Twitter Spaces will be available for the web, including accessibility features

On Wednesday evening, Twitter announced that Spaces — its Clubhouse competitor — will start rolling out for use on the web. Earlier this month, Twitter Spaces became available for any user with more than 600 followers on the iOS or Android apps, and around the same time, Clubhouse finally released its long-awaited Android app. Still, Clubhouse has yet to debut on the web, marking a success for Twitter in the race to corner the live social audio market. 

Even Instagram is positioning itself as a Clubhouse competitor, allowing users to “go live” with the ability to mute their audio and video. How will each app differentiate itself? Twitter CFO Ned Segal attempted to address this at JP Morgan’s 49th Annual Technology, Media, & Communications conference this week. 

“Twitter is where you go to find out what’s happening in the world and what people are talking about,” said Segal. “So when you come to Twitter, and you look at your home Timeline and you see a Space, it’s gonna perhaps be people who you don’t know but who are talking about a topic that’s incredibly relevant to you. It could be Bitcoin, it could be the aftershock from the Grammys, it could be that they’re talking about the NFL Draft.” 

Twitter’s focus areas for the web version of Spaces include a UI that adapts to the user’s screen size and reminders for scheduled Spaces. Before joining a space, Twitter will display a preview that shows who is in a Space, and a description of the topic being discussed. Users will also be able to have a Space open on the right side of their screen while still scrolling through their Timeline.

Image Credits: Twitter

Most crucially, this update lists accessibility and transcriptions as a focus area. For an audio-only platform, live transcriptions are necessary for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people to join in on the conversation. In screenshots Twitter shared of the new features, we can see how live captions will appear in Spaces. As for how accurate these transcriptions will be, the jury’s still out.

Twitter fielded well-deserved criticism last year when it failed to include captioning on its audio tweet feature. In an apology tweet, Twitter Support wrote, “Accessibility should not be an afterthought.” By September, Twitter launched two accessibility teams

Still, accessibility has often been treated as an afterthought throughout the rise of live audio. Clubhouse does not yet support live captioning. 

Tesla has installed 200,000 Powerwalls around the world so far

Tesla has installed its 200,000th Powerwall, the company’s home battery storage product, the company said in a tweet on Wednesday. Tesla’s CFO Zachary Kirkhorn told investors during a first-quarter earnings call in April that Tesla is continuing to work through a “multi-quarter backlog on Powerwall,” suggesting that the volume of installations will continue to soar in coming months.

During that earnings call, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company will no longer sell its Solar Roof panel product without a Powerwall. He said widespread installation of solar panels plus home battery packs (Tesla built, of course) would turn every home into a distributed power plant.

“…Every solar Powerwall installation that the house or apartment or whatever the case may be, will be its own utility,” he said. “And so even if all the lights go out in the neighborhood, you will still have power. So that gives people energy security. And we can also, in working with the utilities, use the Powerwalls to stabilize the overall grid.”

He noted the unprecedented winter storm in Texas in February, which, combined with record-breaking demand for electricity, left millions without power in freezing temperatures. He suggested that under that scenario, utilities could work with customers who have Powerwalls to release stored electricity back on the grid to meet that demand.

“So if the grid needs more power, we can actually then with the consent, obviously, of the homeowner and the partnership with the utility, we can then actually release power on to the grid to take care of peak power demand,” he said.

Tesla hit the 100,000 milestone for Powerwall installations in April 2020, five years after it debuted the first-generation Powerwall. That means that sales numbers that took the company five years to achieve were doubled in a single year.

EV fast charger developer Tritium to go public via SPAC merger at $1.2B valuation

Another day, another mobility SPAC deal. This time, it’s Tritium, a Brisbane-based developer and producer of direct current fast EV chargers that is taking the SPAC path to the public market in a deal valuing the company at $1.2 billion.

Tritium said Wednesday it will be heading to the Nasdaq via a merger with special purpose acquisition company Decarbonization Plus Acquisition Corp. II, or DCRN, though it declined to provide a timeline for when the transaction is expected to close. The transaction is expected to generate gross proceeds of up to $403 million. Tritium will be listed under the ticker “DCFC.”

This particular SPAC deal is unusual in that it does not include private investment in public equity, or PIPE — a fundraising round that typically occurs at the time of the merger and injects more capital into the company.

“We didn’t need a PIPE because DCRN is a more than $400 million SPAC and our shareholder group agreed to a minimum cash closing of just $200 million, which significantly reduces redemption risk,” Tritium CEO Jane Hunter told TechCrunch. “Also, our revenue has grown at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 56% since 2016 as we expand our presence in major markets where we have a significant market share, such as the U.S. and Europe. This revenue growth helps to reduce our reliance upon new funds to implement our growth strategy.”

Founded in 2001, Tritium manufactures charger hardware and software for direct current fast chargers. Its products can recharge an EV battery, adding 20 miles in a minute or 100 miles in five minutes, DPAC II chairman Robert Tichio said during an investors call Wednesday. DC chargers are more costly than alternating current (AC) chargers but they send power to the vehicle much more quickly. Generally, AC chargers are installed at home, where a driver can plug in their vehicle overnight, while DC chargers are more frequently found at public charging stations.

“Drivers will want the experience of public charging to be as close as possible to their current experience at the gas pump — just a few minutes to get enough range to get on with your day,” Hunter said.

Tritium’s largest market is Europe, which composes around 70% of the company’s revenue, followed by North America at 20% and Asia at 10%, Hunter told investors Wednesday. The company will use the capital from the transaction to expand its manufacturing capacity and grow sales.

Demand for public EV charging stations is expected to mushroom over the next two decades alongside the growing market share of EVs. According to analysts Grandview Research, the EV charging infrastructure market was valued at $2 billion in 2020. It is expected to grow by nearly 39% through 2028. President Joe Biden said building out a national EV charging network was a key priority under his proposed $2 trillion infrastructure plan.

US removes Xiaomi’s designation as a Communist Chinese Military Company

Xiaomi, one of China’s high-profile tech firms that fell in the crosshairs of the Trump administration, has been removed from a U.S. government blacklist that designated it as a Communist Chinese Military Company.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has vacated the Department of Defence’s designation of Xiaomi as a CCMC in January, a document filed on May 25 shows.

In February, Xiaomi sued the U.S. government over its inclusion in the military blacklist. In March, the D.C. court granted Xiaomi a preliminary injunction against the DoD designation, which would have forbidden all U.S. persons from purchasing or possessing Xiaomi’s securities, saying the decision was “arbitrary and capricious.” The ruling was made to prevent “irreparable harm” to the Chinese phone maker.

Xiaomi has this to say about getting off the blacklist:

The Company is grateful for the trust and support of its global users, partners, employees and shareholders. The Company reiterates that it is an open, transparent, publicly traded, independently operated and managed corporation. The Company will continue to provide reliable consumer electronics products and services to users, and to relentlessly build amazing products with honest prices to let everyone in the world enjoy a better life through innovative technology.

Xiaomi’s domestic competitor Huawei is still struggling with its inclusion in the U.S. trade blacklist, which bans it from accessing critical U.S. technologies and has crippled its smartphone sales around the world.

Google’s data terms are now in Germany’s competition crosshairs

Germany’s national competition regulator, the Bundeskartellamt, has continued its investigative charge against big tech — announcing that it’s opened two proceedings into Google.

The move follows earlier proceedings targeting Amazon and Facebook — both of which are also looking to determine whether their businesses are of “paramount significance for competition across markets”, as German competition law puts it. (The regulator is also probing Facebook’s tying of Oculus to Facebook accounts.)

In Google’s case, one of the Bundeskartellamt’s new proceedings will confirm whether amended competition rules, which came into force in January, apply in its case — which would enable the FCO to target it with proactive interventions in the interests of fostering digital competition.

The second, parallel procedure will see the Federal Cartel Office (FCO) undertake an in-depth analysis of Google’s data processing terms in a move that looks intended to avoid wasting time — i.e. that its working assumption is that Google/Alphabet’s business meets the legal bar in the GWB Digitalisation Act.

By running the two Google procedures in parallel the German competition regulator will be in a position to act faster — assuming the first proceeding confirms it can indeed intervene.

The second probe running alongside would then identify potential problems to shape any intervention — with the FCO saying for example that it will look at whether Google/Alphabet “makes the use of services conditional on the users agreeing to the processing of their data without giving them sufficient choice as to whether, how and for what purpose such data are processed”.

It also says it will “examine the extent to which the terms provide Google with an opportunity to process data on an extensive cross-service basis” and will seek to clarify “how the company’s data processing policy applies to the processing of user data obtained from third-party websites and apps” (such as through Google’s advertising services).

Another key element of the proceeding will aim to establish what choice users actually have with regard to Google’s processing of their data, with the FCO noting that protecting consumer choice is a primary aim of competition law.

Given those point of focus it’s possible to imagine a future order from the FCO to Google could require it to simplify how it asks users for consent, to ensure genuine choice — and also shrink its ability to link first party user data with information obtained on people elsewhere online.

Commenting in a statement, Andreas Mundt, president of the Bundeskartellamt said: “An ecosystem which extends across various markets may be an indication that a company holds such a market position [i.e. whether it is of paramount significance across markets]. It is often very difficult for other companies to challenge this position of power. Due to the large number of digital services offered by Google, such as the Google search engine, YouTube, Google Maps, the Android operating system or the Chrome browser, the company could be considered to be of paramount significance for competition across markets.”

“Google’s business model relies to a very large extent on processing data relating to its users. Due to its established access to data relevant for competition, Google enjoys a strategic advantage. We will therefore take a close look at the company’s data processing terms. A key question in this context is whether consumers wishing to use Google’s services have sufficient choice as to how Google will use their data,” he added.

Reached for comment on the FCO proceedings, Google said it will fully cooperate with the FCO’s process but rejected the charge that people are forced to use its services — further claiming in a statement attributed to spokesperson, Ralf Bremer, that it offers “simple controls” so people can “limit” its use of their information:

“People choose Google because it’s helpful, not because they’re forced to, or because they can’t find alternatives. German consumers have enormous choice online and we give people simple controls to manage their information and limit the use of personal data. We will cooperate fully with the German Competition Authority and look forward to answering their questions.”

The Bundeskartellamt‘s in-depth prove of Google’s data processing terms picks up on long running criticism that the tech giant relies on forced and/or manipulative consent from users to obtain their data. Whereas the pan-EU legal standard if consent is used as a legal basis to process people’s information is that it should be clear, informed and freely given.

Back in 2019 Google was fined $57M by France’s data protection watchdog under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) over a failure to provide “sufficiently clear” information to Android users when it sought their consent to use their data for targeted ads.

However, subsequent to the CNIL’s action, the tech giant limited its exposure to the privacy regulation by changing the legal jurisdiction of where it processes European users’ data to Ireland.

The Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) then became Google’s lead data supervisor under the GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism. And the DPC has not decided a single GDPR complaint against Google — though it has a number of open investigations. It continues to face high level criticism over its enforcement record on key cross-border cases against big tech.

The awakening of European competition regulators to the issue of how abuse of user privacy is an anti-competitive tactic that can lock in the dominance of digital giants by unfairly enabling them to grab and link people’s data is thus a very important development in the regulation of big tech — and one where the Bundeskartellamt has already been a pioneer.

In an earlier FCO ‘super profiling’ case against Facebook — which predates the amendments to national digital competition law — it ordered the social media behemoth not to combine user data from across its different products.

Facebook has sought to block the order in the German courts. And, back in March, the case was referred to Europe’s top court — meaning the FCO’s order to it remains on hold pending the CJEU’s ruling (which could take years to be handed down).

The FCO confirmed today that the Facebook case is still pending before the court, reiterating the decision of the Düsseldorf Higher Regional Court to refer certain issues relating to the application of the GDPR to the European Court of Justice — which means that a decision on the merits of the case “can only be rendered after these issues have been clarified”.

The Bundeskartellamt’s investigation of Facebook’s data practices started all the way back in in March 2016. So it’s a safe bet that the regulator’s experience of digging into the detail of how tech giants process people’s data — and how hard it is to make cases stick against them — has helped inform the amendments to Germany’s competition law that introduce ex ante powers to tackle digital giants deemed to be of “paramount significance for competition across markets”.

Although there is still another waiting period baked in to this approach — as the regulator must first assess whether tech giants meet that legal bar.

The EU has proposed a similar ex ante approach for what it dubs as digital “gatekeepers”, under the Digital Markets Act, which it introduced at the end of last year.

Although with the bloc’s co-legislative process ongoing that regulation is likely some years away from adoption and pan-EU application — meaning Germany’s national law and the energetic FCO could be a significant actor in the meanwhile.

The EU’s competition commission are also digging into Google’s adtech practices — though they’re having to do so under existing powers, for now, which have been shown to be a painstakingly slow and not very effective route to tackle digital market power.

Elsewhere in Europe, the UK, which now sits outside the bloc, is also shaping its own an ex ante regime to curb the market power of digital giants. So regardless of political cross-currents in the region — and the problem of patchy privacy enforcement — there is growing consensus that European competition authorities must be empowered to step in proactively to tackle digital market abuses.