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EU hits Amazon with record-breaking $887M GDPR fine over data misuse

By Carly Page

Luxembourg’s National Commission for Data Protection (CNPD) has hit Amazon with a record-breaking €746 million ($887m) GDPR fine over the way it uses customer data for targeted advertising purposes.

Amazon disclosed the ruling in an SEC filing on Friday in which it slammed the decision as baseless and added that it intended to defend itself “vigorously in this matter.”

“Maintaining the security of our customers’ information and their trust are top priorities,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. “There has been no data breach, and no customer data has been exposed to any third party. These facts are undisputed.

“We strongly disagree with the CNPD’s ruling, and we intend to appeal. The decision relating to how we show customers relevant advertising relies on subjective and untested interpretations of European privacy law, and the proposed fine is entirely out of proportion with even that interpretation.”

The penalty is the result of a 2018 complaint by French privacy rights group La Quadrature du Net, a group that claims to represent the interests of thousands of Europeans to ensure their data isn’t used by big tech companies to manipulate their behavior for political or commercial purposes. The complaint, which also targets Apple, Facebook Google and LinkedIn and was filed on behalf of more than 10,000 customers, alleges that Amazon manipulates customers for commercial means by choosing what advertising and information they receive.

La Quadrature du Net welcomed the fine issued by the CNPD, which “comes after three years of silence that made us fear the worst.”

“The model of economic domination based on the exploitation of our privacy and free will is profoundly illegitimate and contrary to all the values that our democratic societies claim to defend,” the group added in a blog post published on Friday.

The CNPD has also ruled that Amazon must commit to changing its business practices. However, the regulator has not publicly committed on its decision, and Amazon didn’t specify what revised business practices it is proposing.

The record penalty, which trumps the €50 million GDPR penalty levied against Google in 2019, comes amid heightened scrutiny of Amazon’s business in Europe. In November last year, the European Commission announced formal antitrust charges against the company, saying the retailer has misused its position to compete against third-party businesses using its platform. At the same time, the Commission a second investigation into its alleged preferential treatment of its own products on its site and those of its partners.

Colombia’s Merqueo bags $50M to expand its online grocery delivery service across Latin America

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Merqueo, which operates a full-stack, on-demand delivery service in Latin America, has landed $50 million in a Series C round of funding.

IDC Ventures, Digital Bridge and IDB Invest co-led the round, which also included participation from MGM Innova Group, Celtic House Venture Partners, Palm Drive Capital and previous shareholders. The financing brings the Bogota, Colombia-based startup’s total raised to $85 million since its 2017 inception.

Merqueo CEO and co-founder Miguel McAllister knows a thing or two about the delivery space in Latin America, having also co-founded Domicilios.com, a Latin American food delivery company that was bought by Berlin-based Delivery Hero and later merged with Brazil’s iFood.

McAllister describes Merqueo as a “pure-play online supermarket with a fully integrated grocery delivery service” that sources directly from large brands and local suppliers, bypassing intermediaries and “delivering directly from its dark store network.” (Dark stores are traditional retail stores that have been converted to local fulfillment centers.”

Merqueo offers more than 8,000 products, including fresh foods, packaged goods, home essentials, beverages and frozen products. It currently operates in more than 25 cities in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil and has over 600,000 users.

Image Credits: Merqueo

It must be doing something right. The startup is close to $100 million in “run-rate revenue,” according to McAllister, having grown more than 2.5x in 2020. Merqueo also reached positive cash flow in Colombia, its most mature market. Over the last year, large Latin American retail chains and retailers have approached the company about potentially acquiring it, McAllister said.

Part of the company’s success might be attributed to the speed and flexibility it offers. Users can choose how and when to receive their groceries according to their needs, with the startup offering delivery in as little as 10 minutes or three to four hours. Users can also schedule delivery of their groceries in two-hour intervals for the same day or the next day.

Also, owning and controlling the “entire” vertical supply chain gives it the ability to obtain better margins, offer competitive pricing and achieve healthy unit economics, according to McAllister.

Merqueo plans to use its new capital in part to expand geographically. The company is currently in phase one of its expansion to Brazil, entering initially in Sao Paulo later this month. Next year, it expects to launch in other Brazilian cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Fortaleza and Salvador de Bahia.

The market opportunity in Latin America is massive considering that online grocery sales only represent just 1% of the market –– far lower than in the U.S., EU or China, for example. Other players in the increasingly crowded space include GoPuff in the U.S., Getir out of Turkey and Mexico-based Jüsto, which raised $65 million in a Series A led by General Atlantic earlier this year.

“The pandemic accelerated the adoption of online grocery shopping in LatAm,” McAllister told TechCrunch. “The region went from 0.3% share of online groceries to 1%. And after the pandemic, we are seeing a 50% increase in the pace of user adoption.” Overall, the $85 billion e-commerce market in Latin America is growing rapidly, with projections of it reaching $116.2 billion in 2023.

Currently, Merqueo has over 1,300 employees in LatAm, up 60% from last year. It plans to continue hiring with the proceeds from the Series C round as well work “to become the largest and most ambitious dark stores network of Latin America.”

Alejandro Rodríguez, managing partner at IDC Ventures, is naturally bullish on Merqueo’s potential.

“From all the opportunities we looked into, Merqueo is undoubtedly the most advanced in the region. … The Merqueo team has proved they know how to scale the business and how to get to profitability,” Rodríguez told TechCrunch.

Online grocery delivery is a business with many technical and operational complexities, he said. In his view, Merqueo’s technology and operational expertise allow it to tackle those issues in a way that has led to “the best customer experience that we have seen in a scalable way.”

“They have the best combination of both great service metrics and healthy unit economics,” Rodríguez added.

Shopify’s Q2 results beat estimates as e-commerce shines

By Alex Wilhelm

Canadian e-commerce juggernaut Shopify this morning reported its second-quarter financial performance. Like Microsoft and Apple in the wake of their after-hours earnings reports, its shares are having a muted reaction to the better-than-expected results.

In the second quarter of 2021, Shopify reported revenues of $1.12 billion, up 57% on a year-over-year basis. The company’s subscription products grew 70% to $334.2 million, while its volume-driven merchant services drove their own top line up 52% to $785.2 million.

Investors had expected Shopify to report revenue of $1.05 billion.

Shopify also posted an enormous second-quarter profit. Indeed, from its $1.12 billion in total revenues, Shopify managed to generate $879.1 million in GAAP net income. How? The outsized profit came in part thanks to $778 million in unrealized gains related to equity investments. But even with those gains filtered out, Shopify’s adjusted net income of $284.6 million more than doubled its year-ago Q2 result of $129.4 million. Shopify’s earnings per share sans unrealized gains came to $2.24, far ahead of an expected 97 cents.

After reporting those results, Shopify shares are up less than a point.

In light of somewhat muted reactions to Big Tech earnings surpassing expectations, it’s increasingly clear that investors were anticipating that leading tech companies would trounce expectations in the second quarter; their earnings beats were largely priced-in ahead of the individual reports.

The rest of Shopify’s quarter is a series of huge figures. In the second three-month period of 2021, the company posted gross merchandise volume (GMV) of $42.2 billion, up 40% compared to the year-ago period. That was more than a billion dollars ahead of expectations. And the company’s monthly recurring revenue (MRR) grew 67% to $95.1 million in the quarter. That’s quick.

Shopify is priced like the growth will continue. Using its Q2 revenue result to generate an annual run rate for the firm, Shopify is currently valued at around 43x its present top line. That’s aggressive for a company that generates the minority of its revenues from recurring software fees, an investor favorite. Instead, investors seem content to pay what is effectively top dollar for the company’s blend of GMV-based service revenues and more traditional software incomes.

Consider the public markets bullish on the continued pace of e-commerce growth.

It will be interesting to see how BigCommerce, a Shopify competitor and fellow public company, performs when it reports earnings in early August. Shares of BigCommerce are up more than 3% today in wake of Shopify’s results. Ironic given Shopify’s relaxed market reaction to its own results? Sure, but who said the public markets are fair?

Colombian on-demand delivery startup Rappi raises ‘over’ $500M at a $5.25B valuation

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Rappi, a Colombian on-demand delivery startup, has raised “over” $500 million at a $5.25 billion valuation in a Series G round led by T. Rowe Price, the company announced late Friday.

Baillie Gifford, Third Point, Octahedron, GIC SoftBank, DST Global, Y Combinator, Andreessen Horowitz and Sequoia Capital and others also participated in the round.

The new financing brings Rappi’s total raised since its 2015 inception to over $2 billion, according to Crunchbase. Today, the country has operations in 9 countries and more than 250 cities across Latin America. Its last raise was a $300 million a Series F funding round in September of 2020.

According to the Latin American Venture Capital and Private Equity Association (LAVCA), Rappi focused on delivering beverages and first, and has since expanded into meals, groceries, tech goods and medicine. The company also offers a cash withdrawal feature, allowing users to pay with credit cards and then receive cash from one of Rappi’s delivery agents. Today, the company says its app allows consumers to “order nearly any good or service.”

In addition to traditional delivery, it says “users can get products delivered in less than 10 minutes, can access financial services, as well as ‘whims,” and “favors.’ Whims allow users to order anything available in their coverage area. Favors offer an array of custom services, such as running an errand, going to the hardware store or picking out and delivering a gift. The two products allow users to connect directly with a courier. 

Simón Borrero, Sebastian Mejia, and Felipe Villamarin launched the company in 2015, graduating from Y Combinator the following year. A16z’s initial investment in July 2016 was the Silicon Valley firm’s first investment in Latin America, according to LAVCA.

Digital lending platform Blend valued at over $4B in its public debut

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Mortgages may not be considered sexy, but they are a big business.

If you’ve refinanced or purchased a home digitally lately, you may not have noticed the company powering the software behind it — but there’s a good chance that company is Blend.

Founded in 2012, the startup has steadily grown to be a leader in the mortgage tech industry. Blend’s white label technology powers mortgage applications on the site of banks including Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank, for example, with the goal of making the process faster, simpler and more transparent. 

The San Francisco-based startup’s SaaS (software-as-a-service) platform currently processes over $5 billion in mortgages and consumer loans per day, up from nearly $3 billion last July.

Today, Blend made its debut as a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange, trading under the symbol “BLND.” As of early afternoon, Eastern Time, the stock was trading up over 13% at $20.36.

On Thursday night, the company had said it would offer 20 million shares at a price of $18 per share, indicating the company was targeting a valuation of $3.6 billion.

That compares to a $3.3 billion valuation at the time of its last raise in January — a $300 million Series G funding round that included participation from Coatue and Tiger Global Management. Also, let’s not forget that Blend only became a unicorn last August when it raised a $75 million Series F. Over its lifetime, Blend had raised $665 million before Friday’s public market debut.

In filing its S-1 on June 21, Blend revealed that its revenue had climbed to $96 million in 2020 from $50.7 million in 2019. Meanwhile, its net loss narrowed from $81.5 million in 2019 to $74.6 million in 2020.

In 2020, the San Francisco-based startup significantly expanded its digital consumer lending platform. With that expansion, Blend began offering its lender customers new configuration capabilities so that they could launch any consumer banking product “in days rather than months.”

Looking ahead, the company had said it expects its revenue growth rate “to decline in future periods.” It also doesn’t envision achieving profitability anytime soon as it continues to focus on growth. Blend also revealed that in 2020, its top five customers accounted for 34% of its revenue.

Today, TechCrunch spoke with co-founder and CEO Nima Ghamsari about the company’s decision to go with a traditional IPO versus the ubiquitous SPAC or even a direct listing.

For one, Blend said he wanted to show its customers that it is an “around for a long time company” by making sure there’s enough on its balance sheet to continue to grow.

“We had to talk and convince some of the biggest investors in the world to invest in us, and that speaks to how long we’ll be around to serve these customers,” he said. “So it was a combination of our capital need and wanting to cement ourselves as a really credible software provider to one of the most regulated industries.”

Ghamsari emphasized that Blend is a software company that powers the mortgage process and is not the one offering the mortgages. As such, it works with the flock of fintechs that are working to provide mortgages.

“A lot of them are using Blend under the hood, as the infrastructure layer,” he said.

Overall, Ghamsari believes this is just the beginning for Blend.

“One of the things about financial services is that it’s still mostly powered by paper. So a lot of Blend’s growth is just going deeper into this process that we got started in years ago,” he said. As mentioned above, the company started out with its mortgage product but just keeps adding to it. Today, it also powers other loans such as auto, personal and home equity.

“A lot of our growth is actually powered by our other lines of business,” Ghamsari told TechCrunch. “There’s a lot to build because the larger digitization trends are just getting started in financial services. It’s a relatively large industry that has lots of change.”

In May, digital mortgage lender Better.com announced it would combine with a SPAC, taking itself public in the second half of 2021.

 

MSCHF drops tiny action figures of your favorite failed startup hardware

By Matthew Panzarino

Hardware is hard. You can browse the archives of this site and come up with dozens of bold attempts to make new consumer electronics gadgets work — some of them very close to home. But, like all startups, most hardware companies run into the hard core grind of turning atoms into something worth buying. 

To commemorate the hardness of hardware, idea factory/art house MSCHF is releasing a set of 5 Dead Startup Toys as vinyl figurines that you can buy for $39.99 each or $159.99 for the set. It bills these as ‘iconic failed startups’ and the sales site offers a brief history of the rise and fall of each endeavor. They range from products that never really existed like the Theranos minilab to poorly timed early movers like Jibo to exercises in over-engineering like Juicero. 

Given that I have spent much of my career absorbing and trying to understand the difficult and complicated process of bringing consumer hardware to market, I love these things. There could be a lens of malice here, but I choose not to see it that way. Fraud is fraud and the people behind Theranos and debacles like the Coolest Cooler have or will see the business end of the legal system. 

But big visions and hardware dreams are not always so clearly pocketed into the hole of ‘failure’. Sometimes the hardware works but the supply chain doesn’t. Sometimes the vision is sound but the product is just too early. There are any number of reasons products fail — but (in as much as they were actually real) you often have to give it up for the teams of people and visionaries that wanted a thing to exist in the universe and dragged it kicking and screaming to that point. And off the cliffs.

The figures themselves are really well done, with crisp stamping and accurate detailing with readable text and nicely printed logos. Some of them are articulated as well, and accessorized. The Coolest Cooler gets its infamous blender and the Juicero has a removable (proprietary of course) ‘fresh veg’ pouch. The quality on these is quite high overall, I’d rank them up with some of the better novelty toys I’ve bought over the years — it’s not phoned in, much like the Cooler’s feature set.

The packaging, too, is quite impressive, each gets a customized box and the big set of all of them comes in a bigger rack box. Each one also comes with a ’cause of death’ card that tells you why each venture went under. MSCHF went the lengths to make this a pretty premium ‘toy’ drop, which is only fitting given that it’s a monument to physical products. 

As with much of MSCHF’s work, there’s an element of ‘wait, is this legal’ as well, because there are likely a bunch of holes that the IP connected to these products fell into but some of those holes could still have legal entities attached. But that element of danger is what has made many of its projects resonate so far so I don’t think they’re worried. 

After all, none of these products have the sign of the beast on them. Physically, anyway.

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Google faces a major multi-state antitrust lawsuit over Google Play fees

By Taylor Hatmaker

A group of 37 attorneys general filed a second major multi-state antitrust lawsuit against Google Wednesday, accusing the company of abusing its market power to stifle competitors and forcing consumers into in-app payments that grant the company a hefty cut.

New York Attorney General Letitia James is co-leading the suit alongside the Tennessee, North Carolina and Utah attorneys general. The bipartisan coalition represents 36 U.S. states, including California, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Colorado and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia.

“Through its illegal conduct, the company has ensured that hundreds of millions of Android users turn to Google, and only Google, for the millions of applications they may choose to download to their phones and tablets,” James said in a press release. “Worse yet, Google is squeezing the lifeblood out of millions of small businesses that are only seeking to compete.”

In December, 35 states filed a separate antitrust suit against Google, alleging that the company engaged in illegal behavior to maintain a monopoly on the search business. The Justice Department filed its own antitrust case focused on search last October.

In the new lawsuit, embedded below, the bipartisan coalition of states allege that Google uses “misleading” security warnings to keep consumers and developers within its walled app garden, the Google Play store. But the fees that Google collects from Android app developers are likely the meat of the case.

“Not only has Google acted unlawfully to block potential rivals from competing with its Google Play Store, it has profited by improperly locking app developers and consumers into its own payment processing system and then charging high fees,” District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine said.

Like Apple, Google herds all app payment processing into its own service, Google Play Billing, and reaps the rewards: a 30 percent cut of all payments. Much of the criticism here is a case that could — and likely will — be made against Apple, which exerts even more control over its own app ecosystem. Google doesn’t have an iMessage equivalent exclusive app that keeps users locked in in quite the same way.

While the lawsuit discusses Google’s “monopoly power” in the app marketplace, the elephant in the room is Apple — Google’s thriving direct competitor in the mobile software space. The lawsuit argues that consumers face pressure to stay locked into the Android ecosystem, but on the Android side at least, much of that is ultimately familiarity and sunk costs. The argument on the Apple side of the equation here is likely much stronger.

The din over tech giants squeezing app developers with high mobile payment fees is just getting louder. The new multi-state lawsuit is the latest beat, but the topic has been white hot since Epic took Apple to court over its desire to bypass Apple’s fees by accepting mobile payments outside the App Store. When Epic set up a workaround, Apple kicked it out of the App Store and Epic Games v. Apple was born.

The Justice Department is reportedly already interested in Apple’s own app store practices, along with many state AGs who could launch a separate suit against the company at any time.

Electronic Arts buys mobile game studio Playdemic for $1.4 billion

By Lucas Matney

Video game giant Electronic Arts is continuing to make M&A moves as it looks to bulk up its presence in the mobile gaming world.

Fresh off the $2.4 billion acquisition of Glu Mobile this past April, their biggest purchase to date, Electronic Arts announced Wednesday that they are buying Warner Bros. Games’ mobile gaming studio Playdemic for $1.4 billion in an all-cash deal. The Manchester studio is best known for its release “Golf Clash” which the studio boasts has more than 80 million downloads globally.

The rather ominously-named startup is being jettisoned to its new home ahead of the $43 billion WarnerMedia-Discovery deal where the rest of the Warner Bros. Games division will live post-merger.

Electronic Arts is the second-largest Western video games company with a market cap around $40 billion. Their success has largely come from desktop and console titles including titles in their most popular franchises like Battlefield, Star Wars and Titanfall. Mobile dominance hasn’t come easy to the company which has spent much of the past decade or so trying to keep pace with competitors like Activision Blizzard which struck gold with its 2016 King acquisition. 

Electronic Arts has been on a studio buying spree as of late — in 2021 they’ve announced three major acquisitions worth some $5 billion combined.

Iceland’s Frumtak Ventures raises its third, $57M, fund focusing on post-seed and Series A

By Mike Butcher

Frumtak Ventures, one of the few VCs in Iceland, has raised its third fund, Frumtak III. The $57 million (ISK 7b, €48m) fund will focus on post-seed and Series A startups. The firm says its typical ticket size will range from $1-5 million (€850k-4.2m).

Frumtak was a somewhat lesser-known European VC until it popped up on our radar as the backers behind the Controlant real-time supply chain monitoring startup, the technology from which was pictured beside Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, when he held up a box containing the first-ever shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine to the city. Controlant has been a key player in the global distribution cold chain associated with vaccines.

However, the fund has also backed digital banking solutions provider Meniga, digital therapeutics scaleup Sidekick Health, travel CRM and travel booking system provider Kaptio, live event and fan engagement data analytics company Activity Stream, and Data Market, which was acquired by Qlik in 2014.

Svana Gunnarsdottir, managing partner of Frumtak Ventures said: “We are proud of the accomplishments of our portfolio companies and their teams, as well as the investment decisions we made through our first two funds. We look forward to continuing our support of high-potential startups and brilliant founders with Frumtak III. We are also grateful for the confidence shown to us by our LP’s, many of whom have been with us since our first fund in 2009.”

Concurrently, Asthildur Otharsdottir has joined the firm as partner and Frumtak III’s lead investment manager. Otharsdottir was previously Frumtak’s Chairman for 6 years and has been on the board of Marel and Icelandair Group.

Forto raises $240M in funding round led by Softbank, taking its valuation to $1.2Bn

By Mike Butcher

Freight technology startup, Forto, which we most recently covered when it raised $50 million late last year, is upping the stakes.

It’s now raised $240 million in a round led by Softbank Vision Fund 2 to expand its trade shipments between China and Europe. Forto manages shipping containers from origin to destination. Softbank is also hedging its bets after investing in China’s Full Truck Alliance (YMM.N), which plans a $20 billion IPO.

That means Forto’s valuation close to $1.2 billion, after it’s raised a total of $360 million. Also participating in the round were new investors Citi Ventures and G Squared. Existing investors including Northzone, Cherry Ventures and Unbound also took part, Forto said.

German logistics startups are proliferating. Trucking specialist Sennder, a digital road freight forwarder, raised $160 million in Series D financing earlier this year.

Forto says it has 2,500 clients, including Home 24 and German supermarket chain Edeka, and ships up to 10,000 containers a year by sea, rail and air.

AI cybersecurity provider SentinelOne files for $100M IPO

By Carly Page

SentinelOne, a late-stage security startup that helps organizations secure their data using AI and machine learning, has filed for an IPO on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).

In an S-1 filing on Thursday, the security company revealed that for the three months ending April 30, its revenues increased by 108% year-on-year to $37.4 million and its customer base grew to 4,700, up from 2,700 a year prior. Despite this pandemic-fueled growth, SentinelOne’s net losses more than doubled from $26.6 million in 2020 to $62.6 million.

“We also expect our operating expenses to increase in the future as we continue to invest for our future growth, including expanding our research and development function to drive further development of our platform, expanding our sales and marketing activities, developing the functionality to expand into adjacent markets, and reaching customers in new geographic locations,” SentinelOne wrote in its filing.

The Mountain View-based company said it intends to list its Class A common stock using the ticker symbol “S” and that details about the price range and number of common shares to be put up for the IPO are yet to be determined. The S-1 filing also identifies Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America Securities, Barclays and Wells Fargo Securities as the lead underwriters.

SentinelOne raised $276 million in a funding round in November last year, tripling its $1 billion valuation from February 2020 to $3 billion. At the time, CEO and founder Tomer Weingarten told TechCrunch that an IPO “would be the next logical step” for the company.

SentinelOne, which was founded in 2013 and has raised a total of $696.5 million through eight rounds of funding, is looking to raise up to $100 million in its IPO, and said it’s intending to use the net proceeds to increase its visibility in the cybersecurity marketplace and for product development and other “general corporate processes.”

It added that “may also use a portion of the net proceeds for the acquisition of, or investment in, technologies, solutions, or businesses that complement our business.” The company’s sole acquisition so far took place back in February when it bought high-speed logging startup Scalyr for $155 million.

SentinelOne is going public during a period of heightened public interest in cybersecurity. There has been a wave of high-profile cyberattacks during the COVID-19 pandemic, with hackers taking advantage of widespread remote working necessitated as a result.

One of the biggest attacks saw Russian hackers breach the networks of IT company SolarWinds, enabling them to gain access to government agencies and corporations. SentinelOne’s endpoint protection solution was able to detect and stop the related malicious payload, protecting its customers.

“The world is full of criminals, state actors, and other hostile agents who seek to exfiltrate and exploit data to disrupt our way of life,” Weingarten said in SentinelOne’s SEC filing. “Our mission is to keep the world running by protecting and securing the core pillars of modern infrastructure: data and the systems that store, process, and share information. This is an endless mission as attackers evolve rapidly in their quest to disrupt operations, breach data, turn profit, and inflict damage.”

In latest Big Tech antitrust push, Germany’s FCO eyes Google News Showcase fine print

By Natasha Lomas

The Bundeskartellamt, Germany’s very active competition authority, isn’t letting the grass grow under new powers it gained this year to tackle Big Tech: The Federal Cartel Office (FCO) has just announced a third proceeding against Google.

The FCO’s latest competition probe looks very interesting, as it’s targeting Google News Showcase — Google’s relatively recently launched product which curates a selection of third-party publishers’ content to appear in story panels on Google News (and other Google properties), content for which the tech giant pays a licensing fee.

Google started cutting content licensing deals with publishers around the world for News Showcase last year, announcing a total pot of $1 billion to fund the arrangements — with Germany one of the first markets where it inked deals.

However, its motivation to pay publishers to licence their journalism is hardly pure.

It follows years of bitter accusations from media companies that Google is freeloading off their content. To which the tech giant routinely responded with stonewalling statements — saying it would never pay for content because that’s not how online aggregation works. It also tried to fob off the industry with a digital innovation fund (aka Google News Initiative), which distributes small grants and offers free workshops and product advice, seeking to frame publishers’ decimated business models as a failure of innovation, leaving Google’s adtech machine scot free to steamroller on.

Google’s stonewalling-plus-chicken-feeding approach worked to stave off regulatory action for a long time, but eventually enough political pressure built up around the issue of media business models versus the online advertising duopoly that legislators started to make moves to try to address the power imbalance between traditional publishers and intermediating tech giants.

Most infamously in Australia, where lawmakers passed a news media bargaining code earlier this year.

Prior to its passage, both Facebook and Google, the twin targets for that law, warned the move could result in dire consequences — such as a total shutdown of their products, reduced quality or even fees to use their services.

Nothing like that happened, but lawmakers did agree to a last-minute amendment — adding a two-month mediation period to the legislation which allows digital platforms and publishers to strike deals on their own before having to enter into forced arbitration.

Critics say that allows for the two tech giants to continue to set their own terms when dealmaking with publishers, leveraging market muscle to strike deals that may disproportionately benefit Australia’s largest media firms — and doing so without any external oversight and with no guarantees that the resulting content arrangements foster media diversity and plurality or even support quality journalism.

In the EU, lawmakers acted earlier — taking the controversial route of extending copyright to cover snippets of news content back in 2019. (And Monday June 7 is the deadline for Member States to have transposed the rules into national law.)

France was among the first EU countries to bake the provision into national law — and its competition watchdog quickly ordered Google to pay for news reuse back in 2020 after Google tried to wiggle out of the legislation by stopping displaying snippets in the market.

It responded to the competition authority’s order with more obfuscation, though, agreeing earlier this year to pay French publishers for content reuse but also for their participation in News Showcase — bundling required-by-law payments (for news reuse) with content licensing deals of its own devising. And thereby making it difficult to understand the balance of mandatory payments versus commercial arrangements.

The problem with News Showcase is that these licensing arrangements are being done behind closed doors, in many cases ahead of relevant legislation and thus purely on Google’s terms — which means the initiative risks exacerbating concerns about the power imbalance between it and traditional publishers caught in a revenue bind as their business models have been massively disrupted by the switch to digital.

If Google suddenly offers some money for content, plenty of publishers might well jump — regardless of the terms. And perhaps especially because any publishers that hold out against licensing content to Google at the price it likes risk being disadvantaged by reduced visibility for their content, given Google’s dominance of the search market and content discoverability (via its ability to direct traffic to specific media properties, such as based on how prominently News Showcase content is displayed, for example).

The competition implications look clear.

But it’s still impressive that the Bundeskartellamt is spinning up an investigation into News Showcase so quickly.

The FCO said it’s acting on a complaint from Corint Media — looking at whether the announced integration of the Google News Showcase service into Google’s general search function is “likely to constitute self-preferencing or an impediment to the services offered by competing third parties”.

It also said it’s looking at whether contractual conditions include unreasonable terms (“to the detriment of the participating publishers”); and, in particular, “make it disproportionately difficult for them to enforce the ancillary copyright for press publishers introduced by the German Bundestag and Bundesrat in May 2021” — a reference to the transposed neighbouring right for news in the EU copyright reform.

So it will be examining the core issue of whether Google is trying to use News Showcase to undermine the new EU rights publishers gained under the copyright reform.

The FCO also said it wants to look at “how the conditions for access to Google’s News Showcase service are defined”.

Google launched the News Showcase in Germany on October 1 2020, with an initial 20 media companies participating — covering 50 publications. Although more have been added since.

Per the FCO, the News Showcase “story panels” were initially integrated in the Google News app but can now also be found in Google News on the desktop. It also notes that Google has said the panels will soon also appear in the general Google search results — a move that will further dial up the competition dynamics around the product, given Google’s massive dominance of the search market in Europe.

Commenting on its proceeding in a statement, Andreas Mundt, president of the Bundeskartellamt, said: “Cooperating with Google can be an attractive option for publishers and other news providers and offer consumers new or improved information services. However, it must be ensured that this will not result in discrimination between individual publishers. In addition, Google’s strong position in providing access to end customers must not lead to a situation where competing services offered by publishers or other news providers are squeezed out of the market. There must be an adequate balance between the rights and obligations of the content providers participating in Google’s programme.”

Google was contacted for comment on the FCO’s action — and it sent us this statement, attributed to spokesperson, Kay Oberbeck:

Showcase is one of many ways Google supports journalism, building on products and funds that all publishers can benefit from. Showcase is an international licensing program for news — the selection of partners is based on objective and non-discriminatory criteria, and partner content is not given preference in the ranking of our results. We will cooperate fully with the German Competition Authority and look forward to answering their questions.

The FCO’s scrutiny of Google News Showcase, follows hard on the heels of two other Google proceedings it opened last month, one to determine whether or not the tech giant meets the threshold of Germany’s new competition powers for tackling Big Tech — and another examining its data processing practices. Both remain ongoing.

The competition authority has also recently opened a proceeding into Amazon’s market dominance — and is also looking to extend another recent investigation of Facebook’s Oculus business, also by determining whether the social media giant’s business meets the threshold required under the new law.

The amendment to the German Competition Act came into force in January — giving the FCO greater powers to proactively impose conditions on large digital companies that are considered to be of “paramount significance for competition across markets” in order to pre-emptively control the risk of market abuse.

That it’s taking on so many proceedings in parallel against Big Tech shows it’s keen not to waste any time — putting itself in a position to come, as quickly as possible, with proactive interventions to address competitive problems caused by platform giants just as soon as it determines it can legally do that.

The Bundeskartellamt also has a pioneering case against Facebook’s “superprofiling” on its desk — which links privacy abuse to competition concerns and could drastically limit the tech giant’s ability to profile users. That investigation and case has been ongoing for years but was recently referred to Europe’s top court for an interpretation of key legal questions.

 

With new Partner Colin Hanna, and Shikha Ahluwalia as Associate, Balderton puts down roots in Berlin

By Mike Butcher

As of now, one fo the UK’s biggest and most active tech VCs has a new partner. Principal Colin Hanna has spearheaded several of Balderton’s deals in the past couple of years, and has now been appointed a Partner. But there’s a twist to this plot. He will be officially based in Berlin (where he’s lived since 2019), thus giving the VC a more powerful reach, being based, as it is, solely in London.

Hanna said: “Having been with Balderton for five years, I am humbled to now call my mentors my Partners. I look forward to strengthening Balderton’s unique approach from Berlin as we engineer serendipity for European founders with planet-scale ambition.”

Bernard Liautaud, Managing Partner of Balderton commented: “We are delighted to announce Colin’s promotion to Partner. Since he joined Balderton in 2016, Colin has had a significant impact on both Balderton and our portfolio… Colin has strengthened our position in DACH by establishing our permanent presence in Berlin and bringing in Shikha Ahluwalia, whom we are delighted to have. In addition, he was instrumental in the definition of the Balderton Sustainable Future Goals. We have no doubt Colin will be highly successful in his new role.”

The story does not end there, however. Joining him will be tech entrepreneur and founder Shikha Ahluwalia as an Associate covering the DACH region.

co-founded SBL, the D2C women’s fashion e-commerce company in India. Prior to that she was had a tech advisory boutique, and was previously with JP Morgan’s Investment Banking Division in London.

Balderton has 10 current investments across DACH including Contentful, Infarm, SOPHiA Genetics, McMakler, Demodesk, and vivenu.

Ahluwalia commented: “Over the past few years, I have seen the DACH start-up ecosystem evolve rapidly. We at Balderton believe the next European giant will be a technology company and know that the DACH ecosystem plays a significant role in helping form category-leading technology companies. As a former founder myself, I have first-hand experience with the unique challenges of running young businesses. I am excited to contribute and support founders on their own journey as part of Balderton Capital.”

Speaking to me over an interview Hanna said: “Shikha’s hiring deepens our commitment to the local Berlin ecosystem and to the DACH region more broadly. We have been actively supporting Founders in Germany for more than a decade.”

After spending his childhood in Jakarta and Hong Kong, and picking up a degree in Political Economy, Hanna has carved out a career in venture investing – at Balderton since July 4, 2016 – looking at it through the prism on the rise of urban living, grassroots-driven technologies like open source and crypto, and the political ramifications of technology.

He sits on the Board of companies like e-bikes startup VanMoof, Finoa (a crypto custodian), Rahko (quantum computing drug discovery, and helped lead on investments into Traefik and Luno and Vivenu).

One these you might pick up from all those is that they err towards the ‘purpose-driven’ side of the equation.

He told me: “I believe the next generation of Founders, particularly in Europe, care more about just their bank accounts and want to build companies that generate impact and are not afraid to take a view on how they want the world to change. Measuring this is a challenge and something we are trying to do with our SFGs at Balderton which I helped spearhead. I believe that when companies like Coinbase and others go “apolitical” they commit themselves to defending the structural status quo rather than becoming agents of deliberate change.”

“My point about purpose driven companies is that when I think when employees want to work with companies believe in their values and you try to tell them those aren’t important, that could be viewed as political. I don’t think we should be we should be muffling the employees.”

Does he think Coinbase, and also recent more recently Basecamp / 37 Signals were wrong to so-called ‘depoliticize’ their businesses?

“I think, I think every CEO is free to run their company how they see fit. But I think that that poses challenges for them on the talent side. I understand, as an American, how charged and how destructive the political climate became, and so I can really understand and empathize why certain choices were made at that time, because you get to a point where that where the conversation becomes toxic… I hope that the steps that they’ve taken, don’t strangle dialogue and conversation that’s constructive about how we want to make an impact and change the world, either as individuals or with the companies we work for,” he said.

Hanna also told me that he think VCs should be wary that the shift to remote will make it easier to invest more widely. “You have to more background checks on founders now, and things like that. But is it a ‘little bit’ more dangerous or is it ‘50% more dangerous’ the fact that people aren’t meeting up in person?”

Commission-free trading app Stake secures $30M from Tiger Global to expand into Europe

By Mike Butcher

Commission-free trading app Stake, which is available in UK, Brazil and New Zealand, has raised $30 million from Tiger Global and partners of London-based DST Global to expand into Europe.

Matt Leibowitz, Founder and CEO, Stake said: “We’re really excited to get to this point but it’s just the start. We set out to change the game for retail investors and were self-funded for the first four years of our journey. We’ve proven the model and now have the chance to expand our product and bring our zero-brokerage service to more retail investors.”

Since launching in the UK in early 2020, Stake claims to have grown its total customer base more than six times over, with 25% month-on-month customer growth on average and hitting over 330,000 customers globally.

It was the first to offer commission-free access to the US market in Australia, offering retail investors access to over 4,400 US stocks & ETFs without a brokerage fee.

In the UK it competes with eToro, Libertex, Fineco, Plus500 and IG, among others.

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