Following lawsuits, Snapchat pulls its controversial speed filter

Lately, Snapchat’s 3D Cartoon lens has been all the buzz, making all of our friends look like Pixar characters. But since 2013, a staple filter on the ephemeral photo-sharing app has been the speed filter, which shows how fast a phone is moving when it takes a photo or video. Today, Snapchat confirmed that it will pull the filter from the app.

NPR first reported this today, calling it a “dramatic reversal” of Snap’s earlier defense of the feature. Over the years, there have been multiple car accidents, injuries and deaths that were related to the use of the filter. In 2016, for instance, an 18-year-old took a Snapchat selfie while driving, then struck another driver’s car at 107 miles per hour. The other driver, Maynard Wentworth, suffered traumatic brain injuries and sued Snap. His lawyer said that the 18-year-old “was just trying to get the car to 100 miles per hour to post it on Snapchat.”

Snapchat’s filter-related offenses don’t begin and end here. Last year on Juneteenth, a day that commemorates the end of slavery, Snapchat released a filter that prompted users to “smile to break the chains.” On 4/20 in 2016, Snapchat partnered with Bob Marley’s estate to release a feature that gave users dreadlocks and darker skin, committing blackface. And even after Snapchat’s speed filter was linked to fatal car accidents, it remained available in the app with a simple “don’t snap and drive” warning.

“Today the sticker is barely used by Snapchatters, and in light of that, we are removing it altogether,” a spokesperson from Snap said, adding that the feature had previously been disabled at driving speeds. The company has begun removing the filter, but it might take several weeks to take full effect.

This new stance from Snap comes after the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court found in May that the company can be sued for its role in a fatal car accident.

Generally, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects websites, or “interactive computer services,” from lawsuits like this, providing immunity for these platforms from third-party content posted on them. But in 2019, the parents of two children killed in crashes — Landen Brown and Hunter Morby — filed another lawsuit. They argued that the app’s “negligent design” (including a speed filter to begin with) contributed to the crash. A California judge dismissed the case, citing Section 230, but in May of this year, three judges on the federal Ninth Circuit Appeals Court ruled that Section 230 actually doesn’t apply here. The conflict isn’t with Snapchat’s role as a social media platform, but rather, the app’s design, which includes a demonstrably dangerous speed filter.

So, the sudden removal of the speed filter isn’t as random as it may seem. Now that their Section 230 defense is no longer, it makes sense that keeping the filter isn’t worth the legal risk. You’d think that the filter-related accidents would have been enough for Snapchat to take down the filter years ago, but better late than never.

Everyone you know is a Disney princess, which means AR is queen

This weekend, all of your friends morphed one by one into animated, Pixar-inspired characters. This isn’t a fever dream, and you’re not alone.

On Thursday, Snapchat released a Cartoon 3D Style Lens, which uses AR to make you look like a background character from “Frozen.” Naturally, even though TikTok’s own AR cartoon effects aren’t quite as convincing as Snapchat’s, people are turning to TikTok to share videos of themselves as Disney princesses, because of course they are.

This isn’t the first time that a Disney-esque AR trend has gone viral. In August 2020, Snapchat had 28.5 million new installs, which was its biggest month since May 2019, when it got 41.2 million new installs. It might not be a coincidence that in early August 2020, Snapchat released the Cartoon Face lens, which users realized could be used to “Disneyfy” their pets – the tag #disneydog got 40.9 million views across platforms on TikTok. Then, Snapchat struck viral gold again in December, when they released the Cartoon lens, which rendered more realistic results for human faces than the previous iteration.

According to Sensor Tower, Snapchat’s global installs continued to climb month-over-month throughout the rest of 2020, though installs slightly declined in December. Still, Snapchat got 36 million downloads that month. Now, after the newest Cartoon Style 3D lens went viral again, Snapchat hit number 6 on the App Store’s free apps charts, compared to TikTok’s number 2 slot. Still, Snapchat downloads in May were 32 million, down from 34 million in April, while TikTok saw 80.3 million installs in May, up from 59.3 million in April.

Image Credits: Snapchat, screenshots by TechCrunch

But there’s a new app in the number 1 slot that also made an impact on this weekend’s cartoon explosion. Released in March, Voilà AI Artist is yet another platform that turns us into cartoon versions of ourselves. Unlike the AR-powered effects on Snapchat or TikTok, Voilà is a photo editor. Users upload a selfie, and after watching an ad (the ad-free version costs $3 per week), it reveals what you would look like as a cartoon.

Voilà AI Artist was only downloaded 400 times globally in March 2021. By May, the app surpassed 1 million downloads, and during the first two weeks of this month alone, the app has been downloaded over 10.5 million times.

Again, like the repetitive iterations on the “Disneyfy” trend, apps like Voilà aren’t new. FaceApp went viral in 2019, showing people what they’ll look like when they’re old, graying, and wrinkled. The app became the center of a privacy controversy, since it uploaded users’ photos to the cloud to edit their selfies with AI. FaceApp made a statement that it “might store updated photos in the cloud” for “performance and traffic reasons,” but that “most images” are deleted “within 48 hours.” Still, this ambiguous language set off the warning bells, urging us to think about the potentially nefarious implications of seeing what we’ll look like in sixty years. Two years earlier, FaceApp put out a “hotness” filter, which made users’ skin lighter – FaceApp apologized for its racist AI. Voilà, which is owned by Wemagine.AI LLP in Canada, has also been criticized for its AI’s eurocentrism. As these apps grow in popularity, they can also uphold some of our culture’s most harmful biases.

Image Credits: Voilà

Like FaceApp, Voilà requires an internet connection to use the app. Additionally, its terms outline that users grant the company “a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, and transferable license to host, store, use in any way, display, reproduce, modify, adapt, edit, publish, and distribute Uploaded and Generated content.” Basically, that means that if you upload an image to the platform, Voilà has the right to use it, but they don’t own it. This isn’t abnormal for these apps – when we upload photos to Instagram, for example, we also grant the platform the right to use our images.

Still, it’s a good thing that apps like Voilà force us to consider what we give up in exchange for the knowledge that we’d make a good Disney princess. Earlier this month, TikTok updated its U.S. privacy policy to dictate that the app “may collect biometric identifiers and biometric information” from users’ content. This includes “faceprints and voiceprints,” terms that TikTok left undefined. When TechCrunch reached Tiktok for comment, they couldn’t confirm why the terms now changed to allow for the automatic collection of biometric data, which refers to any features, measurements, or characteristics of our body that distinguish us, even fingerprints.

It’s no wonder that as Voilà climbed to the number one slot on the App Store, Snapchat re-upped their Pixar-inspired AR lens. Facebook’s own Spark AR platform is rolling out new features, and last week at WWDC, Apple announced a major update to RealityKit, its AR software. But these trends reveal more about our growing comfort with face-altering AR than they do about our nostalgia for Disney.

Yana’s mental health tool for Spanish speakers nears 5 million users

Andrea Campos has struggled with depression since she was eight years old. Over the years, she’s tried all sorts of therapies — from behavioral to pharmacotherapy.

In 2017, when Campos was in her early 20s, she learned to program and created a system to help manage her mental health. It started as a personal project, but as she talked to more people, Campos realized that many others might benefit from the system as well.

So she built an application to provide access to mental health tools for Spanish-speaking people and began testing it with a small group. At first, Campos herself was her own chatbot, texting with users who were tired of dealing with depression.

“During the month, I was pretending I was an app, and would send these people a list of activities they had to complete during the day, such as writing in a gratitude journal, and then asking them how those activities made them feel,” Campos recalls.

Her thinking was that sometimes with depression and anxiety comes “a lot of avoidance,” where people resist potential treatment out of fear.

The results from her small experiment were encouraging. So, Campos set out to conduct a bigger sample of experiments, and raised about $10,000 via a crowdfunding campaign. With that money, she hired a developer to build a chatbot for her app, which was mostly being used via Facebook Messenger.

Then an earthquake hit Mexico City and that developer lost everything — including his home and computer — and had to relocate.

“I was left with nothing,” Campos says. But that developer introduced her to another, who disappeared with his payment, and again, left Campos, “with nothing.”

“I realized at the beginning of 2019, I was going to have to do this by myself,” Campos said. So she used a site that she described as a “Wix for chatbots,” and created one herself.

After experimenting with the app with a sample of 700 people, Campos was even more encouraged and raised an angel round of funding for Yana, the startup behind her app. (Yana is an acronym for “You Are Not Alone.”) By early 2020, with just three months of runway left, she pivoted to create an app with chatbot integration that wasn’t just limited to use via Facebook Messenger.

Campos ended up launching the app more broadly during the same week that her city in Mexico went into quarantine.

Image Credits: Yana

At first, she said, she saw “normal, steady growth.” But then on October 10, 2020, Apple’s App Store highlighted Yana for International Mental Health Day, and the response was overwhelming.

“It was also my birthday so I was at a spa in a nearby town, relaxing, when I started hearing my cell phone go crazy,” Campos recalls. “Everything went nuts. I had to go back to Mexico City because our servers were exploding since they were not used to having that kind of volume.”

As a result of that exposure, Yana went from having around 80,000 users to reaching 1 million users two weeks later. Soon after that, Google highlighted the app as one of best for personal growth in 2020, and that too led to another spike in users. Today, Yana is about to hit the 5 million-user mark and is also announcing it has raised $1.5 million in funding led by Mexico’s ALLVP, which has also invested in the likes of Cornershop, Flink and Nuvocargo.

When the pandemic hit last year, six of Yana’s nine-person team decided to quarantine together in a “startup house” in Cancun to focus on building the company. Earlier this year, the company had raised $315,000 from investors such as 500 Startups, Magma and Hustle Fund. The company had pitched ALLVP, which was intrigued but wanted to wait until it could write a bigger check. 

That time is now, and Yana is now among the top three downloaded apps in Mexico and 12 countries, including Spain, Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela.

With its new capital, Yana is planning to “move away from the depression/anxiety narrative,” according to Campos.

“We want to compete in the wellness space,” she told TechCrunch. “A lot of people were looking for us to deal with crises such as a breakup or a loss but then they didn’t always see a necessity to keep using Yana for longer than the crisis lasted.”

Some of those people would download the app again months later when hit with another crisis.

“We don’t want to be that app anymore,” Campos said. “We want to focus on whole wellness and mental health and transmit something that needs to be built every single day, just like we do with exercise.”

Moving forward, Yana aims to help people with their mental health not just during a crisis but with activities they can do on a daily basis, including a gratitude journal, a mood tracker and meditation — “things that prevent depression and anxiety,” Campos said.

“We want to be a vitamin for our soul, and keeping people mentally healthy on an ongoing basis,” she said. “We also want to include a community inside our application.”

ALLVP’s Federico Antoni is enthusiastic about the startup’s potential. He first met Campos when she was participating in an accelerator program in 2017, and then again recently.

The firm led Yana’s latest round because it “wanted to be on her team.”

“She [Campos] has turned into an amazing leader, and we realized her potential and strength,” he said. “Plus, Yana is an amazing product. When you download it, it’s almost like you can see a soul in there.”

7 new security features Apple quietly announced at WWDC

Apple went big on privacy during its Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) keynote this week, showcasing features from on-device Siri audio processing to a new privacy dashboard for iOS that makes it easier than ever to see which apps are collecting your data and when.

While typically vocal about security during the Memoji-filled, two-hour-long(!) keynote, the company also quietly introduced several new security and privacy-focused features during its WWDC developer sessions. We’ve rounded up some of the most interesting — and important.

Passwordless login with iCloud Keychain

Apple is the latest tech company taking steps to ditch the password. During its “Move beyond passwords” developer session, it previewed Passkeys in iCloud Keychain, a method of passwordless authentication powered by WebAuthn, and Face ID and Touch ID.

The feature, which will ultimately be available in both iOS 15 and macOS Monterey, means you no longer have to set a password when creating an account or a website or app. Instead, you’ll simply pick a username, and then use Face ID or Touch ID to confirm it’s you. The passkey is then stored in your keychain and then synced across your Apple devices using iCloud — so you don’t have to remember it, nor do you have to carry around a hardware authenticator key.

“Because it’s just a single tap to sign in, it’s simultaneously easier, faster and more secure than almost all common forms of authentication today,” said Garrett Davidson, an Apple authentication experience engineer. 

While it’s unlikely to be available on your iPhone or Mac any time soon — Apple says the feature is still in its ‘early stages’ and it’s currently disabled by default — the move is another sign of the growing momentum behind eliminating passwords, which are prone to being forgotten, reused across multiple services, and — ultimately — phishing attacks. Microsoft previously announced plans to make Windows 10 password-free, and Google recently confirmed that it’s working towards “creating a future where one day you won’t need a password at all”.

Microphone indicator in macOS

macOS has a new indicator to tell you when the microhpone is on. (Image: Apple)

Since the introduction of iOS 14, iPhone users have been able to keep an eye on which apps are accessing their microphone via a green or orange dot in the status bar. Now it’s coming to the desktop too.

In macOS Monterey, users will be able to see which apps are accessing their Mac’s microphone in Control Center, MacRumors reports, which will complement the existing hardware-based green light that appears next to a Mac’s webcam when the camera is in use.

Secure paste

iOS 15, which will include a bunch of privacy-bolstering tools from Mail Privacy Protection to App Privacy Reports, is also getting a feature called Secure Paste that will help to shield your clipboard data from other apps.

This feature will enable users to paste content from one app to another, without the second app being able to access the information on the clipboard until you paste it. This is a significant improvement over iOS 14, which would notify when an app took data from the clipboard but did nothing to prevent it from happening.

With secure paste, developers can let users paste from a different app without having access to what was copied until the user takes action to paste it into their app,” Apple explains. “When developers use secure paste, users will be able to paste without being alerted via the [clipboard] transparency notification, helping give them peace of mind.”

While this feature sounds somewhat insignificant, it’s being introduced following a major privacy issue that came to light last year. In March 2020, security researchers revealed that dozens of popular iOS apps — including TikTok — were “snooping” on users’ clipboard without their consent, potentially accessing highly sensitive data.

Advanced Fraud Protection for Apple Card

Payments fraud is more prevalent than ever as a result of the pandemic, and Apple is looking to do something about it. As first reported by 9to5Mac, the company has previewed Advanced Fraud Protection, a feature that will let Apple Card users generate new card numbers in the Wallet app.

While details remain thin — the feature isn’t live in the first iOS 15 developer beta — Apple’s explanation suggests that Advanced Fraud Protection will make it possible to generate new security codes — the three-digit number you enter at checkout – when making online purchases. 

“With Advanced Fraud Protection, Apple Card users can have a security code that changes regularly to make online Card Number transactions even more secure,” the brief explainer reads. We’ve asked Apple for some more information. 

‘Unlock with Apple Watch’ for Siri requests

As a result of the widespread mask-wearing necessitated by the pandemic, Apple introduced an ‘Unlock with Apple Watch’ in iOS 14.5 that let enabled users to unlock their iPhone and authenticate Apple Pay payments using an Apple Watch instead of Face ID.

The scope of this feature is expanding with iOS 15, as the company has confirmed that users will soon be able to use this alternative authentication method for Siri requests, such as adjusting phone settings or reading messages. Currently, users have to enter a PIN, password or use Face ID to do so.

“Use the secure connection to your Apple Watch for Siri requests or to unlock your iPhone when an obstruction, like a mask, prevents Face ID from recognizing your Face,” Apple explains. Your watch must be passcode protected, unlocked, and on your wrist close by.”

Standalone security patches

To ensure iPhone users who don’t want to upgrade to iOS 15 straight away are up to date with security updates, Apple is going to start decoupling patches from feature updates. When iOS 15 lands later this year, users will be given the option to update to the latest version of iOS or to stick with iOS 14 and simply install the latest security fixes. 

“iOS now offers a choice between two software update versions in the Settings app,” Apple explains (via MacRumors). “You can update to the latest version of iOS 15 as soon as it’s released for the latest features and most complete set of security updates. Or continue on ‌iOS 14‌ and still get important security updates until you’re ready to upgrade to the next major version.”

This feature sees Apple following in the footsteps of Google, which has long rolled out monthly security patches to Android users.

‘Erase all contents and settings’ for Mac

Wiping a Mac has been a laborious task that has required you to erase your device completely then reinstall macOS. Thankfully, that’s going to change. Apple is bringing the “erase all contents and settings” option that’s been on iPhones and iPads for years to macOS Monterey.

The option will let you factory reset your MacBook with just a click. “System Preferences now offers an option to erase all user data and user-installed apps from the system, while maintaining the operating system currently installed,” Apple says. “Because storage is always encrypted on Mac systems with Apple Silicon or the T2 chip, the system is instantly and securely ‘erased’ by destroying the encryption keys.”

Shopify brings on team from augmented reality home design app Primer

In Friday acquisition news, Shopify shared today that they’ve acquired the team from augmented reality startup Primer, which makes an app that lets users visualize what tile, wallpaper or paint will look like on surfaces inside their home.

In a blog post, co-founders Adam Debreczeni and Russ Maschmeyer write that Primer’s app and services will be shutting down next month as part of the deal. Primer’s team of eight employees will all be joining Shopify following the acquisition.

Primer had partnered with dozens of tile and textile design brands to allow users to directly visualize what their designs would look like using their iPhone and iPad and Apple’s augmented reality platform ARKit. The app has been highlighted by Apple several times including this nice write-up by the App Store’s internal editorial team.

Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed. Primer’s backers included Slow Ventures, Abstract Ventures, Foundation Capital and Expa.

There’s been a lot of big talk about how augmented reality will impact online shopping, but aside from some of the integrations made in home design, there hasn’t been an awful lot that’s found its way into real consumer use. Shopify has worked on some of their own integrations — allowing sellers to embed 3D models into their storefronts that users can drop into physical space — but it’s clear that there’s much more room left to experiment.

Productivity startup Time is Ltd raises $5.6M to be the ‘Google Analytics for company time’

Productivity analytics startup Time is Ltd wants to be the Google Analytics for company time. Or perhaps a sort of “Apple Screen Time” for companies. Whatever the case, the founders reckon that if you can map how time is spent in a company enormous productivity gains can be unlocked and, money better spent.

It’s now raised a $5.6 million late seed funding round led by Mike Chalfen, of London-based Chalfen Ventures, with participation from Illuminate Financial Management and existing investor Accel. Acequia Capital and former Seal Software chairman Paul Sallaberry are also contributing to the new round, as is former Seal board member Clark Golestani. Furthermore, Ulf Zetterberg, founder and former CEO of contract discovery and analytics company Seal Software, is joining as President and co-founder.

The venture is the latest from serial entrepreneur Jan Rezab, better known for founding SocialBakers, which was acquired last year.

We are all familiar with inefficient meetings, pestering notifications chat, video conferencing tools and the deluge of emails. Time is Ltd. says it plans to address this by acquiring insights and data platforms such as Microsoft 365, Google Workspace, Zoom, Webex, MS Teams, Slack, and more. The data and insights gathered would then help managers to understand and take a new approach to measure productivity, engagement, and collaboration, the startup says.

The startup says it has now gathered 400 indicators that companies can choose from. For example, a task set by The Wall Street Journal for Time is Ltd. found the average response time for Slack users vs. email was 16.3 minutes, comparing to emails which was 72 minutes.

Chalfen commented: “Measuring hybrid and distributed work patterns is critical for every business. Time Is Ltd.’s platform makes such measurement easily available and actionable for so many different types of organizations that I believe it could make work better for every business in the world.”

Rezab said: “The opportunity to analyze these kinds of collaboration and communication data in a privacy-compliant way alongside existing business metrics is the future of understanding the heartbeat of every company – I believe in 10 years time we will be looking at how we could have ignored insights from these platforms.”

Tomas Cupr, Founder and Group CEO of Rohlik Group, the European leader of e-grocery, said: “Alongside our traditional BI approaches using performance data, we use Time is Ltd. to help improve the way we collaborate in our teams and improve the way we work both internally and with our vendors – data that Time is Ltd. provides is a must-have for business leaders.”

Messenger adds Venmo-like QR codes for person-to-person payments in the U.S.

This spring, Facebook confirmed it was testing Venmo-like QR codes for person-to-person payments inside its app in the U.S. Today, the company announced those codes are now launching publicly to all U.S. users, allowing anyone to send or request money through Facebook Pay — even if they’re not Facebook friends.

The QR codes work similarly to those found in other payment apps, like Venmo.

The feature can be found under the “Facebook Pay” section in Messenger’s settings, accessed by tapping on your profile icon at the top left of the screen. Here, you’ll be presented with your personalized QR code which looks much like a regular QR code except that it features your profile icon in the middle.

Underneath, you’ll be shown your personal Facebook Pay UR which is in the format of “https://m.me/pay/UserName.” This can also be copied and sent to other users when you’re requesting a payment.

Facebook notes that the codes will work between any U.S. Messenger users, and won’t require a separate payment app or any sort of contact entry or upload process to get started.

Users who want to be able to send and receive money in Messenger have to be at least 18 years old, and will have to have a Visa or Mastercard debit card, a PayPal account or one of the supported prepaid cards or government-issued cards, in order to use the payments feature. They’ll also need to set their preferred currency to U.S. dollars in the app.

After setup is complete, you can choose which payment method you want as your default and optionally protect payments behind a PIN code of your choosing.

The QR code is also available from the Facebook Pay section of the main Facebook app, in a carousel at the top of the screen.

Facebook Pay first launched in November 2019, as a way to establish a payment system that extends across the company’s apps for not just person-to-person payments, but also other features, like donations, Stars, and e-commerce, among other things. Though the QR codes take cues from Venmo and others, the service as it stands today is not necessarily a rival to payment apps because Facebook partners with PayPal as one of the supported payment methods.

However, although the payments experience is separate from Facebook’s cryptocurrency walletNovi, that’s something that could perhaps change in the future.

Image Credits: Facebook

The feature was introduced alongside a few other Messenger updates, including a new Quick Reply bar that makes it easier to respond to a photo or video without having to return to the main chat thread. Facebook also added new chat themes including one for Olivia Rodrigo fans, another for World Oceans Day, and one that promotes the new F9 movie.

 

Instagram adds affiliate and shop features for creators

As Apple hosts their annual Worldwide Developers Conference, Instagram and Facebook chose this moment to pilot their first-ever Creator Week. This three-day event is geared toward aspiring and emerging digital creators, complete with 9:45 AM virtual DJ sets and panels on “Algorithm Mythbusting” and raising “zillions for a nonprofit you care about.”

During the first day of the event, Mark Zuckerberg made an announcement introducing new ways for creators to make money. In the coming months, Instagram will start testing a native affiliate tool, which allows creators to recommend products available on checkout, share them with followers, and earn commissions for sales their posts drive. When creators make these posts, the text “eligible for commission” will appear beneath their username in the same way that sponsored content labels appear.

Available immediately, creators will be able to link their shops to their personal profiles, not just business ones. By the end of the year, eligible creators in the U.S. will be able to partner with one of Instagram’s merchandise partners (Bravado/UMG, Fanjoy, Represent, and Spring) to drop exclusive product launches on the app.

During live Instagram videos, viewers can tip creators by sending them a Badge, which costs between $0.99 and $4.99. Facebook Gaming has a similar feature called Stars, in which one Star is valued at $0.01. Starting this week, creators can earn bonuses for accomplishing certain challenges, like going live with another account. In a promotional image, for example, Facebook offers a bonus of $150 for creators who earn 5000 Stars, the equivalent of $50.

“To help more creators make a living on our platforms, we’re going to keep paid online events, fan subscriptions, badges, and our upcoming independent news products free for creators until 2023,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post. “And when we do introduce a revenue share, it will be less than the 30% that Apple and others take.”

Image Credits: Instagram

These updates mark the latest push by Instagram toward affiliate marketing and in-app shopping, like its redesigned Instagram Shop and Shopping in Reels, which debuted within the last year.

“Our goal is to be the best platform for creators like you to make a living. And if you have an idea that you want to share with the world, you should be able to create it and get it out there easily and simply – across Facebook and Instagram – and then earn money for your work,” Zuckerberg added during Creator Week.

Creators may be drawn to experiment with these affiliate and shop features, since for now, they won’t lose a cut of their profits to Instagram. But platforms like TikTok and YouTube offer monetization strategies that extend beyond ecommerce.

Last July, TikTok announced its $200M TikTok Creator Fund, which allows popular posters to earn money from their videos. It’s unclear exactly how TikTok determines how much money to dole out, but it depends on the number of views, engaged views, and other factors. In August 2020, the YouTuber-turned-TikToker Hank Green estimated that he would bring home about $700 from 20,000,000 TikTok views in one month, averaging to about 3.5 cents per 1000 views.

Meanwhile, YouTube announced a $100M fund last month for top creators on YouTube Shorts, its TikTok competitor. The platform pointed out that over the last three years, it has paid $30 billion to content creators. Snapchat has been paying $1 million per day to creators on their own TikTok competitor, Spotlight.

For users who don’t have millions of followers, these creator funds might not pay the rent. Still, it offers an income stream based on views, outside of ecommerce or viewer tips. For now, Instagram can’t say the same.

Ring won’t say how many users had footage obtained by police

Ring gets a lot of criticism, not just for its massive surveillance network of home video doorbells and its problematic privacy and security practices, but also for giving that doorbell footage to law enforcement. While Ring is making moves towards transparency, the company refuses to disclose how many users had their data given to police.

The video doorbell maker, acquired by Amazon in 2018, has partnerships with at least 1,800 U.S. police departments (and growing) that can request camera footage from Ring doorbells. Prior to a change this week, any police department that Ring partnered with could privately request doorbell camera footage from Ring customers for an active investigation. Ring will now let its police partners publicly request video footage from users through its Neighbors app.

The change ostensibly gives Ring users more control when police can access their doorbell footage, but ignores privacy concerns that police can access users’ footage without a warrant.

Civil liberties advocates and lawmakers have long warned that police can obtain camera footage from Ring users through a legal back door because Ring’s sprawling network of doorbell cameras are owned by private users. Police can still serve Ring with a legal demand, such as a subpoena for basic user information, or a search warrant or court order for video content, assuming there is evidence of a crime.

Ring received over 1,800 legal demands during 2020, more than double from the year earlier, according to a transparency report that Ring published quietly in January. Ring does not disclose sales figures but says it has “millions” of customers. But the report leaves out context that most transparency reports include: how many users or accounts had footage given to police when Ring was served with a legal demand?

When reached, Ring declined to say how many users had footage obtained by police.

That number of users or accounts subject to searches is not inherently secret, but an obscure side effect of how companies decide — if at all — to disclose when the government demands user data. Though they are not obligated to, most tech companies publish transparency reports once or twice a year to show how often user data is obtained by the government.

Transparency reports were a way for companies subject to data requests to push back against damning allegations of intrusive bulk government surveillance by showing that only a fraction of a company’s users are subject to government demands.

But context is everything. Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Twitter all reveal how many legal demands they receive, but also specify how many users or accounts had data given. In some cases, the number of users or accounts affected can be twice or more than threefold the number of demands they received.

Ring’s parent, Amazon, is a rare exception among the big tech giants, which does not break out the specific number of users whose information was turned over to law enforcement.

“Ring is ostensibly a security camera company that makes devices you can put on your own homes, but it is increasingly also a tool of the state to conduct criminal investigations and surveillance,” Matthew Guariglia, policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told TechCrunch.

Guariglia added that Ring could release the numbers of users subject to legal demands, but also how many users have previously responded to police requests through the app.

Ring users can opt out of receiving requests from police, but this option would not stop law enforcement from obtaining a legal order from a judge for your data. Users can also switch on end-to-end encryption to prevent anyone other than the user, including Ring, from accessing their videos.

Amid controversy, Dispo confirms Series A funding, high-profile advisors, and investors

It’s only been nine months since Dispo rebranded from David’s Disposables. But the vintage-inspired photo sharing app has experienced a whiplash of ups and downs, mostly due to the brand’s original namesake, YouTuber David Dobrik.

Like Clubhouse, Dispo was one of this year’s most hyped up new social apps, requiring an invite from an existing member to join. On March 9, when the company said “goodbye waitlist” and opened the app up to any iOS user, Dispo looked poised to be a worthy competitor to photo-sharing behemoths like Instagram. But, just one week later, Business Insider reported on sexual assault allegations regarding a member of Vlog Squad, a YouTube prank ensemble headed by Dispo co-founder David Dobrik. Dobrik had posted a now-deleted vlog about the night of the alleged assault, joking, “we’re all going to jail” at the end of the video.

It was only after venture capital firm Spark Capital decided to “sever all ties” with Dispo that Dobrik stepped down from the company board. In a statement made to TechCrunch at the time, Dispo said, “Dispo’s team, product, and most importantly — our community — stand for building a diverse, inclusive and empowering world.”

Dispo capitalizes on Gen Z and young millennial nostalgia for a time before digital photography, when we couldn’t take thirty selfies before choosing which one to post. On Dispo, when you take a photo, you have to wait until 9 AM the following day for the image to “develop,” and only then can you view and share it.

In both February and March of this year, the app hit the top ten of the Photo & Video category in the U.S. App Store. Despite the backlash against Dobrik, which resulted in the app’s product page being bombarded with negative comments, the app still hit the top ten in Germany, Japan, and Brazil, according to their press release. Dispo reportedly has not yet expended any international marketing resources.

Now, early investors in Dispo like Spark Capital, Seven Seven Six, and Unshackled have committed to donate any potential profits from their investment in the app to organizations working with survivors of sexual assault. Though Axios reported the app’s $20M Series A funding news in February, Dispo put out a press release this morning confirming the financing event. Though they intend to donate profits from the app, Seven Seven Six and Unshackled Ventures remain listed as investors, but Spark Capital is not. Other notable names involved in the project include high-profile photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Raven B. Varona, who has worked with artists like Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Actresses Cara Delevingne and Sofía Vergara, as well as NBA superstars Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, are also involved with the app as investors or advisors.

Dobrik’s role in the company was largely as a marketer – CEO Daniel Liss co-founded the app with Dobrik and has been leading the team since the beginning. After Dobrik’s departure, the Dispo team – which remains under twenty members strong – took a break from communications and product updates on the app. It’s expected that after today’s funding confirmation, the app will continue to roll out updates.

Dispo is quick to shift focus to the work of their team, which they call “some of the most talented, diverse leaders in consumer tech.” With the capital from this funding round, they hope to hire more staff to become more competitive with major social media apps with expansive teams, like Instagram and TikTok, and to experiment with machine learning. They will also likely have some serious marketing to do, now that their attempt at influencer marketing has failed massively.

Now more than ever, Dispo is promoting the app as a mental health benefit, hoping to shift the tide away from manufactured perfectionism toward more authentic social media experiences.

“A new era of start ups must emerge to end the scourge of big tech’s destruction of our political fabric and willful ignorance of its impact on body dysmorphia and mental health,” CEO Daniel Liss writes in a Substack post titled Dispo 2.0. “Imagine a world where Dispo is the social network of choice for every teen and college student in the world. How different a world would that be?”

But, for an app that propelled to success off the fame of a YouTuber with a history of less than savory behavior, that messaging might fall flat.

According to Sensor Tower, the highest Dispo has ever ranked in the Photo & Video category on the U.S. App Store was in January 2020, when it was still called David’s Disposables. The app ranked No. 1 in that category from January 7 to January 9, and on January 8, it reached No. 1 among all free iPhone apps.