Facebook and Twitter face a short deadline on Russian bot #ReleaseTheMemo reports for Congress


Two leading Democrats in Congress are calling for new disclosures from Facebook and Twitter about Russian disinformation campaigns on their platforms.

In a letter, Rep. Adam Schiff and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, minority leads on the House Intel and Senate Judiciary committees respectively, called for the two tech companies to release any information that have about Russian ties to the recent social media campaign around a controversial memo written by Republican Rep. Devin Nunes. The pair argues that there is evidence that Russian bots promoted Nunes’ political agenda and the public deserves to know about it, citing last week’s Business Insider story “Russia-linked Twitter accounts are working overtime to help Devin Nunes and WikiLeaks.”

The new Russian bot debate surrounds a hashtag known as #releasethememo. #Releasethememo sprung up to call on Congress to declassify the Nunes memo, which is either a damning account of corruption in the investigation into Russia’s efforts to undermine the 2016 election or a craven gesture to create political cover for a doomed president, depending on who you ask.

As Feinstein and Schiff’s letter argues, #releasethememo is tainted by Russian influence:

Specifically, on Thursday, January 18, 2018, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) Majority voted to allow Members of the U.S. House of Representatives to review a misleading talking points “memo” authored by Republican staff that selectively references and distorts highly classified information.  The rushed decision to make this document available to the full House of Representatives was followed quickly by calls from some quarters to release the document to the public.

Several Twitter hashtags, including #ReleaseTheMemo, calling for release of these talking points attacking the Mueller investigation were born in the hours after the Committee vote. According to the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, this effort gained the immediate attention and assistance of social media accounts linked to Russian influence operations.

The letter goes on to request that Twitter and Facebook examine these links to “Russian influence operations,” including “the frequency and volume of their postings on this topic” and “how many legitimate Twitter and Facebook account holders have been exposed to this campaign.” With a request for this information by January 26, the members of Congress give the two companies a deadline they’re unlikely to meet, assuming they choose to cooperate. If the companies do conduct an investigation and issue reports on #releasethememo, Feinstein and Schiff’s play could easily backfire. We should know by now that 1) these companies aren’t particularly good at conducting comprehensive internal analyses on foreign disinformation campaigns and 2) tons of fake news and political propaganda is generated domestically too. Still, the more info on this kind of stuff that Congress can wring out of Facebook and Twitter, the better.

Nunes, who serves as the chairman of the House Intel Committee, is a controversial figure. That committee, along with considerably less chaotic Senate counterpart, is investigating Russian interference in the U.S. election. Last year, Nunes created a lot of attention for himself by amplifying misleading claims that the Obama administration had “wiretapped” President Trump (for clarification on this bit, read a little about how a FISA warrant is obtained. Hint: It doesn’t involve the White House). His memo purports to provide evidence, or at least talking points, around the claim that the FBI somehow abused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in its effort to surveil Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Given his proven track record of partisanship and pandering to the White House, it’s difficult to take something authored by Nunes that seriously, regardless of what it claims to prove. Still, a broader Republican effort to release the memo suggests that a chunk of Congress thinks (or hopes) it might cause a stir. Oddly enough, many of those same Republican members of Congress just voted overwhelmingly to support Section 702, a portion of FISA that would appear to contradict the position of outrage over recent “wiretapping” claims.

Whatever ends up coming of the potentially Russia-influenced effort to #releasethememo, it’s clear that after dragging Facebook and Twitter over the coals on Russia, some members of Congress are happy to casually knock on tech’s door for evidence that might undermine their political opposition. Whether that’s good (transparency!) or bad (partisanship!), it’s definitely strange, and we can expect tech’s relationship with Congress to get even stranger in 2018.

The full letter is embedded below.

Featured Image: Matt McClain/Getty Images

Facebook acquires biometric ID verification startup Confirm.io


Facebook has confirmed to TechCrunch that it’s acquired…Confirm.io. The startup offered an API that let other companies quickly verify someone’s government issued identification card like a driver’s license was authentic. The Boston-based startup will shut down as both its team and technology are rolled into Facebook, where it could help users who are locked out of their accounts.

Confirm.io had raised at least $4 million from investors including Cava Capital since launching three years ago. The 2015 seed round funded advanced forensics used to pull information from an ID card, as well as mobile biometerics and facial recognition to confirm a person’s identity before the startup deleted the personal data

Clients could quickly integrate the tech, which sped up on-demand startup staff onboarding. Food delivery service Doordash used Confirm.io to verify its drivers, while Notarize used it to authenticate the identity of customers looking to file documents.

The startup writes “When we launched Confirm, our mission was to become the market’s trusted identity origination platform for which other multifactor verification services can build upon. Now, we’re ready to take the next step on our journey with Facebook. However, in the meantime this means all of our current digital ID authentication software offerings will be wound down.”

Confirm.io’s ID authentication feature

Facebook tells TechCrunch “We are excited to welcome the Confirm team to Facebook. Their technology and expertise will support our ongoing efforts to keep our community safe.”

Facebook tests selfie-to-unlock feature

Facebook could potentially use the technology to have people confirm their identities if they’re locked out of their accounts after being hacked or losing their password. Back in September we spotted Facebook testing a feature that let you unlock your account using a selfie. And since at least 2013, Facebook has let people mail in a copy of their photo ID or other identity verification materials in order to regain access to their account.

Since this is a full acquisition, not just an acqhire, Confirm.io’s team and tech could help Facebook strengthen and streamline these options. And one day, perhaps Facebook could even serve as your ID card in some situations. Face ID on the iPhone X could eventually be opened to third-parties to power more biometric security across apps. With our keys and payment cards becoming digitized and part of our phone, the ID card is really the last reason you have to carry an old-school wallet.

Holy moly! Facebook test was nudging me to chat with a church


Facebook says it’s on a mission to de-bloat its Messenger app this year. At the same time, TechCrunch has discovered, the data-mining giant is running tests on its desktop platform to inject the Messenger “contact pages” of businesses directly into your chat sidebar.

And here it appears to be toying with the idea of spamming Facebookers with businesses they’ve neither used nor expressed any personal interest in using… So, er, so much for trimming its own fat then.

I know because earlier this month I found myself in one of these tests buckets, after I noticed some new “contact pages” icons appearing at the top of the Facebook chat sidebar…

To be clear, the sidebar is the messaging shortcut area at the right hand side of the Facebook News Feed (when you visit Facebook on the desktop). It usually contains a list of your friends so you can easily locate them to open up a chat.

But, this month, while I was in Facebook’s test bucket, I was seeing businesses’ contact pages appearing here too — above the ‘chat head’ icons of friends. So basically in the most prominent spot possible on the page.

At first glance only one of the three icons was familiar as a business I knew by sight (and had used). A second icon turned out to an online business of a Facebook friend of mine which I was also aware of (and had visited to test out).

The third was the Facebook page of a methodist church. I had never come across this church before in my life…

What to make of this bizarre spiritual incursion by Facebook?!

The company was suddenly spamming me with a religious icon which, once I hovered over it, urged me to send a message to a place of worship I had never attended. The company was actively urging me to engage with a religious belief I do not in fact hold.

I’m really not sure that ‘religion’ is the kind of ‘business’ anyone might feel urged to contact just because they happen to have a Facebook friend who’s into that kind of thing. But here was Facebook testing exactly that possibility — offering me a suggestive messaging hotlink to, er, God.

While methodists might welcome Facebook’s damascene conversion to (at least in this example) evangelizing their particular brand of Christianity, it doesn’t take much imagination to envisage the kind of ‘businesses’ Kremlin agents might seek to seed across Facebook to take advantage of algorithmic recommendations for “contact pages” and win prominent placing in users’ sidebars.

But I digress.

Returning to the test, there didn’t seem to be an obvious option to edit the contact pages. The only visible options were left and right arrows to scroll through some other (also unfamiliar) business pages. (Though later I noticed if you hover over each icon, which then pops up a glut more info about it — including a big button to message the page owner, a tiny grey cross also momentarily materializes next to the original icon, which presumably lets you edit it out of the selection.)

While I couldn’t (initially) see a way to delete the church — or indeed either of the other two businesses (which I also didn’t feel I would ever need to message via the Facebook homepage) — there was a (very visible) option to click to ‘see all’.

This opened a full spread of business contact pages (below) — which provided a hint at Facebook’s logic for surfacing those first three icons in the sidebar. Here it told me (in pale grey letters) that particular Facebook friends of mine had either liked each individual business or been geolocated as using it (via a Facebook ‘check in’).

In the church’s case its page had been liked by one of my Facebook friends. Hence, presumably, Facebook thinking I’d also like to chat to it. (Which seems more like an ‘artificial dumb idea’ than artificial intelligence to my eye.)

I can’t read a great deal of sense into why Facebook had settled on these particular friends to power these particular business suggestions either. They seem to be friends I have chatted with at least once via Facebook (though not necessarily that recently; but then I also don’t use Facebook for much messaging).

And/or friends that I had been geolocated with together at the same business by Facebook — at least in one instance (again not recently, and I know for a fact the friend has also only been to the business in question once). So shared location appears to be being very heavily weighted in Facebook’s business recommendation engine.

The rest of the contact pages (the second tier) were businesses that other users of Facebook had liked. None were businesses I had ever used (nor were familiar with). But there are ~2BN Facebook users these days which means there are, inevitably, billions and billions of ‘liked’ business pages on Facebook. Any of which, presumably, could be served into your sidebar by Facebook’s algorithms in future (assuming this test gets the go ahead).

These non-friend based suggestions appear to factor in where Facebook thinks you’re located. Beyond that, I’d guess they’re generally tailored to what Facebook thinks you’ll find interesting and relevant — based on the continuous data-mining the company performs of every user (and at least some non users) for its ad-targeting purposes.

Its assessment of my interests here — fitness, community projects, technology and pets — was certainly less ‘out there’ than nudging me towards a methodist church. Or pointing me at a random fashion brand that a couple of guys I happen to know had apparently once liked (another of the friend-powered suggestions it had curated for me).

Though the actual businesses being suggested were still no less irrelevant in this context — i.e. in a personalized index with Facebook’s suggestive call to action being that I leap right in and start chatting.

Being quasi-relevant yet also useless made these suggestions feel even more creepy — highlighting the unstated fact of their being powered by intelligence Facebook had gleaned via background surveillance.

Would I ever decide to A) browse an index of businesses Facebook believes I would like and B) have the urge to ‘cold-call’ any of them via a Fb message? In a word, no.

If I’m looking for a particular type of business then I’ll do it under my own steam. I would certainly never think ‘I’ll go and see if Facebook has a suggestion’. That might be how algorithms ‘think’; but it’s not how I do.

I contacted Facebook to ask about what I was seeing and its intentions regarding the chat sidebar and businesses’ contact pages. And I was told multiples times, by multiple Facebook employees, that they were looking into it.

Meanwhile I had a look around online — and found several other Facebook users apparently stuck in similar test buckets (in a few different geographical locations, dating back at least as far back as November) — also complaining that the intrusion into their sidebar felt creepy and irrelevant…

 

It’s been a week since I started asking Facebook about this, and I am still waiting for it to explain why its algorithms were nudging me to chat with a church.

While the company has not answered any questions nor even provided a general explanation of what’s going on, one of its comms spokespeople suggested the query might need to go to the Messenger team. (Albeit, when I contacted a member of the Messenger comms team they just rerouted my request back to Fb’s main press email saying they couldn’t help. So [shrug emoji].)

One development: I do appear to have been removed from the test bucket. So — for now at least — the chat sidebar has been returned to its pre-test state of being just a list of friends, not a filofax of irrelevant businesses thrust in my eyeline.

But it remains to be seen whether Facebook decides to roll it out in future. It does continuously run tests on its products. And many of these tweaks never end up getting actually baked in to the software.

But given that business messaging is a growing area of focus for the company — just last week it launched a business app for its WhatsApp messaging product, for example — and given its freshly stated desire to remove some of the non-personal ‘noise’ from News Feed, it at least seems unlikely it will abandon trying to find a more prominent placement for businesses’ contact pages on its desktop product.

It could be that now Facebook has decided the News Feed must include less content from the world outside your friend circle (aka your filter bubble), then it’s time for the chat sidebar to get a bit less personal (aka more spammy) — and that’s why it’s testing having it double up as a place where it can actively push users to chat with businesses as well as friends.

Even though mixing friends with algorithmically suggested business contact pages feels, well, horribly icky.

Having been in its test bucket, and having found myself spammed with some very random business contact details, I’d urge the company to think twice before it switches on yet another lead-footed algorithmic evangelizer — and risks wading into fresh controversies at a time when its platform is already bogged down on that front.

Alternatively, I’m left to wonder whether there was some kind of underlying spiritual coda being delivered when CEO Mark Zuckerberg talked about wanting Facebook to encourage “meaningful social interactions” and lead to more ‘time well spent’. What were you really trying to tell us, Mark? And what are you really trying to sell us?

Here’s how Vine replacement v2 will work

First, don’t call it “Vine Two”. Details are starting to emerge about v2, the forthcoming video app built to replace Vine by its former co-founder Dom Hofmann. TechCrunch has learned that v2 has begun reaching out to former Viners and social media star managers in hopes of establishing ties with some top content creators to get feedback and fuel the app’s eventual launch.

Twitter acquired Vine before its launch in 2013 but never gave the short-form video sharing app the support it deserved. Eventually, facing economic struggles, Twitter opted to kill off Vine, leaving users only with an archive of old videos and a Vine Camera app for shooting but not sharing new videos. Instagram is focused on photos and longer clips up to 60-seconds, so there’s still no viable home for browsing punchy 6.5 second videos.

Hofmann decided to step up, and since announcing a plan to build a Vine successor in November, has been slowly trickling out plans for v2 scattered through the company’s recently launched community forums and on Twitter. “Some things will be very familiar to people who have used vine, but what we’re planning is equally an homage, follow-up, remake, and brand new thing” he writes. 

Here’s what you need to know about v2, in a list we’ll keep updating as facts surface in the run-up to the launch:

The Name

“Please refer to the service only as v2 or V2” says Hofmann, though he mainly uses the lower-case version. He explains that Twitter still owns Vine and it’s not technically associated with v2, so basically he’s looking to avoid being sued. Hofmann tweeted the logo you see above, which at first glance looks very similar. But note the lighter green, how the letters are rounded, that they don’t connect, and the lack of a drop shadow. That could be enough for v2 to escape trademark infringement, though it might design something more refined for the launch.

A block of the bright green is the current app icon, V2.co is the company’s website that currently hosts the forums, and it has set up the Twitter account @v2app but nothing of merit has been tweeted. Still, Hofmann will have to tread carefully, as he probably doesn’t want to fight Twitter in a legal battle. Even if v2 doesn’t constitute infringement, Hofmann’s acquisition and employment deal from Twitter might still prohibit building a copycat.

The Launch

There’s currently “no firm release date” but Hofmann notes v2 will debut “definitely in 2018, hopefully when it’s warm in the northern hemisphere, so that implies a Q2 Spring or Q3 Summer 2018 launch. The app is currently in a “very very very limited alpha” testing stage, and there will eventually be both an iOS and Android version. There’s currently no open beta or way to reserve usernames, though Hofmann says that stuff might happen through the forums so users should get active there if they want first dibs.

The Videos

Videos will range from 2 to 6.5 seconds, and smoothly loop over and over. They can be captured with your phone or uploaded from your camera roll — permitting clips edited in other apps or professional software.

Hofmann says there will be no color filters, face filters, or geo filters, so you won’t be able to create perfectly manicured selfie videos, don dog ears, or highlight where you are. Prototypes have shown videos captured in vertical full-screen, and users will be able to flip to and from selfie mode while recording. Unlike Vine, v2 will be a bit stricter about copyrighted content and take down videos that include major record label music or movie scene if it receives a DMCA notice. On the plus side, whether through optional watermarks or another solution, v2 wants to prevent people from stealing and reposting each other’s videos.

In v2, “at the very least, there will be a chronological timeline” says Hofmann. However, there’s likely to be an algorithmically filtered feed or ‘Popular’/’Explore’ page to show you the most best and most relevant posts as well. Hofmann tweeted the idea of adding a “A ‘nope’ button that lets you shape your timeline”. That means rather than just showing more of what you Like or watch, v2 can steer away from videos or artists that annoy you.

The Community

v2 will take a stricter approach to moderation than Vine. Hofmann writes “It’s okay to disagree with or be critical of someone’s work, but name calling, facetious attitudes, or any other form of indirect harassment won’t be tolerated.” That could give the app a more positive vibe, help retain content makers, and make it a more welcoming place to share for people of all backgrounds over age 13. In fact, v2 will offer the ability to select your gender pronouns.

Vine’s old categories

You’ll be able to disable comments on a per-post basis along with other controls. v2 will be somewhat lenient about letting your show off links to your other artwork or social presences, with Hofmann noting “spam is the main issue, but I promise we’re going to be a lot more open on this than instagram/fb”. The team is still making a decision about where to draw the line on nudity, erotica, and offensive content. Though Hofmann writes “i personally don’t have a problem with it”, he plans to use a combination of staff moderation and community flagging to keep the app clean.

And to stoke collaboration between content creators that v2 calls “artists”, there’s a Team feature. “A Team’s profile page will list its members, and the members have the ability to promote and repost Team posts to their own timeline (even with alternate captions)” Hofmann explains. The collaboration behavior, where artists appear in and promote each other’s videos, was popularized on Vine since videos took so little time to create and many artists lived close to each other in LA. The team-ups led to some of the app’s most creative content, so v2 is hoping to facilitate co-starring.

The Founder

v2’s Dom Hofmann

Before getting serious about v2, Hofmann was working on Interspace, which is making some mysterious and trippy 3D/VR/AR world thing. In response to whether he’d abandon v2, this week he wrote that “I run another startup which is essentially my ‘day job’, so i’m pretty fulfilled on that front. v2 is being built out of love and i’d like for both the service and my involvement with it to live on for a long time.”

That also means keeping control, rather than handing it off to corporate overlords for a quick pay-day. Those excited for a revival of their favorite app will be heartened to know Hofmann says “there are no plans to sell v2. Never say never, but it’s nowhere close to consideration right now.”

The Reception

Vine’s shutdown was met with a global outpouring of support and nostalgia. But the stars that made their names on Vine quickly moved on to YouTube and Instagram, and their audiences followed. Influencers have grown more savvy, with a focus on audience size and monetization where YouTube rules, even despite recent changes.

Plenty of former users and smaller Vine stars that never made the jump elsewhere are eager for v2. But a social media talent manager told me they’d rather see their clients add 1 million subscribers on YouTube or Instagram than 5 or even 10 million on v2, because no one wants to “start from scratch” and “Instagram and YouTube are here to stay.” Multiple social content execs told me that it’s all about how v2 treats creators, and that was what Hofmann and his Vine co-founders were never good at.

v2 will need to recruit great content that can’t be found elsewhere, stars who deliver their fans, and plenty of loyal users to survive. v2’s competitors are much stronger now than when Vine launched. Gaining traction in this social app landscape is like capturing lightning in a bottle, and Hofmann will have to make lightning strike twice.

The best thing about Vine was that there were no news links, few boring selfies, and lots of creativity. It was a place to relax and be entertained with endless comedy, art, absurdity, and micro-storytelling. In an age where social media is getting a bit too serious and intense, v2 could bring the joy back to playing around on your phone.

Twitter COO Anthony Noto resigns to become SoFi CEO


Twitter COO Anthony Noto has left the company, Twitter announced Tuesday. Noto’s leaving because he accepted a CEO role elsewhere, according to the release. Just last week, the WSJ reported that Noto was mulling the top executive job at finance startup SoFi, and indeed SoFi confirmed today that he’s joining effective March 1.

Regarding Noto’s Twitter departure, CEO Jack Dorsey expressed respect and appreciate for the departing executive’s work at the social network, and sadness at his leaving.

Noto’s role will be filled by “other members of Twitter’s leadership team,” according to the company, which makes it sound like there are no immediate plans to name a new COO in his stead.

Prior to joining Twitter, Noto acted as a banging director of Goldman Sachs, and also as CFO of the NFL. He jointed Twitter in 2014 under then-CEO Dick Costolo, and has been cited as one of Twitter’s most important executives by many company observers.

SoFi lost its previous CEO, Mike Cagney, late last year, as he was pushed out following sexual harassment allegations. Noto will take over leadership of the load refinancing startup from interim CEO Tom Hutton when he starts in March.

Snapchat will now let you share some Stories outside the app


There’s no getting around the fact that Snapchat has a user growth problem, so it’s smart that the company is making it easier for people who like and use Snapchat to share content they find within beyond the app itself. Today, Snap is launching the ability to share some public Stories via links that then display the Story selected on Snapchat.com.

Stories eligible for sharing right now include those Official Stories and Our Stories found in the Discover tab, as well as Search Stories, though Snapchat says those are just what’s included “at launch,” which indicates that the types of Stories you could share will expand over time. This feature is also going live to anyone running the redesigned Snapchat app as of today, which includes test markets like Australia and Canada, and will become available for iOS and Android over the next few weeks to the rest of the world as the redesign expands globally.

Snap says that part of its motivation for launching this feature is to allow users to share content from within the app to demonstrate to people who aren’t already on the platform what it can do. It’s also aiming to make it easier for outside parties, including media outlets, to incorporate Snap-based content in their reporting. That suggests that while this feature is launching as a simple link that leads to a web-based replica of the in-app Story, eventually the plan could also involve more embed-friendly formats, similar to what Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have rolled out for their respective platforms.

  1. Fire Example – Story on Snapchat.com

  2. Concert Example – Story on Snapchat.com

Already, Snapchat Stories shared directly via some platforms will support in-line playback, including on Twitter, using the same web link. Also, on Facebook, you’ll see a link to the full content along with a preview, similar to how YouTube video sharing works on the platform. Snap also says that for now it’s not running Snap Ads on the web-based versions of shared stories, but that it isn’t totally ruling out monetization strategies for shared content.

While in some ways external sharing of Snapchat Stories is counterintuitive to the app’s focus on ephemerality, Snap has built that in to its sharing mechanism, too. Our Stories will last only 30 days outside of Snapchat, even via the link, for instance, and Search Stories will also expire after 30 days. Official Stories will only remain live for 24 hours – so each external share has an expiry date, which could be an interesting challenge for those looking to use them to support stories and content that outlast the Snapchat Stories themselves.

DuckDuckGo adds tracker blocking to help curb the wider surveillance web


Some major product news from veteran anti-tracking search engine DuckDuckGo: Today it’s launched revamped mobile apps and browser extensions that bake in a tracker blocker for third party sites, and include a suite of other privacy features intended to help users keep surfing privately as they navigate around the web.

The apps and browser extensions are available globally for Android, iOS, Chrome, Firefox and Safari as of now. (DDG tells us Opera is also on its radar but there’s no launch date yet.)

“Our vision has been to set the standard of trust online,” says CEO and founder Gabe Weinberg, discussing the new products. “[To date] we’ve been really focused on the search engine because it’s really complicated to compete with Google in their core market. But now that we feel we can handle that we are making progress on this broader vision of protecting people across the Internet.

“What we’re really trying to do is move beyond a search box… What we realized from talking to people, especially over the last two years, is that privacy risks have gone completely mainstream.

People really want a mainstream, simple solution for privacy.

“People really want a mainstream, simple solution for privacy.”

DDG’s aim is to create a ‘use anywhere’ privacy tool that combines access to its private search engine with tracker blocking and a bundle of other “privacy essentials” — such as an encryption protection feature that automatically sends a user to an encrypted version of a website (if there is one), instead of accepting a default non-encrypted version.

Also new: DDG is serving up a privacy rating for each website visited. This grade is based on how many hidden trackers a site is deploying; whether it’s encrypting your connection; and also considering the site’s own privacy policy (for the latter activity DDG is partnering with terms of service rating initiative, ToS;DR, but also notes that “most privacy policies still remain unstudied” so says it’s going to be helping that organization rate and label “as many websites as possible” too).

“The unfortunate reality is that hardly any sites really deserve an ‘A’ on privacy,” says Weinberg on this. “We can get most sites up to a ‘B’ if we can… block all the trackers and get encryption. Then the gulf between the ‘B’ and the ‘A’ is actually their privacy policies.

“Unfortunately… even if things are blocked and encrypted then the site itself can still collect data as a first party and sell it. And so to really get an ‘A’ rating the privacy policy needs to be vetted.”

For tracker blocking, he says DDG is using some technology from EasyList and Disconnect but also “running through our own tests to try to add to that, as well as make it so that less websites break when you use it”. (To be clear, it’s not doing any ad-blocking; it’s just blocking third party trackers.)

Weinberg claims the tracker blocker is “very effective now”, leaning on the open source community’s expertise, but says DDG also wants to build on the tool and add more privacy and blocking technologies over time — suggesting, for example, a feature that could thwart hidden cryptocurrency miners, which can get embedded on websites, as something else he’d like to add in future.

Asked how DDG’s approach stacks up compared to Mozilla-backed private search browser Cliqz, which last year acquired the Ghostery anti-tracker tool so is playing in a pretty similar space, Weinberg argues the rival product isn’t “really integrated”. “They’re more going after a pure browser situation whereas what we’re saying is, anywhere you are, on any device or major browser, we can augment it to help protect your privacy there in a seamless way,” he says.

“In general, I think that privacy is mainstream and people want simple, seamless solutions and they just don’t exist — until now,” he continues, adding: “We expect most of our search engine users to accept and use the extension and the app because it really extends their privacy protection.

“And beyond our user base, I think this is something that all consumers could benefit from — so we’re hoping that it gets downloaded widely.”

DuckDuckGo has been profitable since 2014, according to Weinberg. (It makes money not by tracking and profiling its users, as Google does, but by serving ads based on the search terms being used at the point of each search, and also from affiliate revenue.) Hence now feeling flush enough with cash to work on expanding beyond the core private search offering.

Last year DDG’s search engine served up just under 6BN private searches — with usage up around 50 per cent on 2016 levels. (Given it doesn’t track individual users it can’t really break out firm user metrics but Weinberg says third party estimates peg users at around 25M at this point.)

On the growth point, DDG says that over a third (36%) of all searches ever entered in its ten-year lifespan were conducted in 2017 alone. So the usage spike it got in 2013, after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about government mass surveillance programs, has evidently turned into some sustained momentum.

tl;dr, privacy isn’t just a passing fad. Because mass surveillance isn’t just a government activity. The commercial web is lousy with trackers and data brokers too — and Weinberg argues web users are increasingly waking up to how they are being stalked around the Internet.

“In the last couple of years mainstream people have really opened up to the idea that the Internet’s pretty creepy out there — and it’s in large part due to Google and Facebook,” he says. “And in particular that they’re amassing unprecedented amounts of personal information on each person.”

The pair’s use of online tracking for online profiling to power their respective hypertargeted advertising platforms is “at best, annoying”, argues Weinberg, “and at worst causing major political upheavals, like the Russian ad interference” (such as in the US election and the UK’s brexit referendum, to name just two examples on that front).

He cites figures that trackers used by Google are now on 76% of the top million websites and Facebook’s trackers are on 24% of pages — saying it drops off “pretty quickly after that”, with Twitter on just 12%.

Literally any site you visit you’re likely to have Facebook, Google watching you there.

 

“I think people are aware now that hidden trackers are around, and slurping up their personal information. What they don’t realize, though, is how pervasive Google and Facebook trackers are,” he suggests.

“Literally any site you visit you’re likely to have Facebook, Google watching you there. That’s the piece that I think people are starting to wake up to now.”

The other problem that he argues is exacerbated by mass surveillance ad-targeting online business models is filter bubbles — aka the strategy of platforms using people’s own biases as a tactic to keep them clicking by reductively feeding them more of the same stuff.

And, again, concern about the societal impact of filter bubbles has increasingly become a mainstream discussion point in recent months and years.

Weinberg explains that the tracker blocker aspect of DDG’s new products group trackers into networks to try to make it easier for people to understand which companies are responsible for tracking you. So instead of just saying something generic — like it’s ‘blocking 25 trackers’, as a typical anti-tracker tool might — users of DDG’s tool will be told which tracker networks are being blocked and “what their purpose is”.

“When people realize the harms… of filter bubble and pervasive ads those emotionally resonant with people and they’d like to get rid of them. And this is the easiest way to do that,” he adds.

In the European Union, an updated online privacy framework, GDPR, will apply from May. This regulation makes explicit mention of online profiling, including a right for people to object to this kind of activity — and some privacy experts suggest it could cause big upheavals for adtech and online profiling.

But asked for his take on GDPR’s implications for profiling, Weinberg isn’t confident it will be much of a barrier to the web’s two main commercial surveillance entities: Facebook and Google.

“I’m a big fan of the regulation and I’m hopeful that a lot of these kind of more hidden data brokers that don’t have consumer relationships are really going to get caught out with it because they can’t get consent,” he says. “But unfortunately, the way I see it is — Facebook and Google — I don’t think they seem like they’re going to be as affected by the regulation.

“Because while consent will be required in much more vigorous ways, I think that they’re going to push that through their products. And then people will end up consenting.”

“I think you need a different consumer backlash as well — either people literally leaving the services. Or, in this case, in between: Blocking all their hidden trackers across the web. And not waiting for them to take any major action to curb their surveillance,” he adds.

Rupert Murdoch wants Facebook to pay for the news


Rupert Murdoch, the executive chairman of News Corporation, today issued a statement calling for Facebook and Google to subsidize the news traveling through their platforms.

In the statement, Murdoch calls on Facebook to pay a carriage fee, as cable companies do with pay TV, to trusted publishers that are posting their content on the social media platform:

I have yet to see a proposal that truly recognizes the investment in and the social value of professional journalism.

The time has come to consider a different route. If Facebook wants to recognize ‘trusted’ publishers then it should pay those publishers a carriage fee similar to the model adopted by cable companies. The publishers are obviously enhancing the value and integrity of Facebook through their news and content but are not being adequately rewarded for those services.

This comes fresh on the heels of a change to Facebook’s Newsfeed algorithm, which prioritizes posts from friends and family over those from publishers and content providers. Facebook said that the change was meant to increase wellbeing among users, offering a more proactive way to build a community and positive sentiment across the network.

But Wall Street didn’t react well to the change, which Facebook predicted would decrease time spent on the network, which ultimately will decrease the time users spend looking at advertisements.

As part of the announcement, Facebook’s Newsfeed Chief Adam Mosseri didn’t have many concrete suggestions for publishers worried about decreased visibility on the world’s biggest social media platform, simply saying publishers should try “experimenting … and seeing … what content gets more comments, more likes, more reshares.”

This also follows an ongoing situation around news credibility on social networks like Facebook. The spread of fake news across the internet, most noticeably on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, may very well have changed the course of the 2016 election. Whether it was sparked and spread by foreign actors like Russia or domestic political groups, it has forced Facebook to try and remedy the situation over the past year.

Facebook’s original entry into the world of media, the launch of Instant Articles in 2015, has spurred voracious consumption of news on the platform. Pew says that around two-thirds of U.S. adults get their news from social media sites, with 20 percent saying they do so often.

This has disenfranchised many publishers who require a direct connection with readers to maintain credibility. If all articles look the same, and many ‘readers’ are looking at an entirely different ‘front page’ on Facebook, establishing the one and only truth of any matter becomes more difficult.

And let’s not forget that the media industry is in its own, continued transformation as century-old print publications try to move digital.

Murdoch, one of the most successful people in news media, doesn’t see much progress with new business models such as subscriptions and pay walls, but does see an opportunity in making the pipes pay.

An unrealistic proposal

However, on closer inspection his suggestion is disingenuous. To publicly issue a carefully scripted statement with a questionable insinuations (Facebook is equated to a cable provider) and very few details is more mud-slinging than muckraking. We’re not saying Facebook shouldn’t be paying somebody something, but this isn’t a realistic solution and I don’t think Murdoch really believes it is either.

Carriage fees are pretty simple. Your cable provider pays a fee per subscriber to networks like ESPN and AMC in order to carry their programming; these fees vary from under a dollar for specialty or less popular networks (AMC, FX) to more than $6 (ESPN, by far the most expensive). The idea is that you as a subscriber are paying for access to these channels, and then paying for the convenience of having them delivered to your TV by the cable company. The $40-50 is really only routed through the cable companies for convenience (yours and theirs).

But while that makes sense for a cable provider with millions of subscribers in a single region of the US, all paying $50 or more for the privilege of watching live TV, it’s a poor match for the likes of Facebook.

Facebook’s “viewers,” just off the top of my head:

  • are all over the world in different regions and jurisdictions
  • don’t choose what they see (nor does Facebook, arguably)
  • pay nothing
  • are already monetized indirectly by both Facebook and publishers

If Facebook pays a carriage fee for the privilege of carrying content from the Hindustan Times, and it shows up as a Facebook Instant Article in an American’s news feed because a British PR firm paid for it to be promoted, because it wants to drive subscribers, and it does… who exactly owes whom what? Who is paying what, for what? Who determines what is “trusted,” and what would happen to sources that aren’t “trusted”? Should Facebook literally pay every site a fee for every one of its billion (or however many) users, for the possibility that someday, some item may show up in any of those users’ feeds?

You can see that this quickly descends into chaos. Murdoch’s suggestion is a horse and buggy solution for a company working on self-driving cars.

Clearly something else is needed. Facebook, raking in cash and confident that companies like Murdoch’s can’t survive without the reach that social media provides. Why would it as an ostensibly objective platform for users to post content attempt what is “trusted” and then pay them for the title?

Supposedly, trusted publishers pay for promotion on the platform and receive value in the form of readers, who view their ads and may eventually buy a subscription. Of course, Facebook undermines this value proposition all the time and publishers are upset at their emasculation and inability to dictate terms as many have for decades.

No one has a solution for the very real problem of modern media monetization, but Murdoch’s suggestion is worse than most. Publishers lost the last few rounds by clinging to the past, they’re not going to win the next one or even force a draw by doubling down and making empty threats with non-existent leverage.

You can read Murdoch’s full statement below:

Facebook and Google have popularized scurrilous news sources through algorithms that are profitable for these platforms but inherently unreliable. Recognition of a problem is one step on the pathway to cure, but the remedial measures that both companies have so far proposed are inadequate, commercially, socially and journalistically.

There has been much discussion about subscription models but I have yet to see a proposal that truly recognizes the investment in and the social value of professional journalism. We will closely follow the latest shift in Facebook’s strategy, and I have no doubt that Mark Zuckerberg is a sincere person, but there is still a serious lack of transparency that should concern publishers and those wary of political bias at these powerful platforms.

The time has come to consider a different route. If Facebook wants to recognize ‘trusted’ publishers then it should pay those publishers a carriage fee similar to the model adopted by cable companies. The publishers are obviously enhancing the value and integrity of Facebook through their news and content but are not being adequately rewarded for those services. Carriage payments would have a minor impact on Facebook’s profits but a major impact on the prospects for publishers and journalists.

Featured Image: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

AltspaceVR CEO joins Facebook months after selling his startup to Microsoft


After selling his social virtual reality startup to Microsoft in October, Eric Romo, the co-founder of AltspaceVR, is joining the competing social VR team at Facebook as its product director, where he will be “exploring how VR can help communities connect.”

“It wasn’t an easy decision, but I left AltspaceVR with confidence that the team is well-placed to continue pushing forward the promise of virtual communication as part of the Microsoft mixed reality ecosystem,” Romo wrote in a Facebook post.

Romo is joining the team that has built Facebook Spaces, a social virtual reality app for chatting and collaborating. It’s likely not something you’ve come across in your daily News Feed scrolling, but FB hopes that they can use the platform to play around with how social media plays out in a 3D space.

Facebook and Oculus work closely together on virtual reality initiatives, but to date their social efforts have seemed a bit separate, with Oculus’s Avatars system being built for the Rift’s gaming audience while Facebook’s Spaces is more platform-agnostic and designed as an exploratory social tool for the company’s “10-year vision” for making VR happen.

AltspaceVR has been one of the more savvy social VR startups of the past couple of years, and it benefited strongly from Romo’s vision. The former CEO’s move was likely already in the cards when the Microsoft deal surfaced; nevertheless, his joining up with Facebook highlights just how dug-in the social media giant is in the VR space.

While AltspaceVR was forced to sell partially as a result of investments in the space getting harder to come by given its niche audience, Facebook’s devotion to VR shows few signs of slowing down — the company has already pumped billions of dollars into the space and is poised to invest even more.

Facebook expands ‘Community Boost’ digital skills training program to Europe


Facebook has announced it’s expanding a free training program that teaches Internet-skills, media literacy and online safety to Europe. It says its “ambition” is to train 300,000 people across six EU countries by 2020 — specifically in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Poland.

It also says it will be opening “digital learning centers” in three of the countries — Spain, Italy, and Poland — as part of the program (though it’s not yet clear where exactly the three centers will be located).

The company says the training will generally be offered to “underrepresented groups”. It’s not entirely clear what that means but Facebook points to a Berlin school it set up last year, in partnership with the ReDI School of Digital Integration, which teaches classes ­such as coding and professional development to refugees, seniors citizens and young people, as a template for its thinking here.

We’ve asked for its definition of underrepresented groups; details of the application process; and its criteria for granting training places and will update this post with any additional details.

Facebook operates this digital skills training program under the brand name “Community Boost”.

While the training is offered to target recipients for free, Facebook’s business clearly stands to benefit if more people become digitally literate after being introduced to the Internet by Facebook — giving the company the chance to add more users and gain more overall eyeballs for its ad targeting platform, as indeed the name of the program implies.

Media literacy is also of increasing importance to a platform that is now bogged down with accusations that its business benefits by fencing fake news.

Back in November Facebook announced a touring Community Boost program would be doing the rounds of 30 US cities in 2018. And, as you might recall, the timing of that announcement came hard on the heels of revelations that Kremlin agents had used Facebook’s ad targeting platform to inject all sorts of divisive disinformation into Americans’ eyeballs during the 2016 presidential election in an attempt to disrupt the democratic process. Putting Zuck under pressure to have some positive domestic PR to offset all the negative headlines.

In Europe, Facebook has also been facing rising political scrutiny and displeasure. Last month, for example, the French president announced an anti-fake news election law will be incoming this year — aiming to tackle the spread of online fake news during election periods.

While in the UK parliamentarians who are running a wide-ranging investigation into fake news have expressed increasing frustration with Facebook (and Twitter) for footdragging in the face of asks they more thoroughly probe the extent of Russian involvement in the Brexit referendum vote.

So, in the EU too, Facebook is under pressure to offset a lot of bad PR. And funding some digital skills training is exactly the kind of feel-good initiative that’s positioned to play well politically — even while it also absolutely still aligns with Facebook’s core business goals of increasing online usage and thus overall eyeballs for targeting ads.

Digital skills is also a pretty woolly umbrella at this point. Facebook says — for example — that it could mean teaching coding to someone who already has “very strong skills” or helping someone else open an online bank account. It further specifies that the training offered will depend on the level of existing skills of the people being targeted — so it’s not necessarily going to be teaching much actual coding here.

To deliver the program, Facebook is partnering with digital upskilling firm Freeformers which will supply the training across the six EU countries.

“We will be using our Future Workforce Model to help individuals acquire the attributes to be employable, successful and productive in a digital world,” says founder and CEO Gi Fernando, in a statement. “These attributes will be aligned to the mindset, skillsets and behaviours industry needs in its future workforce.”

Facebook specifies there will be 50,000 training places going to target recipients in the UK (so it’s presumably going to be 50k places apiece in each of the six target EU Member States).

PRing the announcement at Davos today, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg trumpeted that the company is committing to train a total of one million people and businesses in Europe by 2020.

However she was rolling in figures from existing Facebook small business training programs, i.e. programs which are aimed at encouraging SMEs to adopt its advertising platform, to reach that politically expedient 1M figure. “These skills will help people thrive in today’s workplace and help small businesses grow and create jobs,” Sandberg added in a statement.

The company has also commissioned — and is today PRing — research in the EU markets it’s targeting which it claims show small businesses’ use of Facebook “translates into new jobs and opportunities for communities across the EU”. Though it has not released details of the methodology underpinning its findings. And, well, it would say that wouldn’t it?

It’s worth noting that not all the Community Boost training will take place in person. In the UK Facebook specifies that the program will reach 12,500 people through in-person training and 37,500 online. So if it’s replicating that split across all the countries then total in-person training places could make up just 75,000 out of the 300,000 total goal.

We’ve asked how much money Facebook is spending to fund the EU Community Boost program specifically and will update this post if it responds.

“Today’s announcements are part of our ongoing investments in digital training. Since 2011, we’ve invested more than $1 billion to support small businesses around the world. Our Boost Your Business program has trained hundreds of thousands of small businesses globally, and more than 1 million small businesses have used Facebook’s free online learning hub, Blueprint. More than 70 million small businesses use our free Pages tool to create an online presence,” Facebook adds in its blog announcement.

In a further move clearly aimed at trying to drum up positive local noise around its platform, Facebook says it will be launching a national ad campaign in the UK that will showcase small businesses that it says have used Facebook to help their businesses grow.

At the same time it is facing rather less positive sentiments from users in the UK, according to another piece of recent research…

Also today, Facebook announced a €10M investment in “accelerating AI innovation in France” — by increasing its AI research Paris’ PhD fellow places from 10 to 40.

It also says it’s funding 10 servers, as well as open datasets for French public institutions, and that it will double the team of researchers and engineers there from 30 to 60.

Companies investing in AI research are also of course investing in their own AI research departments, given the ongoing AI skills shortage and fierce industry competition for AI expertise. So that €10M for students in France is naturally positioned to help accelerate AI innovation at Facebook too.

Zooming out for a little more context, European Union lawmakers have been talking tough on tax reform lately and even entertaining ideas such as taxing digital ads. And ministers in certain Member States — including France — are very angry about tech giants’ habitual practice of profit shifting to lower tax economies (like Ireland, as Facebook has) as a strategy to minimize their overall EU tax liabilities.

Feeling the heat on that, in December Facebook said it would start to book its international advertising revenue in the countries where it is generated this year — i.e. rather than re-routing it though Ireland as it had been doing for all these years and benefiting from a lower corporate tax rate.

In the UK last year Facebook paid just £5.1M in corporation tax — despite its revenues in the market leaping up to £842.4M, for example.

And, well, just think of how many digital skills and AI upskilling programs EU governments could have invested in if Facebook had been paying taxes on its per country revenue instead of seeking to pay back the minimum possible.

Featured Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images