Mobile

Mobile payments firms in India are now scrambling to make money

Posted by | Asia, coronavirus, COVID-19, eBay, Finance, Flipkart, Google, india, Mobikwik, Mobile, Nandan Nilekani, Online lending, payments, Paytm, Softbank, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Walmart | No Comments

Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and chief executive of India’s most valuable startup, Paytm, posed an existential question in a recent press conference.

“What do you think of the commercial model for digital mobile payments. How do we make money?” Sharma asked Nandan Nilekani, one of the key architects of the Universal Payments Infrastructure that created a digital payments revolution in the country.

It’s the multi-billion-dollar question that scores of local startups and international giants have been scrambling to answer as many of them aggressively shift their focus to serving merchants and building lending products and other financial services .

New Delhi’s abrupt move to invalidate much of the paper bills in the cash-dominated nation in late 2016 sent hundreds of millions of people to cash machines for months to follow.

For a handful of startups such as Paytm and MobiKwik, this cash crunch meant netting tens of millions of new users in a span of a few months.

India then moved to work with a coalition of banks to develop the payments infrastructure that, unlike Paytm and MobiKwik’s earlier system, did not act as an intermediary “mobile wallet” to serve as an intermediary between users and their banks, but facilitated direct transaction between two users’ bank accounts.

Silicon Valley companies quickly took notice. For years, Google and the likes have attempted to change the purchasing behavior of people in many Asian and African markets, where they have amassed hundreds of millions of users.

In Pakistan, for instance, most people still run errands to neighborhood stores when they want to top up credit to make phone calls and access the internet.

With China keeping its doors largely closed for foreign firms, India, where many American giants have already poured billions of dollars to find their next billion users, it was a no-brainer call.

“Unlike China, we have given equal opportunities to both small and large domestic and foreign companies,” said Dilip Asbe, chief executive of NPCI, the payments body behind UPI.

And thus began the race to participate in the grand Indian experiment. Investors have followed suit as well. Indian fintech startups raised $2.74 billion last year, compared to 3.66 billion that their counterparts in China secured, according to research firm CBInsights.

And that bet in a market with more than half a billion internet users has already started to pay off.

“If you look at UPI as a platform, we have never seen growth of this kind before,” Nikhil Kumar, who volunteered at a nonprofit organization to help develop the payments infrastructure, said in an interview.

In October, just three years after its inception, UPI had amassed 100 million users and processed over a billion transactions. It has sustained its growth since, clocking 1.25 billion transactions in March — despite one of the nation’s largest banks going through a meltdown last month.

“It all comes down to the problem it is solving. If you look at the western markets, digital payments have largely been focused on a person sending money to a merchant. UPI does that, but it also enables peer-to-peer payments and across a wide-range of apps. It’s interoperable,” said Kumar, who is now working at a startup called Setu to develop APIs to help small businesses easily accept digital payments.

Vice-president of Google’s Next Billion Users Caesar Sengupta speaks during the launch of the Google “Tez” mobile app for digital payments in New Delhi on September 18, 2017 (Photo: Getty Images via AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN)

The Google Pay app has amassed over 67 million monthly active users. And the company has found the UPI pipeline so fascinating that it has recommended similar infrastructure to be built in the U.S.

In August, the Federal Reserve proposed to develop a new inter-bank 24×7 real-time gross settlement service that would support faster payments in the country. In November, Google recommended (PDF) that the U.S. Federal Reserve implement a real-time payments platform such as UPI.

“After just three years, the annual run rate of transactions flowing through UPI is about 19% of India’s Gross Domestic Product, including 800 million monthly transactions valued at approximately $19 billion,” wrote Mark Isakowitz, Google’s vice president of Government Affairs and Public Policy.

Paytm itself has amassed more than 150 million users who use it every year to make transactions. Overall, the platform has 300 million mobile wallet accounts and 55 million bank accounts, said Sharma.

Search for a business model

But despite on-boarding more than a hundred million users on their platform, payment firms are struggling to cut their losses — let alone turn a profit.

At an event in Bangalore late last year, Sajith Sivanandan, managing director and business head of Google Pay and Next Billion User Initiatives, said current local rules have forced Google Pay to operate in India without a clear business model.

Mobile payment firms never levied any fee to users as a strategy to expand their reach in the country. A recent directive from the government has now put an end to the cut they were receiving to facilitate UPI transactions between users and merchants.

Google’s Sivanandan urged the local payment bodies to “find ways for payment players to make money” to ensure every stakeholder had incentives to operate.

Paytm, which has raised more than $3 billion to date, reported a loss of $549 million in the financial year ending in March 2019.

The firm, backed by SoftBank and Alibaba, has expanded to several new businesses in recent years, including Paytm Mall, an e-commerce venture, social commerce, financial services arm Paytm Money and a movies and ticketing category.

This year, Paytm has expanded to serve merchants, launching new gadgets such as a stand that displays QR check-out codes that comes with a calculator and a battery pack, a portable speaker that provides voice confirmations of transactions and a point-of-sale machine with built-in scanner and printer.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Sharma said these devices are already garnering impressive demand from merchants. The company is offering these gadgets to them as part of a subscription service that helps it establish a steady flow of revenue.

The firm’s Money arm, which offers lending, insurance and investing services, has amassed over 3 million users. The head of Paytm Money, Pravin Jadhav, resigned from the company this week, a person familiar with the matter said. A Paytm spokeswoman declined to comment. (Indian news outlet Entrackr first reported the development.)

Flipkart’s PhonePe, another major player in India’s payments market, today serves more than 175 million users, and over 8 million merchants. Its app serves as a platform for other businesses to reach users, explained Rahul Chari, co-founder and CTO of the firm, in an interview with TechCrunch. The company is currently not taking a cut for the real estate on its app, he added.

But these startups’ expansion into new categories means that they now have to face off even more rivals, and spend more money to gain a foothold. In the social commerce category, for instance, Paytm is competing with Naspers-backed Meesho and a handful of new entrants; and heavily-backed OkCredit and KhataBook today lead the bookkeeping market.

BharatPe, which raised $75 million two months ago, is digitizing mom and pop stores and granting them working capital. And PineLabs, which has already become a unicorn, and MSwipe have flooded the market with their point-of-sale machines.

A vendor holds an Mswipe terminal, operated by M-Swipe Technologies Pvt Ltd., in an arranged photograph at a roadside stall in Bengaluru, India, on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“They have no choice. Payment is the gateway to businesses such as e-commerce and lending that you can monetize. In Paytm’s case, their earlier bet was Paytm Mall,” said Jayanth Kolla, founder and chief analyst at research firm Convergence Catalyst.

But Paytm Mall has struggled to compete with giants Amazon India and Walmart’s Flipkart. Last year, Mall pivoted to offline-to-online and online-to-offline models, wherein orders placed by customers are serviced from local stores. The company also secured about $160 million from eBay last year.

An executive who previously worked at Paytm Mall said the venture has struggled to grow because its goal-post has constantly shifted over the years. It has recently started to focus on selling fastags, a system that allows vehicle owners to swiftly pay toll fees. At least two more executives at the firm are on their way out, a person familiar with the matter said.

Kolla said the current dynamics of India’s mobile payments market, where more than 100 firms are chasing the same set of audience, is reminiscent of the telecom market in the country from more than a decade ago.

“When there were just four to five players in the telecom market, the prospect of them becoming profitable was much higher. They were scaling like crazy. They grew with the lowest ARPU in the world (at about $2) and were still profitable.

“But the moment that number grew to more than a dozen overnight, and the new players started offering more affordable plans to subscribers, that’s when profitability started to become elusive,” he said.

To top that off, the arrival of Reliance Jio, a telecom operator run by India’s richest man, in 2016 in the country with the cheapest tariff plans in the world, upended the market once again, forcing several players to leave the market, or declare bankruptcies, or consolidate.

India’s mobile payments market is now heading to a similar path, said Kolla.

If there were not enough players fighting for a slice of India’s mobile payments market that Credit Suisse estimate could reach $1 trillion by 2023, WhatsApp, the most popular app in the country with more that 400 million users, is set to roll out its mobile payments service in the country in a couple of months.

At the aforementioned press conference, Nilekani advised Sharma and other players to focus on financial services such as lending.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus outbreak that promoted New Delhi to order a three-week lockdown last month is likely going to impact the ability of millions of people to use such services.

“India has more than 100 million microfinance accounts, serviced in cash every week by gig-economy workers, who hawk vegetables on street corners or embroider saris sold in malls, among other things. Three out of four workers make a living by working casually for others or at their family firms and farms. Prolonged shutdowns will impair their ability to repay loans of 2.1 trillion rupees ($28.5 billion), putting the world’s largest microfinance industry at risk,” wrote Bloomberg columnist Andy Mukherjee.

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‘Content network effect’ makes TikTok tough to copy

Posted by | Apps, Content Network Effect, Entertainment, Facebook, Facebook Lasso, instagram, Instagram Reels, Media, Mobile, network effects, Remix Culture, Remixes, Social, TC, tiktok, YouTube, YouTube Shorts | No Comments

Many TikTok videos don’t start from scratch, so neither can its competitors. TikTok is all about remixes where users shoot a new video to recontextualize audio pulled from someone else’s clip, or riff on an existing meme or concept. That only works because TikTok’s had time to build up an immense armory of content to draw inspiration from.

Creators will find themselves unequipped trying to get started on TikTok copycats including Facebook Lasso, and Instagram Reels which is testing in Brazil. Direct competitors like Triller and Dubsmash are racing to build up their archives. YouTube Shorts, which The Information today reported is in development, only has a shot if Google lets users harness the 5 billion videos people already watch on YouTube each day.

This is the power of what I call “content network effect”: Each piece of content adds value to the rest. That’s TikTok.

You’re likely familiar with traditional network effect — ‘a phenomenon whereby a product or service gains additional value as more people use it.’ It’s not just the network itself that gains value, as the value delivered to each user increases too. Today’s top social networks are shining examples. The more people there are on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, the more people you can connect to, and the more material their relevance algorithms can draw on to fill your feeds.

If you had to choose between using two identical social networks, you’re probably going to pick the one with more friends or creators already onboard. Network effects raise the switching cost of moving to a different network. Even if it has better features, fewer ads, or less misinformation and bullying, you’re unlikely to leave a robust network behind and decamp to a sparser one. That makes scaled social networks difficult to Disrupt. All the top ones have been around for almost a decade or more.

Except for TikTok. The Chinese music/video app has managed to demonstrate a new concept of “content network effect”. In its case, each video uploaded to the app makes every future potential video more valuable. That’s because all the content on TikTok serves as remix fodder for the rest. Every song, dance, joke, prank, and monologue generates resources for other creators to exploit. It’s a bottomless well of inspiration.

Remixability, the ultimate creative tool

TikTok productizes remix culture by making it easy to “use this sound”. Tap the audio button on any video and it becomes yours. Click through and you’ll see all the other videos that use it. TikTok even offers a whole search engine for sorting through sounds by categories like Trending, Greatest Hits, Love, Gaming, and travel. Sometimes remixes are based on an idea rather than an audio. #FlipTheSwitch sees couples instantly swapping clothes when the light flicks off, and has collected over 3.6 billion videos across over 500,000 remixed versions of the video.

You can even duet with the original creator, sharing your video and theirs side-by-side simultaneously. A solo performance becomes a chorus as more duets are hitched together. Meanwhile, remixes of remixes of remixes provide an esoteric reward for hardcore users who recognize how a gag has evolved or spiraled into absurdity.

Other apps in the past have spawned video responses, hashtags, quote-tweets, surveys, and chain letters and other ways for pieces of content to interact or iterate. And there’s always been parodies. But TikTok proves the power of forging a social app with content network effect at its core.

Facilitating remixes offers a way to lower the bar for producing user generated content. You’d don’t have to be astoundingly creative or original to make something entertaining. Each individual’s life experiences inform their perspective that could let them interpret an idea in a new way.

What began with someone ripping audio of two people chanting “don’t be Suspicious, don’t be suspicious” while sneaking through a graveyard in TV show Parks & Recs led to people lipsyncing it while trying to escape their infant’s room without waking them up, leaving the house wearing clothes they stole from their sister’s closet, trying to keep a llama as a pet, and photoshopping themselves to look taller. Unless someone’s already done the work to record an audio clip, there’s nothing to inspire and enable others to put their spin on it.

TikTok’s archive vs the world

That’s why I wrote that Mark Zuckerberg misunderstands the huge threat of TikTok after the CEO told Facebook’s staff that “I kind of think about TikTok as if it were Explore for Stories”. Facebook and Instagram found massive success cloning Snapchat Stories because all they had to do was copy its features. Stories are autobiographical life vlogging. All you need are the creative tools, which Instagram and Facebook rebuilt, and people to share to, which the apps had billions of.

But TikTok isn’t about sharing what you’re up to like Stories that typically start from scratch since each user’s life is different. It’s micro-entertainment powered by content network effect. If TikTok competitors give people the same video recording features and distribution potential, they’ll still be missing the archive of source material.

Facebook’s Lasso looks just like TikTok but it’s failed to gain steam since launching in November 2018. Instagram Reels smartly copies TikTok’s remixing tools, but if the Brazilian tests go well and it eventually launches in English, it will start out flat footed.

When YouTube launches Shorts, as The Information’s Alex Heath and Jessica Toonkel report it’s planning to do before the end of the year, it will be buried inside its main app. That could make it impossible to compete with a dedicated app like TikTok that opens straight to its For You page. Its one saving grace would be if YouTube unlocks its entire database of videos for remixing.

Thanks to its position as the default place to host videos and its experience with searchability that Facebook and Instagram lack, YouTube Shorts could at least have all the ingredients necessary. But given YouTube’s non-stop failures in social with everything from Google+ to YouTube Stories to its dozen deadpooled messaging apps, it may not have the chef skills necessary to combine them.

[Postscript: Or maybe YouTube will be worse at cloning TikTok than anyone. Record labels and YouTube should understand that short videos promote rather than pirate music, as TikTok propelling Lil Nas X and many other musicians up the charts prove. But if YouTube ruthlessly applies Content ID and takes down Shorts with unauthorized audio, the feature is dead in the water.]

Other social networks should consider how the concept applies to them. Could Facebook turn your friends’ photos into collage materials? Could Instagram let you share themed collections of your favorite posts? Remix culture isn’t going away, so neither will the value of fostering content network effects. With video consumption outpacing professional production, remixes are how the world will stay entertained and how amateurs can contribute creations worthy of going viral.

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In a significant change, Apple customers can now buy or rent titles directly in the Prime Video app

Posted by | Amazon, Apple, Apps, Media, Mobile, prime video, rentals, TC, Video | No Comments

A recent update from Amazon has made it easier for Apple customers to buy or rent movies from its Prime Video app. Before, customers using the Prime Video app from an iOS device or Apple TV would have to first purchase or rent the movie elsewhere — like through the Amazon website or a Prime Video app on another device, such as the Fire TV, Roku or an Android device. Now, Prime Video users can make the purchase directly through the app instead.

The changes weren’t formally announced, but quickly spotted once live.

Amazon declined to comment, but confirmed to TechCrunch the feature is live now for customers in the U.S., U.K. and Germany.

The change makes it possible for Prime Video users to rent or buy hundreds of thousands of titles from Amazon’s video catalog. This includes new release movies, TV shows, classic movies, award-winning series, Oscar-nominated films and more.

This is supported on a majority of Apple devices, including the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch running iOS/iPadOS 12.2 or higher, as well as Apple TV HD and Apple TV 4K.

Amazon for years has prevented users from directly purchasing movies and TV shows from the Prime Video app on Apple devices. That’s because Apple requires a 30% cut of all in-app purchases taking place on its platform. To avoid fees, many apps — including not only Amazon, but also Netflix, Tinder, Spotify and others — have bypassed the major app platforms’ fees at times by redirecting users to a website.

Since the news broke, many have questioned if Amazon had some sort of deal with Apple that was making the change possible — especially because it didn’t raise the cost of rentals or subscriptions to cover a 30% cut.

As it turns out, it sort of does.

Apple tells TechCrunch it offers a program aimed at supporting subscription video entertainment providers.

“Apple has an established program for premium subscription video entertainment providers to offer a variety of customer benefits — including integration with the Apple TV app, AirPlay 2 support, tvOS apps, universal search, Siri support and, where applicable, single or zero sign-on,” an Apple spokesperson said. “On qualifying premium video entertainment apps such as Prime Video, Altice One and Canal+, customers have the option to buy or rent movies and TV shows using the payment method tied to their existing video subscription,” the spokesperson noted.

It remains to be seen if Amazon will extend Apple the same courtesy on its Fire TV platform, by allowing Apple customers to rent or buy movies directly in the Apple TV app there.

Amazon’s adoption of this program is notable, as it comes at a time when Apple is under increased scrutiny for alleged anti-competitive behaviors — particularly those against companies with a rival product or service — like Prime Video is to Apple TV+, or Fire TV is to Apple TV, for example.

Amazon called attention to the new feature in its Prime Video app, which now alerts you upon first launch that “Movie night just got better” in a full-screen pop-up. It also advertises the easier option for direct purchases through a home screen banner.

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An EU coalition of techies is backing a ‘privacy-preserving’ standard for COVID-19 contacts tracing

Posted by | Apps, Bluetooth, China, coronavirus, COVID-19, data protection, data security, digital rights, EC, Europe, european commission, european union, General Data Protection Regulation, Google, Health, health services, human rights, Microsoft, Mobile, National Health Service, Palantir, privacy, Singapore, smartphone, smartphones, TC, United Kingdom, world health organization | No Comments

A European coalition of techies and scientists drawn from at least eight countries, and led by Germany’s Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute for telecoms (HHI), is working on contacts-tracing proximity technology for COVID-19 that’s designed to comply with the region’s strict privacy rules — officially unveiling the effort today.

China-style individual-level location-tracking of people by states via their smartphones even for a public health purpose is hard to imagine in Europe — which has a long history of legal protection for individual privacy. However the coronavirus pandemic is applying pressure to the region’s data protection model, as governments turn to data and mobile technologies to seek help with tracking the spread of the virus, supporting their public health response and mitigating wider social and economic impacts.

Scores of apps are popping up across Europe aimed at attacking coronavirus from different angles. European privacy not-for-profit, noyb, is keeping an updated list of approaches, both led by governments and private sector projects, to use personal data to combat SARS-CoV-2 — with examples so far including contacts tracing, lockdown or quarantine enforcement and COVID-19 self-assessment.

The efficacy of such apps is unclear — but the demand for tech and data to fuel such efforts is coming from all over the place.

In the UK the government has been quick to call in tech giants, including Google, Microsoft and Palantir, to help the National Health Service determine where resources need to be sent during the pandemic. While the European Commission has been leaning on regional telcos to hand over user location data to carry out coronavirus tracking — albeit in aggregated and anonymized form.

The newly unveiled Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) project is a response to the coronavirus pandemic generating a huge spike in demand for citizens’ data that’s intended to offer not just an another app — but what’s described as “a fully privacy-preserving approach” to COVID-19 contacts tracing.

The core idea is to leverage smartphone technology to help disrupt the next wave of infections by notifying individuals who have come into close contact with an infected person — via the proxy of their smartphones having been near enough to carry out a Bluetooth handshake. So far so standard. But the coalition behind the effort wants to steer developments in such a way that the EU response to COVID-19 doesn’t drift towards China-style state surveillance of citizens.

While, for the moment, strict quarantine measures remain in place across much of Europe there may be less imperative for governments to rip up the best practice rulebook to intrude on citizens’ privacy, given the majority of people are locked down at home. But the looming question is what happens when restrictions on daily life are lifted?

Contacts tracing — as a way to offer a chance for interventions that can break any new infection chains — is being touted as a key component of preventing a second wave of coronavirus infections by some, with examples such as Singapore’s TraceTogether app being eyed up by regional lawmakers.

Singapore does appear to have had some success in keeping a second wave of infections from turning into a major outbreak, via an aggressive testing and contacts-tracing regime. But what a small island city-state with a population of less than 6M can do vs a trading bloc of 27 different nations whose collective population exceeds 500M doesn’t necessarily seem immediately comparable.

Europe isn’t going to have a single coronavirus tracing app. It’s already got a patchwork. Hence the people behind PEPP-PT offering a set of “standards, technology, and services” to countries and developers to plug into to get a standardized COVID-19 contacts-tracing approach up and running across the bloc.

The other very European flavored piece here is privacy — and privacy law. “Enforcement of data protection, anonymization, GDPR [the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation] compliance, and security” are baked in, is the top-line claim.

“PEPP-PR was explicitly created to adhere to strong European privacy and data protection laws and principles,” the group writes in an online manifesto. “The idea is to make the technology available to as many countries, managers of infectious disease responses, and developers as quickly and as easily as possible.

“The technical mechanisms and standards provided by PEPP-PT fully protect privacy and leverage the possibilities and features of digital technology to maximize speed and real-time capability of any national pandemic response.”

Hans-Christian Boos, one of the project’s co-initiators — and the founder of an AI company called Arago –discussed the initiative with German newspaper Der Spiegel, telling it: “We collect no location data, no movement profiles, no contact information and no identifiable features of the end devices.”

The newspaper reports PEPP-PT’s approach means apps aligning to this standard would generate only temporary IDs — to avoid individuals being identified. Two or more smartphones running an app that uses the tech and has Bluetooth enabled when they come into proximity would exchange their respective IDs — saving them locally on the device in an encrypted form, according to the report.

Der Spiegel writes that should a user of the app subsequently be diagnosed with coronavirus their doctor would be able to ask them to transfer the contact list to a central server. The doctor would then be able to use the system to warn affected IDs they have had contact with a person who has since been diagnosed with the virus — meaning those at risk individuals could be proactively tested and/or self-isolate.

On its website PEPP-PT explains the approach thus:

Mode 1
If a user is not tested or has tested negative, the anonymous proximity history remains encrypted on the user’s phone and cannot be viewed or transmitted by anybody. At any point in time, only the proximity history that could be relevant for virus transmission is saved, and earlier history is continuously deleted.

Mode 2
If the user of phone A has been confirmed to be SARS-CoV-2 positive, the health authorities will contact user A and provide a TAN code to the user that ensures potential malware cannot inject incorrect infection information into the PEPP-PT system. The user uses this TAN code to voluntarily provide information to the national trust service that permits the notification of PEPP-PT apps recorded in the proximity history and hence potentially infected. Since this history contains anonymous identifiers, neither person can be aware of the other’s identity.

Providing further detail of what it envisages as “Country-dependent trust service operation”, it writes: “The anonymous IDs contain encrypted mechanisms to identify the country of each app that uses PEPP-PT. Using that information, anonymous IDs are handled in a country-specific manner.”

While on healthcare processing is suggests: “A process for how to inform and manage exposed contacts can be defined on a country by country basis.”

Among the other features of PEPP-PT’s mechanisms the group lists in its manifesto are:

  • Backend architecture and technology that can be deployed into local IT infrastructure and can handle hundreds of millions of devices and users per country instantly.
  • Managing the partner network of national initiatives and providing APIs for integration of PEPP-PT features and functionalities into national health processes (test, communication, …) and national system processes (health logistics, economy logistics, …) giving many local initiatives a local backbone architecture that enforces GDPR and ensures scalability.
  • Certification Service to test and approve local implementations to be using the PEPP-PT mechanisms as advertised and thus inheriting the privacy and security testing and approval PEPP-PT mechanisms offer.

Having a standardized approach that could be plugged into a variety of apps would allow for contacts tracing to work across borders — i.e. even if different apps are popular in different EU countries — an important consideration for the bloc, which has 27 Member States.

However there may be questions about the robustness of the privacy protection designed into the approach — if, for example, pseudonymized data is centralized on a server that doctors can access there could be a risk of it leaking and being re-identified. And identification of individual device holders would be legally risky.

Europe’s lead data regulator, the EDPS, recently made a point of tweeting to warn an MEP (and former EC digital commissioner) against the legality of applying Singapore-style Bluetooth-powered contacts tracing in the EU — writing: “Please be cautious comparing Singapore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder.”

Dear Mr. Commissioner, please be cautious comparing Singapoore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder.

— Wojtek Wiewiorowski (@W_Wiewiorowski) March 27, 2020

A spokesman for the EDPS told us it’s in contact with data protection agencies of the Member States involved in the PEPP-PT project to collect “relevant information”.

“The general principles presented by EDPB on 20 March, and by EDPS on 24 March are still relevant in that context,” the spokesman added — referring to guidance issued by the privacy regulators last month in which they encouraged anonymization and aggregation should Member States want to use mobile location data for monitoring, containing or mitigating the spread of COVID-19. At least in the first instance.

“When it is not possible to only process anonymous data, the ePrivacy Directive enables Member States to introduce legislative measures to safeguard public security (Art. 15),” the EDPB further noted.

“If measures allowing for the processing of non-anonymised location data are introduced, a Member State is obliged to put in place adequate safeguards, such as providing individuals of electronic communication services the right to a judicial remedy.”

We reached out to the HHI with questions about the PEPP-PT project and were referred to Boos — but at the time of writing had been unable to speak to him.

“The PEPP-PT system is being created by a multi-national European team,” the HHI writes in a press release about the effort. “It is an anonymous and privacy-preserving digital contact tracing approach, which is in full compliance with GDPR and can also be used when traveling between countries through an anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism. No personal data, no location, no Mac-Id of any user is stored or transmitted. PEPP-PT is designed to be incorporated in national corona mobile phone apps as a contact tracing functionality and allows for the integration into the processes of national health services. The solution is offered to be shared openly with any country, given the commitment to achieve interoperability so that the anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism remains functional.”

“PEPP-PT’s international team consists of more than 130 members working across more than seven European countries and includes scientists, technologists, and experts from well-known research institutions and companies,” it adds.

“The result of the team’s work will be owned by a non-profit organization so that the technology and standards are available to all. Our priorities are the well being of world citizens today and the development of tools to limit the impact of future pandemics — all while conforming to European norms and standards.”

The PEPP-PT says its technology-focused efforts are being financed through donations. Per its website, it says it’s adopted the WHO standards for such financing — to “avoid any external influence”.

Of course for the effort to be useful it relies on EU citizens voluntarily downloading one of the aligned contacts tracing apps — and carrying their smartphone everywhere they go, with Bluetooth enabled.

Without substantial penetration of regional smartphones it’s questionable how much of an impact this initiative, or any contacts tracing technology, could have. Although if such tech were able to break even some infection chains people might argue it’s not wasted effort.

Notably, there are signs Europeans are willing to contribute to a public healthcare cause by doing their bit digitally — such as a self-reporting COVID-19 tracking app which last week racked up 750,000 downloads in the UK in 24 hours.

But, at the same time, contacts tracing apps are facing scepticism over their ability to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. Not everyone carries a smartphone, nor knows how to download an app, for instance. There’s plenty of people who would fall outside such a digital net.

Meanwhile, while there’s clearly been a big scramble across the region, at both government and grassroots level, to mobilize digital technology for a public health emergency cause there’s arguably greater imperative to direct effort and resources at scaling up coronavirus testing programs — an area where most European countries continue to lag.

Germany — where some of the key backers of the PEPP-PT are from — being the most notable exception.

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T-Mobile officially completes merger with Sprint, CEO John Legere steps down ahead of schedule

Posted by | john legere, M&A, Mergers and Acquisitions, Mike Sievert, Mobile, sprint, T-Mobile, TC | No Comments

After months of regulatory maneuvering, T-Mobile and Sprint officially completed their $26 billion merger today. The new combined parent company is called T-Mobile and will now trade on the Nasdaq under the ticker symbol TMUS with Sprint no longer trading on the NYSE.

For consumers, it will seemingly take a little time before the effects of the transition are meaningfully felt. T-Mobile did not comment on the future of the Sprint brand in today’s announcement, but they have previously promised that subscribers will have access to “the same or better rate plans” for three years as part of the deal.

Alongside news of the merger being finalized, T-Mobile shared that its CEO transition is taking place early. John Legere was supposed to stay on until the end of April, but Mike Sievert has been appointed CEO a month early, effective immediately. Sievert was previously T-Mobile’s COO.

Legere has led T-Mobile since 2012, mounting a turnaround at the company framing the service as a low-cost alternative to the duopoly of AT&T and Verizon. (Disclosure: TechCrunch is owned by Verizon Media, but this does not affect our coverage.) The company’s years-long “Un-carrier” marketing push often featured Legere and his antics prominently.

Legere is still on the company’s board of directors, but he’ll be stepping down at the end of his term through June.

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FCC mandates strict caller ID authentication to beat back robocalls

Posted by | FCC, Government, Mobile, robocalls, stir/shaken | No Comments

The FCC unanimously passed a new set of rules today that will require wireless carriers to implement a tech framework to combat robocalls. Called STIR/SHAKEN, and dithered over for years by the carriers, the protocol will be required to be put in place by summer of 2021.

Robocalls have grown from vexation to serious problem as predictable “claim your free vacation” scams gave way to “here’s how to claim your stimulus check” or “apply for coronavirus testing here” scams.

A big part of the problem is that the mobile networks allow for phone numbers to be spoofed or imitated, and it’s never clear to the call recipient that the number they see may be different from the actual originating number. Tracking and preventing fraudulent use of this feature has been on the carriers’ roadmap for a long time, and some have gotten around to it in some ways, for some customers.

STIR/SHAKEN, which stands for Secure Telephony Identity Revisited / Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs, is a way to securely track calls and callers to prevent fraud and warn consumers of potential scams. Carriers and the FCC have been talking about it since 2017, and in 2018 the FCC said it needed to be implemented in 2019. When that hadn’t happened, the FCC gave carriers a nudge, and at the end of the year Congress passed the TRACED Act to spur the regulator into carrying out its threat of mandating use of the system.

Rules to that effect were proposed earlier this month, and at the FCC’s open meeting today (conducted remotely), the measure passed unanimously. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has been vocal about the lack of concrete action on this issue, gladly approved the rules but vented her frustration in a statement:

It is good news that today the Federal Communications Commission adopts rules to reduce robocalls through call authentication. I only wish we had done so sooner, like three years ago when the FCC first proposed the use of STIR/SHAKEN technology.

Commissioner Brendan Starks called the rules a “good first step,” but pointed out that the carriers need to apply call authentication technology not just on the IP-based networks but all over, and also to work with each other (as some already are) to ensure that these protections remain in place across networks, not just within them.

Chairman Ajit Pai concurred, pointing out there was much work to do:

It’s clear that FCC action is needed to spur across-the-board deployment of this important technology…Widespread implementation of STIR/SHAKEN will reduce the effectiveness of illegal spoofing, allow law enforcement to identify bad actors more easily, and help phone companies identify—and even block—calls with illegal spoofed caller ID information before those calls reach their subscribers. Most importantly, it will give consumers more peace of mind when they answer the phone.

There’s no silver bullet for the problem of spoofed robocalls. So we will continue our aggressive, multi-pronged approach to combating it.

Consumers won’t notice any immediate changes — the deadline is next year, after all — but it’s likely that in the coming months you will receive more information from your carrier about the technology and what, if anything, you need to do to enable it.

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Family-friendly Spotify Kids app launches in the U.S., Canada and France

Posted by | Apps, Media, Mobile | No Comments

Last fall, Spotify debuted a standalone Kids application, aimed at bringing kid-friendly music and stories to Spotify Premium Family subscribers, initially in Ireland. Today, that app is being made available broadly in the U.S. Canada and France, the company announced on Tuesday. The Kids app is still considered a “beta” as it arrives in these new markets, Spotify says. However, it’s been expanded with more songs, stories and other content since the original beta tests began.

The app is largely designed to boost sign-ups for Spotify’s top-tier subscription, the $14.99 (USD) per month Premium Family plan. This plan offers up to 6 people in the same household access to Spotify’s on-demand, ad-free music streaming service, each with their own personalized account. It also includes other exclusive features like Family Mixes, as well as parental controls, and now, the Spotify Kids application.

Spotify has long since realized its one-size-fits-all strategy didn’t work for families. It needed to build a unique experience separate from its flagship app in order to best cater to children — and to abide by the regulations around data collection and consent with regard to apps aimed at kids.

Spotify designed the Kids app from the ground up with the needs of both parents and kids in mind. For parents, it offers peace of mind that children won’t accidentally encounter inappropriate lyrics, for example, or songs with more adult themes. To ensure this remains the case, Spotify editors hand-curate the content on the Kids app by following a set of guidelines about what’s inappropriate for children. It doesn’t utilize algorithms to make selections about what’s included, the way the spinoff app YouTube Kids does.

Instead of being a fully on-demand product, Spotify Kids offers playlists for little ones focused around categories like Movies, TV, Stories, or various activities, like “Learn” or “Party,” among others. As kids grow older, they may also want to follow their favorite artists in the app.

The app can also be customized by age range. For younger kids, there’s character-based artwork and content aimed at the preschool set like singalongs or lullabies. Older kids will see a more detailed experience and have access to more popular tracks that are also age-appropriate.

The programmed playlists in Spotify Kids are curated by editors hailing from some of the most well-known brands in kids’ entertainment — including Nickelodeon, Disney, Discovery Kids, Universal Pictures, and others. They know what kids want and also what sells to the parents who pay.

Since its launch in Ireland, Spotify Kids has rolled out to Sweden, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil.

It has also added more content since its original debut, says Spotify.

“We heard loud and clear that both parents and kids are craving more content in the app, so we’ve been increasing the number of tracks available. We’ve also heard from parents that they want even more control of the content, so we are working on some exciting new features,” noted Spotify’s Chief Premium Business Officer Alex Norström, in a statement.

The company isn’t yet going into detail about the upcoming additions, but says they’ll be focused on giving parents more control over the child’s experience. Typically, that would mean letting parents make more specific choices about what’s being streamed. But since parental controls are already available, it could mean letting parents pick specific songs or perhaps, block them. Time will tell.

Today the Spotify Kids app has over 8,000 songs in its catalog — 30% more than when it first arrived in Ireland, and growing.

It also has more local content, with 50% of the catalog in the app localized by market. Its collection of kid-friendly audiobooks and stories has grown as well, and the app now offers over 60 hours of stories, including fairy tales, classics, short stories, and stories from Disney Music Group.

In response to user feedback, there’s also now more bedtime content like lullabies, calming music and sounds, and bedtime stories. (And yes, this finally means that Spotify parents will stop having their year-end Spotify Wrapped ruined by lullabies.)

In the U.S., Spotify Kids launches today with over 125 playlists (approximately 8,000 tracks.) In addition to mainstream kids’ music, the catalog includes Spanish-language, Country, Christian, Motown, and Soul Dance Party playlists. There’s also a Trolls World Tour playlist and another for Frozen.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, there’s also a new global playlist called “Wash Your Hands” which includes songs that teach kids to wash hands and to cough and sneeze properly. This includes the new song from Pinkfong “Wash Your Hands with Baby Shark.”

And to aid parents now educating children at home, there’s a “Learning” playlist hub where you’ll find songs about the ABC’s, counting, science and more.

The app is available today in the U.S., Canada, and France on iOS and Android. The app is a free download, but requires a Spotify Premium Family membership.

 

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Snapchat preempts clones, syndicates Stories to other apps

Posted by | Apps, Developer, Developer Platform, hily, Mobile, Octi, snap inc, Snap Kit, Snapchat, Snapchat Ads, Snapchat Snap Kit, Social, Squad, TC, Triller | No Comments

If you can’t stop them, power them. That’s the strategy behind Snapchat App Stories, which launches today to let users show off their ephemeral content in other apps too. The first partners will let you post Stories to your dating profile in Hily, share them alongside [music] videos in Triller, watch them while screensharing in Squad, or give people a peek at your life in augmented reality network Octi. Developers can now sign up to add Stories to their apps.

Snapchat’s Stories format has been widely cloned, most famously by Instagram and Facebook, but with versions in various states of development for YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, SoundCloud, and more. Snapchat hopes to retain some grip on Stories and dissuade more copycats by letting developers bake the original version into their apps rather than building a bootleg attempt from scratch.

If you need Snapchat to share Stories to popular apps, that could boost content production plus subsequent viewership and ad impressions inside of Snapchat, remind people to shoot Stories, and make sure having a Snapchat account stays relevant. “We definitely think there’s a potential for monetization in App Stories but not yet” Snap’s VP of partnerships Ben Schwerin tells me. For now, Snapchat isn’t injecting ads into alongside Stories into other apps, though that’s clearly the plan.

“There are certain platforms out there that have decided they want to invest in building their own Stories product and their own camera, but it’s not a trivial thing to do. It takes resources and time. We think we can help developers do that” Schwerin explains. “Getting more people out there, regardless of age or where they live, comfortable using Stories probably makes them more likely to be able to pick up and enjoy Snapchat.”

Snapchat initially announced the plan for App Stories at its Partner Summit exactly a year ago. Unfortunately, its second annual developer conference that was set for this week was cancelled due to coronavirus.

Though advertising spend may be reduced, at least the app has experienced an increase in usage while everyone shelters in place. That includes third-party apps built on its Snap Kit platform that lets developers piggyback on Snapchat’s login, Bitmoji, and camera effects.

“We continue to see incredible growth from established apps like Reddit and Spotify and TikTok, and from startups that are really building from the ground up on Snap Kit like Yolo” Schwerin reveals. “People are spending more time at home and less time with friends. We’re seeing increased usage of Snapchat.”

Snap Kit has allowed Snapchat to rally would-be copycats into a legion of allies as it fights to stave off the Facebook empire. That strategy combined with a high-performance rebuild of its Android app for the developing world led Snapchat’s share price to grow from $11.36 a year ago to a recent high of $18.98 before coronavirus dragged it almost all the way back down.

Now, when people shoot a photo or video in the Snapchat camera, they’ll get options to share it not just to their Story or Snap Map and the crowdsourced community Stories, but also to their Story within other apps integrated with Snap Kit. Users will see options to syndicate their Story to products equipped with App Stories where they’re already logged in.

Unlike on Snapchat where Stories disappear after 24 hours, they default to a 7-day expiration in other App Stories. That relieves users of having to constantly post ephemeral Snaps to keep their dating or social app profiles stocked with biographical content.

In Hily, Snapchat Stories partially replaces the homegrown version it’d spun up in the meantime to show potential dates off-the-cuff looks at people’s lives. In Triller, users can tap on a content creator’s profile pic to see biographical Stories instead of just their polished music videos. In Squad, users can co-watch Stories along with other things to screenshare. And in Octi, users can see someone’s Snapchat Story amongst other hidden content revealed by its augmented reality camera.

One app missing is Tinder, which Snapchat originally previewed as its launch partner at the App Stories reveal last year. Tinder is using Snapchat’s Bitmoji stickers, but may have gotten cold feet about Stories. The fact that Snap is only now launching App Stories, and still hasn’t officially launched Ad Kit that lets it inject its ads into other apps and split revenue with developers, shows it’s taking time to adjust to its platform strategy after years of shunning outside integrations. It still won’t reveal the revenue percentage split it’s applying to Ad Kit.

For Snapchat to gain momentum it needs two things: a constant influx of new users, eager to use its augmented reality camera and Bitmoji wherever they’re available, and more impressions to monetize with ads after Instagram stole the Stories use case for untold millions of older users. App Stories could help with both.

“The proliferation of stories as the primary way to share video content on mobile we think is a good thing” Schwerin concludes. But Snap has sat by idly as it’s served as the R&D lab for Facebook’s product. Now Snapchat needs to own the viewership and the ad dollars that Stories generate everywhere other than Facebook. Just coining the concept doesn’t bring in cash.

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Disney+ to launch in India on April 3

Posted by | Apps, Asia, Entertainment, Media, Mobile | No Comments

Disney said on Tuesday that it will launch its streaming service, Disney+, in India on April 3. The service, available globally in about a dozen markets, will launch in India on Hotstar, one of the most popular on-demand streaming services in the country that is also owned by Disney.

The company said it is raising the yearly subscription cost of the combined entity, Disney+Hotstar, to Rs 1,499 ($20), up from Rs 999 ($13.2) that it previously charged for its most premium content on Hotstar. TechCrunch reported last year that Disney+ will launch in India in 2020 and will increase its subscription cost.

Hotstar, which claimed to have amassed 300 million monthly active users during the cricket season in India last year, would continue to offer an ad-supported service that it will offer to users without a fee. But it is increasing the cost of both of its premium tiers.

Disney is offering a more affordable yearly tier that costs Rs 399 ($5.3) — up from Rs 365 — that will include movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, access to live sporting events and a wide catalog of movies and shows, and original shows produced by Hotstar. It will not include Disney+ Originals.

The $20 yearly subscription tier will offer over 100 series and 250 superhero and animated titles, including Disney+ Originals and shows from HBO, Fox, and Showtime, the company said. It will also include access to everything that Disney+Hotstar customers are availing at $5.3 tier.

All existing subscribers will be automatically upgraded to their respective new subscription plan and will be charged the new rates upon renewal, the company said.

“With the success of Hotstar, we ushered in a new era for premium video streaming in India. Today, as we unveil Disney+ Hotstar, we take yet another momentous step in staying committed to our promise of delivering high-quality impactful stories for India that have not only entertained but also made a difference in people’s lives, a promise that is even more meaningful in challenging times such as this,” said Uday Shankar, President of The Walt Disney Company APAC and Chairman, Star & Disney India, said in a statement.

“We hope the power of Disney’s storytelling, delivered through Hotstar’s technology, will help our viewers find moments of comfort, happiness and inspiration during these difficult times,” he added.

The company had originally planned to launch Disney+Hotstar in India on March 29, but it began testing the service in the country weeks prior to that.

But as the coronavirus outbreak prompted New Delhi to order a nation-wide lockdown, which put a halt to public events including the cricket tournament Indian Premier League (IPL), Disney postponed the launch of Disney+Hostar in India.

IPL cricket tournament is by far the biggest attraction on Hotstar. According to people familiar with the matter, the months following IPL saw Hotstar’s userbase drop from 300 million to about 60 million last year.

If the IPL cricket tournament, which has been postponed until mid next month, is further delayed — or cancelled — it might significantly hurt Hotstar’s relevance and financials.

If that wasn’t enough, some of the shows and movies on Hotstar may disappear soon as one of its partners, Hooq, filed for liquidation last week.

Disney was also recently criticized for blocking and censoring episodes of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight.” Hotstar did not stream a recent episode of Oliver’s show that was critical of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and some of his policies. Hotstar has also edited out jokes from Oliver’s show that mocked Disney.

Oliver called out Disney and Hotstar for the censorship. Disney has not responded to multiple requests for comment on this matter.

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Facebook Messenger preps Auto Status location type sharing

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, facebook messenger, Facebook Messenger emoji status, instagram, Instagram Threads, location sharing, Mobile, Social, TC | No Comments

Facebook Messenger could soon automatically tell your closest friends you’re at the gym, driving or in Tokyo. Messenger has been spotted prototyping a ported version of the Instagram close friends-only Threads app’s Auto Status option that launched in October.

The unreleased Messenger feature would use your location, accelerometer and battery life to determine what you’re up to and share it with a specific subset of your friends. But instead of sharing your exact coordinates, it overlays an emoji on your Messenger profile pic to indicate that you’re at the movies, biking, at the airport or charging your phone.

It’s unclear if or when Messenger might launch Auto Status. But if released, the feature could become Facebook’s version of the AOL Away Message, allowing people to stay in closer touch without the creepiness of exact location sharing. It might also help people coordinate online or offline meetups by revealing what friends are up to. Auto Status creates an ice breaker, so if it says a close friend is “at a cafe,” or “chilling,” you could ask to hang out.

Back in 2016, I wrote about how exact location sharing had failed to become mainstream because knowing where someone is doesn’t tell you their intention. What matters is whether they’re free to interact with you, which none of the social networks offered.

A few products, like Down To Lunch and Free, came and went in the meantime. Snapchat’s Snap Map and its acquisition of Zenly both doubled down on precise location sharing, yet still we’re often stuck home wondering if anyone we care about is similarly bored and might want to hang out.

Facebook has been experimenting in this space since at least early 2018, when its manual Emoji Status was spotted. That allowed you to append an emoji of your choosing to your Messenger profile pic. Then in October, Facebook introduced Auto Status, but only in the Instagram side-app Threads.

Some users were initially creeped out by the idea of Facebook relaying battery status. But Instagram director of Product Management Robby Stein explained to me that because you might not respond to a message if your phone goes dead or is left on the charger, it’s useful info to relay to friends who might be wondering what you’re doing.

Then earlier this month, reverse engineering master and constant TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong revealed a new, unreleased version of Emoji Status hidden in Messenger’s Android code. Then today, Wong showed off how she similarly spotted Facebook trying to port Auto Status to Messenger. That would bring the feature to more than one billion monthly users compared to the relatively small base for Threads.

With Auto Status, you can “Let specific friends see what you’re up to as you go about your day. Share location info, weather, and more, even when you’re not in the app.” Auto Status is only visible to a special list of friends you can change at any time, similar to Instagram Close Friends. And the feature shares “no addresses or place names. Just types of locations, like “at a cafe.” Movement (driving, biking, walking), venue (at the movies, airport), cities (in Tokyo) and battery status (low battery, charging) are some of categories of what Auto Status shares.

A Facebook Messenger communications representative confirmed to TechCrunch that the Auto Status feature was being prototyped by Messenger, noting that “We’re always exploring new features to improve your Messenger experience. This feature is still in early development and not externally testing.” The company also tweeted the statement.

One of the biggest unsolved problems in social networking and messaging remains knowing whether friends are free to chat or hang out without having to ask them directly. Reaching out at the wrong time only to be ignored or rejected can feel awkward or intimidating, and can discourage connection later. But if you have a vague idea of what a close friend is up to, you can more deftly plan when to message them, and be more likely to get to spend time together in person or just online.

That could be a cure to the loneliness that endless feed scrolling by ourselves can leave us feeling.

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