Category Archives: Mobile

Russia’s game of Telegram whack-a-mole grows to 19M blocked IPs, hitting Twitch, Spotify and more

As the messaging app Telegram continues to try to evade Russian authorities by switching up its IP addresses, Russia’s regulator Roskomnadzor (RKN) has continued its game of whack-a-mole to try to lock it down by knocking out complete swathes of IP address. The resulting chase how now ballooned to nearly 19 million IP addresses at the time of writing, as tracked by unofficial RKN observer RKNSHOWTIME (updated on a Telegram channel with stats accessible on the web via Phil Kulin’s site).

As a result, there have been a number of high-profile services also knocked out in the crossfire, with people in Russia reporting dozens of sites affected, including Twitch, Slack, SoundCloud, Viber, Spotify, FIFA and Nintendo, as well as Amazon and Google. (A full list of nearly 40 addresses is listed below.)

What’s notable is that Google and Amazon themselves seem still not to be buckling under pressure. As we reported earlier this week, a similar — but far smaller — instance happened in the case of Zello, which had also devised a technique to hop around IP addresses when its own IP addresses were shut down by Russian regulators.

Zello’s circumventing lasted for nearly a year, until it seemed the regulator started to use a more blanket approach of blocking entire subnets — a move that ultimately led to Google and Amazon asking Zello to cease its activities.

After that, Zello’s main access point for its Russian users was via VPN proxies — one of the key ways that users in one country can effectively appear as if they are in another, allowing them to circumvent geoblocking and geofencing, either by the companies themselves, or those that have been banned by a state.

It’s important to note that the domain fronting that Google is in the process of shutting down is not the same as IP hopping — although, more generally, it will mean that there is now one less route for those globally whose traffic is getting blocked through censorship to wiggle around that. The IP hopping that has led to 19 million addresses getting blocked in Russia is another kind of circumvention. (I’m pointing this out because several people I’ve spoken to assumed they were the same.)

Pavel Durov, Telegram’s founder and CEO, has made several public calls on Telegram and also third-party sites like Twitter to praise how steadfast the big internet companies have been. And others like the ACLU have also waded into the story to call on Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft to hold strong and continue to allow Telegram to IP hop.

But what could happen next?

I’ve contacted Google, Amazon and Telegram now several times to ask this question and for more details on what is going on. As of yet I’ve had no replies. However, Alexey Gavrilov, the CTO and founder of Zello, provided a little more potential insight:

He said that ultimately they might ask Telegram to stop — something that might become increasingly hard not to do as more services get affected — and if that doesn’t work they can suspend Telegram’s account.

“Each cloud provider has provisions, which let them do it if your use interferes with other customers using their service,” Gavrilov notes. “The interpretation of this rule may be not trivial in case when the harm is caused by third party (i.e. RKN in this case) so I think there are some legal risks for Amazon / Google. Plus that would likely cause a PR issue for them.”

Another question is whether there are bigger fish to fry in this story. Some have floated the idea that just as Zello preceded Telegram, RKN’s battles with the latter might lead to how it negotiates with Facebook.

As we have reported before, Facebook notably has never moved to house Russian Facebook data in Russia. Local hosting has been one of the key requirements that the regulator has enforced against a number of other companies as part of its “data protection” rules, and over the last couple of years while some high-profile companies have run afoul of the these regulations, others (including Apple and Google) have reportedly complied.

Regardless, there’s been one ironic silver lining in this story. Since RKN shifted its focus to waging a war on Telegram, Gavrilov tells me that Zello service has been restored in Russia. Here’s to weathering the storm. 

We’ll update this post as and when we get responses from the big players. A more complete list of sites that people have reported as affected by the 19 million address block is below, via Telegram channel Нецифровая экономика (“Non-digital economy”). Some of these have been disputed, so take this with a grain of salt:

1. Sberbank (disputed)
2. Alfa Bank (disputed)
3. VTB
4. Mastercard
5. Some Microsoft services
6. Video agency RT Ruptly
7. Games like Fortnite, PUBG, Guild Wars 2, Vainglory, Guns of Boom, World of Warships Blitz, Lineage 2 Mobile and Total War: Arena
8. Twitch
9. Google
10. Amazon
11. Russian food retailer Dixy (disputed)
12. Odnoklassniki (the social network, ok,ru)
13. Viber
14. Дилеры Volvo
15. Gett Taxi
16. BattleNet
17. SoundCloud
18. DevianArt
19. Coursera
20. Realtimeboard
21. Trello
22. Slack
23. Evernote
24. Skyeng (online English language school)
25. Part of the PlayStation Network
26. Ivideon
27. ResearchGate
28. Gitter
29. eLama
30. Behance
31. Nintendo
32. Codecademy
33. Lifehacker
34. Spotify
35. FIFA
36. And it seems like some of RKN’s site itself

Facebook has a new job posting calling for chip designers

Facebook has posted a job opening looking for an expert in ASIC and FPGA, two custom silicon designs that companies can gear toward specific use cases — particularly in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

There’s been a lot of speculation in the valley as to what Facebook’s interpretation of custom silicon might be, especially as it looks to optimize its machine learning tools — something that CEO Mark Zuckerberg referred to as a potential solution for identifying misinformation on Facebook using AI. The whispers of Facebook’s customized hardware range depending on who you talk to, but generally center around operating on the massive graph Facebook possesses around personal data. Most in the industry speculate that it’s being optimized for Caffe2, an AI infrastructure deployed at Facebook, that would help it tackle those kinds of complex problems.

FPGA is designed to be a more flexible and modular design, which is being championed by Intel as a way to offer the ability to adapt to a changing machine learning-driven landscape. The downside that’s commonly cited when referring to FPGA is that it is a niche piece of hardware that is complex to calibrate and modify, as well as expensive, making it less of a cover-all solution for machine learning projects. ASIC is similarly a customized piece of silicon that a company can gear toward something specific, like mining cryptocurrency.

Facebook’s director of AI research tweeted about the job posting this morning, noting that he previously worked in chip design:

While the whispers grow louder and louder about Facebook’s potential hardware efforts, this does seem to serve as at least another partial data point that the company is looking to dive deep into custom hardware to deal with its AI problems. That would mostly exist on the server side, though Facebook is looking into other devices like a smart speaker. Given the immense amount of data Facebook has, it would make sense that the company would look into customized hardware rather than use off-the-shelf components like those from Nvidia.

(The wildest rumor we’ve heard about Facebook’s approach is that it’s a diurnal system, flipping between machine training and inference depending on the time of day and whether people are, well, asleep in that region.)

Most of the other large players have found themselves looking into their own customized hardware. Google has its TPU for its own operations, while Amazon is also reportedly working on chips for both training and inference. Apple, too, is reportedly working on its own silicon, which could potentially rip Intel out of its line of computers. Microsoft is also diving into FPGA as a potential approach for machine learning problems.

Still, that it’s looking into ASIC and FPGA does seem to be just that — dipping toes into the water for FPGA and ASIC. Nvidia has a lot of control over the AI space with its GPU technology, which it can optimize for popular AI frameworks like TensorFlow. And there are also a large number of very well-funded startups exploring customized AI hardware, including Cerebras Systems, SambaNova Systems, Mythic, and Graphcore (and that isn’t even getting into the large amount of activity coming out of China). So there are, to be sure, a lot of different interpretations as to what this looks like.

One significant problem Facebook may face is that this job opening may just sit up in perpetuity. Another common criticism of FPGA as a solution is that it is hard to find developers that specialize in FPGA. While these kinds of problems are becoming much more interesting, it’s not clear if this is more of an experiment than Facebook’s full all-in on custom hardware for its operations.

But nonetheless, this seems like more confirmation of Facebook’s custom hardware ambitions, and another piece of validation that Facebook’s data set is becoming so increasingly large that if it hopes to tackle complex AI problems like misinformation, it’s going to have to figure out how to create some kind of specialized hardware to actually deal with it.

A representative from Facebook did not yet return a request for comment.

A flaw-by-flaw guide to Facebook’s new GDPR privacy changes

Facebook is about to start pushing European users to speed through giving consent for its new GDPR privacy law compliance changes. They ask users review how Facebook uses data around the web to target you with ads, sensitive profile info they share, and facial recognition But with a design the encourages rapidly hitting the “Agree” button, a lack of granular controls, a laughably cheatable parental consent request for teens, and an aesthetic overhaul of Download Your Information that doesn’t make it any easier to switch social networks, Facebook shows it’s still hungry for your data.

The new privacy change and terms of service consent flow will appear starting this week to European users, though they’ll be able to dismiss it for now, at least until the May 25th GDPR compliance deadline Facebook vowed to uphold in Europe. Meanwhile, Facebook says it will roll out the changes and consent flow globally over the coming weeks and months, though with some slight regional differences. And finally, all teens worldwide that share sensitive info will have to go through the weak new parental consent flow.

Facebook brought a group of reporters to the new Building 23 at its Menlo Park headquarters to preview the changes. But feedback was heavily critical as journalists grilled Facebook’s deput chief privacy officer Rob Sherman. Questions centered around how Facebook makes accepting the updates much easier than review or changing them, but Sherman stuck to talking points about how important it was to give users choice and information.

“Trust is really important and it’s clear that we have a lot of work to do to regain the trust of people on our service” he said, giving us deja vu about Mark Zuckerberg’s testimonies before congress. “We know that people won’t becomfortable using facebook if they don’t feel that their information is protected.”

Trouble At Each Step Of Facebook’s Privacy Consent Flow

There are a ton of small changes so we’ll lay out each with our criticisms.

Facebook’s consent flow starts well enough with the screen above offering a solid overview of why it’s making changes for GDPR and what you’ll be reviewing. But with just an ‘X’ up top to back out, it’s already training users to speed through by hitting that big blue button at the bottom.

Sensitive Info

First up is control of your sensitive profile information, specifically your sexual preference, religious views, and political views. As you’ll see at each step, you can either hit the pretty blue “Accept And Continue” button regardless of whether you’ve scrolled through the information. But if you hit the ugly grey “Manage Settings” button, you have to go through an interstitial where Facebook makes it’s argument trying to deter you from moving the info before letting you make and save your choice. It feels obviously designed to get users to breeze through it by offering no resistance to continue, but friction if you want to make changes.

Facebook doesn’t let advertisers target you based on this sensitive info, which is good. The only exception is that in the US, political views alongside political Pages and Events you interact with inform your overarching personality categories that can be targeted with ads. But your only option here is either to remove any info you’ve shared in these categories so friends can’t see it, or allow Facebook to use it to personalize the site. There’s no option to keep this stuff on your profile but not let Facebook use it.

Facial Recognition

The Face Recognition step won’t actually give users in the European Union a choice, as the government has banned the feature. But everyone else will get to choose whether to leave their existing setting, which defaults to on, or turn off the feature. Here the lack of granularity is concerning. Users might want to see warnings about possible impersonators using their face in their profile pics, but not be suggested as someone to tag in their friends’ photos. Unfortunately, it’s all or nothing. While Facebook is right to make it simple to turn on or off completely, granular controls that unfold for those that want them would be much more empowering.

Data Collection Across The Web

A major concern that’s arisen in the wake of Zuckerberg’s testimonies is how Facebook uses data collected about you from around the web to target users with ads and optimize its service. While Facebook deputer chief privacy officer Rob Sherman echoed Zuckerberg in saying that users tell the company they prefer relevant ads, and that this data can help thwart hackers and scrapers, many users are unsettled by the offsite collection practices. Here, Facebook lets you block it from targeting you wih ads based on data about your browsing behavior on sites that show its Like and share buttons, conversion Pixel, or Audience Network ads. Here the issue is that there’s no way to stop Facebook from using that data from personalizing your News Feed or optimizing other parts of its service.

New Terms Of Service

Facebook recently rewrote its Terms Of Service and Data Use Policy to be more explicit and easy to read. It didn’t make any significant changes other than noting the policy now applies to its subsidiaries like Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus. That’s all clearly explained here, which is nice. But the fact that the button to reject the new Terms Of Service isn’t even a button, it’s a tiny ‘see your options’ hyperlink shows how badly Facebook wants to avoid you closing your account. When Facebook’s product designer for the GDPR flow was asked if she thought this hyperlink was the best way to present the alternative to the big ‘I Accept’ button, she disingenuously said yes, eliciting scoffs from the room of reporters. It seems obvious that Facebook is trying to minimize the visibility of the path to account deletion rather than making it an obvious course of action if you don’t agree to its terms.

I requested Facebook actually show us what was on the other side of the that tine ‘see my options’ link and this is what we got. First, Facebook doesn’t mention its temporary deactivation option, just the scary permanent delete option. Facebook recommends downloading your data before deleting your account, which you should. But the fact that you’ll have to wait (often a few hours) before you can download your data could push users to delay deletion and perhaps never resume. And only if you keep scrolling do you get to another tiny “I’m ready to delete my account” hyperlink instead of a real button.

Parental Consent

GDPR also implements new regulation about how teens are treated, specifically users between the ages of 13 (the minimum age required to sign up for Facebook) and 15. If users in this age range have shared their religious views, political views, or sexual preference, Facebook requires them to either remove it or get parental consent to keep it. But the system for attaining and verifying that parental consent is a joke.

Users merely select one of their Facebook friends or enter an email address, and that person is asked to give consent for their ‘child’ to share sensitive info. But Facebook blindly trusts that they’ve actually selected their parent or guardian, even though it has a feature for users to designate who their family is, and the kid could put anyone in the email field, including an alternate address they control. Sherman says Facebook is “not seeking to collect additional information” to verify parental consent, so it seems Facebook is happy to let teens easily bypass the checkup.

Privacy Shortcuts

To keep all users abreast of their privacy settings, Facebook has redesigned its Privacy Shortcuts in a colorful format that sticks out from the rest of the site. No complaints here.

Download Your Information

Facebook has completely redesigned its Download Your Information tool after keeping it basically the same for the past 8 years. You can now view your content and data in different categories without downloading it, which alongside the new privacy shortcuts is perhaps the only unequivocally positive and unproblematic change amidst today’s announcements.

And Facebook now lets you select certain categories of data, date ranges, JSON or HTML format, and image quality to download. That could make it quicker and easier if you just need a copy of a certain type of content but don’t need to export all your photos and videos for example. Thankfully, Facebook says you’ll be able to now export your media in a higher resolution than the old tool allowed.

But the big problem here was the subject of my feature piece about Facebook’s lack of data portability. The Download Your Information tool is supposed to let you take your data and go to a different social network. But it only exports your social graph aka your friends as a text list of names. There are no links, usernames, or other unique identifiers unless friends opt into let you export their email or phone number, so good luck finding the right John Smith on another app. The new version of Download Your Information works exactly the same, rather than offering any interoperable format that would let you find your friends elsewhere.

A Higher Standard

Overall, it seems like Facebook is complying with the letter of GDPR law, but with questionable spirit. Sure, privacy is boring to a lot of people. Too little info and they feel confused and scared. Too many choices and screens and they feel overwhelmed and annoyed. Facebook struck the right balance in some places here. But the subtly pushy designs seem intended to push people away from changing their defaults in ways that could hamper Facebook’s mission and business.

Making the choices even in visible weight, rather than burying the ways to make changes in grayed-out buttons and tiny links, would have been more fair. And it would have shown that Facebook has faith in the value it provides, such that users would stick around and leave features enabled if they truly wanted to.

When questioned about this, Sherman pointed the finger at other tech companies, saying he thought Facebook was more upfront with users. Asked to clarify if he thought Facebook’s approach was “better”, he said “I think that’s right”. But Facebook isn’t being judged by the industry standard because it’s not a standard company. It’s built its purpose and its business on top of our private data, and touted itself as a boon to the world. But when asked to clear a higher bar for privacy, Facebook delved into design tricks to keep from losing our data

Netflix nears a $150B market cap as its subscribers continue to balloon

Just last quarter Netflix passed a $100 billion market cap — and we might already be talking about it as a $150 billion company before too long with yet another big financial quarter that sent its stock soaring.

Netflix, again, beat out some expectations Wall Street held for the first quarter and provided a pretty good outlook for the next quarter as well, where it said it expected to add around 6.2 million new subscribers. In the first quarter, Netflix added 7.41 million new subscribers — around 2 million of them domestic and the rest internationally. The company continued to see some pretty strong streaming revenue growth, which was up around 43% year-over-year in the first quarter this year, to around $3.6 billion.

With all this, Netflix now has nearly 119 million paid streaming memberships — and it wasn’t all that long when Netflix finally said just over two years ago that it would begin opening up in hundreds of new countries internationally. The company’s shares are up around 6% in extended trading, sending its market cap up north of $140 billion. And all this subscriber growth, too, comes before we’re seeing a new tie-up with Comcast’s cable subscriptions that may end up driving that even more. As usual, Netflix expects to lose a ton of money and says it expects between -$3 billion to -$4 billion in free cash flow, but that’s usually not what investors are looking for.

One of the big questions Netflix still has right now is what kind of price tag it will carry as a tack-on to a Comcast subscription. Earlier this week, the companies announced that Comcast would bundle Netflix in to its cable subscriptions, offering yet another entry point for Netflix to ferret up potential consumers that haven’t quite cut the cord yet but still might be interested in Netflix’s content. Netflix normally carries a price tag of around $13.99, but the companies have not said what its price will be as part of a cable bundle yet.

Following Netflix’s last earnings report — which it, as you might expect, included some blowout subscriber numbers — the company rocketed past a market cap of $100 billion. Since then it’s only been an upward trend for Netflix, which prior to its first-quarter report was worth more than $130 billion. Despite increasing spend on original content, that subscriber number is still mostly where it gets its market value because it’s a forward predictor of its revenue.

Netflix late last year said it expected to spend between $7 billion and $8 billion on original content this year, a number that seems to periodically get an upward revision and is still a dramatic step up from 2017. The company in its report today said it expected to spend between $7.5 billion and $8 billion on original content, and expects that marketing and content spend to weight toward the second half of 2018.

But it has to continue to invest in original content because it is a way to attract new subscribers, and also because it’s content that it can more easily distribute across different geographies and itself has control of the rights and what happens to it. It relies on shows like Stranger Things or Altered Carbon to bring in new users, which then hopefully stick around and eventually help recoup the cost of those shows — and then the cycle starts anew.

The psychological impact of an $11 Facebook subscription

Would being asked to pay Facebook to remove ads make you appreciate their value or resent them even more? As Facebook considers offering an ad-free subscription option, there are deeper questions than how much money it could earn. Facebook has the opportunity to let us decide how we compensate it for social networking. But choice doesn’t always make people happy.

In February I explored the idea of how Facebook could disarm data privacy backlash and boost well-being by letting us pay a monthly subscription fee instead of selling our attention to advertisers. The big takeaways were:

  • Mark Zuckerberg insists that Facebook will remain free to everyone, including those who can’t afford a monthly fee, so subscriptions would be an opt-in alternative to ads rather than a replacement that forces everyone to pay
  • Partially decoupling the business model from maximizing your total time spent on Facebook could let it actually prioritize time well spent because it wouldn’t have to sacrifice ad revenue
  • The monthly subscription price would need to offset Facebook’s ad earnings. In the US & Canada Facebook earned $19.9 billion in 2017 from 239 million users. That means the average user there would have to pay $7 per month

However, my analysis neglected some of the psychological fallout of telling people they only get to ditch ads if they can afford it, the loss of ubiquitous reach for advertisers, and the reality of which users would cough up the cash. Though on the other hand, I also neglected the epiphany a price tag could produce for users angry about targeted advertising.

What’s Best For Everyone

This conversation is relevant because Zuckerberg was asked twice by congress about Facebook potentially offering subscriptions. Zuckerberg endorsed the merits of ad-supported apps, but never ruled out letting users buy a premium version. “We don’t offer an option today for people to pay to not show ads” Zuckerberg said, later elaborating that “Overall, I think that the ads experience is going to be the best one. I think in general, people like not having to pay for a service. A lot of people can’t afford to pay for a service around the world, and this aligns with our mission the best.”

But that word ‘today’ gave a glimmer of hope that we might be able to pay in the future.

Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg testifies during a US House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 11, 2018. (Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

What would we be paying for beyond removing ads, though?. Facebook already lets users concerned about their privacy opt out of some ad targeting, just not seeing ads as a whole. Zuckerberg’s stumping for free Internet services make it seem unlikely that Facebook would build valuable features and reserve them for subscribers

Spotify only lets paid users play any song they want on-demand, while ad-supported users are stuck on shuffle. LinkedIn only lets paid users message anyone they want and appear as a ‘featured applicant’ to hirers, while ad-supported users can only message their connections. Netflix only lets paid users…use it at all.

But Facebook views social networking as a human right, and would likely want to give all users any extra features it developed like News Feed filters to weed out politics or baby pics. Facebook also probably wouldn’t sell features that break privacy like how LinkedIn subscribers can see who visited their profiles. In fact, I wouldn’t bet on Facebook offering any significant premium-only features beyond removing ads. That could make it a tough sell.

Meanwhile, advertisers trying to reach every member of a demographic might not want a way for people to pay to opt-out of ads. If they’re trying to promote a new movie, a restaurant chain, or an election campaign, they’d want as strong of penetration amongst their target audience as they can get. A subscription model punches holes in the ubiquity of Facebook ads that drive businesses to the app.

Resentment Vs Appreciation

But the biggest issue is that Facebook is just really good at monetizing with ads. For never charging users, it earns a ton of money. $40 billion in 2017. Convincing people to pay more with their wallets than their eyeballs may be difficult. And the ones who want to pay are probably worth much more than the average.

Let’s look at the US & Canada market where Facebook earns the most per user because they’re wealthier and have more disposable income than people in other parts of the world, and therefore command higher ad rates. On average US and Canada users earn Facebook $7 per month from ads. But those willing and able to pay are probably richer than the average user, so luxury businesses pay more to advertise to them, and probably spend more time browsing Facebook than the average user, so they see more of those ads.

Brace for sticker shock, because for Facebook to offset the ad revenue of these rich hardcore users, it might have to charge more like $11 to $14 per month.

With no bonus features, that price for something they can get for free could seem way too high. Many who could afford it still wouldn’t justify it, regardless of how much time they spend on Facebook compared to other media subscriptions they shell out for. Those who truly can’t afford it might suddenly feel more resentment towards the Facebook ads they’ve been scrolling past unperturbed for years. Each one would be a reminder that they don’t have the cash to escape Facebook’s data mines.

But perhaps it’s just as likely that people would feel the exact opposite — that having to see those ads really isn’t so bad when faced with the alternative of a steep subscription price.

People often don’t see worth in what they get for free. Being confronted with a price tag could make them more cognizant of the value exchange they’re voluntarily entering. Social networking costs money to operate, and they have to pay somehow. Seeing ads keeps Facebook’s lights on, its labs full of future products, and its investors happy.

That’s why it might not matter if Facebook can only get 4 percent, or 1 percent, or 0.1 percent of users to pay. It could be worth it for Facebook to build out a subscription option to empower users with a sense of choice and provide perspective on the value they already receive for free.

For more big news about Facebook, check out our recent coverage:

Facebook shouldn’t block you from finding friends on competitors

Twitter, Vine, Voxer, MessageMe. Facebook has repeatedly cut off competitors from its feature for finding your Facebook friends on their apps… after jumpstarting its own social graph by convincing people to upload their Gmail contacts. Meanwhile, Facebook’s Download Your Information tool merely exports a text list of friends’ names you can’t use elsewhere.

As Congress considers potential regulation following Mark Zuckerberg’s testimonies, it should prioritize leveling the playing field for aspiring alternatives to Facebook and letting consumers choose where to social network. And as a show of good faith and argument against it abusing its monopoly, Facebook should make our friend list truly portable.

It’s time to free the social graph — to treat it as a fundamental digital possession, the way the Telecommunications Act of 1996 protects your right to bring your phone number with you to a new network.

The two most powerful ways to do this would be for Facebook to stop, or Congress to stop it from, blocking friend finding on competitors like it’s done in the past to Twitter and more. And Facebook should change its Download Your Information tool to export our friend list in a truly interoperable format. When you friend someone on Facebook, they’re not just a name. They’re someone specific amongst often many with the same name, and Facebook should be open to us getting connected with them elsewhere.

Facebook takes data it won’t give

While it continues til this day, back in 2010 Facebook goaded users to import their Gmail address books so they could add them as Facebook friends. But it refused to let users export the email addresses of their friends to use elsewhere. That led Google to change its policy and require data portability reciprocity from any app using its Contacts API.

So did Facebook back off? No. It built a workaround, giving users a deep link to download their Gmail contacts from Google’s honorable export tool. Facebook then painstakingly explained to users how to upload that file so it could suggest they friend all those contacts.

Google didn’t want to stop users from legitimately exporting their contacts, so it just put up a strongly worded warning to Gmail users: “Trap my contacts now: Hold on a second. Are you super sure you want to import your contact information for your friends into a service that won’t let you get it out? . . . Although we strongly disagree with this data protectionism, the choice is yours. Because, after all, you should have control over your data.” And Google offered to let you “Register a complaint over data protectionism.”

Eight years later, Facebook has grown from a scrappy upstart chasing Google to become one of the biggest, most powerful players on the internet. And it’s still teaching users how to snatch their Gmail contacts’ email addresses while only letting you export the names of your friends — unless they opt-in through an obscure setting, because it considers contact info they’ve shared as their data, not yours. Whether you should be allowed to upload other people’s contact info to a social network is a bigger question. But it is blatant data portability hypocrisy for Facebook to encourage users to import that data from other apps but not export it.

In some respects, it’s good that you can’t mass-export the email addresses of all your Facebook friends. That could enable spamming, which probably isn’t what someone had in mind when they added you as friend on Facebook. They could always block, unfriend or mute you, but they can’t get their email address back. Facebook is already enduring criticism about how it handled data privacy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Yet the idea that you could find your Facebook friends on other apps is a legitimate reason for the platform to exist. It’s one of the things that’s made Facebook Login so useful and popular. Facebook’s API lets certain apps check to see if your Facebook friends have already signed up, so you can easily follow them or send them a connection request. But Facebook has rescinded that option when it senses true competition.

Data protectionism

Twitter is the biggest example. Facebook didn’t and still doesn’t let you see which of your Facebook friends are on Twitter, even though it has seven times as many users. Twitter co-founder Ev Williams, frustrated in 2010, said that “They see their social graph as their core asset, and they want to make sure there’s a win-win relationship with anybody who accesses it.”

Facebook went on to establish a formal policy that said that apps that wanted to use its Find Friends tool had to abide by these rules:

  •  If you use any Facebook APIs to build personalized or social experiences, you must also enable people to easily share their experiences back with people on Facebook.

  • You may not use Facebook Platform to promote, or to export user data to, a product or service that replicates a core Facebook product or service without our permission.

Essentially, apps that piggybacked on Facebook’s social graph had to let you share back to Facebook, and couldn’t compete with it. It’s a bit ironic, given Facebook’s overarching strategy for years has been “replicate core functionality.” From cloning Twitter’s asymmetrical follow and Trending Topics to Snapchat’s Stories and augmented reality filters, all the way back to cribbing FriendFeed’s News Feed and Facebook’s start as a rip-off of the Winklevii’s HarvardConnection.

Restrictions against replicating core functionality aren’t unheard of in tech. Apple’s iOS won’t let you run an App Store from inside an app, for example. But Facebook’s selective enforcement of the policy is troubling. It simply ignores competing apps that never get popular. Yet if they start to grow into potential rivals, Facebook has swiftly enforced this policy and removed their Find Friends access, often inhibiting further growth and engagement.

Here are few of examples of times Facebook has cut off competitors from its graph:

  • 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.

As I wrote in 2013, “Enforcement of these policies could create a moat around Facebook. It creates a barrier to engagement, retention, and growth for competing companies.” But in 2018, amongst whispers of anti-trust action, Facebook restricting access to its social graph to protect the dominance of its News Feed seems egregiously anti-competitive.

That’s why Facebook should pledge to stop banning competitors from using its Find Friends tool. If not, congress should tell Facebook that this kind of behavior could lead to more stringent regulation.

Friends aren’t just names

When Senator John Neely Kennedy asked Zuckerberg this week, “are you willing to give me the right to take my data on Facebook and move it to another social media platform?”, Zuckerberg claimed that “Senator, you can already do that. We have a Download Your Information tool where you can go get a file of all the content there, and then do whatever you want with it.”

But that’s not exactly true. You can export your photos that can be easily uploaded elsewhere. But your social graph — all those confirmed friend requests — gets reduced to a useless string of text. Download Your Information spits out merely a list of your friends’ names and the dates on which you got connected. There’s no unique username. No link to their Facebook profile. Nothing you can use to find them on another social network beyond manually typing in their names.

That’s especially problematic if your friends have common names. There are tons of John Smiths on Facebook, so finding him on another social network with just a name will require a lot of sleuthing, or guess-work. Depending on where you live, locating a particular Garcia, Smirnov or Lee could be quite difficult. Facebook even built a short-lived feature called Friendshake to help you friend someone nearby amongst everyone in their overlapping name space.

When I asked about this, Facebook told me that users can opt-in to having their email or phone number included in the Download Your Information export. But this privacy setting is buried and little-known. Just 4 percent of my friends, centered around tech savvy San Francisco, had enabled it.

As I criticized way back in 2010 when Download Your Information launched, “The data can be used as a diary, or to replace other information from a hard drive crash or stolen computer — but not necessarily to switch to a different social network.”

Given Facebook’s iron grip on the Find Friends API, users deserve decentralized data portability — a way to take their friends with them that Facebook can’t take back. That’s what Download Your Information should offer, but doesn’t.

Social graph portability

This is why I’m calling on Facebook to improve the data portability of your friend connections. Give us the same consumer protections that make phone numbers portable.

At the very least Facebook should include your friends’ unique Facebook username and URL. But true portability would mean you could upload the list to another social network to find your friends there.

One option would be for Facebook’s export to include a privacy-safe, hashed version of your friends’ email address that they signed up with and share with you. Facebook could build a hashed email lookup tool so that if you uploaded these nonsensical strings of characters to another app, they could cross-reference them against Facebook’s database of your friends. If there’s a match, the app could surface that person as someone with whom you might want to reconnect. Effectively, this would let you find friends elsewhere via email address without Facebook ever giving you or other apps a human-readable list of their contact info.

If you can’t take your social graph with you, there’s little chance for a viable alternative to Facebook to arise. It doesn’t matter if a better social network emerges, or if Facebook disrespects your privacy, because there’s nowhere to go. Opening up the social graph would require Facebook to compete on the merit of its product and policies. Trying to force the company’s hand with a variety of privacy regulations won’t solve the core issue. But the prospect of users actually being able to leave would let the market compel Facebook to treat us better.

For more on Facebook’s challenges with data privacy, check out TechCrunch’s feature stories:

Podcasting app Anchor can now find you a cohost

Fresh off its relaunch as an app offering a suite of tools for podcasters, Anchor today is rolling a new feature that will make it easier for people to find someone to podcast with: Cohosts. As the name implies, the app will now connect you – sometimes immediately, if people are available – with another person who’s interested in discussing the topic you’ve chosen.

The result is a more engaging podcast where a conversation is taking place between two people, rather than a monologue.

“We give people the ability to choose a topic that they want to talk about on their podcasts, and the product will get to work trying to match you up with someone who wants to talk about the exact thing,” explains Anchor CEO Mike Mignano.

At first, Anchor will try to match you with someone who’s also currently in the app, he says. If it’s not able to do that, then it will notify you when it finds a match through an alert on your phone.

“We’ve developed an intelligent matching system to make sure there’s a high likelihood that you get matched up with someone that wants to talk at the same time,” Mignano notes.

The topics users select can be either broad – like politics – or narrow and hyper-specific, the company says.

One you’ve been offered a connection to a cohost, you have 30 seconds to meet in the app and decide how you want to get started. The recording will then start automatically, and will continue for up to 15 minutes. Both users will receive a copy of the recording and can choose to publish it to their own podcast right away, or save it for later.

After the recording, podcasters rate each other with a simple thumbs up or down. (If down, you’ll need to select a reason in case Anchor needs to step in and review bad behavior. Bad actors will no longer be permitted to use the service.)

If both give each other a thumbs up, though, they’ll automatically be favorited on each other’s account, so they can find each other again. Next time they want to record, they’ll have the option to team up through Anchor’s “Record with Friends” feature, where there’s no time limit.

Those who are highly rated will also get better ranked in the matching algorithm, Anchor notes.

If a podcaster has a particular topic in mind – like wanting to discuss Stephen King novels, for example – Mignano continues, they’re very likely to return to the app when they get a match, the team found during testing.

The Cohosts feature was beta tested with a small subset of users prior to today’s launch, but the company declines to share how many users tested it or how many people are currently using the app to create podcasts.

However, the app’s big makeover which took place in February basically turned Anchor into a different kind of app – so it’s still establishing a new user base.

While before, the app was focused on recording audio, Anchor 3.0 is meant to be a podcasting suite in your pocket. The new version includes recording features with no time limits, a built-in library of transition sounds, tools for adding music, support for voice messages (a call-in like feature), free hosting, and a push button experience for publishing to share your podcast to all the top platforms.

Matching cohosts in teams of two may just be the start.

Mignano hints that a future version of Anchor may include more flexibility on the number of cohosts. “You can imagine us doing something like, if the user specifies the topic, they can indicate how many people they want to have a conversation with,” he teases.

The new feature recalls Anchor’s roots as a platform for social audio.

“It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a while, says Mignano. “If you think back to Anchor 2.0 – and 3.0, as well – we’ve always wanted to make Anchor a little more interactive than a standard podcasting platform. To us, democratizing audio doesn’t just mean making it easier to create. It also means modernizing the format by making it more shareable, easier to interact with, short form, etc.,” he says.

The Cohosts feature is rolling out today in Anchor’s app.