FreshRSS

🔒
❌ About FreshRSS
There are new available articles, click to refresh the page.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Facebook addresses political controversy in India, monetization opportunities, startup investments

By Manish Singh

At the beginning of the previous decade, Facebook had a tiny presence in India. It had just started to slowly expand its team in the country and was inking deals with telecom operators to make access to its service free to users and even offer incentives such as free voice credit.

India’s internet population, now the second largest with more than 500 million connected users, itself was very small. In early 2011, the country had fewer than 100 million internet users.

But Facebook ended up playing a crucial role in the last decade. So much so that by the end of it, the social juggernaut was reaching nearly every internet user in the country. WhatsApp alone reaches more than 400 million internet users in India, more than any other app in the country, according to mobile insight firm App Annie.

This reach of Facebook in India didn’t go unnoticed. Politicians in the country today heavily rely on Facebook services, including WhatsApp, to get their message out. But it has also complicated things.

Rumors have spread on WhatsApp that cost lives, and politicians from both the large political parties in India in recent weeks have accused the company of showing favoritism to the other side.

To address these issues, and the role Facebook wishes to play in India, Ajit Mohan, the head of the company’s business in the country, joined us at Disrupt 2020. Following are some of the highlights.

On controversy

A recent report in WSJ claimed that Ankhi Das, one of Facebook’s top executives in India, decided against taking down a post from a politician from the ruling party. She did so, the report claimed, because she feared it could hurt the company’s business prospects in India.

In Mohan’s first interview since the controversy broke, he refuted the claims that any executive in the country holds power to influence how Facebook enforces its content policy.

“We believe that it’s important for us to be open and neutral and non-partisan,” he said. “We have deep belief and conviction that our enabling role is as a neutral party that allows speech of all kinds, that allows expression of all kinds, including political expression, and a lot of the guidelines that we have developed are to make sure that we really enable our diversity of expression and opinion so long as we’re able to make sure that the safety and security of people are protected.”

Mohan said the internal processes and systems inside Facebook are designed to ensure that any opinion and preference of an employee or a group of employees is “quite separate from the company and the company’s objective enforcement of its own policies.”

He said individuals can offer input on decisions, but nobody — including Ankhi Das — can unilaterally influence the decision Facebook takes on content enforcement.

“We do allow free expression inside the company as well. We don’t have any constraints on people expressing their point of view, but we see that separate from the enforcement of our content policy. […] The content policy itself, in the context of India, is a team that stands separate from the public policy team that is led by Ankhi,” he added.

This photo illustration shows an Indian newspaper vendor reading a newspaper with a full back page advertisement from WhatsApp intended to counter fake information, in New Delhi on July 10, 2018. (Photo by Prakash SINGH / AFP)

On India and monetization

Even as Facebook has amassed hundreds of millions of users in India, the world’s second largest market contributes little to its bottom line. So why does Facebook care so much about the country?

“India is in the middle of a very exciting economic and social transformation where digital has a massive role to play. In just the last four years, more than 500 million users have come online. The pace of this transformation probably has no parallel in either human history or even in the digital transformation happening in countries around the world,” he said.

“For a company like ours, if you look at the family of apps across WhatsApp and Instagram, we believe we have a useful role to play in fueling this transformation,” he said.

Even as Facebook does not generate a lot of revenue from India, Mohan said the company has established itself as one of the most trusted platforms for marketers. “They look to us as a material partner in their marketing agenda,” he said.

He said the company is hopeful that advertising as a GDP will go up in India. “Therefore ad-revenue will become substantial over time,” he said.

For Facebook, India is also crucial because it allows the company to build some unique products that solve issues for India but could be replicated in other markets. The company is currently testing an integration of WhatsApp, which currently does not have a business model despite having over 2 billion users, with new Indian e-commerce JioMart, to allow users to easily track their orders.

“We think there is opportunity to build India-first models, experiment at scale, and in a world where we succeed, we see huge opportunity in taking some of these models global,” he said.

Facebook as a VC

Facebook does not usually invest in startups. But in India, the company has invested in social-commerce firm Meesho, online learning platform Unacademy — it even participated in its follow-up round — and it wrote a $5.7 billion check to Jio Platforms earlier this year. So why is Facebook taking this investment route in India?

“We wanted to create a program for taking minority investments in early-stage startups to figure out how we could be helpful to startup founders and the ecosystem as a whole. The starting point was backing teams that were building models that in some ways were unique to India and could go global. Since we made an investment in Meesho, they have made a strong thrust in Indonesia. These are the kind of companies where we feel we can add value as well as we can learn from these startups,” he said.

The partnership with Jio Platforms follows a different rationale. “The transformation we talked about in India in the last few years, Jio triggered it,” he said. Other than that, Facebook is exploring ways to work with Jio, such as with its partnership with Jio’s venture JioMart. “It can really fuel the small and medium business that is good for the Indian economy,” he said.

Mohan said the company continues to explore more opportunities in Indian startups, especially with those where the teams think Facebook can add value, but he said there is no mandate of any kind that Facebook has to invest in, say dozens of startups in three to four years. “It’s not a volume play,” he said.

During the Q&A part of the interview, Mohan was asked if Reliance Industries, which operates Jio Platforms and Reliance Retail, will receive any special access on Facebook’s services. What if Amazon, BigBasket, Grofers, or Flipkart want to integrate with WhatsApp, too? Mohan said Facebook platform is open for every firm and everyone will receive the same level of access and opportunities.

In the interview, Mohan, who ran the Disney-run Hotstar on-demand streaming service in India, also talked about the growing usage of video in India, the state of WhatsApp Pay’s rollout in the country, what Facebook thinks of India’s ban on Chinese apps, and much more. You can watch the full interview below.

WhatsApp reveals six previously undisclosed vulnerabilities on new security site

By Zack Whittaker

Facebook-owned WhatsApp has revealed six previously undisclosed vulnerabilities, which the company has now fixed. The vulnerabilities are being reported on a dedicated security advisory website that will serve as the new resource providing a comprehensive list of WhatsApp security updates and associated Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE).

WhatsApp said five of the six vulnerabilities were fixed in the same day, while the remaining bug took a couple of days to remediate. Although some of the bugs could have been remotely triggered, the company said it found no evidence of hackers actively exploiting the vulnerabilities.

Around one-third of the new vulnerabilities were reported through the company’s Bug Bounty Program, while the others were discovered in routine code reviews and by using automated systems, as would be expected.

WhatsApp is one of the world’s most popular apps with more than two billion users around the world. But it’s also a persistent target for hackers, who try to find and exploit vulnerabilities in the platform.

The new website was launched as part of the company’s efforts to be more transparent about vulnerabilities targeting the messaging app, and in response to user feedback. The company says the WhatsApp community has been asking for a centralized location for tracking security vulnerabilities, as WhatsApp isn’t always able to detail its security advisories in an app’s release notes due to app store policies.

The new dashboard will update monthly, or sooner if it has to warn users of an active attack. It will also offer an archive of past CVEs dating back to 2018. While the website’s main focus will be on CVEs in WhatsApp’s code, if the company files a CVE with the public database MITRE for a vulnerability it found in third-party code, it will denote that on the WhatsApp Security Advisory page, as well.

Last year, WhatsApp went public after fixing a vulnerability allegedly used by Israeli spyware maker NSO Group. WhatsApp sued the spyware maker, alleging the company used the vulnerability to covertly deliver its Pegasus spyware to some 1,400 devices — including more than 100 human rights defenders and journalists.

NSO denied the allegations.

John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, whose work has included investigating NSO Group, welcomed the news.

“This is good, and we know that bad actors make use of extensive resources to acquire and weaponize vulnerabilities,” he told TechCrunch. “WhatsApp sending the signal that it’s going to move regularly to identify and patch in this way seems like yet another way to raise the cost for bad actors.”

In a blog post, WhatsApp said: “We are very committed to transparency and this resource is intended to help the broader technology community benefit from the latest advances in our security efforts. We strongly encourage all users to ensure they keep their WhatsApp up-to-date from their respective app stores and update their mobile operating systems whenever updates are available.”

Facebook also said Thursday that it has codified its vulnerability disclosure policy, allowing the company to warn developers of security vulnerabilities in third-party code that Facebook and WhatsApp rely on.

FB Messenger chief Stan Chudnovsky is coming to Disrupt

By Anthony Ha

Stan Chudnovsky last spoke at Disrupt in 2016, so we’ve got a lot to catch up on.

Chudnovsky remains in charge of Facebook Messenger — his current title is VP of Messenger — so he can tell us more about how the product has evolved at this year’s Disrupt 2020 on September 14-18.

One of the biggest changes has been the launch of Messenger Rooms, a service that allows you to start and join video calls from within Facebook or Messenger (and eventually other Facebook products). The product’s appeal is pretty easy to see in a time of social distancing, but Facebook still has a long way to go if it wants to challenge Zoom.

Meanwhile, we’ve also seen increasing scrutiny about the role that messaging apps can play in spreading hate speech and misinformation. Among Facebook’s apps, WhatsApp has struggled the most visibly with these issues, but Messenger has also been adding tools to help people share accurate information about the COVID-19 pandemic.

On top of all that, we can get general updates on how FB Messenger has been doing during the pandemic, and what the big priorities are moving forward. Chudnovsky might also have some thoughts to share on the messaging landscape, and on the startup world — after all, before joining Facebook, he co-founded startups including Jiff, NFX, Ooga Labs and Wonderhill.

Learn more about the future of messaging at our all-virtual Disrupt 2020, which runs from September 14-18. Get your front row seat to see this panel live with a Disrupt Digital Pro Pass or a Digital Startup Alley Exhibitor Package. We’re excited to see you there.

More Chinese phone makers could lose US apps under Trump’s Clean Network

By Rita Liao

Over a third of the world’s smartphone sales come from Chinese vendors Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo. These manufacturers have thrived not only because they offer value-for-money handsets thanks to China’s supply chains, but they also enjoy a relatively open mobile ecosystem, in which consumers in most countries can freely access the likes of Google, Instagram and WhatsApp.

That openness is under attack as the great U.S.-China tech divide inches closer to reality, which can cause harm on both sides.

The Trump Administration’s five-pronged Clean Network initiative aims to strip away Chinese phone makers’ ability to pre-install and download U.S. apps. Under U.S. sanctions, Huawei already lost access to key Google services, which has dealt a blow to its overseas phone sales. Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi, and other Chinese phone makers could suffer the same setback as Huawei, should the Clean Network applies to them.

For years, China has maintained a closed-up internet with the Great Firewall restricting a bevy of Western services, often without explicitly presenting the reasons for censorship. Now the U.S. has a plan that could potentially keep Chinese apps off the American internet.

The Clean Network program was first announced in April as part of the Trump Administration’s efforts in “guarding our citizens’ privacy and our companies’ most sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party.”

Beijing said Thursday it’s firmly opposed to U.S. restrictions on Chinese tech firms and blasted that the U.S. uses such actions to preserve its technology hegemony.

Many on Chinese social media compare Trump’s Clean Network proposal to routine cyberspace crackdowns in China, which regulators say are to purge pornography, violence, gambling, and other ‘illegal’ activities. Others that espouse a free internet lament its looming demise.

(1/2) A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that internet used to make me smile

But August makes me shiver
With every app I’d have delivered
Bad news on state dot government
I couldn’t reach Pompeo’s statement

— 一天世界 (@yitianshijieipn) August 6, 2020

It’s unclear when the rules would be implemented and how they would be enforced. The program also aims to remove ‘untrusted’ Chinese apps from US app stores. A TikTok ban is looking less likely as Microsoft nears a buyout, but other Chinese apps also have a big presence in the U.S. Many, like WeChat and Weibo, target the diaspora community, while players like Likee and Zynn, owned by Chinese firms, are making waves among local users.

Chinese firms are already hedging. Some like TikTok have set up overseas data centers. Others register their entities abroad and maintain U.S. offices, while still resorting to China for cheaper engineering talents. It’s simply impractical to investigate — and hard to determine — every app’s Chinese origin.

Under the program, carriers like China Mobile are not allowed to connect with U.S. telecoms networks, which could prevent these services from offering U.S. roaming to Chinese travelers.

The initiative also tells U.S. companies not to store information on Chinese cloud services like Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu. Chinese cloud providers don’t find many clients in the U.S., perhaps except when they are hosting data for their own services, such as Tencent games serving American users.

Lastly, the framework wants to ensure U.S. undersea cables connecting to the world “are not subverted for intelligence gathering by the PRC at hyper-scale.”

Such sweeping restrictions, if carried out, will almost certainly trigger retaliation from China. But what bargaining chips are left for Beijing? Apple and Tesla are the few American tech behemoths with significant business interest in China.

Google-Fitbit deal to be scrutinized in Europe over data competition concerns

By Natasha Lomas

In a set-back for Google’s plan to acquire health wearable company Fitbit, the European Commission has announced it’s opening an investigation to dig into a range of competition concerns being attached to the proposal from multiple quarters.

This means the deal is on ice for a period of time that could last until early December.

The Commission said it has 90 working days to take a decision on the acquisition — so until December 9, 2020.

Commenting on opening an “in-depth investigation” in a statement, Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager — who heads up both competition policy and digital strategy for the bloc — said: “The use of wearable devices by European consumers is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. This will go hand in hand with an exponential growth of data generated through these devices. This data provides key insights about the life and the health situation of the users of these devices.Our investigation aims to ensure that control by Google over data collected through wearable devices as a result of the transaction does not distort competition.”

Google has responded to the EU brake on its ambitions with a blog post in which its devices & services chief seeks to defend the deal, arguing it will spur innovation and lead to increased competition.

“This deal is about devices, not data,” Google VP Rick Osterloh further claims.

The tech giant announced its desire to slip into Fitbit’s data-sets back in November, when it announced a plan to shell out $2.1BN in an all-cash deal to pick up the wearable maker.

Fast forward a few months and CEO Sundar Pichai is being taken to task by lawmakers on home turf for stuff like ‘helping destroy anonymity on the Internet‘. Last year’s already rowdy antitrust drum beat around big tech has become a full on rock festival so the mood music around tech acquisitions might finally be shifting.

Since news of Google’s plan to grab Fitbit dropped concerns about the deal have been raised all over Europe — with consumer groups, privacy regulators and competition and tech policy wonks all sounding the alarm at the prospect of letting the adtech giant gobble a device maker and help itself to a bunch of sensitive consumer health data in the process.

Digital privacy rights group, Privacy International — one of the not-for-profits that’s been urging regulators not to rubberstamp the deal — argues the acquisition would not only squeeze competition in the nascent digital health market, and also for wearables, but also reduce “what little pressure there currently is on Google to compete in relation to privacy options available to consumers (both existing and future Fitbit users), leading to even less competition on privacy standards and thereby enabling the further degradation of consumers’ privacy protections”, as it puts it.

So much noise is being made that Google has already played the ‘we promise not to…’ card that’s a favorite of data-mining tech giants. (Typically followed, a few years later, with a ‘we got ya sucker’ joker — as they go ahead and do the thing they totally said they wouldn’t.)

To wit: From the get-go Fitbit has claimed users’ “health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads”. Just like WhatsApp said nothing would change when Facebook bought them. (Er.)

Last month Reuters revisited the concession, in an “exclusive” report that cited “people familiar with the matter” who apparently told it the deal could be waved through if Google pledged not to use Fitbit data for ads.

It’s not clear where the leak underpinning its news report came from but Reuters also ran with a quote from a Google spokeswoman — who further claimed: “Throughout this process we have been clear about our commitment not to use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads and our responsibility to provide people with choice and control with their data.”

In the event, Google’s headline-grabbing promises to behave itself with Fitbit data have not prevented EU regulators from wading in for a closer look at competition concerns — which is exactly as it should be.

In truth, given the level of concern now being raised about tech giants’ market power and adtech giant Google specifically grabbing a treasure trove of consumer health data, a comprehensive probe is the very least regulators should be doing.

If digital policy history has shown anything over the past decade and where data is concerned it’s that the devil is always in the fine print detail. Moreover the fast pace of digital markets can mean a competitive threat may only be a micro pivot away from materializing. Theories of harm clearly need radically updating to take account of data-mining technosocial platform giants. And the Commission knows that — which is why it’s consulting on giving itself more powers to tackling tipping in digital markets. But it also needs to flex and exercise the powers it currently has. Such as opening a proper investigation — rather than gaily waving tech giant deals through.

Antitrust may now be flavor of the month where tech giants are concerned — with US lawmakers all but declaring war on digital robber barons at last month’s big subcommittee showdown in Congress. But it’s also worth noting EU competition regulators — for all their heavily publicized talk of properly regulating the digital sphere — have yet to block a single digital tech merger.

And it remains to be seen whether that record will change by December.

“The Commission is concerned that the proposed transaction would further entrench Google’s market position in the online advertising markets by increasing the already vast amount of data that Google could use for personalisation of the ads it serves and displays,” it writes in a press release today.

Following a preliminary assessment process of the deal, EU regulators said they have concerns about [emphasis theirs]:

  • “the impact of the transaction on the supply of online search and display advertising services (the sale of advertising space on, respectively, the result page of an internet search engine or other internet pages)”
  • and on “the supply of ‘ad tech’ services (analytics and digital tools used to facilitate the programmatic sale and purchase of digital advertising)”

“By acquiring Fitbit, Google would acquire (i) the database maintained by Fitbit about its users’ health and fitness; and (ii) the technology to develop a database similar to Fitbit’s one,” the Commission further notes.

“The data collected via wrist-worn wearable devices appears, at this stage of the Commission’s review of the transaction, to be an important advantage in the online advertising markets. By increasing the data advantage of Google in the personalisation of the ads it serves via its search engine and displays on other internet pages, it would be more difficult for rivals to match Google’s online advertising services. Thus, the transaction would raise barriers to entry and expansion for Google’s competitors for these services, to the ultimate detriment of advertisers and publishers that would face higher prices and have less choice.”

The Commission views Google as dominant in the supply of online search advertising services in almost all EEA (European Economic Area) countries; as well as holding “a strong market position” in the supply of online advertising display services in a large number of EEA countries (especially off-social network display ads), and “a strong market position” in the supply of adtech services in the EEA.

All of which will inform its considerations as it looks at whether Google will gain an unfair competitive advantage by assimilating Fitbit data. (Vestager has also issued a number of antitrust enforcements against the tech giant in recent years, against Android, AdSense and Google Shopping.)

The regulator has also said it will further look at:

  • the “effects of the combination of Fitbit’s and Google’s databases and capabilities in the digital healthcare sector, which is still at a nascent stage in Europe”
  • “whether Google would have the ability and incentive to degrade the interoperability of rivals’ wearables with Google’s Android operating system for smartphones once it owns Fitbit”

The tech giant has already offered EU regulators one specific concession in the hopes of getting the Fitbit buy green lit — with the Commission noting that it submitted commitments aimed at addressing concerns last month.

Google suggested creating a data silo to hold data collected via Fitbit’s wearable devices — and where it said it would be kept separate from any other dataset within Google (including claiming it would be restricted for ad purposes). However the Commission expresses scepticism about Google’s offer, writing that it “considers that the data silo commitment proposed by Google is insufficient to clearly dismiss the serious doubts identified at this stage as to the effects of the transaction”.

“Among others, this is because the data silo remedy did not cover all the data that Google would access as a result of the transaction and would be valuable for advertising purposes,” it added.

Google makes reference to this data silo in its blog post, claiming: “This deal is about devices, not data. We’ve been clear from the beginning that we will not use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads. We recently offered to make a legally binding commitment to the European Commission regarding our use of Fitbit data. As we do with all our products, we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move or delete their data. And we’ll continue to support wide connectivity and interoperability across our and other companies’ products.”

“We appreciate the opportunity to work with the European Commission on an approach that addresses consumers’ expectations of their wearable devices. We’re confident that by working closely with Fitbit’s team of experts, and bringing together our experience in AI, software and hardware, we can build compelling devices for people around the world,” it adds.

WhatsApp pilots new feature to fight misinformation: Search the web

By Manish Singh

WhatsApp, one of the most popular instant messaging platforms on the planet, has rolled out a new feature in select markets that makes it easier for users to verify whether the assertions made in messages they have received on the app are true.

The Facebook -owned service has enabled users in Brazil, Italy, Ireland, Mexico, Spain, UK, and US to click on a magnifying glass-shaped icon next to frequently forwarded messages — those that have been forwarded at least five times — to search the web for their contents and verify them.

WhatsApp said the new feature, called ‘search the web’, works by allowing users to upload the message — it could be text or an image — via their browser. This means that WhatsApp itself never sees the content of any message, it said.

The feature, available across WhatsApp’s Android, iOS, and Web apps, is in pilot stage, the messaging platform said. It remains unclear how soon WhatsApp intends to roll out this feature, which it began testing several months ago, to users across the globe.

But regardless, the new feature comes at a time when WhatsApp and other messaging platforms are being used more often than ever before as people stay in touch with their friends, families, and colleagues at the height of a global pandemic.

WhatsApp, which has been forced to confront with the spread of misinformation challenge on its platform in recent years, has introduced several features and imposed restrictions to better control the flow in the past year.

In April, WhatsApp put in place additional restriction on how frequently a message could be shared on its platform. WhatsApp said that any message that has been forwarded five or more times will now face a new limit that will prevent a user from forwarding it to more than one chat (contact) at a time. Weeks later, volume of “highly forwarded” messages had already dropped by 70% globally, it claimed.

Though WhatsApp has visibly rushed to take timely actions in recent quarters, misinformation has not vanished from the app. Ill-informed explanations about Indian government’s moves, and “cures” of Covid-19 were still doing rounds on the platform a few months ago in India, its biggest market, for intance. And to be fair, there’s only so much a tech firm can do to fight human stupidity.

WhatsApp to pilot projects to deliver credit, insurance and pension to users in India

By Manish Singh

WhatsApp plans to offer credit, insurance and pension products to lower-income individuals and those in rural areas in India and help digitize local small and medium-sized businesses as the Facebook service looks to make a digital payments push in its biggest market by users.

The instant messaging app maker has been working with banks — including ICICI, Kotak Mahindra, and HDFC — in India for the past year to explore ways to bring financial services to individuals who have yet to become part of the banking population, said Abhijit Bose, WhatsApp’s head in India at Global Fintech Fest conference, via video chat on Wednesday.

This work over the past year has already proven that banks can leverage WhatsApp’s reach; ICICI Bank and Kotak Mahindra have reached more than 3 million new users, said Bose, who announced that the app is now planning to work with additional partners to bring insurance, micro-pension and credit to lower-wage workers and the informal economy over the next year-and-a-half.

WhatsApp will pilot several programs with partners to test solutions to bring these services to people, he said.

“Based on the results, we will co-invest and scale. Even a small conversion of the demand will translate into an infusion of significant savings into the financial system,” he said. “Over the next two years, we are committing to opening in entrepreneurial ways we never have before. We will launch many experiments.”

Banks today face a number of roadblocks, such as the level of presence they have in a small city or town and their heavy reliance on middlemen to sell financial services that have limited the number of people they can reach, said Bose.

With a reach of over 400 million users in India — more than any other app in the country — WhatsApp is uniquely positioned to bring more people into the financial ecosystem.

Abhijit Bose, WhatsApp’s head in India, delivering a speech on Wednesday.

Facebook made clear its plan to enter India’s digital payments market in 2018 when it launched WhatsApp Pay to a small number of users in the country. But it has been stuck in a regulatory maze since then that has prevented it from rolling out WhatsApp Pay to all its users.

The company says it has complied with all the requirements mandated by New Delhi’s central bank, signaling that it could receive the final approval for a wide rollout of WhatsApp Pay any day now.

WhatsApp also plans to digitize businesses and help them secure working capital, said Bose. Facebook invested $5.7 billion in India’s top telecom operator Reliance Jio Platforms in April this year and said the two companies had agreed to explore ways to serve small businesses, such as mom and pop shops.

“These small businesses are critical to the Indian economy. If you look at Facebook as a company, there has always been a focus on helping these businesses,” Facebook India head Ajit Mohan told TechCrunch in an interview earlier this year. “These small businesses, first-time entrepreneurs and new ventures leverage the Facebook platform to find new customers and expand to additional markets.”

Bose said Wednesday that he is hopeful some of its financial services bets will work in India, and that it will be able to replicate those models in other markets.

One platform from India that Facebook wishes to help bring to other markets is UPI, a payments infrastructure built by a coalition of banks in the country and backed by the local government, said Bose.

UPI has amassed over 100 million users on its platform in fewer than four years, and the infrastructure — which allows users to exchange money with one another across any bank in India as easy and fast as sending a text message — is being used to facilitate more than 1.3 billion transactions a month.

At stake is India’s mobile payments market that Credit Suisse estimates could reach $1 trillion by 2023. Dozens of heavily backed local startups and international giants are competing to claim a slice of this opportunity. Google Pay and Walmart’s PhonePe currently dominate the market, TechCrunch reported last month.

Federal court rules WhatsApp and Facebook’s malware exploit case against NSO Group can proceed

By Catherine Shu

A U.S. federal court judge ruled on Thursday that WhatsApp and parent company Facebook’s lawsuit against Israeli mobile surveillance software company NSO Group can go forward. Phyllis Hamilton, Chief Judge of the United Stated District Court of the Northern District of California, denied most of the arguments NSO Group made when it filed a motion to dismiss the suit in April (a copy of her decision is embedded below).

Last October, WhatsApp and Facebook filed a complaint alleging that NSO Group exploited an audio-calling vulnerability in the messaging app to send malware to about 1,400 mobile devices, including ones that belonged to journalists, human rights activists, political dissidents, diplomats and senior government officials.

WhatsApp and Facebook also claim that NSO Group developed a data program called Pegasus that extracted data, including messages, browser history and contacts, from phones, and sold support services to customers including the Kingdom of Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Mexico.

In its motion to dismiss the lawsuit, one of NSO Group’s arguments was that its business dealings with foreign governments, which it said use its technology to fight terrorism and other serious crimes, granted it immunity from lawsuits filed in U.S. courts under the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA). In her decision, Judge Hamilton wrote that NSO Group failed to qualify because it was not incorporated or formed in the U.S.

In an email to TechCrunch, a WhatsApp spokesperson said “We are pleased with the Court’s decision permitting us to move ahead with our claims that NSO engaged in unlawful conduct. The decision also confirms that WhatsApp will be able to obtain relevant documents and other information about NSO’s practices.”

TechCrunch has also contacted NSO Group for comment. When the lawsuit was filed in October, the company stated, “In the strong possible terms, we dispute today’s allegations and will vigorously fight them.”

WhatsApp vs NSO Group, cour… by TechCrunch on Scribd

WhatsApp hit by outage, leaving users unable to send or receive messages

By Zack Whittaker

Facebook -owned WhatsApp is currently down, with users unable to send or receive messages on the end-to-end encrypted messaging app.

Affected users might see that WhatsApp is “connecting” to the service when trying to send a message. The outage started at about 4pm ET. We don’t know much more at this stage.

WhatsApp failing to connect to its servers. (Image: TechCrunch)

A spokesperson for Facebook did not immediately comment on the outage. We’ll update when we know more.

WhatsApp hit the 2 billion user mark earlier this year. Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014 in what became one of the social media giant’s biggest purchases.

Alphabet’s Loon launches its balloon-powered Kenyan internet service

By Darrell Etherington

Alphabet’s Loon has officially begun operating its commercial internet service in Kenya . This is the first large-scale commercial offering that makes use of Loon’s high-altitude balloons, which essentially work as cell service towers that drift on currents in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Loon’s Kenyan service is offered in partnership with local telecom provider Telkom Kenya, and provides cellular service through their network to an area covering roughly 50,000 square kilometres (31,000 square miles) that normally hasn’t had reliable service due to the difficulty of setting up ground infrastructure in the mountainous terrain.

Loon has been working towards deploying its first commercial service deployment in Kenya since it announced the signed deal in 2019, but the company says that the mission has taken on even greater significance and importance since the onset of COVID-19, which has meant that reliable connectivity, especially in light of the restrictions upon travel that the epidemic has placed, making the ability to remotely contact doctors, family members and others all the more important.

Some of the technical details of how Loon’s stratospheric balloons will offer this continuous service, and what kind of network quality people can expect include that the fleet includes around 35 balloons acting together which are moving constantly to maintain the target area coverage. Average speeds look to be around 18.9Mbps down, and 4.74 Mbps up, with 19 second latency, and real-world testing has shown that this has served well for use across voice and video calls, as well as YouTube streaming, WhatsApp use and more, according to Loon.

The path followed by Alphabet’s balloons as they provide service to the target area in Kenya.

The company actually began testing its service earlier this year, with many customers connecting to the network without even realizing it during those tests, and Loon says it has served over 35,000 customers and provided the services listed during those tests.

Prior to today’s commercial service launch, Loon has also employed its balloons to provide emergency service to areas affected by disaster, including Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. It’s now working with a number of commercial telecom partners to deploy non-emergency service in a number of underserved regions globally.

US tech giants halt Hong Kong police help

By Zack Whittaker

Facebook and Twitter have confirmed they have suspended processing demands for user data from Hong Kong authorities following the introduction of a new Beijing-imposed national security law.

A spokesperson for Facebook told TechCrunch it will “pause” the processing of data demands until it can better understand the new national security law, “including formal human rights due diligence and consultations with human rights experts.” The spokesperson added: “We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and support the right of people to express themselves without fear for their safety or other repercussions.”

Facebook said its suspension will also apply to WhatsApp, which it owns.

News of the suspension was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Soon after, Twitter also confirmed it followed suit. “Given the rapid pace at which the new National Security Law in China has been passed and that it was only published in its entirety for the first time last week, our teams are reviewing the law to assess its implications, particularly as some of the terms of the law are vague and without clear definition,” said a Twitter spokesperson.

“Like many public interest organizations, civil society leaders and entities, and industry peers, we have grave concerns regarding both the developing process and the full intention of this law,” the spokesperson said.

Twitter said it suspended transfers of user data subject to Hong Kong demands immediately after the law went into effect.

Messaging app Telegram also reportedly said Monday that it will no longer process data requests from Hong Kong authorities.

Tech giants have long seen Hong Kong as a friendly outpost in Asia as a semi-independent city nation state, albeit under the control of Beijing under its “one country, two systems” principles. Hong Kong has far greater freedoms from mainland China, where government surveillance and censorship are widespread.

But the new national security law, imposed unilaterally by the Chinese government on June 30, effectively undermines any protections Hong Kong nationals had. The law removes provisions for authorities to require a court order before it can demand data from internet companies, like Facebook and Twitter.

One industry leader, who chairs the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association, said internet providers would have little choice but to comply with the new law.

The move is likely to put Silicon Valley tech giants — and other companies that follow in their footsteps — on notice with Beijing, which already has sweeping bans against some Western tech giants, including both Facebook and Twitter, on the mainland. WhatsApp is highly popular in Hong Kong, alongside Telegram and WeChat.

Updated with comment from Twitter.

Facebook makes education push in India

By Manish Singh

Facebook, which reaches more users than any other international firm in India, has identified a new area of opportunity to further spread its tentacles in the world’s second largest internet market.

On Sunday, the social juggernaut announced it had partnered with the Central Board of Secondary Education, a government body that oversees education in private and public schools in India, to launch a certified curriculum on digital safety and online well-being, and augmented reality for students and educators.

Through these subjects, Facebook and CBSE aim to prepare secondary school students for current and emerging jobs, and help them develop skills to safely browse the internet, make “well informed choices,” and think about their mental health, they said.

Facebook said that it will provide these training in various phases. In the first phase, more than 10,000 teachers will be trained; in the second, they will coach 30,000 students. The three-week training on AR will cover fundamentals of the nascent technology, and ways to make use of Facebook’s Spark AR Studio to create augmented reality experiences.

“I encourage the teachers and students to apply for the programs commencing on July 6, 2020,” said Ramesh Pokhriyal, Union Minister of Human Resources Development, in a statement.

Instagram’s Guide for Building Healthy Digital Habits, which has been developed in collaboration with the Jed Foundation (JED) and YLAC (Young Leaders for Active Citizenship), aims to help youngsters better understand the “socio-emotional space” they operate in and engage in health conversations.

“I am proud to share that CBSE is the only Board that has introduced the modules of Digital Safety and Online Well-being, Instagram Toolkit for Teens and Augmented Reality. Incorporating technology and digital safety into school curriculum will ensure students are not only gaining knowledge to succeed in the digital economy but also learning and collaborating in a safe online environment,” said Manoj Ahuja, Chairperson of CBSE, in a statement.

The announcement today caps a remarkable week in India that started with New Delhi blocking nearly 60 services developed by Chinese firms over cybersecurity concerns. TikTok, one of the services that has been hit by India’s order, identified Asia’s third-largest economy as its biggest market outside of China.

The service, run by Chinese giant ByteDance, reaches more than 200 million users in India, most of whom live in small towns and cities. TikTok began working with scores of content creators and firms in India last year to populate its short-form video service with educational videos.

Facebook last year partnered with telecom giant Reliance Jio Platforms — in which it would eventually invest $5.7 billion — to launch “Digital Udaan,” the “largest ever digital literacy program” for first-time internet users in the country. The social juggernaut has in recent years ramped up its efforts to create awareness about the ill side of technology as its platform confronted misuse of its own services in the country. India is the biggest market for Facebook by users count.

❌