Openbook is the latest dream of a digital life beyond Facebook

As tech’s social giants wrestle with antisocial demons that appear to be both an emergent property of their platform power, and a consequence of specific leadership and values failures (evident as they publicly fail to enforce even the standards they claim to have), there are still people dreaming of a better way. Of social networking beyond outrage-fuelled adtech giants like Facebook and Twitter.

There have been many such attempts to build a ‘better’ social network of course. Most have ended in the deadpool. A few are still around with varying degrees of success/usage (Snapchat, Ello and Mastodon are three that spring to mine). None has usurped Zuckerberg’s throne of course.

This is principally because Facebook acquired Instagram and WhatsApp. It has also bought and closed down smaller potential future rivals (tbh). So by hogging network power, and the resources that flow from that, Facebook the company continues to dominate the social space. But that doesn’t stop people imagining something better — a platform that could win friends and influence the mainstream by being better ethically and in terms of functionality.

And so meet the latest dreamer with a double-sided social mission: Openbook.

The idea (currently it’s just that; a small self-funded team; a manifesto; a prototype; a nearly spent Kickstarter campaign; and, well, a lot of hopeful ambition) is to build an open source platform that rethinks social networking to make it friendly and customizable, rather than sticky and creepy.

Their vision to protect privacy as a for-profit platform involves a business model that’s based on honest fees — and an on-platform digital currency — rather than ever watchful ads and trackers.

There’s nothing exactly new in any of their core ideas. But in the face of massive and flagrant data misuse by platform giants these are ideas that seem to sound increasingly like sense. So the element of timing is perhaps the most notable thing here — with Facebook facing greater scrutiny than ever before, and even taking some hits to user growth and to its perceived valuation as a result of ongoing failures of leadership and a management philosophy that’s been attacked by at least one of its outgoing senior execs as manipulative and ethically out of touch.

The Openbook vision of a better way belongs to Joel Hernández who has been dreaming for a couple of years, brainstorming ideas on the side of other projects, and gathering similarly minded people around him to collectively come up with an alternative social network manifesto — whose primary pledge is a commitment to be honest.

“And then the data scandals started happening and every time they would, they would give me hope. Hope that existing social networks were not a given and immutable thing, that they could be changed, improved, replaced,” he tells TechCrunch.

Rather ironically Hernández says it was overhearing the lunchtime conversation of a group of people sitting near him — complaining about a laundry list of social networking ills; “creepy ads, being spammed with messages and notifications all the time, constantly seeing the same kind of content in their newsfeed” — that gave him the final push to pick up the paper manifesto and have a go at actually building (or, well, trying to fund building… ) an alternative platform. 

At the time of writing Openbook’s Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign has a handful of days to go and is only around a third of the way to reaching its (modest) target of $115k, with just over 1,000 backers chipping in. So the funding challenge is looking tough.

The team behind Openbook includes crypto(graphy) royalty, Phil Zimmermann — aka the father of PGP — who is on board as an advisor initially but billed as its “chief cryptographer”, as that’s what he’d be building for the platform if/when the time came. 

Hernández worked with Zimmermann at the Dutch telecom KPN building security and privacy tools for internal usage — so called him up and invited him for a coffee to get his thoughts on the idea.

“As soon as I opened the website with the name Openbook, his face lit up like I had never seen before,” says Hernández. “You see, he wanted to use Facebook. He lives far away from his family and facebook was the way to stay in the loop with his family. But using it would also mean giving away his privacy and therefore accepting defeat on his life-long fight for it, so he never did. He was thrilled at the possibility of an actual alternative.”

On the Kickstarter page there’s a video of Zimmermann explaining the ills of the current landscape of for-profit social platforms, as he views it. “If you go back a century, Coca Cola had cocaine in it and we were giving it to children,” he says here. “It’s crazy what we were doing a century ago. I think there will come a time, some years in the future, when we’re going to look back on social networks today, and what we were doing to ourselves, the harm we were doing to ourselves with social networks.”

“We need an alternative to the social network work revenue model that we have today,” he adds. “The problem with having these deep machine learning neural nets that are monitoring our behaviour and pulling us into deeper and deeper engagement is they already seem to know that nothing drives engagement as much as outrage.

“And this outrage deepens the political divides in our culture, it creates attack vectors against democratic institutions, it undermines our elections, it makes people angry at each other and provides opportunities to divide us. And that’s in addition to the destruction of our privacy by revenue models that are all about exploiting our personal information. So we need some alternative to this.”

Hernández actually pinged TechCrunch’s tips line back in April — soon after the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal went global — saying “we’re building the first ever privacy and security first, open-source, social network”.

We’ve heard plenty of similar pitches before, of course. Yet Facebook has continued to harvest global eyeballs by the billions. And even now, after a string of massive data and ethics scandals, it’s all but impossible to imagine users leaving the site en masse. Such is the powerful lock-in of The Social Network effect.

Regulation could present a greater threat to Facebook, though others argue more rules will simply cement its current dominance.

Openbook’s challenger idea is to apply product innovation to try to unstick Zuckerberg. Aka “building functionality that could stand for itself”, as Hernández puts it.

“We openly recognise that privacy will never be enough to get any significant user share from existing social networks,” he says. “That’s why we want to create a more customisable, fun and overall social experience. We won’t follow the footsteps of existing social networks.”

Data portability is an important ingredient to even being able to dream this dream — getting people to switch from a dominant network is hard enough without having to ask them to leave all their stuff behind as well as their friends. Which means that “making the transition process as smooth as possible” is another project focus.

Hernández says they’re building data importers that can parse the archive users are able to request from their existing social networks — to “tell you what’s in there and allow you to select what you want to import into Openbook”.

These sorts of efforts are aided by updated regulations in Europe — which bolster portability requirements on controllers of personal data. “I wouldn’t say it made the project possible but… it provided us a with a unique opportunity no other initiative had before,” says Hernández of the EU’s GDPR.

“Whether it will play a significant role in the mass adoption of the network, we can’t tell for sure but it’s simply an opportunity too good to ignore.”

On the product front, he says they have lots of ideas — reeling off a list that includes the likes of “a topic-roulette for chats, embracing Internet challenges as another kind of content, widgets, profile avatars, AR chatrooms…” for starters.

“Some of these might sound silly but the idea is to break the status quo when it comes to the definition of what a social network can do,” he adds.

Asked why he believes other efforts to build ‘ethical’ alternatives to Facebook have failed he argues it’s usually because they’ve focused on technology rather than product.

“This is still the most predominant [reason for failure],” he suggests. “A project comes up offering a radical new way to do social networking behind the scenes. They focus all their efforts in building the brand new tech needed to do the very basic things a social network can already do. Next thing you know, years have passed. They’re still thousands of miles away from anything similar to the functionality of existing social networks and their core supporters have moved into yet another initiative making the same promises. And the cycle goes on.”

He also reckons disruptive efforts have fizzled out because they were too tightly focused on being just a solution to an existing platform problem and nothing more.

So, in other words, people were trying to build an ‘anti-Facebook’, rather than a distinctly interesting service in its own right. (The latter innovation, you could argue, is how Snap managed to carve out a space for itself in spite of Facebook sitting alongside it — even as Facebook has since sought to crush Snap’s creative market opportunity by cloning its products.)

“This one applies not only to social network initiatives but privacy-friendly products too,” argues Hernández. “The problem with that approach is that the problems they solve or claim to solve are most of the time not mainstream. Such as the lack of privacy.

“While these products might do okay with the people that understand the problems, at the end of the day that’s a very tiny percentage of the market. The solution these products often present to this issue is educating the population about the problems. This process takes too long. And in topics like privacy and security, it’s not easy to educate people. They are topics that require a knowledge level beyond the one required to use the technology and are hard to explain with examples without entering into the conspiracy theorist spectrum.”

So the Openbook team’s philosophy is to shake things up by getting people excited for alternative social networking features and opportunities, with merely the added benefit of not being hostile to privacy nor algorithmically chain-linked to stoking fires of human outrage.

The reliance on digital currency for the business model does present another challenge, though, as getting people to buy into this could be tricky. After all payments equal friction.

To begin with, Hernández says the digital currency component of the platform would be used to let users list secondhand items for sale. Down the line, the vision extends to being able to support a community of creators getting a sustainable income — thanks to the same baked in coin mechanism enabling other users to pay to access content or just appreciate it (via a tip).

So, the idea is, that creators on Openbook would be able to benefit from the social network effect via direct financial payments derived from the platform (instead of merely ad-based payments, such as are available to YouTube creators) — albeit, that’s assuming reaching the necessary critical usage mass. Which of course is the really, really tough bit.

“Lower cuts than any existing solution, great content creation tools, great administration and overview panels, fine-grained control over the view-ability of their content and more possibilities for making a stable and predictable income such as creating extra rewards for people that accept to donate for a fixed period of time such as five months instead of a month to month basis,” says Hernández, listing some of the ideas they have to stand out from existing creator platforms.

“Once we have such a platform and people start using tips for this purpose (which is not such a strange use of a digital token), we will start expanding on its capabilities,” he adds. (He’s also written the requisite Medium article discussing some other potential use cases for the digital currency portion of the plan.)

At this nascent prototype and still-not-actually-funded stage they haven’t made any firm technical decisions on this front either. And also don’t want to end up accidentally getting into bed with an unethical tech.

“Digital currency wise, we’re really concerned about the environmental impact and scalability of the blockchain,” he says — which could risk Openbook contradicting stated green aims in its manifesto and looking hypocritical, given its plan is to plough 30% of its revenues into ‘give-back’ projects, such as environmental and sustainability efforts and also education.

“We want a decentralised currency but we don’t want to rush into decisions without some in-depth research. Currently, we’re going through IOTA’s whitepapers,” he adds.

They do also believe in decentralizing the platform — or at least parts of it — though that would not be their first focus on account of the strategic decision to prioritize product. So they’re not going to win fans from the (other) crypto community. Though that’s hardly a big deal given their target user-base is far more mainstream.

“Initially it will be built on a centralised manner. This will allow us to focus in innovating in regards to the user experience and functionality product rather than coming up with a brand new behind the scenes technology,” he says. “In the future, we’re looking into decentralisation from very specific angles and for different things. Application wise, resiliency and data ownership.”

“A project we’re keeping an eye on and that shares some of our vision on this is Tim Berners Lee’s MIT Solid project. It’s all about decoupling applications from the data they use,” he adds.

So that’s the dream. And the dream sounds good and right. The problem is finding enough funding and wider support — call it ‘belief equity’ — in a market so denuded of competitive possibility as a result of monopolistic platform power that few can even dream an alternative digital reality is possible.

In early April, Hernández posted a link to a basic website with details of Openbook to a few online privacy and tech communities asking for feedback. The response was predictably discouraging. “Some 90% of the replies were a mix between critiques and plain discouraging responses such as “keep dreaming”, “it will never happen”, “don’t you have anything better to do”,” he says.

(Asked this April by US lawmakers whether he thinks he has a monopoly, Zuckerberg paused and then quipped: “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me!”)

Still, Hernández stuck with it, working on a prototype and launching the Kickstarter. He’s got that far — and wants to build so much more — but getting enough people to believe that a better, fairer social network is even possible might be the biggest challenge of all. 

For now, though, Hernández doesn’t want to stop dreaming.

“We are committed to make Openbook happen,” he says. “Our back-up plan involves grants and impact investment capital. Nothing will be as good as getting our first version through Kickstarter though. Kickstarter funding translates to absolute freedom for innovation, no strings attached.”

You can check out the Openbook crowdfunding pitch here.

Femtech hardware startup Elvie inks strategic partnership with UK’s NHS

Elvie, a femtech hardware startup whose first product is a sleek smart pelvic floor exerciser, has inked a strategic partnership with the UK’s National Health Service that will make the device available nationwide through the country’s free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare service so at no direct cost to the patient.

It’s a major win for the startup that was co-founded in 2013 by CEO Tania Boler and Jawbone founder, Alexander Asseily, with the aim of building smart technology that focuses on women’s issues — an overlooked and underserved category in the gadget space.

Boler’s background before starting Elvie (née Chiaro) including working for the U.N. on global sex education curriculums. But her interest in pelvic floor health, and the inspiration for starting Elvie, began after she had a baby herself and found there was more support for women in France than the U.K. when it came to taking care of their bodies after giving birth.

With the NHS partnership, which is the startup’s first national reimbursement partnership (and therefore, as a spokeswoman puts it, has “the potential to be transformative” for the still young company), Elvie is emphasizing the opportunity for its connected tech to help reduce symptoms of urinary incontinence, including those suffered by new mums or in cases of stress-related urinary incontinence.

The Elvie kegel trainer is designed to make pelvic floor exercising fun and easy for women, with real-time feedback delivered via an app that also gamifies the activity, guiding users through exercises intended to strengthen their pelvic floor and thus help reduce urinary incontinence symptoms. The device can also alert users when they are contracting incorrectly.

Elvie cites research suggesting the NHS spends £233M annually on incontinence, claiming also that around a third of women and up to 70% of expectant and new mums currently suffer from urinary incontinence. In 70 per cent of stress urinary incontinence cases it suggests symptoms can be reduced or eliminated via pelvic floor muscle training.

And while there’s no absolute need for any device to perform the necessary muscle contractions to strengthen the pelvic floor, the challenge the Elvie Trainer is intended to help with is it can be difficult for women to know they are performing the exercises correctly or effectively.

Elvie cites a 2004 study that suggests around a third of women can’t exercise their pelvic floor correctly with written or verbal instruction alone. Whereas it says that biofeedback devices (generally, rather than the Elvie Trainer specifically) have been proven to increase success rates of pelvic floor training programmes by 10% — which it says other studies have suggested can lower surgery rates by 50% and reduce treatment costs by £424 per patient head within the first year.

“Until now, biofeedback pelvic floor training devices have only been available through the NHS for at-home use on loan from the patient’s hospital, with patient allocation dependent upon demand. Elvie Trainer will be the first at-home biofeedback device available on the NHS for patients to keep, which will support long-term motivation,” it adds.

Commenting in a statement, Clare Pacey, a specialist women’s health physiotherapist at Kings College Hospital, said: “I am delighted that Elvie Trainer is now available via the NHS. Apart from the fact that it is a sleek, discreet and beautiful product, the app is simple to use and immediate visual feedback directly to your phone screen can be extremely rewarding and motivating. It helps to make pelvic floor rehabilitation fun, which is essential in order to be maintained.”

Elvie is not disclosing commercial details of the NHS partnership but a spokeswoman told us the main objective for this strategic partnership is to broaden access to Elvie Trainer, adding: “The wholesale pricing reflects that.”

Discussing the structure of the supply arrangement, she said Elvie is working with Eurosurgical as its delivery partner — a distributor she said has “decades of experience supplying products to the NHS”.

“The approach will vary by Trust, regarding whether a unit is ordered for a particular patient or whether a small stock will be held so a unit may be provided to a patient within the session in which the need is established. This process will be monitored and reviewed to determine the most efficient and economic distribution method for the NHS Supply Chain,” she added.

BlaBlaCar acquires carpool rival BeepCar from Russia’s Mail.Ru

Another acquisition for French carpooling platform BlaBlaCar: It’s picked up Russian Internet giant Mail.Ru’s relatively recent rival offering, BeepCar, in what’s being billed as both an acquisition and a partnership.

BlaBlaCar says the move is aimed at consolidating its international growth.

“Through this acquisition, we are doubling down our commitment to develop carpooling in Russia, and to address growing Russian demand for a convenient and reliable long-distance mobility solution,” said co-founder and CEO Nicolas Brusson in a statement.

Russia, a market which BlaBlaCar launched into via acquisition back in 2014 is now its largest market (with 15M users out of its global user base on 65M+). Whereas BeepCar, which only started in 2017, is reported to have passed five million downloads for its app as of Q2 this year.

But close competition from a well-resourced, local Internet giant in a core strategic market where BlaBlaCar has focused for growth likely meant this acquisition was probably only a matter of time.

Financial terms have not been disclosed but it includes a marketing partnership — with BlaBlaCar committing to further promote carpooling through Mail.Ru Group platforms (so it’ll presumably be buying ads).

While, from this fall, BeepCar traffic will be redirected to BlaBlaCar — thereby “driving” advertising revenue for Mail.Ru Group, as they put it (ho-ho).

A spokeswoman for BlaBlaCar confirmed the BeepCar brand and platform will be going away as the service is being consolidated into BlaBlaCar’s platform.

This April the French startup also acquired a Paris-based rival, called Less. While, back in 2015, it bagged its then biggest European rival, Carpooling.com, to dominate its home region.

For its part, the Mail.Ru Group said it will focus on developing its larger verticals: Food delivery, classifieds, cross-border trade, and taxi ride-hailing services.

Venezuela claims drones loaded with explosives used in failed attack on president

Is the dystopian future of shoestrong budget weaponized drone attacks here already? The BBC and AP are reporting claims by the Venezuela government of an assassination attempt on its president using a couple of drones carrying explosives.

President Nicolás Maduro was giving a speech at a military event in Caracas which was being screened live on television when the incident occurred.

Footage of the speech on the BBC website shows the president, flanked by military generals and with his wife also standing alongside, being interrupted mid-flow by what appears to be a blast from above them.

The people in the shot react by looking startled and looking up. The audio to the video cuts out before the blast can be heard.

Footage of the incident from a different camera angle showing a panorama view of a military parade at a standstill during the speech, does include the sound of a blast. Afterwards people can be seen pushing into and then running into the frame. The soldiers break rank in panic and the sound of screams can be heard.

Venezuela authorities have reported that seven soldiers were injured in the incident and several people were later arrested. Communications minister, Jorge Rodriguez, said two drones loaded with explosives went off near the president’s stand.

In a national address later, Maduro said: “A flying object exploded near me, a big explosion. Seconds later there was a second explosion.”

However there has been no independent verification that explosive-carrying drones were the cause of the blast. And a report by AP cites firefighters at the scene of the blast disputing the government’s version of events.

It reports that three local authorities said there had been a gas tank explosion inside an apartment near the speech and where smoke could be seen streaming out of a window. But AP adds that they provided no further details on how they had reached that conclusion.

There has also been an unverified claim of responsibility for an attack using drones.

The BBC and AP report that a little known group called Soldiers in T-shirts has claimed on social media that it planned to fly two drones loaded with explosives at the president but that government soldiers shot them down before they reached their target.

Both news organizations say the group did not respond to attempts to contact it.

Venezuela’s president has blamed Colombia for the attack — an accusation that has been refuted by the neighboring state as “baseless”.

Wonga investors inject £10M so cash-strapped payday lender can fund claims

If you were at Disrupt London four years ago you may remember more than a little awkwardness during an investor panel when two VCs that had invested in European payday loans firm Wonga declined to comment on what had gone wrong at their portfolio company in the wake of a £220M write down.

Yesterday Sky News reported that those same two, Accel Partners and Balderton Capital, are among a group of Wonga investors that have agreed to inject a further £10M (~$13M) into the business to help fund compensation claims related to its past censured practices.

We’ve reached out to Accel and Balderton for comment.

Prior to the latest emergency funding, Wonga had raised a total of around £145.5M, according to Crunchbase. Its 2011 Series C round was backed by investors including Accel, Oak Investment, Meritech Capital, 83North; while a 2009 Series B included Accel, Balderton, Dawn Capital, HV Holtzbrinck Ventures and 83North. It was founded in the UK in 2006.

By 2014 rising concern about the rates of interest being charged to vulnerable customers on short term loan products led to a regulatory intervention to clean up the sector, and Wonga agreed to write off the loans of 330,000 customers.

It also agreed to waive the interest and fees for a further 45,000 after admitting its automated checks had failed to adequately assess affordability. The algorithmic technology it had touted as its core IP had been lending money to people who did not have the income to pay it back.

The company was also censured by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) for sending fake lawyers’ letters to customers in arrears — and had to pay out a further £2.6M in compensation for that.

Four years later Wonga is still paying the bill for its past conduct — in the form of increasing numbers of individual compensation claims.

In a statement issued to Sky News, a Wonga Group spokesman said there has been a “marked increase” in compensation claims for legacy loans driven by claims management companies.

“Wonga continues to make progress against the transformation plan set out for the business. In recent months, however, the short-term credit industry has seen a marked increase in claims related to legacy loans, driven principally by claims management company activity,” the spokesman said.

“In line with this changing market environment, Wonga has seen a significant increase in claims related to loans taken out before the current management team joined the business in 2014. As a result, the team has raised £10M of new capital from existing shareholders, who remain fully supportive of management’s plans for the business.‎”

According to Sky News, Wonga was on the brink of insolvency when its investors agreed to inject more capital into the business, with CEO Tara Kneafsey‎ warning its institutional shareholders in late May the company risked becoming insolvent without a capital injection.

Following the shredding of its original business model — with the FCA’s cap of 0.8 per cent per day for all high-cost short-term credit loans applying from January 2015 — Wonga has been loss making for the past several years, reporting a £65M loss for 2016 and just over £80M for 2015.

And Sky reports that its latest emergency fundraising took place at valuation of just $30M (£23M) for the business.

This represents a swingeing haircut for a company that, in 2012, had believed it was on a three-year growth path to a £15BN valuation, i.e. off the back of short term loan products that charged annual interests rates as high as 5,853% that were sold to hundreds of thousands of people who couldn’t afford to pay them back.

Wonga’s website now lists as “representative” an APR of 1,460% in an online FAQ — and further claims: “We’ve introduced lots of changes at Wonga to make sure we offer better, fairer loans to customers. We take a responsible approach and lend only to those we believe can reasonably afford to repay.”

As part of this process of ‘transformation’ — i.e. from algorithmic loan sharking to regulatory compliant short term lending — one recent focus for Wonga’s executive team to try to drum up ethical business has been on offering more flexible loan products.

Sky says Wonga’s board has previously expressed confidence it can build a sustainable business, and notes the company had been targeting a return to profitability last year but has yet to report its results for 2017.

According to its sources, Wonga’s cashflow situation has become so tight its board is evaluating the sale of some of its assets in addition to raising more debt.

Already last year wonga sold off its German payments business, BillPay, to Klarna — raising around £60M.

Tim Cook to Apple staff: $1TR in shareholder value isn’t what drives us

How should you feel to know your employer is far, far richer than Croesus?

As Apple CEO Tim Cook tells it — in a memo to staff, obtained by BuzzFeed News, re: yesterday’s news that the computer company Steve Jobs founded back in 1976 is now worth more than $1,000,000,000,000 — you should feel A) pretty stoked that your labor has helped achieve a significant financial milestone but also B) know it’s not a success metric to get hung up about because it’s the passion for innovation and creation (not the towering mounds of gold) that really counts and so C) please, after taking a moment, remember to get back to work.

Here’s what Cook actually wrote to Apple’s global “team” of circa 123,000 employees:

Team,

Today Apple passed a significant milestone. At our closing share price of $207.39, the stock market now values Apple at more than $1 trillion. While we have much to be proud of in this achievement, it’s not the most important measure of our success. Financial returns are simply the result of Apple’s innovation, putting our products and customers first, and always staying true to our values.

It’s you, our team, that makes Apple great and our success is due to your hard work, dedication and passion. I am deeply humbled by what you do, and it’s the privilege of a lifetime to work alongside you. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the late hours and extra trips, all the times you refuse to settle for anything less than excellence in our work together.

Let’s take this moment to thank our customers, our suppliers and business partners, the Apple developer community, our coworkers and all those who came before us at this remarkable company.

Steve founded Apple on the belief that the power of human creativity can solve even the biggest challenges — and that the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do. In today’s world, our mission is more important than ever. Our products not only create moments of surprise and delight, they empower people all around the globe to enrich their lives and the lives of others.

Just as Steve always did in moments like this, we should all look forward to Apple’s bright future and the great work we’ll do together.

Tim

Samsung’s official launch video for the Galaxy Note 9 has also now leaked…

The official launch promo video for Samsung’s next flagship smartphone in the long-running Galaxy Note line — the Note 9 — appears to have leaked, with links to the video now cropping up on YouTube.

And via Twitter…

The forthcoming phablet has been pretty comprehensively leaked already. And clearly hasn’t had a radical (cosmetic nor form factor) makeover. (This is not the fabled folding phone Samsung is slated to be working on for next year.)

The Note 9 will also be officially unveiled on August 9. So Samsung fans don’t have long left to wait for any last minute details they were keen to nail down.

But, in the few days remaining, the Samsung-branded video offers a more polished look at what’s going to be up for pre-order next week…

Samsung kicks off touting the power of the Note 9 — telling us it’s not just powerful but “super powerful” (leaked benchmarks have previously suggested a big performance boost); and with a bottoms-up ports & rear view pan that shows a 3.5mm headphone jack sitting in the frame — confirming my TC colleague Brian Heater’s eagle eye.

Also of note: A repositioned fingerprint sensor (now in a less stupid location below the dual lens camera housing).

Next, the video flips focus to a snazzy yellow (or is that gold?) S Pen stylus, which Samsung describes as “all new powerful”, before showing its physical button being pressed by an invisible force (human, we hope) which then does a spot of aimless doodling.

After this, Samsung moves to brag about the Note 9’s “all day battery” (which it’s confidently teased before — so the company looks to have put the Note 7 battery fiasco well and truly behind it), although the usual small print disclaimers warn about variable battery performance.

On the storage front, there’s a big bold claim of the device being “1 terabyte ready” — although this is on account of a 512GB SD card shown being pulled out of the expandable memory slot.

And in the small print displayed on the video at that point the company caveats that the 1TB claim is for 512GB models equipped with another 512GB in expandable memory (at the owner’s separate expense).

“The power to store more” [photos] “Delete less” [photos] is what the company’s marketing team has come up with to try to excite people over the utility of owning a smartphone that can have 1TB in storage capacity. i.e. if you stump up extra for the extra storage.

The video shows a camera roll chock-full of stock photos of pets, snacks and people. Hopefully Note 9 owners will find more creative things to do with 1TB storage.

One more thing re: “privacy concerns” raised by the DCMS fake new report…

A meaty first report by the UK parliamentary committee that’s been running an inquiry into online disinformation since fall 2017, including scrutinizing how people’s personal information was harvested from social media services like Facebook and used for voter profiling and the targeting of campaign ads — and whose chair, Damian Collins — is a member of the UK’s governing Conservative Party, contains one curious omission.

Among the many issues the report raises are privacy concerns related to a campaign app developed by a company called uCampaign — which, much like the scandal-hit (and now seemingly defunct) Cambridge Analytica, worked for both the Ted Cruz for President and the Donald J Trump for President campaigns — although in its case it developed apps for campaigns to distribute to supporters to gamify digital campaigning via a tool which makes it easy for them to ‘socialize’ (i.e. share with contacts) campaign messaging and materials.

The committee makes a passing reference to uCampaign in a section of its report which deals with “data targeting” and the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal, specifically — where it writes [emphasis ours]:

There have been data privacy concerns raised about another campaign tool used, but not developed, by AIQ [Aggregate IQ: Aka, a Canadian data firm which worked for Cambridge Analytica and which remains under investigation by privacy watchdogs in the UK, Canada and British Columbia]. A company called uCampaign has a mobile App that employs gamification strategy to political campaigns. Users can win points for campaign activity, like sending text messages and emails to their contacts and friends. The App was used in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and by Vote Leave during the Brexit Referendum.

The developer of the uCampaign app, Vladyslav Seryakov, is an Eastern Ukrainian military veteran who trained in computer programming at two elite Soviet universities in the late 1980s. The main investor in uCampaign is the American hedge fund magnate Sean Fieler, who is a close associate of the billionaire backer of SCL and Cambridge Analytica, Robert Mercer. An article published by Business Insider on 7 November 2016 states: “If users download the App and agree to share their address books, including phone numbers and emails, the App then shoots the data [to] a third-party vendor, which looks for matches to existing voter file information that could give clues as to what may motivate that specific voter. Thomas Peters, whose company uCampaign created Trump’s app, said the App is “going absolutely granular”, and will—with permission—send different A/B tested messages to users’ contacts based on existing information.”

What’s curious is that Collins’ Conservative Party also has a campaign app built by — you guessed it! — uCampaign, which the party launched in September 2017.

While there is nothing on the iOS and Android app store listings for the Conservative Campaigner app to identify uCampaign as its developer, if you go directly to uCampaign’s website the company lists the UK Conservative Party as one of it’s clients — alongside other rightwing political parties and organizations such as the (pro-gun) National Rife Association; the (anti-abortion) SBA List; and indeed the UK’s Vote Leave (Brexit) campaign, (the latter) as the DCMS report highlights.

uCampaign’s involvement as the developer of the Conservative Campaigner app was also confirmed to us (in June) by the (now former) deputy director & head of digital strategy for The Conservative Party, Anthony Hind, who — according to his LinkedIn profile — also headed up the party’s online marketing, between mid 2015 and, well, the middle of this month.

But while, in his initial response to us, Hind readily confirmed he was personally involved in the procurement of uCampaign as the developer of the Conservative Campaigner app, he failed to respond to any of our subsequent questions — including when we raised specific concerns about the privacy policy that the app had been using, prior to May 23 (just before the EU’s new GDPR data protection framework came into force on May 25 — a time when many apps updated their privacy polices as a compliance precaution related to the new data protection standard).

Since May 23 the privacy policy for the Conservative Campaigner app has pointed to the Conservative Party’s own privacy policy. However prior to May 23 the privacy policy was a literal (branded) copy-paste of uCampaign’s own privacy policy. (We know because we were tipped to it by a source — and verified this for ourselves.)

Here’s a screengrab of the exchange we had with Hind over LinkedIn — including his sole reply:

What looks rather awkward for the Conservative Party — and indeed for Collins, as DCMS committee chair, given the valid “privacy concerns” his report has raised around the use (and misuse/abuse) of data for political targeting — is that uCampaign’s privacy policy has, shall we say, a verrrrry ‘liberal’ attitude to sharing the personal data of app users (and indeed of any of their contacts it would have been able to harvest from their devices).

Here’s a taster of the data-sharing permissions this U.S. company affords itself over its clients’ users’ data [emphasis ours] — according to its own privacy policy:

CAMPAIGNS YOU SUPPORT AND ALIGNED ORGANIZATIONS

We will share your Personal Information with third party campaigns selected by you via the Platform. In addition, we may share your Personal Information with other organizations, groups, causes, campaigns, political organizations, and our clients that we believe have similar viewpoints, principles or objectives as us.

UCAMPAIGN FRIENDS

We may share your Personal Information with other users of the Platform, for example if they connect their address book to our services, or if they invite you to use our services via the Platform.

BUSINESS TRANSFERS

We may share your Personal Information with other entities affiliated with us for internal reasons, primarily for business and operational purposes. uCampaign, or any of its assets, including the Platform, may be sold, or other transactions may occur in which your Personal Information is one of the business assets of the transaction. In such case, your Personal Information may be transferred.

To spell it out, the Conservative Party paid for a campaign app that could, according to the privacy policy it had in place prior to May 23, have shared supporters’ personal data with organizations that uCampaign’s owners — who the DCMS committee states have close links to “the billionaire backer of SCL and Cambridge Analytica, Robert Mercer” — view as ideologically affiliated with their objectives, whatsoever those entities might be.

Funnily enough, the Conservative Party appears to have tried to scrub out some of its own public links to uCampaign — such as changing link for the developer website on the app listing page for the Conservative Campaigner app to the Conservative Party’s own website (whereas before it linked through to uCampaign’s own website).

As the veteran UK satirical magazine Private Eye might well say — just fancy that! 

One of the listed “features” of the Conservative Campaigner app urges Tory supporters to: “Invite your friends to join you on the app!”. If any did, their friends’ data would have been sucked up by uCampaign too to further causes of its choosing.

The version of the Campaigner app listed on Google Play is reported to have 1,000+ installs (iOS does not offer any download ranges for apps) — which, while not in itself a very large number, could represent exponentially larger amounts of personal data should users’ contacts have been synced with the app where they would have been harvested by uCampaign.

We did flag the link between uCampaign and the Conservative Campaigner app directly to the DCMS committee’s press office — ahead of the publication of its report, on June 12, when we wrote:

The matter of concern here is that the Conservative party could itself be an unwitting a source of targeting data for rival political organizations, via an app that appears to offer almost no limits on what can be done with personal data.
Prior to the last update of the Conservative Campaigner app the privacy policy was simply the boilerplate uCampaign T&Cs — which allow the developer to share app users personal info (and phone book contacts) with “other organizations, groups, causes, campaigns, political organizations, and our clients that we believe have similar viewpoints, principles or objectives as us”.
That’s incredibly wide-ranging.
So every user’s phone book contacts (potentially hundreds of individuals per user) could have been passed to multiple unidentified organizations without people’s knowledge or consent. (Other uCampaign apps have been built for the NRA, and for anti-abortion organizations, for example.)
uCampaign‘s T&Cs are here: https://ucampaignapp.com/privacy.html
Even the current T&Cs allow for sharing with US suppliers.
Given the committee’s very public concerns about access to people’s data for political targeting purposes I am keen to know whether Mr Collins has any concerns about the use of uCampaign‘s app infrastructure by the Conservative party?
And also whether he is concerned about the lack of a robust data protection policy by his own party to ensure that valuable membership data is not simply passed around to unknown and unconnected entities — perhaps abroad, perhaps not — with zero regard for or accountability to the individuals in question.

Unfortunately this email (and a follow up) to the DCMS committee, asking for a response from Collins to our privacy concerns, went unanswered.

It’s also worth noting that the Conservative Party’s own privacy policy (which it’s now using for its Campaigner app) is pretty generous vis-a-vis the permissions it’s granting itself over sharing supporters’ data — including stating that it shares data with

  • The wider Conservative Party
  • Business associates and professional advisers
  • Suppliers
  • Service providers
  • Financial organisations – such as credit card payment providers
  • Political organisations
  • Elected representatives
  • Regulatory bodies
  • Market researchers
  • Healthcare and welfare organisations
  • Law enforcement agencies

The UK’s data watchdog recently found fault with pretty much all of the UK political parties’ when it comes to handling of voter data — saying it had sent warning letters to 11 political parties and also issued notices compelling them to agree to audits of their data protection practices.

Safe to say, it’s not just private companies that have been sticking their hand in the personal data cookie jar in recent years — the political establishment is facing plenty of awkward questions as regulators unpick where and how data has been flowing.

This is also not the only awkward story re: data privacy concerns related to a Tory political app. Earlier this year the then-minister in charge of the digital brief, Matt Hancock, launched a self-promotional, self-branded app intended for his constituents to keep up with news about Matt Hancock MP.

However the developers of the app (Disciple Media) initially uploaded the wrong privacy policy — and were forced to issue an amended version which did not grant the minister such non-specific and oddly toned rights to users’ data — such as that the app “may disclose your personal information to the Publisher, the Publisher’s management company, agent, rights image company, the Publisher’s record label or publisher (as applicable) and any other third parties, for use in conjunction with additional user promotions or offers they may run from time to time or in relation to the sale of other goods and services”.

Of course the Matt Hancock App was a PR initiative of (and funded by) an individual Conservative MP — rather than a formal campaign tool paid for by the Conservative Party and intended for use by hundreds (or even thousands) of Party activists for use during election campaigns.

So while there are two issues of Tory-related privacy concern here, only one loops back to the Conservative Party political organization itself.

Belle Haven & Friendly Acres Over 13s Youth Club Newsletter

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Hey KIDS!

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Exciting News!

First up: Exciting news! We’re going to be migrating the Club Newsletter to a new format from next month that will be delivered in person! In virtual reality! This means you’ll be able to feel like I’m sitting right next to you saying this stuff right in your face instead of just passively reading it off a screen and maybe getting distracted by other less important stuff. Myself and your Totally Lost Boys (TLB) Club Committee are so excited that we can bring you this amazing experience before any other Youth Club in the world! #awesome

Here’s a taster from a VR trip I took recently to check out the totally awful devastation in Puerto Rico:

Now you’re probably asking how can we bring this exciting new technology to your friendly neighborhood Youth Club, right?! I’m pleased to say that the 2,500% increase in Newsletter Sponsor Messages over the past ~two months has really helped bulk up the Club Money Pool. Rest assured, we’re ploughing all these revenues into product development to continue to make BH&FA YC the most innovative Youth Club on Planet Earth!

Of course we don’t want the Club to fall behind Lindenwood or Farm Hills YC either, which — as we’ve told you in recent Newsletters — have been busy developing ‘innovative’ newsletter solutions of their own. (I say ‘innovative’ but we all know the YC of MZ Yours Truly is the real innovator around these hills!!) But — and it’s a BIG ONE kids! — if the Club Committee were to allow another club to get ahead of BH&FA (brisket forbid!!!), say by offering better Member facilities, then we’d risk Membership declining — instead of benefiting from the continued year-on-year growth that _we_all_enjoy_. It would also mean less money for the Club Treasurer to spend on buying up neighborhood housing to knock down in order to expand the size of the Clubhouse and keep you all entertained right here on campus! And you really don’t want to be bored do you?! (NB: The date for opening the infinity pool waterpark is still tbc. We found a leak on several floors and given there’s a risk of electrical fire death if we get this wrong it’s taking a little longer than hoped.)

Of course the impending mandatory migration to VR Newsletters also means we’ll be able to bring you more immersive Newsletter Sponsor Messages in future! YAY! Which will be great for the Club Money Pool too. So double YAY!

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Of course we know that not everyone in Our Community has had a chance to purchase our great Oculus Rift VR headset yet :( Only 0.3% of you have done so! :((( Even though we’ve made sure to tell you all about how great it is for, like, the past several years. (You’ll remember we also ran VR Summer Club Camp last year in Black Chasm Cave. However attendance averaged <1% — and there was that unfortunate incident with the toxic frog — so your Club Committee knows it has a lot more work to do!). So, after a long talk at our last #awesome TLB Brisket Cook-OutMZ I’m really excited to announce an amazing Discount for Club Members that have shown the most dedication to Our Community over the years! This means all of you will very soon enjoy the benefits of Oculus VR! Zero excuses!

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(NB: If you’re wondering how exactly we’ll be calculating personalized Oculus discounts we can tell you it involves a proprietary formula that Your Club Committee developed based on your lifelong Participation & Attendance Metrics (PAM). We can’t say too much, in case the formula were to be maliciously leaked to Lindenwood — or even, brisket forbid! Staumbaugh Heller!!! — (NBNB: For a reminder about penalties for leaking proprietary Club Information see the base of this newsletter; but, tl;dr, don’t do it!!! Remember the Club Motto: ‘Speak Don’t leak!’).

What we CAN tell you is we’ve been busy number-crunching PAM for the past several years, and those Club Members who have shown not just a consistent commitment to Our Community (which is mandatory) but who have shared their increasing enthusiasm for the Club Program (which Your TLB obviously works 24/7 to bring you!) will be given the biggest discounts — of up to 6.8%! Everyone else will get a smaller discount (based on your unique PAM-based relationship with the Club Program). So basically you only have yourselves to blame if you get offered a discount of sub-0.5%. (And don’t forget we’ll be sharing PAM scores with parents/guardians at the upcoming mandatory BH&FA Club Regulations Awareness Program.)

As you know, Membership of the Club is dependent upon reading Our Newsletter — which includes all Our Sponsor Messages. (Our Sponsors wouldn’t pay us if you didn’t read their messages now would they!?!) So unfortunately Your Club Committee is prepared to say goodbye to any Members who aren’t able to access the Newsletter in future. (NB: Saying you don’t have a VR headset will absolutely not be an acceptable excuse!!! We are, however, open to suggestions for expanding cross-platform support if Members have already bought other VR headsets. (Although we might question your loyalty to BH&FA YC if you do that!!! ;)))

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Your Awesome TLB Club Committee Update!

So what’s on the boys’ discussion agenda this week Mark!?!

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Mmmmmm! Just getting ready for some more crispy brisket!

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Okay, time for the customary run down of Important Issues Your TLB is really busy managing around the BBQ while you guys kick back and do wtf you like on campus… Mmm brisket! #Brisket #CookOut #Meat #Mmmm

  • Participation & Engagement Metrics — as you should really know by now Your Committee’s ‘prime directive’ is 100% attendance & program engagement at all times! PAM! PAM! So frankly you guys are always a total disappointment :( BUT! — this week Boztank said he’s going to bring some of his special Ideas Envelopes for us to push around while we’re BBQing brisket — so consider yourselves totally warned!!!! PAM! PAM!
  • Takeover of Woodside Heights YC — yes we are still finalizing our takeover of Woodside Heights. But we now expect members to be migrated to BH&FA by 06:00 on Saturday 4 at the very latest. Issues we have encountered with the migration include some outgoing Woodside members objecting to the razing of their Clubhouse and the mandatory requirement to travel to BH&FA’s campus because it’s so much further away from where they live and their moms and pops are at work so can’t always taxi them over. However we have pointed out that the facilities we offer here are by far superior. Sheryl has been working super hard (including on Saturdays) to get the message to Woodside parents that their kids will absolutely have the best development opportunities at BH&FA. To ease the transition we have also decided to offer Uber coupons (valid: Tuesday afternoons, for two weeks of August) and some pretty substantial Oculus discounts — although both are provisional on the new recruits completing a Club Reorientation Attendance Probation period of no less than 180 months (achieving weekly PAM average of 95.8%). (So if you hear them say ‘Oh CRAP’ you’ll know why.) We’ll be discussing ideas for hazing the newbs in a forthcoming Newsletter. So stay tuned! And get ready to burn all that Woodside Heights smoke out of em!!!
  • Parental Concern — unfortunately we have been informed that a few responsible adults have been expressing concern over what Members might have been exposed to via the Club Program. We are investigating to determine whether there are any identifiable issues of concern, and so far have compiled a list of about ~2,500,000 items for possible follow-up — including reports of screenings of human beheadings in the cinema; animal torture in the yard; misogynistic graffiti all over the place; human trafficking; and even bomb-making classes and/or fascist memorabilia being distributed by a small number of members (!!!). While some of this stuff does sound kind of alarming, in truth we’re generally pretty stoked about the rich diversity of expression that’s evidently thriving within Our Community. Although we are still investigating to determine whether there are any specific issues we need to follow up on — like, in case we need to add an additional rule to our strict ‘Zero Nudity (no, not even fine art or war reportage nudes you sick f—)’ Club Policy. We’ll keep you posted if we decide to amend the Charter. But for now we just ask that you carry on being your richly expressive selves. (As we like to say on the Committee: ‘If you feel it, f—ing say it!!!!’)
  • Member Behavior — it has also come to our attention that a small number of Members have been getting increasingly loud and disruptive on campus. However, in the BH&FA YC Founding Charter, we do make it very clear that any attempts to curtail or moderate freedom of expression will _not_be _at_all_ tolerated_. We therefore want to reassure all Club Members that when you are here, under our watchful care, you can say anything at all you want to anyone you fancy — no matter how horribly wrong or hurtful it might be. (As the TLB like to say at the start of a Cook-Out when we’re fighting over whose turn it is to poke the fire: ‘Sticks & stones will break your bones but names can never hurt you!’). That said, we have noticed an uptick in some very nasty name calling; blatantly false and/or ridiculous rumors (no, my parents were not lizards!!!); and people trying to start *actual* fights and/or fires during Club Events. One particularly unruly member — who shall remain nameless (but rest assured We Know Who You Are!!! NB: We discuss this person’s behavior in more detail below, in our Newsletter ‘Hard Issue of The Day’ — and who, let it be known, we also know has a record of threatening behavior outside the Club (because Sheryl read about it in the Menlo Park Tribune)), has been passing off some very ‘creative fictions’ on campus — we suspect as a sort of post-modern art project. But still, we’re keeping an eye out. For example, Adam says he’s seen instances of this person telling others in Our Community that Members’ dead relations didn’t really exist at all, and, furthermore, that corpses laid out in the morgue were just so-called ‘crisis actors’ paid by kids’ parents to pretend to like them. While we’re admittedly impressed with the avant-garde creativity of this particular Member, we recognize that they have also been saying a lot of other absolute tosh — like that flu shots give you cancer or make you gay or turn you into a toxic frog. And that President Trump is the literal lovechild of a Republican Senator (who we’re not naming for libel reasons) and the Angel Gabriel. Like, frankly speaking, we’ve lost track of the amount of garbage this particular Member has been spouting but that’s 100% okay because keeping track of how Members freely expressing themselves is totally not our job at all. We’re just here to make sure the BH&FA campus is massive enough to house all the billions of Members that now make up our richly diverse Community — which also means making sure Our Club Charter enshrines an absolute right to be an utter f— to anyone you please. Kids, we really can’t start cherry picking or where would it end?! The bottom line is that here at BH&FA YC, Your Committee is proud to preside over a marketplace of brainfarts of every possible flavor, toxic or otherwise. So we would like to take this opportunity to remind Members about our very firm *non-discrimination policy* — of welcoming absolutely anyone as a Member, no matter how disgusting your personal views. (And, sheesh, you kids really do have some pretty icky stuff on your mind sometimes!!!) Your Committee would also like to suggest all Members reread Boztank’s 2009 addendum to the Club Charter (entitled: ‘Why you kids need to learn to suck it up’). The TLBs never let anything as non-formulaic as emotional distress get in the way of the campus expansion roadmap. After all, we’ve got a mission to bring the benefits of BH&FA to every person (*13 years or older*) ON THE PLANET! (Shoot for 100% or kill everyone trying!!! — as we like to joke around the BBQ! Or as Boztank’s knuckle tattoo actually reads: ‘We grow PAM, period.’ So, as ever, eyes on the bigger prize, kids.)
  • Brisket cook out! — yes! It’s back by popular demand! This time I will personally be bringing a small herd of live Dexter cows on campus and everyone will watch while I tear them apart with my bare hands. Chunks of brisket will be distributed according to the standard Club Formula and each Member will be responsible for cooking their own chunk (or not!). But please no squabbling over the meat!!! And definitely no pushing! You can shout insults at each other in the hopes of being able to distract another Member and grab yourself a tastier chunk but do please keep acts of physical aggression *off campus*. It’s a waste of energy anyways as everyone will definitely get some brisket, even if not everyone can get the delicious deep pectoral I will personally be chowing down on. (It is, however, inevitable that some members will have to wait longer than others to get some meat. But given Our Community is now 2.5BN Members strong & counting! — suck that up Staumbaugh Heller!!! >:-) — we absolutely must have a formula to manage the distribution of the Club Program, fair or otherwise. NB: Having a formula is the important bit, kids. As your parents should tell you, that’s called ‘Leadership’.)
  • Proposal to livestream the urinals — as part of our ‘Next-Gen YC 2.0 Moving Fwd Brainfart Sessions 2018 Summer Season Sponsored by Y Combinator’ Boztank suggested the (IMO) pretty wild idea of putting a livestreaming unit in the urinals (!) — pointing down at the pee stream. He thinks it could be a good idea to collect yet another data-point on top of the ~hundreds of thousands we already record per Member for some interesting new engagement metric that we haven’t bothered to think of yet. We’ll let you know at least a day in advance if we decide to move forward with this plan. (NB: We’re still discussing whether it’s a good idea to livestream the girls’ toilets. Or we might just unilaterally replace all Club loos with unisex urinals. tbc). tbh the urinal idea was a lot better than Boz’s other suggestion which was a livestreamed ‘loudest fart’ competition. We might revisit that next fall, for our next Camp Cook-Out
  • Committee ‘Diversity’ — we are aware that some Members are continuing to complain about the lack of so-called ‘diversity’ on the TLB Committee. However we would point out we are a truly open-minded bunch of — yes, okay, sure, whatevs — entirely white guys but who are nonetheless willing to entertain the wild and crazy notion that there’s no box at all to think inside of. So, frankly, we don’t understand what your problem is. Also we’re not *all* guys — that’s what Sheryl’s here for
  • ‘Leadership elections’ — it has also come to our attention that a very small number of Club Members have been spreading some very malicious, gossipy and totally fake rumors claiming the Club Charter is going to be rewritten to create fixed leadership terms and allow for future Leader Elections. I personally want to make it very, VERY clear that this is 100% FAKE NEWS. Your Committee will not be discussing any changes to the Committee’s structure at all. At any point. Ever. Period.
  • Under-13s YC — a brief update on the amazing traction we’re seeing for our ‘Horizon Newborn’ under-13s YC which continues to deliver major wins for BH&FA by onboarding all your siblings from the moment of birth to get them prepped & primed for life in the excitingly breakneck ‘fast-lane’ here on the 13+ campus (NB: Under-13 Memberships are automatically migrated to a full BH&FA YC Membership on your siblings’ thirteenth birthday; but remember, it’s your responsibility to let them know that if they want to collect any cuddly toys or other mementos they’ve accidentally left at the under-13s campus they will have to come here and sign the Membership form to release them from our Cryogenic Cold Storage Unit — where you should warn them they will otherwise languish for all eternity.) The committee is currently discussing whether to turn some of the old Woodside Heights YC campus into an Under-13s soft play foam-axe room. Alternatively we might turn it into a child-friendly sand & gravel mine. tbc
  • ‘Odd’ sponsor message content — just a quick note on this last line item but we are aware of a few Members — and in fact the heads of some other Youth Clubs — raising concerns about things they’ve seen in our Sponsor Messages. We’re really not at sure what the issue/s of concern might be but we’re 100% sure that the notion of there being any problem at all with any of the stuff Our Sponsors are paying us to tell you is, like, a _totally_crazy_idea_. So, respectfully, we suggest you drop it. (NB: Also if you want to be able to keep swimming in the Club Money Pool you need to stop asking awkward stuff or we might have to close the pool to non-Committee Members.)

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Hard Issue of the day :/

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Trouble With A Member

Sheryl making her really scary face (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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I know we’re almost out of time for this week’s newsletter but — following on from the note about ‘Member Behavior’ — I wanted to take a short moment to remind all Members of the Club’s foundational commitment to freedom of expression at all costs.

Kids, if your reading level is strong enough you will understand that “at all costs” means there is actually a cost (but don’t worry, we’re not going to start charging you Membership fees!!! it’s not that kind of really bad cost) to the freedoms we enjoy here on campus. And, well, sometimes that cost means being forced to be bullied in public by an angry mob or having to know that some Members are going around campus telling others that your cherished siblings were in fact just a figment of your imagination and the tragic death they suffered at the hands of a gun-touting maniac is just your totally delusional fancy. Yep, life really can be that shitty sometimes! We’re not gonna lie to you!

Regretfully, this ‘cost’ also means that members of Our Community who are Jewish may well also hear some pretty random and totally untrue stuff being spread about their community on campus. Like that time one of our Member Societies put on an ‘alternative’ WWII fictional reconstruction in the theatre. Now Your Committee doesn’t for a moment believe that anyone on campus could have viewed this work as anything other than the piece of avant garde theatre it very obviously was (IMHO). (I mean, maybe a few Members thought it was an historically accurate reconstruction but really it’s the job of the rest of you kids to make fun of anyone crazy enough to believe such stupid stuff!!!) We sure don’t believe that kind of absolute crap. But, nonetheless, we’re 100% comfortable with our decision to operate an entirely open-door Membership Policy because Your TLB is entirely incapable of discriminating. I mean, if we did, where on Earth would it end?!? So even if a Member of Our Community happens to be a renowned fantasist with a record of shouting FIRE in theaters, or even a paid up member of a neo-nazi group which routinely denies historically verified episodes of ethnic cleansing, that’s totally not our problem — it’s theirs! We just provide the world’s over-13s with a soapbox to express their unvarnished selves, globally. What Members choose to do with the tools we provide to help them get their message out there is obviously none of our business!! (Although it is literally BH&FA YC’s business but how else would we fund the platform in the first place?!)

In any case, fact-checking is for qualified professionals who probably work for newspapers. And we are totally not that at all!!! [Edit note from Adam: Are there any newspapers left? Didn’t the Tribune close when you made the Newsletter a daily?] (Supplementary note from Boztank: Remember kids, Mark himself is Jewish. So if he can suck up Holocaust denial, so can you! As my grandpops used to say: ‘If a piece of baloney hasn’t blown your face off you’re winning because you’re not dead yet so stop whining ya cream-faced loon!’)

Last word from Mark: As Boztank has been saying for, like, almost before some of you were born, speech that is “distasteful and ignorant” is nothing to be worried about so long as you kids are totally prepared to just laugh it off (NB: We might use laughing gas for this too — see the Newsletter endnote for more on what we’re cooking up in the Innovation Labs). And, well, frankly speaking, a lot more people really need to grow up and learn that maniacs spouting total rubbish are just an unfortunate distraction from great Sponsor Message content. In any case, fact-checking is expensive — far too expensive for the Club Treasurer’s tastes!!

So, to wrap up, Your Committee wants to make it totally plain we’re 110% here to entertain your behavior — unruly, unreasonable or just plain stupid! Whatever the f— you like! (Just plank safely, eh! There have been a number of deaths related to selfie challenges lately and we’d really prefer you enjoy rather than kill yourselves!!!) And while we may not always be 100% comfortable about the views you’re espousing on campus, or via Club equipment (NB: We have another shipment of 200M Wi-Fi enabled megaphones arriving Wednesday so get gargling!!), we want all Members to know we’re fully behind you being a totally offensive f—. Period.

(Actually, if you or your parents bothered to read the small print that’s literally what our Founding Charter says. In any case, like Sheryl says, there’s no way Our Community would keep growing like the weed it has if we hadn’t let in any shitty idea that wants to crawl in off the street and set up a stink, crawl in off the street and set up a stink. She also says that BH&FA YC is like a compost heap: All shits are 100% welcome here. And: If it stinks, the Club Treasurer winks!!)

All we ask is that you kids play nice together. Because, regretfully, the bill for Clubhouse security staff has been rising alarmingly over the past several months — as more bouncers have been needed around campus to break up several pretty serious brawls. And, well, we have already stuffed the Newsletter to bursting with Sponsor Messages. So we do have some concerns about the depth of the Club Money Pool, going forward. We’ll be bringing you a more fulsome update on Club Finances in a future Newsletter (tbc — Wehner).

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One more thing!

Exciting Announcement… of a beta test to a Clubhouse Rule change!

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FIRE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yes! Shouting fire in the cinema is now provisionally acceptable!!!

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We wanted to end the Newsletter with a bit of good news, so the TLB has decided to beta test letting Members yell “fire” or even “bomb” during screenings in the cinema. Or actually anything you fancy (why not get creative — like, by yelling ‘argh! alien facehugger squirting acid on my eyeballs!!!’).

Why? Because the TLB has decided that having a space where Members’ speech is constrained — even as a narrow health & safety precaution — was just FAR too risky for Community cohesion. So we’re removing it and saying ya-boo-sucks to the consequences!

But don’t worry! We’re putting Community Safety first by taking precautions to keep all Members safe. (For example, we’ve covered all sharp edges in the cinema with foam padding to prevent anyone from being impaled during any panic-induced stampedes for the exit. But please remember there’s only one exit — so play safe kids! Definitely try not to crush each other to death!!! (NB: The Committee would like to take this opportunity to remind all Members that an ‘in the event of my death and/or horrific personal injury’ legal waiver was signed by all of you when you joined the Club so anyone with litigious parents should warn them not to get any ideas. (Yes, we know Colin is leaving but that’s not until after Thanksgiving.))

The Committee is also considering installing facial recognition technology in the cinema Wi-Fi-connected to laughing gas canisters which would be triggered in the event of anyone getting overly emotional in there. Our idea is that the gas could be automatically dispensed if any Members became hysterical, or, well, overly sad — thereby distracting people and preventing risky stampedes. (NB: This exciting Club innovation is still a work in progress but we’ll be sure to keep you updated on progress in future Newsletters. See our quasi-regular: ‘What’s Mark Cooking In The Lab’ section)

And that’s about all for today kids! Feel free to unstrap from your Oculus for now (for those of you special early adopters out there!) — and it’s adios amigos until tomorrow, when we’ll be right back in your face with more exciting BH&FA YC news!!!!

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Warning: Anyone caught leaking Club policies or information WILL HAVE THEIR MEMBERSHIP REVOKED AND BE BANNED FOR LIFE. Members contravening this rule will also be physically removed from campus (should they be here at the time) with zero opportunity to collect any personal belongings or say goodbye to any friends. Personal items will be piled in the yard and used as fuel for the next Club Cook-Out which will kick off with a competition to see which member can shout ‘Speak don’t leak!’ the loudest. One winner will be selected by Mark and given a bite of his prime brisket. Appeals are impossible.  

Photo: paylessimages/iStock

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Still here?!?!?!?!!!!!!!!

Additional really important information from the committee: Uhhhh, Alex just told me that the Committee room where we keep the PAM records, going back to ~2005, was left unlocked for, like, the past decade(ish). A quick review of our CCTV records appears to show a small army of unknown persons coming and going pretty steadily over the years. It looks like these complete strangers were systematically helping themselves to PAM stored in the Club register. Some of these non-members appeared to have used the same Clubhouse parking lot as our ~3,000 regular campus data partners — arriving in vans painted with names like ‘N.Y. Data uLike UnLtd’ and ‘Other Peoples’ info 4 you Inc.’ — perhaps seeking to blend in beside the totally reputable businesses we’ve been sharing all your information with for, like, ever, in order to undertake their totally nefarious theft of your PAM. So we’re really sorry about that! Sheesh! If it helps Sheryl was super mad with us and didn’t speak to us for, like, a week after she found out :o( Anyway it’s totally fine now because we have put an actual lock on the door. Phew! (NB: Anyone wondering if they can claim competition for the Committee’s total failure to protect your privacy should refer to the Compensation Claims Waiver Clause in the Club Charter which everyone signed by default when they joined (by clicking a button saying ‘yes I want to collect my free Brisket hamburger! & register for Club Membership! & I’m super happy to let Mark be totally responsible for all my data’). Feel free to ring Colin for a cry if you like. Thanks! – Your MZ) 

© BH&FA YC
MZ: Winners don’t leak — they speak!

Market research firm GlobalWebIndex takes first VC with $40M Series A

Market research firm GlobalWebIndex, which provides consumer insight data for marketing purposes for customers including Google, Spotify, WPP, IPG and Omnicom Group, has closed a $40 million Series A round. The funding is its first VC raise, almost a decade after the business was founded.

The investment comes from New York-based growth fund Stripes Group, along with a number of other unnamed data, software and consumer technology companies. GWI says it will be used to accelerate product development and for international expansion, including in the U.S. and Asia. 

The company is based in London but has recently opened offices in New York City and Los Angeles, as well as having technology hubs in locations across Europe.

With the new funding it says it’s planning to open more international offices across the Americas and Asia Pacific to support a client base which spans more than 80 countries.  

But why take VC now? “After nine years with no funding and seeing phenomenal growth and expansion, we are still seeing an increasing demand for our data, especially from companies that we haven’t traditionally sold to,” says CEO Tom Smith.

“The new funding will support our product development and hiring efforts so we can establish ourselves as the go to platform for digital consumer insights for the marketing industry.”

The company believes it’s positioned itself on the right side of digital history, having chosen an opt-in, survey-based route for gathering a chunk of its consumer data for market research purposes — putting detailed questions to its global panel of 22 million web users from whom it’s gaining up front consent to their data being processed.

Europe’s new data protection framework, GDPR, is explicit on the need for consent to be informed, specific and freely given if that’s your legal basis for processing people’s personal data.

On the product development front, GWI says it’s working to develop new ways of collecting consumer data — having developed a proprietary, device-agnostic “messenger-style survey tool” which Smith says allows respondents to “answer questions at times and in formats which suit them”.

“It’s about putting the consumer first — not just in how their data is used, but how you run the survey itself. With this new approach we hope to be able to return survey results faster to our clients, so they can make quick business decisions based on insights retrieved from our tried and tested methodology,” he adds.

“Years before GDPR, we wanted to be respectful to those who take one of our surveys, meaning that they see consumer-centric privacy and consent notices which use easy-to-understand language to outline what we do, why it’s important to our clients, and what their responses will be used for.”

“We ask our respondents a wide range of questions relating to their digital lives and lifestyles,” he continues. “This covers everything from their social media, device, media consumption and online behaviors to their interactions with brands, their attitudes and their daily life. For us, it’s key to understand not just what people are doing online, but the attitudes, motivations and beliefs which drive this.”

GWI’s primary product offering is its core study — which is fielded in 44 countries, and which it says contains 25,000 data points on 22M+ “connected consumers”.

“Each year we interview hundreds of thousands of representative individuals about their digital lives. The aggregated results of this are made available on our industry-leading platform on a syndicated basis, where clients can build and then analyze any audience they like. For example, you could look at Older vs Younger Millennials, Mums vs Dads, Instagrammers vs Snapchatters — in each case, understanding which behaviors and attitudes are unique to each group,” explains Smith.

It also offers a range of custom services to supplement that core survey-based market intelligence data.

“Many clients use this offering to ask follow-up questions to our respondents, allowing them to overlay the answers to their bespoke questions with the 25,000 data points contained in the core data set,” he says, adding: “We also offer a wide range of other research solutions such as brand tracking, path to purchase journey, ad-effectiveness, concept testing, website analytics and more. Here the sheer scale of our panel — currently at 22M consumers — is a real differentiator.”

All survey respondents are compensated for their time, according to Smith — in different ways, depending on the market, but including via monetary payments, vouchers, loyalty points, charitable donations etc.

One thing to note is that GWI does also use cookie-based tracking to gather data less directly — including by working with partners. So it is also reliant on third parties obtaining consent to data processing, and must therefore rely on those partners to cleanly and fairly obtain consent for this portion of its market intelligence activity.

“In some instances, the cookies we use as part of our research are dropped by the research panels we work with, rather than by GlobalWebIndex itself. In these instances, all such panels are required to obtain consent in GDPR-compliant manners,” says Smith on this.

The company tells TechCrunch it uses cookie tracking to enrich its core survey data, and only uses cookies to track the behaviors of its panelists — and only those who have actively opted in to this type of tracking.

“Our analytics technology connects the data we collect through surveys to the behaviors of our panel on client websites and connected properties, as well as their exposure to digital advertising campaigns.  In this way, we can leverage the 25,000+ data points we collect through panelist interviews to their browsing behaviors and online activities, providing a unique connection between brand engagement and the attributes, motivations and interests of our clients’ target audiences.”

“The GDPR was welcome validation of the approach we have always adopted, whereby respect for the consumer is central,” adds Smith. “Given that we have a direct relationship with the individuals who complete our surveys, we have an amazing opportunity to outline there and then what we want to do with their responses, and to gain their explicit consent for the use of cookies.

“The nature of survey-based market research also means that the consumers know which types of data they are providing, and can decline to answer certain questions if they so choose.”

So why does a company like Google — which has access to vast, global consumer data stores of its own, gathered from its own products and via a network of online tracking cookies and pixels — need GWI’s market intelligence?

“Many of our clients have their own proprietary sources of consumer data but turn to GlobalWebIndex because of the robust, global, independent view it offers on consumer behaviors,” Smith responds on this. “Our ability to give a 360-degree view on the consumer is particularly valuable, with our data providing a unique cross-device, cross-platform perspective.”

On the competition front, he names the likes of Nielsen, YouGov, Comscore, Kantar, GfK and Simmons. “We provide a global view which is consistent across countries, unlike some alternatives which operate different surveys at different times and then patch them together,” he argues.

He also touts the “incredibly rich view of the consumer’s digital life” the GWI consumer panel is able to generate, given the number of data points it’s gathering.

“We have this depth on all of our respondents, whereas some other sources will only have small pockets of data on each individual,” he claims. “We track behaviours and attitudes from the consumer’s perspective. There are no inferences, no modeling, no assumptions based on browsing. This is how the consumer acts and feels from their own point of view.

“We provide up-to-the minute data which tells you what people are doing in the here and now. Our quarterly releases will soon move to monthly, and from there we’ll develop a real-time version of our data set.”

“Our ability to re-interview our respondents is hugely important for clients, as it allows them to sync their bespoke questions with the 25,000 data points from the core study. It’s a hugely quick and efficient way to gain a rich understanding of your target audience,” he adds.