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Written by Natasha Lomas

VergeSense grabs $9M for its people-counting sensor tech as offices eye COVID changes

Facilities management looks to be having a bit of a moment, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

VergeSense, a US startup which sells a ‘sensor as a system’ platform targeted at offices — supporting features such as real-time occupant counts and foot-traffic-triggered cleaning notifications — has closed a $9M strategic investment led by Allegion Ventures, a corporate VC fund of security giant Allegion.

JLL Spark, Metaprop, Y Combinator, Pathbreaker Ventures, and West Ventures also participated in the round, which brings the total funding raised by the 2017-founded startup to $10.6M including an earlier seed round.

VergeSense tells TechCrunch it’s seen accelerated demand in recent weeks as office owners and managers try to figure out how to make workspaces safe in the age of COVID-19 — claiming bookings are “on track” to be up 500% quarter over quarter. (Though it admits business did also take a hit earlier in the year, saying there was “aftershock” once the coronavirus hit.)

So while, prior to the pandemic, VergeSense customers likely wanted to encourage so called ‘workplace collisions’ — i.e. close encounters between office staff in the hopes of encouraging idea sharing and collaboration — right now the opposite is the case, with social distancing and looming limits on room occupancy rates looking like a must-have for any reopening offices.

Luckily for VergeSense, its machine learning platform and sensor packed hardware can derive useful measurements just the same.

It’s worked with customers to come up with relevant features, such as a new Social Distancing Score and daily occupancy reports. While it already had a Smart Cleaning Planner feature which it reckons will now be in high demand. It also envisages customers being able to plug into its open API to power features in their own office apps that could help to reassure staff it’s okay to come back in to work, such as indicating quiet zones or times where there are fewer office occupants on site.

Of course plenty of offices may remain closed for some considerable time or even for good — Twitter, for example, has told staff they can work remotely forever — with home working a viable job for much office work. But VergeSense and its investors believe the office will prevail in some form, but with smart sensor tech that can (for example) detect the distance between people becoming a basic requirement.

“I think it’s going to less overall office space,” says VergeSense co-founder Dan Ryan, discussing how he sees the office being changed by COVID-19. “A lot of customers are rethinking the need to have tonnes of smaller, regional offices. They’re thinking about still maintaining their big hubs but maybe what those hubs actually look like is different.

“Maybe post-COVID, instead of people coming into the office five days a week… for people that don’t necessarily need to be in the office to do their work everyday maybe three days a week or two days a week. And that probably means a different type of office, right. Different layout, different type of desks etc.”

“That trend was already in motion but a lot of companies were reluctant to experiment with remote work because they weren’t sure about the impact on productivity and that sort of thing, there was a lot of cultural friction associated with that. But now we all got thrust into that simultaneously and it’s happening all at once — and we think that’s going to stick,” he adds. “We’ve head that feedback consistently from basically all of our customers.”

“A lot of our existing customers are pulling forward adoption of the product. Usually the way we roll out is customers will do a couple of buildings to get started and it’ll be phased rollout plan from there. But now that the use-case for this data is more connected to safety and compliance, with COVID-19, around occupancy management — there’s CDC guidelines [related to building occupancy levels] — now to have a tool that can measure and report against that is viewed as more of a mission critical type thing.”

VergeSense is processing some 6 million sensor reports per day at this point for nearly 70 customers, including 40 FORTUNE 1000 companies. In total it says it provides its sensor hardware plus SaaS across 20 million sqft, 250 office buildings, and 15 countries.

“There’s an extreme bear case here — that the office is going to disappear,” Ryan adds. “That’s something that we don’t see happening because the office does have a purpose, rooted in — primarily — human social interaction and physical collaboration.

“As much as we love Zoom and the efficiency of that there is a lot that gets lost without that physical collaboration, connection, all the social elements that are built around work.”

VergeSense’s new funding will go on scaling up to meet the increased demand it’s seeing due to COVID and for scaling its software analytics platform.

It’s also going to be spending on product development, per Ryan, with alternative sensor hardware form factors in the works — including “smaller, better, faster” sensor hardware and “some additional data feeds”.

“Right now it’s primarily people counting but there’s a lot of interest in other data about the built environment beyond that — more environmental types of stuff,” he says of the additional data feeds it’s looking to add. “We’re more interested in other types of ambient data about the environment. What’s the air quality on this floor? Temperature, humidity. General environmental data that’s getting even more interest frankly from customers now.

“There is a fair amount of interest in wellness of buildings. Historically that’s been more of a nice to have thing. But now there’s huge interest in what is the air quality of this space — are the environmental conditions appropriate? I think the expectations from employees are going to be much higher. When you walk into an office building you want the air to be good, you want it to look nicer — and that’s why I think the acceleration [of smart spaces]; that’s a trend that was already in motion but people are going to double down and want it to accelerate even faster.”

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Rob Martens, president of Allegion Ventures, added: “In the midst of a world crisis, [the VergeSense team] have quickly positioned themselves to help senior business leaders ensure safer workspaces through social distancing, while at the same time still driving productivity, engagement and cost efficiency. VergeSense is on the leading edge of creating data-driven workspaces when it matters most to the global business community and their employees.”

Automattic pumps $4.6M into New Vector to help grow Matrix, an open, decentralized comms ecosystem

Automattic, the open source force behind WordPress .com, WooCommerce, Longreads, Simplenote and Tumblr, has made a $4.6M strategic investment into New Vector — the creators of an open, decentralized communications standard called Matrix. They also develop a Slack rival (Riot) which runs on Matrix.

The investment by Automattic, which is at a higher valuation than the last tranche New Vector took in, extends an $8.5M Series A last year, from enterprise tech specialists Notion Capital and Dawn Capital plus European seed fund Firstminute Capital — and brings the total raised to date to $18.1M. (Which includes an earlier $5M in strategic investment from an Ethereum-based secure chat and crypto wallet app, Status).

New Vector’s decentralized tech powers instant messaging for a number of government users, including France — which forked Riot to launch a messaging app last year (Tchap) — and Germany, which just announced its armed forces will be adopting Matrix as the backbone for all internal comms; as well as for the likes of KDR, Mozilla, RedHat and Wikimedia, to name a few.

Getting Automattic on board is clearly a major strategic boost for Matrix — one that’s allowing New Vector to dream big.

“It’s very much a step forwards,” New Vector CEO and CTO and Matrix co-founder, Matthew Hodgson, tells TechCrunch. “We’re hopefully going to get the support from Automattic for really expanding the ecosystem, bringing Matrix functionality into WordPress — and all the various WordPress plugins that Automattic does. And likewise open up Matrix to all of those users too.”

A blog post announcing the strategic investment dangles the intriguing possibility of a decentralized Tumblr — or all WordPress sites automatically getting their own Matrix chatroom.

“This is huge news, not least because WordPress literally runs over 36% of the websites on today’s web – and the potential of bringing Matrix to all those users is incredible,” New Vector writes in the blog post. “Imagine if every WP site automatically came with its own Matrix room or community?  Imagine if all content in WP automatically was published into Matrix as well as the Web?… Imagine there was an excellent Matrix client available as a WordPress plugin for embedding realtime chat into your site?”

Those possibilities remain intriguing ideas for now. But as well as ploughing funding into New vector Automattic is opening up a job for a Matrix.org/WordPress integrations engineer — so the Matrix team has another tangible reason to be excited about future integrations.

“One of the best and the biggest open source guys really believes in what we’re doing and is interested in trying to open up the worlds of WordPress into the decentralized world of Matrix,” adds Hodgson. “In some ways it’s reassuring that a relatively established company like Automattic is keeping its eye on the horizon and putting their chips on the decentralized future. Whereas they could be ‘doing a Facebook’ and just sitting around and keeping everything centralized and as locked down as possible.”

“It’s a bit of a validation,” says Matrix co-founder and New Vector head of ops and products, Amandine le Pape. “The same way getting funding from VCs was validation of the fact it’s a viable business. Here it’s a validation it’s actually a mainstream open source project which can really grow.”

New Vector co-founders, Matthew Hodgson and Amandine le Pape

While the strategic investment offer from Automattic was obviously just a great opportunity to be seized by New vector, given ideological alignment and integration potential, it also comes at helpful time, per le Pape, given they’ve been growing their SaaS business.

“The business model that we’re looking at with New Vector to go and drive — both to fund Matrix and also to keep the lights on and grow the projects and the company — is very, very similar to what Automattic have successfully done with WordPress.com,” adds Hodgson. “So being able to compare notes directly with their board and our board to go and say to them how do you make this work between the WordPress.org and the WordPress.com split should be a really useful tool for us.”

While Matrix users can choose to host their own servers there’s obviously a high degree of complexity (and potential expense) involved in doing so. Hence New Vector’s business model is to offer a paid Matrix hosting service, called Modular, where it takes care of the complexity of hosting for a fee. (Marketing copy on the Modular website urges potential customers to: “Sign up and deploy your own secure chat service in seconds!”)

“Some of our highest profile customers like Mozilla could go and run it themselves, obviously. Mozilla know tech. But in practice it’s a lot easier and a lot cheaper overall for them to just go and get us to run it,” adds Hodgson. “The nice thing is that they have complete self sovereignty over their data. It’s their DNS. We give them access to the database. They could move off at any time… switch hosting provider or run it themselves. [Users] typically start off with us as a way to get up and running.”

Talking of moving, Hodgson says he expects Automattic to move over from Slack to Riot following this investment.

“I am very excited about what New Vector is doing with Matrix — creating a robust, secure, open protocol that can bring all flavors of instant messaging and collaboration together, in the way that the web or email has its foundation layer,” added Automattic founder, Matt Mullenweg, in a supporting statement. “I share New Vector’s passion for open source and the power of open standards. I’m excited to see how Automattic and New Vector can collaborate on our shared vision in the future.” 

Mullenweg was already a supporter of Matrix, chipping into its seed via Patreon back in 2017. At the time the team was transitioning from being incubated and wholly financed by Amdocs, a telco supplier where New Vectors’ co-founders used to work (running its unified comms division), to spinning out and casting around for new sources of funding to continue development of their decentralized standard.

Some three years on — now with another multi-million dollar tranche of funding in the bank — Hodgson says New Vector is able to contemplate the prospect of profitability ahead, with ~16.8 million users and 45,000 deployments at this point (up from 11M and 40k back in October).

“I think there’s also a high chance — touch wood — that this injection gives us a path straight through to profitability if needed,” he tells us. “Given the macroeconomic uncertainty thanks to the [COVID-19] pandemic, the opportunity to say we have this amount of cash in the bank, assuming our customers follow roughly the trajectory that we’d seen so far… this would be a way to get out the other side without having to depend on any further funding.

“If things are on track we probably would do additional funding next year in order to double down on the success. But right now this at least gives us a pretty chunky safety net.”

The coronavirus crisis has been accelerating interest in Matrix “significantly”, per Hodgson, as entities that might have been contemplating a switch to decentralized comms down the line feel far greater imperative to take control of their data — now that so many users are logging on from home.

“As lockdowns began we saw sign ups increase by a factor of about 10,” he says. “It’s tapered off a little bit but it was a real scaling drama overnight. We had to launch an entirely new set of videoconferencing deployments on Jitsi’s offering, as well as scaling up the hardware for the service which we run by several times over.

“We’re also seeing retention go up, which was nice. We assumed there would be a huge spike of users desperately trying to find a home and then they wouldn’t necessarily stick around. In practice they’ve stuck around more than the existing user base which is reassuring.”

In some cases, New Vector has seen customers radically shrink planned deployment timescales — from months to a matter of days.

“We literally had one [educational] outfit in German reach out and say that tender in September — we want you to go live on Monday,” says Hodgson, noting that in this instance the customer skipped the entire tendering process because of they felt they needed a secure system school kids could use. (And privacy concerns ruling out use of centralized options such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.)

“The biggest impact from a New Vector perspective at least has been that a lot of our slower moving, bigger opportunities — particularly in the public sector with governments — have suddenly sped up massively,” he adds. “Because it was previously a nice to have premium thing — ‘wouldn’t it be good if we had our own encrypted messenger and if everybody wasn’t using Telegram or WhatsApp to run our country’ — and then suddenly, with the entire population of whichever country it might be suddenly having to work remotely it’s become an existential requirement to have high quality communication, and having that encrypted and self sovereign is a massive deal.”

In terms of competing with Slack (et al), the biggest consideration is usability and UX, according to Hodgson.

So, over the last year, New Vector has hired a dedicated in-house design team to focus on smoothing any overly geeky edges — though most of this work is yet to be pushed out to users.

“We’ve actually pivoted the entire development of Riot to be design led,” he says. “It’s no longer a whole bunch of developers, like myself, going and hacking away on it — instead the product owner and the product direction’s being laid by the design team. And it is an unrecognizable difference — in terms of focus and usability.

“Over the coming year we are expecting Riot to basically be rebuilt at least cosmetically to get rid of the complexity and the geekiness and the IRC hangovers which we have today in favor of something that can genuinely punch its weight against Slack and Discord.”

In another major recent development New Vector switched on end-to-end encryption across the piece in Riot, making it the default for all new non-public conversations (DMs and private chats).

“It’s the equivalent of email suddenly mandating PGP and managing not to break everything,” says Hodgson of that feat.

A key challenge was to “get parity” with users of the non-encrypted version of Matrix before it could be enabled everywhere — with associated problems to tackle, such as search.

“Typically we were doing search on the server and if the messages are encrypted the server obviously can’t index them — so we had to shift all of our search capabilities to run client side. We went and wrote a whole bunch of REST that allows you to basically embed a search engine into Riot on the client, including on the desktop version, so that people can actually reach their encrypted message history there and share it between devices,” he explains.

Another focus for the e2e was the verification process — which is also now built in by default.

“When you now log into Riot it forces you to scan a QR code on an existing login if you’ve already logged in somewhere. A bit like you do on WhatsApp web but rather than just using it to authenticate you it also goes and proves that you are a legitimate person on that account,” he says. “So everyone else then knows to trust that login completely — so that if there is an attack of some kind, if you admin tries to add a malicious device into your account to spy on you or if there’s a man-in-the-middle attack, or something like that, everybody can see that the untrusted device hasn’t been verified by you.

“It’s basically building out a simple web of trust of your devices and immediate contacts so that you have complete protection against ghost devices or other nastier attempts to go and compromise the account. The combination of using QR codes and also using emoji comparison rather than having to read out numbers to one another is I think almost unique now, in terms of creating really, really super robust end-to-end encryption.”

The e2e encryption Matrix uses is based on algorithms popularized by the Signal protocol. It was audited by NCC Group in 2016 but plans for the new funding include a full stack audit — once they’ve ironed out any teething issues with the new default e2e.

“[We want to] at least pick a path, a particular set of clients and servers — because we can’t do the whole thing, obviously, because Matrix has got 60-70 different apps on it now, or different clients. And there are at least four viable server implementations but we will pick the long term supported official path and at least find a set which we can then audit and recommend to governments,” says Hodgson of the audit plans.

They’re also working with Jitsi on a project to make the latter’s WebRTC-compatible videoconferencing platform e2e encrypted too — another key piece as Jitsi’s tech is what New Vector offers for video calling via Matrix.

“We partner with Jitsi for the videoconferencing side of things and we’re working with them on their e2e encrypted videoconferencing… They [recently] got the world’s first WebRTC -based e2e encrypted conferencing going. And they plan to use Matrix as the way to exchange the keys for that — using also all of the verification process [New Vector has developed for Riot]. Because end-to-end encryption’s great, obviously in terms of securing the data — but if you don’t know who you’re talking to, in terms of verifying their identity, it’s a complete waste of time,” adds Hodgson.

So when Jitsi’s e2e encryption launches New Vector will be able to include e2e encrypted videoconferencing as part of its decentralized bundle too.

How much growth is New Vector expecting for Matrix over the next 12 months? “We’ve tripled almost all of the sizing metrics for the network in the last year, and I think we tripled the year before that so I’m hoping that we can continue on that trajectory,” he says on that.

Another “fun thing” New Vector has been working on, since the end of last year, is a peer-to-peer version of Matrix — having developed a “sufficiently lightweight server implementation” that allows Matrix users to run ‘riot’ in a decentralized p2p space via a web browser (or via the app on a mobile device).

“We turned on the peer-to-peer network about a month ago now and they’re at the point right now of making it persistent — previously if all of the clients on the network went away then the entire network disappeared, whereas now it has the ability to persist even if people start restarting their browsers and apps. And it’s very much a mad science project but as far as I know nobody else is remotely in that ballpark,” he says.

“The nice thing is it looks and feels identical to Matrix today. You can use all of the clients, all of the bridges that people have already written… It just happens to be that the Riot is connecting to a server wedged into itself rather than talking to one sitting on the server… So it’s a total paradigm shift.”

“We weren’t sure it was going to work at all but in practice it’s working better than we could have hoped,” he adds. “Over the next year or so we’re going to expect to see more and more emphasis on peer-to-peer — possibly even by default. So that if you install Riot you don’t have to pick a server and go through this fairly clunky thing of figuring out what service provider to trust and do you want to buy one from us as New Vector or do you want to a Swiss ISP. Instead you can start off bobbing around the ocean in a pure peer-to-peer land, and then if you want to persist your data somewhere then you go and find a server to pin yourself to a home on the Internet. But it would be a completely different way of thinking about things.”

Those interested in dipping a toe in p2p decentralized IM can check out this flavor of Riot in a web browser via p2p.riot.im

Europe to Facebook: Pay taxes and respect our values — or we’ll regulate

A livestreamed “debate” yesterday between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and a European commissioner shaping digital policy for the internal market, Thierry Breton, sounded cordial enough on the surface, with Breton making several chummy references to “Mark” — and talking about “having dialogue to establish the right governance” for digital platforms — while Zuckerberg kept it respectful sounding by indirectly addressing “the commissioner”.

But the underlying message from Europe to Facebook remained steely: Comply with our rules or expect regulation to make that happen.

If Facebook chooses to invest in ‘smart’ workarounds — whether for ‘creatively’ shrinking its regional tax bill or circumventing democratic values and processes — the company should expect lawmakers to respond in kind, Breton told Zuckerberg.

“In Europe we have [clear and strong] values. They are clear. And if you understand extremely well the set of our values on which we are building our continent, year after year, you understand how you need to behave,” said the commissioner. “And I think that when you are running a systemic platform it’s extremely important to understand these values so that we will be able to anticipate — and even better — to work together with us, to build, year after year, the new governance.

“We will not do this overnight. We will have to build it year after year. But I think it’s extremely important to anticipate what could create some “bad reaction” which will force us to regulate.”

“Let’s think about taxes,” Breton added. “I have been a CEO myself and I always talk to my team, don’t try to be too smart. Pay taxes where you have to pay taxes. Don’t got to a haven. Pay taxes. Don’t be too smart with taxes. It’s an important issue for countries where you operate — so don’t be too smart.

“‘Don’t be too smart’ it may be something that we need to learn in the days to come.”

Work with us, not against us

The core message that platforms need to fit in with European rules, not vice versa, is one Breton has been sounding ever since taking up a senior post in the Commission late last year.

Although yesterday he was careful to throw his customary bone alongside it too, saying he doesn’t want to have to regulate; his preference remains for cooperation and ‘partnership’ between platforms and regulators in service of citizens — unless of course he has no other choice. So the message from Brussels to big tech remains: ‘Do what we ask or we’ll make laws you can’t ignore’.

This Commission, of which Breton is a part, took up its five-year mandate at the end of last year — and has unveiled several pieces of a major digital policy reform plan this year, including around sharing industrial data for business and research; and proposing rules for certain ‘high risk’ AI applications.

But a major rethink of platform liabilities remains in the works. Though yesterday Breton declined to give any fresh details on the forthcoming legislation, saying only that it would arrive by the end of the year.

The Digital Services Act could have serious ramifications for Facebook’s business which explains why Zuckerberg made time to dial into a video chat with the Brussels lawmaker. Something the Facebook CEO has consistently refused the British parliament — and denied multiple international parliaments when parliamentarians joined forced to try to question him about political disinformation.

The hour-long online discussion between the tech giant CEO and a Brussels lawmaker intimately involved in shaping the future of regional platform regulation was organized by Cerre, a Brussels-based think tank which is focused on the regulation of network and digital industries.

It was moderated by Cerre, with DG Bruno Liebhaberg posing and choosing the questions, with a couple selected from audience submissions.

Zuckerberg had brought his usual laundry list of talking points whenever regulation that might limit the scope and scale of his global empire is discussed — seeking, for example, to frame the only available options vis-a-vis digital rules as a choice between the US way or China.

That’s a framing that does not go down well in Europe, however.

The Commission has long talked up the idea of championing a third, uniquely European way for tech regulation — saying it will put guardrails on digital platforms in order to ensure they operate in service of European values and so that citizens’ rights and freedoms are not only not eroded by technology but actively supported. Hence its talk of ‘trustworthy AI’.

(That’s the Commission rhetoric at least; however its first draft for regulating AI was far lighter touch than rights advocates had hoped, with a narrow focus on so-called ‘high risk’ applications of AI — glossing over the full spectrum of rights risks which automation can engender.)

Zuckerberg’s simplistic dichotomy of ‘my way or the China highway’ seems unlikely to win him friends or influence among European lawmakers. It implies he simply hasn’t noticed — or is actively ignoring — regional ambitions to champion a digital regulation standard of its own. Neither of which will impress in Brussels.

The Facebook CEO also sought to leverage the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal — claiming the episode is an example of the risks should dominant platforms be required to share data with rivals, such as if regulation bakes in portability requirements to try to level the competitive playing field.

It was too much openness in the past that led to Facebook users’ data being nefariously harvested by the app developer that was working for Cambridge Analytica, was his claim.

That claim is also unlikely to go down well in Europe where Zuckerberg faced hostile questions from EU parliamentarians back in 2018, after the scandal broke — including calls for European citizens to be compensated for misuse of their Facebook data.

Facebook’s business, meanwhile, remains subject to multiple, ongoing investigations related to its handling of EU citizens’ personal data. Yet Zuckerberg’s only mention of Europe’s GDPR during the conversation was a claim of “compliance” with the pan-EU data protection framework which he also suggested means it’s raised the standards it offers users elsewhere.

Another area where the Facebook CEO sought to muddy the water — and so lobby to narrow the scope of any future pan-EU platform regulations — was around which bits of data should be considered to belong to a particular user. And whether, therefore, the user should have the right to port them elsewhere.

“In general I’ve been very in favor of data portability and I think that having the right regulation to enforce this would be very helpful. In general I don’t think anyone is against the idea that you should be able to take your data from one service to another — I think all of the hard questions are in how you define what is your data and, especially in the context of social services, what is another person’s data?” he said.

He gave the example of friends birthdays — which Facebook can display to users — questioning whether a user should therefore be able to port that data into a calendar app.

“Do your friends need to now sign off and every single person agree that they’re okay with you exporting that data to your calendar because if that needs to happen because in practice it’s just going to be too difficult and no developer’s going to bother building that integration,” he suggested. “And it might be kind of annoying to request that from all of your friends. So where would we draw the line on what is your data and what is your friends is I think a very critical question here.

“This isn’t just an abstract thing. Our platform started off more open and on the side of data portability — and to be clear that’s exactly one of the reasons why we got into the issues around Cambridge Analytica that we got into because our platform used to work in the way where a person could more easily sign into an app and bring data that their friends had shared with them, under the idea that if their friend had shared something with you, for you to be able to see and use that, you should be able to use that in a different app.

“But obviously we’ve seen the downsides of that — which is that if you bring data that a friend has shared with you to another app and that app ends up being malicious then now a lot of people’s data can be used in a way they didn’t expect. So getting the nuance right on data portability I think is extremely important. And we have to recognize that there are direct trade-offs about openness and privacy. And if our directive is we want to lock everything down from a privacy perspective as much of possible then it won’t be as possible to have an open ecosystem as we want. And that’s going to mean making compromises on innovation and competition and academic research, and things like that.”

Regulation that helps industry “balance these two important values around openness and privacy”, as Zuckerberg put it, would thus be welcomed at 1 Hacker Way.

Breton followed this monologue by raising what he called “the stickiness” of data, and pointing out that “access to data is the number one asset for the platform economy”.

“It’s important in this platform economy but — but! — competition will come. And you will have some platforms allowing this portability probably faster than you think,” he said. “So I think it’s already important to anticipate at the end of the day what your customers are willing to have.”

“Portability will happen,” Breton added. “It’s not easy, it’s not an easy way to find an easy pass but… what we are talking about is how to frame this fourth dimension — the data space… We are still at the very beginning. It will take probably one generation. And it will take time. But let me tell you something but in terms of personal data, more and more the customers will understand and will requests that the personal data belongs to them. They will ask for portability one way or the other.”

On “misinformation”, which was the first topic Zuckerberg chose to highlight — referring to it as misinformation (rather than ‘disinformation’ or indeed ‘fakes’) — he had come prepared with a couple of stats to back up a claim that Facebook has “stepped up efforts” to fight fakes related to the coronavirus crisis.

“In general we’ve been able to really step up the efforts to fight misinformation. We’ve taken down hundreds of thousands of pieces of harmful misinformation. And our independent fact-checking program has yielded more than 50M warnings being shown on pieces of content that are false related to COVID,” he said, claiming 95% of the time people are shown such labelled content “they don’t end up clicking through” — further suggesting “this is a really good collaboration”.

(Albeit, back of an envelop math says 5% of 50M is still 2.5 million clicks in just that one narrow example… )

Breton came in later in the conversation with another deflator, after he was asked whether the current EU code of practice on disinformation — a self-regulatory initiative which several tech platforms have signed up for — is “sufficient” governance.

“We will never do enough,” he rejoined. “Let’s be clear. In terms of disinformation we will never do enough, This is a disease of the center. So everything we have done has to be followed.”

“It’s a huge issue,” Breton went on, saying his preference as a former CEO is for KPIs that “demonstrate we’re progressing”. “So of course we need to follow the progress and if I’m not able to report [to other EU institutions and commissioners] with strong KPIs we will have to regulate — stronger.”

He added that platforms cooperating on self regulation in this area gave him reason to be optimistic that further progress could be made — but emphasized: “This issue is extremely important for our democracy. Extremely… So we will be extremely attentive.”

The commissioner also made a point of instructing Zuckerberg that the buck stops with him — as CEO — lightly dismissing the prospect of Facebook’s newly minted ‘oversight board‘ providing any camouflage at all on the decision-making front, after Zuckerberg had raised it earlier in the conversation.

“When you’re a CEO at the end of the day you are the only one to be responsible, no one else… You have an obligation to do your due diligence when you take decisions,” said Breton, after scattering a little polite praise for the oversight board as “a very good idea”.

“Understand what I’m trying to tell you — when you are the CEO of an important platform you have to deal with a lot of stakeholders. So it’s important of course that you have bodies, could be advisory bodies, could be a board of director, it could be any kind of things, to help you to understand what these stakeholders have to tell you because at the end of the day the mission of a CEO is to be able to listen to everyone and then to take the decision. But at the end of the day it will be Mark that will be responsible.”

In another direct instruction, Breton warned the Facebook CEO against playing “a gatekeeper role”.

“Be careful to help our internal market, don’t play a role where you will be a systemic player, the gatekeeper controlling others to play with. Be careful with the democracy. Anticipate what’s going to happen. Be careful with disinformation. It could have a bad impact on what is extremely important for us — including our values,” he said, appealing to Zuckerberg “to work together, to design together the right governance tools and behavior” — and ending with a Silicon Valley-style appeal to ‘build the future together’.

The inescapable point Breton was working towards was just “because something is not prohibited it doesn’t mean that it’s authorized”. So, in other words, platforms must learn to ask regulators for permission — and should not expect any forgiveness if they fail to do this. This principle is especially important for the digital market and the information society at large, Breton concluded.

A particular low point for Zuckerberg during the conversation came earlier, when Liebhaberg had asked for his assessment of the effectiveness of content moderation measures Facebook has taken so far — and specifically in terms of how swiftly it’s removing illegal and/or harmful content. (Related: Last week France became the latest EU country to pass a law requiring platforms quickly remove illegal content such as hate speech.)

Zuckerberg made a nod to his usual “free expression vs content moderation” talking point — before segwaying into a claim of progress on “increasingly proactive” content moderation via the use of artificial intelligence (“AI”) and what he referred to as “human systems”.

“Over the last few years… we’ve upgraded all of our content review systems to now… our primary goal at this point is what percent of the content that’s going to be harmful can our systems proactively identify and take down before anyone even sees that? Some of that is AI and some of that is human systems,” he said, referring to the up to 30,000 people Facebook pays to use their brain and eyes for content moderation as “human systems”.

“If a person has to see it and report it to us we’re not going to catch everything ourselves but in general if someone has to report it to us then that means that we should be doing a bit better in future. So there’s still a lot of innovation to happen here,” Zuckerberg went on, adding: “We’re getting a lot better at this. I think our systems are continually improving.”

His use of the plural of “systems” at this point suggests he was including human beings in his calculus.

Yet he made no mention of the mental health toll that the moderation work entails for the thousands of people Facebook’s business depends upon to pick up the circa 20% of hate speech be conceded its AI systems still cannot identify. (He did not offer any performance metrics for how (in)effective AI systems are at proactively identifying other types of content which human moderates are routinely exposed to so Facebook users don’t have to — such as images of rape, murder and violence.)

Just last week Facebook paid $52M to settle a lawsuit brought by 11,000 current and former content moderators who developed mental health issues including PTSD on the job.

The Verge reported that under the terms of the settlement, every moderator will receive $1,000 which can be spent how they like but which Facebook intends to partly fund medical treatment, such as for seeking a diagnosis related to any mental health issues a moderator may be suffering.