Facebook awards $200K to Internet Defense Prize winners

Facebook announced today the winners of its annual Internet Defense Prize and awarded first-, second- and third-place winners a total of $200,000 for research papers that addressed topics of internet security and privacy. Combined with $800,000 in Secure the Internet Grants awarded to security and privacy researchers earlier this week, the company has now completed its 2018 goal to invest $1 million toward securing the internet.

The Internet Defense Prize first started in 2014, but this year the prize quadrupled from its original $50,000 award to $200,000 spread across three groups. In a statement announcing the winners, Facebook said that the increase of this year’s prize money reflected not just the company’s ongoing (and in light of the its privacy catastrophes this year, seemingly increased) interest in security and privacy, but also the quality of work submitted.

“Over the years we’ve gotten higher and higher quality of submissions,” Pete Voss, Facebook’s Security Communications Manager told TechCrunch. “[But] the criteria has always been the same, and that’s making practical research. Making this go beyond theory and making it so you can actually apply security in real life.”

The first prize, $100,000, was taken home by a team from Belgium for a paper entitled “Who Left Open the Cookie Jar? A Comprehensive Evaluation of Third-Party Cookie Policies” that proposed improvements to browser security that would make users less susceptible to having their internet trail tracked from site to site.

Second- and third-place prizes (for $60,000 and $40,000 each) were awarded to research teams in the U.S. and China, respectively, for papers focusing on proper use of cryptography for app development and for strengthening the algorithm behind single sign-on security systems.

Voss says the entries this year are a great example of the award’s mission to fund research that benefits not just Facebook’s interests in security and privacy, but the internet’s as a whole.

“We’re investing in not just Facebook security but in public security for the entire internet,” said Voss. “We want to keep the internet strong and the only way we can do that is by making it secure.”

As for the recipients of the Secure the Internet Grants, the $800,000 was divided between 10 teams whose research ranged from sociological approaches (like “Understanding the Use of Hijacked Facebook Accounts in the Wild” and “Enhancing Online & Offline Safety During Internet Disruptions in Times of War”) to more technical ones like improving the strength of encryption methods.

Voss told TechCrunch that Facebook has no plans to announce at this time regarding its next steps toward providing funding for researchers in this space (unlike last summer when the company laid out its $1 million goal), but says that the company is “always looking at incentivizing this kind of research” and providing support.

Facebook is going back to college

Kids these days take a greater interest in practical things than we give them credit for. For example, this summer my 12-year-old son Leo was at sleepaway camp in Canada. When we received his first letter home, among camp platitudes, the two notable items reported were that one of his counselors was discharged from the Israeli Army a week before camp, while another was recently “mugged by three guys (one had a gun!) and got stabbed in the arm.” Leo reported the cabin was mesmerized when, as a reward, the counselor showed campers his sweater with a knife hole in it.

America’s colleges and universities could learn a thing or two from Leo, because they continue to resist teaching students the practical things they’ll need to know as soon as they graduate; for instance, to get jobs that will allow them to make student loan payments. Digital skills head this list, specifically experience with the high-powered software they’ll be required to use every day in entry-level positions.

But talk to a college president or provost about the importance of Marketo, HubSpot, Pardot, Tableau, Adobe and Autodesk for their graduates, and they’re at a loss for how to integrate last-mile training into their degree programs in order prepare students to work on these essential software platforms.

Enter a new company, Pathstream, which just announced a partnership with tech leader Unity and previously partnered with Facebook. Pathstream supports the delivery of career-critical software skill training in VR/AR and digital marketing at colleges and universities.

According to Pathstream co-founder Eleanor Cooper, the company was created from piecing together two insights. First, graduates aren’t getting the digital skills they need to be hired. Employers are so frustrated that they no longer believe that new grads are qualified for digital jobs; according to a recent survey of more than 95,000 job postings by TalentWorks, 61 percent of positions that say they’re seeking entry-level employees now specify at least three years or more of relevant work experience. Second, tech companies are struggling to reach new generations of learners.

While today’s college graduates are “digital natives,” these natives have been conditioned on Netflix-like interfaces, and aren’t accustomed to laborious software configurations, or the steep learning curves required to master a software platform.

As a result, Cooper says Pathstream makes learning a new software platform live up to student expectations of receiving “joy before pain,” thereby gently nudging college students down the road to mastery. In addition, rather than traditional classroom-based learning, Pathstream’s platform simulates a work environment, where students complete tasks and projects on the platform, build a portfolio of work and earn a certification from both a higher education institution and the software company.

Facebook is using Pathstream to support training students on its digital marketing platform, including social media marketing using Facebook Ad Manager and Instagram . Parisa Zagat, Policy Programs Manager at Facebook, related the partnership with Pathstream to its pledge in June to train 1 million U.S. small business owners on the digital skills they need to compete in today’s workplace.

Unity is focusing its training on VR/AR courses for industry use cases (construction, manufacturing, automotive, enterprise training). Jessica Lindl, Global Head of Education at Unity, said “in order to gain employment in today’s digitally focused world, job-seekers are required to rapidly up-level their skills.”

Image: Getty Images/smartboy10/DigitalVision

“The problem is there’s a significant education gap between those who seek to learn these skills and the programs available to them. With Pathstream, we will be able to provide interactive programs for students of all backgrounds to learn real-world software platforms in their own way, making it easier and more efficient for them to find success in their current career path or a new one.”

While it completes training programs for Facebook and Unity, Pathstream is building out a network of colleges that will offer the curriculum to students. Recently, Facebook announced that Pathstream will be offering digital marketing certificates at Central New Mexico Community College and Des Moines Area Community College. According to Zagat, “By the end of the year, Facebook plans to form a total of 20 partnerships with community colleges across the country, working hand-in-hand with Pathstream and the colleges to build out custom curriculums and programs for these partnerships.”

Cooper says that “colleges and universities understand that their students are focused on employment, and specifically on getting a good first job. Today’s students no longer buy the line that college prepares you for your fifth job, not your first job. They know that if you don’t get a good first job, you’re probably not going to get a good fifth job.” And, as she points out, most good first jobs specifically require one or more technologies like Facebook or Unity — technologies that colleges and universities aren’t teaching.

If Pathstream is able to realize its vision of integrating industry-relevant software training into degree programs in a big way, colleges and universities have a shot at maintaining their stranglehold as the sole pathway to successful careers. If Pathstream’s impact is more limited, watch for millions of students to sidestep traditional colleges, and enroll in emerging faster and cheaper alternative pathways to good first jobs — alternative pathways that will almost certainly integrate the kind of last-mile training being pioneered by Pathstream.

Facebook says birthday fundraisers have raised more than $300 million over the past year

Facebook marked the first anniversary of its birthday fundraisers by revealing that more than $300 million in donations have been raised through the feature, which lets users mark their birthdays by creating a donation drive for an organization of their choice. About 750,000 non-profits currently have access to Facebook’s fundraising tools (but not every user, since they haven’t rolled out to all countries).

The company also said that it is adding several new features based on feedback. These include allowing Pages to create and donate to fundraisers, as well as the ability to add matching donations and co-organizers to fundraisers. Donors will also be able to choose if they want to set up a recurring monthly contribution.

For people who want to create a birthday fundraiser but don’t have an organization in mind already, Facebook plans to include more information about charities in the feature’s selection tool. The company said its fundraising feature’s top beneficiaries include St. Jude, the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Cancer Society, Share Our Strength—No Kid Hungry and the ASPCA.

Last November, Facebook removed its 5% fee on donations, which means all money goes to non-profits. For many charities, Facebook fundraisers are now the most frictionless way to raise donations, including from people who might otherwise never visit the charity’s own donation links. Facebook fundraisers are a notable example of how social media activism can actually translate into tangible results instead of yet more memes–but, of course, whenever Facebook releases any self-congratulatory announcements, it’s a good idea to take a step back and look at the potential downsides.

As with almost every other Facebook feature, its fundraising tools have prompted concerns about privacy, particularly donor privacy, which is considered sacrosanct by many organizations (Facebook lets users decide if they want to share their donation with friends). Some charities also have qualms about benefiting from Facebook fundraisers until the company does a better job of policing hate speech, especially if the purpose of their work is aiding marginalized or persecuted minority groups.

In an insightful blog post from last November, fundraising consultant Jeremy Hatch argued that fundraising on Facebook also eliminates the relationship between donors and organizations, “where there are established norms and ethical practices.” He added that non-profits should reconsider before they grow increasingly reliant on a company whose ultimate goal is to gather and monetize user data.

At the same time, Facebook’s reach leaves many organizations with little choice but to use the platform so they don’t miss out on much-needed funds. One notable example of how effective Facebook fundraisers can be is the more than $20 million raised by users on behalf of RAICES to help migrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border by the Trump administration.

Twitter puts Infowars’ Alex Jones in the ‘read-only’ sin bin for 7 days

Twitter has finally taken action against Infowars creator Alex Jones, but it isn’t what you might think.

While Apple, Facebook, Google/YouTube, Spotify and many others have removed Jones and his conspiracy-peddling organization Infowars from their platforms, Twitter has remained unmoved with its claim that Jones hasn’t violated rules on its platform.

That was helped in no small way by the mysterious removal of some tweets last week, but now Jones has been found to have violated Twitter’s rules, as CNET first noted.

Twitter is punishing Jones for a tweet that violates its community standards but it isn’t locking him out forever. Instead, a spokesperson for the company confirmed that Jones’ account is in “read-only mode” for up to seven days.

That means he will still be able to use the service and look up content via his account, but he’ll be unable to engage with it. That means no tweets, likes, retweets, comments, etc. He’s also been ordered to delete the offending tweet — more on that below — in order to qualify for a fully functioning account again.

That restoration doesn’t happen immediately, though. Twitter policy states that the read-only sin bin can last for up to seven days “depending on the nature of the violation.” We’re imagining Jones got the full one-week penalty, but we’re waiting on Twitter to confirm that.

The offending tweet in question is a link to a story claiming President “Trump must take action against web censorship.” It looks like the tweet has already been deleted, but not before Twitter judged that it violates its policy on abuse:

Abuse: You may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so. We consider abusive behavior an attempt to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else’s voice.

When you consider the things Infowars and Jones have said or written — 9/11 conspiracies, harassment of Sandy Hook victim families and more — the content in question seems fairly innocuous. Indeed, you could look at President Trump’s tweets and find seemingly more punishable content without much difficulty.

But here we are.

The weirdest part of this Twitter caning is one of the reference points that the company gave to media. These days, it is common for the company to point reporters to specific tweets that it believes encapsulate its position on an issue, or provide additional color in certain situations.

In this case, Twitter pointed us — and presumably other reporters — to this tweet from Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson:

WTF, Twitter…

Openbook is the latest dream of a digital life beyond Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can check out the Openbook crowdfunding pitch here.

Facebook is the recruiting tool of choice for far-right group the Proud Boys

Twitter may have suspended the Proud Boys and their controversial leader Gavin McInnes, but it was never their platform of choice.

The Proud Boys, a self described “Western chauvinist” organization that often flirts with more hard-line groups of the far right, runs an elaborate network of recruiting pages on Facebook to attract and initiate members. While McInnes maintained a presence on many platforms, Facebook is the heart of the group’s operations. It’s there that the Proud Boys boast more than 35 regional and city-specific groups that act as landing pages for vetting thousands of new members and feeding them into local chapters.

When it comes to skirting the outer boundaries of social acceptability, McInnes could teach a master class. The Vice founder and Canadian citizen launched his newest project in 2016, capturing a groundswell of public political activity on the far right and launching the Proud Boys, a men’s club allied around the mantra “West is best,” its dedication to Trump and a prohibition against flip-flops and porn.

Facebook recruiting

The group makes national headlines for its involvement in violent dust-ups between the far right and far left and has a robust recruitment network centered on initiating members through Facebook groups. As for where it fits into the far right’s many sub-factions, McInnes objects to the term alt-light, sometimes used to describe far right group that oppose some mainstream conservative ideals but don’t openly endorse white nationalism. “Alt Light is a gay term that sounds like a diet soda in bed w Alt Right,” he said on Twitter last year. “We’re “The New Right.”

To that end, most regional affiliate pages run a message outlining some ground rules, including a declaration that its members not be racist or homophobic — a useful disclaimer for making the group more palatable than many of its less clever peers.

The Proud Boys’ agenda is less explicitly race-based than many groups it has affiliations with, espousing instead a broad sort of antagonism to perceived enemies on the political left and a credo of “western chauvinism.” The language is cleaned up, but it’s one degree removed from less palatable figures, including Unite the Right leader Jason Kessler. McInnes hosted Kessler on his own talk show just days after Kessler led the Charlottesville rally that left counter-protester Heather Heyer dead. In the segment, McInnes tried to create space between Kessler and the Proud Boys, though it wasn’t Kessler’s first time on the show or his only affiliation with the Proud Boys.

The Proud Boys also coordinates with the Vancouver, Washington-based group known as Patriot Prayer, another fairly social media-savvy far right organization that doesn’t openly endorse explicitly white nationalist groups, but still welcomes them into the fold during demonstrations that often turn violent.

Who are the Proud Boys?

Like much of the young, internet-fluent alt-right, the Proud Boys intentionally don’t take themselves too seriously, a strategy that conveniently opens the door for them to denounce any kind of controversy that might arise. They show up to protests wearing black and gold Fred Perry polo shirts, have a whole charter’s worth of inside jokes and in general seem a bit more media and internet savvy than hardline white nationalist groups, some of which Facebook has managed to clear out in the last year.

Unlike some less strategic and internet-savvy portions of the far right, McInnes and his Proud Boys are careful not to openly encourage preemptive violence. Still, the Proud Boys do encourage retaliatory violence, going so far as to enshrine physical altercations in its organizational hierarchy.

To earn their “first degree,” Proud Boys must openly declare their allegiance to the group’s ideals, usually in a Facebook vetting group.

To earn the second, they have to get beaten up by other members while naming five breakfast cereals (maybe a loose tie-in to the group’s mantra against masturbation). To earn the third degree they have to get a Proud Boys tattoo. The fourth degree is reserved for members who get in a brawl sufficient for the honor:

“You can’t plan getting a fourth degree. Its a consolation prize for engaging in a major conflict for the cause. Being arrested is not encouraged, although those who are immediately become fourth degree because the court has registered a major conflict. Serious physical fights also count and it’s up to each chapter to decide how serious the conflict must be to determine a fourth degree.”

That’s where the Proud Boys Facebook network comes in. To get accepted into a local chapter, prospective members join specific vetting groups and are asked to upload a video of them meeting their “first degree” requirements:

“Once you are added here, to be properly vetted you must upload and post a video of yourself reciting our First Degree. This is just a quick video of you saying EXACTLY THIS:

“My name is [full name], I’m from [city, state], and I am a western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world.” You can add anything else you’d like to your video, as long as you say those words exactly.

YouTube is full of first and second degree videos depicting the usually short half-ironic hazing ceremonies.

Facebook also hosts pages dedicated to the Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights, a new-ish subdivision of the Proud Boys and its paramilitary wing. The Alt-Knights, also known as FOAK, are led by Kyle Chapman, a.k.a. “Based Stickman,” a far right figure who grew to fame after beating political enemies with a stick at a 2017 Berkeley protest. The Alt-Knights aren’t always quite as careful to denounce violence.

Whether the Proud Boys are in violation of Facebook’s unevenly enforced and sometimes secretive policies or not, the organization is making the most of its time on the platform. Facebook has rules against organizing harm or credible violence that the Proud Boys’ brawling ethos and alt-knights would seem to run afoul of, but the group stands by the useful mantra “We don’t start fights, we finish them.”

TechCrunch reached out to the Proud Boys to get an idea of their membership numbers and will update this story if we receive a reply. An analysis of affiliated pages shows that Proud Boys groups have added hundreds of members in the last 30 days across many chapters.

With a second Unite the Right rally around the corner and the ugly reality of more real-life violence organized on social media looming large, platforms are on their toes for once. Facebook has cleaned up some of the rampant racism that stemmed from the extreme right presence on its platform, but savvier, self-censoring groups like the Proud Boys are likely to be the real headache as Facebook, Twitter and Google trudge through an endless minefield of case-by-case terms of service violations, drawing sharp criticism from both sides of the political spectrum no matter where they choose to place their feet.

What the Facebook Crypto team could build

Facebook is invading the blockchain, but how? Back in May, Facebook formed a cryptocurrency team to explore the possibilities, and today it removed a roadblock to revealing its secret plans.

Former head of Messenger David Marcus, who leads the Facebook Crypto team, today announced he was stepping down from the board of Coinbase, the biggest crypto startup. Marcus was formerly the president of PayPal and helped Facebook Messenger adopt chatbot commerce and peer-to-peer payments, so he was both a natural choice for Coinbase’s board and Facebook’s blockchain skunklabs.

Facebook told CoinDesk this was to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, which is exactly what it was. Marcus provided a statement to TechCrunch explaining he was stepping down “because of the new group I’m setting up at Facebook around blockchain,” noting that “Getting to know Brian [Armstrong, CEO of Coinbase], who’s become a friend, and the whole Coinbase leadership team and board has been an immense privilege. I’ve been thoroughly impressed by the talent and execution the team has demonstrated during my tenure, and I wish the team all the success it deserves going forward.”

Now Facebook is cleared to start publicly talking about its plans, though it hasn’t yet. “We are still in the very early stages and we are considering a number of different applications for the blockchain. But we don’t have anything else to share at this time,” a Facebook spokesperson tells me. So what could Facebook be building? I see three main consumer-facing opportunities.

3% off with FaceCoin

Facebook could build a cryptocurrency wallet with its own token that people could use to pay for things with partnered businesses or that they discover through Facebook ads. Because blockchain can make transactions free or very cheap, Facebook and its partners could sidestep the typical credit card processing fees. That would potentially allow Facebook to offer users  “3% off purchases made with FaceCoin” or a similar promotion. 

Discounts like this could draw users into Facebook’s cryptocurrency feature. It’s well-positioned to run such a scheme thanks to its extensive connections with more than six million advertisers and 65 million businesses that have Facebook Pages. The social network could eat the costs of running the program, passing the transaction fee savings on to the users, while touting partnerships with Facebook Crypto as ways to boost sales for businesses. That could in turn get clients to spend more money on Facebook ads, as the discounts would enhance conversion rates and drive sales.

One thing we know for sure is that Facebook won’t be building on the Stellar protocol. Facebook debunked a Business Insider report saying it was, telling TechCrunch it was not in talks with Stellar or planning to build on it.

P2P and micropayments

Facebook already lets you send friends money through Messenger for free, but only with a connected debit card or PayPal account. Facebook could offer cryptocurrency-based payments between friends to let a wider range of users settle debts for shared dinners or taxis through Messenger. Users might fund their Facebook Crypto wallet once with a payment, possibly with a one-time transaction fee, and then they could send and receive the tokens for free from then on. Blockchain becoming the backbone of peer-to-peer payments could further increase engagement with Messenger for its 1.3 billion users.

Meanwhile, Facebook could also potentially use cryptocurrency to let fans send micropayments to their favorite creators, like video stars and game streamers. Facebook recently debuted its own virtual (not crypto) currency, called Facebook Stars, that users can buy and send to creators, who can then cash them out for one cent each. Facebook takes an undisclosed cut, but gives to the creator the majority of what users spend on Stars.

Facebook could potentially undergird this system with cryptocurrency to alleviate transaction fees and let people tip creators smaller amounts of cash for exclusive content or just to show their appreciation. Facebook started with a minimum of $3 tips at a time so that transaction fees wouldn’t be too high of a percentage of the total purchase. A cryptocurrency solution could let users efficiently tip much smaller amounts, which could lure people toward the behavior. The more money Facebook can deliver to internet celebrities, the more popular ones it can recruit to live on its platform and the more content they’ll produce.

Facebook Stars. Image via KiwiFarm

Facebook Connect for crypto

A top problem in the world of decentralized blockchain apps is how you bring your identity with you. Securely connecting your wallet, blockchain-based virtual goods and biographical info to new dApps can be a laborious process. Users typically have to type in long, complicated alphanumeric keys that are tough to remember and annoying to input. User experience design around identity in the blockchain space lags far behind what we’re used to with mainstream social apps like Facebook Connect, which uses a OAuth single sign-on to let you instantly join apps without creating a new username and password, or filling out a profile and uploading a photo.

Facebook could use its expertise in operating a popular identity platform to ease login to dApps. While the company has faced plenty of privacy issues and attacks on election integrity, Facebook has a strong record of not being traditionally hacked. It hasn’t suffered a massive user data breach like LinkedIn, Twitter and other social networks. Using an overtly centralized identity system to connect with decentralized apps might be counterintuitive, but Facebook could deliver the UX convenience necessary to unlock a new wave of blockchain utility.

For now it’s unclear if Facebook will end up directly competing with Coinbase in the exchange and wallet space, or if it might instead partner with the blockchain mainstay to accelerate its efforts. And on the enterprise engineering side, Facebook could build some decentralized storage infrastructure to cut its massive server bills. But with deep pockets, tons of tech talent and ubiquity amongsts social networkers and businesses, Facebook Crypto’s primary limits are its ambitions and the extent of user trust.

Facebook now requiring Pages with large US audiences to go through additional authorization

Facebook today announced it’s implementing a new measure to secure Facebook Pages with large U.S. followings in order to make it harder for people to administer a Page using a “fake or compromised account.” Beginning with those that have large U.S. followings, some Facebook Pages will now have to go through a “Page Publishing Authorization” process. This will require the Page managers to secure their accounts and verity their location.

Facebook says the process only takes a few minutes to complete. If a Page requires this authorization, the Page admins will receive a notice at the top of their News Feed directing them to begin the process.

If they choose not to submit to Authorization, they will no longer be able to post to their Pages, the company says. Enforcement will begin this month.

When the Page owners click through, a message informs them why this is being done and what steps they have to take. To secure their account, Facebook is asking the Page manager to secure their account using two-factor authentication. This makes it more difficult for their account to be hijacked by a third-party, and is a best practice that all Facebook users – not just Page admins – should follow.

Separately, the Facebook Page managers will need to verify their location. This will then be set as the Page’s primary country and display in the new Page Info tab Facebook introduced in June.

Here, Facebook will also show a list of countries of the people who manage the Page, and how many managers hail from each country in that list.

In addition, under Page History, Facebook will show when a Page has merged with another.

The company says this new policy will initially roll out to Pages with large U.S. audiences, and Instagram will soon do something similar. Specifically, Instagram will allow people to see more information about accounts with large audiences.

“Our goal is to prevent organizations and individuals from creating accounts that mislead people about who they are or what they’re doing,” reads a Facebook announcement about the new process. “These updates are part of our continued efforts to increase authenticity and transparency of Pages on our platform.”

The changes follow the recent news that Facebook had found evidence of possible Russia-linked influence campaigns on its network, whose goal was to influence the U.S. midterms. The company removed 8 Facebook Pages, 17 Facebook profiles, and 7 Instagram accounts as a result of its findings.

New policies to make Facebook Pages that reach a sizable number of Americans more secure, and their management more transparent, seems like a good first step on Facebook’s part. Though it’s still possible that those aiming to disrupt democracy and seed division will eventually find workarounds for these measures at some point in the future.

AI training and social network content moderation services bring TaskUs a $250 million windfall

TaskUs, the business process outsourcing service that moderates content, annotates information and handles back office customer support for some of the world’s largest tech companies, has raised $250 million in an investment from funds managed by the New York-based private equity giant, Blackstone Group.

It’s been ten years since TaskUs was founded with a $20,000 investment from its two co-founders, and the new deal, which values the decade-old company at $500 million before the money even comes in, is proof of how much has changed for the service in the years since it was founded.

The Santa Monica-based company, which began as a browser-based virtual assistant company — “You send us a task and we get the task done,” recalled TaskUs chief executive Bryce Maddock — is now one of the main providers in the growing field of content moderation for social networks and content annotation for training the algorithms that power artificial intelligence services around the world.

“What I can tell you is we do content moderation for almost every major social network and it’s the fastest growing part of our business today,” Maddock said.

From a network of offices spanning the globe from Mexico to Taiwan and the Philippines to the U.S., the thirty two year-old co-founders Maddock and Jaspar Weir have created a business that’s largest growth stems from snuffing out the distribution of snuff films; child pornography; inappropriate political content and the trails of human trafficking from the user and advertiser generated content on some of the world’s largest social networks.

(For a glimpse into how horrific that process can be, take a look at this article from Wiredwhich looked at content moderation for the anonymous messaging service, Whisper.)

Maddock estimates that while the vast majority of the business was outsourcing business process services in the company’s early days (whether that was transcribing voice mails to texts for the messaging service PhoneTag, or providing customer service and support for companies like HotelTonight) now about 40% of the business comes from content moderation.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Indeed, it was the growth in new technology services that attracted Blackstone to the business, according to Amit Dixit, Senior Managing Director at Blackstone.

“The growth in ride sharing, social media, online food delivery, e-commerce and autonomous driving is creating an enormous need for enabling business services,” said Dixit in a statement. “TaskUs has established a leadership position in this domain with its base of marquee customers, unique culture, and relentless focus on customer delivery.”

While the back office business processing services remain the majority of the company’s revenue, Maddock knows that the future belongs to an increasing automation of the company’s core services. That’s why part of the money is going to be invested in a new technology integration and consulting business that advises tech companies on which new automation tools to deploy, along with shoring up the company’s position as perhaps the best employer to work for in the world of content moderation and algorithm training services.

It’s been a long five year journey to get to the place it’s in now, with glowing reviews from employees on Glassdoor and social networks like Facebook, Maddock said. The company pays well above minimum wage in the market it operates in (Maddock estimates at least a 50% premium); and provides a generous package of benefits for what Maddock calls the “frontline” teammates. That includes perks like educational scholarships for one child of employees that have been with the company longer than one year; healthcare plans for the employee and three beneficiaries in the Philippines; and 120 days of maternity leave.

And, as content moderation is becoming more automated, the TaskUs employees are spending less time in the human cesspool that attempts to flood social networks every day.

“Increasingly the work that we’re doing is more nuanced. Does this advertisement have political intent. That type of work is far more engaging and could be seen to be a little bit less taxing,” Maddock said.

But he doesn’t deny that the bulk of the hard work his employees are tasked with is identifying and filtering the excremental trash that people would post online.

“I do think that the work is absolutely necessary. The alternative is that everybody has to look at this stuff. it has to be done in a way thats thoughtful and puts the interests of the people who are on the frontlines at the forefront of that effort,” says Maddock. “There have been multiple people who have been involved in sex trafficking, human trafficking and pedophilia that have been arrested directly because of the work that TaskUs is doing. And the consequence of someone not doing that is a far far worse world.”

Maddock also said that TaskUs now shields its employees from having to perform content moderation for an entire shift. “What we have tried to do universally is that there is a subject matter rotation so that you are not just sitting and doing that work all day.”

And the company’s executive knows how taxing the work can be because he said he does it himself. “I try to spend a day a quarter doing the work of our frontline teammates. I spend half my time in our offices,” Maddock said.

Now, with the new investment, TaskUs is looking to expand into additional markets in the UK, Europe, India, and Latin America, Maddock said.

“So far all we’ve been doing is hiring as fast as we possibly can,” said Maddock. “At some point in the future, there’s going to be a point when companies like ours will see the effects of automation,” he added, but that’s why the company is investing in the consulting business… so it can stay ahead of the trends in automation.

Even with the threat that automation could pose to the company’s business, TaskUs had no shortage of other suitors for the massive growth equity round, according to one person familiar with the company. Indeed, Goldman Sachs and Softbank were among the other bidders for a piece of TaskUs, the source said.

Currently, the company has over 11,000 employees (including 2,000 in the U.S.) and is looking to expand.

“We chose to partner with Blackstone because they have a track record of building category defining businesses. Our goal is to build TaskUs into the world’s number one provider of tech enabled business services.  This partnership will help us dramatically increase our investment in consulting, technology and innovation to support our customer’s efforts to streamline and refine their customer experience,” said Maddock in a statement.

The transaction is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2018, subject to regulatory approvals and customary closing conditions.

Facebook builds its own AR games for Messenger video chat

Facebook is diving deeper into in-house game development with the launch of its own version of Snapchat’s multiplayer augmented reality video chat games. Today, Facebook Messenger globally launches its first two AR video chat games that you can play with up to six people.

“Don’t Smile” is like a staring contest that detects if you grin, and then users AR to contort your it’s an exaggerated Joker’s smirk while awarding your opponent the win. “Asteroids Attack” sees you move your face around the navigate a space ship, avoiding rocks and grabbing laser beam powerups. Soon, Facebook also plans to launch “Beach Bump” for passing an AR ball back and forth, and a “Kitten Craze” cat matching game. To play the games, you start a video chat, hit the Star button to open the filter menu, and then select one of the games. You can snap and share screenshots to your chat thread while you play.

The games are effectively a way to pass the time while you video chat, rather than something you’d ever play on your own. They could be a hit with parents and grandparents who are away and want to spend time with a kid…who isn’t exactly the best conversationalist.

Facebook tells me it built these games itself using the AR Studio tool it launched last year to let developers create their own AR face filters. When asked if game development would be available to everyone through AR studio, a spokesperson told me “Not today, but we’ve seen sucessful short-session AR games developed by the creator community and are always looking out for ways to bring the best AR content to the FB family of apps.”

For now, there will be no ads, sponsored branding, or in-app purchases in Messenger’s video chat games. But those all offer opportunities for Facebook and potentially outside developers to earn money. Facebook could easily show an ad interstitial between game rounds, let brands build games to promote movie releases or product launches, or let you buy powerups to beat friends or cosmetically upgrade your in-game face.

Snapchat’s Snappables games launched in April

The games feel less polished than the launch titles for Snapchat’s Snappables gaming platform that launched in April. Snapchat focused on taking over your whole screen with augmented reality, transporting you into space or a disco dance hall. Facebook’s games merely overlay a few graphics on the world around you. But Facebook’s games are more purposefully designed for split-screen multiplayer. Snapchat is reportedly building its own third-party game development platform, but it seems Facebook wanted to get the drop on it.

The AR video chat games live separately from the Messenger Instant Games platform the company launched last year. These include arcade classics and new mobile titles that users can play by themselves and challenge friends over high-scores. Facebook now allows developers of Instant Games to monetize with in-app purchases and ads, foreshadowing what could come to AR video chat games.

Facebook has rarely developed its own games. It did build a few mini-games like an arcade pop-a-shot style basketball game and a soccer game to show off what the Messenger Instant Games platform could become. But typically it’s stuck to letting outside developers lead. Here, it may be trying to set examples of what developers should build before actually spawning a platform around video chat games.

Now with over 1.3 billion users, Facebook Messenger is seeking more ways to keep people engaged. Having already devoured many people’s one-on-one utility chats, it’s fun group chats, video calling, and gaming that could get people spending more time in the app.