Editing Genes? Proceed With Caution


The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories

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CRISPR, the gene-editing tool, is busting biotech open, and it keeps evolving, writes Jim Kozubek (Time). New enzymes make edits more precise and accurate. “Technical limitations are evaporating,” Kozubek says. “The method is here to last. The ethics will only get more fraught.”

But the real challenge to CRISPR may still lie ahead — in the complex thickets of genetics itself. CRISPR lets researchers pluck out and insert individual genes. But the traits that make up a human being are the product of a complex interplay among multiple genes and the environment. Good and bad are rolled together and mixed up, and we’re only beginning to understand how. Even when we can identify a specific gene’s role in some undesirable trait, according to Kozubek, “genetic variants that predispose us to risk or supposed weaknesses are precisely the same ones that turn out to have small fitness advantages.”

Evolution is trade-offs all the way down. Nipping and tucking the genome in hope of rooting out problematic gene sequences might prove less useful than we think — particularly in the complex realm of psychiatric disorders and mental health.

The “Safe Harbor” Rule Changed Everything Online. Now It’s Changing Itself

One reason platform-based businesses are able to thrive on the Internet is an obscure provision of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 known as Section 230. Section 230 absolves intermediaries — whether blog-hosting services, apartment-sharing apps, or restaurant review sites — from being responsible for what users post. With this absolution, much is possible; without it, the digital world as we know it starts to dissolve at the core.

But Section 230’s “safe harbor” is in trouble today, writes Christopher Zara (Backchannel). Creative judges are chipping away at it as local governments tussle with companies like Airbnb and Uber that use it as a shield. And angry users blame it for giving platform owners an excuse not to crack down on harassment and abuse. “What began as a provision to promote the growth of an emerging technology is now a legal tool to protect the business interests of the powerful,” Zara writes.

Ironically, as Sen. Ron Wyden (who co-authored Section 230 while he was in the House) reminds us in the Backchannel piece, the “safe harbor” wasn’t only meant to immunize platform providers from liability. It was also designed to make it possible for them to police their platforms without fear. Before Section 230, if you tried to enforce standards and take down posts that violated them, the courts viewed you as a publisher and held you responsible for all the content on your site. After Section 230, you were free to enforce rules without fearing lawsuits. That’s one less excuse for not doing a better job of routing the trolls.

A Startup Solves the Medicaid Data Puzzle

The giant federal healthcare payment system known as Medicaid has a different face in each state. That means assembling and interpreting data on cost and treatment effectiveness across the system is costly and slow. Enter Nuna, a San Francisco startup that did the hard work of wiring up Medicaid data from all 50 states so government and academic researchers can make use of it (The New York Times).

Medicaid benefits help 74 million Americans. One of them was Nuna founder Jini Kim’s autistic brother, whose monthly seizures ran up massive healthcare bills for their family. Kim is a Google alum who participated in the rescue of the floundering Healthcare.gov website before starting Nuna. The company now has 110 employees and has raised $90 million to take the lessons it learned from its work with Medicaid and apply them to making private healthcare plans more effective and efficient.

The Resistance Recruits Some Engineers

When it comes to president-elect Trump, the tech industry continues to be split between top and bottom. CEOs take meetings with Trump and weigh working with him. Meanwhile, some rank-and-file engineers and designers talk about ways to form a “resistance” at meetings like last week’s Tech Solidarity (Recode).

Activism among tech workers hasn’t been the norm, historically, and the industry is known for its hostility to labor organizing. But “Trump’s election has awakened the nerdy set to a kind of inchoate activism,” writes Tess Townsend. Though the turnout of 150 at the Tech Solidarity event was modest, its simple existence could be a sign of changing times. Tech employers who choose to work closely with the Trump administration on some of its anti-immigrant proposals may find a “resistance” in their own workforce.


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