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Today — January 18th 2021Your RSS feeds

Signal and Telegram are also growing in China – for now

By Rita Liao

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.”

Yesterday — January 17th 2021Your RSS feeds

This Week in Apps: Parler deplatformed, alt apps rise, looking back at 2020 trends

By Sarah Perez

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage 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 per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

Top Stories

The right-wing gets deplatformed

Last weekend, Google and Apple removed Parler from their respective app stores, the latter after first giving the app 24 hours to come up with a new moderation strategy to address the threats of violence and illegal activity taking place on the app in the wake of the Capitol riot. When Parler failed to take adequate measures, the app was pulled down.

What happened afterwards was unprecedented. All of Parler’s technology backend services providers pulled support for Parler, too, including Amazon AWS (which has led to a lawsuit), Stripe and even Okta, which Parler was only using as a free trial. Other vendors also refused to do business with the app, potentially ending its ability to operate for good.

But although Parler is down, its data lives on. Several efforts have been made to archive Parler data for posterity — and for tipping off the FBI. Gizmodo made a map using the GPS data of 70,000 Parler posts. Another effort, Y’all Qaeda, is also using location data to map videos from Parler to locations around the Capitol building.

These visualizations are possible because the data itself was quickly archived by internet archivist @donk_enby before Parler was taken down, and because Parler stored rich metadata with each user’s post. That means each user’s precise location was recorded when they uploaded their photos and videos to the app.

It’s a gold mine for investigators and a further indication of the privilege these rioters believed they had to avoid prosecution or the extent to which they were willing to throw their life away for their cause — the false reality painted for them by Trump, his allies and other outlets that repeated the “big lie” until they truly believed only a revolution could save our democracy.

The move to kick Parler offline followed the broader deplatforming of Trump, who’s accused of inciting the violence, in part by his refusal to concede and his continued lies about a “rigged election.” As a result, Trump has been deplatformed across social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitch, YouTube, Reddit, Discord and Snapchat, while e-commerce platform Shopify kicked out Trump merch shops and PayPal refused to process transactions for some groups of Trump supporters.

Alternative social apps post gains following Capitol riot

Parler was the most high-profile app used by the Capitol rioters, but others found themselves compromised by the same crowd. Walkie-talkie app Zello, for instance, was used by some insurrectionists during the January 6 riot to communicate. Telegram, meanwhile, recently had to block dozens of hardcore hate channels that were threatening violence, including those led by Nazis (which were reported for years with no action by the company, some claim).

Now, many in the radical right are moving to new platforms outside of the mainstream. Immediately following the Capitol riot, MeWe, CloutHub and other privacy-focused rivals to big tech began topping the app stores, alongside the privacy-focused messengers Signal and Telegram. YouTube alternative Rumble also gained ground due to recent events. Right-wingers even mistakenly downloaded the wrong “Parlor” app and a local newspaper app they thought was the uncensored social network Gab. (They’re not always the brightest bulbs.)

This could soon prove to be another difficult situation for the platforms to address, as we already came across highly concerning posts distributed on MeWe, which had used extreme hate speech or threatened violence. MeWe claims it moderates its content, but its recent growth to now 15 million users may be making that difficult — especially since it’s inheriting the former Parler users, including the radical far-right. The company has not been able to properly moderate the content, which may make it the next to be gone.

2020 annual review

App Annie this week released its annual review of the mobile app industry finding (as noted above) that mobile app downloads grew by 7% year-over-year to a record 218 billion in 2020. Consumer spending also 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 spent 3.5 trillion minutes on Android devices in 2020. Meanwhile, U.S. users now spend more time in apps (four hours) than watching live TV (3.7 hours).

The full report examines other key trends across social, gaming, finance, e-commerce, video and streaming, mobile food ordering, business apps, edtech and much more. We pulled out some highlights here, such as TikTok’s chart-topping year by downloads, the rise in livestreamed and social shopping, consumers spending 40% more time streaming on mobile YoY and other key trends.

Sensor Tower also released its own annual report, which specifically explored the impact of COVID-19; the growth in business apps, led by Zoom; mobile gaming; and the slow recovery of travel apps, among other things.

Samsung reveals its new flagships

Image Credits: Samsung

Though not “apps” news per se, it’s worth making note of what’s next in the Android ecosystem of high-end devices. This week was Samsung’s Unpacked press event, where the company revealed its latest flagship devices and other products. The big news was Samsung’s three new phones and their now lower prices: the glass-backed Galaxy S21 ($799) and S21 Plus ($999), and the S21 Ultra ($1,199), which is S Pen compatible.

The now more streamlined camera systems are the key feature of the new phones, and include:

  • S21 and S21 Plus: A 12-megapixel ultrawide, 12-megapixel wide and 64-megapixel telephoto with 30x space zoom.
  • S21 Ultra: A 12-megapixel ultra-wide, 108-megapixel wide and, for the first time, a dual-telephoto lens system with 3x and 10x optical zoom. The Ultra also improves low-light shooting with its Bright Night sensor.

The devices support UWB and there’s a wild AI-powered photo feature that lets you tap to remove people from the background of your photos. (How well it works is TBD). Other software imaging updates allow you to pull stills from 8K shooting, better image stabilization and a new “Vlogger view” for shooting from front and back cameras as the same time.

Also launched were Samsung’s AirPods rival, the Galaxy Buds Pro, and its Tile rival, the Galaxy SmartTag.

 

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • Apple releases second iOS 14.2 developer beta. The update brings improvements to the HomePod mini handoff experience and an update to the Find My app to ready it for supporting third-party accessories.
  • Apple will soon allow third-parties to join the Find My app ahead of its AirTags launch. Tile had argued before regulators last year that Apple was giving itself first-party advantage with AirTags in Find My. Apple subsequently launched the Find My Accessory Program to begin certifying third-party products. AirTags’ existence was also leaked again this week.
  • Apple is working to bring its Music and Podcasts apps to the Microsoft Store.
  • Apple may be working on a podcast subscription service, per The Information.

Platforms: Google

  • Google appears to be working on an app hibernation feature for Android 12. The feature would hibernate unused apps to free up space.
  • Google pulls several personal loan apps from the Play Store in India. The company said several of the apps had been targeting vulnerable borrowers, then abusing them and using other extreme tactics when they couldn’t pay. Critics say Google took too long to respond to the outcry, which has already prompted suicides. Police have also frozen bank accounts holding $58 million for alleged scams conducted through 30 apps, none of which had approval from India’s central bank.

Gaming

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

  • 48,000 mobile games were purged from the China App Store in December 2020, reports Sensor Tower. The games removed in 2020 for not having acquired the proper Chinese gaming license, had generated nearly $3 billion in lifetime revenue.
  • The top grossing mobile game in December 2020 was Honor of Kings with $258 million in player spending, up 58% year-over-year, according to Sensor Tower. PUBG Mobile was No. 2. followed by Genshin Impact.
  • Among Us was the most downloaded mobile game in December 2020, per Apptopia. with an estimated 48 million new downloads in the month, most through Google Play.
  • Epic Games demands Fortnite to be reinstated on the App Store, in a U.K. legal filing. The game maker is engaged in multiple lawsuits over the “Apple tax.”

Security

  • Amazon’s Ring app exposed users’ home addresses. Amazon says there’s no evidence the security flaw had been exploited by anyone.
  • New research details how law enforcements gets into iOS and Android smartphones and cloud backups of their data.

Privacy

  • Signal’s Brian Acton says recent outrage over WhatsApp’s terms are driving installs of the private messaging app. Third-party data indicates Signal has around 20 million MAUs as of December 2020. The app also saw a surge due to the U.S. Capitol riots, with 7.5 million downloads from January 6-10.
  • Telegram user base in India was up 110% in 2020. The app now has 115 million MAUs in India, which could allow it to better compete with WhatsApp.
  • Privacy concerns are also driving sign-ups for encrypted email providers, ProtonMail and Tutanota. The former reports a 3x rise in recent weeks, while the latter said usage has doubled size WhatsApp released its new T&Cs.
  • FTC settled with period-tracking app Flo for sharing user health data with third-party analytics and marketing services, when it had promised to keep data private. The app must now obtain user consent and will be subject to an independent review of its practices.
  • FTC settled with Ever, the maker of a photo storage app that had pivoted to selling facial recognition services. The company used the photos it collected to train facial recognition algorithms. It’s been order to delete that data and all face embeddings derived from photos without user consent.
  • Muslim prayer app Salaat First (Prayer Times) was found to be recording and selling user location info to a data broker. The firm collecting the data had been linked to a supply chain that involved a U.S. government contractor who worked with ICE, Customs and Border Protection, and the FBI.
  • TikTok changed the privacy settings and defaults for users under 18. Children 13-15 will have private accounts by default. Other restrictions apply on features like commenting, Dueting, Stitching and more for all under 18. TikTok also partnered with Common Sense Networks to help it curate age-appropriate content for users under 13.

Government & Policy

  • Italy’s data protection agency, the GPDP, said it contacted the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) to raise concerns over WhatsApp’s requirement for users to accept its updated T&Cs to continue to use the service. The law requires that users are informed of each specific use of their data and given a choice as to whether their data is processed. The new in-app notification doesn’t make the changes clear nor allow that option.
  • Turkey starts an antitrust investigation into Facebook and WhatsApp. The investigation was prompted by WhatsApp’s new Terms of Service, effective February 8, which allows data sharing with Facebook.
  • WhatsApp then delayed its T&C changes, as a result.

Health & Fitness

  • Google this week fixed an issue with its Android Exposure Notification System that’s used by COVID-19 tracking apps. The impacted apps took longer to load and carry out their exposure checks.

Edtech

  • Amazon makes an education push in India with JEE preparation app. The company launched Amazon Academy, a service that will help students in India prepare for the Joint Entrance Examinations (JEE), a government-backed entrance assessment for admission into various engineering colleges.

Funding and M&A (and IPOs)

  • PayPal acquired the 30% stake it didn’t already own in China’s GoPay, making it the first foreign firm in China with full ownership of its payments business.
  • Therapy app Talkspace will go public through a $1.4 billion merger with SPAC Hudson Executive Investment Corp.
  • Snap acquired location data startup StreetCred. The team will join the company and work on maps and location-related products for Snapchat.
  • BlaBla raised $1.5 million for its language-learning app that teaches English using TikTok-like videos. The startup, a participant in Y Combinator’s 2020 summer batch, had previously applied to YC seven times. Other investors include Amino Capital, Starling Ventures and Wayra X.
  • Poshmark, the online and mobile app for reselling clothing, IPO’d and closed up more than 140% on day one.
  • Dating app Bumble also filed to go public. The company claims 42 million MAUs, with 2.4 million paying users through the first nine months of 2020. It lost $117 million on $417 million in revenue during that time.
  • Blog platform Medium acquired Paris-based Glose, a mobile app that lets you buy and read books on mobile devices.
  • Indonesian investment app Ajaib raised $25 million Series A led by Horizons Venture and Alpha JWC. Inspired by Robinhood, the app offers low-fee stock trading and access to mutual funds.
  • Mailchimp acquired Chatitive, a B2B messaging startup that helps businesses reach customers over text messages.
  • Chinese fitness app Keep raised $360 million Series F led by SoftBank Vision Fund. The six-year-old startup that allows fitness influencers to host live classes over video is now valued at $2 billion.
  • Google finalized Fitbit acquisition. Google confirmed it will allow Fitbit users to continue to connect with third-party services and said the health data will be kept separate and not used for ads.
  • On-demand U.K. supermarket Weezy raised $20 million Series A for its Postmates-like app that delivers groceries in as fast as 15 minutes, on average.

Downloads

Bandsintown

Exclusive performances by @AdrianneLenker, @JeffTweedy, @flyinglotus, and Fleet Foxes, coming soon to Bandsintown PLUS. https://t.co/SsnrebvOUh pic.twitter.com/81haWTPf3F

— Bandsintown (@Bandsintown) January 12, 2021

COVID has cancelled concerts, which required Bandsintown to pivot from helping people find shows to attend to a new subscription service for live music. The company this week launched Bandsintown Plus, a $9.99 per month pass that gives users access to more than 25 concerts per month. The shows offered are exclusive to the platform, and not available on other sites like YouTube, Twitch, Apple Music or Spotify.

Piñata Farms

Image Credits: Piñata Farms

This new social video app lets you put anyone or anything into an existing video to make humorous video memes. The computer vision-powered app lets you do things like crop out a head from a photo, for example, or use thousands of in-app items to add to your existing video. The resulting creations can be shared in the app, privately through messaging or out to other social platforms. Available on iOS only.

Capture App

Image Credits: Numbers Protocol

This new blockchain camera app, reviewed here on TechCrunch, uses tech commercialized by the Taiwan-based startup, Numbers Protocol. The app secures the metadata associated with photos you take on the blockchain, also allowing users to adjust privacy settings if they don’t want to share a precise location. Any subsequent changes to the photo are then traced and recorded. Use cases for the technology include journalism (plus combating fake news), as well as a way for photographers to assure their photos are attributed correctly. The app is available on the App Store and Google Play.

Marsbot for AirPods

Image Credits: Foursquare Labs, Inc.

A new experiment from Foursquare Labs, Marsbot, offers an audio guide to your city. As you walk or bike around, the app gives you running commentary about the places around you using data from Foursquare, other content providers and snippets from other app users. The app is also optimized for AirPods, making it iOS-only.

Loupe

Image Credits: Loupe

Loupe is a new app that modernizes sports card collecting. The app allows users to participate in daily box breaks, host their own livestreams with chats, collect alongside fellow collectors and purchase new sports card singles, packs and boxes when they hit the market, among other things. The app is available on iOS.

 

Twitter’s decentralized future

By Lucas Matney

This week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey finally responded publicly to the company’s decision to ban President Trump from its platform, writing that Twitter had “faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance” and that he did not “feel pride” about the decision. In the same thread, he took time to call out a nascent Twitter-sponsored initiative called “bluesky,” which is aiming to build up an “open decentralized standard for social media” that Twitter is just one part of.

Researchers involved with bluesky reveal to TechCrunch an initiative still in its earliest stages that could fundamentally shift the power dynamics of the social web.

Bluesky is aiming to build a “durable” web standard that will ultimately ensure that platforms like Twitter have less centralized responsibility in deciding which users and communities have a voice on the internet. While this could protect speech from marginalized groups, it may also upend modern moderation techniques and efforts to prevent online radicalization.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive officer of Twitter Inc., arrives after a break during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Republicans pressed Dorsey for what they said may be the “shadow-banning” of conservatives during the hearing. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What is bluesky?

Just as Bitcoin lacks a central bank to control it, a decentralized social network protocol operates without central governance, meaning Twitter would only control its own app built on bluesky, not other applications on the protocol. The open and independent system would allow applications to see, search and interact with content across the entire standard. Twitter hopes that the project can go far beyond what the existing Twitter API offers, enabling developers to create applications with different interfaces or methods of algorithmic curation, potentially paying entities across the protocol like Twitter for plug-and-play access to different moderation tools or identity networks.

A widely adopted, decentralized protocol is an opportunity for social networks to “pass the buck” on moderation responsibilities to a broader network, one person involved with the early stages of bluesky suggests, allowing individual applications on the protocol to decide which accounts and networks its users are blocked from accessing.

Social platforms like Parler or Gab could theoretically rebuild their networks on bluesky, benefitting from its stability and the network effects of an open protocol. Researchers involved are also clear that such a system would also provide a meaningful measure against government censorship and protect the speech of marginalized groups across the globe.

Bluesky’s current scope is firmly in the research phase, people involved tell TechCrunch, with about 40-50 active members from different factions of the decentralized tech community surveying the software landscape and putting together proposals for what the protocol should ultimately look like. Twitter has told early members that it hopes to hire a project manager in the coming weeks to build out an independent team that will start crafting the protocol itself.

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment on the initiative.

Bluesky’s initial members were invited by Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal early last year. It was later determined that the group should open the conversation up to folks representing some of the more recognizable decentralized network projects, including Mastodon and ActivityPub, which joined the working group hosted on the secure chat platform Element.

Jay Graber, founder of decentralized social platform Happening, was paid by Twitter to write up a technical review of the decentralized social ecosystem, an effort to “help Twitter evaluate the existing options in the space,” she tells TechCrunch.

“If [Twitter] wanted to design this thing, they could have just assigned a group of guys to do it, but there’s only one thing that this little tiny group of people could do better than Twitter, and that’s not be Twitter,” said Golda Velez, another member of the group who works as a senior software engineer at Postmates and co-founded civ.works, a privacy-centric social network for civic engagement.

The group has had some back and forth with Twitter executives on the scope of the project, eventually forming a Twitter-approved list of goals for the initiative. They define the challenges that the bluesky protocol should seek to address while also laying out what responsibilities are best left to the application creators building on the standard.

Parrot.VC Twitter account

Image: TechCrunch

Who is involved

The pain points enumerated in the document, viewed by TechCrunch, encapsulate some of Twitter’s biggest shortcomings. They include “how to keep controversy and outrage from hijacking virality mechanisms,” as well as a desire to develop “customizable mechanisms” for moderation, though the document notes that the applications, not the overall protocol, are “ultimately liable for compliance, censorship, takedowns etc.”

“I think the solution to the problem of algorithms isn’t getting rid of algorithms — because sorting posts chronologically is an algorithm — the solution is to make it an open pluggable system by which you can go in and try different algorithms and see which one suits you or use the one that your friends like,” says Evan Henshaw-Plath, another member of the working group. He was one of Twitter’s earliest employees and has been building out his own decentralized social platform called Planetary.

His platform is based on the secure scuttlebutt protocol, which allows users to browse networks offline in an encrypted fashion. Early on, Planetary had been in talks with Twitter for a corporate investment as well as a personal investment from CEO Jack Dorsey, Henshaw-Plath says, but the competitive nature of the platform prompted some concern among Twitter’s lawyers and Planetary ended up receiving an investment from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s venture fund Future Positive. Stone did not respond to interview requests.

After agreeing on goals, Twitter had initially hoped for the broader team to arrive at some shared consensus, but starkly different viewpoints within the group prompted Twitter to accept individual proposals from members. Some pushed Twitter to outright adopt or evolve an existing standard while others pushed for bluesky to pursue interoperability of standards early on and see what users naturally flock to.

One of the developers in the group hoping to bring bluesky onto their standard was Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko, who tells TechCrunch he sees the need for a major shift in how social media platforms operate globally.

“Banning Trump was the right decision though it came a little bit too late. But at the same time, the nuance of the situation is that maybe it shouldn’t be a single American company that decides these things,” Rochko tells us.

Like several of the other members in the group, Rochko has been skeptical at times about Twitter’s motivation with the bluesky protocol. Shortly after Dorsey’s initial announcement in 2019, Mastodon’s official Twitter account tweeted out a biting critique, writing, “This is not an announcement of reinventing the wheel. This is announcing the building of a protocol that Twitter gets to control, like Google controls Android.”

Today, Mastodon is arguably one of the most mature decentralized social platforms. Rochko claims that the network of decentralized nodes has more than 2.3 million users spread across thousands of servers. In early 2017, the platform had its viral moment on Twitter, prompting an influx of “hundreds of thousands” of new users alongside some inquisitive potential investors whom Rochko has rebuffed in favor of a donation-based model.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Inherent risks

Not all of the attention Rochko has garnered has been welcome. In 2019, Gab, a social network favored by right-wing extremists, brought its entire platform onto the Mastodon network after integrating the platform’s open-source code, bringing Mastodon its single biggest web of users and its most undesirable liability all at once.

Rochko quickly disavowed the network and aimed to sever its ties to other nodes on the Mastodon platform and convince application creators to do the same. But a central fear of decentralization advocates was quickly realized, as the platform type’s first “success story” was a home for right-wing extremists.

This fear has been echoed in decentralized communities this week as app store owners and networks have taken another right-wing social network, Parler, off the web after violent content surfaced on the site in the lead-up to and aftermath of riots at the U.S. Capitol, leaving some developers fearful that the social network may set up home on their decentralized standard.

“Fascists are 100% going to use peer-to-peer technologies, they already are and they’re going to start using it more… If they get pushed off of mainstream infrastructure or people are surveilling them really closely, they’re going to have added motivation,” said Emmi Bevensee, a researcher studying extremist presences on decentralized networks. “Maybe the far-right gets stronger footholds on peer-to-peer before the people who think the far-right is bad do because they were effectively pushed off.”

A central concern is that commoditizing decentralized platforms through efforts like bluesky will provide a more accessible route for extremists kicked off current platforms to maintain an audience and provide casual internet users a less janky path towards radicalization.

“Peer-to-peer technology is generally not that seamless right now. Some of it is; you can buy Bitcoin in Cash App now, which, if anything, is proof that this technology is going to become much more mainstream and adoption is going to become much more seamless,” Bevensee told TechCrunch. “In the current era of this mass exodus from Parler, they’re obviously going to lose a huge amount of audience that isn’t dedicated enough to get on IPFS. Scuttlebutt is a really cool technology but it’s not as seamless as Twitter.”

Extremists adopting technologies that promote privacy and strong encryption is far from a new phenomenon, encrypted chat apps like Signal and Telegram have been at the center of such controversies in recent years. Bevensee notes the tendency of right-wing extremist networks to adopt decentralized network tech has been “extremely demoralizing” to those early developer communities — though she notes that the same technologies can and do benefit “marginalized people all around the world.”

Though people connected to bluesky’s early moves see a long road ahead for the protocol’s development and adoption, they also see an evolving landscape with Parler and President Trump’s recent deplatforming that they hope will drive other stakeholders to eventually commit to integrating with the standard.

“Right at this moment I think that there’s going to be a lot of incentive to adopt, and I don’t just mean by end users, I mean by platforms, because Twitter is not the only one having these really thorny moderation problems,” Velez says. “I think people understand that this is a critical moment.”

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Google’s Fitbit acquisition is official

By Brian Heater

Following regulatory scrutiny on both sides of the pond, Google this morning announced that it has completed its acquisition of wearables pioneer, Fitbit. Google’s use of the vast amount of user health data has long been the key sticking point of regulatory concern of the deal. After all, targeted advertising continues to be at the heart of much of what the tech giant does.

As such, it’s unsurprising that both Google and Fitbit are looking to address concerns in their respective statements on the acquisition. Google, in particular is quick to insist that the deal is all about hardware – which has admittedly been a struggle in this particular vertical. Google’s efforts to compete with Apple in the fitness and wearable categories have been, at best, uneven.

Google SVP of Devices and Services Rick Osterloh notes,

This deal has always been about devices, not data, and we’ve been clear since the beginning that we will protect Fitbit users’ privacy. We worked with global regulators on an approach which safeguards consumers’ privacy expectations, including a series of binding commitments that confirm Fitbit users’ health and wellness data won’t be used for Google ads and this data will be separated from other Google ads data.

We’ll also maintain access to Android APIs that enable devices like fitness trackers and smart watches to interoperate with Android smartphones, and we’ll continue to allow Fitbit users to choose to connect to third-party services so you’ll still be able to sync your favorite health and fitness apps to your Fitbit account. These commitments will be implemented globally so that all consumers can benefit from them. We’ll also continue to work with regulators around the world so that they can be assured that we are living up to these commitments.

Fitbit co-founder and CEO James Park echoed the sentiment, writing,

The trust of our users will continue to be paramount, and we will maintain strong data privacy and security protections, giving you control of your data and staying transparent about what we collect and why. Google will continue to protect Fitbit users’ privacy and has made a series of binding commitments with global regulators, confirming that Fitbit users’ health and wellness data won’t be used for Google ads and this data will be kept separate from other Google ad data. Google also affirmed it will continue to allow Fitbit users to choose to connect to third party services.

Developing…

Google cracks down on personal loan apps in India following abuse and outcry

By Manish Singh

Google said on Thursday it has pulled some personal loan apps from Play Store in India and was implementing stronger measures to prevent abuse following reports that said several firms were targeting vulnerable borrowers in the country and then going to extreme lengths to recover their money.

The Android-maker said users and government agencies in India recently flagged several personal loan apps and the company reviewed hundreds of them. The review found an identified number of apps violated Play Store’s safety policies and they were immediately removed from the Store.

Google, whose Android operating system powers 98% smartphones in India, said it has asked the developers of the remaining identified apps to demonstrate that their apps are in compliance with applicable local laws and regulations. (In an email reviewed by TechCrunch, Google had asked a developer to provide documentation within five days.)

“Apps that fail to do so will be removed without further notice. In addition, we will continue to assist the law enforcement agencies in their investigation of this issue,” the company said.

Users have identified several lending apps including 10MinuteLoan and Ex-Money in India in recent months that granted small ticket loans (typically in the range of $50 to $200) to people for short tenures without much verification to determine their eligibility and then charged steep processing fees.

To avoid such abuse, Google said Play Store will only allow personal apps that require customers to make their repayment in 60 days or longer.

When borrowers struggled to repay their debt in the short period, collection agents on behalf of some lending apps threatened to embarrass them in front of their friends, colleagues, and family, among other ill tactics. In November, local newspaper Indian Express reported that a 23-year-old man committed suicide after being bullied by a money lending app.

Online loan horror :

Representative of a loan app called " Udhaar Loan " Asking a girl from Tamilnadu to video call her naked , if she fails to pay loan on time .

She attempted suicide today.

Please share max until it reaches @PMOIndia . pic.twitter.com/nD9evsGrhl

— Prashanth Rangaswamy (@itisprashanth) November 8, 2020

“To protect user privacy, developers must only request permissions that are necessary to implement current features or services. They should not use permissions that give access to user or device data for undisclosed, unimplemented, or disallowed features or purposes,” wrote Suzanne Frey, Vice President, Product, Android Security and Privacy, in a blog post.

“Developers must also only use data for purposes that the user has consented to, and if they later want to use the data for other purposes, they must obtain user permission for the additional uses,” she added.

Thursday’s move comes months after Google stepped up its efforts to crack down on fantasy sports apps in India.

App stores saw record 218 billion downloads in 2020, consumer spend of $143 billion

By Sarah Perez

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.

LAUNCHub Ventures heading towards a $85M fund for South Eastern European startups

By Mike Butcher

LAUNCHub Ventures, an early-stage European VC which concentrates mainly on Central Eastern (CEE) and South-Eastern Europe (SEE), has completed the first closing of its new fund at €44 million ($53.5M), with an aspiration to reach a target size of €70 million. A final close is expected by Q2 2021.

Its principal backer is the European Investment Fund, corporates and a number of Bulgarian tech founders and investors.

With this new fund, LAUNCHub aims to invest in 25 startups in the next 4 years. The initial investment range will be between €500K and €2M in verticals such as B2B SaaS, Fintech, Proptech, Big Data, AI, Marketplaces, Digital Health. The fund will also actively invest in the Web 3.0 / Blockchain space, as it has done so since 2014.

LAUNCHub has also achieved a 50:50 gender split in its team, with Irina Dimitrova being promoted to operating partner while Raya Yunakova who joins as an Investor, previously working for PiLabs in London and Mirela Yordanova joins as an Associate, previously leading the startup community at Google for Startups Campus in London.

The investor is mining a rich view of highly skilled developers in the CEE countries where there are approximately 1.3 developers for every 100 people in the workforce. “Central and Eastern Europe’s rapid economic growth has caught the attention of Western investors searching for the next unicorn. The region has huge and still untapped potential with more and more local success stories, paving the way for the next generation of CEE tech founders.” said Todor Breshkov, Founding Partner at LAUNCHub Ventures .

LAUNCHub Ventures competes with other investors like Earlybird in the region, but they tend to invest at a later stage and is more typically a co-investor with LAUNCHub. Nearby Greece also features Greek funds such as Venture Friends and Marathon, but these tend to focus on their core country and diaspora entrepreneurs. Others include Speedinvest (usually focused on DACH) and Credo Ventures, more focused on the Czech Republic and CEE.

LAUNCHub partner and cofounder Stefan Grantchev told me: “Our strategy is to be regional, not to focus specifically on Bulgaria – but to look at all the opportunities in the region of South-Eastern Europe.”

LAUNCHub Ventures has backed companies including:

  • Giraffe360 (Robotic camera for real estate listing automation, co-investment with Hoxton Ventures and HCVC)

  • Fite (Premium direct to consumer digital live streaming for sports, followed-on by Earlybird)

  • GTMHub (The world’s leading and most intuitive OKR software, followed-on by CRV)

  • FintechOS (Banking and Insurance middleware for automation and digital innovation acceleration, followed-on by Earlybird and OTB)

  • Cleanshelf (Enterprise SaaS management and optimization platform, followed-on by Dawn Capital)

  • Office RnD (Co-working and flexible office space management, followed-on by Flashpoint Ventures)

  • Ferryhopper (Ferry ticketing platform for Southern Europe, co-investment with Metavallon)

YouTube and WhatsApp inch closer to half a billion users in India

By Manish Singh

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%.


1 For simplicity, I have not factored in the traction WhatsApp Business and YouTube Kids apps have received in India. WhatsApp and YouTube also maintain apps on KaiOS, which powers JioPhone feature handsets in India. At last count — which was a long time ago — more than 40 million JioPhone handsets had shipped in India. TechCrunch could not determine the inroads any app has made on this platform. Additionally, the figures of YouTube on Android (phones and tablets) and iOS (iPhone and iPad) will likely have an overlap. The same is not true of WhatsApp, which restricts one phone number to one account. So if I have WhatsApp installed on an iPhone with my primary phone number, I can’t use WhatsApp with the same number on an Android phone — at least not concurrently.
2 WhatsApp Business appears to be growing fine, having amassed over 50 million users in India. And some caveats from No. 1 also apply here.
3 Users still have to engage with the app for App Annie and other mobile insight firms to count them as active. So while pre-installing the app provides Google an unprecedented distribution, their apps still have to win over users.

Healthvana’s digital COVID-19 vaccination records are about communication, not passports for the immune

By Darrell Etherington

As the vaccination campaign to counter COVID-19 gets underway (albeit with a rocky start), a number of companies are attempting to support its rollout in a variety of ways. Healthvana, a health tech startup that began with a specific focus on providing patient information digitally for individuals living with HIV, is helping Los Angeles County roll-out mobile vaccination records for COVID-19 using Apple’s Wallet technology. A cursory appraisal of the implementation of this tech might lead one to believe it’s about providing individuals with easy proof of vaccination – but the tech, and Healthvana, are focused on informing individuals to ensure they participate in their own healthcare programs, not providing an immunity pass.

“I generally consider most of healthcare to look and feel like Windows 95,” Healthvana CEO and founder Ramin Bastani. “We look and feel like Instagram . Why is that important? Because patients can engage in things they understand, it’s easier for them to communicate in the way they’re used to communicating, and that ends up leading them better health outcomes.”

Bastani points out that they began the company by focusing this approach to patient education and communication on HIV, and demonstrated that using their software led to patients being 7.4 times more likely to show up for their next follow-up appointment vs. patients who received follow-up information and appointment notices via traditional methods. The company has built their tooling and their approach around not only producing better health for individuals, but also on reducing costs for healthcare providers by eliminating the need for a lot of the work that goes into clearing up misunderstandings, and essentially hounding patients to follow-up, which can significantly dig into clinician and care staff hours.

“We’re actually also reducing the cost to healthcare providers, because you don’t have 1,000 people calling you asking what are their results, and saying ‘I don’t understand, I can’t log in, I don’t know what it means to be SARS nonreactive,’ or all those things we address through simplicity,” Bastain said. “That’s made a huge difference. Overall, I think the key to all healthcare is going to be to be able to get patients to pay attention, and take action to things around their health.”

That’s the goal of Healthvana’s partnership with LA County on COVID-19 immunization records, too – taking vitally important action to ensure the successful rollout of its vaccination program. All approved COVID-19 vaccines to date require a two-course treatment, including one initial inoculation followed by a booster to be administered sometime later. Keeping LA county residents informed about their COVID-19 inoculation, and when they’re due for a second dose, is the primary purpose of the partnership, and benefits from Healthvana’s experience in improving patient follow-up activities. But the app is also providing users with information about COVID-19 care, and, most usefully, prevention and ways to slow the spread.

While Bastani stresses that Healthvana is, in the end, just “the last mile” for message delivery, and that there are many other layers involved in determining the right steps for proper care and prevention, the way in which they provide actionable info has already proven a big boon to one key measure: contact tracing. In select municipalities, Healthvana will also prompt users who’ve tested positive to anonymously notify close contacts directly from their device, which will provide those individuals with both free testing options and information resources.

“Just us doing this in the greater Los Angeles area for less than two months, 12,000+ people have been notified that they’ve been exposed,” Bastani said. “Each of them likely lives with other people and families – this is how you can help slow the spread.”

Contrast that with the relatively slow uptake of the exposure notification tools built into iOS and Android devices via recent software updates provided by Google and Apple working in a rare collaboration. While the technology that underlies it is sound, and focused on user privacy, its usage numbers thus far are far from earthshaking; only 388 people have sent alerts through Virginia’s app based on the exposure notification framework in three months since its launch, for instance.

Healthvana’s focus on timely and relevant delivery of information, offered to users in ways they’re mostly likely to understand and engage with, is already showing its ability to have an impact on COVID-19 and its community transmission. The startup is already in talks to launch similar programs elsewhere in the country, and that could help improve national vaccination outcomes, and how people handle COVID-19 once they have it, too.

Parler is officially offline after AWS suspension

By Darrell Etherington

True to its word, Amazon Web Services (AWS) suspended services to Parler, the right-wing-focused social network that proved a welcoming home for pro-Trump users who called for violence at the nation’s Capitol and beyond. The service suspension went into effect overnight after a 24-hour warning from AWS, which means that if you now go to Parler’s web address you’re greeted with a message saying the requested domain can’t be reached.

Parler’s community had been surging after the permanent suspension of Trump’s official accounts from Twitter and Facebook last week, which also saw removed from those platforms a number of accounts tweeting similar invectives and encouragement of violence aligned with Trump’s sentiments. Apple and Google then removed Parler from their respective app stores for violations of their own terms of service, and AWS follows suit with its own suspension notice.

The company has suggested that it will rebuild its own infrastructure from scratch in order to contend with the various suspensions, but meanwhile other alternative social media sites that continue to exist, and that have typically catered to a more right-wing audience, like Gab, are seeing the benefits of Parler’s deplatforming. Gab has previously seen its hosting revoked, and been removed from Google Play for issues around hate-speech dissemination.

These 6 browser extensions will protect your privacy online

By Zack Whittaker

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?

HTTPS Everywhere

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.

Privacy Badger

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.

uBlock Origin

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.

uBlock Origin works in Chrome, Firefox, and Edge and the extension is open source so anyone can look at how it works.

PixelBlock & ClearURLs

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.

Firefox Multi-Account Containers

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.

Apple suspends Parler from App Store

By Sarah Perez

Apple confirmed that it has suspended the conservative social media app Parler from the App Store, shortly after Google banned it from Google Play. The app, which became a home to Trump supporters and several high-profile conservatives in the days leading up the Capitol riots, had been operating in violation of Apple’s rules.

The company tells TechCrunch,

We have always supported diverse points of view being represented on the App Store, but there is no place on our platform for threats of violence and illegal activity. Parler has not taken adequate measures to address the proliferation of these threats to people’s safety. We have suspended Parler from the App Store until they resolve these issues.

In the wake of its decision Apple sent Parler’s developers the following note,

To the developers of the Parler app,

Thank you for your response regarding dangerous and harmful content on Parler. We have determined that the measures you describe are inadequate to address the proliferation of dangerous and objectionable content on your app.

Parler has not upheld its commitment to moderate and remove harmful or dangerous content encouraging violence and illegal activity, and is not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines.

In your response, you referenced that Parler has been taking this content “very seriously for weeks.” However, the processes Parler has put in place to moderate or prevent the spread of dangerous and illegal content have proved insufficient. Specifically, we have continued to find direct threats of violence and calls to incite lawless action in violation of Guideline 1.1 – Safety – Objectionable Content.

Your response also references a moderation plan “for the time being,” which does not meet the ongoing requirements in Guideline 1.2 – Safety – User Generated content. While there is no perfect system to prevent all dangerous or hateful user content, apps are required to have robust content moderation plans in place to proactively and effectively address these issues. A temporary “task force” is not a sufficient response given the widespread proliferation of harmful content.

For these reasons, your app will be removed from the App Store until we receive an update that is compliant with the App Store Review Guidelines and you have demonstrated your ability to effectively moderate and filter the dangerous and harmful content on your service.

Regards,

App Review Board

Conservative commentator and Parler investor Dan Bongino posted about Apple’s decision on the site,

The tech tyrants at Apple have pulled the app from their App Store. Apple is no different than the Chinese communist party in their preference for totalitarian thought control. I’m proud of the remaining liberty-loving people of this great country. And I’m embarrassed, and horrified by the tech totalitarians who’ve taken control of it.

Bongino was among those recently suspended from Twitter. He noted, however, that he had no intention to return to the site.

While Parler is no longer available through the store at present, it seems it will still be available to access for those who have already downloaded it. As The New York Times noted earlier this week,

If Apple pulls Parler from the App Store, people would not be able to download the app to their iPhones or iPads. People who had already downloaded the Parler iPhone app would still be able to use it, but the company would not be able to update the app, meaning it would eventually be rendered obsolete as Apple updated the iPhone software.

But Parler’s future remains more uncertain than most, as there’s a growing push inside Amazon to pull the plug on Parler, too.

The news comes shortly after Google banned it from Google Play. The app, which became a home to Trump supporters and several high-profile conservatives in the days leading up the Capitol riots, had been operating in violation of Apple’s rules, we understand. Apple’s App Store guidelines require apps hosting user-generated content to have moderation policies to remove content that incites violence.

Despite these policies, neither Apple nor Google had taken action to remove Parler in prior weeks, even though Trump supporters and other far-right users had used the app to call for violence and organize their plans to storm the Capitol. The insurrection left five people dead, over 50 police officers injured, and more than a dozen facing federal charges, in addition to the growing number of arrests emerging as suspects are identified.

Image Credits: Parler via the App Store

BuzzFeed News on Friday reported Parler had received a letter from Apple which warned that the app would be removed from the App Store within 24 hours, unless the company submitted a content moderation improvement plan.

Apple’s notice read:

We have received numerous complaints regarding objectionable content in your Parler service, accusations that the Parler app was used to plan, coordinate, and facilitate the illegal activities in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021 that led (among other things) to loss of life, numerous injuries, and the destruction of property. The app also appears to continue to be used to plan and facilitate yet further illegal and dangerous activities.

(TechCrunch additionally confirmed BuzzFeed’s reporting.)

Parler CEO John Matze posted about Apple’s ultimatum to his own Parler account, saying he would not cave to “those authoritarians who hate free speech.” Earlier today, it was noted that the service reportedly removed a post from Trump associate Lin Wood over calls for violence against Vice President, Mike Pence.

Ahead of its removal, Parler had ranked No. 1 in News on the iPhone App Store and No. 13 Overall, according to data from App Annie. On Friday, it was ranking as high as No. 1, at times, on the iPhone’s Top Charts of free non-game apps, though final data was not available.

Image Credits: App Annie

Currently, the app is hosted by Amazon Web Services (AWS), but it appears to be in violation of the AWS Acceptable Use Policy which could serve as grounds for its removal.

The collective action of tech company employees is playing a key role in some of the decisions being made regarding Trump and his supporters’ access to platforms to communicate and organize in the days following the Capitol riots. According to The Washington Post, for example, over 350 Twitter employees signed a letter urging CEO Jack Dorsey and other execs to permanently suspend Trump’s account before the company followed through.

Trump has now lost his ability to post to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Twitch, to name a few. Meanwhile, Parler’s removal from both app stores will limit the reach of the more radical and violent Trump supporter movement to some extent, forcing them to more obscure corners of the web. However, many argue these measures have come too late, as the damage to not only Capitol, but to the nation’s psyche as whole, has already been done.

 

Parler jumps to No. 1 on App Store after Facebook and Twitter ban Trump

By Jonathan Shieber

Users are surging on small, conservative, social media platforms after President Donald Trump’s ban from the world’s largest social networks, even as those platforms are seeing access throttled by the app marketplaces of tech’s biggest players.

The social network, Parler, a network that mimics Twitter, is now the number one app in Apple’s app store and Gab, another conservative-backed service, claimed that it was seeing an explosion in the number of signups to its web-based platform as well.

Parler’s ballooning user base comes at a potentially perilous time for the company. It has already been removed from Google’s Play store and Apple is considering suspending the social media app as well if it does not add some content moderation features.

Both Parler and Gab have billed themselves as havens for free speech, with what’s perhaps the most lax content moderation online. In the past the two companies have left up content posted by an alleged Russian disinformation campaign, and allow users to traffic in conspiracy theories that other social media platforms have shut down.

The expectation with these services is that users on the platforms are in charge of muting and blocking trolls or offensive content, but, by their nature, those who join these platforms will generally find themselves among like-minded users.

Their user counts might be surging, but would-be adopters may soon have a hard time finding the services.

On Friday night, Google said that it would be removing Parler from their Play Store immediately — suspending the app until the developers committed to a moderation and enforcement policy that could handle objectionable content on the platform.

In a statement to TechCrunch, a Google spokesperson said:

“In order to protect user safety on Google Play, our longstanding policies require that apps displaying user-generated content have moderation policies and enforcement that removes egregious content like posts that incite violence. All developers agree to these terms and we have reminded Parler of this clear policy in recent months. We’re aware of continued posting in the Parler app that seeks to incite ongoing violence in the US. We recognize that there can be reasonable debate about content policies and that it can be difficult for apps to immediately remove all violative content, but for us to distribute an app through Google Play, we do require that apps implement robust moderation for egregious content. In light of this ongoing and urgent public safety threat, we are suspending the app’s listings from the Play Store until it addresses these issues.“

On Friday, Buzzfeed News reported that Parler had received a letter from Apple informing them that the app would be removed from the App Store within 24 hours unless the company submitted an update with a moderation improvement plan. Parler CEO John Matze confirmed the action from Apple in a post on his Parler account where he posted a screenshot of the notification from Apple.

“We want to be clear that Parler is in fact responsible for all the user generated content present on your service and for ensuring that this content meets App Store requirements for the safety and protection of our users,” text from the screenshot reads. “We won’t distribute apps that present dangerous and harmful content.

Parler is backed by the conservative billionaire heiress Rebekah Mercer, according to a November report in The Wall Street Journal. Founded in 2018, the service has experienced spikes in user adoption with every clash between more social media companies and the outgoing President Trump. In November, Parler boasted some 10 million users, according to the Journal.

Users like Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo and the conservative talk show host Dan Bongino, a wildly popular figure on Facebook who is also an investor in Parler, have joined the platform. In the Journal article Bongino called the company “a collective middle finger to the tech tyrants.”

It’s worth noting that Parler and Gab aren’t the only companies to see users numbers soar after the Trump bans. MeWe Network, OANN, Newsmax and Rumble have also seen adoption soar, according to data from the analytics company Apptopia.

The company noted that Parler was the #1 app on the iOS app store for two days surging from 18th on Thursday and 592 on Wednesday. Overall, the app was the 10th most downloaded social media app in 2020 with 8.1 million new installs.

“It is an event driven app though,” a company analyst noted. “After events like the election, BLM protests, Twitter first applying labels to Trump’s Tweets, we see bursts of downloads and usage but it will then drop off.”

Sarah Perez and Lucas Matney contributed additional reporting to this article. 

 

This Week in Apps: Social apps react to riots, Parler gets booted, FTC threatens regulation

By Sarah Perez

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in global consumer spend in 2019. Consumer spend also hit a record $112 billion across iOS and Android alone.

Not including third-party Chinese app stores, iOS and Android users downloaded 130 billion apps in 2020. Due to COVID-19, time spent in apps jumped 25% year-over-year on Android.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a  $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

Top Stories

Social apps boot Trump following Capitol riot

To varying degrees, social apps had to quickly figure out where to draw the line on allowing Trump to continue to use their platforms this week, after his false claims about a rigged election led Trump supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, destroying property, stealing at least one computer, potentially gaining access to other unlocked computers and causing chaos that led to five deaths, including a Capitol Police officer who has now died of injuries sustained on duty.

Social platforms, however, have been complicit in allowing these dangerous and radicalized groups to emerge in the first place. Facebook, for example, allowed StoptheSteal and Secession groups to organize using its platform. It also waited years to sweep the platform of QAnon groups, and then didn’t even finish the job — these disinformation networks remain live on the platform today. But even smaller gestures aimed at cleaning up the mess of a platform that prioritized ad dollars over safety led some Trump supporters to flee to other social media networks used by the far-right, such as Gab and Parler. There, they could post even more violent rhetoric without repercussions.

@thegoodliarsOur view of the terrorists storming the Capitol. ##trumplost ##dc ##washington ##trumpisaloser ##coup♬ original sound – The Good Liars

Following the riot, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Trump would be banned from both Facebook and Instagram for two weeks. Twitter initially locked Trump’s account on Wednesday, then allowed him to return after deleting a few tweets, noting that another violation would result in permanent suspension. On Friday, it permanently banned Trump, and his other close associates.

Both also removed Trump’s video where he showed support for rioters, telling them to go home but also “we love you, you’re very special.”

TikTok, though obviously not used by Trump, took down re-shares of Trump’s video, but allowed counter speech against it and some posts by news organizations. And it proactively blocked the hashtags used by rioters. Snapchat locked Trump’s account as well, and Twitch disabled him until the end of his term.

New social apps and startups with social features will often mimic the general approaches of the large platforms as they craft their own content policies. But human rights organizations argue that what’s being done is not enough.

Said activist group Color of Change this week, “Mark Zuckerberg does not deserve applause for taking action at the 11th hour, after years of damage has already been done. Facebook is unquestionably complicit in the violent insurrection on Capitol Hill yesterday, and in the erosion of our democracy that’s continued to unfold in plain sight.”

The group is urging for Trump’s permanent ban from Facebook and for the network to “take action against his enablers and allies who continue to use the platform to incite violence and spread dangerous misinformation.”

App Stores take action on Parler

On Friday, Buzzfeed News reported Parler had received a letter from Apple that said they had 24 hours to come up with a moderation plan for the app, otherwise it would be banned from the App Store. Google Play, however, more quickly banned the app on Friday until the company could commit to a moderation and enforcement policy to handle objectionable content on its network.

Google’s statement reads as follows:

“In order to protect user safety on Google Play, our longstanding policies require that apps displaying user-generated content have moderation policies and enforcement that removes egregious content like posts that incite violence. All developers agree to these terms and we have reminded Parler of this clear policy in recent months. We’re aware of continued posting in the Parler app that seeks to incite ongoing violence in the US. We recognize that there can be reasonable debate about content policies and that it can be difficult for apps to immediately remove all violative content, but for us to distribute an app through Google Play, we do require that apps implement robust moderation for egregious content. In light of this ongoing and urgent public safety threat, we are suspending the app’s listings from the Play Store until it addresses these issues.“

Parler had been one of the places where Trump supporters and other extremists to organized their plans to storm the Capitol this week as well as plan future attacks. Posts on Parler, which has a looser moderation policy compared with Twitter, often call for people’s deaths and even for Civil War.

Several high-profile conservatives, including members of Trump’s family, had been participating on Parler, following the increased enforcement of various polices against election misinformation and false claims about COVID-19, among other things, on mainstream social platforms.

It is not unusual for Apple and Google to take action against apps with harmful content, though one has to wonder why it took a deadly insurrection aimed at toppling U.S. democratic processes for them to care.

U.S. bans transactions with Chinese payments apps

Ahead of the violence at the Capitol this week, the Trump administration continued its crackdown on Chinese mobile applications. Via an executive order signed on Tuesday, the U.S. banned transactions with eight Chinese mobile apps, including Ant Group’s Alipay mobile payment app, Reuters first reported.

Others named in the order include CamScanner, SHAREit, Tencent QQ, VMate (published by Alibaba Group subsidiary UCWeb) and Beijing Kingsoft Office Software’s WPS Office.

The move is meant to cut off China’s access to U.S. user data, including, per the order, the ability for China to “track the locations of federal employees and contractors” and “build dossiers of personal information.”

The administration had previously banned TikTok and WeChat, but U.S. courts blocked the orders from going into effect.

FTC settles with Tapjoy over deceptive practices, but lays blame at feet of app store gatekeepers

Image Credits: Tapjoy

Mobile advertising company Tapjoy settled with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission over allegations that it was misleading consumers about the in-app rewards they could earn in mobile games. The FTC said Tapjoy deceived consumers who participated in various activities — like purchasing a product, signing up for a free trial, providing their personal information like an email address or completing a survey — in exchange for in-game virtual currency. But when it was time to pay up, Tapjoy’s partners didn’t deliver.

The order will now require Tapjoy to follow up on complaints and monitor to ensure that offers are delivered, or face further fines of up to $43,280 per each violation.

Tapjoy serves as a middleman between developers, consumers and advertisers, and is one of many “offerwall”-based mobile ad networks available today.

Mobile game developers integrate Tapjoy’s technology to display ads — aka “offers” — to their customers, in order to earn payments for their users’ activity. When the consumer completes the offer by taking whatever action was required, they’re supposed to earn in-game coins or other virtual currency. The app developers then earn a percentage of that ad revenue. But the FTC said that would often not happen, and Tapjoy ignored hundreds of thousands of consumer complaints.

Though Tapjoy was the business being held accountable in the FTC’s ruling, the Commissioners harshly scolded the “rent-seeking” app store business model for allowing networks like Tapjoy to rise in the first place. Using language that strongly hinted that regulation of the app stores was on the way, the Commissioners scolded the app stores’ “vast power to impose taxes and regulations on the mobile gaming industry.”

“This market structure also has cascading effects on gamers and consumers,” the ruling stated. “Under heavy taxation by Apple and Google, developers have been forced to adopt alternative monetization models that rely on surveillance, manipulation, and other harmful practices,” it said.

Apple is being given a lot of credit in recent weeks for its privacy push, with the launch of its so-called app store “nutrition labels” that help to better highlight the bad actors in the mobile app market. But some of the recent reporting neglects to explain why these alternative business models rose in the first place or detail how Apple will financially benefit from the shift to subscriptions that will result from the mobile ad clampdown. It’s also rarely noted that Apple itself serves behavioral advertising within its own apps that is based on the user data it collects from across its catalog of first-party apps and services. That’s not to say that Apple isn’t doing a service with its privacy push, but it’s a complex matter. This isn’t sports; you don’t have to pick one side or the other.

The FTC then not-too-subtly warned Apple and Google that it “will need to use all of its tools — competition, consumer protection, and data protection — to combat middlemen mischief, including by the largest gaming gatekeepers.”

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple & Google

  • Google says it will add privacy labels to its app either this week or the next, following a report that claimed it hadn’t updated its app since Apple’s new labeling requirements.
  • iOS 14.4 beta indicates guided audio walking workouts are on the way to Apple Watch.

Services

  • Quibi returns. Okay, not exactly. Instead, the content catalog from the deceased mobile streaming app has been bought by Roku, which will stream it for free in its The Roku Channel this year, including The Roku Channel app.

Gaming

  • Mobile games accounted for 58% of the total gaming market in 2020, up 10% year-over-year, according to SuperData’s annual report. They also accounted for the majority of the revenue, at $73.8 billion, compared with $33.1 billion for PC games and $19.7 billion for console games. Mobile games were also eight out of 10 of the top free-to-play titles, led by Honor of Kings.

Image Credits: SuperData

Augmented Reality

  • TikTok launches its first AR effect to leverage the LiDAR Scanner in iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max. The effect arrived for New Year’s and involves a dropping ball, similar to the one in Times Square, that explodes with confetti. Thanks to the LiDAR Scanner’s tech, the confetti can fall on the furniture in the room much as it would in real life.

To ring in 2021 we released our first AR effect on the new iPhone 12 Pro, using LiDAR technology which allows us to create effects that interact with your environment – visually bridging the digital and physical worlds. We're excited to develop more innovative effects in 2021! pic.twitter.com/6yFD2FfHta

— TikTokComms (@TikTokComms) January 6, 2021

Social & Photos

  • WhatsApp is alerting users they have to agree to the new privacy policy by February 8, or won’t be able to use the app. The agreement requires users to share their data with Facebook — a move that’s led to a boost in downloads for private messaging app Signal.
  • WhatsApp is working on multi-device support, according to references found in its 2.21.1.1 beta on Android.
  • Facebook reminds businesses it will have to comply with App Tracking Transparency in iOS 14, according to a recent email it sent them. The email states the change will hurt “the industry and the ability for businesses of all sizes to market themselves efficiently.”

Health & Fitness

  • Singapore confirmed its police can obtain COVID-19 tracing data to aid in criminal investigations via the TraceTogether app, used by more than 4.2 million residents.

Deadpool

  • Alibaba shuts down 12-year-old music streaming app Xiami, acquired in 2013.
  • Twitter to shut down podcast app Breaker following acquisition.
  • Microsoft will shut down Minecraft Earth AR game in June, due to pandemic.
  • BBVA to shut down neobank Simple, acquired in 2014. Users to be transferred to BBVA USA, which is merging with PNC.

Trends

  • Global mobile app spending reached nearly $111 billion in 2020, up 30.2% year-over-year, according to Sensor Tower. The App Store accounted for the majority of the spending at $72.3 billion, up 30.3% from $55.5 billion in 2019.
  • Outside of games, Entertainment apps saw the most user spending worldwide in 2020, with $5.3 billion.
  • First-time installs set a new record in 2020, with 143 billion installs across the App Store and Google Play combined.
  • European mobile app spending grew 31% in 2020 to reach $14.8 billion, also according to Sensor Tower, representing a 31% year-over-year increase. The App Store drove the majority of the spending at $8 billion.
  • Apptopia pulled data to create charts of 2020’s top downloaded apps across 20 different categories, both for U.S. and global apps. It also released top grossing charts for apps, games and “health & fitness” apps.
  • CNBC estimates App Store gross revenue was over $64 billion in 2020. The estimate uses the figures Apple released on Wednesday about money paid to developers to back out roughly how much revenue the App Store made.
  • Apple said its customers spent $1.8 billion during the week of Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day. App Store customers also set a new single-day spending record on New Year’s Day by more than $540 million.
  • New CIRP data says the iPhone 12 models accounted for 76% of new iPhone sales from October-November 2020. The iPhone 12 mini only accounted for 6% of sales, however.

Image Credits: CIRP

Funding and M&A

Image Credits: Breaker/Twitter

  • Twitter acquires social podcasting app Breaker and acqui-hires creative agency Ueno to help it design new products, including Twitter Spaces.
  • Cross-platform gaming company Roblox raises $520 million in a round led by Altimeter Capital and Dragoneer Investment Group ahead of its planned IPO. The new round values the business at $29.5 billion.
  • Perfect Corp. raises $50 million Series C led by Goldman Sachs. The company develops the virtual beauty app YouCam Makeup app along with other AR makeup products, including those now embedded in Google Search.
  • Local news app News Break raises $115 million in a round led by Francisco Partners. IDG also participated. The Mountain View-based company has roots in China, where founder Jeff Zheng previously led Yahoo Labs in Beijing, and has team members in Shanghai. But the majority are in the U.S.
  • Quantum Metric raises $200 million for its platform that helps companies improve their website and apps with real-time feedback from end users. It captures data at the session level, which can then be played back to see how customers interacted with the site or app.
  • (IPO) Poshmark plans to price its IPO between $35 and $39 per share, potentially valuing the business at $3 billion.
  • Indonesian robo-advisor app Bibit raises $30 million in round led by Sequoia Capital India.
  • AR gaming company Niantic acquires competitive gaming platform Mayhem for an undisclosed price. Mayhem had participated in YC’s winter 2018 batch before raising $5.7 million for its league and tournament organization platform.
  • Fortnite maker Epic Games acquires Rad Game Tools, the maker of game development tools. The companies had worked together, as Epic had used Rad Game Tools’ compression tech to speed the load time for Fortnite.
  • Indian social network ShareChat said to be raising funds from Google and Snap.

Downloads

Overviewer

New app Overviewer, reviewed here by 9to5Mac, turns an iOS device into a document camera for sharing content on video conferencing apps, like Zoom. The app makes for a good companion for teachers doing virtual learning as well as businesses. The app was created by Dark Noise app developer Charlie Chapman.

Textcraft

Image Credits: TextCraft

Want an easier way to insert the clapping hands emoji into your online rants, type text as bubbled letters, type In aLtErNaTe cAsE, in hashtags, in superscript or anything else? The new Textcraft app can help. The app allows you to type in the text then copy and paste or share any one of its over 50 text transformations. The app is well-designed with support for dark mode, drag-and-drop on iPad, and other macOS design guidelines in mind when using it across platforms.

According to a tween who reviewed the app for me: “This is cool. I want it.” They then ignored me as they played with it. I think that’s a good sign. (Paid download of $6.99 on iOS, iPad and Mac).

Discovery+

Image Credits: Discovery

If you’ve binged it all during the pandemic, there’s a new option for you. Discovery+ launched this week, bringing Discovery’s networks — HGTV, Food Network, TLC, ID, OWN, Travel Channel, Discovery Channel and Animal Planet — to a $5 per month subscription video on demand service. (Or $7 if you don’t want ads.)

The app also includes some non-Discovery content, like nature documentaries from the BBC and programming from A&E, The History Channel and Lifetime.

If home renovation, travel and reality are your escapist favs, this could be the app for you.

Wellnest

Image Credits: Wellnest

It’s been a stressful week. Maybe it’s time for some self-care? Guided journaling app Wellnest is helping users prioritize their mental health using game design techniques. The app offers deep dive question sets, daily prompts, mood check-in, speech to text, insights and more, wrapped up in a colorful and simple package. The app is a free download, then $24 per year or $5 per month for full access.

The deplatforming of President Trump

By Danny Crichton

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: a permanent ban and a real-time attempt to shut down all possible account alternatives

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: a quick lock after dampening the president’s audience for months

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 / Instagram: A short-to-medium ban with open questions on how long “indefinite” means

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.

Shopify / PayPal: Ecommerce platforms won’t sell Trump official merchandise for the time being

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.

Google removes Parler from the Google Play Store, while Apple mulls a removal as well

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.

Discord / Twitch / YouTube / Reddit / TikTok: All the socials don’t want to be social anymore with President Trump

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.

 

President Trump responds to Twitter account ban in tweet storm from @POTUS account

By Lucas Matney

After Twitter took the major step Friday of permanently banning President Trump’s @realdonaldtrump Twitter account, the President aimed to get the last word in through his government account @POTUS which has a fraction of the Twitter followers but still offered the President a megaphone on the service to send out a few last tweets.

The tweets were deleted within minutes by Twitter which does not allow banned individuals to circumvent a full ban by tweeting under alternate accounts.

In screenshots captured by TechCrunch, Trump responds to the account ban by accusing Twitter employees of conspiring with his political opponents. “As I have been saying for a long time, Twitter has gone further and further in banning free speech, and tonight, Twitter employees have coordinated with the Democrats and Radical Left in removing my account from their platform, to silence me — and YOU, the 75,000,000 great patriots who voted for me.”

The President’s rant further contends that he will soon be joining a new platform or starting his own. Many contended Trump would join right wing social media site Parler following the ban, though Friday afternoon the site was removed from the Google Play Store with the company saying Apple had threatened to suspend them as well.

“We have been negotiating with various other sites, and will have a big announcement soon, while we also look at the possibilities of building out our own platform in the near future,” other tweets from the @POTUS account read in part.

The same messages were later tweeted from the President’s @Teamtrump campaign account, which Twitter subsequently suspended.

In a statement to TechCrunch, A Twitter spokesperson wrote, “As we’ve said, using another account to try to evade a suspension is against our rules. We have taken steps to enforce this with regard to recent Tweets from the @POTUS account. For government accounts, such as @POTUS and @WhiteHouse, we will not suspend those accounts permanently but will take action to limit their use.”

Parler removed from Google Play store as Apple App Store suspension reportedly looms

By Lucas Matney

Shortly after Twitter announced Friday afternoon that they were permanently suspending the account of President Trump, Google shared that they were removing Parler, a conservative social media app, from their Play Store immediately, saying in a statement that they were suspending the app until the developers committed to a moderation and enforcement policy that could handle objectionable content on the platform.

In a statement to TechCrunch, a Google spokesperson said:

“In order to protect user safety on Google Play, our longstanding policies require that apps displaying user-generated content have moderation policies and enforcement that removes egregious content like posts that incite violence. All developers agree to these terms and we have reminded Parler of this clear policy in recent months. We’re aware of continued posting in the Parler app that seeks to incite ongoing violence in the US. We recognize that there can be reasonable debate about content policies and that it can be difficult for apps to immediately remove all violative content, but for us to distribute an app through Google Play, we do require that apps implement robust moderation for egregious content. In light of this ongoing and urgent public safety threat, we are suspending the app’s listings from the Play Store until it addresses these issues.“

Parler’s Play Store page is currently down.

The conservative platform garnered attention this week after posts surfaced detailing threats of violence and planning around Tuesday’s chaotic Capitol building riots which led to the deaths of 5 people including a Capitol police officer. While more mainstream social media sites raced to take down violent content related to the riots, death threats and violence were easy to find across the Parler platform.

The app hosts accounts from a variety of conservative figures including many in the President’s family, though not the President himself.

On Friday, Buzzfeed News reported that Parler had received a letter from Apple informing them that the app would be removed from the App Store within 24 hours unless the company submitted an update with a moderation improvement plan. Parler CEO John Matze confirmed the action from Apple in a post on his Parler account where he posted a screenshot of the notification from Apple.

“We want to be clear that Parler is in fact responsible for all the user generated content present on your service and for ensuring that this content meets App Store requirements for the safety and protection of our users,” text from the screenshot reads. “We won’t distribute apps that present dangerous and harmful content.

The app remains available in the App Store, though users are currently complaining of technical issues.

We have reached out to Apple for additional comment.

You’ll never believe what this email thread says about the ad-funded ‘open’ web

By Natasha Lomas

Among a number of claims on U.K. adtech lobby group MOW’s website is the canonical biggie that “Advertising funds the open web.”

This coalition of “marketers,” whose members are not being made public despite its sweeping claims to love web openness — lest, MOW says, Google rain down punishment upon its ranks of “top companies from across the globe” — recently complained to the U.K.’s competition regulator about the tech giant’s plan to end support for tracking cookies.

If you didn’t already guess it the “OW” in MOW’s acronym stands for “Open Web.” Aka (unknown) Marketers for an Open Web.

And today the CMA duly announced it is investigating Mountain View’s “Privacy Sandbox.” Though, as yet, no conclusions have been reached on whether Google’s plan threatens competition.

In truth, a variety of business models support open access to information on the internet.

Wikipedia, for example — surely the canonical example of the open web — relies upon reader donations to keep the lights on as a not-for-profit.

While — on the “exclusive access” side — crowdfunding sites like Patreon and the subscription platform Substack offer tools for creators to solicit regular monetary subscriptions from fans and backers to unlock gated content.

But it’s instructive to note how many online publishers have shifted, year over year, from free (ad-supported) access to content to selling subscriptions for (paywalled) content, often in addition to running ads.

Whether it’s the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Telegraph or Business Insider, the list of pay-to-access news sites keeps getting longer. Much like the consent flows that (also) pop up asking to process visitors’ information in order to target them with ads.

TechCrunch joined the ranks of subscription publications almost two years ago when we launched Extra Crunch. The main TC site continues to be free to access supported by ads and our events business. (NB: In 2021 our events are going fully virtual — which means, as a brief, bonus aside, they’ve never been so open and accessible!)

So how come all these paywalls are being thrown up if advertising funds the open web, as MOW claims?

The concise answer is that digital advertising pays publishers so poorly it can’t support producing quality content at the required scale on its own — thanks to myriad adtech intermediaries, click fraud and the big two: Google and Facebook; aka, the adtech duopoly, who take the lion’s share of revenue generated by digital advertising. 

“We have found that intermediaries (the largest of which is Google) capture at least 35% of the value of advertising bought from newspapers and other content providers in the U.K.,” the CMA reported last summer, in a major market study.

Consumers turning to ad blockers to escape creepy ads and prevent privacy-hostile trackers from keeping real-time tabs on their digital activity and systematically passing this intel to scores of unknowns in an ad auction process that the U.K.’s own data protection regulator has said isn’t very lawful, is another relevant factor here.

Online advertising certainly funds something. But is that something the open web? That looks rather debatable at this point.

I bring all this up merely to provide context for a chance detail in the MOW story that I want to share — as it illustrates some of the issues in this high stakes tug-of-war between publishers, digital marketing and adtech players and a handful of big (ad)tech versus the poor, frustrated eyeballs of the average internet user.

It’s an important power struggle.

One which threatens to keep steamrollering internet users’ right to protect their personal information from exploitation (and wider security-related risks) by, in the latest twist, co-opting competition regulators to erect barriers to pro-privacy reform. Assuming, that is, the CMA ends up naively swallowing dubious claims about what advertising does for the “open” internet — when evidence of what it actually does is but a click and a paywall/tortuously long consent to “share” your private data with hundreds of unknown firms away.

The regulator’s announcement today suggests it’s alive to the dysfunction surrounding internet users’ privacy and will take more than a superficial look at that issue — though if the ICO is the main rep in the room batting for users’ interests here that’s suboptimal, to say the least, given the latter’s storied reluctance to enforce the actual law against adtech.

But here’s the tidbit — which comes by way of a PR agency working for MOW. Earlier today it CC’d me into an email thread in which several staffers had been discussing monitoring the CMA news on behalf of its client.

I’m not naming the agency or any of the individuals involved to spare their blushes but in the thread — which begins with “FYI — The CMA are just about to announce a formal investigation into Google. We’ve drafted a comment which we will be circulating shortly” — staff can be seen asking to share logins to a number of newspaper websites and/or start a free trial in order to access newspaper copy for free, i.e., without having to pay for new subscriptions. 

“Do we have an FT login? If so, could you get hte [sic] story they’ve just written on MOW off for me?” asks one staffer.

Shortly afterward there’s a discussion about starting a free trial on the Telegraph’s website as they talk about collating relevant coverage into a single document to be able to monitor developments for MOW.

One staffer chips in to warn “you need to put credit card details in to start a trial” — before suggesting the other has a go “to see if you find a way around it.”

This person follows up by saying they’ll “let you know if I manage to find a way around it.”

So, mmm, irony much?

Redacted screengrab showing part of an email thread in which MOW’s PR agency discusses how to access newspaper sites to access copy to collate coverage on behalf of their client. Image Credits: TechCrunch.

In light of MOW’s advocacy for a “vibrant” ad-supported open web — which its website implies is aligned with the interests of publishers, marketers and adtech providers alike, i.e., not just with opaque adtech interests — it seems pretty relevant that an agency working for the industry group is uninterested, to put it politely, in paying for relevant newspaper content while being paid to lobby on adtech’s behalf.

On its website MOW argues that letting Google switch off third-party tracking cookies will be bad news for publishers because it says it will cut off marketers’ ability to measure ad campaign performance across different sites — claiming that will result in less effective ads that yield a lower return and thus less cash remitted by marketers to publishers.

However the CMA’s recent deep dive study of the digital marketing sector found an industry so opaque and riddled with black box algorithms that the regulator listed “lack of transparency” itself as a competition concern.

“Platforms with market power have the incentive and ability to increase prices, for example, or to overstate the quality and effectiveness of their advertising inventory,” it warned in the report. “They can take steps to reduce the degree of transparency in digital advertising markets, reducing other publishers’ ability to demonstrate the effectiveness of their advertising and forcing advertisers to rely on information and metrics provided by those platforms. And the lack of transparency undermines the ability of market participants to make the informed decisions necessary to drive competition. The upshot of all of these issues is that competition is weakened and trust in the market is eroded.”

Given that overarching assessment, who would take an opaque coalition of marketers’ word for it that current-gen cookie tracking of the entire internet yields irreplaceably valuable performance metrics?

Or that such privacy-hostile tracking is the only viable way to support a “vibrant open web”?

“The lack of transparency is particularly severe in the open display market where publishers and advertisers rely on intermediaries to manage the process of real-time bidding and ad serving but cannot observe directly what the intermediaries are doing or, in some cases, how much they are being charged,” the CMA goes on, sharpening its concerns about the extent of the obfuscation that cloaks the practices of adtech middlemen. “Market participants such as newspapers and advertisers typically do not have visibility of the fees charged along the entire supply chain and this limits their ability to make optimal choices on how to buy or to sell inventory, reducing competition among intermediaries.”

One thing is clear: The adtech industry needs a whole lot of disinfecting sunlight to be shone in. And that clarification process will surely demand substantial reform.

Refusing to change how things are done by claiming there’s simply no other way to preserve the web “as we know it” is as ridiculous an idea as it is anti-innovation in sentiment.

Returning to the misfired email thread, we contacted MOW’s PR agency to ask whether or not the account includes expenses for relevant newspaper subscriptions. It told us these would come out of a central agency fund. Additionally — having checked back on it — the agency said it did in fact have subscriptions to the newspaper sites in question.

The spokesperson explained that the staffers involved just hadn’t realized at the time — in the heat of the “day-to-day PR” moment (and whilst wrangling remote-working-impacted comms). And, presumably, as all those subscription login screens threw up barriers to accessing the content they needed in the heat of the moment.

This (senior) spokesperson blamed themselves for what they described as a “cock up” — including the soliciting of a “paywall workaround” — going on to take full mea culpa responsibility and emphasizing it had nothing to do with MOW or with the MOW account.

But, well, if an agency working for an adtech lobby group whose key claim is that “ads support the open internet” is unable to access the online content they need to do their job without a subscription, what does that tell us about how much of an open internet the advertising industry is actually funding right now?

Extra Crunch roundup: 2 VC surveys, Tesla’s melt up, The Roblox Gambit, more

By Walter Thompson

This has been quite a week.

Instead of walking backward through the last few days of chaos and uncertainty, here are three good things that happened:

  • Google employee Sara Robinson combined her interest in machine learning and baking to create AI-generated hybrid treats.
  • A breakthrough could make water desalination 30%-40% more effective.
  • Bianca Smith will become the first Black woman to coach a professional baseball team.

Despite many distractions in our first full week of the new year, we published a full slate of stories exploring different aspects of entrepreneurship, fundraising and investing.

We’ve already gotten feedback on this overview of subscription pricing models, and a look back at 2020 funding rounds and exits among Israel’s security startups was aimed at our new members who live and work there, along with international investors who are seeking new opportunities.

Plus, don’t miss our first investor surveys of 2021: one by Lucas Matney on social gaming, and another by Mike Butcher that gathered responses from Portugal-based investors on a wide variety of topics.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch this week. I hope we can all look forward to a nice, boring weekend with no breaking news alerts.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist


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Use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription


The Roblox Gambit

In February 2020, gaming platform Roblox was valued at $4 billion, but after announcing a $520 million Series H this week, it’s now worth $29.5 billion.

“Sure, you could argue that Roblox enjoyed an epic 2020, thanks in part to COVID-19,” writes Alex Wilhelm this morning. “That helped its valuation. But there’s a lot of space between $4 billion and $29.5 billion.”

Alex suggests that Roblox’s decision to delay its IPO and raise an enormous Series H was a grandmaster move that could influence how other unicorns will take themselves to market. “A big thanks to the gaming company for running this experiment for us.”

I asked him what inspired the headline; like most good ideas, it came to him while he was trying to get to sleep.

“I think that I had ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ somewhere in my head, so that formed the root of a little joke with myself. Roblox is making a strategic wager on method of going public. So, ‘gambit’ seems to fit!”

8 investors discuss social gaming’s biggest opportunities

girl playing games on desktop computer

Image Credits: Erik Von Weber (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

For our first investor survey of the year, Lucas Matney interviewed eight VCs who invest in massively multiplayer online games to discuss 2021 trends and opportunities:

  • Hope Cochran, Madrona Venture Group
  • Daniel Li, Madrona Venture Group
  • Niko Bonatsos, General Catalyst
  • Ethan Kurzweil, Bessemer Venture Partners
  • Sakib Dadi, Bessemer Venture Partners
  • Jacob Mullins, Shasta Ventures
  • Alice Lloyd George, Rogue
  • Gigi Levy-Weiss, NFX

Having moved far beyond shooters and sims, platforms like Twitch, Discord and Fortnite are “where culture is created,” said Daniel Li of Madrona.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez uses Twitch to explain policy positions, major musicians regularly perform in-game concerts on Fortnite and in-game purchases generated tens of billions last year.

“Gaming is a unique combination of science and art, left and right brain,” said Gigi Levy-Weiss of NFX. “It’s never just science (i.e., software and data), which is why many investors find it hard.”

How to convert customers with subscription pricing

Giant hand and magnet picking up office and workers

Image Credits: C.J. Burton (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Startups that lack insight into their sales funnel have high churn, low conversion rates and an inability to adapt or leverage changes in customer behavior.

If you’re hoping to convert and retain customers, “reinforcing your value proposition should play a big part in every level of your customer funnel,” says Joe Procopio, founder of Teaching Startup.

What is up with Tesla’s value?

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., arrives at the Axel Springer Award ceremony in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Tesla Inc. will be added to the S&P 500 Index in one shot on Dec. 21, a move that will ripple through the entire market as money managers adjust their portfolios to make room for shares of the $538 billion company. Photographer: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Image Credits: Bloomberg (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Alex Wilhelm followed up his regular Friday column with another story that tries to find a well-grounded rationale for Tesla’s sky-high valuation of approximately $822 billion.

Meanwhile, GM just unveiled a new logo and tagline.

As ever, I learned something new while editing: A “melt up” occurs when investors start clamoring for a particular company because of acute FOMO (the fear of missing out).

Delivering 500,000 cars in 2020 was “impressive,” says Alex, who also acknowledged the company’s ability to turn GAAP profits, but “pride cometh before the fall, as does a melt up, I think.”

Note: This story has Alex’s original headline, but I told him I would replace the featured image with a photo of someone who had very “richest man in the world” face.

How Segment redesigned its core systems to solve an existential scaling crisis

Abstract glowing grid and particles

Image Credits: piranka / Getty Images

On Tuesday, enterprise reporter Ron Miller covered a major engineering project at customer data platform Segment called “Centrifuge.”

“Its purpose was to move data through Segment’s data pipes to wherever customers needed it quickly and efficiently at the lowest operating cost,” but as Ron reports, it was also meant to solve “an existential crisis for the young business,” which needed a more resilient platform.

Dear Sophie: Banging my head against the wall understanding the US immigration system

Image Credits: Sophie Alcorn

Dear Sophie:

Now that the U.S. has a new president coming in whose policies are more welcoming to immigrants, I am considering coming to the U.S. to expand my company after COVID-19. However, I’m struggling with the morass of information online that has bits and pieces of visa types and processes.

Can you please share an overview of the U.S. immigration system and how it works so I can get the big picture and understand what I’m navigating?

— Resilient in Romania

The first “Dear Sophie” column of each month is available on TechCrunch without a paywall.

Revenue-based financing: The next step for private equity and early-stage investment

Shot of a group of people holding plants growing out of soil

Image Credits: Hiraman (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

For founders who aren’t interested in angel investment or seeking validation from a VC, revenue-based investing is growing in popularity.

To gain a deeper understanding of the U.S. RBI landscape, we published an industry report on Wednesday that studied data from 134 companies, 57 funds and 32 investment firms before breaking out “specific verticals and business models … and the typical profile of companies that access this form of capital.”

Lisbon’s startup scene rises as Portugal gears up to be a European tech tiger

Man using laptop at 25th of April Bridge in Lisbon, Portugal

Image Credits: Westend61 (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

Mike Butcher continues his series of European investor surveys with his latest dispatch from Lisbon, where a nascent startup ecosystem may get a Brexit boost.

Here are the Portugal-based VCs he interviewed:

  • Cristina Fonseca, partner, Indico Capital Partners
  • Pedro Ribeiro Santos, partner, Armilar Venture Partners
  • Tocha, partner, Olisipo Way
  • Adão Oliveira, investment manager, Portugal Ventures
  • Alexandre Barbosa, partner, Faber
  • António Miguel, partner, Mustard Seed MAZE
  • Jaime Parodi Bardón, partner, impACT NOW Capital
  • Stephan Morais, partner, Indico Capital Partners
  • Gavin Goldblatt, managing partner, Portugal Gateway

How late-stage edtech companies are thinking about tutoring marketplaces

Life Rings flying out beneath storm clouds are a metaphor for rescue, help and aid.

Image Credits: John Lund (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

How do you scale online tutoring, particularly when demand exceeds the supply of human instructors?

This month, Chegg is replacing its seven-year-old marketplace that paired students with tutors with a live chatbot.

A spokesperson said the move will “dramatically differentiate our offerings from our competitors and better service students,” but Natasha Mascarenhas identified two challenges to edtech automation.

“A chatbot won’t work for a student with special needs or someone who needs to be handheld a bit more,” she says. “Second, speed tutoring can only work for a specific set of subjects.”

Decrypted: How bad was the US Capitol breach for cybersecurity?

Image Credits: Treedeo (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

While I watched insurrectionists invade and vandalize the U.S. Capitol on live TV, I noticed that staffers evacuated so quickly, some hadn’t had time to shut down their computers.

Looters even made off with a laptop from Senator Jeff Merkley’s office, but according to security reporter Zack Whittaker, the damages to infosec wasn’t as bad as it looked.

Even so, “the breach will likely present a major task for Congress’ IT departments, which will have to figure out what’s been stolen and what security risks could still pose a threat to the Capitol’s network.”

Extra Crunch’s top 10 stories of 2020

On New Year’s Eve, I made a list of the 10 “best” Extra Crunch stories from the previous 12 months.

My methodology was personal: From hundreds of posts, these were the 10 I found most useful, which is my key metric for business journalism.

Some readers are skeptical about paywalls, but without being boastful, Extra Crunch is a premium product, just like Netflix or Disney+. I know, we’re not as entertaining as a historical drama about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II or a space western about a bounty hunter. But, speaking as someone who’s worked at several startups, Extra Crunch stories contain actionable information you can use to build a company and/or look smart in meetings — and that’s worth something.

Google’s plan to replace tracking cookies goes under UK antitrust probe

By Natasha Lomas

Google’s plan to end support for third party cookies in the Chrome browser and its Chromium engine is under investigation by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

The antitrust regulator said today that it’s launched a probe under Chapter II of the UK’s Competition Act 1998 into “suspected breaches of competition law by Google”.

The move follows a complaint lodged in November by a coalition of digital marketing companies which urged the CMA to block Google’s implementation of the self-styled ‘Privacy Sandbox’.

The CMA also received complaints from newspapers and technology companies alleging the tech giant is abusing a dominance position, it added.

A Google spokesperson sent this statement in response to a request for comment on the CMA investigation:

Creating a more private web, while also enabling the publishers and advertisers who support the free and open internet, requires the industry to make major changes to the way digital advertising works. The Privacy Sandbox has been an open initiative since the beginning and we welcome the CMA’s involvement as we work to develop new proposals to underpin a healthy, ad-supported web without third-party cookies.

Google had previously said it would implement the Sandbox in 2021 — accelerating an earlier timeline for the phasing out of third party cookies and sending ripples of fear (and loathing) through an adtech industry that bet the farm on mass surveillance of Internet users.

No changes have been made so far, according to Google.

It also said today that any changes will not be made before 2022 — as it continues a process of public collaboration (now coupled with close regulatory engagement, via the CMA) on how to replace tracking cookies.

With the looming demise of third party cookies, digital marketers are concerned about their ability to target ads at web users as browsers decommission support for key tracking technologies.

But it’s worth noting that Google’s Chrome is actually the laggard in proposing to pull the plug on tracking cookies; WebKit, which underpins Safari, announced a tracking prevention policy back in 2019 — taking inspiration from Mozilla’s earlier anti-tracking stance. (The latter made third party cookie blocking in Firefox the default in September of the same year.)

These anti-tracking plays by browser-makers are, on one level, a response to consumer distaste over creepy ads and concern for their online privacy.

And in the European Union at least, many core elements of adtech infrastructure are subject to complaints and remain under regulatory scrutiny. (Albeit, the UK’s data protection regulator, the ICO, is currently being sued for failing to act on complaints about the lawfulness of real-time bidding which date back to September 2018.)

But the contention by the marketing, publishing and adtech businesses which are crying foul over the end of cookies is that tech giants — Google in this case — are using privacy as a convenient excuse to increase their market power (and control over user data) at smaller entities’ expense.

“The investigation will assess whether the proposals could cause advertising spend to become even more concentrated on Google’s ecosystem at the expense of its competitors,” the CMA writes in a press release announcing its investigation. “It follows complaints of anticompetitive behaviour and requests for the CMA to ensure that Google develops its proposals in a way that does not distort competition.”

The announcement also makes clear that the regulator is alive to the genuine issue of privacy concern — with the CMA writing that it’s been “considering how best to address legitimate privacy concerns without distorting competition”. This has included holding discussions with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), and talking to Google to “better understand its proposals”, it says.

“The current investigation will provide a framework for the continuation of this work, and, potentially, a legal basis for any solution that emerges,” the CMA adds.

Exactly what will replace tracking cookies is still very much up in the air.

Google has made a number of proposals, via the W3C standards forum, including one called ‘Dovekey’ which suggests using a key value server and which Google says builds on the feedback and proposal from adtech firm Criteo’s Sparrow proposal.

It’s also shared the algorithms for its Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) proposal — referring to a suggestion to use a specific machine learning technique to allow behavioral ad targeting to continue (but without needing to collect individuals’ data).

The wider adtech industry, meanwhile, has also been coming up with various ideas and offers for replacing tracking cookies. Such as the UnifiedOpen ID 2.0 proposal (that’s being built by The Trade Desk) and proposes a centralized system for tracking Internet users based on personal data such as an email address or phone number; or the Unified ID service launched by TechCrunch’s parent Verizon Media (leveraging its access to first party data), to name just two.

So whatever replaces tracking cookies looks unlikely to be simple or singular. Not least given the formal regulatory dimension that’s now been added to Google’s mix.

With its Sandbox project underway but no replacement for tracking cookies yet selected the CMA’s intervention certainly looks very strategic — giving the UK regulator a (potentially major) role in influencing the future shape of adtech.

Although it could also lead to regulatory divergence for adtech in the UK vs the European Union, where the Commission’s antitrust regulators have also been eyeing Google’s adtech practices but have not yet launched a formal investigation — depending on the outcome of any probe/intervention there.

Back in the UK, a recent CMA market study of the digital advertising sector led it to report substantial concerns over the power of the Google-Facebook adtech duopoly — and it sought views on breaking up the tech giants — although in its final report it deferred any competitive intervention in favor of waiting for the government to legislate.

Since then UK ministers have unveiled a plan to establish a pro-competition regulatory regime that will include a new statutory code of conduct, overseen by a Digital Market Unit (to be set up this year), with the aim of putting some hard limits on big (ad)tech — including potentially requiring them to offer users an opt out from behavioral advertising (something Facebook, for example, currently does not).

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