Raspberry Pi gets $45M to meet demand for low-cost PCs and IoT

Turns out COVID-19 lockdowns have been good for the indoor hobby of hardware hacking: The U.K.-based foundation behind the low-price microprocessor Raspberry Pi announced close of a $45 million funding round yesterday.

The cash injection into the trading arm of the (nonprofit) Raspberry Pi Foundation values it at $500 million (pre-money), founder Eben Upton confirmed.

The funding round was led by London-based Lansdowne Partners and The Ezrah Charitable Trust, a private charitable foundation based in the US.

“We are pleased to welcome Lansdowne Partners and The Ezrah Charitable Trust as our first outside shareholders to help us achieve the next steps in our growth,” said Upton in a statement. “We are seeing strong demand from consumers as they use our PCs to access the internet for work and entertainment, and even faster growth from industrial companies globally as they design Raspberry Pi into their innovative IoT applications. This funding will enable us to scale to meet future demand.

“Our new investors will not only add value to our strategy and help support our growth but they also understand the rationale and ethos of our business model, aimed at enabling access to hardware and software tools for everyone and delivering a consumer PC experience from only $35 as well as building partnerships with a growing range of OEMs across the world.”

The Pi Foundation said the financing will be used to expand what is already an ample product line of Pi microprocessors.

Spending on marketing is also planned, across both the consumer (“build it yourself” PC) and industrial (IoT) sectors.

Its trading arm ships 7 million+ devices a year at this point.

While, in total, the Pi Foundation also said it’s shipping over 42 million (Pi-powered) PCs to more than 100 countries.

“We certainly saw increased interest in Raspberry Pi during lockdown,” Upton told TechCrunch. “It was satisfying to be able to supply units to young people who needed machines to study from home on, and we had some great philanthropic support (notably from the Bloomfield Trust) to roll kits out to disadvantaged young people in the U.K.”

“Our current sustained increase in demand is driven primarily by industrial customers as the economy rebounds from COVID-19,” he added.

“In the short term the focus is on investing in manufacturing and supply chain to meet demand,” he also said, expanding on the plan for the funding. “In the longer term, this funding is going to allow us to invest more in product development: As our products become more sophisticated, they become much more expensive and time-consuming to develop, so being able to hire more engineers is a key driver of future growth.”

Commenting in a supporting statement, Peter Davies of Lansdowne Partners, added: “We are very excited to be investing with Raspberry Pi, an organisation we have followed and admired for many years. The commercial and human impact it has achieved in its first decade has been extraordinary and we look forward to assisting the company to expand this even further in coming years as new capital is deployed.”

#eben-upton, #europe, #fundings-exits, #gadgets, #hardware, #internet-of-things, #iot, #lansdowne-partners, #raspberry-pi, #the-ezrah-charitable-trust, #united-kingdom

Post-pandemic shifts means Patch will take co-working to UK small towns and suburbs

It would be fair to say the pandemic has had enormous effects on the world of work, but it has come at a time when other factors were already ongoing. The decline of main-street shopping due to e-commerce has only been hastened. The shift to remote working has sky-rocketed. And people no longer want to commute 8am-6pm anymore. But we’ve also found that working from home isn’t all its cracked up to be. Plus, they don’t see the point of commuting into a big city, only to have to co-work in something like a WeWork, when they could just as easily have gone to something local. The problem is, there is rarely a local co-working space, especially in the suburbs or smaller towns.

If, instead, you could bring work nearer to home (rather than working from home) then, the theory goes, you’d get a more balanced lifestyle, but also get that separation between work and home so many people, especially families, still desire.

Now, a new UK startup has come top with a ‘decentralized workspace’ idea which it plans to roll out across the UK.

Patch will take empty local high street shops and turn them into “collaborative cultural spaces” with its ‘Work Near Home’ proposition aimed at traditional commuters. There are an estimated 6 million knowledge work commuters in the UK, and Patch will run on monthly subscriptions from these kinds of members.

It’s now raised a $1.1M Seed funding round from a number of leading UK angel investors including Robin Klein (cofounder of LocalGlobe), Matt Clifford (Cofounder of Entrepreneur First), alongside Charlie Songhurst, Simon Murdoch (Episode 1), Wendy Becker (former CEO Jack Wills and NED at Great Portland Estates), Camilla Dolan (founding partner of sustainable investor Eka Ventures), Zoe Jervier (talent Director for US investment firm Sequoia), and Will Neale (founder of Grabyo and early-stage investor).

Patch says its ‘Work Near Home’ idea is geared to the Post-Covid ‘hybrid working’ movement and it plans to create public venues, “with a focus of entrepreneurship, technology, and cultural programming.”

Each Patch location will offer a range of private offices, co-working studios, “accessible low-cost options” and free scholarship places.

Patch’s first site will open in Chelmsford, Essex in early November, and the startup says several more sites are planned for 2022. It says it has received requests from people in Chester, St Albans, Wycombe, Shrewsbury, Yeovil, Bury, and Kingston upon Thames.

Patch’s founder Freddie Fforde said: “Where we work and where we live have traditionally be seen as distinct environments. This has led to the hollowing out of many high streets during the working week, and equally redundant office districts. We think that technology fundamentally changes this, allowing people to work near home and creating a new mixed environment of professional, civic, and cultural exchange.”

Fforde is a former Entrepreneur First founder and employee who has held various roles in early-stage tech companies in London and San Francisco. The head of product will be Paloma Strelitz, formerly cofounder of Assemble, a design studio that won the 2015 Turner Prize.

Commenting, Matt Clifford, Entrepreneur First and Code First Girls, said: “Technology has always changed the way we organize and work together. Patch will unlock opportunities for talented people based on who they are, unconstrained by where they live. We want to be a country where high-skilled jobs are available everywhere and Patch is a key part of that puzzle.”

Targeting towns and smaller cities, in residential areas, not the major city centres, Patch says it will look for under-utilised landmark buildings in the center of towns. In Chelmsford, their first space will be a Victorian brewery, for instance.

Grays Yard

Grays Yard

Chelmsford Councillor Simon Goldman, Deputy Cabinet Member for Economic Development and Small Business and representative for the BID board, said: “The introduction of a new co-working space in Gray’s Yard is a really positive scheme for the city. Providing local options for residents to work from will help them to have less of a commute which will hopefully allow a better work/life balance. Working closer to home brings many benefits for both individuals and their families, but also for the environment and the local economy.”

Patch says it will also operate a model of ‘giving back’, with 20% of peak event space hours donated to local and national providers of community services “that support the common good”. Early national partners include tech skills providers Code First Girls, and with Coder Dojo, a Raspberry Pi Foundation initiative.

#ceo, #cofounder, #commuting, #coworking, #e-commerce, #eka-ventures, #entrepreneur, #europe, #founder, #grabyo, #kingston, #localglobe, #london, #matt-clifford, #partner, #patch, #raspberry-pi-foundation, #robin-klein, #san-francisco, #sequoia, #simon-murdoch, #tc, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #wework

UK’s MarketFinance secures $383M to fuel its online loans platform for SMBs

Small and medium businesses regularly face cashflow problems. But if that’s an already-inconvenient predicament, it has been exacerbated to the breaking point for too many during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, a UK startup called MarketFinance — which has built a loans platform to help SMBs stay afloat through those leaner times — is announcing a big funding infusion of £280 million ($383 million) as it gears up for a new wave of lending requests.

“It’s a good time to lend, at the start of the economic cycle,” CEO and founder Anil Stocker said in an interview.

The funding is coming mostly in the form of debt — money loaned to MarketFinance to in turn loan out to its customers as an approved partner of the UK government’s Recovery Loan Scheme; and £10 million ($14 million) of it is equity that MarketInvoice will be using to continue enhancing its platform.

Italian bank Intesa Sanpaolo S.p.A. and an unnamed “global investment firm” are providing the debt, while the equity portion is being led by Black River Ventures (which has also backed Marqeta, Upgrade, Coursera and Digital Ocean) with participation from existing backer, Barclays Bank PLC. Barclays is a strategic investor: MarketFinance powers the bank’s online SMB loans service. Other investors in the startup include Northzone.

We understand that the company’s valuation is somewhere in the region of under $500 million, but more than $250 million, although officially it is not disclosing any numbers.

Stocker said that MarketFinance has been profitable since 2018, one reason why it’s didn’t give up much equity in this current tranche of funding.

“We are building a sustainable business, and the equity we did raise was to unlock better debt at better prices,” he said. “It can help to post more equity on the balance sheet.” He said the money will be “going into our reserves” and used for new product development, marketing and to continue building out its API connectivity.

That last development is important: it taps into the big wave of “embedded finance” plays we are seeing today, where third parties offer, on their own platforms, loans to customers — with the loan product powered by MarketFinance, similar to what Barclays does currently. The range of companies tapping into this is potentially as vast as the internet itself. The promise of embedded finance is that any online brand that already does business with SMEs could potentially offer those SMEs loans to… do more business together.

MarketFinance began life several years ago as MarketInvoice, with its basic business model focused on providing short-term loans to a given SMB against the value of its unpaid invoices — a practice typically described as invoice finance. The idea at the time was to solve the most immediate cashflow issue faced by SMBs by leveraging the thing (unpaid invoices, which typically would eventually get paid, just not immediately) that caused the cashflow issue in the first place.

A lot of the financing that SMBs get against invoices, though, is mainly in the realm of working capital, helping companies make payroll and pay their own monthly bills. But Stocker said that over time, the startup could see a larger opportunity in providing financing that was of bigger sums and covered more ambitious business expansion goals. That was two years ago, and MarketInvoice rebranded accordingly to MarketFinance. (It still very much offers the invoice-based product.)

The timing turned out to be fortuitous, even if the reason definitely has not been lucky: Covid-19 came along and completely overturned how much of the world works. SMEs have been at the thin edge of that wedge not least because of those cashflow issues and the fact that they simply are less geared to diversification and pivoting due to shifting market forces because of their size.

This presented a big opportunity for MarketInvoice, it turned out.

Stocker said that the early part of the Covid-19 pandemic saw the bulk of loans being taken out to manage business interruptions due to Covid-19. Interruptions could mean business closures, or they could mean simply customers no longer coming as they did before, and so on. “The big theme was frictionless access to funding,” he said, using technology to better and more quickly assess applications digitally with “no meetings with bank managers” and reducing the response time to days from the typical 4-6 weeks that SMBs would have traditionally expected.

If last year was more about “panicking, shoring up or pivoting,” in Stocker’s words, “now what we’re seeing are a bunch of them struggling with supply chain issues, Brexit exacerbations and labor shortages. It’s really hard for them to manage all that.”

He said that the number of loan applications has been through the roof, so no shortage of demand. He estimates that monthly loan requests have been as high as $500 million, a huge sum for one small startup in the UK. It’s selective in what it lends: “We choose to support those we thought will return the money,” he said.

#api, #bank, #barclays, #ceo, #corporate-finance, #coursera, #digital-ocean, #economy, #embedded-finance, #europe, #finance, #funding, #invoice, #loans, #marketfinance, #marketinvoice, #marqeta, #money, #partner, #short-term-loans, #startup-company, #uk-government, #united-kingdom

TrueLayer nabs $130M at a $1B+ valuation as open banking rises as a viable option to card networks

Open banking — a disruptive technology that seeks to bypass the dominance of card networks and other traditional financial rails by letting banks open their systems directly to developers (and new services) by way of APIs — continues to gain ground in the world of financial services. As a mark of that traction, a startup playing a central role in open banking applications is announcing a big round of funding with a milestone valuation.

TrueLayer, which provides technology for developers to enable a range of open-banking-based services has raised $130 million in a funding round that values the London-based startup at over $1 billion.

Tiger Global Management is leading the round, and notably, payments juggernaut Stripe is also participating.

Open Banking is a relatively new area in the world of fintech — the UK was an early adopter in 2018, Europe then signed on, and it looks like we are now seeing more movements that the U.S. may soon also join the party — and TrueLayer is considered a pioneer in the space.

The vast majority of transactions in the world today are still made using card rails or more antiquated banking infrastructure, but the opportunity with open banking is to build a completely new infrastructure that works more efficiently, and might come with less (or no) fees for those using it, with the perennial API promise: all by way of few lines of code.

“We had a vision that finance should be opened up, and we are actively woking to remove the frictions that exist between intermediaries,” said CEO Francesco Simoneschi, who co-founded the company with Luca Martinetti (who is now the CTO), in an interview. “We want a financial system that works for everyone, but that hasn’t been the case up to now. The opportunity emerged five years ago, when open banking came into law in the UK and then elsewhere, to go after the most impressive oligopoly: the card networks and everything that revolves around them. Now, we can easily say that open banking is becoming a viable alternative to that.”

It seems that the world of finance and commerce is slowly catching on, and so the funding is coming on the heels of some strong growth for the company.

Services that TrueLayer currently include payments, payouts, user account information and user verification; while end users range from neobanks, crypto startups, and wealth management apps through to e-commerce companies, marketplaces and gaming platforms.

And the startup says it now has “millions” of consumers making open banking transactions enabled by TrueLayer’s technology, and some 10,000 developers are building services based on open banking standards. TrueLayer so far this year has doubled its customer base, picking up some key customers like Cazoo to enable open-banking based payments for cars; and it has processed “billions” of dollars in payments, with payment volume growing 400%, and payment up 800%.

The plan is to use the funding to invest in building out that business further — specifically to extend its payments network to more regions (and more banks getting integrated into that network), as well as to bring on more customers using open banking services for more regular, recurring transactions.

“The shift to alternative payment methods is accelerating with the global growth of online commerce, and we believe TrueLayer will play a central role in making these payment methods more accessible,” said Alex Cook, partner, Tiger Global, in a statement. “We’re excited to partner with Francesco, Luca and the TrueLayer team as they help customers increase conversion and continue to grow the network.”

Notably, Stripe is not a strategic investor in TrueLayer at the moment, just a financial one. That is to say, it has yet to integrate open banking into its own payments infrastructure.

But you can imagine how it would be interested in it as part of the bigger mix of options for its customers, and potentially also to build its own standalone financial rails that well and truly compete with those provided by the card networks (which are such a close part of what Stripe does that its earliest web design was based on the physical card, and even its name is a reference to the stripe on the back of them.

There are other providers of open banking connectivity in the market today — Plaid out of the U.S. is one notable name — but Simoneschi believes that Stripe and TrueLayer on the same page as companies.

“We share a profound belief that progress comes through the eyes of developers so it’s about delivering the tools they need to use,” he he said. “We are in a very complementary space.”

#api, #bank, #banking, #ceo, #cto, #europe, #finance, #financial-services, #funding, #london, #mobile-payments, #money, #online-banking, #online-commerce, #online-payments, #open-banking, #partner, #payment, #payments-infrastructure, #payments-network, #stripe, #tiger-global-management, #truelayer, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #web-applications

Airwallex raises $200M at a $4B valuation to double down on business banking

Business, now more than ever before, is going digital, and today a startup that’s building a vertically integrated solution to meet business banking needs is announcing a big round of funding to tap into the opportunity. Airwallex — which provides business banking services both directly to businesses themselves, as well as via a set of APIs that power other companies’ fintech products — has raised $200 million, a Series E round of funding that values the Australian startup at $4 billion.

Lone Pine Capital is leading the round, with new backers G Squared and Vetamer Capital Management, and previous backers 1835i Ventures (formerly ANZi), DST Global, Salesforce Ventures and Sequoia Capital China, also participating.

The funding brings the total raised by Airwallex — which has head offices in Hong Kong and Melbourne, Australia — to date to $700 million, including a $100 million injection that closed out its Series D just six months ago.

Airwallex will be using the funding both to continue investing in its product and technology, as well as to continue its geographical expansion and to focus on some larger business targets. The company has started to make some headway into Europe and the UK and that will be one big focus, along with the U.S.

The quick succession of funding, and that rising valuation, underscore Airwallex’s traction to date around what CEO and co-founder Jack Zhang describes as a vertically integrated strategy.

That involves two parts. First, Airwallex has built all the infrastructure for the business banking services that it provides directly to businesses with a focus on small and medium enterprise customers. Second, it has packaged up that infrastructure into a set of APIs that a variety of other companies use to provide financial services directly to their customers without needing to build those services themselves — the so-called “embedded finance” approach.

“We want to own the whole ecosystem,” Zhang said to me. “We want to be like the Apple of business finance.”

That seems to be working out so far for Airwallex. Revenues were up almost 150% for the first half of 2021 compared to a year before, with the company processing more than US$20 billion for a global client portfolio that has quadrupled in size. In addition to tens of thousands of SMEs, it also, via APIs, powers financial services for other companies like GOAT, Papaya Global and Stake.

Airwallex got its start like many of the strongest startups do: it was built to solve a problem that the founders encountered themselves. In the case of Airwallex, Zhang tells me he had actually been working on a previous start-up idea. He wanted to build the “Blue Bottle Coffee” of Asia out of Hong Kong, and it involved buying and importing a lot of different materials, packaging and of course coffee from all around the world.

“We found that making payments as a small business was slow and expensive,” he said, since it involved banks in different countries and different banking systems, manual efforts to transfer money between them and many days to clear the payments. “But that was also my background — payments and trading — and so I decided that it was a much more fascinating problem for me to work on and resolve.”

Eventually one of his co-founders in the coffee effort came along, with the four co-founders of Airwallex ultimately including Zhang, along with Xijing Dai, Lucy Liu and Max Li.

It was 2014, and Airwallex got attention from VCs early on in part for being in the right place at the right time. A wave of startups building financial services for SMBs were definitely gaining ground in North America and Europe, filling a long-neglected hole in the technology universe, but there was almost nothing of the sort in the Asia Pacific region, and in those earlier days solutions were highly regionalized.

From there it was a no-brainer that starting with cross-border payments, the first thing Airwallex tackled, would soon grow into a wider suite of banking services involving payments and other cross-border banking services.

“In last 6 years, we’ve built more than 50 bank integrations and now offer payments 95 countries payments through a partner network,” he added, with 43 of those offering real-time transactions. From that, it moved on the bank accounts and “other primitive stuff” with card issuance and more, he said, eventually building an end-to-end payment stack. 

Airwallex has tens of thousands of customers using its financial services directly, and they make up about 40% of its revenues today. The rest is the interesting turn the company decided to take to expand its business.

Airwallex had built all of its technology from the ground up itself, and it found that — given the wave of new companies looking for more ways to engage customers and become their one-stop shop — there was an opportunity to package that tech up in a set of APIs and sell that on to a different set of customers, those who also provided services for small businesses. That part of the business now accounts for 60% of Airwallex’s business, Zhang said, and is growing faster in terms of revenues. (The SMB business is growing faster in terms of customers, he said.)

A lot of embedded finance startups that base their business around building tech to power other businesses tend to stay arm’s length from offering financial services directly to consumers. The explanation I have heard is that they do not wish to compete against their customers. Zhang said that Airwallex takes a different approach, by being selective about the customers they partner with, so that the financial services they offer would never be the kind that would not be in direct competition. The GOAT marketplace for sneakers, or Papaya Global’s HR platform are classic examples of this.

However, as Airwallex continues to grow, you can’t help but wonder whether one of those partners might like to gobble up all of Airwallex and take on some of that service provision role itself. In that context, it’s very interesting to see Salesforce Ventures returning to invest even more in the company in this round, given how widely the company has expanded from its early roots in software for salespeople into a massive platform providing a huge range of cloud services to help people run their businesses.

For now, it’s been the combination of its unique roots in Asia Pacific, plus its vertical approach of building its tech from the ground up, plus its retail acumen that has impressed investors and may well see Airwallex stay independent and grow for some time to come.

“Airwallex has a clear competitive advantage in the digital payments market,” said David Craver, MD at Lone Pine Capital, in a statement. “Its unique Asia-Pacific roots, coupled with its innovative infrastructure, products and services, speak volumes about the business’ global growth opportunities and its impressive expansion in the competitive payment providers space. We are excited to invest in Airwallex at this dynamic time, and look forward to helping drive the company’s expansion and success worldwide.”

#airwallex, #articles, #asia, #asia-pacific, #australia, #bank, #banking, #blue-bottle-coffee, #cloud-services, #dst-global, #economy, #embedded-finance, #enterprise, #europe, #finance, #financial-services, #funding, #goat, #hr, #lone-pine-capital, #melbourne, #north-america, #papaya-global, #salesforce, #salesforce-ventures, #sequoia-capital-china, #series-d, #startup-company, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #veem

What we can learn from edtech startups’ expansion efforts in Europe

It’s a story common to all sectors today: investors only want to see ‘uppy-righty’ charts in a pitch. However, edtech growth in the past 18 months has ramped up to such an extent that companies need to be presenting 3x+ growth in annual recurring revenue to even get noticed by their favored funds.

Some companies are able to blast this out of the park — like GoStudent, Ornikar and YouSchool — but others, arguably less suited to the conditions presented by the pandemic, have found it more difficult to present this kind of growth.

One of the most common themes Brighteye sees in young companies is an emphasis on international expansion for growth. To get some additional insight into this trend, we surveyed edtech firms on their expansion plans, priorities and pitfalls. We received 57 responses and supplemented it with interviews of leading companies and investors. Europe is home 49 of the surveyed companies, six are based in the U.S., and three in Asia.

Going international later in the journey or when more funding is available, possibly due to a VC round, seems to make facets of expansion more feasible. Higher budgets also enable entry to several markets nearly simultaneously.

The survey revealed a roughly even split of target customers across companies, institutions and consumers, as well as a good spread of home markets. The largest contingents were from the U.K. and France, with 13 and nine respondents respectively, followed by the U.S. with seven, Norway with five, and Spain, Finland, and Switzerland with four each. About 40% of these firms were yet to foray beyond their home country and the rest had gone international.

International expansion is an interesting and nuanced part of the growth path of an edtech firm. Unlike their neighbors in fintech, it’s assumed that edtech companies need to expand to a number of big markets in order to reach a scale that makes them attractive to VCs. This is less true than it was in early 2020, as digital education and work is now so commonplace that it’s possible to build a billion-dollar edtech in a single, larger European market.

But naturally, nearly every ambitious edtech founder realizes they need to expand overseas to grow at a pace that is attractive to investors. They have good reason to believe that, too: The complexities of selling to schools and universities, for example, are widely documented, so it might seem logical to take your chances and build market share internationally. It follows that some view expansion as a way of diversifying risk — e.g. we are growing nicely in market X, but what if the opportunity in Y is larger and our business begins to decline for some reason in market X?

International expansion sounds good, but what does it mean? We asked a number of organizations this question as part of the survey analysis. The responses were quite broad, and their breadth to an extent reflected their target customer groups and how those customers are reached. If the product is web-based and accessible anywhere, then it’s relatively easy for a company with a good product to reach customers in a large number of markets (50+). The firm can then build teams and wider infrastructure around that traction.

#column, #ec-column, #ec-edtech, #ec-how-to, #edtech, #education, #europe, #finland, #france, #norway, #owl-ventures, #spain, #startups, #sweden, #switzerland, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #venture-capital

Facebook revamps its business tool lineup following threats to its ad targeting business

Facebook today is announcing the launch of new products and features for business owners, following the threat to its ad targeting business driven by Apple’s new privacy features, which now allow mobile users to opt out of being tracked across their iOS apps. The social networking giant has repeatedly argued that Apple’s changes would impact small businesses that relied on Facebook ads to reach their customers. But it was not successful in getting any of Apple’s changes halted. Instead, the market is shifting to a new era focused more on user privacy, where personalization and targeting are more of an opt-in experience. That’s required Facebook to address its business advertiser base in new ways.

As the ability to track consumers declines — very few consumers are opting into tracking, studies find — Facebook is rolling out new features that will allow businesses to better position themselves in front of relevant audiences. This includes updates that will let them reach customers, advertise to customers, chat with customers across Facebook apps, generate leads, acquire customers and more.

The company earlier this year began testing a way for customers to explore businesses from underneath News Feed posts by tapping on topics they were interested in — like beauty, fitness, and clothing, and explore content from other related businesses. The feature allows people to come across new businesses that may also like, and would allow Facebook to create its own data set of users who like certain types of content. Over time, it could possibly even turn the feature into an ad unit, where businesses could pay for higher placement.

But for the time being, Facebook will expand this feature to more users across the U.S., and launch it in Australia, Canada, Ireland, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, and the U.K.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook is also making it easier for businesses to chat with customers. They’re already able to buy ads that encourage people to message them on Facebook’s various chat platforms — Messenger, Instagram Direct, or WhatsApp. Now, they’ll be able to choose all the messaging platforms where they’re available, and Facebook will default the chat app showcased in the ad based on where the conversation is most likely to happen.

Image Credits: Facebook

The company will tie WhatsApp to Instagram, as well, as part of this effort. Facebook explains that many businesses market themselves or run shops across Instagram, but rely on WhatsApp to communicate with customers and answer questions. So, Facebook will now allow businesses to add a WhatsApp click-to-chat button to their Instagram profiles.

This change, in particular, represents another move that ties Facebook’s separate apps more closely together, at a time when regulators are considering breaking up Facebook over antitrust concerns. Already, Facebook interconnected Facebook’s Messenger and Instagram messaging services, which would make such a disassembly more complicated. And more recently, it’s begun integrating Messenger directly into Facebook’s platform itself.

Image Credits: Facebook

In a related change, soon businesses will be able to create ads that send users directly to WhatsApp from the Instagram app. (Facebook also already offers ads like this.)

Separately from this news, Facebook announced the launch of a new business directory on WhatsApp, allowing consumers to find shops and services on the chat platform, as well.

Another set of changes being introduced involve an update to Facebook Business Suite. Businesses will be able to manage emails through Inbox and sending remarketing emails; use a new File Manager for creating, managing, and posting content; and access a feature that will allow businesses to test different versions of a post to see which one is most effective.

Image Credits: Facebook

Other new products include tests of paid and organic lead generation tools on Instagram; quote requests on Messenger, where customers answer a few questions prior to their conversations; and a way for small businesses to access a bundle of tools to get started with Facebook ads, which includes a Facebook ad coupon along with free access to QuickBooks for 3 months or free access to Canva Pro for 3 months.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook will also begin testing something called “Work Accounts,” which will allow business owners to access their business products, like Business Manager, separately from their personal Facebook account. They’ll be able to manage these accounts on behalf of employees and use single-sign-on integrations.

Work Accounts will be tested through the remainder of the year with a small group of businesses, and Facebook says it expects to expand availability in 2022.

Other efforts it has in store include plans to incorporate more content from creators and local businesses and new features that let users control the content they see, but these changes were not detailed at this time.

Most of the products being announced are either rolling out today or will begin to show up soon.

#advertising-tech, #app-store, #australia, #canada, #canva, #computing, #facebook, #instagram, #ireland, #malaysia, #messenger, #new-zealand, #philippines, #private-message, #singapore, #social, #social-media, #software, #south-africa, #technology, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #whatsapp

Ireland probes TikTok’s handling of kids’ data and transfers to China

Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) has yet another ‘Big Tech’ GDPR probe to add to its pile: The regulator said yesterday it has opened two investigations into video sharing platform TikTok.

The first covers how TikTok handles children’s data, and whether it complies with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation.

The DPC also said it will examine TikTok’s transfers of personal data to China, where its parent entity is based — looking to see if the company meets requirements set out in the regulation covering personal data transfers to third countries.

TikTok was contacted for comment on the DPC’s investigation.

A spokesperson told us:

“The privacy and safety of the TikTok community, particularly our youngest members, is a top priority. We’ve implemented extensive policies and controls to safeguard user data and rely on approved methods for data being transferred from Europe, such as standard contractual clauses. We intend to fully cooperate with the DPC.”

The Irish regulator’s announcement of two “own volition” enquiries follows pressure from other EU data protection authorities and consumers protection groups which have raised concerns about how TikTok handles’ user data generally and children’s information specifically.

In Italy this January, TikTok was ordered to recheck the age of every user in the country after the data protection watchdog instigated an emergency procedure, using GDPR powers, following child safety concerns.

TikTok went on to comply with the order — removing more than half a million accounts where it could not verify the users were not children.

This year European consumer protection groups have also raised a number of child safety and privacy concerns about the platform. And, in May, EU lawmakers said they would review the company’s terms of service.

On children’s data, the GDPR sets limits on how kids’ information can be processed, putting an age cap on the ability of children to consent to their data being used. The age limit varies per EU Member State but there’s a hard cap for kids’ ability to consent at 13 years old (some EU countries set the age limit at 16).

In response to the announcement of the DPC’s enquiry, TikTok pointed to its use of age gating technology and other strategies it said it uses to detect and remove underage users from its platform.

It also flagged a number of recent changes it’s made around children’s accounts and data — such as flipping the default settings to make their accounts privacy by default and limiting their exposure to certain features that intentionally encourage interaction with other TikTok users if those users are over 16.

While on international data transfers it claims to use “approved methods”. However the picture is rather more complicated than TikTok’s statement implies. Transfers of Europeans’ data to China are complicated by there being no EU data adequacy agreement in place with China.

In TikTok’s case, that means, for any personal data transfers to China to be lawful, it needs to have additional “appropriate safeguards” in place to protect the information to the required EU standard.

When there is no adequacy arrangement in place, data controllers can, potentially, rely on mechanisms like Standard Contractual Clauses (SCCs) or binding corporate rules (BCRs) — and TikTok’s statement notes it uses SCCs.

But — crucially — personal data transfers out of the EU to third countries have faced significant legal uncertainty and added scrutiny since a landmark ruling by the CJEU last year which invalidated a flagship data transfer arrangement between the US and the EU and made it clear that DPAs (such as Ireland’s DPC) have a duty to step in and suspend transfers if they suspect people’s data is flowing to a third country where it might be at risk.

So while the CJEU did not invalidate mechanisms like SCCs entirely they essentially said all international transfers to third countries must be assessed on a case-by-case basis and, where a DPA has concerns, it must step in and suspend those non-secure data flows.

The CJEU ruling means just the fact of using a mechanism like SCCs doesn’t mean anything on its own re: the legality of a particular data transfer. It also amps up the pressure on EU agencies like Ireland’s DPC to be pro-active about assessing risky data flows.

Final guidance put out by the European Data Protection Board, earlier this year, provides details on the so-called ‘special measures’ that a data controller may be able to apply in order to increase the level of protection around their specific transfer so the information can be legally taken to a third country.

But these steps can include technical measures like strong encryption — and it’s not clear how a social media company like TikTok would be able to apply such a fix, given how its platform and algorithms are continuously mining users’ data to customize the content they see and in order to keep them engaged with TikTok’s ad platform.

In another recent development, China has just passed its first data protection law.

But, again, this is unlikely to change much for EU transfers. The Communist Party regime’s ongoing appropriation of personal data, through the application of sweeping digital surveillance laws, means it would be all but impossible for China to meet the EU’s stringent requirements for data adequacy. (And if the US can’t get EU adequacy it would be ‘interesting’ geopolitical optics, to put it politely, were the coveted status to be granted to China…)

One factor TikTok can take heart from is that it does likely have time on its side when it comes to the’s EU enforcement of its data protection rules.

The Irish DPC has a huge backlog of cross-border GDPR investigations into a number of tech giants.

It was only earlier this month that Irish regulator finally issued its first decision against a Facebook-owned company — announcing a $267M fine against WhatsApp for breaching GDPR transparency rules (but only doing so years after the first complaints had been lodged).

The DPC’s first decision in a cross-border GDPR case pertaining to Big Tech came at the end of last year — when it fined Twitter $550k over a data breach dating back to 2018, the year GDPR technically begun applying.

The Irish regulator still has scores of undecided cases on its desk — against tech giants including Apple and Facebook. That means that the new TikTok probes join the back of a much criticized bottleneck. And a decision on these probes isn’t likely for years.

On children’s data, TikTok may face swifter scrutiny elsewhere in Europe: The UK added some ‘gold-plaiting’ to its version of the EU GDPR in the area of children’s data — and, from this month, has said it expects platforms meet its recommended standards.

It has warned that platforms that don’t fully engage with its Age Appropriate Design Code could face penalties under the UK’s GDPR. The UK’s code has been credited with encouraging a number of recent changes by social media platforms over how they handle kids’ data and accounts.

#apps, #articles, #china, #communist-party, #data-controller, #data-protection, #data-protection-commission, #data-protection-law, #data-security, #encryption, #europe, #european-data-protection-board, #european-union, #general-data-protection-regulation, #ireland, #italy, #max-schrems, #noyb, #personal-data, #privacy, #social, #social-media, #spokesperson, #tiktok, #united-kingdom, #united-states

Onin is trying to fix event planning by combining calendar and chat

What would happened if your go-to calendar and messaging apps were in fact one and the same thing? That’s the thinking behind Onin — a UK startup that wants to simplify event planning by, well, making a more organized app for organizing stuff.

If that sounds a little niche, it pays to remember that calendars have been having a bit of a moment (ha!) of late (ho!) — what with the pandemic parceling our work lives into endless virtual meeting slots. Aka: How many Zoom calls can one human survive in a single day?

Certainly the limitations of digital calendars, these rather unlovely (yet ever more essential) time-management tools, have had faced closer scrutiny since COVID-19 popped up on the scene. Flaws? Yes they have a few.

And so we’ve seen a burst of startup attention to the space in recent years. Think stuff like Calendly and Reclaim.ai for more efficiently managing meeting scheduling (aka ‘smart calendar assistants’) — or, more recently, Magical — which is trying to push the (invite) envelope a little further by trying to make calendars more collaborative.

Onin is taking a similarly collaborative tack — but with, initially, more of a consumer focus: It wants to be your new go-to app to arrange stuff like drinks or trips with your friends. (If it can take off with twentysomething socialites and worm its way from B2C into work settings via a consumerization backdoor then great, is the founder’s thinking there.)

But why do you need a whole new app for organizing birthday drinks, I hear you cry!?

Because the experience of using a digital tool to arrange multi-person events is frustratingly un-social and friction-filled is Onin’s argument.

With a typical calendar, an event creator owns the event (and therefore the planning process) so only they can make changes that sync to all participants. Hence those endless emails discussion threads that spring up around nascent group events as people try to hash out the details of a plan — who’s free when and which location works for everyone and so on — and then nag the self appointed organizer to update the invite so everyone stays on the same page.

Onin’s alternative approach avoids this planning asymmetry by collapsing and combining chat and calendar into a one-stop scheduling dream: “One place to find time and plan events without leaving the chat.” Or, well, that’s the promise.

(And — yes — it will still integrate with your existing calendar software so that events planned in Onin get synced back there.)

Here’s founder Ryan Brodie laying it out: “We want to be the aggregation layer for events, contextualising the process & third party integrations so there’s zero fragmentation between them and the discussion that forms them (right now the event in our diaries is always one step behind the convo and every step is duplicated)

“To do this we want to replace your calendar app/web app and act as a client for whatever calendar provider you use (‘bring your own calendar’).”

“We’re starting from the consumer and consumer meet-up side however we strongly believe (and have already proven) Onin’s usefulness across sectors,” he also argues. “The key thing is we’re chat first not event first; 95% of the planning is happening by chat and not by editing the event’s details, thus our hard work on bringing the event into the conversation itself (you can @mention the group in any of its sub-groups too making referring to an upcoming event delightful).”

Per Brodie, the problem Onin is focused on stems from fragmentation related to the long-standing iCalendar standard —  aka the Internet Calendaring and Scheduling Core Object Specification format (RFC 5545), which allows different scheduling services to understand and process calendaring items (and was first created in 1998) — which is really why, as he tells it, trying to do group scheduling with existing calendar apps is such a frustrating mess.

Onin’s answer to this legacy fragmentation takes the form of a patent-pending “architectural solution” — which means the software always ‘organizes’ the event “from a calendaring perspective, not a specific user”, as Brodie puts it. (Or, more simply: “The organiser is the group email address and we control its sync.”)

The effect of that is to circumvent the fragmentation between an event and its communication channels — thereby removing unnecessary friction from the event planning process by letting groups plan stuff together more spontaneously.

“No one has solved this problem before,” claims Brodie (who’s name may be familiar as he co-founded YC-backed Muslim dating app Muzmatch, before moving on to his next app challenge).

“It’s incredibly hard to as the calendaring standards are decentralised and non-canonical (our tech made our events centralised and canonical). Everything you can do in our native apps you can do with very low friction web experience first (every Onin group is a rapidly shareable link).”

Asked about other software solutions, he suggests Onin is shooting to be “Microsoft Teams, just done right”. So, er, touché. (“An easy to use product and one that’s simple to understand, isn’t locked into the Microsoft ecosystem, and yet is incredibly powerful and versatile, scaling from 1:1 conversations to groups of hundreds of people, all the time seamlessly syncing event information into participant’s diaries,” is the ambition.)

“We send the invites to all users vs using their own calendar like say Calendly does,” Brodie also tells us, going into more detail on how exactly Onin does things differently vs rivals. “Therefore events are fully collaborative and provide a history of changes inside Onin but in your external calendar all you can do is change your attending status as a regular participant. This makes Onin very sticky!”

For now, it’s still super early for the product — which bagged some attention after launching on Product Hunt in August — and is just now launching as an MVP. But Onin has already turned investor heads, raising a $1M pre-seed round (“with just the idea”) last summer — which looks like a notable vote of confidence at such an early stage.

Backers in the pre-seed include Entrepreneur First’s Matt Clifford and Hambro Perks (on angel terms), plus a number of others who aren’t up for going public just yet.

“We’ve had over 400 people join the early access program in 48 hours which involved an 8-step form detailing their calendar woes, I’m very confident there is serious demand simply in combining chat and calendar,” adds Brodie, before segueing into reeling off a list of integrations and features the team is working on adding.

“We already have an official Zoom integration and are working on Typeform & Calendly integrations (Notion, Google Workspace, etc. all targeted). We then want to take over the event based discussions you have in other apps as a result, with you thinking of the event as living in Onin (‘zero switching cost’). For example, when you join the Zoom call a contextual message is sent into the group — “[Ryan] joined Zoom” — no one has done this before!

“We own the event that is synced to everyone’s diaries, it all links back to Onin. We have a unique, patent pending Talk around time chat UI that makes all of this possible. We have a very Notion-y style group/sub-group system, it’s a) extremely easy to create follow up events and b) easy to create sub-plans too (e.g. a holiday with lots of activities or a product launch with TechCrunch interviews…).”

#apps, #calendar, #calendar-apps, #calendly, #europe, #hambro-perks, #matt-clifford, #onin, #product-hunt, #ryan-brodie, #tc, #time-management-tools, #united-kingdom, #yc

As UK Gov reaches out to tech, investors threaten to ‘pull capital’ over M&A regulator over-reach

UK competition regulators are spooking tech investors in the country with an implied threat to clamp down on startup M&A, according to a new survey of the industry.

As the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer engaged with the tech industry at a ‘Chatham House’ style event today, the Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec) think-tank released a survey of over 50 key investors which found startup investors are prepared to pull capital over the prospect of the Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) new Digital Markets Unit (DMU) becoming a “whole-economy regulator by accident”. Investors are concerned after the CMA recommended the DMU be given ‘expanded powers’ regarding its investigations of M&A deals.

Controversy has been stirring up around the DMU, as the prospect of it blocking tech startup acquisitions – especially by US firms, sometimes on the grounds of national security – has gradually risen.

In the Coadec survey, half of investors said they would significantly reduce the amount they invested in UK startups if the ability to exit was restricted, and a further 22.5% said they would stop investing in UK startups completely under a stricter regulatory environment.

Furthermore, 60% of investors surveyed said they felt UK regulators only had a “basic understanding” of the startup market, and 22.2% felt regulators didn’t understand the tech startup market at all.

Coadec said its conservative estimates showed that the UK Government’s DMU proposals could create a £2.2bn drop in venture capital going into the UK, potentially reducing UK economic growth by £770m.

Commenting on the report, Dom Hallas, Executive Director of Coadec, said: “Startups thrive in competitive markets. But nurturing an ecosystem means knowing where to intervene and when not to. The data shows that not only is there a risk that the current proposals could miss some bad behavior in some areas like B2B markets whilst creating unnecessary barriers in others like M&A. Just as crucially, there’s frankly not a lot of faith in the regulators proposing them either.”

The survey results emerged just as Chancellor Rishi Sunak convened the “Treasury Connect” conference in London today which brought together some of the CEOs of the UK’s biggest tech firms and VCs in a ‘listening process’ designed to reach out to the industry.

However, at a press conference after the event, Sunak pushed back on the survey results, citing research by Professor Jason Furman, Chair, of the Digital Competition Expert Panel, which has found that “not a single acquisition” had been blocked by the DMU, and there are “no false positives” in decision making to date. Sunak said the “system looks at this in order to get the balance right.”

In addition, a statement from the Treasury, out today, said more than one-fifth of people in the UK’s biggest cities are now employed in the tech sector, which also saw £11.2 billion invested last year, setting a new investment record, it claimed.

Sunak also said the Future Fund, which backed UK-based tech firms with convertible loans during the pandemic, handed UK taxpayers with stakes in more than 150 high-growth firms.

These include Vaccitech PLC, which co-invented the COVID-19 vaccine with the University of Oxford and is better known as the AstraZeneca vaccine which went to 170 countries worldwide. The Future fund also invested in Century Tech, an EdTEch startup that uses AI to personalize learning for children.

The UK government’s £375 million ‘Future Fund: Breakthrough’ initiative continued from July this year, aiming at high-growth, R&D-intensive companies.

Coadec’s survey also found 70% of investors felt UK regulators “only thought about large incumbent firms” when designing competition rules, rather than startups or future innovation.

However, the survey found London was still rated as highly as California as an attractive destination for startups and investors.

#artificial-intelligence, #astrazeneca, #california, #chair, #coalition-for-a-digital-economy, #competition-and-markets-authority, #corporate-finance, #digital-markets-unit, #economy, #entrepreneurship, #europe, #finance, #jason-furman, #london, #money, #private-equity, #startup-company, #tc, #uk-government, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #venture-capital

Vector.ai’s productivity platform for freight forwarders raises $15M A round led by Bessemer

With supply chains under constant stress because of the pandemic, freight forwarding has become one of the hottest startup sectors in the last two years. Indeed, International freight forwarding is now a $199 billion market. And the evidence is mounting.

In November last year, digital freight forwarder Forto raises another $50M in a round led by Inven Capital. In April this year, Nuvocargo raised $12M to digitize the freight logistics industry. In May, Zencargo, with a freight forwarding platform, raised $42 million. In June, freight forwarder sennder raised $80M at a $1B+ valuation. In July Freightify landed $2.5M to make rate management easier for freight forwarders.

And today, Vector.ai, which says it helps freight forwarders improve productivity via its AI platform, has raised $15 million in a Series A led by US VC Bessemer Venture Partners. It was joined by existing investors Dynamo Ventures and Episode 1. Bessemer’s investment is yet another sign that US VC continues to make incursions into the UK and European tech scene.

Vector now plans to accelerate its international expansion plans as an automated system for freight forwarders.

The problem it’s tackling is this: Freight forwarders lose time to repetitive administrative tasks as they execute shipments, such as hunting through customer emails etc, rather than concentrating on higher-value activities. Vector.ai says it’s machine learning platform can automate these tasks.

Its customers now include Fracht, EFL, NNR Global Logistics, The Scarbrough Group, Steam Logistics and Navia Freight, as well as other top-10 freight forwarders.

James Coombes, Co-Founder, and CEO of Vector.ai, commented: “Most employees within freight forwarders spend the majority of their time communicating with the 10-25 different entities that might be associated with a given shipment and coordinating freight movement and documentation. Communication usually runs through email and attachments… The volume of freight continues to rise globally – and with the added burden of Brexit and pandemic disruptions such as the recent port closure in China – freight forwarders are facing staffing shortages, steep wage increases, and shipping delays that continue to cost companies money in lost revenue and spoiled goods. They cannot afford to keep wasting time on low-level processing, which is why we created the technology to automate basic tasks.”

Mike Droesch, Partner at Bessemer Venture Partners, said: “Vector.ai is one of the early leaders in an emerging category of freight forwarding workflow automation and digitization tools. It has built an intuitive and industry-focused product – which is already winning over some of the largest freight forwarders.”

Vector competes with Shipamax out of the UK which has raised $9.5M, RPA Labs out of the US which has raised $1.2M and slync.io also in the US which has raised $75.9M.

#articles, #bessemer-venture-partners, #china, #europe, #goods, #inven-capital, #logistics, #machine-learning, #mike-droesch, #partner, #tc, #transport, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #vector

Pandemic’s shift to remote wellness helps Numan raise $40M Series B led by White Star

Numan, the European subscription service covering erectile dysfunction (ED) and men’s wellness/health needs more generally, has raised $40 million in a Series B funding round led by White Star Capital, with participation from existing investors Novator, Vostok New Global, Anthemis Exponential, Colle Capital, and new investor Hanwha Group. The new round will be used to fuel expansion.

Numan’s current roster of services cover ED, premature ejaculation, hair loss, gut and lung health, and nutritional deficiencies. But they can also do blood tests for general health needs which don’t require in-person appointments.

Post-pandemic, the digitization of health and wellness continues apace. Had we not had a pandemic, vitamins, and the like, delivered through the letterbox, would almost certainly have continued to grow steadily as a business. But with the pandemic, businesses that can speak to our health needs remotely have exploded.

Who would have considered taking a blood test remotely a ‘normal thing’ two years ago? Now it’s practically required. Into this space, wellness companies have uncovered an extremely lucrative nexus of trends: an aging male population with a desire to remain sexually active, increasing awareness of their own health, the convenience of subscription, and the imperative of the pandemic to keep things remote has proven to be a powerful combination of forces.

Numan is not alone in this space. Roman and Hims, for example, are two big players in the US. The open door Numan is pushing against is more this wider movement around male health, which men themselves are becoming more open to. As well as growing organically, Numan has also made two strategic acquisitions of companies in the UK and Sweden to expand its footprint. It’s likely this new round will lead to similar strategic plays.

With sexual health a tricky subject for men, digital services are stepping in to mitigate any embarrassment around having to sit in front of the family GP. Numan is also regulated by the Care Quality Commission as a registered healthcare provider, giving it a further stamp of approval.

Numan claims men now prefer its model to in-person healthcare meetings. In its own survey of 800 subscribers, 88% said that using the service has improved their confidence, while 68% say that using Numan has also improved their relationships, and over half said the effects of the pandemic had given them a more positive impression of using digital healthcare.

In a statement Sokratis Papafloratos, CEO & founder, Numan said: “This funding is a significant milestone on our journey to help millions of men be healthier. White Star Capital is one of the best investors in our space, and I’m delighted to be working together along with a wider team of brilliant investors.”

Speaking to me over a call, Papafloratos added that despite there being a lot of competition in the space “this is not a winner-takes-all-market. We have 25 languages on the team so we understand the market, patients, regulation, we understand it more in-depth than many competitors.”

Eric Martineau-Fortin, Founder and Managing Partner, White Star Capital: “Men’s health has been under-served by traditional services and needs innovative businesses to break down barriers and ensure taboos don’t prevent men from being happy and healthy. Numan’s digital offering helps men take charge of their health discreetly and decisively. We’re incredibly excited by Sokratis and his team, and look forward to working with them as they grow.”

#ceo, #digital-health, #digital-healthcare, #erectile-dysfunction, #europe, #healthcare, #managing-partner, #musicians, #numan, #sokratis-papafloratos, #sweden, #tc, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #white-star-capital

UK dials up the spin on data reform, claiming ‘simplified’ rules will drive ‘responsible’ data sharing

The U.K. government has announced a consultation on plans to shake up the national data protection regime, as it looks at how to diverge from European Union rules following Brexit.

It’s also a year since the U.K. published a national data strategy in which said it wanted pandemic levels of data sharing to become Britain’s new normal.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCPS) has today trailed an incoming reform of the information commissioner’s office — saying it wants to broaden the ICO’s remit to “champion sectors and businesses that are using personal data in new, innovative and responsible ways to benefit people’s lives”; and promising “simplified” rules to encourage the use of data for research which “benefit’s people’s lives”, such as in the field of healthcare.

It also wants a new structure for the regulator — including the creation of an independent board and chief executive for the ICO, to mirror the governance structures of other regulators such as the Competition and Markets Authority, Financial Conduct Authority and Ofcom.

Additionally, it said the data reform consultation will consider how the new regime can help mitigate the risks around algorithmic bias — something the EU is already moving to legislate on, setting out a risk-based proposal for regulating applications of AI back in April.

Which means the U.K. risks being left lagging if it’s only going to concern itself with a narrow focus on “bias mitigation”, rather than considering the wider sweep of how AI is intersecting with and influencing its citizens’ lives.

In a press release announcing the consultation, DCMS highlights an artificial intelligence partnership involving Moorfields Eye Hospital and the University College London Institute of Ophthalmology, which kicked off back in 2016, as an example of the kinds of beneficial data sharing it wants to encourage. Last year the researchers reported that their AI had been able to predict the development of wet age-related macular degeneration more accurately than clinicians.

The partnership also involved (Google-owned) DeepMind and now Google Health — although the government’s PR doesn’t make mention of the tech giant’s involvement. It’s an interesting omission, given that DeepMind’s name is also attached to a notorious U.K. patient data-sharing scandal, which saw another London-based NHS Trust (the Royal Free) sanctioned by the ICO, in 2017, for improperly sharing patient data with the Google-owned company during the development phase of a clinician support app (which Google is now in the process of discontinuing).

DCMS may be keen to avoid spelling out that its goal for the data reforms — aka to “remove unnecessary barriers to responsible data use” — could end up making it easier for commercial entities like Google to get their hands on U.K. citizens’ medical records.

The sizeable public backlash over the most recent government attempt to requisition NHS users’ medical records — for vaguely defined “research” purposes (aka the “General Practice Data for Planning and Research”, or GPDPR, scheme) — suggests that a government-enabled big-health-data-free-for-all might not be so popular with U.K. voters.

“The government’s data reforms will provide clarity around the rules for the use of personal data for research purposes, laying the groundwork for more scientific and medical breakthroughs,” is how DCMS’ PR skirts the sensitive health data sharing topic.

Elsewhere there’s talk of “reinforc[ing] the responsibility of businesses to keep personal information safe, while empowering them to grow and innovate” — so that sounds like a yes to data security but what about individual privacy and control over what happens to your information?

The government seems to be saying that will depend on other aims — principally economic interests attached to the U.K.’s ability to conduct data-driven research or secure trade deals with other countries that don’t have the same (current) high U.K. standards of data protection.

There are some purely populist flourishes here too — with DCMS couching its ambition for a data regime “based on common sense, not box ticking” — and flagging up plans to beef up penalties for nuisance calls and text messages. Because, sure, who doesn’t like the sound of a crackdown on spam?

Except spam text messages and nuisance calls are a pretty quaint concern to zero in on in an era of apps and data-driven, democracy-disrupting mass surveillance — which was something the outgoing information commissioner raised as a major issue of concern during her tenure at the ICO.

The same populist anti-spam messaging has already been deployed by ministers to attack the need to obtain internet users’ consent for dropping tracking cookies — which the digital minister Oliver Dowden recently suggested he wants to do away with — for all but “high risk” purposes.

Having a system of rights wrapping people’s data that gives them a say over (and a stake in) how it can be used appears to be being reframed in the government’s messaging as irresponsible or even non-patriotic — with DCMS pushing the notion that such rights stand in the way of more important economic or highly generalized “social” goals.

Not that it has presented any evidence for that — or even that the U.K.’s current data protection regime got in the way of (the very ample) data sharing during COVID-19… While negative uses of people’s information are being condensed in DCMS’ messaging to the narrowest possible definition — of spam that’s visible to an individual — never mind how that person got targeted with the nuisance calls/spam texts in the first place.

The government is taking its customary “cake and eat it” approach to spinning its reform plan — claiming it will both “protect” people’s data while also trumpeting the importance of making it really easy for citizens’ information to be handed off to anyone who wants it, so long as they can claim they’re doing some kind of “innovation”, while also larding its PR with canned quotes dubbing the plan “bold” and “ambitious”.

So while DCMS’ announcement says the reform will “maintain” the U.K.’s (currently) world-leading data protection standards, it directly rows back — saying the new regime will (merely) “build on” a few broad-brush “key elements” of the current rules (specifically it says it will keep “principles around data processing, people’s data rights and mechanisms for supervision and enforcement”).

Clearly the devil will be in the detail of the proposals which are due to be published tomorrow morning. So expect more analysis to debunk the spin soon.

But in one specific trailed change DCMS says it wants to move away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to data protection compliance — and “allow organisations to demonstrate compliance in ways more appropriate to their circumstances, while still protecting citizens’ personal data to a high standard”.

That implies that smaller data-mining operations — DCMS’s PR uses the example of a hairdresser’s but plenty of startups can employ fewer staff than the average barber’s shop — may be able to expect to get a pass to ignore those ‘high standards’ in the future.

Which suggests the U.K.’s “high standards” may, under Dowden’s watch, end up resembling more of a Swiss Cheese…

Data protection is a “how to, not a don’t do”…

The man who is likely to become the U.K.’s next information commissioner, New Zealand’s privacy commissioner John Edwards, was taking questions from a parliamentary committee earlier today, as MPs considered whether to support his appointment to the role.

If he’s confirmed in the job, Edwards will be responsible for implementing whatever new data regime the government cooks up.

Under questioning, he rejected the notion that the U.K.’s current data protection regime presents a barrier to data sharing — arguing that laws like GDPR should rather be seen as a “how to” and an “enabler” for innovation.

“I would take issue with the dichotomy that you presented [about privacy vs data-sharing],” he told the committee chair. “I don’t believe that policymakers and businesses and governments are faced with a choice of share or keep faith with data protection. Data protection laws and privacy laws would not be necessary if it wasn’t necessary to share information. These are two sides of the same coin.

“The UK DPA [data protection act] and UK GDPR they are a ‘how to’ — not a ‘don’t do’. And I think the UK and many jurisdictions have really finally learned that lesson through the COVID-19 crisis. It has been absolutely necessary to have good quality information available, minute by minute. And to move across different organizations where it needs to go, without friction. And there are times when data protection laws and privacy laws introduce friction and I think that what you’ve seen in the UK is that when it needs to things can happen quickly.”

He also suggested that plenty of economic gains could be achieved for the U.K. with some minor tweaks to current rules, rather than a more radical reboot being necessary. (Though clearly setting the rules won’t be up to him; his job will be enforcing whatever new regime is decided.)

“If we can, in the administration of a law which at the moment looks very much like the UK GDPR, that gives great latitude for different regulatory approaches — if I can turn that dial just a couple of points that can make the difference of billions of pounds to the UK economy and thousands of jobs so we don’t need to be throwing out the statute book and starting again — there is plenty of scope to be making improvements under the current regime,” he told MPs. “Let alone when we start with a fresh sheet of paper if that’s what the government chooses to do.”

TechCrunch asked another Edwards (no relation) — Newcastle University’s Lilian Edwards, professor of law, innovation and society — for her thoughts on the government’s direction of travel, as signalled by DCMS’ pre-proposal-publication spin, and she expressed similar concerns about the logic driving the government to argue it needs to rip up the existing standards.

“The entire scheme of data protection is to balance fundamental rights with the free flow of data. Economic concerns have never been ignored, and the current scheme, which we’ve had in essence since 1998, has struck a good balance. The great things we did with data during COVID-19 were done completely legally — and with no great difficulty under the existing rules — so that isn’t a reason to change them,” she told us.

She also took issue with the plan to reshape the ICO “as a quango whose primary job is to ‘drive economic growth’ ” — pointing out that DCMS’ PR fails to include any mention of privacy or fundamental rights, and arguing that “creating an entirely new regulator isn’t likely to do much for the ‘public trust’ that’s seen as declining in almost every poll.”

She also suggested the government is glossing over the real economic damage that would hit the U.K. if the EU decides its “reformed” standards are no longer essentially equivalent to the bloc’s. “[It’s] hard to see much concern for adequacy here; which will, for sure, be reviewed, to our detriment — prejudicing 43% of our trade for a few low value trade deals and some hopeful sell offs of NHS data (again, likely to take a wrecking ball to trust judging by the GPDPR scandal).”

She described the goal of regulating algorithmic bias as “applaudable” — but also flagged the risk of the U.K. falling behind other jurisdictions which are taking a broader look at how to regulate artificial intelligence.

Per DCMS’ press release, the government seems to be intending for an existing advisory body, called the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), to have a key role in supporting its policymaking in this area — saying that the body will focus on “enabling trustworthy use of data and AI in the real-world”. However it has still not appointed a new CDEI chair to replace Roger Taylor — with only an interim chair appointment (and some new advisors) announced today.

“The world has moved on since CDEI’s work in this area,” argued Edwards. “We realise now that regulating the harmful effects of AI has to be considered in the round with other regulatory tools not just data protection. The proposed EU AI Regulation is not without flaw but goes far further than data protection in mandating better quality training sets, and more transparent systems to be built from scratch. If the UK is serious about regulating it has to look at the global models being floated but right now it looks like its main concerns are insular, short-sighted and populist.”

Patient data privacy advocacy group MedConfidential, which has frequently locked horns with the government over its approach to data protection, also queried DCMS’ continued attachment to the CDEI for shaping policymaking in such a crucial area — pointing to last year’s biased algorithm exam grading scandal, which happened under Taylor’s watch.

(NB: Taylor was also the Ofqual chair, and his resignation from that post in December cited a “difficult summer”, even as his departure from the CDEI leaves an awkward hole now… )

“The culture and leadership of CDEI led to the A-Levels algorithm, why should anyone in government have any confidence in what they say next?” said MedConfidential’s Sam Smith.

#artificial-intelligence, #data-processing, #dcms, #deep-learning, #deepmind, #europe, #google, #google-health, #healthcare, #information-commissioners-office, #john-edwards, #moorfields-eye-hospital, #nhs, #oliver-dowden, #policy, #privacy, #uk-gdpr, #uk-government, #united-kingdom

Roku’s first original film continues NBC’s canceled series ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’

Roku’s expansion into original content continues with news that the streaming platform and device maker will debut its first original feature-length film during the 2021 holiday season. In partnership with Lionsgate, Roku announced it will introduce a movie based on the Emmy-winning TV series “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” which will air on its free streaming hub, The Roku Channel later this year.

The new movie, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas,” will continue where the series left off following its season 2 finale and series cancellation, which had upset fans who had taken to social media in hopes of saving the show by finding it a new home. Roku, as it turns out, is that home — not only will it air the new film, it will also make all 25 episodes of the series available to stream for free on The Roku Channel in the U.S. later this fall.

The feature film, meanwhile, begins production this month in Vancouver, and will see a number of actors reprising their roles, including Jane Levy, Skylar Astin, Alex Newell, John Clarence Stewart, Andrew Leeds, Alice Lee, Michael Thomas Grant, Kapil Talwalkar, David St. Louis, Mary Steenburgen, Peter Gallagher, and Bernadette Peters. Details of the film’s plot are still limited, however, noting only that it will be a continuation of Zoey’s journey as she “navigates work, family, love and everything in between.”

While a significant move for fans who simply wanted more of their favorite show, it’s a bigger step forward for Roku and its original content strategy. The company had already tested consumers’ appetite for original series by acquiring the content catalog from the short-lived streaming service Quibi earlier this year, whose shows then launched to The Roku Channel as the company’s first set of Roku Originals. The debut lineup included 30 titles, but Roku is continuing to roll out more shows as the year progresses. Last month, for instance, it released 23 more of those shows to its collection.  The company also recently decided to reinvest in at least one previously Quibi-owned series by greenlighting a second season of “Most Dangerous Game.

But until now, Roku has not invested in full-length movies.

Movies make a good fit for The Roku Channel, of course, as the free streaming is supported by advertising — and movies, due to their length, offer more ad slots to be filled. In fact, The Roku Channel got its start as free movies hub, before later expanding to include TV shows and other types of content, like news and sports.

So far, Roku’s original programming seems to be connecting with viewers. The company says its top 5 streamed TV shows this summer (May 20-July 18) were all Roku Originals.

The new film is produced by Lionsgate in association with the Tannenbaum Company, Feigco Entertainment, and Universal Music Group’s Polygram Entertainment and Zihuatenejo Productions. The series creator Austin Winsberg will write and executive produce. Richard Shepard, who filmed the show’s pilot, will direct. Kim Tannenbaum, Eric Tannenbaum, Paul Feig, David Blackman, and Daniel Inkeles will also serve as executive producers.

The movie will air on The Roku Channel during the holidays in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.

#canada, #christmas, #internet-radio, #internet-television, #lionsgate, #mass-media, #media, #now, #roku, #social-media, #streaming, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #universal-music-group, #vancouver, #zoeys-extraordinary-playlist

Nuula raises $120M to build out a financial services ‘superapp’ aimed at SMBs

A Canadian startup called Nuula that is aiming to build a superapp to provide a range of financial services to small and medium businesses has closed $120 million of funding, money that it will use to fuel the launch of its app and first product, a line of credit for its users.

The money is coming in the form of $20 million in equity from Edison Partners, and a $100 million credit facility from funds managed by the Credit Group of Ares Management Corporation.

The Nuula app has been in a limited beta since June of this year. The plan is to open it up to general availability soon, while also gradually bringing in more services, some built directly by Nuula itself and but many others following an embedded finance strategy: business banking, for example, will be a service provided by a third party and integrated closely into the Nuula app to be launched early in 2022; and alongside that, the startup will also be making liberal use of APIs to bring in other white-label services such as B2B and customer-focused payment services, starting first in the U.S. and then expanding to Canada and the U.K. before further countries across Europe.

Current products include cash flow forecasting, personal and business credit score monitoring, and customer sentiment tracking; and monitoring of other critical metrics including financial, payments and eCommerce data are all on the roadmap.

“We’re building tools to work in a complementary fashion in the app,” CEO Mark Ruddock said in an interview. “Today, businesses can project if they are likely to run out of money, and monitor their credit scores. We keep an eye on customers and what they are saying in real time. We think it’s necessary to surface for SMBs the metrics that they might have needed to get from multiple apps, all in one place.”

Nuula was originally a side-project at BFS, a company that focused on small business lending, where the company started to look at the idea of how to better leverage data to build out a wider set of services addressing the same segment of the market. BFS grew to be a substantial business in its own right (and it had raised its own money to that end, to the tune of $184 million from Edison and Honeywell).  Over time, it became apparent to management that the data aspect, and this concept of a super app, would be key to how to grow the business, and so it pivoted and rebranded earlier this year, launching the beta of the app after that.

Nuula’s ambitions fall within a bigger trend in the market. Small and medium enterprises have shaped up to be a huge business opportunity in the world of fintech in the last several years. Long ignored in favor of building solutions either for the giant consumer market, or the lucrative large enterprise sector, SMBs have proven that they want and are willing to invest in better and newer technology to run their businesses, and that’s leading to a rush of startups and bigger tech companies bringing services to the market to cater to that.

Super apps are also a big area of interest in the world of fintech, although up to now a lot of what we’ve heard about in that area has been aimed at consumers — just the kind of innovation rut that Nuula is trying to get moving.

“Despite the growth in services addressing the SMB sector, overall it still lacks innovation compared to consumer or enterprise services,” Ruddock said. “We thought there was some opportunity to bring new thinking to the space. We see this as the app that SMBs will want to use everyday, because we’ll provide useful tools, insights and capital to power their businesses.”

Nuula’s priority to build the data services that connect all of this together is very much in keeping with how a lot of neobanks are also developing services and investing in what they see as their unique selling point. The theory goes like this: banking services are, at the end of the day, the same everywhere you go, and therefore commoditized, and so the more unique value-added for companies will come from innovating with more interesting algorithms and other data-based insights and analytics to give more power to their users to make the best use of what they have at their disposal.

It will not be alone in addressing that market. Others building fintech for SMBs include Selina, ANNA, Amex’s Kabbage (an early mover in using big data to help loan money to SMBs and build other financial services for them), Novo, Atom Bank, Xepelin, and Liberis, biggies like Stripe, Square and PayPal, and many others.

The credit product that Nuula has built so far is a taster of how it hopes to be a useful tool for SMBs, not just another place to get money or manage it. It’s not a direct loaning service, but rather something that is closely linked to monitoring a customers’ incomings and outgoings and only prompts a credit line (which directly links into the users’ account, wherever it is) when it appears that it might be needed.

“Innovations in financial technology have largely democratized who can become the next big player in small business finance,” added Gary Golding, General Partner, Edison Partners. “By combining critical financial performance tools and insights into a single interface, Nuula represents a new class of financial services technology for small business, and we are excited by the potential of the firm.”

“We are excited to be working with Nuula as they build a unique financial services resource for small businesses and entrepreneurs,” said Jeffrey Kramer, Partner and Head of ABS in the Alternative Credit strategy of the Ares Credit Group, in a statement. “The evolution of financial technology continues to open opportunities for innovation and the emergence of new industry participants. We look forward to seeing Nuula’s experienced team of technologists, data scientists and financial service veterans bring a new generation of small business financial services solutions to market.”

#articles, #atom-bank, #banking, #business, #canada, #ceo, #economy, #edison-partners, #enterprise, #entrepreneurship, #europe, #financial-services, #financial-technology, #fintech, #funding, #general-partner, #head, #honeywell, #innovation, #kabbage, #nuula, #paypal, #smb, #sme, #stripe, #united-kingdom, #united-states

Two UK tech figures plan to row the Atlantic for charity supporting minority entrepreneurs

Two UK tech figures are to row across the Atlantic Ocean to raise money for a charity that funds social entrepreneurs from minority backgrounds.

Guy Rigby, founder and now Chair of the Entrepreneurial Services Group at Smith & Williamson, and entrepreneur, investor David Murray will raise money for UnLtd which has supported over 15,000 social entrepreneurs in the UK.

The pair have so far secured around £350,000 for UnLtd, with support from the UK’s Tech Nation, Founders Forum, and London Tech Week. You can donate to their fund-raising efforts on the ‘The Entrepreneur Ship’ here., will also be part of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. Other tech orgs are invited to sponsor their efforts.

UnLtd has previously backed startup firms including Patchwork Hub which built an accessible employment platform run by disabled people, as well as EduKit, which developed an app to help school staff understand and address the mental health needs of their students.

Over the last year, UnLtd supported 662 social entrepreneurs, 42% of whom identified as being from a Black, Asian, or minority ethnic background and/or having a disability.

Rigby and Murray will row the 3,000 miles in December 2021 from the Canaries to Antigua, which they hope to reach in February 2022, rowing individually, 2 hours on, 2 hours off, around the clock for the duration of the crossing.

#articles, #business, #economy, #entrepreneur, #entrepreneurship, #europe, #social-entrepreneurship, #startup-company, #tc, #united-kingdom

‘Thin file’ loans startup Koyo closes $50M Series A led by Force Over Mass

Koyo, a fintech startup using open banking to offer loans to people with poor credit histories, has closed a Series A funding round of $50m in debt and equity led by Force Over Mass, with participation from existing investors Forward Partners, Frontline Ventures and Seedcamp. New investors in Koyo include Force Over Mass, Matt Robinson (founder of GoCardless, founder of Nested), and angel investors from the banking and lending sectors.  It last raised $4.9 million in 2019. With many sectors of the population having racked up debts during the pandemic, Koyo is likely to benefit from this underclass of consumer, normally rejected by the main loans companies.

The startup says it uses Open Banking data (bank transactions), rather than credit agency scores to underwrite risk for lending to consumers. In other words, it looks at how customers spend their money on a day-to-day basis, rather than what a credit agency says about them. The idea is to offer attractive rates and cheaper borrowing to a usually underserved market, usually known as ‘thin file’ customers (short or no credit history) or ‘near prime’ customers. The near-prime market equates to c13-15m people in the UK.

Thomas Olszewski, Koyo’s founder and a former VC with Frontline Ventures in London and Cavalry Ventures in Berlin, said in a statement: “Koyo launched at the start of the global pandemic and has proven that innovative use of open banking data results in better risk decisioning and ultimately has enabled us to grow the business during one of the toughest economic times the UK has faced. I’m proud to have continued to give many people in the UK access to competitively priced credit, during a time where most traditional lenders were quick to scale back their lending.”

Filip Coen, Force Over Mass partner, said, “We invest in companies that combine transformational technology with strong business models, and Koyo indexed strongly in both of those departments. Koyo has built a first-class foundation over the last 18 months of operation, and we’re excited to be part of its future”.

#bank, #banking, #berlin, #cavalry-ventures, #economy, #europe, #fintech-startup, #forward-partners, #founder, #frontline-ventures, #gocardless, #koyo, #london, #massachusetts, #matt-robinson, #nested, #open-banking, #seedcamp, #tc, #united-kingdom

UK offers cash for CSAM detection tech targeted at e2e encryption

The UK government is preparing to spend over half a million dollars to encourage the development of detection technologies for child sexual exploitation material (CSAM) that can be bolted on to end-to-end encrypted messaging platforms to scan for the illegal material, as part of its ongoing policy push around Internet and child safety.

In a joint initiative today, the Home Office and the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) announced a “Tech Safety Challenge Fund” — which will distribute up to £425,000 (~$584k) to five organizations (£85k/$117k each) to develop “innovative technology to keep children safe in environments such as online messaging platforms with end-to-end encryption”.

A Challenge statement for applicants to the program adds that the focus is on solutions that can be deployed within e2e encrypted environments “without compromising user privacy”.

“The problem that we’re trying to fix is essentially the blindfolding of law enforcement agencies,” a Home Office spokeswoman told us, arguing that if tech platforms go ahead with their “full end-to-end encryption plans, as they currently are… we will be completely hindered in being able to protect our children online”.

While the announcement does not name any specific platforms of concern, Home Secretary Priti Patel has previously attacked Facebook’s plans to expand its use of e2e encryption — warning in April that the move could jeopardize law enforcement’s ability to investigate child abuse crime.

Facebook-owned WhatsApp also already uses e2e encryption so that platform is already a clear target for whatever ‘safety’ technologies might result from this taxpayer-funded challenge.

Apple’s iMessage and FaceTime are among other existing mainstream messaging tools which use e2e encryption.

So there is potential for very widespread application of any ‘child safety tech’ developed through this government-backed challenge. (Per the Home Office, technologies submitted to the Challenge will be evaluated by “independent academic experts”. The department was unable to provide details of who exactly will assess the projects.)

Patel, meanwhile, is continuing to apply high level pressure on the tech sector on this issue — including aiming to drum up support from G7 counterparts.

Writing in paywalled op-ed in Tory-friendly newspaper, The Telegraph, she trails a meeting she’ll be chairing today where she says she’ll push the G7 to collectively pressure social media companies to do more to address “harmful content on their platforms”.

“The introduction of end-to-end encryption must not open the door to even greater levels of child sexual abuse. Hyperbolic accusations from some quarters that this is really about governments wanting to snoop and spy on innocent citizens are simply untrue. It is about keeping the most vulnerable among us safe and preventing truly evil crimes,” she adds.

“I am calling on our international partners to back the UK’s approach of holding technology companies to account. They must not let harmful content continue to be posted on their platforms or neglect public safety when designing their products. We believe there are alternative solutions, and I know our law enforcement colleagues agree with us.”

In the op-ed, the Home Secretary singles out Apple’s recent move to add a CSAM detection tool to iOS and macOS to scan content on user’s devices before it’s uploaded to iCloud — welcoming the development as a “first step”.

“Apple state their child sexual abuse filtering technology has a false positive rate of 1 in a trillion, meaning the privacy of legitimate users is protected whilst those building huge collections of extreme child sexual abuse material are caught out. They need to see th[r]ough that project,” she writes, urging Apple to press ahead with the (currently delayed) rollout.

Last week the iPhone maker said it would delay implementing the CSAM detection system — following a backlash led by security experts and privacy advocates who raised concerns about vulnerabilities in its approach, as well as the contradiction of a ‘privacy-focused’ company carrying out on-device scanning of customer data. They also flagged the wider risk of the scanning infrastructure being seized upon by governments and states who might order Apple to scan for other types of content, not just CSAM.

Patel’s description of Apple’s move as just a “first step” is unlikely to do anything to assuage concerns that once such scanning infrastructure is baked into e2e encrypted systems it will become a target for governments to widen the scope of what commercial platforms must legally scan for.

However the Home Office’s spokeswoman told us that Patel’s comments on Apple’s CSAM tech were only intended to welcome its decision to take action in the area of child safety — rather than being an endorsement of any specific technology or approach. (And Patel does also write: “But that is just one solution, by one company. Greater investment is essential.”)

The Home Office spokeswoman wouldn’t comment on which types of technologies the government is aiming to support via the Challenge fund, either, saying only that they’re looking for a range of solutions.

She told us the overarching goal is to support ‘middleground’ solutions — denying the government is trying to encourage technologists to come up with ways to backdoor e2e encryption.

In recent years in the UK GCHQ has also floated the controversial idea of a so-called ‘ghost protocol’ — that would allow for state intelligence or law enforcement agencies to be invisibly CC’d by service providers into encrypted communications on a targeted basis. That proposal was met with widespread criticism, including from the tech industry, which warned it would undermine trust and security and threaten fundamental rights.

It’s not clear if the government has such an approach — albeit with a CSAM focus — in mind here now as it tries to encourage the development of ‘middleground’ technologies that are able to scan e2e encrypted content for specifically illegal stuff.

In another concerning development, earlier this summer, guidance put out by DCMS for messaging platforms recommended that they “prevent” the use of e2e encryption for child accounts altogether.

Asked about that, the Home Office spokeswoman told us the tech fund is “not too different” and “is trying to find the solution in between”.

“Working together and bringing academics and NGOs into the field so that we can find a solution that works for both what social media companies want to achieve and also make sure that we’re able to protect children,” said said, adding: “We need everybody to come together and look at what they can do.”

There is not much more clarity in the Home Office guidance to suppliers applying for the chance to bag a tranche of funding.

There it writes that proposals must “make innovative use of technology to enable more effective detection and/or prevention of sexually explicit images or videos of children”.

“Within scope are tools which can identify, block or report either new or previously known child sexual abuse material, based on AI, hash-based detection or other techniques,” it goes on, further noting that proposals need to address “the specific challenges posed by e2ee environments, considering the opportunities to respond at different levels of the technical stack (including client-side and server-side).”

General information about the Challenge — which is open to applicants based anywhere, not just in the UK — can be found on the Safety Tech Network website.

The deadline for applications is October 6.

Selected applicants will have five months, between November 2021 and March 2022 to deliver their projects.

When exactly any of the tech might be pushed at the commercial sector isn’t clear — but the government may be hoping that by keeping up the pressure on the tech sector platform giants will develop this stuff themselves, as Apple has been.

The Challenge is just the latest UK government initiative to bring platforms in line with its policy priorities — back in 2017, for example, it was pushing them to build tools to block terrorist content — and you could argue it’s a form of progress that ministers are not simply calling for e2e encryption to be outlawed, as they frequently have in the past.

That said, talk of ‘preventing’ the use of e2e encryption — or even fuzzy suggestions of “in between” solutions — may not end up being so very different.

What is different is the sustained focus on child safety as the political cudgel to make platforms comply. That seems to be getting results.

Wider government plans to regulate platforms — set out in a draft Online Safety bill, published earlier this year — have yet to go through parliamentary scrutiny. But in one already baked in change, the country’s data protection watchdog is now enforcing a children’s design code which stipulates that platforms need to prioritize kids’ privacy by default, among other recommended standards.

The Age Appropriate Design Code was appended to the UK’s data protection bill as an amendment — meaning it sits under wider legislation that transposed Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) into law, which brought in supersized penalties for violations like data breaches. And in recent months a number of social media giants have announced changes to how they handle children’s accounts and data — which the ICO has credited to the code.

So the government may be feeling confident that it has finally found a blueprint for bringing tech giants to heel.

#apple, #csam, #csam-detection, #e2e-encryption, #encrypted-communications, #encryption, #end-to-end-encryption, #europe, #facebook, #g7, #general-data-protection-regulation, #home-office, #law-enforcement, #policy, #privacy, #social-media, #tc, #uk-government, #united-kingdom, #whatsapp

UK’s Marshmallow raises $85M on a $1.25B valuation for its more inclusive, big-data take on car insurance

Marshmallow — a U.K.-based car insurance provider that has made a name for itself in the market by providing a new approach to car insurance aimed at using a wider set of data points and clever algorithms to net a more diverse set of customers and provide more competitive rates — is announcing a milestone today in its life as a startup, as well as in the bigger U.K. tech world.

The London company — co-founded by identical twins Oliver and Alexander Kent-Braham and David Goaté — has raised $85 million in a new round of funding. The Series B valuation is significant on two counts: it catapults Marshmallow to a “unicorn” valuation above $1 billion — specifically, $1.25 billion; and Marshmallow itself becomes one of a very small group of U.K. startups founded by Black people — Oliver and Alexander — to reach that figure.

(To be clear, Marshmallow describes itself as “the first UK unicorn to be founded by individuals that are Black or have Black heritage”, although I can think of at least one that preceded it: WorldRemit, which last month rebranded to Zepz, is currently valued at $5 billion; co-founder and chairman Ismail Ahmed has been described as the most influential Black Briton.)

Regardless of whether Marshmallow is the first or one of the first, given the dearth of diversity in the UK technology industry, in particular in the upper ranks of it, it’s a notable detail worth pointing out, even as I hope that one day it will be less of a rarity.

Meanwhile, Marshmallow’s novel, big-data approach and successful traction in the market speak for themselves. When we covered the company’s most recent funding round before this — a $30 million raise in November 2020 — the startup was valued at $310 million. Now less than a year later, Marshmallow’s valuation has nearly quadrupled, and it has passed 100,000 policies sold in its home country, growing 100% over the last six months.

The plan now, Oliver told me in an interview, will be to deepen its relationships with customers, in part by providing more engagement to make them better drivers, but also potentially selling more services to them, too.

In this, the startup will be tapping into a new approach that other insurtech startups are taking as they rethink traditional insurance models, much like YuLife is positioning its life insurance products within a bigger wellness and personal improvement business. Currently, the average age of Marshmallow’s customers is 20 to 40, Oliver said — and there are thoughts of potentially new products aimed at even younger users. That means there is long-term value in improving loyalty and keeping those customers for many years to come.

Alongside that, Marshmallow will also use the funding to inch closer to its plan to expand to markets outside of the UK — a strategy that has been in the works for a while. Marshmallow talked up international expansion in its last round but has yet to announce which markets it will seek to tackle first.

Insurance — and in particular insurance startups — are often thought of together with fintech startups, not least because the two industries have a lot in common: they both operate in areas of assessing and mitigating risk and fraud; they are in many cases discretionary investments on the part of the customers; they are both highly regulated and require watertight data protection for their users.

Perhaps because so much of the hard work is the same for both, it’s not uncommon to see services built to serve both sectors (FintechOS and Shift Technology being two examples), for fintech companies to dabble in insurance services, and so on.

But in reality, insurance — and specifically car insurance — has seen a massive impact from Covid-19 unique to that industry. Separate reports from EY and the Association of British Insurers noted that 2020 actually saw a lift for many car insurance companies: lockdowns meant that fewer people were driving, and therefore fewer were getting into accidents and making less claims.

2021, however, has been a different story: new pricing rules being put into place will likely see a number of providers tip into the red for the year. And the Chartered Insurance Institute points out that will also be worth watching to see how the low use of cars in one year will impact use going forward: some car owners, especially in urban areas where keeping a car is expensive, will inevitably start to question whether they need to own and insure a car at all.

All of this, ironically, actually plays into the hand of a company like Marshmallow, which is providing a more flexible approach to customers who might otherwise be rejected by more traditional companies, or might be priced out of offerings from them. Interestingly, while neobanks have definitely spurred more traditional institutions to try to update their products to compete, the same hasn’t really happened in insurance — not yet, at least.

“We started with the idea of the power of data and using a wider range of resources [than incumbents], and using that in our pricing led us to be able to offer better rates to more people,” Oliver said, but that hasn’t led to Marshmallow seeing sharper competition from older incumbents. “They are big companies and stuck in their ways. These companies have been around for decades, some for centuries. Change is not happening quickly.”

That leaves a big opportunity for companies like Marshmallow and other newer players like Lemonade, Hippo and Jerry (not an insurance startup per se but also dabbling in the space), and a big opening for investors to back new ideas in an industry estimated to be worth $5 trillion.

“The traction the team has achieved demonstrates the demand for a new kind of insurance provider, one that focuses more on consumer experience and uses the latest technology and data to give fair prices,” said Eileen Burbidge, a partner at Passion Capital, in a statement. “We’ve been proud to support the team’s ambitions since the start, and now look forward to its next chapter in Europe as it continues its mission to change the industry for the better.”

#articles, #automotive, #car-insurance, #eileen-burbidge, #entrepreneurship, #europe, #finance, #financial-technology, #funding, #hippo, #insurance, #ismail-ahmed, #jerry, #life-insurance, #london, #marshmallow, #money, #oliver, #private-equity, #shift-technology, #startup-company, #tc, #unicorn, #united-kingdom, #worldremit

Driven by live streams, consumer spending in social apps to hit $17.2B in 2025

The live streaming boom is driving a significant uptick in the creator economy, as a new forecast estimates consumers will spend $6.78 billion in social apps in 2021. That figure will grow to $17.2 billion annually by 2025, according to data from mobile data firm App Annie, which notes the upward trend represents a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 29%. By that point, the lifetime total spend in social apps will reach $78 billion, the firm reports.

Image Credits: App Annie

Initially, much of the livestream economy was based on one-off purchases like sticker packs, but today, consumers are gifting content creators directly during their live streams. Some of these donations can be incredibly high, at times. Twitch streamer ExoticChaotic was gifted $75,000 during a live session on Fortnite, which was one of the largest ever donations on the game streaming social network. Meanwhile, App Annie notes another platform, Bigo Live, is enabling broadcasters to earn up to $24,000 per month through their live streams.

Apps that offer live streaming as a prominent feature are also those that are driving the majority of today’s social app spending, the report says. In the first half of this year, $3 out every $4 spend in the top 25 social apps came from apps that offered live streams, for example.

Image Credits: App Annie

During the first half of 2021, the U.S. become the top market for consumer spending inside social apps with 1.7x the spend of the next largest market, Japan, and representing 30% of the market by spend. China, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea followed to round out the top 5.

Image Credits: App Annie

While both creators and the platforms are financially benefitting from the live streaming economy, the platforms are benefitting in other ways beyond their commissions on in-app purchases. Live streams are helping to drive demand for these social apps and they help to boost other key engagement metrics, like time spent in app.

One top app that’s significantly gaining here is TikTok.

Last year, TikTok surpassed YouTube in the U.S. and the U.K. in terms of the average monthly time spent per user. It often continues to lead in the former market, and more decisively leads in the latter.

Image Credits: App Annie

Image Credits: App Annie

In other markets, like South Korea and Japan, TikTok is making strides, but YouTube still leads by a wide margin. (In South Korea, YouTube leads by 2.5x, in fact.)

Image Credits: App Annie

Beyond just TikTok, consumers spent 740 billion hours in social apps in the first half of the year, which is equal to 44% of the time spent on mobile globally. Time spent in these apps has continued to trend upwards over the years, with growth that’s up 30% in the first half of 2021 compared to the same period in 2018.

Today, the apps that enable live streaming are outpacing those that focus on chat, photo or video. This is why companies like Instagram are now announcing dramatic shifts in focus, like how they’re “no longer a photo sharing app.” They know they need to more fully shift to video or they will be left behind.

The total time spent in the top five social apps that have an emphasis on live streaming are now set to surpass half a trillion hours on Android phones alone this year, not including China. That’s a three-year CAGR of 25% versus just 15% for apps in the Chat and Photo & Video categories, App Annie noted.

Image Credits: App Annie

Thanks to growth in India, the Asia-Pacific region now accounts for 60% of the time spent in social apps. As India’s growth in this area increased over the past 3.5 years, it shrunk the gap between itself and China from 115% in 2018 to just 7% in the first half of this year.

Social app downloads are also continuing to grow, due to the growth in live streaming.

To date, consumers have downloaded social apps 74 billion times and that demand remains strong, with 4.7 billion downloads in the first half of 2021 alone — up 50% year-over-year. In the first half of the year, Asia was the largest region region for social app downloads, accounting for 60% of the market.

This is largely due to India, the top market by a factor of 5x, which surpassed the U.S. back in 2018. India is followed by the U.S., Indonesia, Brazil and China, in terms of downloads.

Image Credits: App Annie

The shift towards live streaming and video has also impacted what sort of apps consumers are interested in downloading, not just the number of downloads.

A chart that show the top global apps from 2012 to the present highlights Facebook’s slipping grip. While its apps (Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and Facebook) have dominated the top spots over the years in various positions, TikTok popped into the number one position last year, and continues to maintain that ranking in 2021.

Further down the chart, other apps that aid in video editing have also overtaken others that had been more focused on photos or chat.

Image Credits: App Annie

Video apps like YouTube (#1), TikTok (#2) Tencent Video (#4), Bigo Live (#5), Twitch (#6), and others also now rank at the top of the global charts by consumer spending in the first half of 2021.

But YouTube (#1) still dominates in time spent compared with TikTok (#5), and others from Facebook — the company holds the next three spots for Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, respectively.

This could explain why TikTok is now exploring the idea of allowing users to upload even longer videos, by increasing the limit from 3 minutes to 5, for instance.

In addition, because of live streaming’s ability to drive growth in terms of time spent, it’s also likely the reason why TikTok has been heavily investing in new features for its TikTok LIVE platform, including things like events, support for co-hosts, Q&As and more, and why it made the “LIVE” button a more prominent feature in its app and user experience.

App Annie’s report also digs into the impact live streaming has had on specific platforms, like Twitch and Bigo Live, the former which doubled its monthly active user base from the pre-pandemic era, and the latter which saw $314.2 million in consumer spend during H1 2021.

“The ability of social media users to communicate with each other using live video – or watch others’ live broadcasts – has not only maintained the growth of a social media app market, but contributed to its exponential growth in engagement metrics like time spent, that might otherwise have saturated some time ago,” wrote App Annie’s Head of Insights, Lexi Sydow, when announcing the new report.

The full report is available here.

#android, #app-annie, #apps, #asia, #asia-pacific, #bigo-live, #brazil, #china, #computing, #facebook, #head, #india, #indonesia, #instagram, #japan, #media, #messenger, #mobile, #mobile-applications, #mobile-software, #operating-systems, #saudi-arabia, #social, #social-media, #software, #south-korea, #tiktok, #twitch, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #video, #video-hosting, #youtube

Women’s health tech brand, Elvie, tops up Series C to $97M

Elvie, the women’s health tech pioneer behind a connected breast pump and smart pelvic floor exerciser, has topped up a Series C which it announced earlier this summer (July) — adding a further £12.7m to bring the total raised to £70 million ($97m).

The 2013-founded, UK-based startup previously raised a $42M Series B in 2019, and a $6M Series A in 2017 — when femtech startups were a lot rarer than they are now. Products designed for (and often by) women have gained a lot of momentum over this period as female-led startups have blazed a trail and shown there’s a sizeable market for femtech — leading investors to slow clock on to the opportunity too.

Analysts now project the femtech industry will become a $50 billion market by 2025.

Elvie says the Series C extension includes funds sponsored by the co-founders of Blume Equity – a PE firm that focuses on the food and health sectors – plus further capital from existing investors IPGL, Hiro Capital and Westerly Winds.

In July, when it announced the earlier ($80M) tranche of the raise, Elvie said the Series C was led by BGF and BlackRock alongside existing investors including Octopus Ventures.

The Series C will be used to drive for more growth through geographical expansion (including entering new markets) and diversifying its product portfolio to target other “key stages” in women’s lives, it said.

That means it’ll be splashing out on R&D to support product development — connected hardware that blends physical gadgetry with software still looks to be a strong focus — and also on strengthening its ops and infrastructure to prep for further scale.

Elvie sells four products at this stage: Its connected kegel trainer, and a wearable breast pump (plus two non-electric pumps).

Where the company goes next in terms of product will be an interesting one to watch.

Commenting in a statement, Tania Boler, CEO and founder, said: “Elvie is ready for the next phase of our growth. We have already revolutionized the categories we operate in, but we know that there is vast untapped potential to create better technology products and services for women in new areas.”

She added that Elvie’s goal is to create “the go-to destination for women’s health at all life stages” — selling “sophisticated, accurate and personalised solutions” to its target female consumer.

#blackrock, #elvie, #europe, #femtech, #fundings-exits, #gadgets, #health, #medical-technology, #octopus-ventures, #startup-company, #tania-boler, #united-kingdom, #wearables, #womens-health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a lesson here, surely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#advertising-tech, #amazon, #california, #canada, #cookie-consent-notices, #cookie-fatigue, #cookies, #data-protection, #data-protection-law, #data-security, #do-not-track, #elizabeth-denham, #europe, #european-union, #france, #g7, #general-data-protection-regulation, #germany, #google, #ireland, #italy, #japan, #noyb, #oliver-dowden, #online-privacy, #online-tracking, #privacy, #tc, #tracking, #uk-government, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #web-tracking