Botify raises $55 million to optimize search engine indexing

Botify has raised a $55 million Series C funding round led by InfraVia Growth with Bpifrance’s Large Venture fund also participating. The company has created a search engine optimization (SEO) platform so that your content is better indexed and appears more often in search results.

Existing investors Eurazeo and Ventech are also investing in the startup once again. Nicolas Herschtel from InfraVia and Antoine Izsak from Bpifrance will join the board of directors. Valuation has tripled since the company’s previous funding round.

While there are a ton of good and bad practices in the SEO industry, Botify defines itself as “white-hat company”. They respect the terms of services of search engines, they don’t scrape search results for insights, they don’t create shady backlinks on other websites.

“We’re going to optimize every step of the search funnel from first the quality of the website, how it is designed, how is the content going to be enriched with, etc.” co-founder and CEO Adrien Menard told me.

There are now three different components in the Botify product suite. The startup first released an analytics tool that gives you insights about your website. Basically, it lets you see how a crawler analyzes your site.

The company then released Botify Intelligence, which hands you a prioritized todo list of things you can do to improve your SEO strategy. And now, the company is also working on automation with Botify Activation. When Google’s search engine bot queries your site, Botify can take over and answer requests directly.

“We’re not trying to trick Google’s algorithm. We’re defining Botify as the interface between search engines and our clients’ websites. Search engines are going to access higher quality content. And it’s probably cheaper than with a normal process,” Menard said.

Companies aren’t necessarily using all three tools. They may start with analytics and take it from there. “You can use different products depending on the size of the company,” Menard said.

Over the past few years, Google has increased the number of ad slots on search results. It also promotes its own services, such as YouTube and Google Maps, before you can see the organic search results. I asked Adrien Menard whether that could be a concern for the future of Botify.

“I agree with you that we’re seeing more and more sections of the search results coming from first-party or paid results,” he said. “But the traffic generated by organic results is growing. It represents 30% of the traffic of the websites of our customers and this average is not decreasing.”

According to him, search keeps getting bigger and bigger. When you invest in search, you can see a clear return on investment when it comes to online sales, traffic, etc.

Right now, Botify has 500 customers, such as Expedia, L’Oréal, The New York Times, Groupon, Marriott, Condé Nast, Crate & Barrel, Fnac Darty, Vestiaire Collective and Farfetch.

With today’s funding round, the company wants to improve its automation capabilities, sign partnerships with more tech companies and increase its footprint with new offices in the Asia-Pacific region.

#battlefield, #botify, #developer, #europe, #fundings-exits, #search-engine, #seo, #startup-battlefield, #startups

Xayn launches a desktop version of its ad-free, privacy-safe search

Berlin-based Xayn, which as we reported last year is doing ad-free, personalized, privacy-safe search as an alternative to tracking and profiling adtech giants like Google, has expanded its product offering — launching a desktop version (in beta for now).

The desktop Xayn WebBeta is described as a “light web version” of the product with similar functionality to the mobile app — though of course there are differences, such as not being able to literally swipe on content to signal interest/disinterest, as you do on Xayn’s mobile apps.

Xayn isn’t a browser itself, per se, though it’s crossing the streams a bit (and can self-describe as a “browsing engine”) — since, as well as private search, it also offers an in-app browsing experience by populating a feed with snippets of content organized in the form of a discovery/news feed.

You’ll likely notice a short lag on loading the software in a desktop browser (also true on mobile) as Xayn’s AI figures out what to populate this feed with. It seems marginally longer the first time you fire the software up — when it’s starting from scratch (localizing the content to your country) vs repeat visits when the AI will have your individual browsing signals to work with.

On the desktop Xayn, you can signal a like or dislike on a particular piece of content by hovering the mouse next to the green (to like) or pink (to dislike) bar, which appear on the left and right sides of the content box respectively, and then clicking on the up (or down) thumb icon that pops up. So it’s actually a left click to like.

And if you really don’t need another feed in your online life you can switch off the discovery view — and have only a search bar on loading.

Search results are displayed by default in a similar grid of rectangular content panes to the discovery feed. Which is a little lacking in information density for this information worker…

Sample search result page as seen on Xayn’s WebBeta version (Screengrab: Natasha Lomas/TechCrunch)

Xayn’s learning AI can be toggled off whenever you like, by clicking on the brain icon in the top right. Say if you want to browse ‘unwatched’ — i.e. without the stuff you’re looking at being used as learning material for the AI to decide what else you’ll get shown (both for content in the feed and search results).

You can also reset the learning manually by clearing your browsing data — if you want to purge the whole thing and start again.

Another carrot to entice users is no ads: Xayn is ad-free — which of course isn’t the case with other non-tracking private search engines (like DuckDuckGo or Qwant), which tend to rely on showing contextual ads.

And in another break from the search industry ‘norm’, its AI’s search algorithms are open source.

Other features available on the desktop version of Xayn include a ‘deep search’ offering that it says lets users dive into a topic via “a simple click to be shown a personal reference library of relevant content”; and ‘collections’ — a bookmark-like offering which lets users “collect and store their favorite web content by creating, filling, and managing collections”.

Plus, as well as being ad-free itself, Xayn has baked in an ad blocker — blocking ads on third party sites for a “noise-free” browsing experience as it puts it.

Its first focus for the desktop is Chromium-based browsers and Firefox — so Safari users will need to switch to a supported browser to kick the tyres of its WebBeta.

The mobile version of Xayn’s product launched back in December and has been downloaded more than 250,000 times worldwide since then, according to the startup.

Three months after launch it says users were already conducting 100,000+ active daily searches — feeding in the browsing data and interest-based swipes that the AI uses to train and improve the personalized content discovery which is core to Xayn’s value proposition. And because it’s doing all this learning and reranking on device it’s able to tout its user-specific search results as ‘privacy safe’.

It also tries to avoid a filter bubble type effect by consciously injecting variance — so its algorithms don’t always just feed users more of the same.

Both the desktop and mobile version of Xayn use a technique called Masked Federated Learning to tailor the user’s web experience without compromising their privacy.

Google is also of course working on evolving its own ad targeting technology — currently it’s piloting a technology called FloCs (aka ‘federated learning of cohorts’) to put browser users in interest buckets for ad targeting purposes, as it works on deprecating tracking cookies. But its core business remains people profiling and selling your attention to advertisers — something Xayn definitely isn’t doing.

“We started Xayn as a direct response to the false privacy vs convenience dilemma and quickly proved that it’s possible to solve this trade-off so users are no longer losers. In fact, with each update, our fantastic team of engineers and designers demonstrates all over again how privacy, quality, and great UX go hand in hand,” said Leif-Nissen Lundbæk, co-Founder and CEO, in a statement.

“We didn’t want to copy what’s already out there but instead re-think it and create something new. With Xayn, you can find your favorite part of the Internet — either by actively searching the web or by browsing through the discovery feed that offers personalized content suggestions from the entire Internet. Either way, your privacy is always protected.”

“In creating Xayn’s web version, we have taken all the elements that made the app great and adapted them to the desktop browser window,” added Julia Hintz, its head of design, in another statement.

“The privacy-protecting algorithms, the intuitive design, and the smooth animations have found their way into the web version. Users can switch effortless between mobile and desktop without leaving their familiar environment. This is key for the seamless, deep interaction experience that makes Xayn special.”

In the web version of the product, Xayn says users’ personal data stays privately within the browser.

Asked about the security of the desktop product, a spokesperson told us: “Desktop computers are less safe than smartphones in general. However, Xayn protects personal data by using decentralized privacy-preserving machine learning in combination with encryption. From the pure technical point of view, Xayn is actually a browser within a browser on a desktop device. On desktop devices, Xayn runs in a sandbox in the respective browsers and this is how it protects personal data from unwanted third-party access.”

Future features Xayn plans to add includes the ability for mobile and desktop users to synchronize their personalized experience across multiple devices, while keeping their privacy intact, so the AI’s learnings can go with them wherever they’re online.

To check out the WebBeta version of Xayn’s search engine on your desktop computer point your browser at www.xayn.com.

Earlier this summer, Xayn announced a $12 million Series A funding round led by the Japanese investors Global Brain and Japanese telco KDDI, along with participation from prior backers including Berlin’s Earlybird VC — bringing its total financing to $23M+. Unsurprisingly, then, Asia (starting with Japan) is now a big focus for the Berlin startup.

#ad-blocking, #artificial-intelligence, #berlin, #duckduckgo, #europe, #google, #google-search, #japan, #privacy, #qwant, #search-engine, #tc, #web-browsers, #xayn

YouTube upgrades search with chapter previews and better recommendations for translated videos

YouTube announced two feature updates today to make it easier for people to find the content they’re looking for on the platform. This includes visual search features and easier discovery of foreign language videos that have captions in the user’s local language.

On desktop, YouTube users can hover over a video’s thumbnail and watch a brief clip play. This functionality will now extend to mobile with the added ability to browse the chapters within a video. From the search page, users can jump directly to the chapter they’re most interested in.

chapters appear in youtube search

“Let’s say you’re looking for a good sourdough recipe and want to work on your kneading technique. With these new search results, you can see all the steps in the video, from feeding the starter to pulling the bread out of the oven — and skip right to the chapter on kneading,” wrote Pablo Paniagua, director of Product Management, in a blog post.

The other product update recommends videos in other languages to the user, so long as the video has captioning available in their language. So, to extend YouTube’s sourdough example, if you speak Icelandic and can’t find a good sourdough tutorial in your language, YouTube might recommend an English-language tutorial with Icelandic subtitles. To start, YouTube will supplement search results with English-language videos, but it plans to expand to more languages.

an example of non-native language subtitles on a video

Image Credits: YouTube

In India and Indonesia, YouTube is also testing a feature to complement search results with links to other sites from Google Search.

“Not all searches may have enough high-quality or relevant video content to fully address what you’re looking for,” Paniagua explained.

Google Search already had a feature that let users skip to select moments in a video. Even late last year, Google (parent company to YouTube) experimented with a mobile search feature that would recommend short-form videos from TikTok and Instagram. But, the video would open within the search engine to keep users on Google, rather than opening the TikTok or Instagram apps.

Image Credits: YouTube (screenshot by TechCrunch)

These updates to YouTube’s search feature emerge in the midst of ongoing controversy around the platform’s search algorithm. Last month, Mozilla published research suggesting that YouTube’s algorithm continued to promote “bottom-feeding” content. Mozilla crowd-sourced data from participants who used a browser extension called RegretsReporter, which asks users to self-report YouTube videos they wish they didn’t watch. Mozilla found that YouTube regrets were 60% higher in countries where English isn’t the primary language. Still, a representative from YouTube said that features that might potentially mitigate this — for example, recommending foreign videos with local language captions — were not developed in response to the Mozilla report.

“Our teams have been working on these features for months with the goal of helping users find what they’re looking for, from how-tos to DIYs,” a spokesperson from YouTube said.

#apps, #google, #google-search, #search-engine, #search-results, #youtube

Privacy-oriented search app Xayn raises $12M from Japanese backers to go into devices

Back in December 2020 we covered the launch of a new kind of smartphone app-based search engine, Xayn.

“A search engine?!” I hear you say? Well, yes, because despite the convenience of modern search engines’ ability to tailor their search results to the individual, this user-tracking comes at the expense of privacy. This mass surveillance might be what improves Google’s search engine and Facebook’s ad targeting, to name just two examples, but it’s not very good for our privacy.

Internet users are admittedly able to switch to the US-based DuckDuckGo, or perhaps France’s Qwant, but what they gain in privacy, they often lose in user experience and the relevance of search results, through this lack of tailoring.

What Berlin-based Xayn has come up with is personalized, but a privacy-safe web search on smartphones, which replaces the cloud-based AI employed by Google et al with the innate AI in-built into modern smartphones. The result is that no data about you is uploaded to Xayn’s servers.

And this approach is not just for ‘privacy freaks’. Businesses that need search but don’t need Google’s dominant market position are increasingly attracted by this model.

And the evidence comes today with the new that Xayn has now raised almost $12 million in Series A funding led by the Japanese investors Global Brain and KDDI (a Japanese telecommunications operator), with participation from previous backers, including the Earlybird VC in Berlin. Xayn’s total financing now comes to more than $23 million to date.

It would appear that Xayn’s fusion of a search engine, a discovery feed, and a mobile browser has appealed to these Asian market players, particularly because Xayn can be built into OEM devices.

The result of the investment is that Xayn will now also focus on the Asian market, starting with Japan, as well as Europe.

Leif-Nissen Lundbæk, Co-Founder and CEO of Xayn said: “We proved with Xayn that you can have it all: great results through personalization, privacy by design through advanced technology, and a convenient user experience through clean design.”

He added: “In an industry in which selling data and delivering ads en masse are the norm, we choose to lead with privacy instead and put user satisfaction front and center.”

The funding comes as legislation such as the EU’s GDPR or California’s CCPA have both raised public awareness about personal data online.

Since its launch, Xayn says its app has been downloaded around 215,000 times worldwide, and a web version of its app is expected soon.

Over a call, Lundbæk expanded on the KDDI aspect of the fund-raising: “The partnership with KDDI means we will give users access to Xayn for free, while the corporate – such as KDDI – is the actual customer but gives our search engine away for free.”

The core features of Xayn include personalized search results; a personalized feed of the entire Internet which learns from their Tinder-like swipes, without collecting or sharing personal data;
an ad-free experience.  

Naoki Kamimeada, Partner at Global Brain Corporation said: “The market for private online search is growing, but Xayn is head and shoulders above everyone else because of the way they’re re-thinking how finding information online should be.”

Kazuhiko Chuman, Head of KDDI Open Innovation Fund, said: “This European discovery engine uniquely combines efficient AI with a privacy-protecting focus and a smooth user experience. At KDDI, we’re constantly on the lookout for companies that can shape the future with their expertise and technology. That’s why it was a perfect match for us.”

In addition to the three co-founders Leif-Nissen Lundbæk (Chief Executive Officer), Professor Michael Huth (Chief Research Officer), and Felix Hahmann (Chief Operations Officer), Dr Daniel von Heyl will come on board as Chief Financial Officer, Frank Pepermans will take on the role of Chief Technology Officer, and Michael Briggs will join as Chief Growth Officer.

#artificial-intelligence, #berlin, #california, #chief-executive-officer, #chief-financial-officer, #chief-technology-officer, #computing, #duckduckgo, #europe, #european-union, #facebook, #france, #global-brain-corporation, #google, #head, #japan, #kddi, #online-search, #partner, #privacy, #qwant, #search-engine, #search-engines, #search-results, #smartphone, #smartphones, #tc, #terms-of-service, #websites, #world-wide-web, #xayn

CommandBar raises $4.8M to make web-based apps searchable

James Evans and his co-founders at CommandBar were working on a software product when they hit a wall while trying to access certain functionalities within the software.

That’s when the lightbulb moment happened and, in 2020, the team shifted to building a product search engine add-on to make software easier to use.

“We thought this paradigm feels like it could be useful, but it is hard to build well, so we built it,” Evans told TechCrunch.

On Monday, CommandBar emerged from beta and announced its $4.8 million seed round, led by Thrive Capital, with participation from Y Combinator, BoxGroup and a group of angel investors including, AngelList’s Naval Ravikant, Worklife Ventures’ Brianne Kimmel, StitchFix president Mike Smith and others.

CommandBar’s business-to-business tool, referred to as “command k,” was designed to make software simpler and faster to use. The technology is a search interface that sits on top of web-based apps so that users can access functionalities by searching simple keywords. It can also be used to boost new users with recommended prompts like referrals.

CommandBar in Clubhouse. Image Credits: CommandBar

Companies integrate CommandBar by pasting in a line of code and using configuration tools to quickly add commands relevant to their apps. The product was purposefully designed as low-code so that product and customer success teams can add configurations without relying on engineering support, Evans said.

Initially, it was a difficult sell: One of the more challenging parts in the early days of the company was helping customers and investors understand what CommandBar was doing.

“It was hard to describe over the phone, we had to try to get people on Zoom so they could see it,” he said. “It is easier now to sell the product because they can see it being used in an app. That is where many new users come from.”

CommandBar is already being used by companies like Clubhouse.io, Canix and Stacker that are serving hundreds of thousands of users. The most common use case for CommandBar so far is onboarding new software users.

He intends to use the new funding to grow the team, hiring across engineering, sales and marketing. The beta testing was successful in receiving good feedback from the early customers, and Evans wants to reflect that in new products and functionalities that will come out later this year.

Vince Hankes, an investor at Thrive Capital, was introduced to CommandBar through one of its pre-seed investors.

His interest is in B2B software companies and applications, and one of the things that became obvious to him while looking into the space was the natural tension between the simplicity and functionality of apps.

Apps are sometimes hard for even a power user to navigate, he said, but CommandBar makes something as simple as resetting a password easier by being able to search for that term and go right to that page if it is configured that way by the company.

“The types of companies interested in their product are impressive,” Hankes said. “We began to see demand from a broad range of companies that weren’t obvious. In fact, they are using CommandBar as a tool for deeper customer engagement.”

 

#apps, #boxgroup, #commandbar, #enterprise, #funding, #james-evans, #product-search-engine, #recent-funding, #search-engine, #software, #startups, #tc, #thrive-capital, #vince-hankes, #y-combinator

Demand Curve: Questions you need to answer in your paid search ads

Around 15% of website traffic comes through paid search ads. But to turn passive searchers into active shoppers, your ads should answer their question and entice them to click.

We’ve tested thousands of paid search ads at Demand Curve and through our agency Bell Curve. This post breaks down 14 questions your paid search ads should answer to ensure you’re only paying for the highest-intent shoppers.

Question 1: “What’s in it for me?”

An important distinction between paid search and organic search is that paid ads are an interruption. Users of search engines are simply looking for an answer to their question. The people who see your ads don’t owe you anything. Just because you’re paying to have your ad show up first doesn’t mean they’re going to pay attention to it.

To generate genuine interest in your paid ads, reframe your offer as a favor.

You can do this in two ways:

  • Describe the features of your product as the solution to your customers’ problem.
  • Emphasize the outcome your customer seeks.

For example, reframing free delivery as an extra convenience makes the offer that much more attractive.

Use ad extensions by listing additional benefits in the description of the page. For example, including “customized plans” in the pricing extension page signals to your customer that they’ll have control over the cost. This will help to attract the curiosity of even the most cost-conscious buyers.

To capture genuine interest in your paid ads, re-frame your offer as a favor.

Image Credits: Demand Curve

Question 2: “Why should I buy now?”

Approximately 80% of e-commerce shopping carts are abandoned, mostly because shoppers don’t feel any urgency to complete the transaction. Online shoppers aren’t in any rush, as the internet is open 24/7 and inventory feels unlimited.

Use ad copy that bridges the gap between their problem and your solution. The easiest way to create that curiosity bridge is by asking a question.

To answer the question, “Why should I buy now?”, you’re going to have to create an incentive to get them to take action now.

#ad, #advertising-tech, #column, #digital-marketing, #ec-column, #ec-ecommerce-and-d2c, #ec-how-to, #ecommerce, #marketing, #online-advertising, #online-shopping, #search-ads, #search-advertising, #search-engine, #search-engine-optimization, #search-engines, #startups, #targeted-advertising, #tc

Indian tech startup exposed Byju’s student data

India-based technology startup Salesken.ai has secured an exposed server that was spilling private and sensitive data on one of its customers, Byju’s, an education technology giant and India’s most valuable startup.

The server was left unprotected since at least June 14, according to historical data provided by Shodan, a search engine for exposed devices and databases. Because the server was without a password, anyone could access the data inside. Security researcher Anurag Sen found the exposed server, and asked TechCrunch for help in reporting it to the company.

The server was pulled offline a short time after we contacted Salesken.ai on Tuesday.

Salesken.ai provides customer relationship technology to companies like Byju’s to engage better with customers. The Bengaluru-based startup raised $8 million in Series A funding from Sequoia Capital India in 2020, two years after the company was founded.

Much of the data contained on the exposed server pertained to WhiteHat Jr., an online coding school for students in India and the U.S., which Byju’s bought for $300 million in 2020. Byju’s is currently valued at more than $16 billion after raising $1.5 billion earlier this year.

The server contained the names and classes taken by students and email addresses and phone numbers of parents and teachers. The server also contained other data related to students, such as chat logs between parents — identified by their phone number — and WhiteHat Jr. staff, as well as comments recorded by teachers about their students.

The server also contained copies of emails containing codes to reset user accounts and other internal Salesken.ai data.

Surga Thilakan, co-founder and chief executive at Salesken.ai, told TechCrunch the startup was “evaluating” the security incident but did not dispute what kind of data was found on the exposed server..

“Our assessment suggests the exposed device appears to be a non-production, staging instance of one of our integration services having access to less than 1% of India based end-of-life sales logs for a fortnight,” said Thilakan. “Salesken.ai follows stringent data security norms and is certified under the highest standards of global security and safety. We have, in an abundance of caution, immediately severed access to the cloud device.”

Thilakan did not respond to a follow-up email from TechCrunch asking why real user data was stored in what the company claims is a “non-production, staging” server. The company also would not say if it has logs or any evidence to determine if data was accessed or downloaded as a result of the security lapse.

WhiteHat Jr. spokesperson Sameer Bajaj said the company is “currently communicating with Salesken.ai about the incident and will take appropriate action in accordance with our rigorous security policies.”

 

 

#bengaluru, #byjus, #education, #government, #india, #online-tutoring, #privacy, #search-engine, #security, #spokesperson, #united-states, #whitehat-jr

5 companies doing growth marketing right

What do all companies, regardless of industry, say they want? Growth. Lighting-fast, continuous growth. The good news is you can quickly learn which growth marketing strategies work by studying other companies’ success and adapting it to your own business.

Most technophiles remember Dropbox’s referral program — the one that helped it grow 3,900% in 15 months. Its philosophy was simple: reward customers with free storage space for referring other customers. In 2008, it was an absolute revelation. A golden ticket.

Tell a story with your business’ proprietary data. You’re the only one with this information, and that makes it valuable.

In 2021, you’d be hard-pressed to find a company without a formal referral program. It’s a standard growth marketing trick. If you study other companies’ tactics, you’re going to be able to shortcut growth — it’s as simple as that.

The race to grow faster is more pressing than ever before. When you consider the speed with which venture capital funds need to return dollars to their investors and that consumer acquisition costs have increased by 55% over the last three years, forward-thinking entrepreneurs and growth marketers simply must make time to study their competition, learn best practices and apply them to their own business growth.

Of course, you should still run your own experiments, but it’s just more capital-efficient to emulate than to trial-and-error from scratch. Here are five companies with growth strategies worth emulating — including the most important lessons you can begin applying to your business today.


Have you worked with an individual or agency who helped you find and keep more users?
Help us identify the best startup growth marketing experts!


1. Doing SEO right: Flo

SEO is going to spend this summer shaking in its boots. Google began rolling out a two-week core algorithm update on June 2, and it’s unleashing a page experience update through August. These updates usually come with significant volatility that makes organic Google rankings jump all over the place.

However, one clear winner of the 2021 SEO footrace is Flo, a women’s ovulation calendar, period tracker and pregnancy app. According to GrowthBar, a SEO tool I co-founded, Flo’s organic traffic has soared 192% over the past two months and it ranks on page one for some staggeringly competitive women’s health keywords.

If SEO is a strategy you’re pursuing, there are two key growth lessons to take away from Flo’s recent success.

1. Authority matters now more than ever. Healthcare websites fall into a category of sensitive sites that Google classifies as Your Money, Your Life (YMYL). Because of oodles of fake news and suspect web content, Google has rightfully raised its bar for expertise and factuality. Go to any one of Flo’s more than 1,000 blog posts (yes, content is still king) and you’ll see that nearly all of them are reviewed by gynecologists, primary care physicians or some other type of women’s health expert. Its site also has pages devoted to its writers and medical reviewers, content guidelines and peer-review specifications. Flo takes its information seriously. From the 2020 election to QAnon to vaccination side effects, Google is on high alert. Whatever your niche, you need to establish credibility to win Google searches.

#advertising-tech, #column, #digital-marketing, #e-commerce, #ec-column, #ec-marketing-tech, #facebook, #flo, #glassdoor, #growth-marketing, #linkedin, #madison-reed, #marketing, #online-advertising, #search-engine, #search-engine-optimization, #social-media, #startups, #strava

An internal code repo used by New York State’s IT office was exposed online

A code repository used by the New York state government’s IT department was left exposed on the internet, allowing anyone to access the projects inside, some of which contained secret keys and passwords associated with state government systems.

The exposed GitLab server was discovered on Saturday by Dubai-based SpiderSilk, a cybersecurity company credited with discovering data spills at Samsung, Clearview AI and MoviePass.

Organizations use GitLab to collaboratively develop and store their source code — as well as the secret keys, tokens and passwords needed for the projects to work — on servers that they control. But the exposed server was accessible from the internet and configured so that anyone from outside the organization could create a user account and log in unimpeded, SpiderSilk’s chief security officer Mossab Hussin told TechCrunch.

When TechCrunch visited the GitLab server, the login page showed it was accepting new user accounts. It’s not known exactly how long the GitLab server was accessible in this way, but historic records from Shodan, a search engine for exposed devices and databases, shows the GitLab was first detected on the internet on March 18.

SpiderSilk shared several screenshots showing that the GitLab server contained secret keys and passwords associated with servers and databases belonging to New York State’s Office of Information Technology Services. Fearing the exposed server could be maliciously accessed or tampered with, the startup asked for help in disclosing the security lapse to the state.

TechCrunch alerted the New York governor’s office to the exposure a short time after the server was found. Several emails to the governor’s office with details of the exposed GitLab server were opened but were not responded to. The server went offline on Monday afternoon.

Scot Reif, a spokesperson for New York State’s Office of Information Technology Services, said the server was “a test box set up by a vendor, there is no data whatsoever, and it has already been decommissioned by ITS.” (Reif declared his response “on background” and attributable to a state official, which would require both parties agree to the terms in advance, but we are printing the reply as we were not given the opportunity to reject the terms.)

When asked, Reif would not say who the vendor was or if the passwords on the server were changed. Several projects on the server were marked “prod,” or common shorthand for “production,” a term for servers that are actively use. Reif also would not say if the incident was reported to the state’s Attorney General’s office. When reached, a spokesperson for the Attorney General did not comment by press time.

TechCrunch understands the vendor is Indotronix-Avani, a New York-based company with offices in India, and owned by venture capital firm Nigama Ventures. Several screenshots show some of the GitLab projects were modified by a project manager at Indotronix-Avani. The vendor’s website touts New York State on its website, along with other government customers, including the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Indotronix-Avani spokesperson Mark Edmonds did not respond to requests for comment.

Read more:

#attorney-general, #clearview-ai, #continuous-integration, #dubai, #echelon, #free-software, #git, #gitlab, #government, #india, #information-technology, #moviepass, #password, #samsung, #search-engine, #security, #software, #spidersilk, #spokesperson, #venture-capital, #version-control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a growth tear, DuckDuckGo reveals it picked up $100M in secondary investment last year

Privacy tech continues cooking on gas. To wit: Non-tracking search engine DuckDuckGo has just revealed that it beefed up its balance sheet at the back end of last year with $100 million+ in “mainly secondary investment” — from a mix of existing and new investors.

Its blog post name-checks Omers Ventures, Thrive, GP Bullhound, Impact America Fund, and also WhatsApp founder Brian Acton; inventor of the world wide web Tim Berners-Lee; VC and diversity activist Freada Kapor Klein; and entrepreneur Mitch Kapor as being among the participating investors. So quite the line up.

DuckDuckGo said the secondary investment allowed some of its early employees and investors to cash out a chunk of their equity while bolstering its financial position.

Although it also says its business — which has been profitable since 2014 — is “thriving”, reporting that revenues are now running at $100M+ a year. Hence it not needing to keep dipping into an external investor pot.

Its last VC raise was in 2018 when it took in $10M after being actively pursued by Omers Ventures — who convinced it to take the money to help support growth objectives (especially internationally).

DDG has a few other metrics to throw around now: Over the last 12 months it said its apps were downloaded over 50M times — more than in all prior years combined.

It’s also revealed that its monthly search traffic increased 55% and says marketshare trackers indicate that it grabbed the #2 spot for search engine on mobile in a number of countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands. (StatCounter/Wikipedia).

“We don’t track our users so we can’t say for sure how many we have, but based on market share estimates, download numbers, and national surveys, we believe there are between 70-100 million DuckDuckGo users,” it added.

A looming shift to Google’s Android choice screen in Europe, where regulators have forced the company to present users of mobile devices that run its OS with rival options when they’re setting a default search engine, looks likely to further boost DuckDuckGo’s regional fortunes.

Google will be ditching the current paid auction model — so rivals which have a valuable alternative proposition for users (like privacy) combined with strong brand awareness (and, well, everyone likes ducks… ) have the best chance yet to take slices out of Google’s marketshare.

DuckDuckGo’s blog post confirms it’ll be dialling up its marketing in Europe and other regions.

“Our thriving business also gives us the resources to tell more people there is a simple solution for online privacy they can use right now. Over the last month, we’ve rolled out billboard, radio, and TV ads in 175 metro areas across the U.S., with additional efforts planned for Europe and other countries around the world,” it notes.

So it look like a good chunk of DDG’s secondary funding will be spent on growth marketing — as it seeks to capitalize on rising public attention to online privacy, tracking and creepy ads, itself fuelled by years of data scandals.

Awareness is also now being actively driven by Apple’s recent switch to inform iOS users of third party app tracking and give people a simple way to say no — which includes slick, Cupertino-funded ad campaigns (such as the one below) which are clearly intended to turn and engage mainstream heads…

It’s fair to say it’s probably never been easier to craft a simple and compelling marketing message around privacy — and that’s also a testament to how far privacy tech has come in terms of usability and accessibility.

So, yes, DuckDuckGo’s business sure looks like it’s sitting pretty at this juncture of the web’s evolution. And its blog post talks about “becoming a household name for simple privacy protection”. So the scale of its ambition is clear.

“Privacy skeptics have dominated the discussion about online privacy for too long. “Sure people care about privacy, but they’ll never do anything about it.” It’s time to lay this bad take to rest,” it adds.

More products are also on the slate from the 13-year veteran privacy player.

It already bolted on tracker-blocking back in 2018 but is looking to go further — saying that it will be rolling out additional privacy features to what it bills as its “all-in-one privacy bundle”, including an email protection tool that will be launched in beta “in a few weeks” and which it says will “give users more privacy without having to get a new inbox”.

“Later this summer, app tracker blocking will be available in beta for Android devices, allowing users to block app trackers and providing more transparency on what’s happening behind the scenes on their device. And Before the end of the year, we also plan to release a brand-new desktop version of our existing mobile app which people can use as a primary browser,” it goes on, adding: “By continuing to expand our simple and seamless privacy bundle, we continue to make our product vision, ‘Privacy, simplified.’ a reality.”

That’s another trend we’re seeing in privacy tech: Innovators who have carefully and credibly built up a solid reputation around one type of tech tool (such as search or email) find themselves — as usage grows — perfectly positioned to branch out into offering a whole bundle or suite of apps they can wrap in the same protective promise.

Another player, ProtonMail, for example, has morphed into Proton, a privacy-centric company which offers freemium tools for not just end-to-end encrypted email but also cloud storage, calendar and a VPN — all neatly positioned under its pro-privacy umbrella.

Expect more development momentum as privacy tech continues to accelerate into the mainstream.

 

#android, #brian-acton, #duckduckgo, #europe, #freada-kapor-klein, #fundings-exits, #google, #gp-bullhound, #impact-america-fund, #mitch-kapor, #omers-ventures, #online-privacy, #privacy, #search-engine, #tim-berners-lee, #whatsapp

Spotlight gets more powerful in iOS 15, even lets you install apps

With the upcoming release of iOS 15 for Apple mobile devices, Apple’s built-in search feature known as Spotlight will become a lot more functional. In what may be one of its bigger updates since it introduced Siri Suggestions, the new version of Spotlight is becoming an alternative to Google for several key queries, including web images and information about actors, musicians, TV shows and movies. It will also now be able to search across your photo library, deliver richer results for contacts, and connect you more directly with apps and the information they contain. It even allows you to install apps from the App Store without leaving Spotlight itself.

Spotlight is also more accessible than ever before.

Years ago, Spotlight moved from its location to the left of the Home screen to become available with a swipe down in the middle of any screen in iOS 7, which helped grow user adoption. Now, it’s available with the same swipe down gesture on the iPhone’s Lock Screen, too.

Apple showed off a few of Spotlight’s improvements during its keynote address at its Worldwide Developer Conference, including the search feature’s new cards for looking up information on actors, movies and shows, as well as musicians. This change alone could redirect a good portion of web searches away from Google or dedicated apps like IMDb.

For years, Google has been offering quick access to common searches through its Knowledge Graph, a knowledge base that allows it to gather information from across sources and then use that to add informational panels above and the side of its standard search results. Panels on actors, musicians, shows and movies are available as part of that effort.

But now, iPhone users can just pull up this info on their home screen.

The new cards include more than the typical Wikipedia bio and background information you may expect — they also showcase links to where you can listen or watch content from the artist or actor or movie or show in question. They include news articles, social media links, official websites, and even direct you to where the searched person or topic may be found inside your own apps. (E.g. a search for “Billie Eilish” may direct you to her tour tickets inside SeatGeek, or a podcast where she’s a guest).

Image Credits: Apple

For web image searches, Spotlight also now allows you to search for people, places, animals, and more from the web — eating into another search vertical Google today provides.

Image Credits: iOS 15 screenshot

Your personal searches have been upgraded with richer results, too, in iOS 15.

When you search for a contact, you’ll be taken to a card that does more than show their name and how to reach them. You’ll also see their current status (thanks to another iOS 15 feature), as well as their location from FindMy, your recent conversations on Messages, your shared photos, calendar appointments, emails, notes, and files. It’s almost like a personal CRM system.

Image Credits: Apple

Personal photo searches have also been improved. Spotlight now uses Siri intelligence to allow you to search your photos by the people, scenes, elements in your photos, as well as by location. And it’s able to leverage the new Live Text feature in iOS 15 to find the text in your photos to return relevant results.

This could make it easier to pull up photos where you’ve screenshot a recipe, a store receipt, or even a handwritten note, Apple said.

Image Credits: Apple

A couple of features related to Spotlight’s integration with apps weren’t mentioned during the keynote.

Spotlight will now display action buttons on the Maps results for businesses that will prompt users to engage with that business’s app. In this case, the feature is leveraging App Clips, which are small parts of a developer’s app that let you quickly perform a task even without downloading or installing the app in question. For example, from Spotlight you may be prompted to pull up a restaurant’s menu, buy tickets, make an appointment, order takeout, join a waitlist, see showtimes, pay for parking, check prices and more.

The feature will require the business to support App Clips in order to work.

Image Credits: iOS 15 screenshot

Another under-the-radar change — but a significant one — is the new ability to install apps from the App Store directly from Spotlight.

This could prompt more app installs, as it reduces the steps from a search to a download, and makes querying the App Store more broadly available across the operating system.

Developers can additionally choose to insert a few lines of code to their app to make data from the app discoverable within Spotlight and customize how it’s presented to users. This means Spotlight can work as a tool for searching content from inside apps — another way Apple is redirecting users away from traditional web searches in favor of apps.

However, unlike Google’s search engine, which relies on crawlers that browse the web to index the data it contains, Spotlight’s in-app search requires developer adoption.

Still, it’s clear Apple sees Spotlight as a potential rival to web search engines, including Google’s.

“Spotlight is the universal place to start all your searches,” said Apple SVP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi during the keynote event.

Spotlight, of course, can’t handle “all” your searches just yet, but it appears to be steadily working towards that goal.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

#app-store, #apple, #apps, #craig-federighi, #google, #imdb, #ios, #ios-15, #iphone, #mobile, #mobile-devices, #operating-systems, #search-engine, #search-results, #siri, #smartphones, #spotlight, #wwdc-2021

Google ditches pay-to-play Android search choice auction for free version after EU pressure

Google is ditching a massively unpopular auction format that underpins an choice screen it offers in the European Union, it said today. Eligible search providers will be able to freely participate.

The auction model was Google’s ‘remedy’ of choice — following the 2018 EU $5BN antitrust enforcement against Android — but rivals have always maintained it’s anything but fair, as we’ve reported previously (here, here, here, for eg).

The Android choice screen presents users in the region with a selection of search engines to choose as a default at the point of device set up (or factory reset). The offered choices depend on sealed bids made by search engine companies bidding to pay Google to win one of three available slots.

Google’s own search engine is a staple ‘choice’ on the screen regardless of EU market.

The pay-to-play model Google devised is not only loudly hated by smaller search engine players (including those with alternative business models, such as the Ecosia tree-planting search engine), but it been entirely ineffectual at restoring competitive balance in search marketshare so it’s not surprising Google has been forced to ditch it.

The Commission had signalled a change might be coming, with Bloomberg reporting in May remarks by the EU’s competition chief, Margrethe Vesager, that it was “actively working on making” Google’s Android choice screen for search and browser rivals work. So it evidently heard the repeated cries of ‘foul’ and ‘it’s not working, yo!’. And — finally — it acted.

However, framing its own narrative, Google writes that it’s been in “constructive discussions” with EU lawmakers for years about “how to promote even more choice on Android devices, while ensuring that we can continue to invest in, and provide, the Android platform for free for the long term”, as it puts it.

It also seems to be trying to throw some shade/blame back at the EU — writing that it only introduced what it calls a “promotional opportunity” (lol) “in consultation with the Commission”. (Ergo, ‘don’t blame us gov, blame them!’)

In another detail-light paragraph of its blog, Google says it’s now making “some final changes” — including making participation free for “eligible search providers” — after what it describes as “further feedback from the Commission”

“We will also be increasing the number of search providers shown on the screen. These changes will come into effect from September this year on Android devices,” it adds.

The planned changes raise new questions — such as what criteria it will be using to determine eligibility; and will Google’s criteria be transparent or, like the problematic auction, sealed from view? And how many search engines will be presented to users? More than the current four, that’s clear.

Where Google’s own search engine will appear in the list will also be very interesting to see, as well as the criteria for ranking all the options (marketshare? random allocation?).

Google’s blog is mealy mouthed on any/all such detail — but the Commission gave us a pretty good glimpse when we asked (see their comment below).

It still remains to seen whether any other devilish dark pattern design details will appear when we see the full implementation.

But it’s worth noting that it’s not in Google’s gift to claim these changes are “final”. EU regulators are responsible for monitoring antitrust compliance — so if fresh complaints flow they will be duty bound to listen and react.

In one response to Google’s auction U-turn, pro-privacy search player DuckDuckGo was already critical — but more on the scope than the detail.

Founder Gabriel Weinberg pointed out that not only is the switch three years too late but Google should also be applying it across all platforms (desktop and Chrome too), as well as making it seamlessly easy for Android users to switch default, rather than gating the choice screen to set-up and/or factory reset (as we’ve reported before).

Another long-time critic of the auction model, tiny not-for-profit Ecosia, was jubilant that its fight against the search behemonth has finally paid off.

Commenting in a statement, CEO Christian Kroll said: “This is a real life David versus Goliath story — and David has won. This is a momentous day, and a real moment of celebration for Ecosia. We’ve campaigned for fairness in the search engine market for several years, and with this, we have something that resembles a level playing field in the market. Search providers now have a chance to compete more fairly in the Android market, based on the appeal of their product, rather than being shut out by monopolistic behaviour.”

The Commission, meanwhile, confirmed to TechCrunch that it acted after a number of competitors raised concerns over the auction model — with a spokeswoman saying it had “discussed with Google means to improve that choice screen to address those concerns”.

“We welcome the changes introduced by Google to the choice screen. Being included on the choice screen will now be free for rival search providers,” she went on. “In addition, more search providers will be included in the choice screen. Therefore, users will have even more opportunities to choose an alternative.”

The Commission also offered a little more detail of how the choice screen will look come fall, saying that “on almost all devices, five search providers will be immediately visible”.

“They will be selected based on their market share in the user’s country and displayed in a randomised order which ensures that Google will not always be the first. Users will be able to scroll down to see up to seven more search providers, bringing the total search providers displayed in the choice screen to 12.”

“These are positive developments for the implementation of the remedy following our Android decision,” the spokeswoman added.

So it will certainly be very interesting indeed to see whether this Commission-reconfigured much bigger and more open choice screen helps move the regional need on Google’s search engine market share.

Interesting times indeed!

#android, #antitrust, #chrome-os, #competition-law, #duckduckgo, #ecosia, #eu, #europe, #european-union, #gabriel-weinberg, #google, #google-search, #margrethe-vestager, #policy, #search-engine, #search-engines

Canvas lands $20M so tech’s biggest companies can find diverse talent

Ben Herman and Adam Gefkovicz launched Jumpstart in 2017 with a clear mission: to make the world more equitable via a more fair and balanced hiring process.

The company released its “Diversity Recruitment Platform” in July of 2018 with the aim of helping people earlier in their careers get a “jumpstart” via technology.

Over the years, the startup’s mission has evolved beyond helping college grads to helping all employees — regardless of career stage — get a fair shot at jobs. And it’s doing that by teaming up with hundreds of companies — such as Airbnb, Bloomberg, Coinbase, Samsung, Lyft, Pinterest, Plaid, Roblox, Audible, Headspace and Stripe — to help them hire a more diverse pool of candidates.

Demand has accelerated exponentially, and the San Francisco-based startup saw its revenue grow “3x” in 2020 compared to 2019, although execs declined to provide hard figures. Considering its broadened focus, Jumpstart has rebranded to Canvas and announced today that it has closed on $20 million in funding. Early Stripe employee and angel investor Lachy Groom and Sequoia Capital co-led the round, which included participation from Four Rivers Capital. The raise brings Canvas’ total raised to $32.5 million.

“We knew we were only scratching the surface of our vision, and knew we had a solution that could reimagine diversity hiring for everyone,” said co-founder and CEO Ben Herman. “You know how everyone has a CRM? We believe every company should have a DRP, which is a diversity recruitment platform. That’s the category we want to create and we want to be the largest in that space.”

No doubt that the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder helped, well jumpstart, the company’s efforts. Canvas is able to sell its offering as more companies “are being held accountable for their promises of equity and hiring diverse talent,” Herman said.

“Hiring diverse teams is not only a matter of corporate social responsibility,” he added. “Diversity and inclusion are a competitive advantage and strategic priority for every company in today’s landscape. We believe representation is a huge part of what we stand for. So we want everyone to be able to create their own canvas, and to be able to paint their own picture.”

Canvas describes its SaaS offering as a “fully virtual” recruiting platform that is based on self-reported data. About 87% of candidates on its platform disclose their demographic information (which it says is 7x the industry standard), according to the startup. Canvas also says it gives companies the ability to narrow down the priority groups and talent it wants to focus on by filtering over 75+ self-reported candidate data points.

The startup claims that it’s different from others in the space for that reason, among other features.

“Unlike other solutions that might utilize inferred data that could be inaccurate or illegal, Canvas helps create a more accurate data set to identify diverse candidates, helping to solve the core problem of talent discovery,” Herman said. 

It also — unlike some diversity hiring platforms — does not rely on artificial intelligence, a fact that Herman is actually proud of.

“We don’t believe that AI is the future. It’s not about getting someone’s gender or ethnicity based off of their name, or to inform the hiring decision without candidates knowing,” Herman told TechCrunch. “It’s all about how to empower talent to self-identify…We want to enable the talent to own their data, and truly be able to represent themselves in unique ways. That’s not leveraging AI.”

Canvas also gives companies a way to design, promote and run events, such as webinars, aimed at hiring diverse talent.

The startup also wants to get to a place where companies are working together “to complete the diversity data gap.”

“The problem is about accessibility, and so we want to give equal access to anyone and everyone — from all companies to all candidates,” Herman said. “And so that is really the most important part of what we are creating — the ability for companies to share data.”

So, how does it measure its own success? Canvas claims that 56% of all hires on the Canvas platform are made from underrepresented groups (URGs), and that it helps employers achieve a 30% reduction in time to hire.

Herman is not your typical startup founder, having dropped out of high school and starting his own recruitment agency at the age of 21. His tenacity is one of the things that attracted Sequoia partner and Canvas board member Mike Vernal to back the company.

“When we first met Ben, it was clear that he was…a natural-born talent scout,” Vernal told TechCrunch. “He thought there was a better way for the industry to work — one where companies and recruiters were more collaborative and used technology to build stronger, more diverse teams.”

Since its initial investment in the company, Vernal believes building diverse teams has never been more important.

“Those teams create better products, make stronger business decisions, and it’s just the right thing to do,” he said. “We believe companies can do a better job sourcing underrepresented talent using Canvas than on their own.” 

Canvas plans to use its new capital to expand the product into other industries and verticals beyond technology and continue to address the recruiting process for later stages of people’s careers. The company currently has 70 employees and expects to have 100 by the end of 2021.

As mentioned above, hiring diverse talent is becoming a bigger priority for big tech companies (such as HP) and startups alike. Earlier this year, diverse hiring startup SeekOut raised $65 million. The company has built out a database with hundreds of millions of profiles using its AI-powered talent search engine and “deep interactive analytics.”

#artificial-intelligence, #board-member, #canvas, #coinbase, #diversity, #economy, #employment, #funding, #fundings-exits, #hiring, #human-resource-management, #jumpstart, #lachy-groom, #lyft, #mike-vernal, #pinterest, #recent-funding, #recruitment, #san-francisco, #search-engine, #sequoia-capital, #startup, #startup-company, #startups, #talent, #tc, #venture-capital

Google’s data terms are now in Germany’s competition crosshairs

Germany’s national competition regulator, the Bundeskartellamt, has continued its investigative charge against big tech — announcing that it’s opened two proceedings into Google.

The move follows earlier proceedings targeting Amazon and Facebook — both of which are also looking to determine whether their businesses are of “paramount significance for competition across markets”, as German competition law puts it. (The regulator is also probing Facebook’s tying of Oculus to Facebook accounts.)

In Google’s case, one of the Bundeskartellamt’s new proceedings will confirm whether amended competition rules, which came into force in January, apply in its case — which would enable the FCO to target it with proactive interventions in the interests of fostering digital competition.

The second, parallel procedure will see the Federal Cartel Office (FCO) undertake an in-depth analysis of Google’s data processing terms in a move that looks intended to avoid wasting time — i.e. that its working assumption is that Google/Alphabet’s business meets the legal bar in the GWB Digitalisation Act.

By running the two Google procedures in parallel the German competition regulator will be in a position to act faster — assuming the first proceeding confirms it can indeed intervene.

The second probe running alongside would then identify potential problems to shape any intervention — with the FCO saying for example that it will look at whether Google/Alphabet “makes the use of services conditional on the users agreeing to the processing of their data without giving them sufficient choice as to whether, how and for what purpose such data are processed”.

It also says it will “examine the extent to which the terms provide Google with an opportunity to process data on an extensive cross-service basis” and will seek to clarify “how the company’s data processing policy applies to the processing of user data obtained from third-party websites and apps” (such as through Google’s advertising services).

Another key element of the proceeding will aim to establish what choice users actually have with regard to Google’s processing of their data, with the FCO noting that protecting consumer choice is a primary aim of competition law.

Given those point of focus it’s possible to imagine a future order from the FCO to Google could require it to simplify how it asks users for consent, to ensure genuine choice — and also shrink its ability to link first party user data with information obtained on people elsewhere online.

Commenting in a statement, Andreas Mundt, president of the Bundeskartellamt said: “An ecosystem which extends across various markets may be an indication that a company holds such a market position [i.e. whether it is of paramount significance across markets]. It is often very difficult for other companies to challenge this position of power. Due to the large number of digital services offered by Google, such as the Google search engine, YouTube, Google Maps, the Android operating system or the Chrome browser, the company could be considered to be of paramount significance for competition across markets.”

“Google’s business model relies to a very large extent on processing data relating to its users. Due to its established access to data relevant for competition, Google enjoys a strategic advantage. We will therefore take a close look at the company’s data processing terms. A key question in this context is whether consumers wishing to use Google’s services have sufficient choice as to how Google will use their data,” he added.

Reached for comment on the FCO proceedings, Google said it will fully cooperate with the FCO’s process but rejected the charge that people are forced to use its services — further claiming in a statement attributed to spokesperson, Ralf Bremer, that it offers “simple controls” so people can “limit” its use of their information:

“People choose Google because it’s helpful, not because they’re forced to, or because they can’t find alternatives. German consumers have enormous choice online and we give people simple controls to manage their information and limit the use of personal data. We will cooperate fully with the German Competition Authority and look forward to answering their questions.”

The Bundeskartellamt‘s in-depth prove of Google’s data processing terms picks up on long running criticism that the tech giant relies on forced and/or manipulative consent from users to obtain their data. Whereas the pan-EU legal standard if consent is used as a legal basis to process people’s information is that it should be clear, informed and freely given.

Back in 2019 Google was fined $57M by France’s data protection watchdog under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) over a failure to provide “sufficiently clear” information to Android users when it sought their consent to use their data for targeted ads.

However, subsequent to the CNIL’s action, the tech giant limited its exposure to the privacy regulation by changing the legal jurisdiction of where it processes European users’ data to Ireland.

The Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) then became Google’s lead data supervisor under the GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism. And the DPC has not decided a single GDPR complaint against Google — though it has a number of open investigations. It continues to face high level criticism over its enforcement record on key cross-border cases against big tech.

The awakening of European competition regulators to the issue of how abuse of user privacy is an anti-competitive tactic that can lock in the dominance of digital giants by unfairly enabling them to grab and link people’s data is thus a very important development in the regulation of big tech — and one where the Bundeskartellamt has already been a pioneer.

In an earlier FCO ‘super profiling’ case against Facebook — which predates the amendments to national digital competition law — it ordered the social media behemoth not to combine user data from across its different products.

Facebook has sought to block the order in the German courts. And, back in March, the case was referred to Europe’s top court — meaning the FCO’s order to it remains on hold pending the CJEU’s ruling (which could take years to be handed down).

The FCO confirmed today that the Facebook case is still pending before the court, reiterating the decision of the Düsseldorf Higher Regional Court to refer certain issues relating to the application of the GDPR to the European Court of Justice — which means that a decision on the merits of the case “can only be rendered after these issues have been clarified”.

The Bundeskartellamt’s investigation of Facebook’s data practices started all the way back in in March 2016. So it’s a safe bet that the regulator’s experience of digging into the detail of how tech giants process people’s data — and how hard it is to make cases stick against them — has helped inform the amendments to Germany’s competition law that introduce ex ante powers to tackle digital giants deemed to be of “paramount significance for competition across markets”.

Although there is still another waiting period baked in to this approach — as the regulator must first assess whether tech giants meet that legal bar.

The EU has proposed a similar ex ante approach for what it dubs as digital “gatekeepers”, under the Digital Markets Act, which it introduced at the end of last year.

Although with the bloc’s co-legislative process ongoing that regulation is likely some years away from adoption and pan-EU application — meaning Germany’s national law and the energetic FCO could be a significant actor in the meanwhile.

The EU’s competition commission are also digging into Google’s adtech practices — though they’re having to do so under existing powers, for now, which have been shown to be a painstakingly slow and not very effective route to tackle digital market power.

Elsewhere in Europe, the UK, which now sits outside the bloc, is also shaping its own an ex ante regime to curb the market power of digital giants. So regardless of political cross-currents in the region — and the problem of patchy privacy enforcement — there is growing consensus that European competition authorities must be empowered to step in proactively to tackle digital market abuses.

 

#advertising-tech, #alphabet, #andreas-mundt, #android, #bundeskartellamt, #competition-law, #digital-regulation, #europe, #european-court-of-justice, #european-union, #facebook, #france, #general-data-protection-regulation, #germany, #google, #ireland, #oculus, #policy, #privacy, #search-engine, #united-kingdom

DuckDuckGo presses the case for true ‘one-click’ search competition on Android

When antitrust accusations close in on Google the tech giant loves to fire back a riposte that competition is just “one click away“. It’s a disingenuous retort from an online advertising behemoth whose power and profits stem from its expertise in capturing markets by manipulating and monopolizing Internet users’ attention.

Indeed, the entire brand is arguably a dark pattern.

Behold the child-like colors! The friendly babble of syllables! The tempting freebies! The tall talk of missions and moonshots! And tucked quietly beneath that Googley exterior: The adtech giant tracking Internet users en masse to sell their attention. The business model that makes money through mass surveillance and people profiling.

Google’s ‘other bets’ have always been PR pocket change beside its ads profit machine. The fun stuff is simply how Google primes its people data pump.

So what if Google’s infamous ‘one-click competition’ claim were to actually be made true in the arena of Android search engine choice? A market where Google’s activity is being closely monitored by EU competition regulators — after a 2018 antitrust decision.

Three years ago the tech giant hit with a $5BN penalty and an order to stop using Android (aka its freebie for mobile device makers) to lock in the dominance of its own-brand search engine (and other Google services) on mobile, where its operating system is massively dominant.

It went on to adopt a so-called ‘choice screen’ on Android in the region — which prompts device users to pick a default search engine from a selection of options (Google auctions slots to rivals).

But the choice is more of a one-shot than a dynamic, ongoing possibility to switch the default for Android users — as they are only asked to choose their default choice on set up of a new device or after a factory reset.

“That means, for all practical purposes, if you want to change your default device search engine again easily, you can’t,” writes DuckDuckGo in its latest blog post pushing for reform of Google’s self-serving Android ‘remedy’.

By DDG’s count it takes 15+ clicks (not one) to switch default search engine on an Android device at any other point (i.e. after initial set up or factory reset). And it says it knows “from experience” that this over-15-clicks method “trips up almost everyone”.

“In other words, one click competition becomes in fact ‘one factory reset away’,” it goes on. “The only reasons we can think of for setting up a preference menu this way are anti-competitive ones.”

The pro-privacy search engine has been banging the drum on this point for months (if not years) at this point. Nor is it alone in complaining about Google’s remedy. And complaints aren’t limited to how hard it is to switch search engines at any other point after set-up, either.

Notably, Google’s decision to opt for a ‘pay-to-play’ model by auctioning slots on the choice screen has been widely criticized — with multiple search rivals arguing that an auction isn’t fair and does not result in a level playing field for competition (Google’s own search engine always appears as a choice, of course, and it doesn’t have to pay anyone to appear).

Not-for-profit search engine Ecosia, for example, points out that the auction format essentially discriminates against non-profit search engines, undermining the public good they may be trying to do (in its case it uses ad revenue from search to plant trees to try to help reduce global carbon emissions — so money paid to Google to win the auction means less money it can spend planting trees).

DDG has also been a critic of the paid auction model from the start. But with its latest blog post it told TechCrunch it’s trying to make sure the ‘ease of switching’ issue doesn’t get lost in criticism of the auction.

It continues to argue that multiple components need to be reformed if the choice screen is to have the pro-competition effect EU antirust regulators are seeking.

It’s increasing clear that the current implementation isn’t working for anyone other than Google — which has been able to maintain its grip on the mobile search market, almost three years after the Commission’s antitrust intervention.

Its share of the search engine market on mobile devices has not declined since 2018. Indeed, as of February it was actually up slightly on the marketshare it had when the antitrust ruling was made, per Statista data.

That can’t be what market rebalancing success looks like.

Previously when we’ve put rivals’ criticisms to the Commission it tends to offer a few stock responses — saying it’s monitoring Google’s implementation and is committed to an effective implementation of the 2018 decision — while avoiding engaging with the substance of the criticisms or specific suggestions to fix Google’s remedy.

The Commission reiterated the same lines when we contacted it now about DuckDuckGo’s call for true ‘one-click’ competition on Android by easier default search engine switching.

But there are signs EU regulators may finally be preparing to do something.

Earlier this month Bloomberg reported on comments made by antitrust chief and Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager, who said regulators are “actively working on making” Google’s Android choice screen for search and browser rivals work.

She is also reported to have said that market share “is changing a bit but we’re working on it”.

In additional comments to us, the Commission reiterated that it’s “committed to a full and effective implementation of the decision, saying: “We are therefore monitoring closely the implementation of the choice screen mechanism.”

“We have been discussing the choice screen mechanism with Google, following relevant feedback from the market, in particular in relation to the presentation and mechanics of the choice screen and to the selection mechanism of rival search providers,” it added.

DuckDuckGo declined to go into detail on any chats it’s having with EU regulators on how to reform the choice screen — saying that it can’t comment on discussions with the Commission. But founder Gabriel Weinberg pointed out other jurisdictions are eyeing how to remedy Google’s dominance, adding that “major countries are actively considering search preference menus right now”.

The US Justice Department, meanwhile, filed its antitrust lawsuit against Google last October. And US states are also challenging the tech giant in court.

“We believe a ‘choice screen’ that only appears once at start up will not meaningfully increase market competition or give consumers the freedom and simplicity they deserve to chose Google alternatives,” Weinberg also told us. “On the other hand, a properly designed preference menu gives users true one-click access to making Google competitors the default search on their device, without having to take the absurd step of factory reseting their phone.”

In its blog post, DDG has some plain words of advice for how regulators can beat Google at its own game and prevent it gaming search competition on Android.

“The sensible approach is to give users an easy pathway to the search preference menu by letting them tap a link from a search engine app or website within the default browser (e.g., Chrome). With that simple tap, the user is whisked directly to the search preference menu,” it writes.

“Not allowing competing search engines to easily guide consumers back to the search preference menu is a pretty big dark pattern because it is requiring users to make an important choice when they often aren’t ready to do so, and then not giving them the option to easily change their mind later while using a competing search engine.”

“So, to anyone considering implementing a search preference menu, or drafting regulations covering search preference menus, please ensure that consumers can access it at any time, especially after a consumer has just chosen to use a competing search engine,” it adds. “Functionality that allows competing search engines to guide consumers directly to the preference menu is necessary for consumer empowerment and search market competition.”

#android, #antitrust, #artificial-intelligence, #competition, #duckduckgo, #eu, #europe, #european-union, #gabriel-weinberg, #google, #margrethe-vestager, #mobile-device, #policy, #search-engine, #search-engines

China’s autonomous vehicle startups AutoX, Momenta and WeRide are coming to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

As the autonomous vehicle industry in the United States marches towards consolidation, a funding spree continues to exhilarate China’s robotaxi industry. Momenta, Pony.ai, WeRide, and Didi’s autonomous vehicle arm have all raised hundreds of millions of dollars over the past year. 21-year-old search engine giant Baidu competes alongside the startups with a $1.5 billion fund launched in 2017 to help cars go driverless.

Their strategies are similar in some regards and diverge elsewhere. The biggest players have deployed small fleets of robotaxis, manned with safety drivers, onto certain urban roads and are diligently testing driverless vehicles inside pilot zones. Some companies embrace lidars to detect the cars’ surroundings while others agree with Elon Musk on a vision-only future.

The industry is still years from being truly driverless and operational at scale, so some contestants are seeking easier cases to tackle and monetize first, putting self-driving software inside buses, trucks and tractors that roam inside industrial parks.

Will investors continue to back the lofty dreams and skyrocketing valuations of China’s robotaxi leaders? And how is China’s autonomous driving race playing out differently from that in the U.S.?

We hope to find out at the upcoming TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, where we speak to three female leaders from Chinese autonomous vehicle startups that have an overseas footprint: Jewel Li from AutoX, which is backed by Chinese state-owned automakers Dongfeng Motor and SAIC Motor; Huan Sun from Momenta, which attracted Bosch, Daimler and Toyota in its $500 million round closed in March; and Jennifer Li from WeRide, of which valuation jumped to $3 billion after a financing round in May.

We can’t wait to hear from this panel! Among the growing list of speakers at this year’s event are GM’s VP of Global Innovation Pam Fletcher, Scale AI CEO Alexandr Wang, Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman (whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby), investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital, Starship Technologies co-founder and CEO/CTO Ahti Heinla, Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson, community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler, Remix co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu and Revel co-founder and CEO Frank Reig.

Stay tuned for more announcements in these final weeks. Book your general admission pass for $125 today and join this year’s deep dive into the world of all things transportation at TC Sessions: Mobility.

#alexandr-wang, #articles, #automation, #automotive, #autotech-ventures, #baidu, #bosch, #ceo, #china, #clara-brenner, #construct-capital, #daimler, #dongfeng-motor, #driverless, #frank-reig, #jesse-levinson, #joby, #joby-aviation, #joeben-bevirt, #linkedin, #momenta, #musk, #pam-fletcher, #pony, #quin-garcia, #rachel-holt, #reid-hoffman, #robotaxi, #robotics, #saic-motor, #scale-ai, #science-and-technology, #search-engine, #self-driving-cars, #starship-technologies, #tamika-l-butler, #tc, #technology, #tiffany-chu, #toyota, #united-states, #urban-innovation-fund, #zoox

Holidu books $45M after growing its vacation rentals business ~50% YoY during COVID-19

Vacation rental startup Holidu has tucked $45 million in Series D funding into its suitcase — bringing its total raised since being founded back in 2014 to more than $120M.

The latest funding round is led by 83North with participation from existing investors Prime Ventures, EQT ventures, Coparion, Senovo, Kees Koolen, Lios Ventures and Chris Hitchen. Also participating, with both equity and debt, is Claret Capital (formerly Harbert European Growth Capital).

The financing will be ploughed into product development; doubling the size of the tech team; and on building out partnerships to keep expanding supply, Holidu said.

While the global pandemic clearly hasn’t been kind to much of the travel industry, the Munich-headquartered startup has been able to benefit from coronavirus-induced shifts in traveller behavior.

People who may have booked city breaks or hotels pre-COVID-19 are turning to private holiday accommodation in greater numbers than before — so they can feel safer about going on holiday and perhaps enjoy more space and fresh air than they’ve had at home during coronavirus lockdowns.

Having flexible cancelation options is also now clearly front of mind for travellers — and Holidu credits moving quickly to build in flexible cancellation and payment solutions with helping fuel its growth during the pandemic.

Holidu’s meta search engine compares listings on sites like Airbnb, Booking.com, HomeAway and Vrbo and provides holidaymakers with tools to zoom in on relevant rentals — offering granular filters for property amenities; property type; and distances to the beach/lake etc.

It can also be used to search only for listings with a free cancelation policy.

“We see that many travellers have chosen vacation rentals in rural destinations over hotels or cities,” confirms CEO and co-founder Johannes Siebers. “In spite of this shift in preference, the overall European vacation rental market declined in 2020 due to the strong travel restrictions in many months. Holidu managed to grow against this trend by responding very quickly to the increased demand for domestic lodging and for flexible cancellation options.”

The startup saw year-over-year growth of circa 50% in 2020 — and greater than 2x growth in its contribution margin, per Siebers.

“[That] enabled us to become profitable with our search business,” he adds. “Revenues for 2021 are still difficult to forecast due to the uncertain pandemic and political outlook but we expect a significantly higher growth rate compared to 2020.”

Holidu is active in 21 countries with its search engine — which now combines more than 15M vacation rental offers from over a thousand travel sites and property managers. In July 2020 alone, it said that more than 27M travellers used the product.

Its search engine business has a mixed business model, with Holidu taking a commission per click with a minority of its partners and earning a commission for each booking generated with the majority.

In another strand of its business, under the Bookiply brand, it works directly with property owners to help them maximize bookings via a software-and-service solution — offering to take the digital management strain in exchange for a cut of (successful) bookings.

Back in 2019 it was managing 5,000 properties via Bookiply. Now Siebers says it’s “on track” to grow to more than 10,000 properties by the end of this year.

Bookiply has become the largest supplier of vacation rentals in what it described as “important leisure destinations” such as the Balearic Islands, Canary Islands and Sardinia (which are all very popular holiday destinations with German travellers).

Part of the Series D funding will go on opening more Bookiply offices across Europe so it can grow its service offering for regional vacation rental owners.

The division aims to reach property owners whose properties are not yet online, as well as optimizing digital listings that aren’t doing as well as they might, so having physical service locations is a strategy to help with onboarding owners who may be newbies to digital listing.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Laurel Bowden, partner at 83North said: “Vacation rentals are a very competitive market and Holidu’s growth throughout the pandemic has been highly impressive. We are attracted by their strong operating efficiency and proven ability to grow market by market.”

Last year Holidu was among scores of startups in the travel, accommodation and jobs sectors that signed a letter to the European Commission urging antitrust action against Google.

The coalition accused the tech giant of unfairly leveraging its dominant position in search in order to elbow into other markets via tactics like self-preferencing, warning EU lawmakers that homegrown businesses were at risk without swift enforcement to rein in abusive behaviors.

Although in Holidu’s case it’s managed to grow despite the pandemic — and despite Google.

Asked how much of an ongoing concern Google’s behavior is for the growth of its business, Siebers told TechCrunch: “Given its size and market position, we believe Google carries a special responsibility in the search market. Furthermore, we believe in merit based competition to drive innovation and provide users with the best products. We have joined the letter to the EC as in our view, Google does not fully live up to its responsibilities in all areas of its product.

“The way Google displays specialized search products in many travel verticals does, in our view, not comply with the principle of fair, merit based competition. It gives Google’s own product eyeballs which no other player could attract in the same way.”

“We have not yet seen noticeable changes in Google’s search box integration but we are confident that Google will eventually provide a level playing field. Even if this would take some time and is important, we are not overly worried as we have a very diversified business. Among others, with Bookiply we have a strongly growing offering towards homeowners which is independent of Google’s activities in the market,” he added.

Since the coalition wrote the letter the Commission has unveiled a legislative proposal to apply ex ante regulations to so called ‘gatekeeper’ platforms — a designation that looks highly likely to apply to Google, although the Digital Markets Act (DMA) is still a long way off becoming pan-EU law.

Siebers said Holidu supports this plan for a set of ‘dos and don’ts’ that the most powerful platforms must abide by.

“We are supportive of the commission’s proposal and believe not only the act itself but also enforcement will drive innovation and better products for customers,” he added. “Enabling free and fair competition is a core deliverable for a regulator in a market place and we have high expectations towards the EU in this regard. If we achieve this, I am certain we will  see an  increase in innovation, investments and activities in areas which are currently impacted by gatekeeper’s activities.”

#83north, #airbnb, #booking-holdings, #booking-com, #covid-19, #europe, #european-commission, #european-union, #fundings-exits, #holidu, #homeaway, #kees-koolen, #laurel-bowden, #munich, #payment-solutions, #prime-ventures, #search, #search-engine, #sharing-economy, #tc, #tourism, #travel, #travel-industry, #travel-sites, #vacation-rental, #vrbo

Following Apple’s launch of privacy labels, Google to add a ‘safety’ section in Google Play

Months after Apple’s App Store introduced privacy labels for apps, Google announced its own mobile app marketplace, Google Play, will follow suit. The company today pre-announced its plans to introduce a new “safety” section in Google Play, rolling out next year, which will require app developers to share what sort of data their apps collect, how it’s stored, and how it’s used.

For example, developers will need to share what sort of personal information their apps collect, like users’ names or emails, and whether it collects information from the phone, like the user’s precise location, their media files or contacts. Apps will also need to explain how the app uses that information — for example, for enhancing the app’s functionality or for personalization purposes.

Developers who already adhere to specific security and privacy practices will additionally be able to highlight that in their app listing. On this front, Google says it will add new elements that detail whether the app uses security practices like data encryption; if the app follows Google’s Families policy, related to child safety; if the app’s safety section has been verified by an independent third party; whether the app needs data to function or allows users to choose whether or not share data; and whether the developer agrees to delete user data when a user uninstalls the app in question.

Apps will also be required to provide their privacy policies.

While clearly inspired by Apple’s privacy labels, there are several key differences. Apple’s labels focus on what data is being collected for tracking purposes and what’s linked to the end user. Google’s additions seem to be more about whether or not you can trust the data being collected is being handled responsibility, by allowing the developer to showcase if they follow best practices around data security, for instance. It also gives the developer a way to make a case for why it’s collecting data right on the listing page itself. (Apple’s “ask to track” pop-ups on iOS now force developers to beg inside their apps for access user data).

Another interesting addition is that Google will allow the app data labels to be independently verified. Assuming these verifications are handled by trusted names, they could help to convey to users that the disclosures aren’t lies. One early criticism of Apple’s privacy labels was that many were providing inaccurate information — and were getting away with it, too.

Google says the new features will not roll out until Q2 2022, but it wanted to announce now in order to give developers plenty of time to prepare.

Image Credits: Google

There is, of course, a lot of irony to be found in an app privacy announcement from Google.

The company was one of the longest holdouts on issuing privacy labels for its own iOS apps, as it scrambled to review (and re-review, we understand) the labels’ content and disclosures. After initially claiming its labels would roll out “soon,” many of Google’s top apps then entered a lengthy period where they received no updates at all, as they were no longer compliant with App Store policies.

It took Google months after the deadline had passed to provide labels for its top apps. And when it did, it was mocked by critics — like privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo — for how much data apps like Chrome and the Google app collect.

Google’s plan to add a safety section of its own to Google Play gives it a chance to shift the narrative a bit.

It’s not a privacy push, necessarily. They’re not even called privacy labels! Instead, the changes seem designed to allow app developers to better explain if you can trust their app with your data, rather than setting the expectation that the app should not be collecting data in the first place.

How well this will resonate with consumers remains to be seen. Apple has made a solid case that it’s a company that compares about user privacy, and is adding features that put users in control of their data. It’s a hard argument to fight back against — especially in an era that’s seen too many data breaches to count, careless handling of private data by tech giants, widespread government spying, and a creepy adtech industry that grew to feel entitled to user data collection without disclosure.

Google says when the changes roll out, non-compliant apps will be required to fix their violations or become subject to policy enforcement. It hasn’t yet detailed how that process will be handled, or whether it will pause app updates for apps in violation.

The company noted its own apps would be required to share this same information and a privacy policy, too.

 

#advertising-tech, #android, #app-developers, #app-stores, #app-store, #apps, #google, #google-play, #mobile, #mobile-app, #privacy, #safety, #search-engine, #security

Microsoft Edge now starts up faster and gets vertical tabs

A year ago, Microsoft announced that its Edge browser would get vertical tabs and here we are: Microsoft today announced that vertical tabs in Edge are now generally available.

In addition, the Edge team also announced a few under-the-hood changes that will allow the browser to startup significantly faster (up to 41% faster according to Microsoft’s preliminary tests, to be precise). Since Microsoft can’t speed up your hard drive or significantly shrink Edge, though, the way the team achieves this is by loading the browser in the background when you sign in and then it’ll continue running when you close all browser windows. If that’s not to your liking, you can always turn this feature off, too.

While vertical tabs are available for you to play with now, though, the startup improvements will roll out over the course of this month.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Vertical tabs, of course, are nothing new. Other browsers have long supported them, either as a built-in feature or through extensions. But it’s nice to see them finally becoming a reality in Edge, too.

“Most websites follow a conventional grid that leaves plenty of whitespace on either end of the page,” Microsoft’s Michele McDanel writes in today’s announcement. “As we began working with our users, we realized that this vertical real estate could be a better location for tabs, rather than the traditional horizontal list of tabs at the top. While vertical tabs may not be an entirely new concept, we saw an opportunity to improve the browser experience and tested several prototypes with our users.”

Image Credits: Microsoft

In its research, Microsoft discovered that users who like vertical tabs also like to switch between them and standard horizontal tabs, so it added an always-visible toggle to do so. And since users sometimes want to reclaim all of their screen estate, the team added the ability to collapse the sidebar, too.

For those of you who use Bing, Microsoft is also adding a few nifty new features to its search engine. There’s a new recipe view for when you’re once again out of ideas for what to make for dinner, improved visual search results, and the company has spruced up some of its rich sidebar snippets with a more infographic-like feel. But let’s face it: you’re not using Bing. If perchance you do, you can find more details about the udpates here.

#bing, #computing, #freeware, #microsoft, #microsoft-bing, #microsoft-edge, #real-estate, #search-engine, #software, #tab, #tc, #web-browsers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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