Instagram’s fundraiser stickers could lure credit card numbers

Mark Zuckerberg recently revealed that commerce is a huge part of the 2019 road map for Facebook’s family of apps. But before people can easily buy things from Instagram etc., Facebook needs their credit card info on file. That’s a potentially lucrative side effect of Instagram’s plan to launch a Fundraiser sticker in 2019. Facebook’s own Donate buttons have raised $1 billion, and bringing them to Instagram’s 1 billion users could do a lot of good while furthering Facebook’s commerce strategy.

New code and imagery dug out of Instagram’s Android app reveals how the Fundraiser stickers will allow you to search for nonprofits and add a Donate button for them to your Instagram Story. After you’ve donated to something once, Instagram could offer instant checkout on stuff you want to buy using the same payment details.

Back in 2013 when Facebook launched its Donate button, I suggested that it could add a “remove credit card after checkout” option to its fundraisers if it wanted to make it clear that the feature was purely altruistic. Facebook never did that. You still need to go into your payment settings or click through the See Receipt option after donating and then edit your account settings to remove your credit card. We’ll see if Instagram is any different. We’ve also asked whether Instagrammers will be able to raise money for personal causes, which would make it more of a competitor to GoFundMe — which has sadly become the social safety net for many facing healthcare crises.

Facebook mentioned at its Communities Summit earlier this month that it’d be building Instagram Fundraiser stickers, but the announcement was largely overshadowed by the company’s reveal of new Groups features. This week, TechCrunch tipster Ishan Agarwal found code in the Instagram Android app detailing how users will be able search for nonprofits or browse collections of Suggested charities and ones they follow. They can then overlay a Donate button sticker on their Instagram Story that their followers can click through to contribute.

We then asked reverse-engineering specialist Jane Manchun Wong to take a look, and she was able to generate the screenshots seen above that show a green heart icon for the Fundraiser sticker plus the nonprofit search engine. A Facebook spokespeople tells me that “We are in early stages and working hard to bring this experience to our community . . . Instagram is all about bringing you closer to the people and things you love, and a big part of that is showing support for and bringing awareness to meaningful communities and causes. Later this year, people will be able to raise money and help support nonprofits that are important to them through a donation sticker in Instagram Stories. We’re excited to bring this experience to our community and will share more updates in the coming months.”

Zuckerberg said during the Q4 2018 earnings call last month that “In Instagram, one of the areas I’m most excited about this year is commerce and shopping . . . there’s also a very big opportunity in basically enabling the transactions and making it so that the buying experience is good.” Streamlining those transactions through saved payment details means more people will complete their purchase rather than abandoning their cart. Facebook CFO David Wehner noted on the call that “Continuing to build good advertising products for our e-commerce clients on the advertising side will be a more important contributor to revenue in the foreseeable future.” Even though Facebook isn’t charging a fee on transactions, powering higher commerce conversion rates convinces merchants to buy more ads on the platform.

With all the talk of envy spiraling, phone addiction, bullying and political propaganda, enabling donations is at least one way Instagram can prove it’s beneficial to the world. Snapchat lacks formal charity features, and Twitter appears to have ended its experiment allowing nonprofits to tweet donate buttons. Despite all the flack Facebook rightfully takes, the company has shown a strong track record with philanthropy that mirrors Zuckerberg’s own $47 billion commitment through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. And if having some relatively benign secondary business benefit speeds companies toward assisting nonprofits, that’s a trade-off we should be willing to embrace.

Apple acquires talking Barbie voicetech startup PullString

Apple has just bought up the talent it needs to make talking toys a part of Siri, HomePod, and its voice strategy. Apple has reportedly acquired PullString, also known as ToyTalk, according to Axios’ Dan Primack and Ina Fried. The company makes voice experience design tools, artificial intelligence to power those experiences, and toys like talking Barbie and Thomas The Tank Engine toys in partnership with Mattel. Founded in 2011 by former Pixar executives, PullString went on to raise $44 million.

Apple’s Siri is seen as lagging far behind Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, not only in voice recognition and utility, but also in terms of developer ecosystem. Google and Amazon has built platforms to distribute Skills from tons of voice app makers, including storytelling, quizzes, and other games for kids. If Apple wants to take a real shot at becoming the center of your connected living room with Siri and HomePod, it will need to play nice with the children who spend their time there. Buying PullString could jumpstart Apple’s in-house catalog of speech-activated toys for kids as well as beef up its tools for voice developers.

PullString did catch some flack for being a “child surveillance device” back in 2015, but countered by detailing the security built intoHello Barbie product and saying it’d never been hacked to steal childrens’ voice recordings or other sensitive info. Privacy norms have changed since with so many people readily buying always-listening Echos and Google Homes.

In 2016 it rebranded as PullString with a focus on developers tools that allow for visually mapping out conversations and publishing finished products to the Google and Amazon platforms. Given SiriKit’s complexity and lack of features, PullString’s Converse platform could pave the way for a lot more developers to jump into building voice products for Apple’s devices.

We’ve reached out to Apple and PullString for more details about whether PullString and ToyTalk’s products will remain available.

The startup raised its cash from investors including Khosla Ventures, CRV, Greylock, First Round, and True Ventures, with a Series D in 2016 as its last raise that PitchBook says valued the startup at $160 million. While the voicetech space has since exploded, it can still be difficult for voice experience developers to earn money without accompanying physical products, and many enterprises still aren’t sure what to build with tools like those offered by PullString. That might have led the startup to see a brighter future with Apple, strengthening one of the most ubiquitous though also most detested voice assistants.

Instagram is now testing a web version of Direct messages

Insta-chat addicts, rejoice. You could soon be trading memes and emojis from your computer. Instagram is internally testing a web version of Instagram Direct messaging that lets people chat without the app. If, or more likely, when this rolls out publicly, users on a desktop or laptop PC or Mac, a non-Android or iPhone or that access Instagram via a mobile web browser will be able to privately message other Instagrammers.

Instagram web DMs was one of the features I called for in a product wish list I published in December alongside a See More Like This button for the feed and an upload quality indicator so your Stories don’t look crappy if you’re on a slow connection.

A web version could make Instagram Direct a more full-fledged SMS alternative rather than just a tacked-on feature for discussing the photo and video app’s content. Messages are a massive driver of engagement that frequently draws people back to an app, and knowing friends can receive them anywhere could get users sending more. While Facebook doesn’t monetize Instagram Direct itself, it could get users browsing through more ads while they wait for replies.

Given Facebook’s own chat feature started on the web before going mobile and getting its own Messenger app, and WhatsApp launched a web portal in 2015 followed by desktop clients in 2016, it’s sensible for Instagram Direct to embrace the web too. It could also pave the way for Facebook’s upcoming unification of the backend infrastructure for Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram Direct that should expand encryption and allow cross-app chat, as reported by The New York Times’ Mike Isaac.

Mobile reverse-engineering specialist and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong alerted us to Instagram’s test. It’s not available to users yet, as it’s still being internally “dogfooded” — used heavily by employees to identify bugs or necessary product changes. But she was able to dig past security and access the feature from both a desktop computer and mobile web browser.

In the current design, Direct on the web is available from a Direct arrow icon in the top right of the screen. The feature looks like it will use an Instagram.com/direct/…. URL structure. If the feature becomes popular, perhaps Facebook will break it out with its own Direct destination website similar to https://www.messenger.com, which launched in 2015. Instagram began testing a standalone Direct app last year, but it’s yet to be officially launched and doesn’t seem exceedingly popular.

Instagram’s web experience has long lagged behind its native apps. You still can’t post Stories from the desktop like you can with Facebook Stories. It only added notifications on the web in 2016 and Explore, plus some other features, in 2017.

Instagram did not respond to requests for comment before press time. The company rarely provides a statement on internal features in development until they’re being externally tested on the public, at which point it typically tells us “We’re always testing ways to improve the Instagram experience.” [Update: Instagram confirms to TechCrunch it’s not publicly testing this, which is its go-to line when a product surfaces that’s still in internal development.]

After cloning Snapchat Stories to create Instagram Stories, the Facebook-owned app decimated Snap’s growth rate. That left Snapchat to focus on premium video and messaging. Last year Instagram built IGTV to compete with Snapchat Discover. And now with it testing a web version of Direct, it seems poised to challenge Snap for chat too.

Sean Parker’s govtech Brigade breaks up, Pinterest acqhires engineers

Facebook co-founder Sean Parker bankrolled Brigade to get out the vote and stimulate civic debate, but after five years and little progress the startup is splitting up, multiple sources confirm to TechCrunch. We’ve learned that Pinterest has acqhired roughly 20 members of the Brigade engineering team. The rest of Brigade is looking for a potential buyer or partner in the political space to take on the rest of the team plus its tech and product. Brigade CEO Matt Mahan confirmed the fate of the startup to TechCrunch.

While Brigade only formally raised $9.3 million in one round back in 2014, the company had quietly expanded that Series A round with more funding. A former employee said it had burned tens of millions of additional dollars over the years. Brigade had also acquired Causes, Sean Parker’s previous community action and charity organization tool.

After Brigade launched as an app for debating positions on heated political issues but failed to gain traction, it pivoted into what Causes had tried to be — a place for showing support for social movements. More recently, it’s focused on a Rep Tracker for following the stances and votes of elected officials. Yet the 2016 campaign and 2018 midterms seem to fly over Brigade’s head. It never managed to become a hub of activism, significantly impact voter turnout, or really even be part of the conversation.

After several election cycles, I hear the Brigade team felt like there had to be better ways to influence democracy or at least create a sustainable business. One former employee quipped that Brigade could have made a greater impact by just funneling its funding into voter turnout billboards instead of expensive San Francisco office space and talent.

The company’s mission to spark civic engagement was inadvertently accomplished by Donald Trump’s election polarizing the country and making many on both sides suddenly get involved. It did succeed in predicting Trump’s victory, after its polls of users found many democrats planned to vote against their party. But while Facebook and Twitter weren’t necessarily the most organized or rational places for discourse, it started to seem unnecessary to try to build a new hub for it from scratch.

Brigade accepted that its best bet was to refocus on govtech infrastructure like its voter identification and elected official accountability tools, rather than a being a consumer destination. Its expensive, high-class engineering team was too big to fit into a potential political technology acquirer or partner. Many of those staffers had joined to build consumer-facing products, not govtech scaffolding.

Mahan, Brigade’s co-founder and CEO as well as the former Causes CEO, confirms the breakup and Pinterest deal, telling us “We ended up organizing the acqhire with Pinterest first because we wanted to make sure we took care of as many people on the team as possible. We were incredibly happy to find that through the process, 19 members of our engineering team earned offers and ended up going over to Pinterest. That’s about two-thirds of our engineering team. They were really excited about staying in consumer product and saw career opportunities at Pinterest.” We’re still waiting on a comment from Pinterest.

Brigade had interest from multiple potential acqhirers and allowed the engineering team’s leadership to decide to go with Pinterest. Several of Brigade’s engineers and its former VP of Engineering Trish Gray already list on LinkedIn that they’ve moved to Pinterest in the past few months. “We had a bunch of employees that took a risk on a very ambitious plan to improve our democracy and we didn’t want to leave them out to dry” Mahan stresses. “We spent more time and more money and more effort in taking care of employees over the last few months than most companies do and I think that’s a testament to Sean and his values.”

Mahan is currently in talks with several potential hosts for the next phase of Brigade, and hopes to have a transition plan in place in the next month. “We’ve in parallel been exploring where we take the technology and the user base next. We want to be sure that it lives on and can further the mission the we set out to achieve even if it doesn’t look like the way it does today.” Though the company’s output is tough to measure, Mahan tells me that “Brigade built a lot of foundational technology such as high quality voter matching algorithms and an entire model for districting people to their elected representatives. My hope for our legacy is that we were able to solve some of these problems that other people can build on.” Given Parker’s previous work with Marijuana legalization campaign Prop 64 in California and his new Opportunity Zones tax break effort, Brigade’s end won’t be Parker’s exit from politics.

Brigade’s breakup could still cast an ominous shadow over the govtech ecosystem, though. Alongside recent layoffs at grassroots campaign text message tool Hustle, it’s proven difficult for some startups in politics to become sustainable businesses. Exceptions like Palantir succeed by arming governments with data science that can be weaponized against citizens. Yet with the 2020 elections around the corner, fake news and election propaganda still a threat, and technology being applied for new nefarious political purposes, society could benefit from more tools built to amplify social justice and a fair democratic process.

The plot to revive Mt. Gox and repay victims’ Bitcoin

It was the Lehman Brothers of blockchain. 850,000 Bitcoin disappeared when cryptocurrency exchange Mt. Gox imploded in 2014 after a series of hacks. The incident cemented the industry’s reputation as frighteningly insecure. Now a controversial crypto celebrity named Brock Pierce is trying to get the Mt. Gox flameout’s 24,000 victims their money back and build a new company from the ashes.

Pierce spoke to TechCrunch for the first interview about Gox Rising — his plan to reboot the Mt. Gox brand and challenge Coinbase and Binance for the title of top cryptocurrency exchange. He claims there’s around $630 million and 150,000 Bitcoin are waiting in the Mt. Gox bankruptcy trust, and Pierce wants to solve the legal and technical barriers to getting those assets distributed back to their rightful owners.

The consensus from several blockchain startup CEOs I spoke with was that the plot is “crazy”, but that it also has the potential to right one of the biggest wrongs marring the history of Bitcoin.

The Fall Of Mt. Gox

The story starts with Magic: The Gathering. Mt. Gox launched in 2006 as a place for players of the fantasy card game to trade monsters and spells before cryptocurrency came of age. The Magic: The Gathering Online eXchange wasn’t designed to safeguard huge quantities of Bitcoin from legions of hackers, but founder Jed McCaleb pivoted the site to do that in 2010. Seeking to focus on other projects, he gave 88 percent of the company to French software engineer Mark Karpeles, and kept 12 percent. By 2013, the Tokyo-based Mt. Gox had become the world’s leading cryptocurrency exchange, handling 70 percent of all Bitcoin trades. But security breaches, technology problems, and regulations were already plaguing the service.

Then everything fell apart. In February 2014, Mt. Gox halted withdrawls due to what it called a bug in Bitcoin, trapping assets in user accounts. Mt. Gox discovered that it had lost over 700,000 Bitcoins due to theft over the past few years. By the end of the month, it had suspended all trading and filed for bankruptcy protection, which would contribute to a 36 percent decline in Bitcoin’s price. It admitted that 100,000 of its own Bitcoin atop 750,000 owned by customers had been stolen.

Mt. Gox is now undergoing bankruptcy rehabilitation in Japan overseen by court-appointed trustee and veteran bankruptcy lawyer Nobuaki Kobayashi to establish a process for compensating the 24,000 victims who filed claims. There’s now 137,892 Bitcoin, 162,106 Bitcoin Cash, and some other forked coins in Mt. Gox’s holdings, along with $630 million cash from the sale of 25 percent of the Bitcoin that Kobayashi handled at a precient price point above where it is today. But five years later, creditors still haven’t been paid back. 

A Rescue Attempt

Brock Pierce, the eccentric crypto celebrity

Pierce had actually tried to acquire Mt. Gox in 2013. The child actor known from The Mighty Ducks had gone on to work with a talent management company called Digital Entertainment Network. But accusations of sex crimes led Pierce and some team members to flee the US to Spain until they were extradited back. Pierce wasn’t charged and paid roughly $21,000 to settle civil suits, but his cohorts were convicted of child molestation and child pornography.

The situation still haunts Pierce’s reputation and makes some in the industry apprehensive to be associated with him. But he managed to break into the virtual currency business, setting up World Of Warcraft gold mining farms in China. He claims to have eventually run the world’s largest exchanges for WOW Gold and Second Life Linden Dollars.

Soon Pierce was becoming a central figure in the blockchain scene. He co-founded Blockchain Capital, and eventually the EOS Alliance as well as a much-derided “crypto utopia” in Puerto Rico called Sol. His eccentric, Burning Man-influenced fashion made him easy to spot at the industry’s many conferences.

As Bitcoin and Mt. Gox rose in late 2012, Pierce tried to buy it, but “my biggest investor was Goldman Sachs. Goldman was not a fan of me buying the biggest Bitcoin exchange” due to the regulatory issues, Pierce tells me. But he also suspected the exchange was built on a shaky technical foundation that led him to stop pursuing the deal. “I thought there was a big risk factor in the Mt. Gox back-end. That was my intuition and I’m glad it was because my intuition was dead right.”

After Mt. Gox imploded, Pierce claims his investment group Sunlot Holdings successfully bought founder McCaleb’s 12 percent stake for 1 Bitcoin, though McCaleb says he didn’t receive the Bitcoin and it’s not clear if the deal went through. Pierce also claims he had a binding deal with Karpeles to buy the other 88 percent of Mt. Gox, but that Karpeles tried to pull out of the deal that remains in legal limbo.

The Supposed Villain

Sunlot has since been trying to take over the rehabilitation proceedings, but that arrangement was derailed by a lawsuit from CoinLab. That company had partnered with Mt. Gox in 2012 to run its North American operations but claimed it never received the necessary assets, and sued Mt. Gox for $75 million. Mt. Gox countersued, saying CoinLab wasn’t legally certified to run the exchange in the US and that it hadn’t returned $5.3 million in customer deposits. For a detailed account the tangle of lawsuits, check out Reuters’ deep-dive into the Mt. Gox fiasco.

CoinLab co-founder Peter Vessenes

This week, CoinLab co-founder Peter Vessenes increased the claim and is now seeking $16 billion. Pierce alleges “this is a frivolous lawsuit. He’s claiming if [the partnership with Mt. Gox] hadn’t been cancelled, CoinLab would have been Coinbase and is suing for all the value. He believes Coinbase is worth $16 billion so he should be paid $16 billion. He embezzled money from Mt. Gox, he committed a crime, and he’s trying to extort the creditors. He’s holding up the entire process hoping he’ll get a payday.” Later, Pierce reiterated that “Coinlab is the villain trying to take all the money and see creditors get nothing.” Industry sources I spoke to agreed with that characterization

Mt. Gox customers worried that they might only receive the cash equivalent of their Bitcoin according to the currency’s $483 value when Gox closed in 2014. That’s despite the rise in Bitcoin’s value rising to around 7X that today, and as high as 40X at the currency’s peak. Luckily, in June 2018 a Japanese District Court halted bankruptcy proceedings and sent Mt. Gox into civil rehabilitation which means the company’s assets would be distributed to its creditors (the users) instead of liquidated. It also declared that users would be paid back their lost Bitcoin rather than the old cash value.

The Plan For Gox Rising

Now Pierce and Sunlot are attempting another rescue of Mt. Gox’s  $1.2 billion assets. He wants to track down the remaining cryptocurrency that’s missing, have it all fairly valued, and then distribute the maximum amount to the robbed users with Mt. Gox equity shareholders including himself receiving nothing.

That’s a much better deal for creditors than if Mt. Gox paid out the undervalued sum, and then shareholders like Pierce got to keep the remaining Bitcoins or proceeds of their sale at today’s true value. “I‘ve been very blessed in my life. I did commit to giving my first billion away” Pierce notes, joking that this plan could account for the first $700 million he plans to ‘donate’.

“Like Game Of Thrones, the last season of Mt. Gox hasn’t been written” Pierce tells me, speaking in terms HBO’s Silicon Valley would be quick to parody. “What kind of ending do we want to make for it? I’m a Joseph Campbell fan so I’m obviously going to go with a hero’s journey, with a rise and a fall, and then a rise from the ashes like a phoenix.”

But to make this happen, Sunlot needs at least half of those Mt. Gox users seeking compensation, or roughly 12,000 that represent the majority of assets, to sign up to join a creditors committee. That’s where GoxRising.com comes in. The plan is to have users join the committee there so they can present a united voice to Kobayashi about how they want Mt. Gox’s assets distributed. “I think that would allow the process to move faster than it would otherise” Pierce says. “Things are on track to be resolved in the next three to five years. If [a majority of creditors sign on] this could be resolved in maybe 1 year.”

Beyond providing whatever the Mt. Gox estate pays out, Pierce wants to create a Gox Coin that gives original Mt. Gox creditors a stake in the new company. He plans to have all of Mt. Gox’s equity wiped out, including his own. Then he’ll arrange to finance and tokenize an independent foundation governed by the creditors that will seek to recover additional lost Mt. Gox assets and then distribute them pro rata to the Gox Coin holders. There are plenty of unanswered questions about the regulatory status of a Gox Coin and what holders would be entitled to, Pierce admits.

Meanwhile, Pierce is bidding to buy the intangibles of Mt. Gox, aka the brand and domain. He wants to then relaunch it as a Gox or Mt. Gox exchange that doesn’t provide custody itself for higher security. Despite the recent crypto recession with prices at multi-year lows, he believes there’s room for another exchange with a brand tied to the early heyday of Bitcoin.

“We want to offer [creditors] more than the bankruptcy trustee can do on its own” Pierce tells me. He concedes that the venture isn’t purely altruistic. “If the exchange is very successful I stand to benefit sometime down the road.” Even if the revived Mt. Gox never rises to legitimately challenge Binance, Coinbase, and other leading exchanges, Piece believes it’s all worth the effort. He concludes, “Whether we’re successful or not, I want to see the creditors made whole.” Those creditors will have to decide for themselves who to trust.

Snapchat shares soar as it stops losing users and shrinks losses in Q4

Snapchat isn’t growing again, but at least it didn’t hemorrhage any more users in its Q4 earnings report. The company stayed flat at 186 million daily users after falling from 191 million in Q1 to 188 million in Q2 to 186 million in Q3. It exceeded an expected quarterly count of 184.2 million user, though 186 million is still down 0.3 percent year-over-year. It reached record revenue of $390 million in the holiday quarter, up 36 percent year-over-year to beat the $378 million Wall Street estimate, and Snapchat lost just $0.04 per share compared to Wall Street’s $0.08 loss estimate for a mixed earnings report.

The highlight of the earnings report was that Snap has managed a 68 percent year-over-year improvement in its adjusted EBITDA losses, which came in at $50 million. “This limited our Q4 losses to just 13 percent of our revenue, compared to just one year ago when our Q4 losses totaled more than 50 percent of revenue” CEO Evan Spiegel wrote in his opening remarks. After closing at $7.04 today, Snap was up around 16 percent in after hours trading to hover around $8.22 — still way down from a peak of $20.75 a year ago.

Importantly, Snapchat grew its Europe user count from 59 million to 60 million and stayed flat at 79 million in North America. Since those are its two best monetizing markets, stopping the shrinkage there was critical. That helped spur a 37 percent year-over-year increase in global average revenue per user, and a 30 percent boost over Q3.

Meanwhile, Snapchat announced it’s finally starting to roll out its Android rebuild to some users, and the initial test results were promising. App startup time was reduced 20 percent, and the improvements could reinvigorate Snapchat for Android’s growth after years of bugs and slow loading dragging down Snapchat’s user count.

Reddit is raising a huge round near a $3 billion valuation

Reddit is raising $150 million to $300 million to keep the front page of the Internet running, multiple sources tell TechCrunch. The forthcoming Series D round is said to be led by Chinese tech giant Tencent at a $2.7 billion pre-money valuation. Depending on how much follow-on cash Reddit drums up from Silicon Valley investors and beyond, its post-money valuation could reach an epic $3 billion.

As more people seek esoteric community and off-kilter entertainment online, Reddit continues to grow its link sharing forums. 330 million monthly active users now frequent its 150,000 Subreddits. That warrants the boost to its valuation, which previously reached $1.8 billion when raised $200 million in July 2017. As of then, Reddit’s majority stake was still held by publisher Conde Nast that bought in back in 2006 just a year after the site launched. Reddit had raised $250 million previously, so the new round will push it to $400 million to $550 million in total funding.

It should have been clear that Reddit was on the prowl after a month of pitching its growth to the press and beating its own drum. In December Reddit announced it had reached 1.4 billion video views per month, up a staggering 40 percent from just two months earlier after first launching a native video player in August 2017. And it made a big deal out of starting to sell cost per click ads in addition to promoted posts, cost per impression, and video ads. A 22 percent increase in engagement and 30 percent rise in total view in 2018 pushed it past $100 million in revenue for the year, CNBC reported.

The exact details of the Series D could fluctuate before it’s formally announced, and Reddit and Tencent declined to comment. But supporting and moderating all that content isn’t cheap. The company had 350 employees just under a year ago, and is headquartered in pricey San Francisco — though in one if it’s cheaper but troubled neighborhood. Until Reddit’s newer ad products rev up, it’s still relying on venture capital.

Tencent’s money will give Reddit time to hit its stride. It’s said to be kicking in the first $150 million of the round. The Chinese conglomerate owns all-in-on messaging app WeChat and is the biggest gaming company in the world thanks to ownership of League Of Legends and stakes in Clash Of Clans-maker Supercell and Fortnite developer Epic. But China’s crackdown on gaming addiction has been rough for Tencent’s valuation and Chinese competitor Bytedance’s news reader app Toutiao has grown enormous. Both of those facts make investing in American news board Reddit a savvy diversification, even if Reddit isn’t accessible in China.

Reddit could seek to fill out its round with up to $150 million in additional cash from previous investors like Sequoia, Andreessen Horowitz, Y Combinator, or YC’s president Sam Altman. They could see potential in one of the web’s most unique and internet-native content communities. Reddit is where the real world is hashed out and laughed about by a tech savvy audience that often produces memes that cross over into mainstream culture. And with all those amateur curators toiling away for Internet points, casual users are flocking in for an edgier look at what will be the center of attention tomorrow.

Reddit has recently avoid much of the backlash hitting fellow social site Facebook, despite having to remove 1000 Russian trolls pushing political propaganda. But in the past, the anonymous site has had plenty of problems with racist, mysoginistic, and homophobic content. In 2015 it finally implemented quarantines and shut down some of the most offensive Subreddits. But harassment by users contributed to the departure of CEO Ellen Pao, who was replaced by Steve Huffman, Reddit’s co-founder. Huffman went on to abuse that power, secretly editing some user comments on Reddit to frame them for insulting the heads of their own Subreddits. He escaped the debacle with a slap on the wrist and an apology, claiming “I spent my formative years as a young troll on the Internet.”

Investors will have to hope Huffman has the composure to lead Reddit as it inevitably encounters more scrutiny as its valuation scales up. Its policy choice about what constitutes hate speech and harassment, its own company culture, and its influence on public opinion will all come under the microscope. Reddit has the potential to give a voice to great ideas at a time when flashy visuals rule the web. And as local journalism wanes, the site’s breed of vigilante web sleuths could be more in demand, for better or worse. But that all hinges on Reddit defining clear, consistent, empathetic policy that will help it surf atop the sewage swirling around the internet.

Facebook now lets everyone unsend messages for up to 10 minutes

Facebook has finally made good on its promise to let users unsend chat after TechCrunch discovered Mark Zuckerberg had secretly retracted some of his Facebook Messages from recipients. Today Facebook Messenger globally rolls out “Remove for everyone” to help you pull back typos, poor choices, embarassing thoughts, or any other message.

For up to 10 minutes after sending a Facebook Message, the sender can tap on it and they’ll find the delete button has been replaced by “Remove for you”, but there’s now also a “Remove for everyone” option that pulls the message from recipients’ inboxes. They’ll see an alert that you removed a message in its place, and can still report the message to Facebook. The feature could make people more comfortable having honest conversations or using Messenger for flirting since they can second guess what they send, but won’t let people change ancient history.

The company abused its power by altering the history of Zuckerberg’s Facebook’s messages in a way that email or other communication mediums wouldn’t allow. Yet Facebook refused to say if it will now resume removing executives’ messages from recipients even long after they’re delivered after telling TechCrunch in April that “until this feature is ready, we will no longer be deleting any executives’ messages.”

For a quick recap, here’s how Facebook got to Unsend:

-Facebook Messenger never had an Unsend option, except in its encrypted Secret messaging product where you can set an expiration timer on chats, or in Instagram Direct

-In April 2018, TechCrunch reported that some of Mark Zuckerberg’s messages had been removed from the inboxes of recipients, including non-employees. There was no trace of the chats in the message thread, leaving his conversation partners looking like they were talking to themselves, but email receipts proved the messages had been sent but later disappeared.

-Facebook claimed this was partly because it was “limiting the retention period for Mark’s messages” for security purposes in the wake of the Sony Pictures hack, yet it never explained why only some messages to some people had been removed

-The next morning, Facebook changed its tune and announced it’d build an Unsned button for everyone, providing this statement: “We have discussed this feature several times . . . We will now be making a broader delete message feature available. This may take some time. And until this feature is ready, we will no longer be deleting any executives’ messages. We should have done this sooner — and we’re sorry that we did not.”

-Six months later in October 2018, Facebook still hadn’t launched the feature, but then TechCrunch found Facebook had been prototyping the feature

-In November, Facebook started to roll out the feature with the current “Remove for everyone” design and 10 minute limit

-Now every iOS and Messenger user globally will get the Unsend feature

So will Facebook start retracting executives’ messages again? It’d only say that the new feature would be available to both users and employees. But in Zuckerberg’s case, messages from years ago were made to disappear in a way users still aren’t allowed to. Remove for everyone should make messaging on Facebook a little less anxiety-inducing. But it shouldn’t have taken Facebook being caught stealing from the inboxes of its users to get it built.

Account linking could make Instagram the heir to Facebook Login

Teens’ aversion to Facebook jeopardizes not only the company’s feed ad revenue, but its dominance as an identity provider. The Facebook Login platform keeps people tied to the social network in order to easily access other apps without a separate username and password. But for younger users who ditch or neglect Facebook in favor of Instagram, the tech giant stands to lose one of its most powerful wedges into our lives. Meanwhile, Instagram loyalists are forced to juggle multiple sets of login credentials to manage their personal, Finsta, and business accounts.

But a new feature in development could make it easy to operate multiple Instagram handles while poising the app as a successor to Facebook Login. Instagram has prototyped “Main Account” feature that would let users set one of their profiles as a primary account and then link their others to it. Logging into the main account would instantly log them in to the rest as well. From then on, users would only need to remember a single email/username and password combo. Simpler login could get people switching accounts, posting, and engaging more with Instagram.

Account linking could also power up Instagram’s existing login platform. Currently, third-party apps use it to let you compose feed posts and Stories and then share them to Instagram, or to measure the activity and mentions of business accounts. But Instagram could potentially expand the login platform to let you bring more of your identity or profile info to other apps similar to Facebook Login. That might work better if you could log in through your main Instagram account and then choose which profile you wanted to use or share back to from another app.

TechCrunch was tipped off to code for “Account Linking” in the Instagram for Android alpha version’s APK files by social media research Ishan Agarwal. The code explains “Quickly and securely log in to all of your Instagram accounts with one ID and password . . . Make one of your accounts your main account and use it to log in to all of your other accounts at once . . . Your accounts will remain separate but logging in will be fast and simple . . . Anyone who has the password for your main account will have access to the accounts connected to it.”

Instagram declined to comment regarding the feature. That’s standard for the company when it’s prototyped something is it trying it with employees but hasn’t done any external testing. But many features first spotted in the app’s code at this stage go on to be fully rolled out, like Instagram video calling, nametags, and soundtracks.

Facebook colonized the web using its login platform, scattering buttons with its logo on sites as an alternative to having to create a new account for every service. This helped grow Facebook’s user base, lock in users so it’d be harder for them to deactivate, develop new sources of feed content, and gather data on what people did around the web. Many users who’ve stopped heavily posting to or reading Facebook still maintain a connection with the social network since they rely on it to log in to Spotify, Netflix, and other services.

In fact, Facebook’s login platform is one of its most valuable features where it lacks strong competition. Google runs its own identity platform, but with people increasingly using 2-factor authentication and other security to protect their Gmail accounts, it can sometimes be a bit clumsy. Snapchat is trying to build up its own Snap Kit login platform with partners like Poshmark, but few mainstream apps have implemented it for account creation.

Instagram has been tinkering with other features around the concept of identity. It launched Close Friends for sharing Stories just with your besties, rolled out its own 2-factor authentication option, and is adding a way to syndicate your feed posts to multiple accounts you control. Getting users to establish a main account could also smooth Facebook’s plan to offer encrypted cross-app messaging between itself, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Your main account might be a stand in for your real identity since Instagram doesn’t force a real name policy on users like Facebook does.

If you start to think of Instagram as not just a parallel social network to Facebook but as either an escape pod or heir to the throne, it’s important to consider how Facebook’s core assets will weather the transition. Recent profile redesigns have already tried to make your Instagram profile the center of your online personality. Uniting the prismatic shards of your identity through account linking could let you carry that personality with you across the web.

We dismantle Facebook’s memo defending its “Research”

Facebook published an internal memo today trying to minimize the morale damage of TechCrunch’s investigation that revealed it’d been paying people to suck in all their phone data. Attained by Business Insider’s Rob Price, the memo from Facebook’s VP of production engineering and security Pedro Canahuati gives us more detail about exactly what data Facebook was trying to collect from teens and adults in the US and India. But it also tries to claim the program wasn’t secret, wasn’t spying, and that Facebook doesn’t see it as a violation of Apple’s policy against using its Enterprise Certificate system to distribute apps to non-employees — despite Apple punishing it for the violation.

For reference, Facebook was recruiting users age 13-35 to install a Research app, VPN, and give it root network access so it could analyze all their traffic. It’s pretty sketchy to be buying people’s privacy, and despite being shut down on iOS, it’s still running on Android.

Here we lay out the memo with section by section responses to Facebook’s claims challenging TechCrunch’s reporting. Our responses are in bold and we’ve added images.

Memo from Facebook VP Pedro Canahuati

APPLE ENTERPRISE CERTS REINSTATED

Early this morning, we received agreement from Apple to issue a new enterprise certificate; this has allowed us to produce new builds of our public and enterprise apps for use by employees and contractors. Because we have a few dozen apps to rebuild, we’re initially focusing on the most critical ones, prioritized by usage and importance: Facebook, Messenger, Workplace, Work Chat, Instagram, and Mobile Home.

New builds of these apps will soon be available and we’ll email all iOS users for detailed instructions on how to reinstall. We’ll also post to iOS FYI with full details.

Meanwhile, we’re expecting a follow-up article from the New York Times later today, so I wanted to share a bit more information and background on the situation.

What happened?

On Tuesday TechCrunch reported on our Facebook Research program. This is a market research program that helps us understand consumer behavior and trends to build better mobile products.

TechCrunch implied we hid the fact that this is by Facebook – we don’t. Participants have to download an app called Facebook Research App to be involved in the stud. They also characterized this as “spying,” which we don’t agree with. People participated in this program with full knowledge that Facebook was sponsoring this research, and were paid for it. They could opt-out at any time. As we built this program, we specifically wanted to make sure we were as transparent as possible about what we were doing, what information we were gathering, and what it was for — see the screenshots below.

We used an app that we built ourselves, which wasn’t distributed via the App Store, to do this work. Instead it was side-loaded via our enterprise certificate. Apple has indicated that this broke their Terms of Service so disabled our enterprise certificates which allow us to install our own apps on devices outside of the official app store for internal dogfooding.

Author’s response: To start, “build better products” is a vague way of saying determining what’s popular and buying or building it. Facebook has used competitive analysis gathered by its similar Onavo Protect app and Facebook Research app for years to figure out what apps were gaining momentum and either bring them in or box them out. Onavo’s data is how Facebook knew WhatsApp was sending twice as many messages as Messenger, and it should invest $19 billion to acquire it.

Facebook claims it didn’t hide the program, but it was never formally announced like every other Facebook product. There were no Facebook Help pages, blog posts, or support info from the company. It used intermediaries Applause (which owns uTest) and CentreCode (which owns Betabound) to run the program under names like Project Atlas and Project Kodiak. Users only found out Facebook was involved once they started the sign-up process and signed a non-disclosure agreement prohibiting them from discussing it publicly.

TechCrunch has reviewed communications indicating Facebook would threaten legal action if a user spoke publicly about being part of the Research program. While the program had run since 2016, it had never been reported on. We believe that these facts combined justify characterizing the program as “secret”

The Facebook Research program was called Project Atlas until you signed up

How does this program work?

We partner with a couple of market research companies (Applause and CentreCode) to source and onboard candidates based in India and USA for this research project. Once people are onboarded through a generic registration page, they are informed that this research will be for Facebook and can decline to participate or opt out at any point. We rely on a 3rd party vendor for a number of reasons, including their ability to target a Diverse and representative pool of participants. They use a generic initial Registration Page to avoid bias in the people who choose to participate.

After generic onboarding people are asked to download an app called the ‘Facebook Research App,’ which takes them through a consent flow that requires people to check boxes to confirm they understand what information will be collected. As mentioned above, we worked hard to make this as explicit and clear as possible.

This is part of a broader set of research programs we conduct. Asking users to allow us to collect data on their device usage is a highly efficient way of getting industry data from closed ecosystems, such as iOS and Android. We believe this is a valid method of market research.

Author’s response: Facebook claims it wasn’t “spying”, yet it never fully laid out the specific kinds of information it would collect. In some cases, descriptions of the app’s data collection power were included in merely a footnote. The program did not specify specific data types gathered, only saying it would scoop up “which apps are on your phone, how and when you use them” and “information about your internet browsing activity”

The parental consent form from Facebook and Applause lists none of the specific types of data collected or the extent of Facebook’s access. Under “Risks/Benefits”, the form states “There are no known risks associated with this project however you acknowledge that the inherent nature of the project involves the tracking of personal information via your child’s use of Apps. You will be compensated by Applause for your child’s participation.” It gives parents no information about what data their kids are giving up.

Facebook claims it uses third-parties to target a diverse pool of participants. Yet Facebook conducts other user feedback and research programs on its own without the need for intermediaries that obscure its identity, and only ran the program in two countries. It claims to use a generic signup page to avoid biasing who will choose to participate, yet the cash incentive and technical process of installing the root certificate also bias who will participate, and the intermediaries conveniently prevent Facebook from being publicly associated with the program at first glance. Meanwhile, other clients of the Betabound testing platform like Amazon, Norton, and SanDisk reveal their names immediately before users sign up.

Facebook’s ads recruiting teens for the program didn’t disclose its involvement

Did we intentionally hide our identity as Facebook?

No — The Facebook brand is very prominent throughout the download and installation process, before any data is collected. Also, the app name of the device appears as “Facebook Research” — see attached screenshots. We use third parties to source participants in the research study, to avoid bias in the people who choose to participate. But as soon as they register, they become aware this is research for Facebook

Author’s response: Facebook here admits that users did not know Facebook was involved before they registered.

What data do we collect? Do we read people’s private messages?

No, we don’t read private messages. We collect data to understand how people use apps, but this market research was not designed to look at what they share or see. We’re interested in information such as watch time, video duration, and message length, not that actual content of videos, messages, stories or photos. The app specifically ignores information shared via financial or health apps.

Author’s response: We never reported that Facebook was reading people’s private messages, but that it had the ability to collect them. Facebook here admits that the program was “not designed to look at what they share or see”, but stops far short of saying that data wasn’t collected. Fascinatingly, Facebook reveals it was that it was closely monitoring how much time people spent on different media types.

Facebook Research abused the Enterprise Certificate system meant for employee-only apps

Did we break Apple’s terms of service?

Apple’s view is that we violated their terms by sideloading this app, and they decide the rules for their platform, We’ve worked with Apple to address any issues; as a result, our internal apps are back up and running. Our relationship with Apple is really important — many of us use Apple products at work every day, and we rely on iOS for many of our employee apps, so we wouldn’t put that relationship at any risk intentionally. Mark and others will be available to talk about this further at Q&A later today.

Author’s response: TechCrunch reported that Apple’s policy plainly states that the Enterprise Certificate program requires companies to “Distribute Provisioning Profiles only to Your Employees and only in conjunction with Your Internal Use Applications for the purpose of developing and testing” and that “You may not use, distribute or otherwise make Your Internal Use Applications available to Your Customers”. Apple took a firm stance in its statement that Facebook did violate the program’s policies, stating “Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple.”

Given Facebook distributed the Research apps to teenagers that never signed tax forms or formal employment agreements, they were obviously not employees or contractors, and most likely use some Facebook-owned service that qualifies them as customers. Also, I’m pretty sure you can’t pay employees in gift cards.