Drink-a-day startup Hooch adds a perk-filled premium membership plan

Hooch, the subscription startup that allows members to claim one free drink per day from hundreds of different bars and restaurants, is adding a new membership level called Hooch Black.

Signing up for Hooch Black will cost you significantly more than the regular subscription — instead of $9.99 per month, it’s $295 per year. And you don’t just get in automatically; you actually need to fill out an application.

But in exchange for that money and work, Hooch Black members get access to a variety of perks (on top of the standard drink-a-day option), including deals at more than 100,000 hotels worldwide — co-founder and CEO Lin Dai said that because they’re are only visible to members, Hooch gets access to lower “unpublished” prices that you won’t find elsewhere online, with discounts as high as 60 percent.

It also offers preferred reservations, discounts and free champagne at select restaurants. And there are other giveaways, too — in New York City, the launch offerings include Hamilton and Governor’s Ball tickets.

Dai suggested that Hooch has always been meant as an antidote to apps that “facilitate a couch economy” — instead of delivering stuff to your home, Hooch convinces you to go out to bars. Dai said Hooch Black “continues the concept” with all additional perks tied to real-world experiences. (There’s some couch-centric stuff too, like a $100 Postmates credit.)

Hooch Black

In addition, Hooch Black members will get access to what Dai described as an “concierge who can make travel arrangements and dining reservations for you.” (Those reservations don’t have to be with Hooch partners, by the way.) He compared the experience to an American Express concierge, but with the advantage that the communication is handled in the Hooch app: “No one wants to pick up the phone anymore.”

About that application: Dai said he wants to limit the initial membership to around 295 people in the three launch cities of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He hopes to bring in more people eventually, but at first, having thousands of members would “dilute the experience,” particularly since some of the benefits (like access to celeb-hosted parties) don’t really scale.

At the same time, Dai said the application is “not about income or job title.” Instead, he sees the service as appealing to the same audience of “young professionals or millennial hustlers” as Hooch itself. So the application is focused on your bigger ambitions and “how hard you want to work to get there.”

Dai also noted that Hooch’s current membership is roughly even between men and women, something he’s hoping to continue with Hooch Black.

“We want to build a very inclusive community,” he added. “The primary criteria is, I would say, aspiration. We’re not just catering to a specific income level or race or gender.”

German Supreme Court dismisses Axel Springer lawsuit, says ad blocking is legal

Germany’s Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit yesterday from Axel Springer against Eyeo, the company behind AdBlock Plus.

The European publishing giant (which acquired Business Insider in 2015) argued that ad blocking, as well as the business model where advertisers pay to be added to circumvent the white list, violated Germany’s competition law. Axel Springer won a partial victory in 2016, when a lower court ruled that it shouldn’t have to pay for white listing.

However, the Supreme Court has now overturned that decision. In the process, it declared that ad-blocking and Eyeo’s white list are both legal. (German speakers can read the court’s press release.)

After the ruling, Eyeo sent me the following statement from Ben Williams, its head of operations and communications:

Today, we are extremely pleased with the ruling from Germany’s Supreme Court in favor of Adblock Plus/eyeo and against the German media publishing company Axel Springer. This ruling confirms — just as the regional courts in Munich and Hamburg stated previously — that people have the right in Germany to block ads. This case had already been tried in the Cologne Regional Court, then in the Regional Court of Appeals, also in Cologne — with similar results. It also confirms that Adblock Plus can use a whitelist to allow certain acceptable ads through. Today’s Supreme Court decision puts an end to Axel Springer’s claim that they be treated differently for the whitelisting portion of Adblock Plus’ business model.

Axel Springer, meanwhile, described ad blocking as “an attack on the heart of the free media” and said it would appeal to the country’s Constitutional Court.

ZTE says export ban will ‘severely impact’ its survival

It’s been a hell of a week for ZTE. News Monday that it was being hit with a seven-year export ban sent the company scrambling. The Chinese handset maker suspended its earnings report and reportedly sent its lawyers to meet with Google to see if anything could be worked out about a punishment that could hamper its ability to utilize Android and various key services.

Four days after we first reached out, ZTE has finally offered us an official reaction to the news. And it’s a doozy. The six-paragraph official statement from corporate mulls over the punishment and reasserts ZTE’s compliance to international law, which it “regard[s] as the foundation and bottom-line of the company’s operation.”

ZTE adds that it invested “over $50 million in its export control compliance program and is planning to invest more resources in 2018.” So, why did the company get dinged by the U.S. Department of Commerce for failure to significantly reprimand staff after pleading guilty to violating sanctions on Iran and North Korea?

The company contends that the U.S. Bureau of Industry and Security “ignored” its “diligent work” and progress it has made in complying with the law, calling the punishment, “unfair.” Seven years is certainly severe, given that U.S.-based companies make north of a quarter of the components used in the company’s handsets, according to estimates.

That, coupled with U.S.-based software makers, Google included, put the company in an extremely tight spot moving forward, and will likely require a complete rethink of ZTE’s business model, if upheld.

“The Denial Order will not only severely impact the survival and development of ZTE,” the company says, “but will also cause damages to all partners of ZTE including a large number of U.S. companies.” ZTE adds that it will continue to fight the ruling, taking “judicial measures,” if necessary.

The punishment comes as ZTE finds itself targeted by the U.S. government over spying charges, alongside fellow Chinese handset maker, Huawei.

 

Technique to beam HD video with 99 percent less power could sharpen the eyes of smart homes

Everyone seems to be insisting on installing cameras all over their homes these days, which seems incongruous with the ongoing privacy crisis — but that’s a post for another time. Today, we’re talking about enabling those cameras to send high-definition video signals wirelessly without killing their little batteries. A new technique makes beaming video out more than 99 percent more efficient, possibly making batteries unnecessary altogether.

Cameras found in smart homes or wearables need to transmit HD video, but it takes a lot of power to process that video and then transmit the encoded data over wi-fi. Small devices leave little room for batteries, and they’ll have to be recharged frequently if they’re constantly streaming. Who’s got time for that?

The idea behind this new system, created by a University of Washington team led by prolific researcher Shyam Gollakota, isn’t fundamentally different from some others that are out there right now. Devices with low data rates, like a digital thermometer or motion sensor, can something called backscatter to send a low-power signal consisting of a couple bytes.

Backscatter is a way of sending a signal that requires very little power, because what’s actually transmitting the power is not the device that’s transmitting the data. A signal is sent out from one source, say a router or phone, and another antenna essentially reflects that signal, but modifies it. By having it blink on and off you could indicate 1s and 0s, for instance.

UW’s system attaches the camera’s output directly to the output of the antenna, so the brightness of a pixel directly correlates to the length of the signal reflected. A short pulse means a dark pixel, a longer one is lighter, and the longest length indicates white.

Some clever manipulation of the video data by the team reduced the number of pulses necessary to send a full video frame, from sharing some data between pixels to using a “zigzag” scan (left to right, then right to left) scan pattern. To get color, each pixel needs to have its color channels sent in succession, but this too can be optimized.

Assembly and rendering of the video is accomplished on the receiving end, for example on a phone or monitor, where power is more plentiful.

In the end, a full-color HD signal at 60FPS can be with less than a watt of power, and a more modest but still very useful signal — say, 720p at 10FPS — can be sent for under 80 microwatts. That’s a huge reduction in power draw, mainly achieved by eliminating the entire analog to digital converter and on-chip compression. At those levels, you can essentially pull all the power you need straight out of the air.

They put together a demonstration device with off-the-shelf components, though without custom chips it won’t reach those

A frame sent during one of the tests. This transmission was going at about 10FPS.

microwatt power levels; still, the technique works as described. The prototype helped them determine what type of sensor and chip package would be necessary in a dedicated device.

Of course, it would be a bad idea to just blast video frames into the ether without any compression; luckily, the way the data is coded and transmitted can easily be modified to be meaningless to an observer. Essentially you’d just add an interfering signal known to both devices before transmission, and the receiver can subtract it.

Video is the first application the team thought of, but there’s no reason their technique for efficient, quick backscatter transmission couldn’t be used for non-video data.

The tech is already licensed to Jeeva Wireless, a startup founded by UW researchers (including Gollakota) a while back that’s already working on commercializing another low-power wireless device. You can read the details about the new system in their paper, presented last week at the Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation.

Facebook has a new job posting calling for chip designers

Facebook has posted a job opening looking for an expert in ASIC and FPGA, two custom silicon designs that companies can gear toward specific use cases — particularly in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

There’s been a lot of speculation in the valley as to what Facebook’s interpretation of custom silicon might be, especially as it looks to optimize its machine learning tools — something that CEO Mark Zuckerberg referred to as a potential solution for identifying misinformation on Facebook using AI. The whispers of Facebook’s customized hardware range depending on who you talk to, but generally center around operating on the massive graph Facebook possesses around personal data. Most in the industry speculate that it’s being optimized for Caffe2, an AI infrastructure deployed at Facebook, that would help it tackle those kinds of complex problems.

FPGA is designed to be a more flexible and modular design, which is being championed by Intel as a way to offer the ability to adapt to a changing machine learning-driven landscape. The downside that’s commonly cited when referring to FPGA is that it is a niche piece of hardware that is complex to calibrate and modify, as well as expensive, making it less of a cover-all solution for machine learning projects. ASIC is similarly a customized piece of silicon that a company can gear toward something specific, like mining cryptocurrency.

Facebook’s director of AI research tweeted about the job posting this morning, noting that he previously worked in chip design:

While the whispers grow louder and louder about Facebook’s potential hardware efforts, this does seem to serve as at least another partial data point that the company is looking to dive deep into custom hardware to deal with its AI problems. That would mostly exist on the server side, though Facebook is looking into other devices like a smart speaker. Given the immense amount of data Facebook has, it would make sense that the company would look into customized hardware rather than use off-the-shelf components like those from Nvidia.

(The wildest rumor we’ve heard about Facebook’s approach is that it’s a diurnal system, flipping between machine training and inference depending on the time of day and whether people are, well, asleep in that region.)

Most of the other large players have found themselves looking into their own customized hardware. Google has its TPU for its own operations, while Amazon is also reportedly working on chips for both training and inference. Apple, too, is reportedly working on its own silicon, which could potentially rip Intel out of its line of computers. Microsoft is also diving into FPGA as a potential approach for machine learning problems.

Still, that it’s looking into ASIC and FPGA does seem to be just that — dipping toes into the water for FPGA and ASIC. Nvidia has a lot of control over the AI space with its GPU technology, which it can optimize for popular AI frameworks like TensorFlow. And there are also a large number of very well-funded startups exploring customized AI hardware, including Cerebras Systems, SambaNova Systems, Mythic, and Graphcore (and that isn’t even getting into the large amount of activity coming out of China). So there are, to be sure, a lot of different interpretations as to what this looks like.

One significant problem Facebook may face is that this job opening may just sit up in perpetuity. Another common criticism of FPGA as a solution is that it is hard to find developers that specialize in FPGA. While these kinds of problems are becoming much more interesting, it’s not clear if this is more of an experiment than Facebook’s full all-in on custom hardware for its operations.

But nonetheless, this seems like more confirmation of Facebook’s custom hardware ambitions, and another piece of validation that Facebook’s data set is becoming so increasingly large that if it hopes to tackle complex AI problems like misinformation, it’s going to have to figure out how to create some kind of specialized hardware to actually deal with it.

A representative from Facebook did not yet return a request for comment.

Here’s the 23rd batch of 500 Startups companies

500 Startups may soon be coming up on the one-year mark for the end of a tumultuous saga involving its founder, but its accelerator classes still continue to plug along — and its next batch is now getting ready to roll.

The firm’s 23rd batch of startups this year consists of the usual mix of business to business and consumer companies (even coffee) that end up in each class. This class is definitely a smaller one, but it still seems to spread a pretty wide number of different verticals. There’s also, of course, a blockchain track for this class, though a small percentage of the startups in it are taking part of that — and there was still a certain rigor they had to have to run through it.

“For every major tech movement, for every tech phase, there’s the infrastructure phase and the deployment phase,” 500 Startups partner Marvin Laio said. “Our view, with the blockchain, we’re in the infrastructure phase. A lot of these projects outside that we see and read about, they’re kind of bad. They’re really applications. There’s no point having a mobile app if you don’t have the app store. You need to build out the app store. For better or worse, we’re in the infrastructure phase right now.”

The firm is still clearly making some pretty big changes, including an unconventional deal with the Abu Dhabi Financial Group (ADFG) that gives it a stake in the firm’s parent company. The terms of that deal weren’t disclosed, it was another move among many by CEO Christine Tsai to begin to rework the mechanics of how the firm works — especially as it hopes to succeed as both a venture fund as as a program for entrepreneurs looking to get their companies off the ground. Dave McClure, the firm’s co-founder, resigned last year following allegations of sexual misconduct, and since then it’s been trying to get back to business as usual.

500 Startups takes a similar approach to other accelerators, where they will invest around $150,000 for a small chunk of equity and then take on a small amount of that back (a little more than $37,000) for program fees. The firm has primarily been known for its savvy when it comes to growth and marketing, so the support entrepreneurs get usually has that as a core part of the experience.

Here’s the next batch of 500 Startups companies:

  • Chipper — A mobile app that helps student loan borrowers pay off debt faster through round ups from everyday transactions and contributions from family and friends.
  • Copper Cow Coffee — A service that brings specialty Vietnamese coffee to offices and homes biodegradable pour over technology.
  • Finedine Menu — A management platform for restauranteurs to create data driven digital menus for a smarter dining experience.
  • Harmonica — A mobile application that helps users find the right life partner that focuses on quality and fits conservative cultures.
  • Koreaboo — A digital media company that creates and shares viral Korean pop culture content in English to millions of people around the world.
  • Lexop — A digital process server that allows law firms and property managers prove the delivery of their emails in a legal and trackable way.
  • Lexyom — An online platform that provides users with smart legal answers and tailored legal services using artificial intelligence.
  • Libra Credit — A global lending platform that allows anyone to borrow money against their crypto-curriences and crypto-assets
  • Metadium — An identity service platform that provides the fundamentals for various services providers to develop their business on the blockchain.
  • Orchard — A program for affordable smartphone insurance to enterprises, leveraging diagnostic software to make device support and claims a seamless self-serve experience.
  • Purple Go — Enables retailers in the $36B vision care industry to reach today’s omni-channel consumer with seamlessly integrated online and in-store mobile software services.
  • reflect — A mental health platform that reimagines in-person therapy to be more accessible and effective by using data-driven matching to increase engagement and outcomes.
  • Salusive Health — A nurse-based healthcare provider that offers a technology platform with clinical services to help physician practices streamline disease management.
  • Shezlong — An online mental health platform focusing in the Middle East and North Africa region that allows patients to be connected with licensed therapists via video visit on mobile or web.
  • Solana — A high performance blockchain that can scale over 700,00 transactions per second on stock hardware.
  • Starship — A mobile health savings account with automated investing built for humans.
  • StructionSite Inc — Lets construction project teams access the jobsite remotely and compare design to reality.

Amazon launches a “lite” Android web browser app in India

Amazon has quietly launched an Android web browser app for emerging markets, where access to mobile data and high-speed connectivity is more limited. The browser has the rather generic name of: “Internet: fast, lite and private” on Google Play, and promises to be “lighter than the competition.”

The app first appeared on the Play Store in March, and has fewer than 1,000 downloads, according to data from app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

It’s only available to users in India for the time being, and is supported on devices running Android 5.0 or higher.

Like most “lite” apps, the new browser is a small download – it’s under 2 MB in size.

The browser’s Google Play description also notes that it’s “private,” as it doesn’t ask for extra permissions or collect private data like other browsers do. This seems to indicate that it’s meant to be something of a competitor to other private mobile browsers, like Firefox, which blocks website trackers.

The browser additionally supports Private tabs, so you can browse without saving visits to your history, plus other features like tab previews, an automatic fullscreen mode, and integrated news reader of sorts.

In fact, the news reading experience is another telling indication that the browser is only meant for Indian users. The app’s description notes the browser homepage is designed to keep you up-to-date with news, cricket, and entertainment from top sources. Yep, cricket – the most popular sport in India.

 

And finally, the “feedback” email on Google Play points to Amazon India, which indicates it was built by that team.

Amazon would not be the first to build lightweight mobile apps for emerging markets, such as India.

Facebook already offers “lite” versions of its apps, like Facebook Lite and Messenger Lite, to reach users with limited connectivity and access to data. Google has also rolled out a suite of lightweight mobile apps under the “Go” branding. Some of these, like Gmail Go, only come pre-installed on select devices. Others, meanwhile, are available through Google Play for anyone to download, like YouTube Go, Files Go, Google Go, Google Maps, and Google Assistant Go.

[gallery ids="1623840,1623839,1623842,1623841"]

It is interesting, however, that Amazon didn’t adopt a similar strategy by offering a “lite” version of its existing Silk browser, but has instead built something new.

And if its goal is to offer an alternative to Silk on the Fire tablets it sells in India, it’s odd that the browser isn’t yet available in the Amazon Appstore in India.

Amazon has not yet returned a request for comment about the new app.

The psychological impact of an $11 Facebook subscription

Would being asked to pay Facebook to remove ads make you appreciate their value or resent them even more? As Facebook considers offering an ad-free subscription option, there are deeper questions than how much money it could earn. Facebook has the opportunity to let us decide how we compensate it for social networking. But choice doesn’t always make people happy.

In February I explored the idea of how Facebook could disarm data privacy backlash and boost well-being by letting us pay a monthly subscription fee instead of selling our attention to advertisers. The big takeaways were:

  • Mark Zuckerberg insists that Facebook will remain free to everyone, including those who can’t afford a monthly fee, so subscriptions would be an opt-in alternative to ads rather than a replacement that forces everyone to pay
  • Partially decoupling the business model from maximizing your total time spent on Facebook could let it actually prioritize time well spent because it wouldn’t have to sacrifice ad revenue
  • The monthly subscription price would need to offset Facebook’s ad earnings. In the US & Canada Facebook earned $19.9 billion in 2017 from 239 million users. That means the average user there would have to pay $7 per month

However, my analysis neglected some of the psychological fallout of telling people they only get to ditch ads if they can afford it, the loss of ubiquitous reach for advertisers, and the reality of which users would cough up the cash. Though on the other hand, I also neglected the epiphany a price tag could produce for users angry about targeted advertising.

What’s Best For Everyone

This conversation is relevant because Zuckerberg was asked twice by congress about Facebook potentially offering subscriptions. Zuckerberg endorsed the merits of ad-supported apps, but never ruled out letting users buy a premium version. “We don’t offer an option today for people to pay to not show ads” Zuckerberg said, later elaborating that “Overall, I think that the ads experience is going to be the best one. I think in general, people like not having to pay for a service. A lot of people can’t afford to pay for a service around the world, and this aligns with our mission the best.”

But that word ‘today’ gave a glimmer of hope that we might be able to pay in the future.

Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg testifies during a US House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 11, 2018. (Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

What would we be paying for beyond removing ads, though?. Facebook already lets users concerned about their privacy opt out of some ad targeting, just not seeing ads as a whole. Zuckerberg’s stumping for free Internet services make it seem unlikely that Facebook would build valuable features and reserve them for subscribers

Spotify only lets paid users play any song they want on-demand, while ad-supported users are stuck on shuffle. LinkedIn only lets paid users message anyone they want and appear as a ‘featured applicant’ to hirers, while ad-supported users can only message their connections. Netflix only lets paid users…use it at all.

But Facebook views social networking as a human right, and would likely want to give all users any extra features it developed like News Feed filters to weed out politics or baby pics. Facebook also probably wouldn’t sell features that break privacy like how LinkedIn subscribers can see who visited their profiles. In fact, I wouldn’t bet on Facebook offering any significant premium-only features beyond removing ads. That could make it a tough sell.

Meanwhile, advertisers trying to reach every member of a demographic might not want a way for people to pay to opt-out of ads. If they’re trying to promote a new movie, a restaurant chain, or an election campaign, they’d want as strong of penetration amongst their target audience as they can get. A subscription model punches holes in the ubiquity of Facebook ads that drive businesses to the app.

Resentment Vs Appreciation

But the biggest issue is that Facebook is just really good at monetizing with ads. For never charging users, it earns a ton of money. $40 billion in 2017. Convincing people to pay more with their wallets than their eyeballs may be difficult. And the ones who want to pay are probably worth much more than the average.

Let’s look at the US & Canada market where Facebook earns the most per user because they’re wealthier and have more disposable income than people in other parts of the world, and therefore command higher ad rates. On average US and Canada users earn Facebook $7 per month from ads. But those willing and able to pay are probably richer than the average user, so luxury businesses pay more to advertise to them, and probably spend more time browsing Facebook than the average user, so they see more of those ads.

Brace for sticker shock, because for Facebook to offset the ad revenue of these rich hardcore users, it might have to charge more like $11 to $14 per month.

With no bonus features, that price for something they can get for free could seem way too high. Many who could afford it still wouldn’t justify it, regardless of how much time they spend on Facebook compared to other media subscriptions they shell out for. Those who truly can’t afford it might suddenly feel more resentment towards the Facebook ads they’ve been scrolling past unperturbed for years. Each one would be a reminder that they don’t have the cash to escape Facebook’s data mines.

But perhaps it’s just as likely that people would feel the exact opposite — that having to see those ads really isn’t so bad when faced with the alternative of a steep subscription price.

People often don’t see worth in what they get for free. Being confronted with a price tag could make them more cognizant of the value exchange they’re voluntarily entering. Social networking costs money to operate, and they have to pay somehow. Seeing ads keeps Facebook’s lights on, its labs full of future products, and its investors happy.

That’s why it might not matter if Facebook can only get 4 percent, or 1 percent, or 0.1 percent of users to pay. It could be worth it for Facebook to build out a subscription option to empower users with a sense of choice and provide perspective on the value they already receive for free.

For more big news about Facebook, check out our recent coverage:

Facebook shouldn’t block you from finding friends on competitors

Twitter, Vine, Voxer, MessageMe. Facebook has repeatedly cut off competitors from its feature for finding your Facebook friends on their apps…after jumpstarting its own social graph by convincing people to upload their Gmail contacts. Meanwhile, Facebook’s Download Your Information tool merely exports a text list of friends’ names you can’t use elsewhere.

As congress considers potential regulation following Mark Zuckerberg’s testimonies, it should prioritize leveling the playing field for aspiring alternatives to Facebook and letting consumers choose where to social network. And as a show of good faith and argument against it abusing its monopoly, Facebook should make our friend list truly portable.

It’s time to free the social graph — to treat it as a fundamental digital possession, the way the Telecomunnications Act Of 1996 protects your right to bring your phone number with you to a new network.

The two most powerful ways to do this would be for Facebook to stop, or congress to stop it from, blocking friend finding on competitors like it’s done in the past to Twitter and more. And Facebook should change its Download Your Information tool to export our friend list in a truly interoperable format. When you friend someone on Facebook, they’re not just a name. They’re someone specific amongst often many with the same name, and Facebook should be open to us getting connected with them elsewhere.

Facebook Takes Data It Won’t Give

While it continues til this day, back in 2010 Facebook goaded users to import their Gmail address books so they could add them as Facebook friends. But it refused to let users export the email addresses of their friends to use elsewhere. That led Google to change its policy and require data portability reciprocity from any app using its Contacts API.

So did Facebook back off? No. It built a workaround, giving users a deep link to download their Gmail contacts from Google’s honorable export tool. Facebook then painstakingly explained to users how to upload that file so it could suggest they friend all those contacts.

Google didn’t want to stop users from legitimately exporting their contacts, so it just put up a strongly worded warning to Gmail users: “Trap my contacts now: Hold on a second. Are you super sure you want to import your contact information for your friends into a service that won’t let you get it out? . . . Although we strongly disagree with this data protectionism, the choice is yours. Because, after all, you should have control over your data.” And Google offered to let you “Register a complaint over data protectionism.”

8 years later, Facebook has grown from a scrappy upstart chasing Google to become one of the biggest, most powerful players on the Internet. And it’s still teaching users how to snatch their Gmail contacts’ email addresses while only letting you export the names of your friends unless they opt-in through an obscure setting because it considers contact info they’ve shared as their data, not yours. Whether you should be allowed to upload other people’s contact info to a social network is a bigger question. But it is blatant data portability hypocrisy for Facebook to encourage users to import that data from other apps but not export it.

In some respects, it’s good that you can’t mass-export the email addresses of all your Facebook friends. That could enable spamming, which probably isn’t what someone had in mind when they added you as friend on Facebook. They could always block, unfriend, or mute you, but they can’t get their email address back. Facebook is already enduring criticism about how it handled data privacy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Yet the idea that you could find your Facebook Friends on other apps is a legitimate reason for the platform to exist. It’s one of the things that’s made Facebook Login so useful and popular. Facebook’s API lets certain apps check to see if your Facebook Friends have already signed up, so you can easily follow them or send them a connection request. But Facebook has rescinded that option when it senses true competition.

Data Protectionism

Twitter is the biggest example. Facebook didn’t and still doesn’t let you see which of your Facebook friends are on Twitter, even though it has seven times as many users. Twitter co-founder Ev Williams, frustrated in 2010, said that “They see their social graph as their core asset, and they want to make sure there’s a win-win relationship with anybody who accesses it.”

Facebook went on to establish a formal policy that said that apps that wanted to use its Find Friends tool had to abide by these rules:

  •  If you use any Facebook APIs to build personalized or social experiences, you must also enable people to easily share their experiences back with people on Facebook.

  • You may not use Facebook Platform to promote, or to export user data to, a product or service that replicates a core Facebook product or service without our permission.

Essentially, apps that piggybacked on Facebook’s social graph had to let you share back to Facebook, and couldn’t compete with it. It’s a bit ironic, given Facebook’s overarching strategy for years has been ‘replicate core functionality”. From cloning Twitter’s asymmetrical follow and Trending Topics to Snapchat’s Stories and augmented reality filters, all the way back to cribbing FriendFeed’s News Feed and Facebook’s start as a rip-off of the Winklevii’s HarvardConnection.

Restrictions against replicating core functionality aren’t unheard of in tech. Apple’s iOS won’t let you run an App Store from inside an app, for example. But Facebook’s selective enforcement of the policy is troubling. It simply ignores competing apps that never get popular. Yet if they start to grow into potential rivals, Facebook has swiftly enforced this policy and removed their Find Friends access, often inhibiting further growth and engagement.

Here are few of examples of times Facebook has cut off competitors from its graph:

  • Voxer was one of the hottest messaging apps of 2012, climbing the charts and raising a $30 million round with its walkie-talkie style functionality. In early January 2013, Facebook copied Voxer by adding voice messaging into Messenger. Two weeks later, Facebook cut off Voxer’s Find Friends access. Voxer CEO Tom Katis told me at the time that Facebook stated his app with tens of millions of users was a “competitive social network” and wasn’t sharing content back to Facebook. Katis told us he though that was hypocritical. By June, Voxer had pivoted towards business communications, tumbling down the app charts and leaving Facebook Messenger to thrive.
  • MessageMe had a well-built chat app that was growing quickly after launching in 2013, posing a threat to Facebook Messenger. Shortly before reaching 1 million users, Facebook cut off MessageMe‘s Find Friends access. The app ended up selling for a paltry double-digit millions price tag to Yahoo before disintegrating.
  • Phhhoto and its fate show how Facebook’s data protectionism encompasses Instagram. Phhhoto’s app that let you shoot animated GIFs was growing popular. But soon after it hit 1 million users, it got cut off from Instagram’s social graph in April 2015. Six months later, Instagram launched Boomerang, a blatant clone of Phhhoto. Within two years, Phhhoto shut down its app, blaming Facebook and Instagram. “We watched [Instagram CEO Kevin] Systrom and his product team quietly using PHHHOTO almost a year before Boomerang was released. So it wasn’t a surprise at all . . . I’m not sure Instagram has a creative bone in their entire body.”
  • Vine had a real shot at being the future of short-form video. The day the Twitter-owned app launched, though, Facebook shut off Vine’s Find Friends access. Vine let you share back to Facebook, and its 6-second loops you shot in the app were a far cry from Facebook’s heavyweight video file uploader. Still, Facebook cut it off, and by late 2016, Twitter announced it was shutting down Vine.

As I wrote in 2013, “Enforcement of these policies could create a moat around Facebook. It creates a barrier to engagement, retention, and growth for competing companies.” But in 2018 amongst whispers of anti-trust action, Facebook restricting access to its social graph to protect the dominance of its News Feed seems egregiously anti-competitive.

That’s why Facebook should pledge to stop banning competitors from using its Find Friends tool. If not, congress should tell Facebook that this kind of behavior could lead to more stringent regulation.

Friends Aren’t Just Names

When Senator John Neely Kennedy asked Zuckerberg this week, “are you willing to give me the right to take my data on Facebook and move it to another social media platform?”, Zuckerberg claimed that “Senator, you can already do that. We have a Download Your Information tool where you can go get a file of all the content there, and then do whatever you want with it.”

But that’s not exactly true. You can export your photos that can be easily uploaded elsewhere. But your social graph – all those confirmed friend requests — gets reduced to a useless string of text. Download Your Information spits out merely a list of your friends’ names and the dates on which you got connected. There’s no unique username. No link to their Facebook profile. Nothing you can use to find them on another social network beyond manually typing in their names.

That’s especially problematic if your friends have common names. There are tons of John Smiths on Facebook, so finding him on another social network with just a name will require a lot of sleuthing or guess-work. Depending on where you live, locating a particular Garcia, Smirnov, or Lee could be quite difficult. Facebook even built a short-lived feature called Friendshake to help you friend someone nearby amongst everyone in their overlapping name space.

When I asked about this, Facebook told me that users can opt-in to having their email or phone number included in the Download Your Information export. But this privacy setting is buried and little-known. Just 4 percent of my friends, centered around tech savvy San Francisco, had enabled it.

As I criticized way back in 2010 when Download Your Information launched, “The data can be used as a diary, or to replace other information from a hard drive crash or stolen computer — but not necessarily to switch to a different social network.”

Given Facebook’s iron grip on the Find Friends API, users deserve decentralized data portability — a way to take their friends with them that Facebook can’t take back. That’s what Download Your Information should offer but doesn’t.

Social Graph Portability

This is why I’m calling on Facebook to improve the data portability of your friend connections. Give us the same consumer protections that make phone numbers portable.

At the very least Facebook should include your friends’ unique Facebook username and URL. But true portability would mean you could upload the list to another social network to find your friends there.

One option would be for Facebook’s export to include a privacy-safe, hashed version of your friends’ email address that they signed up with and share with you. Facebook could build a hashed email lookup tool so that if you uploaded these non-sensical strings of characters to another app, they could cross-reference them against Facebook’s database of your friends. If there’s a match, the app could surface that person as a someone you might want to reconnect with. Effectively, this would let you find friends elsewhere via email address without Facebook ever giving you or other apps a human-readable list of their contact info.

If you can’t take your social graph with you, there’s little chance for a viable alternative to Facebook to arise. It doesn’t matter if a better social network emerges, or if Facebook disrespects your privacy, because there’s nowhere to go. Opening up the social graph would require Facebook to compete on the merit of its product and policies. Trying to force the company’s hand with a variety of privacy regulations won’t solve the core issue. But the prospect of users actually being able to leave would let the market compel Facebook to treat us better.

For more on Facebook’s challenges with data privacy, check out TechCrunch’s feature stories:

Facebook Stories adds funky AR drawing and Instagram’s Boomerang

You’ll soon be able to draw on the world around you and shoot back-and-forth Instagram Boomerang GIFs with the Facebook Camera. Bringing additional creative tools to the Facebook Camera could make it a more popular place to shoot content and help the company compete with Snapchat.

“We wanted to give people an easy way to create with augmented reality and draw in the world around them” says John Barnett, a Facebook Camera Product Manager about the feature it calls “3D drawing”. It’s rolling out to users over the coming weeks. Matt Navarra first spotted the features.

With AR drawing, you can scribble on the world around you, then move your camera and see the markings stay in place. It’s a fun way to add graffiti that only exists inside your screen. You can add the drawings before or while you’re recording, allowing you to draw on something out of frame, then pan or unzoom to reveal it. Facebook will eventually add more brushes beyond the pastel gradient colors seen here.

Facebook tells me the technology understands the corners and objects in the room to create a 3D spec. Facebook could that use that to detect surfaces like walls and tables to wrap the drawing onto them. Currently, it only does that when it’s confident about the object recognition, such as in optimal light conditions.

Since drawing is a universal language, the feature could make AR easy to use for younger users and Internet novices. Facebook launched its AR effects at F8 last April, and has recently added AR tracker target experiences that are triggered by real-world posters or QR codes. It all started with the company acquiring fledgling AR masks startup MSQRD in 2016.

Facebook added looping GIF creation to the Facebook Camera a year ago, but those can feel a bit jarring since they start back at the beginning once they end. Some users no longer have that GIF option, so it’s potentially being replaced by Boomerang’s established brand and more silky back-and-forth animated video clips. Facebook confirms that this feature is now rolling out to the Facebook Camera.

As we reported last week, Facebook is determined to make Stories work. Despite the criticism of it being a rip-off of Snapchat and redundant given Instagram Stories, Facebook is trying new ways to make Stories more popular an accessible. That includes tests of Stories as the default destination for content shot with the Facebook Camera, showing bigger tiles with previews of Stories atop the News Feed, and showing a camera and camera roll preview window when you open the status composer. Those, combined with these new features, could give Facebook Stories a boost in utility and visibility.

Facebook believes social media is on an inevitable journey from text to photos to videos to Stories equipped with augmented reality. Since Snapchat refused its acquisition offers, Facebook is now on a quest to evolve into an AR company rather than having to buy a big one. It remains to be seen whether users think AR is a novelty or a core utility, but Facebook won’t wait to find out.