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UK lawmakers push for Online Safety Bill to have a tighter focus on illegal content

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A UK parliamentary committee that’s spent almost half a year scrutinizing the government’s populist yet controversial plan to regulate Internet services by applying a child safety-focused framing to content moderation has today published its report on the draft legislation — offering a series of recommendations to further tighten legal requirements on platforms. 

Ministers will have two months to respond to the committee’s report.

The committee broadly welcomes the government’s push to go beyond industry self regulation by enforcing compliance with a set of rules intended to hold tech giants accountable for the content they spread and monetize — including via a series of codes of practice and with the media regulator, Ofcom, given a new major oversight and enforcement role over Internet content.

In a statement accompanying the report, the joint committee on the draft Online Safety Bill’s chair, Damian Collins, said: “The Committee were unanimous in their conclusion that we need to call time on the Wild West online. What’s illegal offline should be regulated online. For too long, big tech has gotten away with being the land of the lawless. A lack of regulation online has left too many people vulnerable to abuse, fraud, violence and in some cases even loss of life.

“The Committee has set out recommendations to bring more offences clearly within the scope of the Online Safety Bill, give Ofcom the power in law to set minimum safety standards for the services they will regulate, and to take enforcement action against companies if they don’t comply.

“The era of self-regulation for big tech has come to an end. The companies are clearly responsible for services they have designed and profit from, and need to be held to account for the decisions they make.”

The committee backs the overarching premise that what’s illegal offline should be illegal online — but it’s concerned that the bill, as drafted, will fall short of delivering on that, warning in a summary of its recommendations: “A law aimed at online safety that does not require companies to act on, for example, misogynistic abuse or stirring up hatred against disabled people would not be credible. Leaving such abuse unregulated would itself be deeply damaging to freedom of speech online.”

To ensure the legislation is doing what’s claimed on the tin (aka, making platforms accountable for major safety issues), the committee wants Ofcom to be “required to issue a binding Code of Practice to assist providers in identifying, reporting on and acting on illegal content, in addition to those on terrorism and child sexual exploitation and abuse content”.

Here MPs and peers are pushing for the bill to take a more comprehensive approach to tackling illegal content in what can be contested areas of hate speech, arguing that regulatory guidance from a public body will “provide an additional safeguard for freedom of expression in how providers fulfil this requirement”.

In earlier iterations the legislative plan was given the government shorthand “Online Harms” — and the draft continues to target a very broad array of content for regulation, from stuff that’s already explicitly illegal (such as terrorism or child sexual abuse material) to unpleasant but (currently) legal content such as certain types of abuse or content that celebrates self harm.

Critics have therefore warned that the bill poses huge risks to free speech and freedom of expression online as platforms will face the threat of massive fines (and even criminal liability for execs) for failing to comply with an inherently subjective concept of ‘harm’ baked into UK law.

To simplify compliance and avoid the risk of major sanctions, platforms may simply opt to purge challenging content entirely (or take other disproportionate measures), rather than risk being accused of exposing children to inappropriate/harmful content — so the committee is trying to find a way to ensure a public interest interpretation (i.e. of what content should be regulated) in order to shrink the risks the bill poses to democratic freedoms.

Despite the bill attracting huge controversy on the digital rights and speech front, where critics argue it will introduce a new form of censorship, there is broad, cross-party parliamentary support for regulating tech giants. So — in theory — the government can expect few problems getting the legislation through parliament.

This is hardly surprising. Internet giants like Facebook have spent years torching goodwill with lawmakers all over the world (and especially in the UK); and are widely deemed to have failed to self regulate given a neverending parade of content scandals — from data misuse for opaque voter targeting (Cambridge Analytica); to the hate and abuse direct at people on platforms like Twitter (UK footballers have, for example, been recently campaigning against racist abuse on social media); to suicide and self harm content circulating on Instagram — all of which has been compounded by recent revelations from Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, which included the disclosure of internal research suggesting Instagram can be toxic for teens.

All of which is reflected in a pithy opener the committee pens to summarize its report: “Self-regulation of online services has failed.”

“The Online Safety Bill is a key step forward for democratic societies to bring accountability and responsibility to the internet,” it goes on, adding: “Our recommendations strengthen two core principles of responsible internet governance: that online services should be held accountable for the design and operation of their systems; and that regulation should be governed by a democratic legislature and an independent regulator — not Silicon Valley.

“We want the Online Safety Bill to be easy to understand for service providers and the public alike. We want it to have clear objectives, that lead into precise duties on the providers, with robust powers for the regulator to act when the platforms fail to meet those legal and regulatory requirements.”

The committee is suggesting the creation of a series of new criminal offences in relation to what it describes as “harmful online activities” — such as “encouraging serious self-harm”; cyberflashing (aka the sending of unsolicited nudes); and comms that are intended to stir up hatred against those with protected characteristics) — with parliamentarians endorsing recommendations by the Law Commission to modernise comms offences and hate crime laws to take account of an age of algorithmic amplification.

So the committee is pushing for the (too) subjective notion of ‘harmful’ content to be tightened to stuff that’s explicitly defined in law as illegal — to avoid the risk of tech companies being left to interpret too fuzzy rules themselves at the expense of hard won democratic freedoms. If the government picks up on that suggestion it would be a major improvement.

In another intervention, the committee has revived the thorny issue of age checks for accessing porn websites — and preventing kids from accessing adult content online is something the UK has been trying (and failing) to figure out how to do for over a decade — by suggesting: “All statutory requirements on user-to-user services, for both adults and children, should also apply to Internet Society Services likely to be accessed by children, as defined by the Age Appropriate Design Code“; and arguing that the change would “ensure all pornographic websites would have to prevent children from accessing their content”.

Back in 2019 the government quietly dropped an earlier plan to introduce mandatory age checks for accessing adult websites — saying it wanted to take a more comprehensive approach to protecting children from online harms via what’s now called the Online Safety Bill.

However child safety campaigners want the bill to go further — and so, it seems, does the joint committee; albeit in a “proportionate” way.

“We want all online services likely to be accessed by children to take proportionate steps to protect them,” the committee writes. “Extreme pornography is particularly prevalent online and far too many children encounter it — often unwittingly. Privacy-protecting age assurance technologies are part of the solution but are inadequate by themselves. They need to be accompanied by robust requirements to protect children, for example from cross-platform harm, and a mandatory Code of Practice that will set out what is expected. Age assurance, which can include age verification, should be used in a proportionate way and be subject to binding minimum standards to prevent it being used to collect unnecessary data.”

Other recommendations pick up on specific suggestions made by Facebook whistleblower, Haugen, in her testimony to UK lawmakers earlier this fall, with the committee calling for the law to include a requirement on service providers to conduct internal risk assessments to record “reasonable foreseeable threats to user safety”; and further specifying this should include “the potential harmful impact of algorithms, not just content” [emphasis theirs].

The committee is also urging ministers to extend the scope of the bill to include scams and fraud that stem from paid-for advertising (not merely user-generated content scams) — an issue that’s faced high profile campaigning by UK consumer advice personality, Martin Lewis, who previously sued Facebook for defamation over scam investments ads misusing his image.

UK lawmakers further suggest individual Internet users should be able to make complaints to an ombudsman when platforms fail to comply with the new law — and recommend that regulated platforms are required to have a senior manager at board level or reporting to the board who is designated the “Safety Controller.”

“In that role they would be made liable for a new offence: The failure to comply with their obligations as regulated service providers when there is clear evidence of repeated and systemic failings that result in a significant risk of serious harm to users,” the committee suggests.

While the suggestions are not binding on the government, during her own recent evidence session to the committee last month, the secretary of state for digital, Nadine Dorries, told lawmakers she’s “open” to their suggestions for improving legislation which she argued will change Internet culture for good — further predicting “huge kickback” from platforms that have got used to being able to mark their own homework.

“I believe that there will be huge, huge [change],” she said/ This will set off a culture change in terms of our online environments and landscape. There will be huge kickback. Because you have to follow the money — people are making a huge amount of money from these platforms and sites. And of course there will be kickback. But we must not forget the world is watching what we are doing in terms of legislating to hold those platforms to account. That is why it has to be watertight.”

Law and digital rights experts, meanwhile, have given a cautious thumbs up to the committee’s intervention — while continuing to warn that the bill itself still poses major risks to online freedoms, and also looks set to usher in nightmarishly complex compliance regime for UK internet services…

Source: Tech

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Dashworks is a search engine for your company’s sprawling internal knowledge

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As a company grows, the amount of important information employees need to keep track of inevitably grows right along with it. And, as your tech stack gets more complicated, that information ends up split up across more places — buried in Slack threads, tucked into Jira tickets, pushed as files on Dropbox, etc.

Dashworks is a startup aiming to be the go-to place for all of that internal knowledge. Part landing page and part search engine, it hooks into dozens of different enterprise services and gives you one hub to find what you need.

On the landing page front, Dashworks is built to be your work laptop’s homepage. It’s got support for broadcasting company wide announcements, building out FAQs, and sharing bookmarks for the things you often need and can never find — your handbooks, your OKRs, your org charts, etc.

More impressive, though, is its cross-tool search. With backgrounds in natural language processing at companies like Facebook and Cresta, co-founders Prasad Kawthekar and Praty Sharma are building a tool that allow you to ask Dashworks questions and have them answered from the knowledge it’s gathered across all of those aforementioned Slack threads, or Jira tickets, or Dropbox files. It’ll give you a search results page of relevant files across the services you’ve hooked in — but if it thinks it knows the answer to your question, it’ll just bubble that answer right to the top of the page, Google Snippets style.

Image Credits: Dashworks

Right now Dashworks can hook into over 30 different popular services, including Airtable, Asana, Confluence, Dropbox, Gmail, Google Drive, Intercom, Jira, Notion, Slack, Salesforce, Trello, and a whole bunch more — with more on the way, prioritized by demand.

Giving another company access to all of those services and the knowledge within might be unsettling — something the Dashworks team seems quite aware of. Kawthekar tells me that their product is SOC-2 certified, that all respective data is wiped from their servers if you choose to disconnect a service, and that, for teams that are equipped to host the tool themselves, they offer a fully on-prem version.

This week Dashworks is announcing that it raised a $4M round led by Point72 ventures, backed by South Park Commons, Combine Fund, Garuda Ventures, GOAT Capital, Unpopular Ventures, and Starling Ventures. Also backing the round is a number of angels, including Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear and Gusto co-founders Josh Reeves and Tomer London. The company was also a part of Y Combinator’s W20 class.

Image Credits: Dashworks

Source: Tech

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Daily Crunch: Google will offer G Suite legacy edition users a ‘no-cost option’

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To get a roundup of TechCrunch’s biggest and most important stories delivered to your inbox every day at 3 p.m. PST, subscribe here.

Hello and welcome to Daily Crunch for January 28, 2022! It’s nearly blizzard o’clock where I am, so please enjoy the following newsletter as my final missive before hunkering down. In happier and better news, TechCrunch Early Stage is coming up in just a few months and not only am I hype about it, I’ll hopefully be there IRL. See you soon! – Alex

The TechCrunch Top 3

  • Google invests up to $1B in Airtel: With a $700 million investment and $300 million in “multi-year commercial agreements” with Airtel, and Indian telco, Google has made its second major bet on Indian infra. Recall that Google also put money into Jio, another Indian telco. The deal underscores the importance of the country in the future of technology revenues.
  • What’s ahead for Europe: On the heels of news that European startups had an outsized 2021 when it came to fundraising, TechCrunch explored what’s ahead for the continent. Some expect a slowdown from peak activity, while others anticipate further acceleration. Regardless of which perspective you favor, European venture investment is expected to remain elevated for some time to come.
  • Zapp raises $200M: And speaking of European startups, Zapp, the U.K.-based quick-convenience delivery startup, just raised a massive Series B. The company previously raised $100 million, meaning that this round was big in absolute and comparative terms. As we see some consolidation in the fast-delivery space, this deal caught our eye.

Startups/VC

  • Are charter cities the future for African tech growth? TechCrunch’s Tage Kene-Okafor has a great piece up on the site noting that “African cities have the fastest global urban growth rate,” which is leading to overcrowding. Some folks think that “charter cities offer a solution.” Special economic zones of all types have been tried before – will they offer African tech a faster route forward?
  • Personalized learning is hot: Our in-house edtech expert Natasah Mascarenhas has a great piece out today on personalized learning startups – Learnfully, Wayfinder, Empowerly, and others – that are taking the lessons of remote schooling to heart and working to make products that work better for our kids. It’s an encouraging, fascinating story.
  • Rise wants to remake team calendaring: There is no shortage of apps in the market to help individuals and teams work together. But we might not need as many as we have. That’s why Rise is making me think. The team calendaring app just raised a few million, and could replace a few tools that myself and friends use. I wonder if the solution to the Tool Overload of 2022 is tools that do less, intentionally.
  • Canvas wants non-tech folks to be able to squeeze answers from data: Developers are in short supply, so no-code tools that allow folks who don’t sling code to do their own building are blowing up. Similarly, a general dearth of data science talent in the market is creating space for tools like Canvas, which “is going all in with a spreadsheet-like interface for non-technical teams to access the information they need without bothering data teams,” TechCrunch reports.
  • Zigbang buys Samsung IoT business: The IoT promises of yesteryear are coming true, and not. Samsara recently went public on the back of its IoT business. That was a win for the category. That Zigbang, a South Korean proptech startup, is buying Samsung’s IoT unit feels slightly less bullish.
  • Series F-tw? Once upon a time I would have mocked a Series F as indication that the company in question had failed to go public. But that was then. Today Series Fs are not that rare. Indian B2B marketplace Moglix just raised one, which doubled its valuation to $2.6 billion. Tiger co-led the $250 million round.

And if you are looking down the barrel of a blizzard, TechCrunch’s Equity podcast has your downtime covered. Enjoy!

European, North American edtech startups see funding triple in 2021

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

Pre-pandemic, VCs were notoriously reluctant to invest in education-related companies. Today, edtech startups are seeing higher average deal sizes, more seed and pre-seed funding from non-VC investors, and an influx of generalists.

According to Rhys Spence, head of research at Brighteye Ventures, funding for edtech startups based in Europe and North America trebled over the last year.

“Exciting companies are spawning across geographies and verticals, and even generalist investors are building conviction that the sector is capable of producing the same kind of outsized returns generated in fintech, healthtech and other sectors,” writes Spence.

(TechCrunch+ is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Big Tech Inc.

  • Northern Light Venture Capital’s He Huang says the Chinese robotics market is overheated: Per the investor, robotics in China is “riddled with speculation and overvalued companies,” calling the situation a bubble. It’s worth noting that China’s central government is working to retool where its tech investment dollars flow.
  • Robinhood goes down, back up: This morning, in the wake of the company’s lackluster earnings report, TechCrunch dug through why Robinhood’s stock sold off in after-hours, pre-market, and early trading sessions yesterday and today. And then Robinhood turned around and gained ample ground during the rest of the day. It’s a weird market moment, but good news for the U.S. fintech all the same.
  • Google to allow legacy G Suite users to move to free accounts: After angering techies still using the “G Suite legacy free edition” by announcing that it was ending the program and requiring payment, the search giant has decided to ”offer more options to existing users,” TechCrunch reports. Somewhere inside of Google, a business decision just met the market and was flipped on its head. Makes you wonder who is calling the shots over there, and if they previously worked for McKinsey.

TechCrunch Experts

Image Credits: SEAN GLADWELL / Getty Images

TechCrunch wants you to recommend growth marketers who have expertise in SEO, social, content writing and more! If you’re a growth marketer, pass this survey along to your clients; we’d like to hear about why they loved working with you.

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3 experiments for early-stage founders seeking product-market fit

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At Human Ventures, we have a fund for pre-seed and seed-stage investments, a venture studio and an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) program.

Through this work, we’ve discovered a lot about how different founders fulfill their journey of customer discovery and product-market fit. One of the largest challenges for pre-seed and seed stage founders is determining where to start: There are a million things to do. What should you do at each stage?

We interviewed three founders from our portfolio, all of whom ran discovery experiments to find their product-market fit at different stages of their company’s development.

Here’s what they had to share:

Pre-MVP/customer discovery phase: Tiny Organics

Tiny Organics is a plant-based baby and toddler food company on a mission to shape childrens’ palates so they’ll choose and love vegetables from their earliest days. The company raised $11 million in their Series A in 2021 and is growing at over 500% annually.

Founders Sofia Laurell and Betsy Fore joined our venture studio as EIRs and went through a six-week discovery sprint. As Sofia explains, they knew they wanted to build something to make parents’ lives easier and threw a lot of initial ideas at the wall from the Finnish baby box 2.0 (Sofia is Finnish) to an easier way to create Instagrammable baby pictures.

They went through multiple exercises to test the viability of new parents’ most pressing and urgent needs:

  • Conduct a “Start with Why” exercise
  • Define the “Jobs to be Done”
  • Create a lean canvas for each (viable) concept
  • Define the user journeys
  • Conduct user surveys using platforms like pollfish.com and 1Q (instant survey tool)
  • Identify and define their customer personas
  • Conduct customer interviews and synthesize them
  • Construct concept prototypes

They also met prospective customers, conducting a focus group of 10-15 moms. When the founders asked them to text them what they were feeding their children along with pictures for a week, they realized the lack of healthy finger foods in the market, thus sparking the idea for Tiny Organics.

Source: Tech

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