Thank you, Chrome team

Since Chrome came out back in 2008, it’s been a constant companion in my life. In fact, Chrome’s launch is how I helped get the startup I worked for at the time onto TechCrunch for the first time.

We did shots to celebrate. Chrome rocked, and we were Day One Fans.

But over time what was once a romance began to sour, as Chrome got a bit slower, a bit heavier and a bit worse over the years.

The devolution felt a bit like what was happening to Google search, in which a very good idea was slowly turned into something that made more money at the cost of functionality, speed, and user happiness (more on that natural terminus of that progression here).

And because I am a petulant child, I have been very annoyed by what has happened to Chrome, software that I have never paid a single dollar to use. To make this point, I went out to round up a tweet or two from myself complaining about Chrome over the years, but after finding at least nine examples since May I started to feel bad (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine). So let’s move on.

What went wrong with Chrome? I don’t know. Over time its taste for RAM, lag, and being generally annoying grew. But as I was living in a G Suite world, sticking to Chrome made sense — so I endured.

And now, I may not have to any longer. This week Google detailed an impending set of Chrome updates that are amazing to read through and imagine the real-world impact of. Big Goog appears to have gone deep into its browser’s code, finding ways to make it faster, lighter on memory usage, and smarter.

I am so very excited.

What’s coming? Pulling from Google’s Chromium blog instead of its more consumer-friendly post (a big thanks to The Verge for bringing this set of updates to my attention), here are the highlights as far as I am concerned (Bolding: TechCrunch in each block quote):

Even if you have a lot of tabs open, you likely only focus on a small set of them to get a task done. Starting in this release, Chrome is actively managing your computer’s resources to make the tabs you care about fastwhile allowing you to keep hundreds of tabs open—so you can pick up where you left off.

In this release, we’re improving how Chrome understands and manages resources with Tab throttling, occlusion tracking and back/forward caching, so you can quickly get to what you need when you need it.

Google this is literally me. I feel incredibly seen. Thank you.

We investigated how background tabs use system resources and found that JavaScript Timers represent >40% of the work in background tabs. Reducing their impact on CPU and power is important to make the browser more efficient. Beginning in M87, we’re throttling JavaScript timer wake-ups in background tabs to once per minute. This reduces CPU usage by up to 5x, and extends battery life up to 1.25 hours in our internal testing.

When the world works again, I want to buy lunch for everyone who took part in this effort.

Next, we’re bringing Occlusion Tracking–which was previously added to Chrome OS and Mac–to Windows, which allows Chrome to know which windows and tabs are actually visible to you. With this information, Chrome can optimize resources for the tabs you are using, not the ones you’ve minimized, making Chrome up to 25% faster to start up and 7% faster to load pages, all while using less memory.

Hell yes.

How many times have you visited a website and clicked a link to go to another page, only to realize it’s not what you wanted and click the back button? […] In Chrome 87, our back/forward cache will make 20% of those back/forward navigations instant, with plans to increase this to 50% through further improvements and developer outreach in the near future.

I didn’t even know I needed this, but I do. And I can’t wait to have it.

All in all, as I write this short post to you inside of Chrome, I cannot help but be freaking excited about New And Improved Chrome. More later after I get some testing in, but, honestly, yay!

How Project Guideline gave me the freedom to run solo

Editor’s Note: At Google Research, we’re interested in exploring how technology can help improve people’s daily lives and experiences. So it’s been an incredible opportunity to work with Thomas Panek, avid runner and President & CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, to apply computer vision for something important in his everyday life: independent exercise. Project Guideline is an early-stage research project that leverages on-device machine learning to allow Thomas to use a phone, headphones and a guideline painted on the ground to run independently. Below, Thomas shares why he collaborated with us on this research project, and what the journey has been like for him.

I’ve always loved to run. Ever since I was a boy, running has made me feel free. But when I was eight-years-old, I noticed that I couldn’t see the leaves on a tree so well, and that the stars in the night sky began to slowly disappear—and then they did forever. By the time I was a young adult, I was diagnosed as legally blind due to a genetic condition. I had to rely on a cane or a canine to guide me. For years, I gave up running.

Then I heard about running with human guides, and I decided to give it a try. It gave me a sense of belonging, holding a tether and following the guide runner in front of me. I even qualified for the New York City and Boston Marathons five years in a row. But as grateful as I was to my human guides, I wanted more independence. So in 2019, I decided to run the first half-marathon assisted only by guide dogs.

But I know it’s not possible for everyone to have a brilliant, fast companion like my guide dog, Blaze. I run an organization called Guiding Eyes for the Blind, and we work tirelessly to help people with vision loss receive running guide dogs that can help them live more active and independent lives. The problem is that there are millions more people with vision loss than there are available guide dogs. So I started asking a question: “Would it be possible to help guide a blind runner, independently?” 

In the fall of 2019, I asked that question to a group of designers and technologists at a Google hackathon. I wasn’t anticipating much more than an interesting conversation, but by the end of the day they’d built a rough demo that allowed a phone to recognize a line taped to the ground, and give audio cues to me while I walked with Blaze. We were excited, and hopeful to see if we could develop it into something more.

We began by sketching out how the prototype would work, settling on a simple concept: I’d wear a phone on a waistband, and bone-conducting headphones. The phone’s camera would look for a physical guideline on the ground and send audio signals depending on my position. If I drifted to the left of the line, the sound would get louder and more dissonant in my left ear. If I drifted to the right, the same thing would happen, but in my right ear. Within a few months, we were ready to test it on an indoor oval track. After a few adjustments, I was able to run eight laps. It was a short distance, and all with my Google teammates close by, but it was the first unguided mile I had run in decades.

Our next step was to see if the tech could work where I love running most: in the peace and serenity of a park. This brought a whole new batch of challenges to work through: variables in weather and lighting conditions and the need for new data to train the model, for starters. After months of building an on-device machine learning model to accurately detect the guideline in different environments, the team was finally ready to test the tech outside for the first time.

I’d been waiting 25 years to run outdoors, on my own. I stood at the start of the guideline, hopping up and down with excitement. When the team gave me the go-ahead, I began sprinting on my toes, as fast as my legs could carry me, down the hill and around a gentle bend in the road. As I tightened my form, my stride was getting more confident and longer with every step. I felt free, like I was effortlessly running through the clouds.

When I arrived at the finish line, I was completely overcome with emotion. My wife, Melissa, and my kids hugged me. My guide dog Blaze licked the salt off of my hand. They were happy for me, too. For the first time in a lifetime, I didn’t feel like a blind man. I felt free.

Today, we’re testing this technology further. I’ll be attempting to run NYRR’s Virtual Run for Thanks 5K along a line temporarily painted in Central Park in New York City. I want to thank NYRR, NYC Department of Parks & Recreation, Central Park Conservancy, NYPD, NYC Department of Sanitation and the NYC Department of Transportation for helping to make today’s 5K run possible. We want to see how this system works in urban environments, just one of the many challenges to complete before it can be used more widely. 

Collaborating on this project helped me realize a personal dream of mine. I’m so grateful to the Google team, and whoever came up with the idea of a hackathon in the first place. I hope there will be more runs with Project Guideline in my future, and for many other runners as well.

By sharing the story of how this project got started and how the tech works today, we hope to start new conversations with the larger blind and low-vision community about how, and if, this technology might be useful for them, too. As we continue our research, we hope to gather feedback from more organizations and explore painting guidelines in their communities. To learn more, please visit: goo.gle/ProjectGuideline.

Facebook sues operator of Instagram clone sites

Facebook has today filed another lawsuit against a company acting in violations of its terms of service. In this case, the company has sued Ensar Sahinturk, a Turkish national who operated of a network of Instagram clone sites, according to court filings. Facebook says Sahinturk used automation software to scrape Instagram users’ public profiles, photos, and videos from over 100,000 accounts without permission, and this data was then published on his network of websites.

In the filing, Facebook says it became aware of the clone website network a year ago, in November 2019. It learned that the defendant had controlled a number of domains, many with names that were similar to Instagram, including jolygram.com, imggram.com, imggram.net, finalgram.com, pikdo.net, and ingram.ws. The first in that list, jolygram.com, had been in use since August 2017. The others were registered in later years as the network expanded. Finalgram.com was the latest that was put to use, and has been in operation since Oct. 2019.

Facebook doesn’t say how large these sites were, in terms of visitors, but described the clone network to TechCrunch as having “voluminous traffic.”

In addition to being what Facebook claims are trademark violations associated with these domains, the sites were populated with data that was pulled from Instagram’s website through automated scraping — that is, via specialized software that pretends to be a human instead of a bot to access data.

The defendant was able to evade Instagram’s security measures against automated tools of this nature by making it look like the requests to Facebook’s servers were coming from a person using the official Instagram app, the complaint states.

The defendant had programmed his scraping software by creating and using thousands of fake Instagram accounts that would mimic actions that real, legitimate users of the Instagram app could have taken. Facebook said the number of fake accounts used daily could be very high. On April 17, 2020, the defendant used over 7,700 accounts to make automated requests to Facebook servers, for example. On April 22, 2020, he used over 9,000.

On the clone websites created, users were able to enter in any Instagram username and then view their public profiles, photos, videos, Stories, hashtags, and location. The clone sites also allowed visitors to download the pictures and videos that had been posted on Instagram, a feature that Instagram doesn’t directly offer. (Its official website and app don’t offer a “save” button.)

Facebook attempted to protect against these various terms of service violations in 2019, when it disabled approximately 30,000 fake Instagram accounts operated by the defendant. It also sent a series of Cease and Desist letters and shut down further Instagram and Facebook accounts, including one Facebook Page belonging to the defendant. However, the defendant claimed he didn’t operate jolygram.com, it was just registered under his name. But he also said he had shut it down.

Facebook claims the resources it used to investigate and attempt to resolve the issues with the defendant’s operations have topped $25,000 and is asking for damages to be determined during the trial.

The lawsuit is now one of many Facebook has filed in the years that followed the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where millions of Facebook users’ data has harvested without their permission. Facebook has since sued analytics firms misusing its data, developers who violated its terms to sell fake “Likes,” and other marketing intelligence operations. However, the company tells TechCrunch this is the first Instagram lawsuit against clone websites.

FACEBOOK v ENSAR SAHINTURK by TechCrunch on Scribd

Lime plans for ‘modes’ beyond bikes and scooters in 2021

Lime is launching its fourth generation scooter in Paris this week, an example the company says of its financial turnaround and commitment to growth. But that product rollout isn’t over.

Lime CEO Wayne Ting hinted Thursday during the WSJ Future of Everything event that a “third mode,” beyond bikes and scooters, are also in the works for the first quarter of 2021 as well as the addition of third-party companies to its platform. Earlier this year, Lime started to include Wheels -branded electric bikes in certain cities on its app. Ting said users should expect more partnerships like these.

Ting wouldn’t give specifics on this “third mode” except to explain that will will probably serve a slightly longer distance than its scooters and be better at carrying cargo.

“We want to make sure that it continues to appeal to different demographics that maybe don’t see themselves on a scooter,” Ting added.

For now, Lime is focused on deploying the Gen4, a model that Ting says will surpass the more than two-year lifespan of its previous generation. The Gen4 will rollout across Europe in early 2021.

The Gen 4 features swept back handlebars that are similar to the design of bike handles, which Lime says allows for a more comfortable grip. The new model also an enhanced suspension and larger wheels, a dual hand brake system, a lower baseboard to optimize the center of gravity on the scooter and a new kickstand with two legs.

Perhaps the biggest change is the addition of a swappable battery, which Ting described as a “huge improvement on existing technology.” These swappable batteries will be interchangeable with the Lime bike fleet, further streamlining its operations, the company said Thursday.

Lime Gen4 specs scooter

Image Credits: Lime

Lime said Thursday it was both operating cash flow positive and free cash flow positive in the third quarter — a first — and is on pace to be full-year profitable, excluding certain costs (EBIT), in 2021. That turnaround will allow the company to continue to invest in product development and expand its footprint, according to Ting.

Why Bessemer’s Byron Deeter thinks SaaS companies could grow even faster in 2021

Byron Deeter is not backing down from his optimism about the cloud and the end of the COVID-19-induced wave of software buying doesn’t have him too worried.

Of course, Deeter is an investor at Bessemer, a venture capital concern that has done well betting on the cloud, so you might expect him to stay a cloud bull. But during a recent chat with TechCrunch as part of our Extra Crunch Live series, his answer was worth re-reading.

The Extra Crunch Live series continues: Click this to see what’s coming up on the agenda.

We asked the about what might happen once the newly announced vaccines arrive and the pandemic-led digital transformation acceleration loses its tailwind.

“Will that growth decelerate? [Or] was it a point-in-time moment for COVID? Or has this been a pulling forward of overall trends? Certainly, you’re going to have both,” he said, adding that he doesn’t “think in a year from now, we’re going to be spending 10 hours a day on Zooms,” but that in his view Zoom will remain “foundational in the economy.”

In Deeter’s view, “we’ve just set a new baseline [for software] and the beauty of these subscription businesses is that they’re not going to turn them off.” The result of all of that? Bullish growth expectations.

Drilling in further, we asked if he expects Bessemer software portfolio companies will grow faster in percentage terms in 2021 than they did in 2020. Saying that the cohort profile will change, he added that “on balance,” he thinks that “there’s a real case that [the group] could grow the same or faster.”

Genomatica’s expanded Aquafil partnership brings biomaterials to more consumer goods

In a deal that has potentially big implications for the sustainability of consumer packaged goods, biomaterial manufacturing technology developer Genomatica and the massive nylon material manufacturer Aquafil have partnered on a new demonstration scale facility.

Nylon-6 is used to make everything from toothbrush bristles to pantyhose and industrial materials like carpeting and other heavy-duty fabrics.

The material will be used to develop renewable products and showcase goods that can be brought to market as more companies look to clean up their supply chains and make products that have fewer negative consequences for the environment at the end of their life.

The deal is a 50-fold expansion of previous production levels for Genomatica and represents a significant expansion of Genomatica’s capabilities.

The textile industry is a $960 billion business, and it’s one of the most polluting in the world — both in terms of chemical treatments and greenhouse gas emissions. According to data cited by the World Economic Forum, the textile industry accounts for 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per-year — nearly as much as the auto industry. Nylon production alone is responsible for about 60 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, according to the companies.

The multi-year agreement with European-based Aquafil expands on the two companies’ existing relationship. Earlier this year the two companies produced the first ton of bio-nylon-6 precursor material at a pilot scale. Now, the move to a demonstration scale plant will give Genomatica the ability to move ahead with supply agreements to certain brand partners.

Clothing maker Far Eastern New Century uses Genomatica’s products in its clothes, and other partnerships are in the works, the company said.

Genomatica is backed by Casdin Capital, Viking Global Investors, which continues as Genomatica’s largest shareholder, and organism engineering partner Ginkgo Bioworks.

“Bio-nylon is positioned to replace a material that’s used in millions of applications every day,” said Christophe Schilling, Genomatica CEO. “Our research shows that despite health and economic turmoil, 56% of Americans still want brands to prioritize sustainability. With this scale, Genomatica is offering our brand partners a key way to meet their sustainability objectives, differentiate themselves, and meet surging consumer demand.”

Aquafil is building the plant in Slovenia, where the Genomatica biological precursor material will be converted into bio-nylon-6 yarns, films and engineered plastics.

BuzzFeed acquires HuffPost

HuffPost has a new owner, with its current parent company Verizon Media reaching an agreement to sell the site to BuzzFeed.

The Wall Street Journal broke the news and described this as a stock deal. Verizon Media is also making an investment in BuzzFeed and becoming a minority shareholder in the digital media company.

The deal also includes an agreement to syndicate content between the two companies while collaborating on advertising and creating a joint innovation group to explore other monetization opportunities.

As BuzzFeed’s press release notes, this deal brings HuffPost full circle, since BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti was also one of the founders of what was originally known as The Huffington Post.

“I have vivid memories of growing HuffPost into a major news outlet in its early years, but BuzzFeed is making this acquisition because we believe in the future of HuffPost and the potential it has to continue to define the media landscape for years to come,” Peretti said in a statement. “With the addition of HuffPost, our media network will have more users, spending significantly more time with our content than any of our peers.”

AOL acquired The Huffington Post for $315 million nearly a decade ago, just a few months after it acquired TechCrunch.

The acquisition was seen a major move into the world of journalism and digital media, but there have been a series of corporate changes since then, with AOL subsequently acquired by VerizonVerizon also acquiring Yahoo then rebranding the combined organization first as Oath and then as Verizon Media (which still owns TechCrunch). Tim Armstrong, the executive behind the acquisition, left the company in 2018.

There have been on-and-of rumors of a HuffPost sale over the years. Last year, Verizon Media Guru Gowrappan said that the company was “not selling HuffPost” because it was “so core to our content.”

BuzzFeed is also searching for a new editor in chief at HuffPost. The position has been empty since Lydia Polgreen departed in March.

Lime touts a 2020 turnaround and 2021 profitability

Micromobility company Lime says it has moved beyond the financial hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, reaching a milestone that seemed unthinkable earlier this year.

In short, the company is now largely profitable.

Lime said it was both operating cash flow positive and free cash flow positive in the third quarter — a first — and is on pace to be full-year profitable, excluding certain costs (EBIT), in 2021.

During the WSJ Future of Everything event Thursday, Lime CEO Wayne Ting painted a far rosier picture of the company’s future than one might have expected.

There was a time when Bird and Lime, competing domestic scooter rental companies, were raising capital at a torrid pace, fighting for market share, regulatory breathing room and sidewalk real estate. Then, the pandemic hit and the companies had to take shelter.

Lime underwent a round of layoffs in April, taking on capital from Uber the next month in a down-round that brought its valuation under the $1 billion mark. And as it announced in a blog post that TechCrunch reviewed before publication, it paused most of its operations for a month during the early COVID-19 days.

“It was certainly a very, very tough decision for us earlier this year and I know we weren’t the only company during COVID,” Ting said during the event.I think it’s been in so many ways helpful to us to realize how hard these choices can be. We’re going to be growing headcount again. We’re going to do so in a careful way so that we’re not going have to make hard choices like the ones we made earlier this year.”

Now things are better, Lime says. Much better. Indeed, the company claims that it is the “first new mobility company to reach cash-flow positive for a full quarter.”

Cash flow positivity, in general, is an important threshold for a startup to reach as it implies that the company can largely self-fund from that point forward, limiting its dependency on external cash for survival.

Lime also claims that it “reached EBIT positive at the company level over the summer.” The specifics of the phrase “EBIT positive” are important. Was the company employing strict EBIT on its math and not discounting share-based compensation, or was it measuring using adjusted EBIT as many startups do, removing the cost of share-based compensation that shows up in GAAP results? According to the company the number did exclude share-based compensation, making the news slightly smaller.

Perhaps the most bullish data point from Lime is that it expects to be full-year profitable in 2021. TechCrunch asked for specifics because again how one measures profitability matters. It turns out, Lime is basing this projection on EBIT, as opposed to more traditional net income. For a startup this is not a surprising decision, but before we declare Lime fully ‘profitable,’ we’ll want some more GAAP metrics.

Still, it appears that Lime is not going to die, and is, importantly, putting capital into developing new products. The company provided the first example of that new product pipeline on Thursday with the launch of the Gen4 scooter in Paris. It also teased a so-called “third and fourth mode” in the first quarter of 2021 as well as the addition of a swappable battery.

The scooter company wouldn’t give TechCrunch much information about what these third and fourth modes will be. The first two modes are bikes and scooters, which leaves skateboards, cars, flying cars and boats?

Lime did give TechCrunch a little bit of clarification, stating that “move beyond,” means the company will be operating an additional mode, accessed through the Lime app, in line with its goal to serve any trips under five miles. These modes will build on the Lime Platform play, but this will be operated by Lime rather than a partner.

Lime has long discussed reaching profitability. Perhaps because it and its competitor Bird were infamous for their losses during their early-unicorn period.

By November of 2019, Lime was talking about reaching EBIT positivity in 2020. But the start of 2020 was not kind on the company, with 100 of its staff losing their jobs and 12 markets getting dropped. At the time TechCrunch wrote that “Lime is hoping to achieve profitability this year by laying off about 14% of its workforce and ceasing operations in 12 markets,” with the company itself writing at the time that “financial independence [was its] goal for 2020, and [that it was] confident that Lime will be the first next-generation mobility company to reach profitability.”

Depending on how you measure profitability, that could be true.

Things didn’t get easier for Lime later in the year. Its competitor Bird underwent layoffs, and Lime cut more staff in April. At the time, Lime said that it was focused on coming “back stronger than ever when this is over.”

The company is certainly in better shape than it was in April and May. So, how did Lime come back from the brink? In its own estimation, the company took time during its pause to “drill down on getting the business right, narrowing [its] focus and strengthening [its] fundamentals.” That might sound like corporate babble, but by taking a nearly full stop in its operating business, Lime could probably see a bit more clearly what was working and what was not. And with some cuts to what wasn’t, it could set up a future in which its operations were leaner, and more unit-economically positive.

And, now, here we are asking niggling questions about just what sort of profit Lime is really making. Instead of, you know, who might buy its leftover office furniture. It’s a nice turnaround.

Facebook details AI advances in catching misinformation and hate speech

Facebook’s battle against misinformation will never be over at this rate, but that doesn’t mean the company has given up. On the contrary it is only by dint of constant improvement to its automated systems that it is able to keep itself even remotely free of hate speech and misinformation. CTO Mike Schroepfer touted the latest of those improvements today in a series of posts.

The changes are to the AI-adjacent systems the social network uses to nip the likes of spam, misleading news items, and racial slurs in bud — that is to say before anyone, including Facebook’s own content moderators, sees those items.

One improvement is in the language analysis systems Facebook employs to detect things like hate speech. This is one area, Schroepfer explained, that the company has to be extremely careful. False positives in the ad space (like that something seems scammy) are low-risk, but false positives taking down posts because they’re mistaken for hate speech can be serious issues. So it’s important to be very confident when making that determination.

Unfortunately hate speech and adjacent content can be really subtle. Even something that seems indisputably racist can be inverted or subverted by a single word. Creating machine learning systems that reflect the complexity and variety of language(s) is a task that requires exponentially increasing amounts of computing resources.

Linformer (“linear”+”transformer”) is the new tool Facebook created to manage the ballooning resource cost of scanning billions of posts a day. It approximates the central attention mechanism of transformer-based language models rather than calculating it exactly, but with few trade-offs in performance. (If you understood all that, I congratulate you.)

That translates to better language understanding but only marginally higher computation costs, meaning they don’t have to, say, use a worse model for a first wave and then only run the expensive model on suspicious items.

The company’s researchers are also working on the slightly less well-shaped problem of understanding the interaction of text, images, and text in images. Fake screenshots of TV and websites, memes, and other things often found in posts are amazingly difficult for computers to understand, but are a huge source of information. What’s more, a single changed word can completely invert their meaning while almost all the visual details remain the same.

An example of two instances of the same misinformation with slightly different visual appearance. Aware of the left one, the system caught the right one.

Facebook is getting better at catching these in their infinite variety, Schroepfer said. It’s still very difficult, he said, but they’ve made huge strides in catching, for instance, COVID-19 misinformation images like fake news reports that masks cause cancer, even when the people posting them manipulate and change their look.

Deploying and maintaining these models is also complex, necessitating a constant dance of offline prototyping, deployment, online testing, and bringing that feedback to a new prototype. The Reinforcement Integrity Optimizer takes a new approach, monitoring the effectiveness of new models on live content, relaying that information to the training system constantly rather than in, say, weekly reports.

Determining whether or not Facebook can be said to be successful is not easy. On one hand, the statistics they publish paint a rosy picture of increasing proportions hate speech and misinformation taken down, with millions more pieces of hate speech, violent images, and child exploitation content removed versus last quarter.

I asked Schoepfer how Facebook can track or express their success or failure more accurately, since numbers increases might be due to either improved mechanisms for removal or simply larger volumes of that content being taken down at the same rate.

“The baseline changes all the time, so you have to look at all these metrics together. Our north star in the long run is prevalence,” he explained, referring to the actual frequency of users encountering a given type of content rather than whether it was preemptively removed or some such. “If I take down a thousand pieces of content that people were never going to see anyway, it doesn’t matter. If I take down the one piece of content that was about to go viral, that’s a massive success.”

Facebook now includes hate speech prevalence in its quarterly “community standards enforcement report,” and it defines it as follows:

Prevalence​ estimates the percentage of times people see violating content on our platform. We calculate hate speech prevalence by selecting a sample of content seen on Facebook and then labeling how much of it violates our hate speech policies. Because hate speech depends on language and cultural context, we send these representative samples to reviewers across different languages and regions.

And for its first measure of this new statistic:

From July 2020 to September 2020 was 0.10% to 0.11%. In other words, out of every 10,000 views of content on Facebook, 10 to 11 of them included hate speech.

If this number is not misleading, it implies that one in a thousand pieces of content online right now on Facebook qualifies as hate speech. That seems rather high. (I’ve asked Facebook for a bit more clarity on this number.)

One must question the completeness of these estimates as well — reports from war-torn areas like Ethiopia suggest that they are rife with hate speech that is inadequately detected, reported, and taken down. And of course the eruption of white supremacist and nationalist militia content and groups on Facebook has been well documented.

Schroepfer emphasized that his role is very squarely in the “implementation” side of things and that questions of policy, staffing, and other important parts of the social network’s vast operations are more or less out of his jurisdiction. Frankly that’s a bit of a disappointing punt by the CTO of one of the most powerful companies in the world, who seems to take these issues seriously. But one also wonders whether, had he and his teams not been so assiduous in pursuing technical remedies like the above, Facebook might have been completely snowed under with hate and fakery rather than being simply unavoidably shot through with it.

Tech in the Biden era

President-elect Joe Biden may have spent eight years in an administration that doted on the tech industry, but that long honeymoon, punctuated by four years of Trump, looks to be over.

Tech is on notice in 2020. The Russian election interference saga of the 2016 election opened the floodgates for social media’s ills. The subsequent years unleashed dangerous torrents of homegrown extremism and misinformation that either disillusioned or radicalized regular people. A cluster of tech’s biggest data brokers further consolidated power, buying up any would-be competitor they stumbled across and steamrolling everything else. Things got so bad that Republicans and Democrats, in uncanny agreement, are both pushing plans to regulate tech.

Suddenly, allowing the world’s information merchants to grow, unmolested, into towering ad-fed behemoths over the last decade looked like a huge mistake. And that’s where we are today.

Biden and big tech

Biden didn’t make attacking tech a cornerstone of his campaign and mostly avoided weighing in on tech issues, even as Elizabeth Warren stirred the big tech backlash into the campaign conversation. His attitude toward the tech industry at large is a bit mysterious, but there are some things we do know.

The president-elect is expected to keep the Trump administration’s antitrust case against Google on track, potentially even opening additional cases into Facebook, Amazon and Apple. But his campaign also leaned on former Google CEO Eric Schmidt for early fundraising, so the relationship to Google looks a bit more complex than the Biden team’s open contempt for a company like Facebook.

As Biden picked up the nomination and the months wore on, it became clear that Mark Zuckerberg’s chumminess with Trump’s White House was unlikely to continue into a Biden administration. By September, the Biden campaign had penned a scathing letter to Mark Zuckerberg denouncing Facebook as the “foremost propagator” of election disinformation, and that frustration doesn’t seem to have dissipated. His deputy communications director recently criticized Facebook for “shredding” the fabric of democracy. It appears that Facebook could come to regret the many decisions it’s made to stay in the Trump administration’s good graces over the last four years.

Still, it’s not doom and gloom for all tech — big tech isn’t everything. There are plenty of potential bright spots, from Biden’s climate plans (lack of Senate control notwithstanding), which could crack open a whole new industry and shower it in federal dollars, to his intention to revitalize the nation’s infrastructure, from telecommunications and transportation to energy-efficient housing. 

And antitrust legislation, usually framed as an existential threat to “tech” broadly, actually stands to benefit the startup scene, where the largest tech companies have walled off many paths to innovation with years of anti-competitive behavior. If Congress, states and/or the Justice Department manages to get anywhere with the antitrust actions percolating now — and there are many things percolating — the result could open up paths for startups that would prefer a more interesting exit than being bought and subsumed (best case) or shuttered (worst case) into one of five or so tech mega-companies.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is another wildcard. Hailing from tech’s backyard, Harris brings a distinctly Bay Area vibe to the office. Most interesting is Harris’s brother-in-law Tony West. West is Uber’s chief legal officer and played a prominent role in pushing for California’s Proposition 22, which absolved gig economy companies like Lyft and Uber from the need to grant their workers benefits afforded to full-time employees. Siding with organized labor, Harris landed on the other side of the issue.

The extent of her relationships in the tech world isn’t totally clear, but she apparently has a friendly relationship with Sheryl Sandberg, who was a frontrunner for a Treasury or Commerce position four years ago in the advent of a Hillary Clinton win. 

The Biden administration will also have all kinds of quiet ties to power players in the tech world, many of whom served in the Obama years and then made a beeline for Silicon Valley. Apple’s Lisa Jackson, formerly of Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency, and Jay Carney, a former Obama spokesman who sits comfortably as SVP of global corporate affairs at Amazon, are two examples there.

Transition names from tech

The Biden administration’s transition list is generously peppered with names from the tech industry, though some of them are likely grandfathered in from the Obama era rather than pulled directly for their more recent industry experience. The list named Matt Olsen, Uber’s chief trust and security officer, for his prior experience in the intel community under Obama rather than his ridesharing industry insights, for example.

The list doesn’t include any names fresh from Facebook or Google, but it does include four members from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and one from Eric Schmidt’s philanthropic project Schmidt Futures. The list also suggests a degree of continuity with the Obama era, with the inclusion of Aneesh Chopra, the first U.S. CTO, and Nicole Wong, a former deputy chief technology officer under Obama who previously worked at Twitter and Google. The transition also includes a smattering of names that served in the digital services agency 18F and some from the USDS, which borrows talent from the tech world to solve public problems.

Other names from the tech world include Airbnb’s Divya Kumaraiah and Clare Gallagher, Lyft’s Brandon Belford, Arthur Plews of Stripe, Dell CTO Ann Dunkin and quite a few more. These transition figures will help the administration fill the many open slots in a new government, but they’re less telling than who gets called to the cabinet. 

Tech in the cabinet? Maybe.

Beyond reading the tea leaves of the transition team and Biden’s previous statements here and there, we’re in for a wait. The administration’s picks for its cabinets will say a lot about its priorities, but for now we’re mostly left with the rumor mill. 

What does the rumor mill suggest? Meg Whitman, the former HP and eBay CEO most recently at the helm of failed short-form streaming platform Quibi, keeps coming up as a symbolic across-the-aisle pick for the Commerce Department, though Quibi’s spectacular dive probably doesn’t bode well for her chances.

Eric Schmidt’s name has bubbled up to lead some kind of White House tech task force, but that seems ill-fated considering the federal antitrust case against Google and the broader legislative appetite for doing something about big tech. But Alphabet board member Roger Ferguson, whose name has been floating around for Treasury Secretary, just stepped down from his current position at a finance firm, kicking up more speculation.

Seth Harris, who served in Obama’s Labor Department, made at least one list suggesting he could land a cabinet position. Harris, who is already involved in the Biden transition, also has the controversial distinction of proposing a “new legal category” of worker “for those who occupy the gray area between employees and independent contractors.” Lyft apparently cited his paper specifically after Prop 22 passed. With labor a hot issue in general right now — and Bernie Sanders himself potentially in the running for the same role — Harris would likely ignite a firestorm of controversy among labor activists if appointed to helm the department. 

On the other side of the coin, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra could be considered for a cabinet-level role in the Department of Justice. Becerra isn’t from the tech world, but as California’s AG he’s been stationed there and his department currently has its own antitrust case against Google simmering. In a recent interview with Bloomberg about antitrust issues under the Biden administration, Becerra denounced “behemoths” in the tech industry that stifle innovation, noting that state AGs have “taken the lead” on pressing tech companies on anti-competitive behavior.

“At the end of the day we all want competition, right?” Becerra said. “But here’s the thing, competition is essential if you want innovation.” Becerra, who succeeded Vice President-elect Kamala Harris when she left the Attorney General’s office for Congress, could also again follow in her footsteps, filling the vacant seat she will leave in the Senate come January.

All told, we’re seeing some familiar names in the mix, but 2020 isn’t 2008. Tech companies that emerged as golden children over the last ten years are radioactive now. Regulation looms on the horizon in every direction. Whatever policy priorities emerge out of the Biden administration, Obama’s technocratic gilded age is over and we’re in for something new.