WhatsApp

Google & Facebook fed ad dollars to child porn discovery apps

Posted by | admob, Advertising Tech, Apps, child exploitation, Facebook, Facebook Audience Network, Google, Health, Mobile, Policy, privacy, Security, TC, WhatsApp, WhatsApp Child Exploitation | No Comments

Google has scrambled to remove third-party apps that led users to child porn sharing groups on WhatsApp in the wake of TechCrunch’s report about the problem last week. We contacted Google with the name of one of these apps and evidence that it and others offered links to WhatsApp groups for sharing child exploitation imagery. Following publication of our article, Google removed from the Google Play store that app and at least five like it. Several of these apps had more than 100,000 downloads, and they’re still functional on devices that already downloaded them.

A screenshot from earlier this month of now-banned child exploitation groups on WhatsApp . Phone numbers and photos redacted

WhatsApp failed to adequately police its platform, confirming to TechCrunch that it’s only moderated by its own 300 employees and not Facebook’s 20,000 dedicated security and moderation staffers. It’s clear that scalable and efficient artificial intelligence systems are not up to the task of protecting the 1.5 billion-user WhatsApp community, and companies like Facebook must invest more in unscalable human investigators.

But now, new research provided exclusively to TechCrunch by anti-harassment algorithm startup AntiToxin shows that these removed apps that hosted links to child porn sharing rings on WhatsApp were supported with ads run by Google and Facebook’s ad networks. AntiToxin found six of these apps ran Google AdMob, one ran Google Firebase, two ran Facebook Audience Network and one ran StartApp. These ad networks earned a cut of brands’ marketing spend while allowing the apps to monetize and sustain their operations by hosting ads for Amazon, Microsoft, Motorola, Sprint, Sprite, Western Union, Dyson, DJI, Gett, Yandex Music, Q Link Wireless, Tik Tok and more.

The situation reveals that tech giants aren’t just failing to spot offensive content in their own apps, but also in third-party apps that host their ads and that earn them money. While these apps like “Group Links For Whats” by Lisa Studio let people discover benign links to WhatsApp groups for sharing legal content and discussing topics like business or sports, TechCrunch found they also hosted links with titles such as “child porn only no adv” and “child porn xvideos” that led to WhatsApp groups with names like “Children 💋👙👙” or “videos cp” — a known abbreviation for “child pornography.”

In a video provided by AntiToxin seen below, the app “Group Links For Whats by Lisa Studio” that ran Google AdMob is shown displaying an interstitial ad for Q Link Wireless before providing WhatsApp group search results for “child.” A group described as “Child nude FBI POLICE” is surfaced, and when the invite link is clicked, it opens within WhatsApp to a group used for sharing child exploitation imagery. (No illegal imagery is shown in this video or article. TechCrunch has omitted the end of the video that showed a URL for an illegal group and the phone numbers of its members.)

Another video shows the app “Group Link For whatsapp by Video Status Zone” that ran Google AdMob and Facebook Audience Network displaying a link to a WhatsApp group described as “only cp video.” When tapped, the app first surfaces an interstitial ad for Amazon Photos before revealing a button for opening the group within WhatsApp. These videos show how alarmingly easy it was for people to find illegal content sharing groups on WhatsApp, even without WhatsApp’s help.

Zero tolerance doesn’t mean zero illegal content

In response, a Google spokesperson tells me that these group discovery apps violated its content policies and it’s continuing to look for more like them to ban. When they’re identified and removed from Google Play, it also suspends their access to its ad networks. However, it refused to disclose how much money these apps earned and whether it would refund the advertisers. The company provided this statement:

Google has a zero tolerance approach to child sexual abuse material and we’ve invested in technology, teams and partnerships with groups like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, to tackle this issue for more than two decades. If we identify an app promoting this kind of material that our systems haven’t already blocked, we report it to the relevant authorities and remove it from our platform. These policies apply to apps listed in the Play store as well as apps that use Google’s advertising services.

App Developer Ad Network Estimated Installs   Last Day Ranked
Unlimited Whats Groups Without Limit Group links   Jack Rehan Google AdMob 200,000 12/18/2018
Unlimited Group Links for Whatsapp NirmalaAppzTech Google AdMob 127,000 12/18/2018
Group Invite For Whatsapp Villainsbrain Google Firebase 126,000 12/18/2018
Public Group for WhatsApp Bit-Build Google AdMob, Facebook Audience Network   86,000 12/18/2018
Group links for Whats – Find Friends for Whats Lisa Studio Google AdMob 54,000 12/19/2018
Unlimited Group Links for Whatsapp 2019 Natalie Pack Google AdMob 3,000 12/20/2018
Group Link For whatsapp Video Status Zone   Google AdMob, Facebook Audience Network 97,000 11/13/2018
Group Links For Whatsapp – Free Joining Developers.pk StartAppSDK 29,000 12/5/2018

Facebook, meanwhile, blamed Google Play, saying the apps’ eligibility for its Facebook Audience Network ads was tied to their availability on Google Play and that the apps were removed from FAN when booted from the Android app store. The company was more forthcoming, telling TechCrunch it will refund advertisers whose promotions appeared on these abhorrent apps. It’s also pulling Audience Network from all apps that let users discover WhatsApp Groups.

A Facebook spokesperson tells TechCrunch that “Audience Network monetization eligibility is closely tied to app store (in this case Google) review. We removed [Public Group for WhatsApp by Bit-Build] when Google did – it is not currently monetizing on Audience Network. Our policies are on our website and out of abundance of caution we’re ensuring Audience Network does not support any group invite link apps. This app earned very little revenue (less than $500), which we are refunding to all impacted advertisers.” WhatsApp has already banned all the illegal groups TechCrunch reported on last week.

Facebook also provided this statement about WhatsApp’s stance on illegal imagery sharing groups and third-party apps for finding them:

WhatsApp does not provide a search function for people or groups – nor does WhatsApp encourage publication of invite links to private groups. WhatsApp regularly engages with Google and Apple to enforce their terms of service on apps that attempt to encourage abuse on WhatsApp. Following the reports earlier this week, WhatsApp asked Google to remove all known group link sharing apps. When apps are removed from Google Play store, they are also removed from Audience Network.

An app with links for discovering illegal WhatsApp Groups runs an ad for Amazon Photos

Israeli NGOs Netivei Reshet and Screen Savers worked with AntiToxin to provide a report published by TechCrunch about the wide extent of child exploitation imagery they found on WhatsApp. Facebook and WhatsApp are still waiting on the groups to work with Israeli police to provide their full research so WhatsApp can delete illegal groups they discovered and terminate user accounts that joined them.

AntiToxin develops technologies for protecting online network harassment, bullying, shaming, predatory behavior and sexually explicit activity. It was co-founded by Zohar Levkovitz, who sold Amobee to SingTel for $400 million, and Ron Porat, who was the CEO of ad-blocker Shine. [Disclosure: The company also employs Roi Carthy, who contributed to TechCrunch from 2007 to 2012.] “Online toxicity is at unprecedented levels, at unprecedented scale, with unprecedented risks for children, which is why completely new thinking has to be applied to technology solutions that help parents keep their children safe,” Levkovitz tells me. The company is pushing Apple to remove WhatsApp from the App Store until the problems are fixed, citing how Apple temporarily suspended Tumblr due to child pornography.

Ad networks must be monitored

Encryption has proven an impediment to WhatsApp preventing the spread of child exploitation imagery. WhatsApp can’t see what is shared inside of group chats. Instead, it has to rely on the few pieces of public and unencrypted data, such as group names and profile photos plus their members’ profile photos, looking for suspicious names or illegal images. The company matches those images to a PhotoDNA database of known child exploitation photos to administer bans, and has human moderators investigate if seemingly illegal images aren’t already on file. It then reports its findings to law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Strong encryption is important for protecting privacy and political dissent, but also thwarts some detection of illegal content and thereby necessitates more manual moderation.

With just 300 total employees and only a subset working on security or content moderation, WhatsApp seems understaffed to manage such a large user base. It’s tried to depend on AI to safeguard its community. However, that technology can’t yet perform the nuanced investigations necessary to combat exploitation. WhatsApp runs semi-independently of Facebook, but could hire more moderators to investigate group discovery apps that lead to child pornography if Facebook allocated more resources to its acquisition.

WhatsApp group discovery apps featured Adult sections that contained links to child exploitation imagery groupsGoogle and Facebook, with their vast headcounts and profit margins, are neglecting to properly police who hosts their ad networks. The companies have sought to earn extra revenue by powering ads on other apps, yet failed to assume the necessary responsibility to ensure those apps aren’t facilitating crimes. Stricter examinations of in-app content should be administered before an app is accepted to app stores or ad networks, and periodically once they’re running. And when automated systems can’t be deployed, as can be the case with policing third-party apps, human staffers should be assigned despite the cost.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that social networks and ad networks that profit off other people’s content can’t be low-maintenance cash cows. Companies should invest ample money and labor into safeguarding any property they run or monetize, even if it makes the opportunities less lucrative. The strip-mining of the internet without regard for consequences must end.

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WhatsApp has an encrypted child porn problem

Posted by | Apps, child exploitation, Facebook, Government, Mobile, Policy, privacy, Social, TC, WhatsApp | No Comments

WhatsApp chat groups are being used to spread illegal child pornography, cloaked by the app’s end-to-end encryption. Without the necessary number of human moderators, the disturbing content is slipping by WhatsApp’s automated systems. A report from two Israeli NGOs reviewed by TechCrunch details how third-party apps for discovering WhatsApp groups include “Adult” sections that offer invite links to join rings of users trading images of child exploitation. TechCrunch has reviewed materials showing many of these groups are currently active.

TechCrunch’s investigation shows that Facebook could do more to police WhatsApp and remove this kind of content. Even without technical solutions that would require a weakening of encryption, WhatsApp’s moderators should have been able to find these groups and put a stop to them. Groups with names like “child porn only no adv” and “child porn xvideos” found on the group discovery app “Group Links For Whats” by Lisa Studio don’t even attempt to hide their nature. And a screenshot provided by anti-exploitation startup AntiToxin reveals active WhatsApp groups with names like “Children 💋👙👙” or “videos cp” — a known abbreviation for ‘child pornography’.

A screenshot from today of active child exploitation groups on WhatsApp. Phone numbers and photos redacted. Provided by AntiToxin.

Better manual investigation of these group discovery apps and WhatsApp itself should have immediately led these groups to be deleted and their members banned. While Facebook doubled its moderation staff from 10,000 to 20,000 in 2018 to crack down on election interference, bullying and other policy violations, that staff does not moderate WhatsApp content. With just 300 employees, WhatsApp runs semi-independently, and the company confirms it handles its own moderation efforts. That’s proving inadequate for policing a 1.5 billion-user community.

The findings from the NGOs Screen Savers and Netivei Reshe were written about today by Financial Times, but TechCrunch is publishing the full report, their translated letter to Facebook, translated emails with Facebook, their police report, plus the names of child pornography groups on WhatsApp and group discovery apps listed above. A startup called AntiToxin Technologies that researches the topic has backed up the report, providing the screenshot above and saying it’s identified more than 1,300 videos and photographs of minors involved in sexual acts on WhatsApp groups. Given that Tumblr’s app was recently temporarily removed from the Apple App Store for allegedly harboring child pornography, we’ve asked Apple if it will temporarily suspend WhatsApp, but have not heard back. 

Uncovering a nightmare

In July 2018, the NGOs became aware of the issue after a man reported to one of their hotlines that he’d seen hardcore pornography on WhatsApp. In October, they spent 20 days cataloging more than 10 of the child pornography groups, their content and the apps that allow people to find them.

The NGOs began contacting Facebook’s head of Policy, Jordana Cutler, starting September 4th. They requested a meeting four times to discuss their findings. Cutler asked for email evidence but did not agree to a meeting, instead following Israeli law enforcement’s guidance to instruct researchers to contact the authorities. The NGO reported their findings to Israeli police but declined to provide Facebook with their research. WhatsApp only received their report and the screenshot of active child pornography groups today from TechCrunch.

Listings from a group discovery app of child exploitation groups on WhatsApp. URLs and photos have been redacted.

WhatsApp tells me it’s now investigating the groups visible from the research we provided. A Facebook spokesperson tells TechCrunch, “Keeping people safe on Facebook is fundamental to the work of our teams around the world. We offered to work together with police in Israel to launch an investigation to stop this abuse.” A statement from the Israeli Police’s head of the Child Online Protection Bureau, Meir Hayoun, notes that: “In past meetings with Jordana, I instructed her to always tell anyone who wanted to report any pedophile content to contact the Israeli police to report a complaint.”

A WhatsApp spokesperson tells me that while legal adult pornography is allowed on WhatsApp, it banned 130,000 accounts in a recent 10-day period for violating its policies against child exploitation. In a statement, WhatsApp wrote that:

WhatsApp has a zero-tolerance policy around child sexual abuse. We deploy our most advanced technology, including artificial intelligence, to scan profile photos and images in reported content, and actively ban accounts suspected of sharing this vile content. We also respond to law enforcement requests around the world and immediately report abuse to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Sadly, because both app stores and communications services are being misused to spread abusive content, technology companies must work together to stop it.

But it’s that over-reliance on technology and subsequent under-staffing that seems to have allowed the problem to fester. AntiToxin’s CEO Zohar Levkovitz tells me, “Can it be argued that Facebook has unwittingly growth-hacked pedophilia? Yes. As parents and tech executives we cannot remain complacent to that.”

Automated moderation doesn’t cut it

WhatsApp introduced an invite link feature for groups in late 2016, making it much easier to discover and join groups without knowing any members. Competitors like Telegram had benefited as engagement in their public group chats rose. WhatsApp likely saw group invite links as an opportunity for growth, but didn’t allocate enough resources to monitor groups of strangers assembling around different topics. Apps sprung up to allow people to browse different groups by category. Some usage of these apps is legitimate, as people seek communities to discuss sports or entertainment. But many of these apps now feature “Adult” sections that can include invite links to both legal pornography-sharing groups as well as illegal child exploitation content.

A WhatsApp spokesperson tells me that it scans all unencrypted information on its network — basically anything outside of chat threads themselves — including user profile photos, group profile photos and group information. It seeks to match content against the PhotoDNA banks of indexed child pornography that many tech companies use to identify previously reported inappropriate imagery. If it finds a match, that account, or that group and all of its members, receive a lifetime ban from WhatsApp.

A WhatsApp group discovery app’s listings of child exploitation groups on WhatsApp

If imagery doesn’t match the database but is suspected of showing child exploitation, it’s manually reviewed. If found to be illegal, WhatsApp bans the accounts and/or groups, prevents it from being uploaded in the future and reports the content and accounts to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The one example group reported to WhatsApp by Financial Times was already flagged for human review by its automated system, and was then banned along with all 256 members.

To discourage abuse, WhatsApp says it limits groups to 256 members and purposefully does not provide a search function for people or groups within its app. It does not encourage the publication of group invite links and the vast majority of groups have six or fewer members. It’s already working with Google and Apple to enforce its terms of service against apps like the child exploitation group discovery apps that abuse WhatsApp. Those kind of groups already can’t be found in Apple’s App Store, but remain available on Google Play. We’ve contacted Google Play to ask how it addresses illegal content discovery apps and whether Group Links For Whats by Lisa Studio will remain available, and will update if we hear back. [Update 3pm PT: Google has not provided a comment but the Group Links For Whats app by Lisa Studio has been removed from Google Play. That’s a step in the right direction.]

But the larger question is that if WhatsApp was already aware of these group discovery apps, why wasn’t it using them to track down and ban groups that violate its policies. A spokesperson claimed that group names with “CP” or other indicators of child exploitation are some of the signals it uses to hunt these groups, and that names in group discovery apps don’t necessarily correlate to the group names on WhatsApp. But TechCrunch then provided a screenshot showing active groups within WhatsApp as of this morning, with names like “Children 💋👙👙” or “videos cp”. That shows that WhatsApp’s automated systems and lean staff are not enough to prevent the spread of illegal imagery.

The situation also raises questions about the trade-offs of encryption as some governments like Australia seek to prevent its usage by messaging apps. The technology can protect free speech, improve the safety of political dissidents and prevent censorship by both governments and tech platforms. However, it also can make detecting crime more difficult, exacerbating the harm caused to victims.

WhatsApp’s spokesperson tells me that it stands behind strong end-to-end encryption that protects conversations with loved ones, doctors and more. They said there are plenty of good reasons for end-to-end encryption and it will continue to support it. Changing that in any way, even to aid catching those that exploit children, would require a significant change to the privacy guarantees it’s given users. They suggested that on-device scanning for illegal content would have to be implemented by phone makers to prevent its spread without hampering encryption.

But for now, WhatsApp needs more human moderators willing to use proactive and unscalable manual investigation to address its child pornography problem. With Facebook earning billions in profit per quarter and staffing up its own moderation ranks, there’s no reason WhatsApp’s supposed autonomy should prevent it from applying adequate resources to the issue. WhatsApp sought to grow through big public groups, but failed to implement the necessary precautions to ensure they didn’t become havens for child exploitation. Tech companies like WhatsApp need to stop assuming cheap and efficient technological solutions are sufficient. If they want to make money off huge user bases, they must be willing to pay to protect and police them.

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Google is killing off Allo, its latest messaging app flop

Posted by | Android, Apps, Assistant, computing, Google, Google Hangouts, imessage, machine learning, messaging apps, slack, SMS, Software, technology, Verizon, WhatsApp | No Comments

It’s official: Google is killing off Allo.

The messaging app was only launched in September 2016, but it was pretty much flawed from the word go, with limited usage. Google was, once again, painfully late to the messaging game.

The company said it had ceased work on the service earlier this year, and now it has announced that it’ll close down in March of next year.

“Allo will continue to work through March 2019 and until then, you’ll be able to export all of your existing conversation history from the app,” Google said in a blog post. “We’ve learned a lot from Allo, particularly what’s possible when you incorporate machine learning features, like the Google Assistant, into messaging.”

Google said it wants “every single Android device to have a great default messaging experience,” but the fact remains that the experience on Android massively lags iOS, where Apple’s iMessage service offers a slick experience with free messages, calling and video between iPhone and iPad users.

Instead of Allo, Google is pushing ahead with RCS (Rich Communication Services), an enhanced SMS standard that could allow iMessage-like communication between Android devices.

But “could” is the operative word. The main caveat with RCS is that carriers must develop their own messaging apps that work with the protocol and connect to other apps, while the many Android OEMs also need to hop on board with support.

As I wrote earlier this year, with RCS, Google is giving carriers a chance to take part in the messaging boom, rather than be cut out as WhatsApp, Messenger, iMessage and others take over. But the decision is tricky for carriers, who have traditionally tightly held any form of income until the death. That’s because they won’t directly make money from consumers via RCS, though it allows them to keep their brand and figure out other ways to generate income, such as business-related services.

Verizon has already signed up, for one, but tracking the other supporters worldwide is tricky. Another problem: RCS is not encrypted, which flies in the face of most messaging apps on the market today.

Elsewhere, Google is keeping Duo — the video chat service that launched alongside Allo — while it continues to develop Hangouts into an enterprise-focused service, much like Slack .

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WhatsApp could wreck Snapchat again by copying ephemeral messaging

Posted by | Apps, ephemeral messaging, Evan Spiegel, instagram, Instagram Direct, Mobile, Snapchat, Social, TC, WhatsApp | No Comments

WhatsApp already ruined Snapchat’s growth once. WhatsApp Status, its clone of Snapchat Stories, now has 450 million daily active users compared to Snapchat’s 188 million. That’s despite its 24-hour disappearing slideshows missing tons of features, including augmented reality selfie masks, animated GIFs, or personalized avatars like Bitmoji. A good-enough version of Stories conveniently baked into the messaging app beloved in the developing world where Snapchat hasn’t proved massively successful. Snapchat actually lost total daily users in Q2 and Q3 2018, and even lost Rest Of World daily users in Q2 despite that being where late-stage social networks rely on for growth.

That’s why it’s so surprising that WhatsApp hasn’t already copied the other big Snapchat feature, ephemeral messaging. When chats can disappear, people feel free to be themselves — more silly, more vulnerable, more expressive. For teens who’ve purposefully turned away from the permanence of the Facebook profile timeline, there’s a sense of freedom in ephemerality. You don’t have to worry about old stuff coming back to haunt or embarrass you. Snapchat rode this idea to become a cultural staple for the younger generation.

Yet right now WhatsApp only lets you send permanent photos, videos, and texts. There is an Unsend option, but it only works for an hour after a message is sent. That’s far from the default ephemerality of Snapchat where seen messages disappear once you close the chat window unless you purposefully tap to save them.

Instagram has arrived at a decent compromise. You can send both permanent and temporary photos and videos. Text messages are permanent by default, but you can unsend even old ones. The result is the flexibility to both chat through expiring photos and off-the-cuff messages knowing they will or can disappear, while also being able to have reliable, utilitarian chats and privately share photos for posterity without the fear that one wrong tap could erase them. When Instagram Direct added ephemeral messaging, it saw a growth spurt to over 375 million monthly users as of April 2017.

Snapchat lost daily active users the past two quarters

WhatsApp should be able to build this pretty easily. Add a timer option when people send media so photos or videos can disappear after 10 seconds, a minute, an hour, or a day. Let people add a similar timer to specific messages they send, or set a per chat thread default for how long your messages last similar to fellow encrypted messaging app Signal.

Snap CEO Evan Spiegel’s memo leaked by Cheddar’s Alex Heath indicates that he views chats with close friends as the linchpin of his app that was hampered by this year’s disastrous redesign. He constantly refers to Snapchat as the fastest way to communicate. That might be true for images but not necessarily text, as BTIG’s Rich Greenfield points out, citing how expiring text can cause conversations to break down. It’s likely that Snapchat will double down on messaging now that Stories has been copied to death.

Given its interest in onboarding older users, that might mean making texts easier to keep permanent or at least lengthening how long they last before they disappear. And with its upcoming Project Mushroom re-engineering of the Snapchat app so it works better in developing markets, Snap will increasingly try to become WhatsApp.

…Unless WhatsApp can become Snapchat first. Spiegel proved people want the flexibility of temporary messaging. Who cares who invented something if it can be brought to more people to deliver more joy? WhatsApp should swallow its pride and embrace the ephemeral.

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Open sourcing analysis, plus US, China and HQ2

Posted by | Amazon, Asia, Government, hq2, Mobile, new york city, oppo, Tencent, washington DC, WeChat, WhatsApp, Xiaomi | No Comments

The big news today is that — finally — we have Amazon’s selection of cities for its dual second headquarters (Northern Virginia and NYC). Then some notes on China. But first, semiconductors and open sourcing analysis.

We are experimenting with new content forms at TechCrunch. This is a rough draft of something new — provide your feedback directly to the authors: Danny at danny@techcrunch.com or Arman at Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com if you like or hate something here.

Pivot: Future of semiconductors, chips, AI, etc.

Last week, I focused on SoftBank’s debt and Form D filings by startups. On Friday, I asked what I should start to analyze next. There were several feedback hotspots, but the one that popped out to me was around next-generation chips and the battle for dominance at the hardware layer.

As a software engineer, I know almost nothing about silicon (the beauty of abstraction). But it is clear that the future of all kinds of workflows will increasingly be driven by capabilities at the hardware/silicon level, particularly in future applications like artificial intelligence, machine learning, AR/VR, autonomous driving and more. Furthermore, China and other countries are spending billions to go after the leaders in this space, such as Nvidia and Intel. Startups, funding, competition, geopolitics — we’ve got it all here.

Arman and I are now diving deeper into this space. We will start to post once we have some interesting things to share, but if you have ideas, opinions, companies or investments in this space: tell us about them, as we are all ears: danny@techcrunch.com and Arman.tabatabai@techcrunch.com.

Open-source analysis at TechCrunch

Since I launched this daily “column” last week, I have included the text near the top that “We are experimenting with new content forms at TechCrunch.” One of those forms is what might be called open-source journalism. Definitions are fuzzy, but I take it to mean working “in the open” — allowing you, the audience of this column, to engage in not just feedback around finalized and published posts, but to actually affect the entire process of analysis, from sourcing and ideation to data science and writing.

I am thankful to work at a publication like TechCrunch where my readers are often working in the exact sectors that I am writing about. When I wrote about Form Ds last week, a number of startup attorneys reached out with their own thoughts and analysis, and also explained key aspects of how the law is changing around SEC disclosure for startups. That’s really powerful, and I want to apply it to as many fields as possible.

This thesis is ultimately intentional — now I have to operationalize it. There aren’t good tools (yet!) that I know of that allow for easy sharing of data and notes that don’t rely on a hacked-together set of Google Docs and GitHub. But I’m exploring the stack, and will publish more things publicly as we have them.

Amazon HQ2 — the future of corporate relations with cities

Amazon’s long process for selecting an HQ2 is finally over, and the official answer is two: Northern Virginia and NYC. Tons of words have been spilled about the search, and I am sure even more analysis will strike today about what put those two locations over the top.

To me, the key for mayors is to start using these reverse searches (where a company seeks a city and not vice versa) as leverage to actually get resources to fund infrastructure and other critical services.

This is a theme that I discussed about a year ago:

Take Boston’s bid for GE’s new headquarters. Yes, the city offered property tax rebates of about $25 million , but GE’s move also pushed the state to fund a variety of infrastructure improvements, including the Northern Avenue bridge and new bike lanes. That bridge adds a critical path for vehicles and pedestrians in Boston’s central business district, yet has gone unfunded for years.

Ideally, governments could debate, vote, and then fund these sorts of infrastructure projects and community improvements. The reality is that without a time-sensitive forcing function like a reverse RFP process, there is little hope that cities and states will make progress on these sorts of projects. The debates can literally go on forever in American democracy.

So if you are a mayor or economic planning official, use these processes as tools to get stuff done. Use the allure of new jobs and tax revenues to spur infrastructure spending and get a rezoning through a recalcitrant city council. Use that “prosperity bomb” to upgrade old parts of the urban landscape and prepare the city for the future. A healthier, more humane city can be just around the corner.

Take DC. The city has seen one of the best-run Metro systems deteriorate to abysmal levels over the past few years due to a complete dumpster fire of organizational design (the DC transit agency WMATA is funded by inconsistent revenue sources that ensure it will never be sustainable). Here is an opportunity to use Amazon’s announcement to get the tax framework and operations figured out to ensure that real estate, transportation and other critical urban infrastructure are designed effectively.

China’s mobile internationalization

Timothy Allen/Getty Images

Talking about second headquarters, the technology industry clearly has separated into poles, one based around the United States and the other based around China. Two articles I read recently gave good insights of the benefits and challenges for China in this world.

The first is from Sam Byford writing at The Verge, who investigates the native OS options that Chinese consumers receive from companies like Xiaomi, Huawei, Oppo and others. The headline is much more shrill than the text, so don’t let that frighten you.

Byford provides an overview of the lineage of Chinese mobile OSes, and also notes that what might look like design gaffes in Western consumer eyes might be critical needs for Chinese buyers:

But what is true today is that not all Chinese phone software is bad. And when it is bad from a Western perspective, it’s often bad for very different reasons than the bad Android skins of the past. Yes, many of these phones make similar mistakes with overbearing UI decisions — hello, Huawei — and yes, it’s easy to mock some designs for their obvious thrall to iOS. But these are phones created in a very different context to Android devices as we’ve previously understood them.

The article is perhaps a tad long for what it is, but Byford’s key viewpoint should be repeated as a mantra by any person connected to the technology sector today: “The Chinese phone market is a spiraling behemoth of innovation and audacity, unlike anything we’ve ever seen. If you want to be on board with the already exciting hardware, it’s worth trying to understand the software.”

Of course, while China may be a huge country, its leading technology companies do want to globalize and expand their user bases outside of the Middle Kingdom’s borders. That may well be a challenging proposition.

Writing at Factor Daily, Shadma Shaikh dives into the failure of WeChat to break into the Indian market. The product lessons learned by WeChat’s owner Tencent could be applied to any Silicon Valley company — cultural knowledge and appropriate product design are key to entering overseas markets.

Shaikh gives a couple of examples:

Another design feature in the app allowed users to look up and send add-friend requests to WeChat users nearby. During initial onboarding when users were just checking app’s features, many would tap the “people nearby” feature, which would switch on location sharing by default – including with strangers. Once location sharing with strangers was switched on, it wasn’t very intuitive to turn it off.

“Women used to get a lot of unwarranted messages from men, which was a major turn off and many of them left the platform,” Gupta says. “China probably didn’t have this stalking problem.”

And

In China, where the internet was cheaper than in India in 2012, sending video files of, say, 4 MB was not a challenge. WhatsApp compresses a 5 MB photo to 40 kilobytes. WeChat did not compress the files and took many minutes and data to send and receive media files.

Internationalization will never be easy, but the lessons that Silicon Valley has slowly learned over the past two decades will need to be learned again by Chinese companies if they want to export their software to other countries.

Reading Docket

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Zuckerberg says the future is sharing via 100B messages & 1B Stories/day

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Apps, Facebook, Facebook Earnings, Facebook Earnings Q3 2018, facebook messenger, Facebook Stories, instagram, Media, Mobile, Snapchat, Social, TC, Video, WhatsApp | No Comments

The News Feed won’t sustain Facebook forever, and that’s scaring investors. Today on Facebook’s earnings call, Mark Zuckerberg stressed that sharing is shifting to private chat, where people send 100 billion messages per day on Facebook’s family of apps, and Stories, where he says people share 1 billion of these slideshows per day (though it’s unclear if that includes third-party apps like Snapchat).

But that means Facebook will have to realign its business towards these mediums where monetization is more complex and it has less experience. The result of Zuckerberg’s comments was a reversal of Facebook’s initial 2 percent share price gain after earnings were announced that dragged it down to a 3.5 percent loss. That was only reversed when Zuckerberg said Facebook would reduce limits on video advertising, pushing shares up 3 percent in after-hours trading.

Facebook’s year-over-year revenue growth has already slowed from 59 percent in Q3 2016, to 49 percent a year ago, to 33 percent now as Zuckerberg admits it’s hitting saturation in developed markets, plus it’s running out of News Feed space. Now it will both have to deal with the sharing medium shift, and that the new users it’s adding in the Asia-Pacific and Rest Of World regions earn it 10X less than users in North America.

Battling iMessage

In messaging, Zuckerberg says “People share more photos, videos, and links on WhatsApp and Messenger than they do on social networks.” He sees Facebook’s position as strong, saying “We’re leading in most countries”, though that’s mostly in the developing world Android market where people choose their own default messaging app. “Our biggest competitor by far is iMessage. In important countries like the US where the iPhone is strong, Apple bundles iMesssage as the default texting app, and it’s still ahead” Zuckerberg notes.

The “bundled” language harkens back to to antitrust lawsuits against Microsoft for bundling computers with Internet Explorer. With Apple CEO Tim Cook constantly harping on the poor privacy practices of ad-supported companies like Facebook, Zuckerberg might be gunning to draw regulator attention to iMessage.

Facebook is starting to more aggressively monetize Messenger through inbox ads, and its now selling enterprise tools to brands on both Facebook and WhatsApp that let them pay to ping users. But Facebook risks its chat apps seeming annoying or intrusive if it packs in too many ads or allows too much Message spam. Users could stray to status quos like iMessage and Android Messages if it puts monetization above the user experience.

Dominating Snapchat

On Stories, Zuckerberg says Facebook is doing even better. Over 1 billion people use its Stories features across Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp each day, compared to 186 million daily users on Stories inventor Snapchat as a whole. Stories are where the majority of Facebook sharing growth is happening, and Facebook Stories are gaining momentum after a slow and buggy start. That’s why Zuckerberg never mentioned Snapchat, and instead talk about YouTube as its primary competitor in video.

The problem is that creating attractive video ads, especially vertical full-screen ones for Stories, is beyond the capability of the long-tail on small businesses that have fueled Facebook’s News Feed ad revenue. Users often rapidly skip through Stories ads, and Facebook currently doesn’t offer unskippable ones like Snapchat. Many people don’t think to tap or swipe up to visit a link from a Story, or simply don’t want to lose their place in ways that didn’t happen on desktop or even mobile feed ads.

Chasing YouTube

Beyond Stories, Facebook salvaged its after-hours share price by discussing how it plans to show more video, and therefore more of its lucrative video ads. Back in January, Facebook admitted its Q4 user count had declined and revenue might stumble in part because it had decided to show people fewer viral videos that they watch passively. This came as part of its drive for Time Well Spent. But now, Zuckerberg says that Facebook has cracked the code for how to make passive video consumption a positive experience, so Facebook will lift some limits:

People really want to watch a lot of video. To a large degree we’ve had to rate limit its growth, and we need to do the things so we can stop limiting it. The things that have caused us to limit it are on the one hand, when we see passive consumption of video displacing social interactions . . . We needed to figure out a way that video can grow but people can also keep on interacting and doing what they tell us that they uniquely want from Facebook. And now I think we’re starting to work through what the formula is going to be so we can take some of those rate limits off and let video grow at the rate that it wants to. I feel that that’s a very exciting opportunity ahead.”

Across Facebook’s other products, Zuckerberg noted that 800 million people now use Marketplace, its Jobs feature have helped people find 1 million jobs, and its birthday fundraisers have raised $300 million alone this year. But it will be teaching advertisers how to effectively create sponsored messages and Stories ads that will define whether Facebook’s revenue keeps growing.

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WhatsApp is finally adding stickers

Posted by | Android, Apps, Brian Acton, computing, Facebook, Jan Koum, social media, social network, Software, sticker, WhatsApp | No Comments

WhatsApp is finally adding stickers to its hugely popular messaging app. The company said today that support for stickers will roll out to Android and iOS users over “the coming weeks.”

Initially, the app’s 1.5 billion users will have a seemingly limited selection with the first packs provided by WhatsApp’s own design team and some “other artists” chosen by the company.

However, that’s likely to change in the future since WhatsApp will allow anyone to add stickers that can be used inside the app.

It’s taking an interesting route to enabling that. Would-be sticker artists will need to publish their packs as an app on the Google Play or Apple App Store. From there, users can download the apps and then make use of the packs inside WhatsApp. The company has provided a template that it claims requires “minimal development or coding experience.”

A full guide on the sticker submission process can be found here.

Other messaging apps have taken a different approach.

Line — which pioneered the concept of stickers — takes a very curated approach, with sticker packs approved by the company itself. That walled garden approach has helped it curate the best selection of stickers, many of which are paid. That’s nothing to be scoffed as since Line makes hundreds of millions of dollars from sticker purchases every year.

Telegram has the most open sticker platform. Anyone can make and publish stickers in just minutes, but that leads to its own problems such as plagiarism and differing levels of quality.

Either way, WhatsApp’s move into stickers is very much a Facebook -led move.

The service’s founders — Jan Koum and Brian Acton — have both left the social network under controversial terms, at least according to Acton himself.

Prior to the acquisition deal, both men were very vocally opposed to advertising, games and other functions. They deemed them trivial and believed that they detracted from the core focus of WhatsApp: simple and fast messaging.

At this point, their ethical ship has long since sailed with Facebook introducing features like a business service and ad integrations with Facebook, while there are plans to roll out payments and other features that Koum and Acton would no doubt have railed against. It’s enough to make you vomit over the side of your yacht in the Mediterranean.

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Facebook’s ex-CSO, Alex Stamos, defends its decision to inject ads in WhatsApp

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Alex Stamos, Android, Apple, Apps, Brian Acton, e2e encryption, encryption, Facebook, Instant Messaging, Jan Koum, privacy, Sheryl Sandberg, signal foundation, Signal Protocol, Social, social media, WhatsApp | No Comments

Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, who left the company this summer to take up a role in academia, has made a contribution to what’s sometimes couched as a debate about how to monetize (and thus sustain) commercial end-to-end encrypted messaging platforms in order that the privacy benefits they otherwise offer can be as widely spread as possible.

Stamos made the comments via Twitter, where he said he was indirectly responding to the fallout from a Forbes interview with WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton — in which Acton hit at out at his former employer for being greedy in its approach to generating revenue off of the famously anti-ads messaging platform.

Both WhatsApp founders’ exits from Facebook has been blamed on disagreements over monetization. (Jan Koum left some months after Acton.)

In the interview, Acton said he suggested Facebook management apply a simple business model atop WhatsApp, such as metered messaging for all users after a set number of free messages. But that management pushed back — with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg telling him they needed a monetization method that generates greater revenue “scale”.

And while Stamos has avoided making critical remarks about Acton (unlike some current Facebook staffers), he clearly wants to lend his weight to the notion that some kind of trade-off is necessary in order for end-to-end encryption to be commercially viable (and thus for the greater good (of messaging privacy) to prevail); and therefore his tacit support to Facebook and its approach to making money off of a robustly encrypted platform.

Stamos’ own departure from the fb mothership was hardly under such acrimonious terms as Acton, though he has had his own disagreements with the leadership team — as set out in a memo he sent earlier this year that was obtained by BuzzFeed. So his support for Facebook combining e2e and ads perhaps counts for something, though isn’t really surprising given the seat he occupied at the company for several years, and his always fierce defence of WhatsApp encryption.

(Another characteristic concern that also surfaces in Stamos’ Twitter thread is the need to keep the technology legal, in the face of government attempts to backdoor encryption, which he says will require “accepting the inevitable downsides of giving people unfettered communications”.)

I don’t want to weigh into the personal side of the WhatsApp vs Facebook fight, as there are people I respect on both sides, but I do want to use this as an opportunity to talk about the future of end-to-end encryption. (1/13)

— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) September 26, 2018

This summer Facebook confirmed that, from next year, ads will be injected into WhatsApp statuses (aka the app’s Stories clone). So it is indeed bringing ads to the famously anti-ads messaging platform.

For several years the company has also been moving towards positioning WhatsApp as a business messaging platform to connect companies with potential customers — and it says it plans to meter those messages, also from next year.

So there are two strands to its revenue generating playbook atop WhatsApp’s e2e encrypted messaging platform. Both with knock-on impacts on privacy, given Facebook targets ads and marketing content by profiling users by harvesting their personal data.

This means that while WhatsApp’s e2e encryption means Facebook literally cannot read WhatsApp users’ messages, it is ‘circumventing’ the technology (for ad-targeting purposes) by linking accounts across different services it owns — using people’s digital identities across its product portfolio (and beyond) as a sort of ‘trojan horse’ to negate the messaging privacy it affords them on WhatsApp.

Facebook is using different technical methods (including the very low-tech method of phone number matching) to link WhatsApp user and Facebook accounts. Once it’s been able to match a Facebook user to a WhatsApp account it can then connect what’s very likely to be a well fleshed out Facebook profile with a WhatsApp account that nonetheless contains messages it can’t read. So it’s both respecting and eroding user privacy.

This approach means Facebook can carry out its ad targeting activities across both messaging platforms (as it will from next year). And do so without having to literally read messages being sent by WhatsApp users.

As trade offs go, it’s a clearly a big one — and one that’s got Facebook into regulatory trouble in Europe.

It is also, at least in Stamos’ view, a trade off that’s worth it for the ‘greater good’ of message content remaining strongly encrypted and therefore unreadable. Even if Facebook now knows pretty much everything about the sender, and can access any unencrypted messages they sent using its other social products.

In his Twitter thread Stamos argues that “if we want that right to be extended to people around the world, that means that E2E encryption needs to be deployed inside of multi-billion user platforms”, which he says means: “We need to find a sustainable business model for professionally-run E2E encrypted communication platforms.”

On the sustainable business model front he argues that two models “currently fit the bill” — either Apple’s iMessage or Facebook-owned WhatsApp. Though he doesn’t go into any detail on why he believes only those two are sustainable.

He does say he’s discounting the Acton-backed alternative, Signal, which now operates via a not-for-profit (the Signal Foundation) — suggesting that rival messaging app is “unlikely to hit 1B users”.

In passing he also throws it out there that Signal is “subsidized, indirectly, by FB ads” — i.e. because Facebook pays a licensing fee for use of the underlying Signal Protocol used to power WhatsApp’s e2e encryption. (So his slightly shade-throwing subtext is that privacy purists are still benefiting from a Facebook sugardaddy.)

Then he gets to the meat of his argument in defence of Facebook-owned (and monetized) WhatsApp — pointing out that Apple’s sustainable business model does not reach every mobile user, given its hardware is priced at a premium. Whereas WhatsApp running on a cheap Android handset ($50 or, perhaps even $30 in future) can.

Other encrypted messaging apps can also of course run on Android but presumably Stamos would argue they’re not professionally run.

“I think it is easy to underestimate how radical WhatsApp’s decision to deploy E2E was,” he writes. “Acton and Koum, with Zuck’s blessing, jumped off a bridge with the goal of building a monetization parachute on the way down. FB has a lot of money, so it was a very tall bridge, but it is foolish to expect that FB shareholders are going to subsidize a free text/voice/video global communications network forever. Eventually, WhatsApp is going to need to generate revenue.

“This could come from directly charging for the service, it could come from advertising, it could come from a WeChat-like services play. The first is very hard across countries, the latter two are complicated by E2E.”

“I can’t speak to the various options that have been floated around, or the arguments between WA and FB, but those of us who care about privacy shouldn’t see WhatsApp monetization as something evil,” he adds. “In fact, we should want WA to demonstrate that E2E and revenue are compatible. That’s the only way E2E will become a sustainable feature of massive, non-niche technology platforms.”

Stamos is certainly right that Apple’s iMessage cannot reach every mobile user, given the premium cost of Apple hardware.

Though he elides the important role that second hand Apple devices play in helping to reduce the barrier to entry to Apple’s pro-privacy technology — a role Apple is actively encouraging via support for older devices (and by its own services business expansion which extends its model so that support for older versions of iOS (and thus secondhand iPhones) is also commercially sustainable).

Robust encryption only being possible via multi-billion user platforms essentially boils down to a usability argument by Stamos — which is to suggest that mainstream app users will simply not seek encryption out unless it’s plated up for them in a way they don’t even notice it’s there.

The follow on conclusion is then that only a well-resourced giant like Facebook has the resources to maintain and serve this different tech up to the masses.

There’s certainly substance in that point. But the wider question is whether or not the privacy trade offs that Facebook’s monetization methods of WhatsApp entail, by linking Facebook and WhatsApp accounts and also, therefore, looping in various less than transparent data-harvest methods it uses to gather intelligence on web users generally, substantially erodes the value of the e2e encryption that is now being bundled with Facebook’s ad targeting people surveillance. And so used as a selling aid for otherwise privacy eroding practices.

Yes WhatsApp users’ messages will remain private, thanks to Facebook funding the necessary e2e encryption. But the price users are having to pay is very likely still their personal privacy.

And at that point the argument really becomes about how much profit a commercial entity should be able to extract off of a product that’s being marketed as securely encrypted and thus ‘pro-privacy’? How much revenue “scale” is reasonable or unreasonable in that scenario?

Other business models are possible, which was Acton’s point. But likely less profitable. And therein lies the rub where Facebook is concerned.

How much money should any company be required to leave on the table, as Acton did when he left Facebook without the rest of his unvested shares, in order to be able to monetize a technology that’s bound up so tightly with notions of privacy?

Acton wanted Facebook to agree to make as much money as it could without users having to pay it with their privacy. But Facebook’s management team said no. That’s why he’s calling them greedy.

Stamos doesn’t engage with that more nuanced point. He just writes: “It is foolish to expect that FB shareholders are going to subsidize a free text/voice/video global communications network forever. Eventually, WhatsApp is going to need to generate revenue” — thereby collapsing the revenue argument into an all or nothing binary without explaining why it has to be that way.

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Google gets more RCS messaging support from Samsung

Posted by | Android, Apps, Asia, Google, imessage, jibe mobile, messaging apps, Mobile, Rich Communications Services, Samsung, samsung galaxy, samsung galaxy s8, smartphones, SMS, WhatsApp | No Comments

Google has secured a bit more buy in from Samsung for a next generation text messaging standard it’s long been promoting.

The Android OS maker’s hope for Rich Communication Services (RCS), which upgrades what SMS can offer to support richer comms and content swapping, can provide its fragmented Android ecosystem with a way to offer comparably rich native messaging — a la Apple’s iMessage on iOS.

But it’s a major, major task given how many Android devices are out there. And Google needs the entire industry to step with it to support RCS (not just device makers but carriers too) if it’s going to achieve anything more than fiddling around the edges.

Zooming out for a moment, the even bigger problem is the messaging ship has sailed, with massively popular platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram having already offloaded billions of users into their respective walled gardens, pulling the center of gravity away from SMS.

Not that that has stopped Google trying, though, even as it has been muddled in its strategy too — spreading its messaging efforts around quite a bit (with false starts like Allo).

Google doubled down on RCS in April when it pulled resources from the standalone Allo messaging app to focus on trying to drum up more support for next-gen SMS instead.

It has also managed to build a modicum of momentum behind RCS. At this year’s Mobile World Congress it announced more than 40 carriers now backed RCS — up from ~27 the year before. The most recent support figure put the carrier number at 55.

But, three years on from its acquisition of RCS specialist Jibe Mobile — and ambitious talk of building ‘the future of messaging’ — there’s little sign of that.

An added wrinkle is that carriers also have to have actively rolled out RCS support, not just stated they intend to. And it’s not clear exactly how many have.

Nor is it clear how many users of RCS there are at this stage. (Back in 2016 carriers were merely talking about building “a path” to one billion users — at a time when SMS had several billions of users, suggesting they saw little chance of creating anything near next-gen messaging ubiquity via the standard.)

The latest Google-backed RCS development, announced via press release, is of an “expanded collaboration” between Mountain View and Samsung — saying their respective message clients will “work seamlessly with each company’s RCS technology, including cloud and business messaging platforms”.

The pair have previously added RCS support to “select Samsung devices” but are now saying RCS features will be brought to some existing Samsung smartphones — including (and beginning with) the Galaxy S8 and S8+, as well as the S8 Active, S9, S9+, Note8, Note9, and select A and J series running Android 9.0 or later.

Which sounds like a fair few devices. But it’s also muddier than that — because again support remains subject to carrier and market availability. So won’t be universal across even that subset of Samsung Android handsets.

They also now say that (select) new Samsung Galaxy smartphones will natively support RCS messaging. But, again, that’s only where carriers support the standard.

“This means that consumers and brands will be able to enjoy richer chats with both Android Messages and Samsung Messages users,” they add, after their string of caveats.

Despite the PR ending on an upbeat note — with the two companies talking about bringing an “enhanced messaging experience across the entire Android ecosystem” — there’s clearly zero chance of that. A clear consequence of the rich ‘biodiversity’ of the Android ecosystem is reduced ubiquity for cross-device standardization plays like this. 

Still, if Google can cherry pick enough flagship devices and markets to buy in to supporting RCS it might have figured that’s critical messaging mass enough to stack against Apple’s iMessage. So added buy in from Samsung — whose high end devices are most often contending with iPhones for consumers’ cash — is certainly helpful to its strategy.

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WhatsApp hits India’s Jio feature phones amidst fake news violence

Posted by | Apps, fake news, hardware, india, Mobile, Policy, reliance jio, Social, TC, WhatsApp | No Comments

False rumors forwarded on WhatsApp have led angry mobs to murder strangers in India, but the Facebook-owned chat app is still racing to add users in the country. Today it launched a feature phone version of WhatsApp for JioPhone 1 and 2’s KaiOS, which are designed to support 22 of India’s vast array of native languages. Users will be able to send text, photos, videos and voice messages with end-to-end encryption, though it will lack advanced features like augmented reality and Snapchat Stories-style Status updates.

WhatsApp was supposed to launch alongside the JioPhone 2 that debuted last month for roughly $41, but was delayed. Forty million JioPhone 1s had already been sold, and it’s been estimated to control 27 percent of the Indian mobile phone market and 47 percent of the country’s feature phone market. Coming to JioPhone should open up a big new growth vector for WhatsApp as it strives to grow its 1.5 billion user count toward the big 2 billion milestone.Meanwhile, it could make the Reliance-owned Jio mobile network more appealing. It also could strengthen the KaiOS operating system, developed by a San Diego startup of the same name that recently took a $22 million investment from Google. WhatsApp rolls out on the JioPhone AppStore today and should be available to everyone by September 20th. The companu wouldn’t say if the app will come to other KaiOS devices made by Nokia and Alcatel.

Facebook has started to squeeze WhatsApp, replacing its departed co-founders with Chris Daniels, who formerly ran the Internet.org and Free Basics accessibility initiative that got kicked out of India over net neutrality concerns. That doesn’t bode well for him now overseeing WhatsApp’s high-risk/high-reward scenario in India. The massive nation is core to the chat app’s growth strategy, but the attacks it’s spurred have lost it India’s hearts and minds.

WhatsApp has scrambled to safeguard its app after numerous reports of rumors circulated on its app about gangs and child abductors led angry mobs to kill people in the streets. Five nomads were recently beaten to death in the rural village of Rainpada after residents watched inaccurate videos forwarded through WhatsApp about kidnappers supposedly rolling through the area, BuzzFeed reports.

This photo illustration shows an Indian newspaper vendor reading a newspaper with a full back page advertisement from WhatsApp intended to counter fake information, in New Delhi on July 10, 2018. – Facebook owned messaging service WhatsApp on July 10 published full-page advertisements in Indian dailies in a bid to counter fake information that has sparked mob lynching attacks across the country. (Photo by Prakash SINGH / AFP) (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

WhatsApp recently limited how many people you can forward a message to, labeled forwarded messages, and began a radio PSA campaign in Hindi on 46 India stations warning people to verify things they hear on WhatsApp before acting on them.

“The challenge of mob violence requires action from governments, civil society, and technology companies. That’s why WhatsApp launched a broad user education campaign over radio in India and is working with Jio to educate new users about misinformation” a WhatsApp spokesperson tells me. “WhatsApp was built as an alternative to SMS messaging and we think people should be able to text their loved ones across borders without paying exorbitant charges to do so.”

But it’s clear that parent company Facebook sees spreading WhatsApp as part of its mission to bring the world closer together, even as that comes at a cost. The government has pushed WhatsApp to build workarounds for its encryption to identify the source of rumors and misinformation videos. But a WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that “We believe that building ‘traceability’ into WhatsApp would undermine end-to-end encryption and the private nature of WhatsApp creating the potential for serious misuse . . . we will not weaken the privacy protections we provide.”

Jio’s “transition” phones that offer a few third-party apps but not full-fledged smartphone capabilities, alongside its affordable mobile data, have significantly reduced the cost and friction of being online in India. But with that access comes newfound dangers, especially if not combined with news literacy and digital skills education that could help users spot false information before it sparks violence. Lower income users interested in Jio’s feature phones may have even less access to the education needed to not believe everything they read on WhatsApp. What was once a smartphone problem is becoming an every phone problem.

Increasingly the tech world is learning that connecting people to the internet also means connecting them to the worst elements of humanity. That will necessitate a new wave of pessimists and cynics as product managers in order to predict and thwart ways to abuse software instead of allowing idealists to blindly build tools that can be weaponized.

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