Vietnam threatens to penalize Facebook for breaking its draconian cybersecurity law

Well, that didn’t take long. We’re less than ten days into 2019 and already Vietnam is aiming threats at Facebook after it violating its draconian cybersecurity law which came into force on January 1.

The U.S. social network stands accused of allowing users in Vietnam to post “slanderous content, anti-government sentiment and libel and defamation of individuals, organisations and state agencies,” according to a report from state-controlled media Vietnam News.

The content is said to have been flagged to Facebook which, reports say, has “delayed removing” it.

That violates the law which — passed last June — broadly forbids internet users from organizing with, or training, others for anti-state purposes, spreading false information, and undermining the nation state’s achievements or solidarity, according to reports at the time. It also requires foreign internet companies to operate a local office and store user information on Vietnamese soil. That’s something neither Google nor Facebook has complied with, despite the Vietnamese government’s recent claim that the former is investigating a local office launch.

In addition, the Authority of Broadcasting and Electronic Information (ABEI) claimed Facebook had violated online advertising rules by allowing accounts to promote fraudulent products and scams, while it is considering penalties for failure to pay tax. The Vietnamese report claimed some $235 million was spent on Facebook ads in 2018, with $152.1 million going to Google.

Facebook responded by clarifying its existing channels for reporting illegal content.

“We have a clear process for governments to report illegal content to us, and we review all these requests against our terms of service and local law. We are transparent about the content restrictions we make in accordance with local law in our Transparency Report,” a Facebook representative told TechCrunch in a statement.

TechCrunch understands that the company is in contact with the Vietnamese government and it intends to review content flagged as illegal before making a decision.

Vietnamese media reports claim that Facebook has already told the government that the content in question doesn’t violate its community standards.

It looks likely that the new law will see contact from Vietnamese government censors spike, but Facebook has acted on content before. The company latest transparency report covers the first half of 2018 and it shows that received 12 requests for data in Vietnam, granting just two. Facebook confirmed it has previously taken action on content that has included the alleged illegal sale of regulated products, trade of wildlife, and efforts to impersonate an individual.

Facebook did not respond to the tax liability claim.

The company previously indicated its concern at the cybersecurity law via Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) — a group that represents the social media giant as well as Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Line and others — which cautioned that the regulations would negatively impact Vietnam.

“The provisions for data localization, controls on content that affect free speech, and local office requirements will undoubtedly hinder the nation’s fourth Industrial Revolution ambitions to achieve GDP and job growth,” AIC wrote in a statement in June.

“Unfortunately, these provisions will result in severe limitations on Vietnam’s digital economy, dampening the foreign investment climate and hurting opportunities for local businesses and SMEs to flourish inside and beyond Vietnam,” it added.

Vietnam is increasingly gaining a reputation as a growing market for startups, but the cybersecurity act threatens to impact that. One key issue is that the broad terms appear to give the government signficant scope to remove content that it deems offensive.

“This decision has potentially devastating consequences for freedom of expression in Vietnam. In the country’s deeply repressive climate, the online space was a relative refuge where people could go to share ideas and opinions with less fear of censure by the authorities,” said Amnesty International.

Vietnam News reports that the authorities are continuing to collect evidence against Facebook.

“If Facebook did not take positive steps, Vietnamese regulators would apply necessary economic and technical measures to ensure a clean and healthy network environment,” the ABEI is reported to have said.

Mark Zuckerberg is ‘proud’ of how Facebook handled its scandals this year

After the year Mark Zuckerberg’s had, you’d think he’d struggle to appear so chipper.

“I’m proud of the progress we’ve made,” he said in an end-of-year note posted on his Facebook page for everyone to see. Acknowledging that the social network played its part in the spread of hate speech, election interference and misinformation, Zuckerberg’s note seemed more upbeat about his response to the hurricane of hurt caused by the company’s laissez-faire attitude to world affairs and less concerned about showing contrition and empathy for the harm Facebook caused in the past year — including its inability to keep its users’ data safe and, above all else, its failure to prevent its site from being used to incite ethnic violence and genocide.

Zuckerberg’s tone-deaf remarks read like 1,000 words of patting himself on the back.

But where the Facebook co-founder pledged to “focus on addressing some of the most important issues facing our community,” he conveniently ignored some of the most damaging, ongoing problems that the company has shown little desire to solve, opting instead for quick fixes or simply pretending they don’t exist.

“More than 30,000 people working on safety…” isn’t enough to police the platform

A decade ago, Facebook had just 12 people moderating its entire site — some 120 million users. Now, the company relies largely on an army of underpaid contractors spread out across the world to moderate millions of potentially rule-breaking posts on the site each week.

Zuckerberg said the company has this year increased those working on safety to “more than 30,000 people.” That’s on top of the 33,600 full-time employees that Facebook had as of the end of September. But that’s a massive task to police Facebook’s 2.27 billion monthly active users. Those 30,000 new safety contractors equates to about one moderator for every 75,660 users.

Facebook’s contractors have long complained about long hours and low pay, and that’s not even taking into account the thousands of gruesome posts — from beheadings to child abuse and exploitation — they have to review each day. Turnover is understandably high. No other social network in the world has as many users as Facebook, and it’s impossible to know what the “right number” of moderators is.

But the numbers don’t add up. Facebook’s army of 30,000 safety staffers isn’t enough to combat the onslaught of vitriol and violence, let alone against an advanced adversary like the nation-state actors that it’s constantly blaming.

Facebook lost its chief security officer this year — and hasn’t found a replacement

Zuckerberg made no mention of the photo data exposure and account breaches that the company had to contend with this year, even if he couldn’t avoid mentioning Cambridge Analytica, the voter research firm that misused 87 million Facebook users’ information, just the once.

Yet, Zuckerberg made no commitment to doubling down on the company’s efforts to secure the platform, despite years of its “move fast and break things” mentality. Since the departure of former chief security officer Alex Stamos in August, the company hasn’t hired his replacement. All signs point to nobody taking the position at all. While many see a chief security officer as a figurehead-type position, they still provide executive-level insight into the threats they face and issues to handle — no more than ever after a string of embarrassing and damaging security incidents.

Zuckerberg said that the company invests “billions of dollars in security yearly.” That may be true. But without an executive overseeing that budget, it’s not confidence-inducing knowing that there’s nobody with the years of experience needed to oversee a company’s security posture in control of where those billions go.

There was no acknowledgement of Facebook’s role in Myanmar’s genocide

Fake news, misinformation and election meddling is one thing, but Zuckerberg refused to acknowledge the direct impact Facebook had on Myanmar’s ethnic violence — which the United Nations is calling genocide.

It can’t be much of a surprise to Zuckerberg. The UN said Facebook had a “determining role” in inciting genocide in the country. He faced questions directly from U.S. lawmakers earlier this year when he was told to testify to senators in April. Journalists are regularly arrested and murdered for reporting on the military-backed government’s activities. The Facebook boss apologized — which human rights groups on the ground called “grossly insufficient.”

Facebook said last week that it has purged hundreds of accounts, pages and groups associated with inciting violence in Myanmar, but continues to refuse setting up an office in the country — despite groups on the ground saying would be necessary to show it’s serious about the region.

“That doesn’t mean… people won’t find more examples of past mistakes before we improved our systems.”

Zuckerberg said in his note that the company “didn’t focus as much on these issues as we needed to, but we’re now much more proactive.”

“That doesn’t mean we’ll catch every bad actor or piece of bad content, or that people won’t find more examples of past mistakes before we improved our systems,” he said. Some have seen that as a hint that some of the worst revelations are yet to come. Perhaps it’s just Zuckerberg hedging his bets as a way to indemnify his remarks from criticism when the next inevitable bad news break hits the wires.

In his 1,000-word post, Zuckerberg said he was “proud” three times, he talked of the company’s “focus” four times and how much “progress” was being made five times. But there wasn’t a single “sorry” to be seen. Then again, he’s spent most of his Facebook career apologizing for the company’s fails. Any more at this point would probably come across as trite.

Zuckerberg ended on as much as a cheery note as he began, looking to the new year as an opportunity for “building community and bringing people together,” adding: “Here’s to a great new year to come.”

Well, it can’t be much worse than this year. Or can it?

The year social networks were no longer social

The term “social network” has become a meaningless association of words. Pair those two words and it becomes a tech category, the equivalent of a single term to define a group of products.

But are social networks even social anymore? If you have a feeling of tech fatigue when you open the Facebook app, you’re not alone. Watching distant cousins fight about politics in a comment thread is no longer fun.

Chances are you have dozens, hundreds or maybe thousands of friends and followers across multiple platforms. But those crowded places have never felt so empty.

It doesn’t mean that you should move to the woods and talk with animals. And Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn won’t collapse overnight. They have intrinsic value with other features — social graphs, digital CVs, organizing events…

But the concept of wide networks of social ties with an element of broadcasting is dead.

From interest-based communities to your lousy neighbor

If you’ve been active on the web for long enough, you may have fond memories of internet forums. Maybe you were a fan of video games, Harry Potter or painting.

Fragmentation was key. You could be active on multiple forums and you didn’t have to mention your other passions. Over time, you’d see the same names come up again and again on your favorite forum. You’d create your own running jokes, discover things together, laugh, cry and feel something.

When I was a teenager, I was active on multiple forums. I remember posting thousands of messages a year and getting to know new people. It felt like hanging out with a welcoming group of friends because you shared the same passions.

It wasn’t just fake internet relationships. I met “IRL” with fellow internet friends quite a few times. One day, I remember browsing the list of threads and learning about someone’s passing. Their significant other posted a short message because the forum meant a lot to this person.

Most of the time, I didn’t know the identities of the persons talking with me. We were all using nicknames and put tidbits of information in bios — “Stuttgart, Germany” or “train ticket inspector.”

And then, Facebook happened. At first, it was also all about interest-based communities — attending the same college is a shared interest, after all. Then, they opened it up to everyone to scale beyond universities.

When you look at your list of friends, they are your Facebook friends not because you share a hobby, but because you’ve know them for a while.

Facebook constantly pushes you to add more friends with the infamous “People you may know” feature. Knowing someone is one thing, but having things to talk about is another.

So here we are, with your lousy neighbor sharing a sexist joke in your Facebook feed.

As social networks become bigger, content becomes garbage.

Facebook’s social graph is broken by design. Putting names and faces on people made friend requests emotionally charged. You can’t say no to your high school best friend, even if you haven’t seen her in five years.

It used to be okay to leave friends behind. It used to be okay to forget about people. But the fact that it’s possible to stay in touch with social networks have made those things socially unacceptable.

Too big to succeed

One of the key pillars of social networks is the broadcasting feature. You can write a message, share a photo, make a story and broadcast them to your friends and followers.

But broadcasting isn’t scalable.

Most social networks are now publicly traded companies — they’re always chasing growth. Growth means more revenue and revenue means that users need to see more ads.

The best way to shove more ads down your throat is to make you spend more time on a service. If you watch multiple YouTube videos, you’re going to see more pre-roll ads. And there are two ways to make you spend more time on a social network — making you come back more often and making you stay longer each time you visit.

And 2018 has been the year of cheap tricks and dark pattern design. In order to make you come more often, companies now send you FOMO-driven notifications with incomplete, disproportionate information.

This isn’t just about opening an app. Social networks now want to direct you to other parts of the service. Why don’t you click on this bright orange banner to open IGTV? Look at this shiny button! Look! Look!

And then, there’s all the gamification, algorithm-driven recommendations and other Skinner box mechanisms. That tiny peak of adrenaline you get when you refresh your feed, even if it only happens once per week, is what’s going to make you come back again and again.

Don’t forget that Netflix wanted to give kids digital badges if they completed a season. The company has since realized that it was going too far. Still, U.S. adults now spend nearly six hours per day consuming digital media — and phones represent more than half of that usage.

Given that social networks need to give you something new every time, they want you to follow as many people as possible, subscribe to every YouTube channel you can. This way, every time you come back, there’s something new.

Algorithms recommend some content based on engagement, and guess what? The most outrageous, polarizing content always ends up at the top of the pile.

I’m not going to talk about fake news or the fact that YouTubers now all write titles in ALL CAPS to grab your attention. That’s a topic for another article. But YouTube shouldn’t be surprised that Logan Paul filmed a suicide victim in Japan to drive engagement and trick the algorithm.

In other words, as social networks become bigger, content becomes garbage.

Private communities

Centralization is always followed by decentralization. Now that we’ve reached a social network dead end, it’s time to build our own digital house.

Group messaging has been key when it comes to staying in touch with long-distance family members. But you can create your own interest-based groups and talk about things you’re passionate about with people who care about those things.

Social networks that haven’t become too big still have an opportunity to pivot. It’s time to make them more about close relationships and add useful features to talk with your best friends and close ones.

And if you have interesting things to say, do it on your own terms. Create a blog instead of signing up to Medium. This way, Medium won’t force your readers to sign up when they want to read your words.

If you spend your vacation crafting the perfect Instagram story, you should be more cynical about it. Either you want to make a career out of it and become an Instagram star, or you should consider sending photos and videos to your communities directly. Otherwise, you’re just participating in a rotten system.

If you want to comment on politics and life in general, you should consider talking about those topics with people surrounding you, not your friends on Facebook.

Put your phone back in your pocket and start a conversation. You might end up discussing for hours without even thinking about the red dots on all your app icons.

At Blind, a security lapse revealed private complaints from Silicon Valley employees

Thousands of people trusted Blind, an app-based “anonymous social network,” as a safe way to reveal malfeasance, wrongdoing and improper conduct at their companies.

But Blind left one of its database servers exposed without a password for more than a month, making it possible for anyone who knew where to look to access each user’s account information and identify would-be whistleblowers.

The South Korea-founded company made its way into the U.S. in 2015, when it quickly became a highly popular anonymous social network for major tech companies, touting employees from Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Uber, and more. Blind last month secured another $10 million in new funding after a $6 million raise in 2017. But it was only when the social network became the root of several high profile scandals when Blind gained mainstream attention, including revealing allegations of sexual harassment at Uber — which later blocked the app on its corporate network.

The exposed server was found by a security researcher, who goes by the name Mossab H, who informed the company of the security lapse. The security researcher found one of the company’s Kibana dashboard for its backend ElasticSearch database, which contained several tables, including private messaging data and web-based content, for both of its U.S. and Korean sites. Blind said that the exposure only affects users who signed up or logged in between November 1 and December 19, and that the exposure relates to “a single server, one among many servers on our platform,” according to Blind executive Kyum Kim in an email.

Blind only pulled the database after TechCrunch followed up by email a week later. The company began emailing its users on Thursday after we asked for comment.

“While developing an internal tool to improve our service for our users, we became aware of an error that exposed user data,” the email to affected users said.

Kim said that there is “no evidence” that the database was misappropriated or misused, but did not say how it came to that conclusion. When asked, the company would not say if it will notify U.S. state regulators of the breach.

Blind’s chief executive Sunguk Moon, who was copied on many of the emails with TechCrunch, did not comment or acknowledge the exposure.

At its core, the app and anonymous social network allows users to sign up using their corporate email address, which is said to be linked only to Blind’s member ID. Email addresses are “only used for verification” to allow users to talk to other anonymous people in their company, and the company claims that email addresses aren’t stored on its servers.

But after reviewing a portion of the exposed data, some of the company’s claims do not stand up.

We found that the database provided a real-time stream of user logins, user posts, comments and other interactions, allowing anyone to read private comments and posts. The database also revealed the unencrypted private messages between members but not their associated email addresses. (Given the highly sensitivity of the data and the privacy of the affected users, we’re not posting data, screenshots or specifics of user content.)

Blind claims on its website that its email verification “is safe, as our patented infrastructure is set up so that all user account and activity information is completely disconnected from the email verification process.” It adds: “This effectively means there is no way to trace back your activity on Blind to an email address, because even we can’t do it.” Blind claims that the database “does not show any mapping of email addresses to nicknames,” but we found did find streams of email addresses associated with members who had not yet posted. In our brief review, we didn’t find any content, such as comments or messages, linked to email addresses, just a unique member ID, which could identify a user who posts in the future.

Many records did, however, contain plaintext email addresses. When other records didn’t store an email address, the record contained the user’s email as an unrecognized encrypted hash — which may be decipherable to Blind employees, but not to anyone else.

The database also contained passwords, which were stored as an MD5 hash, a long-outdated algorithm that is nowadays easy to crack. Many of the passwords were easily unscrambled using readily available tools when we tried. Kim denied this. “We don’t use MD5 for our passwords to store them,” he said. “The MD5 keys were a log and it does not represent how we are managing data. We use more advanced methods like salted hash and SHA2 on securing users’ data in our database.” (Logging in with an email address and unscrambled password would be unlawful, therefore we cannot verify this claim.) That may pose a risk to employees who use the same password on the app as they login to their corporate accounts.

Despite the company’s apparent efforts to disassociate email addresses from its platform, login records in the database also stored user account access tokens — the same kind of tokens that recently put Microsoft and Facebook accounts at risk. If a malicious actor took and used a token, they could login as that user — effectively removing any anonymity they might have had from the database in the first place.

As well intentioned as the app may be, the database exposure puts users — who trusted the app to keep their information safe and their identities anonymous — at risk.

These aren’t just users, but also employees of some of the largest companies in Silicon Valley, who posts about sexual harassment in the workplace and discussing job offers and workplace culture. Many of those who signed up in the past month include senior executives at major tech companies but don’t realize that their email address — which identifies them — could be sitting plaintext in an exposed database. Some users sent anonymous, private messages in some cases made serious allegations against their colleagues or their managers, while others expressed concern that their employers were monitoring their emails for Blind sign-up emails.

Yet, it likely escaped many that the app they were using — often for relief, for empathy, or as a way to disclose wrongdoing — was almost entirely unencrypted and could be accessed, not only by the app’s employees but also for a time anyone on the internet.


Got a tip? You can send tips securely over Signal and WhatsApp to +1 646-755–8849. You can also send PGP email with the fingerprint: 4D0E 92F2 E36A EC51 DAAE 5D97 CB8C 15FA EB6C EEA5.

Facebook policy VP, Richard Allan, to face the international ‘fake news’ grilling that Zuckerberg won’t

An unprecedented international grand committee comprised of 22 representatives from seven parliaments will meet in London next week to put questions to Facebook about the online fake news crisis and the social network’s own string of data misuse scandals.

But Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg won’t be providing any answers. The company has repeatedly refused requests for him to answer parliamentarians’ questions.

Instead it’s sending a veteran EMEA policy guy, Richard Allan, now its London-based VP of policy solutions, to face a roomful of irate MPs.

Allan will give evidence next week to elected members from the parliaments of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Latvia, Singapore, along with members of the UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) parliamentary committee.

At the last call the international initiative had a full eight parliaments behind it but it’s down to seven — with Australia being unable to attend on account of the travel involved in getting to London.

A spokeswoman for the DCMS committee confirmed Facebook declined its last request for Zuckerberg to give evidence, telling TechCrunch: “The Committee offered the opportunity for him to give evidence over video link, which was also refused. Facebook has offered Richard Allan, vice president of policy solutions, which the Committee has accepted.”

“The Committee still believes that Mark Zuckerberg is the appropriate person to answer important questions about data privacy, safety, security and sharing,” she added. “The recent New York Times investigation raises further questions about how recent data breaches were allegedly dealt with within Facebook, and when the senior leadership team became aware of the breaches and the spread of Russian disinformation.”

The DCMS committee has spearheaded the international effort to hold Facebook to account for its role in a string of major data scandals, joining forces with similarly concerned committees across the world, as part of an already wide-ranging enquiry into the democratic impacts of online disinformation that’s been keeping it busy for the best part of this year.

And especially busy since the Cambridge Analytica story blew up into a major global scandal this April, although Facebook’s 2018 run of bad news hasn’t stopped there…

The evidence session with Allan is scheduled to take place at 11.30am (GMT) on November 27 in Westminster. (It will also be streamed live on the UK’s parliament.tv website.)

Afterwards a press conference has been scheduled — during which DCMS says a representative from each of the seven parliaments will sign a set of ‘International Principles for the Law Governing the Internet’.

It bills this as “a declaration on future action from the parliaments involved” — suggesting the intent is to generate international momentum and consensus for regulating social media.

The DCMS’ preliminary report on the fake news crisis, which it put out this summer, called for urgent action from government on a number of fronts — including floating the idea of a levy on social media to defence democracy.

However UK ministers failed to leap into action, merely putting out a tepid ‘wait and see’ response. Marshalling international action appears to be DCMS’ alternative action plan.

At next week’s press conference, grand committee members will take questions following Allan’s evidence — so expect swift condemnation of any fresh equivocation, misdirection or question-dodging from Facebook (which has already been accused by DCMS members of a pattern of evasive behavior).

Last week’s NYT report also characterized the company’s strategy since 2016, vis-a-vis the fake news crisis, as ‘delay, deny, deflect’.

The grand committee will hear from other witnesses too, including the UK’s information commissioner Elizabeth Denham who was before the DCMS committee recently to report on a wide-ranging ecosystem investigation it instigated in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

She told it then that Facebooks needs to take “much greater responsibility” for how its platform is being used, and warning that unless the company overhauls its privacy-hostile business model it risk burning user trust for good.

Also giving evidence next week: Deputy information commissioner Steve Wood; the former Prime Minister of St Kitts and Nevis, Rt Hon Dr Denzil L Douglas (on account of Cambridge Analytica/SCL Elections having done work in the region); and the co-founder of PersonalData.IO, Paul-Olivier Dehaye.

Dehaye has also given evidence to the committee before — detailing his experience of making Subject Access Requests to Facebook — and trying and failing to obtain all the data it holds on him.

Facebook policy VP, Richard Allan, to face the international ‘fake news’ grilling that Zuckerberg won’t

An unprecedented international grand committee comprised of 22 representatives from seven parliaments will meet in London next week to put questions to Facebook about the online fake news crisis and the social network’s own string of data misuse scandals.

But Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg won’t be providing any answers. The company has repeatedly refused requests for him to answer parliamentarians’ questions.

Instead it’s sending a veteran EMEA policy guy, Richard Allan, now its London-based VP of policy solutions, to face a roomful of irate MPs.

Allan will give evidence next week to elected members from the parliaments of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Latvia, Singapore, along with members of the UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) parliamentary committee.

At the last call the international initiative had a full eight parliaments behind it but it’s down to seven — with Australia being unable to attend on account of the travel involved in getting to London.

A spokeswoman for the DCMS committee confirmed Facebook declined its last request for Zuckerberg to give evidence, telling TechCrunch: “The Committee offered the opportunity for him to give evidence over video link, which was also refused. Facebook has offered Richard Allan, vice president of policy solutions, which the Committee has accepted.”

“The Committee still believes that Mark Zuckerberg is the appropriate person to answer important questions about data privacy, safety, security and sharing,” she added. “The recent New York Times investigation raises further questions about how recent data breaches were allegedly dealt with within Facebook, and when the senior leadership team became aware of the breaches and the spread of Russian disinformation.”

The DCMS committee has spearheaded the international effort to hold Facebook to account for its role in a string of major data scandals, joining forces with similarly concerned committees across the world, as part of an already wide-ranging enquiry into the democratic impacts of online disinformation that’s been keeping it busy for the best part of this year.

And especially busy since the Cambridge Analytica story blew up into a major global scandal this April, although Facebook’s 2018 run of bad news hasn’t stopped there…

The evidence session with Allan is scheduled to take place at 11.30am (GMT) on November 27 in Westminster. (It will also be streamed live on the UK’s parliament.tv website.)

Afterwards a press conference has been scheduled — during which DCMS says a representative from each of the seven parliaments will sign a set of ‘International Principles for the Law Governing the Internet’.

It bills this as “a declaration on future action from the parliaments involved” — suggesting the intent is to generate international momentum and consensus for regulating social media.

The DCMS’ preliminary report on the fake news crisis, which it put out this summer, called for urgent action from government on a number of fronts — including floating the idea of a levy on social media to defence democracy.

However UK ministers failed to leap into action, merely putting out a tepid ‘wait and see’ response. Marshalling international action appears to be DCMS’ alternative action plan.

At next week’s press conference, grand committee members will take questions following Allan’s evidence — so expect swift condemnation of any fresh equivocation, misdirection or question-dodging from Facebook (which has already been accused by DCMS members of a pattern of evasive behavior).

Last week’s NYT report also characterized the company’s strategy since 2016, vis-a-vis the fake news crisis, as ‘delay, deny, deflect’.

The grand committee will hear from other witnesses too, including the UK’s information commissioner Elizabeth Denham who was before the DCMS committee recently to report on a wide-ranging ecosystem investigation it instigated in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

She told it then that Facebooks needs to take “much greater responsibility” for how its platform is being used, and warning that unless the company overhauls its privacy-hostile business model it risk burning user trust for good.

Also giving evidence next week: Deputy information commissioner Steve Wood; the former Prime Minister of St Kitts and Nevis, Rt Hon Dr Denzil L Douglas (on account of Cambridge Analytica/SCL Elections having done work in the region); and the co-founder of PersonalData.IO, Paul-Olivier Dehaye.

Dehaye has also given evidence to the committee before — detailing his experience of making Subject Access Requests to Facebook — and trying and failing to obtain all the data it holds on him.

The forgotten ‘Facebook of China’ is sold for $20M

Renren, which was once heralded as the ‘Facebook of China’ and later became China’s answer to MySpace after falling out of fashion among its core young users, is selling its social networking business.

Renren’s parent company Beijing Qianxiang Wangjing has agreed to sell all tangible and intangible assets of renren.com to Beijing Infinities Interactive Media, according to a statement. As part of the deal, Qianxiang will receive $40 million worth of shares in Beijing Infinities, a $700 million firm that owns one of China’s major IT news sites DoNews.

“I am happy to find a home for renren.com,” says Renren’s chairman and chief executive officer Joseph Chen in the statement.

The social network won’t be foreign to its new home. On the list of the buyer’s shareholders is Oak Pacific Holdings, which Chen and James Liu, Renren’s executive director and chief operating officer, control.

Once a highflyer in China’s PC era, Renren’s prospects have faded as it fell behind peers like Tencent and Weibo in the mobile space. Its stocks hover around $2 today, compared with its spectacular moment at $84 when it debuted on the New York Stock Exchange in 2011. That put its market cap only behind Tencent and Baidu. Renren says it plans to remain listed in the US after disposing of its social networking arm.

Shedding its social network legacy, the company says, will allow it to focus on the more promising ventures. In recent years, Renren has diversified into areas outside the social space, including a used car platform in China, US-based transportation network Trucker Path, and a SaaS business in the US. The auto unit has been a key revenue driver, accounting for more than 90 percent of its total revenues in Q2 this year, a spike from 60 percent throughout 2017.

Renren has also been a prolific startup investor with a portfolio valued at $500 million (paywalled) after deducting debt, according to the Financial Times. The company was also mulling an ICO earlier this year but reportedly shelved the plan after talks with Chinese regulators.

A glorious past

These days, Chinese youngsters hang out on WeChat, QQ, Weibo, and increasingly Douyin – TikTok’s China version – but back in the PC days, teens and college students flocked to renren.com.

Like Facebook, Renren started from the dorm rooms at China’s top universities. Its founders aptly named it “Xiaonei”, which means “on campus”, when they started the site to target student users in 2005. Among its early founders was Wang Xing, who would go on to launch Meituan Dianping, a neighborhood services provider that has blossomed into a $300 billion giant listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

A year later, Chen bought out Xiaonei and merged it with his own Xiaonei rival. He later renamed the new entity to Renren, which means “everybody”. The social network flourished and got a further boost after China blocked its American competitor Facebook in 2009.

In its heyday, Renren had over 100 million active users. Today, it’s more like a time capsule, but its once loyal users haven’t erased it from their memories. In August, Renren staged a marketing stunt that got waves of internet users reminiscing their good old days on the site. Topics ranged from how they played browser games together and sent anonymous notifications to crushes. But the excitement was transient, and people soon resumed their routines on the mainstream social apps of 2018.

Renren has not mentioned plans to close down its forgotten social network, so users can still log in whenever they feel nostalgic, safe from the agony that their Path counterparts had to go through when the latter recently shuttered.

WhatsApp is finally adding stickers

WhatsApp is finally adding stickers to its hugely popular messaging app. The company said today that support for stickers will roll out to Android and iOS users over “the coming weeks.”

Initially, the app’s 1.5 billion users will have a seemingly limited selection with the first packs provided by WhatsApp’s own design team and some “other artists” chosen by the company.

However, that’s likely to change in the future since WhatsApp will allow anyone to add stickers that can be used inside the app.

It’s taking an interesting route to enabling that. Would-be sticker artists will need to publish their packs as an app on the Google Play or Apple App Store. From there, users can download the apps and then make use of the stick packs inside WhatsApp. The company has provided a template that it claims requires “minimal development or coding experience.”

A full guide on the sticker submission process can be found here.

Other messaging apps have taken a different approach.

Line — which pioneered the concept of stickers — takes a very curated approach, with sticker packs approved by the company itself. That walled garden approach has helped it curate the best selection of stickers, many of which are paid. That’s nothing to be scoffed as since Line makes hundreds of millions of dollars from sticker purchases every year.

Telegram has the most open sticker platform. Anyone can make and publish stickers in just minutes, but that leads to its own problems such as plagiarism and differing levels of quality.

Either way, WhatsApp’s move into stickers is very much a Facebook -led move.

The service’s founders — Jan Koum and Brian Acton — have both left the social network under controversial terms, at least according to Acton himself.

Prior to the acquisition deal, both men were very vocally opposed to advertising, games and other functions. They deemed them trivial and believed that they detracted from the core focus of WhatsApp: simple and fast messaging.

At this point, their ethical ship has long since sailed with Facebook introducing features like a business service and ad integrations with Facebook, while there are plans to roll out payments and other features that Koum and Acton would no doubt have railed against. It’s enough to make you vomit over the side of your yacht in the Mediterranean.

Minds, the blockchain-based social network, grabs a $6M Series A

Minds, a decentralized social network, has raised $6 million in Series A funding from Medici Ventures, Overstock.com’s venture arm. Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne will join the Minds Board of Directors.

What is a decentralized social network? The creators, who originally crowdfunded their product, see it as an anti-surveillance, anti-censorship, and anti-“big tech” platform that ensures that no one party controls your online presence. And Minds is already seeing solid movement.

“In June 2018, Minds saw an enormous uptick in new Vietnamese of hundreds of thousands users as a direct response to new laws in the country implementing an invasive ‘cybersecurity’ law which included uninhibited access to user data on social networks like Facebook and Google (who are complying so far) and the ability to censor user content,” said Minds founder Bill Ottman.

“There has been increasing excitement in recent years over the power of blockchain technology to liberate individuals and organizations,” said Byrne. “Minds’ work employing blockchain technology as a social media application is the next great innovation toward the mainstream use of this world-changing technology.”

Interestingly, Minds is a model for the future of hybrid investing, a process of raising some cash via token and raising further cash via VC. This model ensures a level of independence from investors but also allows expertise and experience to presumably flow into the company.

Ottman, for his part, just wants to build something revolutionary.

“The rise of an open source, encrypted and decentralized social network is crucial to combat the big-tech monopolies that have abused and ignored users for years. With systemic data breaches, shadow-banning and censorship, people over the world are demanding a digital revolution. User-safety, fair economies, and global freedom of expression depend on it – we are all in this battle together,” said Ottman.

6D.ai opens up its beta

After wrestling for more than a decade with the development of a technology that would create a three-dimensional map of the physical world, the team at 6D.ai is finally ready to open up to developers its toolkit that the company says has done exactly that.

When company chief executive Matt Miesnieks announced the launch of 6D in March, he laid out a vision for its growth that had three goals: The company would build APIs to capture the three-dimensional geometry of the world; it would apply that three-dimensional data to build semantic APIs so applications can understand the world; and it would partner and extend those APIs to create an operating system for reality.

Having achieved the first goal, the company is now working on the second.

“The whole purpose of this company wasn’t ‘Hey there’s this new technology!’ It’s what can AR do in its fully realized form and what is a native experience for AR that hadn’t worked in prior mediums and what’s stopping that stuff from being effective and how do you solve those problems,” says Miesnieks.

For Miesnieks the problems confronting augmented reality come down to creating believable visual objects that integrate seamlessly into the world. That act of creation depends on persistence, occlusion and interaction, according to Miesnieks.

Interactivity, to Miesnieks should happen seamlessly rather than requiring a multi-step process that the 6D chief executive calls “just a bridge too far.”

“What needs to happen is you say, ‘Hey join my game.’ And it just works.”

Miesnieks argues that the kind of precision that synchronization requires demands a kind of on-device localization, which is exactly what 6D has claimed it enables.

“Once you have that 3D model then the virtual content can bounce off the 3D model. You can do shadows correctly. Extend that over large areas so that it doesn’t just work in a corner of my living room, but that it can work everywhere,” Miesnieks said. “We need these models and the only way to get there is to use a depth camera or offline photogrammetry.”

6D has already done some work with bands like Massive Attack and Aphex Twin that put its technology through some early paces. And the Victoria and Albert Museum have also used the technology. Soon it will launch a game with an undisclosed Japanese game developer (which has intellectual property similar to Pokémon) and a virtual YouTube-like application with the Japanese social network, Gree.

For Miesnieks perhaps the most interesting application is with a big, undisclosed transportation company that is interested in navigation for terrestrial and other mobility.

“When we set the company up, we are pretty convicted that we want to say to the developers that this is reality. We will give you shared coordinates for multi-player,” said Miesnieks.

Underlying all of this are concerns about security related to who can see what in the space that users map. But Miesnieks said that the company had solved that problem as well.

“You can only get the data for a space if you’re physically in that space,” said Miesnieks. “I hold my phone up, it looks at your living room, based on what it sees it queries the server and if there’s a match it will serve that data up to that location.”

Based on research, the point cloud that 6D generates isn’t directly connected to the geographic structure. It’s slightly randomized so a user can’t look at the point cloud and see what is what.

“It’s unable to be reverse engineered by any known science into a human readable image,” said Miesnieks. “All the image would look like is a whole bunch of dots and blobs. That’s kind of what we’re doing so far.”

As the company builds out its three-dimensional map of the world, it’s encouraging developers to think of it as a new kind of augmented reality platform.

“Our business is web services meet Waze,” said Miesnieks.