social media

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

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

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

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

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

facebook ad protest nyc

Credit: TechCrunch

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

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

IMG 9739

Credit: Unbound / Dame Products

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

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

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

IMG 9753

Credit: Unbound / Dame Products

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

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iOS 13: Here are the new security and privacy features you might’ve missed

Posted by | Android, Apple, Apps, Bluetooth, cloud applications, computing, hardware, iOS, iPad, iPhone, privacy, safari, Security, smartphones, social media, tablet computers, technology, webmail, wi-fi | No Comments

In just a few weeks Apple’s new iOS 13, the thirteenth major iteration of its popular iPhone software, will be out — along with new iPhones and a new iPad version, the aptly named iPadOS. We’ve taken iOS 13 for a spin over the past few weeks — with a focus on the new security and privacy features — to see what’s new and how it all works.

Here’s what you need to know.

You’ll start to see reminders about apps that track your location

1 location track

Ever wonder which apps track your location? Wonder no more. iOS 13 will periodically remind you about apps that are tracking your location in the background. Every so often it will tell you how many times an app has tracked where you’ve been in a recent period of time, along with a small map of the location points. From this screen you can “always allow” the app to track your location or have the option to limit the tracking.

You can grant an app your location just once

2 location ask

To give you more control over what data have access to, iOS 13 now lets you give apps access to your location just once. Previously there was “always,” “never” or “while using,” meaning an app could be collecting your real-time location as you’re using it. Now you can grant an app access on a per use basis — particularly helpful for the privacy-minded folks.

And apps wanting access to Bluetooth can be declined access

Screen Shot 2019 07 18 at 12.18.38 PM

Apps wanting to access Bluetooth will also ask for your consent. Although apps can use Bluetooth to connect to gadgets, like fitness bands and watches, Bluetooth-enabled tracking devices known as beacons can be used to monitor your whereabouts. These beacons are found everywhere — from stores to shopping malls. They can grab your device’s unique Bluetooth identifier and track your physical location between places, building up a picture of where you go and what you do — often for targeting you with ads. Blocking Bluetooth connections from apps that clearly don’t need it will help protect your privacy.

Find My gets a new name — and offline tracking

5 find my

Find My, the new app name for locating your friends and lost devices, now comes with offline tracking. If you lost your laptop, you’d rely on its last Wi-Fi connected location. Now it broadcasts its location using Bluetooth, which is securely uploaded to Apple’s servers using nearby cellular-connected iPhones and other Apple devices. The location data is cryptographically scrambled and anonymized to prevent anyone other than the device owner — including Apple — from tracking your lost devices.

Your apps will no longer be able to snoop on your contacts’ notes

8 contact snoop

Another area that Apple is trying to button down is your contacts. Apps have to ask for your permission before they can access to your contacts. But in doing so they were also able to access the personal notes you wrote on each contact, like their home alarm code or a PIN number for phone banking, for example. Now, apps will no longer be able to see what’s in each “notes” field in a user’s contacts.

Sign In With Apple lets you use a fake relay email address

6 sign in

This is one of the cooler features coming soon — Apple’s new sign-in option allows users to sign in to apps and services with one tap, and without having to turn over any sensitive or private information. Any app that requires a sign-in option must use Sign In With Apple as an option. In doing so users can choose to share their email with the app maker, or choose a private “relay” email, which hides a user’s real email address so the app only sees a unique Apple-generated email instead. Apple says it doesn’t collect users’ data, making it a more privacy-minded solution. It works across all devices, including Android devices and websites.

You can silence unknown callers

4 block callers

Here’s one way you can cut down on disruptive spam calls: iOS 13 will let you send unknown callers straight to voicemail. This catches anyone who’s not in your contacts list will be considered an unknown caller.

You can strip location metadata from your photos

7 strip location

Every time you take a photo your iPhone stores the precise location of where the photo was taken as metadata in the photo file. But that can reveal sensitive or private locations — such as your home or office — if you share those photos on social media or other platforms, many of which don’t strip the data when they’re uploaded. Now you can. With a few taps, you can remove the location data from a photo before sharing it.

And Safari gets better anti-tracking features

9 safari improvements

Apple continues to advance its new anti-tracking technologies in its native Safari browser, like preventing cross-site tracking and browser fingerprinting. These features make it far more difficult for ads to track users across the web. iOS 13 has its cross-site tracking technology enabled by default so users are protected from the very beginning.

Read more:

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Week-in-Review: Alexa’s indefinite memory and NASA’s otherworldly plans for GPS

Posted by | 4th of July, AI assistant, alex wong, Amazon, Andrew Kortina, Android, andy rubin, appeals court, Apple, apple inc, artificial intelligence, Assistant, China, enterprise software, Getty-Images, gps, here, iPhone, machine learning, Online Music Stores, operating systems, Sam Lessin, social media, Speech Recognition, TC, Tim Cook, Twitter, United States, Venmo, voice assistant | No Comments

Hello, weekenders. This is Week-in-Review, where I give a heavy amount of analysis and/or rambling thoughts on one story while scouring the rest of the hundreds of stories that emerged on TechCrunch this week to surface my favorites for your reading pleasure.

Last week, I talked about the cult of Ive and the degradation of Apple design. On Sunday night, The Wall Street Journal published a report on how Ive had been moving away from the company, to the dismay of many on the design team. Tim Cook didn’t like the report very much. Our EIC gave a little breakdown on the whole saga in a nice piece.

Apple sans Ive


Amazon Buys Whole Foods For Over 13 Billion

The big story

This week was a tad restrained in its eventfulness; seems like the newsmakers went on 4th of July vacations a little early. Amazon made a bit of news this week when the company confirmed that Alexa request logs are kept indefinitely.

Last week, an Amazon public policy exec answered some questions about Alexa in a letter sent to U.S. Senator Coons. His office published the letter on its site a few days ago and most of the details aren’t all that surprising, but the first answer really sets the tone for how Amazon sees Alexa activity:

Q: How long does Amazon store the transcripts of user voice recordings?

A: We retain customers’ voice recordings and transcripts until the customer chooses to delete them.

What’s interesting about this isn’t that we’re only now getting this level of straightforward dialogue from Amazon on how long data is kept if not specifically deleted, but it makes one wonder why it is useful or feasible for them to keep it indefinitely. (This assumes that they actually are keeping it indefinitely; it seems likely that most of it isn’t, and that by saying this they’re protecting themselves legally, but I’m just going off the letter.)

After several years of “Hey Alexa,” the company doesn’t seem all that close to figuring out what it is.

Alexa seems to be a shit solution for commerce, so why does Amazon have 10,000 people working on it, according to a report this week in The Information? All signs are pointing to the voice assistant experiment being a short-term failure in terms of the short-term ambitions, though AI advances will push the utility.

Training data is a big deal across AI teams looking to educate models on data sets of relevant information. The company seems to say as much. “Our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems use machine learning to adapt to customers’ speech patterns and vocabulary, informed by the way customers use Alexa in the real world. To work well, machine learning systems need to be trained using real world data.”

The company says it doesn’t anonymize any of this data because it has to stay associated with a user’s account in order for them to delete it. I’d feel a lot better if Amazon just effectively anonymized the data in the first place and used on-device processing the build a profile on my voice. What I’m more afraid of is Amazon having such a detailed voiceprint of everyone who has ever used an Alexa device.

If effortless voice-based e-commerce isn’t really the product anymore, what is? The answer is always us, but I don’t like the idea of indefinitely leaving Amazon with my data until they figure out the answer.

Send me feedback
on Twitter @lucasmtny or email
lucas@techcrunch.com

On to the rest of the week’s news.

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • NASA’s GPS moonshot
    The U.S. government really did us a solid inventing GPS, but NASA has some bigger ideas on the table for the positioning platform, namely, taking it to the Moon. It might be a little complicated, but, unsurprisingly, scientists have some ideas here. Read more.
  • Apple has your eyes
    Most of the iOS beta updates are bug fixes, but the latest change to iOS 13 brought a very strange surprise: changing the way the eyes of users on iPhone XS or XS Max look to people on the other end of the call. Instead of appearing that you’re looking below the camera, some software wizardry will now make it look like you’re staring directly at the camera. Apple hasn’t detailed how this works, but here’s what we do know
  • Trump is having a Twitter party
    Donald Trump’s administration declared a couple of months ago that it was launching an exploratory survey to try to gain a sense of conservative voices that had been silenced on social media. Now @realdonaldtrump is having a get-together and inviting his friends to chat about the issue. It’s a real who’s who; check out some of the people attending here.
Amazon CEO And Blue Origin Founder Jeff Bezos Speaks At Air Force Association Air, Space And Cyber Conference

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of badness:

  1. Amazon is responsible for what it sells:
    [Appeals court rules Amazon can be held liable for third-party products]
  2. Android co-creator gets additional allegations filed:
    [Newly unsealed court documents reveal additional allegations against Andy Rubin]

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. TechCrunch reporter Kate Clark did a great interview with the ex-Facebook, ex-Venmo founding team behind Fin and how they’re thinking about the consumerization of the enterprise.

Sam Lessin and Andrew Kortina on their voice assistant’s workplace pivot

“…The thing is, developing an AI assistant capable of booking flights, arranging trips, teaching users how to play poker, identifying places to purchase specific items for a birthday party and answering wide-ranging zany questions like “can you look up a place where I can milk a goat?” requires a whole lot more human power than one might think. Capital-intensive and hard-to-scale, an app for “instantly offloading” chores wasn’t the best business. Neither Lessin nor Kortina will admit to failure, but Fin‘s excursion into B2B enterprise software eight months ago suggests the assistant technology wasn’t a billion-dollar idea.…”

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers. This week, we talked a bit about asking for money and the future of China’s favorite tech platform:

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Higher Ground Labs is betting tech can help sway the 2020 elections for Democrats

Posted by | america, Barack Obama, Betsy Hoover, Brad Parscale, Brandwatch, breitbart news, Cambridge Analytica, campaign manager, Chris Sacca, Civis Analytics, communication tools, computing, CRM, democratic party, donald j trump, Facebook, Forbes, Google, greylock, Higher Ground Labs, Hillary Clinton, Insight Venture Partners, LinkedIn, mitt romney, Mobile, ngp van, online tools, paris, PayPal, president, presidential election, Reid Hoffman, republican national committee, republican party, republicans, Ron Conway, Shomik Dutta, social media, social media tools, Software, sv angel, TC, technology, Uber | No Comments

When Shomik Dutta and Betsy Hoover first met in 2007, he was coordinating fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign and she was a deputy field director for the campaign.

Over the next two election cycles the two would become part of an organizing and fundraising team that transformed the business of politics through its use of technology — supposedly laying the groundwork for years of Democratic dominance in organizing, fundraising, polling and grassroots advocacy.

Then came Donald J. Trump and the 2016 election.

For both Dutta and Hoover, the 2016 outcome was a wake-up call against complacency. What had worked for the Democratic party in 2008 and 2012 wasn’t going to be effective in future election cycles, so they created the investment firm Higher Ground Labs to provide financing and a launching pad for new companies serving Democratic campaigns and progressive organizations.

As the political world shifts from analog to digital, we need a lot more tools to capture that spend,” says Dutta. “Democrats are spending on average 70 cents of every dollar raised on television ads. We are addicted to old ways of campaigning. If we want to activate and engage an enduring majority of voters we have to go where they are (and that’s increasingly online) and we have to adapt to be able to have these conversations wherever they are.”

Social media and the rise of “direct to consumer” politics

While the Obama campaign effectively used the internet as a mobilization tool in its two campaigns, the lessons of social media and mobile technologies that offer a “direct-to-consumer” politics circumventing traditional norms have, in the ensuing years, been harnessed most effectively by conservative organizations, according to some scholars and activists.

“The internet is a tool and in that sense it’s neutral, but just like other communication tools from the past, people with more power, with more resources, with more organization, have been able to take advantage of it,” Jen Schradie, an assistant professor at the Observatoire sociologique du changement at Sciences Po in Paris, told Vox in an interview earlier this month.

Schradie is a scholar whose recent book, “The Revolution That Wasn’t,contends that the internet’s early application as a progressive organizing tool has been overtaken by more conservative elements. “The idea of neutrality seems more true of the internet because the costs of distributing information are dramatically lower than with something like television or radio or other communication tools,” she said. “However, to make full use of the internet, you still need substantial resources and time and motivation. The people who can afford to do this, who can fund the right digital strategy, create a major imbalance in their favor.”

Schradie contends that a web of privately funded think tanks, media organizations, talk radio and — increasingly — mobile applications have woven a conservative stitch into the fabric of social media. The medium’s own tendency to promote polarizing and fringe viewpoints also served to amplify the views of pundits who were previously believed to be political outliers.

Essentially, these sites have enabled commentators and personalities to create a patchwork of “grassroots” organizations and media operations dedicated to reaching an audience receptive to their particular political message that’s funded by billionaire donors and apolitical corporate ad dollars.

Then there’s the technology companies, like Cambridge Analytica, which improperly used access to Facebook data for targeting purposes — also financed by these same billionaires.

“The last six years have witnessed millions and millions of dollars of private Koch money and Mercer money that have gone to pretty sophisticated data and media efforts to advance the Republican agenda,” says Dutta. “I want to even the scale.”

Dutta is referring to Charles and David Koch and Robert Mercer, the scions and founder (respectively) of two family dynasties worth billions. The Koch brothers support a web of political advocacy groups, while Mercer and his daughter were large backers of Breitbart News and Cambridge Analytica, two organizations that arguably provided much of the policy underpinnings and online political machinery for the Trump presidential campaign.

But there’s also the simple fact that Donald Trump’s digital strategy director, Brad Parscale, was able to effectively and inexpensively leverage the social media tools and data troves amassed by the Republican National Committee that were already available to the candidate who won the Republican primary. In fact, in the wake of Romney’s loss, Republicans spent years building up profiles of 200 million Americans for targeted messaging in the 2016 election.

“Who controls Facebook controls the 2016 election,” Parscale said during a speaking engagement at the Romanian Academy of Sciences, according to a report in Forbes.

Parscale, now the campaign manager for the president’s 2020 reelection campaign recalled, “These guys from Facebook walked into my office and said: ‘we have a beta … it’s a new onboarding tool … you can onboard audiences straight into Facebook and we will match them to their Facebook accounts,’ ” according to Forbes .

During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton’s team made 66,000 visual ads, according to Parscale, while the Trump campaign made 5.9 million ads by leveraging social media networks and the language of memes. And in the run-up to the 2020 election, Parscale intends to go back to the same well. The Trump campaign has already spent more than $5 million on Facebook ads in the current election cycle, according to The New York Times outspending every single Democratic candidate in the field and roughly all of the Democrats combined.

Reaching higher ground

Dutta and Hoover are working to offset this movement with investments of their own. Back in 2017, the two launched Higher Ground Labs, an early-stage company accelerator and investment firm dedicated to financing technology companies that could support progressive causes.

The firm has $15 million committed from investors, including Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and a partner at Greylock; Ron Conway, the founder of SV Angel and an early backer of Google, Facebook and Twitter; Chris Sacca, an early investor in Uber; and Elizabeth Cutler, the founder of SoulCycle. Already, Higher Ground has invested in more than 30 companies focused on services like advocacy outreach, polling and campaign organizing — among others. 

Screen Shot 2019 07 01 at 5.36.26 AM

The latest cohort of companies to receive backing Higher Ground Labs

“It is vitally important that Democrats learn to do their campaigns online,” says Dutta. “The way you recruit volunteers; the way you poll sentiment; the way you target and mobilize voters has to be done with online tools and has to improve in the progressive movement and that’s the job of Higher Ground Labs to fix.”

For-profit companies have a critical role to play in election organizing and mobilization, Dutta says. Thanks to government regulation, only private companies are allowed to trade data across organizations and causes (provided they do it at fair market value). That means advocacy groups, unions and others can tap the information these companies collect — for a fee.

The Democratic Party already has one highly valued private company that it uses for its technology services. Formed from the merger of NGP Software and Voter Activation Network, two companies that got their start in the late 1990s and early 2000s, NGP VAN is the largest software and technology services provider for Democratic campaigns. It’s also a highly valued company, which received roughly $100 million in financing last year from the private equity firm Insight Venture Partners, according to people familiar with the investment. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“Our vision has been to build a platform that would break down the painful data silos that exist in the campaigns and nonprofit space, and to offer truly best-in-class digital, fundraising and organizing features that could serve both the largest and the smallest nonprofits and campaigns, all with one unified CRM,” wrote Stu Trevelyan, the chief executive of NGP VAN + EveryAction, in an August blogpost announcing the investment. “We’re so excited that others, like our new partners at Insight, share that vision, and we can’t wait to continue innovating and growing together in the coming years.”

Can startups lead the way?

Even as private equity dollars boost the firepower of organizations like NGP VAN, venture capitalists are financing several companies from the Higher Ground Labs portfolio.

Civis Analytics, a startup founded by the former chief analytics officer of Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, raised $22 million from outside investors, and counts Higher Ground Labs among its backers. Qriously, another Higher Ground Labs portfolio company, was acquired by Brandwatch, as was GroundBase, a messaging platform acquired by the nonprofit progressive advocacy organization ACRONYM.

Other companies in the portfolio are also attracting serious attention from investors. Standouts like Civis Analytics and Hustle, which raised $30 million last May, show that investors are buying into the proposition that these companies can build lasting businesses serving Democratic and progressive political campaigns and corporate businesses that would also like to rally employees or personalize a marketing pitch to customers.

These are companies like Change Research, an earlier-stage company that just launched from Higher Ground Labs accelerator last year. That company, founded by Mike Greenfield, a serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was the first data scientist working on the problem of fraud detection at PayPal, and Pat Reilly, a communications professional who worked with state and local Democratic politicians, is slashing the cost of political polling.

“I wanted to do something for American democracy to try and improve the state of things,” Greenfield said in an interview last year.

For Greenfield, that meant increasing access to polling information. He cited the test case of a Kansas special election in a district that Donald Trump had won by 27 points. Using his own proprietary polling data, Greenfield predicted that the Democratic challenger, James Thompson, would pose a significant threat to his Republican opponent, Mike Estes.

Estes went on to a 7% victory at the ballot, but Thompson’s campaign did not have access to polling data that could have helped inform his messaging and — potentially — sway the election, said Greenfield.

“Public opinion is used to ween out who can be most successful based on how much money they’re able to raise for a poll,” says Reilly. It’s another way that electoral politics is skewed in favor of the people with disposable income to spend what is a not-insignificant amount of money on campaigns.

Polls alone can cost between $20,000 to $30,000 — and Change Research has been able to cut that by 80% to 90%, according to the company’s founders.

“It’s safe to say that most of the world was stunned by the outcome [of the presidential election] because most polls predicted the opposite,” says Greenfield. “Being a good American and as a parent of a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old, providing forward-thinking candidates and causes with the kind of insight they needed to win up and down the ballot could not only be a good business, but really help us save our democracy.”

Change Research isn’t just polling for politicians. Last year, the company conducted roughly 500 polls for political candidates and advocacy groups.

“The way that I’ve described Change Research to investors is that we want to simultaneously move the world in a better direction and having a positive impact while building a substantial business,” says Greenfield. “We’re only going to work with candidates and causes that we’re aligned with.”

Being exclusively focused on progressive causes isn’t the liability that many in the broader business community would think, says Dutta. Many Democratic organizations won’t work with companies that sell services to both sides of the aisle.

For Higher Ground Labs, a stipulation for receiving their money is a commitment not to work with any Republican candidate. Corporations are okay, but conservative causes and organizations are forbidden.

“We’re in a moment of existential crisis in America and this Republican party is deeply toxic to the health and future of our country,” says Dutta. “The only path out of this mess is to vote Republicans out of office and to do that we need to make it easier for good candidates to run for office and to engage a broader electorate into voting regularly.”

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Developers can now verify mobile app users over WhatsApp instead of SMS

Posted by | Android, Apps, authentication, Facebook, iOS, Mobile, Security, SMS, Social, social media, social network, text messaging, verification, WhatsApp | No Comments

Facebook today released a new SDK that allows mobile app developers to integrate WhatsApp verification into Account Kit for iOS and Android. This will allow developers to build apps where users can opt to receive their verification codes through the WhatsApp app installed on their phone instead of through SMS.

Today, many apps give users the ability to sign up using only a phone number — a now popular alternative to Facebook Login, thanks to the social network’s numerous privacy scandals that led to fewer people choosing to use Facebook with third-party apps.

Plus, using phone numbers to sign up is common with a younger generation of users who don’t have Facebook accounts — and sometimes barely use email, except for joining apps and services.

When using a phone number to sign in, it’s common for the app to confirm the user by sending a verification code over SMS to the number provided. The user then enters that code to create their account. This process can also be used when logging in, as part of a multi-factor verification system where a user’s account information is combined with this extra step for added security.

While this process is straightforward and easy enough to follow, SMS is not everyone’s preferred messaging platform. That’s particularly true in emerging markets like India, where 200 million people are on WhatsApp, for example. In addition, those without an unlimited messaging plan are careful not to overuse texting when it can be avoided.

That’s where the WhatsApp SDK comes in. Once integrated into an iOS or Android app, developers can offer to send users their verification code over WhatsApp instead of text messaging. They can even choose to disable SMS verification, notes Facebook.

This is all a part of WhatsApp’s Account Kit, which is a larger set of developer tools designed to allow people to quickly register and log in to apps or websites using only a phone number and email, no password required.

This WhatsApp verification codes option has been available on WhatsApp’s web SDK since late 2018, but hadn’t been available with mobile apps until today.

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Twitter makes ‘likes’ easier to use in its twttr prototype app. (Nobody tell Jack.)

Posted by | Apps, jack dorsey, Mobile, Social, social media, social network, Twitter, twttr | No Comments

On the one hand, you’ve got Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey lamenting the “like” button’s existence, and threatening to just kill the thing off entirely for incentivizing the wrong kind of behavior. On the other hand, you have twttr — Twitter’s prototype app where the company is testing new concepts including, most recently, a way to make liking tweets even easier than before.

Confused about Twitter’s product direction? Apparently, so is the company.

In the latest version of the twttr prototype, released on Thursday, users are now able to swipe right to left on any tweet in order to “like” it. Previously, this gesture only worked on tweets in conversation threads, where the engagement buttons had been hidden. With the change, however, the swipe works anywhere — including the Home timeline, the Notifications tab, your Profile page, or even within Twitter Search results. In other words, it becomes a more universal gesture.

You like their Tweets. Swipe right and really show them. No seriously, you can now swipe right on any Tweet on twttr to like it on your Home timeline, notifications tab, profile page, or search results.

— Twitter Support (@TwitterSupport) April 25, 2019

This makes sense because once you got used to swiping right, it was confusing that the gesture didn’t work in some places, but did in others. Still, it’s odd to see the company doubling down on making “likes” easier to use — and even rolling out a feature that could increase user engagement with the “Like” button — given Jack Dorsey’s repeated comments about his distaste for “likes” and the conversations around the button’s removal.

Of course, twttr is not supposed to be Dorsey’s vision. Instead, it’s meant to be a new experiment in product development, where users and Twitter’s product teams work together, in the open, to develop, test, and then one day officially launch new features for Twitter.

For the time being, the app is largely focused on redesigning conversation threads. On Twitter today, these get long and unwieldy, and it’s not always clear who’s talking to who. On twttr, however, threads are nested with a thin line connecting the various posts.

The app is also rolling out other, smaller tweaks like labels on tweets within conversations that highlight the original “Author’s” replies, or if a post comes from someone you’re “following.”

And, of course, twttr introduced the “swipe to like” gesture.

While it’s one thing to want to collaborate more directly with the community, it seems strange that twttr is rolling out a feature designed to increase — not decrease — engagement with “likes” at this point in time.

Last August, for example, Dorsey said he wanted to redesign key elements of the social network, including the “like” button and the way Twitter displays follower counts.

“The most important thing that we can do is we look at the incentives that we’re building into our product,” Dorsey had said at the time. “Because they do express a point of view of what we want people to do — and I don’t think they are correct anymore.”

Soon after, at an industry event in October 2018, Dorsey again noted how the “like” button sends the wrong kind of message.

“Right now we have a big ‘like’ button with a heart on it, and we’re incentivizing people to want to drive that up,” said Dorsey. “We have a follower count that was bolded because it felt good twelve years ago, but that’s what people see us saying: that should go up. Is that the right thing?,” he wondered.

Short story on “like.” We’ve been open that we’re considering it. Jack even mentioned it in front of the US Congress. There’s no timeline. It’s not happening “soon.” https://t.co/jXBmkudWYv

— Brandon Borrman (@bborrman) October 29, 2018

While these comments may have seemed like a little navel-gazing over Twitter’s past, a Telegraph report about the “like” button’s removal quickly caught fire. It claimed Dorsey had said the “like” button was going to go away entirely, which caused so much user backlash that Twitter comms had to respond. The company said the idea has been discussed, but it wasn’t something happening “soon.” (See above tweet).

Arguably, the “like” button is appreciated by Twitter’s user base, so it’s not surprising that a gesture that could increase its usage would become something that gets tried out in the community-led twttr prototype app. It’s worth noting, however, how remarkably different the development process is when it’s about what Twitter’s users want, not the CEO.

Hmmm.

Hey, twttr team? Maybe we can get that “edit” button now?

 

 

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Snap is channeling Asia’s messaging giants with its move into gaming

Posted by | alibaba, Apps, Asia, Australia, Bitmoji, Canada, China, computing, e-commerce, epic games, Evan Spiegel, Facebook, food, France, game developers, Gaming, instagram, Instant Messaging, Japan, josh constine, Kakao, Los Angeles, messaging apps, Messenger, nhn japan, Nintendo, operating systems, player, Snap, Snapchat, Social, social media, social network, Software, Southeast Asia, Startups, Tencent, United Kingdom, United States, WeChat, WhatsApp | No Comments

Snap is taking a leaf out of the Asian messaging app playbook as its social messaging service enters a new era.

The company unveiled a series of new strategies that are aimed at breathing fresh life into the service that has been ruthlessly cloned by Facebook across Instagram, WhatsApp and even its primary social network. The result? Snap has consistently lost users since going public in 2017. It managed to stop the rot with a flat Q4, but resting on its laurels isn’t going to bring back the good times.

Snap has taken a three-pronged approach: extending its stories feature (and ads) into third-party apps and building out its camera play with an AR platform, but it is the launch of social games that is the most intriguing. The other moves are logical, and they fall in line with existing Snap strategies, but games is an entirely new category for the company.

It isn’t hard to see where Snap found inspiration for social games — Asian messaging companies have long twinned games and chat — but the U.S. company is applying its own twist to the genre.

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Bumble goes to print with its new lifestyle magazine, Bumble Mag

Posted by | brand, bumble, business networking, Hearst, Magazine, Media, Mobile, online brands, Social, social media | No Comments

Bumble is the latest digital brand to try to extend its reach through a print publication. The dating app maker today announced the launch of Bumble Mag, a lifestyle publication it produced in partnership with Hearst that offers stories and advice about dating, careers, friendship and more to Bumble’s over 50 million users.

On the cover of the 100-page premiere issue is Lauren Chan, a fashion entrepreneur behind the plus-size workwear line called Henning.

Inside, the magazine is organized into four sections that align with the Bumble app’s different modes: “You First,” “You + BFFs,” “You + Dating” and “You + Bizz.” Here, readers will find celebrity interviews, features, advice, product guides, “daily mantras” and more.

Contributors in this month’s debut issue include Bumble advisor and the star of the brand’s first Super Bowl campaign, Serena Williams; writers, actresses and Bumble Creative Directors Erin and Sara Foster; Man Repeller founder Leandra Medine; jewelry designer Jennifer Meyer; and Away luggage co-founder Jen Rubio.

A digital brand taking to print is no longer a unique occurrence.

Airbnb has Airbnb Magazine, which arrives in the mail; Unilever’s Dollar Shave Club runs Mel Magazine; mattress brand Casper created Woolly Magazine in partnership with McSweeney’s; luggage brand Away has Here Magazine; Uber has rolled out several print magazines, including Vehicle, Arriving Now and Momentum; and even Facebook launched a print magazine, Grow, aimed at business leaders.

For Bumble, the magazine offers the company a way to introduce its brand to new customers as well as extend its relationship with existing users out in the real world. This is part of Bumble’s larger efforts in developing an offline component to its business. The company also runs pop-ups, hosts events and has spoken of plans to launch more physical locations — “Hives,” in Bumble lingo — sometime this year.

These moves also speak to Bumble’s aspiration to be more than just another dating app and Tinder rival.

The company instead wants to be known more broadly as a women-centric lifestyle brand where its users can network online and off, in all aspects of their lives — not just dating. For example, its Bumble BFF service helps women make new friends, while Bumble Bizz  is focused on business networking.

The company says the new magazine will be distributed by its 3,000+ brand ambassadors — marketers and event hosts who work with Bumble to promote its brand. Users can also request a free copy of the first issue within the app.

For Hearst, print efforts from online brands like Bumble represent a new line of business at a time when print is being challenged by digital solutions, like Kindle Unlimited or Apple News+, which are trying to transition print magazine subscribers to go digital-only.

“Bumble is at the forefront of inspiring women to make connections and take initiative in all aspects of their lives with its positive message of empowerment,” said HearstMade Editorial Director Brett Hill in a statement. “The magazine is a perfect example of how HearstMade is changing the face of custom publishing with hyper-targeted content that reflects the brand’s ethos in the most authentic way.”

Bumble Mag becomes available nationwide on Friday, April 5, says Bumble.

 

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Fleksy’s AI keyboard is getting a store to put mini apps at chatters’ fingertips

Posted by | Android, api, Apple, Apps, artificial intelligence, barcelona, e-commerce, Europe, european commission, fleksy, Fleksyapps, Fleksynext, flight search, gboard, gif, Google, imessage, Instant Messaging, keyboard apps, Messenger, Mobile, Pinterest, play store, Qwant, Skyscanner, smartphone, social media, Startups, SwiftKey, TC, Thingthing, tripadvisor, United States, WeChat | No Comments

Remember Fleksy? The customizable Android keyboard app has a new trick up its sleeve: It’s adding a store where users can find and add lightweight third party apps to enhance their typing experience.

Right now it’s launched a taster, preloading a selection of ‘mini apps’ into the keyboard — some from very familiar brand names, some a little less so — so users can start to see how it works.

The first in-keyboard apps are Yelp (local services search); Skyscanner (flight search); Giphy (animated Gif search); GifNote (music Gifs; launching for U.S. users only for rights reasons); Vlipsy (reaction video clips); and Emogi (stickers) — with “many more” branded apps slated as coming in the next few months.

They’re not saying exactly what other brands are coming but there are plenty of familiar logos to be spotted in their press materials — from Spotify to Uber to JustEat to Tripadvisor to PayPal and more…

The full keyboard store itself — which will let users find and add and/or delete apps — will be launching at the end of this month.

The latest version of the Fleksy app can be downloaded for free via the Play Store.

Mini apps made for messaging

The core idea for these mini apps (aka Fleksyapps) is to offer lightweight additions designed to serve the messaging use case.

Say, for example, you’re chatting about where to eat and a friend suggests sushi. The Yelp Fleksyapp might pop up a contextual suggestion for a nearby Japanese restaurant that can be shared directly into the conversation — thereby saving time by doing away with the need for someone to cut out of the chat, switch apps, find some relevant info and cut and paste it back into the chat.

Fleksyapps are intended to be helpful shortcuts that keep the conversation flowing. They also of course put brands back into the conversation.

“We couldn’t be more excited to bring the power of the world’s popular songs with GIFs, videos and photos to the new Fleksyapps platform,” says Gifnote co-founder, John vanSuchtelen, in a supporting statement.

Fleksy’s mini apps appear above the Qwerty keyboard — in much the same space as a next-word prediction. The user can scroll through the app stack (each a tiny branded circle until tapped on to expand) and choose one to interact with. It’s similar to the micro apps lodged in Apple’s iMessage but on Android where iMessage isn’t… The team also plans for Fleksy to support a much wider range of branded apps — hence the Fleksyapps store.

In-keyboard apps is not a new concept for the dev team behind Fleksy; an earlier keyboard app of theirs (called ThingThing) offered micro apps they built themselves as a tool to extend its utility.

But now they’re hoping to garner backing and buy in from third party brands excited about the exposure and reach they could gain by being where users spend the most device time: The keyboard.

“Think of it a bit like the iMessage equivalent but on Android across any app. Or the WeChat mini program but inside the keyboard, available everywhere — not only in one app,” CEO Olivier Plante tells TechCrunch. “That’s a problem of messaging apps these days. All of them are verticals but the keyboard is horizontal. So that’s the benefit for those brands. And the user will have the ability to move them around, add some, to remove some, to explore, to discover.”

“The brands that want to join our platform they have the option of being preloaded by default. The analogy is that by default on the home screen of a phone you are by default in our keyboard. And moving forward you’ll be able to have a membership — you’re becoming a ‘brand member’ of the Fleksyapps platform, and you can have your brand inside the keyboard,” he adds.

The first clutch of Fleksyapps were developed jointly, with the team working with the brands in question. But Plante says they’re planning to launch a tool in future so brands will be able to put together their own apps — in as little as just a few hours.

“We’re opening this array of functionalities and there’s a lot of verticals possible,” he continues. “In the future months we will embed new capabilities for the platform — new type of apps. You can think about professional apps, or cloud apps. Accessing your files from different types of clouds. You have the weather vertical. You have ecommerce vertical. You have so many verticals.

“What you have on the app store today will be reflected into the Fleksyappstore. But really with the focus of messaging and being useful in messaging. So it’s not the full app that we want to bring in — it’s really the core functionality of this app.”

The Yelp Fleksyapp, for example, only includes the ability to see nearby places and search for and share places. So it’s intentionally stripped down. “The core benefit for the brand is it gives them the ability to extend their reach,” says Plante. “We don’t want to compete with the app, per se, we just want to bring these types of app providers inside the messenger on Android across any app.”

On the user side, the main advantage he touts is “it’s really, really fast — fleshing that out to: “It’s very lightweight, it’s very, very fast and we want to become the fastest access to content across any app.”

Users of Fleksyapps don’t need to have the full app installed because the keyboard plugs directly into the API of each branded service. So they get core functionality in bite-sized form without a requirement to download the full app. (Of course they can if they wish.)

So Plante also notes the approach has benefits vis-a-vis data consumption — which could be an advantage in emerging markets where smartphone users’ choices may be hard-ruled by the costs of data and/or connectivity limits.

“For those types of users it gives them an ability to access content but in a very light way — where the app itself, loading the app, loading all the content inside the app can be megabits. In Fleksy you’re talking about kilobits,” he says.

Privacy-sensitive next app suggestions

While baking a bunch of third party apps into a keyboard might sound like a privacy nightmare, the dev team behind Fleksy have been careful to make sure users remain in control.

To wit: Also on board is an AI keyboard assistant (called Fleksynext) — aka “a neural deep learning engine” — which Plante says can detect the context, intention and sentiment of conversations in order to offer “very useful” app suggestions as the chat flows.

The idea is the AI supports the substance of the chat by offering useful functionality from whatever pick and mix of apps are available. Plante refers to these AI-powered ‘next app’ suggestions as “pops”.

And — crucially, from a privacy point of view — the Fleksynext suggestion engine operates locally, on device.

That means no conversation data is sent out of the keyboard. Indeed, Plante says nothing the user types in the keyboard itself is shared with brands (including suggestions that pop up but get ignored). So there’s no risk — as with some other keyboard apps — of users being continually strip-mined for personal data to profile them as they type.

That said, if the user chooses to interact with a Fleksyapp (or its suggestive pop) they are then interacting with a third party’s API. So the usual tracking caveats apply.

“We interact with the web so there’s tracking everywhere,” admits Plante. “But, per se, there’s not specific sensitive data that is shared suddenly with someone. It is not related with the service itself — with the Fleksy app.”

The key point is that the keyboard user gets to choose which apps they want to use and which they don’t. So they can choose which third parties they want to share their plans and intentions with and which they don’t.

“We’re not interesting in making this an advertising platform where the advertiser decides everything,” emphasizes Plante. “We want this to be really close to the user. So the user decides. My intentions. My sentiment. What I type decides. And that is really our goal. The user is able to power it. He can tap on the suggestion or ignore it. And then if he taps on it it’s a very good quality conversion because the user really wants to access restaurants nearby or explore flights for escaping his daily routine… or transfer money. That could be another use-case for instance.”

They won’t be selling brands a guaranteed number of conversions, either.

That’s clearly very important because — to win over users — Fleksynext suggestions will need to feel telepathically useful, rather than irritating, misfired nag. Though the risk of that seems low given how Fleksy users can customize the keyboard apps to only see stuff that’s useful to them.

“In a sense we’re starting reshape a bit how advertising is seen by putting the user in the center,” suggests Plante. “And giving them a useful means of accessing content. This is the original vision and we’ve been very loyal to that — and we think it can reshape the landscape.”

“When you look into five years from now, the smartphone we have will be really, really powerful — so why process things in the cloud? When you can process things on the phone. That’s what we are betting on: Processing everything on the phone,” he adds.

When the full store launches users will be able to add and delete (any) apps — included preloads. So they will be in the driving seat. (We asked Plante to a confirm the user will be able to delete all apps, including any pre-loadeds and he said yes. So if you take him at his word Fleksy will not be cutting any deals with OEMs or carriers to indelibly preload certain Fleksyapps. Or, to put it another way, crapware baked into the keyboard is most definitely not plan.)

Depending on what other Fleksyapps launch in future a Fleksy keyboard user could choose to add, for example, a search service like DuckDuckGo or France’s Qwant to power a pro-privacy alternative to using Google search in the keyboard. Or they could choose Google.

Again the point is the choice is theirs.

Scaling a keyboard into a platform

The idea of keyboard-as-platform offers at least the possibility of reintroducing the choice and variety of smartphone app stores back before the cynical tricks of attention-harvesting tech giants used their network effects and platform power to throttle the app economy.

The Android keyboard space was also a fertile experiment ground in years past. But it’s now dominated by Google’s Gboard and Microsoft-acquired Swiftkey. Which makes Fleksy the plucky upstart gunning to scale an independent alternative that’s not owned by big tech and is open to any third party that wants to join its mini apps party.

“It will be Bing search for Swiftkey, it will be Google search for Gboard, it will be Google Music, it will be YouTube. But on our side we can have YouTube, we can also have… other services that exist for video. The same way with pictures and the same way for file-sharing and drive. So you have Google Drive but you have Dropbox, you have OneDrive, there’s a lot of services in the cloud. And we want to be the platform that has them all, basically,” says Plante.

The original founding team of the Fleksy keyboard was acqui-hired by Pinterest back in 2016, leaving the keyboard app itself to languish with minimal updates. Then two years ago Barcelona-based keyboard app maker, ThingThing, stepped in to take over development.

Plante confirms it’s since fully acquired the Fleksy keyboard technology itself — providing a solid foundation for the keyboard-as-platform business it’s now hoping to scale with the launch of Fleksyapps.

Talking of scale, he tells us the startup is in the process of raising a multi-million Series A — aiming to close this summer. (ThingThing last took in $800,000 via equity crowdfunding last fall.)

The team’s investor pitch is the keyboard offers perhaps the only viable conduit left on mobile to reset the playing field for brands by offering a route to cut through tech giant walled gardens and get where users are spending most of their time and attention: i.e. typing and sharing stuff with their friends in private one-to-one and group chats.

That means the keyboard-as-platform has the potential to get brands of all stripes back in front of users — by embedding innovative, entertaining and helpful bite-sized utility where it can prove its worth and amass social currency on the dominant messaging platforms people use.

The next step for the rebooted Fleksy team is of course building scale by acquiring users for a keyboard which, as of half a year ago, only had around 1M active users from pure downloads.

Its strategy on this front is to target Android device makers to preload Fleksy as the default keyboard.

ThingThing’s business model is a revenue share on any suggestions the keyboard converts, which it argues represent valuable leads for brands — given the level of contextual intention. It is also intending to charge brands that want to be preloaded on the Fleksy keyboard by default.

Again, though, a revenue share model requires substantial scale to work. Not least because brands will need to see evidence of scale to buy into the Fleksyapps’ vision.

Plante isn’t disclosing active users of the Fleksy keyboard right now. But says he’s confident they’re on track to hit 30M-35M active users this year — on account of around ten deals he says are in the pipeline with device makers to preload Fleksy’s keyboard. (Palm was an early example, as we reported last year.)

The carrot for OEMs to join the Fleksyapps party is they’re cutting them in on the revenue share from user interactions with branded keyboard apps — playing to device makers’ needs to find ways to boost famously tight hardware margins.

“The fact that the keyboard can monetize and provide value to the phone brands — this is really massive for them,” argues Plante. “The phone brands can expect revenue flowing in their bank account because we give the brands distribution and the handset manufacturer will make money and we will make money.”

It’s a smart approach, and one that’s essentially only possible because Google’s own Gboard keyboard doesn’t come preloaded on the majority of Android devices. (Exceptions include its own Pixel brand devices.) So — unusually for a core phone app on Android — there’s a bit of an open door where the keyboard sits, instead of the usual preloaded Google wares. And that’s an opportunity.

Markets wise, ThingThing is targeting OEMs in all global regions with its Fleksy pitch — barring China (which Plante readily admits it too complex for a small startup to sensibly try jumping at).

Apps vs tech giants

In its stamping ground of Europe there are warm regulatory winds blowing too: An European Commission antitrust intervention last year saw Google hit with a $5BN fine over anti-competitive practices attached to its Android platform — forcing the company to change local licensing terms.

That antirust decision means mobile makers finally have the chance to unbundle Google apps from devices they sell in the region.

Which translates into growing opportunities for OEMs to rethink their Android strategies. Even as Google remains under pressure not to get in the way by force feeding any more of its wares.

Really, a key component of this shift is that device makers are being told to think, to look around and see what else is out there. For the first time there looks to be a viable chance to profit off of Android without having to preload everything Google wants.

“For us it’s a super good sign,” says Plante of the Commission decision. “Every monopolistic situation is a problem. And the market needs to be fragmented. Because if not we’re just going to lose innovation. And right now Europe — and I see good progress for the US as well — are trying to dismantle the imposed power of those big guys. For the simple evolution of human being and technology and the future of us.”

“I think good things can happen,” he adds. “We’re in talks with handset manufacturers who are coming into Europe and they want to be the most respectful of the market. And with us they have this reassurance that you have a good partner that ensures there’s a revenue stream, there’s a business model behind it, there’s really a strong use-case for users.

“We can finally be where we always wanted to be: A choice, an alternative. But having Google imposing its way since start — and making sure that all the direct competition of Google is just a side, I think governments have now seen the problem. And we’re a winner of course because we’re a keyboard.”

But what about iOS? Plante says the team has plans to bring what they’re building with Fleksy to Apple’s mobile platform too, in time. But for now they’re fully focusing efforts on Android — to push for scale and execute on their vision of staking their claim to be the independent keyboard platform.

Apple has supported third party keyboards on iOS for years. Unfortunately, though, the experience isn’t great — with a flaky toggle to switch away from the default Apple keyboard, combined with heavy system warnings about the risks of using third party keyboards.

Meanwhile the default iOS keyboard ‘just works’ — and users have loads of extra features baked by default into Apple’s native messaging app, iMessage.

Clearly alternative keyboards have found it all but impossible to build any kind of scale in that iOS pincer.

“iOS is coming later because we need to focus on these distribution deals and we need to focus on the brands coming into the platform. And that’s why iOS right now we’re really focusing for later. What we can say is it will come later,” says Plante, adding: “Apple limits a lot keyboards. You can see it with other keyboard companies. It’s the same. The update cycle for iOS keyboard is really, really, really slow.”

Plus, of course, Fleksy being preloaded as a default keyboard on — the team hopes — millions of Android devices is a much more scalable proposition vs just being another downloadable app languishing invisibly on the side lines of another tech giant’s platform.

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Is Europe closing in on an antitrust fix for surveillance technologists?

Posted by | Android, antitrust, competition law, data protection, data protection law, DCMS committee, digital media, EC, Europe, european commission, european union, Facebook, General Data Protection Regulation, Germany, Giovanni Buttarelli, Google, instagram, Margrethe Vestager, Messenger, photo sharing, privacy, Social, social media, social networks, surveillance capitalism, TC, terms of service, United Kingdom, United States | No Comments

The German Federal Cartel Office’s decision to order Facebook to change how it processes users’ personal data this week is a sign the antitrust tide could at last be turning against platform power.

One European Commission source we spoke to, who was commenting in a personal capacity, described it as “clearly pioneering” and “a big deal”, even without Facebook being fined a dime.

The FCO’s decision instead bans the social network from linking user data across different platforms it owns, unless it gains people’s consent (nor can it make use of its services contingent on such consent). Facebook is also prohibited from gathering and linking data on users from third party websites, such as via its tracking pixels and social plugins.

The order is not yet in force, and Facebook is appealing, but should it come into force the social network faces being de facto shrunk by having its platforms siloed at the data level.

To comply with the order Facebook would have to ask users to freely consent to being data-mined — which the company does not do at present.

Yes, Facebook could still manipulate the outcome it wants from users but doing so would open it to further challenge under EU data protection law, as its current approach to consent is already being challenged.

The EU’s updated privacy framework, GDPR, requires consent to be specific, informed and freely given. That standard supports challenges to Facebook’s (still fixed) entry ‘price’ to its social services. To play you still have to agree to hand over your personal data so it can sell your attention to advertisers. But legal experts contend that’s neither privacy by design nor default.

The only ‘alternative’ Facebook offers is to tell users they can delete their account. Not that doing so would stop the company from tracking you around the rest of the mainstream web anyway. Facebook’s tracking infrastructure is also embedded across the wider Internet so it profiles non-users too.

EU data protection regulators are still investigating a very large number of consent-related GDPR complaints.

But the German FCO, which said it liaised with privacy authorities during its investigation of Facebook’s data-gathering, has dubbed this type of behavior “exploitative abuse”, having also deemed the social service to hold a monopoly position in the German market.

So there are now two lines of legal attack — antitrust and privacy law — threatening Facebook (and indeed other adtech companies’) surveillance-based business model across Europe.

A year ago the German antitrust authority also announced a probe of the online advertising sector, responding to concerns about a lack of transparency in the market. Its work here is by no means done.

Data limits

The lack of a big flashy fine attached to the German FCO’s order against Facebook makes this week’s story less of a major headline than recent European Commission antitrust fines handed to Google — such as the record-breaking $5BN penalty issued last summer for anticompetitive behaviour linked to the Android mobile platform.

But the decision is arguably just as, if not more, significant, because of the structural remedies being ordered upon Facebook. These remedies have been likened to an internal break-up of the company — with enforced internal separation of its multiple platform products at the data level.

This of course runs counter to (ad) platform giants’ preferred trajectory, which has long been to tear modesty walls down; pool user data from multiple internal (and indeed external sources), in defiance of the notion of informed consent; and mine all that personal (and sensitive) stuff to build identity-linked profiles to train algorithms that predict (and, some contend, manipulate) individual behavior.

Because if you can predict what a person is going to do you can choose which advert to serve to increase the chance they’ll click. (Or as Mark Zuckerberg puts it: ‘Senator, we run ads.’)

This means that a regulatory intervention that interferes with an ad tech giant’s ability to pool and process personal data starts to look really interesting. Because a Facebook that can’t join data dots across its sprawling social empire — or indeed across the mainstream web — wouldn’t be such a massive giant in terms of data insights. And nor, therefore, surveillance oversight.

Each of its platforms would be forced to be a more discrete (and, well, discreet) kind of business.

Competing against data-siloed platforms with a common owner — instead of a single interlinked mega-surveillance-network — also starts to sound almost possible. It suggests a playing field that’s reset, if not entirely levelled.

(Whereas, in the case of Android, the European Commission did not order any specific remedies — allowing Google to come up with ‘fixes’ itself; and so to shape the most self-serving ‘fix’ it can think of.)

Meanwhile, just look at where Facebook is now aiming to get to: A technical unification of the backend of its different social products.

Such a merger would collapse even more walls and fully enmesh platforms that started life as entirely separate products before were folded into Facebook’s empire (also, let’s not forget, via surveillance-informed acquisitions).

Facebook’s plan to unify its products on a single backend platform looks very much like an attempt to throw up technical barriers to antitrust hammers. It’s at least harder to imagine breaking up a company if its multiple, separate products are merged onto one unified backend which functions to cross and combine data streams.

Set against Facebook’s sudden desire to technically unify its full-flush of dominant social networks (Facebook Messenger; Instagram; WhatsApp) is a rising drum-beat of calls for competition-based scrutiny of tech giants.

This has been building for years, as the market power — and even democracy-denting potential — of surveillance capitalism’s data giants has telescoped into view.

Calls to break up tech giants no longer carry a suggestive punch. Regulators are routinely asked whether it’s time. As the European Commission’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, was when she handed down Google’s latest massive antitrust fine last summer.

Her response then was that she wasn’t sure breaking Google up is the right answer — preferring to try remedies that might allow competitors to have a go, while also emphasizing the importance of legislating to ensure “transparency and fairness in the business to platform relationship”.

But it’s interesting that the idea of breaking up tech giants now plays so well as political theatre, suggesting that wildly successful consumer technology companies — which have long dined out on shiny convenience-based marketing claims, made ever so saccharine sweet via the lure of ‘free’ services — have lost a big chunk of their populist pull, dogged as they have been by so many scandals.

From terrorist content and hate speech, to election interference, child exploitation, bullying, abuse. There’s also the matter of how they arrange their tax affairs.

The public perception of tech giants has matured as the ‘costs’ of their ‘free’ services have scaled into view. The upstarts have also become the establishment. People see not a new generation of ‘cuddly capitalists’ but another bunch of multinationals; highly polished but remote money-making machines that take rather more than they give back to the societies they feed off.

Google’s trick of naming each Android iteration after a different sweet treat makes for an interesting parallel to the (also now shifting) public perceptions around sugar, following closer attention to health concerns. What does its sickly sweetness mask? And after the sugar tax, we now have politicians calling for a social media levy.

Just this week the deputy leader of the main opposition party in the UK called for setting up a standalone Internet regulatory with the power to break up tech monopolies.

Talking about breaking up well-oiled, wealth-concentration machines is being seen as a populist vote winner. And companies that political leaders used to flatter and seek out for PR opportunities find themselves treated as political punchbags; Called to attend awkward grilling by hard-grafting committees, or taken to vicious task verbally at the highest profile public podia. (Though some non-democratic heads of state are still keen to press tech giant flesh.)

In Europe, Facebook’s repeat snubs of the UK parliament’s requests last year for Zuckerberg to face policymakers’ questions certainly did not go unnoticed.

Zuckerberg’s empty chair at the DCMS committee has become both a symbol of the company’s failure to accept wider societal responsibility for its products, and an indication of market failure; the CEO so powerful he doesn’t feel answerable to anyone; neither his most vulnerable users nor their elected representatives. Hence UK politicians on both sides of the aisle making political capital by talking about cutting tech giants down to size.

The political fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal looks far from done.

Quite how a UK regulator could successfully swing a regulatory hammer to break up a global Internet giant such as Facebook which is headquartered in the U.S. is another matter. But policymakers have already crossed the rubicon of public opinion and are relishing talking up having a go.

That represents a sea-change vs the neoliberal consensus that allowed competition regulators to sit on their hands for more than a decade as technology upstarts quietly hoovered up people’s data and bagged rivals, and basically went about transforming themselves from highly scalable startups into market-distorting giants with Internet-scale data-nets to snag users and buy or block competing ideas.

The political spirit looks willing to go there, and now the mechanism for breaking platforms’ distorting hold on markets may also be shaping up.

The traditional antitrust remedy of breaking a company along its business lines still looks unwieldy when faced with the blistering pace of digital technology. The problem is delivering such a fix fast enough that the business hasn’t already reconfigured to route around the reset. 

Commission antitrust decisions on the tech beat have stepped up impressively in pace on Vestager’s watch. Yet it still feels like watching paper pushers wading through treacle to try and catch a sprinter. (And Europe hasn’t gone so far as trying to impose a platform break up.) 

But the German FCO decision against Facebook hints at an alternative way forward for regulating the dominance of digital monopolies: Structural remedies that focus on controlling access to data which can be relatively swiftly configured and applied.

Vestager, whose term as EC competition chief may be coming to its end this year (even if other Commission roles remain in potential and tantalizing contention), has championed this idea herself.

In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today program in December she poured cold water on the stock question about breaking tech giants up — saying instead the Commission could look at how larger firms got access to data and resources as a means of limiting their power. Which is exactly what the German FCO has done in its order to Facebook. 

At the same time, Europe’s updated data protection framework has gained the most attention for the size of the financial penalties that can be issued for major compliance breaches. But the regulation also gives data watchdogs the power to limit or ban processing. And that power could similarly be used to reshape a rights-eroding business model or snuff out such business entirely.

#GDPR allows imposing a permanent ban on data processing. This is the nuclear option. Much more severe than any fine you can imagine, in most cases. https://t.co/X772NvU51S

— Lukasz Olejnik (@lukOlejnik) January 28, 2019

The merging of privacy and antitrust concerns is really just a reflection of the complexity of the challenge regulators now face trying to rein in digital monopolies. But they’re tooling up to meet that challenge.

Speaking in an interview with TechCrunch last fall, Europe’s data protection supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, told us the bloc’s privacy regulators are moving towards more joint working with antitrust agencies to respond to platform power. “Europe would like to speak with one voice, not only within data protection but by approaching this issue of digital dividend, monopolies in a better way — not per sectors,” he said. “But first joint enforcement and better co-operation is key.”

The German FCO’s decision represents tangible evidence of the kind of regulatory co-operation that could — finally — crack down on tech giants.

Blogging in support of the decision this week, Buttarelli asserted: “It is not necessary for competition authorities to enforce other areas of law; rather they need simply to identity where the most powerful undertakings are setting a bad example and damaging the interests of consumers.  Data protection authorities are able to assist in this assessment.”

He also had a prediction of his own for surveillance technologists, warning: “This case is the tip of the iceberg — all companies in the digital information ecosystem that rely on tracking, profiling and targeting should be on notice.”

So perhaps, at long last, the regulators have figured out how to move fast and break things.

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