All posts in “Europe”

US legislator, David Cicilline, joins international push to interrogate platform power

US legislator David Cicilline will be joining the next meeting of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and ‘Fake News’, it has been announced. The meeting will be held in Dublin on November 7.

Chair of the committee, the Irish Fine Gael politician Hildegarde Naughton, announced Cicilline’s inclusion today.

The congressman — who is chairman of the US House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law Subcommittee — will attend as an “ex officio member” which will allow him to question witnesses, she added.

Exactly who the witnesses in front of the grand committee will be is tbc. But the inclusion of a US legislator in the ranks of a non-US committee that’s been seeking answers about reining in online disinformation will certainly make any invitations that get extended to senior executives at US-based tech giants much harder to ignore.

Naughton points out that the addition of American legislators also means the International Grand Committee represents ~730 million citizens — and “their right to online privacy and security”.

“The Dublin meeting will be really significant in that it will be the first time that US legislators will participate,” she said in a statement. “As all the major social media/tech giants were founded and are headquartered in the United States it is very welcome that Congressman Cicilline has agreed to participate. His own Committee is presently conducting investigations into Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple and so his attendance will greatly enhance our deliberations.”

“Greater regulation of social media and tech giants is fast becoming a priority for many countries throughout the world,” she added. “The International Grand Committee is a gathering of international parliamentarians who have a particular responsibility in this area. We will coordinate actions to tackle online election interference, ‘fake news’, and harmful online communications, amongst other issues while at the same time respecting freedom of speech.”

The international committee met for its first session in London last November — when it was forced to empty-chair Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who had declined to attend in person, sending UK policy VP Richard Allan in his stead.

Lawmakers from nine countries spent several hours taking Allan to task over Facebook’s lack of accountability for problems generated by the content it distributes and amplifies, raising myriad examples of ongoing failure to tackle the democracy-denting, society-damaging disinformation — from election interference to hate speech whipping up genocide.

A second meeting of the grand committee was held earlier this year in Canada — taking place over three days in May.

Again Zuckerberg failed to show. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg also gave international legislators zero facetime, with the company opting to send local head of policy, Kevin Chan, and global head of policy, Neil Potts, as stand ins.

Lawmakers were not amused. Canadian MPs voted to serve Zuckerberg and Sandberg with an open summons — meaning they’ll be required to appear before it the next time they step foot in the country.

Parliamentarians in the UK also issued a summons for Zuckerberg last year after repeat snubs to testify to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee’s enquiry into fake news — a decision that essentially gave birth to the international grand committee, as legislators in multiple jurisdictions united around a common cause of trying to find ways to hold social media giants to accounts.

While it’s not clear who the grand committee will invite to the next session, Facebook’s founder seems highly unlikely to have dropped off their list. And this time Zuckerberg and Sandberg may find it harder to turn down an invite to Dublin, given the committee’s ranks will include a homegrown lawmaker.

In a statement on joining the next meeting, Cicilline said: “We are living in a critical moment for privacy rights and competition online, both in the United States and around the world.  As people become increasingly connected by what seem to be free technology platforms, many remain unaware of the costs they are actually paying.

“The Internet has also become concentrated, less open, and growingly hostile to innovation. This is a problem that transcends borders, and it requires multinational cooperation to craft solutions that foster competition and safeguard privacy online. I look forward to joining the International Grand Committee as part of its historic effort to identify problems in digital markets and chart a path forward that leads to a better online experience for everyone.”

Multiple tech giants (including Facebook) have their international headquarters in Ireland — making the committee’s choice of location for their next meeting a strategic one. Should any tech CEOs thus choose to snub an invite to testify to the committee they might find themselves being served with an open summons to testify by Irish parliamentarians — and not being able to set foot in a country where their international HQ is located would be more than a reputational irritant.

Ireland’s privacy regulator is also sitting on a stack of open investigations against tech giants — again with Facebook and Facebook owned companies producing the fattest file (some 11 investigations). But there are plenty of privacy and security concerns to go around, with the DPC’s current case file also touching tech giants including Apple, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Launching out of YC, Blair is aiming to reshape the financing of college tuition

It’s generally agreed that Higher Education in the United States has gradually become more and more unaffordable. Students are dependent on external financial resources for which many of them do not even qualify. Students that are able to secure a loan, often have to take on debts they can’t really afford. And if they don’t eventually land a job with enough income, they are saddled with debt for a very long time.

Much of the problem is that most student loan companies are not concerned with the overall financial well-being of their students, who often feel stuck, trying to repay a loan they cannot afford, without a backup organization that will help them figure it all out. We can see that in the figures. The student loan debt in the US has just reached $1.6 trillion dollars and more than quadrupled in the last 15 years.

With the student debt crisis getting out of hand, the topic has become a semi-permanent issue in the news.

Launching next week is a new startup under the Ycombinator accelerator called Blair which aims to address this seemingly intractable problem.

Blair finances college students through what’s called “Income Share Agreements” (ISA). Students receive funding for their tuition or costs of living and in turn pay back a percentage of their income for a fixed period of time after they graduate. Repayments adjust to individual income circumstances and by deferring payments in times of low income we protect the downside of the students.

It thus provides students with an alternative to debt which is tailored to their individual circumstances to ensure affordability. Blair’s underwriting process is based on the future potential of a student and not their credit score or co-signer, which could be a deal-breaker in traditional settings. Blair’s competitors are traditional student lenders: Sallie Mae, Sofi, Earnest, Wells Fargo, Citizen Bank, other banks. ISA companies include Vemo Education, Leif, Almapact, Lumni and Defynance.

In contrast to traditional student loan companies, Blair relies on being more aligned with the financial incentives of students, the idea being that it supports students in improving their employability by placing them in internships early, giving them access to industry mentors and coaching them individually on their career prospects.

The founders came up with the idea from personal experience. Constantin, one of the co-founders, is on an ISA himself, as are a lot of the company’s friends. They stumbled across the problem of student debt over and over again while studying in the US and noticed a stark difference between their friends in the US and their friends in Germany. The main reason is that 40% of the students at their alma maters in Germany use Income Share Agreements to finance their studies. They plan to use their experience from Europe and make ISAs more widespread in the US.

Students apply for funding on the website, and within minutes and get a personal quote shortly after. If they accept the quote, they receive their funding within a couple of days which they can use to pay for their tuition or cost of living. Once Blair issues the funding, it crafts a holistic career plan for each individual student and starts supporting them in landing the internships and jobs they want. This includes, for example, optimizing their application documents, preparing them for interviews or connecting them to mentors in their target industry. For context, they batch students together in funds and let external investors invest in the funds.

It receives a cut of the student repayments and carried interest if a student fund performs better than the target return. Additionally, it partners with companies that hire talent through the platform.

Blair has raised the first fund for 50 students and disbursed money for the first ten. The rest of the students will receive their money within the next weeks. After YC’s Demo Day the company will deploy a larger fund that will support 200 additional students.

“Our underwriting model is unique since we have based it on data from concluded ISA funds in European countries,” says cofounder Mike Mahlkow.

“In the last two weeks, we received applications for funding totaling over 4 million dollars. Many of our students come from underprivileged backgrounds, often without any support network. Our goal is to build a human capital platform where individuals can access capital based on their future potential instead of their past and investors can participate in the upside potential of individuals in an ethical way” he adds.

Facebook’s human-AI blend for audio transcription is now facing privacy scrutiny in Europe

Facebook’s lead privacy regulator in Europe is now asking the company for detailed information about the operation of a voice-to-text feature in Facebook’s Messenger app and how it complies with EU law.

Yesterday Bloomberg reported that Facebook uses human contractors to transcribe app users’ audio messages — yet its privacy policy makes no clear mention of the fact that actual people might listen to your recordings.

A page on Facebook’s help center also includes a “note” saying “Voice to Text uses machine learning” — but does not say the feature is also powered by people working for Facebook listening in.

A spokesperson for Irish Data Protection Commission told us: “Further to our ongoing engagement with Google, Apple and Microsoft in relation to the processing of personal data in the context of the manual transcription of audio recordings, we are now seeking detailed information from Facebook on the processing in question and how Facebook believes that such processing of data is compliant with their GDPR obligations.”

Bloomberg’s report follows similar revelations about AI assistant technologies offered by other tech giants, including Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft — which have also attracted attention from European privacy regulators in recent weeks.

What this tells us is that the hype around AI voice assistants is still glossing over a far less high tech backend. Even as lashings of machine learning marketing guff have been used to cloak the ‘mechanical turk’ components (i.e. humans) required for the tech to live up to the claims.

This is a very old story indeed. To wit: A full decade ago, a UK startup called Spinvox, which had claimed to have advanced voice recognition technology for converting voicemails to text messages, was reported to be leaning very heavily on call centers in South Africa and the Philippines… staffed by, yep, actual humans.

Returning to present day ‘cutting-edge’ tech, following Bloomberg’s report Facebook said it suspended human transcriptions earlier this month — joining Apple and Google in halting manual reviews of audio snippets for their respective voice AIs. (Amazon has since added an opt out to the Alexa app’s settings.)

We asked Facebook where in the Messenger app it had been informing users that human contractors might be used to transcribe their voice chats/audio messages; and how it collected Messenger users’ consent to this form of data processing — prior to suspending human reviews.

The company did not respond to our questions. Instead a spokesperson provided us with the following statement: “Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago.”

Facebook also described the audio snippets that it sent to contractors as masked and de-identified; said they were only collected when users had opted in to transcription on Messenger; and were only used for improving the transcription performance of the AI.

It also reiterated a long-standing rebuttal by the company to user concerns about general eavesdropping by Facebook, saying it never listens to people’s microphones without device permission nor without explicit activation by users.

How Facebook gathers permission to process data is a key question, though.

The company has recently, for example, used a manipulative consent flow in order to nudge users in Europe to switch on facial recognition technology — rolling back its previous stance, adopted in response to earlier regulatory intervention, of switching the tech off across the bloc.

So a lot rests on how exactly Facebook has described the data processing at any point it is asking users to consent to their voice messages being reviewed by humans (assuming it’s relying on consent as its legal basis for processing this data).

Bundling consent into general T&Cs for using the product is also unlikely to be compliant under EU privacy law, given that the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation requires consent to be purpose limited, as well as fully informed and freely given.

If Facebook is relying on legitimate interests to process Messenger users’ audio snippets in order to enhance its AI’s performance it would need to balance its own interests against any risk to people’s privacy.

Voice AIs are especially problematic in this respect because audio recordings may capture the personal data of non-users too — given that people in the vicinity of a device (or indeed a person on the other end of the phone line who’s leaving you a message) could have their personal data captured without ever having had the chance to consent to Facebook contractors getting to hear it.

Leaks of Google Assistant snippets to the Belgian press recently highlighted both the sensitive nature of recordings and the risk of reidentification posed by such recordings — with journalists able to identify some of the people in the recordings.

Multiple press reports have also suggested contractors employed by tech giants are routinely overhearing intimate details captured via a range of products that include the ability to record audio and stream this personal data to the cloud for processing.

Facebook denies making contradictory claims on Cambridge Analytica and other ‘sketchy’ apps

Facebook has denied contradicting itself in evidence to the UK parliament and a US public prosecutor.

Last month the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee wrote to the company to raise what it said were discrepancies in evidence Facebook has given to international parliamentarians vs evidence submitted in response to the Washington, DC Attorney General — which is suing Facebook on its home turf, over the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal.

Yesterday Bloomberg obtained Facebook’s response to the committee.

In the letter Rebecca Stimson, the company’s head of U.K. public policy, denies any inconsistency in evidence submitted on both sides of the Atlantic, writing:

The evidence given to the Committees by Mike Schroepfer (Chief Technology Officer), Lord Allan (Vice President for Policy Solutions), and other Facebook representatives is entirely consistent with the allegations in the SEC 
Complaint filed 24 July 2019. In their evidence, Facebook representatives truthfully answered questions about when the company first learned of Aleksandr Kogan / GSR’s improper transfer of data to Cambridge Analytica, which was in 
December 2015 through The Guardian’s reporting. We are aware of no evidence to suggest that Facebook learned any earlier of that improper transfer.

 As we have told regulators, and many media stories have since reported, we heard speculation about data scraping by Cambridge Analytica in September 2015. We have also testified publicly that we first learned Kogan sold data to Cambridge Analytica in December 2015. These are two different things and this 
is not new information.

Stimson goes on to claim that Facebook merely heard “rumours in September 2015 that Cambridge Analytica was promoting its ability to scrape user data from public Facebook pages”. (In statements made earlier this year to the press on this same point Facebook has also used the word “speculation” to refer to the internal concerns raised by its staff, writing that “employees heard speculation that Cambridge Analytica was scraping data”.)

In the latest letter, Stimson repeats Facebook’s earlier line about data scraping being common for public pages (which may be true, but plenty of Facebook users’ pages aren’t public to anyone other than their hand-picked friends so… ), before claiming it’s not the same as the process by which Cambridge Analytica obtained Facebook data (i.e. by paying a developer on Facebook’s platform to build an app that harvested users’ and users friends’ data).

The scraping of data from public pages (which is unfortunately common for any internet service) is different from, and has no relationship to, the illicit transfer to third parties of data obtained by an app developer (which was the subject of the December 2015 Guardian article and of Facebook representatives’ evidence),” she writes, suggesting a ‘sketchy’ data modeling company with deep Facebook platform penetration looked like ‘business as usual’ for Facebook management back in 2015. 

As we’ve reported before, it has emerged this year — via submissions to other US legal proceedings against Facebook — that staff working for its political advertising division raised internal concerns about what Cambridge Analytica was up to in September 2015, months prior to The Guardian article which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has claimed is the point when he personally learned what Cambridge Analytica was doing on his platform.

These Facebook staff described Cambridge Analytica as a “sketchy (to say the least) data modeling company that has penetrated our market deeply” — months before the newspaper published its scoop on the story, per an SEC complaint which netted Facebook a $100M fine, in addition to the FTC’s $5BN privacy penalty.

Nonetheless, Facebook is once claiming there’s nothing but ‘rumors’ to see here.

The DCMS committee also queried Facebook’s flat denial to the Washington, DC Attorney General that the company knew of any other apps misusing user data; failed to take proper measures to secure user data by failing to enforce its own platform policy; and failed to disclose to users when their data was misused — pointing out that Facebook reps told it on multiple occasions that Facebook knew of other apps violating its policies and had taken action against them.

Again, Facebook denies any contradiction whatsoever here.

“The particular allegation you cite asserts that Facebook knew of third party applications that violated its policies and failed to take reasonable measures to enforce against them,” writes Stimson. “As we have consistently stated to the Committee and elsewhere, we regularly take action against apps and developers who violate our policies. We therefore appropriately, and consistently with what we told the Committee, denied the allegation.”

So, turns out, Facebook was only flat denying some of the allegations in para 43 of the Washington, DC Attorney General’s complaint. But the company doesn’t see bundling responses to multiple allegations under one blanket denial as in any way misleading…

In a tweet responding to Facebook’s latest denial, DCMS committee chair Damian Collins dubbed the company’s response “typically disingenuous” — before pointing out: “They didn’t previously disclose to us concerns about Cambridge Analytica prior to Dec 2015, or say what they did about it & haven’t shared results of investigations into other Apps.”

On the app audit issue, Stimson’s letter justifies Facebook’s failure to provide the DCMS committee with the requested information on other ‘sketchy’ apps it’s investigating, writing this is because the investigation — which CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in a Facebook blog post on March 21, 2018; saying then that it would “investigate all apps that had access to large amounts of information”; “conduct a full audit of any app with suspicious activity”; “ban any developer from our platform that does not agree to a thorough audit”; and ban any developers found to have misused user data; and “tell everyone affected by those apps” — is, er, “ongoing”.

More than a year ago Facebook did reveal that it had suspended around 200 suspicious apps out of “thousands” reviewed. However updates on Zuckerberg’s great app audit have been thin on the ground since then, to say the least.

“We will update the Committee as we publicly share additional information about that extensive effort,” says Stimson now.

Mubi founder Efe Cakarel is coming to Disrupt Berlin

Most entrepreneurs who have tried to compete with Netflix have failed. But Efe Cakarel isn’t one of them. As the founder and CEO of Mubi, he has created a beloved movie streaming service. That’s why I’m excited to announce that Mubi founder Efe Cakarel is joining us at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

Mubi has been around for more than a decade. Back then, Netflix was just launching its on-demand streaming service. It was still mostly a DVD rental company.

Instead of focusing on quantity and mainstream content, Mubi went the opposite direction with a subscription tailored for cinephiles. Every day, Mubi adds a new movie to its catalog. It remains available for 30 days before it disappears from the service.

With this rolling window of 30 movies, there’s always something new, something interesting. The limited selection has become an asset as you can take time to read about each movie and watch things you would have never considered watching on a service with thousands of titles.

More recently, the company started purchasing exclusive distribution rights and even producing its own original content. The service is available in most countries around the world.

But it hasn’t always been an easy ride. A few years ago, Mubi had plans to form a joint venture with a Chinese partner in order to launch a service in China. The company had to cancel the project.

And yet, Mubi is still around after all those years. I’m personally impressed by Cakarel’s resilience and I can’t wait to see what’s next for the company.

Buy your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to this discussion and many others. The conference will take place on December 11-12.

In addition to panels and fireside chats, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield to compete for the highly coveted Battlefield Cup.