Policy

The real risk of Facebook’s Libra coin is crooked developers

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, Cambridge Analytica, cryptocurrency, Developer, Facebook, Facebook Cryptocurrency, facebook platform, Facebook Policy, Libra Association, Libra Cryptocurrency, Mobile, Opinion, payments, Policy, Security, Social, TC | No Comments

Everyone’s worried about Mark Zuckerberg controlling the next currency, but I’m more concerned about a crypto Cambridge Analytica.

Today Facebook announced Libra, its forthcoming stablecoin designed to let you shop and send money overseas with almost zero transaction fees. Immediately, critics started harping about the dangers of centralizing control of tomorrow’s money in the hands of a company with a poor track record of privacy and security.

Facebook anticipated this, though, and created a subsidiary called Calibra to run its crypto dealings and keep all transaction data separate from your social data. Facebook shares control of Libra with 27 other Libra Association founding members, and as many as 100 total when the token launches in the first half of 2020. Each member gets just one vote on the Libra council, so Facebook can’t hijack the token’s governance even though it invented it.

With privacy fears and centralized control issues at least somewhat addressed, there’s always the issue of security. Facebook naturally has a huge target on its back for hackers. Not just because Libra could hold so much value to steal, but because plenty of trolls would get off on screwing up Facebook’s currency. That’s why Facebook open-sourced the Libra Blockchain and is offering a prototype in a pre-launch testnet. This developer beta plus a bug bounty program run in partnership with HackerOne is meant to surface all the flaws and vulnerabilities before Libra goes live with real money connected.

Yet that leaves one giant vector for abuse of Libra: the developer platform.

“Essential to the spirit of Libra . . . the Libra Blockchain will be open to everyone: any consumer, developer, or business can use the Libra network, build products on top of it, and add value through their services. Open access ensures low barriers to entry and innovation and encourages healthy competition that benefits consumers,” Facebook explained in its white paper and Libra launch documents. It’s even building a whole coding language called Move for making Libra apps.

Apparently Facebook has already forgotten how allowing anyone to build on the Facebook app platform and its low barriers to “innovation” are exactly what opened the door for Cambridge Analytica to hijack 87 million people’s personal data and use it for political ad targeting.

But in this case, it won’t be users’ interests and birthdays that get grabbed. It could be hundreds or thousands of dollars’ worth of Libra currency that’s stolen. A shady developer could build a wallet that just cleans out a user’s account or funnels their coins to the wrong recipient, mines their purchase history for marketing data or uses them to launder money. Digital risks become a lot less abstract when real-world assets are at stake.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook raced to lock down its app platform, restrict APIs, more heavily vet new developers and audit ones that look shady. So you’d imagine the Libra Association would be planning to thoroughly scrutinize any developer trying to build a Libra wallet, exchange or other related app, right? “There are no plans for the Libra Association to take a role in actively vetting [developers],” Calibra’s head of product Kevin Weil surprisingly told me. “The minute that you start limiting it is the minute you start walking back to the system you have today with a closed ecosystem and a smaller number of competitors, and you start to see fees rise.”

That translates to “the minute we start responsibly verifying Libra app developers, things start to get expensive, complicated or agitating to cryptocurrency purists. That might hurt growth and adoption.” You know what will hurt growth of Libra a lot worse? A sob story about some migrant family or a small business getting all their Libra stolen. And that blame is going to land squarely on Facebook, not some amorphous Libra Association.

Image via Getty Images / alashi

Inevitably, some unsavvy users won’t understand the difference between Facebook’s own wallet app Calibra and any other app built for the currency. “Libra is Facebook’s cryptocurrency. They wouldn’t let me get robbed,” some will surely say. And on Calibra they’d be right. It’s a custodial wallet that will refund you if your Libra are stolen and it offers 24/7 customer support via chat to help you regain access to your account.

Yet the Libra Blockchain itself is irreversible. Outside of custodial wallets like Calibra, there’s no getting your stolen or mis-sent money back. There’s likely no customer support. And there are plenty of crooked crypto developers happy to prey on the inexperienced. Indeed, $1.7 billion in cryptocurrency was stolen last year alone, according to CypherTrace via CNBC. “As with anything, there’s fraud and there are scams in the existing financial ecosystem today . . .  that’s going to be true of Libra too. There’s nothing special or magical that prevents that,” says Weil, who concluded “I think those pros massively outweigh the cons.”

Until now, the blockchain world was mostly inhabited by technologists, except for when skyrocketing values convinced average citizens to invest in Bitcoin just before prices crashed. Now Facebook wants to bring its family of apps’ 2.7 billion users into the world of cryptocurrency. That’s deeply worrisome.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 10, 2018. (Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Regulators are already bristling, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. Democrat Senator Sherrod Brown tweeted that “We cannot allow Facebook to run a risky new cryptocurrency out of a Swiss bank account without oversight.” And French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told Europe 1 radio that Libra can’t be allowed to “become a sovereign currency.”

Most harshly, Rep. Maxine Waters issued a statement saying, “Given the company’s troubled past, I am requesting that Facebook agree to a moratorium on any movement forward on developing a cryptocurrency until Congress and regulators have the opportunity to examine these issues and take action.”

Yet Facebook has just one vote in controlling the currency, and the Libra Association preempted these criticisms, writing, “We welcome public inquiry and accountability. We are committed to a dialogue with regulators and policymakers. We share policymakers’ interest in the ongoing stability of national currencies.”

That’s why as lawmakers confer about how to regulate Libra, I hope they remember what triggered the last round of Facebook execs having to appear before Congress and Parliament. A totally open, unvetted Libra developer platform in the name of “innovation” over safety is a ticking time bomb. Governments should insist the Libra Association thoroughly audit developers and maintain the power to ban bad actors. In this strange new crypto world, the public can’t be expected to perfectly protect itself from Cambridge Analytica 2.$.

Get up to speed on Facebook’s Libra with this handy guide:

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Facebook announces Libra cryptocurrency: All you need to know

Posted by | Anchorage, Andreessen Horowitz, Apps, blockchain, coinbase, cryptocurrency, Developer, eBay, eCommerce, Facebook, Farfetch, Finance, funding, Libra Association, Libra Cryptocurrency, Lyft, Mobile, Move coding language, payments, PayPal, Policy, privacy, Ribbit Capital, Social, Spotify, stablecoin, stripe, TC, Thrive Capital, Uber, Union Square Ventures, visa | No Comments

Facebook has finally revealed the details of its cryptocurrency, Libra, which will let you buy things or send money to people with nearly zero fees. You’ll pseudonymously buy or cash out your Libra online or at local exchange points like grocery stores, and spend it using interoperable third-party wallet apps or Facebook’s own Calibra wallet that will be built into WhatsApp, Messenger and its own app. Today Facebook released its white paper explaining Libra and its testnet for working out the kinks of its blockchain system before a public launch in the first half of 2020.

Facebook won’t fully control Libra, but instead get just a single vote in its governance like other founding members of the Libra Association, including Visa, Uber and Andreessen Horowitz, which have invested at least $10 million each into the project’s operations. The association will promote the open-sourced Libra Blockchain and developer platform with its own Move programming language, plus sign up businesses to accept Libra for payment and even give customers discounts or rewards.

Facebook is launching a subsidiary company also called Calibra that handles its crypto dealings and protects users’ privacy by never mingling your Libra payments with your Facebook data so it can’t be used for ad targeting. Your real identity won’t be tied to your publicly visible transactions. But Facebook/Calibra and other founding members of the Libra Association will earn interest on the money users cash in that is held in reserve to keep the value of Libra stable.

Facebook’s audacious bid to create a global digital currency that promotes financial inclusion for the unbanked actually has more privacy and decentralization built in than many expected. Instead of trying to dominate Libra’s future or squeeze tons of cash out of it immediately, Facebook is instead playing the long-game by pulling payments into its online domain. Facebook’s VP of blockchain, David Marcus, explained the company’s motive and the tie-in with its core revenue source during a briefing at San Francisco’s historic Mint building. “If more commerce happens, then more small businesses will sell more on and off platform, and they’ll want to buy more ads on the platform so it will be good for our ads business.”

The risk and reward of building the new PayPal

In cryptocurrencies, Facebook saw both a threat and an opportunity. They held the promise of disrupting how things are bought and sold by eliminating transaction fees common with credit cards. That comes dangerously close to Facebook’s ad business that influences what is bought and sold. If a competitor like Google or an upstart built a popular coin and could monitor the transactions, they’d learn what people buy and could muscle in on the billions spent on Facebook marketing. Meanwhile, the 1.7 billion people who lack a bank account might choose whoever offers them a financial services alternative as their online identity provider too. That’s another thing Facebook wants to be.

Yet existing cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum weren’t properly engineered to scale to be a medium of exchange. Their unanchored price was susceptible to huge and unpredictable swings, making it tough for merchants to accept as payment. And cryptocurrencies miss out on much of their potential beyond speculation unless there are enough places that will take them instead of dollars, and the experience of buying and spending them is easy enough for a mainstream audience. But with Facebook’s relationship with 7 million advertisers and 90 million small businesses plus its user experience prowess, it was well-poised to tackle this juggernaut of a problem.

Now Facebook wants to make Libra the evolution of PayPal . It’s hoping Libra will become simpler to set up, more ubiquitous as a payment method, more efficient with fewer fees, more accessible to the unbanked, more flexible thanks to developers and more long-lasting through decentralization.

“Success will mean that a person working abroad has a fast and simple way to send money to family back home, and a college student can pay their rent as easily as they can buy a coffee,” Facebook writes in its Libra documentation. That would be a big improvement on today, when you’re stuck paying rent in insecure checks while exploitative remittance services charge an average of 7% to send money abroad, taking $50 billion from users annually. Libra could also power tiny microtransactions worth just a few cents that are infeasible with credit card fees attached, or replace your pre-paid transit pass.

…Or it could be globally ignored by consumers who see it as too much hassle for too little reward, or too unfamiliar and limited in use to pull them into the modern financial landscape. Facebook has built a reputation for over-engineered, underused products. It will need all the help it can get if wants to replace what’s already in our pockets.

How does Libra work?

By now you know the basics of Libra. Cash in a local currency, get Libra, spend them like dollars without big transaction fees or your real name attached, cash them out whenever you want. Feel free to stop reading and share this article if that’s all you care about. But the underlying technology, the association that governs it, the wallets you’ll use and the way payments work all have a huge amount of fascinating detail to them. Facebook has released more than 100 pages of documentation on Libra and Calibra, and we’ve pulled out the most important facts. Let’s dive in.

The Libra Association — crypto’s new oligarchy

Facebook knew people wouldn’t trust it to wholly steer the cryptocurrency they use, and it also wanted help to spur adoption. So the social network recruited the founding members of the Libra Association, a not-for-profit which oversees the development of the token, the reserve of real-world assets that gives it value and the governance rules of the blockchain. “If we were controlling it, very few people would want to jump on and make it theirs,” says Marcus.

Each founding member paid a minimum of $10 million to join and optionally become a validator node operator (more on that later), gain one vote in the Libra Association council and be entitled to a share (proportionate to their investment) of the dividends from interest earned on the Libra reserve into which users pay fiat currency to receive Libra.

The 28 soon-to-be founding members of the association and their industries, previously reported by The Block’s Frank Chaparro, include:

  • Payments: Mastercard, PayPal, PayU (Naspers’ fintech arm), Stripe, Visa
  • Technology and marketplaces: Booking Holdings, eBay, Facebook/Calibra, Farfetch, Lyft, Mercado Pago, Spotify AB, Uber Technologies, Inc.
  • Telecommunications: Iliad, Vodafone Group
  • Blockchain: Anchorage, Bison Trails, Coinbase, Inc., Xapo Holdings Limited
  • Venture Capital: Andreessen Horowitz, Breakthrough Initiatives, Ribbit Capital, Thrive Capital, Union Square Ventures
  • Nonprofit and multilateral organizations, and academic institutions: Creative Destruction Lab, Kiva, Mercy Corps, Women’s World Banking

Facebook says it hopes to reach 100 founding members before the official Libra launch and it’s open to anyone that meets the requirements, including direct competitors like Google or Twitter. The Libra Association is based in Geneva, Switzerland and will meet biannually. The country was chosen for its neutral status and strong support for financial innovation including blockchain technology.

Libra governance — who gets a vote

To join the association, members must have a half rack of server space, a 100Mbps or above dedicated internet connection, a full-time site reliability engineer and enterprise-grade security. Businesses must hit two of three thresholds of a $1 billion USD market value or $500 million in customer balances, reach 20 million people a year and/or be recognized as a top 100 industry leader by a group like Interbrand Global or the S&P.

Crypto-focused investors must have more than $1 billion in assets under management, while Blockchain businesses must have been in business for a year, have enterprise-grade security and privacy and custody or staking greater than $100 million in assets. And only up to one-third of founding members can by crypto-related businesses or individually invited exceptions. Facebook also accepts research organizations like universities, and nonprofits fulfilling three of four qualities, including working on financial inclusion for more than five years, multi-national reach to lots of users, a top 100 designation by Charity Navigator or something like it and/or $50 million in budget.

The Libra Association will be responsible for recruiting more founding members to act as validator nodes for the blockchain, fundraising to jump-start the ecosystem, designing incentive programs to reward early adopters and doling out social impact grants. A council with a representative from each member will help choose the association’s managing director, who will appoint an executive team and elect a board of five to 19 top representatives.

Each member, including Facebook/Calibra, will only get up to one vote or 1% of the total vote (whichever is larger) in the Libra Association council. This provides a level of decentralization that protects against Facebook or any other player hijacking Libra for its own gain. By avoiding sole ownership and dominion over Libra, Facebook could avoid extra scrutiny from regulators who are already investigating it for a sea of privacy abuses as well as potentially anti-competitive behavior. In an attempt to preempt criticism from lawmakers, the Libra Association writes, “We welcome public inquiry and accountability. We are committed to a dialogue with regulators and policymakers. We share policymakers’ interest in the ongoing stability of national currencies.”

The Libra currency — a stablecoin

A Libra is a unit of the Libra cryptocurrency that’s represented by a three wavy horizontal line unicode character ≋ like the dollar is represented by $. The value of a Libra is meant to stay largely stable, so it’s a good medium of exchange, as merchants can be confident they won’t be paid a Libra today that’s then worth less tomorrow. The Libra’s value is tied to a basket of bank deposits and short-term government securities for a slew of historically stable international currencies, including the dollar, pound, euro, Swiss franc and yen. The Libra Association maintains this basket of assets and can change the balance of its composition if necessary to offset major price fluctuations in any one foreign currency so that the value of a Libra stays consistent.

The name Libra comes from the word for a Roman unit of weight measure. It’s trying to invoke a sense of financial freedom by playing on the French stem “Lib,” meaning free.

The Libra Association is still hammering out the exact start value for the Libra, but it’s meant to be somewhere close to the value of a dollar, euro or pound so it’s easy to conceptualize. That way, a gallon of milk in the U.S. might cost 3 to 4 Libra, similar but not exactly the same as with dollars.

The idea is that you’ll cash in some money and keep a balance of Libra that you can spend at accepting merchants and online services. You’ll be able to trade in your local currency for Libra and vice versa through certain wallet apps, including Facebook’s Calibra, third-party wallet apps and local resellers like convenience or grocery stores where people already go to top-up their mobile data plan.

The Libra Reserve — one for one

Each time someone cashes in a dollar or their respective local currency, that money goes into the Libra Reserve and an equivalent value of Libra is minted and doled out to that person. If someone cashes out from the Libra Association, the Libra they give back are destroyed/burned and they receive the equivalent value in their local currency back. That means there’s always 100% of the value of the Libra in circulation, collateralized with real-world assets in the Libra Reserve. It never runs fractional. And unliked “pegged” stable coins that are tied to a single currency like the USD, Libra maintains its own value — though that should cash out to roughly the same amount of a given currency over time.

When Libra Association members join and pay their $10 million minimum, they receive Libra Investment Tokens. Their share of the total tokens translates into the proportion of the dividend they earn off of interest on assets in the reserve. Those dividends are only paid out after Libra Association uses interest to pay for operating expenses, investments in the ecosystem, engineering research and grants to nonprofits and other organizations. This interest is part of what attracted the Libra Association’s members. If Libra becomes popular and many people carry a large balance of the currency, the reserve will grow huge and earn significant interest.

The Libra Blockchain — built for speed

Every Libra payment is permanently written into the Libra Blockchain — a cryptographically authenticated database that acts as a public online ledger designed to handle 1,000 transactions per second. That would be much faster than Bitcoin’s 7 transactions per second or Ethereum’s 15. The blockchain is operated and constantly verified by founding members of the Libra Association, which each invested $10 million or more for a say in the cryptocurrency’s governance and the ability to operate a validator node.

When a transaction is submitted, each of the nodes runs a calculation based on the existing ledger of all transactions. Thanks to a Byzantine Fault Tolerance system, just two-thirds of the nodes must come to consensus that the transaction is legitimate for it to be executed and written to the blockchain. A structure of Merkle Trees in the code makes it simple to recognize changes made to the Libra Blockchain. With 5KB transactions, 1,000 verifications per second on commodity CPUs and up to 4 billion accounts, the Libra Blockchain should be able to operate at 1,000 transactions per second if nodes use at least 40Mbps connections and 16TB SSD hard drives.

Transactions on Libra cannot be reversed. If an attack compromises over one-third of the validator nodes causing a fork in the blockchain, the Libra Association says it will temporarily halt transactions, figure out the extent of the damage and recommend software updates to resolve the fork.

Transactions aren’t entirely free. They incur a tiny fraction of a cent fee to pay for “gas” that covers the cost of processing the transfer of funds similar to with Ethereum. This fee will be negligible to most consumers, but when they add up, the gas charges will deter bad actors from creating millions of transactions to power spam and denial-of-service attacks. “We’ve purposely tried not to innovate massively on the blockchain itself because we want it to be scalable and secure,” says Marcus of piggybacking on the best elements of existing cryptocurrencies.

Currently, the Libra Blockchain is what’s known as “permissioned,” where only entities that fulfill certain requirements are admitted to a special in-group that defines consensus and controls governance of the blockchain. The problem is this structure is more vulnerable to attacks and censorship because it’s not truly decentralized. But during Facebook’s research, it couldn’t find a reliable permissionless structure that could securely scale to the number of transactions Libra will need to handle. Adding more nodes slows things down, and no one has proven a way to avoid that without compromising security.

That’s why the Libra Association’s goal is to move to a permissionless system based on proof-of-stake that will protect against attacks by distributing control, encourage competition and lower the barrier to entry. It wants to have at least 20% of votes in the Libra Association council coming from node operators based on their total Libra holdings instead of their status as a founding member. That plan should help appease blockchain purists who won’t be satisfied until Libra is completely decentralized.

Move coding language — for moving Libra

The Libra Blockchain is open source with an Apache 2.0 license, and any developer can build apps that work with it using the Move coding language. The blockchain’s prototype launches its testnet today, so it’s effectively in developer beta mode until it officially launches in the first half of 2020. The Libra Association is working with HackerOne to launch a bug bounty system later this year that will pay security researchers for safely identifying flaws and glitches. In the meantime, the Libra Association is implementing the Libra Core using the Rust programming language because it’s designed to prevent security vulnerabilities, and the Move language isn’t fully ready yet.

Move was created to make it easier to write blockchain code that follows an author’s intent without introducing bugs. It’s called Move because its primary function is to move Libra coins from one account to another, and never let those assets be accidentally duplicated. The core transaction code looks like: LibraAccount.pay_from_sender(recipient_address, amount) procedure.

Eventually, Move developers will be able to create smart contracts for programmatic interactions with the Libra Blockchain. Until Move is ready, developers can create modules and transaction scripts for Libra using Move IR, which is high-level enough to be human-readable but low-level enough to be translatable into real Move bytecode that’s written to the blockchain.

The Libra ecosystem and the Move language will be completely open to use and build, which presents a sizable risk. Crooked developers could prey on crypto novices, claiming their app works just the same as legitimate ones, and that it’s safe because it uses Libra. But if consumers get ripped off by these scammers, the anger will surely bubble up to Facebook. Yet still, Calibra’s head of product tells me, “There are no plans for the Libra Association to take a role in actively vetting [developers],” Calibra’s head of product Kevin Weil tells me.

Even though it’s tried to distance itself sufficiently via its subsidiary Libra and the association, many people will probably always think of Libra as Facebook’s cryptocurrency and blame it for their woes.

Read our full story on the dangers of Libra’s unvetted developer platform

Libra incentives — rewarding early businesses

The Libra Association wants to encourage more developers and merchants to work with its cryptocurrency. That’s why it plans to issue incentives, possibly Libra coins, to validator node operators who can get people signed up for and using Libra. Wallets that pull users through the Know Your Customer anti-fraud and money laundering process or that keep users sufficiently active for over a year will be rewarded. For each transaction they process, merchants will also receive a percentage of the transaction back.

Businesses that earn these incentives can keep them, or pass some or all of them along to users in the form of free Libra tokens or discounts on their purchases. This could create competition between wallets to see which can pass on the most rewards to their customers, and thereby attract the most users. You could imagine eBay or Spotify giving you a discount for paying in Libra, while wallet developers might offer you free tokens if you complete 100 transactions within a year.

“One challenge for Spotify and its users around the world has been the lack of easily accessible payment systems – especially for those in financially underserved markets,” Spotify’s Chief Premium Business Officer Alex Norström writes. “In joining the Libra Association, there is an opportunity to better reach Spotify’s total addressable market, eliminate friction and enable payments in mass scale.”

This savvy incentive system should massively help ratchet up Libra’s user count without dictating how businesses balance their margins versus growth. Facebook also has another plan to grow its developer ecosystem. By offering venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures a portion of the reserve interest, they’re motivating to fund startups building Libra infrastructure.

Using Libra

So how do you actually own and spend Libra? Through Libra wallets like Facebook’s own Calibra and others that will be built by third-parties, potentially including Libra Association members like PayPal. The idea is to make sending money to a friend or paying for something as easy as sending a Facebook Message. You won’t be able to make or receive any real payments until the official launch next year, though, but you can sign up for early access when it’s ready here.

None of the Libra Association members agreed to provide details on what exactly they’ll build on the blockchain, but we can take Facebook’s Calibra wallet as an example of the basic experience. Calibra will launch alongside the Libra currency on iOS and Android within Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and a standalone app. When users first sign up, they’ll be taken through a Know Your Customer anti-fraud process where they’ll have to provide a government-issued photo ID and other verification info. They’ll need to conduct due diligence on customers and report suspicious activity to the authorities.

From there you’ll be able to cash in to Libra, pick a friend or merchant, set an amount to send them and add a description and send them Libra. You’ll also be able to request Libra, and Calibra will offer an expedited way of paying merchants by scanning your or their QR code. Eventually it wants to offer in-store payments and integrations with point-of-sale systems like Square.

The Libra Association’s e-commerce members seem particularly excited about how the token could eliminate transaction fees and speed up checkout. “We believe blockchain will benefit the luxury industry by improving IP protection, transparency in the product life cycle and — as in the case of Libra — enable global frictionless e-commerce,” says FarFetch CEO Jose Neves.

Privacy — at least from Facebook

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained some of the philosophy behind Libra and Calibra in a post today. “It’s decentralized — meaning it’s run by many different organizations instead of just one, making the system fairer overall. It’s available to anyone with an internet connection and has low fees and costs. And it’s secured by cryptography which helps keep your money safe. This is an important part of our vision for a privacy-focused social platform — where you can interact in all the ways you’d want privately, from messaging to secure payments.”

By default, Facebook won’t import your contacts or any of your profile information, but may ask if you wish to do so. It also won’t share any of your transaction data back to Facebook, so it won’t be used to target you with ads, rank your News Feed, or otherwise earn Facebook money directly. Data will only be shared in specific instances in anonymized ways for research or adoption measurement, for hunting down fraudsters or due to a request from law enforcement. And you don’t even need a Facebook or WhatsApp account to sign up for Calibra or to use Libra.

“We realize people don’t want their social data and financial data commingled,” says Marcus, who’s now head of Calibra. “The reality is we’ll have plenty of wallets that will compete with us and many of them will not be in social, and if we want to successfully win people’s trust, we have to make sure the data will be separated.”

In case you are hacked, scammed or lose access to your account, Calibra will refund you for lost coins when possible through 24/7 chat support because it’s a custodial wallet. You also won’t have to remember any long, complex crypto passwords you could forget and get locked out from your money, as Calibra manages all your keys for you. Given Calibra will likely become the default wallet for many Libra users, this extra protection and smoother user experience is essential.

For now, Calibra won’t make money. But Calibra’s head of product Kevin Weil tells me that if it reaches scale, Facebook could launch other financial tools through Calibra that it could monetize, such as investing or lending. “In time, we hope to offer additional services for people and businesses, such as paying bills with the push of a button, buying a cup of coffee with the scan of a code or riding your local public transit without needing to carry cash or a metro pass,” the Calibra team writes. That makes it start to sound a lot like China’s everything app WeChat.

A global coin

Facebook got one thing right for sure: Today’s money doesn’t work for everyone. Those of us living comfortably in developed nations likely don’t see the hardships that befall migrant workers or the unbanked abroad. Preyed on by greedy payday lenders and high-fee remittance services, targeted by muggers and left out of traditional financial services, the poor get poorer. Libra has the potential to get more money from working parents back to their families and help people retain credit even if they’re robbed of their physical possessions. That would do more to accomplish Facebook’s mission of making the world feel smaller than all the News Feed Likes combined.

If Facebook succeeds and legions of people cash in money for Libra, it and the other founding members of the Libra Association could earn big dividends on the interest. And if suddenly it becomes super quick to buy things through Facebook using Libra, businesses will boost their ad spend there. But if Libra gets hacked or proves unreliable, it could cost lots of people around the world money while souring them on cryptocurrencies. And by offering an open Libra platform, shady developers could build apps that snatch not just people’s personal info like Cambridge Analytica, but their hard-earned digital cash.

Facebook just tried to reinvent money. Next year, we’ll see if the Libra Association can pull it off. It took me 4,000 words to explain Libra, but at least now you can make up your own mind about whether to be scared of Facebook crypto.

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FCC passes measure urging carriers to block robocalls by default

Posted by | FCC, Government, Mobile, Policy, regulation, robocalls, TC | No Comments

The FCC voted at its open meeting this week to adopt an anti-robocall measure, but it may or may not lead to any abatement of this maddening practice — and it might not be free, either. That said, it’s a start toward addressing a problem that’s far from simple and enormously irritating to consumers.

The last two years have seen the robocall problem grow and grow, and although there are steps you can take right now to improve things, they may not totally eliminate the issue or perhaps won’t be available on your plan or carrier.

Under fire for not acting quickly enough in the face of a nationwide epidemic of scam calls, the FCC has taken action about as fast as a federal regulator can be expected to, and there are two main parts to its plan to fight robocalls, one of which was approved today at the Commission’s open meeting.

The first item was proposed formally last month by Chairman Ajit Pai, and although it amounts to little more than nudging carriers, it could be helpful.

Carriers have the ability to apply whatever tools they have to detect and block robocalls before they even reach users’ phones. But it’s possible, if unlikely, that a user may prefer not to have that service active. And carriers have complained that they are afraid blocking calls by default may in fact be prohibited by existing FCC regulations.

The FCC has said before that this is not the case and that carriers should go ahead and opt everyone into these blocking services (one can always opt out), but carriers have balked. The rulemaking approved basically just makes it crystal clear that carriers are permitted, and indeed encouraged, to opt consumers into call-blocking schemes.

That’s good, but to be clear, Wednesday’s resolution does not require carriers to do anything, nor does it prohibit carriers from charging for such a service — as indeed Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon already do in some form or another. (TechCrunch is owned by Verizon Media, but this does not affect our coverage.)

BREAKING: The @FCC votes to authorize call blocking to help stop #robocalls. That’s good news. Now the bad news: it refuses to prevent new consumer charges and fees to block these awful calls. That’s not right. We should stop robocalls and do it for FREE.https://t.co/6bay6cnujN

— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) June 6, 2019

Commissioner Starks noted in his approving statement that the FCC will be watching the implementation of this policy carefully for the possibility of abuse by carriers.

At my request, the item [i.e. his addition to the proposal] will give us critical feedback on how our tools are performing. It will now study the availability of call blocking solutions; the fees charged, if any, for these services; the effectiveness of various categories of call blocking tools; and an assessment of the number of subscribers availing themselves of available call blocking tools.

A second rule is still gestating, existing right now more or less only as a threat from the FCC should carriers fail to step up their game. The industry has put together a sort of universal caller ID system called STIR/SHAKEN (Secure Telephony Identity Revisited / Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs), but has been slow to roll it out. Pai said late last year that if carriers didn’t put it in place by the end of 2019, the FCC would be forced to take regulatory action.

Why the Commission didn’t simply take regulatory action in the first place is a valid question, and one some Commissioners and others have asked. Be that as it may, the threat is there and seems to have spurred carriers to action. There have been tests, but as yet no carrier has rolled out a working anti-robocall system based on STIR/SHAKEN.

Pai has said regarding these systems that “we [i.e. the FCC] do not anticipate that there would be costs passed on to the consumer,” and it does seem unlikely that your carrier will opt you into a call-blocking scheme that costs you money. But never underestimate the underhandedness and avarice of a telecommunications company. I would not be surprised if new subscribers get this added as a line item or something; watch your bills carefully.

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YouTube will let bigot monetize if he removes link to homophobic merch

Posted by | Apps, Entertainment, Media, Mobile, Opinion, Policy, Social, TC, WTF, YouTube | No Comments

YouTube has made the weakest, least courageous response to mass backlash regarding its ruling yesterday that right-wing personality Steven Crowder’s racist and homophobic attacks on Vox video producer Carlos Maza didn’t violate its policies. Now YouTube says it’s demonetized Crowder’s channel because his “pattern of egregious actions has harmed the broader community” …but it will restore Crowder’s ability to earn a cut of YouTube ad revenue as long as he removes the link in his videos/channel to his offensive merchandise shop and fixes “all of the issues” with his channel. Specifically, Crowder’s shop sells [Warning: disturbing language not condoned by TechCrunch] “Socialism is for f*gs” t-shirts, baby onesies and beer-pong cups.

[Update: In the wake of this article and YouTube’s focus on his homophobic slur shirts, Crowder has removed the hateful merchandise from his store.]

The unwillingness to remove Crowder from YouTube counters the frequent calls by conservative politicians and pundits that they’re discriminated against on social media. Instead, it seems YouTube is too scared of being called bias to do what’s right and enforce its policies that dictate Crowder’s content or whole channel be removed. And even if Crowder does make YouTube’s required fixes, which it’s yet to publicly detail, he can still toe the line of its hate speech policies while promoting his merchandise shop within his videos.

To clarify, in order to reinstate monetization on this channel, he will need to remove the link to his T-shirts.

— TeamYouTube (@TeamYouTube) June 5, 2019

Sorry for the confusion, we were responding to your tweets about the T-shirts. Again, this channel is demonetized due to continued egregious actions that have harmed the broader community. To be reinstated, he will need to address all of the issues with his channel.

— TeamYouTube (@TeamYouTube) June 5, 2019

YouTube needs to completely rethink its approach to policy and enforcement here. Otherwise it’s likely to embolden harassers and bigots across the internet.

For those just stumbling into this social media policy dumpster fire, Canadia-American conservative commentator Crowder publishes politically inflammatory videos to his 3.8 million YouTube subscribers. They often include hosting bad faith “debates” with those who disagree with him, where he uses twisted rhetoric, aggression and obstinance to goad guests into getting angry so he can paint them as crazy and wrong. He’s also known for targeting specific media figures with verbal abuse, which leads his followers to harass them in en masse.

In this case, Crowder called Vox’s Maza a “gay Mexican” and “lispy queer,” amongst other hate speech-laden taunts across multiple videos. Last week Maza compiled a viral Twitter thread detailing the abuse and imploring YouTube to enforce its policy that bans hate speech and harassment.

Yesterday, YouTube tweeted its confusing and contradictory ruling from a review of Crowder’s videos. “While we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies . . . As an open platform, it’s crucial for us to allow everyone–from creators to journalists to late-night TV hosts–to express their opinions w/in the scope of our policies. Opinions can be deeply offensive, but if they don’t violate our policies, they’ll remain on our site . . . Even if a video remains on our site, it doesn’t mean we endorse/support that viewpoint.”

That makes zero sense considering YouTube’s policy expressly forbids this kind of content, and says it will be taken down. YouTube specifically bans content that’s deliberately meant to “humiliate someone,” that includes “hurtful and negative personal comments/videos about another person” or features hate speech regarding “ethnicity” and “sexual orientation.” Crowder’s content violates all of these rules, and so consistent enforcement would require its removal.

That’s why the public momentarily applauded today when YouTube announced that it suspended Crowder’s monetization. This still fell far short of what YouTube’s policies dictate, but it at least meant that Crowder couldn’t monetize his YouTube views directly, even if he could still promote his merchandise, live events and Patreo-paid subscription page. Then the internet got rightfully mad again when YouTube said he just had to remove the link to his homophobic t-shirt shop to regain monetization, given he could just promote the shop in his videos while still benefiting from his YouTube reach.

And then just as this article was published, YouTube made yet another flip-flop and apologized for all the confusion (that it caused by waffling). It now claims that “this channel is demonetized due to continued egregious actions that have harmed the broader community. To be reinstated, he will need to address all of the issues with his channel.” Yet YouTube did not respond to a request for details about exactly what must be changed.

At least in the wake of this article and YouTube’s insistence he delink offensive merch from his channel, Crowder has removed the “Socialism is for f*gs” merchandise from his shop. But he’s sure to find new ways to stoke his hateful base while avoiding a full YouTube suspension.

Crowder repeatedly links his YouTube channel and videos to his merchandise shop selling shirts featuring homophobic slurs

It’s tough to even know where to begin criticism of YouTube’s behavior here:

  • YouTube ignored Crowder’s abuse of Maza and others for years while earning money from a hateful audience
  • It only took a closer look after Maza’s thorough exposé on abuse from Crowder received 20,000 retweets and got media attention
  • YouTube claimed that “while we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies,” despite clearly violating its policies
  • The company had the gall to put out a blog post about its “ongoing work to tackle hate” without any reference to the Maza situation
  • A day after saying he didn’t violate policy, YouTube reversed itself and claimed Crowder did violate policies; however, he’s only getting demonetized, some believe because he’s popular, brings his fans to YouTube and Google might face allegations of anti-conservative bias if it suspended him
  • YouTube repeatedly refused to be transparent about why Crowder’s content was or wasn’t in violation of its policies, or what he’d need to change to be remonetized; it has refused to put anyone on the record, and even emailed responses to our press inquiries were answered by an anonymous Google Press email account
  • YouTube has not made any statement about ceasing to recommend Crowder’s videos in its algorithm, which has been repeatedly shown to radicalize people by showing them more and more extreme fringe content

Hopefully this will be a turning point in news coverage and public perception of Google and YouTube. Facebook’s spread of misinformation and Twitter’s failure to police harassment have dominated the conversation of social media’s dangers to society. But it’s YouTube that willfully suggests the most salacious and eye-catching content to users to keep them watching ads, even if it’s promoting bigotry. And since it pays stars directly, unlike Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat, it’s uniquely responsible for creating a profession out of hatred.

Perhaps this situation will lead to more calls from viewers and advertisers to #BoycottYouTube. But if members of the tech community really want to drive change, they should message their friends who work at YouTube or Google and ask why they work at a company that operates this way. That monetizes harassment and radicalization while refusing to take a strong stand against it. When backlash hits not just pecks at Google’s profits but harms its recruiting efforts in a brutally competitive talent market, that’s when we might finally see it do the right thing.

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Science publisher IEEE bans Huawei but says trade rules will have ‘minimal impact’ on members

Posted by | Android, Asia, China, Education, fedex, Gadgets, huawei, IEEE, Intel, New York, Policy, Qualcomm, smartphone, telecommunications, U.S. government | No Comments

The IEEE’s ban on Huawei following new trade restrictions in the United States has sent shock waves through global academic circles. The organization responded saying the impact of the trade policy will have limited effects on its members, but it’s hard at this point to appease those who have long hailed it as an open platform for scientists and professors worldwide to collaborate.

Earlier this week, the New York-headquartered Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers blocked Huawei employees from being reviewers or editors for its peer-review process, according to screenshots of an email sent to its editors that first circulated in the Chinese media.

Unbelievable, IEEE is forced to ban Huawei employees from peer-reviewing papers or handling papers as editors. pic.twitter.com/pkvQeOUI07

— Junhui Qian (@qian_junhui) May 29, 2019

The IEEE later confirmed the ban in a statement issued on Wednesday, saying it “complies with U.S. government regulations which restrict the ability of the listed Huawei companies and their employees to participate in certain activities that are not generally open to the public. This includes certain aspects of the publication peer review and editorial process.”

In mid-May, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security added Huawei and its affiliates to its “Entity List,” effectively barring U.S. firms from selling technology to Huawei without government approval.

It’s unclear what makes peer review at the IEEE a technology export, but the science association wrote in its email to editors that violation “may have severe legal implications.”

Whilst it’s registered in New York, the IEEE bills itself as a “non-political” and “global” community aiming to “foster technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity.”

Despite its removal of Huawei scientists from paper vetting, the IEEE assured that its compliance with U.S. trade restrictions should have “minimal impact” on its members around the world. It further added that Huawei and its employees can continue to participate in other activities as a member, including accessing the IEEE digital library; submitting technical papers for publication; presenting at IEEE-sponsored conferences; and accepting IEEE awards.

As members of its standard-setting body, Huawei employees can also continue to exercise their voting rights, attend standards development meetings, submit proposals and comment in public discussions on new standards.

A number of Chinese professors have reprimanded the IEEE’s decision, flagging the danger of letting politics meddle with academic collaboration. Zhang Haixia, a professor at the School of Electronic and Computer Engineering of China’s prestigious Peking University, said in a statement that she’s quitting the IEEE boards in protest:

This is Haixia Zhang from Peking University, as an old friend and senior IEEE member, I am really shocked to hear that IEEE is involved in “US-Huawei Ban” for replacing all reviewers from Huawei, which is far beyond the basic line of Science and Technology which I was trainedand am following in my professional career till now.

…today, this message from IEEE for “replacing all reviewers from Huawei in IEEE journals” is challenging my professional integrity. I have to say that, As a professor, I AM NOT accept this. Therefore, I decided to quit from IEEE NANO and IEEE JMEMS editorial board untill one day it come back to our common professional integrity.

The IEEE freeze on Huawei adds to a growing list of international companies and organizations that are severing ties or clashing with the Chinese smartphone and telecom giant in response to the trade blacklist. That includes Google, which has blocked select Android services from Huawei; FedEx, which allegedly “diverted” a number of Huawei packages; ARM, which reportedly told employees to suspend business with Huawei; as well as Intel and Qualcomm, which also reportedly cut ties with Huawei. 

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Select FCC leaders announce support for T-Mobile, Sprint merger

Posted by | FCC, M&A, Mobile, Policy, sprint, T-Mobile | No Comments

It’s been more than a year since T-Mobile and Sprint formally announced a merger agreement. This morning, members of FCC leadership have issued statements voicing their support for the $26 billion proposal.

Ajit Pai was first out with a statement, suggesting that the pricey consolidation of two of the Unites States’ largest carriers would help accelerate his longstanding desire to provide more internet coverage to rural areas.

“Demonstrating that 5G will indeed benefit rural Americans,” Pai wrote, “T-Mobile and Sprint have promised that their network would cover at least two-thirds of our nation’s rural population with highs peed, mid-band 5G, which could improve the economy and quality of life in many small towns across the country.”

The FCC chairman went on to suggest that the merger “is in the public interest,” adding that he would recommend fellow members of the commission’s leadership approve it. Commissioner Brendan Carr followed soon after with his own statement of approval, suggesting that a merger would actually increase competition.

“I support the combination of T-Mobile and Sprint because Americans across the country will see more competition and an accelerated buildout of fast, 5G services,” the Commissioner writes. “The proposed transaction will strengthen competition in the U.S. wireless market and provide mobile and in-home broadband access to communities that demand better coverage and more choices.”

A number of ground rules have been laid out for approval. In a bid for approval, Sprint has promised to sell off prepaid brand Boost Mobile. “[W]e have committed to divest Sprint’s Boost pre-paid business to a third party following the closing of the merger,” T-Mobile CEO John Legere said in a blog post following the statements of support. “We’ll work to find a serious, credible, financially capable and independent buyer for all the assets needed to run – and grow – the business, and we’ll make sure that buyer has attractive wholesale arrangements.”

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Facebook changes algorithm to promote worthwhile & close friend content

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, Facebook News Feed, Mobile, Policy, Social, TC | No Comments

Facebook is updating the News Feed ranking algorithm to incorporate data from surveys about who you say are your closest friends and which links you find most worthwhile. Today Facebook announced it’s trained new classifiers based on patterns linking these surveys with usage data so it can better predict what to show in the News Feed. The change could hurt Pages that share clickbait and preference those sharing content that makes people feel satisfied afterwards.

For close friends, Facebook surveyed users about which people they were closest too. It then detected how this matches up with who you are tagged in photos with, constantly interact with, like the same post and check in to the same places as, and more. That way if it recognizes those signals about other people’s friendships, it can be confident those are someone’s closest friends they’ll want to see the most of. You won’t see more friend content in total, but more from your best pals instead of distant acquaintances.

A Facebook News Feed survey from 2016, shared by Varsha Sharma

For worthwhile content, Facebook conducted surveys via News Feed to find out which links people said were good uses of their time. Facebook then detected which types of link posts, which publishers and how much engagement the posts got and matched that to survey results. This then lets it determine that if a post has a similar style and engagement level, it’s likely to be worthwhile and should be ranked higher in the feed.

The change aligns with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent comments declaring that Facebook’s goal isn’t total time spent, but time well spent with meaningful content you feel good about. Most recently, that push has been about demoting unsafe content. Last month Facebook changed the algorithm to minimize clickbait and links to crappy ad-filled sites that receive a disproportionately high amount of their traffic from Facebook. It cracked down on unoriginality by hiding videos ripped off from other creators, and began levying harsher demotions to repeat violators of its policies. And it began to decrease the distribution of “borderline content” on Facebook and Instagram that comes close to but doesn’t technically break its rules.

While many assume Facebook just juices News Feed to be as addictive in the short-term as possible to keep us glued to the screen and viewing ads, that would actually be ruinous for its long-term business. If users leave the feed feeling exhausted, confused and unfulfilled, they won’t come back. Facebook’s already had trouble with users ditching its text-heavy News Feed for more visual apps like Instagram (which it luckily bought) and Snapchat (which it tried to). While demoting clickbait and viral content might decrease total usage time today, it could preserve Facebook’s money-making ability for the future while also helping to rot our brains a little less.

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Twitter’s new Developer Labs offers beta access to rebuilt APIs

Posted by | Apps, Developer, Mobile, Policy, Social, TC, Twitter, twitter api, Twitter Platform, Twitter Policy | No Comments

Twitter is finally modernizing its core APIs after seven years of stagnation, and it wants early feedback from developers. That’s why today it’s launching Twitter Developer Labs, which app makers can sign up for to experiment with pre-release beta APIs. First up will be re-engineered versions of GET /Tweets and GET /Users APIs. The first functional changes will come next, including real-time streaming access to the Twitter firehose with the expansion of tweet filtering plus impressions and engagement metrics that were previously only available in its expensive enterprise API tiers. Twitter will also be adding newer features like Polls to the API.

Giving developers longer lead-times and more of a voice when it comes to rebuilding its APIs could help Twitter get more app makers paying for its premium API ($339 to $2,899 per month for just one specific API) and enterprise API tiers (even more expensive). It might also stimulate the creation of dev-made analytics, measurement and ads businesses that convince brands to spend more money on Twitter marketing. The Labs program and the first API endpoint changes will roll out in the coming weeks. To join, people can sign up for developer accounts, join an email list for updates on the Labs site, follow the TwitterDev account and start providing feedback.

Twitter’s data and enterprise solutions product manager Ian Cairns acknowledged some of the whiplash Twitter has put developers through in the past, rapidly changing strategies and restricting rate limits in ways that made developers’ businesses unsustainable. For example, last year a change broke many third-party Twitter reading clients. “There are certainly times over the years when the ways in which we’ve managed our APIS . . . have changed and we know some of those have changed in ways that have been disruptive to developers. What we’re doing with the Twitter Developer Labs program is focusing on trying to use that as a vehicle to build trust and make sure we’re having a two-way conversation and that the voice of the people who use our platform the most are driving the future.”

Twitter’s main API hasn’t been overhauled since its release in August 2012, despite a bunch of progress on enterprise and ads APIs in the meantime. The advantage of that is that the old API was optimized for backwards compatibility so developers didn’t have to constantly update their apps, allowing old utilities to survive. But that also prohibited integrating some newer features like Polls. Twitter plans to move to a more regular versioning system where breaking changes are communicated far enough in advance for developers to adapt.

More recently, Twitter announced a streamlining of its APIs that also instituted the paid tiers in 2017. But last year it broke Twitter clients and sold its Fabric developer toolset to Google as part of cost-cutting measures that previously spelled the demise of Vine.  And this year, Twitter has made moves to crack down on API abuse for spamming and services for buying followers. That comes after the Cambridge Analytica scandal rocked confidence in developer platforms and forced their owners to limit functionality in order to preserve safety and privacy.

Developer Labs will serve as the nerdy brother of the new “twttr” beta consumer app that launched in March to let people try out potential changes to how replies and the feed work. Twitter writes that “Our initial focus in Labs will be on developers who work with conversational data, including academics and researchers who study and explore what’s happening on Twitter, and social listening and analytics companies that build products for other businesses.”

Twitter’s relationship with developers has always been rocky, in large part due to lack of communication. If a developer builds something, and then Twitter either messes it up with API changes or builds a similar feature itself, it can cost a ton in wasted engineering effort. If Labs opens a clearer dialogue with developers, Twitter could count them as allies instead of PR liabilities.

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Facebook sues analytics firm Rankwave over data misuse

Posted by | Apps, Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, facebook platform, Facebook Policy, lawsuit, Mobile, Policy, Social, TC | No Comments

Facebook might have another Cambridge Analytica on its hands. In a late Friday news dump, Facebook revealed that today it filed a lawsuit alleging South Korean analytics firm Rankwave abused its developer platform’s data, and has refused to cooperate with a mandatory compliance audit and request to delete the data.

Facebook’s lawsuit centers around Rankwave offering to help businesses build a Facebook authorization step into their apps so they can pass all the user data to Rankwave, which then analyzes biographic and behavioral traits to supply user contact info and ad targeting assistance to the business. Rankwave also apparently misused data sucked in by its own consumer app for checking your social media “influencer score”. That app could pull data about your Facebook activity such as location checkins, determine that you’ve checked into a baseball stadium, and then Rankwave could help its clients target you with ads for baseball tickets.

The use of a seemingly fun app to slurp up user data and repurpose it for other business goals is strikingly similar to how Cambridge Analytica’s personality quiz app tempted millions of users to provide data about themselves and their friends.

Rankwave touts its Facebook data usage in this 2014 pitch deck

TechCrunch has attained a copy of the lawsuit that alleges that Rankwave misused Facebook data outside of the apps where it was collected, purposefully delayed responding to a cease-and-desist order, claimed it didn’t violate Facebook policy, lied about not using its apps since 2018 when they were accessed in April 2019, and then refused to comply with a mandatory audit of its data practices. Facebook Platform data is not supposed to be repurposed for other business goals, only for the developer to improve their app’s user experience.

“By filing the lawsuit, we are sending a message to developers that Facebook is serious about enforcing our policies, including requiring developers to cooperate with us during an investigation” Facebook’s director of platform enforcement and litigation Jessica Romero wrote. Facebook tells TechCrunch that “To date Rankwave has not participated in our investigation and we are trying to get more info from them to determine if there was any misuse of Pages data.” We’ve reached out to Rankwave for its response.

Cambridge Analytic-ish

Facebook’s lawsuit details that “Rankwave used the Facebook data associated with Rankwave’s apps to create and sell advertising and marketing analytics and models — which violated Facebook’s policies and terms” and that it “failed to comply with Facebook’s requests for proof of Rankwave’s compliance with Facebook policies, including an audit.” Rankwave apparently accessed data from over thirty apps, including those created by its clients.

Specifically, Facebook cites that its “Platform Policies largely restrict Developers from using Facebook data outside of the environment of the app, for any purpose other than enhancing the app users’ experience on the app.” But Rankwave allegedly used Facebook data outside those apps.

Rankwave describes how it extracts contact info and ad targeting data from Facebook data

Facebook’s suit claims that “Rankwave’s B2B apps were installed and used by businesses to track and analyze activity on their Facebook Pages . . . Rankwave operated a consumer app called the ‘Rankwave App.’ This consumer app was designed to measure the app user’s popularity on Facebook by analyzing the level of interaction that other users had with the app user’s Facebook posts. On its website, Rankwave claimed that this app calculated a user’s ‘Social influence score’ by ‘evaluating your social activities’ and receiving ‘responses from your friends.’”

TechCrunch has found that Rankwave still offers an Android app that asks for you to login with Facebook so it can assess the popularity of your posts and give you a “Social Influencer Score”. Until 2015 when Facebook tightened its policies, this kind of app could ingest not only a user’s own data but that about their Facebook friends. As with Cambridge Analytica, this likely massively compounded Rankwave’s total data access.

Rankwave’s Android app asks for users’ Facebook data in exchange for providing them a Social Influencer Score

Facebook Delays Coming After Rankwave

Founded in 2012 by Sungwha Shim, Rankwave came into Facebook’s crosshairs in June 2018 after it was sold to a Korean entertainment company in May 2017. Facebook assesses that the value of its data at the time of the buyout was $9.8 million.

Worryingly, Facebook didn’t reach out to Rankwave until January 2019 for information proving it complied with the social network’s policies. After receiving no response, Facebook issued a cease-and-desist order in February, which Rankwave replied to seeking more time because it’s CTO had resigned, which Facebook calls “false representations”. Later that month, Rankwave denied violating Facebook’s policies but refused to provide proof. Facebook gave it more time to provide proof, but Rankwave didn’t respond. Facebook has now shut down Rankwave’s apps.

Rankwave claims to be able to extract a wide array of ad targeting data from Facebook data

Now Facebook is seeking money to cover the $9.8 million value of the data, additional monetary damages and legal fees, plus injunctive relief restraining Rankwave from accessing the Facebook Platform, requiring it to comply with Facebook’s audit, requiring that it delete all Facebook data.

The fact that Rankwave was openly promoting these services that blatantly violate Facebook’s policies casts further doubt on how the social network was policing its platform. And the six month delay between Facebook identifying a potential issue with Rankwave and it even reaching out for information, plus another several months before it blocked Rankwave’s app shows a failure to move swiftly to enforce its policies. These blunders might explain why Facebook buried the news by announcing it on a Friday afternoon when many reporters and readers have already signed off for the weekend.

For now there’s no evidence of wholesale transfer of Rankwave’s data to other parties or its misuse for especially nefarious purposes like influencing an election as with Cambridge Analytica. The lawsuit merely alleges data was wrongly harnessed to make money, which may not spur the same level of backlash. But the case further proves that Facebook was too busy growing itself thanks to the platform to properly safeguard it against abuse.

You can learn more about Rankwave’s analytics practices from this 2014 presentation.

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India is investigating Google over alleged Android abuse

Posted by | Android, Asia, competition commission of india, european union, Google, Google Play Store, Government, india, Policy | No Comments

More than 95% of the smartphones that ship in India run Android, according to industry estimates. Now the Indian antitrust watchdog is convinced that the nation should investigate whether Google is abusing the dominant position of its mobile operating system to hurt local rivals.

The Competition Commission of India (CCI), the local anti-monopoly regulator, began looking at Google’s Android business in India last year after it received a complaint from unspecified people. Last month, the regulator preliminarily found that Google had abused the dominant position of Android in the nation, and thereby ordered its investigation unit to conduct a full investigation, according to a report by Reuters, which cites unnamed sources.

In a statement to TechCrunch, a Google spokesperson said that the company looks forward to working with the CCI. “Android has enabled millions of Indians to connect to the internet by making mobile devices more affordable. We look forward to working with the Competition Commission of India to demonstrate how Android has led to more competition and innovation, not less.”

The investigation, not the first of its kind, will take about a year to conclude and could see Google executives summoned before the regulator, the news agency reported. The CCI has not publicly commented on the probe.

If found guilty, Google may be fined up to 10% of its local revenue or 300% of its net profits. Even as India has emerged as one of Google’s largest markets in recent years, the company makes a relatively tiny amount in the nation. It clocked $1.4 billion in revenue in India in the year that ended in March 2018, according to regulatory filings, compared to more than $100 billion it generated globally in a comparable time period.

The specific accusations, as well as the identity of those who filed the complaint, remain unclear.

With the launch of this investigation, India is joining the EU, which continues to look at several businesses of Google — including Android — to ensure that the company is not abusing its dominant position in the market. Earlier this year, the EU regulators concluded that Google had forced its OEM partners to prebundle a number of apps, including Google Search, Chrome browser and Google Play Store on their Android handsets.

Following the verdict, which Google has appealed, the Android maker announced it will give users more choices for browsers and search engines.

India’s regulator has previously investigated Google’s search business and Apple’s partnerships with local carriers for sale of iPhones. Apple’s iOS has tiny market share in India, where most people have annual income of less than $2,000.

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