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Facebook Portal adds games and web browser amidst mediocre Amazon reviews

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, facebook messenger, Facebook Portal, Gadgets, hardware, Media, privacy, smart displays, Social, TC, Video | No Comments

After receiving a flogging from privacy critics, Facebook is scrambling to make its smart display video chat screen Portal more attractive to buyers. Today Facebook is announcing the addition of a web browser, plus some of Messenger’s Instant Games like Battleship, Draw Something, Sudoku and Words With Friends. ABC News and CNN are adding content to Portal, which now also has a manual zoom mode for its auto-zooming smart camera so you can zero in on a particular thing in view. Facebook has also added new augmented reality Story Time tales, seasonal AR masks, in-call music sharing through iHeartRadio beyond Spotify and Pandora that already offer it and nickname calling so you can say “Hey Portal, call Mom.”

But the question remains who’s buying? Facebook is already discounting the 10-inch-screen Portal and 15-inch Portal+. Formerly $100 off if you buy two, Facebook is still offering $50 off just one until Christmas Eve as part of a suspiciously long Black Friday Sale. That doesn’t signal this thing is flying off the shelves. We don’t have sales figures, but Portal has a 3.4 rating on Amazon, while Portal+ has a 3.6 — both trailing the 4.2 rating of Amazon’s own Echo Show’s 2. Users are griping about the lack of Amazon Video support for Ring doorbells, not receiving calls and, of course, the privacy implications.

Personally, I’ve found Portal+ to be competent in the five weeks since launch. The big screen is great as a smart photo frame and video calls look great. But Alexa and Facebook’s own voice assistant have a tough time dividing up functionality, and sometimes I can’t get either to play a specific song on Spotify, pause or change volume or other activities my Google Home has no trouble with. Facebook said it was hoping to add Google Assistant to Portal, but there’s no progress on that front yet.

The browser will be a welcome addition, and allow Facebook to sidestep some of the issues around its thin app platform. While it recently added a Smart TV version of YouTube, now users can access lots of services without those developers having to commit to building something for Portal given its uncertain future.

The hope seems to be that mainstream users who aren’t glued to the tech press where Facebook is constantly skewered might be drawn in by these device’s flashy screens and the admittedly impressive auto-zooming camera. But to overcome the brand tax levied by all of Facebook’s privacy scandals, Portal must be near perfect. Without the native apps for popular video providers like Netflix and Hulu, consistent voice recognition and more unique features missing from competing smart displays, the fear of Facebook’s surveillance may be outweighing people’s love for shiny new gadgets.

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This early GDPR adtech strike puts the spotlight on consent

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Android, Apps, artificial intelligence, China, data processing, data protection, Europe, european union, Facebook, Fidzup, GDPR, General Data Protection Regulation, Google, location based services, mobile advertising, mobile device, online advertising, privacy, retail, smartphone, TC, terms of service | No Comments

What does consent as a valid legal basis for processing personal data look like under Europe’s updated privacy rules? It may sound like an abstract concern but for online services that rely on things being done with user data in order to monetize free-to-access content this is a key question now the region’s General Data Protection Regulation is firmly fixed in place.

The GDPR is actually clear about consent. But if you haven’t bothered to read the text of the regulation, and instead just go and look at some of the self-styled consent management platforms (CMPs) floating around the web since May 25, you’d probably have trouble guessing it.

Confusing and/or incomplete consent flows aren’t yet extinct, sadly. But it’s fair to say those that don’t offer full opt-in choice are on borrowed time.

Because if your service or app relies on obtaining consent to process EU users’ personal data — as many free at the point-of-use, ad-supported apps do — then the GDPR states consent must be freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous.

That means you can’t bundle multiple uses for personal data under a single opt-in.

Nor can you obfuscate consent behind opaque wording that doesn’t actually specify the thing you’re going to do with the data.

You also have to offer users the choice not to consent. So you cannot pre-tick all the consent boxes that you really wish your users would freely choose — because you have to actually let them do that.

It’s not rocket science but the pushback from certain quarters of the adtech industry has been as awfully predictable as it’s horribly frustrating.

This has not gone unnoticed by consumers either. Europe’s Internet users have been filing consent-based complaints thick and fast this year. And a lot of what is being claimed as ‘GDPR compliant’ right now likely is not.

So, some six months in, we’re essentially in a holding pattern waiting for the regulatory hammers to come down.

But if you look closely there are some early enforcement actions that show some consent fog is starting to shift.

Yes, we’re still waiting on the outcomes of major consent-related complaints against tech giants. (And stockpile popcorn to watch that space for sure.)

But late last month French data protection watchdog, the CNIL, announced the closure of a formal warning it issued this summer against drive-to-store adtech firm, Fidzup — saying it was satisfied it was now GDPR compliant.

Such a regulatory stamp of approval is obviously rare this early in the new legal regime.

So while Fidzup is no adtech giant its experience still makes an interesting case study — showing how the consent line was being crossed; how, working with CNIL, it was able to fix that; and what being on the right side of the law means for a (relatively) small-scale adtech business that relies on consent to enable a location-based mobile marketing business.

From zero to GDPR hero?

Fidzup’s service works like this: It installs kit inside (or on) partner retailers’ physical stores to detect the presence of user-specific smartphones. At the same time it provides an SDK to mobile developers to track app users’ locations, collecting and sharing the advertising ID and wi-fi ID of users’ smartphone (which, along with location, are judged personal data under GDPR.)

Those two elements — detectors in physical stores; and a personal data-gathering SDK in mobile apps — come together to power Fidzup’s retail-focused, location-based ad service which pushes ads to mobile users when they’re near a partner store. The system also enables it to track ad-to-store conversions for its retail partners.

The problem Fidzup had, back in July, was that after an audit of its business the CNIL deemed it did not have proper consent to process users’ geolocation data to target them with ads.

Fidzup says it had thought its business was GDPR compliant because it took the view that app publishers were the data processors gathering consent on its behalf; the CNIL warning was a wake up call that this interpretation was incorrect — and that it was responsible for the data processing and so also for collecting consents.

The regulator found that when a smartphone user installed an app containing Fidzup’s SDK they were not informed that their location and mobile device ID data would be used for ad targeting, nor the partners Fidzup was sharing their data with.

CNIL also said users should have been clearly informed before data was collected — so they could choose to consent — instead of information being given via general app conditions (or in store posters), as was the case, after the fact of the processing.

It also found users had no choice to download the apps without also getting Fidzup’s SDK, with use of such an app automatically resulting in data transmission to partners.

Fidzup’s approach to consent had also only been asking users to consent to the processing of their geolocation data for the specific app they had downloaded — not for the targeted ad purposes with retail partners which is the substance of the firm’s business.

So there was a string of issues. And when Fidzup was hit with the warning the stakes were high, even with no monetary penalty attached. Because unless it could fix the core consent problem, the 2014-founded startup might have faced going out of business. Or having to change its line of business entirely.

Instead it decided to try and fix the consent problem by building a GDPR-compliant CMP — spending around five months liaising with the regulator, and finally getting a green light late last month.

A core piece of the challenge, as co-founder and CEO Olivier Magnan-Saurin tells it, was how to handle multiple partners in this CMP because its business entails passing data along the chain of partners — each new use and partner requiring opt-in consent.

“The first challenge was to design a window and a banner for multiple data buyers,” he tells TechCrunch. “So that’s what we did. The challenge was to have something okay for the CNIL and GDPR in terms of wording, UX etc. And, at the same time, some things that the publisher will allow to and will accept to implement in his source code to display to his users because he doesn’t want to scare them or to lose too much.

“Because they get money from the data that we buy from them. So they wanted to get the maximum money that they can, because it’s very difficult for them to live without the data revenue. So the challenge was to reconcile the need from the CNIL and the GDPR and from the publishers to get something acceptable for everyone.”

As a quick related aside, it’s worth noting that Fidzup does not work with the thousands of partners an ad exchange or demand-side platform most likely would be.

Magnan-Saurin tells us its CMP lists 460 partners. So while that’s still a lengthy list to have to put in front of consumers — it’s not, for example, the 32,000 partners of another French adtech firm, Vectaury, which has also recently been on the receiving end of an invalid consent ruling from the CNIL.

In turn, that suggests the ‘Fidzup fix’, if we can call it that, only scales so far; adtech firms that are routinely passing millions of people’s data around thousands of partners look to have much more existential problems under GDPR — as we’ve reported previously re: the Vectaury decision.

No consent without choice

Returning to Fidzup, its fix essentially boils down to actually offering people a choice over each and every data processing purpose, unless it’s strictly necessary for delivering the core app service the consumer was intending to use.

Which also means giving app users the ability to opt out of ads entirely — and not be penalized by not being able to use the app features itself.

In short, you can’t bundle consent. So Fidzup’s CMP unbundles all the data purposes and partners to offer users the option to consent or not.

“You can unselect or select each purpose,” says Magnan-Saurin of the now compliant CMP. “And if you want only to send data for, I don’t know, personalized ads but you don’t want to send the data to analyze if you go to a store or not, you can. You can unselect or select each consent. You can also see all the buyers who buy the data. So you can say okay I’m okay to send the data to every buyer but I can also select only a few or none of them.”

“What the CNIL ask is very complicated to read, I think, for the final user,” he continues. “Yes it’s very precise and you can choose everything etc. But it’s very complete and you have to spend some time to read everything. So we were [hoping] for something much shorter… but now okay we have something between the initial asking for the CNIL — which was like a big book — and our consent collection before the warning which was too short with not the right information. But still it’s quite long to read.”

Fidzup’s CNIL approved GDPR-compliant consent management platform

“Of course, as a user, I can refuse everything. Say no, I don’t want my data to be collected, I don’t want to send my data. And I have to be able, as a user, to use the app in the same way as if I accept or refuse the data collection,” he adds.

He says the CNIL was very clear on the latter point — telling it they could not require collection of geolocation data for ad targeting for usage of the app.

“You have to provide the same service to the user if he accepts or not to share his data,” he emphasizes. “So now the app and the geolocation features [of the app] works also if you refuse to send the data to advertisers.”

This is especially interesting in light of the ‘forced consent’ complaints filed against tech giants Facebook and Google earlier this year.

These complaints argue the companies should (but currently do not) offer an opt-out of targeted advertising, because behavioural ads are not strictly necessary for their core services (i.e. social networking, messaging, a smartphone platform etc).

Indeed, data gathering for such non-core service purposes should require an affirmative opt-in under GDPR. (An additional GDPR complaint against Android has also since attacked how consent is gathered, arguing it’s manipulative and deceptive.)

Asked whether, based on his experience working with the CNIL to achieve GDPR compliance, it seems fair that a small adtech firm like Fidzup has had to offer an opt-out when a tech giant like Facebook seemingly doesn’t, Magnan-Saurin tells TechCrunch: “I’m not a lawyer but based on what the CNIL asked us to be in compliance with the GDPR law I’m not sure that what I see on Facebook as a user is 100% GDPR compliant.”

“It’s better than one year ago but [I’m still not sure],” he adds. “Again it’s only my feeling as a user, based on the experience I have with the French CNIL and the GDPR law.”

Facebook of course maintains its approach is 100% GDPR compliant.

Even as data privacy experts aren’t so sure.

One thing is clear: If the tech giant was forced to offer an opt out for data processing for ads it would clearly take a big chunk out of its business — as a sub-set of users would undoubtedly say no to Zuckerberg’s “ads”. (And if European Facebook users got an ads opt out you can bet Americans would very soon and very loudly demand the same, so…)

Bridging the privacy gap

In Fidzup’s case, complying with GDPR has had a major impact on its business because offering a genuine choice means it’s not always able to obtain consent. Magnan-Saurin says there is essentially now a limit on the number of device users advertisers can reach because not everyone opts in for ads.

Although, since it’s been using the new CMP, he says a majority are still opting in (or, at least, this is the case so far) — showing one consent chart report with a ~70:30 opt-in rate, for example.

He expresses the change like this: “No one in the world can say okay I have 100% of the smartphones in my data base because the consent collection is more complete. No one in the world, even Facebook or Google, could say okay, 100% of the smartphones are okay to collect from them geolocation data. That’s a huge change.”

“Before that there was a race to the higher reach. The biggest number of smartphones in your database,” he continues. “Today that’s not the point.”

Now he says the point for adtech businesses with EU users is figuring out how to extrapolate from the percentage of user data they can (legally) collect to the 100% they can’t.

And that’s what Fidzup has been working on this year, developing machine learning algorithms to try to bridge the data gap so it can still offer its retail partners accurate predictions for tracking ad to store conversions.

“We have algorithms based on the few thousand stores that we equip, based on the few hundred mobile advertising campaigns that we have run, and we can understand for a store in London in… sports, fashion, for example, how many visits we can expect from the campaign based on what we can measure with the right consent,” he says. “That’s the first and main change in our market; the quantity of data that we can get in our database.”

“Now the challenge is to be as accurate as we can be without having 100% of real data — with the consent, and the real picture,” he adds. “The accuracy is less… but not that much. We have a very, very high standard of quality on that… So now we can assure the retailers that with our machine learning system they have nearly the same quality as they had before.

“Of course it’s not exactly the same… but it’s very close.”

Having a CMP that’s had regulatory ‘sign-off’, as it were, is something Fidzup is also now hoping to turn into a new bit of additional business.

“The second change is more like an opportunity,” he suggests. “All the work that we have done with CNIL and our publishers we have transferred it to a new product, a CMP, and we offer today to all the publishers who ask to use our consent management platform. So for us it’s a new product — we didn’t have it before. And today we are the only — to my knowledge — the only company and the only CMP validated by the CNIL and GDPR compliant so that’s useful for all the publishers in the world.”

It’s not currently charging publishers to use the CMP but will be seeing whether it can turn it into a paid product early next year.

How then, after months of compliance work, does Fidzup feel about GDPR? Does it believe the regulation is making life harder for startups vs tech giants — as is sometimes suggested, with claims put forward by certain lobby groups that the law risks entrenching the dominance of better resourced tech giants. Or does he see any opportunities?

In Magnan-Saurin’s view, six months in to GDPR European startups are at an R&D disadvantage vs tech giants because U.S. companies like Facebook and Google are not (yet) subject to a similarly comprehensive privacy regulation at home — so it’s easier for them to bag up user data for whatever purpose they like.

Though it’s also true that U.S. lawmakers are now paying earnest attention to the privacy policy area at a federal level. (And Google’s CEO faced a number of tough questions from Congress on that front just this week.)

“The fact is Facebook-Google they own like 90% of the revenue in mobile advertising in the world. And they are American. So basically they can do all their research and development on, for example, American users without any GDPR regulation,” he says. “And then apply a pattern of GDPR compliance and apply the new product, the new algorithm, everywhere in the world.

“As a European startup I can’t do that. Because I’m a European. So once I begin the research and development I have to be GDPR compliant so it’s going to be longer for Fidzup to develop the same thing as an American… But now we can see that GDPR might be beginning a ‘world thing’ — and maybe Facebook and Google will apply the GDPR compliance everywhere in the world. Could be. But it’s their own choice. Which means, for the example of the R&D, they could do their own research without applying the law because for now U.S. doesn’t care about the GDPR law, so you’re not outlawed if you do R&D without applying GDPR in the U.S. That’s the main difference.”

He suggests some European startups might relocate R&D efforts outside the region to try to workaround the legal complexity around privacy.

“If the law is meant to bring the big players to better compliance with privacy I think — yes, maybe it goes in this way. But the first to suffer is the European companies, and it becomes an asset for the U.S. and maybe the Chinese… companies because they can be quicker in their innovation cycles,” he suggests. “That’s a fact. So what could happen is maybe investors will not invest that much money in Europe than in U.S. or in China on the marketing, advertising data subject topics. Maybe even the French companies will put all the R&D in the U.S. and destroy some jobs in Europe because it’s too complicated to do research on that topics. Could be impacts. We don’t know yet.”

But the fact of GDPR enforcement having — perhaps inevitably — started small, with so far a small bundle of warnings against relative data minnows, rather than any swift action against the industry dominating adtech giants, that’s being felt as yet another inequality at the startup coalface.

“What’s sure is that the CNIL started to send warnings not to Google or Facebook but to startups. That’s what I can see,” he says. “Because maybe it’s easier to see I’m working on GDPR and everything but the fact is the law is not as complicated for Facebook and Google as it is for the small and European companies.”

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Facebook Watch is finally growing as payouts get spread thin

Posted by | Apps, Entertainment, Facebook, Facebook Watch, Facebook Watch Party, Fidji Simo, Media, Mobile, Social, streaming video, TC | No Comments

Both Facebook Watch and Instagram’s IGTV have yet to become superstar video platforms, leaving Facebook at risk as more people seek streaming entertainment instead of status updates. So today Facebook is trying to build some buzz for Watch with new stats and rollouts. The free video hub that combines original content, sports and cult favorite TV shows like Firefly now has 400 million users watching at least one minute per month. That’s not a ton of engagement amongst a wide audience. But on the brighter side, there are 75 million users watching at least one minute per day with a much more promising average of 20 minutes per day.

Though that’s just 5 percent of Facebook’s 1.5 billion daily users, it indicates that if Facebook can get people hooked on its ad-supported shows, it could squeeze serious viewing time out of them. Just four months ago, Facebook was saying that only 50 million people spent at least 1 minute per month on Watch, so it’s making strong progress.

Watch is now available worldwide on desktop and Facebook Lite, as well as the main Facebook app. And it’s rolling out ad breaks to 40 countries after an initial launch in five in August. It’s also renewing four shows for a second season: Huda BossFive PointsSacred Lies & Sorry For Your Loss.

But The Information reports that news media executives feel that while some shows are getting satisfactory viewership, ad revenue has been underwhelming. Six months ago, Facebook commissioned news programs from outlets like CNN and BuzzFeed. Facebook reportedly now plans to pay news video content producers less per show as it seeks to spread the same $90 million budget across more programs, potentially with a greater focus on international markets. That cut-back could make producing some shows tough, but at least the execs believe Facebook understands it must prioritize monetization for its content partners.

To the end, Facebook plans to offer more options for advertisers like more targeting capabilities, and expanding its In-Stream Reserve premium ad inventory inside the top-quality Watch shows. For individual video creators, Ad Breaks will become more widely available, including within game streams from esports stars. Facebook is also planning to expand its Brand Collabs Manager to additional countries so creators can get hooked up with sponsorship deals, and let more creators sign up fans for Patreon-style subscription payments.

The viewing stats have likely been bolstered by the addition of all episodes of Joss Whedon’s old TV shows Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly that users can binge watch for hours on end; indeed, 12 million Watch Party group video sessions have been launched to date, helping shows go viral. Facebook is now testing live picture-in-picture commentating that could let actors host viewing parties that feel like you’re sitting in the living room beside them. Facebook’s VP of video Fidji Simo writes that “With Facebook Watch, we set out to demonstrate what it looks like to build deep bonds through watching online video, instead of just having a passive viewing experience.”

Simo also notes that “People can find videos on Facebook in a number of different places — Watch, News Feed, Search, Pages and more — and all of these can feel different. We want to make the experience of watching video feel immersive no matter where you discovered it. As part of this effort, we’ll be testing a few things in the coming months, like creating a darker background whenever you immerse yourself into a video on mobile.”

Facebook has yet to concentrate its funding on a blockbuster tentpole video series — its Game of Thrones or House of Cards. The closest thing it has is the Elizabeth Olsen show Sorry For Your Loss, though viewership has been somewhat weak. Next year Facebook Watch will debut a revived and social media-infused web version of MTV’s Real World. But tapping its deep pockets to pay for one must-see original scripted series could help wedge Watch into people’s lives.

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What China searched for in 2018: World Cup, trade war, Apple

Posted by | Android, Apple, artificial intelligence, Asia, Baidu, China, Entertainment, Facebook, Google, huawei, iQiyi, Netflix, oppo, producer, Qualcomm, quantum computing, search engine, shenzhen, smartphone, TC, Tencent, world cup | No Comments

Soon after Google unveiled the top trends in what people searched for in 2018, Baidu published what captivated the Chinese in a parallel online universe, where most of the West’s mainstream tech services, including Google and Facebook, are inaccessible.

China’s top search engine put together the report “based on trillions of trending queries” to present a “social collective memory” of internet users, said Baidu; 802 million people have come online in China as of August, and many of them use Baidu to look things up daily.

Overall, Chinese internet users were transfixed on a mix of sports events, natural disasters, politics and entertainment, a pattern that also prevails in Google’s year-in-search. On Baidu, the most popular queries of the year are:

  1. World Cup: China shares its top search with the rest of the world. Despite China’s lackluster performance in the tournament, World Cup managed to capture a massive Chinese fan base who supported an array of foreign teams. People filled bars in big cities at night to watch the heart-thumping matches, and many even trekked north to Russia to show their support.
  2. U.S.-China trade war: The runner-up comes as no surprise, given the escalating conflict between the world’s two largest economies. A series of events have stoked more fears of the stand-off, including the arrest of Huawei’s financial chief.
  3. Typhoon Mangkhut: The massive tropical cyclone swept across the Pacific Ocean in September, leaving the Philippines and South China in shambles. Shenzhen, the Chinese city dubbed the Silicon Valley for hardware, reportedly submitted more than $20.4 million in damage claims after the storm.
  4. Apple launch: The American smartphone giant is still getting a lot of attention in China even as local Android competitors like Huawei and Oppo chip away at its market share. Apple is also fighting a legal battle with chipmaker Qualcomm, which wanted the former to stop selling certain smartphone models in China.
  5. The story of Yanxi Palace: The historical drama of backstabbing concubines drew record-breaking views for its streamer and producer iQiyi, China’s answer to Netflix that floated in the U.S. in February. The 70-episode show was watched not only in China but also across more than 70 countries around the world.
  6. Produce 101: The talent show in which 101 young women race to be the best performer is one of Tencent Video’s biggest hits of the year, but its reach has gone beyond its targeted young audience as it popularized a meme, which made it to No. 9 on this list.
  7. Skr: A buzzword courtesy of pop idol Kris Wu, who extensively used it on a whim during iQiyi’s rap competition “Rap of China,” prompting his fans and internet users to bestow it with myriad interpretations.
  8. Li Yong passed away: The sudden death of the much-loved television host after he fought a 17-month battle with cancer stirred an outpouring of grief on social media.
  9. Koi: A colored variety of carps, the fish is associated with good luck in Chinese culture. Yang Chaoyue, a Produce 101 contestant whom the audience believed to be below average surprisingly rose to fame and has since been compared to a koi.
  10.  Esports: Professional gaming has emerged from the underground to become a source of national pride recently after a Chinese team championed the League of Legend finals, an event regarded as the Olympics for esports.

In addition to the overall ranking, Baidu also listed popular terms by category, with staple areas like domestic affairs alongside those with a local flavor, such as events that inspire national pride or are tear-jerking.

This was also the first year that Baidu added a category dedicated to AI-related keywords. The search giant, which itself has pivoted to go all in AI and has invested heavily in autonomous driving, said the technology “has not only become a nationwide buzzword but also a key engine in transforming lives across the globe.” In 2018, Chinese people were keen to learn about these AI terms: robots, chips, internet of things, smart speakers, autonomous driving, face recognition, quantum computing, unmanned vehicles, World Artificial Intelligence Conference and quantum mechanics.

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Facebook relaunches search ads to offset slowing revenue

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Apps, Facebook, Facebook ads, Mobile, Social, TC | No Comments

It’s an ad duopoly battle. Facebook is starting to test search ads in its search results and Marketplace, directly competing with Google’s AdWords. Facebook first tried Sponsored Results back in 2012 but eventually shut down the product in 2013. Now it’s going to let a small set of automotive, retail and e-commerce industry advertisers show users ads on the search results page on mobile in the U.S. and Canada.

They’ll be repurposed News Feed ads featuring a headline, image, copy text and a link in the static image or carousel format that can point users to external websites. Facebook declined to share screenshots as it says the exact design is still evolving. Facebook may expand search ads to more countries based on the test’s performance.

The reintroduction of search ads could open an important new revenue stream at a time when Facebook’s revenue growth is quickly decelerating as it runs out of News Feed ad space, the Stories format that advertisers are still adapting is poised to overtake feed sharing on social apps and users shift their time elsewhere. In Q3 2018, revenue grew 33 percent year-over-year, but that’s far slower than the 49 percent YOY gain it had a year ago, and the 59 percent from Q3 2016. While 33 percent is still relatively swift for a 14-year-old company and Facebook is far from in existential crisis, the revenue growth rate has been the focus of this year’s earnings calls and sagging projections about it have caused massive slides in Facebook’s share price.

Opening up new ad inventory for search could reinvigorate the sagging revenue growth rate that, combined with Facebook’s privacy and security scandals, has put intense pressure on Facebook’s leaders Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg.

Facebook’s revenue growth rate has slowed significantly over the past two years

“We’re running a small test to place ads in Facebook search results, and we’ll be evaluating whether these ads are beneficial for people and businesses before deciding whether to expand it,” Facebook product manager Zoheb Hajiyani told TechCrunch in a statement. The announcement of the search ads comes as Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai is under fire from Congress over data privacy, though the move could help Google look less like it has a monopoly in search.

Back in 2012, Facebook desperately sought extra revenue streams following its botched IPO. Sponsored Results let game companies, retailers and more inject links to their Facebook apps, Pages and posts as ads in the search type-ahead results. Since advertisers could target searches for specific other Pages and apps, brands and game developers often tried to swoop in and steal traffic from their competitors. For example, dating app Match.com could target searches for competitor OkCupid and appear above its results. Facebook isn’t allowing advertisers to be quite as cutthroat with this test.

Facebook’s 2012 Sponsored Results ads let competitors swoop on each other’s traffic

With the relaunch, advertisers with access will be able to simply extend their existing News Feed ads to the new “Search” placement through the Facebook Ads Manager, similar to how they’d pick Facebook Audience Network or Instagram. No video ads will be allowed, and search ads won’t appear on desktop. Marketplace search ads will appear on iOS and Android, while Facebook search ads are only testing on Android. For now, advertisers won’t pick specific keywords to advertise against, and instead may appear in search terms related to auto or retail topics. Still, the placement will let advertisers dive deeper down the conversion funnel to reach people who might already have intent to buy something and fulfill that demand. Facebook’s News Feed ads (other than those retargeted based on web browsing) are better for demand generation, and sit higher in the funnel reaching users who don’t know what they want yet.

Ads will feature a “Sponsored” tag, and are subject to the same transparency controls around “Why Am I Seeing This?” Facebook plans to evaluate the benefits for users and advertisers in order to determine whether to roll out the ads to more countries and categories. Users will not be able to opt out of seeing search ads. They can “hide” ads using the drop-down arrow as with News Feed ads, but that won’t prevent different ones from showing up in search later.

Facebook’s share of the $279.56 billion total worldwide digital ad market will grow to 19.5 percent this year, trailing No. 1 Google, which has 31.5 percent. After gaining multiple percentage points of share the last few years, eMarketer estimated Facebook’s cut of total digital ad spend would fall to around 1 percent the next two years. Unlocking search ad inventory could perk up those projections. Facebook would only need to hit 3.3 percent of total search ad share to surpass Microsoft for the No. 3 spot, or 6.5 percent to top Chinese search engine Baidu.

One major concern is that Facebook already collects as much information as possible about people and their behavior to target its ads. With the reintroduction of search ads, it’s even more incentivized to gather what we do online, what we buy offline and who we are.

Facebook will have to balance the injection of the ads with remaining an easy way to search for friends, content, businesses and more. Search is far from the core of Facebook’s offering, where users typically browse the News Feed for serendipitous content discovery rather than go looking for something specific. The most common searches are likely for friends’ names which won’t be great ad candidates. But given how accustomed users are to search ads on Google, this new revenue stream could help Facebook boost its numbers without too much disruption to its service.

[Updated with context on Facebook’s revenue growth rate]

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FB QVC? Facebook tries Live video shopping

Posted by | Apps, craigslist, eBay, eCommerce, Facebook, Facebook Ecommerce, Facebook Live, Facebook Marketplace, Facebook Video, Mobile, payments, Social, TC | No Comments

Want to run your own home shopping network? Facebook is now testing a Live video feature for merchants that lets them demo and describe their items for viewers. Customers can screenshot something they want to buy and use Messenger to send it to the seller, who can then request payment right through the chat app.

Facebook confirms the new shopping feature is currently in testing with a limited set of Pages in Thailand, which has been a testbed for shopping features. The option was first spotted by social media and reputation manager Jeff Higgins, and re-shared by Matt Navarra and Social Media Today. But now Facebook is confirming the test’s existence and providing additional details.

The company tells me it had heard feedback from the community in Thailand that Live video helped sellers demonstrate how items could be used or worn, and provided richer understanding than just using photos. Users also told Facebook that Live’s interactivity let customers instantly ask questions and get answers about product specifications and details. Facebook has looked to Thailand to test new commerce experiences like home rentals in Marketplace, as the country’s citizens were quick to prove how Facebook Groups could be used for peer-to-peer shopping. “Thailand is one of our most active Marketplace communities” says Mayank Yadav, Facebook product manager for Marketplace.

Now it’s running the Live shopping test, which allows Pages to notify fans that they’re broadcasting to “showcase products and connect with your customers.” Merchants can take reservations and request payments through Messenger. Facebook tells me it doesn’t currently have plans to add new partners or expand the feature. But some sellers without access are being invited to join a waitlist for the feature. It also says it’s working closely with its test partners to gather feedback and iterate on the live video shopping experience, which would seem to indicate it’s interested in opening the feature more widely if it performs well.

Facebook doesn’t take a cut of payments through Messenger, but the feature could still help earn the company money at a time when it’s seeking revenue streams beyond News Feed ads as it runs out of space there, Stories take over as the top media form and user growth plateaus. Hooking people on video viewing helps Facebook show lucrative video ads. The more that Facebook can train users to buy and sell things on its app, the better the conversion rates will be for businesses, and the more they’ll be willing to spend on ads. Facebook could also convince sellers who broadcast Live to buy its new Marketplace ad units to promote their wares. And Facebook is happy to snatch any use case from the rest of the internet, whether it’s long-form video viewing or job applications or shopping to boost time on site and subsequent ad views.

Increasingly, Facebook is setting its sights on Craigslist, Etsy and eBay. Those commerce platforms have failed to keep up with new technologies like video and lack the trust generated by Facebook’s real-name policy and social graph. A few years ago, selling something online meant typing up a generic description and maybe uploading a photo. Soon it could mean starring in your own infomercial.

[PostScript: And a Facebook home shopping network could work perfectly on its new countertop smart display Portal.]

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Seized cache of Facebook docs raise competition and consent questions

Posted by | Android, api, competition, Damian Collins, data protection law, DCMS committee, Developer, Europe, european union, Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, Onavo, Policy, privacy, Six4Three, Social, social network, terms of service, United Kingdom, vpn | No Comments

A UK parliamentary committee has published the cache of Facebook documents it dramatically seized last week.

The documents were obtained by a legal discovery process by a startup that’s suing the social network in a California court in a case related to Facebook changing data access permissions back in 2014/15.

The court had sealed the documents but the DCMS committee used rarely deployed parliamentary powers to obtain them from the Six4Three founder, during a business trip to London.

You can read the redacted documents here — all 250 pages of them.

In a series of tweets regarding the publication, committee chair Damian Collins says he believes there is “considerable public interest” in releasing them.

“They raise important questions about how Facebook treats users data, their policies for working with app developers, and how they exercise their dominant position in the social media market,” he writes.

“We don’t feel we have had straight answers from Facebook on these important issues, which is why we are releasing the documents. We need a more public debate about the rights of social media users and the smaller businesses who are required to work with the tech giants. I hope that our committee investigation can stand up for them.”

The committee has been investigating online disinformation and election interference for the best part of this year, and has been repeatedly frustrated in its attempts to extract answers from Facebook.

But it is protected by parliamentary privilege — hence it’s now published the Six4Three files, having waited a week in order to redact certain pieces of personal information.

Collins has included a summary of key issues, as the committee sees them after reviewing the documents, in which he draws attention to six issues.

Here is his summary of the key issues:

  • White Lists Facebook have clearly entered into whitelisting agreements with certain companies, which meant that after the platform changes in 2014/15 they maintained full access to friends data. It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not.

Facebook responded

  • Value of friends data It is clear that increasing revenues from major app developers was one of the key drivers behind the Platform 3.0 changes at Facebook. The idea of linking access to friends data to the financial value of the developers relationship with Facebook is a recurring feature of the documents.

In their response Facebook contends that this was essentially another “cherrypicked” topic and that the company “ultimately settled on a model where developers did not need to purchase advertising to access APIs and we continued to provide the developer platform for free.”

  • Reciprocity Data reciprocity between Facebook and app developers was a central feature in the discussions about the launch of Platform 3.0.
  • Android Facebook knew that the changes to its policies on the Android mobile phone system, which enabled the Facebook app to collect a record of calls and texts sent by the user would be controversial. To mitigate any bad PR, Facebook planned to make it as hard of possible for users to know that this was one of the underlying features of the upgrade of their app.
  • Onavo Facebook used Onavo to conduct global surveys of the usage of mobile apps by customers, and apparently without their knowledge. They used this data to assess not just how many people had downloaded apps, but how often they used them. This knowledge helped them to decide which companies to acquire, and which to treat as a threat.
  • Targeting competitor Apps The files show evidence of Facebook taking aggressive positions against apps, with the consequence that denying them access to data led to the failure of that business.

Update: 11:40am

Facebook has posted a lengthy response (read it here) positing that the “set of documents, by design, tells only one side of the story and omits important context.” They give a blow-by-blow response to Collins’ points below though they are ultimately pretty selective in what they actually address.

Generally they suggest that some of the issues being framed as anti-competitive were in fact designed to prevent “sketchy apps” from operating on the platform. Furthermore, Facebook details that they delete some old call logs on Android, that using “market research” data from Onava is essentially standard practice and that users had the choice whether data was shared reciprocally between FB and developers. In regard to specific competitors’ apps, Facebook appears to have tried to get ahead of this release with their announcement yesterday that it was ending its platform policy of banning apps that “replicate core functionality.” 

The publication of the files comes at an awkward moment for Facebook — which remains on the back foot after a string of data and security scandals, and has just announced a major policy change — ending a long-running ban on apps copying its own platform features.

Albeit the timing of Facebook’s policy shift announcement hardly looks incidental — given Collins said last week the committee would publish the files this week.

The policy in question has been used by Facebook to close down competitors in the past, such as — two years ago — when it cut off style transfer app Prisma’s access to its live-streaming Live API when the startup tried to launch a livestreaming art filter (Facebook subsequently launched its own style transfer filters for Live).

So its policy reversal now looks intended to diffuse regulatory scrutiny around potential antitrust concerns.

But emails in the Six4Three files suggesting that Facebook took “aggressive positions” against competing apps could spark fresh competition concerns.

In one email dated January 24, 2013, a Facebook staffer, Justin Osofsky, discusses Twitter’s launch of its short video clip app, Vine, and says Facebook’s response will be to close off its API access.

As part of their NUX, you can find friends via FB. Unless anyone raises objections, we will shut down their friends API access today. We’ve prepared reactive PR, and I will let Jana know our decision,” he writes. 

Osofsky’s email is followed by what looks like a big thumbs up from Zuckerberg, who replies: “Yup, go for it.”

Also of concern on the competition front is Facebook’s use of a VPN startup it acquired, Onavo, to gather intelligence on competing apps — either for acquisition purposes or to target as a threat to its business.

The files show various Onavo industry charts detailing reach and usage of mobile apps and social networks — with each of these graphs stamped ‘highly confidential’.

Facebook bought Onavo back in October 2013. Shortly after it shelled out $19BN to acquire rival messaging app WhatsApp — which one Onavo chart in the cache indicates was beasting Facebook on mobile, accounting for well over double the daily message sends at that time.

Onavo charts are quite an insight into facebook’s commanding view of the app-based attention marketplace pic.twitter.com/Ezdaxk6ffC

— David Carroll 🦅 (@profcarroll) December 5, 2018

The files also spotlight several issues of concern relating to privacy and data protection law, with internal documents raising fresh questions over how or even whether (in the case of Facebook’s whitelisting agreements with certain developers) it obtained consent from users to process their personal data.

The company is already facing a number of privacy complaints under the EU’s GDPR framework over its use of ‘forced consent‘, given that it does not offer users an opt-out from targeted advertising.

But the Six4Three files look set to pour fresh fuel on the consent fire.

Collins’ fourth line item — related to an Android upgrade — also speaks loudly to consent complaints.

Earlier this year Facebook was forced to deny that it collects calls and SMS data from users of its Android apps without permission. But, as we wrote at the time, it had used privacy-hostile design tricks to sneak expansive data-gobbling permissions past users. So, put simple, people clicked ‘agree’ without knowing exactly what they were agreeing to.

The Six4Three files back up the notion that Facebook was intentionally trying to mislead users.

In one email dated November 15, 2013, from Matt Scutari, manager privacy and public policy, suggests ways to prevent users from choosing to set a higher level of privacy protection, writing: “Matt is providing policy feedback on a Mark Z request that Product explore the possibility of making the Only Me audience setting unsticky. The goal of this change would be to help users avoid inadvertently posting to the Only Me audience. We are encouraging Product to explore other alternatives, such as more aggressive user education or removing stickiness for all audience settings.”

Another awkward trust issue for Facebook which the documents could stir up afresh relates to its repeat claim — including under questions from lawmakers — that it does not sell user data.

In one email from the cache — sent by Mark Zuckerberg, dated October 7, 2012 — the Facebook founder appears to be entertaining the idea of charging developers for “reading anything, including friends”.

Yet earlier this year, when he was asked by a US lawmaker how Facebook makes money, Zuckerberg replied: “Senator, we sell ads.”

He did not include a caveat that he had apparently personally entertained the idea of liberally selling access to user data.

Responding to the publication of the Six4Three documents, a Facebook spokesperson told us:

As we’ve said many times, the documents Six4Three gathered for their baseless case are only part of the story and are presented in a way that is very misleading without additional context. We stand by the platform changes we made in 2015 to stop a person from sharing their friends’ data with developers. Like any business, we had many of internal conversations about the various ways we could build a sustainable business model for our platform. But the facts are clear: we’ve never sold people’s data.

Zuckerberg has repeatedly refused to testify in person to the DCMS committee.

At its last public hearing — which was held in the form of a grand committee comprising representatives from nine international parliaments, all with burning questions for Facebook — the company sent its policy VP, Richard Allan, leaving an empty chair where Zuckerberg’s bum should be.

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Facebook ends platform policy banning apps that copy its features

Posted by | Apps, Developer, Facebook, facebook platform, Facebook Policy, Mobile, Policy, Social, TC | No Comments

Facebook will now freely allow developers to build competitors to its features upon its own platform. Today Facebook announced it will drop Platform Policy section 4.1, which stipulates “Add something unique to the community. Don’t replicate core functionality that Facebook already provides.”

That policy felt pretty disingenuous given how aggressively Facebook has replicated everyone else’s core functionality, from Snapchat to Twitter and beyond. Facebook had previously enforced the policy selectively to hurt competitors that had used its Find Friends or viral distribution features. Apps like Vine, Voxer, MessageMe, Phhhoto and more had been cut off from Facebook’s platform for too closely replicating its video, messaging or GIF creation tools. Find Friends is a vital API that lets users find their Facebook friends within other apps.

The move will significantly reduce the risk of building on the Facebook platform. It could also cast it in a better light in the eyes of regulators. Anyone seeking ways Facebook abuses its dominance will lose a talking point. And by creating a more fair and open platform where developers can build without fear of straying too close to Facebook’s history or road map, it could reinvigorate its developer ecosystem.

A Facebook spokesperson provided this statement to TechCrunch:

We built our developer platform years ago to pave the way for innovation in social apps and services. At that time we made the decision to restrict apps built on top of our platform that replicated our core functionality. These kind of restrictions are common across the tech industry with different platforms having their own variant including YouTube, Twitter, Snap and Apple. We regularly review our policies to ensure they are both protecting people’s data and enabling useful services to be built on our platform for the benefit of the Facebook community. As part of our ongoing review we have decided that we will remove this out of date policy so that our platform remains as open as possible. We think this is the right thing to do as platforms and technology develop and grow.

The change comes after Facebook locked down parts of its platform in April for privacy and security reasons in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Diplomatically, Facebook said it didn’t expect the change to impact its standing with regulators but it’s open to answering their questions.

Earlier in April, I wrote a report on how Facebook used Policy 4.1 to attack competitors it saw gaining traction. The article, “Facebook shouldn’t block you from finding friends on competitors,” advocated for Facebook to make its social graph more portable and interoperable so users could decamp to competitors if they felt they weren’t treated right in order to coerce Facebook to act better.

The policy change will apply retroactively. Old apps that lost Find Friends or other functionality will be able to submit their app for review and, once approved, will regain access.

Friend lists still can’t be exported in a truly interoperable way. But at least now Facebook has enacted the spirit of that call to action. Developers won’t be in danger of losing access to that Find Friends Facebook API for treading in its path.

Below is an excerpt from our previous reporting on how Facebook has previously enforced Platform Policy 4.1 that before today’s change was used to hamper competitors:

  • Voxer was one of the hottest messaging apps of 2012, climbing the charts and raising a $30 million round with its walkie-talkie-style functionality. In early January 2013, Facebook copied Voxer by adding voice messaging into Messenger. Two weeks later, Facebook cut off Voxer’s Find Friends access. Voxer CEO Tom Katis told me at the time that Facebook stated his app with tens of millions of users was a “competitive social network” and wasn’t sharing content back to Facebook. Katis told us he thought that was hypocritical. By June, Voxer had pivoted toward business communications, tumbling down the app charts and leaving Facebook Messenger to thrive.
  • MessageMe had a well-built chat app that was growing quickly after launching in 2013, posing a threat to Facebook Messenger. Shortly before reaching 1 million users, Facebook cut off MessageMe‘s Find Friends access. The app ended up selling for a paltry double-digit millions price tag to Yahoo before disintegrating.
  • Phhhoto and its fate show how Facebook’s data protectionism encompasses Instagram. Phhhoto’s app that let you shoot animated GIFs was growing popular. But soon after it hit 1 million users, it got cut off from Instagram’s social graph in April 2015. Six months later, Instagram launched Boomerang, a blatant clone of Phhhoto. Within two years, Phhhoto shut down its app, blaming Facebook and Instagram. “We watched [Instagram CEO Kevin] Systrom and his product team quietly using PHHHOTO almost a year before Boomerang was released. So it wasn’t a surprise at all . . . I’m not sure Instagram has a creative bone in their entire body.”
  • Vine had a real shot at being the future of short-form video. The day the Twitter-owned app launched, though, Facebook shut off Vine’s Find Friends access. Vine let you share back to Facebook, and its six-second loops you shot in the app were a far cry from Facebook’s heavyweight video file uploader. Still, Facebook cut it off, and by late 2016, Twitter announced it was shutting down Vine.

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Facebook adds free TV shows Buffy, Angel, Firefly to redefine Watch

Posted by | Apps, Entertainment, Facebook, Facebook Watch, firefly, Media, Mobile, Social, TC, Video | No Comments

Facebook hasn’t had a hit show yet for its long-form video hub Watch, so it’s got a new plan: digging up some deceased cult favorites from television. First up, Facebook is making all episodes of Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly free on Facebook Watch. There’ll be simultaneous viewing Watch Parties where fans can live-comment together for Buffy at 3 pm PT today, Angel tomorrow at 12 pm PT and Firefly on Sunday at 12 pm PT. Facebook recruited Buffy star Sarah Michelle Gellar to promote the launch.

These shows aren’t original, and they’re far from exclusive, as they’re included in a Hulu subscription and are available to rent or buy on other platforms. But at least they’re not run-of-the-mill web content. With Facebook’s remake of MTV’s Real World not arriving until Spring 2019, these sci-fi and horror shows are the most high-profile programs available on the free ad-supported streaming service. The hope is that fans of these shows will come get a taste of Watch, and then explore the rest of its programming.

However, Facebook downplayed this as a change is overarching strategy when I asked if it would be licensing more old TV shows. Instead, it’s trying to build a well-rounded mix of content. A Facebook spokesperson provided this statement:

No – this doesn’t reflect a strategy shift. We’re focused on bringing content to Watch that people want to discuss and create a community around — whether that’s live sports like UEFA Champions League in Latin America, compelling shows like Sorry For Your Loss, Queen America and Sacred Lies, or even nostalgia content like Real World reboot we’re bringing to Watch next year. Buffy, Firefly and Angel are pop culture favorites with dedicated fan bases, and we’re excited for the opportunity to bring these shows back in a way that enables fans to watch and discuss together on the same platform.

There’s no guarantee Whedon fans will flock to Watch in droves. [TechCrunch owner] Verizon tried the same thing, bringing Veronica Mars and Babylon 5 to its Go90 streaming service. That failed to move the needle and Go90 eventually shut down. Meanwhile, Watch Party’s simultaneous viewing hasn’t blossomed into a phenomenon, but perhaps bringing the feature to Messenger (which TechCrunch reports Facebook is internally testing) could more naturally spur these social consumption experiences.

Watch has made some progress since its lackluster August 2017 debut. Indeed, 50 million people now spend at least 1 minute per month with Watch. For comparison, more than 18 Snapchat Shows have over 10 million unique viewers per month. Facebook Watch users spend 5X longer watching than on clips discovered on News Feed videos. But Facebook Watch really needs to pour the cash in necessary to secure a tent-pole series — its Game of Thrones or House of Cards. That might mesh well with its new strategy of conceding the younger audience that’s abandoning Facebook in favor of targeting older users, CNBC reported.

With so much free video content floating around and plenty of people already subscribing to Netflix, Hulu and/or HBO, it’s been tough for Watch to gain traction when it’s so far outside the understood Facebook use case. Laying a bed of diverse content is a good baby step, but it needs something truly must-see if it’s going to wedge its way into our viewing habits.

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Facebook exempts news outlets from political ads transparency labels

Posted by | ad transparency, Advertising Tech, Apps, Facebook, Facebook ads, Government, Mobile, Policy, privacy, Social, TC | No Comments

Facebook pissed off journalists earlier this year when it announced that ads run by news publishers to promote their articles involving elected officials, candidates and national issues would have to sport “paid for by…” labels and be included alongside political campaign ads in its ads transparency archive that launched in June, albeit in a separate section. The News Media Alliance — representing 2,000 newspapers, including The New York Times and NewsCorp, plus other new organizations — sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg in June protesting their inclusion. They claimed it would blur the lines between propaganda and journalism, and asked Facebook to exempt news publishers.

Now Facebook has granted that exception. Next year once Facebook has figured out more ways to verify legitimate news organizations that publish with bylines and dates, cite sources and don’t have a history of having stories flagged as false by third-party fact checkers, they’ll no longer have their U.S. ads appear in the Ads Archive. They also won’t have to carry a “Paid for by…” label when they appear in the News Feed or Instagram. News organizations will still have to verify their identity, but not through the political ads process. This exemption will roll out today in the U.K.

The change will also allow news outlets to run “dark post” ads that target specific users but don’t appear on their Pages. This will allow them to secretly test different ad variants without being exposed to potential criticism or competitors looking to copy their ad strategies.

Facebook’s political ads archive of campaign ads will no longer include publications promoting articles about politics or issues

Facebook will be using its recently built news publisher index to which outlets can apply to decide which ad buyers are exempt. That index is up and running in the U.S. and will expand to other countries, but Facebook still wants to build more safeguards against fake news outlets before starting the exemption in the U.S. For now, Facebook is using a third-party list of legitimate U.K. news outlets that’ll be exempted starting today. Jason Kint of publishers association Digital Content Next tells TechCrunch, “We are pleased that Facebook understands and values the important role of news organizations. We have worked cooperatively with Twitter who understood this from the beginning. We look forward to working in a similar fashion with Facebook.”

Facebook’s “Paid for by…” labels will no longer appear on news publishers’ ads on Facebook or Instagram

The change comes as Facebook rolls out enforcement of its political ads transparency rules in the U.K. today. “Now political advertisers must confirm their identity and location, as well as say who paid for the ad, before they can be approved to run political ads on Facebook and/or Instagram,” Facebook tells TechCrunch. These ads will also feature the “Paid for by…” label. Facebook hoped that by self-regulating ads transparency, it might avoid more heavy-handed government regulation, such as through the U.S.’s proposed Honest Ads Act that would bring internet political advertising to parity with transparency rules for television commercials.

The hope is that by determining who is paying for these ads, properly labeling them and exempting journalists, Facebook will be able to better track foreign misinformation campaigns and election interference. Meanwhile, users will have a better understanding of who’s funding the political and issue ads they see on Facebook.

[Update: This story has been updated to reflect that the news publisher exemption won’t roll out for U.S. outlets until next year.]

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