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How Oculus squeezed sophisticated tracking into pipsqueak hardware

Posted by | augmented reality, Facebook, Gadgets, hardware, Oculus, Oculus Quest, TC, Virtual reality | No Comments

Making the VR experience simple and portable was the main goal of the Oculus Quest, and it definitely accomplishes that. But going from things in the room tracking your headset to your headset tracking things in the room was a complex process. I talked with Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer (“Schrep”) about the journey from “outside-in” to “inside-out.”

When you move your head and hands around with a VR headset and controllers, some part of the system has to track exactly where those things are at all times. There are two ways this is generally attempted.

One approach is to have sensors in the room you’re in, watching the devices and their embedded LEDs closely — looking from the outside in. The other is to have the sensors on the headset itself, which watches for signals in the room — looking from the inside out.

Both have their merits, but if you want a system to be wireless, your best bet is inside-out, since you don’t have to wirelessly send signals between the headset and the computer doing the actual position tracking, which can add hated latency to the experience.

Facebook and Oculus set a goal a few years back to achieve not just inside-out tracking, but make it as good or better than the wired systems that run on high-end PCs. And it would have to run anywhere, not just in a set scene with boundaries set by beacons or something, and do so within seconds of putting it on. The result is the impressive Quest headset, which succeeded with flying colors at this task (though it’s not much of a leap in others).

What’s impressive about it isn’t just that it can track objects around it and translate that to an accurate 3D position of itself, but that it can do so in real time on a chip with a fraction of the power of an ordinary computer.

“I’m unaware of any system that’s anywhere near this level of performance,” said Schroepfer. “In the early days there were a lot of debates about whether it would even work or not.”

Our hope is that for the long run, for most consumer applications, it’s going to all be inside-out tracking.

The term for what the headset does is simultaneous localization and mapping, or SLAM. It basically means building a map of your environment in 3D while also figuring out where you are in that map. Naturally robots have been doing this for some time, but they generally use specialized hardware like lidar, and have a more powerful processor at their disposal. All the new headsets would have are ordinary cameras.

“In a warehouse, I can make sure my lighting is right, I can put fiducials on the wall, which are markers that can help reset things if I get errors — that’s like a dramatic simplification of the problem, you know?,” Schroepfer pointed out. “I’m not asking you to put fiducials up on your walls. We don’t make you put QR codes or precisely positioned GPS coordinates around your house.”

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“It’s never seen your living room before, and it just has to work. And in a relatively constrained computing environment — we’ve got a mobile CPU in this thing. And most of that mobile CPU is going to the content, too. The robot isn’t playing Beat Saber at the same time it’s cruising though the warehouse.”

It’s a difficult problem in multiple dimensions, then, which is why the team has been working on it for years. Ultimately, several factors came together. One was simply that mobile chips became powerful enough that something like this is even possible. But Facebook can’t really take credit for that.

More important was the ongoing work in computer vision that Facebook’s AI division has been doing under the eye of Yann LeCun and others there. Machine learning models frontload a lot of the processing necessary for computer vision problems, and the resulting inference engines are lighter weight, if not necessarily well understood. Putting efficient, edge-oriented machine learning to work inched this problem closer to having a possible solution.

Most of the labor, however, went into the complex interactions of the multiple systems that interact in real time to do the SLAM work.

“I wish I could tell you it’s just this really clever formula, but there’s lots of bits to get this to work,” Schroepfer said. “For example, you have an IMU on the system, an inertial measurement unit, and that runs at a very high frequency, maybe 1000 Hz, much higher than the rest of the system [i.e. the sensors, not the processor]. But it has a lot of error. And then we run the tracker and mapper on separate threads. And actually we multi-threaded the mapper, because it’s the most expensive part [i.e. computationally]. Multi-threaded programming is a pain to begin with, but you do it across these three, and then they share data in interesting ways to make it quick.”

Schroepfer caught himself here; “I’d have to spend like three hours to take you through all the grungy bits.”

Part of the process of creating Insight was also extensive testing, for which they used a commercial motion tracking rig as ground truth. They’d track a user playing with the headset and controllers, and using the OptiTrack setup measure the precise motions made.

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Testing with the OptiTrack system

To see how the algorithms and sensing system performed, they’d basically play back the data from that session to a simulated version of it: video of what the camera saw, data from the IMU and any other relevant metrics. If the simulation was close to the ground truth they’d collected externally, good. If it wasn’t, the engineers would adjust the system’s parameters and they’d run the simulation again. Over time, the smaller, more efficient system drew closer and closer to producing the same tracking data the OptiTrack rig had recorded.

Ultimately it needed to be as good or better than the standard Rift headset. Years after the original, no one would buy a headset that was a step down in any way, no matter how much cheaper it was.

“It’s one thing to say, well my error rate compared to ground truth is whatever, but how does it actually manifest in terms of the whole experience?” said Schroepfer. “As we got towards the end of development, we actually had a couple passionate Beat Saber players on the team, and they would play on the Rift and on the Quest. And the goal was, the same person should be able to get the same high score or better. That was a good way to reset our micro-metrics and say, well this is what we actually need to achieve the end experience that people want.”

The computer vision team here, they’re pretty bullish on cameras with really powerful algorithms behind them being the solution to many problems.

It doesn’t hurt that it’s cheaper, too. Lidar is expensive enough that even auto manufacturers are careful how they implement it, and time-of-flight or structured-light approaches like Kinect also bring the cost up. Yet they massively simplify the problem, being 3D sensing tools to begin with.

“What we said was, can we get just as good without that? Because it will dramatically reduce the long-term cost of this product,” he said. “When you’re talking to the computer vision team here, they’re pretty bullish on cameras with really powerful algorithms behind them being the solution to many problems. So our hope is that for the long run, for most consumer applications, it’s going to all be inside-out tracking.”

I pointed out that VR is not considered by all to be a healthy industry, and that technological solutions may not do much to solve a more multi-layered problem.

Schroepfer replied that there are basically three problems facing VR adoption: cost, friction and content. Cost is self-explanatory, but it would be wrong to say it’s gotten a lot cheaper over the years. PlayStation VR established a low-cost entry early on, but “real” VR has remained expensive. Friction is how difficult it is to get from “open the box” to “play a game,” and historically has been a sticking point for VR. Oculus Quest addresses both these issues quite well, being at $400 and, as our review noted, very easy to just pick up and use. All that computer vision work wasn’t for nothing.

Content is still thin on the ground, though. There have been some hits, like Superhot and Beat Saber, but nothing to really draw crowds to the platform (if it can be called that).

“What we’re seeing is, as we get these headsets out and in developers hands, that people come up with all sorts of creative ideas. I think we’re in the early stages — these platforms take some time to marinate,” Schroepfer admitted. “I think everyone should be patient, it’s going to take a while. But this is the way we’re approaching it, we’re just going to keep plugging away, building better content, better experiences, better headsets as fast as we can.”

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Most EU cookie ‘consent’ notices are meaningless or manipulative, study finds

Posted by | Advertising Tech, america, Android, cookies, data processing, data protection, data security, ePrivacy Regulation, Europe, european union, Facebook, France, GDPR, General Data Protection Regulation, Germany, Google, information commissioner's office, instagram, law, online advertising, privacy, spamming, TC, United States, University of Michigan | No Comments

New research into how European consumers interact with the cookie consent mechanisms which have proliferated since a major update to the bloc’s online privacy rules last year casts an unflattering light on widespread manipulation of a system that’s supposed to protect consumer rights.

As Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force in May 2018, bringing in a tough new regime of fines for non-compliance, websites responded by popping up legal disclaimers which signpost visitor tracking activities. Some of these cookie notices even ask for consent to track you.

But many don’t — even now, more than a year later.

The study, which looked at how consumers interact with different designs of cookie pop-ups and how various design choices can nudge and influence people’s privacy choices, also suggests consumers are suffering a degree of confusion about how cookies function, as well as being generally mistrustful of the term ‘cookie’ itself. (With such baked in tricks, who can blame them?)

The researchers conclude that if consent to drop cookies was being collected in a way that’s compliant with the EU’s existing privacy laws only a tiny fraction of consumers would agree to be tracked.

The paper, which we’ve reviewed in draft ahead of publication, is co-authored by academics at Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany, and the University of Michigan in the US — and entitled: (Un)informed Consent: Studying GDPR Consent Notices in the Field.

The researchers ran a number of studies, gathering ~5,000 of cookie notices from screengrabs of leading websites to compile a snapshot (derived from a random sub-sample of 1,000) of the different cookie consent mechanisms in play in order to paint a picture of current implementations.

They also worked with a German ecommerce website over a period of four months to study how more than 82,000 unique visitors to the site interacted with various cookie consent designs which the researchers’ tweaked in order to explore how different defaults and design choices affected individuals’ privacy choices.

Their industry snapshot of cookie consent notices found that the majority are placed at the bottom of the screen (58%); not blocking the interaction with the website (93%); and offering no options other than a confirmation button that does not do anything (86%). So no choice at all then.

A majority also try to nudge users towards consenting (57%) — such as by using ‘dark pattern’ techniques like using a color to highlight the ‘agree’ button (which if clicked accepts privacy-unfriendly defaults) vs displaying a much less visible link to ‘more options’ so that pro-privacy choices are buried off screen.

And while they found that nearly all cookie notices (92%) contained a link to the site’s privacy policy, only a third (39%) mention the specific purpose of the data collection or who can access the data (21%).

The GDPR updated the EU’s long-standing digital privacy framework, with key additions including tightening the rules around consent as a legal basis for processing people’s data — which the regulation says must be specific (purpose limited), informed and freely given for consent to be valid.

Even so, since May last year there has been an outgrown in cookie ‘consent’ mechanisms popping up or sliding atop websites that still don’t offer EU visitors the necessary privacy choices, per the research.

“Given the legal requirements for explicit, informed consent, it is obvious that the vast majority of cookie consent notices are not compliant with European privacy law,” the researchers argue.

“Our results show that a reasonable amount of users are willing to engage with consent notices, especially those who want to opt out or do not want to opt in. Unfortunately, current implementations do not respect this and the large majority offers no meaningful choice.”

The researchers also record a large differential in interaction rates with consent notices — of between 5 and 55% — generated by tweaking positions, options, and presets on cookie notices.

This is where consent gets manipulated — to flip visitors’ preference for privacy.

They found that the more choices offered in a cookie notice, the more likely visitors were to decline the use of cookies. (Which is an interesting finding in light of the vendor laundry lists frequently baked into the so-called “transparency and consent framework” which the industry association, the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), has pushed as the standard for its members to use to gather GDPR consents.)

“The results show that nudges and pre-selection had a high impact on user decisions, confirming previous work,” the researchers write. “It also shows that the GDPR requirement of privacy by default should be enforced to make sure that consent notices collect explicit consent.”

Here’s a section from the paper discussing what they describe as “the strong impact of nudges and pre-selections”:

Overall the effect size between nudging (as a binary factor) and choice was CV=0.50. For example, in the rather simple case of notices that only asked users to confirm that they will be tracked, more users clicked the “Accept” button in the nudge condition, where it was highlighted (50.8% on mobile, 26.9% on desktop), than in the non-nudging condition where “Accept” was displayed as a text link (39.2% m, 21.1% d). The effect was most visible for the category-and vendor-based notices, where all checkboxes were pre-selected in the nudging condition, while they were not in the privacy-by-default version. On the one hand, the pre-selected versions led around 30% of mobile users and 10% of desktop users to accept all third parties. On the other hand, only a small fraction (< 0.1%) allowed all third parties when given the opt-in choice and around 1 to 4 percent allowed one or more third parties (labeled “other” in 4). None of the visitors with a desktop allowed all categories. Interestingly, the number of non-interacting users was highest on average for the vendor-based condition, although it took up the largest part of any screen since it offered six options to choose from.

The key implication is that just 0.1% of site visitors would freely choose to enable all cookie categories/vendors — i.e. when not being forced to do so by a lack of choice or via nudging with manipulative dark patterns (such as pre-selections).

Rising a fraction, to between 1-4%, who would enable some cookie categories in the same privacy-by-default scenario.

“Our results… indicate that the privacy-by-default and purposed-based consent requirements put forth by the GDPR would require websites to use consent notices that would actually lead to less than 0.1 % of active consent for the use of third parties,” they write in conclusion.

They do flag some limitations with the study, pointing out that the dataset they used that arrived at the 0.1% figure is biased — given the nationality of visitors is not generally representative of public Internet users, as well as the data being generated from a single retail site. But they supplemented their findings with data from a company (Cookiebot) which provides cookie notices as a SaaS — saying its data indicated a higher accept all clicks rate but still only marginally higher: Just 5.6%.

Hence the conclusion that if European web users were given an honest and genuine choice over whether or not they get tracked around the Internet, the overwhelming majority would choose to protect their privacy by rejecting tracking cookies.

This is an important finding because GDPR is unambiguous in stating that if an Internet service is relying on consent as a legal basis to process visitors’ personal data it must obtain consent before processing data (so before a tracking cookie is dropped) — and that consent must be specific, informed and freely given.

Yet, as the study confirms, it really doesn’t take much clicking around the regional Internet to find a gaslighting cookie notice that pops up with a mocking message saying by using this website you’re consenting to your data being processed how the site sees fit — with just a single ‘Ok’ button to affirm your lack of say in the matter.

It’s also all too common to see sites that nudge visitors towards a big brightly colored ‘click here’ button to accept data processing — squirrelling any opt outs into complex sub-menus that can sometimes require hundreds of individual clicks to deny consent per vendor.

You can even find websites that gate their content entirely unless or until a user clicks ‘accept’ — aka a cookie wall. (A practice that has recently attracted regulatory intervention.)

Nor can the current mess of cookie notices be blamed on a lack of specific guidance on what a valid and therefore legal cookie consent looks like. At least not any more. Here, for example, is a myth-busting blog which the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) published last month that’s pretty clear on what can and can’t be done with cookies.

For instance on cookie walls the ICO writes: “Using a blanket approach such as this is unlikely to represent valid consent. Statements such as ‘by continuing to use this website you are agreeing to cookies’ is not valid consent under the higher GDPR standard.” (The regulator goes into more detailed advice here.)

While France’s data watchdog, the CNIL, also published its own detailed guidance last month — if you prefer to digest cookie guidance in the language of love and diplomacy.

(Those of you reading TechCrunch back in January 2018 may also remember this sage plain english advice from our GDPR explainer: “Consent requirements for processing personal data are also considerably strengthened under GDPR — meaning lengthy, inscrutable, pre-ticked T&Cs are likely to be unworkable.” So don’t say we didn’t warn you.)

Nor are Europe’s data protection watchdogs lacking in complaints about improper applications of ‘consent’ to justify processing people’s data.

Indeed, ‘forced consent’ was the substance of a series of linked complaints by the pro-privacy NGO noyb, which targeted T&Cs used by Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Google Android immediately GDPR started being applied in May last year.

While not cookie notice specific, this set of complaints speaks to the same underlying principle — i.e. that EU users must be provided with a specific, informed and free choice when asked to consent to their data being processed. Otherwise the ‘consent’ isn’t valid.

So far Google is the only company to be hit with a penalty as a result of that first wave of consent-related GDPR complaints; France’s data watchdog issued it a $57M fine in January.

But the Irish DPC confirmed to us that three of the 11 open investigations it has into Facebook and its subsidiaries were opened after noyb’s consent-related complaints. (“Each of these investigations are at an advanced stage and we can’t comment any further as these investigations are ongoing,” a spokeswoman told us. So, er, watch that space.)

The problem, where EU cookie consent compliance is concerned, looks to be both a failure of enforcement and a lack of regulatory alignment — the latter as a consequence of the ePrivacy Directive (which most directly concerns cookies) still not being updated, generating confusion (if not outright conflict) with the shiny new GDPR.

However the ICO’s advice on cookies directly addresses claimed inconsistencies between ePrivacy and GDPR, stating plainly that Recital 25 of the former (which states: “Access to specific website content may be made conditional on the well-informed acceptance of a cookie or similar device, if it is used for a legitimate purpose”) does not, in fact, sanction gating your entire website behind an ‘accept or leave’ cookie wall.

Here’s what the ICO says on Recital 25 of the ePrivacy Directive:

  • ‘specific website content’ means that you should not make ‘general access’ subject to conditions requiring users to accept non-essential cookies – you can only limit certain content if the user does not consent;
  • the term ‘legitimate purpose’ refers to facilitating the provision of an information society service – ie, a service the user explicitly requests. This does not include third parties such as analytics services or online advertising;

So no cookie wall; and no partial walls that force a user to agree to ad targeting in order to access the content.

It’s worth point out that other types of privacy-friendly online advertising are available with which to monetize visits to a website. (And research suggests targeted ads offer only a tiny premium over non-targeted ads, even as publishers choosing a privacy-hostile ads path must now factor in the costs of data protection compliance to their calculations — as well as the cost and risk of massive GDPR fines if their security fails or they’re found to have violated the law.)

Negotiations to replace the now very long-in-the-tooth ePrivacy Directive — with an up-to-date ePrivacy Regulation which properly takes account of the proliferation of Internet messaging and all the ad tracking techs that have sprung up in the interim — are the subject of very intense lobbying, including from the adtech industry desperate to keep a hold of cookie data. But EU privacy law is clear.

“[Cookie consent]’s definitely broken (and has been for a while). But the GDPR is only partly to blame, it was not intended to fix this specific problem. The uncertainty of the current situation is caused the delay of the ePrivacy regulation that was put on hold (thanks to lobbying),” says Martin Degeling, one of the research paper’s co-authors, when we suggest European Internet users are being subject to a lot of ‘consent theatre’ (ie noisy yet non-compliant cookie notices) — which in turn is causing knock-on problems of consumer mistrust and consent fatigue for all these useless pop-ups. Which work against the core aims of the EU’s data protection framework.

“Consent fatigue and mistrust is definitely a problem,” he agrees. “Users that have experienced that clicking ‘decline’ will likely prevent them from using a site are likely to click ‘accept’ on any other site just because of one bad experience and regardless of what they actually want (which is in most cases: not be tracked).”

“We don’t have strong statistical evidence for that but users reported this in the survey,” he adds, citing a poll the researchers also ran asking site visitors about their privacy choices and general views on cookies. 

Degeling says he and his co-authors are in favor of a consent mechanism that would enable web users to specify their choice at a browser level — rather than the current mess and chaos of perpetual, confusing and often non-compliant per site pop-ups. Although he points out some caveats.

“DNT [Do Not Track] is probably also not GDPR compliant as it only knows one purpose. Nevertheless  something similar would be great,” he tells us. “But I’m not sure if shifting the responsibility to browser vendors to design an interface through which they can obtain consent will lead to the best results for users — the interfaces that we see now, e.g. with regard to cookies, are not a good solution either.

“And the conflict of interest for Google with Chrome are obvious.”

The EU’s unfortunate regulatory snafu around privacy — in that it now has one modernized, world-class privacy regulation butting up against an outdated directive (whose progress keeps being blocked by vested interests intent on being able to continue steamrollering consumer privacy) — likely goes some way to explaining why Member States’ data watchdogs have generally been loath, so far, to show their teeth where the specific issue of cookie consent is concerned.

At least for an initial period the hope among data protection agencies (DPAs) was likely that ePrivacy would be updated and so they should wait and see.

They have also undoubtedly been providing data processors with time to get their data houses and cookie consents in order. But the frictionless interregnum while GDPR was allowed to ‘bed in’ looks unlikely to last much longer.

Firstly because a law that’s not enforced isn’t worth the paper it’s written on (and EU fundamental rights are a lot older than the GDPR). Secondly, with the ePrivacy update still blocked DPAs have demonstrated they’re not just going to sit on their hands and watch privacy rights be rolled back — hence them putting out guidance that clarifies what GDPR means for cookies. They’re drawing lines in the sand, rather than waiting for ePrivacy to do it (which also guards against the latter being used by lobbyists as a vehicle to try to attack and water down GDPR).

And, thirdly, Europe’s political institutions and policymakers have been dining out on the geopolitical attention their shiny privacy framework (GDPR) has attained.

Much has been made at the highest levels in Europe of being able to point to US counterparts, caught on the hop by ongoing tech privacy and security scandals, while EU policymakers savor the schadenfreude of seeing their US counterparts being forced to ask publicly whether it’s time for America to have its own GDPR.

With its extraterritorial scope, GDPR was always intended to stamp Europe’s rule-making prowess on the global map. EU lawmakers will feel they can comfortably check that box.

However they are also aware the world is watching closely and critically — which makes enforcement a very key piece. It must slot in too. They need the GDPR to work on paper and be seen to be working in practice.

So the current cookie mess is a problematic signal which risks signposting regulatory failure — and that simply isn’t sustainable.

A spokesperson for the European Commission told us it cannot comment on specific research but said: “The protection of personal data is a fundamental right in the European Union and a topic the Juncker commission takes very seriously.”

“The GDPR strengthens the rights of individuals to be in control of the processing of personal data, it reinforces the transparency requirements in particular on the information that is crucial for the individual to make a choice, so that consent is given freely, specific and informed,” the spokesperson added. 

“Cookies, insofar as they are used to identify users, qualify as personal data and are therefore subject to the GDPR. Companies do have a right to process their users’ data as long as they receive consent or if they have a legitimate interest.”

All of which suggests that the movement, when it comes, must come from a reforming adtech industry.

With robust privacy regulation in place the writing is now on the wall for unfettered tracking of Internet users for the kind of high velocity, real-time trading of people’s eyeballs that the ad industry engineered for itself when no one knew what was being done with people’s data.

GDPR has already brought greater transparency. Once Europeans are no longer forced to trade away their privacy it’s clear they’ll vote with their clicks not to be ad-stalked around the Internet too.

The current chaos of non-compliant cookie notices is thus a signpost pointing at an underlying privacy lag — and likely also the last gasp signage of digital business models well past their sell-by-date.

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Sex tech companies and advocates protest unfair ad standards outside Facebook’s NY HQ

Posted by | Advertising Tech, computing, digital advertising, Facebook, Gadgets, Google, instagram, internet culture, Lora DiCarlo, online ads, operating systems, photo sharing, social media, Software, TC, United States | No Comments

A group of sex tech startup founders, employees and supporters gathered outside of Facebook’s NY office in Manhattan to protest its advertising policies with respect to what it classifies as sexual content. The protest, and a companion website detailing their position we reported on Tuesday, are the work of “Approved, Not Approved,” a coalition of sex health companies co-founded by Dame Products and Unbound Babes.

These policies as applied have fallen out of step with “the average person’s views of what should or shouldn’t be approved of ads,” according to Janet Lieberman, co-founder and CTO of Dame Products.

“If you look at the history of the sex toy industry, for example, vibrators were sexual health products until advertising restrictions were put on them in the 1920s and 1930s — and then they became dirty, and that’s how the industry got shady, and that’s why we have negative thoughts towards them,” she told me in an interview at the protest. “They’re moving back towards wellness in people’s minds, but not in advertising policies. There’s a double standard for what is seen as obscene, talking about men’s sexual health versus women’s sexual health and talking about products that aren’t sexual, and using sex to sell them, versus taking sexual products and having completely non-sexual ads for them.”

facebook ad protest nyc

Credit: TechCrunch

It’s a problem that extends beyond just Facebook and Instagram, Lieberman says. In fact, her company is also suing NYC’s MTA for discrimination for its own ad standards after it refused to run ads for women’s sex toys in their out-of-home advertising inventory. But it also has ramifications beyond just advertising, because in many ways what we see in ads helps define what we see as acceptable in terms of our everyday lives and conversations.

“Some of this stems from society’s inability to separate sexual products from feeling sexual, and that’s a real problem that we see that hurts women more than men, but hurts both genders, in not knowing how to help our sexual health,” Lieberman said. “We can’t talk about it without being sexual, and that we can’t bring things up, without it seeming like we’re bringing up something that is dirty.”

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Credit: Unbound / Dame Products

“A lot of the people you see here today have Instagrams that have been shut down, or ads that have been not approved on Facebook,” said Bryony Cole, CEO at Future of Sex, in an interview. “Myself, I run Future of Sex, which is a sex tech hackathon, and a podcast focused on sex tech, and my Instagram’s been shut down twice with no warning. It’s often for things that Facebook will say they consider phallic imagery, but they’re not […] and yet if you look at images for something like HIMS [an erectile dysfunction medication startup, examples of their ads here], you’ll see those phallic practice images. So there’s this gross discrepancy, and it’s very frustrating, especially for these companies where a lot of the revenue in their business is around community that are online, which is true for sex toys.”

Online ads aren’t just a luxury for many of these startup brands and companies — they’re a necessary ingredient to continued success. Google and Facebook together account for the majority of digital advertising spend in the U.S., according to eMarketer, and it’s hard to grow a business that caters to primarily online customers without fair access to their platforms, Cole argues.

“You see a lot of sex tech or sexual wellness brands having to move off Instagram and find other ways to reach their communities,” she said. “But the majority of people, that’s where they are. And if they’re buying these products, they’re still overcoming a stigma about buying the product, so it’s great to be able to purchase these online. A lot of these companies started either crowdfunding, like Dame Products, or just through e-commerce sites. So the majority of their business is online. It’s not in a store.”

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Credit: Unbound / Dame Products

Earlier this year, sex tech company Lora DiCarlo netted a win in getting the Consumer Technology Association to restore its CES award after community outcry. Double standards in advertising is a far more systemic and distributed problem, but these protests will hopefully help open up the conversation and prompt more change.

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What lower Netflix pricing tells us about competing in India

Posted by | Amazon, Apple, Apps, Asia, China, Cred, Disney, Facebook, Finance, FreeCharge, funding, Fundings & Exits, Google India, HBO, Hotstar, iPhone, LinkedIn, Media, Mobile, Netflix, Paytm, Reed Hastings, Satyan Gajwani, SnapDeal, Spotify, Tim Cook, Times Internet, Uber, Vijay Shekhar Sharma | No Comments

At a conference in New Delhi early last year, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was confronted with a question that his company has been asked many times over the years. Would he consider lowering the subscription cost in India?

It’s a tactic that most Silicon Valley companies have adapted to in the country over the years. Uber rides aren’t as costly in India as they are elsewhere. Spotify and Apple Music cost less than $2 per month to users in the country. YouTube Premium as well as subscriptions to U.S. news outlets such as WSJ and New York Times are also priced significantly lower compared to the prices they charge in their home turf.

Hastings had also come prepared: He acknowledged that the entertainment viewing industry in India is very different from other parts of the world. To be sure, much of the pay-TV in India is supported by ads and the access fee remains too low ($5). But that was not going to change how Netflix likes to roll, he said.

“We want to be sensitive to great stories and to fund those great stories by investing in local content,” he said. “So yes, our strategy is to build up the local content — and of course we have got the global content — and try to uplevel the industry,” he said, identifying movie-goers who spend about Rs 500 ($7.25) or more on tickets each month as Netflix’s potential customers.

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Indian commuters walking below a poster of “Sacred Games”, an original show produced by Netflix (Image: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images)

Less than a year and a half later, Netflix has had a change of heart. The company today rolled out a lower-priced subscription plan in India, a first for the company. The monthly plan, which restricts usage of the service to mobile devices only, is priced at Rs 199 ($2.8) — a third of the least expensive plan in the U.S.

At a press conference in New Delhi today, Netflix executives said that the lower-priced subscription tier is aimed at expanding the reach of its service in the country. “We want to really broaden the audience for Netflix, want to make it more accessible, and we knew just how mobile-centric India has been,” said Ajay Arora, Director of Product Innovation at Netflix.

The move comes at a time when Netflix has raised its subscription prices in the U.S. by up to 18% and in the UK by up to 20%.

Netflix’s strategy shift in India illustrates a bigger challenge that Silicon Valley companies have been facing in the country for years. If you want to succeed in the country, either make most of your revenue from ads, or heavily subsidize your costs.

But whether finding users in India is a success is also debatable.

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Facebook’s regulation dodge: Let us, or China will

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, China, cryptocurrency, David Marcus, eCommerce, Facebook, Facebook Regulation, Finance, Government, Libra, Mark Zuckerberg, Mobile, Nick Clegg, payments, Policy, privacy, Sheryl Sandberg, TC | No Comments

Facebook is leaning on fears of China exporting its authoritarian social values to counter arguments that it should be broken up or slowed down. Its top executives have each claimed that if the U.S. limits its size, blocks its acquisitions or bans its cryptocurrency, Chinese company’s absent these restrictions will win abroad, bringing more power and data to their government. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg and VP of communications Nick Clegg have all expressed this position.

The latest incarnation of this talking point came in today’s and yesterday’s congressional hearings over Libra, the Facebook-spearheaded digital currency it hopes to launch in the first half of 2020. Facebook’s head of its blockchain subsidiary Calibra, David Marcus, wrote in his prepared remarks to the House Financial Services Committee today that (emphasis added):

I believe that if America does not lead innovation in the digital currency and payments area, others will. If we fail to act, we could soon see a digital currency controlled by others whose values are dramatically different.

Senate Banking Committee Holds Hearing On Facebook's Proposed Crypto Currency

WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 16: Head of Facebook’s Calibra David Marcus testifies during a hearing before Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee July 16, 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held the hearing on “Examining Facebook’s Proposed Digital Currency and Data Privacy Considerations.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Marcus also told the Senate Banking Subcommittee yesterday that “I believe if we stay put we’re going to be in a situation in 10, 15 years where half the world is on a blockchain technology that is out of reach of our national-security apparatus.”.

This argument is designed to counter House-drafted “Keep Big Tech Out of Finance” legislation that Reuters reports would declare that companies like Facebook that earn over $25 billion in annual revenue “may not establish, maintain, or operate a digital asset . . .  that is intended to be widely used as medium of exchange, unit of account, store of value, or any other similar function.”

The message Facebook is trying to deliver is that cryptocurrencies are inevitable. Blocking Libra would just open the door to even less scrupulous actors controlling the technology. Facebook’s position here isn’t limited to cryptocurrencies, though.

The concept crystallized exactly a year ago when Zuckerberg said in an interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher, “I think you have this question from a policy perspective, which is, do we want American companies to be exporting across the world?” (emphasis added):

We grew up here, I think we share a lot of values that I think people hold very dear here, and I think it’s generally very good that we’re doing this, both for security reasons and from a values perspective. Because I think that the alternative, frankly, is going to be the Chinese companies. If we adopt a stance which is that, ‘Okay, we’re gonna, as a country, decide that we wanna clip the wings of these companies and make it so that it’s harder for them to operate in different places, where they have to be smaller,’ then there are plenty of other companies out that are willing and able to take the place of the work that we’re doing.

When asked if he specifically meant Chinese companies, Zuckerberg doubled down, saying (emphasis added):

Yeah. And they do not share the values that we have. I think you can bet that if the government hears word that it’s election interference or terrorism, I don’t think Chinese companies are going to wanna cooperate as much and try to aid the national interest there.

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 10: Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg, 33, was called to testify after it was reported that 87 million Facebook users had their personal information harvested by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm linked to the Trump campaign. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

This April, Zuckerberg went deeper when he described how Facebook would refuse to comply with data localization laws in countries with poor track records on human rights. The CEO explained the risk of data being stored in other countries, which is precisely what might happen if regulators hamper Facebook and innovation happens elsewhere. Zuckerberg told philosopher Yuval Harari that (emphasis added):

When I look towards the future, one of the things that I just get very worried about is the values that I just laid out [for the internet and data] are not values that all countries share. And when you get into some of the more authoritarian countries and their data policies, they’re very different from the kind of regulatory frameworks that across Europe and across a lot of other places, people are talking about or put into place . . . And the most likely alternative to each country adopting something that encodes the freedoms and rights of something like GDPR, in my mind, is the authoritarian model, which is currently being spread, which says every company needs to store everyone’s data locally in data centers and then, if I’m a government, I can send my military there and get access to whatever data I want and take that for surveillance or military.

I just think that that’s a really bad future. And that’s not the direction, as someone who’s building one of these internet services, or just as a citizen of the world, I want to see the world going. If a government can get access to your data, then it can identify who you are and go lock you up and hurt you and your family and cause real physical harm in ways that are just really deep.

facebook logo down glitch

Facebook’s newly hired head of communications, Nick Clegg, told reporters back in January that (emphasis added):

These are of course legitimate questions, but we don’t hear so much about China, which combines astonishing ingenuity with the ability to process data on a vast scale without the legal and regulatory constraints on privacy and data protection that we require on both sides of the Atlantic . . .  [and this data could be] put to more sinister surveillance ends, as we’ve seen with the Chinese government’s controversial social credit system.

In response to Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’ call that Facebook should be broken up, Clegg wrote in May that “Facebook shouldn’t be broken up — but it does need to be held to account. Anyone worried about the challenges we face in an online world should look at getting the rules of the internet right, not dismantling successful American companies.”

He hammered home the alternative the next month during a speech in Berlin (emphasis added):

If we in Europe and America don’t turn off the white noise and begin to work together, we will sleepwalk into a new era where the internet is no longer a universal space but a series of silos where different countries set their own rules and authoritarian regimes soak up their citizens’ data while restricting their freedom . . . If the West doesn’t engage with this question quickly and emphatically, it may be that it isn’t ours to answer. The common rules created in our hemisphere can become the example the rest of the world follows.

COO Sheryl Sandberg made the point most directly in an interview with CNBC in May (emphasis added):

You could break us up, you could break other tech companies up, but you actually don’t address the underlying issues people are concerned about . . . While people are concerned with the size and power of tech companies, there’s also a concern in the United States about the size and power of Chinese tech companies and the … realization that those companies are not going to be broken up.

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 5: Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing concerning foreign influence operations’ use of social media platforms, on Capitol Hill, September 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg faced questions about how foreign operatives use their platforms in attempts to influence and manipulate public opinion. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Scared tactics

Indeed, China does not share the United States’ values on individual freedoms and privacy. And yes, breaking up Facebook could weaken its products like WhatsApp, providing more opportunities for apps like Chinese tech giant Tencent’s WeChat to proliferate.

But letting Facebook off the hook won’t solve the problems China’s influence poses to an open and just internet. Framing the issue as “strong regulation lets China win” creates a false dichotomy. There are more constructive approaches if Zuckerberg seriously wants to work with the government on exporting freedom via the web. And the distrust Facebook has accrued through the mistakes it’s made in the absence of proper regulation arguably do plenty to hurt the perception of how American ideals are spread through its tech companies.

Breaking up Facebook may not be the answer, especially if it’s done in retaliation for its wrong-doings instead of as a coherent way to prevent more in the future. To that end, a better approach might be stopping future acquisitions of large or rapidly growing social networks, forcing it to offer true data portability so existing users have the freedom to switch to competitors, applying proper oversight of its privacy policies and requiring a slow rollout of Libra with testing in each phase to ensure it doesn’t screw consumers, enable terrorists or jeopardize the world economy.

Resorting to scare tactics shows that it’s Facebook that’s scared. Years of growth over safety strategy might finally catch up with it. The $5 billion FTC fine is a slap on the wrist for a company that profits more than that per quarter, but a break-up would do real damage. Instead of fear-mongering, Facebook would be better served by working with regulators in good faith while focusing more on preempting abuse. Perhaps it’s politically savvy to invoke the threat of China to stoke the worries of government officials, and it might even be effective. That doesn’t make it right.

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Highlights from Facebook’s Libra Senate hearing

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, cryptocurrency, David Marcus, eCommerce, Education, Facebook, Finance, Government, Libra, Libra Association, Mobile, payments, Policy, privacy, Social, TC, U.S. Senate | No Comments

Facebook will only build its own Calibra cryptocurrency wallet into Messenger and WhatsApp, and will refuse to embed competing wallets, the head of Calibra David Marcus told the Senate Banking Committee today. While some, like Senator Brown, blustered that “Facebook is dangerous!,” others surfaced poignant questions about Libra’s risks.

Calibra will be interoperable, so users can send money back and forth with other wallets, and Marcus committed to data portability so users can switch entirely to a competitor. But solely embedding Facebook’s own wallet into its leading messaging apps could give the company a sizable advantage over banks, PayPal, Coinbase or any other potential wallet developer.

Other highlights from the “Examining Facebook’s Proposed Digital Currency and Data Privacy Considerations” hearing included Marcus saying:

  • The U.S. should “absolutely” lead the world in rule-making for cryptocurrencies
  • The Libra Association chose to be headquartered in Switzerland “not to evade any responsibilities of oversight” but since it’s where international financial groups like the Bank for International Settlements, though Calibra will be regulated by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network
  • “Yes,” Libra will comply with all U.S. regulations and not launch until the U.S. lawmakers’ concerns have been answered
  • “You will not have to trust Facebook” because it’s only one of 28 current and potentially 100 or more Libra Association members and it won’t have special privileges
  • “Yes I would” accept compensation from Facebook in the form of Libra as a show of trust in the currency
  • It is “not the intention at all” for Calibra to sell or directly monetize user data directly, though if it offered additional financial services in partnership with other financial organizations it would ask consent to use their data specifically for those purposes
  • Facebook’s core revenue model around Libra is that more online commerce will lead businesses to spend more on Facebook ads
  • When repeatedly asked why Facebook is pushing Libra to happen, Marcus noted that blockchain technology is inevitable and if the U.S. doesn’t lead in building and regulating it, the tech will come from places “out of reach of our national security apparatus,” raising the spectre of China

But Marcus also didn’t clearly answer some critical questions about Libra and Calibra, and may be asked again when he testifies before the House Financial Services Committee tomorrow.

Unanswered Questions

Chairman Crapo asked if Facebook would collect data about transactions made with Calibra that are made on Facebook, such as when users buy products from businesses they discover through Facebook. Marcus instead merely noted that Facebook would still let users pay with credit cards and other mediums as well as Calibra. That means that even though Facebook might not know how much money is in someone’s Calibra wallet or their other transactions, it might know how much they paid and for what if that transaction happens over their social networks.

Senator Tillis asked how much Facebook has invested in the formation of Libra. TechCrunch has also asked specifically how much Facebook has invested in the Libra Investment Token that will earn it a share of interest earned from the fiat currencies in the Libra Reserve. Marcus said Facebook and Calibra hadn’t determined exactly how much it would invest in the project. Marcus also didn’t clearly answer Senator Toomey’s question of why the Libra Association is considered a not-for-profit organization if it will pay out interest to members.

Senator Menendez asked if the Libra Association would freeze the assets if terrorist organizations were identified. Marcus said that Calibra and other custodial wallets that actually hold users’ Libra could do that, and that regulated off-ramps could block them from converting Libra into fiat. But this answer underscores that there may be no way for the Libra Association to stop transfers between terrorists’ non-custodial wallets, especially if local governments where those terrorists operate don’t step in.

Perhaps the most worrying moment of the hearing was when Senator Sinema brought up TechCrunch’s article citing that “The real risk of Libra is crooked developers.” There I wrote that Facebook’s VP of product Kevin Weil told me that “There are no plans for the Libra Association to take a role in actively vetting [developers],” which I believe leaves the door open to a crypto Cambridge Analytica situation where shady developers steal users money, not just their data.

Senator Sinema asked if an Arizonan was scammed out of their Libra by a Pakistani developer via a Thai exchange and a Spanish wallet, would that U.S. citizen be entitled to protection to recuperate their lost funds. Marcus responded that U.S. citizens would likely use American Libra wallets that are subject to protections and that the Libra Association will work to educate users on how to avoid scams. But Sinema stressed that if Libra is designed to assist the poor who are often less educated, they could be especially vulnerable to scammers.

Here @SenatorSinema cites my article warning that we need protection from Facebook Libra’s unvetted developers https://t.co/gYeYIQVFLj pic.twitter.com/QSqVDztpCU

— Josh Constine (@JoshConstine) July 16, 2019

Crypto openness versus a dangerous Wild West

Overall, the hearing was surprisingly coherent. Many Senators showed strong base knowledge of how Libra worked and asked the right questions. Marcus was generally forthcoming, beyond the topics of how much Facebook has invested in the Libra project and what data it will glean from transactions atop its social network.

Some of the top concerns, such as terrorist money laundering, encompass the entire cryptocurrency ecosystem and can’t be solved even by strong rules around Libra. Little regard was given to how Libra could improve remittance or cut transaction fees that see corporations profit off families and small businesses.

Still, if Libra actually becomes popular and evolves as an open ecosystem full of unvetted developers, the currency could be used to facilitate scams. Precisely because of the lack of trust in Facebook that many Senators harped on, consumers could go seeking Libra wallet alternatives to the company that might push them into the hands of evildoers. The Libra Association may need to shift the balance further toward safety and away from cryptocurrency’s prevailing philosophies from openness. Otherwise, the frontiers of this Wild West could prove dangerous, even if its civilized regions are well-regulated.

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3 lessons from Roblox’s growth to gaming dominance

Posted by | david baszucki, EC-1, Facebook, Gaming, Media, mobile gaming, Nintendo, online games, Roblox, Software, Startups, Venture Capital, video games, Virtual reality | No Comments

Our recently published EC-1 on Roblox recounts the origin story and growth prospects of the company. But there’s one more piece to the story: what Roblox’s impact will be on gaming and the broader startup industry, if the company manages to multiply its current 90 million users.

roblox maus 1

Sources: TechCrunch, VentureBeat, Roblox

We’ve distilled three key ideas out of the EC-1 — lessons that may apply not only to game developers and gaming entrepreneurs, but also to the broader startup industry.

Lesson 1: UGC is a missed opportunity in games

Roblox has shown that user-generated content (UGC) is a missed opportunity for much of the game industry. The company aspires, in a way, to be the YouTube of games. And it is succeeding, with 50 million experiences from 2 million creators to date.

The game industry generally has two problems with UGC. One is the games themselves: AAA games today are too complex, and lack the flexibility and simplicity needed for robust UGC. Roblox shows that a simpler look and feel is a valid alternative to today’s super-sized, beautiful AAA games. (Minecraft proved much the same.)

The other problem is the greater complexity of making games than, say, videos or music. Roblox solved this problem by building its own game engine, which is designed solely to output Roblox-style experiences.

But increasingly, engines like Unity are capable of accomplishing similar feats: games are getting easier to build. It’s now possible that savvy entrepreneurs could build a platform like Roblox, without building an entire game engine.

Lesson 2: New opportunities in gaming are still coming

The game industry is infamously cyclical. New platforms emerge, become promising, then grow overcrowded and competitive. Usually, this cycle relates to hardware (the iPhone, virtual reality helmets, game consoles like the Nintendo Switch) or massive changes in consumer behavior (the emergence of Facebook, the early growth of the internet). But Roblox, a pure software play, shows that exceptions could exist.

It’s still early days. Roblox reported that it paid out $30 million to game developers in 2017, doubling to $60 million in 2018. Developers receive a quarter of the revenue made from their games, with another quarter covering payment processing and another quarter covering cloud hosting. Its top 10 developers made about $3 million on average each. Seven of its games have also entered a “billion plays” club:

Adopt Me, a newer game, hit 440,000 concurrent users in June, a new record for the platform.

When a new platform appears, it’s usually found by amateur developers first. That’s certainly the case with Roblox: its successes are being created almost exclusively by first-time game developers in their teens and twenties. At some point, professional developers are likely to conclude they can do at least as well. The current market is particularly exciting because many games are fairly simple and lightweight — recent breakout hits like Camping 2 and Weight Lifting Simulator 3 are significantly smaller than comparable games on other platforms.

For entrepreneurs interested in creating new platforms or portals Roblox’s success as a combined game engine and self-contained platform also shows that opportunities still exist — if you have the patience to wait for them to mature.

Lesson 3: Patience can create amazing growth cycles

It took Roblox 15 years to grow to its current point. But most of that growth is recent: as seen in the chart above, Roblox experienced 10x growth in about 3 years, from 9 million users in February 2016 to 90 million in April 2019.

So what went into the decade or so during which Roblox was a much smaller platform? As we tell it in the origin story: a great deal of work, and very little paid acquisition.

In its early years, Roblox did buy users, to seed a user base while it worked on an impossibly large vision that included a game engine, platform, social features, a creator community, and its own games. But after a few years, it stopped buying users.

All of its growth since has been organic. That’s from two main sources: word of mouth, and YouTube users who watch one of the many Roblox streamers. Of course, any company can try to do the same. But Roblox had the patience to build a unique product — one which took years of work to even reach partial completion.

The key to it all was long-term adherence to a long-term goal: the creation of a new category, which it calls “human coexperience”. Today, Roblox still can’t be called part of a new category; it’s a game platform. But with more years of work, it may eventually get there.

For more on the Roblox story, see Part 1: The Origin Story, and Part 2: The Business Plan.

Update: TechCrunch corrected “2 million experiences” to be 50 million experiences from 2 million creators. We also provided more context of the revenue breakdown of payments made on Roblox to developers.

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Facebook’s testimony to Congress: Libra will be regulated by Swiss

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, Calibra, Congress, cryptocurrency, David Marcus, eCommerce, Facebook, Finance, Government, house of representatives, Libra, Libra Association, Mobile, payments, Personnel, Social, TC, U.S. Senate | No Comments

The head of Facebook’s blockchain subsidiary Calibra David Marcus has released his prepared testimony before Congress for tomorrow and Wednesday, explaining that the Libra Association will be regulated by the Swiss government because that’s where it’s headquartered. Meanwhile, he says the Libra Association and Facebook’s Calibra wallet intend to comply will all U.S. tax, anti-money laundering and anti-fraud laws.

“The Libra Association expects that it will be licensed, regulated, and subject to supervisory oversight. Because the Association is headquartered in Geneva, it will be supervised by the Swiss Financial Markets Supervisory Authority (FINMA),” Marcus writes. “We have had preliminary discussions with FINMA and expect to engage with them on an appropriate regulatory framework for the Libra Association. The Association also intends to register with FinCEN [The U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network] as a money services business.”

Marcus will be defending Libra before the Senate Banking Committee on July 16th and the House Financial Services Committees on July 17th. The House subcomittee’s Rep. Maxine Waters has already issued a letter to Facebook and the Libra Association requesting that it halt development and plans to launch Libra in early 2020 “until regulators and Congress have an opportunity to examine these issues and take action.”

The big question is whether Congress is savvy enough to understand Libra to the extent that it can coherently regulate it. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimonies before Congress last year were rife with lawmakers dispensing clueless or off-topic questions.

Sen. Orin Hatch infamously demanded to know “how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?,” to which Zuckerberg smirked, “Senator, we run ads.” If that concept trips up Congress, it’s hard to imagine it grasping a semi-decentralized stablecoin cryptocurrency that took us 4,000 words to properly explain, and a six-minute video just to summarize.

Attempting to assuage a core concern that Libra is trying to replace the dollar or meddle in financial policy, Marcus writes that “The Libra Association, which will manage the Reserve, has no intention of competing with any sovereign currencies or entering the monetary policy arena. It will work with the Federal Reserve and other central banks to make sure Libra does not compete with sovereign currencies or interfere with monetary policy. Monetary policy is properly the province of central banks.”

Marcus’ testimony comes days after President Donald Trump tweeted Friday to condemn Libra, claiming that “Unregulated Crypto Assets can facilitate unlawful behavior, including drug trade and other illegal activity. Similarly, Facebook Libra’s ‘virtual currency’ will have little standing or dependability. If Facebook and other companies want to become a bank, they must seek a new Banking Charter and become subject to all Banking Regulations, just like other Banks, both National and International.”

TechCrunch asked Facebook for a response Friday, which it declined to provide. However, a Facebook spokesperson noted that the Libra Association won’t interact with consumers or operate as a bank, and that Libra is meant to be a complement to the existing financial system.

Regarding how Libra will comply with U.S. anti-money laundering (AML) and know-your-customer (KYC) laws, Marcus explains that “The Libra Association is similarly committed to supporting efforts by regulators, central banks, and lawmakers to ensure that Libra contributes to the fight against money laundering, terrorism financing, and more,” Marcus explains. “The Libra Association will also maintain policies and procedures with respect to AML and the Bank Secrecy Act, combating the financing of terrorism, and other national security-related laws, with which its members will be required to comply if they choose to provide financial services on the Libra network.”

He argues that “Libra should improve detection and enforcement, not set them back,” because cash transactions are frequently used by criminals to avoid law enforcement. “A network that helps move more paper cash transactions—where many illicit activities happen—to a digital network that features regulated on- and off-ramps with proper know-your-customer (KYC) practices, combined with the ability for law enforcement and regulators to conduct their own analysis of on-chain activity, will present an opportunity to increase the efficacy of financial crimes monitoring and enforcement.”

As for Facebook itself, Marcus writes that “The Calibra wallet will comply with FinCEN’s rules for its AML/CFT program and the rules set by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) . . . Similarly, Calibra will comply with the Bank Secrecy Act and will incorporate KYC and AML/CFT methodologies used around the world.”

These answers might help to calm finance legal eagles, but I expect much of the questioning from Congress will deal with the far more subjective matter of whether Facebook can be trusted after a decade of broken privacy promises, data leaks and fake news scandals like Cambridge Analytica.

That’s why I don’t expect the following statement from Marcus about how Facebook has transformed the state of communication will play well with lawmakers that are angry about how those changes impacted society. “We have done a lot to democratize free, unlimited communications for billions of people. We want to help do the same for digital currency and financial services, but with one key difference: We will relinquish control over the network and currency we have helped create.” Congress may interpret “democratize” as “screw up,” and not want to see the same happen to money.

Facebook and Calibra may have positive intentions to assist the unbanked who are indeed swindled by banks and money transfer services that levy huge fees against poorer families. But Facebook isn’t acting out of pure altruism here, as it stands to earn money from Libra in three big ways that aren’t mentioned in Marcus’ testimony:

  1. It will earn a share of interest earned on the Libra Reserve of traditional currencies it holds as collateral for Libra that could mount into the billions if Libra becomes popular.
  2. It will see Facebook ad sales grow if merchants seek to do more commerce over the internet because they can easily and cheaply accept online payments through Libra and therefore put marketing spend into those efficiently converting channels like Facebook and Google.
  3. It will try to sell additional financial services through Calibra, potentially including loans and credit where it could ask users to let it integrate their Facebook data to get a better rate, potentially decreasing defaults and earning Facebook larger margins than other players.

The real-world stakes are much higher here than in photo sharing, and warrant properly regulatory scrutiny. No matter how much Facebook tries to distance itself from ownership of Libra, it started, incubated and continues to lead the project. If Congress is already convinced “big is bad,” and Libra could make Facebook bigger, that may make it difficult to separate their perceptions of Facebook and Libra in order to assess the currency on its merits and risks.

Below you can read Marcus’ full testimony:

For full details on how Libra works, read our feature story on everything you need to know:

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Twitch continues to dominate live streaming with its second-biggest quarter to date

Posted by | esports, Facebook, facebook gaming, game streaming, Gaming, live streaming, Media, microsoft mixer, streamelements, streaming video, Twitch, YouTube, YouTube Live | No Comments

Twitch continues to lead rivals including, YouTube Live, Facebook Gaming and Microsoft’s Mixer, when it comes to live-streaming video. Despite experiencing its first decline in hours watched in Q2 2019, the Amazon-owned game-streaming site still had its second-biggest quarter to date, with more than 70% of the hours watched during the quarter.

According to a new report from StreamElements, Twitch viewers live-streamed a total of 2.72+ billion hours in Q2 — or 72.2% of all live hours watched — compared with 735.54 million hours on YouTube Live (19.5%), 197.76 million on Facebook Gaming (5.3%) and just 112.29 million hours (3%) on Mixer.

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Combined, the total hours watched across all four platforms was 3.77 billion in Q2.

While none of Twitch’s rivals are nearly catching up, YouTube Live did have a good month in May, breaking its own record with 284 million hours watched. Overall, YouTube Live’s hours watched improved in Q2 as a result, while Twitch saw a slight decline.

Facebook Gaming is also gaining steam. It’s now the third-biggest live-streaming platform, having passed Microsoft Mixer.

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Despite its traction, Twitch doesn’t have much of a long tail when it comes to stream viewership. That’s a problem it has faced for some time, as newcomers complained they spent years broadcasting to no one in hopes of gaining a fan base, with little success. Twitch has tried to remedy this problem with various educational efforts as well as product features like Raids and Squad Streams, for example.

However, the new report finds that the majority (almost 75%) of Twitch’s viewership still comes from people tuning in to the top 5,000 channels. Out of the 2.7 billion hours watched in Q2, these top 5,000 channels drove 2 billion of those hours watched.

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In addition, the average concurrent viewership (viewers watching at the same time) of the top 5,000 channels increased by 12% in Q2 2019, compared with Q1. The top 200 channels have the highest concurrent viewership with 10,590 people watching together, on average.

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Also in the quarter, viewership of top titles like Fortnite, League of Legends, Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive declined, while vlogging — aka “Just Chatting” — grew, along with other titles.

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Esports, meanwhile, still draws big numbers, but represents only a small slice of the overall pie.

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The full report, which takes a look at other trends, including which streamers are gaining and losing popularity, is available here.

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Facebook answers how Libra taxes & anti-fraud will work

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, Calibra, cryptocurrency, donald trump, eCommerce, Facebook, Finance, Government, Libra, Libra Association, Mobile, payments, Policy, TC | No Comments

Facebook provided TechCrunch with new information on how its cryptocurrency will stay legal amidst allegations from President Trump that Libra could facilitate “unlawful behavior.” Facebook and Libra Association executives tell me they expect Libra will incur sales tax and capital gains taxes. They confirmed that Facebook is also in talks with local convenience stores and money exchanges to ensure anti-laundering checks are applied when people cash-in or cash-out Libra for traditional currency, and to let you use a QR code to buy or sell Libra in person.

A Facebook spokesperson said the company wouldn’t respond directly to Trump’s tweets, but noted that the Libra association won’t interact with consumers or operate as a bank, and that Libra is meant to be a complement to the existing financial system.

Trump had tweeted that “Unregulated Crypto Assets can facilitate unlawful behavior, including drug trade and other illegal activity. Similarly, Facebook Libra’s ‘virtual currency’ will have little standing or dependability. If Facebook and other companies want to become a bank, they must seek a new Banking Charter and become subject to all Banking Regulations, just like other Banks, both National and International.”

For a primer on how Libra works, watch our explainer video below or read our deep dive into everything you need to know:

In a wide-reaching series of interviews this week, the Libra Association’s head of policy Dante Disparte, Facebook’s head economist for blockchain Christian Catalini and Facebook’s blockchain project subsidiary Calibra’s VP of product Kevin Weil answered questions about regulation of Libra. Here’s what we’ve learned (their answers were trimmed for clarity but not edited):

Would Facebook’s Calibra Wallet launch elsewhere even if it’s banned in the USA by regulators?

Calibra’s Kevin Weil: We believe that creating a financial ecosystem that has significantly broader access where all it takes is a phone and lower transaction fees across the board is good for people. And we want to bring it to as many people around the world as we can. But as a custodial wallet we are regulated and will be compliant and we will only operate in markets where we’re allowed.

We want that to be as many markets as possible. That’s why we announced well in advance of actually launching a product — because we’ve been engaging with regulators. We’re continuing to engage with regulators and we can help them understand the effort that we’re taking to make sure that people are safe and also the value that accrues to the people in their countries when there’s broader access to financial services with lower transaction fees across the board.

Facebook Calibra Libra Wallet

TechCrunch: But what if you’re banned in the U.S.?

Weil: I’m hesitant to give a blanket answer. But in general, we believe that Libra is positive for people and we want to launch as broadly as possible. The world where the U.S. does that I think would probably cause other regulatory regimes to also be concerned about it. I think that’s very much a bridge that we’ll cross when we get there. But so far we’re having frank, open and honest discussions with regulators. Obviously, that continues next week with David’s testimony. And I hope it doesn’t come to that, because I think that Libra can do a lot of good for a lot of people.

TechCrunch’s Analysis: The U.S. House subcommittee has already submitted a letter to Facebook requesting that it cease development of Libra and Calibra until regulators can better examine it and take action. It sounds like Facebook believes a U.S. ban on Libra/Calibra would cause a domino effect in other top markets, and therefore make it tough to rationalize still launching. That puts even more pressure on the outcome of July 16th and 17th’s congressional hearings on Libra with the head of Facebook’s head of Calibra, David Marcus.

How will users cash-in and cash-out of Libra in person?

We already know that Facebook’s own Libra wallet called Calibra will be baked into Messenger and WhatsApp plus have its own standalone app. There, those with connected bank accounts and government ID that go through a Know Your Customer (KYC) anti-fraud/laundering check will be able to buy and sell Libra. But a big goal of Libra is to bring the unbanked into the modern financial system. How does that work?

Weil: Because Libra is an open ecosystem, any money exchange business or entrepreneur can begin supporting cash-in/cash-out without needing any permission from anyone associated with the Libra Association or member of the Libra Association. They can just do it. Today in a lot of emerging markets [there’s a service for matching you with someone to exchange cryptocurrency for cash or vice-versa called] LocalBitcoins.com and I think you’ll see that with Libra too.

Second, we can augment that by by working with local exchanges, convenience stores and other cash-in/cash-out providers to make it easy from within Calibra. You could imagine an experience in the Calibra app or within Messenger or WhatsApp, where if you want to cash in or cash out, you’ll pop up a map that highlights physical locations around that allow you to do it. You select one that’s nearby, you select an amount, and you get a QR code that you can take to them and complete the transaction.

I’d imagine that most of these businesses that we work with will support Libra more broadly, so even if we get these deals started it will benefit the whole ecosystem and every Libra wallet, not just Calibra.

Facebook Calibra

TechCrunch: Have you struck relationships with any convenience store operators or money exchangers like Western Union or MoneyGram, or Walgreens, CVS or 7-Eleven? Are you in talks with them yet?

Weil: I probably shouldn’t comment on any specific deals but we’re in conversation with a lot of the folks you might think, because ultimately being able to move between Libra and your local currency is critical to driving adoption and utility in the early days . . . If you’re banked there are easier ways to do that. If you’re not banked and you’re in cash — those are the people we really want to serve with Libra — we’re working very hard to make that process easy for people.

TechCrunch’s analysis: This approach will let Calibra largely avoid the complicated and potentially error-prone process of KYCing people in person or handing out cash by offloading the responsibility and liability to other parties.

How will Libra stop fraud or laundering while offering access to unbanked users without ID?

Weil: There are very important populations that don’t have an ID. People in a refugee camp may not, as an example, and we want Libra to serve them. So this is one example of many of why it’s important that Calibra isn’t the only option for people who want to participate in the Libra ecosystem  . . . Others of these will be run by local providers and they have programs to meet customers face-to-face and other ways to serve people and even KYC them that we may not . . .  We’re not going be the only wallet, we don’t want to be the only wallet.

This is one of the reasons NGOs have been members of the Libra association from the start, because we want to encourage the monetization of identity processes both through working with governments issuing credentials for more people and also making use of new types of information for identity and authentication. We hope this process will hep the last mile problem.

In the case of a non-custodial wallet, the user isn’t trusting anyone. The way the regulations have worked and this is evolving as we speak. The on-ramps and off-ramps to the crypto world are regulated and they have direct customer relationships and it’s their responsibility to KYC people. In our case we’ll be a custodial wallet and we’ll KYC people. There are a number of wallets in the Bitcoin or Ethereum ecosystem — non-custodial wallets that don’t have a direct relationships with the users. . . They have to get that Bitcoin somehow. Usually they’re going through an exchange where usually as part of the process they’re KYC’d.

In a lot of emerging markets you have LocalBitcoins.com where you can find a representative or agent who will meet you in person and exchange cash for bitcoin in whatever market you have to be in. And I believe that they just started making sure that they KYC everyone, but they’re doing it in person. And they have more flexibility in how they do it than you might otherwise. I think there are lots of ways that this will happen and the fact that Libra is an open ecosystem will enable people to be entrepreneurial about it.

There are lots an lots of people who are underserved by today’s financial ecosystem who have government ID. So even with requiring everyone go through a KYC process, we’ll be able to serve many, many people who are not well-served by today’s financial ecosystem. We want to find ways to support people who can’t KYC and the important part is that Calibra will fully interoperate with any other wallet, including ones that people in local markets are using because it’s a better fit for their needs.

TechCrunch: Through that interoperability, if someone with a non-custodial wallet receives Libra and then sends it a Calibra wallet user, does that mean you Libra coming into Calibra from users who weren’t KYC’d and could be laundering money?

Weil: So it’s part of the regulatory situation that’s evolving as we speak. There’s something called the Travel Rule . . . If there’s a transfer above a certain value you have to make sure that you understand both who the sender is, which you do if they’re using a custodial wallet, and who the receiver is. These are evolving regulations, but it’s something that obviously we’re going to make sure that we implement as regulations solidify.

TechCrunch’s Analysis: Calibra appears to be inviting regulation that it can strictly abide by rather than trying to guess at what the best approach is. But given it’s unclear when concrete rules will be established for transfers between non-custodial wallets and custodial wallets, or for in-person cashing, Facebook and Calibra may need to establish their own strong protocols. Otherwise they could be guilty of permitting the “unlawful behavior” Trump describes.

Libra Mission Statement

How will Libra be taxed?

Dante Disparte of Libra: Taxing of digital assets is something that’s being designed at the local level and at the jurisdiction level. Our view of the world is that like with any form of money or any form of payment or banking, the onus in terms of compliance with tax is with the individual user and consumer, and the same would hold true broadly here.

We expect that the many, many wallets and financial services providers building solutions on the Libra blockchain would begin to provide tools that make it much easier than it is today [to calculate and file taxes] for digital assets and cryptocurrencies more generally . . .  There’s plenty of time between now and Libra hitting the market to begin defining this more strictly at the jurisdictional level among providers.

TechCrunch’s Analysis: Again, here Facebook, Calibra and the Libra Association are hoping to avoid shouldering all the responsibility for taxes. Their position is that just as you have to take the initiative of paying your taxes whether or not you use a Visa card or your bank’s checks to transact, it’s on you to pay your Libra taxes.

TechCrunch: Do you think in the United States that it’s reasonable for the government to ask that Libra transactions be taxed?

Disparte: Tax treatments of digital assets broadly hasn’t been entirely clarified in most places around the world. And we hope that this is something that this project and the ecosystem around it helps to clarify.

Tax authorities will see a benefit from Libra at the consumption level and at the household level, while some cryptocurrencies have avoided taxes until the point they tried to cash out. But the nature of it and the lack of speculation and its design we think should give it a light tax treatment the way you would find with traditional currencies.

Calibra Transactions 2

Christian Catalini of Facebook: Cryptocurrencies are taxed right now every time you have a sale on the differences in gains and losses. Because Libra is designed to be a medium of exchange, those gains and losses are likely to be very tiny relative to your local currency . . . Sales tax would likely be implemented the exact same way on Libra as it is today when you pay with a credit card.

At launch giving current regulations, the Calibra wallet will have to track every purchase and sale of Libra for a U.S. user and those differences will have to be reported on tax day. You can think of the losses, albeit they may be very small gains and losses relative to USD, as similar to the what people do today when they have a Coinbase account with Bitcoin.

The sales tax I think could be implemented in the exact same way as it today with any other sort of digital payment, it would be no different. If you’re buying goods or services with Libra you’ll be paying sales tax the same way as if you used a different form of payment. Like today when you see a percentage, that is the sales tax on your total.

Disparte: Maybe the best way to frame how taxes work all over the world is that it’s not up to Libra, Calibra, Facebook or any company to make that determination. It’s up to regulators and authorities.

TechCrunch: Does Calibra already have plans in place for how to handle sales tax?

Weil: That’s also a pretty rapidly evolving part of the regulatory ecosystem right now. It’s really an ongoing discussion. We will do whatever the regulation says we need to do.

TechCrunch’s Analysis: Here we have the firmest answers of our interviews. Facebook, Calibra and the Libra Association believe the proper approach to taxes is that Libra transactions carry a country’s traditional sales tax, and that Libra you hold in your wallet will have to pay taxes based on the Libra stablecoin’s value (that’s pegged to a basket of international currencies) relative to the U.S. dollar.

If the Libra Association recommends all wallets and transactions follow these rules and Calibra builds in protocols to handle these taxes simply, at least the government can’t argue Libra is a method of dodging taxes and everyone paying their fair share.

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