Category Archives: FaceBook

A ton of people don’t know that Facebook owns WhatsApp

Americans looking to reduce their reliance on products from tech’s most alarmingly megalithic companies might be surprised to learn just how far their reach extends.

Privacy-minded browser company DuckDuckGo conducted a small study to look into that phenomenon and the results were pretty striking.

“… As Facebook usage wanes, messaging apps like WhatsApp are growing in popularity as a ‘more private (and less confrontational) space to communicate,'” DuckDuckGo wrote in the post. “That shift didn’t make much sense to us because both services are owned by the same company, so we tried to find an explanation.”

DuckDuckGo gathered a random sample of 1,297 adult Americans who are “collectively demographically similar to the general population of U.S. adults” (i.e. not just DuckDuckGo diehards) using SurveyMonkey’s audience tools. The survey found that 50.4 percent of those surveyed who had used WhatsApp in the prior six months (247 participants) did not know the company is owned by Facebook.

Similarly, DuckDuckGo found that 56.4 percent of those surveyed who had used Waze in the past six months (291 participants) had no idea that the navigation app is owned by Google. A similar study conducted back in April found the same phenomenon when it came to Facebook/Instagram and Google/YouTube, though for Instagram the effect was even stronger (wow).

If you’re reading TechCrunch it’s probably almost impossible to imagine that average people aren’t tracing the lines between tech’s biggest companies and the products scooped up or built under their wings. And yet, it is so.

Even as companies like Google and Facebook suffer blowback from privacy crises, it’s clear that they can lean on the products they’ve picked up along the way to chart a path forward. If this survey is any indication, half of U.S. consumers will have no idea that they’ve jumped ship from a big tech product into a lifeboat captained by the very same company they sought to escape.

And for the biggest tech companies, it’s at least one reason that keeping satellite products at arm’s length from their respective motherships is advantageous for maintaining trust — especially while aggressive data sharing happens behind the scenes.

Call for social media adtech to be probed by UK competition watchdog

A British Conservative politician, who has called repeatedly for Mark Zuckerberg to come to parliament to answer questions about how Facebook fences fake news — only to be repeatedly rebuffed — has made a public call for the UK’s competition regulator to look into social media giants’ adtech operations.

Damian Collins, the chair of the DCMS committee which has spent months this year asking questions about how disinformation spreads online — culminating in a report, this summer, recommending the government impose a levy on social media to defend democracy — made the suggestion in a tweet that references a news article reporting on a U.S. class action lawsuit against Facebook.

Advertisers in the US lawsuit allege Facebook knowingly inflated video viewing stats and thus mislead them into spending more money on its ad platform than they otherwise would have.

But Facebook disputes the allegations, saying the lawsuit is “without merit”. It has also filed a motion to dismiss the claims of ad fraud.

Although, two years ago, it did ‘fess up to a ‘miscalculation’ around average video viewing times, saying it had mistakenly discounted all the people who dropped out of watching a video in the first 3 seconds in calculating averages — thereby bumping viewing averages up.

At about the same time, it also said it had discovered some other ad-related bugs and errors in its system that had led to the wrong numbers being reported across four products, including Instant Articles, video and Page Insights.

The advertisers in the class action lawsuit — which was filed back in 2016 — had originally claimed Facebook engaged in unfair business practices. After receiving tens of thousands of documents in relation to the case they amended their complaint to accuse the company of fraud, CBS reports.

In its statement denying the suit’s claims, Facebook also said: “Suggestions that we in any way tried to hide this issue from our partners are false. We told our customers about the error when we discovered it — and updated our help center to explain the issue.” 

The company declined to comment on Collins’ remarks about adtech industry practices today.

A spokeswoman for the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) also declined to comment when asked whether it has any concerns related to practices in the adtech sector.

Given market sensitivity to regulatory action it’s normal for the CMA to not want to stoke any speculation around a particular company.

For the same reason it would not normally discuss any complaints it’s received until the point of actually launching any investigation.

However this is not the first time the CMA has been urged by concerned politicians to investigate the adtech sector.

This fall another UK committee, the Lords Select Committee on Communications, directly asked the body to investigate digital advertising.

And earlier this month the CMA’s CEO, Andrea Coscelli, told the committee it is indeed considering doing so, if only it can carve out the resources to do so — saying he was worried about “potential gaps” in the regulatory framework around competition and consumer issues.

“A month ago, this Committee asked us to look at digital advertising. That is something we are actively considering, subject to Brexit in the next few weeks, because it has a big resource implication for us,” said Coscelli on October 9. “It is certainly something where we are interested in getting involved. If we did, we would work closely with Ofcom and give serious thought to the regulatory framework in that context.”

The CMA has also generally been ramping up its activity on the digital market front, recently spinning up a new data unit and appointing a chief data and digital insights officer, Stefan Hunt, hired in from the Financial Conduct Authority — to help it “develop and deliver an effective data and digital insight strategy… to better understand the impact that data, machine learning and other algorithms have on markets and people”.

So it sounds like a case of ‘watch this regulatory space’ for more action at the very least.

Elsewhere in Europe competition regulators have also been paying closer attention to the adtech industry in recent years — examining a variety of practices by adtech giants, Facebook and Google, and coming away with a range of antitrust-related concerns.

In preliminary findings at the end of last year, for example, Germany’s Federal Cartel Office accused Facebook of using its size to strong-arm users into handing over data.

While, earlier this year, the French Competition Authority suggested it was planning to investigate Facebook and Google‘s dominance of the adtech market, publishing a report in which it identified a raft of problematic behaviors — and pointed out that the two companies act as both publishers and technical intermediaries for advertisers, thereby gaining a competitive advantage.

Italian regulators have also been probing competition concerns related to big data for more than a year.

As we’ve reported before, the European Commission is also actively eyeing digital platforms’ market power — and looking to reshape competition policy to take account of how tech giants are able to draw on network effects and leverage their position from one market to another.

And when you’re talking about platform power, you are also — in the current era — talking about adtech.

There’s no doubt closer scrutiny of the digital advertising sector is coming. And with a brighter spotlight, tighter accountability screws applied to its practices.

Privacy reviews of adtech platforms have already raised plenty of ethical questions, in addition to flagging actual violations of the law.

This summer the UK’s data protection watchdog also called for an ethical pause of the use of social media ads for political purposes, writing that: “It is important that there is greater and genuine transparency about the use of such techniques to ensure that people have control over their own data and that the law is upheld.”

So while it remains to be seen what any competition investigations of the adtech sector will conclude, political momentum is building to increase transparency and ensure accountability — which makes regulation more likely.

Facebook’s latest big hack was apparently by spammers, not foreign agents

Facebook's latest hack had the information of 29 million users scraped, but apparently by scammers wanting financial gain, rather than for political or ideological purposes.

The Wall Street Journal cited people familiar with Facebook's internal investigation on the hack, who claimed those behind the attack were Instagram and Facebook spammers posing as a digital marketing company.

The incident has been under investigation since Sept. 25, when Facebook's security team discovered someone downloading a large amount of digital access tokens from the social platform.  Read more...

More about Tech, Facebook, Social Media, Data Breach, and Social Media Companies

Why IGTV should go premium

It’s been four months since Facebook launched IGTV, with the goal of creating a destination for longer-form Instagram videos. Is it shaping up to be a high-profile flop, or could this be the company’s next multi-billion dollar business?

IGTV, which features videos up to 60 minutes versus Instagram’s normal 60-second limit, hasn’t made much of a splash yet. Since there are no ads yet, it hasn’t made a dollar either. But, it offers Facebook the opportunity to dominate a new category of premium video, and to develop a subscription business that better aligns with high-quality content.

Facebook worked with numerous media brands and celebrities to shoot high-quality, vertical videos for IGTV’s launch on June 20, as both a dedicated app and a section within the main Instagram app. But IGTV has been quiet since. I’ve heard repeatedly in conversations with media executives that almost no one is creating content specifically for IGTV and that the audience on IGTV remains small relative to the distribution of videos on Snapchat or Facebook. Most videos on it are repurposed from a brand’s or influencer’s Snapchat account (at best) or YouTube channel (more common). Digiday heard the same feedback.

Instagram announced IGTV on June 20 as a way for users to post videos up to 1 hour long in a dedicated section of the app (and separate app).

Facebook’s goal should be to make IGTV a major property in its own right, distinct from the Instagram feed. To do that, the company should follow the concept embodied in the “IGTV” name and re-envision what television shows native to the format of an Instagram user would look like.

Its team should leverage the playbook of top TV streaming services like Netflix and Hulu in developing original series with top talent in Hollywood to anchor their own subscription service, but do in it a new format of shows produced specifically for the vertically-oriented, distraction-filled screen of a smartphone.

Mobile video is going premium

Of the 6+ hours per day that Americans spend on digital media, the majority on that is now on their phone (most of it on social and entertainment activities) and video viewing has grown with it. In addition to the decline in linear television viewing and rise of  “over-the-top” streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, we’ve seen the creation of a whole new category of video: mobile native video.

Starting at its most basic iteration with everyday users’ recordings for Snapchat Stories, Instagram Stories, and YouTube vlogs, mobile video is a very different viewing environment with a lot more competition for attention. Mobile video is watched as people are going about their day. They might commit a few minutes at a time, but not hour-long blocks, and there are distracting text messages and push notifications overlaid on the screen as they watch.

“Stories” on the major social apps have advanced vertically-oriented, mobile native videos as their own content format.

When I spoke recently with Jesús Chavez, CEO of the mobile-focused production company Vertical Networks in Los Angeles, he emphasized that successful episodic videos on mobile aren’t just normal TV clips with changes to the “packaging” (cropped for vertical, thumbnails selected to get clicks, etc.). The way episodes are written and shot has to be completely different to succeed. Chavez put it in terms of the higher “density” of mobile-native videos: packing more activity into a short time window, with faster dialogue, fewer setup shots, split screens, and other tactics.

With the growing amount of time people spend watching videos on their social apps each day—and the flood of subpar videos chasing view counts—it makes sense that they would desire a premium content option. We have seen this scenario before as ad-dependent radio gave rise to subscription satellite radio like SiriusXM and ad-dependent network TV gave rise to pay-TV channels like HBO. What that looks like in this context is a trusted service with the same high bar for riveting storytelling of popular films and TV series—and often featuring famous talent from those—but native to the vertical, smartphone environment.

If IGTV pursues this path, it would compete most directly with Quibi, the new venture that Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman are raising $2 billion to launch (and was temporarily called NewTV until their announcement at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit last Wednesday). They are developing a big library of exclusive shows by iconic directors like Guillermo del Toro and Jason Blum crafted specifically for smartphones through their upcoming subscription-based app.

Quibi’s funding is coming from the world’s largest studios (Disney, Fox, Sony, Lionsgate, MGM, NBCU, Viacom, Alibaba, etc.) whose executives see substantial enough opportunity in such a platform—which they could then produce content for—to write nine-figure checks.

TechCrunch’s Josh Constine argued last year Snapchat should go in a similar “HBO of mobile” direction as well, albeit ad-supported rather than a subscription model. The company indeed seems to be stepping further in this direction with last week’s announcement of Snapchat Originals, although it has announced and then canceled original content plans before.

Snapchat announced its Snap Originals last week.

Facebook is the best positioned to win

Facebook is the best positioned to seize this opportunity, and IGTV is the vehicle for doing so. Without even considering integrations with the Facebook, Messenger, or WhatsApp apps, Facebook is starting with a base of over 1 billion monthly active users on Instagram alone. That’s an enormous audience to expose these original shows to, and an audience who don’t need to create or sign into a separate account to explore what’s playing on IGTV. Broader distribution is also a selling point for creative talent: they want their shows to be seen by large audiences.

The user data that makes Facebook rivaled only by Google in targeted advertising would give IGTV’s recommendation algorithms a distinct advantage in pushing users to the IGTV shows most relevant to their interests and most popular among their friends.

The social nature of Instagram is an advantage in driving awareness and engagement around IGTV shows: Instagram users could see when someone they follow watches or “likes” a show (pending their privacy settings). An obvious feature would be to allow users to discuss or review a show by sharing it to their main Instagram feed with a comment; their followers would see a clip or trailer then be able to click-through to the full show in IGTV with one tap.

Developing and acquiring a library of must-see, high-quality original productions is massively capital intensive—just ask Netflix about the $13 billion it’s spending this year. Targeting premium quality mobile video will be no different. That’s why Katzenberg and Whitman are raising a $2 billion war chest for Quibi and budgeting production costs of $100,000-150,000 per minute on par with top TV shows. Facebook has $42 billion in cash and equivalents on its balance sheet. It can easily outspend Quibi and Snap in financing and marketing original shows by a mix of newcomers and Hollywood icons.

Snap can’t afford (financially) to compete head-on and doesn’t have the same scale of distribution. It is at 188 million daily active users and no longer growing rapidly (up 8% over the last year but DAUs actually shrunk by 3 million last quarter). Snapchat is also a much more private interface: it doesn’t enable users to see each others’ activity like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, Spotify, and others do to encourage content discovery. Snap is more likely to create a hub for ad-supported mobile-first shows for teens and early-twentysomethings rather than rival Quibi or IGTV in creating a more broadly popular Netflix or Hulu of mobile-native shows.

It’s time to go freemium

Investing substantial capital upfront is especially necessary for a company launching a subscription tier: consumers must see enough compelling content behind the paywall from the start, and enough new content regularly added, to find an ongoing subscription worthwhile.

There is currently no monetization of IGTV. It is sitting in experimentation mode as Facebook watches how people use it. If any company can drive enough ad revenue solely from short commercials to still profit on high-cost, high-quality episodic shows on mobile, it’s Facebook. But a freemium subscription model makes more sense for IGTV. From a financial standpoint, building IGTV into its own profitable P&L while making substantial content investments likely demands more revenue than ads alone will generate.

Of equal importance is incentive alignment. Subscriptions are defined by “time well spent” rather time spent and clicks made: quality over quantity. This is the environment in which premium content of other formats has thrived too; SiriusXM as the breakout on radio, HBO on linear TV, Netflix in OTT originals. The type of content IGTV will incentivize, and the creative talent they’ll attract, will be much higher quality when the incentives are to create must-see shows that drive new subscribers than when the incentives are to create videos that optimize for views.

Could there be a “Netflix for mobile native video” with shows shot in vertical format specifically for viewing on smartphone?

The optimization for views (to drive ad revenue) have been the model that media companies creating content for Facebook have operated on for the last decade. The toxicity of this has been a top news story over the last year with Facebook acknowledging many of the issues with clickbait and sensationalism and vowing changes.

Over the years, Facebook has dragged media companies up and down with changes to its newsfeed algorithm that forced them to make dramatic changes to their content strategies (often with layoffs and restructuring). It has burned bridges with media companies in the process; especially after last January, how to reduce dependence on Facebook platforms has become a common discussion point among digital content executives. If Facebook wants to get top producers, directors, and production companies investing their time and resources in developing a new format of high-quality video series for IGTV, it needs an incentives-aligned business model they can trust to stay consistent.

Imagine a free, ad-supported tier for videos by influencers and media partners (plus select “IGTV Originals”) to draw in Instagram users, then a $3-8/month subscription tier for access to all IGTV Originals and an ad-free viewing experience. (By comparison, Quibi plans to charge a $5/month subscription with ads with the option of $8/month for its ad-free tier.)

Looking at the growth of Netflix in traditional TV streaming, a subscription-based business should be a welcome addition to Facebook’s portfolio of leading content-sharing platforms. This wouldn’t be its first expansion beyond ad revenue: the newest major division of Facebook, Oculus, generates revenue from hardware sales and a 30% cut of the revenue to VR apps in the Oculus app store (similar to Apple’s cut of iOS app revenue). Facebook is also testing a dating app which—based on the freemium business model Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, and other leading dating apps have proven to work—would be natural to add a subscription tier to.

Facebook is facing more public scrutiny (and government regulation) on data privacy and its ad targeting than ever before. Incorporating subscriptions and transaction fees as revenue streams benefits the company financially, creates a healthier alignment of incentives with users, and eases the public criticism of how Facebook is using people’s data. Facebook is already testing subscriptions to Facebook Groups and has even explored offering a subscription alternative to advertising across its core social platforms. It is quite unlikely to do the latter, but developing revenue streams beyond ads is clearly something the company’s leadership is contemplating.

The path forward

IGTV needs to make product changes if it heads in this direction. Right now videos can’t link together to form a series (i.e. one show with multiple episodes) and discoverability is very weak. Beyond seeing recent videos by those you follow, videos that are trending, and a selection of recommendations, you can only search for channels to follow (based on name). There’s no way to search for specific videos or shows, no way to browse channels or videos by topic, and no way to see what people you follow are watching.

It would be a missed opportunity not to vie for this. The upside is enormous—owning the Netflix of a new content category—while the downside is fairly minimal for a company with such a large balance sheet.

Sidestepping App Stores, Facebook Lite and Groups get Instant Games

HTML5 almost ruined Facebook when baking in the mobile web standard to speed up development slowed down the performance of the social network’s main iOS and Android apps. It eventually ditched HTML5, rebuilt the apps natively, and Facebook became one of the most powerful players in mobile.

Now Facebook is giving HTML5 another shot as a way to expand its Instant Games like Pac-Man and Words With Friends to the developing world through Facebook Lite, and to interest communities via Facebook Groups.

Instead of having to download separate apps for each game from the Apple App Store or Google Play, Instant Games launch in a mobile browser. That keeps Facebook Lite’s file size small to the benefit of international users with slow connections or limited data plans. And it lets Instant Games integrate directly into Groups so you can challenge not only friends but like-minded members to compete for high scores.

90 million people each month actively participate in 270,000 Facebook Groups about gaming, and now they’ll see Instant Games in the Groups navigation bar next to the About and Discussion tabs. Facebook is also considering making games an opt-in feature for non-gaming Groups. In Facebook Lite, Instant Games will appear in the More sidebar so they’re not too interruptive.

The expansion demonstrates how serious Facebook is about becoming a gaming company again. Back in its desktop days, the games platform dominated by devleopers like Zynga racked up tons of usage, virality, and in-game payments revenue for Facebook. That revenue declined for years after mobile usage began to dominate in 2014, but recently stabilized at around $190 million per quarter. Apparently someone is still playing FarmVille.

Facebook launched Instant Games in late-2016 to give people something to do while they’re waiting from friends to reply to their messages. Around the same time, Facebook launched Gameroom — a Steam-like desktop software hub for mid-core gamers, though there’s been less news on that product since. Instant Games rolled out worldwide in mid-2017, and opened to all developers in March of this year. It’s since been expanding monetization options for developers to make building Instant Games a sustainable business. That includes making Instant Games compatible with Facebook’s playable ads that let developers lure in users from the News Feed.

Facebook won’t actually be earning money from in-app purchases on Instant Games on iOS where it doesn’t allow IAP due to Apple’s policies, or on Android since it began forgoing its cut last month. It does take 30 percent on desktop though. But the bigger monetization play is in ads where Facebook is a juggernaut.

With Instant Games on Messenger, Facebook’s desktop site via a bookmark, its new Fb.gg standalone gaming community app, and now Facebook Lite and Groups, the company is prioritizing the space again. That seems wise as gaming becomes more mainstream thanks to players livestreaming their commentary and phenomena like Fortnite. And with Facebook’s expansion into hardware with the Portal smart screen and a forthcoming TV set-top box, it will have more places than ever for people to play or watch others duke it out.

MTV’s Real World will be revived with interactivity on Facebook Watch

The world’s first hit reality show “The Real World” is being reimagined for Facebook Watch 26 years after it debuted on cable. Come Spring 2019, fans will get a chance to vote on who’ll join as the final cast member and connect with the housemates through Facebook Watch Party’s synchronized viewing chat rooms as they “stop being polite and start getting real”.

It has been a year and a half since the 32nd and most recent season of The Real World aired on MTV. Deadline recently reported that the show was being rethought for the web and shopped to streaming platforms. Now we know where it’s landing.

Facebook’s first truly tent-pole show for its Watch video hub could lure in viewers and offer a halo effect to other programs on the platform after a lackluster slate of mostly no-name shows launched alongside the feature in August 2017. But it’s starting to gain momentum, as 50 million people now spend at least 1 minute per month on Watch, and total Watch view time is up 14X since the start of 2018. For comparison, over 18 Snapchat Shows have over 10 million viewers per month. Users who do come to Facebook Watch spend 5X longer watching than on spontaneously discovered News Feed videos, which seems to have emboldened it to invest more in Watch content.

Facebook is hoping to outcompete YouTube Originals and Snapchat Discover’s Shows to win the mid-length social video market and the landslide of ad dollars shifting away from TV commercials.

As I wrote recently, there’s already plenty of user generated content to consume on these platforms, so the real opportunity is in super-premium shows that stand firmly apart from what litters feeds and Stories. Facebook Watch needs its own House Of Cards or Game Of Thrones. While it’s unclear how much Facebook paid for the Real World, it likely didn’t come cheap,  but now it has arguably the highest profile show of any of the platforms.

Facebook’s partnership with MTV and Real World-creator Bunim/Murray Productions comes as part of a slew of original video content announcements revealed today at the MIPCOM TV industry trade show.

The [Business] INSIDER original game show on Facebook Watch called Confetti will expand internationally — curiously without INSIDER’s help. Facebook tells TechCrunch it will work with local partners in international markets to create versions of the HQ Trivia-style live video game show where players compete through their phones to win cash prizes. EMEA, APAC and LATAM editions of Confetti will launch by the end of this year.

Facebook Watch will also launch The World’s Most Amazing Dog, an interactive global competition show. In partnership with The Dodo, the show will spotlight top dogs and their owners from around the world.

Now that Facebook’s ad breaks are running in 25 countries, it’s able to get serious about monetizing Watch and recouping its content investments. Facebook has been paying up front for these shows but hopes that ad breaks could wean creators off its cash and create sustainable businesses based on Watch. But with today’s Wall Street Journal report that Facebook underreported the scale of video ad view time metrics bug that inflated measurements years ago, it may face additional skepticism that Watch is worth studios’ investment.

But again, it’s the name brand of The Real World that could change Watch’s trajectory. Facebook has signed on for three different one season runs of 12 episodes of the show localized for the US, Mexico, and Thailand. The new slate of content could also make Facebook’s new Portal smart screen more attractive since Watch is built in. And with Facebook building a TV set-top box for next year, it will want premium shows worthy of bigger screens.

“The Real World made history as the world’s first original reality show and trailblazing social experiment — and we’re thrilled to reboot the show for today’s audiences — representing and amplifying the real life, real people, real places and real social tensions of each country” says Matthew Henick, Facebook’s Head of Content Planning & Strategy. It poached Henick from BuzzFeed earlier this year to bring some experienced leadership to its intersection of traditional studio content and the smallest screen.

Last week Snapchat announced 12 original shows including two produced by Bunim/Murray. Yet with the ephemeral social apps losing users as well as over $300 million per quarter, it was only able to secure new and unknown docuseries like Endless Summer and Growing Up Is A Drag.

Despite Facebook jamming the Watch tab into its main app’s navigation bar, many users have ignored it. They already get short-form clips in the News Feed, longer web shows on YouTube, and full-length series on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. It will require more big bets like The Real World to convince users that Watch is where they want to relax.

Facebook News Feed now downranks sites with stolen content

Facebook is demoting trashy news publishers and other websites that illicitly scrape and republish content from other sources with little or no modification. Today it exclusively told TechCrunch that it will show links less prominently in the News Feed if they have a combination of this new signal about content authenticity along with either clickbait headlines orlanding pages overflowing with low-quality ads. The move comes after Facebook’s surveys and in-person interviews with discovered that users hate scraped content.

If illgotten intellectual property gets less News Feed distribution, it will receive less referral traffic, earn less ad revenue, and the there’ll be less incentive for crooks to steal articles, photos, and videos in the first place. That could create an umbrella effect that improves content authenticity across the web.

And just in case the scraped profile data stolen from 29 million users in Facebook’s recent massive security breach ended up published online, Facebook would already have a policy in place to make links to it effectively disappear from the feed.

Here’s an example of the type of site that might be demoted by Facebook’s latest News Feed change. “Latet Nigerian News” scraped one of my recent TechCrunch articles, and surrounded it by tons of ads.

An ad-filled site that scraped my recent TechCrunch article. This site might be hit by a News Feed demotion

“Starting today, we’re rolling out an update so people see fewer posts that ink out to low quality sites that predominantly copy and republish content from other sites without providing unique value. We are adjusting our Publish Guidelines accordingly” Facebook wrote in an addendum to its May 2017 post about demoting sites stuffed with crappy ads. Facebook tells me the new publisher guidelines will warn news outlets to add original content or value to reposted content or invoke the social network’s wrath.

Personally, I think the importance of transparency around these topics warrants a new blog post from Facebook as well as an update to the original post linking forward to it.

So how does Facebook determine if content is stolen? It’s systems compare the main text content of a page with all other text content to find potential matches. The degree of matching is used to predict that a site stole its content. It then uses a combined classifier merging this prediction with how clickbaity a site’s headlines are plus the quality and quantity of ads on the site.

Facebook rolls out checks for UK political ads

Facebook has announced it rolled out a system of checks on political ads run on its platform in the UK which requires advertisers to verify their identity and location to try to make it harder for foreign actors to meddle in domestic elections and referenda.

This follows similar rollouts of political ad transparency tools in the U.S. and Brazil.

From today, Facebook said it will record and display information about who paid for political ads to run on its platform in the UK within an Ad library — including retaining the ad itself — for “up to seven years”.

It will also badge these ads with a “Paid for by” disclaimer.

So had the company had this system up and running during the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum, the Canadian data firm AIQ would, presumably, have had to pass its political advertiser verification process, and display “Paid for by” Vote Leave/BeLeave/Veterans for Britain badges on scores of pro-Brexit ads… If it didn’t just get barred for not being based in the UK in the first place.

(How extensively Facebook will be checking up on political advertisers’ ‘paid for by’ claims is one pertinent question to ask, and we have asked; otherwise this looks mostly like a badging exercise — which requires other doing the work to check/police claims… ).

Ditto during Ireland’s referendum earlier this year, on overturning a constitutional ban on abortion. In that instance Facebook decided to suspend all foreign-funded ads a few weeks before the vote because it did not yet have a political ad check system in place.

In the UK, the new requirement on political advertisers applies to “all advertisers wanting to run ads in the UK that reference political figures, political parties, elections, legislation before Parliament and past referenda that are the subject of national debate”, Facebook said.

“We see this as an important part of ensuring electoral integrity and helping people understand who they are engaging with,” said Richard Allan, VP of global public policy, and Rob Leathern, director of product management in a blog post announcing the launch. “We recognise that this is going to be a significant change for people who use our service to publish this type of ad. While the vast majority of ads on Facebook are run by legitimate organisations, we know that there are bad actors that try to misuse our platform. By having people verify who they are, we believe it will help prevent abuse.”

UK lawmakers have been highly critical of Facebook’s response to their attempts to investigate how social media ads were used and mis-used during the UK’s 2016 EU referendum.

This summer the parliamentary committee that has been investigating online disinformation called for a levy on social media to ‘defend democracy’. And earlier this year Facebook told the same committee it would roll out an authentication process for political advertisers in time for the UK’s local elections, in May 2019 — with CTO Mike Schroepfer telling MPs the company believes “radical transparency” can fix concern about the societal and democratic impacts of divisive social media ads.

In response, MPs quizzed Schroepfer on whether Facebook’s political ad transparency tool would be so radical as to include “targeting data” in the disclosures — i.e. “will I understand not just who the advertiser was and what other adverts they’d run but why they’d chose to advertise to me”.

The Facebook CTO’s response in April suggested the company did not plan to go that far. And, indeed, Facebook says now that the details it will disclose in the Ad library are only: “A range of the ad’s budget and number of people reached, and the other ads that Page is running.”

So not, seemingly, any actual targeting data: Aka the specific reasons a particular user is seeing a particular political ad. Which could help Facebook users contextualize political ads and be wiser to attempts to manipulate their opinion, as well as generally better understand how their personal information is being used (and potentially misused).

It’s true that Facebook does already provide some data about broad-brush targeting, with a per-ad option users can click to get a response on ‘why am I seeing this?’. But the targeting categories the company serves via this feature are so broad and lacking in comprehensiveness as to be selectively uninformative and thus pretty useless at very best.

Indeed, the results have even been accused of being misleading.

If Facebook was required by law to rip away its adtech modesty curtain entirely there’s a risk, for its business model, that users would get horribly creeped out by the full bore view of the lidless eye in the digital wall spying on them to target ads.

So while Schroepfer teased UK MPs with “radical transparency” the reality, six months on, is something a whole lot more dilute and incremental.

Facebook itself appears to be conceding as much, and trying to manage expectations, when it writes: “We believe that increased transparency will lead to increased accountability and responsibility over time — not just for Facebook but for advertisers as well.”

So it remains to be seen whether UK lawmakers will be satisfied with this tidbit. Or call for blood, as they set themselves to the task of regulating social media.

The other issue is how comprehensively (or otherwise) Facebook will police its own political ad checks.

Its operational historical is replete with content identification and moderation failures. Which doesn’t exactly bode well for the company to robustly control malicious attempts to skew public opinion — especially when the advertisers in question are simultaneously trying to pour money into its coffers.

So it also remains to be seen how many divisive political ads will simply slip under its radar — i.e. via the non-political, non-verified standard route, and get distributed anyway. Not least because there is also the trickiness of identifying a political ad (vs a non-political ad).

Malicious political ads paid for by Kremlin-backed entities didn’t always look like malicious political ads. Some of the propaganda Russia was spreading via Facebook in the US targeted at voters included seemingly entirely apolitical and benign messages aimed at boosting support among certain identity-based groups, for example. And those sorts of ads would not appear to fit Facebook’s definition of a ‘political ad’ here.

In general, the company also looks to be relying on everyone else to do the grunt-work policing for it — as per its usual playbook.

“If you see an ad which you believe has political content and isn’t labeled, please report it by tapping the three dots at the top right-hand corner of the ad,” it writes. “We will review the ad, and if it falls under our political advertising policy, we’ll take it down and add it to the Ad Library. The advertiser will then be prevented from running ads related to politics until they complete our authorisation process and we’ll follow up to let you know what happened to the ad you reported.”

Facebook is building a camera TV set-top box codenamed Ripley

A mysterious product called “Ripley” appeared hidden beside Facebook’s new Portal smart displays in Facebook for Android’s code. Dug up by frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong a week ago, Ripley’s name squared with Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo telling us that “we’re already investing in expanding the product line with more products we want to launch next year.”

That Facebook device will be a camera-equipped device that connects to televisions to allow video chat and media content viewing, according to Cheddar’s Alex Heath.

Facebook’s Portal’s devices sit on a desk or countertop and cost $199 for a smaller screen and $349 for a bigger one. But with Ripley, Facebook could sell a much cheaper screen-less add-on for the televisions people already have. Facebook could build hardware network effect by releasing its Portal technology in many form factors.

The Ripley name could change before the eventual launch next year, which Cheddar says is coming in Spring 2019. It might become something more evocative of the device’s purpose. But regardless of the name, it’s sure to encounter heavy skepticism due to Facebook’s history of privacy and security troubles. Many users don’t trust Facebook enough to put one of its cameras and microphones in their house.

Ripley is said to run on the same Portal operating system that builds off the same Android open-source framework. That means it might carry a similar slate of features. Those include Portal’s auto-zooming camera that can follow users to keep them in frame, video chat through Messenger, a smart photo frame for while it’s not in use, Facebook Watch videos, Alexa voice control and a third-party app platform, including video content from outside developers.

While users might occasionally watch recipe or news videos on Portal, entertainment could be core to Ripley. The device would allow Facebook to compete with Roku, Amazon, Apple and other set-top boxes. The device could also eventually be a natural home for Facebook’s video ads, even though it’s not putting them on Portal right now.

Along with smart speakers, whoever creates what plugs into our TVs will control a fundamental wing of future home computing. Facebook won’t surrender this market, despite its disadvantage due to its many scandals.

Worries linger as Facebook withholds stolen searches & checkins

Hacked Facebook users still don’t know which 15 recent searches and 10 latest checkins were exposed in the company’s massive breach it detailed last week. The company merely noted that those were amongst the data sets stolen by the attackers. That creates uncertainty about how sensitive or embarrassing the scraped data is, and whether it could possibly be used to blackmail and stalk them.

Much of the scraped data from the 14 million most-impacted users out of 30 million total people hit by the breach was biographical and therefore relatively static, such as their birth date, religion or hometown. While still problematic because it could be used for unconsented ad targeting, scams, hacking attempts or social engineering attacks, at least users likely know what was illicitly grabbed.

Thankfully, some of the most sensitive data fields, such as sexual orientation, were not accessed, Facebook confirms to me. But the exposure of recent searches and checkins could threaten users in different ways.

Given the attack was so broad and impacted a wide variety of users, unlike say a targeted attack on the Democratic National Convention, there’s no evidence that blackmailing or stalking individual users was the purpose of the hack. For the average user hit by the breach, the likelihood of this kind of follow-up attack may be low.

But given that public figures, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, were victims of the attack, as well as many reporters (myself included), there remains a risk that the perpetrators paw through the data seeking high-profile people to exploit.

Stolen data on “the 15 most recent searches you’ve entered into the Facebook search bar” could contain embarrassing or controversial topics, competitive business research or potential infidelity. Many users might be mortified if their searches for racy content, niche political viewpoints or their ex-lovers were published in association with their real name. Hackers could potentially target victims with blackmail scams threatening to reveal this info to the world, especially since the hack included user contact info, including phone numbers and email addresses.

Scraped checkins could power real-world stalking or attacks. Users’ exact GPS coordinates were not accessible to the hackers, but they did grab 14 million people’s “10 most recent locations you’ve checked in to or been tagged in. These locations are determined by the places named in the posts, such as a landmark or restaurant, not location data from a device,” Facebook writes. If users checked in to nearby coffee shops, their place of work or even their home if they’ve given it a cheeky name as some urban millennials do, their history of visiting those locations is now in dangerous hands.

If users at least knew what searches or checkins of theirs were stolen, they could choose if or how they should modify their behavior or better protect themselves. That’s why amongst Facebook’s warnings to users about whether they were hacked and what types of data were accessed, it should also consider giving those users the option to see the specific searches or checkins that were snatched.

When asked by TechCrunch, a Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on its plans here. It is understandable that the company might be concerned that disclosing the particular searches and checkins could unnecessarily increase fear and doubt. But if it’s just trying to limit the backlash, it forfeited that right when it prioritized growth and speed over security.

As Facebook tries to recover from the breach and regain the trust of its audience of 2.2 billion, it should err on the side of transparency. If hackers know this information, shouldn’t the hacked users too?