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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


Salesforce co-CEO Keith Block steps down

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 01:41 PM PST

Salesforce today announced that Keith Block, the company’s co-CEO, is stepping down. This leaves company founder Marc Benioff as the sole CEO and chair of the CRM juggernaut. Block’s bio has already been wiped from Salesforce’s leadership page.

Block stepped into the co-CEO role in 2018, after a long career at the company that saw him become vice chairman, president and director before he took this position. Block spent the early years of his career at Oracle . He left there in 2012 after the release of a number of documents in which he criticized then-Oracle CEO Mark Hurd, who passed away last year.

Industry pundits saw his elevation to the co-CEO role as a sign that Block was next in line as the company’s sole CEO in the future (assuming Benioff would ever step down). After this short tenure as co-CEO, it doesn’t look like that will be the case, but for the time being, Block will stay on as an advisor to Benioff.

“It’s been my greatest honor to lead the team with Marc [Benioff] that has more than quadrupled Salesforce from $4 billion of revenue when I joined in 2013 to over $17 billion last year,” said Block in a canned statement that was surely not written by the Salesforce PR team. “We are now a global enterprise company, focused on industries, and have an ecosystem that is the envy of the industry, and I’m so grateful to our employees, customers, and partners. After a fantastic run I am ready for my next chapter and will stay close to the company as an advisor. Being side-by-side with Marc has been amazing and I’m forever grateful for our friendship and proud of the trajectory the company is on.”

In related news, the company also today announced that it has named former BT Group CEO Gavin Patterson as its president and CEO of Salesforce International.

Disney CEO Bob Iger immediately steps down from CEO position

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 01:37 PM PST

The Walt Disney Company announced this afternoon that Robert Iger, the company’s long-time CEO who ushered in the company’s lush franchise and entertainment platform profits, will step down immediately as chief executive. Bob Chapek, a long-time senior exec at the company who most recently held the position of chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, will succeed him.

Update: We've added Iger's company-wide email to employees (below).

Chapek, as head of Disney's Parks Division, was a somewhat divisive figure in that he led with a “value engineering” (the Imagineering word for trimming cool stuff) and budget conscious strategy instead of the more popular “let Imagineers do the most” tactic that has produced some of the parks’ most enduring rides and experiences. Disney Twitter has been quick to descend upon the Chapek choice as a sign of possible rough times ahead for Parks budgets.

Our guess for who would head Parks is Josh D'Amaro, extremely-well liked former head of Disneyland who now heads Walt Disney World — liked by Parks people for a lot of the opposite reasons, which politically could make this a non starter, but would be a very popular appointment.

A few oddities surround this sudden change. Iger is only 14 months into a 36-month contract extension, and this comes not on a regularly scheduled earnings call but in the midst of an interesting time for Disney, as it faces parks shutdowns due to the coronavirus outbreak. Disney's earnings have been amazing lately, which would have made for a nice two-hander at earnings time. Speculation is still high for the exact reason behind Iger's departure, with many hoping for something benign (ish) like a presidential run versus a personal issue.

Iger will address Disney employees at 5:30EST today, and we'll update if anything further comes of that address.

Under Iger’s tenure since 2005, Disney expanded aggressively into movies, theme parks and other entertainment verticals, culminating late last year with the introduction of the company’s Disney+ streaming service and $71.3 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox, a gargantuan television and movie studio.

Iger oversaw such dramatic acquisitions as Marvel Entertainment a little more than a decade ago, and also bought Lucasfilm and its Star Wars and Indiana Jones series. He also helped to rebuild a partnership with late Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs, and eventually acquired the Pixar animation studio, which Jobs had founded in 1986. Those decisions, among other aggressive media growth strategies, have given Disney a commanding role in the media universe.

As Jake Coyle noted in the AP earlier this year:

But in today's IP-driven movie world, one studio is in a league of its own. In 2019, Disney dominated American moviegoing more than any studio ever has before — roughly 38% of all domestic moviegoing.

The year's top five films were all Disney movies, and it played a hand in the sixth. Disney's Marvel Studios produced the Sony Pictures release "Spider-Man: Far From Home."

Since its launch, Disney+ itself has drawn almost 30 million subscribers, according to data released by the company earlier this month.

Iger will assume the role of executive chairman through 2021 according to Disney’s statement.

It has been no secret that Iger has been thinking about succession planning for years, but at least until recently, details had remained scant. Media analysts probed for news in Iger’s book “The Ride of a Lifetime,” which was published late last year and was a summation of his tenure at the media conglomerate and his business philosophy. Yet, finding a successor at the company has been challenging, with multiple heirs apparent departing the company when the top slot looked like it would remain locked in Iger’s grasp.

On an already heavy red-ink day, Disney stock was further hit in after-hours trading by investors. Yahoo Finance’s most recent quotes puts Disney stock down 2.57% in after-hours trading, following a 3.62% decline during trading hours stemming from the global coronavirus outbreak. Disney has significant properties in Asia, including Shanghai Disney Resort, which was the company’s first platform in China and was overseen by incoming CEO Chapek.

Update: Here's Bob Iger's letter to Disney employees.

Dear Fellow Employee,

Today the Board of Directors announced that Bob Chapek has been named Chief Executive Officer of The Walt Disney Company, effective immediately. I have assumed the role of Executive Chairman and will continue to direct the Company’s creative endeavors, while also leading the Board. This is an exciting day for our company, an historic day—and I’m thrilled for Bob. I’ve worked closely with him for many years and have absolute confidence in his abilities, as does the Board.

As CEO, Bob will oversee all of the Company’s business segments and corporate functions, and we will work closely together through the end of 2021 to further the Company’s strategic objectives and to ensure a smooth and successful transition.

Bob has been with Disney for nearly three decades, and during this time he has achieved stellar results across a wide array of businesses. Throughout he’s led with integrity and conviction, always respecting Disney’s rich legacy, while at the same time taking smart, innovative risks for the future. As president of Home Entertainment for the Studio, he spearheaded the highly successful “vault strategy” that brought Disney’s iconic films and characters to new generations of viewers. As president of distribution for the Studio, he directed the Company’s film distribution strategy and expanded our global reach across multiple platforms. As head of Consumer Products, he transformed the business, focusing it on our key franchises and embracing technological innovation to deliver unmatched consumer experiences. Most recently, as Chairman of Parks, Experiences and Products, he oversaw the largest capital expansion in the history of our parks that included the opening of Shanghai Disney Resort, a doubling of the Disney Cruise Line fleet, and the creation of the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge lands at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Bob has worked closely and collaboratively with leaders across the different segments of our company, and I’m confident he will apply the same vision, passion and commitment to excellence in his new role as Chief Executive Officer.

I’ve had the tremendous privilege of being CEO for the past 15 years, and it’s been thrilling for me to be part of such an exciting and productive era for our company. I’m enormously proud of all that we’ve accomplished, creatively, financially and strategically—including the acquisition of Twenty-First Century Fox and the incredibly successful launch of our direct-to-consumer businesses. With these key endeavors well underway, I believe it’s the right time to transition to a new CEO and I believe Bob is absolutely the right person to assume this role and lead our company in this next pivotal period. I am certain that under his leadership, our portfolio of great businesses and our amazing and talented people will continue to serve our company and our shareholders well into the future.

I congratulate Bob and look forward to working with him in his new role as CEO, along with the other members of our amazing leadership team.

Bob and I will hold a town hall meeting tomorrow in the Main Theatre at 9 a.m. PT. To RSVP for the theater or to view the live webcast, please click here.

My thanks and best to you all,

Bob

Matthew Panzarino contributed additional details about Chapek and context around Disney’s succession.

Facebook acquires the VR game studio behind one of the Rift’s best games

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 01:15 PM PST

Facebook is aiming to build on its VR hardware launches of 2019 with an investment in virtual reality software.

Facebook announced today that it has acquired Bay Area VR studio Sanzaru Games, the developer of “Asgard’s Wrath,” considered by many enthusiasts to be one of the Oculus Rift’s best games. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but the studio will continue to operate its offices in the U.S. and Canada with “the vast majority” of employees coming aboard following the acquisition, Facebook says.

The 13-year-old game studio has created a total of four titles for the Oculus Rift, including “Asgard’s Wrath” and “Marvel Powers United VR,” both of which were at least partially funded by Oculus Studios. Sanzaru has also made a number of titles on console and mobile systems, releasing games structured around their own IP alongside licensed titles for properties like Sonic and Spyro.

Following Facebook’s acquisition of Beat Games in November, the Sanzaru Games purchase showcases Facebook’s continued interest in propping up VR game studios and aligning them around their interests while allowing them to operate independently. While Beat Games’ “Beat Saber” was considered a more mass market title, Sanzaru’s “Asgard’s Wrath” represented a play toward courting serious gamers with a lengthier first-person adventure title.

Facebook has already injected billions of dollars into its VR ambitions and, as the company hopes to build out the content ecosystems of hardware it released last year (including the Oculus Quest and Oculus Rift S), there is little to suggest that their rate of investment will slow in the near future.

Three-quarters of Americans lack confidence in tech companies’ ability to fight election interference

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 12:54 PM PST

A significant majority of Americans have lost faith in tech companies’ ability to prevent the misuse of their platforms to influence the 2020 presidential election, according to a new study from Pew Research Center, released today. The study found that nearly three-quarters of Americans (74%) don’t believe platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google will be able to prevent election interference. What’s more, this sentiment is felt by both political parties evenly.

Pew says that nearly identical shares of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (76%) and Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents (74%) have little or no confidence in technology companies’ ability to prevent their platforms’ misuse with regard to election interference.

And yet, 78% of Americans believe it’s tech companies’ job to do so. Slightly more Democrats (81%) took this position, compared with Republicans (75%).

While Americans had similar negative feelings about platforms’ misuse ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, their lack of confidence has gotten even worse over the past year. As of January 2020, 74% of Americans report having little confidence in the tech companies, compared with 66% back in September 2018. For Democrats, the decline in trust is even greater, with 74% today feeling “not too” confident or “not at all” confident, compared with 62% in September 2018. Republican sentiment has declined somewhat during this same time, as well, with 72% expressing a lack of confidence in 2018, compared with 76% today.

Even among those who believe the tech companies are capable of handling election interference, very few (5%) Americans feel “very” confident in their capabilities. Most of the optimists see the challenge as difficult and complex, with 20% saying they feel only “somewhat” confident.

Across age groups, both the lack of confidence in tech companies and a desire for accountability increase with age. For example, 31% of those 18 to 29 feel at least somewhat confident in tech companies’ abilities, versus just 20% of those 65 and older. Similarly, 74% of youngest adults believe the companies should be responsible for platform misuse, compared with 88% of the 65-and-up crowd.

Given the increased negativity felt across the board on both sides of the aisle, it would have been interesting to see Pew update its 2018 survey that looked at other areas of concern Republicans and Democrats had with tech platforms. The older study found that Republicans were more likely to feel social media platforms favored liberal views while Democrats were more heavily in favor of regulation and restricting false information.

Issues around election interference aren’t just limited to the U.S., of course. But news of Russia’s meddling in U.S. politics in particular — which involved every major social media platform — has helped to shape Americans’ poor opinion of tech companies and their ability to prevent misuse. The problem continues today, as Russia is being called out again for trying to intervene in the 2020 elections, according to several reports. At present, Russia’s focus is on aiding Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign in order to interfere with the Democratic primary, the reports said.

Meanwhile, many of the same vulnerabilities that Russia exploited during the 2016 elections remain, including the platforms’ ability to quickly spread fake news, for example. Russia is also working around blocks the tech companies have erected in an attempt to keep Russian meddling at bay. One report from The NYT said Russian hackers and trolls were now better at covering their tracks and were even paying Americans to set up Facebook pages to get around Facebook’s ban on foreigners buying political ads.

Pew’s report doesn’t get into any details as to why Americans have lost so much trust in tech companies since the last election, but it’s likely more than just the fallout from election interference alone. Five years ago, tech companies were viewed largely as having a positive impact on the U.S., Pew had once reported. But Americans no longer feel as they did, and now only around half of U.S. adults believe the companies are having a positive impact.

More Americans are becoming aware of how easily these massive platforms can be exploited and how serious the ramifications of those exploits have become across a number of areas, including personal privacy. It’s not surprising, then, that user sentiment around how well tech companies are capable of preventing election interference has declined, too, along with all the rest.

Comcast acquires free streaming service Xumo

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 12:22 PM PST

Comcast has acquired Xumo, a free, ad-supported streaming service with more than 190 channels.

The service has a complicated ownership history — it began in 2011 as a joint venture between Panasonic and Myspace parent company Viant, which was acquired by Time Inc. in 2016, and then Time Inc. was later acquired by Meredith.

The companies are not disclosing the financial terms of the deal, which The Wall Street Journal previously reported was in the works. Comcast says Xumo will operate as an independent business within the largest Comcast Cable unit.

“The talented team at XUMO has created a successful, growing, and best-in-class set of streaming capabilities,” the company said in a statement. “We are excited for this team to join Comcast and look forward to supporting them as they continue to innovate and develop their offerings.”

It’s been just over a year since Viacom (now ViacomCBS) acquired another free, ad-supported streaming service, Pluto TV.

And in just a few months, Comcast-owned NBCUniversal will be launching Peacock. While the service will include paid subscription options, the company has emphasized the role that ads will play, with NBCUniversal Chairman Steve Burke arguing that there’s an opening in the streaming landscape to focus “ad-supported, premium content.”

Xumo last announced that it has 5.5 million monthly active users (in spring 2019).

A security mishap left Remine wide open to hackers

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 11:52 AM PST

Security is all too often focused on keeping hackers out and breaches at bay. But in the case of Remine, a real estate intelligence startup, it left its doors wide open for anyone to run rampant.

Remine is a little-known but major player in the real estate analytics and intelligence market. It works by collecting and mining vast amounts of real estate data — from public listings to privately obtained data from brokers and real estate agents from across the United States. The company, which last year raised $30 million in its Series A to help expand its real estate data and intelligence platform, claims it has data “on 150 million properties across all 50 states.”

But that data was only a few clicks away from being easily accessible, thanks to a misconfigured system.

The misconfiguration was found in Remine’s development environment, which although protected by a password, let anyone outside the company register an account to log in.

Thinking it was a secure space, Remine’s developers shared private keys, secrets and other passwords, which if exploited by a malicious hacker would have allowed access to the company’s Amazon Web Services storage servers, databases and also the company’s private Slack workspace.

Mossab Hussein, a security researcher at Dubai-based cybersecurity firm SpiderSilk, found the exposed system and reported the findings to TechCruch so we could inform the company of the security lapse.

The exposed private keys, he said, allowed for full access to the company’s storage servers, containing more than a decade’s worth of documents — including title deeds, rent agreements and addresses of customers or sellers, he said.

One of the documents seen by TechCrunch showed personal information, including names, home addresses and other personally identifiable information belonging to a rental tenant.

After TechCrunch reached out, Remine co-founder and chief operating officer Jonathan Spinetto confirmed the security lapse and that its private keys and secrets have been replaced. Spinetto also said it has notified customers with a letter, seen by TechCrunch. And, the company has retained cybersecurity firm Crypsis to handle the investigation, and that the company will “assess and comply” with applicable data breach notification laws based on the findings of the investigation.

Remine escaped bruised rather than breached, a lesson to all companies, large and small, that even the smallest bug can be enough to wreak havoc.

Read more:


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Facebook’s latest ‘transparency’ tool doesn’t offer much — so we went digging

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 10:24 AM PST

Just under a month ago Facebook switched on global availability of a tool which affords users a glimpse into the murky world of tracking that its business relies upon to profile users of the wider web for ad targeting purposes.

Facebook is not going boldly into transparent daylight — but rather offering what privacy rights advocacy group Privacy International has dubbed “a tiny sticking plaster on a much wider problem”.

The problem it’s referring to is the lack of active and informed consent for mass surveillance of Internet users via background tracking technologies embedded into apps and websites, including as people browse outside Facebook’s own content garden.

The dominant social platform is also only offering this feature in the wake of the 2018 Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal, when Mark Zuckerberg faced awkward questions in Congress about the extent of Facebook’s general web tracking. Since then policymakers around the world have dialled up scrutiny of how its business operates — and realized there’s a troubling lack of transparency in and around adtech generally and Facebook specifically

Facebook’s tracking pixels and social plugins — aka the share/like buttons that pepper the mainstream web — have created a vast tracking infrastructure which silently informs the tech giant of Internet users’ activity, even when a person hasn’t interacted with any Facebook-branded buttons.

Facebook claims this is just ‘how the web works’. And other tech giants are similarly engaged in tracking Internet users (notably Google). But as a platform with 2.2BN+ users Facebook has got a march on the lion’s share of rivals when it comes to harvesting people’s data and building out a global database of person profiles.

It’s also positioned as a dominant player in an adtech ecosystem which means it’s the one being fed with intel by data brokers and publishers who deploy tracking tech to try to survive in such a skewed system.

Meanwhile the opacity of online tracking means the average Internet user is none the wiser that Facebook can be following what they’re browsing all over the Internet. Questions of consent loom very large indeed.

Facebook is also able to track people’s usage of third party apps if a person chooses a Facebook login option which the company encourages developers to implement in their apps — again the carrot being to be able to offer a lower friction choice vs requiring users create yet another login credential.

The price for this ‘convenience’ is data and user privacy as the Facebook login gives the tech giant a window into third part app usage.

The company has also used a VPN app it bought and badged as a security tool to glean data on third party app usage — though it’s recently stepped back from the Onavo app after a public backlash (though that did not stop it running a similar tracking program targeted at teens).

Background tracking is how Facebook’s creepy ads function (it prefers to call such behaviorally targeted ads ‘relevant’) — and how they have functioned for years

Yet it’s only in recent months that it’s offered users a glimpse into this network of online informers — by providing limited information about the entities that are passing tracking data to Facebook, as well as some limited controls.

From ‘Clear History’ to “Off-Facebook Activity”

Originally briefed in May 2018, at the crux of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, as a ‘Clear History’ option this has since been renamed ‘Off-Facebook Activity’ — a label so bloodless and devoid of ‘call to action’ that the average Facebook user, should they stumble upon it buried deep in unlovely settings menus, would more likely move along than feel moved to carry out a privacy purge.

(For the record you can access the setting here — but you do need to be logged into Facebook to do so.)

The other problem is that Facebook’s tool doesn’t actually let you purge your browsing history, it just delinks it from being associated with your Facebook ID. There is no option to actually clear your browsing history via its button. Another reason for the name switch. So, no, Facebook hasn’t built a clear history ‘button’.

“While we welcome the effort to offer more transparency to users by showing the companies from which Facebook is receiving personal data, the tool offers little way for users to take any action,” said Privacy International this week, criticizing Facebook for “not telling you everything”.

As the saying goes, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. So a little transparency implies — well — anything but clarity. And Privacy International sums up the Off-Facebook Activity tool with an apt oxymoron — describing it as “a new window to the opacity”.

“This tool illustrates just how impossible it is for users to prevent external data from being shared with Facebook,” it writes, warning with emphasis: “Without meaningful information about what data is collected and shared, and what are the ways for the user to opt-out from such collection, Off-Facebook activity is just another incomplete glimpse into Facebook's opaque practices when it comes to tracking users and consolidating their profiles.”

It points out, for instance, that the information provided here is limited to a “simple name” — thereby preventing the user from “exercising their right to seek more information about how this data was collected”, which EU users at least are entitled to.

“As users we are entitled to know the name/contact details of companies that claim to have interacted with us. If the only thing we see, for example, is the random name of an artist we've never heard before (true story), how are we supposed to know whether it is their record label, agent, marketing company or even them personally targeting us with ads?” it adds.

Another criticism is Facebook is only providing limited information about each data transfer — with Privacy International noting some events are marked “under a cryptic CUSTOM” label; and that Facebook provides “no information regarding how the data was collected by the advertiser (Facebook SDK, tracking pixel, like button…) and on what device, leaving users in the dark regarding the circumstances under which this data collection took place”.

“Does Facebook really display everything they process/store about those events in the log/export?” queries privacy researcher Wolfie Christl, who tracks the adtech industry’s tracking techniques. “They have to, because otherwise they don’t fulfil their SAR [Subject Access Request] obligations [under EU law].”

Christl notes Facebook makes users jump through an additional “download” hoop in order to view data on tracked events — and even then, as Privacy International points out, it gives up only a limited view of what has actually been tracked…

“For example, why doesn’t Facebook list the specific sites/URLs visited? Do they infer data from the domains e.g. categories? If yes, why is this not in the logs?” Christl asks.

We reached out to Facebook with a number of questions, including why it doesn’t provide more detail by default. It responded with this statement attributed to spokesperson:

We offer a variety of tools to help people access their Facebook information, and we've designed these tools to comply with relevant laws, including GDPR. We disagree with this [Privacy International] article's claims and would welcome the chance to discuss them with Privacy International.

Facebook also said it’s continuing to develop which information it surfaces through the Off-Facebook Activity tool — and said it welcomes feedback on this.

We also asked it about the legal bases it uses to process people’s information that’s been obtained via its tracking pixels and social plug-ins. It did not provide a response to those questions.

Six names, many questions…

When the company launched the Off-Facebook Activity tool a snap poll of available TechCrunch colleagues showed very diverse results for our respective tallies (which also may not show the most recent activity, per other Facebook caveats) — ranging from one colleague who had an eye-watering 1,117 entities (likely down to doing a lot of app testing); to several with several/a few hundred apiece; to a couple in the middle tens.

In my case I had just six. But from my point of view — as an EU citizen with a suite of rights related to privacy and data protection; and as someone who aims to practice good online privacy hygiene, including having a very locked down approach to using Facebook (never using its mobile app for instance) — it was still six too many. I wanted to find out how these entities had circumvented my attempts not to be tracked.

And in the case of the first one in the list who on earth it was…

Turns out cloudfront is an Amazon Web Services Content Delivery Network subdomain. But I had to go searching online myself to figure out that the owner of that particular domain is (now) a company called Nativo.

Facebook’s list provided only very bare bones information. I also clicked to delink the first entity, since it immediately looked so weird, and found that by doing that Facebook wiped all the entries — which meant I was unable to retain access to what little additional info it had provided about the respective data transfers.

Undeterred I set out to contact each of the six companies directly with questions — asking what data of mine they had transferred to Facebook and what legal basis they thought they had for processing my information.

(On a practical level six names looked like a sample size I could at least try to follow up manually — but remember I was the TechCrunch exception; imagine trying to request data from 1,117 companies, or 450 or even 57, which were the lengths of lists of some of my colleagues.)

This process took about a month and a lot of back and forth/chasing up. It likely only yielded as much info as it did because I was asking as a journalist; an average Internet user may have had a tougher time getting attention on their questions — though, under EU law, citizens have a right to request a copy of personal data held on them.

Eventually, I was able to obtain confirmation that tracking pixels and Facebook share buttons had been involved in my data being passed to Facebook in certain instances. Even so I remain in the dark on many things. Such as exactly what personal data Facebook received.

In one case I was told by a listed company that it doesn’t know itself what data was shared — only Facebook knows because it’s implemented the company’s “proprietary code”. (Insert your own ‘WTAF’ there.)

The legal side of these transfers also remains highly opaque. From my point of view I would not intentionally consent to any of this tracking — but in some instances the entities involved claim that (my) consent was (somehow) obtained (or implied).

In other cases they said they are relying on a legal basis in EU law that’s referred to as ‘legitimate interests’. However this requires a balancing test to be carried out to ensure a business use does not have a disproportionate impact on individual rights.

I wasn’t able to ascertain whether such tests had ever been carried out.

Meanwhile, since Facebook is also making use of the tracking information from its pixels and social plug ins (and seemingly more granular use, since some entities claimed they only get aggregate not individual data), Christl suggests it’s unlikely such a balancing test would be easy to pass for that tiny little ‘platform giant’ reason.

Notably he points out Facebook’s Business Tool terms state that it makes use of so called “event data” to “personalize features and content and to improve and secure the Facebook products” — including for “ads and recommendations”; for R&D purposes; and “to maintain the integrity of and to improve the Facebook Company Products”.

In a section of its legal terms covering the use of its pixels and SDKs Facebook also puts the onus on the entities implementing its tracking technologies to gain consent from users prior to doing so in relevant jurisdictions that “require informed consent” for tracking cookies and similar — giving the example of the EU.

“You must ensure, in a verifiable manner, that an end user provides the necessary consent before you use Facebook Business Tools to enable us to store and access cookies or other information on the end user's device,” Facebook writes, pointing users of its tools to its Cookie Consent Guide for Sites and Apps for “suggestions on implementing consent mechanisms”.

Christl flags the contradiction between Facebook claiming users of its tracking tech needing to gain prior consent vs claims I was given by some of these entities that they don’t because they’re relying on ‘legitimate interests’.

“Using LI as a legal basis is even controversial if you use a data analytics company that reliably processes personal data strictly on behalf of you,” he argues. “I guess, industry lawyers try to argue for a broader applicability of LI, but in the case of FB business tools I don’t believe that the balancing test (a businesses legitimate interests vs. the impact on the rights and freedoms of data subjects) will work in favor of LI.”

Those entities relying on legitimate interests as a legal base for tracking would still need to offer a mechanism where users can object to the processing — and I couldn’t immediately see such a mechanism in the cases in question.

One thing is crystal clear: Facebook itself does not provide a mechanism for users to object to its processing of tracking data nor opt out of targeted ads. That remains a long-standing complaint against its business in the EU which data protection regulators are still investigating.

One more thing: Non-Facebook users continue to have no way of learning what data of theirs is being tracked and transferred to Facebook. Only Facebook users have access to the Off-Facebook Activity tool, for example. Non-users can’t even access a list.

Facebook has defended its practice of tracking non-users around the Internet as necessary for unspecified ‘security purposes’. It’s an inherently disproportionate argument of course. The practice also remains under legal challenge in the EU.

Tracking the trackers

SimpleReach (aka d8rk54i4mohrb.cloudfront.net)

What is it? A California-based analytics platform (now owned by Nativo) used by publishers and content marketers to measure how well their content/native ads performs on social media. The product began life in the early noughties as a simple tool for publishers to recommend similar content at the bottom of articles before the startup pivoted — aiming to become ‘the PageRank of social’ — offering analytics tools for publishers to track engagement around content in real-time across the social web (plugging into platform APIs). It also built statistical models to predict which pieces of content will be the most social and where, generating a proprietary per article score. SimpleReach was acquired by Nativo last year to complement analytics tools the latter already offered for tracking content on the publisher/brand’s own site.

Why did it appear in your Off-Facebook Activity list? Given it’s a b2b product it does not have a visible consumer brand of its own. And, to my knowledge, I have never visited its own website prior to investigating why it appeared in my Off-Facebook Activity list. Clearly, though, I must have visited a site (or sites) that are using its tracking/analytics tools. Of course an Internet user has no obvious way to know this — unless they’re actively using tools to monitor which trackers are tracking them.

In a further quirk, neither the SimpleReach (nor Nativo) brand names appeared in my Off-Facebook Activity list. Rather a domain name was listed — d8rk54i4mohrb.cloudfront.net — which looked at first glance weird/alarming.

I found this is owned by SimpleReach by using a tracker analytics service.

Once I knew the name I was able to connect the entry to Nativo — via news reports of the acquisition — which led me to an entity I could direct questions to.  

What happened when you asked them about this? There was a bit of back and forth and then they sent a detailed response to my questions in which they claim they do not share any data with Facebook — “or perform ‘off site activity’ as described on Facebook's activity tool”.

They also suggested that their domain had appeared as a result of their tracking code being implemented on a website I had visited which had also implemented Facebook’s own trackers.

“Our technology allows our Data Controllers to insert other tracking pixels or tags, using us as a tag manager that delivers code to the page. It is possible that one of our customers added a Facebook pixel to an article you visited using our technology. This could lead Facebook to attribute this pixel to our domain, though our domain was merely a ‘carrier’ of the code,” they told me.

In terms of the data they collect, they said this: “The only Personal Data that is collected by the SimpleReach Analytics tag is your IP Address and a randomly generated id.  Both of these values are processed, anonymized, and aggregated in the SimpleReach platform and not made available to anyone other than our sub-processors that are bound to process such data only on our behalf. Such values are permanently deleted from our system after 3 months. These values are used to give our customers a general idea of the number of users that visited the articles tracked.”

So, again, they suggested the reason why their domain appeared in my Off-Facebook Activity list is a combination of Nativo/SimpleReach’s tracking technologies being implemented on a site where Facebook’s retargeting pixel is also embedded — which then resulted in data about my online activity being shared with Facebook (which Facebook then attributes as coming from SimpleReach’s domain).

Commenting on this, Christl agreed it sounds as if publishers “somehow attach Facebook pixel events to SimpleReach’s cloudfront domain”.

“SimpleReach probably doesn’t get data from this. But the question is 1) is SimpleReach perhaps actually responsible (if it happens in the context of their domain); 2) The Off-Facebook activity is a mess (if it contains events related to domains whose owners are not web or app publishers).”

Nativo offered to determine whether they hold any personal information associated with the unique identifier they have assigned to my browser if I could send them this ID. However I was unable to locate such an ID (see below).

In terms of legal base to process my information the company told me: “We have the right to process data in accordance with provisions set forth in the various Data Processor agreements we have in place with Data Controllers.”

Nativo also suggested that the Offsite Activity in question might have predated its purchase of the SimpleReach technology — which occurred on March 20, 2019 — saying any activity prior to this would mean my query would need to be addressed directly with SimpleReach, Inc. which Nativo did not acquire. (However in this case the activity registered on the list was dated later than that.)

Here’s what they said on all that in full:

Thank you for submitting your data access request.  We understand that you are a resident of the European Union and are submitting this request pursuant to Article 15(1) of the GDPR.  Article 15(1) requires "data controllers" to respond to individuals' requests for information about the processing of their personal data.  Although Article 15(1) does not apply to Nativo because we are not a data controller with respect to your data, we have provided information below that will help us in determining the appropriate Data Controllers, which you can contact directly.

First, for details about our role in processing personal data in connection with our SimpleReach product, please see the SimpleReach Privacy Policy.  As the policy explains in more detail, we provide marketing analytics services to other businesses – our customers.  To take advantage of our services, our customers install our technology on their websites, which enables us to collect certain information regarding individuals' visits to our customers' websites. We analyze the personal information that we obtain only at the direction of our customer, and only on that customer's behalf.

SimpleReach is an analytics tracker tool (Similar to Google Analytics) implemented by our customers to inform them of the performance of their content published around the web.  "d8rk54i4mohrb.cloudfront.net" is the domain name of the servers that collect these metrics.  We do not share data with Facebook or perform "off site activity" as described on Facebook's activity tool.  Our technology allows our Data Controllers to insert other tracking pixels or tags, using us as a tag manager that delivers code to the page.  It is possible that one of our customers added a Facebook pixel to an article you visited using our technology.  This could lead Facebook to attribute this pixel to our domain, though our domain was merely a "carrier" of the code.

The SimpleReach tool is implemented on articles posted by our customers and partners of our customers.  It is possible you visited a URL that has contained our tracking code.  It is also possible that the Offsite Activity you are referencing is activity by SimpleReach, Inc. before Nativo purchased the SimpleReach technology. Nativo, Inc. purchased certain technology from SimpleReach, Inc. on March 20, 2019, but we did not purchase the SimpleReach, Inc. entity itself, which remains a separate entity unaffiliated with Nativo, Inc. Accordingly, any activity that occurred before March 20, 2019 pre-dates Nativo's use of the SimpleReach technology and should be addressed directly with SimpleReach, Inc. If, for example, TechCrunch was a publisher partner of SimpleReach, Inc. and had SimpleReach tracking code implemented on TechCrunch articles or across the TechCrunch website prior to March 20, 2019, any resulting data collection would have been conducted by SimpleReach, Inc., not by Nativo, Inc.

As mentioned above, our tracking script collects and sends information to our servers based on the articles it is implemented on. The only Personal Data that is collected by the SimpleReach Analytics tag is your IP Address and a randomly generated id.  Both of these values are processed, anonymized, and aggregated in the SimpleReach platform and not made available to anyone other than our sub-processors that are bound to process such data only on our behalf. Such values are permanently deleted from our system after 3 months.  These values are used to give our customers a general idea of the number of users that visited the articles tracked.

We do not, nor have we ever, shared ANY information with Facebook with regards to the information we collect from the SimpleReach Analytics tag, be it Personal Data or otherwise. However, as mentioned above, it is possible that one of our customers added a Facebook retargeting pixel to an article you visited using our technology. If that is the case, we would not have received any information collected from such pixel or have knowledge of whether, and to what extent, the customer shared information with Facebook. Without more information, we are unable to determine the specific customer (if any) on behalf of which we may have processed your personal information. However, if you send us the unique identifier we have assigned to your browser… we can determine whether we have any personal information associated with such browser on behalf of a customer controller, and, if we have, we can forward your request on to the controller to respond directly to your request.

As a Data Processor we have the right to process data in accordance with provisions set forth in the various Data Processor agreements we have in place with Data Controllers.  This type of agreement is designed to protect Data Subjects and ensure that Data Processors are held to the same standards that both the GDPR and the Data Controller have put forth.  This is the same type of agreement used by all other analytics tracking tools (as well as many other types of tools) such as Google Analytics, Adobe Analytics, Chartbeat, and many others.

I also asked Nativo to confirm whether Insider.com (see below) is a customer of Nativo/SimpleReach.

The company told me it could not disclose this “due to confidentiality restrictions” and would only reveal the identity of customers if “required by applicable law”.

Again, it said that if I provided the “unique identifier” assigned to my browser it would be “happy to pull a list of personal information the SimpleReach/Nativo systems currently have stored for your unique identifier (if any), including the appropriate Data Controllers”. (“If we have any personal data collected from you on behalf of Insider.com, it would come up in the list of DataControllers,” it suggested.)

I checked multiple browsers that I use on multiple devices but was unable to locate an ID attached to a SimpleReach cookie. So I also asked whether this might appear attached to any other cookie.

Their response:

Because our data is either pseudonymized or anonymized, and we do not record of any other pieces of Personal Data about you, it will not be possible for us to locate this data without the cookie value.  The SimpleReach user cookie is, and has always been, in the "__srui" cookie under the ".simplereach.com" domain or any of its sub-domains. If you are unable to locate a SimpleReach user cookie by this name on your browser, it may be because you are using a different device or because you have cleared your cookies (in which case we would no longer have the ability to map any personal data we have previously collected from you to your browser or device). We do have other cookies (under the domains postrelease.com, admin.nativo.com, and cloud.nativo.com) but those cookies would not be related to the appearance of SimpleReach in the list of Off Site Activity on your Facebook account, per your original inquiry.

What did you learn from their inclusion in the Off-Facebook Activity list? There appeared to be a correlation between this domain and a publisher, Insider.com, which also appeared in my Off-Facebook Activity list — as both logged events bear the same date; plus Insider.com is a publisher so would fall into the right customer category for using Nativo’s tool.

Given those correlations I was able to guess Insider.com is a customer of Nativo. (I confirmed this when I spoke to Insider.com) — so Facebook’s tool is able to leak relational inferences related to the tracking industry by surfacing/mapping business connections that might not have been otherwise evident.

Insider.com

What is it? A New York based business media company which owns brands such as Business Insider and Markets Insider

Why did it appear in your Off-Facebook Activity list? I imagine I clicked on a technology article that appeared in my Facebook News Feed or elsewhere but when I was logged into Facebook

What happened when you asked them about this? After about a week of radio silence an employee in Insider’com’s legal department got in touch to say they could discuss the issue on background.

This person told me the information in the Off-Facebook Activity tool came from the Facebook share button which is embedded on all articles it runs on its media websites. They confirmed that the share button can share data with Facebook regardless of whether the site visitor interacts with the button or not.

In my case I certainly would not have interacted with the Facebook share button. Nonetheless data was passed, simply by merit of loading the article page itself.

Insider.com said the Facebook share button widget is integrated into its sites using a standard set-up that Facebook intends publishers to use. If the share button is clicked information related to that action would be shared with Facebook and would also be received by Insider.com (though, in this scenario, it said it doesn’t get any personalized information — but rather gets aggregate data).

Facebook can also automatically collect other information when a user visits a webpage which incorporates its social plug-ins.

Asked whether Insider.com knows what information Facebook receives via this passive route the company told me it does not — noting the plug-in runs proprietary Facebook code. 

Asked how it’s collecting consent from users for their data to be shared passively with Facebook, Insider.com said its Privacy Policy stipulates users consent to sharing their information with Facebook and other social media sites. It also said it uses the legal ground known as legitimate interests to provide functionality and derive analytics on articles.

In the active case (of a user clicking to share an article) Insider.com said it interprets the user’s action as consent.

Insider.com confirmed it uses SimpleReach/Nativo analytics tools, meaning site visitor data is also being passed to Nativo when a user lands on an article. It said consent for this data-sharing is included within its consent management platform (it uses a CMP made by Forcepoint) which asks site visitors to specify their cookie choices.

Here site visitors can choose for their data not to be shared for analytics purposes (which Insider.com said would prevent data being passed).

I usually apply all cookie consent opt outs, where available, so I’m a little surprised Nativo/SimpleReach was passed my data from an Insider.com webpage. Either I failed to click the opt out one time or failed to respond to the cookie notice and data was passed by default.

It’s also possible I did opt out but data was passed anyway — as there has been research which has found a proportion of cookie notifications ignore choices and pass data anyway (unintentionally or otherwise).

Follow up questions I sent to Insider.com after we talked:

1) Can you confirm whether Insider has performed a legitimate interests assessment?
2) Does Insider have a site mechanism where users can object to the passive data transfer to Facebook from the share buttons?

Insider.com did not respond to my additional questions.

What did you learn from their inclusion in the Off-Facebook Activity list? That Insider.com is a customer of Nativo/SimpleReach.

Rei.com

What is it? A California-based ecommerce website selling outdoor gear

Why did it appear in your Off-Facebook Activity list? I don’t recall ever visiting their site prior to looking into why it appeared in the list so I’m really not sure

What happened when you asked them about this? After saying it would investigate it followed up with a statement, rather than detailed responses to my questions, in which it claims it does not hold any personal data associated with — presumably — my TechCrunch email, since it did not ask me what data to check against.

It also appeared to be claiming that it uses Facebook tracking pixels/tags on its website, without explicitly saying as much, writing that: “Facebook may collect information about your interactions with our websites and mobile apps and reflect that information to you through their Off-Facebook Activity tool.”

It claims it has no access to this information — which it says is “pseudonymous to us” but suggested that if I have a Facebook account Facebook could link any browsing on Rei’s site to my Facebook’s identity and therefore track my activity.

The company also pointed me to a Facebook Help Center post where the company names some of the activities that might have resulted in Rei’s website sending activity data on me to Facebook (which it could then link to my Facebook ID) — although Facebook’s list is not exhaustive (included are: “viewing content”, “searching for an item”, “adding an item to a shopping cart” and “making a donation” among other activities the company tracks by having its code embedded on third parties’ sites).

Here’s Rei’s statement in full:

Thank you for your patience as we looked into your questions.  We have checked our systems and determined that REI does not maintain any personal data associated with you based on the information you provided.  Note, however, that Facebook may collect information about your interactions with our websites and mobile apps and reflect that information to you through their Off-Facebook Activity tool. The information that Facebook collects in this manner is pseudonymous to us — meaning we cannot identify you using the information and we do not maintain the information in a manner that is linked to your name or other identifying information. However, if you have a Facebook account, Facebook may be able to match this activity to your Facebook account via a unique identifier unavailable to REI. (Funnily enough, while researching this I found TechCrunch in MY list of Off-Facebook activity!)

For a complete list of activities that could have resulted in REI sharing pseudonymous information about you with Facebook, this Facebook Help Center article may be useful.  For a detailed description of the ways in which we may collect and share customer information, the purposes for which we may process your data, and rights available to EEA residents, please refer to our Privacy Policy.  For information about how REI uses cookies, please refer to our Cookie Policy.

As a follow up question I asked Rei to tell me which Facebook tools it uses, pointing out that: “Given that, just because you aren’t (as I understand it) directly using my data yourself that does not mean you are not responsible for my data being transferred to Facebook.”

The company did not respond to that point.

I also previously asked Rei.com to confirm whether it has any data sharing arrangements with the publisher of Rock & Ice magazine (see below). And, if so, to confirm the processes involved in data being shared. Again, I got no response to that.

What did you learn from their inclusion in the Off-Facebook Activity list? Given that Rei.com appeared alongside Rock & Ice on the list — both displaying the same date and just one activity apiece — I surmised they have some kind of data-sharing arrangement. They are also both outdoors brands so there would be obvious commercial ‘synergies’ to underpin such an arrangement.

That said, neither would confirm a business relationship to me. But Facebook’s list heavily implies there is some background data-sharing going on

Rock & Ice magazine 

What is it? A climbing magazine produced by a California-based publisher, Big Stone Publishing

Why did it appear in your Off-Facebook Activity list? I imagine I clicked on a link to a climbing-related article in my Facebook feed or else visited Rock & Ice’s website while I was logged into Facebook in the same browser session

What happened when you asked them about this? After ignoring my initial email query I subsequently received a brief response from the publisher after I followed up — which read:

The Rock and Ice website is opt in, where you have to agree to terms of use to access the website. I don't know what private data you are saying Rock and Ice shared, so I can't speak to that. The site terms are here. As stated in the terms you can opt out.

Following up, I asked about the provision in the Rock & Ice website’s cookie notice which states: “By continuing to use our site, you agree to our cookies” — asking whether it’s passing data without waiting for the user to signal their consent.

(Relevant: In October Europe’s top court issued a ruling that active consent is necessary for tracking cookies, so you can’t drop cookies prior to a user giving consent for you to do so.)

The publisher responded:

You have to opt in and agree to the terms to use the website. You may opt out of cookies, which is covered in the terms. If you do not want the benefits of these advertising cookies, you may be able to opt-out by visiting: http://www.networkadvertising.org/optout_nonppii.asp.

If you don't want any cookies, you can find extensions such as Ghostery or the browser itself to stop and refuse cookies. By doing so though some websites might not work properly.

I followed up again to point out that I’m not asking about the options to opt in or opt out but, rather, the behavior of the website if the visitor does not provide a consent response yet continues browsing — asking for confirmation Rock & Ice’s site interprets this state as consent and therefore sends data.

The publisher stopped responding at that point.

Earlier I had asked it to confirm whether its website shares visitor data with Rei.com? (As noted above, the two appeared with the same date on the list which suggests data may be being passed between them.) I did not get a respond to that question either.

What did you learn from their inclusion in the Off-Facebook Activity list? That the magazine appears to have a data-sharing arrangement with outdoor retailer Rei.com, given how the pair appeared at the same point in my list. However neither would confirm this when I asked

MatterHackers

What is it? A California-based retailer focused on 3D printing and digital manufacturing

Why did it appear in your Off-Facebook Activity list? I honestly have no idea. I have never to my knowledge visited their site prior to investigating why they should appear on my Off Site Activity list.

I remain pretty interested to know how/why they managed to track me. I can only surmise I clicked on some technology-related content in my Facebook feed, either intentionally or by accident.

What happened when you asked them about this? They first asked me for confirmation that they were on my list. After I had sent a screenshot, they followed up to say they would investigate. I pushed again after hearing nothing for several weeks. At this point they asked for additional information from the Off-Facebook Activity tool — namely more granular metrics, such as a time and date per event and some label information — to help with tracking down this particular data-exchange.

I had previously provided them with the date (as it appears in the screenshot) but it’s possible to download additional an additional level of information about data transfers which includes per event time/date-stamps and labels/tags, such as “VIEW_CONTENT” .

However, as noted above, I had previously selected and deleted one item off of my Off-Facebook Activity list, after which Facebook’s platform had immediately erased all entries and associated metrics. There was no obvious way I could recover access to that information.

“Without this information I would speculate that you viewed an article or product on our site — we publish a lot of ‘How To’ content related to 3D printing and other digital manufacturing technologies — this information could have then been captured by Facebook via Adroll for ad retargeting purposes,” a MatterHackers spokesman told me. “Operationally, we have no other data sharing mechanism with Facebook.”

Subsequently, the company confirmed it implements Facebook’s tracking pixel on every page of its website.

Of the pixel Facebook writes that it enables website owners to track “conversions” (i.e. website actions); create custom audiences which segment site visitors by criteria that Facebook can identify and match across its user-base, allowing for the site owner to target ads via Facebook’s platform at non-customers with a similar profile/criteria to existing customers that are browsing its site; and for creating dynamic ads where a template ad gets populated with product content based on tracking data for that particular visitor.

Regarding the legal base for the data sharing, MatterHackers had this to say: “MatterHackers is not an EU entity, nor do we conduct business in the EU and so have not undertaken GDPR compliance measures. CCPA [California’s Consumer Privacy Act] will likely apply to our business as of 2021 and we have begun the process of ensuring that our website will be in compliance with those regulations as of January 1st.”

I pointed out that GDPR is extraterritorial in scope — and can apply to non-EU based entities, such as if they’re monitoring individuals in the EU (as in this case).

Also likely relevant: A ruling last year by Europe’s top court found sites that embed third party plug-ins such as Facebook’s like button are jointly responsible for the initial data processing — and must either obtain informed consent from site visitors prior to data being transferred to Facebook, or be able to demonstrate a legitimate interest legal basis for processing this data.

Nonetheless it’s still not clear what legal base the company is relying on for implementing the tracking pixel and passing data on EU Facebook users.

When asked about this MatterHacker COO, Kevin Pope, told me:

While we appreciate the sentiment of GDPR, in this case the EU lacks the legal standing to pursue an enforcement action. I’m sure you can appreciate the potential negative consequences if any arbitrary country (or jurisdiction) were able to enforce legal penalties against any website simply for having visitors from that country. Techcrunch would have been fined to oblivion many times over by China or even Thailand (for covering the King in a negative light). In this way, the attempted overreach of the GDPR’s language sets a dangerous precedent.
To provide a little more detail – MatterHackers, at the time of your visit, wouldn’t have known that you were from the EU until we cross-referenced your session with  Facebook, who does know. At that point you would have been filtered from any advertising by us. MatterHackers makes money when our (U.S.) customers buy 3D printers or materials and then succeed at using them (hence the how-to articles), we don’t make any money selling advertising or data.
Given that Facebook does legally exist in the EU and does have direct revenues from EU advertisers, it’s entirely appropriate that Facebook should comply with EU regulations. As a global solution, I believe more privacy settings options should be available to its users. However, given Facebook’s business model, I wouldn’t expect anything other than continued deflection (note the careful wording on their tool) and avoidance from them on this issue.

What did you learn from their inclusion in the Off-Facebook Activity List? I found out that an ecommerce company I had never heard of had been tracking me

Wallapop

What is it? A Barcelona-based peer-to-peer marketplace app that lets people list secondhand stuff for sale and/or to search for things to buy in their proximity. Users can meet in person to carry out a transaction paying in cash or there can be an option to pay via the platform and have an item posted

Why did it appear in your Off-Facebook Activity list? This was the only digital activity that appeared in the list that was something I could explain — figuring out I must have used a Facebook sign-in option when using the Wallapop app to buy/sell. I wouldn’t normally use Facebook sign-in but for trust-based marketplaces there may be user benefits to leveraging network effects.

What happened when you asked them about this? After my query was booted around a bit a PR company that works with Wallapop responded asking to talk through what information I was trying to ascertain.

After we chatted they sent this response — attributed to sources from Wallapop:

Same as it happens with other apps, wallapop can appear on our users' Facebook Off Site Activity page if they have interacted in any way with the platform while they were logged in their Facebook accounts. Some interaction examples include logging in via Facebook, visiting our website or having both apps opened and logged.

As other apps do, wallapop only shares activity events with Facebook to optimize users' ad experience. This includes if a user is registered in wallapop, if they have uploaded an item or if they have started a conversation. Under no circumstance wallapop shares with Facebook our users' personal data (including sex, name, email address or telephone number).

At wallapop, we are thoroughly committed with the security of our community and we do a safe treatment of the data they choose to share with us, in compliance with EU's General Data Protection Regulation. Under no circumstance these data are shared with third parties without explicit authorization.

I followed up to ask for further details about these “activity events” — asking whether, for instance, Wallapop shares messaging content with Facebook as well as letting the social network know which items a user is chatting about.

“Under no circumstance the content of our users' messages is shared with Facebook,” the spokesperson told me. “What is shared is limited to the fact that a conversation has been initiated with another user in relation to a specific item, this is, activity events. Under no circumstance we would share our users' personal information either.”

Of course the point is Facebook is able to link all app activity with the user ID it already has — so every piece of activity data being shared is personal data.

I also asked what legal base Wallapop relies on to share activity data with Facebook. They said the legal basis is “explicit consent given by users” at the point of signing up to use the app.

“Wallapop collects explicit consent from our users and at any time they can exercise their rights to their data, which include the modification of consent given in the first place,” they said.

"Users give their explicit consent by clicking in the corresponding box when they register in the app, where they also get the chance to opt out and not do it. If later on they want to change the consent they gave in first instance, they also have that option through the app. All the information is clearly available on our Privacy Policy, which is GDPR compliant.”

“At wallapop we take our community's privacy and security very seriously and we follow recommendations from the Spanish Data Protection Agency,” it added

What did you learn from their inclusion in the Off-Facebook Activity list? Not much more than I would have already guessed — i.e. that using a Facebook sign-in option in a third party app grants the social media giant a high degree of visibility into your activity within another service.

In this case the Wallapop app registered the most activity events of all six of the listed apps, displaying 13 vs only one apiece for the others — so it gave a bit of a suggestive glimpse into the volume of third party app data that can be passed if you opt to open a Facebook login wormhole into a separate service.

Vimeo’s new app helps small businesses create professional social videos

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 10:12 AM PST

Vimeo signaled last year its plans to move further into the social video creation and editing space with its acquisition of short-form video editor Magisto. Today, the company is unveiling the results of its work in the months following the deal’s close with the debut of Vimeo Create. The new app includes a set of video creation tools aimed at small businesses and marketers looking to tell their stories using social video, but who lack the resources, time or budget to invest in video production at the scale they need to compete.

With Vimeo Create, available on both the desktop and as an app, businesses choose from pre-made, professionally designed video templates that can be customized to meet their needs. More advanced users could opt to start a new video from scratch, as an alternative.

The app includes a library of stock content to add to videos, including millions of HD video clips, photos and commercially licensed music tracks available for no extra fee, Vimeo says. Businesses also can customize their videos by selecting the colors, fonts, layouts, logos, text captions and calls-to-action they want to use.

The app then leverages AI-powered technology to turn the clips, photos, music and text into a high-quality social video in minutes.

Vimeo Create also simplifies the process of designing videos for different social platforms, where aspect ratios (e.g. square, vertical, horizontal) and format requirements vary. After the video is finalized, users are able to publish across the web — including to Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn — as a part of the Vimeo Create workflow.

The move into social video creation is part of Vimeo’s larger strategy of becoming a one-stop shop for companies and individuals who publish videos online. The company has long since abandoned its plans to be a YouTube competitor, instead seeing the potential in the other side of the video market. Today, Vimeo makes money by offering tools and services to video creators both large and small. It has launched tools for uploading and live streaming across social sites and updated its mobile app to include more features previously available only to desktop users, among other things.

Vimeo’s decision to prioritize social video resulted from its own research. The company found that only 22% of small business owners felt they were using enough video. The businesses complained that issues around time, cost and complexity were keeping them from going further. Nearly all (96%) of small business owners said they would create more video if all those friction points were removed.

The service was built using parts of Magisto’s backend and its AI, but the overall app, feature set, content, user interface and integration into Vimeo’s tools were built from the ground up, the company says.

The company hopes Vimeo Create will help it to grow its subscription revenue, as the service is offered as a part of Vimeo’s Pro, Business and Premium membership plans, instead of as a standalone paid or freemium app.

“Video is the most impactful medium we have today for human expression at scale, and businesses
need an online video strategy to reach their customers. But the research is clear: small business owners
and entrepreneurs don't have the tools, time or budgets to make videos at the volume and quality
needed to compete,” said Vimeo CEO Anjali Sud, in a statement about the launch. “Vimeo Create levels the playing field. It's a radically simple tool that shortens the distance from idea to execution, so more businesses can have a successful video strategy.”

Vimeo isn’t alone in addressing the social video needs of small businesses. Last fall, Facetune maker Lightricks launched a full suite of apps for small businesses to use for their social media marketing campaigns. There also are dozens of tools for video editing on the market, including those from incumbents, like Adobe and Apple, as well as from others like Magisto, Canva, PicsArt and many more that offer features craved by small business owners like templates, easy editing tools, access to stock content and support for one-click multi-platform publishing, among other things.

Vimeo first launched Vimeo Create into beta back in January, but today it’s available to all across web, iOS and Android.

Molekule hopes to clear the air with $58 million in Series C funding and Berkeley Lab’s seal of approval

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 10:04 AM PST

Silicon Valley air purifier startup Molekule was born out of an idea Dr. Yogi Goswami had back in the ’90s using photo-voltaic technology to kill air pollutants. His son, a young boy at the time, suffered from severe allergies and Dr. Goswami wanted to build something those like him could use in their home to clear the air. But the sleekly designed Molekule took a bit of a blow last fall when Wirecutter called it “the worst air purifier we’ve ever tested.”

Molekule has since told TechCrunch comparing its PECO technology to the more common HEPA air filter technology is like comparing apples to oranges. “Up until now, everything has been air filtration, not real air purification,” co-founder and CEO of the company Jaya Rao told TechCrunch.

To disprove the naysayers, Molekule sent off its tech for testing at the Berkeley Lab, which concluded no measurable amount of VOC’s or ozone were emitted; Molekule effectively removed harmful chemicals in the air, like toluene, limonene, formaldehyde, as well as ozone, and that “no secondary byproducts were observed when the air cleaner was operated in the presence of a challenge VOC mixture.”

Compare that to Wirecutter’s own assessment that, “on its auto setting, which is its medium setting, the Molekule reduced 0.3-micron particulates by (in the best case) only 26.4 percent over the course of half an hour. Compare that with the 87.6 percent reduction the Coway Mighty achieved on its medium setting.” TechCrunch reached out to Wirecutter and was told it still stands by its findings and does not recommend consumers purchase a Molekule.

It should be noted Consumer Reports also tested the Molekule device and it, too, did not recommend a purchase as the unit was not “proficient at catching larger airborne particles.” However, Molekule demonstrated to other news outlets at its own facilities that the photochemical reaction in its units did break down contaminants and kill mold spores.

“To test PECO technology you actually need really sophisticated equipment,” Rao said. “Boiling it down to really simple factors is not enough because air is made up of many tiny but toxic things. These are airborne chemicals nanometers in size, which Wirecutter admittedly did not test at all for.”

Wirecutter’s Tim Heffernan disputes Molekule’s claims of superiority in the category, however. “Now they are comparing apples to oranges,” he told TechCrunch. “The claims about destroying bacteria and viruses, for example, HEPA filters capture them and they capture them permanently.”

So how’s a consumer to know what’s right? First, take into account Molekule commissioned the Berkeley Lab for their independent testing and that Wirecutter and Consumer reports ran their own independent testing. However, it might boil down to understanding the premise of the technology. HEPA filters came out of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, when scientists needed to develop a filter suitable for removing radioactive materials from the air. It works by capturing and filtering out harmful particles, viruses and mold. However, PECO, the technology in a Molekule unit, uses the science of light to kill mold and bacteria and break down harmful particulates in the air.

Regardless of whether you want an air purifier that captures particulates or breaks them down, Molekule has continued to move forward. The company has since launched a mini unit meant for smaller rooms and started to grow business verticals outside of the direct-to-consumer model, forging partnerships with hotels and hospitals.

It also just announced a raise of $58 million in Series C funding, bringing just over $91 million to its coffers. Rao tells TechCrunch the raise was unexpected, but came out of chats with Samantha Wang from RPS Ventures, which led the round.

“We feel confident in Molekule’s PECO technology, and have taken an extensive look at the science behind it. It is not only backed by decades of academic research, it has also gone through the peer-reviewed process numerous times, and has been tested and validated by third-party scientists and laboratories across the country,” Wang told TechCrunch.

Other participation in the round included Founder's Circle Capital and Inventec Appliances Corp (IAC). Existing investors Foundry Group, Crosslink Capital, Uncork Capital and TransLink Capital also participated in the financing.

Molekule also tells TechCrunch it has seen a healthy growth trajectory in the past year, despite the negative press. According to the company, Molekule has seen a 3x increase in year over year filter subscription revenue since launch, and its repeat customer growth sits at about 200%.

It’s a well-designed, though pricier air purification machine with an interesting future in the commercial space, particularly in hospitals, schools, commercial manufacturing and hotels, as Wang points out.

As long as the tech truly makes the air better.

Relativity Space CEO Tim Ellis talks 3D-printed rockets at TC Sessions: Space in LA

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 09:58 AM PST

The launch industry is undergoing a number of major changes, among them the shift from traditional manufacturing to 3D printing — which Relativity Space is spearheading. The company plans to build 95% of its rocket using the world’s biggest 3D printers, and could launch as early as next year. Co-founder and CEO Tim Ellis will be on hand at TC Sessions: Space in Los Angeles on June 25 to talk all about it.

Relativity has been on our radar for a couple of years now, and to be honest we were all a bit skeptical when the proposition of 3D-printing a rocket was revealed. After all, additive manufacturing is known for its speed, not the strength or detail of its products. But our recent visit to the company’s bustling headquarters near LAX was an eye-opening one.

The challenges of this approach to rocketry are substantial, but the team has gone into it with their eyes open, and the results are hard to argue with. Less mass, more strength, faster turnaround — and any drawbacks have been quantified and mitigated over countless tests and analyses.

Although the resulting components are in a way mechanically simpler than hand-assembled alternatives, the process of creating them is by no means simple itself. Ellis has been there for everything from the first wonky prints during their Y Combinator days to the latest high-precision, large-format ones going through live testing. He’ll be onstage at TC Sessions: Space on June 25, sharing insights on the startup journey, technical details and plans for the company’s future.

You can get early-bird tickets right now, and save $150 before prices go up on May 22 — and you can even bring a fifth person for free if you bring a group of four from your company. Special discounts for current members of the government/military/nonprofit and students are also available directly on the website. And if you are an early-stage space startup looking to get exposure to decision makers, you can even exhibit for the day for just $2,000.

This event will also feature a space startup pitch-off featuring five early-stage founders selected by TechCrunch editors. Applications open today; apply here.

Is your company interested in partnering at TC Sessions: Space 2020? Click here to talk with us about available opportunities.

Africa e-tailer Jumia reports first full-year results post NYSE IPO

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 09:47 AM PST

Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia got into the black (by a small amount) on its gross profit vs. fulfillment expenses, expanded financial services and still posted losses.

The online sales company, with an operations center in China, also anticipates some negative impact on 2020 growth from the coronavirus outbreak, CEO Sacha Poigonnec said.

These were highlights today for Jumia’s fourth-quarter and full-year results — 10 months after the company became the first vc-backed startup in Africa to go public on a major exchange.

The results

Jumia — with online goods and services verticals in 11 countries — posted 2019 revenues of €160 million, representing growth of 24% over 2018. The company increased its annual active customer base in the fourth-quarter by 54%, to 6.1 million, from 4.0 million for the same period last year.

Jumia's 2019 Gross Merchandise Value (GMV) — the total amount of goods sold over the period — contracted by 3% to €301 million in the fourth-quarter.

Poignonnec attributed the decline to “business mix re-balancing”, which entailed reducing expenditures on promotions. The company also saw a contraction in sales of phones and electronics, which impacted GMV.

The online retailer had a 49% increase in orders from 5.5 million in Q4 2018 to 8.3 million in Q4 2019.

Perhaps the brightest spot in Jumia’s 2019 performance was the company’s ability to reach a gross profit of €1.0 million after deducting fulfillment expenses in Q4.

That obviously doesn’t get them to profitability over all the company’s other expenses, but fulfillment costs have been historically high for Jumia as an online-retailer in Africa.

The overall pattern of growing revenues and customers YoY has been consistent for Jumia.

But so too have the company's losses, which widened 34% in 2019 to €227.9 million, compared to €169.7 million in 2018. Negative EBITDA for Q4 increased 5% to €51.2 million from €48.6 over the same period in 2018.

CEO Sacha Poignonnec pointed to Jumia’s ability in Q4 to reach positive gross-profit over fulfillment expenses — one of the company’s largest costs — as a sign it could eventually get into the black overall.

“As we reach these milestones we’ll bring new milestones. This year we were profitable after fulfillment expenses and one day we’ll be profitable after marketing [expenses] and so on and so forth,” he said.

What's new

Jumia exited several countries in 2019 — suspending e-commerce operations in Tanzania, Cameroon, and Rwanda. “We believe those countries have…potential in the long-term but decided to allocate our resources to the countries that best support our long-term growth and path to profitability,” said Poignonnec.

Jumia also saw lift in its JumiaPay digital finance product — and notably — is developing new financial services (including for SMEs) aided by its big financial investors, Mastercard and Axa.

Jumia launched an Axa money market fund product in Nigeria in 2019 and some promotional programs on Mastercard’s network, as noted in page 10 of its investor presentation.

 

Total payment volume on JumiaPay increased 57% year-over-year to €45.6 million in 2019 and JumiaPay was used for 29% of Jumia e-commerce orders.

This is significant, as the company has committed to generate more revenues from higher margin digital payment products and offer JumiaPay as a standalone service across Africa.

Since its founding in 2012, Jumia has been forced to adapt to slower digital payments integration in its core market Nigeria and allow cash-on-delivery payments, which are costly and more problematic than digital processing.

Poignonnec also acknowledged the company’s 2020 revenues could be negatively impacted by the coronavirus. “The recent…outbreak in China is likely to affect growth over the coming quarters, and here we are starting to face some challenges to fulfill our cross-border sales,” he said.

Share price

Surprisingly absent from Jumia's earnings call (and the subsequent Q&A) was discussion of the company's share price, which spiked then plummeted after its April 2019 NYSE listing.

The online retailer gained investor confidence out of the gate, more than doubling its $14.50 opening share price post IPO.

That lasted until May, when Jumia's stock came under attack from short-seller Andrew Left, whose firm Citron Research issued a report accusing the company of fraud — which sent the company's share price plummeting — from $49 to $26.

Then on its second-quarter earnings call in August, Jumia offered greater detail on the fraud perpetrated by some employees and agents of its JForce sales program. 

The company declared the matter closed, but Jumia's stock price plummeted more after the August earnings call (and sales-fraud disclosure), and has lingered in single-digit value for several months.

That's 50% below the company's IPO opening in April and 80% below its high.

For the remainder of 2020, bringing back growth in GMV and building on positive metrics, such as attaining gross profit after fulfillment expenses, could revive investor confidence in Jumia and its share price.

It could also put the company in a better position to match competition — such as the Marketplace Africa e-commerce platform of MallforAfrica and DHL — and possible expansion in Africa of China’s Alibaba.

When that ‘AI company’ isn’t really an AI company

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 09:30 AM PST

Artificial intelligence is one of the most important fields in technology right now, which makes it ripe for buzzword-savvy startups to leverage for attention. But while machine learning and related technologies are now frequently employed, it’s less common that it’s central to a company’s strategy and IP.

It’s important to note that this sort of posturing doesn’t necessarily mean a company is bad — it’s entirely possible they have an overzealous communications department or PR firm. Just consider the following points warning signs — if you hear these terms, dig a little deeper to find out exactly what the company does.

“Powered by AI”

There are innumerable variations on this particular line, which is a red flag that the company is trying to paint itself with the AI brush rather than differentiate by other means.

“Our machine-learning powered ___,” “our proprietary AI,” “leverages machine learning…” all basically mean the same thing: AI is involved somewhere along the line.

Apps that purport to connect users (“our unique AI-powered matching engine…”) with the right people or resources based on AI recommendations are also a common offender

But machine learning algorithms have been deeply embedded in computing for many years. They can be simple or complex, tried and true or novel and used for highly visible or completely unknown purposes. There are off-the-shelf algorithms developers can buy to help sort images, parse noisy data and perform many other tasks. Recommendation engines are a dime a dozen. Does using one of these make a product “powered by AI”?

Cityscoot raises another $25.6 million for its electric moped service

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 09:19 AM PST

French startup Cityscoot is raising a $25.6 million (€23.6 million) funding round from Allianz France, Demeter as well as existing investors Groupe RATP and Banque des Territoires. The startup is also raising at least $6.5 million (€6 million) in debt in order to finance its service.

Cityscoot is a free-floating electric scooter service (moped scooters). Users can locate and unlock scooters using a mobile app. You can then park it and lock it again.

The service is currently live in Paris, Nice, Milan and Rome. With today's funding round, the startup plans to expand to two new European cities, starting with Barcelona in May 2020. Cityscoot will operate a fleet of 8,000 scooters.

In Paris alone, Cityscoot handles 15,000 to 25,000 trips per day. Each trip lasts 15 minutes on average. Given that you pay €0.24 to €0.34 per minute, it means that Cityscoot is generating tens of thousands of euros of revenue per day in Paris.

Over the past few months, Cityscoot has partnered with Uber so that you can locate and unlock scooters straight from the Uber app. It looks like the integration isn't live yet.

Cityscoot's main competitor Coup shut down a couple of months ago. "Even though Coup is a well-known brand in this market with a loyal customer base that regularly uses our services, operating Coup in the long term has become economically unsustainable," the company said at the time.

Unit economics could be the reason why Cityscoot recently raised its prices. If you don't top up your account, you now pay €0.34 per minute instead of €0.29 per minute. You pay less if you buy prepaid packages. This could be a great way to foster recurring use.

Daily Crunch: Amazon opens its first cashier-less grocery store

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 09:15 AM PST

Amazon expands its Just Walk Out technology beyond convenience stores, Intuit acquires Credit Karma in its biggest acquisition ever and Grab raises hundreds of millions of dollars. Here’s your Daily Crunch for February 25, 2020.

1. Amazon opens its first cashierless grocery store

Amazon is opening its first grocery store to pilot the use of the retailer's cashier-less "Just Walk Out" technology, which previously powered 25 Amazon Go convenience stores in a handful of major U.S. metros. The store is 10,400 square feet overall, making it the largest use of Amazon's Just Walk Out technology to date.

Based in the company’s hometown of Seattle, the new Amazon Go Grocery store allows customers to shop for everyday grocery items like fresh produce, meat, seafood, bakery items, household essentials, dairy, easy-to-make dinner options, beer, wine and spirits and more.

2. Intuit confirms that it is buying Credit Karma for $7.1B in cash and stock

Intuit announced that it plans to acquire Credit Karma — the fintech startup with more than 100 million registered users, 37 million of them active monthly users, which lets people check their credit scores, shop for credit cards and loans, file taxes and more. The financial software giant says it will pay $7.1 billion for the acquisition, making this Intuit's biggest-ever acquisition to date, and one of the biggest in the category of privately held fintech companies.

3. Grab raises up to $856M to boost payments business as rumors swirl of a merger with rival Gojek

Southeast Asian on-demand transport startup Gojek denies that it is involved in talks to merge with Grab, but today Grab announced a piece of news that could either divert attention from that story — or more likely stoke the fires of speculation that it is indeed gearing up for a deal.

4. New Netflix feature reveals the top 10 most popular programs on its service

The new top 10 list doesn't offer any hard metrics, but it can at least help point to popular programming and highlight breakout successes Netflix might have in the future. The feature is rolling out now to users worldwide, so you may not see your list quite yet.

5. Instead of IPOs and acquisitions, exiting to community is one alternative

Greg Brodsky, who helps cooperative startups through the Start.coop accelerator, pointed to the “exit to community” idea as an option for startups looking to transition out of the more traditional Silicon Valley model. In this framework, some portion of the company is sold back to the workers or end users. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Revolut raises $500M at a $5.5B valuation

Revolut is building a financial service to replace traditional bank accounts. You can open an account from an app in just a few minutes. You can then receive, send and spend money from the app or use a debit card.

7. Firefox to enable DNS-over-HTTPS by default to US users

Mozilla will bring its new DNS-over-HTTPS security feature to all Firefox users in the U.S. by default in the coming weeks, the browser maker has confirmed. It follows a year-long effort to test the new security feature, which is designed to make browsing the web more secure and private.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Disney blocks John Oliver’s new episode critical of India’s PM Modi

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 09:14 AM PST

Disney-owned Hotstar, India's largest on-demand video streaming service with more than 300 million users, has blocked the newest episode of HBO's "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" that was critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The move has angered many of its customers ahead of Disney+'s launch in one of the world's largest entertainment markets next month.

In the episode, aired hours before U.S. President Donald Trump's visit to India, Oliver talked about some of the questionable policies enforced by the ruling government in India and recent protests against "controversial figure" Modi's citizenship measures. The 19-minute news recap and commentary sourced its information from credible news outlets.

The episode is available to stream in India through HBO's official channel on YouTube, where it has garnered more than 4 million views. Hotstar is the exclusive syndicating partner of HBO, Showtime and ABC in India.

Spokespeople of Star India, which runs Hotstar, and Disney, which acquired the major Indian broadcasting network as part of its Fox deal, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A spokesperson of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, the governing agency which regulates information, broadcasts, movies and the press in India, said the government was not involved in any censorship discussions.

Numerous people in India began speculating on Monday whether Hotstar, which like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video self-censors some content, would stream the new episode at 6am on Tuesday, when it typically makes new episodes of Oliver's show available on the platform.

It became quickly apparent on Tuesday that the Disney-owned platform, which has a knack of censoring numerous sensitive subjects, including sketches that make fun of its sponsors, was not going to risk upsetting the ruling party.

Last year, Amazon also removed from its streaming service in India an episode of the CBS show "Madam Secretary" in which references to Hindu nationalism and extremists were made. Netflix also pulled an episode in Saudi Arabia of Hasan Minhaj's "Patriot Act" that criticized the kingdom's crown prince.

HP offers its investors billions in shareholder returns to avoid a Xerox tie-up

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 08:52 AM PST

To ward off a hostile takeover bid by Xerox, which is a much smaller company, HP (not to be confused with Hewlett Packard Enterprise, a separate public company) is promising its investors billions and billions of dollars.

All investors have to do to get the goods is reject the Xerox deal.

In a letter to investors, HP called Xerox’s offer a “flawed value exchange” that would lead to an “irresponsible capital structure” that was being sold on “overstated synergies.” Here’s what HP is promising its owners if they do allow it to stay independent:

  • About $16 billion worth of “capital return” between its fiscal 2020 and fiscal 2022 (HP’s Q1 fiscal 2020 wrapped January 31, 2020, for reference). According to the company, the figure “represents approximately 50% of HP's current market capitalization.” TechCrunch rates that as true, before the company’s share-price gains posted after this news became known.
  • That capital return would be made up of a few things, including boosting the company’s share repurchase program to $15 billion (up from $5 billion, previously). More specifically, HP intends to “repurchase of at least $8 billion of HP shares over 12 months” after its fiscal 2020 meeting. The company also intends to raise its “target long-term return of capital to 100% of free cash flow generation,” allowing for the share purchases and a rising dividend payout (“HP intends to maintain dividend per share growth at least in line with earnings.”)

If all that read like a foreign language, let’s untangle it a bit. What HP is telling investors is that it intends to use all of the cash it generates to reward their ownership of shares in its business. This will come in the form of buybacks (concentrating future earnings on fewer shares, raising the value of held equity) and dividends (rising payouts to owners as HP itself makes more money), powered in part by cost-cutting (boosting cash generation and profitability).

HP is saying, in effect: Please do not sell us to Xerox; if you do not, we will do all that we can to make you money. 

Shares of HP are up 6% as of the time of writing, raising the value of HP’s consumer-focused spinout to just under $34 billion. We’ll see what investors choose for the company. But now, how did we get here?

The road to today

You may ask yourself, how did we get here (to paraphrase Talking Heads). It all began last Fall when Xerox made it known that it wanted to merge with HP, offering in the range of $27 billion to buy the much larger company. As we wrote at the time:

What's odd about this particular deal is that HP is the company with a much larger market cap of $29 billion, while Xerox is just a tad over $8 billion. The canary is eating the cat here.

HP never liked the idea of the hostile takeover attempt and the gloves quickly came off as the two companies wrangled publicly with one another, culminating with HP’s board unanimously rejecting Xerox’s offer. It called the financial underpinnings of the deal “highly conditional and uncertain.” HP also was unhappy with the aggressive nature of the offer, writing that Xerox was, “intent on forcing a potential combination on opportunistic terms and without providing adequate information.”

Just one day later, Xerox responded, saying it would take the bid directly to HP shareholders in an attempt to by-pass the board of directors, writing in yet another public letter, “We plan to engage directly with HP shareholders to solicit their support in urging the HP Board to do the right thing and pursue this compelling opportunity.”

In January, the shenanigans continued when Xerox announced it was putting forth a friendly slate of candidates for the HP board to replace the ones that had rejected the earlier Xerox offer. And more recently, in an attempt to convince shareholders to vote in favor of the deal, Xerox sweetened the deal to $34 billion or $24 a share.

Xerox wrote that it had on-going conversations with large HP shareholders, and this might have gotten HP’s attention— hence the most recent offer on its part to make an offer to shareholders that would be hard to refuse. The company’s next shareholder meeting is taking place in April when we will finally find out the final reckoning.

 

Startup malaise, startup ambition

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 08:44 AM PST

Recapped. Layoffs. Slowdown. CEO transition. Budget cuts. Downsizing.

In spite of a spate of massive startup exits the last few months, culminating in fintech's shining moment yesterday with Intuit's $7.1 billion acquisition of Credit Karma, it's been a tough period for the startup world. Layoffs abound, centered perhaps on SoftBank's Vision Fund portfolio but hardly exclusive to it. Startups, both infamous and unheard of, are shutting their doors. And that doesn't even begin to factor in the global macro concerns like coronavirus that will drive investor sentiment this year.

There's a bit of malaise underway in the startup world, a sense that possibilities are closing, that everything that will be built has been built, that tech itself is under an excruciating microscope by the public that makes innovation impossible.

All of that may well be true. And yet, there remains so, so much more to get done.

Whole sectors of the economy still need to be completely rebuilt from the ground up. Healthcare is barely digital, never personalized and based on almost no evidence or data whatsoever. Construction costs for housing and infrastructure have skyrocketed, with almost no real benefit to the end user whatsoever. Millions of people are facing student debt crises, and yet our school system doesn't look all that much different from a century ago.

Climate change itself is going to eat away at more and more of the planet, just as several billion more people come online, join the industrial and knowledge economies and demand the same amenities offered in the developed world. How do we offer air conditioning, housing, transportation, healthcare and more to every human on the planet? We need to 100x the global GDP while cutting carbon emissions, and billions of people are counting on us.

Within organizations, we are still just beginning to figure out how design, data and decisions work together to drive product innovation and growth. I just wrote about a prototyping tool yesterday, following up on my colleague Jordan Crook's look at what has been happening in the design world. Yes, the tools are getting better, but what would happen if a million more people could effortlessly design? Or what would happen if billions of people had access to no-code platforms more broadly? What could we empower them to create?

Or just take our general experience with digital products. Our phones are faster, the photos they take are at exquisite resolutions and their svelte materiality remains superb. But do they really offer a seamless experience? I am still syncing files, tracking emails, attempting to connect a lunch meeting to my calendar and not dropping the details while flicking my fingers back and forth. The mundane nature of our daily software usage belies the reality that we use ridiculously elementary tools compared to what is possible even with today's technology, no hand waving required.

And then there is data. The data revolution in business, entertainment, government and more is barely in its infancy. Data may be slushing around large enterprises, but it hardly makes a dent on decision-making, even today. What would happen if we could use data more effectively? What if we could explore data even faster than today's clunky BI tools? What if the best patterns for exploring data were readily available to every single person on Earth? What if we could instantly and easily build best-of-breed AI models to solve even our simplest decision-making problems?

I could go on for pages and pages. From specific markets, to the dynamics within communities, and societies and companies, to the end users and the products they are offered, we are nowhere near the end of the innovation cycle. This isn't Detroit circa a century ago, when hundreds of auto manufacturers and related companies eventually combined into a handful of today's behemoths. There is still so much to do, and FAANG can't do it all.

What's crazy is that within the right circles, there has never been a wider sense of awe at the gap between what we know to do and what we know we need to do. There are so many unsolved challenges today worth exploring that could not only help the lives of tens of millions of people, but that could also be multi-billion-dollar economies themselves.

And so we need to bifurcate our sentiments. We do need to memorialize the failed startups, the ambitions that never quite made it. We need to recognize when mistakes are made, and have empathy for those affected by them. We shouldn't ignore the negative news of our industry at all, lest we repeat the same blunders.

Yet, a positive sentiment in the face of this avalanche of negative news and critical analysis is vital. You have to keep your eye on the future, on the change, on the power that still rests with all of us to make a difference right now. So much needs to be done, and the day is still young.

Opera’s new browser can tame your tabs

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 08:42 AM PST

A new web browser from Opera launching today aims to help users get their chaotic mess of open tabs back under control. In the latest release of Opera’s desktop browser (codenamed R2020), the company is introducing a new feature called “Workspaces” that allows you to organize your tabs based on different contexts — for example, workspaces for work, free time activities, personal projects, research, travel planning and more.

Today, it’s common for web users to keep open dozens of tabs — and even multiple separate windows, each filled with tabs — as an attempt to keep their web searches and research somewhat organized. This is particularly tough for knowledge workers who spend their days working from a PC or for the 66% of Americans who use the same browser for work and personal browsing, Opera says.

Opera’s study also found that 65% of people want to keep their browser more organized and 60% wanted to be able to group tabs.

Unfortunately, major browser makers have still not effectively addressed these problems, instead leaving users to design their own productivity solutions or to turn to third-party browser add-ons for help with organization.

For example, the browser extension OneTab lets you quickly close and save all your open tabs for later access. However, because extensions like this aren’t part of the core browser experience, many users don’t know they exist. And even if you do use an extension to aid with organization, it’s easy to forget you’ve saved your tabs somewhere — often, you’ll just search up the same pages again instead of restoring them.

Opera’s system instead presents the concept of the workspace as a means of taming your numerous open tabs. You can create up to five workspaces in the new browser, name them and designate their icons. The icons are accessible from the top of the sidebar, with the currently active workspace highlighted in blue.

You can also right-click any link to open it in a different workspace and move tabs between workspaces easily, the company says. That can help users not just start off organized but stay organized, especially since people tend to switch back and forth between contexts as they work. For example, users may take a few minutes to check on personal messages and social networks in between typing into online spreadsheets and responding to work emails.

“Opera invented browser tabs, and today we know that people need more support from their browser interface to handle them,” said Joanna Czajka, product director, Opera for PC, in a statement about the launch. “Everybody wants their environment to be more tidy, ideally without having to clean. Workspaces let you get organized from the first moment you use them, without you having to learn how to use a new tool.”

While Workspaces is the major new feature in the beta browser, another addition lets you switch between open tabs easily by using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Tab — similar to switching applications on macOS. And a third new tool will highlight if you have any duplicate open tabs when you hover over a tab with your mouse pointer.

Opera is well-known for its browser innovations, but many of its latest releases have been more focused on technology integrations, like the built-in cryptocurrency wallet or VPN. It has also released tools designed to protect privacy, like the tracker blocker, and debuted a browser for gamers, Opera GX. But it hasn’t been as focused on the day-to-day needs of browser users as of late.

Unfortunately, switching browsers can be more difficult these days since smaller browsers and beta builds don’t always support the variety of extensions users rely on.

Nevertheless, Opera claims its browser user base is growing. Its PC browser user base grew 17% from Q3 2018 to Q3 2019, the company says, reaching now more than 68 million monthly users.

The browser is a free download here. 

 

 

Announcing the TC Pitch Night: Robotics + AI startups

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 08:39 AM PST

The night before the Robotics + AI event at UC Berkeley, TechCrunch is hosting a private Pitch Night, featuring innovative startups in robotics and artificial intelligence. After reviewing hundreds of applications, TechCrunch selected the early-stage startups below to pitch in front of industry executives, TC writers and our expert panel of judges: Brian Heater (TC's own Hardware Editor), Aaron Jacobson (NEA), Jennifer Roberts (Grit Ventures) and Sunil Nagaraj (Ubiquity VC).

Founders will pitch in front of the crowd followed by a tough Q&A from the judges. After all companies have pitched, the judges will select the top five teams to demo onstage at the main event on March 3: TC Sessions: Robotics + AI.

Check out the featured companies here:

AirWorks
Augean Robotics
BlinkAI Technologies
KEWAZO GmbH
Olis Robotics
RoboTire
SLAMcore
Tombot
Valyant AI

To see the startups pitching at the main event, book your $345 General Admission ticket today and save $50 before prices go up at the door. But no one likes going to events alone. Why not bring the whole team? Groups of four or more save 15% on tickets when you book here.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect the new judging panel. Sunil Nagaraj will be replacing Rob Coneybeer.

Troubled Eaze finally closes $35M funding to to sell its own cannabis

Posted: 25 Feb 2020 08:35 AM PST

Six weeks after we broke the news that cannabis startup Eaze was running out of money, laying off more employees and scrambling to pay its bills and stay afloat as it worked on a pivot to selling its own supply rather than just that of third-party providers, the company has finally closed some funding and appears to be moving forward with its plans.

Today Eaze — which claims to have 600,000 registered customers and completed 5 million legal deliveries — confirmed a bridge round of $15 million, plus a further $20 million as part of a Series D round of funding, totaling $35 million in funding. It will be using the money to help steer itself away from its original pure-marketplace model — where it worked with third parties to source cannabis products, which it then sold on and delivered to users — and into a strategy based around the idea of “verticalization,” where Eaze itself will be running a retail and distributor operation of its own, alongside the resale of some 100 licensed brands via retail partners.

“Verticalization is Eaze's second act,” said CEO Ro Choy in a statement. "Until now, we've invested in proving our market fit, building an enormous and loyal customer base, and becoming California's biggest marketplace for legal cannabis delivery. Now, we're proving we can make this business work in a more sustainable and profitable way, while continuing to grow Eaze's existing services."

We had reported that the fundraising was in the works in January. The Series D portion of the funding is coming from a group of investors led by a firm called FoundersJT LLC, and the bridge round is coming from Rose Capital and DCM, both previous investors. Eaze said that it has the facility to extend the Series D by another $20 million. It’s not disclosing its valuation.

The news brings some resolution to a very troubled period at the startup, which has been through several executive changes, a couple of rounds of layoffs and general employee attrition — losing key people like its chief strategy officer, its chief of staff and a number of engineering staff — while struggling to build out a sustainable business working with cannabis retailers to use the Eaze platform to resell and deliver their products.

(Along with the funding news it announced today, Eaze also said that Megan Miller, who had formerly been in finance, was appointed its new COO, while John Curtis became the new CFO.)

Eaze’s big promise was to come out early and build a brand in the cannabis market, a very emerging area of consumer goods that had only relatively recently been decriminalised in California (and is still not completely legal everywhere).

Tapping a new opportunity to sell cannabis products to a new class of consumers — those who might not have been keen to purchase products when they were illegal, or already regular or semi-regular cannabis users who were happy to pay more for the convenience of using an app to shop and get delivery — Eaze believed that California’s move was just the beginning of a bigger swing, and it projected growth across the U.S. accordingly. With one of its co-founders formerly an executive from Yammer, it became the first cannabis startup to raise money from Silicon Valley VCs, and positioned itself as the “Uber of pot.”

But as we’ve seen time and again, being an early mover is not always the best position in the tech world.

The legalisation swing has not played out quite as Eaze predicted, and so the startup’s national expansion plans were curtailed. Meanwhile, in addition to dealing with the basic struggles that every e-commerce company faces — customer acquisition, logistics and scaling a company’s business, talent and so on — Eaze has had a number of challenges particular to its specific industry.

They included issues around payment acceptance — credit card companies didn’t want to allow the company to accept card payments, so for a while it operated on a cash-only model, prone to error, fraud and more — through to poor (negative) margins reselling other retailers’ products. And ultimately, legalisation meant a lot of price and product competition when it came to capturing customers.

The funding Eaze announced today (which it has been trying to close for months) will be used in part to help specifically with a few of these challenges: margins and supply.

We reported in January that Eaze was in the process of buying assets from a bankrupt former partner, DionyMed (which had, at one point, also been involved in a complicated lawsuit against Eaze), and that deal now has closed.

Eaze will now resell product from DionyMed’s former subsidiary Hometown Heart (HTH), which has depots in Oakland and San Francisco, and Eaze said it will expand that with its own consumer brands “in partnership with local licensees while continuing to support a broad array of independent, world-class California brands and independent licensed retailers across the state.”

Despite all of the above problems, Eaze’s basic business appears to have been growing, which is likely the reason why the company and its investors believe there is something worth saving and restructuring.

Eaze said that in 2019 it had a 97% annual increase in new sign-ups; 74% annual increase in first-time deliveries; a 71% annual increase in overall deliveries; and 104% annual increase in customers age 50+. Notably, it did not disclose today how many repeat, loyal customers it has amassed in that growth, so that is one to watch going forward.

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