Huawei bars staff from having technical meetings with US contacts

Reeling from the ongoing U.S.-China trade war, Chinese technology giant Huawei has found itself in yet another dilemma: How to pursue internal communications with its own U.S. employees? For now, the company has ordered its Chinese employees to bar technical meetings with their U.S. contacts and sent home the American workers deployed in research and development functions in Shenzhen headquarters.

Dang Wenshuan, Huawei’s chief strategy architect, told the Financial Times that the company has also limited general communications between its Chinese and U.S. workers. The move comes as the Chinese technology giant scrambles to comply with the murky laws after its weeks-long tension with the U.S. government sees no signs of resolution in the immediate future.

The Chinese giant is also controlling the subjects of interactions workers in its campus have with overseas visitors. The conversations cannot touch topics related to technology, the FT report said. Dang said the company was just trying to ensure it was on the right side of the law.

It remains unclear exactly how export controls could mandate disruption of internal communications within an organization. Huawei could be using this tack as a bargaining chip, showing the U.S. that its own citizens are being hurt by its policies. A Huawei spokesperson declined to comment on queries sent by TechCrunch.

Earlier this month, Huawei and 68 affiliates were put on an “entity list” by the U.S. Commerce Department over national security concerns, forcing American companies to take approval from the government before conducting any business with the Chinese giant. In the aftermath, a range of companies, including chipmakers, Google and Microsoft, have made significant changes to their business agreements with Huawei.

In recent weeks, several Huawei executives have spoken out about the significance of the U.S. government order. In the meantime, the company has also explored ways to fight back the order. Earlier this week, Huawei filed a legal motion to challenge the U.S. ban on its equipment, calling it “unconstitutional.”

At stake is the future of one of the largest suppliers of smartphones and networking equipment. A significant portion of the company’s business comes from outside of China. For smartphones, one of its core businesses, the company says it is already working on an operating system that does not rely on technologies sourced from U.S. companies. But it is yet to provide any evidence on how — and if — that operating system would function.

The U.S. government earlier this month offered some relief to Huawei by granting a temporary general export license for 90 days, which allows companies such as Google to continue to provide critical support to the Chinese company for three months.

FCC slaps robocaller with record $120M fine, but it’s like ’emptying the ocean with a teaspoon’

Whoever thought we would leave telemarketing behind in this brave new smartphone world of ours lacked imagination. Robocalls are a menace growing in volume and even a massive $120 million fine leveled against a prominent source of them by the FCC likely won’t stem the flood.

The fine was announced today during the FCC’s monthly open meeting: a Mr Adrian Abramovich was responsible for nearly 100 million robocalls over a three-month period, and will almost certainly be bankrupted by this record forfteiture.

“Our decision sends a loud and clear message,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a statement. “This FCC is an active cop on the beat and will throw the book at anyone who violates our spoofing and robocall rules and harms consumers.”

That sounds impressive until you hear that these calls took place in 2016, and meanwhile there were 3.4 billion robocalls made last month alone. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel applauds the fine, but questions the practicality of pursuing damages when actions need to be taken to prevent the crimes in the first place.

“Let’s be honest,” she wrote in a statement, “Going after a single bad actor is emptying the ocean with a teaspoon.”

She points out that a set of rules designed to prevent robocalls was overturned a couple months ago, and that 20 petitions to the FCC under those rules for legal exemptions and such have yet to be addressed. And a technology designed to prevent robocalls altogether, recommended in a report more than a year ago and currently set to be implemented in Canada in 2019, has no such date here in the States.

As someone who gets these robocalls all the time, I fully support both this fine and the more serious measures Rosenworcel suggests. And the faster the better, I literally got one while writing this story.

Google is banning Irish abortion referendum ads ahead of vote

Google is suspending adverts related to a referendum in Ireland on whether or not to overturn a constitutional clause banning abortion. The vote is due to take place in a little over two weeks time.

“Following our update around election integrity efforts globally, we have decided to pause all ads related to the Irish referendum on the eighth amendment,” a Google spokesperson told us.

The spokesperson said enforcement of the policy — which will cover referendum adverts that appear alongside Google search results and on its video sharing platform YouTube — will begin in the next 24 hours, with the pause remaining in effect through the referendum, with the vote due to take place on May 25.

The move follows an announcement by Facebook yesterday saying it had stopped accepting referendum related ads paid for by foreign entities. However Google is going further and pausing all ads targeting the vote.

Given the sensitivity of the issue a blanket ban is likely the least controversial option for the company, as well as also the simplest to implement — whereas Facebook has said it has been liaising with local groups for some time, and has created a dedicated channel where ads that might be breaking its ban on foreign buyers can be reported by the groups, generating reports that Facebook will need to review and act on quickly.

Given how close the vote now is both tech giants have been accused of acting too late to prevent foreign interests from using their platforms to exploit a loophole in Irish law to get around a ban on foreign donations to political campaigns by pouring money into unregulated digital advertising instead.

Speaking to the Guardian, a technology spokesperson for Ireland’s opposition party Fianna Fáil, described Google’s decision to ban the adverts as “too late in the day”.

“Fake news has already had a corrosive impact on the referendum debate on social media,” James Lawless TD told it, adding that the referendum campaign had made it clear Ireland needs legislation to restrict the activities of Internet companies’ ad products “in the same way that steps were taken in the past to regulate political advertising on traditional forms of print and broadcast media”.

We’ve asked Google why it’s only taken the decision to suspend referendum ad buys now, and why it did not act months earlier — given the Irish government announced its intention to hold a 2018 referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment in mid 2017 — and will update this post with any response.

In a public policy blog post earlier this month, the company’s policy SVP Kent Walker talked up the steps the company is taking to (as he put it) “support… election integrity through greater advertising transparency”, saying it’s rolling out new policies for U.S. election ads across its platforms, including requiring additional verification for election ad buyers, such as confirmation that an advertiser is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident.

However this U.S.-first focus leaves other regions vulnerable to election fiddlers — hence Google deciding to suspend ad buys around the Irish vote, albeit tardily.

The company has also previously said it will implement a system of disclosures for ad buyers to make it clear to users who paid for the ad, and that it will be publishing a Transparency Report this summer breaking out election ad purchases. It also says it’s building a searchable library for election ads.

Although it’s not clear when any of these features will be rolled out across all regions where Google ads are served.

Facebook has also announced a raft of similar transparency steps related to political ads in recent years — responding to political pressure and scrutiny following revelations about the extent of Kremlin-backed online disinformation campaigns that had targeted the 2016 US presidential election.

Brexit data transfer gaps a risk for UK startups, MPs told

The uncertainty facing digital businesses as a result of Brexit was front and center during a committee session in the UK parliament today, with experts including the UK’s information commissioner responding to MPs’ questions about how and even whether data will continue to flow between the UK and the European Union once the country has departed the bloc — in just under a year’s time, per the current schedule.

The risks for UK startups vs tech giants were also flagged, with concerns voiced that larger businesses are better placed to weather Brexit-based uncertainty thanks to greater resources at their disposal to plug data transfer gaps resulting from the political upheaval.

Information commissioner Elizabeth Denham emphasized the overriding importance of the UK data protection bill being passed. Though that’s really just the baby step where the Brexit negotiations are concerned.

Parliamentarians have another vote on the bill this afternoon, during its third reading, and the legislative timetable is tight, given that the pan-EU General Data Protection Act (GDPR) takes direct effect on May 25 — and many provisions in the UK bill are intended to bring domestic law into line with that regulation, and complete implementation ahead of the EU deadline.

Despite the UK referendum vote to pull the country out of the EU, the government has committed to complying with GDPR — which ministers hope will lay a strong foundation for it to secure a future agreement with the EU that allows data to continue flowing, as is critical for business. Although what exactly that future data regime might be remains to be seen — and various scenarios were discussed during today’s hearing — hence there’s further operational uncertainty for businesses in the years ahead.

“Getting the data policy right is of critical importance both on the commercial side but also on the security and law enforcement side,” said Denham. “We need data to continue to flow and if we’re not part of the unified framework in the EU then we have to make sure that we’re focused and we’re robust about putting in place measures to ensure that data continues to flow appropriately, that it’s safeguarded and also that there is business certainty in advance of our exit from the EU.

“Data underpins everything that we do and it’s critically important.”

Another witness to the committee, James Mullock, a partner at law firm Bird & Bird, warned that the Brexit-shaped threat to UK-EU data flows could result in a situation akin to what happened after the long-standing Safe Harbor arrangement between the EU and the US was struck down in 2015 — leaving thousands of companies scrambling to put in place alternative data transfer mechanisms.

“If we have anything like that it would be extremely disruptive,” warned Mullock. “And it will, I think, be extremely off-putting in terms of businesses looking at where they will headquarter themselves in Europe. And therefore the long term prospects of attracting businesses from many of the sectors that this country supports so well.”

“Essentially what you’re doing is you’re putting the burden on business to find a legal agreement or a legal mechanism to agree data protection standards on an overseas recipient so all UK businesses that receive data from Europe will be having to sign these agreements or put in place these mechanisms to receive data from the European Union which is obviously one of our very major senders of data to this country,” he added of the alternative legal mechanisms fall-back scenario.

Another witness, Giles Derrington, head of Brexit policy for UK technology advocacy organization, TechUK, explained how the collapse of Safe Harbor had saddled businesses with major amounts of bureaucracy — and went on to suggest that a similar scenario befalling the UK as a result of Brexit could put domestic startups at a big disadvantage vs tech giants.

“We had a member company who had to put in place two million Standard Contractual Clauses over the space of a month or so [after Safe Harbor was struck down],” he told the committee. “The amount of cost, time, effort that took was very, very significant. That’s for a very large company.

“The other side of this is the alternatives are highly exclusionary — or could be highly exclusionary to smaller businesses. If you look at India for example, who have been trying to get an adequacy agreement with the EU for about ten years, what you’ve actually found now is a gap between those large multinationals, who can put in place binding corporate rules, standard contractual clauses, have the kind of capital to be able to do that — and it gives them an access to the European market which frankly most smaller businesses don’t have from India.

“We obviously wouldn’t want to see that in a UK tech sector which is an awful lot of startups, scale-ups, and is a key part of the ecosystem which makes the UK a tech hub within Europe.”

Denham made a similar point. “Binding corporate rules… might work for multinational companies [as an alternative data transfer mechanism] that have the ability to invest in that process,” she noted. “Codes of conduct and certification are other transfer mechanisms that could be used but there are very few codes of practice and certification mechanisms in place at this time. So, although that could be a future transfer mechanism… we don’t have codes and certifications that have been approved by authorities at this time.”

“I think it would be easier for multinational companies and large companies, rather than small businesses and certainly microbusinesses, that make up the lion’s share of business in the UK, especially in tech,” she added of the fall-back scenarios.

Giving another example of the scale of the potential bureaucracy nightmare, Stephen Hurley, head of Brexit planning and policy for UK ISP British Telecom, told the committee it has more than 18,000 suppliers. “If we were to put in place Standard Contractual Clauses it would be a subset of those suppliers but we’d have to identify where the flows of data would be coming from — in particular from the EU to the UK — and put in place those contractual clauses,” he said.

“The other problem with the contractual clauses is they’re a set form, they’re a precedent form that the Commission issues. And again that isn’t necessarily designed to deal with the modern ways of doing business — the way flows of data occurs in practice. So it’s quite a cumbersome process. And… [there’s] uncertainty as well, given they are currently under challenge before the European courts, a lot of companies now are already doing a sort of ‘belt and braces’ where even if you rely on Privacy Shield you’ll also put in place an alternative transfer mechanism to allow you to have a fall back in case one gets temporarily removed.”

A better post-Brexit scenario than every UK business having to do the bureaucratic and legal leg-work themselves would be the UK government securing a new data flow arrangement with the EU. Not least because, as Hurley mentioned, Standard Contractual Clauses are subject to a legal challenge, with legal question marks now extended to Privacy Shield too.

But what shape any such future UK-EU data transfer arrangement could take remains tbc.

The panel of witnesses agreed that personal data flows would be very unlikely to be housed within any future trade treaty between the UK and the EU. Rather data would need to live within a separate treaty or bespoke agreement, if indeed such a deal can be achieved.

Another possibility is for the UK to receive an adequacy decision from the EC — such as the Commission has granted to other third countries (like the US). But there was consensus on the panel that some form of bespoke data arrangement would be a superior outcome — for legal reasons but also for reciprocity and more.

Mullock’s view is a treaty would be preferable as it would be at lesser risk of a legal challenge. “I’m saying a treaty is preferable to a decision but we should take what we can get,” he said. “But a treaty is the ultimate standard to aim for.”

Denham agreed, underlining how an adequacy decision would be much more limiting. “I would say that a bespoke agreement or a treaty is preferable because that implies mutual recognition of each of our data protection frameworks,” she said. “It contains obligations on both sides, it would contain dispute mechanisms. If we look at an adequacy decision by the Commission that is a one-way decision judging the standard of UK law and the framework of UK law to be adequate according to the Commission and according to the Council. So an agreement would be preferable but it would have to be a standalone treaty or a standalone agreement that’s about data — and not integrate it into a trade agreement because of the fundamental rights element of data protection.”

Such a bespoke arrangement could also offer a route for the UK to negotiate and retain some role for her office within EU data protection regulation after Brexit.

Because as it stands, with the UK set to exit the EU next year — and even if an adequacy decision was secured — the ICO will lose its seat at the table at a time when EU privacy laws are setting the new global standard, thanks to GDPR.

“Unless a role for the ICO was negotiated through a bespoke agreement or a treaty there’s no way in law at present that we could participate in the one-stop shop [element of GDPR, which allows for EU DPAs to co-ordinate regulatory actions] — which would bring huge advantages to both sides and also to British businesses,” said Denham.

“At this time when the GDPR is in its infancy, participating in shaping and interpreting the law I think is really important. And the group of regulators that sit around the table at the EU are the most influential blocs of regulators — and if we’re outside of that group and we’re an observer we’re not going to have the kind of effect that we need to have with big tech companies. Because that’s all going to be decided by that group of regulators.”

“The European Data Protection Board will set the weather when it comes to standards for artificial intelligence, for technologies, for regulating big tech. So we will be a less influential regulator, we will continue to regulate the law and protect UK citizens as we do now, but we won’t be at the leading edge of interpreting the GDPR — and we won’t be bringing British values to that table if we’re not at the table,” she added.

Hurley also made the point that if the ICO is not inside the GDPR one-stop shop mechanism then UK companies will have to choose another data protection agency within the EU to act as their lead regulator — describing this as “again another burden which we want to avoid”.

The panel was asked about opportunities for domestic divergence on elements of GDPR once the UK is outside the EU. But no one saw much advantage to be eked out outside a regulatory regime that is now responsible for the de facto global standard for data protection.

“GDPR is by no means perfect and there are a number of issues that we have with it. Having said that because GDPR has global reach it is now effectively being seen as we have to comply with this at an international level by a number of our largest members, who are rolling it out worldwide — not just Europe-wide — so the opportunities for divergence are quite limited,” said Derrington. “Particularly actually in areas like AI. AI requires massive amounts of data sets. So you can’t do that just from a UK only data-set of 60 million people if you took everyone. You need more data than that.

“If you were to use European data, which most of them would, then that will require you to comply with GDPR. So actually even if you could do things which would make it easier for some of the AI processes to happen by doing so you’d be closing off your access to the data-sets — and so most of the companies I’ve spoken to… see GDPR as that’s what we’re going to have to comply with. We’d much rather it be one rule… and to be able to maintain access to [EU] data-sets rather than just applying dual standards when they’re going to have to meet GDPR anyway.”

He also noted that about two-thirds of TechUK members are small and medium sized businesses, adding: “A small business working in AI still needs massive amounts of data.

“From a tech sector perspective, considering whether data protection sits in the public consciousness now, actually don’t see there being much opportunity to change GDPR. I don’t think that’s necessarily where the centre of gravity amongst the public is — if you look at the data protection bill, as it went through both houses, most of the amendments to the bill were to go further, to strengthen data protection. So actually we don’t necessarily see this is idea that we will significantly walk back GDPR. And bear in mind that any company which are doing any work with the EU would have to comply with GDPR anyway.”

The possibility for legal challenges to any future UK-EU data arrangement were also discussed during the hearing, with Denham saying that scrutiny of the UK’s surveillance regime once it is outside the EU is inevitable — though she suggested the government will be able to win over critics if it can fully articulate its oversight regime.

“Whether the UK proceeds with an adequacy assessment or whether we go down the road of looking at a bespoke agreement or a treaty we know, as we’ve seen with the Privacy Shield, that there will be scrutiny of our intelligence services and the collection, use and retention of data. So we can expect that,” she said, before arguing the UK has a “good story” to tell on that front — having recently reworked its domestic surveillance framework and included accepting the need to make amendments to the law following legal challenges.

“Accountability, transparency and oversight of our intelligence service needs to be explained and discussed to our [EU] colleagues but there is no doubt that it will come under scrutiny — and my office was part of the most recent assessment of the Privacy Shield. And looking at the US regime. So we’re well aware of the kind of questions that are going to be asked — including our arrangement with the Five Eyes, so we have to be ready for that,” she added.

White House will host tech industry for AI summit on Thursday

Artificial intelligence has been a mainstay of the conversation in Silicon Valley these past few years, and now the technology is increasingly being discussed in policy circles in DC. Washington types see opportunities for AI to improve efficiency and increase economic growth, while at the same time, they have growing concerns around job automation and competitive threats from China and other countries.

Now, it appears the White House itself is getting involved in bringing together key American stakeholders to discuss AI and those opportunities and challenges. According to Tony Romm and Drew Harwell of the Washington Post, the White House intends to bring executives from major tech companies and other large corporations together on Thursday to discuss AI and how American companies can cooperate to take advantage of new advances in these technologies.

Among the confirmed guests are Facebook’s Jerome Pesenti, Amazon’s Rohit Prasad, and Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich. While the event has many tech companies present, a total of 38 companies are expected to be in attendance including United Airlines and Ford.

AI policy has been top-of-mind for many policymakers around the world. French President Emmanuel Macron has announced a comprehensive national AI strategy, as has Canada, which has put together a research fund and a set of programs to attempt to build on the success of notable local AI researchers such as University of Toronto professor George Hinton, who is a major figure in deep learning.

But it is China that has increasingly drawn the attention and concern of U.S. policymakers. The country and its venture capitalists are outlaying billion of dollars to invest in the AI industry, and it has made leading in artificial intelligence one of the nation’s top priorities through its Made in China 2025 program and other reports. These plans are designed to coordinate various constituencies such as university researchers, scientists, companies, venture capitalists, and anyone else who might be able to assist in building out China’s AI capabilities.

In comparison, the United States has been remarkably uncoordinated when it comes to AI. While the government has released some strategic plans, it has mostly failed to follow through on coordinating more dollars toward artificial intelligence. As the New York Times noted in February, the White House has been remarkably silent on AI, despite the growing discussions around the technology.

That lack of engagement from policymakers has been fine — after all, the United States is the world leader in AI research. But with other nations pouring resources and talent into the space, DC policymakers are worried that the U.S. could suddenly find itself behind the frontier of research in the space, with particular repercussions for the defense industry.

Expect more news on this front in the coming months as DC’s various think tanks and analysts get their policy processes in motion.

China closing in on massive new chip fund in bid to dominate US semiconductor industry

China’s government has made technological independence from the United States one of its highest priorities. And now, it appears to be putting its money where its messaging has been.

According to the Wall Street Journal, China is close to finalizing a $47 billion investment fund that would finance semiconductor research and chip startup development. The fund, formally the China Integrated Circuit Industry Investment Fund Co., appears to be underwritten predominantly by government capital sources.

Such a fund has been rumored for months, with the size of the fund ranging widely. Just two weeks ago, Reuters had reported that the fund would be $19 billion, while Bloomberg reported $31.5 billion two months ago. The exact number appears to be under intense negotiation among the Chinese leadership, and is also responsive to the increasingly tense trade negotiations with the United States.

If the $47 billion number pans out, it would be identical in size to a $47 billion fund that was financed by Tsinghua University, China’s leading engineering university, to spur the development of an indigenous semiconductor industry back in 2015.

China is highly dependent on foreign tech in its semiconductor industry, importing 90% of its chips in order to power its fast-growing economy. The Chinese government has always been wary of that dependency, but its fears were heightened in recent weeks after the United States banned American companies from selling components to ZTE, a prominent Chinese telecom equipment manufacturer.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has gone on something of an indigenous innovation tour in recent weeks, visiting factories across the country and encouraging further investment in the country’s technology industry. From the Communist Party of China’s official newspaper the People’s Daily two weeks ago, “National rejuvenation relies on the ‘hard work’ of the Chinese people, and the country’s innovation capacity must be raised through independent efforts, President Xi Jinping said on Tuesday.”

While the numbers discussed are eye-popping, so are the costs of developing leading-edge semiconductor technology. As semiconductors have grown more complex, costs have skyrocketed to maintain Moore’s Law. Intel spent more than $13 billion on R&D expenses alone in 2017, according to IC Insights, with Qualcomm, Broadcom, and Samsung each spending more than $3 billion.

While China may try to play catchup in the broad category of semiconductors, it is strategically placing its money on new areas like 5G wireless and artificial intelligence-focused chips where it might become a leading provider of technology. Concerns over 5G in particular have galvanized American attention on Qualcomm and its ability to compete in what is rare virgin territory in the telecom equipment space.

For American companies like Intel and Qualcomm, who are used to holding de facto monopolies on entire swaths of the semiconductor market, the renewed competition from China is going to pressure them to push their tech forward faster.

Facebook’s Free Basics program ended quietly in Myanmar last year

As recently as last week, Facebook was touting the growth of Free Basics, its Internet.org project designed to give users free curated web access in developing countries, but the app isn’t working out everywhere. As the Outline originally reported and TechCrunch confirmed, the Free Basics program has ended in Myanmar, perhaps Facebook’s most controversial non-Western market at the moment.

Its mission statement pledging to “bring more people online and help improve their lives” is innocuous enough, but Facebook’s Internet.org strategy is extremely aggressive, optimized for explosive user growth in markets that the company has yet to penetrate. Free Basics, an initiative under Internet.org, is an app that offers users in developing markets a “free” Facebook-centric version of the broader internet.

The app provides users willing to sign up for Facebook with internet access that doesn’t count against their mobile plan — stuff like the weather and local news — but keeps them within a specially tailored version of the platform’s walled garden. The result in some countries with previously low connectivity rates was that the social network became synonymous with the internet itself — and as we’ve seen, that can lead to a whole host of very real problems.

The Outline reports that Free Basics has ended in “half a dozen nations and territories,” including Bolivia, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad and Tobago, Republic of Congo, Anguilla, Saint Lucia and El Salvador. Facebook told TechCrunch that two international mobile providers have exited the program, accounting for the end of Free Basics in those countries.

As a Facebook spokeswoman told TechCrunch, Facebook is still moving forward with the program:

We’re encouraged by the adoption of Free Basics. It is now available in more than 50 countries with 81 mobile operator partners around the world. Today, more than 1,500 services are available on Free Basics worldwide, provided to people in partnership with mobile operators.

Free Basics remains live with the vast majority of participating operators who have opted to continue offering the service. We remain committed to bringing more people around the world online by breaking down barriers to connectivity.

Facebook confirmed to TechCrunch that Free Basics did indeed end in Myanmar in September 2017, a little over a year since its June 2016 launch in the country. The company clarified that Myanmar’s state-owned telecom Myanma Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) cooperated with the Myanmar government to shut down access to all free services, including Free Basics in September of last year. The move was part of a broader regulatory effort by the Myanmar government.

Notification from MPT for users in Myanmar about the end of Free Basics

In a press release, MPT described how the regulation shaped policy for the country’s three major telecoms:

… As responsible operators, [MPT, Ooredoo and Telenor] abide by sound price competition practices – hallmarks of a healthy marketplace and to adhere to industry best practices and ethical business guidelines.

This [includes] compliance with the authority imposed floor pricing as set out in the Post and Telecommunications Department’s Pricing and Tariff Regulatory Framework of 28 June 2017, including refraining from behavior such as free distribution or sales of SIM cards and supplying services and handsets at below the cost including delivery.

In Myanmar, Facebook’s Free Basics offering ran afoul of the same price floor regulations that restricted the distribution of free SIM cards.

Elsewhere, Facebook’s Free Basics program is winding down for other reasons. In the case of the telecom Digicel, the company confirmed to TechCrunch that it ended access to Free Basics in El Salvador and some of its Caribbean markets due to commercial reasons on its end and that the decision was not a result of any action by Facebook or Internet.org.

As the Free Basics program is part of a partnership between Facebook and local mobile providers, the latter can terminate access to the app at will. Still, it’s not clear if that was the case in all the countries in which the app is no longer available.

In 2016, India regulated Facebook’s free internet deal out of existence, effectively blocking Facebook’s access to its most sought-after new market in the process. Since then, vocal critics have called Facebook’s Internet.org efforts everything from digital colonialism to a spark in the tinderbox for countries dealing with targeted violence against religious minorities.

Still, according to Facebook, even as some markets dry up, the program is quietly expanding. In late 2017 Facebook added Sudan and Cote d’Ivoire to its Free Basics roster. This year, Facebook launched the initiative in Cameroon and added additional mobile partners in Columbia and Peru.

Myanmar’s access to Free Basics is now restricted, but Facebook indicated that its efforts to connect the country — and its 54 million newly minted or yet to be converted Facebook users — are not over.

UK parliament’s call for Zuckerberg to testify goes next level

The UK parliament has issued an impressive ultimatum to Facebook in a last ditch attempt to get Mark Zuckerberg to take its questions: Come and give evidence voluntarily or next time you fly to the UK you’ll get a formal summons to appear.

“Following reports that he will be giving evidence to the European Parliament in May, we would like Mr Zuckerberg to come to London during his European trip. We would like the session here to place by 24 May,” the committee writes in its latest letter to the company, signed by its chair, Conservative MP Damian Collins.

“It is worth noting that, while Mr Zuckerberg does not normally come under the jurisdiction of the UK Parliament, he will do so the next time he enters the country,” he adds. “We hope that he will respond positively to our request, but if not the Committee will resolve to issue a formal summons for him to appear when he is next in the UK.”

BREAKING: This is pretty extraordinary. Parliament issues ultimatum to Facebook. Either Mark Zuckerberg comes voluntarily. Or, he’ll face a summons next time he enters British territory. Facebook really couldn’t have handled this much worse… pic.twitter.com/VFyJrHXWel

— Carole Cadwalladr (@carolecadwalla) May 1, 2018

Facebook has repeatedly ignored the DCMS committee‘s requests that its CEO and founder appear before it — preferring to send various minions to answer questions related to its enquiry into online disinformation and the role of social media data in politics and democracy.

The most recent Zuckerberg alternative to appear before it was also the most senior: Facebook’s CTO, Mike Schroepfer, who claimed he had personally volunteered to make the trip to London to give evidence.

However for all Schroepfer’s sweating toil to try to stand in for the company’s chief exec, his answers failed to impress UK parliamentarians. And immediately following the hearing the committee issued a press release repeating their call for Zuckerberg to testify, and noting that Schroepfer had failed to provide adequate answers to as many of 40 of its questions.

Schroepfer did sit through around five hours of grilling on a wide range of topics with the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal front and center — the story having morphed into a major global scandal for the company after fresh revelations were published by the Guardian newspaper last month (although the newspaper actually published its first story about Facebook data misuse by the company in December 2015) — though he frequently fell back on claiming he didn’t know the answer and would have to “follow up”. Yet the committee has been asking Facebook for answers for months — so you can see why it’s really mad now.

We reached out to Facebook to ask whether its CEO will now agree to personally testify in front of the committee by May 24, per their request, but the company declined to provide a public statement on the issue.

A company spokesperson did say it would be following up with the committee to answer any outstanding questions it had after Schroepfer’s session.

It’s fair to say Facebook has handled this issue exceptionally badly — leaving Collins to express public frustration about the lack of co-operation when, for example, he had asked it for help and information related to the UK’s Brexit referendum — turning what could have been a fairly easy to manage process into a major media circus-cum-PR nightmare.

Last week Schroepfer was on the sharp end of lots of awkward questions from visibly outraged committee members, with Collins pointing to what he dubbed a “pattern of behavior” by Facebook that he said suggested an “unwillingness to engage, and a desire to hold onto information and not disclose it”.

Committee members also interrogated Schroepfer about why another Facebook employee who appeared before it in February had not disclosed an existing agreement between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica .

“I remain to be convinced that your company has integrity,” he was told bluntly by one.

If Zuckerberg does agree to testify he’ll be in for an even bumpier ride. And, well, if he doesn’t it looks pretty clear the Facebook CEO won’t be making any personal trips to the UK for a while.

Hustle rallies $30M for grassroots texting tool Republicans can’t use

Hustle 20X’d its annual revenue run rate in 15 months by denying clients that contradict its political views. It’s a curious, controversial, yet successful strategy for the startup whose app lets activists and marketers text thousands of potential supporters or customers one at a time. Compared to generic email blasts and robocalls, Hustle gets much higher conversion rates because people like connecting with a real human who can answer their follow-up questions.

The whole business is built around those relationships, so campaigns, non-profits, and enterprises have to believe in Hustle’s brand. That’s why CEO Roddy Lindsay tells me “We don’t sell to republican candidates or committees. What it’s allowed us to do is build trust with the Democratic party and progressive organizations. We don’t have to worry about celebrating our clients’ success and offending other clients.”

Hustle execs from left: COO Ysiad Ferreiras, CEO Roddy Lindsay, CTO Tyler Brock

Investors agree. Tempted by Hustle’s remarkable growth to well over a $10 million run rate and 85 million conversations started, Insight Partners has led a $30 million Series B for the startup that’s joined by Google’s GV and Salesforce Ventures.

The round comes just 10 months after Hustle’s $8M Series A when it was only doing $3 million in revenue. Lindsay says he was impressed with Insight’s experience with communication utilities like Cvent and non-profit tools like Ministry Brands. Its managing director Hillary Gosher who specializes in growing sales teams will join Hustle’s board, which is a great fit since Hustle is hiring like crazy.

Humanizing The Call To Action

Founded in late 2014, Hustle’s app lets organizers write MadLibs-style text message scripts and import contact lists. Their staffers or volunteers send out the messages one by one, with the blanks automatically filled in to personalize the calls to action. Recipients can respond directly with the sender ready with answers to assuage their fears until they’re ready to donate, buy, attend, or help. Meanwhile, organizers can track their conversions, optimize scripts, and reallocate assignments so they can reach huge audiences with an empathetic touch.

The Hustle admin script editor

The app claims to be 77X faster than making phone calls and 5.5X more engaging than email, which has won Hustle clients like LiveNation’s concert empire, NYU, and the Sierra Club. Clients pay $0.30 per contact uploaded into Hustle, with discounts for bigger operations. Now at $41 million in total funding, Hustle plans to push further beyond its core political and non-profit markets and deeper into driving alumni donations for universities, sales for enterprises, and attendance for event promoters.

Hustle will be doing that without one of its three co-founders, Perry Rosenstein, who left at the end of 2017. [Disclosure: I know Lindsay from college and once worked on a short-lived social meetup app with Rosenstein called Signal.] Lindsay says Rosenstein’s “real excellence was about early stage activities and problems”. Indeed, in my experience he was more attuned to underlying product-market fit than the chores of scaling a business. “It was Perry’s decision, it was a departure we celebrated, and he’s still involved as an informal adviser to me and the company” Lindsay concluded.

Hustle is growing so fast, this recent photo is already missing a third of the team

Hustle has over 100 other employees in SF, NYC, and DC to pick up the torch, though. That’s up from just 12 employees at the start of 2017. And it’s perhaps one of the most diverse larger startups around. Lindsay says his company is 51 percent women, 48 percent people of color, and 21 percent LGBT. This inclusive culture attracts top diverse talent. “We see this as a key differentiator for us. It allows us to hire incredible people” Lindsay says. “It’s something we took seriously from day one and the results show.”

Partisan On Purpose

What started as a favored tool of the Bernie Sanders campaign has blossomed into a new method of communicating at scale. “We’re massively humanizing the way these organizations communicate” Lindsay said. “Humans really matter, no matter if what you care about is getting lots of people to come to events, vote, or renew a season ticket package. Having a relationship with another person can cut through the noise. That’s different than your interactions with bots or email marketing campaigns or things where it’s dehumanized.”

Lindsay felt the frustration of weak relationships when after leaving Facebook where he worked for six years as one of its first data scientists, he volunteered for Mark Zuckerberg’s Fwd.us immigration reform organization. Its email got just a 1 percent conversion rate. He linked up with Obama’s former Nevada new media director Rosenstein and CTO Tyler Brock to fix that with Hustle.

Working with Bernie aligned with the team’s political sentiments, but they were quickly faced with whether they wanted to fuel both sides of the aisle — which would mean delivering fringe conservative campaign messages they couldn’t stomach. Hustle still has no formal policy about declining Republican money, and a spokesperson said they point potential clients to TechCrunch’s previous article mentioning the stance. Meanwhile, Hustle is growing its for-profit client base to make shunning the GOP feel like less of a loss. Having Salesforce as a strategic investor also creates a bridge to a potential exit option.

Focusing on the left is working for now. Over 25 state Democratic parties are clients. Hustle sent 2.5 million messages and reached over 700,000 voters — 1 in 5 total — during the Alabama special election, helping Democrat Doug Jones win the Senate seat.

“Let’s build this great business for the Democratic party. Let’s let someone else take the Republicans” Lindsay explains. A stealth startup called OpnSesame is doing just that, Lindsay mentions. But he says “we don’t actually see them as competitive. We see them as potential allies that advocate for the power of p2p texting in getting everyone included in our democracy.” Instead, Lindsay sees the potential for Hustle to lose its sense of purpose and drive as it rapidly hires as its biggest threat.

Long-term, Hustle hopes to propel the right side of history by sticking to the left. Lindsay concludes, “You can really just put on your business hat and see this is a good choice.”

DNC launches tech marketplace for Democratic candidates

The Democratic National Committee is trying to help Democrats regain the pole position as the tech-savviest political party in the U.S.

After getting Trumped in the 2016 election (pwned on security, data analysis and at the polls), the DNC is launching I Will Run, a marketplace for software, services and training to upgrade the campaigns of Democratic candidates.

Announced today by Sally Marx, the tech program manager for the DNC, the new marketplace will have a host of tech tools that campaigns can use to get off the ground, manage their progress and ensure easy outreach to voters.

A profusion of political services have sprung up in the months since Donald Trump took the presidency. Energized technology developers (on the whole a pretty left-leaning bunch) tuned in to politics, turned on new services and (in some cases) dropped out of their careers at high-profile shops like Google, Facebook and other Bay Are behemoths to join the political circus — or at least build tools for it.

“[We’ve] heard repeatedly from candidates and campaign staff that they are unsure what tools are out there, and simultaneously feel as if they are being fed too much information by vendors,” says Marx. “On the other hand, many of these innovators are not always reaching campaigns effectively  –  some state parties and campaigns, therefore, are in the dark about some of the innovative new technology that they should know about. And, finally, we’ve been in touch with funders and supporters who want to boost the progressive tech ecosystem, but aren’t clear on where those opportunities are.”

The marketplace, which Marx writes is explicitly for Democratic campaigns, is a curated compilation of tools used by campaigns and tools tested by DNC-funded case studies.

One of the companies already on the platform is the secure messaging service, Wickr, which has been working with campaigns from both parties to secure their communications. Wickr’s one of around 56 companies and nonprofits that are listed on the site in one of six categories: digital (which is crazy general), finance, research, security, training organizations and voter outreach.

The DNC tech team will also use the site to coordinate training, volunteers and pricing for Democratic campaigns. They’re piloting the program in states like Nevada, Arizona, Washington, Texas, Florida, Massachusetts and Iowa.

For campaigns interested in seeing what wares I Will Run has on offer, the DNC tech team is taking its show on the road with a whistle-stop tour at DNC events so state parties and campaigns can demo the tech.