All posts in “regulation”

Dating apps face questions over age checks after report exposes child abuse

The UK government has said it could legislate to require age verification checks on users of dating apps, following an investigation into underage use of dating apps published by the Sunday Times yesterday.

The newspaper found more than 30 cases of child rape have been investigated by police related to use of dating apps including Grindr and Tinder since 2015. It reports that one 13-year-old boy with a profile on the Grindr app was raped or abused by at least 21 men. 

The Sunday Times also found 60 further instances of child sex offences related to the use of online dating services — including grooming, kidnapping and violent assault, according to the BBC, which covered the report.

The youngest victim is reported to have been just eight years old. The newspaper obtaining the data via freedom of information requests to UK police forces.

Responding to the Sunday Times’ investigation, a Tinder spokesperson told the BBC it uses automated and manual tools, and spends “millions of dollars annually”, to prevent and remove underage users and other inappropriate behaviour, saying it does not want minors on the platform.

Grindr also reacting to the report, providing the Times with a statement saying: “Any account of sexual abuse or other illegal behaviour is troubling to us as well as a clear violation of our terms of service. Our team is constantly working to improve our digital and human screening tools to prevent and remove improper underage use of our app.”

We’ve also reached out to the companies with additional questions.

The UK’s secretary of state for digital, media, culture and sport (DCMS), Jeremy Wright, dubbed the newspaper’s investigation “truly shocking”, describing it as further evidence that “online tech firms must do more to protect children”.

He also suggested the government could expand forthcoming age verification checks for accessing pornography to include dating apps — saying he would write to the dating app companies to ask “what measures they have in place to keep children safe from harm, including verifying their age”.

“If I’m not satisfied with their response, I reserve the right to take further action,” he added.

Age verification checks for viewing online porn are due to come into force in the UK in April, as part of the Digital Economy Act.

Those age checks, which are clearly not without controversy given the huge privacy considerations of creating a database of adult identities linked to porn viewing habits, have also been driven by concern about children’s exposure to graphic content online.

Last year the UK government committed to legislating on social media safety too, although it has yet to set out the detail of its policy plans. But a white paper is due imminently.

A parliamentary committee which reported last week urged the government to put a legal ‘duty of care’ on platforms to protect minors.

It also called for more robust systems for age verification. So it remains at least a possibility that some types of social media content could be age-gated in the country in future.

Last month the BBC reported on the death of a 14-year-old schoolgirl who killed herself in 2017 after being exposed to self-harm imagery on the platform.

Following the report, Instagram’s boss met with Wright and the UK’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, to discuss concerns about the impact of suicide-related content circulating on the platform.

After the meeting Instagram announced it would ban graphic images of self-harm last week.

Earlier the same week the company responded to the public outcry over the story by saying it would no longer allow suicide related content to be promoted via its recommendation algorithms or surfaced via hashtags.

Also last week, the government’s chief medical advisors called for a code of conduct for social media platforms to protect vulnerable users.

The medical experts also called for greater transparency from platform giants to support public interest-based research into the potential mental health impacts of their platforms.

Why you need a supercomputer to build a house

When the hell did building a house become so complicated?

Don’t let the folks on HGTV fool you. The process of building a home nowadays is incredibly painful. Just applying for the necessary permits can be a soul-crushing undertaking that’ll have you running around the city, filling out useless forms, and waiting in motionless lines under fluorescent lights at City Hall wondering whether you should have just moved back in with your parents.

Consider this an ongoing discussion about Urban Tech, its intersection with regulation, issues of public service, and other complexities that people have full PHDs on. I’m just a bitter, born-and-bred New Yorker trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck in between subway stops for the last 15 minutes, so please reach out with your take on any of these thoughts: @Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com.

And to actually get approval for those permits, your future home will have to satisfy a set of conditions that is a factorial of complex and conflicting federal, state and city building codes, separate sets of fire and energy requirements, and quasi-legal construction standards set by various independent agencies.

It wasn’t always this hard – remember when you’d hear people say “my grandparents built this house with their bare hands?” These proliferating rules have been among the main causes of the rapidly rising cost of housing in America and other developed nations. The good news is that a new generation of startups is identifying and simplifying these thickets of rules, and the future of housing may be determined as much by machine learning as woodworking.

Photo by Bill Oxford via Getty Images

Cities once solely created the building codes that dictate the requirements for almost every aspect of a building’s design, and they structured those guidelines based on local terrain, climates and risks. Over time, townships, states, federally-recognized organizations and independent groups that sprouted from the insurance industry further created their own “model” building codes.

The complexity starts here. The federal codes and independent agency standards are optional for states, who have their own codes which are optional for cities, who have their own codes that are often inconsistent with the state’s and are optional for individual townships. Thus, local building codes are these ever-changing and constantly-swelling mutant books made up of whichever aspects of these different codes local governments choose to mix together. For instance, New York City’s building code is made up of five sections, 76 chapters and 35 appendices, alongside a separate set of 67 updates (The 2014 edition is available as a book for $155, and it makes a great gift for someone you never want to talk to again).

In short: what a shit show.

Because of the hyper-localized and overlapping nature of building codes, a home in one location can be subject to a completely different set of requirements than one elsewhere. So it’s really freaking difficult to even understand what you’re allowed to build, the conditions you need to satisfy, and how to best meet those conditions.

There are certain levels of complexity in housing codes that are hard to avoid. The structural integrity of a home is dependent on everything from walls to erosion and wind-flow. There are countless types of material and technology used in buildings, all of which are constantly evolving.

Thus, each thousand-page codebook from the various federal, state, city, township and independent agencies – all dictating interconnecting, location and structure-dependent needs – lead to an incredibly expansive decision tree that requires an endless set of simulations to fully understand all the options you have to reach compliance, and their respective cost-effectiveness and efficiency.

So homebuilders are often forced to turn to costly consultants or settle on designs that satisfy code but aren’t cost-efficient. And if construction issues cause you to fall short of the outcomes you expected, you could face hefty fines, delays or gigantic cost overruns from redesigns and rebuilds. All these costs flow through the lifecycle of a building, ultimately impacting affordability and access for homeowners and renters.

Photo by Caiaimage/Rafal Rodzoch via Getty Images

Strap on your hard hat – there may be hope for your dream home after all.

The friction, inefficiencies, and pure agony caused by our increasingly convoluted building codes have given rise to a growing set of companies that are helping people make sense of the home-building process by incorporating regulations directly into their software.

Using machine learning, their platforms run advanced scenario-analysis around interweaving building codes and inter-dependent structural variables, allowing users to create compliant designs and regulatory-informed decisions without having to ever encounter the regulations themselves.

For example, the prefab housing startup Cover is helping people figure out what kind of backyard homes they can design and build on their properties based on local zoning and permitting regulations.

Some startups are trying to provide similar services to developers of larger scale buildings as well. Just this past week, I covered the seed round for a startup called Cove.Tool, which analyzes local building energy codes – based on location and project-level characteristics specified by the developer – and spits out the most cost-effective and energy-efficient resource mix that can be built to hit local energy requirements.

And startups aren’t just simplifying the regulatory pains of the housing process through building codes. Envelope is helping developers make sense of our equally tortuous zoning codes, while Cover and companies like Camino are helping steer home and business-owners through arduous and analog permitting processes.

Look, I’m not saying codes are bad. In fact, I think building codes are good and necessary – no one wants to live in a home that might cave in on itself the next time it snows. But I still can’t help but ask myself why the hell does it take AI to figure out how to build a house? Why do we have building codes that take a supercomputer to figure out?

Ultimately, it would probably help to have more standardized building codes that we actually clean-up from time-to-time. More regional standardization would greatly reduce the number of conditional branches that exist. And if there was one set of accepted overarching codes that could still set precise requirements for all components of a building, there would still only be one path of regulations to follow, greatly reducing the knowledge and analysis necessary to efficiently build a home.

But housing’s inherent ties to geography make standardization unlikely. Each region has different land conditions, climates, priorities and political motivations that cause governments to want their own set of rules.

Instead, governments seem to be fine with sidestepping the issues caused by hyper-regional building codes and leaving it up to startups to help people wade through the ridiculousness that paves the home-building process, in the same way Concur aids employee with infuriating corporate expensing policies.

For now, we can count on startups that are unlocking value and making housing more accessible, simpler and cheaper just by making the rules easier to understand. And maybe one day my grandkids can tell their friends how their grandpa built his house with his own supercomputer.

And lastly, some reading while in transit:

Apple’s Tim Cook warns regulation is coming for the tech industry

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, believes regulation of the tech industry is inevitable.
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, believes regulation of the tech industry is inevitable.

Image: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

This year has been horrendous for Silicon Valley’s public image.

With a litany of issues like data misuse and political interference laid bare within the last 12 months, Apple CEO Tim Cook told Axios on HBO that government regulation of the tech industry is “inevitable.”

“Generally speaking, I am not a big fan of regulation,” he said in an interview from Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino.

“I’m a big believer in the free market. But we have to admit when the free market is not working. And it hasn’t worked here. I think it’s inevitable that there will be some level of regulation … I think the Congress and the administration at some point will pass something.” 

Cook made the comment after saying that technology creators didn’t set out to do evil, but rather they didn’t anticipate the “negative things it could be used for.”

It’s the latest instance of Cook’s thinly-veiled criticism of Facebook. Without naming names, last month Cook lambasted companies who collect your private data, and put “profits over privacy.” 

He called for a federal privacy law, where a person has the right to have personal data minimized, the right to know what user data is being collected and why, the right for users to access their data, and the right to security. 

Apple has taken a staunch view on privacy in the past, going toe-to-toe with government agencies, as exemplified in its famous battle with the FBI and its blocking of hacking tools used by law enforcement to break into iPhones.

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Facebook hack could hasten regulation as Sen. Warner says Congress must “step up”

Senator Mark Warner has issued a stern reprimand to Facebook over today’s revelation that 50 million users had their access token stolen by a hacker. “This is another sobering indicator that Congress needs to step up and take action to protect the privacy and security of social media users” Warner writes. As I’ve said before – the era of the Wild West in social media is over.”

In July, Warner published an expansive policy paper outlining where he believes regulation is necessary for social media companies. He proposes that companies holding large data sets be regulated as “information fiduciaries” with additional consequences for improper security. He suggests requirements for data portability and interoperability that would allow users to export their personal information and use it elsewhere if they were unsatisfied with their treatment by a social media giant. He also suggests applying similar rules to Europe’s GDPR including a requirement that breaches be disclosed within 72 hours of discovery. Notably, Facebook did disclose this hack within that window.

The breach saw sophisticated hackers combine three Facebook bugs in its video uploader, user profile, and “view as” privacy feature to generate and steal the access tokens that allow users to stay logged into Facebook between sessions. These could be used to take over user accounts and take actions on their behalf. Facebook reset the access tokens of the 50 million users impacted and another 40 million who’d had their accounts viewed through the “view as” tool this year, which means they’ll have to log back into Facebook but won’t need to change their password.

Facebook’s “View As” tool has been disabled following the hack. It let users see how their profile looked to a certain other user

The bugs stem from code pushed back in July, but Facebook only discovered the issue Tuesday afternoon as the hackers tried to scale up the attack to steal more tokens. Facebook patched the issue last night and this morning announced it was investigating, though it currently doesn’t have enough information to determine the source of the attack.. It’s already notifed the FBI, as well as the Irish Data Protection office since the breach has GDPR implications. On a call with reporters, CEO Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly called the problem “serious”. But beyond recounting the steps Facebook is taking to address this breach, he didn’t have a good answer for why users should still trust Facebook with their data.

Always quick to pounce on privacy issues, Warner has become one of the strongeest Democratic critics of the social network. He’s seemingly inherited the position of tech watchdog from former-Senator Al Franken.

The full statement can be found below:

STATEMENT OF U.S. SEN. MARK R. WARNER

~ On Facebook hack ~ 

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and co-chair of the Senate Cybersecurity Caucus, released the following statement on the announcement by Facebook that it discovered a security issue affecting almost 50 million accounts:

“The news that at least 50 million Facebook users had their accounts compromised is deeply concerning. A full investigation should be swiftly conducted and made public so that we can understand more about what happened.

“Today’s disclosure is a reminder about the dangers posed when a small number of companies like Facebook or the credit bureau Equifax are able to accumulate so much personal data about individual Americans without adequate security measures.

“This is another sobering indicator that Congress needs to step up and take action to protect the privacy and security of social media users. As I’ve said before – the era of the Wild West in social media is over.”

To kick start the debate around social media legislation, Sen. Warner in July released a white paper containing a suite of potential policy proposals for the regulation of social media.

What the real history of the ‘Wild West’ can teach us about the tech industry

Strap on your spurs and pull up those chaps! The U.S. government and the tech industry are gearing up for a good old-fashioned Wild West showdown — but not in the way you might think.

During Twitter’s and Facebook’s congressional hearing on Wednesday last week, Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Dorsey answered questions on Capitol Hill about online privacy, election interference, political bias, and more. The members of congress interrogating the two tech leaders did not just accept their apologies and move on, though; to prevent against future breaches of user data and the spreading of misinformation, some members of Congress indicated that regulation was hurtling the tech industry’s way.

“The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said

Senator Warner’s comparison might have been hyperbolic. But it got us wondering: how similar to the tech industry is the Wild West? And, if we’ve lived this history of bringing an unprecedented, rules-free world under federal control before, what can the end of America’s Wild West teach us about what comes next for Twitter, Facebook, and Google?

Professor Richard White is a Stanford University historian who co-founded Stanford’s Center for the American West, and who specializes in American Western history and the history of capitalism. In a recent phone call with Mashable, Prof. White said that Senator Warner’s comparison between the “Wild West” and the regulatory changes facing the tech industry was actually a good one, though not in the way Warner probably meant it. 

“The West can serve as a cautionary tale, explaining why regulation is necessary,” Prof. White told Mashable. “But also why you’d better keep a very close eye on the people who are actually shaping these regulations, and who they really benefit.”

The Westworld-esque “Wild West” as we imagine it never existed. Instead, Professor White explained, the true story of taming the West tells the tale of regulating the groundbreaking technology of that time: the railroads. So reigning in America’s Wild West in the mid-1800s had more to do with regulating runaway tech corporations than it did with capturing bandits. And the achievements, and mistakes, of that period in our country’s history, can teach us about what to expect from our technological and political moment today.

Hold onto your cowboy hats. 

The below has been edited for length and clarity.

Mashable: Recently, on Capitol Hill, Sen. Warner implied that regulation was coming for the tech industry, by comparing the tech industry to the “Wild West.” As a historian of the “Wild West,” does this comparison make any sense?

Prof. White: It could be an apt metaphor, but not for the reasons he thinks. 

Most of the time when I see “Wild West,” it refers back to the sort of western movement — the image of the sheriff coming in to town and putting an end to all this violence. That’s fine if you want to use a movie metaphor. 

But if you want to use a comparison to the actual West of the mid and late 1800s, then you get an apt analogy between railroad corporations and the big internet companies — both the ones who run platforms, and the ones who control content. The West that I know in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s, was by and large the domain of corporations who had gotten favors from the federal government, and had been able to use federal subsidies and technologies and also enter into corrupt bargains with the government to give them a lot of control over the western landscape. That’s where I think you have a closer analogy. 

So the Wild West of sheriffs and bandits never existed? Where does that conception of our history come from?

It comes from two things: A series of novels in the late 19th century, and Western movies in the 20th century. The image of the Wild West is an image that’s been created by motion pictures. That’s what Americans see, it’s what they grew up on, it’s been transferred to other areas. But it’s not a vision that comes from the actual history of the West. There was violence in the West, but most of that violence was directed at Indian peoples, at Mexicans. It wasn’t these showdowns in main street kind of stuff.

So what was the West like actually, and what similarities do you see with the tech industry?

The first things to come through the great plains, rocky mountains, and deserts were corporation-run railroads, subsidized by the federal government. They existed only because the federal government needed them to establish transportation, and they set up what at that time was a way to move people, goods, and information — in much the same way that the internet moves people, goods and information. 

And railroads had a lot of unregulated control in the West. There was a huge amount of insider dealing, and a huge amount of draining off of profits. And there was no alternate means of transportation really, so these corporations had a lot of power. It’s much like the internet today. You might not like it, but this is the choice you have.

So railroad corporations were dominating the West, and pretty much making the rules. How did this affect the people living in the west?

They ended up garnering a huge amount of public hostility. 

People needed them — they didn’t want railroads to go away, because they needed them. But they saw the corporations as exploiting them, taking advantage of them, taking away profits that should belong to small businesses. What was supposed to have been this open gate to transportation instead turned out to be a toll gate, and the tolls had to go to the people who were providing the railroad tracks, and they’d been subsidized by the government, and they had friends in the government.

So there was a huge resentment against railroads for the amount that they dominated both commerce and government, and that led to a reform movement in the 1880s, 1890s, early 20th century, which was aimed at bringing the railroads under federal and state regulation and control.

How did this affect American government at the time?

In the sparsely populated states in the West, corporations had a greater income than the states they operated in, and they employed more people than the state governments. Yet they still depended on having those states on their side, so they could be regulated or not regulated in ways that were advantageous. So, they started to intervene with politics. 

The railroads seamlessly involved themselves in the political process. A politician who might have appeared to be regulating the railroad, attacking one railroad, was really doing it at the behest of another railroad with whom he’s in bed. After a while, people stopped being able to trust why anybody was acting the way they did. It became insider politics, with exchanging of favors, and it began to corrupt the whole political system so that people began to lose faith in the politics itself.

This is why the gilded age in the 19th century can seem so similar to today. It’s the same kind of utter disenchantment with politics in the sense that politicians are not only looking out for themselves, but they’re very often looking out for corporate interests who are behind business interests.

So what ended up happening with the railroads, and what can that tell us about what comes next for internet regulation?

The Interstate Commerce Commission began to intervene to set railroad rates, to say what permissible practices are, to set up a series of general regulations, to try to ensure an even playing field for everybody who has to use the railroads. Of course, nothing ever goes smoothly, these bureaucracies don’t work initially, but by the early 20th century, by and large they’ve gotten a functioning ICC, which will bring these roads under more control. 

So, regulation just worked!? Once the federal government got involved in not letting the railroads make their own rules, it was fairer to everyone?

Well, the other thing is the railroads themselves began to cooperate. They didn’t oppose it, because they began to think, we do need a system which will in fact make all of this coherent. And particularly as the players got bigger and bigger, this allowed a few big players with government regulation to be able to still dominate the industry, so they didn’t really oppose it. Railroads did not want nationalization, but they were willing to undergo regulation, especially when they saw that this regulation could in many ways serve their interests.

The danger of this, of course, is it created a high bar of entry to be able to get in. Usually regulation comes when things have been sorted out already, when the whole landscape is already dominated by a few very big players, and those big players recognize the danger to their operations. And that might be a place we’re in today. 

What were some of the pitfalls from this process of regulating the railroads that we can learn from, as we start to regulate internet companies?

The major pitfall we have is that the people who control railroad corporations and the people who control internet corporations are not stupid. At a certain point, they’re going to recognize and accept regulation. They are then going to intervene with the government to make that regulation work for their benefit, much more than for the benefit of the consumers who pushed forward the regulation. So just by getting regulation does not mean that you are going to get the ends you wanted for regulation. The people who are pushing for it are going to have to be very very vigilant, because otherwise they’re going to find that the regulations they achieve are going to be better than the world they just left behind, but they’re not going to be the ideal world that they wanted. And that the corporations are not going to give up the kind of power that they have. 

So we have to be wary of the benevolence of these companies as we go forward. History tells us that we’re going into a regulatory process. But the extent to which that regulation is successful will depend upon how much consumers keep their eye on the ball, as opposed to letting the corporations themselves dictate the kind of regulation. 

Yeah, you don’t want politicians and the corporations in the room alone. 

The internet isn’t going away any more than the railroads are. People want the internet, and they want the railroads, but that’s not really the point. The point of regulation is not necessarily the technology itself, but how these technologies function, how they work. That’s what people have to have some sort of control over.

And history has shown us that as technology develops and then begins to dominate, it’s the American people and government that get undermined, and the corporations that benefit.

The people who own the technology, no matter where it came from, are going to use it for their own benefit. That’s not such a profound lesson, but it’s true.

Well it’s something that we’ve forgotten in our idealism about tech, except in the last few years.

As a historian, I was always astonished that the people who controlled the internet and built these huge companies could claim that their only desire was to serve the public good, that they had these utopian visions. But everything we’ve seen over the last five or six years shows that that’s not the case. 

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