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Watch a Waymo self-driving car test its sensors in a haboob

By Kirsten Korosec

Waymo, the self-driving car company under Alphabet, has been testing in the suburbs of Phoenix for several years now. And while the sunny metropolis might seem like the ideal and easiest location to test autonomous vehicle technology, there are times when the desert becomes a dangerous place for any driver — human or computer.

The two big safety concerns in this desert region are sudden downpours that cause flash floods and haboobs, giant walls of dust between 1,500 and 3,000 feet high that can cover up to 100 square miles. One record-breaking haboob in July 2011 covered the entire Phoenix valley, an area of more than 517 square miles.

Waymo released Friday a blog post that included two videos showing how the sensors on its self-driving vehicles detect and recognize objects while navigating through a haboob in Phoenix and fog in San Francisco. The vehicle in Phoenix was manually driven, while the one in the fog video was in autonomous mode.

The point of the videos, Waymo says, is to show how, and if, the vehicles recognize objects during these extreme low visibility moments. And they do. The haboob video shows how its sensors work to identify a pedestrian crossing a street with little to no visibility.

Waymo uses a combination of lidar, radar and cameras to detect and identify objects. Fog, rain or dust can limit visibility in all or some of these sensors.

Waymo doesn’t silo the sensors affected by a particular weather event. Instead, it continues to take in data from all the sensors, even those that don’t function as well in fog or dust, and uses that collective information to better identify objects.

The potential is for autonomous vehicles to improve on visibility, one of the greatest performance limitations of humans, Debbie Hersman, Waymo’s chief safety officer wrote in the blog post. If Waymo or other AV companies are successful, they could help reduce one of the leading contributors to crashes. The Department of Transportation estimates that weather contributes to 21% of the annual U.S. crashes.

Still, there are times when even an autonomous vehicle doesn’t belong on the road. It’s critical for any company planning to deploy AVs to have a system that can not only identify, but also take the safest action if conditions worsen.

Waymo vehicles are designed to automatically detect sudden extreme weather changes, such as a snowstorm, that could impact the ability of a human or an AV to drive safely, according to Hersman.

The question is what happens next. Humans are supposed to pull over off the road during a haboob and turn off the vehicle, a similar action when one encounters heavy fog.  Waymo’s self-driving vehicles will do the same if weather conditions deteriorate to the point that the company believes it would affect the safe operation of its cars, Hersman wrote.

The videos and blog post are the latest effort by Waymo to showcase how and where it’s testing. The company announced August 20 that it has started testing how its sensors handle heavy rain in Florida. The move to Florida will focus on data collection and testing sensors; the vehicles will be manually driven for now.

Waymo also tests (or has tested) its technology in and around Mountain View, Calif., Novi, Mich., Kirkland, Wash. and San Francisco. The bulk of the company’s activities have been in suburbs of Phoenix  and around Mountain View.

Is Knotel poised to turn WeWork from a Unicorn into an Icarus?

By Mike Butcher

The day of reckoning for the ‘flexible office space as a startup’ is coming, and it’s coming up fast. WeWork’s IPO filing has fired the starting gun on the race to become the game-changer both in the future of property and real estate but also the future of how we live and work. As Churchill once said, ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’.

Until recently WeWork was the ruler by which other flexible space startups were measured, but questions are now being asked if it deserves its valuation. The profitable IWG plc, formerly Regus, has been a business providing serviced offices, virtual offices, meeting rooms, and the rest, for years and yet WeWork is valued by ten times more.

That’s not to mention how it exposes landlords to $40 billion in rent commitments, something which a few of them are starting to feel rather nervous about.

Some analysts even say WeWork’s IPO is a ‘masterpiece of obfuscation’

UK’s health data guardian sets a firm line for app development using patient data

By Natasha Lomas

The UK’s health data watchdog, the National Data Guardian (NDG), has published correspondence between her office and the national privacy watchdog which informed the ICO’s finding in 2017 that a data-sharing arrangement between an NHS Trust and Google-owned DeepMind broke the law.

The exchange was published following a Freedom of Information request by TechCrunch.

In fall 2015 the Royal Free NHS Trust and DeepMind signed a data-sharing agreement which saw the medical records of 1.6 million people quietly passed to the AI company without patients being asked for their consent.

The scope of the data-sharing arrangement — ostensibly to develop a clinical task management app — was only brought to light by investigative journalism. That then triggered regulatory scrutiny — and the eventual finding by the ICO that there was no legal basis for the data to have been transferred in the first place.

Despite that, the app in question, Streams — which does not (currently) contain any AI but uses an NHS algorithm for detecting acute kidney injury — has continued being used in NHS hospitals.

DeepMind has also since announced it plans to transfer its health division to Google. Although — to our knowledge — no NHS trusts have yet signed new contracts for Streams with the ad giant.

In parallel with releasing her historical correspondence with the ICO, Dame Fiona Caldicott, the NDG, has written a blog post in which she articulates a clear regulatory position that the “reasonable expectations” of patients must govern non-direct care uses for people’s health data — rather than healthcare providers relying on whether doctors think developing such and such an app is a great idea.

The ICO had asked for guidance from the NDG on how to apply the common law duty of confidentiality, as part of its investigation into the Royal Free NHS Trust’s data-sharing arrangement with DeepMind for Streams.

In a subsequent audit of Streams that was a required by the regulator, the trust’s law firm, Linklaters, argued that a call on whether a duty of confidentiality has been breached should be judged from the point of view of the clinician’s conscience, rather than the patient’s reasonable expectations.

Caldicott writes that she firmly disagrees with that “key argument”.

“It is my firm view that it is the patient’s perspective that is most important when judgements are being made about the use of their confidential information. My letter to the Information Commissioner sets out my thoughts on this matter in some detail,” she says, impressing the need for healthcare innovation to respect the trust and confidence of patients and the public.

“I do champion innovative technologies and new treatments that are powered by data. The mainstreaming of emerging fields such as genomics and artificial intelligence offer much promise and will change the face of medicine for patients and health professionals immeasurably… But my belief in innovation is coupled with an equally strong belief that these advancements must be introduced in a way that respects people’s confidentiality and delivers no surprises about how their data is used. In other words, the public’s reasonable expectations must be met.”

“Patients’ reasonable expectations are the touchstone of the common law duty of confidence,” she adds. “Providers who are introducing new, data-driven technologies, or partnering with third parties to help develop and test them, have called for clearer guidance about respecting data protection and confidentiality. I intend to work with the Information Commissioner and others to improve the advice available so that innovation can be undertaken safely: in compliance with the common law and the reasonable expectations of patients.

“The National Data Guardian is currently supporting the Health Research Authority in clarifying and updating guidance on the lawful use of patient data in the development of healthcare technologies.”

We reached out to the Royal Free NHS Trust and DeepMind for comment on the NDG’s opinion. At the time of writing neither had responded.

In parallel, Bloomberg reported this week that DeepMind co-founder, Mustafa Suleyman, is currently on leave from the company. (Suleyman has since tweeted that the break is temporary and for “personal” reasons, to “recharge”, and that he’s “looking forward to being back in the saddle at DeepMind soon”.)

The AI research company recently touted what it couched as a ‘breakthrough’ in predictive healthcare — saying it had developed an AI model for predicting the same condition that the Streams app is intended to alert for. Although the model was built using US data from the Department of Veterans Affairs which skews overwhelmingly male.

As we wrote at the time, the episode underscores the potential value locked up in NHS data — which offers population-level clinical data that the NHS could use to develop AI models of its own. Indeed, a 2017 government-commissioned review of the life sciences sector called for a strategy to “capture for the UK the value in algorithms generated using NHS data”.

The UK government is also now pushing a ‘tech-first’ approach to NHS service delivery.

Earlier this month the government announced it’s rerouting £250M in public funds for the NHS to set up an artificial intelligence lab that will work to expand the use of AI technologies within the service.

Last fall health secretary, Matt Hancock, set out his tech-first vision of future healthcare provision — saying he wanted “healthtech” apps and services to support “preventative, predictive and personalised care”.

So there are certainly growing opportunities for developing digital healthcare solutions to support the UK’s National Health Service.

As well as — now — clearer regulatory guidance that app development that wants to be informed by patient data must first win the trust and confidence of the people it hopes to serve.

Japan’s ispace now aims for a lunar landing in 2021, and a Moon rover deployment in 2023

By Darrell Etherington

One of the private companies aiming to deliver a commercial lunar lander to the Moon has adjusted the timing for its planned mission, which isn’t all that surprising given the enormity of the task. Japanese startup ispace is now targeting 2021 for their first lunar landing, and 2023 for a second lunar mission that will also include deploying a rover on the Moon’s surface.

The company’s ‘HAKUTO-R’ program was originally planned to to include a mission in 2020 that would involve sending a lunar orbital vehicle for demonstration purposes without any payloads, but that part of the plan has been scrapped in favor of focusing all efforts on delivering actual payloads for commercial customers by 2021 instead.

This updated focus, the company says, is due mostly to the speeding up of the global market for private launch services and payload delivery, including for things like NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, wherein the agency is looking for a growing number of private contractors to support its own needs in terms of getting stuff to the Moon.

ispace itself isn’t on the list of 9 companies selected in round one of NASA’s program, but the Japanese company is supporting American non-profit Draper in its efforts, which was one fo the chosen. The Draper/ispace team-up happened after ispace’s initial commitment to its 2020 orbital demo, so its change in priorities makes sense given the new tie-up.

HAKUTO-R will use SpaceX’s Falcon 9 for its first missions, and the company has also signed partnerships with JAXA, Japan’s space agency, as well as new corporate partners including Suzuki, Sumitomo Corporation, Shogakukan, and Citizen Watch.

Google says China used YouTube to meddle in Hong Kong protests

By Zack Whittaker

Google has disabled 210 YouTube accounts after it said China used the video platform to sow discord among protesters in Hong Kong.

The search giant, which owns YouTube, followed in the footsteps of Twitter and Facebook, which earlier this week said China had used their social media sites to spread misinformation and discord among the protesters, who have spent weeks taking to the streets to demand China stops interfering with the semi-autonomous region’s affairs.

In a brief blog post, Google’s Shane Huntley said the company took action after it detected activity which “behaved in a coordinated manner while uploading videos related to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.”

“This discovery was consistent with recent observations and actions related to China announced by Facebook and Twitter,” said Huntley.

Earlier this week Twitter said China was using its service to “sow discord” through fake accounts as part of “a coordinated state-backed operation.”

In line with Twitter and Facebook’s findings, Google said it detected the use of virtual private networks — or VPNs — which can be used to tunnel through China’s censorship system, known as the Great Firewall. Facebook, Twitter and Google are all banned in China. But Google said little more about the accounts, what they shared or whether it would disclose its findings to researchers.

When reached, a Google spokesperson only referred back to the blog post and did not comment further.

More than a million protesters took to the streets this weekend to peacefully demonstrate against the Chinese regime, which took over rule from the United Kingdom in 1997. Protests erupted earlier this year after a bid by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to push through a highly controversial bill that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial. The bill was suspended, effectively killing it from reaching the law books, but protests have continued, pushing back at claims that China is trying to meddle in Hong Kong’s affairs.

Frontier technologies are moving closer to the center of venture investment

By Jonathan Shieber

As the technologies that were once considered science fiction become the purview of science, the venture capital firms that were once investing at the industry’s fringes are now finding themselves at the heart of the technology industry.

Investing in the commercialization of technologies like genetic engineering, quantum computing, digital avatars, augmented reality, new human-computer interfaces, machine learning, autonomous vehicles, robots, and space travel that were once considered “frontier” investments are now front-and-center priorities for many venture capital firms and the limited partners that back them.

Earlier this month, Lux Capital raised $1.1 billion across two funds that invest in just these kinds of companies. “[Limited partners] are now more interested in frontier tech than ever before,” said Bilal Zuberi, a partner with the firm.

He sees a few factors encouraging limited partners (the investors who provide financing for venture capital funds) to invest in the firms that are financing companies developing technologies that were once considered outside of the mainstream.

Lenovo’s Smart Clock gets more useful with latest Google update

By Brian Heater

I liked the Lenovo Smart Clock when I reviewed it back in June. It’s a pretty minimalist take on the smart screen designed for the very specific purpose of living next to your bed. The streamlined features are very much by design — rather than the kitchen sink approach, the clock is built around a relatively limited number of Assistant functions, coupled with tailored alarm functionality.

Today, Google’s bringing a handful of new features, attempting to walk that line by adding functions without making the bedside product overly distracting. The addition of Google Photos is a no brainer, using the app to double as a small screen digital picture frame while it sits idle. Hey look, a Yorkie.

Google’s also bringing one of the best smart screen features to the small display, with the ability to view video from smart cameras. Not a bed feature to have next to your bed. Interesting, while the product is clearly capable of displaying video, Google still isn’t making YouTube available here, for the aforementioned reason of “limiting distractions.”

It’s a nice sentiment, but YouTube’s always been Google’s biggest and best weapon in smart screen wars. The company really pulled the rug out from under Amazon by blocking access to the service on Echo devices. Google says it may revisit the feature later, however, depending on user feedback.

Also new here is Continued Conversation, which keeps Assistant active for longer, in order to create a more “natural back-and-forth conversation” with the AI. The idea is to lesse the number of times the user has to use the wake word to interact with Assistant.

Those features are starting to roll out this week. The Smart Clock will also be available in additional countries including India soon.

How do you build a secure startup? Find out at TechCrunch Disrupt SF

By Zack Whittaker

Security is everything — more so than ever in startup land. But with the constant pressures to launch and scale, how do you build a secure startup from the ground up without slowing growth?

Whether you’re starting out small or you’re a multinational unicorn, your customers and their data will be your greatest asset. We’re excited to announce three cybersecurity industry experts who know better than anyone how to keep their organizations safe from phishing emails to nation-state attackers — and everything in between.

We’ll be joined by Google’s Heather Adkins, IOActive’s Jennifer Sunshine Steffens and Duo’s Dug Song, who will discuss those startup security questions at TechCrunch Disrupt SF.

Adkins, a 16-year Google veteran, runs Google’s information security shop. As an early employee, Adkins built a global team responsible for maintaining the safety and security of Google’s networks, systems and applications as the company has ballooned in size. Her extensive background in network and systems administration has led her to work to build and secure some of the world’s largest infrastructure.

Steffens, who has spent over a decade at penetration testing and ethical hacking company IOActive, knows all too well how to build a security company. Her team goes into enterprises large and small and finds the weak spots in their security in an effort to fix the flaws before bad actors exploit them. Having worked during the early stages at several successful startups, Steffens brings a world of corporate and security knowledge to the table.

And Song, who co-founded security giant Duo, led one of the most successful exits in Silicon Valley security startup history following the company’s $2.35 billion acquisition by Cisco last year. Song is a leading voice in the security community, with broad experience in developing security solutions for the enterprises.

How do these cybersecurity leaders keep ahead of the bad guys — and the insider threats? Join us on the Extra Crunch stage to find out. Tickets to the show, which runs October 2 to October 4, are available here.

Did you know Extra Crunch annual members get 20% off all TechCrunch event tickets? Head over here to get your annual pass, and then email extracrunch@techcrunch.com to get your 20% off discount. Please note that it can take up to 24 hours to issue the discount code.

On-demand parking startup SpotHero raises $50 million

By Kirsten Korosec

SpotHero, the Chicago-based company that has developed an on-demand parking app, has raised $50 million in a Series D round led by Macquarie Capital.

Union Grove Venture Partners participated in the round, along with existing investors including Insight Venture Partners, Global Founders Capital, OCA Ventures, AutoTech Ventures and others, according to the company. SpotHero has raised $118 million to date.

The new capital will be used to expand its reach in the 300 U.S. and Canadian cities where it is already operating, build out its digital platform and strengthen partnerships with mobility companies, CEO and co-founder Mark Lawrence told TechCrunch.

SpotHero, which has operations in San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C. and Seattle, initially set out to develop software that connects everyday drivers to parking spots in thousands of garages across North America.

It’s secret sauce is its software, which can sit on top of the 40 or so different point-of-sales systems used by parking garages. This acts as a single protocol, allowing SpotHero to bring some kind of standardization to an otherwise fragmented system. From this single protocol, SpotHero can add in features that will allow for automated parking services such as license plate recognition.

“We’ve built the pipes, so to speak, and this powers out consumer app,” Lawrence said in a recent interview. Now the company is focus is on building out partnerships, features in the software and services, he added.

Capital will also be used to hire talent to support these new endeavors. SpotHero has 210 employees today and is working on hiring 50 more engineers this year.

In the eight years since its founding, SpotHero has expanded beyond its core consumer-focused compentcy. The company has added other services as urban density has increased and on-street parking has become more jumbled and confused thanks to an increase in traffic, ride-hailing and on-demand delivery services that take up valuable curb space. It has locked in more than 900 distribution partnerships and integrations including Google Assistant, for voice-enabled parking and Waze in-app navigation to parking. Other partners include Hertz and car2go for fleet parking, WeWork, for commuter parking and Moovit, for multi-modal parking.

Most recently, SpotHero launched a new service dubbed “SpotHero for Fleets” that targets shared mobility and on-demand services.

The service aims to be a one-stop shop for car-sharing and commercial fleets to handle all that goes into ensuring there is access and the right number of designated parking areas on any given day within SpotHero’s large network of 6,500 garages across 300 cities. That means everything from managing the relationships between garage owners and the fleet companies to proper signage so car-sharing customers can find the vehicles, as well as flexible plans that account for seasonal demands on businesses.

Under the new service, customers are able to source and secure parking inventory in high-traffic areas across multiple cities and pay per use across multiple parking facilities on one invoice to streamline payments. 

The company has signed on car-sharing companies and other commercial fleets, although it’s not naming them yet.

Bose’s new portable home speaker sports Alexa and Google Assistant

By Brian Heater

Bose’s portable speaker offerings have tended toward the cheaper end of the spectrum — bringing colorful competition for companies like JBL. With the dryly named Portable Home Speaker, however, the company looks to split the difference between portable and premium. And it’s certainly priced for the latter.

The $349 speaker looks to something of a high end take on the dearly departed Amazon Tap. It’s pretty small for the price, with a large handle up top so it can be moved from room to room, accordingly.

Bose continues to take the diplomatic approach, using built in mics for both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. There’s also AirPlay 2 and Spotify Connect functionality built in, covering pretty much all of its bases outside of Bixby — that means, sadly, that it might not be able to talk to your fridge.

There are a handful of physical buttons up top, as well, including the every important mic-off. The device has an IPX4 water rating, which means it will handle some splashing or light rain, but don’t dunk the thing. It’s also pretty clear from the press materials that the speaker’s not designed to live outdoors, though the occasional picnic table should be fine.

The Portable Home Speaker arrives in stores on September 19. It’s already got plenty of competition, of course, and Sonos is set to add to the list with its own bluetooth speaker rumored to be in the works.

Google ditches desserts as Q becomes Android 10

By Brian Heater

The dessert naming scheme was one of the best-loved legacies from Google past. Every time the company got ready to release a new version of the mobile operating system, speculation would mount about which sweet foodstuff on which the company would ultimately settle. But while P offered confections a plenty, Q has been far less straightforward.

Quiche was questionable, at best — ditto for quesadillas and quinoa. With that giant question mark waiting for it with the next release, the company’s opted instead to abandon the beloved naming scheme. Of course, Google’s reasoning is far more diplomatic than, “we couldn’t think of anything that started with ‘Q.’”

Instead, it says that the desserts simply weren’t universal enough for the 2.5 billion active devices it has deployed around the world.

[W]e’ve heard feedback over the years that the names weren’t always understood by everyone in the global community. For example, L and R are not distinguishable when spoken in some languages.

So when some people heard us say Android Lollipop out loud, it wasn’t intuitively clear that it referred to the version after KitKat. It’s even harder for new Android users, who are unfamiliar with the naming convention, to understand if their phone is running the latest version. We also know that pies are not a dessert in some places, and that marshmallows, while delicious, are not a popular treat in many parts of the world.

Google proposes new privacy and anti-fingerprinting controls for the web

By Frederic Lardinois

Google today announced a new long-term initiative that, if fully realized, will make it harder for online marketers and advertisers to track you across the web. This new proposal follows the company’s plans to change how cookies in Chrome work and to make it easier for users to block tracking cookies.

Today’s proposal for a new open standard extends this by looking at how Chrome can close the loopholes that the digital advertising ecosystem can use to circumvent that. And soon, that may mean that your browser will feature new options that give you more control over how much you share without losing your anonymity.

Over the course of the last few months, Google started talking about a ‘Privacy Sandbox’ which would allow for a certain degree of personalization while still protecting a user’s privacy.

“We have a great reputation on security. […] I feel the way we earned that reputation was by really moving the web forward,” Justin Schuh, Google’s engineering director for Chrome security and privacy told me. “We provide a lot of benefits, worked on a lot of different fronts. What we’re trying to do today is basically do the same thing for privacy: have the same kind of big, bold vision for how we think privacy should work on the web, how we should make browsers and the web more private by default.”

Here is the technical side of what Google is proposing today: to prevent the kind of fingerprinting that makes your machine uniquely identifiable as yours, Google is proposing the idea of a privacy budget. With this, a browser could allow websites to make enough API calls to get enough information about you to group your into a larger cohort but not to the point where you give up your anonymity. Once a site has exhausted this budget, the browser stops responding to any further calls.

Some browsers also already implement a very restrictive form of cookie blocking. Google argues that this has unintended consequences and that there needs to be an agreed-upon set of standards. “The other browser vendors, for the most part, we think really are committed to an open web,” said Schuh, who also stressed that Google wants this to be an open standard and develop it in collaboration with other players in the web ecosystem.

“There’s definitely been a lot of not intentional misinformation but just incorrect data about how sites monetize and how publishers are actually funded,” Schuh stressed. Indeed, Google today notes that its research has shown that publishers lose an average of 52 percent of their advertising revenue when their readers block cookies. That number is even higher for news sites.

In addition, blocking all third-party cookies is not a viable solution according to Google because developers will find ways around this restriction by relying on fingerprinting a user’s machine instead. Yet while you can opt out of cookies and delete them from your browser, you can’t opt out of being fingerprinted since there’s no data stored on your machine (unless you regularly change the configuration of your laptop, the fonts you have installed and other identifiable traits that make your laptop uniquely yours).

What Google basically wants to do here is change the incentive structure for the advertising ecosystem. Instead of trying to circumvent a browser’s cookie and fingerprinting restrictions, the privacy budget, in combination with the industry’s work on federated learning and differential privacy, this is meant to give advertisers the tools they need without hurting publishers, while still respecting the users’ privacy. That’s not an easy switch and something that, as Google freely acknowledges, will take years.

“It’s going to be a multi-year journey,” said Schuh. “What I can say is that I have very high confidence that we will be able to change the incentive structures with this. So we are committed to taking very strong measures to preserve user privacy, we are committed to combating abuses of user privacy. […] But as we’re doing that, we have to move the platform forward and make the platform inherently provide much more robust privacy protections.”

Most of the big tech companies now understand that they have a responsibility to help their users retain their privacy online. Yet at the same time, personalized advertising relies on knowing as much as possible about a given user and Google itself makes the vast majority of its income from its various ad services. It sounds like this should create some tension inside the company. Schuh, however, argued that Google’s ad side and the Chrome team have their independence. “At the end of the day, we’re a web browser, we are concerned about our users base. We are going to make the decisions that are most in their interest so we have to weigh how all of this fits in,” said Schuh. He also noted that the ad side has a very strong commitment to user transparency and user control — and that if users don’t trust the ads ecosystem, that’s a problem, too.

For the time being, though, there’s nothing here for you to try out or any bits being shipped in the Chrome browser. For now, this is simply a proposal and an effort on the Chrome team’s part to start a conversation. We should expect the company to start experimenting with some of these ideas in the near future, though.

Just like with its proposed changes to how advertisers and sites use cookies, this is very much a long-term project for the company. Some users will argue that Google could take more drastic measures and simply use its tech prowess to stop the ad ecosystem from tracking you through cookies, fingerprinting and whatever else the adtech boffins will dream up next. If Google’s numbers are correct, though, that would definitely hurt publishers and few publications are in a position to handle a 50 percent drop in revenue. I can see why Google doesn’t want to do this alone, but it does have the market position to be more aggressive in pushing for these changes.

Apple, which doesn’t have any vested interest in the advertising business, has already made this more drastic move with the latest release of Safari. Its browser now blocks a number of tracking technologies, including fingerprinting, without making any concessions to advertisers. The results of this for publishers is in line with Google’s cookie study.

As far as the rest of Chrome’s competitors, Firefox has started to add anti-fingerprinting techniques as well. Upstart Brave, too, has added fingerprinting protection for all third-party content, while Microsoft’s new Edge currently focuses on cookies for tracking prevention.

By trying to find a middle path, Chrome runs the risk of falling behind as users look for browsers that protect their privacy today — especially now that there are compelling alternatives again.

 

After a breakout year, looking ahead to the future of podcasting

By Jonathan Shieber
Justine Moore Contributor
Justine Moore is a venture investor at CRV and co-founded Cardinal Ventures alongside her sister, Olivia.
Olivia Moore Contributor
Olivia Moore is a venture investor at CRV and co-founded Cardinal Ventures alongside her sister, Justine.

2019 has been a breakout year for podcasting. According to Edison Research’s Infinite Dial report, more than half of Americans have now listened to a podcast, and an estimated 32% listen monthly (up from 26% last year). This is the largest yearly increase since this data started being tracked in 2008. Podcast creation also continues to grow, with more than 700,000 podcasts and 29 million podcast episodes, up 27% from last year.

Thanks to this growing listener base, big companies are finally starting to pay attention to the space — Spotify plans to spend $500 million on acquisitions this year, and already acquired content studio Gimlet, tech platform Anchor, and true crime network Parcast for a combined $400 million. In the past week, Google added playable podcasts to search results, Spotify released an analytics dashboard for podcasters and Pandora launched a tool for podcasters to submit their shows.

We’ve been going to Podcast Movement, the largest annual industry conference, for three years, and have watched the conference grow along with the industry — reaching 3,000 attendees in 2019. Given the increased buzz around the space, we were expecting this year’s conference to have a new level of energy and professionalism, and we weren’t disappointed. We’ve summarized five top takeaways from the conference, from why podcast ads are hard to scale to why so many celebrities are launching their own shows.

Screen Shot 2019 08 21 at 1.10.34 PM

Rise of celebrity podcasters boosts listenership

We’ve officially entered the age of celebrity podcasters. After early successes like “WTF with Marc Maron” (2009), Alec Baldwin’s “Here’s The Thing” (2011) and Anna Faris’ “Unqualified” (2015), top talent is flooding into the space. In 2017, 15% of Apple’s top 20 most-downloaded podcasts of the year were hosted by celebrities or influencers — this jumped to 32% of the top 25 in 2018. And of all the new shows that launched in 2018, 48% of the top 25 were celebrity-hosted.

Screen Shot 2019 08 21 at 1.21.50 PMThough podcasts are undermonetized compared to other forms of media, talent agents now consider them to be an important part of a well-rounded content strategy. Dan Ferris from CAA tells his clients to think of podcasting as a way of connecting with fans that is “much more intimate than social media.” Podcasts also help celebrities find a new audience. Ben Davis from WME said that while his client David Dobrik has a smaller audience on his podcast than on YouTube (1.5 million downloads per episode versus 6 million views per video), the podcast helps him reach a new group of listeners who stumble upon his show on the Apple Podcast charts.

While some podcast veterans grumble about the rise of celebrity talk shows, famous podcasters are good for the industry as a whole. Advertisers are drawn to the space by the opportunity to get to access A-list talent at lower prices. One recent example is Endeavor Audio’s fiction show “Blackout,” which starred Rami Malek, who was fresh off an Oscar win. Endeavor’s head of sales, Charlie Emerson, said brands might have to sign a “seven or eight-figure deal” to advertise alongside Malek’s content in other forms of media. Other podcasters also benefit from new listeners brought into the medium by their favorite stars — a Westwood One survey in fall 2018 found that 60% of podcast listeners report discovering shows via social media, where celebrities and influencers have huge existing audiences to push content to.

Screen Shot 2019 08 21 at 1.39.31 PM

Creator backlash against “walled garden” apps

Paid listening apps represent a fairly small percentage of podcast listenership, with production platform Anchor estimating that Apple Podcasts and Spotify control more than 70% of listenership. A venture-backed company called Luminary is trying to change this — it raised $100 million to launch a “Netflix for podcasts” this spring. Consumers pay $7.99/month to access Luminary-exclusive shows alongside podcasts that are free on other apps. Because podcasts have RSS feeds, distributors like Luminary can easily grab free content and put it behind a paywall. The platform, not the creator, benefits from this monetization.

Within days of Luminary’s launch, prominent podcasters and media companies (The New York Times, Gimlet and more) requested their shows be removed from the app. It’s interesting to note that YouTube has a similar premium plan — for $11.99/month, users can access and download ad-free videos. Unlike Luminary, however, YouTube, pays creators a cut of the revenue from these subscriptions based on how frequently their content is viewed.

Unsurprisingly, creator sentiment is more positive toward platforms like Spotify and Pandora . Though these companies do make money from premium subscribers who listen to podcasts, creators can choose whether or not to submit their shows. And podcasters benefit from making their shows discoverable to the existing user base of these platforms, which already dominate “earshare.” Spotify alone has 232 million MAUs, which dwarfs the 90 million people in the U.S. who listen to a podcast monthly.

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Industry anxiety around maintaining quality at scale

Podcast ad revenue has been scaling quickly, with $480 million in spend last year and a projected $680 million this year. Over the past four years, ad revenue has scaled at a 65% CAGR, and this growth is expected to continue. In its early days, the podcast ad market has largely been driven by D2C brands — you’ve probably heard hundreds of Casper, Blue Apron and Madison Reed ads. However, bigger brands are also starting to enter podcasting (Geico, Capital One and Progressive made the top 10 list for June 2019) due to the growing audience scale and increased precision around targeting and attribution.

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While many attendees were excited by the massive growth in ad revenue, others worried that it may kill what makes podcasting special. They’re particularly concerned that podcasts may go the way of online video, with annoying, generic, low CPM ads. Podcast hosts typically read their own ads, and are often true fans of the product — they share personal stories instead of reciting brand talking points. This results in premium CPMs compared to most digital media — AdvertiseCast’s 2019 survey found an average CPM of $18 for a 30-second podcast ad and $25 for a 60-second ad, more than 2x the average CPM on other digital platforms.

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While these ads are effective, they’re time-consuming and expensive to produce. Big brands interested in podcast ads often expect to reuse radio spots — they aren’t used to the process of crafting and approving a host-read ad that may only reach 10,000 listeners. Podcasters, meanwhile, value their trust with listeners and don’t want to spam them with loud, unoriginal radio ads. The tension between maintaining the quality of ads while scaling quantity was an underlying theme of most monetization discussions, and industry veterans disagree on how it will play out.

Podcasts are still undermonetized — but there is hope!

Despite the growth in ad revenue and relatively high CPMs, the industry is significantly undermonetized. Using data from Nielsen, IAB and Edison, we calculated that podcasts monetize through advertisements at only $0.01 per listener hour — less than 10 times the rate of radio. Podcast monetization per listener hour has increased over the past year, up 25% by our calculations, but still substantially lags all other forms of media.

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Why are podcasts so undermonetized? Unlike many other forms of media, the dominant distribution platform (Apple Podcasts) has no ad marketplace. Creators have historically had to approach brands themselves or sign with podcast networks to construct custom ad deals, and the “long tail” of podcasters were unable to monetize. This is finally changing. Anchor, which reported in January that it powers 40% of new podcasts, has an ad marketplace that has doubled the number of podcasts that are running ads. Other popular platforms like Radio Public have launched programs for small podcasters to opt-in to ad placements.

The second major hurdle in monetization is attribution. Podcasts have historically monetized through direct response campaigns — a podcaster provides a special URL or promo code for listeners to use when making a purchase. However, many people listen to podcasts when exercising or driving, and can’t write down the promo code or visit the URL immediately. These listeners might remember the product and make a purchase later, but the podcaster won’t get the attribution. Thomas Mancusi of Audioboom estimated that this happens in 50-60% of purchases driven by podcast ads.

Startups are trying to bring better adtech into podcasting to fix this issue. Chartable is one example — the company installs trackers to match a listener’s IP address with a purchaser’s IP address, allowing podcasters to claim attribution for listeners who don’t use their URL or promo code. Chartable currently runs on 10,000 shows, and the early results are so promising that ad agencies expect to see higher CPMs and significantly more spend in the space.

Podcast fans of the future ≠ podcast fans today

As podcasting grows, the listener base is diversifying. Edison Research looked into data on “rookie” listeners (listening for six months or less) and “veteran” listeners (listening for 3+ years), and found significant demographic differences. Only 37% of veterans are female, compared to 53% of rookies. While the plurality of veterans (43%) are age 35-54, 54% of rookies are age 12-34. Rookies are also 1.6x more likely to say they most often listen to podcasts on Spotify, Pandora or SoundCloud (43% versus 27% of veterans). And social media is an important way that rookies discover podcasts — 52% have found a podcast from video and 46% from audio on social media, compared to 41% and 37% for veterans.

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These new listeners will have a profound impact on the future of podcasting, in both the type of content produced and the way it’s distributed. Industry experts are already noting significant new demand for female-hosted podcasts, as well as audio dramas that appeal to young people looking for a fast-paced, suspenseful story. They’re advising podcasters to share clips of their content on social media, and to leverage broader listening platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud for distribution.

International markets also represent an enormous opportunity for growth. Most podcast listeners today live in the U.S. or China, but content producers are starting to see significant demand elsewhere. Castbox’s Valentina Kaledina said that many fans abroad have resorted to listening in their non-native language, with the top 100 shows in each country comprising a mix of English and local language. Adonde Media’s Martina Castro, who recently conducted the first listener survey on Spanish-language podcast fans, said that 53% of the survey’s 2,100 respondents reported listening to podcasts in English — and only 20% of them use Apple Podcasts.

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Larger podcast producers are beginning to translate shows for non-English-speaking markets. Wondery CEO Hernan Lopez announced at the conference that the company’s hit show Dr. Death is now available in seven languages. Lopez noted that it was an expensive process, and he doesn’t expect the shows to generate profit in the near future. However, he believes that Wondery will eventually see a significant return from investing in the development of new podcast markets — and if they do, other podcast companies will likely follow in their footsteps.

Google updates to a cleaner, simpler Play Store design [Updated]

By Sarah Perez

[Update: the Music tab has been relocated] Google’s Play Store has gotten a big visual makeover, the company announced today, with changes that include a cleaner look-and-feel, new navigation, an easier way to to see app information and more. Most notably, however, is that Google has taken a page from Apple’s playbook with the priority given to its two distinct sections for apps and games. It has also removed the “Music” tab from the top-level navigation, likely ahead of planned changes to Google Play Music and YouTube Music.

Though the redesign is in keeping with Google’s Material Design philosophy, it’s hard to miss Apple’s influence here — from the brighter, whiter and cleaner layout to the new navigation and updated app detail page layouts, among other things.

With Apple’s huge App Store revamp in 2017, the company made several changes to refocus user attention away from top charts and rankings to editorial content, stories and tips, recommendations and curated collections. As a part of this redesign, it created two separate tabs for Apps and Games in the App Store app’s main navigation to better direct users to the type of app content they wanted to browse.

The Play Store had already broken out Apps and Games before today, but they had been part of a much larger navigational element at the top of the home page.

The new design now relocates the Play Store’s main navigation to the bottom of the screen, just like on the iOS App Store. It also distills navigation to just four tabs: Games, Apps, Movies & TV and Books. (Music is gone).

Google says its decision to create two main tabs for apps and games will help it to “better serve users the right kind of content.”

Within the Games and Apps sections, users can browse into other sections, including Google’s personalized “For You” suggestions and Top Charts, and more. Here, you’ll find the same sections the Play Store had before (like “New,” “Events,” “Premium,” etc.) — they’ve just been relocated within the new tabs instead of existing as a second-level navigation bar on the Play Store homepage.

When the user finds an app or game they’re interested in, the updated store listing page layout will now surface richer app information at the top of the page and a bigger call-to-action button (e.g. “Install”).

This, too, is similar to iOS, where key details about the app or game — like its rating or age range — are at the top of this app detail page.

The store also features Google’s new icon system, where apps have a uniform rounded square shape. Apple has always enforced standardized app icons.

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The Play Store makeover had already leaked earlier this year, thanks to enterprising developers who got their hands on Google’s tests and published screenshots.

Some more screenshots of the new Google Play UI, this time with working reviews and music store. Only UI bug is the toolbar disappearing (that I can see), and it's *fairly* stable (but still crashes a fair amount), might be something at I/O next week? pic.twitter.com/7TmTH2TYMb

— Kieron Quinn (@Quinny898) May 2, 2019

As for the Music tab’s relocation, Google already confirmed it was planning to replace Google Play Music with YouTube Music, and shut down Google Play’s artist hub this April in preparation for that. With the removal of the Music tab from the new Play Store, the completion of this merger appears to be imminent.

Update: The Music tab has been relocated, says Google… it’s a bit buried now

Attention 🎵 fans: The music section has moved, but don’t fret, it should only make your jam sesh easier. pic.twitter.com/9x7WpHAp6k

— Google Play (@GooglePlay) August 21, 2019

In Google’s announcement today about the redesign, it showed off the new look with a photo (see top photo above).

It’s pretty odd that the app being showcased in Google’s photo, Alto’s Odyssey, is an Apple Design Winner that launched on iOS first — as did its precursor, Alto’s Adventure. When coming to Android, the game development company worked with Android publisher Noodlecake on its Android ports.

In other words, not only is this a non-exclusive game, it comes from an iOS-first shop. Sure, it’s a great game. But that’s also a pretty weird pick on Google’s part.

The Google Play Store has more than two billion monthly active users, Google said in its announcement. The new version of the Play Store is rolling out now.

Classic Hangouts will hang in there a bit longer

By Frederic Lardinois

Earlier this year, Google said it would transition all Hangouts users on G Suite to Hangouts Chat and Meet by October 2019 and then retire the classic version of Hangouts. But a lot of G Suite users love their classic Hangouts, so Google has now revised Hangouts’ retirement date to “no sooner than June 2020.” That leaves the door open for a later date, too, and the company says it will provide a “more definitive date” at some point in the future.

It’s worth stressing that this new timeline is about Hangouts for paying G Suite users, but it will also influence the consumer timeline. What exactly is happening to Hangouts for consumers remains a bit unclear, though, given that Google’s original consumer messaging strategy failed after the disappointment that was Allo.

But here is what we know: Earlier this year, Google said that it wanted to transition consumers over to a free version of Hangouts Chat and Meet after the G Suite transition. A Google spokesperson told me this plan remains in place and it will start after the G Suite transition.

As for G Suite users, Google plans to make the transition for G Suite users easier as it looks to move them over to the new platform. Admins can already jump on an accelerated timeline and disable classic Hangouts right now (but they still need an invitation from Google to do so).

Google denies reports of unannounced changes to Android app review process

By Sarah Perez

Multiple reports this week claimed Google had quietly rolled out a more in-depth app review process to all developers — changes designed to keep the Play Store safer from spam, malware and copycat apps. Those reports are inaccurate, Google tells TechCrunch. Instead, the company is giving itself more time to review apps from new, unestablished developers on the Play Store, as previously announced, but this hasn’t been extended to all developers.

Concerns about these so-called “unannounced changes” stemmed from a blog post by Choice of Games, which wrote that “all new apps” would be getting an additional review, slowing down app approvals. It claimed new apps would require at least three days for review, and this now included existing developers.

The post cited a conversation with Google Support as the source for its claims.

This led to a ton of confusion, as the development shop behind the post was well-established, having been on the Play Store since 2010 and would have been exempt from Google’s policy of increased reviews for new developers.

As it turns out, it appears there was miscommunication between Google Play Store developer support and the developer, according to the chat transcript that was published. The support person, “Liz,” was alerting the developer to the new policy Google announced in April, which detailed increased review times for Play Store newcomers. She didn’t appear to understand that she was speaking with a developer who had published on Google Play for nearly a decade.

Android Police also picked up the news, writing that Google had “quietly instigated a more involved review process that impacts every app and update.”

Reddit and Hacker News also weighed in. In addition to the reported changes, developers were concerned there was now no way to schedule new app releases through the Timed Publishing feature. (That’s also not true — developers can publish to a closed testing track, then use Timed Publishing to go live to the public.)

A Google Developer Relations team member stepped in to clear things up on Reddit, and we’ve confirmed with Google that his responses were accurate.

Google’s updated app review process, first announced in April, hasn’t changed.

At the time, Google said:

“We will soon be taking more time (days, not weeks) to review apps by developers that don’t yet have a track record with us. This will allow us to do more thorough checks before approving apps to go live in the store and will help us make even fewer inaccurate decisions on developer accounts.”

Google began notifying developers directly in the Play Console in June that new apps by developers without a track record will take a couple of days longer to review. Google says that, since this change, it’s already seen a meaningful increase in the number of harmful apps blocked by Play even before they are published.

It’s not clear why the developer relations support person miscommunicated this information to the developer in question, but it points to a training issue on Google’s part.

It’s also unclear why the established developer’s app was held up in app review, beyond it just being a mistake on Google’s part.

Unfortunately for Google, Play Store developers have come to expect a speedy review process, so any delays feel like unnecessary friction.

Unlike Apple, which employs a large team to carefully review app submissions and make hard calls on controversial apps, Google has more heavily relied on automation over the years. The company disclosed in the past how it uses software to pre-analyze apps for viruses, malware and other content and copyright violations.

That process doesn’t always work, though. Only days ago, dozens of Android apps disguised as harmless photo editors and games were discovered to actually be adware. This follows similar news from January, when 85 apps were found to contain adware… and in May, when adware was discovered in some 200 apps totaling 150+ million installs… and, news from last November, when malware was found across more than a dozen apps with half a million installs… and so on.

While it would make sense for Google to increase its review of all apps, given its inability to address this problem, that was not the case here.

How Dropbox, Nike, Salesforce, MailChimp, Google and Pepsi welcome their new hires

By Arman Tabatabai
Vladimir Polo Contributor
Vladimir PoloVladimir Polo is the founder and CEO of AcademyOcean, a SaaS tool for interactive onboarding and training. Vladimir has 10 years of management experience (agency & product) and is passionate about SaaS and building strong corporate culture.

The first day of work at a new job can be very stressful. The unfamiliar surroundings and onslaught of new material can cause new hires some degree of discomfort. But sometimes the atmosphere at the new company can be welcoming and can help counteract the stress.

Different companies have their own traditions to help make this transition period more comfortable and memorable for new hires. Some of these traditions include:

  • Team-building day trips for new hires
  • Breakfast with the CEO
  • Tours of the best cafes, parks, and other spots in the neighborhood
  • Office “quests” (or some other gamification of onboarding)
  • Personalized onboarding programs or interactive company academies

Usually, only employees can experience these traditions. But there’s one new-hire tradition that has become extremely popular and often highly publicized: the “welcome kit”.

Welcome kits usually contain a hodgepodge of items that employees will need on the job (pens, notebooks, books, etc.) and things to make employees feel welcome (clothing, stickers, water bottles, or more unusual items — often with the company name or logo on them).

To get a sense of how different companies handle their kits, we talked to four successful startups about their welcome kits in the article below, followed by our look at a dozen more:

Table of Contents:

This article is based on the personal welcome kit collection of Vladimir Polo, founder of AcademyOcean. AcademyOcean is a tool for interactive onboarding and training (and Vladimir Polo is a fan of welcome kits).

Dropbox

States to launch antitrust investigation into big tech companies, reports say

By Manish Singh

The state attorneys in more than a dozen states are preparing to begin an antitrust investigation of the tech giants, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reported Monday, putting the spotlight on an industry that is already facing federal scrutiny.

The bipartisan group of attorneys from as many as 20 states is expected to formally launch a probe as soon as next month to assess whether tech companies are using their dominant market position to hurt competition, WSJ reported.

If true, the move follows the Department of Justice, which last month announced its own antitrust review of how online platforms scaled to their gigantic sizes and whether they are using their power to curb competition and stifle innovation. Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission formed a task force to monitor competition among tech platforms.

It won’t be unprecedented for a group of states to look at a technology giant. In 1998, 20 states joined the Justice Department in suing Microsoft . The states could play a key role in building evidence and garnering public support for major investigations.

Because the tentacles of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple reach so many industries, any investigation into them could last for years.

Apple and Google pointed the Times to their previous official statements on the matter, in which they have argued that they have been vastly innovative and created an environment that has benefited the consumers. Amazon and Facebook did not comment.

Also on Monday, Joseph Simons, the chairman of FTC, warned that Facebook’s planned effort to integrate Instagram and WhatsApp could stymie any attempt by the agency to break up the social media giant.

“If they’re maintaining separate business structures and infrastructure, it’s much easier to have a divestiture in that circumstance than in where they’re completely enmeshed and all the eggs are scrambled,” Simons told the Financial Times.

Baidu beats estimates on strong video streaming growth

By Manish Singh

Chinese search giant Baidu on Monday posted a revenue of 26.33 billion yuan ($3.73 billion) for the quarter that ended in June, beating analysts’ estimates of 25.77 billion yuan ($3.65 billion) as its video streaming service iQIYI continues to see strong growth. The 19-year-old firm’s shares were up over 9% in extended trading.

The company, which is often called Google of China, said revenue of its core businesses grew 12% from the same period last year “despite the weak macro environment, our self-directed healthcare initiative, industry-specific policy changes and large influx of ad inventory.” Net income for the second quarter dropped to 2.41 billion yuan ($344 million).

“With Baidu traffic growing robustly and our mobile ecosystem continuing to expand, we are in a good position to focus on capitalizing monetization and ROI improvement opportunities to deliver shareholder value,” Herman Yu, CFO of Baidu, said in a statement.

Today’s results for Baidu, which has been struggling of late, should help calm investors’ worries. In recent years, as users move from desktop to mobile and rivals such as ByteDance win hundreds of millions of users through their mobile apps, many have cast doubt on Baidu’s ability to maintain its momentum and hold onto its advertising business. (On desktop, Baidu continues to command over three quarters of the Chinese market share.)

In the quarter that ended in March this year, Baidu posted its first quarterly loss since 2015, the year it went public.

Robin Li, Baidu co-founder and CEO, said Baidu app was being used by 188 million users everyday, up 27% from the same period last year. “In-app search queries grew over 20% year over year and smart mini program MAUs reached 270 million, up 49% sequentially,” said.

Baidu’s video streaming service iQIYI has now amassed over 100.5 million subscribers, up 50% year over year, the company said. Revenue from iQIYI stood at 7.11 billion yuan ($1.01 billion), up 15% since last year.

“On Baidu’s AI businesses, DuerOS voice assistant continues to experience strong momentum with installed base surpassing 400 million devices, up 4.5 fold year over year, and monthly voice queries surpassing 3.6 billion, up 7.5 fold year over year, in June. As mobile internet penetration in China slows, we are excited about the huge opportunity to provide content and service providers a cross-platform distribution channel beyond mobile, into smart homes and automobiles,” he added.

Revenue from online marketing services, which makes a significant contribution to overall sales, fell about 9% to 19.2 billion yuan ($2.72 billion).

Without evidence, Trump accuses Google of manipulating millions of votes

By Devin Coldewey

The president this morning lashed out at Google on Twitter, accusing the company of manipulating millions of votes in the 2016 election to sway it toward Hillary Clinton. The authority on which he bases this serious accusation, however, is little more than supposition in an old paper reheated by months-old congressional testimony.

Trump’s tweet this morning cited no paper at all, in fact, though he did tag conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, perhaps asking them to investigate. It’s also unclear who he thinks should sue the company.

Wow, Report Just Out! Google manipulated from 2.6 million to 16 million votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016 Election! This was put out by a Clinton supporter, not a Trump Supporter! Google should be sued. My victory was even bigger than thought! @JudicialWatch

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 19, 2019

Coincidentally, Fox News had just mentioned the existence of such a report about five minutes earlier. Trump has also recently criticized Google and CEO Sundar Pichai over a variety of perceived slights.

In fact, the report was not “just issued,” and does not say what the president suggests it did. What both Fox and Trump appear to be referring to is a paper published in 2017 that described what the authors say was a bias in Google and other search engines during the run-up to the 2016 election.

If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard about this particular study, I can tell you why — it’s a very bad study. The authors looked at search results for 95 people over the 25 days preceding the election and evaluated the first page for bias.

They claim to have found that based on “crowdsourced” determinations of bias, the process for which is not described, that most search results, especially on Google, tended to be biased in favor of Clinton. No data on these searches, such as a sample search and results and how they were determined to be biased, is provided. There’s no discussion of the fact, for example, that Google tailors search results based on a person’s previous searches, stated preferences, location and so on.

In fact, the paper lacks all the qualifications of any ordinary research paper. There is no abstract or introduction, no methods section to show the statistics work and definitions of terms, no discussion, no references. Without this basic information the document is not only incapable of being reviewed by peers or experts, but is indistinguishable from completely invented suppositions. Nothing in this paper can be in any way verified.

Robert Epstein freely references himself, however: a single 2015 paper in PNAS on how search results could be deliberately manipulated to affect a voter looking for information on candidates, and the many, many opinion pieces he has written on the subject, frequently on far-right outlets the Epoch Times and Daily Caller, but also non-partisan ones like USA Today and Bloomberg Businessweek.

The numbers advanced in the study are completely without merit. Citing math he does not describe, Epstein says that “a pro-Clinton bias in Google’s search results would over time, shift at least 2.6 million votes to Clinton.” No mechanism or justification for this assertion is provided, except a highly theoretical one based on ideas and assumptions from his 2015 study, which had little in common with this one. The numbers are, essentially, made up.

In other words, this so-called report is nothing of the kind — a nonfactual document written with no scientific justification of its claims written by someone who publishes anti-Google editorials almost monthly. It was not published in a journal of any kind, simply put online at a private nonprofit research agency called the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, where Epstein is on staff and which appears to exist almost solely to promote his work — such as it is.

(In response to my inquiry, AIBRT said that it is not legally bound to reveal its donors and chooses not to, but stated that it does not accept “gifts that might cause the organization to bias its research projects in any way.”)

Lastly, in his paper, Epstein speculates that Google may have been manipulating the data they were collecting for the report, citing differences between data from Gmail users and non-users, choosing to throw away all the former while still reporting of it:

As you can see, the search results seen by non-gmail users were far more biased than the results seen by gmail users. Perhaps Google identified our confidants through its gmail system and targeted them to receive unbiased results; we have no way to confirm this at present, but it is a plausible explanation for the pattern of results we found.

I leave it to the reader to judge the plausibility of this assertion.

If that were all, it would be more than enough. But Trump’s citation of this fraudulent paper doesn’t even get the facts right. His assertion was that “Google manipulated from 2.6 million to 16 million votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016 Election,” and the report doesn’t even state that.

The source for this false claim appears to be Epstein’s recent appearance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in July. Here he received star treatment from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who asked him to share his expert opinion on the possibility of tech manipulation of voting. Cruz’s previous expert for this purpose was conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager.

Again citing no data, studies or mechanisms whatsoever, Epstein described 2.6 million as a “rock-bottom minimum” of votes that Google, Facebook, Twitter and others could have affected (he does not say did affected, or attempted to affect). He also says that in subsequent elections, specifically in 2020, “if all these companies are supporting the same candidate, there are 15 million votes on the line that can be shifted without people’s knowledge and without leaving a paper trail for authorities to trace.”

“The methods they are using are invisible, they’re subliminal, they’re more powerful than most any effects I’ve seen in the behavioral sciences,” Epstein said, but did not actually describe what the techniques are. Though he did suggest that Mark Zuckerberg could send out a “get out the vote” notification only to Democrats and no one would ever know — absurd.

In other words, the numbers are not only invented, but unrelated to the 2016 election, and inclusive of all tech companies, not just Google. Even if Epstein’s claims were anywhere near justifiable, Trump’s tweet mischaracterizes them and gets everything wrong. Nothing about any of this is anywhere close to correct.

Google issued a statement addressing the president’s accusation, saying, “This researcher’s inaccurate claim has been debunked since it was made in 2016. As we stated then, we have never re-ranked or altered search results to manipulate political sentiment.”

You can read the full “report” below:

EPSTEIN & ROBERTSON 2017-A Method for Detecting Bias in Search Rankings-AIBRT by TechCrunch on Scribd

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