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ByteDance CFO assumes role as new TikTok CEO

By Lucas Matney

Eight months after former TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer quit in the midst of a full-court press from the Trump administration against the Chinese-owned social media giant, TikTok finally has a new permanent leader.

ByteDance’s recently-hired CFO Shouzi Chew will be assuming the role as TikTok CEO while still holding the CFO role at its parent organization, the company announced Friday morning. It’s a bold move likely signaling that the company believes that the worst of its tussles with the US Executive branch are over as President Biden has seemed uninterested in picking up former President Trump’s pet project.

Vanessa Pappas, who was serving as interim CEO, will take the role of COO going forward.

“The leadership team of Shou and Vanessa sets the stage for sustained growth,” ByteDance CEO Yiming Zhang said in a press release. “Shou brings deep knowledge of the company and industry, having led a team that was among our earliest investors, and having worked in the technology sector for a decade. He will add depth to the team, focusing on areas including corporate governance and long-term business initiatives.”

Prior to joining ByteDance earlier this year, Chew was an executive at Xiaomi with stints at DST and Goldman Sachs earlier in his career.

 

TikTok to open a ‘Transparency’ Center in Europe to take content and security questions

By Natasha Lomas

TikTok will open a center in Europe where outside experts will be shown information on how it approaches content moderation and recommendation, as well as platform security and user privacy, it announced today.

The European Transparency and Accountability Centre (TAC) follows the opening of a U.S. center last year — and is similarly being billed as part of its “commitment to transparency”.

Soon after announcing its U.S. TAC, TikTok also created a content advisory council in the market — and went on to replicate the advisory body structure in Europe this March, with a different mix of experts.

It’s now fully replicating the U.S. approach with a dedicated European TAC.

To-date, TikTok said more than 70 experts and policymakers have taken part in a virtual U.S. tour, where they’ve been able to learn operational details and pose questions about its safety and security practices.

The short-form video social media site has faced growing scrutiny over its content policies and ownership structure in recent years, as its popularity has surged.

Concerns in the U.S. have largely centered on the risk of censorship and the security of user data, given the platform is owned by a Chinese tech giant and subject to Internet data laws defined by the Chinese Communist Party.

While, in Europe, lawmakers, regulators and civil society have been raising a broader mix of concerns — including around issues of child safety and data privacy.

In one notable development earlier this year, the Italian data protection regulator made an emergency intervention after the death of a local girl who had reportedly been taking part in a content challenge on the platform. TikTok agreed to recheck the age of all users on its platform in Italy as a result.

TikTok said the European TAC will start operating virtually, owing to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But the plan is to open a physical center in Ireland — where it bases its regional HQ — in 2022.

EU lawmakers have recently proposed a swathe of updates to digital legislation that look set to dial up emphasis on the accountability of AI systems — including content recommendation engines.

A draft AI regulation presented by the Commission last week also proposes an outright ban on subliminal uses of AI technology to manipulate people’s behavior in a way that could be harmful to them or others. So content recommender engines that, for example, nudge users into harming themselves by suggestively promoting pro-suicide content or risky challenges may fall under the prohibition. (The draft law suggests fines of up to 6% of global annual turnover for breaching prohibitions.)

It’s certainly interesting to note TikTok also specifies that its European TAC will offer detailed insight into its recommendation technology.

“The Centre will provide an opportunity for experts, academics and policymakers to see first-hand the work TikTok teams put into making the platform a positive and secure experience for the TikTok community,” the company writes in a press release, adding that visiting experts will also get insights into how it uses technology “to keep TikTok’s community safe”; how trained content review teams make decisions about content based on its Community Guidelines; and “the way human reviewers supplement moderation efforts using technology to help catch potential violations of our policies”.

Another component of the EU’s draft AI regulation sets a requirement for human oversight of high risk applications of artificial intelligence. Although it’s not clear whether a social media platform would fall under that specific obligation, given the current set of categories in the draft regulation.

However the AI regulation is just one piece of the Commission’s platform-focused rule-making.

Late last year it also proposed broader updates to rules for digital services, under the DSA and DMA, which will place due diligence obligations on platforms — and also require larger platforms to explain any algorithmic rankings and hierarchies they generate. And TikTok is very likely to fall under that requirement.

The UK — which is now outside the bloc, post-Brexit — is also working on its own Online Safety regulation, due to present this year. So in the coming years there will be multiple content-focused regulatory regimes for platforms like TikTok to comply with in Europe. And opening your algorithms to outside experts may be hard requirement, not soft PR.

Commenting on the launch of its European TAC in a statement, Cormac Keenan, TikTok’s head of trust and safety, said: With more than 100 million users across Europe, we recognise our responsibility to gain the trust of our community and the broader public. Our Transparency and Accountability Centre is the next step in our journey to help people better understand the teams, processes, and technology we have to help keep TikTok a place for joy, creativity, and fun. We know there’s lots more to do and we’re excited about proactively addressing the challenges that lie ahead. I’m looking forward to welcoming experts from around Europe and hearing their candid feedback on ways we can further improve our systems.”

 

Engineered earworms on TikTok aren’t that far off from disinfo campaigns

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Ever since I read this Bloomberg story about how songs are engineered to go viral on TikTok, I’ve had one thought in my head – if you can call it that – it’s more of a noise, or impression: 

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

Yes, it’s the sound of internally screaming. Just when I thought I understood how deeply social media algorithms have hijacked our desires, tastes and preferences – WHAM! Another jab straight to the nose. I have to admit, I was blindsided by this one. It knocked me out.

Now, I understand that I work for a website called TechCrunch, emphasis on the tech, but if this story doesn’t make you feel at least a teensy bit like a Luddite, well, I don’t know what to tell you. You’re probably like that character in the Matrix, Cypher, who wants to be plugged in.

Is that harsh? I mean, companies are going to company, and partnerships with major record labels is a common sense move for a social media app all about honing the art of short, clever combinations of sound and video. And fair dues to the creators, many of them in college or high school, for jumping at the chance to make some money and get a little bit of fame.

But it’s probably not too harsh when you consider what else is possible when catchiness is weaponized. Here’s what we know: whether it’s internet memes or political slogans or Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage, what drives information dissemination is not the truthfulness of the content or the credibility of the speaker but 1) how easy it is to remember and 2) how quickly it sparks conversations. 

And would you look at that! Those are exactly the variables music producers optimize for today. What the Bloomberg story highlights, inadvertently or not, is how a #1 pop hit and a piece of political disinformation are not all that different, aesthetically. Everyone’s an entertainer.

Now read to the end of the Bloomberg story. Get to the part where it’s revealed that ByteDance (the Chinese company that owns TikTok), in response to threats of a U.S. ban on the app, recruited creators to orchestrate a seemingly grassroots lawsuit against the proposed ban. And I think: damn. Attention really is the most precious commodity in the world. And we’re just…giving it away.

(Cue the internal screams.)

Pearpop raises from The Chainsmokers, Alexis Ohanian, Amy Schumer, Kevin Hart, Mark Cuban, Marshmello, and Snoop Dogg

By Jonathan Shieber

Pearpop, the marketplace for social collaborations between the teeming hordes of musicians, craftspeople, chefs, clowns, diarists, dancers, artists, actors, acrobats, aspiring celebrities and actual celebrities, has raised $16 million in funding that includes what seems like half of Hollywood, along with Alexis Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six venture firm and Bessemer Venture Partners.

The funding was actually split between a $6 million seed funding round co-led by Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s Sound Ventures and Slow Ventures, with participation from Atelier Ventures and Chapter One Ventures and a $10 million additional investment led by Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six with participation from Bessemer.

TechCrunch first covered pearpop last year and there’s no denying that the startup is on to something. It basically takes Cameo’s celebrity marketplace for private shout-outs and makes it public. Allowing social media personalities to boost their followers by paying more popular personalities to shout out, duet, or comment on their posts.

“I’ve invested in pearpop because it’s been on my mind for a while that the creator economy has resulted in a lot of not equitable outcomes for creators. Where i talked about the missing middle class of the creator economy,” said Li Jin, the founder of Atelier Ventures and author of a critical piece on creator economics, “The creator economy needs a middle class“. 

“When I saw pearpop I felt like there was a really big potential for pearpop to be the one of the creators of the creative middle class. They’ve introduced this mechanism by which larger creators can help smaller creators and everyone has something of value to offer something to everyone else in the ecosystem.”

Jin discovered pearpop through the TechCrunch piece, she said. “You wrote that article and then i reached out to the team,” said Jin.

The idea was so appealing, it brought in a slew of musicians, athletes, actors and entertainers, including: Abel Makkonen (The Weeknd), Amy Schumer, The Chainsmokers, Diddy, Gary Vaynerchuk, Griffin Johnson, Josh Richards, Kevin Durant (Thirty 5 Ventures), Kevin Hart (HartBeat Ventures), Mark Cuban, Marshmello, Moe Shalizi, Michael Gruen (Animal Capital), MrBeast (Night Media Ventures), Rich Miner (Android co-founder) and Snoop Dogg.

“Pearpop has the potential to benefit all social media platforms by delivering new users and engagement, while simultaneously leveling the playing field of opportunity for creators,” said Alexis Ohanian, Founder, Seven Seven Six, in a statement. “The company has created a revolutionary new marketplace model that is set to completely reimagine how we think of social media monetization. As both a social media founder and an investor, I’m excited for what’s to come with pearpop.”

Already Heidi Klum, Loren Gray, Snoop Dogg, and Tony Hawk have gotten paid to appear in social media posts from aspiring auteurs on the social media platform TikTok.

Using the platform is relatively simple. A social media user (for now, that means just TikTok) sends a post that exists on their social feed and requests that another social media user interacts with it in some way — either commenting, posting a video in response, or adding a sound. If the request seems okay, or “on brand”, then the person who accepts the request performs the prescribed action.

Pearpop takes a 25% cut of all transactions with the social media user who’s performing the task getting the other 75%.

The company wouldn’t comment on revenue numbers, except to say that it’s on track to bring in seven figures this year.

Users on the platform set their prices and determine which kinds of services they’re willing to provide to boost the social media posts of their contractors.

Prices range anywhere from $5 to $10,000 depending on the size of a user’s following and the type of request that’s being made. Right now, the most requested personality on the marketplace is the TikTok star, Anna Banana.

These kinds of transactions do have impacts. The company said that personalities on the platform were able to increase their follower count with the service. For instance, Leah Svoboda went from 20K to 141K followers, after a pearpop duet with Anna Shumate.

If this all makes you feel like you’ve tripped and fallen through a Black Mirror into a dystopian hellscape where everything and every interaction is a commodity to be mined for money, well… that’s life.

“What I appreciate most about pearpop is the control it gives me as a creator,” said Anna Shumate, TikTok influencer @annabananaxdddd. “The platform allows me to post what I want and when I want. My followers still love my content because it’s authentic and true to me, which is what sets pearpop apart from all of the other opportunities on social media.”

Talent agencies, too, see the draw. Early adopters include Talent X, Get Engaged, and Next Step Talent and The Fuel Injector, which has added its entire roster of talent to pearpop, which includes Kody Antle, Brooke Monk and Harry Raftus, the company said.

“The initial concept came out of an obvious gap within the space: no marketplace existed for creators of all sizes to monetize through simple, authentic collaborations that are mutually beneficial,” said Cole Mason, co-founder & CEO, pearpop.  “It soon became clear that this was a product that people had been waiting for, as thousands of people rely on our platform today to gain full control of their social capital for the first time starting with TikTok.”

TikTok funds first episodic public health series ‘VIRAL’ from NowThis

By Sarah Perez

TikTok is taking another step towards directly funding publishers’ content with today’s announcement that it’s financially backing the production of media publisher NowThis’ new series, “VIRAL,” which will feature interviews with public health experts and a live Q&A session focused on answering questions about the pandemic. The partnership represents TikTok’s first-ever funding of an episodic series from a publisher, though TikTok has previously funded creator content.

Through TikTok’s Instructive Accelerator Program, which was formerly known as the Creative Learning Fund, other TikTok publishers have received grants and hands-on support from TikTok so they could produce quality instructive content for TikTok’s #LearnOnTikTok initiative. The program today is structured as four, eight-week cycles during which time publishers post videos four times per week.

NowThis had also participated in the Creative Learning Fund last year and was selected for the latest cycle of the Instructive Accelerator Program. But its “VIRAL” series is separate from these efforts.

NowThis says it brought the concept for the show to TikTok earlier this year outside of the accelerator program, and TikTok greenlit it. TikTok then co-produced the series and provided some funding. Neither NowThis nor TikTok would comment on the extent of the financial backing involved, however.

The “VIRAL” series itself is hosted by infectious disease clinical researcher Laurel Bristow, who spent the last year working on COVID treatments and research. Every Thursday, Bristow will break down COVID facts in easy-to-understand language, NowThis says, including things like vaccine efficacy, transmission timelines, and treatment. The show will also bust COVID myths, provide information about ongoing public health risks, and feature interviews with a cross-section of experts.

Each episode of the will be 45 minutes in length and will also include an interactive segment where the TikTok viewing audience will be able to engage in a real-time Q&A session about the show’s content. In total, five episodes are being produced, and will air starting on Thursday April 15 at 6 PM ET and will run through Thursday May 13 on the @NowThis main TikTok page.

@nowthisTune in to our new TikTok live show VIRAL on Thursdays at 6pm ET with host @kinggutterbaby

♬ original sound – nowthis

NowThis has become one of the most-followed news media accounts on TikTok, with 4.6 million followers across its news and politics channels, since launching a little over a year ago. Because of its focus on video, it’s been a good fit for the TikTok’s platform.

The approach TikTok is taking with “VIRAL’s” production, it’s worth noting, stands in contrast to how other social media platforms are handling the pandemic and COVID-19 information. While most, including TikTok, have pledged to fact check COVID-19 information, remove misinformation and conspiracies, point users to official sources for health information, and provide other resources, TikTok is directly funding public health content featuring scientists and researchers, and then promoting it on its network.

The company explained to TechCrunch its thinking on the matter.

“As the pandemic continues to evolve, we think it’s important to provide our community an outlet to dispel misinformation and communicate with public health experts in real-time,” said Robbie Levin, Manager of Media Partnerships at TikTok. “NowThis has consistently been a great partner that produces engaging and informative content, so we felt this series would be an impactful and important avenue for our users to receive credible information on our platform,” Levin noted.

While the pandemic has driven the topic of choice here, paying creators for content is not new. And TikTok isn’t the only one to do so. Instagram and Snapchat are both funding creator content for their TikTok clones, Reels and Spotlight, respectively. And new social platforms like Clubhouse are funding creators’ shows, as well.

TikTok says it’s not currently talking to other publishers to produce more series like “VIRAL,” but it isn’t ruling out the idea of expanding its creator funding and producing efforts. In addition to its accelerator program, which is continuing, TikTok says if “VIRAL” proves successful and the community responds positively, it will pursue similar opportunities in the future.

Deepfake video app Avatarify, which processes on-phone, plans digital watermark for videos

By Mike Butcher

Making deepfake videos used to be hard. Now all you need is a smartphone. Avatarify, a startup that allows people to make deepfake videos directly on their phone rather than in the cloud, is soaring up the app charts after being used by celebrities such as Victoria Beckham.

However, the problem with many deepfake videos is that there is no digital watermark to determine that the video has been tampered with. So Avatarify says it will soon launch a digital watermark to prevent this from happening.

Run out of Moscow but with a U.S. HQ, Avatarify launched in July 2020 and since then has been downloaded millions of times. The founders say that 140 million deepfake videos were created with Avatarify this year alone. There are now 125 million views of videos with the hashtag #avatarify on TikTok. While its competitors include the well-funded Reface, Snapchat, Wombo.ai, Mug Life and Xpression, Avatarify has yet to raise any money beyond an angel round.

Despite taking only $120,000 in angel funding, the company has yet to accept any venture capital and says it has bootstrapped its way from zero to almost 10 million downloads and claims to have a $10 million annual run rate with a team of less than 10 people.

It’s not hard to see why. Avatarify has a freemium subscription model. They offer a 7-day free trial and a 12-month subscription for $34.99 or a weekly plan for $2.49. Without a subscription, they offer the core features of the app for free, but videos then carry a visible watermark.

The founders also say the app protects privacy, because the videos are processed directly on the phone, rather than in the cloud where they could be hacked.

Avatarify processes user’s photos and turns them into short videos by animating faces, using machine learning algorithms and adding sounds. The user chooses a picture they want to animate, chooses the effects and music, and then taps to animate the picture. This short video can then be posted on Instagram or TikTok.

The Avatarify videos are taking off on TikTok because teens no longer need to learn a dance or be much more creative than finding a photo of a celebrity to animate to.

Avartify says you can’t use their app to impersonate someone, but there is of course no way to police this.

Co-founders Ali Aliev and Karim Iskakov wrote the app during the COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020. Ali spent two hours writing a program in Python to transfer his facial expressions to the other person’s face and use a filter in Zoom. The result was a real-time video, which could be streamed to Zoom. He joined a call with Elon Mask’s face and everyone on the call was shocked. The team posted the video, which then went viral.

They posted the code on Github and immediately saw the number of downloads grow. The repository was published on 6 April 2020, and as of 19 March 2021 had been downloaded 50,000 times.

Ali left his job at Samsung AI Centre and devoted himself to the app. After Avatarify’s iOS app was released on 28 June 2020, viral videos on TikTok, created with the app, led it to App Store’s top charts without paid acquisition. In February 2021, Avatarify was ranked first among Top Free Apps worldwide. Between February and March, the app 2021 generated more than $1 million in revenue (Source: AppMagic).

However, despite Avartify’s success, the ongoing problems with deepfake videos remain, such as using these apps to make nonconsensual porn, using the faces of innocent people.

Triller owner gets a new CEO with acquisition of Amplify.AI; also acquires livestreaming service FITE TV

By Sarah Perez

Would be TikTok competitor Triller, operated by parent company TrillerNet, is gaining a new CEO, the company announced today. The short-form video app said it’s acquiring an A.I.-based customer engagement platform, Amplify.AI, whose co-founder Mahi de Silva will now become TrillerNet’s CEO. Existing CEO Mike Lu will transition to president of TrillerNet and will focus on investor relations. The company separately announced the acquisition of FITE TV, a live event and pay-per-view combat sports streaming platform.

New CEO Mahi de Silva had been closely involved with Triller before today. The company’s press release today says he’s been serving as non-executive chairman since 2016, but his LinkedIn notes the year was 2019 (which would be following Triller’s 2019 funding by Proxima Media, when the press release at the time noted he was assuming the role of “chairman.”)  These are both wrong, the company discovered when we reached out for clarity. The correct year is 2018.

Ahead of the acquisition, de Silva had been serving as CEO and co-founder to Amplify.AI since 2017, and before that was CEO of Opera Mediaworks, the marketing and advertising arm of Opera Software, and co-founder and CEO of Botworx.

Amplify.AI, which works with brands in CPG, financial services, automotive, telecom, politics and digital media, among others, will continue to operate as a subsidiary of TrillerNet following the deal. Other team members include former RSA and VeriSign executive Ram Moskovitz who helped design and develop the digital certificates for SSL and code signing; and Amplify.ai co-founder and CTO Manoj Malhotra, a pioneer in B2C SMS messaging, the company notes.

TrillerNet also today announced it’s acquiring another strategic property to help shift its business further into the direction of live events: FITE TV. This deal gives Triller more of a foothold in the live events and pay-per-view streaming market, it says. As a result, FITE, which touts 10 million users, will become the exclusive digital distributor of all Triller Fight Club boxing events going forward.

“Acquiring FITE is part of the larger Triller strategy to bring together content, creators and commerce for the first time and the only place where they truly interact,” said Triller’s Ryan Kavanaugh, the former head of movie studio Relativity Media (and controversial figure) whose Proxima Media became Triller’s majority investor in 2019. “We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars and believe we have created a better more efficient e-commerce content platform,” he added.

The acquisition follows several others TrillerNet has made to expand into live events, now that becoming a TikTok replacement in the U.S. is no longer a viable option, as the Trump ban was put on hold by the Biden administration. Triller also in March acquired live music streaming platform Verzuz, founded by Swizz Beats and Timbaland. And it operates Triller Flight Club in partnership with Snoop Dogg, as well as a streaming platform Triller TV.

While specific deal terms were not revealed, Triller told TechCrunch it’s spent $250 million in the aggregate on its acquisitions, including Halogen, Mashtraxx, Verzuz, FITE and Amplify today.

 

As competition heats up, TikTok announces six new interactive music effects for creators

By Sarah Perez

TikTok today is doubling down on its roots as a music-backed creation app with the launch of a half dozen new music effects for creators. The effects, which offer interactivity, visualizations, animations and more, will roll out over the next few weeks, starting with the launch of Music Visualizer. This effect is now available to TikTok’s global user base and runs real-time beat tracking to animate a retro greenscreen landscape, the company says.

The effect was added to TikTok’s Creative Effects tray yesterday and there are already over 28,000 videos created using the new feature. The effect results in videos featuring a purple sky with multiple moons (or planets?) in the background, where the grid on the ground pulses up and down with the music.

Music Visualizer works with any sounds in TikTok’s music library and has also been adopted by the electronic dance music duo AREA21 who used Music Visualizer to tease their new track “La La La.” Unfortunately, their use of the effect hides the animation behind one of their own. But several other creators showcase the effect better.

Other effects on the way include:

  • Music Machine, which offers an interactive set of tools that will allow users to control the real-time rendering of MIDI loops for different music layers. There will also be a BPM slider for real-time adjustments; five, one-shot sound effects; and dynamic visual responses for the video of your recorded music.
  • Delayed Beats, which recreates the freeze-frame effect that’s already popular on TikTok while aligning transitions to the beat of the music
  • Text Beats, which allows creators to add animated text overlays to their video that transition in sync with the beat of any sound from TikTok’s library.
  • Solid Beats, which add visual effects that sync to the beat of any song.
  • Mirror Beats, which align display transitions with the beat of any song from TikTok’s library.

The launch of the new features follow arrival of several new TikTok competitors from major social networks, including Instagram (Reels), Snapchat (Spotlight), and YouTube (Shorts). The additions of the features help to demonstrate how far behind these rivals are in terms of competing on on the product experience. While the newcomers to the short-form video space may have launched their own set of basic creation tools, they’re lacking the larger libraries of creative effects that make TikTok fun to use, as well as appealing to those who are more specifically interested in its music features.

All the new effects will be rolled out to the dedicated “Music” tab within TikTok’s Creative Effects tray, as they become globally available.

Bilibili ups the ante in games with $123 million investment in TapTap

By Rita Liao

Competition in China’s gaming industry is getting stiffer in recent times as tech giants sniff out potential buyouts and investments to beef up their gaming alliance, whether it pertains to content or distribution.

Bilibili, the go-to video streaming platform for young Chinese, is the latest to make a major gaming deal. It has agreed to invest HK$960 million (about $123 million) into X.D. Network, which runs the popular game distribution platform TapTap in China, the company announced on Thursday.

Dual-listed in Hong Kong and New York, Bilibili will purchase 22,660,000 shares of X.D.’s common stock at HK$42.38 apiece, which will grant it a 4.72% stake.

The partners will initiate a series of “deep collaborations” around X.D.’s own games and TapTap, without offering more detail.

Though known for its trove of video content produced by amateur and professional creators, Bilibili derives a big chunk of its income from mobile games, which accounted for 40% of its revenues in 2020. The ratio had declined from 71% and 53% in 2018 and 2019, a sign that it’s trying to diversify revenue streams beyond distributing games.

Tencent has similarly leaned on games to drive revenues for years. The WeChat operator dominates China’s gaming market through original titles and a sprawling investment portfolio whose content it helps operate and promote.

X.D. makes games, too, but in recent years it has also emerged as a rebel against traditional game distributors, which are Android app stores operated by smartphone makers. The vision is to skip the high commission fees charged by the likes of Huawei and Xiaomi and monetize through ads. X.D.’s proposition has helped it attract a swathe of gaming companies to be its investors, including fast-growing studios Lilith Games and miHoYo, as well as ByteDance, which built up a 3,000-people strong gaming team within six years.

Bilibili’s investment further strengthens X.D.’s matrix of top-tier gaming investors. Tencent is conspicuously absent, but it’s no secret that ByteDance is its new nemesis. The TikTok parent recently outbid Tencent to acquire Moonton, a gaming studio that has gained ground in Southeast Asia, according to Reuters. Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, is also vying for user attention away from content published on WeChat.

Instagram officially launches Remix on Reels, a TikTok Duets-like feature

By Sarah Perez

Instagram today is officially launching a new feature called Remix, which offers a way to record your Reels video alongside a video from another user. The option is similar to TikTok’s existing Duets feature, which also lets users to react to or interact with another person’s video content while creating their own. Instagram’s new feature has been in public testing before today, so some Instagram users may have already gained access.

We recently reported on Instagram’s plans with Remix, when noting that Snapchat was developing a Remix feature of its own. In fact, Snapchat is also using the name “Remix” for its TikTok Duets rival that’s currently in development.

On TikTok, Duets are a key part to making the app feel more like a social network and less of just a passive video-watching experience. Users take advantage of Duets to sing, dance, joke or act alongside another user’s video. They will do things like cook someone else’s recipe, record a reaction video, or even just watch a video from a smaller creator to give them a boost.

Meanwhile, TikTok competitors — like Instagram Reels, Snapchat’s Spotlight or YouTube’s Shorts, for example — have launched their short-form video experiences without a full set of engagement or editing features like TikTok has, making their apps feel like pale knock-offs of the original. Remix on Reels is a first step towards changing that perception, by giving users at least one important option to engage and collaborate with their fellow creatives.

Re-re-re-remix 🤩

Now you can use the Remix feature in Reels to create your own reel next to one that already exists 🎭

Whether you’re capturing your reaction, responding to friends or bringing your own magic to trends, Remix is another way to collab on Instagram ✨pic.twitter.com/eU8x74Q3yf

— Instagram (@instagram) March 31, 2021

To use the new Remix feature, you’ll first tap on the three-dot menu on a Reel and select the new “Remix this Reel” option. The screen will then split into the original Reel and your own new one, where you can begin to record side-by-side with the original. When you’ve finished, you can tweak other aspects of the recording like the volume of the original video or your audio and you can optionally add a voiceover. After applying these or any other edits, you can publish the Remix.

The feature will only be available on newly uploaded Reels — so unfortunately, if you want your older Reels to be duetted, you either need to reupload them or go back to your old Reel and specifically enable Remix.

Image Credits: Instagram

Your Remixes will appear alongside any other Reels you’ve recorded on the Reels tab on your Instagram profile, and you’ll be able to track who has remixed your content through Instagram’s Activity tab.

The feature is rolling out, starting today, says Instagram. It will be enabled by default on all new Reels published from a public account.

Consumers spent $32B on apps in Q1 2021, the biggest quarter on record

By Sarah Perez

The pandemic’s remarkable impact on the app industry has not slowed down in 2021. In fact, consumer spending in apps has hit a new record in the first quarter of this year, a new report from App Annie indicates. The firm says consumers in Q1 2021 spent $32 billion on apps across both iOS and Google Play, up 40% year-over-year from Q1 2020. It’s the largest-ever quarter on record, App Annie also notes.

Last year saw both app downloads and consumer spend increase, as people rapidly adopted apps under coronavirus lockdowns — including apps for work, school, shopping, fitness, entertainment, gaming and more. App Annie previously reported a record 218 billion in global downloads and record consumer spend of $143 billion for the year.

Image Credits: App Annie

These trends have continued into 2021, it seems, with mobile consumers spending roughly $9 billion more in Q1 2021 compared with Q1 2020. Although iOS saw larger consumer spend than Android in the quarter — $21 billion vs. $11 billion, respectively — both stores grew by the same percentage, 40%.

But the types of apps driving spending were slightly different from store to store.

On Google Play, Games, Social and Entertainment apps saw the strongest quarter-over-quarter growth in terms of consumer spending, while Games, Photo & Video, and Entertainment apps accounted for the strongest growth on iOS.

By downloads, the categories were different between the stores, as well.

On Google Play, Social, Tools, and Fiance saw the biggest download growth in Q1, while Games, Finance and Social Networking drove download growth for iOS. Also on Google Play, other top categories included Weather (40%) and Dating (35%), while iOS saw Health and Fitness app downloads grow by a notable 25% — likely a perfect storm as New Year’s Resolutions combined with continued stay-at-measures that encouraged users to find new ways to stay fit without going to a gym.

Image Credits: App Annie

The top apps in the quarter remained fairly consistent, however. TikTok beat Facebook, in terms of downloads, and was followed by Instagram, Telegram, WhatsApp and Zoom. But the short-form video app only made it to No. 2 in terms of consumer spend, with YouTube snagging the top spot. Tinder, Disney+, Tencent Video, and others followed. (Netflix has dropped off this chart as it now directs new users to sign up directly, rather than through in-app purchases).

Image Credits: App Annie

Though Facebook’s apps have fallen behind TikTok by downloads, its apps — including Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram — still led the market in terms monthly active users (MAUs) in the quarter. TikTok, meanwhile, ranked No. 8 by this metric.

Up-and-comers in the quarter included privacy-focused messaging app Signal, which saw the strongest growth in the quarter by both downloads and MAUs — a calculation that App Annie calls “breakout apps.”  Telegram closely followed, as users bailed from mainstream social after the Capitol riot. Another “breakout” app was MX TakaTak, which is filling the hole in the market for short-form video that resulted from India’s ban  of TikTok.

Image Credits: App Annie

Gaming, meanwhile, drove a majority of the quarter’s spending, as usual, accounting for $22 billion of the spend — $13 billion on iOS (up 30% year-over-year) and $9 billion on Android (up 35%). Gamers downloaded about a billion titles per week, up 15% year-over-year from 2020.

Among Us! dropped to No. 2 in the quarter by downloads, replaced by Join Clash 3D, while DOP 2: Delete One Part jumped 308 places to reach No. 3.

Image Credits: App Annie

Roblox led by consumer spend, followed by Genshin Impact, Coin Master, Pokemon Go and others. And although Among Us! dropped on the charts by downloads, it remained No. 1 by monthly active users in the quarter, followed by PUBG Mobile, Candy Crush Saga, Roblox and others.

App Annie notes that the pandemic also accelerated the mobile gaming market, with game downloads outpacing overall downloads by 2.5x in 2020. It predicts that mobile gaming will reach  $120 billion in consumer spending this year, or 1.5x all other gaming formats combined.

Snapchat is developing its own take on TikTok Duets with a new ‘Remix’ feature

By Sarah Perez

One of the challenges that some would-be TikTok rivals have faced is that they often lack the same robust set of content creation tools, like filters, effects, and tools for repurposing others’ content — like TikTok’s Stitch and Duet, for example. It now appears that Snapchat is working to correct that latter problem, however, as it’s been spotted working on a TikTok Duets-like feature called “Remix,” designed for replying to Snaps. This feature will allow users to create new content using their friends’ Snaps — a “remix,” that is.

Initially, the feature will allow users to reply a friend’s story with a remixed Snap. To do so, you can record your own Snap alongside the original as it plays — much like a TikTok Duet.

The feature, which Snap confirms has launched into external testing, follows Instagram’s public test of a similarly named “Remix” feature focused on Reels content. (It had also tested a version for Stories as a first step.)

In Instagram’s case, the company explains that Remix lets anyone create an Instagram Reel where your video and theirs play side-by-side. This is, essentially, Instagram’s own version of TikTok Duets, a tool that’s often used to interact with other TikTok users’ content. In Duets, TikTok users can sing, dance, joke or act alongside another user’s video; cook someone else’s recipe; record reaction videos; boost videos from lesser-known creators; and more. It’s a core part of what makes TikTok feel like a social network, rather than just a platform for more passive video viewing.

Last fall, TikTok announced it was introducing several new layout options for Duets in addition to the left-right layout, including a new top-bottom layout, a special “react” layout, and a three-screen layout.

Some of those same Duet formats and others now appear to be under consideration by Snap, as well.

In its Remix feature, Snapchat users are presented with a screen where they can choose from a variety of options for combining Snaps — including the side-by-side and top-and-bottom formats, as well as others like where content is overlaid or where you could react to a Snap.

Image Credits: Photo of Snapchat’s Remix feature via @alex193a on Twitter

According to reverse engineer Alessandro Paluzzi, who first spotted the addition, Remix also offers a way for users to tag friends or other people they want to have permission to either remix or share their Snap via a new toggle switch.

It appears that users will be able to access the “Remix” feature from the same menu where you can today either report” a Snap or send it to others.

This menu, of course, is also available from within Snapchat’s new TikTok competitor, known as Spotlight, launched last year.

Though initially, Remix is being tested among friends, we understand that it’s expected to make its way to other parts of the Snapchat app in time. And likely, this would include Spotlight. Much like TikTok, Spotlight offers a video feed filled with short-form, entertaining videos that you can scroll through with up and down swipes, often set to popular music — thanks to Snap’s music industry deals. This would be a natural fit for Remixes, as it’s a common way for users to interact with each others’ content to create a dialog.

Image Credits: Photo of Snapchat’s Remix feature via @alex193a on Twitter (opens in a new window)

Snap confirmed with TechCrunch it’s beginning to test Remix on its app.

“I can confirm that externally we are testing the ability to reply to a friend’s story with a remixed Snap,” a spokesperson said. “It lets you build on your friend’s Snap while recording your own alongside the original as it plays for contextual conversations on Snapchat,” they noted.

The company didn’t offer an ETA for a broader rollout at this time.

Instagram adds new teen safety tools as competition with TikTok heats up

By Sarah Perez

Earlier this year, TikTok made an update to its privacy settings and defaults to further lock down the app for its teenage users. This morning, Instagram followed suit with teen-focused privacy updates of its own. But the Facebook-owned social app didn’t choose to add more privacy to teen accounts by default, as TikTok did — it largely made it more difficult for adults to interact with the app’s teen users.

The company said it’s rolling out new safety features that would restrict adult users from being able to contact teens who didn’t already follow them. The exception to this rule would still allow the teen to interact with adult family members and other trusted adults on the platform, like family friends. In the case that an adult tried to DM a teen who didn’t follow them, they’d receive a notification informing them this wasn’t possible.

And if the teen has already connected with an adult and is DM’ing with them, they’ll be notified if that adult is exhibiting suspicious behavior — like sending a large amount of friend requests or messages to users under 18. This tool will also then allow the teen to end the conversation, block, report or restrict the adult from further contact.

Image Credits: Instagram

In addition, Instagram said it will make it more difficult for adults to find and follow teens in other places within the Instagram app, including Explore, Reels, and more. This will include restricting adults from seeing teen accounts in the “Suggested Users” section of the app, as well as hiding their comments on public posts.

The company also noted it’s developing new A.I. and machine learning-based technology that would make it possible to find teens lying about their age on the app. This could result in these features being applied, even if the teen in question had lied about their birth date when signing up for the app, but the technology isn’t fully live yet.

Other additions rolling out as part of today’s updates include new safety resources for parents in the app’s Parents Guide and educational material for teens that will better explain what it means to have a public account on the app, and encourage them to choose private options.

Image Credits: Instagram

The launch timing here is notable, as TikTok has recently focused on making its platform safer for teens — not only with the changes to its default settings, but also with the addition of parental controls last year. The company last year took the unusual step of bundling a parental control mechanism directly into its app that lets a parent link to a child’s TikTok account to control their profile’s privacy, what they’re allowed to do on the app, and even which feed they can view. The company has continued to expand these controls following their launch, indicating that it considers these core features. By making privacy and parental controls a key part of the experience, the app is more likely to be blessed by parents who would otherwise restrict their teens’ social media access — and that helps TikTok grow its user base and teens’ time spent in the app, sometimes at Instagram’s expense.

How ByteDance plans to crack the gaming industry

By Rita Liao

For the last few years, ByteDance, the parent company of short video app TikTok, has been working to diversify its revenue streams beyond advertisement and find more ways to monetize its hundreds of millions of users. One area it is targeting is gaming, which has historically been a lucrative business in China’s internet economy.

China is the world’s largest gaming market, generating revenues of $40.85 billion in 2020, according to market research firm Newzoo. The United States trailed behind at $36.92 billion.

But competition is also intense. Giants Tencent and NetEase have long dominated and smaller players like Mihoyo and Lilith are making breakthroughs. According to market research firm Analysys, Tencent occupied over half of the Chinese gaming market in 2019, while NetEase and 37 Interactive respectively commanded around 16% and 10%, leaving little breathing room for smaller rivals.

Regardless, ByteDance is forging ahead, giving a brand name, Nuversegame, and a website to its gaming business for the first time last month. Its strategy consists of a genre-spanning portfolio, a hiring spree, a proven monetization scheme, and a focus on both the domestic and overseas markets. During his short-lived stint with ByteDance, Kevin Meyer was put in charge of multiple overseas businesses, including gaming.

ByteDance, the David when it comes to games, seems undeterred by the Goliaths. As one of the company’s gaming executives Yan Shou wrote in a social media post a year ago: “Gaming is a content business. A monopoly is difficult to maintain [in this industry] as long as there is patience.”

Battle for talent

In recent years, ByteDance has hired a large number of ex-employees from the BAT, the acronym for three of the most prominent tech firms in China: Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. Yan himself worked on strategy at Tencent for over two years before joining ByteDance in 2015. While poaching and job-hopping are common in China’s fast-changing tech industry, ByteDance is known for doling out generous paychecks and many tech workers are lured by the prospects of receiving employee options before the firm goes public someday.

Ambitious staff may also feel stagnant after a long period at Alibaba and Tencent, which are both over 20 years old and where room for career advancement is limited. ByteDance, in comparison, is merely nine years old and is still in a fast-growth phase, a Beijing-based headhunter for technology firms tells TechCrunch.

“The current stage of ByteDance and the new businesses it is incubating provide the right platform for these people to achieve their ambitions,” the headhunter says.

In gaming, too, ByteDance has gone on a recruiting spree. The company’s gaming headcount numbers nearly 3,000 today, up from only 1,000 last year, according to a person with knowledge. These employees are scattered across China’s major tech hubs, from Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou to Shenzhen, working in various gaming studios under ByteDance.

How big is a 3,000-person team? 37 Interactive, the third-largest gaming firm in China, had around 4,000 gaming staff as of January, according to a company executive. It took the company 10 years to reach this scale. ByteDance began exploring games only around five years ago.

ByteDance declined to comment on the story.

Factory of games

Being late to the game could bring advantages. Having seen how Tencent and other predecessors tackle the gaming market allows ByteDance to learn. For one, ByteDance is working on a diverse range of genres simultaneously, from disposable mobile games to indie titles with unorthodox design or topics. This makes ByteDance different from Tencent, says Daniel Ahmad, a gaming analyst at Niko Partners. Tencent, the world’s largest gaming firm, cut its teeth on board and card games in the 2000s before gradually expanding into other genres.

Of course, only a deep-pocketed upstart like ByteDance could strive for a diverse portfolio from day one. With a well-oiled advertising business built upon its short video app Douyin and news aggregator Toutiao, as well as over $7 billion raised from equity funding over the years, ByteDance has been able to fund its horizontal expansions in not just games but also education and SaaS.

Aside from hunting down talent from other tech giants, ByteDance also relies on swallowing smaller companies to boost its workforce. Since 2018, ByteDance has invested in at least 11 gaming companies, six of which were full acquisitions, according to public disclosures. The acquired assets and talent were subsequently incorporated into ByteDance’s gaming studios. Acqui-hiring is an old and proven formula at ByteDance. Kelly Zhang, the product manager credited for taking Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, off the ground, also joined after her photo-sharing startup was bought by ByteDance.

Like many gaming firms, ByteDance’s monetization scheme is two-pronged: distribution of third-party titles and original creation. Quality games don’t come overnight, so the strategy allows its gaming unit to have some revenue as it bets on one of its own works to be a cash cow. Casual games are great for ads, which are normally placed between levels. More complex games rely on user loyalty and the natural way to make money is through in-app purchases.

A number of ByteDance’s licensed casual games have so far made it into the Top 10 iOS free games in China, including car racing game Drift Race, music game Yinyue Qiuqiu, and puzzle game Brain Out. While these collaborations don’t make big bucks yet, the initial traction proves the viability of ByteDance’s traffic strategy.

ByteDance said in 2019 it had 1.5 billion monthly users across its app family (there can be user overlap between apps). One way ByteDance is marketing games is by inserting native ads into users’ content feeds. Videos, says Niko Partners’ Ahmad, are “interactive, easy to use, easy to click through and can get much higher conversion than traditional ads.”

In some cases, the ad may prompt users to download a standalone gaming app. But like WeChat and most of China’s popular apps,  Douyin and Toutiao support third-party “mini apps” within their own platforms. Users can, for instance, play a lite game on Douyin just as they can on WeChat.

With hundreds of millions of monthly users, ByteDance already has a good grasp of people’s tastes and behavior, so it knows what games to recommend. In theory, the more people see and react, the more accurate its predictions become.

“Through targeted ‘recommendations’, our ‘algorithms’ will automatically show users mini games presented in various forms,” explains ByteDance’s gaming developer handbook. “All games have a fair and equal chance of getting initial exposure.”

Pakistan bans TikTok again over ‘immoral and objectionable’ videos

By Manish Singh

Pakistan has banned TikTok again in the country after reviewing a complaint that said the popular video app hosted immoral and objectionable content.

A high court in the city of Peshawar on Thursday ordered the nation’s telecom authority — Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) — to ban TikTok.

In a statement Thursday evening, Pakistan Telecom Authority said it was complying with the order and had “issued directions to the service providers to immediately block access to the TikTok app.”

TikTok had about 33 million users in Pakistan last month, according to mobile insight firm App Annie (data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch). There are about 100 million internet users in the South Asian nation.

The Peshawar High Court’s Chief Justice Qaiser Rashid Khan described some videos on TikTok as “unacceptable for Pakistaini society,” and said these videos were “peddling vulgarity,” according to local media reports.

TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This isn’t the first time ByteDance’s app has been banned by Pakistan. PTA had briefly banned TikTok in the country last year, saying at the time that the Chinese social app hadn’t addressed concerns about the nature of some videos on its platform despite warnings spanning several months.

Pakistan’s move follows its neighboring nation, India, also banning TikTok last year. New Delhi banned TikTok — and eventually 200 additional apps with links to China — over cybersecurity concerns. Prior to the ban, India was the biggest international market for TikTok, which had amassed over 200 million users in the world’s second largest internet market.

Like India, the government in Pakistan has also sought to assume more control over content on digital services operating in the country in recent years.

While global tech giants, most of which count India as a key overseas market, haven’t made much fuss about New Delhi’s new rules for social media, they banded together in Pakistan late last year and threatened to leave the country over rules proposed by Islamabad.

Through a group called the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), the tech firms said in November that they were “alarmed” by the scope of Pakistan’s new law targeting internet firms.” In addition to Facebook, Google and Twitter, AIC represents Apple, Amazon, LinkedIn, SAP, Expedia Group, Yahoo, Airbnb, Grab, Rakuten, Booking.com, Line and Cloudflare.

Reducing the spread of misinformation on social media: What would a do-over look like?

By Walter Thompson
Kristen Berman Contributor
Kristen Berman is the co-founder and CEO of Irrational Labs, a behavioral research and design consultancy.
Evelyn Gosnell Contributor
Evelyn Gosnell is a managing director at Irrational Labs, a behavioral research and design consultancy.
Richard Mathera Contributor
Richard Mathera is a managing director at Irrational Labs, a behavioral research and design consultancy.

The news is awash with stories of platforms clamping down on misinformation and the angst involved in banning prominent members. But these are Band-Aids over a deeper issue — namely, that the problem of misinformation is one of our own design. Some of the core elements of how we’ve built social media platforms may inadvertently increase polarization and spread misinformation.

If we could teleport back in time to relaunch social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok with the goal of minimizing the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories from the outset … what would they look like?

This is not an academic exercise. Understanding these root causes can help us develop better prevention measures for current and future platforms.

Some of the core elements of how we’ve built social media platforms may inadvertently increase polarization and spread misinformation.

As one of the Valley’s leading behavioral science firms, we’ve helped brands like Google, Lyft and others understand human decision-making as it relates to product design. We recently collaborated with TikTok to design a new series of prompts (launched this week) to help stop the spread of potential misinformation on its platform.

The intervention successfully reduces shares of flagged content by 24%. While TikTok is unique amongst platforms, the lessons we learned there have helped shape ideas on what a social media redux could look like.

Create opt-outs

We can take much bigger swings at reducing the views of unsubstantiated content than labels or prompts.

In the experiment we launched together with TikTok, people saw an average of 1.5 flagged videos over a two-week period. Yet in our qualitative research, many users said they were on TikTok for fun; they didn’t want to see any flagged videos whatsoever. In a recent earnings call, Mark Zuckerberg also spoke of Facebook users’ tiring of hyperpartisan content.

We suggest giving people an “opt-out of flagged content” option — remove this content from their feeds entirely. To make this a true choice, this opt-out needs to be prominent, not buried somewhere users must seek it out. We suggest putting it directly in the sign-up flow for new users and adding an in-app prompt for existing users.

Shift the business model

There’s a reason false news spreads six times faster on social media than real news: Information that’s controversial, dramatic or polarizing is far more likely to grab our attention. And when algorithms are designed to maximize engagement and time spent on an app, this kind of content is heavily favored over more thoughtful, deliberative content.

The ad-based business model is at the core the problem; it’s why making progress on misinformation and polarization is so hard. One internal Facebook team tasked with looking into the issue found that, “our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.” But the project and proposed work to address the issues was nixed by senior executives.

Essentially, this is a classic incentives problem. If business metrics that define “success” are no longer dependent on maximizing engagement/time on site, everything will change. Polarizing content will no longer need to be favored and more thoughtful discourse will be able to rise to the surface.

Design for connection

A primary part of the spread of misinformation is feeling marginalized and alone. Humans are fundamentally social creatures who look to be part of an in-group, and partisan groups frequently provide that sense of acceptance and validation.

We must therefore make it easier for people to find their authentic tribes and communities in other ways (versus those that bond over conspiracy theories).

Mark Zuckerberg says his ultimate goal with Facebook was to connect people. To be fair, in many ways Facebook has done that, at least on a surface level. But we should go deeper. Here are some ways:

We can design for more active one-on-one communication, which has been shown to increase well-being. We can also nudge offline connection. Imagine two friends are chatting on Facebook messenger or via comments on a post. How about a prompt to meet in person, when they live in the same city (post-COVID, of course)? Or if they’re not in the same city, a nudge to hop on a call or video.

In the scenario where they’re not friends and the interaction is more contentious, platforms can play a role in highlighting not only the humanity of the other person, but things one shares in common with the other. Imagine a prompt that showed, as you’re “shouting” online with someone, everything you have in common with that person.

Platforms should also disallow anonymous accounts, or at minimum encourage the use of real names. Clubhouse has good norm-setting on this: In the onboarding flow they say, “We use real names here.” Connection is based on the idea that we’re interacting with a real human. Anonymity obfuscates that.

Finally, help people reset

We should make it easy for people to get out of an algorithmic rabbit hole. YouTube has been under fire for its rabbit holes, but all social media platforms have this challenge. Once you click a video, you’re shown videos like it. This may help sometimes (getting to that perfect “how to” video sometimes requires a search), but for misinformation, this is a death march. One video on flat earth leads to another, as well as other conspiracy theories. We need to help people eject from their algorithmic destiny.

With great power comes great responsibility

More and more people now get their news from social media, and those who do are less likely to be correctly informed about important issues. It’s likely that this trend of relying on social media as an information source will continue.

Social media companies are thus in a unique position of power and have a responsibility to think deeply about the role they play in reducing the spread of misinformation. They should absolutely continue to experiment and run tests with research-informed solutions, as we did together with the TikTok team.

This work isn’t easy. We knew that going in, but we have an even deeper appreciation for this fact after working with the TikTok team. There are many smart, well-intentioned people who want to solve for the greater good. We’re deeply hopeful about our collective opportunity here to think bigger and more creatively about how to reduce misinformation, inspire connection and strengthen our collective humanity all at the same time.

YouTube to expand Shorts to the U.S., add 4K and offline DVR to YouTube TV, launch in-video shopping and more in 2021

By Darrell Etherington

YouTube has a host of big product updates coming this year, and it just detailed a lot of them in a blog post from Chief Product Officer Neal Mohan. Google’s streaming video site plans to expand its TikTok-esque Shorts mobile video creation and consumption tool to the U.S. (it’s currently in beta in India), make YouTube TV a more full-featured in-home cable alternative, add customization and control options to YouTube Kids and more.

Many of the product updates detailed by Mohan are expansions of existing tests and beta features, but there are also entirely new developments that could significantly change how YouTube works for both creators and audiences. YouTube’s focus on monetization and new formats also indicates a desire to keep creators happy, which makes a lot of sense in the context of the platform’s popular new mobile-first competitor TikTok.

Here’s a TL;DR of everything YouTube announced today for its 2021 roadmap:

  • Expansion of its in-video e-commerce shopping experience beyond the current limited beta
  • Expansion of Applause tipping feature
  • YouTube Shorts launching in the U.S.
  • Adding the ability for parents to specify individual channels and videos for their kids to be able to watch on YouTube Kids
  • New features for user playlists on YouTube Music, and making those playlists more discoverable to others
  • A new paid add-on coming to YouTube TV that offers 4K streaming, DVR for off-line playback, and unlimited simultaneous in-home streams
  • Automatic video chaptering for some videos that don’t have creator-defined ones
  • A redesigned YouTube VR experience focused on accessibility, search and better navigation

YouTube has a big year planned, and some of these changes could significantly alter the dynamics of the platform. Making it possible for every creator to turn their channel in a mini shopping channel has a lot of potential to alter what it looks like to build a business on the platform, while YouTube TV’s transformation narrows the gap even further between that service and traditional cable and satellite provider offerings.

TikTok hit with consumer, child safety and privacy complaints in Europe

By Natasha Lomas

TikTok is facing a fresh round of regulatory complaints in Europe where consumer protection groups have filed a series of coordinated complaints alleging multiple breaches of EU law.

The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) has lodged a complaint against the video sharing site with the European Commission and the bloc’s network of consumer protection authorities, while consumer organisations in 15 countries have alerted their national authorities and urged them to investigate the social media giant’s conduct, BEUC said today.

The complaints include claims of unfair terms, including in relation to copyright and TikTok’s virtual currency; concerns around the type of content children are being exposed to on the platform; and accusations of misleading data processing and privacy practices.

Details of the alleged breaches are set out in two reports associated with the complaints: One covering issues with TikTok’s approach to consumer protection, and another focused on data protection and privacy.

Thanks to the amazing @AppCensusInc @Jausl00s & @ValeVerdo, we could assess #TikTok's privacy policy and technical data processing aspects. @beuc notified @EU_EDPB and urges data protection authorities that are investigating #TikTok to act on the findings: https://t.co/4OUeYCnjwU

— Maryant Fernández (@maryantfp) February 16, 2021

Child safety

On child safety, the report accuses TikTok of failing to protect children and teenagers from hidden advertising and “potentially harmful” content on its platform.

“TikTok’s marketing offers to companies who want to advertise on the app contributes to the proliferation of hidden marketing. Users are for instance triggered to participate in branded hashtag challenges where they are encouraged to create content of specific products. As popular influencers are often the starting point of such challenges the commercial intent is usually masked for users. TikTok is also potentially failing to conduct due diligence when it comes to protecting children from inappropriate content such as videos showing suggestive content which are just a few scrolls away,” the BEUC writes in a press release.

TikTok has already faced a regulatory intervention in Italy this year in response to child safety concerns — in that instance after the death of a ten year old girl in the country. Local media had reported that the child died of asphyxiation after participating in a ‘black out’ challenge on TikTok — triggering the emergency intervention by the DPA.

Soon afterwards TikTok agreed to reissue an age gate to verify the age of every user in Italy, although the check merely asks the user to input a date to confirm their age so seems trivially easy to circumvent.

In the BEUC’s report, the consumer rights group draws attention to TikTok’s flimsy age gate, writing that: “In practice, it is very easy for underage users to register on the platform as the age verification process is very loose and only self-declaratory.”

And while it notes TikTok’s privacy policy claims the service is “not directed at children under the age of 13” the report cites a number of studies that found heavy use of TikTok by children under 13 — with BEUC suggesting that children in fact make up “a very big part” of TikTok’s user base.

From the report:

In France, 45% of children below 13 have indicated using the app. In the United Kingdom, a 2020 study from the Office for Telecommunications (OFCOM) revealed that 50% of children between eight and 15 upload videos on TikTok at least weekly. In Czech Republic, a 2019 study found out that TikTok is very popular among children aged 11-12. In Norway, a news article reported that 32% of children aged 10-11 used TikTok in 2019. In the United States, The New York Times revealed that more than one-third of daily TikTok users are 14 or younger, and many videos seem to come from children who are below 13. The fact that many underage users are active on the platform does not come as a surprise as recent studies have shown that, on average, a majority of children owns mobile phones earlier and earlier (for example, by the age of seven in the UK).

A recent EU-backed study also found that age checks on popular social media platforms are “basically ineffective” as they can be circumvented by children of all ages simply by lying about their age.

Terms of use

Another issue raised by the complaints centers on a claim of unfair terms of use — including in relation to copyright, with BEUC noting that TikTok’s T&Cs give it an “irrevocable right to use, distribute and reproduce the videos published by users, without remuneration”.

A virtual currency feature it offers is also highlighted as problematic in consumer rights terms.

TikTok lets users purchase digital coins which they can use to buy virtual gifts for other users (which can in turn be converted by the user back to fiat). But BEUC says its ‘Virtual Item Policy’ contains “unfair terms and misleading practices” — pointing to how it claims an “absolute right” to modify the exchange rate between the coins and the gifts, thereby “potentially skewing the financial transaction in its own favour”.

While TikTok displays the price to buy packs of its virtual coins there is no clarity over the process it applies for the conversion of these gifts into in-app diamonds (which the gift-receiving user can choose to redeem for actual money, remitted to them via PayPal or another third party payment processing tool).

“The amount of the final monetary compensation that is ultimately earned by the content provider remains obscure,” BEUC writes in the report, adding: “According to TikTok, the compensation is calculated ‘based on various factors including the number of diamonds that the user has accrued’… TikTok does not indicate how much the app retains when content providers decide to convert their diamonds into cash.”

“Playful at a first glance, TikTok’s Virtual Item Policy is highly problematic from the point of view of consumer rights,” it adds.

Privacy

On data protection and privacy, the social media platform is also accused of a whole litany of “misleading” practices — including (again) in relation to children. Here the complaint accuses TikTok of failing to clearly inform users about what personal data is collected, for what purpose, and for what legal reason — as is required under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Other issues flagged in the report include the lack of any opt-out from personal data being processed for advertising (aka ‘forced consent’ — something tech giants like Facebook and Google have also been accused); the lack of explicit consent for processing sensitive personal data (which has special protections under GDPR); and an absence of security and data protection by design, among other issues.

We’ve reached out to the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC), which is TikTok’s lead supervisor for data protection issues in the EU, about the complaint and will update this report with any response.

France’s data watchdog, the CNIL, already opened an investigation into TikTok last year — prior to the company shifting its regional legal base to Ireland (meaning data protection complaints must now be funnelled through the Irish DPC as a result of via the GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism — adding to the regulatory backlog).

Jef Ausloos, a postdoc researcher who worked on the legal analysis of TikTok’s privacy policy for the data protection complaints, told TechCrunch researchers had been ready to file data protection complaints a year ago — at a time when the platform had no age check at all — but it suddenly made major changes to how it operates.

Ausloos suggests such sudden massive shifts are a deliberate tactic to evade regulatory scrutiny of data-exploiting practices — as “constant flux” can have the effect of derailing and/or resetting research work being undertaken to build a case for enforcement — also pointing out that resource-strapped regulators may be reluctant to bring cases against companies ‘after the fact’ (i.e. if they’ve since changed a practice).

The upshot of breaches that iterate is that repeat violations of the law may never be enforced.

It's a clear strategy of big tech companies that built their business model on data exploitation, to remain in constant flux, rendering it hard/impossible for cases against them to crystallise and gain momentum

— Jef Ausloos (@Jausl00s) February 16, 2021

It’s also true that a frequent refrain of platforms at the point of being called out (or called up) on specific business practices is to claim they’ve since changed how they operate — seeking to use that a defence to limit the impact of regulatory enforcement or indeed a legal ruling. (Aka: ‘Move fast and break regulatory accountability’.)

Nonetheless, Ausloos says the complainants’ hope now is that the two years of documentation undertaken on the TikTok case will help DPAs build cases.

Commenting on the complaints in a statement, Monique Goyens, DG of BEUC, said: “In just a few years, TikTok has become one of the most popular social media apps with millions of users across Europe. But TikTok is letting its users down by breaching their rights on a massive scale. We have discovered a whole series of consumer rights infringements and therefore filed a complaint against TikTok.

“Children love TikTok but the company fails to keep them protected. We do not want our youngest ones to be exposed to pervasive hidden advertising and unknowingly turned into billboards when they are just trying to have fun.

“Together with our members — consumer groups from across Europe — we urge authorities to take swift action. They must act now to make sure TikTok is a place where consumers, especially children, can enjoy themselves without being deprived of their rights.”

Reached for comment on the complaints, a TikTok spokesperson told us:

Keeping our community safe, especially our younger users, and complying with the laws where we operate are responsibilities we take incredibly seriously. Every day we work hard to protect our community which is why we have taken a range of major steps, including making all accounts belonging to users under 16 private by default. We’ve also developed an in-app summary of our Privacy Policy with vocabulary and a tone of voice that makes it easier for teens to understand our approach to privacy. We’re always open to hearing how we can improve, and we have contacted BEUC as we would welcome a meeting to listen to their concerns.

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