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France and the Netherlands signal support for EU body to clip the wings of big tech

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Pre-emptive action should intervene prior to the stage where damage becomes irreversible,” French digital minister, Cederic O, and Mona Keijzer, the secretary of state for economic affairs for the Netherlands, write in a joint position paper where they also argue that: “Intervention is justified when the asymmetric bargaining power of structuring platforms leads to negative consequences.”

The two ministers went further in accompanying remarks to the press, with the Financial Times reporting that their support for intervention against big tech’s market muscle includes keeping the option of breaking up companies “on the table” — although their stated preference is for rules that prevent such an “ultimate” step being necessary.

The intervention by two high profile EU Member States comes as the European Commission is working on a major package of pan-EU legislation to update the bloc’s ecommerce rules — including devising a new regime of ex ante rules for so-called ‘gatekeeper’ platforms. 

In recent months press reports have suggested EU lawmakers are considering forcing such platforms to share data with smaller rivals and/or limiting how they can make use of data — such as via strict purpose limitation.

They are also reportedly considering rules to ban self-preferencing and apply conditions on bundling, as well as requiring annual audits of ad metrics and reporting practices.

Although the package remains at the draft stage for now, with the Commission saying only that it’s committed to introduce the Digital Services Act (DSA) by the end of this year.

Commission lawmakers are also eyeing expanded powers for competition regulators to proactively tackle the network effects that can apply in digital markets — and have, in recent weeks, been consulting on a new competition tool for this purpose. 

The French-Dutch intervention thus sends a strong signal of support to the Commission for regulating big tech — and a warning shot against watering down policy measures.

Competition chief and Commission EVP, Margrethe Vestager, who is one of the key lawmakers drafting the DSA, has previously cautioned against breaking up tech giants as a solution to competitive imbalances in digital markets — calling instead for a finer grained regulatory framework which regulates their access to data.

Such an approach would be akin to a structural separation, without the huge legal challenge involved in actually breaking up businesses, is the thinking.

The French-Dutch position paper reflects back many of the ideas the Commission is actively considering, per recent press leaks. So it may be intended to send a message that key Member States are on the same page.

The paper advocates for intervention to apply to platforms that have “considerable market power” in at least one market, while warning against imposing “unnecessary obligations” to platforms without any gatekeeper position.

It also suggests a “platform-by-platform approach” by regulators to determine whether or not a platform is a gatekeeper or not, noting: “It is important to stress that classical methods of market definition cannot always be used effectively in digital markets.”

Platform-specific factors such as the characteristics of the service and the behaviour of users should factor into the analysis of whether it holds a structural position, they also suggest — before again hitting a cautious note and urging that “a right balance” be struck between a platform-specific analysis and “the need for a reasonable level a legal certainty”.

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Duolingo’s bilingual true crime podcast will entertain you while you learn Spanish

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Language learning app Duolingo is debuting what it says is the world’s first bilingual true crime podcast designed for people learning Spanish. El Gran Robo Argentino (The Great Argentine Heist) tells the story of the 2006 robbery of a Banco Rio bank in Buenos Aires, where five men stole a fortune worth $20 million.

It’s quite the riveting drama; without giving too much away, the robbers became folk heroes in Argentina, and the heist was the subject of a movie — El Robo del Siglo— in Argentina earlier this year. For more, read Josh Dean’s great retelling of the tale in GQ (but obviously, spoiler alerts).

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The Duolingo podcast will be a serialized season of the Duolingo Spanish Podcast, which is geared toward Spanish learners and has 39 million unique downloads, the company said. The six-episode season includes interviews with real people who were part of the heist, including journalists, investigators, and even one of the bank robbers. The episodes will be narrated by podcast host and journalist Martina Castro.

Duolingo launched its Spanish podcast in 2017. El Gran Robo Argentino marks its ninth season, and its first presented in a serialized format. In addition to its Spanish-for-English-speakers podcast, Duolingo has a French podcast for English speakers and an English podcast for Spanish speakers.

For the Spanish podcast episodes, native speakers tell stories in easy-to-understand Spanish alongside English narration by Castro. The bilingual structure, which alternates between Spanish and English, lets English speakers follow along with the story without getting lost. Duolingo works with each storyteller, coaching them on speaking more slowly than they normally might, and the vocabulary in every episode is mapped out so it meets the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) — the international standard for measuring language proficiency — for a speaker of intermediate-level Spanish.

El Gran Robo Argentina launches today, wherever you get your podcasts.

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WoHo wants to make constructing buildings fast, flexible and green with reusable “components”

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Buildings are the bedrocks of civilization — places to live, places to work (well, normally, in a non-COVID-19 world) and places to play. Yet how we conceive buildings, architect them for their uses, and ultimately construct them on a site has changed remarkably little over the past few decades. Housing and building costs continue to rise, and there remains a slow linear process from conception to construction for most projects. Why can’t the whole process be more flexible and faster?

Well, a trio of engineers and architects out of MIT and Georgia Tech are exploring that exact question.

MIT’s former treasurer Israel Ruiz along with architects Anton Garcia-Abril of MIT and Debora Mesa of Georgia Tech have joined together on a startup called WoHo (short for “World Home”) that’s trying to rethink how to construct a modern building by creating more flexible “components” that can be connected together to create a structure.

WoHo’s Israel Ruiz, Debora Mesa, and Anton Garcia-Abril. Photo via WoHo.

By creating components that are usable in a wide variety of types of buildings and making them easy to construct in a factory, the goal of WoHo is to lower construction costs, maximize flexibility for architects, and deliver compelling spaces for end users, all while making projects greener in a climate unfriendly world.

The team’s ideas caught the attention of Katie Rae, CEO and managing director of The Engine, a special fund that spun out of MIT that is notable for its lengthy time horizons for VC investments. The fund is backing WoHo with $4.5 million in seed capital.

Ruiz spent the last decade overseeing MIT’s capital construction program, including the further buildout of Kendall Square, a neighborhood next to MIT that has become a major hub for biotech innovation. Through that process, he saw the challenges of construction, particularly for the kinds of unique spaces required for innovative companies. Over the years, he also built friendships with Garcia-Abril and Mesa, the duo behind Ensamble Studio, an architecture firm.

With WoHo, “it is the integration of the process from the design and concept in architecture all the way through the assembly and construction of that project,” Ruiz explained. “Our technology is suitable for low-to-high rise, but in particularly it provides the best outcomes for mid-to-high rise.”

So what exactly are these WoHo components? Think of them as well-designed and reusable blocks that can be plugged together in order to create a structure. These blocks are consistent and are designed to be easily manufactured and transported. One key innovation is around an improved reinforced cement that allows for better building quality at lower environmental cost.

Conception of a WoHo component under construction. Photo via WoHo

We have seen modular buildings before, typically apartment buildings where each apartment is a single block that can be plugged into a constructed structure (take for example this project in Sacramento). WoHo, though, wants to go further in having components that offer more flexibility and arrangements, and also act as the structure themselves. That gives architects far more flexibility.

It’s still early days, but the group has already gotten some traction in the market, inking a partnership with Swiss concrete and building materials company LafargeHolcim to bring their ideas to market. The company is building a demonstration project in Madrid, and targeting a second project in Boston for next year.

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E-bike subscription service Dance closes $17.7M Series A, led by HV Holtzbrinck Ventures

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Three months on since the former founders of SoundCloud launched their e-bike subscription service, Dance they are today announcing the close of a $17.7 million (€15 million) Series A funding round led by one of the larger European VCs, HV Holtzbrinck Ventures.

Founded by Eric Quidenus-Wahlforss (ex-Soundcloud), Alexander Ljung (ex-Soundcloud) and Christian Springub (ex-Jimdo), Dance has ambitions to offer its all-inclusive service subscription package into expanded markets across Europe and eventually the US. Dance is currently operating the invite-only pilot of its e-bike subscription in Berlin, with plans for a broader launch, expanded accessibility and availability and new cities next year. 

Rainer Märkle, general partner at HV Holtzbrinck Ventures said in a statement: “The mobility market is seeing a huge shift towards bikes, strongly fueled by the paradigm shift of vehicles going electric. Unfortunately, the majority of e-bikes on the market today have some combination of poor design, high upfront costs, and cumbersome maintenance. We analyzed the overall mobility market, evaluated all means of transport, and crunched the numbers on all types of business models for a few years before we found what we were looking for. Dance is by the far the most viable future of biking, bridging the gap between e-bike ownership and more ‘joyful’ accessibility to go places.”

E-bikes tend to be notoriously expensive to purchase and a hassle to repair. That said, startups like VanMoof and Cowboy have brought an Apple -esque business model to the market which is fast bringing the cost of full ownership down.

Most commuters are put off cycling the average 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) commute but e-bikes make this distance a breeze. Dance sits in that half-way house between owning an expensive bike and having to hunt down a rentable ebike or electric scooter close to your location.

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought individual, socially distanced, transport into sharp relief. UK sales of e-bikes have boomed, seeing a 230% surge in demand over the summer. This has happened at the same time as EU governments have put in more than 2300km of bike lanes, with the UK alone pledging £250 million in investment.

Quidenus-Wahlforss said the startup has been “inundated with positive responses from around the world since we announced our invite-only pilot program.”

Dance’s subscription model includes a fully assembled e-bike delivered to a subscriber’s door within 24 hours. This comes with maintenance, theft replacement insurance, a dedicated smartphone app, concierge services, GPS location tracking and unlocking capabilities.

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