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UK names its pick for social media ‘harms’ watchdog – TechCrunch

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The UK government has taken the next step in its grand policymaking challenge to tame the worst excesses of social media by regulating a broad range of online harms — naming the existing communications watchdog, Ofcom, as its preferred pick for enforcing rules around ‘harmful speech’ on platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok in future.

Last April the previous Conservative-led government laid out populist but controversial proposals to legislate to lay a duty of care on Internet platforms — responding to growing public concern about the types of content kids are being exposed to online.

Its white paper covers a broad range of online content — from terrorism, violence and hate speech, to child exploitation, self-harm/suicide, cyber bullying, disinformation and age-inappropriate material — with the government setting out a plan to require platforms to take “reasonable” steps to protect their users from a range of harms.

However digital and civil rights campaigners warn the plan will have a huge impact on online speech and privacy, arguing it will put a legal requirement on platforms to closely monitor all users and apply speech-chilling filtering technologies on uploads in order to comply with very broadly defined concepts of harm — dubbing it state censorship. Legal experts are also critical.

The (now) Conservative majority government has nonetheless said it remains committed to the legislation.

Today it responded to some of the concerns being raised about the plan’s impact on freedom of expression, publishing a partial response to the public consultation on the Online Harms White Paper, although a draft bill remains pending, with no timeline confirmed.

“Safeguards for freedom of expression have been built in throughout the framework,” the government writes in an executive summary. “Rather than requiring the removal of specific pieces of legal content, regulation will focus on the wider systems and processes that platforms have in place to deal with online harms, while maintaining a proportionate and risk-based approach.”

It says it’s planning to set a different bar for content deemed illegal vs content that has “potential to cause harm”, with the heaviest content removal requirements being planned for terrorist and child sexual exploitation content. Whereas companies will not be forced to remove “specific pieces of legal content”, as the government puts it.

Ofcom, as the online harms regulator, will also not be investigating or adjudicating on “individual complaints”.

“The new regulatory framework will instead require companies, where relevant, to explicitly state what content and behaviour they deem to be acceptable on their sites and enforce this consistently and transparently. All companies in scope will need to ensure a higher level of protection for children, and take reasonable steps to protect them from inappropriate or harmful content,” it writes.

“Companies will be able to decide what type of legal content or behaviour is acceptable on their services, but must take reasonable steps to protect children from harm. They will need to set this out in clear and accessible terms and conditions and enforce these effectively, consistently and transparently. The proposed approach will improve transparency for users about which content is and is not acceptable on different platforms, and will enhance users’ ability to challenge removal of content where this occurs.”

Another requirement will be that companies have “effective and proportionate user redress mechanisms” — enabling users to report harmful content and challenge content takedown “where necessary”.

“This will give users clearer, more effective and more accessible avenues to question content takedown, which is an important safeguard for the right to freedom of expression,” the government suggests, adding that: “These processes will need to be transparent, in line with terms and conditions, and consistently applied.”

Ministers say they have not yet made a decision on what kind of liability senior management of covered businesses may face under the planned law, nor on additional business disruption measures — with the government saying it will set out its final policy position in the Spring.

“We recognise the importance of the regulator having a range of enforcement powers that it uses in a fair, proportionate and transparent way. It is equally essential that company executives are sufficiently incentivised to take online safety seriously and that the regulator can take action when they fail to do so,” it writes.

It’s also not clear how businesses will be assessed as being in (or out of) scope of the regulation.

“Just because a business has a social media page that does not bring it in scope of regulation,” the government response notes. “To be in scope, a business would have to operate its own website with the functionality to enable sharing of user-generated content, or user interactions. We will introduce this legislation proportionately, minimising the regulatory burden on small businesses. Most small businesses where there is a lower risk of harm occurring will not have to make disproportionately burdensome changes to their service to be compliant with the proposed regulation.”

The government is clear in the response that Online harms remains “a key legislative priority”.

“We have a comprehensive programme of work planned to ensure that we keep momentum until legislation is introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows,” it writes, describing today’s response report “an iterative step as we consider how best to approach this complex and important issue” — and adding: “We will continue to engage closely with industry and civil society as we finalise the remaining policy.”

Incoming in the meanwhile the government says it’s working on a package of measures “to ensure progress now on online safety” — including interim codes of practice, including guidance for companies on tackling terrorist and child sexual abuse and exploitation content online; an annual government transparency report, which it says it will publish “in the next few months”; and a media literacy strategy, to support public awareness of online security and privacy.

It adds that it expects social media platforms to “take action now to tackle harmful content or activity on their services” — ahead of the more formal requirements coming in.

Facebook-owned Instagram has come in for high level pressure from ministers over how it handles content promoting self-harm and suicide after the media picked up on a campaign by the family of a schoolgirl who killed herself after been exposed to Instagram content encouraging self-harm.

Instagram subsequently announced changes to its policies for handling content that encourages or depicts self harm/suicide — saying it would limit how it could be accessed. This later morphed into a ban on some of this content.

The government said today that companies offering online services that involve user generated content or user interactions are expected to make use of what it dubs “a proportionate range of tools” — including age assurance, and age verification technologies — to prevent kids from accessing age-inappropriate content and “protect them from other harms”.

This is also the piece of the planned legislation intended to pick up the baton of the Digital Economy Act’s porn block proposals — which the government dropped last year, saying it would bake equivalent measures into the forthcoming Online Harms legislation.

The Home Office has been consulting with social media companies on devising robust age verification technologies for many months.

In its own response statement today, Ofcom — which would be responsible for policy detail under the current proposals — said it will work with the government to ensure “any regulation provides effective protection for people online”, and, pending appointment, “consider what we can do before legislation is passed”.

The Online Harms plan is not the online Internet-related work ongoing in Whitehall, with ministers noting that: “Work on electoral integrity and related online transparency issues is being taken forward as part of the Defending Democracy programme together with the Cabinet Office.”

Back in 2018 a UK parliamentary committee called for a levy on social media platforms to fund digital literacy programs to combat online disinformation and defend democratic processes, during an enquiry into the use of social media for digital campaigning. However the UK government has been slower to act on this front.

The former chair of the DCMS committee, Damian Collins, called today for any future social media regulator to have “real powers in law” — including the ability to “investigate and apply sanctions to companies which fail to meet their obligations”.

In the DCMS committee’s final report parliamentarians called for Facebook’s business to be investigated, raising competition and privacy concerns.

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Yahoo has built a new calendar app called Day, and it’s recruited the co-founder of Sunrise to design it – TechCrunch

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When it comes to online calendars and calendar apps, services like Google Calendar and Outlook from Microsoft rule the roost with hundreds of millions of users globally. Now another company is hoping to ruffle some feathers with its own move into the space. TechCrunch has learned and confirmed that Yahoo is working on called Day, a new standalone calendar app. Sources tell us the company has recruited Jeremy Le Van — who had co-founded another calendaring app, Sunrise, and eventually sold it to Microsoft for over $100 million to make it the backbone of Microsoft’s own very popular calendar platform in Outlook — to help design it.

Many lamented the sunset of Sunrise; now it looks like they might now have a shot at getting Sunrise 2.0, so to speak.

(Disclaimer: Yahoo happens to be owned by the same company as TechCrunch.)

“We are exploring different ways to better serve consumers and that includes new ideas around mobile-first time management, calendar and events,” a Yahoo spokesperson said in response to our question.

The service is currently in an invite-only closed alpha as it gears up for a bigger launch (you can also sign up on the site).

Calendars serve as the backbone for how many of us organize our days, whether it’s for work or leisure. And arguably, the more our activities, and the planning of them, move to digital platforms, the more powerful calendars can become, too.

This means that for platforms, having a calendar feature or app as part of a bigger service is a good way of keeping users engaged on the wider platform, and it’s a way for the platform to glean more knowledge about user behavior. Google’s Calendar, for example, is very tightly, and often automatically, integrated with its wider suite of productivity and information services, giving the company one more spoke in its wheel to keep users sticking around.

And it’s not only Yahoo that might be interested in doing more here. Facebook acquired Redkix in 2018 allegedly to bring more calendar and other productivity tools to Workplace. In the end, Workplace integrates with existing offerings from third parties, and so it doesn’t have its own standalone calendar app. Facebook also doesn’t have a standalone calendar feature in the main consumer app, either. But with people planning so much else on Facebook’s properties (not just through Events on Facebook, but across Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger), it seems that it’s an area it could feasibly still expand into at some point.

Yahoo itself, in fact, already has a pared-down calendar widget that you can access through Yahoo Mail. It’s not clear how popular it is, especially since it’s very easy these days to integrate one’s email to most other calendar apps.

The question, then, will be how Day might hope to differentiate itself, and how it will hope to compete.

From what we understand, in contrast to how Google, Microsoft or even Yahoo itself currently integrate calendar features into their wider productivity suites, this isn’t the approach that Yahoo is taking with Day.

The app is being built by people in its Mail team, but it’s being treated “like a startup” in the operation, we’ve heard, and has been given license to develop it independently: it has no special Yahoo branding, nor with any Yahoo integrations whatsoever. The plan is to keep it separate, not unlike the many calendar apps — like Sunrise once was — that exist in app stores, and make it something that can integrate with whatever other email or other tools that a person users. Over time there also may be efforts to use Mail — which still has around 200 million users — to help market Day.

The move underscores how Yahoo — which has effectively lost out to Google in areas like search, email, video and advertising — believes that with the right approach, there is still room for more innovation in this crowded market, even as it has a number of misses in its history of trying to do just that in other areas, like messaging.

But as we noted in a recent story about Calendly — a $3 billion startup that’s proven to be a big hit with people who need to schedule meetings — calendar apps can be challenging for another reason. They are well-used, yes, but also somewhat under the radar: calendars are never the destination for a person, just a place to mark when, how, and with whom you will get there. Can there be more ways of enhancing that basic functionality?

Yahoo seems to believe there are, and that people will want to use an app that does so.

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Twitter accelerates again with Bitcoin tips, NFTs, recorded Spaces, creator fund and more – TechCrunch

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Twitter’s slate of new product announcements is not slowing down. The company today introduced a number of new initiatives aimed at better serving the conversations and community using its platform, including support for tipping with crypto, NFT authentication, and plans for other experiments designed to provide more context about a conversation to those just joining in. The company also said it’s preparing to launch its own creator fund in a few weeks to provide audio creators with access to financial, technical, and marketing support.

While Twitter was not yet ready to details specifics like the fund size or expected reach, in terms of creator participants, it’s a clear shot across the bow of a top competitor in social audio, Clubhouse, whose own creator “accelerator” offered to connect its participants with brand deals or $5,000 per month during their participation in its program.

Similarly, Twitter views its creator fund as one not aimed at rewarding creators for the content they produce — like some rival funds running across Facebook, Instagram, Snap, and elsewhere — but rather at helping creators get started with audio productions on Twitter Spaces.

“The goal of it really is to provide that technical and marketing expertise,” noted Twitter Product Lead for Creator Monetization, Esther Crawford. “We think of it as kind of a stopgap solution. We want to onboard these folks into other long-term monetization features. But we want to give them an initial boost,” she said.

Spaces hosts will also be able to record and replay their programs — a move likely meant to counteract the threat of competitive platforms which tout recording as a key differentiator. This will launch in a “few months,” the company said.

Twitter also today announced a few new products and expansions to recently launched features.

One of these is a new feature that would allow its app to better serve creators working with NFTs, or non-fungible tokens — a way to certify digital assets, stored on the blockchain. Artists are now creating NFTs of their work which are sold across NFT marketplaces like OpenSea, Rarible, Foundation, SuperRare, and others.

Twitter says it’s planning to “soon” explore support for NFT authentication. This would allow NFT creators to connect their crypto wallets to Twitter, in order to track and showcase their NFTs on the platform. This particular plan is still in the early stages as Twitter couldn’t yet articulate how this would work. The company said it was testing different ideas for making creators with authenticated collections stand out more visually somehow — perhaps with something like a profile badge or differently-shaped avatar.

When pressed for further details on its broader NFT roadmap, Twitter declined to comment.

Another new feature in the crypto space is support for Bitcoin tipping. Twitter first introduced its “Tip Jar” feature in May as a beta product, allowing users to send and receive one-time payments via third-party services like PayPal, Venmo, Patreon, Cash App, Bandcamp, and others. Now the feature will expand to global audiences on iOS with Android coming soon, and will add support for tipping with Bitcoin.

There will be a couple of ways Bitcoin tips can work. Users will be able to add a Bitcoin Lightning wallet or their Bitcoin address in order to start receiving Bitcoin tips. Lightning wallets are popular among users in the crypto community due to their lower transaction fees, the company said. Twitter’s implementation of this uses Strike, a payments application built on the Bitcoin Lightning Network that allows people to send and receive Bitcoin free and instantly, it said.

In fact, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey this summer tweeted that it was “only a matter of time” before Twitter built in support for the Lightning Network, a layer atop the Bitcoin blockchain, into its platform. At the time, there was some speculation that users would first see this sort of support in a micropayments product, which has now been proven correct.

The Tip Jar will also add a few other services as well, including GoFundMe.

Another new experiment called “Heads Up,” is the first that will help to give users a sense of a conversation’s vibe before they wade in.

One of Twitter’s thorniest issues is its inability to help people feel safe sharing their thoughts and opinions on its network, which has served as a breeding ground for cancel culture, and where armies of trolls can descend on marginalized voices or others they disagree with at any time — like activists, women in tech (as was made famous with the Gamergate scandal), or female journalists.

In this area, Twitter has worked to create new features like those that enable users to limit who can reply to their tweets, which it says has contributed to a decline in abuse reports over the past four weeks.

It’s also launched Safety Mode into beta, which offers a sort of automated level of protection against harassment during a time of heightened abuse. It created a way for people to quietly remove followers as an alternative blocking. And today, Twitter says it will soon launch a new feature that will allow users to remove themselves from a conversation they’re mentioned in and is experimenting with a new feature called “word filters” that would let users stop abusive tweets that don’t cross the line into being against Twitter policy.

Twitter didn’t fully explain how it will measure a conversation’s vibe in the coming “Heads Up” feature, in order to warn newcomers about the nature of the discussion. But said it was considering leveraging data from its emoji reactions (which are only now in testing) and reply prompts, which warn users when they’re about to post something potentially offensive.

The company has been launching new products at an incredibly fast clip in recent months, with additions that have included a rapidly improved Twitter Spaces audio chat platform, the launch of interest-based “Communities,” creator platform Super Follows, newsletters via its acquisition of Revue, tipping, a premium subscription service called Twitter Blue, crowdsourced fact-checking with Birdwatch, new e-commerce features, new profiles and labels, a reopened account verification system, conversation controls, Direct Message improvements, and more.

Today, it offered a few updates on a handful of these products.

It said it’s working on more Spaces discovery tools that would make it easier to find Spaces at the top of the timeline, and elsewhere in the app — a likely reference to the dedicated Spaces tab on mobile. It’s also expanding access to Ticketed Spaces, improving the discovery of newsletters, launching a new creator earnings dashboard, and working on more account labels — like those brands and those that would help memorialize the accounts of the deceased — among other things.

 

More broadly, Twitter attempted to explain its strategy, which is increasingly looking like “throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.” In fact, it admitted — to some extent —  it may be doing just that.

“You’ll keep seeing us push towards this vision through experimentation and iteration,” explained Twitter Head of Consumer Product, Kayvon Beykpour. “You’ll see us share our progress publicly along the way, as we have over the last few years. And you won’t see us stay tied to the things that aren’t working. We’ve done that with Fleets and you’ll continue to see that with other explorations we test out. We believe that if we’re not winding things down every once in a while, then we’re not taking big enough bets,” he said.

Image credits: Twitter 

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Facebook stock drops after company warns Apple’s privacy changes to have bigger Q3 impact – TechCrunch

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Facebook today provided an update on how Apple’s privacy changes have impacted its ad business. The company had already warned investors during its second quarter earnings that it expected to feel an even more significant impact in its ad targeting business by Q3. This morning, it reiterated that point, but also noted that it had been underreporting iOS web conversions by approximately 15%, which had led advertisers to believe the impact was even worse than they had expected.

According to Facebook’s announcement published to its business blog, this exact percentage could vary broadly among individual advertisers. But it said the real-world conversions, including things like sales and app installs, are likely higher than what advertisers are seeing when using Facebook’s analytics.

Facebook’s stock has dropped by nearly 4% on this news, as of the time of writing.

This is not the first time Facebook has shared misleading metrics. In the past, however, it had inflated its video ad metrics and didn’t quickly act to correct the problem, leading to a class-action lawsuit. In this case, however, the issue with the metrics isn’t making Facebook look better than it is, but worse. The company noted it’s been hearing from its advertising community that they are seeing a larger-than-planned impact to their ad investments on the network, raising concerns.

Facebook offered advertisers a few tips to help them better understand a campaign’s impact and performance in this new era. It suggested waiting a minimum of 72 hours or the full length of the optimization window before evaluating performance rather than making assessments on a daily basis, as before. It also said advertisers should analyze reporting at the campaign level, when possible, as some estimated conversations are reported with a delay. And it suggested advertisers choose web events (like a purchase or sign-up) that are most aligned with their core business, among other things.

To address the issues with improving its measurements, Facebook said it’s working to improve its conversion modeling, accelerating its investments to address reporting gaps, launching new capabilities to track web conversions, and extending its ability to measure in-app conversions in apps that have already been installed. The company said it would work quickly to fix bugs, including one that recently had led to underreporting of approximately 10%, which was previously shared with advertisers.

The company in August explained how it’s been working to adapt its personalized ads business in light of both Apple and Google’s privacy changes and the new regulatory landscape, but those efforts will take time, it said.

Outside of the ad tech updates themselves, Facebook has also been working on new products that would allow advertisers to better position themselves in front of consumers browsing Facebook’s apps. Just last week, for instance, it revamped its business tool lineup with the introduction of new features and expansions of smaller tests that would offer businesses more ways to be discovered. One such test in the U.S. would direct consumers to other businesses and topics directly underneath news feed posts. It also now allows businesses to add WhatsApp buttons to their Instagram profiles and create ads that send Instagram users to WhatsApp business chats.

Facebook has been warning advertisers for some time that Apple’s new privacy features, which allow mobile users to opt out of being tracked across their iOS apps, would cause issues for the way its ad targeting business typically operated. And it repeatedly argued that Apple’s changes would impact small businesses that relied on Facebook ads to reach their customers. When the changes went into effect, Facebook’s concerns were validated as studies found very few consumers are opting into tracking on iOS.

 

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