Google tweaks Android licensing terms in Europe to allow Google app unbundling — for a fee

Google has announced changes to the licensing model for its Android mobile operating system in Europe,  including introducing a fee for licensing some of its own brand apps, saying it’s doing so to comply with a major European antitrust ruling this summer. In July the region’s antitrust regulators hit Google with a recordbreaking $5BN fine for […]

Google has announced changes to the licensing model for its Android mobile operating system in Europe,  including introducing a fee for licensing some of its own brand apps, saying it’s doing so to comply with a major European antitrust ruling this summer.

In July the region’s antitrust regulators hit Google with a recordbreaking $5BN fine for violations pertaining to Android, finding the company had abused the dominance of the platform by requiring manufacturers pre-install other Google apps in order to license its popular Play app store. 

Regulators also found Google had made payments to manufacturers and mobile network operators in exchange for exclusively pre-installing Google Search on their devices, and used Play store licensing to prevent manufacturers from selling devices based on Android forks.

Google disputes the Commission’s findings, and last week filed its appeal — a legal process that could take years. But in the meanwhile it’s making changes to how it licenses Android in Europe to avoid the risk of additional penalties heaped on top of the antitrust fine.

Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google’s senior vice president of platforms & ecosystems, revealed the new licensing options in a blog post published today.

Under updated “compatibility agreements”, he writes that mobile device makers will be able to build and sell Android devices intended for the European Economic Area (EEA) both with and without Google mobile apps preloaded — something Google’s same ‘compatibility’ contracts restricted them from doing before, when it was strictly either/or (either you made Android forks, or you made Android devices with Google apps — not both).

“Going forward, Android partners wishing to distribute Google apps may also build non-compatible, or forked, smartphones and tablets for the European Economic Area (EEA),” confirms Lockheimer.

However the company is also changing how it licenses the full Android bundle — which previously required OEMs to load devices with the Google mobile application suite, Google Search and the Chrome browser in order to be able to offer the popular Play Store — by introducing fees for OEMs wanting to pre-load a subset of those same apps under “a new paid licensing agreement for smartphones and tablets shipped into the EEA”.

Though Google stresses there will be no charge for using the Android platform itself. (So a pure fork without any Google services preloaded still wouldn’t require a fee.)

Google also appears to be splitting out Google Search and Chrome from the rest of the Google apps in its mobile suite (which traditionally means stuff like YouTube, the Play Store, Gmail, Google Maps, although Lockheimer’s blog post does not make it clear which exact apps he’s talking about) — letting OEMs selectively unbundle some Google apps, albeit potentially for a fee, depending on the apps in question.

“[D]evice manufacturers will be able to license the Google mobile application suite separately from the Google Search App or the Chrome browser,” is what Lockheimer unilluminatingly writes.

Perhaps Google wants future unbundled Android forks to still be able to have Google Search or Chrome, even if they don’t have the Play store, but it’s really not at all clear which configurations of Google apps will be permitted under the new licensing terms, and which won’t.

“Since the pre-installation of Google Search and Chrome together with our other apps helped us fund the development and free distribution of Android, we will introduce a new paid licensing agreement for smartphones and tablets shipped into the EEA. Android will remain free and open source,” Lockheimer adds, without specifying what the fees will be either. 

“We’ll also offer new commercial agreements to partners for the non-exclusive pre-installation and placement of Google Search and Chrome. As before, competing apps may be pre-installed alongside ours,” he continues to complete his trio of poorly explained licensing changes.

We’ve asked Google to clarify the various permitted and not permitted app configurations, as well as which apps will require a fee (and which won’t), and how much the fees will be, and will update this post with any response.

The devil in all those details should become clear soon though, as Google says the new licensing options will come into effect on October 29 for all new (Android based) smartphones and tablets launched in the EEA.

Facebook rolls out checks for UK political ads

Facebook has announced it rolled out a system of checks on political ads run on its platform in the UK which requires advertisers to verify their identity and location to try to make it harder for foreign actors to meddle in domestic elections and referenda. This follows similar rollouts of political ad transparency tools in […]

Facebook has announced it rolled out a system of checks on political ads run on its platform in the UK which requires advertisers to verify their identity and location to try to make it harder for foreign actors to meddle in domestic elections and referenda.

This follows similar rollouts of political ad transparency tools in the U.S. and Brazil.

From today, Facebook said it will record and display information about who paid for political ads to run on its platform in the UK within an Ad library — including retaining the ad itself — for “up to seven years”.

It will also badge these ads with a “Paid for by” disclaimer.

So had the company had this system up and running during the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum, the Canadian data firm AIQ would, presumably, have had to pass its political advertiser verification process, and display “Paid for by” Vote Leave/BeLeave/Veterans for Britain badges on scores of pro-Brexit ads… If it didn’t just get barred for not being based in the UK in the first place.

(How extensively Facebook will be checking up on political advertisers’ ‘paid for by’ claims is one pertinent question to ask, and we have asked; otherwise this looks mostly like a badging exercise — which requires other doing the work to check/police claims… ).

Ditto during Ireland’s referendum earlier this year, on overturning a constitutional ban on abortion. In that instance Facebook decided to suspend all foreign-funded ads a few weeks before the vote because it did not yet have a political ad check system in place.

In the UK, the new requirement on political advertisers applies to “all advertisers wanting to run ads in the UK that reference political figures, political parties, elections, legislation before Parliament and past referenda that are the subject of national debate”, Facebook said.

“We see this as an important part of ensuring electoral integrity and helping people understand who they are engaging with,” said Richard Allan, VP of global public policy, and Rob Leathern, director of product management in a blog post announcing the launch. “We recognise that this is going to be a significant change for people who use our service to publish this type of ad. While the vast majority of ads on Facebook are run by legitimate organisations, we know that there are bad actors that try to misuse our platform. By having people verify who they are, we believe it will help prevent abuse.”

UK lawmakers have been highly critical of Facebook’s response to their attempts to investigate how social media ads were used and mis-used during the UK’s 2016 EU referendum.

This summer the parliamentary committee that has been investigating online disinformation called for a levy on social media to ‘defend democracy’. And earlier this year Facebook told the same committee it would roll out an authentication process for political advertisers in time for the UK’s local elections, in May 2019 — with CTO Mike Schroepfer telling MPs the company believes “radical transparency” can fix concern about the societal and democratic impacts of divisive social media ads.

In response, MPs quizzed Schroepfer on whether Facebook’s political ad transparency tool would be so radical as to include “targeting data” in the disclosures — i.e. “will I understand not just who the advertiser was and what other adverts they’d run but why they’d chose to advertise to me”.

The Facebook CTO’s response in April suggested the company did not plan to go that far. And, indeed, Facebook says now that the details it will disclose in the Ad library are only: “A range of the ad’s budget and number of people reached, and the other ads that Page is running.”

So not, seemingly, any actual targeting data: Aka the specific reasons a particular user is seeing a particular political ad. Which could help Facebook users contextualize political ads and be wiser to attempts to manipulate their opinion, as well as generally better understand how their personal information is being used (and potentially misused).

It’s true that Facebook does already provide some data about broad-brush targeting, with a per-ad option users can click to get a response on ‘why am I seeing this?’. But the targeting categories the company serves via this feature are so broad and lacking in comprehensiveness as to be selectively uninformative and thus pretty useless at very best.

Indeed, the results have even been accused of being misleading.

If Facebook was required by law to rip away its adtech modesty curtain entirely there’s a risk, for its business model, that users would get horribly creeped out by the full bore view of the lidless eye in the digital wall spying on them to target ads.

So while Schroepfer teased UK MPs with “radical transparency” the reality, six months on, is something a whole lot more dilute and incremental.

Facebook itself appears to be conceding as much, and trying to manage expectations, when it writes: “We believe that increased transparency will lead to increased accountability and responsibility over time — not just for Facebook but for advertisers as well.”

So it remains to be seen whether UK lawmakers will be satisfied with this tidbit. Or call for blood, as they set themselves to the task of regulating social media.

The other issue is how comprehensively (or otherwise) Facebook will police its own political ad checks.

Its operational historical is replete with content identification and moderation failures. Which doesn’t exactly bode well for the company to robustly control malicious attempts to skew public opinion — especially when the advertisers in question are simultaneously trying to pour money into its coffers.

So it also remains to be seen how many divisive political ads will simply slip under its radar — i.e. via the non-political, non-verified standard route, and get distributed anyway. Not least because there is also the trickiness of identifying a political ad (vs a non-political ad).

Malicious political ads paid for by Kremlin-backed entities didn’t always look like malicious political ads. Some of the propaganda Russia was spreading via Facebook in the US targeted at voters included seemingly entirely apolitical and benign messages aimed at boosting support among certain identity-based groups, for example. And those sorts of ads would not appear to fit Facebook’s definition of a ‘political ad’ here.

In general, the company also looks to be relying on everyone else to do the grunt-work policing for it — as per its usual playbook.

“If you see an ad which you believe has political content and isn’t labeled, please report it by tapping the three dots at the top right-hand corner of the ad,” it writes. “We will review the ad, and if it falls under our political advertising policy, we’ll take it down and add it to the Ad Library. The advertiser will then be prevented from running ads related to politics until they complete our authorisation process and we’ll follow up to let you know what happened to the ad you reported.”

Gartner picks digital ethics and privacy as a strategic trend for 2019

Analyst Gartner, best known for crunching device marketshare data; charting technology hype cycles; and churning out predictive listicles of emergent capabilities at software’s cutting edge has now put businesses on watch that as well as dabbling in the usual crop of nascent technologies organizations need to be thinking about wider impacts next year — on both […]

Analyst Gartner, best known for crunching device marketshare data; charting technology hype cycles; and churning out predictive listicles of emergent capabilities at software’s cutting edge has now put businesses on watch that as well as dabbling in the usual crop of nascent technologies organizations need to be thinking about wider impacts next year — on both individuals and society.

Call it a sign of the times but digital ethics and privacy has been named as one of Gartner’s top ten strategic technology trends for 2019. That, my friends, is progress of a sort. Albeit, it also underlines how low certain tech industry practices have sunk that ethics and privacy is suddenly making a cutting-edge trend agenda, a couple of decades into the mainstream consumer Internet.

The analyst’s top picks do include plenty of techie stuff too, of course. Yes blockchain is in there. Alongside the usual string of caveats that the “technologies and concepts are immature, poorly understood and unproven in mission-critical, at-scale business operations”.

So too, on the software development side, is AI-driven development — with the analyst sneaking a look beyond the immediate future to an un-date-stamped new age of the ‘non-techie techie’ (aka the “citizen application developer”) it sees coming down the pipe, when everyone will be a pro app dev thanks to AI-driven tools automatically generating the necessary models. But that’s definitely not happening in 2019.

See also: Augmented analytics eventually (em)powering “citizen data science”.

On the hardware front, Gartner uses the umbrella moniker of autonomous things to bundle the likes of drones, autonomous vehicles and robots in one big mechanical huddle — spying a trend of embodied AIs that “automate functions previously performed by humans” and work in swarming concert. Again, though, don’t expect too much of these bots quite yet — collectively, or, well, individually either.

It’s also bundling AR, VR and MR (aka the mixed reality of eyewear like Magic Leap One or Microsoft’s Hololens) into immersive experiences — in which “the spaces that surround us define ‘the computer’ rather than the individual devices. In effect, the environment is the computer” — so you can see what it’s spying there.

On the hardcore cutting edge of tech there’s quantum computing to continue to tantalize with its fantastically potent future potential. This tech, Gartner suggests, could be used to “model molecular interactions at atomic levels to accelerate time to market for new cancer-treating drugs” — albeit, once again, there’s absolutely no timeline suggested. And QC remains firmly lodged in an “emerging state”.

One nearer-term tech trend is dubbed the empowered edge, with Gartner noting that rising numbers of connected devices are driving processing back towards the end-user — to reduce latency and traffic. Distributed servers working as part of the cloud services mix is the idea, supported, over the longer term, by maturing 5G networks. Albeit, again, 5G hasn’t been deployed at any scale yet. Though some rollouts are scheduled for 2019.

Connected devices also feature in Gartner’s picks of smart spaces (aka sensor-laden places like smart cities, the ‘smart home’ or digital workplaces — where “people, processes, services and things” come together to create “a more immersive, interactive and automated experience”); and so-called digital twins; which isn’t as immediately bodysnatcherish as it first sounds, though does refer to “digital representation of a real-world entity or system” driven by an estimated 20BN connected sensors/endpoints which it reckons will be in the wild by 2020

But what really stands out in Gartner’s list of developing and/or barely emergent strategic tech trends is digital ethics and privacy — given the concept is not reliant on any particular technology underpinning it; yet is being (essentially) characterized as an emergent property of other already deployed (but unnamed) technologies. So is actually in play — in a way that others on the list aren’t yet (or aren’t at the same mass scale).

The analyst dubs digital ethics and privacy a “growing concern for individuals, organisations and governments”, writing: “People are increasingly concerned about how their personal information is being used by organisations in both the public and private sector, and the backlash will only increase for organisations that are not proactively addressing these concerns.”

Yes, people are increasingly concerned about privacy. Though ethics and privacy are hardly new concepts (or indeed new discussion topics). So the key point is really the strategic obfuscation of issues that people do in fact care an awful lot about, via the selective and non-transparent application of various behind-the-scenes technologies up to now — as engineers have gone about collecting and using people’s data without telling them how, why and what they’re actually doing with it.

Therefore, the key issue is about the abuse of trust that has been an inherent and seemingly foundational principle of the application of far too much cutting edge technology up to now. Especially, of course, in the adtech sphere.

And which, as Gartner now notes, is coming home to roost for the industry — via people’s “growing concern” about what’s being done to them via their data. (For “individuals, organisations and governments” you can really just substitute ‘society’ in general.)

Technology development done in a vacuum with little or no consideration for societal impacts is therefore itself the catalyst for the accelerated concern about digital ethics and privacy that Gartner is here identifying rising into strategic view.

It didn’t have to be that way though. Unlike ‘blockchain’ or ‘digital twins’, ethics and privacy are not at all new concepts. They’ve been discussion topics for philosophers and moralists for scores of generations and, literally, thousands of years. Which makes engineering without consideration of human and societal impacts a very spectacular and stupid failure indeed.

And now Gartner is having to lecture organizations on the importance of building trust. Which is kind of incredible to see, set alongside bleeding edge science like quantum computing. Yet here we seemingly are in kindergarten…

It writes: “Any discussion on privacy must be grounded in the broader topic of digital ethics and the trust of your customers, constituents and employees. While privacy and security are foundational components in building trust, trust is actually about more than just these components. Trust is the acceptance of the truth of a statement without evidence or investigation. Ultimately an organisation’s position on privacy must be driven by its broader position on ethics and trust. Shifting from privacy to ethics moves the conversation beyond ‘are we compliant’ toward ‘are we doing the right thing.”

The other unique thing about digital ethics and privacy is that it cuts right across all other technology areas in this trend list.

You can — and should — rightly ask what does blockchain mean for privacy? Or quantum computing for ethics? How could the empowered edge be used to enhance privacy? And how might smart spaces erode it? How can we ensure ethics get baked into AI-driven development from the get-go? How could augmented analytics help society as a whole — but which individuals might it harm? And so the questions go on.

Or at least they should go on. You should never stop asking questions where ethics and privacy are concerned. Not asking questions was the great strategic fuck-up condensed into Facebook’s ‘move fast and break things’ anti-humanitarian manifesto of yore. Y’know, the motto it had to ditch after it realized that breaking all the things didn’t scale.

Because apparently no one at the company had thought to ask how breaking everyone’s stuff would help it engender trust. And so claiming compliance without trust, as Facebook now finds itself trying to, really is the archetypal Sisyphean struggle.

TravelPerk grabs $44M to take its pain-free SaaS for business travel global

Only six months ago Barcelona-based TravelPerk bagged a $21M Series B, off the back of strong momentum for a software as a service platform designed to take a Slack-like chunk out of the administrative tedium of arranging and expensing work trips. Today the founders’ smiles are firmly back in place: TravelPerk has announced a $44M Series […]

Only six months ago Barcelona-based TravelPerk bagged a $21M Series B, off the back of strong momentum for a software as a service platform designed to take a Slack-like chunk out of the administrative tedium of arranging and expensing work trips.

Today the founders’ smiles are firmly back in place: TravelPerk has announced a $44M Series C to keep stoking growth that’s seen it grow from around 20 customers two years ago to approaching 1,500 now. The business itself was only founded at the start of 2015.

Investors in the new round include Sweden’s Kinnevik; Russian billionaire and DST Global founder Yuri Milner, and Tom Stafford, also of DST. Prior investors include the likes of Target Global, Felix Capital, Spark Capital, Sunstone, LocalGlobe and Amplo.

Commenting on the Series C in a statement, Kinnevik’s Chris Bischoff, said: “We are excited to invest in TravelPerk, a company that fits perfectly into our investment thesis of using technology to offer customers more and much better choice. Booking corporate travel is unnecessarily time-consuming, expensive and burdensome compared to leisure travel. Avi and team have capitalised on this opportunity to build the leading European challenger by focusing on a product-led solution, and we look forward to supporting their future growth.”

TravelPerk’s total funding to date now stands at almost $75M. It’s not disclosing the valuation that its latest clutch of investors are stamping on its business but, with a bit of a chuckle, co-founder and CEO Avi Meir dubs it “very high”.

Gunning for growth — to West and East

TravelPerk contends that a $1.3tr market is ripe for disruption because legacy business travel booking platforms are both lacking in options and roundly hated for being slow and horrible to use. (Hi Concur!)

Helping business save time and money using a slick, consumer-style trip booking platform that both packs in options and makes business travellers feel good about the booking process (i.e. rather than valueless cogs in a soul-destroying corporate ROI machine) is the general idea — an idea that’s seemingly catching on fast.

And not just with the usual suspect, early adopter, startup dog food gobblers but pushing into the smaller end of the enterprise market too.

“We kind of stumbled on the realization that our platform works for bigger companies than we thought initially,” says Meir. “So the users used to be small, fast-growing tech companies, like GetYourGuide, Outfittery, TypeForm etc… They’re early adopters, they’re tech companies, they have no fear of trying out tech — even for such a mission critical aspect of their business… But then we got pulled into bigger companies. We recently signed FarFetch for example.”

Other smaller sized enterprises that have signed up include the likes of Adyen, B&W, Uber and Aesop.

Companies small and big are, seemingly, united in their hatred of legacy travel booking platforms. And feeling encouraged to check out TravelPerk’s alternative thanks to the SaaS being free to use and free from the usual contract lock ins.

TravelPerk’s freemium business model is based on taking affiliate commissions on bookings. While, down the road, it also has its eye on generating a data-based revenue stream via paid-tier trip analytics.

Currently it reports booking revenues growing at 700% year on year. And Meir previously told us it’s on course to do $100M GMV this year — which he confirms continues to be the case.

It also says it’s on track to complete bookings for one million travellers by next year. And claims to be the fastest growing software as a service company in Europe, a region which remains its core market focus — though the new funding will be put towards market expansion.

And there is at least the possibility, according to Meir, that TravelPerk could actively expand outside Europe within the next 12 months.

“We definitely are looking at expansion outside of Europe as well. I don’t know yet if it’s going to be first US — West or East — because there are opportunities in both directions,” he tells TechCrunch. “And we have customers; one of our largest customers is in Singapore. And we do have a growing amount of customers out of the US.”

Doubling down on growth within Europe is certainly on the slate, though, with a chunk of the Series C going to establish a number of new offices across the region.

Having more local bases to better serve customers is the idea. Meir notes that, perhaps unusually for a startup, TravelPerk has not outsourced customer support — but kept customer service in house to try to maintain quality. (Which, in Europe, means having staff who can speak the local language.)

He also quips about the need for a travel business to serve up “human intelligence” — i.e. by using tech tools to slickly connect on-the-road customers with actual people who can quickly and smartly grapple with and solve problems; vs an automated AI response which is — let’s face it — probably the last thing any time-strapped business traveller wants when trying to get orientated fast and/or solve a snafu away from home.

“I wouldn’t use [human intelligence] for everything but definitely if people are on the road, and they need assistance, and they need to make changes, and you need to understand what they said…” argues Meir, going on to say ‘HI’ has been his response when investors asked why TravelPerk’s pitch deck doesn’t include the almost-impossible-to-avoid tech buzzword: “AI”.

“I think we are probably the only startup in the world right now that doesn’t have AI in the pitch deck somewhere,” he adds. “One of the investors asked about it and I said ‘well we have HI; it’s better’… We have human intelligence. Just people, and they’re smart.”

Also on the cards (it therefore follows): More hiring (the team is at ~150 now and Meir says he expects it to push close to 300 within 18 months); as well as continued investment on the product front, including in the mobile app which was a late addition, only arriving this year.

The TravelPerk mobile app offers handy stuff like a one-stop travel itinerary, flight updates and a chat channel for support. But the desktop web app and core platform were the team’s first focus, with Meir arguing the desktop platform is the natural place for businesses to book trips.

This makes its mobile app more a companion piece — to “how you travel” — housing helpful additions for business travellers, as nice-to-have extras. “That’s what our app does really well,” he adds. “So we’re unusually contrarian and didn’t have a mobile app until this year… It was a pretty crazy bet but we really wanted to have a great web app experience.”

Much of TravelPerk’s early energy has clearly gone into delivering on the core product via nailing down the necessary partnerships and integrations to be able to offer such a large inventory — and thus deliver expanded utility vs legacy rivals.

As well as offering a clean-looking, consumer-style interface intended to do for business travel booking feels what Slack has done for work chat, the platform boasts a larger inventory than traditional players in the space, according to Meir — by plugging into major consumer providers such as Booking.com and Expedia.

The inventory also includes Airbnb accommodation (not just traditional hotels). While other partners on the flight side include include Kayak and Skyscanner.

“We have not the largest bookable inventory in the world,” he claims. “We’re way larger than old school competitors… We went through this licensing process which is almost as difficult as getting a banking license… which give us the right to sell you the same product as travel agencies… Nobody in the world can sell you Kayak’s flights directly from their platform — so we have a way to do that.”

TravelPerk also recently plugged trains into its directly bookable options. This mode of transport is an important component of the European business travel market where rail infrastructure is dense, highly developed and often very high speed. (Which means it can be both the most convenient and environmentally friendly travel option to use.)

“Trains are pretty complex technically so we found a great partner,” notes Meir on that, listing major train companies including in Germany, Spain and Italy as among those it’s now able to offer direct bookings for via its platform.

On the product side, the team is also working on integrating travel and expenses management into the platform — to serve its growing numbers of (small) enterprise customers who need more than just a slick trip booking tool.

Meir says getting pulled to these bigger accounts is steering its European expansion — with part of the Series C going to fund a clutch of new offices around the region near where some of its bigger customers are based. Beginning in London, with Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris slated to follow soon.

Picking investors for the long haul

What does the team attribute TravelPerk’s momentum to generally? It comes back to the pain, says Meir. Business travellers are being forced to “tolerate” horrible legacy systems. “So I think the pain-point is so visible and so clear [it sells itself],” he argues, also pointing out this is true for investors (which can’t have hurt TravelPerk’s funding pitch).

“In general we just built a great product and a great service, and we focused on this consumer angle — which is something that really connects well with what people want in this day and age,” he adds. “People want to use something that feels like Slack.”

For the Series C, Meir says TravelPerk was looking for investors who would be comfortable supporting the business for the long haul, rather than pushing for a quick sale. So they are now articulating the possibility of a future IPO.

And while he says TravelPerk hadn’t known much about Swedish investment firm Kinnevik prior to the Series C, Meir says he came away impressed with its focus on “global growth and ambition”, and the “deep pockets and the patience that comes with it”.

“We really aligned on this should be a global play, rather than a European play,” he adds. “We really connected on this should be a very, big independent business that goes to the path of IPO rather than a quick exit to one of the big players.

“So with them we buy patience, and also the condition, when offers do come onto the table, to say no to them.”

Given it’s been just a short six months between the Series B and C, is TravelPerk planning to raise again in the next 12 months?

“We’re never fundraising and we’re always fundraising I guess,” Meir responds on that. “We don’t need to fundraise for the next three years or so, so it will not come out of need, hopefully, unless something really unusual is happening, but it will come more out of opportunity and if it presented a way to grow even faster.

“I think the key here is how fast we grow. And how good a product we certify — and if we have an opportunity to make it even faster or better then we’ll go for it. But it’s not something that we’re actively doing it… So to all investors reading this piece don’t call me!” he adds, most likely inviting a tsunami of fresh investor pitches.

Discussing the challenges of building a business that’s so fast growing it’s also changing incredibly rapidly, Meir says nothing is how he imagined it would be — including fondly thinking it would be easier the bigger and better resourced the business got. But he says there’s an upside too.

“The challenges are just much, much bigger on this scale,” he says. “Numbers are bigger, you have more people around the table… I would say it’s very, very difficult and challenging but also extremely fun.

“So now when we release a feature it goes immediately into the hands of hundreds of thousands of travellers that use it every month. And when you fundraise… it’s much more fun because you have more leverage.

“It’s also fun because — and I don’t want to position myself as the cynical guy — the reality is that most startups don’t cure cancer, right. So we’re not saving the world… but in our little niche of business travel, which is still like $1.3tr per year, we are definitely making a dent.

“So, yes, it’s more challenging and difficult as your grow, and the problems become much bigger, but you can also deliver the feedback to more people.”

Saudi ally calls for Uber boycott over response to Khashoggi’s vanishing

Uber is facing calls for a boycott of its app in the Persian Gulf, a region that has poured billions of dollars of investment into the company’s ride-hailing business in recent years: Directly via Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and indirectly because the Saudis are major investors in Softbank’s Vision Fund vehicle, which is another big Uber […]

Uber is facing calls for a boycott of its app in the Persian Gulf, a region that has poured billions of dollars of investment into the company’s ride-hailing business in recent years: Directly via Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and indirectly because the Saudis are major investors in Softbank’s Vision Fund vehicle, which is another big Uber investor.

The regional calls to boycott Uber were stoked yesterday by Saudi ally, Bahrain, whose foreign minister retweeted hashtags calling for a boycott of the company, according to reports by Bloomberg and Reuters.

An Uber spokesperson declined to comment when reached for a response.

A few boycott calls circulating on Twitter urge app users to switch to Uber ride-hailing rival, Careem, though it’s unclear whether Uber alternatives are seeing any local uplift as yet.

Anger at Uber has been sparked by the reaction of CEO Dara Khosrowshahi to the disappearance of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, who has not been seen since entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 for a pre-arranged appointment to obtain documentation for his forthcoming marriage to a Turkish citizen.

Newspaper reports have suggested Khashoggi was killed inside the embassy by a Saudi hit squad that traveled to Turkey for the purpose of carrying out the murder. As a Saudi ex-pat the journalist had written critically of the crown prince’s regime.

And while independent CCTV footage shows Khashoggi entering the embassy but there is no proof to show he ever left. Although the Saudis have denied any wrongdoing, and claimed their citizens were just visiting Turkey as tourists.

Following growing alarm over Khashoggi’s disappearance, Uber’s CEO was among several business leaders to announce they were pulling out of an investment conference due to take place in the Saudi capital later this month.

“I’m very troubled by the reports to date about Jamal Khashoggi. We are following the situation closely, and unless a substantially different set of facts emerges, I won’t be attending the FII conference in Riyadh,” said Khosrowshahi in a statement last week.

Uber confirmed to TechCrunch today that Khosrowshahi will not be attending the Future Investment Initiative conference — a conference’s hosted by Saudi’s crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, aka MBS, who is also chairman of the PIF; a key Uber investor, which has a member sitting on Uber’s board

Those links underline quite how complicated managing this particular piece of legacy baggage is for Khosrowshahi — who, as Uber’s new broom, has made it his stated mission to chart a new course by ‘doing the right thing. Period‘. 

Yet when Uber accepted $3.5BN from the Saudi PIF two years ago ‘doing the right thing’ meant just one thing: Growing Uber, with few if any other considerations on the table for then CEO and founder Travis Kalanick .

At the time he took the Saudi billions, Kalanick said: “We appreciate the vote of confidence in our business as we continue to expand our global presence. Our experience in Saudi Arabia is a great example of how Uber can benefit riders, drivers, and cities and we look forward to partnering to support their economic and social reforms.”

It’s unclear whether he weighed up the ethical and political risks of accepting investment from a conservative regime seeking to project a reforming image at the same time as carrying out violent repression in Yemen, and with its own long history of persecuting domestic critics.

But Uber’s decision to take Saudi money in 2016 and again, via SoftBank at the end of last year, is very much Khosrowshahi’s problem now. 

In a public remark on Twitter, tech investor, Mark Tluszcz, co-founder and CEO of Mangrove Capital Partners, suggested Uber’s CEO should have kept his concerns about Khashoggi’s fate to himself — saying there’s “no upside” for Uber or its investor SoftBank…

Responding to a follow up question about human rights, Tluszcz also told us: “Personally [a CEO] can do what they want, but should NOT use their position to express personal opinions. I doubt personal opinions are in the best interest of all stakeholders.”

Bloomberg also notes that SoftBank’s shares have continued to have a bumpy ride as outcry has grown over Khashoggi’s disappearance, as well as investors responding to wider uncertainties attached to its approach with the Vision Fund.

In the case of Uber, you could argue that had Khosrowshahi said nothing about the extraterritorial vanishing of a journalist critical to the Saudi regime that might have been a pretty tricky position for the CEO to square with a loud PR message about ‘doing the right thing’.

‘Uber: We do the right thing, sometimes’, wouldn’t have the same purifying ring as: ‘We do the right thing. Period.’ And detoxifying the Uber brand is clearly a key intent of Khosrowshahi’s tenure at Uber. 

Yet, at the same time, Uber remains awash with billions of dollars of Saudi investment. And a PR message alone can’t purge problematic legacy decisions which are also baked into the investment structure of the company.

That would take more than fine words.

So Uber is now facing regional blowback for something Khosrowshahi said, and setting itself against a major investor — risking another messy investor spat — while still potentially looking a like a hypocrite.

Safe to say, there are no shortcuts when the legacy issues attached to a business run so deep.

Not that Uber is alone in having Saudi money on its books, of course. As we wrote last week, a number of other Silicon Valley firms have welcomed recent overtures from MBS, and plenty will also have accepted Saudi PIF money, mostly via SoftBank’s vision fund.

Talking generally about MBS, longtime VC Jeff Bussgang of Flybridge Capital Partners in Boston told us last week that venture and private equity firms have been raising money from Middle East capital sources for many years — adding that “typically, entrepreneurs don’t like to focus on politics and historically have not cared very much where the money came from” (unless it’s “from the PLO or Iran”).

Whether future entrepreneurs will have the luxury of not being able to care so much about where investment comes from remains to be seen. Political and geopolitical risk must surely be looming larger on every entrepreneur’s radar.

Saudi ally calls for Uber boycott over response to Khashoggi’s vanishing

Uber is facing calls for a boycott of its app in the Persian Gulf, a region that has poured billions of dollars of investment into the company’s ride-hailing business in recent years: Directly via Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and indirectly because the Saudis are major investors in Softbank’s Vision Fund vehicle, which is another big Uber […]

Uber is facing calls for a boycott of its app in the Persian Gulf, a region that has poured billions of dollars of investment into the company’s ride-hailing business in recent years: Directly via Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and indirectly because the Saudis are major investors in Softbank’s Vision Fund vehicle, which is another big Uber investor.

The regional calls to boycott Uber were stoked yesterday by Saudi ally, Bahrain, whose foreign minister retweeted hashtags calling for a boycott of the company, according to reports by Bloomberg and Reuters.

An Uber spokesperson declined to comment when reached for a response.

A few boycott calls circulating on Twitter urge app users to switch to Uber ride-hailing rival, Careem, though it’s unclear whether Uber alternatives are seeing any local uplift as yet.

Anger at Uber has been sparked by the reaction of CEO Dara Khosrowshahi to the disappearance of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, who has not been seen since entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 for a pre-arranged appointment to obtain documentation for his forthcoming marriage to a Turkish citizen.

Newspaper reports have suggested Khashoggi was killed inside the embassy by a Saudi hit squad that traveled to Turkey for the purpose of carrying out the murder. As a Saudi ex-pat the journalist had written critically of the crown prince’s regime.

And while independent CCTV footage shows Khashoggi entering the embassy but there is no proof to show he ever left. Although the Saudis have denied any wrongdoing, and claimed their citizens were just visiting Turkey as tourists.

Following growing alarm over Khashoggi’s disappearance, Uber’s CEO was among several business leaders to announce they were pulling out of an investment conference due to take place in the Saudi capital later this month.

“I’m very troubled by the reports to date about Jamal Khashoggi. We are following the situation closely, and unless a substantially different set of facts emerges, I won’t be attending the FII conference in Riyadh,” said Khosrowshahi in a statement last week.

Uber confirmed to TechCrunch today that Khosrowshahi will not be attending the Future Investment Initiative conference — a conference’s hosted by Saudi’s crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, aka MBS, who is also chairman of the PIF; a key Uber investor, which has a member sitting on Uber’s board

Those links underline quite how complicated managing this particular piece of legacy baggage is for Khosrowshahi — who, as Uber’s new broom, has made it his stated mission to chart a new course by ‘doing the right thing. Period‘. 

Yet when Uber accepted $3.5BN from the Saudi PIF two years ago ‘doing the right thing’ meant just one thing: Growing Uber, with few if any other considerations on the table for then CEO and founder Travis Kalanick .

At the time he took the Saudi billions, Kalanick said: “We appreciate the vote of confidence in our business as we continue to expand our global presence. Our experience in Saudi Arabia is a great example of how Uber can benefit riders, drivers, and cities and we look forward to partnering to support their economic and social reforms.”

It’s unclear whether he weighed up the ethical and political risks of accepting investment from a conservative regime seeking to project a reforming image at the same time as carrying out violent repression in Yemen, and with its own long history of persecuting domestic critics.

But Uber’s decision to take Saudi money in 2016 and again, via SoftBank at the end of last year, is very much Khosrowshahi’s problem now. 

In a public remark on Twitter, tech investor, Mark Tluszcz, co-founder and CEO of Mangrove Capital Partners, suggested Uber’s CEO should have kept his concerns about Khashoggi’s fate to himself — saying there’s “no upside” for Uber or its investor SoftBank…

Responding to a follow up question about human rights, Tluszcz also told us: “Personally [a CEO] can do what they want, but should NOT use their position to express personal opinions. I doubt personal opinions are in the best interest of all stakeholders.”

Bloomberg also notes that SoftBank’s shares have continued to have a bumpy ride as outcry has grown over Khashoggi’s disappearance, as well as investors responding to wider uncertainties attached to its approach with the Vision Fund.

In the case of Uber, you could argue that had Khosrowshahi said nothing about the extraterritorial vanishing of a journalist critical to the Saudi regime that might have been a pretty tricky position for the CEO to square with a loud PR message about ‘doing the right thing’.

‘Uber: We do the right thing, sometimes’, wouldn’t have the same purifying ring as: ‘We do the right thing. Period.’ And detoxifying the Uber brand is clearly a key intent of Khosrowshahi’s tenure at Uber. 

Yet, at the same time, Uber remains awash with billions of dollars of Saudi investment. And a PR message alone can’t purge problematic legacy decisions which are also baked into the investment structure of the company.

That would take more than fine words.

So Uber is now facing regional blowback for something Khosrowshahi said, and setting itself against a major investor — risking another messy investor spat — while still potentially looking a like a hypocrite.

Safe to say, there are no shortcuts when the legacy issues attached to a business run so deep.

Not that Uber is alone in having Saudi money on its books, of course. As we wrote last week, a number of other Silicon Valley firms have welcomed recent overtures from MBS, and plenty will also have accepted Saudi PIF money, mostly via SoftBank’s vision fund.

Talking generally about MBS, longtime VC Jeff Bussgang of Flybridge Capital Partners in Boston told us last week that venture and private equity firms have been raising money from Middle East capital sources for many years — adding that “typically, entrepreneurs don’t like to focus on politics and historically have not cared very much where the money came from” (unless it’s “from the PLO or Iran”).

Whether future entrepreneurs will have the luxury of not being able to care so much about where investment comes from remains to be seen. Political and geopolitical risk must surely be looming larger on every entrepreneur’s radar.

A fictional Facebook Portal videochat with Mark Zuckerberg

TechCrunch: Hey Portal, dial Mark Portal: Do you mean Mark Zuckerberg? TC: Yes Portal: Dialling Mark… TC: Hi Mark! Nice choice of grey t-shirt. MZ: Uh, new phone who dis? — oh, hi, er, TechCrunch… TC: Thanks for agreeing to this entirely fictional interview, Mark! MZ: Sure — anytime. But you don’t mind if I […]

TechCrunch: Hey Portal, dial Mark

Portal: Do you mean Mark Zuckerberg?

TC: Yes

Portal: Dialling Mark…


TC: Hi Mark! Nice choice of grey t-shirt.

MZ: Uh, new phone who dis? — oh, hi, er, TechCrunch…

TC: Thanks for agreeing to this entirely fictional interview, Mark!

MZ: Sure — anytime. But you don’t mind if I tape over the camera do you? You see I’m a bit concerned about my privacy here at, like, home

TC: We feel you, go ahead.

As you can see, we already took the precaution of wearing this large rubber face mask of, well, of yourself Mark. And covering the contents of our bedroom with these paint-splattered decorator sheets.

MZ: Yeah, I saw that. It’s a bit creepy tbh

TC: Go on and get all taped up. We’ll wait.

[sound of Mark calling Priscilla to bring the tape dispenser]

[Portal’s camera jumps out to assimilate Priscilla Chan into the domestic scene, showing a generous vista of the Zuckerbergs’ living room, complete with kids playing in the corner. Priscilla, clad in an oversized dressing gown and with her hair wrapped in a big fluffy towel, can be seen gesticulating at the camera. She is also coughing]

Priscilla to Mark: I already told you — there’s a camera cover built into into Portal. You don’t need to use tape now

MZ: Oh, right, right!

Okay, going dark! Wow, that feels better already

[sound of knuckles cracking]

TC: So, Mark, let’s talk hardware! What’s your favorite Amazon Echo?

MZ: Uh, well…

TC: We’d guess one with all the bells & whistles, right? There’s definitely something more than a little Echo Show-y about Portal

MZ: Sure, I mean. We think Alexa is a great product

TC: Mhmm. Do you remember when digital photo frames first came out? They were this shiny new thing about, like, a decade ago? One of those gadgets your parents buy you around Thanksgiving, which ends up stuck in a drawer forever?

MZ: Yeah! I think someone gave me one once with a photo of me playing beer pong on it. We had it hanging in the downstairs rest room for the longest time. But then we got an Android tablet with a Wi-Fi connection for in there, so…

TC: Now here we are a decade or so later with Portal advancing the vision of what digital photo frames can be!

MZ: Yeah! I mean, you don’t even have to pick the pictures! It’s pretty awesome. This one here — oh, right you can’t see me but let me describe it for you — this one here is of a Halloween party I went to one year. Someone was dressed as SpongeBob. I think they might have been called Bob, actually… And this is, like, some other Facebook friends doing some other fun stuff. Pretty amazing.

You can also look at album art

TC: But not YouTube, right? But let’s talk about video calling

MZ: It’s an amazing technology

TC: It sure is. Skype, FaceTime… live filters, effects, animoji…

MZ: We’re building on a truly great technology foundation. Portal autozooming means you don’t even have to think about watching the person you’re talking to! You can just be doing stuff in your room and the camera will always be adjusting to capture everything you’re doing! Pretty amazing.

TC: Doing what Mark? Actually, let’s not go there

MZ: Portal will even suggest people for you to call! We think this will be a huge help for our mission to promote Being Well — uh, I mean Time Well Spent because our expert machine learning algorithms will be nudging you to talk to people you should really be talking to

TC: Like my therapist?

MZ: Uh, well, it depends. But our AI can suggest personalized meaningful interactions by suggesting Messenger contacts to call up

TC: It’s not going to suggest I videchat my ex is it?

MZ: Haha! Hopefully not. But maybe your mom? Or your grandma?

TC: Sounds incredibly useful. Well, assuming they didn’t already #deletefacebook.

But let’s talk about kids

MZ: Kids! Yeah we love them. Portal is going to be amazing for kids

TC: You have this storybook thing going on, right? Absent grandparents using Portal to read kids bedtime stories and what not…

MZ: Right! We think kids are going to love it. And grandparents! We’ve got these animal masks if you get bored of looking at your actual family members. It’s good, clean, innovative fun for all the family!

TC: Yeah, although, I mean, nothing beats reading from an actual kid’s book, right?

MZ: Well…

TC: If you do want to involve a device in your kid’s bedtime there are quite a lot of digital ebook apps for that already. Apple has a whole iBooks library of the things with read-aloud narration, for example.

And, maybe you missed this — but quite a few years ago there was a big bunch of indie apps and services all having a good go at selling the same sort of idea of ‘interactive remote reading experiences’ for families with kids. Though not many appear to have gone the distance. Which does sort of suggest there isn’t a huge unmet need for extra stuff beyond, well, actual children’s books and videochat apps like Skype and FaceTime.

Also, I mean, children’s story reading apps and interactive kids’ e-books are pretty much as old as the hills in Internet terms at this point. So, er, you’re not really moving fast and breaking things are you!?

MZ: Actually we’re more focused on stable infrastructure these days

TC: And hardware too, apparently. Which is a pretty radical departure for Facebook. All those years everyone thought you were going to do a Facebook phone but you left it to Amazon to flop into that pit… Who needs hardware when you can put apps and tracker pixels on everything, right?!

But here you are now, kinda working with Amazon for Portal — while also competing with Alexa hardware by selling your own countertop device… Aren’t you at all nervous about screwing this up? Hardware IS hard. And homes have curtains for a reason…

MZ: We’re definitely confident kids aren’t going to try swivelling around on the Portal Plus like it’s a climbing frame, if that’s what you mean. Well, hopefully not anyway

TC: But about you, Facebook Inc, putting an all-seeing-eye-cum-Internet-connected-listening-post into people’s living rooms and kids’ bedrooms…

MZ: What about it?

[MZ speaking to someone else in the room] Does the speaker have an off switch? How do I mute this thing?

TC: Hello? Mark?

[silence]

[sound comes back on briefly and a snatch of conversation can be heard between Mark and Priscilla about the need to buy more diapers. Mark is then heard shouting across the room that his Shake Shack order of a triple cheeseburger and fries plus butterscotch malt is late again]

[silence] 

[crackle and a congested throat clearing sound. A child is heard in the background asking for Legos]

MZ: Not now okay honey. Okay hon-, uh, hello — what were you saying?

TC: Will you be putting a Portal in Max’s room?

MZ: Haha! She’d probably prefer Legos

TC: August?

MZ: She’s only just turned one

TC: Okay, let’s try a more direct question. Do you at all think that you, Facebook Inc,

might have a problem selling a $200+ piece of Internet-connected hardware when your company is known for creeping on people to sell ads?

MZ: Oh no, no! — we’ve, like, totally thought of that!

Let me read you what marketing came up with. Hang on, it’s around here somewhere…

[sound of paper rustling]

Here we go [reading]:

Facebook doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you’re calling. In addition, video calls on Portal are encrypted, so your calls are always secure.

For added security, Smart Camera and Smart Sound use AI technology that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers. Portal’s camera doesn’t use facial recognition and doesn’t identify who you are.

Like other voice-enabled devices, Portal only sends voice commands to Facebook servers after you say, ‘Hey Portal.’ You can delete your Portal’s voice history in your Facebook Activity Log at any time.

Pretty cool, huh!

TC: Just to return to your stable infrastructure point for a second, Mark — did you mean Facebook is focused on security too? Because, well, your company keeps leaking personal data like a sieve holds water

MZ: We think of infrastructure as a more holistic concept. And, uh, as a word that sounds reassuring

TC: Okay, so of course you can’t 100% guarantee Portal against hacking risks, though you’re taking precautions by encrypting calls. But Portal might also ‘accidentally’ record stuff adults and kids say in the home — i.e. if its ‘Hey Portal’ local listening function gets triggered when it shouldn’t. And it will then be 100% up to a responsible adult to find their way through Facebook’s labyrinthine settings and delete those wiretaps, won’t it?

MZ: You can control all your information, yes

TC: The marketing bumpf also doesn’t spell out what Facebook does with ‘Hey Portal’ voice recordings, or the personal insights your company is able to glean from them, but Facebook is in the business of profiling people for ad targeting purposes so we must assume that any and all voice commands and interactions, with the sole exception of the contents of videocalls, will go into feeding that beast.

So the metadata of who you talk to via Portal, what you listen to and look at (minus any Alexa-related interactions that you’ve agreed to hand off to Amazon for its own product targeting purposes), and potentially much more besides is all there for Facebook’s taking — given the kinds of things that an always-on listening device located in a domestic setting could be accidentally privy to.

Then, as more services get added to Portal, more personal behavioral data will be generated and can be processed by Facebook for selling ads.

MZ: Well, I mean, like I told that Senator we do sell ads

TC: And smart home hardware too now, apparently.

One more thing, Mark: In Europe, Facebook didn’t used to have face recognition technology switched on did it?

MZ: We had it on pause for a while

TC: But you switched it back on earlier this year right?

MZ: Facebook users in Europe can choose to use it, yes

TC: And who’s in charge of framing that choice?

MZ: Uh, well we are obviously

TC: We’d like you to tap on the Portal screen now, Mark. Tap on the face you can see to make the camera zoom right in on this mask of your own visage. Can you do that for us?

MZ: Uh, sure

[sound of a finger thudding against glass]

MZ: Are you seeing this? It really is pretty creepy!

Or — I mean — it would be if it wasn’t so, like, familiar…

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

[sound of a child crying]

Priscilla to Mark: Eeeew! Turn that thing off!

TC: Thanks Mark. We’ll leave you guys to it.

Enjoy your Shake Shack. Again.


Portal: Thanks for calling Mark, TechCrunch! Did you enjoy your Time Well Spent?

A fictional Facebook Portal videochat with Mark Zuckerberg

TechCrunch: Hey Portal, dial Mark Portal: Do you mean Mark Zuckerberg? TC: Yes Portal: Dialling Mark… TC: Hi Mark! Nice choice of grey t-shirt. MZ: Uh, new phone who dis? — oh, hi, er, TechCrunch… TC: Thanks for agreeing to this entirely fictional interview, Mark! MZ: Sure — anytime. But you don’t mind if I […]

TechCrunch: Hey Portal, dial Mark

Portal: Do you mean Mark Zuckerberg?

TC: Yes

Portal: Dialling Mark…


TC: Hi Mark! Nice choice of grey t-shirt.

MZ: Uh, new phone who dis? — oh, hi, er, TechCrunch…

TC: Thanks for agreeing to this entirely fictional interview, Mark!

MZ: Sure — anytime. But you don’t mind if I tape over the camera do you? You see I’m a bit concerned about my privacy here at, like, home

TC: We feel you, go ahead.

As you can see, we already took the precaution of wearing this large rubber face mask of, well, of yourself Mark. And covering the contents of our bedroom with these paint-splattered decorator sheets.

MZ: Yeah, I saw that. It’s a bit creepy tbh

TC: Go on and get all taped up. We’ll wait.

[sound of Mark calling Priscilla to bring the tape dispenser]

[Portal’s camera jumps out to assimilate Priscilla Chan into the domestic scene, showing a generous vista of the Zuckerbergs’ living room, complete with kids playing in the corner. Priscilla, clad in an oversized dressing gown and with her hair wrapped in a big fluffy towel, can be seen gesticulating at the camera. She is also coughing]

Priscilla to Mark: I already told you — there’s a camera cover built into into Portal. You don’t need to use tape now

MZ: Oh, right, right!

Okay, going dark! Wow, that feels better already

[sound of knuckles cracking]

TC: So, Mark, let’s talk hardware! What’s your favorite Amazon Echo?

MZ: Uh, well…

TC: We’d guess one with all the bells & whistles, right? There’s definitely something more than a little Echo Show-y about Portal

MZ: Sure, I mean. We think Alexa is a great product

TC: Mhmm. Do you remember when digital photo frames first came out? They were this shiny new thing about, like, a decade ago? One of those gadgets your parents buy you around Thanksgiving, which ends up stuck in a drawer forever?

MZ: Yeah! I think someone gave me one once with a photo of me playing beer pong on it. We had it hanging in the downstairs rest room for the longest time. But then we got an Android tablet with a Wi-Fi connection for in there, so…

TC: Now here we are a decade or so later with Portal advancing the vision of what digital photo frames can be!

MZ: Yeah! I mean, you don’t even have to pick the pictures! It’s pretty awesome. This one here — oh, right you can’t see me but let me describe it for you — this one here is of a Halloween party I went to one year. Someone was dressed as SpongeBob. I think they might have been called Bob, actually… And this is, like, some other Facebook friends doing some other fun stuff. Pretty amazing.

You can also look at album art

TC: But not YouTube, right? But let’s talk about video calling

MZ: It’s an amazing technology

TC: It sure is. Skype, FaceTime… live filters, effects, animoji…

MZ: We’re building on a truly great technology foundation. Portal autozooming means you don’t even have to think about watching the person you’re talking to! You can just be doing stuff in your room and the camera will always be adjusting to capture everything you’re doing! Pretty amazing.

TC: Doing what Mark? Actually, let’s not go there

MZ: Portal will even suggest people for you to call! We think this will be a huge help for our mission to promote Being Well — uh, I mean Time Well Spent because our expert machine learning algorithms will be nudging you to talk to people you should really be talking to

TC: Like my therapist?

MZ: Uh, well, it depends. But our AI can suggest personalized meaningful interactions by suggesting Messenger contacts to call up

TC: It’s not going to suggest I videchat my ex is it?

MZ: Haha! Hopefully not. But maybe your mom? Or your grandma?

TC: Sounds incredibly useful. Well, assuming they didn’t already #deletefacebook.

But let’s talk about kids

MZ: Kids! Yeah we love them. Portal is going to be amazing for kids

TC: You have this storybook thing going on, right? Absent grandparents using Portal to read kids bedtime stories and what not…

MZ: Right! We think kids are going to love it. And grandparents! We’ve got these animal masks if you get bored of looking at your actual family members. It’s good, clean, innovative fun for all the family!

TC: Yeah, although, I mean, nothing beats reading from an actual kid’s book, right?

MZ: Well…

TC: If you do want to involve a device in your kid’s bedtime there are quite a lot of digital ebook apps for that already. Apple has a whole iBooks library of the things with read-aloud narration, for example.

And, maybe you missed this — but quite a few years ago there was a big bunch of indie apps and services all having a good go at selling the same sort of idea of ‘interactive remote reading experiences’ for families with kids. Though not many appear to have gone the distance. Which does sort of suggest there isn’t a huge unmet need for extra stuff beyond, well, actual children’s books and videochat apps like Skype and FaceTime.

Also, I mean, children’s story reading apps and interactive kids’ e-books are pretty much as old as the hills in Internet terms at this point. So, er, you’re not really moving fast and breaking things are you!?

MZ: Actually we’re more focused on stable infrastructure these days

TC: And hardware too, apparently. Which is a pretty radical departure for Facebook. All those years everyone thought you were going to do a Facebook phone but you left it to Amazon to flop into that pit… Who needs hardware when you can put apps and tracker pixels on everything, right?!

But here you are now, kinda working with Amazon for Portal — while also competing with Alexa hardware by selling your own countertop device… Aren’t you at all nervous about screwing this up? Hardware IS hard. And homes have curtains for a reason…

MZ: We’re definitely confident kids aren’t going to try swivelling around on the Portal Plus like it’s a climbing frame, if that’s what you mean. Well, hopefully not anyway

TC: But about you, Facebook Inc, putting an all-seeing-eye-cum-Internet-connected-listening-post into people’s living rooms and kids’ bedrooms…

MZ: What about it?

[MZ speaking to someone else in the room] Does the speaker have an off switch? How do I mute this thing?

TC: Hello? Mark?

[silence]

[sound comes back on briefly and a snatch of conversation can be heard between Mark and Priscilla about the need to buy more diapers. Mark is then heard shouting across the room that his Shake Shack order of a triple cheeseburger and fries plus butterscotch malt is late again]

[silence] 

[crackle and a congested throat clearing sound. A child is heard in the background asking for Legos]

MZ: Not now okay honey. Okay hon-, uh, hello — what were you saying?

TC: Will you be putting a Portal in Max’s room?

MZ: Haha! She’d probably prefer Legos

TC: August?

MZ: She’s only just turned one

TC: Okay, let’s try a more direct question. Do you at all think that you, Facebook Inc,

might have a problem selling a $200+ piece of Internet-connected hardware when your company is known for creeping on people to sell ads?

MZ: Oh no, no! — we’ve, like, totally thought of that!

Let me read you what marketing came up with. Hang on, it’s around here somewhere…

[sound of paper rustling]

Here we go [reading]:

Facebook doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you’re calling. In addition, video calls on Portal are encrypted, so your calls are always secure.

For added security, Smart Camera and Smart Sound use AI technology that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers. Portal’s camera doesn’t use facial recognition and doesn’t identify who you are.

Like other voice-enabled devices, Portal only sends voice commands to Facebook servers after you say, ‘Hey Portal.’ You can delete your Portal’s voice history in your Facebook Activity Log at any time.

Pretty cool, huh!

TC: Just to return to your stable infrastructure point for a second, Mark — did you mean Facebook is focused on security too? Because, well, your company keeps leaking personal data like a sieve holds water

MZ: We think of infrastructure as a more holistic concept. And, uh, as a word that sounds reassuring

TC: Okay, so of course you can’t 100% guarantee Portal against hacking risks, though you’re taking precautions by encrypting calls. But Portal might also ‘accidentally’ record stuff adults and kids say in the home — i.e. if its ‘Hey Portal’ local listening function gets triggered when it shouldn’t. And it will then be 100% up to a responsible adult to find their way through Facebook’s labyrinthine settings and delete those wiretaps, won’t it?

MZ: You can control all your information, yes

TC: The marketing bumpf also doesn’t spell out what Facebook does with ‘Hey Portal’ voice recordings, or the personal insights your company is able to glean from them, but Facebook is in the business of profiling people for ad targeting purposes so we must assume that any and all voice commands and interactions, with the sole exception of the contents of videocalls, will go into feeding that beast.

So the metadata of who you talk to via Portal, what you listen to and look at (minus any Alexa-related interactions that you’ve agreed to hand off to Amazon for its own product targeting purposes), and potentially much more besides is all there for Facebook’s taking — given the kinds of things that an always-on listening device located in a domestic setting could be accidentally privy to.

Then, as more services get added to Portal, more personal behavioral data will be generated and can be processed by Facebook for selling ads.

MZ: Well, I mean, like I told that Senator we do sell ads

TC: And smart home hardware too now, apparently.

One more thing, Mark: In Europe, Facebook didn’t used to have face recognition technology switched on did it?

MZ: We had it on pause for a while

TC: But you switched it back on earlier this year right?

MZ: Facebook users in Europe can choose to use it, yes

TC: And who’s in charge of framing that choice?

MZ: Uh, well we are obviously

TC: We’d like you to tap on the Portal screen now, Mark. Tap on the face you can see to make the camera zoom right in on this mask of your own visage. Can you do that for us?

MZ: Uh, sure

[sound of a finger thudding against glass]

MZ: Are you seeing this? It really is pretty creepy!

Or — I mean — it would be if it wasn’t so, like, familiar…

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

[sound of a child crying]

Priscilla to Mark: Eeeew! Turn that thing off!

TC: Thanks Mark. We’ll leave you guys to it.

Enjoy your Shake Shack. Again.


Portal: Thanks for calling Mark, TechCrunch! Did you enjoy your Time Well Spent?

Pro-privacy search engine DuckDuckGo hits 30M daily searches, up 50% in a year

Some nice momentum for privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo which has just announced it’s hit 30 million daily searches a year after reaching 20M — a year-on-year increase of 50%. Hitting the first 10M daily searches took the search engine a full seven years, and then it was another two to get to 20M. So as […]

Some nice momentum for privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo which has just announced it’s hit 30 million daily searches a year after reaching 20M — a year-on-year increase of 50%.

Hitting the first 10M daily searches took the search engine a full seven years, and then it was another two to get to 20M. So as growth curves go it must have required patience and a little faith in the run up.

A strength of conviction that’s paying off now, though, as usage continues to take off…

Albeit 30M daily searches is still a drop in the ocean vs the at least 3BN+ daily searches that Google handles daily (at least because that metric dates back to 2015).

DDG’s search engine offers a pro-privacy alternative to Google search that does not track and profile users in order to target them with ads.

Instead it displays ads based on the keyword being searched for at the point of each search — dispensing with the need to follow people around the web, harvesting data on everything they do to feed an sophisticated adtech business, as Google does.

DDG says it has been profitable using its non-tracking business model since 2014, also making money from affiliate revenue.

It does not break out active user metrics but earlier this year cited third party estimates which peg its user-base at around 25M.

This year it expanded from its core search product to launch a tracker blocker to address wider privacy concerns consumers have by helping web users keep more of their online activity away from companies trying to spy on them for profit.

It also recently emerged that DDG had quietly picked up $10M in VC funding, which is only its second tranche of external investment.

The company told us this financing would be used to respond to an expanding opportunity for pro-privacy business models, including by tuning its search engine for more local markets and expanding its marketing channels to “have more of a global focus”.

Privacy regulations such as Europe’s General Data Protection Act are likely also helping to put wind in DDG’s sails.

While, in the US, lawmakers are also eyeing drafting federal privacy regulations — which could result in new domestic controls on how companies are able to process people’s information.

Not tracking people in the first place positions DDG’s business to be able to keep on flying regardless of tighter rules incoming.

Audit Facebook and overhaul competition law, say MEPs responding to breach scandals

After holding a series of hearings in the wake of the Facebook -Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal this summer, and attending a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg himself in May, the European Union parliament’s civil liberties committee has called for an update to competition rules to reflect what it dubs “the digital reality”, urging EU institutions […]

After holding a series of hearings in the wake of the Facebook -Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal this summer, and attending a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg himself in May, the European Union parliament’s civil liberties committee has called for an update to competition rules to reflect what it dubs “the digital reality”, urging EU institutions to look into the “possible monopoly” of big tech social media platforms.

Top level EU competition law has not touched on the social media axis of big tech yet, with the Commission concentrating recent attention on mobile chips (Qualcomm); and mobile and ecommerce platforms (mostly Google; but Amazon’s use of merchant data is in its sights too); as well as probing Apple’s tax structure in Ireland.

But last week Europe’s data protection supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, told us that closer working between privacy regulators and the EU’s Competition Commission is on the cards, as regional lawmakers look to evolve their oversight frameworks to respond to growing ethical concerns about use and abuse of big data, and indeed to be better positioned to respond to fast-paced technology-fuelled change.

Local EU antitrust regulators, including in Germany and France, have also been investigating the Google, Facebook adtech duopoly on several fronts in recent years.

The Libe committee’s call is the latest political call to spin up and scale up antitrust effort and attention around social media. 

The committee also says it wants to see much greater accountability and transparency on “algorithmic-processed data by any actor, be it private or public” — signalling a belief that GDPR does not go far enough on that front.

Libe committee chair and rapporteur, MEP Claude Moraes, has previously suggested the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal could help inform and shape an update to Europe’s ePrivacy rules, which remain at the negotiation stage with disagreements over scope and proportionality.

But every big tech data breach and security scandal lends weight to the argument that stronger privacy rules are indeed required.

In yesterday’s resolution, the Libe committee also called for an audit of the advertising industry on social media — echoing a call made by the UK’s data protection watchdog, the ICO, this summer for an ‘ethical pause‘ on the use of online ads for political purposes.

The ICO made that call right after announcing it planned to issue Facebook with the maximum fine possible under UK data protection law — again for the Cambridge Analytica breach.

While the Cambridge Analytica scandal — in which the personal information of as many as 87 million Facebook users was extracted from the platform without the knowledge or consent of every person, and passed to the now defunct political consultancy (which used it to create psychographic profiles of US voters for election campaigning purposes) — has triggered this latest round of political scrutiny of the social media behemoth, last month Facebook revealed another major data breach, affecting at least 50M users — underlining the ongoing challenge it has to live up to claims of having ‘locked the platform down’.

In light of both breaches, the Libe committee has now called for EU bodies to be allowed to fully audit Facebook — to independently assess its data protection and security practices.

Buttarelli also told us last week that it’s his belief none of the tech giants are directing adequate resource at keeping user data safe.

And with Facebook having already revealed a second breach that’s potentially even larger than Cambridge Analytica fresh focus and political attention is falling on the substance of its security practices, not just its claims.

While the Libe committee’s MEPs say they have taken note of steps Facebook made in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal to try to improve user privacy, they point out it has still not yet carried out the promised full internal audit.

Facebook has never said how long this historical app audit will take. Though it has given some progress reports, such as detailing additional suspicious activity it has found to date, with 400 apps suspended at the last count. (One app, called myPersonality, also got banned for improper data controls.)

The Libe committee is now urging Facebook to allow the EU Agency for Network and Information Security (ENISA) and the European Data Protection Board, which plays a key role in applying the region’s data protection rules, to carry out “a full and independent audit” — and present the findings to the European Commission and Parliament and national parliaments.

It has also recommended that Facebook makes “substantial modifications to its platform” to comply with EU data protection law.

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment on the recommendations — including specifically asking the company whether it’s open to an external audit of its platform.

At the time of writing Facebook had not responded to our question but we’ll update this report with any response.

Commenting in a statement, Libe chair Moraes said: “This resolution makes clear that we expect measures to be taken to protect citizens’ right to private life, data protection and freedom of expression. Improvements have been made since the scandal, but, as the Facebook data breach of 50 million accounts showed just last month, these do not go far enough.”

The committee has also made a series of proposals for reducing the risk of social media being used as an attack vector for election interference — including:

  • applying conventional “off-line” electoral safeguards, such as rules on transparency and limits to spending, respect for silence periods and equal treatment of candidates;
  • making it easy to recognize online political paid advertisements and the organisation behind them;
  • banning profiling for electoral purposes, including use of online behaviour that may reveal political preferences;
  • social media platforms should label content shared by bots and speed up the process of removing fake accounts;
  • compulsory post-campaign audits to ensure personal data are deleted;
  • investigations by member states with the support of Eurojust if necessary, into alleged misuse of the online political space by foreign forces.

A couple of weeks ago, the Commission outted a voluntary industry Code of Practice aimed at tackling online disinformation which several tech platforms and adtech companies had agreed to sign up to, and which also presses for action in some of the same areas — including fake accounts and bots.

However the code is not only voluntary but does not bind signatories to any specific policy steps or processes so it looks like its effectiveness will be as difficult to quantify as its accountability will lack bite.

A UK parliamentary committee which has also been probing political disinformation this year also put out a report this summer with a package of proposed measures — with some similar ideas but also suggesting a levy on social media to ‘defend democracy’.

Meanwhile Facebook itself has been working on increasing transparency around advertisers on its platform, and putting in place some authorization requirements for political advertisers (though starting in the US first).

But few politicians appear ready to trust that the steps Facebook is taking will be enough to avoid a repeat of, for example, the mass Kremlin propaganda smear campaign that targeted the 2016 US presidential election.

The Libe committee has also urged all EU institutions, agencies and bodies to verify that their social media pages, and any analytical and marketing tools they use, “should not by any means put at risk the personal data of citizens”.

And it goes as far as suggesting that EU bodies could even “consider closing their Facebook accounts” — as a measure to protect the personal data of every individual contacting them.

The committee’s full resolution was passed by 41 votes to 10 and 1 abstention. And will be put to a vote by the full EU Parliament during the next plenary session later this month.

In it, the Libe also renews its call for the suspension of the EU-US Privacy Shield.

The data transfer arrangement, which is used by thousands of businesses to authorize transfers of EU users’ personal data across the Atlantic, is under growing pressure ahead of an annual review this month, as the Trump administration has failed entirely to respond as EU lawmakers had hoped their US counterparts would at the time of the agreement being inked in the Obama era, back in 2016.

The EU parliament also called for Privacy Shield to be suspended this summer. And while the Commission did not act on those calls, pressure has continued to mount from MEPs and EU consumer and digital and civil rights bodies.

During the Privacy Shield review process this month the Commission will be pressuring US counterparts to try to gain concessions that it can sell back home as ‘compliance’.

But without very major concessions — and who would bank on that, given the priorities of the current US administration — the future of the precariously placed mechanism looks increasingly uncertain.

Even as more oversight coming down the pipe to rule social media platforms looks all but inevitable in Europe.