Augmented reality and the next century of the web

Howdy friends, this is the web version of my Week in Review newsletter, it’s here to entice you to sign up and get it in your inbox every week.

Last week, I showcased how Twitter was looking at the future of the web with a decentralized approach so that they wouldn’t be stuck unilaterally de-platforming the next world leader. This week, I scribbled some thoughts on another aspect of the future web, the ongoing battle between Facebook and Apple to own augmented reality. Releasing the hardware will only be the start of a very messy transition from smartphone-first to glasses-first mobile computing.

Again, if you so desire you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny


The Big Thing

If the last few years of new “reality” tech has telegraphed anything, it’s that tech companies won’t be able to skip past augmented reality’s awkward phase, they’re going to have to barrel through it and it’s probably going to take a long-ass time.

The clearest reality is that in 2021 everyday users still don’t seem quite as interested in AR as the next generation of platform owners stand to benefit from a massive transition. There’s some element of skating to where the puck is going among the soothsayers that believe AR is the inevitable platform heir etc. etc., but the battle to reinvent mobile is at its core a battle to kill the smartphone before its time has come.

A war to remake mobile in the winner’s image

It’s fitting that the primary backers of this AR future are Apple and Facebook, ambitious companies that are deeply in touch with the opportunities they could’ve capitalized on if they could do it all over again.

While Apple and Facebook both have thousands of employees toiling quietly in the background building out their AR tech moats, we’ve seen and heard much more on Facebook’s efforts. The company has already served up several iterations of their VR hardware through Oculus and has discussed publicly over the years how they view virtual reality and augmented reality hardware converging. 

Facebook’s hardware and software experiments have been experimentations in plain sight, an advantage afforded to a company that didn’t sell any hardware before they started selling VR headsets. Meanwhile Apple has offered up a developer platform and a few well-timed keynote slots for developers harnessing their tools, but the most ambitious first-party AR project they’ve launched publicly on iOS has been a measuring tape app. Everything else has taken place behind closed doors.

That secrecy tends to make any reporting on Apple’s plans particularly juicy. This week, a story from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman highlights some of Apple’s next steps towards a long-rumored AR glasses product, reporting that Apple plans to release a high-end niche VR device with some AR capabilities as early as next year. It’s not the most surprising but showcases how desperate today’s mobile kingpins are to ease the introduction of a technology that has the potential to turn existing tech stacks and the broader web on their heads.

Both Facebook and Apple have a handful of problems getting AR products out into the world, and they’re not exactly low-key issues:

  1. hardware isn’t ready
  2. platforms aren’t ready
  3. developers aren’t ready
  4. users don’t want it yet

This is a daunting wall, but isn’t uncommon among hardware moonshots. Facebook has already worked its way through this cycle once with virtual reality over several generations of hardware, though there were some key difference and few would call VR a mainstream success quite yet.

Nevertheless, there’s a distinct advantage to tackling VR before AR for both Facebook and Apple, they can invest in hardware that’s adjacent to the technologies their AR products will need to capitalize on, they can entice developers to build for a platform that’s more similar to what’s coming and they can set base line expectations for consumers for a more immersive platform. At least this would all be the case for Apple with a mass market VR device closer to Facebook’s $300 Quest 2, but a pricey niche device as Gurman’s report details doesn’t seem to fit that bill quite so cleanly.

The AR/VR content problem 

The scenario I’d imagine both Facebook and Apple are losing sleep over is that they release serviceable AR hardware into a world where they are wholly responsible for coming up with all the primary use cases.

The AR/VR world already has a hefty backlog of burnt developers who might be long-term bullish on the tech but are also tired of getting whipped around by companies that seem to view the development of content ecosystems simply as a means to ship their next device. If Apple is truly expecting the sales numbers of this device that Bloomberg suggests — similar to Valve’s early Index headset sales — then color me doubtful that there will be much developer interest at all in building for a stopgap device, I’d expect ports of Quest 2 content and a few shining stars from Apple-funded partners.

I don’t think this will me much of a shortcut for them.

True AR hardware is likely going to have different standards of input, different standards of interaction and a much different approach to use cases compared to a device built for the home or smartphone. Apple has already taken every available chance to entice mobile developers to embrace phone-based AR on iPhones through ARKit, a push they have seemed to back off from at recent developer-centric events. As someone who has kept a close eye on early projects, I’d say that most players in the space have been very underwhelmed by what existing platforms enable and what has been produced widely.

That’s really not great for Apple or Facebook and suggests that both of these companies are going to have to guide users and developers through use cases they design. I think there’s a convincing argument that early AR glasses applications will be dominated by first-party tech and may eschew full third-party native apps in favor of tightly controlled data integrations more similar to how Apple has approached developer integrations inside Siri.

But giving developers a platform built with Apple or Facebook’s own dominance in mind is going to be tough to sell, underscoring the fact that mobile and mobile AR are going to be platforms that will have to live alongside each other for quite a bit. There will be rich opportunities for developers to create experiences that play with 3D and space, but there are also plenty of reasons to expect they’ll be more resistant to move off of a mutually enriching mobile platform onto one where Facebook or Apple will have the pioneer’s pick of platform advantages. What’s in it for them?

Mobile’s OS-level winners captured plenty of value from top-of-funnel apps marketplaces, but the down-stream opportunities found mobile’s true prize, a vastly expanded market for digital ads. With the opportunity of a mobile do-over, expect to find pioneering tech giants pitching proprietary digital ad infrastructure for their devices. Advertising will likely be augmented reality’s greatest opportunity allowing the digital ads market to create an infinite global canvas for geo-targeted customized ad content. A boring future, yes, but a predictable one.

For Facebook, being a platform owner in the 2020s means getting to set their own limitations on use cases, not being confined by App Store regulations and designing hardware with social integrations closer to the silicon. For Apple, reinventing the mobile OS in the 2020s likely means an opportunity to more meaningfully dominate mobile advertising.

It’s a do-over to the tune of trillions in potential revenues.

What comes next

The AR/VR industry has been stuck in a cycle of seeking out saviors. Facebook has been the dearest friend to proponents after startup after startup has failed to find a speedy win. Apple’s long-awaited AR glasses are probably where most die-hards are currently placing their faith.

I don’t think there are any misgivings from Apple or Facebook in terms of what a wild opportunity this to win, it’s why they each have more people working on this than any other future-minded project. AR will probably be massive and change the web in a fundamental way, a true Web 3.0 that’s the biggest shift of the internet to date.

That’s doesn’t sound like something that will happen particularly smoothly.

I’m sure that these early devices will arrive later than we expect, do less than we expect and that things will be more and less different from the smartphone era’s mobile paradigms in ways we don’t anticipate. I’m also sure that it’s going to be tough for these companies to strong-arm themselves into a more seamless transition. This is going to be a very messy for tech platforms and is a transition that won’t happen overnight, not by a long shot.


Other things

The Loon is dead
One of tech’s stranger moonshots is dead, as Google announced this week that Loon, it’s internet balloon project is being shut down. It was an ambitious attempt to bring high-speed internet to remote corners of the world, but the team says it wasn’t sustainable to provide a high-cost service at a low price. More

Facebook Oversight Board tasked with Trump removal
I talked a couple weeks ago — what feels like a lifetime ago — about how Facebook’s temporary ban of Trump was going to be a nightmare for the company. I wasn’t sure how they’d stall for more time of a banned Trump before he made Facebook and Instagram his central platform, but they made a brilliant move, purposefully tying the case up in PR-favorable bureaucracy, tossing the case to their independent Oversight Board for their biggest case to date. More

Jack is Back
Alibaba’s head honcho is back in action. Alibaba shares jumped this week when the Chinese e-commerce giant’s billionaire CEO Jack Ma reappeared in public after more than three months after his last public appearance, something that stoked plenty of conspiracies. Where he was during all this time isn’t clear, but I sort of doubt we’ll be finding out. More

Trump pardons Anthony Levandowski
Trump is no longer President, but in one of his final acts, he surprisingly opted to grant a full pardon to one Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer convicted of stealing trade secrets regarding their self-driving car program. It was a surprising end to one of the more dramatic big tech lawsuits in recent years. More

Xbox raises Live prices
I’m not sure how this stacks in importance relative to what else is listed here, but I’m personally pissed that Microsoft is hiking the price of their streaming subscription Xbox Live Gold. It’s no secret that the gaming industry is embracing a subscription economy, it will be interesting to see what the divide looks like in terms of gamer dollars going towards platform owners versus studios. More

Musk offers up $100M donation to carbon capture tech
Elon Musk, who is currently the world’s richest person, tweeted out this week that he will be donating $100 million towards a contest to build the best technology for carbon capture. TechCrunch learned that this is connected to the Xprize organization. More details


Extra Things

I’m adding a section going forward to highlight some of our Extra Crunch coverage from the week, which dives a bit deeper into the money and minds of the moneymakers.

Hot IPOs hang onto gains as investors keep betting on tech
“After setting a $35 to $39 per-share IPO price range, Poshmark sold shares in its IPO at $42 apiece. Then it opened at $97.50. Such was the exuberance of the stock market regarding the used goods marketplace’s debut.
But today it’s worth a more modest $76.30 — for this piece we’re using all Yahoo Finance data, and all current prices are those from yesterday’s close ahead of the start of today’s trading — which sparked a question: How many recent tech IPOs are also down from their opening price?” More

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020
“Wrapping our look at how the venture capital asset class invested in 2020, today we’re taking a peek at Europe’s impressive year, and Asia’s slightly less invigorating set of results. (We’re speaking soon with folks who may have data on African VC activity in 2020; if those bear out, we’ll do a final entry in our series concerning the continent.)” More

Hello, Extra Crunch Community!
“We’re going to be trying out some new things around here with the Extra Crunch staff front and center, as well as turning your feedback into action more than ever. We quite literally work for you, the subscriber, and want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth, as it were.” More


Until next week,
Lucas Matney

Google’s parent firm is shutting down Loon internet company

Google’s parent firm, Alphabet, is done exploring the idea of using giant balloons to beam high-speed internet in remote parts of the world.

The firm said on Thursday evening that it was winding down Loon, a nine-year-old project and a two-and-a-half-year-old spin off firm, after failing to find a sustainable business model and partners.

The demise of Loon comes a year after the Android-maker ended Google Station, its other major connectivity effort to bring internet to the next billion users. Through Station, Google provided internet connectivity at over 400 railway stations in India and sought to replicate the model in other public places in more nations.

That said, Alphabet’s move today is still surprising. Just last year, Loon had secured approval from the government of Kenya to launch first balloons to provide commercial connectivity services — something it did successfully achieve months later, giving an impression that things were moving in the right direction.

On its website, Loon has long stated its mission as: “Loon is focused on bringing connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world. We are in discussions with telecommunications companies and governments worldwide to provide a solution to help extend internet connectivity to these underserved areas.”

Perhaps the growing interest of SpaceX and Amazon in this space influenced Alphabet’s decision — if not, the two firms are going to have to answer some difficult feasibility questions of their own in the future.

“We talk a lot about connecting the next billion users, but the reality is Loon has been chasing the hardest problem of all in connectivity — the last billion users,” said Alastair Westgarth, chief executive of Loon, in a blog post.

“The communities in areas too difficult or remote to reach, or the areas where delivering service with existing technologies is just too expensive for everyday people. While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business. Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”

The blog post characterised Loon’s connectivity effort as success. “The Loon team is proud to have catalyzed an ecosystem of organizations working on providing connectivity from the stratosphere. The world needs a layered approach to connectivity — terrestrial, stratospheric, and space-based — because each layer is suited to different parts of the problem. In this area, Loon has made a number of important technical contributions,” wrote Westgarth.

What happens next

In a separate blog post, the firm said it had pledged a fund of $10 million to support nonprofits and businesses focussed on connectivity, internet, entrepreneurship and education in Kenya.

Alphabet also plans to “take some of Loon’s technology” forward and share what it learned from this moonshot idea with others.

Additionally, “some of Loon’s technology — like the high bandwidth (20Gbps+) optical communication links that were first used to beam a connection between balloons bopping in the stratosphere — already lives on in Project Taara. This team is currently working with partners in Sub-Saharan Africa to bring affordable, high-speed internet to unconnected and under-connected communities starting in Kenya,” the firm said.

Scores of firms including Google and Facebook have visibly scaled down several of their connectivity efforts in recent years after many developing nations such as India that they targeted solved their internet problems on their own.

It has also become clear that subsidizing internet access to hundreds of millions of potential users is perhaps not the most sustainable way to acquire customers.

Facebook’s Oversight Board will review the decision to suspend Trump

Facebook announced Thursday that its newly-established external policy review group will take on one of the company’s most consequential acts: the decision to suspend former President Trump.

On January 7, Facebook suspended Trump’s account indefinitely. That decision followed the president’s actions the day prior, when he incited a violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol, leaving American democracy on a razor’s edge and a nation already deep in crisis even more shaken.

Facebook VP of Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg called the circumstances around Trump’s suspension an “unprecedented set of events which called for unprecedented action” and explained why the Oversight Board would review the case.

“Our decision to suspend then-President Trump’s access was taken in extraordinary circumstances: a US president actively fomenting a violent insurrection designed to thwart the peaceful transition of power; five people killed; legislators fleeing the seat of democracy,” Clegg said in a blog post.

“This has never happened before — and we hope it will never happen again.”

In its own statement on taking the case, the Oversight Board explained that a five member panel will evaluate the case soon with a decision planned within 90 days. Once that smaller group reaches its conclusions on how to handle Trump’s Facebook status — and, potentially, future cases involving world leaders — the decision will require approval from the majority of the board’s members. After that, the pace picks up a bit and Facebook will have one week to implement the board’s final decision.

Facebook likes to say that the board is independent, but in spite of having the autonomy to make “binding” case-by-case decisions, the board grew out of Facebook itself. The company appointed the board’s four original co-chairs and those members went on to expand the group into a twenty-member body.

As we’ve previously reported, the mechanics of the board bias its activity toward Facebook content taken down — not the stuff that stays up, which generally creates larger headaches for the company and society at large. Facebook has responded to this critique, noting that while the board may initially focus on reviewing takedowns, content still up on the platforms will be part of the project’s scope “as quickly as possible.”

Given some of the criticism around the group, the Trump case is a big moment for how impactful the board’s decisions will really wind up being. If it were to overturn Facebook’s decision, that decision would likely kick up a new firestorm of interest around Trump’s Facebook account, even as the former president recedes from the public eye.

The most interesting bit about the process is that it will allow the former president’s account admins to appeal his own case. If they do so, the board will review a “user statement” arguing why Trump’s account should be reinstated.

Facebook’s external decision making body is meant as a kind of “supreme court” for the company’s own policy making. It doesn’t really move quickly or respond in the moment, but instead seeks to establish precedents that can lend insight to future policy cases. While the per-case decisions are binding, whether the broader precedents it creates will impact Facebook’s future policy decisions remains to be seen.

Apple said to be working a high-priced standalone VR headset as debut mixed reality product

Apple is reportedly working on developing a high-end virtual reality headset for a potential sales debut in 2022, per a new Bloomberg report. The headset would include its own built-in processors and power supply, and could feature a chip even more powerful than the M1 Apple Silicon processor that the company currently ships on its MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro, according to the report’s sources.

As is typical for a report this far out from a target launch date, Bloomberg offers a caveat that these plans could be changed or cancelled altogether. Apple undoubtedly kills a lot of its projects before they ever see the light of day, even in cases where they include a lot of time and capital investment. And the headset will reportedly cost even more than some of the current higher-priced VR headset offerings on the market, which can range up to nearly $1,000, with the intent of selling it initially as a low-volume niche device aimed at specialist customers – kind of like the Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR that Apple currently sells.

The headset will reportedly focus mostly on VR, but will also include some augmented reality features, in a limited capacity, for overlaying visuals on real world views fed in by external cameras. This differs from prior reports that suggested Apple was pursuing consumer AR smart glasses as its likely first headset product in the mixed reality category for consumer distribution. Bloomberg reports that while this VR headset is at a late prototype stage of development, its AR glasses are much earlier in the design process and could follow the VR headset introduction by at least a year or more.

The strategy here appears to be creating a high-tech, high-performance and high-priced device that will only ever sell in small volume, but that will help it begin to develop efficiencies and lower the production costs of technologies involved, in order to pave the way for more mass-market devices later.

The report suggests the product could be roughly the same size as the Oculus Quest, with a fabric exterior to help reduce weight. The external cameras could also be used for environment and hand tracking, and there is the possibility that it will debut with its own App Store designed for VR content.

Virtual reality is still a nascent category even as measured by the most successful products currently available in the market, the Oculus Quest and the PlayStation VR. But Facebook at least seems to see a lot of long-term value in continuing to invest in and iterate its VR product, and Apple’s view could be similar. The company has already put a lot of focus and technical development effort into AR on the iPhone, and CEO Tim Cook has expressed a lot of optimism about AR’s future in a number of interviews.

Facebook and Instagram’s AI-generated image captions now offer far more details

Every picture posted to Facebook and Instagram gets a caption generated by an image analysis AI, and that AI just got a lot smarter. The improved system should be a treat for visually impaired users, and may help you find your photos faster in the future.

Alt text is a field in an image’s metadata that describes its contents: “A person standing in a field with a horse,” or “a dog on a boat.” This lets the image be understood by people who can’t see it.

These descriptions are often added manually by a photographer or publication, but people uploading photos to social media generally don’t bother, if they even have the option. So the relatively recent ability to automatically generate one — the technology has only just gotten good enough in the last couple years — has been extremely helpful in making social media more accessible in general.

Facebook created its Automatic Alt Text system in 2016, which is eons ago in the field of machine learning. The team has since cooked up many improvements to it, making it faster and more detailed, and the latest update adds an option to generate a more detailed description on demand.

The improved system recognizes 10 times more items and concepts than it did at the start, now around 1,200. And the descriptions include more detail. What was once “Two people by a building” may now be “A selfie of two people by the Eiffel Tower.” (The actual descriptions hedge with “may be…” and will avoid including wild guesses.)

But there’s more detail than that, even if it’s not always relevant. For instance, in this image the AI notes the relative positions of the people and objects:

The Facebook smartphone app showing detailed captions for an image.

Image Credits: Facebook

Obviously the people are above the drums, and the hats are above the people, none of which really needs to be said for someone to get the gist. But consider an image described as “A house and some trees and a mountain.” Is the house on the mountain or in front of it? Are the trees in front of or behind the house, or maybe on the mountain in the distance?

In order to adequately describe the image, these details should be filled in, even if the general idea can be gotten across with fewer words. If a sighted person wants more detail they can look closer or click the image for a bigger version — someone who can’t do that now has a similar option with this “generate detailed image description” command. (Activate it with a long press in the Android app or a custom action in iOS.)

Perhaps the new description would be something like “A house and some trees in front of a mountain with snow on it.” That paints a better picture, right? (To be clear, these examples are made up, but it’s the sort of improvement that’s expected.)

The new detailed description feature will come to Facebook first for testing, though the improved vocabulary will appear on Instagram soon. The descriptions are also kept simple so they can be easily translated to other languages already supported by the apps, though the feature may not roll out in other countries simultaneously.

India asks WhatsApp to withdraw new privacy policy, expresses ‘grave concerns’

India has asked WhatsApp to withdraw the planned change to its privacy policy, posing a new headache to Facebook-owned service that identifies the South Asian nation as its biggest market by users.

In an email to WhatsApp head Will Cathcart, the nation’s IT ministry said WhatsApp’s planned update to its data-sharing policy raised “grave concerns regarding the implications for the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens… Therefore, you are called upon to withdraw the proposed changes.”

The ministry also sought clarification from WhatsApp on its data-sharing agreement with Facebook and other commercial firms and has asked why users in the EU are exempt from the new privacy policy but users in India have no choice but to comply.

“Such a differential treatment is prejudicial to the interests of Indian users and is viewed with serious concern by the government,” the ministry wrote, adding that “the government of India owes a sovereign responsibility to its citizens to ensure that their interests are not compromised and therefore it calls upon WhatsApp to respond to concerns raised in this letter.”

Through an in-app alert earlier this month, WhatsApp had asked users to agree to new terms of conditions that grants the app the consent to share with Facebook some personal data about them, such as their phone number and location. Users were initially provided until February 8 to comply with the new policy if they wished to continue using the service. (WhatsApp has since offered clarification and also deferred the enforcement date of the planned policy.)

“This ‘all-or-nothing’ approach takes away any meaninful choice from Indian users. This approach leverages the social significance of WhatsApp to force users into a bargain, which may infringe on their interests in relation to informational privacy and information security,” the ministry said in the email, a copy of which was reviewed by TechCrunch.

New Delhi also noted that it is reviewing the Personal Data Protection Bill, which is meant to oversee how data of users are shared with third-party firms. “Since the Parliament is seized of the issue, making such a momentous change for Indian users at this time puts the cart before the horse. Since the Personal Data Protection Bill strongly follows the principle of ‘purpose limitation,’ these changes may lead to significant implementational challenges for WhatsApp should the Bill become an Act,” the letter said.

More to follow…

WhatsApp-Facebook data-sharing transparency under review by EU DPAs after Ireland sends draft decision

A long-running investigation in the European Union focused on the transparency of data-sharing between Facebook and WhatsApp has taken the first major step towards a resolution. Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) confirmed Saturday it sent a draft decision to fellow EU DPAs towards the back end of last year.

This will trigger a review process of the draft by other DPAs. Majority backing for Facebook’s lead EU data supervisor’s proposed settlement is required under the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) before a decision can be finalized.

The DPC’s draft WhatsApp decision, which it told us was sent to the other supervisors for review on December 24, is only the second such draft the Irish watchdog has issued to-date in cross-border GDPR cases.

The first case to go through the process was an investigation into a Twitter security breach — which led to the company being issued with a $550,000 fine last month.

The WhatsApp case may look very timely, given the recent backlash over an update to its T&Cs, but it actually dates back to 2018, the year GDPR begun being applied — and relates to WhatsApp Ireland’s compliance with Articles 12-14 of the GDPR (which set out how information must be provided to data subjects whose information is being processed in order that they are able to exercise their rights).

In a statement, the DPC said:

“As you are aware, the DPC has been conducting an investigation into WhatsApp Ireland’s compliance with Articles 12-14 of the GDPR in terms of transparency, including in relation to transparency around what information is shared with Facebook, since 2018. The DPC has provisionally concluded this investigation and we sent a draft decision to our fellow EU Data Protection Authorities on December 24, 2020 (in accordance with Article 60 of the GDPR in order to commence the co-decision-making process) and we are waiting to receive their comments on this draft decision.

“When the process is completed and a final decision issues, it will make clear the standard of transparency to which WhatsApp is expected to adhere as articulated by EU Data Protection Authorities,” it added.

Ireland has additional ongoing GDPR investigations into other aspects of the tech giant’s business, including related to complaints filed back in May 2018 by the EU privacy rights not-for-profit, noyb (over so called ‘forced consent’). In May 2020 the DPC said that separate investigation was at the decision-making phase — but so far it has not confirmed sending a draft decision for review.

It’s also notably that the time between the DPC’s Twitter draft and the final decision being issued — after gaining majority backing from other EU DPAs — was almost seven months.

The Twitter case was relatively straightforward (a data breach) vs the more complex business of assessing ‘transparency’. So a final decision on WhatsApp seems unlikely to come to a swifter resolution. There are clearly substantial differences of opinion between DPAs on how the GDPR should be enforced across the bloc. (In the Twitter case, for example, German DPAs suggested a fine of up to $22M vs Ireland’s initial proposal of a maximum of $300k). Although there is some hope that GDPR enforcement of cross border cases will speed up as DPAs gain experience of the various mechanisms and processes involved in making these co-decisions (even if major ideological gaps remain).

Returning to WhatsApp, the messaging platform has had plenty of problems with transparency in recent weeks — garnering lots of unwelcome attention and concern over the privacy implications of a confusing mandatory update to its T&Cs which has contributed to a major migration of users to alternative chat platforms, such as Signal and Telegram.

The backlash led WhatsApp to announced last week that it was delaying enforcement of the new terms by three months. Last week Italy’s data protection agency also issued a warning over a lack of clarity in the T&Cs — saying it could intervene using an emergency process allowed for by EU law (which would be in addition to the ongoing DPC procedure).

 

On the WhatsApp T&Cs controversy, the DPC’s deputy commissioner Graham Doyle told us the regulator had received “numerous queries” from confused and concerned stakeholders which he said led it to re-engage with the company. The regulator previously obtained a commitment from WhatsApp that there is “no change to data-sharing practices either in the European Region or the rest of the world”. But it subsequently confirmed it would delay enforcement of the new terms.

“The updates made by WhatsApp last week are about providing clearer, more detailed information to users on how and why they use data. WhatsApp have confirmed to us that there is no change to data-sharing practices either in the European Region or the rest of the world arising from these updates. However, the DPC has received numerous queries from stakeholders who are confused and concerned about these updates,” Doyle said.

“We engaged with WhatsApp on the matter and they confirmed to us that they will delay the date by which people will be asked to review and accept the terms from February 8th to May 15th. In the meantime, WhatsApp will launch information campaigns to provide further clarity about how privacy and security works on the platform. We will continue to engage with WhatsApp on these updates.”

While there’s no doubt Europe’s record of enforcement of its much vaunted data protection laws against tech giants remains a major weak point of the regulation, there are signs that increased user awareness of rights and, more broadly, concern for privacy, is causing a shift in the balance of power in favor of users.

Proper privacy enforcement is still sorely lacking but Facebook being forced to put a T&Cs update on ice for three months — as its business is subject to ongoing regulatory scrutiny — suggests the days of platform giants being able to move fast and break things are firmly on the wain.

Similarly, for example, Facebook recently had to delay the launch of a dating feature in Europe while it consulted with the DPC. It also remains limited in the data it can share between WhatsApp and Facebook because of the existence of the GDPR — so still can’t share data for ad targeting and product enhancement purposes, even under the new terms.

Europe, meanwhile, is coming with ex ante rules for platform giants that will place further obligations on how they can operate — with the aim of counteracting abusive/unfair business behaviors and bolstering competition in digital markets.

 

Signal and Telegram are also growing in China – for now

As fears over WhatsApp’s privacy policies send millions of users in the West to Signal and Telegram, the two encrypted apps are also seeing a slight user uptick in China, where WeChat has long dominated and the government has a tight grip on online communication.

Following WhatsApp’s pop-up notification reminding users that it shares their data with its parent Facebook, people began fleeing to alternate encrypted platforms. Telegram added 25 million just between January 10-13, the company said on its official Telegram channel, while Signal surged to the top of the App Store and Google Play Store in dozens of countries, TechCrunch learned earlier.

The migration was accelerated when, on January 7, Elon Musk urged his 40 million Twitter followers to install Signal in a tweet that likely stoked more interest in the end-to-end encryption messenger.

The growth of Telegram and Signal in China isn’t nearly as remarkable as their soaring popularity in regions where WhatsApp has been the mainstream chat app, but the uplift is a reminder that WeChat alternatives still exist in China in various capacities.

Signal amassed 9,000 new downloads from the China App Store between January 8 and 12, up 500% from the period between January 3 and 7, according to data from research firm Sensor Tower. Telegram added 17,000 downloads during January 8-12, up 6% from the January 3-7 duration. WhatsApp’s growth stalled, recording 10,000 downloads in both periods.

Sensor Tower estimates that Telegram has seen about 2.7 million total installs on China’s App Store, compared to 458,000 downloads from Signal and 9.5 million times from WhatsApp.

The fact that Telegram, Signal, and WhatsApp are accessible in China might come as a surprise to some people. But China’s censorship decisions can be arbitrary and inconsistent. As censorship monitoring site Apple Censorship shows, all major Western messengers are still available on the China App Store.

The situation for Android is trickier. Google services are largely blocked in China and Android users revert to Android app stores operated by local companies like Tencent and Baidu. Neither Telegram nor Signal is available on these third-party Android stores, but users with a tool that can bypass China’s Great Firewall, such as a virtual private network (VPN), can access Google Play and install the encrypted messengers.

The next challenge is actually using these apps. The major chat apps all get slightly different treatment from Beijing’s censorship apparatus. Some, like Signal, work perfectly without the need for a VPN. Users have reported that WhatsApp occasionally works in China without a VPN, though it loads very slowly. And Facebook doesn’t work at all without a VPN.

“Some websites and apps can remain untouched until they reach a certain threshold of users at which point the authorities will try to block or disrupt the website or app,” said Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous head of Great Fire, an organization monitoring the Chinese internet that also runs Apple Censorship.

“Perhaps before this mass migration from WhatsApp, Signal did not have that many users in China. That might have changed over the last week in which case the authorities could be pondering restrictions for Signal,” Smith added.

To legally operate in China, companies must store their data within China and submit information to the authorities for security spot-checks, according to a cybersecurity law enacted in 2017. Apple, for instance, partners with a local cloud provider to store the data of its Chinese users.

The requirement raises questions about the type of interaction that Signal, Telegram, and other foreign apps have with the Chinese authorities. Signal said it never turned over data to the Hong Kong police and had no data to turn over when concerns grew over Beijing’s heightened controls over the former British colony.

The biggest challenges for apps like Signal in China, according to Smith, will come from Apple, which is constantly under fire by investors and activists for submitting to the Chinese authorities.

In recent years, the American giant has stepped up app crackdown in China, zeroing in on services that grant Chinese users access to unfiltered information, such as VPN providers, RSS feed readers and podcast apps. Apple has also purged tens of thousands of unlicensed games in recent quarters after a years-long delay.

“Apple has a history of pre-emptively censoring apps that they believe the authorities would want censored,” Smith observed. “If Apple decides to remove Signal in China, either on its own initiative or in direct response to a request from the authorities, then Apple customers in China will be left with no secure messaging options.”

Facebook blocks new events around DC and state capitols

As a precaution against coordinated violence as the U.S. approaches President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, Facebook announced a few new measures it’s putting in place.

In a blog post and tweets from Facebook Policy Communications Director Andy Stone, the company explained that it would block any events slated to happen near the White House, the U.S. Capitol or any state capitol building through Wednesday.

The company says it will also do “secondary” sweeps through any inauguration-related events to look for violations of its policies. At this point, that includes any content connected to the “Stop the Steal” movement perpetuating the rampant lie that Biden’s victory is illegitimate. Those groups continued to thrive on Facebook until measures the company took at the beginning of this week.

Facebook will apparently also be putting new restrictions in place for U.S. users who repeatedly break the company’s rules, including barring those accounts from livestreaming videos, events and group pages.

Those precautions fall short of what some of Facebook’s critics have called for, but they’re still notable measures for a company that only began taking dangerous conspiracies and armed groups seriously in the last year.

Daily Crunch: WhatsApp responds to privacy backlash

WhatsApp delays enforcement of a controversial privacy change, Apple may get rid of the Touch Bar in future MacBooks and Bumble files to go public. This is your Daily Crunch for January 15, 2021.

The big story: WhatsApp responds to privacy backlash

Earlier this month, WhatsApp sent users a notification asking them to consent to sharing some of their personal data — such as phone number and location — with Facebook (which owns WhatsApp). The alert also said users would have to agree to the terms by February 8 if they wanted to continue using the app.

This change prompted legal threats and an investigation from the Turkish government. Now the company is pushing the enforcement date back three months.

“No one will have their account suspended or deleted on February 8. We’re also going to do a lot more to clear up the misinformation around how privacy and security works on WhatsApp,” the company said in a post. “We’ll then go to people gradually to review the policy at their own pace before new business options are available on May 15.”

The tech giants

Uber planning to spin out Postmates’ delivery robot arm — Postmates X is seeking investors in its bid to become a separate company.

Apple said to be planning new 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros with MagSafe and Apple processors — This could be the end for the Touch Bar.

Amazon’s newest product lets companies build their own Alexa assistant for cars, apps and video games — Yes, that means your next car could have two Alexas.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Bumble files to go public — The company plans to list on the Nasdaq stock exchange, using the ticker symbol “BMBL.”

Tracy Chou launches Block Party to combat online harassment and abuse — Currently available for Twitter, Block Party helps people filter out the content they don’t want to see.

Everlywell raises $75M from HealthQuest Capital following its recent $175M Series D round — Everlywell develops at-home testing kits for a range of health concerns, and it added a COVID-19 home collection test kit last year.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Fifteen steps to fundraising a new VC or private equity fund — Launching is easy; fundraising is harder.

Lessons from Top Hat’s acquisition spree — The acquisition of Fountainhead Press marks Top Hat’s third purchase of a publishing company in the past 12 months.

Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson says wisdom lies with your developers — Takeaways from Lawson’s new book “Ask Your Developer.”

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Video game spending increased 27% in 2020 — According to the latest figures from NPD, spending on gaming hardware, software and accessories was up 25% in December and 27% for the full year.

DOT evaluated 11 GPS replacements and found only one that worked across use cases —  The government wants to create additional redundancy and resiliency in the sector.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.