regulation

FCC passes measure urging carriers to block robocalls by default

Posted by | FCC, Government, Mobile, Policy, regulation, robocalls, TC | No Comments

The FCC voted at its open meeting this week to adopt an anti-robocall measure, but it may or may not lead to any abatement of this maddening practice — and it might not be free, either. That said, it’s a start toward addressing a problem that’s far from simple and enormously irritating to consumers.

The last two years have seen the robocall problem grow and grow, and although there are steps you can take right now to improve things, they may not totally eliminate the issue or perhaps won’t be available on your plan or carrier.

Under fire for not acting quickly enough in the face of a nationwide epidemic of scam calls, the FCC has taken action about as fast as a federal regulator can be expected to, and there are two main parts to its plan to fight robocalls, one of which was approved today at the Commission’s open meeting.

The first item was proposed formally last month by Chairman Ajit Pai, and although it amounts to little more than nudging carriers, it could be helpful.

Carriers have the ability to apply whatever tools they have to detect and block robocalls before they even reach users’ phones. But it’s possible, if unlikely, that a user may prefer not to have that service active. And carriers have complained that they are afraid blocking calls by default may in fact be prohibited by existing FCC regulations.

The FCC has said before that this is not the case and that carriers should go ahead and opt everyone into these blocking services (one can always opt out), but carriers have balked. The rulemaking approved basically just makes it crystal clear that carriers are permitted, and indeed encouraged, to opt consumers into call-blocking schemes.

That’s good, but to be clear, Wednesday’s resolution does not require carriers to do anything, nor does it prohibit carriers from charging for such a service — as indeed Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon already do in some form or another. (TechCrunch is owned by Verizon Media, but this does not affect our coverage.)

BREAKING: The @FCC votes to authorize call blocking to help stop #robocalls. That’s good news. Now the bad news: it refuses to prevent new consumer charges and fees to block these awful calls. That’s not right. We should stop robocalls and do it for FREE.https://t.co/6bay6cnujN

— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) June 6, 2019

Commissioner Starks noted in his approving statement that the FCC will be watching the implementation of this policy carefully for the possibility of abuse by carriers.

At my request, the item [i.e. his addition to the proposal] will give us critical feedback on how our tools are performing. It will now study the availability of call blocking solutions; the fees charged, if any, for these services; the effectiveness of various categories of call blocking tools; and an assessment of the number of subscribers availing themselves of available call blocking tools.

A second rule is still gestating, existing right now more or less only as a threat from the FCC should carriers fail to step up their game. The industry has put together a sort of universal caller ID system called STIR/SHAKEN (Secure Telephony Identity Revisited / Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs), but has been slow to roll it out. Pai said late last year that if carriers didn’t put it in place by the end of 2019, the FCC would be forced to take regulatory action.

Why the Commission didn’t simply take regulatory action in the first place is a valid question, and one some Commissioners and others have asked. Be that as it may, the threat is there and seems to have spurred carriers to action. There have been tests, but as yet no carrier has rolled out a working anti-robocall system based on STIR/SHAKEN.

Pai has said regarding these systems that “we [i.e. the FCC] do not anticipate that there would be costs passed on to the consumer,” and it does seem unlikely that your carrier will opt you into a call-blocking scheme that costs you money. But never underestimate the underhandedness and avarice of a telecommunications company. I would not be surprised if new subscribers get this added as a line item or something; watch your bills carefully.

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Google Play cracks down on marijuana apps, loot boxes and more

Posted by | Apps, developers, Google, Google Play, kids apps, loot boxes, marijuana, Mobile, play store, policies, regulation | No Comments

On Wednesday, Google rolled out new policies around kids’ apps on Google Play following an FTC complaint claiming a lack of attention to apps’ compliance with children’s privacy laws, and other rules around content. However, kids’ apps weren’t the only area being addressed this week. As it turns out, Google also cracked down on loot boxes and marijuana apps, while also expanding sections detailing prohibitions around hate speech, sexual content and counterfeit goods, among other things.

The two more notable changes include a crackdown on “loot boxes” and a ban on apps that offer marijuana delivery — while the service providers’ apps can remain, the actual ordering process has to take place outside of the app itself, Google said.

Specifically, Google will no longer allow apps offering the ability to order marijuana through an in-app shopping cart, those that assist users in the delivery or pickup of marijuana or those that facilitate the sale of THC products.

This isn’t a huge surprise — Apple already bans apps that allow for the sale of marijuana, tobacco or other controlled substances in a similar fashion. On iOS, apps like Eaze and Weedmaps are allowed, but they don’t offer an ordering function. That’s the same policy Google is now applying on Google Play.

This is a complex subject for Google, Apple and other app marketplace providers to tackle. Though some states have legalized the sale of marijuana, the laws vary. And it’s still illegal according to the federal government. Opting out of playing middleman here is probably the right step for app marketplace platforms.

That said, we understand Google has no intention of outright banning marijuana ordering and delivery apps.

The company knows they’re popular and wants them to stay. It’s even giving them a grace period of 30 days to make changes, and is working with the affected app developers to ensure they’ll remain accessible.

“These apps simply need to move the shopping cart flow outside of the app itself to be compliant with this new policy,” a spokesperson explained. “We’ve been in contact with many of the developers and are working with them to answer any technical questions and help them implement the changes without customer disruption.”

Another big change impacts loot boxes — a form of gambling popular among gamers. Essentially, people pay a fee to receive a random selection of in-game items, some of which may be rare or valuable. Loot boxes have been heavily criticized for a variety of reasons, including their negative effect on gameplay and how they’re often marketed to children.

Last week, a new Senate bill was introduced with bipartisan support that would prohibit the sale of loot boxes to children, and fine those in violation.

Google Play hasn’t gone so far as to ban loot boxes entirely, but instead says games have to now disclose the odds of getting each item.

In addition to these changes, Google rolled out a handful of more minor updates, detailed on its Developer Policy Center website. 

Here, Google says it has expanded the definition of what it considers sexual content to include a variety of new examples, like illustrations of sexual poses, content depicting sexual aids and fetishes and depictions of nudity that wouldn’t be appropriate in a public context. It also added “content that is lewd or profane,” according to Android Police, which compared the old and new versions of the policy.

Definitions that are somewhat “open to interpretation” is something that Apple commonly uses to gain better editorial control over its own App Store. By adding a ban of “lewd or profane” content, Google can opt to reject apps that aren’t covered by other examples.

Google also expanded its list of examples around hate speech to include: “compilations of assertions intended to prove that a protected group is inhuman, inferior or worthy of being hated;” “apps that contain theories about a protected group possessing negative characteristics (e.g. malicious, corrupt, evil, etc.), or explicitly or implicitly claims the group is a threat;” and “content or speech trying to encourage others to believe that people should be hated or discriminated against because they are a member of a protected group.”

Additional changes include an update to the Intellectual Property policy that more clearly prohibits the sale or promotion for sale of counterfeit goods within an app; a clarification of the User Generated Content policy to explicitly prohibit monetization features that encourage objectionable behavior by users; and an update to the Gambling policy, with more examples.

A Google spokesperson says the company regularly updates its Play Store developer policies in accordance with best practices and legal regulations around the world. However, the most recent set of changes err on the side of getting ahead of increased regulation — not only in terms of kids’ apps and data privacy, but also other areas now under legal scrutiny, like loot boxes and marijuana sales.

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Instagram founders say losing autonomy at Facebook meant “winning”

Posted by | anti-trust, Apps, elizabeth warren, Facebook, instagram, Kevin Systrom, M&A, mike krieger, Mobile, Policy, regulation, Social, SXSW, TC | No Comments

Rather than be sore about losing independence within Facebook, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom told me it was an inevitable sign of his app’s triumph. Today at South By South West, Systrom and fellow co-founder Mike Krieger sat down for their first on-stage talk together since leaving Facebook in September. They discussed their super hero origin stories, authenticity on social media, looming regulation for big tech, and how they’re exploring what they’ll do next.

Krieger grew up hitting “view source” on websites while Systrom hacked on AOL booter programs that would kick people off instant messenger, teaching both how code could impact real people. As Instagram grew popular, Krieger described the “incredi-bad” feeling of fighting server fires and trying to keep the widely loved app online even if that meant programming in the middle of a sushi restaurant or camping retreat. He once even revived Instagram while drunk in the middle of the night, and woke up with no memory of the feat, confused about who’d fixed the problem. The former Instagram CTO implored founders not to fall into the “recruiting death spiral” where you’re too busy to recruit which makes you busier which makes you too busy to recruit…

But thankfully, the founders were also willing to dig into some tougher topics than their scrappy startup days.

Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger (from left) drive to Palo Alto to raise their Series A, circa January 2011

Independence vs Importance.

“In some ways, there being less autonomy is a function of Instagram winning. If Instagram had just been this niche photo app for photographers, we probably would be working on that app for 20 year. Instead what happened was it got better and better and better, and it improved, and it got to a size where it was meaningfully important to this company” Systrom explained. “If this thing gets to that scale that we want it to get to which is why we’re doing this deal, the autonomy will eventually not be there as much because it’s so important. So in some ways it’s just an unavoidable thing if you’re successful. So you can choose, do you want to be unsuccessful and small and have all the autonomy in the world, or no?”

AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 11: Mike Krieger speaks onstage at Interactive Keynote: Instagram Founders Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger with Josh Constine during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW)

Krieger followed up that “I think if you study . . . all the current companies, the ones that succeed internally eventually have become so important to the acquiring company that it’s almost irresponsible to not be thinking about what are the right models for integration. The advice I generally give is, ‘are you okay with that if you succeed?’ And if you’re not then you shouldn’t do the deal.” If the loss of autonomy can’t be avoided, they suggest selling to a rocket ship that will invest in and care for your baby rather than shift priorities.

Asked if seeing his net worth ever feels surreal, Systrom said  money doesn’t make you happy and “I don’t really wake up in the morning and look at my bank account.” I noted that’s the convenient privilege of having a big one.

The pair threw cold water on the idea that being forced to earn more money drove them out of the company. “I remember having this series of conversations with Mark and other folks at Facebook and they’re like ‘You guys just joined, do not worry about monetization, we’ll figure this out down the road.’ And it actually came a lot more from us saying “1. It’s important for us to be contributing to the overall Fb Inc . . . and 2. Each person who joins before you have ads is a person you’re going to have to introduce ads to.” Systrom added that “to be clear, we were the ones pushing monetization, not the other way around, because we believed Instagram has to make money somehow. It costs a lot to run . . . We pushed hard on it so that we would be a successful unit within Facebook and I think we got to that point, which is really good.”

But from 2015 to 2016, Instagram’s remaining independence fueled a reinvention of its app with non-square photos, the shift to the algorithm, and the launch of Stories. On having to challenge the fundamental assumptions of a business, “You’ve got maybe a couple years of relevance when you build a product. If you don’t reinvent it every quarter or every year, then you fall out of relevance and you go away.”

That last launch was inspired by wanting to offer prismatic identity where people could share non-highlights that wouldn’t haunt them. But also, Systrom admits that “Honestly a big reason why was that for a long time, people’s profiles were filled with Snapchat links and it was clear that people were trying to bridge the two products. So by bringing the two products [Feed and Stories] into one place, we gave consumers what they wanted.” Though when I asked anyone in the crowd who was still mad about the algorithm to hiss, SXSW turned into a snake pit.

Regulating Big Tech

With Systrom and Krieger gone, Facebook is moving forward with plans to more tightly integrate Instagram with Facebook and WhatsApp. That includes unifying their messaging system, which some say is designed to make Facebook’s apps harder to break up with anti-trust regulation. What does Systrom think of the integration? “The more people that are available to talk with, the more useful the platform becomes. And I buy that thesis . . . Whether or not they will in fact want to talk to people on different platforms, I can’t tell the future, so I don’t know” Systrom said.

AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 11: Josh Constine, Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom speak onstage at Interactive Keynote: Instagram Founders Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger with Josh Constine during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW)

Krieger recommended Facebook try to prove users want that cross-app messaging before embarking on a giant engineering challenge of merging their backends. When I asked if Systrom ever had a burning desire to Instagram Direct message a WhatsApp user, he admitted “Personally, no.” But in a show of respect and solid media training, he told his former employer “Bravo for making a big bet and going for it.”

Then it was time for the hardest hitting question: their thoughts on Presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to regulate big tech and roll back Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram. “Do we get our job back?” Systrom joked, trying to diffuse the tension. Krieger urged more consideration of downstream externalities, and specificity on what problem a break up fixes. He wants differentiation between regulating Facebook’s acquisitions, Amazon white-labeling and selling products, and Apple’s right to run the only iOS App Store.

Acquisition vs Competition

“We live in a time where I think the anger against big tech has increased ten-fold — whether that’s because the property prices in your neighborhood have gone up, whether it’s because you don’t like Russian meddling in elections — there are a long list of reasons people are angry at tech right now and some of them I think are well-founded” Systrom confirmed. “That doesn’t mean that the answer is to break all the companies up. Breaking companies up is a very specific prescription for a very specific problem. If you want to fix economic issues there are ways of doing that. If you want to fix Russian meddling there are ways of doing that. Breaking up a company doesn’t fix those problems. That doesn’t mean that companies shouldn’t be broken up if they get too big and they’re monopolies and they cause problems, but being big in and of itself is not a crime.”

attends Interactive Keynote: Instagram Founders Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger with Josh Constine during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas

Systrom then took a jab at Warren’s tech literacy, saying “part of what’s surprised me is that generally the policy is all tech should be broken up, and that feels to me again not nuanced enough and it shows me that the understanding of the problem isn’t there. I think it’s going to take a more nuanced proposal, but my fear is that something like a proposal to break up all tech is playing on everyone’s current feeling of anti-tech rather than doing what I think politicians should do which is address real problems and give real solutions.”

The two founders then gave some pretty spurious logic for why Instagram’s acquisition helped consumers. “As someone who ran the company for how many years inside of Facebook? Six? There was a lot of competition internally even and I think better ideas came out because of it. We grew both companies not just one company. It’s really hard question. What consumer was damaged because it grew to the size that it did? I think that’s a strong argument that in fact the acquisition worked out for consumers.” That ignores the fact that if Instagram and Facebook were rivals, they’d have to compete on privacy and treating their users well. Even if they inspired each other to build more engaging products, that doesn’t address where harm to consumers has been done.

Krieger suggested that the acquisition actually spurred competition by making Instagram a role modeI. “There was a gold rush of companies being like ‘I’m going to be the Instagram of X . . . the Instagram of Audio, the Instagram of video, the Instagram of dog photos.’ You saw people start new companies and try to build them out in order to try to achieve what we’ve gotten to.” Yet no startup besides Snapchat, which had already launched, has actually grown to rival Instagram. And seeing Instagram hold its own against the Facebook empire would have likely inspired many more startups — some of which can’t find funding since investors doubt their odds against a combined Facebook and Instagram

As for what’s next for the college buddies, “we’re giving ourselves the time to get curious about things again” Krieger says. They’re still exploring so there was no big reveal about their follow-up venture. But Systrom says they built Instagram by finding the mega-trend of cameras on phones and asking what they’d want to use, “and the question is, what’s the next wave?”

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Regulation could protect Facebook, not punish it

Posted by | Apps, Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, Government, instagram, Mark Zuckerberg, Mobile, Opinion, Policy, regulation, Social, TC, Uber, WhatsApp | No Comments

You know what tech startups hate? Complicated legal compliance. The problem is, Facebook isn’t a startup any more, but its competitors are.

There have been plenty of calls from congress and critics to regulate Facebook following the election interference scandal and now the Cambridge Analytica debacle. The government could require extensive ads transparency reporting or data privacy protections. That could cost Facebook a lot of money, slow down its operations, or inhibit its ability to build new products.

But the danger is that those same requirements could be much more onerous for a tiny upstart company to uphold. Without much cash or enough employees, and with product-market fit still to nail down, young startups might be anchored by the weight of regulation. It could prevent them from ever rising to become a true alternative to Facebook. Venture capitalists choosing whether to fund the next Facebook killer might look at the regulations as too high of a price of entry.

STANFORD, CA – JUNE 24: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (R) hugs U.S. President Barack Obama during the 2016 Global Entrepeneurship Summit at Stanford University on June 24, 2016 in Stanford, California. President Obama joined Silicon Valley leaders on the final day of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The lack of viable alternatives has made the #DeleteFacebook movement toothless. Where are people going to go? Instagram? WhatsApp? The government already missed its chances to stop Facebook from acquiring these companies that are massive social networks in their own right.

The only social networks to carve out communities since Facebook’s rise did so largely by being completely different, like the ephemeral Snapchat that purposefully doesn’t serve as a web identity platform, and the mostly-public Twitter that caters to thought leaders and celebrities more than normal people sharing their personal lives. Blockchain-based decentralized social networks sound nice but may be impossible to spin up.

That’s left few places for Facebook haters to migrate. This might explain why despite having so many more users, #DeleteFacebook peaked last week at substantially fewer Twitter mentions than the big #DeleteUber campaign from last January, according to financial data dashboard Sentieo. Lyft’s existence makes #DeleteUber a tenable stance, because you don’t have to change your behavior pattern, just your brand of choice.

If the government actually wants to protect the public against Facebook abusing its power, it would need to go harder than the Honest Ads Act that would put political advertising on Internet platforms under the same scrutiny regarding disclosure of buyers as the rules for TV and radio advertising. That’s basically just extra paperwork for Facebook. We’ve seen regulatory expenses deter competition amongst broadband internet service providers and in other industries. Real change would necessitate regulation that either creates alternatives to Facebook or at least doesn’t inhibit their creation.

That could mean only requiring certain transparency and privacy protections from apps over a certain size, like 200 million daily users. This would put the cap a bit above Twitter and Snapchat’s size today, giving them time to prepare for compliance, while immediately regulating Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Google’s social problem child YouTube.

Still, with Facebook earning billions in profit per quarter and a massive war chest built up, Mark Zuckerberg could effectively pay his way out of the problem. That’s why it makes perfect sense for him to have told CNN “I’m not sure we shouldn’t be regulated” and that “There are things like ad transparency regulation that I would love to see.” Particular regulatory hurdles amount to just tiny speed bumps for Facebook. Courting this level of regulation could bat down the question of whether it should be broken up or its News Feed algorithm needs to change.

Meanwhile, if the government instituted new rules for tech platforms collecting persona information going forward, it could effectively lock in Facebook’s lead in the data race. If it becomes more cumbersome to gather this kind of data, no competitor might ever amass an index of psychographic profiles and social graphs able to rival Facebook’s.

A much more consequential approach would be to break up Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Facebook is trying to preempt these drastic measures with Zuckerberg’s recent apology tour and its purchase of full-page ads in nine newspapers today claiming it understands its responsibility.

Establishing them as truly independent companies that compete would create meaningful alternatives to Facebook. Instagram and WhatsApp would have to concern themselves with actually becoming sustainable businesses. They’d all lose some economies of data scale, forfeiting the ability to share engineering, anti-spam, localization, ad sales, and other resources that a source close to Instagram told me it gained by being acquired in 2012, and that Facebook later applied to WhatsApp too.

Both permanent photo sharing and messaging would become two-horse races again. That could lead to the consumer-benefiting competition and innovation the government hopes for from regulation.

Yet with strong regulation like dismantling Facebook seeming beyond the resolve of congress, and weak regulation potentially protecting Facebook, perhaps it’s losing the moral high ground that will be Facebook’s real punishment.

Facebook chief legal officer Colin Stretch testifies before congress regarding Russian election interference

We’ve already seen that first-time download rates aren’t plummeting for Facebook, its App Store ranking has actually increased since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, and blue chip advertisers aren’t bailing, according to BuzzFeed. But Facebook relies on the perception of its benevolent mission to recruit top talent in Silicon Valley and beyond.

Techies take the job because they wake up each day believing that they’re having a massive positive influence by connecting the world. These people could have founded or worked at a new startup where they’d have discernible input on the direction of the product, and a chance to earn huge return multiples on their stock. Many have historically worked at Facebook because its ads say it’s the “Best place to build and make an impact”.

But if workers start to see that impact as negative, they might not enlist. This is what could achieve that which surface-level regulation can’t. It’s perhaps the most important repercussion of all the backlash about fake news, election interference, well-being, and data privacy: that losing talent could lead to a slow-down of innovation at Facebook that might  leave the door open for a new challenger.

For more on Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, read our feature pieces:

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DraftKings has received a Malta gaming license, paving the way for European expansion

Posted by | daily fantasy sports, DraftKings, Europe, Gaming, Malta, Policy, regulation, Sports, TC | No Comments

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 16:  The fantasy sports website DraftKings is shown on October 16, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. DraftKings and its rival FanDuel have been under scrutiny after accusations surfaced of employees participating in the contests with insider information. An employee recently finished second in a contest on FanDuel, winning $350,000. Nevada recently banned the sites.  (Photo illustration by Scott Olson/Getty Images) DraftKings was just approved for a Controlled Skill Games License from the Malta Gaming Authority, which is the entity that runs gaming in Malta – a small island nation south of Italy. While this may not sound like a big deal, (especially considering Malta has a population of under 500,000 people) the nation is part of the European Union, meaning DraftKings can now expand into some other… Read More

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FAA releases report detailing categories for drones flying over crowds

Posted by | Aircraft, drones, FAA, Gadgets, Government, regulation, TC, UAVs | No Comments

Game+of+Drones,+Battle+Quads On Monday, the Associated Press got early access to a report commissioned by the FAA on how drones flying over or near people should be categorized and restricted. Today, that report was officially released, with all the juicy (and boring) details you’ve come to expect from government task force briefings. Read More

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