Netflix launches free plan in Kenya to boost growth

Netflix said on Monday it is launching a free mobile plan in Kenya as the global streaming giant looks to tap the East African nation that is home to over 20 million internet users.

The free plan, which will be rolled out to all users in Kenya in the coming weeks, won’t require them to provide any payment information during the sign-up, the company said. The new plan is available to any user aged 18 or above with an Android phone, the company said. It will also not include ads.

Netflix, available in over 190 countries, has experimented with a range of plans in recent years to lure customers in developing markets. For instance, it began testing a $3 mobile-only plan in India in 2018 — before expanding it to users in several other countries.

This is also not the first time Netflix is offering its service for free — or at little to no price. The company has previously supported free trials in many markets, offered a tiny portion of its original movies and shows to non-subscribers, and has run at least one campaign in India when the service was available at no charge over the course of a weekend.

But its latest offering in Kenya is still remarkable. The company told Reuters that it is making about one quarter of its movies and television shows catalog available to users in the free plan in the East African nation.

“If you’ve never watched Netflix before — and many people in Kenya haven’t — this is a great way to experience our service,” Cathy Conk, Director of Product Innovation at Netflix, wrote in a blog post.

“And if you like what you see, it’s easy to upgrade to one of our paid plans so you can enjoy our full catalog on your TV or laptop as well.”

The company didn’t disclose how long it plans to offer this free tier in Kenya — and whether it is considering expanding this offering to other markets.

On its past earnings calls, Netflix executives have insisted that they study each market and explore ways to make their service more compelling to all. The ability to sign up without a payment information lends credibility to such claims. Many individuals in developed countries don’t have a credit or debit card, which renders services requiring such payment instruments at the sign-up inaccessible to them.

The new push to win customers comes as the company, which is also planning to add mobile games to its offering, added only 1.5 million net paying subscribers in the quarter that ended in June this year, lower than what it had forecast. Netflix, which has amassed over 209 million subscribers, as well as Amazon Prime Video and other streaming services are increasingly trying to win customers outside of the U.S. to maintain faster growth rates.

Earlier this year, Amazon introduced a free and ad-supported video streaming service within its shopping app in India to tap more customers.

#africa, #amazon, #amazon-prime-video, #apps, #kenya, #media, #mobile, #netflix

Big tech companies snap up smaller rivals at record pace

An FTC study showed how big Silicon Valley companies bought startups to eliminate future competitors.

Enlarge / An FTC study showed how big Silicon Valley companies bought startups to eliminate future competitors. (credit: Aurich Lawson | Getty Images)

The world’s largest technology companies have snapped up smaller rivals at a record pace this year in a buying spree that comes as US politicians and regulators prepare to crack down on “under the radar” deals.

Data from Refinitiv analyzed by the Financial Times show that tech companies have spent at least $264 billion buying up potential rivals worth less than $1 billion since the start of 2021—double the previous record registered in 2000 during the dotcom boom.

The glut of acquisitions comes amid much tougher scrutiny from the White House, regulators and members of Congress, who have accused large technology companies—particularly Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft—of stifling competition and harming consumers.

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#amazon, #antitrust, #apple, #facebook, #ftc, #google, #microsoft, #policy, #us

Equity Monday: A global selloff to kick off Disrupt week

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This is Equity Monday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest private market news, talks about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here. I also tweet.

A few things this morning:

  • I shook up the show format a little, including how the script came together and how it was organized. Hit me up on Twitter if you have notes.
  • Disrupt is this week, so strap thyself in for the best tech event of the year, coming to your living room. The Equity team is hosting — between the group of us — a zillion panels and one of the two stages. Come hang out with us. It’s going to be on heck of a show.

It’s going to be a very busy few days. Pour some extra coffee, and get hype.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 a.m. PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

#amazon, #cars24, #china, #debt, #equity-monday, #equity-podcast, #evergrande, #fundings-exits, #india, #markets, #ovhcloud, #startups, #stocks

Roku debuts new Streaming Stick 4K bundles, software update with voice and mobile features

Weeks after Amazon introduced an updated Fire TV lineup that included, for the first time, its own TVs, Roku today is announcing its own competitive products in a race to capture consumers’ attention before the holiday shopping season. Its updates include a new Roku Streaming Stick 4K and Roku Streaming Stick 4K+ — the latter which ships with Roku’s newer hands-free voice remote. The company is also refreshing the Roku Ultra LT, a Walmart-exclusive version of its high-end player. And it announced the latest software update, Roku OS 10.5, which adds updated voice features, a new Live TV channel for home screens, and other minor changes.

The new Streaming Stick 4K builds on Roku’s four-year-old product, the Streaming Stick+, as it offers the same type of stick form factor designed to be hidden behind the TV set. This version, however, has a faster processor which allows the device to boot up to 30% faster and load channels more quickly, Roku claims. The Wi-Fi is also improved, offering faster speeds and smart algorithms that help make sure users get on the right band for the best performance in their homes where network congestion is an increasingly common problem  — especially with the pandemic-induced remote work lifestyle. The new Stick adds support for Dolby Vision and HDR 10+, giving it the “4K” moniker.

This version ships with Roku’s standard voice remote for the same price of $49.99. For comparison, Amazon’s new Fire TV Stick Max with a faster processor and speedier Wi-Fi is $54.99. However, Amazon is touting the addition of Wi-Fi 6 and support for its game streaming service, Luna, as reasons to upgrade.

Roku’s new Streaming Stick 4K+ adds the Roku Voice Remote Pro to the bundle instead. This is Roku’s new remote, launched in the spring, that offers rechargeability, a lost remote finder, and hands-free voice support via its mid-field microphone, so you can just say things like “hey Roku, turn on the TV,” or “launch Netflix,” instead of pressing buttons. Bought separately, this remote is $29.99. The bundle sells for $69.99, which translates to a $10 discount over buying the stick and remote by themselves.

Image Credits: Roku

Both versions of the Streaming Stick will be sold online and in stores starting in October.

The Roku Ultra LT ($79.99), built for Walmart exclusively, has also been refreshed with a faster processor, more storage, a new Wi-Fi radio with up to 50% longer range, support for Dolby Vision, Bluetooth audio streaming, and a built-in ethernet port.

Plus, Roku notes that TCL will become the first device partner to use the reference designs it introduced at CES for wireless soundbars, with its upcoming Roku TV wireless soundbar. This device connects over Wi-Fi to the TV and works with the Roku remote, and will arrive at major retailers in October where it will sell for $179.99.

The other big news is Roku’s OS 10.5 software release. The update isn’t making any dramatic changes this time around, but is instead focused largely on voice and mobile improvements.

The most noticeable consumer-facing change is the ability to add a new Live TV channel to your home screen which lets you more easily launch The Roku Channel’s 200+ free live TV channels, instead of having to first visit Roku’s free streaming hub directly, then navigate to the Live TV section. This could make the Roku feel more like traditional TV for cord-cutters abandoning their TV guide for the first time.

Other tweaks include expanded support for launching channels using voice commands, with most now supported; new voice search and podcast playback with a more visual “music and podcast” row and Spotify as a launch partner; the ability to control sound settings in the mobile app; an added Voice Help guide in settings; and additional sound configuration options for Roku speakers and soundbars (e.g. using the speaker pairs and soundbar in a left/center/right) or in full 5.1 surround sound system).

A handy feature for entering in email and passwords in set-up screens using voice commands is new, too. Roku says it sends the voice data off-device to its speech-to-text partner, and the audio is anonymized. Roku doesn’t get the password or store it, as it goes directly to the channel partner. While there are always privacy concerns with voice data, the addition is a big perk from an accessibility standpoint.

Image Credits: Roku

One of the more under-the-radar, but potentially useful changes coming in OS 10.5 is an advanced A/V sync feature that lets you use the smartphone camera to help Roku make further refinements to the audio delay when using wireless headphones to listen to the TV. This feature is offered through the mobile app.

The Roku mobile app in the U.S. is also gaining another feature with the OS 10.5 update with the addition of a new Home tab for browsing collections of movies and shows across genres, and a “Save List, which functions as a way to bookmark shows or movies you might hear about — like when chatting with friends — and want to remember to watch later when you’re back home in front of the TV.

The software update will roll out to Roku devices over the weeks ahead. It typically comes to Roku players first, then rolls out to TVs.

#amazon, #amazon-fire-tv, #apple-tv-app, #computing, #digital-media-players, #ethernet, #gadgets, #hardware, #internet-radio, #internet-television, #luna, #media, #mobile, #netflix, #now, #roku, #smartphone, #speaker, #spotify, #telecommunications, #united-states, #voice-search, #walmart, #wi-fi, #wireless-headphones, #wireless-soundbar

Flippa raises $11M to match online asset and business buyers, sellers

Flippa, an online marketplace to buy and sell online businesses and digital assets, announced its first venture-backed round, an $11 million Series A, as it sees over 600,000 monthly searches from investors looking to connect with business owners.

OneVentures led the round and was joined by existing investors Andrew Walsh (former Hitwise CEO), Flippa co-founders Mark Harbottle and Matt Mickiewicz, 99designs, as well as new investors Catch.com.au founders Gabby and Hezi Leibovich; RetailMeNot.com founders Guy King and Bevan Clarke; and Reactive Media founders Tim O’Neill and Tim Fouhy.

The company, with bases in both Austin and Australia, was started in 2009 and facilitates exits for millions of online business owners that operate on e-commerce marketplaces, blogs, SaaS and apps, the newest being Shopify, Blake Hutchison, CEO of Flippa, told TechCrunch.

He considers Flippa to be “the investment bank for the 99%,” of small businesses, providing an end-to end platform that includes a proprietary valuation product for businesses — processing over 4,000 valuations each month — and a matching algorithm to connect with qualified buyers.

Business owners can sell their companies directly through the platform and have the option to bring in a business broker or advisor. The company also offers due diligence and acquisition financing from Thrasio-owned Yardline Capital and a new service called Flippa Legal.

“Our strategy is data,” Hutchison said. “Users can currently connect to Stripe, QuickBooks Online, WooCommerce, Google Analytics and Admob for apps, which means they can expose their online business performance with one-click, and buyers can seamlessly assess financial and operational performance.”

Online retail, as a share of total retail sales, grew to 19.6% in 2020, up from 15.8% in 2019, driven largely by the global pandemic as sales shifted online while brick-and-mortar stores closed.

Meanwhile, Amazon has 6 million sellers, and Shopify sellers run over 1 million businesses. This has led to an emergence of e-commerce aggregators, backed by venture capital dollars, that are scooping up successful businesses to grow, finding many through Flippa’s marketplace, Hutchison said.

Flippa has over 3 million registered users and added 300,000 new registered users in the past 12 months. Overall transaction volume grows 100% year over year. Though being bootstrapped for over a decade, the company’s growth and opportunity drove Hutchison to go after venture capital dollars.

“There is a huge movement toward this being recognized as an asset class,” he said. “At the moment, the asset class is undervalued and driving a massive swarm as investors snap up businesses and aggregate them together. We see the future of these aggregators becoming ‘X company for apps’ or ‘X for blogs.’ ”

As such, the new funding will be used to double the company’s headcount to more than 100 people as it builds out its offices globally, as well as establishing outposts in Melbourne, San Francisco and Austin. The company will also invest in marketing and product development to scale its business valuation tool that Hutchison likens to the “Zillow Zestimate,” but for online businesses.

Nigel Dews, operating partner at OneVentures, has been following Flippa since it started. His firm is one of the oldest venture capital firms in Australia and has 30 companies in its portfolio focused on healthcare and technology.

He believes the company will create meaningful change for small businesses. The team combined with Flippa’s ability to connect buyers and sellers puts the company in a strong leadership position to take advantage of the marketplace effect.

“Flippa is an incredible opportunity for us,” he added. “You don’t often get a world-leading business in a brand new category with incredible tailwinds. We also liked that the company is based in Australia, but half of its revenue comes from the U.S.”

#advertising-tech, #amazon, #artificial-intelligence, #blake-hutchison, #ecommerce, #enterprise, #flippa, #funding, #mark-harbottle, #matt-mickiewicz, #nigel-dews, #oneventures, #online-marketplace, #online-retail, #recent-funding, #saas, #shopify, #startups, #tc

Amazon bets on Hindi voice shopping to reach wider India

Speaking of Amazon — which is reportedly conducting an investigation to find whether its lawyers bribed government officials in India — the company announced today it plans to roll out the voice shopping experience feature in the Hindi language in the South Asian market ahead of the Diwali festival in early November.

The e-commerce giant, which rolled out the voice shopping experience in English last year, said the feature in the Hindi language — which will roll out in “coming weeks” — will enable users to search for products and check their order status using voice commands such as “joote dikhao,” which is Hindi for ‘show me shoes.’

Only 10% of India’s 1.3 billion people speak English. And in recent years, voice search has dramatically surged in India as many new internet users find it difficult to type on virtual keyboards. Scores of tech companies — including Amazon’s rival, Flipkart — have in recent years made push to add support for more regional languages, or introduce support for voice queries — and in some cases, do both.

Amazon’s voice shopping experience will be available to only Android users, the company said.

“Since the launch of voice shopping in 2020, we are humbled to see by the adoption of voice by Amazon.in customers to fulfil their shopping needs has grown by 2X year-on-year. We will continue to focus on bringing new features for our customers on voice to make their shopping experience exciting and fulfilling,” said Kishore Thota, Director of Customer Experience and Marketing at Amazon India, in a statement.

The new rollout is part of a broader localization push from the company. Amazon said today that its website and apps are now also available in Marathi and Bengali. The website already supports five additional regional languages — Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu.

“Our aim with regional language shopping experience is to make ecommerce accessible, relevant and convenient for customers. Every month, tens of millions of customers visit Amazon.in in regional languages and 90% of the customers are from tier 2 and below cities. This festive season we are happy to expand the Amazon.in experience for our customers in Marathi and Bengali,” said Thota.

Indian news outlet The Ken reported last week that Amazon was also working on building a voice-based payments authentication system. The company declined to comment.

#amazon, #amazon-india, #apps, #asia, #ecommerce, #flipkart, #google, #india

Amazon starts probe over bribe to gov’t officials by its lawyers in India, report says

Amazon has launched an investigation into the conduct of its legal representatives in India following a complaint from a whistleblower who alleged that one or more of the company’s reps had bribed government officials, Indian news and analysis outlet the Morning Context reported on Monday.

The company is investigating whether legal fees financed by it was used for bribing government officials, the report said, which cited unnamed sources and didn’t identify government officials. Amazon has placed Rahul Sundaram, a senior corporate counsel, on leave, the report added.

In a statement to TechCrunch, an Amazon spokesperson said the company has “zero tolerance” for corruption.

“We take allegations of improper actions seriously, investigate them fully, and take appropriate action. We are not commenting on specific allegations or the status of any investigation at this time,” the spokesperson added.

India is one of the key overseas markets for Amazon. The American e-commerce firm has invested over $6.5 billion in its South Asian nation’s operations and aggressively expanded to multiple categories in recent years.

The new development comes months after Reuters reported that Amazon had secretly favored big sellers, misrepresented its ties with those firms, and used such arrangements to circumvent the South Asian nation’s foreign investment rules.

Amazon is also subject of an ongoing antitrust investigation in India. The company made an unsuccessful attempt to appeal against the investigation.

#amazon, #amazon-india, #asia, #government, #india

Google’s R&D division experiments with newsletters powered by Google Drive

Following entries into the newsletter market from tech companies like Facebook and Twitter, Google is now experimenting with newsletters, too. The company’s internal R&D division, Area 120, has a new project called Museletter, which allows anyone to publish a Google Drive file as a blog or newsletter to their Museletter public profile or to an email list.

The effort would essentially repurpose Google’s existing document-creation tools as a means of competing with other newsletter platforms, like Substack, Ghost, Revue, and others, which are today attracting a growing audience.

Google’s experiment was spotted this week by sites including 9to5Google and Android Police.

Reached for comment, an Area 120 spokesperson declined to share further details about Museletter, saying only that it was “one of the many experiments” within the R&D group and that “it’s still very early.”

From the Museletter website, however, there is already much that can be learned about the project. The site explains how Google Drive could be monetized by creators in a way that would allow Google’s newsletter project to differentiate itself from the competition. Not only could newsletters be written in a Google Doc, other productivity apps could also be used to share information with readers. For example, a newsletter creator could offer a paid subscription plan that would allow readers to access their Google Slides. A creator who writes about finance could publish helpful spreadsheets to Google Sheets, which would be available to their subscribers.

Image Credits: Google

To make this possible, Museletter publishers would create a public profile on their Google Drive, then publish any Google Drive file directly to it. This provides them with a landing page where they can market their subscriptions and showcase how many different Drive files they’ve made publically available across Docs, Sheets, and Slides.

Creators can also optionally publish to an email list — including a list brought in from other platforms. The newsletter subscriptions can be free or paid, depending on the creator’s preferences, but using Museletter itself will be free. Instead, the project aims to monetize with premium features like custom domains, welcome emails, and more.

The platform also promises tools and analytics to engage audiences and track the newsletter’s performance.

While the site doesn’t mention any plans for advertising, a success in this space could provide Google with a new ad revenue stream — and one that arrives at a time when the tech giant’s multi-billion dollar advertising market has a new challenger in the form of Amazon, whose own ad business could eventually challenge the Facebook-Google duopoly.

Google didn’t say when it plans to launch Museletter, but the website is offering a link to a form where users can request early access.

#amazon, #android, #area-120, #computing, #creators, #finance, #google, #google-sheeets, #google-slides, #google-docs, #google-drive, #media, #news, #newsletter, #newsletters, #publish, #publishers, #rd, #substack, #world-wide-web

Sustainable e-commerce startup Olive now ships beauty products, in addition to apparel

Earlier this year, a startup called Olive launched its new shopping site and app with the goal of making e-commerce more efficient, convenient, and sustainable by offering a way for consumers to aggregate their orders from across retailers into single shipments that arrive in reusable packaging, not cardboard. If items need to be returned, those same packages are reused. Otherwise, Olive will return to pick them up. Since its February 2021 debut, the company has grown to include over 100 retailers, predominately in the fashion space. Today, it’s expanding again by adding support for another 25 beauty retailers.

Launch partners on the new effort include brands like Supergoop!, Kora Organics, Pai Skincare, Erno Laszlo, Jecca Blac, Sahajan, Clark’s Botanicals, NuFace, Purlisse, Cover FX, LYS Beauty, SiO Beauty, Peace Out Skincare, Koh Gen Do, Julep Beauty, In Common Beauty, Indie Lee, Glow Recipe, Ursa Major, RMS Beauty, Ceremonia, Sweet Chef, Follain, and BalmLabs.

They join Olive’s numerous apparel and accessory retailers like Adidas, Superga, Rag & Bone, Birdies, Vince, Goop, Khaite, and Veronica Beard, among others.

To support the expansion, Olive also developed a new set of reusable packaging that has protective elements for more damageable items. While before, the company had offered a variety of packages like soft-sided garment bags and various sizes of more rigid containers (see below), it’s now introducing its own alternative to the air bubble strips you’ll find in most Amazon boxes these days. Olive’s version is integrated into its reusable packaging and can be easily deflated by the customer when it’s time to return the package at pickup.

Image Credits: Olive, founder Nate Faust

The idea for Olive is a timely one. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, e-commerce adoption has soared. But so has consumers’ guilt. Multiple packages land on doorsteps every week, with cardboard and plastic to recycle — if that’s even available in your area. Delivery trucks — Amazon, UPS, FedEx, and others — are now a daily spectacle on every city street. Meanwhile, market leaders like Amazon and Walmart seem largely interested in increasing the speed of delivery, not necessarily the efficiency and sustainability. (Amazon allows shoppers to pick an Amazon Day delivery, for consolidated shipments, but it’s opt-in.)

Olive founder Nate Faust says he was inspired to build the company after realizing how little interest there was from larger e-commerce players in addressing some of the inconveniences and inefficiencies in the market. Faust had previously served as a vice president at Quidsi (which ran Diapers.com and Soap.com and sold to Amazon), then co-founder and COO at Jet, which was acquired by Walmart for $3.3 billion. Before Olive, he was a senior vice president at Walmart.

After some soul searching, he realized he wanted to build something in the e-commerce space that was focused more on the social and environmental impact, not just on driving growth and consumption.

Image Credits: Olive

“I had an epiphany one evening when taking out the trash and recycling,” Faust explains. “It’s pretty crazy that we’re this far into e-commerce and this is the status quo delivery experience —  all this waste, which is both an environmental issue and a hassle for consumers,” he says. “And the bigger issue than the packaging is actually the fact that the majority of those packages are delivered one at a time, and those last-mile emissions are actually the biggest contributor of carbon emissions in the post-purchase e-commerce supply chain.”

Consumers may not think about all the issues, because many of them are hidden, but they do struggle in other ways beyond dealing with the waste. Returns are still a hassle — so much so, that Amazon now allows customers to go to Kohl’s where it’s partnered on in-store return kiosks that also help the brick-and-mortar retailer increase their own foot traffic.

Plus, consumers who shop from different sites have to set up online accounts over and over, entering in addresses and payment information many times, which is an annoyance. Olive offers the convenience of an Amazon-like one-stop-shop experience on that front.

Meanwhile, Olive addresses the return issue by allowing consumers to simply place their unwanted items back in Olive’s packaging then leave them on their doorstep or with the building’s doorman for return. It works with both the USPS and a network of local carriers to serve the customers in its current footprint, which is about 100 million U.S. consumers on both coasts.

While customers don’t have to deal with packaging, it hasn’t been entirely eliminated from the equation at this point. Olive today partners with retailers who ship packages to its own west coast and east coast warehouses, where they repackage them into the reusable containers to deliver to customers. Right now, that means Olive is responsible for the recycling issues. But it’s working with its brand partners to have them pack orders directly into the reusable packaging from the start — before shipping to Olive’s consolidation warehouses for delivery. Today, it has a few retailers on board with this effort, but it hopes that will eventually expand to include all partners.

The company generates revenue on an affiliate commission model, which works for now. But over time, it may need to evolve that business model over time, as its customer base and partnerships grow. At present, around 10,000 consumers have used Olive, ahead of any large-scale marketing and customer acquisition efforts on the startup’s part.

For now, New York-based Olive is growing its business by way of a fundraise of around $15 million from investors including Invus, Primary Venture Partners, and SignalFire.

#adidas, #amazon, #birdies, #diapers-com, #e-commerce, #east-coast, #ecommerce, #fedex, #goop, #kohls, #marketing, #nate-faust, #new-york, #online-shopping, #primary-venture-partners, #product-management, #quidsi, #retailers, #reuse, #soap-com, #startups, #united-states, #usps, #walmart, #west-coast

The network effect is anti-competitive

A U.S. federal judge last week struck down Apple rules restricting app developers from selling directly to customers outside the App Store.

Apple’s stock fell 3% on the news, which is being regarded as a win for small and midsize app developers because they’ll be able to build direct billing relationships with their customers. But Apple is just one of many Big Tech companies that dominate their sector.

The larger issue is how this development will impact Amazon, Facebook, Grubhub and other tech giants with online marketplaces that use draconian terms of service to keep their resellers subservient. The skirmish between Apple and small and midsize app developers is just a smaller battle in a much larger war.

App makers pay up to 30% on every sale they make on the Apple App Store. Resellers on Amazon pay a monthly subscription fee, a sales commission of 8% to 15%, fulfillment fees and other miscellaneous charges. Grubhub charges restaurants 15% of every order, a credit card processing fee, an order processing fee and a 10% delivery commission.

Like app developers, online resellers and social media influencers are all falling for the same big lie: that they can build a sustainable business with healthy margins on someone else’s platform. The reality is the App Store, online marketplaces and even social networks that dominate their sectors have the unilateral power to selectively deplatform and squeeze their users, and there’s not much to be done about it.

Healthy competition exists inside the App Store and among marketplace resellers and aspiring social media influencers. But no one seems to be talking about the real elephants in the room, which are the social networks and online marketplace providers themselves. In some respects, they’ve become almost like digital dictators with complete control over their territories.

It’s something every small and midsize business that gets excited about some new online service catering to their industry should be aware of because it directly impacts their ability to grow a stable business. The federal judge’s decision suggests the real goal in digital business is a direct billing relationship with the end user.

On the internet, those who are able to lead a horse to water and make them drink — outside the walled gardens of digital marketplace operators like Uber, Airbnb and Udemy — are the true contenders. In content and e-commerce, this is what most small and midsize companies don’t realize. Your own website or owned media, at a top-level domain that you control, is the only unfettered way to sell direct to end users.

Mobile app makers on Apple’s App Store, resellers on Amazon and aspiring content creators on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok are all subject to the absolute control of digital titans who are free to govern by their own rules with unchecked power.

For access to online marketplaces and social networks, we got a raw deal. We’re basically plowing their fields like digital sharecroppers. Resellers on Amazon are forced to split their harvest with a landlord who takes a gross percentage with no caps. Amassing followers on TikTok is building an audience that’s locked inside their venue.

These tech giants — all former startups that built their audiences from scratch — are free to impose and selectively enforce oppressive rules. If you’re a small fry, they can prohibit you from asking for your customer’s email address and deplatform you for skimming, but look the other way when Spotify and The New York Times do the same thing. Both were already selling direct and through the App Store prior to Friday’s ruling.

How is that competitive? Even after the ruling, Big Tech still gets to decide who they let violate their terms of service and who they deplatform. It’s not just their audience. It’s their universe, their governance, their rules and their enforcement.

In the 1948 court case United States v. Paramount Pictures, the Supreme Court ruled that film studios couldn’t own their own theaters because that meant they could exclusively control what movies were screened. They stifled competition by controlling what films made it to the marquee, so SCOTUS broke them up.

Today, social networks control what gets seen on their platforms, and with the push of a button, they can give the hook to whoever they want, whenever they want. The big challenge that the internet poses to capitalism is that the network effect is fundamentally anti-competitive. Winner-take-all markets dominated by tech giants look more like government-controlled than free-market economies.

On the one hand, the web gives us access to a global marketplace of buyers and sellers. On the other, a few major providers control the services that most people use to do business, because they don’t have the knowledge or resources to stand up a competitive website. But unless you have your own domain and good search visibility, you’re always in danger of being deplatformed and losing access to your customers or audience members with no practical recourse.

The network effect is such that once an online marketplace becomes dominant, it neutralizes the competitive market, because everyone gravitates to the dominant service to get the best deal. There’s an inherent conflict between the goals of a winner-takes-all tech company and the goals of a free market.

Dominant online marketplaces are only competitive for users. Meanwhile, marketplace providers operate with impunity. If they decide they want to use half-baked AI or offshore contractors to police their terms of service and shore up false positives, there’s no practical way for users to contest. How can Facebook possibly govern nearly 3 billion users judiciously with around 60,000 employees? As we’ve seen, it can’t.

For app makers, online resellers and creators, the only smart option is open source on the open web. Instead of relying on someone else’s audience (or software for that matter), you own your online destination powered by software like WordPress or Discord, and you never have to worry about getting squeezed when the founders go public or their platform gets bought by profit-hungry investment bankers. Only then can you protect your profit margins. And only then are the terms of service the laws of the land.

Politics aside, as former President Donald Trump’s deplatforming demonstrated, if you get kicked off Facebook and Twitter, there’s really nowhere else to go. If they want you out, it’s game over. It’s no coincidence Trump lost his Facebook and Twitter accounts on the same day the Republicans lost the Senate. If the GOP takes back the Senate, watch Trump get his social media accounts back. Social networks ward off regulators by appeasing the legislative majority.

So don’t get too excited about the new Amazon Influencer Program. If you want to build a sustainable digital business, you need an owned media presence powered by software that doesn’t rake commissions, have access to your customer contact information and has an audience that can’t be commandeered with an algorithm tweak.

#airbnb, #amazon, #apple, #apple-app-store, #apple-inc, #column, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #facebook, #online-marketplace, #opinion, #social, #social-media, #social-networks, #tc, #tiktok, #uber

Amazon partners with AXS to install Amazon One palm readers at entertainment venues

Amazon’s biometric scanner for retail, the Amazon One palm reader, is expanding beyond the e-commerce giant’s own stores. The company announced today it has acquired its initial third-party customer with ticketing company AXS, which will implement the Amazon One system at Denver, Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre as an option for contactless entry for event-goers.

This is the first time the Amazon One system will be used outside an Amazon-owned retail store, and the first time it’s used for entry into an entertainment venue. Amazon says it expects AXS to roll out the system to more venues in the future, but didn’t offer any specifics as to which ones or when.

At Red Rocks, guests will be able to associate their AXS Mobile ID with Amazon One at dedicated stations before they enter the amphitheatre, or they can enroll at a second station once inside in order to use the reader at future AXS events. The enrollment process takes about a minute and customers can choose to enroll either one or both palms. Once set up, ticketholders can use a dedicated entry line for Amazon One users.

“We are proud to work with Amazon to continue shaping the future of ticketing through cutting-edge innovation,” said Bryan Perez, CEO of AXS, in a statement. “We are also excited to bring Amazon One to our clients and the industry at a time when there is a need for fast, convenient, and contactless ticketing solutions. At AXS, we are continually deploying new technologies to develop secure and smarter ticketing offerings that improve the fan experience before, during, and after events,” he added.

Amazon’s palm reader was first introduced amid the pandemic in September 2020, as a way for shoppers to pay at Amazon Go convenience stores using their palm. To use the system, customers would first insert their credit card then hover their palm over the device to associate their unique palm print with their payment mechanism. After setup, customers could enter the store just by holding their palm above the biometric scanner for a second or so. Amazon touted the system as a safer, “contactless” means of payment, as customers aren’t supposed to actually touch the reader. (Hopefully, that’s the case, considering the pandemic rages on.)

On the tech side, Amazon One uses computer vision technology to create the palm signatures, it said.

In the months that followed, Amazon expanded the biometric system to several more stores, including other Amazon Go convenience stores, Amazon Go Grocery stores, and its Amazon Books and Amazon 4-star stores. This April, it brought the system to select Whole Foods locations. To encourage more sign-ups, Amazon even introduced a $10 promotional credit to enroll your palm prints at its supported stores.

When palm prints are linked to Amazon accounts, the company is able to collect data from customers’ offline activity to target ads, offers, and recommendations over time. And the data remains with Amazon until a customer explicitly deletes it, or if the customer doesn’t use the feature for at least two years.

While the system offers an interesting take on contactless payments, Amazon’s track record in this area has raised privacy concerns. The company had in the past sold biometric facial recognition services to law enforcement in the U.S. Its facial recognition technology was the subject of a data privacy lawsuit. And it was found to be still storing Alexa voice data even after users deleted their audio files.

Amazon has responded by noting its palm print images are encrypted and sent to a secure area built for Amazon One in the cloud where Amazon creates the customers’ palm signatures. It also has noted it allows customers to unenroll from either a device or from its website, one.amazon.com once all transactions have been processed.

#alexa, #amazon, #amazon-music, #ceo, #computer-vision-technology, #computing, #denver, #e-reader, #ecommerce, #facial-recognition, #privacy, #retail-store, #retailers, #technology, #united-states, #whole-foods

Sendoso nabs $100M as its corporate gifting platform passes 20,000 customers

Corporate gift services have come into their own during the Covid-19 pandemic by standing in as a proxy for other kinds of relationship building activities — office meetings, lunches, and hosting at events — that have traditionally been part and parcel of how people do business, but were no longer feasible during lockdowns, social distancing and offices closing their doors.

Now, Sendoso — a popular “end-to-end” gifting platform offering access to 30,000 products including corporate swag, regular physical gifts, gift cards and more; and then providing services like logistics, packing and sending to get those gifts to the recipients — is announcing $100 million of funding to capitalize on this shift, led by a big new investor.

New backer SoftBank, via its Vision Fund 2, is leading this latest Series C round of funding. Oak HC/FT, Struck Capital, Stage 2 Capital, Craft Ventures, Signia Venture Partners and Felicis Ventures — all previous investors — are also participating.

The company has been on a strong growth trajectory for years now, but it specifically saw a surge of activity as the pandemic kicked off. It now has more than 20,000 businesses signed up and using its services, particularly for sales and marketing outreach, but also to help shore up morale among employees.

“Everyone was stuck at home by themselves, saturated with emails,” said Kris Rudeegraap, the CEO of Sendoso, in an interview. “Having a personal connection to sales prospects, employees and others just meant more.” It has now racked up some 3 million gifts sent since launching in 2016.

Sendoso is not disclosing its valuation, but Rudeegraap hinted that it was four times higher than the startup’s Series B valuation from 2020. PitchBook estimates that to be $160 million, which would make the current valuation $640 million. The company has now raised over $150 million.

Rudeegraap said Sendoso will be using the funds in part to invest in a couple of areas. First, to hire more talent: it has 500 employees now and plans to grow that by 30% by the end of this year. And second, international expansion: it is setting up a European HQ in Dublin, Ireland to complement its main office in San Francisco.

Comcast, Kimpton Hotels, Thomson Reuters, Nasdaq and eBay are among its current customers — so this is in part to serve those customers’ global user bases, as well as to sign up new gifters. He estimated that the bigger market for corporate gifting is about $100 billion annually, so there is a lot to play for here.

The company was co-founded by Rudeegraap and Braydan Young (who is its chief alliances officer) on the back of a specific need Rudeegraap identified while working as a sales executive. Gifting is a very standard practice in the world of sales and marketing, but he was finding a lot of traction with potential and current customers by taking a personalized approach to this act.

“I was manually packing boxes, grabbing swag, coming up with handwritten notes,” he recalled. “It was inefficient, but it worked so well. So I dreamed up an idea: why not be able to click a button in Salesforce to do this automatically? Sometimes the best company is one that solves a pain point of your own.”

And this is essentially what Sendoso does. The startup’s platform integrates with a company’s existing marketing, sales and management software — Salesforce, HubSpot, SalesLoft among them — and then lets users use this to organize and order gifts through these channels, for example as part of larger sales, marketing or HR strategies. The gifts are wide-ranging, covering corporate swag, other physical presents, gift cards and more, and there are also integrations you can include to share gifting across teams of salespeople, to analyze the campaigns and more.

The Sendoso platform itself, meanwhile, positions itself as having the “marketplace selection and logistics precision of Amazon.com.” But Sendoso also believes it’s better than someone simply using Amazon.com itself since it ultimately takes a more personalized approach in how it presents the gift.

“There are a lot of things we do uniquely in terms of what we have built throughout our software, gifting options and logistics centre. We really personalize our gifts at scale with handwritten notes, special boxing, and more,” something that Amazon cannot do, he added. “We have built a lot of unique technology and logistics software that would make it hard for Amazon to compete.” He said that one of Sendoso’s integrations is actually with Amazon, so Sendoso users can order through there, but then the gift is first routed to Sendoso to be repackaged in a nicer way before being sent out.

At its heart, the startup has built a way of knitting together disparate work practices — some codified in software, and some based on human interactions and significantly more infused with randomness, emotion and ad hoc approaches — and built it all into a technology platform. The ability to scale what feels like an otherwise bespoke level of service is what has helped Sendoso gain traction not just with users, but investors, too:

“We believe Sendoso offers the most comprehensive end-to-end gifting platform in the market,” said Priya Saiprasad, a partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers. “Their platform includes a global marketplace of curated vendors, seamless integration with existing tools, global logistics, and deep analytics. As a result, Sendoso serves as the backbone to enterprises’ engagement programs with prospective customers, existing customers, employees and other key stakeholders. We’re excited to lead this Series C round to help Sendoso accelerate its vision.”

#amazon, #amazon-com, #business, #ceo, #comcast, #companies, #craft-ventures, #dublin, #ebay, #economy, #enterprise, #felicis-ventures, #funding, #gift, #gift-card, #giving, #hubspot, #ireland, #marketing, #partner, #salesforce, #salesloft, #san-francisco, #sendoso, #signia-venture-partners, #softbank, #softbank-group, #stage-2-capital, #struck-capital, #vision-fund

Amazon releases a Kindle software redesign to make navigation easier

Yeah, yeah, you don’t need to charge a real book — but you also don’t need to update a book’s software, and that’s also often true for Amazon’s Kindle, which rarely gets a software refresh. But now, our trusty Kindles remind us that they’re actually Wi-Fi connected, electronic devices capable of change as Amazon unveils a significant design upgrade for the first time in years.

To simplify navigation, the new look adds a two-tab bar to the bottom of the home screen, letting users easily toggle between the “home” and “library” screens. To access frequently used features, Kindle introduced an arrow on the top of the screen. When tapped, it reveals buttons to access airplane mode, bluetooth, dark mode, sync, or the rest of the settings menu. There’s also a brightness slider.

Amazon notified customers about the update on Friday and says it will roll out in the coming weeks, but many users with eligible devices — Kindle (8th Gen and above), Kindle Paperwhite (7th Gen and above), and Kindle Oasis — have already downloaded the upgrade. If you’re not sure what kind of Kindle you have, you can check here, but if your Kindle is from 2015 or later, you’re probably eligible. If your Kindle is connected to Wi-Fi, the update will install automatically, but you can manually download it here.

The company says it will continue to improve the home and library screens later this year — users will be able to swipe left on the home page to see recently read books from their library. Then, the library screen will introduce new filter and sort menus, a new collection view, and an interactive scroll bar.

Image Credits: Amazon

This is the biggest design update that Kindle has released since around 2016 — but if you noticed that the user interface felt outdated while you wrapped up your summer reading, now you know that Amazon noticed too.

#amazon, #e-readers, #hardware, #kindle

Amazon gives Kindle e-readers a rare user interface overhaul

Amazon’s Kindle e-readers get new software updates regularly, and they’re mostly of the nondescript, invisible “performance improvements and bug fixes” variety. But the most recent operating system update (version 5.13.7) is rolling out now, and it refreshes the device’s user interface for the first time since 2016 or so. Amazon says that redesigns for the Home and Library screens, which are mostly untouched in the current Kindle update, will be coming “later this year.”

The software update that enables the new interface began rolling out in August, but because Kindles only install updates automatically when they’re charging and connected to Wi-Fi, it will be a few weeks or months before all supported Kindles will have a chance to grab the update (mine only installed it over this past weekend). To help you navigate the changes, the gallery above gives a brief tour of everything that has changed.

The new update is available on most Kindles released in or after 2015, including the 7th- and 10th-generation Kindle Paperwhite, the 8th-, 9th-, and 10th-generation Kindle Oasis, and the 8th- and 10th-generation standard Kindle. Older “7th-generation” Kindle devices like 2014’s Kindle Voyage don’t appear to be supported. If your Kindle hasn’t installed the update, the link above will give you instructions for installing it manually.

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#amazon, #e-reader, #kindle, #tech

Rezilion raises $30M help security operations teams with tools to automate their busywork

Security operations teams face a daunting task these days, fending off malicious hackers and their increasingly sophisticated approaches to cracking into networks. That also represents a gap in the market: building tools to help those security teams do their jobs. Today, an Israeli startup called Rezilion that is doing just that — building automation tools for DevSecOps, the area of IT that addresses the needs of security teams and the technical work that they need to do in their jobs — is announcing $30 million in funding.

Guggenheim Investments is leading the round with JVP and Kindred Capital also contributing. Rezilion said that unnamed executives from Google, Microsoft, CrowdStrike, IBM, Cisco, PayPal, JP Morgan Chase, Nasdaq, eBay, Symantec, RedHat, RSA and Tenable are also in the round. Previously, the company had raised $8 million.

Rezilion’s funding is coming on the back of strong initial growth for the startup in its first two years of operations.

Its customer base is made up of some of the world’s biggest companies, including two of the “Fortune 10” (the top 10 of the Fortune 500). CEO Liran Tancman, who co-founded Rezilion with CTO Shlomi Boutnaru, said that one of those two is one of the world’s biggest software companies, and the other is a major connected device vendor, but he declined to say which. (For the record, the top 10 includes Amazon, Apple, Alphabet/Google, Walmart and CVS.)

Tancman and Boutnaru had previously co-founded another security startup, CyActive, which was acquired by PayPal in 2015; the pair worked there together until leaving to start Rezilion.

There are a lot of tools out in the market now to help automate different aspects of developer and security operations. Rezilion focuses on a specific part of DevSecOps: large businesses have over the years put in place a lot of processes that they need to follow to try to triage and make the most thorough efforts possible to detect security threats. Today, that might involve inspecting every single suspicious piece of activity to determine what the implications might be.

The problem is that with the volume of information coming in, taking the time to inspect and understand each piece of suspicious activity can put enormous strain on an organization: it’s time-consuming, and as it turns out, not the best use of that time because of the signal to noise ratio involved. Typically, each vulnerability can take 6-9 hours to properly investigate, Tancman said. “But usually about 70-80% of them are not exploitable,” meaning they may be bad for some, but not for this particular organization and the code it’s using today. That represents a very inefficient use of the security team’s time and energy.

“Eight of out ten patches tend to be a waste of time,” Tancman said of the approach that is typically made today. He believes that as its AI continues to grow and its knowledge and solution becomes more sophisticated, “it might soon be 9 out of 10.”

Rezilion has built a taxonomy and an AI-based system that essentially does that inspection work as a human would do: it spots any new, or suspicious, code, figures out what it is trying to do, and runs it against a company’s existing code and systems to see how and if it might actually be a threat to it or create further problems down the line. If it’s all good, it essentially whitelists the code. If not, it flags it to the team.

The stickiness of the product has come out of how Tancman and Boutnaru understand large enterprises, especially those heavy with technology stacks, operate these days in what has become a very challenging environment for cybersecurity teams.

“They are using us to accelerate their delivery processes while staying safe,” Tancman said. “They have strict compliance departments and have to adhere to certain standards,” in terms of the protocols they take around security work, he added. “They want to leverage DevOps to release that.”

He said Rezilion has generally won over customers in large part for simply understanding that culture and process and helping them work better within that: “Companies become users of our product because we showed them that, at a fraction of the effort, they can be more secure.” This has special resonance in the world of tech, although financial services, and other verticals that essentially leverage technology as a significant foundation for how they operate, are also among the startup’s user base.

Down the line, Rezilion plans to add remediation and mitigation into the mix to further extend what it can do with its automation tools, which is part of where the funding will be going, too, Boutnaru said. But he doesn’t believe it will ever replace the human in the equation altogether.

“It will just focus them on the places where you need more human thinking,” he said. “We’re just removing the need for tedious work.”

In that grand tradition of enterprise automation, then, it will be interesting to watch which other automation-centric platforms might make a move into security alongside the other automation they are building. For now, Rezilion is forging out an interesting enough area for itself to get investors interested.

“Rezilion’s product suite is a game changer for security teams,” said Rusty Parks, senior MD of Guggenheim Investments, in a statement. “It creates a win-win, allowing companies to speed innovative products and features to market while enhancing their security posture. We believe Rezilion has created a truly compelling value proposition for security teams, one that greatly increases return on time while thoroughly protecting one’s core infrastructure.”

#agile-software-development, #alphabet, #amazon, #apple, #articles, #artificial-intelligence, #automation, #ceo, #cisco, #computer-security, #crowdstrike, #cto, #cyactive, #devops, #ebay, #energy, #entrepreneurship, #europe, #financial-services, #funding, #google, #ibm, #jp-morgan-chase, #kindred-capital, #maryland, #microsoft, #paypal, #security, #software, #software-development, #startup-company, #symantec, #technology

With sales momentum, Bookshop.org looks to future in its fight with Amazon

If Gutenberg were alive today, he’d be a very busy angel investor.

With book sales booming during the COVID-19 lockdowns last year, the humble written word has suddenly drawn the limelight from VCs and founders. We’ve seen a whole cavalcade of new products and fundings, including algorithmic recommendation engine BingeBooks, book club startups like Literati and the aptly named BookClub, as well as streaming service Litnerd. There have also been exits and potential exits for Glose, LitCharts and Epic.

But the one company that has captured the imagination of a lot of readers has been Bookshop.org, which has become the go-to platform for independent local bookstores to build an online storefront and compete with Amazon’s juggernaut. The company, which debuted just as the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading in January 2020, rapidly garnered headlines and profiles of its founder Andy Hunter, an industrious publisher with a deep love for the reading ecosystem.

After a year and a half, how is it all holding up? The good news for the company is that even as customers are returning to retail including bookstores, Bookshop hasn’t seen a downturn. Hunter said that August sales this year were 10% higher than July’s, and that the company is on track to do about as many sales in 2021 as in 2020. He contextualized those figures by pointing out that in May, bookstore sales increased 130% year over year. “That means our sales are additive,” he said.

Bookshop now hosts 1,100 stores on its platform, and it has more than 30,000 affiliates who curate book recommendations. Those lists have become central to Bookshop’s offering. “You get all these recommendation lists from not just bookstores, but also literary magazines, literary organizations, book lovers, and librarians,” Hunter said.

Bookshop, which is a public-benefit corporation, earns money as all ecommerce businesses do, by moving inventory. But what differentiates it is that it’s fairly liberal in paying money to affiliates and to bookstores who join its Platform Seller program. Affiliates are paid 10% for a sale, while bookstores themselves take 30% of the cover price of sales they generate through the platform. In addition, 10% of affiliate and direct sales on Bookshop are placed in a profit-sharing pool which is then shared with member bookstores. According to its website, Bookshop has disbursed $15.8 million to bookstores since launch.

The company has had a lot of developments in its first year and a half of business, but what happens next? For Hunter, the key is to build a product that continues to engage both customers and bookstores in as simple a manner as possible. “Keep the Occam’s razor,” he says of his product philosophy. For every feature, “it’s going to add to the experience and not confuse a customer.”

That’s easier said than done, of course. “For me, the challenge now is to create a platform that is extremely compelling to customers, that does everything that booksellers want us to do, and to create the best online book buying and book selling experience,” Hunter said. What that often means in practice is keeping the product feeling “human” (like shopping in a bookstore) while also helping booksellers maximize their advantages online.

Bookshop.org CEO and founder Andy Hunter. Image Credits: Idris Solomon.

For instance, Hunter said the company has been working hard with bookstores to optimize their recommendation lists for search engine discovery. SEO isn’t exactly a skill you learn in the traditional retail industry, but it’s crucial online to stay competitive. “We now have stores that rank number one in Google for book recommendations from their book lists,” he said. “Whereas two years ago, all those links would have been Amazon links.” He noted that the company is also layering in best practices around email marketing, customer communications, and optimizing conversion rates onto its platform.

Bookshop.org offers tens of thousands of lists, which provide a more “human” approach to finding books than algorithmic recommendations.

For customers, a huge emphasis for Bookshop going forward is eschewing the algorithmic recommendation model popular among top Silicon Valley companies in lieu of a far more human-curated experience. With tens of thousands of affiliates, “it does feel like a buzzing hive of … institutions and retailers who make up the diverse ecosystem around books,” Hunter said. “They all have their own personalities [and we want to] let those personalities show through.”

There’s a lot to do, but that doesn’t mean dark clouds aren’t menacing on the horizon.

Amazon, of course, is the biggest challenge for the company. Hunter noted that the company’s Kindle devices are extremely popular, and that gives the ecommerce giant an even stronger lock-in that it can’t attain with physical sales. “Because of DRM and publisher agreements, it’s really hard to sell an ebook and allow someone to read it on Kindle,” he said, likening the nexus to Microsoft bundling Internet Explorer on Windows. “There is going to have to be a court case.” It’s true that people love their Kindles, but even “if you love Amazon… then you have to acknowledge that it is not healthy.”

I asked about whether he was worried about the number of startups getting funded in the books space, and whether that funding could potentially crowd out Bookshop. “The book club startups — they are going to succeed by putting books — and conversations about books — in front of the largest audience,” Hunter believes. “So that is going to make everyone succeed.” He is concerned though with the focus on “disruption” and says that “I do hope they succeed in a way that partners with independent bookstores and members of the community that exist.”

Ultimately, Hunter’s strategic concern isn’t directed to competitors or even the question of whether the book is dead (it’s not), but a more specific challenge: that today’s publishing ecosystem ensures that only the top handful of books succeed. Often dubbed “the midlist

problem,” Hunter is worried about the increasingly blockbuster nature of books these days. “One book will suck up most of the oxygen and most of the conversation or the top 20 books [while] great innovative works from young authors or diverse voices don’t get the attention they deserve,” he said. Bookshop is hoping that human curation through its lists can help to sustain a more vibrant book ecosystem than recommendation algorithms, which constantly push readers to the biggest winners.

As Bookshop heads into its third year of operations, Hunter just wants to keep the focus on humans and bringing the rich experience of browsing in a store to the online world. Ultimately, it’s about intentionality. “I really want people to understand that we are creating the future we live in with all of these small decisions about where we shop and how we shop and we should remain very conscious about how we deliberate about those,” he said. “I want Bookshop to be fun to shop at and not just a place to do your civil duty.”

#amazon, #bingebooks, #bookclub, #books, #ecommerce, #epic, #glose, #litcharts, #literati, #startups

China roundup: Tencent takes on sites trying to circumvent its age limits

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

The enforcement of China’s new gaming regulations is unfolding like a cat-and-mouse game, with the country’s internet giants and young players constantly trying to outsmart each other. Following Didi’s app ban, smaller ride-hailing apps are availing themselves of the potential market vacuum.

Tencent and young gamers

The Chinese saying “Where there is a policy, there is a countermeasure” nicely encapsulates what is happening in the country’s tightening regulatory environment for video games. This month, China enacted the strictest rules to date on playtime among underage users. Players under the age of 18 were startled, scrambling to find methods to overcome the three-hour-per-week quota.

Within days, gaming behemoth Tencent has acted to root out these workarounds. It sued or issued statements to over 20 online services selling or trading adult accounts to underage players, the company’s gaming department said in a notice on Weibo this week.

Children were renting these accounts to play games for two hours at a few dollars without having to go through the usual age verification checks. Such services “are a serious threat to the real-name gaming system and underage protection mechanism,” Tencent said, calling for an end to these practices.

Educational games

China has mainly been targeting games that are addiction-inducing or deemed “physically and mentally harmful” to minors. But what about games that are “good” for kids?

When Tencent and Roblox set up a joint venture in China in 2019, the speculation was that the creator-focused gaming platform would give Tencent a leg up in making educational games to inspire creativity or something that would help it align better with Beijing’s call for using tech to do more social good. As we wrote earlier:

Roblox’s marketing focus on encouraging “creativity” could sit well with Beijing’s call for tech companies to “do good,” an order Tencent has answered. Roblox’s Chinese website suggests it’s touting part of its business as a learning and STEM tool and shows it’s seeking collaborations with local schools and educators.

If Roblox can inspire young Chinese to design globally popular games, the Chinese authorities may start regarding it as a conduit for exporting Chinese culture and soft power. The gaming industry is well aware that aligning with Beijing’s interests is necessary for gaining support from the top. Indeed, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an organ for non-political spheres like the business community to “put forward proposals on major political and social issues,” said in June that video games are “an effective channel for China’s cultural exports.”

The case of Roblox will be interesting to watch for reading Beijing’s evolving attitude toward games for educational and export purposes.

Didi challengers

Didi has had many rivals over the years, but none has managed to threaten its dominance in China’s ride-hailing industry. But recently, some of its rivals are seeing a new opportunity after regulators banned new downloads of Didi’s app, citing cybersecurity concerns. Cao Cao Mobility appears to be one.

Cao Cao, a premium ride-hailing service under Chinese automaker Geely, announced this week a $589 million Series B raise. The round should give Cao Cao ammunition for subsidizing drivers and passengers. But amid the government’s spade of anti-competition crackdowns, internet platforms these days are probably less aggressive than Didi in its capital-infused growth phase around 2015.

The app ban seems to have had a limited effect on Didi so far. The app even saw a 13% increase in orders in July, according to the Ministry of Transport. While people who get new phones will not be able to download Didi, they still are able to access its mini app run on WeChat, which is ubiquitous in China and has a sprawling ecosystem of third-party apps. It’s unclear how many active users Didi has lost, but its rivals will no doubt have to shell out great incentives to lure the giant’s drivers and customers away.

DTC fast fashion

Venture capitalists are pouring money into China’s direct-to-consumer brands in the hope that the country’s supply chain advantage coupled with its pool of savvy marketers will win over Western consumers. July saw PatPat, a baby clothing brand, raise a sizable $510 million raise. This month, news came that up-and-coming DTC brand Cider, which makes Gen Z fast fashion in China and sells them in the U.S., has secured a $130 million Series B round at a valuation of over $1 billion. The news was first reported by Chinese tech news site 36Kr and we’ve independently confirmed it. 

DST Global led Cider’s new round, with participation also from the startup’s existing A16Z, an existing investor and Greenoaks Capital. Investors are clearly encouraged by Shein’s momentum around the world — its new download volume has surpassed that of Amazon in dozens of countries and is often compared side by side with industry behemoth Zara. Unlike a pure internet firm, export-oriented e-commerce has a notoriously long and complex value chain, from design, production, marketing and shipment to after-sales service. Shein’s story might have inspired many followers, but it won’t be easily replicated.

#amazon, #beijing, #china, #didi, #dst-global, #geely, #greenoaks-capital, #roblox, #shein, #tc, #tencent, #wechat

California Senate passes warehouse workers bill, taking aim at Amazon

Modern warehouse work sometimes unfolds within million-square-foot buildings, which some labor organizers say can make bathroom breaks “logistically impossible.”

Enlarge / Modern warehouse work sometimes unfolds within million-square-foot buildings, which some labor organizers say can make bathroom breaks “logistically impossible.” (credit: Jane Barlow | Getty Images)

Warehouse workers in California are one step closer to being able to pee in peace. Yesterday, the state Senate voted 26-11 to pass AB 701, a bill aimed squarely at Amazon and other warehousing companies that track worker productivity. The bill would prevent employers from counting health and safety law compliance—and yes, bathroom breaks—against warehouse workers’ productive time, which is increasingly governed by algorithms. The bill, which organizers call the first in the nation to address the future of algorithmic work, is now en route to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk for signature.

Although some observers expect Newsom to sign the bill given his record on other pro-worker legislation, such as AB 5, he has thus far remained mum on AB 701. When asked about his intentions, Newsom’s office demurred, saying only, “The bill will be evaluated on its merits when it reaches the governor’s desk.” (The governor is currently fending off a recall election, which takes place September 14.)

AB 701’s passage came as welcome news to advocates like Yesenia Barerra, a former seasonal Amazon worker who traveled to Sacramento to campaign for the bill, helping stage a mock assembly line on the steps of the state capitol. Barrera staffed the company’s Rialto, California, fulfillment center for five months until her termination in 2019. When she was hired, she didn’t realize the rigidity of the productivity system or the extent of Amazon’s camera- and barcode-based employee tracking matrix. She assumed only slackers got fired.

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#algorithms, #amazon, #labor, #policy, #workers

SpaceX calls Amazon’s protest of Starlink plan an irrelevant “diatribe”

Outside view of a warehouse with a large Amazon logo on the side of the building.

Enlarge / Amazon UK warehouse at Leeds Distribution Park on May 27, 2021, in Leeds, England. (credit: Getty Images | Nathan Stirk )

On Thursday, SpaceX called Amazon’s latest protest against Starlink plans an irrelevant “diatribe” that should be ignored by the Federal Communications Commission.

“Another week, another objection from Amazon against a competitor, yet still no sign of progress on Amazon’s own long-rumored satellite system,” SpaceX told the FCC in a filing. “In its latest diatribe, Amazon spends over six of eight pages on matters wholly irrelevant to the current proceeding or even matters currently before the commission.”

As we’ve reported, Amazon last month urged the FCC to reject SpaceX’s proposal for a next-generation version of Starlink that could include up to 30,000 broadband satellites. Amazon claims that SpaceX violated a rule against incomplete and inconsistent applications by submitting plans for “two mutually exclusive configurations” with “very different orbital parameters.”

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#amazon, #kuiper-systems, #policy, #spacex, #starlink

Amazon fights high warehouse turnover with offer of free college tuition

Adriana Ramirez packs items into envelopes at Amazon's Fulfillment Center on March 19, 2019, in Thornton, Colorado. The facility, which opened in July of 2018, is 855,000 square feet and employs over 1,500 people.

Enlarge / Adriana Ramirez packs items into envelopes at Amazon’s Fulfillment Center on March 19, 2019, in Thornton, Colorado. The facility, which opened in July of 2018, is 855,000 square feet and employs over 1,500 people. (credit: Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post)

As Amazon struggles to staff its warehouses, it’s joining other large employers by offering to pay for college tuition in an attempt to attract and retain hourly employees.

The e-commerce giant announced Thursday that it would be broadening its education benefits by offering more than 750,000 employees the opportunity to attend college or finish high school for free. Employees only have to work at the company for 90 days to be eligible, and if they leave, they do not have to reimburse Amazon for any tuition or fees paid during their time with the company.

Notably, it’s not a reimbursement program—Amazon is paying tuition and fees up front so employees don’t have to dip into savings to enroll. The company expects to roll out the new benefits in January. In addition to bachelor’s and associate’s degrees and GEDs, the program will cover English as a second language certifications. Amazon also announced skill training and apprenticeship programs for entry-level employees working in AWS and other IT positions.

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#amazon, #college, #education, #employee-benefits, #policy

Amazon launches its first self-branded smart TVs and a new 4K Fire TV Stick

Amazon on Thursday announced its first self-branded smart TVs and a new 4K streaming media player called the Fire TV Stick 4K Max.

The tech giant has previously partnered with Best Buy to sell various Toshiba and Insignia TVs that run Amazon’s Fire TV operating system. It has also launched TVs in India under its AmazonBasics brand.

Today, though, the company is unveiling two new TV lines of its own: a flagship Omni Series and a slightly more budget-friendly 4-Series. The announcement confirms a report from Insider last week.

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#4k-tvs, #alexa, #amazon, #fire-tv, #fire-tv-stick-4k-max, #omni-series, #tech

Amazon is releasing its own TVs with Alexa built in

This has felt like an inevitability at least since Amazon teamed with South Carolina-based Element Electronics to bring the world a 43-inch Amazon Fire TV Edition back in 2017. The company has also teamed with several third-party TV makers to build its popular voice assistant into sets, but today Amazon is taking things to the next level with the arrival of two new smart TVs, the Fire TV Omni Series and 4-Series.

The company is calling these the “first-ever Amazon-built smart TVs,” implying that they were purpose built, ground up, rather than slapping its voice technology into a set built and branded by another company.

The Fire TV Omni Series is the headliner — and more premium of the pair. Though, the price is still pretty low, as far as these things go, with a starting point of $410. That’s $40 cheaper than the aforementioned Amazon-branded Element system.

“Smart TVs have been around for decades, but we don’t think they’re really smart,” Amazon VP Daniel Rausch tells TechCrunch. “They’re not really that capable compared to what customers would love to get from them. More often than not, TVs present a passive experience. It can be complex and difficult to interact with. There are many heterogeneous devices and content experiences in our living rooms. And I think coordinating across all that is probably only grown in complexity for customers. We believe that with voice and ambient computing, TVs really have the potential to do so much more and to be so much smarter for customers.”

The company is entering a crowded space, with stiff competition from the likes of Samsung and LG (even if the seemingly decades-long rumors of an Apple Television have thus far proven fruitless). Naturally, the company is looking to distinguish itself with Alexa integration. The Omni set features far-field technology to use voice for a range of activities, from TV watching, to music and gaming.

The system features new integration with the recently rolled out Alexa conversations, offering a more natural way to ask the assistant things like “Alexa, what should I watch,” (that specific command won’t be out until later this year in a beta form), “Alexa, Play Something from Netflix,” (ditto, but for the fall) and the same feature for TikTok. The wildly popular social network launched on Fire TV in the U.K., Germany and France and is coming soon to North America. Now you can watch short videos on up to a 75-inch screen, if you’re so inclined.

Image Credits: Amazon

The Omni is available in 43-, 50-, 55-, 65- and 75-inch models, all with 4K resolution. There’s on-board support for HDR10, HLG and Dolby Digital Plus, while the larger two models sport Dolby Vision support. There doesn’t seem to be a ton of differences between the Omni and the cheaper 4-Series. The latter starts at $370 and comes in 43-, 50- and 55-inch sizes, again all in 4K. The biggest difference between the two lines appears to be that the 4-Series has near-field Alexa capabilities built into its remote, while the Omni has far-field directly built into the set.

The new TVs arrive next month.

Image Credits: Amazon

The TVs are joined by the new Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max. The $55 streaming stick offers a number of the above voice features, coupled with a quad-core 1.8GHz processer and 2GB of RAM, promising better performance. The stick supports WiFi 6 and, naturally, Amazon’s gaming service, Luna.

Probably the most surprising bit in all of this is the appearance of Pioneer’s name. Years after dropping its beloved plasma line due to low margins, the company is returning to the TV space with a new 4K set bundled with an Alexa remote. The 43-inch version is scheduled to arrive through Amazon and Best Buy in September, while a 50-inch version is set to arrive two months later.

Toshiba’s upcoming set, meanwhile, has far-field tech built in. That will come in 55-, 65- and 75-inch models and is set for a spring 2022 debut.

#alexa, #amazon, #fire-tv, #hardware, #pioneer, #toshiba

Amazon slams SpaceX, tells FCC that Musk-led companies are rule-breakers

Illustration of many satellites orbiting the Earth.

Enlarge / Artist’s impression of low Earth-orbit satellites like those launched by SpaceX and OneWeb. (credit: NOIRLab / NSF / AURA / P. Marenfeld)

In the ongoing battle between the two companies, Amazon fired back at SpaceX today at the Federal Communications Commission, claiming that the Starlink operator refuses to obey the rules and that it launches unjustified attacks on anyone who points out SpaceX’s rule-breaking.

“Whether it is launching satellites with unlicensed antennas, launching rockets without approval, building an unapproved launch tower, or re-opening a factory in violation of a shelter-in-place order, the conduct of SpaceX and other Musk-led companies makes their view plain: rules are for other people, and those who insist upon or even simply request compliance are deserving of derision and ad hominem attacks,” Amazon told the FCC.

Two weeks ago, Amazon urged the FCC to reject SpaceX’s proposal for the next-generation version of Starlink that could include up to 30,000 broadband satellites. Amazon claims that SpaceX violated a rule against incomplete and inconsistent applications by submitting plans for “two mutually exclusive configurations” with “very different orbital parameters.” SpaceX says it is pitching two possible configurations in case its preferred setup doesn’t work out and says this does not violate the FCC rule. SpaceX also told the FCC that Amazon frequently tries to hinder competitors to “compensate for Amazon’s failure to make progress of its own.”

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#amazon, #kuiper-systems, #policy, #spacex, #starlink

Real-time database platform SingleStore raises $80M more, now at a $940M valuation

Organizations are swimming in data these days, and so solutions to help manage and use that data in more efficient ways will continue to see a lot of attention and business. In the latest development, SingleStore — which provides a platform to enterprises to help them integrate, monitor and query their data as a single entity, regardless of whether that data is stored in multiple repositories — is announcing another $80 million in funding, money that it will be using to continue investing in its platform, hiring more talent and overall business expansion. Sources close to the company tell us that the company’s valuation has grown to $940 million.

The round, a Series F, is being led by Insight Partners, with new investor Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and previous backers Khosla Ventures, Dell Capital, Rev IV, Glynn Capital, and GV (formerly Google Ventures) also participating. The startup has to date raised $264 million, including most recently an $80 million Series E as recently as last December, just on the heels of rebranding from MemSQL.

The fact that there are three major strategic investors in this Series F — HPE, Dell and Google — may say something about the traction that SingleStore is seeing, but so too do its numbers: 300%+ increase in new customer acquisition for its cloud service and 150%+ year-over-year growth in cloud

Raj Verma, SingleStore’s CEO, said in an interview that its cloud revenues have grown by 150% year over year and now account for some 40% of all revenues (up from 10% a year ago). New customer numbers, meanwhile, have grown by over 300%.

“The flywheel is now turning around,” Verma said. “We didn’t need this money. We’ve barely touched our Series E. But I think there has been a general sentiment among our board and management that we are now ready for the prime time. We think SingleStore is one of the best kept secrets in the database market. Now we want to aggressively be an option for people looking for a platform for intensive data applications or if they want to consolidate databases to 1 from 3, 5 or 7 repositories. We are where the world is going: real-time insights.”

With database management and the need for more efficient and cost-effective tools to manage that becoming an ever-growing priority — one that definitely got a fillip in the last 18 months with Covid-19 pushing people into more remote working environments. That means SingleStore is not without competitors, with others in the same space including Amazon, Microsoft, Snowflake, PostgreSQL, MySQL, Redis and more. Others like Firebolt are tackling the challenges of handing large, disparate data repositories from another angle. (Some of these, I should point out, are also partners: SingleStore works with data stored on AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform, and Red Hat, and Verma describes those who do compute work as “not database companies; they are using their database capabilities for consumption for cloud compute.”)

But the company has carved a place for itself with enterprises and has thousands now on its books, including GE, IEX Cloud, Go Guardian, Palo Alto Networks, EOG Resources, and SiriusXM + Pandora.

“SingleStore’s first-of-a-kind cloud database is unmatched in speed, scale, and simplicity by anything in the market,” said Lonne Jaffe, managing director at Insight Partners, in a statement. “SingleStore’s differentiated technology allows customers to unify real-time transactions and analytics in a single database.” Vinod Khosla from Khosla Ventures added that “SingleStore is able to reduce data sprawl, run anywhere, and run faster with a single database, replacing legacy databases with the modern cloud.”

#amazon, #aws, #ceo, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #computing, #database, #database-management, #enterprise, #funding, #glynn-capital, #google-cloud-platform, #google-ventures, #hewlett-packard-enterprise, #khosla-ventures, #lonne-jaffe, #memsql, #microsoft, #mysql, #palo-alto-networks, #postgresql, #red-hat, #redis, #series-e, #singlestore, #snowflake, #vinod-khosla

Amazon’s cashierless ‘Just Walk Out’ tech is coming to Whole Foods stores

After launching it in Go stores and then bringing it to larger Freshsupermarkets, Amazon’s cashierless “Just Walk Out” tech will soon arrive in two Whole Foods locations. The service, which lets you pick up goods from shelves and (yep) just walk out, is coming to new stores in Washington DC and Sherman Oaks, California next year, the company announced.

“By collaborating with Amazon to introduce Just Walk Out shopping at these two Whole Foods Market stores, our customers will be able to… save time by skipping the checkout line,” said Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey.

As we’ve detailed previously, Just Walk Out uses computer vision, sensors and AI to let you walk into a store, sign in with an app, fill up your bags and leave without the need to join a checkout line. On top of using the tech in its own Go and Fresh stores, Amazon signed a deal last year to license its technology to third-party retailers.

The technology will work the same at Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon. Shoppers can opt to use the tech when they enter the store by scanning an app, inserting a debit card linked to their Amazon account, or by placing their palm over the Amazon One palm-scanning system.

Unions have proclaimed that Amazon’s cashierless tech will cost workers jobs, but Amazon said the new Whole Foods locations will “employ a comparable number of team members as existing Whole Foods stores of similar sizes.” Rather, employees will be able to “spend even more time interacting with customers and delivering a great shopping experience,” Amazon said in a press release.

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Engadget.

#amazon, #column, #tc, #tceng, #whole-foods

Meet retail’s new sustainability strategy: Personalization

We have been raised to believe in recycling, but it has mostly been a sham — only 9% of all plastic waste produced in 2018 was recycled. The beauty industry produces over 120 billion units of packaging every year, little of which is recycled. Globally, an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste ends up in landfills.

Reducing waste is key to meeting environmental milestones, and some retail firms have narrowed in on a unique approach to minimize what their customers throw away: personalization. Accurate personalization can guide consumers to the right products, reducing waste while increasing conversion and loyalty.

Reducing waste is key to meeting environmental milestones, and some retail firms have narrowed in on a unique approach to minimize what their customers throw away: personalization.

For big brands and retailers, personalization is expected to be the top category for tech investment this year. Moreover, personalization holds high appeal, with 80% of survey respondents indicating they are more likely to do business with a company if it offers personalized experiences and 90% indicating that they find personalization appealing, according to a survey by Epsilon.

Startups that deliver sustainable personalization solutions that also improve business for retailers and brands fall into three categories:

  • AR virtual try-on with shade matching.
  • Advanced virtual fitting rooms with VR/AR for fashion.
  • Smart packaging with IoT and distributed ledger technology.

AR virtual try-on with shade matching

Faces are easy to map, since it’s not difficult to virtually place a lipstick color on a face, but using AR and AI to recommend skin-tone-matching makeup products has been challenging for many AR virtual try-on companies. “I’ve been searching for an intuitive foundation-shade-finder tool since launching Cult Beauty in 2008, and nothing has lived up to the experience of having a professional match you in daylight until I discovered MIME,” says Alexia Inge, founder of Cult Beauty. “There are so many variables like light, skin tones, prevalent undertones, device, screen, OS, formula density, formula oxidation, as well as preferences for coverage levels, finish, brand and skin type,” she says.

MIME founder and CEO Christopher Merkle said, “Virtual try-on has exploded in the past few years, but for color cosmetics, the technology doesn’t help solve the primary customer pain point: shade matching. From day one, I decided to focus our company’s R&D efforts exclusively on color accuracy. I want to make sure that when the consumer receives their foundation or concealer in the mail, it’s the perfect shade once applied to their skin.”

MIME’s Shade Finder AI allows consumers to take a photo of themselves, answer a few questions, then get matched with a makeup color that pairs with their skin tone. MIME helps retailers and brands increase their online and in-store purchase conversion by up to five times. More than 22% of beauty returns are due to poor customer color purchases, but Merkle says MIME can get returns as low as 0.1%.

#amazon, #apple-inc, #arkit, #artificial-intelligence, #augmented-reality, #body-labs, #column, #cosmetics, #ec-column, #ec-consumer-applications, #ec-ecommerce-and-d2c, #ec-food-climate-and-sustainability, #ecommerce, #marketing, #new-york, #online-shopping, #personalization, #startups, #tc, #true-ventures, #virtual-reality, #walmart

After years of inaction against adtech, UK’s ICO calls for browser-level controls to fix ‘cookie fatigue’

In the latest quasi-throwback toward ‘do not track‘, the UK’s data protection chief has come out in favor of a browser- and/or device-level setting to allow Internet users to set “lasting” cookie preferences — suggesting this as a fix for the barrage of consent pop-ups that continues to infest websites in the region.

European web users digesting this development in an otherwise monotonously unchanging regulatory saga, should be forgiven — not only for any sense of déjà vu they may experience — but also for wondering if they haven’t been mocked/gaslit quite enough already where cookie consent is concerned.

Last month, UK digital minister Oliver Dowden took aim at what he dubbed an “endless” parade of cookie pop-ups — suggesting the government is eyeing watering down consent requirements around web tracking as ministers consider how to diverge from European Union data protection standards, post-Brexit. (He’s slated to present the full sweep of the government’s data ‘reform’ plans later this month so watch this space.)

Today the UK’s outgoing information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, stepped into the fray to urge her counterparts in G7 countries to knock heads together and coalesce around the idea of letting web users express generic privacy preferences at the browser/app/device level, rather than having to do it through pop-ups every time they visit a website.

In a statement announcing “an idea” she will present this week during a virtual meeting of fellow G7 data protection and privacy authorities — less pithily described in the press release as being “on how to improve the current cookie consent mechanism, making web browsing smoother and more business friendly while better protecting personal data” — Denham said: “I often hear people say they are tired of having to engage with so many cookie pop-ups. That fatigue is leading to people giving more personal data than they would like.

“The cookie mechanism is also far from ideal for businesses and other organisations running websites, as it is costly and it can lead to poor user experience. While I expect businesses to comply with current laws, my office is encouraging international collaboration to bring practical solutions in this area.”

“There are nearly two billion websites out there taking account of the world’s privacy preferences. No single country can tackle this issue alone. That is why I am calling on my G7 colleagues to use our convening power. Together we can engage with technology firms and standards organisations to develop a coordinated approach to this challenge,” she added.

Contacted for more on this “idea”, an ICO spokeswoman reshuffled the words thusly: “Instead of trying to effect change through nearly 2 billion websites, the idea is that legislators and regulators could shift their attention to the browsers, applications and devices through which users access the web.

“In place of click-through consent at a website level, users could express lasting, generic privacy preferences through browsers, software applications and device settings – enabling them to set and update preferences at a frequency of their choosing rather than on each website they visit.”

Of course a browser-baked ‘Do not track’ (DNT) signal is not a new idea. It’s around a decade old at this point. Indeed, it could be called the idea that can’t die because it’s never truly lived — as earlier attempts at embedding user privacy preferences into browser settings were scuppered by lack of industry support.

However the approach Denham is advocating, vis-a-vis “lasting” preferences, may in fact be rather different to DNT — given her call for fellow regulators to engage with the tech industry, and its “standards organizations”, and come up with “practical” and “business friendly” solutions to the regional Internet’s cookie pop-up problem.

It’s not clear what consensus — practical or, er, simply pro-industry — might result from this call. If anything.

Indeed, today’s press release may be nothing more than Denham trying to raise her own profile since she’s on the cusp of stepping out of the information commissioner’s chair. (Never waste a good international networking opportunity and all that — her counterparts in the US, Canada, Japan, France, Germany and Italy are scheduled for a virtual natter today and tomorrow where she implies she’ll try to engage them with her big idea).

Her UK replacement, meanwhile, is already lined up. So anything Denham personally champions right now, at the end of her ICO chapter, may have a very brief shelf life — unless she’s set to parachute into a comparable role at another G7 caliber data protection authority.

Nor is Denham the first person to make a revived pitch for a rethink on cookie consent mechanisms — even in recent years.

Last October, for example, a US-centric tech-publisher coalition came out with what they called a Global Privacy Standard (GPC) — aiming to build momentum for a browser-level pro-privacy signal to stop the sale of personal data, geared toward California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), though pitched as something that could have wider utility for Internet users.

By January this year they announced 40M+ users were making use of a browser or extension that supports GPC — along with a clutch of big name publishers signed up to honor it. But it’s fair to say its global impact so far remains limited. 

More recently, European privacy group noyb published a technical proposal for a European-centric automated browser-level signal that would let regional users configure advanced consent choices — enabling the more granular controls it said would be needed to fully mesh with the EU’s more comprehensive (vs CCPA) legal framework around data protection.

The proposal, for which noyb worked with the Sustainable Computing Lab at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, is called Advanced Data Protection Control (ADPC). And noyb has called on the EU to legislate for such a mechanism — suggesting there’s a window of opportunity as lawmakers there are also keen to find ways to reduce cookie fatigue (a stated aim for the still-in-train reform of the ePrivacy rules, for example).

So there are some concrete examples of what practical, less fatiguing yet still pro-privacy consent mechanisms might look like to lend a little more color to Denham’s ‘idea’ — although her remarks today don’t reference any such existing mechanisms or proposals.

(When we asked the ICO for more details on what she’s advocating for, its spokeswoman didn’t cite any specific technical proposals or implementations, historical or contemporary, either, saying only: “By working together, the G7 data protection authorities could have an outsized impact in stimulating the development of technological solutions to the cookie consent problem.”)

So Denham’s call to the G7 does seem rather low on substance vs profile-raising noise.

In any case, the really big elephant in the room here is the lack of enforcement around cookie consent breaches — including by the ICO.

Add to that, there’s the now very pressing question of how exactly the UK will ‘reform’ domestic law in this area (post-Brexit) — which makes the timing of Denham’s call look, well, interestingly opportune. (And difficult to interpret as anything other than opportunistically opaque at this point.)

The adtech industry will of course be watching developments in the UK with interest — and would surely be cheering from the rooftops if domestic data protection ‘reform’ results in amendments to UK rules that allow the vast majority of websites to avoid having to ask Brits for permission to process their personal data, say by opting them into tracking by default (under the guise of ‘fixing’ cookie friction and cookie fatigue for them).

That would certainly be mission accomplished after all these years of cookie-fatigue-generating-cookie-consent-non-compliance by surveillance capitalism’s industrial data complex.

It’s not yet clear which way the UK government will jump — but eyebrows should raise to read the ICO writing today that it expects compliance with (current) UK law when it has so roundly failed to tackle the adtech industry’s role in cynically sicking up said cookie fatigue by failing to take any action against such systemic breaches.

The bald fact is that the ICO has — for years — avoided tackling adtech abuse of data protection, despite acknowledging publicly that the sector is wildly out of control.

Instead, it has opted for a cringing ‘process of engagement’ (read: appeasement) that has condemned UK Internet users to cookie pop-up hell.

This is why the regulator is being sued for inaction — after it closed a long-standing complaint against the security abuse of people’s data in real-time bidding ad auctions with nothing to show for it… So, yes, you can be forgiven for feeling gaslit by Denham’s call for action on cookie fatigue following the ICO’s repeat inaction on the causes of cookie fatigue…

Not that the ICO is alone on that front, however.

There has been a fairly widespread failure by EU regulators to tackle systematic abuse of the bloc’s data protection rules by the adtech sector — with a number of complaints (such as this one against the IAB Europe’s self-styled ‘transparency and consent framework’) still working, painstakingly, through the various labyrinthine regulatory processes.

France’s CNIL has probably been the most active in this area — last year slapping Amazon and Google with fines of $42M and $120M for dropping tracking cookies without consent, for example. (And before you accuse CNIL of being ‘anti-American’, it has also gone after domestic adtech.)

But elsewhere — notably Ireland, where many adtech giants are regionally headquartered — the lack of enforcement against the sector has allowed for cynical, manipulative and/or meaningless consent pop-ups to proliferate as the dysfunctional ‘norm’, while investigations have failed to progress and EU citizens have been forced to become accustomed, not to regulatory closure (or indeed rapture), but to an existentially endless consent experience that’s now being (re)branded as ‘cookie fatigue’.

Yes, even with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) coming into application in 2018 and beefing up (in theory) consent standards.

This is why the privacy campaign group noyb is now lodging scores of complaints against cookie consent breaches — to try to force EU regulators to actually enforce the law in this area, even as it also finds time to put up a practical technical proposal that could help shrink cookie fatigue without undermining data protection standards. 

It’s a shining example of action that has yet to inspire the lion’s share of the EU’s actual regulators to act on cookies. The tl;dr is that EU citizens are still waiting for the cookie consent reckoning — even if there is now a bit of high level talk about the need for ‘something to be done’ about all these tedious pop-ups.

The problem is that while GDPR certainly cranked up the legal risk on paper, without proper enforcement it’s just a paper tiger. And the pushing around of lots of paper is very tedious, clearly. 

Most cookie pop-ups you’ll see in the EU are thus essentially privacy theatre; at the very least they’re unnecessarily irritating because they create ongoing friction for web users who must constantly respond to nags for their data (typically to repeatedly try to deny access if they can actually find a ‘reject all’ setting).

But — even worse — many of these pervasive pop-ups are actively undermining the law (as a number of studies have shown) because the vast majority do not meet the legal standard for consent.

So the cookie consent/fatigue narrative is actually a story of faux compliance enabled by an enforcement vacuum that’s now also encouraging the watering down of privacy standards as a result of such much unpunished flouting of the law.

There is a lesson here, surely.

‘Faux consent’ pop-ups that you can easily stumble across when surfing the ‘ad-supported’ Internet in Europe include those failing to provide users with clear information about how their data will be used; or not offering people a free choice to reject tracking without being penalized (such as with no/limited access to the content they’re trying to access), or at least giving the impression that accepting is a requirement to access said content (dark pattern!); and/or otherwise manipulating a person’s choice by making it super simple to accept tracking and far, far, far more tedious to deny.

You can also still sometimes find cookie notices that don’t offer users any choice at all — and just pop up to inform that ‘by continuing to browse you consent to your data being processed’ — which, unless the cookies in question are literally essential for provision of the webpage, is basically illegal. (Europe’s top court made it abundantly clear in 2019 that active consent is a requirement for non-essential cookies.)

Nonetheless, to the untrained eye — and sadly there are a lot of them where cookie consent notices are concerned — it can look like it’s Europe’s data protection law that’s the ass because it seemingly demands all these meaningless ‘consent’ pop-ups, which just gloss over an ongoing background data grab anyway.

The truth is regulators should have slapped down these manipulative dark patterns years ago.

The problem now is that regulatory failure is encouraging political posturing — and, in a twisting double-back throw by the ICO! — regulatory thrusting around the idea that some newfangled mechanism is what’s really needed to remove all this universally inconvenient ‘friction’.

An idea like noyb’s ADPC does indeed look very useful in ironing out the widespread operational wrinkles wrapping the EU’s cookie consent rules. But when it’s the ICO suggesting a quick fix after the regulatory authority has failed so spectacularly over the long duration of complaints around this issue you’ll have to forgive us for being sceptical.

In such a context the notion of ‘cookie fatigue’ looks like it’s being suspiciously trumped up; fixed on as a convenient scapegoat to rechannel consumer frustration with hated online tracking toward high privacy standards — and away from the commercial data-pipes that demand all these intrusive, tedious cookie pop-ups in the first place — whilst neatly aligning with the UK government’s post-Brexit political priorities on ‘data’.

Worse still: The whole farcical consent pantomime — which the adtech industry has aggressively engaged in to try to sustain a privacy-hostile business model in spite of beefed up European privacy laws — could be set to end in genuine tragedy for user rights if standards end up being slashed to appease the law mockers.

The target of regulatory ire and political anger should really be the systematic law-breaking that’s held back privacy-respecting innovation and non-tracking business models — by making it harder for businesses that don’t abuse people’s data to compete.

Governments and regulators should not be trying to dismantle the principle of consent itself. Yet — at least in the UK — that does now look horribly possible.

Laws like GDPR set high standards for consent which — if they were but robustly enforced — could lead to reform of highly problematic practices like behavorial advertising combined with the out-of-control scale of programmatic advertising.

Indeed, we should already be seeing privacy-respecting forms of advertising being the norm, not the alternative — free to scale.

Instead, thanks to widespread inaction against systematic adtech breaches, there has been little incentive for publishers to reform bad practices and end the irritating ‘consent charade’ — which keeps cookie pop-ups mushrooming forth, oftentimes with ridiculously lengthy lists of data-sharing ‘partners’ (i.e. if you do actually click through the dark patterns to try to understand what is this claimed ‘choice’ you’re being offered).

As well as being a criminal waste of web users’ time, we now have the prospect of attention-seeking, politically charged regulators deciding that all this ‘friction’ justifies giving data-mining giants carte blanche to torch user rights — if the intention is to fire up the G7 to send a collect invite to the tech industry to come up with “practical” alternatives to asking people for their consent to track them — and all because authorities like the ICO have been too risk averse to actually defend users’ rights in the first place.

Dowden’s remarks last month suggest the UK government may be preparing to use cookie consent fatigue as convenient cover for watering down domestic data protection standards — at least if it can get away with the switcheroo.

Nothing in the ICO’s statement today suggests it would stand in the way of such a move.

Now that the UK is outside the EU, the UK government has said it believes it has an opportunity to deregulate domestic data protection — although it may find there are legal consequences for domestic businesses if it diverges too far from EU standards.

Denham’s call to the G7 naturally includes a few EU countries (the biggest economies in the bloc) but by targeting this group she’s also seeking to engage regulators further afield — in jurisdictions that currently lack a comprehensive data protection framework. So if the UK moves, cloaked in rhetoric of ‘Global Britain’, to water down its (EU-based) high domestic data protection standards it will be placing downward pressure on international aspirations in this area — as a counterweight to the EU’s geopolitical ambitions to drive global standards up to its level.

The risk, then, is a race to the bottom on privacy standards among Western democracies — at a time when awareness about the importance of online privacy, data protection and information security has actually never been higher.

Furthermore, any UK move to weaken data protection also risks putting pressure on the EU’s own high standards in this area — as the regional trajectory would be down not up. And that could, ultimately, give succour to forces inside the EU that lobby against its commitment to a charter of fundamental rights — by arguing such standards undermine the global competitiveness of European businesses.

So while cookies themselves — or indeed ‘cookie fatigue’ — may seem an irritatingly small concern, the stakes attached to this tug of war around people’s rights over what can happen to their personal data are very high indeed.

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The time Animoto almost brought AWS to its knees

Today, Amazon Web Services is a mainstay in the cloud infrastructure services market, a $60 billion juggernaut of a business. But in 2008, it was still new, working to keep its head above water and handle growing demand for its cloud servers. In fact, 15 years ago last week, the company launched Amazon EC2 in beta. From that point forward, AWS offered startups unlimited compute power, a primary selling point at the time.

EC2 was one of the first real attempts to sell elastic computing at scale — that is, server resources that would scale up as you needed them and go away when you didn’t. As Jeff Bezos said in an early sales presentation to startups back in 2008, “you want to be prepared for lightning to strike, […] because if you’re not that will really generate a big regret. If lightning strikes, and you weren’t ready for it, that’s kind of hard to live with. At the same time you don’t want to prepare your physical infrastructure, to kind of hubris levels either in case that lightning doesn’t strike. So, [AWS] kind of helps with that tough situation.”

An early test of that value proposition occurred when one of their startup customers, Animoto, scaled from 25,000 to 250,000 users in a 4-day period in 2008 shortly after launching the company’s Facebook app at South by Southwest.

At the time, Animoto was an app aimed at consumers that allowed users to upload photos and turn them into a video with a backing music track. While that product may sound tame today, it was state of the art back in those days, and it used up a fair amount of computing resources to build each video. It was an early representation of not only Web 2.0 user-generated content, but also the marriage of mobile computing with the cloud, something we take for granted today.

For Animoto, launched in 2006, choosing AWS was a risky proposition, but the company found trying to run its own infrastructure was even more of a gamble because of the dynamic nature of the demand for its service. To spin up its own servers would have involved huge capital expenditures. Animoto initially went that route before turning its attention to AWS because it was building prior to attracting initial funding, Brad Jefferson, co-founder and CEO at the company explained.

“We started building our own servers, thinking that we had to prove out the concept with something. And as we started to do that and got more traction from a proof-of-concept perspective and started to let certain people use the product, we took a step back, and were like, well it’s easy to prepare for failure, but what we need to prepare for success,” Jefferson told me.

Going with AWS may seem like an easy decision knowing what we know today, but in 2007 the company was really putting its fate in the hands of a mostly unproven concept.

“It’s pretty interesting just to see how far AWS has gone and EC2 has come, but back then it really was a gamble. I mean we were talking to an e-commerce company [about running our infrastructure]. And they’re trying to convince us that they’re going to have these servers and it’s going to be fully dynamic and so it was pretty [risky]. Now in hindsight, it seems obvious but it was a risk for a company like us to bet on them back then,” Jefferson told me.

Animoto had to not only trust that AWS could do what it claimed, but also had to spend six months rearchitecting its software to run on Amazon’s cloud. But as Jefferson crunched the numbers, the choice made sense. At the time, Animoto’s business model was for free for a 30 second video, $5 for a longer clip, or $30 for a year. As he tried to model the level of resources his company would need to make its model work, it got really difficult, so he and his co-founders decided to bet on AWS and hope it worked when and if a surge of usage arrived.

That test came the following year at South by Southwest when the company launched a Facebook app, which led to a surge in demand, in turn pushing the limits of AWS’s capabilities at the time. A couple of weeks after the startup launched its new app, interest exploded and Amazon was left scrambling to find the appropriate resources to keep Animoto up and running.

Dave Brown, who today is Amazon’s VP of EC2 and was an engineer on the team back in 2008, said that “every [Animoto] video would initiate, utilize and terminate a separate EC2 instance. For the prior month they had been using between 50 and 100 instances [per day]. On Tuesday their usage peaked at around 400, Wednesday it was 900, and then 3,400 instances as of Friday morning.” Animoto was able to keep up with the surge of demand, and AWS was able to provide the necessary resources to do so. Its usage eventually peaked at 5000 instances before it settled back down, proving in the process that elastic computing could actually work.

At that point though, Jefferson said his company wasn’t merely trusting EC2’s marketing. It was on the phone regularly with AWS executives making sure their service wouldn’t collapse under this increasing demand. “And the biggest thing was, can you get us more servers, we need more servers. To their credit, I don’t know how they did it — if they took away processing power from their own website or others — but they were able to get us where we needed to be. And then we were able to get through that spike and then sort of things naturally calmed down,” he said.

The story of keeping Animoto online became a main selling point for the company, and Amazon was actually the first company to invest in the startup besides friends and family. It raised a total of $30 million along the way, with its last funding coming in 2011. Today, the company is more of a B2B operation, helping marketing departments easily create videos.

While Jefferson didn’t discuss specifics concerning costs, he pointed out that the price of trying to maintain servers that would sit dormant much of the time was not a tenable approach for his company. Cloud computing turned out to be the perfect model and Jefferson says that his company is still an AWS customer to this day.

While the goal of cloud computing has always been to provide as much computing as you need on demand whenever you need it, this particular set of circumstances put that notion to the test in a big way.

Today the idea of having trouble generating 3,400 instances seems quaint, especially when you consider that Amazon processes 60 million instances every day now, but back then it was a huge challenge and helped show startups that the idea of elastic computing was more than theory.

#amazon, #amazon-web-services, #animoto, #apps, #cloud, #enterprise, #infrastructure-as-a-service, #tc