Category Archives: FaceBook

Daily Crunch: Well Facebook, you did it again

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1. Facebook is the new crapware 

Well Facebook, you did it again. Fresh off its latest privacy scandal, the troubled social media giant has inked a deal with Android to pre-install its app on an undisclosed number of phones and make the software permanent. This means you won’t be able to delete Facebook from those phones. Thanks, Facebook.

2. The world’s first foldable phone is real 

Chinese company Royole has beaten Samsung to the market and has been showing off a foldable phone/tablet this week at CES. While it’s not the most fluid experience, the device definitely works at adapting to your needs.

3. CES revokes award from female-founded sex tech company
Outcries of a double-standard are pouring out of CES after the Consumer Tech Association revoked an award from a company geared toward women’s sexual health.

4. Everything Google announced at CES 2019 

Google went all in on the Assistant this year at CES. The company boasted that the voice-enabled AI will make its way onto a billion devices by the end of the month — up from 400 million last year. But what’s most exciting is the expanded capabilities of Google’s Assistant. Soon you’ll be able to check into flights and translate conversations on the fly with a simple “Hey Google.”

5. Rebranding WeWork won’t work 

The company formerly known as WeWork has rebranded to the We Company, but its new strategy has the potential to plunge the company further into debt.

6. Despite promises to stop, US cell carriers are still selling your real-time phone location data

Last year a little-known company called LocationSmart came under fire after leaking location data from AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint users to shady customers. LocationSmart quickly buckled under public scrutiny and promised to stop selling user data, but few focused on another big player in the location tracking business: Zumigo.

7. The best and worst of CES 2019 

From monster displays to VR in cars, we’re breaking down the good, the bad and the ugly from CES 2019.

Cambridge Analytica’s parent pleads guilty to breaking UK data law

Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Elections, has been fined £15,000 in a UK court after pleading guilty to failing to comply with an enforcement notice issued by the national data protection watchdog, the Guardian reports.

While the fine itself is a small and rather symbolic one, given the disgraced political analytics firm went into administration last year, the implications of the prosecution are more sizeable.

Last year the Information Commissioner’s Office ordered SCL to hand over all the data it holds on U.S. academic, professor David Carroll, within 30 days. After the company failed to do so it was taken to court by the ICO.

Prior to Cambridge Analytica gaining infamy for massively misusing Facebook user data, the company, which was used by the Trump campaign, claimed to have up to 7,000 data points on the entire U.S. electorate — circa 240M people.

So Carroll’s attempt to understand exactly what data the company had on him, and how the information was processed to create a voter profile of it, has much wider relevance.

Under EU law, citizens can file a Subject Access Request (SAR) to obtain personal data held on them. So Carroll, a U.S. citizen, decided to bring a test case by requesting his data even though he is not a UK citizen — having learnt Cambridge Analytica had processed his personal data in the U.K.

He lodged his original SAR in January 2017 after becoming suspicious about the company’s claim to have built profiles of every U.S. voter.

Cambridge Analytica responded to the SAR in March 2017 but only sent partial data. So Carroll complained to the ICO which backed his request — issuing an enforcement notice on SCL Elections in May 2018, days after the (now) scandal-hit company announced it was shutting down.

The company pulled the plug on its business in the wake of the Facebook data misuse scandal, when it emerged SCL had paid an academic with developer access to Facebook’s platform to harvest data on millions of users without proper consents in a bid to create psychological profiles of U.S. voters for election campaign purposes.

The story snowballed into a global scandal for Facebook and triggered a major (and still ongoing) investigation by the ICO into how online data is used for political campaigning.

It also led the ICO to hit Facebook with a £500,000 fine last year (the maximum possible under the relevant UK data protection law). Although the company is appealing.

The SCL prosecution is an important one, cementing the fact that anyone who requests their personal information from a U.K.-based company or organisation is legally entitled to have that request answered, in full, under national data protection law — regardless of whether they’re a British citizen or not.

Commenting in a statement, information commissioner Elizabeth Denham said: “This prosecution, the first against Cambridge Analytica, is a warning that there are consequences for ignoring the law. Wherever you live in the world, if your data is being processed by a UK company, UK data protection laws apply.

“Organisations that handle personal data must respect people’s legal privacy rights. Where that does not happen and companies ignore ICO enforcement notices, we will take action.”

The Daily Beast reports that at today’s hearing, at Hendon magistrates court, the court was told that the administrators of Cambridge Analytica and its related companies had now provided relevant passwords to the ICO. Cambridge Analytica had previously failed to supply these passwords.

This means the regulator should be able to gain access to more of the data it seized when it raided the company’s London offices in March last year. So it’s at least possible Carroll’s SAR might eventually be fulfilled that way, i.e. by the regulatory sifting through the circa 700TB of data it seized.

However Carroll told TechCrunch he’s hoping for a faster route to get to the truth of exactly what the company did with his data, telling us there’s still “a March court event that could yield our end goal: Disclosure”.

“Why would they rather plead guilty to a criminal offense instead of complying with disclosure required by UK DPA ‘98. What are they hiding? Why has it come to this?” he added.

“Testing the Subject Access Request in this way is an important exercise. Do regulators and companies really know how to fully execute a Subject Access Request? How about when it escalates to a matter of international importance?”

Vietnam threatens to penalize Facebook for breaking its draconian cybersecurity law

Well, that didn’t take long. We’re less than 10 days into 2019 and already Vietnam is aiming threats at Facebook for violating its draconian cybersecurity law, which came into force on January 1.

The U.S. social network stands accused of allowing users in Vietnam to post “slanderous content, anti-government sentiment and libel and defamation of individuals, organisations and state agencies,” according to a report from state-controlled media Vietnam News.

The content is said to have been flagged to Facebook which, reports say, has “delayed removing” it.

That violates the law which — passed last June — broadly forbids internet users from organizing with, or training, others for anti-state purposes, spreading false information, and undermining the nation state’s achievements or solidarity, according to reports at the time. It also requires foreign internet companies to operate a local office and store user information on Vietnamese soil. That’s something neither Google nor Facebook has complied with, despite the Vietnamese government’s recent claim that the former is investigating a local office launch.

In addition, the Authority of Broadcasting and Electronic Information (ABEI) claimed Facebook had violated online advertising rules by allowing accounts to promote fraudulent products and scams, while it is considering penalties for failure to pay tax. The Vietnamese report claimed some $235 million was spent on Facebook ads in 2018, with $152.1 million going to Google.

Facebook responded by clarifying its existing channels for reporting illegal content.

“We have a clear process for governments to report illegal content to us, and we review all these requests against our terms of service and local law. We are transparent about the content restrictions we make in accordance with local law in our Transparency Report,” a Facebook representative told TechCrunch in a statement.

TechCrunch understands that the company is in contact with the Vietnamese government and it intends to review content flagged as illegal before making a decision.

Vietnamese media reports claim that Facebook has already told the government that the content in question doesn’t violate its community standards.

It looks likely that the new law will see contact from Vietnamese government censors spike, but Facebook has acted on content before. The company’s latest transparency report covers the first half of 2018 and it shows that it received 12 requests for data in Vietnam, granting just two. Facebook confirmed it has previously taken action on content that has included the alleged illegal sale of regulated products, trade of wildlife and efforts to impersonate an individual.

Facebook did not respond to the tax liability claim.

The company previously indicated its concern about the cybersecurity law via Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) — a group that represents the social media giant as well as Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Line and others — which cautioned that the regulations would negatively impact Vietnam.

“The provisions for data localization, controls on content that affect free speech, and local office requirements will undoubtedly hinder the nation’s fourth Industrial Revolution ambitions to achieve GDP and job growth,” AIC wrote in a statement in June.

“Unfortunately, these provisions will result in severe limitations on Vietnam’s digital economy, dampening the foreign investment climate and hurting opportunities for local businesses and SMEs to flourish inside and beyond Vietnam,” it added.

Vietnam is increasingly gaining a reputation as a growing market for startups, but the cybersecurity act threatens to impact that. One key issue is that the broad terms appear to give the government significant scope to remove content that it deems offensive.

“This decision has potentially devastating consequences for freedom of expression in Vietnam. In the country’s deeply repressive climate, the online space was a relative refuge where people could go to share ideas and opinions with less fear of censure by the authorities,” said Amnesty International.

Vietnam News reports that the authorities are continuing to collect evidence against Facebook.

“If Facebook did not take positive steps, Vietnamese regulators would apply necessary economic and technical measures to ensure a clean and healthy network environment,” the ABEI is reported to have said.

Facebook is the new crapware

Welcome to 2019 where we learn Facebook is the new crapware.

Sorry #DeleteFacebook, you never stood a chance.

Yesterday Bloomberg reported that the scandal-beset social media behemoth has inked an unknown number of agreements with Android smartphone makers, mobile carriers and OSes around the world to not only pre-load Facebook’s eponymous app on hardware but render the software undeleteable; a permanent feature of your device, whether you like how the company’s app can track your every move and digital action or not.

Bloomberg spoke to a U.S. owner of a Samsung Galaxy S8 who, after reading forum discussions about Samsung devices, found his own pre-loaded Facebook app could not be removed. It could only be “disabled”, with no explanation available to him as to what exactly that meant.

The Galaxy S8 retailed for $725+ when it went on sale in the U.S. two years ago.

A Facebook spokesperson told Bloomberg that a disabled permanent app doesn’t continue collecting data or sending information back to the company. But declined to specify exactly how many such pre-install deals Facebook has globally.

While Samsung told the news organization it provides a pre-installed Facebook app on “selected models” with options to disable it, adding that once disabled the app is no longer running.

After Bloomberg’s report was published, mobile research and regular Facebook technical tipster, Jane Manchun Wong, chipped in via Twitter to comment — describing the pre-loaded Facebook app on Samsung devices as “stub”.

Aka “basically a non-functional empty shell, acts as the placeholder for when the phone receives the ‘real’ Facebook app as app updates”.

Albeit many smartphone users have automatic updates enabled, and an omnipresent disabled app is always there to be re-enabled at a later date (and thus revived from a zombie state into a fully fledged Facebook app one future day).

While you can argue that having a popular app pre-installed can be helpful to consumers (though not at all helpful to Facebook competitors), a permanent pre-install is undoubtedly an anti-consumer move.

Crapware is named crapware for a reason. Having paid to own hardware, why should people be forever saddled with unwanted software, stub or otherwise?

And while Facebook is not the only such permanent app around (Apple got a lot of historical blowback for its own undeleteable apps, for instance; finally adding the ability to delete some built-in apps with iOS 12) it’s an especially egregious example given the company’s long and storied privacy hostile history.

Consumers who do not want their digital activity and location surveilled by the people-profiling giant will likely crave the peace of mind of not having any form of Facebook app, stub or otherwise, taking up space on their device.

But an unknown number of Android users are now finding out they don’t have that option.

Not cool, Facebook, not cool.

Another interesting question the matter raises is how permanent Facebook pre-installs are counted in Facebook’s user metrics, and indeed for ad targeting purposes.

In recent years the company has had to revise its ad metrics several times. So it’s valid to wonder whether a disabled Facebook app pre-install is being properly accounted for by the company (i.e. as minus one pair of eyeballs for its ad targeting empire) or not.

We asked Facebook about this point but at the time of writing it declined to comment beyond its existing statements to Bloomberg.

LinkedIn now requires phone number verification for all users in China

LinkedIn’s China site looks and functions just like LinkedIn everywhere else, except now it asks users in the country to verify their identities through phone numbers.

The American company is requiring both new and existing users with a Chinese IP address to link mobile phone numbers to their accounts, TechCrunch noticed this week. LinkedIn had for months told its China-based users to provide mobile number details before sending them to the main page, but it had mercifully kept a little “Skip” button that let users avoid the fuss until at least last week.

“The real-name verification process for our LinkedIn China members is a legal requirement, which will also help improve the authenticity and credibility of online accounts,” a LinkedIn China spokesperson wrote back to TechCrunch in an email without addressing whether the process is new.

The spokesperson also links the policy to China’s burgeoning mobile industry: “Considering the growing popularity of mobile devices and mobile Internet, Chinese Internet users are adapted to registration with mobile phone numbers instead of email addresses. Almost all apps in the Chinese market are applying this trend to follow users’ habits.”

LinkedIn users with a Chinese IP address are greeted with an identity check tied to phone numbers. Screenshot: TechCrunch

In a note visible to China-based users only, LinkedIn explains that its identity check is a response to local regulations:

In some countries, local laws require that we confirm your identity before letting you engage with our Services. You must provide a mobile number and confirm receipt of our text. This phone number will be associated with your account and is accessible from your settings. If you choose to change or delete your confirmed mobile number your ability to access our Services in certain countries (e.g. China) will be blocked until you once again confirm your identity.

The California-based social network for professionals is a rare existence in China, where most mainstream global tech services like Facebook and Google have long remained blocked. Exceptions happen when foreign players bend to local rules. Microsoft’s Bing is accessible in China by censoring search results. Google also reportedly mulled a censored search service to re-enter China, an attempt that outraged its staff, politicians and speech advocates.

LinkedIn, which launched in China back in 2014, also hires so-called “information auditors” to keep close tabs on what users say and share in its China realm, according to a job post the firm listed on a local recruiting site. Like Google, LinkedIn caught flack for censoring content.

Real identity

Digital anonymity came to an end in China — at least in theory — when the sweeping Cyberspace Law took effect in 2017. The rules, which are meant to police information on the web, ordered websites to verify users’ real identities before letting them comment or use other tools, though users can still post with their screen names.

Large platforms like messenger WeChat and Twitter -like Weibo reacted swiftly by running real-name checks on users. The staple practice is to collect mobile phone numbers, which became a form of ID after China introduced a policy in 2010 requiring all buyers, foreign or Chinese, to show a piece of identification when they obtain their 11-digit identifiers. Google’s rumored search engine for China also asked for users’ phone numbers, according to The Intercept, which would make it easier for the government to monitor people’s queries.

LinkedIn’s China office in Beijing. Photo: LinkedIn China via Weibo

LinkedIn had been able to avoid the inevitable process for months. Perhaps the government had gone after the biggies first. After all, LinkedIn is only a fraction the size of its main rival in China. As of November, LinkedIn had 13 million monthly installs while its local peer Maimai had 95 monthly installs, data from iResearch shows. Both are dwarfed by WeChat’s more than 1 billion monthly active users.

As with other fledgling industries, laws often lag behind technological development, not to mention the enforcement thereof when the odds are against enterprises. Take ride-hailing for example. Unlicensed drivers and vehicles were still running on the roads two years after China legalized the sector. When the government steps up oversight recently, the market is hit by a shortage of drivers.

Clamping down

TechCrunch has come to understand that LinkedIn’s identity enforcement is linked to the latest wave of government crackdowns. “Slowly, the Chinese Communist Party has been pushing their collective thumbs down on, not only foreign internet companies but all internet companies. It just so happens that the recent political atmosphere is causing more scrutiny,” a source with insights into the matter told TechCrunch, asking not to be named.

Other websites are also indeed tightening controls over users. Many apps that previously allowed third-party logins from platforms like WeChat and Weibo also recently started collecting users’ phone numbers, several people who experienced the changes told TechCrunch.

Users can still get around LinkedIn’s real-name verification by switching on their virtual private network, known as VPN, that lets people surf the net from an overseas IP address and circumvent the Great Firewall, China’s internet censoring machinery. But the practice is becoming more challenging and the stakes are growing. By law, only government-approved providers can set up VPNs. In response to regulatory oversight, Apple pulled hundreds of VPN apps from its China App Store in 2017.

More recently, China’s telecoms regulator slapped a 1,000 yuan (around $146) fine on a man for accessing the “international net” through “illegal channels.” The case is one of the few known instances where individuals are punished for using VPNs, sending worrying signs to those jumping the Wall to surf the unfiltered world wide web.

Facebook and PayPal pull pages of far right British activist filmed intimidating public figures

Facebook has confirmed it has removed the pages and profiles of a far right political activist in the UK after concerns were raised in parliament about aggressive intimidation of politicians and journalists trying to go about their business in and around Westminster.

PayPal has also closed an account that was being used to solicit donations for “political activism”.

The intimidation is being conducted by a small group of extreme Brexit supporters who have — ironically enough — lifted the ‘yellow vest’ dress code from French anti-government protestors, and are also making use of mainstream social media and crowdfunding platforms to fund and amplify attacks on public figures in an attempt to squash debate and drive an extreme ‘no deal’ Brexit. (Context: The clock is ticking down to March 29; the date when the UK is due to leave the European Union, with or without a withdrawal deal.)

In incidents widely shared on social media this week, individuals from the group were filmed live streaming harassment of Remain supporting Conservative MP Anna Soubry who was mobbed and shouted at as she walked down the street to return to parliament after being interviewed live on TV in front of the Palace of Westminster where the group heckled her with repeat chants of “nazi”.

Members of the same group were also filmed with fisted smartphones, chasing and hurling abuse at left-wing commentator Owen Jones as he walked down a London street.

In another video one of the individuals leading the verbal attacks, who has been identified in the press and online as a man called James Goddard, can be seen swearing viciously at Met Police officers and threatening to bring “war”.

The speaker of the House of Commons said today that he had written to the head of the Met Police to urge action against the “aggressive, threatening and intimidating behaviour towards MPs and journalists” around Westminster.

The Guardian reports that at least 115 MPs have written to police requesting extra protection.

Contacted today about Goddard’s presence on its platform, Facebook later confirmed to us that it had pulled the plug. “We have removed James Goddard’s Facebook Pages and Groups for violating our policies on hate speech,” a spokesperson told us. “We will not tolerate hate speech on Facebook which creates an environment of intimidation and which may provoke real-world violence.”

Earlier today one of his pages was still live on Facebook, and in a post from December 14 Goddard can be seen soliciting donations via PayPal so he can continue “confronting” people.

We also asked PayPal about Goddard’s use of its tools, pointing to the company’s terms of use which prohibit the use of the platform for promoting “hate, violence, racial and other forms of intolerance that is discriminatory”.

PayPal declined to comment on “any specific customer’s account”, citing its privacy policy but a spokesperson told us: “We do review accounts that have been flagged to us for possible breaches of our policies, and we will take action if appropriate.”

A few hours later PayPal also appeared to have pulled the plug on Goddard’s account.

A Patreon page he had seemingly been using to solicit donations for “political content, activism” is also now listed as ‘under review’ at the time of writing.

But Goddard remains on Twitter, where he is (currently) complaining about being de-platformed by Facebook and PayPal to his ~4k followers, and calling other people “fascists”.

How should mainstream tech platforms respond to people who use their tools for targeted harassment? If you read companies’ terms and conditions most prohibit abusive and intimidating conduct. Though in practice plenty flows until flagged and reviewed. (And even then takedowns frequently fail to follow.)

For all the claims from platforms that they’re getting better about enforcing their claimed community standards there are countless of examples of continued and very abject failure.

Facebook’s 2.2BN+ users especially make for an awful lot of content to wrangle. But none of these platforms is renowned for being proactive about weeding out violent types of speech they claim to forbid. And when intimidation is dressed up as political speech, and public figures are involved, they appear especially paralyzed.

Social media-savvy Far Right groups grokked this loophole long ago (see: Gamergate for a rough start date); and are continuing to exploit default inaction to get on with the violent business of megaphoning hate in the meanwhile.

You could say platforms are being gamed but the money they make off of accelerated outrage makes them rather more complicit in the problem.

The irony is it’s free speech that suffers in such a thuggish and febrile atmosphere. Yet platforms remain complicit in its undoing; doing nothing to stop hate mongers turning hugely powerful high tech soapboxes into abuse funnels.

They do this by choosing to allow groups with fascist ideologies to operate freely until enough reports are filed and/or high level political attention frowns down on particular individuals that they’ll step in and act.

Facebook’s community standards claim it aims to prevent “real-world harm”. But with such a narrow prescription it’s failing spectacularly to prevent deliberate, malicious and co-ordinated harassment campaigns that are designed to sew social division and upend constructive conversation, replacing the hard won social convention of robust political debate with mindless jeering and threats. This is not progress.

There’s nothing healthy for society or speech if mainstream platforms sit on their hands while abusive users bludgeon, bully and bend public debate into a peculiarly intolerant shape.

But we’re still waiting for the tech giants to have that revelation. And in the meanwhile they’re happy to let you watch a live streamed glimpse of mob rule.

Zuckerberg’s 2019 resolution: a bunch of ‘public discussions’ about Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg knows he has some work to do. 

The Facebook CEO had a rough 2018, both personally and professionally, with lawmakers turning on his social-media baby and scandal after scandal after scandal

But he's ready to turn that all around. Following his long-established tradition of declaring annual "personal challenges," Zuckerberg announced on Jan. 8 that's he's figured out how to do it: by hosting public discussions about all the problems  Facebook has helped to create. 

And if his past personal challenge of visiting every U.S. state is any indication, those discussions will likely be highly produced public relations affairs designed to make Zuckerberg look like he is really interested in cleaning up the mess he made.  Read more...

More about Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, Social Media, Tech, and Social Media Companies

Zuckerberg’s 2019 challenge is to hold public talks on tech & society

Rather than just focus on Facebook’s problems like his 2018 challenge, this year Mark Zuckerberg wants to give transparency to his deliberations and invite the views of others. Today he announced his 2019 challenge will be “to host a series of public discussions about the future of technology in society — the opportunities, the challenges, the hopes, and the anxieties.” He plans to hold the talks with different leaders, experts, and community members in a variety of formats and venues, though they’ll all be publicly viewable from his Facebook and Instagram accounts or traditional media.

This isn’t the first time Zuckerberg has held a series of public talks. He ran community Q&A sessions in 2014 and 2015 to take questions directly from his users. The idea for Facebook Reactions for expressing emotions beyond “Likes” first emerged during those talks.

From his initial framing of the 2019 challenge, though, it already sounds like Zuckerberg sees more Facebook as the answer to many of the issues facing society. He asks “There are so many big questions about the world we want to live in and technology’s place in it. Do we want technology to keep giving more people a voice, or will traditional gatekeepers control what ideas can be expressed? Should we decentralize authority through encryption or other means to put more power in people’s hands? In a world where many physical communities are weakening, what role can the internet play in strengthening our social fabric?”

The implied answers there are “people should have a voice through Facebook”, “people should use Facebook’s encrypted chat app WhatsApp”, and “people should collaborate through Facebook Groups”. Hopefully the talks will also address how too much social media can impact polarization, self-image, and focus.

[Update: Zuckerberg asked me in the comments of his posts for some format and speaker suggestions. My ideas include:

  • A formal debate between him and a civil but pointed critic.
  • An independent moderator asking him questions with no pre-brief and/or selecting questions from public submissions.
  • A talk where he’s challenged to never say the word “Facebook” while discussing larger issues facing society & technology.
  • A mythbusting talk where he addresses the biggest Facebook conspiracy theories. An open discussion between him and Jack Dorsey.
  • A referendum where he asks or is asked questions where the public can select from multiple choice answers, with him then discussing the publicly visible tallies.
  • A discussion with an early employee like Ruchi Sanghvi, Leah Pearlman, or Naomi Gleit about how Facebook’s culture and priorities have changed
  • A talk with Bill Gates and Warren Buffet on longitudinal approaches to philanthropy
  • A roundtable with high-achieving high school students about the next generation’s concerns about privacy and the internet
  • A talk with the heads of Messenger (Stan Chudnovsky), Instagram (Adam Mosseri), and WhatsApp (Chris Daniels) about how the arms of the company work together.
  • A panel with top Facebook Group and Page admins about what the app’s most dedicated users want from the product.]

It nice that one of the de facto leaders of the world will shed more light on his thoughts. But given Zuckerberg is prone to sticking to his talking points, the public would benefit from talks held by moderators who don’t give the CEO all the questions ahead of time.

Hearing Zuckerberg’s candid thoughts on the inherent trade-offs of “bringing the world closer together” or “making the world more open and connected” could help users determine whose interests he has at heart.

Zuckerberg’s past challenges have been:

2009 – Wear a neck tie every day

2010 – Learn Mandarin Chinese

2011 – Only eat animals he killed himself

2012 – Write code every day

2013 – Meet a new person who isn’t a Facebook employee every day

2014 – Write a thank-you note every day

2015 – Read a new book every two weeks

2016 – Build an artificial intelligence home assistant like Iron Man’s Jarvis

2017 – Visit all 50 states he hadn’t already to meet and talk to people

2018 – Fix Facebook’s problems

Workplace, Facebook’s enterprise platform, adds another major customer, Nestle

While Facebook continues to repair its image with consumers disenchanted with the social network’s role in disseminating misleading or false information and mishandling their personal data, it’s ironically been finding some traction for its enterprise-focused service, Workplace. Today, the company announced that it has added another huge company to its books today: Nestle, the coffee, chocolate and FMCG giant with 2,000 brands and 240,000 employees, has signed up as its latest customer.

Facebook’s enterprise service competes against the likes of Microsoft Teams, Slack and smaller players like Crew and Zinc, among many others in a crowded market of mobile and desktop apps built to address a growing interest among organizations to have more user-friendly, modern ways for their employees to communicate.

Workplace positions itself as different from its competitors in a couple of different ways: it says its communications platform is designed for all different employment demographics, covering so-called knowledge workers (the traditional IT customer) as well as waged and front-line employees; but it also claims to be the most democratic of the pack, by virtue of being a Facebook product, designed for mass market use from the ground up.

In the workplace, that translates to apps that do not require company email addresses or company devices to use; a strong proportion of employees at Workplace’s bigger customers, such as Walmart (2.2 million employees) and Starbucks (nearly 240,000 employees) do not sit at desks and, until relatively recently, would not have been using any kind of PC or phone on a regular basis on any average day.

But as smartphones have become as ubiquitous as having your keys and wallet, acceptance of having them and utilising them to communicate workplace-related information has changed, and that is the wave that services like Workplace are hoping to ride.

But despite the strong engine that is Facebook behind it, Workplace has a lot of challenges up ahead.

The company has not updated its total number of customers in over a year at this point — its last milestone was 30,000 customers, back in November 2017 — and today Facebook VP Julien Codorniou said that the company might put out a more updated number later this year.

“We’re not using that metric to communicate our success,” he said, “but we have to communicate growth, I feel the demand from the market.” Slack claims 500,000 organizations, over 70,000 of which pay; Teams from Microsoft has some 329,000 customers, the company says.

There is also the issue of how a customer win is actually translating to usage. Last month, a much smaller competitor, Crew, with 25,000 customers, noted that at least some of them were in fact those that Workplace was claiming to have secured.

“Starbucks is theoretically using Workplace, but it’s been deployed only to managers,” Crew CEO Danny Leffel told me. “We have almost 1,000 Starbucks locations using Crew. We knew we had a huge presence there, and we were worried when Facebook won them, but we haven’t seen even a dent in our business so far.”

Codorniou said that this also doesn’t tell the full story. He describes the approach that Crew and others take as “shadow IT” in that the companies don’t talk to central HQ when winning the business. “You can’t give a voice to everyone by going in through the back,” he said. He also contends that it just takes time to deploy something across a massive business. “Workplace only works if you get 100 percent of the company using it,” he added. Notably, today Facebook announced that Nestle has already onboarded 210,000 customers to Workplace.

There is also the bigger question of how these products will develop technically to further differentiate from the pack. For now, it feels like Slack still reigns supreme when it comes to desktop knowledge worker functionality — even without usefully threaded comments — because of the fact that you can integrate virtually any other app you might want to into its platform.

Crew, meanwhile, has differentiated by focusing on providing handy tools to help businesses managing scheduling for shift workers, who comprise the majority of its user base.

While others like Teams, and yes, Workplace, have also added in integrations and their own functionality — Workplace’s most interesting features, I think, are how it has translated consumer-Facebook features like Live into the Workplace environment. But there is still a lot of space for apps to consider what other features and functionality will be most useful and stick for the most employees and for the business customer at large.

It will be interesting to see how and if this is affected by way of a key leadership appointment. Last month, Facebook appointed a new “head” of Workplace, Karandeep Anand, who came to Facebook three years ago from Microsoft (and thus has a close understanding of enterprise software). Codorniou said Anand be relocating to London, where Workplace is developed, and will focus on the technical development of the product while Codorniou focuses on sales, client relations and business development.

Technical leadership for Workplace had previously come straight from CTO Mike Schroepfer, Codorniou said. “We decided that we needed someone full time, here in London,” he said.

It’s not clear if Workplace’s win at Nestle is replacing another product: it seems, however, that it is more likely a trend of how more businesses are making an investment in company-wide communications platforms where they may never have had one before, in hopes of it helping keep employees switched on, linked up, and generally more happy and feeling less like expendable cogs.

“Nestlé is a people-first environment,” said EVP Chris Johnson, in a statement. “We really rely on our talented teams to manage more than 2,000 Nestlé brands worldwide. We help our employees develop and we give them the right tools, so Workplace is a perfect fit.”

Mark Zuckerberg pats himself on the back for a great 2018

It's the end of the year, and for many of us that means taking a moment to reflect on decisions past. For Mark Zuckerberg, however, it means taking a moment to bask in your manifold and unqualified successes. 

The Facebook CEO published a roughly 1,000-word post on Dec. 28 detailing his company's various wins over the course of 2018 that, while admittedly helpfully informing the most oblivious of readers that there is still work to be done, seems completely at odds with how the rest of the world views Facebook's 2018. Namely, that it was an unmitigated disaster. 

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