Europe

French court slaps down Google’s appeal against $57M GDPR fine

Posted by | Alphabet, Android, cnil, data controller, data processing, digital rights, Europe, european union, France, GDPR, General Data Protection Regulation, Google, ireland, Max Schrems, privacy, United States | No Comments

France’s top court for administrative law has dismissed Google’s appeal against a $57M fine issued by the data watchdog last year for not making it clear enough to Android users how it processes their personal information.

The State Council issued the decision today, affirming the data watchdog CNIL’s earlier finding that Google did not provide “sufficiently clear” information to Android users — which in turn meant it had not legally obtained their consent to use their data for targeted ads.

“Google’s request has been rejected,” a spokesperson for the Conseil D’Etat confirmed to TechCrunch via email.

“The Council of State confirms the CNIL’s assessment that information relating to targeting advertising is not presented in a sufficiently clear and distinct manner for the consent of the user to be validly collected,” the court also writes in a press release [translated with Google Translate] on its website.

It found the size of the fine to be proportionate — given the severity and ongoing nature of the violations.

Importantly, the court also affirmed the jurisdiction of France’s national watchdog to regulate Google — at least on the date when this penalty was issued (January 2019).

The CNIL’s multimillion dollar fine against Google remains the largest to date against a tech giant under Europe’s flagship General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — lending the case a certain symbolic value, for those concerned about whether the regulation is functioning as intended vs platform power.

While the size of the fine is still relative peanuts vs Google’s parent entity Alphabet’s global revenue, changes the tech giant may have to make to how it harvests user data could be far more impactful to its ad-targeting bottom line. 

Under European law, for consent to be a valid legal basis for processing personal data it must be informed, specific and freely given. Or, to put it another way, consent cannot be strained.

In this case French judges concluded Google had not provided clear enough information for consent to be lawfully obtained — including objecting to a pre-ticked checkbox which the court affirmed does not meet the requirements of the GDPR.

So, tl;dr, the CNIL’s decision has been entirely vindicated.

Reached for comment on the court’s dismissal of its appeal, a Google spokeswoman sent us this statement:

People expect to understand and control how their data is used, and we’ve invested in industry-leading tools that help them do both. This case was not about whether consent is needed for personalised advertising, but about how exactly it should be obtained. In light of this decision, we will now review what changes we need to make.

GDPR came into force in 2018, updating long standing European data protection rules and opening up the possibility of supersized fines of up to 4% of global annual turnover.

However actions against big tech have largely stalled, with scores of complaints being funnelled through Ireland’s Data Protection Commission — on account of a one-stop-shop mechanism in the regulation — causing a major backlog of cases. The Irish DPC has yet to issue decisions on any cross border complaints, though it has said its first ones are imminent — on complaints involving Twitter and Facebook.

Ireland’s data watchdog is also continuing to investigate a number of complaints against Google, following a change Google announced to the legal jurisdiction of where it processes European users’ data — moving them to Google Ireland Limited, based in Dublin, which it said applied from January 22, 2019 — with ongoing investigations by the Irish DPC into a long running complaint related to how Google handles location data and another major probe of its adtech, to name two

On the GDPR one-stop shop mechanism — and, indirectly, the wider problematic issue of ‘forum shopping’ and European data protection regulation — the French State Council writes: “Google believed that the Irish data protection authority was solely competent to control its activities in the European Union, the control of data processing being the responsibility of the authority of the country where the main establishment of the data controller is located, according to a ‘one-stop-shop’ principle instituted by the GDPR. The Council of State notes however that at the date of the sanction, the Irish subsidiary of Google had no power of control over the other European subsidiaries nor any decision-making power over the data processing, the company Google LLC located in the United States with this power alone.”

In its own statement responding to the court’s decision, the CNIL notes the court’s view that GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism was not applicable in this case — writing: “It did so by applying the new European framework as interpreted by all the European authorities in the guidelines of the European Data Protection Committee.”

Privacy NGO noyb — one of the privacy campaign groups which lodged the original ‘forced consent’ complaint against Google, all the way back in May 2018 — welcomed the court’s decision on all fronts, including the jurisdiction point.

Commenting in a statement, noyb’s honorary chairman, Max Schrems, said: “It is very important that companies like Google cannot simply declare themselves to be ‘Irish’ to escape the oversight by the privacy regulators.”

A key question is whether CNIL — or another (non-Irish) EU DPA — will be found to be competent to sanction Google in future, following its shift to naming its Google Ireland subsidiary as the regional data processor. (Other tech giants use the same or a similar playbook, seeking out the EU’s more ‘business-friendly’ regulators.)

On the wider ruling, Schrems also said: “This decision requires substantial improvements by Google. Their privacy policy now really needs to make it crystal clear what they do with users’ data. Users must also get an option to agree to only some parts of what Google does with their data and refuse other things.”

French digital rights group, La Quadrature du Net — which had filed a related complaint against Google, feeding the CNIL’s investigation — also declared victory today, noting it’s the first sanction in a number of GDPR complaints it has lodged against tech giants on behalf of 12,000 citizens.

Nouvelle victoire !

Le @Conseil_Etat valide intégralement, en la reprenant à son compte, la sanction de 50 millions d’€ contre Google prononcée en janvier 2019 par la CNIL.https://t.co/6gJRL5ZM3r

— La Quadrature du Net (@laquadrature) June 19, 2020

“The rest of the complaints against Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft are still under investigation in Ireland. In any case, this is what this authority promises us,” it added in another tweet.

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UK gives up on centralized coronavirus contacts-tracing app — will ‘likely’ switch to model backed by Apple and Google

Posted by | Apple, apple inc, Apps, Bluetooth, contacts tracing, coronavirus, COVID-19, Denmark, Europe, european union, Germany, Google, Health, ireland, Italy, Matt Hancock, Mobile, mobile app, NHS, NHS COVID-19, northern ireland, privacy, smartphone, smartphones, switzerland, United Kingdom | No Comments

The UK has given up building a centralized coronavirus contacts-tracing app and will instead switch to a decentralized app architecture, the BBC has reported. This suggests its any future app will be capable of plugging into the joint ‘exposure notification’ API which has been developed in recent weeks by Apple and Google.

The UK’s decision to abandon a bespoke app architecture comes more than a month after ministers had been reported to be eyeing such a switch. They went on to award a contract to an IT supplier to develop a decentralized tracing app in parallel as a backup — while continuing to test the centralized app, which is called NHS COVID-19.

At the same time, a number of European countries have now successfully launched contracts-tracing apps with a decentralized app architecture that’s able to plug into the ‘Gapple’ API — including Denmark, Germany, Italy, Latvia and Switzerland. Several more such apps remain in testing. While EU Member States just agreed on a technical framework to enable cross-border interoperability of apps based on the same architecture.

Germany — which launched the decentralized ‘Corona Warning App’ this week — announced its software had been downloaded 6.5M times in the first 24 hours. The country had initially appeared to favor a centralized approach but switched to a decentralized model back in April in the face of pushback from privacy and security experts.

The UK’s NHS COVID-19 app, meanwhile, has not progressed past field tests, after facing a plethora of technical barriers and privacy challenges — as a direct consequence of the government’s decision to opt for a proprietary system which uploads proximity data to a central server, rather than processing exposure notifications locally on device.

Apple and Google’s API, which is being used by all Europe’s decentralized apps, does not support centralized app architectures — meaning the UK app faced technical hurdles related to accessing Bluetooth in the background. The centralized choice also raised big questions around cross-border interoperability, as we’ve explained before. Questions had also been raised over the risk of mission creep and a lack of transparency and legal certainty over what would be done with people’s data.

So the UK’s move to abandon the approach and adopt a decentralized model is hardly surprising — although the time it’s taken the government to arrive at the obvious conclusion does raise some major questions over its competence at handling technology projects.

Michael Veale, a lecturer in digital rights and regulation at UCL — who has been involved in the development of the DP3T decentralized contacts-tracing standard, which influenced Apple and Google’s choice of API — welcomed the UK’s decision to ditch a centralized app architecture but questioned why the government has wasted so much time.

“This is a welcome, if a heavily and unnecessarily delayed, move by NHSX,” Veale told TechCrunch. “The Google -Apple system in a way is home-grown: Originating with research at a large consortium of universities led by Switzerland and including UCL in the UK. NHSX has no end of options and no reasonable excuse to not get the app out quickly now. Germany and Switzerland both have high quality open source code that can be easily adapted. The NHS England app will now be compatible with Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and also the many destinations for holidaymakers in and out of the UK.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, UK ministers are now heavily de-emphasizing the importance of having an app in the fight against the coronavirus at all.

The Department for Health and Social Care’s, Lord Bethell, told the Science and Technology Committee yesterday the app will not now be ready until the winter. “We’re seeking to get something going for the winter, but it isn’t a priority for us,” he said.

Yet the centralized version of the NHS COVID-19 app has been in testing in a limited geographical pilot on the Isle of Wight since early May — and up until the middle of last month health minister, Matt Hancock, had said it would be rolled out nationally in mid May.

Of course that timeframe came and went without launch. And now the prospect of the UK having an app at all is being booted right into the back end of the year.

Compare and contrast that with government messaging at its daily coronavirus briefings back in May — when Hancock made “download the app” one of the key slogans — and the word ‘omnishambles‘ springs to mind…

NHSX relayed our request for comment on the switch to a decentralized system and the new timeframe for an app launch to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) — but the department had not responded to us at the time of publication.

Earlier this week the BBC reported that a former Apple executive, Simon Thompson, was taking charge of the delayed app project — while the two lead managers, the NHSX’s Matthew Gould and Geraint Lewis — were reported to be stepping back.

Back in April, Gould told the Science and Technology Committee the app would “technically” be ready to launch in 2-3 weeks’ time, though he also said any national launch would depend on the preparedness of a wider government program of coronavirus testing and manual contacts tracing. He also emphasized the need for a major PR campaign to educate the public on downloading and using the app.

Government briefings to the press today have included suggestions that app testers on the Isle of Wight told it they were not comfortable receiving COVID-19 notifications via text message — and that the human touch of a phone call is preferred.

However none of the European countries that have already deployed contacts-tracing apps has promoted the software as a one-stop panacea for tackling COVID-19. Rather tracing apps are intended to supplement manual contacts-tracing methods — the latter involving the use of trained humans making phone calls to people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 to ask who they might have been in contact with over the infectious period.

Even with major resource put into manual contacts-tracing, apps — which use Bluetooth signals to estimate proximity between smartphone users in order to calculate virus expose risk — could still play an important role by, for example, being able to trace strangers who are sat near an infected person on public transport.

Update: The DHSC has now issued a statement addressing reports of the switch of app architecture for the NHS COVID-19 app — in which it confirms, in between reams of blame-shifting spin, that it’s testing a new app that is able to plug into the Apple and Google API — and which it says it may go on to launch nationally, but without providing any time frame.

It also claims it’s working with Apple and Google to try to enhance how their technology estimates the distance between smartphone users.

“Through the systematic testing, a number of technical challenges were identified — including the reliability of detecting contacts on specific operating systems — which cannot be resolved in isolation with the app in its current form,” DHSC writes of the centralized NHS COVID-19 app.

“While it does not yet present a viable solution, at this stage an app based on the Google / Apple API appears most likely to address some of the specific limitations identified through our field testing.  However, there is still more work to do on the Google / Apple solution which does not currently estimate distance in the way required.”

Based on this, the focus of work will shift from the current app design and to work instead with Google and Apple to understand how using their solution can meet the specific needs of the public,” it adds. 

We reached out to Apple and Google for comment. Apple declined to comment.

According to one source, the UK has been pressing for the tech giants’ API to include device model and RSSI info alongside the ephemeral IDs which devices that come into proximity exchange with each other — presumably to try to improve distance calculations via a better understanding of the specific hardware involved.

However introducing additional, fixed pieces of device-linked data would have the effect of undermining the privacy protections baked into the decentralized system — which uses ephemeral, rotating IDs in order to prevent third party tracking of app users. Any fixed data-points being exchanged would risk unpicking the whole anti-tracking approach.

Norway, another European country which opted for a centralized approach for coronavirus contacts tracing — but got an app launched in mid April — made the decision to suspend its operation this week, after an intervention by the national privacy watchdog. In that case the app was collecting both GPS and Bluetooth —  posing a massive privacy risk. The watchdog warned the public health agency the tool was no longer a proportionate intervention — owing to what are now low levels of coronavirus risk in the country.

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Vivid is a new challenger bank built on top of solarisBank

Posted by | Apps, challenger bank, Europe, Finance, Mobile, neobank, Startups | No Comments

Meet Vivid, a new challenger bank launching in Germany that promises low fees and an integrated cashback program. The two co-founders, Alexander Emeshev and Artem Yamanov, previously worked as executives for Russian bank Tinkoff Bank.

Vivid doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel and is building its product on top of well-established players. It relies on solarisBank for the banking infrastructure, a German company with a banking license that provides banking services as APIs to other fintech companies. As for debit cards, Vivid is working with Visa.

If you live in Germany and want to sign up to Vivid, you can expect a lot of features that you can find in other challenger banks, such as N26, but with a few additional features. Vivid users get a current account and a debit card. They can then manage their money from the mobile app.

The physical Vivid card doesn’t feature any identifiable details — there’s no card number, expiry date or CVV. Just like Apple’s credit card in the U.S., you have to check the mobile app to see those details. Every time you make a purchase, you receive a notification. You can lock and unlock your card from the app. The card works in Google Pay but not yet in Apple Pay.

In order to make money management easier, Vivid lets you create pockets. Those are sub-accounts presented in a grid view, like on Lydia or N26 Spaces. You can move money between pockets by swiping your finger from one pocket to another. Each pocket has its own IBAN.

You can associate your card with any pocket. Soon, you’ll also be able to share a pocket with another Vivid user. Like on Revolut, you can exchange money to another currency. The company adds a small markup fee but doesn’t share more details.

As for the cashback feature, the startup focuses on a handful of partnerships. You can earn 5% on purchases at REWE, Lieferando, BoFrost, Eismann, HelloFresh and Too Good To Go, and 10% on online subscriptions, such as Netflix, Prime Video, Disney+ and Nintendo Switch Online. While it’s generous, you’re limited to €20 maximum in cash back per month.

Interestingly, Vivid also wants to bring back Foursquare-style mayorship. If you often go to the same bar or café and you spend more than any other Vivid user over a two-week window, you become the mayor and receive 10% cashback.

Vivid has two plans — a free plan and a Vivid Prime subscription for €9.90 per month. Prime users receive a metal card, more cash back on everyday purchases and higher withdrawal limits.

The company plans to launch stock and ETF trading in the coming months. Vivid also plans to expand into other European countries this year.

Vivid is entering a crowded market, but already offers a solid product if everything works as expected. It’s going to be interesting to see how the product evolves and if they can attract a large user base.

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Revolut expands bank account aggregation to Ireland

Posted by | Apps, challenger bank, Europe, Finance, fintech, Mobile, neobank, Open Banking, Revolut, Startups, TrueLayer | No Comments

Fintech startup Revolut has expanded its open banking feature to Ireland. The feature first launched in the U.K. back in February. Once again, the startup is partnering with TrueLayer to let you add third-party bank accounts to your Revolut account.

The feature launch also marks the launch of TrueLayer in Ireland. For now, Revolut users can only link their Revolut account with AIB, Permanent TSB, Ulster Bank and Bank of Ireland. Revolut and TrueLayer will add support to other banks in the future. Revolut currently has 1 million customers in the Republic of Ireland.

The idea behind open banking is quite simple. Many online services rely on application programming interfaces (APIs) to talk to each other. You can connect with your Facebook account on many online services, you can interact with other services from Slack, etc.

Financial institutions have been lagging behind on this front, but it is changing thanks to new regulation and technical updates. With open banking, your bank account should work more like a traditional internet service.

When you connect your bank account with Revolut, you can view your balance and past transactions from a separate tab that lists all your linked accounts. Users can also take advantage of Revolut’s budgeting features with their bank accounts.

As TechCrunch’s Steve O’Hear noted when he first covered Revolut’s open banking feature, Revolut was originally authorized for Account Information Services (AIS) by the U.K. regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority. It lets you access and display information from other financial institutions.

But the startup now has permission to carry out Payment Initiation Services (PIS). It means that you’ll soon be able to initiate transfers from your bank account directly from Revolut. It should make it much easier to top up your Revolut balance, for instance.

While this feature might seem anecdotal, Revolut wants to build a comprehensive financial hub for all your financial needs — a sort of super app for everything related to money. With open banking, you theoretically no longer have to open your traditional banking app.

Image Credits: Revolut

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Square acquires European peer-to-peer payment app Verse

Posted by | Apps, cash app, Europe, fintech, Fundings & Exits, Mobile, Square, Startups, Verse | No Comments

Square acquired Verse, a Spanish peer-to-peer payment app that works across Europe. Terms of the deal are undisclosed. According to Crunchbase, Verse had raised $37.6 million from Spark Capital, eVentures, Greycroft Partners and others.

Square has attracted a ton of users with Cash App, its peer-to-peer payment app that lets you easily send and receive money from your phone. But Cash App has only been available in the U.S. and the U.K.

Acquiring Verse seems like a good fit to expand Square’s presence in Europe. Verse’s team will join the Cash App division within Square.

There are many similarities between Cash App and Verse. Verse’s main feature is that it lets you send and receive money from a mobile app. Users don’t pay any fees and transfers occur in just a few seconds.

Verse users sign up with their phone numbers, which means that you can send money to other users as long as you have their phone numbers in your address book. If you don’t have enough money on your Verse account, the app can charge your debit card directly. And if you want to withdraw money from your Verse account, you can transfer your balance to your bank account.

You can also track group expenses from the app (like Splitwise), create money pots and organize events with a basic ticketing feature.

More recently, Verse launched a Visa debit card in Spain, which lets you spend money on your Verse account directly. You don’t pay any foreign exchange fees and you get two free ATM withdrawals per month. Verse uses Visa’s exchange rate.

While the startup hasn’t shared usage numbers for a while, according to App Annie, it is currently the No. 247 most downloaded app in the App Store in Spain across all categories. Peer-to-peer payment is a fragmented market. For instance, French startup Lydia has 3 million users in France.

“At this point, our main priority is enabling Verse to continue their successful growth in Europe. Verse will continue to operate as an independent business, working out of their offices with no immediate changes to their existing products, customers, or business operations,” Square wrote in the announcement.

The three most important words in this statement are “at this point.” Square doesn’t want to fix what isn’t broken. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Verse slowly evolves to become Cash App in Europe.

Image credits: Square

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Monzo confirms £60M down round, with a new pre-money valuation of £1.24B

Posted by | challenger bank, Europe, Fundings & Exits, Mobile, monzo, TC, valuation | No Comments

Monzo, the U.K. challenger bank with more than 4 million customers, has confirmed it has closed £60 million in top-up funding.

Backing the round are existing investors Y Combinator, General Catalyst, Accel, Stripe, Goodwater, Orange, Thrive and Passion Capital, along with new investors Reference Capital and Vanderbilt University.

One of fintech’s worst-kept secrets, the down round sees the bank take a 40% hit in its paper pre-money valuation compared to its previous round, now priced at £1.24 billion.

That’s likely a reflection of the current funding climate amidst the coronavirus crisis, with Monzo having to raise a bridge round at quite possibly the worst time.

I also understand from sources that a number of Monzo’s later-stage investors played hardball, in a bid to force down the challenger bank’s ticket price, perhaps after investing at the height of the funding market pre-COVID-19. What is also interesting about the new round is that the share price is the same as the bank’s last equity crowdfund, meaning that the most recent armchair investors haven’t seen a paper loss.

Monzo is also disclosing that its business banking product has now reached 25,000 signups. Launched officially in March, the business bank account is aimed at sold traders and SMEs, with both free and premium paid-for versions available, offering various feature sets.

Meanwhile, it has been a turbulent time for Monzo, as it, along with many other fintech companies, tries to insulate itself from the coronavirus crisis and resulting economic downturn.

Planned layoffs in the U.K. were communicated internally earlier this month — up to 120, but now thought to be around 80. It followed earlier U.S. layoffs and the shuttering of its Las Vegas-based customer support office, and almost 300 U.K. staff being furloughed.

Like other banks and fintechs, the coronavirus crisis has resulted in Monzo seeing customer card spend reduce at home and (of course) abroad, meaning it is generating significantly less revenue from interchange fees. The bank has also postponed the launch of premium paid-for consumer accounts, one of only a handful of known planned revenue streams, alongside lending, of course, and the more recent business banking.

Separately, in May, Monzo co-founder Tom Blomfield announced internally that he was stepping down as CEO of the U.K. challenger bank to take up the newly created role of president. His replacement is current U.S. CEO TS Anil, who now also holds the title of “Monzo UK Bank CEO,” subject to regulatory approval.

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Kahoot raises $28M for its user-generated educational gaming platform, now valued at $1.4B

Posted by | edtech, Education, education technology, Europe, games, Gaming, Kahoot!, Recent Funding, Startups, TC | No Comments

As schools stay closed and summer camp seems more like a germscape than an escape, students are staying at home for the foreseeable future and have shifted learning to their living rooms. Now, Norwegian educational gaming company Kahoot — the popular platform with 1.3 billion active users and over 100 million games (most created by users themselves) — has raised a new round of funding of $28 million to keep up with demand.

The Oslo-based startup, which started to list some of its shares on Oslo’s Merkur Market in October 2019, raised the $28 million in a private placement, and said it also raised a further $62 million in secondary shares. The new equity investment included participation from Northzone, an existing backer of the startup, and CEO Eilert Hanoa. While it’s not a traditional privately held startup in the traditional sense, at the market close today, the company’s valuation was $1.39 billion (or 13.389 billion Norwegian krone).

Existing investors in the company include Disney and Microsoft, and the company has raised $110 million to date.

Kahoot launched in 2013 and got its start and picked up most of its traction in the world of education through its use in schools, where teachers have leaned on it as a way to provide more engaging content to students to complement more traditional (and often drier) curriculum-based lessons. Alongside that, the company has developed a lucrative line of online training for enterprise users as well.

The global health pandemic has changed all of that for Kahoot, as it has for many other companies that built models based on classroom use. In the last few months, the company has boosted its content for home learning, finding an audience of users who are parents and employers looking for ways to keep students and employees more engaged.

The company says that in the last 12 months it had active users in 200 countries, with more than 50% of K-12 students using Kahoot in a school year in that footprint. On top of that, it is also used in some 87% of “top 500” universities around the world, and that 97% of Fortune 500 companies are also using it, although it doesn’t discuss what kind of penetration it has in that segment.

It seems that the coronavirus outbreak has not impacted business as much as it has in some sectors. According to the midyear report it released earlier this week, Q2 revenue is expected to be $9 million, 290% growth compared to last year and 40% growth compared to the previous quarter, and for the full year 2020, it expects revenue between $32 million and $38 million, with a full IPO expected for 2021.

As it has been doing even prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Kahoot has also continued to invest in inorganic growth to fuel its expansion. In May, it acquired math app maker DragonBox for $18 million in cash and shares. The company also runs an accelerator, Kahoot Ignite, to spur more development on its platform.

However, Hanoa said that Kahoot is shifting its focus to now also work with more mature edtech businesses.

“When we started out, we were primarily receiving requests on early stage products,” he said. “Now we have the opportunity to consider mature services for either integration or corporation. It’s a different focus.”

Update: A previous version of this story said that DragonBox was acquired in March. It was acquired in May. The story has been updated to reflect this change. 

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Challenger bank Bnext revamps rewards for purchases in partner stores

Posted by | Apps, Bnext, challenger bank, Europe, Finance, Mobile, neobank, Startups | No Comments

Spanish startup Bnext is revamping its cashback program so that you can buy from partner stores directly from the Bnext app and get some money back. The company has partnered with Button and the feature is available as an open beta.

Traditional cashback portals are a bit clunky. When you find an offer that gives you 2% of your money back, you click on the offer, get redirected to the partner site and hope that your purchase will be registered. A bit later, you get some money back on the cashback website, which you need to cash out to your bank account.

If you’re using Bnext as your bank account, you’ll be able to access rewards directly from your banking app. In addition to that, you don’t get redirected to another site as you purchase goods directly from the Bnext app.

There are multiple levels. If you’re making your first purchase through the feature, you get 1% in savings on average. If you’ve made more than three purchases over the past 30 days, you get 3% in savings on average. In order to reach level 3, you need a premium Bnext subscription. With that level, you get 5% in savings on average.

Partners include AliExpress, Booking.com, eDreams, Europcar, Nike, Just Eat and more. Eventually, the startup wants to let you earn rewards from in-store purchases as well. Bnext is creating a new revenue stream with this feature as the startup will keep a share of the revenue from each transaction.

Bnext provides current accounts and payment cards. You can receive notifications for each transaction with your card, and temporarily lock and unlock your card. You don’t pay any foreign transaction fee as long as you spend less than €2,000 per month with a standard account.

The company has also put together a marketplace of fintech products. You can earn interest by lending money to small companies on October, get a loan, an insurance product and more.

Earlier this year, the startup expanded to Mexico. The company plans to roll out rewards in Mexico soon. Bnext has managed to attract a bit less than 400,000 users.

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PhotoRoom automagically removes background from your photo

Posted by | Apps, Europe, France Newsletter, Mobile, PhotoRoom, Startups, Stupeflix | No Comments

Meet PhotoRoom, a French startup that has been working on a utility photography mobile app. The concept is extremely simple, which is probably the reason why it has attracted a ton of downloads over the past few months.

After selecting a photo, PhotoRoom removes the background from that photo and lets you select another background. When you’re done tweaking your photo, you can save the photo and open it in another app.

“My original vision comes from my time when I was working at GoPro,” co-founder and CEO Matthieu Rouif told me. “I often had to remove the background from images and when the designer was out of office, I would spend a ton of time doing it manually.”

And it turns out many people have been looking for a simple app that lets them go in and out as quickly as possible with an edited photo in their camera roll.

For instance, people selling clothes and other items on peer-to-peer e-commerce platforms have been using PhotoRoom to improve their photos. PhotoRoom is often recommended in online discussions or YouTube tutorials about optimizing your Poshmark or Depop listings.

Downloads really started to take off around February. PhotoRoom now has 300,000 monthly active users. The app is only available on iOS for now. And if you’re a professional using it regularly, you can pay for a subscription ($9.49 per month or $46.99 per year) to remove the watermark and unlock more features.

“Subscriptions are what works best on mobile for photo and video apps,” Rouif said.

Behind the scene, PhotoRoom uses machine learning models to identify objects on a photo. And the vision goes beyond removing backgrounds.

Photoshop, the clear leader in photo editing, was designed decades ago. There’s a steep learning curve if you want to use it professionally. It’s hard to understand layers, layer masks, channels, etc.

PhotoRoom wants to build a mobile-first photo-editing app that doesn’t lazily borrow Photoshop’s metaphors and interface elements. “What would be Photoshop if you could understand what’s on the photo,” Rouif said.

While the app relies heavily on templates, you can tweak your images by adding objects, moving them around, adding some shadow and editing elements individually. Image composition is 100% up to the user.

Like VSCO, Darkroom, PicsArt, Filmic Pro and Halide, PhotoRoom belongs to a group of prosumer apps that are tackling photo and video editing from different ways. A generation of users who grew up using visual social networks are now pushing the limits of those apps — they look simple when you first use them, but they offer a ton of depth when you learn what you can do with them. And they prove that smartphones can be great computers, beyond content consumption.

Rouif was the head of product at Stupeflix, a powerful video editing app that was acquired by GoPro back in 2016. PhotoRoom is just getting started as there are only four people working on the app, including two interns.

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Podcast app Majelan pivots to premium audio content around personal growth

Posted by | Apps, Europe, France Newsletter, Majelan, Mobile, podcast, Startups | No Comments

French startup Majelan is pivoting a year after launching a podcast player and service. The company, created by former Radio France CEO Mathieu Gallet and Arthur Perticoz, is ditching the podcast aggregation side of its business and focusing on premium audio content going forward.

Like many podcast startups, Majelan faced some criticism shortly after its launch. Aggregating free podcasts with premium content next to them à la Luminary is a controversial topic in the podcast community. Spotify has been going down the same path, but Spotify is also an order of magnitude bigger than any other podcast startup out there.

Some podcast creators have decided to remove their podcast feeds from Majelan to protest against that business model.

Podcasts remain an open format. Creators can create a feed, users can subscribe to that feed in their favorite podcast app. You don’t have to sign up to a particular service to access a particular podcast — everything is open.

“We have decided to stop aggregating free podcasts — free podcasts mean podcasts, period. For us, podcasts are RSS feeds, it’s an open world,” Perticoz said in a podcast episode. “We need an app that is more focused on payment. We can’t aggregate free podcasts given that our strategy is paid content.”

The result is a more focused service that is going to launch on July 7th in France. After a free trial, you have to subscribe for €5 to €7 per month, depending on the length of your subscription. You can then access a library of premium audio content — Majelan rightfully doesn’t call them podcasts.

“Going forward, we’re going to focus on original content, we’re going to focus 100% on paid content,” Gallet said in the same podcast episode.

And in order to be even more specific, Majelan will focus on personal growth, such as creativity, activism, mindfulness, innovation, entrepreneurship and health. According to the co-founders, some content will be produced in house, some content will be co-produced with other companies, and the startup will also acquire existing podcasts and repackage them for Majelan.

That move has been in the works for a while. The startup pitched it to its board of investors back in December. Premium subscriptions have worked well for movies, TV and music. Now let’s see if subscriptions will also take off with spoken-word audio.

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