Category Archives: Mobile

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.]

Seized cache of Facebook docs raise competition and consent questions

A UK parliamentary committee has published the cache of Facebook documents it dramatically seized last week.

The documents were obtained by a legal discovery process by a startup that’s suing the social network in a California court in a case related to Facebook changing data access permissions back in 2014/15.

The court had sealed the documents but the DCMS committee used rarely deployed parliamentary powers to obtain them from the Six4Three founder, during a business trip to London.

You can read the redacted documents here — all 250 pages of them.

In a series of tweets regarding the publication, committee chair Damian Collins says he believes there is “considerable public interest” in releasing them.

“They raise important questions about how Facebook treats users data, their policies for working with app developers, and how they exercise their dominant position in the social media market,” he writes.

“We don’t feel we have had straight answers from Facebook on these important issues, which is why we are releasing the documents. We need a more public debate about the rights of social media users and the smaller businesses who are required to work with the tech giants. I hope that our committee investigation can stand up for them.”

The committee has been investigating online disinformation and election interference for the best part of this year, and has been repeatedly frustrated in its attempts to extract answers from Facebook.

But it is protected by parliamentary privilege — hence it’s now published the Six4Three files, having waited a week in order to redact certain pieces of personal information.

Collins has included a summary of key issues, as the committee sees them after reviewing the documents, in which he draws attention to six issues.

Here is his summary of the key issues:

  1. White Lists Facebook have clearly entered into whitelisting agreements with certain companies, which meant that after the platform changes in 2014/15 they maintained full access to friends data. It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not.
  2. Value of friends data It is clear that increasing revenues from major app developers was one of the key drivers behind the Platform 3.0 changes at Facebook. The idea of linking access to friends data to the financial value of the developers relationship with Facebook is a recurring feature of the documents.
  3. Reciprocity Data reciprocity between Facebook and app developers was a central feature in the discussions about the launch of Platform 3.0.
  4. Android Facebook knew that the changes to its policies on the Android mobile phone system, which enabled the Facebook app to collect a record of calls and texts sent by the user would be controversial. To mitigate any bad PR, Facebook planned to make it as hard of possible for users to know that this was one of the underlying features of the upgrade of their app.
  5. Onavo Facebook used Onavo to conduct global surveys of the usage of mobile apps by customers, and apparently without their knowledge. They used this data to assess not just how many people had downloaded apps, but how often they used them. This knowledge helped them to decide which companies to acquire, and which to treat as a threat.
  6. Targeting competitor Apps The files show evidence of Facebook taking aggressive positions against apps, with the consequence that denying them access to data led to the failure of that business

The publication of the files comes at an awkward moment for Facebook — which remains on the back foot after a string of data and security scandals, and has just announced a major policy change — ending a long-running ban on apps copying its own platform features.

Albeit the timing of Facebook’s policy shift announcement hardly looks incidental — given Collins said last week the committee would publish the files this week.

The policy in question has been used by Facebook to close down competitors in the past, such as — two years ago — when it cut off style transfer app Prisma’s access to its live-streaming Live API when the startup tried to launch a livestreaming art filter (Facebook subsequently launched its own style transfer filters for Live).

So its policy reversal now looks intended to diffuse regulatory scrutiny around potential antitrust concerns.

But emails in the Six4Three files suggesting that Facebook took “aggressive positions” against competing apps could spark fresh competition concerns.

In one email dated January 24, 2013, a Facebook staffer, Justin Osofsky, discusses Twitter’s launch of its short video clip app, Vine, and says Facebook’s response will be to close off its API access.

As part of their NUX, you can find friends via FB. Unless anyone raises objections, we will shut down their friends API access today. We’ve prepared reactive PR, and I will let Jana know our decision,” he writes. 

Osofsky’s email is followed by what looks like a big thumbs up from Zuckerberg, who replies: “Yup, go for it.”

Also of concern on the competition front is Facebook’s use of a VPN startup it acquired, Onavo, to gather intelligence on competing apps — either for acquisition purposes or to target as a threat to its business.

The files show various Onavo industry charts detailing reach and usage of mobile apps and social networks — with each of these graphs stamped ‘highly confidential’.

Facebook bought Onavo back in October 2013. Shortly after it shelled out $19BN to acquire rival messaging app WhatsApp — which one Onavo chart in the cache indicates was beasting Facebook on mobile, accounting for well over double the daily message sends at that time.

The files also spotlight several issues of concern relating to privacy and data protection law, with internal documents raising fresh questions over how or even whether (in the case of Facebook’s whitelisting agreements with certain developers) it obtained consent from users to process their personal data.

The company is already facing a number of privacy complaints under the EU’s GDPR framework over its use of ‘forced consent‘, given that it does not offer users an opt-out from targeted advertising.

But the Six4Three files look set to pour fresh fuel on the consent fire.

Collins’ fourth line item — related to an Android upgrade — also speaks loudly to consent complaints.

Earlier this year Facebook was forced to deny that it collects calls and SMS data from users of its Android apps without permission. But, as we wrote at the time, it had used privacy-hostile design tricks to sneak expansive data-gobbling permissions past users. So, put simple, people clicked ‘agree’ without knowing exactly what they were agreeing to.

The Six4Three files back up the notion that Facebook was intentionally trying to mislead users.

In one email dated November 15, 2013, from Matt Scutari, manager privacy and public policy, suggests ways to prevent users from choosing to set a higher level of privacy protection, writing: “Matt is providing policy feedback on a Mark Z request that Product explore the possibility of making the Only Me audience setting unsticky. The goal of this change would be to help users avoid inadvertently posting to the Only Me audience. We are encouraging Product to explore other alternatives, such as more aggressive user education or removing stickiness for all audience settings.”

Another awkward trust issue for Facebook which the documents could stir up afresh relates to its repeat claim — including under questions from lawmakers — that it does not sell user data.

In one email from the cache — sent by Mark Zuckerberg, dated October 7, 2012 — the Facebook founder appears to be entertaining the idea of charging developers for “reading anything, including friends”.

Yet earlier this year, when he was asked by a US lawmaker how Facebook makes money, Zuckerberg replied: “Senator, we sell ads.”

He did not include a caveat that he had apparently personally entertained the idea of liberally selling access to user data.

Responding to the publication of the Six4Three documents, a Facebook spokesperson told us:

As we’ve said many times, the documents Six4Three gathered for their baseless case are only part of the story and are presented in a way that is very misleading without additional context. We stand by the platform changes we made in 2015 to stop a person from sharing their friends’ data with developers. Like any business, we had many of internal conversations about the various ways we could build a sustainable business model for our platform. But the facts are clear: we’ve never sold people’s data.

Zuckerberg has repeatedly refused to testify in person to the DCMS committee.

At its last public hearing — which was held in the form of a grand committee comprising representatives from nine international parliaments, all with burning questions for Facebook — the company sent its policy VP, Richard Allan, leaving an empty chair where Zuckerberg’s bum should be.

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.

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.

Social music app Playlist lets you listen to music with others in real time

A new app called Playlist aims to make music a more social experience than what’s offered today by the major music platforms like Apple Music, Pandora or Spotify, for example. In Playlist, you can find others who share your musical tastes and join group chats where you listen to playlists together in real time. You can collaborate on playlists, too.

The app, backed by investment from Stanford’s StartX fund, was founded by Karen Katz and Steve Petersen, both Stanford engineers and serial entrepreneurs. Katz previously co-founded AdSpace Networks and another social music platform, Jam Music. She also was a founding executive team member at Photobucket, and founded a company called Project Playlist, which was like a Google search for music back in the Myspace era.

Peterson, meanwhile, has 35 patents and more than a decade of experience in digital music. In the early 2000s he created the software architecture and ran the team at PortalPlayer Inc., which powered the iPod’s music player and was later sold to Nvidia for $357 million. Afterwards, he was CTO at Concert Technology, a technology incubator and intellectual property company with a focus on mobile, social and digital music services.

“The world has gone social, but music has been largely left behind. That’s a real gap,” explains Katz, as to why the founders wanted to build Playlist in the first place.

“Ever since we started listening to music from our mobile phones, it’s become an isolated experience. And music is the number one thing we do on our phones,” she says.

The idea they came up with was to unite music and messaging by synchronizing streams, so people could listen to songs together at the same time and chat while they do so.

During last year’s beta testing period, Playlist (which was listed under a different name on the App Store), saw a huge number of engagements as a result of its real-time nature.

“Out of the gate, we saw 10 times the engagement of Pandora. People have, on average, 60 interactions per hour — like chats, likes, follows, joins, adds and creates,” Katz says. 

Under the hood, the app uses a lot of technology beyond just its synchronized streaming. It also leverages machine learning for its social recommendations, as well as collaborative playlists, large-scale group chat, and behavior-based music programming, and has “Music Match” algorithms to help you find people who listen to the same sort of things you do.

The social aspects of the app involves a following/follower model, and presents playlists from the people you follow in your home feed, much like a music-focused version of Instagram. A separate Discover section lets you find more people to follow or join in other popular listening and chat sessions.

At launch, the app has a catalog of more than 45 million songs and has a music license for the U.S. It plans to monetize through advertising.

The core idea here — real-time music listening and chat — is interesting. It’s like a Turntable.fm for the Instagram age. But the app sometimes overcomplicates things, it seems. For example, importing a playlist from another music app involves switching over to that app, finding the playlist and copying its sharing URL, then switching back to Playlist to paste it in a pop-up box. It then offers a way for you to add your own custom photo to the playlist, which feels a little unnecessary as the default is album art.

Another odd choice is that it’s difficult to figure out how to leave a group chat once you’ve joined. You can mute the playlist that’s streaming or you can minimize the player, but the option to “leave” is tucked away under another menu, making it harder to find.

The player interface also offers a heart, a plus (+), a share button, a mute button and a skip button all on the bottom row. It’s… well… it’s a lot.

But Katz says that the design choices they’ve made here are based on extensive user testing and feedback. Plus, the app’s younger users — often high schoolers, and not much older than 21 — are the ones demanding all the buttons and options.

It’s hard to argue with the results. The beta app acquired more than 500,000 users during last year’s test period, and those users are being switched over to the now publicly available Playlist app, which has some 80K installs as of last week, according to Sensor Tower data.

The company also plans to leverage the assets it acquired from the old Project Playlist, which includes some 30 million emails, 21 million Facebook IDs and 14 million Twitter IDs. A “Throwback Thursday” marketing campaign will reach out to those users to offer them a way to listen to their old playlists.

The startup has raised $5 million in funding (convertible notes) from Stanford StartX Fund, Garage Technology Ventures, Miramar Ventures, IT-Farm, Dixon Doll (DCM founder), Stanford Farmers & Angels, Zapis Capital and Amino Capital.

The Palo Alto-based company is a team of six full-time.

Playlist is a free download for iOS. An Android version is in the works.

Facebook launches Watch Party for all, tests Live PiP commentating

Facebook Watch has failed to capture viewers with its content, so it’s hoping to differentiate through the company’s core strength: social. Today Facebook fully launches Watch Party, its co-viewing feature where users can see and comment on the same video at the same time, to all profiles and Pages around the world.

Watch Party had previously launched in Groups and been in testing with other types of accounts. But now any profile or business can post a Watch party invite to sync up with other users and simultaneously view videos they’ve discovered on Facebook.

Watch’s content lineup is still lackluster compared to YouTube, Netflix, or even Snapchat Discover. CNBC reports Facebook is giving up on younger teens that are already ditching its app, and pivoting the video hub towards an older audience. Facebook is hoping a shared experience with users commenting together on clips could make Watch more appealing, but it’s a genuinely new behavior that may prove difficult to instill.

Facebook is also testing a few other tricks to breathe life into Watch. Pages and Groups will be able to schedule a Watch Party to draw more viewers, maybe by setting up a nightly gathering. Watch Parties with lots of activity will have their comments threaded so it’s easier to follow discussions.

And most interestingly, Facebook will try allowing Watch Party hosts to go Live picture-in-picture so they can commentate in real-time. This could be a hit with celebrities, as it will make users feel like they’re sitting beside them watching TV together. Basketball star Shaq will test out the Live Commentating feature through his Page tomorrow.

Watch Party’s statistics sound impressive, with 12 million started from Groups so far, 7X more daily Watch Parties in Groups per day since its launch in July, and 8X more commenting than on non-Live/synced videos. Pages are using it to let fans binge watch playlists of their old videos, replay their TV content for users in different time zones, and let fans ask each other and the hosts questions about recipes as they cook.

But given Facebook’s 2.2 billion total monthly users, billion-plus Groups users, and the fact that measuring growth in multiples is easy when you start with a low number, the feature clearly hasn’t reached the zeitgeist yet.

Perhaps the best hope for Watch and Watch Party is a feature TechCrunch broke the news on last week. Facebook is now internally testing a Watch Party-like co-viewing feature inside Messenger. Baking the option into chat might be a lot more natural, especially in group texts. 

Facebook has been desperately trying to shift video consumption behavior from passive zombie viewing to interactive and social engagement with fellow viewers. But that only works if the content is compelling.

Beyond a reboot of MTV’s The Real World, nothing on Watch truly stands out. Facebook may need to open up its wallet and pay big for more tent pole shows to pull in users and hope they get lost commenting on clips with friends and like-minds.