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India's election overshadowed by the rise of online misinformation | TechCrunch

As India kicks off the world’s biggest election, which starts on April 19 and runs through June 1, the electoral landscape is overshadowed by misinformation.

The country — which has more than 830 million internet users and is home to the largest user base for social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram — is already at the highest risk of misinformation and disinformation, according to the World Economic Forum. AI has complicated the situation further, including deepfakes created with generative AI.

Misinformation is not just a problem for election fairness — it can have deadly effects, including violence on the ground and increase hatred for minorities.

Pratik Sinha, the co-founder of the Indian non-profit fact-checking website Alt News, says there’s been an increase in the deliberate creation of misinformation to polarize society. “Ever since social media has been thriving, there is a new trend where you use misinformation to target communities,” he said.

The country’s vast diversity in language and culture also make it particularly hard for fact-checkers to review and filter out misleading content.

“India is unusual in its size and its history of democracy,” Angie Drobnic Holan, the director of International Fact-Checking Network, told TechCrunch in an interview. “When you have got a lot of misinformation, you have a lot of need for fact-checking, and things that make the Indian environment more complex also are the many languages of India.”

The government has taken steps against the problem, but some critics argue that enforcement is weak, and the Big Tech platforms aren’t helping enough.

In 2022, the Indian government updated its IT intermediary rules to require social media companies to remove misleading content from their platforms within 72 hours of being reported. However, the results are unclear, and some digital advocacy groups, including the Internet Freedom Foundation, have noticed selective enforcement.

“You don’t want to have laws or rules that are so vague, that are so broad that they can be interpreted,” said Prateek Waghre, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation.

Google and Meta have made announcements about limiting misleading content on their platforms during Indian elections, and restricted their AI bots from answering election queries, but have announced no significant product-related changes or stringent actions against fake news. Moreover, just before the Indian election, Meta reportedly cut funding to news organizations for fact-checking on WhatsApp.

Now fake news is proliferating on social media. Doctored videos of celebrities asking citizens to vote for a particular political party and fake news about the Model Code of Conduct applied to public programs and private chats were well spread online before the election began.

Hamsini Hariharan, a subject matter expert at the U.K.-based fact-checking startup Logically, told TechCrunch about the trend of “cheapfakes” — content generated with less sophisticated measures of altering images, videos, and audio — being widely shared across social media platforms in India.

Last week, 11 civil society organizations in India, including the nonprofit digital rights groups Internet Freedom Foundation and Software Freedom Law Center (, urged the Indian election commission to hold political candidates and social media platforms accountable for any misuse.

Hariharan underlined that the scale and sophistication of misinformation and disinformation have drastically increased over the last five years since India’s last general election in 2019. The key reasons, she believes, are the increase in internet penetration — it’s grown from 14% in 2014 to around 50% now, according to World Bank data — and the availability of technologies to manipulate audiovisual messages, low media literacy, and the mainstream media losing some of its credibility.

Logically noticed a particular spike in attempts to cast doubt about electronic voting machines. Its fact-checkers saw older claims, particularly videos and text from Supreme Court hearings about voting machines, being circulated without sufficient context. There were even some posts about these machines being banned, faulty or tempered with, along with hashtags such as #BanEVM circulated among Facebook groups with thousands of followers.

Sinha of Alt News agreed that misleading online content has rapidly risen in the country. He noted that social media companies are not helping to limit such content on their platforms.

“Is there a single report that’s been published in four years as to how their fact-checking enterprise is doing? No, nothing, because they know it is not working. If it was working, they would have gone to town with it, but they know it’s not working,” he told TechCrunch.

Holan believes there is much room for product changes that emphasize accuracy and reliability.

“The platforms invested heavily during COVID in trust and safety programs. And since then, there’s clearly been a pullback,” she said.

Meta and X did not answer why there have been no significant product-related updates to restrict misleading content and the amount of investments made for fact-checking in India. However, a Meta spokesperson noted the existence of a WhatsApp tip line, which was launched in late March, and an awareness campaign on Instagram to identify and stop misinformation using the platform’s built-in features.

“We have a multi-pronged approach to tackling misinformation that includes building an industry-leading network of fact-checkers in the country, including training them on tackling AI-generated misinformation,” the Meta spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

X did not answer a detailed questionnaire sent to the generic press email ID but said, “Busy now, please check back later.”

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Robotic Automations

Silicon Valley prankster Danielle Baskin launches Moonlight, an online tarot platform | TechCrunch

Bay Area artist Danielle Baskin is not a first-time founder – but this is the first time she’s started a tech company that isn’t a performance art piece, or an elaborate joke. Still, she has a tongue-in-cheek tagline to pitch her latest venture: “It’s SaaS for witches.”

She’s not kidding. Moonlight is a free online tarot platform, where you can draw tarot cards on your own, do a reading in a multiplayer room, or even book a session with a vetted tarot professional (that’s where the SaaS part comes in).

Some founders would kill to have just one good idea. Baskin has so many good ideas that some of her performance art projects have inadvertently spun into legitimate companies. What if instead of getting more corporate swag, you could go to a conference and get a Salesforce-branded avocado? (“That was actually a solid business,” she told TechCrunch, but it was quashed by the pandemic).

She’s also spent four years running Dialup, an app that pairs strangers in one-on-one phone calls. Then, there are less time-consuming joke products like OneHoodie, a hoodie with swappable velcro logos, in case your company gets acquired and you don’t want a whole new hoodie; Drone Sweaters, clothes to keep your drone warm; or Warby Parkour, photos of glasses doing parkour. Some of the funding for Moonlight came from selling her business Maskalike, where she made photorealistic face masks with people’s actual faces on them.

“After I sold my mask company, I felt like for the first time in my life, I wasn’t hustling anything, and I could just think about what I wanted to do next,” she said. Then came Moonlight.

Image Credits: Moonlight

Moonlight has an appropriately mystical connection to one of Baskin’s first companies. About fifteen years ago, Baskin ran a business painting custom bike helmets, but around the same time, she had just begun learning about tarot.

Tarot isn’t fortune-telling or psychic reading. Dating back to the 1400s, each of the 78 cards in the tarot deck tells a story. Tarot readers help people interpret the cards they pull, and draw from the stories of the cards to help clients think through life events from a different angle.

“I had this idea to paint each tarot card on 78 unique helmets, and sell them all in New York, so that they’d all be shuffling around, and when you pass a cyclist, you could get a reading on your bike,” she said. “You’d be biking and pass the three of swords and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m going to think about heartbreak right now,’ or you pass the magician, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I should be doing more spectacles today.’”

Sometimes, she’d trade a helmet for a few tarot lessons with a witch (which is how some tarot practitioners describe themselves). It was at one of these lessons that Baskin first imagined what an online tarot platform could look like.

Image Credits: Danielle Baskin/Inkwell Helmets

“One of my teachers, I went to her place and she had this desktop computer in the corner, and there were these beach sounds coming from it,” she said. “I asked her what was on her computer, and she explained that she was a tarot reader in Second Life [at a beachside tarot shop]. She would meet clients there, and people all over the world would voice chat with her… That’s always been in the back of my mind. Even when building this, I’m like, ‘Whoa, should I get in touch with her again?’”

Baskin has spent fifteen years of studying tarot, giving readings (sometimes at corporate parties), and getting to know other witches. Now, the path to Moonlight has come full circle.

Moonlight’s interface is beautiful and intuitive. When you enter a room, you start by shuffling your tarot deck – the default is the iconic Rider Waite Smith deck, but decks from other artists are for sale. You can pull cards in four different preset spreads, but you can also just pull cards onto a blank canvas, which can be helpful for people learning to read the cards. If you’re not a tarot expert, there’s a built-in handbook inside the app, but the descriptions are pretty open-ended – “I just put in the most minimalist keywords, so you could project your own meanings onto it,” Baskin said.

As she was building out the idea for Moonlight, Baskin teamed up with Caroline Hermans, a game designer and former UX engineer at Google.

“It took a whole two years before I actually made it, because I was also like, who can I collaborate with? Are there tarot engineers?” Baskin said. Hermans fit the bill.

Image Credits: Moonlight

Moonlight was first bootstrapped with the money Baskin made selling Maskalike, but she managed to find some angel investors to jump in as well (she declined to say how much she’s raised). Given her history of poking fun at Silicon Valley – she sold blonde wigs and “blood energy drinks” outside of the courtroom at Elizabeth Holmes’ trial, and she was behind the TouchBase trading cards, which treated venture capitalists like baseball players – she wasn’t sure if investors would take her seriously.

“I was worried that investors might think I’m a prankster – will that hurt me in actually making a business? But I think if people actually know me, they know I’m multi-faceted,” she said. “A lot of investors I met with were familiar with my artwork. They’re like ‘Oh, you did BART Basel,’ the art show in BART.”

It’s important to Baskin that Moonlight has an actual business plan from the get-go – she learned that lesson while running Dialup, which has since been sunsetted.

“I was in this sort of mindset, maybe similar to Clubhouse, where I was like, ‘Well, we can keep growing our app, and keep it free, and then as it’s more popular, we’ll figure out a plan to monetize it,’” she said. Neither Clubhouse nor Dialup thrived under that model – most companies don’t. But Moonlight already is generating some income by taking a 15% platform fee from bookings with tarot readers and sales of digital decks. The platform launched without fanfare about a year ago, but now that its booking flow is in place, Moonlight is looking to make a splash.

“I was worried that witches would hate technology. You know, they’re like, ‘My physical deck is charged with a crystal in the windowsill and that’s the only one I’ll use,’ but no, everyone’s on the internet,” Baskin said. “Witches have Instagram. We’re all using technology, and I think they’re excited that someone’s making a platform who’s a tarot person, too.”

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Indian government's cloud spilled citizens' personal data online for years | TechCrunch

The Indian government has finally resolved a years-long cybersecurity issue that exposed reams of sensitive data about its citizens. A security researcher exclusively told TechCrunch he found at least hundreds of documents containing citizens’ personal information — including Aadhaar numbers, COVID-19 vaccination data, and passport details — spilling online for anyone to access.

At fault was the Indian government’s cloud service, dubbed S3WaaS, which is billed as a “secure and scalable” system for building and hosting Indian government websites.

Security researcher Sourajeet Majumder told TechCrunch that he found a misconfiguration in 2022 that was exposing citizens’ personal information stored on S3WaaS to the open internet. Because the private documents were inadvertently made public, search engines also indexed the documents, allowing anyone to actively search the internet for the sensitive private citizen data.

With support from digital rights organization the Internet Freedom Foundation, Majumder reported the incident at the time to India’s computer emergency response team, known as CERT-In, and the Indian government’s National Informatics Centre.

CERT-In quickly acknowledged the issue, and links containing sensitive files from public search engines were pulled down.

But Majumder said that despite repeated warnings about the data spill, the Indian government cloud service was still exposing some individuals’ personal information as recently as last week.

With evidence of ongoing exposures of private data, Majumder asked TechCrunch for help getting the remaining data secured. Majumder said that some citizens’ sensitive data began spilling online long after he first disclosed the misconfiguration in 2022.

TechCrunch reported some of the exposed data to CERT-In. Majumder confirmed that those files are no longer publicly accessible.

When reached prior to publication, CERT-In did not object to TechCrunch publishing details of the security lapse. Representatives for the National Informatics Centre and S3WaaS did not respond to a request for comment.

Majumder said it was not possible to accurately estimate the true extent of this data leak, but warned that bad actors were purportedly selling the data on a known cybercrime forum before it was shuttered by U.S. authorities. CERT-In would not say if bad actors accessed the exposed data.

The exposed data, Majumder said, potentially puts citizens at risk of identity thefts and scams.

“More than that, when sensitive health information like COVID test results and vaccine records get out, it’s not just our medical privacy that’s compromised — it stirs fears of discrimination and social rejection,” he said.

Majumder noted that this incident should be a “wake-up call for security reforms.”

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Robotic Automations

Biden’s FCC argues net neutrality restoration will increase online free speech | TechCrunch

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel on Wednesday announced plans to vote on rules restoring net neutrality. The vote, set for April 25, would reinstate 2015 internet rules adopted under President Obama that were subsequently repealed by President Trump’s FCC two years later.

Rosenworcel, a longtime advocate for net neutrality, announced plans to reverse the reversal toward the end of last year, arguing that the Trump administration had, “put the agency on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law and the wrong side of the public.”

In a call with the media this morning, a senior FCC official echoed the sentiment, arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic reaffirmed the importance of broadband intent access. The official added that ongoing national security threats have further highlighted the need for strong oversight.

Net neutrality has the rare chance to receive widespread bipartisan support. In 2022, a poll from the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation found that 82% of Democrats, 65% of Republicans and 68% of Independents supported its restoration.

Opponents suggest that the rules disincentivize investment in telecommunication technologies and represent a form of government overreach. South Dakota Senator John Thune called proposals to reinstate such rules, “a heavy-handed government solution – in search of a problem.” The Republican added, “The Biden FCC wants to use the idea of net neutrality as a cover to assert broad new government powers over the internet using rules that were designed for telephone monopolies back during the Great Depression.”

This morning, FCC officials pointed out that investments only increased following the adoption of the rules in 2015. Speaking on behalf of the committee on Wednesday’s call, a representative added that the FCC is not interested in policing speech online — if anything, they argued, such rules increase speech by taking it out of the hands of internet service providers (ISPs).

“After the prior administration abdicated authority over broadband services, the FCC has been handcuffed from acting to fully secure broadband networks, protect consumer data, and ensure the internet remains fast, open, and fair,” Rosenworcel noted in a prepared statement. “A return to the FCC’s overwhelmingly popular and court-approved standard of net neutrality will allow the agency to serve once again as a strong consumer advocate of an open internet.”

More difficult to answer, however, were questions about how to enshrine such rules. Should they pass, it would represent the third reversal of course in as many administrations. Should Trump be reelected in November, how can current officials ensure we don’t live through this all over again? For this, the FCC was not able to provide a satisfactory answer, only that it believed it had firm legal footing and a shared hope that this would be the last time the committee was forced to revisit these rules.

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SaaS startup SingleInterface raises $30M to help more businesses get online | TechCrunch

SingleInterface, a SaaS startup offering tools to offline businesses to grow their revenues by leveraging the web, has raised $30 million in its maiden external fundraising round as the Singaporean startup seeks to expand its footprint internationally and improve products to make them more relevant to global brands.

While being offline is still prominent for enterprises across major markets, including the U.S., Asia and Europe, businesses have started embracing online marketing strategies to attract more customers and increase their revenues. The primary reason for that is the growing number of internet users across the globe. Nearly 67% of the world’s population, or 5.4 billion people, is online, according to the International Telecommunication Union. This shows a growth of 4.7% since 2022. In contrast, the United Nations’ agency said the global offline population steadily dipped to 2.6 billion in 2023.

Nonetheless, finding a one-stop solution to getting online is challenging. Some may help businesses build a website, whereas others may just be useful for getting listed on search engines. Similarly, some solutions are limited to a particular sector. SingleInterface addresses that problem by providing a suite of products to multi-location brands, whether in the food and beverage, retail, or automotive business.

The startup works with over 400 multi-location brands across India, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East to help them manage the digital presence of their physical stores and retail outlets. It provides tools to let businesses drive customer engagement online, enhance discoveries through search engines and maps listings, manage feedback and web reviews, and even build websites with SEO management, delivering insights for each business location. The startup also uses AI to ease businesses’ journey to digitize thousands of stores in one go.

Tarun Sobhani, co-founder and CEO of SingleInterface, told TechCrunch that the startup helps businesses grow their revenues by 15% to 20% using its products.

“Enabling marketing strategies at a storefront level becomes a very tedious task for a brand because devising thousands of marketing strategies for thousands of stores is never easy. That’s where the whole AI automation piece comes in, which enables a better marketing ROI for each store,” he said in an interview.

Alongside letting businesses create detailed store-level websites of their local stores, SingleInterface allows them to run localized offers and events within a particular location and communicate two-way over WhatsApp, Facebook and Google Business Messages. The startup also helps multi-location brands understand why some stores have poor ratings while others have four- or five-star ratings. Further, it helps run online campaigns for different locations from a single source and optimize them based on their local competitors, market dynamics and distinct business hours.

SingleInterface already counts brands such as KFC, Pizza Hut, Nissan, Apollo Tyres, HDFC Bank and TVS Motor, as well as multiple group companies of large Indian conglomerates, including Tata Group, Reliance Group, Aditya Birla Group and Bajaj Group, among its customers. It is also scaling up in Southeast Asia and Australia and is looking to enter Japan and Korea soon and scale up in the Middle East.

Led by Singapore’s growth investment firm Asia Partners, the all-equity round saw the participation of PayPal Ventures. The startup plans to use the new funds to grow its geographical presence and to continue investing in its products and further enhance consumer experience, Sobhani told TechCrunch.

Before the fresh round, SingleInterface was bootstrapped. Sobhani and Harish Bahl, the founder of consumer internet investor and venture-building firm Smile Group, co-founded the startup in 2015. However, Sobhani said it was 2017 when it went out and started offering its tools to customers.

SingleInterface currently has a team of about 235 people, most of whom are based in India, with its development center in New Delhi. Sobhani said the startup plans to add many people in the Asia-Pacific region to grow its presence.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with Tarun, Harish, and the SingleInterface team to support their growth ambitions in India and globally. SingleInterface has shown an exceptional track record of fostering customer engagement and commerce for large enterprises over the last several years and has firmly established itself as a prominent player in the region, successfully integrating offline and online customer journeys to drive growth for physical retail locations,” Oliver Rippel, co-founder of Asia Partners, said in a prepared statement.

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