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UK to change Online Safety Bill limits on ‘legal but harmful’ content for adults

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Changes are incoming to draft online safety legislation in the UK which continues to attract controversy over the impact on free speech. The draft Online Safety Bill has already been years in the making but new prime minister Liz Truss signalled earlier this month that she wants “tweaks” to ensure it does not harm freedom of expression.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today program this morning, Michelle Donelan (pictured above), the new secretary of state appointed by Truss to head up the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), hinted that these incoming changes will focus on restrictions in the area of legal but harmful speech.

Asked about the new category of ‘legal but harmful speech’ that the bill creates — and whether she would be keeping it or not — Donelan confirmed “that’s the bit we will be changing”.

She declined to provide exact details of the incoming policy tweaks — saying the changes would be set out in parliament in due course. However she did specify that the changes will focus on unpicking restrictions for adults, not children. “That element is in relation to adults,” she emphasized. “The bits in relation to children and online safety will not be changing — and that is the overarching objective of the bill and why we put it in our manifesto.”

This raises questions about how platforms that do not age verify their users would be able to prevent children from being exposed to unrestricted legal but harmful content they may show to adults — without either A) applying the restriction anyway (i.e. in case children stumble upon such content) so generally purging ‘legal but harmful content’ with resultant harms for speech; or B) age verifying all users, and thereby putting the British social web behind a universal age-gate; or C) using some form of targeted age assurance technology on users they suspect are minors, assuming they’re willing to take the legal risks if they fail to identify all minors and end up showing some prohibited content to kids.

Pressed on how the bill will protect children if legal but harmful content is allowed, Donelan declined to go into details — so we’ll have to wait and see whether the government will be recommending platforms opt for A), B) or C) — saying only: “We will be ensuring that children are protected.”

“The main part of the bill is about making it a priority for social media providers and websites that generate user content and making sure that if they do act in the wrong way that we can stick massive fines on them which would be very punitive and prevent them from doing so again and really be a deterrent in the first place,” she added.

The new DCMS secretary of state was also pressed on the question of criminal liability for senior execs. The draft bill includes such powers for senior execs at companies that fail to cooperate with regulatory requests for information. However online safety campaigners have been pushing to extend personal liability powers — calling for prosecutions to be able to lead to fines for such individuals or even prison.

Donelan confirmed that such extended criminal liability powers are not currently in the bill. And while she did not categorically rule out the possibility that the government could look at expanding provisions in this area, she suggested its priorities (and ideology) are focused elsewhere.

“I’ve only been in the role two weeks, I will be looking at the bill in round — but my clear objective is to get this bill back to the house quickly, to edit the bit that we’ve been very upfront that we’re editing and to make sure that we get it into law because of course we want it in law as soon as possible to protect children when they’re accessing content online,” she said.

“I’m a champion of free speech — absolutely,” she added at another point during the interview, responding on why the government is unpicking restrictions in the area of legal but harmful content for adults. “We do need to make sure we’ve got the balance right in this piece of legislation. And we’re a government that will make bold and decisive decisions but if there’s things that need to be revisited we certainly won’t shy away from that.”

Molly Russell inquest

In related news today, an inquest opens into the suicide of five years ago of 14-year-old Molly Russell. The school girl had viewed pro-suicide and self-half content on Instagram — and her death galvanized campaigners for online safety legislation. The inquest is expected to focus on big tech platforms, interrogating their role in the tragedy. The BBC reports that senior executives from Meta and Pinterest are due to give evidence to the inquiry after being ordered to appear by the coroner.

Donelan described Russell’s story as “heart-breaking” — and said the inquest taking evidence from tech firms is an “important” moment.

“I think it’s important that this inquest is going ahead. That social media key players will be going to the inquest, submitting information and evidence — so that we can properly access exactly what they did and the role that they played,” the DCMS secretary of state said, adding: “We’ve got to make sure as a government that we prevent horrendous incidents like this happening again.”

Donelan sidestepped a question on whether or not she agrees with criticism from child safety campaigners that social media companies have taken a business decision not to invest in child safety measures. But added: “We need to be holding them to account on these matters, we need to be making sure that they are prioritizing the welfare and well-being of children and young people when they access content online so that we prevent instances like this.

“And that’s why we’re bringing forward the Online Safety Bill — it’s gone through most stages in the house. We’ve got to get it back to the House and get it into law.”

Technology

Steve Case is trying to make money with founders outside Silicon Valley; his plan is starting to work

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Steve Case, the cofounder of America Online, the investment firm Revolution, and its offshoot seed-stage arm Rise of the Rest, has a new book out called Rise of the Rest: How Entrepreneurs in Surprising Places are Building the New American Dream. In it, Case argues that Covid was a “shake the globe” moment for entrepreneurship, and that power will never again reside as it once did in cities like San Francisco and New York and Boston.

We spoke earlier today with Case about the book; we also chatted with him about the mentality of coastal investors, whether he harbors any political aspirations, and the status of his relationship with Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance, who worked closely with Case at one point (they appeared together at our TechCrunch Disrupt event in 2018).

Case also talked up a number of his bets, which have, perhaps to the surprise of skeptics, taken off since he began investing across the country. He relatedly suggested that one major piece of advice that he tries to impart when speaking with founders is the art of storytelling itself. (A powerful narrative can go a long way, particularly when you’re out of the sightline of some of the most powerful investors in the country.)

More from our conversation follows. These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity. (You can hear the longer conversation here.)

TC: You’ve been on a mission dating back to 2014 to bring more attention to founders around the country,  traveling something like 11,000 miles across 33 cities. With Covid fading away, are you back on the road now or have you bookended that chapter?

SC: It [that national tour] came out of some effort a little over 10 years ago; I was asked by President Obama to chair an initiative called Startup America Partnership. And that got me focused on regional entrepreneurship and this imbalance that we’ve talked about before in terms of how 75% of venture capital dollars [were] going to just three states. And the more we visited cities, the more cities we wanted to visit. We did obviously have to stop when the pandemic hit and we have not yet restarted in terms of physical tours. But we are spending a lot of time traveling around the country. The Rise of the Rest team, which is now about a dozen people, has visited dozens of cities over the last six months.

Chris Olsen of Drive Capital in Columbus, Ohio told us a few weeks ago that though his firm had laid the groundwork for more VCs to come to the area, the opposite happened post Covid, that they’ve retreated back to the coasts. Are you seeing the same thing?

[I think] while some may hunker down in a more difficult environment and focus more on their existing investments, I do believe we hit a tipping point during the pandemic, and that will result in an acceleration of more capital flowing to more cities and more entrepreneurs in those cities.

Most people in most parts of the country, if they wanted to be part of the innovation economy, they felt they had to leave where they were to go to the coast. That started slowing over the last five years and picked up in terms of people relocating during the pandemic, [which] ended up being kind of a shake-the-snow-globe moment for society, and also for a lot of families. They kind of reassessed how they want to live and work and where they want to live and work, and that likely will result in a permanent, dynamic.

Where has Rise of the Rest invested the most dollars?

We have through our rides made 200 investments in 100 different cities, so it’s fairly broad. And we’re seeing momentum in many, many cities. Indianapolis is an example of a city that most people don’t really know what’s happening there [and one of the reasons is a] tentpole company that’s there, ExactTarget. It was acquired [in 2013] by Salesforce for $2.5 billion and, at the time, had 1,000 employees. Now Salesforce has 2000 employees in Annapolis, and [it’s] the second-largest Salesforce office outside of San Francisco, and the founder of that company and many of the early employees of that company have gone on to start new companies.

We also have seen interest in places like Richmond, Virginia; we backed a company called TemperPack that focuses on sustainable packaging. They actually started in New York City but decided to move to Richmond to build out their manufacturing capabilities, and they’ve gone on to raise $140 million in a round led by Goldman Sachs. We backed [online farmland investment company] AcreTrader whose founder, Carter Malloy,  was in San Francisco decided to move to Arkansas to get the close to where the farmers are. We invested in Chattanooga in a company called Freightwaves that’s focused on building a Bloomberg data platform for the trucking and logistics industry.

Have you had any exits?

One of our seed companies, [Kentucky-based] AppHarvest, went public about a year ago [via a SPAC]. About a year ago, another company based in the D.C. area, FiscalNote went public last [via SPAC]. There’s another company out of Kansas City called Backlotcars that was acquired with a pretty significant exit company.

I think we’ve seen [the portfolio] get to seven unicorns so far, so it really bodes well for what’s happening in these places.

How does one go into business with you?

For the Rise of the Rest fund, we’ve invested with over 300 different regional venture capitalists. They lead the rounds [and] they take the board seat, because of the velocity of investments we were making. We play more of a role of connecting these entrepreneurs and connecting these investors to build essentially a Rise of the Rest network.

Do you fund these venture firms as a limited partner?

We did some of that early on, but because we’ve co-invested now with over 300 of them, we were getting a lot of requests to be investors in those funds, and we decided to back off on that because we wanted to build the broadest possible network.

At the very same time that people are moving back to their home towns or other more affordable places, the political landscape is changing in dramatic ways that some are sure to find off-putting. Abortion bans are so divisive. 

Historically, cities were competing to get companies to move. Now they’re competing to get people to move. And everybody will have a different set of criteria that they prioritize. Maybe they move for family reasons, or cost of living reasons, or because there’s industry expertise in an area that you want to build on, or [it could tie to] lifestyle choices like biking or skiing. With some states, taxes make it more attractive.

I do think people will factor in some of these social issues, including the recent Dobbs ruling, and take a step back, and I think people making these decisions– whether it be local and state leaders or others in the community, even the media — should be thinking about and being aware [of this issue]. I think we want to avoid hyper partisanship in the country. We have enough issues that divide the country; we want to avoid a sort of entrepreneurial culture war.

As someone who has run an international business and probably been under pressure yourself to be political, do you think companies should take a stance on social issues?

I think every CEO has to decide, and some [of that] depends on which issues they want to weigh in on and which issues they think are most important to their key constituents, whether it be their employees or their customers or others. But [some of why people move to certain places will tie] to what the mayors and governors and politicians do. But some of it also will be what the entrepreneurs and the CEOs of the big companies decide to do.

I’m curious about your relationship with JD Vance. He managed the Rise of the Rest fund at the outset. What is your current relationship with him and what do you think of some of the positions that he has taken?

JD joined us probably four or five years ago, right after he came out with the Hillbilly Elegy book. Part of the reason for that is his wife Usha was going to be working in the Supreme Court as a clerk there for a year in Washington, DC, and we’re headquartered in Washington, DC. So he really helped launch the first Rise of the Rest fund. But after they were in DC for a year, they decided to move to Ohio, and he continued in a role for another maybe six months or so but ultimately decided he wanted to launch his own fund, which he did in Cincinnati.

I have not talked to him since he announced last year that he was running for Senate and I’ve not supported that campaign. Frankly, I’ve been surprised by some of the things he has said, which are, by his own admission, inconsistent with some of the positions he took several years ago.

Do you have any ambitions to become a politician? You have that beloved CEO thing going for you

I appreciate you saying that, but part of the reason I think I’ve been successful on policy, including even a decade ago, working on the JOBS Act — the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act — and more recently, some of the work around regional hubs is because I’m not political. When we’re traveling around, we invite Democrats and Republicans to join us on the bus and everything we’re doing is trying to make innovation, make entrepreneurship, make startups, and make job creation a nonpartisan issue.

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Backed by Epic Games, distributed computing startup Hadean nabs $30M to power the metaverse

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Hadean, a U.K.-based distributed, spatial computing startup that’s setting out to build the infrastructure for the burgeoning metaverse, has closed a $30 million seres A round of funding from a high-profile cast of investors including Epic Games and Tencent.

Founded out of London in 2015, Hadean started out with a broad mission to put “supercomputer levels of processing power at the disposal of anyone,” TechCrunch wrote back in 2017 when the company was still operating in beta. In the intervening years, Hadean has iterated for different use-cases and has emerged as a major player in the gaming sphere in particular, where it powers major hits such as Minecraft.

At its core, Hadean is all about helping developers scale their codebase to support software that requires significant computing power, something that Minecraft demands particularly when it involves multiplayer engagement across the internet. Hadean’s spatial simulation library integrates with all the major gaming engines, and helps MMO (massively multiplayer online game) and other online game developers avoid having to put player limits in place, or use other forms of technical (but limited) trickery to circumvent the problems created by hundreds or more gamers participating at the same time. It’s all about keeping the dreaded “lag” at bay, while maintaining the depth, complexity, and realism of a single-player offline console game.

This is achieved through the magic of distributed computing, with Hadean’s platform eliminating “excessive middleware, orchestration, and overengineering,” as the company puts it, dynamically provisioning more or fewer resources as a game requires.

But the underlying technology can be used for just about any use-case, from resource-intensive enterprise applications through to web 3.0, blockchain, and the metaverse. Back in July, Hadean was awarded a contract with the British Army to build a simulated training environment for land warfare.

A virtual world as illustrated by Hadean Image Credits: Hadean

Epic investment

And it’s against that backdrop that Hadean has now secured a slew of illustrious backers eager to get in at an early stage, while the metaverse is still in its fledgling years.

As the Telegraph newspaper first reported last month [paywalled], Hadean initially secured around $18 million in funding from investors including Chinese technology titan Tencent and InQTel, a CIA-backed not-for-profit venture capital firm based in Virginia, U.S. As it transpired, this initial reveal came somewhat prematurely, as Hadean was still in the process of closing the round of funding, which is what it’s announcing today.

The full list of (known) backers include lead investor Molten Ventures (formerly Draper Esprit), Tencent, 2050 Capital, Alumni Ventures, Aster Capital, Entrepreneur First, InQtel, and the mighty Epic Games, which also happens to be a Hadean customer. In fact, Epic Games previously doled out funding to Hadean in the form of a MegaGrant, which are basically grants to support companies working on projects to help support its Unreal Engine.

In an email to TechCrunch, Hadean CEO Craig Beddis said Epic Games arrived late to the series A round and so had to invested via a convertible note, which basically means it’s a short-term debt that will convert into equity.

It’s also worth noting that Epic Games recently raised around $2 billion to build what it’s touting as a kid-friendly metaverse, and this gives a further clue as to why it’s now investing directly in Hadean.

“Hadean’s computing power will provide the infrastructure that’s needed as we work to create a scalable metaverse,” said Marc Petit, who serves as VP of Epic’s Unreal Engine Ecosystem, in a statement. “The company’s technology complements Epic’s Unreal Engine by enabling massive amounts of concurrent users and unlocking new tools for creators and developers.”

Tencent’s involvement is also notable, given current geopolitical tensions between China and the U.S. Beddis explained that Hadean ended up taking less money than what was on offer from Tencent so that it could remain CFIUS (Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States) compliant, and avoid a national security review.

With another $30 million in the bank, in addition to its previously raised seed rounds amounting to around $16.5 million, Hadean is well-financed to double-down on its existing traction across the gaming, government, and enterprise realms, and power all manner of web 3.0 and metaverse applications.

“Hadean’s mission is to bridge physical and virtual worlds — to help us make better decisions and ultimately improve the quality of our lives in the physical world,” Beddis said. “Today’s virtual worlds are a limited experience – small scale, siloed, and insecure. Hence why these are the technical challenges we’re tackling today. But we believe the true success and mass adoption of the metaverse will rely on the ease by which creators will be able to build their own experiences at scale, leveraging open and robust metaverse-as-a-service technologies.”

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Interview with Ekke Uustalu, Co-Founder of Planyard

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Interview with Ekke Uustalu, Co-Founder of Planyard

Co-founder of Planyard with a background in B2B software and cyber security. Now tackling profitability forecasting in larger construction companies to make sure they don’t go out of business due to insufficient visibility.

He was born right when Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 90s. This experience has been invaluable as he saw the rapid development and life quality improvement this new way provided.

When growing up, everything in his life was digitalized – the communication, the school work, government and medical services. This meant that that was since childhood the normal. He couldn’t really expect less than excellent and user-friendliness from any service. This part is probably normal for 99% of Estonians though.

He studied computer systems in his university studies and found entrepreneurship interesting from early on. He worked in various startups during studies and attended various startup events and competitions. Some of these competitions were also where the first attempts (and failures) at personal startups took place.

He also tried Amazon FBA (Fulfilled by Amazon) product selling which failed quite miserably as the product was completely custom designed and was just a one-time thing. The product was also partially a safety device so Amazon deciding to now allowing to sell the product was a good learning point. Never give too much decision power to someone else. Also, don’t make safety products without having great suppliers. 🙂

After a short stint in a cyber security company, he was invited by acquaintances to work on Planyard. This has been the main focus for the past few years.

Where did the idea for Planyard come from?

The idea for Planyard came from our acquaintances working in the construction field. Many of them work as project managers and complained that they don’t have good tools that help them do financial tasks efficiently.

They often need to use multiple unlinked spreadsheets with duplicate data where the processing and data copying takes way too long. So when one of our founders had multiple discussions with these PMs, he was able to identify key issues that we started to work on once the mockups were confirmed.

So now we are providing a cloud-based software tool for construction companies to automate much of the annoying manual work they have to do anyway. This can save up to 5 days for each project manager per month. Additionally, colleagues and managers can also easily see what the status is if the company prefers to share the access inside the company.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Since we are a small bootstrapped team, the day consists of various tasks that have to be done – often some development work, marketing actions if we have some content planned, calls with customers and representatives from tools that we integrate with.

It is important to list and then prioritize all of the things that need to be done in the day to make sure that you can really focus on the important tasks. Depending on the task, we have different Trello boards to track them or for stuff only specific to me, I also use Gmail snoozing to not lose anything.

How do you bring ideas to life?

We often hear about problems that our customers are having. When we hear these brought out, we have to validate that many or most of our customers face similar issues. When we validate that indeed this is a relevant issue for many people, we then start work on solution proposals.

We then make very low-quality mockups that we can validate with all of the parties and often do multiple rounds of these discussions to tweak the solution before we start implementing it.

This means that we can be very sure of the technical solution before we do anything. We might make small adjustments to the design or the process later on, but the fundamental assumptions are correct, thus reducing the amount of rework we have to do.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Young and/or tech-savvy people who are becoming decision makers in (construction) companies. They have grown up with productivity tools and user-friendly tools and expect that when they try to find a solution. Also, a more bottom-up management style is nice since everyone’s’ opinion matters and the boss doesn’t decide alone.

This means that our potential customers are more open to embracing technical solutions that will make their life easier. Additionally, when looking for solutions, they are very selfishly trying to find a great experience. That differs from the “old school“ enterprise sales where the management would just decide for something and the end users would not really benefit from it.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

If you don’t get it 100% clearly, just ask again. I think I need to fully understand the problem and why it is a problem to be able to solve it for the customer.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Ask more questions before rushing to propose solutions. You probably didn’t fully get it yet.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Probably not that unpopular, but raising money is not everything. Raising money too soon can hurt or end your business.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Blocking out time for deep focus time. This is probably more a techy thing to do, but having the freedom of no distractions for some part of your day really lets you achieve a lot.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

We still need to do a lot of work on our online presence and messaging, but we for sure are already seeing successes from our SEO efforts however limited the time is that we put in there.

In short, it’s better to be where the customers are searching for you instead of cold calling and reaching out to them yourself.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

A few years ago, I tried doing Amazon FBA (fulfillment by Amazon) as a business. We developed our own product from scratch for just a one-time event.

The production delays and strict Amazon restrictions meant that we actually could almost not sell any products to our customers before the date. We lost a lot of time and money doing this, but I learned to value my own control over the process more. In that case, we did make a lot of mistakes on our own as well. But giving so much power to someone else can be risky as they can just shut you down when they decide to do so.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I recently heard of an idea for an app to order food in the restaurant. So basically Uber Eats to eat in – no waiting for the waiter, no payment struggles, and the possibility for the company to do dynamic pricing.

I’m not sure if it is a great idea, but it’s an idea.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Trello. Keeping track of what you need to do, what you did, and to prioritize what needs to be done. Without structure, you just do whatever you want to in the morning and that probably won’t take you too far.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Predictable Revenue by Aaron Ross and Marylou Tyler
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

What is your favorite quote?

Change in all things is sweet – Aristotle

Originally published on IdeaMensch.
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