Uber may be global but it is very much the alternative in some parts of the world. One such place is Bangladesh — the South Asian country that’s home to 160 million people — where local rival Pathao is backed by Go-Jek and recently raised $10 million. Now Pathao’s closest rival, Shohoz, has also pulled in investment after it closed a $15 million funding round.
Shohoz — which means ‘easy’ in Bengali — started in 2014 offering online bus ticket sales before expanding into other tickets like ferries. The startup moved into on-demand services in January when it added motorbikes and then it recently introduced private cars. CEO Maliha Quadir told TechCrunch that it is now registering one million completed rides per month as it bids to “simplify” life in capital city Dhaka, which houses over 18 million people and offers limited transport options.
“Bus tickets will remain an important part of our business, [there’s] lots of synergy with ride-sharing,” she explained in an interview. “Dhaka has a super dense population with bad infrastructure, if anything there’s a better case for ride-sharing than Indonesia… there’s no subway and transport is a horrid nightmare.”
Singapore-based Golden Gate Ventures — which recently closed a $100 million fund — led the new Shohoz round. Linear VC of China, 500 Startups and Singaporean-based angel investor Koh Boon Hwee also took part.
The Shohoz ride-hailing app launched in January 2018
Quadir, who graduated from Havard and spent time working in finance in the U.S. and Singapore, told TechCrunch that Shohoz plans to double down on its ride-sharing business with the new round. In particular, the plan is to expand beyond Dhaka soon.
Then it is also eyeing up services that’ll take it beyond point-to-point transportation and into ‘super app’ territory in the style of Go-Jek and Grab, the two Southeast Asia-based unicorns. For Shohoz, that’ll initially include food delivery, but there are also plans to add on-demand services — Go-Jek, for example, offers services like groceries, hairdressers or massages on demand. Ultimately, Quadir plans to add financial services, too, which could mean payments and financial products in the future.
While the super apps of Southeast Asia have all expanded beyond their home markets, Shohoz isn’t looking to go international quite yet.
“It’s in my mind but there’s so much to do in Bangladesh,” Quadir explained. “In Bangladesh, you can really make an impact — it’s a green field.”
As for Uber, Quadir acknowledged that the U.S. firm has done a good job on private car vehicles but she said its Uber Moto service is dwarfed by local alternatives. It appears that Shohoz’s bet on becoming a super app is aimed at emulating the likes of Didi Chuxing in China and Grab in Southeast Asia that ultimately beat Uber using a localized strategy that went well beyond rides. Given that Pathao is pursuing the same strategy, three might well be a crowd in Bangladesh and that could spell difficulty for Uber.
Tesla has been phasing out free unlimited access to its network of fast-chargers for a couple of years now. The last vestige of that program was a referral system that was supposed to expire at midnight Sunday. But it’s been given new life for at least one more day, and perhaps even longer to buyers in Europe.
On Monday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced via Twitter that the referral program would be extended until Tuesday night after customers reported technical problems. The extension is just for new Model S, Model X and Model 3 Performance buyers who receive a referral from an existing owner.
Due to some Tesla owners encountering system issues yesterday, the free Supercharging referral program will be extended until tomorrow night https://t.co/Hbb7KTE685
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 17, 2018
Tesla began phasing out free unlimited access to its supercharger network when it announced that customers who buy cars after January 1, 2017 will have 400 kilowatt-hours, or about 1,000 miles, of free charging every year. Once owners surpassed that amount, they would be charged a small fee.
Tesla then narrowed the free unlimited access to superchargers through a referral program and only to buyers of performance versions of the Model S, Model X and Model 3. The free unlimited supercharger referral program is now set to end September 18.
However, it’s possible that Musk will extend the program to customers outside of North America. A Twitter follower of Musk’s wrote “It would be great if day 1 international reservations of the Model 3 performance could get a shot at this, though.” Musk said the company would see what it could do, before noting that the program needed to be brought to an end because it’s not sustainable long term.
Will see what we can do. Really need to bring this program to an end while being as fair as possible. It’s not sustainable long-term.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 17, 2018
Ending the free supercharging for life is the latest move by Tesla to cut costs and ultimately become a profitable company. The company recently removed two of its seven possible paint options to “simplify manufacturing,” Musk said in a tweet last week.
Moving 2 of 7 Tesla colors off menu on Wednesday to simplify manufacturing. Obsidian Black & Metallic Silver will still be available as special request, but at higher price.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 11, 2018
That path to profitability also requires more people to buy Tesla vehicles.
The company has sent emails in the past week to people who have reservations for the Model 3 offering small incentives in an effort to boost sales. For example, Tesla wrote in an email September 12 that Model 3 orders placed before the 14th in metallic silver or obsidian black metallic would be produced on an expedited basis. Another email sent out September 8 advertised that a limited number of Model 3 rear-wheel drive vehicles on display are available for immediate delivery.
Apple’s iPhone press event will be live streamed on Twitter for the first time, TechCrunch has confirmed. This news backs up an earlier report from last month, which claimed Apple would expand the ability to watch the event to Twitter’s platform, instead of only through Safari and Apple TV or Microsoft Edge on Windows 10, as in the past.
Many had been speculating the event would live stream on Twitter, due to the wording Apple is using in its latest Promoted Tweet about the event.
The tweet asks users to sign up for “updates” on event day and follow the action on Twitter via the #AppleEvent hashtag. While Apple has run Twitter ads before, including to those that remind users to tune in and watch, the tweet’s wording this time had hinted that the action may be live streamed on Twitter.
Instead of saying “follow” the event on Twitter, the tweet says “…watch the #AppleEvent live on Twitter.” (Emphasis ours).
“Watch” implies a live stream, and the tweet itself features an animated GIF as another hint.
Join us September 12 at 10 a.m. PDT to watch the #AppleEvent live on Twitter. Tap below and we’ll send you updates on event day. pic.twitter.com/i9mGHTKhvu
— Apple (@Apple) September 10, 2018
The tweet doesn’t currently appear on Apple’s own Twitter account – something that’s possible with Twitter’s “Promoted Only” ad product, which allows a business to only show a tweet to users targeted in an ad campaign.
Users can heart Apple’s tweet to receive an update about the event tomorrow, it says.
@sarahintampa Thank you. We’ll send a reminder before the #AppleEvent on September 12. Reply #stop to opt out. pic.twitter.com/LJrPP03Ew4
— Apple (@Apple) September 11, 2018
The event kicks off at 10 AM PDT and can also be streamed via Apple TV and Apple’s Events site on the web, as usual. Apple confirmed the Twitter live stream to TechCrunch this morning.
Expanding the live stream to Twitter isn’t an unusual choice for Apple, as of late.
The company has been making it possible for more people to watch its live events online in recent months. For example, this year’s WWDC keynote was the first one Apple allowed Chrome and Firefox users to live stream, too. Before, only Safari or Apple TV users could watch Apple’s events live, along with Windows 10 users via the Microsoft Edge browser.
Lorelei Kelly leads the Resilient Democracy Coalition, a group working to make sure Congress succeeds in the Information Age.
More posts by this contributor
Our ‘modern’ Congress doesn’t understand 21st century technology
The banana republic of big data
Like many modern digital innovations, “crowdsourcing” is a concept borrowed from the commercial tech industry. It is a method to solicit ideas from the internet masses to complete a task or solve a challenge. It seems a perfect fit for Congress, an entire branch of government stuck in the past, losing public legitimacy and increasingly ineffective in policymaking.
Even though it is the world’s most powerful representative assembly, Congress is working at 45 percent less expert capacity than it did in the 1970s. It has remained in this state of dereliction despite accumulating millions more constituents and demands for consideration. Plus, its most important policy bridge to the public — committee hearings — have declined, sometimes by 50 percent or more.
It’s obvious that Congress could use collaborative assistance.
Yet in a weaponized information environment, crowdsourcing appears unproductive and even ominous. Take social media platforms. Five years ago, Facebook and Twitter looked like promising venues for more regular voices to provide feedback in the policymaking process. But given the lack of civic guardrails like moderation or verified identity, that “crowd” too often behaves like a hired mob.
My colleague Nate Wong is familiar with crowdsourcing from his years of consulting. He notes that before throwing our hands up, there are some key elements of crowdsourcing to unpack. “Some people would say that crowdsourcing works, but it’s not as effective because the crowd is not curated well.”
At this time, crowdsourcing does not work for policymaking in Congress because participants are not organized for it and the institution itself lacks a curation method for credible input.
Years ago, author James Surowiecki noted that crowds can be wise if they are diverse, if individuals are independent, and if participants are decentralized with locally specific knowledge. Crucially, there also needs to be a mechanism for aggregating input.
Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch
Congress should be this mechanism. Informed public deliberation should be its forte. But right now, our system does not have the capacity nor the incentives to reap the benefits of collective wisdom. Before we jump to crowdsourcing, we must ask ourselves, how much assistance can be useful outside the institution unless the in-house capacity exists to process it? And, how much can we citizens expect our leaders to take risks on behalf of democratic discourse when flash-mobs, ambush tactics and armies of contempt lurk in every public space? As it stands, Congress does not have the technical infrastructure to ingest all this new input in any systematic way. Individual members lack a method to sort and filter signal from noise or trusted credible knowledge from malicious falsehood and hype.
What Congress needs is curation, not just more information
Curation means discovering, gathering and presenting content. This word is commonly thought of as the job of librarians and museums, places we go to find authentic and authoritative knowledge. Similarly, Congress needs methods to sort and filter information as required within the workflow of lawmaking. From personal offices to committees, members and their staff need context and informed judgement based on broadly defined expertise. The input can come from individuals or institutions. It can come from the wisdom of colleagues in Congress or across the federal government. Most importantly, it needs to be rooted in local constituents and it needs to be trusted.
It is not to say that crowdsourcing is unimportant for our governing system. But input methods that include digital must demonstrate informed and accountable deliberative methods over time. Governing is the curation part of democracy. Governing requires public review, understanding of context, explanation and measurements of value for the nation as a whole. We are already thinking about how to create an ethical blockchain. Why not the same attention for our most important democratic institution?
Governing requires trade-offs that elicit emotion and sometimes anger. But as in life, emotions require self-regulation. In Congress, this means compromise and negotiation. In fact, one of the reasons Congress is so stuck is that its own deliberative process has declined at every level. Besides the official committee process stalling out, members have few opportunities to be together as colleagues, and public space is increasingly antagonistic and dangerous.
Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch
With so few options, members are left with blunt communications objects like clunky mail management systems and partisan talking points. This means that lawmakers don’t use public input for policy formation as much as to surveil public opinion.
Any path forward to the 21st century must include new methods to (1) curate and hear from the public in a way that informs policy AND (2) incorporate real data into a results-driven process.
While our democracy is facing unprecedented stress, there are bright spots. Congress is again dedicating resources to an in-house technology assessment capacity. Earlier this month, the new 116th Congress created a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. It will be chaired by Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA). Then the Open Government Data Act became law. This law will potentially scale the level of access to government data to unprecedented levels. It will require that all public-facing federal data must be machine-readable and reusable. This is a move in the right direction, and now comes the hard part.
Marci Harris, the CEO of civic startup Popvox, put it well, “The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking (FEBP) Act, which includes the OPEN Government Data Act, lays groundwork for a more effective, accountable government. To realize the potential of these new resources, Congress will need to hire tech literate staff and incorporate real data and evidence into its oversight and legislative functions.”
In forsaking its own capacity for complex problem solving, Congress has become non-competitive in the creative process that moves society forward. During this same time period, all eyes turned toward Silicon Valley to fill the vacuum. With mass connection platforms and unlimited personal freedom, it seemed direct democracy had arrived. But that’s proved a bust. If we go by current trends, entrusting democracy to Silicon Valley will give us perfect laundry and fewer voting rights. Fixing democracy is a whole-of-nation challenge that Congress must lead.
Finally, we “the crowd” want a more effective governing body that incorporates our experience and perspective into the lawmaking process, not just feel-good form letters thanking us for our input. We also want a political discourse grounded in facts. A “modern” Congress will provide both, and now we have the institutional foundation in place to make it happen.
Video won’t start rolling on Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s new bite-sized streaming service with the billion-dollar backing until the end of 2019, but talent keeps signing up to come along for their ride into the future of serialization.
The latest marquee director to sign on the dotted line with Quibi is Catherine Hardwicke, who will be helming a story around the creation of an artificial intelligence with the working title “How They Made Her,” according to an announcement from Katzenberg onstage at the Variety Innovate summit.
Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman announce the name of their stealthy mobile video startup
Hardwicke, who directed “Thirteen,” “Lords of Dogtown” and, most famously, “Twilight,” is joining Antoine Fuqua, Guillermo del Toro, Sam Raimi and Lena Waithe in an attempt to answer the question of whether Whitman and Katzenberg’s gamble on premium (up to $6 million per episode) short-form storytelling is a quixotic quest or a quintessential viewing experience for a new generation of media consumers.
Katzenberg also revealed in a LinkedIn post that Quibi would be working on a basketball-related series with Steph Curry’s production company. He wrote:
I announced a new docu-series by Whistle called “Benedict Men” coming exclusively to Quibi. “Benedict Men” will be executive produced by Stephen Curry’s Unanimous Media and will give viewers an inside look at one of the most unique high school basketball teams in America at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, New Jersey.
St. Benedict’s Prep is an all-boys secondary school founded on the core belief ‘What Hurts My Brother Hurts Me,’ and aims to foster a legacy of strong character, community, leadership, and faith. As one of the top athletic high schools with a storied basketball program and the highest graduation rate in New Jersey, the series will follow the brotherhood of young men who seek to balance life in complicated surroundings.
In some ways, the big adventure backed by Katzenberg, the former chairman of Walt Disney Studios and founder of WndrCo, and every major Hollywood studio — including Disney, 21st Century Fox, Entertainment One, NBCUniversal, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Alibaba Goldman Sachs — is the latest in an everything old is new again refrain.
If blogs reinvented printed media, and podcasts and music streaming reinvented radio, why can’t Quibi reinvent serialized storytelling.
Again and again, Whitman and Katzenberg returned to an analogy from the early days of the cable revolution. “We’re not short form, we’re Quibi,” said Whitman, echoing the tagline that HBO made famous in its early advertising blitzes. That Whitman and Katzenberg’s project to take what HBO did for premium television and apply that to mobile media is ambitious. Now industry-watchers will have to wait until 2019 at the earliest to see if it’s also successful.
Jeffrey Katzenberg’s NewTV closes a billion-dollar round, says report
In the interview onstage at a Variety event on artificial intelligence in media, Katzenberg cited Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” as something of an inspiration — noting that the book had more than 100 chapters for its 500 pages of text. But Katzenberg could have gone back even further to the days of Dickens and his serialized entertainments.
And right now for the entertainment business it really is the best of times and the worst of times. Traditional Hollywood studios are seeing new players like Netflix, Amazon, Apple and others all trying to drink their milkshake. And, for the most part, these studios and their new telecom owners are woefully ill-equipped to fight these big technology platforms at their own game.
Taking the long view of entertainment history, Katzenberg is hoping to win networks with not just a new skin for the old ceremony of watching entertainment but with a throwback to old style deal-making. The term serialization here takes on greater meaning.
Quibi is offering its production partners a sweetheart deal. After seven years the production company behind the Quibi shows will own their intellectual property, and after two years those producers will be able to repackage the Quibi content back into long-form series and pitch them for distribution to other platforms. Not only that, but Quibi is fronting the money for over 100 percent of the production.
Katzenberg said that it “will create the most powerful syndicated marketplace” Hollywood has seen in decades. It’s a sort of anti-Netflix model where Katzenberg and Whitman view Quibi as a platform where creators and talent will want to come. “We are betting on the success of the platform — and by the way, it worked brilliantly in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s.” Katzenberg said. “Hundreds of TV shows were tremendous successes and [like the networks then] we don’t want to compete with our suppliers.”
In addition to the business model innovations (or throwbacks, depending on how one looks at it), Quibi is being built from the ground up with a technology stack that will leverage new technologies like 5G broadband, and big data and analytics, according to Whitman.
Indeed, launching the first platform built without an existing stable of content means that Quibi is preparing 5,000 unique pieces of content to go up when it pulls the curtains back on its service in late 2019 or early 2020, Whitman said.
And the company is looking to big telecommunications companies like Verizon (my corporate overlord’s corporate overlord) and AT&T as partners to help it get to market. Since those networks need something to do with all the 5G capacity they’re building out, high-quality streaming content that’s replete with meta-tags to monitor and manage how an audience is spending their time is a compelling proposition.
“We want to work to have video that looks good on mobile [and] ramp up content in terms of quantity and quality,” Whitman said. That quality extends to things like the user interface, search features and analytics.
“We have to have a different search and find metaphor,” Whitman said. “It takes eight minutes to find what you’re looking for on Netflix… We will be able to instrument this with data on what people are watching and using that in our recommendation engine.”
Questions remain about the service’s viability. Like what role will the telcos actually play in distribution and development? Can Quibi avoid the Hulu problem where the various investors are able to overcome their own entrenched interests to work for the viability of the platform? And do consumers even want a premium experience on mobile given the new kinds of stars that are made through the immediacy and accessibility that technology platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Snap offer?
“Where the fish are today is a phenomenal environment,” Katzenberg said of the current short-form content market. “But it is an ocean. We need to find a place where there are these premium services.”
TechCrunch is thrilled to announce that Rappi co-founder Sebastian Mejia, Enjoie founder Ana McLaren and Konfío founder and CEO David Arana will be joining us on stage at Startup Battlefield Latin America for a panel about new wave startups coming out of the region.
What does scaling a delivery startup out of Latin America look like? Where do you find the top engineering talent to build a marketplace app? What are the big opportunities for ecommerce and fintech companies? These are some of the ideas these three founders will speak to.
Sebastián Mejia is a co-founder of Rappi, the on-demand delivery startup worth over $1 billion.
Rappi initially began as a beverage delivery service, but has since expanded into groceries, meals, medicine and tech products to become a solution for last-mile delivery on demand. The company also has a popular cash withdrawl feature, and charges $1 per delivery. The Colombian startup has been backed by some of the world’s most prominent investors like Sequoia and Andreessen Horowitz. In fact, Rappi marked A16z’s first investment into Latin America in 2016. Now, thanks to a huge $200M round that closed in September 2018, Rappi is now worth over $1 billion. Mejia built his career working in the financial and tech sectors in New York before starting his path as an entrepreneur. He currently serves as the CSO and co-founder of Rappi.
Ana McLaren is the Executive Director in enjoei, a fashion focused online marketplace in Brazil.
After graduating from Superior School of Advertising and Marketing (ESPM) McLaren started her career in the ecommerce industry working for Americanas.com as a sales executive. After five years working in retail she switched to the media industry, where she worked for Abril, iG and Google. She started enjoei as a blog while at iG, but eventually left Google to take enjoei to the next level. The company now has 160 employees and $250M in gross merchandise volume in 2018.
David Arana is the Founder & CEO of Konfío, an online lending platform for small businesses in Mexico.
Konfío uses data for rapid credit assessment, allowing owners to focus on business growth. Prior to Konfío, Arana spent over six years at Deutsche Bank, based in New York, NY as Vice President of the Credit Derivatives Structuring division for Latin America. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He was recognized as a National Society of Collegiate Scholar in 2005, a Hispanic Recognition Scholar in 2003, and won the Rensselaer Math & Science Medal and Scholarship in 2003.
With growing funds and an influx of capital available for early stage companies, the potential for Latin America-based startups to shake up big industries has never been higher. The latest generation of tech founders has the potential to be more disruptive than their predecessors. But these new companies face rapidly rising expectations at home and abroad.
The three founders will take the stage in what will surely be a fascinating talk, and you can find the full agenda for the event here. This interview, more panel discussions and the Startup Battlefield competition will take place at Startup Battlefield Latin America on November 8 at the Tomie Ohtake Institute in São Paulo, Brazil. Apply for your free spectator tickets here.
Facebook has announced a relatively small but significant purge of bad actors from the platform: 810 pages and accounts that have “consistently broken our rules against spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior.” It may not seem like a lot, but it sounds like the company is erring on the side of disclosure even if the news isn’t particularly hard-hitting.
These were not, as far as Facebook could tell, part of an organized nation-state effort or political interference campaign, like the Iranian and Russian groups previously highlighted in these ban alert posts. These are pages that use networks of fake accounts and pages to drive traffic to clickbait articles strictly for the purpose of ad revenue.
Facebook and Twitter remove hundreds of accounts linked to Iranian and Russian political meddling
810 can’t be much more than a drop out of the bucket of fake accounts on Facebook — of which there are millions — but the company’s focus right now isn’t individual bad actors but coordinated ones.
A few hundred accounts working together to do a bit of ad fraud produces a sort of digital footprint that might look similar to a a few hundred accounts working together to push a political narrative or sow discontent. And one can turn into the other quite easily.
There are patterns of logins, likes, visits, account creation, and so on that Facebook has been working hard to identify — recently, at least. Although they’ve designed their net to catch the nation-state actors and large-scale operations that have previously been uncovered, small fry like these spammers are getting tangled up as well. Not a bad thing.
“Given the activity we’ve seen — and its timing ahead of the US midterm elections — we wanted to give some details about the types of behavior that led to this action,” the company wrote on its blog.
No doubt they also want to give the impression that there is indeed a cop on the beat. Expect more announcements like this through the midterms as Facebook strives to make it clear that it is working round the clock to keep you, its valuable product users, safe.
IfOnly, a San Francisco-based online marketplace that offers more than 3,000 unique experiences to its adventuresome users, has raised $20 million in Series D funding led by MasterCard, which was joined by other strategic investors, including Hyatt Hotels and Sotheby’s.
It has another new announcement, too: The company has brought aboard a new CEO, John Boris, who spent the previous six years as the chief marketing officer at the personalized photos and products company Shutterfly.
The latter wasn’t necessarily something the company saw coming. Until recently, IfOnly was led by serial entrepreneur and founder Trevor Traina. But in January, Traina — a financial supporter of President Donald Trump — was nominated for an ambassadorship to Austria, and last Thursday, he was sworn in at his Pacific Heights home in San Francisco.
With Traina off to Vienna, Boris will steer the company’s growth, and its newest strategic partners should help.
Both MasterCard and Hyatt, for example, offer the kinds of experiences featured at IfOnly to help make their offerings a bit stickier for customers.
Meanwhile, Sotheby’s, known of its auctions business, has similarly been getting into the business of experiences. In December, anyone willing to pay enough could enjoy an after-hours tour of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy, before being treated to an authentic Venetian dinner. Another experience recently auctioned off by Sotheby’s: the ability to host a private lunch or dinner for 10 at the iconic Philip Johnson Glass House in Connecticut.
Both of these opportunities were expected to fetch in the tens of thousands of dollars — which is in the range of plenty of experiences featured on IfOnly. Among the costlier options available right now on its platform is a private concert with the band Third Eye Blind — which requires that interested parties “request a quote” — and a one-of-a-kind crystal pet pendant by L.A. designer Irene Neuwirth, who, for $21,000, will also carve out enough time to say hello.
IfOnly is also going after a much broader audience — one that may be looking for fresh experiences that won’t cost an arm and a leg. It seems to be making some progress on that front, too.
The company has now attracted two million registered users, and Boris says that roughly 25 percent of them engage regularly with the platform. Two years ago, when we spoke with Traina about the company’s Series B round, IfOnly experiences were only available in San Francisco, L.A. and New York. Now, the platform features experiences in eight cities. It also seems to feature a greater breadth of experiences, and many more affordable options. (Among them: glass blowing in L.A.’s Hermosa Beach, Calif., for $99 per person.)
The company has plenty of competition, of course. Its most daunting rival may well be Airbnb, which is deriving a growing percentage of its revenue from travel services and bookable excursions with locals.
Asked about this, Boris stresses that every experience on IfOnly is “vetted,” suggesting that Airbnb might not be controlling quality as tightly. He also says he welcomes the attention that Airbnb is paying to experiences. “It legitimizes that there’s a multibillion-dollar market here,” he says.
IfOnly has now raised more than $40 million altogether. Other investors in its newest round of funding include the venture firms New Enterprise Associates, Founder’s Fund, Khosla Ventures and TriplePoint Capital.
Pictured above: a photo on IfOnly of a Half Dome adventure hike in Yosemite. Price: $290 per person.
A meek and quiet “no” was Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s refrain as he responded to an onslaught of questions from House Energy Committee Republicans about whether his service shadowbans or is biased against conservatives. A few Democrats like Rep Sarbanes (D-MD) accurately pointed out that the whole point of the hearing was to “work the ref” in an attempt to badger Twitter into an overcorrection that would promote conservatives and make it tougher to enforce its policies against right-wing trolls and conspiracy theorists.
Before the start of the hearing, Dorsey laid out data that showed Democrat an Republican congress members got the same number of impressions per tweet when controlling for follower count — debunking the theory that it suppresses conservative view points. Given the session’s spurious purpose, many of the questions were just different ways of asking if Twitter discriminated based on political ideology, which Dorsey repeatedly denied.
But two interesting points have come out of the hearing so far, which followed this morning’s session with Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg about their efforts to prevent election interference.
Highlights from the Senate Intelligence hearing with Facebook and Twitter
First, Dorsey said that Twitter will release an abuse transparency report in order to quantify harassment on its service and its progress at preventing it. Rep DeGette (D-CO) cited Amnesty International’s “Toxic Twitter” study on harassment of women on the service. She asked if Twitter has demographic-based data on abuse and its response to reports of harassment.
Dorsey responded that “We do have data on all violations that we have seen across the platform and the context of those violations. And we do intend, and this will be an initiative this year, to create a transparency report that will make that data more public so that all can learn from it and we can be held public accountable.”
In May, Facebook began publishing abuse reports detailing the number of nudity/sexual content, graphic violence, and hate speech posts it removed and what percentage were caught by automated systems.
Twitter already publishes transparency reports full of info about requests by the government for private user data or content takedowns, as well as copyright infringement and requests by content owners to suspend pirates. But the public knows little about just how many instances of abuse occur on the platform, how often they’re reported, Twitter’s speed and accuracy with which it responds to reports, and the development of products that could thwart or remove abuse before it spreads. We’ve asked Twitter for details on what will be included.
Second, Dorsey agreed to have Twitter undergo a civil rights audit. Rep Frank Pallone (D-NJ) asked “Will you commit to working with an independent third-party institution to conduct a civil rights audit of Twitter?” as well as make the results public and use them to change policies. Dorsey agreed, while noting that it already does internal audits with its Trust and Safety Board.
Again in May, Facebook agreed to a similar civil rights audit as well as a political bias audit. These will investigae whether Facebook discriminates against minorities or suppresses conservative views. It’s unclear exactly what the scope of Twitter’s audit will be, but we’ve asked the company.
These commitments could give Twitter more ammunition with which to fight back against the accusations that it’s failing to solve the abuse problem and that it preferences liberals — if the results come back positive. But they could also become ways to prove it’s moving too slowly, and any signal of bias no matter how small is sure to be seized upon by the current administration.
WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 5: (L-R) Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey testify during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing concerning foreign influence operations’ use of social media platforms, on Capitol Hill, September 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg faced questions about how foreign operatives use their platforms in attempts to influence and manipulate public opinion. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Yet while Dorsey spent the day saying Twitter is doing everything it can to prevent election interference and fairly enforce its policies, it’s yet to make a quantifiable financial commitment to that drive.
Facebook agreed to double its security and content moderation staff from 10,000 to 20,000 even if that hurt its profits. Yet what Rep Pallone asked how many human content moderators Twitter has, how much they’re paid, and how they’re trained, Dorsey dodged. “We want to think about this problem not in the number of people but in how we make decisions to invest in new technologies” the CEO said.
After years in the red, Twitter posted a record $100 million profit last quarter. It’s time for it to pledge some of those profits, not just more words, towards solving its problems.
Twitter is a Nazi haven for the same reason its CEO claims no bias
RightHand Robotics announced a $23 million Series B this week. That brings the pick and place robotic arm manufacturer’s total funding up to around $34 million, including last year’s $8 million Series A.
The robotics startup has impressed investors with the dexterity and speed of its robotic picking system, having recruited some big VC names along the way. This latest round is led by Menlo Ventures, along with investments from GV (nee Google Ventures) joining the likes of existing investors Playground Global, Dream Incubator and Matrix partners.
Picking and placing has been a difficult robotics problem and one that’s only become more pronounced with the growth of fulfillment centers from the likes of Amazon. The online mega-retailer purchased logistics robotics company Kiva Systems for $775 million back in 2012, and has been rumored to be working on its own pick and place system.
As part of this round, former Kiva CEO Mick Mountz will be joining RightHand’s board of directors. “RightHand is picking up where we left off,” he said in a press release tied to the news. “Customers saw products coming directly to operators for picking and packing and would ask: ‘Why don’t you also automate this step with a robotic arm and gripper?’ But that was a difficult problem that we knew would require years of research and technical breakthroughs.”
RightHand will be using the funding to build out its technical and business teams.
Facebook has been given the go ahead to appeal to Ireland’s Supreme Court against an earlier High Court decision to refer key questions relating to the validity of EU-US data flows to Europe’s top court, the Irish Times reports.
The eventual outcome of what is already years of legal to-ing and fro-ing — in a case that’s colloquially referred to as ‘Schrems II’ — could have major implications for the thousands of companies that rely on transferring EU citizens’ personal data to the US for processing.
Facebook's appeal over referral ruling will involve the Supreme Court deciding if Facebook can appeal a referral in the first place and if the Supreme Court can/ should reverse findings of fact by High Court. Appeal to be heard by end of this year. High Court to be notified.
— Mary Carolan (@MaryCarolanIT) July 31, 2018
The case was originally lodged with the Irish Data Protection Commission by European privacy campaigner, Max Schrems — as a complaint over the legality of Facebook’s use of Standard Contractual Clauses (SCCs) for transferring EU citizens’ data. Although it was Ireland’s DPC that took the decision to go to court — seeking a definitive ruling on the legality of the data transfer mechanism.
The High Court then added its concerns about another mechanism: The EU-US Privacy Shield.
Facebook is disputing the court’s earlier findings, including of “mass indiscriminate processing” of data by U.S. government agencies — under the PRISM and Upstream data harvesting programs (details of which were made public in documents released in 2013, by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden).
In May Facebook was denied a stay against the CJEU referral by the High Court. So the decision by the Supreme Court to hear its appeal sidesteps that earlier block — albeit, the referral to the CJEU stands, and has neither been blocked nor revoked by today’s decision.
However, if the Supreme Court hears Facebook’s appeal before the end of the year — as slated — that’s likely to be before the CJEU delivers its verdict on the referred questions. So there’s at least a possibility that the outcome of the Irish appeal could feed into the CJEU judgment, i.e. when Europe’s supreme court conducts its own assessment of the validity of EU-US data transfer mechanisms.
Equally, there’s no guarantee that Facebook’s arguments will persuade Ireland’s Supreme Court judges there was anything wrong with the High Court’s findings of fact in the first place.
The company’s decision to ask the Supreme Court to hear its appeal against the High Court’s CJEU referral lacks precedent in Ireland — so the company is challenging local case law.
The Irish Times reports that the judges rejected arguments made by the DPC and Schrems against the appeal, deeming it “at least arguable” that Facebook could persuade the court that at least some of the facts under challenge should be reversed.
According to the newspaper, the court granted Facebook leave to appeal on all eleven grounds which its lawyers had presented.
It was also eleven questions that the High Court referred to the CJEU in April — seeking guidance on a range of fine-grained points around whether rights afforded to EU citizens are being adequately protected by the current data transfer mechanisms and regimes, including Privacy Shield and SCCs; how to determine which rules and regulations take precedence across borders and/or where legal priorities clash and overlap; and whether, in cases of rights violations caused by surveillance law, data protection authorities have to suspend data flows or whether they can use discretion to not do so.
The case is based on an even earlier (2013) complaint by Schrems, related to US surveillance law, when he challenged Facebook (and other tech giants) over how user data they held was accessed by US intelligence agencies under US government mass surveillance programs — arguing such bulk access contravenes Europeans’ fundamental privacy rights.
The result, in 2015, was a landmark CJEU judgement which struck down a long-standing EU-US data transfer mechanism (called Safe Harbor).
The European Commission has since negotiated an updated replacement mechanism (aka: The EU-US Privacy Shield) — which is now used by more than 3,400 companies to simplify the process of authorizing transfers of EU citizens’ personal data to the US.
However this replacement is under increasing attack at home, with European MEPs angry at decisions taken by the current US administration which they see as counter to the spirit of the agreement and/or risking undermining actual protections agreed by EU and US negotiators during the Obama presidency.
US lawmakers’ continued backing for warrantless surveillance is one example — when the hope in Europe had rather been for reform of Section 702 of FISA, not the six-year renewal that Trump signed off on.
The Trump administration has also failed to fully enact certain aspects of the Privacy Shield arrangement (two years on from launch there’s still no permanent appointment to an ombudsperson role intended to handle EU citizens’ complaints, for example).
And in June the EU Parliament’s LIBE committee called for Privacy Shield to be suspended by September 1 unless the US comes into full compliance. Earlier this month the EU parliament also adopted a resolution calling for the suspension of the EU-US Privacy Shield.
The annual review of the Privacy Shield mechanism is due to take place in October — so Commission really needs to eke out some substantial concessions from its US counterparts or face further political heat in its own backyard.
Aside from the CJEU, the Commission is the only EU institution with the power to suspend Privacy Shield, although the executive body has shown no appetite for that. Rather its priorities align with ensuring ‘business as usual’ — at least where all important data flows are concerned — vs taking a principled stance in defense of EU citizens’ fundamental rights. For that, Europeans typically have to look to the courts. Or, sometimes, the parliament.
The Irish Times reports that Facebook’s grounds for appeal to the Supreme Court in the Schrems II case include the necessity of the High Court making a reference in light of Privacy Shield — with the company arguing the court is bound by the finding on US law contained within the Privacy Shield decision. (A decision that was, however, made by the Commission, not by an EU court.)
It also argues that the High Court should have taken into account the effect of the introduction of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation on the legal context which will operate when the CJEU comes to consider the reference — with the referral taking place prior to GDPR coming into force on May 25.
The company is also claiming the court made several errors in its assessment of US law — including in its finding of “mass indiscriminate” processing; and that US laws and practices did not provide EU citizens with an effective remedy, as required under the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, for breach of data privacy rights.
We’ve reached out to Facebook and to Schrems for comment on the appeal.
In the wake of TechCrunch’s investigation yesterday, Apple blocked Facebook’s Research VPN app before the social network could voluntarily shut it down. The Research app asked users for root network access to all data passing through their phone in exchange for $20 per month. Apple tells TechCrunch that yesterday evening it revoked the Enterprise Certificate that allows Facebook to distribute the Research app without going through the App Store.
TechCrunch had reported that Facebook was breaking Apple’s policy that the Enterprise system is only for distributing internal corporate apps to employees, not paid external testers. That was actually before Facebook released a statement last night saying that it had shut down the iOS version of the Research program without mentioning that it was forced by Apple to do so.
Facebook pays teens to install VPN that spies on them
TechCrunch’s investigation discovered that Facebook has been quietly operated the Research program on iOS and Android since 2016, recently under the name Project Atlas. It recruited 13 to 35 year olds, 5 percent of which were teenagers, with ads on Instagram and Snapchat and paid them a monthly fee plus referral bonuses to install Facebook’s Research app, the included VPN app that routes traffic to Facebook, and to ‘Trust’ the company with root network access to their phone. That lets Facebook pull in a user’s web browsing activity, what apps are on their phone and how they use them, and even decrypt their encrypted traffic. Facebook went so far as to ask users to screenshot and submit their Amazon order history. Facebook uses all this data to track competitors, assess trends, and plan its product roadmap.
Sources tell us that Apple revoking Facebook’s Enterprise Certificate has broken all of the company’s legitimate employee-only apps. Those include pre-launch internal-testing versions of Facebook and Instagram, as well as the employee apps for coordinating office collaboration, commutes, seeing the day’s lunch schedule, and more. That’s causing mayhem at Facebook, disrupting their daily work flow and ability to do product development. We predicted yesterday that Apple could take this drastic step to punish Facebook much harder than just removing its Research app. The disruption will translate into a huge loss of productivity for Facebook’s 33,000 employees.
[Update: Facebook later confirmed to TechCrunch that its internal apps were broken by Apple’s punishment and that it’s in talks with Apple to try to resolve the issue and get their employee tools running again.]
For reference, Facebook’s main iOS app still functions normally. Also, you can’t get paid for installing Onavo Protect on Android, only for the Facebook Research app. And Facebook isn’t the only one violating Apple’s Enterprise Certificate policy, as TechCrunch discovered Google’s Screenwise Meter surveillance app breaks the rules too.
This morning, Apple informed us it had banned Facebook’s Research app yesterday before the social network seemingly pulled it voluntarily. Apple provided us with this strongly worded statement condemning the social network’s behavior:
“We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple. Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data.”
That comes in direct contradiction to Facebook’s initial response to our investigation. Facebook claimed it was in alignment with Apple’s Enterprise Certificate policy and that the program was no different than a focus group.
Seven hours later, a Facebook spokesperson said it was pulling its Research program from iOS without mentioning that Apple forced it to do so, and issued this statement disputing the characterization of our story:
“Key facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”
We refute those accusations by Facebook. As we wrote yesterday night, Facebook did not publicly promote the Research VPN itself and used intermediaries that often didn’t disclose Facebook’s involvement until users had begun the signup process. While users were given clear instructions and warnings, the program never stresses nor mentions the full extent of the data Facebook can collect through the VPN. A small fraction of the users paid may have been teens, but we stand by the newsworthiness of its choice not to exclude minors from this data collection initiative.
Senator Mark Warner has since called on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to support legislation requiring individual informed consent for market research initiatives like Facebook Research. Meanwhile, Senator Richard Blumenthal issued a fierce statement that “Wiretapping teens is not research, and it should never be permissible.”
The situation will surely worsen the relationship between Facebook and Apple after years of mounting animosity between the tech giants. Apple’s Tim Cook has repeatedly criticized Facebook’s data collection practices, and Zuckerberg has countered that it offers products for free for everyone rather than making products few can afford like Apple. Flared tensions could see Facebook receive less promotion in the App Store, fewer integrations into iOS, and more jabs from Cook. Meanwhile, the world sees Facebook as having been caught red-handed threatening user privacy and breaking Apple policy.
Facebook pays teens to install VPN that spies on them
Google’s also peddling a data collector through Apple’s back door
Senator Warner calls on Zuckerberg to support market research consent rules