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Apple’s dangerous path

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review.

Last week, we dove into the truly bizarre machinations of the NFT market. This week, we’re talking about something that’s a little bit more impactful on the current state of the web — Apple’s NeuralHash kerfuffle.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny


the big thing

In the past month, Apple did something it generally has done an exceptional job avoiding — the company made what seemed to be an entirely unforced error.

In early August — seemingly out of nowhere** — the company announced that by the end of the year they would be rolling out a technology called NeuralHash that actively scanned the libraries of all iCloud Photos users, seeking out image hashes that matched known images of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). For obvious reasons, the on-device scanning could not be opted out of.

This announcement was not coordinated with other major consumer tech giants, Apple pushed forward on the announcement alone.

Researchers and advocacy groups had almost unilaterally negative feedback for the effort, raising concerns that this could create new abuse channels for actors like governments to detect on-device information that they regarded as objectionable. As my colleague Zach noted in a recent story, “The Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week it had amassed more than 25,000 signatures from consumers. On top of that, close to 100 policy and rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also called on Apple to abandon plans to roll out the technology.”

(The announcement also reportedly generated some controversy inside of Apple.)

The issue — of course — wasn’t that Apple was looking at find ways that prevented the proliferation of CSAM while making as few device security concessions as possible. The issue was that Apple was unilaterally making a massive choice that would affect billions of customers (while likely pushing competitors towards similar solutions), and was doing so without external public input about possible ramifications or necessary safeguards.

A long story short, over the past month researchers discovered Apple’s NeuralHash wasn’t as air tight as hoped and the company announced Friday that it was delaying the rollout “to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.”

Having spent several years in the tech media, I will say that the only reason to release news on a Friday morning ahead of a long weekend is to ensure that the announcement is read and seen by as few people as possible, and it’s clear why they’d want that. It’s a major embarrassment for Apple, and as with any delayed rollout like this, it’s a sign that their internal teams weren’t adequately prepared and lacked the ideological diversity to gauge the scope of the issue that they were tackling. This isn’t really a dig at Apple’s team building this so much as it’s a dig on Apple trying to solve a problem like this inside the Apple Park vacuum while adhering to its annual iOS release schedule.

illustration of key over cloud icon

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch /

Apple is increasingly looking to make privacy a key selling point for the iOS ecosystem, and as a result of this productization, has pushed development of privacy-centric features towards the same secrecy its surface-level design changes command. In June, Apple announced iCloud+ and raised some eyebrows when they shared that certain new privacy-centric features would only be available to iPhone users who paid for additional subscription services.

You obviously can’t tap public opinion for every product update, but perhaps wide-ranging and trail-blazing security and privacy features should be treated a bit differently than the average product update. Apple’s lack of engagement with research and advocacy groups on NeuralHash was pretty egregious and certainly raises some questions about whether the company fully respects how the choices they make for iOS affect the broader internet.

Delaying the feature’s rollout is a good thing, but let’s all hope they take that time to reflect more broadly as well.

** Though the announcement was a surprise to many, Apple’s development of this feature wasn’t coming completely out of nowhere. Those at the top of Apple likely felt that the winds of global tech regulation might be shifting towards outright bans of some methods of encryption in some of its biggest markets.

Back in October of 2020, then United States AG Bill Barr joined representatives from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and Japan in signing a letter raising major concerns about how implementations of encryption tech posed “significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.” The letter effectively called on tech industry companies to get creative in how they tackled this problem.


other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

LinkedIn kills Stories
You may be shocked to hear that LinkedIn even had a Stories-like product on their platform, but if you did already know that they were testing Stories, you likely won’t be so surprised to hear that the test didn’t pan out too well. The company announced this week that they’ll be suspending the feature at the end of the month. RIP.

FAA grounds Virgin Galactic over questions about Branson flight
While all appeared to go swimmingly for Richard Branson’s trip to space last month, the FAA has some questions regarding why the flight seemed to unexpectedly veer so far off the cleared route. The FAA is preventing the company from further launches until they find out what the deal is.

Apple buys a classical music streaming service
While Spotify makes news every month or two for spending a massive amount acquiring a popular podcast, Apple seems to have eyes on a different market for Apple Music, announcing this week that they’re bringing the classical music streaming service Primephonic onto the Apple Music team.

TikTok parent company buys a VR startup
It isn’t a huge secret that ByteDance and Facebook have been trying to copy each other’s success at times, but many probably weren’t expecting TikTok’s parent company to wander into the virtual reality game. The Chinese company bought the startup Pico which makes consumer VR headsets for China and enterprise VR products for North American customers.

Twitter tests an anti-abuse ‘Safety Mode’
The same features that make Twitter an incredibly cool product for some users can also make the experience awful for others, a realization that Twitter has seemingly been very slow to make. Their latest solution is more individual user controls, which Twitter is testing out with a new “safety mode” which pairs algorithmic intelligence with new user inputs.


extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

Our favorite startups from YC’s Demo Day, Part 1 
“Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first half of its nearly 400-company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators….”

…Part 2
“…Yesterday, the TechCrunch team covered the first half of this batch, as well as the startups with one-minute pitches that stood out to us. We even podcasted about it! Today, we’re doing it all over again. Here’s our full list of all startups that presented on the record today, and below, you’ll find our votes for the best Y Combinator pitches of Day Two. The ones that, as people who sift through a few hundred pitches a day, made us go ‘oh wait, what’s this?’

All the reasons why you should launch a credit card
“… if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users….”


Thanks for reading, and again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny

Lucas Matney

Playbyte’s new app aims to become the ‘TikTok for games’

By Sarah Perez

A startup called Playbyte wants to become the TikTok for games. The company’s newly launched iOS app offers tools that allow users to make and share simple games on their phone, as well as a vertically scrollable, fullscreen feed where you can play the games created by others. Also like TikTok, the feed becomes more personalized over time to serve up more of the kinds of games you like to play.

While typically, game creation involves some aspect of coding, Playbyte’s games are created using simple building blocks, emoji and even images from your Camera Roll on your iPhone. The idea is to make building games just another form of self-expression, rather than some introductory, educational experience that’s trying to teach users the basics of coding.

At its core, Playbyte’s game creation is powered by its lightweight 2D game engine built on web frameworks, which lets users create games that can be quickly loaded and played even on slow connections and older devices. After you play a game, you can like and comment using buttons on the right-side of the screen, which also greatly resembles the TikTok look-and-feel. Over time, Playbyte’s feed shows you more of the games you enjoyed as the app leverages its understanding of in-game imagery, tags and descriptions, and other engagement analytics to serve up more games it believes you’ll find compelling.

At launch, users have already made a variety of games using Playbyte’s tools — including simulators, tower defense games, combat challenges, obbys, murder mystery games, and more.

We made an app called Playbyte that lets you make games on your phone, discover games made by other users, and challenge your friends https://t.co/FFnMbKG1ls pic.twitter.com/eqhabN3kM1

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) May 25, 2021

According to Playbyte founder and CEO Kyle Russell — previously of Skydio, Andreessen Horowitz, and (disclosure!) TechCrunch — Playbyte is meant to be a social media app, not just a games app.

“We have this model in our minds for what is required to build a new social media platform,” he says.

What Twitter did for text, Instagram did for photos and TikTok did for video was to combine a constraint with a personalized feed, Russell explains. “Typically. [they started] with a focus on making these experiences really brief…So a short, constrained format and dedicated tools that set you up for success to work within that constrained format,” he adds.

Similarly, Playbyte games have their own set of limitations. In addition to their simplistic nature, the games are limited to five scenes. Thanks to this constraint, a format has emerged where people are making games that have an intro screen where you hit “play,” a story intro, a challenging gameplay section, and then a story outro.

In addition to its easy-to-use game building tools, Playbyte also allows game assets to be reused by other game creators. That means if someone who has more expertise makes a game asset using custom logic or which pieced together multiple components, the rest of the user base can benefit from that work.

“Basically, we want to make it really easy for people who aren’t as ambitious to still feel like productive, creative game makers,” says Russell. “The key to that is going to be if you have an idea — like an image of a game in your mind — you should be able to very quickly search for new assets or piece together other ones you’ve previously saved. And then just drop them in and mix-and-match — almost like Legos — and construct something that’s 90% of what you imagined, without any further configuration on your part,” he says.

In time, Playbyte plans to monetize its feed with brand advertising, perhaps by allowing creators to drop sponsored assets into their games, for instance. It also wants to establish some sort of patronage model at a later point. This could involve either subscriptions or even NFTs of the games, but this would be further down the road.

The cutest lil sprite blob I’ve ever seen 😭#pixelart #gamedev pic.twitter.com/7uBRzs6ix0

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) August 21, 2021

The startup had originally began as a web app in 2019, but at the end of last year, the team scrapped that plan and rewrote everything as a native iOS app with its own game engine. That app launched on the App Store this week, after previously maxing out TestFlight’s cap of 10,000 users.

Currently, it’s finding traction with younger teenagers who are active on TikTok and other collaborative games, like Roblox, Minecraft, or Fortnite.

“These are young people who feel inspired to build their own games but have been intimidated by the need to learn to code or use other advanced tools, or who simply don’t have a computer at home that would let them access those tools,” notes Russell.

Playbyte is backed by $4 million in pre-seed and seed funding from investors including FirstMark (Rick Heitzmann), Ludlow Ventures (Jonathon Triest and Blake Robbins), Dream Machine (former Editor-in-Chief at TechCrunch, Alexia Bonatsos), and angels such as Fred Ehrsam, co-founder of Coinbase; Nate Mitchell, co-founder of Oculus; Ashita Achuthan, previously of Twitter; and others.

The app is a free download on the App Store.

Pancake aims to make customers flip for its virtual home design platform

By Christine Hall

Pancake brought in a $350,000 seed round to develop its home design platform that leverages furniture you already have in your home with a designer’s fresh eye on your space.

Maria Jose Castro and Roberto Meza, both from Costa Rica, started the company in 2020, based on their own experience of transitioning to work-from-home and needing to outfit a space. However, design services can be expensive, and therefore not accessible to everyone.

Pancake is reinventing the way you can work with an interior designer and get a rendering of your space to work from. Customers can go on the website and book a session with a designer, providing them with measurements and photos of the room.

The designer then prepares a rendering of the space and a deck to explain the design and how the customer will do it — and if paint or furniture is needed that isn’t already available, Pancake will show the customer where to find it. Future features of the site will include connecting with furniture providers, Jose Castro told TechCrunch.

Meza called the company “furniture-as-a-service,” with the main focus to reuse what already exists in a space to create healthy, sustainable spaces that someone can work in, live in and enjoy all at the same time. While that may seem like a tall order, he said that with everyone suddenly together during the global pandemic, relationships are better when people are in a space they like.

“Wellness in construction is what I do, and we wanted to create that with Pancake,” he added. “Sometimes it is the little things that create a space and makes you feel good, or not feel good.”

Pancake plans to use its funding to further develop its platform and add new features like an ecological footprint calculator so customers can see how sustainable their designs are. The company also prides itself on transparent pricing. An average two-hour session with a designer is $199, and the designer will add to the budget if items like paint and new furniture are needed.

Christian Rudder, co-founder of OkCupid, is the lead investor in the seed round. He said that he doesn’t typically invest at the seed stage, but was impressed with the progress Pancake has made in a short period of time. This includes marketing tests on social media platforms that yielded a respectable return on investment, he added.

Meanwhile, Pancake has facilitated over 100 designer sessions and has begun to see referrals and repeat customers who want to design additional rooms in their house. That has translated into 200% month over month revenue growth, on average, despite having to stop for four months during the pandemic, Meza said. Up next, the company will continue to build out its brand and revenue model as it advances to a Series A round next year.

 

WhatsApp faces $267M fine for breaching Europe’s GDPR

By Natasha Lomas

It’s been a long time coming but Facebook is finally feeling some heat from Europe’s much trumpeted data protection regime: Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) has just announced a €225 million (~$267M) for WhatsApp.

The Facebook-owned messaging app has been under investigation by the Irish DPC, its lead data supervisor in the European Union, since December 2018 — several months after the first complaints were fired at WhatsApp over how it processes user data under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), once it begun being applied in May 2018.

Despite receiving a number of specific complaints about WhatsApp, the investigation undertaken by the DPC that’s been decided today was what’s known as an “own volition” enquiry — meaning the regulator selected the parameters of the investigation itself, choosing to fix on an audit of WhatsApp’s ‘transparency’ obligations.

A key principle of the GDPR is that entities which are processing people’s data must be clear, open and honest with those people about how their information will be used.

The DPC’s decision today (which runs to a full 266 pages) concludes that WhatsApp failed to live up to the standard required by the GDPR.

Its enquiry considered whether or not WhatsApp fulfils transparency obligations to both users and non-users of its service (WhatsApp may, for example, upload the phone numbers of non-users if a user agrees to it ingesting their phone book which contains other people’s personal data); as well as looking at the transparency the platform offers over its sharing of data with its parent entity Facebook (a highly controversial issue at the time the privacy U-turn was announced back in 2016, although it predated GDPR being applied).

In sum, the DPC found a range of transparency infringements by WhatsApp — spanning articles 5(1)(a); 12, 13 and 14 of the GDPR.

In addition to issuing a sizeable financial penalty, it has ordered WhatsApp to take a number of actions to improve the level of transparency it offer users and non-users — giving the tech giant a three-month deadline for making all the ordered changes.

In a statement responding to the DPC’s decision, WhatsApp disputed the findings and dubbed the penalty “entirely disproportionate” — as well as confirming it will appeal, writing:

“WhatsApp is committed to providing a secure and private service. We have worked to ensure the information we provide is transparent and comprehensive and will continue to do so. We disagree with the decision today regarding the transparency we provided to people in 2018 and the penalties are entirely disproportionate. We will appeal this decision.” 

It’s worth emphasizing that the scope of the DPC enquiry which has finally been decided today was limited to only looking at WhatsApp’s transparency obligations.

The regulator was explicitly not looking into wider complaints — which have also been raised against Facebook’s data-mining empire for well over three years — about the legal basis WhatsApp claims for processing people’s information in the first place.

So the DPC will continue to face criticism over both the pace and approach of its GDPR enforcement.

…system to add years until this fine will actually be paid – but at least it's a start… 10k cases per year to go! 😜

— Max Schrems 🇪🇺 (@maxschrems) September 2, 2021

 

Indeed, prior to today, Ireland’s regulator had only issued one decision in a major cross-border cases addressing ‘Big Tech’ — against Twitter when, back in December, it knuckle-tapped the social network over a historical security breach with a fine of $550k.

WhatsApp’s first GDPR penalty is, by contrast, considerably larger — reflecting what EU regulators (plural) evidently consider to be a far more serious infringement of the GDPR.

Transparency is a key principle of the regulation. And while a security breach may indicate sloppy practice, systematic opacity towards people whose data your adtech empire relies upon to turn a fat profit looks rather more intentional; indeed, it’s arguably the whole business model.

And — at least in Europe — such companies are going to find themselves being forced to be up front about what they’re doing with people’s data.

Is GDPR working?  

The WhatsApp decision will rekindle the debate about whether the GDPR is working effectively where it counts most: Against the most powerful companies in the world, who are also of course Internet companies.

Under the EU’s flagship data protection regulation, decisions on cross border cases require agreement from all affected regulators — across the 27 Member States — so while the GDPR’s “one-stop-shop” mechanism seeks to streamline the regulatory burden for cross-border businesses by funnelling complaints and investigations via a lead regulator (typically where a company has its main legal establishment in the EU), objections can be raised to that lead supervisory authority’s conclusions (and any proposed sanctions), as has happened here, in this WhatsApp case.

Ireland originally proposed a far more low-ball penalty of up to €50M for WhatsApp. However other EU regulators objected to the draft decision on a number of fronts — and the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) ultimately had to step in and take a binding decision (issued this summer) to settle the various disputes.

Through that (admittedly rather painful) joint-working, the DPC was required to increase the size of the fine issued to WhatsApp. In a mirror of what happened with its draft Twitter decision — where the DPC has also suggested an even tinier penalty in the first instance.

While there is a clear time cost in settling disputes between the EU’s smorgasbord of data protection agencies — the DPC submitted its draft WhatsApp decision to the other DPAs for review back in December, so it’s taken well over half a year to hash out all the disputes about WhatsApp’s lossy hashing and so forth — the fact that ‘corrections’ are being made to its decisions and conclusions can land — if not jointly agreed but at least arriving via a consensus being pushed through by the EDPB — is a sign that the process, while slow and creaky, is working.

Even so, Ireland’s data watchdog will continue to face criticism for its outsized role in handling GDPR complaints and investigations — with some accusing the DPC of essentially cherry-picking which issues to examine in detail (by its choice and framing of cases) and which to elide entirely (by those issues it doesn’t open an enquiry into or complaints it simply drops or ignores), with its loudest critics arguing it’s therefore still a major bottleneck on effective enforcement of data protection rights across the EU. And the associated conclusion for that critique is that tech giants like Facebook are still getting a pretty free pass to violate Europe’s privacy rules.

But while it’s true that a $267M penalty is still the equivalent of a parking ticket for Facebook, orders to change how such adtech giants are able to process people’s information have the potential to be a far more significant correction on problematic business models. Again, though, time will be needed to tell.

In a statement on the WhatsApp decision today, noyb — the privacy advocay group founded by long-time European privacy campaigner Max Schrems, said: We welcome the first decision by the Irish regulator. However, the DPC gets about ten thousand complaints per year since 2018 and this is the first major fine. The DPC also proposed an initial €50MK fine and was forced by the other European data protection authorities to move towards €225M, which is still only 0.08% of the turnover of the Facebook Group. The GDPR foresees fines of up to 4% of the turnover. This shows how the DPC is still extremely dysfunctional.”

Schrems also noted that he and noyb still have a number of pending cases before the DPC — including on WhatsApp.

In further remarks, Schrems and noyb said: “WhatsApp will surely appeal the decision. In the Irish court system this means that years will pass before any fine is actually paid. In our cases we often had the feeling that the DPC is more concerned with headlines than with actually doing the hard groundwork. It will be very interesting to see if the DPC will actually defend this decision fully, as it was basically forced to make this decision by its European counterparts. I can imagine that the DPC will simply not put many resources on the case or ‘settle’ with WhatsApp in Ireland. We will monitor this case closely to ensure that the DPC is actually following through with this decision.”

UK now expects compliance with children’s privacy design code

By Natasha Lomas

In the UK, a 12-month grace period for compliance with a design code aimed at protecting children online expires today — meaning app makers offering digital services in the market which are “likely” to be accessed by children (defined in this context as users under 18 years old) are expected to comply with a set of standards intended to safeguard kids from being tracked and profiled.

The age appropriate design code came into force on September 2 last year however the UK’s data protection watchdog, the ICO, allowed the maximum grace period for hitting compliance to give organizations time to adapt their services.

But from today it expects the standards of the code to be met.

Services where the code applies can include connected toys and games and edtech but also online retail and for-profit online services such as social media and video sharing platforms which have a strong pull for minors.

Among the code’s stipulations are that a level of ‘high privacy’ should be applied to settings by default if the user is (or is suspected to be) a child — including specific provisions that geolocation and profiling should be off by default (unless there’s a compelling justification for such privacy hostile defaults).

The code also instructs app makers to provide parental controls while also providing the child with age-appropriate information about such tools — warning against parental tracking tools that could be used to silently/invisibly monitor a child without them being made aware of the active tracking.

Another standard takes aim at dark pattern design — with a warning to app makers against using “nudge techniques” to push children to provide “unnecessary personal data or weaken or turn off their privacy protections”.

The full code contains 15 standards but is not itself baked into legislation — rather it’s a set of design recommendations the ICO wants app makers to follow.

The regulatory stick to make them do so is that the watchdog is explicitly linking compliance with its children’s privacy standards to passing muster with wider data protection requirements that are baked into UK law.

The risk for apps that ignore the standards is thus that they draw the attention of the watchdog — either through a complaint or proactive investigation — with the potential of a wider ICO audit delving into their whole approach to privacy and data protection.

“We will monitor conformance to this code through a series of proactive audits, will consider complaints, and take appropriate action to enforce the underlying data protection standards, subject to applicable law and in line with our Regulatory Action Policy,” the ICO writes in guidance on its website. “To ensure proportionate and effective regulation we will target our most significant powers, focusing on organisations and individuals suspected of repeated or wilful misconduct or serious failure to comply with the law.”

It goes on to warn it would view a lack of compliance with the kids’ privacy code as a potential black mark against (enforceable) UK data protection laws, adding: “If you do not follow this code, you may find it difficult to demonstrate that your processing is fair and complies with the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] or PECR [Privacy and Electronics Communications Regulation].”

Tn a blog post last week, Stephen Bonner, the ICO’s executive director of regulatory futures and innovation, also warned app makers: “We will be proactive in requiring social media platforms, video and music streaming sites and the gaming industry to tell us how their services are designed in line with the code. We will identify areas where we may need to provide support or, should the circumstances require, we have powers to investigate or audit organisations.”

“We have identified that currently, some of the biggest risks come from social media platforms, video and music streaming sites and video gaming platforms,” he went on. “In these sectors, children’s personal data is being used and shared, to bombard them with content and personalised service features. This may include inappropriate adverts; unsolicited messages and friend requests; and privacy-eroding nudges urging children to stay online. We’re concerned with a number of harms that could be created as a consequence of this data use, which are physical, emotional and psychological and financial.”

“Children’s rights must be respected and we expect organisations to prove that children’s best interests are a primary concern. The code gives clarity on how organisations can use children’s data in line with the law, and we want to see organisations committed to protecting children through the development of designs and services in accordance with the code,” Bonner added.

The ICO’s enforcement powers — at least on paper — are fairly extensive, with GDPR, for example, giving it the ability to fine infringers up to £17.5M or 4% of their annual worldwide turnover, whichever is higher.

The watchdog can also issue orders banning data processing or otherwise requiring changes to services it deems non-compliant. So apps that chose to flout the children’s design code risk setting themselves up for regulatory bumps or worse.

In recent months there have been signs some major platforms have been paying mind to the ICO’s compliance deadline — with Instagram, YouTube and TikTok all announcing changes to how they handle minors’ data and account settings ahead of the September 2 date.

In July, Instagram said it would default teens to private accounts — doing so for under 18s in certain countries which the platform confirmed to us includes the UK — among a number of other child-safety focused tweaks. Then in August, Google announced similar changes for accounts on its video charing platform, YouTube.

A few days later TikTok also said it would add more privacy protections for teens. Though it had also made earlier changes limiting privacy defaults for under 18s.

Apple also recently got itself into hot water with the digital rights community following the announcement of child safety-focused features — including a child sexual abuse material (CSAM) detection tool which scans photo uploads to iCloud; and an opt in parental safety feature that lets iCloud Family account users turn on alerts related to the viewing of explicit images by minors using its Messages app.

The unifying theme underpinning all these mainstream platform product tweaks is clearly ‘child protection’.

And while there’s been growing attention in the US to online child safety and the nefarious ways in which some apps exploit kids’ data — as well as a number of open probes in Europe (such as this Commission investigation of TikTok, acting on complaints) — the UK may be having an outsized impact here given its concerted push to pioneer age-focused design standards.

The code also combines with incoming UK legislate which is set to apply a ‘duty of care’ on platforms to take a rboad-brush safety-first stance toward users, also with a big focus on kids (and there it’s also being broadly targeted to cover all children; rather than just applying to kids under 13s as with the US’ COPPA, for example).

In the blog post ahead of the compliance deadline expiring, the ICO’s Bonner sought to take credit for what he described as “significant changes” made in recent months by platforms like Facebook, Google, Instagram and TikTok, writing: “As the first-of-its kind, it’s also having an influence globally. Members of the US Senate and Congress have called on major US tech and gaming companies to voluntarily adopt the standards in the ICO’s code for children in America.”

“The Data Protection Commission in Ireland is preparing to introduce the Children’s Fundamentals to protect children online, which links closely to the code and follows similar core principles,” he also noted.

And there are other examples in the EU: France’s data watchdog, the CNIL, looks to have been inspired by the ICO’s approach — issuing its own set of right child-protection focused recommendations this June (which also, for example, encourage app makers to add parental controls with the clear caveat that such tools must “respect the child’s privacy and best interests”).

The UK’s focus on online child safety is not just making waves overseas but sparking growth in a domestic compliance services industry.

Last month, for example, the ICO announced the first clutch of GDPR certification scheme criteria — including two schemes which focus on the age appropriate design code. Expect plenty more.

Bonner’s blog post also notes that the watchdog will formally set out its position on age assurance this autumn — so it will be providing further steerage to organizations which are in scope of the code on how to tackle that tricky piece, although it’s still not clear how hard a requirement the ICO will support, with Bonner suggesting it could be actually “verifying ages or age estimation”. Watch that space. Whatever the recommendations are, age assurance services are set to spring up with compliance-focused sales pitches.

Children’s safety online has been a huge focus for UK policymakers in recent years, although the wider (and long in train) Online Safety (neé Harms) Bill remains at the draft law stage.

An earlier attempt by UK lawmakers to bring in mandatory age checks to prevent kids from accessing adult content websites — dating back to 2017’s Digital Economy Act — was dropped in 2019 after widespread criticism that it would be both unworkable and a massive privacy risk for adult users of porn.

But the government did not drop its determination to find a way to regulate online services in the name of child safety. And online age verification checks look set to be — if not a blanket, hardened requirement for all digital services — increasingly brought in by the backdoor, through a sort of ‘recommended feature’ creep (as the ORG has warned). 

The current recommendation in the age appropriate design code is that app makers “take a risk-based approach to recognising the age of individual users and ensure you effectively apply the standards in this code to child users”, suggesting they: “Either establish age with a level of certainty that is appropriate to the risks to the rights and freedoms of children that arise from your data processing, or apply the standards in this code to all your users instead.” 

At the same time, the government’s broader push on online safety risks conflicting with some of the laudable aims of the ICO’s non-legally binding children’s privacy design code.

For instance, while the code includes the (welcome) suggestion that digital services gather as little information about children as possible, in an announcement earlier this summer UK lawmakers put out guidance for social media platforms and messaging services — ahead of the planned Online Safety legislation — that recommends they prevent children from being able to use end-to-end encryption.

That’s right; the government’s advice to data-mining platforms — which it suggests will help prepare them for requirements in the incoming legislation — is not to use ‘gold standard’ security and privacy (e2e encryption) for kids.

So the official UK government messaging to app makers appears to be that, in short order, the law will require commercial services to access more of kids’ information, not less — in the name of keeping them ‘safe’. Which is quite a contradiction vs the data minimization push on the design code.

The risk is that a tightening spotlight on kids privacy ends up being fuzzed and complicated by ill-thought through policies that push platforms to monitor kids to demonstrate ‘protection’ from a smorgasbord of online harms — be it adult content or pro-suicide postings, or cyber bullying and CSAM.

The law looks set to encourage platforms to ‘show their workings’ to prove compliance — which risks resulting in ever closer tracking of children’s activity, retention of data — and maybe risk profiling and age verification checks (that could even end up being applied to all users; think sledgehammer to crack a nut). In short, a privacy dystopia.

Such mixed messages and disjointed policymaking seem set to pile increasingly confusing — and even conflicting — requirements on digital services operating in the UK, making tech businesses legally responsible for divining clarity amid the policy mess — with the simultaneous risk of huge fines if they get the balance wrong.

Complying with the ICO’s design standards may therefore actually be the easy bit.

 

How a Vungle-owned mobile marketer sent Fontmaker to the top of the App Store

By Sarah Perez

Does this sound familiar? An app goes viral on social media, often including TikTok, then immediately climbs to the top of the App Store where it gains even more new installs thanks to the heightened exposure. That’s what happened with the recent No. 1 on the U.S. App Store, Fontmaker, a subscription-based fonts app which appeared to benefit from word-of-mouth growth thanks to TikTok videos and other social posts. But what we’re actually seeing here is a new form of App Store marketing — and one which now involves one of the oldest players in the space: Vungle.

Fontmaker, at first glance, seems to be just another indie app that hit it big.

The app, published by an entity called Mango Labs, promises users a way to create fonts using their own handwriting which they can then access from a custom keyboard for a fairly steep price of $4.99 per week. The app first launched on July 26. Nearly a month later, it was the No. 2 app on the U.S. App Store, according to Sensor Tower data. By August 26, it climbed up one more position to reach No. 1. before slowly dropping down in the top overall free app rankings in the days that followed.

By Aug. 27, it was No. 15, before briefly surging again to No. 4 the following day, then declining once more. Today, the app is No. 54 overall and No. 4 in the competitive Photo & Video category — still, a solid position for a brand-new and somewhat niche product targeting mainly younger users. To date, it’s generated $68,000 in revenue, Sensor Tower reports.

But Fontmaker may not be a true organic success story, despite its Top Charts success driven by a boost in downloads coming from real users, not bots. Instead, it’s an example of how mobile marketers have figured out how to tap into the influencer community to drive app installs. It’s also an example of how it’s hard to differentiate between apps driven by influencer marketing and those that hit the top of the App Store because of true demand — like walkie-talkie app Zello, whose recent trip to No. 1 can be attributed to Hurricane Ida

As it turns out, Fontmaker is not your typical “indie app.” In fact, it’s unclear who’s really behind it. Its publisher, Mango Labs, LLC, is actually an iTunes developer account owned by the mobile growth company JetFuel, which was recently acquired by the mobile ad and monetization firm Vungle — a longtime and sometimes controversial player in this space, itself acquired by Blackstone in 2019.

Vungle was primarily interested in JetFuel’s main product, an app called The Plug, aimed at influencers.

Through The Plug, mobile app developers and advertisers can connect to JetFuel’s network of over 15,000 verified influencers who have a combined 4 billion Instagram followers, 1.5 billion TikTok followers, and 100 million daily Snapchat views.

While marketers could use the built-in advertising tools on each of these networks to try to reach their target audience, JetFuel’s technology allows marketers to quickly scale their campaigns to reach high-value users in the Gen Z demographic, the company claims. This system can be less labor-intensive than traditional influencer marketing, in some cases. Advertisers pay on a cost-per-action (CPA) basis for app installs. Meanwhile, all influencers have to do is scroll through The Plug to find an app to promote, then post it to their social accounts to start making money.

Image Credits: The Plug’s website, showing influencers how the platform works

So while yes, a lot of influencers may have made TikTok videos about Fontmaker, which prompted consumers to download the app, the influencers were paid to do so. (And often, from what we saw browsing the Fontmaker hashtag, without disclosing that financial relationship in any way — an increasingly common problem on TikTok, and area of concern for the FTC.)

Where things get tricky is in trying to sort out Mango Labs’ relationship with JetFuel/Vungle. As a consumer browsing the App Store, it looks like Mango Labs makes a lot of fun consumer apps of which Fontmaker is simply the latest.

JetFuel’s website helps to promote this image, too.

It had showcased its influencer marketing system using a case study from an “indie developer” called Mango Labs and one of its earlier apps, Caption Pro. Caption Pro launched in Jan. 2018. (App Annie data indicates it was removed from the App Store on Aug. 31, 2021…yes, yesterday).

Image Credits: App Annie

Vungle, however, told TechCrunch “The Caption Pro app no longer exists and has not been live on the App Store or Google Play for a long time.” (We can’t find an App Annie record of the app on Google Play).

They also told us that “Caption Pro was developed by Mango Labs before the entity became JetFuel,” and that the case study was used to highlight JetFuel’s advertising capabilities. (But without clearly disclosing their connection.)

“Prior to JetFuel becoming the influencer marketing platform that it is today, the company developed apps for the App Store. After the company pivoted to become a marketing platform, in February 2018, it stopped creating apps but continued to use the Mango Labs account on occasion to publish apps that it had third-party monetization partnerships with,” the Vungle spokesperson explained.

In other words, the claim being made here is that while Mango Labs, originally, were the same folks who have long since pivoted to become JetFuel, and the makers of Caption Pro, all the newer apps published under “Mango Labs, LLC” were not created by JetFuel’s team itself.

“Any apps that appear under the Mango Labs LLC name on the App Store or Google Play were in fact developed by other companies, and Mango Labs has only acted as a publisher,” the spokesperson said.

Image Credits: JetFuel’s website describing Mango Labs as an “indie developer”

There are reasons why this statement doesn’t quite sit right — and not only because JetFuel’s partners seem happy to hide themselves behind Mango Labs’ name, nor because Mango Labs was a project from the JetFuel team in the past. It’s also odd that Mango Labs and another entity, Takeoff Labs, claim the same set of apps. And like Mango Labs, Takeoff Labs is associated with JetFuel too.

Breaking this down, as of the time of writing, Mango Labs has published several consumer apps on both the App Store and Google Play.

On iOS, this includes the recent No. 1 app Fontmaker, as well as FontKey, Color Meme, Litstick, Vibe, Celebs, FITme Fitness, CopyPaste, and Part 2. On Google Play, it has two more: Stickered and Mango.

Image Credits: Mango Labs

Most of Mango Labs’ App Store listings point to JetFuel’s website as the app’s “developer website,” which would be in line with what Vungle says about JetFuel acting as the apps’ publisher.

What’s odd, however, is that the Mango Labs’ app Part2, links to Takeoff Labs’ website from its App Store listing.

The Vungle spokesperson initially told us that Takeoff Labs is “an independent app developer.”

And yet, the Takeoff Labs’ website shows a team which consists of JetFuel’s leadership, including JetFuel co-founder and CEO Tim Lenardo and JetFuel co-founder and CRO JJ Maxwell. Takeoff Labs’ LLC application was also signed by Lenardo.

Meanwhile, Takeoff Labs’ co-founder and CEO Rhai Goburdhun, per his LinkedIn and the Takeoff Labs website, still works there. Asked about this connection, Vungle told us they did not realize the website had not been updated, and neither JetFuel nor Vungle have an ownership stake in Takeoff Labs with this acquisition.

Image Credits: Takeoff Labs’ website showing its team, including JetFuel’s co-founders.

Takeoff Labs’ website also shows off its “portfolio” of apps, which includes Celeb, Litstick, and FontKey — three apps that are published by Mango Labs on the App Store.

On Google Play, Takeoff Labs is the developer credited with Celebs, as well as two other apps, Vibe and Teal, a neobank. But on the App Store, Vibe is published by Mango Labs.

Image Credits: Takeoff Labs’ website, showing its app portfolio.

(Not to complicate things further, but there’s also an entity called RealLabs which hosts JetFuel, The Plug and other consumer apps, including Mango — the app published by Mango Labs on Google Play. Someone sure likes naming things “Labs!”)

Vungle claims the confusion here has to do with how it now uses the Mango Labs iTunes account to publish apps for its partners, which is a “common practice” on the App Store. It says it intends to transfer the apps published under Mango Labs to the developers’ accounts, because it agrees this is confusing.

Vungle also claims that JetFuel “does not make nor own any consumer apps that are currently live on the app stores. Any of the apps made by the entity when it was known as Mango Labs have long since been taken down from the app stores.”

JetFuel’s system is messy and confusing, but so far successful in its goals. Fontmaker did make it to No. 1, essentially growth hacked to the top by influencer marketing.

Congrats to @Rhai_Gb & the @Takeoff_Labs team- it's great to be back at #1 overall 🙌

Also a huge accomplishment for @jetfuel_it as the only user acquisition source. The first time we've single-handedly moved an app to #1 Top Free! https://t.co/Cl8ahj8Owo

— Tim L (@telenardo) August 25, 2021

But as a consumer, what this all means is that you’ll never know who actually built the app you’re downloading or whether you were “influenced” to try it through what were, essentially, undisclosed ads.

Fontmaker isn’t the first to growth hack its way to the top through influencer promotions. Summertime hit Poparrazzi also hyped itself to the top of the App Store in a similar way, as have many others. But Poparazzi has since sunk to No. 89 in Photo & Video, which shows influence can only take you so far.

As for Fontmaker, paid influence got it to No. 1, but its Top Chart moment was brief.

Twitter is testing a new anti-abuse feature called ‘Safety Mode’

By Taylor Hatmaker

Twitter’s newest test could provide some long-awaited relief for anyone facing harassment on the platform.

The new product test introduces a feature called “Safety Mode” that puts up a temporary line of defense between an account and the waves of toxic invective that Twitter is notorious for. The mode can be enabled from the settings menu, which toggles on an algorithmic screening process that filters out potential abuse that lasts for seven days.

“Our goal is to better protect the individual on the receiving end of Tweets by reducing the prevalence and visibility of harmful remarks,” Twitter Product Lead Jarrod Doherty said.

Safe Mode won’t be rolling out broadly — not yet, anyway. The new feature will first be available to what Twitter describes as a “small feedback group” of about 1,000 English language users.

In deciding what to screen out, Twitter’s algorithmic approach assesses a tweet’s content — hateful language, repetitive, unreciprocated mentions — as well as the relationship between an account and the accounts replying. The company notes that accounts you follow or regularly exchange tweets with won’t be subject to the blocking features in Safe Mode.

For anyone in the test group, Safety Mode can be toggled on in the privacy and safety options. Once enabled, an account will stay in the mode for the next seven days. After the seven day period expires, it can be activated again.

In crafting the new feature, Twitter says it spoke with experts in mental health, online safety and human rights. The partners Twitter consulted with were able to contribute to the initial test group by nominating accounts that might benefit from the feature, and the company hopes to focus on female journalists and marginalized communities in its test of the new product. Twitter says that it will start reaching out to accounts that meet the criteria of the test group — namely accounts that often find themselves on the receiving end of some of the platform’s worst impulses.

Earlier this year, Twitter announced that it was working on developing new anti-abuse features, including an option to let users “unmention” themselves from tagged threads and a way for users to prevent serial harassers from mentioning them moving forward. The company also hinted at a feature like Safety Mode that could give users a way to defuse situations during periods of escalating abuse.

Being “harassed off of Twitter” is, unfortunately, not that uncommon. When hate and abuse get bad enough, people tend to abandon Twitter altogether, taking extended breaks or leaving outright. That’s obviously not great for the company either, and while it’s been slow to offer real solutions to harassment, it’s obviously aware of the problem and working toward some possible solutions.

Apollo completes its $5B acquisition of Verizon Media, now known as Yahoo

By Brian Heater

Private equity firm Apollo Global Management this morning announced that it has completed its acquisition of Yahoo (formerly known as Verizon Media Group, itself formerly known as Oath) from Verizon. The deal is worth $5 billion, with $4.25 billion in cash, plus preferred interests of $750 million. Verizon will be retaining 10% of the newly rebranded company.

“This is a new era for Yahoo,” Yahoo CEO (and former VZM head) Guru Gowrappan said in a release tied to the news. “The close of the deal heralds an exciting time of renewed opportunity for us as a standalone entity. We anticipate that the coming months and years will bring fresh growth and innovation for Yahoo as a business and a brand, and we look forward to creating that future with our new partners.”

There have been reports that Gowrappan might not stay on as CEO of Yahoo for the long term now that the deal has closed; for now he’s still at the helm.

In addition to its titular Yahoo properties (Mail, Sports, Finance, et al.), the group includes us, TechCrunch; AOL; Engadget; and interactive media brand, RYOT. All told, the umbrella brand encompasses around 900 million monthly active users globally and is currently the third-largest internet property, per Apollo’s figures.

The deal puts to a close a years-long effort by Verizon to make a comprehensive move into online media, specifically around adtech, which ultimately proved to be too costly, mostly unprofitable and, finally, not core enough to the telco’s bigger growth strategy.

The news comes during a tumultuous time for online media, amid increasing industry-wide consolidation, many felt within Verizon Media. Verizon acquired AOL in 2015 for $4.4 billion, followed by buying Yahoo for $4.5 billion two years later, combining the two legacy media properties into a combined group named Oath. At the end of 2018, Oath wrote down $4.6 billion, following the merger.

It’s not clear how a new owner will steer that large ship differently, but one strategy — standard practice for PE firms — could involve Apollo selling off parts of the business or rationalizing it in other ways.

However, for its part, Apollo has promised to continue investing in the newly acquired proprieties, and it has secured all jobs at the time of handover for at least an initial period. The bigger firm of Apollo has a massive set of TMT, holdings so it will be interesting to see how and if it leverages that, too.

“We look forward to partnering with Yahoo’s talented employee base to build on the company’s strong momentum and position the new Yahoo for long-term success as a standalone consumer internet and digital media leader,” Apollo Partner Reed Rayman said in the release. “We couldn’t be more excited about this next chapter for Yahoo as we look to invest in growth across the business, including accelerating its customer-first offerings and commerce capabilities, expanding its reach and enhancing the daily user experience.”

Google appeals ‘disproportionate’ French copyright, talks fine

By Natasha Lomas

Google is appealing the more than half a billion-dollar fine it got slapped with by France’s competition authority in July.

The penalty relates to the adtech giant’s approach toward paying news publishers for content reuse.

In a statement today, Sebastien Missoffe, a Google France VP and country manager, characterized the fine as “disproportionate” — claiming that the $592 million penalty is not justified in light of Google’s “efforts” to cut a deal with news publishers and comply with updated copyright rules. Which reads like fairly weak sauce, as defence statements go.

“We are appealing the French Competition Authority’s decision which relates to our negotiations between April and August 2020. We disagree with a number of legal elements, and believe that the fine is disproportionate to our efforts to reach an agreement and comply with the new law,” wrote Missoffe, adding: “Irrespective of this, we recognize neighboring rights and we continue to work hard to resolve this case and put deals in place. This includes expanding offers to 1,200 publishers, clarifying aspects of our contracts, and we are sharing more data as requested by the French Competition Authority in their July Decision.”

Back in 2019, the European Union agreed on an update to digital copyright rules which extended cover to the ledes of news stories — snippets of which aggregators such as Google News had for years routinely scraped and displayed.

Individual EU Member States then needed to transpose the updated pan-EU reforms into their national laws — with France leading the pack to do so.

The country’s competition watchdog has also been leading the charge in enforcing updated rules against Google — ordering the tech giant to negotiate with publishers last year and following that up with a whopping fine when publishers complained to it about how Google was treating those talks.

Announcing the penalty this summer, the Autorité de la Concurrence accused the tech giant of attempting to unilaterally impose a global news licensing product it operates upon local publishers in a bid to avoid having to put a separate financial value on neighbouring rights remuneration — where there is a legal requirement (under EU and French law) upon it to negotiate with said publishers…

The watchdog’s full list of grievances against Google’s modus operandi was very long — check out our earlier report here — so it’s not clear how much of a placeholder action this appeal by Google is.

Per Reuters, the Autorité has said the appeal will not hold up the penalty nor impede the timeline of the order it already issued — which, in mid July, gave Google a two month timeframe to revise its offer and provide publishers with all the required info, with the threat of daily fines (of €900,000) if it failed to meet all its requirements by then. So there are now only a couple of weeks to go before that deadline.

Google may thus be hoping that by announcing an appeal now it will help ‘concentrate’ publishers’ minds — and encourage them to accept — whatever tweaked offer it comes up with, hence its statement noting an ‘expanded’ offer (now covering 1,200 publishers), and talk of “clarifying aspects of our contracts” and “sharing more data”, all of which were areas where Google got roundly spanked by the Autorité. 

TikTok adds educational resources for parents as part of its Family Pairing feature

By Sarah Perez

TikTok is expanding its in-app parental controls feature, Family Pairing, with educational resources designed to help parents better support their teenage users, the company announced morning. The pairing feature, which launched to global users last year, allows parents of teens aged 13 and older to connect their accounts with the child’s so the parent can set controls related to screen time use, who the teen can direct message, and more. But the company heard from teens that they also want their voices to be heard when it comes to parents’ involvement in their digital life.

To create the new educational content, TikTok partnered with the online safety nonprofit, Internet Matters. The organization developed a set of resources in collaboration with teens that aim to offer parents tips about navigating the TikTok landscape and teenage social media usage in general.

Teens said they want parents to understand the rules they’re setting when they use features like Family Pairing and they want them to be open to having discussions about the time teens spend online. And while teens don’t mind when parents set boundaries, they also want to feel they’ve earned some level of trust from the adults in their life.

The older teens get, the more autonomy they want to have on their own device and social networks, as well. They may even tell mom or dad that they don’t want them to follow them on a given platform.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the teen is up to no good, the new resources explain to parents. The teens just want to feel like they can hang out with their friends online without being so closely monitored. This has become an important part of the online experience today, in the pandemic era, where many younger people are spending more time at home instead of socializing with friends in real-life or participating in other in-person group activities.

Image Credits: TikTok

Teens said they also want to be able to come to parents when something goes wrong, without fearing that they’ll be harshly punished or that the parent will panic about the situation. The teens know they’ll be consequences if they break the rules, but they want parents to work through other tough situations with them and devise solutions together, not just react in anger.

All this sounds like straightforward, common sense advice, but parents on TikTok often have varying degrees of comfort with their teens’ digital life and use of social networks. Some basic guidelines that explain what teens want and feel makes sense to include. That said, the parents who are technically savvy enough to enable a parental control feature like Family Pairing may already be clued into best practices.

Image Credits: TikTok

In addition, this sort of teen-focused privacy and safety content is also designed to help TikTok better establish itself as a platform working to protect its younger users — an increasingly necessary stance in light of the potential regulation which big tech has been trying to ahead of, as of late. TikTok, for instance, announced in August it would roll out more privacy protections for younger teens aimed to make the app safer. Facebook, Google and YouTube also did the same.

TikTok says parents or guardians who have currently linked their account to a teen’s account via the Family Pairing feature will receive a notification that prompts them to find out more about the teens’ suggestions and how to approach those conversations about digital literacy and online safety. Parents who sign up and enable Family Pairing for the first time, will also be guided to the resources.

Facebook Quietly Makes a Big Admission

By Gilad Edelman
The company’s new approach to political content acknowledges that engagement isn’t always the best way to measure what users value.

LinkedIn is scrapping its Stories feature to work on short-form video

By Amanda Silberling

What do LinkedIn and Twitter have in common? They both introduced ephemeral story features that were pretty fleeting. LinkedIn announced today that it will suspend its Stories feature on September 30 and begin working on a different way to add short-form videos to the platform.

LinkedIn announced the upcoming change to warn advertisers who might have already purchased ads that would run in between Stories. Those will instead be shared on the LinkedIn feed, but users who promoted or sponsored Stores directly from their page will need to remake them.

This sucks. I met my wife on LinkedIn Stories https://t.co/rMeA6gpYWI

— Casey Newton (@CaseyNewton) August 31, 2021

LinkedIn introduced Stories in September, around the same time that Twitter rolled out Fleets to all users before doing away with the feature. This was part of a larger web and mobile redesign, which also added integrations with Zoom, BlueJeans and Teams to help professionals stay connected while working from home. But according to LinkedIn, these temporary posts didn’t quite work on the platform.

“In developing Stories, we assumed people wouldn’t want informal videos attached to their profile, and that ephemerality would reduce barriers that people feel about posting,” wrote LinkedIn’s Senior Director of Product Liz Li in a blog post today. “Turns out, you want to create lasting videos that tell your professional story in a more personal way and that showcase both your personality and expertise.”

Li also noted that users want “more creative tools to make engaging videos.” While Stories included stickers and prompts, users wanted more creative functionality.

If LinkedIn is successful in its plans to create a short-form video feature, it would join platforms like Snapchat and Instagram that have built their own TikTok-like feeds. Sure, most users probably don’t post the same content on LinkedIn and their personal social media accounts, but there actually are some prominent TikTokers sharing career advice, interview tips and resume guidance, so LinkedIn’s pivot to video might not be as weird as it seems.

Move fast and break Facebook: A bull case for antitrust enforcement

By Annie Siebert
Daniel Liss Contributor
Daniel Liss is the founder and CEO of Dispo, the digital disposable camera social network.
More posts by this contributor

This is the second post in a series on the Facebook monopoly. The first post explored how the U.S. Federal Trade Commission should define the Facebook monopoly. I am inspired by Cloudflare’s recent post explaining the impact of Amazon’s monopoly in its industry.

Perhaps it was a competitive tactic, but I genuinely believe it more a patriotic duty: guideposts for legislators and regulators on a complex issue. My generation has watched with a combination of sadness and trepidation as legislators who barely use email question the leading technologists of our time about products that have long pervaded our lives in ways we don’t yet understand.

I, personally, and my company both stand to gain little from this — but as a participant in the latest generation of social media upstarts, and as an American concerned for the future of our democracy, I feel a duty to try.


Mark Zuckerberg has reached his Key Largo moment.

In May 1972, executives of the era’s preeminent technology company — AT&T — met at a secret retreat in Key Largo, Florida. Their company was in crisis.

At the time, Ma Bell’s breathtaking monopoly consisted of a holy trinity: Western Electric (the vast majority of phones and cables used for American telephony), the lucrative long distance service (for both personal and business use) and local telephone service, which the company subsidized in exchange for its monopoly.

Over the next decade, all three government branches — legislators, regulators and the courts — parried with AT&T’s lawyers as the press piled on, battering the company’s reputation in the process. By 1982, a consent decree forced AT&T’s dismantling. The biggest company on earth withered to 30% of its book value and seven independent “Baby Bell” regional operating companies. AT&T’s brand would live on, but the business as the world knew it was dead.

Mark Zuckerberg is, undoubtedly, the greatest technologist of our time. For over 17 years, he has outgunned, outsmarted and outperformed like no software entrepreneur before him. Earlier this month, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission refiled its sweeping antitrust case against Facebook.

Its own holy trinity of Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp is under attack. All three government branches — legislators, regulators and the courts — are gaining steam in their fight, and the press is piling on, battering the company’s reputation in the process. Facebook, the AT&T of our time, is at the brink. For so long, Zuckerberg has told us all to move fast and break things. It’s time for him to break Facebook.

If Facebook does exist to “make the world more open and connected, and not just to build a company,” as Zuckerberg wrote in the 2012 IPO prospectus, he will spin off Instagram and WhatsApp now so that they have a fighting chance. It would be the ultimate Zuckerbergian chess move. Zuckerberg would lose voting control and thus power over all three entities, but in his action he would successfully scatter the opposition. The rationale is simple:

  1. The United States government will break up Facebook. It is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when.
  2. Facebook is already losing. Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp all face existential threats. Pressure from the government will stifle Facebook’s efforts to right the ship.
  3. Facebook will generate more value for shareholders as three separate companies.

I write this as an admirer; I genuinely believe much of the criticism Zuckerberg has received is unfair. Facebook faces Sisyphean tasks. The FTC will not let Zuckerberg sneeze without an investigation, and the company has failed to innovate.

Given no chance to acquire new technology and talent, how can Facebook survive over the long term? In 2006, Terry Semel of Yahoo offered $1 billion to buy Facebook. Zuckerberg reportedly remarked, “I just don’t know if I want to work for Terry Semel.” Even if the FTC were to allow it, this generation of founders will not sell to Facebook. Unfair or not, Mark Zuckerberg has become Terry Semel.

The government will break up Facebook

It is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when.

In a speech on the floor of Congress in 1890, Senator John Sherman, the founding father of the modern American antitrust movement, famously said, “If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessities of life. If we would not submit to an emperor, we should not submit to an autocrat of trade with power to prevent competition and to fix the price of any commodity.”

This is the sentiment driving the building resistance to Facebook’s monopoly, and it shows no sign of abating. Zuckerberg has proudly called Facebook the fifth estate. In the U.S., we only have four estates.

All three branches of the federal government are heating up their pursuit. In the Senate, an unusual bipartisan coalition is emerging, with Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mark Warner (D-VA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) each waging a war from multiple fronts.

In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has called Facebook “part of the problem.” Lina Khan’s FTC is likewise only getting started, with unequivocal support from the White House that feels burned by Facebook’s disingenuous lobbying. The Department of Justice will join, too, aided by state attorneys general. And the courts will continue to turn the wheels of justice, slowly but surely.

In the wake of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’ scathing 2019 New York Times op-ed, Zuckerberg said that Facebook’s immense size allows it to spend more on trust and safety than Twitter makes in revenue.

“If what you care about is democracy and elections, then you want a company like us to be able to invest billions of dollars per year like we are in building up really advanced tools to fight election interference,” Zuckerberg said.

This could be true, but it does not prove that the concentration of such power in one man’s hands is consistent with U.S. public policy. And the centralized operations could be rebuilt easily in standalone entities.

Time and time again, whether on Holocaust denial, election propaganda or vaccine misinformation, Zuckerberg has struggled to make quick judgments when presented with the information his trust and safety team uncovers. And even before a decision is made, the structure of the team disincentivizes it from even measuring anything that could harm Facebook’s brand. This is inherently inconsistent with U.S. democracy. The New York Times’ army of reporters will not stop uncovering scandal after scandal, contradicting Zuckerberg’s narrative. The writing is on the wall.

Facebook is losing

Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp all face existential threats. Pressure from the government will stifle Facebook’s efforts to right the ship.

For so long, Facebook has dominated the social media industry. But if you ask Chinese technology executives about Facebook today, they quote Tencent founder Pony Ma: “When a giant falls, his corpse will still be warm for a while.”

Facebook’s recent demise begins with its brand. The endless, cascading scandals of the last decade have irreparably harmed its image. Younger users refuse to adopt the flagship Facebook Blue. The company’s internal polling on two key metrics — good for the world (GFW) and cares about users (CAU) — shows Facebook’s reputation is in tatters. Talent is fleeing, too; Instacart alone recently poached 55 Facebook executives.

In 2012 and 2014, Instagram and WhatsApp were real dangers. Facebook extinguished both through acquisition. Yet today they represent the company’s two most promising, underutilized assets. They are the underinvested telephone networks of our time.

Weeks ago, Instagram head Adam Mosseri announced that the company no longer considers itself a photo-sharing app. Instead, its focus is entertainment. In other words, as the media widely reported, Instagram is changing to compete with TikTok.

TikTok’s strength represents an existential threat. U.S. children 4 to 15 already spend over 80 minutes a day on ByteDance’s TikTok, and it’s just getting started. The demographics are quickly expanding way beyond teenagers, as social products always have. For Instagram, it could be too little too late — as a part of Facebook, Instagram cannot acquire the technology and retain the talent it needs to compete with TikTok.

Imagine Instagram acquisitions of Squarespace to bolster its e-commerce offerings, or Etsy to create a meaningful marketplace. As a part of Facebook, Instagram is strategically adrift.

Likewise, a standalone WhatsApp could easily be a $100 billion market cap company. WhatsApp has a proud legacy of robust security offerings, but its brand has been tarnished by associations with Facebook. Discord’s rise represents a substantial threat, and WhatsApp has failed to innovate to account for this generation’s desire for community-driven messaging. Snapchat, too, is in many ways a potential WhatsApp killer; its young users use photography and video as a messaging medium. Facebook’s top augmented reality talents are leaving for Snapchat.

With 2 billion monthly active users, WhatApp could be a privacy-focused alternative to Facebook Blue, and it would logically introduce expanded profiles, photo-sharing capabilities and other features that would strengthen its offerings. Inside Facebook, WhatsApp has suffered from underinvestment as a potential threat to Facebook Blue and Messenger. Shareholders have suffered for it.

Beyond Instagram and WhatsApp, Facebook Blue itself is struggling. Q2’s earnings may have skyrocketed, but the increase in revenue hid a troubling sign: Ads increased by 47%, but inventory increased by just 6%. This means Facebook is struggling to find new places to run its ads. Why? The core social graph of Facebook is too old.

I fondly remember the day Facebook came to my high school; I have thousands of friends on the platform. I do not use Facebook anymore — not for political reasons, but because my friends have left. A decade ago, hundreds of people wished me happy birthday every year. This year it was 24, half of whom are over the age of 50. And I’m 32 years old. Teen girls run the social world, and many of them don’t even have Facebook on their phones.

Zuckerberg’s newfound push into the metaverse has been well covered, but the question remains: Why wouldn’t a Facebook serious about the metaverse acquire Roblox? Of course, the FTC would currently never allow it.

Facebook’s current clunky attempt at a hardware solution, with an emphasis on the workplace, shows little sign of promise. The launch was hardly propitious, as CNN reported, “While Bosworth, the Facebook executive, was in the middle of describing how he sees Workrooms as a more interactive way to gather virtually with coworkers than video chat, his avatar froze midsentence, the pixels of its digital skin turning from flesh-toned to gray. He had been disconnected.”

This is not the indomitable Facebook of yore. This is graying Facebook, freezing midsentence.

Facebook will generate more value for shareholders as three separate companies

Zuckerberg’s control of 58% of Facebook’s voting shares has forestalled a typical Wall Street reckoning: Investors are tiring of Zuckerberg’s unilateral power. Many justifiably believe the company is more valuable as the sum of its parts. The success of AT&T’s breakup is a case in point.

Five years after AT&T’s 1984 breakup, AT&T and the Baby Bells’ value had doubled compared to AT&T’s pre-breakup market capitalization. Pressure from Japanese entrants battered Western Electric’s market share, but greater competition in telephony spurred investment and innovation among the Baby Bells.

AT&T turned its focus to competing with IBM and preparing for the coming information age. A smaller AT&T became more nimble, ready to focus on the future rather than dwell on the past.

Standalone Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp could drastically change their futures by attracting talent and acquiring new technologies.

The U.K.’s recent opposition to Facebook’s $400 million GIPHY acquisition proves Facebook will struggle mightily to acquire even small bolt-ons.

Zuckerberg has always been one step ahead. And when he wasn’t, he was famously unprecious: “Copying is faster than innovating.” If he really believes in Facebook’s mission and recognizes that the situation cannot possibly get any better from here, he will copy AT&T’s solution before it is forced upon him.

Regulators are tying Zuckerberg’s hands behind his back as the company weathers body blows and uppercuts from Beijing to Silicon Valley. As Zuckerberg’s idol Augustus Caesar might have once said, carpe diem. It’s time to break Facebook.

As 5G demand grows, Sitenna helps telcos find more cell tower locations, faster

By Danny Crichton

The buildout of 5G networks continues apace, with wide-scale deployments across much of the developed world. Yet, one of the largest challenges with closing the gaps in coverage maps are constraints on 5G transmissions. Because of the spectrum that 5G technology uses compared to 4G, telecom operators need to install many times more towers to deliver the advertised bandwidth with the same quality signal that users expect.

Installing cell towers is a daunting proposition though. An operator has to find exactly the right location in terms of line of sight to users, then make sure the location has power and internet access, and then negotiate a contract with the property owner to keep the tower there for a decade or more. Now repeat tens of thousands of times (and maybe even more).

Sitenna, which will debut next week as part of Y Combinator’s Summer 2021 Demo Day, wants to radically speed up the process of selecting tower sites and securing contracts, creating a marketplace for landlords, tower operators and telcos alike.

Tower siting and access to poles have in some cases emerged as national infrastructure priorities. In the United States, the challenges around installing new towers — and new towers quickly — became a top priority of the FCC during the Trump administration, which launched a 5G FAST Plan to try to ease regulations around tower installation.

Sitenna’s founders Daniel Campion and Brian Sexton saw an opportunity with such programs to help with the movement. Over the past year, they have built out what is essentially a marketplace that on one hand, helps property owners figure out if they have an asset that’s worth investigating for telecom usage, and on the other, helps tower operators select and digitally sign deals for installation.

Sitenna co-founder and CEO Daniel Campion. Image Credits: Sitenna

The company launched in the United Kingdom in June, and “it kind of resonated,” Campion said, noting that 65,000 real estate assets and roughly 15% of the towers in the UK are now on the platform. The company has kicked off two pilots with Vodafone and its tower provider Cornerstone. He said the company intends to enter the U.S. market in the first quarter of next year.

While the company is starting with a marketplace, like many startups today, it is also augmenting that marketplace with B2B SaaS tools. In its case, that means tools for telcos to manage the process of onboarding a new tower location and then managing the asset. “Once they find the site, they ping pong emails back and forth,” Campion said. “So we have built some tools to help them on their workflows.”

Sitenna’s platform allows landlords and tower operators to inspect and transact tower locations. Image Credits: Sitenna

While there is definitely a large wave of tower installations underway now with the transition to 5G wireless, that wave doesn’t mean that tower installation will suddenly dry up in a few years. Campion notes that there is a “continual refresh of 15-20% on the carrier side” due to everything from changing usage patterns and building redevelopment to just standard hardware replacement.

And of course, there is always 6G, which while completely amorphous today, is a real thing that I get invites to conferences for. There’s always going to be a next generation of wireless, and Sitenna wants to become the center for managing that infrastructure.

Forbes jumps into hot media liquidity summer with a SPAC combo

By Alex Wilhelm

What a busy week in the world of media liquidity.

That’s a sentence you don’t get to write often. Regardless, news broke this week that Axel Springer is buying U.S. political journalism outfit POLITICO. The transaction was expected, but the eye-popping roughly $1 billion price tag still has tongues wagging. We even got on the podcast to chat about it.

And Forbes announced that it is going public via a SPAC. The business publication’s news follows BuzzFeed’s journey to the public markets through a blank-check company. Hot media liquidity summer? Something like that.


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That TechCrunch is in the process of being sold to private equity, of course, is not something that we should forget. Shoutout to the Verizon bankers who found a way to get rid of us while also deleveraging Verizon’s debt profile. Ten points.

I want to take a quick tour of the Forbes SPAC deck this morning. Our notes on BuzzFeed’s are here, in case you want to run comparisons. This will be easy and fun. Perfect Friday morning fare. Into the data!

What’s it worth?

In corporate-speak, Forbes Global Media Holdings is merging with blank-check company Magnum Opus Acquisition Limited. The transaction will close either Q4 2021 or Q1 2022, Forbes estimates.

The deal itself is somewhat modest in scale compared with other SPAC deals we’ve recently looked into. Forbes reports that it will sport “an implied pro forma enterprise value of $630 million, net of tax benefits,” after its completion. Some $600 million in gross proceeds will be derived from Magnum Opus funds “and $400 million of additional capital through a private placement of ordinary shares of the combined company,” Forbes writes.

The company will sport an equity valuation of $830 million after the deal closes, per its own calculations. That number will change some depending on redemptions ahead of the combination. The gap between the large dollars going into the deal and the modest final valuation of the public Forbes entity is due to some $440 million in secondary transactions for existing Forbes shareholders.

In case you’d prefer all of that in table form, here’s the Forbes investor deck:

Image Credits: Forbes SPAC deck

Is $830 million a fair price? Let’s dig into Forbes’ results.

Stonehenge Technology Labs bags $2M, gives CPG companies one-touch access to metrics

By Christine Hall

Stonehenge Technology Labs wants consumer packaged goods companies to gain meaningful use from all of the data they collect. It announced $2 million in seed funding for its STOPWATCH commerce enhancement software.

The round was led by Irish Angels, with participation from Bread and Butter Ventures, Gaingels, Angeles Investors, Bonfire Ventures and Red Tail Venture Capital.

CEO Meagan Kinmonth Bowman founded the Arkansas-based company in 2019 after working at Hallmark, where she was tasked with the digital transformation of the company.

“This was not a consequence of them not being good marketers or connected to mom, but they didn’t have the technology to connect their back end with retailers like Amazon, Walmart or Hobby Lobby,” she told TechCrunch. “There are so many smart people building products to connect with consumers. The challenge is the big guys are doing things the same way and not thinking like the 13-year-olds on social media that are actually winning the space.”

Kinmonth Bowman and her team recognized that there was a missing middle layer connecting the world of dotcom with brick and mortar. If the middle layer could be applied to the enterprise resource plans and integrate public and private data feeds, a company could be just as profitable online as it could be in traditional retail, she said.

Stonehenge’s answer to that is STOPWATCH, which takes in over 100 million rows of data per workspace per day, analyzes the data points, adds real-time alerts and provides the right data to the right people at the right time.

Dan Rossignol, a B2B SaaS investor, said the CPG world is also about consumerizing our life, and the global pandemic showed that even at home, people could have a productive day and business. Rossignol likes to invest in underestimated founders and saw in Stonehenge a company that is getting CPGs out from underneath antiquated technologies.

“What Meagan and her team are doing is really interesting,” he added. “At this stage, it is all about the people, and the ability to bet on doing something larger.”

Kinmonth Bowman said she had the opportunity to base the company in Silicon Valley, but chose Bentonville, Arkansas instead to be closer to the more than 1,000 CPG companies based there that she felt were the prime customer base for STOPWATCH.

The platform was originally created as a subsidiary of a consulting company, but in 2018, one of their clients told them they just wanted the software rather than also paying for the consulting piece. The business was split, and Stonehenge went underground for eight months to make a software product specifically for the client.

Kinmonth Bowman admits the technology itself is not that sexy — it is using exact transfer loads to extract data from hundreds of systems into a “lake house,” and then siloing it by retailer and other factors and then presenting the data in different ways. For example, the CEO will want different metrics than product teams.

Over the past year, the company has doubled its revenue and also doubled the amount of contracts. It already counts multiple Fortune 100 companies and emerging brands as some of its early users and plans to use the new funding to hire a sales team and go after some strategic relationships.

Stonehenge is also working on putting together a diverse workforce that mimics the users of the software, Kinmonth Bowman said. One of the challenges has been to get unique talent to move to Arkansas, but she said it is one she is eager to take on.

Meanwhile, Brett Brohl, managing partner at Bread and Butter Ventures, said the Stonehenge team “is just crazy enough, smart and driven” to build something great.

“All of the biggest companies have been around for a long time, but not a lot of large organizations have done a good job digitizing their businesses,” he said. “Even pre-COVID, they were building fill-in-the-blank digital transformations, but COVID accelerated technology and hit a lot of companies in the face. That was made more obvious to end consumers, which puts more pressure on companies to understand the need, which is good for STOPWATCH. It went from paper to Excel spreadsheets to the next cloud modification. The time is right for the next leap and how to use data.”

Twitter starts to roll out paid Ticketed Spaces on iOS

By Amanda Silberling

Twitter announced today that some hosts on Spaces, its live audio feature, will now be able to sell access to Ticketed Spaces. Applications for Ticketed Spaces first opened in June for users who are over 18, hosted three Spaces in the last 30 days, and have at least 1,000 followers.

“We’re continuing to work closely with people who are already hosting Spaces for Ticketed Spaces,” a Twitter representative told TechCrunch. Twitter declined to say how many people it’s rolled out this capability to so far, or when users can expect a more universal rollout. For now, anyone on iOS can buy tickets to Spaces hosted by people who have access to the feature.

we want to help people creating cool Spaces make $$$. today, some Hosts will be able create Ticketed Spaces!

we’re experimenting on iOS only for now but we hope to get it to everyone soon. know it’s taking us a little time, but we want to get this right for you! https://t.co/xc68yWkOim

— Spaces (@TwitterSpaces) August 26, 2021

Twitter previously stated that it will take a 3% cut of creators’ earnings from Ticketed Spaces. But since the feature is only currently available on iOS, that means that Twitter will be subject to Apple’s 30% in-app purchase fee, so a creator will only see 67% of each ticket sale. If a creator’s total lifetime earnings on Twitter — including Ticketed Spaces and Super Follows — exceed $50,000, then Twitter will raise its 3% commission to 20%.

Ticketed Spaces would differentiate Twitter aside from its live audio competitors. Clubhouse and Instagram let listeners tip speakers or award badges in a live audio space, but the apps haven’t enabled advance ticket sales.

Netflix begins testing mobile games in its Android app in Poland

By Sarah Perez

Netflix today announced it will begin testing mobile games inside its Android app for its members in Poland. At launch, paying subscribers will be able to try out two games, “Stranger Things: 1984” and “Stranger Things 3” — titles that have been previously available on the Apple App Store, Google Play and, in the case of the newer release, on other platforms including desktop and consoles. While the games are offered to subscribers from within the Netflix mobile app’s center tab, users will still be directed to the Google Play Store to install the game on their devices.

To then play, members will need to confirm their Netflix credentials.

Members can later return to the game at any time by clicking “Play” on the game’s page from inside the Netflix app or by launching it directly from their mobile device.

“It’s still very, very early days and we will be working hard to deliver the best possible experience in the months ahead with our no ads, no in-app purchases approach to gaming,” a Netflix spokesperson said about the launch.

Let’s talk Netflix and gaming.

Today members in Poland can try Netflix mobile gaming on Android with two games, Stranger Things: 1984 and Stranger Things 3. It’s very, very early days and we’ve got a lot of work to do in the months ahead, but this is the first step. https://t.co/yOl44PGY0r

— Netflix Geeked (@NetflixGeeked) August 26, 2021

The company has been expanding its investment in gaming for years, seeing the potential for a broader entertainment universe that ties in to its most popular shows. At the E3 gaming conference back in 2019, Netflix detailed a series of gaming integrations across popular platforms like Roblox and Fortnite and its plans to bring new “Stranger Things” games to the market.

On mobile, Netflix has been working with the Allen, Texas-based game studio BonusXP, whose first game for Netflix, “Stranger Things: The Game,” has now been renamed “Stranger Things: 1984” to better differentiate it from others. While that game takes place after season 1 and before season 2, in the “Stranger Things” timeline, the follow-up title, “Stranger Things 3,” is a playable version of the third season of the Netflix series. (So watch out for spoilers!)

Netflix declined to share how popular the games had been in terms of users or installs, while they were publicly available on the app stores.

With the launch of the test in Poland, Netflix says users will need to have a membership to download the titles as they’re now exclusively available to subscribers. However, existing users who already downloaded the game from Google Play in the past will not be impacted. They will be able to play the game as usual or even re-download it from their account library if they used to have it installed. But new players will only be able to get the game from the Netflix app.

The test aims to better understand how mobile gaming will resonate with Netflix members and determine what other improvements Netflix may need to make to the overall functionality, the company said. It chose Poland as the initial test market because it has an active mobile gaming audience, which made it seem like a good fit for this early feedback.

Netflix couldn’t say when it would broaden this test to other countries, beyond “the coming months.”

The streamer recently announced during its second-quarter earnings that it would add mobile games to its offerings, noting that it viewing gaming as “another new content category” for its business, similar to its “expansion into original films, animation and unscripted TV.”

The news followed what had been a sharp slowdown in new customers after the pandemic-fueled boost to streaming. In North America, Netflix in Q2 lost a sizable 430,000 subscribers — its third-ever quarterly decline in a decade. It also issued weaker guidance for the upcoming quarter, forecasting the addition of 3.5 million subscribers when analysts had been looking for 5.9 million. But Netflix downplayed the threat of competition on its slowing growth, instead blaming a lighter content slate, in part due to Covid-related production delays.

 

 

 

 

 

Facebook will reportedly launch its own advisory group for election policy decisions

By Taylor Hatmaker

Facebook is looking to create a standalone advisory committee for election-related policy decisions, according to a new report from The New York Times. The company has reportedly approached a number of policy experts and academics it is interested in recruiting for the group, which could give the company cover for some of its most consequential choices.

The group, which the Times characterizes as a commission, would potentially be empowered to weigh in on issues like election misinformation and political advertising — two of Facebook’s biggest policy headaches. Facebook reportedly plans for the commission to be in place for the 2022 U.S. midterm elections and could announce its formation as soon as this fall.

Facebook’s election commission could be modeled after the Oversight Board, the company’s first experiment in quasi-independent external decision making. The Oversight Board began reviewing cases in October of last year, but didn’t gear up in time to impact the flood of election misinformation that swept the platform during the U.S. presidential election. Initially, the board could only make policy rulings based on material that was already removed from Facebook.

The company touts the independence of the Oversight Board, and while it does operate independently, Facebook created the group and appointed its four original co-chairs. The Oversight Board is able to set policy precedents and make binding per-case moderation rulings, but ultimately its authority comes from Facebook itself, which at any point could decide to ignore the board’s decisions.

A similar external policy-setting body focused on elections would be very politically useful for Facebook. The company is a frequent target for both Republicans and Democrats, with the former claiming Facebook censors conservatives disproportionately and the latter calling attention to Facebook’s long history of incubating conspiracies and political misinformation.

Neither side was happy when Facebook decided to suspend political advertising after the election — a gesture that failed to address the exponential spread of organic misinformation. Facebook asked the Oversight Board to review its decision to suspend former President Trump, though the board ultimately kicked its most controversial case back to the company itself.

Romanian marketing expert Robert Katai explains how to get the most out of your content

By Anna Heim

There’s a lot of advice out there on how to grab people’s attention, but there’s one aspect of marketing that Robert Katai thinks isn’t talked about as often: maintaining their attention. The solution, he says, is a combination of content strategy and positioning.

Based in Romania, Katai is known for his podcasts and speeches covering the gamut of content marketing. A product manager at online graphic design platform Creatopy, he also works with clients as a freelance content strategist, and it is in this capacity that he was recommended to TechCrunch via our growth marketer survey. (If you have growth marketers to recommend, please fill out the survey!)

Katai was recommended by multiple Romanian clients and contacts who vouched for his content strategy prowess, so we were curious to know more. Who is he? And is his advice applicable beyond borders?

The short answer is yes. In a freewheeling interview, Katai spoke about how content marketing should integrate with users’ daily lives, and how content can be repurposed across multiple formats. He also shared some insights on the booming Romanian startup ecosystem.

Editor’s note: The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

TC: How do you help your clients as a freelancer?

Robert Katai: One of the two things I’m doing is that I’m helping clients with creating their content strategy based on their objective. You can get web traffic, but you can also create a message and build the brand. You don’t have to start at the beginning; You can rebuild the brand later.

For instance, I’m working with a Romanian outsourcing company that started in 1993. They pioneered this industry in our city of Cluj-Napoca, but lately they started to realize that they should be more attractive from a sales as well as from an employee perspective. So I worked with them to perform an internal audit to see why employees love the company, why they leave, why they stay and what they want from the company.

Robert Katai

Image Credits: Robert Katai.

From there, I got to the idea that they needed to reshape their brand to not just have people notice them but to also maintain their attention. And here comes the content: I started an ambassador program, because there are people outside of the company who love it.

I also recommended they create an internal print magazine. It’s a very well-designed magazine that their 200 to 300 employees can take home and read. It’s not just about the job; it’s also about their hobbies, things to do in the city and some thought leadership articles that can inspire them to have a better life.

What’s the second way you are helping clients?

Apart from content strategy, I’m working with clients on their positioning for their audience, community and market, but also sometimes in terms of employer branding. Content can be a bridge between the two ways I am helping clients, because I’m using a lot of content marketing here and not focusing only on performance or growth marketing hacks. I’m helping them understand that if they want to establish a memorable, long-lasting brand in the market, they have to make content marketing part of their life.

If they want to reposition themselves in the industry, they need to say: Okay, these are the kinds of content we have to create for our goals; who will amplify the content, who will connect with us, and who will consume the content. Today, content creation is free — everybody can do it. The hard part is how you distribute and amplify that. And here’s how I can help the startups: Make a big piece of content and repurpose it in several small pieces; get it in front of people so that the brand is on their minds.


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How can brands achieve that top-of-mind status?

We all know that there are four kinds of content: Text, video, pictures and audio. These four formats never die. The platform can change, but the format will stay the same. A video can be an Instagram Reel, a documentary or something else, but it’s a video. The same goes for a photo. So the content strategy I’m working with is how brands can use that content ecosystem.

When I work with my clients — and also with Creatopy where I’m a product marketer — I recommend them to use content to build their brand and be visible to their users every day in their feeds. Every morning, when their customers are waking up and checking their phones, they don’t open a newspaper. They will open Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, and maybe then when they get out of the bathroom and make coffee, they will open YouTube and connect with Alexa.

I really believe that brands should create content that can just be in the mind of the user. Snackable content, Reels, TikTok … It doesn’t matter what we call it.

You also talked about repurposing content. Can you explain that?

Let’s take the interview you’ve done with Peep Laja. You could have recorded it as a video. And he covered several topics, so you could have several short videos — 30 seconds, three minutes, whatever. You can publish them daily on your site or social media channels with a comment that says, “Here’s the link to the full article.” But remember that on LinkedIn, that link will need to go into the comments section, not the post itself.

You can also have a longer video that you can publish on social media or on Wistia, asking people to give their email — so now you also have subscribers.

Then the second type of content you can create is audio. You already have it from the recording. You don’t have to publish the full 45-minute conversation, but you can have a five-minute audio clip, and again link to the articles.

Now we have video and audio, but what if you also designed quotes with his headshot and messaging? If it’s part of a series, you should also give it a name.

And it’s not just motivational; it’s educational, too, so you should take these quotes and create carousels for Instagram and LinkedIn. The first slide should grab attention — it can be a question. The second slide can be a link to the interview so that even if people don’t click it, it will be on their minds. Then you can have slides with insights.

The last slide will always be a call to action: Asking people to share, comment or save it for later — it’s the new currency on Instagram! And once you have your Instagram carousel, you create a PDF and publish it on LinkedIn.

So now you have five formats of content from one piece of content.

Wow, how much do we owe you?! Just kidding, we actually do some of that for the Equity podcast, for instance. Now, what other advice do you have for startups?

I’m a big advocate of documenting the process. Just imagine if Mark Zuckerberg had done that and you could read how he launched Facebook and so on. Noah Kagan is doing that right now. I think startup founders should do it, not just from the PR and marketing perspective, but for their audience. Even if your audience is not paying for your product right now, they are staying with you and giving your brand an essence in the industry.

Just think about what Salesforce is doing right now: They launched Salesforce+, which is like Netflix for B2B. It’s to get the attention of professionals and also maintain it, and I believe this is the currency of the big companies today: People’s attention.

Do you work with any startups in Romania? And do you have any impressions to share on the Romanian startup ecosystem?

Yes, I help a few Romanian startups with their content marketing and positioning. Sometimes other startups email me with questions, so I help them, too, but I don’t charge for email advice. I work with the ones that are looking for a long-term or project-based collaboration.

Startup founders here in Romania are curious, and very courageous to experiment even if it won’t necessarily work. And Romanian startups are very smart. For instance, Planable is doing a great job with content, social media and positioning. We also have social media analytics company Socialinsider, which this year launched virtual events, and TypingDNA, which wants to get rid of needing to log in with passwords and was founded by a former colleague.

I also found that the founders here work harder than their teams and don’t just leave others do the work — at least the ones I have met. We have several startup events in Romania: How to Web, and Techsylvania here in Transylvania.

I don’t like this name, but people say that Cluj-Napoca is the “Silicon Valley of Romania.” Lots of startups have been launched here, but the city that is getting more and more traction is Oradea, where the bet on education is paying off.

(If you are a tech startup founder or investor in Cluj or Oradea, fill in TechCrunch’s European Cities Survey 2021.)

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