Twitter bags deep learning talent behind London startup, Fabula AI

Twitter has just announced it has picked up London-based Fabula AI. The deep learning startup has been developing technology to try to identify online disinformation by looking at patterns in how fake stuff vs genuine news spreads online — making it an obvious fit for the rumor-riled social network.

Social media giants remain under increasing political pressure to get a handle on online disinformation to ensure that manipulative messages don’t, for example, get a free pass to fiddle with democratic processes.

Twitter says the acquisition of Fabula will help it build out its internal machine learning capabilities — writing that the UK startup’s “world-class team of machine learning researchers” will feed an internal research group it’s building out, led by Sandeep Pandey, its head of ML/AI engineering.

This research group will focus on “a few key strategic areas such as natural language processing, reinforcement learning, ML ethics, recommendation systems, and graph deep learning” — now with Fabula co-founder and chief scientist, Michael Bronstein, as a leading light within it.

Bronstein is chair in machine learning & pattern recognition at Imperial College, London — a position he will remain while leading graph deep learning research at Twitter.

Fabula’s chief technologist, Federico Monti — another co-founder, who began the collaboration that underpin’s the patented technology with Bronstein while at the University of Lugano, Switzerland — is also joining Twitter.

“We are really excited to join the ML research team at Twitter, and work together to grow their team and capabilities. Specifically, we are looking forward to applying our graph deep learning techniques to improving the health of the conversation across the service,” said Bronstein in a statement.

“This strategic investment in graph deep learning research, technology and talent will be a key driver as we work to help people feel safe on Twitter and help them see relevant information,” Twitter added. “Specifically, by studying and understanding the Twitter graph, comprised of the millions of Tweets, Retweets and Likes shared on Twitter every day, we will be able to improve the health of the conversation, as well as products including the timeline, recommendations, the explore tab and the onboarding experience.”

Terms of the acquisition have not been disclosed.

We covered Fabula’s technology and business plan back in February when it announced its “new class” of machine learning algorithms for detecting what it colloquially badged ‘fake news’.

Fabula has patented what it described as a “new class” of machine learning algorithms, using the emergent field of “Geometric Deep Learning” to detect online disinformation — where the datasets in question are so large and complex that traditional machine learning techniques struggle to find purchase. Which does really sound like a patent designed with big tech in mind.

Its approach to the problem of online disinformation looks at how it spreads on social networks — and therefore who is spreading it — rather than focusing on the content itself, as some other approaches do.

Fabula likens how ‘fake news’ spreads on social media vs real news as akin to “a very simplified model of how a disease spreads on the network”.

One advantage of the approach is it looks to be language agnostic (at least barring any cultural differences which might also impact how fake news spread).

Back in February the startup told us it was aiming to build an open, decentralised “truth-risk scoring platform” — akin to a credit referencing agency, just focused on content not cash.

It’s not clear from Twitter’s blog post whether the core technologies it will be acquiring with Fabula will now stay locked up within its internal research department — or be shared more widely, to help other platforms grappling with online disinformation challenges.

The startup had intended to offer an API for platforms and publishers later this year.

But of course building a platform is a major undertaking. And, in the meanwhile, Twitter — with its pressing need to better understand the stuff its network spreads — came calling.

A source close to the matter told us that Fabula’s founders decided that selling to Twitter instead of pushing for momentum behind a vision of a decentralized, open platform because the exit offered them more opportunity to have “real and deep impact, at scale”.

Though it is also still not certain what Twitter will end up doing with the technology it’s acquiring. And it at least remains possible that Twitter could choose to make it made open across platforms.

“That’ll be for the team to figure out with Twitter down the line,” our source added.

A spokesman for Twitter did not respond directly when we asked about its plans for the patented technology but he told us: “There’s more to come on how we will integrate Fabula’s technology where it makes sense to strengthen our systems and operations in the coming months.  It will likely take us some time to be able to integrate their graph deep learning algorithms into our ML platform. We’re bringing Fabula in for the team, tech and mission, which are all aligned with our top priority: Health.”

Google announces new privacy requirements for Chrome extensions

Google today announced two major changes to how it expects Chrome extension developers to protect their users’ privacy. Starting this summer, extension developers are required to only request access to the data they need to implement their features — and nothing more. In addition, the company is expanding the number of extension developers who will have to post privacy policies.

In addition, the company is also announcing changes to how third-party developers can use the Google Drive API to provide their users access to files there.

Google announces new privacy requirements for Chrome extensions

All of this is part of Google’s Project Strobe, an effort the company launched last year to reconsider how third-party developers can access data in your Google account and on your Android devices. It was Project Strobe, for example, that detected the issues with Google+’s APIs that hastened the shutdown of the company’s failed social network. It also extends some of the work on Chrome extensions the company announced last October.

“Third-party apps and websites create services that millions of people use to get things done and customize their online experience,” Google Fellow and VP of Engineering Ben Smith writes in today’s announcement. “To make this ecosystem successful, people need to be confident their data is secure, and developers need clear rules of the road.”

With today’s announcements, Google aims to provide these rules. For extension developers, that means that if they need multiple permissions to implement a feature, they have to access the least amount of data possible, for example. Previously, that’s something the company recommended. Now, it’s required.

Previously, only developers who write extensions that handle personal or sensitive data had to post privacy policies. Going forward, this requirement will also include extensions that handle any user-provided content and personal communications. “Of course, extensions must continue to be transparent in how they handle user data, disclosing the collection, use and sharing of that data,” Smith adds.

As for the Drive API, Google is essentially locking down the service a bit more and limiting third-party access to specific files. Apps that need broader access, including backup services, will have to be verified by Google. The Drive API changes won’t go into effect until next year, though.

What does ‘regulating Facebook’ mean? Here’s an example

Many officials claim that governments should regulate Facebook and other social platforms, but few describe what it actually means. A few days ago, France released a report that outlines what France — and maybe the European Union — plans to do when it comes to content moderation.

It’s an insightful 34-page document with a nuanced take on toxic content and how to deal with it. There are some brand new ideas in the report that are worth exploring. Instead of moderating content directly, the regulator in charge of social networks would tell Facebook and other social networks a list of objectives. For instance, if a racist photo goes viral and is distributed to 5 percent of monthly active users in France, you could consider that the social network has failed to fulfill its obligations.

This isn’t just wishful thinking as the regulator would be able to fine the company up to 4 percent of the company’s global annual turnover in case of a systemic failure to moderate toxic content.

The government plans to turn the report into new pieces of regulation in the coming months. France doesn’t plan to stop there. It is already lobbying other countries (in Europe, the Group of 7 nations and beyond) so that they could all come up with cross-border regulation and have a real impact on moderation processes. So let’s dive into the future of social network regulation.

Facebook first opened its doors

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress in April 2018, it felt like regulation was inevitable. And the company itself has been aware of this for a while.

Maisie Williams’ talent discovery startup Daisie raises $2.5 million, hits 100K members

Maisie Williams’ time on Game of Thrones may have come to an end, but her talent discovery app Daisie is just getting started. Co-founded by film producer Dom Santry, Daisie aims to make it easier for creators to showcase their work, discover projects and collaborate with one another through a social networking-style platform. Only 11 days after Daisie officially launched to the public, the app hit an early milestone of 100,000 members. It also recently closed on $2.5 million in seed funding, the company tells TechCrunch.

The round was led by Founders Fund, which contributed $1.5 million. Other investors included 8VC, Kleiner Perkins, and newer VC firm Shrug Capital, from AngelList’s former head of marketing Niv Dror, who also separately invested. To date — including friends and family money and the founders’ own investment — Daisie has raised roughly $3 million.

It will later move toward raising a larger Series A, Santry says.

On Daisie, creators establish a profile as you would on a social network, find and follow other users, then seek out projects based on location, activity, or other factors.

“Whether it’s film, music, photography, art — everything is optimized around looking for collaborators,” explains Santry. “So the projects that are actively open and looking for people to get involved, are the ones we’re really pushing for people to discover and hopefully get involved with,” he says.

The company’s goal to offer an alternative path to talent discovery is a timely one. Today, the creative industry is waking up — as are many others — to the ramifications of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. As power-hungry abusers lose their jobs, new ways of working, networking and sourcing talent are taking hold.

As Williams said when she first introduced the app last year, Daisie’s focus is on giving the power back to the creator.

“Instead of [creators] having to market themselves to fit someone else’s idea of what their job would be, they can let their art speak for themselves,” she said at the time.

The app was launched into an invite-only beta on iOS last summer, and quickly saw a surge of users. After 37,000 downloads in week one, it crashed.

“We realized that the community was a lot larger than the product we had built, and that scale was something we needed to do properly,” Santry tells TechCrunch.

The team realized there was another problem, too: Once collaborators found each other in Daisie, there wasn’t a clear cut way for them to get in touch with one another as the app had no communication tools or ways to share files built in.

“That journey from concept to production was pretty muddy and quite muddled…so we realized, if we were bringing teams together, we actually wanted to give them a place to work — give them this creative hub…and take their project from concept all the way to production on Daisie,” Santry notes.

With this broader concept in mind, Daisie began fundraising in San Francisco shortly after the beta launch. The round initially closed in October 2018, but was more recently reopened to allow Dror’s investment.

With the additional funding in tow, Daisie has been able to grow its team of five to eighteen, including new hires from Monzo, Deliveroo, BBC, Microsoft, and others — specifically engineers who were familiar with designing apps for scale. Tasked with developing better infrastructure and a more expansive feature set, the team set to work on bringing Daisie to the web.

Nine months later, the new version launched to the public and is stable enough to handle the load. Today, it topped 100,000 users — most of which are in London. However, Daisie is planning to focus on taking its app to other cities including Berlin, New York, and L.A. going forward.

The company has monetization ideas in mind, but the app does not currently generate revenue. However, it’s already fielding inquiries from companies who want Daisie to find them the right talent for their projects.

“We want the best for the creators on the platform, so if that means bringing clients on — and hopefully giving those connectivity opportunities — then we’ll absolutely [go] down those roads,” Santry says.

The app may also serve as a talent pipeline for Maisie Williams’ own Daisy Chain Productions. In fact, Daisie recently ran a campaign called London Creates which connected young, emerging creators with project teams, two of which were headed by Santry’s Daisy Chain Productions co-founders, Williams and Bill Milner.

Now Daisy Chain Productions is going to produce a film from the Daisie collaboration as a result.

While celebs sometimes do little more than lend their name to projects, Williams was hands-on in terms of getting Daisie off the ground, Santry says. During the first quarter of 2019, she worked on Daisie 9-to-5, he notes. But she has since started another film project and plans to continue to work as an actress, which will limit her day-to-day involvement. Her role now and in the future may be more high-level.

“I think her role is going to become one of, culturally, like: where does Daisie stand? What do we stand for? Who do we work with? What do we represent?” he says. “How do we help creators everywhere? That’s mainly want Maisie wants to make sure Daisie does.”

Chat app Line is adding Snap-style disappearing stories

Facebook cloning Snap to death may be old news, but others are only just following suit. Line, the Japanese messaging app that’s popular in Asia, just became the latest to clone Snap’s ephemeral story concept.

The company announced today that it is adding stories that disappear after 24-hours to its timeline feature, a social network like feed that sits in its app, and user profiles. The update is rolling out to users now and the concept is very much identical to Snap, Instagram and others that have embraced time-limited content.

“As posts vanish after 24 hours, there is no need to worry about overposting or having posts remain in the feed,” Line, which is listed in the U.S. and Japan, wrote in an update. “Stories allows friends to discover real-time information on Timeline that is available only for that moment.”

Snap pioneered self-destructed content in its app, and the concept has now become present across most of the most popular internet services in the world.

In particular, Facebook added stories to across the board: to its core app, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, the world’s most popular chat app with over 1.5 billion monthly users. Indeed, Facebook claims that WhatsApp stories are used by 500 million people, while the company has built Instagram into a service that has long had more users than Snap — currently over one billion.

The approach doesn’t always work, though — Facebook is shuttering its most brazen Snap copy, a camera app built around Instagram direct messages.

Line doesn’t have anything like the reach of Facebook’s constellation of social apps, but it is Japan’s dominant messaging platform and is popular in Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia.

The Japanese company doesn’t give out global user numbers but it reported 164 million monthly users in its four key markets as of Q1 2019, that’s down one million year-on-year. Japan accounts for 80 million of that figure, ahead of Thailand (44 million), Taiwan (21 million) and Indonesia (19 million.)

While user growth has stagnated, Line has been able to extract increase revenue. In addition to a foray into services — in Japan its range covers ride-hailing, food delivery, music streaming and payments — it has increased advertising in the app’s timeline tab, and that is likely a big reason for the release of stories. The new feature may help timeline get more eyeballs, while the company could follow the lead of Snap and Instagram to monetize stories by allowing businesses in.

In Line’s case, that could work reasonably well — for advertising — since users can opt to follow business accounts already. It would make sense, then, to let companies push stories to users that opted in follow their account. But that’s a long way in the future and it will depend on how the new feature is received by users.

Facebook introduces ‘one strike’ policy to combat abuse of its live-streaming service

Facebook is cracking down on its live streaming service after it was used to broadcast the shocking mass shootings that left 50 dead at two Christchurch mosques in New Zealand in March. The social network said today that it is implementing a ‘one strike’ rule that will prevent users who break its rules from using the Facebook Live service.

“From now on, anyone who violates our most serious policies will be restricted from using Live for set periods of time — for example 30 days — starting on their first offense. For instance, someone who shares a link to a statement from a terrorist group with no context will now be immediately blocked from using Live for a set period of time,” Facebook VP of integrity Guy Rosen wrote.

The company said it plans to implement additional restrictions for these people, which will include limiting their ability to take out ads on the social network. Those who violate Facebook’s policy against “dangerous individuals and organizations” — a new introduction that it used to ban a number of right-wing figures earlier this month — will be restricted from using Live, although Facebook isn’t being specific on the duration of the bans or what it would take to trigger a permanent bar from live-streaming.

Facebook is increasingly using AI to detect and counter violent and dangerous content on its platform, but that approach simply isn’t working.

Beyond the challenge of non-English languages — Facebook’s AI detection system has failed in Myanmar, for example, despite what CEO Mark Zuckerberg had claimedthe detection system wasn’t robust in dealing with the aftermath of Christchurch.

The stream itself was not reported to Facebook until 12 minutes after it had ended, while Facebook failed to block 20 percent of the videos of the live stream that were later uploaded to its site. Indeed, TechCrunch found several videos still on Facebook more than 12 hours after the attack despite the social network’s efforts to cherry pick ‘vanity stats’ that appeared to show its AI and human teams had things under control.

Acknowledging that failure indirectly, Facebook said it will invest $7.5 million in “new research partnerships with leading academics from three universities, designed to improve image and video analysis technology.”

Early partners in this initiative include The University of Maryland, Cornell University and The University of California, Berkeley, which it said will assist with techniques to detect manipulated images, video and audio. Another objective is to use technology to identify the difference between those who deliberately manipulate media, and those who so “unwittingly.”

Facebook said it hopes to add other research partners to the initiative, which is also focused on combating deepfakes.

“Although we deployed a number of techniques to eventually find these variants, including video and audio matching technology, we realized that this is an area where we need to invest in further research,” Rosen conceded in the blog post.

Facebook’s announcement comes less than one day after a collection of world leaders, including New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, called on tech companies to sign a pledge to increase their efforts to combat toxic content.

According to people working for the French Economy Ministry, the Christchurch Call doesn’t contain any specific recommendations for new regulation. Rather, countries can decide what they mean by violent and extremist content.

“For now, it’s a focus on an event in particular that caused an issue for multiple countries,” French Digital Minister Cédric O said in a briefing with journalists.

Facebook pivots to what it wishes it was

In Facebook’s dreams, it’s a clean and private place. People spend their time having thoughtful discussions in “meaningful” Groups, planning offline meetups with Events, or laughing together in a Facebook Watch party.

In reality, Facebook is a cluttered mess of features that seem to constantly leak user data. People waste their time viewing inane News Feed posts from “friends” they never talk to, enviously stalking through photos of peers, or chowing on click-bait articles and viral videos in isolation.

That’s why Facebook is rolling out what could be called an “aspirational redesign” known as FB5. Rather than polishing what Facebook was, it tries to spotlight what it wants to be. “This is the biggest change we’ve made to the Facebook app and site in five years” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said to open Facebook’s F8 conference yesterday.

 

The New Facebook

Most noticibly, that starts with sucking much of the blue out of the Facebook interface to making it look sparse and calming — despite a More button that unveils the social network’s bloat into dozens of rarely-used features. A new logo features a brighter blue bubble around Facebook’s distinctive white f, which attempts to but a more uplifting spin on a bruised brand.

Functionally, FB5 means placing Groups near the center of a freshly tabbed interface for the both Facebook’s website and app, and putting suggestions for new ones to join across the service. “Everywhere there are friends, there should be Groups” says the head of the Facebook app Fidji Simo. Groups already has 1 billion monthly users, so Facebook is following the behavior pattern and doubling down. But Facebook’s goal is not only to have 2.38 billion people using the feature — the same number as use its whole app — but to get them all into meaningful Groups that emblemize their identity. 400 million already are. And now Groups for specific interests like gaming or health support will get special features, and power users will get a dashboard of updates across all their communities.

Groups will be flanked by Marketplace, perhaps the Facebook feature with the most latent potential. It’s a rapidly emerging use case Facebook wants to fuel. Zuckerberg took Craigslist, added real identity to thwart bad behavior, and now is bolting it to the navigation bar of the most-used app on earth. The result is a place where it’s easy to put things up for sale and get tons of viewers. I once sold a couch on Marketplace in 20 minutes. Now sellers can take payments directly in the app instead of with cash or Venmo, and they can offer to ship items anywhere at the buyer’s expense. By following Zuckerberg’s mandate that 2019 focus on commerce, Facebook has become a viable Shopify competitor.

If Groups is what’s already working about Facebook’s future, Watch is the opposite. It’s a product designed to capture the video viewing bonanza Facebook observes on Netfli and YouTube. But without tentpole content like a “Game Of Thrones” or “Stranger Things”, it’s failed to impact the the cutlural zeitgeist. The closest thing it has to must-see video is Buffy The Vampire Slayer re-runs and a docuseries on NBA star Steph Curry. Facebook claims 75 million people now Watch for at least one minute per day though those 60 seconds don’t have to be  sequential. That’s still just 4 percent of its users. And a Diffusion study found 50 percent of adult US Facebook users had never even heard of Watch. Sticking it front and center demonstrates Facebook commitment to making Watch a hit even if it has to cram it down our throats.

Not The Old Facebook

The products of the past got little love on stage at F8. Nothing new for News Feed, Facebook’s mint but also the source of its misinformation woes. In the age of Snapchat and Zuckerberg’s newfound insistence on ephemerality to prevent embarassment, the Timeline profile chronicling your whole Facebook life got nary a mention. And Pages for businesses that were the center of its monetization strategy years ago didn’t find space in the keynote, similar to how they’ve been butted out of the News Feed by competition and Facebook’s philosophical shift from public content to friends and family.

 

The one thing we heard a lot about but didn’t actually see much of was privacy. Zuckerberg started the conference declaring “The future is private!” He spoke about how Facebook plans to make its messaging apps encrypted, how it wants to be a living room rather than just a townhall, and how it’s following the shift in user behavior away from broadcasting. But we didn’t see any new privacy protections for the developer platform, a replacement for its Chief Security Officer that’s been vacant for nine months, or the Clear History feature Zuckerberg announced last year.

“I get that a lot of people aren’t sure that we’re serious about this. I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly” Zuckerberg joked without seeming to generate a single laugh. Combined with having little to show to enhance privacy, making fun of such a dire situation doesn’t instill much confidence. When Zuckerberg does take things seriously, it quickly manifests itself in the product like with Facebook’s 2012 shift to mobile, or in the company like with 2018’s doubling of security headcount. He knew mobile and content moderation failures could kill his network. But does someone who told Time magazine in 2010 that “What people want isn’t complete privacy” truly see a loose stance on privacy as an existential threat?

Interoperable, encrypted messaging will boost privacy, but it’s also just good business logic given Zuckerberg’s intention to own chat — the heart of your phone. Facebook’s creepiness stems from it sucking in data to power ad targeting. Nothing new was announced to address that. Despite his words, perhaps Zuckerberg doesn’t aspire to make Facebook as private as he aspired to make it mobile and secure. 

Wired reported that Zuckerberg authored a strategy book given to all employees ahead of the IPO that noted “If we don’t create the thing that kills Facebook, someone else will.” But F8 offered a new interpretation. Maybe given the lack of direct competitors in its league, and the absence of a mass exodus over its constant privacy scandals, it was the outdated product itself that was killing Facebook. The permanent Facebook. The all-you-do-is-scroll Facebook. The bored-of-my-friends Facebook. Users were being neglected rather than pushed or stolen. By ignoring the past and emphasizing the products it aspires to have dominate tomorrow — Groups, Marketplace, Watch — Facebook can start to unchain itself from the toxic brand poisoning its potential.

Bitcoin has surged above $8,000 and theories around why abound

Bitcoin is now trading at around $8,130, up a whopping 60.84 percent over the past month, with the price surging $3,086.14 over the period.

The cryptocurrency’s meteoric rise is reminiscent of its rocketing growth in the latter half of 2017, when prices reached over $18,400 on the back of buoyant capital markets, rampant speculation, and a turbulent political climate in Northern Asia spurred by saber rattling between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un.

While geopolitical tension is once again gripping the market (thanks to the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China), that may only be one factor contributing to Bitcoin’s surge.

“Anticipation of the upcoming supply shock [of new BTC introduced via mining] may be creating upward pressure on the price of Bitcoin,” wrote Alyse Killeen, a partner at the investment and advisory firm Stillmark, in an email. “Bitcoin is introduced to the market when the Bitcoin protocol rewards miners who validate blockchain transactions. Specifically, the Bitcoin protocol gives BTC to miners for adding blocks to the blockchain. Today, miners earn 12.5 BTC for adding a new block that is accepted by the network. In May 2020, the time of the next ‘halvening‘, that reward will be reduced to 6.25 BTC, thereby reducing the total number of BTC introduced to the market on a daily basis.”

Killeen also noted that Bitcoin is inherently more valuable today than it was at the same time last year. More Americans can access Bitcoin through apps like Cash and Robinhood, and TD Ameritrade’s BTC contracts and (soon) eTrade.

Technology advances are also making Bitcoin more useful and more secure, Killeen wrote. The development of the Lightning Network is proceeding and creating a new application ecosystem, while the Blockstream Satellite network is creating redundancies in blockchain availability.

In fact, the number of businesses that take Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies expanded exponentially yesterday thanks to an agreement between the U.S. dollar-pegged stablecoin purveyor Gemini (owned by the Winkelvoss twins of Facebook and Social Network fame) and the payment network Flexa, whose technology is undergirded by cryptocurrencies.

Using Gemini’s exchange and clearing house and Flexa’s transaction technology most of the stores an American consumer encounters in their trip to the mall now accept Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies as payments.

That adoption doesn’t explain the bump in Bitcoin prices entirely. And skeptics of digital cryptocurrencies argue that there could be a simpler explanation for the rise in digital currencies right now — good old fashioned price manipulation.

As crypto-skeptic David Gerard wrote in this blog post yesterday:

It’s because the price of Bitcoin is a proxy for margin trading — and rather than investing in the commodity itself, you can make more money by manipulating this thin and ill-regulated market to burn the margin traders.

This also allows the large holders — the “whales,” and the exchanges themselves — to cash out to whatever little actual-money US dollars are available, in a trading system where the liquidity is mostly fake dollars called “tethers.”

Willy Woo explains how short squeezes work in crypto. This is a pattern we see over and over:

1) When the market is majority short, there’s too much money to be had to allow them to win.

2) Whales keep buying up the market until the shorts get liquidated.

3) At liquidation the short seller has to buy back at market price.

4) A tidal wave of buys cascade through the orderbooks, a chain reaction, the price goes vertical.

5) Whale payday. The whales that bought up the market sheparding the price up now dump their positions at profit.

6) Blow-off. The price comes down to its organic levels.

Other investors, like Travis Scher at the Digital Currency Group think that it’s as simple as a new class of investor looking at Bitcoin as a new store of value and a haven for investors looking to escape volatile public markets.

“I spend very little time trying to understand or explain short-term crypto price movements, as the price and the fundamentals often seem to move in diametrically opposed directions. So all I can say with certainty is that there are more buyers than sellers in recent months,” Scher wrote in an email. “But in this case, I do think that one factor driving the rally is that the narrative around Bitcoin as digital gold is growing. We fully expect Bitcoin to replace gold as the leading non-government controlled store of value over the coming decade.”

Kargo is disrupting logistics in Myanmar, one of the world’s most challenging countries

Founders in Seattle recently bemoaned a lack of capital and support when compared to Silicon Valley — what about those building startups in more remote markets?

Kargo, a company that takes the spirit of Uber and brings it to the disorganized world of trucking, has raised a SG$800,000 (US$580,000) round of funding, giving TechCrunch an excuse to delve into the world of startup development in Myanmar, one of the world’s most curious countries.

Ostracized from the world until its first free general election in 2015, Myanmar — which was previously known as Burma — has seen the world’s most radical digitization. Ruled by the military from 1962 until 2011, the price of a SIM card in the country was $250 as recently as 2013 (a big jump on $3,000-odd in the early 2000s) but that all change around the elections in 2015 when the country opened its doors to outside investment and global companies. Telecom companies rushed in, reducing the price of a SIM card to mere dollars, in U.S. terms, and giving those who bought them gigabits of data to use each month.

That rush saw services like Facebook go from non-existent to the key digital space overnight as Myanmar’s 55 million people poured online — the U.S. social network has failed to cope with that crazy growth. Today, some 46 million people are estimated to be online in the country, with mobile the dominant platform and Facebook the top browser — yep, the social network is that big.

Myanmar is getting its first 4G rollouts and the seeds have been sown for internet businesses and startups.

Simplifying logistics

Kargo — which is not to be confused by the Indonesia company of the same name that’s backed by Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick — was started in 2016 by Alexander Wicks, an Australian expat who had previously run digital marketing businesses.

The young company initially joined Phandeeyar, a tech accelerator in major city Yangon, before dropping out due to a disagreement on terms, CEO and founder Wicks said. He told TechCrunch that he valued the organization, but decided to “fly solo” with the business.

That is a bet that appeared to pay off, so far at least. Kargo won a grant from the GSM Association Ecosystem Accelerator Fund, a unit associated with the GSMA, and it represented Myanmar at the world Seedstars Summit last year. Now, it has secured this new funding led by Singapore-based early-stage specialist Cocoon Capital.

Wicks said the round is a pre-Series A deal and he hopes that Kargo can go on to raise a Series A to fuel overseas growth within the next year or 18 months.

Alexander Wicks started Kargo in 2016

Kargo works with multinational companies, including Coke and Nestle, to help them navigate the complicated world of logistics in Myanmar. By aggregating multiple fleets through its platform, Kargo becomes a single point of contact for companies moving product, thus simplifying the process massively. In the past, they’d deal with copious numbers of middlemen, who would liaise with truck fleets to add unnecessary levels of complication and cost.

“The market is very big, its a core part of how the whole country runs,” he explained, adding that Myanmar’s freight industry is expected to triple in the coming years.

Wicks said Kargo works with some 2,000-odd drivers mostly via fleet owners, who typically operate 5-50 trucks through their business. It disintermediates the aforementioned brokers and middlemen, to help drivers and fleet owners recoup a higher portion of each order and gain access to potential new clients. A partnership with Yoma Bank will also give the startup access to an SME loan that’ll enable it to make daily payouts to drivers that need more immediate cash flow than its regularly weekly deposits.

Kargo is currently close to $200,000 in monthly order volume, with 20-30 percent growth month-to-month during 2019, Wicks shared.

It is now exploring its first steps outside of Myanmar by covering ‘logistics corridors’ into Thailand. Wicks said the company has seen a high level of requests to move overseas from existing clients, and he intends to use those relationships to begin to step into new markets tentatively, starting with Thailand.

The new funding will also go towards developing Kargo’s new — and particularly improving the web app used by drivers — as well as increased education and training for truck operators and drivers.

“It’s very much a product for Myanmar,” Wicks said in an interview. “It’s an old industry being built with a new mindset.”

Finally, hiring is a key focus for the capital, too.

Kargo currently has a team of 32, most of whom are located in Yangon, and that headcount is forecast to rise to as many as 60 this year. Business development, fleet management and operations are the core areas where the startup plans to hire, and that will include beefing up its new office in Mandalay.

Wicks — center in a cap — with the members of the Kargo team

Building a startup in Myanmar

When asked what the hardest part of operating a startup in Myanmar is, Wicks claimed that dealing with the government is just ahead of raising investment money.

“Bureaucracy… there are no stats or systems here,” he said. “We have to deal with a lot of government issues.”

Still, he said, the arrival of Uber and its regional competitor Grab — which ultimately acquired the U.S. firm’s regional business — in Myanmar in 2017 gave Kargo and other on-demand startups in the country a real foothold in working with governments by educating them on new business models.

“They made it clear what a platform is for the government,” Wicks said.

He believes that their arrival, coupled with growing internet usage and increased speed, have also helped get investors comfortable with the idea of investing in tech in Myanmar, although he insisted that they must still be “patient” over growth.

“It’s certainly a much more positive landscape for founders today,” Wicks said. “That trust has changed for investors, there are a few of us building companies across the country.”

Educating and training drivers is a major focus for Kargo following its fundraising

That’s certainly true for Cocoon Capital — which is currently raising for a $20 million fund having completed a first close last year.

Managing partner Michael Blakey told TechCrunch that Kargo is the firm’s second investment from that new fund. He’s equally bullish that Kargo is well placed to take advantage of both digital growth and the development of logistics as Myanmar continues to appeal to overseas businesses.

“Myanmar is the fastest growing economy in Southeast Asia and logistics is a key industry to support this growth,” Blakey said in a statement. “We believe the Kargo platform has the potential to disrupt the trucking industry, not only in Myanmar, but in the region.”

If ‘Myanmar 1.0’ was the establishment of credible startups, then the second chapter will be the cream of that crop venturing overseas. Kargo is one of the early contenders that is intent on making that move.

The EU will reportedly investigate Apple following anti-competition complaint from Spotify

The spat between Spotify and Apple is going to be the focus on a new investigation from the EU, according to a report from the FT.

The paper reported today that the European Commission (EC), the EU’s regulatory body, plans to launch a competition inquiry around Spotify’s claim that the iPhone-maker uses its position as the gatekeeper of the App Store to “deliberately disadvantage other app developers.”

In a complaint filed to the EC in March, Spotify said Apple has “tilted the playing field” by operating iOS, the platform, and the App Store for distribution, as well as its own Spotify rival, Apple Music.

In particular, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has said that Apple “locks” developers and their platform, which includes a 30 percent cut of in-app spending. Ek also claimed Apple Music has unfair advantages over rivals like Spotify, while he expressed concern that Apple controls communication between users and app publishers, “including placing unfair restrictions on marketing and promotions that benefit consumers.”

Spotify’s announcement was unprecedented — Ek claimed many other developers feel the same way, but do not want to upset Apple by speaking up. The EU is sure to tap into that silent base if the investigation does indeed go ahead as the FT claims.

Apple bit back at Spotify’s claims, but its response was more a rebuttal — or alternative angle — on those complaints. Apple did not directly address any of the demands that Spotify put forward, and those include alternative payment options (as offered in the Google Play store) and equal treatment for Apple apps and those from third-parties like Spotify.

The EU is gaining a reputation as a tough opponent that’s reining in U.S. tech giants.

Aside from its GDPR initiative, it has a history of taking action on apparent monopolies in tech.

Google fined €1.49 billion ($1.67 billion) in March of this year over antitrust violations in search ad brokering, for example. Google was fined a record $5 billion last year over Android abuses and there have been calls to look into breaking the search company up. Inevitably, Facebook has come under the spotlight for a series of privacy concerns, particularly around elections.

Pressure from the EU has already led to the social network introduce clear terms and conditions around its use of data for advertising, while it may also change its rules limiting overseas ad spending around EU elections following concern from Brussels.

Despite what some in the U.S. may think, the EU’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, has said publicly that she is against breaking companies up. Instead, Vestager has pledged to regulate data access.

“To break up a company, to break up private property would be very far-reaching and you would need to have a very strong case that it would produce better results for consumers in the marketplace than what you could do with more mainstream tools. We’re dealing with private property. Businesses that are built and invested in and become successful because of their innovation,” she said in an interview at SXSW earlier this year.