TechCrunch’s Top 10 investigative reports from 2019

Facebook spying on teens, Twitter accounts hijacked by terrorists, and sexual abuse imagery found on Bing and Giphy were amongst the ugly truths revealed by TechCrunch’s investigating reporting in 2019. The tech industry needs more watchdogs than ever as its size enlargens the impact of safety failures and the abuse of power. Whether through malice, naivety, or greed, there was plenty of wrongdoing to sniff out.

Led by our security expert Zack Whittaker, TechCrunch undertook more long-form investigations this year to tackle these growing issues. Our coverage of fundraises, product launches, and glamorous exits only tell half the story. As perhaps the biggest and longest running news outlet dedicated to startups (and the giants they become), we’re responsible for keeping these companies honest and pushing for a more ethical and transparent approach to technology.

If you have a tip potentially worthy of an investigation, contact TechCrunch at [email protected] or by using our anonymous tip line’s form.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Here are our top 10 investigations from 2019, and their impact:

Facebook pays teens to spy on their data

Josh Constine’s landmark investigation discovered that Facebook was paying teens and adults $20 in gift cards per month to install a VPN that sent Facebook all their sensitive mobile data for market research purposes. The laundry list of problems with Facebook Research included not informing 187,000 users the data would go to Facebook until they signed up for “Project Atlas”, not receiving proper parental consent for over 4300 minors, and threatening legal action if a user spoke publicly about the program. The program also abused Apple’s enterprise certificate program designed only for distribution of employee-only apps within companies to avoid the App Store review process.

The fallout was enormous. Lawmakers wrote angry letters to Facebook. TechCrunch soon discovered a similar market research program from Google called Screenwise Meter that the company promptly shut down. Apple punished both Google and Facebook by shutting down all their employee-only apps for a day, causing office disruptions since Facebookers couldn’t access their shuttle schedule or lunch menu. Facebook tried to claim the program was above board, but finally succumbed to the backlash and shut down Facebook Research and all paid data collection programs for users under 18. Most importantly, the investigation led Facebook to shut down its Onavo app, which offered a VPN but in reality sucked in tons of mobile usage data to figure out which competitors to copy. Onavo helped Facebook realize it should acquire messaging rival WhatsApp for $19 billion, and it’s now at the center of anti-trust investigations into the company. TechCrunch’s reporting weakened Facebook’s exploitative market surveillance, pitted tech’s giants against each other, and raised the bar for transparency and ethics in data collection.

Protecting The WannaCry Kill Switch

Zack Whittaker’s profile of the heroes who helped save the internet from the fast-spreading WannaCry ransomware reveals the precarious nature of cybersecurity. The gripping tale documenting Marcus Hutchins’ benevolent work establishing the WannaCry kill switch may have contributed to a judge’s decision to sentence him to just one year of supervised release instead of 10 years in prison for an unrelated charge of creating malware as a teenager.

The dangers of Elon Musk’s tunnel

TechCrunch contributor Mark Harris’ investigation discovered inadequate emergency exits and more problems with Elon Musk’s plan for his Boring Company to build a Washington D.C.-to-Baltimore tunnel. Consulting fire safety and tunnel engineering experts, Harris build a strong case for why state and local governments should be suspicious of technology disrupters cutting corners in public infrastructure.

Bing image search is full of child abuse

Josh Constine’s investigation exposed how Bing’s image search results both showed child sexual abuse imagery, but also suggested search terms to innocent users that would surface this illegal material. A tip led Constine to commission a report by anti-abuse startup AntiToxin (now L1ght), forcing Microsoft to commit to UK regulators that it would make significant changes to stop this from happening. However, a follow-up investigation by the New York Times citing TechCrunch’s report revealed Bing had made little progress.

Expelled despite exculpatory data

Zack Whittaker’s investigation surfaced contradictory evidence in a case of alleged grade tampering by Tufts student Tiffany Filler who was questionably expelled. The article casts significant doubt on the accusations, and that could help the student get a fair shot at future academic or professional endeavors.

Burned by an educational laptop

Natasha Lomas’ chronicle of troubles at educational computer hardware startup pi-top, including a device malfunction that injured a U.S. student. An internal email revealed the student had suffered a “a very nasty finger burn” from a pi-top 3 laptop designed to be disassembled. Reliability issues swelled and layoffs ensued. The report highlights how startups operating in the physical world, especially around sensitive populations like students, must make safety a top priority.

Giphy fails to block child abuse imagery

Sarah Perez and Zack Whittaker teamed up with child protection startup L1ght to expose Giphy’s negligence in blocking sexual abuse imagery. The report revealed how criminals used the site to share illegal imagery, which was then accidentally indexed by search engines. TechCrunch’s investigation demonstrated that it’s not just public tech giants who need to be more vigilant about their content.

Airbnb’s weakness on anti-discrimination

Megan Rose Dickey explored a botched case of discrimination policy enforcement by Airbnb when a blind and deaf traveler’s reservation was cancelled because they have a guide dog. Airbnb tried to just “educate” the host who was accused of discrimination instead of levying any real punishment until Dickey’s reporting pushed it to suspend them for a month. The investigation reveals the lengths Airbnb goes to in order to protect its money-generating hosts, and how policy problems could mar its IPO.

Expired emails let terrorists tweet propaganda

Zack Whittaker discovered that Islamic State propaganda was being spread through hijacked Twitter accounts. His investigation revealed that if the email address associated with a Twitter account expired, attackers could re-register it to gain access and then receive password resets sent from Twitter. The article revealed the savvy but not necessarily sophisticated ways terrorist groups are exploiting big tech’s security shortcomings, and identified a dangerous loophole for all sites to close.

Porn & gambling apps slip past Apple

Josh Constine found dozens of pornography and real-money gambling apps had broken Apple’s rules but avoided App Store review by abusing its enterprise certificate program — many based in China. The report revealed the weak and easily defrauded requirements to receive an enterprise certificate. Seven months later, Apple revealed a spike in porn and gambling app takedown requests from China. The investigation could push Apple to tighten its enterprise certificate policies, and proved the company has plenty of its own problems to handle despite CEO Tim Cook’s frequent jabs at the policies of other tech giants.

Bonus: HQ Trivia employees fired for trying to remove CEO

This Game Of Thrones-worthy tale was too intriguing to leave out, even if the impact was more of a warning to all startup executives. Josh Constine’s look inside gaming startup HQ Trivia revealed a saga of employee revolt in response to its CEO’s ineptitude and inaction as the company nose-dived. Employees who organized a petition to the board to remove the CEO were fired, leading to further talent departures and stagnation. The investigation served to remind startup executives that they are responsible to their employees, who can exert power through collective action or their exodus.

If you have a tip for Josh Constine, you can reach him via encrypted Signal or text at (585)750-5674, joshc at TechCrunch dot com, or through Twitter DMs

How income share agreements will spark the rise of career accelerators

The income share agreement (ISA), a financing model where students pay for an education program with a certain percent of their income for several years after graduating, has been one of 2019’s new buzzwords among VCs and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. While still a nascent market that faces regulatory uncertainty in the US and abroad, ISAs are a mainstay of learn-to-code bootcamps and are being piloted at dozens of universities. This financing model is receiving attention because it directly aligns education programs with students’ career outcomes — something that could transform parts of higher education.

ISAs will transform the labor market even further though. In the next few years, use of ISAs will likely go beyond formal education programs to create a new category of career accelerators that are more like scaled talent agencies for businesspeople. Across industries and seniority levels, we will see ambitious professionals choose to pay a small percentage of their future income to partner companies that promise to accelerate their career’s rise. 

Those companies will provide ongoing hard and soft skills trainings, job scouting, guidance on picking the career track and geographic location with the most promise, prep for compensation negotiations, personal branding guidance, and other tactical support like key people to meet and which conferences or private gatherings are most important to target.

This movement will start with graduates of ISA-financed education programs but will quickly expand to other professionals. As career accelerators prove effective at enhancing participants’ career prospects, peers of those participants will fear that they are less competitive in the job market without having the advantage of a career accelerator helping them as well.

Outsourcing career guidance

The average annual operating budget for career services departments across US colleges is merely $90,000. For universities, there’s almost no support for job placement upon graduation despite the claims of universities in their marketing materials. And there’s definitely no support provided during the years after graduation.

The promise of ISAs is to incentivize higher education programs to design their curriculum with their students’ future financial success in mind. Most of the ISA initiatives active right now are either used as a replacement for private student loans at accredited universities or as the financing solution for non-accredited vocational programs (a.k.a. “bootcamps”) that don’t qualify for federal student aid. Their focus remains on curriculum though — it’s a wholly different activity to focus on guiding graduates in their careers for years afterward.

Animated, interactive digital books may help kids learn better

Digital books may have a few advantages over ordinary ones when it comes to kids remembering their contents, according to a new study. Animations, especially ones keyed to verbal interactions, can significantly improve recall of story details — but they have to be done right.

The research, from psychologist Erik Thiessen at Carnegie Mellon University, evaluated the recall of 30 kids aged 3-5 after being read either an ordinary story book or one with animations for each page.

When asked afterwards about what they remembered, the kids who had seen the animated book tended to remember 15-20% more. The best results were seen when the book was animated in response to the child saying or asking something about it (though this had to be done manually by the reading adult) rather than just automatically.

“Children learn best when they are more involved in the learning process,” explained Thiessen in a CMU news post. “Many digital interfaces are poorly suited to children’s learning capacities, but if we can make them better, children can learn better.”

This is not to say that all books for kids should be animated. Traditional books are always going to have their own advantages, and once you get past the picture-book stage these digital innovations don’t help much.

The point, rather, is to show that digital books can be useful and aren’t a pointless addition to a kid’s library. But it’s important that the digital features are created and tuned with an eye to improving learning, and research must be done to determine exactly how that is best accomplished.

Thiessen’s study was published in the journal Developmental Psychology.

Indian education startup Byju’s turns profitable

One of India’s biggest tech startups is no longer losing money. Education tech startup Byju’s on Tuesday posted a net profit of $2.8 million on revenue of $188.8 million in the financial year that ended in March this year.

During the same period, Byju’s revenue increased to $208 million, from $73.2 million a year ago. The eight-year-old Bangalore-headquartered startup, which was valued at $5.75 billion in its previous financing round earlier this year, said it is on track to double its revenue to $422 million by March 31, 2020.

Anita Kishore, Chief Strategy Officer at Byju’s, told TechCrunch in an interview on Wednesday clarified that the startup has included taxes and all other expenses in its net profit. “We are profitable now,” she said.

In comparison, Byju’s had reported a net loss of $4 million on revenue of $69 million in the fiscal year that ended in March last year.

The improvement in the the startup’s financial comes as it works on courting students to its subscription service — though its tactic to sign up customers has received some criticism (paywalled).

The startup, which helps all school-going children understand complex subjects through its app where tutors use real-life objects such as pizza and cake, has amassed 2.8 million paying subscribers, up from 2.4 million in July, it said. Overall, it has 40 million registered users.

Byju’s, which also prepares students pursuing undergraduate and graduate-level courses, said its education app is gaining significant traction in smaller cities and towns in India. Its subscribers from outside metro cities already account for 60% of its paying customers base, it said.

Mrinal Mohit, Chief Operating Officer of Byju’s, said the startup will soon explore more new products, including Byju’s Online Tutoring to “further accelerate growth and profitability in the coming year.”

To court users outside of large cities, Byju’s has tweaked the English accents in its app and adapted to different education systems. Mohit said the startup plans to launch programs in vernacular languages.

“We have always focused on sustainable growth and our efforts will continue to be on creating learning experiences that will help students become better learners. […] We strongly believe that we have the capability to create a global product that can revolutionize learning for students across the world,” he said.

The startup has previously said it plans to enter the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand markets. Earlier this year, it acquired Osmo, a U.S.-based learning startup that is popular among kids aged between five and 12, for $120 million. Osmo this year unveiled a new product to serve the pre-schoolers’ market.

Byju’s, which raised $925 million to date, is now part of a very small club of profitable startups in the nation.

HackerRank acquires Mimir, an online platform for computer science courses

HackerRank, a popular platform for practicing and hosting online coding interviews, today announced that it has acquired Mimir, a cloud-based service that provides tools for teaching computer science courses. Mimir, which is HackerRank’s first acquisition, is currently in use by a number of universities, including UCLA, Purdue, Oregon State and Michigan State, as well as by corporation like Google.

HackerRank says it will continue to support Mimir’s classroom product as a stand-alone product for the time being. By Q2 2020, the two companies expect to have an initial release of a combined product offering.

HackerRank will work closely with professors, students and customers to help student developers learn, improve and assess their skills from course work to career,” Vivek Ravisankar, the co-founder and CEO of HackerRank, told me. “Ultimately, we envision a combined product that allows students to obtain both a formal academic education as well as practical skills assessments which can help build a strong and successful career.”

The two companies did not disclose the financial details of the acquisition, but Indiana-based Mimir previously raised a total of $2.5 million and had eight employees at the time of the acquisition, including the three-person executive team.

As the companies stress, both focus on allowing developers for a variety of backgrounds to successfully vie for jobs, no matter where they went to school. HackerRank argues that the combination of its existing services and Mimir’s classroom tools will “provide computer science classrooms with the most comprehensive developer assessment platform on the market; allowing students to better prepare for real-world programming and universities to more accurately evaluate student progress.” The idea here clearly is to expand HackerRank’s reach into the world of academia and expand the talent pool for its customers who are looking to recruit from its users, but Ravisankar also noted that he hopes the combines strengths of HackerRank and Mimir will allow students to combine their academic learning with market learning. “This will ensure that they’re equipped with the skills that their future workplaces require,” he said.

Mimir isn’t so much a tool for massive online courses but instead focuses on helping teachers and students manage programming projects and assignments. To do so, it offers a full online IDE, as well as support for Jupyter notebooks, as well as more traditional teaching tools for creating quizzes and assignments. The built-in IDE supports 40 programming languages, including Python, Java and C. There’s also a tool for detecting plagiarism.

Currently, about 15,000 to 20,000 students are using Mimir’s platform for their course work. That’s dwarfed by the 7 million developers who have signed up for HackerRank so far, but not all of those are active, while, almost by default, all of Mimir’s users will be on the job market sooner or later.

“Mimir has made a name for itself by becoming a secret weapon for computer science programs – Mimir equips them with the tools to make a real difference in the education of developers,” said Prahasith Veluvolu, co-founder and CEO of Mimir. “Working with HackerRank is a natural evolution of our mission, allowing our customers to scale their programs while simultaneously giving students an unmatched classroom experience to prepare them for the careers of tomorrow.”

Kid-focused STEM device startup Kano sees layoffs as it puts Disney e-device on ice

London-based STEM device maker Kano has confirmed it’s cutting a number of jobs which it claims is part of a restructuring effort to shift focus to “educational computing”.

The job cuts — from 65 to 50 staff — were reported earlier by The Telegraph. Kano founder Alex Stein confirmed in a call with TechCrunch that Kano will have 50 staff going into next year. Although he said the kid-focused learn to code device business is also adding jobs in engineering and design, as well as eliminating other roles as it shifts focus.

He also suggested some of the cuts are seasonal and cyclical — related to getting through the holiday season.

Per Stein, jobs are being taking out as the company moves from building atop the Raspberry Pi platform — where it started, back in 2013, with its crowdfunded DIY computer — to a Windows-based learning platform.

Other factors he pointed to in relation to the layoffs include a new manufacturing setup in China, with a “simpler, larger contract manufacturer”; fewer physical retail outlets to support, with Kano leaning more on Amazon (which he said is “cheaper to support”); fewer dependencies on large partners and agencies, with Stein claiming 18% of US parents with kids aged 6-12 are now familiar with the brand, reducing its marketing overhead; and a desire to shrink the number of corporate managers vs makers on its books as “we’ve seen a stronger response to our first-party Kano products — Computer Kit, Pixel Kit, Motion Sensor Kit — than expected this year”.

“We have brought on some roles that are more focused on this new platform [Kano PC], and some roles that were focused on the Raspberry Pi are no longer with us,” he also told TechCrunch.

Kano unveiled its first Windows-based PC this fall. The 11.6-inch touch-enabled, Intel Atom-powered computer costs $300 — which puts it in the ballpark price-range of Google’s Chromebook.

The tech giant has maintained a steady focus on the educational computing market — putting a competitive squeeze on smaller players like Kano who are trying to carve out a business selling their own brand of STEM-focused hardware. Against the Google Goliath, Stein touts factors such as relative repairability and attention to computing performance for the Kano PC (which he claims is “on a par with the Surface Go”), in addition to having now thrown its lot in with rival giant, Microsoft.

“The more and more we got into school environments the more and more we were in conversations with major North American distributors to schools, the more we saw that people wanted that ‘DIY’… product design, they wanted the hackability and extensibility of the kit, they wanted the tools to be open source and manipulable but they also wanted to be able to run Photoshop and to run Class Dashboard and to run Microsoft Office. And so that was when we struck the partnership with Microsoft,” said Stein.

“The Windows computing is packed with content and curriculum for teachers and an integration with Microsoft Teams which requires a different sort of development capability,” he added.

“The roles we’re adding are around subscription, they’re around the computer, building new applications and tools for the computer and continuing to enrich the number of projects that are available for our members now — so we’re doing things like allowing people to connect the sensors in their wands to household IoT device. We’re introducing, over the Christmas period, a new collaborative drawing app.”

According to Stein, Kano is “already seeing demand for 60,000 units in this next calendar year” for its Windows-based PC — which he said is “well beyond what we expect… given the price-point.

Although he did not put a figure on exact sales to date of the Kano PC.

He also confirmed Kano will be dialling back the range of products it offers next year.

It recently emerged that an own-brand camera device, which Kano first trailed back in 2016, will not now be shipping. Stein also told us that another co-branded Disney product they’d been planning for 2020 is being “put back” — with no new date for release as yet.

Stein denied sales have been lacklustre — claiming the current Star Wars and Frozen e-products have “done enough for us”. (While a co-branded Harry Potter e-wand is selling faster than expected, per Stein, who said they had expected to have stock until March but are “selling out”.)

“The reorganization we’ve done has nothing to do with growth and users,” he told us. “We are on track to sell through more units as well as products at a higher average selling price this fiscal year. We’re selling out of Wands when we expected to have stock all the way to March. We have more pre-launch demand for the Kano PC than anything we’ve ever done.”

Of the additional co-branded Disney e-product which is being delayed — and may not now launch at all next year, Stein told us: “The fact is we’re in negotiations with Disney around this — and around the timing of it. Given that we’re not certain we’re going to be doing it in 2020 some of the contractor roles in particular that we brought on to do the licensing sign off pieces, to develop some of the content around those brands, some of the apparatus set up to manage those partnerships — we don’t need any more.”

“We introduced three new hardware SKUs this year. I don’t think we’ll do three new hardware SKUs next year,” he added, confirming the intention is to trim the number of device launches in 2020 to focus on the Kano PC.

One source we spoke to suggested Kano is considering sunsetting its partner strategy entirely. However Stein did not go that far in his comments to us.

“We’ve been riding a certain bear for a few years. We’re jumping to a new bear. That’s always going to create a bit of exhilaration. But I think this is a place of real promise,” was how he couched the pivot.

“I think what Kano does better than anyone else in the world is crafting an experience around technology that opens up its attributes to a wider audience,” Stein also said when asked whether hardware or software will be its main focus going forward. “The hardware element is crucial and beautiful and we make some of the world’s most interesting dynamic physical products. It’s an often told story that hardware’s very hard and is brutal — and yeah, because you get it right you change the fabric of society.

“It’s hard for me to draw a line between hardware and software for the business because we’ve always been asked that and seven years into the business we’ve found the greatest things that people do with the products… it’s always when there’s a combination of the two. So we’re proud that we’re good at combining the two and we’re going to continue to do it.”

The STEM device space has been going through bumpy times in recent years as early hype and investment has failed to translate into sustained revenues at every twist and turn.

The category is certainly filled with challenges — from low barrier to entry leading to plentiful (if varied quality) competition, to the demands of building safe, robust and appealing products for (fickle) kids that tightly and reliably integrate hardware and software, to checking all the relevant boxes and processes to win over teachers and support schools’ curriculum requirements that’s essential for selling direct to the education market.

Given so many demands on STEM device makers it’s not surprising this year has seen a number of these startups exiting to other players and/or larger electronics makers — such as Sphero picking up littleBits.

A couple of years ago Sphero went through its own pivot out of selling co-branded Disney ‘learn to code’ gizmos to zoom in on the education space.

While another UK-based STEM device maker — pi-top — has also been through several rounds of layoffs recently, apparently as part of its own pivot to the US edtech market.

More consolidation in the category seems highly likely. And given the new relationship between Kano and Microsoft joining Redmond via acquisition may be the obvious end point for the startup.

Per the Telegraph’s report, Kano is in the process of looking to raise more funding. However Stein did not comment when asked to confirm the company’s funding situation.

The startup last reported a raise just over two years ago — when it closed a $28M Series B round led by Thames Trust and Breyer Capital. Index Ventures, the Stanford Engineering Venture Fund, LocalGlobe, Marc Benioff, John Makinson, Collaborative Fund, Triple Point Capital, and Barclays also participated.

TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden contributed to this report 

Instagram still doesn’t age-check kids. That must change.

Instagram dodges child safety laws. By not asking users their age upon signup, it can feign ignorance about how old they are. That way, it can’t be held liable for $40,000 per violation of the Child Online Privacy Protection Act. The law bans online services from collecting personally identifiable information about kids under 13 without parental consent. Yet Instagram is surely stockpiling that sensitive info about underage users, shrouded by the excuse that it doesn’t know who’s who.

But here, ignorance isn’t bliss. It’s dangerous. User growth at all costs is no longer acceptable.

It’s time for Instagram to step up and assume responsibility for protecting children, even if that means excluding them. Instagram needs to ask users’ age at sign up, work to verify they volunteer their accurate birthdate by all practical means, and enforce COPPA by removing users it knows are under 13. If it wants to allow tweens on its app, it needs to build a safe, dedicated experience where the app doesn’t suck in COPPA-restricted personal info.

Minimum Viable Responsibility

Instagram is woefully behind its peers. Both Snapchat and TikTok require you to enter your age as soon as you start the sign up process. This should really be the minimum regulatory standard, and lawmakers should close the loophole allowing services to skirt compliance by not asking. If users register for an account, they should be required to enter an age of 13 or older.

Instagram’s parent company Facebook has been asking for birthdate during account registration since its earliest days. Sure, it adds one extra step to sign up, and impedes its growth numbers by discouraging kids to get hooked early on the social network. But it also benefits Facebook’s business by letting it accurately age-target ads.

Most importantly, at least Facebook is making a baseline effort to keep out underage users. Of course, as kids do when they want something, some are going to lie about their age and say they’re old enough. Ideally, Facebook would go further and try to verify the accuracy of a user’s age using other available data, and Instagram should too.

Both Facebook and Instagram currently have moderators lock the accounts of any users they stumble across that they suspect are under 13. Users must upload government-issued proof of age to regain control. That policy only went into effect last year after UK’s Channel 4 reported a Facebook moderator was told to ignore seemingly underage users unless they explicitly declared they were too young or were reported for being under 13. An extreme approach would be to require this for all signups, though that might be expensive, slow, significantly hurt signup rates, and annoy of-age users.

Instagram is currently on the other end of the spectrum. Doing nothing around age-gating seems recklessly negligent. When asked for comment about how why it doesn’t ask users’ ages, how it stops underage users from joining, and if it’s in violation of COPPA, Instagram declined to comment. The fact that Instagram claims to not know users’ ages seems to be in direct contradiction to it offering marketers custom ad targeting by age such as reaching just those that are 13.

Instagram Prototypes Age Checks

Luckily, this could all change soon.

Mobile researcher and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong has spotted Instagram code inside its Android app that shows it’s prototyping an age-gating feature that rejects users under 13. It’s also tinkering with requiring your Instagram and Facebook birthdates to match. Instagram gave me a “no comment” when I asked about if these features would officially roll out to everyone.

Code in the app explains that “Providing your birthday helps us make sure you get the right Instagram experience. Only you will be able to see your birthday.” Beyond just deciding who to let in, Instagram could use this info to make sure users under 18 aren’t messaging with adult strangers, that users under 21 aren’t seeing ads for alcohol brands, and that potentially explicit content isn’t shown to minors.

Instagram’s inability to do any of this clashes with it and Facebook’s big talk this year about its commitment to safety. Instagram has worked to improve its approach to bullying, drug sales, self-harm, and election interference, yet there’s been not a word about age gating.

Meanwhile, underage users promote themselves on pages for hashtags like #12YearOld where it’s easy to find users who declare they’re that age right in their profile bio. It took me about 5 minutes to find creepy “You’re cute” comments from older men on seemingly underage girls’ photos. Clearly Instagram hasn’t been trying very hard to stop them from playing with the app.

Illegal Growth

I brought up the same unsettling situations on Musically, now known as TikTok, to its CEO Alex Zhu on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2016. I grilled Zhu about letting 10-year-olds flaunt their bodies on his app. He tried to claim parents run all of these kids’ accounts, and got frustrated as we dug deeper into Musically’s failures here.

Thankfully, TikTok was eventually fined $5.7 million this year for violating COPPA and forced to change its ways. As part of its response, TikTok started showing an age gate to both new and existing users, removed all videos of users under 13, and restricted those users to a special TikTok Kids experience where they can’t post videos, comment, or provide any COPPA-restricted personal info.

If even a Chinese app social media app that Facebook CEO has warned threatens free speech with censorship is doing a better job protecting kids than Instagram, something’s gotta give. Instagram could follow suit, building a special section of its apps just for kids where they’re quarantined from conversing with older users that might prey on them.

Perhaps Facebook and Instagram’s hands-off approach stems from the fact that CEO Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t think the ban on under-13-year-olds should exist. Back in 2011, he said “That will be a fight we take on at some point . . . My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age.” He’s put that into practice with Messenger Kids which lets 6 to 12-year-olds chat with their friends if parents approve.

The Facebook family of apps’ ad-driven business model and earnings depend on constant user growth that could be inhibited by stringent age gating. It surely doesn’t want to admit to parents it’s let kids slide into Instagram, that advertisers were paying to reach children too young to buy anything, and to Wall Street that it might not have 2.8 billion legal users across its apps as it claims.

But given Facebook and Instagram’s privacy scandals, addictive qualities, and impact on democracy, it seems like proper age-gating should be a priority as well as the subject of more regulatory scrutiny and public concern. Society has woken up to the harms of social media, yet Instagram erects no guards to keep kids from experiencing those ills for themselves. Until it makes an honest effort to stop kids from joining, the rest of Instagram’s safety initiatives ring hollow.

Instagram still doesn’t age-check kids. That must change.

Instagram dodges child safety laws. By not asking users their age upon signup, it can feign ignorance about how old they are. That way, it can’t be held liable for $40,000 per violation of the Child Online Privacy Protection Act. The law bans online services from collecting personally identifiable information about kids under 13 without parental consent. Yet Instagram is surely stockpiling that sensitive info about underage users, shrouded by the excuse that it doesn’t know who’s who.

But here, ignorance isn’t bliss. It’s dangerous. User growth at all costs is no longer acceptable.

It’s time for Instagram to step up and assume responsibility for protecting children, even if that means excluding them. Instagram needs to ask users’ age at sign up, work to verify they volunteer their accurate birthdate by all practical means, and enforce COPPA by removing users it knows are under 13. If it wants to allow tweens on its app, it needs to build a safe, dedicated experience where the app doesn’t suck in COPPA-restricted personal info.

Minimum Viable Responsibility

Instagram is woefully behind its peers. Both Snapchat and TikTok require you to enter your age as soon as you start the sign up process. This should really be the minimum regulatory standard, and lawmakers should close the loophole allowing services to skirt compliance by not asking. If users register for an account, they should be required to enter an age of 13 or older.

Instagram’s parent company Facebook has been asking for birthdate during account registration since its earliest days. Sure, it adds one extra step to sign up, and impedes its growth numbers by discouraging kids to get hooked early on the social network. But it also benefits Facebook’s business by letting it accurately age-target ads.

Most importantly, at least Facebook is making a baseline effort to keep out underage users. Of course, as kids do when they want something, some are going to lie about their age and say they’re old enough. Ideally, Facebook would go further and try to verify the accuracy of a user’s age using other available data, and Instagram should too.

Both Facebook and Instagram currently have moderators lock the accounts of any users they stumble across that they suspect are under 13. Users must upload government-issued proof of age to regain control. That policy only went into effect last year after UK’s Channel 4 reported a Facebook moderator was told to ignore seemingly underage users unless they explicitly declared they were too young or were reported for being under 13. An extreme approach would be to require this for all signups, though that might be expensive, slow, significantly hurt signup rates, and annoy of-age users.

Instagram is currently on the other end of the spectrum. Doing nothing around age-gating seems recklessly negligent. When asked for comment about how why it doesn’t ask users’ ages, how it stops underage users from joining, and if it’s in violation of COPPA, Instagram declined to comment. The fact that Instagram claims to not know users’ ages seems to be in direct contradiction to it offering marketers custom ad targeting by age such as reaching just those that are 13.

Instagram Prototypes Age Checks

Luckily, this could all change soon.

Mobile researcher and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong has spotted Instagram code inside its Android app that shows it’s prototyping an age-gating feature that rejects users under 13. It’s also tinkering with requiring your Instagram and Facebook birthdates to match. Instagram gave me a “no comment” when I asked about if these features would officially roll out to everyone.

Code in the app explains that “Providing your birthday helps us make sure you get the right Instagram experience. Only you will be able to see your birthday.” Beyond just deciding who to let in, Instagram could use this info to make sure users under 18 aren’t messaging with adult strangers, that users under 21 aren’t seeing ads for alcohol brands, and that potentially explicit content isn’t shown to minors.

Instagram’s inability to do any of this clashes with it and Facebook’s big talk this year about its commitment to safety. Instagram has worked to improve its approach to bullying, drug sales, self-harm, and election interference, yet there’s been not a word about age gating.

Meanwhile, underage users promote themselves on pages for hashtags like #12YearOld where it’s easy to find users who declare they’re that age right in their profile bio. It took me about 5 minutes to find creepy “You’re cute” comments from older men on seemingly underage girls’ photos. Clearly Instagram hasn’t been trying very hard to stop them from playing with the app.

Illegal Growth

I brought up the same unsettling situations on Musically, now known as TikTok, to its CEO Alex Zhu on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2016. I grilled Zhu about letting 10-year-olds flaunt their bodies on his app. He tried to claim parents run all of these kids’ accounts, and got frustrated as we dug deeper into Musically’s failures here.

Thankfully, TikTok was eventually fined $5.7 million this year for violating COPPA and forced to change its ways. As part of its response, TikTok started showing an age gate to both new and existing users, removed all videos of users under 13, and restricted those users to a special TikTok Kids experience where they can’t post videos, comment, or provide any COPPA-restricted personal info.

If even a Chinese app social media app that Facebook CEO has warned threatens free speech with censorship is doing a better job protecting kids than Instagram, something’s gotta give. Instagram could follow suit, building a special section of its apps just for kids where they’re quarantined from conversing with older users that might prey on them.

Perhaps Facebook and Instagram’s hands-off approach stems from the fact that CEO Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t think the ban on under-13-year-olds should exist. Back in 2011, he said “That will be a fight we take on at some point . . . My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age.” He’s put that into practice with Messenger Kids which lets 6 to 12-year-olds chat with their friends if parents approve.

The Facebook family of apps’ ad-driven business model and earnings depend on constant user growth that could be inhibited by stringent age gating. It surely doesn’t want to admit to parents it’s let kids slide into Instagram, that advertisers were paying to reach children too young to buy anything, and to Wall Street that it might not have 2.8 billion legal users across its apps as it claims.

But given Facebook and Instagram’s privacy scandals, addictive qualities, and impact on democracy, it seems like proper age-gating should be a priority as well as the subject of more regulatory scrutiny and public concern. Society has woken up to the harms of social media, yet Instagram erects no guards to keep kids from experiencing those ills for themselves. Until it makes an honest effort to stop kids from joining, the rest of Instagram’s safety initiatives ring hollow.

Placement is the much-needed talent agent for jobseekers

“We’re giving away money to strangers on the internet” is a pretty cavalier pitch for a new startup. But the more I learned about Placement, the smarter it sounded. In exchange for 10% of your income for 18 to 36 months, Placement will find you a much higher paying job, prep you for the interview and help you move to your new city of employment.

Actors, athletes and musicians have talent agents. Why shouldn’t office workers? That’s co-founder and CEO Sean Linehan’s vision for Placement. The former VP of product at Flexport thinks he can consistently get people a 30% raise on their cost of living-adjusted income if they’re willing to relocate from either their sleepy hometown or an overpriced metropolis.

“We think you can transform your life without becoming an engineer. You just have to be in the right place,” says Linehan. Not everyone is going to learn to code, and Placement isn’t a school. “We’re not in the business of training people to do jobs. We’re in training people to get jobs.”

Placement sits at the lucrative center of a slew of megatrends. People switching jobs more often. The desperate need to pay off crushing student loan debt. The rise of mid-size cities as rent gets out of control in San Francisco and New York. Social apps keeping people in touch from afar. The search for deeper fulfillment going mainstream.

Placement co-founder and CEO Sean Linehan

Through the normalization of income sharing agreements, Placement has found a way to powerfully monetize these societal shifts. That potential has attracted a $3 million seed round led by Founders Fund and backed by Coatue’s new seed fund, XYZ Ventures, The House Fund, plus angels like Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen, Eventbrite founders Julia and Kevin Hartz, DoorDash CEO Tony Xu, 137 Ventures MD Elizabeth Weil and her husband Facebook Calibra VP of Product Kevin.

With the cash to build out its jobseeker’s software toolkit, Placement could grow far beyond the Jerry Maguire-style boutique talent agency into a scalable way to put millions on a better career track. “The number one problem that I see in the American economy right now is the lack of income mobility,” Linehan says. “There are so many services for making rich people get richer, but what about services to help low-income people to get to the middle, or help those in the middle to improve?”

“If I stayed home, there’s just no way”

The CEO’s own rise was “a tried and true American tale,” he tells me. “I grew up in a pretty low-income neighborhood in San Bernardino . . . below the poverty line.” But a chance to attend UC Berkeley brought him to Silicon Valley, and the economic powerhouse city of San Francisco (before the housing crisis made it so expensive). “I don’t think I could have been as successful if I went to another place. If I had stayed in my home town, there’s just no way.”

Yet after college, when friends moved away and he broke up with his girlfriend, Linehan found himself living in a bunkbed by himself with extra space. “I called a friend back home working a minimum wage job, still living at home, and said ‘Your life kinda sucks. Come crash with me!,’ ” Linehan recalls. “He was super smart — smarter than most of the people I went to Berkeley with, but he never got on the train out of town.”

In the following years, Linehan coached his friend through becoming a professional and navigating interviews. “Now he’s tripled his income on a cost of living adjusted basis. He went from minimum wage to $70,000 to $80,000.” That ignited the idea for Placement. “How do you take that process of tapping people who are special and just need economic opportunity, and bring it to more people?” But Linehan needed a co-founder who could execute on getting these up-and-comers jobs.

That’s where Katie Kent came in. Also from the product team at Flexport, Kent had helped start Zipfian Academy as the first data science bootcamp in America. The 12-week crash course had been placing 93% of graduates into full-time roles when Zipfian was acquired by Galvanize, where Kent became director of outcomes with the mandate to get students great jobs. The right idea, experience and the track record of turning Flexport into a $3.2 billion freight forwarding unicorn led investors to jump at the chance to fund Placement.

Share me the money

So how exactly do Placement’s income sharing agreements work? “They only pay us if they make more money on a cost of living adjusted basis” Linehan explains.

First, the startup recruits through targeted advertising and word of mouth referrals, which the company says 100% of clients have provided. Primarily, it’s seeking business professionals with a skill mismatched to their city, such as sales, human resources or operations in a place without companies competing to hire for those roles. They might have never left their hometown or returned after school at a mid-tier college, suppressing their earning potential. But lack of knowledge about jobseeking, fears of leaving their support network or a lack of funds to finance a move keep them stuck there.

“There are two moments when society puts a gentle hand on your shoulder saying its okay to move away: when you go to college and when you graduate college,” says Linehan. “We’re trying to engineer a third moment. We give people the permission and space to have that conversation with their family by providing that forcing function.” Placement serves the same utility the CEO did for his friend, revealing that if they seize the opportunity of moving to a growing but still affordable city like Denver, Austin, Raleigh or Seattle, “people’s lives would be so much better.”

The other demographic Placement seeks is the 10 million-plus workers who’ve gotten in over their heads in some of the country’s priciest cities. “If you’re ambitious and talented but not an engineer in SF, this is a hard life. The costs are exceeding the benefits at this point.” Placement looks for cheaper cities where their skills are still relevant and they might even earn the same or a little less, but they can fetch a huge increase in income on a cost of living-adjusted basis and they have a path to buying a house. Linehan declares that “Our controversial opinion is that more important than reskilling people is getting them to the right place where the work is happening in the first place.”

Placement then evaluates the prospective client in what is currently an extremely selective process to determine if they’re undervalued based on their skills, qualifications, shortfalls and redflags. If they’re already being adequately or overpaid, it won’t accept them. Those eligible are offered access to Placement’s research on all the optimal salary and location/hirer pairs for their role, which most people wouldn’t or couldn’t do themselves. Linehan says, “We run their job search for them. We’re kind of like a concierge.”

Once they’ve selected some targets, Placement quarterbacks their preparation process, helping them to improve their LinkedIn and resume, practice telling their story and offering mock interviews with experts in their field. As they progress through interviews Placement sets up and requires hirers offer remotely, it teaches clients to negotiate to get their best possible compensation.

“If you’re a normal person who didn’t go to an elite institution or are a couple years out of school, there’s no resources,” Linehan laments. While some top coding schools and other bootcamps place graduates, and some startups like Pathrise are also working on interview prep, most seeking a new employer end up relying on mediocre job hunting tips they find online. That’s in part because it was hard to get people to fork over significant cash in exchange for instruction that wasn’t guaranteed to help.

How Placement income sharing agreements work

The Placement income sharing agreement is designed to align incentives, though. It’s vested in getting clients not only the best job and salary, but one they’ll want to stick with. As long as the startup nets them a higher adjusted income, clients pay 10% of their earnings. That lasts for 18 months, or 36 months if they receive Placement’s $5,000 relocation stipend and human support. There are also caps on the total Placement can get paid back, and the agreement dissolves after five years so clients aren’t locked in if things don’t work out.

For example, Placement aims to help someone earning $40,000 per year pre-taxes reach $52,000 on a cost of living adjusted basis. They’d end up paying Placement $7,794 over the course of 18 months, or $433 per month. After the bill, they’d still be earning $3,900 per month, or $567 more than they used to. If they take the $5,000 relocation stipend and extra assistance, their ISA extends to 36 months and they’ll end up paying back $15,588 total, including the stipend.

Clients are likely to keep growing their compensation after their Placement ISA ends, so they’ll start reaping all the added proceeds. The startup has worked with fewer than 1,000 clients to date, but is supposedly growing quickly.

Eventually, Placement could move into working with programmers and designers, but it sees a big gap in assistance for business roles. Linehan notes that “We’re providing an option that will be available to a lot more people than a Lambda School or Galvanize coding bootcamp. Not everyone’s going to be software engineers.”

Making America anti-fragile

The biggest hurdle for Placement will be scaling what can be quite a hands-on, relationship-driven process of matching clients with the right hirers. “It’s one thing to get one person a job. It’s another to get 10,000 people a job,” Linehan admits. But he conquered the same problem at Flexport, which was moving 1,000 shipping containers across the ocean but had to figure out “how the hell do you move 1 million?”

Placement co-founders (from left): Katie Kent and Sean Linehan

That requires Placement to pour product know-how into building tools that equip clients to take more initiative to match themselves with hirers and teach themselves interview skills. It also must automate more of its marketing outreach, client screening and connections to recruiters while retaining a human element worth a four to five-figure price.

Right now, the startup’s team numbers just four, and though it will expand to seven soon, it may need to raise a bunch more to chase this dream. Some investors have been understandably skeptical about the whole “handing out $5,000” model without onerous ISAs.

For comparison, the one-year MissionU school for business and data jobs that was acquired and shut down by WeWork asked for 15% of income for three years without a relocation stipend, or $23,400 on a $52,000 per year job. ISAs for General Assembly’s tech job education cost 10% for 48 months, even if students don’t earn more than in their old job. Pathrise’s slimmer offering costs just 7% for one year. Colleges are jumping on the trend too, with some working with startup Leif to run their ISAs.

Placement has plans to cover prickly edge cases. If someone gets laid off from their new job, the startup will help them find another. “We’re on the hook to make sure they’re successful,” Linehan insists. It only won’t step in if an employee is fired for an ethical problem like sexual harassment or committing fraud. And if someone simply gets lonely in their unfamiliar city, they’re not required to stay, though moving home could hurt their earnings and Placement’s take. That’s why the startup is working to help its clients find community, even amongst each other, so they don’t feel isolated, and prefers sending workers to cities where they know someone.

Meanwhile, Placement must resist the temptation to become a hiring agency paid by employers and instead work fully on behalf of its clients. “When you’re aligned economically with the employer, you’re just chasing dollars from bigger and bigger whales of companies, and at one point you figure out you’re a recruiting firm for the Gap,” Linehan says with a shudder. The complexity of dealing with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service is enough hassle, so Placement doesn’t intend to work with jobseekers abroad or those that need visas, as “it’s not good for startups if you’re at the mercy of the government.”

Luckily, U.S. salaries total $8.6 trillion per year, Linehan claims, so it’s got enough of a domestic market. “The American economy is so huge that I don’t see other people tackling problems like that being competitive.” Placement does have potential to use its data to recommend and teach specific skills. “If you just make this change, if you learn Excel, you could totally get this job in a different industry that pays more and that you’ll like more,” Linehan says. He also dreams of one day improving urban planning by suggesting cities build music venues or parks that jobseekers say would soften the landing of moving there.

Zooming out, there’s also chance for Placement make the country more stable and resistant to strong-man populism promising financial security. “A two-tier society is fragile. I don’t want to live in a democracy where there’s a bunch of hay waiting for a matchstick to set it on fire,” Linehan concludes. “There doesn’t have to be a have and a have-not class, and you don’t need the government to do forced redistribituion to make everything fair. You just need people that care about getting on the right track, and that to me is a worthy cause to dedicate a life to.”

Apple expands and updates its ‘Everyone Can Code’ program

Apple announced today an expansion of its program designed to get more students coding. The company says it has redesigned the “Everyone Can Code” curriculum with a focus on introducing more elementary and middle school students to coding, while also adding more resources for teachers, a new student guide, and refreshed Swift Coding Club materials. It’s also adding thousands of free coding sessions at Apple Stores in December, to celebrate Computer Science Education Week.

The updated curriculum is meant to make coding more approachable, Apple explains, by offering activities that are more closely connected to the students’ everyday lives. It also includes a new guide to Swift Playgrounds called Everyone Can Code Puzzles, where students can experiment with concepts and apply their understanding across over 40 hours of activities.

The guide comes with a teacher companion, which includes the solutions, assessment strategies, accessibility resources, and more.

The curriculum is also now optimized for VoiceOver, includes closed-captioned videos, and videos in American Sign Language.

In another expansion, Apple has integrated its Everyone Can Create project guides into the new curriculum. Launched last year on Apple Books, Everyone Can Create has served to get teachers to integrate things like drawing, music, filmmaking and photography into their classroom, by way of Apple technology.

Related this news, Apple says it’s increasing the number of Today at Apple coding sessions from December 1 through 15, 2019 in order to celebrate Computer Science Education Week.

The free, interactive sessions are meant to inspire young coders with block-based coding using robots, while more advanced coders use Swift Playgrounds to learn coding concepts or to code an AR project.

Some stores will also offer preschool-aged coding sessions in the new Coding Lab with Helpsters, the little monsters who star in the new Apple TV+ show, from the makers of Sesame Street. Other sessions will involve Apple Distinguished Educators, Apple Entrepreneur Camp innovators, developers, and artists. A Develop in Swift curriculum will continue to be available for high school and college students, Apple noted.

And for the seventh consecutive year, Apple will support the Hour of Code with a new Hour of Code Facilitator Guide that will help teachers and parents host sessions using Swift Playgrounds.