Near raises $100M for an AI that merges online and offline behavior to build consumer profiles

One of the holy grails in the world of advertising and marketing has been finding a way to accurately capture and understand what consumers are doing throughout the day, regardless of whether it’s a digital or offline activity. That goal has become even more elusive in recent years, with the surge of regulations around privacy and data protection that limit what kind of information can be collected and used. Now, a startup believes it’s cracked the code, and it’s raised a large round of funding that underscores its success so far and what it believes is untapped future demand.

Near, which has built an interactive, cloud-based AI platform called AllSpark that works across 44 countries to create anonymised, location-based profiles of users — 1.6 billion each month at present — based on a trove of information that it sources and then merges from phones, data partners, carriers and its customers, but which it claims was built “with privacy by design”, has raised $100 million.

The company believes that this Series C — from a single backer, Great Pacific Capital out of London — is one of the biggest rounds ever to be raised in this particular area of marketing technology. That’s not to say that others haven’t also been attracting investor attention (as one example, a direct competitor, Factual, raised $42 million last September).

Near is not disclosing its valuation, but founder and CEO Anil Mathews said in an interview that the company has been growing at a rate of 100% year-on-year and described it as “healthy” with its customer list including News Corp, MetLife, Mastercard and WeWork.

Near (not to be confused with the blockchain startup that raised $12 million last week; yes sometimes startups have the same name…) has to date raised $134 million, with other backers including Sequoia, JP Morgan, Cisco and Telstra (Canaan Partners had been an investor too but sold its stake in a secondary deal).

The problem that Near is tackling is not a new one. The wider swing that we’ve seen in consumer behavior to digital platforms and using connected devices has created an opportunity for (and demand from) companies to better track who is using their products and services, and also to proactively figure out who would be the best audiences to target for future business.

But there have been two catches to that pull: how best to capture activity when it’s not specifically digital (for example, going into a physical store), and how best to capture activity in a way that doesn’t encroach on customers’ privacy and right to be anonymous if they so choose — with the latter becoming more than just a principle in many jurisdictions, but fully-fledged rule of law.

Near’s approach is not entirely novel. Like many others that currently exist or preceded Near, the startup uses a collection of data points sourced from a variety of providers — in Near’s case, the list can include your mobile carrier, data providers that work with dozens or hundreds of apps to source activity, app providers directly, retailers and WiFi operators.

The similarities end there, however, said Mathews. He says Near has a (patented) technique based on machine learning algorithms and other inferential AI technology, which it uses to accurately merge all of these details together to create individual profiles, all without ever attaching a name or real identifiers of any kind to that profile.

“If you ask me, that’s actually the hardest problem we’ve solved,” he said. “There is no other company out there that works with all this data to unify it into individual identities.”

Using mobile device IDs, he said Near can “with a high degree of confidence” connect specific profiles with transactions. “But it’s the fact that we can perform the data fusion in a compliant way, marrying that data in a world where privacy and data safety matter,” that makes the company unique, Mathews added.

Rubicon Project, Factual and Blis are other providers that are building similar technology, he noted, but Near is the first to extend the offering far (so to speak): none others have the same global reach, making it a popular partner for multinationals researching for campaigns and product development.

Marketing research is one of the main features of AllSpark, the company’s flagship platform, where non-technical people can ask questions in natural language — example, show me how many women shop at Whole Foods in San Francisco — and you can get a data-based response, which you can then tweak with more tailored questions about the profile of a user, or use a dragging graphic tool on an interactive map to modify the geography, and so on.

Mathews notes that the “real” numbers that come up from such questions — in the case of the above query, it’s 71,904 women, by the way — are based on the figures of who is actually connected to the Near network. The ratios vary by city and country, but typically, he said that in the Bay Area, it’s capturing around 45% of any live audience (meaning, the actual number of female visitors is probably more like 150,000).

From there, you can save a query to return to it, or even use the Near platform to connect through to other services to craft and launch marketing campaigns. Notably, some features — such the ability for a client to upload or use cookie data into the platform to use it to build profiles — are not available in all markets, part of how Near keeps itself on the right side of company’s own data compliance policies as well as data protection rules in different markets.

Those kinds of integrations is likely one area that will start to get developed even more with this round of funding, to keep Near’s technology from being too siloed and removed from how marketers and researchers typically work.

Companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon have made a huge business out of figuring out how to identify and target audiences and specific users with products and services, by way of advertising and more. I asked, and Mathews said, that he doesn’t see them as threats in this area simply because it would open a can of worms for them.

“They would get into a big privacy issue if they tried,” he said. “Companies like Google and Facebook have done [frankly] an amazing job at identifying audiences, but they are not designed for privacy. We started with privacy by design.”

Indeed, it was Near’s position as one of the “outliers” by emphasizing data protection and anonymity that Mathews said helped it get over the line with investors. “It’s a very tough funding environment for the industry we’re in, but we found interest because of our approach to privacy. That really helped us.”

Ketan Patel, CEO, GPC, echoed that sentiment. “Near provides insights into human behavior by analyzing where people are, and combining that with a multitude of data points to predict and influence behaviour,” he said in a statement. “Given it does this across the globe in a privacy protected manner, it is well-positioned to create an exciting new space that delivers value to both people, and those that wish to build relationships with them.”

UK Facebook users now have a tool to report scam ads

Facebook has launched a tool for UK users to report ads they suspect of being scams.

The feature can be accessed by clicking the three dots in the top right corner of each ad on Facebook, then selecting ‘Report ad’, then ‘Misleading or scam ad’ and finally: ‘Send a detailed scam report’.

So if you want to think of it as a reporting ‘button’ it’s a button that actually requires four presses to function as intended…

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Once a scam ad report has been filed, the feature will alert a dedicated internal ops team at Facebook that is tasked with handling reports — so will be reviewing reports and removing violating ads.

The new consumer safety feature follows a defamation lawsuit filed in April last year by consumer advice personality, Martin Lewis, who had become exasperated by the volume of scam ads misappropriating his image on social media to try to trick users into parting with their savings.

Earlier this year Lewis announced he was withdrawing his lawsuit after Facebook agreed to beef up its response to the problem by saying it would add the scam ad reporting feature — which is exclusive to the UK for now — and establish a local team to monitor ad trends for dubious activity.

Facebook also agreed to donate £3M worth of support in cash and Facebook ad credits to UK consumer advice charity, Citizens Advice, to fund the setting up of a Citizens Advice Scams Action (Casa) service — which has also launched today.

This service will provide specialist one-on-one help to those worried they’re being scammed or who have already lost money as a result of fake ads. It will also undertaken scam prevention work, including by raising awareness of online scams in the UK.

Writing in a blog post today on the money saving advice website he founded, Lewis confirms both the Facebook scam ad report tool and Casa have launched — the former some three months tardier than Facebook had suggested at their joint press conference in January.

As regards Casa, UK Internet users who think they have been, or are being, scammed online — either by ads or other methods — can now call the service on 0300 330 3003 for one-on-one help, or access http://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/scamsaction for more info or a web chat.

Face to face appointments will also be available in England, Wales and Scotland at local Citizens Advice bureaus. Lewis writes that the service is expected to help at least 20,000 people in the first year.

“These initiatives, which are available from today, are crucial, as scam ads can have devastating consequences,” he adds, noting that his own complaints to Facebook vis-a-vis scam ads bearing his image led to more than 1,000 ads being taken down.

“The adverts, placed by criminals, often use fake celebrity images or endorsements to dupe people into investing in fake ‘get rich quick’ schemes, buying diet pills and more.

“They can lead to many people being conned out of their cash – in the case below a man in his 80s lost almost £50,000 – and have a serious impact on people’s mental health and self-esteem.”

We’ve reached out to Facebook with questions, including whether it has plans to extend the scam ads reporting tool to other markets.

In a statement provided to Lewis, Steve Hatch, Facebook’s vice president for northern Europe, said: “Scam ads are an industry-wide problem caused by criminals and have no place on Facebook. Through our work with Martin Lewis, we’re taking a market leading position and our new reporting tool and dedicated team are important steps to stop the misuse of our platform.

“Prevention is also key. Our £3 million donation to Citizens Advice will not only help those who have been impacted by scammers, but raise awareness of how to avoid scams too. At a global level we’ve tripled the size of our safety and security team to 30,000 people and continue to invest heavily in removing bad content from our platform.”

Also commenting in a statement, Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, added: “We know online scams affect thousands of people every year. We’re pleased the agreement between Martin Lewis and Facebook meant we could set up this dedicated service to give more help to people who have fallen victim to online scams.

“This project means we can not only support people who have been targeted, but also raise awareness of what to look out for to help prevent online scams happening in the first place. Citizens Advice Scams Action will work alongside the free and impartial help we already offer to anyone who needs advice — whoever they are, whatever their problem.”

While celebrating the launch of Casa, Lewis’ blog post points out that the initial funding “won’t last for ever” — and he calls on other big online ad players to “follow Facebook’s lead, and put their hands in their pockets”.

At the press conference in January Lewis was especially critical of Google for being less responsive to the issue and for not having easy ways for users to report scam ads running on its networks.

We’ve reached out to Google for a response.

In another recent change to its ads platform, Facebook is also now providing users with more information about why they are seeing an ad — if they click through the menu to the option ‘why I am seeing this ad?’.

The company had been criticized for displaying only extremely general targeting criteria — making the feature appear more like a smokescreen than a genuine step towards ad targeting transparency. But last week Facebook said it was now showing “more detailed targeting, including the interests or categories that matched you with a specific ad”.

It also said it will be “clearer where that information came from (e.g. the website you may have visited or Page you may have liked)”. 

Facebook also announced updates to the Ad Preferences menu to provide its users with more information about businesses and third parties that upload lists containing their personal data, such as their email address or phone number, to Facebook to target them with ads — though limiting the data to a 90-day snapshot.

“This section aims to help you understand the third parties and businesses who have uploaded and shared lists with your information,” it wrote of the changes. “In this section, you’ll see the business that initially uploaded a list, along with any advertiser who used that list to serve you an ad within the last 90 days.”

Despite this, Facebook still does not let users deny advertiser uploads of their personal data to Facebook via Facebook itself.

In order to do that a Facebook user would have to contact each and every advertiser individually.

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

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

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

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

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

Tectonic regulatory shifts

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Image via Getty Images / alashi

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

The need-to-know takeaways from VidCon 2019

VidCon, the annual summit in Anaheim, CA for social media stars and their fans to meet each other drew over 75,000 attendees over last week and this past weekend. A small subset of those where entertainment and tech executives convening to share best practices and strike deals.

Of the wide range of topics discussed in the industry-only sessions and casual conversation, five trends stuck out to me as takeaways for Extra Crunch members: the prominence of TikTok, the strong presence of Chinese tech companies in general, the contemplation of deep fakes, curiosity around virtual influencers, and the widespread interest in developing consumer product startups around top content creators.

Newer platforms take center stage

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Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images

TikTok, the Chinese social video app (owned by Bytedance) that exploded onto the US market this past year, was the biggest conversation topic. Executives and talent managers were curious to see where it will go over the next year more than they were convinced that it is changing the industry in any fundamental way.

TikTok influencers were a major presence on the stages and taking selfies with fans on the conference floor. I overheard tweens saying “there are so many TikTokers here” throughout the conference. Meanwhile, TikTok’s US GM Vanessa Pappas held a session where she argued the app’s focus on building community among people who don’t already know each other (rather than being centered on your existing friendships) is a fundamental differentiator.

Kathleen Grace, CEO of production company New Form, noted that Tik Tok’s emphasis on visuals and music instead of spoken or written word makes it distinctly democratic in convening users across countries on equal footing.

Esports was also a big presence across the conference floor with teens lined up to compete at numerous simultaneous competitions. Twitch’s Mike Aragon and Jana Werner outlined Twitch’s expansion in content verticals adjacent to gaming like anime, sports, news, and “creative content’ as the first chapter in expanding the format of interactive live-streams across all verticals. They also emphasized the diversity of revenue streams Twitch enables creators to leverage: ads, tipping, monthly patronage, Twitch Prime, and Bounty Board (which connects brands and live streamers).

Verified Expert Brand Designer: Studio Rodrigo

Ritik Dholakia worked as a startup product manager before he co-founded Studio Rodrigo, a branding and product design agency based in NYC. Unlike traditional branding firms, Studio Rodrigo is proud of its product design chops, especially when it comes to helping early-stage startups build version one of their product. It’s not an easy balancing act since most companies eventually want to bring their product design talent in-house, but it turns out, Studio Rodrigo can help with that too. Learn more about the studio in our Q&A with founder Ritik Dholakia.

Studio Rodrigo’s unique approach:

“Studio Rodrigo listened to all of our goals and dreams, concerns and uncertainties, and created a brand identity, website, and marketing materials that were true to our vision but better than anything we could have imagined.” Tze Chun, NYC, Founder, Uprise Art

“Basically, we’re a full-stack product design team. We have people who can do brand identity from a pure graphic design and visual communications standpoint, and who can also connect the dots between design and technology, business, and customer needs. We don’t have a traditional agency model with a project and account management overhead. You work directly with our designers.”

On Studio Rodrigo’s ideal client:

“We like working with clients that are solving big, meaty, challenging problems. We’ve got a smart team that likes to wrap their heads around the kinds of technologies that are pushing industries forward. For us, that’s currently technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence.”

designer fast facts 30

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup brand designers and agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already. 


Interview with Studio Rodrigo Co-founder Ritik Dholakia

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Yvonne Leow: First things first, how did you get into brand design and product development?

Ritik Dholakia: I’ve been in digital design and product development for about 20 years now. I actually started my career as a product manager at a startup. I worked for two venture-backed startups as the first product manager. I was part of the Series A team, managing product development, acquiring initial customers, and building market traction.

The first startup was an enterprise software platform for customers doing triple bottom line reporting. The second one was one of the earliest social networking platforms, pre-Facebook, and around the same time as Friendster, LinkedIn, and Spoke.

Three great opportunities for startups in the entertainment space

With over-the-top (OTT) changing the way we consume entertainment across devices, most of the media attention is going to the big players trying to elbow their way into the streaming space with big new subscription services and original programming. Less discussed is the suite of technologies that pave the way for those services to connect to their audience and monetize the content.

Okay, it’s true video compression, identity management, analytics, front-end personalization and device-specific experience optimization are not the sexiest topics in the media world. But without those core features and functions, the OTT revolution would be dead in its tracks. And with the big providers focused on content development, user acquisition and business model optimization, development of those technologies is wide open for innovative startups.

As always, entrepreneurs should look for cracks and gaps in the existing processes to find better solutions. Right now, the biggest systemic pains in the emerging OTT ecosystem are around the complexity of the fragmented user experience – having to sign in and out of multiple systems to get to the content we want to watch – and around adapting old mass-audience advertising models to the new era of multi-device, multi-platform, personalized viewing.

Here are three areas where small, nimble startups could make a real contribution to the industry.

Enabling the Evolving Advertising Model

Currently the streaming market is divided between ad-supported services and premium-fee subscription models, but that hard division is unlikely to survive the next wave of market disruption. Premium services like Netflix will need to introduce a lower-fee ad-based tier to expand their audience and compete with lower-priced offerings like Disney+. More fundamentally, streamers will need additional sources of revenue once they have harvested all the low-hanging fruit in terms of subscriber base growth. And because streamers have access to so much user-specific data, the potential for personalized advertising is vast.

Online ad-tech platforms are already scrambling to retool their marketplaces to serve streamers. Is that the right way to look at the new OTT ecosystem, or does the way we sell, serve and measure ads for streaming services need to evolve to address audiences binge-watching longform content rather than snacking on short-form listicles, GIFs and short videos?

There’s also a blue sky opportunity to monitor and measure the performance of interactive ads that provide click-through transactions for viewers watching on tablets or handheld devices. Early data shows these ads can be extremely effective… or they can be so annoying and intrusive that they risk alienating viewers entirely. Do we trust the big companies to get this balance right? Sounds to me like this is a job for small, focused, innovative startups with a single-minded devotion to solving one facet of this problem for the industry.

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Reducing Platform Friction

One byproduct of the fragmentation of the old bundled cable viewing experience is the demise of the relatively simply program grid. What we found in the 00’s is that, even with 500+ channels available through some cable systems, you can make that simple and consumable for viewers if you present it intuitively and augment it with a little bit of intelligence.

Now that we’re entering a world which each content provider requires membership in its private OTT service to access original content plus its archive of movies and shows, it’s no longer so simple. In fact, there’s a lot of friction and overhead between the user and their shows.

We see a huge opportunity for startups to address this by creating a meta-layer on top of the fragmented streaming environment that abstracts away the complexity for viewers while preserving the underlying integrity of the individual services. This layer would act like a web browser, passing user access credentials seamlessly to each site to simplify sign in, standardizing the presentation of content and ads, and securely passing user data to each back end system.

The big players have invested specifically in making these platforms closed and proprietary to maximize their own competitive advantage. You can’t count on them to fix a situation that they perceive as being in their individual interests, even if it ends up hurting the industry and the ecosystem as a whole. But there’s a great opportunity for an outside innovator to come in and disrupt this model before it ossifies into a near-monopoly situation for a few carriers.

Telephone switchboard operators circa 1914. Photo courtesy Flickr and reynermedia.

Personalizing Content

The third big opportunity also addresses this big consumer pain point of complexity, specifically around having too many content choices and no road map for finding the programs we want to see. Once again, this is a problem we were able to solve in the old bunded cable era with smart collaborative filtering technologies, recommendations, and automation that allowed people to essentially build their own personalized content channels featuring stuff they already liked and might possibly like.

Fragmentation of content across closed services makes that more challenging. Luckily, AI capabilities have evolved as well, to the point that we don’t need to think only in terms of personalizing viewing options, but personalizing the entire viewing experience.

Again, business incentives dictate that each OTT service develop its own UX to differentiate itself from competitors, but those incentives work against the desires of viewers to have a simple way to find and view content that’s standard across whatever services they use. There’s a great opportunity for startups to bring forward all that we’ve learned about UX design, customization and personalization, plus a layer of AI to simplify search and discovery of content users prefer, to make the whole streaming world much simpler.

Open Innovation Starts with IP

These are just a few examples of areas where disruptive innovators can fix problems that the industry leaders can’t or won’t. We believe that an open model for innovation needs to be part of the conversation around the future of entertainment, and that conversation must include small insurgent companies as well as the giant incumbents. But for that model to work, we need to ensure that the IP rights of those companies are protected and respected.

If we can stick by those principles, we can create a more stable foundation for the post-cable world of TV entertainment, bring new solutions to market more quickly and more efficiently, and continue to delight audiences with great content rather than frustrating them with complexity and impossible choices.

GetAccept’s workflow and e-signature platform for sales secures $7M Series A funding

Many years ago every sales deal was sealed with a handshake between two people. Today, digitization has moved into the sales process, but it hasn’t necessarily improved the experience. In fact, it’s often become a more time-consuming affair because information and communications are scattered across multiple channels and the number of people involved in a deal has increased. That means lots of offers and quotes are get lost in the mix.
GetAccept a startup which provides an all-in-one sales platform where video, live chat, proposal design, document tracking and e-signatures come together to simplify the life of a sales team.

It’s now convinced investors there is such a need, raising a $7 million Series A funding round led by DN Capital, with participation from BootstrapLabs, Y Combinator and a number of Spotify’s early investors including ex-CFO of Spotify, Peter Sterky. The former CMO of Slack and Zendesk, Bill Macaitis, will also join the company’s Board of Directors.

The new capital will be used to scale sales and marketing, and accelerate product innovation for GetAccept’s industry leading document workflow solution for sales.
This round brings GetAccept’s total financing raised to $9M after then won their first seed round in 2017.
Samir Smajic, CEO, GetAccept says while CRM systems have made it easier for sales teams to manage pipeline and broker deals, “60 percent of all contracts are lost to indecision or simply go unanswered… Prospects no longer have to interact with reps to get basic information about a product or service, making the sales process highly impersonal. But prospects still need a rep to guide them through an increasingly complex B2B sales process in order to make better-informed buying decisions.” He believes GetAccept bridges this growing “engagement gap”.
GetAccept integrates into a company’s sales pipeline through technology partnerships with CRM and sales automation platforms including Salesforce, HubSpot, Microsoft Dynamics 365 and others.
It’s pitched as an all-in-one sales platform which compete with several separate tools including well-financed solutions likeDocsend, Pandadoc, Showpad, Highspot, Docusign, and Adobe Sign. Their ‘sales pitch’ is that companies can do all of the things in those products but the single GetAccept platform is actually geared toward to sales reps and includes the important features that help sales reps to actually move deals forward.
“Getting a deal to the point of contract has become increasingly difficult because buyers now get most of their information online,” said Thomas Rubens, Partner at DN Capital. “GetAccept honed in on this growing issue early on and built a best-in-class platform for managing document workflow and engagement across the entire sales cycle.”
GetAccept has so far signed customers including Samsung, Stanley and Siemens . It’s also expanded to the US and EMEA including Norway, Denmark and France.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An optimistic view of deepfakes

Deepfakes are having a moment.

Their dangers are becoming more known and understood. The media is rife with articles detailing the speed at which the technology has grown in sophistication and become more accessible, as well as the risks involved.

Good.

The negative implications of deepfakes are troubling, and the better we understand them, the better we’ll be able to prevent their worst consequences. For better or worse, the technology is here to stay. But there is a “better” here—deepfakes have much in the way of lighthearted upside. 

Though the debate around deepfakes has grown in stature and complexity, we still struggle to agree on a definition of deepfakes. I think of it as any mimicry, manipulation, or synthesis of video or audio that is enabled by machine learning. Face-swapping, body puppetry, copying someone’s voice, and creating entirely new voices or images all fall into this category. Your Photoshop efforts, valiant though they are, don’t.  

Image synthesis and manipulation can be a powerful tool for creators

Visual storytelling is an expensive business. Hollywood studios spend billions on creating spectacle that wows their audience or transports them to another world. The tools they use to do so—the tools these big players use to close the gap between what they can imagine and what they can create—remain prohibitively expensive for most creators, though less so than a decade ago. Deepfake tech incorporates the ability to synthesize imagery, potentially giving smaller-scale creators a similar capacity for bringing imaginative creativity to life.

Synthesia is a company with a commercial product that uses deepfake tech to do automated and convincing dubbing through automated facial re-animation. They shot to prominence with a video that featured David Beckham talking about Malaria in nine languages, but their product could also be used to expand the reach of creators around the world. If you’re a talented artist who isn’t working in one of the world’s dominant languages, it’s potentially career-changing to have access to a product like this, which could make your work viable in additional languages and countries.

Adobe VoCo is software — albeit still at a research and prototyping stage — that makes it easier for creators to produce speech from text and edit it the way they would edit images in Photoshop. So if you want your movie short to be narrated by Morgan Freeman, you might be able to make that happen.

Tinghui Zhou, the founder and CEO of Humen, a company that creates deepfakes for dancing, sums up the industry’s goals: “The future we are imagining is one where everyone can create Hollywood-level content.” (Disclosure: I am an investor in Humen).  

In the same way YouTube and Instagram shrunk the distribution and creation advantage that entertainment companies and famous photographers enjoyed over talented amateurs and enthusiasts, this bundle of technologies might diminish the production advantage currently possessed by big budgets and visual effects houses.

Mimicry and manipulation of real life have always been part of art.

The applications mentioned above are all to do with closing the gap between creators with different resources, but deepfake tech could also enable entirely new forms of content that rest on the ability to mimic and manipulate material. Every medium of entertainment has incorporated the stretching, reflection, contortion, and appropriation of real source material for the purposes of entertainment. 

We can already see the evidence of these new applications in the still-nascent use of deepfake tech today. While face swapping for porn lies at the malicious end of the spectrum, more benignly the technology’s introduction also sparked a wave of face swapping Nicolas Cage into different movies.

It might seem banal, but it was a form of content creation that, while previously technically possible, was practically infeasible before deepfakes. It’s not hard to imagine that the next deepfakes content craze will be driven by automated lip-syncing, dance mimicry, or celebrity voice impressions.

Respeecher and Replica.AI are just two companies making voice mimicry accessible to non-techies. Check out my demo with Replica’s tech in San Francisco a few weeks ago (recognize the voice?). It’s a small slice of the future of entertainment and content. If you believe that culture in the digital era is the culture of remixing, then deepfake tech has an important part to play in the creation of that culture. 

Deepfakes bring us closer to believable virtual humans

The ability to mimic faces, voices, and emotional expressions is one of the most important steps toward building a believable virtual human that we can actually interact with. We’re already taking tentative steps down the path to virtual humans. Personal assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Cortana have been around for several years, reached a tipping point of consumer use, and are quickly improving. Having said that, in 2019 they still feel more like a new user interface you have to pass precise instructions to rather than a virtual being you can interact with. Think a command line operated by speech. 

Virtual humans are entering the mainstream in a different way: Through the recent wave of digital influencers. I previously wrote about this trend in the context of animation history, but digital influencers are also meaningful in the context of believable virtual humans. Digital influencers operate on the same planes of interaction — think your Instagrams and Pinterests — that most people do.

As such, you and I can comment on a Lil Miquela post or message Astro. This is interaction with a being that isn’t real. The digital influencer isn’t really responding to you in their own words — their content is created by storytellers, much as Pixar films have writers. But these digital influencers are laying the social groundwork for interaction with true virtual beings.  

Lil Miquela / Image from Instagram

Deepfakes have the potential to plug the technological holes in smart assistants and digital influencers. Pushing Alexa or Lil Miquela to the level of virtual humans like Samantha from Her or Joi from Bladerunner 2049 requires the capacity to encompass and express human body language, speech, and emotion. If we counted the number of unique combinations of pose, vocal nuance, and facial expressions you’ve made in your lifetime, it would likely number in the billions. For virtual humans to be believable, their actions can’t be preprogrammed in a traditional hard-coded sense, but must instead be extremely flexible.

Deepfake tech typically takes tons of examples of human behavior as inputs and then produces outputs that approximate or elaborate on that behavior. It could grant smart assistants the capacity to understand and originate conversation with much more sophistication. Similarly, digital influencers could develop the ability to visually react in a believable way in real time, thanks to deepfake tech. Bringing Mickey Mouse to life beyond a Disney cartoon or guy in a suit at Disneyland is where we’re headed. 3D hologram projections of animated characters (and real people) that are able to speak in a realistic sounding voice, moving like their real world counterpart would. 

Creativity starts with copying. Elaboration follows duplication. It is no different with deepfakes, which will democratize access to creativity tools in entertainment, enable entirely new forms of content, and bring us closer to believable digital humans. That is why I think there is as much reason to be excited about the technology’s virtues as there is to be concerned about its vices. 

Superbacklash

Hot startup Superhuman has been getting some ‘backlash’ as happens now and then when someone notices the precise methodology that a startup is using to enable a really freakin’ cool feature set. We’re well into stage 2 now when, inevitably, the backlash itself gets backlash.

The nut of it is that people have been exposed to the idea that Superhuman tracks email you send and receive and allows you to keep better track of it. They do it on your behalf, but without the permission of the recipient.

You can read a review of the service by Lucas Matney, who spent six months with it, here on TC.

The best thing about all of this defense chatter coming in is that the backlash itself is really not all that serious. People are literally just pointing out what they do, which is track email. It’s not a crime (yet, probably) to do what they do. And it provides real, genuine value.

This isn’t, obviously a new idea. It’s done by every marketing platform worth a darn that uses email. Every single email that comes in from a BRAND has some sort of this stuff happening. As do all websites (including this one). People are just not used to it being applied to a consumer product as intimate as personal email, and that sort of in-your-face use of commerce-grade tracking is perking up ears.

A few years back a startup founder with a suite of productivity apps (not Superhuman) asked me about this cool new feature they were planning on shipping: email tracking for senders, built right in. Read receipts and action items and all kinds of cool sounding stuff to make your life easier. He was asking what I thought of it, and whether Apple would have an issue with it if they shipped it on the store.

I told him it sounded like a great idea, but that I would be very cautions of actually rolling it out because it was impossible to get verification from the other side before you began tracking them. There was no opt-in.

I advised him to look at the way Apple handles it, where email tracking happens outside of the body of the email in a sort of passive radar fashion. Instead of active ‘pings’ using tracking pixels or other image hosting tricks, you’re getting a lighter client-side data set to work from. It’s opt in on your side, and doesn’t extend to them.

I warned on it for the same reason that I opt out of services that route my work email through their own servers, I choose not to employ any tracking apps and set up my emails not to auto display images. It’s not because I don’t want actionable insights, its because I am unable to obtain the permission of the people I send it to to begin tracking them.

Yeah, for sure, they’re already tracked 10 ways to Sunday by every spam email from Groupon to The Gap, but this is coming from me, an individual. It’s different, in my opinion, which is why people are reacting the way they are.

Flash forward and now we’ve got a very well capitalized startup with this at the core of their business. It seems like the founders have thought a lot about this and have decided that this tracking is good and defensible. So it shouldn’t be a shock when it comes time to defend those choices.

If you’re a founder, I think that’s a core lesson: always be willing to die on whatever hill you’re building.

I don’t think that the chatter about the tracking feature of Superhuman is a case of people turning on a startup that has become successful. Superhuman is very new, but very buzzy. And, as I said above, the backlash mostly consists of people highlighting their marquee features in detail. I’d bet a lot of people became even more interested in what it’s doing reading the various and sundry tweets and posts about it, including a Big Profile post in the NYT that kicked off this latest round of discussion.

We’ve been covering Superhuman for a few years now, including detailed explanations of what they want to accomplish and what the origins of the product and team are. That’s pretty much our job — to make sure we see this stuff years before anyone else. Heck we even covered the last startup to use the name Superhuman for a productivity app. The tracking stuff has come up in our stories, but I think that people are just more willing to be skeptical of this stuff given the way that the last couple of years have gone. This is something that we have found happening with a lot of privacy issues recently.

In fact, the most astute criticism of the way Superhuman uses tracking came in a post by designer Mike Davidson, who has spent a lot of time working on large systems that have dangerous, as well as exciting, potential. And that post is anything but a ‘drive by’ on the model. It’s a thoughtful critique that actually offers some possible solutions.

I do think they are trying to solve a real problem. But there are clearly components of the way that they implemented their key feature that have potential for abuse.

It is, and I do find it a bit amusing that I have to say this in twenty nineteen, OK for people to want to discuss this and to examine the trade offs in a product that makes other people’s privacy choices for them. This isn’t backlash, this is discussion, and it’s good.

One of the reasons that we’ve gotten to a place where large platforms have been able to be mis-used to manipulate audiences at scale is that not enough people were listening to the conversations that were had about these possibilities early enough.

In context, it is very hard to argue that a genuine moment of thoughtfulness about any startup that has traction, raises significant capital and is aiming to have the most users possible see the world from its point of view is a bad thing.