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.”
Tesla more than tripled its Austin gigafactory workforce in 2022
Tesla’s 2,500-acre manufacturing hub in Austin, Texas tripled its workforce last year, according to the company’s annual compliance report filed with county officials. Bloomberg first reported on the news.
The report filed with Travis County’s Economic Development Program shows that Tesla increased its Austin workforce from just 3,523 contingent and permanent employees in 2021 to 12,277 by the end of 2022. Bloomberg reports that just over half of Tesla’s workers reside in the county, with the average full-time employee earning a salary of at least $47,147. Outside of Tesla’s factory, the average salary of an Austin worker is $68,060, according to data from ZipRecruiter.
TechCrunch was unable to acquire a copy of the report, so it’s not clear if those workers are all full-time. If they are, Tesla has hired a far cry more full-time employees than it is contracted to do. According to the agreement between Tesla and Travis County, the company is obligated to create 5,001 new full-time jobs over the next four years.
The contract also states that Tesla must invest about $1.1 billion in the county over the next five years. Tesla’s compliance report shows that the automaker last year invested $5.81 billion in Gigafactory Texas, which officially launched a year ago at a “Cyber Rodeo” event. In January, Tesla notified regulators that it plans to invest another $770 million into an expansion of the factory to include a battery cell testing site and cathode and drive unit manufacturing site. With that investment will come more jobs.
Tesla’s choice to move its headquarters to Texas and build a gigafactory there has helped the state lead the nation in job growth. The automaker builds its Model Y crossover there and plans to build its Cybertruck in Texas, as well. Giga Texas will also be a model for sustainable manufacturing, CEO Elon Musk has said. Last year, Tesla completed the first phase of what will become “the largest rooftop solar installation in the world,” according to the report, per Bloomberg. Tesla has begun on the second phase of installation, but already there are reports of being able to see the rooftop from space. The goal is to generate 27 megawatts of power.
Musk has also promised to turn the site into an “ecological paradise,” complete with a boardwalk and a hiking/biking trail that will open to the public. There haven’t been many updates on that front, and locals have been concerned that the site is actually more of an environmental nightmare that has led to noise and water pollution. The site, located at the intersection of State Highway 130 and Harold Green Road, east of Austin, is along the Colorado River and could create a climate catastrophe if the river overflows.
The site of Tesla’s gigafactory has also historically been the home of low-income households and has a large population of Spanish-speaking residents. It’s not clear if the jobs at the factory reflect the demographic population of the community in which it resides.
Launch startup Stoke Space rolls out software tool for complex hardware development
Stoke Space, a company that’s developing a fully reusable rocket, has unveiled a new tool to let hardware companies track the design, testing and integration of parts. The new tool, Fusion, is targeting an unsexy but essential aspect of the hardware workflow.
It’s a solution born out of “ubiquitous pain in the industry,” Stoke CEO Andy Lapsa said in a recent interview. The current parts tracking status quo is marked by cumbersome, balkanized solutions built on piles of paperwork and spreadsheets. Many of the existing tools are not optimized “for boots on the ground,” but for finance or procurement teams, or even the C-suite, Lapsa explained.
In contrast, Fusion is designed to optimize simple inventory transactions and parts organization, and it will continue to track parts through their lifespan: as they are built into larger assemblies and go through testing. In an extreme example, such as hardware failures, Fusion will help teams connect anomalous data to the exact serial numbers of the parts involved.
“If you think about aerospace in general, there’s a need and a desire to be able to understand the part pedigree of every single part number and serial number that’s in an assembly,” Lapsa said. “So not only do you understand the configuration, you understand the history of all of those parts dating back to forever.”
While Lapsa clarified that Fusion is the result of an organic in-house need for better parts management – designing a fully reusable rocket is complicated, after all – turning it into a sell-able product was a decision that the Stoke team made early on. It’s a notable example of a rocket startup generating pathways for revenue while their vehicle is still under development.
Fusion offers particular relevance to startups. Many existing tools are designed for production runs – not the fast-moving research and development environment that many hardware startups find themselves, Lapsa added. In these environments, speed and accuracy are paramount.
Brent Bradbury, Stoke’s head of software, echoed these comments.
“The parts are changing, the people are changing, the processes are changing,” he said. “This lets us capture all that as it happens without a whole lot of extra work.”
Amid a boom in AI accelerators, a UC Berkeley-focused outfit, House Fund, swings open its doors
Companies at the forefront of AI would naturally like to stay at the forefront, so it’s no surprise they want to stay close to smaller startups that are putting some of their newest advancements to work.
Last month, for example, Neo, a startup accelerator founded by Silicon Valley investor Ali Partovi, announced that OpenAI and Microsoft have offered to provide free software and advice to companies in a new track focused on artificial intelligence.
Now, another Bay Area outfit — House Fund, which invests in startups with ties to UC Berkeley — says it is launching an AI accelerator and that, similarly, OpenAI, Microsoft, Databricks, and Google’s Gradient Ventures are offering participating startups free and early access to tech from their companies, along with mentorship from top AI founders and executives at these companies.
We talked with House Fund founder Jeremy Fiance over the weekend to get a bit more color about the program, which will replace a broader-based accelerator program House Fund has run and whose alums include an additive manufacturing software company, Dyndrite, and the managed app development platform Chowbotics, whose most recent round in January brought the company’s total funding to more than $60 million.
For founders interested in learning more, the new AI accelerator program runs for two months, kicking off in early July and ending in early September. Six or so companies will be accepted, with the early application deadline coming up next week on April 13th. (The final application deadline is on June 1.) As for the time commitment involved across those two months, every startup could have a different experience, says Fiance. “We’re there when you need us, and we’re good at staying out of the way.”
There will be the requisite kickoff retreat to spark the program and founders to get to know one another. Candidates who are accepted will also have access to some of UC Berkeley’s renowned AI professors, including Michael Jordan, Ion Stoica, and Trevor Darrell. And they can opt into dinners and events in collaboration with these various constituents.
As for some of the financial dynamics, every startup that goes through the program will receive a $1 million investment on a $10 million post-money SAFE note. Importantly, too, as with the House Fund’s venture dollars, its AI accelerator is seeking startups that have at least one Berkeley-affiliated founder on the co-founding team. That includes alumni, faculty, PhDs, postdocs, staff, students, dropouts, and other affiliates.
There is no demo day. Instead, says Fiance, founders will receive “directed, personal introductions” to the VCs who best fit with their startups.
Given the buzz over AI, the new program could supercharge House Fund, the venture organization, which is already growing fast. Fiance launched it in 2016 with just $6 million and it now manages $300 million in assets, including on behalf of Berkeley Endowment Management Company and the University of California.
At the same time, the competition out there is fierce and growing more so by the day.
Though OpenAI has offered to partner with House Fund, for example, the San Francisco-based company announced its own accelerator back in November. Called Converge, the cohort was to be made up of 10 or so founders who received $1 million each and admission to five weeks of office hours, workshops and other events that ended and that received their funding from the OpenAI Startup Fund.
Y Combinator, the biggest accelerator in the world, is also oozing with AI startups right now, all of them part of a winter class that will be talking directly with investors this week via demo days that are taking place tomorrow, April 5th, and on Thursday.
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