Why each Libra member’s mutiny hurts Facebook

There’s a strategic cost to the defection of Visa, Stripe, eBay, and more from the Facebook -led cryptocurrency Libra Association . They’re not just names dropping off a list. Each potentially made Libra more useful, ubiquitous, or reputable. Now they could become obstacles to the token’s launch or growth.

Fearing regulators’ inquiries not just into their Libra involvement but the rest of their businesses, these companies are pulling out at least for now. None had made precise commitments to integrating Libra into their products, and they’ve said they could still get involved later. But their exit clouds the project’s future and leaves Facebook to absorb more of the blowback.

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Here’s what each of the departing Libra Association members brought to the table and how they could spawn new challenges for the cryptocurrency:

Visa

With one of most widely-accepted payment methods, Visa could have helped make Libra universally spendable. It’s also one of the most prestigious names in finance, lending deep credibility to the project. Visa’s departure leaves Libra looking more like tech companies barging into payments, conjuring fears of their move fast, break things approach that could cause financial ruin if Libra runs into problems. It also could leave Libra with a much weaker presence in brick-and-mortar shops. No one will want to own a cryptocurrency that doesn’t appreciate in value and can’t be easily spent.

MasterCard

The involvement of MasterCard alongside Visa made Libra look like the incumbents adapting to modern technologies. This made it less threatening, and gave cryptocurrency an air of inevitability. MasterCard would have also brought an even wider network of locations where Libra could one day be used for payment. Now MasterCard and Visa might actively work against Libra to prevent their payment methods being made obsolete by Libra and its elimination of transaction fees through the blockchain. Two of Libras biggest allies could become its biggest foes.

PayPal

Facebook has repeatedly told regulators that its Calibra app plus integrations into Messenger and WhatsApp would not be the only Libra wallets, pointing to PayPal . Facebook’s head of Libra David Marcus told Congress when asked about the social network’s outsized power to exploit Libra through its own Calibra wallet that “you have companies like PayPal and others that will, of course, collaborate, but [also] compete with us”. Now Facebook won’t have a scaled payment method it doesn’t own to point to as a likely alternative for people who don’t want to trust Facebook’s Calibra, Messenger, or WhatsApp to be their Libra wallet. The Libra Association also loses PayPal’s enormous network of online merchants that accept it, plus the inroad to integration into its peer-to-peer payback app Venmo. PayPal convinced the mainstream public to trust online payments — the exact kind of trust Facebook desperately needs. The fact that Marcus was also the former president of PayPal but couldn’t keep it in the association raises concerns about the group’s coalition-building prowess.

Stripe

Stripe’s enormous popularity with ecommerce vendors made it a valuable Libra Association member. Together with PayPal, Stripe facilitates a huge portion of online transactions outside of China. Its ease of integration made it a top pick for developers Facebook surely hoped would build atop Libra. Stripe’s exit destroys a critical bridge to the fintech startup ecosystem that could have helped institutionalize Libra. Now the association will have to work on engineering payment widgets from scratch without Stripe’s assistance, which could slow adoption if it ever launches.

There’s a clear reason all these payment processors bailed. Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) wrote a letter to Visa, MasterCard, and Stripe’s CEOs this week explaining that “If you take this on, you can expect a high level of scrutiny from regulators not only on Libra-related activities, but on all payment activities.”

eBay

As one of the longest standing ecommerce companies, eBay bolstered beliefs that Libra could be used to power transactions between untrusted strangers without a costly middleman. It might have also put Libra into practice on one of the top western online marketplaces outside of Amazon. Without destinations like eBay onboard, average netizens will have fewer opportunities to be exposed to Libra’s potential to eliminate transaction fees.

Mercado Pago

One of the lesser-known Libra Association members, Mercado Pago helps merchants receive payments via email or in installments. The idea of connecting financially underserved populations has been core to Facebook’s pitch for why Libra should exist. The Libra Association has been light on the details of how exactly it serves this demographic, relying on the inclusion of partners like Mercado Pago to help it figure this out later. Mercado Pago’s departure leaves Libra looking more like a financial power grab rather than a tool to assist the disadvantaged.

Who’s Left?

On Monday, the remaining Libra Association members will meet to finalize the initial member list, elect a board, and create a charter to govern the project. This forced the hands of the companies above, who had their last chance to depart this week before being pulled deeper into Libra.

Facebook Currency Hearing

UNITED STATES – JULY 16: David Marcus, head of Facebook’s Calibra digital wallet service, prepares to testify during the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on “Examining Facebook’s Proposed Digital Currency and Data Privacy Considerations” on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Who’s left includes venture capital firms, ride sharing companies, non-profits, and cryptocurrency companies. They are less tied up with the status quo of payment processing, and therefore had less to lose. The blockchain-specific companies were likely hoping to piggyback on financial giants like Visa to get Libra approved and create more legitimacy for their industry as a whole.

These partners could help fund an ecosystem of Libra developers, create daily use cases, spread the system in the developing world, and push for alliances between Libra and cryptocurrency players. Facebook will need to fight to keep them aboard if it wants to avoid Libra looking like a unilateral disruption of the economy.

For Libra to actually launch, Facebook needs to make serious concessions and divert from its initial vision. Otherwise if it continues to butt heads with regulators, more members could flee. One option floated by Libra Association member Andreessen Horowitz’s a16z Crypto partner Chris Dixon was for Libra to be denominated in US dollars instead of a basket of international currencies. That might lessen fears that Libra intends to compete directly with the dollar.

It’s become apparent that Facebook will not get its ideal cryptocurrency out the door. This is the brand tax of 100 scandals coming back to bite it. Now the best it can hope for is to get even a watered-down version launched, prove it can actually help the underbanked, and then hope to convince regulators it’s well-intentioned.

Devin Wenig steps down as eBay CEO

eBay this morning announced that Devin Wenig has stepped down from the role of CEO. A former executive at Reuters, Wenig joined the company eight years ago this month as president of its global market place division. He was appointed to the CEO role in July 2015, following eBay’s spinoff of PayPal.

“Devin has been a tireless advocate for driving improvement in the business, particularly in leading the Company forward after the PayPal spinoff,” Chairman of the Board Thomas Tierney said in a release tied to the news. “Indeed, eBay is stronger today than it was four years ago. Notwithstanding this progress, given a number of considerations, both Devin and the board believe that a new CEO is best for the company at this time.”

Scott Schenkel, the company’s Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer has been appointed interim CEO by eBay’s board. Schenkel has been with the company for 12 years, having previously spent several years in management at GE. eBay says it will “consider internal and external candidates” as it searches for someone to fill the position on a permanent basis.

The move comes amid turmoil at the company. Earlier this year, investors Elliott Management suggested key structural changes to help reinvigorate a floundering company.  “Today eBay suffers from an inefficient organizational structure, wasteful spend and a misallocation of resources,” it wrote in a letter at the time. eBay went through layoffs and restructuring, in the wake of the letter.

As part of these new changes up top, eBay will be appointing Vice President, Global Financial Planning and Analysis, Andy Cring, to the position of interim CFO.

Is Knotel poised to turn WeWork from a Unicorn into an Icarus?

The day of reckoning for the ‘flexible office space as a startup’ is coming, and it’s coming up fast. WeWork’s IPO filing has fired the starting gun on the race to become the game-changer both in the future of property and real estate but also the future of how we live and work. As Churchill once said, ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’.

Until recently WeWork was the ruler by which other flexible space startups were measured, but questions are now being asked if it deserves its valuation. The profitable IWG plc, formerly Regus, has been a business providing serviced offices, virtual offices, meeting rooms, and the rest, for years and yet WeWork is valued by ten times more.

That’s not to mention how it exposes landlords to $40 billion in rent commitments, something which a few of them are starting to feel rather nervous about.

Some analysts even say WeWork’s IPO is a ‘masterpiece of obfuscation’

Facebook still full of groups trading fake reviews, says consumer group

Facebook has failed to clean up the brisk trade in fake product reviews taking place on its platform, an investigation by the consumer association Which? has found.

In June both Facebook and eBay were warned by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) they needed to do more to tackle the sale of fake product reviews. On eBay sellers were offering batches of five-star product reviews in exchange for cash, while Facebook’s platform was found hosting multiple groups were members solicited writers of fake reviews in exchange for free products or cash (or both).

A follow-up look at the two platforms by Which? has found a “significant improvement” in the number of eBay listings selling five-star reviews — with the group saying it found just one listing selling five-star reviews after the CMA’s intervention.

But little appears to have been done to prevent Facebook groups trading in fake reviews — with Which? finding dozens of Facebook groups that it said “continue to encourage incentivised reviews on a huge scale”.

Here’s a sample ad we found doing a ten-second search of Facebook groups… (one of a few we saw that specify they’re after US reviewers)

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Which? says it found more than 55,000 new posts across just nine Facebook groups trading fake reviews in July, which it said were generating hundreds “or even thousands” of posts per day.

It points out the true figure is likely to be higher because Facebook caps the number of posts it quantifies at 10,000 (and three of the ten groups had hit that ceiling).

Which? also found Facebook groups trading fake reviews that had sharply increased their membership over a 30-day period, adding that it was “disconcertingly easy to find dozens of suspicious-looking groups in minutes”.

We also found a quick search of Facebook’s platform instantly serves a selection of groups soliciting product reviews…

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Which? says looked in detail at ten groups (it doesn’t name the groups), all of which contained the word ‘Amazon’ in their group name, finding that all of them had seen their membership rise over a 30-day period — with some seeing big spikes in members.

“One Facebook group tripled its membership over a 30-day period, while another (which was first started in April 2018) saw member numbers double to more than 5,000,” it writes. “One group had more than 10,000 members after 4,300 people joined it in a month — a 75% increase, despite the group existing since April 2017.”

Which? speculates that the surge in Facebook group members could be a direct result of eBay cracking down on fake reviews sellers on its own platform.

“In total, the 10 [Facebook] groups had a staggering 105,669 members on 1 August, compared with a membership of 85,647 just 30 days prior to that — representing an increase of nearly 19%,” it adds.

Across the ten groups it says there were more than 3,500 new posts promoting inventivised reviews in a single day. Which? also notes that Facebook’s algorithm regularly recommended similar groups to those that appeared to be trading in fake reviews — on the ‘suggested for you’ page.

It also says it found admins of groups it joined listing alternative groups to join in case the original is shut down.

Commenting in a statement, Natalie Hitchins, Which?’s head of products and services, said: ‘Our latest findings demonstrate that Facebook has systematically failed to take action while its platform continues to be plagued with fake review groups generating thousands of posts a day.

“It is deeply concerning that the company continues to leave customers exposed to poor-quality or unsafe products boosted by misleading and disingenuous reviews. Facebook must immediately take steps to not only address the groups that are reported to it, but also proactively identify and shut down other groups, and put measures in place to prevent more from appearing in the future.”

“The CMA must now consider enforcement action to ensure that more is being done to protect people from being misled online. Which? will be monitoring the situation closely and piling on the pressure to banish these fake review groups,” she added.

Responding to Which?‘s findings in a statement, CMA senior director George Lusty said: “It is unacceptable that Facebook groups promoting fake reviews seem to be reappearing. Facebook must take effective steps to deal with this problem by quickly removing the material and stop it from resurfacing.”

“This is just the start – we’ll be doing more to tackle fake and misleading online reviews,” he added. “Lots of us rely on reviews when shopping online to decide what to buy. It is important that people are able to trust they are genuine, rather than something someone has been paid to write.”

In a statement Facebook claimed it has removed 9 out of ten of the groups Which? reported to it and claimed to be “investigating the remaining group”.

“We don’t allow people to use Facebook to facilitate or encourage false reviews,” it added. “We continue to improve our tools to proactively prevent this kind of abuse, including investing in technology and increasing the size of our safety and security team to 30,000.”

Libra, Facebook’s global digital currency plan, is fuzzy on privacy, watchdogs warn

Privacy commissioners from the Americas, Europe, Africa and Australasia have put their names to a joint statement raising concerns about a lack of clarity from Facebook over how data protection safeguards will be baked into its planned cryptocurrency project, Libra.

Facebook officially unveiled its big bet to build a global digital currency using blockchain technology in June, steered by a Libra Association with Facebook as a founding member. Other founding members include payment and tech giants such as Mastercard, PayPal, Uber, Lyft, eBay, VC firms including Andreessen Horowitz, Thrive Capital and Union Square Ventures, and not-for-profits such as Kiva and Mercy Corps.

At the same time Facebook announced a new subsidiary of its own business, Calibra, which it said will create financial services for the Libra network, including offering a standalone wallet app that it expects to bake into its messaging apps, Messenger and WhatsApp, next year — raising concerns it could quickly gain a monopolistic hold over what’s being couched as an ‘open’ digital currency network, given the dominance of the associated social platforms where it intends to seed its own wallet.

In its official blog post hyping Calibra Facebook avoided any talk of how much market power it might wield via its ability to promote the wallet to its existing 2.2BN+ global users, but it did touch on privacy — writing “we’ll also take steps to protect your privacy” by claiming it would not share “account information or financial data with Facebook or any third party without customer consent”.

Except for when it admitted it would; the same paragraph states there will be “limited cases” when it may share user data. These cases will “reflect our need to keep people safe, comply with the law and provide basic functionality to the people who use Calibra”, the blog adds. (A Calibra Customer Commitment provides little more detail than a few sample instances, such as “preventing fraud and criminal activity”.)

All of that might sound reassuring enough on the surface but Facebook has used the fuzzy notion of needing to keep its users ‘safe’ as an umbrella justification for tracking non-Facebook users across the entire mainstream Internet, for example.

So the devil really is in the granular detail of anything the company claims it will and won’t do.

Hence the lack of comprehensive details about Libra’s approach to privacy and data protection is causing professional watchdogs around the world to worry.

“As representatives of the global community of data protection and privacy enforcement authorities, collectively responsible for promoting the privacy of many millions of people around the world, we are joining together to express our shared concerns about the privacy risks posed by the Libra digital currency and infrastructure,” they write. “Other authorities and democratic lawmakers have expressed concerns about this initiative. These risks are not limited to financial privacy, since the involvement of Facebook Inc., and its expansive categories of data collection on hundreds of millions of users, raises additional concerns. Data protection authorities will also work closely with other regulators.”

Among the commissioners signing the statement is the FTC’s Rohit Chopra: One of two commissioners at the US Federal Trade Commission who dissented from the $5BN settlement order that was passed by a 3:2 vote last month

Also raising concerns about Facebook’s transparency about how Libra will comply with privacy laws and expectations in multiple jurisdictions around the world are: Canada’s privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien; the European Union’s data protection supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli; UK Information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham; Albania’s information and data protection commissioner, Besnik Dervishi; the president of the Commission for Information Technology and Civil Liberties for Burkina Faso, Marguerite Ouedraogo Bonane; and Australia’s information and privacy commissioner, Angelene Falk.

In the joint statement — on what they describe as “global privacy expectations of the Libra network” — they write:

In today’s digital age, it is critical that organisations are transparent and accountable for their personal information handling practices. Good privacy governance and privacy by design are key enablers for innovation and protecting data – they are not mutually exclusive. To date, while Facebook and Calibra have made broad public statements about privacy, they have failed to specifically address the information handling practices that will be in place to secure and protect personal information. Additionally, given the current plans for a rapid implementation of Libra and Calibra, we are surprised and concerned that this further detail is not yet available. The involvement of Facebook Inc. as a founding member of the Libra Association has the potential to drive rapid uptake by consumers around the globe, including in countries which may not yet have data protection laws in place. Once the Libra Network goes live, it may instantly become the custodian of millions of people’s personal information. This combination of vast reserves of personal information with financial information and cryptocurrency amplifies our privacy concerns about the Libra Network’s design and data sharing arrangements.

We’ve pasted the list of questions they’re putting to the Libra Network below — which they specify is “non-exhaustive”, saying individual agencies may follow up with more “as the proposals and service offering develops”.

Among the details they’re seeking answers to is clarity on what users personal data will be used for and how users will be able to control what their data is used for.

The risk of dark patterns being used to weaken and undermine users’ privacy is another stated concern.

Where user data is shared the commissioners are also seeking clarity on the types of data and the de-identification techniques that will be used — on the latter researchers have demonstrated for years that just a handful of data points can be used to re-identify credit card users from an ‘anonymous’ data-set of transactions, for example.

Here’s the full list of questions being put to the Libra Network:

  • 1. How can global data protection and privacy enforcement authorities be confident that the Libra Network has robust measures to protect the personal information of network users? In particular, how will the Libra Network ensure that its participants will:

    • a. provide clear information about how personal information will be used (including the use of profiling and algorithms, and the sharing of personal information between members of the Libra Network and any third parties) to allow users to provide specific and informed consent where appropriate;
    • b. create privacy-protective default settings that do not use nudge techniques or “dark patterns” to encourage people to share personal data with third parties or weaken their privacy protections;
    • c. ensure that privacy control settings are prominent and easy to use;
    • d. collect and process only the minimum amount of personal information necessary to achieve the identified purpose of the product or service, and ensure the lawfulness of the processing;
    • e. ensure that all personal data is adequately protected; and
    • f. give people simple procedures for exercising their privacy rights, including deleting their accounts, and honouring their requests in a timely way.
  • 2. How will the Libra Network incorporate privacy by design principles in the development of its infrastructure?

  • 3. How will the Libra Association ensure that all processors of data within the Libra Network are identified, and are compliant with their respective data protection obligations?

  • 4. How does the Libra Network plan to undertake data protection impact assessments, and how will the Libra Network ensure these assessments are considered on an ongoing basis?

  • 5. How will the Libra Network ensure that its data protection and privacy policies, standards and controls apply consistently across the Libra Network’s operations in all jurisdictions?

  • 6. Where data is shared amongst Libra Network members:

    • a. what data elements will be involved?

    • b. to what extent will it be de-identified, and what method will be used to achieve de-identification?
      c. how will Libra Network ensure that data is not re-identified, including by use of enforceable contractual commitments with those with whom data is shared?

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment.

EBay picks 5.5% stake in India’s Paytm Mall

EBay said today it is buying a 5.5% stake in e-commerce marketplace Paytm Mall as the global firm makes another push to gain footprint in India’s fast-growing e-commerce market.

The two firms did not disclose financial terms of the deal, but a source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that EBay has invested between $150 million to $200 million in Paytm Mall at a valuation of $3 billion, up from under $2 billion last year. Paytm Mall had raised about $650 million prior to today’s announcement, the source said.

The agreement will see more than a million products of EBay be made available for purchase to users on Paytm Mall, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and CEO of Paytm said in a statement. “We will jointly select the inventory we want to bring here. It will be done in a month’s time,” he added. EBay will continue to operate its e-commerce site in India, the company said.

The deal could strengthen Paytm Mall’s position in India, where it competes with Walmart -owned Flipkart, and Amazon India. Online retail sales in India are expected to grow to about $72 billion in three years, according to research firm eMarketer.

Paytm Mall, which is backed by SoftBank, Alibaba, Ant Financial, and SAIF Partners, reported GMV sales of $188 million in 2018. In last one year, sales at the e-commerce arm of One97 Communications, which also runs Paytm wallet, has lost momentum after it cut down the lofty offers it was bandying out to customers, according to an Economic Times report.

Like Amazon and Flipkart, Paytm Mall operates on an inventory-led model in India, but in recent months it has shifted its focus to offline-to-online and online-to-offline models, wherein orders placed by customers are serviced from local brand stores. A second source told TechCrunch that Paytm Mall intends to aggressively grow its non-inventory based models. Paytm Mall claims to have over 100,000 seller partners on its platform.

This is EBay’s third investment in India. The company made its first investment in the country in Snapdeal in 2013, and then on Flipkart. After the Indian firm was acquired by Walmart for $16 billion, EBay sold its stake for $1.1 billion and relaunched its e-commerce site with cross-border trade as its new focus.

“We are deeply committed to India and believe there is huge growth potential and significant opportunity in this dynamic market,” said Jooman Park, Senior Vice President of EBay’s APAC business. “This new relationship will accelerate our cross-border trade efforts in a rapidly growing market, providing hundreds of millions of Paytm and Paytm Mall customers with access to EBay’s unparalleled selection of goods.”

Why commerce companies are the advertising players to watch in a privacy-centric world

The unchecked digital land grab for consumers’ personal data that has been going on for more than a decade is coming to an end, and the dominoes have begun to fall when it comes to the regulation of consumer privacy and data security.

We’re witnessing the beginning of a sweeping upheaval in how companies are allowed to obtain, process, manage, use and sell consumer data, and the implications for the digital ad competitive landscape are massive.

On the backdrop of evolving privacy expectations and requirements, we’re seeing the rise of a new class of digital advertising player: consumer-facing apps and commerce platforms. These commerce companies are emerging as the most likely beneficiaries of this new regulatory privacy landscape — and we’re not just talking about e-commerce giants like Amazon.

Traditional commerce companies like eBay, Target and Walmart have publicly spoken about advertising as a major focus area for growth, but even companies like Starbucks and Uber have an edge in consumer data consent and, thus, an edge over incumbent media players in the fight for ad revenues.

Tectonic regulatory shifts

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Image via Getty Images / alashi

By now, most executives, investors and entrepreneurs are aware of the growing acronym soup of privacy regulation, the two most prominent ingredients being the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and the CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act).

Amazon expands Transparency anti-counterfeit codes to Europe, India and Canada

Amazon is no stranger to the nefarious forces of e-commerce: fake reviews, counterfeit goods and scams have all reared their heads on its marketplace in one place or another, with some even accusing it of turning a blind eye to them since, technically, Amazon profits from any transactions, not just the legit ones. The company has been working to fight that image, though, and today it announced its latest development in that mission: it announced that Transparency — a program to serialize products sold on its platform with a T-shaped QR-style code to identify when an item is counterfeit — is expanding to Europe, India and Canada. (More detail on how it actually works below.)

“Counterfeiting is an industry-wide concern – both online and offline. We find the most effective solutions to prevent counterfeit are based on partnerships that combine Amazon’s technology innovation with the sophisticated knowledge and capabilities of brands,” said Dharmesh Mehta, vice president, Amazon Customer Trust and Partner Support, in a statement. “We created Transparency to provide brands with a simple, scalable solution that empowers brands and Amazon to authenticate products within the supply chain, stopping counterfeit before it reaches a customer.”

The growth of Transparency has been quite slow so far: it has taken more than two years for Amazon to offer the service outside of the US market, where it launched first with Amazon’s own products in March 2017 and then expanded to third-party items. Even today, while Transparency is launching to sellers in more markets, the app for consumers to scan the items themselves is still only available in the US, according to Amazon’s FAQ.

In that time, take-up has been okay but not massive. Amazon says that some 4,000 brands have enrolled in the program, covering 300 million unique codes, leading to Amazon halting more than 250,000 counterfeit sales (these would have been fake versions of legit items and brands enrolled in the Transparency program).

There is some evidence that all this works. Amazon says that 2019, for products fully on-boarded into the Transparency service, there have been zero reports of counterfeit from brands or customers who purchased these products on Amazon.

But how wide ranging that is, though, compared to the bigger problem, is not quite clear. While it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison — Amazon doesn’t disclose collectively how many brands are sold on its platform, although Amazon itself accounts for 450 brands itself — there are some 2.5 million sellers on its platform globally, and my guess is that 4,000 is just a small fraction of Amazon’s branded universe.

Recent developments have put an increased focus on what role Amazon has been playing to keep in check rampant activity around counterfeiting and other illegal activity.

The NYT published a damning expose in June that highlighted how one medical publisher found rampant counterfeiting of one of its books, a guide for doctors prescribing medications to help them determine dosages of drugs, an alarming situation considering the subject matter. Regulators like the FCC have also taken action to ask Amazon (among others like eBay) to make a better effort to remove the sale of products in specific categories, such as fake pay-TV boxes.

Coupled with other kinds of dodgy activity on the platform like fake reviews, Amazon has been making more moves of late to get a grip and create more channels for brands and sellers to help themselves, from product launches and expansions, to taking legal measures to go after bad actors.

Transparency is part of former category, and it sits alongside one of the company’s other recent, big initiatives called Project Zero, an AI-based continuous monitoring of products and activities launched four months ago to proactively identify counterfeit sellers and items on the platform.

Screenshot 2019 07 10 at 11.47.45Transparency works by way of a unique code — which looks a bit like a “T” — printed on each manufactured unit. When a customer orders the product, Amazon scans the code to verify that the product it’s shipping is legit. Customers can also scan the code after receiving the item to verify authenticity. Other details that are encoded in the T are manufacturing date, manufacturing place, and other product information like ingredients.

This system also throws some light on some of the strange workings of e-commerce, supply chains, and how marketplaces operate.

On Amazon, an item you buy that might be branded — say, a North Face jacket — may not actually be sold by North Face itself, but a reseller. And those resellers may just as likely never even touch the item: they are working off stock that is distributed from another place altogether, or perhaps manufactured and sent in bulk to Amazon or another fulfilment provider that sends the item when the order is made. All of these tradeoffs within the supply chain create an environment where counterfeit goods might creep in.

Amazon’s system, by working directly with brands and not sellers, is trying to provide an over-arching level of monitoring and control into the mix, and it notes in its announcement that its Transparency codes are trackable “regardless of where customers purchased their units.”

Ironically for a service called “Transparency”, Amazon doesn’t seem to list the price for sellers to use this service, but four months ago, when Amazon launched Project Zero, we reported that the serialization service are charged between $0.01 and $0.05 per unit, based on volume. It’s a price that especially smaller brands, which are even less immune to copycats than well-capitalized big brands, are willing to pay:

“Amazon’s proactive approach and investment in tools like Transparency have allowed us to grow consumer confidence in our products and prevent inauthentic product from ending up in the hands of our customers,” said Matt Petersen, Chief Executive Officer at Neato Robotics, a maker of smart robotic vacuum cleaners, in a statement.

“Blocking counterfeits from the source has always been a tough task for us – it’s something all brand owners face through nearly all channels around the world,” said Bill Mei, Chief Executive Officer at Cowin, a manufacturer of noise cancelling audio devices, in his own statement. “After we joined Transparency, our counterfeit problem just disappeared for products protected by the program.”

Week-in-Review: YouTube’s awful comments and Google’s $1B tech-free investment

Hello, weekend readers. This is Week-in-Review where I give a heavy amount of analysis and/or rambling thoughts on one story while scouring the rest of the hundreds of stories that emerged on TechCrunch this week to surface my favorites for your reading pleasure.

Last week, I talked about how the top gaming industry franchises were proving immortal and how that could change. I mainly asked questions and I got some great answers in my email. Keep the feedback coming.

An interesting corollary to that conversation was Niantic releasing its Harry Potter title this week, a game that takes liberal gameplay cues from Pokémon GO but attaches it to new IP. The big question is whether Niantic can strike gold twice; here’s an Extra Crunch interview my colleague Greg did with the startup’s CEO.


This week, the biggest tech topic at hand from the big companies was probably Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency, I’d normally dig into that but my colleague Josh did such a bang-up job breaking down Libra and why it’s important that I don’t feel the need to. You can read his explainer below.

Facebook announces Libra cryptocurrency: All you need to know 

In the midst of scouring this week’s headlines, a pretty low-key story from Friday caught my eye detailing how YouTube was testing a version of its app where the comments were hidden by default. Companies test this stuff all the time and it’s hardly a commitment but it did make me reflect on how the nature of user-submitted comments has shifted and how certain platforms develop community cultures based on the way those comments are sorted.

Web comments have been searching for their final form for a while now. Twitter turned comments into the main 140 character dish, but Twitter’s influence is getting baked into a ton of platforms. Sites like Instagram are starting to gain a greater understanding of how users want responses to complement their content and the opportunities they’ve seized on really showcase the user-submitted opportunities being wasted by platforms like YouTube and Twitch.

YouTube downgrading their comment visibility kind of highlights what a cesspool the company has allowed them to turn into, but rather than being a place where people are vile, the platform just hasn’t grown them into something useful or exciting over the past decade.

As Instagram continues to become a place where more and more famous users interact with each other, the comment fields are becoming the place where users “bond” with the accounts they follow even if they’re still lurking around and reading how the account responds to other high-profile users. 

This is how public channels with big audiences should operate. Sure, it’s partially a result of the culture of the platform, but algorithms can shape these cultures.

The issue is so many other comment systems are seemingly organized to treat anonymous users, real-name users and verified personalities the same. Ascribing an equal weight to all of these types of content is kind of a surprisingly quaint way to handle user-generated content, it’s also a great way for platforms to find engagement ceilings and the limits of what spam can become.

You don’t have to go searching far through TechCrunch’s stories to find some good old-fashioned “how I earned $72/hour working from home” spam, but just because something isn’t spam doesn’t means it’s worthwhile. Platforms have developed their own comment memes based on what can play the algorithms, it’s not particularly useful, “Like if Jimmy Fallon brought you here,” “Like if you’re watching this in 2019.”

Platforms organized around building communities have an incentive to elevate anonymous voices and foster relationships and dialogue. Back in the Gawker days, most of my time on the site was spent digging through the comments looking for commenters I recognized and enjoying their dialogue. That’s what Reddit has become in a lot of ways, a place where the posts are secondary to the reactions, but the forum systems of web 1.0 aren’t made for such general influencer-focused platforms of 2019 and it’s an area where there are a lot of wasted opportunities.

YouTube comments have garnered this reputation for being so laughable bad because the company has let the average of what’s submitted define them, acting as a one-size fits all for platforms that are decidedly more dynamic.

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On to the rest of the week’s news.

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context.

  • Tesla paints it black (for a price)
    Tesla is looking to keep those margins hopping and there next play to make your Tesla a bit more pricey is by making the white paint job on its vehicles, making white the standard color. It may seem like a rough deal, especially when you can a monitor stand for your new Apple Display for the same price. Read more here about why Elon did this.
  • Google drops a B on the Bay
    To those living in the arena of Silicon Valley, it’s no secret that the housing shortage is hurting wallets. How much of that is big tech’s fault and how much of it is the local government’s fault is hard to tell at times, but certainly neither is doing as much as they could. This week Google pledged a whopping $1 billion worth of assistance to the problem. Forking over $750 million worth of real estate and a quarter-billion dollars worth of funding for residential projects is quite the pledge, let’s see how the money gets spent. You can read more here.
  • Slate failures
    Google’s Pixel Slate tablet was such hot garbage that the company is leaving the tablet game for good and focusing on its Pixel laptop line instead. Read more here.

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of awfulness:

  1. Apple recalls some MacBooks:
    [Apple issues voluntary recall of 2015 MacBook Pro batteries due to overheating concern]
  2. Google swats down shareholder vote:
    [Google defeats shareholders on ‘Dragonfly’ censored search in China]
  3. Facebook in hot water over fake review sales: 
    [Facebook and eBay told to tackle trade in fake reviews]
  4. Maps keeping it real fake:
    [Google responds to report that concluded there are millions of fake business listings on Maps]

Image via Getty Images / Feodora Chiosea

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. TechCrunch’s Ron Miller wrote a story asking VCs and CEOs just how much startup founders should be paying themselves.

Startup founders need to decide how much salary is enough

“…Murat Bicer,  general partner at CRV,  says you could probably ask 10 VCs this question, and get 10 different answers, but he sees the range at the low end of perhaps $125,000 and at the high end maybe $200,000, depending on the location of the startup and the cost of living in a particular city…”

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers. This week TechCrunch writers talked a bit about keeping your H-1B status and how you should be negotiating your term sheet with strategic investors.

Want more TechCrunch newsletters? Sign up here.

eBay and Facebook told to tackle trade in fake reviews

Facebook and eBay have been warned by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to do more to tackle the sale of fake reviews on their platforms.

Fake reviews are illegal under UK consumer protection law.

The CMA said today it has found “trouble evidence” of a “thriving marketplace for fake and misleading online reviews”. Though it also writes that it does not believe the platforms themselves are intentionally allowing such content to appear on their sites.

The regulator says it crawled content on eBay and Facebook between November 2018 and June 2019 — finding more than 100 eBay listings offering fake reviews for sale during that time.

Over the same period it also identified 26 Facebook groups where people offered to write fake reviews or where businesses recruited people to write fake and misleading reviews on popular shopping and review sites.

The CMA cites estimates that more than three-quarters of UK Internet users consider online reviews before making a purchase decision — with “billions” of pounds’ worth of people’s spending being influenced by such content. So the incentives driving a market to trade reviews for money is clear.

Commenting in a statement, the CMA’s CEO, Andrea Coscelli, said: “We want Facebook and eBay to conduct an urgent review of their sites to prevent fake and misleading online reviews from being bought and sold.”

“Lots of us rely on reviews when shopping online to decide what to buy. It is important that people are able to trust that reviews are genuine, rather than something someone has been paid to write,” he added. “Fake reviews mean that people might make the wrong choice and end up with a product or service that’s not right for them. They’re also unfair to businesses who do the right thing.”

The regulator says that after it wrote to eBay and Facebook to inform them of its findings they have both “indicated that they will cooperate”.

Facebook also told the CMA that “most” of the 26 groups it identified have now been removed.

The regulator says expects the sites to put measures in place to ensure all the identified content is removed — and stop it from reappearing.

At the time of writing a search of ebay.co.uk for “reviews” returned sellers offering 5 star media reviews, 5 star Google reviews and 5 star Trustpilot reviews as the top three results — one of which was also a sponsored post:

Additional eBay listings included one offering “1/2/3/4/5 Star Freeindex Customer Service Review for business”, priced at £10 and sold by a UK based seller who has been an eBay member since Feb 2011; one 5 star review “on Google” which the seller touts with the line “Boost your business and get new Customers” — at a cost of £2.69; one “100% positive FAST” review for £1; and five 5 Star Reviews on Google priced at £15 — offered by a seller apparently based in Portugal who has been an eBay member since March 2014.

A search of UK Facebook groups returned multiple examples of closed groups where sellers appear to be soliciting reviews, either in exchange for goods and/or payment…

 

Reached for a response to the CMA’s call for measures to be put in place to tackle the illegal trade in fake reviews, Facebook sent us the following statement — attributed to a spokesperson:

Fraudulent activity is not allowed on Facebook, including the trading of fake reviews. We have removed 24 of the 26 groups and pages that the CMA reported to us yesterday and had already removed a number of them prior to the CMA flagging them to us. We know there is more to do which is why we’ve tripled the size of our safety and security team to 30,000 and continue to invest in technology to help proactively prevent abuse of our platform.

An eBay spokesperson also told us:

We have zero tolerance for fake or misleading reviews. We have informed the CMA that all of the sellers they identified have been suspended. The listings have been removed. Listings such as these are strictly against our policy on illegal activity and we will act where our rules are broken. We welcome the report from the CMA and will work closely with them in reviewing its findings.