Telegram

WhatsApp revamps Groups to fight Telegram

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, Mobile, Social, TC, Telegram, WhatsApp | No Comments

Facebook just installed its VP of Internet.org as the new head of WhatsApp after its CEO Jan Koum left the company. And now Facebook is expanding its mission to get people into “meaningful” groups to WhatsApp. Today, WhatsApp launched a slew of new features for Groups on iOS and Android that let admins set a description for their community and decide who can change the Groups settings. Meanwhile, users will be able to get a Group catch up that shows messages they were mentioned in, and search for people in the group.

WhatsApp’s new Group descriptions

WhatsApp Group participant search

Group improvements will help WhatsApp better compete with Telegram, which has recently emerged as an insanely popular platform for chat groups, especially around cryptocurrency. Telegram has plenty of admin controls of its own, but the two apps will be competing over who can make it easiest to digest these fast-moving chat forums.

“These are features are based on user requests. We develop the product based on what our users want and need” a WhatsApp spokesperson told me when asked why it’s making this update. “There are also people coming together in groups on WhatsApp like new parents looking for support, students organizing study sessions, and even city leaders coordinating relief efforts after natural disasters.”

Facebook is on a quest to get 1 billion users into “meaningful” Groups and recently said it now has hit the 200 million user milestone. Groups could help people strengthen their ties with their city or niche interests, which can make them feel less alone.

With Group descriptions, admins can explain the purpose and rules of a group. They show up when people check out the group and appear atop the chat window when they join. New admin controls let them restrict who is allowed to alter a group’s subject, icon, and description. WhatsApp is also making it tougher to re-add someone to a group they left so you can’t “Group-add-spam people”. Together, these could make sure people find relevant groups, naturally acclimate to their culture, and don’t troll everyone.

As for users, the new Group catch up feature offers a new @ button in the bottom right of the chat window that when tapped, surfaces all your replies and mentions since you last checked. And if you want to find someone specific in the Group, the new participant search on the Info page could let you turn a group chat into a private convo with someone you meet.

WhatsApp Group catch up

Now that WhatsApp has a stunning 1.5 billion users compared to 200 million on Telegram, its next phase of growth may come from deepening engagement instead of just adding more accounts. Many people already do most of their one-on-one chatting with friends on WhatsApp, but Groups could invite tons of time spent as users participate in communities of strangers around their interests.

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Russia’s game of Telegram whack-a-mole grows to 19M blocked IPs, hitting Twitch, Spotify and more

Posted by | censorship, Europe, Government, Hack, ip addresses, Mobile, russia, Social, Telegram | No Comments

As the messaging app Telegram continues to try to evade Russian authorities by switching up its IP addresses, Russia’s regulator Roskomnadzor (RKN) has continued its game of whack-a-mole to try to lock it down by knocking out complete swathes of IP address. The resulting chase how now ballooned to nearly 19 million IP addresses at the time of writing, as tracked by unofficial RKN observer RKNSHOWTIME (updated on a Telegram channel with stats accessible on the web via Phil Kulin’s site).

As a result, there have been a number of high-profile services also knocked oput in the crossfire, with people in Russia reporting dozens of sites affected including Twitch, Slack, Soundcloud, Viber, Spotify, Fifa, Nintendo, as well as Amazon and Google. (A full list of nearly forty addresses is listed below.)

What’s notable is that Google and Amazon themselves seem still not to be buckling under pressure. As we reported earlier this week, a similar — but far smaller — instance happened in the case of Zello, which had also devised a technique to hop around IP addresses when its own IP addresses were shut down by Russian regulators.

Zello’s circumventing lasted for nearly a year, until it seemed the regulator started to use a more blanket approach of blocking entire subnets — a move that ultimately led to Google and Amazon asking Zello to cease its activities.

After that, Zello’s main access point for its Russian users was via VPN proxies — one of the key ways that users in one country can effectively appear as if they are in another, allowing them to circumvent geoblocking and geofencing, either by the companies themselves, or those that have been banned by a state.

It’s important to note that the domain fronting that Google is in the process of shutting down is not the same as IP hopping — although, more generally, it will mean that there is now one less route for those globally whose traffic is getting blocked through censorship to wiggle around that. The IP hopping that has led to 19 million addresses getting blocked in Russia is another kind of circumvention. (I’m pointing this out because several people I’ve spoken to assumed they were the same.)

Pavel Durov, Telegram’s founder and CEO, has made several public calls on Telegram and also third-party sites like Twitter to praise how steadfast the big internet companies have been. And others like the ACLU have also waded into the story to call on Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft to hold strong and continue to allow Telegram to IP hop.

But what could happen next?

I’ve contacted Google, Amazon and Telegram now several times to ask this question and for more details on what is going on. As of yet I’ve had no replies. However, Alexey Gavrilov, the CTO and founder of Zello, provided a little more potential insight:

He said that ultimately they might ask Telegram to stop — something that might become increasingly hard not to do as more services get affected — and if that doesn’t work they can suspend Telegram’s account.

“Each cloud provider has provisions, which let them do it if your use interferes with other customers using their service,” Gavrilov notes. “The interpretation of this rule may be not trivial in case when the harm is caused by third party (i.e RKN in this case) so I think there are some legal risks for Amazon / Google. Plus that would likely cause a PR issue for them.”

Another question is whether there are bigger fish to fry in this story. Some have floated the idea that just as Zello preceded Telegram, RKN’s battles with the latter might lead to how it negotiates with Facebook.

As we have reported before, Facebook notably has never moved to house Russian Facebook data in Russia. Local hosting has been one of the key requirements that the regulator has enforced against a number of other companies as part of its “data protection” rules, and over the last couple of years while some high-profile companies have run afoul of the these regulations, others (including Apple and Google) have reportedly complied.

Regardless, there’s been one ironic silver lining in this story. Since RKN shifted its focus to waging a war on Telegram, Gavrilov tells me that Zello service has been restored in Russia. Here’s to weathering the storm. 

Bill Moore, Zello’s CEO, believes that there is a fight to keep fighting here. “We are small,” he said. “Technology leaders like Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook can cooperate with each other to avoid becoming a tool governments use to control speech.  We hope Amazon and Google stay firm even if the short term cost is real.”

We’ll update this post as and when we get responses from the big players. A more complete list of sites that people have reported as affected by the 19 million address block is below, via Telegram channel Нецифровая экономика (“Non-digital economy”). Some of these have been disputed, so take this with a grain of salt:

1. Sberbank (disputed)
2. Alfa Bank (disputed)
3. VTB
4. Mastercard
5. Some Microsoft services
6. Video agency RT Ruptly
7. Games like Fortnite, PUBG, Guild Wars 2, Vainglory, Guns of Boom, World of Warships Blitz, Lineage 2 Mobile and Total War: Arena
8. Twitch
9. Google
10. Amazon
11. Russian food retailer Dixy (disupted)
12. Odnoklassniki (the social network, ok,ru)
13. Viber
14. Дилеры Volvo
15. Gett Taxi
16. BattleNet
17. SoundCloud
18. DevianArt
19. Coursera
20. Realtimeboard
21. Trello
22. Slack
23. Evernote
24. Skyeng (online English language school)
25. Part of the Playstation Network
26. Ivideon
27. ResearchGate
28. Gitter
29. eLama
30. Behance
31. Nintendo
32. Codeacademy
33. Lifehacker
34. Spotify
35. FIFA
36. And it seems like some of RKN’s site itself

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The new paradigm for human-bot communication

Posted by | artificial intelligence, bots, chatbots, Column, facebook messenger, Kik, Mobile, natural language processing, TC, Telegram | No Comments

robot-customer-service Chatbots offer the promise of frictionless access to goods, services and information, but creating effective bots can be deceptively tricky. The flip side of the opportunity to interact with users in a seamless, natural way is that user expectations can be prohibitively high. Bots need to be smart and provide greater convenience than apps. Read More

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Check out the new AI-powered TechCrunch news bot on Telegram messenger

Posted by | Apps, artificial intelligence, bots, messaging, Mobile, Social, TC, TechCrunch, Telegram | No Comments

tc-bot-telegram1 We’re excited to announce the launch of our first artificial intelligence-powered news bot on the encrypted messaging platform Telegram. We teamed up with Chatfuel to build the bot, and after a month of development we’re thrilled to show it off to the world. If you are already on Telegram, you can check out the bot by following this link (or search for “techcrunchbot”… Read More

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