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UN calls for investigation after Saudis linked to Bezos phone hack

By Zack Whittaker

United Nations experts are calling for an investigation after a forensic report said Saudi officials “most likely” used a mobile hacking tool built by mobile spyware maker, the NSO Group, to hack into the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ phone.

Remarks made by U.N. human rights experts on Wednesday said said the Israeli spyware maker’s flagship Pegasus mobile spyware was likely used to exfiltrate gigabytes of data from Bezos’ phone in May 2018, about six months after the Saudi government first obtained the spyware.

It comes a day after news emerged, citing a forensics report commissioned to examine the Amazon founder’s phone, that the malware was delivered from a number belonging to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. The forensics report, carried out by FTI Consulting, said it was “highly probable” that the phone hack was triggered by a malicious video sent over WhatsApp to Bezos’ phone. Within hours, large amounts of data on Bezos’ phone had been exfiltrated.

U.N. experts Agnes Callamard and Davie Kaye, who were given a copy of the forensics report, said the breach of Bezos’ phone was part of “a pattern of targeted surveillance of perceived opponents and those of broader strategic importance to the Saudi authorities.”

But the report left open the possibility that technology developed by another mobile spyware maker may have been used.

The Saudi government has rejected the claims, calling them “absurd.”

NSO Group said in a statement that its technology “was not used in this instance,” saying its technology “cannot be used on U.S. phone numbers.” The company said any suggestion otherwise was “defamatory” and threatened legal action.

Forensics experts are said to have began looking at Bezos’ phone after he accused the National Enquirer of blackmail last year. In a tell-all Medium post, Bezos described how he was targeted by the tabloid, which obtained and published private text messages and photos from his phone, prompting an investigation into the leak.

The subsequent forensic report, which TechCrunch has not yet seen, claims the initial breach began after Bezos and the Saudi crown prince exchanged phone numbers in April 2018, a month before the hack.

The report said several other prominent figures, including Saudi dissidents and political activists, also had their phones infected with the same mobile malware around the time of the Bezos phone breach. Some whose phones were infected including those close to Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi critic and columnist for the Washington Post — which Bezos owns — who was murdered five months later.

“The information we have received suggests the possible involvement of the Crown Prince in surveillance of Mr. Bezos, in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia,” the U.N. experts said.

U.S. intelligence concluded that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s death.

The U.N. experts said the Saudis purchased the Pegasus malware, and used WhatsApp as a way to deliver the malware to Bezos’ phone.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group for creating and using the Pegasus malware, which exploits a since-fixed vulnerability in the the messaging platform. Once exploited, sometimes silently and without the target knowing, the operators can download data from the user’s device. Facebook said at the time more than the malware was delivered on more than 1,400 targeted devices.

The U.N. experts said they will continue to investigate the “growing role of the surveillance industry” used for targeting journalists, human rights defenders, and owners of media outlets.

Amazon did not immediately comment.

Venture Highway announces $78.6M second fund to invest in early-stage startups in India

By Manish Singh

Venture Highway, a VC firm in India founded by former Google executive Samir Sood, said on Thursday it has raised $78.6 million for its second fund as it looks to double down on investing in early-stage startups.

The firm, founded in 2015, has invested in more than two dozen startups to date, including social network ShareChat, which last year raised $100 million in a financing round led by Twitter; social commerce Meesho, which has since grown to be backed by Facebook and Prosus Ventures; and Lightspeed-backed OkCredit, which provides a bookkeeping app for small merchants.

Moving forward, Venture Highway aims to lead pre-seed and seed financing rounds and cut checks between $1 million to $1.5 million on each investment (up from its earlier investment range of $100,000 to $1 million), said Sood in an interview with TechCrunch.

Venture Highway counts Neeraj Arora, former business head of WhatsApp who played an instrumental role in selling the messaging app to Facebook, as a founding “anchor of LPs” and advisor. Arora and Sood worked together at Google more than a decade ago and helped the Silicon Valley giant explore merger and acquisition deals in Asia and other regions.

Samir Sood, the founder of Venture Highway

The VC firm said it has already made a number of investments through its second fund. Some of those deals include investments in OkCredit, mobile esports platform MPL, Gurgaon-based supply chain SaaS platform O4S, social commerce startup WMall, online rental platform CityFurnish, community platform MyScoot and online gasoline delivery platform MyPetrolPump.

As apparent from the aforementioned names, Venture Highway focuses on investing in startups that are using technology to address problems that have not been previously tackled.

Last year Venture Highway also participated in a funding round of Marsplay, a New Delhi-based startup that operates a social app where influencers showcase beauty and apparel content to sell to consumers.

“It’s very rare to have investors who keep their calm, get into an entrepreneurial mindset and help founders achieve their dreams. Throughout the journey, Venture Highway has been extremely helpful, emotionally available (super important to founders) and very resourceful,” said Misbah Ashraf, 26-year-old co-founder and chief executive of Marsplay, in an interview with TechCrunch.

There is no “theme” or category that Venture Highway is particularly interested in, said Sood. “As long as there is a tech layer; and the startup is doing something where we or our network of LPs, advisors and investors can add value, we are open to discussions,” he said.

This is the first time Venture Highway has raised money from LPs. The firm’s first fund was bankrolled by Sood and Arora.

Dozens of local and international VC funds are today active in India, where startups raised a record $14.5 billion last year. But a significant number of them focus on late-stage deals.

Reliance Industries acquires a majority stake in SaaS startup NowFloats for $20M

By Manish Singh

Reliance Industries, one of India’s largest industrial houses, has acquired a majority stake in NowFloats, an Indian startup that helps businesses and individuals build online presence without any web developing skills.

In a regulatory filing on Thursday, Reliance Strategic Business Ventures Limited said (PDF) it has acquired an 85% stake in NowFloats for 1.4 billion Indian rupees ($20 million).

Seven-and-a-half-year old, Hyderabad-headquartered NowFloats operates an eponymous platform that allows individuals and businesses to easily build an online presence. Using NowFloats’ services, a mom and pop store, for instance, can build a website, publish their catalog, as well as engage with their customers on WhatsApp.

The startup, which has raised about $12 million in equity financing prior to today’s announcement, claims to have helped over 300,000 participating retail partners. NowFloats counts Blume Ventures, Omidyar Network, Iron Pillar, IIFL Wealth Management and Hyderabad Angels among its investors.

Last year, NowFloats acquired LookUp, an India-based chat service that connects consumers to local businesses; LookUp was backed by Vinod Khosla’s personal fund Khosla Impact, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, Narayana Murthy’s Catamaran Ventures and Global Founders Capital.

Reliance Strategic Business Ventures Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of Reliance Industries, said that it would invest up to 750 million Indian rupees ($10.6 million) of additional capital into the startup, and raise its stake to about 89.66%, if NowFloats achieves certain unspecified goals by the end of next year.

In a statement, Reliance Industries said the investment will “further enable the group’s digital and new commerce initiatives.” NowFloats is the latest acquisition Reliance has made in the country this year. In August, the conglomerate said it was buying a majority stake in Google-backed Fynd for $42.3 million. In April, it bought a majority stake in Haptik in a deal worth $100 million.

There are about 60 million small and medium-sized businesses in India. Like hundreds of millions of Indians, many in small towns and cities, who have come online in recent years thanks to world’s cheapest mobile data plans and inexpensive Android smartphones, businesses are increasingly building online presence as well.

But vast majority of them are still offline, a fact that has created immense opportunities for startups — and VCs looking into this space — and major technology giants. New Delhi-based BharatPe, which helps merchants accept online payments and provides them with working capital, raised $50 million in August. Khatabook and OkCredit, two digital bookkeeping apps for merchants, have also raised significant amounts of money this year.

In recent years, Google has also looked into the space. It has launched tools — and offered guidance — to help neighborhood stores establish some presence on the web. In September, the company announced that its Google Pay service, which is used by more than 67 million users in India, will now enable businesses to accept digital payments and reach their customers online.

Is Facebook dead to Gen Z?

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

The writing is on the wall for Facebook — the platform is losing market share, fast, among young users.

Edison Research’s Infinite Dial study from early 2019 showed that 62% of U.S. 12–34 year-olds are Facebook users, down from 67% in 2018 and 79% in 2017. This decrease is particularly notable as 35–54 and 55+ age group usage has been constant or even increased.

There are many theories behind Facebook’s fall from grace among millennials and Gen Zers — an influx of older users that change the dynamics of the platform, competition from more mobile and visual-friendly platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, and the company’s privacy scandals are just a few.

We surveyed 115 of our Accelerated campus ambassadors to learn more about how they’re using Facebook today. It’s worth noting that this group skews older Gen Z (ages 18–24); we suspect you’d get different results if you surveyed younger teens.

Overall penetration is still high, as 99% of our respondents have Facebook accounts. And most aren’t abandoning the platform entirely — 59% are on Facebook every day, and another 32% are on weekly. Daily Facebook usage is much lower than Instagram, however, which 82% of our respondents use daily and 7% use weekly.

Data from our scouts also confirms that the shift in usage in the last few years is particularly dramatic among younger users. 66% report using Facebook less frequently over the past two years, compared to 11% who use it more frequently (23% say their usage hasn’t changed).

What’s most interesting is what college students are using Facebook for. When we were in high school and college in the early/mid 2010s, our friends used Facebook to post (broadcast) content via their status, photos, and posts on friends’ Walls. Today, very few students use Facebook to “broadcast” content. Only 5% of our respondents say they regularly upload photos to Facebook, 4% post on friends’ Walls, and 3.5% post content to the Newsfeed (statuses). What are they doing instead?

Facebook’s video calling Portal devices add WhatsApp login, new features and content

By Sarah Perez

Facebook is making its line of Portal-branded smart video calling devices more relevant to consumers, including those who don’t even have a Facebook account. The company today says its Portal family of products will now work with just a WhatsApp account, allowing users to make video calls to friends and family, as well as access Portal features like its interactive “Story Time.” In addition, the Portal devices are gaining new AR features, support for Facebook’s Workplace product for businesses, and a number of new streaming services, including Amazon Prime Video, FandangoNOW, SlingTV, and others, and more.

The company’s original Facebook Portal devices were aimed at helping connect friends and family over video calling devices used in the home. This year, it expanded the line to include a video chat set-top box for TVs, called Portal TV, to give Facebook better traction in the living room.

But video calling alone has not proved to be enough of a selling point for Portal, whose sales are reportedly “very low,” according to supply chain sources. That’s led Facebook to tacking on new features and services that give consumers more of a reason to invite Facebook into their home.

That trend continues today with the notable addition of WhatsApp login. This feature allows Portal owners to sign in to the device using only their WhatsApp account. They don’t even need a Facebook account at all. This opens up Portal to a potentially larger market, given WhatsApp’s 1.5 billion monthly users, not all of whom also have Facebook accounts.

In addition, Facebook Portal is looking to find traction in businesses, by adding support for Facebook Workplace — its corporate version of Facebook that’s used by 3 million paying users, from mostly enterprise-sized businesses. The company announced its plans to launch a Workplace app on Portal earlier this fall, and now it’s rolled out.

For fun, Facebook is adding a lip-sync AR app called Mic Drop to Portal TV, which includes songs from the Backstreet Boys, Coldplay, Katy Perry, and others. Portal TV is also gaining Photo Booth, which lets you take selfies, photos, and videos to share through Messenger. Across the Portal line, the interactive, AR Story Time app is being updated to include new renditions of classics like Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and the Three Bears, plus new tales from Llama LlamaPete the Cat and Otto.

Portal users today will be able to livestream from their device directly to their Facebook Profile via Facebook Live — an obvious addition for a streaming video product like this, and one that could help Portal find customers among the influencer, gamer, or vlogger crowd, perhaps.

Facebook’s co-watching feature, Watch Together, is also coming to Portal Mini, Portal, and Portal+ so users can view Facebook Watch shows and programs together.

Portal is also slowly edging its way into the streaming media player market with added support for a number of streaming services, including Amazon Prime Video. The company had announced Prime Video was on its way when it debuted new hardware this fall, but the service was not available at launch. Now, Prime Video is supported in the U.S., U.K., Canada, and France, along with the recently added FandangoNOW and Sling TV in the U.S. For music and podcasts, Deezer is also supported, plus Crave in Canada and France Télévisions in France.

The additions make Portal products more than just fancy video chat cameras, but they don’t solve Portal’s larger challenge: people aren’t comfortable bringing Facebook products into the living room. The company has repeatedly broken trust with its customer base. And while people may not be able to quit Facebook just yet, they aren’t rushing out to integrate it more deeply in their lives, either.

The addition of Prime Now and other streaming services also places Portal into a different category of devices, where it has to compete with more advanced media players like Apple TV, Amazon’s Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, Chromecast, Roku, Android TV, and others. In this market, Portal’s small handful of streaming services just isn’t enough to make it a compelling competitor.

But Facebook isn’t giving up on Portal, having launched a huge marketing blitz featuring promotions in ABC TV shows as well as TV commercials starring the likes of Kim Kardashian West, Jennifer Lopez, and lately, the Muppets. According to Kantar, Facebook spent nearly $62.7 million out of $97.3 million on TV advertising in the first half of the year, Variety reported.

Facebook says it’s planning to bring more content and experiences to Portal with future software updates.

Reimagine inside sales to ramp up B2B customer acquisition

By Walter Thompson
Robert Wahbe Contributor
Robert Wahbe is the co-founder and CEO of Highspot, the sales enablement platform that reps love.

Slack makes customer acquisition look easy.

The day we acquired our first Highspot customer, it was raining hard in Seattle. I was on my way to a startup event when I answered my cell phone and our prospect said, “We’re going with Highspot.” Relief, then excitement, hit me harder than the downpour outside. It was a milestone moment – one that came after a long journey of establishing product-market fit, developing a sustainable competitive advantage, and iterating repeatedly based on prospect feedback. In other words, it was anything but easy.

User-first products are driving rapid company growth in an era where individuals discover, adopt, and share software they like throughout their organizations. This is great if you’re a Slack, Shopify, or Dropbox, but what if your company doesn’t fit that profile?

Product-led growth is a strategy that works for the right technologies, but it’s not the end-all, be-all for B2B customer acquisition. For sophisticated enterprise software platforms designed to drive company-wide value, such as Marketo, ServiceNow and Workday, that value is realized when the product is adopted en masse by one or more large segments.

If you’re selling broad account value, rather than individual user or team value, acquisition boils down to two things: elevating account based-selling and revolutionizing the inside sales model. Done correctly, you lay a foundation capable of doubling revenue growth year-over-year, 95 percent company-wide retention, and more than 100 percent growth in new customer logos annually. Here are the steps you can take to build a model that realizes on-par results.

Work the account, not the deal

Account-based selling is not a new concept, but the availability of data today changes the game. Advanced analytics enable teams to develop comprehensive and personalized approaches that meet modern customers’ heightened expectations. And when 77 percent of business buyers feel that technology has significantly changed how companies should interact with them, you have no choice but to deliver.

Despite the multitude of products created to help sellers be more productive and personal, billions of cookie-cutter emails are still flooding the inboxes of a few decision makers. The market is loud. Competition is cut throat. It’s no wonder 40 percent of sales reps say getting a response from a prospect is more difficult than ever before. Even pioneers of sales engagement are recognizing the need for evolution – yesterday’s one-size-fits-all approach to outreach only widens the gap between today’s sellers and buyers.

Companies must radically change their approach to account-based selling by building trusted relationships over time from the first-touch onward. This requires that your entire sales force – from account development representatives to your head of sales – adds tailored, tangible value at every stage of the journey. Modern buyers don’t want to be sold. They want to be advised. But the majority of companies are still missing the mark, favoring spray-and-pray tactics over personalized guidance.

One reason spamming remains prevalent, despite growing awareness of the need for quality over quantity, is that implementing a tailored approach is hard work. However, companies can make great strides by doing just three things:

  • Invest in personalization: Sales reps have quota, and sales leaders carry revenue targets. The pressure is as real as the numbers. But high velocity outreach tactics simply don’t work consistently. New research from Monetate and WBR Research found that 93% of businesses with advanced personalization strategies increased their revenue last year. And while scaling personalization may sound like an oxymoron, we now have artificial intelligence (AI) technology capable of doing just that. Of course, not all AI is created equal, so take the time to discern AI-powered platforms that deliver real value from the imposters. With a little research, you’ll find sales tools that discard  rinse-and-repeat prospecting methods in favor of intelligent guidance and actionable analytics.

India says law permits agencies to snoop on citizen’s devices

By Manish Singh

The Indian government said on Tuesday that it is “empowered” to intercept, monitor, or decrypt any digital communication “generated, transmitted, received, or stored” on a citizen’s device in the country in the interest of national security or to maintain friendly relations with foreign states.

Citing section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, and section 5 of the Telegraph Act, 1885, Minister of State for Home Affairs G. Kishan Reddy said local law empowers federal and state government to “intercept, monitor or decrypt or cause to be intercepted or monitored or decrypted any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above or for investigation of any offence.”

Reddy’s remarks were in response to the parliament, where a lawmaker had asked if the government had snooped on citizens’ WhatsApp, Messenger, Viber, and Google calls and messages.

The lawmaker’s question was prompted after 19 activists, journalists, politicians, and privacy advocates in India revealed earlier this month that their WhatsApp communications may have been compromised.

WhatsApp has said that Israeli spyware manufacturer NSO’s tools have been used to send malware to 1,400 users. The Facebook-owned company has in recent weeks alerted users whose accounts had been compromised. The social juggernaut earlier this month sued NSO alleging that its tools were being used to hack WhatsApp users.

NSO has maintained that it only sells its tools to government and intelligence agencies, an assertion that stoked fear among some that the state could be behind targeting the aforementioned 19 people — and perhaps more — in the country.

Reddy did not directly address the questions, but in a blanket written statement said that “authorized agencies as per due process of law, and subject to safeguards as provided in the rules” can intercept or monitor or decrypt “any information from any computer resource” in the country.

He added that each case of such interception has to be approved by the Union Home Secretary (in case of federal government) and by the Home Secretary of the State (in case of state government.)

Last month, the Indian government said it was moving ahead with its plan to revise existing rules to regulate intermediaries — social media apps and others that rely on users to create their content — as they are causing “unimaginable disruption” to democracy.

It told the country’s apex court that it would formulate the rules by January 15 of next year.

A report published today by New Delhi-based Software Law and Freedom Centre (SFLC) found that more than 100,000 telephone interception are issued by the federal government alone every year.

“On adding the surveillance orders issued by the state governments to this, it becomes clear that India routinely surveils her citizens’ communications on a truly staggering scale,” the report said.

The non-profit organization added that the way current laws that enable law enforcement agencies to conduct surveillance on citizens’ private communications are “opaque” as they are run “solely by the executive arm of the government, and make no provisions for independent oversight of the surveillance process.”

Opera’s Africa fintech startup OPay gains $120M from Chinese investors

By Jake Bright

Africa-focused fintech startup OPay has raised a $120 million Series B round backed by Chinese investors.

Located in Lagos and founded by consumer internet company Opera, OPay will use the funds to scale in Nigeria and expand its payments product to Kenya, Ghana and South Africa — Opera’s CFO Frode Jacobsen confirmed to TechCrunch.

Series B investors included Meituan-Dianping, GaoRong, Source Code Capital, Softbank Asia, BAI, Redpoint, IDG Capital, Sequoia China and GSR Ventures.

OPay’s $120 million round comes after the startup raised $50 million in June. It also follows Visa’s $200 million investment in Nigerian fintech company Interswitch and a $40 million raise by Lagos-based payments startup PalmPay — led by China’s Transsion.

There are a couple of quick takeaways. Nigeria has become the epicenter for fintech VC and expansion in Africa. And Chinese investors have made an unmistakable pivot to African tech.

Opera’s activity on the continent represents both trends. The Norway-based, Chinese-owned (majority) company founded OPay in 2018 on the popularity of its internet search engine.

Opera’s web-browser has ranked No. 2 in usage in Africa, after Chrome, the last four years.

The company has built a hefty suite of internet-based commercial products in Nigeria around OPay’s financial utility. These include motorcycle ride-hail app ORide, OFood delivery service and OLeads SME marketing and advertising vertical.

“OPay will facilitate the people in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and other African countries with the best fintech ecosystem. We see ourselves as a key contributor to…helping local businesses…thrive from…digital business models,” Opera CEO and OPay Chairman Yahui Zhou, said in a statement.

Opera CFO Frode Jacobsen shed additional light on how OPay will deploy the $120 million across Opera’s Africa network. OPay looks to capture volume around bill payments and airtime purchases, but not necessarily as priority.  “That’s not something you do every day. We want to focus our services on things that have high-frequency usage,” said Jacobsen.

Those include transportation services, food services and other types of daily activities, he explained. Jacobsen also noted OPay will use the $120 million to enter more countries in Africa than those disclosed.

Since its Series A raise, OPay in Nigeria has scaled to 140,000 active agents and $10 million in daily transaction volume, according to company stats.

Beyond standing out as another huge funding round, OPay’s $120 million VC raise has significance for Africa’s tech ecosystem on multiple levels.

It marks 2019 as the year Chinese investors went all in on the continent’s startup scene. OPay, PalmPay and East African trucking logistics company Lori Systems have raised a combined $240 million from 15 different Chinese actors in a span of months.

OPay’s funding and expansion plans are also a harbinger for fierce, cross-border fintech competition in Africa’s digital finance space. Parallel events to watch for include Interswitch’s imminent IPO, e-commerce venture Jumia’s shift to digital finance and WhatsApp’s likely entry in African payments.

The continent’s 1.2 billion people represent the largest share of the world’s unbanked and underbanked population — which makes fintech Africa’s most promising digital sector. But it’s becoming a notably crowded sector, where startup attrition and failure will certainly come into play.

And not to be overlooked is how OPay’s capital raise moves Opera toward becoming a multi-service commercial internet platform in Africa.

This places OPay and its Opera-supported suite of products on a competitive footing with other ride-hail, food delivery and payments startups across the continent. That means inevitable competition between Opera and Africa’s largest multi-service internet company, Jumia.

 

TikTok tests social commerce

By Manish Singh

TikTok is beginning to dabble in social commerce. The short-form video app said it has started to allow some users to add links to e-commerce sites (or any other destination) to their profile biography as well as offer creators the ability to easily send their viewers to shopping websites.

The company said the roll-out of these two features are part of its usual “experimentation” to improve the app experience for users. Though, this particular experimentation could significantly change how lucrative influencers find TikTok.

A spokesperson of ByteDance, one of the world’s most valuable startups that also owns TikTok, said, “We’re always experimenting with new ways to improve the app experience for our users. Ultimately, we’re focused on ways to inspire creativity, bring joy, and add value for our community.”

These features were first spotted and shared by Fabian Bern, founder of influencer of Chinese startup Uplab. In a video he tweeted on Thursday, Bern showed how it was possible for the first time for creators to give their viewers the ability to visit a third-party website.

BREAKING: TikTok launches 'link in bio' & 'social commerce URLS' in videos @MattNavarra @TaylorLorenz @sarahintampa @TechCrunch @thenextweb @techinasia #tiktok pic.twitter.com/HczzHOHCNf

— Fabian 法比安 (@iamfabianbern) November 14, 2019

In the video, we also see TikTok is permitting users to add a URL in their profile bio. Instagram has long allowed this functionality, which is used by a large number of accounts for a variety of reasons. While influencers usually direct their fans to merchandise stores, some news publishers use it to drive people to news articles, for instance. The current set of restrictions on Instagram, however, leave a lot to be desired.

If TikTok, which has amassed over a billion users, retains these features, it could disrupt what many industry figures call “social commerce.” Social media companies and messaging apps in recent years have lured customers through their core services and introduced shopping features.

In many markets, such as China, Southeast Asia and India, which happens to be one of TikTok’s biggest markets, social commerce is increasingly becoming popular and beginning to pose a challenge to “traditional” e-commerce players such as Amazon.

And major giants are beginning to see an opportunity in this space. Facebook, which offers a marketplace, this year backed Meesho, an Indian social commerce startup.

Meesho connects buyers and sellers on WhatsApp and other social media platforms, enables them to showcase and sell their goods and works with a range of logistics companies to service their orders.

“This is big!,” said Nameet Potnis, head of business growth and marketing for the India unit of Naspers’ global payments firm PayU, of TikTok’s new features.

“Excited to see how this is going to reshape commerce in tier 2/3 India where TikTok rules over Instagram. As Indians get comfortable with buying and paying online, local influencers will change the game.”

TikTok’s experimentation comes at a time when rival Instagram is beginning to expand a test in which it hides “likes” from public view. The move has caused concerns for influencers, who count on likes to inform advertisers of their reach.

TikTok, which has amassed more than 180 million users in India and thousands of influencers in the country, last month expanded to an education category in India.

Facebook’s new branding distinguishes app from acquisitions

By Josh Constine

Facebook wants more people to know it owns Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus while still maintaining a distinct identity for its main app. So today Facebook launched a new capitalization and typography format for its company name, using all capital letters and a shifting color scheme that highlights Instagram’s purple gradient and WhatsApp’s green tint.

“Over the coming weeks, we will start using the new brand within our products and marketing materials, including a new company website” Facebook’s CMO Antonio Lucio writes. For example, the bolder “from FACEBOOK” branding will appear at the bottom of the Instagram login screen and settings menu. Facebook previously used a blue or white lowercase “f” as a logo.

Facebook began its rebranding process in June, adding “from Facebook” taglines to its products. The Information reported Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was unsatisfied with the credit Facebook was getting for owning Instagram and WhatsApp.

Zuckerberg double-down on that sentiment during this month’s earnings call as a response to questions about anti-trust investigations against the company that could seek to force a spin off of its acquisitions. Zuckerberg noted that it wa Facebook’s resources in areas like anti-spam, internationalization, and ads that helped turn Instagram from a sub-50 million user product to a billion-plus one today.

Some see Facebook as preemptively mounting defense against anti-trust action. Beyond rebranding, it’s working on making Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram Direct a unified interoperable and encrypted messaging system where users can chat across the apps. Building them all on a centralized infrastructure could make Facebook tougher to break up.

Yet from another perspective, the rebranding efforts feel ham-handed and egotistical. Facebook likely benefits from the fact that most people don’t actually know it owns Instagram and WhatsApp. A recent Pew study found only 29% of Americans correctly the named the two as companies owned by Facebook.

Given Facebook’s rash of data security, developer platform, election interference, and ongoing privacy scandals, it’s probably better off if people think they can escape the toxicity by using Instagram. The acquisitions effectively acted as a brand lifeboat for Facebook.

Now it seems Facebook is happy to burn down some of the credibility of its younger apps if it builds up the central company. Autonomy at the acquired companies has seemed to wane since Facebook installed loyal lieutenants like Adam Mosseri and Will Cathcart to run Instagram and WhatsApp.

The big problem for Facebook, beyond government regulation? If talent see Facebook as choking the potential of its subsidiaries, top workers might be hesistant to join or stay at the family of social networks.

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