Wotch is building a creator-friendly video platform

The team at Wotch has created a new social video platform — but wait, don’t roll your eyes quite yet.

“Obviously, we’re very used to someone creating a new internet video-sharing platform,” said co-CEO Scott Willson. “It must be very irritating for everyone to hear that.”

And yet Willson and his co-founder/co-CEO James Sadler have attempted it anyway, and they’re competing today as part of the Startup Battlefield at Disrupt Berlin. They’re only 22 years old, but Sadler said they’ve been working together for the past few years, with past projects including the development of e-learning platforms.

They were inspired to create Wotch because of YouTube’s recent problems around issues like demonetization, where many YouTubers lost the ability to monetize their videos through advertising, and other controversies like an attempted overhaul of its verification system.

Willson said YouTube has been “leaving out creators in terms of communications,” and as the controversies grew, the pair thought, “There has to be a better way of doing this.”

The key, Sadler added, is giving video creators a bigger say in the process: “We’re very hands-on with these creators. We’re not just sending them an automated email.”

In fact, they’re giving creators an opportunity to buy equity in Wotch to get a stake in the company’s success. They’re also appointing a creator board that will be consulted on company policy.

Wotch creators will be able to make money by selling subscriptions, merchandise and ads — not the standard pre-roll or mid-roll ads (which Willson described as “irritants”), but instead partnerships where they incorporate brand products and messages in their videos.

Asked whether this might create the same tension between advertisers and creators that YouTube has been struggling with, Willson argued, “What it comes down to is correctly matching advertisers with creators.” Some advertisers don’t mind working with video-makers who are “pushing the boundaries” — they just need to know what they’re getting into.

Sadler also said that Wotch will be providing creators with more data about their viewers, like identifying their most loyal fans, their most engaged fans and their first “wotchers.”

And the site will take a different approach to content moderation, using technologies like video frame analysis to identify “risky” content, as well as relying more on community moderation. Sadler said it will be a “consensus” approach, rather than the “dictatorship” of other platforms.

“We’re rewarding users for helping to cleanse these platforms,” he added.

Wotch isn’t identifying any of the big creators who he says have signed on, but Sadler told me that the company is largely focused on emerging markets and has already recruited 25 of the top creators in Brazil (where YouTube has an enormous audience, to sometimes detrimental effect) and throughout South America. Those creators won’t be posting on Wotch alone, but they will be creating exclusive videos for the service.

Sadler said it’s those creators who will draw the viewers: “Consumers are loyal to the creators and not the platforms.” And once they’re drawn in, they’ll also experience “a more social platform — see the things your friends are ‘wotching,’ see the things that your favorite creators are ‘wotching.'”

The startup has raised funding from Dominic Smales, the CEO of influencer marketing company Gleam Futures; Bidstack co-founder Simon Mitchell; and Melody VR founder and COO Steve Hancock. Smales is also leading the creator board.

While a beta version of Wotch is already live, Sadler and Willson plan to launch a revamped version of the service early next year. You can get an early preview of the changes by using the promotional code “TECHCRUNCH.”

Fourteen attorneys general will challenge T-Mobile and Sprint merger in court this week

After months of statements, the biggest challenge yet to T-Mobile and Sprint’s proposed merger kicks off today in a Manhattan court. The trial is the result of pushback from a coalition of attorneys general of 13 states and the District of Columbia, who have raised flags over the proposed $26 billion merging of the country’s third and fourth-largest carriers.

“Today we stand on the side of meaningful competition and affordable options for consumers,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “Our airwaves belong to the public, who are entitled to more, not less. This merger would hurt the most vulnerable people among us — leaving consumers with fewer choices and higher prices. We’re fighting in court with a 14-state strong coalition for then, and for all Americans, and we’re confident the law is on our side.”

The AGs contend that such a merger will decrease competition in the U.S. telecom market, by knocking the number of major carriers down to three. T-Mobile and Sprint, on the other hand, have argued that it will do the opposite, suggesting that the companies’ pooled powers would better equip them to take on Verizon and AT&T in the rush to 5G.

Over the summer, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai issued an order essentially arguing with the carriers and suggested the deal move forward. “The evidence conclusively demonstrates that this transaction will bring fast 5G wireless service to many more Americans and help close the digital divide in rural areas,” he said in August.

The trial is expected to last three weeks, per The Wall Street Journal, kicking off with today’s opening statements. Sprint Chairman Marcelo Claure and soon-to-be-former T-Mobile CEO John Legere will take the stand to make their case against the AGs.

Snapchat Cameo edits your face into videos

Snapchat is preparing to launch a big new feature that uses your selfies to replace the faces of people in videos you can then share. It’s essentially a simplified way to Deepfake you into GIFs. Cameos are an alternative to Bitmoji for quickly conveying an emotion, reaction, or silly situation in Snapchat messages.

Some French users received a test version of the feature today, as spotted by Snap enthusiast @Mtatsis.

Snapchat Cameo makes you the star of videos

TechCrunch reached out to Snap, which confirmed Cameo’s existence, and that it’s currently testing in limited availability in some international markets. The company provided this statement: “Cameos aren’t ready to take the stage yet, but stay tuned for their global debut soon!”

With Cameo, you’ll take a selfie to teach Snapchat what you look like. Then you choose if you want a vaguely male or female body type (no purposefully androgenous option).

Cameo then lives inside the Bitmoji button in the Snapchat messaging keyboard. Snapchat has made a bunch of short looping video clips with sound that you can choose from. Snapchat will then stretch and move your selfie to create different facial reactions that Cameo can apply to actors’ heads in the videos. You just pick one of these videos that now star you and send it to the chat.

Cameo could help Snapchat keep messaging interesting, which is critical since that remains its most popular and differentiated feature. With Instagram and WhatsApp having copied its Stories to great success, it must stay ahead in chat. Though in this case, Snap could be accused of copying Chinese social app Zao which let users more realistically Deepfake their faces into videos. Then again, JibJab popularized this kind of effect many years ago to stick your face on dancing Christmas elves.

Snap is only starting to monetize the messaging wing of its app with ads inside social games. Snap might potentially sell sponsored, branded Cameo clips to advertisers similar to how the company offers sponsored augmented reality lenses.

Cameo could put a more fun spin on technology for grafting faces into videos. Deepfakes can be used as powerful weapons of misinformation or abuse. But by offering only innocuous clips rather than statements from politicians or pornography, Snapchat could turn the tech into a comedic medium.

[Image Credit: Jeff Higgins]

Daily Crunch: Uber reveals sexual assault numbers

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Uber reveals thousands of sexual assault reports last year

Uber just released its first-ever safety report, stating that it received 2,936 reports pertaining to sexual assault in 2017, which went up to 3,045 in 2018 (these are U.S.-specific numbers). At the same time, Uber says there was a 16% decrease in the average incident rate.

While traditional taxis also have their safety risks, those numbers are still quite troubling. It’s worth noting, though, that the company has implemented some safety measures designed to help prevent sexual assault.

2. Niantic is working with Qualcomm on augmented reality glasses

To be clear, you’re not going to be booting up Pokémon GO on a pair of Qualcomm/Niantic AR glasses this Christmas. Moving forward, though, Niantic will be working with Qualcomm to flesh out the reference hardware for augmented reality glasses.

3. Netflix earmarks $420M to fight Disney in India

“This year and next year, we plan to spend about Rs 3,000 crores developing and licensing content and you will start to see a lot of stuff hit the screens,” said CEO Reed Hastings at a conference in New Delhi.

4. Airbnb officially bans all open-invite parties and events

The new policy seeks to prevent certain guests from hosting events not approved by hosts — such as a recent Halloween party hosted at a California Airbnb rental in which five people were killed.

5. Inside VSCO, a Gen Z-approved photo-sharing app, with CEO Joel Flory

Known to many only because of this year’s “VSCO girl” meme explosion, the company has long been coaxing the creative community to its freemium platform. Turns out, if you can provide the disillusioned teens of Gen Z respite from the horrors of social media — they’ll pay money for it.

6. This Lego Cybertruck is one even Elon can love

While Lego’s take on the Tesla Cybertruck design seemed to be purely for the LOLs, a remarkably faithful representation has been submitted to the official Lego Ideas crowdsourcing website.

7. Scammers peddling Islamophobic clickbait is business as usual at Facebook

A network of scammers used a ring of established right-wing Facebook pages to stoke Islamophobia and make a quick buck in the process, according to a new report from The Guardian. But Devin Coldewey argues that this is less a vast international conspiracy and simply more evidence that Facebook is unable to police its platform to prevent even the most elementary scams. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

Netflix earmarks $420M to fight Disney in India

Netflix may still not have a million subscribers in India, but it continues to invest big bucks in the nation, where Disney’s Hotstar currently dominates the video streaming market.

Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, said on Friday that the company is on track to spend 30,000 million Indian rupees, or $420.5 million, on producing and licensing content in India this year and the next.

“This year and next year, we plan to spend about Rs 3,000 crores developing and licensing content and you will start to see a lot of stuff hit the screens,” he said at a conference in New Delhi.

The rare revelation today has quickly become the talk of the town. “This is significantly higher than what we have invested in content over the past years,” an executive at one of the top five rival services told TechCrunch. Another industry source said that no streaming service in India is spending anything close to that figure on just content.

While it remains unclear exactly how much capital other streaming services are spending on content, a recent KPMG report suggested that Hotstar was spending about $17 million on producing seven original shows this year, while Eros Now had pumped about $50 million to create 100 new original shows. (The report does not talk about licensing content expenses.)

Netflix, which entered India as part of its global expansion to more than 200 nations and territories in early 2016, has so far produced more than two dozen original shows and movies in India.

Hastings said several of the shows that the company has produced in India, including A-listed cast-starrer “Sacred Games” and “Mightly Little Bheem” have “travelled around the world.” More than 27 million households outside of India, said Hastings, have started to watch “Mighty Little Bheem,” an animated series aimed at children.

India has emerged as one of the last great growth markets for technology and entertainment firms. About half of the nation’s 1.3 billion population is now online and a growing number of people are beginning to transact online.

To broaden its reach in the nation, Netflix earlier this year introduced a new monthly price tier — $2.8 — that allows users in India to watch the streaming service in standard quality on a mobile device. (The company has since expanded this offering to Malaysia.)

More to follow…

Daily Crunch: Imgur launches an app for gaming memes

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. 300M-user Imgur launches Melee, a gaming meme app

Melee, the company’s first app beyond its flagship product, lets users subscribe to the games from which they love to get memes and gameplay clips. You also can scroll through a popular post’s feed if you’re curious about unfamiliar games.

If you’re worried about the risk that gaming communities might turn toxic, Imgur says Melee has multiple layers of community and staff moderation, will remove obscene content and won’t tolerate bullying.

2. SpaceX nears milestone on key crew launch system test

SpaceX is keeping relatively close to schedule on one of the bold timelines pronounced by its CEO Elon Musk. Specifically, the company notes that it has now completed seven system tests of the latest, upgraded version of the parachutes it plans to use with its Crew Dragon capsule when it launches with astronauts on-board.

3. Flipkart leads $60M investment in logistics startup Shadowfax

Shadowfax operates a business-to-business logistics network in more than 300 cities in India. The startup works with neighborhood stores to use their real estate to store inventory, and with a large network of freelancers for delivery.

4. A Sprint contractor left thousands of US cell phone bills on the internet by mistake

A contractor working for cell giant Sprint stored hundreds of thousands of cell phone bills for AT&T, Verizon (which owns TechCrunch) and T-Mobile subscribers on an unprotected cloud server.

5. How to build or invest in a startup without paying capital gains tax

Qualified Small Business Stock (QSBS) presents a significant tax savings opportunity for people who create and invest in small businesses. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Volvo invests in autonomous vehicle operating system startup Apex.AI though its VC arm

Apex.AI is working on developing a robotic operating system qualified for use in production automobiles. Its offerings include a set of simple-to-integrate APIs that can give automakers and others access to fully certified autonomous mobility technology.

7. Check out the prizes for TC Hackathon at Disrupt Berlin

One team gets $5,000, but we’ve got additional prizes from a range of sponsors. Also: This is next week!

300M-user Imgur launches Melee, a gaming meme app

10 years after debut, 300 million monthly user Imgur is one of the last massively popular yet unpersonalized home pages on the internet. Since everyone sees the same upvoted posts when they open Imgur, it creates a shared experience full of inside jokes and running gags. But while you can switch to a feed of topics and creators your follow, Imgur has focused on a one-size-fits-all approach over catering to niche audiences.

The gaming community deserved better, and Imgur needed to seize this opportunity. Video and board game tags were the most popular on Imgur, with 46% of users following them. Esports, Twitch, and streaming stars like Ninja have gone mainstream. And there’s a whole world of esoteric memes about absurd in-game moments, highlights from epic wins, and commentary about the industry. That stuff gets diluted and buried on cross-functional apps like Imgur, is tough to easily browse on Reddit, and often times content about all games is mashed together even though you might only play certain ones.

Imgur

That’s why today, Imgur is launching Melee, the company’s first app beyond its flagship product. Melee lets users subscribe to the games they love to get a feed of memes and gameplay clips. It’s an elegant way to prevent you from seeing jokes you don’t understand or feats of skill you don’t care about. You can also scroll through a popular posts feed if you’re curious about unfamiliar games. Melee debuts today on iOS with an Android version coming in Q1 2020 and a desktop version down the road.

Gamers are constantly taking recordings and screenshots of the games they’re playing” Imgur founder and CEO Alan Schaaf tells me. “But we found that there’s no place for gamers to share those clips. We want to give these highlights a home.” If 92% of surveyed Imgurians consider themselves ‘gamers’, and the average one already spends 30 minutes per day on Imgur despite it being a general purpose image sharing network, there was clearly room to build something just for them.  Schaaf says “Imgur is interested in building things that the Internet wants.”

There’s an immediate in-group feel when you play with Melee. Whether you’re into Fortnite, Smash Bros, or Dungeons & Dragons, you can find your people to geek out with. There’s certainly already forums on Reddit, Memedroid, and elsewhere dedicated to specific games, but those can get a bit exhausting. Melee keeps things spicy by combining content about your picks in one feed. It’s actually a savvy way to browse any genre of memes. I could see Melee expanding into letting you follow your favorite TV shows, movies, and bands…or someone else might with a copy of its format.

I was glad to hear that Imgur took safety seriously with Melee after stumbling into building messaging into its main app without proper protections in 2016. It has multiple layers of community and staff moderation, will remove obscene content, and won’t tolerate bullying. That’s critical in the gaming space that has a nasty habit of turning toxic. If Imgur can keep things on the rails, it plans to monetize Melee with the company’s expertise in display ads.

Eventually, Schaaf hopes Melee can also help up-and-coming game streaming stars find a following, since on Twitch and YouTube they’re often overshadowed by the biggest stars. “If you start a stream today, you have virtually no chance of attracting an audience and competing in this market. Streamers need a place to post their gameplay in order to grow their audience on streaming platforms” Schaaf tells me. “Melee is that place.” He plans to add more robust profiles and ways for broadcasters to promote their streams in 2020. Viewers will benefit as Melee lets them bypass watching a multi-hour stream just for the best parts.

Imgur remains one of the biggest internet communities no one talks about, despite being a top 15 most popular site in the US according to Alexa. Schaaf bootstrapped the company from his bedroom and beyond for the first 5 years before taking a $40 million Series A in 2014 from Andreessen Horowitz. Now it’s focusing on becoming a more lucrative business. The startup took a $20 million funding round from strategic partner Coil which is going to help Imgur launch a premium subscription tier to its free site.

Imgur started at the end of the web era, and took years to build a full-fledged mobile app. Melee is truly mobile first, and offers a lifeboat to Imgur in case its original tribe disperses. It’s a smart way to harness the massive untapped energy of gamers, the way Instagram harnessed our newfound phone cameras. Finally, meme culture is getting purpose-built social networks.

What we know about Qualcomm’s next-gen Snapdragon 865 and 765 chips

Qualcomm’s holding its big annual get-together this week in Hawaii, portioning off Snapdragon news, piece by piece. Yesterday’s event was the big unveiling of the Snapdragon 865 and 765, the chips that will power most of next year’s premium and mid-tier handsets, respectively.

Today, the components came into sharper focus. Expect more from both tomorrow, as well, as the company continues to milk them for the multi-day event, but we’re starting to get a pretty solid picture of what these chips will be able to do.

Let’s start top-down with the 865. Expect the premium chip to start showing up in announcements around CES and MWC, if past years’ road maps are any indication. As anticipated, 5G is one of the key focuses. After all, 2020 is generally believed to be when 5G-driven purchases will start helping to right long-flagging smartphone sales.

No integrated 5G has been announced for the chip. Instead, it will work in tandem with Qualcomm’s 5G modem, the X55. Keep in mind, there are still going to be plenty of non-5G alternative flagships released in the next calendar year. For starters, the devices are bound to be prohibitively expensive. Also, in many markets, 5G coverage will be spotty, at best. Unfortunately, however, it seems that manufacturers will have to buy them as a pair.

Notably, there’s support for a wide range of 5G frequencies. That’s necessary, because carrier approach to 5G has been pretty piecemeal. It varies a good deal from carrier to carrier — and in the case of some, like T-Mobile, a good deal within the carrier.

AI’s the other big marquee bit. Again, no surprise. It’s been an increasingly important aspect of smartphone evolution for several years now. That’s powered by a fifth-gen AI chip that doubles the performance of its predecessor.

There’s also on-board support for wake word listening for use with the likes of Alexa and Assistant, at low power. Imaging improvements include support for 200 megapixel photos and 8K, along with much-improved speeds. On the display/gaming front, there’s now support for 144Hz refresh rates.

The arrival of the 765, meanwhile, highlights Qualcomm’s ambitions to speed up 5G adoption across a wider range of devices. The new chip, which features an option with integrated 5G, could certainly help on that front, keeping cost and power usage down.

Expect devices to start arriving in early 2020.

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

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

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

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

Minimum Viable Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

Instagram Prototypes Age Checks

Luckily, this could all change soon.

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

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

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

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

Illegal Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minimum Viable Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

Instagram Prototypes Age Checks

Luckily, this could all change soon.

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

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

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

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

Illegal Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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