Category Archives: Issues
By: Tim Sparapani
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors is in the midst of a sometimes hot, sometimes cold dispute that’s currently targeting companies that facilitate short-term housing rentals online, but more broadly is a challenge to the internet platform companies that are propelling San Francisco’s and the nation’s economy. The current dispute stems from the Supervisors’ innocuous sounding ordinance that would force internet platform companies like HomeAway and Airbnb to either require those who offer rentals on their sites to register with the City, or kick the renters off the companies’ sites. If the companies refuse or resist, they face significant fines.
Of course, the City could and should just take direct enforcement actions against the property owners who aren’t complying with local laws but it wants the companies to bear this burden.
The first ordinance passed by Supervisors this spring was swiftly challenged in court, in part because it was an attack that violated a key federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, that has helped the Bay Area’s tech innovators generate hundred of billions in economic value for the city, state, and national economy. Just last week, the Supervisors, who were previously resolute that the proposal did not violate federal law, withdrew the ordinance. They requested that the judge assigned to the case stay litigation while they rewrite the ordinance. Early drafts being circulated, however, appear to repeat the original mistake of punishing internet platforms when property owners fail to comply with the City’s registration requirements.
We live in the Internet Age, and more specifically, what I call the Internet Platform Economy. Internet platforms – Google, Facebook, eBay, Etsy, Tumblr, Craigslist, and a thousand others – are especially successful because they facilitate billions of people publishing content online, and with a few exceptions, the internet platform companies cannot be forced to police users’ content. America’s tech companies were empowered to create their online platforms by a provision tucked into a 20-year young federal law, the Communications Decency Act (CDA). With only a few exceptions, courts have ruled repeatedly that Section 230 of the CDA frees companies from liability for facilitating their users’ publication online of speech and content. This federal liability shield is the greatest single reason for the rise of these services because it is what allows internet platform companies to host billions of interactions without being constantly mired in legal disputes.
By: Mike Montgomery
Pokémon GO has changed the game.
By that, I don’t just mean the world of video games. There’s no question that the mobile game, which at last count was being f you haven’t played, the game works with a GPS map that shows you where Pokémon are in the real world (you can tell a Pokémon is nearby via a virtual rustling of leaves). When they’re close enough, they appear as augmented reality on your phone and you try to catch them. The result is entertaining and adorable.
Although augmented reality has been around for years, this is by far the best use of the technology. Video game designers all over the world are probably scrambling to include augmented reality in whatever project they are currently working on.
But the impact of Pokémon GO is bigger than that. It’s even bigger than Nintendo’s 100% stock climb over the past few weeks. The game is also creating amazing opportunities for brick-and-mortar entrepreneurs.
Players don’t only try to catch Pokémon in the game. They also congregate at Pokéstops (where they can collect Pokéballs and other bonuses) and gyms (where they can battle other teams). Pokéstops and gyms are locations in the real world. Bookstores, churches, restaurants and murals that happen to be gyms or Pokéstops are suddenly being inundated by Pokémon GO players.
Businesses didn’t have a chance to sign up for this. The maps of key locations come from a previous game from Niantic (the studio behind Pokémon GO) called Ingress.
But they can take advantage of the business. For example, businesses can put out lures, which temporarily increase the number of Pokémon around that business. Inc calculated that lures only cost $1.19 per hour and they can drastically increase foot traffic. A friend who was playing Pokémon GO with her son noticed a lure at a local candy shop. Her son caught a bunch of Pokémon and she ended up buying him some candy.
By: Mike Montgomery
When the U.S. Court of Appeals backed the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) so-called netneutrality rules this week, PC World nailed the problem with its headline: “The decision will be challenged, and the case could drag on for years.”
Regardless of how the court ruled, net neutrality was destined to play out in courtrooms for the next decade as policymakers, technologists and consumers grapple with how to ensure open access to the internet while not crushing innovation and discouraging investment that created the Web in the first place.
Today the battle is largely between ISPs and edge providers. But as we’ve seen with buyers’ remorse statements from companies such as Netflix and Cloudflare, as well as EFF’s John Perry Barlow, in the future these legal battles may become more muddled as tech titans realize that they could be captured by the rules designed to keep the internet accessible to all.
These battles would test the patience of Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day,” which is why there is only one entity that can settle the issue once and for all: Congress. Critics of the FCC contend the agency overstepped its bounds and applied 20th Century rules to innovative and rapidly changing technologies. At the same time, everyone wants to ensure that the internet continues to remain open and that we don’t create fast lanes, ban blocking and enhance transparency.
Only Congress can solve this problem by rewriting the laws that the FCC uses to base its rules. However well meaning the FCC was with its approach, two obvious negatives exist. The first is that the uncertainty over a decade-long legal fight leads tech companies – both those that supply the pipes and those who rely upon them – to play wait and see on new investments or innovations. That’s bad news for consumers and really bad news for an economy that needs a tech jolt.
The second is that we risk accepting that the Web deserves to be treated no differently than our water or electrical utilities – plodding and innovation-free, devoid of competition. That harms consumers and innovators alike due to a lack competition, choice and investment.
By: Mike Montgomery
Justice Louis Brandeis said, “sunshine is said to be the best of disinfectants.” A ray of digital sunshine emerged last week as a new kind of disinfectant, one that may make sure our nation’s elected representatives keep cameras on.
Last Wednesday, a group of Democrats staged a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives to draw attention to the gun responsibility debate raging across the country in the wake of the Orlando shootings. Republicans blocked a piece of legislation that would have made it illegal for people on the no-fly list to purchase guns. In protest, Democrats vowed to “occupy” the floor until Republicans allowed a vote on the bill.
In retaliation, the Republican leadership sent the house into recess, which caused C-SPAN’s cameras to go dark. The public window to the Hill is only open when the House is actually in session. Without cameras to watch, Republicans assumed they were taking the wind out of the Democrats’ protest sails.
But a few tech-savvy staffers and representatives quickly realized there was a way to keep the protest on the air. Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., was the first to take out his phone and start broadcasting the protest on Twitter using Periscope. C-SPAN soon started broadcasting the feed, eventually switching back and forth between Peters’s feed and Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s Facebook Live feed.
Needless to say, this was an historic use of technology driving government transparency, one that will mark a real turning point in how we see our elected officials in action. Both Periscope and Facebook Live, per Politico, have been trying to become bigger parts of this election year by forming debate-night partnerships. But Wednesday, both sites showed just how powerful livestreaming can be when users can work around traditional media blackouts without tripping the piracy alarm like Periscope did when it burst onto the scene during the the Mayweather-Pacquiao boxing match.
By: Tim Sparapani
If you want to buy someone’s private data, it’s disturbingly easy to do. It’s all there for sale on the dark web, a completely anonymous twin of the web most of us use daily.
The dark web (or deep web, if you prefer) is “dark” because the sites on it cannot be indexed by a web crawling browser, such as Google. That makes it hard for ordinary people, and law enforcement, to find specific websites. This anonymity has the advantage of creating a zone of free speech where individuals can communicate, think and explore ideas without government interference.
But it also creates a haven for illicit activity, including the buying and selling of drugs, child pornography and individuals’ private information such as social security numbers, health records and passwords.
People who don’t closely follow privacy issues probably associate the dark web with Silk Road, the infamous illegal drug marketplace that did millions in business before the FBI managed to shut the site down in 2013.
But the death of Silk Road didn’t put an end to the dark web. This shady technological playground is still going strong, and many sites that thrive on the dark web are a daily threat to privacy and the economy.
Over the past three months, the website LeakedSource has uncovered huge caches of account data being sold on the dark web from eight websites including Twitter, MySpace and LinkedIn. In some cases, those accounts came from privacy breaches at the web companies. In other cases, data thieves were able to steal information directly from users.
The way the account information was stolen matters less than the fact that so much of it is for sale. Need a Netflix password? They’re available for pennies on the dark web. You can also get stolen passwords for Hulu, HBO Go and Spotify.
The dark web has also become a haven for child pornography. According to an article on Wired, over 80% of dark web searches are related to pedophilia.
By: Mike Montgomery
Anyone who thinks even a little about energy is thinking about renewables. According to REN21, new investments in renewable power and fuel climbed from $45 billion in 2004 to $270 billion a decade later.
That makes it an incredibly appealing market for entrepreneurs. The vast majority of that money has been focused on renewable energy that can go into the grid and power our homes and offices. But the Solar Impulse 2, a long, thin plane that is powered completely through the use of solar panels, has shown another side of renewable energy: solar-powered transportation.
Bertrand Piccard, one of two Swiss pilots who have been flying the plane in tandem, sees promise in the new technology. “Today we do not have the technology for a [commercial] solar airplane,” he says. “Nevertheless, it will happen.”
But not anytime soon. “It’s not years away, it’s decades,” adds Tom Werner, the CEO and president of SunPower, the company that manufactured the solar cells for the Solar Impulse 2.
Werner explains that when developing solar-powered transportation, you need to consider cost, weight and efficiency. Although the Solar Impulse 2 shows that it’s possible to power a vehicle solely from mounted solar cells, today the challenges for a typical passenger car or commercial airplane far outstrip any benefits. For example, in order to drive 200 miles a day only on solar power, a typical passenger car would need 10 times as many solar cells than would fit onto that car’s roof.
By: Mike Montgomery
As housing prices in Los Angeles continue to rise, the affordability crisis has been on the minds of state and local leaders.
It’s true that Los Angeles is among the least affordable rental markets in the country, due in part to the city’s historically low vacancy rates. But it is inaccurate and does a disservice to the actual problem to solely blame short-term rentals for this wide-ranging crisis that has sharpened over the years. Home sharing has been an important tool for middle class families to remain in their homes, in the city they love.
As incomes stagnate and the cost of living essentials like housing and child care rise, making a second unit or home available for rent on a short-term basis has helped thousands of families make ends meet.
And that is exactly what the overwhelming majority of home-share listings are — short-term rentals. Time and again, home-sharing opponents have attempted to misrepresent data to mislead Angelenos.
According to a study released in September 2015, more than 80 percent of home listings in Los Angeles on the home-sharing platform Airbnb are rented fewer than 90 nights a year. In the vast majority of cases, an entire home listing does not represent a unit of housing taken off the market but the home of a regular citizen rented a few weeks out of the year while the owner is on vacation or a work assignment.
The ability to rent out a room or a second unit has allowed many Angelenos to stay in their homes. In a survey of hosts conducted in February, nearly 3,000 said their income from Airbnb has prevented them from losing their homes to foreclosure or eviction.
Businesses throughout the city have enjoyed the benefits of Airbnb travelers. In 2015, the Airbnb community generated an estimated $920 million in economic impact for Los Angeles. These dollars are spread to local businesses and across parts of the city that don’t typically see much tourism activity.
Misleading statistics undermine the arguments of opponents who claim inaccurately that landlords are using home-sharing platforms as an end-run around rent control and other tenant protections.