Apple and Google bow to pressure in Russia to remove Kremlin critic’s tactical voting app

Apple and Google have removed a tactical voting app created by the organization of jailed Kremlin critic, Alexei Navalny, from their respective mobile app stores in Russia.

Earlier this week Reuters reported that the Russian state had been amping up the pressure on foreign tech giants ahead of federal elections — appropriating the language of “election interference” to push US companies to censor the high profile political opponent to president Putin.

On Twitter today, a key Navalny ally, Ivan Zhdanov, tweeted that his organization is considering suing Apple and Google over removal of the apps — dubbing the act of censorship a “huge mistake”.

Zhdanov has also published what he says is Apple’s response to Team Navalny — in which the tech giant cites the Kremlin’s classification of a number of pro-Navalny organizations as “extremist” groups to justify its removal of the software.

(Image credit: Screengrab of detail from Apple’s notification to the developer, via Zhdanov’s tweet)

Apple and Google routinely say they comply with ‘all local laws’ in the countries where they operate.

However in Russia that stance means they have become complicit in acts of political censorship.

“We note that the Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation and the Prosecutor’s Office of the City of Moscow have also determined that the app violates the legislation of the Russian Federation by enabling interference in elections,” Apple writes in the notification of takedown it sent to the developer of the tactical voting app.

“While your app has been removed from the Russia App Store, it is still available in the App Stores for the other territories you selected in App Store Connect,” Apple adds.

Apple and Google have been contacted for comment on the removal of Navalny’s app.

 

Also via Twitter, Zhdanov urged supporters to focus on the tactical voting mission — tweeting a link to a video hosted on Google-owned YouTube which contains recommendations to Russians on how to cast an anti-Putin vote in the parliamentary elections taking place today until Sunday.

Navalny’s supporters are hoping to mobilize voters across Russia to cast tactical ballots in a bid to unseat Putin by voting for whatever candidate has the best chance of defeating the ruling United Russia party.

Their tactical voting strategy has faced some criticism — given that many of the suggested alternatives are, at best, only very weakly opposed to Putin’s regime.

However Navalny’s supporters would surely point out they are having to operate within a flawed system.

After Apple and Google initially refused to remove Navalny’s ‘Smart Voting’ app, last month, the Russian state has been attempting to block access to his organization’s website.

It has even reportedly targeted Google docs — which supporters of Navalny have also been using to organize tactical voting efforts.

Screengrab of the Smart Voting app on the UK iOS app store (Image credits: Natasha Lomas/TechCrunch)

Earlier this month Reuters reported that Russia’s communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, had threatened Apple and Google with fines if they did not remove the Smart Voting app — warning that failure to comply could be interpreted as election meddling.

Russian press has also reported that Apple and Google were summoned to a meeting at the Federation Council on the eve of the election — as Putin’s regime sought to force them to do his anti-democratic bidding.

According to a report by Kommersant, the tech giants were warned the Russian Federation was preparing to tighten regulations on their businesses — and told to “come to their senses”, facing another warning that they were at a “red line”.

The last ditch effort to force the platforms to remove Navalny’s app did then pay off.

In recent weeks, Roskomnadzor has also been targeting VPN apps in the country for removal — making it hard for Russians to circumvent the local ban on Navalny’s app by accessing the software through the stores of other countries.

Local search giant, Yandex, has also reportedly been ordered not to display search results for the Smart Voting app.

Earlier this year, Putin’s regime also targeted Twitter — throttling the service for failing to remove content it wanted banned, although Roskomnadzor claimed the action was related to non-political content such as minors committing suicide, child sexual exploitation and drug use.

#activism, #alexei-navalny, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #apps, #europe, #google, #politics, #president, #putin, #russia, #search-results, #tc, #united-states, #vpn, #yandex

Constructor finds $55M for tech that powers search and discovery for e-commerce businesses

One of the biggest problems in the world of e-commerce is the predicament of shopping cart abandonment: when shoppers aren’t getting to what they want fast enough — whether it’s finding the right item, or paying for it in a quick and easy way — they bounce. That singular problem is driving a wave of technology development to make the experience ever more seamless, and today one of the companies closely involved in that space is announcing some funding on the back of healthy growth.

Constructor, which has built technology that powers search and product discovery tools for e-commerce businesses, has picked up $55 million in a Series A round of funding. Constructor says that it powers “billions” of queries every month, with revenues growing 233% in the last year. Customers it works with include Sephora, Walmart’s Bonobos, Backcountry and many other big names.

The round is being led by Silversmith Capital Partners — which coincidentally, just today, led another round for an e-commerce startup, Zonos.

It is joined by a long list of notable individual investors. They include David Fraga, former president of InVision; Kevin Weil, former head of product at Twitter and Instagram; Jason Finger, founder of Seamless; Carl Sparks, ex-CEO of Travelocity; Robyn Peterson, CTO at CNN; Dave Heath, founder of Bombas; Ryan Barretto, president at Sprout Social; Melody Hildebrandt, EVP engineering and CISO at FOX; Zander Rafael, co-founder of Better.com; and Seth Shaw, CRO at Airtable. Cap Table Coalition — a firm that helps underrepresented-background investors back up-and-coming startups — was also involved. Fraga is joining Constructor’s board with this round.

The last year and a half has been a bumper one for the world of e-commerce — with more traffic, transactions and retailers moving online in the wake of social distancing measures impacting in-person, physical shopping. But that has also exposed a lot of the cracks in how e-commerce works (or doesn’t work, as the case may be).

One of the more dysfunctional areas is search and discovery. As most of us have unfortunately learned first-hand, when we search for things in the search window of an online store, it’s almost always the case that the results don’t have what we want.

When we browse as we might in a physical store, because we are not sure of what we want, all too often we are not prompted with pictures of things we might actually like to buy. They may be there — we typically visit sites because we either already know them, or have seen something we like elsewhere — but nevertheless, finding what we might actually like to buy can take a lot of time, and in many cases may never happen at all.

Eli Finkelshteyn, Constructor’s CEO and founder, says that one of the issues is that search and discovery are often built as static experiences: they are designed to meet a one-size-fits-all model where site architects have effectively guessed at what a shopper might want, and built for that. This is one area that Constructor has rethought, specifically by making search and discovery more dynamic and responsive to what’s happened before you ever visit a site.

“One of the things wrong with product discovery was that prescriptively sites show you what they think is valuable to you,” he said. “We think the process should be descriptive.”

As an example, he talked about Cheetos. Sometimes people who might want to buy these start out by navigating to the potato chip category. In many static searches, those results might not include Cheetos. Some people might abandon their search altogether (bounce), but some might navigate away from that and search specifically for Cheetos and add them to their carts. In a descriptive and more dynamic environment, Finkelshteyn believes that these two flows should subsequently inform all future chip searches.

“We take into account as much data as we can learn from, and that list is always growing,” he said. “The goal is anything we can learn from should become part of the user experience.”

Google is the current, undisputed leader in the world of search, and it too uses a lot of dynamic, AI-based tools to learn and tweak how it searches and what results it produces.

Interestingly it hasn’t extended as much of this to third parties as you might think. The company wound down its own site search product in 1997 and now if you look for this you are redirected to the company’s enterprise search suite.

There are however others that have also stepped into that void to provide services that compete with Constructor, including the likes of Algolia, Yext, Elasticsearch and more. Finkelshteyn believes that among all of these, none have managed yet to provide a service like Constructor’s that learns and adjusts its results constantly based on search and browsing activity.

This is one reason the company has stood out with its customers, and with investors.

“Constructor has built a search and discovery platform that is truly making a difference for enterprise retailers. They are providing customers with comprehensive and optimized search and discovery that is unmatched in the market,” said Sri Rao, Constructor board member and general partner at Silversmith Capital Partners, in a statement. “We are excited to partner with the Constructor team as they continue to revolutionize search and discovery capabilities for retailers across all platforms.”

Looking forward, there will be some interesting opportunities ahead for Constructor to take its search and discovery tools to new frontiers. These could include ways to bring in and account for shoppers on third-party platforms — currently Constructor does not power experiences on, say, social media, so that is one potential area to explore — as well as more offline experiences, critical as retailers and shoppers take on more blended approaches that might start online and finish in stores, or proceed the other way around, or find users walking around with their phones to shop even as they are in physical stores.

#algolia, #artificial-intelligence, #better-com, #board-member, #bonobos, #carl-sparks, #ceo, #co-founder, #constructor, #cto, #david-fraga, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #founder, #funding, #google, #google-search, #invision, #jason-finger, #kevin-weil, #marketing, #merchandising, #online-shopping, #partner, #president, #retail, #seamless, #sephora, #shopping, #silversmith-capital-partners, #social-media, #sprout-social, #technology-development, #travelocity, #yext, #zonos

Big Tech pledges billions to bolster U.S. cybersecurity defenses

Tech giants Apple, Google and Microsoft have pledged billions to bolster U.S. cybersecurity following a meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House on Wednesday.

The meeting, which also included attendees from the financial and education sectors, was held following months of high-profile cyberattacks against critical infrastructure and several U.S. government agencies, along with a glaring cybersecurity skills gap; according to data from CyberSeek, there are currently almost 500,000 cybersecurity jobs across the U.S that remain unfilled.

“Most of our critical infrastructure is owned and operated by the private sector, and the federal government can’t meet this challenge alone,” Biden said at the start of the meeting. “I’ve invited you all here today because you have the power, the capacity and the responsibility, I believe, to raise the bar on cybersecurity.”

In order to help the U.S. in its fight against a growing number of cyberattacks, Big Tech pledged to invest billions of dollars to strengthen cybersecurity defenses and to train skilled cybersecurity workers.

Apple has vowed to work with its 9,000-plus suppliers in the U.S. to drive “mass adoption” of multi-factor authentication and security training, according to the White House, as well as to establish a new program to drive continuous security improvements throughout the technology supply chain.

Google said it will invest more than $10 billion over the next five years to expand zero-trust programs, help secure the software supply chain, and to enhance open source security. The search and ads giant has also pledged to train 100,000 Americans in fields like IT support and data analytics, learning in-demand skills including data privacy and security.

“Robust cybersecurity ultimately depends on having the people to implement it,” said Kent Walker, Google’s global affairs chief. “That includes people with digital skills capable of designing and executing cybersecurity solutions, as well as promoting awareness of cybersecurity risks and protocols among the broader population.”

And, Microsoft said it’s committing $20 billion to integrate cybersecurity by design and deliver “advanced security solutions.” It also announced that it will immediately make available $150 million in technical services to help federal, state, and local governments with upgrading security protection, and will expand partnerships with community colleges and non-profits for cybersecurity training.

Other attendees included Amazon Web Services (AWS), Amazon’s cloud computing arm, and IBM. The former has said it will make its security awareness training available to the public and equip all AWS customers with hardware multi-factor authentication devices, while IBM said it will help to train more than 150,000 people in cybersecurity skills over the next five years.

While many have welcomed Big Tech’s commitments, David Carroll, managing director at Nominet Cyber, told TechCrunch that these latest initiatives set a “powerful precedent” and show “the gloves are well and truly off” — some within the cybersecurity industry remain skeptical.

Following the announcement, some infosec veterans noted that many of the vacant cybersecurity jobs the U.S. is looking to fill fall behind on competitive salaries and few, if any, benefits.

“So 500,000 open cybersecurity jobs and almost that same amount or more looking for jobs,” said Khalilah Scott, founder of TechSecChix, a foundation for supporting women in technology, in a tweet. “Make it make sense.”

#amazon, #apple, #computer-security, #cyberattack, #google, #government, #malware, #microsoft, #president, #security, #u-s-government, #united-states

Twitter taps crypto developer to lead ‘bluesky’ decentralized social network effort

Twitter’s ambitious upstart decentralized social media working group “bluesky” took an important step Monday as the social media company appointed a formal project lead who will direct how the protocol develops moving forward.

Crypto developer Jay Graber was tapped by Twitter to helm the initiative, which the company hopes will eventually create a decentralized social media protocol that a number of social networks including Twitter will operate on. The separate bluesky organization will operate independently but to date has been funded and managed largely by employees at Twitter.

Graber had already been working in a less formal role inside the bluesky team, with Twitter paying her to create a technical review of the decentralized social ecosystem for a working group of developers in the space. Graber previously worked on the developer team behind privacy focused cryptocurrency Zcash and built out her own decentralized social network called Happening, designed to compete with Facebook Events. Graber eventually walked away from the effort after having issues bootstrapping a user base interested in the benefits of decentralization, something that has grown to be a near-insurmountable issue for most upstart networks in the space.

In an interview back in January, Graber told TechCrunch she saw a major opportunity in Twitter entering the decentralized social space due to the hefty user base on the Twitter platform, which will itself eventually migrate to the protocol, the company has said.

“The really powerful thing about Twitter doing a decentralized protocol move is that if you could design a protocol that works in an ideal way, you don’t have to go through the initial effort of finding the niche to bootstrap from because Twitter will bring so many users,” Graber told us.

In January, TechCrunch profiled the initiative as it gathered more attention following Twitter’s permanent ban of former President Donald Trump from its platform. Following Trump’s removal, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey highlighted the bluesky effort as one of the company’s ongoing initiatives to ensure that social media moderation could be less decentralized in the future. A decentralized social media protocol would allow for individual networks to govern themselves without one company or organization exercising monolithic control over the sphere of online conversations. 

“I think a huge focus for everyone involved has been thinking how do we enable better moderation, and not just coming from one source,” Graber told TechCrunch.

The bluesky organization is still in its earliest stages. Graber’s next task is bulking up the team with its first hires, which include a protocol developer and web developer.

#blockchain, #cryptocurrency, #decentralization, #donald-trump, #facebook, #forward, #jack-dorsey, #operating-systems, #president, #real-time-web, #social-media, #social-network, #social-networks, #software, #tc, #technology, #text-messaging, #twitter

Cybersecurity giants NortonLifeLock and Avast merge in $8.1B deal

US cybersecurity firm NortonLifeLock has confirmed it is acquiring British rival Avast in order to create a global consumer security powerhouse.

The agreement, which comes just weeks after both companies confirmed they were in advanced discussions regarding a possible combination of the two brands, will see Avast stockholders receive cash and shares that value the deal at $8.1 billion to $8.6 billion. That makes this merger the third-largest cybersecurity acquisition of all time, following Thoma Bravo‘s $12.3 billion takeover of Proofpoint and Broadcom’s $10.7 billion acquisition of Symantec’s enterprise business. 

NortonLifeLock, formed in 2019 as a spin-off from Symantec following the latter, says the deal will create an industry-leading consumer cyber safety business, unlock approximately $280 million of annual gross cost synergies, and dramatically expand its user numbers thanks to Avast’s 435 million-strong customer base.

“With this combination, we can strengthen our cyber safety platform and make it available to more than 500 million users,” NortonLifeLock CEO Vincent Pilette said in a statement. “This transaction is a huge step forward for consumer cyber safety and will ultimately enable us to achieve our vision to protect and empower people to live their digital lives safely.”

Avast, founded in 1988, focuses on cybersecurity software for consumers and small and medium-sized businesses and describes itself as one of the largest security companies. However, the company has not been without controversy during its near-25-year history; Avast was forced to shut down its marketing technology subsidiary Jumpshot last year after it was found to be peddling web browsing data that could be linked to individual users.

Once NortonLifeLock’s acquisition of the company is complete, Pilette will remain CEO of the new business, while Avast CEO Ondrej Vlcek will become president and join the board, the companies said.

“Our talented teams will have better opportunities to innovate and develop enhanced solutions and services, with improved capabilities from access to superior data insights,” Vlcek said. “Through our well-established brands, greater geographic diversification and access to a larger global user base, the combined businesses will be poised to access the significant growth opportunity that exists worldwide.”

The final name of the merged company has yet to be determined, but NortonLifeLock has confirmed it will be dual headquartered in the Czech Republic and Tempe, Arizona, and will seek to cut its number of employees from 5,000 workers to around 4,000 over the next two years. The combined company will be listed on the Nasdaq, rather than Avast’s current London Stock Exchange home.

The deal, which has been confirmed just weeks after NortonLifeLock bought free antivirus provider Avira for £360 million, is expected to close in mid-2022. 

#arizona, #avast, #avira, #broadcom, #ceo, #computer-security, #czech-republic, #freeware, #jumpshot, #ma, #nortonlifelock, #president, #proofpoint, #security, #software, #symantec, #thoma-bravo, #united-states

Venmo removes its global, public feed in a significant app redesign

PayPal-owned payments app Venmo will no longer offer a public, global feed of users’ transactions, as part of a significant redesign focused on expanding the app’s privacy controls and better highlighting some of Venmo’s newer features. The company says it will instead only show users their “friends feed” — meaning, the app’s social feed where you can see just your friends’ transactions.

Venmo has struggled over the years to balance its desire to add a social element to its peer-to-peer payments-based network, with the need to offer users their privacy.

A few years ago, the company was forced to settle a complaint with the FTC over its handling of privacy disclosures in the app along with other issues related to the security and privacy of user transactions. One of the concerns at the time was a setting that made all transactions public by default — a feature the FTC said wasn’t being properly explained to customers. As part of the settlement, Venmo had to inform both new and existing users how to limit the visibility of their transactions, among other changes.

However, privacy issues have continued to follow Venmo over the years. More recently, BuzzFeed News was able to track down President Biden’s secret Venmo account because of the lack of privacy around Venmo friend lists, for example. Afterwards, the company rolled out friend list privacy controls to address the issue.

Image Credits: Venmo

In the newly updated app, Venmo will still highlight this friend list privacy setting so users can choose whether or not they want to have their profile appear on other people’s friends’ lists. Users will also still be able to remove or add contacts from their friend list at any time, block people, and set their transaction privacy either as they post or retroactively to public, private, or friends-only. It’s unclear what advantage posting publicly has though, as the global, public feed is gone. Instead, public transactions would be visible to a users’ non-friends only when someone visited their profile directly.

In addition to the privacy changes, Venmo’s redesign aims to make it easier for people to discover the app’s new features, the company says.

Now, a new bottom navigation option will allow users to toggle between their social feed, Venmo’s products like the Venmo Card and crypto, and their personal profile. The newly elevated “Cards” section will allow Venmo Credit and Debit cardholders to manage their cards and access their rewards and offers, as before. Meanwhile, the “Crypto” tab will let users learn and explore the world of crypto, view real-time trends, and buy, sell or hold different types of cryptocurrencies.

Image Credits: Venmo

Venmo first added support for crypto earlier this year, following parent company PayPal’s move to do the same, and now offers access to Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin and Bitcoin Cash. Before, the option appeared as a small button next to the “Pay or Request” button at the bottom of the screen, which contributed to Venmo’s cluttered feel.

The updated app will also include support for new payment types and expanded purchase protections, which Venmo announced last month, and said would arrive on July 20. Customers will now be able to indicate if their purchase is for “goods and services” when they transact with a seller, which will make the transactions eligible for Venmo’s purchase protection plan — even if the seller doesn’t have a proper “business” account.

Because this now charges sellers a 1.9% plus 10-cent fee, there had been some backlash from users who either misunderstood the changes or just didn’t like them. But the move could help to boost Venmo revenue.

PayPal said in February that Venmo grew users 32% over 2020 to reach 70 million active accounts and expects the app to generate nearly $900 million in revenue this year — likely in part thanks to this and other new initiatives, like its crypto transaction fees.

Image Credits: Venmo

Beyond the more functional changes and the privacy updates, Venmo’s redesign also modernizes the look-and-feel of the app itself, which had become a little dated and overly busy. As Venmo had expanded its array of services, the hamburger (three line) menu in the top right of the old version of the app had turned into a long list of options and settings. Now that’s gone. The app uses new iconography, an updated font, and lots of white space to make it feel fresh and clean.

The app’s changes also somewhat de-emphasize the importance of the social feed itself. Although it may still default to that tab, other options now have equal footing with tabs of their own, instead of being hidden away in a menu or in a smaller button.

Venmo says the redesigned Venmo app will begin to roll out today to select customers and will be available to all users across the U.S. over the next few weeks.

#apps, #biden, #buzzfeed, #cryptocurrencies, #federal-trade-commission, #finance, #mobile-payments, #online-payments, #paypal, #peer-to-peer, #president, #united-states, #venmo

GSA blocks senator from reviewing documents used to approve Zoom for government use

The General Services Administration has denied a senator’s request to review documents Zoom submitted to have its software approved for use in the federal government.

The denial was in response to a letter sent by Democratic senator Ron Wyden to the GSA in May, expressing concern that the agency cleared Zoom for use by federal agencies just weeks before a major security vulnerability was discovered in the app.

Wyden said the discovery of the bug raises “serious questions about the quality of FedRAMP’s audits.”

Zoom was approved to operate in government in April 2019 after receiving its FedRAMP authorization, a program operated by the GSA that ensures cloud services comply with a standardized set of security requirements designed to toughen the service from some of the most common threats. Without this authorization, federal agencies cannot use cloud products or technologies that are not cleared.

Months later, Zoom was forced to patch its Mac app after a security researcher found a flaw that could be abused to remotely switch on a user’s webcam without their permission. Apple was forced to intervene since users were still affected by the vulnerabilities even after uninstalling Zoom. As the pandemic spread and lockdowns were enforced, Zoom’s popularity skyrocketed — as did the scrutiny — including a technical analysis by reporters that found Zoom was not truly end-to-end encrypted as the company long claimed.

Wyden wrote to the GSA to say he found it “extremely concerning” that the security bugs were discovered after Zoom’s clearance. In the letter, the senator requested the documents known as the “security package,” which Zoom submitted as part of the FedRAMP authorization process, to understand how and why the app was cleared by GSA.

The GSA declined Wyden’s first request in July 2020 on the grounds that he was not a committee chair. In the new Biden administration, Wyden was named chair of the Senate Finance Committee and requested Zoom’s security package again.

But in a new letter sent to Wyden’s office late last month, GSA declined the request for the second time, citing security concerns.

“GSA’s refusal to share the Zoom audit with Congress calls into question the security of the other software products that GSA has approved for federal use.” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR)

“The security package you have requested contains highly sensitive proprietary and other confidential information relating to the security associated with the Zoom for Government product. Safeguarding this information is critical to maintaining the integrity of the offering and any government data it hosts,” said the GSA letter. “Based on our review, GSA believes that disclosure of the Zoom security package would create significant security risks.”

In response to the GSA’s letter, Wyden told TechCrunch that he was concerned that other flawed software may have been approved for use across the government.

“The intent of GSA’s FedRAMP program is good — to eliminate red tape so that multiple federal agencies don’t have to review the security of the same software. But it’s vitally important that whichever agency conducts the review do so thoroughly,” said Wyden. “I’m concerned that the government’s audit of Zoom missed serious cybersecurity flaws that were subsequently uncovered and exposed by security researchers. GSA’s refusal to share the Zoom audit with Congress calls into question the security of the other software products that GSA has approved for federal use.”

Of the people we spoke with who have first-hand knowledge of the FedRAMP process, either as a government employee or as a company going through the certification, FedRAMP was described as a comprehensive but by no means an exhaustive list of checks that companies have to meet in order to meet the security requirements of the federal government.

Others said that the process had its limits and would benefit from reform. One person with knowledge of how FedRAMP works said the process was not a complete audit of a product’s source code but akin to a checklist of best practices and meeting compliance requirements. Much of it relies on trusting the vendor, said the person, describing it like ” an honor system.” Another person said the FedRAMP process cannot catch every bug, as evidenced by executive action taken by President Biden this week aimed at modernizing and improving the FedRAMP process.

Most of the people we spoke to weren’t surprised that Wyden’s office was denied the request, citing the sensitivity of a company’s FedRAMP security package.

The people said that companies going through the certification process have to provide highly technical details about the security of their product, which if exposed would almost certainly be damaging to the company. Knowing where security weaknesses might be could tip off cyber-criminals, one of the people said. Companies often spend millions on improving their security ahead of a FedRAMP audit but companies wouldn’t risk going through the certification if they thought their trade secrets would get leaked, they added.

When asked by GSA why it objected to Wyden’s request, Zoom’s head of U.S. government relations Lauren Belive argued that handing over the security package “would set a dangerous precedent that would undermine the special trust and confidence” that companies place in the FedRAMP process.

GSA puts strict controls on who can access a FedRAMP security package. You need a federal government or military email address, which the senator’s office has. But the reason for GSA denying Wyden’s request still isn’t clear, and when reached a GSA spokesperson would not explain how a member of Congress would obtain a company’s FedRAMP security package

“GSA values its relationship with Congress and will continue to work with Senator Wyden and our committees of jurisdiction to provide appropriate information regarding our programs and operations,” said GSA spokesperson Christina Wilkes, adding:

“GSA works closely with private sector partners to provide a standardized approach to security authorizations for cloud services through the [FedRAMP]. Zoom’s FedRAMP security package and related documents provide detailed information regarding the security measures associated with the Zoom for Government product. GSA’s consistent practice with regard to sensitive security and trade secret information is to withhold the material absent an official written request of a congressional committee with jurisdiction, and pursuant to controls on further dissemination or publication of the information.”

GSA wouldn’t say which congressional committee had jurisdiction or whether Wyden’s role as chair of the Senate Finance Committee suffices, nor would the agency answer questions about the efficacy of the FedRAMP process raised by Wyden.

Zoom spokesperson Kelsey Knight said that cloud companies like Zoom “provide proprietary and confidential information to GSA as part of the FedRAMP authorization process with the understanding that it will be used only for their use in making authorization decisions. While we do not believe Zoom’s FedRAMP security package should be disclosed outside of this narrow purpose, we welcome conversations with lawmakers and other stakeholders about the security of Zoom for Government.”

Zoom said it has “engaged in security enhancements to continually improve its products,” and received FedRAMP reauthorization in 2020 and 2021 as part of its annual renewal. The company declined to say to what extent the Zoom app was audited as part of the FedRAMP process.

Over two dozen federal agencies use Zoom, including the Defense Department, Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the Executive Office of the President.

#apps, #biden, #biden-administration, #chair, #cloud-computing, #cloud-services, #computing, #congress, #department-of-defense, #executive, #federal-government, #fedramp, #government, #head, #internet, #internet-security, #official, #president, #ron-wyden, #security, #senator, #software, #spokesperson, #technology, #u-s-government, #united-states, #web-conferencing, #zoom

Cybereason raises $275M at Series F, adds Steven Mnuchin to board

Cybereason, a US-Israeli late-stage cybersecurity startup that provides extended detection and response (XDR) services, has secured $275 million in Series F funding. 

The investment was led by Liberty Strategic Capital, a venture capital fund recently founded by Steven Mnuchin, who served as U.S. Treasury Secretary under the Trump administration. As part of the deal, Mnuchin will join Cybereason’s board of directors, along with Liberty advisor Gen. Joseph Dunford, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Trump until his retirement in 2019.

Lior Div, CEO and co-founder of Cybereason, tells TechCrunch that the startup’s decision to work with Liberty Strategy Capital came down to the firm’s “massive network” and the “understanding of the financial and government markets that Mnuchin and Gen. Joseph Dunford bring to our team.”

“For example, the executive order on cybersecurity put out by the Biden Administration recommends that endpoint detection and response solutions be deployed on all endpoints,” Dior added. “This accelerates the importance of solutions like ours in the public market, and Liberty Strategic Capital has the relationships to help accelerate our go-to-market strategy in the federal sector.”

This round, which will be used to fuel “hypergrowth driven by strong market demand,” follows $389 million in prior funding from SoftBank, CRV, Spark Capital, and Lockheed Martin. The company didn’t state at what valuation it raised the funds, but it is estimated to be in the region of $3 billion.

Cybereason’s recent growth, which saw it end 2020 at over $120 million in annual recurring revenue, has been largely driven by its AI-powered platform. Unlike traditional alert-centric models, Cybereason’s Defense Platform is operation-centric, which means it exposes and remediates entire malicious operations. The service details the full attack story from root cause to impacted users and devices, which the company claims significantly reduces the time taken to investigate and recover from an enterprise-wide cyber attack. 

The company, whose competitors include the likes of BlackBerry-owned Cylance and CrowdStrike, also this week expanded its channel presence with the launch of its so-called Defenders League, a global program that enables channel partners to use its technology and services to help their customers prevent and recover from cyberattacks. Cybereason claims its technology has helped protect customers from the likes of the recent SolarWinds supply-chain attack and other high-profile ransomware attacks launched by DarkSide, REvil, and Conti groups. 

Today’s $275 million funding round is likely to be Cybereason’s last before it goes public. Div previously said in August 2019 the company planned to IPO within two years, though he wouldn’t be pressed on whether the company is gearing up to go public when asked by TechCrunch. However, the company did compare its latest investment to SentinelOne‘s November 2020 Series F round, which was secured just months before it filed for a $100 million IPO.

#artificial-intelligence, #biden-administration, #companies, #computing, #crowdstrike, #crv, #cybereason, #cylance, #donald-trump, #executive, #funding, #lockheed-martin, #neuberger-berman, #president, #security, #softbank, #softbank-group, #solarwinds, #spark-capital, #steve-mnuchin, #techcrunch, #united-states

Biden’s sweeping executive order takes on big tech’s ‘bad mergers,’ ISPs and more

The Biden administration just introduced a sweeping, ambitious plan to forcibly inject competition into some consolidated sectors of the American economy — the tech sector prominent among them — through executive action.

“Today President Biden is taking decisive action to reduce the trend of corporate consolidation, increase competition, and deliver concrete benefits to America’s consumers, workers, farmers, and small businesses,” a new White House fact sheet on the forthcoming order states.

The order, which Biden will sign Friday, initiates a comprehensive “whole-of-government” approach that loops in more then twelve different agencies at the federal level to regulate monopolies, protect consumers and curtail bad behavior from some of the world’s biggest corporations.

In the fact sheet, the White House lays out its plans to take matters to regulate big business into its own hands at the federal level. As far as tech is concerned, that comes largely through emboldening the FTC and the Justice Department — two federal agencies with antitrust enforcement powers.

Most notably for big tech, which is already bracing for regulatory existential threats, the White House explicitly asserts here that those agencies have legal cover to “challenge prior bad mergers that past Administrations did not previously challenge” — i.e. unwinding acquisitions that built a handful of tech companies into the behemoths they are today. The order calls on antitrust agencies to enforce antitrust laws “vigorously.”

Federal scrutiny will prioritize “dominant internet platforms, with particular attention to the acquisition of nascent competitors, serial mergers, the accumulation of data, competition by ‘free’ products, and the effect on user privacy.” Facebook, Google and Amazon are particularly on notice here, though Apple isn’t likely to escape federal attention either.

“Over the past ten years, the largest tech platforms have acquired hundreds of companies—including alleged ‘killer acquisitions’ meant to shut down a potential competitive threat,” the White House wrote in the fact sheet. “Too often, federal agencies have not blocked, conditioned, or, in some cases, meaningfully examined these acquisitions.”

The biggest tech companies have regularly defended their longstanding strategy of buying up the competition by arguing that because those acquisitions went through without friction at the time, they shouldn’t be viewed as illegal in hindsight. In no uncertain terms, the new executive order makes it clear that the Biden administration isn’t having any of it.

The White House also specifically singles out internet service providers for scrutiny, ordering the FCC to prioritize consumer choice and institute broadband “nutrition labels” that clearly state speed caps and hidden feeds. The FCC began working on the labels in the Obama administration but the work was scrapped after Trump took office.

The order also directly calls on the FCC to restore net neutrality rules, which were stripped in 2017 to the widespread horror of open internet advocates and most of the tech industry outside of the service providers that stood to benefit.

The White House will also tell the FTC to create new privacy rules meant to guard consumers against surveillance and the “accumulation of extraordinarily amounts of sensitive personal information,” which free services like Facebook, YouTube and others have leveraged to build their vast empires. The White House also taps the FTC to create rules that protect smaller businesses from being pre-empted by large platforms, which in many cases abuse their market dominance with a different sort of data-based surveillance to out-compete up-and-coming competitors.

Finally, the executive order encourages the FTC to put right to repair rules in place that would free consumers from constraints that discourage DIY and third-party repairs. A new White House Competition Council under the Director of the National Economic Council will coordinate the federal execution of the proposals laid out in the new order.

The antitrust effort from the executive branch mirrors parallel actions in the FTC and Congress. In the FTC, Biden has installed a fearsome antitrust crusader in Lina Khan, a young legal scholar and fierce Amazon critic who proposes a philosophical overhaul to the way the federal government defines monopolies. Khan now leads the FTC as its chair.

In Congress, a bipartisan flurry of bills intended to rein in the tech industry are slowly wending their way toward becoming law, though plenty of hurdles remain. Last month, the House Judiciary Committee debated the six bills, which were crafted separately to help them survive opposing lobbying pushes from the tech industry. These legislative efforts could modernize antitrust laws, which have failed to keep pace with the modern realities of giant, internet-based businesses.

“Competition policy needs new energy and approaches so that we can address America’s monopoly problem,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a prominent tech antitrust hawk in Congress, said of the executive order. “That means legislation to update our antitrust laws, but it also means reimagining what the federal government can do to promote competition under our current laws.”

Citing the acceleration of corporate consolidation in recent decades, the White House argues that a handful of large corporations dominates across industries, including healthcare, agriculture and tech and consumers, workers and smaller competitors pay the price for their outsized success. The administration will focus antitrust enforcement on those corners of the market as well as evaluating the labor market and worker protections on the whole.

“Inadequate competition holds back economic growth and innovation… Economists find that as competition declines, productivity growth slows, business investment and innovation decline, and income, wealth, and racial inequality widen,” the White House wrote.

 

#amazon, #america, #biden, #biden-administration, #big-tech, #broadband, #competition-law, #congress, #department-of-justice, #executive, #facebook, #federal-communications-commission, #federal-government, #federal-trade-commission, #google, #government, #healthcare, #internet-service-providers, #lina-khan, #president, #tc, #white-house, #youtube

Trump’s new lawsuits against social media companies are going nowhere fast

Trump’s spicy trio of lawsuits against the social media platforms that he believes wrongfully banned him have succeeded in showering the former president with a flurry of media attention, but that’s likely where the story ends.

Like Trump’s quixotic and ultimately empty quest to gut Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act during his presidency, the new lawsuits are all sound and fury with little legal substance to back them up.

The suits allege that Twitter, Facebook and YouTube violated Trump’s First Amendment rights by booting him from their platforms, but the First Amendment is intended to protect citizens from censorship by the government — not private industry. The irony that Trump himself was the uppermost figure in the federal government at the time probably won’t be lost on whoever’s lap this case lands in.

In the lawsuits, which also name Twitter and Facebook chief executives Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg as well as Google CEO Sundar Pichai (Susan Wojcicki escapes notice once again!), Trump accuses the three companies of engaging in “impermissible censorship resulting from threatened legislative action, a misguided reliance upon Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and willful participation in joint activity with federal actors.”

The suit claims that the tech companies colluded with “Democrat lawmakers,” the CDC and Dr. Anthony Fauci, who served in Trump’s own government at the time.

The crux of the argument is that communication between the tech companies, members of Congress and the federal government somehow transforms Facebook, Twitter and YouTube into “state actors” — a leap of epic proportion:

“Defendant Twitter’s status thus rises beyond that of a private company to that of a state actor, and as such, Defendant is constrained by the First Amendment right to free speech in the censorship decisions it makes.”

Trump’s own Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh issued the court’s opinion on a relevant case two years ago. It examined whether a nonprofit running public access television channels in New York qualified as a “state actor” that would be subject to First Amendment constraints. The court ruled that running the public access channels didn’t transform the nonprofit into a government entity and that it retained a private entity’s rights to make editorial decisions.

“… A private entity… who opens its property for speech by others is not transformed by that fact alone into a state actor,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote in the decision.

It’s not likely that a court would decide that talking to the government or being threatened by the government somehow transform Twitter, YouTube and Facebook into state actors either.

Trump vs. Section 230 (again)

First Amendment aside — and there’s really not much of an argument there — social media platforms are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a concise snippet of law that shields them from liability not just for the user-generated content they host but for the moderation decisions they make about what content to remove.

In line with Trump’s obsessive disdain for tech’s legal shield, the lawsuits repeatedly rail against Section 230. The suits try to argue that because Congress threatened to revoke tech’s 230 protections, that forced them to ban Trump, which somehow makes social media companies part of the government and subject to First Amendment constraints.

Of course, Republican lawmakers and Trump’s own administration made frequent threats about repealing Section 230, not that it changes anything because this line of argument doesn’t make much sense anyway.

The suit also argues that Congress crafted Section 230 to intentionally censor speech that is otherwise protected by the First Amendment, ignoring that the law was born in 1996, well before ubiquitous social media, and for other purposes altogether.

For the four years of his presidency, Trump’s social media activity — his tweets in particular — informed the events of the day, both nationally and globally. While other world leaders and political figures used social media to communicate or promote their actions, Trump’s Twitter account was usually the action itself.

In the shadow of his social media bans, the former president has failed to re-establish lines of communication to the internet at large. In May, he launched a new blog, “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump,” but the site was taken down just a month later after it failed to attract much interest.

The handful of pro-Trump alternative social platforms are still struggling with app store content moderation requirements at odds with their extreme views on free speech, but that didn’t stop Gettr, the latest, from going ahead with its own rocky launch last week.

Viewed in one light, Trump’s lawsuits are a platform too, his latest method for broadcasting himself to the online world that his transgressions eventually cut him off from. In that sense, they seem to have succeeded, but in all other senses, they won’t.

#articles, #brett-kavanaugh, #ceo, #communications-decency-act, #congress, #donald-j-trump, #donald-trump, #federal-government, #google, #government, #jack-dorsey, #mark-zuckerberg, #new-york, #president, #qanon, #section-230, #social, #social-media, #social-media-platforms, #sundar-pichai, #supreme-court, #susan-wojcicki, #tc, #the-battle-over-big-tech, #twitter

Hear top VCs Albert Wegner, Jenny Rooke, and Shilpi Kumar talk green bets at the Extreme Tech Challenge finals

This year, TechCrunch is proudly hosting the Extreme Tech Challenge Global Finals on July 22. The event is among the world’s largest purpose-driven startup competitions that are aiming to solve global challenges based on the United Nations’ 17 sustainability goals.

If you want to catch an array of innovative startups across a range of categories, all of them showcasing what they’re building, you won’t want to miss our must-see pitch-off competition.

You can also catch feature panels hosted by TechCrunch editors, including one of the most highly anticipated discussions of the event, a talk on “going green” with guest speakers Shilpi Kumar, Jenny Rooke, and Albert Wenger, all of whom are actively investing in climate startups that are targeting big opportunities

Shilpi Kumar is a partner with Urban Us, an investment platform focused on urban tech and climate solutions. She previously led go-to-market and early sales efforts at Filament, a startup focused on deploying secure wireless networks for connected physical assets. As an investor, Shilpi has also focused on hardware, mobility, energy, IoT, and robotics, having worked previously for VTF Capital, First Round Capital, and Village Global.

Jenny Rooke is the founder and managing director of Genoa Ventures, but Rooke has been deploying capital into innovative life sciences opportunities for years, including at Fidelity Biosciences and later the Gates Foundation, where she helped managed more than $250 million in funding, funneling some of that capital into genetic engineering, diagnostics, and synthetic biology startups. Rooke began independently investing under the brand 5 Prime Ventures, ultimately establishing among the largest life sciences syndicates on AngelList before launching Genoa.

Last but not least, Albert Wenger, has been a managing partner at Union Square Ventures for more than 13 years. Before joining USV, Albert was the president of del.icio.us through the company’s sale to Yahoo and an angel investor, including writing early checks to Etsy and Tumblr. He previously founded or co-founded several companies, including a management consulting firm and an early hosted data analytics company. Among his investments today is goTenna, a company trying to advance universal access to connectivity by building a scalable mobile mesh network.

Sustainability is the key to our planet’s future and our survival, but it’s also going to be incredibly lucrative and a major piece of our world economy. Hear from these seasoned investors about how VCs and startups alike are thinking about Greentech and how that will evolve in the coming years.

Join us on July 22 to find out how the most innovative startups are working to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. And best of all, tickets are free — book yours today!

#albert-wenger, #angel-investor, #angellist, #energy, #etsy, #fidelity-biosciences, #filament, #finance, #first-round-capital, #gates-foundation, #genetic-engineering, #gotenna, #investment, #managing-partner, #money, #president, #prime-ventures, #startup-company, #tc, #techcrunch, #tumblr, #union-square-ventures, #united-nations, #village-global, #yahoo

A new ‘digital violence’ platform maps dozens of victims of NSO Group’s spyware

For the first time, researchers have mapped all the known targets, including journalists, activists, and human rights defenders, whose phones were hacked by Pegasus, a spyware developed by NSO Group.

Forensic Architecture, an academic unit at Goldsmiths, University of London that investigates human rights abuses, scoured dozens of reports from human rights groups, carried out open-source research and interviewed dozens of the victims themselves to reveal over a thousand data points, including device infections, which show relations and patterns between digital surveillance carried out by NSO’s government customers, and the real-world intimidation, harassment and violence that the victims are also subject to.

By mapping out these data points on a bespoke platform, the researchers can show how nation-states, which use Pegasus to spy on their victims, also often target other victims in their networks and are entangled with assaults, arrests, and disinformation campaigns against the targets but also their families, friends, and colleagues.

Although the thousand-plus data points only present a portion of the overall use of Pegasus by governments, the project aims to provide researchers and investigators the tools and data of NSO’s activities worldwide, which the spyware maker goes to great lengths to keep out of the public eye.

Pegasus “activates your camera, your microphone, all that which forms an integral part of your life.” Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui

Israel-based NSO Group develops Pegasus, a spyware that allows its government customers near-unfettered access to a victim’s device, including their personal data and their location. NSO has repeatedly declined to name its customers but reportedly has government contracts in at least 45 countries, said to include Rwanda, Israel, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and the United Arab Emirates — all of which have been accused of human rights abuses — as well as Western nations, like Spain.

Forensic Architecture’s researcher-in-charge Shourideh Molavi said the new findings reveal “the extent to which the digital domain we inhabit has become the new frontier of human rights violations, a site of state surveillance and intimidation that enables physical violations in real space.”

The platform presents visual timelines of how victims are targeted by both spyware and physical violence as part of government campaigns to target their most outspoken critics.

Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi video blogger and activist living in exile in Montreal, had his phone hacked in 2018 by the Pegasus malware. Shortly after Saudi emissaries tried to convince Abdulaziz to return  to the kingdom, his phone was hacked. Weeks later, two of his brothers in Saudi Arabia were arrested and his friends detained.

Abdulaziz, a confidant of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi whose murder was approved by Saudi’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also had information about his Twitter account obtained by a “state-sponsored” actor, which later transpired to be a Saudi spy employed by Twitter. It was this stolen data, which included Abdulaziz’s phone number, that helped the Saudis penetrate his phone and read his messages with Khashoggi in real-time, Yahoo News reported this week.

Omar Abdulaziz is one of dozens of known victims of digital surveillance by a nation state. Blue dots represent digital intrusions and red dots indicate physical events, such as harassment or violence. (Image: Forensic Architecture/supplied)

Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui is another known victim, whose phone was hacked several times over 2015 and 2016 by a government customer of Pegasus, likely Mexico. The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found that her son, Emilio, a minor at the time, also had his phone targeted while he lived in the United States. The timeline of the digital intrusions against Aristegui, her son, and her colleagues show that the hacking efforts intensified following their exposure of corruption by Mexico’s then-president Enrique Peña Nieto.

“It’s a malware that activates your camera, your microphone, all that which forms an integral part of your life,” said Aristegui in an interview with journalist and filmmaker Laura Poitras, who contributed to the project. Speaking of her son whose phone was targeted, Aristegui said: “To know that a kid who is simply going about his life, and going to school tells us about the kinds of abuse that a state can exert without counterweight.” (NSO has repeatedly claimed it does not target phones in the United States, but offers a similar technology to Pegasus, dubbed Phantom, through U.S.-based subsidiary, Westbridge Technologies.)

“A phenomenal damage is caused to the journalistic responsibility when the state — or whoever — uses these systems of ‘digital violence’,” said Aristegui. “It ends up being a very damaging element for journalists, which affects the right of a society to keep itself informed.”

The timeline also shows the digital targeting (in blue) of Carmen Aristegui, her family, and her colleagues, entangled with break-ins at their office, intimidation, and disinformation campaigns (in red). (Image: Forensic Architecture/supplied)

The platform also draws on recent findings from an Amnesty International investigation into NSO Group’s corporate structure, which shows how NSO’s spyware has proliferated to states and governments using a complex network of companies to hide its customers and activities. Forensic Architecture’s platform follows the trail of private investment since NSO’s founding in 2015, which “likely enabled” the sale of the spyware to governments that NSO would not ordinarily have access to because of Israeli export restrictions.

“NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware needs to be thought of and treated as a weapon developed, like other products of Israel’s military industrial complex, in the context of the ongoing Israeli occupation. It is disheartening to see it exported to enable human rights violations worldwide,” said Eyal Weizman, director of Forensic Architecture.

The platform launched shortly after NSO published its first so-called transparency report this week, which human rights defenders and security researchers panned as devoid of any meaningful detail. Amnesty International said the report reads “more like a sales brochure.”

In a statement, NSO Group said it cannot comment on research it has not seen, but claimed it “investigates all credible claims of misuse, and NSO takes appropriate action based on the results of its investigations.”

NSO Group maintained that its technology “cannot be used to conduct cybersurveillance within the United States, and no customer has ever been granted technology that would enable them to access phones with U.S. numbers,” and declined to name any of its government customers.


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#amnesty-international, #bahrain, #espionage, #forensic-architecture, #government, #jamal-khashoggi, #malware, #nso-group, #pegasus, #president, #privacy, #security, #spy, #spyware

Microsoft says a third of its government data requests have secrecy orders

Microsoft’s customer security chief says as many as one-third of all government demands that the company receives for customer data are issued with secrecy clauses that prevents it from disclosing the search to the subject of the warrant.

The figure was disclosed in testimony by Microsoft’s Tom Burt ahead of a House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, as lawmakers weigh a legislative response to efforts by the Justice Department under the Trump administration to secretly obtain call and email records as part of an investigation into the leaks of classified information to reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN.

Burt said that such secrecy orders “have unfortunately become commonplace,” and that Microsoft regularly receives “boilerplate secrecy orders unsupported by any meaningful legal or factual analysis.”

In his testimony, Burt said that since 2016 Microsoft received between 2,400 to 3,500 secrecy orders each year, or 7-10 a day. Microsoft said in its transparency report that it received close to 11,200 legal orders from U.S. authorities last year.

By comparison, the U.S. courts approved 2,395 warrants with secrecy clauses a decade ago in 2010, which Burt said is fewer than the number of secrecy orders Microsoft alone received in any of the past five years.

“These are just the demands that Microsoft, just one cloud service provider, received. Multiply those numbers by every technology company that holds or processes data, and you may get a sense of the scope of the government’s overuse of secret surveillance,” Burt’s testimony says. “We are not suggesting that secrecy orders should only be obtained through some impossible standard. We simply ask that it be a meaningful one.”

Much of the controversy over secrecy orders came of late when secrecy orders served on Apple, Google, and Microsoft expired in recent weeks, allowing the companies to disclose to the news agencies that the Justice Department under the Trump administration had sought to obtain their records by demanding the data from the tech companies that host the data.

President Biden pledged to stop the collection of journalists’ phone and email records, while also dropping some secrecy provisions. But lawmakers are likely to note that legislative change would be needed to codify policy into law.

Microsoft’s Burt said the company will “do everything it can to prevent the misuse of secrecy orders.” The software and cloud giant also sued the Justice Department in 2016 to challenge the constitutionality of gag orders.

#apple, #biden, #companies, #computing, #department-of-justice, #google, #microsoft, #president, #security, #technology, #the-new-york-times, #the-washington-post, #trump-administration, #united-states

German identity verifier IDnow acquires France’s ARIADNEXT for $59 million, hits M&A road

IDnow, a German-based identity verification startup is acquiring ARIADNEXT, a French equivalent, specializing in remote identity verification and digital identity creation. A price was not released by either party but TechCrunch understands from sources that the deal was approximately $59 million / €50 million. Sources say IDnow is looking to do similar acquisitions.

IDnow says the combined entity will be able to provide a comprehensive identity verification platform, ranging from AI-driven to human-assisted technology and from online to point-of-sale verification options. IDnow offers its services into the UK, French and German, Spain, Poland, Romania, and other international markets, and says it expects to increase revenue 3x in 2021 versus 2019.

The startup also says the pandemic has meant usage of its products has gone up 200% more compared to last year as companies switch to digital processes.

Andreas Bodczek, CEO of IDnow said in a statement: “This combination with ARIADNEXT is an important step towards our vision of building the pan-European leader for identity verification-as-a-service solutions. With ARIADNEXT, in addition to our recent acquisition of identity Trust Management AG, IDnow can provide our customers with an even broader suite of products through a single platform with a seamless user experience.”

Guillaume Despagne, President of ARIADNEXT, said: “We are looking forward to joining a team of IDnow’s caliber, combining our experience and skills to work towards our shared vision of providing a pan-European secure and future-proof solution to customers.

IDnow will retain ARIADNEXT’s locations in Rennes, Paris, Madrid, Bucharest, Iasi, and Warsaw, as well as its over 125 employees. The acquisition is subject to regulatory approvals.

The acquisition means IDNow is now on a par with the other large player in Europe, OnFido. TechCrunch understands the company has done €50m+ revenue this year expect to over-perform its €100m revenue target for 2023.

#articles, #artificial-intelligence, #business, #ceo, #economy, #europe, #german, #idnow, #madrid, #onfido, #paris, #poland, #president, #romania, #spain, #startup-company, #tc, #techcrunch, #united-kingdom, #verification, #warsaw

How WesternUnion is fighting back against fintech startups

The saying goes that, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” That may or may not be true, but at least one “old dog” is working hard to disprove that saying.

Western Union has been operating in the cross-border payments space for nearly 150 years (yes, you read that right – 150 years) and today, globally, it serves almost 150 million customers – representing senders and receivers.

In recent years, a number of fintech startups have emerged to challenge Western Union in the massive space – from Wise (formerly TransferWise) to Remitly to WorldRemit. But the payments giant seems up for the challenge and has been investing heavily in its digital operations in an attempt to beat fintechs at their own game

As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a massive acceleration of the trend of all things moving to digital in nearly all industries. Money transfer was no exception. In 2020, Western Union benefited from that acceleration. Its overall digital money transfer revenues – including WU.com and its digital partnership business – climbed by 38% to more than $850 million, up from over $600 million in 2019. 

Speaking of WU.com, the company’s online transactions site, it saw a nearly 30% gain in annual active customers to 8.6 million. 

This year, the company recently projected that its digital money transfer revenues are on track to exceed $1 billion in 2021 after first-quarter revenue growth of 45% to a new quarterly high of $242 million.

Today, Western Union claims to hold the largest cross-border, digital, peer-to-peer payments network in terms of scale, revenue and channels.

The emphasis on beefing up its digital operations – an initiative that actually began in the second half of 2019, according to the company – and expanding those digital offerings to more countries led to Western Union’s overall business profile shifting over the past 15 months. 

Digital channels in 2020 made up 29% of transactions and 20% of revenue for the company’s consumer-to-consumer (C2C) business, up from 16% and 14%, respectively, in 2019.

Western Union also “open sourced” its platform to third-party financial institutions in a move it says is a “step towards creating an end-to-end payments processing hub.”

TechCrunch talked with Shelly Swanback, Western Union’s president of product and platform, about the company’s digital strategy and what’s next beyond payments for the company (hint: it involves banking products). 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

TC: Let’s start out by hearing how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your business, and what kinds of steps you took as a company to adapt?

Swanback: As COVID started playing out, just like any other company, I thought ‘What do we need to do to rally around our customers because our customers who rely on retail locations may not be able to get to their retail location as the COVID lockdowns started happening?’

One of the things we learned from that experience is this notion of everyday innovation. Innovation isn’t always blockchain or some emerging technology. Sometimes the best innovation is just about innovating every day with the products and services that you have. 

For example, we had some places in the world where we actually needed to figure out how we could do home delivery of cash. Delivering cash is different than delivering pizza as you can imagine, as there are a whole lot of regulatory items and security items. We very quickly figured out how we can deliver cash in Sri Lanka and Nepal, Jordan and some other places across the world. 

Another example lies in addressing how some folks were just a little intimidated by digital technology. I thought, ‘What if we set up a video digital location we called it where people could call in and do a video call with us and we could help them with their money transfer?’ It turned out that there actually wasn’t as much customer demand for that as we might have thought. 

But the great news — and this is a good lesson, I think, for many organizations — is what we actually did there in terms of KYC (Know Your Customer), which is a big thing in the financial services industry. So, all the technology we set up for this digital location for customers to upload their documents electronically and not have to be in front of an agent, we’re using today, just in a different way.

TC: I know Western Union has touted the fact that it has such a strong physical presence in so many locations actually benefits the growth of its digital operations as well as an expansion into other offerings beyond payments. Can you elaborate on that?

Swanback: The success and acceleration that we’re having in our digital business and of course the quarterly results are great, and we want to continue to do that. But for me, what’s most exciting is just the solid foundation and the basis gives us to build toward this idea of having a more meaningful account-based relationship with our customers and ability to offer them more than just money transfer. 

We have the fortune of having a trusted brand that’s known globally and trusted for something that’s very near and dear to our customers. What we’re hearing from our customers is they would trust us to provide additional services. So one of the things that we’re beginning to put plans in place for, and beginning to do some market tests on, is building an ecosystem or building a marketplace if you will. It will all be catered around the 270 million migrants across the world and really connecting them to each other, connecting them to their families and connecting them to merchants who want to sell them goods or provide them services that are very culturally relevant to them,  either where they happen to be living and working or providing them services back home to their families. 

Later in the fall, we’re going to be launching our first market test in Europe. We’re going to be offering a bank account, debit card, and multi-currency accounts tied of course into our money transfer services, as well as a few other things as we get closer to the market launch. But this really is our first test around providing a more comprehensive set of services.

TC: You recently announced a tie-up with Google Pay and some others. What is the significance of those partnerships?

Swanback: We want to be able to offer our cross-border capabilities and platform in more of a co-branded or white-label fashion, so that we can reach those customers that might still prefer to just be a customer of a bank. As an example, we recently announced that Google Pay users can log in to their app and can do cross-border transfers.

I think that’s an important part of our strategy– going after the direct relationship with customers and at the same time being able to offer our platform to others who already have a direct relationship with our customer. This is also part of our whole technology modernization right now of course. We’re very, very strong in the C2C segment, but the way we’re going about our technology modernization is one that provides us optionality to continue to expand in other segments  – whether it be consumer to business or business to consumer, or even business to business.

TC: Tell me more about this “modernization.”

Swanback: Like many financial organizations and many existing global organizations, part of our massive technology modernization program is moving to the cloud. So we were well on our way from migrating many of our applications to an AWS Cloud Platform. We’re pretty excited about the progress that we’re making there.

Also, over the last 12 to 18 months, we’ve migrated a good portion of our customer agent transactions, like the core of our data, to Snowflake. We;’ve mined 33 data warehouses, and we’ve got 20 petabytes of data in the cloud. And so, that in itself is just this is just the starting point. We’re modernizing our apps on top of this data foundation and really starting to use artificial intelligence and machine learning. But we’re not using it in the back end processes like many other organizations who were using it for operational interactions with our customers. We’re using it in the front office. For example, we launched a telephone money transfer product where a customer talks to a virtual assistant and it’s 100% digitized. It’s actually one of the best customer experiences we’ve seen.

#artificial-intelligence, #aws, #bank, #banking, #business, #cross-border-payments, #debit-card, #e-commerce, #economy, #europe, #finance, #google, #jordan, #machine-learning, #marketing, #nepal, #online-shopping, #payments, #payments-network, #peer-to-peer, #president, #remitly, #sri-lanka, #supply-chain-management, #tc, #virtual-assistant, #western-union, #worldremit

Zero trust unicorn Illumio closes $225M Series F led by Thoma Bravo

Illumio, a self-styled zero trust unicorn, has closed a $225 million Series F funding round at a $2.75 billion valuation. 

The round was led by Thoma Bravo, which recently bought cybersecurity vendor Proofpoint by $12.3 billion, and supported by Franklin Templeton, Hamilton Lane, and Blue Owl Capital. 

The round lands more than two years after Illumio’s Series E funding round in which it raised $65 million, and fueled speculation of an impending IPO. The company’s founder, Andrew Rubin, still isn’t ready to be pressed on whether the company plans to go public, though he told TechCrunch: “If we do our job right, and if we make our customers successful, I’d like to think that would be part of our journey.”

Illumio’s latest funding round is well-timed. Not only does it come amid a huge rise in successful cyberattacks which show that some of the more traditional cybersecurity measures are no longer working, from the SolarWinds hack in early 2020 to the more recent attack on Colonial Pipeline, but it also comes just weeks after President Joe Biden issued an executive order pushing federal agencies to implement significant cybersecurity initiatives, including a zero trust architecture. 

“And just a couple of weeks ago, Anne Neuberger [deputy national security adviser for cybersecurity] put out a memo on White House stationary to all of corporate America saying we’re living through a ransomware pandemic, and here’s six things that we’re imploring you to do,” Rubin says. “One of them was to segment your network.”

Illumio focuses on protecting data centers and cloud networks through something it calls micro-segmentation, which it claims makes it easier to manage and guard against potential breaches, as well as to contain a breach if one occurs. This zero trust approach to security — a concept centered on the belief that businesses should not automatically trust anything inside or outside its perimeters — has never been more important for organizations, according to Illumio. 

“Cyber events are no longer constrained to cyber space,” says Rubin. “That’s why people are finally saying that, after 30 years of relying solely on detection to keep us safe, we cannot rely on it 100% of the time. Zero trust is now becoming the mantra.”

Illumio tells TechCrunch it will use the newly raised funds to make a “huge” investment in its field operations and channel partner network, and to invest in innovation, engineering and its product. 

The late-stage startup, which was founded in 2013 and is based in California, says more than 10% of Fortune 100 companies — including Morgan Stanley, BNP Paribas SA and Salesforce — now use its technology to protect their data centers, networks and other applications. It saw 100% international growth during the pandemic, and says it’s also broadening its customer base across more industries. 

The company has raised more now raised more $550 million from investors include Andreessen Horowitz, General Catalyst and Formation 8.

#america, #andreessen-horowitz, #anne-neuberger, #california, #colonial-pipeline, #computer-security, #computing, #cyberwarfare, #executive, #formation-8, #franklin-templeton, #funding, #general-catalyst, #information-technology, #joe-biden, #morgan-stanley, #network-management, #president, #proofpoint, #salesforce, #security, #solarwinds, #system-administration, #thoma-bravo, #unicorn, #white-house

Meet Nickson, the furniture-as-a-service startup that Barack Obama’s ex-financial adviser just backed

Ever toured an apartment and fall in love with the model unit?

You’re not alone. Harvard Business School grad Cameron Johnson is a former institutional real estate investor and Greystar exec turned startup founder that realized that very often, “renters would try to rent the model apartment.”

This got him thinking. People would love to rent a model apartment in a building, and no one likes to move. This spelled opportunity in Johnson’s mind.

So in 2017, he came up with the idea of Nickson, a Dallas-based startup that fully furnishes apartments on demand.

Image Credits: CEO and founder Cameron Johnson / Nickson

“I thought ‘What if you gave people the ability to simply rent the model, or the ability to add everything in their space needs with a few clicks, similar to how a cable modem comes to your house ’ ” CEO Johnson said. “I wondered, ‘Why can’t we do that for everything else?’ ”

But Nickson doesn’t just provide furniture such as beds and sofas, it delivers all the essentials too — from extension cords to pots and pans to silverware to curtain rods. By partnering with a variety of retailers, the startup claims that it allows users “to make their new spaces move-in ready in as little as 3 hours.” 

Users take a style quiz and share apartment layout details. Nickson’s designers create an initial layout based on the dimensions of an apartment, desired functions (such as work from home) and the volume of furnishings based on a person’s lifestyle. Once the layout is complete, Nickson creates a custom design, including all furnishings and home goods. 

Upon signing up, users pay a one-time installation fee for the furniture-as-a-service offering, and then a monthly subscription charge for the duration of a lease — starting at $199 a month for a studio to $500 a month for a 3 bedroom apartment. The startup also offers concierge services such as a household supply starter kit and maid service, as an add-on to its flat monthly subscription.

Nickson is currently only live in the Dallas market, but plans to expand into other cities over the next 12 months, including expanding its beta tests in Austin and Houston. And it’s just raised a $12 million Series A to help it advance on that goal. 

A fund managed by Pendulum Opportunities LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Pendulum Holdings LLC, led the Series A round, which also included participation from Motley Fool Ventures, Revolution’s Rise of the Rest and Backstage Capital. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the global supply chain, leading to delivery delays for consumers. Nickson has purchased items over time that it stores as local inventory, making it even more attractive to renters who don’t want to deal with delays and hunting down furniture and essentials, Johnson said. The convenience Nickson offers led to its user base growing 700% in 2020 compared to the year prior, he added.

Robbie Robinson, co-founder and CEO of Pendulum, said his firm was drawn to invest in Nickson due to a combination of Johnson’s “vision, secular shifts toward renting and subscription consumption and the company’s disruptive business model.” (Robinson is President Barack Obama’s former financial adviser, and recently founded Pendulum to invest $250 million in founding startups of color).

Kabir Ahmed, vice president at Pendulum, added that he believes Nickson’s model is superior to the concept of renting one-off furniture pieces in that it offers an “end-to-end, turnkey solution.”

This seamless experience is highly differentiated and offers a compelling value proposition for the consumer,” he said.

Of course, Nickson is not the only company attempting to turn the stodgy furniture rental industry on its head. Other startups offering similar services as Nickson include Oliver Space, Fernish and The Landing.

But Nickson claims that it stands out from the competition in that it “takes care of everything” beyond furniture (including artwork and toilet wand brushes) and that it can curate space and bring it all in before a renter even shows up.

“No other competitor in this space offers this level of service, detail or turnaround,” Johnson says. “You can literally arrive at your new home with a suitcase and toothbrush, and it’s ready to ‘live in.’”

#apartment, #austin, #backstage-capital, #barack-obama, #cable-modem, #ceo, #dallas, #funding, #fundings-exits, #harvard-business-school, #houston, #motley-fool-ventures, #president, #real-estate, #recent-funding, #startup, #startup-company, #startups, #venture-capital, #vice-president

Honeywell and Cambridge Quantum form joint venture to build a new full-stack quantum business

Honeywell, which only recently announced its entry into the quantum computing race, and Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQ), which focuses on building software for quantum computers, today announced that they are combining Honeywell’s Quantum Solutions (HQS) business with Cambridge Quantum in the form of a new joint venture.

Honeywell has long partnered with CQ and invested in the company last year, too. The idea here is to combine Honeywell’s hardware expertise with CQ’s software focus to build what the two companies call “the world’s highest-performing quantum computer and a full suite of quantum software, including the first and most advanced quantum operating system.”

The merged companies (or ‘combination,’ as the companies’ press releases calls it) expect the deal to be completed in the third quarter of 2021. Honeywell Chairman and CEO Darius Adamczyk will become the chairman of the new company. CQ founder and CEO Ilyas Khan will become the CEO and current Honeywell Quantum Solutions President Tony Uttley will remain in this role at the new company.

The idea here is for Honeywell to spin off HQS and combine it with CQC to form a new company, while still playing a role in its leadership and finances. Honeywell will own a majority stake in the new company and invest between $270 and $300 million. It will also have a long-term agreement with the new company to build the ion traps at the core of its quantum hardware. CQ’s shareholders will own 45% of the new company.

Image Credits: Honeywell

“The new company will have the best talent in the industry, the world’s highest-performing quantum computer, the first and most advanced quantum operating system, and comprehensive, hardware-agnostic software that will drive the future of the quantum computing industry,” said Adamczyk. “The new company will be extremely well positioned to create value in the near-term within the quantum computing industry by offering the critical global infrastructure needed to support the sector’s explosive growth.”

The companies argue that a successful quantum business will need to be supported by large-scale investments and offer a one-stop shop for customers that combines hardware and software. By combining the two companies now, they note, they’ll be able to build on their respective leadership positions in their areas of expertise and scale their businesses while also accelerate their R&D and product roadmaps.

“Since we first announced Honeywell’s quantum business in 2018, we have heard from many investors who have been eager to invest directly in our leading technologies at the forefront of this exciting and dynamic industry – now, they will be able to do so,” Adamczyk said. “The new company will provide the best avenue for us to onboard new, diverse sources of capital at scale that will help drive rapid growth.”

CQ launched in 2014 and now has about 150 employees. The company raised a total of $72.8 million, including a $45 million round, which it announced last December. Honeywell, IBM Ventures, JSR Corporation, Serendipity Capital, Alvarium Investments and Talipot Holdings invested in this last round — which also means that IBM, which uses a different technology but, in many ways, directly competes with the new company, now owns a (small) part of it.

#ceo, #chairman, #emerging-technologies, #enterprise, #honeywell, #operating-system, #president, #quantum-computing, #tc, #technology

In search of a new crypto deity

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!

Last week, I wrote about tech taking on Disney. This week, I’m talking about the search for a new crypto messiah.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.


The Big Thing

Elon has worn out his welcome among the crypto illuminati, and the acolytes of Bitcoin are searching out a new emperor god king.

This weekend, thousands of crypto acolytes and investors have descended on a Bitcoin-themed conference in Miami, a very real, very heavily-produced conference sporting crypto celebrities and actual celebrities all on a mission to make waves.

Even though I am not at the conference in person (panels from its main stage were live-streamed online), I have plenty of invites in my email for afterparties featuring celebrities, open bars and endless conversations on the perils of fiat. The cryptocurrency community has never been larger or richer thanks to its most fervent bull run yet, and despite a pretty noteworthy correction in the past few weeks, people believe the best is yet to come.

Despite having so much, what they still seem to be lacking is a patron saint.

For the longest bout, that was SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk who bolstered the currency by pushing Tesla to invest cash on its balance sheet into bitcoin, while also pushing for Tesla to accept bitcoin payments for its vehicles. As I’ve noted in this newsletter in the past, Musk had a tough time reconciling the sheer energy use of bitcoin’s global network with his eco warrior bravado which has seemed to lead to his mild and uneven excommunication (though I’m sure he’s welcome back at any time).

There are plenty of celebrities looking to fill his shoes — a recent endorsement gone wrong by Soulja Boy was one of the more comical instances.

Crypto has been no stranger to grift — of that even the most hardcore crypto grifters can likely agree — and I think there’s been some agreement that the only leader who can truly preach the gospel is someone who is already so rich they don’t even need more money. It’s one reason the community has offered up so much respect for Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin who truly doesn’t seem to care too much about getting any wealthier — he donated about $1 billion worth of crypto to Covid relief efforts in India. A Musk-like cheerleader serves a different purpose though, and so the community is in search of a Good Billionaire.

The best runner-up at the moment appears to be one Jack Dorsey, and while — like Musk — he is also another double-CEO, he is quite a bit different from him in demeanor and desire for the spotlight. He was, however, a headline speaker at Miami’s Bitcoin conference.

Dorsey gathers the most headlines for his work at Twitter but it’s Square where he is pushing most of his crypto enthusiasm. Users can already use Square’s Cash App to buy Bitcoin. Minutes before going onstage Friday, Dorsey tweeted out a thread detailing that Square was interested in building its own hardware wallet that users could store cryptocurrency like bitcoin on outside of the confines of an exchange.

“Bitcoin changes absolutely everything,” Dorsey said onstage. “I don’t think there is anything more important in my lifetime to work on.”

And while the billionaire Dorsey seems like a good choice on paper — he tweets about bitcoin often, but only good tweets. He defends its environmental effects. He shows up to House misinformation hearings with a bitcoin tracker clearly visible in the background. He is also unfortunately the CEO of Twitter, a company that’s desire to reign in its more troublesome users — including one very troublesome user — has caused a rift between him and the crypto community’s very vocal libertarian sect.

Dorsey didn’t make it very far into his speech before a heckler made a scene calling him a hypocrite because of all this with a few others piping in, but like any good potential crypto king would know to do, he just waited quietly for the noise to die down.


(Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Other things 

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

Facebook’s Trump ban will last at least 2 years
In response to the Facebook Oversight Board’s recommendations that the company offer more specificity around its ban of former President Trump, the company announced Friday that it will be banning Trump from its platforms through January 2023 at least, though the company has basically given itself the ability to extend that deadline if it so desires…

Nigeria suspends Twitter
Nigeria is shutting down access to Twitter inside the country with a government official citing the “use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” Twitter called the shutdown “deeply concerning.”

Stack Overflow gets acquired for $1.8 billion
Stack Overflow, one of the most-visited sites of developers across the technology industry, was acquired by Prosus. The heavy hitter investment firm is best known for owning a huge chunk of Tencent. Stack Overflow’s founders say the site will continue to operate independently under the new management.

Spotify ups its personalization
Music service Spotify launched a dedicated section this week called Only You which aims to capture some of the personalization it has been serving up in its annual Spotify Wrapped review. Highlights of the new feature include blended playlists with friends and mid-year reviews.

Supreme Court limits US hacking law in landmark case
Justices from the conservative and liberal wings joined together in a landmark ruling that put limits on what kind of conduct can be prosecuted under the controversial Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

This one email explains Apple
Here’s a fun one, the email exchange that birthed the App Store between the late Steve Jobs and SVP of Software Engineering, Bertrand Serlet as annotated by my boss Matthew Panzarino.


illustration of money raining down

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

For SaaS startups, differentiation is an iterative process
“The more you know about your target customers’ pain points with current solutions, the easier it will be to stand out. Take every opportunity to learn about the people you are aiming to serve, and which problems they want to solve the most. Analyst reports about specific sectors may be useful, but there is no better source of information than the people who, hopefully, will pay to use your solution..”

3 lessons we learned after raising $6 million from 50 investors
“…being pre-product at the time, we had to lean on our experience and our vision to drive conviction and urgency among investors. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough. Investors either felt that our experience was a bad fit for the space we were entering (productivity/scheduling) or that our vision wasn’t compelling enough to merit investment on the terms we wanted.

The existential cost of decelerated growth
“Just because a technology startup has a hot start, that doesn’t mean it will grow quickly forever. Most will wind up somewhere in the middle — or worse. Put simply, there is a larger number of tech companies that do fine or a little bit worse after they reach scale.”

 

Again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.

#analyst, #app-store, #bertrand-serlet, #bitcoin, #blockchain, #bryce-durbin, #ceo, #cryptocurrencies, #cryptocurrency, #digital-currencies, #elon-musk, #extra-crunch, #facebook, #india, #jack-dorsey, #king, #matthew-panzarino, #miami, #nigeria, #president, #prosus, #soulja-boy, #spacex, #spotify, #stack-overflow, #steve-jobs, #supreme-court, #svp, #tc, #technology, #tencent, #tesla, #trump, #twitter, #united-states, #vitalik-buterin, #week-in-review

In latest big tech antitrust push, Germany’s FCO eyes Google News Showcase fine print

The Bundeskartellamt, Germany’s very active competition authority, isn’t letting the grass grow under new powers it gained this year to tackle big tech: The Federal Cartel Office (FCO) has just announced a third proceeding against Google.

The FCO’s latest competition probe looks very interesting as it’s targeting Google News Showcase — Google’s relatively recently launched product which curates a selection of third party publishers’ content to appear in story panels on Google News (and other Google properties), content for which the tech giant pays a licensing fee.

Google started cutting content licensing deals with publishers around the world for News Showcase last year, announcing a total pot of $1BN to fund the arrangements — with Germany one of the first markets where it inked deals.

However its motivation to pay publishers to licence their journalism is hardly pure.

It follows years of bitter accusations from media companies that Google is freeloading off their content. To which the tech giant routinely responded with stonewalling statements — saying it would never pay for content because that’s not how online aggregation works. It also tried to fob off the industry with a digital innovation fund (aka Google News Initiative) which distributes small grants and offers free workshops and product advice, seeking to frame publishers’ decimated business models as a failure of innovation, leaving Google’s adtech machine scot free to steamroller on.

Google’s stonewalling-plus-chicken-feeding approach worked to stave off regulatory action for a long time but eventually enough political pressure built up around the issue of media business models vs the online advertising duopoly that legislators started to make moves to try to address the power imbalance between traditional publishers and intermediating tech giants.

Most infamously in Australia, where lawmakers passed a news media bargaining code earlier this year.

Prior to its passage, both Facebook and Google, the twin targets for that law, warned the move could result in dire consequences — such as a total shut down of their products, reduced quality or even fees to use their services.

Nothing like that happened but lawmakers did agree to a last minute amendment — adding a two-month mediation period to the legislation which allows digital platforms and publishers to strike deals on their own before having to enter into forced arbitration.

Critics say that allows for the two tech giants to continue to set their own terms when dealmaking with publishers, leveraging market muscle to strike deals that may disproportionately benefit Australia’s largest media firms — and doing so without any external oversight and with no guarantees that the resulting content arrangements foster media diversity and plurality or even support quality journalism.

In the EU, lawmakers acted earlier — taking the controversial route of extending copyright to cover snippets of news content back in 2019.

Following on, France was among the first EU countries to transpose the provision into national law — and its competition watchdog quickly ordered Google to pay for news reuse back in 2020 after Google tried to wiggle out of the legislation by stopping displaying snippets in the market.

It responded to the competition authority’s order with more obfuscation, though, agreeing earlier this year to pay French publishers for linking to their content but also for their participation in News Showcase — bundling required-by-law payments (for news reuse) with content licensing deals of its own devising. And thereby making it difficult to understand the balance of mandatory payments vs commercial arrangements.

The problem with News Showcase is that these licensing arrangements are being done behind closed doors, in many cases ahead of relevant legislation and thus purely on Google’s terms — which means the initiative risks exacerbating concerns about the power imbalance between it and traditional publishers caught in a revenue bind as their business models have been massively disrupted by the switch to digital.

If Google suddenly offers some money for content, plenty of publishers might well jump — regardless of the terms. And perhaps especially because any publishers that hold out against licensing content to Google at the price it likes risk being disadvantaged by reduced visibility for their content, given Google’s dominance of the search market and content discoverability (via its ability to direct traffic to specific media properties, such as based on how prominently News Showcase content is displayed, for example).

The competition implications look clear.

But it’s still impressive that the Bundeskartellamt is spinning up an investigation into News Showcase so quickly.

The FCO said it’s acting on a complaint from Corint Media — looking at whether the announced integration of the Google News Showcase service into Google’s general search function is “likely to constitute self-preferencing or an impediment to the services offered by competing third parties”.

It also said it’s looking at whether contractual conditions include unreasonable terms (“to the detriment of the participating publishers”); and, in particular, “make it disproportionately difficult for them to enforce the ancillary copyright for press publishers introduced by the German Bundestag and Bundesrat in May 2021” — a reference to the transposed neighbouring right for news in the EU copyright reform.

So it will be examining the core issue of whether Google is trying to use News Showcase to undermine the new EU rights publishers gained under the copyright reform.

The FCO also said it wants to look at “how the conditions for access to Google’s News Showcase service are defined”.

Google launched the News Showcase in Germany on October 1 2020, with an initial 20 media companies participating — covering 50 publications. Although more have been added since.

Per the FCO, the News Showcase ‘story panels’ were initially integrated in the Google News app but can now also be found in Google News on the desktop. It also notes that Google has said the panels will soon also appear in the general Google search results — a move that will further dial up the competition dynamics around the product, given Google’s massive dominance of the search market in Europe.

Commenting on its proceeding in a statement, Andreas Mundt, president of the Bundeskartellamt, said: “Cooperating with Google can be an attractive option for publishers and other news providers and offer consumers new or improved information services. However, it must be ensured that this will not result in discrimination between individual publishers. In addition, Google’s strong position in providing access to end customers must not lead to a situation where competing services offered by publishers or other news providers are squeezed out of the market. There must be an adequate balance between the rights and obligations of the content providers participating in Google’s programme.”

Google was contacted for comment on the FCO’s action — and it sent us this statement, attributed to spokesperson, Kay Oberbeck:

“Showcase is one of many ways Google supports journalism, building on products and funds that all publishers can benefit from. Showcase is an international licensing program for news — the selection of partners is based on objective and non-discriminatory criteria, and partner content is not given preference in the ranking of our results. We will cooperate fully with the German Competition Authority and look forward to answering their questions.”

The FCO’s scrutiny of Google News Showcase, follows hard on the heels of two other Google proceedings it opened last month, one to determine whether or not the tech giant meets the threshold of Germany’s new competition powers for tackling big tech — and another examining its data processing practices. Both remain ongoing.

The competition authority has also recently opened a proceeding into Amazon’s market dominance — and is also looking to extend another recent investigation of Facebook’s Oculus business, also by determining whether the social media giant’s business meets the threshold required under the new law.

The amendment to the German Competition Act came into force in January — giving the FCO greater powers to proactively impose conditions on large digital companies who are considered to be of “paramount significance for competition across markets” in order to pre-emptively control the risk of market abuse.

That it’s taking on so many proceedings in parallel against big tech shows it’s keen not to waste any time — putting itself in a position to come, as quickly as possible, with proactive interventions to address competitive problems caused by platform giants just as soon as it determines it can legally do that.

The Bundeskartellamt also has a pioneering case against Facebook’s ‘superprofiling’ on its desk — which links privacy abuse to competition concerns and could drastically limit the tech giant’s ability to profile users. That investigation and case has been ongoing for years but was recently referred to Europe’s top court for an interpretation of key legal questions.

 

#andreas-mundt, #artificial-intelligence, #australia, #companies, #digital-media, #europe, #european-union, #facebook, #france, #germany, #google, #google-news-showcase, #media, #news-showcase, #policy, #president, #spokesperson, #websites, #world-wide-web

Cybersecurity unicorn Exabeam raises $200M to fuel SecOps growth

Exabeam, a late-stage startup that helps organizations detect advanced cybersecurity threats, has landed a new $200 million funding round that values the company at $2.4 billion.

The Series F growth round was led by the Owl Rock division of Blue Owl Capital, with support from existing investors Acrew Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Norwest Venture Partners.

The announcement of Exabeam’s latest funding, which the company says will help it on its mission to become “the number one trusted cloud SeCops platform in the market”, coincides with the news that CEO Nir Polak, who co-founded the company in 2013, will be replaced by former ForeScout chief executive Michael DeCesare.

DeCesare is a big name in the cybersecurity space, with more than 25 years of experience leading high-growth security companies. He joined ForeScout as CEO and president in February 2015 after four years as president of McAfee, which at the time was owned by Intel. Under his leadership, ForeScout raised nearly $117 million in an upsized IPO that valued the IoT security vendor at $800 million.

Polak, meanwhile, will shift to a chairman role at Exabeam and “will continue on as an active member of the executive team and remain at the company,” according to the funding announcement.

“Nir has built an incredibly robust, diverse and inclusive culture at Exabeam, and I am committed to helping it flourish,” said DeCesare. “I’m thrilled to join Nir and the whole leadership team to help drive the company through its next phase of growth.”

Exabeam, which has now raised $390 million in six rounds of outside funding, says it expects to use the new money to fuel scale, innovate and extend the company’s leadership. “It gives us the opportunity to triple down on our R&D efforts and continue engineering the most advanced UEBA, XDR and SIEM cloud security products available today,” commented Polak.

The company adds that it has made significant investments in its partner program over the last 12 months, which now includes more than 400 reseller, distributor, systems integrator, MSSP, MDR and consulting partners globally. Exabeam also has more than 500 technology integrations with cloud network, data lake and endpoint vendors including CrowdStrike, Okta and Snowflake.

It’s clearly expecting these investments to pay off, describing its “outcome-based approach” to external security as perfectly suited to support organizations as they manage exponential amounts of data and return to the post-COVID workplace in a variety of hybrid scenarios. After all, hackers are already beginning to target employees who have started making a return to the office, and this threat is only likely to increase as more companies begin to dial back on remote working and start welcoming staff back into workplaces.

“Exabeam is poised to be the next-gen leader in the cloud security analytics, XDR and SIEM markets,” Pravin Vazirani, Blue Owl Capital’s managing director and co-head of tech investing, said in a statement. “We led this round of funding to provide the company with the resources necessary to support its sustainable, long-term growth and value creation.”

#acrew-capital, #ceo, #chairman, #cloud, #cloud-applications, #companies, #crowdstrike, #exabeam, #executive, #forescout, #funding, #intel, #leader, #lightspeed, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #mcafee, #norwest-venture-partners, #okta, #president, #security, #software

Indivisible is training an army of volunteers to neutralize political misinformation

The grassroots Democratic organization Indivisible is launching its own team of stealth fact-checkers to push back against misinformation — an experiment in what it might look like to train up a political messaging infantry and send them out into the information trenches.

Called the “Truth Brigade,” the corps of volunteers will learn best practices for countering popular misleading narratives on the right. They’ll coordinate with the organization on a biweekly basis to unleash a wave of progressive messaging that aims to drown out political misinformation and boost Biden’s legislative agenda in the process.

Considering the scope of the misinformation that remains even after social media’s big January 6 cleanup, the project will certainly have its work cut out for it.

“This is an effort to empower volunteers to step into a gap that is being created by very irresponsible behavior by the social media platforms,” Indivisible co-founder and co-executive director Leah Greenberg told TechCrunch. “It is absolutely frustrating that we’re in this position of trying to combat something that they ultimately have a responsibility to address.”

Greenberg co-founded Indivisible with her husband following the 2016 election. The organization grew out of the viral success the pair had when they and two other former House staffers published a handbook to Congressional activism. The guide took off in the flurry of “resist”-era activism on the left calling on Americans to push back on Trump and his agenda.

Indivisible’s Truth Brigade project blossomed out of a pilot program in Colorado spearheaded by Jody Rein, a senior organizer concerned about what she was seeing in her state. Since that pilot began last fall, the program has grown into 2,500 volunteers across 45 states.

The messaging will largely center around Biden’s ambitious legislative packages: the American Rescue plan, the voting rights bill HR1 and the forthcoming infrastructure package. Rather than debunking political misinformation about those bills directly, the volunteer team will push back with personalized messages promoting the legislation and dispelling false claims within their existing social spheres on Facebook and Twitter.

The coordinated networks at Indivisible will cross-promote those pieces of semi-organic content using tactics parallel to what a lot of disinformation campaigns do to send their own content soaring (In the case of groups that make overt efforts to conceal their origins, Facebook calls this “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”) Since the posts are part of a volunteer push and not targeted advertising, they won’t be labeled, though some might contain hashtags that connect them back to the Truth Brigade campaign.

Volunteers are trained to serve up progressive narratives in a “truth sandwich” that’s careful to not amplify the misinformation it’s meant to push back against. For Indivisible, training volunteers to avoid giving political misinformation even more oxygen is a big part of the effort.

“What we know is that actually spreads disinformation and does the work of some of these bad actors for them,” Greenberg said. “We are trying to get folks to respond not by engaging in that fight — that’s really doing their work for them — but by trying to advance the kind of narrative that we actually want people to buy into.”

She cites the social media outrage cycle perpetuated by Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene as a harbinger of what Democrats will again be up against in 2022. Taylor Greene is best known for endorsing QAnon, getting yanked off of her Congressional committee assignments and comparing mask requirements to the Holocaust — comments that inspired some Republicans to call for her ouster from the party.

Political figures like Greene regularly rile up the left with outlandish claims and easily debunked conspiracies. Greenberg believes that political figures like Greene who regularly rile up the online left suck up a lot of energy that could be better spent resisting the urge to rage-retweet and spreading progressive political messages.

“It’s not enough to just fact check [and] it’s not enough to just respond, because then fundamentally we’re operating from a defensive place,” Greenberg said.

“We want to be proactively spreading positive messages that people can really believe in and grab onto and that will inoculate them from some of this.”

For Indivisible, the project is a long-term experiment that could pave the way for a new kind of online grassroots political campaign beyond targeted advertising — one that hopes to boost the signal in a sea of noise.

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