California has no water and lots of liquidity

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

Danny, Natasha, and Alex were on-deck this week, with Grace on the recording and edit. But, if you want to hear more about Robinhood, this is not the episode for you. If you want to learn more about the consumer fintech company’s IPO filing this is the episode you want. Basically, Robinhood filed after we had wrapped taping, so we had to do a special pod for the news.

So, this is the everything-but-Robinhood episode. And here’s what’s inside of it:

A four-episode week! With only Grace handling production! She’s amazing.

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

#acceleprise, #articulate, #bessemer, #brave, #china, #daylight, #didi, #duolingo, #edtech, #equity, #equity-podcast, #fintech, #forum-ventures, #fundings-exits, #hinge-health, #ipo, #neeva, #peanut, #robinhood, #search, #sentinelone, #startups, #tc, #zipline

Brave’s non-tracking search engine is now in beta

Pro-privacy browser Brave, which has been testing its own brand search engine for several months — operating a waitlist where brave (ha!) early adopters could kick the tyres of an upstart alternative in Internet search — has now launched the tool, Brave Search, in global beta.

Users interested in checking out Brave’s non-tracking search engine, which is built on top of an independent index and touted as a privacy-safe alternative to surveillance tech products like Google search, will find it via Brave’s desktop and mobile browsers. It can also be reached from other browsers via search.brave.com — so doesn’t require switching to Brave’s browser to use.

Brave Search is being offered as one of multiple search options that users of the company’s eponymous browser can pick from (including Google’s search engine). But Brave says it will make it the default search in its browser later this year.

As we reported back in March, the company acquired technology and developers who had previously worked on Cliqz, a European anti-tracking search-browser combo which closed down in May 2020 — building on a technology they’d started to develop, called Tailcat, to form the basis of the Brave-branded search engine.

The (now beta) search engine has been tested by more than 100,000 “early access users” at this point, per Brave. It’s made this video ad to tout its “all in one” alternative to Google search + Chrome.

The company recently passed 32M monthly active users (up from 25M back in March) for its wider suite of products — which, as well as its flagship pro-privacy browser, includes a news reader (Brave News), and a Firewall+VPN service.

Brave also offers privacy-preserving Brave Ads for businesses wanting to reach its community of privacy-preferring users.

Growing public awareness of surveillance based business models has been building momentum for pro-privacy consumer tech for a number of years. And several players which started out with a strong focus on one particular pro-privacy product (such as a browser, search engine or email) have been expanding into a full suite of products — all under the same non-tracking umbrella.

As well as Brave, there’s the likes of DuckDuckGo — which offers non-tracking search but also a tracker blocker and an email inbox protector tool, among other products, and reckons it now has between 70M-100M users overall; and Proton, the maker of e2e-encrypted email service ProtonMail but also a cloud calendar and file storage as well as a VPN. The latter recently confirmed passing 50M users globally.

There is also Apple itself too, of course — a Big Tech giant that competes with Google and the adtech complex by promising users a privacy premium to drive sales of its hardware and services. (At the start of this year Apple said there are now over 1BN iOS users globally — and over 1.65BN Apple devices.)

Tl;dr: The market for privacy consumer tech is growing.

Still, even Apple doesn’t try to compete against Google search which perhaps underlines the scale of the challenge involved in trying to poach users from the search behemoth. (Albeit, Apple extracts massive payments from Google to preload the latter’s search engine onto iOS devices — which does conflict with (and complicate) its wider, pro-privacy, pro-user promises while also adding a nice revenue boost for Apple… ).

DuckDuckGo has, by contrast, been at the non-tracking search coalface for years — and turning a profit since 2014. Though clearly not in the same profit league as Apple. But, more recently, it’s also taken in rare tranches of external funding as its investors spy growing opportunity for private search.

Other signs of expanding public appetite to protect people’s information from commercial snoopers include the surge of usage for e2e encrypted alternatives to Facebook-owned WhatsApp — such as Signal — which saw a download spike earlier this year, after the advertising giant announced unilateral changes to WhatsApp’s terms of service.

Credible players that have amassed a community of engaged users around a core user privacy promise are well positioned to ride each new wave of privacy interest — and cross sell a suite of consumer products where they’ve been able to expand their utility. Hence Brave believing the time is right for it to dabble in search.

Commenting in a statement, Brendan Eich, CEO and co-founder of Brave, said: “Brave Search is the industry’s most private search engine, as well as the only independent search engine, giving users the control and confidence they seek in alternatives to big tech. Unlike older search engines that track and profile users, and newer search engines that are mostly a skin on older engines and don’t have their own indexes, Brave Search offers a new way to get relevant results with a community-powered index, while guaranteeing privacy. Brave Search fills a clear void in the market today as millions of people have lost trust in the surveillance economy and actively seek solutions to be in control of their data.”

Brave touts its eponymous search offering as having a number of differentiating features vs rivals (including smaller rivals) — such as its own index which it also says gives it independence from other search providers.

Why is having an independent index important? We put that question to Josep M. Pujol, chief of search at Brave, who told us: “There are plenty of incentives for censorship and biases, either by design, or what is even more difficult to combat, unintentional. The problem of search, and how people access the web, is that it is a mono-culture, and everybody knows that while it’s very efficient, it’s also very dangerous. A single disease can kill all the crops. The current landscape is not fail-tolerant, and this is something that even users are becoming aware of. We need more choices, not to replace Google or Bing, but to offer alternatives. More choices will entail more freedom and also get back to real competition, with checks and balances.

“Choice can only be achieved by being independent, as if we do not have our own index, then we are just a layer of paint on top of Google and Bing, unable to change much or anything in the results for users’ queries. Not having your own index, as with certain search engines, gives the impression of choice, but in reality such engine ‘skins’ are the same players as the big-two. Only by building our own index, which is a costly proposition, will we be in a position to offer true choice to the users for the benefit of all, whether they are Brave Search users or not.”

Although, for now, it’s worth noting that Brave is relying on some provision from other search providers — for specific queries and in areas like image search (where, for example, it says it’s currently fetching results from Microsoft-owned Bing) — to ensure its results achieve adequate relevancy.

Elsewhere it also says it’s relying upon anonymized contributions from the community to improve and refine results — and is seeking to live up to wider transparency claims vis-a-vis the search index (which it also claims has “no secret methods or algorithms to bias results”; and for which it will “soon” be offering “community-curated open ranking models to ensure diversity and prevent algorithmic biases and outright censorship”).

In another transparency step Brave is reporting the percentage of users’ queries that are independent by showing what it bills as “the industry’s first search independence metric” — meaning it displays the ratio of results coming exclusively from its own index.

“It is derived privately using the user’s browser as we do not build user profiles,” Brave notes in a press release. “Users can check this aggregate metric to verify the independence of their results and see how results are powered by our own index, or if third-parties are being used for long tail results while we are still in the process of building our index.”

It adds that Brave Search will “typically be answering most queries, reflected by a high independence metric”. Although if you’re performing an image search, for example, you’ll see the the independence metric take a hit (but Brave confirms this will not result in any tracking of users).

“[Transparency] is a key principle at Brave, and there will also be a global independence metric for Brave Search across all searches, which we will make publicly available to show how we are progressing towards complete independence,” it adds.

Example of Brave’s ‘independence metric’ for search results (Image credits: Brave)

On the monetization side, Brave says it will “soon” be offering both a paid ad-free version of search in the future and an ad-supported free version — while still pledging “fully anonymous” search. Though it specifies that it won’t be flipping the ad switch during the early beta phase.

“We will offer options for both ad-free paid search and ad-supported free search later,” it notes. “When we are ready, we will explore bringing private ads with BAT revenue share to search, as we’ve done for Brave user ads.”

Users of the search engine who do not also use Brave’s own browser will be served contextual ads.

“In Brave Search via the browser, strong privacy guarantees for opt-in ads are a norm and a brand value that we uphold,” adds Pujol, confirming that users of its search and browser are likely to get the same type of ad targeting.

Asked about pricing of the forthcoming ad-free version of the search engine he says: “Although we have not finalized the launch date or the price yet, our ad-free paid search will be affordable because we believe search, and access to information, should be available on fair terms for everyone.”

In an interesting recent development in Europe, Google — under pressure from antitrust regulators — has agreed to ditch a pay-to-play auction model for the choice screen it offers regional users of its Android platform, letting them pick a default search engine from list with a number of rivals and its own brand Google search. The move should expand the number of alternative search engines Android users in Europe are exposed to — and could help chip away at some of Google’s search marketshare.

Brave previously told us it would not participate in Google’s paid auction — but Pujol says that if the new model is “truly free to participate” it will likely take part in future.

“Google and free-to-participate seem difficult to believe, given plenty of precedents but if this model is indeed truly free to participate, without contracts or non-disclosure agreements, then we would likely participate,” he says. “After all, Brave Search is open to everyone who would like to use it, and we are open and happy to put Brave Search on any platform.”

“We have localized browsers throughout the European market, so in addition to growth via the Brave browser growing, we intend to grow Brave Search’s usage by marketing our best-in-class privacy on all media that reach prospective users,” he adds.

#advertising-tech, #android, #apple, #brave, #cliqz, #computing, #duckduckgo, #e2e, #europe, #facebook, #google, #google-search, #image-search, #ios-devices, #microsoft, #microsoft-bing, #opera, #privacy, #proton, #search-engine, #search-engines, #software, #tc, #tech-products, #vpn, #web-browser, #web-browsers

If You Care About Privacy, It’s Time to Try a New Web Browser

A new crop of internet browsers from Brave, DuckDuckGo and others offer stronger privacy protections than what you might be used to.

#advertising-and-marketing, #android-operating-system, #brave, #chrome-browser, #computers-and-the-internet, #content-type-service, #duckduckgo, #firefox, #google-inc, #mobile-applications, #mozilla-foundation, #online-advertising, #privacy, #smartphones, #web-browsers

Brave is launching its own search engine with the help of ex-Cliqz devs and tech

Brave, the privacy-focused browser co-founded by ex-Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, is getting ready to launch an own-brand search engine for desktop and mobile.

Today it’s announced the acquisition of an open source search engine developed by the team behind the (now defunct) Cliqz anti-tracking search-browser combo. The tech will underpin the forthcoming Brave Search engine — meaning it will soon be pitching its millions of users on an entirely ‘big tech’-free search and browsing experience.

“Under the hood, nearly all of today’s search engines are either built by, or rely on, results from Big Tech companies. In contrast, the Tailcat search engine is built on top of a completely independent index, capable of delivering the quality people expect but without compromising their privacy,” Brave writes in a press release announcing the acquisition.

“Tailcat does not collect IP addresses or use personally identifiable information to improve search results.”

Cliqz, which was a privacy-focused European fork of Mozilla’s Firefox browser, got shuttered last May after its majority investor, Hubert Burda Media, called time on the multi-year effort to build momentum for an alternative to Google — blaming tougher trading conditions during the pandemic for forcing it to pull the plug sooner than it would have liked.

The former Cliqz dev team, who had subsequently been working on Tailcat, are moving to Brave as part of the acquisition. The engineering team is led by Dr Josep M Pujol — who is quoted in Brave’s PR saying it’s “excited to be working on the only real private search/browser alternative to Big Tech”.

“Tailcat is a fully independent search engine with its own search index built from scratch,” Eich told TechCrunch. “Tailcat as Brave Search will offer the same privacy guarantees that Brave has in its browser.

“Brave will provide the first private browser+search alternative to the Big Tech platforms, and will make it seamless for users to browse and search with guaranteed privacy. Also, owing to its transparent nature, Brave Search will address algorithmic biases and prevent outright censorship.”

Brave getting into the search business is a reflection of its confidence that privacy is becoming mainstream, per Eich. He points to “unprecedented” growth in usage of its browser over the past year — up from 11M monthly active users to 26M+ — which he says has mirrored the surge in usage earlier this year seen by the (not-for-profit) e2e encrypted messaging app Signal (after Facebook-owned WhatsApp announced a change to its privacy policies to allow for increased data-sharing with Facebook through WhatsApp business accounts).

“We expect to see even greater demand for Brave in 2021 as more and more users demand real privacy solutions to escape Big Tech’s invasive practices,” he added in a statement. “Brave’s mission is to put the user first, and integrating privacy-preserving search into our platform is a necessary step to ensure that user privacy is not plundered to fuel the surveillance economy.”

Brave Search will be offered as a choice to users alongside a roster of more established third parties (Google, Bing, Qwant, Ecosia etc) which they can select as their browser default.

It will also potentially become the default (i.e. if users don’t pick their own) in future, per Eich.

“We will continue to support ‘open search’ with multiple alternative engines,” he confirmed. “User choice is a permanent principle at Brave. Brave will continue to offer multiple alternative choices for the user’s default search engine, and we think our users will seek unmatched privacy with Brave Search. When ready, we hope to make Brave Search the default engine in Brave.”

Asked how the quality of Tailcat-powered results vs Google Eich described it as “quite good”, adding that it “will only get better with adoption”.

“Google’s ‘long tail’ is hard for any engine to beat but we have a plan to compete on that front too, once integrated into the Brave browser,” he told us in an email interview, arguing that Google’s massive size does offer some competitive opportunities for a search rival. “There are aspects where Google is falling behind. It is difficult for them to innovate in search when that’s the main source of their revenue.

“They are risk-averse against experimenting with new techniques and transparency, while under pressure from shareholders to tie their own businesses into scarce search engine results page (SERP) area, and pressure from search engine optimization (SEO).”

“On questions such as censorship, community feedback, and algorithmic transparency, we think we can do better from the get-go. Unlike other search engines, we believe that the only way to make big improvements is to build afresh, with the know-how that comes from building,” he added. “The option of using Bing (as other search offerings do) instead of building the index exists but it will get you only as far as Bing in terms of quality (and as with such offerings, you’ll be wholly dependent on Bing).”

Brave is aiming for general availability of Brave Search by the summer — if not late spring, per Eich. Users interested in testing an early iteration can sign up for a waitlist here. (A test version is slated as coming in “the next few weeks”.)

The name Tailcat is unlikely to be widely familiar as it was an internal project that Cliqz had not implemented into its browser before it was shut down.

Eich says development had been continuing at Burda — “in order to develop a full-fledged search engine”. (When the holding company announced the shuttering of Cliqz, last April, it stated that Cliqz’s browser and search technologies would be shut down but also said it would draw out a team of experts — to work on technical issues in areas like AI and search.)

“Cliqz offered the SERP-based search engine but had not implemented Tailcat in its browser yet,” said Eich. “After Cliqz shut down last April, a development team at Burda continued to work on the search technology under the new project name Tailcat in order to develop a full-fledged search engine. The team hoped to find a long-term home for their work to continue their mission, and are thrilled to be part of Brave.”

The financial terms of the acquisition are not being disclosed — but we’ve confirmed that Burda is becoming a Brave shareholder as part of the deal.

“We are very happy that our technology is being used at Brave and that, as a result, a genuine, privacy-friendly alternative to Google is being created in the core web functions of browsing and searching,” said Paul-Bernhard Kallen, CEO of Hubert Burda Media, in a supporting statement. “As a Brave stakeholder we will continue to be involved in this exciting project.”

While Brave started out focused on building an alternative browser — with the idea of rethinking the predominate ad-funded Internet business model by baking in a cryptocurrency rewards system to generate payments for content creators (and pay users for their attention) — it now talks about itself as a pro-privacy “super app”.

Currently, the Brave Browser bundles a privacy-preserving ad platform (Brave Ads); news reader (Brave Today); and offers a Firewall+VPN service — which it will be further adding to with the forthcoming search engine (Brave Search), and a privacy-preserving video-conferencing service (Brave Together) that’s also in the pipeline.

The unifying brand proposition for its ‘super app’ is a pledge to provide users with genuine control over their online experience — in contrast to mainstream alternatives.

 

#big-tech, #brave, #brave-search, #cliqz, #privacy, #search-engine, #tc

Brave browser-maker launches privacy-friendly news reader

Brave browser-maker launches privacy-friendly news reader

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images)

Brave Software, maker of the Brave Web browser, is introducing a news reader that’s designed to protect user privacy by preventing parties—both internal and third party—from tracking the sites, articles, and story topics people view.

Brave Today, as the service is called, is using technology that the company says sets it apart from news services offered by Google and Facebook. It’s designed to deliver personalized news feeds in a way that leaves no trail for Brave, ISPs, and third parties to track. The new service is part of Brave’s strategy of differentiating its browser as more privacy-friendly than its competitors’.

Key to Brave Today is a new content delivery network the company is unveiling. Typically, news services use a single CDN to cache content and then serve it to users. This allows the CDN or the service using it to see both the IP address and news feed of each user, and over time, that data can help services build detailed profiles of a person’s interests.

Read 8 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#biz-it, #brave, #browsers, #privacy, #tech

Meet the anti-antitrust startup club

When Congress called in tech CEOs to testify a few weeks ago, it felt like a defining moment. Hundreds of startups have become unicorns, with the largest worth more than $1 trillion (or perhaps $2 trillion). Indeed, modern tech companies have become so entrenched, Facebook is the only one of the Big Five American tech shops worth less than 13 figures.

The titanic valuations of many companies are predicated on current performance, cash on hand and lofty expectations for future growth. The pandemic has done little to stem Big Tech’s forward march and many startups have seen growth rates accelerate as other sectors rushed to support a suddenly remote workforce.

But inside tech’s current moment in the sun is a concern that Congress worked to highlight: are these firms behaving anti-competitively?

By now you’ve heard the arguments concerning why Big Tech may be too big, but there’s a neat second story that we, the Equity crew, have been chatting about: some startups are racing into the big kill zone.

They have to be a bit foolhardy to take on Google Gmail and Search, Amazon’s e-commerce platform or Apple’s App Store. Yet, there are startups targeting all of these categories and more, some flush with VC funding from investors who are eager to take a swing at tech’s biggest players

If the little companies manage to carve material market share for themselves, arguments that Big Tech was just too big to kill — let alone fail — will dissolve. But today, their incumbency is a reality and these startups are merely bold.

Still, when we look at the work being done, there are enough companies staring down the most valuable companies in American history (on an unadjusted basis) that we had to shout them out. Say hello to the “anti-antitrust club.”

Hey and Superhuman are coming after Gmail

Gmail has been the undisputed leader in consumer email for years (if not enterprise email, where Microsoft has massive inroads due to Exchange and Outlook). Startups have contested that market, including Mailbox, which sold to Dropbox for about $100 million back in 2013, but whenever a new feature came along that might entice users, Gmail managed to suck it up into its app.

#amazon, #app-store, #apple, #basecamp, #brave, #duckduckgo, #ecommerce, #elastic, #enterprise, #epic-games, #facebook, #google, #microsoft, #startups, #tc, #the-browser-company, #video, #zoom

Data from Dutch public broadcaster shows the value of ditching creepy ads

For anyone interested in the contested question of how much ‘value’ — or, well, how little — publishers derive from the privacy-hostile practice of tracking web users to behaviorally target them with ads, pro-privacy browser Brave has published some interesting data, obtained (with permission) from the Netherland’s public broadcaster, NPO.

The data shows the NPO grew ad revenue after ditching trackers to target ads in the first half of this year — and did so despite the coronavirus pandemic landing in March and dealing a heavy blow to digital advertising globally (contributing, for example, to Twitter reporting Q2 ad revenues down nearly a quarter).

The context here is that in January the broadcaster switched to serving contextual ads across its various websites, where it has an online video audience of 7.1M per month, and display reach of 5.8M per month.

Brave has just published an analysis of six months’ worth of data which shows NPO’s ad revenue increased every month over this period. Year-over-year increases after the broadcaster unplugged the usual morass of background adtech that makes surveillance capitalism ‘function’ are as follows:

  • January: 62%; February 79%; March 27%; April 9%; May 17%; June 17%;

Earlier this month Brave published five months’ worth of the NPO ad revenue data. So this is actually an update on an earlier blog post on the topic. The updated figures from Ster, the NPO’s ad sales house, slightly amend the earlier amounts, revising the reported figures further upwards. So, in short, non-tracking ad revenue bump has been sustained for half a year. Even amid a pandemic.

Now the idea that switching from behavioral to contextual targeting can lead to revenue growth is not a narrative you’ll hear from the ad tracking industry and its big tech backers. Aka the platform giants whose grip on the Internet’s attention economy and the digital infrastructure used for buying and selling targeted ads has helped them to huge profits over the past half decade or so (even as publisher revenues have largely stagnated or declined during this boom period for digital ad spending).

The adtech industry prefers to chainlink tracking and targeting to ad revenue — claiming publisher revenues would tank if content producers were forced to abandon their reader surveillance systems. (Here’s Google’s VP of ad platforms, last year, telling AdExchanger that the impact of tracker blocking on publishers’ programmatic ad revenues could cut CPMs in half, for example.)

Yet it’s not the first time there’s been a report of (surprise!) publisher uplift after ditching ad trackers.

Last year Digiday reported that the New York Times saw its ad revenue rise in Europe after it switched off creepy ads ahead of a major regional regulatory update, shifting over to contextual and geographical targeting.

The NYT does have a certain level of brand cache which not every publisher can claim. Hence the tracking industry counterclaims that its experience isn’t one that can be widely replicated by publishers. So the NPO data is additionally interesting in that it shows revenue uplift for a public broadcaster even across websites that aren’t dominant in their particular category, per Brave’s analysis.

Here’s its chief policy & industry relations officer, Dr Johnny Ryan, who writes:

NPO and its sales house, Ster, invested in contextual targeting and testing, and produced vast sales increases even with sites that do not appear to dominate their categories. This may be a tribute to Ster’s ability to sell inventory across NPO’s media group as a collective, but this benefit would have applied in 2019 and does not account for the revenue jump in 2020. A publisher does not therefore need to have market dominance to abandon 3rd party tracking and reproduce NPO’s vast revenue increase.

And here’s Ryan’s take on why “legitimate” (i.e. non junk/clickbait) publishers of all sizes should be able to follow the NPO’s example:

Although it is a national broadcast group, NPO websites do not dominate the web traffic rankings in the Netherlands. Only one of NPO’s properties (Nos.nl) ranks in the top 5 in its category in the Netherlands, according to Similar Web. None of the other NPO properties are in the Netherland’s top 100. The other NPO websites for which Similar Web provides a traffic rank estimation (versus other websites in the Netherlands) range from 180th to 5,040th most popular in the Netherlands. NPO properties’ popularity or market position in each content category are not correlated with increases in impressions sold. Country site rank, category site rank, and numbers of page views, vary widely between the properties, whereas the increases in impression sold are all above 83%, with one explicable exception [due to technical difficulties over the tracked period which prevented ads being served against one of its most popular programs].

Brave has its own commercial iron in the fire here, of course, given its approach to monetizing user eyeballs aligns with an anti-tracking marketplace ethos. But that hardly takes away from the NPO’s experience of — surprise! — revenue growth from ditching creepy ads.

Joost Negenman, NPO’s privacy officer, told TechCrunch they had certainly not expected to see ad revenue uplift from making the switch. The decision to move to contextual ads was made mid last year, as a result of the public broadcaster becoming “convinced” the programmatic targeting ad system it was using wasn’t compatible with its “public task”, as he tells it.

“We expected a rather dramatic drop in revenue,” says Negenman, noting that at that time the NPO was only getting a consent rate from users of around 10% for the ad cookies Ster needed for its programmatic ad system — down from 75%+ prior to GDPR (“probably” because its Cookie Consent Module at the time had been based on “implicit instead of explicit consent”; whereas GDPR mandates for consent to be legally valid it must be specific, informed and freely given).

“We also expected a drop because advertisers could completely ignore us when NPO and Ster turned away from this market adtech standard together, at a time when there was no sophisticated alternative in place,” he continues. “This fortunate misjudgment on our side was also fuelled by the strong belief (and preaches) in programmatic ad-solutions by online marketeers and companies.”

Negenman attributes the surprise revenue bounty from selling contextual ads to a couple of factors: Namely the “A-brand” pull of NPO and its affiliate broadcasters, meaning advertisers still wanted to be able to reach their users. And, well, to having the pro-privacy zeitgeist on its side.

“We’re all aware of the growing scrutiny on the adtech business, no explanation needed!” he says.

It’s worth noting the NPO’s switch to contextual ads did require some investment to pull off. The publisher shelled out for technology to enable contextual targeting across its web properties — such as building out descriptive metadata to enable more granular contextual targeting on video content. And the level of investment required to achieve similarly sophisticated contextual ad targeting might not be available to every publisher.

Yet the sustained revenue bump NPO experienced post-switch means it very quickly earned back what it spent — so for publishers that can afford to invest up front in transitioning away from tracking it looks like a very compelling case study.

“It paid for itself within a month or so!” confirms Negenman. “Considering all the money Ster didn’t have to share with Google and other in-betweens. From 1 advertisement Euro, 1 Euro goes to Ster!”

Though he also notes the broadcaster was helped by Dutch law placing an obligation on it to have subtitles for over 90% of its assets — meaning some of the leg work to build out contextual targeting had already been done.

“Subtitles data of course provides valuable descriptive metadata. So those tools where already in place,” he says. “But beside subtitles — that are nowadays easier to automate — standard program information like (sub)genre, titles of actors are of great value as well to add context on a video asset.”

Brave’s Ryan posits that the role of NPO’s sales house is also important to its success with contextual ads. “Smaller publishers may benefit from engaging with reputable sales houses that can aggregate supply as Ster does for NPO’s various properties,” he suggests. “Publishers of all sizes will benefit according to their reputations — unless advertisers and agencies purchase from sales houses with poor reputations.”

Asked whether he believes the switch would work for all publishers, Negenman does not go that far. “For all A-brands I definitely see this approach working, also news outlets have the perfect (meta)data needed to feed such a system,” he says, arguing there’s a place in the market for both contextual and targeted ads.

“Not all online advertising is the same,” he argues. “A shoe annoyingly following you online is something other than creating (A-)brand awareness. Perhaps the contextual system can start by creating privacy friendly ‘lagoons’ where a person is not tracked or followed by a shoe. There the system gets time to prove its worth in revenue and respect for its audience.”

“For other public broadcasters I believe they have more or less an (moral) obligation to at least start testing contextual ads,” he adds. “The adtech system’s use of personal and behavioral data has become so un-explainable that the GDPR information obligation is almost impossible to meet.”

As we’ve said before, the evidence of viable alternatives to privacy-torching surveillance capitalism is stacking up — even as harms linked to adtech platforms’ exploitation of people’s information keep piling up.

And while contextual ads may not sum to a revenue boom for every type of publisher, the notion that it’s tracking or nothing is clearly bogus.

(You could also make a pretty compelling case that abusive exploitation of people’s data that sustains low grade publishing is not at all a net societal good and so supporting a system that supports bottom feeding clickbait (and massive levels of ad fraud) is simply bad for everyone — well, other than the bottom feeders… )

Ryan goes so far as to call conventional adtech “a cancer eating at the heart of legitimate publishers”. And having worked inside the beast he’s castigating, via an earlier stint at anti-ad-blocking adtech company called PageFair, his critique is all the more hard hitting.

He’s used his insider knowledge to file a number of complaints with European regulators — most notably against the real-time bidding (RTB) practice programmatic advertising can rely on, drawing in vast quantities of Internet users’ personal information and scattershotting it back out again.

He contends this high velocity trading of personal data can’t possibly be compliant with Europe’s data protection framework — which, conversely, mandates that people’s information be securely handled, not spread around like confetti. (Though he believes RTB can work fine if you strip out personal data and only use it for contextual ads.)

European data protection regulators agree there’s a ‘lawfulness’ problem with current adtech practices. But have so far sat on their hands rather than taking enforcement action, given how widespread the problem is.

(Interestingly, Negenman says the NPO investigated continuing using programmatic RTB but with personal data stripped out. Though, in the event, he says this idea never got past the production stage. “Personally I can imagine a compliant combination,” he notes, adding: “Most importantly, the personal data must not leave the trusted data partner [and be shared with] the advertisers.”)

Turning a tanker clearly takes time. But the more publishers that see not pushing creepy ads on their users as an opportunity to experiment with alternatives, the more chance there will be for the market to shift wholesale for privacy — a shift that can be a huge win for publishers and users alike, as the NPO experience illustrates. 

Competition regulators, meanwhile, are closing in on big (ad)tech’s market power — and the conflicts of interest that arise from the “vertically integrated chain of intermediaries” which work to funnel the lion’s share of digital ad spend into platform coffers. So it’s not hard to conceive of an intervention to force market reform by breaking up Google’s business empire — to separate the ‘ad’ bits from its other ‘tech’.

The self-interested forces that underpin surveillance capitalism made their fortunes when no one was really looking at how their methods exploit people’s data. Now, with many more eyes trained on them, they are operating on borrowed time. It’s no longer a question of whether change is coming. The sands are shifting, with platforms themselves now moving to limit access to third party tracking cookies.

Savvy publishers would do well to get out ahead of the next round of platform power moves — and skate to where the puck’s headed.

#adtech, #advertising-tech, #brave, #digital-advertising, #digital-marketing, #europe, #gdpr, #google, #johnny-ryan, #marketing, #media, #netherlands, #online-advertising, #privacy, #real-time-bidding, #rtb, #targeted-advertising, #tc, #the-new-york-times

Investors are browsing for Chromium startups

A few months ago, we declared that “browsers are interesting again,” thanks to increased competition among the major players. Now, as more startups are getting onboard, things are getting downright exciting.

A small but growing number of projects are building web browsers with a more specific type of user in mind. Whether that perceived user is prioritizing improved speed, organization or toolsets aligned with their workflow, entrepreneurs are building these projects with the assumption that Google’s one-size-fits-all approach with Chrome leaves plenty of users with a suboptimal experience.

Building a modern web browser from scratch isn’t the most feasible challenge for a small startup. Luckily open-source projects have enabled developers to build their evolved web browsers on the bones of the apps they aim to compete with. For browsers that are not Safari, Firefox, Chrome or a handful of others, Google’s Chromium open-source project has proven to be an invaluable asset.

Since Google first released Chrome in late 2008, the company has also been updating Chromium. The source code powers the Microsoft Edge and Opera web browsers, but also allows smaller developer teams to harness the power of Chrome when building their own apps.

These upstart browsers have generally sought to compete with the dominant powers on the privacy front, but as Chrome and Safari have begun shipping more features to help users manage how they are tracked online, entrepreneurs are widening their product ambitions to tackle usability upgrades.

Aiding these heightened ambitions is increased attention on custom browsers from investors. Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich’s Brave has continued to scale, announcing last month they had 5 million daily active users of their privacy-centric browser.

Today, Thrive Capital’s Josh Miller spoke with TechCrunch about his project The Browser Company which has raised $5 million from some notable Silicon Valley operators. Other hot upstart efforts include Mighty, a subscription-based, remote-streamed Chrome startup from Mixpanel founder Suhail Doshi, and Blue Link Labs, a recent entrant that’s building a decentralized peer-to-peer browser called Beaker browser.

Mighty

As front-end developers have gotten more ambitious and web applications have gotten more complex, Chrome has earned the reputation of being quite the RAM hog.

#brave, #browsers, #chromium, #ev-williams, #founders-fund, #freeware, #github, #google, #google-chrome, #mighty, #mixpanel, #mozilla, #opera, #slack-fund, #tc, #thrive-capital, #web-browsers, #y-combinator

Adtech scores a pandemic pause from UK privacy oversight

The coronavirus is proving to have an unexpected upside for the adtech industry.

The UK’s data protection agency has paused an investigation into the industry’s processing of Internet users’ personal data, saying targeted suspension of privacy oversight is merited because of disruption to businesses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The investigation into adtech industry practices by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is linked to a 2018 complaint it received about systematic, massive scale, high velocity personal data trading associated with the real-time bidding component of programmatic advertising.

A series of complaints have since been filed over the issue across the EU that assert it amounts to “the most massive leakage of personal data recorded so far”.

The first of these complaints was lodged in the UK with the ICO but the complainants are still waiting for any relief.

And now their wait goes on…

One of the complainants, Brave’s Dr Johnny Ryan, described the regulatory inaction over a period of some two years since he sounded the alarm to the watchdog as “astounding”.

“They’ve failed to use any of their powers. Even their powers of investigation,” Ryan told TechCrunch. “We’re not even talking about enforcement. They’ve failed to ask their questions using their strong voice. The lack of action — it’s actually really hard to remember just how little action there is — it’s quite astounding, just how vacuous this vacuum is. How much of a pause this was a pause of.

“That’s astounding,” he added. “I claim it’s the biggest data breach the UK has ever had — but I’ve never had anyone contradict that. It’s almost indisputable because the figures are so big. So we’ve got this enormous breach, and… it’s continuing — so it’s not some discrete thing that’s now over… The harm accumulates. So this is a problem. It’s a breach pandemic!”

We also contacted the ICO with questions about the decision to suspend the adtech investigation — including asking how UK citizens can be confident their data rights are being defended against abuse by powerful industry platforms.

The regulator did not engage with what we asked — instead sending this generic statement:

The ICO recently set out its regulatory approach during the COVID-19 pandemic, where we spoke about reassessing our priorities and resources.

Taking this into account we have made the decision to pause our investigation into real time bidding and the Adtech industry.

It is not our intention to put undue pressure on any industry at this time but our concerns about Adtech remain and we aim to restart our work in the coming months, when the time is right.

This is by no means the first ‘breather’ the regulator has offered the adtech industry vis-a-vis this complaint.

In fact there have been a series of ‘warnings’ — followed by a series of periods of, er, mildly worded blog posts. (See here, here and here.) Enforcement? Not a sniff.

Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), meanwhile, will turn two later later this month — meaning it’ll be two years since the updated framework was supposed to start to apply.

Many privacy experts and campaigners are questioning the quality and quantity of enforcement set along alongside the flagship update to legal safeguards for citizens’ data — which actually date all the way back to 1995.

Brave Ryan said the ICO’s regulatory abdication does not reflect well on the success of the wider EU data protection regime — pointing out that the UK watchdog is the best resourced of the bloc’s (post-Brexit) 27 Member States (the UK remains in the EU until the end of the Brexit transition period, so is still technically a member right now).

“If the EU’s biggest regulator in this domain — which is one of the jewels in the EU’s regulatory crown — its biggest and most well resourced, in terms of cash, regulators is unable to enforce against the biggest data protection infringement that the country it regulates for has ever experienced is the GDPR just a kind of collective hallucination?” he said. “Or is that something that is limited to the UK?”

A bigger issue he points to is that the UK, post-Brexit, will need to request a data protection ‘adequacy agreement’ from the European Commission if it wishes for its businesses to be able to freely exchange data with EU businesses as they can now.

“When the UK requests that the European Commission consider the UK as a safe and adequate third country where personal data from the EU can freely flow, one of the questions to be considered is do you have a regulator that can protect this personal data? And the answer today is no,” said Ryan. “No, you do not have a regulator that is able to protect personal data of European citizens.”

“This [ICO inaction] should have a post-Brexit implication — which will affect so many sectors of the UK economy,” he warned.

Ryan’s employer, Brave — which makes a pro-privacy web browser — recently lodged a complaint with the European Commission against EU Member States, producing a report and accusing governments of under-resourcing their data protection agencies. It has asked the Commission to launch an infringement procedure.

“How is only 3% of the [ICO] staff mainly focused on digital issues?” Ryan added. “Clearly more than 3% of infringement is digital and more than 3% of life is — so unless the ICO is labouring under the misapprehension that we are at the beginning of this digital transition they are the wrong regulator for this decade. This is last century’s regulator. So there’s a huge management problem inside the ICO. It seems they are unwilling or unable to regulate digital issues… They need to get fit for purpose.

“They are still living in a print based world. And we are confronting them urgently with problems that are not print based — but that affect every aspect of our lives. Including, apparently, the last election. And presumably the next one too… So this is shocking on many, many levels.”

As a consequence of Brexit, UK citizens should expect the ICO to be their sole data protection rights enforcer, rather than — as can be the case now — other EU regulators being involved in defending their rights, such as in the case of major tech platforms which often locate themselves under a legal jurisdiction elsewhere in the EU.

Google, for example, has said it will relocate UK users to a US jurisdiction in response to Brexit.

#adtech, #advertising-tech, #brave, #brexit, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #data-protection, #data-security, #europe, #european-commission, #european-union, #general-data-protection-regulation, #google, #ico, #information-commissioners-office, #johnny-ryan, #personal-data, #privacy, #united-kingdom, #united-states