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Voice chat is coming to Roblox

By Taylor Hatmaker

As one of the frontrunners in the race to build the metaverse, Roblox is thinking ahead to what virtual worlds really need. And while the platform has had no shortage of growth on its current path — as of July, it boasted 47 million daily active users — it’s looking to chart a course toward deeper, richer virtual experiences that will keep people coming back for years to come.

To that end, Roblox is taking careful but decisive steps toward weaving voice chat into the platform’s core experience. The first move: inviting a group of trusted developers to explore how they can integrate proximity-based audio into the wildly popular experiences that beat at the heart of the platform — from chill, vaporwavey vibe games to pulling off kickflips in a Vans-sponsored skate park.

With spatial audio, users will be able to speak with other people nearby through live voice chat. Roblox sees its new voice product as a natural extension of the way that text chat works now, but instead of text bubbles that pop up over an avatar’s head, visible to anybody around them, players will be able to talk naturally to the other people they bump into.

Say you’re hanging out in a virtual skatepark in Roblox with spatial audio enabled: skaters in the half pipe with you would sound loud and clear, just like they would in real life. But you wouldn’t be able to hear someone walking around on the sidewalk across the street, since they’re too far away. To have a private conversation with a nearby friend, you might peel off and walk toward a store down the block.

“As we think about the future of communication in the metaverse, we think that it needs to be very natural and feel very similar to the way we communicate in the real world,” Roblox Chief Product Officer Manuel Bronstein told TechCrunch in an interview. “But it also can transcend, some of the limitations that physics and space create in the real world.”

Bronstein joined the company in March, leaving Google to help realize Roblox’s particular vision for the metaverse. Prior to hopping over to Roblox, Bronstein worked on product teams at Zynga, Xbox and YouTube — three very different companies that are probably equal parts relevant to his current work.

“If you think about the metaverse as the next incarnation of where you know I could go shopping or I could go to a concert, I could go to school, I think that you need to be relevant to everybody in society and you need to both build the content, the rules, the features that support all of those behaviors,” Bronstein said. “And part of bringing voice to the platform is to ensure that our older audiences have a natural way to communicate.”

Voice chat is very much on the way to Roblox, but that doesn’t mean it will appear overnight — and that’s by design. The company is inviting an initial group of 5,000 developers, all 13 and older, to try out the new spatial voice chat capabilities in a custom-built Roblox community space.

“We’ve put a bunch of neat features in there and places for them to chat and hang out and they’re going to be able to learn from the code that we wrote for that community space… So a few weeks later or a month later they can put that into their experiences and turn it on,” Bronstein said.

Bronstein emphasizes that Roblox will take this process slowly, building new moderation and safety tools in parallel as it goes. The voice rollout will go slowly, starting with the chosen circle of developers and gradually expanding out from there as the company feels confident that it can create a safe enough environment with its moderation tools.

“I think we want to take it slowly and we want to learn as we go through it,” Bronstein said. “We may start, as I mentioned, with the developers. It is likely that right after that, we may go to an audience that is 13+ and park there for a while until we understand exactly if all the pieces are falling into place before deciding if we ever open it to a younger audience.”

To moderate its sprawl of virtual worlds, Roblox uses a blend of automated scanning and a 3,000-person safety team of human reviewers. Like in any social network, players can report, block and mute other players to make their own experiences feel more comfortable. And because half of its player base is under 13, Roblox gives parents options on what kinds of age-appropriate experiences to allow and toggles for things like text chat. If voice chat ever makes its way to younger age groups, parents would be able to disable it altogether.

Roblox’s under-13 crowd comprises a massive chunk of its user base, but a surprising number of older kids and young adults hang out there too. According to the company, 50% of its users are over the age of 13 and it’s seeing the most explosive user growth among 17- to 24-year-olds. Roblox is attracting new users, but its core users are also growing up and the company knows it needs to grow alongside them.

Whether voice chat ever rolls out for younger users or not, Roblox seems well aware that keeping a virtual environment with voice chat feeling safe and friendly is a steep challenge. The company plans to rely on user-initiated reporting as voice rolls out and it’s exploring other tools that could bolster those efforts. The company is looking at a few different tools, including automatically recording a snippet of conversation just prior to a user being reported as a way to capture bad behavior for reviewers. It’s also interested in expanding reputation systems that automatically restrict users who have a certain number of strikes against them.

Much like any social platform, Roblox will likely lean heavily on user reporting, which disproportionately shifts the burden to users on the receiving end of hate and harassment — an unfortunate outcome that no social company has properly dedicated the human resources to solving.

Next on the voice roadmap

Bronstein describes spatial audio as “one component” of Roblox’s vision for natural communication. The next step is integrating a voice chat experience that’s persistent across experiences, letting users who know each other hang out even when they aren’t doing the same thing. For anyone who paid attention to the company’s quiet acquisition of a company called Guilded last month, that won’t come as a surprise. Though Roblox’s work on voice pre-dates the acquisition, Guilded will lay the groundwork for Roblox’s future voice plans.

A Discord competitor, Guilded similarly built out a chat platform for gamers, doubling down on the competitive gaming scene where Discord expanded its horizons beyond gaming. Beyond group voice chat, Guilded gives gamers built-in scheduling and community management tools that ease the hassle of organizing complex online social events, like wrangling 20-some-odd gamers to run raids in World of Warcraft.

“In the near term, Guilded has an amazing road map, we want to just continue with that road map and grow it without any hardcore integration at this point,” Bronstein said.

Into the metaverse

Moderation challenges aside, there’s basically nothing in Roblox’s way. The company went public in March and today it’s worth $49 billion, making it easily one of the most valuable companies in gaming. Investors, content creators and tech giants alike are going all-in on the metaverse, and really, it looks like a pretty safe bet.

Metaverse is a buzzy term right now, but it’s more shorthand than empty hype. When people talk about the metaverse, they generally want to evoke a futuristic vision of interconnected virtual worlds — online spaces that we can move through, socialize and shop within (for better or worse, that last part is key). Whether this will all be in virtual reality or not and when is a point of some debate, but really the interconnected part is the bigger challenge. In the app age, software was siloed by design. But to realize the promise of the metaverse, our virtual selves and our virtual stuff will need to be able to move through online worlds fluidly.

A few companies are ahead of the curve on this, and it’s no coincidence that two of the big ones, Roblox and Fortnite-maker Epic — best known for their virtual worlds stocked with custom avatars, in-game economies and a seamless social layer — are elevating user-created content. Those experiences, and the ability to easily hang out with friends while doing stuff in them and elsewhere in virtual space, may wind up being what the metaverse is all about.

Most adults can hardly grasp the appeal of the blocky, suburban worlds that their kids love hanging out in, but Roblox understands something fundamental about where online life is going. Or rather where we’ll all going — into online worlds like Roblox.

 

Facebook enters the fantasy gaming market

By Sarah Perez

Facebook is getting into fantasy sports and other types of fantasy games. The company this morning announced the launch of Facebook Fantasy Games in the U.S. and Canada on the Facebook app for iOS and Android. Some games are described as “simpler” versions of the traditional fantasy sports games already on the market, while others allow users to make predictions associated with popular TV series, like “Survivor” or “The Bachelorette.”

The first game to launch is Pick & Play Sports, in partnership with Whistle Sports, where fans get points for correctly predicting the winner of a big game, the points scored by a top player, or other events that unfold during the match. Players can also earn bonus points for building a streak of correct predictions over several days. This game is arriving today.

Image Credits: Facebook

In the months ahead, it will be followed by other games in sports, TV, and pop culture, including Fantasy Survivor, where players choose a set of Castaways from the popular CBS TV show to join their fantasy team and Fantasy “The Bachelorette,” where fans will pick a group of men from the suitors vying for the Bachelorette’s heart and get points based on their actions and events that take place during the show. Other upcoming sports-focused games include MLB Home Run Picks, where players pick the team that they think will hit the most home runs, and LaLiga Winning Streak, where fans predict the team that will win that day.

In addition to top players being featured on leaderboards, games have a social component for those who want to play with friends.

Image Credits: Facebook

Players can create their own fantasy league with friends to compete with one another or against other fans, either publicly or privately. League members can compare scores with each other and will have a place where they can share picks, reactions and comments. This league area resembles a private group on Facebook, as it offers its own compose box for posting only to members and its own dedicated feed. However, the page is designed to support groups with specific buttons to “play” or view the “leaderboard,” among others.

The addition of fantasy games could help Facebook increase the time users spent on its app at a time when the company is facing significant competition in social, namely from TikTok. According to App Annie, the average monthly time spent per user in TikTok grew faster than other top social apps in 2020, including by 70% in the U.S., surpassing Facebook.

Facebook had dabbled in the idea of becoming a second screen companion for live events in the past, but in a different way than fantasy sports and games. Instead, its R&D division tested Venue, which worked as a way for fans to comment on live events which were hosted in the app by well-known personalities.

The new league games will be available from the bookmark menu on the mobile app and in News Feed through notifications.

OnlyFans’ explicit content ban should spark a conversation about a creators’ bill of rights

By Ram Iyer
Bremner Morris Contributor
Bremner Morris is CMO/CRO of Rally, a crypto platform that allows creators and artists to launch their own digital currency and build sustainable, independent economies with their fan communities. Previously, he was head of global go-to-market and revenue at Patreon.

OnlyFans’ decision to ban sexually explicit content is reigniting an important and overlooked conversation around tech companies, content guidelines and sex work. However, the implications of this discussion go beyond just one platform and one marginalized group.

It’s indicative of a broken ecosystem for content creators where platforms have outsized control over the ways in which creators are allowed to share content and engage with their followers and fans. In response, creators are decentralizing, broadening their reach to multiple platforms and taking their audiences with them.

In doing so, creators also have the opportunity to define what rights they want to be built into these platforms.

History repeats itself

Creators being shut out of the individual platforms is nothing new. Many are comparing OnlyFans’ policy change to Tumblr’s move to ban adult content in 2018. This has been an ongoing issue for YouTube as well — several communities, including a group of LGBTQ YouTubers, have accused the platform of targeting them with their demonetization algorithm.

Many of these platforms, including OnlyFans, point to their payment partners’ policies as a barrier to allowing certain forms of content. One of the earliest major controversies we saw in this arena was when PayPal banned WikiLeaks in 2010.

While each of these events have drawn the ire of creators and their followers, it’s indicative of an ecosystemwide problem, not necessarily an indictment of the platforms themselves.

After all, these platforms have provided the opportunity for creators to build an audience and engage with their fans. But these platforms have also had to put policies in place to shield themselves from regulatory and reputational risk.

The core of the issue is that creators are beholden to individual platforms, always vulnerable to changing policies and forced to navigate the painful migration of their audiences and monetization from platform to platform.

That doesn’t mean that that all guidelines and policies are bad — they play a role to foster and govern a positive and safe community with thoughtful guidelines — but it should not come at the cost of harming and de-platforming the creators who fuel these platforms with content and engagement. The core of the issue is that creators are beholden to individual platforms, always vulnerable to changing policies and forced to navigate the painful migration of their audiences and monetization from platform to platform.

And, at the end of the day, it takes away from their ability to create meaningful content, engage with their communities and earn a reliable living.

As creators have lost more and more control to platforms over time, some have begun exploring alternative options that allow independent and direct monetization from their audience in a distributed way.

Decentralizing, monetizing

The direct-to-fan monetization model is already displacing the traditional ad-based, platform-dictated model that creators relied on for years. During my time at Patreon, I saw how putting control and ownership in the hands of creators builds a more sustainable, fair and vibrant creator economy. Substack has given writers a similarly powerful financial tool, and over the past few years, there has been an ever-growing number of companies that serve creators.

The challenge is that many of these companies rely on the existing systems that hamstrung the platforms of the past, and have business models that require take rates and revenue shares. In many ways, the creator economy needs new infrastructure and business models to build the next phase of creator and fan interaction.

With the right application, crypto can help rewrite the playbook of how creators monetize, engage with their fans and partner with platforms. Its peer-to-peer structure reflects the direct-to-fan relationship and allows creators to own the financial relationship with their audience instead of relying on tech giants or payment partners as middlemen. Beyond that, crypto allows creators to maintain ownership and control over their brands and intellectual property.

Additionally, many crypto projects allow participants to have a voice in the value proposition, strategic direction, operational functions and economic structures of the project via DAOs or governance tokens. In this way, creators can join projects and set the direction in a way that aligns with how they want to engage with their communities.

Creators are especially positioned to benefit from community-governed projects given their ability to motivate and engage their own communities. We are in the early phases of crypto adoption, and creators have a huge opportunity to shape the future of this paradigm shift. With social tokens, creators can mint their own cryptocurrencies that allow for a shared economy that creators and fans can grow together and use to transact directly across different platforms.

NFTs are another category that have exploded in popularity this year, but the industry is just scratching the surface of the utility that they will have. Creators and crypto projects are figuring out ways to make NFTs go beyond collectibles; NFTs provide an engaging and functional digital tool for creators to give their fans their time (through video calls or AMAs) or access to other exclusive benefits.

Creators are just beginning to discover the power that crypto provides. As the user experience of crypto-based platforms continues to become more intuitive, crypto will become ubiquitous. Before that point, creators should think about what rights they need (and can demand) from the decentralized services they use.

A creators’ bill of rights

Be it within crypto or not, creators finally have the leverage to determine their rights. While I believe that creators should be the ones leading this conversation, here are a few jumping off points:

  • Ability to move freely across platforms: Reliance on individual platforms is at the heart of many of the issues that creators face. By allowing creators to take their fans with them wherever they go, many of the problems we’ve seen even with direct-to-fan monetization can be solved.
  • Direct financial relationships between creators and fans: At the heart of the OnlyFans matter is creators’ inability to own their financial relationships with fans. Even if direct financial relationships aren’t feasible on every platform, creators should have options to own those relationships and dictate their own terms.
  • Creator-led decision-making: Historically, platforms have given creators minimal control over platformwide decisions and policies. Creators should have direct input and even be able to vote on various platformwide measures.
  • Quality over quantity: Platforms and their algorithms are structured to reward quantity and force creators down a path of burnout and hyperspeed content creation. Both creators and fans are looking for a more deep and engaging interaction and incentivizing this behavior will ensure a more vibrant and sustainable creator ecosystem.
  • Low (or zero) take rates: Big tech platforms take nearly 100% of revenue from creators. Creators (and their fans) should be earning the majority of platform revenue.
  • Equity access or revenue sharing: Big tech platforms have built empires on the labor of creators. Instead of dictating ad revenue payout to creators, decentralized platforms should allow creators to have true “skin in the game” by being able to own a piece of the pie outright or benefit from the overall growth of the ecosystem. This alignment of interests will be a major shift from the capital-labor split we see today.
  • Transparency and consultation: Creators should have full view into what they can or can’t do and a seat at the table as policies are being created and adapted. Platforms’ content moderation decisions and the algorithms behind demonetization are often opaque, broadly applied and decided without consulting the creators they will impact. They should also have visibility into the size of the overall revenue pie and their share.
  • Ability for reform and rehabilitation: We are all human, and there might be moments that a creator knowingly or unknowingly goes outside of the guidelines set by a platform. Creating a space for creators to rehabilitate their content will create a more trusting and collaborative relationship between creators and platforms.

We’ll leave it to creators to dictate their terms — they’ve been cut out of this conversation for far too long. That said, I’m confident that Rally and many other key participants in the Web 3.0 ecosystem would be open to supporting this effort to create an environment that works for creators and their fans.

Wildfires Used to Be Helpful. How Did They Get So Hellish?

By Matt Simon
Fires are supposed to reset ecosystems, paving the way for new growth. But human meddling and climate change have turned them into monsters.

Employee talent predictor retrain.ai raised another $7M, adds Splunk as strategic investor

By Mike Butcher

Automation will displace 85 million jobs while simultaneously creating 97 million new jobs by 2025, according to the World Economic Forum. Although that sounds like good news, the hard reality is that millions of people will have to retrain in the jobs of the future.

A number of startups are addressing these problems of employee skills, and are looking at talent development, neuroscience-based assessments and prediction technologies for staffing. These include Pymetrics (raised $56.6 million), Eightfold (raised $396.8 million) and EmPath (raised $1 million). But this sector is by no means done yet.

Retrain.ai bills itself as a “Talent Intelligence Platform”, and it’s now closed an additional $7 million from its current investors Square Peg, Hetz Ventures, TechAviv, .406 Ventures and Schusterman Family Investments. It’s also now added Splunk Ventures as a strategic investor. The new round of funding takes its total raised to $20 million.

Retrain.ai says it uses AI and machine learning to help governments and organizations retrain and upskill talent for jobs of the future, enable diversity initiatives, and help employees and jobseekers manage their careers.

Dr. Shay David, co-founder and CEO of retrain.ai said: “We are thrilled to have Splunk Ventures join us on this exciting journey as we use the power of data to solve the widening skills gap in the global labor markets.”

The company says it helps companies tackle future workforce strategies by “analyzing millions of data sources to understand the demand and supply of skill sets.”

retrain.ai new funding will be used for U.S. expansion, hiring talent and product development.

Medium revamps its Partner Program, launching new eligibility requirements and referral bonuses

By Amanda Silberling

Amid a year of editorial pivots and employee exits, Medium announced today that it will make significant changes to its Medium Partner Program, which allows writers on the platform to monetize their content.

Founded in 2011, Medium launched its Partner Program in 2017. Since then, the platform has paid out $28 million to over 200,000 contributors. Initially, it offered payouts based on how much time Medium members spent reading a writer’s content. For $5 per month or $50 per year, Medium members could read all posts on the platform without hitting a paywall. Plus, part of each member’s subscription was split among the writers they read; so, if a Medium member spent 10% of their time reading one writer’s work, for example, that writer would get 10% of the subscriber’s revenue share.

Medium said that earnings based on read time will remain the same. But now, Medium will offer a new way to make money with the launch of a referral program.

Previously, if a reader converted to a paying member within 30 days of reading a writer’s story, that writer would get credit for the amount of time the reader spent reading their work. Under the new model, Partner Program writers will now have a personalized referral landing page — for any reader who purchases a Medium subscription via their page, the writer will get half of that member’s subscription fee for as long as they remain a paying member, minus the standard 2.9% + $0.30 in payment processing fees. So, if a writer got 100 readers to sign up for a monthly Medium membership through their referral, that would net the writer $227 per month.

However, now it’s more difficult for a writer to join the Partner Program — writers must have 100 subscribers, at least one published Medium story, and they must live within specific geographic regions. Even if a Partner meets the new eligibility requirements, they might lose their status if they don’t publish anything new in a six month period. Still, under the previous structure, just becoming a Partner didn’t guarantee financial rewards — some Partners with smaller followings would make pennies each month. Existing Partners will retain their status through the end of 2021, and if they haven’t reached 100 subscribers by then, they will be removed.

Also, Medium will soon institute a minimum payout threshold of $10, meaning that if a writer makes less than $10 in a month, that pay will roll over to the next month until they amass at least $10.

Medium has been reticent about its subscriber numbers in the past, but CEO Ev Williams told TechCrunch in November that its subscriber numbers were in the “high hundreds of thousands.” In March 2021, Medium had 725,000 subscribers per Axios, but Digiday previously reported that Medium had hoped to reach 1 million subscribers by 2020. As of September, its competitor Substack, founded in 2017, had 250,000 paid subscribers and raised a $65 million series B round two months later. Medium last raised venture funding in 2016 with a $50M series C round.

Platforms like Substack and the newer Ghost pay writers based on how many paying subscribers they have. Medium’s new revenue sharing model similarly incentivizes writers to corral readers to the platform, but Medium takes about 50%. For direct subscriptions to a writer’s individual newsletter, Substack takes 10%, and Ghost takes $9 per month. While Substack or Ghost readers might subscribe to multiple individual newsletters, Medium subscribers pay just one $5 monthly or $50 yearly fee to access all of the website’s content.

The newsletter business is competitive — in June, Facebook launched a newsletter platform called Bulletin with hand-picked contributors, and Twitter acquired Revue earlier this year. Then, last week, Quora unveiled a monetization platform called Quora+, which costs the same as a Medium membership. Similar to Medium, Quora+ subscribers get access to all content any writer chooses to put behind a paywall, and writers are paid based on engagement with their content. But writers can also write paywalled posts on Spaces, which are like user-created publications on Quora — Quora takes a 5% cut of those payments.

Link-in-bio monetization platform Snipfeed raises a $5.5M seed round

By Amanda Silberling

The link-in-bio business is heating up as more mobile website builders compete for a coveted slice of real estate on a creator’s TikTok, Instagram, or Twitter. Linktree leads the space, securing a recent $45 million Series B raise to build out e-commerce features, but Beacons boasts competitive creator monetization tools with just a $6 million seed round in May. Now, Snipfeed enters the ring with its own $5.5 million seed round, including investments from CRV, Abstract Ventures, Crossbeam (Ali Hamed), id8, Michael Ovitz (founder of CAA), Michael Bosstick, Diaspora Ventures, and others.

Linktree has been around since 2016 and has more funding than its up-and-coming competitors. But for creators seeking to monetize their following, these newer platforms may be more attractive to some creators, since they already have built-in tools to help them monetize their followings. Linktree currently supports tipping on the platform for users subscribed to its $6 Linktree Pro platform, but Snipfeed offers a wider range of monetization options; some creators are making over $20,000 per month on the platform, according to CEO and co-founder Rédouane Ramdani.

Snipfeed started as a content discovery platform with 44,000 weekly active users — but when Snipfeed added a creator monetization tool to its platform, it became its most popular feature. So, in February 2020, with little to no funding left, the company completely pivoted to its current link-in-bio business. Since then, Snipfeed has amassed 50,000 registered users, with the user base growing 500% in the last six months (Linktree, for comparison, has over 12 million users).

Based in Paris and Los Angeles, Snipfeed’s 15-person staff is particularly interested in the “long tail” of creators, which it says encompasses over 46 million people.

“Content creator doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be the next Addison Rae or a TikTok star,” explained Ramdani. “It means that you might be a doctor or lawyer, and on top of that, you’re going to have a TikTok where you explain how to file your taxes and that kind of stuff. They have this expertise, and they’re wondering, ‘How can I turn that into a side-hustle?'”

Image Credits: Snipfeed

In addition to a standard tipping tool, Snipfeed allows users to sell digital goods, like on-demand video, ebooks, access to livestreams, and one-on-one consultations. But Snipfeed’s biggest differentiator is its Cameo-like system for selling personalized content. For example, TikToker maylikethemonthh uses Snipfeed to sell asynchronous, video-recorded tarot readings. While asking a single, personalized astrology question costs $5, a more in-depth reading can cost up to $20 or $40.

Snipfeed is free to set up, but if you make sales, the company takes 15% — this percentage is inclusive of any transaction fees. Through Snipfeed’s referral program, creators can make 5% of sales from anyone they onboard to the platform (this comes out of Snipfeed’s commission).

“We decided to go with this model because we really want to have a relationship where we help the creators really make money. We only make money if they make money,” Ramdani said.

If a creator or celebrity were to sell personalized videos on Cameo, they’d lose 25% to the platform. Meanwhile, Beacons takes 9% of sales from its free version, and 5% from its $10 per month version, which offers more customization, integrations, analytics.

Image Credits: Snipfeed

Still, depending on the type of creator, the features that each link-in-bio startup offers might matter more than the cost. Beacons allows users to share a shopping-enabled TikTok feed, which could be huge a money-maker for creators that often share product recommendations with affiliate links, which give them a commission from sales. Ramdani said that astrologers have been particularly successful on Snipfeed, since fans can book a variety of asynchronous services at a wide range of prices. But these features could benefit any creator who can profit from answering followers’ specific questions — a chef could offer recipe ideas based on what’s in a fan’s fridge, or a life coach could make a personalized video if a follower requests advice.

With its $5.5 million in seed funding, Snipfeed plans to build out its e-commerce tools so that creators can sell physical products on their link-in-bio (Beacons and Linktree are also working on this with their recent funding rounds — but Beacons’ and Snipfeed’s seed rounds are small compared to Linktree’s Series B). The company also wants to develop educational content to show its users how to best monetize their platform — if Snipfeed can help its creators make money, then it’ll make more money too.

A close look at Singapore’s thriving startup ecosystem

By Ram Iyer
Toni Eliasz Contributor
Toni Eliasz is the program manager of the Disruptive Technologies for Development Program (DT4D) that supports the innovation and adoption of technology-driven solutions in World Bank Group operations. In addition, Toni works on several digital-economy-related initiatives that support the scaling of digital businesses, stimulate startup ecosystems and accelerate the digital transformation of key industries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Middle East.
Jamil Wyne Contributor
Jamil Wyne is a co-author of the World Bank report “The Evolution and State of Singapore’s Start-up Ecosystem: Lessons for Emerging Market Economies.” He is an adviser and investor focusing on high-impact entrepreneurship in emerging markets and has worked with the World Bank, International Finance Corporation, as well as numerous funds and startups focusing on developing countries.

Singapore is home to fewer than six million people, making it one of the smallest ASEAN countries, in terms of population. It is a young country as well — having gained independence in 1963 — and resides in a neighborhood with far larger economies, including China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. When the country first became independent, its mandate was to simply survive rather than thrive.

So how does a country evolve from a position of relative uncertainty, with comparatively few resources, to one that leads the ASEAN region in venture capital investment and has been home to 10 unicorns?

Countries around the world examine Singapore’s ecosystem from a distance, hoping to learn from, and emulate, its story. The World Bank Group recently published a report, The Evolution and State of Singapore’s Start-up Ecosystem, documenting the country’s experience in building its startup ecosystem and the challenges facing it.

This article presents an overview of the report’s key findings and offers a few key recommendations on what other countries can learn from Singapore’s experience, as well as what Singapore itself can do to maintain progress.

A glimpse into Singapore’s current startup ecosystem

As of 2019, Singapore had over $19 billion in PE and VC assets under management, more than twice that of neighboring Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand combined. In that same year, the country was home to an estimated 3,600 tech startups and nearly 200 different intermediary and supporting organizations (accelerators, co-working spaces, coding academies, etc.) – some which have a multinational presence, such as Blk71, whose Singapore headquarters has been referred to as “the world’s most tightly packed entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

While assessing the size and strength of startup ecosystems is an evolving method, Start-up Genome priced Singapore’s ecosystem at over $25 billion, five times the global median.

Arguably, the most eye-catching hallmark of this ecosystem is its population of current and former unicorns. Collectively, Singapore has been home to ten unicorns, three of which have offered an IPO (Nanofilm, Razer and Sea) and two of which have been acquired – one by giant Alibaba (Lazada) and one by Chinese streaming powerhouse YY (Bigo Live). The remaining five are Trax, Acronis, JustCo, PatSnap, and Grab – the ASEAN region’s largest unicorn to date.

 

The education sector is also prominent in Singapore’s ecosystem. Universities like the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) are deeply embedded into this ecosystem, helping with R&D commercialization linkages, incubation, talent/knowledge transfer, and other areas.

So, how did Singapore’s startup ecosystem come to be?

Numerous factors have contributed to building Singapore’s startup ecosystem, with government intervention and leadership being the dominant driving forces. The government has spent more than USD60 billion over the past several decades to enhance the country’s R&D infrastructure, create VC funds, and launch accelerators and other support organizations.

Trouble in fandom paradise: Tumblr users lash out against its beta subscription feature

By Amanda Silberling

The Tumblr community often refers to itself as the Wild West of the internet, and they’re not wrong. A text post with over 70,000 notes puts it best: “Tumblr is my favorite social media site because this place is literally uninhabitable for celebrities. No verification system, no algorithm that boosts their posts, it’s a completely lawless wasteland for them.”

But like any social media company, Tumblr needs to keep itself afloat in order for its users to continue sharing esoteric fan art, incomprehensible shitposts, and overly personal diary entries hidden beneath a “Read More” button. Yesterday, Tumblr announced the limited beta test of its Post+ subscription feature, which — if all goes as planned — will eventually let Tumblr users post paywalled content to subscribers that pay them $3.99, $5.99 or $9.99 per month.

Image Credits: Tumblr

Tumblr is far from the first social media platform to seek out revenue this way — Twitter is rolling out Super Follows and a Tip Jar feature, and this week, YouTube announced a tipping feature too. Even Instagram is working on its own version of Twitter’s Super Follows that would let users create “exclusive stories.” But on a website with a community that prides itself as being a “completely lawless wasteland” for anyone with a platform (save for Wil Wheaton and Neil Gaiman, who are simply just vibing), the move toward paywalled content was not welcomed with open arms.

Monetization is a double-edged sword. It’s not considered uncool for a Tumblr artist to link to a third-party Patreon or Ko-fi site on their blog, where their most enthusiastic followers can access paywalled content or send them tips. So Post+ seems like an obvious way for Tumblr to generate revenue — instead of directing followers to other websites, they could build a way for fans to support creators on their own platform while taking a 5% cut. This isn’t unreasonable, considering that Twitter will take 3% revenue from its new monetization tools, while video-centric platforms like YouTube and Twitch take 30% and 50%, respectively. But Tumblr isn’t Twitter, or YouTube, or Twitch. Unlike other platforms, Tumblr doesn’t allow you to see other people’s follower counts, and no accounts are verified. It’s not as easy to tell whether the person behind a popular post has 100 followers or 100,000 followers, and the users prefer it that way. But Post+ changes that, giving bloggers an icon next to their username that resembles a Twitter blue check.

A Tumblr Post+ creator profile

Tumblr rolled out Post+ this week to a select group of hand-picked creators, including Kaijuno, a writer and astrophysicist. The platform announced Post+ on a new blog specific to this product, rather than its established staff blog, which users know to check for big announcements. So, as the most public user who was granted access, the 24-year-old blogger was the target of violent backlash from angry Tumblrites who didn’t want to see their favorite social media site turn into a hypercapitalist hellscape. When Kaijuno received death threats for beta testing Post+, Tumblr’s staff intervened and condemned harassment against Post+ users.

“We want to hear about what you like, what you love, and what concerns you. Even if it’s not very nice. Tell us. We can take it,” Tumblr wrote on its staff blog. “What we won’t ever accept is the targeted harassment and threats these creators have endured since this afternoon. […] all they’re doing is testing out a feature.”

Before making their post, a representative from Tumblr’s staff reached out to Kaijuno directly to check in on them regarding the backlash, but there’s only so much that Tumblr can do after a user has already been threatened for using their product.

“I felt like the sacrificial lamb, because they didn’t announce Post+ beforehand and only gave it to a few people, which landed me in the crosshairs of a very pissed off user base when I’m just trying to pay off medical bills by giving people the option to pay for content,” Kaijuno told TechCrunch. “I knew there’d be some backlash because users hate any sort of change to Tumblr, but I thought that the brunt of the backlash would be at the staff, and that the beta testers would be spared from most of it.”

Why do Tumblr users perceive monetization as such a threat? It’s not a question of whether or not it’s valuable to support creators, but rather, whether Tumblr is capable of hosting such a service. Multiple long-time, avid Tumblr users that spoke to TechCrunch referenced an incident in late 2020 when people’s blogs were being hacked by spam bots that posted incessant advertisements for a Ray-Ban Summer Sale.

“Tumblr is not the most well-coded website. It’s easy to break features,” Kaijuno added. “I think anything involving trusting Tumblr with your financial information would have gotten backlash.”

Tumblr users also worried about the implications Post+ could have on privacy — in the limited beta, Post+ users only have the ability to block people who are subscribed to their blog if they contact Tumblr support. In cases of harassment by a subscriber, this could leave a blogger vulnerable in a potentially dangerous situation.

“Ahead of our launch to all U.S.-based creators this fall, Post+ will allow creators to block subscribers directly,” a Tumblr spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Still, the Extremely Online Gen Z-ers who now make up 48% of Tumblr know that they can’t expect the platform to continue existing if it doesn’t pull in enough money to pay for its staff and server fees. In 2018, Tumblr lost almost one-third of its monthly page views after all NSFW content was banned — since then, the platform’s monthly traffic has remained relatively stagnant.

Image Credits: SimilarWeb

A former Tumblr employee told TechCrunch that the feature that became Post+ started out as a Tip Jar. But higher-ups at Tumblr — who do not work directly with the community — redirected the project to create a paywalled subscription product.

“I think a Tip Jar would be a massive improvement,” said the creator behind the Tumblr blog normal-horoscopes. Through the core audience they developed on Tumblr, they make a living via Patreon, but they don’t find Post+ compelling for their business. “External services [like Patreon] have more options, more benefits, better price points, and as a creator I get to choose how I present them to my audience.”

But a paywalled subscription service is different in the collective eyes of Tumblr. For a site that thrives on fandom, creators that make fan art and fanfiction worry that placing this derivative work behind a paywall — which Post+ encourages them to do — will land them in legal trouble. Even Archive of Our Own, a major fanfiction site, prohibits its users from linking to sites like Patreon or Ko-Fi.

“Built-in monetization attracts businesses, corporate accounts, people who are generally there to make money first and provide content second,” said normal-horoscopes. “It changes the culture of a platform.”

Across Tumblr, upset users are rallying for their followers to take Post+’s feedback survey to express their frustrations. The staff welcomes this.

“As with any new product launch, we expect our users to have a healthy discussion about how the feature will change the dynamics of how people use Tumblr,” a Tumblr spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Not all of this feedback will be positive, and that’s ok. Constructive criticism fuels how we create products and ultimately makes Tumblr a better place.”

Tumblr’s vocal community has been empowered over the years to question whether it’s possible for a platform to establish new revenue streams in a way that feels organic. The protectiveness that Tumblr’s user base feels for the site — despite their lack of faith in staff — sets it apart from social media juggernauts like Facebook, which can put ecommerce front and center without much scrutiny. But even three years after the catastrophic porn ban, it seems hard for Tumblr to grow without alienating the people that make the social network unique.

Platforms like Reddit and Discord have remained afloat by selling digital goods, like coins to reward top posters, or special emojis. Each company’s financial needs are different, but Tumblr’s choice to monetize with Post+ highlights the company’s lack of insight into its own community’s wishes.

Percent raises $5M, aiming to become the ‘Stripe for donations’ to good causes

By Mike Butcher

What with the planet collapsing and democracy under constant attack from all quarters – you know, just the usual – one or two members of the global population have, idly or not, wondered if the private sector might want to step up? I mean, as well as shooting billionaires into space. At the same time, even! Luckily, many businesses want to do better. But there are one or two hurdles. Incorporating “purpose” into their digital offering, such as donating to a non-profit at the end of a moving documentary, is harder than it looks. Businesses don’t have the capacity to build in donation software; they can’t continually verify and audit good causes; and processing donations is fraught with legal complications, compliance, and regulatory risk. What is to be done?

Pennies is one organization that bills itself as the digital equivalent of the traditional charity collection box. However, perhaps what we need is… drum roll… an API?

Step forward Percent. Founded in 2017, Percent provides an API allowing firms to customers to donate to good causes, matching a donation made when making a payment, or rounding up a financial transaction, for instance.

It’s now closed a $5M venture round led by Morpheus Ventures, allowing it to expand in the US, as well as its existing presence in the UK and Australia. The UK’s Nationwide Building Society – also an early investor and customer of the product – is a co-investor in the round.

The company says its API-first platform takes care of auditing and compliance processes to prevent fraud and money-laundering whilst also parsing tax-efficient disbursements of funds into 200 countries worldwide. It says 7 million non-profit causes have been added to the platform and it’s vetted the potential recipients of donations.

Henry Ludlam, Founder, and CEO of Percent, said: “Percent was founded to become the global API-first infrastructure behind all giving. This will be the foundation for a better, fairer future of capitalism in which every financial transaction has social and environmental good built into it.”

In an interview I asked him if the pandemic had accelerated the opportunity: “Because of COVID, suddenly now we have brands that are really desperate to build purpose into their business in a way that they just weren’t doing 18 months ago. It’s really been an amazing shift. We’ve just seen a huge shift in what consumers expect from businesses. Consumers expect businesses to build purpose into what they do now.”

He said that the product could be even built into – surprise! – streaming services: “Say you’ve seen a documentary. And at the end of the documentary, you feel particularly moved, like you watched a David Attenborough or something like that. You could then actually be able to quickly and easily build donations into the end of it. So using our API, it would pull up a list of nonprofits, so right there and then the customer could make a donation. We’re also working with a crypto platform where you can round down your transactions and donate to any nonprofit as well. There’s loads of really cool stuff we are working on which is coming out soon.”
 
Kristian Blaszczynski, Managing Partner of Morpheus Ventures, said: “With the events of the last several years, it has become more apparent that aligning brands with purpose is driving consumer behavior and spend. However, today, the process of donating to non-profits is incredibly archaic, manual, and inefficient… Percent’s API-first platform abstracts away all of these complexities and automates the processes, allowing businesses to align closer to their stakeholders and focus on their core business.”

Percent could well be pushing at an open door. Kantar Research says that only 22% of people could name a brand they thought was doing a good job addressing issues such as climate change, plastic waste, and water pollution. On the flip side, 95% of businesses think that “purpose” is at the heart of what they do. The disparity could not be more stark.

Is Percent the stripe for donations? We’re about to find out.

How to Travel Safely During Your Pandemic Summer

By Matt Jancer
Whether you want to fly internationally or cross state lines by car or train, here’s what you should know.

Creator tools startup Spore raises $1M to build closer bonds between influencers and their fans

By Lucas Matney

Few spaces have grown hotter in the past year than the creator economy has, but for all of the new tools available to those starting a podcast, newsletter or storefront, most players have been more focused on building out their own platform opportunity rather than selling full independence to creators.

Spore wants to transform the creator web experience into a Shopify-like basket of tools that users tap into to connect with their audience across a variety of mediums. Spore CEO Austin Hallock is looking to compete with other creator giants for the “link in bio” real estate on social media sites with a white-label option that uses a creator’s own URL, selling an easy-to-build hub focused solely on connecting personalities with their fans.

With Spore, users can manage their audience, communicate with them and analyze what is and isn’t working.

The platform allows for blasting out newsletter updates, podcasts or texts while embedding functionality like storefronts or Discord-like chat feeds into their sites to keep the interactions going 24/7. Creators can also use the tool to convert free subscribers to paying ones, managing the payments flow while also building flows to allow creators to send certain content to their paying fans.

The small startup has raised a $1 million pre-seed round led by SignalFire with additional participation from Justin Kan & Robin Chan’s GOAT, Canaan, Lenny Rachitsky, Nathan Baschez, Justin Waldron and Dave Nemetz, among others.

Spore’s creator platform backend

It’s the first lead investment for former TechCrunch editor Josh Constine in his role at SignalFire (full disclosure: I used to work closely with Josh). Constine started using Spore to build out a site for his regular show on Clubhouse, fellow investor Justin Kan also grew familiar with the team by building out a website for his podcast and YouTube channel.

“I chose Spore as my first lead investment as a VC because it solves creators’ biggest problems by giving them their own white-labeled website they control, and combining all the best content, communication, analytics, and payment tools so creators can spend their time making art instead of being web developers,” Constine tells TechCrunch.

Spore is certainly a small-scale operation at the moment with 4 full-time employees, though they’re hoping to grow their team with this raise. All of these features are in their early MVP stages, but Hallock wants his company to continue building out its utility to creators so that they can build a direct connection with their fans, one that isn’t obfuscated by algorithms..

“We definitely want to give creators ownership,” Hallock tells TechCrunch. “Today, you’re promoting your Linktree page or Patreon rather than just promoting your own brand… We don’t want it to be about Spore.”

EU is now investigating Google’s adtech over antitrust concerns

By Natasha Lomas

EU antitrust authorities are finally taking a broad and deep look into Google’s adtech stack and role in the online ad market — confirming today that they’ve opened a formal investigation.

Google has already been subject to three major EU antitrust enforcements over the past five years — against Google Shopping (2017), Android (2018) and AdSense (2019). But the European Commission has, until now, avoided officially wading into the broader issue of its role in the adtech supply chain. (The AdSense investigation focused on Google’s search ad brokering business, though Google claims the latest probe represents that next stage of that 2019 enquiry, rather than stemming from a new complaint).

The Commission said that the new Google antitrust investigation will assess whether it has violated EU competition rules by “favouring its own online display advertising technology services in the so called ‘ad tech’ supply chain, to the detriment of competing providers of advertising technology services, advertisers and online publishers”.

Display advertising spending in the EU in 2019 was estimated to be approximately €20BN, per the Commission.

“The formal investigation will notably examine whether Google is distorting competition by restricting access by third parties to user data for advertising purposes on websites and apps, while reserving such data for its own use,” it added in a press release.

Earlier this month, France’s competition watchdog fined Google $268M in a case related to self-preferencing within the adtech market — which the watchdog found constituted an abuse by Google of a dominant position for ad servers for website publishers and mobile apps.

In that instance Google sought a settlement — proposing a number of binding interoperability agreements which the watchdog accepted. So it remains to be seen whether the tech giant may seek to push for a similar outcome at the EU level.

There is one cautionary signal in that respect in the Commission’s press release which makes a point of flagging up EU data protection rules — and highlighting the need to take into account the protection of “user privacy”.

That’s an interesting side-note for the EU’s antitrust division to include, given some of the criticism that France’s Google adtech settlement has attracted — for risking cementing abusive user exploitation (in the form of adtech privacy violations) into the sought for online advertising market rebalancing.

Or as Cory Doctorow neatly explains it in this Twitter thread: “The last thing we want is competition in practices that harm the public.”

Aka, unless competition authorities wise up to the data abuses being perpetuated by dominant tech platforms — such as through enlightened competition authorities engaging in close joint-working with privacy regulators (in the EU this is, at least, possible since there’s regulation in both areas) — there’s a very real risk that antitrust enforcement against Big (ad)Tech could simply supercharge the user-hostile privacy abuses that surveillance giants have only been able to get away with because of their market muscle.

So, tl;dr, ill-thought through antitrust enforcement actually risks further eroding web users’ rights… and that would indeed be a terrible outcome. (Unless you’re Google; then it would represent successfully playing one regulator off against another at the expense of users.)

The last thing we want is competition in practices that harm the public – we don't want companies to see who can commit the most extensive human rights abuses at the lowest costs. That's not something we want to render more efficient.https://t.co/qDPr6OtP90

12/

— Cory Doctorow (@doctorow) June 8, 2021

The need for competition and privacy regulators to work together to purge Big Tech market abuses has become an active debate in Europe — where a few pioneering regulators (like German’s FCO) are ahead of the pack.

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) also recently put out a joint statement — laying out their conviction that antitrust and data protection regulators must work together to foster a thriving digital economy that’s healthy across all dimensions — i.e. for competitors, yes, but also for consumers.

A recent CMA proposed settlement related to Google’s planned replacement for tracking cookies — aka ‘Privacy Sandbox’, which has also been the target of antitrust complaints by publishers — was notable in baking in privacy commitments and data protection oversight by the ICO in addition to the CMA carrying out its competition enforcement role.

It’s fair to say that the European Commission has lagged behind such pioneers in appreciating the need for synergistic regulatory joint-working, with the EU’s antitrust chief roundly ignoring — for example — calls to block Google’s acquisition of Fitbit over the data advantage it would entrench, in favor of accepting a few ‘concessions’ to waive the deal through.

So it’s interesting to see the EU’s antitrust division here and now — at the very least — virtue signalling an awareness of the problem of regional regulators approaching competition and privacy as if they exist in firewalled silos.

Whether this augurs the kind of enlightened regulatory joint working — to achieve holistically healthy and dynamic digital markets — which will certainly be essential if the EU is to effectively grapple with surveillance capitalism very much remains to be seen. But we can at least say that the inclusion of the below statement in an EU antitrust division press release represents a change of tone (and that, in itself, looks like a step forward…):

“Competition law and data protection laws must work hand in hand to ensure that display advertising markets operate on a level playing field in which all market participants protect user privacy in the same manner.”

Returning to the specifics of the EU’s Google adtech probe, the Commission says it will be particularly examining:

  • The obligation to use Google’s services Display & Video 360 (‘DV360′) and/or Google Ads to purchase online display advertisements on YouTube.
  • The obligation to use Google Ad Manager to serve online display advertisements on YouTube, and potential restrictions placed by Google on the way in which services competing with Google Ad Manager are able to serve online display advertisements on YouTube.
  • The apparent favouring of Google’s ad exchange “AdX” by DV360 and/or Google Ads and the potential favouring of DV360 and/or Google Ads by AdX.
  • The restrictions placed by Google on the ability of third parties, such as advertisers, publishers or competing online display advertising intermediaries, to access data about user identity or user behaviour which is available to Google’s own advertising intermediation services, including the Doubleclick ID.
  • Google’s announced plans to prohibit the placement of third party ‘cookies’ on Chrome and replace them with the “Privacy Sandbox” set of tools, including the effects on online display advertising and online display advertising intermediation markets.
  • Google’s announced plans to stop making the advertising identifier available to third parties on Android smart mobile devices when a user opts out of personalised advertising, and the effects on online display advertising and online display advertising intermediation markets.

Commenting on the investigation in a statement, Commission EVP and competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, added:

“Online advertising services are at the heart of how Google and publishers monetise their online services. Google collects data to be used for targeted advertising purposes, it sells advertising space and also acts as an online advertising intermediary. So Google is present at almost all levels of the supply chain for online display advertising. We are concerned that Google has made it harder for rival online advertising services to compete in the so-called ad tech stack. A level playing field is of the essence for everyone in the supply chain. Fair competition is important — both for advertisers to reach consumers on publishers’ sites and for publishers to sell their space to advertisers, to generate revenues and funding for content. We will also be looking at Google’s policies on user tracking to make sure they are in line with fair competition.”

Contacted for comment on the Commission investigation, a Google spokesperson sent us this statement:

“Thousands of European businesses use our advertising products to reach new customers and fund their websites every single day. They choose them because they’re competitive and effective. We will continue to engage constructively with the European Commission to answer their questions and demonstrate the benefits of our products to European businesses and consumers.”

Google also claimed that publishers keep around 70% of the revenue when using its products — saying in some instances it can be more.

It also suggested that publishers and advertisers often use multiple technologies simultaneously, further claiming that it builds its own technologies to be interoperable with more than 700 rival platforms for advertisers and 80 rival platforms for publishers.

Adtech ‘data breach’ GDPR complaint is headed to court in EU

By Natasha Lomas

New York-based IAB Tech Labs, a standards body for the digital advertising industry, is being taken to court in Germany by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) in a piece of privacy litigation that’s targeted at the high speed online ad auction process known as real-time bidding (RTB).

While that may sound pretty obscure the case essentially loops in the entire ‘data industrial complex’ of adtech players, large and small, which make money by profiling Internet users and selling access to their attention — from giants like Google and Facebook to other household names (the ICCL’s PR also name-checks Amazon, AT&T, Twitter and Verizon, the latter being the parent company of TechCrunch — presumably because all participate in online ad auctions that can use RTB); as well as the smaller (typically non-household name) adtech entities and data brokers which also also involved in handling people’s data to run high velocity background auctions that target behavioral ads at web users.

The driving force behind the lawsuit is Dr Johnny Ryan, a former adtech insider turned whistleblower who’s now a senior fellow a the ICCL — and who has dubbed RTB the biggest data breach of all time.

He points to the IAB Tech Lab’s audience taxonomy documents which provide codes for what can be extremely sensitive information that’s being gathered about Internet users, based on their browsing activity, such as political affiliation, medical conditions, household income, or even whether they may be a parent to a special needs child.

The lawsuit contends that other industry documents vis-a-vis the ad auction system confirm there are no technical measures to limit what companies can do with people’s data, nor who they might pass it on to.

The lack of security inherent to the RTB process also means other entities not directly involved in the adtech bidding chain could potentially intercept people’s information — when it should, on the contrary, be being protected from unauthorized access, per EU law…

Ryan and others have been filing formal complaints against RTB security issue for years, arguing the system breaches a core principle of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — which requires that personal data be “processed in a manner that ensures appropriate security… including protection against unauthorised or unlawful processing and against accidental loss” — and which, they contend, simply isn’t possible given how RTB functions.

The problem is that Europe’s data protection agencies have failed to act. Which is why Ryan, via the ICCL, has decided to take the more direct route of filing a lawsuit.

“There aren’t many DPAs around the union that haven’t received evidence of what I think is the biggest data breach of all time but it started with the UK and Ireland — neither of which took, I think it’s fair to say, any action. They both said they were doing things but nothing has changed,” he tells TechCrunch, explaining why he’s decided to take the step of litigating to try to enforce Internet users’ data protection rights.

“I want to take the most efficient route to protection people’s rights around data,” he adds.

Per Ryan, the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) has still not sent a statement of issues relating to the RTB complaint he lodged with them back in 2018 — so years later. In May 2019 the DPC did announce it was opening a formal investigation into Google’s adtech, following the RTB complaints, but the case remains open and unresolved. (We’ve contacted the DPC with questions about its progress on the investigation and will update with any response.)

Since the GDPR came into application in Europe in May 2018 there has been growth in privacy lawsuits  — including class action style suits — so litigation funders may be spying an opportunity to cash in on the growing enforcement gap left by resource-strapped and, well, risk-averse data protection regulators.

A similar complaint about RTB lodged with the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) also led to a lawsuit being filed last year — albeit in that case it was against the watchdog itself for failing to take any action. (The ICO’s last missive to the adtech industry told it to — uhhhh — expect audits.)

“The GDPR was supposed to create a situation where the average person does not need to wear a tin-foil hat, they do not need to be paranoid or take action to become well informed. Instead, supervisory authorities protect them. And these supervisory authorities — paid for by the tax payer — have very strong powers. They can gain admission to any documents and any premises. It’s not about fines I don’t think, just. They can tell the biggest most powerful companies in the world to stop doing what they’re doing with our data. That’s the ultimate power,” says Ryan. “So GDPR sets up these guardians — these potentially very empowered guardians — but they’ve not used those powers… That’s why we’re acting.”

“I do wish that I’d litigated years ago,” he adds. “There’s lots of reasons why I didn’t do that — I do wish, though, that this litigation was unnecessary because supervisory authorities protected me and you. But they didn’t. So now, as Irish politics like to say in the middle of a crisis, we are where we are. But this is — hopefully — several nails in the coffin [of RTB].”

We are going to court. Our lawsuit takes aim at Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Verizon, AT&T and the entire online advertising/tracking industry by challenging industry rules set by IAB TechLab. ⁦@ICCLtweethttps://t.co/D7NkyAILQg

— Johnny Ryan (@johnnyryan) June 16, 2021

The lawsuit has been filed in Germany as Ryan says they’ve been able to establish that IAB Tech Labs — which is NY-based and has no official establishment in Europe — has representation (a consultancy it hired) that’s based in the country. Hence they believe there is a clear route to litigate the case at the Landgerichte, Hamburg.

While Ryan has been indefatigably sounding the alarm about RTB for years he’s prepared to clock up more mileage going direct through the courts to see the natter through.

And to keep hammering home his message to the adtech industry that it must clean up its act and that recent attempts to maintain the privacy-hostile status quo — by trying to rebrand and repackage the same old data shuffle under shiny new claims of ‘privacy’ and ‘responsibility’ — simply won’t wash. So the message is really: Reform or die.

“This may very well end up at the ECJ [European Court of Justice]. And that would take a few years but long before this ends up at the ECJ I think it’ll be clear to the industry now that it’s time to reform,” he adds.

IAB Tech Labs has been contacted for comment on the ICCL’s lawsuit.

Ryan is by no means the only person sounding the alarm over adtech. Last year the European Parliament called for tighter controls on behavioral ads to be baked into reforms of the region’s digital rules — calling for regulation to favor less intrusive, contextual forms of advertising which do not rely on mass surveillance of Internet users.

While even Google has said it wants to depreciate support for tracking cookies in favor of a new stack of technology proposals that it dubs ‘Privacy Sandbox’ (although its proposed alternative — targeting groups of Internet users based on interests derived from tracking their browsing habits — has been criticized as potentially amplifying problems of predatory and exploitative ad targeting, so may not represent a truly clean break with the rights-hostile adtech status quo).

The IAB is also facing another major privacy law challenge in Europe — where complaints against a widely used framework it designed for websites to obtain Internet users’ consent to being tracked for ads online led to scrutiny by Belgium’s data protection agency. And, last year, its investigatory division found that the IAB Europe’s Transparency and Consent Framework (TCF) fails to meet the required standards of data protection under the GDPR.

The case went in front of the litigation chamber last week.

A verdict — and any enforcement action by the Belgian DPA over the IAB Europe’s TCF — remains pending.

Amid controversy, Dispo confirms Series A funding, high-profile advisors, and investors

By Amanda Silberling

It’s only been nine months since Dispo rebranded from David’s Disposables. But the vintage-inspired photo sharing app has experienced a whiplash of ups and downs, mostly due to the brand’s original namesake, YouTuber David Dobrik.

Like Clubhouse, Dispo was one of this year’s most hyped up new social apps, requiring an invite from an existing member to join. On March 9, when the company said “goodbye waitlist” and opened the app up to any iOS user, Dispo looked poised to be a worthy competitor to photo-sharing behemoths like Instagram. But, just one week later, Business Insider reported on sexual assault allegations regarding a member of Vlog Squad, a YouTube prank ensemble headed by Dispo co-founder David Dobrik. Dobrik had posted a now-deleted vlog about the night of the alleged assault, joking, “we’re all going to jail” at the end of the video.

It was only after venture capital firm Spark Capital decided to “sever all ties” with Dispo that Dobrik stepped down from the company board. In a statement made to TechCrunch at the time, Dispo said, “Dispo’s team, product, and most importantly — our community — stand for building a diverse, inclusive and empowering world.”

Dispo capitalizes on Gen Z and young millennial nostalgia for a time before digital photography, when we couldn’t take thirty selfies before choosing which one to post. On Dispo, when you take a photo, you have to wait until 9 AM the following day for the image to “develop,” and only then can you view and share it.

In both February and March of this year, the app hit the top ten of the Photo & Video category in the U.S. App Store. Despite the backlash against Dobrik, which resulted in the app’s product page being bombarded with negative comments, the app still hit the top ten in Germany, Japan, and Brazil, according to their press release. Dispo reportedly has not yet expended any international marketing resources.

Now, early investors in Dispo like Spark Capital, Seven Seven Six, and Unshackled have committed to donate any potential profits from their investment in the app to organizations working with survivors of sexual assault. Though Axios reported the app’s $20M Series A funding news in February, Dispo put out a press release this morning confirming the financing event. Though they intend to donate profits from the app, Seven Seven Six and Unshackled Ventures remain listed as investors, but Spark Capital is not. Other notable names involved in the project include high-profile photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Raven B. Varona, who has worked with artists like Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Actresses Cara Delevingne and Sofía Vergara, as well as NBA superstars Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, are also involved with the app as investors or advisors.

Dobrik’s role in the company was largely as a marketer – CEO Daniel Liss co-founded the app with Dobrik and has been leading the team since the beginning. After Dobrik’s departure, the Dispo team – which remains under twenty members strong – took a break from communications and product updates on the app. It’s expected that after today’s funding confirmation, the app will continue to roll out updates.

Dispo is quick to shift focus to the work of their team, which they call “some of the most talented, diverse leaders in consumer tech.” With the capital from this funding round, they hope to hire more staff to become more competitive with major social media apps with expansive teams, like Instagram and TikTok, and to experiment with machine learning. They will also likely have some serious marketing to do, now that their attempt at influencer marketing has failed massively.

Now more than ever, Dispo is promoting the app as a mental health benefit, hoping to shift the tide away from manufactured perfectionism toward more authentic social media experiences.

“A new era of start ups must emerge to end the scourge of big tech’s destruction of our political fabric and willful ignorance of its impact on body dysmorphia and mental health,” CEO Daniel Liss writes in a Substack post titled Dispo 2.0. “Imagine a world where Dispo is the social network of choice for every teen and college student in the world. How different a world would that be?”

But, for an app that propelled to success off the fame of a YouTuber with a history of less than savory behavior, that messaging might fall flat.

According to Sensor Tower, the highest Dispo has ever ranked in the Photo & Video category on the U.S. App Store was in January 2020, when it was still called David’s Disposables. The app ranked No. 1 in that category from January 7 to January 9, and on January 8, it reached No. 1 among all free iPhone apps.

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