Texas cannot yet enforce ID checks on porn sites

A Texas judge issued an injunction today to stall the enforcement of an online age verification bill. The Free Speech Coalition, along with adult video sites like Pornhub, led the legal challenge against Texas’ HB 1181, arguing that the bill violates the First Amendment and infringes on rights guaranteed by Section 230. “The Court agrees […]

Tesla plans $770M expansion at Texas factory

Tesla notified Texas regulators this week it plans to invest about $770 million into an expansion of its factory near Austin.

The automaker registered plans with the Texas Department of Licensing and Registration. The Austin Business Journal and CNBC were the first to report on the filings.

The filings show Tesla intends to build new facilities at the site this year, including one for battery cell testing and another manufacture cathode and drive units. Tesla also plans to build a die shop at the factory site, according to the registration.

The expansion comes less than a year from the factory’s official opening. The Tesla factory in Austin officially opened in April 2022 with a “Cyber Rodeo,” a party attended by about 15,000 people.

Today, the factory is used to assemble some of its Model Y vehicles. Production at the factory was initially constrained by the availability of the more-efficient 4680 cells that comprise its new battery architecture. Panasonic has said it plans to resolve the bottleneck in early 2024 when it starts producing the advanced cells at the $4 billion battery factory it’s building in Kansas.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said once the Texas factory achieves volume production, the company will focus on the long-delayed Cybertruck. Production of the Cybertruck, which has been postponed multiple times, is supposed to begin this summer.

Tesla plans $770M expansion at Texas factory by Kirsten Korosec originally published on TechCrunch

Tesla ordered to tell laid off workers about lawsuit

A U.S. District Court has ordered that Tesla must tell employees about a lawsuit alleging the automaker violated state and federal law by requiring workers to sign separation agreements.

Two former Tesla employees filed the suit in July, alleging that the company required them to sign releases in exchange for less severance than federal and California state law provide. Attorneys asked the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas to prevent the automaker from asking laid-off workers to sign releases in exchange for just one week of severance instead of the eight provided under the law.

More than 500 other employees were let go from Tesla’s Gigafactory 2 in Sparks, Nevada, following CEO Elon Musk’s announcement that a coming economic downturn would force the company to lay off 10% of its salaried workforce. The Court order issued Friday protects workers laid off on or after June 19.

The lawsuit — filed by two employees laid off in June from Tesla’s Gigafactory 2 in Sparks, Nevada, and another from Tesla’s Palo Alto store — claims that the company violated Section 1400 of the California Labor Code, as well as the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act by laying off workers without 60 days of advance notice.

“Plaintiffs allege that the separation agreements executed after this lawsuit was filed are coercive, abusive, and misleading because Tesla fails to inform terminated employees/potential class members about ‘the pending litigation and the rights that they are potentially giving up,’” according to the court order.

Tesla filed a motion in August to dismiss the claims. On Friday, the Court ruled that the company must continue to inform its employees about the suit “until the merits of Plaintiffs’ claims are resolved in federal court or in arbitration proceedings.”

The Court denied the plaintiffs’ request for pay and benefits for the 60-day notification period.

Tesla ordered to tell laid off workers about lawsuit by Jaclyn Trop originally published on TechCrunch

Multifamily housing has missed the solar boom. PearlX wants to fix that with $70M Series B

If you’re a renter and you want solar power, you’re usually out of luck. For most, the only option is a community solar program, where people subscribe to utility-scale projects, but they’re not available everywhere. And given that most renters only stay for a few years, which of them are going to pay tens of thousands of dollars for solar panels — and what landlord would let them?

That’s where PearlX comes in. “Think of us as like the Sunrun for renters,” said co-founder and CEO Michael Huerta, referring to the company that rents solar installations to single-family homeowners. “PearlX is a rental electrification platform.”

Earlier this year, the startup began installing solar panels and backup batteries at multifamily rentals in Texas as part of its “TexFlex” project. PearlX’s next step, which Huerta shared exclusively with TechCrunch, will be a California expansion called “Flexifornia.” The startup is also rolling out a virtual power plant, which will allow the company to tap the batteries in times of high electricity demand to help lower tenants’ utility bills.

PearlX’s expansion plans are being fueled by a Series B of up to $70 million that values the company at $115 million. The round was led by Swiss asset manager Lombard Odier. The company has raised just under $5 million in previous rounds, Huerta said.

“This round is really focused on two things,” he said. First is addressing the company’s backlog. “We’ve got landlords with about a couple thousand tenants that are ready to go and super excited.” A handful of projects are complete and about a third of the backlog is at various points in the construction process. The company has also earmarked some money for the California expansion.

Multifamily housing has missed the solar boom. PearlX wants to fix that with $70M Series B by Tim De Chant originally published on TechCrunch

How gender-affirming health care startups are navigating legal miasma

Kate Anthony started in the Lone Star State.

It was there, in 2019, that she launched her app Euphoria, seeking to provide information and resources on gender-affirming care. She knew the stakes were going to be high, and as the state passed anti-trans legislation, she and her company were forced to flee.

Settling in Denver, Anthony made a plan on what to do next. She decided to maintain business as usual while the fight for trans rights continues. She’s not alone in that decision. Many apps, if not all, that service the trans community are hyperexposed, under fire and seemingly undeterred.

TechCrunch conducted a vibe check to see how trans entrepreneurs servicing their communities are navigating this moment. The Human Rights Campaign told TechCrunch that legislators in state houses have introduced 344 anti-LGBTQ+ bills this session, with more than 140 specifically targeting the trans community.

“We will not allow these anti-trans people to bully us into giving information.” Aydian Dowling, founder, Trace

These proposed restrictions range from an Alabama bill that seeks to deny medical care for transitions to Iowa and Alaska bans on trans students participating in sports. Louisiana introduced a bill to bar medical professionals from offering minors translation-related care, and Florida now prohibits gender-affirming care under Medicaid.

Anthony said it’s inevitable that her company will one day be sued by someone or some state. Other founders said they are watching the court systems closely, with some rethinking strategies regarding consumer privacy and employee benefits. And for the startup and venture community, support is better late than never — it’s a critical time to defend trans founders.

TikTok launches an in-app US midterms Elections Center, shares plan to fight misinformation

TikTok announced its midterms Elections Center will go live in the app in the U.S. starting today, August 17, 2022, where it will be available to users in more than 40 languages, including English and Spanish.

The new feature will allow users to access state-by-state election information, including details on how to register to vote, how to vote by mail, how to find your polling place and more, provided by TikTok partner NASS (the National Association of Secretaries of State). TikTok also newly partnered with Ballotpedia to allow users to see who’s on their ballot, and is working with various voting assistance programs — including the Center for Democracy in Deaf America (for deaf voters), the Federal Voting Assistance Program (overseas voting), the Campus Vote Project (students) and Restore Your Vote (people with past convictions) — to provide content for specific groups. The AP will continue to provide the latest election results in the Elections Center.

The center can be accessed through a number of places inside the TikTok app, including by clicking on content labels found on video, via a banner in the app’s Friends tab, as well as through hashtag and search pages.

Image Credits: TikTok

The company also detailed its broader plan to combat election misinformation on its platform, building on lessons it learned from the 2020 election cycle. For starters, it launched this in-app Election Center six weeks earlier than in 2020. It’s ramping up its efforts to educate the creator community about its rules related to election content, as well. This will include the launch of an educational series on the Creator Portal and TikTok, and briefings with both creators and agencies to further clarify its rules.

Much of how TikTok will address election misinformation has not changed, however.

On the policy side, TikTok says it will monitor for content that violates its guidelines. This includes misinformation about how to vote, harassment of election workers, harmful deep fakes of candidates and incitement to violence. Depending on the violation, TikTok may remove the content or the user’s account, or ban the device. In addition, TikTok may choose to redirect search terms or hashtags to its community guidelines, as it did during the prior election cycle for the hashtags associated with terms like “stop the steal” or “sharpiegate,” among others.

Image Credits: TikTok

The company reiterated its decision to ban political advertising on the platform, which extends not only to ads paid for through its ads platform but also to branded content posted by creators themselves. That means a political action committee could not work around TikTok policies to instead pay a creator to make a TikTok video advocating for their political position, the company claims.

Of course, just important as the policies themselves are TikTok’s ability to enforce them.

The company says it will use a combination of automated technology and Trust and Safety team people to help drive moderation decisions. The former, TikTok admits, can only go so far. Technology can be trained to identify keywords associated with conspiracy theories, that is, but only a human would be able to understand if a video is promoting that conspiracy theory or working to debunk it. (The latter is permitted by TikTok guidelines.)

Image Credits: TikTok

TikTok declined to share how many staffers are dedicated to the job of moderating election misinformation, but noted the larger Trust and Safety team has grown over the past several years. This election, however, will be of increased importance as it follows shortly after TikTok shifted its U.S. user data to Oracle’s cloud and has now tasked the company with auditing its moderation policies and algorithmic recommendation systems.

“As part of Oracle’s work, they will be regularly vetting and validating both our recommendation and our moderation models,” confirmed TikTok’s head of U.S. Safety, Eric Han. “What that means is there’ll be regular audits of our content moderation processes, both from automated systems…technology — and how do we detect and triage certain things — as well as the content that is moderated and reviewed by humans,” he explained.

“This will help us have an extra layer and check to make sure that our decisions highlight what our community guidelines are enforcing and what we want our committee guidelines to do. And obviously, that builds on previous announcements that we’ve talked about in the past in our relationship and partnership with Oracle on data storage for U.S. users,” Han said.

Election content can be triggered for moderation in a number of ways. If the community flags a video in the app, it would be reviewed by TikTok’s teams, who may also work with third-party threat intelligence firms to detect things like coordinated activities and covert operations, like those from foreign powers looking to influence U.S. elections. But a video may also be reviewed if it rises in popularity in order to keep TikTok’s main feed — its For You feed — from spreading false or misleading information. While videos are being evaluated by a fact checker, they are not eligible for recommendation to the For You feed, TikTok notes.

The company says it’s now working with a dozen fact-checking partners worldwide, supporting over 30 languages. Its U.S.-based partners include PolitiFact, Science Feedback and Lead Stories. When these firms determine a video to be false, TikTok says the video will be taken down. If it’s returned as “unverified” — meaning the fact checker can’t make a determination — TikTok will reduce its visibility. Unverified content can’t be promoted to the For You feed and will receive a label that indicates the content could not be verified. If a user tries to share the video, they’ll be shown a pop-up asking them if they’re sure they want to post the video. These sorts of tools have been shown to impact user behavior. TikTok said during tests of its unverified labels in the U.S. that videos saw a 24% decline in sharing rates, for instance.

In addition, all videos related to the elections — including those from politicians, candidates, political parties or government accounts — will be labeled with a link that redirects to the in-app election center. TikTok will also host PSAs on election-related hashtags like #midterms and #elections2022.

Image Credits: TikTok

TikTok symbolizes a new era of social media compared to longtime stalwarts like Facebook and YouTube, but it’s already repeating some of the same mistakes. The short-form social platform wasn’t around during Facebook’s Russian election inference scandal back in 2016, but it isn’t immune from the same concerns about misinformation and disinformation that have plagued more traditional social platforms.

Like other social networks, TikTok relies on a blend of human and automated moderation to detect harmful content at scale — and like its peers it leans too heavily on the latter. TikTok also outlines its content moderation policies in lengthy blog posts, but at times fails to live up to its own lofty promises.

In 2020, a report from watchdog group Media Matters for America found that 11 popular videos promoting false pro-Trump election conspiracies attracted more than 200,000 combined views within a day of the U.S. presidential election. The group noted that the selection of misleading posts was only a “small sample” of election misinformation in wide circulation on the app at the time.

With TikTok gaining popularity and mainstream adoption outside of viral dance videos and the Gen Z early adopters it’s known for, the misinformation problem only stands to worsen. The app has grown at a rapid clip in the last couple of years, hitting three billion downloads by the middle of 2021 with projections that it would pass the 750 million user mark in 2022.

This year, TikTok has emerged as an unlikely but vital source of real-time updates and open source intelligence about the war in Ukraine, taking such a prominent position in the information ecosystem that the White House decided to brief a handful of star creators about the conflict.

But because TikTok is a wholly video-focused app that lacks the searchable text of a Facebook or Twitter post, tracing how misinformation travels on the app is challenging. And like the secretive algorithms that propel hit content on other social networks, TikTok’s ranking system is sealed away in a black box, obscuring the forces that propel some videos to viral heights while others languish.

A researcher studying the Kenyan information ecosystem with the Mozilla Foundation found that TikTok is emerging as an alarming vector of political disinformation in the country. “While more mature platforms like Facebook and Twitter receive the most scrutiny in this regard, TikTok has largely gone under-scrutinized — despite hosting some of the most dramatic disinformation campaigns,” Mozilla Fellow Odanga Madung wrote. He describes a platform “teeming” with misleading claims about Kenya’s general election that could inspire political violence there.

Mozilla researchers had similar concerns in the run-up to 2021’s German federal election, finding that the company dragged its feet to implement fact-checking and failed to detect a number of popular accounts impersonating German politicians.

TikTok may have also played an instrumental role in elevating the son of a dictator to the presidency in the Philippines. Earlier this year, the campaign of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. flooded the social network with flattering posts and bought influencers to rewrite a brutal family legacy.

Though TikTok and Oracle are now engaged in some sort of auditing agreement, the details of how this will take place are undisclosed, nor to what extent Oracle’s findings will be made public. That means we may not know for some time to what extent TikTok will be able to keep election misinformation under control.

How digital health startups are navigating the post-Roe legal landscape

With the overturning of Roe v. Wade earlier this year, digital health and reproductive care startups bolstered their efforts to make abortion pills and emergency contraceptives more accessible. Now, as state laws shift and abortion bans go into effect across the United States, companies are still trying to find ways to provide care while reimagining what healthcare should include.

Following the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned Roe, many leading organizations focused on reproductive medicine have spoken out against the ruling. “Decisions about healthcare, particularly reproductive healthcare, should be made by patients and physicians, not by interest groups, religious organizations, politicians, pundits, or Supreme Court justices,” said Marcelle Cedars, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

Nationally, the situation is proving tricky to navigate as each state can begin implementing individualized abortion laws. By November, 26 states are expected to face near-total abortion bans.

For that reason, TechCrunch checked in with digital health startups to learn how they intend to continue to offer reproductive care despite an increasingly hostile legal environment.

What do demand and restrictions look like?

In wake of the decision, there has been a national surge in demand for emergency contraception like Plan B, also known as the “morning after pill.”

In Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, South Dakota and Tennessee, a pharmacist can refuse to dispense an emergency contraceptive if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. In some states, the medication is also excluded from what is considered mandatory contraceptive coverage, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

But digital health companies, which provide care virtually, claim they are better able to avoid these limitations.

Alex Jones and Infowars finally face the music for sowing Sandy Hook conspiracies

Infowars founder Alex Jones took the stand today in a trial that will determine what he owes to the parents of a child killed in the Sandy Hook mass shooting. Last year, Jones was found liable in a series of defamation cases brought by the parents of Sandy Hook victims.

For years, Jones and Infowars spread outlandish and disturbing conspiracy theories purporting that the 2012 tragedy, which claimed 28 lives — most of them children — was staged.

The first trial to determine the damages Jones may owe is underway in Texas, with Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, parents of 6-year-old Sandy Hook victim Jesse Lewis, seeking at least $150 million. Late last month, Infowars’ parents company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, likely a pre-emptive effort to dodge financial culpability before the outcome of the trial.

In a surprise twist Wednesday, the lawyer representing the Sandy Hook victim’s parents revealed that he recently received a trove of Jones’ phone data, apparently shared to the opposing legal team by mistake.

Jones lost four separate defamation cases relating to Sandy Hook by default after refusing to cooperate with Texas and Connecticut courts and provide requested documents. Jones also failed to produce any messages related to Sandy Hook in the discovery process for the damages trial — a discrepancy that the family’s lawyer Mark Bankston highlighted on Wednesday.

“You know what perjury is, right?” Bankston asked.

The plaintiff’s lawyer also cited emails that showed Infowars making $800,000 a day — a mind-boggling figure that Jones did not dispute in spite his previous contradictory claims about the company’s revenue. Jones claimed that any punishment above $2 million would “sink” his company.

Whether any damages awarded would destroy his business or not, the trial could prove to be a cautionary tale for the countless businesses peddling conspiracies that, like Infowars, rake in revenue around dangerous and politically divisive misinformation.

Shortly after the reveal, Rolling Stone reported that the January 6 committee plans to request those messages and emails in its ongoing investigation into the Capitol insurrection.

Jones is in court after infamously claiming that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a fake event staged by “crisis actors” to advance a covert ideological agenda. The false claims spread online like wildfire in conspiracist echo chambers over the last decade, inspiring believers to stalk and harass the parents of Sandy Hook victims, some of whom even moved or went into hiding to escape the abuse.

Heslin described the situation as a “living hell” in testimony this week. “What was said about me and Sandy Hook itself resonates around the world,” he said. “As time went on, I truly realized how dangerous it was… My life has been threatened. I fear for my life, I fear for my safety.”

Alex Jones has cashed in on the Infowars conspiracy empire for years, promoting repeated claims of government coverups and false flag operations while pushing branded products like nootropic supplements promising to enhance “male vitality.” While skirting the rules or even outright breaking them, Jones managed to stay active on mainstream social media platforms until just a few years ago.

In late 2018, major tech companies including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify and Apple kicked Jones off of their platforms, citing his long track record of misbehavior, misinformation and harassment. Apple spearheaded the effort, erasing Infowars from the App Store after Jones’ media empire broke its rules against hate speech.

TikTok-style dating app Desti filters matches by date destinations

A new video-focused dating app Desti just launched over the weekend to give users a chance to find potential matches based on a preferred date destination. Users who live in the app’s debut market of Austin, Texas, can scroll through a vertical feed where profiles highlight what destinations (aka “destis”) they want to experience on a first date — whether that’s wake surfing at Lake Travis, trying a new sushi place, or even going to a beer garden that allows dogs. The “destis” are discovered by swiping through in-house TikTok-style videos that show off the Austin area.

What also makes Desti different than other dating apps such as Tinder or Bumble is that it doesn’t have a “like” feature, so people are forced to start conversations. Users can send a message to the person, and the receiver can accept or reject the message. They can only see one at a time and must pass or reply to the message to move on to the next.

The app is initially available for iOS device users in the Austin area. It will be available on Android devices in the coming weeks. The startup plans on expanding to other areas down the road, it says.

The example below shows a video of the destination at the forefront, with the profile picture in the bottom left corner.


Stop wasting time with small talk 🤬, discover with desti. #atx #idlehands #desti #austin #fyp

♬ Favourite – Artemas

When setting up a profile, the user must pick three “destis,” selecting from categories like Breweries, Rooftops, Live Music, Food Trucks, Dog Dates, etc. There are also hundreds of prompts to choose from alongside the video such as “Someone teach me…,” “The CDC recommends..,” or “Tonight we should…” To complete their profile, the user uploads four photos and creates a bio.

Since so many millennials and Gen Z users turn to TikTok or Instagram to discover restaurants and new things to do in their area, Desti uses the same idea for its destination-based dating app.

“We decided to bet on short-form video being the future,” Nick Dominguez, COO and Lead Designer/Developer of Desti told TechCrunch.

The company isn’t the only dating app to have TikTok-style videos as the focus. Snack, for instance, allows users to post videos to a feed and swipe on videos from potential matches. French app Feels had a similar idea.

When asked if each destination would have the address or descriptions, the company said this was something it was working on. Desti wants to build a more robust Discovery tab to allow users to browse different locations, venues, restaurants, events, and local businesses.

Other features in the works include a subscription plan and paid features that will remove limitations such as daily message limits. Currently, users can send between 5-12 messages per day.

There is also a friend version of the app called Besti, which is currently in beta in Austin, Texas.

In July, the company raised its full $1 million round at a $5 million valuation cap.

At the time of launch, July 29, Desti had 500 users in the first hour. Overall, there were 2,000 downloads and over 5,000 messages just in that one day.

Founded by John Taylor, AJ Qutub, and Nick Dominguez, the destination-based dating app aims to help end “small talk, boring, dead-end conversations, terrible one-liners, and flakey matches that never go anywhere,” the company said. “Dating online and attempting to initiate conversations with people you don’t know is inherently awkward. Being able to see that someone also likes one of your favorite coffee shops, or frequents one of you and your friend’s favorite patio bar helps make them feel like less of a stranger. It helps make the interaction feel more natural like it may be someone you would naturally run into. Every dating app’s goal is for people to eventually meet somewhere. It’s our thesis that introducing that into the swiping experience will lead to a higher conversion of that end-goal.”

Desti was also created with single women in mind, as many of their inboxes on other dating apps are flooded with cheesy pickup lines or just the very basic and uncreative opener “sup?”

“We realized that the main friction in current dating apps was with filtering and communication. It was a full-time job for women to manage their dating app, and it was tough to control what you get out of it. The three of us loved the idea of people being able to have more control over their experience,” Dominguez said.

One question we had was what makes John, AJ, and Nick have the insight to address women’s needs? Former Hinge designer Julia Chesbrough advised the three men on the dating app industry and designed the Desti app for them. But if the designer is a woman with a background at Hinge, why isn’t she a co-founder?

Dominguez answered, “Dating apps are two-sided. Women experience tremendous clutter on their side, and men are lost in that clutter. We understood there was an issue from our side and our goal was to reverse-engineer what was causing the root problem. Our designer, Julia, is amazing — she runs her own agency, Rebel Studios, where she has multiple clients and makes much more annually than she would working for a single business — thus why she is not currently a co-founder.”

While Desti was designed for women who are used to experiencing “clutter” on dating apps, we would argue that the main friction in current dating apps are harassment and lack of background checks. In 2019, an investigative report by ProPublica and Columbia Journalism Investigations pointed to the issue of sexual predators on Match-owned dating apps like Tinder. In March, Match Group rolled out background checks for Tinder and recently expanded the background checks to its namesake app and Stir.

“Safety is important for everyone and especially women. Not all women want to meet someone for the first time at their house. When creating Desti, that was top of mind,” Dominguez said. “We wanted to give people the ability to pick a public place they liked as their Desti. Outside of that, there will be background checks and photo authentication with AI.”

The startup says it aims to offer background checks and photo authentication features in the future, but these are not included in the existing app. Dominguez could not provide any further details on its plans in these areas beyond suggesting they would consider using third-party integrations of some kind.

Tesla Cybertruck on track to launch summer 2023, Elon Musk says

Tesla CEO Elon Musk confirmed Wednesday that the automaker aims to launch its long-awaited Cybertruck mid-2023.

“We are still expecting to be in production with the Cybertruck in middle of next year,” Musk said during Tesla’s second-quarter financial report. “We’re very excited about that product. It might actually be our best product ever.”

Although prototypes have been spotted on public roads since 2019, details on the hotly anticipated Cybertruck have been scant and production has been repeatedly delayed.

During the earnings call with analysts, Musk said that the battery-electric truck will benefit from Tesla’s learnings on boosting efficiency throughout the manufacturing process.

“We’ll bring another level of simplicity and manufacturing improvements with Cybertruck and future products that we’re not quite ready to talk about now,” Musk said, “but that I think will be very exciting to unveil in the future.”

Musk said that the company has been focused on designing the Cybertruck’s platform and readying it for production. It plans to make the truck at its $1.1 billion Gigafactory Austin. The facility, which also serves as Tesla’s headquarters, opened in April to make the Model Y compact crossover, the country’s best-selling electric vehicle, according to Experian.

Texas is the top pickup truck market in the United States.