Canada reveals measures to tackle online extremism

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Canada has announced several measures to combat online extremism. Public Safety Canada said the government will provide up to $1 million CAD ($762,000) to a program called Tech Against Terrorism. The funding will help set up a system to inform smaller companies when terrorist content pops up to help them remove it faster. The agency said that will “help to achieve the commitment under the Christchurch Call to Action to support small platforms as they build capacity to remove terrorist and violent extremist content.”

Last month, the nation joined other countries and tech companies in adopting a pledge to eradicate online violent extremist and terrorist content in the wake of mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand. The shooter livestreamed the attack, and copies of the footage spread like wildfire.

Meanwhile, Canada will host a youth summit to help young people learn about online terrorism and violent extremism, and sound out ideas on how to combat the issues. It’s teaming up with Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft and Google for the event. The companies will “collaborate directly with youth to develop ideas that can be shared broadly with their peers,” Public Safety Canada said in a press release.

The government has funded a number of other initiatives related to online extremism, including $1.5 million CAD to Moonshot CVE for a project that uses online ads and videos to direct people to “content created by credible third parties that challenge ideologies that can motivate destructive attitudes and behavior.” It also contributed to studies of hate speech and how young people react to it.

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Facebook's political ad transparency tools roll out worldwide

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Facebook’s efforts to improve transparency in political ads are now a truly global affair. The social site has made its transparency tools available to advertisers worldwide, letting them post political and issue ads so long as they’re authorized. The disclosure policies remain the same — if someone else paid for an ad, you should see a “paid for by” disclaimer. The ads themselves will sit in an Ad Library archive for seven years alongside data like the view count and demographics.

Accordingly, Facebook is expanding access to its Ad Library framework so that journalists, regulators and others can investigate ads.

You should also see more “proactive” responses to ads in some parts of the world. As of now, Facebook is using a mix of automation and human inspection to detect issue and political ads in Argentina, Canada, Singapore and the Ukraine. Enforcement in Argentina and Singapore will start in the “next few months.” There will also be an Ad Library Report that will help investigators track aggregate ad spending in those countries.

As before, Facebook is hoping that the transparency measures will help catch attempts to meddle with elections and otherwise stoke tensions. However, there are concerns that it could still be rough around the edges. Facebook has unwittingly blocked innocent ads aimed at some demographics, while Mozilla has blasted Facebook for browser add-on policies that reportedly limit ad transparency campaigns. You could see these issues multiply on a global scale. Still, this should remove some of the mystery behind political ads and discourage ‘casual’ attempts to interfere with elections.

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Facebook’s searchable political ads archive is now global

Facebook has announced it’s rolled out a basic layer of political ads transparency globally, more than a year after launching the publicly searchable ads archive in the US.

It is also expanding what it dubs “proactive enforcement” on political ads to countries where elections or regulations are approaching — starting with Ukraine, Singapore, Canada and Argentina.

“Beginning today, we will systematically detect and review ads in Ukraine and Canada through a combination of automated and human review,” it writes in a blog post setting out the latest developments. “In Singapore and Argentina, we will begin enforcement within the next few months. We also plan to roll out the Ad Library Report in both of those countries after enforcement is in place.

“The Ad Library Report will allow you to track and download aggregate spend data across advertisers and regions.”

Facebook is still not enforcing identity checks on political advertisers in the vast majority of markets where it operates. Nor indeed monitoring whether political advertisers have included ‘paid for’ disclaimer labels — leaving the burden of policing how its ads platform is being used (and potentially misused) to concerned citizens, civic society and journalists.

The social network behemoth currently requires advertisers to get authorized and add disclaimers to political and issue-related ads in around 50 countries and territories — with around 140 other markets where it’s not enforcing identity checks or disclaimers.

“For all other countries included in today’s announcement, we will not be proactively detecting or reactively reviewing possible social issue, electoral or political ads at this time,” it confirms, before adding: “However, we strongly encourage advertisers in those countries to authorize and add the proper disclaimers, especially in a rapidly evolving regulatory landscape.”

“In all cases, it will be up to the advertiser to comply with any applicable electoral or advertising laws and regulations in the countries they want to run ads in. If we are made aware of an ad that is in violation of a law, we will act quickly to remove it. With these tools, regulators are now better positioned to consider how to protect elections with sensible regulations, which they are uniquely suited to do,” Facebook continues.

“In countries where we are not yet detecting or reviewing these types of ads, these tools provide their constituents with more information about who’s influencing their vote — and we suggest voters and local regulators hold these elected officials and influential groups accountable as well.”

In a related development it says it’s expanded access to its Ad Library API globally.

It also claims to have made improvements to the tool, which launched in March — but quickly attracted criticism from the research community for lacking basics like ad targeting criteria and engagement metrics making it difficult for outsiders to quantify how Facebook’s platform is being used to influence elections.

A review of the API by Mozilla shortly after it launched slated Facebook for not providing researchers with the necessary data to study how political influence operations play out on its platform — with a group of sixty academics put their name to the open letter saying the API does the opposite of what the company claims.

Facebook does not mention that criticism in today’s blog post. It has also provided little detail of the claimed “improvements” to the API — merely writing: “Since we expanded access in March, we’ve made improvements to our API so people can easily access ads from a given country and analyze specific advertisers. We’re also working on making it easier to programmatically access ad images, videos and recently served ads.”

Commenting on the development, Ashley Boyd, VP of the Mozilla Foundation, told TechCrunch: “It is outrageous that Facebook would further deploy a tool that’s been found deficient and defective by independent researchers. In fact, the version of the tool released earlier this year for the EU elections earned a ‘failing’ grade by Mozilla, when it failed to meet three out of five of the requirements developed by researchers.

“This rollout may serve Facebook’s PR purposes, but we have no reason to believe it will help researchers and political leaders seeking to understand the scope and impact of misinformation on our democracy.”

The other key election interference concern linked to Facebook’s platforms — and which the company also avoids mention of here — is how non-advertising content can be seeded and spread on its networks in a bid to influence political opinion.

In recent years Facebook has announced various discoveries of inauthentic behavior and/or fake accounts. Though it is under no regulatory obligations to disclose everything it finds, or indeed to find every fake.

Hence political ads are just the tip of the disinformation iceberg.

This report was updated with comment from the Mozilla Foundation 

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Creative Destruction Lab’s second Super Session is an intense two-day startup testbed

Canadian startup program Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) escapes succinct description in some ways — it’s an accelerator, to be sure, and an incubator. Startups show up and present to a combined audience of investors, mentors, industry players (some of whom, like former astronaut Chris Hadfield, verge on celebrity status) — but it’s not a demo day, per se, and presentations happen in focused rooms with key, vertically aligned audience members who can provide much more than just funding to the startups that participate.

North founder Stephen Lake onstage at CDL’s Super Session 2019

Seven years into its existence, CDL really puts on a show for its cornerstone annual event (itself only two years old), and clearly shows the extent to which the program has scaled. From an inaugural cohort of just 25 startups with a focus on science, CDL has grown to the point where it’s graduating 150 startups spanning cohorts across six cities associated with multiple academic institutions. It has consistently added new areas of focus, including a space track this year, for which Hadfield is a key mentor, as is Anousheh Ansari, the first female private space tourist to pay her own way to the International Space Station and the co-founder and CEO of Prodea Systems.

The ‘Super’ in Super Session

This is the second so-called “Super Session” after the event’s debut in 2017. It includes roughly 850 attendees, made up of investors, mentors, industry sponsors and the graduating startups themselves. As CDL Fellow Chen Fong put it in his welcoming remarks, CDL’s Super Session is an opportune moment for networking, mentorship and demonstration of the companies the program has helped foster and grow.

A keynote track included talks by Ansari and Hadfield, as well as from Celmatix CEO and founder Piraye Beim, and a fireside chat with North founder and CEO Stephen Lake. Subjects ranged from the importance of the linkage between exploration and technology, to what Beim described as “probably the first CDL talk to include menstrual health, vibrators, incontinence and menopause, all in the span of 15 minutes.” Lake meanwhile discussed the future of seamless human-computer interfaces, and Ansari discussed her work founding the Xprize program and the impetus behind the current momentum and interest in private space innovation.

Celmatix CEO and founder Piraye Beim speaking at the 2019 Creative Destruction Lab Super Session in Toronto

The variety in the keynote speaker mix and topic selection is reflective of the eclectic and comprehensive nature of CDL’s modern program, which scouts globally for prospective startup participants. Its six hubs then enter into a matching process with startups signed on to take part, where each scores the other, and that leads to placement.

How CDL works

CDL’s originating thesis is all about supplying the limiting resource in a startup ecosystem; the thing which the program’s organizers think is the missing ingredient that differentiates Silicon Valley from any other innovation hub in the world. Namely, CDL theorizes that this missing ingredient is what CDL Associate Director Kristjan Sigurdson calls “entrepreneurial judgement.”

Sigurdson explains that this basically boils down to the ability to know what are the most important things you need to do as an entrepreneur, and in what order. The missing piece, he says, isn’t ideas, funding availability or a lack of effort — instead, it’s the kind of judgement that results from experience. CDL’s model, which emphasizes five sessions, is held periodically, during which a panel of mentors helps startups set three clearly defined objectives they can accomplish within the next eight weeks.

After each of these sessions, some triage occurs — essentially CDL mentors gathered in closed-door meetings are asked if they’d work with any of the startups that presented during the session. If startups don’t receive sponsorship in these closed-door meetings, they’re not asked to participate in the next session, and effectively are out of the program. All told, the program graduates around 40-45% of the startups that enter the program, Sigurdson said.

Group session with small group mentoring on site at Creative Destruction Lab’s 2019 Super Session in Toronto

CDL is also a bit out of the ordinary in that it takes no equity from the startups it works with — it’s fundamentally an academic program, started by the University of Toronto, and is designed to provide real-world business cases for the school’s MBA students to work on. But it’s become so much more — providing mentorship and guidance as described, and also connecting researchers who often enter into formal advisory roles with CDL companies.

Sigurdson also noted that CDL has actually seen “much higher investment levels” versus the average for more traditional incubation or acceleration programs. “It’s a program that I think allows companies to raise money much more organically even though it’s an artificial program we created,” he said, referencing CDL’s own comparative research.

Lab-grown and forged in fire

True to its name, Creative Destruction Lab in practice feels like a generative cauldron of ideas, shared with peers and industry specialists for debate, discussion and reformation. Sessions are remarkable to witness — where else are you going to see brand new companies get direct feedback from astronauts and representatives of global space agencies, for instance.

Creative Destruction Lab opening keynote for its Super Session 2019 event

The model is unique, but clearly effective, and able to scale — as evidenced from its growth to what it is today from its starting point in 2012, when one founder described it as “7 people in a room.” The room featuring presentations from space-track companies alone featured around 50 people in attendance for instance – almost all of which were top-flight industry leaders and investors, including Hadfield, Ansari, CDL alumni Mina Mitry of Kepler Communications and prominent Toronto angel investor Dan Debow. Startups presenting in the space track included Wyvern, a hyperspectral imaging company; Mission Control, a startup that wants to be the software layer for Moon rovers; and Atomos, which is building a space tug for extra-atmospheric “last-mile” transportation solutions.

It’s easy to see why this program results in solid investment pipeline, given the profile of the sponsors and mentors involved. And it’s another strong stake in the ground for the claim that Canada’s startup scene, with Toronto as its locus of gravity, is increasingly earning (and outperforming) its reputation as a global center of innovation.

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Watch SpaceX launch Earth observation satellites at 10:17AM ET

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SpaceX is about to get your morning started in dramatic fashion (if you’re in the Americas, that is). The private spaceflight outfit plans to launch Canada’s RADARSAT Constellation Mission as soon as 10:17AM Eastern, with the satellites deploying in earnest 54 minutes after blastoff. The company is using the same Falcon 9 first stage that put the Crew Dragon demonstration mission into orbit back in March, and it expects to land the rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The flight has a relatively narrow 13-minute window. If it can’t make that, there will be a backup window on June 13th at the same time of day.

The RADARSAT Constellation Mission involves three synthetic aperture radar satellites that will supply considerably more advanced Earth observation data than the earlier, single-satellite RADARSAT-2. It’ll not only help cover Canada’s vast territory more effectively, but will also supply “daily” coverage of 90 percent of the world’s surface. That in turn will help scientists in Canada and elsewhere track environmental traits like climate change and human land use. This mission may be relatively routine as far as SpaceX is concerned, but it could be useful to the whole planet.

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