A long-running investigation in the European Union focused on the transparency of data-sharing between Facebook and WhatsApp has taken the first major step towards a resolution. Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) confirmed Saturday it sent a draft decision to fellow EU DPAs towards the back end of last year.
This will trigger a review process of the draft by other DPAs. Majority backing for Facebook’s lead EU data supervisor’s proposed settlement is required under the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) before a decision can be finalized.
The DPC’s draft WhatsApp decision, which it told us was sent to the other supervisors for review on December 24, is only the second such draft the Irish watchdog has issued to-date in cross-border GDPR cases.
The first case to go through the process was an investigation into a Twitter security breach — which led to the company being issued with a $550,000 fine last month.
The WhatsApp case may look very timely, given the recent backlash over an update to its T&Cs, but it actually dates back to 2018, the year GDPR begun being applied — and relates to WhatsApp Ireland’s compliance with Articles 12-14 of the GDPR (which set out how information must be provided to data subjects whose information is being processed in order that they are able to exercise their rights).
In a statement, the DPC said:
“As you are aware, the DPC has been conducting an investigation into WhatsApp Ireland’s compliance with Articles 12-14 of the GDPR in terms of transparency, including in relation to transparency around what information is shared with Facebook, since 2018. The DPC has provisionally concluded this investigation and we sent a draft decision to our fellow EU Data Protection Authorities on December 24, 2020 (in accordance with Article 60 of the GDPR in order to commence the co-decision-making process) and we are waiting to receive their comments on this draft decision.
“When the process is completed and a final decision issues, it will make clear the standard of transparency to which WhatsApp is expected to adhere as articulated by EU Data Protection Authorities,” it added.
Ireland has additional ongoing GDPR investigations into other aspects of the tech giant’s business, including related to complaints filed back in May 2018 by the EU privacy rights not-for-profit, noyb (over so called ‘forced consent’). In May 2020 the DPC said that separate investigation was at the decision-making phase — but so far it has not confirmed sending a draft decision for review.
It’s also notably that the time between the DPC’s Twitter draft and the final decision being issued — after gaining majority backing from other EU DPAs — was almost seven months.
The Twitter case was relatively straightforward (a data breach) vs the more complex business of assessing ‘transparency’. So a final decision on WhatsApp seems unlikely to come to a swifter resolution. There are clearly substantial differences of opinion between DPAs on how the GDPR should be enforced across the bloc. (In the Twitter case, for example, German DPAs suggested a fine of up to $22M vs Ireland’s initial proposal of a maximum of $300k). Although there is some hope that GDPR enforcement of cross border cases will speed up as DPAs gain experience of the various processes involved in making these co-decisions.
Returning to WhatsApp, the messaging platform has had plenty of problems with transparency in recent weeks — garnering lots of unwelcome attention and concern over the privacy implications of a confusing mandatory update to its T&Cs which has contributed to a major migration of users to alternative chat platforms, such as Signal and Telegram.
The backlash led WhatsApp to announced last week that it was delaying enforcement of the new terms by three months. Last week Italy’s data protection agency also issued a warning over a lack of clarity in the T&Cs — saying it could intervene using an emergency process allowed for by EU law (which would be in addition to the ongoing DPC procedure).
On the WhatsApp T&Cs controversy, the DPC’s deputy commissioner Graham Doyle told us the regulator had received “numerous queries” from confused and concerned stakeholders which he said led it to re-engage with the company. The regulator previously obtained a commitment from WhatsApp that there is “no change to data-sharing practices either in the European Region or the rest of the world”. But it subsequently confirmed it would delay enforcement of the new terms.
“The updates made by WhatsApp last week are about providing clearer, more detailed information to users on how and why they use data. WhatsApp have confirmed to us that there is no change to data-sharing practices either in the European Region or the rest of the world arising from these updates. However, the DPC has received numerous queries from stakeholders who are confused and concerned about these updates,” Doyle said.
“We engaged with WhatsApp on the matter and they confirmed to us that they will delay the date by which people will be asked to review and accept the terms from February 8th to May 15th. In the meantime, WhatsApp will launch information campaigns to provide further clarity about how privacy and security works on the platform. We will continue to engage with WhatsApp on these updates.”
While there’s no doubt Europe’s record of enforcement of its much vaunted data protection laws against tech giants remains a major weak point of the regulation, there are signs that increased user awareness of rights and, more broadly, concern for privacy, is causing a shift in the balance of power in favor of users.
Proper privacy enforcement is still sorely lacking but Facebook being forced to put a T&Cs update on ice for three months — as its business is subject to ongoing regulatory scrutiny — suggests the days of platform giants being able to move fast and break things are firmly on the wain.
Similarly, for example, Facebook recently had to delay the launch of a dating feature in Europe while it consulted with the DPC. It also remains limited in the data it can share between WhatsApp and Facebook because of the existence of the GDPR — so still can’t share data for ad targeting and product enhancement purposes, even under the new terms.
Europe, meanwhile, is coming with ex ante rules for platform giants that will place further obligations on how they can operate with the aim of counteracting abusive behaviors and bolstering competition in digital markets.
As fears over WhatsApp’s privacy policies send millions of users in the West to Signal and Telegram, the two encrypted apps are also seeing a slight user uptick in China, where WeChat has long dominated and the government has a tight grip on online communication.
Following WhatsApp’s pop-up notification reminding users that it shares their data with its parent Facebook, people began fleeing to alternate encrypted platforms. Telegram added 25 million just between January 10-13, the company said on its official Telegram channel, while Signal surged to the top of the App Store and Google Play Store in dozens of countries, TechCrunch learned earlier.
The migration was accelerated when, on January 7, Elon Musk urged his 40 million Twitter followers to install Signal in a tweet that likely stoked more interest in the end-to-end encryption messenger.
The growth of Telegram and Signal in China isn’t nearly as remarkable as their soaring popularity in regions where WhatsApp has been the mainstream chat app, but the uplift is a reminder that WeChat alternatives still exist in China in various capacities.
Signal amassed 9,000 new downloads from the China App Store between January 8 and 12, up 500% from the period between January 3 and 7, according to data from research firm Sensor Tower. Telegram added 17,000 downloads during January 8-12, up 6% from the January 3-7 duration. WhatsApp’s growth stalled, recording 10,000 downloads in both periods.
Sensor Tower estimates that Telegram has seen about 2.7 million total installs on China’s App Store, compared to 458,000 downloads from Signal and 9.5 million times from WhatsApp.
The fact that Telegram, Signal, and WhatsApp are accessible in China might come as a surprise to some people. But China’s censorship decisions can be arbitrary and inconsistent. As censorship monitoring site Apple Censorship shows, all major Western messengers are still available on the China App Store.
The situation for Android is trickier. Google services are largely blocked in China and Android users revert to Android app stores operated by local companies like Tencent and Baidu. Neither Telegram nor Signal is available on these third-party Android stores, but users with a tool that can bypass China’s Great Firewall, such as a virtual private network (VPN), can access Google Play and install the encrypted messengers.
The next challenge is actually using these apps. The major chat apps all get slightly different treatment from Beijing’s censorship apparatus. Some, like Signal, work perfectly without the need for a VPN. Users have reported that WhatsApp occasionally works in China without a VPN, though it loads very slowly. And Facebook doesn’t work at all without a VPN.
“Some websites and apps can remain untouched until they reach a certain threshold of users at which point the authorities will try to block or disrupt the website or app,” said Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous head of Great Fire, an organization monitoring the Chinese internet that also runs Apple Censorship.
“Perhaps before this mass migration from WhatsApp, Signal did not have that many users in China. That might have changed over the last week in which case the authorities could be pondering restrictions for Signal,” Smith added.
To legally operate in China, companies must store their data within China and submit information to the authorities for security spot-checks, according to a cybersecurity law enacted in 2017. Apple, for instance, partners with a local cloud provider to store the data of its Chinese users.
The requirement raises questions about the type of interaction that Signal, Telegram, and other foreign apps have with the Chinese authorities. Signal said it never turned over data to the Hong Kong police and had no data to turn over when concerns grew over Beijing’s heightened controls over the former British colony.
The biggest challenges for apps like Signal in China, according to Smith, will come from Apple, which is constantly under fire by investors and activists for submitting to the Chinese authorities.
In recent years, the American giant has stepped up app crackdown in China, zeroing in on services that grant Chinese users access to unfiltered information, such as VPN providers, RSS feed readers and podcast apps. Apple has also purged tens of thousands of unlicensed games in recent quarters after a years-long delay.
“Apple has a history of pre-emptively censoring apps that they believe the authorities would want censored,” Smith observed. “If Apple decides to remove Signal in China, either on its own initiative or in direct response to a request from the authorities, then Apple customers in China will be left with no secure messaging options.”
As the U.S. heads into one of the most perilous phases of American democracy since the Civil War, social media companies are scrambling to shore up their patchwork defenses for a moment they appear to have believed would never come.
Most major platforms pulled the emergency break last week, deplatforming the president of the United States and enforcing suddenly robust rules against conspiracies, violent threats and undercurrents of armed insurrection, all of which proliferated on those services for years. But within a week’s time, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google had all made historic decisions in the name of national stability — and appearances. Snapchat, TikTok, Reddit and even Pinterest took their own actions to prevent a terror plot from being hatched on their platforms.
Now, we’re in the waiting phase. More than a week after a deadly pro-Trump riot invaded the iconic seat of the U.S. legislature, the internet still feels like it’s holding its breath, a now heavily-fortified inauguration ceremony looming ahead.
(Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
On the largest social network of all, images hyping follow-up events continued to circulate mid this week. One digital Facebook flyer promoted an “armed march on Capitol Hill and all state Capitols,” pushing the dangerous and false conspiracy that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
Facebook says that it’s working to identify flyers calling for “Stop the Steal” adjacent events using digital fingerprinting, the same process it uses to remove terrorist content from ISIS and Al Qaeda. The company noted that it has seen flyers calling for events on January 17 across the country, January 18 in Virginia and inauguration day in D.C.
At least some of Facebook’s new efforts are working: one popular flyer TechCrunch observed on the platform was removed from some users’ feeds this week. A number of “Stop the Steal” groups we’d observed over the last month also unceremoniously blinked offline early this week following more forceful action from the company. Still, given the writing on the wall, many groups had plenty of time to tweak their names by a few words or point followers elsewhere to organize.
With only days until the presidential transition, acronym-heavy screeds promoting QAnon, an increasingly mainstream collection of outrageous pro-Trump government conspiracy theories, also remain easy to find. On one page with 2,500 followers, a QAnon believer pushed the debunked claim that anti-fascists executed the attack on the Capitol, claiming “January 6 was a trap.”
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
On a different QAnon group, an ominous post from an admin issued Congress a warning: “We have found a way to end this travesty! YOUR DAYS ARE NUMBERED!” The elaborate conspiracy’s followers were well represented at the deadly riot at the Capitol, as the many giant “Q” signs and esoteric t-shirt slogans made clear.
In a statement to TechCrunch about the state of extremism on the platform, Facebook says it is coordinating with terrorism experts as well as law enforcement “to prevent direct threats to public safety.” The company also noted that it works with partners to stay aware of violent content taking root on other platforms.
Facebook’s efforts are and late and uneven, but they’re also more than the company has done to date. Measures from big social networks coupled with the absence of far-right social networks like Parler and Gab have left Trump’s most ardent supporters once again swearing off Silicon Valley and fanning out for an alternative.
Private messaging apps Telegram and Signal are both seeing an influx of users this week, but they offer something quite different from a Facebook or Twitter-like experience. Some expert social network observers see the recent migration as seasonal rather than permanent.
“The spike in usage of messaging platforms like Telegram and Signal will be temporary,” Yonder CEO Jonathon Morgan told TechCrunch. “Most users will either settle on platforms with a social experience, like Gab, MeWe, or Parler, if it returns, or will migrate back to Twitter and Facebook.”
That company uses AI to track how social groups connect online and what they talk about — violent conspiracies included. Morgan believes that propaganda-spreading “performative internet warriors” make a lot of noise online, but a performance doesn’t work without an audience. Others may quietly pose a more serious threat.
“The different types of engagement we saw during the assault on the Capitol mirror how these groups have fragmented online,” Morgan said. “We saw a large mob who was there to cheer on the extremists but didn’t enter the Capitol, performative internet warriors taking selfies, and paramilitaries carrying flex cuffs (mislabeled as “zip ties” in a lot of social conversation), presumably ready to take hostages.
“Most users (the mob) will be back on Parler if it returns, and in the meantime, they are moving to other apps that mimic the social experience of Twitter and Facebook, like MeWe.”
Still, Morgan says that research shows “deplatforming” extremists and conspiracy-spreaders is an effective strategy and efforts by “tech companies from Airbnb to AWS” will reduce the chances of violence in the coming days.
Cleaning up platforms can help turn the masses away from dangerous views, he explained, but the same efforts might further galvanize people with an existing intense commitment to those beliefs. With the winds shifting, already heterogeneous groups will be scattered too, making their efforts desperate and less predictable.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told TechCrunch that social media companies still need to do much more to prepare for inauguration week. “We saw platforms fall short in their response to the Capitol insurrection,” Greenblatt said.
He cautioned that while many changes are necessary, we should be ready for online extremism to evolve into a more fractured ecosystem. Echo chambers may become smaller and louder, even as the threat of “large scale” coordinated action diminishes.
“The fracturing has also likely pushed people to start communicating with each other via encrypted apps and other private means, strengthening the connections between those in the chat and providing a space where people feel safe openly expressing violent thoughts, organizing future events, and potentially plotting future violence,” Greenblatt said.
By their own standards, social media companies have taken extraordinary measures in the U.S. in the last two weeks. But social networks have a long history of facilitating violence abroad, even as attention turns to political violence in America.
Greenblatt repeated calls for companies to hire more human moderators, a suggestion often made by experts focused on extremism. He believes social media could still take other precautions for inauguration week, like introducing a delay into livestreams or disabling them altogether, bolstering rapid response teams and suspending more accounts temporarily rather than focusing on content takedowns and handing out “strikes.”
“Platforms have provided little-to-nothing in the way of transparency about learnings from last week’s violent attack in the Capitol,” Greenblatt said.
“We know the bare minimum of what they ought to be doing and what they are capable of doing. If these platforms actually provided transparency and insights, we could offer additional—and potentially significantly stronger—suggestions.”
As a precaution against coordinated violence as the U.S. approaches President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, Facebook announced a few new measures it’s putting in place.
In a blog post and tweets from Facebook Policy Communications Director Andy Stone, the company explained that it would block any events slated to happen near the White House, the U.S. Capitol or any state capitol building through Wednesday.
Update: Through Inauguration Day, we're blocking the creation of new Facebook events happening in close proximity to DC and state capitols. And we're doing a secondary review of inauguration-related events and removing policy-violating ones. https://t.co/AV6z0gSTiu
— Andy Stone (@andymstone) January 15, 2021
The company says it will also do “secondary” sweeps through any inauguration-related events to look for violations of its policies. At this point, that includes any content connected to the “Stop the Steal” movement perpetuating the rampant lie that Biden’s victory is illegitimate. Those groups continued to thrive on Facebook until measures the company took at the beginning of this week.
Facebook will apparently also be putting new restrictions in place for U.S. users who repeatedly break the company’s rules, including barring those accounts from livestreaming videos, events and group pages.
Those precautions fall short of what some of Facebook’s critics have called for, but they’re still notable measures for a company that only began taking dangerous conspiracies and armed groups seriously in the last year.
WhatsApp delays enforcement of a controversial privacy change, Apple may get rid of the Touch Bar in future MacBooks and Bumble files to go public. This is your Daily Crunch for January 15, 2021.
The big story: WhatsApp responds to privacy backlash
Earlier this month, WhatsApp sent users a notification asking them to consent to sharing some of their personal data — such as phone number and location — with Facebook (which owns WhatsApp). The alert also said users would have to agree to the terms by February 8 if they wanted to continue using the app.
“No one will have their account suspended or deleted on February 8. We’re also going to do a lot more to clear up the misinformation around how privacy and security works on WhatsApp,” the company said in a post. “We’ll then go to people gradually to review the policy at their own pace before new business options are available on May 15.”
The tech giants
Uber planning to spin out Postmates’ delivery robot arm — Postmates X is seeking investors in its bid to become a separate company.
Apple said to be planning new 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros with MagSafe and Apple processors — This could be the end for the Touch Bar.
Amazon’s newest product lets companies build their own Alexa assistant for cars, apps and video games — Yes, that means your next car could have two Alexas.
Startups, funding and venture capital
Bumble files to go public — The company plans to list on the Nasdaq stock exchange, using the ticker symbol “BMBL.”
Tracy Chou launches Block Party to combat online harassment and abuse — Currently available for Twitter, Block Party helps people filter out the content they don’t want to see.
Everlywell raises $75M from HealthQuest Capital following its recent $175M Series D round — Everlywell develops at-home testing kits for a range of health concerns, and it added a COVID-19 home collection test kit last year.
Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch
Fifteen steps to fundraising a new VC or private equity fund — Launching is easy; fundraising is harder.
Lessons from Top Hat’s acquisition spree — The acquisition of Fountainhead Press marks Top Hat’s third purchase of a publishing company in the past 12 months.
Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson says wisdom lies with your developers — Takeaways from Lawson’s new book “Ask Your Developer.”
(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)
Video game spending increased 27% in 2020 — According to the latest figures from NPD, spending on gaming hardware, software and accessories was up 25% in December and 27% for the full year.
DOT evaluated 11 GPS replacements and found only one that worked across use cases — The government wants to create additional redundancy and resiliency in the sector.
The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.
Confusion over an update to Facebook-owned chat platform WhatsApp’s terms and conditions has triggered an intervention by Italy’s data protection agency.
The Italian GPDP said today it has contacted the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) to raise concerns about a lack of clear information over what’s changing under the incoming T&Cs.
In recent weeks WhatsApp has been alerting users they must accept new T&Cs in order to keep using the service after February 8.
A similar alert over updated terms has also triggered concerns in India — where a petition was filed today in the Delhi High Court alleging the new terms are a violation of users’ fundamental rights to privacy and pose a threat to national security.
In a notification on its website the Italian agency writes that it believes it is not possible for WhatsApp users to understand the changes that are being introduced under the new terms, nor to “clearly understand which data processing will actually be carried out by the messaging service after February 8”.
Screengrab of the T&Cs alert being shown to WhatsApp users in Europe (Image credit: TechCrunch)
For consent to be a valid legal basis for processing personal data under EU law the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requires that users are properly informed of each specific use and given a free choice over whether their data is processed for each purpose.
The Italian agency adds that it reserves the right to intervene “as a matter of urgency” in order to protect users and enforce EU laws on the protection of personal data.
We’ve reached out to the EDPB with questions about the GPDP’s intervention. The steering body’s role is typically to act as a liaison between EU DPAs. But it also issues guidance on the interpretation of EU law and can step in to cast the deciding vote in cases where there is disagreement on cross-border EU investigations.
Earlier this week Turkish antitrust authorities also announced they are investigating WhatsApp’s updated T&Cs — objecting to what they claimed are differences in how much data will be shared with Facebook under the new terms in Europe and outside.
While, on Monday, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission — which is WhatsApp’s lead data regulator in the EU — told us the messaging app has given it a commitment EU users are not affected by any broader change to data-sharing practices. So Facebook’s lead regulator in the EU has not raised any objections to the new WhatsApp T&Cs.
WhatsApp itself has also claimed there are no changes at all to its data sharing practices anywhere in the world under this update.
Clearly there’s been a communications failure somewhere along the chain — which makes the Italian objection to a lack of clarity in the wording of the new T&Cs seem reasonable.
Reached for comment on the GDPD’s intervention, a WhatsApp spokesperson told us:
How exactly the Italian agency could intervene over the WhatsApp T&Cs is an interesting question. (And, indeed, we’ve reached out to the GPDP with questions.)
The GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism means cross-border complaints get funnelled through a lead data supervisor where a company has its main regional base (Ireland in WhatsApp’s case). But as noted above, Ireland has — thus far — said it doesn’t have a problem with WhatsApp’s updated T&Cs.
However under the GDPR, other DPAs do have powers to act off their own bat when they believe there is a pressing risk to users’ data.
Such as, in 2019, when the Hamburg DPA ordered Google to stop manual reviews of snippets of Google Assistant users’ audio (which it had been reviewing as part of a grading program).
In that case Hamburg informed Google of its intention to use the GDPR’s Article 66 powers — which allows a national agency to order data processing to stop if it believes there is “an urgent need to act in order to protect the rights and freedoms of data subjects” — which immediately led to Google suspending human reviews across Europe.
The tech giant later amended how the program operates. The Hamburg DPA didn’t even need to use Article 66 — just the mere threat of the order to stop processing was enough.
Some 1.5 years later and there are signs many EU data protection agencies — outside a couple of key jurisdictions which oversee the lions’ share of big tech — are becoming frustrated by perceived regulatory inaction against big tech.
So there may be an increased willingness among these agencies to resort to creative procedures of their own to protect citizens’ data. (And it’s certainly interesting to note that France’s CNIL recently slapped Amazon and Google with big fines over cookie consents — acting under the ePrivacy Directive, which does not include a GDPR-style one-stop-shop mechanism.)
In related news this week, an opinion by an advisor to the EU’s top court also appears to be responding to concern at GDPR enforcement bottlenecks.
In the opinion Advocate General Bobek takes the view that the law allows national DPAs to bring their own proceedings in certain situations — including in order to adopt “urgent measures” or to intervene “following the lead data protection authority having decided not to handle a case”.
The CJEU ruling on that case is still pending but the court tends to align with the position of its advisors so it seems likely we’ll see data protection enforcement activity increasing across the board from EU DPAs in the coming years, rather than being stuck waiting for a few DPAs to issue all the major decisions.
WhatsApp is facing a legal challenge in India, its biggest market, after a petition was filed Thursday before Delhi High Court over the upcoming change in the Facebook-owned app’s data sharing policy.
The petition alleges the new terms that WhatsApp requires its roughly 450 million users in the country to accept is a violation of their fundamental rights to privacy and poses a threat to national security.
Through an in-app alert, WhatsApp has asked users in recent days to agree to new terms of conditions that grants the app the consent to share some personal data about them such as their phone number and location with Facebook.
Users will have to agree to these terms by February 8 if they wish to continue using the app, the alert said. The change has been mischaracterized by many as their personal communication being compromised, which WhatsApp clarified this week was not the case.
The Facebook-owned service, which serves over 2 billion users worldwide, said private conversations between people remain just as private as before. Facebook has also bought front-page newspaper ads in several leading Indian dailies this week to explain the change, which it first outlined last year.
The petitioner said the new terms grant WhatsApp a “360-degree profile into a person’s online activity” without any “government oversight.”
“WhatsApp has made a mockery out of our fundamental right to privacy while discharging a public function in India, besides jeopardizing the National Security of the country by sharing, transmitting and storing the users data in some [other] country and that data, in turn, will be governed by the laws of that foreign country,” the petition, which is expected to be heard Friday, reads.
Several high-profile startup founders and executives in India have also criticized WhatsApp’s new data sharing policy. Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and chief executive of India’s most valuable startup Paytm, accused WhatsApp of operating with double standards, pointing to how the new change was not affecting the app’s users in Europe.
How long we will be taken for granted by such blatant double standards ?
Self claimed ad claiming respect of our privacy v/s actual policy.
For India For Europe pic.twitter.com/bT45XwvsO1
— Vijay Shekhar Sharma (@vijayshekhar) January 13, 2021
The outrage over the new change has resulted in tens of millions of users exploring other communication apps such as Signal and Telegram in recent days. In an interview with TechCrunch earlier this week, Signal co-founder and chairman executive Brian Acton said “the smallest of events helped trigger the largest of outcomes. We’re also excited that we are having conversations about online privacy and digital safety and people are turning to Signal as the answer to those questions.”
Privacy concerns that have been driving app users to alternative chat apps like Signal and Telegram in recent weeks, since Facebook-owned WhatsApp announced a T&Cs change, appear to also be generating some uplift for end-to-end encrypted email providers.
Protonmail founder Andy Yen told TechCrunch it’s seen a 3x rise in sign ups for its end-to-end encrypted webmail service “in recent weeks”. While Germany’s Tutanota said usage has doubled since privacy concerns about WhatsApp’s new T&Cs sharing data with Facebook started circulating online.
“We are thrilled to see so many new users coming in. We already said in 2017 that the privacy-era has started, and we have been proven right ever since. People around the world are increasingly understanding that privacy matters and are no longer okay with fuelling the surveillance capitalism and the exploitation of their data by big tech such as Facebook. That’s why alternatives like Signal and Tutanota are constantly growing,” said Tutanota co-founder Matthias Pfau in a statement.
The fully e2e encrypted chat app Signal hasn’t disclosed how many new users it’s racked up in recent weeks but WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton — who joined forces with Signal after he left Facebook in 2018 — told us earlier this week that usage has “exploded”.
Anecdotal reports of newbies to the app — whose tagline is “say ‘hello’ to privacy” — abound.
In my case, among the UK contacts joining what had previously been a tight clique of privacy nerds, I can report a couple of ex London neighbours, an old university acquaintance, an antique Tinder date and two former colleagues — while my India-based TC colleague, Manish Singh, showed me three full screenshots of sign-ups his Signal app had alerted him to in just “the last few days”.
Telegram, another long-standing WhatsApp chat app alternative, has also reported a huge influx of new users in recent weeks.
The platform offers end-to-end encryption as an option for one-to-one chats (via its ‘Secret Chats’ feature), although unlike Signal e2e encryption is not the default rule. Nonetheless its founder, Pavel Durov, has been a very vocal critic of how Facebook treats users and their data. And that reputation baiting looks to be paying off.
“I hear Facebook has an entire department devoted to figuring out why Telegram is so popular,” Durov wrote in his Telegram Channel on January 8, seeking to capitalize on concerns about the looming WhatsApp’s T&Cs change. “Imagine dozens of employees working on just that full-time.
“I am happy to save Facebook tens of millions of dollars and give away our secret for free: respect your users,” he added.
A few days later Durov posted again to report Telegram’s user-base had surpassed 500M monthly actives in the first week of this year — adding 25M new users “in the last 72 hours alone”.
“These new users came from across the globe — 38% from Asia, 27% from Europe, 21% from Latin America and 8% from MENA,” he went on, implying around 6% of the new sign-ups came from North America (where there have also been reports of Trump supporters turning to Telegram as an alternative channel to organize protests as mainstream social networks have closed down accounts and pages linked to threats of violence and insurrection).
“This is a significant increase compared to last year, when 1.5M new users signed up every day,” he also said, adding: “We’ve had surges of downloads before, throughout our 7-year history of protecting user privacy. But this time is different. People no longer want to exchange their privacy for free services. They no longer want to be held hostage by tech monopolies that seem to think they can get away with anything as long as their apps have a critical mass of users.”
Durov has posted another update today — saying sign ups have “only accelerated” (and welcoming a couple more heads of state to the platform).
The privacy-flavored mass migration of users to WhatsApp alternatives has pushed the Facebook-owned company to attempt a public firefight over what it couches as “rumours” about the looming T&Cs changes.
We want to address some rumors and be 100% clear we continue to protect your private messages with end-to-end encryption. pic.twitter.com/6qDnzQ98MP
— WhatsApp (@WhatsApp) January 12, 2021
A Facebook spokesperson told us there are no changes to WhatsApp’s data sharing practices anywhere in the world with this update — which they said is about providing clearer, more detailed information to users on how and why the company uses their data, and also provides information about how businesses can use WhatsApp to connect with their customers.
But Facebook’s problem is it’s spent 15+ years torching user trust around privacy. And all those broken promises are coming home to roost as users fly elsewhere — searching for a platform whose business model isn’t predicated on exploiting their attention.
Whatever the specific detail of the latest WhatsApp T&Cs change, there’s no escaping the ugly truth that Facebook is an adtech giant. And it did already screwed over WhatsApp users’ privacy — when it U-turned on data-sharing with Facebook just a few short years after it shelled out $19BN to line up all those extra eyeballs for its surveillance business.
That’s why e2e encryption in the hands of Mark Zuckerberg’s advertising empire simply can’t protect users’ privacy in the same way that a not-for-profit app like Signal can. And all those ‘personalized’ Facebook features — be they stickers, filters, lens or whatever — are just a distraction from the underlying truth that Facebook makes money by removing users privacy through an interconnected mesh of apps and tools that are dedicated to tracking and linking digital activity to eyeballs.
The techie obscurity that cloaked Facebook’s surveillance for years is steadily being unpicked — and it’s clear that plenty of people don’t at all like what they see.
Data linked to you.. Signal, IMessage, Whatsapp, Facebook messenger pic.twitter.com/hWcy6Oo9wn
— Carlos Cota (@TylerDurdenMx) January 8, 2021
Quite a bit has happened since Snapchat announced last week that it was indefinitely locking President Trump’s Snapchat account. After temporary bans from his Facebook, Instagram and YouTube accounts as well as a permanent ban from Twitter, Snap has decided that it will also be making its ban of the President’s Snapchat account permanent.
Thought Trump’s social media preferences as a user are clear, Snapchat gave the Trump campaign a particularly effective platform to target young users who are active on the service. A permanent ban will undoubtedly complicate his future business and political ambitions as he finds himself removed from most mainstream social platforms.
Snap says it made the decision in light of repeated attempted violations of the company’s community guidelines that had been made over the past several months by the President’s account.
“Last week we announced an indefinite suspension of President Trump’s Snapchat account, and have been assessing what long term action is in the best interest of our Snapchat community. In the interest of public safety, and based on his attempts to spread misinformation, hate speech, and incite violence, which are clear violations of our guidelines, we have made the decision to permanently terminate his account,” a Snap spokesperson told TechCrunch.
Snap’s decision to permanently ban the President was first reported by Axios.
Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) has agreed to swiftly finalize a long-standing complaint against Facebook’s international data transfers which could force the tech giant to suspend data flows from the European Union to the US within in a matter of months.
The complaint, which was filed in 2013 by privacy campaigner Max Schrems, relates to the clash between EU privacy rights and US government intelligent agencies’ access to Facebook users’ data under surveillance programs that were revealed in high resolution detail by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The DPC has made the commitment to a swift resolution of Schrems’ complaint now in order to settle a judicial review of its processes which noyb, his privacy campaign group, filed last year in response to its decision to pause his complaint and opt to open a new case procedure.
Under the terms of the settlement Schrems will also be heard in the DPC’s “own volition” procedure, as well as getting access to all submissions made by Facebook — assuming the Irish courts allow that investigation to go ahead, noyb said today.
And while noyb acknowledged may be further pause, as/if the DPC waits on a High Court judgement of Facebook’s own Judicial Review of its processes before revisiting the original complaint, Schrems suggests his 7.5 year old complaint could be headed for a final decision within a matter of months.
“The courts in Ireland would be reluctant to give a deadline and the DPC played that card and said they can’t provide a timeline… So we got the maximum that’s possible under Irish law. Which is ‘swift’,” he told TechCrunch, describing this as “frustrating but the maximum possible”.
Asked for his estimate of when a final decision will at last close out the complaint, he suggested it could be as soon as this summer — but said that more “realistically” it would be fall.
Schrems has been a vocal critic of how the DPC has handled his complaint — and more widely of the slow pace of enforcement of the bloc’s data protection rules vs fast-moving tech giants — with Ireland’s regulator choosing to raise wider concerns about the legality of mechanisms for transferring data from the EU to the US, rather than ordering Facebook to suspend data flows as Schrems had asked in the complaint.
The saga has already had major ramifications, leading to a landmark ruling by Europe’s top court last summer when the CJEU struck down a flagship EU-US data transfer arrangement after it found the US does not provide the same high standards of protection for personal data as the EU does.
The CJEU also made it clear that EU data protection regulators have a duty to step in and suspend transfers to third countries when data is at risk — putting the ball squarely back in Ireland’s court.
Reached for comment on the latest development the DPC told us it would have a response later today. So we’ll update this report when we have it.
The DPC, which is Facebook’s lead data regulator in the EU under the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), already sent the tech giant a preliminary order to suspend data transfers back in September — following the landmark ruling by the CJEU.
However Facebook immediately filed a legal challenge — couching the DPC’s order as premature, despite the complaint itself being more than seven years old.
noyb said today that it’s expecting Facebook to continue to try to use the Irish courts to delay enforcement of EU law. And the tech giant admitted last year that it’s using the courts to ‘send a signal’ to lawmakers to come up with a political resolution for an issue that affects scores of businesses which also transfer data between the EU and the US, as well as to buy time for a new US administration to be in a position to grapple with the issue.
But the clock is now ticking on how much longer Zuckerberg can play this game of regulatory whack-a-mole. And a final reckoning for Facebook’s EU data flows could come within half a year.
This sets a fairly tight deadline for any negotiations between EU and US lawmakers over a replacement for the defunct Privacy Shield.
European commissioners said last fall that no replacement will be possible without reform of US surveillance law. And whether such radical retooling of US law could come as soon as the summer or even fall seems doubtful — unless there’s a major effort among US tech companies to lobby their own lawmakers to make the necessary changes.
In court documents it filed last year linked to its challenge of the DPC’s preliminary order, Facebook suggested it might have to close service in Europe if EU law is enforced against its data transfers.
However its PR chief, Nick Clegg, swiftly denied it would ever pull service — instead urging EU lawmakers to look favorably on its data-dependent business model by claiming that “personalized advertising” is vital to the EU’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery.
The consensus among the bloc’s digital lawmakers, however, is that tech giants need more regulation, not less.
Separately today, an opinion by an influential advisor to the CJEU could have implications for how swiftly GDPR is enforced in Europe in the future if the court aligns with Advocate General Bobek’s opinion — as he appears to be taking aim at bottlenecks that have formed in key jurisdictions like Ireland as a result of the GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism.
So while Bobek confirms the general competence of a lead regulator to investigate in cross-border cases, he also writes that “the lead data protection authority cannot be deemed as the sole enforcer of the GDPR in cross-border situations and must, in compliance with the relevant rules and time limits provided for by the GDPR, closely cooperate with the other data protection authorities concerned, the input of which is crucial in this area”.
He also sets out specific conditions where national DPAs could bring their own proceedings, in his view, including for the purpose of adopting “urgent measures” or to intervene “following the lead data protection authority having decided not to handle a case”.
Responding to the AG’s opinion, the DPC’s deputy commissioner, Graham Doyle, told us: “We, along with our colleague EU DPAs, note the opinion of the Advocate General and await the final judgment of the Court in terms of its interpretation of any relevant One Stop Shop rules.”
Asked for a view on the AG’s remarks, Jef Ausloos, a postdoc researcher in data privacy at the University of Amsterdam, said the opinion conveys “a clear recognition that ACTUAL protection and enforcement might be crippled by the [one-stop-shop] mechanism”.
However he suggested any new openings for DPAs to bypass a lead regulator which could flow from the opinion aren’t likely to shake things up in the short term. “I think the door is open for some changes/bypassing DPC. BUT, only in the long run,” he said.
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.
Facebook today is rolling out an update to its Access Your Information tool with the goal of making the tool easier to both use and navigate, as well as better explain how and why that data is used. The new version of the tool has been visually redesigned, and now further breaks down the viewable information across eight different categories instead of just two.
The tool had first launched in 2018 in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users had been hijacked. Following that event, Facebook made a number of changes to how its platform apps worked and rolled out new features to make it easier for users to find and utilize Facebook’s privacy settings.
One of the new additions was this Access Your Information tool, which offers users a secure way to manage their Facebook posts, reactions, comments and other things they’ve searched for. The idea is that you could use the tool to pull up your information, then “delete anything from your timeline or profile that you no longer want on Facebook.”
Before, this tool offered just two broad categories of data: Your Information and Information About You. The updated version, on the other hand, has broken this out to eight categories:
Within each of these eight categories, the information is then further broken down into subcategories. This makes it easier to more narrowly drill down to just the sort of data you want to view and, possibly, remove.
Image Credits: Facebook
In addition, the tool is introducing Search functionality with the update. You can find data categories by searching them — like by typing in “location” to pull up information about your location history.
The tool will also now better explain how this data Facebook has can be used to personalize your experience on its platform. For example, you might see your primary location is one of the signals that was used to target you with an ad for a food delivery app. (Facebook already explains this in its Why Am I Seeing This tool for ads, but now it’s in this tool, too.)
Facebook says the changes were developed based on how people had been using the tool — especially in terms of what categories of data they were clicking on.
That said, the timing of the tool’s revamp is notable. There’s a large effort at Apple underway to better highlight to App Store users which apps collect personal data which is then used to track them. Apple is now requiring apps to add App Store privacy labels and will soon require apps to get user consent on tracking.
Facebook, in response to this push, launched a website and ran full-page ads in newspapers to gain support for its personalized advertising business, noting the harms it says will come to small businesses as a result of Apple’s changes.
This revamped tool will help make Facebook’s case to users, as well, by explaining the why the data and the ads could be useful. (After all, isn’t it better to see a food delivery ad for a company that actually serves your local area?, Facebook would want you to think.)
Then there is the not-so-small-matter of people who may be trying to rapidly delete their incriminating Facebook history — like photos and videos of themselves inside the Capitol during last week’s riot, perhaps. Now that the FBI is filing federal charges and dozens more are being charged in Superior Court, people may be rethinking their decision to share their participation in the event so publicly. The tool could help there, too.
Facebook, when asked, said the enhancements are just a usability update, however.
The new tool is available today on iOS and Android, with an expansion to desktop to come.
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.
WhatsApp has enjoyed unrivaled reach in India for years. By mid-2019, the Facebook-owned app had amassed over 400 million users in the country. Its closest app rival at the time was YouTube, which, according to the company’s own statement and data from mobile insight firm App Annie, had about 260 million users in India then.
Things have changed dramatically since.
In the month of December, YouTube had 425 million monthly active users on Android phones and tablets in India, according to App Annie, the data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch. In comparison, WhatsApp had 422 million monthly active users on Android in India last month.
Factoring in the traction both these apps have garnered on iOS devices, WhatsApp still assumes a lead in India with 459 million active users1, but YouTube is not too far behind with 452 million users.
With China keeping its doors closed to U.S. tech giants, India emerged as the top market for Silicon Valley and Chinese companies looking to continue their growth in the last decade. India had about 50 million internet users in 2010, but it ended the decade with more than 600 million. Google and Facebook played their part to make this happen.
In the last four years, both Google and Facebook have invested in ways to bring the internet to people who are offline in India, a country of nearly 1.4 billion people. Google kickstarted a project to bring Wi-Fi to 400 railway stations in the country and planned to extend this program to other public places. Facebook launched Free Basics in India, and then — after the program was banned in the country — it launched Express Wi-Fi.
Both Google and Facebook have scaled down on their connectivity efforts in recent years after India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, took it upon himself to bring the country online. After he succeeded, both the companies bought multibillion-dollar stakes in his firm, Jio Platforms, which has amassed over 400 million subscribers.
Jio Platforms’ cut-rate mobile data tariff has allowed hundreds of millions of people in India, where much of the online user base was previously too conscious about how much data they spent on the internet, to consume, worry-free, hours of content on YouTube and other video platforms in recent years.
The new figures shared with TechCrunch illustrate a number of other findings about the Indian market. Even as WhatsApp’s growth has slowed2 in India, it continues to enjoy an unprecedented loyalty among its users.
More than 95% of WhatsApp’s monthly active users in India use the app each day, and nearly its entire user base checks the app at least once a week. In comparison, three-fourths of YouTube’s monthly active users in India are also its daily active users.
The data also showed that Google’s eponymous app as well as Chrome — both of which, like YouTube, ship pre-installed3 on most Android smartphones — has also surpassed over 400 million monthly active users in India in recent months. Facebook’s app, in comparison, had about 325 million monthly active users in India last month.
When asked for comment, a Google spokesperson pointed TechCrunch to a report from Comscore last year, which estimated that YouTube had about 325 million monthly unique users in India in May 2020.
A separate report by research firm Media Partners Asia on Monday estimated that YouTube commanded 43% of the revenue generated in the online video market in India last year (about $1.4 billion). Disney+ Hotstar assumed 16% of the market, while Netflix had 14%.
Facebook has hired Roy Austin to become its first-ever VP of Civil Rights and Deputy General Counsel to create a new civil rights organization within the company, Facebook announced today. Austin is set to start on January 19 and will be based in Washington, DC.
Austin most recently served as a civil rights lawyer at Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP. Prior to that, Austin co-authored a report on big data and civil rights and worked with President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
“I am excited to join Facebook at this moment when there is a national and global awakening happening around civil rights,” Austin said in a statement.
Roy Austin, Facebook’s new VP of Civil Rights
“Technology plays a role in nearly every part of our lives, and it’s important that it be used to overcome the historic discrimination and hate which so many underrepresented groups have faced, rather than to exacerbate it. I could not pass up the opportunity to join a company whose products are used by so many and which impacts the civil rights and liberties of billions of people, in order to help steer a better way forward.”
It’s not clear what the goals or responsibilities of the civil rights organization within Facebook will be, but we’ve reached out to Facebook for more information. In the meantime, here’s what Facebook’s Chief General Counsel Jennifer Newstead said on the company blog.
I am delighted to welcome Roy to Facebook as our VP of Civil Rights. Roy has proved throughout his career that he is a passionate and principled advocate for civil rights — whether it is in the courtroom or the White House. I know he will bring the same wisdom, integrity and dedication to Facebook. It’s hard to imagine anyone better qualified to help us strengthen and advance civil rights on our platform and in our company.
In July, former ACLU director Laura W. Murphy released the results of the multiyear investigation and civil rights audit of Facebook. The report highlights some progress, such as Facebook changing its policy on discriminatory housing and employment ads, expanding its voter suppression policies and having more frequent meetings with civil rights leaders. But the auditors still raised a number of concerns, many of which pertained to the 2020 U.S. election and President Trump.
In light of a pro-Trump mob storming the U.S. Capitol last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg blocked Trump from both Facebook and Instagram at least through the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
It might be easier at this point to ask which tech platforms President Donald Trump can still use.
That means the president’s campaign website and online fundraising arms will no longer have access to the payment processor’s services, cutting off the Trump campaign from receiving donations.
Sources told the Journal that the reason for the company’s decision was the violation of company policies against encouraging violence.
The move comes as the president has remained largely silent through the official channels at his disposal in the wake of last week’s riot at the Capitol building.
While Trump has been silent, technology companies have been busy repudiating the president’s support by cutting off access to a range of services.
The deplatforming of the president has effectively removed Trump from all social media outlets including Snap, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Spotify and TikTok.
The technology companies that power most financial transactions online have also blocked the president. Shopify and PayPal were the first to take action against the extremists among President Trump supporters who participated in the riot.
As we wrote earlier this week, PayPal has been deactivating the accounts of some groups of Trump supporters who were using the money-transfer fintech to coordinate payments to underwrite the rioters’ actions on Capitol Hill.
The company has actually been actively taking steps against far-right activists for a while. After the Charlottesville protests and subsequent rioting in 2017, the company banned a spate of far-right organizations. These bans have so far not extended directly to the president himself from what TechCrunch can glean.
On Thursday, Shopify announced that it was removing the storefronts for both the Trump campaign and Trump’s personal brand. That’s an evolution on policy for the company, which years ago said that it would not moderate its platform, but in recent years has removed some controversial stores, such as some right-wing shops in 2018.
Now, Stripe has joined the actions against the president, cutting off a lucrative source of income for his political operations.
As the Journal reported, the Trump campaign launched a fundraising blitz to raise money for the slew of lawsuits that the president brought against states around the country. The lawsuits were almost all defeated, but the effort did bring in hundreds of millions of dollars for the Republican party.
The internet is not a private place. Ads try to learn as much about you to sell your information to the highest bidder. Emails know when you open them and which links you click. And some of the biggest internet snoops, like Facebook and Amazon, follow you from site to site as you browse the web.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. We’ve tried and tested six browser extensions that will immediately improve your privacy online by blocking most of the invisible ads and trackers.
These extensions won’t block every kind of snooping, but they will vastly reduce your exposure to most of the efforts to track your internet activity. You might not care that advertisers collect your data to learn your tastes and interests to serve you targeted ads. But you might care that these ad giants can see which medical conditions you’re looking up and what private purchases you’re making.
By blocking these hidden trackers from loading, websites can’t collect as much information about you. Plus by dropping the unnecessary bulk, some websites will load faster. The tradeoff is that some websites might not load properly or refuse to let you in if you don’t let them track you. You can toggle the extensions on and off as needed, or you could ask yourself if the website was that good to begin with and could you not just find what you were looking for somewhere else?
We’re pretty much hardwired to look for that little green lock in our browser to tell us a website was loaded over an HTTPS-encrypted connection. That means the websites you open haven’t been hijacked or modified by an attacker before it loaded and that anything you submit to that website can’t be seen by anyone other than the website. HTTPS Everywhere is a browser extension made by the non-profit internet group the Electronic Frontier Foundation that automatically loads websites over HTTPS where it’s offered, and allows you to block the minority of websites that don’t support HTTPS. The extension is supported by most browsers, including Chrome, Firefox, Edge, and Opera.
Another extension developed by the EFF, Privacy Badger is one of the best all-in-one extensions for blocking invisible third-party trackers on websites. This extension looks at all the components of a web page and learns which ones track you from website to website, and then blocks them from loading in the browser. Privacy Badger also learns as you travel the web, so it gets better over time. And it requires no effort or configuration to work, just install it and leave it to it. The extension is available on most major browsers.
Ads are what keeps the internet free, but often at the expense of your personal information. Ads try to learn as much about you — usually by watching your browsing activity and following you across the web — so that they can target you with ads you’re more likely to click on. Ad blockers stop them in their tracks by blocking ads from loading, but also the tracking code that comes with it.
uBlock Origin is a lightweight, simple but effective, and widely trusted ad blocker used by millions of people, but it also has a ton of granularity and customizability for the more advanced user. (Be careful with impersonators: there are plenty of ad blockers that aren’t as trusted that use a similar name.) And if you feel bad about the sites that rely on ads for revenue (including us!), consider a subscription to the site instead. After all, a free web that relies on ad tracking to make money is what got us into this privacy nightmare to begin with.
If you thought hidden trackers in websites were bad, wait until you learn about what’s lurking in your emails. Most emails from brand names come with tiny, often invisible pixels that alerts the sender when you’ve opened them. PixelBlock is a simple extension for Chrome browsers that simply blocks these hidden email open trackers from loading and working. Every time it detects a tracker, it displays a small red eye in your inbox so you know.
Most of these same emails also come with tracking links that alerts the sender which links you click. ClearURLs, available for Chrome, Firefox and Edge, sits in your browser and silently removes the tracking junk from every link in your browser and your inbox. That means ClearURLs needs more access to your browser’s data than most of these extensions, but its makers explain why in the documentation.
And an honorary mention for Firefox users, who can take advantage of Multi-Account Containers, built by the browser maker itself to help you isolate your browsing activity. That means you can have one container full of your work tabs in your browser, and another container with all of your personal tabs, saving you from having to use multiple browsers. Containers also keep your private personal browsing separate from your work browsing activity. It also means you can put sites like Facebook or Google in a container, making it far more difficult for them to see which websites you visit and understand your tastes and interests. Containers are easy to use and customizable.
After years of placid admonishments, the tech world came out in force against President Trump this past week following the violent assault of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. on Wednesday. From Twitter to PayPal, more than a dozen companies have placed unprecedented restrictions or outright banned the current occupant of the White House from using their services, and in some cases, some of his associates and supporters as well.
The news was voluminous and continuous for the past few days, so here’s a recap of who took action when, and what might happen next.
Twitter has played a paramount role over the debate about how to moderate President Trump’s communications, given the president’s penchant for the platform and the nearly 90 million followers on his @realDonaldTrump account. In the past, Twitter has repeatedly warned the president, added labels related to electron integrity and misinformation, and outright blocked the occasional tweet.
This week, however, Twitter’s patience seemed to have been exhausted. Shortly after the riots at the Capitol on Wednesday, Twitter put in place a large banner warning its users about the president’s related tweet on the matter, blocking retweets of that specific message. A few hours later, the company instituted a 12-hour ban on the president’s personal account.
At first, it looked like the situation would return to normal, with Twitter offering Thursday morning that it would reinstate the president’s account after he removed tweets the company considered against its policies around inciting violence. The president posted a tweet later on Thursday with a video attachment that seemed to be relatively calmer than his recent fiery rhetoric, a video in which he also accepted the country’s election results for the first time.
Enormous pressure externally on its own platform as well as internal demands from employees kept the policy rapidly changing though. Late Friday night, the company announced that it decided to permanently ban the president from its platform, shutting down @realDonaldTrump. The company then played a game of whack-a-mole as it blocked the president’s access to affiliated Twitter handles like @TeamTrump (his official campaign account) as well as the official presidential account @POTUS and deleted individual tweets from the president. The company’s policies state that a blocked user may not attempt to use a different account to evade its ban.
Twitter has also taken other actions against some of the president’s affiliates and broader audience, blocking Michael Flynn, a bunch of other Trump supporters, and a variety of QAnon figures.
With a new president on the horizon, the official @POTUS account will be handed to the new Biden administration, although Twitter has reportedly been intending to reset the account’s followers to zero, unlike its transition of the account in 2016 from Obama to Trump.
As for Trump himself, a permanent ban from his most prominent platform begs the question: where will he take his braggadocio and invective next? So far, we haven’t seen the president move his activities to any social network alternatives, but after the past few years (and on Twitter, the last decade), it seems hard to believe the president will merely return to his golf course and quietly ride out to the horizon.
Snap locked the president’s account late Wednesday following the events on Capitol Hill, and seemed to be one of the most poised tech companies to rapidly react to the events taking place in DC. Snap’s lock prevents the president from posting new snaps to his followers on the platform, which currently number approximately two million. As far as TechCrunch knows, that lock remains in place, although the president’s official profile is still available to users.
Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the concomitant Black Lives Matter protests, the company had announced back in June that it would remove the president’s account from its curated “Discover” tab, limiting its distribution and discoverability.
The president has never really effectively used the Snap platform, and with an indefinite ban in place, it looks unlikely he will find a home there in the future.
Facebook, like Twitter, is one of the president’s most popular destinations for his supporters, and the platform is also a locus for many of the political right’s most popular personalities. It’s moderation actions have been heavily scrutinized by the press over the past few years, but the company has mostly avoided taking direct action against the president — until this week.
On Wednesday as rioters walked out of the halls of Congress, Facebook pulled down a video from President Trump that it considered was promoting violence. Later Wednesday evening, that policy eventually extended into a 24-hour ban of the president’s account, which currently has 33 million likes, or followers. The company argued that the president had violated its policies multiple times, automatically triggering the one-day suspension. At the same time, Facebook (and Instagram) took action to block a popular trending hashtag related to the Capitol riots.
On Thursday morning, Mark Zuckerberg, in a personal post on his own platform, announced an “indefinite” suspension for the president, with a minimum duration of two weeks. That timing would neatly extend the suspension through the inauguration of president-elect Biden, who is to assume the presidency at noon on January 20th.
What will happen after the inauguration? Right now, we don’t know. The president’s account is suspended but not deactivated, which means that the president cannot post new material to his page, but that the page remains visible to Facebook users. The company could remove the suspension once the transition of power is complete, or it may continue the ban longer-term. Given the president’s prominence on the platform and the heavy popularity of the social network among his supporters, Facebook is in a much more intense bind between banning content it deems offensive, and retaining users important to its bottom line.
It’s not just social networks that are blocking the president’s audience — ecommerce giants are also getting into moderating their platforms against the president. On Thursday, Shopify announced that it was removing the storefronts for both the Trump campaign and Trump’s personal brand.
That’s an evolution on policy for the company, which years ago said that it would not moderate its platform, but in recent years has removed some controversial stores, such as some right-wing shops in 2018.
PayPal meanwhile has been deactivating the accounts of some groups of Trump supporters this week, who were using the money-transfer fintech to coordinate payments to underwrite the rioters’ actions on Capitol Hill. PayPal has been increasingly banning some political accounts, banning a far-right activist in 2019 and also banning a spate of far-right organizations in the wake of violent protests in Charlottesville in 2017. These bans have so far not extended directly to the president himself from what TechCrunch can glean.
Given the president’s well-known personal brand and penchant for product tie-ins before becoming president, it’s a major open question about how these two platforms and others in ecommerce will respond to Trump once he leaves office in two weeks. Will the president go back to shilling steaks, water and cologne? And will he need an ecommerce venue to sell his wares online? Much will depend on Trump’s next goals and whether he stays focused on politics, or heads back to his more commercial pursuits.
For supporters of Trump and others concerned about the moderation actions of Facebook and other platforms, Parler has taken the lead as an alternative social network for this audience. Right now, the app is number one in the App Store in the United States, ahead of encrypted and secure messaging app Signal, which is at number four and got a massive endorsement from Elon Musk this week.
Parler’s opportunism for growth around the riots on Capitol Hill though has run into a very real barrier: the two tech companies which run the two stores for mobile applications in the United States.
Google announced Friday evening that it would be removing the Parler app from its store, citing the social network’s lack of moderation and content filtering capabilities. The app’s page remains down as this article was going to press. That ban means that new users won’t be able to install the app from the Play Store, however, existing users who already have Parler installed will be able to continue using it.
Meanwhile, Buzzfeed reports that Apple has reportedly sent a 24-hour takedown notice to Parler’s developers, saying that it would mirror Google’s actions if the app didn’t immediately filter content that endangers safety. As of now, Parler remains available in the App Store, but if the timing is to be believed, the app could be taken down later this Saturday.
Given the complexities of content moderation, including the need to hire content moderators en masse, it seems highly unlikely that Parler could respond to these requests in any short period of time. What happens to the app and the president’s supporters long-term next is, right now, anyone’s guess.
Finally, let’s head over to the rest of the social networking world, where Trump is just as unpopular as he is at Facebook and Twitter HQ these days. Companies widely blocked the president from accessing their sites, and they also took action against affiliated groups.
Google-owned YouTube announced Thursday that it would start handing out “strikes” against channels — including President Trump’s — that post election misinformation. In the past, videos with election misinformation would have a warning label attached, but the channel itself didn’t face any consequences. In December, the company changed that policy to include the outright removal of videos purveying election misinformation.
This week’s latest policy change is an escalation from the company’s previous approach, and would result in lengthier and lengthier temporary suspensions for each additional strike that a channel receives. Those strikes could eventual result in a permanent ban for a YouTube channel if they happen within a set period of time. That’s precisely what happened with Steve Bannon’s channel, which was permanently banned Friday late afternoon for repeated violations of YouTube’s policies. Meanwhile, President Trump’s official channel has less than 3 million followers, and is currently still available for viewing on the platform.
Outside YouTube, Twitch followed a similar policy to Facebook, announcing Thursday morning that it would ban the president “indefinitely” and at least through the inauguration on January 20th. The president has a limited audience of just about 151,000 followers on the popular streaming platform, making it among the least important of the president’s social media accounts.
In terms of the president’s supporters, their groups are also being removed from popular tech platforms. On Friday, Reddit announced that it would ban the subreddit r/DonaldTrump, which had become one of a number of unofficial communities on the platform where the president’s most ardent supporters hung out. The social network had previously removed the controversial subreddit r/The_Donald back in June. Discord on Friday shut down a server related to that banned subreddit, citing the server’s “overt connection to an online forum used to incite violence.”
Lastly, TikTok announced on Thursday that it was limiting the spread of some information related to the Capitol riots, including redirecting hashtags and removing violent content as well as the president’s own video message to supporters. The president does not have a TikTok account, and therefore, most of the company’s actions are focused on his supporters and broader content surrounding the situation on Capitol Hill this week.
Online platforms take action against President Trump, Lenovo tries out a swiveling screen and Roblox raises $250 million. This is your Daily Crunch for January 7, 2021.
The big story: Facebook bans Trump for two weeks
After a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol yesterday, a number of online platforms moved to suspend accounts connected to the outgoing president.
For example, Twitter locked Trump’s account for 12 hours after he posted several (subsequently deleted) tweets repeating his unsubstantiated claims of election fraud and expressing support for the rioters (while also calling for an end to violence). Twitch also disabled his channel until the end of his term and Shopify pulled down stores tied to the president and his campaign.
But the most notable move came from Facebook, which banned Trump from both Facebook and Instagram for “at least the next two weeks,” until the end of his term. Mark Zuckerberg wrote that this was necessary due to the “use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.”
The tech giants
Waymo is dropping the term ‘self-driving,’ but not everyone in the industry is on board — Alphabet-owned Waymo will no longer use the term “self-driving” to describe its technology.
Lenovo’s new all-in-one has a swiveling screen, because sure, why not? — When it comes to staid product categories, why not try something weird?
Samsung simplifies with a lower-priced premium Chromebook — Samsung just dropped what’s almost certainly one of its biggest pieces of news for CES, with the arrival of the Galaxy Chromebook 2.
Startups, funding and venture capital
SoFi to go public in merger with Chamath Palihapitiya’s newest SPAC — The deal, confirmed by SoFi, would value the fintech company at $8.65 billion.
Roblox raises at $29.5B valuation, readies for direct listing — Roblox is now one of the world’s most valuable private companies in the world.
Local news app News Break raises $115M — CEO Jeff Zheng said there’s “strong user demand” for local news but “weak supply.”
Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch
Decrypted: How bad was the US Capitol breach for cybersecurity? — The breach will likely present a major task for Congress’ IT departments.
The tech-powered wave of smart, not slow, tutoring sessions — While starting a tutoring marketplace is easy, scaling is often where the troubles begin.
With 5 new unicorns in first week of 2021, are we in for a stampede this year? — The pace at which new unicorns are being announced feels incredibly rapid.
(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)
Hopin might be the fastest growth story of this era — The Equity team discusses Hopin’s acquisition of livestreaming company StreamYard.
Elon Musk has a new title: world’s richest person — He reached the pinnacle Thursday thanks to Tesla’s skyrocketing share price, along with a substantial pay package.
Remembering TechCrunch Japan’s Hirohide Yoshida (1971-2020) — On New Year’s Eve, TechCrunch Japan’s Editor-in-Chief Hirohide Yoshida passed away at age 49.
The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has announced via his platform that Donald Trump will be blocked from using both Facebook and Instagram “for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.” The company blocked his accounts temporarily on Wednesday following Trump’s posting of content that incited his followers to violence, but now Zuckerberg says the ban is extended “indefinitely,” extending at least until Biden takes over as president.
Both Facebook and Instagram removed Trump’s video post yesterday, in which the president called for rioters who laid siege to the Capitol building in Washington to go home — but in which he also said “we love you” to the same violent terrorists. They followed that action with a 24-hour account lock, preventing Trump from posting via his Facebook and Instagram accounts during that period.
Zuckerberg acknowledges that Trump content has in the past been labeled or removed when found to violate its policies, but that he had been allowed up until now to “use our platform consistent with our own rules.” He says that has now changed, due to “use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.”
There’s a lot of careful, heavily PR’d language doing heavy lifting here — Zuck is careful to say that use until now has lined up with the platform’s rules in place, and not instead been an exception to them, and he’s also careful not to say Trump has directly incited violent insurrection in leaving an actor out of that particular sentence. Still, this is the strongest action by far from the platform to date to limit Trump’s access.
Facebook’s decision to suspend the president’s account, even temporarily, is a shocking reversal from its longstanding attitude toward the world leader. Of course, that leader only remains in power for a few more days. With Trump out on January 20, Facebook will be dealing with President-elect Joe Biden and a Congress and administration very interested in imposing regulations on its business.
Historically, Facebook has been very permissive of Trump’s bad behavior on the platform, perhaps most famously when it did nothing to the president’s account after he called for state violence against racial justice protesters. Trump’s phrasing, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” echoed the same statement famously made by a racist Miami police chief in the 1960s.
That situation alone plunged Facebook into internal turmoil, as employees pushed back against the company’s attitude toward Trump. Yesterday, BuzzFeed News reported that Facebook shut down internal conversations about the Trump supporters who staged an insurrection at the Capitol, freezing comment threads calling for Trump to be removed from the platform.
Throughout his administration, Facebook has gone out of its way to accommodate Trump’s use of the platform. In 2019, facing pressure to take a more principled stance, Mark Zuckerberg struck a defiant pose in a grand speech at Georgetown, doubling down on the idea that Facebook had no responsibility to remove dangerous political content.
“We can either stand for free expression… or we can decide the cost is simply too great,” Zuckerberg said. “We must continue to stand for free expression.”
Here’s the full post from Zuckerberg:
The shocking events of the last 24 hours clearly demonstrate that President Donald Trump intends to use his remaining time in office to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor, Joe Biden.
His decision to use his platform to condone rather than condemn the actions of his supporters at the Capitol building has rightly disturbed people in the US and around the world. We removed these statements yesterday because we judged that their effect — and likely their intent — would be to provoke further violence.
Following the certification of the election results by Congress, the priority for the whole country must now be to ensure that the remaining 13 days and the days after inauguration pass peacefully and in accordance with established democratic norms.
Over the last several years, we have allowed President Trump to use our platform consistent with our own rules, at times removing content or labeling his posts when they violate our policies. We did this because we believe that the public has a right to the broadest possible access to political speech, even controversial speech. But the current context is now fundamentally different, involving use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.
We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great. Therefore, we are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.
And a post from Instagram lead Adam Mosseri:
Given the exceptional circumstances, and the fact that the President has decided to condone rather than condemn yesterday’s violence at the Capital, we are extending the block we have placed on his accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks.
— Adam Mosseri (@mosseri) January 7, 2021
Meanwhile, Twitter on Thursday revealed that Trump has complied with its requirement to delete three offending tweets before reinstating access to his locked account on that platform — meaning Trump will regain access to his account 12 hours from the time of deletion, or later on Thursday.