Author: Josh Constine

Facebook relaunches search ads to offset slowing revenue

It’s an ad duopoly battle. Facebook is starting to test search ads in its search results and Marketplace, directly competing with Google’s AdWords. Facebook first tried Sponsored Results back in 2012 but eventually shut down the product in 2013. Now it’s going to let a small set of automotive, retail, and ecommerce industry advertisers show users ads on the search results page on mobile in the US and Canada.

They’ll be repurposed News Feed ads featuring a headline, image, copy text, and a link in the static image or carousel format that can point users to external websites. Facebook declined to share screenshots as it says the exact design is still evolving. Facebook may expand search ads to more countries based on the test’s performance.

The reintroduction of search ads could open an important new revenue stream at a time when Facebook’s revenue growth is quickly decelerating as it runs out of News Feed ad space, the Stories format that advertisers are still adapting is poised to overtake feed sharing on social apps, and users shift their time elsewhere. In Q3 2018, revenue grew 33 percent year-over-year, but that’s far slower than the 49 percent YOY gain it had a year ago, and the 59 percent from Q3 2016. Opening up new ad inventory for search could reinvigorate the sagging revenue growth rate that, combined with Facebook’s privacy and security scandals, has put intense pressure on Facebook’s leaders Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg.

Facebook’s revenue growth rate has slowed significantly over the past two years

“We’re running a small test to place ads in Facebook search results, and we’ll be evaluating whether these ads are beneficial for people and businesses before deciding whether to expand it” Facebook product manager Zoheb Hajiyani to TechCrunch in a statement. The announcement of the search ads comes as Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai is under fire from Congress over data privacy, though the move could help Google look less like it has a monopoly in search.

Back in 2012, Facebook desperately sought extra revenue streams following its botched IPO. Sponsored Results let game companies, retailers, and more inject links to their Facebook apps, Pages, and posts as ads in the search typeahead results. Since advertisers could target searches for specific other Pages and apps, brands and game developers often tried to swoop in and steal traffic from their competitors. For example, dating app Match.com could target searches for competitor OkCupid and appear above its results. Facebook isn’t allowing advertisers to be quite as cutthroat with this test.

Facebook’s 2012 Sponsored Results ads let competitors swoop on each other’s traffic

With the relaunch, advertisers with access will be able to simply extend their existing Ness Feed ads to the new “Search” placement through the Facebook Ads Manager, similar to how they’d pick Facebook Audience Network or Instagram. No videos ads will be allowed, and search ads won’t appear on desktop. Marketplace search ads will appear on iOS and Android, while Facebook search ads are only testing on Android. For now, advertisers won’t pick specific keywords to advertise against, and instead may appear in search terms related to auto or retail topics. Still, the placement will let advertisers dive deeper down the conversion funnel to reach people who might already have intent to buy something and fulfill that demand. Facebook’s News Feed ads (other than those retargeted based on web browsing) are better for demand generation, and sit higher in the funnel reaching users who don’t know what they want yet.

Ads will featured a “Sponsored” tag, and are subject to the same transparency controls around “Why Am I Seeing This?” Facebook plans to evaluate the benefits for users and advertisers in order to determine whether to roll out the ads to more countries and categories. Users will not be able to opt out of seeing search ads. They can “hide” ads using the drop-down arrow as with News Feed ads, but that won’t prevent different ones from showing up in search later.

Facebook’s share of the $279.56 billion total worldwide digital ad market will grow to 19.5 percent this year, trailing #1 Google which has 31.5 percent. After gaining multiple percentage points of share the last few years, eMarketer estimated Facebook’s cut of total digital ad spend would fall to around 1 percent the next two years. Unlocking search ad inventory could perk up those projections. Facebook would only need to hit 3.3 percent of talk search ad share to surpass Microsoft for the #3 spot, or 6.5 percent to top Chinese search engine Baidu.

One major concern is that Facebook already collects as much information as possible about people and their behavior to target its ads. With the reintroduction of search ads, it’s even more incentivized to gather what we do online, what we buy offline, and who we are.

Facebook will have to balance the injection of the ads with remaining an easy way to search for friends, content, businesses and more. Search is far from the core of Facebook’s offering, where users typically browse the News Feed for serendipitous content discovery rather than go looking for something specific. The most common searches are likely for friends’ names which won’t be great ad candidates. But given how accustomed users are to search ads on Google, this new revenue stream could help Facebook boost its numbers without too much disruption to its service.

Instagram launches walkie-talkie voice messaging

You’d think Facebook would be faster at copying itself. Five years after Facebook Messenger took a cue from WhatsApp and Voxer to launch voice messaging, and four months after TechCrunch reported Instagram was testing its own walkie-talkie feature, voice messaging is rolling out globally on Instagram Direct today.

Users can hold down the microphone button to record a short voice message that appears in the chat as an audio wave form that recipients can then listen to at their leisure. Voice messages are up to one-minute long, stay permanently listenable rather than disappearing and work in one-on-one and group chats on iOS and Android. The feature offers an off-camera asynchronous alternative to the video calling feature Instagram released in June. It will have to compete with Viber, Zello and Telegram, as well as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp for the use case.

Hands-free Direct messaging could make Instagram a more appealing chat app for drivers, people on the move with their hands full or users in the developing world who want a more intimate connection without having to pay for the data for long audio or video calls. It also could be a win for users in countries with less popular languages or ones that aren’t easily compatible with smartphone keyboards, as they could talk to friends instead of typing.

The launch deepens Facebook’s entry into the voice market. From its first voice messaging and VOIP features back in 2013 to its new voice control system Aloha that works on its recently launched Portal video chat screen, Facebook has long taken an interest in the accessibility of voice, but only got serious about building it across its products in 2018. Along with Instagram video calling, today’s launch raises the question of whether Portal and Instagram will team up. That could make Portal more useful… but also risks making Instagram less cool by tightening its ties to Facebook.

FB QVC? Facebook tries Live video shopping

Want to run your own home shopping network? Facebook is now testing a Live video feature for merchants that lets them demo and describe their items for viewers. Customers can screenshot something they want to buy and use Messenger to send it to the seller, who can then request payment right through the chat app.

Facebook confirms the new shopping feature is currently in testing with a limited set of Pages in Thailand, which has been a testbed for shopping features. The option was first spotted by social media and reputation manager Jeff Higgins, and re-shared by Matt Navarra and Social Media Today. But now Facebook is confirming the test’s existence and providing additional details.

The company tells me it had heard feedback from the community in Thailand that Live video helped sellers demonstrate how items could be used or worn, and provided richer understanding than just using photos. Users also told Facebook that Live’s interactivity let customers instantly ask questions and get answers about product specifications and details. Facebook has looked to Thailand to test new commerce experiences like home rentals in Marketplace, as the country’s citizens were quick to prove how Facebook Groups could be used for peer-to-peer shopping. “Thailand is one of our most active Marketplace communities” says Mayank Yadav, Facebook Product Manager for Marketplace.

Now it’s running the Live shopping test, which allows Pages to notify fans that they’re going broadcasting to “showcase products and connect with your customers”. Merchants can take reservations and request payments through Messenger.  Facebook tells me it doesn’t currently have plans to add new partners or expand the feature. But some sellers without access are being invited to join a waitlist for the feature. It also says it’s working closely with its test partners to gather feedback and iterate on the live video shopping experience, which would seem to indicate it’s interested in opening the feature more widely if it performs well.

Facebook doesn’t take a cut of payments through Messenger, but the feature could still help earn the company money at a time when it’s seeking revenue streams beyond News Feed ads as it runs out of space their, Stories take over as the top media form, and user growth plateaus. Hooking people on video viewing helps Facebook show lucrative video ads. The more that Facebook can train users to buy and sell things on its app, the better the conversion rates will be for businesses, and the more they’ll be willing to spend on ads. Facebook could also convince sellers who broadcast Live to buy its new Marketplace ad units to promote their wares. And Facebook is happy to snatch any use case from the rest of the internet, whether it’s long-form video viewing or job applications or shopping to boost time on site and subsequent ad views.

Increasingly, Facebook is setting its sights on Craigslist, Etsy, and eBay. Those commerce platforms have failed to keep up with new technologies like video and lack the trust generated by Facebook’s real name policy and social graph. A few years ago, selling something online meant typing up a generic description and maybe uploading a photo. Soon it could mean starring in your own infomercial.

[Postcript: And a Facebook home shopping network could work perfectly on its new countertop smart display Portal.]

Facebook ends platform policy banning apps that copy its features

Facebook will now freely allow developers to build competitors to its features upon its own platform. Today Facebook announced it will drop Platform Policy section 4.1 which stipulates “Add something unique to the community. Don’t replicate core functionality that Facebook already provides.”

Facebook had previously enforced that policy selectively to hurt competitors that had used its Find Friends or viral distribution features. Apps like Vine, Voxer, MessageMe, Phhhoto and more had been cut off from Facebook’s platform for too closely replicating its video, messaging, or GIF creation tools. Find Friends is a vital API that lets users find their Facebook friends within other apps.

The move will significantly reduce the platform risk of building on the Facebook platform. It could also cast it in a better light in the eyes of regulators. Anyone seeking ways Facebook abuses its dominance will lose a talking point. And by creating a more fair and open platform where developers can build without fear of straying too close to Facebook’s history or roadmap, it could reinvigorate its developer ecosystem.

A Facebook spokesperson provided this statement to TechCrunch:

“We built our developer platform years ago to pave the way for innovation in social apps and services. At that time we made the decision to restrict apps built on top of our platform that replicated our core functionality. These kind of restrictions are common across the tech industry with different platforms having their own variant including YouTube, Twitter, Snap and Apple. We regularly review our policies to ensure they are both protecting people’s data and enabling useful services to be built on our platform for the benefit of the Facebook community. As part of our ongoing review we have decided that we will remove this out of date policy so that our platform remains as open as possible. We think this is the right thing to do as platforms and technology develop and grow.”

The change comes after Facebook locked down parts of its platform in April for privacy and security reasons in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Diplomatically, Facebook said it didn’t expect the change to impact its standing with regulators but it’s open to answering their questions.

Earlier in April, I wrote a report on how Facebook used Policy 4.1 to attack competitors it saw gaining traction. The article “Facebook shouldn’t block you from finding friends on competitors” advocated for Facebook to make its social graph more portable and interoperable so users could decamp to competitors if they felt they weren’t treated right in order for to coerce Facebook to act better.

The policy change will apply retroactively. Old apps that lost Find Friends or other functionality will be able to submit their app for review and once approved, will regain access.

Friend lists still can’t be exported in a truly interoperable way. But at least now Facebook has enacted the spirit of that call to action. Developers won’t be in danger of losing access to that Find Friends Facebook API for treading in its path.

 

Below is an excerpt from our previous reporting on how Facebook has previously enforced Platform Policy 4.1 that before today’s change was used to hamper competitors:

  • Voxer was one of the hottest messaging apps of 2012, climbing the charts and raising a $30 million round with its walkie-talkie-style functionality. In early January 2013, Facebook copied Voxer by adding voice messaging into Messenger. Two weeks later, Facebook cut off Voxer’s Find Friends access. Voxer CEO Tom Katis told me at the time that Facebook stated his app with tens of millions of users was a “competitive social network” and wasn’t sharing content back to Facebook. Katis told us he thought that was hypocritical. By June, Voxer had pivoted toward business communications, tumbling down the app charts and leaving Facebook Messenger to thrive.
  • MessageMe had a well-built chat app that was growing quickly after launching in 2013, posing a threat to Facebook Messenger. Shortly before reaching 1 million users, Facebook cut off MessageMe‘s Find Friends access. The app ended up selling for a paltry double-digit millions price tag to Yahoo before disintegrating.
  • Phhhoto and its fate show how Facebook’s data protectionism encompasses Instagram. Phhhoto’s app that let you shoot animated GIFs was growing popular. But soon after it hit 1 million users, it got cut off from Instagram’s social graph in April 2015. Six months later, Instagram launched Boomerang, a blatant clone of Phhhoto. Within two years, Phhhoto shut down its app, blaming Facebook and Instagram. “We watched [Instagram CEO Kevin] Systrom and his product team quietly using PHHHOTO almost a year before Boomerang was released. So it wasn’t a surprise at all . . . I’m not sure Instagram has a creative bone in their entire body.”
  • Vine had a real shot at being the future of short-form video. The day the Twitter-owned app launched, though, Facebook shut off Vine’s Find Friends access. Vine let you share back to Facebook, and its six-second loops you shot in the app were a far cry from Facebook’s heavyweight video file uploader. Still, Facebook cut it off, and by late 2016, Twitter announced it was shutting down Vine.

Facebook adds free TV shows Buffy, Angel, Firefly to redefine Watch

Facebook hasn’t had a hit show yet for its long-form video hub Watch, so it’s got a new plan: digging up some deceased cult favorites from television. First up, Facebook is making all episodes of Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly free on Facebook Watch. There’ll be simultaneous viewing Watch Parties where fans can live comment together for Buffy at 3 pm PT today, Angel tomorrow at 12 pm PT, and Firefly on sunday at 12pm PT. Facebook recruited Buffy star Sarah Michelle Gellar to promote the launch.

These shows aren’t original, and they’re far from exclusive since they’re included in a Hulu subscription and are available to rent or buy on other platforms. But at least they’re not run-of-the-mill web content.Wwith Facebook’s remake of MTV’s Real World not arriving until Spring 2019, these sci-fi and horror shows are the most high-profile programs available on the free ad-supported streaming service. The hope is that fans of these shows will come get a taste of Watch, and then explore the rest of its programming.

However, Facebook downplayed this as a change is overarching strategy when I asked if it would be licensing more old TV shows. Instead, it’s trying to build a well-rounded mix of content. A Facbook spokesperson provided this statement:

“No – this doesn’t reflect a strategy shift. We’re focused on bringing content to Watch that people want to discuss and create a community around — whether that’s live sports like UEFA Champions League in Latin America, compelling shows like Sorry For Your Loss, Queen America and Sacred Lies, or even nostalgia content like Real World reboot we’re bringing to Watch next year. Buffy, Firefly and Angel are pop culture favorites with dedicated fan bases, and we’re excited for the opportunity to bring these shows back in a way that enables fans to watch and discuss together on the same platform.”

There’s no guarantee Whedon fans will flock to Watch in droves. [TechCrunch owner] Verizon tried the same thing, bringing Veronica Mars and Babylon 5 to its Go90 streaming service. That failed to move the needle and Go90 eventually shut down. Meanwhile, Watch Party’s simultaneous viewing hasn’t blossomed into a phenomenon, but perhaps bringing the feature to Messenger (which TechCrunch reports Facebook is internally testing) could more naturally spur these social consumption experiences.

Watch has made some progress sicne its lackluster August 2017 debut. 50 million people now spend at least 1 minute per month with Watch. For comparison, over 18 Snapchat Shows have over 10 million unique viewers per month. Facebook Watch users spend 5X longer watching than on clips discovered News Feed videos. But Facebook Watch really needs to pour the cash in necessary to secure a tent-pole series — its Game Of Thrones or House Of Cards. That might mesh well with its new strategy of conceding the younger audience that’s abandon Facebook in favor targeting older users, CNBC reported.

With so much free video content floating around and plenty of people already subscribing to Netflix, Hulu, and/or HBO, it’s been tough for Watch to gain traction when it’s so far outside the understood Facebook use case. Laying a bed of diverse content is a good baby step, but it needs something truly must-see if it’s going to wedge its way into our viewing habits.

Instagram now lets you share Stories to a Close Friends list

No one wants to post silly, racy or vulnerable Stories if they’re worried their boss, parents and distant acquaintances are watching. So to get people sharing more, and more authentically, Instagram will let you share to fewer people. Today after 17 months of testing, Instagram is globally launching Close Friends on iOS and Android over the next two days. It lets you build a single private list of your best buddies on Instagram through suggestions or search, and then share Stories just to them. They’ll see a green circle around your profile pic in the existing Story tray to let them know this is Close Friends-only content, but no one gets notified if they’re added or removed from your list that only you can view.

“As you add more and more people [on any social network], you start not to know them. That’s obviously going to change the things that you’re sharing and it makes it even harder to form very deep connections with your closest friends because you’re basically curating for the largest possible distribution,” said Instagram director of product Robby Stein, who announced the news onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin. “To really be yourself and connect and be connected to your best friends, you need your own place.”

I spent the last few days demoing Close Friends and it’s remarkably smooth, intuitive and useful. Suddenly there was a place to post what I might otherwise consider too random or embarrassing to share. Teens already invented the idea of “Finstagrams,” or fake Instagram accounts, to share feed posts to just their favorite people without the pressure to look cool. Now Instagram is formalizing that idea into “Finstastories” through Close Friends.

The feature is a wise way to counteract the natural social graph creep that occurs as people accept social networking requests out of a sense of obligatory courtesy from people they aren’t close to, which then causes them to only share blander content. Helping people express their wild side as must-see content for their Close Friends could drive up time spent on the app. But there’s also the risk that the launch creates private echo sphere havens for offensive content beyond the eyes of those who’d rightfully report it.

“No one has ever mastered a close friends graph and made it easy for people to understand,” Stein notesThe path to variable sharing privacy winds through a cemetery. Facebook’s “Lists” product struggled to find traction for a decade before being half-shut down. Google+’s big selling point was “Circles” for sharing to different groups of people. But with both, users found it too boring and confusing to make a bunch of different lists they could share to or view feeds from. Snapchat launched its own Groups feature two months ago, but it’s easy to forget who’s in which list and they’re designed around group chat. Most users just end up trying their best to reject, unfollow or mute people they didn’t want to see or share with.

Now after almost 15 years of Facebook, 12 years of Twitter, eight years of Instagram and seven years of Snapchat, that strategy has failed for many, leading to noisy feeds and a fear of sharing to too many. “People get friend requests and they feel pressure to accept,” Stein explains. “The curve is actually that your sharing goes up and as you add more people initially, as more people can respond to you. But then there’s a point where it reduces sharing over time.”

So Instagram chose to build Close Friends as just a single list in hopes that you won’t lose track of who’s part of it. As the feature rolls out today, there’ll be an explainer Story from Instagram about it in your tray, you’ll get walked through when you hit the Close Friends button on the Story composer, and there’ll be a call out on your profile to configure Close Friends in the Settings menu. You’ll be able to search for your close friends or quickly add them from a list of suggestions based on who you interact with most. You can add or remove as many people as you want without them knowing, they just will or won’t see your green circled Close Friends story. “We’re protecting you and your right to share or not share to certain people. It gives you air cover,” Stein tells me.

From then on, you can use the Close Friends shortcut in the Stories composer to share it with just those people, who’ll see a green “Close Friends” label on the story to let them know they’re special. Instagram will use the signal of who you add to help rank and order your Stories tray, but it won’t automatically pop Close Friends Stories to the front. When asked if Facebook would use that data for personalization too, Stein told me, “We’re the same company,” but said using it to improve Facebook is “not something that we’re actively working on.”

There’s no screenshot alerts, similar to the rest of Instagram Stories, but you won’t be able to DM anyone someone else’s Close Friends Story. That’s it. “We haven’t invented any new design affordances or things you need to know,” Stein beams. For now it’s meant for user profiles, but publishers, social media celebrities and brands would probably love ways to build fan clubs through the feature. Perhaps Instagram would even allow creators to charge users to be admitted to Close Friends. If not, some savvy influencers will probably do it anyways as they try to make Instagram more like Patreon.

Instagram’s Robby Stein (left) tells TechCrunch’s Josh Constine about Close Friends at Disrupt Berlin

The one concern here is that Close Friends could create little bunkers in which people can share objectionable content without consequence. It’d be sad to see it harbor racism, sexism or other stuff that doesn’t belong anywhere on Instagram. Stein says that because you’re talking with friends instead of strangers on a Reddit, “it self regulates what it’s used for. We haven’t seen a lot of that usage in the testing that we’ve done. It’s still a broadcast channel and it doesn’t generate this group discussion. It doesn’t spiral.”

Overall, I think Close Friends will be a hit. When it started testing a prototype called Favorites in June 2017 it worked with feed posts too, but Instagram decided the off the cuff posts wouldn’t fit right next to your more widely broadcasted highlights. But confined to Stories, it feels like a natural and much-needed extension of what Instagram was always supposed to be but that’s gotten lost in our swelling social networks: giving the people you love a window into your life.

Spike Diabetes applies social pressure to keep patients safe

It can be tough for diabetes patients to keep a constant eye on their glucose levels. Spike Diabetes lets family and doctors lend a hand by sending them real-time alerts about the patient’s stats. And the app’s artificial intelligence features can even send helpful reminders or suggest the most diabetes-friendly meals when you walk into a restaurant.

Today onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin Startup Battlefield, Spike Diabetes is launching its Guardian Portal so loved ones with permission can get a closer look at a patients’ data and coach them about staying healthy.

“Diabetes is an incurable chronic disease that forces diabetics to live a life of carb-counting and insulin injections,” says Spike co-founder Ziad Alame. “Since diabetics are forced to do those mundane tasks for the rest of their lives, they tend to fall off the tracks sometimes simply because of how demanding those tasks can be. As for guardians and parents, they are left in the dark about their loved ones.”

With doctors often only getting data during quarterly or semi-annual checkups, patients are often left on their own. A lifetime of management is very stressful, especially if your life depends on it.”

The startup faces stiff competition from literally hundreds of apps claiming to help patients monitor their vitals. MySugr, Diabetes Connect and Health2Sync are among the most popular. But Alame says many require users to track their levels through complex spreadsheets.

Spike offers customizable mobile charts, and will even read users their stats out loud to make staying safe an easier part of daily life. Spike is invite-only and just on iOS, but it also touts an Apple Watch app plus optimized engineering to minimize battery usage.

“Spike started off as a personal project to help myself adhere better to my medication after reaching critical times in my diabetic life,” Alame tells me. Now he’s bringing to the problem his experience as CTO of the GivingLoop charity platform, TeensWhoCode summer camp and Zoomal crowdfunding site for the Arab world.

Alame has assembled a team of diabetics, engineers and PhDs, plus $200,000 in seed funding from MEVP, Cedar Mundi and Phoenician Funds. They hope to see the premium paid version of Spike’s freemium app overtake longstanding competition through word-of-mouth triggered by bringing loved ones and doctors into the loop.

One of the app’s most interesting features is the proactive info it delivers. “For example, you walk into McDonald’s around 2 PM. Spike would automatically know it’s lunch time for you and suggest the top three options you can have with approximate carb counts,” Alame tells me.

“After some time (~25 minutes) Spike automatically reminds you of your insulin and syncs with your diabetic devices to log all the details. With time, as the app gets to know the diabetic’s taste more, Spike would be able to suggest small behavioral tweaks to enhance lifestyle such as walking routes suggestions or new places similar to the diabetic’s taste but with a lower insulin consumption rate.”

Alame jokes that “The biggest risk [to Spike] is the best thing that can happen — which is finding a cure for diabetes.” But even if that happens, he believes Spike’s app for tracking and actively coaching users could be relevant to other diseases, as well. For now, though, it will have to convince users that an app could make managing diabetes simpler rather than more complex.

Facebook exempts news outlets from political ads transparency labels

Facebook pissed off journalists earlier this year when it announced that ads run by news publishers to promote their articles involving elected officials, candidates and national issues would have to sport “paid for by…” labels and be included alongside political campaign ads in its ads transparency archive that launched in June, albeit in a separate section. The News Media Alliance — representing 2,000 newspapers, including The New York Times and NewsCorp, plus other new organizations — sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg in June protesting their inclusion. They claimed it would blur the lines between propaganda and journalism, and asked Facebook to exempt news publishers.

Now Facebook has granted that exception. Next year once Facebook has figured out more ways to verify legitimate news organizations that publish with bylines and dates, cite sources and don’t have a history of having stories flagged as false by third-party fact checkers, they’ll no longer have their U.S. ads appear in the Ads Archive. They also won’t have to carry a “Paid for by…” label when they appear in the News Feed or Instagram. News organizations will still have to verify their identity, but not through the political ads process. This exemption will roll out today in the U.K.

The change will also allow news outlets to run “dark post” ads that target specific users but don’t appear on their Pages. This will allow them to secretly test different ad variants without being exposed to potential criticism or competitors looking to copy their ad strategies.

Facebook’s political ads archive of campaign ads will no longer include publications promoting articles about politics or issues

Facebook will be using its recently built news publisher index to which outlets can apply to decide which ad buyers are exempt. That index is up and running in the U.S. and will expand to other countries, but Facebook still wants to build more safeguards against fake news outlets before starting the exemption in the U.S. For now, Facebook is using a third-party list of legitimate U.K. news outlets that’ll be exempted starting today. Jason Kint of publishers association Digital Content Next tells TechCrunch, “We are pleased that Facebook understands and values the important role of news organizations. We have worked cooperatively with Twitter who understood this from the beginning. We look forward to working in a similar fashion with Facebook.”

Facebook’s “Paid for by…” labels will no longer appear on news publishers’ ads on Facebook or Instagram

The change comes as Facebook rolls out enforcement of its political ads transparency rules in the U.K. today. “Now political advertisers must confirm their identity and location, as well as say who paid for the ad, before they can be approved to run political ads on Facebook and/or Instagram,” Facebook tells TechCrunch. These ads will also feature the “Paid for by…” label. Facebook hoped that by self-regulating ads transparency, it might avoid more heavy-handed government regulation, such as through the U.S.’s proposed Honest Ads Act that would bring internet political advertising to parity with transparency rules for television commercials.

The hope is that by determining who is paying for these ads, properly labeling them and exempting journalists, Facebook will be able to better track foreign misinformation campaigns and election interference. Meanwhile, users will have a better understanding of who’s funding the political and issue ads they see on Facebook.

[Update: This story has been updated to reflect that the news publisher exemption won’t roll out for U.S. outlets until next year.]

Facebook staff discussed selling API access to apps in 2012-2014

Following a flopped IPO in 2012, Facebook desperately brainstormed new ways to earn money. An employee of unknown rank sent an internal email suggesting Facebook charge developers $250,000 per year for access to its platform APIs for making apps that can ask users for access to their data. Employees also discussed offering Tinder extended access to users’ friends’ data that was being removed from the platform in exchange for Tinder’s trademark on “Moments”, which Facebook wanted to use for a photo sharing app it later launched. Facebook decided against selling access to the API, and did not strike a deal with Tinder or other companies including Amazon and Royal Bank Of Canada mentioned in employee emails.

The discussions were reported by the Wall Street Journal as being part of a sealed court document its reporters had reviewed from a lawsuit by bikini photo finding app developer Six4Three against Facebook alleging anti-competitive practices in how it changed the platform in 2014 to restrict access to friends’ data through the platform.

The biggest question remaining is how high in rank the employees who discussed these ideas were. If the ideas were seriously considered by high-ranking executives, especially CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the revelation could contradict the company’s long-running philosophy on not selling data access. Zuckerberg told congress in April that “I can’t be clearer on this topic: We don’t sell data.” If the discussion was between low-level employees, it may have been little more than an off-hand suggestion as Facebook was throwing ideas against the wall, and may have been rejected or ignored by higher-ups. But either way, now that the discussion has leaked, it could validate the public’s biggest fears about Facebook and whether it’s a worthy steward of our personal data.

An employee emailed others about the possibility of removing platform API access “in one-go to all apps that don’t spend… at least $250k a year to maintain access to the data”, the document shows. Facebook clarified to TechCrunch that these discussions were regarding API access, and not selling data directly to businesses. The fact that the discussions were specifically about API access, which Facebook continues to give away for free to developers, had not been previously reported.

Facebook provided this full statement to TechCrunch:

“As we’ve said many times, the documents Six4Three gathered for this baseless case are only part of the story and are presented in a way that is very misleading without additional context. Evidence has been sealed by a California court so we are not able to disprove every false accusation. That said, we stand by the platform changes we made in 2015 to stop a person from sharing their friends’ data with developers. Any short-term extensions granted during this platform transition were to prevent the changes from breaking user experience. To be clear, Facebook has never sold anyone’s data. Our APIs have always been free of charge and we have never required developers to pay for using them, either directly or by buying advertising.”

A half decade-later, with the world’s will turned against Facebook, the discussions of selling data access couldn’t come at a worse time for the company. Even if quickly aborted, the idea could now stoke concerns that Facebook has too much power and too much of our personal information. While the company eventually found other money-makers and became highly profitable, the discussions illuminate how Facebook could potentially exploit people’s data more aggressively if it deemed it necessary.

Facebook must police Today In, its local news digest launching in 400 cities

Facebook has a new area of its app it will have to police for fake news and biased sensationalism. Facebook is launching “Today In”, its local news aggregator it began testing in January, in 400 small to medium-sized US cities. It’s also now testing it in its first overseas spot in Australia. iOS and Android users can open the Today In bookmark or opt in to getting digests of its local news in their feed. The feature includes previews that link out to news sites about top headlines, current discussions, school announcements and more.

“We have a number of misinformation filters in place to ensure that fake news and clickbait does not surface on Today In. We also provide people the ability to report suspicious content on Facebook and within Today In specifically” a Facebook spokesperson tells me. “The misinformation filters are the same across Facebook that we’ve previously talked about – downranking clickbait, ratings from third-party fact checkers” they said. However, “the content in the surface is pulled by algorithm”, so there’s always a chance that problematic content slips through. For now, there will be no ads in Today In.

 

 

Facebook is also now testing Local Alerts with 100 local government and first responder Pages that can be issued to inform citizens about urgent issues or emergencies, such as where to take shelter from a hurricane. The Local Alerts are delivered via News Feed, Today In, and Pages can also target users with notifications about them. Again, while Facebook may be vetting which Pages get access to the Local Alerts feature, it must closely monitor to make sure they’re using it to provide vital info to their communities rather than just grab traffic at sensitive moments.

Facebook is hoping to fill a void after surveys found 50 percent of users wanted more local news through Facebook. It previously tested Today In with New Orleans, La.; Little Rock, Ark.; Billings, Mont.; Peoria, Ill.; Olympia, Wash.; and Binghamton, N.Y. The feature could give local outlets a referral traffic boost that could help offset the fact that Facebook has drained ad dollars from journalism into its own News Feed ads. And to make sure “news deserts” without enough local outlets still have robust Today In sections, Facebook will collect headlines from surrounding areas.

But the launch also opens up a new vector for policy issues, and it’s curious that Facebook would push forward on this given all its policy troubles as of late. It will have to ensure that Today In only aggregates content from reliable and fact-focused local outlets and doesn’t end up peddling fake news. But that in turn could open it to criticism suggesting it’s biased against fringe political outlets that believe their clickbait is the real story.

Users who want to check if they have access to Today In can visit this interactive map. The list includes Facebook’s hometown of Menlo Park and nearby Oakland, but not San Francisco. It’s also skipping big cities like New York and Washington, D.C. in favor of places like Mobile, Alabama; and Provo, Utah.

To find the mobile-only feature in Facebook (there’s no desktop version), users will hit the three-line “More” hamburger button and scroll down looking for “Today In [their city]”. Otherwise, they may stumble across one of its digests showing the headlines, thumbnail images, and publications for three of the biggest local news stories.

After tapping through or opening the Today In bookmark, they’ll be able to horizontally swipe through different sections like In The News that features recent stories and can be toggled to display sports. As per usual, Facebook isn’t above promoting its own content, like user and Page News Feed posts discussing local topics, Groups you could join, or Events you could RSVP to. Once you hit the end of a daily edition, you’ll see a “You’re all caught up” notice, similar to Instagram’s feature designed to keep you from over-scrolling.

Facebook infamously turned away from news in favor of content from friends at the start of 2018, precipitating a significant decline in News Feed reach and referral traffic for links to articles. That left a lot of outlets feeling burned, as many had staffed up thanks to the that flow of traffic and the ad dollars it generated. Now some are having to lay off journalists, especially those making video content that Facebook also dialed down.

By resurfacing local news, Facebook could help strengthen ties in local communities as part of its new mission statement to “bring the world closer together”. But if that news contains heavy partisan bias or hypes up nothingburgers, it could lead to more polarization. Facebook already has trouble finding enough third-party fact checkers to verify viral news stories. Now it may expose itself to even more liability to be the arbiter of truth now that it’s fragmented the news space into hundreds of distinct digests.

This conundrum will play out again and again. Facebook wants to keep pushing forward with product launches it thinks can help society, but it in turn takes on even greater responsibility to protect us that it hasn’t proven it deserves.