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Seized cache of Facebook docs raise competition and consent questions

Posted by | Android, api, competition, Damian Collins, data protection law, DCMS committee, Developer, Europe, european union, Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, Onavo, Policy, privacy, Six4Three, Social, social network, terms of service, United Kingdom, vpn | No Comments

A UK parliamentary committee has published the cache of Facebook documents it dramatically seized last week.

The documents were obtained by a legal discovery process by a startup that’s suing the social network in a California court in a case related to Facebook changing data access permissions back in 2014/15.

The court had sealed the documents but the DCMS committee used rarely deployed parliamentary powers to obtain them from the Six4Three founder, during a business trip to London.

You can read the redacted documents here — all 250 pages of them.

In a series of tweets regarding the publication, committee chair Damian Collins says he believes there is “considerable public interest” in releasing them.

“They raise important questions about how Facebook treats users data, their policies for working with app developers, and how they exercise their dominant position in the social media market,” he writes.

“We don’t feel we have had straight answers from Facebook on these important issues, which is why we are releasing the documents. We need a more public debate about the rights of social media users and the smaller businesses who are required to work with the tech giants. I hope that our committee investigation can stand up for them.”

The committee has been investigating online disinformation and election interference for the best part of this year, and has been repeatedly frustrated in its attempts to extract answers from Facebook.

But it is protected by parliamentary privilege — hence it’s now published the Six4Three files, having waited a week in order to redact certain pieces of personal information.

Collins has included a summary of key issues, as the committee sees them after reviewing the documents, in which he draws attention to six issues.

Here is his summary of the key issues:

  • White Lists Facebook have clearly entered into whitelisting agreements with certain companies, which meant that after the platform changes in 2014/15 they maintained full access to friends data. It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not.

Facebook responded

  • Value of friends data It is clear that increasing revenues from major app developers was one of the key drivers behind the Platform 3.0 changes at Facebook. The idea of linking access to friends data to the financial value of the developers relationship with Facebook is a recurring feature of the documents.

In their response Facebook contends that this was essentially another “cherrypicked” topic and that the company “ultimately settled on a model where developers did not need to purchase advertising to access APIs and we continued to provide the developer platform for free.”

  • Reciprocity Data reciprocity between Facebook and app developers was a central feature in the discussions about the launch of Platform 3.0.
  • Android Facebook knew that the changes to its policies on the Android mobile phone system, which enabled the Facebook app to collect a record of calls and texts sent by the user would be controversial. To mitigate any bad PR, Facebook planned to make it as hard of possible for users to know that this was one of the underlying features of the upgrade of their app.
  • Onavo Facebook used Onavo to conduct global surveys of the usage of mobile apps by customers, and apparently without their knowledge. They used this data to assess not just how many people had downloaded apps, but how often they used them. This knowledge helped them to decide which companies to acquire, and which to treat as a threat.
  • Targeting competitor Apps The files show evidence of Facebook taking aggressive positions against apps, with the consequence that denying them access to data led to the failure of that business.

Update: 11:40am

Facebook has posted a lengthy response (read it here) positing that the “set of documents, by design, tells only one side of the story and omits important context.” They give a blow-by-blow response to Collins’ points below though they are ultimately pretty selective in what they actually address.

Generally they suggest that some of the issues being framed as anti-competitive were in fact designed to prevent “sketchy apps” from operating on the platform. Furthermore, Facebook details that they delete some old call logs on Android, that using “market research” data from Onava is essentially standard practice and that users had the choice whether data was shared reciprocally between FB and developers. In regard to specific competitors’ apps, Facebook appears to have tried to get ahead of this release with their announcement yesterday that it was ending its platform policy of banning apps that “replicate core functionality.” 

The publication of the files comes at an awkward moment for Facebook — which remains on the back foot after a string of data and security scandals, and has just announced a major policy change — ending a long-running ban on apps copying its own platform features.

Albeit the timing of Facebook’s policy shift announcement hardly looks incidental — given Collins said last week the committee would publish the files this week.

The policy in question has been used by Facebook to close down competitors in the past, such as — two years ago — when it cut off style transfer app Prisma’s access to its live-streaming Live API when the startup tried to launch a livestreaming art filter (Facebook subsequently launched its own style transfer filters for Live).

So its policy reversal now looks intended to diffuse regulatory scrutiny around potential antitrust concerns.

But emails in the Six4Three files suggesting that Facebook took “aggressive positions” against competing apps could spark fresh competition concerns.

In one email dated January 24, 2013, a Facebook staffer, Justin Osofsky, discusses Twitter’s launch of its short video clip app, Vine, and says Facebook’s response will be to close off its API access.

As part of their NUX, you can find friends via FB. Unless anyone raises objections, we will shut down their friends API access today. We’ve prepared reactive PR, and I will let Jana know our decision,” he writes. 

Osofsky’s email is followed by what looks like a big thumbs up from Zuckerberg, who replies: “Yup, go for it.”

Also of concern on the competition front is Facebook’s use of a VPN startup it acquired, Onavo, to gather intelligence on competing apps — either for acquisition purposes or to target as a threat to its business.

The files show various Onavo industry charts detailing reach and usage of mobile apps and social networks — with each of these graphs stamped ‘highly confidential’.

Facebook bought Onavo back in October 2013. Shortly after it shelled out $19BN to acquire rival messaging app WhatsApp — which one Onavo chart in the cache indicates was beasting Facebook on mobile, accounting for well over double the daily message sends at that time.

Onavo charts are quite an insight into facebook’s commanding view of the app-based attention marketplace pic.twitter.com/Ezdaxk6ffC

— David Carroll 🦅 (@profcarroll) December 5, 2018

The files also spotlight several issues of concern relating to privacy and data protection law, with internal documents raising fresh questions over how or even whether (in the case of Facebook’s whitelisting agreements with certain developers) it obtained consent from users to process their personal data.

The company is already facing a number of privacy complaints under the EU’s GDPR framework over its use of ‘forced consent‘, given that it does not offer users an opt-out from targeted advertising.

But the Six4Three files look set to pour fresh fuel on the consent fire.

Collins’ fourth line item — related to an Android upgrade — also speaks loudly to consent complaints.

Earlier this year Facebook was forced to deny that it collects calls and SMS data from users of its Android apps without permission. But, as we wrote at the time, it had used privacy-hostile design tricks to sneak expansive data-gobbling permissions past users. So, put simple, people clicked ‘agree’ without knowing exactly what they were agreeing to.

The Six4Three files back up the notion that Facebook was intentionally trying to mislead users.

In one email dated November 15, 2013, from Matt Scutari, manager privacy and public policy, suggests ways to prevent users from choosing to set a higher level of privacy protection, writing: “Matt is providing policy feedback on a Mark Z request that Product explore the possibility of making the Only Me audience setting unsticky. The goal of this change would be to help users avoid inadvertently posting to the Only Me audience. We are encouraging Product to explore other alternatives, such as more aggressive user education or removing stickiness for all audience settings.”

Another awkward trust issue for Facebook which the documents could stir up afresh relates to its repeat claim — including under questions from lawmakers — that it does not sell user data.

In one email from the cache — sent by Mark Zuckerberg, dated October 7, 2012 — the Facebook founder appears to be entertaining the idea of charging developers for “reading anything, including friends”.

Yet earlier this year, when he was asked by a US lawmaker how Facebook makes money, Zuckerberg replied: “Senator, we sell ads.”

He did not include a caveat that he had apparently personally entertained the idea of liberally selling access to user data.

Responding to the publication of the Six4Three documents, a Facebook spokesperson told us:

As we’ve said many times, the documents Six4Three gathered for their baseless case are only part of the story and are presented in a way that is very misleading without additional context. We stand by the platform changes we made in 2015 to stop a person from sharing their friends’ data with developers. Like any business, we had many of internal conversations about the various ways we could build a sustainable business model for our platform. But the facts are clear: we’ve never sold people’s data.

Zuckerberg has repeatedly refused to testify in person to the DCMS committee.

At its last public hearing — which was held in the form of a grand committee comprising representatives from nine international parliaments, all with burning questions for Facebook — the company sent its policy VP, Richard Allan, leaving an empty chair where Zuckerberg’s bum should be.

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Google Fi now officially supports most Android devices and iPhones

Posted by | Android, app-store, fi, Google, iOS, iPhone, LG, Mobile, Motorola, project fi, Samsung, smartphones, TC, vpn | No Comments

Google is making a major move to expand the availability of its Fi wireless service.

It’s been a few years since Google launched Project Fi with the promise of doing things a bit differently than the large carriers. Because it could switch between the cell networks of multiple providers to give you the best signal, the service only ever officially supported a select number of handsets. You could always trick it by activating the service on a supported phone and then moving your SIM card to another (including an iPhone), but that was never supported.

That’s changing today, though. The company is opening up Fi — and renaming it to Google Fi — and officially expanding device support to most popular Android phones, as well as iPhones. Supported Android phones include devices from Samsung, LG, Motorola and OnePlus. iPhone support is currently in beta, and there are a few extra steps to set it up, but the Fi iOS app should now be available in the App Store.

One thing you might not get with many of the now-supported phones is the full Fi experience, with network switching and access to Google’s enhanced network features, including Google’s VPN network. For that, you’ll still need a Pixel phone, the Moto G6 or any other device that you can buy directly in the Fi store.

Fi on all phones comes with the usual features, like bill protection, free high-speed international roaming and support for group plans.

To sweeten the deal, Google is also launching a somewhat extraordinary promotion today: If you open a new Fi account — or if are an existing user — you can buy any phone in the Fi shop today and get your money back in the form of a travel gift card that you can use for a flight with Delta or Southwest, or lodging with Airbnb and Hotels.com. There’s some fine print, of course (you need to keep your account active for a few months, etc.), but if you were looking at getting Fi anyway, like to travel and want to get a Pixel 3 XL, that’s not a bad deal at all.

The fine print is below:

Travel on Fi with Any Device Purchase Promotion Terms (Google Fi)

Limited time, 24-hour offer applies to any qualifying device purchased from fi.google.com from 11/28/18 12:00 AM PT through 11/28/18 11:59 PM PT, or while supplies last. When you purchase a qualifying device on fi.google.com, you can redeem a travel gift card in the amount you paid for the device, excluding taxes (details below).

To qualify for this promotion, a device must be activated within 15 days of device shipment and remain active for 60 consecutive days within 75 days of device shipment. The device must be activated within the same plan that was used to purchase the device. Activation must be for full service (i.e., activation does not apply to a data-only SIM).

This offer is available for new Google Fi customers as of 11/28/18 12:00 AM PT and existing, active Google Fi customers. If the customer is new to Google Fi, the customer must transfer (port-in) their current personal number over to Google Fi during sign up. The number being transferred must be currently active and have been active with the previous carrier and the customer since 8/28/18 12:00 AM PT.

After the terms have been satisfied, the customer will receive an email from Google Fi (around 75 – 90 days after device activation) with instructions on how to obtain a gift card from Tango subject to Tango’s terms and conditions. The user can redeem gift card amounts with select travel partners: Airbnb, Delta Airlines, Hotels.com, and Southwest Airlines. Gift cards may also be subject to the terms of the travel partners.

If Fi service is paused for more than 7 days or cancelled within 120 days of activation, the value of the gift card will be charged to your Google Payments account to match the purchased price of the device. Limit one per person. This offer is only available for U.S. residents ages 18 and older, and requires Google Payments and Google Fi accounts. Unless otherwise stated, this offer cannot be combined with other offers. Offer and gift card redemption are not transferable, and are not valid for cash or cash equivalent. Void where prohibited.

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Google’s Project Fi gets an improved VPN service

Posted by | Android, Google, Mobile, project fi, Security, virtual private networks, vpn, wi-fi, wireless, wireless service | No Comments

Google’s Project Fi wireless service is getting a major update today that introduces an optional always-on VPN service and a smarter way to switch between Wi-Fi and cellular connections.

By default, Fi already uses a VPN service to protect users when they connect to the roughly two million supported Wi-Fi hotspots. Now, Google is expanding this to cellular connections, as well. “When you enable our enhanced network, all of your mobile and Wi-Fi traffic will be encrypted and securely sent through our virtual private network (VPN) on every network you connect to, so you’ll have the peace of mind of knowing that others can’t see your online activity,” the team writes in today’s announcement.

Google notes that the VPN also shields all of your traffic from Google itself and that it isn’t tied to your Google account or phone number.

The VPN is part of what Google calls its “enhanced network” and the second part of this announcement is that this network now also allows for a faster switch between Wi-Fi and mobile networks. When you enable this — and both of these features are currently in beta and only available on Fi-compatible phones that run Android Pie — your phone will automatically detect when your Wi-Fi connection gets weaker and fill in those gaps with cellular data. The company says that in its testing, this new system reduces a user’s time without a working connection by up to 40 percent.

These new features will start rolling out to Fi users later this week. They are off by default, so you’ll have to head to the Fi Network Tools in the Project Fi app and turn them on to get started. One thing to keep in mind here: Google says your data usage will likely increase by about 10 percent when you use the VPN.

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AnchorFree, maker of Hotspot Shield, raises $295 million in new funding

Posted by | AnchorFree, Hotspot Shield, Mobile, privacy, vpn | No Comments

AnchorFree, a maker of a popular virtual private networking app, has raised $295 million in a new round of funding, the company announced Wednesday.

The Redwood City, Calif.-based app maker’s flagship app Hotspot Shield ranks as one of the most popular VPN apps on the market. The app, based on a freemium model, allows users across the world tunnel their internet connections through AnchorFree’s servers, which masks users’ browsing histories from their internet providers and allows those under oppressive regimes evade state-level censorship.

The app has 650 million users in 190 countries, the company said, and also has a business-focused offering.

The funding was led by WndrCo, a holding company focusing on consumer tech businesses, in addition to Accel Partners, 8VC, SignalFire, and Green Bay Ventures, among others.

“The WndrCo team brings deep operational experience in launching and scaling global tech products, and we look forward to working closely with them in pursuit of our mission to provide secure access to the world’s information for every person on the planet,” said AnchorFree’s chief executive David Gorodyansky in remarks.

The news was first reported by The New York Times.

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Cloudflare expands into mobile performance with Neumob acquisition

Posted by | Cloud, cloudflare, M&A, Mergers and Acquisitions, Mobile, Neumob, TC, vpn | No Comments

 Cloudflare made a significant acquisition today when it acquired mobile VPN startup, Neumob. The purchase gives Cloudflare a mobile performance tool it was lacking, and a road to its first direct to consumer product. The company did not reveal the purchase price.
Neumob, which had raised close to $11 million, was founded in 2015 to give users a faster mobile VPN experience that purports to… Read More

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Circle with Disney raises $10 million for its parental control device for families

Posted by | Apps, children, circle with disney, circle-media, devices, Disney, families, family, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, hardware, kids, Mobile, parental control, parents, Relay Ventures, Routers, Startups, TC, vpn | No Comments

 Circle Media, the company behind Circle with Disney – a device that helps parents enforce their home’s internet rules and restrictions – has raised $10 million in Series A funding, the company announced this morning. The round was led by early stage venture fund Relay Ventures. There was another private equity investment in the round, but the parties didn’t want to… Read More

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How the VPN industry is creating its stake in online gaming

Posted by | Column, Gaming, IvacyVPN, online gaming, TC, Twitch, virtual private networks, vpn | No Comments

COLOGNE, GERMANY - AUGUST 05:  Visitors try out the massively multiplayer online role-playing game 'World Of Warcraft' at the Blizzard Entertainment stand at the Gamescom 2015 gaming trade fair during the media day on August 5, 2015 in Cologne, Germany. Gamescom is the world's largest digital gaming trade fair and will be open to the public from August 6-9.  (Photo by Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images) From single-player, 16-bit 2D arcade games to free-to-play online multi-player games, the gaming industry has come a long way in the last decade. We can only watch with awe as newer games surprise us with their stunning graphics and engaging game play. However, more and more game developers have jumped into the fray and started catering to the online multi-player games genre. Read More

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