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Apple lowers commissions on in-app purchases for news publishers who participate in Apple News

By Sarah Perez

Apple today is launching a new program that will allow subscription news organizations that participate in the Apple News app and meet certain requirements to lower their commission rate to 15% on qualifying in-app purchases taking place inside their apps on the App Store. Typically, Apple’s model for subscription-based apps involves a standard 30% commission during their first year on the App Store, which then drops to 15% in year two. But the new Apple News Partner Program, announced today, will now make 15% the commission rate for participants starting on day one.

There are a few caveats to this condition, and they benefit Apple. To qualify, the news publisher must maintain a presence on Apple News and they have to provide their content in the Apple News Format (ANF). The latter is the JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) format that’s used to create articles for Apple News which are optimized for Mac, iPhone and other Apple mobile devices. Typically, this involves a bit of setup to translate news articles from a publisher’s website or from their CMS (content management system) to the supported JSON format. For WordPress and other popular CMS’s, there are also plugins available to make this process easier.

Meanwhile, for publishers headquartered outside one of the four existing Apple News markets — the U.S., U.K., Australia or Canada — they can instead satisfy the program’s obligations by providing Apple with an RSS feed.

On the App Store, the partner app qualifying for the 15% commission must be used to deliver “original, professionally authored” news content, and they must offer their auto-renewable subscriptions using Apple’s in-app purchase system.

Image Credits: Apple

While there is some initial work involved in establishing the publisher’s connection to Apple News, it’s worth noting that most major publishers already participate on Apple’s platform. That means they won’t have to do any additional work beyond what they’re already doing in order to transition over to the reduced commission for their apps. However, the program also serves as a way to push news organizations to continue to participate in the Apple News ecosystem, as it will make more financial sense to do so across their broader business.

That will likely be an area of contention for publishers, who would probably prefer that the reduced App Store commission didn’t come with strings attached.

Some publishers already worry that they’re giving up too much control over their business by tying themselves to the Apple News ecosystem. Last year, for example, The New York Times announced it would exit its partnership with Apple News, saying that Apple didn’t allow it to have as direct a relationship with readers as it wanted, and it would rather drive readers to its own app and website.

Apple, however, would argue that it doesn’t stand in the way of publishers’ businesses — it lets them paywall their content and keep 100% of the ad revenue from the ads they sell. (If they can’t sell it all or would prefer Apple to do so on their behalf, they then split the commission with Apple, keeping 70% of revenues instead.) In addition, for the company’s Apple News+ subscription service — where the subscription revenue split is much higher — it could be argued that it’s “found money.” That is, Apple markets the service to customers the publisher hadn’t been able to attract on its own anyway.

The launch of the new Apple News Partner program comes amid regulatory scrutiny over how Apple manages its App Store business and more recently, proposed legislation aiming to address alleged anticompetitive issues both in the U.S. and in major App Store markets, like South Korea.

Sensing this shift in the market, Apple had already been working to provide itself cover from antitrust complaints and lawsuits — like the one underway now with Epic Games — by adjusting its App Store commissions. Last year, it launched the App Store Small Business Program, which also lowered commissions on in-app purchases from 30% to 15% — but only for developers earning up to $1 million in revenues.

This program may have helped smaller publishers, but it was clear some major publishers still weren’t satisfied. After the reduced commissions for small businesses were announced in November, the publisher trade organization Digital Content Next (DCN) — a representative for the AP, The New York Times, NPR, ESPN, Vox, The Washington Post, Meredith, Bloomberg, NBCU, The Financial Times, and others — joined the advocacy group and lobbying organization the Coalition for App Fairness (CAF) the very next month.

These publishers, who had previously written to Apple CEO Tim Cook to demand lower commissions — had other complaints about the revenue share beyond just the size of the split. They also didn’t want to be required to use Apple’s services for in-app purchases for their subscriptions, saying this “Apple tax” forces them to raise their prices for consumers.

It remains to be seen how these publishers will now react to the launch of the Apple News Partner program.

While it gives them a way to lower their App Store fees, it doesn’t address their broader complaints against Apple’s platform and its rules. If anything, it ties the lower fees to a program that locks them in further to the Apple ecosystem.

Apple, in a gesture of goodwill, also said today it would recommit support to three leading media non-profits, Common Sense Media, the News Literacy Project, and Osservatorio Permanente Giovani-Editori. These non-profits offer nonpartisan, independent media literacy programs, which Apple views as key to its larger mission to empower people to become smart and active news readers. Apple also said it would later announce further media literacy projects from other organizations. The company would not disclose the size of its commitment from a financial standpoint however, or discuss how much it has sent such organizations in the past.

“Providing Apple News customers with access to trusted information from our publishing partners has been our priority from day one,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Services, in a statement. “For more than a decade, Apple has offered our customers many ways to access and enjoy news content across our products and services. We have hundreds of news apps from dozens of countries around the world available in the App Store, and created Apple News Format to offer publishers a tool to showcase their content and provide a great experience for millions of Apple News users,” he added.

More details about the program and the application form will be available at the News Partner Program website.

Tencent in talks to lead funding in India’s Pocket FM

By Manish Singh

Tencent is in advanced stages of talks to lead an investment round in Gurgaon-headquartered Pocket FM, the latest in the Chinese giant’s push to broaden its consumer internet portfolio in the Indian market.

The Chinese firm, which is already an investor in Pocket FM, is in talks to lead a ~20-25 million round in Pocket FM, according to three people with knowledge of the matter. The proposed term values the three-year-old startup between $75 million to $100 million, two people said. Existing investors Times Internet’s Brand Capital and Lightspeed are also participating in the round.

Tencent and Pocket FM declined to comment.

Pocket FM operates an eponymous app that offers users podcasts and audiobooks in English and several Indian languages. On its website, the service says its catalog is over 10,000 hours. The startup works with several creators to produce audiobooks.

The app is available in a freemium model. It has a paid subscription as well as an ad-supported free version.

The investment talks come at a time when a range of Indian startups are beginning to launch in — or expand to — audio category. Indian social network ShareChat, for instance, launched a Clubhouse-like feature earlier this year.

Pocket FM will be Tencent’s latest bet in India’s consumer internet space. The Chinese giant is also an investor in music streaming service Gaana and on-demand video streaming player MX Player.

Tencent slowed its the pace of investments in India last year after New Delhi amended a rule to require Chinese companies to take its approval before backing Indian firms. It has become more active in recent quarters, investing through debt instead of equity with a convertible note.

Google says geofence warrants make up one-quarter of all US demands

By Zack Whittaker

For the first time, Google has published the number of geofence warrants it’s historically received from U.S. authorities, providing a rare glimpse into how frequently these controversial warrants are issued.

The figures, published Thursday, reveal that Google has received thousands of geofence warrants each quarter since 2018, and at times accounted for about one-quarter of all U.S. warrants that Google receives. The data shows that the vast majority of geofence warrants are obtained by local and state authorities, with federal law enforcement accounting for just 4% of all geofence warrants served on the technology giant.

According to the data, Google received 982 geofence warrants in 2018, 8,396 in 2019, and 11,554 in 2020. But the figures only provide a small glimpse into the volume of warrants received, and did not break down how often it pushes back on overly broad requests. A spokesperson for Google would not comment on the record.

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), which led efforts by dozens of civil rights groups to lobby for the release of these numbers, commended Google for releasing the numbers.

“Geofence warrants are unconstitutionally broad and invasive, and we look forward to the day they are outlawed completely.” said Cahn.

Geofence warrants are also known as “reverse-location” warrants, since they seek to identify people of interest who were in the near-vicinity at the time a crime was committed. Police do this by asking a court to order Google, which stores vast amounts of location data to drive its advertising business, to turn over details of who was in a geographic area, such as a radius of a few hundred feet at a certain point in time, to help identify potential suspects.

Google has long shied away from providing these figures, in part because geofence warrants are largely thought to be unique to Google. Law enforcement has long known that Google stores vast troves of location data on its users in a database called Sensorvault, first revealed by The New York Times in 2019.

Sensorvault is said to have the detailed location data on “at least hundreds of millions of devices worldwide,” collected from users’ phones when they use an Android device with location data switched on, or Google services like Google Maps and Google Photo, and even Google search results. In 2018, the Associated Press reported that Google could still collect users’ locations even when their location history is “paused.”

But critics have argued that geofence warrants are unconstitutional because the authorities compel Google to turn over data on everyone else who was in the same geographic area.

Worse, these warrants have been known to ensnare entirely innocent people.

TechCrunch reported earlier this year that Minneapolis police used a geofence warrant to identify individuals accused of sparking violence in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd last year. One person on the ground who was filming and documenting the protests had his location data requested by police for being close to the violence. NBC News reported last year how one Gainesville, Fla. resident whose information was given by Google to police investigating a burglary, but was able to prove his innocence thanks to an app on his phone that tracked his fitness activity.

Although the courts have yet to deliberate widely on the legality of geofence warrants, some states are drafting laws to push back against geofence warrants. New York lawmakers proposed a bill last year that would ban geofence warrants in the state, amid fears that police could use these warrants to target protesters — as what happened in Minneapolis.

Cahn, who helped introduce the New York bill last year, said the newly released data will “help spur lawmakers to outlaw the technology.”

“Let’s be clear, the number of geofence warrants should be zero,” he said.

Facebook releases a glimpse of its most popular posts, but we don’t learn much

By Taylor Hatmaker

Facebook is out with a new report collecting the most popular posts on the platform, responding to critics who believe the company is deliberately opaque about its top-performing content.

Facebook’s new “widely viewed content reports” will come out quarterly, reflecting most viewed top News Feed posts in the U.S. every three months — not exactly the kind of real-time data monitoring that might prove useful for observing emerging trends.

With the new data set, Facebook hopes to push back against criticism that its algorithms operate within a black box. But like its often misleading blogged rebuttals and the other sets of cherry-picked data it shares, the company’s latest gesture at transparency is better than nothing, but not particularly useful.

So what do we learn? According to the new data set, 87% of posts that people viewed in the U.S. during Q2 of this year didn’t include an outside link. That’s notable but not very telling since Facebook still has an incredibly massive swath of people sharing and seeing links on a daily basis.

YouTube is predictably the top domain by Facebook’s chosen metric of “content viewers,” which it defines as any account that saw a piece of content on the News Feed, though we don’t get anything in the way of potentially helpful granular data there. Amazon, Gofundme, TikTok and others also in the top 10, no surprises there either.

Things get weirder when Facebook starts breaking down its most viewed links. The top five links include a website for alumni of the Green Bay Packers football team, a random online CBD marketplace and reppnforchrist.com, an apparently prominent portal for Christianity-themed graphic T-shirts. The subscription page for the Epoch Times, a site well known for spreading pro-Trump conspiracies and other disinformation, comes in at No 10, though it was beaten by a Tumblr link to two cats walking with their tails intertwined.

Image Credits: Facebook

Yahoo and ABC News are the only prominent national media outlets that make the top 20 when the data is sliced and diced in this particular way. Facebook also breaks down which posts the most people viewed during the period with a list of mostly benign if odd memes, including one that reads “If your VAGINA [cat emoji] or PENIS [eggplant emoji] was named after the last TV show/Move u watched what would it be.”

If you’re wondering why Facebook chose to collect and present this set of data in this specific way, it’s because the company is desperately trying to prove a point: That its platform isn’t overrun by the political conspiracies and controversial right-wing personalities that make headlines.

The dataset is Facebook’s latest argument in its long feud with New York Times reporter Kevin Roose, who created a Twitter account that surfaces Facebook’s most engaging posts on a daily basis, as measured through the Facebook-owned social monitoring tool CrowdTangle.

The top-performing link posts by U.S. Facebook pages in the last 24 hours are from:

1. Dan Rather
2. Ben Shapiro
3. Love Meow
4. Ben Shapiro
5. Dinesh D'Souza
6. Ben Shapiro
7. Ben Shapiro
8. Sean Hannity
9. Fox News
10. Steven Crowder

— Facebook's Top 10 (@FacebooksTop10) August 10, 2021

By the metric of engagement, Facebook’s list of top-performing posts in the U.S. are regularly dominated by far-right personalities and sites like Newsmax, which pushes election conspiracies that Facebook would prefer to distance itself from.

The company argues that Facebook posts with the most interactions don’t accurately represent the top content on the platform. Facebook insists that reach data, which measures how many people see a given post, is a superior metric, but there’s no reason that engagement data isn’t just as relevant if not more so.

“The content that’s seen by the most people isn’t necessarily the content that also gets the most engagement,” Facebook wrote, in a dig clearly aimed at Roose.

The platform wants to de-emphasize political content across the board, which isn’t surprising given its track record of amplifying Russian disinformation, violent far-right militias and the Stop the Steal movement, which culminated in deadly violence at the U.S. Capitol in January.

As The New York Times previously reported, Facebook actually scrapped plans to make its reach data widely available through a public dashboard over fears that even that version of its top-performing posts wouldn’t reflect well on the company.

Instead, the company opted to offer a taste of that data in a confusingly condensed quarterly report. The result shows plenty of inexplicable junk content (no really, what’s with the Packers site?), but less in the way of politics. Facebook’s cursory gesture of transparency notwithstanding, it’s worth remembering that nothing is stopping the company from letting people see a deeper, broader leaderboard of its most popular content. This isn’t that.

Which Crops Can Survive Drought? Nanosensors May Offer Clues

By Keith Gillogly
The technique can be used to track how water flows through plants—which could be key to breeding more resilient crops in an increasingly hot, dry climate.
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