Attorneys general from twenty states call on Facebook to do more to fight discrimination, disinformation and harrassment

In an open letter to Facebook’s leadership posted earlier today, the attorneys general from twenty states called on the company to do more to fight intimidation, discrimination, disinformation, harassment and hate speech on the platform.

“Although Facebook has made some progress in counteracting the use of its platform to dehumanize and demean, that is just the beginning of what is necessary,” the attorneys general wrote. “Private parties, organized groups, and public officials continue to use Facebook to spread misinformation and project messages of hate against different groups of Americans. In many cases, these messages lead to intimidation and harassment of particular individuals online.”

Roughly 40 percent of Americans have experienced online harassment, according to study by the Anti-Defamation League and around 70 percent of those reporting harassment said it came on Facebook or its associated platforms, according to the report.

So the attorneys general asked Facebook to take more steps to protect users and provide redress for those platform participants who are victims of intimidation and harassment.

Their letter joins a chorus of consternation that has arisen to chastise the platform and its chief executive for doing too little, too late to stem the hate speech and misinformation that has come to define the platform’s experience for many users.

Over the summer, some of the biggest brands in the US pulled advertising from social media platforms in response to a campaign from civil rights organizations.

That boycott includes huge mainstream brands including Coca-Cola, Best Buy, Ford and Verizon. Other brands on board include Adidas, Ben & Jerry’s, Reebok, REI, Patagonia and Vans.

While some of the companies may have ulterior motives for pulling advertising, pressure has been growing on the company to take more action against the provocateurs on its platform.

In the face of all this criticism, Zuckerberg has been steadfast in his refusal to budge (even as his logic becomes increasingly tortured).

The attorneys general agree with these other assessments. “[The] steps you have taken thus far have fallen short,” the attorneys wrote. “With the vast resources at your disposal, we believe there is much mroe that you can do to prevent the use of Facebook as a vehicle for misinformation and discrimination, and to prevent your users from being victimized by harassment and intimidation on your platforms.”

The leaders of the legal arms of state governments from California to the District of Columbia took the company to task and called on its leadership to follow the steps highlighted in its Civil Rights Audit to strengthen its commitment to civil rights and fighting disinformation.

Facebook also may be beginning to listen to its critics. Earlier this evening the company took down a post from President Donald Trump that included misinformation about the COVID-19 epidemic.

It’s a decision that could signal a new direction for Facebook, which has taken incremental steps to distance itself from the perception that the company deliberately turns a blind eye to the president’s potentially harmful behavior.

“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.

Facebook also had a response for the attorneys general. In a statement issued to NBC News, Facebook spokesperson Daniel Roberts said that hate speech was working to ensure people feel safe on the internet.

“Hate speech is an issue across the internet and we are working to make Facebook as safe as possible by investing billions to keep hate off our platform and fight misinformation,” Roberts told the network in a statement.

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.

Uber and Lyft face new lawsuit from CA Labor Commissioner

Uber and Lyft are both facing another lawsuit from the office of the California Labor Commissioner alleging wage theft. Filed today, the suits argue both Uber and Lyft are misclassifying their drivers as independent contractors and aim to enforce the labor practices set forth by AB 5.

“The Uber and Lyft business model rests on the misclassification of drivers as independent contractors,” California Labor Commissioner Lilia García-Brower said in a statement. “This leaves workers without protections such as paid sick leave and reimbursement of drivers’ expenses, as well as overtime and minimum wages.”

The goals of the separate suits are to recover the money that is allegedly owed to these drivers. By classifying drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, both Uber and Lyft have not been required to pay minimum wage, overtime compensation, nor have they been required to offer paid breaks or reimburse drivers for the costs of driving.

AB 5, which went into law earlier this year, outlines what type of worker can and cannot be classified as an independent contractor. The law codifies the ruling established in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v Superior Court of Los Angeles. In that case, the court applied the ABC test and decided Dynamex wrongfully classified its workers as independent contractors.

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

These suits are seeking for the court to order Uber and Lyft to classify their drivers as employees and provide them with all of the protections that come with being a W-2 employee.

“For years Uber and Lyft have been stealing wages and exploiting every legal loophole they can to avoid paying drivers what they deserve,” Transport Workers Union President John Samulsen said in a statement. “It was shameful before and it is even more shameful now, during the middle of a pandemic, that we have allowed wealthy companies to get away with this. This lawsuit is an essential part of holding these companies accountable and protecting drivers’ rights.”

These new lawsuits come just months before Californians are set to vote on Prop 22 a ballot measure backed by Uber, Lyft and others. The ballot measure looks to implement an earnings guarantee of at least 120% of minimum wage while on the job, 30 cents per mile for expenses, a healthcare stipend, occupational accident insurance for on-the-job injuries, protection against discrimination and sexual harassment and automobile accident and liability insurance. Most notably, however, it would keep drivers classified as independent contractors.

“[…]as this lawsuit clearly demonstrates, Sacramento politicians are more interested in the wishes of their special interest donors than the will of the vast majority of drivers and are intent on stripping drivers of the freedom to choose independent work,” the Yes on 22 campaign said in a statement. “This coordinated effort by all levels of government to run a politically motivated campaign will hurt the state at the worst possible time.”

Black Founders Matter, a fund focused on Black entrepreneurs, makes first investment

Too often, Black founders are locked out of Silicon Valley before they even have a chance to get started, Marceau Michel, founder of venture capital firm Black Founders Matter, tells TechCrunch.

“It’s important we’re looking at the social justice movement from very different places,” Michel says. “It’s one thing for Black people to not be killed by the police — that’s just the baseline. We still have Black people locked out of economic opportunity.”

That’s why Michel has not given up on his mission to raise a $10 million fund to invest in Black entrepreneurs. Michel and I first chatted back in 2018, when he unveiled the fund. Between then and now, Michel worked for a VC firm in Portland to better understand how the industry works. He also toyed with the idea of launching an incubator for Black entrepreneurs, instead of creating a fund. But what he landed on was that the tech industry needs more deciders, he says. So far, Black Founders Matter has raised about $1 million for the fund.

“We’re not struggling to raise this fund now,” he says. “It’s very tangible and very much in hand. The investors we’re having conversations with understand the importance of the work we’re doing in investing in Black and diverse problem solvers make this society better.”

But it didn’t always feel like a feasible goal, Michel says. What’s makes it feel more achievable today is the heightened attention and conversations around racism in our society, he says.

“Now, because it’s in the national conversation and in people’s minds, these resources are coming in quicker and the investors we’re talking to get what we’re trying to do,” he says. “You can do great work and you can also get profits. Those things are not mutually exclusive. We’ve had to turn investors down that we’re looking at Black Founders Matter as a charity.”

Last month, Black Founders Matter made its first investment in a company called A Kids Book About, founded by Jelani Memory.

“In a world where we look at how Black lives matter but also how we look at the quality of Black life in this country, it’s about creating access for the community to be able to solve problems,” Michel says.

That’s what the fund’s first investment did. A Kids Book About, which published its first book on the topic of racism in October, helps solve a problem for all communities, he says. Black Founders Matter only invested $40,000, but that figure is more of a reflection of how much space was left in the round. Michel says Memory carved out that space for Black Founders Matter by turning down other checks. Beyond this investment, there are a number of other companies on the firm’s radar, but first, it’s a matter of getting the funds to invest.

“This whole experience of raising this venture fund and working in this space was an exercise in being patient and not forcing it before it was its time,” Michel says. “And now, it’s clearly time and the floodgates have opened. And we’re able to do it with integrity and authenticity. I’m not at a place where I need to convince people anymore. We’re able to have conversations with authority and not from a place of desperation. We’re able to be selective about who invests in our fund. We can be selective and that is a very good sign of the future of Black entrepreneurship.”

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.

DoorDash launches a convenience store

On-demand delivery startup DoorDash has launched a digital storefront to sell household items, as well as the types of things you’d find at a convenience store. So, chips, ice cream, spices, and packaged foods from local restaurants. Called DashMart, the convenience store is available in eight cities throughout the U.S. and plans to launch in additional cities over the next few months.

These are essentially micro-fulfillment centers that carry around 2,000 items where DashMart warehouse associates pick and pack the orders, and then delivery workers, known as Dashers, come to collect the order and deliver to the customer.

The move into the virtual storefront comes a few months after DoorDash partnered with more than 1,800 convenience stores throughout the country to better respond to the needs of customers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, DoorDash has been under scrutiny for its labor practices, especially amid this global health crisis. Last month, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin sued DoorDash for “illegally misclassifying employees as independent contractors.” In the complaint, Boudin argues DoorDash misclassified its workers and in doing so, engages in unfair labor practices.

In a statement to TechCrunch at the time, DoorDash said it’s been supportive of its workers throughout the pandemic by offering them safety equipment, telemedicine and more. DoorDash has also long been a proponent of keeping its workers classified as independent contractors.

Up for vote this November is Prop 22, a measure backed by DoorDash, Uber, Lyft and Instacart, which aims to make drivers and delivery workers for said companies exempt from a new state law that classifies them as W-2 employees.

However, a report conducted by the Partnership for Working Familiesargues voting yes on Prop 22 would “create a permanent underclass of workers in a growing sector of the economy.”

Krisp snags $5M A round as demand grows for its voice-isolating algorithm

Krisp’s smart noise suppression tech, which silences ambient sounds and isolates your voice for calls, arrived just in time. The company got out in front of the global shift to virtual presence, turning early niche traction has into real customers and attracting a shiny new $5 million series A funding round to expand and diversify its timely offering.

We first met Krisp back in 2018 when it emerged from UC Berkeley’s Skydeck accelerator. The company was an early one in the big surge of AI startups, but with a straightforward use case and obviously effective tech it was hard to be skeptical about.

Krisp applies a machine learning system to audio in real time that has been trained on what is and isn’t the human voice. What isn’t a voice gets carefully removed even during speech, and what remains sounds clearer. That’s pretty much it! There’s very little latency (15 milliseconds is the claim) and a modest computational overhead, meaning it can work on practically any device, especially ones with AI acceleration units like most modern smartphones.

The company began by offering its standalone software for free, with paid tier that removed time limits. It also shipped integrated into popular social chat app Discord. But the real business is, unsurprisingly, in enterprise.

“Early on our revenue was all pro, but in December we started onboarding enterprises. COVID has really accelerated that plan,” explained Davit Baghdasaryan, co-founder and CEO of Krisp. “In March, our biggest customer was a large tech company with 2,000 employees — and they bought 2,000 licenses, because everyone is remote. Gradually enterprise is taking over, because we’re signing up banks, call centers and so on. But we think Krisp will still be consumer-first, because everyone needs that, right?”

Now even more large companies have signed on, including one call center with some 40,000 employees. Baghdasaryan says the company went from 0 to 600 paying enterprises, and $0 to $4M annual recurring revenue in a single year, which probably makes the investment — by Storm Ventures, Sierra Ventures, TechNexus and Hive Ventures — look like a pretty safe one.

It’s a big win for the Krisp team, which is split between the U.S. and Armenia, where the company was founded, and a validation of a global approach to staffing — world-class talent isn’t just to be found in California, New York, Berlin and other tech centers, but in smaller countries that don’t have the benefit of local hype and investment infrastructure.

Funding is another story, of course, but having raised money the company is now working to expand its products and team. Krisp’s next move is essentially to monitor and present the metadata of conversation.

“The next iteration will tell you not just about noise, but give you real time feedback on how you are performing as a speaker,” Baghdasaryan explained. Not in the toastmasters sense, exactly, but haven’t you ever wondered about how much you actually spoke during some call, or whether you interrupted or were interrupted by others, and so on?

“Speaking is a skill that people can improve. Think Grammar.ly for voice and video,” Baghdasaryan ventured. “It’s going to be subtle about how it gives that feedback to you. When someone is speaking they may not necessarily want to see that. But over time we’ll analyze what you say, give you hints about vocabulary, how to improve your speaking abilities.”

Since architecturally Krisp is privy to all audio going in and out, it can fairly easily collect this data. But don’t worry — like the company’s other products, this will be entirely private and on-device. No cloud required.

“We’re very opinionated here: Ours is a company that never sends data to its servers,” said Baghdasaryan. “We’re never exposed to it. We take extra steps to create and optimize our tech so the audio never leaves the device.”

That should be reassuring for privacy wonks who are suspicious of sending all their conversations through a third party to  be analyzed. But after all, the type of advice Krisp is considering can be done without really “understanding” what is said, which also limits its scope. It won’t be coaching you into a modern Cicero, but it might help you speak more consistently or let you know when you’re taking up too much time.

For the immediate future, though, Krisp is still focused on improving its noise-suppression software, which you can download for free here.

The story behind Rent the Runway’s first check

When Rent the Runway co-founders Jennifer Fleiss and Jennifer Hyman got their first term sheet, it had an exploding clause in it: If they didn’t sign the offer in 24 hours, they would lose the deal.

The co-founders, then students at Harvard Business School, were ready to commit, but their lawyer advised them to pause and attend the meetings they had previously set up with other investors.

Twelve years later, Rent the Runway has raised $380 million in venture capital equity funding from top investors like Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Temasek, Fidelity, Highland Capital Partners and T. Rowe Capital. Fleiss gave up an operational role in the company to a board seat in 2017, as the company reportedly was eyeing an IPO.

But the shoe didn’t always fit: Earlier this year, Rent the Runway struggled with supply chain issues that left customers disgruntled. Then, the pandemic threatened the market of luxury wear more broadly: Who needs a ball gown while Zooming from home? In early March, the business went through a restructuring and laid off nearly half of its workforce, including every retail employee at its physical locations.

In 2009, Fleiss and Hyman were successful Harvard Business School students. Hyman’s father knew a prominent lawyer who agreed to advise them on a contingency basis in exchange for connecting them with potential investors.

Still, fundraising “was extremely hard,” Hyman said. “We were in the middle of a recession and we were two young women at business school who had never really done anything before.”

Fleiss said venture capital firms often sent junior associates, receptionists and assistants to take the meeting instead of dispatching a full-time partner. “It was clear they weren’t taking us very seriously,” Fleiss said, recounting that on one occasion, a male investor called his wife and daughter on speaker to vet their thoughts.

In an attempt to test their thesis that women would pay to rent (and return) luxury clothing, Fleiss and Hyman started doing trunk pop-up shows with 100 dresses. On one occasion, they rented out a Harvard undergraduate dorm room common hall and invited sororities, student activity organizations and a handful of investors.

Only one person showed up, said Fleiss: A guy “who was 30 years older than anyone else in the room.”

Old-fashioned meets nontraditional

Go public now while software valuations make no sense

Software valuations are bonkers, which means it’s a great time to go public. Asana, Monday.com, Wrike and every other gosh darn software company that is putting it off, pay attention. Heck, even service-y Palantir could excel in this market.

Let me explain.

Over the past few weeks, TechCrunch has tracked the filing, first pricing, rejiggered pricing range, and, today, the first day of trading for BigCommerce, a Texas-based e-commerce company. You can think of it as a comp with Shopify to a degree.

In the wake of the Canadian phenom’s blockbuster earnings report, BigCommerce boosted its IPO range. Yesterday the company did itself one better, pricing $1 per share above that raised range, selling 9,019,565 shares at $24 per share, of which 6,850,000 came from BigCommerce itself.

Before some additions, there are now 65,843,546 shares of BigCommerce in the world, giving the company an IPO valuation of around $1.58 billion.

Given that the company’s Q2 expected revenue range is “between $35.5 million and $35.8 million,” the company sported a run-rate multiple of 11.1x to 11x, depending on where its final revenue tally comes in. That felt somewhat reasonable, if perhaps a smidgen light.

Then the company opened at $68 per share today, currently trading for $82 per share. Hello, 1999 and other insane times. BigCommerce is now worth, using some rough math, around $5.4 billion, giving it a run-rate multiple of around 38x, using the midpoint of its Q2 revenue range.