Four senators, including Ted Cruz (R-TX), have asserted that, as a consequence of sanctions placed on Iran, Twitter must cease providing its services to Ayatollah Khamenei and other leaders in the country. “The Ayatollah enjoys zero protection from the United States Bill of Rights,” he wrote in a letter to the company.
Although the move comes as relations between Iran and the U.S. grow ever more strained following a series of violent incidents connected with the country, it is also an attempt to exert executive power over tech companies that have resisted the yoke of federal regulation.
In a letter (PDF) sent to Twitter, the U.S. Attorney for Northern California and others, the senators explained the rationale for their demand. The Obama administration created rules in 2014 that specifically made an exception to export rules allowing free messaging and social media-type services to be offered to Iranians. The idea being that, though Twitter and many other such apps are mostly banned in Iran, it could not hurt to offer tools for free expression and communication to its citizens.
But there are exceptions even to exceptions, and this is what Cruz et al. claim now apply to Twitter. Specifically, they say that following Trump’s executive order in June imposing additional sanctions on Iran, the Khamenei and foreign minister Javad Zarif have lost the protection the law previously offered.
“All Americans — including you and Twitter — are prohibited from ‘the making of any contribution of provision of…goods or services’ to them,” the letter reads. “While the First Amendment protects the free speech rights of Americans… the Ayatollah and any American companies providing him assistance are entirely subject to U.S. sanctions laws.”
Not being an expert in import/export law myself, I can’t judge the merits of this argument, though on its face it seems sound. But it may not be a question of whether Twitter can or can’t “offer services” to persons blacklisted by the federal government.
There is the argument that Twitter choosing to offer the use of its platform to others is itself a protected act of free speech.
After all, the White House could just as easily have issued an E.O. blacklisting the leaders of the countries subject to the travel ban. Should that be a possibility? Is it the right of a U.S. company to extend its platform for free speech to anyone in the world, regardless of their legal status in the eyes of the government?
Sens. Ted Cruz, Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Marco Rubio (R-NJ) think otherwise.
Twitter declined to comment.
WhatsApp rolls out voice and video calls to desktop app – TechCrunch
WhatsApp is rolling out support for voice and video calling to its desktop app, the Facebook-owned messaging service said Thursday, providing relief to countless people sitting in front of computers who have had to reach for their phone every time their WhatsApp rang.
For now, WhatsApp said its nearly five-year-old desktop app for Mac and Windows will only support one-to-one calls for now, but that it will be expanding this feature to include group voice and video calls “in the future.”
Video calls work “seamlessly” for both portrait and landscape orientation, and the desktop client is “set to be always on top so you never lose your video chats in a browser tab or stack of open windows,” it said.
Speaking of which, support for voice and video calls is not being extended to WhatsApp Web, the browser version of the service, at the moment, a spokesperson told TechCrunch. (Facebook launched dedicated desktop app for its Messenger service last year, which supports group video calls.)
The new feature support should come in handy to millions of people who use WhatsApp’s desktop client everyday and have had to use Zoom or Google Meet for one-to-one video calls on desktop partly because of convenience.
WhatsApp, used by over 2 billion people, hasn’t shared how popular video and voice calls are on its platform, but said it processed over 1.4 billion calls on New Year’s Eve — the day usage tends to peak on the Facebook-owned platform.
Like the 100 billion messages WhatsApp processes on its platform each day, voice and video calls are also end-to-end encrypted, it said.
Once known for taking quarters to push a feature improvement to its app, WhatsApp has visibly grown more aggressive with adding new features in the past year. In late January, Facebook added opt-in biometric fingerprint, face, or iris scan authentication for WhatsApp on desktop and the web, an additional protection layer that makes more sense after today’s update.
It rolled out ephemeral messages, photos, and videos that disappear after seven days late last year, and also rolled out its payments service in India, its biggest market by users.
Twitter tests new e-commerce features for tweets – TechCrunch
Twitter confirmed it’s testing a new way to display tweets that link out to e-commerce product pages — like products on a Shopify store, for example. With a new Twitter card format, the company is experimenting with tweets that include a big “Shop” button and integrate product details directly into the tweet itself, including the product name, shop name, and product pricing.
The experiment was spotted by social media consultant Matt Navarra who tweeted out screenshots of the new experience. The original poster, based in Qatar, had seen the experiment on an Android device, he tells TechCrunch.
While these tweets would work well as ads, Twitter confirmed to us the tweet is an example of a new treatment for “organic” tweets focused on e-commerce.
This format could potentially come into play as part of Twitter’s larger push to become a creator platform, with its recently announced plans for a “Super Follow” subscription. The new product will allow Twitter users to follow a particular account for subscriber-only perks like newsletters, exclusive content, a supporter badge, and other deals and discounts. A more “shoppable” tweet format could allow these creators to direct their fans to products and merchandise, perhaps.
Twitter also briefly touched on its plans for future investments in e-commerce during its Investor Day last week, but not in great detail.
“We’re…starting to explore ways to better support commerce on Twitter,” said Twitter Revenue Lead, Bruce Falck, during the event.
“We know people come to Twitter to interact with brands and discuss their favorite products. In fact, you may have even noticed some businesses already developing creative ways to enable sales on our platform,” he explained.
“This demand gives us confidence in the power of combining real-time conversation with an engaged and intentional audience. Imagine easily discovering, and quickly purchasing a new skincare product or trendy sneaker from a brand you follow with only a few clicks,” Falck added.
But he cautioned investors that while Twitter was “excited about the potential of commerce,” it was still something that’s in “very early exploration.”
The idea that Twitter could become more of discovery network for e-commerce products is an interesting one — especially given the growth in the social commerce sector in recent months. This includes increased investment from Facebook into shopping features across Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, as well as the growing attention being paid to video-based shopping.
The latter has been particularly popular, in terms of both live streamed product demos and pre-recorded short-form videos, like those on TikTok.
Shopify, for instance, partnered with TikTok on social commerce last fall. And Walmart — a suitor for TikTok’s potential U.S. spin-out (which is now on hold) — ran its own live-streamed shopping event on the video app over the holidays. A number of video shopping startups have been taking on funding in recent months, too.
Twitter, meanwhile, may have dialed down its video ambitions over the years with the closure of Vine and now, Periscope, but it’s not without tools to make shopping more interesting on its platform, if it chose to do so. It still has integrated tools for posting photos, videos and even live video content. Combined with a Twitter Card that includes pricing and a big “Shop” button, people’s tweets could drive sales.
Or, in other words, a Twitter Card that points you directly to a product page could be just the start of what’s to come.
In fact, Twitter itself says it has a number of plans for social commerce.
“This is the first of many experiments in the commerce space and we will enrich the experience as we learn more,” a spokesperson said.
Facebook can save itself by becoming a B Corporation – TechCrunch
As Facebook confronts outrage among its employees and the public for mishandling multiple decisions about its role in shaping public discourse, it is becoming clear that it cannot solve its conundrums without a major change in its business model. And a new model is readily available: for-benefit status.
For decades, a misguided ideology has warped companies, economies and societies: that the sole purpose of corporations is to maximize short-term returns to one set of stakeholders — those who have bought shares. Neither law nor history requires this to be true.
But shareholder value-maximization ideology has become cemented in far too much corporate practice at the expense of societal well-being. This is manifested in many ways: a slavish adherence to the judgment of the “market,” even when other social signals are more powerful; executives enriched by stock options; companies fearful of “activist investors” who attack whenever stock prices fail to meet quarterly “expectations” and often-frivolous shareholder lawsuits pushing for stock gains at all costs.
The pandemic, however, has accelerated an already-spreading recognition that shareholder value maximization is often a harmful choice — not by any means a moral imperative or even a fiduciary responsibility.
Major institutions of capitalism are converging on a new vision for it. The 2019 Business Roundtable CEO statement said that corporate strategy should benefit all stakeholders – including shareholders, yes, but equally customers, employees, suppliers, and the communities in which companies operate. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s recent annual letters assert new views of how that investment company, the world’s largest, should invest the trillions it oversees.
Fink’s 2019 letter spelled out a new vision for corporate purpose; the subsequent 2020 and 2021 letters focused on business’ responsibility around climate change, particularly in light of the pandemic. The B Corporation and conscious capitalism movements are growing. The World Economic Forum is championing a “Fourth Sector,” combining purpose with profit. Business schools, facing student rebellions against a purely profit-maximizing curriculum, are rapidly changing what they teach.
And with society under siege, many more businesses, including social media, are scrambling to seem like good corporate citizens. They have no choice.
Facebook, for example, has doubled down on philanthropy and new efforts to combat misinformation, even as usage and share price soar. Platforms like WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) have become essential services to connect people whose physical ties have been abruptly severed during the global pandemic. Shelter-in-place has become, in many ways, shelter-in-Facebook-properties.
But Facebook and its brethren remain fragile. Since the 2016 presidential election in the U.S., Facebook has faced governmental hearings and regulation, public uproar (#deleteFacebook), and huge fines for invading privacy and undermining democracy. These calls were amplified in the weeks following the January 6 Capitol riot. Separately, it faces allegations of bias, largely (though not entirely) from the political right. These have led to calls for the revocation or reform of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which grants it immunity from the actions of its users.
A giant company that is simultaneously essential and pilloried is vulnerable. Just ask the ghosts of John D. Rockefeller and his fellow robber barons, whose huge monopolies industrialized America more than 100 years ago. Journalistic muckrakers and public outrage targeted them for their abusive practices until the government finally broke up their companies via antitrust legislation.
Because Mark Zuckerberg maintains complete majority control of Facebook, he could unilaterally quell public opprobrium and fend off heavy-handed regulation singlehandedly by transforming Facebook into a new kind of business: a for-benefit corporation.
Under the Public Benefit Corporation legal model, firms bind themselves to a public benefit mission statement and carry out required ongoing reporting on both the standard financials and on how the company is living up to its mission. That status protects the company against profit-demanding shareholder lawsuits, and also attracts employees and investors who want to combine profit with purpose.
Data.world is one of the thousands of certified B Corporations that have seen good returns on financial metrics. Allbirds, for example, launched in a few sustainable materials using a pro-sustainability process to manufacture comfortable shoes, quickly reaching revenues of $100 million and valuation of $1.7 billion in an industry fraught with sustainability and human rights concerns. Other household names that are B Corps include The Body Shop, Coursera, Danone, the Jamie Oliver Group, King Arthur Flour, Numi Tea and Patagonia.
Many companies that have not undergone formal B Certification from B Labs have nonetheless done well while transforming their business practices, such as the carpet and flooring company Interface. Some firms incorporate ESG principles into their management systems – the $24 billion (market cap) Dutch life sciences company DSM has for years had meaningful sustainability targets for its senior management that account for fully 50 percent of their annual bonuses. Both Interface and DSM attribute much of their commercial success to their attention to non-financial considerations.
A for-benefit Facebook could similarly relate to the world differently, avoiding many of the reputational shocks and regulatory responses that have led to huge stock dips and enormous fines. Its operations would align with Zuckerberg’s proclaimed purpose to enable the potential abundance that results from connecting everyone in the world.
Imagine a Facebook town hall as a true public square, not just another way to gather and sell people’s data without their explicit consent. Imagine a Facebook that put its users first and its advertisers second; that revealed where ads came from; that earned your attention in a way that you controlled rather than through machine-driven algorithms maximizing your attention for good or ill. Such a for-benefit Facebook could create true buy-in and transparency with its massive community around the world.
Of course, such steps as Facebook’s new Oversight Board, which may provide some meaningful review, don’t require a legal change. But if shareholders and employees continue to be rewarded primarily by the success of the problematic ad revenue model, a continuing conflict between private gain and public benefit makes it impossible to have confidence about what is happening behind the scenes. A shift to for-benefit incorporation and appropriate certification brings with it different performance metrics and accountability systems with public scores.
In changing Facebook into a for-benefit corporation, Zuckerberg could insulate himself against presidential rage while rehabilitating his reputation — and his company’s. It would likely create vast ripples both in Silicon Valley and beyond — and it might help transform capitalism itself.
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