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  • Grindr on the hook for €10M over GDPR consent violations
  • Grindr, a gay, bi, trans and queer hook-up app, is on the hook for a penalty of NOK100,000,000 (aka €10M or ~$12.1M) in Europe.

    Norway’s data protection agency has announced it’s notified the US-based company of its intention to issue the fine in relation to consent violations under the region’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which sets out strict conditions for processing people’s data.

    The size of the fine is notable. GDPR allows for fines to scale up to 4% of global annual turnover or up to €20M, whichever is higher. In this case Grindr is on the hook for around 10% of its annual revenue, per the DPA. (Although the sanction is not yet final; Grindr has until February 15 to submit a response before the Datatilsynet issues a final decision.)

    “We have notified Grindr that we intend to impose a fine of high magnitude as our findings suggest grave violations of the GDPR,” said Bjørn Erik Thon, DG of the agency, in a statement. “Grindr has 13.7 million active users, of which thousands reside in Norway. Our view is that these people have had their personal data shared unlawfully. An important objective of the GDPR is precisely to prevent take-it-or-leave-it ‘consents’. It is imperative that such practices cease.”

    Grindr has been contacted for comment.

    Last year a report by Norway’s Consumer Council (NCC) delved into the data sharing practices of a number of popular apps in categories such as dating and fertility. It found the majority of apps transmitted data to “unexpected third parties”, with users not clearly informed how their information was being used.

    Grindr was one of the apps featured in the NCC report. And the Council went on to file a complaint against the app with the national DPA, claiming unlawful sharing of users’ personal data with third parties for marketing purposes — including GPS location; user profile data; and the fact the user in question is on Grindr.

    Under the GDPR, an app user’s personal data may be legally shared if you obtain their consent to do so. However there are a set of clear standards for consent to be legal — meaning it must be informed, specific and freely given. The Datatilsynet found that Grindr had failed to meet this standard. 

    It said users of Grindr were forced to accept the privacy policy in its entirety — and were not asked if they wanted to consent with the sharing of their data to third parties.

    Additionally, it said sexual orientation could be inferred by a user’s presence on Grindr; and under regional law such sensitive ‘special category’ data carries an even higher standard of explicit consent before it can be shared (which, again, the Datatilsynet said Grindr failed to get from users).

    “Our preliminary conclusion is that Grindr needs consent to share these personal data and that Grindr’s consents were not valid. Additionally, we believe that the fact that someone is a Grindr user speaks to their sexual orientation, and therefore this constitutes special category data that merit particular protection,” it writes in a press release.

    “The Norwegian Data Protection Authority considers that this is a serious case,” added Thon. “Users were not able to exercise real and effective control over the sharing of their data. Business models where users are pressured into giving consent, and where they are not properly informed about what they are consenting to, are not compliant with the law.”

    The decision could have wider significance as a similar ‘forced consent’ complaint against Facebook is still open on the desk of Ireland’s data protection watchdog — despite being filed back in May 2018. For tech giants that have have set up a regional base in Ireland, and made an Irish entity legally responsible for processing EU citizens’ data, GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism has led to considerable delays in complaint enforcement.

    Grindr, meanwhile, changed how it obtains consent in April 2020 — and the proposed sanction deals with how it was handling this prior to then, from May 2018, when the GDPR came into force.

    “We have not to date assessed whether the subsequent changes comply with the GDPR,” the Datatilsynet adds.

    After its report last year, the NCC also filed complaints against five of the third parties who it found to be receiving data from Grindr: MoPub (owned by Twitter), Xandr (formerly known as AppNexus), OpenX Software, AdColony, and Smaato. The DPA notes that those cases are ongoing.

    Following the NCC report in January 2020, Twitter told us it had suspended Grindr’s MoPub account while it investigated the “sufficiency” of its consent mechanism. We’ve reached out to Twitter to ask whether it ever reinstated the account and will update this report with any response.

    European privacy campaign group noyb, which was involved in filing the strategic complaints against Grindr and the adtech companies, hailed the DPA’s decision to uphold the complaints — dubbing the size of the fine “enormous” (given Grindr only reported profits of just over $30M in 2019, meaning it’s facing losing about a third of that at one fell swoop).

    noyb also argues that Grindr’s switch to trying to claim legitimate interests to continue processing users’ data without obtaining their consent could result in further penalties for the company. 

    “This is in conflict with the decision of the Norwegian DPA, as it explicitly held that “any extensive disclosure … for marketing purposes should be based on the data subject’s consent“,” writes Ala Krinickytė, data protection lawyer at noyb, in a statement. The case is clear from the factual and legal side. We do not expect any successful objection by Grindr. However, more fines may be in the pipeline for Grindr as it lately claims an unlawful ‘legitimate interest’ to share user data with third parties — even without consent. Grindr may be bound for a second round.” 



    techcrunch.com

  • Atomico promotes SaaS and enterprise-focussed investor Ben Blume to partner
  • Atomico, the European venture capital fund that typically invests at Series A and Series B, has made a number of internal promotions, including making SaaS and enterprise-focussed investor Ben Blume a partner at the firm.

    The step up from principal to partner comes after 8 years spent at Atomico, which Blume first joined in 2013 as an associate. In 2017, he was promoted to principal and has built a reputation within the VC firm and beyond after leading an array of promising and successful investments.

    They include Spacemaker, a startup that has developed AI-supported software for urban development and was acquired by Autodesk late last year. He also led Atomico’s investments into Onna, and Automation Hero, where he currently sits on the board. In addition, he is said to have helped manage Atomico’s early backing of U.K. chip company Graphcore, and sourced the VC’s original Series A investment in recent unicorn Hinge Health, where he currently also serves as a board member.

    Prior to joining Atomico, he was a consultant at Bain & Company and a software engineer at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. He holds a first class BA in Computer Science from Queens’ College, Cambridge.

    Also being promoted are associates, Hillary Ball and Luca Eisenstecken, both stepping up to principal. Eisenstecken has supported Atomico’s investments into Infarm, MessageBird and Scoutbee. And Ball has supported investments into Masterclass and Framer, among others.



    techcrunch.com

  • A look at the soaring valuations of Rivian and Cruise with transportation VC Reilly Brennan
  • Perhaps more than most, Reilly Brennan loves cars and trucks. The native Michigander happily did grunt work for an automotive magazine as an undergrad at the University of Michigan before landing a gig as a trackside communications manager at General Motors, spending a few years as an editor and a general manager with an automotive publisher called NextScreen, then becoming a programming director for AOL’s automotive properties.

    His next role would be on the West Coast, as executive director of an automotive research program at Stanford, where Brennan continues to be a lecturer. Little surprise that soon after, a seed-stage fund began to make sense, too, and thus was born Trucks Venture Capital, which has since made dozens of bets out of a $20 million debut effort and is wrapping up a larger fund soon.

    Late last week, we talked with Brennan about two of the fastest-soaring valuations we’ve seen recently in the automotive sector: that of the electric vehicle company Rivian, which raised a giant new round last week at a nearly $30 billion post-money valuation, and Cruise Automation, which also raised a giant new round last week, and also at $30 billion valuation. (Along with some other interesting bets, Trucks managed to write an early check for Cruise before it was acquired in 2016 by GM, which maintains majority ownership of the company.)

    We wondered if even an auto aficionado might deem things a little bubbly. You can listen to that full conversation here. In the meantime, the excerpts below have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

    TC: Who are your investors in Trucks VC? Are they individuals? Are any auto manufacturers that are trying to get a look at nascent technologies?

    RB: We have some former execs from the car industry in the tech world, and a handful of family offices and definitely some large strategic companies. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you their names because I’ve signed documents that prevent me from doing that. But one of the cool things about our little Rolodex of [limited partners] is that our founders — when they want to come in and do something in transportation — it’s an easy doggie door into a lot of those entities, whether they’re people or businesses. One of the things I love about [the mix is] there’s probably no part of a vehicle, whether you’re talking about a car, truck, a bike, or a plane, that one of our investors couldn’t help out with.

    TC: Do you look to be the first money into your deals?

    RB: One of the interesting learnings I had in the first fund was, we were just trying to participate; we were just happy to be at the party. So we were participating in rounds that other people were leading, and our checks [from Fund I] were anywhere from $100,000 to a few thousand dollars.

    The new fund is designed to take advantage of leading rounds [because] halfway through our first fund, founders would ask us to lead rounds, and frankly, the fund wasn’t big enough to do that. Our new fund is really designed so we can lead seed rounds, and that’s what we do. We’ll lead or co-lead and sit on the board. Usually, we’re  owning about 10% to 12% of a company at seed.

    TC: One of Truck’s early checks went to Cruise, the self-driving car company that GM acquired for an amount that has variously been reported as more than $1 billion, as well as for closer to $500 million . . .

    RB: The Cruise investment, my [fellow general partners] Jeff and Kate made. I can’t tell you specifically what the acquisition price was, but it was pretty good. That being said, if you read about the valuation of Cruise now within General Motors, or that of another [self-driving] company we invested in, Nutonomy, which was acquired by [automotive supplier] Delphi [for $450 million in 2017] and is now essentially a company called Motional, they’re pretty high.

    I think a lot about those early exits because they validated the space, but I also think a lot of the early investors probably wish they had more ownership. I’m not saying they shouldn’t have sold. But you look at the valuation of Cruise and Motional today — if you put those two entities together — it’s more than the valuation of General Motors, or maybe Ford Motor Company.

    TC: But is Cruise’s valuation perhaps too high right now? They still have a very long lead time to making money.

    RB: I would agree with you that in the public market, it feels a little bubbly when it comes to electric vehicles and some of these ideas related to technology and auto. But I do think a lot of these companies look at the opportunity to automate things greater than just robo-taxis. Last year in particular provided good insight into how the logistics and delivery part of automation is probably on the nearer term horizon than robo-taxis and therefore more valuable.

    TC: How much have valuations been driven up by Tesla, whose valuation now dwarfs all the major car manufacturers?

    RB: One of the things the market appears to want is the simple story, and belief in Tesla is now highly aligned to [thinking that] this is just the way that transportation is going to be organized. It’s going to be a zero-emission vehicle that is highly connected and maybe attached to a consumer in a new way.

    You’re seeing the same with a lot of these pure-play EV companies, whether it’s [carmaker] Fisker doing a SPAC or the way that [carmaker] Neo is received in China. There’s this purity of their message.

    You can argue, successfully, that a lot of other companies have more engineering or a greater dealer network or more IP around a particular idea, but when it comes to the public market stuff, it really is about painting the picture in this one specific way that’s aligned with the future. And right now, the public markets really don’t like that composite, liberal arts approach to vehicle manufacturing; they really just want one thing that aligns very well with the future, which they believe is better electric vehicles.

    TC: This seemingly applies to the Detroit carmaker Rivian. What do you think of this company that’s valued at nearly $30 billion yet hasn’t yet sold a truck or SUV? You aren’t one of its investor. Does its valuation make sense to you?

    RB: From an engineering perspective, Rivian is probably one of the companies I respect most out of this new breed of manufacturers.

    Tens years ago, when they started, there were a lot of new supercar entrepreneurs who were trying to start something new, but they were always small batch ideas. Like, maybe you could get 100 people to buy one. But they weren’t really well-aligned with what consumers were buying, which is increasingly utilities and trucks. So Rivian’s approach, with the segment it’s going after, is really smart, and it has fantastic engineering. So I’m actually quite bullish on Rivian.

    In a year’s time, there will probably be two big events for Rivian. One, they will deliver the first batch of [electric delivery vans being built for investor] to Amazon, along with [other orders] to some of the early customers. It also wouldn’t surprise me if they’re public at some point in the next year.
    They haven’t told me that; just my own personal speculation here.

    TC: When you say it will go public, do you mean through a traditional IPO or maybe through a giant SPAC? Would what you guess?

    I bet that Rivian will probably do a traditional IPO, that’s my guess. But they could also do a SPAC at some point. [Either way] I think the public markets are going to be really interested in Rivian. I just think there’s really good stuff there.

    TC: Have you been able to test-drive its cars? Have you seen its tech up close? What makes you so confident that what Rivian is building is superior?

    RB: I think the point of view they have about the segments is really interesting In the U.S., they are going after two great-growing segments in the business, which is utilities and trucks where, by the way, there’s a lot of margin, and there’s nobody specifically going after those segments.

    The Rivian engineering that I speak about is really about the hires they’ve made and a lot of things they’ve done for years in advance of getting these vehicles ready. They’ve got a lot of amazing talent from big manufacturers. They made an unusual but really smart investment in a vehicle assembly facility that they purchased for relatively cheap years ago that was owned by Mitsubishi. And they put together all these components well in advance of anybody really even knowing about them, which is really smart.

    Obviously, there’s still a huge amount of risk. What I’m saying is not investment advice. I just think there’s a lot of interesting stuff there that’s head and shoulders above many of the other EV companies, where there’s not a lot of substance, to be candid.

    TC: My colleague Kirsten reported in December that Rivian is developing a network of charging stations along interstate highways and also at spots like hiking trails to accommodate who it imagines will be its customers. Does that make sense to you? Relatedly, how many different types of charging stations are we going to have in the world?

    [Regarding the location of its stations], it’s definitely a nice ingredient in the story they’re trying to tell, though I don’t think you’ll see a Rivian charger at the entry point of every national park. They’ll probably have access to other charging networks. One of the things we’re seeing in the U.S. is you have some of these dedicated networks like Tesla has, and then you have a lot of agnostic [stations], where you can plug in and charge in a lot of other places, and Rivian will likely take advantage of that. An open question would be whether Rivian builds its own [larger] dedicated network that has a lot of coverage, and I don’t know about that yet.

    The other component about Rivian that’s really fascinating is what they do for service and maintenance. I saw an open job that Rivian had a few months ago around remote diagnostics, and one of the bullet points of the job posting was that this job was really designed so that people didn’t have to go back to the dealership. [It begs the question of]: could you design experiences digitally,  as with [on-demand remote doctor visits], where you could potentially talk to somebody live, you could [have Rivian] assess the vehicle, or maybe walk you through a situation where you can fix something that would prevent a lot of the trips to dealer?

    If you consider the traditional dealer and OEM relationship, a lot of the ways that cars are designed is that they’re constantly having to go back to the dealer. Rivian’s point of view on that is really different, and that’s one of the other reasons it’s one to watch.



    techcrunch.com

  • Berlin’s Remagine secures $24M to finance high-growth and impact-led startups
  • Remagine, a financing platform offering banking services to high-growth companies with an ‘impact’ twist, has raised €20 million ($24M) in a Seed funding round. The Berlin-based startup has been operating in stealth mode, but already has 20 clients under its former brand name ‘Get Conscious Growth’. Its backers include former Global Head of Google Payment Jonathan Weiner and former COO of Venmo Michael Vaughn. Remagine’s lead investor is unmade but Techcrunch understands it comprises largely of debt financing.

    The fintech will specialize in offering revenue-based financing for high-growth and impact-led businesses, which tends to be more founder-friendly than equity or debt products, allowing them to quickly secure funding while staying in control of their business. Remagine will rollout business accounts in the coming months from its base in Germany, and plans to expand across Europe.

    While the fashion in fintech for a while now has been ‘Neo’ or ‘challenger’ banks, there is a new breed arriving: financing platforms. These offer banking services but also offer extra features aimed at new businesses. Another example is Rho in New York, which recently raised $15m.

    The ‘twist’ is that Remagine is going to aim at business with a ‘sustainable and impactful’ bent to their business model which might have a ‘positive social and environmental impact’. Remagine itself says it is also committing to impact-driven initiatives and will contribute 10% of its profits to impact causes.
     
    Founded by Julia M. Profeta Johansson and Sebastian Dienst, co-CEO Dienst said in a statement: “We believe capital and technology can be forces for good. When used together, they can be powerful tools that help shape the future. The challenge now is to shape it in a way that aligns people and planet with profit,” said “We believe that every business – big and small – can be more sustainable and impactful. Remagine has been created to help them achieve this.”
     
    Johansson added: “Having already provided financing to numerous companies, the funds raised will allow us to support many more startups towards more impact. With the upcoming launch of our accounts and cards, we’re excited to continue to grow the team, invest further in our products, and help create a world where money and business are forces for good.”
     
    Weiner said: “Sustainability and impact have become increasingly relevant for businesses over the past decade and today, research shows that nearly four-fifths of CEOs are planning to align their business strategy with social and environmental goals.. Remagine’s mission and business model enables founders to consider both their bottom line and their impact. This is the future of financing and we’re delighted to be a part of it.”
     
    Remagine’s products will include Team cards (unlimited separate cards for team members to improve expense management); Multi-IBANs; analytics; zero negative interest; and free accounts. It’s competitors include Finom and Penta, but these tend to focus more on SMEs rather than startups.



    techcrunch.com

  • SoftBank-backed travel platform Klook raises $200M amid COVID-19
  • Klook, the Hong Kong-based travel activities platform backed by SoftBank Vision Fund, announced the closure of $200 million in funding for its Series E round, lifting the startup’s total capital raised to date to $720 million.

    Aspex Management, an investment fund focused on Asia Pacific led the round, alongside existing backers Sequoia Capital China, Softbank Vision Fund 1, Matrix Partners China, Boyu Capital, as well as a handful of new investors.

    Securing sizable funding at a time the COVID-19 pandemic sacks the global economy is congratulatory, not to mention Klook is in an industry severely hit by the virus. The startup, which enables its mostly Asia-based users to book activities in overseas destinations, lost millions of orders over the first few months of travel restrictions. The company quickly regrouped for a pivot to staycation and software-as-a-service for local activity merchants, including ticketing, distribution, inventory management and marketing. Bookings subsequently rebounded.

    “There are things to do at home, as well as local things to do when people could travel,” co-founder and chief operating officer Eric Gnock Fah told TechCrunch in an interview last July. “Now [the pandemic] is giving us an opportunity to add a new aspect to it.”

    The arrival of the new funding appears timely. Klook reached profitability in a number of markets by last July but overall was still in an aggressive expansion mode, it told TechCrunch at the time. Founded in 2014, Klook exceeded $1 billion in valuation in 2018 but declined to reveal its latest post-money valuation, which almost certainly has increased since it reached the unicorn status. The company currently has no plans to go public, a spokesperson told TechCrunch.

    In Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan where COVID-19 restrictions have gradually eased, Klook said it saw increased spending on local activities, with bookings reaching near pre-COVID levels. At the height of the pandemic, Klook onboarded 150% more activities compared to the same period in 2019.

    Today, Klook’s SaaS software powers millions of bookings for more than 2,500 merchants worldwide. With proceeds from the new investment, it will continue working on the development and roll-out of its merchant SaaS solutions.

    “This new capital further strengthens our leading position to take us from defense to offense, as domestic tourism becomes ubiquitous and international travel gradually returns,” said Ethan Lin, co-founder and chief executive at Klook.



    techcrunch.com

  • Forget winning, can Amazon survive in India?
  • During a visit to India in 2014, Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos made a splashy announcement: His firm was investing $2 billion in the South Asian nation, just a year after beginning operations in the country.

    Amazon’s announcement underscored how far India had come to open up to foreign firms. The nation, which had largely kept doors shut to international giants between its independence in 1947 to liberalization in 1991, has slowly transformed itself into the world’s largest open market.

    In a televised interview in 2014, Bezos said that there was a perception about India not being an easy place to do business. But Amazon’s growth in the country, he said, was proof that this belief is not accurate.

    “Are there obstacles? There are always obstacles. Anywhere you go, every country has its own regulations and rules,” he said.

    Six years, and more than $4.5 billion of additional investments later, Amazon today appears to be facing more obstacles than ever in India, the second-largest internet market with more than 600 million users.

    Long-standing laws in India have constrained Amazon, which has yet to turn a profit in the country, and other e-commerce firms to not hold inventory or sell items directly to consumers. To bypass this, firms have operated through a maze of joint ventures with local companies that operate as inventory-holding firms.

    India got around to fixing this loophole in late 2018 in a move that was widely seen as the biggest blowback to the American firm in the country at the time. Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart scrambled to delist hundreds of thousands of items from their stores and made their investments in affiliated firms way more indirect.

    Now the nation is set to further toughen this approach. Reuters reported last week that New Delhi is considering making adjustments to some provisions that would prevent affiliated firms to hold even an indirect stake in a seller through their parent.

    The Confederation of All India Traders, an Indian trade body that claims to represent over 80 million businesses, told the publication that Indian Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal has assured the organization that it is working to shortly address concerns about alleged violations of current rules.

    The forthcoming policy change is only one of the many headaches for the world’s largest e-commerce firm in India.

    Offline retailers in India have long expressed concerns about what they allege to be unfair practices employed by Amazon in India. Last year, during Bezos’ visit to the country, they held several protests. (Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images)

    Amazon is aggressively fighting a battle to block a deal between its estranged partner Future Group and Reliance Retail, the two largest retail chains in India.

    Last year, Future Group announced that it would sell its retail, wholesale, logistics and warehousing businesses to Reliance Retail for $3.4 billion. Amazon, which in 2019 bought stakes in one of Future Group’s unlisted firms, says that the Indian firm has breached its contract (which would have given Amazon the right to first refusal) and engaged in insider trading.

    Despite technology giants and investors ploughing more than $20 billion to create an e-commerce market in India in the past decade, online retail still accounts for only a single-digit pie of all retail in the country.

    In recent years, Amazon, Walmart and scores of other startups have embraced this realization and sought to work with neighborhood stores that dot tens of thousands of cities, towns and villages in India.

    With Reliance Retail and telecom giant Jio Platforms, two subsidiaries of one of India’s largest corporates (Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries) entering the e-commerce market, and receiving the backing of global giants including Facebook and Google last year, cornering a big stake in Future Group is one of the few ways Amazon can accelerate its growth in India.

    The American e-commerce firm has had little luck so far in overturning the deal between the Indian firms. Last year, Amazon reached out to Indian antitrust body Competition Commission of India, and market regulator SEBI to block this transaction. Both the bodies have ruled in favor of Future Group and Reliance Retail.

    Amazon must have foreseen this outcome because it initiated the legal proceedings at an arbitration court in Singapore. It’s no surprise that the firm chose to also pursue its legal argument outside of India.

    Most cases that reach the Singapore International Arbitration Court have come from India in recent years. Vodafone, which has invested more than $20 billion in India, and has been dealt with billions of dollars in unpaid taxes by the country, is another high-profile name to have knocked on the door in Singapore. After losing in India, it emerged victorious in the Singapore arbitration court last year.

    Amazon on Monday filed a new petition in Delhi High Court in which it is seeking to enforce SIAC’s ruling (which ordered last year that the deal should be temporarily halted) and prevent the Indian firm from going ahead with the deal based on CCI and SEBI’s judgements.

    The company alleges that Future Group “deliberately and maliciously” disobeyed the international arbitration ruling from SIAC. In its petition, Amazon is also seeking detention of Kishore Biyani, the founder and chairman of Future Group.

    “Vocal for Local”

    As India grappled with containing the spread of the coronavirus last year, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the 1.3 billion citizens to make the country “self-reliant” and “be vocal for local.”

    The move to turn inwards contrasts with his major promise in the first few years of assuming power in 2014 when he pledged to make India more welcoming to foreign firms than before. In recent years, India has proposed or enforced several regulations that hurt American firms, though none appear to suffer as much as Amazon.

    Last year, New Delhi started to enforce a 2% tax on all foreign billings for digital services provided in the country. The U.S. Trade Representative said earlier this month that India was taxing numerous categories of digital services that are “not leviable under other digital services taxes adopted around the world.”

    The aggregate tax bill for U.S. companies could exceed $30 million per year in India, USTR’s investigation found. In conclusion, it found India’s digital tax move to be inconsistent with international tax principles, unreasonable and burdening or restricting U.S. commerce.

    Modi’s new way of life for India will be music to the ears of Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of Reliance Industries, an ally of the prime minister and India’s richest man.

    Before selling stakes worth over $20 billion in Jio Platforms and more than $6 billion in Reliance Retail to marquee foreign investors, Ambani famously made a speech in 2019 in which he urged the need to protect Indians’ data in patriotic terms.

    “We have to collectively launch a new movement against data colonization. For India to succeed in this data-driven revolution, we will have to migrate the control and ownership of Indian data back to India — in other words, Indian wealth back to every Indian,” he said.

    Why so many international firms have invested in one of Reliance’s properties remains a big question. A senior executive at an American firm told TechCrunch on the condition of anonymity (out of fear of retribution) that the investments in Jio Platforms, which is India’s largest telecom network with nearly 410 million subscribers, and Reliance Retail is a déjà vu moment for the nation, where a few decades ago one of the only ways to do business in the nation was to partner with a local firm with massive political clout.

    In a series of tweets, Raman Chima, a former policy executive at Google and who now works at nonprofit digital advocacy group Access Now, alleged that the Android-maker had weighed in 2011-12 partnering and investing in a firm like Reliance to “turn-the-page on Indian political risks.”

    The idea prompted concerns about Google’s values, he claimed. “More than one executive involved in those discussions flagged concerns around Reliance’s reputation, particularly around problematic approaches towards gaining influence with policymaking civil servants and politicians, money, ethics in govt-business relationships.”

    Amazon itself was rumored to be interested in getting a multi-billion-dollar stake in Reliance Retail last year, but it appears the two firms have stopped engaging on any matter.

    BJP MLA Ram Kadam and his party workers protest against the Amazon Prime web series Tandav outside Bandra-Kurla Police station, on January 18, 2021 in Mumbai, India. (Photo by Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

    While Amazon sorts out these issues, last week delivered another blow to the firm. A senior executive with the firm as well as Indian makers of a mini-series for Amazon Prime Video are under threat of criminal prosecution in the country after Modi’s ruling party deemed the show offensive to the country’s Hindu majority.

    A Hindu nationalist group, politicians with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and a BJP group representing members of India’s lower castes, were among those who had filed police reports against the nine-part mini-series “Tandav” and Amazon. The company bowed to the pressure and edited out some scenes.

    “The true reason for the complaints against ‘Tandav’ may be that the show holds up a mirror uncomfortably close to Indian society and some of the problems blamed on Mr. Modi’s administration. In the opening episode, the show features protesting students and disgruntled farmers, echoing events that have taken place in recent months,” The New York Times wrote.

    “Mirzapur,” another show of Amazon, also attracted a criminal complaint in India last week for hurting religious and regional sentiments and defaming the Indian town. The Indian Supreme Court has issued notices to the makers of “Mirzapur” and has sought responses.

    In the aforementioned interview, Bezos said Amazon’s job was to follow all the unique rules various countries require it to comply with and “adapt our business practice to those rules.”

    In India, the company is increasingly being asked how far it is willing to adapt its business practice. How far is it willing to bend that it’s no longer the Amazon people care about?



    techcrunch.com

  • Blackberry and Baidu deepen autonomous, connected car partnership
  • Blackberry and Chinese search engine giant Baidu have agreed to expand a partnership that aims to give automakers the tools they need to launch next-generation connected and autonomous vehicles in China.

    Under the deal, Baidu’s high-definition maps will be integrated into Blackberry’s QNX Neutrino Real-Time Operating System. The embedded system will be mass produced in the upcoming GAC New Energy Aion models from the electric vehicle arm of GAC Group, one of the country’s top three automakers that produces more 2 million vehicles a year.

    The aim of this new, expanded partnership is to “provide car manufacturers with a clear and fast path to the production of autonomous vehicles, with safety and security as the top priority,” according to a statement from Wang Yunpeng, senior director of the technology department of Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group.

    The partnership between Baidu and Blackberry is notable because it inserts a foreign operating system into Chinese-made vehicles even as the government there has called for native tech.

    Blackberry’s QNX software handles the functional safety, network security and reliability pieces, while Baidu has invested in the development of artificial intelligence and deep learning.

    “Together, we can help car manufacturers quickly produce safe autonomous vehicles and promote the development collaboratively of the intelligent networked automobile industry,” Yunpeng said.

    Blackberry, once the dominate force in the smart phone industry, has found success getting its QNX technology into vehicles. Today, the software is used in the advanced driver assistance, digital instrument clusters and infotainment systems of more than 175 million vehicles.

    The agreement builds on the two companies January 2018 agreement to make BlackBerry QNX’s operating system the foundation for Baidu’s ‘Apollo’ autonomous driving open platform.

    The deal with Baidu also helps Blackberry continue to carve out market share in China, where it’s a more recent entrant. Last year, Blackberry announced QNX would be integrated into Tesla rival Xpeng’s electric vehicles in China.

    “With BlackBerry QNX’s embedded software as its foundation, Baidu has made significant progress as part of its Apollo platform in establishing a commercial ecosystem for innovative technologies that OEMs can leverage for their next generation vehicles,” Dhiraj Handa, vice president of channel, partners and APAC, BlackBerry Technology Solutions, said in a statement.

    Baidu’s autonomous driving program, known as Apollo, has been described as the “an Android for smart driving.” The Apollo program has landed more than hundred manufacturing and supplier partners. Baidu has also been busy testing autonomous driving and launch a robotaxi fleet in September.

    The deal also comes on the heels of Baidu’s push beyond automotive software and into the production of vehicles. Baidu announced earlier this month that it plans to set up a new company to produce electric vehicles with the help of Chinese automaker Geely. Baidu will provide so-called smart driving technologies while Geely handles will the design, engineering and manufacturing of the vehicles.



    techcrunch.com

  • President Joe Biden commits to replacing entire federal fleet with electric vehicles
  • President Joe Biden said Monday the U.S. government would replace the entire federal fleet of cars, trucks and SUVs with electric vehicles manufactured in the United States, a commitment tied to a broader campaign promise to create 1 million new jobs in the American auto industry and supply chains.

    The commitment, if it bears out, could give a boost to U.S. automakers, particularly those that have diverse portfolios that include passenger cars, commercial vans and light trucks.

    Biden made the comments prior to signing the Made in America executive order, which places stricter rules on the federal government’s procurement practices. The government has existing “buy American” rules, which states that a certain amount of a product must be made in the U.S. for a purchase to qualify for a federal contract.

    Biden said this order closes loopholes and aims to increase purchases of products made in the United States. The executive order increases that product threshold and the price preference for domestic goods — meaning the difference in price from which the government can buy a product for a non-U.S. supplier. It also updates the process for how the government decides if a product was sufficiently made in America.

    In the midst of his speech, Biden said the buy American directive would extend to the federal government’s massive fleet of vehicles.

    “The federal government also owns an enormous fleet of vehicles, which we’re going to replace with clean electric vehicles made right here in America, by American workers, creating millions of jobs — a million auto worker jobs.”

    The opportunity is a large one. The U.S. government had more than 645,000 vehicles in its fleet in 2019, the most recent data available from the General Services Agency. Of those, about 224,000 are passenger vehicles and more than 412,000 are trucks.

    “GSA is committed to exploring opportunities to leverage the purchasing and leasing power of the federal government to address the climate crisis, including greening the federal fleet,” a GSA spokesperson told TechCrunch in an emailed statement. “GSA currently manages over 224,000 passenger vehicles in its fleet to support the Federal Government’s mission. By leveraging clean energy vehicle technologies, GSA will support the President’s climate goals, while working with the American automotive manufacturing industry to ensure that these next generation vehicles are built in America by American workers.”

    The directive won’t be easy to fulfill. Many of these federal vehicles are leased, which could slow the transition depending on the contract lengths. There are other obstacles, including charging infrastructure and supply. And while it doesn’t appear to be a requirement, Biden has publicly stated numerous times — including Monday — that he supports union automotive jobs.

    Tesla is considered the dominant U.S. manufacturer of electric vehicles. However, the company’s lack of union workers and the higher cost of its vehicles — even the less expensive Model 3 — could be a barrier.

    Ford and GM might not have a vast supply of electric vehicles at the moment, but they do have union shops and both automakers are investing heavily to expand their EV offerings.

    GM launched a new business unit earlier this month to offer commercial customers an ecosystem of electric and connected products as part of the company’s $27 billion bid to become a leading electric automaker. The new business, called BrightDrop, will begin with two main products: an electric van called the EV600 with an estimate range of 250 miles and a pod-like electric pallet dubbed EP1.

    GM has said it plans to bring 30 new electric vehicles to a global market through 2025. More than two-thirds of those launches will be available in North America and every one of GM’s brands, including Cadillac, GMC, Chevrolet and Buick, will be represented, according to the automaker.

    Meanwhile, Ford revealed in November a configurable all-electric cargo van called the E-Transit as part of its $11.5 billion investment in electrification. Ford has largely focused its electrification efforts on the consumer market, notably the Mustang Mach-E. The E-Transit, which will be built at its Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo, Missouri, is aimed at the commercial sector.

    There are a growing number of newer EV entrants as well, including Rivian, Lordstown Motors and Fisker. Rivian is expected to begin producing and delivering its electric pickup truck in July, followed by its all-electric SUV. Rivian is also developing and assembling electric vans for Amazon.

    Biden’s call to transform the fleet supports statements he made throughout his campaign. Biden pledged to “use all the levers of the federal government,” including purchasing power, R&D, tax, trade, and investment policies to position the U.S. to be the global leader in the manufacture of electric vehicles and their input materials and parts.



    techcrunch.com

  • Facebook News launches in the UK, the first international market for its curated news portal
  • As the United Kingdom prepares to sharpen its focus on how it regulates big tech companies, Facebook is taking a big step up in the role it plays in presenting media to the U.K. public, and into how it works with the country’s media industry.

    Today it is launching Facebook News in the U.K., Facebook’s first market outside of the U.S. for its dedicated, curated news portal — accessed, like the U.S. version, through a tab in the Android or iOS app menu.

    The portal will launch with content from hundreds of local and national media organizations including Channel 4 News, Daily Mail Group, DC Thomson, Financial Times, Sky News and Telegraph Media Group. The Economist, The Guardian, The Independent, STV and hundreds of local news sites from Archant, Iliffe, JPI Media, Midlands News Association, and Reach, as well as “lifestyle” titles GQ, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Vogue and others were announced in an earlier list of partners last year.

    Again, as with the U.S. version, users will be provided a list of curated top stories of the day; a list of personalized stories based on news sources you might already follow or interests you have (these might be from publications you don’t already follow); and dedicated news sections for sports, entertainment, health and science and technology. Users can indicate when they like stories, or when they want to hide them to train the algorithms better.

    Facebook has confirmed to us that it will be working with a service called Upday to curate the stories that appear on News. “The product is a mix of curated, top stories and personalized links chosen by algorithm,” a spokesperson said. Upday appears to be a joint collaboration between German publisher Axel Springer and Samsung, which also runs a news service on its phones powered by it.

    It is not clear what the financial terms of the deal is between Facebook and Upday, but reportedly, the licensing deals Facebook is cutting with publishers to place their content in News collectively run into the tens of millions of pounds, with the biggest publishers making millions a year from the the agreements. While those figures might pale to what Facebook makes in ad revenues globally — that reaches into the tens of billions of dollars quarterly — they represent significant sums for the beleaguered U.K. media industry.

    People have long used newsfeeds on Facebook and other social sites to catch up with news while also browsing posts from friends, Groups and Pages that they follow. Facebook News aims to take that a step further, as a curated page for links and headlines from hundreds of publications in the country to provide users of its mobile apps a one-stop place to read the stories of the moment.

    Social media continues to be a major source of news for consumers, but as we’ve seen, a very skewed and flawed source at that.

    Within that context, Facebook says that its intention with Facebook News is to provide a more balanced and dedicated mix of news to people beyond what they might encounter in their newsfeeds, while also tailoring it to users’ interests.

    It also helps that Facebook News provides yet another way for Facebook — which has made efforts in video, entertainment content, mentoring and job-hunting, Nextdoor-style community listings, peer-to-peer selling, and more — to continue diversifying away from the Newsfeed for those who have grown bored with that: now, people can come to the Facebook app to browse news, too.

    Still, this international expansion has been a long time coming: Facebook News first launched as a test in the US more than a year ago, in October 2019, before rolling out to all users last June.

    No word from Facebook on how many users or engagement the U.S. version of Facebook News has picked up, except that “it has grown steadily,” according to a spokesperson.

    It’s not clear why there’s been such a long gap between its first efforts in the U.S. and the U.K. launch today, but Facebook has had more going on in addition to securing those licensing deals to roll out in this market.

    Launching a new news portal, with the message that it’s designed to “help” publishers, takes on a new dimension when you consider that Facebook has also been in the crosshairs of regulators in Europe, who have been on a long-term mission to scrutinize the reach of big tech companies. In the UK, that is soon taking the form of a new “pro-competition” Digital Market Unit that will re-examine the role companies like Facebook and Google play in advertising, media and more. 

    Whether those regulatory moves will impact how a service like Facebook News works, or what revenue cuts and usage data are shared with news partners, remains to be seen.

    In the meantime, it’s full speed ahead for more scaling: Facebook confirmed plans last year that its long-term aim is for a bigger international expansion for Facebook News, with the longer list of countries including Brazil, France, Germany, and India. In a blog post today, Facebook’s director of news partnerships in Europe, Jesper Doub, confirmed France and Germany were next in line for Facebook News, although no launch dates were specified.



    techcrunch.com

  • Debunk, don’t ‘prebunk,’ and other psychology lessons for social media moderation
  • If social networks and other platforms are to get a handle on disinformation, it’s not enough to know what it is — you have to know how people react to it. Researchers at MIT and Cornell have some surprising but subtle findings that may affect how Twitter and Facebook should go about treating this problematic content.

    MIT’s contribution is a counterintuitive one. When someone encounters a misleading headline in their timeline, the logical thing to do would be to put a warning before it so that the reader knows it’s disputed from the start. Turns out that’s not quite the case.

    The study of nearly 3,000 people had them evaluating the accuracy of headlines after receiving different (or no) warnings about them.

    “Going into the project, I had anticipated it would work best to give the correction beforehand, so that people already knew to disbelieve the false claim when they came into contact with it. To my surprise, we actually found the opposite,” said study co-author David Rand in an MIT news article. “Debunking the claim after they were exposed to it was the most effective.”

    When a person was warned beforehand that the headline was misleading, they improved in their classification accuracy by 5.7%. When the warning came simultaneously with the headline, that improvement grew to 8.6%. But if shown the warning afterwards, they were 25% better. In other words, debunking beat “prebunking” by a fair margin.

    The team speculated as to the cause of this, suggesting that it fits with other indications that people are more likely to incorporate feedback into a preexisting judgment rather than alter that judgment as it’s being formed. They warned that the problem is far deeper than a tweak like this can fix.

    “There is no single magic bullet that can cure the problem of misinformation,” said co-author Adam Berinsky. “Studying basic questions in a systematic way is a critical step toward a portfolio of effective solutions.”

    The study from Cornell is equal parts reassuring and frustrating. People viewing potentially misleading information were reliably influenced by the opinions of large groups — whether or not those groups were politically aligned with the reader.

    It’s reassuring because it suggests that people are willing to trust that if 80 out of 100 people thought a story was a little fishy, even if 70 of those 80 were from the other party, there might just be something to it. It’s frustrating because of how seemingly easy it is to sway an opinion simply by saying that a large group thinks it’s one way or the other.

    “In a practical way, we’re showing that people’s minds can be changed through social influence independent of politics,” said graduate student Maurice Jakesch, lead author of the paper. “This opens doors to use social influence in a way that may de-polarize online spaces and bring people together.”

    Partisanship still played a role, it must be said — people were about 21% less likely to have their view swayed if the group opinion was led by people belonging to the other party. But even so, people were very likely to be affected by the group’s judgment.

    Part of why misinformation is so prevalent is because we don’t really understand why it’s so appealing to people, and what measures reduce that appeal, among other simple questions. As long as social media is blundering around in darkness they’re unlikely to stumble upon a solution, but every study like this makes a little more light.

     

     



    techcrunch.com

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