With liberty and privacy for some: Widening inequality on the digital frontier

Privacy is emotional — we often value privacy the most when we feel vulnerable or powerless when confronted with creepy data practices. But in the eyes of the court, emotions don’t always constitute harm or a reason for structural change in how privacy is legally codified.

It might take a material perspective on widening privacy disparities — and their implication in broader social inequality — to catalyze the privacy improvements the U.S. desperately needs.

Apple’s leaders announced their plans for the App Tracking Transparency (ATT) update in 2020. In short, iOS users can refuse an app’s ability to track their activity on other apps and websites. The ATT update has led to a sweeping three-quarters of iOS users opting out of cross-app tracking.

Whenever one user base gears up with privacy protections, companies simply redirect their data practices along the path of least resistance.

With less data available to advertisers looking to develop individual profiles for targeted advertising, targeted ads for iOS users look less effective and appealing to ad agencies. As a result, new findings show that advertisers are spending one-third less in advertising spending on iOS devices.

They are redirecting that capital into advertising on Android systems, which account for just over 42.06% of the mobile OS market share, compared to iOS at 57.62%.

Beyond a vague sense of creepiness, privacy disparities increasingly pose risks of material harm: emotional, reputational, economic and otherwise. If privacy belongs to all of us, as many tech companies say, then why does it cost so much? Whenever one user base gears up with privacy protections, companies simply redirect their data practices along the path of least resistance, toward the populations with fewer resources, legal or technical, to control their data.

More than just ads

As more money goes into Android ads, we could expect advertising techniques to become more sophisticated, or at least more aggressive. It is not illegal for companies to engage in targeted advertising, so long as it is done in compliance with users’ legal rights to opt out under relevant laws like CCPA in California.

This raises two immediate issues. First, residents of every state except California currently lack such opt-out rights. Second, granting some users the right to opt out of targeted advertising strongly implies that there are harms, or at least risks, to targeted advertising. And indeed, there can be.

Targeted advertising involves third parties building and maintaining behind-the-scenes profiles of users based on their behavior. Gathering data on app activity, such as fitness habits or shopping patterns, could lead to further inferences about sensitive aspects of a user’s life.

At this point, a representation of a user exists in an under-regulated data system containing — whether correctly or incorrectly inferenced — data that the user did not consent to sharing. (Unless the user lives in California, but let’s suppose they live anywhere else in the U.S.)

Further, research finds that targeted advertising, in building detailed profiles of users, can enact discrimination in housing and employment opportunities, sometimes in violation of federal law. And targeted advertising can impede individuals’ autonomy, preemptively narrowing their window of purchasing options, even when they don’t want to. On the other hand, targeted advertising can support niche or grassroots organizations in connecting them directly with interested audiences. Regardless of a stance on targeted advertising, the underlying problem is when users have no say in whether they are subject to it.

Targeted advertising is a massive and booming practice, but it is only one practice within a broader web of business activities that do not prioritize respect for users’ data. And these practices are not illegal in much of the U.S. Instead of the law, your pocketbook can keep you clear of data disrespect.

Privacy as a luxury

Prominent tech companies, particularly Apple, declare privacy a human right, which makes complete sense from a business standpoint. In the absence of the U.S. federal government codifying privacy rights for all consumers, a bold privacy commitment from a private company sounds pretty appealing.

If the government isn’t going to set a privacy standard, at least my phone manufacturer will. Even though only 6% of Americans claim to understand how companies use their data, it is companies that are making the broad privacy moves.

But if those declaring privacy as a human right only make products affordable to some, what does that say about our human rights? Apple products skew toward wealthier, more educated consumers compared to competitors’ products. This projects a troubling future of increasingly exacerbated privacy disparities between the haves and the have-nots, where a feedback loop is established: Those with fewer resources to acquire privacy protections may have fewer resources to navigate the technical and legal challenges that come with a practice as convoluted as targeted advertising.

Don’t take this as me siding with Facebook in its feud with Apple about privacy versus affordability (see: systemic access control issues recently coming to light). In my view, neither side of that battle is winning.

We deserve meaningful privacy protections that everyone can afford. In fact, to turn the phrase on its head, we deserve meaningful privacy protections that no company can afford to omit from their products. We deserve a both/and approach: privacy that is both meaningful and widely available.

Our next steps forward

Looking ahead, there are two key areas for privacy progress: privacy legislation and privacy tooling for developers. I again invoke the both/and approach. We need lawmakers, rather than tech companies, setting reliable privacy standards for consumers. And we need widely available developer tools that give developers no reason — financially, logistically or otherwise — to implement privacy at the product level.

On privacy legislation, I believe that policy professionals are already raising some excellent points, so I’ll direct you to some of my favorite recent writing from them.

Stacey Gray and her team at the Future of Privacy Forum have begun an excellent blog series on how a federal privacy law could interact with the emerging patchwork of state laws.

Joe Jerome published an outstanding recap of the 2021 state-level privacy landscape and the routes toward widespread privacy protections for all Americans. A key takeaway: The effectiveness of privacy regulation hinges on how well it harmonizes among individuals and businesses. That’s not to say that regulation should be business-friendly, but rather that businesses should be able to reference clear privacy standards so they can confidently and respectfully handle everyday folks’ data.

On privacy tooling, if we make privacy tools readily accessible and affordable for all developers, we really leave tech with zero excuses to meet privacy standards. Take the issue of access control, for instance. Engineers attempt to build manual controls over which personnel and end users can access various data in a complex data ecosystem already populated with sensitive personal information.

The challenge is twofold. First, the horse has already bolted. Technical debt accumulates rapidly, while privacy has remained outside of software development. Engineers need tools that enable them to build privacy features like nuanced access control prior to production.

This leads into the second aspect of the challenge: Even if the engineers overcame all of the technical debt and could make structural privacy improvements at the code level, what standards and widely available tools are available to use?

As a June 2021 report from the Future of Privacy Forum makes clear, privacy technology is in dire need of consistent definitions, which are required for widespread adoption of trustworthy privacy tools. With more consistent definitions and widely available developer tools for privacy, these technical transformations translate into material improvements in how tech at large — not just tech of Brand XYZ — gives users control over their data.

We need privacy rules set by an institution that is not itself playing the game. Regulation alone cannot save us from modern privacy perils, but it is a vital ingredient in any viable solution.

Alongside regulation, every software engineering team should have privacy tools immediately available. When civil engineers are building a bridge, they cannot make it safe for a subset of the population; it must work for all who cross it. The same must hold for our data infrastructure, lest we exacerbate disparities within and beyond the digital realm.

#android, #apple, #california, #column, #developer-tools, #digital-rights, #facebook, #human-rights, #ios-devices, #opinion, #policy, #privacy, #software-development, #tc, #united-states

This Week in Apps: In-app events hit the App Store, TikTok tries Stories, Apple reveals new child safety plan

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place, with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

Apple to scan for CSAM imagery

Apple announced a major initiative to scan devices for CSAM imagery. The company on Thursday announced a new set of features, arriving later this year, that will detect child sexual abuse material (CSAM) in its cloud and report it to law enforcement. Companies like Dropbox, Google and Microsoft already scan for CSAM in their cloud services, but Apple had allowed users to encrypt their data before it reached iCloud. Now, Apple’s new technology, NeuralHash, will run on users’ devices, tatformso detect when a users upload known CSAM imagery — without having to first decrypt the images. It even can detect the imagery if it’s been cropped or edited in an attempt to avoid detection.

Meanwhile, on iPhone and iPad, the company will roll out protections to Messages app users that will filter images and alert children and parents if sexually explicit photos are sent to or from a child’s account. Children will not be shown the images but will instead see a grayed-out image instead. If they try to view the image anyway through the link, they’ll be shown interruptive screens that explain why the material may be harmful and are warned that their parents will be notified.

Some privacy advocates pushed back at the idea of such a system, believing it could expand to end-to-end encrypted photos, lead to false positives, or set the stage for more on-device government surveillance in the future. But many cryptology experts believe the system Apple developed provides a good balance between privacy and utility, and have offered their endorsement of the technology. In addition, Apple said reports are manually reviewed before being sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

The changes may also benefit iOS developers who deal in user photos and uploads, as predators will no longer store CSAM imagery on iOS devices in the first place, given the new risk of detection.

In-App Events appear on the App Store

Image Credits: Apple

Though not yet publicly available to all users, those testing the new iOS 15 mobile operating system got their first glimpse of a new App Store discovery feature this week: “in-app events.” First announced at this year’s WWDC, the feature will allow developers and Apple editors alike to showcase directly on the App Store upcoming events taking place inside apps.

The events can appear on the App Store homepage, on the app’s product pages or can be discovered through personalized recommendations and search. In some cases, editors will curate events to feature on the App Store. But developers will also be provided tools to submit their own in-app events. TikTok’s “Summer Camp” for creators was one of the first in-app events to be featured, where it received a top spot on the iPadOS 15 App Store.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple expands support for student IDs on iPhone and Apple Watch ahead of the fall semester. Tens of thousands more U.S. and Canadian colleges will now support mobile student IDs in the Apple Wallet app, including Auburn University, Northern Arizona University, University of Maine, New Mexico State University and others.

Apple was accused of promoting scam apps in the App Store’s featured section. The company’s failure to properly police its store is one thing, but to curate an editorial list that actually includes the scams is quite another. One of the games rounded up under “Slime Relaxations,” an already iffy category to say the least, was a subscription-based slime simulator that locked users into a $13 AUD per week subscription for its slime simulator. One of the apps on the curated list didn’t even function, implying that Apple’s editors hadn’t even tested the apps they recommend.

Tax changes hit the App Store. Apple announced tax and price changes for apps and IAPs in South Africa, the U.K. and all territories using the Euro currency, all of which will see decreases. Increases will occur in Georgia and Tajikistan, due to new tax changes. Proceeds on the App Store in Italy will be increased to reflect a change to the Digital Services Tax effective rate.

Game Center changes, too. Apple said that on August 4, a new certificate for server-based Game Center verification will be available via the publicKeyUrl.

Fintech

Robinhood stock jumped more than 24% to $46.80 on Tuesday after initially falling 8% on its first day of trading last week, after which it had continued to trade below its opening price of $38.

Square’s Cash app nearly doubled its gross profit to $546 million in Q2, but also reported a $45 million impairment loss on its bitcoin holdings.

Coinbase’s app now lets you buy your cryptocurrency using Apple Pay. The company previously made its Coinbase Card compatible with Apple Pay in June.

Social

An anonymous app called Sendit, which relies on Snap Kit to function, is climbing the charts of the U.S. App Store after Snap suspended similar apps, YOLO and LMK. Snap was sued by the parent of child who was bullied through those apps, which led to his suicide. Sendit also allows for anonymity, and reviews compare it to YOLO. But some reviews also complained about bullying. This isn’t the first time Snap has been involved in a lawsuit related to a young person’s death related to its app. The company was also sued for its irresponsible “speed filter” that critics said encouraged unsafe driving. Three young men died using the filter, which captured them doing 123 mph.

TikTok is testing Stories. As Twitter’s own Stories integrations, Fleets, shuts down, TikTok confirmed it’s testing its own Stories product. The TikTok Stories appear in a left-hand sidebar and allow users to post ephemeral images or video that disappear in 24 hours. Users can also comment on Stories, which are public to their mutual friends and the creator. Stories on TikTok may make more sense than they did on Twitter, as TikTok is already known as a creative platform and it gives the app a more familiar place to integrate its effects toolset and, eventually, advertisements.

Facebook has again re-arranged its privacy settings. The company continually moves around where its privacy features are located, ostensibly to make them easier to find. But users then have to re-learn where to go to find the tools they need, after they had finally memorized the location. This time, the settings have been grouped into six top-level categories, but “privacy” settings have been unbundled from one location to be scattered among the other categories.

A VICE report details ban-as-a-service operations that allow anyone to harass or censor online creators on Instagram. Assuming you can find it, one operation charged $60 per ban, the listing says.

TikTok merged personal accounts with creator accounts. The change means now all non-business accounts on TikTok will have access to the creator tools under Settings, including Analytics, Creator Portal, Promote and Q&A. TikTok shared the news directly with subscribers of its TikTok Creators newsletter in August, and all users will get a push notification alerting them to the change, the company told us.

Discord now lets users customize their profile on its apps. The company added new features to its iOS and Android apps that let you add a description, links and emojis and select a profile color. Paid subscribers can also choose an image or GIF as their banner.

Twitter Spaces added a co-hosting option that allows up to two co-hosts to be added to the live audio chat rooms. Now Spaces can have one main host, two co-hosts and up to 10 speakers. Co-hosts have all the moderation abilities as hosts, but can’t add or remove others as co-hosts.

Messaging

Tencent reopened new user sign-ups for its WeChat messaging app, after having suspended registrations last week for unspecified “technical upgrades.” The company, like many other Chinese tech giants, had to address new regulations from Beijing impacting the tech industry. New rules address how companies handle user data collection and storage, antitrust behavior and other checks on capitalist “excess.” The gaming industry is now worried it’s next to be impacted, with regulations that would restrict gaming for minors to fight addiction.

WhatsApp is adding a new feature that will allow users to send photos and videos that disappear after a single viewing. The Snapchat-inspired feature, however, doesn’t alert you if the other person takes a screenshot — as Snap’s app does. So it may not be ideal for sharing your most sensitive content.

Telegram’s update expands group video calls to support up to 1,000 viewers. It also announced video messages can be recorded in higher quality and can be expanded, regular videos can be watched at 0.5 or 2x speed, screen sharing with sound is available for all video calls, including 1-on-1 calls, and more.

Streaming & Entertainment

American Airlines added free access to TikTok aboard its Viasat-equipped aircraft. Passengers will be able to watch the app’s videos for up to 30 minutes for free and can even download the app if it’s not already installed. After the free time, they can opt to pay for Wi-Fi to keep watching. Considering how easy it is to fall into multi-hour TikTok viewing sessions without knowing it, the addition of the addictive app could make long plane rides feel shorter. Or at least less painful.

Chinese TikTok rival Kuaishou saw stocks fall by more than 15% in Hong Kong, the most since its February IPO. The company is another victim of an ongoing market selloff triggered by increasing investor uncertainty related to China’s recent crackdown on tech companies. Beijing’s campaign to rein in tech has also impacted Tencent, Alibaba, Jack Ma’s Ant Group, food delivery company Meituan and ride-hailing company Didi. Also related, Kuaishou shut down its controversial app Zynn, which had been paying users to watch its short-form videos, including those stolen from other apps.

Twitch overtook YouTube in consumer spending per user in April 2021, and now sees $6.20 per download as of June compared with YouTube’s $5.60, Sensor Tower found.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Spotify confirmed tests of a new ad-supported tier called Spotify Plus, which is only $0.99 per month and offers unlimited skips (like free users get on the desktop) and the ability to play the songs you want, instead of only being forced to use shuffle mode.

The company also noted in a forum posting that it’s no longer working on AirPlay2 support, due to “audio driver compatibility” issues.

Mark Cuban-backed audio app Fireside asked its users to invest in the company via an email sent to creators which didn’t share deal terms. The app has yet to launch.

YouTube kicks off its $100 million Shorts Fund aimed at taking on TikTok by providing creators with cash incentives for top videos. Creators will get bonuses of $100 to $10,000 based on their videos’ performance.

Dating

Match Group announced during its Q2 earnings it plans to add to several of the company’s brands over the next 12 to 24 months audio and video chat, including group live video, and other livestreaming technologies. The developments will be powered by innovations from Hyperconnect, the social networking company that this year became Match’s biggest acquisition to date when it bought the Korean app maker for a sizable $1.73 billion. Since then, Match was spotted testing group live video on Tinder, but says that particular product is not launching in the near-term. At least two brands will see Hyperconnect-powered integrations in 2021.

Photos

The Photo & Video category on U.S. app stores saw strong growth in the first half of the year, a Sensor Tower report found. Consumer spend among the top 100 apps grew 34% YoY to $457 million in Q2 2021, with the majority of the revenue (83%) taking place on iOS.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Gaming

Epic Games revealed the host of its in-app Rift Tour event is Ariana Grande, in the event that runs August 6-8.

Pokémon GO influencers threatened to boycott the game after Niantic removed the COVID safety measures that had allowed people to more easily play while social distancing. Niantic’s move seemed ill-timed, given the Delta variant is causing a new wave of COVID cases globally.

Health & Fitness

Apple kicked out an app called Unjected from the App Store. The new social app billed itself as a community for the unvaccinated, allowing like-minded users to connect for dating and friendships. Apple said the app violated its policies for COVID-19 content.

Google Pay expanded support for vaccine cards. In Australia, Google’s payments app now allows users to add their COVID-19 digital certification to their device for easy access. The option is available through Google’s newly updated Passes API which lets government agencies distribute digital versions of vaccine cards.

COVID Tech Connect, a U.S. nonprofit initially dedicated to collecting devices like phones and tablets for COVID ICU patients, has now launched its own app. The app, TeleHome, is a device-agnostic, HIPAA-compliant way for patients to place a video call for free at a time when the Delta variant is again filling ICU wards, this time with the unvaccinated — a condition that sometimes overlaps with being low-income. Some among the working poor have been hesitant to get the shot because they can’t miss a day of work, and are worried about side effects. Which is why the Biden administration offered a tax credit to SMBs who offered paid time off to staff to get vaccinated and recover.

Popular journaling app Day One, which was recently acquired by WordPress.com owner Automattic, rolled out a new “Concealed Journals” feature that lets users hide content from others’ viewing. By tapping the eye icon, the content can be easily concealed on a journal by journal basis, which can be useful for those who write to their journal in public, like coffee shops or public transportation.

Edtech

Recently IPO’d language learning app Duolingo is developing a math app for kids. The company says it’s still “very early” in the development process, but will announce more details at its annual conference, Duocon, later this month.

Educational publisher Pearson launched an app that offers U.S. students access to its 1,500 titles for a monthly subscription of $14.99. the Pearson+ mobile app (ack, another +), also offers the option of paying $9.99 per month for access to a single textbook for a minimum of four months.

News & Reading

Quora jumps into the subscription economy. Still not profitable from ads alone, Quora announced two new products that allow its expert creators to monetize their content on its service. With Quora+ ($5/mo or $50/yr), subscribers can pay for any content that a creator paywalls. Creators can choose to enable a adaptive paywall that will use an algorithm to determine when to show the paywall. Another product, Spaces, lets creators write paywalled publications on Quora, similar to Substack. But only a 5% cut goes to Quora, instead of 10% on Substack.

Utilities

Google Maps on iOS added a new live location-sharing feature for iMessage users, allowing them to more easily show your ETA with friends and even how much battery life you have left. The feature competes with iMessage’s built-in location-sharing feature, and offers location sharing of 1 hour up to 3 days. The app also gained a dark mode.

Security & Privacy

Controversial crime app Citizen launched a $20 per month “Protect” service that includes live agent support (who can refer calls to 911 if need be). The agents can gather your precise location, alert your designated emergency contacts, help you navigate to a safe location and monitor the situation until you feel safe. The system of live agent support is similar to in-car or in-home security and safety systems, like those from ADT or OnStar, but works with users out in the real world. The controversial part, however, is the company behind the product: Citizen has been making headlines for launching private security fleets outside law enforcement, and recently offered a reward in a manhunt for an innocent person based on unsubstantiated tips.

Funding and M&A

? Square announced its acquisition of the “buy now, pay later” giant AfterPay in a $29 billion deal that values the Australian firm at more than 30% higher than the stock’s last closing price of AUS$96.66. AfterPay has served over 16 million customers and nearly 100,000 merchants globally, to date, and comes at a time when the BNPL space is heating up. Apple has also gotten into the market recently with an Affirm partnership in Canada.

? Gaming giant Zynga acquired Chinese game developer StarLark, the team behind the mobile golf game Golf Rival, from Betta Games for $525 million in both cash and stock. Golf Rival is the second-largest mobile golf game behind Playdemic’s Golf Clash, and EA is in the process of buying that studio for $1.4 billion.

?  U.K.-based Humanity raised an additional $2.5 million for its app that claims to help slow down aging, bringing the total raise to date to $5 million. Backers include Calm’s co-founders, MyFitness Pal’s co-founder and others in the health space. The app works by benchmarking health advice against real-world data, to help users put better health practices into action.

? YELA, a Cameo-like app for the Middle East and South Asia, raised $2 million led by U.S. investors that include Tinder co-founder Justin Mateen and Sean Rad, general partner of RAD Fund. The app is focusing on signing celebrities in the regions it serves, where smartphone penetration is high and over 6% of the population is under 35.

? London-based health and wellness app maker Palta raised a $100 million Series B led by VNV Global. The company’s products include Flo.Health, Simple Fasting, Zing Fitness Coach and others, which reach a combined 2.4 million active, paid subscribers. The funds will be used to create more mobile subscription products.

? Emoji database and Wikipedia-like site Emojipedia was acquired by Zedge, the makers of a phone personalization app offering wallpapers, ringtones and more to 35 million MAUs. Deal terms weren’t disclosed. Emojipedia says the deal provides it with more stability and the opportunity for future growth. For Zedge, the deal provides?….um, a popular web resource it thinks it can better monetize, we suspect.

? Mental health app Revery raised $2 million led by Sequoia Capital India’s Surge program for its app that combines cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia with mobile gaming concepts. The company will focus on other mental health issues in the future.

? London-based Nigerian-operating fintech startup Kuda raised a $55 million Series B, valuing its mobile-first challenger bank at $500 million. The inside round was co-led by Valar Ventures and Target Global.

? Vietnamese payments provider VNLife raised $250 million in a round led by U.S.-based General Atlantic and Dragoneer Investment Group. PayPal Ventures and others also participated. The round values the business at over $1 billion.

Downloads

Mastodon for iPhone

Fans of decentralized social media efforts now have a new app. The nonprofit behind the open source decentralized social network Mastodon released an official iPhone app, aimed at making the network more accessible to newcomers. The app allows you to find and follow people and topics; post text, images, GIFs, polls, and videos; and get notified of new replies and reblogs, much like Twitter.

Xingtu

@_666eveITS SO COOL FRFR do u guys want a tutorial? #fypシ #醒图 #醒图app♬ original sound – Ian Asher

TikTok users are teaching each other how to switch over to the Chinese App Store in order to get ahold of the Xingtu app for iOS. (An Android version is also available.) The app offers advanced editing tools that let users edit their face and body, like FaceTune, apply makeup, add filters and more. While image-editing apps can be controversial for how they can impact body acceptance, Xingtu offers a variety of artistic filters which is what’s primarily driving the demand. It’s interesting to see the lengths people will go to just to get a few new filters for their photos — perhaps making a case for Instagram to finally update its Post filters instead of pretending no one cares about their static photos anymore.

Tweets

Facebook still dominating top charts, but not the No. 1 spot:  

Not cool, Apple: 

This user acquisition strategy: 

Maybe Stories don’t work everywhere: 

#adt, #afterpay, #alibaba, #android, #ant-group, #api, #app-maker, #app-store, #apple, #apps, #australia, #automattic, #beijing, #biden-administration, #canada, #china, #cloud-services, #coinbase, #coinbase-card, #computing, #day-one, #dragoneer-investment-group, #driver, #dropbox, #duolingo, #emojipedia, #eta, #facebook, #fintech-startup, #food-delivery, #game-center, #game-developer, #general-atlantic, #general-partner, #georgia, #gif, #google, #hyperconnect, #instagram, #ios, #ios-devices, #ipad, #iphone, #italy, #itunes, #jam-fund, #justin-mateen, #kuaishou, #kuda, #law-enforcement, #london, #ma, #maine, #meituan, #microsoft, #middle-east, #mobile, #mobile-app, #mobile-applications, #mobile-devices, #online-creators, #onstar, #operating-system, #palta, #playdemic, #quora, #sean-rad, #sensor-tower, #sequoia-capital, #smartphone, #snap, #snapchat, #social-network, #social-networking, #software, #south-africa, #south-asia, #spotify, #stories, #target-global, #tc, #this-week-in-apps, #tiktok, #twitch, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #valar-ventures, #viasat, #vnv-global, #wi-fi, #wordpress-com, #zedge, #zynga

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

Many Canon cameras can now automatically back up pictures to Google Photos

Canon and Google today announced a new software integration that enables automatic Google Photos backup of pictures taken with select Canon cameras – a full list is available here, but it’s most of their recent interchangeable lens cameras dating back basically to when they started getting wifi on board.

The auto backup feature will work via the Canon mobile app, which is available on Android and iOS devices. If you have the most recent version, you can add your Canon camera to the app and set it to automatically transfer full, original-quality photos from your camera to Google Photos when your phone is connected to the camera. That takes out the typically manual process of somehow connecting either your camera or its memory cards physically to either your computer or your smartphone.

This feature does come with some caveats, however, including that it’s only available to Google One members. To ease the financial sting of that requirement (though it’s one of the more affordable and comprehensive cloud photo and data products out there), Canon users new to Google One will get one month of access free, with up to 100GB of cloud storage.

Speaking from experience, I know that a lot of photos I take with my ‘real’ cameras just end up staying on the camera, or on countless backup drives and SD cards I have strewn about. This auto-backup feature makes it much more likely I’ll actually discover and look at more of those photos again – and possibly even print and share them with loved ones. Here’s hoping it expands to other camera-makers in future, too.

#android, #apps, #canon, #computing, #digital-camera, #google, #google-photos, #hardware, #ios-devices, #smartphone, #software, #tc

Google One now offers free phone backups up to 15GB on Android and iOS

Google One, Google’s subscription program for buying additional storage and live support, is getting an update today that will bring free phone backups for Android and iOS devices to anybody who installs the app — even if they don’t have a paid membership. The catch: While the feature is free, the backups count against your free Google storage allowance of 15GB. If you need more you need — you guessed it — a Google One membership to buy more storage or delete data you no longer need. Paid memberships start at $1.99/month for 100GB.

Image Credits: Google

Last year, paid members already got access to this feature on Android, which stores your texts, contacts, apps, photos and videos in Google’s cloud. The “free” backups are now available to Android users. iOS users will get access to it once the Google One app rolls out on iOS in the near future.

Image Credits: Google

With this update, Google is also introducing a new storage manager tool in Google One, which is available in the app and on the web, and which allows you to delete files and backups as needed. The tool works across Google properties and lets you find emails with very large attachments or large files in your Google Drive storage, for example.

With this free backup feature, Google is clearly trying to get more people onto Google One. The free 15GB storage limit is pretty easy to hit, after all (and that’s for your overall storage on Google, including Gmail and other services) and paying $1.99 for 100GB isn’t exactly a major expense, especially if you are already part of the Google ecosystem and use apps like Google Photos already.

#android, #cloud-storage, #computing, #google, #google-drive, #icloud, #ios, #ios-devices, #mobile-app, #operating-systems, #smartphones, #tc

Apple Pay and iOS App Store under formal antitrust probe in Europe

Apple is under formal investigation by antitrust regulators in European Union — following a number of complaints related to how it operates the iOS App Store and also its payment offering, Apple Pay.

The Commission said today that it has concerns that conditions and restrictions applied by the tech giant may be distorting competition in a number of areas, following a preliminary probe of the issues.

Back in March 2019, European music streaming service Spotify filed an antitrust complaint against Apple — railing very publicly against what it dubbed an “Apple tax”; aka the 30% tariff the tech giant applies on accepting payments in apps on its App Store. Spotify also accused Apple of impeding its business by applying arbitrary rules — such as making it harder to offer its own users discounts.

The Commission confirmed today that it’s looking formally into whether Apple’s rules for app developers on the distribution of apps via the App Store violate EU competition rules. It said the probe focuses on Apple’s mandatory requirement that app developers use its own proprietary in-app purchase system, as well as restrictions applied on the ability of developers to inform iPhone and iPad users of alternative cheaper purchasing possibilities outside of apps.

As well as the very public complaint from Spotify, the Commission has received a similar complaint from an unnamed e-book/audiobook distributor related to the impact of the App Store rules on competition.

Two specific restrictions imposed by Apple in its agreements with companies that wish to distribute apps to users of Apple devices will be investigated, per the Commission — namely [emphasis its]:

(i)   The mandatory use of Apple’s own proprietary in-app purchase system “IAP” for the distribution of paid digital content. Apple charges app developers a 30% commission on all subscription fees through IAP.

(ii)  Restrictions on the ability of developers to inform users of alternative purchasing possibilities outside of apps. While Apple allows users to consume content such as music, e-books and audiobooks purchased elsewhere (e.g. on the website of the app developer) also in the app, its rules prevent developers from informing users about such purchasing possibilities, which are usually cheaper.

“Following a preliminary investigation the Commission has concerns that Apple’s restrictions may distort competition for music streaming services on Apple’s devices,” it writes in a press release. “Apple’s competitors have either decided to disable the in-app subscription possibility altogether or have raised their subscription prices in the app and passed on Apple’s fee to consumers.

“In both cases, they were not allowed to inform users about alternative subscription possibilities outside of the app. The IAP obligation also appears to give Apple full control over the relationship with customers of its competitors subscribing in the app, thus dis-intermediating its competitors from important customer data while Apple may obtain valuable data about the activities and offers of its competitors.”

Commenting in a statement, Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager — who heads up competition policy for the bloc — added: Mobile applications have fundamentally changed the way we access content. Apple sets the rules for the distribution of apps to users of iPhones and iPads. It appears that Apple obtained a ‘gatekeeper’ role when it comes to the distribution of apps and content to users of Apple’s popular devices. We need to ensure that Apple’s rules do not distort competition in markets where Apple is competing with other app developers, for example with its music streaming service Apple Music or with Apple Books. I have therefore decided to take a close look at Apple’s App Store rules and their compliance with EU competition rules.”

Vestager’s reference to a “gatekeeper” role has specific significance as the Commission is currently consulting on updating regulations for digital platforms — including floating the possibility of ex ante regulation for platforms deemed to be gatekeepers vis-a-vis other suppliers.  (In parallel, the Commission is consulting on updates to competition law that may allow it to intervene more swiftly in future, in instances where it suspects digital markets have ‘tipped’.)

Spotify welcomed the Commission’s action, writing in a statement:

Today is a good day for consumers, Spotify and other app developers across Europe and around the world. Apple’s anticompetitive behavior has intentionally disadvantaged competitors, created an unlevel playing field, and deprived consumers of meaningful choice for far too long. We welcome the European Commission’s decision to formally investigate Apple, and hope they’ll act with urgency to ensure fair competition on the iOS platform for all participants in the digital economy.

On Apple Pay, the Commission said a formal investigation of how it operates the payment tech will look at the “terms, conditions and other measures” Apple applies for integrating the payment solution in merchant apps and websites on iPhones and iPads; Apple’s limitation of access to the NFC functionality on iPhones for payments in stores; and allegations of “refusals of access to Apple Pay”.

Following a preliminary probe, the Commission said it is concerned Apple’s processes “may distort competition and reduce choice and innovation”.

It also notes that Apple Pay is the only mobile payment solution that is allowed to access NFC technology on iOS devices for making payments in stores.

“The investigation will also focus on alleged restrictions of access to Apple Pay for specific products of rivals on iOS and iPadOS smart mobile devices,” it added.

The Commission said it will carry out the investigations “as a matter of priority”, but there’s no set timeframe for how long this process might take.

EU antitrust investigations have tended to take a number of years from an announcement of a formal probe to a decision being reached. (Although, in an ongoing investigation against Broadcom, Vestager recently dusted off a tool to accelerate regulatory intervention — but as yet there’s no formal ‘statement of objections’ against Apple so it remains to be seen how this case will proceed, and whether regulators may seek to speed up any intervention.)

Reached for comment on the Commission’s announcement of the two antitrust investigations, Apple dubbed the complaints “baseless” — choosing to throw shade on the complainants by claiming these companies are after “a free ride, and don’t want to play by the same rules as everyone else”.

Here’s Apple’s statement on the two investigations in full:

Throughout our history, Apple has created groundbreaking new products and services in some of the most fiercely competitive markets in the world. We follow the law in everything we do and we embrace competition at every stage because we believe it pushes us to deliver even better results.

We developed the App Store with two goals in mind: that it be a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps, and a great business opportunity for entrepreneurs and developers. We’re deeply proud of the countless developers who’ve innovated and found success through our platform. And as we’ve grown together, we’ve continued to deliver innovative new services — like Apple Pay — that provide the very best customer experience while meeting industry-leading standards for privacy and security.

It’s disappointing the European Commission is advancing baseless complaints from a handful of companies who simply want a free ride, and don’t want to play by the same rules as everyone else. We don’t think that’s right — we want to maintain a level playing field where anyone with determination and a great idea can succeed.

At the end of the day, our goal is simple: for our customers to have access to the best app or service of their choice, in a safe and secure environment. We welcome the opportunity to show the European Commission all we’ve done to make that goal a reality.

Apple has had a number of run-ins with EU regulators over the years — including a probe of its acquisition of Shazam (which was later cleared); a major investigation of ebook pricing; and a probe of tax benefits in Ireland which saw it on the hook for $15BN.

French competition regulators also recently fined the tech giant $1.2BN for anti-competitive sales tactics. It’s also been fined $27M by French regulators this year for throttling old iPhones.

This report was updated with comment from Spotify

#antitrust, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #apps, #competition, #competition-law, #e-book, #e-books, #europe, #european-commission, #european-union, #ios-app-store, #ios-devices, #ipad, #ipads, #iphone, #itunes, #margrethe-vestager, #mobile, #spotify

Apple could reportedly announce Mac shift to its own ARM-based chips this month

For years now, analysts and unconfirmed reports have suggested Apple was working on transitioning its Mac line of computers away from Intel -based chips, and to its own, ARM-based processors. Now, Bloomberg reports that the company could make those plans official as early as later this month, with an announcement potentially timed for its remote Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) happening the week of June 22.

Apple has historically made a number of announcements at WWDC, including providing forward-looking information about its software roadmap, like upcoming versions of macOS and iOS, in order to help developers prepare their software for the updates’ general public availability. WWDC has also provided a venue for a number of Mac hardware announcements over the years, including reveals of new MacBooks and iMacs.

Bloomberg says that this potential reveal of its plan to transition to ARM-based Macs would be an advance notice, however – it would not include a reveal of any immediately available hardware, but would act as an advance notice to developers to give them time to prepare their software for ARM-based Macs to be released in 2021. The report cautions that the timing of the announcement could change, however, given that there are no plans to actually introduce any ARM-based Mac hardware for many months at least.

This isn’t the first major processor architecture switch that Apple’s Mac lineup has undergone; the company moved from PowerPC-based CPUs to Intel in 2006. That switch was originally announced in 2005, at Apple’s WWDC event that year – giving developers around half-a-year advance notice to ready themselves for the transition.

Bloomberg reported in April that Apple was planning to start selling ARM-based Macs by next year, and was developing three different in-house Mac processors based on the architecture to power those machines. Apple has made its own ARM-based processors to power iOS devices including the iPhone and iPad for many generations now, and its expertise means that those chips are now much more power efficient, and powerful in most respects, than the Intel chips it sources for its Mac line.

#apple-worldwide-developers-conference, #arm, #computing, #gadgets, #hardware, #intel, #ios-devices, #ipad, #iphone, #mac, #mac-os, #mac-pro, #macintosh, #macos, #operating-systems, #steve-jobs, #tc

Apple brings its hardware microphone disconnect feature to iPads

Apple has brought its hardware microphone disconnect security feature to its latest iPads.

The microphone disconnect security feature aims to make it far more difficult for hackers to use malware or a malicious app to eavesdrop on a device’s surroundings.

The feature was first introduced to Macs by way of Apple’s T2 security chip last year. The security chip ensured that the microphone was physically disconnected from the device when the user shuts their MacBook lid. The idea goes that physically cutting off the microphone from the device prevents malware — even with the highest level of “root” device permissions — from listening in to nearby conversations.

Apple confirmed in a support guide that its newest iPads have the same feature. Any certified “Made for iPad” case that’s attached and closed will trigger the hardware disconnect.

It’s a subtle acknowledgement that Apple devices get malware, too. Although rare, there has been a steady stream of exploits targeting Macs and iOS devices in the past few years, prompting Apple to raise its bug bounty payouts to compete with the growing exploit market. Just last year, Apple patched a number of vulnerabilities that were used by China to break into the iPhones belonging to the phones of Uyghur Muslims, a persecuted minority group in China’s Xinjiang state.

Apple also said that all apps running on iOS or iPadOS 13.4 will be sandboxed in a “data vault,” to help prevent apps from accessing data without authorization.

#apple, #china, #hardware, #ios-devices, #ipad, #ipads, #operating-systems, #security, #t2, #tablet-computers