A simple solution to end the encryption debate

Criminals and terrorists, like millions of others, rely on smartphone encryption to protect the information on their mobile devices. But unlike most of us, the data on their phones could endanger lives and pose a great threat to national security.

The challenge for law enforcement, and for us as a society, is how to reconcile the advantages of gaining access to the plans of dangerous individuals with the cost of opening a door to the lives of everyone else. It is the modern manifestation of the age-old conflict between privacy versus security, playing out in our pockets and palms.

One-size-fits all technological solutions, like a manufacturer-built universal backdoor tool for smartphones, likely create more dangers than they prevent. While no solution will be perfect, the best ways to square data access with security concerns require a more nuanced approach that rely on non-technological procedures.

The FBI has increasingly pressed the case that criminals and terrorists use smartphone security measures to avoid detection and investigation, arguing for a technological, cryptographic solution to stop these bad actors from “going dark.” In fact, there are recent reports that the Executive Branch is engaged in discussions to compel manufacturers to build technological tools so law enforcement can read otherwise-encrypted data on smartphones.

But the FBI is also tasked with protecting our nation against cyber threats. Encryption has a critical role in protecting our digital systems against compromises by hackers and thieves. And of course, a centralized data access tool would be a prime target for hackers and criminals. As recent events prove – from the 2016 elections to the recent ransomware attack against government computers in Atlanta – the problem will likely only become worse. Anything that weakens our cyber defenses will only make it more challenging for authorities to balance these “dual mandates” of cybersecurity and law enforcement access.

There is also the problem of internal threats: when they have access to customer data, service providers themselves can misuse or sell it without permission. Once someone’s data is out of their control, they have very limited means to protect it against exploitation. The current, growing scandal around the data harvesting practices on social networking platforms illustrates this risk. Indeed, our company Symphony Communications, a strongly encrypted messaging platform, was formed in the wake of a data misuse scandal by a service provider in the financial services sector.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

So how do we help law enforcement without making data privacy even thornier than it already is? A potential solution is through a non-technological method, sensitive to the needs of all parties involved, that can sometimes solve the tension between government access and data protection while preventing abuse by service providers.

Agreements between some of our clients and the New York State Department of Financial Services (“NYSDFS”), proved popular enough that FBI Director Wray recently pointed to them as a model of “responsible encryption” that solves the problem of “going dark” without compromising robust encryption critical to our nation’s business infrastructure.

The solution requires storage of encryption keys — the codes needed to decrypt data — with third party custodians. Those custodians would not keep these client’s encryption keys. Rather, they give the access tool to clients, and then clients can choose how to use it and to whom they wish to give access. A core component of strong digital security is that a service provider should not have access to client’s unencrypted data nor control over a client’s encryption keys.

The distinction is crucial. This solution is not technological, like backdoor access built by manufacturers or service providers, but a human solution built around customer control.  Such arrangements provide robust protection from criminals hacking the service, but they also prevent customer data harvesting by service providers.

Where clients choose their own custodians, they may subject those custodians to their own, rigorous security requirements. The clients can even split their encryption keys into multiple pieces distributed over different third parties, so that no one custodian can access a client’s data without the cooperation of the others.

This solution protects against hacking and espionage while safeguarding against the misuse of customer content by the service provider. But it is not a model that supports service provider or manufacturer built back doors; our approach keeps the encryption key control in clients’ hands, not ours or the government’s.

A custodial mechanism that utilizes customer-selected third parties is not the answer to every part of the cybersecurity and privacy dilemma. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that this dilemma will submit to a single solution, especially a purely technological one. Our experience shows that reasonable, effective solutions can exist. Technological features are core to such solutions, but just as critical are non-technological considerations. Advancing purely technical answers – no matter how inventive – without working through the checks, balances and risks of implementation would be a mistake.


Source: Tech Crunch

Longtime LG Group chairman Koo Bon-Moo dies at 73

South Korean electronics conglomerate LG Group announced this morning that the company’s longtime chairman Koo Bon-Moo has passed away at 73. Koo’s death follows a year-long battle with brain disease, for which he had undergone surgery, according to Reuters.

The executive stepped into the role in 1995 and served as a driving force in establishing LG as an electronics powerhouse. His tenure focused on electronics, chemicals and telecom, and Koo also oversaw the company’s transition from Lucky Goldstar to the more streamlined LG, a name change that occurred the year he took power.

Bloomberg notes that the company more than quintupled sales under Koo’s near quarter-century tenure atop LG.

Koo Kwang-mo, the late-executive’s adopted son, is expect to take over the reins of the company, marking the fourth generation of family control for the electronics company. The younger Koo has been with the company since 2006, starting in its finance division and now running its information display unit.

Koo Kwang-mo was nominated to the company’s board on Thursday. His approval is pending a shareholder vote late next month,.


Source: Tech Crunch

Shared housing startups are taking off

When young adults leave the parental nest, they often follow a predictable pattern. First, move in with roommates. Then graduate to a single or couple’s pad. After that comes the big purchase of a single-family home. A lawnmower might be next.

Looking at the new home construction industry, one would have good reason to presume those norms were holding steady. About two-thirds of new homes being built in the U.S. this year are single-family dwellings, complete with tidy yards and plentiful parking.

In startup-land, however, the presumptions about where housing demand is going looks a bit different. Home sharing is on the rise, along with more temporary lease options, high-touch service and smaller spaces in sought-after urban locations.

Seeking roommates and venture capital

Crunchbase News analysis of residential-focused real estate startups uncovered a raft of companies with a shared and temporary housing focus that have raised funding in the past year or so.

This isn’t a U.S.-specific phenomenon. Funded shared and short-term housing startups are cropping up across the globe, from China to Europe to Southeast Asia. For this article, however, we’ll focus on U.S. startups. In the chart below, we feature several that have raised recent rounds.

Notice any commonalities? Yes, the startups listed are all based in either New York or the San Francisco Bay Area, two metropolises associated with scarce, pricey housing. But while these two metro areas offer the bulk of startups’ living spaces, they’re also operating in other cities, including Los Angeles, Seattle and Pittsburgh.

From white picket fences to high-rise partitions

The early developers of the U.S. suburban planned communities of the 1950s and 60s weren’t just selling houses. They were selling a vision of the American Dream, complete with quarter-acre lawns, dishwashers and spacious garages.

By the same token, today’s shared housing startups are selling another vision. It’s not just about renting a room; it’s also about being part of a community, making friends and exploring a new city.

One of the slogans for HubHaus is “rent one of our rooms and find your tribe.” Founded less than three years ago, the company now manages about 80 houses in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, matching up roommates and planning group events.

Starcity pitches itself as an antidote to loneliness. “Social isolation is a growing epidemic—we solve this problem by bringing people together to create meaningful connections,” the company homepage states.

The San Francisco company also positions its model as a partial solution to housing shortages as it promotes high-density living. It claims to increase living capacity by three times the normal apartment building.

Costs and benefits

Shared housing startups are generally operating in the most expensive U.S. housing markets, so it’s difficult to categorize their offerings as cheap. That said, the cost is typically lower than a private apartment.

Mostly, the aim seems to be providing something affordable for working professionals willing to accept a smaller private living space in exchange for a choice location, easy move-in and a ready-made social network.

At Starcity, residents pay $2,000 to $2,300 a month, all expenses included, depending on length of stay. At HomeShare, which converts two-bedroom luxury flats to three-bedrooms with partitions, monthly rents start at about $1,000 and go up for larger spaces.

Shared and temporary housing startups also purport to offer some savings through flexible-term leases, typically with minimum stays of one to three months. Plus, they’re typically furnished, with no need to set up Wi-Fi or pay power bills.

Looking ahead

While it’s too soon to pick winners in the latest crop of shared and temporary housing startups, it’s not far-fetched to envision the broad market as one that could eventually attract much larger investment and valuations. After all, Airbnb has ascended to a $30 billion private market value for its marketplace of vacation and short-term rentals. And housing shortages in major cities indicate there’s plenty of demand for non-Airbnb options.

While we’re focusing here on residential-focused startups, it’s also worth noting that the trend toward temporary, flexible, high-service models has already gained a lot of traction for commercial spaces. Highly funded startups in this niche include Industrious, a provider of flexible-term, high-end office spaces, Knotel, a provider of customized workplaces, and Breather, which provides meeting and work rooms on demand. Collectively, those three companies have raised about $300 million to date.

At first glance, it may seem shared housing startups are scaling up at an off time. The millennial generation (born roughly 1980 to 1994) can no longer be stereotyped as a massive band of young folks new to “adulting.” The average member of the generation is 28, and older millennials are mid-to-late thirties. Many even own lawnmowers.

No worries. Gen Z, the group born after 1995, is another huge generation. So even if millennials age out of shared housing, demographic forecasts indicate there will plenty of twenty-somethings to rent those partitioned-off rooms.


Source: Tech Crunch

‘My Data Request’ lists guides to get data about you

GDPR is right around the corner, so it’s time to prepare your personal data requests. If you live in the European Union, tech companies have to comply with personal data requests after May 25th. And there’s a handy website that helps you do just that.

My Data Request lists dozens of tech companies and tells you how you can contact them. The website also links to the privacy policy of each service and tells you what to do even if you don’t live in the EU.

Some companies, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google, Tinder and Snapchat have made that easy as they have created a page on their website to download a zip archive with all your personal data.

But it’s worth nothing that your archive doesn’t necessarily include all data about you. For instance, Facebook tracks your web and location history as much as possible. But you won’t find any of that in the archive. The download tool is mostly about getting a copy of your posts, Messenger conversations, photos and more.

For most companies (including Amazon), you’ll have to email them yourself. My Data Request has created handy email templates. You just have to copy the message, put your name and contact information and send the email. The email addresses are listed on My Data Request’s site too.

Some companies make it even harder than that. I haven’t checked all guides, but you have to send a letter to Uber to get your data for instance. For HSBC clients, you have to call the company.

It’s unfortunate that there’s no about page on My Data Request — it’s unclear who’s behind this website. Nevertheless, the website’s privacy policy says that it doesn’t collect any personal data when you interact with the site (but it uses Google Analytics).

You don’t have to connect with third-party APIs or give access to your personal account to request your data. It’s just links and text, and an interactive way to learn about data requests.


Source: Tech Crunch

Siempo’s new app will break your smartphone addiction

A new app called Siempo wants to un-addict you from your smartphone and its numerous attention-stealing apps. To do so, Siempo replaces an Android device’s homescreen, while also taking advantage of a number of design principles to push distractions further away, and give you more control over your notifications.

The startup, which launched a few weeks ago on Google Play, actually began as a hardware company. 

A hardware startup shifts to software

In 2015, the original co-founders Andreas Gala and Jorge Selva began developing a minimalist feature phone device called Minium, in response to their concerns with today’s always-on culture. But designing hardware from scratch is hard, so they pivoted to making a mindful smartphone called Siempo using an existing handset from China.

The following year, Siempo brought on Mayank Saxena (CTO), who previously ran data storage engineering teams at NetApp, and Andrew Dunn (now CEO), who was previously the number six employee at Flexport. 

“I struggled with smartphone and social media addiction as a teenager and had been working on a wearable to help people balance their relationship with tech,” explains Dunn. And Mayank, he says, “had become increasingly concerned about raising balanced children in the digital age,” prior to joining Siempo.

Unfortunately, when the company tried raising funds on Kickstarter in 2017, it didn’t meet its goal.

What the team had underestimated was how difficult it is to convince people to switch smartphones. And in this case, it wasn’t just asking them to buy new hardware – it was a request to try a whole new type of mobile experience, too.

Although the Kickstarter failed, it had provided the team with valuable feedback.

 

“When we launched our Kickstarter campaign, we heard from dozens of potential backers that they loved our concept but would much prefer to try and pay for a software version on their existing devices,” says Dunn. “We knew we could still build ninety-five percent of what we wanted to, so it was a clear path to explore.”

At this point, the original co-founders moved on to other projects, leaving Dunn to take the helm.

The new project, he says, appealed to him because of the negative nature of today’s technology.

“The attention economy is making people more distracted, stressed, lonely and depressed,” Dunn says. “Big Tech is unlikely to take meaningful leadership in humane design, and individuals are at a loss for what to do because developing healthier digital habits is a long-term, manual, iterative process,” he adds.

Siempo, currently in beta, aims to address this problem with a set of features that should appeal to anyone questioning if they’ve become too addicted to their phone.

After downloading the launcher from the Play Store, you can set Siempo as your default home app – meaning, you’ll now interact with its humanely designed interface instead of the stock version from your smartphone’s maker.

To lessen your attachment to your device, Siempo reverses some of the persuasive, psychologically addicting techniques that have been built into our phone software and mobile apps by developers who specifically engineered their apps to increase user engagement, without fully understanding the ethics of that decision.

Entire OS platforms and massive social media companies like Facebook have, over the years, created systems to reward users who continually check in with their phones. These dopamine-driven feedback loops create a cycle of smartphone addiction, with users having no tools to fight back beyond their own willpower.

The world is just now starting to wake up to these mistakes, including some people who built the systems in the first place.

For instance, former Facebook president Sean Parker has said Facebook’s design exploited weakness in the human psyche to addict users, while former head of user growth turned VC Chamath Palihapitiya admitted to having “tremendous guilt” over what Facebook had become. Meanwhile, former Google exec Tristan Harris created a coalition called the Center for Humane Technology, in an effort to “realign technology with humanity’s best interests.”

And digital wellness is now a movement raking in millions.

Siempo fits in within this broader category of self-care apps focused on a more balanced use of technology.

How Siempo works

Once installed, Siempo makes your homescreen a calmer interface, without things like badged icons or colorful corporate logos. Here, you can personalize a message that appears when you unlock your phone – like a daily mantra – and in an update rolling out Wednesday, you’ll be able to set a custom background or turn on a dark mode.

One of the launcher’s key features is how it lets you batch your notifications.

Instead of allowing apps to alert you at any time they choose, you can configure your phone to send your alerts on a schedule you prefer – like every half hour, the top of the hour, or – if you want to go all in – just once per day. (You can choose which apps, if any, are allowed to break through.)

Siempo also leverages a number of design techniques to distance you from your distractions, including by unbranding app icons and turning them to greyscale.

Plus, the launcher organizes apps into a tiered menu system where distracting apps are further away on a third page, and the location of those apps is randomized upon each visit to prevent unconscious opens and usage.

“Users have reported that merely the act of identifying which apps they want to use less creates a huge shift in their relationship with that app,” notes Dunn.

The app has now been endorsed by the Center for Humane Technology as an example of humane design.

Siempo has raised funds from Backstage Capital for its project. To date, Siempo raised $555,000 for its hardware project and $400,000 for its software.

The app is free during its beta, but plans to implement a pay-as-you-want subscription starting at $1 per month – this will make the app accessible to everyone, no matter how much they can spend. The company says it’s also talking to several startup smartphone brands to become their default interface.

Longer-term, Dunn believes the Siempo experience can span platforms.

“Siempo will be a unified layer across all your tools – smartphone, desktop, tablet, wearables, etc. – protecting your attention, preventing unconscious usage and improving mental health,” he says. “We are excited to build out an A.I. interface that can learn the user’s behavior and adjust their digital world to support their goals and intentions,” Dunn adds, speaking of what he envisions Siempo can become.

“We aim to be a good, trusted, impactful tech company that is on the user’s side, respecting their wellbeing and privacy,” he says.

The app is available on Google Play, as that platform allows for this level of change and customization. A modified version may arrive on iOS in the future.

 


Source: Tech Crunch

La Belle Vie wants to compete with Amazon Prime Now in Paris

French startup La Belle Vie announced a new funding round of $6.5 million earlier this week (€5.5 million). Julien Mangeard, Thibaut Faurès Fustel de Coulanges, Louis Duclert, Kima Ventures and Shake-Up Factory participated in the founding round.

Online grocery shopping is becoming quite competitive in Paris. You can order groceries from Amazon using Amazon Prime Now. And all the traditional supermarkets are launching or relaunching services to order and receive groceries within a couple of hours — Carrefour Livraison Express, Franprix’s mobile app, etc.

But all those services aren’t necessarily designed for this kind of offering. With Franprix’s app for instance, a rider is going to pick up your groceries in the nearest store and bring them to you. With Amazon Prime Now, Amazon has a big warehouse in the North of Paris filled with Kindles, books and tomatoes.

La Belle Vie wants to focus exclusively on your groceries and optimize all the steps. It starts with a big inventory. La Belle Vie sells you basic groceries, organic stuff, meat, fish and vegetables. Last year, the company acqui-hired 62degrés to sell fresh prepared meals too.

La Belle Vie has developed all its tools from scratch, including its ERP, a warehouse management service and a delivery management service. In 2017, the startup generated $3.5 million in sales (€3 million) in sales.

With this funding round, the company plans to launch a second warehouse in Paris and new cities, starting with Lyon. But the best part is that you can order croissants without going to the boulangerie — finally a croissants-as-a-service startup.


Source: Tech Crunch

Apple started paying $15 billion European tax fine

It took a couple of years, but Apple has started to pay back illegal tax benefits to the Irish government. The company has paid $1.77 billion (€1.5 billion) into an escrow account designed to hold the fine. Apple has to pay $15 billion in total (€13 billion).

In August 2016, the European Commission said that Apple benefited from illegal tax benefits in Ireland from 2003 to 2014. According to Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, Apple managed to lower its effective corporate tax rate thanks to a Double Irish structure.

By creating two different Irish subsidiaries and allocating profit to the right subsidiary, you can end up paying corporate tax on a fraction of your actual profit. Of course, Apple wasn’t the only tech company that optimized its tax structure. And the company also claimed that everything was legal.

The Irish government tried to appeal the decision but the decision remained intact. Ireland had to recover €13 billion starting on January 2017.

But nothing happened.

At some point Vestager got mad again and referred the case to the European Court of Justice. This time, Vestager wasn’t attacking Apple, but Ireland.

It looks like the case is closed now and Apple will slowly pay back the fine over time. Unfortunately, the fine is now more expensive than before because the U.S. dollar has been going down for a couple of years. Apple has hundreds of billions in cash, and a significant portion is overseas.

European governments lobbied to put an end to the Double Irish back in 2014. Apple moved some of its international cash to the tiny island of Jersey around the same time.

European governments are currently discussing a tax reform to tax big tech companies based on actual revenue in each European country. This way, tech companies wouldn’t be able to report profit in just one country with a lower corporate tax rate. But it’s taking longer than expected as some member countries are still dragging their feet.


Source: Tech Crunch

zGlue launches a configurable system-on-a-chip to help developers implement customized chipsets

The complexity and cost of packing an array of sensors and power inside a small amount of space has opened the door to a wider and wider variety of use cases for internet-connected devices beyond just smart thermostats or cameras — and also exposed a hole for getting those ideas into an actual piece of hardware.

So there are some startups that are looking to address this hole by providing developers a path to creating the customized chipsets they need to power those devices. zGlue is one of those, led by former Samsung engineering director Ming Zhang and former Misfit founder Sonny Vu.  The company’s chiplets are built around the kind of system-on-a-chip approach that you’ll see in most modern devices, where everything is in a single unit that reduces some of the complexity of moving processes around a larger piece of hardware — shrinking the space constraints and allowing all these actions to happen on a device, such as a smartphone. As more and more IoT devices come online, they may all have varying form factor demands, which means companies — like zGlue and others — are emerging to address those needs.

“From the developer point of view, think of us as a system that is not different from any thing else on the market, user-interface-wise,” Zhang said. “It is just smaller in size, faster in time to market, and flexible — customizable by individuals rather than just by Apple and Qualcomms. [We’re] democratizing chip innovation so it is no longer [a] privilege of Fortune 500 companies.”

The company’s first product is called the zOrigin, a “chip-stacking” product that aims to allow developers to embed the sensors and processes necessary for their devices. Stemming from an ARM 32-bit core processor (meaning it can handle more complex and precise calculations), the first launch costs $149 and can include pieces like a Bluetooth radio, accelerometers, and other necessary features.

zGlue’s chipsets have embedded memory, which is an increasingly common approach to try to reduce the number of trips going from the actual processing power to where the information is stored. Those trips cost power, speed, and can restrict the scope of use cases for internet-connected devices. Zhang said the chiplets are packaged closer together — literally reducing the space that information has to cross — in order to speed it up, though that of course carries consequences when it comes to heat constraints these processors can have.

“That’s the price to pay for the continuation of Moore’s law, as it has in the past 40 years,” Zhang said. “Heat dissipation in our system is not going to be any worse than a conventional system. In fact, with the silicon substrate in place, it’s easier to conduct heat compared to a conventional package or board substrate.”

As a kind of templated approach, zGlue is geared toward helping developers produce a custom setup that the can implement into devices that may require a wide set of sensors. The company says it looks to help developers go from a design to a prototype in a few weeks, and then reduce the turnaround time from a prototype to production in “weeks or months,” depending on the complexity and volume.

While this is one example of trying to get a prototype chip out into the wild, there are a few others as well. Si-Five, for example, offers developers a way to prototype custom silicon for their specific niches based on the hardware and IP the startup has. The goal there is to offer both a prototype flow and the ability to graduate into a production flow, allowing developers and companies to get products out the door that require custom silicon. Si-Five hardware is based on the RISC-V architecture, an open-source instruction set for silicon, and the company most recently raised $50.4 million.

Zhang, too, said RISC-V offers some potential, especially in its own scope. “RISC-V is a great tool to build small, fast, and low power IoT applications,” he said. “The nature of open source makes it more available to more people. We welcome and embrace RISC-V to join the family of ‘MCU’ chiplets supported by our technology.”

When it comes to inference — the machine learning processes that happen on the hardware to execute some kind of action, like image recognition, based on trained models — Zhang said the chipsets would support it, but he would not comment further. There is a blossoming ecosystem around custom silicon that looks to speed up inference on devices like cars or IoT devices, which is geared toward reducing the space and power constraints of those chips while also running those processes much more quickly. Companies like Mythic have raised significant venture funding in order to build that kind of hardware.


Source: Tech Crunch

Trump reportedly pushed USPS to double Amazon’s shipping rates

According to new reporting from The Washington Post, President trump personally pushed United States Postal Service head Megan Brennan to jack up shipping prices on Amazon and and other firms.

The story comes from unnamed sources, who suggest that, thus far, the Postmaster General has held out against pressure from the President. If enacted, the new pricing structure would likely cost the online retailer and others billions.  g

Amazon has been in Trump’s crosshairs from some time, of course. In late March, he took to Twitter to personally call out a “scam” he believed was costing the USPS “billions,” writing, “If the P.O. ‘increased its parcel rates, Amazon’s shipping costs would rise by $2.6 Billion.’ This Post Office scam must stop. Amazon must pay real costs (and taxes) now!”

Brennan has reportedly pushed back on the notion that deals with companies like Amazon have been a bad deal for the postal service, offering evidence of the upsides of such partnerships in meetings with the President. She has also noted that such multiyear contracts wouldn’t be easy to break.

But Trump’s criticism of Amazon clearly has a personal element. Here’s a nice compendium of the many times he’s gone after the company and its owner Jeff Bezos on Twitter — at least through late-March. The criticism really started to hit its stride around 2015. Bezos, of course, also own The Washington Post, a paper Trump has regularly called out for reporting “fake news.” 

Further clouding all of this is the fact that the USPS hasn’t released the specfics of its pricing deals with Amazon, for fear of given competing delivery services “an unfair advantage.” It has, however, insisted that it’s made money on its deals with Amazon, in spite of the fact that the service reported a $2.7 billion loss in 2017.


Source: Tech Crunch

EU parliament pushes for Zuckerberg hearing to be live streamed

There’s confusion about whether a meeting between Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the European Union’s parliament — which is due to take place next Tuesday — will go ahead as planned or not.

The meeting was confirmed by the EU parliament’s president this week, and is the latest stop on Zuckerberg’s contrition tour, following the Cambridge Analytics data misuse story that blew up into a major public scandal in mid March. 

However the discussion with MEPs that Facebook agreed to was due to take place behind closed doors. A private format that’s not only ripe with irony but was also unpalatable to a large number of MEPs. It even drew criticism from some in the EU’s unelected executive body, the European Commission, which further angered parliamentarians.

Now, as the FT reports, MEPs appear to have forced the parliament’s president, Antonio Tajani, to agree to livestreaming the event.

Guy Verhofstadt — the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats group of MEPs, who had said he would boycott the meeting if it took place in private — has also tweeted that a majority of the parliament’s groups have pushed for the event to be streamed online.

And a Green Group MEP, Sven Giegold, who posted an online petition calling for the meeting not to be held in secret — has also tweeted that there is now a majority among the groups wanting to change the format. At the time of writing Giegold’s petition has garnered more than 25,000 signatures.

MEP Claude Moraes, chair of the EU parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) committee — and one of the handful of parliamentarians set to question Zuckerberg (assuming the meeting goes ahead as planned) — told TechCrunch this morning that there were efforts afoot among political group leaders to try to open up the format. Though any changes would clearly depend on Facebook agreeing to them.

After speaking to Moraes, we asked Facebook to confirm whether it’s open to Zuckerberg’s meeting being streamed online — say, via a Facebook Live. Seven hours laters we’re still waiting for a response, including to a follow up email asking if it will accept the majority decision among MEPs for the hearing to be livestreamed.

The Libe committee had been pushing for a fully open hearing with the Facebook founder — a format which would also have meant it being open to members of the public. But that was before a small majority of the parliament’s political groups accepted the council of presidents’ (COP) decision on a closed meeting.

Although now that decision looks to have been rowed back, with a majority of the groups pushing the president to agree to the event being streamed — putting the ball back in Facebook’s court to accept the new format.

Of course democracy can be a messy process at times, something Zuckerberg surely has a pretty sharp appreciation of these days. And if the Facebook founder pulls out of meeting simply because a majority of MEPs have voted to do the equivalent of ‘Facebook Live’ the hearing, well, it’s hard to see a way for the company to salvage any face at all.

Zuckerberg has agreed to be interviewed on stage at the VivaTech conference in Paris next Thursday, and is scheduled to have lunch with French president Emmanuel Macron the same week. So pivoting to a last minute snub of the EU parliament would be a pretty high stakes game for the company to play. (Though it’s continued to deny a UK parliamentary committee any facetime with Zuckerberg for months now.)

The EU Facebook agenda

The substance of the meeting between Zuckerberg and the EU parliament — should it go ahead — will include discussion about Facebook’s impact on election processes. That was the only substance detail flagged by Tajani in the statement on Wednesday when he confirmed Zuckerberg had accepted the invitation to talk to representatives of the EU’s 500 million citizens.

Moraes says he also intends to ask Zuckerberg wider questions — relating to how its business model impacts people’s privacy. And his hope is this discussion could help unblock negotiations around an update to the EU’s rules around online tracking technologies and the privacy of digital communications.

“One of the key things is that [Zuckerberg] gets a particular flavor of the genuine concern — not just about what Facebook is doing, but potentially other tech companies — on the interference in elections. Because I think that is a genuine, big, sort of tech vs real life and politics concern,” he says, discussing the questions he wants to ask.

“And the fact is he’s not going to go before the House of Commons. He’s not going to go before the Bundestag. And he needs to answer this question about Cambridge Analytica — in a little bit more depth, if possible, than we even saw in Congress. Because he needs to get straight from us the deepest concerns about that.

“And also this issue of processing for algorithmic targeting, and for political manipulation — some in depth questions on this.

“And we need to go more in depth and more carefully about what safeguards there are — and what he’s prepared to do beyond those safeguards.

“We’re aware of how poor US data protection law is. We know that GDPR is coming in but it doesn’t impact on the Facebook business model that much. It does a little bit but not sufficiently — I mean ePrivacy probably far more — so we need to get to a point where we understand what Facebook is willing to change about the way it’s been behaving up til now.

“And we have a real locus there — which is we have more Facebook users, and we have the clout as well because we have potential legislation, and we have regulation beyond that too. So I think for those reasons he needs to answer.”

“The other things that go beyond the obvious Cambridge Analytica questions and the impact on elections, are the consequences of the business model, data-driven advertising, and how that’s going to work, and there we need to go much more in depth,” he continues.

“Facebook on the one hand, it’s complying with GDPR [the EU’s incoming General Data Protection Regulation] which is fine — but we need to think about what the further protections are. So for example, how justified we are with the ePrivacy Regulation, for example, and its elements, and I think that’s quite important.

“I think he needs to talk to us about that. Because that legislation at the moment it’s seen as controversial, it’s blocked at the moment, but clearly would have more relevance to the problems that are currently being created.”

Negotiations between the EU parliament and the European Council to update the ePrivacy Directive — which governs the use of personal telecoms data and also regulates tracking cookies — and replace it with a regulation that harmonizes the rules with the incoming GDPR and expands the remit to include Internet companies and cover both content and metadata of digital comms are effectively stalled for now, as EU Member States are still trying to reach agreement. The directive was last updated in 2009.

“When the Cambridge Analytica case happened, I was slightly concerned about people thinking GDPR is the panacea to this — it’s not,” argues Moraes. “It only affects Facebook’s business model a little bit. ePrivacy goes far more in depth — into data-driven advertising, personal comms and privacy.

“That tool was there because people were aware that this kind of thing can happen. But because of that the Privacy directive will be seen as controversial but I think people now need to look at it carefully and say look at the problems created in the Facebook situation — and not just Facebook — and then analyze whether ePrivacy has got merits. I think that’s quite an important discussion to happen.”

While Moraes believes Facebook-Cambridge Analytica could help unblock the log jam around ePrivacy, as the scandal makes some of the risks clear and underlines what’s at stake for politicians and democracies, he concedes there are still challenging barriers to getting the right legislation in place — given the fine-grained layers of complexity involved with imposing checks and balances on what are also poorly understood technologies outside their specific industry niches.

“This Facebook situation has happened when ePrivacy is more or less blocked because its proportionality is an issue. But the essence of it — which is all the problems that happened with the Facebook case, the Cambridge Analytica case, and data-driven advertising business model — that needs checks and balances… So we need to now just review the ePrivacy situation and I think it’s better that everyone opens this discussion up a bit.

“ePrivacy, future legislation on artificial intelligence, all of which is in our committee, it will challenge people because sometimes they just won’t want to look at it. And it speaks to parliamentarians without technical knowledge which is another issue in Western countries… But these are all wider issues about the understanding of these files which are going to come up.  

“This is the discussion we need to have now. We need to get that discussion right. And I think Facebook and other big companies are aware that we are legislating in these areas — and we’re legislating for more than one countries and we have the economies of scale — we have the user base, which is bigger than the US… and we have the innovoation base, and I think those companies are aware of that.”

Moraes also points out that US lawmakers raised the difference between the EU and US data protection regimes with Zuckerberg last month — arguing there’s a growing awareness that US law in this area “desperately needs to be modernized”.

So he sees an opportunity for EU regulators to press on their counterparts over the pond.

“We have international agreements that just aren’t going to work in the future and they’re the basis of a lot of economic activity, so it is becoming critical… So the Facebook debate should, if it’s pushed in the correct direction, give us a better handle on ePrivacy, on modernizing data protection standards in the US in particular. And modernizing safeguards for consumers,” he argues.

“Our parliaments across Europe are still filled with people who don’t have tech backgrounds and knowledge but we need to ensure that we get out of this mindset and start understanding exactly what the implications here are of these cases and what the opportunities are.”

In the short term, discussions are also continuing for a full meeting between the Libe committee and Facebook.

Though that’s unlikely to be Zuckerberg himself. Moraes says the committee is “aiming for Sheryl Sandberg”, though he says other names have been suggested. No firm date has been conformed yet either — he’ll only say he “hopes it will take place as soon as possible”.

Threats are not on the agenda though. Moraes is unimpressed with the strategy the DCMS committee has pursued in trying (and so far failing) to get Zuckerberg to testify in front of the UK parliament, arguing threats of a summons were counterproductive. Libe is clearly playing a longer game.

“Threatening him with a summons in UK law really was not the best approach. Because it would have been extremely important to have him in London. But I just don’t see why he would do that. And I’m sure there’s an element of him understanding that the European Union and parliament in particular is a better forum,” he suggests.

“We have more Facebook users than the US, we have the regulatory framework that is significant to Facebook — the UK is simply implementing GDPR and following Brexit it will have an adequacy agreement with the EU so I think there’s an understanding in Facebook where the regulation, the legislation and the audience is.”

“I think the quaint ways of the British House of Commons need to be thought through,” he adds. “Because I really don’t think that would have engendered much enthusiasm in [Zuckerberg] to come and really interact with the House of Commons which would have been a very positive thing. Particularly on the specifics of Cambridge Analytics, given that that company is in the UK. So that locus was quite important, but the approach… was not positive at all.”


Source: Tech Crunch