Tech Roundup - May 7, 2021

Fri, 05/07/2021

This is our eighth edition of the ‘Tech Roundup,’ where we highlight some of the most significant/thought-provoking news items from the world of tech, especially at the nexus of law and technology. We are particularly interested in foregrounding tech news that is happening in Nebraska, and our region more broadly. If you have a news item you would like to see in the Roundup, please email



Husker undergrads earn national award for grain robot

Nebraska Today

  • “Two University of Nebraska–Lincoln engineering students have been awarded a Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for their invention designed to keep grain farmers safe.”
  • “Their invention, The Grain Weevil, is a small robot designed to maintain graineliminating the need for farmers to enter bins, which can be dangerous and even fatal.”


Groundwater levels were up significantly in early 2020, report shows

Nebraska Today

  • “Groundwater levels rose significantly across most of Nebraska from January 2019 to January 2020, and the state received so much precipitation over that period that a new color was added to the 2019-20 precipitation map included in the recently released 2020 Nebraska Groundwater-Level Monitoring Report.”
  • “The rain, snow and ice surpluses from 2019 were reflected in thousands of well measurements taken across much of Nebraska in early 2020, beneath which nearly three-quarters of the total volume of the High Plains Aquifer lies. In total, 4,970 wells were measured across Nebraska last spring, and there was an average increase of 1.58 feet in them statewide.”


Prairie Roots run deep: new virtual conference grows connections in the entrepreneurial ecosystem

Silicon Prairie News

  • Last Friday marked the first-ever Prairie Roots Spring Show, a virtual event showcasing a variety of companies, creative projects and causes that have survived—and in some cases, thrived—in the Midwest despite a tumultuous year.
  • Created and curated by Scott Henderson, managing director of Lincoln-based NMotion, Prairie Roots gathered 100 business, creative and thought leaders for the two-hour conference, which was billed as an effort to spark new collaborations and connections between “this amazing collection of people creating the future in Nebraska.”



Local Startup Spotlight


  • WellCapped’s monthly subscription service offers high quality, lace-front wigs to users via a Rent the Runway business model.
  • WellCapped makes data-driven decisions to select inventory, and to provide a Netflix-esque suggestion list of styles to its users.




A malaria vaccine shows promising results in clinical trials

The Economist

  • Currently, The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that more than 400,000 people a year die after becoming infected with Malaria. Most are children in Africa.
  • A group led by Halidou Tinto, a professor of parasitology who is the regional director of the Research Institute of Health Sciences in Nanoro, Burkina Faso, announced that their candidate vaccine, developed at Oxford University and called R21/Matrix-M (MM), was 77% effective in preventing malaria over the course of a year.



The farms being run from space

BBC Reel

  • Video segment highlighting the technological advancements that are transforming global agricultural practices.

Apple and Epic Head to Court Over Their Slices of the App Pie

New York Times

  • The trial has begun in an antitrust case between Epic Games and Apple, where Epic alleges that Apple is an unlawful monopoly, in that Epic’s customers need iPhones to reach customers, and that “Apple unfairly forces app makers to use its payment system and pay its fees.”
  • “If Apple wins, it will strengthen its grip over mobile apps and stifle its growing chorus of critics, further empowering a company that is already the world’s most valuable and topped $299 billion in sales over just the past six months.”



Amazon Prohibited from Selling Allegedly Counterfeit Facemasks

Bloomberg Law

  • A court order is appropriate to prevent Inc. from selling or posting allegedly counterfeit Suncoo-branded disposable facemasks on its website because it relisted its own supply of the items three times after agreeing to stop, a federal court in California ruled.
  • Amazon claimed the relistings were inadvertent, but its “conduct establishes a likelihood that it will infringe the SUNCOO mark again, be it via carelessness or otherwise,” Judge Otis D. Wright II said Monday for the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
  • This is the latest instance of how business owners are trying to protect their intellectual property on Amazon and how Congress and the courts are responding to these efforts.



In clinical and real world trials, China’s Sinovac underperforms

The Economist

  • The latest results for China’s CoronaVac vaccine, developed by Sinovac Biotech, a Beijing-based pharmaceutical company, were disappointing for the aspiring scientific and technological powerhouse. Phase-three trials, which were conducted on health-care workers in Brazil, yielded an efficacy rate of just 50.7% (with a 95% confidence interval of 35.7% to 62.2%), just barely above the 50% threshold set by the World Health Organisation for covid-19 vaccines. (see chart).
  • The above link provides a compelling chart comparing the efficacy results of Covid-19 vaccines in phase-3 trials.



Teens, tech and mental health: Oxford study finds no link

BBC News

  • There remains "little association" between technology use and mental-health problems, a study of more than 430,000 10 to 15-year-olds suggests.
  • The Oxford Internet Institute compared TV viewing, social-media and device use with feelings of depression, suicidal tendencies and behavioural problems.



FTC continues to crack down on companies peddling fake COVID treatments and cures

Federal Trade Commission

  • As part of its ongoing efforts to protect you sellers of scam COVID-19 treatments, the FTC has sent 30 warning letters to companies that claimed their products can prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19.
  • as a result of these letters, all the companies have stopped making the false or deceptive claims.



Nebraska Governance and Technology Center

Tech Refactored Ep. 16 - The Fabric of Civilization with Virginia Postrel

  • In our 16th episode of ‘Tech Refactored,’ host Gus Hurwitz, Director of the NGTC, was joined by Virginia Postrel, author of several books, including the recent Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World.
  • As the book’s description explains, “since the first thread was spun, the need for textiles has driven technology, business, politics, and culture,” and in this episode we touch on all of that… plus a little college sports.


Faculty Perspective

Offering a special “Faculty Perspective” on a case that has been the talk of the town over at the NGTC, First Amendment Scholar Kyle Langvardt offered his take on the Facebook Oversight Board’s recent decision about Donald Trump’s future on its platforms.

First, some basic factual background:

Facebook Oversight Board Upholds Social Network’s Ban of Trump

New York Times

  • “A Facebook-appointed panel of journalists, activists and lawyers on Wednesday upheld the social network’s ban of former President Donald J. Trump, ending any immediate return by Mr. Trump to mainstream social media and renewing a debate about tech power over online speech.”
  • “Facebook’s Oversight Board, which acts as a quasi-court over the company’s content decisions, ruled the social network was right to bar Mr. Trump after the insurrection in Washington in January, saying he “created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible.” The panel said that ongoing risk “justified” the move.”
  • “But the board also kicked the case back to Facebook and its top executives. It said that an indefinite suspension was “not appropriate” because it was not a penalty defined in Facebook’s policies and that the company should apply a standard punishment, such as a time-bound suspension or a permanent ban.”


Kyle Langvardt, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Nebraska College of Law, offered the following analysis:

The Board applies Facebook’s rules as contained in the Community Standards, the Terms of Service, and the company’s written “values.” In this case Facebook cited Trump for violating its “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” policy, which prohibits “content that praises, supports, or represents events that Facebook designates as terrorist attacks, hate events, mass murders or attempted mass murders, serial murders, hate crimes and violating events.”

Facebook isn’t subject to the First Amendment. But Facebook has recently committed to follow various human rights law documents, so the Board spent significant time discussing how human rights law should apply to the Trump ban.

And as the board went out of its way to note, there are significant high-level similarities between First Amendment law and the relevant international law on freedom of expression. Both are broadly concerned with legal clarity, with the strength of the government’s reasons for regulating speech, and with the fit between the government’s regulatory means and ends.

In a nutshell, the Board said:

  • Facebook’s “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” rule is unclear, but that Trump’s decision to praise the insurrectionists during the sack of the Capitol was so flagrant that he had adequate notice of a violation.
  • Facebook pursued a legitimate aim under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by seeking to protect public order and respect for the results of a democratic election.
  • Temporarily restricting Trump’s access to his account was necessary and proportionate to these goals in light of factors including the ongoing violence, the explosive political situation, Trump’s influence and reach, and his likely ill intent.
  • Facebook’s decision to impose an “indefinite” restriction on Trump, however, was vague, standardless, and arbitrary. So the Board required Facebook to define and justify an appropriate penalty within six months.

Again, it’s not a First Amendment analysis. But I’d go way out on a limb and say that if Facebook were subject to the First Amendment, the right analysis would look a lot like what the Oversight Board did here.

I say this in spite of the fact that First Amendment law for over half a century has made it extremely difficult to prosecute people for advocating violence or lawlessness. And, in my view, rightfully so. But those protections were devised for offline settings, and I fear that the viral dynamic is so transformative as to make the highly speech-protective approach unworkable on a network like Facebook. A case as novel as the Trump ban forces you to work from first principles—and at that point, the differences between American and international law largely wash out. Under either approach, I think you’re forced to leave the online content moderator with a lot of flexibility to curb viral speech that could lead to violence. It’s an environment where robust speech protections just don’t work all that well, and you’re forced to salvage as much protection for speech as you can.

One might therefore ask whether Facebook might try to engineer a different kind of environment with a different kind of “physics”—one where advocacy is less likely to lead to lawlessness in the first place, and there is therefore less need for draconian measures. And notably, the Board did just that, seeking “clarification from Facebook about the extent to which the platform’s design decisions, including algorithms, policies, procedures and technical features, amplified Mr. Trump’s posts after the election and whether Facebook had conducted any internal analysis of whether such design decisions may have contributed to the events of January 6.” But unfortunately, “Facebook declined to answer these questions. This makes it difficult for the Board to assess whether less severe measures, taken earlier, may have been sufficient to protect the rights of others.”

I was impressed with the Oversight Board’s opinion, but I also thought the Board’s institutional weakness was on clear display. Perhaps the Board’s greatest weakness is that it can’t review Facebook’s platform design decisions. If the platform design systematically increases the odds that speech will spiral into serious public harm, then robust protections for speech become unviable. And if the Board can’t review design decisions that produce that effect, then it has to make an essentially binary choice between serious harm and draconian speech restrictions




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