Flipkart on Monday launched SuperCoin Pay that its customers will be able to use across thousands of retail stores across the country as Walmart-owned e-commerce giant bets on its loyalty program to win and sustain its user base in the world’s second largest internet market.
The Bangalore-headquartered e-commerce giant said it had partnered with over 5,000 retail outlets including TimesPoints, Peter England, Cafe Coffee Day and Flying Machine across India to give its customers a “greater value and choice” to cash in on their Flipkart loyalty program, called SuperCoin Rewards. Flipkart customers earn these SuperCoins when they make purchases on the e-commerce platform.
Customers will be able to pay up to 100% of the bill value through SuperCoins, Flipkart said, pointing out that traditional loyalty programs have struggled to gain traction because they locked customers to their platform and made it difficult to convert reward points to cash.
Its retail partners operate in a wide-range of categories including fashion, grocery, food and beverages, travel, health and wellness. These retail partners will offer a QR code to make it easier for Flipkart customers to redeem their rewards points.
The move comes as giant e-commerce firms in India aggressively partner with physical and digital stores across the country. Amazon, too, has broadened its offering in recent years to offer coupons and discounts that Amazon Pay customers can redeem when making purchases at Urban Company, Domino’s, BigBazaar, More, Oyo Rooms, Licious, BookMyShow, Swiggy, and RedBus, for instance.
“The lines between online and offline shopping are becoming increasingly blurred, and our intention is to make the consumers’ shopping experience more rewarding, no matter where they shop,” said Prakash Sikaria, Vice President of Growth and Monetization at Flipkart, in a statement.
“Being a part of the SuperCoin programme enables our partners to reap the benefits of Flipkart’s 300 million customer base through a truly integrated rewards initiative,” he added.
Flipkart said customers on its platform have earned over a billion SuperCoin to date.
In a brief announcement today, the Canadian nuclear fusion technology developer General Fusion announced that the investment firm created by Shopify founder Tobias Lütke has joined the company’s cap table.
The size of the investment made by Lütke’s Thistledown Capital was not disclosed, but with the addition, General Fusion has the founders of the two biggest ecommerce companies in the Western world on its cap table.
Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, first invested in the company nearly a decade ago and General Fusion has been steadily raising cash since that time. In 2019, the company hauled in $100 million. That capital commitment is part of a haul totaling at least, $192 million, according to Crunchbase although the real figure is likely higher.
Indeed, General Fusion kept adding cash throughout 2020 as it looked to develop its demonstration fusion reactor.
General Fusion’s process is based on technology called Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF), first proposed by the US Naval Research Lab and developed in the 1970s.
The process involves creating a magnetically confined moderately warm plasma of around 100 eV (roughly 50 times the photon energy of visible light) in a flux conserver (a shell that preserves the magnetic field). By rapidly compressing the flux conserver and the magnetic field inside of it surrounding the plasma, the plasma is superheated to a temperature that can initiate a fast fusion burn, and create a fusion reaction, according to a 2017 description of the technology from General Fusion’s chief science officer and founder, Michael Laberge.
The company uses a roughly 3 meter sphere filled with molten lead-lithium that’s pumped to form a cavity. A pulse of magnetically confined plasma fuel is then injected into the cavity, then, around the spehere, pistons create pressure wave into the middle of the sphere, compressing the plasma to fusion conditions.
Neutrons escaping from the fusion reaction are captured in the liquid metal, and the heat from that metal generates electricity via a steam turbine. A heat exchanger steam turbine produces the power and the steam is recycled to run the pistons.
In recent years, both General Fusion and its main North American competitor Commonwealth Fusion Systems have made strides in getting their small-scale nuclear fusion technology ready for commercialization.
In the past, the wry joke about fusion technologies was that they were always ten years away, but now companies are looking at a four-year horizon to bring fusion to initial markets, if not the masses.
For its part, Commonwealth Fusion Systems is in the process of building a10-ton magnet that has the magnetic force equivalent to 20 MRI machines. “After we get the magnet to work, we’ll be building a machine that will generate more power than it takes to run. We see that as the Kitty Hawk moment [for fusion],” said Bob Mumgaard, the chief executive of Commonwealth Fusion in an interview last year.
Other startup companies are also racing to bring technologies to market and hit the 2025 timeline like the United Kingdom’s Tokamak Energy.
Like General Fusion, Commonwealth also has deep-pocketed backers including the Bill Gates-backed sustainable technology focused investor, Breakthrough Energy Ventures. In all, those investors have committed over $200 million to the company, which formally launched in 2018.
As these companies begin readying their technologies for market, governments are laying the groundwork to make it easier for them to commercialize.
At the end of last year, the Trump administration signed the COVID relief and omnibus appropriations bill that included an amendment to support the development of fusion energy in the US.
The new amendment directed the Department of Energy to carry out a fusion energy sciences research and development program; authorized DoE programs in inertial fusion energy and alternative concepts to find new ways forward for fusion power; reauthorized the INFUSE program to create public-private partnerships between national labs and fusion developers; and created a milestone-based development program to support companies not just through R&D, but into the construction of full-scale systems.
It’s this milestone program that was a cornerstone of the policy work that the Fusion Industry Association wanted to see in the US, according to a December statement from the organization.
By unlocking $325 million in financing over a five year period, the US government will actually double its research with matching contributions from the fusion industry. These demonstration facilities could go a long way toward accelerating the deployment of fusion technologies.
Founded in 2019, Thistledown Capital was formed to invest in tech that can decarbonize industry. The firm, based in Ottawa, has already backed CarbonCure, a technology that captures carbon dioxide from the air.
“General Fusion has a strong record of attracting funding support from some of the world’s most influential technology leaders,” said Greg Twinney, CFO, General Fusion, in a statement. “Fusion is planet-saving technology, and we are proud to support the mission of Thistledown Capital in its pursuit for a greener tomorrow.”
A security flaw in Ring’s Neighbors app was exposing the precise locations and home addresses of users who had posted to the app.
Ring, the video doorbell and home security startup acquired by Amazon for $1 billion, launched Neighbors in 2018 as a breakaway feature in its own standalone app. Neighbors is one of several neighborhood watch apps, like Nextdoor and Citizen, that lets users anonymously alert nearby residents to crime and public-safety issues.
While users’ posts are public, the app doesn’t display names or precise locations — though most include video taken by Ring doorbells and security cameras. The bug made it possible to retrieve the location data on users who posted to the app, including those who are reporting crimes.
But the exposed data wasn’t visible to anyone using the app. Rather, the bug was retrieving hidden data, including the user’s latitude and longitude and their home address, from Ring’s servers.
Another problem was that every post was tied to a unique number generated by the server that incremented by one each time a user created a new post. Although the number was hidden from view to the app user, the sequential post number made it easy to enumerate the location data from previous posts — even from users who aren’t geographically nearby.
Ring Neighbors app (left), and the data it was pulling in, including location data (right). (Image: TechCrunch)
The Neighbors app appeared to have about 4 million posts by the end of 2020.
Ring said it had fixed the issue.
“At Ring, we take customer privacy and security extremely seriously. We fixed this issue soon after we became aware of it. We have not identified any evidence of this information being accessed or used maliciously,” said Ring spokesperson Yassi Shahmiri.
Ring currently faces a class-action suit by dozens of people who say they were subjected to death threats and racial slurs after their Ring smart cameras were hacked. In response to the hacks, Ring put much of the blame on users for not using “best practices” like two-factor authentication, which makes it harder for hackers to access a user’s account with the user’s password.
After it emerged that hackers were reportedly creating tools to break into Ring accounts and over 1,500 user account passwords were found on the dark web, Ring made two-factor authentication mandatory for every user.
The smart tech maker has also faced increasing criticism from civil rights groups and lawmakers for its cozy relationship with hundreds of U.S. police departments that have partnered with Ring for access to homeowners’ doorbell camera footage.
Amazon’s use of dark patterns that add friction to the process of terminating a Prime subscription is being targeted by 16 consumer rights groups in Europe and the US which are taking coordinated action to urge regulatory action.
One of them — Norway’s Consumer Council (NCC) — has also published a report calling out what it describes as the ecommerce giant’s “manipulative” and “unreasonably cumbersome” unsubscribe process for Prime. The report has been punningly titled ‘You can log out, but you can never leave‘.
“It should be as easy to end a subscription as it was to subscribe in the first place. Amazon should facilitate a good user experience instead of hindering customers and tricking them into continuing paid services they do not need or want,” said NCC director of digital policy, Finn Lützow-Holm Myrstad, in a statement.
“In our view, this practice not only betrays the expectations and trust of consumers but breaches European law,” he added.
The Prime subscription is a key tool in Amazon’s arsenal, generating reliably recurring revenue while simultaneously encouraging users to lock themselves in to making additional purchases via the carrot of unlimited ‘free’ fast shipping (which applies to a subset of qualifying items on the marketplace).
Other perks Amazon throws in to juice Prime membership include streaming movies, TV shows, music and games, plus exclusive shopping programs and discounts (though the exact bundle varies by market).
However a lock-in vibe also applies when trying to end a Prime subscription, per the complaints, because Amazon requires users to successfully navigate multiple menus, select from confusingly worded multiple-choice options and scroll past various distracting and/or irrelevant interstitials and dead space in order to locate the button that actually ends their subscription.
And, don’t forget, this is the same company that famously patented a ‘1-click’ button for consumers’ cash to pour into its coffers…
The NCC has made the below video illustrating the various dark patterns Amazon deploys to try to nudge Prime subscribers away from unsubscribing — including a cartoon of a dog barking because, uh, we have no idea tbh…
Complaints against Amazon’s click-heavy process for Prime unsubscribing are being filed by consumer groups in Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Switzerland and Norway and the US — so a variety of national and regional consumer protection laws are involved.
The NCC’s complaint, for example, makes reference to Norway’s Marketing Control Act — which implements the EU’s Unfair Commercial Practices Directive — providing a framework for “what marketing, commercial practices and terms of service the service providers are allowed to use in different markets”, as it explains in the complaint.
“The Marketing Control Act section 6 implements the general clause in Article 5 of the Directive which states that an unfair commercial practice is banned. What constitutes an unfair commercial practice is defined in the second paragraph of section 6, which states that a commercial practice is unfair if it breaches ‘good business practices’ toward consumers, and is able to significantly alter a consumer’s financial conduct, so that the consumer makes a decision that they would not otherwise have made,” the NCC argues.
Some of the coordinated complaints will be less formal, taking the form of letters written to consumer protection agencies urging them to investigate. In the US, for example, the FTC will be urged to “investigate Amazon’s practices and analyze whether they violate Section 5 of the FTC Act”.
While in Germany the VZBV consumer protection agency told us it’s currently assessing Amazon’s cancellation process for Prime — which it noted “looks a bit different” to the one in the Norwegian complaints — saying it’s not yet clear whether or not it will file a court injunction over the issue.
“Unlike the other consumer organisations taking part in this concerted action, we’re not sending complaints to authorities,” the VZBV spokesperson added. “My employer, the Federation of German Consumer Organisations (vzbv) is able to send legal warnings and, if demands to cease and desist are not being met, sue companies infringing consumer protection laws in its own capacity. We will do so if there is enough legal merit to this case. But as I said, it is not completely decided yet.”
We contacted Amazon for comment on the complaints against the Prime unsubscribe process and it denied making it unclear and difficult for members to cancel their subscription, arguing that it only takes “a few clicks” online or “a quick phone call”.
Here’s its full statement:
Amazon makes it clear and easy for Prime members to cancel their subscription at any time, whether through a few clicks online, a quick phone call or by turning off auto renew in their membership options. Customer trust is at the heart of all of our products and services and we reject the claim that our cancellation process is unfair or creates uncertainty. We take great pride in the Prime service and the number of ways it makes our members lives easier, but we make it easy for customers to leave whenever they choose to. The information we provide in the online cancellation flow gives a full view of the benefits and services members are cancelling.
Consumer groups banding together to apply pressure on tech giants to change dubious practices is not a new phenomenon. Back in 2018, for example, a number of European groups coordinated complaints against Google’s ‘deceptive’ harvesting of location data. Just under a year ago the Irish Data Protection Commission opened a formal investigation — which remains ongoing.
Fresh off the announcement of more than $500 million in new capital across two new funds, Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group has announced that they’re adding Anu Sharma and Daniel Li to the team’s list of Partners.
The firm, which in recent years has paid particularly close attention to enterprise software bets, invests heavily in the early-stage Pacific Northwest startup scene.
Both Li and Sharma are stepping into the Partner role after some time at the firm. Li has been with Madrona for five years while Sharma joined the team in 2020. Prior to joining Madrona, Sharma led product management teams at Amazon Web Services, worked as a software developer at Oracle and had a stint in VC as an associate at SoftBank China & India. Li previously worked at the Boston Consulting Group.
I got the chance to catch up with Li who notes that the promotion won’t necessarily mean a big shift in his day-to-day responsibilities — “At Madrona, you’re not promoted until you’re working in the next role anyway,” he says — but that he appreciates “how much trust the firm places in junior investors.”
Asked about leveling up his venture career during a time when public and private markets seem particularly flush with cash, Li acknowledges some looming challenges.
“On one hand, it’s just been an amazing five years to join venture capital because things have just been up and to the right with lots of things that work; it’s just a super exciting time,” Li says. “On the other hand, from a macro perspective, you know that there’s more capital flowing into VC as an asset class than ever before. And just from that pure macro perspective, you know that that means returns are going to be lower in the next 10 years as valuations are higher.”
Nevertheless, Li is plenty bullish on internet companies claiming larger swaths of the global GDP and hopes to invest specifically in “low code platforms, next-gen productivity, and online communities,” Madrona notes in their announcement, while Sharma plans to continue looking at to “distributed systems, data infrastructure, machine learning, and security.”
TechCrunch recently talked to Li and his Madrona colleague Hope Cochran about some of the top trends in social gaming and how investors were approaching new opportunities across the gaming industry.
Amazon is doubling down on one of the biggest strengths of Prime Video streaming service: Aggressive pricing.
The e-commerce giant on Wednesday launched Prime Video Mobile Edition, an even more affordable tier of the on-demand video streaming service — now also bundling some mobile data.
Prime Video Mobile Edition, for which Amazon has partnered with Indian telecom network Airtel, will feature 28-day mobile-only, single-user, standard definition (SD) access to customers in India for Rs 89 ($1.22). This tier will include 6GB of mobile data that customers can consume during the subscription period. There’s also a slightly expensive plan for Prime Video Mobile Edition that will charge customers Rs 299 but will offer 1.5GB mobile data for each day of the subscription. To anyone who subscribes to Prime Video Mobile Edition, Amazon says it will pick the tab for the first month.
Amazon Prime subscription costs $1.7 a month in India and includes access to Prime Video and Prime Music.
The new Prime Video plan is currently only available in India. Its launch comes two years after Netflix unveiled a similar plan in India.
Affordable pricing is key for on-demand steaming services that are looking to make inroads in India, the world’s second largest internet market. Even as more than 600 million users are online in the country today, only a fraction of them currently pay to access digital subscriptions. In a recent report to clients, analysts at Goldman Sachs estimated that gaming, and video streaming market in India could clock as much as $5 billion in gross value transactions by March 2025.
“India is one of our fastest growing territories in the world with very high engagement rates. Buoyed by this response, we want to double-down by offering our much-loved entertainment content to an even larger base of Indian customers. Given high mobile broadband penetration in the country, the mobile phone has become one of the most widely used streaming devices,” said Jay Marine, Vice President, Amazon Prime Video Worldwide, in a statement.
Airtel, the second largest telecom operator in India, is the first roll-out partner for Prime Video Mobile Edition, said Sameer Batra, Director, Mobile Business Development at Amazon, suggesting that the company may ink similar deals with other telecom operators in the country as it looks to expand the “reach of our service to the entire pre-paid customer base in India.”
Nearly every on-demand video streaming service in India, including Netflix and Disney+ Hotstar, maintain various partnerships with local telecom operators and satellite TV providers to reach more users in the country. Amazon did not explicitly say when or if it plans to extend Prime Video Mobile Edition outside of India.
Mobile adoption continued to grow in 2020, in part due to the market forces of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to App Annie’s annual “State of Mobile” industry report, mobile app downloads grew by 7% year-over-year to a record 218 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, consumer spending grew by 20% to also hit a new milestone of $143 billion, led by markets that included China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom.
Consumers also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone, the report found.
In another shift, app usage in the U.S. surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours on their mobile device.
The increase in time spent is a trend that’s not unique to the U.S., but can be seen across several other countries, including both developing mobile markets like Indonesia, Brazil and India, as well as places like China, Japan, South Korea, the U.K., Germany, France and others.
The trend isn’t isolated to any one demographic, either, but is seen across age groups. In the U.S., for example, Gen Z, millennials and Gen X/Baby Boomers spent 16%, 18% and 30% more time in their most-used apps year-over-year, respectively. However, what those favorite apps looked like was very different.
For Gen Z in the U.S., top apps on Android phones included Snapchat, Twitch, TikTok, Roblox and Spotify.
Millennials favored Discord, LinkedIn, PayPal, Pandora and Amazon Music.
And Gen X/Baby Boomers used Ring, Nextdoor, The Weather Channel, Kindle and ColorNote Notepad Notes.
The pandemic didn’t necessarily change how consumers were using apps in 2020, but rather accelerated mobile adoption by two to three years’ time, the report found.
Investors were also eager to fuel mobile businesses as a result, pouring $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year. According to Crunchbase data, 26% of total global funding dollars in 2020 went to businesses that included a mobile solution.
From 2016 to 2020, global funding to mobile technology companies more than doubled compared with the previous five years, and was led by financial services, transportation, commerce and shopping.
Mobile gaming adoption also continued to grow in 2020. Casual games dominated the market in terms of downloads (78%), but Core games accounted for 66% of games’ consumer spend and 55% of the time spent.
With many stuck inside due to COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines, mobile games that offered social interaction boomed. Among Us, for example, became a breakout game in several markets in 2020, including the U.S.
Other app categories saw sizable increases over the past year, as well.
Time spent in Finance apps in 2020 was up 45% worldwide, outside of China, and participation in the stock market grew 55% on mobile, thanks to apps like Robinhood in the U.S. and others worldwide, that democratized investing and trading.
TikTok had a big year, too.
The app saw incredible 325% year-over-year growth, despite a ban in India, and ranked in the top five apps by time spent. The average monthly time spent per user also grew faster than nearly every other app analyzed, including 65% in the U.S. and 80% in the U.K., surpassing Facebook. TikTok is now on track to hit 1.2 billion active users in 2021, App Annie forecasts.
Other video services boomed in 2020, thanks to a combination of new market entrants and a lot of time spent at home. Consumers spent 40% more hours streaming on mobile devices, with time spent in streaming apps peaking in the second quarter in the west as the pandemic forced people inside.
YouTube benefitted from this trend, as it became the No. 1 streaming app by time spent among all markets analyzed except China. The time spent in YouTube is up to 6x that of the next closet app at 38 hours per month.
Of course, another big story for 2020 was the rise of e-commerce amid the pandemic. This made the past year the biggest ever for mobile shopping, with an over 30% increase in time spent in Shopping apps, as measured on Android phones outside of China.
Mobile commerce, however, looked less traditional in 2020.
Social shopping was a big trend, with global downloads of Pinterest and Instagram growing 50% and 20% year-over-year, respectively.
Livestreaming shopping grew, too, led by China. Downloads of live shopping TaoBao Live in China, Grip in South Korea and NTWRK in the U.S. grew 100%, 245% and 85%, respectively. NTWRK doubled in size last year, and now others are entering the space as well — including TikTok, to some extent.
The pandemic also prompted increased usage of mobile ordering apps. In the U.S., Argentina, the U.K., Indonesia and Russia, the app grew by 60%, 65%, 70%, 80% and 105%, respectively, in Q4.
Business apps, like Zoom and Google Meet among others, grew 275% in Q4, for example, as remote work and sometimes school, continued.
The analysis additionally included lists of the top apps by downloads, spending and monthly active users (MAUs).
Although TikTok had been topping year-end charts, Facebook continued to beat it in terms of MAUs. Facebook-owned apps controlled the top charts by MAUs, with Facebook at No. 1 followed by WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram.
TikTok, however, had more downloads than Facebook and ranked No. 2 by consumer spending, behind Tinder.
The full report is available only as an online interactive experience this year, not a download. The report largely uses data from both the iOS App Store and Google Play, except where otherwise noted.
Amazon on Wednesday launched Amazon Academy, a service that will aim to help students in India prepare for entry into the nation’s prestigious engineering college. The e-commerce giant is the latest entrant to this market, where scores of startups and institutes have launched digital offering to serve students.
The e-commerce giant said Amazon Academy will help students with in-depth knowledge and practice routines required for the Joint Entrance Examinations (JEE) through curated learning material, live lectures and comprehensive assessments in Math, Physics and Chemistry.
Amazon began testing Amazon Academy, previously known as JEE Ready, in India in mid-2019. Amazon Academy, available to download from Google Play Store and App Store, is free and will remain so for the “next few months,” the company said.
“Amazon Academy aims to bring high quality, affordable education to all, starting with those preparing for engineering entrance examinations. Our mission is to help students achieve their outcomes while also empowering educators and content partners reach millions of students. Our primary focus has been on content quality, deep learning analytics and student experience. This launch will help engineering aspirants prepare better and achieve the winning edge in JEE,” said Amol Gurwara, Director, Education at Amazon India, in a statement.
More to follow…
Outdoor cooking industry leader and famed kettle-grill-maker Weber has acquired June, the smart cooking startup founded in 2013 by Matt Van Horn and Nikhil Bhogal. While financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, Weber has confirmed that June will continue to operate as its own brand wholly owned by Weber-Stephen Products and will continue to both sell and develop the June Oven and related products. Meanwhile, June co-founder Nikhil Bhogal will take on a role as SVP of Technology and Connected Devices across the Weber lineup.
Weber had already teamed up with June, with the startup providing the technology and expertise behind its Weber Connect smart grilling platform. That includes both the Weber Connect Smart Grilling Hub, which adds connected smart grill features to any grill, and the built-in smart cooking features on its SmokeFire line of wood pellet grills. That partnership began with a cold email Van Horn received in 2018 from then-Weber CEO and current Executive Chairman Jim Stephen, the son of the company’s original founder.
“He said he was a fan, he was a customer, and he couldn’t imagine a future without June technology powering every product in the Weber collection,” Van Horn told me in an interview. “I said, ‘Slow down — what are you talking about? Yeah, who are you?’ And he said ‘I’m flying out, I’ll be there Monday.'” I normally have my nice demo setup that I do, I’ll do like chocolate lava cake and a steak [in the June Oven]. So I got there about 15 minutes early to do that, and [Jim] was already sitting in the front steps of the office, ready to open the door for me — he’s like, ‘I don’t need a demo, I own this.'”
“His energy and ability to see things often before other people, it blew my mind,” Van Horn continued. “Soon after I met Chris [Scherzinger, Weber’s current chief executive], who was joining as CEO and [I] was able to experience firsthand this, honestly very surprising and wonderful culture of this historic Weber brand.”
As mentioned, June became a partner to Weber and powered the connected cooking platform it debuted at CES last year. Weber also led June’s Series C funding round, a previously undisclosed final round of financing that Weber led in 2018 prior to this exit.
Van Horn will act as president of June under the terms of the new arrangement and will continue to lead development of its current and future products. He said that Weber’s ability to help them with international scale and distribution via their existing global footprint was a big motivating factor in why June chose to join the now 63-year-old company. But another key ingredient was just how much Weber proved to be a place where the company’s culture was still centered on customer focus and a love of food.
“Obviously why Nikhil and I started June was that we love food, and we love cooking,” Van Horn said. “And a lot of the principles of how we think about how products get made are a lot of Apple’s principles — a large percentage of the June team comes from Apple. We’ve obviously kind of brought that to a microscale with our small 60-person startup. But being able to work with this very eager Weber team, that’s just been really excited from the start has been pretty incredible.”
As for Weber, the company gains a software and technology team that was born out of the idea of approaching cooking from a tech-first perspective — and they intend to infuse that expertise throughout their product lineup, with an eye toward building on their legacy of quality and customer enthusiasm.
“Once you infuse the software engineering, the connected product design and the machine-intelligence expertise that you have, you get these core competencies or capabilities, but that really undersells it,” Scherzinger told me. “Matt put together a team of superstars, and we just got a first-round draft pick [in June] that takes the Weber game to another level. That allows us to accelerate a significant number of initiatives, and you can expect to see an expansion of what Weber Connect can become in terms of new experiences for consumers, new services and new products, for sure, starting as early as 2021 and 2022.”
While Weber and June are not sharing specifics around the deal, as mentioned, Scherzinger did mention that “Matt and his team and his investors all did handsomely.” June’s prior investors include Amazon Alexa Fund, Lerer Hippeau, First Round Capital, Promus Ventures, Industry Ventures, Eclipse Ventures and more.
Vantage, a new service that makes managing AWS resources and their associated spend easier, is coming out of stealth today. The service offers its users an alternative to the complex AWS console with support for most of the standard AWS services, including EC2 instances, S3 buckets, VPCs, ECS and Fargate and Route 53 hosted zones.
The company’s founder, Ben Schaechter, previously worked at AWS and Digital Ocean (and before that, he worked on Crunchbase, too). Yet while DigitalOcean showed him how to build a developer experience for individuals and small businesses, he argues that the underlying services and hardware simply weren’t as robust as those of the hyperclouds. AWS, on the other hand, offers everything a developer could want (and likely more), but the user experience leaves a lot to be desired.
“The idea was really born out of ‘what if we could take the user experience of DigitalOcean and apply it to the three public cloud providers, AWS, GCP and Azure,” Schaechter told me. “We decided to start just with AWS because the experience there is the roughest and it’s the largest player in the market. And I really think that we can provide a lot of value there before we do GCP and Azure.”
The focus for Vantage is on the developer experience and cost transparency. Schaechter noted that some of its users describe it as being akin to a “Mint for AWS.” To get started, you give Vantage a set of read permissions to your AWS services and the tool will automatically profile everything in your account. The service refreshes this list once per hour, but users can also refresh their lists manually.
Given that it’s often hard enough to know which AWS services you are actually using, that alone is a useful feature. “That’s the number one use case,” he said. “What are we paying for and what do we have?”
At the core of Vantage is what the team calls “views,” which allows you to see which resources you are using. What is interesting here is that this is quite a flexible system and allows you to build custom views to see which resources you are using for a given application across regions, for example. Those may include Lambda, storage buckets, your subnet, code pipeline and more.
On the cost-tracking side, Vantage currently only offers point-in-time costs, but Schaechter tells me that the team plans to add historical trends as well to give users a better view of their cloud spend.
Schaechter and his co-founder bootstrapped the company and he noted that before he wants to raise any money for the service, he wants to see people paying for it. Currently, Vantage offers a free plan, as well as paid “pro” and “business” plans with additional functionality.
Amazon has begun the process of removing QAnon-related products from its platform.
A spokesperson for the company said that the process may take a few days. Any sellers that attempt to evade the company’s systems and list products will be subject to action, including a blanket selling ban across Amazon stores.
News of the ban was first reported by The New York Times.
The company is shutting down the nation’s newest favorite conspiracy theory by removing products sold by QAnon adherents from its platform after supporters were prominently on display at the riot in the nation’s Capitol last week.
Amazon’s ban of Q-related products follows the company’s decision to remove Parler from its web servers and cloud services platform.
The ban applies to any self-published books that promote QAnon or any clothing, posters, stickers, or other merchandise related to the Q conspiracy theory.
Amazon has policies that prohibit products that “promote, incite, or glorify hate or violence toward any person or group,” the company said.
A cursory search of the company’s platform on Monday revealed that the ban isn’t being applied to all of the Q-related products for sale.
Seven pages of Q-related products were surfaced under the search for “WWG1WGA” an acronym for the Q-related phrase, “Where we go one, we go all.”
The widely discredited Q conspiracy theory was born from a stew of different conspiracy theories that emerged from the 4chan message boards back in 2017.
Since its emergence, the conspiracy theory has grabbed the attention of conservative activists, and its supporters were highly visible among the group of rioters that stormed the Capitol building last week — even as at least one Q-believer joined Congress the same week.
Amazon’s decision to ban the sale of Q-related goods comes many, many, many years after the movement was first linked to violence, as TechCrunch previously reported.
The conspiracy’s followers have also interfered with legitimate child safety efforts by hijacking the hashtag #savethechildren, and exporting their extreme ideas into mainstream conversation under the guise of helping children. Facebook, which previously banned QAnon, limited the hashtag’s reach in late 2020 because of the interference.
Platforms and infrastructure providers dump Parler, Microsoft unveils a new Surface and a Chinese fitness app raises $360 million. This is your Daily Crunch for January 11, 2021.
The big story: Parler sues Amazon after going offline
President Donald Trump has found himself banned from most of the major social media and internet platforms, with companies pointing to his role in inciting the violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol last week, as well as his continuing statements expressing support for the rioters.
Right-wing social network Parler might seem like an obvious beneficiary of those bans, but the app itself has come under scrutiny — Apple and Google removed it from their respective app stores for failing to moderate comments calling for violent or criminal behavior, and Amazon Web Services followed suit, resulting in the social network going offline.
The tech giants
Microsoft’s latest business-focused Surface is focused on remote work — Pricing for the Surface Pro 7+ starts at $899 for the Wi-Fi version and $1,149 for LTE.
Snap acquires location data startup StreetCred — Four StreetCred team members are joining Snap, where they’ll be working on map and location-related products.
Samsung’s upcycling program is designed to give new life to old tech — Samsung says the program “reimagines the lifecycle of an older Galaxy phone and offers consumers options on how they might be able to repurpose their device to create a variety of convenient IoT tools.”
Startups, funding and venture capital
Vision Fund backs Chinese fitness app Keep in $360M round — The latest fundraise values the six-year-old startup at about $2 billion post-money.
Revolut applies for UK banking license — It’s hard to believe that fintech startup Revolut doesn’t already have a proper banking license in its home country.
Orange spins out Orange Ventures with $430M allocation — With this new corporate structure, Orange Ventures could attract third-party investors.
Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch
Affirm boosts its IPO price target, more than doubling its latest private valuation — Who is mispricing whom?
Flexible VC: A new model for startups targeting profitability — A new category of investors has emerged offering a hybrid between VC and revenue-based investment.
Get live feedback on your pitch deck from big-name VCs on Extra Crunch Live — As a part of Extra Crunch Live, we’ll be offering EC members the chance to get live feedback on their pitch decks from our guests.
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Hulu discounts its on-demand service to $1.99 per month for students — This represents a more than 65% discount off Hulu’s ad-supported subscription.
Original Content podcast: Despite some odd choices, ‘The Undoing’ lays out a satisfying mystery — Your podcast hosts caught up on their mystery viewing over the holidays.
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Parler has sued Amazon after the beleaguered conservative social media site was expelled from AWS, filing a fanciful complaint alleging the internet giant took it out for political reasons — and in an antitrust conspiracy to benefit Twitter. But its own allegations, including breach of contract, are belied by evidence they supply alongside the suit.
In the lawsuit, filed today in the U.S. Western District Court, Parler complains that “AWS’s decision to effectively terminate Parler’s account is apparently motivated by political animus. It is also apparently designed to reduce competition in the microblogging services market to the benefit of Twitter.”
Regarding the “political animus” it is difficult to speak to Parler’s reasoning, since that argument is supported nowhere in the suit — it simply is never referred to again.
There is the suggestion that Amazon has shown more tolerance for offending content on Twitter than on Parler, but this isn’t well substantiated. For instance, the suit notes that “Hang Mike Pence” trended on Friday the 8th, without noting that much of this volume was, as any user of Twitter can see by searching, people decrying this phrase as having been chanted by the rioters in the Capitol two days prior.
By way of contrast, one Parler post cited by Amazon says that “we need to start systematicly [sic] assasinating [sic] #liberal leaders, liberal activists, #blm leaders and supporters,” and so on. As TechCrunch has been monitoring Parler conversations, we can say that this is far from an isolated example of this rhetoric.
The antitrust argument suggests a conspiracy by Amazon to protect and advance the interests of Twitter. Specifically, the argument is that because Twitter is a major customer of AWS, and Parler is a threat to Twitter, Amazon wanted to take Parler out of the picture.
Given the context of Parler’s looming threat to Twitter and the fact that the Twitter ban might not long muzzle the President if he switched to Parler, potentially bringing tens of millions of followers with him, AWS moved to shut down Parler.
This argument is not convincing for several reasons, but the most obvious one is that Parler was at the time also an AWS customer. If people are going to one customer to another, why would Amazon care at all, let alone enough to interfere to the point of legal and ethical dubiety?
The lawsuit also accuses Amazon of leaking the email communicating Parler’s imminent suspension to reporters before it was sent to administrators at the site. (It also says that Amazon “sought to defame” Parler, though defamation is not part of the legal complaint. Parler seems to be using this term rather loosely.)
Lastly Parler says Amazon is in breach of contract, having not given the 30 days warning stipulated in the terms of service. The exception is if a “material breach remains uncured for a period of 30 days” after notice. As Parler explains it:
On January 8, 2021, AWS brought concerns to Parler about user content that encouraged violence. Parler addressed them, and then AWS said it was “okay” with Parler.
The next day, January 9, 2021, AWS brought more “bad” content to Parler and Parler took down all of that content by the evening.
Thus, there was no uncured material breach of the Agreement for 30 days, as required for termination.
But in the email attached as evidence to the lawsuit — literally exhibit A — Amazon makes it clear the issues have been ongoing for longer than that (emphasis added):
Over the past several weeks, we’ve reported 98 examples to Parler of posts that clearly encourage and incite violence… You remove some violent content when contacted by us or others, but not always with urgency… It’s clear that Parler does not have an effective process to comply with the AWS terms of service.
You can read the rest of the letter here, but it’s obvious that Amazon is not simply saying that a few days of violations are the cause of Parler’s being kicked off the service.
Parler asks a judge for a Temporary Restraining Order that would restore its access to AWS services while the rest of the case is argued, and for damages to be specified at trial.
TechCrunch has asked Amazon for comment and will update this post if we hear back. Meanwhile you can read the full complaint below:
But while the site is gone (for now), millions of posts published to the site since the riot are not.
A lone hacker scraped millions of posts, videos and photos published to the site after the riot but before the site went offline on Monday, preserving a huge trove of potential evidence for law enforcement investigating the attempted insurrection by many who allegedly used the platform to plan and coordinate the breach of the Capitol.
The hacker and internet archivist, who goes by the online handle @donk_enby, scraped the social network and uploaded copies to the Internet Archive, which hosts old and historical versions of web pages.
In a tweet, @donk_enby said she scraped data from Parler that included deleted and private posts, and the videos contained “all associated metadata.”
— crash override (@donk_enby) January 10, 2021
Metadata is information about a file — such as when it was made and on what device. This information is usually embedded in the file itself. The scraped videos from Parler appear to also include the precise location data of where the videos were taken. That metadata could be a gold mine of evidence for authorities investigating the Capitol riot, which may tie some rioters to their Parler accounts or help police unmask rioters based on their location data.
Most web services remove metadata when you upload your photos and videos, but Parler apparently didn’t.
Parler quickly became the social network of choice after President Trump was deplatformed from Twitter and Facebook for inciting the riot on January 6. But the tech giants said Parler violated their rules by not having a content moderation policy — which is what drew many users to the site.
Many of the posts made calls to “burn down [Washington] D.C.,” while others called for violence and the execution of Vice President Mike Pence.
Already several rioters have been arrested and charged with breaking into the Capitol building. Many of the rioters weren’t wearing masks (the pandemic notwithstanding), making it easier for them to be identified. But thanks to Parler’s own security blunder, many more could soon face an unwelcome knock at the door.
True to its word, Amazon Web Services (AWS) suspended services to Parler, the right-wing-focused social network that proved a welcoming home for pro-Trump users who called for violence at the nation’s Capitol and beyond. The service suspension went into effect overnight after a 24-hour warning from AWS, which means that if you now go to Parler’s web address you’re greeted with a message saying the requested domain can’t be reached.
Parler’s community had been surging after the permanent suspension of Trump’s official accounts from Twitter and Facebook last week, which also saw removed from those platforms a number of accounts tweeting similar invectives and encouragement of violence aligned with Trump’s sentiments. Apple and Google then removed Parler from their respective app stores for violations of their own terms of service, and AWS follows suit with its own suspension notice.
The company has suggested that it will rebuild its own infrastructure from scratch in order to contend with the various suspensions, but meanwhile other alternative social media sites that continue to exist, and that have typically catered to a more right-wing audience, like Gab, are seeing the benefits of Parler’s deplatforming. Gab has previously seen its hosting revoked, and been removed from Google Play for issues around hate-speech dissemination.
Parler is at risk of disappearing, just as the social media network popular among conservatives was reaching new heights of popularity in the wake of President Donald Trump’s ban from all major tech social platforms.
Amazon Web Services, which provides backend cloud services, has informed Parler that it intends to cut ties with the company in the next 24 hours, according to a report in BuzzFeed News. Parler’s application is built on top of AWS infrastructure, services that are critical for the operation of its platform. Earlier today, Apple announced that it was following Google in blocking the app from its App Store, citing a lack of content moderation.
Parler, whose fortunes have soared as users upset at the President’s silencing on mainstream social media outlets flocked to the service, is now another site of contention in the struggle over the limits of free speech and accountability online.
Parler CEO John Matze said that the platform would be offline for at least a week, as “they rebuild from scratch” in response to AWS’ communications.
In the wake of the riots at the Capitol on Wednesday and a purge of accounts accused of inciting violence on Twitter and Facebook, Parler had become the home for a raft of radical voices calling for armed “Patriots” to commit violence at the nation’s capitol and statehouses around the country.
Most recently, conservative militants on the site had been calling for “Patriots” to amplify the events of January 6 with a march on Washington DC with weapons on January 19.
Even as pressure was came from Apple and Amazon, whose employees had called for the suspension of services with the company, Parler was taking steps to moderate posts on its platform.
The company acknowledged that it had removed some posts from Trump supporter Lin Wood, who had called for the execution of Vice President Mike Pence in a series of proclamations on the company’s site.
Over the past few months, Republican lawmakers including Sen. Ted Cruz and Congressman Devin Nunes — along with conservative firebrands like Wood have found a home on the platform, where they can share conspiracy theories with abandon.
In an email quoted by BuzzFeed News, Amazon Web Services’ Trust and Safety Team told Parler’s chief policy officer, Amy Peikoff that calls for violence that were spreading across Parler’s platform violated its terms of service. The company’s team also said that Parler’s plan to use volunteers to moderate content on the platform would prove effective, according to BuzzFeed.
“Recently, we’ve seen a steady increase in this violent content on your website, all of which violates our terms. It’s clear that Parler does not have an effective process to comply with the AWS terms of service,” BuzzFeed reported the email as saying.
Here’s Amazon’s letter to Parler in full.
Thank you for speaking with us earlier today.
As we discussed on the phone yesterday and this morning, we remain troubled by the repeated violations of our terms of service. Over the past several weeks, we’ve reported 98 examples to Parler of posts that clearly encourage and incite violence. Here are a few examples below from the ones we’ve sent previously: [See images above.]
Recently, we’ve seen a steady increase in this violent content on your website, all of which violates our terms. It’s clear that Parler does not have an effective process to comply with the AWS terms of service. It also seems that Parler is still trying to determine its position on content moderation. You remove some violent content when contacted by us or others, but not always with urgency. Your CEO recently stated publicly that he doesn’t “feel responsible for any of this, and neither should the platform.” This morning, you shared that you have a plan to more proactively moderate violent content, but plan to do so manually with volunteers. It’s our view that this nascent plan to use volunteers to promptly identify and remove dangerous content will not work in light of the rapidly growing number of violent posts. This is further demonstrated by the fact that you still have not taken down much of the content that we’ve sent you. Given the unfortunate events that transpired this past week in Washington, D.C., there is serious risk that this type of content will further incite violence.
AWS provides technology and services to customers across the political spectrum, and we continue to respect Parler’s right to determine for itself what content it will allow on its site. However, we cannot provide services to a customer that is unable to effectively identify and remove content that encourages or incites violence against others. Because Parler cannot comply with our terms of service and poses a very real risk to public safety, we plan to suspend Parler’s account effective Sunday, January 10th, at 11:59PM PST. We will ensure that all of your data is preserved for you to migrate to your own servers, and will work with you as best as we can to help your migration.
– AWS Trust & Safety Team
Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture-capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines. Happy 2021, or as our own Danny Crichton aptly names it, December 38, 2020.
Equity crew is back to start the new year in full force, with Alex, Natasha, and Danny on the mics and Chris behind the scenes. The reunion led to extreme Dad joke energy from all of us, which helped get through the mountain of tech news that we had in front of us.
In fact, there was so much to talk about that we have a bonus episode coming out Saturday dealing with Roblox and the gaming environment. Stay tuned.
For now, here’s what’s in today’s episode:
As you can tell by our laughs and jokes this week, it is really good to be back. Enjoy the show, and don’t forget the Saturday extra!
Digital services taxes adopted by India, Italy, and Turkey in the past years discriminate against U.S. companies, the U.S. Trade Representative said on Wednesday.
USTR, which began investigations into the three nation’s digital services taxes in June last year, said it found them to be inconsistent with international tax principles, unreasonable, and burdening or restricting U.S. commerce.
In its detailed reports, which the office has made public, USTR studied how these digital taxes affected companies including Amazon, Google, Facebook, Airbnb, and Twitter. USTR said it conducted these investigations on the ground of Section 301 of the U.S. Trade Act of 1974.
India, which has become the largest market for Silicon Valley giants Google and Facebook, introduced digital taxes in 2016 to target foreign firms. Last year, the world’s second largest internet market expanded the scope of its levy to cover a range of additional categories.
USTR investigation found (PDF) that New Delhi was taxing “numerous categories of digital services that are not leviable under other digital services taxes adopted around the world” and that the aggregate tax bill for U.S. companies could exceed $30 million per year. It also took issue with India not levying similar taxes on local companies.
Despite the strong findings on three nations’ digital services taxes, USTR said it is not taking any specific actions “at this time” but will “continue to evaluate all available options.”
U.S. tech companies have in the past supported terms brokered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. But OECD, which is currently in the middle of working out technical details for agreements for over a 100 nations, doesn’t expect to finish the work until mid-2021. In the absence of OECD agreements, various countries are moving forward with their own versions of the taxes.
Since June last year, USTR has initiated investigations into digital services tax instituted — or proposed to be put in place – by a number of countries including Austria, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the European Union, Indonesia, Spain, the United Kingdom, and France, which resumed collecting digital services tax from US companies late last year.
In retaliation, USTR had set a January 6 deadline for levying a 25% tariff on a range of French imported goods including cosmetics and handbags.
USTR did not say whether the tariff had been enforced, but in a statement said it expects to announce the progress or completion of additional investigations in the near future.
A somewhat nebulous, but high-profile and potentially heavily moneyed joint venture is coming to an end: Haven, the JV created by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase, is being “disbanded” according to CNBC, three years after its original formation. One of the main reasons is that each partner in the venture was apparently just pursuing their own very different strategic approach to their respective healthcare challenges, meaning their really wasn’t much “joint” in the joint venture to begin with.
In a statement provided to CNBC, a Haven spokesperson highlighted some of the good results that came out of the partnership over the years, including improving access to primary care, and making insurance benefits packages easier to grasp for employees. Meanwhile, Amazon has made lots of progress on its own with its Amazon Care program, which is its internal healthcare program for employees at its Washington state facilities.
Amazon Care includes provision of both virtual and in-person primary care doctor visits, and prescription delivery. The company is also reported to be considering expansion of this service to other businesses, which signals its intent to turn it into a real business with aims very much in line with what the Haven JV had originally taken as its guiding light.
To be honest, the original announcement about the JV’s founding was light on details and seemed like one of those things that comes together when very rich people talk about their shared problems over a casual afternoon hang at the club with caviar and mineral water distilled from pristine arctic ice or whatever they enjoy during their repasts, so it’s not all that surprising it didn’t materialize into anything more substantial.
Healthcare startup Color has raised a sizable $167 million in Series D funding round, at a valuation of $1.5 billion post-money, the company announced today. This brings the total raised by Color to $278 million, with its latest large round intended to help it build on a record year of growth in 2020 with even more expansion to help put in place key health infrastructure systems across the U.S. — including those related to the “last mile” delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.
This latest investment into Color was led by General Catalyst, and by funds invested by T. Rowe Price, along with participation from Viking Global investors as well as others. Alongside the funding, the company is also bringing on a number of key senior executives, including Claire Vo (formerly of Optimizely) as chief product officer, Emily Reuter (formerly of Uber, where she played a key role in its IPO process) as VP of Strategy and Operations, and Ashley Chandler (formerly of Stripe) as VP of Marketing.
“I think with the [COVID-19] crisis, it’s really shone the light on that lack of infrastructure. We saw it multiple times, with lab testing, with antigen testing and now with vaccines,” Color CEO and co-founder Othman Laraki told me in an interview. “The model that we’ve been developing, that’s been working really well and we feel like this is the opportunity to really scale it in a very major way. I think literally what’s happening is the building of the public health infrastructure for the country that’s starting off from a technology-first model, as opposed to, what ends up happening in a lot of industries, which is you start off taking your existing logistics and assets, and add technology to them.”
Color’s 2020 was a record year for the company, thanks in part to partnerships like the one it formed with San Francisco to establish testing for healthcare workers and residents. Laraki told me they did about five-fold their prior year’s business, and while the company is already set up to grow on its own sustainably based on the revenue it pulls in from customers, its ambitions and plans for 2021 and beyond made this the right time to help it accelerate further with the addition of more capital.
Laraki described Color’s approach as one that is both cost-efficient for the company, and also significant cost-saving for the healthcare providers it works with. He likens their approach to the shift that happened in retail with the move to online sales — and the contribution of one industry heavyweight in particular.
“At some point, you build Amazon — a technology-first stack that’s optimized around access and scale,” Laraki said. “I think that’s literally what we’re seeing now with healthcare. What’s kind of getting catalyzed right now is we’ve been realizing it applies to the COVID crisis, but also, we started actually working on that for prevention and I think actually it’s going to be applying to a huge surface area in healthcare; basically all the aspects of health that are not acute care where you don’t need to show up in hospital.”
Ultimately, Color’s approach is to rethink healthcare delivery in order to “make it accessible at the edge directly in people’s lives,” with “low transaction costs,” in a way that’s “scalable, [and] doesn’t use a lot of clinical resourcing,” Laraki says. He notes that this is actually very possible once you reasses the problem without relying on a lot of accepted knowledge about the way things are done today, which result in a “heavy stack” versus what you actually need to deliver the desired outcomes.
Laraki doesn’t think the problem is easy to solve — on the contrary, he acknowledges that 2021 is likely to be even more difficult and challenging than 2020 in many ways for the healthcare industry, and we’ve already begun to see evidence of that in the many challenges already faced by vaccine distribution and delivery in its initial rollout. But he’s optimistic about Color’s ability to help address those challenges, and to build out a “last mile” delivery system for crucial care that expands accessibility, while also making sure things are done right.
“When you take a step back, doing COVID testing or COVID vaccinations … those are not complex procedures at all — they’re extremely simple procedures,” he said. “What’s hard is doing them massive scale and with a very low transaction cost to the individual and to the system. And that’s a very different tooling.”