Medal.tv’s clipping service allows gamers to share the moments of their digital lives

As online gaming becomes the new social forum for living out virtual lives, a new startup called Medal.tv has raised $3.5 million for its in-game clipping service to capture and share the Kodak moments and digital memories that are increasingly happening in places like Fortnite or Apex Legends.

Digital worlds like Fortnite are now far more than just a massively multiplayer gaming space. They’re places where communities form, where social conversations happen, and where, increasingly, people are spending the bulk of their time online. They even host concerts — like the one from EDM artist, Marshmello, which drew (according to the DJ himself) roughly 10 million players onto the platform.

While several services exist to provide clips of live streams from gamers who broadcast on platforms like Twitch, Medal.tv bills itself as the first to offer clipping services for the private games that more casual gamers play among friends and far flung strangers around the world.

“Essentially the next generation is spending the same time inside games that we used to playing sports outside and things like that,” says Medal.tv’s co-founder and chief executive, Pim DeWitte. “It’s not possible to tell how far it will go. People will capture as many if not more moments for the reason that it’s simpler.”

The company marks a return to the world of gaming for DeWitte, a serial entrepreneur who first started coding when he was 13 years old.

Hailing from a small town in the Netherlands called Nijmegen, DeWitte first reaped the rewards of startup success with a gaming company called SoulSplit. Built on the back of his popular YouTube channel the SoulSplit game was launched with DeWitte’s childhood friend, Iggy Harmsen, and a fellow online gamer, Josh Lipson who came on board as SoulSplit’s chief technology officer.

At its height, Soulsplit was bringing in $1 million in revenue and employed roughly 30 people, according to interviews with DeWitte.

The company shut down in 2015 and the co-founders split up to pursue other projects. For DeWitte that meant a stint working with Doctors Without Borders on an app called MapSwipe that would use satellite imagery to better locate people in the event of a humanitarian crisis. He also helped the non-profit develop a tablet that could be used by doctors deployed to treat Ebola outbreaks.

Then in 2017, as social gaming was becoming more popular on games like Fortnite, DeWitte and his co-founders returned to the industry to launch Medal .tv.

It initially started as a marketing tool to get people interested in playing the games that DeWitte and his co-founders were hoping to develop. But as the clipping service took off, DeWitte and co. realized that they potentially had a more interesting social service on their hands.

“We were going to build a mobile app and were going to load a bunch of videos of people playing games and then we’re going to load videos of our games,” DeWitte says. 

The service allows users to capture the last 15 seconds of gameplay using different recording mechanisms based on game type. Medal.tv captures gameplay on a device and users can opt-in to record sound as well.

It is programmed so that it only records the game,” DeWitte says. “There is no inbound connection. It only calls for the API [and] all of the things that would be somewhat dangerous from a privacy perspective are all opt-in.”

 

There are roughly 30,000 users on the platform every week and around 15,000 daily active users, according to DeWitte. Launched last May, the company has been growing between 5% and 10% weekly, according to DeWitte. Typically, users are sharing clips through Discord, WhatsApp and Instagram direct messages, DeWitte said.

In addition to the consumer-facing clipping service, Medal also offers a data collection service that aggregates information about the clips that are shared by Medal’s users so game developers and streamers can get a sense of how clips are being shared across what platform.

“We look at clips as a form of communication and in most activity that we see, that’s how it’s being used,” says DeWitte.

But that information is also valuable to esports organizations to determine where they need to allocate new resources.

“Medal.tv Metrics is spectacular,” said Peter Levin, Chairman of the Immortals esports organization, in a statement. “With it, any gaming organization gains clear, actionable insights into the organic reach of their content, and can build a roadmap to increase it in a measurable way.”

The activity that Medal was seeing was impressive enough to attract the attention of investors led by Backed VC and Initial Capital. Ridge Ventures, Makers Fund, and Social Starts, all participated in the company’s $3.5 million round as well, with Alex Brunicki, a founding partner at Backed, and Matteo Vallone, principal at Initial, joining the company’s board.

“Emerging generations are experiencing moments inside games the same way we used to with sports and festivals growing up. Digital and physical identity are merging and the technology for gamers hasn’t evolved to support that.” said Alex Brunicki, partner at Backed.vc, in a statement.

Medal’s platform works with games like Apex Legends, Fortnite, Roblox, Minecraft and Oldschool Runescape (where DeWitte first cut his teeth in gaming).

“Friends are the main driver of game discovery, and game developers benefit from shareable games as a result. Medal.tv is trying to enable that without the complexity of streaming” said Vallone, who previously headed up games for Google Play Europe, and now sits on the Medal board. 

 

Instagram’s fundraiser stickers could lure credit card numbers

Mark Zuckerberg recently revealed that commerce is a huge part of the 2019 road map for Facebook’s family of apps. But before people can easily buy things from Instagram etc., Facebook needs their credit card info on file. That’s a potentially lucrative side effect of Instagram’s plan to launch a Fundraiser sticker in 2019. Facebook’s own Donate buttons have raised $1 billion, and bringing them to Instagram’s 1 billion users could do a lot of good while furthering Facebook’s commerce strategy.

New code and imagery dug out of Instagram’s Android app reveals how the Fundraiser stickers will allow you to search for nonprofits and add a Donate button for them to your Instagram Story. After you’ve donated to something once, Instagram could offer instant checkout on stuff you want to buy using the same payment details.

Back in 2013 when Facebook launched its Donate button, I suggested that it could add a “remove credit card after checkout” option to its fundraisers if it wanted to make it clear that the feature was purely altruistic. Facebook never did that. You still need to go into your payment settings or click through the See Receipt option after donating and then edit your account settings to remove your credit card. We’ll see if Instagram is any different. We’ve also asked whether Instagrammers will be able to raise money for personal causes, which would make it more of a competitor to GoFundMe — which has sadly become the social safety net for many facing healthcare crises.

Facebook mentioned at its Communities Summit earlier this month that it’d be building Instagram Fundraiser stickers, but the announcement was largely overshadowed by the company’s reveal of new Groups features. This week, TechCrunch tipster Ishan Agarwal found code in the Instagram Android app detailing how users will be able search for nonprofits or browse collections of Suggested charities and ones they follow. They can then overlay a Donate button sticker on their Instagram Story that their followers can click through to contribute.

We then asked reverse-engineering specialist Jane Manchun Wong to take a look, and she was able to generate the screenshots seen above that show a green heart icon for the Fundraiser sticker plus the nonprofit search engine. A Facebook spokespeople tells me that “We are in early stages and working hard to bring this experience to our community . . . Instagram is all about bringing you closer to the people and things you love, and a big part of that is showing support for and bringing awareness to meaningful communities and causes. Later this year, people will be able to raise money and help support nonprofits that are important to them through a donation sticker in Instagram Stories. We’re excited to bring this experience to our community and will share more updates in the coming months.”

Zuckerberg said during the Q4 2018 earnings call last month that “In Instagram, one of the areas I’m most excited about this year is commerce and shopping . . . there’s also a very big opportunity in basically enabling the transactions and making it so that the buying experience is good.” Streamlining those transactions through saved payment details means more people will complete their purchase rather than abandoning their cart. Facebook CFO David Wehner noted on the call that “Continuing to build good advertising products for our e-commerce clients on the advertising side will be a more important contributor to revenue in the foreseeable future.” Even though Facebook isn’t charging a fee on transactions, powering higher commerce conversion rates convinces merchants to buy more ads on the platform.

With all the talk of envy spiraling, phone addiction, bullying and political propaganda, enabling donations is at least one way Instagram can prove it’s beneficial to the world. Snapchat lacks formal charity features, and Twitter appears to have ended its experiment allowing nonprofits to tweet donate buttons. Despite all the flack Facebook rightfully takes, the company has shown a strong track record with philanthropy that mirrors Zuckerberg’s own $47 billion commitment through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. And if having some relatively benign secondary business benefit speeds companies toward assisting nonprofits, that’s a trade-off we should be willing to embrace.

Instagram is now testing a web version of Direct messages

Insta-chat addicts, rejoice. You could soon be trading memes and emojis from your computer. Instagram is internally testing a web version of Instagram Direct messaging that lets people chat without the app. If, or more likely, when this rolls out publicly, users on a desktop or laptop PC or Mac, a non-Android or iPhone or that access Instagram via a mobile web browser will be able to privately message other Instagrammers.

Instagram web DMs was one of the features I called for in a product wish list I published in December alongside a See More Like This button for the feed and an upload quality indicator so your Stories don’t look crappy if you’re on a slow connection.

A web version could make Instagram Direct a more full-fledged SMS alternative rather than just a tacked-on feature for discussing the photo and video app’s content. Messages are a massive driver of engagement that frequently draws people back to an app, and knowing friends can receive them anywhere could get users sending more. While Facebook doesn’t monetize Instagram Direct itself, it could get users browsing through more ads while they wait for replies.

Given Facebook’s own chat feature started on the web before going mobile and getting its own Messenger app, and WhatsApp launched a web portal in 2015 followed by desktop clients in 2016, it’s sensible for Instagram Direct to embrace the web too. It could also pave the way for Facebook’s upcoming unification of the backend infrastructure for Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram Direct that should expand encryption and allow cross-app chat, as reported by The New York Times’ Mike Isaac.

Mobile reverse-engineering specialist and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong alerted us to Instagram’s test. It’s not available to users yet, as it’s still being internally “dogfooded” — used heavily by employees to identify bugs or necessary product changes. But she was able to dig past security and access the feature from both a desktop computer and mobile web browser.

In the current design, Direct on the web is available from a Direct arrow icon in the top right of the screen. The feature looks like it will use an Instagram.com/direct/…. URL structure. If the feature becomes popular, perhaps Facebook will break it out with its own Direct destination website similar to https://www.messenger.com, which launched in 2015. Instagram began testing a standalone Direct app last year, but it’s yet to be officially launched and doesn’t seem exceedingly popular.

Instagram’s web experience has long lagged behind its native apps. You still can’t post Stories from the desktop like you can with Facebook Stories. It only added notifications on the web in 2016 and Explore, plus some other features, in 2017.

Instagram did not respond to requests for comment before press time. The company rarely provides a statement on internal features in development until they’re being externally tested on the public, at which point it typically tells us “We’re always testing ways to improve the Instagram experience.” [Update: Instagram confirms to TechCrunch it’s not publicly testing this, which is its go-to line when a product surfaces that’s still in internal development.]

After cloning Snapchat Stories to create Instagram Stories, the Facebook-owned app decimated Snap’s growth rate. That left Snapchat to focus on premium video and messaging. Last year Instagram built IGTV to compete with Snapchat Discover. And now with it testing a web version of Direct, it seems poised to challenge Snap for chat too.

E-commerce startup Zilingo raises $226M to digitize Asia’s fashion supply chain

If you’re looking for the next unicorn in Southeast Asia, Zilingo might just be it. The 3.5-year-old e-commerce company announced today that it has raised a Series D round worth $226 million to go after the opportunity to digitize Asia’s fashion supply chain.

This new round takes Zilingo to $308 million from investors since its 2015 launch. The Series D is provided by existing investors Sequoia India, Singapore sovereign fund Temasek, Germany’s Burda and Sofina, a European backer of Flipkart -owned fashion site Myntra. Joining the party for the first time is new investor EDBI, the corporate investment arm of Singapore’s Economic Development Board.

Zilingo isn’t commenting on a valuation for the round, but a source with knowledge of the deal told TechCrunch that it is ‘a rounding error’ away from $1 billion. We had heard in recent months that the startup was getting close to unicorn status, so that is likely to come sooner or later — particularly given that Zilingo has made it to Series D so rapidly.

Raising more than $300 million makes Zilingo one of Southeast Asia’s highest-capitalized startups, but its meteoric growth in the last year has come from expansion from consumer e-commerce into business-to-business services.

CEO Ankiti Bose — formerly with Sequoia India and McKinsey — and CTO Dhruv Kapoor first built a service that capitalized on Southeast Asia’s growing internet connectivity to bring small fashion vendors from the street markets of cities like Bangkok and Jakarta into the e-commerce fold. Zilingo still operates its consumer-facing online retail store, but its key move has been to go after b2b opportunities in the supply chain by digitizing its network to give retailers and brands gain access.

Revenue grew by 4X over the past year, with b2b responsible for 75 percent of that total, Bose told TechCrunch. She declined to provide raw figures but did say net income is in “the hundreds of millions” of U.S dollar. The company — which has over 400 staff — isn’t profitable yet, but CEO Bose said the b2b segment gives it “a clear pathway” to break-even by helping offset expensive e-commerce battles.

Ankiti Bose and Dhruv Kapoor founded Zilingo in 2015.

The supply chain’s ‘outdated tech’

Moving into the supply chain after building distribution makes sense, but Zilingo has long had its eye on services.

That business-focused push started with a suite of basic products to help Zilingo sellers manage their e-commerce business. Those initially included inventory management and sales tracking, but they have since graduated to deeper services like financing, sourcing and procurement, and a ‘style hunter’ for identifying upcoming fashion trends. Zilingo also widened its target from the long tail of small vendors operating in Southeast Asia, to bigger merchants and brands and even to the fashion industry in Europe, North America and beyond that seeks access to Asia’s producers, who are estimated to account for $1.4 trillion of the $3 billion global fashion manufacturing market.

Zilingo’s goal today is to provide any seller with the features, insight and network that brands such as Zara have built for themselves through years of work.

In Southeast Asia, that means helping small merchants, SMEs and larger retailers to source items for sale online through the Zilingo store. But in Europe and the U.S, where it doesn’t operate an outlet, Zilingo goes straight to the sellers themselves. That could mean retailers seeking wholesale opportunities from Asia or online influencers, such as Instagram personalities, keen to use their presence for e-commerce. Beyond just picking out items to sell, Zilingo wants to help them build their own private labels using its supply chain network.

That rest of the world plan has been on the cards since last year when Zilingo closed a $54 million Series C, but now the next stage of the journey is deeper integration with factories.

“If you think about these factories that make the products, the process isn’t optimized over there,” Bose said in an interview. “The guy or girl running factory likely has no technology, they don’t even use Excel. So we’re going to small and medium factories, increasing capacity utilization, helping to manage payroll, getting loans and other fintech services.”

Kapoor, her co-founder, adds that the fashion supply chain is “is marred by outdated tech.”

“It’s imperative for us to build products that introduce machine learning and data science effectively to SMEs while also being easy to use, get adopted and scale quickly. We’re re-wiring the entire supply chain with that lens so that we can add most value,” he added in a statement.

Zilingo encourages retailers and brands to develop their own private labels by tapping into the supply chain network it has built

AWS for the fashion supply chain

Bose said Zilingo’s early efforts have boosted factory efficiency by some 60 percent and made it possible to develop links to retailers while also enabling factories to develop their own private label colletions, rather than simply churning out unbranded or non-descript products.

A large part of that work with factories is consultancy-based, and Zilingo has hired supply chain experts to help provide quality guidance and perspective alongside the software tools it offers, Bose said.

She compares it, in many ways, to how Amazon conceived AWS. After it built tech to fix its own problems internally, it commercialized the services for third parties. So Zilingo started out offering a consumer-facing e-commerce platform but it is making its sourcing networks open to anyone at a cost — almost like supply chain on an API.

That gives its business a two, if not three, sided focus which spans selling to consumers in Southeast Asia through Zilingo.com — which is present in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia with the Philippines and Australia coming soon — reaching overseas retailers through Zilingo Asia Mall, and developing the b2b play.

In Southeast Asia, its home market, Zilingo doesn’t pressure its merchants to sell on its platform exclusively — “we don’t mind if they go to Instagram, Lazada, Tokopedia and Shopee,” Bose said — but in the U.S. it doesn’t have a go-to consumer outlet. It’s possible that might change with the company considering potential partnerships, although it seems unlikely it will launch its own consumer play.

Zilingo was once destined to compete with the big players like Lazada, which is owned by Alibaba, Shopee, which is operated by NYSE-listed Sea, and Tokopedia, the $7 billion company that’s part of SoftBank’s Vision Fund, but its supply chain focus has shifted its position to that of enabler.

That’s helped it avoid tricky times for specialist e-commerce services, which battle tough competition, pricing wars and challenging dynamics, and instead become one of Southeast Asia’s highest-capitalized startups. The company’s U.S. plan is ambitious, and it is taking longer than expected to get off the ground, but that makes it a startup that is worth keeping an eye on in 2019. It’s also an example that the startup journey is not defined since, in some cases, the biggest opportunities aren’t presented immediately.

Is Europe closing in on an antitrust fix for surveillance technologists?

The German Federal Cartel Office’s decision to order Facebook to change how it processes users’ personal data this week is a sign the antitrust tide could at last be turning against platform power.

One European Commission source we spoke to, who was commenting in a personal capacity, described it as “clearly pioneering” and “a big deal”, even without Facebook being fined a dime.

The FCO’s decision instead bans the social network from linking user data across different platforms it owns, unless it gains people’s consent (nor can it make use of its services contingent on such consent). Facebook is also prohibited from gathering and linking data on users from third party websites, such as via its tracking pixels and social plugins.

The order is not yet in force, and Facebook is appealing, but should it come into force the social network faces being de facto shrunk by having its platforms siloed at the data level.

To comply with the order Facebook would have to ask users to freely consent to being data-mined — which the company does not do at present.

Yes, Facebook could still manipulate the outcome it wants from users but doing so would open it to further challenge under EU data protection law, as its current approach to consent is already being challenged.

The EU’s updated privacy framework, GDPR, requires consent to be specific, informed and freely given. That standard supports challenges to Facebook’s (still fixed) entry ‘price’ to its social services. To play you still have to agree to hand over your personal data so it can sell your attention to advertisers. But legal experts contend that’s neither privacy by design nor default.

The only ‘alternative’ Facebook offers is to tell users they can delete their account. Not that doing so would stop the company from tracking you around the rest of the mainstream web anyway. Facebook’s tracking infrastructure is also embedded across the wider Internet so it profiles non-users too.

EU data protection regulators are still investigating a very large number of consent-related GDPR complaints.

But the German FCO, which said it liaised with privacy authorities during its investigation of Facebook’s data-gathering, has dubbed this type of behavior “exploitative abuse”, having also deemed the social service to hold a monopoly position in the German market.

So there are now two lines of legal attack — antitrust and privacy law — threatening Facebook (and indeed other adtech companies’) surveillance-based business model across Europe.

A year ago the German antitrust authority also announced a probe of the online advertising sector, responding to concerns about a lack of transparency in the market. Its work here is by no means done.

Data limits

The lack of a big flashy fine attached to the German FCO’s order against Facebook makes this week’s story less of a major headline than recent European Commission antitrust fines handed to Google — such as the record-breaking $5BN penalty issued last summer for anticompetitive behaviour linked to the Android mobile platform.

But the decision is arguably just as, if not more, significant, because of the structural remedies being ordered upon Facebook. These remedies have been likened to an internal break-up of the company — with enforced internal separation of its multiple platform products at the data level.

This of course runs counter to (ad) platform giants’ preferred trajectory, which has long been to tear modesty walls down; pool user data from multiple internal (and indeed external sources), in defiance of the notion of informed consent; and mine all that personal (and sensitive) stuff to build identity-linked profiles to train algorithms that predict (and, some contend, manipulate) individual behavior.

Because if you can predict what a person is going to do you can choose which advert to serve to increase the chance they’ll click. (Or as Mark Zuckerberg puts it: ‘Senator, we run ads.’)

This means that a regulatory intervention that interferes with an ad tech giant’s ability to pool and process personal data starts to look really interesting. Because a Facebook that can’t join data dots across its sprawling social empire — or indeed across the mainstream web — wouldn’t be such a massive giant in terms of data insights. And nor, therefore, surveillance oversight.

Each of its platforms would be forced to be a more discrete (and, well, discreet) kind of business.

Competing against data-siloed platforms with a common owner — instead of a single interlinked mega-surveillance-network — also starts to sound almost possible. It suggests a playing field that’s reset, if not entirely levelled.

(Whereas, in the case of Android, the European Commission did not order any specific remedies — allowing Google to come up with ‘fixes’ itself; and so to shape the most self-serving ‘fix’ it can think of.)

Meanwhile, just look at where Facebook is now aiming to get to: A technical unification of the backend of its different social products.

Such a merger would collapse even more walls and fully enmesh platforms that started life as entirely separate products before were folded into Facebook’s empire (also, let’s not forget, via surveillance-informed acquisitions).

Facebook’s plan to unify its products on a single backend platform looks very much like an attempt to throw up technical barriers to antitrust hammers. It’s at least harder to imagine breaking up a company if its multiple, separate products are merged onto one unified backend which functions to cross and combine data streams.

Set against Facebook’s sudden desire to technically unify its full-flush of dominant social networks (Facebook Messenger; Instagram; WhatsApp) is a rising drum-beat of calls for competition-based scrutiny of tech giants.

This has been building for years, as the market power — and even democracy-denting potential — of surveillance capitalism’s data giants has telescoped into view.

Calls to break up tech giants no longer carry a suggestive punch. Regulators are routinely asked whether it’s time. As the European Commission’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, was when she handed down Google’s latest massive antitrust fine last summer.

Her response then was that she wasn’t sure breaking Google up is the right answer — preferring to try remedies that might allow competitors to have a go, while also emphasizing the importance of legislating to ensure “transparency and fairness in the business to platform relationship”.

But it’s interesting that the idea of breaking up tech giants now plays so well as political theatre, suggesting that wildly successful consumer technology companies — which have long dined out on shiny convenience-based marketing claims, made ever so saccharine sweet via the lure of ‘free’ services — have lost a big chunk of their populist pull, dogged as they have been by so many scandals.

From terrorist content and hate speech, to election interference, child exploitation, bullying, abuse. There’s also the matter of how they arrange their tax affairs.

The public perception of tech giants has matured as the ‘costs’ of their ‘free’ services have scaled into view. The upstarts have also become the establishment. People see not a new generation of ‘cuddly capitalists’ but another bunch of multinationals; highly polished but remote money-making machines that take rather more than they give back to the societies they feed off.

Google’s trick of naming each Android iteration after a different sweet treat makes for an interesting parallel to the (also now shifting) public perceptions around sugar, following closer attention to health concerns. What does its sickly sweetness mask? And after the sugar tax, we now have politicians calling for a social media levy.

Just this week the deputy leader of the main opposition party in the UK called for setting up a standalone Internet regulatory with the power to break up tech monopolies.

Talking about breaking up well-oiled, wealth-concentration machines is being seen as a populist vote winner. And companies that political leaders used to flatter and seek out for PR opportunities find themselves treated as political punchbags; Called to attend awkward grilling by hard-grafting committees, or taken to vicious task verbally at the highest profile public podia. (Though some non-democratic heads of state are still keen to press tech giant flesh.)

In Europe, Facebook’s repeat snubs of the UK parliament’s requests last year for Zuckerberg to face policymakers’ questions certainly did not go unnoticed.

Zuckerberg’s empty chair at the DCMS committee has become both a symbol of the company’s failure to accept wider societal responsibility for its products, and an indication of market failure; the CEO so powerful he doesn’t feel answerable to anyone; neither his most vulnerable users nor their elected representatives. Hence UK politicians on both sides of the aisle making political capital by talking about cutting tech giants down to size.

The political fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal looks far from done.

Quite how a UK regulator could successfully swing a regulatory hammer to break up a global Internet giant such as Facebook which is headquartered in the U.S. is another matter. But policymakers have already crossed the rubicon of public opinion and are relishing talking up having a go.

That represents a sea-change vs the neoliberal consensus that allowed competition regulators to sit on their hands for more than a decade as technology upstarts quietly hoovered up people’s data and bagged rivals, and basically went about transforming themselves from highly scalable startups into market-distorting giants with Internet-scale data-nets to snag users and buy or block competing ideas.

The political spirit looks willing to go there, and now the mechanism for breaking platforms’ distorting hold on markets may also be shaping up.

The traditional antitrust remedy of breaking a company along its business lines still looks unwieldy when faced with the blistering pace of digital technology. The problem is delivering such a fix fast enough that the business hasn’t already reconfigured to route around the reset. 

Commission antitrust decisions on the tech beat have stepped up impressively in pace on Vestager’s watch. Yet it still feels like watching paper pushers wading through treacle to try and catch a sprinter. (And Europe hasn’t gone so far as trying to impose a platform break up.) 

But the German FCO decision against Facebook hints at an alternative way forward for regulating the dominance of digital monopolies: Structural remedies that focus on controlling access to data which can be relatively swiftly configured and applied.

Vestager, whose term as EC competition chief may be coming to its end this year (even if other Commission roles remain in potential and tantalizing contention), has championed this idea herself.

In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today program in December she poured cold water on the stock question about breaking tech giants up — saying instead the Commission could look at how larger firms got access to data and resources as a means of limiting their power. Which is exactly what the German FCO has done in its order to Facebook. 

At the same time, Europe’s updated data protection framework has gained the most attention for the size of the financial penalties that can be issued for major compliance breaches. But the regulation also gives data watchdogs the power to limit or ban processing. And that power could similarly be used to reshape a rights-eroding business model or snuff out such business entirely.

The merging of privacy and antitrust concerns is really just a reflection of the complexity of the challenge regulators now face trying to rein in digital monopolies. But they’re tooling up to meet that challenge.

Speaking in an interview with TechCrunch last fall, Europe’s data protection supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, told us the bloc’s privacy regulators are moving towards more joint working with antitrust agencies to respond to platform power. “Europe would like to speak with one voice, not only within data protection but by approaching this issue of digital dividend, monopolies in a better way — not per sectors,” he said. “But first joint enforcement and better co-operation is key.”

The German FCO’s decision represents tangible evidence of the kind of regulatory co-operation that could — finally — crack down on tech giants.

Blogging in support of the decision this week, Buttarelli asserted: “It is not necessary for competition authorities to enforce other areas of law; rather they need simply to identity where the most powerful undertakings are setting a bad example and damaging the interests of consumers.  Data protection authorities are able to assist in this assessment.”

He also had a prediction of his own for surveillance technologists, warning: “This case is the tip of the iceberg — all companies in the digital information ecosystem that rely on tracking, profiling and targeting should be on notice.”

So perhaps, at long last, the regulators have figured out how to move fast and break things.

How to prepare for an investment apocalypse

Unlike 2000 and 2008, everyone in the startup world is expecting a crash to come at any moment. But few are taking concrete steps to prepare for it.

If you’re running a venture-backed startup, you should probably get on that. First, go read RIP Good Times from Sequoia to get a sense for how bad it can get, quickly. Then take a look at the checklist below. You don’t need to build a bomb shelter, yet, but adopting a bit of the prepper mentality now will pay dividends down the road.

Don’t wait, prepare

The first step in preparing for a coming downturn is making a plan for how you’d get to a point of sustainability. Many startups have been lulled into a false sense of confidence that profit is something they can figure out “later.” Keep in mind, it has to be done eventually and it’s easier to do when the broader economy isn’t crashing around you. There are two complicating factors to keep in mind.

You’ll have to do it with less revenue

In a downturn, business customers skip investing in capital equipment and new software. Likewise, consumer discretionary spending goes way down. The result is you’ll likely have less revenue than you do now. War-game a variety of scenarios — what you’d do if you lost 20 percent, 50 percent or 80 percent of your revenue, and what decisions would have to be taken to survive.

Sometimes capital can’t be had at any valuation

When a downturn comes, capital markets don’t soften, they seize. Depending on how bad a hypothetical financial crisis got, there’s a good chance that investors would close up their checkbooks and triage. If you aren’t one of your investor’s favorite portfolio companies, there’s a decent chance you may be left in the cold. Don’t even assume you’ll be able to close a down round. Fortunately, showing a plan with a clear path to profitability will allay investors concerns that you’ll need their capital indefinitely and make it more likely you’ll be able to raise.

Planning around these three realities — the need for profits, while experiencing dropping revenue, in a world where capital can’t be had at any valuation — is going to lead to unpleasant conclusions. A dramatically diminished business, major layoffs, and a decisive drop in morale are likely outcomes. Thankfully, you can take steps now to help soften the landing, or if you’re really successful, avoid it entirely.

Avoid “growth at all costs” mentality

Getting acquisition costs under control will help you in two ways. First, it’ll lower your burn rate. Chasing growth for growth’s sake is always a short-sighted decision, but especially during the late part of the business cycle. Avoid this even if you’re VC is encouraging it. Second, by carefully analyzing the inputs to your acquisition cost, it will force you to examine the dynamics of your business. It gives you an opportunity to decide if a poorly performing channel or lackluster sales reps are actually smart investments. Even cutting your payback period from 12 months to nine will provide an increased measure of visibility and control.

Increase the hiring bar

Instagram took over the web with a team of a dozen. Craigslist is a pillar of the internet with a staff of 40 employees. WhatsApp supported hundreds of millions of daily users with fewer than 50 people. Chances are you need fewer people than you think.

In his new book, Scott Belsky shares an algorithm he used building Behance into a $100M company — automate, automate, then hire. His point was that founders should encourage teams to push hard on improving processes and other labor-saving tools before adding more FTEs.

Don’t institute a hiring freeze or take other actions that might spook the staff, but do send the message that new hires should be the last resort, not the first response to a challenge.

Preach discipline — build it into the culture

Founders often try to change spending habits, and in turn culture, when it’s too late. Is there a fair bit of business class flying among the executive team? Do your employees stretch your free dinner policy by staying just past the dinner hour to take advantage of free food? At most tech ventures, everyone is truly an owner. Try to help the entire team to internalize that they are spending their own money.

Get to know your potential acquirers

The week the market drops 50 percent is not the week to start a M&A conversation. You should be getting to know the five most likely buyers of your company, now. Find out who the decision makers at each of the companies are and build relationships. Make it a point to catch up with these people at conferences and even consider sending them regular updates about your company’s progress (but not too much data). You’re not running a formal sales process, but helping build up the internal desire to buy your company if the opportunity presents itself. It may not be the exit of your dreams, but it’s nice to have options if you need them.

Jettison expensive office space

If you’re coming to a T-juncture regarding office space, you may want to prioritize price and lease flexibility over quality and location. I remember one of our offices at my start-up was a twelve month lease with 6 months free. The landlords were desperate, and so were we!

Front-load revenue

If you’re in the kind of business that will support annual contracts, figure out a way to offer them. Pre-sell credits to consumers at a discount. More fundamentally, think about how you might be able to adjust your business model so you can get paid before you deliver services. Plenty of viable businesses are asphyxiated by delays in accounts receivable, don’t allow your ambitions to be thwarted by accounting.

Diversify your customer base

One lesson learned in the 2000 bubble was that startups that serve other startups tend to be hit hardest. It’s important to think about how a downturn will impact your customer base. If more than 30 percent of your revenue comes from one industry (perhaps start-ups!), or heaven help you, a single customer, start thinking about managing risk by diversifying your customer base.

Raise a pre-emptive round (AND DON’T SPEND IT)

Topping up your balance sheet at this point isn’t a bad idea, provided you have the discipline to treat it as a rainy day fund. Communicate this rationale to your investors. It’s also important to use this moment to reflect on valuation. An eye-popping valuation will feel good when you sign the term sheet, but it’s going to feel like a millstone if the economy turns, and the market for blue-chip tech stocks drops precipitously.

Consider venture debt

Many VCs discourage venture debt. They’ll say “if you need more money, we’ll backstop you.” The problem is when things ugly, they may not be there. Debt providers are a good way to extend the runway. The thing is that it’s best to raise debt capital when you don’t need it. Venture debt can add ⅓ to ½ of additional capital to some funding rounds with minimal dilution and relatively modest interest rates. Do note that when things get bad, some debt funds can get aggressive so do your homework before taking the notes.

Don’t panic

It’s tough to predict the top of the market. CNN, Time, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and many others argued Facebook paying $1 billion for Instagram was a sure sign of a bubble — in 2012. Reputable commentators have claimed that we’re in a bubble every year since, see 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. Going into survival mode in any of those years would have been a serious mistake for most startups.

Still, we’re only two quarters away from marking the longest economic expansion in US history. The good times have got to end at some point. Venture capital is a hell of a drug and withdrawal can be painful. Keep in mind that there’s no correlation between how much a company raised and how well they did on the public markets. If you’re struggling to make your startup’s economics work, read up on dozens of “invisible unicorns” who show that you can get big without relying on outsized amounts of venture capital.

If your house is in order when the downturn hits, you may actually be able to grow through it. As unprepared competitors go out of business, you’ll find that talent is more plentiful and customer acquisition costs plummet. Some of the best companies have been founded and thrived in the worst of times — if you’re prepared.

Instagram thinks you want IGTV previews in your home feed

If you can’t beat or join them…force feed ’em? That appears to be Instagram’s latest strategy for IGTV, which is now being shoved right into Instagram’s main feed, the company announced today. Instagram says that it will now add one-minute IGTV previews to the feed, making it “even easier” to discover and watch content from IGTV.

Uh.

IGTV, you may recall, was launched last year as a way for Instagram to woo creators. With IGTV, creators are able to share long-form videos within the Instagram platform instead of just short-form content to the Feed or Stories.

The videos, before today, could be viewed in Instagram itself by tapping the IGTV icon at the top right of the screen, or within the separate IGTV standalone app.

Instagram’s hope was that IGTV would give the company a means of better competing with larger video sites, like Google’s YouTube or Amazon’s Twitch.

Its users, however, haven’t found IGTV as compelling.

As of last fall, few creators were working on content exclusively for IGTV and rumor was the viewing audience for IGTV content remained quite small, compared with rivals like Snapchat or Facebook. Many creators just weren’t finding it worth investing additional resources into IGTV, so were repurposing content designed for other platforms, like YouTube or Snapchat.

That means the bigger creators weren’t developing premium content or exclusives for IGTV, but were instead experimenting by replaying the content their fans could find elsewhere. Many are still not even sure what the IGTV audience wants to watch.

IGTV’s standalone app doesn’t seem to have gained much of a following either.

The app today is ranked a lowly No. 228 on the U.S. App Store’s “Photo and Video” top chart. Despite being run by Instagram – an app that topped a billion monthly users last summer, and is currently the No. 1 free app on iOS – fewer are downloading IGTV.

After seeing 1.5 million downloads in its first month last year – largely out of curiosity – the IGTV app today has only grown to 3.5 million total installs worldwide, according to Sensor Tower data. While those may be good numbers for a brand-new startup, for a spin-off from one of the world’s biggest apps, they’re relatively small.

Instagram’s new video initiative also represents another shot across the bow of Instagram purists.

As BuzzFeed reporter Katie Notopoulos opined last year, “I’m Sorry To Report Instagram Is Bad Now.” Her point of concern was the impact that Stories had on the Instagram Feed – people were sharing to Stories instead of the Feed, which made the Feed pretty boring. At yet, the Stories content wasn’t good either, having become a firehose of the throwaway posts that didn’t deserve being shared directly on users’ profiles.

On top of all this, it seems the Instagram Feed is now going to be cluttered with IGTV previews now. That’s. Just. Great.

Instagram says you’ll see the 1-minute previews in the Feed, and can tap on them to turn on the audio. Tap the IGTV icon on the preview and you’ll be able to watch the full version in IGTV. When the video is finished, you’re returned the Feed. Or, if you want to see more from IGTV, you can swipe up while the video plays to start browsing.

IGTV previews is only one way Instagram has been developing the product to attract more views in recent months. It has also integrated IGTV in Explore, allowed the sharing of IGTV videos to Stories, added the ability to save IGTV Videos, and launched IGTV Web Embeds.

 

 

 

Instagram and Facebook will start censoring ‘graphic images’ of self-harm

In light of a recent tragedy, Instagram is updating the way it handles pictures depicting self-harm. Instagram and Facebook announced changes to their policies around content depicting cutting and other forms of self harm in dual blog posts Thursday.

The changes comes about in light of the 2017 suicide of a 14 year old girl named Molly Russell, a UK resident who took her own life in 2017. Following her death, her family discovered that Russell was engaged with accounts that depicted and promoted self harm on the platform.

As the controversy unfolded, Instagram Head of Product Adam Mosseri penned an op-ed in the Telegraph to atone for the platform’s at times high consequence shortcomings. Mosseri previously announced that Instagram would implement “sensitivity screens” to obscure self harm content, but the new changes go a step further.

Starting soon, both platforms will no longer allow any “graphic images of self-harm” most notably those that depict cutting. This content was previously allowed because the platforms worked under the assumption that allowing people to connect and confide around these issues was better than the alternative. After a “comprehensive review with global experts and academics on youth, mental health and suicide prevention” those policies are shifting.

“… It was advised that graphic images of self-harm – even when it is someone admitting their struggles – has the potential to unintentionally promote self-harm,” Mosseri said.

Instagram will also begin burying non-graphic images about self harm (pictures of healed scars, for example) so they don’t show up in search, relevant hashtags or on the explore tab. “We are not removing this type of content from Instagram entirely, as we don’t want want to stigmatize or isolate people who may be in distress and posting self-harm related content as a cry for help,” Mosseri said.

According to the blog post, after consulting with groups like the Centre for Mental Health and Save.org, Instagram tried to strike a balance that would still allow users to express their personal struggles without encouraging others to hurt themselves. For self harm, like disordered eating, that’s a particularly difficult line to walk. It’s further complicated by the fact that not all people who self harm have suicidal intentions and the behavior has its own nuances apart from suicidality.

“Up until now, we’ve focused most of our approach on trying to help the individual who is sharing their experiences around self-harm. We have allowed content that shows contemplation or admission of self-harm because experts have told us it can help people get the support they need. But we need to do more to consider the effect of these images on other people who might see them. This is a difficult but important balance to get right.”

Mental health research and treatment teams have long been aware of “peer influence processes” that can make self destructive behaviors take on a kind of social contagiousness. While online communities can also serve as a vital support system for anyone engaged in self destructive behaviors, the wrong kind of peer support can backfire, reinforcing the behaviors or even popularizing them. Instagram’s failure to sufficiently safeguard for the potential impact this kind of content can have on a hashtag-powered social network is fairly remarkable considering that the both Instagram and Facebook claim to have worked with mental health groups to get it right.

These changes are expected in the “coming weeks.” For now, a simple search of Instagram’s #selfharm hashtag still reveals a huge ecosystem of self-harmers on Instagram, including self-harm related memes (some hopeful, some not) and many very graphic photos of cutting.

“It will take time and we have a responsibility to get this right,” Mosseri said. “Our aim is to have no graphic self-harm or graphic suicide related content on Instagram… while still ensuring we support those using Instagram to connect with communities of support.”

German antitrust office limits Facebook’s data-gathering

A lengthy antitrust probe into how Facebook gathers data on users has resulted in Germany’s competition watchdog banning the social network giant from combining data on users across its own suite of social platforms without their consent.

The investigation of Facebook data-gathering practices began in March 2016.

The decision by Germany’s Federal Cartel Office, announced today, also prohibits Facebook from gathering data on users from third party websites — such as via tracking pixels and social plug-ins — without their consent.

Although the decision does not yet have legal force and Facebook has said it’s appealing.

In both cases — i.e. Facebook collecting and linking user data from its own suite of services; and from third party websites — the Bundeskartellamt says consent must be voluntary, so cannot be made a precondition of using Facebook’s service.

The company must therefore “adapt its terms of service and data processing accordingly”, it warns.

“Facebook’s terms of service and the manner and extent to which it collects and uses data are in violation of the European data protection rules to the detriment of users. The Bundeskartellamt closely cooperated with leading data protection authorities in clarifying the data protection issues involved,” it writes, couching Facebook’s conduct as “exploitative abuse”.

“Dominant companies may not use exploitative practices to the detriment of the opposite side of the market, i.e. in this case the consumers who use Facebook. This applies above all if the exploitative practice also impedes competitors that are not able to amass such a treasure trove of data,” it continues.

“This approach based on competition law is not a new one, but corresponds to the case-law of the Federal Court of Justice under which not only excessive prices, but also inappropriate contractual terms and conditions constitute exploitative abuse (so-called exploitative business terms).”

Commenting further in a statement, Andreas Mundt, president of the Bundeskartellamt, added: “In future, Facebook will no longer be allowed to force its users to agree to the practically unrestricted collection and assigning of non-Facebook data to their Facebook user accounts.

“The combination of data sources substantially contributed to the fact that Facebook was able to build a unique database for each individual user and thus to gain market power. In future, consumers can prevent Facebook from unrestrictedly collecting and using their data. The previous practice of combining all data in a Facebook user account, practically without any restriction, will now be subject to the voluntary consent given by the users.

“Voluntary consent means that the use of Facebook’s services must not be subject to the users’ consent to their data being collected and combined in this way. If users do not consent, Facebook may not exclude them from its services and must refrain from collecting and merging data from different sources.”

“With regard to Facebook’s future data processing policy, we are carrying out what can be seen as an internal divestiture of Facebook’s data,” Mundt added. 

Facebook has responded to the Bundeskartellamt’s decision with a blog post setting out why it disagrees. The company did not respond to specific questions we put to it.

One key consideration is that Facebook also tracks non-users via third party websites. Aka, the controversial issue of ‘shadow profiles’ — which both US and EU politicians questioned founder Mark Zuckerberg about last year.

Which raises the question of how it could comply with the decision on that front, if its appeal fails, given it has no obvious conduit for seeking consent from non-users to gather their data. (Facebook’s tracking of non-users has already previously been judged illegal elsewhere in Europe.)

The German watchdog says that if Facebook intends to continue collecting data from outside its own social network to combine with users’ accounts without consent it “must be substantially restricted”, suggesting a number of different criteria are feasible — such as restrictions including on the amount of data; purpose of use; type of data processing; additional control options for users; anonymization; processing only upon instruction by third party providers; and limitations on data storage periods.

Should the decision come to be legally enforced, the Bundeskartellamt says Facebook will be obliged to develop proposals for possible solutions and submit them to the authority which would then examine whether or not they fulfil its requirements.

While there’s lots to concern Facebook in this decision, it isn’t all bad for the company — or, rather, it could have been worse.

The authority makes a point of saying the social network can continue to make the use of each of its messaging platforms subject to the processing of data generated by their use, writing: “It must be generally acknowledged that the provision of a social network aiming at offering an efficient, data-based business model funded by advertising requires the processing of personal data. This is what the user expects.”

Although it also does not close the door on further scrutiny of that dynamic, either under data protection law (as indeed, there is a current challenge to so called ‘forced consent‘ under Europe’s GDPR); or indeed under competition law.

“The issue of whether these terms can still result in a violation of data protection rules and how this would have to be assessed under competition law has been left open,” it emphasizes.

It also notes that it did not investigate how Facebook subsidiaries WhatsApp and Instagram collect and use user data — leaving the door open for additional investigations of those services.

On the wider EU competition law front, in recent years the European Commission’s competition chief has voiced concerns about data monopolies — going so far as to suggest, in an interview with the BBC last December, that restricting access to data might be a more appropriate solution to addressing monopolistic platform power vs breaking companies up.

In its blog post rejecting the German Federal Cartel Office’s decision, Facebook’s Yvonne Cunnane, head of data protection for its international business, Facebook Ireland, and Nikhil Shanbhag, director and associate general counsel, make three points to counter the decision, writing that: “The Bundeskartellamt underestimates the fierce competition we face in Germany, misinterprets our compliance with GDPR and undermines the mechanisms European law provides for ensuring consistent data protection standards across the EU.”

On the competition point, Facebook claims in the blog post that “popularity is not dominance” — suggesting the Bundeskartellamt found 40 per cent of social media users in Germany don’t use Facebook. (Not that that would stop Facebook from tracking those non-users around the mainstream Internet, of course.)

Although, in its announcement of the decision today, the Federal Cartel Office emphasizes that it found Facebook to have a dominant position in the Germany market — with (as of December 2018) 23M daily active users and 32M monthly active users, which it said constitutes a market share of more than 95 per cent (daily active users) and more than 80 per cent (monthly active users).

It also says it views social services such as Snapchat, YouTube and Twitter, and professional networks like LinkedIn and Xing, as only offering “parts of the services of a social network” — saying it therefore excluded them from its consideration of the market.

Though it adds that “even if these services were included in the relevant market, the Facebook group with its subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp would still achieve very high market shares that would very likely be indicative of a monopolisation process”.

The mainstay of Facebook’s argument against the Bundeskartellamt decision appears to fix on the GDPR — with the company both seeking to claim it’s in compliance with the pan-EU data-protection framework (although its business faces multiple complaints under GDPR), while simultaneously arguing that the privacy regulation supersedes regional competition authorities.

So, as ever, Facebook is underlining that its regulator of choice is the Irish Data Protection Commission.

“The GDPR specifically empowers data protection regulators – not competition authorities – to determine whether companies are living up to their responsibilities. And data protection regulators certainly have the expertise to make those conclusions,” Facebook writes.

“The GDPR also harmonizes data protection laws across Europe, so everyone lives by the same rules of the road and regulators can consistently apply the law from country to country. In our case, that’s the Irish Data Protection Commission. The Bundeskartellamt’s order threatens to undermine this, providing different rights to people based on the size of the companies they do business with.”

The final plank of Facebook’s rebuttal focuses on pushing the notion that pooling data across services enhances the consumer experience and increases “safety and security” — the latter point being the same argument Zuckerberg used last year to defend ‘shadow profiles’ (not that he called them that) — with the company claiming now that it needs to pool user data across services to identify abusive behavior online; and disable accounts link to terrorism; child exploitation; and election interference.

So the company is essentially seeking to leverage (you could say ‘legally weaponize’) a smorgasbord of antisocial problems many of which have scaled to become major societal issues in recent years, at least in part as a consequence of the size and scale of Facebook’s social empire, as arguments for defending the size and operational sprawl of its business. Go figure.

Account linking could make Instagram the heir to Facebook Login

Teens’ aversion to Facebook jeopardizes not only the company’s feed ad revenue, but its dominance as an identity provider. The Facebook Login platform keeps people tied to the social network in order to easily access other apps without a separate username and password. But for younger users who ditch or neglect Facebook in favor of Instagram, the tech giant stands to lose one of its most powerful wedges into our lives. Meanwhile, Instagram loyalists are forced to juggle multiple sets of login credentials to manage their personal, Finsta, and business accounts.

But a new feature in development could make it easy to operate multiple Instagram handles while poising the app as a successor to Facebook Login. Instagram has prototyped “Main Account” feature that would let users set one of their profiles as a primary account and then link their others to it. Logging into the main account would instantly log them in to the rest as well. From then on, users would only need to remember a single email/username and password combo. Simpler login could get people switching accounts, posting, and engaging more with Instagram.

Account linking could also power up Instagram’s existing login platform. Currently, third-party apps use it to let you compose feed posts and Stories and then share them to Instagram, or to measure the activity and mentions of business accounts. But Instagram could potentially expand the login platform to let you bring more of your identity or profile info to other apps similar to Facebook Login. That might work better if you could log in through your main Instagram account and then choose which profile you wanted to use or share back to from another app.

TechCrunch was tipped off to code for “Account Linking” in the Instagram for Android alpha version’s APK files by social media research Ishan Agarwal. The code explains “Quickly and securely log in to all of your Instagram accounts with one ID and password . . . Make one of your accounts your main account and use it to log in to all of your other accounts at once . . . Your accounts will remain separate but logging in will be fast and simple . . . Anyone who has the password for your main account will have access to the accounts connected to it.”

Instagram declined to comment regarding the feature. That’s standard for the company when it’s prototyped something is it trying it with employees but hasn’t done any external testing. But many features first spotted in the app’s code at this stage go on to be fully rolled out, like Instagram video calling, nametags, and soundtracks.

Facebook colonized the web using its login platform, scattering buttons with its logo on sites as an alternative to having to create a new account for every service. This helped grow Facebook’s user base, lock in users so it’d be harder for them to deactivate, develop new sources of feed content, and gather data on what people did around the web. Many users who’ve stopped heavily posting to or reading Facebook still maintain a connection with the social network since they rely on it to log in to Spotify, Netflix, and other services.

In fact, Facebook’s login platform is one of its most valuable features where it lacks strong competition. Google runs its own identity platform, but with people increasingly using 2-factor authentication and other security to protect their Gmail accounts, it can sometimes be a bit clumsy. Snapchat is trying to build up its own Snap Kit login platform with partners like Poshmark, but few mainstream apps have implemented it for account creation.

Instagram has been tinkering with other features around the concept of identity. It launched Close Friends for sharing Stories just with your besties, rolled out its own 2-factor authentication option, and is adding a way to syndicate your feed posts to multiple accounts you control. Getting users to establish a main account could also smooth Facebook’s plan to offer encrypted cross-app messaging between itself, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Your main account might be a stand in for your real identity since Instagram doesn’t force a real name policy on users like Facebook does.

If you start to think of Instagram as not just a parallel social network to Facebook but as either an escape pod or heir to the throne, it’s important to consider how Facebook’s core assets will weather the transition. Recent profile redesigns have already tried to make your Instagram profile the center of your online personality. Uniting the prismatic shards of your identity through account linking could let you carry that personality with you across the web.