Twitter is purging accounts that were trying to evade prior suspensions

Twitter announced this afternoon it will begin booting accounts off its service from those who have tried to evade their account suspension. The company says that the accounts in question are users who have been previously suspended on Twitter for their abusive behavior, or for trying to evade a prior suspension. These bad actors have been able to work around Twitter’s attempt to remove them by setting up another account, it seems.

The company says the new wave of suspensions will hit this week and will continue in the weeks ahead, as it’s able to identify others who are “attempting to Tweet following an account suspension.” 

Twitter’s announcement on the matter – which came in the form of a tweet – was light on details. We asked the company for more information. It’s unclear, for example, how Twitter was able to identify the same persons had returned to Twitter, how many users will be affected by this new ban, or what impact this will have on Twitter’s currently stagnant user numbers.

Twitter has not responded to our questions.

The company has been more recently focused on aggressively suspending accounts, as part of the effort to stem the flow of disinformation, bots, and abuse on its service. The Washington Post, for example, said last month that Twitter had suspended as many as 70 million accounts between the months of May and June, and was continuing in July at the same pace. The removal of these accounts didn’t affect the company’s user metrics, Twitter’s CFO later clarified.

Even though they weren’t a factor, Twitter’s user base is shrinking. The company actually lost a million monthly active users in Q2, with 335 million overall users and 68 million in the U.S. In part, Twitter may be challenged in growing its audience because it’s not been able to get a handle on the rampant abuse on its platform, and because it makes poor enforcement decisions with regard to its existing policies.

For instance, Twitter is under fire right now for the way it chooses who to suspend, as it’s one of the few remaining platforms that hasn’t taken action against conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

The Outline even hilariously (???) suggested today that we all abandon Twitter and return to Tumblr. (Disclosure: Oath owns Tumblr and TC. I don’t support The Outline’s plan. Twitter should just fix itself, even if that requires new leadership.)

In any event, today’s news isn’t about a change in how Twitter will implement its rules, but rather in how it will enforce the bans it’s already chosen to enact.

In many cases, banned users would simply create a new account using a new email address and then continue to tweet. Twitter’s means of identifying returning users has been fairly simplistic in the past. To make sure banned users didn’t come back, it used information like the email, phone and IP address to identify them.

For it to now be going after a whole new lot of banned accounts who have been attempting to avoid their suspensions, Twitter may be using the recently acquired technology from anti-abuse firm Smyte. At the time of the deal, Twitter had praised Smyte’s proactive anti-abuse systems, and said it would soon put them to work.

This system may pick up false positives, of course – and that could be why Twitter noted that some accounts could be banned in error in the weeks ahead.

More to come…

Twitter Lite expands to 21 more countries, adds push notifications

Twitter announced today its Twitter Lite app is expanding to 21 more countries, which makes the data-saving app available to more than 45 countries in total. The app was introduced last year with the goal of bringing in more users from emerging markets to Twitter. Similar to other data-saving apps, like Facebook Lite or YouTube Go, Twitter Lite is designed to load faster on slower network connections, like 2G and 3G, and also has a smaller footprint, so it takes up less space on the phone.

The app was first launched as a test in the Philippines in September, before rolling out to a couple dozen more countries in November.

Twitter’s hope is that by addressing the needs of those low-bandwith users in international markets, the company could help increase its overall user base, which has remained fairly stagnant.

Today, the company is making the app available to 21 countries, including:  Argentina, Belarus, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Morocco, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Romania, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, Uruguay, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.

These join the other markets where Twitter Lite has been available, such as: Algeria, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Egypt, Israel, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Malaysia, Nigeria, Nepal, Panama, Peru, Serbia, El Salvador, South Africa, Thailand, Tunisia, Tanzania and Venezuela, in addition to the Philippines.

The app offers a variety of features for those on slower or unreliable networks. For example, Lite users can turn on a Data saver mode that allows them to control which images or video load when browsing the network. Once enabled, you can load this content by tapping “Load Image” or “Load video,” as needed.

The app is also under 3MB in size, so it will load more quickly on slower networks.

And like Twitter, the app includes features like Bookmarks, a darker “Night mode” theme, threads, and starting today, push notifications.

The company in November claimed Twitter Lite led to a greater than 50% increase in tweets, and noted that 80% of its then 330 million monthly users were outside the U.S. That percentage remains roughly the same – as of July, Twitter had a total of 335 million users, with 68 million of those in the U.S.

However, the company isn’t growing that quickly outside the U.S., despite Twitter Lite. Also as of July 2018, we noted the company’s international audience had only grown by a modest 3.5% over the past year.

An expansion of the Twitter Lite app will certainly open up Twitter to more people, but it’s not clear there’s much demand.

The app is available as a free download on Google Play.

Openbook is the latest dream of a digital life beyond Facebook

As tech’s social giants wrestle with antisocial demons that appear to be both an emergent property of their platform power, and a consequence of specific leadership and values failures (evident as they publicly fail to enforce even the standards they claim to have), there are still people dreaming of a better way. Of social networking beyond outrage-fuelled adtech giants like Facebook and Twitter.

There have been many such attempts to build a ‘better’ social network of course. Most have ended in the deadpool. A few are still around with varying degrees of success/usage (Snapchat, Ello and Mastodon are three that spring to mine). None has usurped Zuckerberg’s throne of course.

This is principally because Facebook acquired Instagram and WhatsApp. It has also bought and closed down smaller potential future rivals (tbh). So by hogging network power, and the resources that flow from that, Facebook the company continues to dominate the social space. But that doesn’t stop people imagining something better — a platform that could win friends and influence the mainstream by being better ethically and in terms of functionality.

And so meet the latest dreamer with a double-sided social mission: Openbook.

The idea (currently it’s just that; a small self-funded team; a manifesto; a prototype; a nearly spent Kickstarter campaign; and, well, a lot of hopeful ambition) is to build an open source platform that rethinks social networking to make it friendly and customizable, rather than sticky and creepy.

Their vision to protect privacy as a for-profit platform involves a business model that’s based on honest fees — and an on-platform digital currency — rather than ever watchful ads and trackers.

There’s nothing exactly new in any of their core ideas. But in the face of massive and flagrant data misuse by platform giants these are ideas that seem to sound increasingly like sense. So the element of timing is perhaps the most notable thing here — with Facebook facing greater scrutiny than ever before, and even taking some hits to user growth and to its perceived valuation as a result of ongoing failures of leadership and a management philosophy that’s been attacked by at least one of its outgoing senior execs as manipulative and ethically out of touch.

The Openbook vision of a better way belongs to Joel Hernández who has been dreaming for a couple of years, brainstorming ideas on the side of other projects, and gathering similarly minded people around him to collectively come up with an alternative social network manifesto — whose primary pledge is a commitment to be honest.

“And then the data scandals started happening and every time they would, they would give me hope. Hope that existing social networks were not a given and immutable thing, that they could be changed, improved, replaced,” he tells TechCrunch.

Rather ironically Hernández says it was overhearing the lunchtime conversation of a group of people sitting near him — complaining about a laundry list of social networking ills; “creepy ads, being spammed with messages and notifications all the time, constantly seeing the same kind of content in their newsfeed” — that gave him the final push to pick up the paper manifesto and have a go at actually building (or, well, trying to fund building… ) an alternative platform. 

At the time of writing Openbook’s Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign has a handful of days to go and is only around a third of the way to reaching its (modest) target of $115k, with just over 1,000 backers chipping in. So the funding challenge is looking tough.

The team behind Openbook includes crypto(graphy) royalty, Phil Zimmermann — aka the father of PGP — who is on board as an advisor initially but billed as its “chief cryptographer”, as that’s what he’d be building for the platform if/when the time came. 

Hernández worked with Zimmermann at the Dutch telecom KPN building security and privacy tools for internal usage — so called him up and invited him for a coffee to get his thoughts on the idea.

“As soon as I opened the website with the name Openbook, his face lit up like I had never seen before,” says Hernández. “You see, he wanted to use Facebook. He lives far away from his family and facebook was the way to stay in the loop with his family. But using it would also mean giving away his privacy and therefore accepting defeat on his life-long fight for it, so he never did. He was thrilled at the possibility of an actual alternative.”

On the Kickstarter page there’s a video of Zimmermann explaining the ills of the current landscape of for-profit social platforms, as he views it. “If you go back a century, Coca Cola had cocaine in it and we were giving it to children,” he says here. “It’s crazy what we were doing a century ago. I think there will come a time, some years in the future, when we’re going to look back on social networks today, and what we were doing to ourselves, the harm we were doing to ourselves with social networks.”

“We need an alternative to the social network work revenue model that we have today,” he adds. “The problem with having these deep machine learning neural nets that are monitoring our behaviour and pulling us into deeper and deeper engagement is they already seem to know that nothing drives engagement as much as outrage.

“And this outrage deepens the political divides in our culture, it creates attack vectors against democratic institutions, it undermines our elections, it makes people angry at each other and provides opportunities to divide us. And that’s in addition to the destruction of our privacy by revenue models that are all about exploiting our personal information. So we need some alternative to this.”

Hernández actually pinged TechCrunch’s tips line back in April — soon after the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal went global — saying “we’re building the first ever privacy and security first, open-source, social network”.

We’ve heard plenty of similar pitches before, of course. Yet Facebook has continued to harvest global eyeballs by the billions. And even now, after a string of massive data and ethics scandals, it’s all but impossible to imagine users leaving the site en masse. Such is the powerful lock-in of The Social Network effect.

Regulation could present a greater threat to Facebook, though others argue more rules will simply cement its current dominance.

Openbook’s challenger idea is to apply product innovation to try to unstick Zuckerberg. Aka “building functionality that could stand for itself”, as Hernández puts it.

“We openly recognise that privacy will never be enough to get any significant user share from existing social networks,” he says. “That’s why we want to create a more customisable, fun and overall social experience. We won’t follow the footsteps of existing social networks.”

Data portability is an important ingredient to even being able to dream this dream — getting people to switch from a dominant network is hard enough without having to ask them to leave all their stuff behind as well as their friends. Which means that “making the transition process as smooth as possible” is another project focus.

Hernández says they’re building data importers that can parse the archive users are able to request from their existing social networks — to “tell you what’s in there and allow you to select what you want to import into Openbook”.

These sorts of efforts are aided by updated regulations in Europe — which bolster portability requirements on controllers of personal data. “I wouldn’t say it made the project possible but… it provided us a with a unique opportunity no other initiative had before,” says Hernández of the EU’s GDPR.

“Whether it will play a significant role in the mass adoption of the network, we can’t tell for sure but it’s simply an opportunity too good to ignore.”

On the product front, he says they have lots of ideas — reeling off a list that includes the likes of “a topic-roulette for chats, embracing Internet challenges as another kind of content, widgets, profile avatars, AR chatrooms…” for starters.

“Some of these might sound silly but the idea is to break the status quo when it comes to the definition of what a social network can do,” he adds.

Asked why he believes other efforts to build ‘ethical’ alternatives to Facebook have failed he argues it’s usually because they’ve focused on technology rather than product.

“This is still the most predominant [reason for failure],” he suggests. “A project comes up offering a radical new way to do social networking behind the scenes. They focus all their efforts in building the brand new tech needed to do the very basic things a social network can already do. Next thing you know, years have passed. They’re still thousands of miles away from anything similar to the functionality of existing social networks and their core supporters have moved into yet another initiative making the same promises. And the cycle goes on.”

He also reckons disruptive efforts have fizzled out because they were too tightly focused on being just a solution to an existing platform problem and nothing more.

So, in other words, people were trying to build an ‘anti-Facebook’, rather than a distinctly interesting service in its own right. (The latter innovation, you could argue, is how Snap managed to carve out a space for itself in spite of Facebook sitting alongside it — even as Facebook has since sought to crush Snap’s creative market opportunity by cloning its products.)

“This one applies not only to social network initiatives but privacy-friendly products too,” argues Hernández. “The problem with that approach is that the problems they solve or claim to solve are most of the time not mainstream. Such as the lack of privacy.

“While these products might do okay with the people that understand the problems, at the end of the day that’s a very tiny percentage of the market. The solution these products often present to this issue is educating the population about the problems. This process takes too long. And in topics like privacy and security, it’s not easy to educate people. They are topics that require a knowledge level beyond the one required to use the technology and are hard to explain with examples without entering into the conspiracy theorist spectrum.”

So the Openbook team’s philosophy is to shake things up by getting people excited for alternative social networking features and opportunities, with merely the added benefit of not being hostile to privacy nor algorithmically chain-linked to stoking fires of human outrage.

The reliance on digital currency for the business model does present another challenge, though, as getting people to buy into this could be tricky. After all payments equal friction.

To begin with, Hernández says the digital currency component of the platform would be used to let users list secondhand items for sale. Down the line, the vision extends to being able to support a community of creators getting a sustainable income — thanks to the same baked in coin mechanism enabling other users to pay to access content or just appreciate it (via a tip).

So, the idea is, that creators on Openbook would be able to benefit from the social network effect via direct financial payments derived from the platform (instead of merely ad-based payments, such as are available to YouTube creators) — albeit, that’s assuming reaching the necessary critical usage mass. Which of course is the really, really tough bit.

“Lower cuts than any existing solution, great content creation tools, great administration and overview panels, fine-grained control over the view-ability of their content and more possibilities for making a stable and predictable income such as creating extra rewards for people that accept to donate for a fixed period of time such as five months instead of a month to month basis,” says Hernández, listing some of the ideas they have to stand out from existing creator platforms.

“Once we have such a platform and people start using tips for this purpose (which is not such a strange use of a digital token), we will start expanding on its capabilities,” he adds. (He’s also written the requisite Medium article discussing some other potential use cases for the digital currency portion of the plan.)

At this nascent prototype and still-not-actually-funded stage they haven’t made any firm technical decisions on this front either. And also don’t want to end up accidentally getting into bed with an unethical tech.

“Digital currency wise, we’re really concerned about the environmental impact and scalability of the blockchain,” he says — which could risk Openbook contradicting stated green aims in its manifesto and looking hypocritical, given its plan is to plough 30% of its revenues into ‘give-back’ projects, such as environmental and sustainability efforts and also education.

“We want a decentralised currency but we don’t want to rush into decisions without some in-depth research. Currently, we’re going through IOTA’s whitepapers,” he adds.

They do also believe in decentralizing the platform — or at least parts of it — though that would not be their first focus on account of the strategic decision to prioritize product. So they’re not going to win fans from the (other) crypto community. Though that’s hardly a big deal given their target user-base is far more mainstream.

“Initially it will be built on a centralised manner. This will allow us to focus in innovating in regards to the user experience and functionality product rather than coming up with a brand new behind the scenes technology,” he says. “In the future, we’re looking into decentralisation from very specific angles and for different things. Application wise, resiliency and data ownership.”

“A project we’re keeping an eye on and that shares some of our vision on this is Tim Berners Lee’s MIT Solid project. It’s all about decoupling applications from the data they use,” he adds.

So that’s the dream. And the dream sounds good and right. The problem is finding enough funding and wider support — call it ‘belief equity’ — in a market so denuded of competitive possibility as a result of monopolistic platform power that few can even dream an alternative digital reality is possible.

In early April, Hernández posted a link to a basic website with details of Openbook to a few online privacy and tech communities asking for feedback. The response was predictably discouraging. “Some 90% of the replies were a mix between critiques and plain discouraging responses such as “keep dreaming”, “it will never happen”, “don’t you have anything better to do”,” he says.

(Asked this April by US lawmakers whether he thinks he has a monopoly, Zuckerberg paused and then quipped: “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me!”)

Still, Hernández stuck with it, working on a prototype and launching the Kickstarter. He’s got that far — and wants to build so much more — but getting enough people to believe that a better, fairer social network is even possible might be the biggest challenge of all. 

For now, though, Hernández doesn’t want to stop dreaming.

“We are committed to make Openbook happen,” he says. “Our back-up plan involves grants and impact investment capital. Nothing will be as good as getting our first version through Kickstarter though. Kickstarter funding translates to absolute freedom for innovation, no strings attached.”

You can check out the Openbook crowdfunding pitch here.

Facebook now requiring Pages with large US audiences to go through additional authorization

Facebook today announced it’s implementing a new measure to secure Facebook Pages with large U.S. followings in order to make it harder for people to administer a Page using a “fake or compromised account.” Beginning with those that have large U.S. followings, some Facebook Pages will now have to go through a “Page Publishing Authorization” process. This will require the Page managers to secure their accounts and verity their location.

Facebook says the process only takes a few minutes to complete. If a Page requires this authorization, the Page admins will receive a notice at the top of their News Feed directing them to begin the process.

If they choose not to submit to Authorization, they will no longer be able to post to their Pages, the company says. Enforcement will begin this month.

When the Page owners click through, a message informs them why this is being done and what steps they have to take. To secure their account, Facebook is asking the Page manager to secure their account using two-factor authentication. This makes it more difficult for their account to be hijacked by a third-party, and is a best practice that all Facebook users – not just Page admins – should follow.

Separately, the Facebook Page managers will need to verify their location. This will then be set as the Page’s primary country and display in the new Page Info tab Facebook introduced in June.

Here, Facebook will also show a list of countries of the people who manage the Page, and how many managers hail from each country in that list.

In addition, under Page History, Facebook will show when a Page has merged with another.

The company says this new policy will initially roll out to Pages with large U.S. audiences, and Instagram will soon do something similar. Specifically, Instagram will allow people to see more information about accounts with large audiences.

“Our goal is to prevent organizations and individuals from creating accounts that mislead people about who they are or what they’re doing,” reads a Facebook announcement about the new process. “These updates are part of our continued efforts to increase authenticity and transparency of Pages on our platform.”

The changes follow the recent news that Facebook had found evidence of possible Russia-linked influence campaigns on its network, whose goal was to influence the U.S. midterms. The company removed 8 Facebook Pages, 17 Facebook profiles, and 7 Instagram accounts as a result of its findings.

New policies to make Facebook Pages that reach a sizable number of Americans more secure, and their management more transparent, seems like a good first step on Facebook’s part. Though it’s still possible that those aiming to disrupt democracy and seed division will eventually find workarounds for these measures at some point in the future.

AI training and social network content moderation services bring TaskUs a $250 million windfall

TaskUs, the business process outsourcing service that moderates content, annotates information and handles back office customer support for some of the world’s largest tech companies, has raised $250 million in an investment from funds managed by the New York-based private equity giant, Blackstone Group.

It’s been ten years since TaskUs was founded with a $20,000 investment from its two co-founders, and the new deal, which values the decade-old company at $500 million before the money even comes in, is proof of how much has changed for the service in the years since it was founded.

The Santa Monica-based company, which began as a browser-based virtual assistant company — “You send us a task and we get the task done,” recalled TaskUs chief executive Bryce Maddock — is now one of the main providers in the growing field of content moderation for social networks and content annotation for training the algorithms that power artificial intelligence services around the world.

“What I can tell you is we do content moderation for almost every major social network and it’s the fastest growing part of our business today,” Maddock said.

From a network of offices spanning the globe from Mexico to Taiwan and the Philippines to the U.S., the thirty two year-old co-founders Maddock and Jaspar Weir have created a business that’s largest growth stems from snuffing out the distribution of snuff films; child pornography; inappropriate political content and the trails of human trafficking from the user and advertiser generated content on some of the world’s largest social networks.

(For a glimpse into how horrific that process can be, take a look at this article from Wiredwhich looked at content moderation for the anonymous messaging service, Whisper.)

Maddock estimates that while the vast majority of the business was outsourcing business process services in the company’s early days (whether that was transcribing voice mails to texts for the messaging service PhoneTag, or providing customer service and support for companies like HotelTonight) now about 40% of the business comes from content moderation.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Indeed, it was the growth in new technology services that attracted Blackstone to the business, according to Amit Dixit, Senior Managing Director at Blackstone.

“The growth in ride sharing, social media, online food delivery, e-commerce and autonomous driving is creating an enormous need for enabling business services,” said Dixit in a statement. “TaskUs has established a leadership position in this domain with its base of marquee customers, unique culture, and relentless focus on customer delivery.”

While the back office business processing services remain the majority of the company’s revenue, Maddock knows that the future belongs to an increasing automation of the company’s core services. That’s why part of the money is going to be invested in a new technology integration and consulting business that advises tech companies on which new automation tools to deploy, along with shoring up the company’s position as perhaps the best employer to work for in the world of content moderation and algorithm training services.

It’s been a long five year journey to get to the place it’s in now, with glowing reviews from employees on Glassdoor and social networks like Facebook, Maddock said. The company pays well above minimum wage in the market it operates in (Maddock estimates at least a 50% premium); and provides a generous package of benefits for what Maddock calls the “frontline” teammates. That includes perks like educational scholarships for one child of employees that have been with the company longer than one year; healthcare plans for the employee and three beneficiaries in the Philippines; and 120 days of maternity leave.

And, as content moderation is becoming more automated, the TaskUs employees are spending less time in the human cesspool that attempts to flood social networks every day.

“Increasingly the work that we’re doing is more nuanced. Does this advertisement have political intent. That type of work is far more engaging and could be seen to be a little bit less taxing,” Maddock said.

But he doesn’t deny that the bulk of the hard work his employees are tasked with is identifying and filtering the excremental trash that people would post online.

“I do think that the work is absolutely necessary. The alternative is that everybody has to look at this stuff. it has to be done in a way thats thoughtful and puts the interests of the people who are on the frontlines at the forefront of that effort,” says Maddock. “There have been multiple people who have been involved in sex trafficking, human trafficking and pedophilia that have been arrested directly because of the work that TaskUs is doing. And the consequence of someone not doing that is a far far worse world.”

Maddock also said that TaskUs now shields its employees from having to perform content moderation for an entire shift. “What we have tried to do universally is that there is a subject matter rotation so that you are not just sitting and doing that work all day.”

And the company’s executive knows how taxing the work can be because he said he does it himself. “I try to spend a day a quarter doing the work of our frontline teammates. I spend half my time in our offices,” Maddock said.

Now, with the new investment, TaskUs is looking to expand into additional markets in the UK, Europe, India, and Latin America, Maddock said.

“So far all we’ve been doing is hiring as fast as we possibly can,” said Maddock. “At some point in the future, there’s going to be a point when companies like ours will see the effects of automation,” he added, but that’s why the company is investing in the consulting business… so it can stay ahead of the trends in automation.

Even with the threat that automation could pose to the company’s business, TaskUs had no shortage of other suitors for the massive growth equity round, according to one person familiar with the company. Indeed, Goldman Sachs and Softbank were among the other bidders for a piece of TaskUs, the source said.

Currently, the company has over 11,000 employees (including 2,000 in the U.S.) and is looking to expand.

“We chose to partner with Blackstone because they have a track record of building category defining businesses. Our goal is to build TaskUs into the world’s number one provider of tech enabled business services.  This partnership will help us dramatically increase our investment in consulting, technology and innovation to support our customer’s efforts to streamline and refine their customer experience,” said Maddock in a statement.

The transaction is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2018, subject to regulatory approvals and customary closing conditions.

Facebook has removed 4 Infowars pages — but not because of fake news

There’s yet more Alex Jones/Infowars news. Facebook yanked four of the conspiracy theorist’s videos from its platform last week, and now it has finally taken more stringent action after it removed four Infowars pages from the social network entirely.

Over the weekend Spotify, Stitcher and Apple all removed Infowars audio content from their platforms days after YouTube and then Facebook pulled four videos that were found to violate community standards.

A refresher for those who need it: Infowars has broadcast a range of conspiracy theories which have included claims 9/11 was an inside job and alternate theories to the San Bernardino shootings, while it has encouraged harassment of families of victims of the Sandy Hook shooting among other things

Yet despite much attention on the organization and its use of social media, Facebook’s efforts to handle Infowars have been confusing.

One of the four videos it removed had actually been cleared following a complaint one month ago, while the video purge saw Facebook hand a 30-day ban to Jones’ personal account but the Infowars page — where the content was posted — was able to continue on as normal. That was down to the Facebook system of warnings/accumulated warnings for content violations and nothing to do with peddling fake news. That’s apparently ok.

Indeed, the four Infowars pages that have been “unpublished” — the Alex Jones Channel Page, the Alex Jones Page, the InfoWars Page and the Infowars Nightly News Page — were punished for “repeated violations of Community Standards and accumulating too many strikes” after more videos and content were reported to Facebook by users of the social network.

“Upon review, we have taken [the pages] down for glorifying violence, which violates our graphic violence policy, and using dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants, which violates our hate speech policies,” the company explained in an announcement.

Facebook didn’t provide details of exactly which videos violated its policies and how, but it did say explicitly that its action were not related to fake news.

“Much of the discussion around Infowars has been related to false news, which is a serious issue that we are working to address by demoting links marked wrong by fact checkers and suggesting additional content, none of the violations that spurred today’s removals were related to this,” it said in a statement.

Facebook has opted to remain news-neutral, in the sense that only issues warnings based on community standards.

That’s a controversial stance — it is instead pursuing a policy of fact-checking information and letting users make their own mind — but irrespective of whether you agree with that approach, its actions over the past week are problematic because they don’t scale. They rely squarely on the community flagging content in the first instance.

It isn’t clear why Facebook wasn’t able to conduct a more thorough analysis of these Infowars pages last week, when the initial complaints first rolled in. You’d imagine that there’s been enough interest in the topic to warrant a proactive investigation.

Instead, it has taken another week and more reporting of content from users to reach the inevitable conclusion that Infowars has more than just four offensive videos (!) and therefore its pages should be removed(!).

Facebook has chosen to police content based on community guidelines and not the accuracy of information, but the fact it takes so long to take action on the most obvious bad actors doesn’t bode well for finding other, less obvious pages lurking out there that also fall foul of its standards.

Based on that system, it will always be playing catch up. Given the damage that false information can have across its services — from swaying elections to encouraging lynchings, religious violence and more — that simply isn’t good enough.

One more thing re: “privacy concerns” raised by the DCMS fake new report…

A meaty first report by the UK parliamentary committee that’s been running an inquiry into online disinformation since fall 2017, including scrutinizing how people’s personal information was harvested from social media services like Facebook and used for voter profiling and the targeting of campaign ads — and whose chair, Damian Collins — is a member of the UK’s governing Conservative Party, contains one curious omission.

Among the many issues the report raises are privacy concerns related to a campaign app developed by a company called uCampaign — which, much like the scandal-hit (and now seemingly defunct) Cambridge Analytica, worked for both the Ted Cruz for President and the Donald J Trump for President campaigns — although in its case it developed apps for campaigns to distribute to supporters to gamify digital campaigning via a tool which makes it easy for them to ‘socialize’ (i.e. share with contacts) campaign messaging and materials.

The committee makes a passing reference to uCampaign in a section of its report which deals with “data targeting” and the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal, specifically — where it writes [emphasis ours]:

There have been data privacy concerns raised about another campaign tool used, but not developed, by AIQ [Aggregate IQ: Aka, a Canadian data firm which worked for Cambridge Analytica and which remains under investigation by privacy watchdogs in the UK, Canada and British Columbia]. A company called uCampaign has a mobile App that employs gamification strategy to political campaigns. Users can win points for campaign activity, like sending text messages and emails to their contacts and friends. The App was used in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and by Vote Leave during the Brexit Referendum.

The developer of the uCampaign app, Vladyslav Seryakov, is an Eastern Ukrainian military veteran who trained in computer programming at two elite Soviet universities in the late 1980s. The main investor in uCampaign is the American hedge fund magnate Sean Fieler, who is a close associate of the billionaire backer of SCL and Cambridge Analytica, Robert Mercer. An article published by Business Insider on 7 November 2016 states: “If users download the App and agree to share their address books, including phone numbers and emails, the App then shoots the data [to] a third-party vendor, which looks for matches to existing voter file information that could give clues as to what may motivate that specific voter. Thomas Peters, whose company uCampaign created Trump’s app, said the App is “going absolutely granular”, and will—with permission—send different A/B tested messages to users’ contacts based on existing information.”

What’s curious is that Collins’ Conservative Party also has a campaign app built by — you guessed it! — uCampaign, which the party launched in September 2017.

While there is nothing on the iOS and Android app store listings for the Conservative Campaigner app to identify uCampaign as its developer, if you go directly to uCampaign’s website the company lists the UK Conservative Party as one of it’s clients — alongside other rightwing political parties and organizations such as the (pro-gun) National Rife Association; the (anti-abortion) SBA List; and indeed the UK’s Vote Leave (Brexit) campaign, (the latter) as the DCMS report highlights.

uCampaign’s involvement as the developer of the Conservative Campaigner app was also confirmed to us (in June) by the (now former) deputy director & head of digital strategy for The Conservative Party, Anthony Hind, who — according to his LinkedIn profile — also headed up the party’s online marketing, between mid 2015 and, well, the middle of this month.

But while, in his initial response to us, Hind readily confirmed he was personally involved in the procurement of uCampaign as the developer of the Conservative Campaigner app, he failed to respond to any of our subsequent questions — including when we raised specific concerns about the privacy policy that the app had been using, prior to May 23 (just before the EU’s new GDPR data protection framework came into force on May 25 — a time when many apps updated their privacy polices as a compliance precaution related to the new data protection standard).

Since May 23 the privacy policy for the Conservative Campaigner app has pointed to the Conservative Party’s own privacy policy. However prior to May 23 the privacy policy was a literal (branded) copy-paste of uCampaign’s own privacy policy. (We know because we were tipped to it by a source — and verified this for ourselves.)

Here’s a screengrab of the exchange we had with Hind over LinkedIn — including his sole reply:

What looks rather awkward for the Conservative Party — and indeed for Collins, as DCMS committee chair, given the valid “privacy concerns” his report has raised around the use (and misuse/abuse) of data for political targeting — is that uCampaign’s privacy policy has, shall we say, a verrrrry ‘liberal’ attitude to sharing the personal data of app users (and indeed of any of their contacts it would have been able to harvest from their devices).

Here’s a taster of the data-sharing permissions this U.S. company affords itself over its clients’ users’ data [emphasis ours] — according to its own privacy policy:

CAMPAIGNS YOU SUPPORT AND ALIGNED ORGANIZATIONS

We will share your Personal Information with third party campaigns selected by you via the Platform. In addition, we may share your Personal Information with other organizations, groups, causes, campaigns, political organizations, and our clients that we believe have similar viewpoints, principles or objectives as us.

UCAMPAIGN FRIENDS

We may share your Personal Information with other users of the Platform, for example if they connect their address book to our services, or if they invite you to use our services via the Platform.

BUSINESS TRANSFERS

We may share your Personal Information with other entities affiliated with us for internal reasons, primarily for business and operational purposes. uCampaign, or any of its assets, including the Platform, may be sold, or other transactions may occur in which your Personal Information is one of the business assets of the transaction. In such case, your Personal Information may be transferred.

To spell it out, the Conservative Party paid for a campaign app that could, according to the privacy policy it had in place prior to May 23, have shared supporters’ personal data with organizations that uCampaign’s owners — who the DCMS committee states have close links to “the billionaire backer of SCL and Cambridge Analytica, Robert Mercer” — view as ideologically affiliated with their objectives, whatsoever those entities might be.

Funnily enough, the Conservative Party appears to have tried to scrub out some of its own public links to uCampaign — such as changing link for the developer website on the app listing page for the Conservative Campaigner app to the Conservative Party’s own website (whereas before it linked through to uCampaign’s own website).

As the veteran UK satirical magazine Private Eye might well say — just fancy that! 

One of the listed “features” of the Conservative Campaigner app urges Tory supporters to: “Invite your friends to join you on the app!”. If any did, their friends’ data would have been sucked up by uCampaign too to further causes of its choosing.

The version of the Campaigner app listed on Google Play is reported to have 1,000+ installs (iOS does not offer any download ranges for apps) — which, while not in itself a very large number, could represent exponentially larger amounts of personal data should users’ contacts have been synced with the app where they would have been harvested by uCampaign.

We did flag the link between uCampaign and the Conservative Campaigner app directly to the DCMS committee’s press office — ahead of the publication of its report, on June 12, when we wrote:

The matter of concern here is that the Conservative party could itself be an unwitting a source of targeting data for rival political organizations, via an app that appears to offer almost no limits on what can be done with personal data.
Prior to the last update of the Conservative Campaigner app the privacy policy was simply the boilerplate uCampaign T&Cs — which allow the developer to share app users personal info (and phone book contacts) with “other organizations, groups, causes, campaigns, political organizations, and our clients that we believe have similar viewpoints, principles or objectives as us”.
That’s incredibly wide-ranging.
So every user’s phone book contacts (potentially hundreds of individuals per user) could have been passed to multiple unidentified organizations without people’s knowledge or consent. (Other uCampaign apps have been built for the NRA, and for anti-abortion organizations, for example.)
uCampaign‘s T&Cs are here: https://ucampaignapp.com/privacy.html
Even the current T&Cs allow for sharing with US suppliers.
Given the committee’s very public concerns about access to people’s data for political targeting purposes I am keen to know whether Mr Collins has any concerns about the use of uCampaign‘s app infrastructure by the Conservative party?
And also whether he is concerned about the lack of a robust data protection policy by his own party to ensure that valuable membership data is not simply passed around to unknown and unconnected entities — perhaps abroad, perhaps not — with zero regard for or accountability to the individuals in question.

Unfortunately this email (and a follow up) to the DCMS committee, asking for a response from Collins to our privacy concerns, went unanswered.

It’s also worth noting that the Conservative Party’s own privacy policy (which it’s now using for its Campaigner app) is pretty generous vis-a-vis the permissions it’s granting itself over sharing supporters’ data — including stating that it shares data with

  • The wider Conservative Party
  • Business associates and professional advisers
  • Suppliers
  • Service providers
  • Financial organisations – such as credit card payment providers
  • Political organisations
  • Elected representatives
  • Regulatory bodies
  • Market researchers
  • Healthcare and welfare organisations
  • Law enforcement agencies

The UK’s data watchdog recently found fault with pretty much all of the UK political parties’ when it comes to handling of voter data — saying it had sent warning letters to 11 political parties and also issued notices compelling them to agree to audits of their data protection practices.

Safe to say, it’s not just private companies that have been sticking their hand in the personal data cookie jar in recent years — the political establishment is facing plenty of awkward questions as regulators unpick where and how data has been flowing.

This is also not the only awkward story re: data privacy concerns related to a Tory political app. Earlier this year the then-minister in charge of the digital brief, Matt Hancock, launched a self-promotional, self-branded app intended for his constituents to keep up with news about Matt Hancock MP.

However the developers of the app (Disciple Media) initially uploaded the wrong privacy policy — and were forced to issue an amended version which did not grant the minister such non-specific and oddly toned rights to users’ data — such as that the app “may disclose your personal information to the Publisher, the Publisher’s management company, agent, rights image company, the Publisher’s record label or publisher (as applicable) and any other third parties, for use in conjunction with additional user promotions or offers they may run from time to time or in relation to the sale of other goods and services”.

Of course the Matt Hancock App was a PR initiative of (and funded by) an individual Conservative MP — rather than a formal campaign tool paid for by the Conservative Party and intended for use by hundreds (or even thousands) of Party activists for use during election campaigns.

So while there are two issues of Tory-related privacy concern here, only one loops back to the Conservative Party political organization itself.

Twitter posts record $100M profit but loses 1M users

The social media apocalypse is on us this week. Days after Facebook’s stock took a record $123 billion plunge on a poor earnings report, Twitter’s shares are down nearly 20 percent after the company announced falling users numbers.

The microblogging service recorded a drop of one million monthly users in Q2, with 335 million overall and 68 million in the U.S.. International users stayed consistent, with U.S. numbers down from 69 million in the previous quarter.

Bloomberg reported that Twitter’s share price sunk by 17 percent in early trading following the earnings announcement.

The market seems spooked that Twitter has failed to grow in the U.S.. Indeed, one year ago it recorded 68 million users on home turf, and while it has grown its international presence by a fairly modest 3.5 percent over that period, there are doubts as to whether Twitter can increase its audience. The company itself said it expects to see its monthly active user count drop by “mid-single-digit millions.”

Twitter has increased its efforts finding and suspending fake accounts, which is said to have doubled over the past year, but it also said that it didn’t expect that to impact users numbers this quarter.

“When we suspend accounts, many of the removed accounts have already been excluded from MAU or DAU, either because the accounts were already inactive for more than one month at the time of suspension, or because they were caught at signup and were never included in MAU or DAU,” Twitter further explained in its release.

The company did say, though, that its work with SMS carriers and reallocation of resources, are the reasons why it is forecasting more user number declines.

While Twitter can (just about argue) that its daily user number grew by 11 percent in the quarter — a little higher than 10 percent in Q1 — the company doesn’t actually disclose this number.

The stock drop will be frustrating for executives because, in its favor, Twitter had a record quarter of profit. GAAP net income came in at $100 million with revenue climbing 24 percent year-on-year to reach $711 million. Adjusted EBITDA came in at $265 million — Twitter is predicting it will decline to $215-$235 million in the next quarter.

That profit was above analyst forecasts of $70 million but, following Facebook’s epic crash this week, investors want to see growth potential… and that means more users. Unfortunately, that’s Twitter’s Achilles heel.

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Facebook also removes 4 Infowars videos, including one it previously cleared

Days after defending its decision to give a voice to conspiracy theory peddler Alex Jones and his Infowars site, Facebook has removed four of his videos for violating its community standards.

But one of the four had already been allowed to slip through the firm’s review system. A source within Facebook told TechCrunch that one of the videos had previously been flagged for review in June but, after being looked over by a checker, it was allowed remain on the social network. That decision was described as “erroneous” and it has now been removed.

Facebook’s removal of the videos comes days after YouTube scrubbed four videos from Jones from its site for violating its policies on content. The Facebook source confirmed that three of the videos it has removed were flagged for the first time on Wednesday — presumably after, or in conjunction with, them being highlighted to YouTube — but the fact that one had gotten the all-clear one again raises question marks about the consistency of Facebook’s review process.

Contrary to some media reports, Jones has not received a 30-day ban from Facebook following these removals. TechCrunch understands that such a ban will be issued if Jones violates the company’s policies in the future, but, for now, he has been given a warning.

“Our Community Standards make it clear that we prohibit content that encourages physical harm [bullying], or attacks someone based on their religious affiliation or gender identity [hate speech]. We remove content that violates our standards as soon as we’re aware of it. In this case, we received reports related to four different videos on the Pages that Infowars and Alex Jones maintain on Facebook. We reviewed the content against our Community Standards and determined that it violates. All four videos have been removed from Facebook,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

Earlier this month, the company’s head of News Feed John Hegeman said of Infowars content — which includes claims 9/11 was an inside job and alternate theories to the San Bernardino shootings — that “just for being false, doesn’t violate the community standards.” He added: “We created Facebook to be a place where different people can have a voice.”

Facebook seemed to double down on that stance on Monday when, at another event, VP of product Fidji Simo called Infowars “absolutely atrocious” but then said that “if you are saying something untrue on Facebook, you’re allowed to say it as long as you’re an authentic person and you are meeting the community standards.”

It’s not been a good week for Facebook. A poor earnings report spooked investors and caused its valuation drop by $123 billion in what is the largest-single market cap wipeout in U.S. trading history. That’s not the kind of record Facebook will want to own.

Chat app Line gets serious about gaming with its latest acquisition

Line, the company best-known for its popular Asian messaging app, is doubling down on games after it acquired a controlling stake in Korean studio NextFloor for an undisclosed amount.

NextFloor, which has produced titles like Dragon Flight and Destiny Child, will be merged with Line’s games division to form the Line Games subsidiary. Dragon Flight has racked up 14 million users since its 2012 launch — it clocked $1 million in daily revenue at peak. Destiny Child, a newer release in 2016, topped the charts in Korea and has been popular in Japan, North America and beyond.

Line’s own games are focused on its messaging app, which gives them access to social features such as friend graphs, and they have helped the company become a revenue generation machine. Alongside income from its booming sticker business, in-app purchases within games made Line Japan’s highest-earning non-game app publisher last year, according to App Annie, and the fourth highest worldwide. For some insight into how prolific it has been over the years, Line is ranked as the sixth highest earning iPhone app of all time.

But, despite revenue success, Line has struggled to become a global messaging giant. The big guns WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger have in excess of one billion monthly users each, while Line has been stuck around the 200 million mark for some time. Most of its numbers are from just four countries: Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia. While it has been able to tap those markets with additional services like ride-hailing and payments, it is certainly under pressure from those more internationally successful competitors.

With that in mind, doubling down on games makes sense and Line said it plans to focus on non-mobile platforms, which will include the Nintendo Switch among others consoles, from the second half of this year.

Line went public in 2016 via a dual U.S.-Japan IPO that raised over $1 billion.