is the system used for applying for labor certification from the U.S. Department of Labor . Please speak with an attorney about the timing of this process and consider any risks to your employee’s personal immigration situation given her current F-1 nonimmigrant status.

Labor certification must be submitted to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) with EB-2 and EB-3 green card petitions. Labor certification confirms that no U.S. workers are qualified and available to accept the job offered to the green card candidate and employing the green card candidate won’t adversely affect the wages and working conditions of American workers.

Without knowing more about your STEM OPT employee’s background and qualifications, I would surmise that she might be able to qualify for one of these employment-based green cards:

Both of these green card categories require the employer sponsor to go through the PERM labor certification process. Because PERM is a complex process and will determine if you can proceed with sponsoring your employee for a green card, I recommend that you work with an experienced immigration attorney.

In general, PERM requires employers to take these steps:

  • Determine in detail the duties and minimum requirements of the position
  • File a prevailing wage request
  • Go through an extensive recruitment process
  • Get a certification

The duties and requirements of the position should be detailed and typical for your company — not tailored to the green card candidate. These duties and requirements will be used for job posting during the recruitment process.

In more detail, employers must file a prevailing wage request to the National Prevailing Wage Center of the Labor Department. The prevailing wage is determined based on the position, the geographical location of the position and economic conditions. The employer must pay the prevailing wage or higher for the position to ensure that hiring a foreign national would not adversely affect the wages of U.S. workers in similar positions. This process can take a few months.

The most time-consuming of these steps is the recruitment process to determine whether qualified U.S. workers are available for the position. To do that, an employer must advertise the job in two Sunday editions of a local newspaper, submit a job order with the state workforce agency (CalJOBS in California) and file an internal company notice of the filing. Plan ahead with your legal team to consider running some things in parallel to decrease the overall time.

For professional positions, employers need to use three additional recruitment methods, such as using a job recruiting website, an employment firm, a job fair, a posting at a career placement center at a local university or college, or incentives for employee referrals.

The job order with the state workforce agency must run for at least 30 consecutive days. The internal job posting must be up for 10 consecutive business days. Employers must allow 30 days for candidates to apply and interview U.S. workers who apply.

Generally, if there are no qualified applicants, employers then file ETA Form 9089 to the Labor Department. No supporting documents need to be submitted with the form, but the documents must be maintained for five years, especially as there could be an audit. The Labor Department will send a verification email to the employer along with a sponsorship questionnaire, which the employer should fill out within a week of receiving it. It’s important to not miss this email!

The PERM process can take anywhere from three to eight months as long as the Labor Department does not audit your case. The Labor Department conducts two types of audit: random audits and targeted audits. Random audits are done to make sure employers are following the PERM procedure.

Some common reasons for targeted audits could include:

  • The employer recently laid-off employees
  • The candidate appears unqualified for the position
  • The job does not require a bachelor’s degree
  • A company executive is related to the candidate

The Labor Department usually issues an audit notice within six months of receiving the labor certification application, and the employer must respond within 30 days. An audit does not mean an employer’s PERM will not be approved. However, it can add nine to 18 months to the process. If an employer does not respond to the audit notice, the Labor Department will deem the case abandoned, and for any future PERM applications, the employer may be required to conduct supervised recruitment.

Once the Labor Department approves the PERM Labor Certification for that position, you must file the green card petition to USCIS within 180 days. If your employee was born in any country other than China or India and you are sponsoring her for an EB-2 green card, you can file the I-140 green card petition and the I-485 adjustment of status from F-1 STEM OPT to EB-2 at the same time, assuming the “priority date” is still current.

If eligible, your STEM OPT employee could also enter the diversity green card lottery in the fall to increase her chances of getting a green card. Each year, 50,000 green cards are reserved for individuals born in countries that have low rates of immigration to the U.S.

Let me know if you have any other questions. Good luck!

— Sophie


Have a question? Ask it here. We reserve the right to edit your submission for clarity and/or space. The information provided in “Dear Sophie” is general information and not legal advice. For more information on the limitations of “Dear Sophie,” please view our full disclaimer here. You can contact Sophie directly at Alcorn Immigration Law.

Sophie’s podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups, is available on all major podcast platforms. If you’d like to be a guest, she’s accepting applications!

US tech needs a pivot to survive

Last month, American tech companies were dealt two of the most consequential legal decisions they have ever faced. Both of these decisions came from thousands of miles away, in Europe. While companies are spending time and money scrambling to understand how to comply with a single decision, they shouldn’t miss the broader ramification: Europe has different operating principles from the U.S., and is no longer passively accepting American rules of engagement on tech.

In the first decision, Apple objected to and was spared a $15 billion tax bill the EU said was due to Ireland, while the European Commission’s most vocal anti-tech crusader Margrethe Vestager was dealt a stinging defeat. In the second, and much more far-reaching decision, Europe’s courts struck a blow at a central tenet of American tech’s business model: data storage and flows.

American companies have spent decades bundling stores of user data and convincing investors of its worth as an asset. In Schrems, Europe’s highest court ruled that masses of free-flowing user data is, instead, an enormous liability, and sows doubt about the future of the main method that companies use to transfer data across the Atlantic.

On the surface, this decision appears to be about data protection. But there is a choppier undertow of sentiment swirling in legislative and regulatory circles across Europe. Namely that American companies have amassed significant fortunes from Europeans and their data, and governments want their share of the revenue.

What’s more, the fact that European courts handed victory to an individual citizen while also handing defeat to one of the commission’s senior leaders shows European institutions are even more interested in protecting individual rights than they are in propping up commission positions. This particular dynamic bodes poorly for the lobbying and influence strategies that many American companies have pursued in their European expansion.

After the Schrems ruling, companies will scramble to build legal teams and data centers that can comply with the court’s decision. They will spend large sums of money on pre-built solutions or cloud providers that can deliver a quick and seamless transition to the new legal reality. What companies should be doing, however, is building a comprehensive understanding of the political, judicial and social realities of the European countries where they do business — because this is just the tip of the iceberg.

American companies need to show Europeans — regularly and seriously — that they do not take their business for granted.

Europe is an afterthought no more

For many years, American tech companies have treated Europe as a market that required minimal, if any, meaningful adaptations for success. If an early-stage company wanted to gain market share in Germany, it would translate its website, add a notice about cookies and find a convenient way to transact in euros. Larger companies wouldn’t add many more layers of complexity to this strategy; perhaps it would establish a local sales office with a European from HQ, hire a German with experience in U.S. companies or sign a local partnership that could help it distribute or deliver its product. Europe, for many small and medium-sized tech firms, was little more than a bigger Canada in a tougher time zone.

Only the largest companies would go to the effort of setting up public policy offices in Brussels, or meaningfully try to understand the noncommercial issues that could affect their license to operate in Europe. The Schrems ruling shows how this strategy isn’t feasible anymore.

American tech must invest in understanding European political realities the same way they do in emerging markets like India, Russia or China, where U.S. tech companies go to great lengths to adapt products to local laws or pull out where they cannot comply. Europe is not just the European Commission, but rather 27 different countries that vote and act on different interests at home and in Brussels.

Governments in Beijing or Moscow refused to accept a reality of U.S. companies setting conditions for them from the outset. After underestimating Europe for years, American companies now need to dedicate headspace to considering how business is materially affected by Europe’s different views on data protection, commerce, taxation and other issues.

This is not to say that American and European values on the internet differ as dramatically as they do with China’s values, for instance. But Europe, from national governments to the EU and to courts, is making it clear that it will not accept a reality where U.S. companies assume that they have license to operate the same way they do at home. Where U.S. companies expect light taxation, European governments expect revenue for economic activity. Where U.S. companies expect a clear line between state and federal legislation, Europe offers a messy patchwork of national and international regulation. Where U.S. companies expect that their popularity alone is proof that consumers consent to looser privacy or data protection, Europe reminds them that (across the pond) the state has the last word on the matter.

Many American tech companies understand their commercial risks inside and out but are not prepared for managing the risks that are out of their control. From reputation risk to regulatory risk, they can no longer treat Europe as a like-for-like market with the U.S., and the winners will be those companies that can navigate the legal and political changes afoot. Having a Brussels strategy isn’t enough. Instead American companies will need to build deeper influence in the member states where they operate. Specifically, they will need to communicate their side of the argument early and often to a wider range of potential allies, from local and national governments in markets where they operate, to civil society activists like Max Schrems .

The world’s offline differences are obvious, and the time when we could pretend that the internet erased them rather than magnified them is quickly ending.

Autonomous vehicle reporting data is driving AV innovation right off the road

At the end of every calendar year, the complaints from autonomous vehicle companies start piling up. This annual tradition is the result of a requirement by the California Department of Motor Vehicles that AV companies deliver “disengagement reports” by January 1 of each year showing the number of times an AV operator had to disengage the vehicle’s autonomous driving function while testing the vehicle.

However, all disengagement reports have one thing in common: their usefulness is ubiquitously criticized by those who have to submit them. The CEO and founder of a San Francisco-based self-driving car company publicly stated that disengagement reporting is “woefully inadequate … to give a meaningful signal about whether an AV is ready for commercial deployment.” The CEO of a self-driving technology startup called the metrics “misguided.” Waymo stated in a tweet that the metric “does not provide relevant insights” into its self-driving technology or “distinguish its performance from others in the self-driving space.”

Why do AV companies object so strongly to California’s disengagement reports? They argue the metric is misleading based on lack of context due to the AV companies’ varied testing strategies. I would argue that a lack of guidance regarding the language used to describe the disengagements also makes the data misleading. Furthermore, the metric incentivizes testing in less difficult circumstances and favors real-world testing over more insightful virtual testing.

Understanding California reporting metrics

To test an autonomous vehicle on public roads in California, an AV company must obtain an AV Testing Permit. As of June 22, 2020, there were 66 Autonomous Vehicle Testing Permit holders in California and 36 of those companies reported autonomous vehicle testing in California in 2019. Only five of those companies have permits to transport passengers.

To operate on California public roads, each permitted company must report any collision that results in property damage, bodily injury, or death within 10 days of the incident.

There have been 24 autonomous vehicle collision reports in 2020 thus far. However, though the majority of those incidents occurred in autonomous mode, accidents were almost exclusively the result of the autonomous vehicle being rear-ended. In California, rear-end collisions are almost always deemed the fault of the rear-ending driver.

The usefulness of collision data is evident — consumers and regulators are most concerned with the safety of autonomous vehicles for pedestrians and passengers. If an AV company reports even one accident resulting in substantial damage to the vehicle or harm to a pedestrian or passenger while the vehicle operates in autonomous mode, the implications and repercussions for the company (and potentially the entire AV industry) are substantial.

However, the usefulness of disengagement reporting data is much more questionable. The California DMV requires AV operators to report the number and details of disengagements while testing on California public roads by January 1 of each year. The DMV defines this as “how often their vehicles disengaged from autonomous mode during tests (whether because of technical failure or situations requiring the test driver/operator to take manual control of the vehicle to operate safely).”

Operators must also track how often their vehicles disengaged from autonomous mode, and whether that disengagement was the result of software malfunction, human error, or at the option of the vehicle operator.

AV companies have kept a tight lid on measurable metrics, often only sharing limited footage of demonstrations performed under controlled settings and very little data, if any. Some companies have shared the occasional “annual safety report,” which reads more like a promotional deck than a source of data on AV performance. Furthermore, there are almost no reporting requirements for companies doing public testing in any other state. California’s disengagement reports are the exception.

This AV information desert means that disengagement reporting in California has often been treated as our only source of information on AVs. The public is forced to judge AV readiness and relative performance based on this disengagement data, which is incomplete at best and misleading at worst.

Disengagement reporting data offers no context

Most AV companies claim that disengagement reporting data is a poor metric for judging advancement in the AV industry due to a lack of context for the numbers: knowing where those miles were driven and the purpose of those trips is essential to understanding the data in disengagement reports.

Some in the AV industry have complained that miles driven in sparsely populated areas with arid climates and few intersections are miles dissimilar from miles driven in a city like San Francisco, Pittsburgh, or Atlanta. As a result, the number of disengagements reported by companies that test in the former versus the latter geography are incomparable.

It’s also important to understand that disengagement reporting requirements influence AV companies’ decisions on where and how to test. A test that requires substantial disengagements, even while safe, would be discouraged, as it would make the company look less ready for commercial deployment than its competitors. In reality, such testing may result in the most commercially ready vehicle. Indeed, some in the AV industry have accused competitors of manipulating disengagement reporting metrics by easing the difficulty of miles driven over time to look like real progress.

Furthermore, while data can look particularly good when manipulated by easy drives and clear roads, data can look particularly bad when it’s being used strategically to improve AV software.

Let’s consider an example provided by Jack Stewart, a reporter for NPR’s Marketplace covering transportation:

“Say a company rolls out a brand-new build of their software, and they’re testing that in California because it’s near their headquarters. That software could be extra buggy at the beginning, and you could see a bunch of disengagements, but that same company could be running a commercial service somewhere like Arizona, where they don’t have to collect these reports.

That service could be running super smoothly. You don’t really get a picture of a company’s overall performance just by looking at this one really tight little metric. It was a nice idea of California some years ago to start collecting some information, but it’s not really doing what it was originally intended to do nowadays.”

Disengagement reports lack prescriptive language

The disengagement reports are also misleading due to a lack of guidance and uniformity in the language used to describe the disengagements. For example, while AV companies used a variety of language, “perception discrepancies” was the most common term used to describe the reason for a disengagement — however, it’s not clear that the term “perception discrepancies” has a set meaning.

Several operators used the phrase “perception discrepancy” to describe a failure to detect an object correctly. Valeo North America described a similar error as “false detection of object.” Toyota Research Institute almost exclusively described their disengagements vaguely as “Safety Driver proactive disengagement,” the meaning of which is “any kind of disengagement.” Whereas, Pony.ai described each instance of disengagement with particularity.

Many other operators reported disengagements that were “planned testing disengagements” or that were described with such insufficient particularity as to be virtually meaningless.

For example, “planned disengagements” could mean the testing of intentionally created malfunctions, or it could simply mean the software is so nascent and unsophisticated that the company expected the disengagement. Similarly, “perception discrepancy” could mean anything from precautionary disengagements to disengagements due to extremely hazardous software malfunctions. “Perception discrepancy,” “planned disengagement” or any number of other vague descriptions of disengagements make comparisons across AV operators virtually impossible.

So, for example, while it appears that a San Francisco-based AV company’s disengagements were exclusively precautionary, the lack of guidance on how to describe disengagements and the many vague descriptions provided by AV companies have cast a shadow over disengagement descriptions, calling them all into question.

Regulations discourage virtual testing

Today, the software of AV companies is the real product. The hardware and physical components — lidar, sensors, etc. — of AV vehicles have become so uniform, they’re practically off-the-shelf. The real component that is being tested is software. It’s well known that software bugs are best found by running the software as often as possible; road testing simply can’t reach the sheer numbers necessary to find all the bugs. What can reach those numbers is virtual testing.

However, the regulations discourage virtual testing as the lower reported road miles would seem to imply that a company is not road-ready.

Jack Stewart of NPR’s Marketplace expressed a similar point of view:

“There are things that can be relatively bought off the shelf and, more so these days, there are just a few companies that you can go to and pick up the hardware that you need. It’s the software, and it’s how many miles that software has driven both in simulation and on the real roads without any incident.”

So, where can we find the real data we need to compare AV companies? One company runs over 30,000 instances daily through its end-to-end, three-dimensional simulation environment. Another company runs millions of off-road tests a day through its internal simulation tool, running driving models that include scenarios that it can’t test on roads involving pedestrians, lane merging, and parked cars. Waymo drives 20 million miles a day in its Carcraft simulation platform — the equivalent of over 100 years of real-world driving on public roads.

One CEO estimated that a single virtual mile can be just as insightful as 1,000 miles collected on the open road.

Jonathan Karmel, Waymo’s product lead for simulation and automation, similarly explained that Carcraft provides “the most interesting miles and useful information.”

Where we go from here

Clearly there are issues with disengagement reports — both in relying on the data therein and in the negative incentives they create for AV companies. However, there are voluntary steps that the AV industry can take to combat some of these issues:

  1. Prioritize and invest in virtual testing. Developing and operating a robust system of virtual testing may present a high expense to AV companies, but it also presents the opportunity to dramatically shorten the pathway to commercial deployment through the ability to test more complex, higher risk, and higher number scenarios.
  2. Share data from virtual testing. Voluntary disclosure of virtual testing data will reduce reliance on disengagement reports by the public. Commercial readiness will be pointless unless AV companies have provided the public with reliable data on AV readiness for a sustained period.
  3. Seek the greatest value from on-road miles. AV companies should continue using on-road testing in California, but they should use those miles to fill in the gaps from virtual testing. They should seek the greatest value possible out of those slower miles, accept the higher percentage of disengagements they will be required to report, and when reporting on those miles, describe their context in particularity.

With these steps, AV companies can lessen the pain of California’s disengagement reporting data and advance more quickly to an AV-ready future.

Google-Fitbit deal to be scrutinized in Europe over data competition concerns

In a set-back for Google’s plan to acquire health wearable company Fitbit, the European Commission has announced it’s opening an investigation to dig into a range of competition concerns being attached to the proposal from multiple quarters.

This means the deal is on ice for a period of time that could last until early December.

The Commission said it has 90 working days to take a decision on the acquisition — so until December 9, 2020.

Commenting on opening an “in-depth investigation” in a statement, Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager — who heads up both competition policy and digital strategy for the bloc — said: “The use of wearable devices by European consumers is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. This will go hand in hand with an exponential growth of data generated through these devices. This data provides key insights about the life and the health situation of the users of these devices.Our investigation aims to ensure that control by Google over data collected through wearable devices as a result of the transaction does not distort competition.”

Google has responded to the EU brake on its ambitions with a blog post in which its devices & services chief seeks to defend the deal, arguing it will spur innovation and lead to increased competition.

“This deal is about devices, not data,” Google VP Rick Osterloh further claims.

The tech giant announced its desire to slip into Fitbit’s data-sets back in November, when it announced a plan to shell out $2.1BN in an all-cash deal to pick up the wearable maker.

Fast forward a few months and CEO Sundar Pichai is being taken to task by lawmakers on home turf for stuff like ‘helping destroy anonymity on the Internet‘. Last year’s already rowdy antitrust drum beat around big tech has become a full on rock festival so the mood music around tech acquisitions might finally be shifting.

Since news of Google’s plan to grab Fitbit dropped concerns about the deal have been raised all over Europe — with consumer groups, privacy regulators and competition and tech policy wonks all sounding the alarm at the prospect of letting the adtech giant gobble a device maker and help itself to a bunch of sensitive consumer health data in the process.

Digital privacy rights group, Privacy International — one of the not-for-profits that’s been urging regulators not to rubberstamp the deal — argues the acquisition would not only squeeze competition in the nascent digital health market, and also for wearables, but also reduce “what little pressure there currently is on Google to compete in relation to privacy options available to consumers (both existing and future Fitbit users), leading to even less competition on privacy standards and thereby enabling the further degradation of consumers’ privacy protections”, as it puts it.

So much noise is being made that Google has already played the ‘we promise not to…’ card that’s a favorite of data-mining tech giants. (Typically followed, a few years later, with a ‘we got ya sucker’ joker — as they go ahead and do the thing they totally said they wouldn’t.)

To wit: From the get-go Fitbit has claimed users’ “health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads”. Just like WhatsApp said nothing would change when Facebook bought them. (Er.)

Last month Reuters revisited the concession, in an “exclusive” report that cited “people familiar with the matter” who apparently told it the deal could be waved through if Google pledged not to use Fitbit data for ads.

It’s not clear where the leak underpinning its news report came from but Reuters also ran with a quote from a Google spokeswoman — who further claimed: “Throughout this process we have been clear about our commitment not to use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads and our responsibility to provide people with choice and control with their data.”

In the event, Google’s headline-grabbing promises to behave itself with Fitbit data have not prevented EU regulators from wading in for a closer look at competition concerns — which is exactly as it should be.

In truth, given the level of concern now being raised about tech giants’ market power and adtech giant Google specifically grabbing a treasure trove of consumer health data, a comprehensive probe is the very least regulators should be doing.

If digital policy history has shown anything over the past decade and where data is concerned it’s that the devil is always in the fine print detail. Moreover the fast pace of digital markets can mean a competitive threat may only be a micro pivot away from materializing. Theories of harm clearly need radically updating to take account of data-mining technosocial platform giants. And the Commission knows that — which is why it’s consulting on giving itself more powers to tackling tipping in digital markets. But it also needs to flex and exercise the powers it currently has. Such as opening a proper investigation — rather than gaily waving tech giant deals through.

Antitrust may now be flavor of the month where tech giants are concerned — with US lawmakers all but declaring war on digital robber barons at last month’s big subcommittee showdown in Congress. But it’s also worth noting EU competition regulators — for all their heavily publicized talk of properly regulating the digital sphere — have yet to block a single digital tech merger.

And it remains to be seen whether that record will change by December.

“The Commission is concerned that the proposed transaction would further entrench Google’s market position in the online advertising markets by increasing the already vast amount of data that Google could use for personalisation of the ads it serves and displays,” it writes in a press release today.

Following a preliminary assessment process of the deal, EU regulators said they have concerns about [emphasis theirs]:

  • “the impact of the transaction on the supply of online search and display advertising services (the sale of advertising space on, respectively, the result page of an internet search engine or other internet pages)”
  • and on “the supply of ‘ad tech’ services (analytics and digital tools used to facilitate the programmatic sale and purchase of digital advertising)”

“By acquiring Fitbit, Google would acquire (i) the database maintained by Fitbit about its users’ health and fitness; and (ii) the technology to develop a database similar to Fitbit’s one,” the Commission further notes.

“The data collected via wrist-worn wearable devices appears, at this stage of the Commission’s review of the transaction, to be an important advantage in the online advertising markets. By increasing the data advantage of Google in the personalisation of the ads it serves via its search engine and displays on other internet pages, it would be more difficult for rivals to match Google’s online advertising services. Thus, the transaction would raise barriers to entry and expansion for Google’s competitors for these services, to the ultimate detriment of advertisers and publishers that would face higher prices and have less choice.”

The Commission views Google as dominant in the supply of online search advertising services in almost all EEA (European Economic Area) countries; as well as holding “a strong market position” in the supply of online advertising display services in a large number of EEA countries (especially off-social network display ads), and “a strong market position” in the supply of adtech services in the EEA.

All of which will inform its considerations as it looks at whether Google will gain an unfair competitive advantage by assimilating Fitbit data. (Vestager has also issued a number of antitrust enforcements against the tech giant in recent years, against Android, AdSense and Google Shopping.)

The regulator has also said it will further look at:

  • the “effects of the combination of Fitbit’s and Google’s databases and capabilities in the digital healthcare sector, which is still at a nascent stage in Europe”
  • “whether Google would have the ability and incentive to degrade the interoperability of rivals’ wearables with Google’s Android operating system for smartphones once it owns Fitbit”

The tech giant has already offered EU regulators one specific concession in the hopes of getting the Fitbit buy green lit — with the Commission noting that it submitted commitments aimed at addressing concerns last month.

Google suggested creating a data silo to hold data collected via Fitbit’s wearable devices — and where it said it would be kept separate from any other dataset within Google (including claiming it would be restricted for ad purposes). However the Commission expresses scepticism about Google’s offer, writing that it “considers that the data silo commitment proposed by Google is insufficient to clearly dismiss the serious doubts identified at this stage as to the effects of the transaction”.

“Among others, this is because the data silo remedy did not cover all the data that Google would access as a result of the transaction and would be valuable for advertising purposes,” it added.

Google makes reference to this data silo in its blog post, claiming: “This deal is about devices, not data. We’ve been clear from the beginning that we will not use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads. We recently offered to make a legally binding commitment to the European Commission regarding our use of Fitbit data. As we do with all our products, we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move or delete their data. And we’ll continue to support wide connectivity and interoperability across our and other companies’ products.”

“We appreciate the opportunity to work with the European Commission on an approach that addresses consumers’ expectations of their wearable devices. We’re confident that by working closely with Fitbit’s team of experts, and bringing together our experience in AI, software and hardware, we can build compelling devices for people around the world,” it adds.

Daily Crunch: Microsoft-TikTok acquisition inches closer to reality

A possible Microsoft -TikTok acquisition is causing plenty of drama, we review Google’s new budget Pixel and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon returns to Earth. Here’s your Daily Crunch for August 3, 2020.

Microsoft-TikTok acquisition inches closer to reality

This weekend, Microsoft confirmed reports that it’s in talks to acquire TikTok, the popular mobile video app currently owned by Chinese company ByteDance. It sounds like the outcome of those talks may ultimately have less to do with Microsoft and more with President Donald Trump.

“Following a conversation between Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and President Donald J. Trump, Microsoft is prepared to continue discussions to explore a purchase of TikTok in the United States,” the company said in a statement. “Microsoft fully appreciates the importance of addressing the President’s concerns. It is committed to acquiring TikTok subject to a complete security review and providing proper economic benefits to the United States, including the United States Treasury.”

And indeed, Trump said today that he’s not opposed to an acquisition, but that “a very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the Treasury of the United States.” Meanwhile, Chinese internet users are calling ByteDance’s CEO a traitor.

The tech giants

Google’s budget Pixel 4a addresses its premium predecessor’s biggest problem — Brian Heater reviews the new $349 handset.

Facebook launches commerce and connectivity-focused accelerator programs — Facebook’s Commerce Accelerator will select 60 startups from the EMEA and LATAM regions, while Connectivity will feature 30 startups from LATAM and North America.

Adobe’s plans for an online content attribution standard could have big implications for misinformation — The project was first announced last November, and now the team has a whitepaper going into the nuts and bolts about how its system would work.

Startups, funding and venture capital

YC-backed Artifact looks to make podcasts more personal — Using professionally contracted interviewers, Artifact conducts short interviews with a person’s closest friends or family and turns them into a personal podcast.

Founded by a lifelong house-flipper, Inspectify is a marketplace for home inspections and repairs — Through the platform, buyers can instantly book inspections and receive repair estimates.

Mobile banking startup Varo is becoming a real bank — The company announced that it has been granted a national bank charter from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and secured regulatory approvals from the FDIC and Federal Reserve to open Varo Bank, N.A.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

The essential revenue software stack — Tim Porter and Elise La Cava of Madrona Ventures outline the set of services used by sales, marketing and growth teams across their portfolio to identify and manage their prospects and revenue.

Is the 2020 SPAC boom an echo of the 2017 ICO craze? — Alex Wilhelm looks at two new pieces of SPAC news.

After Shopify’s huge quarter, BigCommerce raises its IPO price range — BigCommerce now intends to price its IPO between $21 and $23 per share.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

SpaceX and NASA successfully return Crew Dragon spacecraft to Earth with astronauts on board — SpaceX’s Crew Dragon appears to have performed exactly as intended throughout the mission, handling the launch, ISS docking, undocking, de-orbit and splashdown in a fully automated process that kept the astronauts safe and secure throughout.

Original Content podcast: Netflix’s ‘Say I Do’ offers a wedding-focused twist on the ‘Queer Eye’ formula — I’m not someone who cares about weddings, but this show made me cry. Multiple times!

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

What Microsoft should demand in exchange for its “payment” to the U.S. government for TikTok

In one of the crazier news stories (and in 2020, that is saying something), President Donald Trump said today during a media availability that in order for the U.S. government to sign off on a potential Microsoft/TikTok deal, “a very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the Treasury of the United States,” based on my colleague Alex Wilhelm’s rough transcript.

That seems nearly impossible to actually execute in reality (corporations don’t just quote-unquote bribe the U.S. government to get their docs signed), but let’s actually take it at face value: should Microsoft pay, and if so, what should they demand in any bargain with the U.S. government?

First and foremost, some context. ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, has been valued over $100 billion. ByteDance owns a suite of apps, including TikTok’s China-focused and extraordinarily popular sister app Douyin as well as Toutiao, an extremely successful news reader, so teasing out TikTok’s valuation by itself is difficult. Adding to the ambiguity is the regulatory chaos of the deal, and the fact that many big-pocketed buyers like Facebook are out of the running on straight antitrust grounds.

So let’s say for illustration that the price is at least $10 billion, if not tens of billions of dollars. How should Microsoft be thinking about a negotiation with the government here?

The overriding objective should be reducing Microsoft’s post-acquisition regulatory headaches. TikTok has well-documented privacy problems, which also involve teens — an area where regulations are acutely sensitive. When Facebook faced privacy problems on its own platform, it finally agreed to a settlement of $5 billion last year with the Federal Trade Commission to unify all the different cases and bring them to a conclusion. It also agreed to a set of restrictions as well as a monitoring mechanism to ensure compliance. TikTok (formerly Musical.ly) actually agreed to an FTC privacy settlement of $5.7 million last year.

On top of privacy, you have the export licensing issues from Treasury, data protection concerns on Capitol Hill due to the app’s China provenance, and potential antitrust issues from Justice.

So, it’s time to cut a deal. Offer the U.S. government a beefy sum — perhaps even a few billion depending on the final purchase price — as a “settlement fine” in exchange for immunity to all claims regarding privacy, trade, and antitrust regulations prior to TikTok’s acquisition. Perhaps have a setup where Microsoft has 180 days post-acquisition to clear up privacy issues, move data to presumably its own Azure cloud in the United States, and put in even better parental controls than TikTok has already introduced in the past few months.

Far from being an atrocious setup, this could massively limit Microsoft’s long-term liabilities, and also allow the company to avoid a lot of the escrow and holdbacks typical of large M&A deals, where an acquirer will not pay out the full acquisition price upfront lest future lawsuits bear significant costs.

It’s terrible for the President himself to get involved in such a matter in such a direct and indelicate way. But now that President Trump has opened the door — it’s actually perhaps not as bad of a path forward as it looks like at first glance. He has the power to push for an inter-agency process, line up all the government stakeholders, and accept a level of immunity in exchange for a “fine.”

A settlement can’t solve every problem. TikTok, like all internet apps in the United States, is not just governed by federal law but also by state laws around privacy, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act. A settlement with the federal government may still conflict with relevant state laws. In addition, agreeing to a large payment in the heart of election season would be deeply controversial, possibly on both sides of the aisle.

Nonetheless, this deal is by no means typical, and no one should think it will have a typical M&A process. While few lawyers would recommend engaging with the federal government over what is effectively a strange form of highway robbery — there are decent fiduciary reasons to just pay the toll, acquire some liability protection and move on.