Knotch launches Blueprint to help marketers find the best publishers of sponsored content

When I last wrote about Knotch, the company had just patented its color-based feedback system that helps advertisers measure the effectiveness of their sponsored content. Since then, it’s added a competitive intelligence product and now Blueprint, a tool for marketers who want to find the best topics, formats and partners to reach their desired audience. […]

When I last wrote about Knotch, the company had just patented its color-based feedback system that helps advertisers measure the effectiveness of their sponsored content.

Since then, it’s added a competitive intelligence product and now Blueprint, a tool for marketers who want to find the best topics, formats and partners to reach their desired audience.

Lara Vandenberg, Knotch’s senior vice president of marketing and communications, told me that agencies had been asking the company to recommend which publishers to work with, so Blueprint is meant to meet that need. She described it as both “this ultimate content planning product” and as “a predictive matchmaker for brands as content becomes so much more of a focus.”

To accomplish this, she said Knotch is scouring the web for sponsored content, then automatically identifying elements like content, themes and trends.

Marketers can then access this data by browsing through different themes and publishers. They also can search based on the audience and metrics that they’re looking for, and Blueprint will recommend publishers that seem like a good fit. Blueprint offers detailed information about publishers, like how often they’re publishing sponsored content, who their advertisers are and what kind of response they’re getting.

In some cases, marketers can even click a button to send a message directly to the publisher’s sales team.

The initial brands using Blueprint include JP Morgan Chase and Ford. Vandenberg said the product will only be monetized on the brand side, but publishers can also claim their profiles, turning them into “verified” accounts where Knotch measures their sponsored content directly.

“The idea is for Knotch to be with a brand at every phase of the content cycle, except for the creating,” Vandenberg said. That means the company wants to be involved in “the measurement, the optimization, the distribution, the planning.”

Knotch launches Blueprint to help marketers find the best publishers of sponsored content

When I last wrote about Knotch, the company had just patented its color-based feedback system that helps advertisers measure the effectiveness of their sponsored content. Since then, it’s added a competitive intelligence product and now Blueprint, a tool for marketers who want to find the best topics, formats and partners to reach their desired audience. […]

When I last wrote about Knotch, the company had just patented its color-based feedback system that helps advertisers measure the effectiveness of their sponsored content.

Since then, it’s added a competitive intelligence product and now Blueprint, a tool for marketers who want to find the best topics, formats and partners to reach their desired audience.

Lara Vandenberg, Knotch’s senior vice president of marketing and communications, told me that agencies had been asking the company to recommend which publishers to work with, so Blueprint is meant to meet that need. She described it as both “this ultimate content planning product” and as “a predictive matchmaker for brands as content becomes so much more of a focus.”

To accomplish this, she said Knotch is scouring the web for sponsored content, then automatically identifying elements like content, themes and trends.

Marketers can then access this data by browsing through different themes and publishers. They also can search based on the audience and metrics that they’re looking for, and Blueprint will recommend publishers that seem like a good fit. Blueprint offers detailed information about publishers, like how often they’re publishing sponsored content, who their advertisers are and what kind of response they’re getting.

In some cases, marketers can even click a button to send a message directly to the publisher’s sales team.

The initial brands using Blueprint include JP Morgan Chase and Ford. Vandenberg said the product will only be monetized on the brand side, but publishers can also claim their profiles, turning them into “verified” accounts where Knotch measures their sponsored content directly.

“The idea is for Knotch to be with a brand at every phase of the content cycle, except for the creating,” Vandenberg said. That means the company wants to be involved in “the measurement, the optimization, the distribution, the planning.”

Call for social media adtech to be probed by UK competition watchdog

A British Conservative politician, who has called repeatedly for Mark Zuckerberg to come to parliament to answer questions about how Facebook fences fake news — only to be repeatedly rebuffed — has made a public call for the UK’s competition regulator to look into social media giants’ adtech operations. Damian Collins, the chair of the […]

A British Conservative politician, who has called repeatedly for Mark Zuckerberg to come to parliament to answer questions about how Facebook fences fake news — only to be repeatedly rebuffed — has made a public call for the UK’s competition regulator to look into social media giants’ adtech operations.

Damian Collins, the chair of the DCMS committee which has spent months this year asking questions about how disinformation spreads online — culminating in a report, this summer, recommending the government impose a levy on social media to defend democracy — made the suggestion in a tweet that references a news article reporting on a U.S. class action lawsuit against Facebook.

Advertisers in the US lawsuit allege Facebook knowingly inflated video viewing stats and thus mislead them into spending more money on its ad platform than they otherwise would have.

But Facebook disputes the allegations, saying the lawsuit is “without merit”. It has also filed a motion to dismiss the claims of ad fraud.

Although, two years ago, it did ‘fess up to a ‘miscalculation’ around average video viewing times, saying it had mistakenly discounted all the people who dropped out of watching a video in the first 3 seconds in calculating averages — thereby bumping viewing averages up.

At about the same time, it also said it had discovered some other ad-related bugs and errors in its system that had led to the wrong numbers being reported across four products, including Instant Articles, video and Page Insights.

The advertisers in the class action lawsuit — which was filed back in 2016 — had originally claimed Facebook engaged in unfair business practices. After receiving tens of thousands of documents in relation to the case they amended their complaint to accuse the company of fraud, CBS reports.

In its statement denying the suit’s claims, Facebook also said: “Suggestions that we in any way tried to hide this issue from our partners are false. We told our customers about the error when we discovered it — and updated our help center to explain the issue.” 

The company declined to comment on Collins’ remarks about adtech industry practices today.

A spokeswoman for the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) also declined to comment when asked whether it has any concerns related to practices in the adtech sector.

Given market sensitivity to regulatory action it’s normal for the CMA to not want to stoke any speculation around a particular company.

For the same reason it would not normally discuss any complaints it’s received until the point of actually launching any investigation.

However this is not the first time the CMA has been urged by concerned politicians to investigate the adtech sector.

This fall another UK committee, the Lords Select Committee on Communications, directly asked the body to investigate digital advertising.

And earlier this month the CMA’s CEO, Andrea Coscelli, told the committee it is indeed considering doing so, if only it can carve out the resources to do so — saying he was worried about “potential gaps” in the regulatory framework around competition and consumer issues.

“A month ago, this Committee asked us to look at digital advertising. That is something we are actively considering, subject to Brexit in the next few weeks, because it has a big resource implication for us,” said Coscelli on October 9. “It is certainly something where we are interested in getting involved. If we did, we would work closely with Ofcom and give serious thought to the regulatory framework in that context.”

The CMA has also generally been ramping up its activity on the digital market front, recently spinning up a new data unit and appointing a chief data and digital insights officer, Stefan Hunt, hired in from the Financial Conduct Authority — to help it “develop and deliver an effective data and digital insight strategy… to better understand the impact that data, machine learning and other algorithms have on markets and people”.

So it sounds like a case of ‘watch this regulatory space’ for more action at the very least.

Elsewhere in Europe competition regulators have also been paying closer attention to the adtech industry in recent years — examining a variety of practices by adtech giants, Facebook and Google, and coming away with a range of antitrust-related concerns.

In preliminary findings at the end of last year, for example, Germany’s Federal Cartel Office accused Facebook of using its size to strong-arm users into handing over data.

While, earlier this year, the French Competition Authority suggested it was planning to investigate Facebook and Google‘s dominance of the adtech market, publishing a report in which it identified a raft of problematic behaviors — and pointed out that the two companies act as both publishers and technical intermediaries for advertisers, thereby gaining a competitive advantage.

Italian regulators have also been probing competition concerns related to big data for more than a year.

As we’ve reported before, the European Commission is also actively eyeing digital platforms’ market power — and looking to reshape competition policy to take account of how tech giants are able to draw on network effects and leverage their position from one market to another.

And when you’re talking about platform power, you are also — in the current era — talking about adtech.

There’s no doubt closer scrutiny of the digital advertising sector is coming. And with a brighter spotlight, tighter accountability screws applied to its practices.

Privacy reviews of adtech platforms have already raised plenty of ethical questions, in addition to flagging actual violations of the law.

This summer the UK’s data protection watchdog also called for an ethical pause of the use of social media ads for political purposes, writing that: “It is important that there is greater and genuine transparency about the use of such techniques to ensure that people have control over their own data and that the law is upheld.”

So while it remains to be seen what any competition investigations of the adtech sector will conclude, political momentum is building to increase transparency and ensure accountability — which makes regulation more likely.

Google-incubated AdLingo uses chatbot integration to create conversational ads

“Conversational marketing” is a phrase that I hear a lot, but when the team at AdLingo uses it, they mean something specific — namely, bringing chatbots and other conversational assistants into online advertising. The startup is part of Google’s Area 120, and co-founder and general manager Vic Fatnani said he’s worked on advertising at Google […]

“Conversational marketing” is a phrase that I hear a lot, but when the team at AdLingo uses it, they mean something specific — namely, bringing chatbots and other conversational assistants into online advertising.

The startup is part of Google’s Area 120, and co-founder and general manager Vic Fatnani said he’s worked on advertising at Google for more than a decade.

“One of the things we saw happening was this paradigm shift with users and consumers going towards more of a conversational medium,” he said. “Everything is becoming more conversational, whether it’s through devices such as your phone, your speaker and eventually your car … We asked ourselves, ‘Hey if this shift is happening, why can’t marketing be more conversational?'”

You may be wondering whether consumers are really clamoring to interact with ads, but Fatnani said he and his co-founder Dario Rapisardi were determined not to build “a solution that needs a problem,” so they spent months talking to marketers and chatbot developers.

Apparently, when they asked about what challenges everyone was facing, the big answer was “discovery.” As Fatnani put it, “Hey, I have this amazing conversational assistant, but it’s really hard for me to bring this in front of audience.”

General Manager Vic Fatnani, Head of Partnerships Stephanie Lyras, Head of Engineering Dario Rapisardi

In his view, advertising provides the perfect medium to solve this problem. Instead of building a chatbot and just letting consumers find it on their own website or app, brands can integrate it into their advertising, allowing people who see the ad to ask questions and provide feedback.

“Imagine you want to launch a new soda drink in Brazil, a market that you’ve never entered before,” he added. “Imagine you can now run a conversational display ad and actually have people vote to say what kind of flavor would you like to drink.”

Or for a real example, there’s the Allstar Kia experience that you can see at the top of this post. Che company’s director of internet marketing Chris Ferrall said in a statement that “AdLingo lets our customers browse inventory, determine car trade-in value and make an appointment with a salesperson — all within an engaging, interactive experience that meets them right where they are.”

To be clear, Adlingo isn’t building the chatbots. Instead, Fatnani said, “The brands and developers bring the conversational experience to us, and we distribute that experience all over the web.”

To do this, the platform integrates with chatbot tools like Dialogue Flow, Microsoftbot Framework, LiveEngage and Blip. It’s also partnered with Valassis Digital and LivePerson (the Kia campaign happened through Valassis).

How does this all fit into Google’s larger plans for advertising? Fatnani said it doesn’t, at least not yet.

“We are completely separate efforts in terms of our product roadmap and what we execute,” he said, later adding, “At this point, we just want to make sure we’re really, really focused on our customer.”

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.

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.