New ‘Dark Ads’ pro-Brexit Facebook campaign may have reached over 10M people, say researchers

A major new campaign of disinformation around Brexit, designed to stir up U.K. ‘Leave’ voters, and distributed via Facebook, may have reached over 10 million people in the U.K., according to new research. The source of the campaign is so far unknown, and will be embarrassing to Facebook, which only this week claimed it was clamping down on “dark” political advertising on its platform.

Researchers for the U.K.-based digital agency 89up allege that Mainstream Network — which looks and reads like a “mainstream” news site but which has no contact details or reporter bylines — is serving hyper-targeted Facebook advertisements aimed at exhorting people in Leave-voting U.K. constituencies to tell their MP to “chuck Chequers.” Chequers is the name given to the U.K. Prime Ministers’s proposed deal with the EU regarding the U.K.’s departure from the EU next year.

89up says it estimates that Mainstream Network, which routinely puts out pro-Brexit “news,” could have spent more than £250,000 on pro-Brexit or anti-Chequers advertising on Facebook in less than a year. The agency calculates that with that level of advertising, the messaging would have been seen by 11 million people. TechCrunch has independently confirmed that Mainstream Network’s domain name was registered in November last year, and began publishing in February of this year.

In evidence given to Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee today, 89up says the website was running dozens of adverts targeted at Facebook users in specific constituencies, suggesting users “Click to tell your local MP to bin Chequers,” along with an image from the constituency, and an email function to drive people to send their MP an anti-Chequers message. This email function carbon-copied an [email protected] email address. This would be a breach of the U.K.’s data protection rules, as the website is not listed as a data controller, says 89up.

The news comes a day after Facebook announced a new clampdown on political advertisement on its platform, and will put further pressure on the social media giant to look again at how it deals with the so-called “dark advertising” its Custom Audiences campaign tools are often accused of spreading.

89up claims Mainstream Network website could be in breach of new GDPR rules because, while collecting users’ data, it does not have a published privacy policy, or contain any contact information whatsoever on the site or the campaigns it runs on Facebook.

The agency says that once users are taken to the respective localized landing pages from ads, they are asked to email their MP. When a user does this, its default email client opens up an email and puts its own email in the BCC field (see below). It is possible, therefore, that the user’s email address is being stored and later used for marketing purposes by Mainstream Network.

TechCrunch has reached out to Mainstream Network for comment on Twitter and email. A WhoIs look-up revealed no information about the owner of the site.

TechCrunch’s own research into the domain reveals that the domain owner has made every possible attempt to remain anonymous. Even before GDPR came in, the domain owners had paid to hide its ownership on GoDaddy, where it is registered. The site is using standard GoDaddy shared hosting to blend in with 400+ websites using the same IP address.

Commenting, Damian Collins MP, the Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the U.K. House of Commons, said: “We do not know who is funding the Mainstream Network, or who is behind its operations, but we can see that they are directing a large scale advertising campaign on Facebook designed to get people to lobby their MP to oppose the Prime Ministers’s Brexit strategy. I have been sent a series of emails from constituents as a result of these adverts, in a deliberate attempt to alter the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.”

“The issue for parliamentarians is we have no idea who is targeting whom via political advertising on Facebook, who is paying for it, and what the purpose of that communication is. Facebook claimed this week that it was working to make political advertising on their platform more transparent, but once again we see potentially hundreds of thousands of pounds being spent to influence the political process and no one knows who is behind this.”

Mike Harris, CEO of 89up said: “A day after Facebook announced it will no longer be taking ‘dark ads’, we see once again evidence of the huge problem the platform is yet to face up to. Facebook has known since the EU referendum that highly targeted political advertising was being placed on its platform by anonymous groups, yet has failed to do anything about it. We have found evidence of yet another anonymous pro-Brexit campaign placing potentially a quarter of a million pounds worth of advertising, without anyone knowing or being able to find out who they are.”

Josh Feldberg, 89up researcher, said: “We have no idea who is funding this campaign. Only Facebook do. For all we know this could be funded by thousands of pounds of foreign money. This case just goes to show that despite Facebook’s claims they’re fighting fake news, anonymous groups are still out there trying to manipulate MPs and public opinion using the platform. It is possible there has been unlawful data collection. Facebook must tell the public who is behind this group.”

TechCrunch has reached out to both Facebook and Mainstream Network for comment prior to publication and will update this post if either respond to the allegations.

Smart home makers hoard your data, but won’t say if the police come for it

A decade ago, it was almost inconceivable that nearly every household item could be hooked up to the internet. These days, it’s near impossible to avoid a non-smart home gadget, and they’re vacuuming up a ton of new data that we’d never normally think about.

Thermostats know the temperature of your house, and smart cameras and sensors know when someone’s walking around your home. Smart assistants know what you’re asking for, and smart doorbells know who’s coming and going. And thanks to the cloud, that data is available to you from anywhere — you can check in on your pets from your phone or make sure your robot vacuum cleaned the house.

Because the data is stored or accessible by the smart home tech makers, law enforcement and government agencies have increasingly sought data from the companies to solve crimes.

And device makers won’t say if your smart home gadgets have been used to spy on you.

For years, tech companies have published transparency reports — a semi-regular disclosure of the number of demands or requests a company gets from the government for user data. Google was first in 2010. Other tech companies followed in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations that the government had enlisted tech companies’ aid in spying on their users. Even telcos, implicated in wiretapping and turning over Americans’ phone records, began to publish their figures to try to rebuild their reputations.

As the smart home revolution began to thrive, police saw new opportunities to obtain data where they hadn’t before. Police sought Echo data from Amazon to help solve a murder. Fitbit data was used to charge a 90-year old man with the murder of his stepdaughter. And recently, Nest was compelled to turn over surveillance footage that led to gang members pleading guilty to identity theft.

Yet, Nest — a division of Google — is the only major smart home device maker that has published how many data demands it receives.

As first noted by Forbes last week, Nest’s little-known transparency report doesn’t reveal much — only that it’s turned over user data about 300 times since mid-2015 on over 500 Nest users. Nest also said it hasn’t to date received a secret order for user data on national security grounds, such as in cases of investigating terrorism or espionage. Nest’s transparency report is woefully vague compared to some of the more detailed reports by Apple, Google and Microsoft, which break out their data requests by lawful request, by region and often by the kind of data the government demands.

As Forbes said, “a smart home is a surveilled home.” But at what scale?

We asked some of the most well-known smart home makers on the market if they plan to release a transparency report, or disclose the number of demands they receive for data from their smart home devices.

For the most part, we received fairly dismal responses.

What the big four tech giants said

Amazon did not respond to requests for comment when asked if it will break out the number of demands it receives for Echo data, but a spokesperson told me last year that while its reports include Echo data, it would not break out those figures.

Facebook said that its transparency report section will include “any requests related to Portal,” its new hardware screen with a camera and a microphone. Although the device is new, a spokesperson did not comment on if the company will break out the hardware figures separately.

Google pointed us to Nest’s transparency report but did not comment on its own efforts in the hardware space — notably its Google Home products.

And Apple said that there’s no need to break out its smart home figures — such as its HomePod — because there would be nothing to report. The company said user requests made to HomePod are given a random identifier that cannot be tied to a person.

What the smaller but notable smart home players said

August, a smart lock maker, said it “does not currently have a transparency report and we have never received any National Security Letters or orders for user content or non-content information under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA),” but did not comment on the number of subpoenas, warrants and court orders it receives. “August does comply with all laws and when faced with a court order or warrant, we always analyze the request before responding,” a spokesperson said.

Roomba maker iRobot said it “has not received any demands from governments for customer data,” but wouldn’t say if it planned to issue a transparency report in the future.

Both Arlo, the former Netgear smart home division, and Signify, formerly Philips Lighting, said they do not have transparency reports. Arlo didn’t comment on its future plans, and Signify said it has no plans to publish one. 

Ring, a smart doorbell and security device maker, did not answer our questions on why it doesn’t have a transparency report, but said it “will not release user information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us” and that Ring “objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.” When pressed, a spokesperson said it plans to release a transparency report in the future, but did not say when.

Spokespeople for Honeywell and Canary — both of which have smart home security products — did not comment by our deadline.

And, Samsung, a maker of smart sensors, trackers and internet-connected televisions and other appliances, did not respond to a request for comment.

Only Ecobee, a maker of smart switches and sensors, said it plans to publish its first transparency report “at the end of 2018.” A spokesperson confirmed that, “prior to 2018, Ecobee had not been requested nor required to disclose any data to government entities.”

All in all, that paints a fairly dire picture for anyone thinking that when the gadgets in your home aren’t working for you, they could be helping the government.

As helpful and useful as smart home gadgets can be, few fully understand the breadth of data that the devices collect — even when we’re not using them. Your smart TV may not have a camera to spy on you, but it knows what you’ve watched and when — which police used to secure a conviction of a sex offender. Even data from when a murder suspect pushed the button on his home alarm key fob was enough to help convict someone of murder.

Two years ago, former U.S. director of national intelligence James Clapper said the government was looking at smart home devices as a new foothold for intelligence agencies to conduct surveillance. And it’s only going to become more common as the number of internet-connected devices spread. Gartner said more than 20 billion devices will be connected to the internet by 2020.

As much as the chances are that the government is spying on you through your internet-connected camera in your living room or your thermostat are slim — it’s naive to think that it can’t.

But the smart home makers wouldn’t want you to know that. At least, most of them.

Facebook launches ‘Hunt for False News’ debunk blog as fakery drops 50%

Facebook hopes detailing concrete examples of fake news it’s caught — or missed — could improve news literacy, or at least prove it’s attacking the misinformation problem. Today Facebook launched “The Hunt for False News,” in which it examines viral B.S., relays the decisions of its third-party fact-checkers and explains how the story was tracked down. The first edition reveals cases where false captions were put on old videos, people were wrongfully identified as perpetrators of crimes or real facts were massively exaggerated.

The blog’s launch comes after three recent studies showed the volume of misinformation on Facebook has dropped by half since the 2016 election, while Twitter’s volume hasn’t declined as drastically. Unfortunately, the remaining 50 percent still threatens elections, civil discourse, dissident safety and political unity across the globe.

In one of The Hunt’s first examples, it debunks that a man who posed for a photo with one of Brazil’s senators had stabbed the presidential candidate. Facebook explains that its machine learning models identified the photo, it was proven false by Brazilian fact-checker Aos Fatos, and Facebook now automatically detects and demotes uploads of the image. In a case where it missed the mark, a false story touting NASA would pay you $100,000 to study you staying in bed for 60 days “racked up millions of views on Facebook” before fact-checkers found NASA had paid out $10,000 to $17,000 in limited instances for studies in the past.

While the educational “Hunt” series is useful, it merely cherry-picks random false news stories from over a wide time period. What’s more urgent, and would be more useful, would be for Facebook to apply this method to currently circulating misinformation about the most important news stories. The New York Times’ Kevin Roose recently began using Facebook’s CrowdTangle tool to highlight the top 10 recent stories by engagement about topics like the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.

If Facebook wanted to be more transparent about its successes and failures around fake news, it’d publish lists of the false stories with the highest circulation each month and then apply the Hunt’s format explaining how they were debunked. This could help dispel myths in society’s understanding that may be propagated by the mere abundance of fake news headlines, even if users don’t click through to read them.

The red line represents the decline of Facebook engagement with “unreliable or dubious” sites

But at least all of Facebook’s efforts around information security — including doubling its security staff from 10,000 to 20,000 workers, fact checks and using News Feed algorithm changes to demote suspicious content — are paying off:

  • A Stanford and NYU study found that Facebook likes, comments, shares and reactions to links to 570 fake news sites dropped by more than half since the 2016 election, while engagements through Twitter continued to rise, “with the ratio of Facebook engagements to Twitter shares falling by approximately 60 percent.”
  • A University of Michigan study coined the metric “Iffy Quotient” to assess the how much content from certain fake news sites was distributed on Facebook and Twitter. When engagement was factored in, it found Facebook’s levels had dropped to nearly 2016 volume; that’s now 50 percent less than Twitter.
  • French newspaper Le Monde looked at engagement with 630 French websites across Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Reddit. Facebook engagement with sites dubbed “unreliable or dubious” has dropped by half since 2015.

Of course, given Twitter’s seeming paralysis on addressing misinformation and trolling, they’re not a great benchmark for Facebook to judge by. While it’s useful that Facebook is outlining ways to spot fake news, the public will have to internalize these strategies for society to make progress. That may be difficult when the truth has become incompatible with many peoples’ and politicians’ staunchly held beliefs.

In the past, Facebook has surfaced fake news-spotting tips atop the News Feed and bought full-page newspaper ads trying to disseminate them. The Hunt for Fake News would surely benefit from being embedded where the social network’s users look everyday instead of buried in its corporate blog.

Some notable Facebook shareholders file (mostly symbolic) proposal to oust Mark Zuckerberg as chairman

Several major Facebook shareholders have submitted a proposal calling for CEO Mark Zuckerberg to step down as chairman of the company’s board. The filing is mainly symbolic, since Zuckerberg has almost total voting control, an arrangement that has earned the company’s board structure comparisons to a “dictatorship.” The proposal is still noteworthy, however, because of the investors involved.

The pension funds of New York City are joining activist shareholder Trillium Asset Management, which has wanted to remove Zuckerberg as Facebook’s chairman since its disappointing second-quarter earnings report in July, as well as the state treasurers of Rhode Island, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. The proposal will be voted on at Facebook’s shareholder meeting next year.

In an online statement, New York City comptroller Scott Stringer called on Facebook’s board to make its chair an independent position.

“Facebook plays an outsized role in our society and economy. They have a social and financial responsibility to be transparent—that’s why we’re demanding independence and accountability in the company’s boardroom. We need Facebook’s insular boardroom to make a serious commitment to addressing real risks—reputational, regulatory, and the risk to our democracy—that impact the country, its shareholders, and ultimately the hard-earned pensions of thousands of New York City workers,” Stringer said. “An independent board chair is essential to moving Facebook forward from this mess, and to reestablish trust with Americans and investors alike.”

The shareholder proposal was filed by the New York City Pension Funds, Illinois state treasurer Michael Frerichs, Rhode Island state treasurer Seth Magaziner, Pennsylvania treasurer Joe Torsella, and Trillium Asset Management.

Stringer, a Democrat who serves as fiduciary for the city’s five public pension funds, which are worth about $160 billion in total assets, has been a vocal critic of Facebook. In March, he asked Facebook’s lead independent director, Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmann, to improve the company’s data privacy accountability after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, citing the 4.9 million Class A shares held by the city’s pension funds.

Another proposal to replace Zuckerberg as chairman was filed in April before his Senate testimony about Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of Facebook user data.

TechCrunch has contacted Facebook for comment.

Why IGTV should go premium

It’s been four months since Facebook launched IGTV, with the goal of creating a destination for longer-form Instagram videos. Is it shaping up to be a high-profile flop, or could this be the company’s next multi-billion dollar business?

IGTV, which features videos up to 60 minutes versus Instagram’s normal 60-second limit, hasn’t made much of a splash yet. Since there are no ads yet, it hasn’t made a dollar either. But, it offers Facebook the opportunity to dominate a new category of premium video, and to develop a subscription business that better aligns with high-quality content.

Facebook worked with numerous media brands and celebrities to shoot high-quality, vertical videos for IGTV’s launch on June 20, as both a dedicated app and a section within the main Instagram app. But IGTV has been quiet since. I’ve heard repeatedly in conversations with media executives that almost no one is creating content specifically for IGTV and that the audience on IGTV remains small relative to the distribution of videos on Snapchat or Facebook. Most videos on it are repurposed from a brand’s or influencer’s Snapchat account (at best) or YouTube channel (more common). Digiday heard the same feedback.

Instagram announced IGTV on June 20 as a way for users to post videos up to 1 hour long in a dedicated section of the app (and separate app).

Facebook’s goal should be to make IGTV a major property in its own right, distinct from the Instagram feed. To do that, the company should follow the concept embodied in the “IGTV” name and re-envision what television shows native to the format of an Instagram user would look like.

Its team should leverage the playbook of top TV streaming services like Netflix and Hulu in developing original series with top talent in Hollywood to anchor their own subscription service, but do in it a new format of shows produced specifically for the vertically-oriented, distraction-filled screen of a smartphone.

Mobile video is going premium

Of the 6+ hours per day that Americans spend on digital media, the majority on that is now on their phone (most of it on social and entertainment activities) and video viewing has grown with it. In addition to the decline in linear television viewing and rise of  “over-the-top” streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, we’ve seen the creation of a whole new category of video: mobile native video.

Starting at its most basic iteration with everyday users’ recordings for Snapchat Stories, Instagram Stories, and YouTube vlogs, mobile video is a very different viewing environment with a lot more competition for attention. Mobile video is watched as people are going about their day. They might commit a few minutes at a time, but not hour-long blocks, and there are distracting text messages and push notifications overlaid on the screen as they watch.

“Stories” on the major social apps have advanced vertically-oriented, mobile native videos as their own content format.

When I spoke recently with Jesús Chavez, CEO of the mobile-focused production company Vertical Networks in Los Angeles, he emphasized that successful episodic videos on mobile aren’t just normal TV clips with changes to the “packaging” (cropped for vertical, thumbnails selected to get clicks, etc.). The way episodes are written and shot has to be completely different to succeed. Chavez put it in terms of the higher “density” of mobile-native videos: packing more activity into a short time window, with faster dialogue, fewer setup shots, split screens, and other tactics.

With the growing amount of time people spend watching videos on their social apps each day—and the flood of subpar videos chasing view counts—it makes sense that they would desire a premium content option. We have seen this scenario before as ad-dependent radio gave rise to subscription satellite radio like SiriusXM and ad-dependent network TV gave rise to pay-TV channels like HBO. What that looks like in this context is a trusted service with the same high bar for riveting storytelling of popular films and TV series—and often featuring famous talent from those—but native to the vertical, smartphone environment.

If IGTV pursues this path, it would compete most directly with Quibi, the new venture that Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman are raising $2 billion to launch (and was temporarily called NewTV until their announcement at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit last Wednesday). They are developing a big library of exclusive shows by iconic directors like Guillermo del Toro and Jason Blum crafted specifically for smartphones through their upcoming subscription-based app.

Quibi’s funding is coming from the world’s largest studios (Disney, Fox, Sony, Lionsgate, MGM, NBCU, Viacom, Alibaba, etc.) whose executives see substantial enough opportunity in such a platform—which they could then produce content for—to write nine-figure checks.

TechCrunch’s Josh Constine argued last year Snapchat should go in a similar “HBO of mobile” direction as well, albeit ad-supported rather than a subscription model. The company indeed seems to be stepping further in this direction with last week’s announcement of Snapchat Originals, although it has announced and then canceled original content plans before.

Snapchat announced its Snap Originals last week.

Facebook is the best positioned to win

Facebook is the best positioned to seize this opportunity, and IGTV is the vehicle for doing so. Without even considering integrations with the Facebook, Messenger, or WhatsApp apps, Facebook is starting with a base of over 1 billion monthly active users on Instagram alone. That’s an enormous audience to expose these original shows to, and an audience who don’t need to create or sign into a separate account to explore what’s playing on IGTV. Broader distribution is also a selling point for creative talent: they want their shows to be seen by large audiences.

The user data that makes Facebook rivaled only by Google in targeted advertising would give IGTV’s recommendation algorithms a distinct advantage in pushing users to the IGTV shows most relevant to their interests and most popular among their friends.

The social nature of Instagram is an advantage in driving awareness and engagement around IGTV shows: Instagram users could see when someone they follow watches or “likes” a show (pending their privacy settings). An obvious feature would be to allow users to discuss or review a show by sharing it to their main Instagram feed with a comment; their followers would see a clip or trailer then be able to click-through to the full show in IGTV with one tap.

Developing and acquiring a library of must-see, high-quality original productions is massively capital intensive—just ask Netflix about the $13 billion it’s spending this year. Targeting premium quality mobile video will be no different. That’s why Katzenberg and Whitman are raising a $2 billion war chest for Quibi and budgeting production costs of $100,000-150,000 per minute on par with top TV shows. Facebook has $42 billion in cash and equivalents on its balance sheet. It can easily outspend Quibi and Snap in financing and marketing original shows by a mix of newcomers and Hollywood icons.

Snap can’t afford (financially) to compete head-on and doesn’t have the same scale of distribution. It is at 188 million daily active users and no longer growing rapidly (up 8% over the last year but DAUs actually shrunk by 3 million last quarter). Snapchat is also a much more private interface: it doesn’t enable users to see each others’ activity like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, Spotify, and others do to encourage content discovery. Snap is more likely to create a hub for ad-supported mobile-first shows for teens and early-twentysomethings rather than rival Quibi or IGTV in creating a more broadly popular Netflix or Hulu of mobile-native shows.

It’s time to go freemium

Investing substantial capital upfront is especially necessary for a company launching a subscription tier: consumers must see enough compelling content behind the paywall from the start, and enough new content regularly added, to find an ongoing subscription worthwhile.

There is currently no monetization of IGTV. It is sitting in experimentation mode as Facebook watches how people use it. If any company can drive enough ad revenue solely from short commercials to still profit on high-cost, high-quality episodic shows on mobile, it’s Facebook. But a freemium subscription model makes more sense for IGTV. From a financial standpoint, building IGTV into its own profitable P&L while making substantial content investments likely demands more revenue than ads alone will generate.

Of equal importance is incentive alignment. Subscriptions are defined by “time well spent” rather time spent and clicks made: quality over quantity. This is the environment in which premium content of other formats has thrived too; SiriusXM as the breakout on radio, HBO on linear TV, Netflix in OTT originals. The type of content IGTV will incentivize, and the creative talent they’ll attract, will be much higher quality when the incentives are to create must-see shows that drive new subscribers than when the incentives are to create videos that optimize for views.

Could there be a “Netflix for mobile native video” with shows shot in vertical format specifically for viewing on smartphone?

The optimization for views (to drive ad revenue) have been the model that media companies creating content for Facebook have operated on for the last decade. The toxicity of this has been a top news story over the last year with Facebook acknowledging many of the issues with clickbait and sensationalism and vowing changes.

Over the years, Facebook has dragged media companies up and down with changes to its newsfeed algorithm that forced them to make dramatic changes to their content strategies (often with layoffs and restructuring). It has burned bridges with media companies in the process; especially after last January, how to reduce dependence on Facebook platforms has become a common discussion point among digital content executives. If Facebook wants to get top producers, directors, and production companies investing their time and resources in developing a new format of high-quality video series for IGTV, it needs an incentives-aligned business model they can trust to stay consistent.

Imagine a free, ad-supported tier for videos by influencers and media partners (plus select “IGTV Originals”) to draw in Instagram users, then a $3-8/month subscription tier for access to all IGTV Originals and an ad-free viewing experience. (By comparison, Quibi plans to charge a $5/month subscription with ads with the option of $8/month for its ad-free tier.)

Looking at the growth of Netflix in traditional TV streaming, a subscription-based business should be a welcome addition to Facebook’s portfolio of leading content-sharing platforms. This wouldn’t be its first expansion beyond ad revenue: the newest major division of Facebook, Oculus, generates revenue from hardware sales and a 30% cut of the revenue to VR apps in the Oculus app store (similar to Apple’s cut of iOS app revenue). Facebook is also testing a dating app which—based on the freemium business model Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, and other leading dating apps have proven to work—would be natural to add a subscription tier to.

Facebook is facing more public scrutiny (and government regulation) on data privacy and its ad targeting than ever before. Incorporating subscriptions and transaction fees as revenue streams benefits the company financially, creates a healthier alignment of incentives with users, and eases the public criticism of how Facebook is using people’s data. Facebook is already testing subscriptions to Facebook Groups and has even explored offering a subscription alternative to advertising across its core social platforms. It is quite unlikely to do the latter, but developing revenue streams beyond ads is clearly something the company’s leadership is contemplating.

The path forward

IGTV needs to make product changes if it heads in this direction. Right now videos can’t link together to form a series (i.e. one show with multiple episodes) and discoverability is very weak. Beyond seeing recent videos by those you follow, videos that are trending, and a selection of recommendations, you can only search for channels to follow (based on name). There’s no way to search for specific videos or shows, no way to browse channels or videos by topic, and no way to see what people you follow are watching.

It would be a missed opportunity not to vie for this. The upside is enormous—owning the Netflix of a new content category—while the downside is fairly minimal for a company with such a large balance sheet.

Sidestepping App Stores, Facebook Lite and Groups get Instant Games

HTML5 almost ruined Facebook when baking in the mobile web standard to speed up development slowed down the performance of the social network’s main iOS and Android apps. For a brief moment in 2011, Facebook even tried to build an HTML5 gaming platform codenamed Sparta to escape the taxes of Apple and Google’s mobile operating systems. But at the time, HTML5 wasn’t powerful enough for great gaming. Facebook eventually ditched HTML5, rebuilt the apps natively, and Facebook became one of the most powerful players in mobile.

Now Facebook is giving HTML5 another shot as a way to expand its Instant Games like Pac-Man and Words With Friends to the developing world through Facebook Lite, and to interest communities via Facebook Groups. With improvements to smartphone processing power and the underlying mobile browser app technology, HTML5 can now support snappy, graphically-complex games like Everwing seen below.

Instead of having to download separate apps for each game from the Apple App Store or Google Play, Instant Games launch in a mobile browser. That keeps Facebook Lite’s file size small to the benefit of international users with slow connections or limited data plans. And it lets Instant Games integrate directly into Groups so you can challenge not only friends but like-minded members to compete for high scores.

90 million people each month actively participate in 270,000 Facebook Groups about gaming, and now they’ll see Instant Games in the Groups navigation bar next to the About and Discussion tabs. Facebook is also considering making games an opt-in feature for non-gaming Groups. In Facebook Lite, Instant Games will appear in the More sidebar so they’re not too interruptive.

The expansion demonstrates how serious Facebook is about becoming a gaming company again. Back in its desktop days, the games platform dominated by developers like Zynga racked up tons of usage, virality, and in-game payments revenue for Facebook. That revenue declined for years after mobile usage began to dominate in 2014, but recently stabilized at around $190 million per quarter. Apparently someone is still playing FarmVille.

Facebook launched Instant Games in late-2016 to give people something to do while they’re waiting from friends to reply to their messages. Around the same time, Facebook launched Gameroom — a Steam-like desktop software hub for mid-core gamers, though there’s been less news on that product since. Instant Games rolled out worldwide in mid-2017, and opened to all developers in March of this year. It’s since been expanding monetization options for developers to make building Instant Games a sustainable business. That includes making Instant Games compatible with Facebook’s playable ads that let developers lure in users from the News Feed.

Facebook won’t actually be earning money from in-app purchases on Instant Games on iOS where it doesn’t allow IAP due to Apple’s policies, or on Android since it began forgoing its cut last month. It does take 30 percent on desktop though. But the bigger monetization play is in ads where Facebook is a juggernaut.

With Instant Games on Messenger, Facebook’s desktop site and main mobile app via bookmarks, its new Fb.gg standalone gaming community app, and now Facebook Lite and Groups, the company is prioritizing the space again. That seems wise as gaming becomes more mainstream thanks to players livestreaming their commentary and phenomena like Fortnite. And with Facebook’s expansion into hardware with the Portal smart screen and a forthcoming TV set-top box, it will have more places than ever for people to play or watch others duke it out.

Facebook is building a camera TV set-top box codenamed Ripley

A mysterious product called “Ripley” appeared hidden besides Facebook’s new Portal smart displays in Facebook for Android’s code. Dug up by frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong a week ago, Ripley’s name squared with Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo telling us that “we’re already investing in expanding the product line with more products we want to launch next year.”

That Facebook device will be a camera-equipped device that connects to televisions to allow video chat and media content viewing, according to Cheddar’s Alex Heath.

Facebook’s Portal’s devices sit on a desk or countertop and cost $199 for a smaller screen and $349 for a bigger one. But with Ripley, Facebook could sell a much cheaper screen-less add-on for the televisions people already have. Facebook could build hardware network effect by releasing its Portal technology in many form factors.

The Ripley name could change before the eventual launch next year that Cheddar says is coming in Spring 2019. It might become something more evocative of the device’s purpose. But regardless of the name, it’s sure to encounter heavy skepticism due to Facebook’s history of privacy and security troubles. Many users don’t trust Facebook enough to put one of its cameras and microphones in its house.

Ripley is said to run on the same Portal operating system that builds off the same Android open source framework. That means it might carry a similar slate of features. Those include Portal’s auto-zooming camera that can follow users to keep them in frame, video chat through Messenger, a smart photo frame for while it’s not in use, Facebook Watch videos, Alexa voice control, and a third-party app platform including video content from outside developers.

While users might occasionally watch recipe or news videos on Portal, entertainment could be core to Ripley. The device would allow Facebook to compete with Roku, Amazon, Apple, and other set-top boxes. The device could also eventually be a natural home for Facebook’s video ads, even though it’s not putting them on Portal right now.

Along with smart speakers, whoever creates what plugs into our TVs will control a fundamental wing of future home computing. Facebook won’t surrender this market, despite its disadvantage due to its many scandals.

A fictional Facebook Portal videochat with Mark Zuckerberg

TechCrunch: Hey Portal, dial Mark

Portal: Do you mean Mark Zuckerberg?

TC: Yes

Portal: Dialling Mark…


TC: Hi Mark! Nice choice of grey t-shirt.

MZ: Uh, new phone who dis? — oh, hi, er, TechCrunch…

TC: Thanks for agreeing to this entirely fictional interview, Mark!

MZ: Sure — anytime. But you don’t mind if I tape over the camera do you? You see I’m a bit concerned about my privacy here at, like, home

TC: We feel you, go ahead.

As you can see, we already took the precaution of wearing this large rubber face mask of, well, of yourself Mark. And covering the contents of our bedroom with these paint-splattered decorator sheets.

MZ: Yeah, I saw that. It’s a bit creepy tbh

TC: Go on and get all taped up. We’ll wait.

[sound of Mark calling Priscilla to bring the tape dispenser]

[Portal’s camera jumps out to assimilate Priscilla Chan into the domestic scene, showing a generous vista of the Zuckerbergs’ living room, complete with kids playing in the corner. Priscilla, clad in an oversized dressing gown and with her hair wrapped in a big fluffy towel, can be seen gesticulating at the camera. She is also coughing]

Priscilla to Mark: I already told you — there’s a camera cover built into into Portal. You don’t need to use tape now

MZ: Oh, right, right!

Okay, going dark! Wow, that feels better already

[sound of knuckles cracking]

TC: So, Mark, let’s talk hardware! What’s your favorite Amazon Echo?

MZ: Uh, well…

TC: We’d guess one with all the bells & whistles, right? There’s definitely something more than a little Echo Show-y about Portal

MZ: Sure, I mean. We think Alexa is a great product

TC: Mhmm. Do you remember when digital photo frames first came out? They were this shiny new thing about, like, a decade ago? One of those gadgets your parents buy you around Thanksgiving, which ends up stuck in a drawer forever?

MZ: Yeah! I think someone gave me one once with a photo of me playing beer pong on it. We had it hanging in the downstairs rest room for the longest time. But then we got an Android tablet with a Wi-Fi connection for in there, so…

TC: Now here we are a decade or so later with Portal advancing the vision of what digital photo frames can be!

MZ: Yeah! I mean, you don’t even have to pick the pictures! It’s pretty awesome. This one here — oh, right you can’t see me but let me describe it for you — this one here is of a Halloween party I went to one year. Someone was dressed as SpongeBob. I think they might have been called Bob, actually… And this is, like, some other Facebook friends doing some other fun stuff. Pretty amazing.

You can also look at album art

TC: But not YouTube, right? But let’s talk about video calling

MZ: It’s an amazing technology

TC: It sure is. Skype, FaceTime… live filters, effects, animoji…

MZ: We’re building on a truly great technology foundation. Portal autozooming means you don’t even have to think about watching the person you’re talking to! You can just be doing stuff in your room and the camera will always be adjusting to capture everything you’re doing! Pretty amazing.

TC: Doing what Mark? Actually, let’s not go there

MZ: Portal will even suggest people for you to call! We think this will be a huge help for our mission to promote Being Well — uh, I mean Time Well Spent because our expert machine learning algorithms will be nudging you to talk to people you should really be talking to

TC: Like my therapist?

MZ: Uh, well, it depends. But our AI can suggest personalized meaningful interactions by suggesting Messenger contacts to call up

TC: It’s not going to suggest I videchat my ex is it?

MZ: Haha! Hopefully not. But maybe your mom? Or your grandma?

TC: Sounds incredibly useful. Well, assuming they didn’t already #deletefacebook.

But let’s talk about kids

MZ: Kids! Yeah we love them. Portal is going to be amazing for kids

TC: You have this storybook thing going on, right? Absent grandparents using Portal to read kids bedtime stories and what not…

MZ: Right! We think kids are going to love it. And grandparents! We’ve got these animal masks if you get bored of looking at your actual family members. It’s good, clean, innovative fun for all the family!

TC: Yeah, although, I mean, nothing beats reading from an actual kid’s book, right?

MZ: Well…

TC: If you do want to involve a device in your kid’s bedtime there are quite a lot of digital ebook apps for that already. Apple has a whole iBooks library of the things with read-aloud narration, for example.

And, maybe you missed this — but quite a few years ago there was a big bunch of indie apps and services all having a good go at selling the same sort of idea of ‘interactive remote reading experiences’ for families with kids. Though not many appear to have gone the distance. Which does sort of suggest there isn’t a huge unmet need for extra stuff beyond, well, actual children’s books and videochat apps like Skype and FaceTime.

Also, I mean, children’s story reading apps and interactive kids’ e-books are pretty much as old as the hills in Internet terms at this point. So, er, you’re not really moving fast and breaking things are you!?

MZ: Actually we’re more focused on stable infrastructure these days

TC: And hardware too, apparently. Which is a pretty radical departure for Facebook. All those years everyone thought you were going to do a Facebook phone but you left it to Amazon to flop into that pit… Who needs hardware when you can put apps and tracker pixels on everything, right?!

But here you are now, kinda working with Amazon for Portal — while also competing with Alexa hardware by selling your own countertop device… Aren’t you at all nervous about screwing this up? Hardware IS hard. And homes have curtains for a reason…

MZ: We’re definitely confident kids aren’t going to try swivelling around on the Portal Plus like it’s a climbing frame, if that’s what you mean. Well, hopefully not anyway

TC: But about you, Facebook Inc, putting an all-seeing-eye-cum-Internet-connected-listening-post into people’s living rooms and kids’ bedrooms…

MZ: What about it?

[MZ speaking to someone else in the room] Does the speaker have an off switch? How do I mute this thing?

TC: Hello? Mark?

[silence]

[sound comes back on briefly and a snatch of conversation can be heard between Mark and Priscilla about the need to buy more diapers. Mark is then heard shouting across the room that his Shake Shack order of a triple cheeseburger and fries plus butterscotch malt is late again]

[silence] 

[crackle and a congested throat clearing sound. A child is heard in the background asking for Legos]

MZ: Not now okay honey. Okay hon-, uh, hello — what were you saying?

TC: Will you be putting a Portal in Max’s room?

MZ: Haha! She’d probably prefer Legos

TC: August?

MZ: She’s only just turned one

TC: Okay, let’s try a more direct question. Do you at all think that you, Facebook Inc,

might have a problem selling a $200+ piece of Internet-connected hardware when your company is known for creeping on people to sell ads?

MZ: Oh no, no! — we’ve, like, totally thought of that!

Let me read you what marketing came up with. Hang on, it’s around here somewhere…

[sound of paper rustling]

Here we go [reading]:

Facebook doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you’re calling. In addition, video calls on Portal are encrypted, so your calls are always secure.

For added security, Smart Camera and Smart Sound use AI technology that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers. Portal’s camera doesn’t use facial recognition and doesn’t identify who you are.

Like other voice-enabled devices, Portal only sends voice commands to Facebook servers after you say, ‘Hey Portal.’ You can delete your Portal’s voice history in your Facebook Activity Log at any time.

Pretty cool, huh!

TC: Just to return to your stable infrastructure point for a second, Mark — did you mean Facebook is focused on security too? Because, well, your company keeps leaking personal data like a sieve holds water

MZ: We think of infrastructure as a more holistic concept. And, uh, as a word that sounds reassuring

TC: Okay, so of course you can’t 100% guarantee Portal against hacking risks, though you’re taking precautions by encrypting calls. But Portal might also ‘accidentally’ record stuff adults and kids say in the home — i.e. if its ‘Hey Portal’ local listening function gets triggered when it shouldn’t. And it will then be 100% up to a responsible adult to find their way through Facebook’s labyrinthine settings and delete those wiretaps, won’t it?

MZ: You can control all your information, yes

TC: The marketing bumpf also doesn’t spell out what Facebook does with ‘Hey Portal’ voice recordings, or the personal insights your company is able to glean from them, but Facebook is in the business of profiling people for ad targeting purposes so we must assume that any and all voice commands and interactions, with the sole exception of the contents of videocalls, will go into feeding that beast.

So the metadata of who you talk to via Portal, what you listen to and look at (minus any Alexa-related interactions that you’ve agreed to hand off to Amazon for its own product targeting purposes), and potentially much more besides is all there for Facebook’s taking — given the kinds of things that an always-on listening device located in a domestic setting could be accidentally privy to.

Then, as more services get added to Portal, more personal behavioral data will be generated and can be processed by Facebook for selling ads.

MZ: Well, I mean, like I told that Senator we do sell ads

TC: And smart home hardware too now, apparently.

One more thing, Mark: In Europe, Facebook didn’t used to have face recognition technology switched on did it?

MZ: We had it on pause for a while

TC: But you switched it back on earlier this year right?

MZ: Facebook users in Europe can choose to use it, yes

TC: And who’s in charge of framing that choice?

MZ: Uh, well we are obviously

TC: We’d like you to tap on the Portal screen now, Mark. Tap on the face you can see to make the camera zoom right in on this mask of your own visage. Can you do that for us?

MZ: Uh, sure

[sound of a finger thudding against glass]

MZ: Are you seeing this? It really is pretty creepy!

Or — I mean — it would be if it wasn’t so, like, familiar…

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

[sound of a child crying]

Priscilla to Mark: Eeeew! Turn that thing off!

TC: Thanks Mark. We’ll leave you guys to it.

Enjoy your Shake Shack. Again.


Portal: Thanks for calling Mark, TechCrunch! Did you enjoy your Time Well Spent?

Facebook prototypes Unsend 6 months after Zuckerberg retracted messages

In April, TechCrunch broke the news that some of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook messages were deleted from recipients’ inboxes in what some saw as a violation of user trust and abuse of power since Facebook Messenger doesn’t have an Unsend button. The next morning, Facebook suddenly announced that it would actually build this Unsend functionality for everyone. But six months went by without a peep about the feature, furthering suspicions that the announcement that it would release an Unsend button was merely a PR driven response to the scandal, even if Facebook was just taking time to figure out the right way to build it.

Late last week, TechCrunch asked Facebook about its progress on Unsend ahead of the six month mark, and the company told us “Though we have nothing to announce today, we have previously confirmed that we intend to ship a feature like this and are still planning to do so.”

Now we have our first look at the feature thanks to TechCrunch’s favorite tipster Jane Manchun Wong. She’s managed to generate screenshots of a prototype Unsend button from Facebook Messenger’s Android code. Other Facebook prototypes discovered by Wong like the Your Activity screentime dashboard, Instagram’s video calling and music stickers, and more features have gone on to receive official launches.

Currently, you can only delete messages from your own inbox — they still remain in the recipients’ inbox. But with this Unsend feature prototype, you’re able to remove a message from both sides of a conversation. However, the code indicates that in the current prototype there’s a “time limit”. That may mean users would only have a certain amount of time after they send a message to unsend it. That would essentially be an editing window in which users could take back what they said.

In response, a spokesperson confirmed that “Facebook internally tests products and features before they ship to the public so we can ensure the quality of the experience.”

The Unsend feature could be useful to people who say something stupid or inappropriate, disclose a secret they shouldn’t have, or want to erase evidence of their misdeeds. That could make users more comfortable speaking freely on the app, since they know they can retract their texts. Snapchat’s messages self-destruct unless purposefully saved to the thread by a user, permitting more off-the-cuff chatting.

But Unsend could also open vectors for abuse, as users could harass people over Messenger and then delete the evidence. Facebook will need to ensure that Unsend doesn’t accidentally become a weapon for bullies. That might mean allowing users to turn off the ability for their conversation partners to Unsend messages on a thread by thread basis, and/or a report button specifically for flagging messages that have since been retracted.

Facebook’s acquisition Instagram already lets users Unsend messages and Snapchat added an Unsend option in June. But those chat products are more designed for having fun, discussing memes, and sharing photos with close friends. Messenger has positioned itself as a core communications utility for the world. Messing with the permanence of messages could make it feel less reliable or truthful to some users. When we talk in person, our conversations aren’t written in stone forever…but there’s also no way to force someone to forget what you said.

[Postscript: Ideally, Facebook builds this similarly to Gmail’s Undo Send option, where you can only use it for a very short period of time after a message is sent, but still actually deliver messages in real time. The real confusion and trouble would come with being able to unsend messages well after they’ve been sent and even read.]

Facebook breach saw 15M users’ names & contact info accessed, 14M’s bios too

Facebook has now detailed what was potentially stolen in the breach it revealed two weeks ago. 30 million users, not 50 million as it initially estimated, had their access tokens stolen by hackers. Users can check Facebook’s Help Center to find out if their information was accessed, and Facebook will send customized alerts to those impacted detailing what was accessed from their account and what they can do to recover. It’s currently not clear if all the information accessed was necessarily scraped.

15 million of the 30 million users had their name plus phone number and/or email accessed. 14 million had that info plus potentially more biographical info accessed, including “username, gender, locale/language, relationship status, religion, hometown, self-reported current city, birthdate, device types used to access Facebook, education, work, the last 10 places they checked into or were tagged in, website, people or Pages they follow, and the 15 most recent searches”. The remaining 1 million users’ information wasn’t accessed.

Facebook’s other apps including Messenger, Messenger Kids, Instagram, WhatsApp, Workplace, and Pages, as well as its features for payments, third-party apps, advertisers, and developers were not accessed.

Unlike most breaches, this one appears to have turned out to be less severe then initially expected. Users seem to already be forgetting about the breach after a short hiccup where they had to log back in to Facebook. It’s possible that that could impact Facebook’s user counts slightly in its Q3 earnings report. But unless a truly nefarious use case for the accessed data is revealed, the breach could fade into the noise of non-stop cybersecurity failures across the web, including Google+’s breach that was covered up and has now prompted the Facebook competitor’s shut down.