Instagram’s handling of kids’ data is now being probed in the EU

Facebook’s lead data regulator in Europe has opened another two probes into its business empire — both focused on how the Instagram platform processes children’s information.

The action by Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC), reported earlier by the Telegraph, comes more than a year after a US data scientist reported concerns to Instagram that its platform was leaking the contact information of minors. David Stier went on to publish details of his investigation last year — saying Instagram had failed to make changes to prevent minors’ data being accessible.

He found that children who changed their Instagram account settings to a business account had their contact info (such as an email address and phone number) displayed unmasked via the platform — arguing that “millions” of children had had their contact information exposed as a result of how Instagram functions.

Facebook disputes Stier’s characterization of the issue — saying it’s always made it clear that contact info is displayed if people choose to switch to a business account on Instagram.

It also does now let people opt out of having their contact info displayed if they switch to a business account.

Nonetheless, its lead EU regulator has now said it’s identified “potential concerns” relating to how Instagram processes children’s data.

Per the Telegraph’s report the regulator opened the dual inquiries late last month in response to claims the platform had put children at risk of grooming or hacking by revealing their contact details. 

The Irish DPC did not say that but did confirm two new statutory inquiries into Facebook’s processing of children’s data on the fully owned Instagram platform in a statement emailed to TechCrunch in which it notes the photo-sharing platform “is used widely by children in Ireland and across Europe”.

“The DPC has been actively monitoring complaints received from individuals in this area and has identified potential concerns in relation to the processing of children’s personal data on Instagram which require further examination,” it writes.

The regulator’s statement specifies that the first inquiry will examine the legal basis Facebook claims for processing children’s data on the Instagram platform, and also whether or not there are adequate safeguards in place.

Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) includes specific provisions related to the processing of children’s information — with a hard cap set at age 13 for kids to be able to consent to their data being processed. The regulation also creates an expectation of baked in safeguards for kids’ data.

“The DPC will set out to establish whether Facebook has a legal basis for the ongoing processing of children’s personal data and if it employs adequate protections and or restrictions on the Instagram platform for such children,” it says of the first inquiry, adding: “This Inquiry will also consider whether Facebook meets its obligations as a data controller with regard to transparency requirements in its provision of Instagram to children.”

The DPC says the second inquiry will focus on the Instagram profile and account settings — looking at “the appropriateness of these settings for children”.

“Amongst other matters, this Inquiry will explore Facebook’s adherence with the requirements in the GDPR in respect to Data Protection by Design and Default and specifically in relation to Facebook’s responsibility to protect the data protection rights of children as vulnerable persons,” it adds.

In a statement responding to the regulator’s action, a Facebook company spokesperson told us:

We’ve always been clear that when people choose to set up a business account on Instagram, the contact information they shared would be publicly displayed. That’s very different to exposing people’s information. We’ve also made several updates to business accounts since the time of Mr. Stier’s mischaracterisation in 2019, and people can now opt out of including their contact information entirely. We’re in close contact with the IDPC and we’re cooperating with their inquiries.

Breaches of the GDPR can attract sanctions of as much as 4% of the global annual turnover of a data controller — which, in the case of Facebook, means any future fine for violating the regulation could run to multi-billions of euros.

That said, Ireland’s regulator now has around 25 open investigations related to multinational tech companies (aka cross-border GDPR cases) — a backlog that continues to attract criticism over the plodding progress of decisions. Which means the Instagram inquiries are joining the back of a very long queue.

Earlier this summer the DPC submitted its first draft decision on a cross-border GDPR case — related to a 2018 Twitter breach — sending it on to the other EU DPAs for review.

That step has led to a further delay, as the other EU regulators did not unanimously back the DPC’s decision — triggering a dispute mechanisms set out in the GDPR.

In separate news, an investigation of Instagram influencers by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority found the platform is failing to protect consumers from being misled. The BBC reports that the platform will roll out new tools over the next year including a prompt for influencers to confirm whether they have received incentives to promote a product or service before they are able to publish a post, and new algorithms built to spot potential advertising content.

Facebook and Instagram will pin vote-by-mail explainers to top of feeds

Starting this weekend, everyone of voting age in the U.S. will begin seeing informational videos at the top of Instagram and Facebook, offering tips and state-specific guidance on how to vote through the mail. The videos will be offered in both English and Spanish.

The vote-by-mail videos will run on Facebook for four straight days in each state, starting between October 10 and October 18 depending on local registration deadlines. On Instagram, the videos will run in all 50 states on October 15 and October 16, followed by other notifications with vote-by-mail information over the next two days.

Facebook vote-by-mail video

Image via Facebook

Facebook vote-by-mail video

Image via Facebook

The videos let voters know when they can return a ballot in person, instruct them to sign carefully on additional envelopes that might be required and encourage returning ballots as soon as possible while being mindful of postmarking deadlines. Facebook will continue providing additional state-specific voting information in a voting information center dedicated to the 2020 election.

Even more than in past years, app makers have taken up the mantle of nudging their users to vote in the U.S. general election. From Snapchat to Credit Karma, it’s hard to open an app without being reminded to register — and that’s a good thing. Snapchat says it registered around 400,000 new voters through its own reminders and Facebook estimates that it helped 2.5 million people register to vote this year.

Voting rights advocates are concerned that 2020’s rapid scale-up of vote-by-mail might lead to many ballots being thrown out — a worry foreshadowed by the half a million ballots that were tossed out in state primaries. Some of those ballots failed to meet deadlines or were deemed invalid due to other mistakes voters made when filling them out.

In Florida, voters that were young, non-white or voting for the first time were twice as likely to have their ballots thrown out compared to white voters in the 2018 election, according to research by the ACLU.

Adding to concerns, state rules vary and they can be specific and confusing for voters new to voting through the mail. In Pennsylvania, the most likely state to decide the results of the 2020 election, new rules against “naked ballots” mean that any ballot not cast in an additional secrecy sleeve will be tossed out. In other states, secrecy sleeves have long been optional.

Facebook gets ready for November

Since 2016, Facebook has faced widespread criticism for rewarding hyper-partisan content, amplifying misinformation and incubating violent extremism. This week, the FBI revealed a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer that was hatched by militia groups who used the platform to organize.

Whether the public reveal of that months-long domestic terrorism investigation factored into its decisions or not, Facebook has taken a notably more aggressive posture across a handful of recent policy decisions. This week, the company expanded its ban on QAnon, the elaborate web of outlandish pro-Trump conspiracies that have increasingly spilled over into real-world violence, after that content had been allowed to thrive on the platform for years.

Facebook also just broadened its rules prohibiting voter intimidation to ban calls for poll watching that use militaristic language, like the Trump campaign’s own effort to recruit an “Army for Trump” to hold its political enemies to account on election day. The company also announced that it would suspend political advertising after election night, a policy that will likely remain in place until the results of the election are clear.

While President Trump has gone to great lengths to cast doubt on the integrity of vote-by-mail, mailed ballots are a historically very safe practice. States like Oregon and Colorado already conduct their voting through the mail in normal years, and all 50 states have absentee voting in place for people who can’t cast a ballot in person, whether they’re out of town or overseas serving in the military.

Instagram’s Threads app now lets you message everyone, like its Direct app once did

Last year, Instagram announced it was ending support for its standalone mobile messaging app known as Direct, which had allowed users to quickly create and share messages with friends. Shortly thereafter, the company launched Threads, a new messaging app focused on status updates and communication with only those you identified in Instagram as your “Close Friends.” Now, these two messaging concepts are merging. With the latest update to Threads, Instagram is again offering the full inbox experience, it says.

The changes were noted in the latest app update and were soon spotted by social media consultant Matt Navarra and noted reverse engineer Jane Manchun Wong — who both keep a close eye on changes to popular social apps.

In the latest update, Threads will now present a two-tabbed inbox.

In the “Close Friends” section, you can continue to message with your most frequent contacts, as before. The new second tab, “Everyone Else” allows access to your larger Instagram inbox. The app will continue to prioritize the “Close Friends” tab, and your status will continue to only be visible to Close Friends as well.

Instagram also tells us that, by default, Threads users will continue to only receive notifications for their Close Friends. But this can now be adjusted in the app’s Settings if you want to receive notifications for all messages instead.

What’s interesting is that these changes are rolling out so closely following a major update to Instagram’s messaging platform.

Only last week, Facebook introduced cross-app communication between Messenger and Instagram, alongside other features.

That update allows Instagram users to opt to upgrade to a new messaging experience that includes the ability to change chat colors, react with any emoji, watch videos together, set messages to disappear and more. These “fun” features serve as a way to entice users to agree to the update, which then locks users further inside the Facebook universe as it opens up cross-platform messaging. That means upgraded users can use Instagram to message their Facebook friends.

With the changes to Threads, one has to wonder if Facebook is now envisioning the standalone chat app as another potential entry point into its larger messaging platform.

Instagram says that’s not the case today.

“Cross-app communication is an opt-in update for people using Instagram, and will not be enabled for Threads,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch.

That doesn’t mean Threads won’t be updated to later offer some of the other changes that Instagram users can now take advantage of, if they choose to upgrade their messaging experience.

In fact, we understand that Instagram is considering bringing some of those new features over to Threads in the future. There’s no exact timeframe for this project at this point, though.

Presumably, this would mean connecting the Threads app on the backend to the newly built messaging infrastructure. If that’s true, even if Facebook chose to keep cross-app communication an Instagram-only (and Messenger-only) experience, it would still be tying in another core app, Threads, to the new messaging platform. And this, in turn, could make it harder to unspool the apps in the case that Facebook is forced to break up its business, if regulators were to declare it a monopoly.

It’s not clear, however, if Threads has yet been connected to that infrastructure or if it will further down the road. But it’s worth keeping an eye on.

The Threads update is live now.

 

Instagram’s 10th birthday release introduces a Stories Map, custom icons and more

Instagram today is celebrating its 10th birthday with the launch of several new features, including a private “Stories Map,” offering a retrospective of the Stories you’ve shared over the last three years, a pair of well-being updates, and the previously announced IGTV Shopping update. There’s even a selection of custom app icons for those who have recently been inspired to redesign their home screen, as is the new trend.

The icons had been spotted earlier in development within Instagram’s code, and it was expected they would be a part of a larger “birthday release.” That turned out to be true.

With the update, Instagram users across both iOS and Android can opt between a range of icons in shades of orange, yellow, green, purple, black, white and more. There’s also a rainbow-colored Pride icon and several versions of classic icons, if you want a more nostalgic feel.

The new Stories Map feature, meanwhile, introduces a private map and calendar of the Instagram Stories you’ve shared over the past three years, so you can look back at favorite moments. Though this may surprise some users who thought Instagram Stories’ ephemeral nature meant they were deleted from Facebook servers over time, it’s not the first time Instagram has pulled up your old Stories to build out a new feature.

Instagram’s “Story Highlights,” for example, first introduced in 2017, allowed users to create a permanent home for some of their formerly ephemeral content.

Image Credits: Instagram

Two other new features also rolling out with the latest release are timed alongside the kickoff of National Bullying Prevention Month. The first, which will begin as a test, will automatically hide comments similar to others that have already been reported. These will still be visible under the label “View Hidden Comments” if you want to see what’s been removed from the main comment feed.

Image Credits: Instagram

This feature is somewhat similar to Twitter’s “Hide Replies” feature that launched globally last year. Like Twitter, the feature will place the inappropriate or abusive remarks behind an extra click, which supposedly helps to disincentivize this sort of content, as it could be hidden from view. Except in Twitter’s case, the original poster had to manually hide the replies. The Instagram feature, however, is attempting to automate this functionality.

Instagram says it’s also expanding its nudge warnings feature to include an additional warning when people repeatedly try to post offensive remarks. Already, Instagram provides an AI-powered feature that notifies people when their comment may be considered offensive by giving them a chance to reflect and make changes before posting. Now this feature will target repeat offenders, suggesting that they take a moment to step back and reflect on their words and the potential consequences.

Image Credits: Instagram

The company also released new data about trends across its platform as well as an editorial look back at Instagram’s major milestones.

Here, it revealed trends across music — like how KPOP is the No. 1 most-discussed genre — along with other trends, like top songs, AR effects, top Story Fonts and more. Instagram said more than a million posts mentioning “meme” are shared on its platform daily, 50% of users see a video on Instagram daily, there are over 900 million emoji reactions sent daily and the average person sends 3x more DMs than comments.

The updated app is available across iOS and Android.

Instagram expands shopping on IGTV, plans test of shopping on Reels

Instagram this morning announced the global expansion of its Instagram Shopping service across IGTV. The product, which lets you watch a video then check out with a few taps, offers creators and influencers a way to more directly monetize their user base on Instagram, while also giving brands a way to sell merchandise to their followers. Instagram said it would also soon begin testing shopping within its newer feature and TikTok rival, Reels.

Image Credits: Instagram

Shopping has become a larger part of the Instagram experience over the past few years.

Instagram’s Explore section in 2018 gained a personalized Shopping channel filled with the things Instagram believed you’d want the most. It also expanded Shopping tags to Stories. Last year, it launched Checkout, a way to transact within the app when you saw something you wanted to buy. And just this summer, Instagram redesigned its dedicated Shop section, now powered by Facebook Pay.

Today, Instagram users can view products and make purchases across IGTV, Instagram Live and Stories.

On IGTV, users can either complete the purchase via the in-app checkout or they can visit the seller’s website to buy. However, the expectation is that many shoppers will choose to pay for their items without leaving the app, for convenience’s sake. This allows Instagram to collect selling fees on those purchases. At scale, this can produce a new revenue stream for the company — particularly now as consumers shop online more than ever, due to the coronavirus pandemic’s acceleration of e-commerce.

In the future, Instagram says its shoppable IGTV videos will be made discoverable on Instagram Shop, as well.

Given its intention to make shopping a core part of the Instagram platform, it’s not surprising that the company intends to make Reels shoppable, too.

“Digital creators and brands help bring emerging culture to Instagram, and people come to Instagram to get inspired by them. By bringing shopping to IGTV and Reels, we’re making it easy to shop directly from videos. And in turn, helping sellers share their story, reach customers, and make a living,” said Instagram COO Justin Osofsky, in a statement.

Instagram isn’t alone in seeing the potential for shopping inspired by short-form video content. Walmart’s decision to try to acquire a stake in TikTok is tied to the growing “social commerce” trend which mixes together social media and online shopping to create a flurry of demand for new products — like a modern-day QVC aimed at Gen Z and broadcast across smartphones’ small screens.

By comparison, TikTok so far has only dabbled with social commerce. It has run select ad tests, like a partnership with Levi’s during the early days of the pandemic to create influencer-created ads that appeared in users’ feeds and directed users to Levi’s website. It has also experimented with allowing users to add links to e-commerce sites to TikTok profiles and other features.

Instagram didn’t say when Reels would gain shopping features, beyond “later this year.”

 

The Little Black Door app makes luxury wardrobes shareable, resalable, and sustainable

When Lexi Willetts and Marina Pengilly realized they could make as much as £30,000 a year reselling their luxury clothes and accessories online, they resolved to create a solution for modern women who are already well-versed in the behaviors of Instagram and the sharing economy. Their solution, Little Black Door, has just gone live on the iOS store, and allows women to see, style and share their wardrobes with friends and followers. It also connects them to resale platforms, unlocking a vastly more environmental-friendly and sustainable way to shop for high-quality fashion. And with the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the fashion world, the app is set to benefit, as consumers head to the re-sale of luxury, rather than new items.

As Willetts puts it: “This started as a response to our own bad wardrobe behaviors. Our overbuying often because we forgot what we had, often thinking to buy rather than borrow from friends. Plus, we saw the headache of creating resale listings. Realizing that so much of our interactions were online, thus producing very rich e-receipt data, we set about thinking of how we could make use of that to create better wardrobe engagement and reduce our overbuying of irrelevant, cheap fashion.”

The problem with platforms like this has always been: how to digitize the wardrobe in the first place. Most people can’t be bothered to go to the trouble. But this app takes a fresh approach. It concentrates on using wardrobe purchase data and leveraging social sharing behavior to more easily create a digital wardrobe. It also allows the wardrobe to be connected with retail, making it far easier to start the resale journey of selling unwanted items.

The resulting LBD app appears at first to be a sort of ‘Instagram and Depop’ mashup. Users add items to their virtual wardrobe which then employs image recognition AI and natural language processing to figure out what the item is, and tries to categorize it as well. It checks with the user if something is a t-shirt, black, short sleeve, minimalism, urban casual, etc. before it’s confirmed into the wardrobe.

But perhaps more interestingly, the LBD app will ingest receipts of items purchased via email. This means the wardrobe can be built up from new or existing data the user already has. Once the wardrobe is built inside the app, the user can see the clothes and categories, their total wardrobe spend, and create “lookbooks” which they can share with friends and followers to comment on. Friends can then borrow items or users can send items to resale via the ‘swipe to sell’ feature.

Most other wardrobe apps haven’t created a ‘viral loop’ whereby the user is incentivized to use the app daily. LBD has added social features to create a community-driven platform that is almost like an ‘Instagram for fashion’.

Previous ‘wardrobe apps’ like this have obsessed over whether the app can recognize clothes or not, but most don’t work well. The better use of AI, as LBD has realized, is to use receipts data and purchase histories, plus retail partner links, to add to wardrobes. This means the wardrobe upload feature isn’t the primary focus, as it is trumped by wardrobe item data. It’s on this basis that they can create more useful and – crucially – playful features.

“We’ve designed features to entertain and engage the user relating to their wardrobe. We create ease of sharing with friends, tapping into the sharing economy mindset… Moreover, the app is designed to build a culture of conscious consumption, encouraging users to buy less ‘fast fashion’, invest in quality pieces, and wear and share the contents of their closets,” says Willetts.

So the app is interesting, but what about the business model? Effectively, LBD is creating a data play around women’s wardrobes. They could use the data to create advertising for relevant and sustainable brands; partnerships with retailers; value-added services; a resale platform with commissions; verified sellers; and a premium version for high-end users with high-end wardrobes.

LBD is hitting four key trends. The rise of resale (see Real Real, Depop); the rise in sharing wardrobe behaviors (rentals like Rent the Runway, Hurr); the rise in the use of AI in e-commence; and the rise of re-receipts and online sales.

The fashion market is big. The global clothing and apparel market is worth $758.4bn and is over 50% female. But although that market has been hit by the COV-19 pandemic – as people needed to dress up less during lockdown – it is recovering, and now with a client base far more aware of the issues of sustainability. So LBD is set to benefit from that general ‘re-set’.

And, in the coming recession, it will be cheaper to shop second hand from sellers you have an insight into (your friends) as well as selling items to re-sale. For retail partners, they get better data on what consumers really do within the privacy of their wardrobes, allowing them to produce and sell more relevant and more targeted collections, reducing inventory waste, and generating a positive environmental impact.

Instagram CEO, ACLU slam TikTok and WeChat app bans for putting US freedoms into the balance

As people begin to process the announcement from the U.S. Department of Commerce detailing how it plans, on grounds of national security, to shut down TikTok and WeChat — starting with app downloads and updates for both, plus all of WeChat’s services, on September 20, with TikTok following with a shut down of servers and services on November 12 — the CEO of Instagram and the ACLU are among those speaking out against the move.

The CEO of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, wasted little time in taking to Twitter to criticize the announcement. His particular beef is the implication the move will have for U.S. companies — like his — that also have built their businesses around operating across national boundaries.

In essence, if the U.S. starts to ban international companies from operating in the U.S., then it opens the door for other countries to take the same approach with U.S. companies.

Meanwhile, the ACLU has been outspoken in criticizing the announcement on the grounds of free speech.

“This order violates the First Amendment rights of people in the United States by restricting their ability to communicate and conduct important transactions on the two social media platforms,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, in a statement today.

Shamsi added that ironically, while the U.S. government might be crying foul over national security, blocking app updates poses a security threat in itself.

“The order also harms the privacy and security of millions of existing TikTok and WeChat users in the United States by blocking software updates, which can fix vulnerabilities and make the apps more secure. In implementing President Trump’s abuse of emergency powers, Secretary Ross is undermining our rights and our security. To truly address privacy concerns raised by social media platforms, Congress should enact comprehensive surveillance reform and strong consumer data privacy legislation.”

Vanessa Pappas, who is the acting CEO of TikTok, also stepped in to endorse Mosseri’s words and publicly asked Facebook to join TikTok’s litigation against the U.S. over its moves.

We agree that this type of ban would be bad for the industry. We invite Facebook and Instagram to publicly join our challenge and support our litigation,” she said in her own tweet responding to Mosseri, while also retweeting the ACLU. (Interesting how Twitter becomes Switzerland in these stories, huh?) “This is a moment to put aside our competition and focus on core principles like freedom of expression and due process of law.”

The move to shutter these apps has been wrapped in an increasingly complex set of issues, and these two dissenting voices highlight not just some of the conflict between those issues, but the potential consequences and detriment of acting based on one issue over another.

The Trump administration has stated that the main reason it has pinpointed the apps has been to “safeguard the national security of the United States” in the face of nefarious activity out of China, where the owners of WeChat and TikTok, respectively Tencent and ByteDance, are based:

“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has demonstrated the means and motives to use these apps to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and the economy of the U.S.,” today’s statement from the U.S. Department of Commerce noted. “Today’s announced prohibitions, when combined, protect users in the U.S. by eliminating access to these applications and significantly reducing their functionality.”

In reality, it’s hard to know where the truth actually lies.

In the case of the ACLU and Mosseri’s comments, they are highlighting issues of principles but not necessarily precedent.

It’s not as if the U.S. would be the first country to take a nationalist approach to how it permits the operation of apps. Facebook and its stable of apps, as of right now, are unable to operate in China without a VPN (and even with a VPN, things can get tricky). And free speech is regularly ignored in a range of countries today.

But the U.S. has always positioned itself as a standard-bearer in both of these areas, and so apart from the self-interest that Instagram might have in advocating for more free-market policies, it points to wider market and business position that’s being eroded.

The issue, of course, is a little like an onion (a stinking onion, I’d say), with well more than just a couple of layers around it, and with the ramifications bigger than TikTok (with 100 million users in the U.S. and huge in pop culture beyond even that) or WeChat (much smaller in the U.S. but huge elsewhere and valued by those who do use it).

The Trump administration has been carefully selecting issues to tackle to give voters reassurance of Trump’s commitment to “Make America Great Again,” building examples of how it’s helping to promote U.S. interests and demote those that stand in its way. China has been a huge part of that image building, positioned as an adversary in industrial, defence and other arenas. Pinpointing specific apps and how they might pose a security threat by sucking up our data fits neatly into that strategy.

But are they really security threats, or are they just doing the same kind of nefarious data ingesting that every social app does in order to work? Will the U.S. banning them really mean that other countries, up to now more in favor of a free market, will fall in line and take a similar approach? Will people really stop being able to express themselves?

Those are the questions that Trump has forced into the balance with his actions, and even if they were not issues before, they have very much become so now.

Instagram is building a product equity team and hiring a director of diversity and inclusion

Instagram announced some changes it’s making that are geared toward advancing equity within its workplace. The changes come after Instagram in June spoke about elevating, rather than suppressing Black voices in light of the killing of George Floyd.

“More than ever, people are turning to the platform to raise awareness for the racial, civic, and social causes they care about,” Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, wrote in a blog post. “It’s a big part of why we committed in June to review the ways Instagram could be underserving certain groups of people. We have a responsibility to look at what we build and how we build, so that people’s experiences with our product better mirrors the actions and aspirations of our community.”

For starters, the Facebook-owned company has created an Equity team to work on “better understanding and addressing bias in our product development” the experiences people have on Instagram, Mosseri wrote. Part of the responsibilities of that team include creating fair and equitable products, as well as ensuring algorithmic fairness. According to a job posting for an equity and inclusion product manager, the team will be fully focused on equity and inclusion, and “creating the most equitable experience for our global communities.”

Instagram is also looking to hire its own diversity lead. According to the job posting, the director of diversity and inclusion will be responsible for increasing and retaining people from diverse backgrounds, among other things. Facebook has had a head of diversity in place since 2013, but given how big of a company Facebook has become, it seems worthwhile to have a diversity leader specifically focused on Instagram.

Instagram says it has also updated its policies around implicit hate speech, such as depictions of blackface or stereotypes about Jewish people. Instagram says it will also now disable accounts that make serious rape threats, instead of just removing the content.

On the verification front, Instagram has also expanded its criteria to include more Black, LGBTQ+ and Latinx media. Instagram has also stopped automatically prioritizing verification for accounts with high followings.

Facebook threatens to block news sharing in Australia as it lobbies against revenue share law

Adtech giant and self-styled ‘free speech champion’, Facebook, has threatened to pull the plug on the public sharing of news content on Facebook and Instagram in Australia.

The aggressive threat is Facebook’s attempt to lobby against a government plan that will require it and Google to share revenue with regional news media to recompense publishers for distributing and monetizing professionally produced content on their platforms.

Consultation on a draft of the mandatory code — which Australia’s lawmakers say is intended to address “acute bargaining power imbalances” between local news businesses and the adtech duopoly — closed on August 28, with a final version expected imminently from Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and then due to be put before parliament.

Facebook’s threat thus looks timed to turn the heat up on lawmakers as they’re about to debate the details of the code. However dangling the prospect of blocking professionally produced news in an attempt to thwart a law change that’s not in its commercial interests will do nothing to reduce lawmakers’ concerns about the level of market power being wielded by tech giants.

Last month Google also warned that if Australia goes ahead with the plan then the quality of regional search results and YouTube recommendations will suffer — becoming “less relevant and helpful” if the law goes into effect.

Both platform giants are essentially saying that unless the bulk of professional reportage can be freely distributed on their platforms, leaving them free to monetize it via serving ads and through the acquisition of associated user data, then unverified user generated content will be left to fill the gap.

The clear implication is that lower grade content — and potentially democracy-denting disinformation — will be left to thrive. Or, in plainer language, the threat boils down to: Give us your journalism for free or watch your society pay the price as our platforms plug the information gap with any old clickbait.

“The ACCC presumes that Facebook benefits most in its relationship with publishers, when in fact the reverse is true. News represents a fraction of what people see in their News Feed and is not a significant source of revenue for us. Still, we recognize that news provides a vitally important role in society and democracy, which is why we offer free tools and training to help media companies reach an audience many times larger than they have previously,” writes Facebook in the same blog post where it threatens — as a ‘last choice’ — to pull the plug on content it describes as playing “a vitally important role in society and democracy” because it doesn’t want to have to pay for it.

Facebook’s calculus is clearly elevating its own commercial interests above free speech. And indeed above democracy and society. Yet the tech giant’s go-to defence for not removing all sorts of toxic disinformation and/or hateful, abusive content — or indeed lying political ads — from circulating on its platform is a claim that it’s defending ‘free speech’. So this is a specially rank, two-faced kind of platform hypocrisy on display.

Last year the comic Sacha Baron Cohen slammed Facebook’s modus operandi as “ideological imperialism” — warning then that unaccountable Silicon Valley ‘robber barons’ are “acting like they’re above the reach of law”. Well, Australians are now getting a glimpse of what happens when the mask further slips.

The ACCC has responded to Facebook’s flex with a steely statement of its own, attributed to chair Rod Sims.

“Facebook’s threat today to prevent any sharing of news on its services in Australia is ill-timed and misconceived,” he writes. “The draft media bargaining code aims to ensure Australian news businesses, including independent, community and regional media, can get a seat at the table for fair negotiations with Facebook and Google.”

“Facebook already pays some media for news content. The code simply aims to bring fairness and transparency to Facebook and Google’s relationships with Australian news media businesses,” he adds.

“As the ACCC and the Government work to finalise the draft legislation, we hope all parties will engage in constructive discussions.”

A similar battle is playing out in France over Google News, following a recent pan-EU law change which extended copyright to news snippets. France has been at the forefront of implementing the change in national law — and Google has responded by changing how it displays news media content in Google News in the country, switching to showing headlines and URLs only (so removing snippets).

However earlier this year France’s competition watchdog slapped down the tactic — saying Google’s unilateral withdrawal of snippets to deny payment to publishers is likely to constitute an abuse of a dominant market position, which it asserted “seriously and immediately damaged the press sector.”

Google’s share of the search market in Europe remains massively dominant — with the tech giant taking greater than 90% marketshare. (Something that underpins a number of regional antitrust enforcements against various aspects of its business.)

In Australia, Facebook’s position as a news distributor appears to be less strong, with the ACCC citing the University of Canberra’s 2020 Digital News Report which found that 39% of Australians use Facebook for general news, and 49% use Facebook for news about COVID-19.

However information and disinformation do not distribute equally, with plenty of studies indicating a faster spread for fake news — which suggests Facebook’s platform power to distribute bullshit is far greater than its role in informing societies by spreading bona fide news. That in turn makes its threat to block genuine reportage an antisocial weaponization of its dominance of social media.

TikTok’s rivals in India struggle to cash in on its ban

For years, India has served as the largest open battleground for Silicon Valley and Chinese firms searching for their next billion users.

With more than 400 million WhatsApp users, India is already the largest market for the Facebook-owned service. The social juggernaut’s big blue app also reaches more than 300 million users in the country.

Google is estimated to reach just as many users in India, with YouTube closely rivaling WhatsApp for the most popular smartphone app in the country.

Several major giants from China, like Alibaba and Tencent (which a decade ago shut doors for most foreign firms), also count India as their largest overseas market. At its peak, Alibaba’s UC Web gave Google’s Chrome a run for its money. And then there is TikTok, which also identified India as its biggest market outside of China.

Though the aggressive arrival of foreign firms in India helped accelerate the growth of the local ecosystem, their capital and expertise also created a level of competition that made it too challenging for most Indian firms to claim a slice of their home market.

New Delhi’s ban on 59 Chinese apps on June 30 on the basis of cybersecurity concerns has changed a lot of this.

Indian apps that rarely made an appearance in the top 20 have now flooded the charts. But are these skyrocketing download figures translating to sustaining users?

An industry executive leaked the download, monthly active users, weekly active users and daily active users figures from one of the top mobile insight firms. In this Extra Crunch report, we take a look at the changes New Delhi’s ban has enacted on the world’s second largest smartphone market.

TikTok copycats

Scores of startups in India, including news aggregator DailyHunt, on-demand video streamer MX Player and advertising giant InMobi Group, have launched their short-video format apps in recent months.